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The Brothers' War

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Archbishop Siccius, dressed in the full, elaborate robes of his office, leaned back against the high back of his chair. His robes actually fit with the splendor of the chair he sat in (really almost a throne, though not as ornately carved as the King’s throne in Carrick Town—his predecessor that had commissioned it had been no fool). And the chair matched the splendor of the room that surrounded it. As he calmly considered the man kneeling before him—Sir Cabble, the former baron of Denton—he once again took a moment to consider stripping the room ... the cathedral, really ... of its riches. Perhaps the coming crisis would be so expensive he could use it as an excuse? Certainly, with the way things were likely to go he wouldn’t have to be concerned about the opinions of the other member of the Curia ... or rather, his successor. Later, you have more important things to think about right now, like the man in front of you.

He’d had forewarning of who King Conall was bringing with him and why so he wasn’t as flabbergasted as the King must have been. He’d even had some time to consider what to do about Cabble’s request, and he had to hide a smile—the King wasn’t the only one that could be flabbergasted, no matter how strong the serenity Cabble’s vision had given him. And from the expression of the former baron, that serenity was fading—no surprise, while the Archbishop had never had such a close personal encounter with the Divine himself, Sir Cabble wasn’t the first person he had known to do so ... while the impact on those so blessed would never completely vanish, over time they would come to live in the world around them rather than their memories. In this case, Siccius suspected it would happen faster than normal. “So you wish to become a monk.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“To atone for your many sins.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“Many of those sins are also crimes.” The Archbishop looked up at the King, standing with his entourage a few paces behind the petitioner. “Your Majesty?”

Conall shrugged. “Yes, he’s a traitor to the throne. But he’s clearly penitent, has renounced his lordship, and surrendered himself to my authority when he could have run with the rest of his family. If I punish the rebel lords that give up the fight I’d have to start with Lord William, here.” He nodded at the lord standing stiffly upright beside him (probably more from the trial of the journey than any offense, Lord William wasn’t as young as he had been.). “That would not be a good idea.”

“Considering that the army camped outside of town is mostly his, yeah, no.”

Maid Nabiki’s muttered comment was quiet enough that Siccius could ignore it, and the quiet chuckles from the others. He dropped his gaze back to Cabble. “As the King declines to summon you to judgment for your crimes, I see no reason that I cannot grant your request. I even have an order in mind ... the Order of St. George of the Dragon.”

Cabble’s eyes widened. “Your Excellency? I ... I had hoped ...”

“You had hoped to leave this world and its problems you helped create behind so that you could focus on your vision and the desperate need to beg for repentance on your knees it engendered.”

“ … Yes, Your Excellency.”

Siccius shook his head. “There is more to repentance than begging forgiveness, there is also fixing what you have broken as well as you are able. I fear we will have need of your sword and leadership in the days to come.”

“I ... I don’t understand,” the now thoroughly confused penitent admitted. “The Order of St. George is sworn to the protection of Christians, it stays out of the affairs of princes. Even if the legions invade, it will be neutral then as it was in the rebellion.”

Siccius looked up at the King again. “You didn’t tell him about Durham?” When Conall shook his head, Siccius looked back down at Cabble. “While the King was marching south to deal with the rebellion, the Hospitallers invaded up the River Conn. Lady Bronwyn ambushed them with the help of a local mage, but not before they assaulted a town without demanding its surrender and massacred all that lived there except a few that managed to fight their way out the front gate—all done on the direct orders of the Grandmaster of the Order. He was captured when Lady Bronwyn shattered his army, and rather than turn him over to the Curia to be tried she personally executed him.”

“Executed him.”

Siccius nodded at Cabble’s flat statement. “Yes. Apparently, she felt that spending the rest of his life herding sheep in some country monastery wasn’t sufficient justice for the murder of so many of her people.”

Cabble looked up over his shoulder at the now grim-faced King, then turned back to the Archbishop, and Siccius knew what was going through his mind—the occasional rumor that the King’s support for Lady Bronwyn was because he held her close in his heart rather than through any quality of her own (though her singlehanded defeat of the Hospitallers ought to squelch that for a time). Siccius thought that wasn’t quite fair—that in this case Conall would have acted the same even if he despised her—but Cabble’s conclusion would be accurate enough ... the King would never turn Lady Bronwyn over to the Curia for judgment and execution by burning at the stake. He was proven right when the now pale Cabble whispered, “It won’t just be the legions coming, it’ll be the Church.”

“Yes. And since the Grandmaster carried out his invasion because of what he sees as rampant heresy in Caithness, and since the Megalan members that control the Curia will likely desire to make him a martyr in order to further their own designs on Caithness”—and do the bidding of the Emperor, he didn’t add, though every Yrth-born present knew it—“they are likely to agree with him posthumously. Which means what comes won’t just be an invasion, it will be a declared crusade.”

“And the Order of St. George will fight to protect Christians from attack ... in Caithness.”

“I am sure that Sir Osgood will release from their vows those who cannot in good conscience raise their swords against the Curia so they they may follow where their conscience guides them.”

A brief smile flitted across Cabble’s face—the Order’s loyalty to the Archbishop was well known, earned by his simplicity of life and message placing charity and justice for the common folk at the center of what it meant to be a Christian. The chances of a sizable number of defections from the Order in the event of a declared crusade against Caithness were slight. But that smile vanished as quickly as it came as the former rebel considered what he had just been told. Finally, he nodded. “You are right, we rebels gave the Grandmaster the opportunity he seized on, it is my duty before God to do what I can to deal with the results with my sword as well as my prayers.”

“Very well.” Siccius looked over at the handful of priests attending him. “Giles, escort Sir Cabble to a cell. Arthur, send word to Sir Osgood that his Order has a new novitiate.” The two priests acknowledged their orders, and as Giles escorted Sir Cabble from the room Siccius turned his attention to the rest of the King’s party. There were several knights, of course, Siccius assumed of the Order of the Stone given that Order’s loyalty to the King—though one of them, the female one, was standing closer to Maid Nabiki than Conall. There was Lord William, more relaxed now that Cabble had left ... perhaps less than happy with the penitent’s ready admittance of his evil motives for pressing the rebellion they had both been a part of. Sir Morgan, the Kildar, arrived with a small party from Oakwood the same day as the King’s army from the other direction, was known to Siccius as well. But the other four, a young man and three maidens, were a surprise, all young—younger than Nabiki, he thought, though he couldn’t be sure given the foreign cast to their features—and all with the almond-shaped eyes of Nabiki’s race. One of them was clearly Nabiki’s sister, and from the way she and the young man were clutching each others’ hands and apparently unconsciously snuggled up against each other, they were either lovers, affianced, or married. The second maiden was another matter—she was clutching Nabiki’s sister’s other hand, but there was nothing romantic about it, and she bore the signs of recent, strong grief. But it was the third maiden that drew Siccius’s attention, and he had a strong suspicion who she was. “So,” Siccius finally said, nodding to the four, “I recognize Sir Morgan, Maid Nabiki, and Lord William, of course, who might you be?”

The four exchanged quick glances, then the maiden that had most caught his eye stepped forward. Her hands were shaking and her head twitched as if she’d begun to look toward Nabiki, but then she took a deep breath and utter calmness seemed to wash over her. She motioned to the other maidens. “This is Maid Akane, Maid Nabiki’s sister, her close friend, Maid Sayuri, and her fiancé Ranma.” Another deep breath. “I am Maid Miyo.”

He’d been right. Straightening in his seat, Siccius sternly sharpened his gaze. “So you are the one that claims to be a prophetess. I suppose you have ... suggestions ... for me?”

More than one petitioner much older than Miyo had fallen to his knees under the weight of the Archbishop’s undivided attention. He was impressed when her gaze didn’t waver. He was surprised when she actually grinned. “Oh, no, Your Excellency, I wouldn’t dream of giving you ... suggestions. I am a newcomer to this world, what do I know of the currents of power or the management of a church? Nor has Deborah given me any ... suggestions ... to pass on to you. Consider her history—like her, my fields will be of training, battle, and army camps rather than the pulpit; more of a Judge than a Prophet. Besides, what could I tell you of what is coming that you don’t already know? What I do have is a request.” She glanced over her shoulder at Conall, and her eyes softened at the sudden guilt in his eyes. “I have already spoken to the King. We will be establishing the Order of Saint Deborah, a school for maidens and matrons, in the arts of defense and war.”

“War!” Siccius exclaimed. “Surely you aren’t suggesting that the King should call women into the ranks of his army!”

Miyo gazed at him for a long moment. “You are aware of just who made up the bulk of the Kildar’s scouts, when we passed through on our way to Oakwood?”

“Yes. I knew about the Keldara maidens serving the King before you first arrived.” And had considered ‘requesting’ that Miyo meet with him when they’d first passed through, but had decided that it was not the time. Time enough once the rebellion had been defeated. “But surely this was a unique occurrence, given the exigencies of the moment?” Miyo glanced in the direction that Sir Cabble had been led away, and Siccius quietly chuckled at the hint of the discussion he had just had with the former baron. But only for a moment. “Even so. It is Man’s duty to protect Woman, not the other way around.”

“And how well did that work out at Durham?” Siccius winced at the reminder of the massacre at that barony, and Miyo gusted out a sigh. “That wasn’t entirely fair. I’m sure the men of Pilton fought like tigers in defense of their families, but they died ... and their families with them. I’m not saying that all women of the proper age should be expected to serve, or even most of them. But there was a saying from a popular ... play ...” She waved a hand uncertainly. “ ... before. ‘Those without swords can still die on them.’ Or worse. Even if only a tenth of those women capable of serving join the colors, don’t you think they may well be needed? And even if most of the women trained don’t join, at least they will be able to put up a fight of their own if the men tasked with defending them are overwhelmed.”

Siccius considered her words, and finally nodded. “As you say, difficult times. So what is your request?”

“I ask that you assign a priest to see to the spiritual welfare of those that choose to join the new Order, or just train with us.”

And give my unspoken approval to the Order. But the words went unspoken, not that there was any need to say them—everyone in the room that mattered had understood. Still, it wasn’t an unreasonable request and it wasn’t like the Curia didn’t already have other ways they could force a break, so Siccius was opening his mouth to agree when he caught the subtle sign he had worked out with Conall years earlier. “I will consider your request and have an answer for you before the King continues on to Oakwood and Lord William and his soldiers return home.” He rose to his feet. “Your Majesty, now would be the best time for us to discuss the Grand Councils meeting here next year, if you have time?”

“Of course, Your Excellency. Lord William, your wisdom would be welcome as well.” Conall murmured instructions to the others of his party, then with Lord William and one of the two knights following he fell in beside the archbishop as they walked toward the same doorway that Sir Cabble had taken—no hint at subordination for either here!—and Siccius breathed a soft sigh of relief. It would be good to be able to get out of his ‘official’ robes and into the plain robes he vastly preferred, put up his feet with a glass of wine (a mug of beer for Conall), and find out what was really going on.

/\

When the King’s party exited the Archbishop’s audience chamber on their way back to the army camped outside the town, Miyo began to shake ... it was all she could do to keep walking instead of leaning against the closest wall for support.

Nabiki grinned even as she snaked an arm around Miyo’s waist for support. “Yeah, the Archbishop can be intimidating when you’ve got his attention, can’t he?” she said in their native Japanese. “Better you than me, he terrified me the last time we met, when I came down here with Myrddin. I noticed you didn’t mention that your ‘school’ is also going to be a refuge for abused women and their children ... or that thanks to the dangers of the road—or possible pursuit—you’ll have to send patrols throughout the kingdom to escort the abused women back to the school.”

“The King said that could be a touchy issue, so he’ll pass the word himself ... in private. He said something about having knights of the Order of the Stone act as escorts for the patrols.”

Nabiki pulled her arm away, now that Miyo was steadying, and shrugged. “Makes sense, this place’s take on women’s rights are ... well, medieval ... not that there weren’t plenty ...” She broke off, the way pretty much all the refugees from Japan did, whenever they referenced their lost home. “But in some ways the medieval views of women were an improvement—better on a chivalrous pedestal than chattel property. Having the knights act as escorts is a brilliant idea, buys into that whole Camelot myth, and we’ll probably see some marriages out of it, knights with both rescued women and Scouts. So where do you want to build your school?”

“I don’t know,” Miyo admitted. “It can’t be up with the Keldara, they’re too isolated and cut off by snow a good chunk of the year. Ideally, it should be in the center of the kingdom, so women fleeing abuse can get to it faster.”

“I know where,” Akane said from Miyo’s other side where she and Ranma were holding hands as they walked—she had arrived at Photius just about the same time as everyone else, and been very happy to be reunited with her husband. Though she was demanding that the pair take a room at the town’s inn instead of sharing a tent in the camp, so they could do more than cuddle and sleep with at least the illusion of privacy. Now as Miyo glanced over at her, she continued, “At Sterling. It’s right in the middle of the kingdom, and the ... ‘lady of the castle’, I think I heard someone call her ... likes me. And considering she almost died on one of those swords you mentioned—nice pop culture reference, what do you want to bet it’ll become a proverb here?—and will have the scar to prove it for the rest of her life, she’ll probably want your training herself even if she can’t join the Scouts. And Ranma and the fathers can start the dojo they’ve been talking about there, too.” She smiled, gently. “I even know who the first two students could be, young enough to start building their ki and determined to learn. I wonder if they’ve kept up their exercises?”

Nabiki’s grin was less gentle and more sharklike, her eyes distant as she considered the ramifications. “Who says she can’t join the Order? She’s a widow, that gives her more freedom than just about any other woman out there, in this culture. And even if she just gets training, that would still be another endorsement, considering that I doubt most people will distinguish much between the dojo and Miyo’s school—they’ll both be seen as bizarre foreign interventions. What’ll the dojo be called? We can’t go with a family name, since it’ll belong to both families.”

“What about the Yuka Dojo?”

Akane stiffened at her husband’s suggestion as Sayuri, then the so-far-silent girl let go of Akane’s other hand to throw herself at Ranma, spinning him around slightly as she yanked him into a hug ... and kept on spinning, whirling Ranma around and forcing Akane, Nabiki, Miyo, and the knight following Nabiki—Lady Gisselle, Miyo thought she’d heard Nabiki call her—to step back. “Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s perfect!” Sayuri finally stopped spinning, and though she was smiling tears were coursing down her cheeks as she whispered, “We miss her.”

Ranma glanced at his wife, then returned the hug, gently pulling Sayuri’s head down against his shoulder as Akane wrapped her arms around both. “Yeah, me too.”

“The fathers are going to scream,” Nabiki noted.

“We’ll just sic Mom and Kasumi on ‘em,” Ranma asserted, to general laughter (if somewhat watery on Sayuri’s part).

A cough sounded behind them, and the party turned to find a ... priest? monk? lay servant? Miyo was going to have to learn to tell them apart by their dress ... frowning at the group. “The Cathedral is not the proper place for such displays, and it is proper to speak in public in the local language,” he said repressively. “Maid Nabiki, the King has requested that you remain so that he may discuss a matter of importance immediately after he finishes his discussions with Lord William and His Excellency.”

Nabiki’s eyes widened. “Me? They don’t wish to speak with Maid Miyo?”

“Not that I was told.”

“Huh.” She turned back to the others and continued ... in Anglic. “I’ll see you all back at the camp. Tell Kasumi and Nodoka to save some of their cooking for me, I was looking forward to that.”

“Sure, we’ll tell them. But we don’t exactly have a fridge and microwave, so don’t take too long or we’ll just have to eat it for you.” Ranma grinned at Nabiki’s grimace, and the small party continued on its way out of the cathedral and through the town on the way to the army camp.

They arrived at the Nerima contingent’s campfire to find Blind Lars there with Windwalker, the pair sitting (or in Windwalker’s case his lower half lying) on the ground by the fire with the Bard leaning against the Centaur’s withers, both enjoying their own bowls of Kasumi and Nodoka’s creation.

At Kasumi’s called greeting Bard and Sage added their own, and Ranma handed around the bowls of stew Kasumi was filling from the pot hanging close to the fire (close enough to maintain some warmth, far enough away not to have it at a boil—yet another of the many tricks to cooking over an open fire that Kasumi had been rapidly picking up since their arrival on Yrth). Lady Gisselle attempted to refuse, saying something about keeping to her duty, but gave in at a hurt look from Kasumi.

“You’re lucky there was enough left for everyone, or blind or not there would have been consequences,” Ranma quipped as he dropped to sit crosslegged with his own bowl.

“Your marriage-sister was insistent on keeping enough for all,” Blind Lars replied, holding up a hand reddened on the back.

“Yes, why a blind man thought he could sneak some extra is a mystery,” Nodoka commented from where she was peeling some form of tubers whose name Miyo could never remember.

That sparked a round of laughter all around, including from Blind Lars, as everyone settled with their bowls of stew. Ranma was one of those most quickly done, of course, even if not at the speed the Nerimans knew from experience he was capable, and he set the bowl aside and leaned back on his elbow. “So, Lars, Windwalker, what are you two going to do now that all the excitement is over? Lars, your new songs are a big hit and I’ve told all the best stories about me and Pop on the road; and Windwalker I’d think you’d be eager to get you and your students back to your plains where new students will be looking for you.”

“Actually, I’ve decided it’s time to settle down,” Blind Lars said blandly, “and this old half-horse has decided to join me—become the first Centaur sage to teach off the plains, he muttered something about setting up a proper library. I guess that would beat sticking to whatever his students can carry in their packs. Most of his students have agreed to stay with him, some are talking about asking families to join them.”

“Really, where?”

“I dunno, where are you setting up your school?”

Ranma stiffened, then sat up straight to stare at the blind man and his apparently unconcerned friend, eyes narrowed. “We’re thinking of asking Lord Geoffrey if we can set up the school at Sterling.”

Windwalker shrugged nonchalantly. “With the way your wife saved the lives of his nieces and their mother, he won’t say no—he owes you, and these Caithness nobles take their honor ... or at least their reputation ... seriously. Good choice, nice central location, some excellent open grassland just north. Do you think your king will mind a Centaur herd—and some of the finest cavalry in the world—making themselves at home in the middle of his kingdom?”

“Answer that carefully,” Blind Lars added cheerfully. “Not all Centaurs are like Windwalker, here. Most are rowdy brawlers.”

Ranma just laughed. “I think King Conall will put up with that if it means having some of the finest light cavalry in the world setting up camp in his kingdom ... as long as that light cavalry fights as hard to protect their new home from invaders as Sir Morgan told me they fight to protect their own corner of the Orclands from the Orcs. How you gonna get ‘em down here? The Orcs and the Great Desert are kinda in the way.”

Windwalker waved off the question. “It won’t be a problem, I’m sure the Dwarves of Zarak will let us use their tunnels.”

Considering the aid those Dwarves had given in arming the Japanese refugees and Keldara that had marched to war, Miyo had to agree. So that was where the Centaurs she had seen fighting in Caithness’s ranks had come from! She already knew about the Dwarves, so now she was just waiting on the Elves she’d seen....

/oOo\

Nabiki sat at a tiny desk in the Cathedral library, doing her best to puzzle out the meaning of the theological treatise she was reading in the cool early afternoon light coming through the open window. It was tough going, what with the ornate script the treatise was written in and her lack of a foundation in the theological principles the author was expounding on, but it was one of the few books she’d been able to find that wasn’t in Latin, and better than stewing in her own juices as she waited for the King and Archbishop to finish their own private discussion. Definitely better than being part of that discussion, she’d be just as happy staying as far away from Archbishop Siccius as she could manage—the man was sharp, and as a man of the Church there was no guarantee his own priorities would line up with the King’s, much less those of the refugees.

Though that preference weakened as she shifted in her seat, trying to relieve the growing ache in her butt—she knew monks were sworn to lives of austerity, but did they have to make their chairs into instruments worthy of any torturer?

A quiet cough drew her attention away from her thoughts, and she sprang to her feet at the sight of King Conall standing beside her, then stumbled as her thighs protested, so Conall had to grab her arm to keep her from falling against him. “Your Majesty!” she exclaimed, looking around, then sighed with relief when she found the monk that she had been sharing the small room with had left at some point without her noticing. Straightening, she rubbed at her sore butt. “You’d think they’d know about cushions,” she grumbled, “they were only invented five thousand years ago. At least.”

Conall chuckled as he stepped past her to lean out the window and look up. (Unlike the castle at Sterling and the Kildar’s fortified manor, Adseveration Cathedral actually had windows, real ones, instead of arrow slits.) A moment later the king was back inside and closing the window before leading her to the corner of the room as far from the window as they could get ... which wasn’t very far, but she supposed was better than nothing.

“So, what’s up?” she asked quietly, an enquiring eyebrow raised, when he turned to lean against the shelves. “I expected you all to want to talk to Miyo, not me ... and not just you.”

“I suggested that the Archbishop avoid paying too much attention to the Prophetess for awhile. The Curia is going to be overjoyed with the gift Lady Bronwyn gave them, we might as well make use of it to give Blind Lars’ new song time to spread before they realize how important a part she—and the rest of you refugees—played in ending the rebellion.” He shrugged, though his expression had tightened at the mention of the Baroness. But before Nabiki had a chance to shift the conversation away from the King’s hopeless crush he continued, “I never got the chance to thank you properly for the part you played in Lord William’s decision to abandon that rebellion. If he’d shown up at Sterling ready for a fight, things would have gotten ... ugly.”

Nabiki shrugged uncomfortably. She was a little surprised, actually, back in Nerima she would have been grabbing all the credit she could with both hands. Now, though, with actual lives on the line ... “Like I said, I just laid out the hard facts for him to make of what he would. Then had a panic attack as soon as I returned to my suite.”

It was Conall’s turn to shrug. “Maybe someday I’ll tell you about the night before my coronation. It was also supposed to be my vigil before my knighting. But I got the job done the next day, and you got the job done first—and it worked, certainly better than what any of my other emissaries had tried, including Myrddin.”

He fell silent, and Nabiki waited, then as the silence stretched into uncomfortable finally asked, “So what did you want a private chat about? It certainly wasn’t just to compliment me.”

He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and ... was he blushing? He was! Finally, the King chuckled. “I suppose I’ll take a page from your book. Maid Nabiki, are ... are you a virgin?”

What? Nabiki’s mind blanked for a long moment as she stared at Conall with eyes wide, before she shook herself out of her shock. “No, I’m not. Virginity ... wasn’t prized by my generation in Japan the way it is here.”

“It wasn’t?” He frowned. “Wouldn’t that have led to a large number of bastards?”

“No, we had developed birth control much more effective than anything I think you have.” She smiled wryly. “And yes, I know you have that ‘fill the earth’ command in Genesis getting in the way of using birth control, but first I’m not Christian, and second we’d pretty much done that.” Her smile vanishing, she added, her voice flat, “Overdid it, from what Deborah told Miyo.”

“I see.” Conall frowned thoughtfully, taking a moment to consider what she’d said (and give her a moment to recover her composure—for some reason, with the war over she was finding it harder to not think about her lost home). Finally, he asked, “Is there any chance you’re pregnant?”

“No,” she replied instantly, “I haven’t shared a bed with a man for anything but sleeping since arriving on Yrth. And yes, that includes Myrddin. You can ask the servants, there’s no way to hide that sort of thing from them,” she added at Conall’s raised eyebrow, “I was in a hurry when I packed for the run to the Cave of Worlds, and it didn’t occur to me that birth control would be an essential. Not that what I could have brought would have lasted long, anyway. No way am I risking pregnancy here unless I want it.”

“As intelligent and practical as always.” Conall chuckled, then straightened. “Very well, that should work. So I have one more question ... will you be my Queen?”

What?

“You’d have to convert, of course, and we’d need to have at least one child as soon as possible, but—”

“What?! Wait, wait, wait, hold on! You want me to marry you?”

Conall tried to keep a straight face, but utterly failed in the face of Nabiki’s astonishment. Grinning broadly, hands clasped behind his back, he nodded. “Yes, I do.”

“But why?!”

He sighed, amusement vanishing as fast as it came. “I’m sure you’ve noticed my ... infatuation for Lady Bronwyn.”

When he paused, Nabiki simply nodded. Like everyone else with eyes to see that have ever shared a room with the two of you.

Perhaps picking up on her unspoken thought, he smiled wryly as he continued, “Well, either she never noticed my hints or refused to acknowledge them, and now thanks to her execution of the Grandmaster of the Hospitallers it’s an impossible match.” At her questioning look, he clarified, “When I refuse to turn her over to the Curia for judgment, I’ll have to appear as unbiased as possible. And with the gossip and rumors that Galardon has told me are filling the taverns ...” He shrugged.

“Okay, that makes sense,” Nabiki agreed, frowning thoughtfully. “But why me? I’m a foreigner.”

“Yes, a member of a family of very powerful foreigners. Our marriage would help make sure that my cause remains your cause. And in these perilous times I need a queen that is a partner as well as a wife, as smart and ruthless as any king, capable of actually ruling if I am killed and she becomes a regent for a child—after my father’s death my own mother struggled with that, while I was raised in secret. You are a very capable young woman. And if all else fails, there’s a better option for a bolthole than across the Great Desert to Castle Defiant for you and our children, if the Dwarves cooperate—through Zarak to Sahud. With the appearance you share you can disappear into the people there and never be found by agents of the Empire.”

As Conall fell silent, Nabiki realized from the heat in her cheeks she was actually blushing! She gazed at him for a long moment, her mind racing as she considered the implications of her being on the throne alongside Conall—a true co-ruler, not just a brood mare and pretty face—for her, for her family, for all the people that her sisters, at least, seemed to be adopting. Then she grinned. “Normally, I’d say something about needing time to think, to pretend that I need to consider all the pros and cons. But there’s no real point to it, I’ll do it. Whatever else, it’ll certainly be”—fun!—“exciting. When’s the wedding?”

Conall breathed a sigh of relief. “I was thinking of holding the wedding at the same time as the Great Councils in spring....”

/oOo\

Ku Lon knelt on the stone floor of the Keldaran chapel in the center of the ritual circles she had spent days drawing out, smoothing out, and looking over on her hands and knees with her eyes mere inches away looking for breaks. She glanced over at Father Andre standing a few yards beyond the edge of the circles—he was standing straight, hands clasped behind his back, trying to hide the nervousness she could see only because of the months she had spent with him discussing the theology of the Christian faith—most especially, the saints, angels, and archangels, and the roles they played. (She had been rather surprised at the depth of his knowledge and understanding, and had wondered who he had offended to end up at the back end of nowhere like he had.)

He hadn’t been nervous at all when she had been baptized just the previous afternoon, in the prelude to this moment, though when she had passed on what had been happening in Caithness, that she had learned about during her last night with Athena, he had suggested she hold off on her baptism until those that had marched out to war returned. She had refused, though. Father Andre was a good man, as fine a person as she had ever met, whose personal piety and charity clear to anyone that knew him had, she suspected, played a large part in the wave of conversions among the Japanese refugees. But she suspected he had only limited political skills ... so he had missed the hints in the news she’d passed on that had her suspecting that those important to her among those that had marched out would not be returning with the survivors. Besides, even if they did return they would not be back for weeks, if they could make it back at all before the winter snowfall cut off the Keldara mountain valley from the rest of the world. (The Dwarves wold just have to put up with the refugees remaining with the Keldara for one more winter.)

And her “conversion” to Christianity had been a sacrifice, not something to celebrate.

Now she took one more look around at the austere stone chapel with its many alcoves holding saints’ statues between the equally many windows (she would have preferred to use the same mountain ledge she’d used for her visits to Athena, but she’d ultimately decided on Christian holy ground to help ease Father Andre’s growing concerns); took a deep breath as the last of the bar of light shining through the closest window vanished, telling her it was as close to noon as she was likely to get without one of the watches that had died with the Fall; closed her eyes and began to chant.

When she had used similar rituals to seek out the goddesses her people still worshiped millennia after they had left their homeland north of the Middle Sea, the transition from the world of matter to that of spirit was instantaneous, between one eye blink and another. This time the outward appearance of the world didn’t change, not at first. It was the same stone walls, the same whitewashed statues, the same votive candles at their bases half-melted and waiting for fresh supplicants. But the noon-day light glowing beyond the windows slowly brightened, seemed to flow into the nave, along floor, walls, and up to the ceiling, and sink into everything it touched until Ku Lon had to shield her eyes from the glow.

Then the glow faded away, and she found herself standing in a grassy meadow dotted with unfamiliar flowers, the sound of songbirds filling the air, and in front of her stretched a pure white wall scores of feet high. Just as when she had visited her goddesses she was young again, in her prime, but rather than arriving in the divine realm in all her naked glory, this time she was dressed in the clothing and armor she had worn as a young warrior, with a long dagger strapped to her waist and the half-remembered weight of the two crossed swords on her back pulling on her shoulders. And unlike her visits to the home of the Olympians, a peace settled on her that made her worries (fears) simply drift away.

Before she could turn to look around a door opened in the wall in front of her and a man stepped out—Human, tall, handsome from what she could see behind the cheek guards on his helm, the horse-hair plume arcing across the top of the helm front to back, front-and-back armor over a white tunic, a long sword at one side and a round shield on one arm. Exactly like the warriors her ancestors had fought beside and against, in their long-lost homeland. And even without the enforced peace of the land—no, the realm—she would have been eased by the welcome in his bright blue eyes.

Then he spoke, and his voice seemed to carry hammering drums and the high call of trumpets. “I am Michael, commander of the Lord’s hosts. You wished to speak to me.”