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The Left Hand of Judgment

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Ema sat down on the other side of his massive mahogany desk for the first time in quite a while. The butterfly theme was strongest here, with a giant tapestry of the royal family between two massive bookcases. The ache in her back was too distracting to make much note of the changes: the picture of her on the desk, the fact that outlets had already been fitted with clear covers and other sharp edges child-proofed.

It felt like in the past week she'd barely seen him, though that could be simply a bias. She'd gotten a bit spoiled with being able to spend all her working days and all her nights with him. His long plaited silvery hair had little wisps escaped through. He must be a real tight schedule to let that hint of unruliness slip through.

The sunlight framing his head almost looked like a halo. Even mussed up, Nahyuta was unearthly beautiful. Everyone said the honeymoon phase would fade, but when he looked at her like that, with such tenderness in his green eyes, and complimented her, Ema felt just as many butterflies as the first time she'd met him. Maybe even more.

Nahyuta cleared his throat. Ema puffed out her cheeks and looked away. Sure, they were married, but she wasn't about to let him catch her mooning over him like a schoolgirl with a crush.

"Are you going to give me a sermon?" Ema said sarcastically, to cover up her blush.

"Do I need to give you a sermon? You're taking the prenatal vitamins and keeping away from the forensic chemicals, are you not?"

"Yeah, I am. You bet I'm counting down the days, though," Ema said.

Nahyuta chuckled. "I'm sure you are."

"It has to be something serious for you to pull me in here. It's like I've been banished..." she grimaced at that.

"Only for two more weeks."

"Considering I'm pushing a kid out of my body, it'll probably be at least three. Maybe four," Ema said.

"You are astute as ever. As you see, there is a trade agreement with Zheng Fa. I attempted to move the signing to here, but things could not work out like that."

"Geez. How long will it be?" Ema said.

Nahyuta rose from behind his desk, and came to her side.

"Only be a short trip, no less than a weekend away," Nahyuta said. His placed his hand on her shoulder. "I promise I will return to you," he said, more softly this time.

Ema patted her swollen stomach. "If you break this promise, you'll have to apologize to two people, because I'm about to pop at any minute."

"I will not allow myself to be delayed; have some faith," Nahyuta said.

"I leave that stuff to you," Ema said.

Nahyuta chuckled. "The doctor said it would be at least two weeks away. This trip will not even take three days. This I promise: when you give birth, I will be right there beside you."

"Yeah, yeah," Ema muttered. She reached into her bag for a package of Snackoos. "Both you and Apollo out of the country... it'll be quiet, that's for sure."

"I pray that it will be a serene weekend."

Apollo had returned temporarily for Trucy's birthday. Ema had been forced to just send a card and gift with him. No way she was getting on a plane this far along.

"Remember, no work until after the child is born. Doctor's orders," Nahyuta said.

Ema puffed out her cheeks. "I know, I know. You tell me all the time." She sadly rustled around in her almost empty bag of snacks. She popped the last piece of chocolate stress-busting candy in her mouth.

He rose up from the desk, and came to her side."You miss your work. I miss taking cases with you beside me."

Ema glanced down at her empty bag of snacks sadly. "Well, I'll miss you. I'm caught up on all my shows and I've run out of books to read. At this point I'm afraid I'll watch every cat video on the internet before this is over. So hurry up and get back already."

He leaned down to kiss her forehead. "What was it you said? The only thing infinite are the universe, stupid people and cat videos on the internet, and you weren't sure about the universe?"

"Technically, that's a paraphrase of Einstein," she said. "The original didn't have cat videos."

"Hmm. I like yours better."

Jalapeno Southwestern Burgers weren't the only thing Nahyuta was addicted to. It started with Maru and Oreo, now had moved on to the adventures of a chattering white cat named Salty, whose meows sounded like he was saying mama. These days most of his official texts that came through were nothing but did you see this video yet?

She took a bit of comfort in knowing that he'd probably show all the cat videos she sent him to the ambassador of Zheng Fa.

"When are you leaving?"

"Two hours," Nahyuta said.

"Two hours? Seriously? You really waited until the last minute to tell me, huh," Ema said.

"As I said, I had hoped to bring the ambassador here, but the plans fell apart suddenly. I had to gather my things immediately."

Ema sighed. "All right. Just come back quick."

He bent down for one last kiss. "I will. Goodbye, love. Forgive me; I must still have one last meeting before I go."

"Yeah, yeah. Go on already. I'm due for another nap anyways," Ema said.

The ache in her back only increased as she got up. Ema headed back towards her rooms. It felt like there was some kind a rain cloud followed her as she went.

It's only a weekend, she reminded herself. Though it gave her little comfort.

*

About thirty minutes later, Ema settled down in bed. She had her snacks, and her phone, and she was ready to get down to business. The business of watching cat videos, that was.

As nice as it was to be able to gorge herself without any disapproval, Ema was ready for the little bugger to be born already. At first, she'd amused herself with the scientific discovery that pregnancy brought. In fact, pregnancy symptoms varied spectacularly from woman to woman. Ema had barely any morning sickness, but she tired out easily. Her cute heels gave way to comfortable boots, and slippers for when she was inside the castle. Which was most of the time these days. With no work until after her pregnancy was over, she could take long naps, waking only to watch more cat videos with a bowl of Snackoos on her lap.

But that had long ago become tedious. It wasn't enough to listen to podcasts about cold cases, she wanted to be in the field, solving murders with the power of science. She wanted to be by his side, righting wrongs and flirting over his desk.

It's almost done, Ema. You just have to wait two more weeks. If the little bugger follows the schedule, anyways.

She reached into the basket full of snacks by the bed. Nahyuta didn't like it when she ate in bed, and always managed to leave crumbs everywhere. But he wasn't here now, so she could do whatever she wanted.

Except work. And be with him.

She mentally reminded herself to change the sheets before he returned.

The screen flashed. 10%. Dammit, she'd forgotten to charge it again. With some effort, Ema reached for the wall charger and set it on the bedside table. She dug into her bag for another unwelcome discovery: her bag was now empty. She pushed herself up, and dug through the basket beside the night stand, only to find empty bags and crumbs. That's what she got for not refilling. She opened up the nightstand to see if Nahyuta had left her anything in there. However, all she found were prayer books, few assorted creams he'd been rubbing on her stomach, a spare charger, but no sweets. Even though it was late. Earlier in the day, she would've just asked Alhbi to grab her something, with an extra dahma slipped into his palm for the trouble. But he would already be back to Tem'pul Temple for the night.

Whatever. Guards were posted all along the royal castle. Nahyuta had even brought over vending machines here, all stocked with her favorite foods. He hadn't figured out a way to make them without change, but he'd given the code to refund food at every point, so no one who worked for the royal family would have to pay.

Ema grabbed her bag and slowly made her way down the dimly lit hall. As she fished out the dahmas from her pocket, she heard a click behind her.

"Jeez, I'll be done in a minute. There's tons of other ones, trust me. Just down the hall--"

It was only when she felt the tip of cold steel against her back that she realized what was happening. Her dahmas fell to the ground. She didn't even have a chance to scream.

An intruder in the castle? How could they have gotten past the guards? Nahyuta had doubled the security since she got pregnant.

"L-Look, just take my money," Ema said.

In her mind, she'd always thought she'd fight in these situations. But in those scenes, she wasn't eight and a half months pregnant and barely able to waddle, let alone run.

"I have no need for money, for I serve Her Holiness, the queen Ga'ran," the voice said.

Ga'ran?

Ema quickly glanced back, only to realize it was a guard who was behind her. A sinking realization came through her. But her phone was back at the nightstand, and before she could even call for help, a blow to her solar plexus knocked the wind out of her.

In seconds, a gag was roughly shoved in her mouth and tied at her throat. Something rough---a gun?--was shoved to her back hard enough to bruise. She took careful step after careful step as the person led her away. Into the dark of a side door, then to an alley and beyond. Maybe it was for the best that she was gagged. Ema's sarcasm had gotten her in trouble more than once.

Nausea rose within her. Her thoughts swirled with chaos. But one thought floated up above the maelstrom: I've got to figure a way out of this.

*

Rope dug into her wrists. Ema tried to crane her neck to see, but only darkness filled her vision. She couldn't tell what time it was. Oh how she'd really been hoping it was a nightmare. An earth scent filled her nose. Could they possibly be underground? It must be. She tried to wriggle free, but the sound of voices made her fall still. They spoke in Khura'inese, but she knew just enough to figure out what they said.

--We have the captive.

--Good.

--Any news from him?

--He is away.

--What a fool. Let the revolution begin. Ur'Dihara Ga'ran.

--Ur'Dihara Ga'ran, the one true queen of Khura'in.

Her mouth was dry. She tried to see if the ropes would give, but as she tried to shift, something burned into her skin. She let out a muffled yelp and tried to draw away, but it only brought her closer to the sharp thing. She tried to see if whatever had hurt her would help cut these ropes.

Ema had to bite her tongue not to let out a series of muffled curses as she moved her wrists, and tried to see if the sharp thing would fall through, and she could take this apart.

No, she realized now, it was some kind of thorn. Still, it might be useful.

Under the pressure, it broke into pieces and embedded itself deep into her skin.

So much for that brilliant escape.

She heard footsteps walk away, and felt a momentary relief. But it was shattered when she heard the crunch of boot just outside where she was. The rusty creak of a cell door opening made her think it was a prison. But the scent was overwhelmingly of earth, not stone.

--It's about time we get started.

The door swung shut. She heard a sound--like a whoosh, and then a sharp strike of something hard against her. She let out a muffled scream as the pain spread outwards. The second wasn't a strike, but a lower kick, which knocked the breath right out of her. Her first thought was to protect her face, but then, there was their child--she tried to curl into a fetal position to keep them both safe.

He spat, and spoke aloud a word--a curse, as he closed the door.

She recognized the gist of the word. Technically it came somewhere close to 'unbeliever' and 'foreigner.' Nahyuta refused to talk much, and she couldn't get much out of Ahlbi, either.

--Pathetic. I thought this one had some fire in her.

Pain and fear rippled though her. This wasn't like one of those movies where suddenly, the sidekick pulls out a hidden gun. They'd taken away everything, even her wedding and engagement rings.

Another voice spoke up.

--Not too much. The foreign whore needs to be kept alive. If the child dies, he may leave our queen captive.

--True. A foreign whore like her has nothing to give him that isn't between her legs.

Her blindfold was wrenched off. A bright light suddenly illuminated the cell. Ema blinked into the brilliance, and barely caught the masked soldiers.

Another flash came, and the sound of a camera. Somewhat rudimentary, like maybe they'd gotten ahold of an older Polaroid. She tried to push herself up, but one soldier planted his boot on her, like a warning.

Ema, you need to figure your way out of this. For both of you.

But no big plans came up. No sudden memory of a laser cutter hidden in her shoe, like something out of the movies. There was nothing but the darkness of the cell, and the overpowering scent of earth. Like a grave.

*

All through the flight, Nahyuta had checked his phone. He hadn't received a single message back. Of course he had sent pictures, and texted her to ensure she was all right. She must still be angry at his trip. She had always had a bit of a temper, but usually it only lasted a few hours, not three whole days.

He set his suitcases aside within the rooms they shared. The bed was left askew. The housekeeping staff hadn't even taken care of it? Perhaps she'd asked for privacy within her chambers. He frowned as he brushed crumbs away. He'd forgive the carelessness this time. After all, he'd left her alone so close to her due date.

"Ema?" he called out.

Her phone had been left to charge by the bed. He lifted it up. Changed 100%. The notifications of his texts were left unread. Even her purse, and bag of chemicals were left within the room.

With a growing unease in the pit of his stomach, Nahyuta left, and headed towards the gardens.

*

His mother stood upon the bridge in the middle of the gardens. Koi swam beneath the surface, their golden scales surfacing a moment as they came up, hopeful for a treat. Rayfa had spoiled them through the years. Beyond them still stood the grave of Queen Amara, a tower built on lies. He'd proposed to tear it down, but his mother insisted to leave it up. She had a strange sense of humor, sometimes.

Birds perched and flitted about her. She hummed to herself, as a bluebird flew up and away into the sky. Queen Amara smiled as he came to join her upon the bridge. Her silken blue and pink dress today had a shawl with a pattern of fish on it. A gift from Rayfa, maybe. It could've been bought while he was out of the country.

They stood upon the bridge, above the water, like two reflections.

As his father always said, he'd followed her in most everything. Except a stubborn recklessness which was unseen. That he'd gotten entirely from his father.

Queen Amara smiled gently, even benevolently, even as he came closer. "Welcome back, dear. Did the trip go well?"

"Yes, it was fine. That is not why I came here, however. Mother, where is Ema?" Nahyuta said.

"I thought she was with you. Did you not bring her along to your visit of Zheng Fa?"

"No. She stayed here. I was afraid traveling when she is so far along would be harmful. Have you truly not seen her?"

Queen Amara shook her head. The petals of the pink lotus crown fluttered in the wind. "No, not a bit. And usually she's the first in line when food comes."

A chill filled him. Ema would never leave her phone behind, and she'd never skip a meal if she could help it. Unless...

"Is it only today? Did you see her any time during this weekend?" Nahyuta said with more urgency.

"Darling, I know you're worried. But she and I--our paths rarely cross. Usually she's on the field with you. I only glimpse her when I visit you. I think she's still a little awkward around me. Our culture must seem very strange to her."

"She is accustoming well, considering," Nahyuta said.

Thoughts sprung free. He couldn't cage them fast enough to keep his composure. Had she left him? No...it couldn't be. He would've been notified immediately if she had gotten an airplane ticket. Maybe she was simply exploring Khura'in?

"Did Lana come to visit?" Nahyuta said.

"No. I have seen no foreigners come to the castle since you left," Queen Amara said. "Are you feuding again? I questioned a trip so close to her due date... However, as a ruler you must sometimes do questionable things."

Nahyuta shook his head. "She was not pleased about my leaving, but it was not a fight... She understood that it was something necessary, due to the mishandling of things from the previous regime, and that I would endeavor to come home as soon as possible."

Then again, she'd been moodier than usual. Perhaps she'd simply holed up with her Snackoos. But her phone being left like that was concerning. Ema went everywhere with her technology.

Being cooped up left her even more talkative than usual, which was saying something, as even in her pre-pregnancy days, he would get a lovely barrage of little notifications. It was always rather difficult to tell her that no, she couldn't post selfies with the corpse on the latest thing called 'snapchat.'

Nahyuta headed over towards his office. Perhaps she'd left a note. Everything was pristine as he came in, without even a speck of dust. The papers were left stacked as he had organized them before. The only difference was a yellow manila envelope marked urgent laid in the middle of his desk.

Strange, he hadn't been notified of any urgent news while he was away.

Nahyuta opened it up. Out dropped several photos. He held one up up to the light, only to drop it once he realized what he was looking at.

Ropes tied about her wrists. Dirt was smeared over her cheeks, and blood dripped from her mouth, down to her t-shirt. She looked desperately into the camera. A wordless scream for help.

On the back was written a terse command: resign, and release the Queen back to her rightful position, or lose your foreign wife.

Nahyuta stared down at the words, until the ink blended together. Ga'ran had destroyed their family so many times. Now, even from the iron bars of prison, she managed to exert some control.

He fought for breath, as if the rosary around his neck was a noose. He had lost so much in his life. But to lose her would be to lose life. Ema had finally uncovered his lost smile. She'd made him thaw, even when the threat of Ga'ran lingered, and he was at his most hopeless.

Holy Mother, will this suffering never cease? Must she torment us even now?

Had he sinned grievously in a former life? The cold millstone of fate crushed him. No matter what path he took, it was more anguish.

As the shock of the moment left him, Nahyuta recognized it. The underground tunnels where the prisoners were taken. A place called judgment, where confessions were dragged out under the threat of torture. He'd been forced to watch, with Ga'ran by his side.

She always smiled at the cries of pain. The ones which haunted his nightmares, even now as the ghosts of those whose rites could never be read haunted him. Oh, Holy Mother, is this what they did to Ema? If this is punishment for what I had to do, then let it fall upon me, not her.

*

Nahyuta returned to the courtyard.

His hands trembled, as he clutched the pictures. Clutched to what very well could be the last memory he ever had of his wife.

"Mother..."

Queen Amara glanced his way serenely. Birds lifted up from her shoulders and flew up to roost in the rafters. The slight breeze caught her silvery hair.

"Are you tired, Nahyuta? You seem more pale than usual."

Nahyuta couldn't bear to speak the words aloud. Instead, he held out the envelope to her. She pulled it open, her mouth formed an 'o' as she looked over the evidence. She bowed her head and closed her green eyes.

"I see... My sister does not give up so easily. It was not enough to take my husband and son away from me."

"Do--do not speak of this to Rayfa," he said.

"Yes...you are right. She should not be pulled into this. Not if we can help it. What do you plan to do?"

"It was a fleeting foolishness to think we could ever escape her," Nahyuta's voice cracked with emotion. He stared past her, to the view of mountains and falling twilight. "A curse has come upon me. It is not until death that I will be free of her. And even then, I am not so sure I will ever find peace. My soul will be dragged into a million years of hell. And even then, it could not be worse than this life."

Her green-eyed gaze became intense, and filled with the force of a queen. "Do not speak of such things, Nahyuta. Your father was only buried last year," Queen Amara said.

"Is this not what she wants? My very blood, only then will she be sated."

"If the blood of thousands executed would not sate her, then yours would not either," Queen Amara said.

Nahyuta shook his head. "...You gave up father, Rayfa and me for the country. Do you ever regret it?"

Queen Amara bowed her head, as if in prayer. "Every day," she said.

"Then there's your answer. Every day I have given up shreds of myself for Khura'in, for the family. There is nothing left to give up but an empty husk. I cannot give up her."

He took the circlet off and held it out to her.

"Nahyuta, don't. Raise your head. You are a member of the royal family. From the line of the Holy Mother herself. Do not debase yourself like this."

It wouldn't be the first time his title had been stripped of him.

"Like this? I tried to break you and Rayfa free, and was forced to be her attack dog for years! I was forced to hunt father down and prosecute him! These are the terms for Ema's life. And if this is what I must do, then..."

Her gentle expression grew harsh. Lightning flashed. Birds quickly flew away from her. "Nahyuta Sahdmadhi, control yourself! You cannot abandon your station so carelessly, no matter how much you love the girl. You are the Prince Regent. You must value Khura'in above everything else."

He let out a long sigh and put it back on. "She...Ga'ran... still lives. I will gather my guards and speak to her myself. It isn't the first time as a prosecutor I've had to interrogate a family member. I can only hope it will finally be the last."

He had a lead, after all. Even if it made his heart clench in his chest, he knew all the dark corners of this country; he'd gotten his hands bloodstained. But he'd never wished for this fate to entwine with Ema. He'd been foolish to ever think he could rinse clean the sins of what he'd been forced to do.

*

"Search the tunnels. Start with the Left Hand of Judgment."

The guards nodded, and left. Five more followed him up the many stairs of the tower. Built long ago, it was filled with dark history. There were tales of a former princess who had flung herself from the rafters. No one would stay within the walls for fear of the untethered spirits which might still live there. But when it came to her judgement, Nahyuta had chosen limbo rather than death.

How fitting, considering that Ga'ran haunted them even now.

Without the bars, it would look simply like a royal apartment. A single bed, a bookcase full of the holy teachings. The room was filled with startling red. The carpet, the bedcovers, even the hangings of the walls. Of flames. The murals of the death of Queen Amara had found a new home, as Ga'ran could be forced to face her crimes.

It was too good a fate for her, and yet he could not continue as he once had. Nahyuta couldn't bring himself to execute her, and the guards who had served her. He couldn't let blood taint their country again. So she had been locked away. His hands were already bloodstained enough as it was.

She rose up from her cell slowly, like a nightmare. Her long nails looked like claws as she clutched the bars. Her hair was unkempt and wild. He could only see sections of her through the bars. Here, a tattoo across her cheek, there the edge of an unnerving smile.

"Where is she?"

"No hellos after such a long separation? Dear, dear, Yuty. You are so rude to your aunt," Ga'ran said. The false sweetness in her voice belied the wild fury in her eyes.

For so many years it had been him within the cell of her words, and her the queen holding his fate in her palm. But now, he had taken the throne, even if only as a Regent.

"Quiet your lies! What have you done with Ema? I know you were behind this."

Her mouth curved in a smile. "And what will you do to me? Execute me? You don't have the nerve. Had it been me, I would have executed an usurper in seconds. The night would have come with their blood dripping down the gallows. Your blood, Yuty. Your little head rolling off the execution block."

"Tell me where she is," Nahyuta said again, more firmly this time.

She turned away. "I don't bargain with traitors. You already see the conditions. If you want the foreign unbeliever back, then you will agree to them. But don't take long, Yuty. She must be awful hungry by now."

"She's my wife," Nahyuta said between gritted teeth.

"That does not change anything. She is still a foreign unbeliever, married to the son of Dhurke Sahdmadhi. That man was a weed sown in the bloodline. It is no surprise that his children are such..."

"I could send you to the execution block in a second. It is only my mercy that you still live. Remember that," Nahyuta said.

"But you won't. I keep thinking, why? Was it Amara's weakness that came to you as well? Or could it be you cannot bring yourself to raise your hand to me? Did you ever feel any loyalty for me at all?" Ga'ran said. Her intense gaze made him feel like a butterfly pinned on display. Life slowly ebbing from him.

"You were the queen. The heir of the blood of the holy mother. Even as I knew what you did was not in alignment with what Khura'inism was supposed to be, I could not simply turn aside my faith."

She laughed. "You fool. I am the Holy Mother made flesh upon this world. I brought justice when the rest of your were too cowardly. Your mother went and married the enemy. A defense lawyer as the consort! It was spitting upon the face of Our Holy Mother daily."

"Let the past go. Now, tell me where you put her," Nahyuta said again.

"Do you ever think I will let her go? I'll drag that girl into a million years of hell with me. How will your soul react weighed by such guilt as knowing you failed both your father and your wife? To say nothing of her child...."

"You...."

Seas of sorrow threatened to overwhelm him. He tried to steady his breath. Focus on the meditation techniques. Do not allow yourself to be overtaken by her again. What's past is past. You will save Ema. You will save Ema.

"The clock is ticking, little Yuty. Will you save her or let her die?"

It was as if an icy hand gripped his throat. Even with their stations switched, the blade of Damocles still hung over him.

Damn his country to kill thousands, or damn his wife and never know happiness again. Either way, the weight on his soul would drag him down.

The guards could return at any moment. They would find her. He could only trust within those around him. But those footsteps didn't come. As desperate as he was to hear them, to hear the call of we've found her, your wife is safe.

"I suppose that's your answer, then. I have just one question," Ga'ran said.

"Yes?" Nahyuta said softly.

"Do you trust your guards? The ones who once served me so faithfully?"

"They saw your fall. They even helped bring about your end. They were the ones who held the guns to your back as you were led away," Nahyuta said.

"Is that so?" Ga'ran said. She began to laugh. "You always were a fool, Yuty. You thought you could fool me then, and you think you can rule now."

The sharp blow came before he could even react. Another, and another, all from the guards he had trusted with his life. A blow, quick and unseen sent him spiraling into dark. The last thing he heard was the sound of Ga'ran's laughter.

*

He awoke underground. Cold, darkness, and the scent of earth overpowered him. As he stretched, he found his hands bound. Once he had stood beside Ga'ran in the Left Hand of Judgment. Now, it was him dragged down to the depths of this hell.

How could it be that his own guards defected? Had he failed Khura'in so that they would willingly walk back to tyranny? They truly believed a woman who would gladly send them to the gallows at any hint of displeasure would be a better keeper of Khura'in than him?

He tried to center himself in a prayer, but the sorrow was too overwhelming to find the words. His pleas to Her had gone unanswered so many times. As Apollo disappeared from his life. As his attempts to break his mother and Rayfa free simply ensnared him in Ga'ran's web.

As his rebuilt life crumbled within the space of a mere weekend.

Here he was again, wrapped in her manipulations. Perhaps her claims of being the true incarnation of the Holy Mother were right. Perhaps in his lives before, he'd sinned grievously enough to turn the wrath of the Holy Mother upon him.

The cell door opened. No bread, no water. It swung shut with a massive creak of rusted metal. But he was no longer alone. He became all too aware of the sound of footsteps crunching in the dirt.

"No mercy for traitors."

"Ur'Dihara Ga'ran."

The first kick to his ribs left a taste of shock and blood in his mouth. The second left his breathless. The third was hard enough that he heard bones crack.

"Don't harm his face. He needs to be presentable for his trial."

He looked up to see Ga'ran before him, just beyond the bars. They had switched places. Instead of her within the tower, it was him within the tomb.

"I wouldn't want little Yuty's face to be bruised before it falls to the ground, after all," Ga'ran said.

The guards--the same who had pretended to loyally serve him--circled around him. Nahyuta tried to curl into a fetal position to escape the pain, but it was relentless. Every time he attempted to calm his mind, it was broken down.

The sound of bones crunching. The sickening throbbing in his head, knowing that this had happened to Ema.

I deserve nothing less, but she... Ema must live.

*

Rayfa came into the garden, sullenly as twilight approached.

"Mother, where has Braidhead gone to?" Rayfa said. "He was to guide me today in the meeting."

Her brow furrowed in concern. "He was not with you? Oh..."

Before she could say more, a servant came up to them. Beyond the cloak, their face was unseen and indiscernible. They bowed, and handed over a manila envelope.

"For you, Queen Amara."

"Me?" She had been cloistered away for so many years, the thought of a message from outside was strange, like a forgotten word.

She opened up and nearly dropped the envelope.

"Oh, Holy Mother...not him too."

Birds flew from her. The paper crumbled in her fingers. Rayfa looked up from the koi she had been watching beneath the surface of the pond.

"What? What has happened, mother? Show me!"

"It is better if you do not see." What a horrible thing it would be, should this be the last memory Rayfa had of Nahyuta.

She let the pictures fall to the pond and slowly disappear under the surface. It was a reckless point, destroying possible evidence, but no mother should have to see her child in such a state.

Queen Amara tried to keep her voice even, but she could not quite keep the desperation in check. "Rayfa, come with me--come with me now." She took Rayfa's arm, and led her past the courtyard, into the room which had once been the royal consort, but now stood empty.

Rayfa drew back at the sight of it, the memory of the almost father she'd lost. The room had a thin layer of dust, for not even the servants would disturb it. It was like a tomb, willfully forgotten with the past regime.

"Mother, you're hurting me. Your grip is too tight!"

"Don't fuss. This is important. We must work quickly. "Remove your vestments, and your crown, and get changed now."

She left go, and began to dig within the wardrobe for the person she'd been for decades. Queen Amara pulled out the robes, and laid them out. Once, she'd taken on the title of Nayna, a nursemaid. Now, Rayfa would share the same fate. But she would live, at least.

"Mother--"

"You must bend like this. Keep your face hidden. We will have you outside the castle before nightfall. Speak as little as possible. Do not look anyone in the eye. We can have you across the boarder before morning."

"Mother, what is all this? I am to be queen! I need to know things to understand!"

"Ga'ran wishes to regain the throne. She already has Ema and Nahyuta," Queen Amara said.

"She--she has "Braidhea....brother--? And his foreign wife? Are they safe?!"

"That I do not know," Queen Amara lied.

Rayfa stomped her foot. She was older, but still a teenager yet, and still so impetuous. "I won't run! I am to be queen of Khura'in! I will not let her frighten me. She has no power now!"

"Keep quiet, love. There's no telling which of the guards or servants may be secretly loyal to her." Queen Amara glanced behind her for a moment, before she spoke again. The last signature from Ga'ran had said do you trust those around you?

"Sometimes being a Queen means giving up everything--and everyone--you love." Her voice broke at this. "And all you can do is push forward. You cannot channel yet. You are the last hope of our country."

"But, mother..."

"Do not worry. I will not let her try this latest game without a fight."

Rayfa bowed her head and began to lift up the robes. "Yes, mother," she said softly.

*

Nahyuta lost sense of time. He had not been given any nourishment or drink. He did not even find the solace of sleep, as a guard would be sent in every time he fell too still. Some came with knives, others with harsh words, and still more simply armed with their own two hands--which they made good use of.

A light was shown in his face. Behind the brilliance, he could see the dark shape of the former queen, like a shade from the Twilight Realm.

"Tell me where Rayfa is."

Nahyuta remained quiet.

"Maybe this will loosen your tongue."

A picture was shoved in front of his face. Ema's face was filled with such fear in the blinding light of a flash that it made his mind grow blank. She still lived, but oh, what had they done to her?

Again, he was forced to choose: his wife or his family? His life or hers? He'd give his life in a second if he could, but Ga'ran fed upon his sorrow.

"I know nothing," Nahyuta said.

"I see you need more encouragement," she said.

Winding tunnels. His feet were unsteady with lack of sleep and food. A trough of water was spread out in the middle of the room. It was only when he was forced down onto his knees before the water that he knew. He took a gasping breath before his face was forced beneath the dirty water. His lungs burned as he was dragged up for only a second to cough and sputter, before his head was forced down again.

If he breathed in enough water to drown, would she accept his sacrifice and let Ema, Rayfa and Queen Amara go?

As if Ga'ran could ever be that merciful.

As acting Prosecutor he'd been forced to see the horrors she'd done. Once, he'd questioned if this truly reflected the teachings of the Holy Mother. The next day, Rayfa had fallen and broken her leg. An accident, it was claimed, even as Rayfa claimed she had been pushed. The look in Ga'ran's eyes made Nahyuta know it was no accident. The next time, he was silent as she forced him to be her accomplice in the foul deeds.

So often she had sat back and let her men do the dirty work. But sometimes, she judged the Accused with her own torments. When that happened, often the trial would never come. She would simply write the law to execute the Accused herself, with her own hand. This time, it wasn't a guard, but her own hands which pushed him under.

"Now, tell me. Where. Is. Rayfa?" Ga'ran's voice grew thin with displeasure.

He fought for breath. Her long nails dug into his skin. Salty water dripped down his cheeks.

"I--do not know where she is," he said.

"You act so high and mighty, like you'd ever be forgiven. Your hands are just as dirty as mine. And you'll never escape the weight of what you've done."

Water dripped down from his mouth. He choked, coughed and fought for breath. Ga'ran waited. As patient as a cat with a mouse. "I... know," he said finally.

"Good," Ga'ran said. "Why don't you have a little taste of what kind of hells are coming to a person like you?"

She shoved him back under the water, and he drowned a little more.

*

Ema had tried to kept time by the amount of meals missed. But then the hunger grew so intense, that she couldn't even use that. There was a constant pain of acid coursing through her stomach, made even worse by her pregnancy. Every cell within her begged for just a drop of water, a crumb. Her body was in agony from the beatings, the lack of food and water. They said hunger was something a person could get accustomed to, well they were wrong. But there wasn't even a hint of light or hope, except when the light of a flashlight came searing through the tunnels. And that was the opposite of hope.

Ema pulled away as the door creaked open. Dread filled her as she was again caught in the spotlight. Polaroids rained down. She reached down and lifted one, though she had to shade her eyes away from the force of the brightness. Ema flinched when she realized just what she was looking at. His coat had been ripped off to show the extent of his bruises. His eyes were closed, and he was still. Was he even still alive?

She didn't believe in a god, or miracles, but she somewhere within her was a prayer without belief that he was still alive. A wish to the cold reaches of the universe that somehow, they could escape this together.

"Where is Rayfa?" came that sickly sweet voice Ema knew all too well.

Ema bit back a smartass comment. She forced herself to take a breath before responding. The last thing she needed to do was anger her captor. "I don't know anything about politics or anything like that."

"Surely Nahyuta would have told you?"

Ema drew away more, until her back was to the cold, stone wall and she was out of reach of any blow."No. He doesn't share anything at all most of the time. I can barely figure out what he's thinking. I'm not involved with ruling at all."

"Ah. So he has grown even more like Amara."

Ema didn't respond at this. She'd already said too much.

"A shame. You could've saved your husband. Now you'll have to watch him die, and live with that guilt."

The door swung closed. Ema got up with as much force as she could. If she could've given some tidbit of information--she would've. Something seemingly important enough to get him released, but in the end a red herring, a false lead.

But, even she knew that would be Rayfa's death sentence. She closed her eyes shut tight to stop the tears that threatened to overflow. The hunger and thirst were constant, and now her only companions in the oppressive darkness.

*

"Get up."

Ema let out a groan and tried to pull herself away from the next strike that would surely come. The guard dragged her up until she stood as shakily as a newborn fawn. A cloak was thrown over her, and a single guard led her out. A gun was hidden away beyond the guard's own cloak, but she felt the hard press of metal to her back.

If she was stronger, maybe, maybe, maybe she could've elbowed him in the solar plexus and made a break for it. But days of no food and water left her barely able to walk, let alone some daring plan right out of a movie. Still, she was forced to move slowly forward. Through the dark tunnels, until she was blinking in the morning sunlight.

She'd forgotten how beautiful fresh air was. The tantalizing scent of the market, full of sweet fruits and delicacies. Her mouth was too dry to water. How she hadn't fallen into hallucinations at this point, she didn't know. (She wished it was all a hallucination, a fever dream. She wished she could wake up from this nightmare, and oh how she tried. She wished his arms would hold her tight and say you've woken. The dreams cannot hurt you anymore as he had so many times before.)

But, it was real. All of it. The hunger, the pain, the pensive feeling that filled her with each step.

A crowd gathered around the gallows. A soldier cloaked in black sharpened a giant sword. The former queen's words rung in her mind: A shame. You could've saved your husband. Now you'll have to watch him die, and live with that guilt.

*

A dark cloak was pushed back as the person bowed before the statue of the Holy Mother, deep within the castle sanctum. Her forehead pressed to the ground, and her lips moved in a wordless prayer.

"Guide me, Holy Mother. Help me find a way to save him."

No guards interrupted the silence. There was no voice, only a memory of a time past, and a legend lost to time. She rose up, and bowed her head this time.

"Thank you, Holy Mother."

*

Once, she had painted revolution upon her forehead. Now, Beh'leeb left her child with an older neighbor, and again painted her brow red, like her husband's blood.

"Perhaps I will join you today, dear. But it will be as a free woman," Beh'leeb said. She kissed the small portrait of her husband, and laid it on the dusty table. A memento for Faitah if she did not return. Right beside the apple peelings. Datz flicked the last seed.

"Just when this place was starting to go legit, the old tyrant came back from the dead," Datz said. He shook his head. "We'll just have to capture her again. Hey, over there. You want one? I say, never go to battle on an empty stomach."

Beh'leeb did not respond. She bowed her head, in a prayer, or a memory. Datz shrugged it off and put the last piece of apple in his mouth.

The hatch opened. Datz smiled as he caught sight of the new arrival.

"It's been a while, boss," Datz said.

*

Nahyuta had not been allowed sleep after the judgment. But at one point of time in the darkness of the tunnels, he was he was led out, swaying from exhaustion, weakness and pain into the light of day. At every side of him were guards. He could not see if they had once served him through the masks.

His eyes were so swollen from the water torture that he could barely see the light of day. He blinked away and tried to force himself to witness his last stand, his last trial.

The guards led him up the gallows. The execution block had been brought out. It still bore the blood of thousands of lawyers and the Accused Ga'ran had sent to the Twilight Realm. He had stood at the side before, telling himself over and over that the Divination Seance could not lie, even if Ga'ran's methods were extreme. Now, he knew better.

He had turned his head aside to the pleas for mercy for the innocent before. Ga'ran had always said, this was how criminals were. Liars to the end. And that was what he fed the gaping, gnawing conscience within himself. Now he did not face the crowd and beg for shelter as those Accused and lawyers had. He deserved no mercy.

Ga'ran stood tall above them all. She had returned to her true throne, right at the side of the execution blade. She had unmasked fury and wild bloodlust in her green eyes.

"There's only one cure for traitors." The blade shone in the early morning light, newly sharpened and ready for a taste of his blood.

"Little Yuty, you thought you could play a prince. You with the tainted blood of a killer. You thought you were so clever, sneaking into my courts and paying false fealty. I always knew. Did you think me a complete fool? Well, it was you who were the fool!"

Nahyuta held out his wrists. "Let them go. Let Rayfa, Ema, mother and Apollo live. Let me be sacrifice enough."

Her smile was as jagged as a slash. She grabbed for his collar, and in a swift movement, she cut his braid. It fell to the ground. The crowd gasped. Not even the worst Accused would be stripped of their humanity like this.

"Look. There goes your dignity. But, oh, it was already long gone. Tainted blood will never be forgiven. The sins of the father fall upon the son. Surely, he would have guided us straight into chaos and death. For that was what he was born from."

She turned, blade held high and addressed the crowd.

"I would do anything to protect this country. But I cannot be expected to pay for Amara's one folly: trusting a killer. As long as his seed lives on, Khura'in will only know chaos. They must be plucked up, so Khura'in can finally know peace again."

"He was exonerated. And you call this peace? You executed thousands of innocent lawyers, even as you turned the sacred courts into a graveyard."

He knew the blow would come even as he said it.

"Quiet, you! That trial was a lawyer's dirty lie. But, I'm not about to let a pathetic traitor like you die with any dignity, even if you are a child of Amara. She must finally answer for her sins."

The blade shone bright in the sun. "He was the enemy all along. To be expected from a killer's son. Did you truly expect us to believe those lies the lawyers put up about him being innocent? They forced my hand. Put a hex upon me so I could not channel."

The jeers rose up. Were these the same ones who had come to his coronation? Oh how swiftly the air of Khura'in changed. He closed his eyes as the chants for his death grew more frenzied. It was only then that he realized the blood trickling down his cheek. She'd nicked his cheek. The cries for more of his blood rose up, like a chant, an invocation.

"Lawyers are an abomination. The scene within the courtroom? He put an amulet on me to seal my rightful powers as the queen. He has defied the voice of the Holy Mother on earth, and gone against our Lady Herself. And for that, he will have the judgment of Lady Keera's blade."

Her story wasn't even holding together. But that didn't stop the crowds.

"Say it," Ga'ran said.

He did not speak. The strike came quick, right across his face. Nahyuta tasted blood as he stared at the shining sword within her hands. All around Ga'ran were her royal guards, ready to strike again, however many times it would take to hear the confession they wanted.

Just as Ga'ran had so many times. Just as Nahyuta had been forced to watch, to comply with.

"Perhaps that will loosen your tongue. Do it again and it won't be you who is bleeding."

He licked his cracked lips and tried to speak, though no words came. Finally, he bowed his head.

"Should you need inspiration, look behind you."

In the crowd, he saw her. The swell of her pregnant belly, a scarf across her mouth, hidden as a decoration, but he knew a gag when he saw it. The guard held a knife to her throat. Just a small reminder, should he try and flee.

As if he could even escape the bonds in this condition. Or any condition. For a small time, he'd known happiness. He was a fool to think it could have lasted. But, at least in this life he had met her.

For the first time in days, he felt a little bit of relief. She still lived, at least.

This was who he lived for. This was who he died for.

He turned his face away, before his resolve wavered. "I am unworthy to hold the title of Prince Regent. Thus, I resign it, to deliver the kingdom of..." he swallowed. "Khura'in back to the o-one true Queen, the representation of The Holy Mother incarnated, Ga'ran."

"On your knees, traitor."

"I only ask that you give me a chance to preform the last rites for myself," Nahyuta said.

She smirked. "Your own last rites? A sinner like yourself will surely fall into the pits of Bahlgilpo'kon for a hundred thousand years. As the representation of the Holy Mother on this earth, the word I wrote is law. And that law goes beyond the mere world of mortals. But I will allow it. Go on, the agonies of a thousand hells awaits you."

His fingers moved across the rosary. His mind was unfettered by the jeers, and calls for his death. No, it was not them which held him to this mortal plane. In the end, he was weak. His faith could not sustain him. Even his thoughts fell back to them:

--The girl whose smile warmed the ice of his heart
--The child he never would get to meet
--The mother he'd lost and found again, back from the dead like a miracle sprung to life
--The brother who disappeared
--The sister raised as a stranger
--The father he was forced to betray

How many lives would it take to escape the weight of his cowardice? Would his sacrifice give him even a glimpse of happiness in the next thousand years? In history he would be a footnote.

His eyes opened. "It is done. Finish this," Nahyuta said.

Finish this life, this unending sorrow.

Nahyuta had let his guard down. He'd begun to believe that he could be happy, unfettered by the web of the queen. That had been his downfall, believing that something good to come to him within this life. Perhaps in the next hundred lives, he would be finally free of Ga'ran, and the weight of his sins.

He was guided with a blade to his back, and a blade to his beloved towards where he would breathe his last.

A bellow of Objection! rang out as Nahyuta laid his head upon the chopping block.

"Back to your old tricks, Ga'ran? I thought by now you'd learn."

She clutched tight to her blade tight. Her face twisted in fury. "You! I killed you! I sat and watched your body twitch and die! It was so satisfying to know you'd finally be cast into the million hells you deserved."

Dhurke smirked. "I'll come back as many times as it takes until you finally realize. You should know better than any. Or you wouldn't, now would you? It turns out you don't have the power of a Queen after all. You're a complete farce."

Voices rose from the crowd. "He lies! The filthy and corrupt lawyer lies!"

His hair hung down silver and long down his back, leaving no question who had called him from the Twilight Realm.

Ga'ran feigned compassion, but not even her sweet words could match the stark bloodlust in her eyes. "Amara, don't be a fool. Don't let his lies taint your mind again."

"Who do you think brought me back here? Let my boy go. I'm the traitor you've been looking for."

"So be it. I've already seen your blood spill. I'll do it again, if I need be. So, Dhurke, who dies?"

"Tonight, nobody. Except, maybe you," Dhurke said.

Dhurke wasn't alone. A whole army of people stood against him. The Defiant Dragons had grown in number since Ga'ran's dethroning. Beh'leeb led them, revolution written in red on her brow.

"Release him! Release him! You are not our queen! You are not our queen!"

It was no peaceful revolution; none of them came unarmed.

"It looks like a lot of people believe that lawyers can be good. Just because you packed the gallows with your bloodthirsty soldiers doesn't mean the country wants you back."

"Kill them. All of them," Ga'ran said.

Cloaks were pulled back. The hidden soldiers, the sound of cries of pain and gunfire filled the air. No revolution was bloodless. A Soldier pulled him back from the gallows. His fate was averted--for now.He looked back, desperate to see Dhurke--channeled by his mother--and Ema safe. But he couldn't see them through the crowd.

Yet again, here he was, helpless in the face of a revolution. He had no weapons, and was too weak from lack of nourishment, of sleep and the constant torture he had received for days.

A shriek of agony rose up. One by one, the guards fell to the ground, their uniforms stained with blood. A woman in a mask cut through the crowd. A cloak of red covered her shoulders. She held up her knife, covered with the blood of Ga'ran's rebels, and rushed to the gallows.

It wasn't horror that filled the crowd, but awe. A gasp, a cry of "Lady Kee'ra!" rose up. Even the soldiers dropped their weapons and bowed in her presence.

Her voice echoed out ethereally from the mask. "I have been drawn from the twilight realm to judge the one unworthy to hold the throne."

Ga'ran sneered. "He's right there."

"No. This judgment is for you, Ga'ran Sigatar Khura'in!"

Ga'ran swung her sword, but such a massive sword only could cut someone bound. It was far too slow, and Lady Kee'ra jumped back and away.

"You fools, attack her!" Ga'ran whirled around at her guards.

Her soldiers did not move, for they were struck numb by the appearance of Lady Kee'ra. When it came to a Queen and a legend brought to life, they chose Lady Kee'ra.

Realization came over Ga'ran."I should've strangled you in your crib, you insolent welp."

"Too late, now," came the voice from the mask.

Ga'ran raised the executioner's sword again, but Kee'ra struck. Nahyuta could not draw his eyes away as the knife sunk into her flesh over and over. First her chest, then it was drawn out with such force, and her neck--He had grown used to the sound of a head falling to the ground. Ga'ran had received the same fate she had given to so many innocents.

The crowd was silent as Lady Kee'ra collapsed to the ground. The mask fell from her face. Panting, and covered in blood across that red feathered cloak, she forced herself up. Rayfa rose up and lifted her bloodstained hands. "I am your queen! And if you even think of harming my family, I will execute you with my own hands!"

One by one, the crowd fell to their knees and bowed before her.

"Ur'Dihara Rayfa!"

"Ur'Dihara Rayfa!"

The cheers rose up, so loud that Nahyuta could barely hear his father's laugh.

"Looks like your sister learned how to channel after all. She's a spitfire, that one."

Dhurke bent before him. Silvery hair coursed down his back.Both mother and father had come for him in the end.

He smiled as he offered his hand.

"Let's get out of here. You have someone who's waiting for you."

"She is still safe?"

"Yeah. They kept her alive," Dhurke said.

"Father--I'm sorry," Nahyuta said desperately. He clung to his father's sleeve for that moment. "I could not best Ga'ran then and was forced into her plan. And even now, she came back and wrested the crown from me. I was forced to do unthinkable things. I was a fool to think I could so simply rescue mother and Rayfa and escape, but I had to try."

Dhurke rested his large hand over Nahyuta's shoulder. After so many beatings, even than touch was painful. Still, he didn't draw away. "It happens to the best of us. I knew what she'd done to you, and never blamed you for it."

Words lodged in his throat. If only he could be proud of Nahyuta, as he had prided in Apollo. But there was nothing to compliment. Cowardice, resignation, sorrow and being forced to be fate's plaything were not the traits of a hero.

Dhurke disappeared, and it was his mother that stood before him. She pulled him into her arms. "Oh, Nahyuta...I was afraid I'd never see you again."

Nahyuta allowed his broken body to be cradled.

*

"Well, that went faster than expected. Remind me not to piss the new queen off," Datz said.

He cut free her gag, and steadied Ema as she started to topple.

"Whoa, you need some help there?"

"I got it, I got it," Ema said crossly.

Ema couldn't manage to run very fast at eight months, but she went as fast as she could, straight to his side, as he was led off the gallows and away from the executioner's blade.

"Ema," he said, so softly that she almost missed it among the cheers.

"What the hell were you thinking? Trying to sacrifice yourself like that!" Ema tried to embrace him, only to find her stomach got in the way. "Oh, damn."

He reached to touch her cheek. "Oh, Ema...I was sure I would never see you again in this life."

He leaned in, until their foreheads brushed. "Are you hurt, my love?"

"Eh, I'll live," she said. "You're the one who can barely stand."

"You need medical attention right away," Nahyuta said.

"Speak for yourself. You're covered in blood! And I--I saw the photos."

"Not all of it is my own. My sister is a more direct ruler than I when it comes to problems," Nahyuta said.

"I'm not gonna lie, that's pretty much the most badass thing I've ever seen. And I saw Apollo take Ga'ran down the first time."

"A shame he missed the show," Nahyuta said.

"We'll fill him in. Come on, we both need to get patched up," Ema said.

Beh'leeb guided them out past the crowd. The cries of Ur'Dihara Rayfa had risen to such a pitch that he could no longer hear her. But he kept her hand held tight in his.

*

The blood had been scrubbed from his cheeks, but not his clothes. Two gurneys had been pushed in close, side by side. If he reached out, he could just capture her hand in his. The white curtains had been pulled around them, until they had their only little shelter.

Ema had already finished several bags of Snackoos. She tossed aside another bag, and glanced towards him.

"Listen, some of the people of Khura'in, I can really do without. The ones who cheered for your death will probably be cheering at the next speech you make."

"There will be no speech. My resignation is final. It is obvious I did not have the strength within me for the position. If I had, then this never would have happened," Nahyuta said.

"Listen, I love you, but you really need to find a better strategy than sacrificing yourself. You tried that last time, and it didn't work then."

"Someone must have have told her," Nahyuta said.

"Told her what? That you were Prince Regent? That's pretty common knowledge," Ema said.

"The child about to be born is female," Nahyuta said.

"So what? That wouldn't chan--Oh..." Ema said.

He nodded. "She could well inherit the power. Even if not directly, it could come up within the line at any time."

"I want to say that I can't believe they would turn on you, but Khura'inese people have never seen a vigilante mob they didn't like. It's like a pitchfork and flaming torch special every single day out here," Ema said.

"She was the one who galvanized them to be like this. Before she tried to attack my mother, the Divination Seance was not treated as infallible, and lawyers were not considered unclean. She twisted the people and the courts, until they called for the blood of so-called sinners. The loss of my mother turned them vicious," Nahyuta said.

"A shame I never knew that Khura'in. It must've been a much better place," Ema said.

Nahyuta nodded.

He looked up, to the window above them. Motes of dust floated in the sunlight.

"I am an exile now, with no ties to the royal crown."

"I know Princess Rayfa has a temper, but I'm sure she will forgive you," Ema said.

"I exiled myself. Twice I have failed in my station. I will not fail Khura'in a third time. If you wish to go on alone, and return to L.A. then--"

"Oh, shut up. You're stuck with me. You know I don't care about all that stuff. I mean, it was funny to think I literally married some prince straight out of a fairytale, but I don't give a damn about anything but us being safe. I came to this place for you, not the other way around. It's been an interesting ride, but I'll go wherever you want. Besides, you'll always be some Disney Prince to me," she said.

He let out a relieved breath. "For that, I am grateful. The thought of going on without you was almost too much to bear."

She squeezed his hand. "I thought those pictures she forced me to look at would be the last I ever saw of you," Ema said.

She rested her hand at her stomach. "Of course, there's this little gremlin to think about. I'll take a break then for a while, but I don't want to stop forever."

"I would never think of such a thing as depriving you from your work," he said.

"The thing is... Will you really be happy without Khura'in?" she said.

"I have no other choice. I must let go, and move on," Nahyuta said.

"As far as I can see it, you've lived through being a pariah once before and you didn't completely leave Khura'in. You kept your head up even then. It wasn't your fault that she forced your hand again."

"The question is, am I more a coward for leaving or staying? Or am I forced to cowardice in both choices?" Nahyuta said.

"How about neither? You almost got killed up there. I almost had to watch you...."

Before Ema could finish her sentence, the curtains were thrown open. Rayfa still wore her bloodstained Lady Kee'ra robes, which only gave her green-eyed glare more intensity. "What were you thinking, brother?"

He bowed his head. "Queen Rayfa."

"Don't give me that, you're family."

"I see your channeling has finally manifested. The throne is finally yours," Nahyuta said.

Rayfa scrunched up her nose. "It was Ga'ran who always told me I wasn't strong enough, not old enough, so I never tried. But Barbed Head told me of a girl from Kurain who was able to channel despite being much younger than I. So while they tried to smuggle me out, I found my way to the archives of the court cases."

"To channel such a powerful and ancient spirit the very first try...Khura'in is truly in good hands," Nahyuta said.

He bowed his head. "I have resigned from the position of Prince Regent, and am no longer worthy to hold the title of a member of the royal family. Once my wounds have healed, and Ema has given birth, I will remove myself to prevent any further shame upon the country, and our family."

Rayfa blushed, and shook her balled fists. "Braidhead, this won't stand! I won't abide by you running away, be it in death or exile! Go rest and travel if you must, but always remember that Khura'in is your home and--I need you here, Braidhead! There's still many confusing things and if--if you don't return, then I'll never forgive you! Never!"

She turned on her heel and rushed off. She may have ascended the throne, but she was still a teenager.

"She's grown much in a very little time."

"Yeah. She probably didn't get much of a childhood."

"It is the weight our family must bear," Nahyuta said.

"Geez, let's skip the tradition of horrible tragedies with our kid, okay? So, after this kid is born, where should we head next? I'm thinking L.A. so this little one can meet her aunt," Ema said.

"That would be splendid," Nahyuta said.

She reached out and squeezed his hand. There were so many things he wished to say. But his mind was clouded with weariness, and every muscle within his body ached. Still, he pushed on.

"Ema, I--I adore you more than words could ever say. I am so thankful that I have been given another chance at happiness with you. But you must know, I was forced to do horrible things for Ga'ran to save my family. I had such hubris, thinking I could take her down by myself. The foolishness of youth. What happened to me was just. I deserved death then for being her willing accomplice. I was s-so naive. I thought I would merely be trying cases. Not forced to witness as she tortured out confessions and sent innocent lawyers, and likely Accused to the gallows. And I was not even strong enough to execute Ga'ran through it all. I left the country in danger due to my weakness. That I was spared was truly an act of mercy from the Holy Mother."

Ema's gaze was full of tenderness. "Nahyuta... The only one who hasn't forgiven you is yourself. Sometimes good people are forced to do awful things to save the people they love. I'm sure you remember what Gant forced my sister to do. She's out of prison now, but she isn't the same. Something about her never recovered. I only hope that one day I'll she'll be able to smile again and forget the past and what she was forced to do to protect me."

Nahyuta stared up at the shimmering dust motes. The thought that he could be forgiven seemed an impossibility, a fever dream.

"I don't care if you're an exile or Prince Regent, or just a traveling prosecutor. I love you and I'll always stand by you. Nothing is going to change that," Ema said.

He looked to her. No words could sum up his relief. He'd made many mistakes in his life, but she was not one of them. Meeting her was the one thing which made him believe fate could be averted, that he could know happiness within this life.

"I...Ema.... Thank you."

Ema's eyes had closed. She tried so hard to force them open, but yawned instead.

"Rest, love. Tomorrow will be better. This I promise," Nahyuta said.

"Well I damn hope it is. Today was a top ten bad day. Maybe it's even dethroned the day Lana got taken away to jail and the times I failed my forensic exams. I guess life can only go up from here. It's gotta get back to good sometime," Ema said.

"Yes. Now that you are here, there will be goodness in life again," Nahyuta said.

As he closed his eyes, Nahyuta felt a deep sense of peace and relief. Happiness was possible. He had not lost everything. Finally, he could believe again.