Actions

Work Header

The Sinners And The Saints

Chapter Text

Something was digging into Anhura’s back, sharp and jagged. With every muffled sob that wracked her frame, it stabbed a little harder into her ribs. But she couldn't move, couldn't do anything at all but stay right there with her back pressed against the patchwork wall of the Doctor’s hut. If she moved, the man hunched over the body of her beloved would notice her. If she moved, there was a good chance he’d remember that she was the original target for the dagger that had been so easily and accidentally embedded in Adakias’ side. So she stayed as quiet as she could and tried to make her grief as unobtrusive as possible.

At least she could no longer doubt that the elder prince truly loved his brother, the one laying dead on the floor. It was clear in the way he knelt in the dirt of the floor, spine in a broken curve as he cradled his brother’s body. She could hear it in the hitch of his breath as he begged Adakias to return, apologizing for failing to keep him safe. And while the prince still seemed a shadow of his former violent self, perhaps Anhura could get away with approaching Adakias’ body. Perhaps the elder prince wouldn't seek to finish what he'd started.

Anhura took a cautious step away from the wall, wiping the tears from her cheeks and moving toward Adakias. But as she began creeping closer to the body, an animalistic growl echoed through the hut, loud in the small room. Her stomach dropped and terror surged through her, all-consuming and nauseating. But the prince remained still, hunched over his brother, and Anhura steeled herself. She would not be kept from her love even by death, and certainly not by a cruel man like the one before her. Watching him closely, she chanced yet another step forward. This time, she was not so lucky. The prince’s head whipped around, teeth bared in a feral snarl as he seemed to almost unconsciously move between her and the body. Protective, Anhura couldn’t help but note. Tears were streaming down his cheeks, smearing the once-neat band of black paint over his eyes. And those eyes– O, there was something of insanity in that gaze.

Get out,” he snarled. Any trace of the tight control Pallis had projected when he first broke down the door to the hut was long gone. This was pure, unconstrained grief and fury, wild and volatile. And he was moments away from breaking, letting go and he’d be doing more than growl or sob. Anhura already knew just what he was capable of. She could see it in the bloody knife lying on the ground, the body it sat beside, the casual fluidity in each movement, reminding her of the very best warriors at home. It was a predator knelt before her.

So Anhura did the only thing she could; she tried not to flinch under the harsh gaze of the crown prince of the land of darkness and scrambled out of the hut as quickly as she could. Still reeling from what had happened, she went to lean against the outer wall, only to find that it was covered in sharp pieces of broken glass, definitely not a good place to be. She absentmindedly studied the pieces of glass, admiring how they shone in the barest hints of faint sunlight shining through the yellowish clouds. When a sudden crash boomed from the open door of the hut, she barely reacted. A little part of her noted that Pallis must be raging, taking out his anger on the contents of the shack. Another crash
echoed out from the hut, but she'd already lost interest.

There was a hint of dampness on Anhura’s cheeks; she knew it had to be tears. But she’d felt strangely numb ever since Adakias’ death, the rapid flow of emotions running dry and empty. Finding and losing love, eloping, nearly dying; this was all more than she could take. Being a noble could be tedious at times, but such perils as these were usually left to the commoners. Anhura simply didn’t know how to handle something like this. So she took a few long moments to come back to herself, letting the world wait for her. She needed this time to regain control.

But Anhura’s wishes were not being respected today, and her time to rest was cut short abruptly by a cold, clammy hand curling around her arm, digging clawed fingers into her flesh. She identified its owner even before she saw him; Dumaya’s familiar cackle seemed to envelop her, dancing across her skin and raising goosebumps wherever it touched. In a listless fog, Anhura couldn't bring herself to resist as the Doctor began pulling her away, the muffled laughter sending shivers down her spine. She knew she owed this man nothing, but she still couldn’t manage to fight back. His touch seemed to induce a sense of hopelessness.

“What are you doing?” For the second time that day, Pallis burst through the door of the unhinged doctor’s hut. Both Anhura and Dumaya turned their attention his way, how could they not? Pallis filled the doorframe with tension in every sharp line of his body, hands curled into threatening fists by his sides, eyes ablaze. His grief, transformed to volatile anger, was focused entirely on the doctor, like Anhura wasn’t there at all. It helped her pretend she didn’t exist, just for a short while.

But Dumaya’s expression was already edging toward simpering, a disturbing smile on his face. Pallis straightened, eyes narrowing. The tears that lay forgotten on his cheeks did nothing to make him less terrifying.

“Pallis,” Dumaya purred, “brother, how lucky that you’re here, now we can talk about this little Princess! See, she promised to… take care of me, if I healed her, of course, and I did… so now I should get my prize.”

Pallis’ face remained completely impassive as Dumaya justified and justified. Anhura immediately felt like a fool for how much hope had surged through her when Pallis returned, perhaps he was going to scare the doctor away again. But if he chose not to interfere, Anhura would be taken and that would be the end.

“So… I’m just, hehe, just gonna have her.” The Doctor punctuated his words with a lewd giggle. “We’ll both be out of your hair real fast. I’ll just…”

“With whom did you make the deal?” Pallis’ voice had fallen into an easily recognizable diplomatic tone. It was the demeanour one adopts with a particularly bothersome noble when they refuse to follow some minor change in law.

“Uh,” the Doctor drawled, “with the boy, the lover. He agreed to my terms, he’s giving the girl to me. So? Now she’s mine. Easy-peasy.”

The Doctor’s voice swooped and swerved, pitchy and rasping. He took a half step toward the prince, hunching forward ingratiatingly. Pallis was having none of it.

“You made the deal with Adakias, Doctor,” Pallis explained, as if to a child. “He is no longer able to see his end of the deal through, which consisted of ownership of the princess’ autonomy. Since one of the parties is unavailable, the deal is void.”

Even before he responded, Dumaya’s grip was tightening on Anhura’s wrist. She winced as his grimy nails dug into her skin.

“But the girl is mine,” Dumaya whined. “You will leave her to me!”

“Unacceptable.”

Pallis’ single stern word revived the brief hope she’d nurtured. Anhura took a deep breath, trying to gain back a little calm. Was there even the slightest chance that Pallis’ conflict was merely with the Doctor? Then he’d let her go—

A hand wrapped itself around Anhura’s wrist and held on tightly. To her horror, Pallis had grabbed onto her as well and was beginning to pull her toward him. And even more worrying was how rapidly Pallis was becoming the more appealing option. Pallis was clearly furious, grieving for the brother he lost, but the doctor had no sanity left. The former promised death, while the latter promised years of suffering and humiliation. A swift and dignified end to her life was far better than living out the rest of her days as a madman’s whore.

Neither would be a good choice, but it wasn’t like she had any sort of choice at all. Whoever overpowered the other would take her, and that would be it. And though Anhura already knew which she’d prefer, she still couldn’t stomach lending assistance to someone who wanted her dead. She was so tired, in more ways than one, and leaving this up to what fate had decreed for her seemed easiest.

Then Anhura cried out as Dumaya yanked on her arm, and Pallis didn’t budge. In fact, he tightened his hold on her, and pulled her a little closer. Unable to stop herself, Anhura shot him a pleading look, hoping he would at least take pity on her. For the first time, he actually looked her in the eye, and something infinitesimal changed about his demeanor. A sharp disgust ran through Anhura at the relief she couldn’t ignore.

“Doctor, if you would please release the princess…”

Dumaya snarled a wordless response and jerked Anhura closer again. Her shoulder was wrenched sharply, conjuring another pained whimper.
“I am the Doctor, the miracle maker.” Pride was obvious in the man’s unnerving voice. “You, you’re the spawn of some nasty place I’d never go, some dirty kingdom, and you dare–”

Anhura saw it coming before it happened. Something savage flashed in Pallis’ dark eyes at the Doctor’s condescension, and he drew himself up a little taller. Lightning fast, his hand darted out and latched onto the Doctor’s wrist, the one holding Anhura in place. With a sickening crack, he rapidly jerked his hand to the side, twisted Dumaya’s wrist beyond its capabilities. The thin bones crumpled under his iron grip, and the cruel doctor let out a wail, drawing his injured arm to his chest and scuttling back a few paces. Anhura watched Pallis’ stoic expression remain unchanged as the Doctor beat a hasty retreat. Filled with horror, she looked to the hand wrapped around her wrist, squeezing tightly. It would take such an insignificant amount of effort for Pallis to crush the bones there, perhaps crippling her permanently. It would be so easy–

“...apologies, princess,” Pallis said tightly.

And the prince slowly unwound his fingers from Anhura’s wrist, carefully avoiding her searching gaze. As soon as he looked away, she pushed up the sleeve of her dress to see the marks left on her skin from the strength of his grip. She hadn't felt it in the tension of the moment, but as she’d gingerly pulled her wrist out of his grasp, sensation had seeped back into her hand, pain following on its coattails. And inspecting the marks, lightly running her fingers over them, she decided that they would definitely leave bruises.

Breathing heavily, Pallis took a few steps back from her before turning a little unsteadily on his heel and striding back into the hut. But he didn’t shut the door behind himself, and Anhura was almost past the point of caring if following him would lead to any number of horrific fates. She couldn’t help but feel a faint sense of relief that she wasn’t going to suffer what Dumaya had planned for her, but that certainly didn’t mean that Pallis had somehow had a change of heart. Still, the absurdity of all the events she’d experienced in the last while had left her oddly numb to the whole affair. Maybe Pallis would kill her, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.

Quietly, she crept after him and was greeted by a strangely peaceful sight. Pallis knelt by his brother’s body, a hand resting on his forehead, as a seemingly endless stream of words flowed from his lips. Anhura didn't recognize any of what he said, and was forced to conclude that he must have been speaking some sort of language distinct to the land of darkness.

With the calm that seemed to have fallen over the prince, Anhura hoped that it might just be safe to try making some sort of arrangement. They were several days travel from the nearest town, and she'd seen how little supplies Pallis had brought with him. Whatever he planned to do with her, it would be easiest to simply ask and find out now.

Pallis was nobility, and Anhura knew from personal experience what nobles liked. Money, land, alliances between influential families, being shown deference. She knew that she'd be less likely to be hurt if she projected the appropriate respect and grovelled enough, so she swallowed what little remained of her pride and sank to her knees beside Pallis. She only realized just how bad of an idea this was once her palms were pressed to the filthy ground and her head was lowered so her silver hair swept the dirt. The prince was entirely out of sight, and now she was offering herself up to the mercy of someone who had tried to kill her only minutes ago. This was a terrible plan. She was about to be killed, and she wouldn't even see it coming.

With her head down and her gaze fixed firmly on the ground, Anhura felt a chill run down her spine when Pallis sighed quietly. Her whole body jerked when a light touch skimmed across her shoulder, mind rapidly filling with the stories she'd been told as a child; of the dark’s savagery and ruthlessness. But nothing more than the touch came, and she finally decided that he was simply cueing her to speak.

“Sire, please…” Anhura couldn’t think of what exactly she wanted to ask, nor how she wanted to ask it. ‘Sire, could you please tell me if you plan on killing me in the near future? Sire, would you change your mind if I told you that my death would bring war upon your people? Sire, would you even care if your people were killed in battle? Sire, do you care for anyone beyond the brother laying dead before you?’

“Speak, Anhura,” the prince ordered her, something of exasperation in his tone. And even with the annoyance and grief still colouring his voice, there was still a hint of Adakias in his brother’s words. No one from home ever said her name quite like that.

And for a beautiful moment, unable to see him, she could almost pretend that it was Adakias and not the man who killed him. But there were little differences; the pain in her wrist, the weakness lingering from the illness she’d barely recovered from, the marked absence of Adakias’ hope and warmth. Facing the indisputable fact that Adakias was gone, Anhura reminded herself why she was there. Not to drown in her grief, but to ensure that Adakias was awarded the proper respect, even in death. She sat back up onto her heels and forced herself to look at Pallis. His eyes were fixed on his brother’s face, empty and darker than they had been before.

“I beg of you, sire, allow me to take Adakias’ body to perform our funeral rites. With the prophesy, my father–”

“My brother is not of the Light,” Pallis scoffed, all trace of calm gone. “He is of the Dark and he will be taken there.”

The very concept of Adakias being taken to the realm of light was apparently repulsive to him. But Anhura had lost her love today, and she wasn’t going to put up with Pallis any more than she had to.

“And why should he be?” Anhura challenged. “Your people drove him away! You're the reason he's dead!”

And even though Pallis flinched at her words, there was nothing that told her that he was cowed into submitting.

“If he hadn't met you, Princess–” he snarled the title like a curse, “–he would still be alive!”

A bitter laugh scratched its way up Anhura’s throat at the very idea.

“...and yet you wielded the blade.”

Then something sharp flashed in Pallis’ eyes and his spine stiffened, he drew himself up, as tall as he could while still kneeling on the grimy floor. She’d crossed a line, Anhura decided as she waited for Pallis to respond. The flicker in his eyes was unmistakably aggression, and she couldn't help but wonder if he'd even bother to hold it back. But even if Pallis decided to end her, right then and there, she wasn’t going to back down. So Anhura suppressed her automatic flinch and stared him dead in the eye long enough that he eventually regained a hint of control and forced down the anger that simmered just below the surface. He shut his eyes for a moment, (Anhura was oddly pleased with herself that he was the first to look away,) and took a shaky breath, belying the terrifying mixture of tight control and volatile rage that churned within him. When he looked back at her, the only thing left in his eyes was sadness and she wondered if he just might let her live.

“You must understand,” the prince implored her, “this was never my intent. Adakias’ death was an… an accident, and as much as we would both like to hold me fully responsible, I cannot allow my kingdom to fall into disarray.”

Anhura was suddenly filled with anger at the thought of this murderer walking free after ripping away the best thing she’d ever had, destroying such a kind and gentle life as Adakias.

“You cannot escape blame for this, you have committed a murder!”

Pallis’ eyebrows rose slightly at the ire in her voice, the passion she usually concealed. She imagined that he considered himself good at keeping himself under control, but he had no idea how much experience she had as a noblewoman of the realm of light. And in the short time since she’d first met the man, he’d done nothing but lose control again and again. She climbed to her feet, bemoaning the fate of her ivory clothing, ruined by the dirt. Standing, she could look down on the prince of darkness, and satisfaction rushed through her before he stood as well, regaining the several inches he had over her. They stood a little too close to each other, but backing away would be giving up. In this game of subtle victories, that was everything.

“What would you have me do?” Pallis demanded. “I am the sole heir. I know my own people; if something happens to me, there will be war. The common people care not who sits on the throne, so long as they have food and water and land to farm. I will not see them die for a nobleman’s war!”

Anhura found herself surprised by the amount of thought Pallis had clearly put into this. She’d assumed that his comment about wanting to be held responsible was a bit of
meaningless wordplay to gain some kind of moral high ground. But the prince had clearly considered the option earnestly. That didn’t mean she was going to let him off the hook this easily.

“Adakias is dead, sire–”

“Please, are we not equals here, princess?”

Pallis tried for a faint smile here, the diplomatic expression that he was capable of freezing onto his face for hours at a time (Anhura recognized it easily; she had one too). Even so, it fell flat, and Anhura was feeling spiteful, so she took a tiny step closer to him when she responded.

“Certainly, sire,” she agreed with a mocking smirk.

Pallis clenched his jaw and turned away in annoyance, staring down at Adakias’ body. He remained stock still for so long that Anhura almost felt a sliver of concern for the man. Just as she was considering saying something, anything at all to break this dreadful silence, he found his voice again.

“What have I done to you, brother?”

This wasn’t meant for her, and Anhura reminded herself that Pallis had as much, if not more, reason to be grieving as she did. She had only known Adakias for a few days when he was taken. Pallis had known him for his whole life.

“O, I’m sorry, Addie…”

And some confused instinct was telling her that she should help, or at least make some effort to comfort this fool who had somehow managed to kill the person who mattered most to both of them. So she took that tentative step closer, and like usual, Pallis noticed as soon as she moved, rounding on her with an expression that threatened both danger and tears. It was almost a reflex at this point to flinch away, and for the first time, she saw a change in his face when she did. And it wasn’t any air of victory or bitter satisfaction about him. He almost looked wounded that she would respond like that.

“I… I will not harm you, Princess,” Pallis said, saddened. “Adakias would have had you be my sister. And he would have had me keep you safe.”

Anhura wanted to make some sarcastic remark about how recently it was that Pallis had tried to kill her, but she was tired, so tired, and just wanted this to be over. At least she had a dubious guarantee of safety from him. But she couldn’t let herself trust the man with barely dried blood on his hands and a dagger on his belt that matched the one in the hut.

“You cannot expect me to believe that, sire, but I appreciate the sentiment.”

Pallis stood silently for a few moments, just long enough that the quiet between them became thick and uncomfortable. Anhura fought the urge to look away from him. Finally, he sighed and turned to leave.

“I should ready the horses,” and his mask was back in place.

It was becoming difficult to hold her tongue now that Anhura knew that Pallis had no intention of hurting her. This was odd behaviour, especially coming from someone trained in diplomacy, she imagined, in somewhat the same fashion as herself. And the crown prince, heir to the throne of the land of darkness, was acting like a petulant child. It was far easier to allow herself to be filled with scorn for his childishness than to dwell on the sharp pangs of loss that raced through her every time she remembered that Adakias wasn’t coming back.

And that was why, once Pallis had fled the hut, Anhura was flooded with all the grief she’d been staving off. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the pale figure lying motionless on the floor, blood pooling around him. Even though it felt like it’d been an eternity, it was still all too recent that she’d stood in that corner and watched Pallis press strong hands against the wound, not strong enough to stem the flow. Adakias had been so kind and good until the very end, somehow able to do what Anhura could not and forgive his brother for the dagger that had just been plunged into his side.

Anhura’s feet carried her to the body, even though a small part of her almost wanted to stay in place to avoid the conclusive proof that Adakias was actually dead. But somehow she ended up there, kneeling beside where he lay, clutching his cold hand in hers and wishing that she lived in a world where the strength of her love was enough to prevent any of this from happening. But that was not the case, and now she had to deal with the world she’d ended up in.

“I can do this, come on, I can...”

And with a whispered reassurance to herself, she decided that the first thing to be done was to prepare the body for burial. That meant cleaning, bandaging that horrific wound, and— it wasn’t as if Pallis carried burial robes every time he left the castle, did he? She’d have to make due to with whatever she could scrounge from the Doctor’s hut.
Focusing on her task, Anhura tried to ignore that this was Adakias she was cleaning and bandaging. She’d done this before, as the oldest female relative of several people who had passed on recently, but this was different. This was supposed to be done by Adakias’ mother, maybe a sister or aunt or grandmother, anyone would be better than her, the grieving lover from an enemy kingdom. So Anhura shut her eyes for a moment to draw in a few slow breaths, then she got to work. Anhura took every care as she eased Adakias out of his shirt, gentling her touch around the wound like she could still hurt him. The wound was no longer bleeding as heavily as it had been when he was first injured, but there was still blood leaking slowly from the slit in his skin. She scavenged a few small pieces of fabric from the doctor’s stores and wiped the drying blood off Adakias’ skin, the tiny red dots on his lips from the wet coughs that had wracked his body in his last moments. In a small cupboard, she found bandages that looked relatively clean, not that it mattered to Adakias now. Wrapping his midsection until the wound seemed secure, Anhura said a few short rites of her own for his safe passage to the skies, where he would look down upon his family and loved ones like the seraphs in the stories she’d grown up with.

When she finally finished, she sat back on her heels and wiped her hands clean on an extra rag lying nearby, absentmindedly noting that they shook a little. She got to her feet and went outside, noting that beside Pallis were three horses, one with the white socks that said it was the one she and Adakias had ridden there. She’d thought the horse had run off when they made it to the doctor’s hut, Anhura too far gone from the sickness to remind him to tie up the animal. There was also a pretty chestnut with soft eyes and a large black animal being held by Pallis, who stood a little stiffly some distance from the hut. Anhura found herself wondering if everything of Pallis’ had to be black, just to complete his look. She decided against commenting on it.

“Why two?”

Pallis visibly startled when she spoke up, eyes going wide for a moment before he regained control. Anhura noted, for the second time, that he was remarkably poor at controlling himself for a noble. When she raised expectant eyebrows, he looked incredibly unsettled and raised a hand to run it through his hair. When he finished the motion, he snuck another glance in her direction and Anhura made a point of smirking mirthlessly at him, just to see him cross the line from unsettled to approach scared. She awarded herself a point in the odd little game they were playing.

“Why did you bring two horses, sire?”

“One for each of us. I… I thought you would relinquish any love you thought you had for him once you knew he was from the dark.”
Anhura bit her tongue.

“Then Adakias–” he choked on the name, “Adakias and I would ride home, and you would take the third horse to the realm of light.”
Oddly thoughtful for the man who’d attempted to stab her to death.

“And does that plan still stand?” Pallis took a moment to think, folding his arms, and Anhura took her chance before he continued. “Because I don't think my family expects to see me for quite a while yet, especially since I told all of them but my father that I was eloping. And I will not be absent from Adakias’ funeral.”

Anhura made sure to put on just a hint of the royal air she'd practiced since childhood, drawing herself up a little taller and looking Pallis dead in the eye. By the unconscious half step he took away from her, Anhura concluded that he probably wasn't used to being on the receiving end of such looks.

“I will accompany you as you return Adakias’ body to your land,” Anhura declared. “From there, I will return home.”

Pallis’ brow furrowed as he thought for a moment, absentmindedly stroking his horse’s flank. The animal snorted softly in response.

“Can you fight?”

The prince’s question baffled her. After a moment of waiting to ensure he was serious, Anhura shook her head firmly.

“Of course not, no. Why would I?” At Pallis’ confused look, she continued. “Only men are taught to fight.”

“Oh,” Pallis said, tone giving nothing away. He hesitated, then looked away from her for a moment. “In the Dark, anyone with an interest in fighting can learn to defend
themselves. We find that fewer citizens come begging for help after being assaulted.”

A little part of Anhura wondered if she'd have been able to fight off the doctor had she been a citizen of the Dark.

“But if you cannot defend yourself, I cannot leave you alone. I will accompany you home after we take Adakias’ body back to my land.”

Then Pallis clearly realized what that meant, and his face fell. Anhura folded her arms and poured all her energy into keeping her face neutral. When Pallis was letting down his shields, it was far more difficult to maintain her own composure. After a long moment of fighting to hide her exhaustion, Pallis finally swallowed loudly and dragged himself back into the present.

“We will take Adakias’ body home, getting food and supplies, then I will accompany you to your land. Do you take issue with that?”

“No,” Anhura said shortly. She would prefer not travel with the man at all, but she was no fool. The Wildlands were a dangerous place, and she'd stand no chance alone. At least she knew that Pallis was capable of fighting and killing if necessary. That thought nearly brought a cold smile to her face before she stopped it.

“...the realm of darkness will not be kind to you if you choose to enter.”

Anhura knew that. She had considered it far before the thought entered the prince’s mind. But they could hardly carry a body halfway across the world just for her comfort. And nothing moved quickly for royalty, she’d have to stay in the kingdom of the Dark for a few days at least. Still, to hear Pallis bring up something she already feared, she couldn’t help the sudden twist in her gut. Every childish game, the Dark versus the Light, the stories of the atrocities committed by the land of darkness, they all flooded through her in an instant. Maybe everything she knew of them was terrifying, but Adakias had been just as human as she was. If he was an accurate representation of his people, then how bad could they be? And Pallis was… Pallis didn’t bear thinking about.

“I am aware.”

“Then your plan is sound. We should leave immediately.”

With a decisive nod, Pallis strode away into the hut. Anhura spared a thought for the horse, its reins lain neatly over its neck, unrestrained. But it seemed content to stand and wait for its rider to return. Still, she tentatively grabbed the reins and patted the animal lightly on the neck. It angled its head to roll one large eye in her direction, and she took a small step back.

Pallis returned before long, taking slow, cautious steps. This time, Adakias’ body was cradled in his arms, and he couldn’t quite seem to keep the grief off his face. Anhura watched as he draped the body over Adakias’ horse, carefully lashing it in place. It felt like a funeral procession of some kind. When Pallis finished, he moved back to the horse’s head and pressed his forehead to its cheek, rubbing its neck and murmuring something too soft for Anhura to hear. She looked away, uncomfortable. Pallis seemed a little too human in that moment. Finally, he joined Anhura beside the black horse. They walked wordlessly over to the chestnut.

“Princess…”

Pallis offered his linked hands as a boost, which Anhura eyed warily and decided wouldn't work.

“Just a minute.”

And she gathered her voluminous skirts in hand and ran back into the hut. Her dress, while perfectly suited to a private wedding with the love of her life, was far too constraining for riding alone. Pallis was dressed for a journey, in what was obviously some sort of uniform. He wore an all black outfit with fine gold embroidery lining the sleeves, the only detail implying that he was anything more than a simple soldier was how precisely fitted it was, far more so than something standard issue. But beyond all this, it was designed to allow full range of movement, and Anhura certainly wouldn't be able to keep up with that. Experimentally bunching up all the layers that were getting in the way, she glared down at her legs, exposed underneath. She wouldn't be able to simply remove a layer or two.

“Pallis!”

She winced as soon as she cried out for him, regretting the choice to call him by name. Avoiding names felt like a safe barrier to place between herself and the man who killed her beloved. Then he appeared in the doorway, eyebrows shooting upward at the sight of her visible frustration.

“What do you need?”

“I, uh…”

Now that he was here, this felt incredibly bizarre. This was the sort of thing she’d ask a maid, a friend, maybe even a family member. Not this killer, even if she was reasonably sure she was safe with him.

“I’d like to help,” Pallis said uncertainly, and Anhura hastily swallowed the instantaneous comparison her heart made to Adakias.

“I need you to cut my dress.”

Pallis’ expression crossed over from confused to terrified.

What?”

“So I can ride. I can't ride in this dress.”

“Oh.” His eyes cleared and he made some sort of awkward motion in her direction, before stopping himself. “How?”

“A straight line, from the hem,” Anhura explained, drawing a line up her skirts with her finger. “All the layers, just so I can sit a horse.”

Pallis eyed the skirt like it was going to bite him, then slowly drew the dagger that sat on his hip.  Unwittingly, Anhura's eyes flashed to the blade and the familiarity of the situation struck her like a blow.  Then Pallis took a step toward her, perfectly poised like the killer she knew he was.  And Anhura flinched back instinctively, her only tell of the fear she couldn't ignore.  Pallis stopped.  Moving more cautiously than Anhura had ever seen him, he sheathed the dagger and held his hands up in surrender.  This time, when he closed the distance between them, Anhura held still.

Then Pallis sunk to his knees, holding Anhura's gaze all the while, and reached out to the hem of her skirts, head bowed in supplication.  Anhura knew that the man before her was no less dangerous on his knees, but this wasn't about his ability to do harm.  It was a gesture to make her feel safer, and she hated how it worked.

Finally, Pallis lightly took up the outer layer, shooting Anhura a look that she expertly avoided, and tore the fabric in a rough line up to her waist. Anhura found great interest in the terrifying variety of medical tools hanging on the wall, wincing slightly at the sound of fabric ripping. Only once did she sneak a glance down at him, and found him concentrating intently as he methodically ruined her favourite dress.

“Done.”

Anhura was jarred back into the present by Pallis’ quiet word. She made the mistake of looking down at him, and found herself enraptured by whatever it was that sat in his eyes. There was something like wonder there as his bloodied hands clenched on the shreds of her skirt, like he was holding something delicate and maybe a little broken. Unsettled, Anhura tore her eyes away from the prince.

“Thank you,” Anhura admitted, keeping her gaze fixed to the wall. In her peripherals, Pallis got to his feet and regaining his height over her, nodding stiffly.

“It's nothing.”

It wasn’t. With the exception of Adakias, this was the closest she’d ever gotten to a man of darkness. And she’d somehow trusted him enough to turn away and allow him within arm’s reach. ‘Murderer,’ her mind hissed, but she pointedly ignored it. She needed him if she was to make it home in one piece.

After a long moment of fidgeting before her, Pallis beat a comically rapid retreat, vanishing from view until Anhura was outside the hut as well. He was shifting his weight back and forth uneasily, holding his horse by the reins. Anhura walked over to the chestnut, painfully aware of the giant slit in the side of her dress, and waited expectantly for Pallis to remember what he had to do. When he did, he jumped, startling his horse, and jogged over to Anhura to offer her a boost onto the chestnut. For the second time, he laced his hands together, and Anhura eyed them with apprehension. It was a minor detail, but Anhura really didn't want to touch him. Then she told herself that this little game was getting out of hand, and they were both adults. This was just a little help getting on a horse, it's not like she was offering forgiveness, friendship, anything of the like. So she placed a foot in the cradle of his hands and allowed him to effortlessly boost her onto the horse. It wouldn't mean anything unless she let it.

While Anhura arrayed her torn skirts around her, she could see Pallis out of the corner of her eye, fiddling with Adakias’ horse. By the time she finished, Pallis had attached some sort of lead to the other horse and connected it to his own. Pallis looked to her expectantly, waiting for some kind of signal. So she nodded, and he nudged his horse into motion, Adakias’ horse tugging on the lead line as it moved into a lazy trot. Anhura clicked her tongue quietly and her horse started off after Pallis’.

Chapter Text

They rode for hours without pause, occasionally slowing to allow the horses a break. Pallis would frequently cast concerned glances back toward Adakias’ horse, but his bindings were secure, and the body didn’t seem to be in any danger of falling off. When they finally stopped by a stream, just to stretch their legs, Anhura found herself facing a whole new struggle. While Pallis had already dismounted and was refilling his flasks at the stream, Anhura was stuck, wishing that she’d brought her riding clothes. With the torn layers of fabric arrayed artfully over the saddle, she’d almost forgotten how cumbersome her dress was. She tamped down her irritation, tugging at her skirts to see if there was any chance she could free the parts that had somehow gotten caught on the saddle. And she fought the urge to pout like a child at the thought of being helpless without Pallis’ aid, because there was no way she was getting off this horse without help.

“Sire?”

He looked up from the stream, impassive in the face of the humiliation and frustration in Anhura’s voice.

“What do you need?”

She folded her arms and bit back the annoyance she didn't want him to see.

“I can’t get my skirt sorted out.”

And, so quickly that she could have missed it, a corner of Pallis’ mouth twitched up into a smirk, before he forced it down.

“So… do you want me to help?”

Anhura dropped her eyes because the amusement in Pallis’ voice was clear, and she didn't want to look him in the eye while she begged for help. The discomfort in her chest solidified into anger, but she felt her face heating. How dare the prince insult her so, in the wake of Adakias’ death? A little disgust ran through her at the thought of this man sharing the blood of her beloved.

“I… I did not mean to be cruel,” and Pallis was right there, gazing up at her and looking truly apologetic. Studying her dress for a moment, he reached up to tug a swath of fabric free from where it’d been stuck on the saddle. Anhura poured all her will into not flinching away.

“Can you slide off, facing me?”

Anhura didn’t answer, simply running the scenario in her mind and wishing this could be over. Her mind conjured a memory of riding out with Adakias, sitting behind him with her arms wrapped around his middle, knowing they were soon to be wed. She remembered sliding gracefully off the horse, everything was easier side-saddle, and tumbling into Adakias’ arms, giggling when he nearly fell over. She certainly hadn’t expected something like this when she’d run away with a prince of darkness to be married in secrecy.

“Fine,” she said shortly, wrenching herself back into the present, and gathered her skirts into her hands, pointedly keeping her eyes off Pallis, hovering worriedly by the horse. The murderer had no right to worry.

Gritting her teeth, she swung one leg over the bow of the saddle and came to an abrupt halt as her dress got caught again. She yanked at the skirts, once, twice, then they came unstuck and she was slipping, tangled in her dress, tumbling forward and falling headfirst toward the ground. As time seemed to slow, how it usually did when she was unseated, a vague sense of resignation flooded through her. So she was to fall here, alone with a prince of darkness.

Pain jolted through Anhura’s shoulder as her arm was wrenched in a direction it shouldn't be. Nausea swept through her as her orientation to the ground changed, then a harsh impact echoed through her legs, jarring her entire body. It took a few seconds to realize that she was on the ground now, standing, somehow upright despite how unsteady her legs felt. Only then did her mind finally come to life and notice the hands firmly placed on her waist, holding her up. She felt completely, totally safe, and it reminded her of how easily Adakias’ hands would slip into place on her skin, warm and solid and– and then she realized two things very quickly. Adakias was gone, she knew that. And under no circumstances was the man who killed him allowed to touch her. But her head was spinning, and her legs still felt like they'd give out under her if she tried to take a step, so she waited. She waited, staring at the ground, until she felt like she could stand on her own without falling. And when she finally took a deep breath and looked up, Pallis was watching her closely, concern outshining anything else in his eyes.

“Are you alright?”

Anhura couldn't quite come up with a simple way to explain exactly how she felt. Adakias was gone, far too soon, but he was happier as a being of the skies, where he’d finally be free. She missed him, so much it ached, but he deserved the joy he had now. And now she was stuck, helpless, with the man who’d sent him to the skies a lifetime too early, who’d wanted her dead that same day. But these hands, the warm, gentle hands that were the only thing keeping her upright were the same ones that had thrust a blade into Adakias’ side.

At the thought, she must have pulled away, and Pallis tentatively let go, hovering near in case she couldn't keep her feet. And he seemed so human, that wasn't alright, because it was so much easier when he was a heartless killer.

Turning away from him, Anhura made her cautious way over to the stream, where she knelt to scoop water to her lips. She knew Pallis was approaching, how finely tuned she was to his presence, but steadfastly ignored him.

“Are you alright?” He repeated, unrelenting.

“No.”

He held his position, awkwardly lingering just out of sight.

“Let me know if you need anything. I’ll do what I can.”

Anhura hated how much he meant it. She had to see that he wasn't as good as he pretended to be. She had to see that he was pretending.

Her opportunity didn't come for an hour or so. They’d continued riding, Pallis silently helping her back onto the horse while she cursed her dress, not for the first time and certainly not for the last. And as they rode along, their path gradually widened into a well-maintained road. So when they next slowed to a walk to allow the horses a brief rest, Anhura nudged her horse into a slightly faster pace, until she was even with Pallis.

“Why did you stop Dumaya?”

Pallis tore his gaze away from the road before them, where it had been fixed for the past hour. As he turned to her, the setting sun behind them cast ominous shadows across his face, leaving dark hollows over his eyes, blackness bleeding down his cheeks where his face paint had run. He looked something less than human, or maybe something a little more.

“The man wanted to take you and you didn’t want to go,” Pallis said simply, without pause.

Anhura wanted to ask why he cared at all, but that could wait for another time. And she was a royal, she knew what her response was meant to be.

“Then… thank you.”

The same silence that had sat over them for hours was just creeping back in when Pallis spoke up.

“If this isn't too presumptuous, may I ask why you didn't fight him? You could have at least attempted to, and if you’d called for me, I would have arrived sooner.”

Anhura waited for a second or two for the joke, the proof that he didn’t mean it. When the prince held his silence, she determined somewhat incredulously that Pallis truly didn't understand why she hadn't called for him.

“You actually… why would I assume that calling you would improve my situation in any way? Was I meant to believe that you would help? I certainly feared what you might do.”

Pallis scowled at this, brow furrowing with confusion and annoyance.

“How much worse could I have done than that foul man? Was he not going to kill you?”

There was a sort of righteous offense in his voice, demanding why she would accuse him of such a thing. Anhura bristled, throwing up every barrier between them that had been dismantled in the past day. She was just about to speak when she had an idea, a clever, cruel idea that would hurt the oblivious prince like she’d been hurt. With all the damage he’d wrought, she felt little remorse at what she was about to do. There was no need to feel anything.

“And this is where you are mistaken, sire.” She dropped her voice, making sure the title was sharp enough to wound. “The Doctor did not plan on killing me. He wanted me as… as a concubine of sorts. And he would keep me for the rest of my life. Unpleasant, yes, but at least there was certainty.”

As she spoke, Pallis’ countenance slowly darkened. Anhura could practically sense the rage emanating off him at the thought of the lecherous doctor. His horse shifted uneasily beneath him, dancing a few paces to the side.

“How was I to know–”

“Maybe you would kill me, maybe torture me as revenge for what happened to Adakias.” Anhura paused, looked Pallis dead in the eye, and added cruelly, “maybe you would keep me for yourself, as the doctor would.”

Pallis stiffened at that last item. His eyes darkened like he was about to make another attempt on her life. Anhura found a perverse sort of pleasure in his rage.

“Do you… do you truly hold me in such low esteem that you’d fear…”

“You already tried to kill me,” Anhura cut the prince off before he could finish that thought, colour drained from an already pale face. “It was clear you held no love for me or my people.”

Pallis scowled down at his hands, unable to come up with anything to refute her claim.

“That was before. I did want you gone, but I wouldn’t…” Pallis looked up at her then, pain clear on his face. “I can tell you one thing, princess; I don’t care if you think I’m… I’m evil, I don’t care if you tell me again and again that I’m a murderer, but no matter how much I hated you, I have lines I will not cross!”

Pallis took a few seconds to realize what had happened. Anhura had squeezed her eyes shut like the man would be gone when she opened them, like it offered any protection. When the prince noticed what the harshness in his voice had done, nudging his horse a little closer, Anhura could easily sense him growing near. And when she gingerly opened her eyes, taking in the volatile mess of a man before her, she couldn’t help but smile slightly, joylessly. Promises of safety fell flat from a vicious mouth.

“You need not fear such things from me,” Pallis finished, his torn and tattered mask of formality back in place. Anhura found herself startled by his voice, empty. Of all the prince of darkness had shown, blankness was not familiar. Then the man turned, rode away, and Anhura told herself this was good. She wanted this. The man, the murderer of her beloved deserved to hurt for his crime. But her own facade was exhausting. Fruitlessly, foolishly, Anhura wished that Adakias was here with her. Adakias felt like freedom, like learning something new, like proving a point. Adakias felt like standing before a group of her father’s advisors, no more than a child, being introduced not as ‘the princess,’ but as ‘the future queen’. He felt like hope. Pallis felt like watching the love of her life bleed out on the floor. She couldn’t let her guard down to grieve with only the closest thing she’d ever met to a monster for company.

The day was fading into night when Pallis stopped. Anhura slowly rode closer, his dim shape growing as she approached, and made a point of looking everywhere but at him. By the time she was coming to a halt right where she'd seen him earlier, there was a makeshift camp set up, complete with a small fire and a bedroll laid out. Pallis didn't wait for her to ask before coming over to her horse. She silently threw a leg over the saddle and allowed Pallis to reach up and hold her waist as she made a much less painful dismount than last time. And as soon as her feet hit the ground, Pallis was gone, leaving her stumbling against the horse, trying to balance on wobbly legs.

The process of untacking her horse for the night was much more difficult than she remembered it being from when she was a child. It had been years since she’d had to do it herself. And it wasn't long before a familiar presence sidled up behind her and waited. After a few more seconds of struggling with the confusing tangle of straps in the horse’s bridle, Pallis reached past her and deftly flicked open the throatlatch, slipping the bit out of the horse’s mouth. He took the bridle and laid it beside the other two, then returned for the saddle. Any hint of pride Anhura had left was gone at this point, and she slumped to the ground bonelessly beside the fire and allowed Pallis to take care of her horse.

In a drowsy, half-aware state, she startled when a bedroll was laid out next to her, and looked around to see Pallis standing nearby, looking pained.

“Is everything alright, sire?”

It was a testament to his state that he didn't protest the title.

“It… it belonged to Adakias.” He gestured to the bedroll beside her. “He never remembers to pack one, so I brought his.”

Anhura didn't know how to respond to that, so she simply averted her gaze from Pallis. He stood there for a few more seconds, before turning away to rummage in the pack he’d brought.

It turned out he was finding rations. Breaking off a piece of a substance Anhura couldn't identify, he took a bite, straight-faced. He handed the package over, and Anhura tentatively sniffed it. It smelled like absolutely nothing, not an encouraging smell for food. She took a bite, and it tasted like absolutely nothing. She chewed the tasteless mass and longed for the food she got at home.

Their makeshift dinner was held in complete silence, sitting heavily between them. When they finished, Anhura found herself exhausted, and immediately crawled into her bedroll. She looked around for Pallis, and found him getting settled with his back against a large rock a distance away that didn't look particularly comfortable.

“Are you going to sleep?”

“Someone must keep watch.” His voice was just as cold as it had been when he spoke to Doctor Dumaya what felt like years ago. Anhura told herself it didn't frighten her.

“Should we not take rotation?”

“I'm more than capable, princess.”

Ah. Now she understood.

“I can't sleep either,” she said, not bothering to hide the bitterness in her voice.

Pallis sent her a sharp look, one that she met and matched with a smirk. He turned away, features tightening. Suddenly, Anhura didn't feel like she was winning anymore. She rolled over and waited for the morning.

~

Anhura was slowly pulled from fitful sleep by a soft noise that her drowsy brain couldn’t quite identify. Struck by an odd feeling that she should try to remain quiet, she rolled over and tried to focus on what she could hear. Floating in the odd state of not-quite-awake, it could have been hours before she identified the sound; quiet sobbing. There was someone near the camp crying softly, hands pressed over the mouth to muffle their distress. As Anhura lay in her bedroll, it was difficult to convince herself that this was worth getting up for, especially when she felt so warm and safe. But the sound had somehow escaped Pallis’ notice, and now she was alone against this threat. Despite all Pallis had done, Anhura was confident in the knowledge that if she was in any danger, he would intervene.

Maybe she could find out a little more, since Pallis clearly hadn’t done anything. She opened her eyes and found that the light from the fire only extended a short distance from their camp. Sitting up slowly, she looked in the direction of Pallis’ position from last night, only to find that the light didn’t reach that far. Pallis must have been too far away to hear the voice of the probable bandit.

Anhura began crawling out of her bedroll and shivered, finding the night air much colder than she expected it to be. Clothed only in her now-filthy dress, along with a thin shawl she’d found at the doctor’s hut, she crept closer to the sound. Partway through her cold and uncomfortable journey, the sound paused, and a spike of panic appeared in her chest. Freezing in place, she slapped a hand over her mouth to quiet her breathing. After a terrifying few seconds, she heard a raspy breath, drawn through a raw throat. There was heartbreak in the sound.

Curiosity drove Anhura forward, trading speed for stealth. She crept along the ground a little quicker, hoping to get close enough to see something, anything. Finally, the voice was close enough that she must have been right on top of them. Thinking about the little she remembered of watching the guards train as a child, she decided that standing would probably put her at less of a disadvantage. It’d be easier to run if she had to. So Anhura got to her feet, gathering up her skirts to make it easier to walk. Two more steps forward brought a figure into sight, standing alone, almost as dark as the blackness surrounding them. Another choked sob escaped them. One more step, then the figure shifted slightly and a line of gold flickered up their arm in the meagre light of the fire. Another step.

“Pallis?”

He went completely silent as he juumped and turned to face her. There were tears glinting on his cheeks, smearing his face paint for the second time.

Anhura stared back at him, at a total loss. There was a multitude of reasons why this was never a possible outcome when she tentatively climbed out of her bedroll, good, solid reasons that would hold up in any trial. Pallis, prince of darkness, shouldn't leave his post when he was needed. Pallis, murderer, shouldn't spend his time sobbing in the night, like something inside of him was broken.

“A-Anhura, I thought–” Pallis cut himself off, something like fear in his eyes. As she continued to stare at him, all other emotion fell away to reveal anguish, so obvious on the prince. “You should be sleeping, I thought you were sleeping–”

“Why do you feel the need to abandon the watch to– to cry?”

Pallis stared at the ground, shoulders slumping. All trace of the man who’d strode confidently into the doctor’s hut had vanished, leaving behind a broken shell.

“Adakias’s gone. He’s gone, he’s gone, and I did it! I was just trying to protect him. I was just…”

And something came over Anhura, an urge to do something that she wouldn’t have considered only hours ago. Perhaps it was the lateness of the hour, the exhaustion weighing down her limbs, but Anhura could no longer see the advantage in holding Pallis and his grief at arm’s length. The prince was clearly too deep in his grief to hurt her, and he was the brother of her betrothed. Anhura longed for some kind of comfort, some company in her pain. She was tired, she couldn’t leave Pallis sobbing in the darkness.

Before either of them could stop her, Anhura moved forward and laid a hand on Pallis’ arm. He didn't move at first, didn't give any indication that he noticed, but after a moment, he slowly raised his hand to rest it over hers. And their hands touched, ever so carefully, and Anhura imagined she could feel his grief, how close they were. Absentmindedly, she noted that his touch didn’t repulse her.

“Does being out here… does it help?”

He didn't respond until she gently squeezed his arm.

“I thought… I took care of him,” the prince said haltingly. “That was my job, I was supposed to take care of him.”

Anhura began pulling Pallis back toward their camp, guiding him slowly and hoping he wouldn't protest.

“Tell me more,” she said, prompting him not to look back.

“It hurts, princess.”

Pallis stopped in his tracks, and Anhura may as well have tried to move a mountain. Anhura pushed down the brief annoyance that bloomed in her chest at the whine creeping into his voice. Her own grief felt far different than that of the man with his brother’s blood on his hands.

“I know it does, but feeling guilty doesn't help him. He wouldn't want you to be sad.”

After hovering on the brink for a tense moment, Pallis finally followed her back toward the fire. She guided him to sit against the stone where he'd first taken watch, and sat beside him, a respectful distance for a woman and a man not her husband. Pallis looked down at the space between them and coloured slightly.

“I… I understand the propriety, I completely do. And if you don't… trust me, then that's alright too, but… if you would…”

And Anhura took pity on him, his glassy eyes and rough voice that betrayed how little control he had right then, and scooted a little closer to him. Pallis relaxed into the touch when her arm came to press against his own, like he craved the contact.

“Adakias would want to be remembered without guilt.” Anhura couldn’t understand why she felt such an urge to help the prince, especially when his grief was all of his own make.

“...all I can think about is how it felt when he bled out beneath my hands.”

“The prophecy stated that he needed to die. He was fated from birth.”

He didn't respond, slumped at her side. The silence was just beginning to creep back in when an idea struck her.

“Tell me about your home.”

This time, he looked up with something she couldn't decipher in his eyes. She’d managed to force a hint of authority into her voice, despite her exhaustion, and it seemed to have worked on him.

“Tell me about your family, your court. Tell me about your pets as children. Tell me of Adakias’ life, not his death, and remember him with joy.”

Then Pallis shifted to look her in the eye, and a light smile crossed his face. It was the first time she’d seen him look so calm, not scowling or impassive or putting on any of the royal airs that wouldn't fool her.

“I can see why he loved you.”

And now it was Anhura’s time to blush and avoid his eyes. But before the silence could grow heavy and thick yet again, Pallis shifted slightly, getting more comfortable, and began to speak.

With a rough voice, he began with stories of childish mischief, so odd in his joyless tone. But as he moved on to some of the adventures of their shared youth, his words grew softer and calmer, and the hint of nostalgia didn’t hurt quite so much. Anhura marvelled at the way his quiet voice dulled the ache in her chest. He didn't notice when she slipped into sleep, only minutes into his diatribe.

~

Morning came with stiffness in Anhura’s limbs, a faint ache between her shoulder blades, and a warm presence at her side, quietly speaking to her.

“Princess? We need to leave.”

She may have only known Adakias for a few days, but she knew that if he got an idea into his head, he was never letting go. He’d obviously decided that they had somewhere to go, and he, for some reason, wanted to wake her up to go there. She had some faint memory of the previous night, of a closeness she hadn't felt since she was a child. Adakias was always doing whatever he could to spend as much time in contact with her as possible.

“Ada… Adakias. Let me sleep.”

And then he shook her gently, insistently. There was no way she was getting up for at least an hour, Adakias’ travel plans be damned. She was more than happy to simply soak up his warmth and enjoy the feeling of someone beside her.

“I’m not Adakias.”

The familiar voice beside her certainly sounded like Adakias.

“It's Pallis. Wake up, we need to go.“

Then she remembered, and now there was a spark of terror growing in her chest, because where was she, why was it Pallis beside her? How had she ended up here?

Anhura opened her eyes and found a swath of white fabric right before her nose, blocking her view of the rest of the world. The uniform colour soothed her for a moment, before she struggled back into awareness and pulled away. To her horror, she'd been sleeping against Pallis’ side, cheek pressed against his shoulder. Forcefully shoving away any thoughts of how well she’d slept, Anhura gathered her shawl around herself and struggled to gain her feet, entrapped in her dress. Only then did she notice the weight making it difficult to stand, a piece of clothing draped over her. After a few moments of staring blankly at the thing, the connection formed and she recognized it. Pallis’ coat was cut quite similarly to those back at her home, complete with the weight that indicated some kind of armouring. Looking up at Pallis, somehow already upright, she saw that he was now wearing only a white buttoned shirt with rolled up sleeves. He looked far smaller, less menacing, without the added bulk of his coat. Then Pallis was politely offering her a hand, and she froze, glaring at it.

“Anhura, take my hand.”

His tone brooked no argument, so she folded the coat over one arm and complied. Ripping her hand from his as soon as she’d found her balance, she pressed the coat into his arms and brushed fruitlessly at the dirt on her dress. Pallis stayed right where he was, a little too close, until she was forced to acknowledge his presence.

“What do you want?”

Her tone was just sharp enough that his eyes lost a bit of their light, and her stomach sank treacherously at the sight.

“My lady… I know I have wronged you, I know, but please, can we… I’m tired of this, princess, of these silly games of pride we play. And… I don’t expect forgiveness. But can we not, if just for Adakias’ sake, try to get along?”

Anhura did her best to convince herself that refusing him made sense, that it would be easier to hold him off. But she couldn’t forget the comfort of remembering Adakias with bittersweet stories, having someone by her side who felt the same grief. She couldn’t ignore the tears that lay on Pallis’ cheeks as his rough voice begged her to stay. She said a silent prayer for this betrayal of her values, took a slow breath, and looked Pallis in the eye.

“I won’t apologize for acting as I have,” she began slowly, and Pallis swallowed nervously. “But… but I would rather not be your enemy. It would be easier to cooperate than to pretend we cannot be allies. You are my beloved’s brother, Adakias would have wanted us to be... friends.”

Pallis visibly relaxed, and the last traces of savagery and sharpness in him vanished.

“Thank you, princess. I will not betray your trust.”

“A little early for trust, isn't it?”

The corner of Pallis’ mouth twitched upward, humourless and empty, and he stepped back out of her space.

“I suppose so. Then I will simply say that I will do my best to fulfil what Adakias wanted. I’ll keep you safe.”

There was something unusually earnest in his voice, another trait that reminded her of Adakias.

“All we have is love,” Anhura said, conjuring a weak smile.

Pallis’ brow furrowed in response, and he held his coat a little tighter, like he could squeeze understanding out of it.

“Just something Adakias said. ‘All we have is love.’ He said that to my father.”

Then Pallis was smiling faintly, tinged by sadness and just a little broken, but he was smiling like he meant it.

“That certainly sounds like him. I think he believed in love a little more than the rest of us. Actually...”

Something changed in Pallis’ demeanor, and he looked her up and down. Anhura shifted in discomfort, suppressing an urge to tell him to stop.

“This may sound… odd, but I think Adakias did something to me. He changed me, just a little.”

“Very little will surprise me after what has gone on in the last day. Speak freely, Pallis.”

“Just before…” Pallis didn’t need to finish it. “He said something. He told me to take his love, and I think something happened.”

“What do you mean?”

“I lied before. When you asked why I saved you from Dumaya, I lied. It wasn’t just out of… some sense of what’s right, or… or pity.”

Anhura flinched at that, revelling in the oddity of Pallis’ face falling in response.

“I wanted to help, I felt like I’d known you before the first time I walked in that door. I think that Adakias gave me some of his care for you.”

He was right, it sounded ridiculous. But it made even less sense that a man who’d tried to kill her would manage to muster up any empathy over the space of a day.

“I believe you. You should have hated me.”

“I never hated you.”

She raised a skeptical eyebrow, indescribably glad that this topic was losing the uncomfortable weight it had once held. A little morbid humour wasn’t out of place, with all she’d been through.

“Well, maybe a little,” Pallis admitted. “But it just hurt that he was gone, because I knew he thought he was the subject of the prophecy, he thought he was meant to do this, and you were just the reason he was doing it all.”

“Hey, hey, it's alright.”

Pallis didn't seem to understand her response, not until Anhura reached out impulsively to wipe away the tears he hadn’t noticed himself shedding. And she caught herself at the last moment, jerking back before she could do anything else foolish. Pallis scowled and ignored the tears slowly smearing his facepaint.

“I'm fine,” he said, but he didn’t sound like he believed it.

“You’re not,” Anhura insisted. “You don’t have to be alright.”

Pallis took a few steps away from her, looking away like he could hide the hurt in his eyes. Anhura felt a surge of pity for him, moving unsteadily to ready the horses for their day’s journey.

“We’d better leave now if we want to get home by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Pallis, please.”

He froze, facing away from her. She could see the tension snap back into his frame.

“Get ready to leave.”

One of the many traits Pallis shared with his brother was stubbornness. He certainly wasn't backing down, not when he was in this state. So Anhura got ready to go, and this time it wasn't nearly as uncomfortable when Pallis helped her into her horse. Once her skirts were properly arranged, she heaved a frustrated sigh.

“When we get there, I'm burning this dress.”

That startled a hoarse laugh out of Pallis, and Anhura felt just a little victorious.

~

They rode all morning, tentatively making conversation every time the horses needed a rest. Pallis continued to tell stories of his and Adakias’ youth, a seemingly infinite topic. And though he lost himself in memory every so often, lapsing into painful silence, he always picked up the thread and rewove his tale.

After a few hours of stories, over which Pallis’ voice grew dry from the constant speech, he hesitantly suggested that Anhura share something, even just to spare his throat. So Anhura spoke, doing her best to keep the privacy of her family, but the little things, she decided, were fine to share. She told Pallis of the way her youngest sister would try to dress the palace hounds in gowns, how her father would walk into town to tell stories to the children, noble or otherwise. She was sure to avoid topics such as her mother’s passing, the souring of her once-close relationship to her father, anything a little less bright and kind. There was no need to tell a man of darkness things that he could use to hurt her.

The realization crept in slowly, silently taking up residence in the back of Anhura’s mind. Before she could fend it off, it had slipped into her consciousness and was determined to stay there. No matter how she berated herself for it, it would not change. She wasn’t sure how to feel about it, but what could she do? Her royal education said nothing on the topic of the humanity of men of darkness. But she was certain; if Pallis had been a fellow noble in the land of light, they would have been friends. The thought felt… improper, but this would never reach her home. She needed Pallis to get home safe, that was all.

Anhura was always good at lying to herself.

~

The first proper rest they took that day was a little before noon, when they came across a small grove of trees that looked promising for a lunch of sorts. Anhura’s dismount was accompanied, this time, by a bit of gentle teasing from Pallis and a few insincere threats thrown in return. And once they had completed the basest tasks of taking care of the horses and checking on Adakias’ bindings, they settled in the shade, seeking relief from the dull light that permeated through the constant cloud cover. They sat in companionable silence while eating the decidedly unappealing rations, until Anhura looked up to find Pallis staring at her.

“What is it?”

“I was wondering… do you have an elder brother?”

Anhura couldn't think of a single reason why this question was necessary.

“...no,” Anhura said slowly, confused.

“Are you the eldest sister?”

His line of questioning clicked in her head, and she figured out the answer he wanted.

“Yes, I am the heir. What of it?”

The look on Pallis’ face could be described as giddy, an awed smile slowly spreading across his features.

“You, my lady, you will become the ruler of the light. Of what age are you?”

“I am nineteen, like Adakias.”

“And I am twenty-four. We will become rulers in the space of a few years, if all goes well. The Dark and light shall be reunited, the prophecy says. A political alliance isn't out of the question!”

As Pallis spoke, voice rising in pitch as his words flowed easier and quicker, a heavy, cold feeling was growing in Anhura’s stomach. She had a nasty suspicion where he was going with this, and she certainly wasn't pleased. The worst thing was that she would probably be forced to agree, for the sake of their respective kingdoms.

“And what would you suggest we do?”

She tightened every aspect of the royal manner she hadn't had true need of in a long time, trying to remind herself that politics were for the people, sometimes sacrifices were necessary, how bad would it really be, at least Pallis would be kind–

“When we have the rule, we can open trade negotiations, form a proper alliance, build a friendship between us! Connect the realms, fulfill the prophecy!”

Anhura stared at him in silence for a moment or two before bursting into slightly shaky laughter.

“What? What’s so funny?”

“O, I thought you were going to say we should marry!”

It took a moment for her words to sink in, before Pallis’ mouth dropped open and his eyes widened comically.

“No, that's not what I meant, I wouldn't– we couldn't– I wouldn’t ask that you– no.”

Anhura’s laugh became a little more real as Pallis continued to shake his head back and forth, cheeks flushed bright.

“You know, it wouldn't be that bad an idea–”

“Not funny, Princess.”

“Of course, Pallis.”

~

The rest of their day’s ride was filled with easy conversation, casual proximity, and slightly less casual attempts to avoid thinking about Adakias. Still, when they laughed, it felt real.

But when they stopped for the evening, Anhura helped set up camp and watched Pallis the whole while, a question in her eyes. As the night grew nearer, he became visibly tense, movements tightening from their usual fluidity. And when the time came to sleep, Pallis lingered over the horses, clearly stalling.

“Do you think you’ll be able to sleep?”

He turned back to her, revealing the downward turn to his mouth and the dull sadness in his eyes. He’d hid it so well all day.

“It’s harder at night. I find myself thinking of him, and I… I can't stop, when I close my eyes he’s still there–”

There was an edge of hysteria in Pallis’ voice, his hands rising in a helpless motion. Anhura darted forward and grabbed his arms before he could work himself up any further.

“Pallis!”

His eyes went large as he stared down at her, waiting expectantly for what help she could offer. Anhura marvelled in how easily he listened to her, how gentle he was.

“You do whatever you must to grieve. I can take watch, stay up with you, leave you alone. What do you want to do?”

Pallis thought for a moment, then bit his lip and fixed his eyes somewhere over her left shoulder.

“It's nice to remember him with you. Would you… be willing to stay up with me?”

He looked like he expected her to refuse. Anhura couldn’t think of a reason to do so.

“Of course. Actually finish up with the horses, and then we can go sit somewhere. Yes?”

Pallis hesitated no more than an instant before nodding and immediately going to finish up. Meanwhile, Anhura busied herself with gathering every piece of fabric they had, from the ratty shawl, to both bedrolls, to Pallis’ coat, scavenging it from where he had cast it aside when they stopped for the night. She created a makeshift bed for herself, nestling down into it and waiting for Pallis.

“Really?”

She looked up to see the prince standing over her, arms folded and a faint smile on his face.

“You're dressed for travel,” she accused. “I’m freezing here.”

Pallis seemed largely unsympathetic to her plight.

“Mind if I join you?”

Anhura didn't allow herself to think about any sort of implications this could have and simply nodded before she could have second thoughts. Pallis dropped to the ground beside her, sitting cross-legged over an arm’s length away, the edge of Anhura’s bedroll just barely draped over his knee.

“Come here,” she told him, “you're barely under the blanket at all.”

It seemed that tonight was especially good for speaking before thinking. But Pallis cast her a look, then hesitantly edged just close enough that she could feel the warmth emanating off his body.

“So, now that the hard part’s done…”

Pallis snorted a short laugh at that, and leaned back, putting his weight into his hands. He stretched his legs out and tipped his head back to stare up at the empty sky.

“Adakias used to ask why we didn't have stars,” he said softly. “Because we had all these stories when we were little, these wonderful stories where there was night and day and starlight. They were so nice, so neat and tidy. The heroes would stand victorious, the villains would always be punished for their crimes, the sacrifices made by people who mattered would be rewarded.” Pallis paused, gathering himself to continue. “That's what Adakias always believed in, and I was always the one who had to explain that ‘no, we don't have stars.’ ‘No, that isn't real, it's just a story.’ And he would look so disappointed that I couldn't just make it better, that I couldn't just tell a different story and suddenly there would be stars. And then he got older and all he wanted was to leave, and I had to tell him no, over and over again. I don't think he ever really resented me, he just didn't understand why I was such a naysayer. He didn't understand why I didn't want him to go, and then he was gone, chasing adventures and pretty girls.”

Anhura ducked her head and huddled a little further into her blankets. There was just the tiniest shred of fear sitting in her chest as to where Pallis was going with this story.

“So I followed, how couldn't I? I just wanted to bring him home. Then there was you, and you were the reason he was gone. You weren't, of course you weren't, but that's what I thought. And I thought that if you weren't there, he’d come home.”

Pallis was sinking now, down into that dark place where all that mattered was what he'd done, not what he still could do. That Pallis was someone Anhura didn't like. She didn't trust him to care about the consequences of his actions.

“So I asked those little questions, about whether or not you knew, and I hoped that you'd leave when you found out. Then I could bring him home, he'd understand why leaving alone was so dangerous, and we’d be safe.”

“You did all you could–”

“But you stayed, and then you were the only reason he wasn't coming home. You were what stood between us and safety. It was you–”

There was darkness back in Pallis’ voice, the same contemplative tone from when he considered committing a murder. He still sat beside her, outwardly calm, but she knew that if there was one thing he knew how to hide, it was the anger that burned in his chest. This wasn't the familiar Pallis who told stories and sang to his little brother.

“Pallis, I–”

“I would have put stars in the sky for him.”

And the proper Pallis, the kind, broken one, was back. He choked out a sob and curled up, drawing his knees to his chest.

“I'm sorry, Anhura. I don't think I said it, I'm sorry. I almost killed you, O, I wanted to, and I haven't bothered to apologize. And you were only there because of love, how cruel would I be to rip that apart?” He wiped away some of the tears he couldn't hold back, and seemed to shrink even more. “I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for any of this to happen.”

“I know. I know, Pallis. But it did, we can’t bring him back. All we can do honour his sacrifice.”

Pallis didn't seem to be listening, drowning in his own misery.

“Pallis, listen to me.”

He didn't look up until Anhura scooted a little closer to him, dragging her pile of blankets with her. She adjusted the bedroll on top of the stack so it covered him too, and tentatively leaned against his side, like she had before. The contact seemed to comfort him.

“Now isn’t the time, but we can do so much! We have so much power, Pallis, we can rid the world of the fear that had you following him here. We can change the world, if we try.”

“But… all your talk of changing the world is wonderful, but don’t you…” In the space of a breath, Pallis somehow became an unsure child. “Don’t you miss him? Doesn’t it hurt?”

Anhura thought for a moment on how best to explain this to Pallis. She didn't entirely know how she was keeping herself under control.

“Everyone has to die, Pallis. Whether it be old age or battle or disease, we all must die. Adakias died to bring peace and hope to our realms, surrounded by people who loved him, and that's the best anyone could ask for. I miss him, but I know that he will become one of the greatest spirits, driven by all that love inside him. He is in a better place now, somewhere he won't be doubted or controlled.”

“O, I miss him so much.”

There was an odd edge to Pallis’ voice that made Anhura look up, wary of what she might see. But there was just a faint smile on his face, one that she knew he didn't mean.

“Me too.”

And before she could react, Pallis was shifting even closer to her and slinging an arm around her shoulders. Turning toward her, he pulled her closer and closer and closer, then wrapped both arms around her and brought her flush against his chest.

Alarm bells were blaring in Anhura’s mind, protesting every bit of wrongness in this. Pallis’ part in Adakias’ death, his status as heir to the darkness, even her ailing sense of propriety mustered enough strength to scream at her. But Pallis was a warm and steady presence against her, even as his breathing faltered every so often, and his arms were strong and solid.

“This is easier with you. Staying up, talking.”

Anhura fought the urge to shiver as his breath ghosted over her ear. This was strange, but not bad. And there were no maids and servants and disgruntled nobles here to spread rumours. Just this once, she could ignore the rules of polite society and let this man hold her, just a little too tightly.

“Any time,” Anhura whispered, unable to muster her voice into anything louder.

So they sat like that, entwined and comforting each other for long enough that Anhura’ limbs grew heavy and numb. When the discomfort finally set in, Anhura forced herself to pull away and immediately missed the warmth. Pallis’ face fell when she shifted, a ready-made apology on his lips. Anhura rushed to cut off any regret before he could voice it.

“I just want to lie down, Pallis. I can't sleep like this.”

“Oh.”

Pallis hesitated as she burrowed down into her pile of fabric, and only then did she remember that she'd taken his bedroll. She briefly sent a prayer to the heavens for what she was about to do, then gathered her courage.

“You could stay. That would be alright.”

Not for the first time, Pallis’ eyebrows shot upward and he was struck speechless for a good few seconds.

“You mean… to sleep?”

“Why not,” Anhura said, and shrugged like it didn’t mean much. She knew Pallis well enough by now to know that if she put up a fuss, he’d immediately retreat into himself and she’d be stuck with only a broken shell for company.

“If… if you’re alright with that, then I suppose…”

“I’m tired, Pallis, come here and lie down.”

At the irritation slipping into her tone, Pallis winced and edged a little closer to her. Sighing, Anhura lay down on her back and watched as Pallis did the same, leaving a careful gap between them. About a third of him was covered by the blankets. When he didn’t move any closer, Anhura forcibly shoved away her discomfort and rolled over to face him.

“This is ridiculous and I’m cold,” she said as calmly as she could manage. Pallis glanced over toward her, only to quickly look away when their eyes met. Anhura shut her eyes, and her mind immediately replaced the source of heat beside her with Adakias. Jerking back into the present, she forced herself not to forget where she was and just who she was with.

“Relax,” she said softly, not sure who the reassurance was meant for. But at her quiet word, Pallis looked over to her and mustered up a little smile. And that gave her the courage, perhaps misplaced, to edge a little closer to the prince. He watched her cautiously, but didn’t shift away. Anhura couldn’t help but find it faintly amusing that Pallis, out of the two of them, was the one so uncertain about their closeness. Pallis was ridiculously transparent, she knew he meant all his promises of safety. That simple fact made all this so much easier.

“Good night, Pallis,” she told the man, and shut her eyes. She waited in the stillness that followed for a response, something, anything to prove that the Dark was just as cruel and untrustworthy as she’d been taught. But all she received in return was a long sigh, low and full of an emotion she couldn’t quite identify. Then–

“Good night, princess,” Pallis mumbled, something like fondness beneath the weight of fatigue clouding his voice. Uncaring if he could see, Anhura let herself smile and burrowed a little further into her bedroll. Just for a moment, the ever-present ache of Adakias’ absence faded into warm content. It was nice to know she wasn’t alone out here in the bizarre space between her home and the land of the dark.

Chapter Text

Morning was oddly familiar, in that Anhura awoke in the warm content of sharing someone else’s heat. Beneath the weight of the makeshift blankets, she was faintly aware of a presence at her back; something that breathed evenly and slowly beside her. If not for knowing exactly who it was, she would have been terrified. Even knowing who it was, Anhura wasn’t sure if it bothered her. But she was far more comfortable than she'd been in days, and she felt sure that allowing herself a little relief in Pallis' company wouldn't compromise her morals. Besides, there was no harm in sleeping a little later.

Confidence restored that her decision was sound, Anhura let herself fall back into sleep.

~

When Anhura woke for the second time, the figure at her back was gone. As she pushed herself upright, eyes still closed, she felt the familiar smooth fabric of Pallis’ coat slowly slide down to sit at her waist. She opened her eyes and Pallis was facing away, doing something with the horses, but he froze the moment her blankets rustled.

“Pallis?”

“Good morning,” he stated evenly, voice giving nothing away. He still faced away. As Anhura waited, he visibly tensed and eventually turned to her. Pallis looked entirely miserable, apologetic as ever.

“Pallis, why do you look so unhappy?”

“I… I should not have behaved how I did last night. The way I acted was disrespectful.”

Anhura shut her eyes and thought over everything that had transpired. There was nothing Pallis had done that had harmed her, nor made her fear for her safety.

“I cannot think of a way you disrespected me.” She paused to prompt him to continue.

“What I did… I treated you far too familiarly. It was not appropriate.” The tightness in his voice said he'd been thinking about this for some time.

“It's alright,” Anhura sighed, trying not to sound annoyed. “Look, I’m sure you meant nothing by it, and it should be entirely clear that I harbour no romantic desires for you. I was about to marry another man only days ago, Oracle’s sake. We’re not courting, let this discomfort not sit between us. Propriety has no place in the middle of the Wildlands. Your actions did not bother me, and I would prefer that we leave this behind.”

Pallis stared at her with something like hope in his eyes. Anhura suspected that this was not how he had expected her to act.

“Then… uh… thank you for your understanding.” Pallis sounded entirely unsure.

“Your… courage is admirable.”

Anhura shrugged, still forcing herself awake. It was too early for Pallis’ needless apologies.

“Well, you're the one bringing a noble of the light in to an audience with the king of darkness. That should count for something.”

Pallis smiled tentatively at her and looked ridiculously young. As the man before her, murderer of her beloved, seemed so happy to be forgiven, Anhura suddenly remembered that he was the heir to his people’s throne. Though still a few years away, their parallel ascents to power held promise of change they could bring, maybe if they brought the kingdoms into an alliance. Anhura would have fought for Adakias’ legacy regardless, but it was comforting to know she had found an ally in Pallis.

Smiling back at him, Anhura clambered to her feet to prepare for the day’s ride. With at least an unpracticed system in place, departure was much quicker than last time, and they were soon on the horses with a few hours of travel before them. Unlike usual, they spent much more time walking alongside each other to discuss what changes they could make to draw their kingdoms closer together.

With the land of darkness looming on the horizon, Anhura was certainly in no hurry to arrive, and Pallis seemed more than happy to comply.

But their slower pace couldn't stave off arrival indefinitely, and the greyish mass of the keep sat heavily on the horizon before them, nearer and nearer until they rode in its shadow. And as they approached, conversation dwindled down to no more than a comment here or there. Pallis was looking… stiff, to say the least. He’d drawn himself up to sit his horse a little more formally, a few inches taller than before. He laughed less, spoke more evenly. The childish aspects of his personality faded to the background, replaced by level-headed calm.

“Is everything alright, Pallis?”

He hesitated before answering, taking a moment to consider his words. Even that restraint was unfamiliar.

“In all of recorded history, no citizen of the light has ever entered these gates, never mind one of royal blood. Be prepared for a… cool reception.”

“I've had a very odd last few days. I should be fine.”

But Anhura couldn’t stop thinking about those half-truth stories from her childhood, the ones about brave warriors of the light journeying to the land of darkness and never coming home.

“Then I'll wish you luck. We do not want your identity known until we deem it necessary. Act like a commoner, hold yourself with less dignity. Perhaps look less confident. Understand?”

“Of course,” Anhura said immediately. Just the change in Pallis’ demeanor would be enough to impress upon her how serious this was.

“Oh, and tie your shawl around your hair. Our skin, in general, is fairer than yours, but that alone would not set you apart. But no citizen of the Dark has hair like that. We shouldn't allow your identity to become known before we will it.”

Trying not to think about how formal Pallis’ speech had become, Anhura removed her shawl and tied it a little lopsidedly over her head. Wishing she had a mirror, she turned to Pallis, who studied her for a moment.

“No one should be able to tell.”

He looked like he had more to say, but then the moment passed and he looked away, that familiar Pallis hidden once again under his mask.

Neither of them spoke until they reached the gates, which loomed suddenly before them, quicker than Anhura could prepare herself. But oh so soon, she found herself staring up at the hulking structure, the charcoal gray wall made of heavy, regular stones. Following Pallis’ lead, she pulled her horse to a halt before the gate. She shot an inquisitive look in Pallis’ direction, wondering how long they were going to wait there. But Pallis was frozen stiff, eyes closed, looking every inch the crown prince, black paint fresh from being smeared over his eyes mere hours before.

“State your purpose!”

Anhura jumped as the voice rang out, blunt and harsh. But a startled smile touched Pallis’ features before he hid it.

“It’s me, Rolf.”

“Pallis?” The guard’s voice rose with happiness, brightening. “Just a minute!”

Yelling became audible, words jumbled into a cacophony, before the mighty gates began swinging open with the grating of machinery. A pair of guards tumbled out, the first wearing a wide grin that split his face with unprofessionalism. Anhura watched, bemused, as the guard rushed over to Pallis’ horse and spread his hands in a welcoming gesture.

“What are you still doing up there?” Anhura raised her eyebrows at the manner in which Rolf treated his crown prince. The man would have seemed annoyed at the Prince if not for the smirk teasing at the corner of his mouth. Pallis hesitated, shooting a measured glance toward the other guard, who held back as was proper. Rolf’s face fell a little, and he struggled to force his smile back into place before stepping a few paces closer and lowering his voice. “Leave your pride, Pallis.”

Finally, Pallis’ expression fell into something more natural and he dismounted, only to be immediately swept into an embrace by the guard. Anhura averted her gaze, peering around at what she could see of the city through the gate. She and Pallis had passed by a few small villages on the outskirts of the realm, but the capital city was a different matter entirely. From what she could see from where she stood, the buildings inside were mostly made of what seemed to be the same stone as the outer wall, grey and featureless.

“Turning into Adakias, are you?”

Anhura turned back to the guard to see him watching her curiously, eyes darting about her person as he took in her dress, torn and tattered from necessity and their days of travel. For the first time, she was forced to acknowledge that her attire was certainly out of place for a royal, and even worse for the heir. Shame twisted in her gut as the guard clearly made judgements.

But Pallis’ features tightened at the mention of his brother. Rolf, despite his familiarity with the prince, took a small step back, putting up the formalities he should have maintained from the beginning.

“This is my guest, and she is nothing like Adakias’ strays. I imagine she does not take kindly to being referred to as such.”

“Of course, my… lady,” Rolf demurred. Anhura granted the man a short nod at the title, but kept her eyes on Pallis. The prince had turned to the other guard, a clear threat in his eyes.

“Guard, listen carefully to what I have to say. You will not speak of this to anyone. It will soon become common knowledge that I have returned home, but there is to be no mention made of my guest. There is… a body on that horse.” He gestured gracefully toward Adakias’ horse. If Anhura weren't so intimidated by his cold manner, she'd have been amused by how elegant he’d somehow managed to become.

“Place the body in the storage closet of the lower guardroom and cover the face so it will not be recognized. If word of this gets out, I will personally hunt you down and deal with you myself. You know what I am capable of. Do not entertain thoughts of disobeying.”

By the end of his speech, Pallis’ voice had darkened with grim sincerity, and Anhura had no trouble believing him capable of carrying out his threats. She found herself wondering if this side of him was more real than the side she’d come to know.

The guard nodded solemnly, nothing in the man’s eyes to indicate that this sort of threat from the prince was anything out of the ordinary. He spun neatly on a heel to usher the pair of them through the gates, Anhura still mounted. Once her horse quietly paced into the city, she couldn't stop a gasp from escaping her.

The inside of the city looked nothing like the outside. Where the wall and uppermost portion of the castle were made of dull grey stone, the buildings within the wall were bizarrely similar to those at her home, only made of jagged pieces of rock, great slivers piled together haphazardly. Where great swathes of glass would have sat in the kingdom of light, there were instead gnarled openings in the rock, looking naturally formed. And though it lacked the sunshine she was accustomed to, she had to admit that it was beautiful, in a way.

“Lady Anhura?”

She was jolted out of her revelry by Pallis’ voice, perfectly composed and missing the casual warmth from the last few days. He was waiting beside her horse, hands stretched upward. His cold words still hovered in the forefront of her mind, dredging up uncomfortable memories of when they were directed at her.

“You cannot enter the palace on a horse, my lady.” Were it only a few hours previous, poorly concealed amusement would have been audible beneath his words, but he sounded deathly serious. An involuntary shudder ran down Anhura’s spine and she dropped her eyes to stare down at the bow of her saddle. Still, the hands reached to brace her waist and ease her dismount. As soon as she was balanced on the ground, legs wobbly and weak from the hours of riding, Pallis was pulling away, face studiously blank. She couldn't accuse him of carelessness, but the casual comfort of his presence had vanished without a trace.

As she watched Pallis, all hard eyes and straight back, a squadron of guards appeared from nowhere to replace Rolf and the other man. In the commotion of their entrance, Anhura nearly missed Adakias’ body being quietly carried away. The entire event was smooth and military, the guards moving in carefully structured rows. It was so drastically different from the few highly skilled warriors that frequented the courtyard in her home that the urge to shrink behind Pallis was stronger than ever.

“Would you like to retire to your rooms, my prince?”

How comfortable Pallis was with the guard’s subservience almost frightened Anhura. Outside the city, it had been easy to forget exactly what he was, a royal from the land that she was supposed to hate. And not to mention the… softness, gentleness to the man when he wasn't in his native position of authority. All trace of that was gone.

“Yes. And my guest will be staying with me, not in the guest chambers. Is this understood?”

The guard who’d spoken up nodded politely and barked a few orders to several other men. Within seconds, a protective convey was in place around Anhura and Pallis. They began marching through the largest street nearby toward the castle, Pallis easily falling into step with the men. Anhura felt out of place, her attire and stature certainly not helping.

Before long, they were making their way into the castle itself, a beautiful but ominous building that made its stance on Anhura's presence perfectly clear. It felt hostile.

As they made their way down yet another hallway in the seemingly endless warren, Pallis stepped close to her suddenly, startling a quickly suppressed gasp out of her. A gentle hand slipped beneath her elbow, pulling her close enough that a lowered voice would offer privacy. She fought the urge to flinch away.

“I know what I said, Princess, but there's no need to look so terrified,” Pallis said softly. His voice was light, almost playful, like he thought it was all an act. In his amusement, he didn't notice the gasp, nor the fear she knew flickered across her face.

“You misunderstand me. I have been taught all my life that the realm of darkness is that of evil, sire. I'm afraid.”

And Pallis certainly wasn't joking anymore, concern painted across his face regardless of who could see. He let go of her arm like the touch burned him, jerking away with half-formed apologies on his lips. But he seemed to come to a decision of sorts, and put a few paces between them, a frown fixed on his face.

After that, Anhura fell into step behind him, following like it was the most natural thing to do. No matter how much her fear of Pallis returned, he still felt safer than the rest of the kingdom of the dark. And being at his side would most likely protect her from the stern-faced guards surrounding her. Most likely.

After what felt like an eternity of marching down endless gloomy halls, delving deeper and deeper into this unfriendly citadel, the guards came to a halt, a heavy black door before them. What little remained of the side of Anhura that was not yet lost to fear thought it ridiculous that everything was painted a dramatic black. The rest of her was simply scared.

“My rooms, lady.” Pallis had leaned closer while she was studying the door, close enough that it took a substantial amount of effort not to flinch away. He was close enough that Anhura could feel his warmth, and she tried not to shiver. “You’ll be more comfortable than in the guest suite. Is this alright?”

There was just enough uncertainty in his voice that Anhura knew that her fear had hurt him. But she couldn't and wouldn't stop being afraid because of the kindness of one questionably good man. It was up to Pallis to earn any modicum of trust. When she was younger, a nursemaid had explained that as a woman, she would always be physically weaker than the men surrounding her. However, the woman had said, that did not mean that she owed those men anything at all. She would grant Pallis and his court forgiveness for the attempt on her life if and when she deemed it fitting. For now, as long as he continued to act just as cold as when he'd aimed that dreadful dagger at her heart, she would feel no remorse for his discomfort.

“As it pleases you, sire.”

While she spoke, she lowered her eyes as politely as her old servants would in her presence. She soothed her pride with the knowledge that her forced subservience bothered Pallis much more than it bothered her.

When he made no response, she chanced a subtle look upward and caught his eye, noting the flash of annoyance. She knew how refreshing it was to make a friend who viewed you as an equal, one who wasn't influenced by your royal status. Pallis didn't like being treated like a prince instead of as a… friend. Were they friends? She’d as good as promised herself that she would put up with the man and nothing more. She supposed that staying up beside him to grieve probably counted as a little more than begrudging allies.

Resigned to receive nothing more than her overblown politeness, Pallis gestured to one of the guards, who stepped forward to swing the doors open for him. Without sparing a backwards glance for Anhura, he strode into his room. Hesitating for a moment, Anhura looked around at the guards surrounding her, intimidated without Pallis’ presence. And in that moment, a hand appeared out of nowhere to latch onto her shoulder. Before she could think to pull away, the squadron rearranged itself around her in preparation for marching back down the hall.

“Pallis!” It was second nature to call for him. And when he emerged from his rooms, scowling, she only regretted it a little.

“Release her.”

The guard paled under the weight of Pallis’ voice, deeper than usual and not bothering to suppress his displeasure. He immediately released Anhura’s arm, and she forced herself to walk slowly and calmly to Pallis, not to impolitely flee to the relative safety of his rooms.

All her bluster out in the uncivilized world was quivering in fear, now that she was truly surrounded by a kingdom that already distrusted her, even without knowing who she was. She comforted herself with the knowledge that she'd eventually get to walk Pallis straight through the ornate golden gates of the kingdom of the light and watch him squirm.

“Do not harm my guest. She has done nothing wrong and will not be treated as a prisoner. Lady Anhura is acting as an ambassador for an ally of ours, and you would do well to treat her with respect.”

The offending guard snapped to attention, saluting Pallis. “Yes, my lord.” He turned to Anhura, mouth turning downward in apology. “I am deeply sorry, my lady. I should not have restrained you.”

Anhura, still reeling from Pallis’ show of cold anger, could only manage a shaky nod in the man’s direction. He bowed stiffly, and then the entire squadron, excusing two men at the back who took up station on either side of Pallis’ still-open door, wheeled around and left. In an odd moment of stillness, the four of them waited around that fateful door. Then Pallis turned and disappeared into the room, and Anhura took a deep breath and followed him. The doors swung shut with a dull thud, and the room fell into heavy silence.

Anhura gaped around at the room she’d found herself in. Draped in black fabric, highlighted in gold, the room felt just as brooding as its inhabitant. In fact, the ridiculous combination of heavy velvet covering every surface and the sheer black gauze trailing from the ceiling almost seemed comical. Anhura’s eyes took a few moments to adjust to the darkness, as she frantically blinked until she could see in the meagre grey light oozing in through a small, high window.

“It’s dark,” she commented thoughtlessly.

Pallis shot her a glare from where he’d fallen onto a black sofa, head in his hands. Anhura couldn’t stop herself from dropping her eyes to the black stone floor, unwelcoming beneath her shoes. Pallis sighed audibly, the cushions squeaking slightly as he stood.

“I’m sorry, Princess. I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”

He was only a step in front of her now, and all she could see was his boots creeping into the edge of her vision. Light hands landed on her arms, and she forced herself to look Pallis in the eye. He looked truly sorry, but that still wasn’t enough to banish thoughts of exactly who he was. In his own palace, he held himself differently, like the prince of darkness he was.

“Were you hurt?”

Anhura knew exactly what he meant, with the flicker of distrust that marred his expression at the thought of the guard who’d grabbed her. If she were to take that as the question, she could easily answer ‘no’ in all honesty. But was she hurt?

“…No. I’m alright.”

Even as she spoke, she knew that Pallis wouldn’t believe her. Her shaking voice had betrayed her. He raised a skeptical eyebrow, like one trying to convince a stubborn child to tell the truth. Anhura shrugged his hands off her, moving away to feign interest in a piece of carved stone sitting on a table. Even as she did so, Pallis caught her wrist, drawing a hiss of pain she couldn’t hold back.

“Please, you’re my guest here, I can get you medical attention if you need it.” Pallis wrapped a much gentler hand around her elbow and pushed up the sleeve of her tattered dress. His expression darkened at the sight of the ugly greenish bruises that were only a few shades darker than her skin, easily hidden unless one was expressly looking for them. The pain in his eyes said he knew exactly where they’d come from. It felt odd to recall that Pallis had put those marks on her only two days ago, now that he’d changed so much.

“Those aren’t from that guard, are they?”

“Sire–”

“Why must you insist upon not calling me by my name? I thought I had made it clear that you should do so. We are equals here, Princess. More than that, I had thought we were becoming friends! What–”

And Pallis’ voice stopped suddenly, like he was realizing what he'd done. With her eyes closed, leaning away from his rising voice and tightening grip on her elbow, Anhura didn't see his uncertain hand reach to brush against her arm. She jumped; why wouldn't she? His tone of voice was one she couldn’t help but associate with those stereotypes of the kingdom of the dark. He sounded like cruelty and ferocity and every story told to children of the light to keep them in line.

“I... didn’t mean to.” Pallis released her arm, immediately withdrawing the offending hand and clenching it into a fist at his side. A quick glance at her arm told Anhura that his grip, this time at least, wouldn’t leave marks. “You know I’m not going to hurt you. I don’t mean to frighten you, princess–”

“But you do, Pallis,” Anhura countered, voice rising with frustration. “When we were outside the city, you were the brother of my beloved, a man who made a mistake and regrets it. Here, you are the crown prince of a people I have been taught to fear since infancy. We are peaceful, we abhor all conflict and wish only for the chance to live happily, alone. No matter how much war is truly of your people’s make, you were painted as monsters, cruel and violent beings.”

Pallis’ brow furrowed as he took offense at that. Anhura suppressed the bitter humour that surged up within her. But she had to say her part before he regained his footing.

“When you restrain yourself, act with care around me in respect of our first meeting, it’s easy to forget who you are, what you’ve done. You’ve borne no resemblance to the man I feared for a while now. But here, where your citizens treat you with deference and no little fear, all I see is what you tried to do. I am alone, without my guards and my family in a strange land that is my enemy, my only companion a man who tried to kill me. So yes, Pallis, I am frightened. I am terrified.”

By the time she’d finished, Pallis was standing a fair distance across the room, eyes wide and mouth fallen open. It seemed she’d rendered him truly speechless for a long moment. As she watched him, he blinked a few times and swallowed loudly, as unsure as she’d ever seen him.

“This… this was not my intent. I know what I’ve done, but I–”

“And your intent will not prevent me from fearing you, will it? The issue in contention is not a minor insult, this is murder we’re discussing.”

Pallis stiffened at the word, like it drove home her point a little further. And even as she said it, she wished she hadn’t. It’s only purpose was to hurt him, and he knew what he had done.

“You… you speak like a politician, Princess. Your words are clever; too clever for me, I fear. You will be a great queen one day.”

He mustered up a weak smile that he didn’t mean, and Anhura really wished her heart didn't still consider him the same man who’d sat up with her last night. So she stared at the sliver of cloudy sky visible through the pathetic window, and hoped that this conversation could end as soon as possible.

“You are safer with me than in any other part of this castle, if by chance your rooms were attacked. Leaving would only put you in more danger than can possibly be posed by me, even with the guards around the city. I mean you no offence, but you look like a victim. I… I don’t know what I can offer you beyond your safety, even if it’s difficult for you to believe. So, what will you do?”

He hadn’t needed to lay out her options for her. It didn’t matter how much fear coursed through her at the thought of staying with Pallis, there were no other choices. She couldn’t go anywhere else, and as difficult as it was to admit with Pallis acting so cold, he was her safest bet.

“Stay. I will stay.”

Pallis seemed to deflate at her resigned acquiescence. Turning away and disturbing the unsettlingly still air, he gestured toward a door she hadn’t noticed until then.

“You can sleep through there, in my room. There’s a second bed here which I will take.”

“Must you insist that I take yours?”

Pallis hesitated before responding, facing her again but not quite looking her in the eye. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, the very epitome of discomfort.

“It has a door,” Pallis said, like it was obvious. “And… and a lock, princess. I assume that is appreciated, given our current… situation.”

Oh. Anhura had almost forgotten that particular accusation she’d levelled upon Pallis. The pain in his voice said that he’d been thinking about it a bit more than she had. She’d thought they'd moved past that issue when she’d literally slept on the man’s shoulder. And though she still wasn't entirely sure what to think of him, she certainly didn’t harbour that particular fear. Her words had been chosen more to hurt him for what he’d done than to reveal a legitimate concern.

“Thank you very much,” she told him, trying to sound as sincere as she could. “But I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

At the olive branch in her tone, Pallis looked up to send her a faint smile. He was trying, so she made her best return effort. Pallis was standing a little straighter now, less like he was ashamed of the space he took up.

“But of course I would let the lady take the bed. I could hardly call myself a prince otherwise.”

“I can't argue that much, especially since I've slept on the ground for the past few nights.”

Pallis tucked his hands behind his back and raised an accusing eyebrow, cocking his head at her, and it felt like those light-hearted conversations they'd had to break up the hours of monotonous riding.

“So have I, princess,” he countered. “And that grants you more right to the bed than it does me?”

“You're a soldier. I'm sure you do things like that all the time, you know, sleeping in the shelter of the nearest rocky outcropping, eating cockroaches for sustenance, roasted over the meagre warmth of your fire. And all this while you make a lone venture out into the Wildlands just to explore what lies outside the gates, before returning home just a little wiser, never again speaking of the things you saw.”

Pallis blinked at her a few times, utter incomprehension in his eyes.

“Haven't you heard those stories? Are they not told here?”

Again, he stared at her, baffled, for a solid few seconds before slowly moving in with no small measure of concern in his eyes. He reached out, only to hesitate just before he could make contact.

“I think… I think you must be very tired, princess. Maybe sleep would do you some good.”

For the briefest of moments, Anhura realize what she must look like, her dress in ruins, covered in the inevitable layer of grime that comes from days of travel, and with a slightly crazed look in her eyes. Along with all that, the exhaustion she’d been staving off for days made an unwelcome reappearance, and in that moment, Pallis’ concern made sense. With a rueful smile, she stepped into the hand Pallis had reached out to her, which he politely settled on her back. With an unsteady motion that was probably supposed to be graceful, Pallis gestured to the bedroom, and slowly began leading her in that direction.

To fill the silence more than anything, Anhura continued with her previous thought. “How do I know you don't do things like that all the time, go out and… adventure beyond the castle walls?”

“You do realize that I am a prince, don't you?”

“A good prince.”

Pallis stopped, and his hand trembled against her skin for a moment before he regained control. It took him two attempts before he managed to speak.

“Please don’t. I know I've wronged you, but please…”

“I’m not mocking you, Pallis,” she said firmly, before his self-loathing could take over entirely. “Making bad decisions doesn’t make you a bad person. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe you better than the way we met. Yes, the way you act here… it frightens me, but you have changed since the day we met. You are not quite so… cold, not anymore. Kind Prince Pallis who brought a noblewoman of the light into the heart of the darkness. Good Prince Pallis who dared to think that the rift between the kingdoms could be closed.”

Pallis stared at her with something like wonder in his eyes. The emotion was so raw and close to the surface that Anhura almost wished she wasn't so free with her tongue when she needed sleep.

“You–” His voice broke and he dropped his eyes for a moment. “You flatter me, my lady.”

“I am simply speaking of what I see. You are changed, Pallis.”

Again, he looked to the ground like it held the reassurances he needed. This man before her was no longer the one who’d casually threatened her life.

“Anhura…” There it was, that hint of Adakias. It didn't hurt as much as when she’d hated the man before her. “Would I be overstepping my bounds if I were to hold you?”

Pallis sounded so hopeful that she couldn't possibly turn him down. Besides, some small part of her recalled feeling so completely safe in the prince’s arms, and she wouldn’t begrudge herself the chance to have it again. In lieu of a verbal response, she simply stepped into the circle of the arm still lightly touching her back and it slipped to curve around her waist. Pallis wrapped her in his arms, and unlike last time, Anhura could feel the care he was taking to recall his own strength.

“The world of the light deserves far more respect if they are even half so good as you.”

That was a compliment on a scale Anhura could barely comprehend, so she simply hugged him back and tried to convey some extent of what she felt. She had been afraid, but it always became so much easier to see Pallis as a man rather than a monster when he said things like that. She hoped he could sense the emotion she really wasn't supposed to feel for him.

Before long, Pallis was sighing quietly and pulling back, reluctance in every movement. Entirely on impulse, Anhura caught him before he could go too far, laying a hand along his jaw. As Pallis blinked confusedly down at her, Anhura pushed herself onto her toes to plant a kiss on his cheek. Turning away before she could see his reaction, Anhura fled to the bedroom, mumbling a barely audible farewell in his direction, effectively hidden by the too-loud slam of the door.

The sight of the bedroom drove away some of her discomfort, mostly black with delicate highlights of gold thread on the curtains falling from the ceiling. She tentatively prodded the bed, finding it bizarrely solid. She took a careful seat and marvelled at how soft it still was.

The bed having earned a stamp of approval, she got up to inspect the rest of the room. Like the main chamber, there was only one small window, not that there was much light shining through. On the wall hung a few black uniforms, two rumpled white shirts, and something that looked so tattered and misshapen that it could never be worn outside one's chambers. She filched that last article of clothing, further inspection revealing singed edges and a few suspicious black stains. But it was still, sadly, in better condition than her dress. Not wanting to call to Pallis after what she did, the laces on her corset proved near-impossible, and many ended up simply ripped out of their eyelets to loosen the thing. But she eventually struggled out of it, tossing the ruined dress across the room and taking a sort of satisfaction in the sight of it crumpled on the floor. She slipped into the tattered shirt, hoping it wasn't important, washed her face in a small basin with a nearby mirror, and fell into the bed.

So she slept in the big black bed with the fancy gold highlights, and the swooping curves of sheer fabric hanging from the ceiling, and the softest pillows she'd ever felt, and wondered what the world could have been like if the Dark and Light had gotten along.

Chapter Text

Morning came with quiet humming from the other room, warm and smooth. Anhura drifted awake surrounded by the sound, along with the light dappling across the walls around her. The golden sparks on all of the sheer sheets of fabric had been set alight by the tentative early morning sunlight. She took a moment to admire the view, taking in every aspect of the place she’d missed in the dark. Wait, sunlight?

“Pallis!”

In retrospect, the high-pitched cry could have easily been misinterpreted as a call for help. But that thought didn’t occur until after she’d called out to him, which may have been a mistake. A loud crash sounded from the other room, and Anhura sat bolt upright on impulse. With an even louder noise, her door burst open and smashed into the nearest wall, and there stood Pallis. This sight of him was dramatically different from the image of the perfect royal she’d seen yesterday. He was soaking wet and shirtless with his hair falling down into his eyes, which were wild with panic. He looked frantically around the room, as if he were searching for some attacker, hiding in the corner with murderous intent. Finally, his inspection of the room complete, his eyes fell upon Anhura and thus began an uncomfortable period of prolonged eye contact. The silence of the room was broken only by the regular sound of water droplets falling onto stone. Only then, staring at each other, did a few more details come into focus. Anhura suddenly remembered her stolen shirt, and immediately after that, her general state of undress. Hoping to save what little face she still had, she subtly pulled the blankets up to add an extra layer of defense between her and Pallis’ gaze. But the motion didn’t go unnoticed, and Pallis immediately averted his eyes to give her a little privacy.

Once Anhura was a little more comfortable hidden behind the blankets, she wriggled her way a little further upright, wishing more than anything that she hadn’t called for him. Entirely unprompted, Pallis made an awkward sort of gesture down at himself, from the excess of skin, to the trousers that were rapidly turning dark with dampness, to the puddle of water at his feet.

“I, uh… I was bathing.”

Anhura stared at him, dumbfounded. Then a laugh burst through her lips, then another, then an unladylike snort, and she finally collapsed into helpless giggles. When she finally fought her way back to awareness for just long enough to breathe, she made the mistake of looking up at Pallis’ face, and just how completely and utterly lost he looked wasn't helping. After far too long spent struggling for air, she managed to rake in a big enough breath to speak.

“I was bathing,” she mimicked, putting on the deepest voice she could.

“Well, I was,” and Pallis sounded vaguely affronted, now that he knew she wasn’t being attacked in her room. Anhura only laughed harder.

When it became clear that she wasn’t going to stop laughing any time soon, Pallis turned and left, easing the door shut behind him. Anhura continued to laugh, alone in the room.

It took only a moment for Anhura to calm herself once Pallis was no longer standing there, dripping on the floor and looking entirely befuddled. She got herself ready, finding that the water basin sat upon some odd crack in the floor that seemed to produce heat, and marvelling at this dark kingdom technology. But now that she was no longer in the bed, it became painfully obvious that the shirt she’d borrowed wouldn’t be appropriate to wear out, even on a mission to fetch more clothing. Pausing to think for a moment, she got back into the bed and hid beneath the covers, collecting herself.

“Pallis?” This time, she put as much effort as she could into not sounding like a woman being murdered. Pallis knocked on the door seconds later, and she stifled another giggle at the memory of him bursting into her room only minutes earlier.

“Come in,” she called, and Pallis obliged. This time, he was fully clothed and dried, the only evidence of their earlier encounter the damp hair that flopped over his forehead. The black paint was still missing. It made him look young.

“I was hoping you could fetch me some clothing. My dress…”

She spared a glance across the room at the pile of ruined fabric. Pallis followed her gaze and the sides of his mouth twitched as he tried unsuccessfully to hide a grin.

“Well, my dress isn’t exactly in good condition. If I am to leave this bed at any point, I’ll require something to wear.”

Pallis nodded politely, not quite smiling. “I shouldn’t be more than half an hour. Feel free to look around my rooms in my absence.” He paused, a hint of colour creeping onto his face. “I’ll knock this time.”

Anhura bit her tongue and inclined her head in the regal manner of an expert in pretending to be composed. Pallis nodded in return, spun on his heel, and strode purposefully out the door. Anhura waited until she heard the distinct scrape of the suite’s door as it closed, and immediately jumped out of bed.

The bedroom was mostly barren, the elaborate bed and fabric hanging from the ceiling the only fixtures of the room. It didn’t take long to inspect that area, so she quickly moved out to the main room. The most striking feature of the space was painting hanging on the wall, pale paint on a black canvas that nearly melted into the walls. It had been entirely invisible in the darkness. Two figures stood together, and the subjects were unmistakable. On the right was a boy who looked about ten years old, laughing with his head thrown back, and Anhura’s heart ached at the sight. Adakias had hardly changed, the expression and the joy in those painted eyes were all too familiar. But the other figure was almost more captivating once she truly payed attention to it. A teenaged Pallis stood a few inches taller than Adakias, an arm slung around his brother’s shoulders. Just the barest hint of a mischievous smirk quirked up one side of his mouth, and he lacked the bar of paint that usually sat over his eyes, darkening them into near black. In the painting, Pallis’ eyes were brown.

Moving on from the painting, Anhura wandered to the other side of the room before it could conjure up any more pain. There was a closet she hadn’t noticed the night previous, and the doors were both etched with a mysterious symbol she couldn’t identify. It looked nothing like the runes of darkness she’d seen scattered throughout the palace so far.

Anhura tugged on the doorknob and the door flew open, a bunch of… machines spilling out onto the ground. It was only when she spotted a primitive drum of some kind that she decided they were meant for making music. She picked up the nearest item, a wooden box with a bunch of strings attached, and gently ran her thumb along the strings, producing a series of pitches.

“Royalty don’t have time for music.”

Anhura jumped and spun to see Pallis standing by the door, a bundle of black fabric in his arms. He was staring at the objects on the floor with an odd sort of longing in his eyes.

“Do you play all these?”

Pallis smiled softly, carefully draping the fabric over the arm of the sofa. Anhura stood and backed away from the pile of music-makers, folding her arms over her chest. Moving like he was in a daze, Pallis crossed the room to grab the box with strings attached. Holding it much more comfortably than Anhura had thought possible, he did something with his hands and a beautiful rippling sound echoed from the device. Anhura watched, mesmerized, as he coaxed a melody into existence, and wondered why something as wonderful as this had been shoved away into a closet. After a long minute full of music of a kind she’d never heard before, Anhura shifted slightly, drawing Pallis back into the present. When he first looked up at her, there was an unfamiliar sentiment in his eyes that she couldn’t identify.

“What do the other ones do? Do they sound like that too?”

Something changed in Pallis’ eyes at the interest in her voice. Anhura couldn’t help but wonder if anyone ever cared about Pallis’ music. By the surprised smile gracing his features, she could confidently say that musical talent wasn’t valued in rulers of the dark.

“Do you not play music in the Light?”

“Of course we do,” Anhura laughed lightly through her words. “But not like that. All we use are percussive instruments. It means you hit it and sound comes out,” she elaborated to Pallis’ baffled expression. “Like that,” she gestured to the simple drum.

“And do you not sing?”

“We do, and far more than you do here. Every evening, walking the streets, one can hear music. It fills the sky, it’s… it’s how we show our love of the Oracle, in song. Perhaps… I could show you when we travel to the Light.” A touch of apprehension settled into Anhura’s gut at the thought of singing for Pallis. But she supposed that if a truce was to be formed, he’d need to learn about her people. “Only if you return the favour, though.”

Something unhappy flickered across Pallis’ face, but he nodded solemnly, and Anhura wondered if asking was a mistake. She hoped he was merely self-conscious.

Instead of commenting on it, she gestured to one of the other devices, one that gleamed gold-plated and had something that bore a peculiar resemblance to a duck’s bill on the end. Pallis’ eyes immediately flickered to the item and he quickly picked it up, examining the piece on the end and frowning.

“Reed’s cracked,” he said, a little disappointment in his voice. Anhura winced at the thought that maybe one of his precious music-makers had been broken as they tumbled out of the cupboard.

“It… it may have happened when I opened the door, they all fell out–”

“My fault,” Pallis interrupted her, forcing a thin smile. “I didn’t put them away right.” He paused and Anhura got the feeling that Pallis was recalling something dark. “I can get another. I’ll… can I play for you later?”

“I’d love to hear more,” Anhura said sincerely, and Pallis seemed to relax slightly. She wondered if he’d played these… these instruments for Adakias. She was already certain that no one had heard him sing but her and Adakias.

“Thank you, princess. I did some asking around while I was out, and we can speak with my father tomorrow afternoon. Until then, I have been freed of my usual duties, and I would be more than happy to take you around the castle, show you some of our culture.”

“Thank you, Pallis,” Anhura smiled politely. “I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity for a tour of the palace given by the crown prince himself.”

The prince seemed to relax as she spoke, and Anhura allowed herself to smile just a little wider. In the safety of these chambers, they were simply travelling companions, linked by their love for Adakias. The rules of royalty didn’t apply.

“In addition to that, I spoke to the royal seamstress and did my best to explain what you were looking for, and she managed to find some spare dresses that you can wear immediately. And of course, she said she’d be more than happy to have you properly fitted for more refined clothes.”

Anhura remembered the fabric Pallis had set on the couch, and crossed the room to inspect the clothing. Holding them up, she found a pair of identical dresses in styles she’d never seen before, long and flowing with trains like one would see on a bride, with sharp shoulder pieces that jutted out to either side. Pallis had also brought what had to be a riding outfit, made of a soft fabric that stretched easily when she pulled on it. The outfit also came with men’s trousers, split in a way she’d never worn, and Anhura realized that women must not ride side-saddle in the kingdom of the dark.

The last article was bundled in a compact roll, secured with a belt around the middle. As she tugged various items out, Anhura saw that this outfit came with trousers, a tight-fitting tunic, and a small black pouch. She pulled the latter out and looked questioningly to Pallis.

“That contains the tools given specifically to our female soldiers. Standard issue with our female battalion. It contains devices for tying up your hair, as well as your eyepaint. I’ve been told it contains whatever else you may need.”

Anhura peeked inside the bag and saw what he’d described. She pulled out the container of face paint, and wondered what it would be like to wear.

“Pallis,” she began distractedly, “why do you wear your eyepaint all the time? The citizens and the soldiers aren’t wearing theirs.”

“It’s customary for royalty to wear ceremonial battle dress at all times.” Pallis hesitated, mind clearly going where Anhura’s did. “Would you… would you like to dress as a royal would? I’m not familiar with your customs, but–”

“Yes,” Anhura said without pause. “It’s only proper, as your guest. If you’d be willing to help me with the eyepaint, of course…”

Pallis coloured ever so slightly, inexplicably, but took the small pouch from her and gestured back toward the bedroom.

“I can help with your hair and eyepaint,” he offered.

“Good, thank you,” Anhura called over her shoulder as she scrambled into the bedroom, shoving the door closed on the way. She took a few minutes to wriggle into these foreign garments, wrinkling her nose at the oddness of wearing trousers. Still, they were quite comfortable, and didn’t threaten to dislodge when she moved to quickly, unlike her dresses from home. When she emerged from the bedroom, she was surprised by the wideness of Pallis’ eyes as he looked her over.

“Are you certain you’re not a warrior? You carry yourself like one.”

Anhura found herself blushing at that, for some odd reason. She was no fighter, definitely not. But most of the compliments she received were more in the line of her beauty or her wealth.

“...Thank you, Pallis.”

Pallis nodded vigorously to impress upon her just how strongly he felt.

“You look the part,” Pallis said with certainty. “The warriors usually tie their hair up. Do you…”

Anhura shook her head before he could continue. “I'm a noble, the heir at that. I've always had maids to deal with such things.”

“Then… may I help?”

Anhura nodded her assent, and Pallis pulled a small strip of fabric from the bag he’d kept on hand, and beckoned her over. Anhura turned her back, on Pallis’ direction, and tried to hold still as he ran practiced fingers through her hair. After gently combing out the few tangles that had formed during their journey, he began braiding her hair tightly to keep it out of her face. It felt oddly intimate, and Anhura struggled to break the silence.

“You seem practiced at this,” she offered, prompting him to explain. After a long moment of light hands in her hair, Pallis took a slow breath.

“It is customary for children to leave their hair uncut until they reach adulthood. I allowed my hair to grow until I was your age. It reached…” Here he paused, lightly touching a spot in the middle of Anhura’s back. “About there. Nearly everyone in the land of the Dark knows how to braid hair, just to keep it out of the way.”

“I’ve never seen a man with long hair,” Anhura commented, and Pallis’ hands resumed their movement in her hair. “Seems like an odd idea.”

“More odd than your people deciding women don’t need to fight?”

Anhura shrugged at that, conceding his point. Only a minute later, Pallis was placing a light hand on her shoulder to turn her around. Anhura drew the braid over her shoulder to study it while Pallis fetched the tin of paint. It was surprisingly even for someone who hadn’t had long hair in five years.

“Close your eyes,” Pallis said softly, and Anhura didn’t fear the blindness that came when she did so. She jumped when Pallis placed a hand under her chin and tilted her head up, but made sure to hold still as something greasy was smeared over her closed eyes. She held carefully still, wondering if the paint had to dry, and waited for Pallis to cue her onward. Finally, he backed off a few paces and she opened her eyes. The odd sticky sensation on her eyelids had vanished, presumably as the paint dried, but she still felt just a little more powerful, dressed in borrowed warrior’s garb.

Then Pallis slid back a curtain hanging on the wall, and a polished sheet of glass was revealed. Anhura moved to stand before it, and her jaw dropped at her reflection. With her hair back, she always looked a little more composed, more in control. But even more startling was the black paint on her eyelids. Though it didn’t stand out as sharply on her skin as it did on Pallis’, it still made her look remarkably... intimidating, a word she’d never have used to describe herself. After peering at her reflection carefully, she turned back to Pallis and saw him staring downward. Clearly guilting himself, she thought.

“What is it?”

“You look like the woman Adakias should have married. A true lady of darkness.”

Anhura sighed and tried to push her own carefully controlled grief out of the way. It was becoming obvious that the land of the Dark found far more reason to linger over the departure of a loved one. In the land of the light, the knowledge that one’s beloved would rise to become a great seraph would be more than enough to combat the immediate rush of grief.

“I’m not angry with you, Pallis. Let us move beyond the cause of our meeting.” He still looked sad, so Anhura seized upon an opportunity she’d been waiting for since awakening with golden light streaming through the window.

“Did you notice that the sun rose this morning? From what I’ve been taught and what I’ve seen, the sun has not risen in this land for a long time.”

Pallis froze for a moment, staring confusedly at her, before rushing to the window, pushing himself onto his toes to look outside. He pulled away, gasping and narrowly avoiding rubbing his eyes, unused to the light. His eyepaint was left slightly smeared.

“The sun?” There was something of incredulity in his voice. “It’s so… strong. It’s so much brighter than I thought…” He trailed off to go look out the window again, this time shading his eyes. The sunlight lit his face in gold, a spotlight on his reverence.

“Pallis!” He tore himself away from the window to look back to Anhura. “Is… would you advise against leaving your rooms without covering my hair? Will I be safe?”

The wonder that had widened his eyes faded into a faint sort of offence at her words. Anhura hoped she hadn’t misspoke too severely.

“You will not be attacked while walking the halls, if that’s what you fear. The commoners do not hate citizens of the light, but merely are unused to them. The Light is considered… weak, perhaps, and less experienced in warfare, but not hated. You will not be harmed.”

Anhura breathed a sigh of relief at that, but the denial of age old stereotypes was bizarre. Until Adakias, the people of the Dark were cold and cruel. Until coming here, they were brutal and warlike, more than ready to attack any outsider without cause. Until Pallis, they could not be forgiven.

“Then let us see the rest of your palace,” Anhura said, more certain than she’d been in a long while. Pallis wouldn’t allow her to come to any harm.

And Pallis nodded, a little confused by her contentment, before ushering Anhura out the door, unable to keep himself from casting decidedly unsubtle looks her way, a smile teasing at the corner of his mouth.

Nearly an hour later, Anhura had seen most of the castle’s halls, and she couldn’t help but yearn for the open courtyards of home, the regal knights who strode by in their rattling silver armour. She’d come to the conclusion that those born in the light weren’t meant to be underground for so long. But she had to admit that there was a polished, angular beauty to many of the fixtures of the dark kingdom. She was less pleased with the servants who followed them everywhere, looking tight-lipped and unhappy whenever Pallis told a story about what past relative had done what scandalous deed in a particular chamber. After a solid half hour of being followed around, Anhura stepped a little closer to Pallis and lightly tapped him on the arm.

“What have I done to displease them? I'm dressed in the customary clothes, I've complied with the rules of your culture–”

“They’re not staring at you,” Pallis interrupted, smiling wryly. “My behaviour, not your heritage, is what draws their eyes. I’m not usually so… so open with those around me, with the exception of Adakias. I’m not… liked.”

Anhura struggled to turn that concept over in her mind. Ever since their time in the Doctor’s hut, she’d found Pallis oddly passionate for a noble. He’d lost his temper again and again before they’d reconciled, then he’d been quick to laugh, to smile, she’d seen the man cry, O’s sake. It hadn’t occurred to Anhura that most people were accustomed to the cold-hearted warrior, not the man she’d come to know.

“I prefer you like this,” Anhura told him, unthinking. And though she immediately wondered if that was too much, the happiness in Pallis’ dark eyes was more than enough to reassure her of the opposite. After a moment of enjoying that particular revelation, Pallis schooled his expression into something a little more formal and spun on his heel to face the nearest servant.

“Is there anyone of note in the Eastern training ground?”

The servant thought for a moment, then shook her head. “Last I knew, the eldest daughter of Baron Latten was there, but no one else of any position.”

Casting a short glance at Anhura, Pallis politely thanked the woman and lead the way down yet another corridor. Anhura knew that he’d only done so because his authoritative demeanor frightened her, and had to be a little grateful. His harsher nature was expected here.

Anhura let out a contented sigh when they eventually walked into a courtyard of sorts, enjoying the feeling of fresh air for the first time that day. Thick grey clouds had shrouded the sun, but it was still far brighter than if the sun hadn’t risen at all. She simply shut her eyes and tilted her face up to the light, holding perfectly still until Pallis laid a light hand on her arm and offered his elbow. She linked her arm through his, the picture of correctness, then gasped as her gaze finally found the flawless formation of soldiers practicing maneuvers. They moved as one, each man knowing just where to go when their sergeant shouted an order. It was like clockwork, like a machine, and Anhura had never seen anything like it. The knights of the Light wouldn’t know how to fight something like that. More than that, the image only confirmed her childhood stories of the vicious and militaristic society that lay just beyond the mountain. She turned away from the sight, fingers tightening on Pallis’ arm, and he immediately moved to stand between her and the soldiers.

“I didn’t mean… I just wanted to show you,” he said, sounding despondent. “I didn’t think that it’d bother you.”

“Just a bit startling,” Anhura told Pallis, trying to regain her composure. “In… at home, there’s an awful lot of stories, rumours about how militaristic the Dark is. The rumours are… they teach us to fear you.”

“Well, we do have a strong military,” Pallis said, trying for a smile. “But we don’t seek war without cause. We haven’t warred in a long time. The only use for our military is fighting the bandits from the wildlands, along with giving the young people something to do.”

Anhura managed to breathe a little easier with the reassurance that this obviously formidable force had no plans to wage war with her people any time soon. Then Pallis managed a conspiratorial smirk and leaned in close to her, a hint of mischief in his eyes.

“It’s mostly for show, actually,” he said quietly. “Most of them just want to look good to get a girl they’ve been hoping to court. Keeps them fit in case we ever do need to fight.”

“I see,” Anhura said, infinitely grateful that she was not alone in the Dark. Despite Pallis’ dismissive words, she knew that these soldiers were more than capable of doing damage. But they did not pose a threat to her now, so there was no need to fret over them. “Now, are there any of the famous woman warriors practicing somewhere I can see?”

Clearing his throat, Pallis pulled himself back into the present and gestured toward a small doorway, through which another courtyard was visible. The faint sound of metal ringing on metal could be heard. They made their slow way to the other training ground, and Anhura realized just how serious the dark kingdom was about their novel idea of women as soldiers. There were pairs of soldiers everywhere, sparring like it was life or death. And though many of the pairs held a man and woman, the smaller female soldiers were easily holding their own against their male counterparts. They were all dressed like Anhura herself, and though Pallis had said she wore the uniform naturally, she couldn’t disagree more. The women on the training ground wore their uniforms like a second skin, brandishing a vast variety of weapons. Though the men all held standard longswords, familiar from the knights back home, Anhura spotted women wielding everything from knives to cudgels to a simple wooden staff. The sight of women fighting wasn’t as odd as she’d expected it to be.

“We usually push for the men to all carry the same weapons, but when a woman is facing an enemy twice her size, we allow them to fight however they wish.”

Anhura took a long moment to tear her eyes away from the soldiers, Pallis’ words slowly sinking in. There was no small measure of pride in his eyes as he watched them train.

Then Anhura’s attention was again commanded as someone yelled ‘break’ and soldiers began stepping back from each other and letting tired smiles cross their faces. Seemingly as one, they turned to watch Anhura and Pallis, curious eyes taking in her obviously foreign appearance. She found herself wanting to hide, intimidated by the crowd like she never had been before. Pallis took a small step forward, effortlessly drawing the attention off Anhura.

“This is Lady Anhura, emissary of the Light,” he declared, authority in his tone. Anhura supposed her identity had been lost the moment she stepped out of Pallis’ chambers with her silver hair on display. At least he hadn’t mentioned that she was first to the throne. She was also reasonably sure that her kingdom didn’t have an acting emissary. “She finds your training quite impressive.”

The warriors softened collectively, and the eyes on Anhura felt less threatening. She bowed politely and many of the soldiers returned the gesture. Thank O for Pallis’ presence.

“My lady, would you care to spar with me?” A tall woman who held herself like a predator had strode over to where Anhura stood. “I’ve always wanted to learn about combat tactics in the land of light.”

“I’m afraid I cannot spar with you, though I would be more than willing. One of the main facets of war in the kingdom of light is that women are not taught to fight, especially noblewomen. Only a select few men are warriors.”

The woman’s eyebrows rose, confusion clouding her eyes. It was remarkably familiar to the look on Pallis’ face when Anhura had told him the same, and the thought almost made her laugh.

“But… what if you are assaulted? Do you simply wait for a man to rescue you?”

Anhura winced at the blunt wording, but that was how things went at home. It was a sobering reminder of what the doctor had tried to do, how close he was to succeeding.

“I suppose so,” Anhura said softly, a little of her wonder at this strange culture fading. “I have… it’s happened.”

The tall woman bristled, her hand jerking toward the knife on her belt. Anhura didn't feel threatened at all. There was solidarity in the unspoken promise.

“I mean no disrespect to your land, my lady, but would you allow me to teach you to defend yourself? Just if the situation arises.”

“I would love that.” Anhura didn’t need to think about her response. Her unofficial position as emissary of the Light, as Pallis had introduced her, was far better than her fate had the mad doctor spirited her away before Pallis could step in. If she’d been able to fight, she’d have run the doctor through with one of those daggers before he laid a hand on her. The vicious thought surprised her, but didn’t sway her resolve.

“Yes, I would like to know how to fight. My schedule is free entirely until tomorrow afternoon, if you have the time,” Anhura offered.

The woman’s lips quirked upward into a smile full of spirit. “You’re already dressed for training, and we have an enemy to practice on.” She turned to Pallis, who swallowed audibly. “I think our crown prince may be a little out of practice. It’s been a while since we’ve sparred, hasn’t it?”

“Please, Ro, I could beat you any day,” and Anhura was shocked to recognize the odd edge to Pallis’ voice as something playful. “But I’ll let Lady Anhura practice with me. She’s certainly better company.”

“You cannot still hold a grudge from the fight,” Ro countered, tone heavy with disbelief. “It was four years ago! And I assure you, if you believe you can fight me and win, I’m ready whenever you are.”

Both Ro and Pallis raised their eyebrows at Anhura when she failed to hide a giggle behind her hand. But something about the image of Pallis losing a fight and pouting about it was hilarious, and wouldn’t leave her alone.

“Pallis, if you’d come here, please,” Ro changed the subject, getting them back on topic.

Pallis took a small step backward, casting a suspicious eye about them. Many of the women warriors were still milling about the training ground, casually watching their crown prince and one of their best stare each other down.

“Please, my Lady Letiro, can we do this elsewhere?” The title sounded odd, coming from Pallis, as did the pleading tone.

“Lady Anhura,” Ro began, keeping her eyes on Pallis, “do you see a reason for us to find somewhere more secluded for this exercise?”

“None at all,” Anhura replied innocently, letting the amusement shine through her eyes as Pallis looked more and more uncomfortable.

“Excellent,” Ro said with certainty. “Pallis, if you could approach me from behind and attempt to hold me.”

Grimacing, Pallis sidled up behind the warrior. After a moment of hesitation in which Ro made an impatient sort of noise, Pallis slowly looped an arm around her waist and gently pressed his other forearm against her throat. In the space of a breath, Ro jabbed an elbow back into Pallis’ side, stomped on his foot, and wrenched his arm away from her neck, leaving him doubled over and wheezing. Anhura’s jaw dropped, and she began to see why a skill set like this one would have stood her good stead with the doctor.

“Did you follow that, my lady?”

Anhura nodded, miming the actions Ro had taken to free herself. She was slightly shorter than Pallis, so she’d have to aim slightly higher than Ro had, how was it that she could remove the arm across her throat?

“I believe that the best way to learn is to do,” Ro said. “Let’s get you over here, and we’ll find out how much you remember. Pallis?”

Pallis scowled and rubbed his side tentatively.

“Don’t worry about hurting him,” Ro told Anhura before she could ask. “For all he complains, his coat is armoured. He’s fine.”

Anhura took a little reassurance in that, not that she truly believed she’d manage to hurt Pallis. She stepped into the centre of the little space they’d claimed and turned her back to Pallis. After a moment, Pallis pressed up against her, holding her gently. At the first touch of his arm across her throat, Anhura found herself tilting her head back to gasp for the breath she wasn’t deprived of, and Pallis quickly let go, spinning her to settle steady hands on her shoulders. She dragged in a few shaky breaths, ignoring Pallis’ frantic apologies, and finally drew herself up straight and looked him in the eye.

“Again, Pallis,” Anhura told him firmly. “I just wasn’t expecting how difficult it would be.”

“It’s a reflex,” Ro interjected. “As soon as someone threatens your ability to breathe, it triggers a panic response. It’ll take a while to get over that.”

Ro shot a glance toward Pallis, looking him up and down. He shifted uncomfortably.

“If you’re being attacked, don’t be afraid to fight dirty. Bite, scratch, scream for help. Aim at the softest, weakest points. Whoever’s attacking you certainly won’t care about the rules of polite sparring. Alright?”

Anhura nodded her understanding, though the idea seemed completely contrary to everything she knew about fighting. Still, what little she knew came from knights, the very epitome of correctness.

“Pallis, approach her again,” Ro ordered.

Pallis looked displeased, but still appeared at her back moments after Anhura turned around. Though it didn’t seem possible, his touch was even lighter than before, which helped Anhura remind herself that she wasn’t in actual danger. After a few seconds of breathing slowly against the faint pressure on her throat, Anhura gathered herself and slammed her elbow into Pallis’ ribs, stomping back toward his left foot. It took her two tries, but the second attempt had him pulling away, letting go. A small surge of victory rushed through Anhura, even though this was far from what a real attack would be like.

“Excellent,” Ro crowed, voice full of pride. “Again.”

Steadying herself, Anhura looked over her shoulder and nodded to Pallis. In an instant, she was being restrained, with a little more force this time. Anhura angled the point of her elbow down just below his ribs, and managed to stomp on his foot on her first try. But Pallis didn’t let go, his hold unchanging. When she tried again and he still wouldn’t let go, she frowned over her shoulder to Pallis, who looked vaguely apologetic. A confused glance toward Ro yielded more information.

“He’s strong,” the warrior said by way of answer. “He’s bigger than you, and he’s armoured. You need to do better if you want him to let go. Pallis, how hard were you trying to hold her? Out of ten, my prince.”

Pallis released her and shrugged, thinking about the question. “Maybe… four?” When Anhura glared at him, he held up both hands in surrender. “I don’t want to hurt you!”

“I understand that,” Anhura sighed. “I really do, but the next time someone puts their arm around my throat, I imagine that they would.”

Pallis was silent, seemingly at a loss for words. Anhura quirked an eyebrow at him, challenging and a little smug. From their days of travel, Anhura had learned that she could easily stay a step ahead of Pallis in conversation. He'd taken to calling her ‘diplomat,’ a hint of teasing insult in the word. She wore the title like a badge of honour.

“Next time, turn your head to his elbow,” Ro broke the silence, holding her own arm up to her throat to demonstrate. “The space there will let you breathe.”

Ro gestured Pallis forward, but he held back, looking reticent. His hesitation had Anhura frowning at him.

“Must I? Ro, can’t you act as the attacker?”

“No, Pallis. I would play the part differently from you, and we all know that she will not be attacked by a woman. It has to be you.”

Visibly giving in, Pallis heaved an unhappy sigh and gestured to Anhura, who turned her back. His soft footsteps made it a few paces before he froze, interrupted by Ro’s quiet word, more solemn than she’d sounded yet.

“Like you mean it, Pallis.”

Anhura felt a little chill run down her spine, because part of the reason she’d allowed herself to grow closer to Pallis was the way he’d treated her so politely, so carefully. She knew he had no intent of hurting her, but did that extend to the training ground?

Anhura shifted her weight nervously, unable to find a balanced stance, then there was an iron bar across her throat, yanking her back against the figure behind her. While she clawed desperately at Pallis’ arm, he looped his other around her waist, tightening painfully and squeezing the air out of her lungs. Struggling to remember the instruction she’d just been given, Anhura turned her head into the crook of Pallis’ elbow and heaved in a quick breath before he easily tucked his arm beneath her chin to remove that small mercy. She jabbed backward with her elbow, but Pallis smoothly dodged the blow.

Though it had only been a second or two, fear was already welling in her chest, even before her lungs could begin to complain. She tried with her other arm, but the effort was weak and poorly aimed, not that it would have mattered. Pallis quickly switched his grip to wrap his fingers around the elbow that didn’t make it within an inch of him. When Anhura lifted one foot to stomp, he took advantage of her precarious position to tug her around and throw her to the ground, following her down. What air she still had left Anhura’s lungs all at once, and for a moment, she could barely keep her eyes open. While she was winded, Pallis grabbed both her wrists in one hand, pinning them to the ground above her head. When Anhura weakly kicked out at him, he simply set his knee across her legs, keeping her entirely immobilized. Staring down at her with terrifying blankness in his usually expressive eyes, Pallis reached out with his free hand to hold it a hair’s width above her throat, just to show that he could. Anhura couldn’t tear her eyes from him, dizzy from lack of air.

Almost immediately, Pallis’ eyes grew sad, then he was backing off and offering her a hand back to her feet. She staggered on unsteady legs, bracing herself against Pallis to keep upright. His breath came even and smooth.

“O… what w… was that?” Anhura managed between gasps, and Pallis frowned.

“A demonstration,” Ro cut in. “To show you how far you have to go if you want to keep yourself safe. To be fair, Pallis is one of the best warriors in all of the Dark, but a small woman such as yourself is an easy target for nearly anyone who could wish to do you harm. But if you’re accompanied by your own guards, or at least Pallis or I, you’ll be safe. I’m sure you can see how Pallis would find it easy to dispatch anyone who dared to threaten you.”

Anhura couldn’t help but find relief in the casual certainty behind Ro’s words. Especially after experiencing first-hand just how effortlessly he managed to take her down, she felt entirely confident in his knowledge of close-quarter fighting.

“I’m guessing you’d like to be finished with training for now,” Ro spoke up, drawing Anhura out of her thoughts. “That looked like it hurt.”

And though she hadn’t thought of it until then, Anhura could already feel the ache forming in her back from being thrown to the ground. She rolled her shoulders experimentally, wincing when they twinged in response.

“It did,” Anhura replied, smiling faintly. “But could I not practice something that doesn’t involve crashing into the ground?”

“You really shouldn’t–”

“Thank you for offering your opinion, Pallis,” Anhura cut him off smoothly, “but I’d like you to remember that my lack of experience fighting doesn’t make me a child, nor any less capable than you.” She glanced in Ro’s direction, then lowered her voice carefully as she directed her words to the overprotective prince. “Need I remind you that my position is equal to yours?”

When Pallis dropped his eyes, Anhura found herself looking to Ro for help, wondering if the prince was truly hurt by her words. Ro was smirking.

“It’s good to see someone put him in his place. And yes, Lady Anhura, we can practice escaping other types of holds. Pallis!”

Pallis jumped from where he was trying to slink away, pride wounded.

“I recommend that you visit Eera before returning to your chambers. Fetch some of her bruise balm for your guest.”

The prince’s eyes narrowed slightly at the thought of being used as an errand boy, but he nodded silently and turned to carry out his task. Anhura and Ro watched him leave, waiting until he’d disappeared into the other courtyard, before turning to each other. There was something like awe in the warrior’s eyes.

“My lady, please forgive my bluntness, but is Pallis courting you?”

“No, he just…” Anhura struggled for a word to describe quite what Pallis was to her. Adakias’ fate was not yet known in the dark kingdom, so the truth was out of the question. “We’ve travelled much together. I’ve seen him in quite a few of his moods.”

Ro folded her arms and studied Anhura closely. The scrutiny was unsettlingly familiar.

“Because Pallis… I mean him no insult, but Pallis doesn’t show concern like that. He doesn’t treat people with such care, and he certainly doesn’t allow anyone to tell him off like you just did. The way he spoke to me today, he has not done so since we were children. You have changed him, my lady. For the better, dare I say.”

Guilt surged through Anhura at the praise, because she knew why Pallis was so different. His softness regarding Anhura was a gift from his dying brother, changing his nature in the slightest way. She had done nothing.

“I… I cannot tell you,” Anhura said softly. “I cannot tell you, not yet, but please do not lay this on my shoulders. This is not my doing.”

“Oh,” Ro said, and an edge of confusion crept into her tone. The still air between them thickened. “Would you still like to practice?”

“Yes,” Anhura said quickly, before any doubt could creep in. “What would I do if… if someone were to grab my wrist?”

“I can show you,” Ro said with certainty. “Come here, hold my wrist, and try to relax your shoulders and back. If you aren’t careful, I might be about to dislocate your shoulder.”

Anhura shuddered at the thought, and focused on loosening her shoulders. Breathing as evenly as she could manage, she reached out and wrapped nervous fingers around Ro’s wrist. The warrior grinned, but her eyes were dark and intent. Anhura gulped, and hoped that she wouldn’t leave this encounter with any permanent damage. The look on Ro’s face wasn’t encouraging.

By the time Anhura was hobbling back to her rooms two hours later, her appreciation for the warrior’s craft had increased tenfold. After a while of escaping a few different ways Ro had held her in place, the taller woman had handed her a dagger and picked up a straw block with a strap on the back. Then Anhura had practiced plunging the knife, uncomfortably heavy in her hand, into the block from different angles. Once, Ro had mentioned that thinking of the straw as the flesh of her enemy helped add force to the blow. Anhura had thought of Adakias, bleeding out under his brother’s fruitless ministrations, and struggled not to get sick, then and there.

But despite the exhaustion setting into her muscles and the cramp in her shoulders, there was something quite satisfying about knowing that if someone like the Doctor tried to pull her away again, she’d be prepared. She’d be more than capable of breaking the cruel old man’s grip and taking control of her fate in that precarious moment where she’d teetered on the edge. This time, she wouldn’t be at the mercy of the two unsavoury characters fighting over her. The image was appealing enough that Anhura was certain that she’d want to bring instruction of basic fighting to her home, when she returned. Fewer citizens came begging for help, Pallis had said. Anhura could see the value in that.

Then she walked to Pallis’ chambers to find the prince sitting on the floor, cross-legged, one of his strange instruments cradled in his lap. He was carefully coaxing a beautiful melody to life, eyes shut and head bowed. Anhura hesitated, the door open a crack, and watched him for a long moment before resigning herself to the way he would certainly stop when she drew his attention. When she stepped into the room, though, Pallis merely glanced up at her, hands not losing an instant as the music flowed easily on. Breathing a sigh of relief, Anhura kept quiet as she removed her new scabbard from her belt, a gift from Ro. The weight made her feel askew, a little off-balance in more ways than one. When the scabbard loudly clattered against the floor, Pallis stopped playing and Anhura wrinkled her nose, disappointed.

“I left the bruise balm in the bedroom,” Pallis said from behind her. Anhura turned to see him still clutching the instrument, looking uncertain.

“Pallis, have you been hurt on the training grounds before?” He lowered his eyes, answering without words. “Then you have no need to feel guilty. My shoulder hurts; I landed on one side oddly. But I’m fine. Don’t wallow in your own self-pity.”

“It was wrong of me to throw you like that,” Pallis insisted, “it wasn’t–”

“Please stop. You’ve sparred with Ro before, I imagine you’ve hurt her.”

“And she’s given twice as good as she got,” Pallis said softly, the hint of a smile creeping onto his face. “I rarely win fights with Ro.”

“Then let’s say that I’ll train and practice and get better and maybe one day I’ll get the upper hand against you.”

Pallis raised an eyebrow at that, already seeming more in control. “I doubt you’ll ever manage that.”

“And we’ll never know if you decide I’m too fragile to fight and refuse to let me learn,” Anhura answered, feeling just a little smug. Pallis was certainly good in a fight, a valuable ally, but she knew she was far more experienced with the language of politics.

“Point taken, Princess,” Pallis bowed his head, but didn’t seem offended or upset. When he looked back up, there was a faint smile on his lips. After a moment, he returned his attention to the instrument in his lap, playing a short tune experimentally. Anhura relaxed at the sound and spun on her heel to go change out of her uniform.

Safely hidden in the bedroom, Anhura breathed a sigh of relief that Pallis was done with feeling sorry for himself, overly apologetic for what he’d done. It was almost comical, really. If she could forgive the prince for nearly killing her, a couple bruises from training were nothing.

The uniform proved to be just as easy to remove as it was to put on, far easier to work with than her old dresses. Most prominently, she could deal with the clothing without the help of a handmaiden or, O forbid, Pallis. If he’d lost what little composure he had when ripping her skirts for ease of travel, the poor man may swoon at the thought of assisting her with a corset. She privately decided to take a few uniforms back to the kingdom of light, perhaps drop them off with the palace seamstress for inspiration.

Once Anhura had finished with the bruise balm, a substance that tingled oddly against her skin, she paused for a moment. The silence that should have sat in the room was being banished by the sound of Pallis playing one of his instruments in the other room. Anhura took a moment to enjoy the music before slipping into the same tattered white shirt she’d slept in, then she pushed the bedroom door open as quietly as she could. Pallis hadn’t moved, but there was some odd air about him that she couldn’t name. Eyes shut, lips moving ever so slightly in time to the beat, the look on his face could only be described as rapture.

Keeping as quiet as possible, Anhura padded across the room in stockinged feet to sit beside Pallis, finding the stone floor warmer than she’d expected. Pallis didn’t seem to notice her approach, which certainly wasn’t a problem. Only when his song came to an end and Anhura laid a hand on his arm did he look up.

“That was lovely, Pallis,” she told the prince, and he smiled shyly. It was an odd emotion to see on him.

“Thank you,” he mumbled, eyes trained on the ground. “It’s one of my favourites.”

“Who’s the composer?”

Pallis’ gaze flickered up to her for a moment, before turning on the instrument he was lightly drumming his fingers on. “It’s… well, it’s one of mine.”

That certainly wasn’t what Anhura had expected to hear. It was constantly shocking to see how different Pallis was from what his people thought of him. Would their deeply-ingrained subservience change at all if they heard that their menacing crown prince wrote music in his spare time?

“What is it about?”

Pallis hesitated, thinking on his response. Anhura settled into a more comfortable position on the floor. She got the feeling this wasn’t exactly an easy topic of conversation.

“It’s about me, I suppose. I… I’m not… I don’t enjoy being feared, having people believe me heartless. And it’s harder to put into words, so…” Pallis shrugged helplessly.

“Could you play it again?”

That seemed far easier to Pallis, encouraging him to take a steadying breath and pick up his instrument. Anhura stretched her legs out in front of her, watching Pallis collect himself. Then he began to play, and this time, he sang along. Even as quiet and unsure as he sounded, there was still something rich and warm in his voice. Anhura listened to the words, soft and sad and slow, and beyond all else, she heard the ease in the song. This was easier for him than nearly anything else. When his song came to an end, Pallis didn’t look up from his instrument, small in his uncertainty.

“Thank you,” Anhura said, entirely sincere. “Thank you for sharing that with me.”

“I’ve never done that one in front of anyone,” Pallis admitted, absentmindedly picking out a slow melody. “There were others… other ones that Adakias liked. The happy ones.”

“You certainly perform it well,” Anhura commented, enjoying the happiness that flashed across Pallis’ face in reply to the praise. Then the expression fled to leave behind nothing but a faint look of displeasure. Anhura raised her eyebrows at him, skeptical. “Do you not believe so?”

“I don't… sing for people,” he said, confirming her suspicions. “Just for Adakias, for you, for me, I suppose. And I’m no bard.”

“You certainly aren't,” Anhura told him, fighting down a grin as Pallis tried to determine if it was a compliment. Pallis definitely wasn't something as simple as a travelling songsmith, taking up residence wherever he could and cheating her people out of their money for the reward of a poor song. Pallis was quite a lot more than that.

“Would you mind if I did another?”

Anhura looked up at Pallis’ tentative question, letting a smile spread across her face. Pallis held his ground, held her gaze, and his grip on the instrument tightened.

“I would love to hear more. But perhaps something a little less… sorrowful.”

Relief flickered onto Pallis’ face before he could control it. He was already nodding his agreement, carefully plucking a few strings. He launched into another song within seconds, and Anhura shut her eyes, letting herself drift away, carried by his voice. If asked, she wouldn’t be able to explain just why it did, but Pallis’ voice felt like home, comfort, safety. Many times previous, Pallis had commented that he saw why his brother had loved her so deeply. For the first time, Anhura could see why the man before her had been so beloved by Adakias. Prince Pallis of the Dark, she concluded, was better suited to kindness than to violence.

So she scooted along the floor until the wall was at her back, leaned against it, and fell asleep to the music of the prince of darkness.

When Anhura woke up, the first point she registered was that she was moving. She was horizontal, a warm form pressed against her right side. After a few moments of sleepy confusion, trying to convince her tired mind that this was reason enough to worry, a soft voice cut through her thoughts.

“Just taking you to bed,” Pallis whispered, steps hesitating as he used his foot to push the bedroom door open.

“Mmmm… thanks,” Anhura slurred, relaxing into Pallis’ arms. Only a few days ago, she’d have been terrified of the man carrying her like she weighed nothing at all. After spending every moment of her time in close proximity with him and seeing just how good he was, that fear was long gone. It was funny, now that she thought of it. Pallis had been forced to care for her by the power of his brother’s dying words, but nothing had made her begin a begrudging friendship with the man who killed her beloved.

Pallis set her down on the bed, and Anhura shivered as he backed off. A moment later, a soft blanket was draped over her, and she automatically rolled onto her side, curling up beneath it.

“Good night, princess.”

“Uh huh,” Anhura managed. “You too, prince.”

And Pallis grinned into the darkness at that, but Anhura didn’t see. She was asleep before he even left the room.

Chapter Text

For the second day in a row, the sun rose in the land of darkness. The sheer curtains in the bedroom caught the light, turning the room gold. And that was what woke Anhura, her world lit up like it did at home. Her first impulse was to call for Pallis, share this remarkable change, then she remembered why that was most likely a bad idea. Sitting up in bed and trying to keep her composure, she took a deep breath and called out.

“Come see the sun, Pallis!”

This time, Pallis knocked before opening the door. When he appeared, he was dressed in a sleeveless shirt and plain trousers that made him look far less than the noble he was. The moment he opened the door, he screwed his eyes shut against the light, wrinkling his nose and frowning.

“I… I knew what it was, but I never really believed in it, if that makes any sense,” Pallis said softly. “It still doesn’t feel real.”

“I think I know what you mean,” Anhura replied, unable to tear her eyes from the window. The land of darkness looked quite different lit in gold. It was certainly a sight to behold.

“My father would like to hold audience with us.”

Anhura’s head snapped up as Pallis’ words sunk in. His father, the king of the Dark, wanted to speak with her. And she would have to stand before the famed ruler and explain her part in his son’s death. The people of the Dark certainly were not as terrifying as she’d believed them to be, but telling any parent of their passing of the their child would be horrific. Selfishly, she hoped that Pallis would deliver that particular piece of news. That thought was immediately followed by a rush of guilt.

“Oh,” she said softly. “When?”

“As soon as we’re able.”

Anhura drew a long breath and nodded solemnly. So there was no time to collect herself.

“I’ll… I can help with your eyepaint, if you’d like.”

“Thank you,” Anhura said, dropping her eyes from Pallis’. Perhaps he wasn’t bothering to conceal it, but his own unease was obvious. It certainly wasn’t encouraging. Time slipped by far too quickly as she dressed in her uniform and tried to think what to say to the king. Before long, she was standing before Pallis, holding as still as she could as the prince carefully smeared on her eyepaint.

“Anhura?” She shook herself out of her reverie as the prince called her back into awareness. “We need to go.”

“Of course,” she agreed, shrugging into her air of calm collection. Pallis offered her a polite elbow, she took his arm, and they stepped out into the hall together. Pallis led her through a seemingly endless series of corridors until they made their way to a small antechamber. Two guards, clothed in a little more finery than the rest, stood on either side of a large door. The king was on the other side of that door.

“Ready?”

“There’s no point in waiting,” Anhura said, feeling oddly serene. “The king will do as he wills.”

“And what he wills is not to do you harm,” Pallis replied firmly, like he was trying to reassure her. “You’re not to blame for… for what happened.”

“I’m sure,” Anhura conceded mildly, her grief somewhere far away. “Shall we?”

Pallis quirked a blank smile her direction and nodded to the guards. They pushed the door open, and a great hall came into view. At the far side of the hall were a pair of thrones, oversized and imposing, and one was occupied by a man with a tall, lanky frame and dark hair that reminded her of Pallis. As they approached the king, he slowly raised his head and Anhura’s heart clenched. It seemed Adakias had inherited his father’s piercing blue eyes.

At the foot of the throne, Pallis shrugged off her hand and bowed, clicking his heel against the stone floor. The sound rung through the hall, startling the drowsy-looking herald into awareness. Anhura curtseyed to the king, dropping her eyes to the floor. The herald cleared his throat and she watched Pallis, waiting for some cue.

“Presenting my lord Pallis, crown prince and heir to the throne, Duke of Pryston, my liege,” the herald declared proudly, and the king nodded regally. Then both king and commoner turned their attention to Anhura, and her stomach turned as she realized that she was without the most basic etiquette, any retinue. No one to introduce her, like a nameless vagrant.

“May I present…” Pallis spoke up, voice eerily similar to that of the harold, and gratitude rushed through her. Anhura fought down a smile at Pallis’ gesture. “My lady Anhura, firstborn to… uh, Malka… king of the realm of the light, Princess of the Sun.”

“Welcome to the land of darkness, my lady,” the king said, nodding his greeting. “And welcome home, son. I’m sure you two have quite a lot to share, especially regarding why a lady of light is standing before me now, but before all this, I’d like to know just where Adakias is.”

“Father, I can explain why Adakias left,” Pallis began after a moment’s hesitation. “He… he believed he was the boy of the prophecy, that he would cross the mountain. You know how he dreamed. He travelled to the land of the Light and disguised himself as a citizen. He met Lady Anhura, he… he loved her.” Pallis shot Anhura a nervous glance at that, but she forced herself to smile encouragingly. It was true.

“I loved Adakias,” Anhura said as evenly as she could. The king’s eyes darted to her and she had to remind herself that she was safe. This was just politics. Politics, she knew. “I fell ill, but we could not seek help from my family and house. We travelled into the Wildlands, searching for a… a healer.”

“Forgive my impatience, my lady,” the king cut in, “but I would like to know where my son is.”

Anhura looked to Pallis, expectant, but he kept his eyes on the floor. The silence stretched out, filling the massive hall. And Pallis said nothing. Anhura told herself this was mercy.

“I’m so sorry, sire, but Adakias is dead.”

And if the silence before had filled the air, this silence deafened. The king shut his eyes, face perfectly still, and Anhura couldn't keep her gaze from the distraught elder prince. Pallis was frozen, pain and shock twisting his face. He offered no clue as to just what to do here. And the king, the king had buried his face in his hands, blocking out the world.

“How was he killed? At whose–” The king’s voice broke and Anhura shoved her own grief away, somewhere she could look past it. “Whose hand?”

“My own, father. My blade killed him.”

The king rose to his feet, wordless, and Anhura remembered her first fears of Pallis. That, certainly, was something the elder prince had gotten from his father. And his soundless accusation was more than enough. Inexplicably, Anhura’s fear was overridden by something she couldn’t name.

“He did not mean Adakias any harm, my king. Emotions ran high, Pallis drew his knife, Adakias got too near. It was an accident–”

“My son is dead,” the king roared, and all Anhura had learned about the people of the Dark vanished in the face of his rage. She recoiled and this wasn’t politics, this was a man whose son was taken too soon, and she was a perfect target.

A gentle hand landed on her back, and Anhura turned to Pallis, who stood with eyes wide and vulnerable.

“There is no need to take the blame from me, Anhura,” he said softly, and a little of the fear faded. This was a better time than ever for her mind to remind her what Pallis had done, what he’d tried to do, but it was blessedly silent.

“My lady, if you could allow my son and I some time to speak…”

Carefully glancing between Pallis and the king, Anhura took the chance to leave and fled the hall, barely able to keep from running. She cast one glance back just as she slipped through the doors at the end, and both men of Darkness were staring back at her. She shivered, focused on regaining her composure, and sat on a bench situated in the antechamber. Pallis and the king certainly had much to discuss.

~

“Was… was he angry?”

Pallis drew his horse to a halt, casting an incredulous look in her direction. Anhura winced at the dull bitterness in his eyes.

“What do you think, Anhura? Adakias is dead, was he meant to be pleased?”

They had been riding in burdensome silence for nearly an hour before Anhura had mustered up enough courage to ask just what had transpired after she fled the king’s presence. After their audience, they had left almost immediately, Pallis keeping his mouth shut and his emotions tucked away, only telling her that they’d leave soon. All she’d been told was that the king encouraged her to return home with haste, and that Pallis, with his experience in combat, was more than qualified to accompany her back to the Light. But it’d been long enough for Anhura to hold her tongue, and she couldn’t think of any other way to begin.

“I simply mean… how did he react to it all.” Anhura hesitated, feeling guilty about the uncertainty surging through her. “To… to me.”

Understanding flickered across Pallis’ face, displacing the grief for a moment. He forced a small smile, an expression that didn’t look anywhere as comforting as it was meant to.

“My father… he apologizes for being unwilling to speak with you. He does not blame you in the least for any of this, but speaking with you would hurt. The people will be told of Adakias’ death when I return, when father can show a little more strength when speaking of it. We spoke, just a little, about joining the kingdoms in a truce of sorts. I imagine you know little of this, but prejudices can take years to overcome. This will not be a quick change. But we will try.”

She took a moment to digest it all. The king of the dark, of all people, agreed that some sort of arrangement between the kingdom was necessary. And she certainly understood prejudices toward and stereotypes of the other realm, of their brutality and cruelty. It was remarkably easy to overcome those when she was presented with an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary. Any dissenters could merely be prescribed a few days of Pallis, they’d learn to see the strength of the dark as something more than a threat.

“Thank you for doing this,” Anhura told Pallis, softening her voice. “I know this is difficult to speak of, especially to your father. And… O, I can’t believe I may live to see the kingdoms joined!”

“You will.” The certainty in his voice was reassuring. “We’ll see it done.”

A little of their previous silence began to creep back in, but it felt less uncomfortable. Then a familiar concern occurred to Anhura, and she had to ask.

“They’ll ask us to marry, you know that? It’s the easiest way to secure a political alliance.”

That startled a laugh out of him, sharp and a little rough around the edges, but real. He shook his head before nudging his horse back into a walk, waiting for Anhura to do the same.

“I’d never marry you,” he said lightly, joking. Anhura had to be grateful for the ease with which the topic could be handled.

“Good, because I don’t think we’d be able to do it. You’d drive me insane within a week.”

“We’ll leave that sort of thing to some unfortunate relatives of ours,” Pallis said, smirking. “I’ve got a few cousins who’d be more than happy to marry a lady of the light.”

“Aw, I’ll find you a woman,” Anhura comforted him, just a little insincere. It wasn’t difficult to hear the plaintive tilt to his voice.

“And they’ll trust a murderer enough to marry him?”

Anhura froze, blindsided by the dramatic shift in his demeanor. She hadn't expected such obvious guilt to bloom in the middle of a light hearted conversation.

“Yes, Pallis. You can be trusted.” She hesitated, holding back from what she impulsively wanted to say. O, what would it hurt? “I… I trust you.”

Pallis’ eyes widened and his mouth moved a little, no sound coming out. Finally, he found speech.

“Truly? Even… even after it all?”

“I had no choice, Pallis,” Anhura said, smiling to take the sting out of her words. “There was no alternative to sleeping near you, to turning my back. And every opportunity to bring me harm, you have passed over. Pallis, I practiced defending myself against you. I handed my life to you on a silver platter.”

“Oh.”

Pallis stared down at the bow of his saddle for a long moment, face carefully blank despite the shock bleeding off him. Anhura resisted the urge to lean in to make sure he was alright.

“Thank you,” Pallis said softly, almost inaudibly. He managed to look up at Anhura, and a faint smile was on his face. “Thank you so much.”

“This…” Anhura gestured between them, hoping he knew what she meant. “This is more than enough to join the kingdoms. Marriage is the obvious choice due to its permanence. But…” Anhura struggled to put her thoughts into words, something she rarely found difficult. “But I trust you and I trust the future we’re working for. We don’t need marriage to achieve that.”

“Oh.”

Anhura suppressed the surge of amusement at Pallis’ ineloquence, instead smiling politely at the uncertain prince and nudging her horse into motion. He followed, and she couldn’t tell quite how he felt. But the priority was convincing her father to form a truce with the Dark, that much was obvious. She hoped this visit would go a little smoother than the last time she’d brought a man of darkness home.

~

It was Anhura’s watch when the bandits arrived. On watch, of all times to be caught off guard. While looking off into one part of the featureless darkness, she completely missed the group of haphazardly-armoured men confidently striding across the plains. She only spun to see them when they were near enough that it was far too late. They’d already surrounded her. As the bandits slowly stepped nearer, clearly certain that she posed no threat, Anhura’s mind flickered between possibilities, all the things she could do to stay alive. She was dressed like a warrior of the dark, but her skin would betray her true origin. She was a curiosity, that she knew, but that didn’t mean the bandits would let her live if she cried out to Pallis. She needed to get his attention somehow, wake him up before the bandits could do any damage. They still thought she was alone here, that, at least, she had–

“My lady,” one of the bandits addressed her mockingly, offering her a lazy bow. “Odd to see a pretty girl like yourself in a place like this.”

Anhura didn’t have to think about her next move. She let a slow smile creep onto her face, lifting her chin and looking the man in the eye. A startled look flashed onto the bandit’s face at her apparent lack of fear.

“O, I’ve been waiting long enough,” Anhura drawled, ignoring the fear coursing through her. She knew what bandits did to women caught outside the city walls, and judging by the way these men were looking at her, they were no exception. “What does a girl have to do around here to find some damn bandits?”

A few of the bandits exchanged glances, calculating, before visibly coming to a decision. Anhura was incredibly glad that the bandits couldn’t hear the dizzyingly quick beat of her heart. Then they grinned at her, collectively, and the one who’d spoken folded his arms and levelled an intense look on her.

 

“And what does a lovely lady like yourself want with a few humble wanderers? I’ve never seen any women of the light dressed like that before.” Now that they were closer, the man’s voice had dropped to the usual hush of one who stood between the Light and Dark, where anyone could hear. His voice wouldn’t be enough to wake Pallis, and Anhura would have to match his volume or risk his suspicions.

“I wish to strike a bargain,” Anhura declared, pouring just the right amount of brash confidence into her voice. “I need men, for I plan to take revenge on the Dark.”

The bandit’s eyebrows rose, but he kept his expression in check, for the most part. “A lady of Light, daring to lead an attack?

“My father was taken from me by the Dark,” and it wasn’t quite right, but the bandit didn’t need to know that. “He went out to make peace with them, and they killed him. If we attack the Dark, I get to see the kingdom brought to its knees, and you get all that remains.”

“And what do you have to offer?” The man was certainly interested, but there was just enough condescending disbelief that she knew her life was still in the balance.

“The wealth, the power, all that comes from placing one of your own on the Dark throne.” Anhura paused a moment to allow the man to consider the appeal of that. “And, of course, a way inside the citadel.”

That got their attention. Anhura could practically see the bandits begin to take her seriously, as more than a pretty girl in the wrong uniform. Their leader’s eyes gleamed at the thought of the wealth of the dark, and he took an unconscious step toward her.

“Why now? Others have tried this before, and none have succeeded. What’s changed?” The man was smart, it was obvious in the measured way he spoke, in the sharpness of his gaze. But he seemed content to stick to words, and that was only to Anhura’s advantage.

“Getting inside the citadel will be easy, I know the way,” Anhura began, carefully planning her words. “The team defending the castle is led by the crown prince, a great warrior. And he is on a journey to the Light, one from which he will not return until many weeks from now. Now is the best chance we’ll have!” By the end of her little speech, she let a hint of excitement slip into her rising voice, young and impetuous and so easy to control. The bandits would love someone like that. And more importantly, her voice was more than loud enough to wake Pallis, even over the distance between them. She didn’t dare risk a glance toward their campsite, far enough that it could pass for the camp of a single woman. Now she simply had to give Pallis the time to get behind the bandits.

“If what you say is true,” and the overt threat in the bandit’s voice sent a shiver down her spine that she didn’t bother hiding, “then we’re glad to make your acquaintance.”

The man stepped forward and extended a grimy hand to her, bowing slightly over it. “Mallory,” he introduced himself, and narrowed his eyes to demand her name in return.

“Lyra,” Anhura lied, reaching out, only for Mallory’s hand to clamp around her wrist. The sudden fear that flashed onto Anhura’s face was completely real. She didn’t bother trying to get away, even as a hint of familiarity crept into the precarious situation. Mallory was grinning at her, an unsettlingly predatory expression that made her ache to pull her dagger and let it draw its first blood from the despicable man.

Lyra,” Mallory said lowly, pulling her even closer. “I think that you and I–”

“I think that you should let the lady go,” a stern voice said from behind the bandits, and Anhura couldn’t keep the relief from her face. Mallory turned just in time to see a blank-faced Pallis slam the pommel of his sword into the side of some unfortunate bandit’s head. The man went down with a whimper, and Pallis was already moving on.

While Mallory was distracted, Anhura raised her trapped arm and moved it in the circular motion Ro had taught her. Mallory was forced to let go as her wrist twisted out of his grip, taking a step back and drawing the short sword that hung at his hip. Anhura watched the sword slice through the air toward her and barely managed to leap backward, scrambling out of its reach. But Mallory’s attention was again stolen by a cry of pain from behind him, almost certainly from one of his men, and that was his mistake.

Ro’s lessons had taught Anhura just where to strike with her brand new dagger to do the most damage. In the moment when the bandit was distracted, Anhura drew her dagger and hit her target, angled up beneath the man’s ribs, the vulnerable flesh unprotected by Mallory’s patchwork armour. The bandit slowly looked back to Anhura, shock in his eyes, before his sword fell from his deadening grip and he fell to his knees. Anhura just watched him, this man who’d come so close to killing her, as he crumpled to the ground.

“You will never harm another woman,” Anhura hissed, her own voice oddly detached, far more vicious than she’d expected. For just a moment, she allowed herself to put the Doctor in Mallory’s place. That, certainly, was satisfying. But then Mallory’s hand came to press against the wound in his side, and a rough breath tore through his throat, and the illusion was gone. This was a bandit, Mallory, she knew his name, and he was dying. Before her eyes, this man’s life was spilling out into the dirt and she’d done that. She was killing him–

“You may still live.”

Anhura barely processed Pallis’ words, only noticing him when he knelt beside Mallory, blocking Anhura’s view. Mallory snarled something she couldn’t make out, but she could see the flecks of red dotting his lips, just like last time. Then Pallis drew his dagger and slit the man’s throat quickly, Anhura caught a glimpse of a spray of red, then her vision was filled with a black uniform. With hands on her shoulders, Pallis led her away from the bandits, and Anhura wasn’t quite aware enough to be thankful, but she could certainly be relieved. Pallis was saying something, his voice quiet and calm, but it was as if she didn’t speak the language. She’d just killed a man, she’d known his name. Anhura glanced down to see her fingertips tinged in red, and that was what finally got her. It only took that simple sight, and her knees buckled. Anhura’s eyes slid shut, and when they reopened, she was sitting, legs awkwardly tucked beneath her, with Pallis’ hands firmly on her shoulders. Almost thoughtlessly, Anhura raised her hand to inspect the blood, and Pallis reached out, so slowly, to take her hand instead.

“Anhura, do you know what happened?” Pallis asked softly.

“He’s dead.” The unembellished words fell from numb lips, and Pallis squeezed her hand, drawing her attention.

“You were on watch, the bandits arrived. You stalled until I heard your voice and woke, that bandit tried to kill you, and you stabbed him.”

“But–”

“I offered to bandage the wound, and he said he’d rather die. I turned hours of pain to mere minutes. You defended yourself, that was all.”

“His name was Mallory,” Anhura’s voice was hushed, guilt wrenching at her heart as she gave a name to the body just out of her sight.

“I’ve killed before, Anhura.”

“Adakias,” she mumbled, and couldn’t even muster up a little sympathy when Pallis flinched.

“I’ve killed in battle,” he continued, voice oddly soft in counterpoint to his words. “When a warrior is approaching with a weapon drawn, with obvious intent on harming me, my only choice is to fight back. Sometimes, that means somebody gets hurt. The bandit chose to ambush you, he chose to strike at you first. This isn’t your fault, Anhura.”

And with those quietly urgent words, the earnest care in Pallis’ eyes broke through Anhura’s shock, and the first tears began to fall. Pallis gathered her into his arms in an instant, and Anhura buried her face in his shoulder. She felt just a little like the strong arms wrapped around her were the only thing keeping her from shattering. Pallis murmured a continuous stream of reassurances into her hair, and didn’t seem to mind that she held onto him a little too tightly. They stayed in place, just so, until the golden sun rose in the East, the direction of the land of light.

~

It didn’t come up until nightfall, for which Anhura had to be grateful. They’d spent their day growing ever-closer to the land of the light, a shining beacon on the horizon, yet when the sun vanished behind the great grey clouds to the West, she couldn’t feel further from home. Pallis had spoken almost constantly during their travel, obviously trying to keep her mind off the previous night’s events, and it worked almost perfectly. With the remaining bandits growing further away with each step, it was easier to forget the men bound and awaiting arrest behind them. But the day couldn’t last forever, no matter what Anhura hoped.

So they made their usual camp, and Pallis wordlessly arranged their bedrolls into a familiar pile of blankets beside a rock for them to lean on. After their plain dinner, Pallis settled against the rock and lifted a corner of the blankets for Anhura, smiling faintly. Anhura joined him, sitting just far enough away that she could fight the urge to press herself into the Pallis’ shoulder and flee the thoughts of the man she’d killed.

“You’re barely under the blanket at all,” Pallis told her, looking concerned, and Anhura had to fight a nonsensical urge to laugh.

“I think I’m fine,” she offered in return, hugging her knees to her chest and trying to make herself small. “Well, fine enough.”

“I’ve seen soldiers suffer shock after their first kill, but… I know you never wanted this.”

“I had no other choice,” she replied somewhat mechanically, parroting the words Pallis had repeated to her over and over the previous night. Silence chased her voice into the dark, quelling all echo between them. Pallis didn’t seem to know what to say, so he said nothing.

“I hate that he drove me to kill,” Anhura whispered, finally. “A man I knew for mere minutes, and he haunts me.”

“I’m sorry,” Pallis said simply. “It’s not fair.”

Without being asked, Pallis raised his arm, offering Anhura a place sharing his warmth. Anhura considered him for a moment, then tucked herself against her friend’s side. The momentary comfort certainly helped take her mind off the images plaguing her.

“How long?”

Pallis let out a measured breath before answering, absentmindedly humming to himself as he thought.

“You… you’re not a soldier, so I can’t know anything for certain, but even a few days of happiness will help. There’s no use pretending it won’t change you, but you are far too strong to be broken by a cruel man dying in your presence.”

Instead of replying, Anhura simply shifted to lean further back against Pallis, looking up at the shrouded sky. They were close enough to the Light that a few stars were visible, but only a meagre few compared to how many she could see at home. She missed the comforting sight, the way the stars were always exactly where O’s plan said they’d be, confirmed again and again. With all that had happened to her in the space of a week or so, it was something beautiful that the stars hadn’t changed one bit.

“I hope you find your stars,” Pallis said softly, following her gaze, and she felt the words more than heard them, the gentle rumble in his chest.

“I never lost them,” Anhura countered, voice feeling over-loud in the emptiness of the Wildlands. “That’s the thing, isn’t it? They never went anywhere. The stars don’t care about anything down here. There’s something so reassuring about that.”

“Of course they care about you,” Pallis interjected, frowning. He looked something close to offended on her behalf. “Give yourself more credit than that.”

Confusion rushed through Anhura for a moment, and she furrowed her brow, squinting at Pallis. He sounded completely sincere.

“Pallis, they don’t care about anything. They’re just lights in the sky.”

“Oh.”

When she looked back to Pallis, his cheeks were flushed and he wasn’t meeting her eyes. At odds to the somber situation, Anhura found herself biting her lip to force back a smile.

“Is there any study of the stars in the Dark? Any scientific work at all?” He was quiet. “Pallis?”

“We’re warriors,” Pallis mumbled, sounding like nothing so much as a sullen child. “I’ve never been taught such things.”

A laugh burst past Anhura’s lips at his tone, startling both of them. Anhura clapped her hand over her mouth on reflex, shocked that she could laugh at all, so soon after watching a man die before her.

“You don’t have to tell yourself off for feeling happy,” Pallis’ low voice cut through her darkening thoughts. “Let your mind turn to brighter things, let yourself breathe, even for a while.”

“Clever words,” Anhura commented, the first thing that sprang to her mind. She knew it was a defense from the pull in her chest that Pallis’ words brought. The pull turned to something painful, the best kind of memory, and Pallis’ arm tightened around her.

“I know how you feel,” Pallis said softly, and Anhura smiled through the first few tears tracking down her cheeks. She smiled like she had at Adakias, she smiled as though the stars shone for her alone, and for the first time, Anhura let herself grieve.

~

Anhura hadn’t realized how much she missed home until the sun was cresting over the greatest asymmetrical spire of her palace. She didn’t realize how comforting that city was until a piece of her heart fell back into place at the sight. As the rising sun warmed her skin, Anhura remembered just how much she missed the safety promised by the land of the Light. When she’d left with Adakias, she couldn’t be happier to escape. But the familiarity wasn’t dull now, especially with the drop-jawed prince who couldn’t seem to tear his eyes from the city before her.

“Whoa…”

She looked over to Pallis, biting back a grin at the awe he couldn’t hide. There was something incredibly satisfying about his wide eyes looking back and forth between her and the view. A little pride in her homeland surged through her.

“This is what you go home to?”

Anhura took a moment to try controlling her expression, then gave up and allowed herself to smile as wide as she wanted at Pallis.

“It’s different from your own, but… I’m proud to call it mine.”

“It’s beautiful,” Pallis said immediately, without hesitation. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“I’d take you through the palace, but I don’t think my father would be glad to see a man of darkness.” Pallis nodded, looking just a little disappointed. “But I can show you around after the diplomatic niceties are done with. You’re certainly a good introduction to the people of the Dark. Give them time to know you, and they’ll love you.”

Pallis was smiling by the time she was done, that familiar little grin that reminded Anhura of just what she had loved about Adakias. Pallis had played host to her for several days, making her feel completely comfortable in the land she’d feared so much. It was the least she could do to make Pallis feel at home in the Light.

“Need I cover my face when we enter?” Pallis still sounded nervous, which made Anhura very glad she’d put quite a lot of thought into this very question, running every possible scenario in her mind as they travelled. Their quest to change the future between the Light and Dark would be pointless if they couldn’t even get in to see the king.

“No,” Anhura said decisively. “We must present a united front, a confident front, to the people. If my reputation is not enough to bring you into the castle, I carry far too little weight to change the minds of my father and his council. But there’s no danger to you, that, I swear.”

“Well,” and Pallis was already smirking, “I doubt there’d ever be much danger that I couldn’t–”

“You will not fight my men! I mean it, Pallis!” Only the way he laughed told her that he wasn’t actually going to get in a fight with any of her knights. Anhura let out an exasperated sigh, and in that moment, Pallis reminded her of nothing more than her youngest sister, always seeking a bit of mischief.

“Come on, Pallis.”

Anhura turned and led the way down to the main gate, best not to appear like she wanted to hide her guest from the people. She was no fool, she knew her own reception in the land of darkness had been eased by the fact that no one saw her as a threat. But Pallis, walking among her people? At first glance, he was a warrior. The ready power coiled inside him would be obvious, no matter how he tried to conceal it. Pallis was easy to love, but even easier to fear.

“You cannot act like you do in your own lands,” Anhura warned him, watching the gate for the telltale sign of the guards noticing them. “The way you look at people, the way you hold yourself, these things will only confirm their fears. Everything I said frightened me about your demeanor… I dare say I was a little braver than the average citizen.”

Of course, I understand.” A little more solemnity slipped into Pallis’ demeanor as he remembered that he was feared. Anhura forced down the sympathy to focus on the task at hand.

“I’ll not allow the guards to bother you, but if they do engage, do not speak. Keep your head down and try to seem as harmless as you can. Smile at people, but do not stare. This could shape the future of our lands.”

“So complicated, princess. I’m beginning to reconsider this alliance.”

Anhura didn’t dignify that with a response, but when she next glanced in his direction, he was grinning. That was good, if he maintained a good mood, this could only work better. She let herself shoot Pallis a smile before tucking away her feelings and donning an air befitting a future queen. It had been far too long since she'd stood before her people, and she had to make a good impression.

Keeping her mouth shut and her head up, Anhura led the way to the front gate and yanked on the rope hanging from atop the wall. A bell rang somewhere, and a stern face appeared over the crenels. Even without speech, the guard recognized her immediately.

“The Lady Anhura has returned home!”

A few voices were raised in joy at their princess’ return, and Anhura had to stop herself from smiling at the welcome. It was certainly good to be home.

The modest gate was pushed open within moments, and a squadron marched out to greet her properly. The pair of them dismounted, and Anhura handed both horses to the nearest guard. Then the guards flowed around them, just like always, and Anhura tensed, ignoring the urge to edge closer to Pallis as all eyes turned to him. The captain bowed politely to her and began speaking of how greatly she’d been missed, but Anhura could only think of how much more difficult this would become if even one guard put up a fuss. There’d be a panic.

“My lady, is this… a man of the Dark?” A single guard dared to break the moment of silence in the captain’s speech. He sounded quite like he feared offending her, which she found vaguely amusing.

“Yes, he is,” Anhura said simply, and left it there. When the silence grew long enough that it was clear she had no more to say, the guard nodded uncomfortably and turned away. Only a moment later, the captain called his squadron into formation, a protective barrier between the nobles and the outside world. Without further objection, the captain led the way through the gates, through the town.

“People are watching me,” Pallis told her softly, the barest chord of worry lacing through his voice.

Anhura glanced at Pallis out of the corner of her eye, taking in the tight set of his jaw and the alert way his eyes darted around. It was painfully obvious how uncomfortable he was.

“That’s what people do,” Anhura hissed back, effortlessly maintaining the pleasant smile on her face. “Look less like like you’re plotting something nefarious.”

Pallis let out an exasperated sigh from beside her, but when she next looked his way, there was a small but friendly smile on his face. It seemed like there was nothing to be done about the thinly-veiled danger hiding just beneath his surface.

Their stroll through town was going well enough until a group of wide-eyed children scrambled out onto the side of the street, staring curiously up at Pallis, and the procession ground to a halt. The moment hung in a sort of balance, the stares from the citizens of Light turning worried. And why shouldn’t they? They all knew that men of the Dark were heartless, cruel, ready to do harm on the slightest provocation. Anhura understand why her people thought such a thing, taught from years of childhood stories, but that didn’t mean it was right.

“Hi!” one of the children bellowed. The atmosphere around them immediately darkened, and what had to be the parents began herding the children away from the main street.

“Hi,” Pallis said quickly, voice turned soft and friendly. He even raised a hand in an awkward sort of wave. Suddenly, all the children were waving at him, taking the cue from the first, and Anhura breathed a sigh of relief.

“Wasn’t that easy?” she asked Pallis, keeping her voice low.

“I like kids,” he said with a shrug, and it was only due to her closeness that Anhura saw the twinge of grief flicker through his eyes. Pallis was an older brother, he would always be an older brother.

“Bye,” Pallis raised his voice again, and was answered by a sea of tiny hands waving farewell. Anhura had to smile, so incredibly relieved that Pallis hadn’t scared anyone yet. Children were often good judges of character.

“Would you like us to have a chamber prepared?” Anhura jolted back into the present, realizing they’d already reached the palace. The captain didn’t understand why she smiled a little as she responded.

“In the western wing, if you please. And we will hold audience with my father before anything else.”

“Certainly, Lady Anhura,” the captain nodded agreeably. “Please follow me.”

Pallis fell into step beside her as she walked through the courtyard to the palace. Anhura took a moment to notice that he was drastically shortening his stride to avoid outpacing her. It would look disrespectful if he moved ahead of her.

“The king is seeing complaints from the people at the moment,” the captain informed her as they made their way to the throne room, “but you can certainly request an audience if you would like.”

“There will be no need,” Anhura dismissed the man. “The business of my companion and I is urgent. My father will see us immediately.”

With a little curiosity flickering across his face, the captain bowed to her and led his men away. The two men who took up automatic position as her personal guard were quickly dealt with when she levelled a stern glare on them. Privacy was key. She was in no danger with Pallis present.

“Well,” Pallis said once they were finally alone, “I understand why I must act more softly here.”

“When we first met, when I said that we’re taught to fear you… all that is true. The threat of the Dark is used to keep children in line. What you did today, merely acting kindly toward a child? You’re changing their minds.”

“I thought it was an exaggeration,” Pallis said lowly, looking embarrassed. “In the Dark, we’re taught that the Light is weak, easily frightened. I… at first, I thought you were…”

Anhura wrinkled her nose at the thought, that Pallis had blamed her for her fear, fear of a man she’d seen kill only moments earlier. Before the bitterness could rise up inside her, Anhura stopped walking and looked up at Pallis. He really did look apologetic.

“And now we’ve both learned better,” Anhura said finally, ending the dark memories before they could settle back into her heart.

“We have,” Pallis echoed, but he smiled faintly at her. The silence that stretched between them was full of comfort.

“Let us speak to my father,” Anhura declared, slipping back into the role of the heir, standing just a little taller.

“Yes, my lady,” Pallis said evenly, and pushed the door open for her. The pair of them strode into the throne room, taking in the sight before her. A short line of citizens stretched from the base of the throne to a small door at the side of the hall, seeking help from the king. And King Malka sat atop his throne, an attentive expression on his round face as he listened to each troubled tale. Anhura and Pallis’ soft-soled boots made little sound on the marble floor as they made their way up to the throne.

“Father, there’s someone I’d like you to meet,” Anhura announced boldly, marvelling at this bizarre surge of reckless confidence. She’d seen her beloved killed, journeyed across the Wildlands, trained with the women warriors of the Dark, drawn blood in combat. Speaking her mind to her father was almost laughably easy in comparison.

King Malka’s eyes widened at the sight of his eldest daughter, clothed in a uniform of the Dark and confidently striding down his hall. Anhura had to force down a satisfied smile at his reaction. It seemed her father was paying no mind to the man walking at her side, calm and collected and quietly dangerous.

“Anhura! You have returned home after so long, are you alright, where have you been?”

“I’m fine, father,” Anhura said placatingly. “But I’ve travelled far across the Wildlands and I’d like you to hear the message I bear.”

“You cannot vanish for days without warning, without guard! You could have been killed!”

“Please, father, listen to me. My companion and I have much to discuss with you.”

King Malka’s gaze flashed to Pallis, who stiffened. As he noticed Pallis’ dark hair and pale complexion, the king’s hands curled into fists on the arms of his throne.

“A man of darkness has no place in this castle,” the king snarled. “Explain yourself, Anhura. This man is a threat to us all, do you know what he’s capable of?”

“He is capable of quite a lot, father,” Anhura said evenly. “Yet he would never hurt me, nor any of our people. I have trusted this man in scenarios far more precarious than this.” Cold nights and shared blankets flashed into Anhura’s head, tucked against Pallis’ shoulder as they grieved together. Her father need not learn of that yet.

“And what cause do you have for bringing him here?” Her father’s voice had turned cool, losing the approachable friendliness he presented to his citizens. “You wear the dress of his people, that much I see. Anhura, have I lost you to the Dark?”

“I visited there as an ambassador from our kingdom, father. I was treated with nothing less than total civility, far more courtesy than you’ve yet granted Pallis.”

King Malka’s eyes went wide at the name, recognition flashing across his face. When he quickly hid his surprise, his expression had turned a little more shrewd. The presence of some unremarkable man of Darkness was quite different from the presence of the crown prince.

“My Lord,” Pallis said softly from her side, nodding his respect to the king.

“Prince Pallis… it has been long since a citizen of the Dark has stood within these walls, even longer since they did so with no intent to do harm. I presume you are here for reasons of politic?”

“Actually, sir,” Pallis corrected politely, “my primary purpose was to accompany your daughter home, since she had no guard against the Wildlands. The politics are merely a convenience.”

Anhura found herself smiling faintly at the hint of humour in Pallis’ voice, and let herself glance toward the prince for a moment. Pallis looked more collected than she’d ever seen him, and only her familiarity allowed her to see the trace of nerves hiding under the surface of his easy words.

“Then let us speak of politics,” the king said somewhat begrudgingly. “And I thank you for ensuring my daughter’s safety. I know customs are different in your land, but in the Light, someone such as Anhura is not taught to fight.”

“We may wish to reconsider that policy,” Anhura commented mildly, dropping her hand to the dagger hanging at her hip. With the guilt from Mallory’s death finally washed away, the knife was a reassurance. Again, her father’s eyes went wide, and Anhura felt a warm bloom of pride surge up in her chest.

“We bring talk of peace,” Pallis chimed in, moving the conversation in the right direction. “Lady Anhura and I have spoken at length on a treaty to end the divide, to join the kingdoms. There can be change if we will it.”

“Join the kingdoms? No one has spoken of such in generations.”

“The prophecy, father. It has finally come to pass, a man of the Dark has crossed the mountain, and Pallis and I will bring peace. A great price has been paid for us two to meet, and we will not squander this chance.”

And though protest, worry, and suspicion all crossed her father’s face in the space of a few seconds, Anhura couldn’t bring herself to mind. For the first time since Adakias’ death, as those words slipped out, wrapped in a politician’s perfect polish, she saw it. She saw herself dragging her kingdom into the future, kicking and screaming and fighting her every step of the way. And Pallis, the killer, the prince, her perfect counterpart, would do his duty to bring the lands together. And perhaps they would stumble on their way into this new peace, but it would be worth it. Adakias would bring peace and progress, just like he’d always known. The reuniting of the worlds would be his legacy. And with the hope he’d taught– O, what couldn’t they do?

Chapter Text

Queen Anhura was, by all accounts, a strange woman. She wore far too much black, in odd styles that seemed to favour trousers, even on a lady such as herself. She wore a dagger on her hip at all times, as if she’d ever have need of it, eternally surrounded by her guards as she was. She hastily repealed the ban on female knights, she even frowned upon speaking ill of the Dark. In short, the queen was exactly the sort of ruler many of her councilmen disliked. Then there was her arrangement with the Dark.

At first they were affronted, the elders of the kingdom of Light. “How dare she do such a thing,” they cried. “How dare this girl queen, naive and unknowing of the world outside, invite such ruin upon our land?” Queen Anhura’s first year on the throne was ushered in by a chorus of dissent, all those voices who wondered if she was ready, if she’d ever be. But the queen forged on, seemingly deaf to their cries, as well as those of her advisors. The advisors, in particular, stood against her every move, cautioning her with perhaps a little too much insolence. That came to an end after one memorable occasion when Lord Malka stood merely to say that he would not have placed his daughter on the throne had he believed she was unready. And so the complaints ended, at least from within the palace, and Queen Anhura got her way. Within a handful of months of her coronation, citizens of the Dark were a common sight in the marketplace, selling their wares and mingling with people of the Light.

The greatest surprise to the citizens of the Light, especially the older generations, was just how much she’d meant it when she swore that relations would change with the Dark. For such a young ruler, she was remarkably obstinate, the sort of gentlewoman who somehow managed to convince her nobles that they’d really agreed with her all along. She did the same with her guards, and they allowed her vanish into the Wildlands for a short while every few months, admittedly with a bit of fretting. That dwindled away after the failed assassination attempt that ended with a fair amount of blood shed from the attacker, unfortunate enough to target the unassuming woman who was quite familiar with the blade that hung at her side. The young queen’s guards relaxed their duties slightly after that. It was events like that which placed the queen in a position of great regard in the eyes of her younger citizens, men and women who were close to her age. By the end of her first three years on the throne, Queen Anhura had grown to be as beloved as any of her predecessors.

The only marr in the otherwise flawless peace was the rumours. Though the queen had outlawed any ill speech of the Dark, she couldn’t prevent her people from speculating about just what lay on the other side of the mountain, the land from whence these oddly pale-skinned people hailed. The rumours ranged from improbable to outlandish to downright silly. And that certainly wasn’t helped by the queen’s habit of sending nobles who spoke too harshly of the other kingdom away with the next trade convoy, meant to spend at least a month in the Dark. Some returned, others did not. Those who did seemed changed, and never spoke ill of the Dark again.

And now, the most important citizen of the darkness was coming to the land of the light. King Pallis was visiting for the first time, and Sana was not feeling optimistic. She usually loved her job; her family had waited upon the rulers of the light for many generations and she was no different. The queen was kind and good and treated her more like a friend than a handmaiden; she could ask for little better. But this meant that her presence was expected at all official events. Sana would stand by her queen’s side as the two monarchs met, and the thought of the king made her slightly queasy.

Sana had seen many citizens of the Dark before, and they seemed quite a lot like her, with the exception of their odd ideas about fashion and attitudes about war. Last year, she’d spoken at length with the captain of the guard, a tall woman who was more than happy to indulge her many questions. It was times like that, and many others, that had taught Sana not to fear the Dark. But the queen never spoke of King Pallis like she spoke of the rest of the citizens. In fact, she never spoke of her political counterpart much at all, other than to complain how difficult and stubborn the man could be. With no real information to go off of, the rumours regarding the king were always the most ridiculous. Sana had heard everything from yellow eyes to horns sprouting from his head to a taste for human flesh. She didn’t particularly believe the last one, but there had to be rumours for a reason. It made sense that the rumours would project a monstrous soul onto the man’s appearance. No, Sana was certainly not looking forward to the arrival of the king.

But there would be no putting it off any longer; the day was here. The king was to arrive any minute, and Sana stood faithfully beside her queen, valiantly attempting to look as composed as the woman beside her. The Queen was an imposing figure despite her stature, dressed in some of the new fashion she’d pioneered several years ago, long loose trousers and a blouse that billowed out at the shoulders. Despite her nerves, Sana had to fight a proud smile at the sight. She’d grown up beside the queen, and sometimes it was difficult to remember that they were not friends in the most conventional sense.

“Are you ready?”

Sana frowned at the queen’s teasing tone, slipping from her formal presentation into the easy companionship they’d shared for years now.

“I should be asking you that question, my lady. My only duty is standing here and looking pretty.”

The queen smiled at that, an honest expression she rarely shared with those outside her personal friends, and looked just a little more content. Sana only noticed the discomfort now that it had vanished, and had to wonder if her queen was worried about meeting the man she so often insulted. A hint of protectiveness flared up inside her at the thought. She couldn’t exactly threaten a king, but she could bear witness, and it wasn’t as if the queen was in the habit of allowing other nobles to walk all over her.

“I think I’ll be alright,” the queen reassured her, that light tone fading into something sure. “This is hardly the first time I’ve met with King Pallis. I can wrangle him well enough.”

“He’d better watch his royal self,” Sana said lowly before she could stop herself, but the queen only smiled, a spark of amusement bright in her eyes.

“And I'm so very glad you're here to keep him in check.” The edge of warmth beneath the queen’s light words had Sana feeling just a little better about the coming events. Then a page barged into the hall, wide-eyed and panting, and that feeling went away.

“The king has arrived! King Pallis is here!”

Queen Anhura snapped into the flawless posture of a royal, her smile turning polite and detached. She levelled her gaze on the doors into the hall, eyes sharp and bright. Sana lifted her chin and clenched her hands into fists behind her back, where the infamous king wouldn’t see. She didn’t care if he was noble, she’d stand for no disrespect to the queen.

Then the doors flew open, and King Pallis of the Dark strode in, wearing a politely neutral expression. Sana felt her eyes widen as she took in the sight of her queen’s counterpart, a stern-faced man who moved with the grace of a warrior, and she found herself oddly surprised that he didn’t look… scary.

“Welcome to the Light, my lord,” Queen Anhura greeted the other ruler, nodding her respect. Sana had to wonder just how much she actually meant her diplomatic words. “I trust your journey was fine.”

“The roads are safer than ever before, my lady. And I am glad to see the Light as lovely as I recall.”

The bland small talk came to a halt after the king spoke, and a faint air of discomfort settled in the hall. Sana glanced toward her queen to gauge the situation, and found herself confused by the odd look on the woman’s face. The silence stretched out even further, and Sana heard a faint rustle as a few courtiers shifted nervously. How could the two kingdoms maintain a truce if their rulers could barely hold a polite conversation?

“It’s been far too long, my lady,” the king finally said, sounding just as odd as the queen’s expression appeared.

“Not long enough, I trust, for you to forget my opinion on your propriety?”

The room held its breath in the wake of the queen’s strange words, waiting for one of the pair to make the next move, and the queen raised an eyebrow. King Pallis seemed to collect himself for a moment, then he was flying across the room toward the queen, Sana’s heart leapt into her throat, every fear she had of the Dark springing to the forefront of her mind, the guards would be too slow– And their queen was swept into the arms of the king of the Dark, the unrestrained joy in her startled laughter keeping her guards at bay. Sana’s jaw dropped as she watched the infamous king lift Queen Anhura off the floor for a moment, undeterred by her insincere protests.

“Pallis!” the queen cried, voice shot through with laughter, “put me down!”

“But who needs propriety?” the king retorted, grinning even as he gently lowered the queen back to the ground. The queen put up a pretense of irritation for a moment, but it rapidly faded into what had to be genuine happiness. Sana glanced around the room and had to be relieved that most of the others bearing witness to this bizarre event seemed just as baffled as she was.

“A month, Pallis. A mere month, and this is how you arrive in my home?”

“But I’ve missed you so, my lady,” the king countered, reaching out to Queen Anhura’s hand, only for the queen to fold her arms and step out of his reach. “I know you care little for propriety, Anhura.”

“Propriety and dignity are two different things,” she replied sharply, seemingly offended if not for the smirk that danced across her lips. “And now you’ve left me with little of both.” The queen turned away from King Pallis and smiled faintly at the shock on the faces of her courtiers. “May I present my very good friend, the Duke of Pryston; King Pallis of the Dark. I beg you forgive his antics.”

And as the king bowed neatly, Sana saw the pieces finally come together. A month, the queen had said. There hadn’t been a diplomatic mission to the Dark in half a year, but it was around a month ago that the queen had gone on her most recent disappearance. The familiarity between the monarchs extended far beyond the few times they’d officially met. Sana felt vaguely ashamed that as the woman’s handmaiden, she’d missed so much.

“Pallis, would you be so kind as to greet my council?”

The king quickly moved to Queen Anhura’s side, a casual hand slipping into place on her back as she introduced the visiting king to a few of her nobles. He smiled politely at them, seemingly making an effort to put them at ease, and the nobles bowed as one. Then the queen turned to her left, stretching a hand out to indicate Sana.

“And this is my handmaiden,” Queen Anhura said, a world of implication in her tone.

“Lovely to meet you, Miss Sana,” the king greeted her, recognition flashing in his eyes. “My lady Anhura has told me quite a lot about you.” And Sana couldn’t even muster the awareness to blush at his tone, because the full force of the king’s smile was levelled on her, and she hadn’t expected this. She hadn’t expected any of this.

King Pallis did not have burning, cruel yellow eyes, nor horns. King Pallis was half a head taller than Sana, gloriously regal in a black uniform with gold trim, and distractingly handsome. Only a handful of years older than herself, he carried himself with confidence in every move he made. And his eyes, O, the king of the Dark had smiling brown eyes that made Sana want to make any number of bad decisions.

The queen elbowed her none too gently, and Sana remembered that there was something she was meant to say.

“A pleasure to meet you, sire,” Sana managed, the words coming out just a little pinched. She had to make a conscious effort to keep from staring. “The queen has spoken of you too,” she added uncertainly, feeling the need to say something more.

“And I’m sure she’s been perfectly complementary,” the king commented mildly. “Of course I’d like to thank you for keeping her in line.”

A hot flare of offense rushed through Sana before she picked up on the gently teasing edge to the king’s voice. A short glance toward the queen told Sana that the other woman certainly wasn’t bothered by the king’s words. Dismissing the risk, Sana allowed herself to forget that she was speaking to royalty, just for a moment, and smirked at the king like they were friends.

“From what I’ve heard, you’re the one who needs to be supervised.”

“Are you offering to fill that position?” the king said instantly, then looked shocked by the boldness of his words. Sana watched, fascinated, as the king visibly struggled past the immediate regret and set his jaw. She wasn’t at all sure how she was expected to respond to this. He seemed frighteningly earnest, like he hadn’t just spoken to a servant like they were equals. A little part of Sana’s mind that she knew she was meant to ignore was pointing out that the king was quite handsome.

“I…” She dragged her gaze up to look the king in the eye, and found a strange sort of determination there. “Sire, I’m not…”

“May I interject,” the queen cut in, taking pity on Sana. “The Dark takes quite a different view toward nobles than that of the Light. There is less of a barrier between those of noble and common birth.”

“Yes,” the king continued, sounding relieved. “I apologize if I’ve acted outside your customs, but…” Bafflingly, the king dropped his eyes to the floor, and Sana firmly told herself that it wasn’t endearing. “I’d be glad to consider you my equal if you’d do the same.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Sana noticed the queen cover her mouth with a hand, hiding an undignified laugh. For a moment, Sana allowed herself quite a few vicious thoughts toward the woman that probably counted as treason. What was she, a servant, meant to do when faced with the advances of a king? Not that it seemed all that bad, if she was entirely honest with herself. Sana suspected that the man would accept a refusal with grace, but she knew that an opportunity like this would not appear again. With twenty-six years to her name, she was already well into the territory of too old to be wed. She’d resigned herself years ago to growing old without a husband. And if King Pallis was close to her queen, he couldn’t be that bad. This was not an opportunity to dismiss.

“If that suits you… Pallis,” Sana said hesitantly, emboldened by the presence of the queen at her elbow. And though it didn’t seem possible, the king’s smile grew even brighter than before, and a thrill of dizziness raced through Sana. She wondered a little dazedly if she was about to faint.

“Now, it seems that I have some people to meet, faces to learn, policies to make,” Pallis said, making it very clear just what he thought of such things. “That’s more Anhura’s area of expertise, so… perhaps when I can escape that fate, we could speak a little more?” The hint of uncertainty in the man’s voice was incredibly comforting.

“I… I would like that,” Sana said softly, dropping her eyes for a moment, struggling to maintain her composure.

“I look forward to it, my lady.” Then before Sana could explain to the king that she was far from worthy of that title, the king was reaching a hand out to her, and Sana froze, eyes glued to the patch of skin revealed as his sleeve slid up. An ink pattern wrapped around his wrist, something she’d believed was unique to her people. More interestingly, it bore a striking resemblance to the mark that sat on the queen’s shoulder. Sana’s fingers rose unconsciously to stretch toward the ink in his skin, and the king took the opportunity to gently take her hand. Before she could comment, he kissed her hand, and forget fainting, Sana thought she may die.

“Imagine how foolish I’d have looked had you turned me down,” Pallis said softly as he pulled away, a spark dancing in his eye.

“I don’t think there was any danger of that,” Sana said before she could stop herself, and the king smiled again, bright and joyful. She’d have to learn more about the man, of course, but he seemed incredibly genuine. And it appeared she’d certainly have the chance to do so. As that thought sunk in, she conjured the courage to drop a little of her formality, returning his wide grin. Remarkably, she saw the king’s composure falter for a moment, eyes going large before he regained control. Nodding a farewell with a little more of the regal air he’d had when he walked through the door, Pallis spun on his heel and returned to a group of people of the dark, a few men who’d accompanied him to the light. Sana stared after him, nonplussed, until the queen linked their arms together and pulled her off to the side.

“What do you think of him?” There was a hint of humour in the queen’s voice.

“You set me up with a king,” was all Sana could think to say. “Me, with the king of the Dark.”

The queen shrugged at that, smirking mischievously. “I suspected you’d like him. He certainly likes you. And Pallis has ruled alone for far too long. I think we’re both a little tired of the suggestions that we marry.”

“Of course,” Sana said immediately. She didn’t want to admit how much of a relief it was that the queen had no interest in marrying the man, even for reasons of politic. For the past few years, the queen had seemed perfectly content to rule without a man at her side.

“He can be quite charming when he’s not tripping over his words,” Queen Anhura said fondly. “And he’s a good man.”

“Yes,” Sana said slowly, eyes caught on the figure across the room. He was speaking with the cooks, summoned from the kitchen to meet him. An apprentice who looked no more than twenty was visibly stuttering something out, unable to meet the man’s eyes. The king was still smiling, irrepressible, as he waited for the boy to finish.

“Just wait until you hear him sing,” the queen’s voice registered faintly at the back of her mind, barely pulling Sana from her distracted thoughts.

“They have music in the Dark?” Even as she said it, Sana knew the old belief couldn’t be true. Things were different now, the land of the Dark no longer stood as the monster in every tale.

“They’re people,” the queen said simply. “And Pallis still has it in him to love another.”

“You say that like you don’t,” Sana noted, watching the queen closely, watching the way her eyes darkened with memory for a moment. “And you may never marry, but I think you’re wrong. You love your people, you love your friends,” and Sana thought of the joy on the queen’s face when Pallis drew her close. “Your rule has filled this land with love.”

“I’ll have to tell you that story one day,” the queen said, smiling faintly. “Of the reason the Dark and Light are becoming one.”

“You may not be the only reason, my queen, but you have played a greater part than you seem to think.” In response, Queen Anhura merely bowed her head and her smile grew brighter. “And though I’d love to hear the story, I think you’re needed over there.”

The queen turned to see Pallis standing with some of her nobles, looking more and more out of his depth. The two women watched in fascination as he nodded along, smiling pleasantly, and obviously not understanding any of what they had to say.

“How is he in charge of a country?” Sana asked, honestly confused.

“Sometimes I wonder if he should be,” the queen replied, folding her arms as she watched her counterpart struggle.

Sana and the queen watched Pallis for a moment longer, the rapid-fire speech of the nobles far too quick to understand.

“Fine,” the queen finally sighed, and stiffened her back to march across the room to Pallis. She neatly inserted herself into the conversation, voice clear even from a distance. Sana witnessed all this, seeing the subtle way Pallis relaxed with the queen by his side. As she commandeered the conversation, Pallis took a small step back, turning to where Sana stood. He met Sana’s eyes for a moment, quirking a relieved smile at her that made her stomach flip. Sana couldn’t help but smile back. Life was looking up.