A/N:

This story was a labor of love. It started out as a bit of fun-we had just finished our first resbang fics last year and had been each other's betas, and ProMa wanted to try doing an epistolary thing the same way Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer had in The Enchanted Chocolate Pot. Ang (Absolutrash/Heysaxylady)was game, and so, Letters to My Sister was born. By the time summer hit, we had about a quarter of the fic done and decided—hell—this would be cool to do for resbang this year, so we signed up. The rest is history. Bloody, caffeine-driven history, but history nonetheless.

The methodology we used, for the curious, was that each of us wrote from the perspective of a character. Tsubaki's letters are all the work of Ang, and Maka's are the work of ProMa. Writing epistolary was a lot of fun. The coolest part of it all was not knowing exactly how the other person was going to respond to your letter, and then being so incredibly impressed or excited about what they came up with, which was miles beyond what you had been imagining as a potential response. Having another person to respond to, really getting into our characters' heads, marveling - more like fangirling - at how well the other had portrayed their character—it was all a great experience. This fic is as much Tsubaki as it is Maka, as much TsuStar as SoMa, as much about the close friendship between two women as it is about the people and places they encounter while apart, and of that, we are particularly proud.

World building was also a lot of fun. While we initially hashed out details together, Ang was responsible for a lot of the depth in this fic—the gods especially were her doing—and the fic is better for it. For the curious, there will be an in-depth explanation at the end about the religion and the worship customs in these two countries, as well as some of the history behind the schism. This, in particular, can be credited to ProMa, who has a great eye for detail. In addition, there were some FAQ that came up during the beta-ing, which will also be addressed in the end notes, as they are not necessarily directly pertinent to the story but - we feel - are helpful in understanding things a little better.

Speaking of which, we would like to thank our betas—you know who you are—for all the excellent feedback and love, and the artists, ifeanart and notanirishginger, for making this a true collaboration—for being in touch and producing lovely things that go with the words seamlessly. The art can be found on tumblr, and we highly recommend you check it out. Ifeanart's piece is the cover for this fic.

We hope you enjoy reading this and seeing the fantastic art. We certainly enjoyed creating it.

IMPORTANT FINAL NOTE: FFN will not render strike throughs, and as this is epistolary, we do use them. All strike throughs will be set off like this =text= to avoid confusion.


My Dear Tsubaki,

I must begin by expressing my most sincere elation that I can again write to you, my dearest sister, and expect a reply. Though I have written to you nearly every day, it feels as though it has been an eternity since I have, in return, read your gentle words, heard your sweet voice, or seen your kind eyes. May I express how lonely it has been without you? How much I have longed for your kindness and your counsel? Many of the words I penned to you were written in anger and frustration-some of them may even shock you to hear. I know that it will wound your overly affectionate and generous heart to think you could not be there for me, but know that the feelings they express have long since passed away to leave only sheer and unadulterated happiness because I am finally a Knight!

If only you could have been there for the ceremony! It was full of pomp and circumstance, presided over by the Grand Knight Excalibur himself. We were led out in parade form, our armor shining, our banners fluttering in the breeze. I felt like I could conquer the world in that instant-or at the very least, like I had my whole future ahead of me. I will admit that having to listen to the Grand Knight drone on incessantly about the dignity of the Knighthood while highlighting his own exploits was-well, to say confusing would be an understatement, for it was certainly that, but it was also excessively tedious. Still, it was a wonderful moment, and most importantly, it was the moment when I became Dame Maka Albarn, Defender of the Peace and Keeper of the Sacred Vows.

We were all granted a month of leave before we must report to the current headquarters to receive our assignments. I have missed you so terribly that I can think of no better way to spend this precious time than with you, my friend. Though it is true I have longed for your counsel and your comfort, I have most longed for your company, and I hope to find you hale and happy when we meet again in a few short days. Often have I wondered how you fared this past year, if you were in good spirits, if you had found love, if you had found new purpose. I hope to hear it all soon and, most of all, to hear that you are well, for of anyone I have ever known, my dearest friend-my sister by all but blood-you deserve to be so.

I do know that the packet of letters I have enclosed may give you some grief when you read of my trials this past year. I hope you will choose not to dwell on those difficulties, but rather, that you will keep your eyes forward and celebrate as I do; it is with pride that I follow after my mother to stand as one of too few Dames of the Kingdom in this new era for women. I wish I could tell you that, in accomplishing this, I made many friends, that I was valued for my skill rather than belittled for my sex, but that would be far from the truth. Change comes slowly, my sister, and is resisted every half step of the way. The men almost universally despised me as a useless girl though I bested them at every turn, and the few other women shunned me, thinking me an uppity child because I drew the ire of the group. No, my dear Tsubaki, only the thought of returning to your kind smiles, your open and giving heart, your warm friendship, has sustained me, and you will forgive me, I hope, for being ungracious when I say that I am glad, heartily glad, to leave all I have met here behind in favor of your far superior friendship.

By tomorrow evening, I will begin my journey to Nakatsukasa lands and should arrive by Tuesday next. I have worked diligently for my Knighthood for the past year and am thrilled that I will finally be able to share this triumph with you.

As ever, your friend,

Dame Maka Albarn

I pray you will forgive my signing to you, my near sister, so formally, but I wished you to be the first to see it.


My Beloved Sister,

Reading your written words once more is the greatest source of comfort I could ask for, besides perhaps actually holding you in my arms. That is not possible as of this moment, however much I wish it were. After the trials you experienced during this past year of training, it is my deepest desire to be able to grant your wish to visit, yet I cannot right now. And so, I must warn you away, though it breaks my heart to do so.

I know you will ask, so I shall answer your unspoken question. My Lord Brother has been in the foulest of moods as of late. He has retreated into a reclusive habit, and has even gone so far as to threaten a visiting courier bringing a message from the Royal palace simply for stepping uninvited onto our lands. Oh! The things he has said about our gentle King, and in the company of others! It is shameful and will likely stain the Nakatsukasa name more - a feat I'd not thought possible.

I beg you not to worry overly much about me, though. I have Mifune to protect me, and that is a shield not even Masamune could penetrate, despite his many attempts. My only regret is that I continue to hide behind Mifune; if only I had an ounce of your courage, my brave, brave sister. I detest putting him in any undue danger, for he is getting up there in years, after all. Mifune insists it is his duty - which none would be surprised to hear - yet I fear for him despite his repeated assurances that he does not mind. He takes not into account my own feelings, though; I do not know what I would do if I were to lose him. His presence at my side has been invaluable this past year; he has been my protector, my strength and support, my comfort - but most importantly he has been my friend in a time when I had desperate need for one. In the absence of your presence, I so often found myself lost, desiring a witty companion, and though dear old Mifune could never replace you, my most irreplaceable sister, he was sweet enough to spend long afternoons conversing with me in the garden while Angela played with the puppies.

During these times, a fondness I'd not felt for another would swell within me, and I found myself wishing the difference in our stations were not so great. Yet, I know that even if Mifune had been born of noble blood, we still could not be; his heart still belongs to Aya, may her soul rest in Eibon's gentle arms. Still, these were the peaceful times, the comforting times, when the hole in my heart from your absence was mended for a short while by Mifune and Angela's warm presence. I am sure your brows are climbing toward your hairline now, dear sister! But I assure you, this was nothing more than an idle thought, a passing fancy, encouraged by the gentleness with wich Mifune treated me, and the absence of my own father.

Ah! But I am off topic. So excited am I to once more write to you, my thoughts are spilling out in a jumbled mess that even I, their author, cannot make heads nor tails of. There is a point somewhere in here, I promise. And I shall get to it now.

But, first, sister, I must offer you another apology. I was not able to save the pottery you worked so hard on when we were younger. It was one of the first victims of Masamune's recent rages, and I could do nothing but beg him to calm himself. I had hoped reminding him of his station would help settle his temper, but it was as though he were deaf.

Please do not mistake me, Maka. Things here are not so bad that I am without all hope; there are times when I think that I may see glimpses of the old Masa, who loved with all his heart. I shall write as soon as this recent storm has passed. I do not think that Masamune would deny my wish to see you; he was quite fond of you those many years ago, after all.

But that is enough about me. Your news is much more exciting and happy than mine! While for me it has felt as though this past year dragged on - with much happening and yet nothing at all - every day for you has been a new adventure and challenge to face. I have dark circles under my eyes from reading the entirety of the packet of letters you sent. I am sorry you faced such bullies, sister; it is difficult to believe that those boys were from noble families, so poorly behaved were they. But it was so admirable of you, Maka, to not only ignore their childish antics, but to prove to them how entirely wrong they were in saying that women do not belong in the Knighthood.

It must have been truly difficult for you to be ostracized by your peers, and my heart clenches knowing that it is my fault. Hearing that you are happy, now, though, and that you were honored with Knighthood and have achieved your goals eases my heart.

And to think that you are now Dame Maka Albarn! My heart swells with pride to think you have achieved such great feats. My once knobbly-kneed sister, now so beautiful and grown.

It has been so nice to once again read your letters, sister. I wait with much anticipation for more word from you.

Tsubaki


My Dear Friend,

Your last letter has concerned me indeed. You tell me not to come, that your brother has you cowering in fear, but how can I allow you to face such a thing on your own? What manner of Knight can I hope to be if I cannot protect even you, my sister? I would be no true friend, no sister, no Knight were I to show such cowardice, were I unwilling to stand with my dearest friend. No, I will come, and let your Lord Brother challenge me if he dares. And yet, I know how you dislike conflict, I know how it would pain you to see two people you love come to harsh words or harsher blows.

Oh Tsubaki, I know not the right of it! Mifune will protect you, surely, whatever Masamune may threaten. I was heartily glad to hear that he has been a friend in my absence, and I know your personal guard would never allow harm to befall you, though your brother might attempt it with mean words and actions that ill suit his status as the esteemed Lord Nakatsukasa. Forgive my haste, I only wish for your well being and not to offend in spite of how offensive I find your brother's behavior, and yet, I feel no matter which choice I make, it will undoubtedly cause you pain. How you must suffer there! But perhaps a request might be made for your presence? For you, I would go to my father, to have him put in a word with the King himself to summon you to court. For you, I would do anything to assure continued safety and happiness. Is your brother so far gone that he would ignore such a summons? If he is not, will you give me leave to help you this much? I am approaching the King's lands on my way to see you, dear sister, and my father is stationed there. If current rumor be truth, it would take but a day to be in his presence-that is, if he is at court as I hope. I know you well, my friend, and if you paint things as so dire, if you warn me away, then they must be far worse, and it is that which frightens me most! I cannot bear the thought of anything happening to you, my oldest and only true friend. I would never act against your wishes or consent, but I beg leave to act now on your behalf.

I await only your word.

Your most anxious and affectionate sister,

Maka


Sweet, Valiant Maka,

I had debated telling you of Masamune's most recent actions for concern that my emotions at that time would cause me to paint the situation as worse than it was. I knew you would wish to come flying to my side, Maka dear, and I feared I would not be able to tell you no. However, my fear for your safety if you were to come and confront my brother far outweighs the pain in my heart at not being able to see you once more.

Perhaps if I had not quit the study of Bonding, together we could have done something to stop him. I know I cannot change what's been decided and done, even by my own hand,, but I fear I shall forever be sorry I ruined your dream, my friend.

As it stands now, however, it does not appear as though dire action must be taken to prevent my Lord Brother from acting irrationally. He has been most calm as of late, and, truth be told, I hardly see him anymore. He has holed himself up in his study, meeting with someone via spectral communication, Mifune tells me. Though Masamune hardly trusts my late father's guard and advisor, he has allowed Mifune to be present at these meetings. Mifune has, unsurprisingly, remained steadfastly loyal despite my brother's recent actions, and will not divulge the topic of discussion, no matter how much I pester him. But Masamune's steps have been lighter as he passes through the halls and meals have been what I would almost label as pleasant. It is a surprising change, and I am quite happy to see my beloved brother in such good spirits.

No, Maka dearest, I believe it would be for the worse if you were to whisk me away, especially after all the progress that Masamune has made of late. As soon as the opportunity arises, when his spirits are especially high, I shall inquire as to your visit. I am sure that he won't refuse! He did have a soft spot for you, sister, when we were all young.

I do hope I have not caused you too much worry or strife! You know how sometimes I believe the worst situations will come to fruition—and putting all that on you when you were so joyous, too. Shame on me!

With love,

Tsubaki


My Sweet Tsubaki,

I am relieved to hear that things with your brother have improved, though I cannot help but to wonder if you have now painted things as better than they are to assuage my own concern—you have ever been one to put the feelings of others above your own. I will not come and I will make no request to have you removed, since this is your wish, but I rely upon you, dear sister, to always be honest with me. If, in truth, things have calmed and your brother has regained his senses, then I am glad to hear it; however, should the situation change, should Masamune renew his previously erratic behavior, then you must let me know instantly. Perhaps when my next leave is granted, I will be able to see you, though when that will be is difficult to say. I hear that it is typical for a Knight to receive a reprieve once every several months in peacetime, so it may be that I will be able to see you again come Spring. Let us hope that this will be so. I must confess again how dearly I miss you and how sorely disappointed I was that we could not meet, but I suppose that seeing you will be something to continue to hold in my heart and look forward to should things become difficult again (though I must also confess my hope that, with training done, such difficulties will be few and far between!)

I was most distraught to see you blame yourself that we are not Bonded. While this was your choice, I could never blame you for making it. Who, indeed, would not be troubled by what happened with your brother? In any case, that is far in the past; though I might have known disappointment then, there is no lasting harm, and I am pleased to be able to serve his Majesty as a member of the Knighthood. No, my only concern now is that you have been left in the care of a brother who was almost completely taken by madness in the past, that your family has been so reckless as to not change the provisions of inheritance to leave their lands and Lordship solely to your care. But then, I do not suppose your Lord Father knew his death to be imminent. Perhaps he believed he had more time. I only wish you did not suffer for the mistake.

I pray you will forgive me for being so candid, but I cannot help my continued worry at your situation. Your father's death was so sudden, and your brother taking his place came as such a shock when I heard rumors of it during training; my heart yearned to comfort you then, and yet I could not, and oh, how it pained me! You have seen by now how much your situation concerned me when I could hear nothing of how you fared during that long span-and then-to finally be able to know and to hear such frightening goings-on! But I will write no more on this. I fear I will begin to instill some sense of misplaced guilt and that is the farthest thing from my intent. I only wish the best for you always, and I am certain that this can never be the case while you still reside in your brother's household. If there is one regret I have that we were not Bonded, it is that it would have left me free to protect you from this, whereas now, I feel helpless.

Ah, I said I would write no more, and yet, my pen would not still! Truly, let me still it now. I will hold it, and think as you think and hope as you hope. Let this change in your brother be real change, let the past be the past, and let your future be full of light, love, and happiness.

As to my own future, who can say? I feel this strange sense of foreboding, as if I am balancing on the edge of a knife and waiting to see which way I will falter. I cannot explain it, but the elation of being Knighted has faded, only to leave-not fear, precisely, but uncertainty. But enough of such dark thoughts! Let us banish them to the place where such grim thoughts deserve to go and speak of better things.

I do have some news. When I did not hear from you right away, I spent several days in the capitol that I might be ready to act, and though I did not see my father, I did see the Prince by chance. He is little changed from our last encounters with him so long ago—his quirks remain—but he has, oddly, Bonded with two Warriors who are Wizards as well. I cannot fathom the arrangement, but their trio seems to work together well. The two women are sisters named Elizabeth and Patricia Thompson, though they immediately insisted I call them by their familiar names, Liz and Patti. They are both very beautiful and frighteningly good fighters. They hail from Kalacanda, from the capitol, and their lives have, I think, not always been easy. And yet, they seem to truly care for our Prince and he for them. Though their edges are rough, I admire their spirit and tenacity. I was very much taken with the good humor of the youngest, Patti, and as for Liz, she is a creature of good sense and a much needed calming influence on Kid (yes, he insists I call him this even still, though we are children no longer and he is my Liege Lord. Formal as he can be, he does not so easily forget his friends). In any case, I am heartily glad that Prince Mortimer has found such loyal protectors. You know that I have always been able to see the truth in people, and I find that I like them very much indeed; it truly sets my mind at ease to know our Liege is in such capable hands.

I left them all yesterday, and after several days in their company- several days of feeling a rekindled sense of friendship-it was difficult to go. Kid urged me to let him speak to his father that I might be stationed near the castle, but I refused; it has ever been my wish to make my way on my merits rather than my station and connections, as you are well aware. As wonderful as it would be to be stationed with friends, I will go where I am needed, rather than where I wish. Such is my duty as a Knight. I did not inform our Prince of your situation, though in my anxiousness, it was difficult to remain silent. Yet, not then knowing your wishes and unwilling to disclose the secrets of your heart when you have not given me leave to do so, I forced my tongue to still, and while our Prince sensed that I was anxious over something, he had the good breeding not to pry further when I assured him I would inform him instantly should his aid be required. I am glad, heartily glad, to know that for the time being, you are safe, and that my silence on the matter did not prove a mistake

I will end this letter now, as it is late and I should have been abed hours ago, but I could not bring myself to delay answering when I saw you had finally replied. I must admit to having checked the letterbox most anxiously and often during these past days, fearing the worst; to finally hear that you are safe and that things have improved was a balm my heart sorely needed. Tomorrow, I set out again and will not be sorry to leave the dismal little waystop I find myself at. There are rumors of an odd, un-Bonded Wizard stationed near here that have set me on edge. While the people fear him, I was assured by the Innkeep that he is not a Witch, but rather has the sanction of the King. Even still, I find myself uneasy at the prospect of crossing paths with this Wizard, and will be glad to be on my way again. I should be to the borderlands within a few days time, and will then be able to report for final orders. I have doubts that I will be stationed so near the kingdom's edge, but, as this is where the Knights are currently headquartered-in preparation for I know not what-this is where I must journey for the time being.

I hope that you are still safe and well and, as always, I wish you all the best.

Your ever devoted sister,

Maka


Dearest Maka,

Ah, you know me so well, sister. It is true that in the past I would have looked at my predicament through rose-colored glasses only so as not to cause you worry, but after my father's sudden passing and the troubles with Masamune, I no longer do so. Masa's brush with madness and the subsequent slaughter of the villages under our protection … such an experience teaches one the gravity of dangerous situations. Here, to help allay your concerns, I shall write my oath to you: I, Nakatsukasa Tsubaki, daughter of Nakatsukasa Kazuo and Kobayoshi Mitsuko, will immediately inform you if anything remotely troubling occurs to me or those around me. I pray that there will never be a reason for me to have to fulfill the terms of this promise, but if the rumors I have overheard being discussed are true, and as the news you have just given me hints, it seems that there is trouble on the horizon. But you are correct, speculation on these negative thoughts does good for none; they simply breed doubts of the actions of our good King.

Even so, I now wish that my earlier, misguided fears had not led me to warn you away so foolishly—I miss you more than these written words can convey. Although, simply having this connection with you once more eases my loneliness, and if I close my eyes, I can see you bent over your writing desk, lantern set too dim, as you are so wont to do. I must admit that while reading the packet of letters you sent me, I had worried that your trials would foster new resentment toward me, but seeing your latest reassurances makes me realize that I was being foolish. You always did know just the right thing to say to pull me out of my self-indulgent sulks when we were children; I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that this would continue on into adulthood. I am sorry, however, that you are always fretting over me. It must become exhausting for you, especially now that you are a Knight. So, worry no more, sister! I've made my promise and I shall keep it.

It is nice to hear of Prince Mortimer; I miss him—neurosis and all! The fact that he still insists on his familiar name does not surprise me, though. Like you said, he never forgets his friends. But, I sit here with my mouth hanging open improperly. Two Warriors? I've heard naught of this news, and what news it is! I had not thought that Bonding with two separate people would even be possible. We truly are blessed by the gods to have such a powerful heir.

Oh, remember when we were younger and we would whisper about all of the great accomplishments that the Prince would achieve? Perhaps we are both wrong with our life plans, and ought better to have gone into soothsaying, for I believe we are just now seeing the very beginnings of his Highness's rise.

As for his two Warriors, they sound as though they are very pleasant, though I am anxious to hear they come from Kalacanda. That kingdom has a bloody history and reputation, and if they are truly as wonderful as you have described, then I am especially glad that they somehow managed to leave there. I trust your judgment, and I know Kid does, too, which may be why he wanted to keep you so near to him. Stubborn as you are, though, you would turn down a safer station near the Prince and rise through the ranks on your own. It is a trait we've all admired about you behind your back!

Once again, I must thank you for keeping secret the situation with Masamune. The Prince surely would have felt it his duty to demand a formal investigation of my Lord Brother, and that is something my family does not need. As if our name weren't tarnished enough! Masamune hardly lets me forget it (though he does conveniently forget that it is entirely his fault the Nakatsukasa name is the joke of the courts).

He repeatedly informs me of how difficult it is for him to find someone who will sink to marry me, and I know not if it is because of our family name or because of my age. The court treats me as though I were an old maid, as though at twenty-two my ability to bear children or manage a household are somehow compromised. Well! I tell you, my dearest sister, neither of these claims hold any truth - not that I am interested in such a life, in any case. I've tried telling him that I plan on going into the Temple of the Great Mother, but Masamune will hear none of that. Truthfully, it is a silly thought, for I would probably go mad being cloistered in the Temple for all of those years, anyway.

Oh! All this talk of marriage reminds me that Masa had the most curious smile at dinner earlier this afternoon while discussing the difficulties he's face attempting to find me a suitor.

But I digress. Are you sure I cannot convince you to go back to the capitol and inquire as to whether the Prince's very generous offer is still open? I do worry about your health, both physical and emotional. You are the kind to work yourself 'til you collapse in exhaustion, and it would ease my worry if I knew you were among friends who would watch out for you. From your letters, it does not sound as though you have one to whom you can trust your back ; a partner, I imagine, is a necessity in a Knight's life. Especially if that Knight is stationed, as you may be, out in the borderlands. We've been at peace for so long, it feels odd to be concerned for the safety of our young Knights, to know that there is an area of our Kingdom which is now so dangerously ruled by bandits. Perhaps this baseless fear of mine is a remnant of the war that happened so near our borders in Kalacanda. You were too young, naught but a babe, but I still remember some of the spectral images from it (as my father, being seated on the War Council at the time, was privy to these classified pictures.) They were all fire and darkness and madness—things out of nightmares. A war like that…it feels almost inevitable that it would repeat again.

Eibon banish such dark thoughts!

I have been away from court for far too long! The music and dance and light-hearted revelry all seem like a nostalgic dream to me now. And from your account, I am not sure that even if I were to return, it would be the same place I remember, such has my view of the world changed. I mean, who would have dreamt there would be a trio like the Prince and his Warriors, let alone an un-Bonded Wizard with the King's sanction? I do not believe you are the one off balance, dearest Maka—the whole world seems to be slightly tilted. I pray that you do not meet this suspicious character. Until your next letter, remain safe!

With all my love,

Tsubaki


Dear Maka,

My hands are shaking so terribly writing this letter, I do not know if it will be legible at all. Although, if what they say is true- Nay, I cannot entertain that thought anymore. Maka, sister, I beg of you, please respond to me as quickly as you may. I - your father and I and your friends, we are all desperate for some word from you.

=They say that==The king==This is silly, but= It has been nearly a fortnight since your last letter, but knowing you travel and knowing the lag in my own response, I thought nothing unusual of it. However, naught but two hours ago, Mifune received communication from your father, who was nearly incomprehensible in his hysterics. I'm afraid I am near in the same state as Mifune described Lord Spirit to be, simply recalling the message. Ah- you do not know what I refer to.

Maka, everyone believes you to be dead.

I cannot believe, refuse to believe it is true. My dear sister, so brave, so strong, gone from this world...? Nay, I wish it, I pray it be a mistake. Yet, I know you traveled in an area plagued by that unsworn Wizard and I fear the worst. And with Masamune's recent pronouncement that I am to be married come Winter, displaying a willfulness that I am still reeling from, I know that I will not survive these coming months without your spirit supporting me

I pray to Eibon, to the Mother, to the Nameless One, to any and all gods who hear my will, that this is simply a matter of lost letters, a false conclusion and not the truth.

Please write,

Tsubaki


My Dear, Dear Friend,

I am sorry, so sorry, to have left you worried, to have not written for these many days past, but I could not. I must explain at once and ease your mind as much as is possible, though I fear there is little ease to be had. Never would I have thought such fears could travel so quickly! Be calm, be at peace, for I live and breathe even still, and should you meet with my father, please tell him so-much as his behavior, his lack of propriety might irritate me, I still have no wish to hurt him, and false news of my untimely demise must surely have done just that.

I know you are wondering at, nay fretting over, my long silence, but as eager as I am to share my tale, to hear your wisdom and your counsel, I must start with you. You are to be married? What news is this? Masamune cannot possibly presume to arrange a marriage for you when even your own father would not have done so. This concerns me greatly, especially coming from him, whom we both know is not to be trusted. Has he yet informed you to whom he will give your hand with neither your knowledge nor consent? I would know more when you know it, for I fear no good will come of this. I would run to you if I could, if only I could! But-so much has happened-I cannot come to you now, can do naught but offer you this paltry letter when I fear you may need me most. Ah! Surely the gods conspire against us in this, for how else could so much ill be worked so quickly?

I will delay sharing the truth no longer. And yet, so much has happened that I scarcely know where to begin, or even if I will have time to share all!

I met the Wizard I spoke of in the last letter. I met him, and in truth, he travels with me still. This must seem odd to you as I told you I had no wish to meet him, that I had every intention to avoid him, and indeed, that was my sincere hope. I left town early the morning after my last letter, making my way down the road on horseback, hoping to put some distance between myself and that dismal place, yet it was not to be. On the road not two miles from the town, I heard a clamour off in the forest, saw flashes of fire and smoke on the horizon, and I knew I must see to it, for what type of Knight would I be to flee from what might be a danger to the town I had only just left? I made my way quickly and quietly, tying my horse up just off the road and muffling my armor so I could go as silently as possible. I did not know what I might face and had no wish to find out unprepared. My sword drawn, I crept through the forest towards where I heard the sounds of fierce battle, but after a time, I heard them no longer and my concern only grew. Someone had been defeated, and I was loathe at the possibility that all I would find were the bodies of innocents. I know, my friend, I know these are grave words, far bleaker than I could have imagined we would ever exchange, but the times are darker than I had ever believed possible, and you must hear the truth, all of the truth, as grim as it has become.

But I get ahead of myself. Let me rein in these wild thoughts so that I might finish my tale, and in that, you will share my fears soon enough.

The forest I found myself in was dense, and the day so overcast that what little light made it past the shadows above could not penetrate into the darkness below the thick canopy of leaves. It was difficult to be as quiet as I might, or to go as quickly as I wished; the thick undergrowth hampered my progress so terribly that I thought I would never make it, would never find the place where I had heard such clear signs of battle. Yet, eventually, I neared, the scorched trees around marking the truth of what had occurred, the frost and ice interspersed with the fire as if they had come from the same Wizard, though such a use of magic would be odd indeed. I slowed my progress, moving carefully, so carefully, in a bid to approach silently. I heard voices arguing ahead, high pitched and angry, and I edged nearer, keeping close to the trees for cover, hoping to learn who I faced. Finally, I was close enough to overhear, and their words astonished me.

"But sister, he heard. He heard, and that means we have no choice but to kill him! You know Medusa will see us dead if word reaches-" A voice said, clearly frustrated. Hearing the name Medusa shocked me truly, Tsubaki, for who has not heard of that treacherous Witch?

"What I know," a second voice replied, lower and calmer than the first, "is that this man fits the description of the one who defeated the assassin. What I know is that the Master would pay handsomely to have him delivered to him so readily. No, Mia, we must not pass up this chance to curry favour." As quickly as they spoke, I did not have time to wonder who this "Master" or who the assassin they referred to was, but I knew it could be no one good.

"What good will it do to gain his favour only for Medusa to slay us? You know she does not follow the Master's every whim, and what if this Wizard reveals what he overhead? No, we must kill him, and quickly," the first voice spoke again.

"If it must be so, it must be so," the other voice finally said with resignation. "But still, sister, it will not be quickly. This one has power, and if we cannot give him to the Master, we might at least have that much. Tonight is the full moon." Her words sent a shiver down my spine as they spoke so brazenly of harming another, and I longed to know who they held, who it was that I must help.

"Ah, so it is, Zune, so it is. Let us set to work, then," was the reply, followed by shuffling sounds.

I edged closer, trying to figure out who was speaking, the repeated mentions of Medusa sending a spike of trepidation straight through my soul. I needed to know more, Tsubaki, to know what was going on. For the name of that rogue Witch to be spoken so openly, so brazenly-these were enemies of the King, and whomever they held had heard something important. He had to be saved at all costs, for it was clear had information that might prove vital to the continued safety of our Kingdom. Slowly, so slowly, I made my way, and finally, I reached a large shrub at the edge of the burnt-out clearing where they stood. It was miraculously intact, so I hid behind it and tried to figure out who it was I would face. Two small women, identical, with the same odd pink hair, stood near the center, cloaked in grey, though their hoods were not drawn. On their brows were identical crescent shaped markings, dark half moons that bespoke their power. Yes, Tsubaki, they wore the Arcane Mark. They were true Witches, members of the Dark Order that haunts Kalacanda still. They were etching symbols on the ground around a man, bound hand and foot and on his knees at the center of the circle they drew, his mouth gagged. He was practically vibrating in his anger, and even in the dim light of the grey day, I could see that his eyes were as red as flame and his wild hair as white as snow. With such strange features, I knew he must have magic coursing through his veins, but be he Witch or Wizard, I could not yet say. The two who held him, however, were clearly Witches, and this and their words were enough for me to act.

Yet how? What could I, a lone Knight, do against two Witches with enough power to wreak the havoc I had already seen? Little, surely, and yet I had to do something. It was my duty as a Knight, sworn to King and Kingdom. So I waited and watched, hoping an opportunity might come to me, or better still, a plan.

It took hours, hours of remaining still and silent, hours of hoping and praying that the Witches would not see me. I spent time studying them, studying him. You know that I can read people; I have always been able see the truth below the surface, to see their very souls, and when I turned my second sight to these Witches, I could see that they were driven by darkness and desperation, an instinct for survival. When I turned my eyes to the man bound in the center of the circle they had created, a thing of dark magic, I could sense that same desperation, that same instinct, but there were other things there, determination and kindness and something like madness. His truth was deeper than anyone I had ever attempted to read before, and as hard as I tried, I could not see the bottom. Perhaps it was the rage that clouded it, or the clear exhaustion that muddied the waters of his soul, but his depth, his truth, seemed dark and endless, and to try to read it felt like I was drowning in his red, red eyes. When I broke the contact, came back to myself, I felt something strange, frightening, almost like his soul reaching for mine-he shouldn't have known I was there, shouldn't have felt my presence. Yet, his eyes never strayed from my hiding spot, and I knew then he knew, and I wondered what it could portend that he had sensed me when the Witches hadn't.

When I returned to my senses, remembered my mission, I saw that the Witches were talking quietly, too quietly to hear. After a time, one moved away from the clearing, in the opposite direction from where I was hidden, thank the gods, and the other sighed heavily and walked a circle around her prisoner, eyeing him speculatively. He pulled his gaze away from my hiding spot to follow her movements.

"You really are difficult, you know this? A normal Wizard we'd have drained long since, but you have to be handled differently." The words were spoken softly, yet I could make them out. "Well, enjoy these last hours while you can. For myself, I think I'll relax and try to recoup some of the power I had to waste on your pathetic hide. Mia is being paranoid, for even you can't hope to escape when your bonds are fueled by your own power. That circle binds you far more effectively than anything else ever could."

Once the Witch finished her little speech, she must have been satisfied, for she moved to a tree at the edge of the clearing and slid down to the ground to lean against it, trying to get comfortable, I suppose. After a time, she settled, and I waited. More time passed and her breathing became deep and even. I wondered what she meant by that, Tsubaki, why he wasn't normal, but even more than that, I tried to figure out how to proceed. This seemed like the best opportunity I was likely to get, so I dragged my gaze back to the prisoner to check his positioning, check the distance. His eyes met mine and he motioned with his head to the Witch, a message of some sort, though whether a command or a warning it was hard to say. I chose to ignore him. I knew this was my chance-I didn't need him to tell me as much.

I crept back from my hiding spot and around the clearing, hoping the Witch wouldn't awaken or the other wouldn't return, because either scenario would likely end in my death. Can I confide in you how frightened I was? I have trained many years, but I've been in few real fights, and I've never even dreamt of fighting a Witch. I knew what I did was foolish, yet I knew I must do it anyway, so I forced myself to calm and do what was necessary.

When I reached the tree the Witch leaned against, I was mildly surprised that she lay there still, but I knew my luck could not hold forever. Creeping close, still expecting the Witch to wake and strike me with her magic every moment, I cocked back the hilt of my sword and slammed it against her temple, effectively knocking her out. Her head slumped forward and I let out my held breath. I was still alive and the other Witch had yet to return-clearly the gods had been with me.

I moved towards the center of the clearing cautiously, avoiding the circle etched into the dirt and undergrowth, to approach the prisoner head on. He moved his eyes from me to the edge of the circle and back, clearly trying to tell me something, but I am no fool, I knew already what he would say. For all my father is a lecherous bastard, he is a powerful Wizard who knows his craft well and who passed on much knowledge to his only child-I did not need to be told that the circle must be broken to proceed. I approached the edge cautiously and shifted through the markings with my blade, the magic of the sword disrupting that of the circle. Though I might curse him for other things, the sword my father gifted me with as I came of age served me well that day, and I sensed the breaking of the spell with a smile, striding up to ungag the prisoner that I might be assured he would do me no harm.

"Well, that was damned foolish," he croaked out hoarsely as the gag left his mouth. I shrugged my response.

"It saved your life, be grateful," I replied. I was curt, rude even, and I know you would chide me for it, but I couldn't help it! For him to express such crude ingratitude though we had only just met, only just spoken for the first time, shocked and angered me. "If I untie you, you aren't going to attack me?"

He rolled his eyes at this, and I had to still the impulse to strike him as I had only recently struck the now unconscious Witch. "I'm a Wizard, sworn to the King. It would hardly be keeping my oath if I attacked one of his Knights," he said, "and I'd be a fool to attack my own savior. Now, are you going to untie me or would you rather wait for the other Witch to return?"

I couldn't help the huff that escaped-truly, Tsubaki, the man is infuriating-and for a moment, I simply stared at him. That he was a King's Wizard seemed odd as there was no Warrior about, but then I realized he must be that Wizard, and when I saw no lie in his soul, I decided to untie him. As he stretched his sore limbs, I tapped my foot impatiently, pointing out that we did need to leave, as he himself had insisted only moments before. He shrugged but followed my lead, though not before stopping in front of the Witch and extending his hands.

"What are you doing?" I asked, and he rolled his eyes again.

"What do you think? The less enemies we leave behind, the better," he said sharply.

I stepped between him and the Witch, because, threat or no, I could not justify killing a defenseless person in cold blood. I told him as much and he scoffed and called me a fool, but made no more motion to harm her. He merely followed my lead as I began to pick my way through the undergrowth towards where I'd left my mount, still a good way away.

I thought we were in the clear then, my sister, thought we could mount my horse together, gain some distance from the Witches before finally finding out why they wanted him, what he knew. If he truly was the strange, un-Bonded Wizard who was said to haunt the area, if he truly was the King's Wizard he claimed to be, then he should tell me readily enough. But it was not to be.

I felt the magic before I saw it and grasped the wrist of the Wizard beside me, pulling him to the ground just in time to narrowly avoid the flames that shrieked over our head. But the moment I touched him, it was as if the world slowed and something reached for me, calling to me, as I felt a current of power crackling between us. I scrambled away from him as if I'd been stung, for I knew what I was feeling. It was the inevitable reaching of our essences, the wretched seeking of a Bond, and yet, this was something I desperately wanted to avoid; the very thought of Bonding with him, with anyone who is not you dear sister, repulsed me. It was the last thing I wanted! I had ever only wished to Bond with you, Tsubaki, and even if our potential Bond was nothing like the arc of power I felt with this Wizard in just that touch, that wish has not changed. I am a Knight. My wish to become a Bonded Warrior died with your resolve to reject that same path. But you will feel badly over this, and that is not my intent-forgive me. I only wished to convey my resolve, flimsy as it now seems.

I felt the magic again and screamed at him to move, unwilling to touch him, to feel our souls seeking to connect as I knew they must. We scrambled behind a large oak, and he reached for me. I shuffled back. I knew what he wanted of me, but I was unwilling to grant it to this so-called Wizard, this stranger, a man about whom I knew not even so much as his name.

"Bond with me," he said, trying to move closer again.

"No," I gasped, scrambling back further, trying to put distance between us. The fear I felt was overwhelming. I didn't want this, to be Bonded, yet he wanted it more than life itself. Part of me wondered if it would be better to turn around, run the other way, face the wrath of the Witches rather than the raw need in his eyes.

He shook his head, his desperation palpable. "Bond with me or we both die. I can't handle them alone. Please..." His desperation crumpled into despair and he went silent. I felt the magic build within the Witches once more and, driven by instinct, grabbed his wrist to pull him with me, to avoid yet another blast that barely missed us. Once again I felt the power flow between us, my body screaming at me to accept it, to accept this Bond, to let go, give in, become one with this Wizard.

I was panting with the effort of keeping the barrier between our souls, and I knew he was right, that we would die here without the power of the Bond, but I didn't want this, didn't want to be Bonded to a man I had never even set eyes on before that day, didn't want to be Bonded to anyone.

And yet, to refuse was certain death.

Bonds are meant to be for life, you know as well as I do, but they have been broken, changed. My parents transferred the Bond. It can be done. I resolved that since it could be done, that it would be, even as I heard him plead again.

My decision made, for I would choose to live, I spoke my resolve. "Yes," I breathed, "but only for now, only to save our lives," and then, I tightened my grip on his wrist, removing the dam I had placed between our souls. Power surged from the floodgates, the magic flowing between as we merged. It took my breath away, feeling his very essence flow into me, so much raw, unbridled power.

I let out a gasp or maybe a scream and my grip on his wrist slackened, only to feel his hand grasp mine, firmly, warmly. I could feel his thoughts mingling with mine, could sense his destructive intent even before it happened. Thoughts and memories came to me randomly, unbidden. We have both read how in the strongest Bonds, the Wizard and Warrior are of one mind and two bodies, and so it was. I knew his name was Soul without asking, knew of his Elemental blood, knew how long he had sought the one he might Bond with, the rare and precious being whose soul would embrace his own.

The power flowed from our link, energy raw and rabid, and I sensed rather than saw the shield of earth come up to protect us even as the ground moved to swallow the Witches in the distance, their power dying in one final, defiant shriek before I sensed their presence no more. We both knew we had killed them, and the power between us went suddenly slack as we collapsed together to the ground, utterly spent, our new forged Bond simmering down to a low background hum, thin but strong.

A Bond so new, so intense, so unpracticed, surely takes its toll, and while I wished to move, my limbs refused to obey. I whimpered my protest at my body, so boneless, so helpless in the arms of a stranger.

"It's alright, Maka," he told me, though I had never told him my name. "We're safe for now. Rest. Rest and we'll figure it out when we wake."

I couldn't protest, though I wished to, the strangeness, the sheer impropriety of it abhorrent. Within seconds, however, the exhaustion took me and I did not wake for many hours.

But I must cut this short. He returns and we must leave now-though there is so much more to tell! Know we travel together now, travel because the King is in grave danger, and that I will tell the rest as soon as I am able. Know that I fear for you and beg of you to tell me when you have news of your own.

I will write soon with more, you have my word.

Your sister always,

Maka


Maka,

I will admit that when I saw the letterbox flashing to indicate a new letter was within, I immediately fell to my knees in tears. It felt as though a burden had been lifted from my shoulders, to see that you were alive and well. Knowing your father still worried, I did naught more than skim the first few lines of your letter before rushing to ask Mifune to send a message to Lord Spirit informing him of your health. Mifune sends his own relief that you are yet among us, along with sending well wishes your way, sister, and says he is sure your father will cry tears of joy when he receives the letter. I wish we could have sent a Communication to your father, but Masamune keeps a tight control over the Spectral Feed and access to the Communication Room, I'm afraid. He would know immediately if Mifune attempted to contact Lord Spirit, and then he would interrogate him for the reason and - well, sister, I simply thought it a better plan of action to send a message by hawk.

But now that I have read the entirety of the letter, my concern for your safety returns. Here were the sorts of dangerous situations I have been praying you either never encounter or survive more than safely. I know these adventures are what you were looking forward to, my brave-hearted friend, yet I always fear for your safety without me there to watch your back. I shall light incense and leave an offering of thanks for your well-being in the shrine of the Nameless One.

However, although I am eternally grateful my prayers were answered, I would never have believed without your testimony that Elementals were more than a tale used to warn young children. To think that you would actually meet one, and be Bound to him nonetheless!

It was so sudden and unexpected, I had to read it over and over again until I could really convince myself that yes, that was what I had read.

Once I had recovered from my shock, however, I did what we've always done when the unexpected appears in our lives; I went to the library. I do not believe that up until my receipt of this most recent letter, I have ever been more grateful for the fact that the Nakatsukasa line can trace magic back for generations. Elsewise, I doubt I would have been able to achieve any results in my research.

I must admit, I missed your extraordinary ability to always find the exact book we needed. There was not a single book in the entire library or even my father's old study entirely dedicated to the research of this rare power. However, what little I found mentioned was… less than comforting.

My dearest Maka, you know I trust your innate ability to read the truth in people, but all research on Elementals calls them mutants at worst, Witches at best. Thus, they have all been named Witches and hunted as such. I have always respected our King, but now I am beginning to question whether those rumors of his madness possess some shred of truth.

Lest you think I exaggerate - and I truly hope I do - I shall transcribe the sole passage I could find that described Elementals in more detail than a mere mention of their wickedness..

From the Travels of Elias Heartworth:

Elementals are dangerous and unpredictable, their magic completely ruled by their emotions. One wrong statement which sets off their temper could result in your untimely end by a sudden raging tempest, a surprise inferno, or perhaps a crack in the earth, simply waiting to swallow you whole and trap your soul for all eternity. Elementals' control over these natural elements, which transcend that of ordinary Wizards' abilities, even after Binding, is nothing but uncanny and unnatural. They are more demon than human, with powers rightly reserved for only the most holy of the gods, and as such, completely at the mercy of their temptations and the Eight Atrocities. Being so inhuman, their hearts are entirely incompatible with any Warriors, not that there would be any fool enough to be at the mercy of one of these creatures.

If we look at Sir Elias's account, there are already inconsistencies that make me doubt the validity of his claims. He states that the Elementals' hearts are incompatible with Bonding, yet this Master Soul you are with has been actively searching for someone whose heart aligns with his - you. So either you are as abnormal and dangerous as Sir Elias believes Elementals to be, or he was mistaken in his claims.

I can do naught but hope that your soul knew the sort of person it Bonded with, and that this Master Soul is not a demon at heart.

Remain safe,

Tsubaki

I nearly forgot to answer your question, so taken aback was I with your news! Masamune has yet to reveal to me who I am to marry, but the way his eyes light when he speaks of it bodes no good news for me, I fear.


My Poor Tsubaki,

Please do not worry for me! While it is true that I have found danger, that it stalks us both even still, I am safe and whole, and while I know you worry that Soul is a threat to me, in truth he has become my staunchest ally through all of this.

I know what you would say or think! Do not jump to such conclusions, I beg of you. I still intend to sever our Bond when it may be done, but for now, I cannot deny the loyalty or dedication of my Wizard as irritating as he may sometimes prove. But I get ahead of myself! Let me regain the reins of this runaway letter and get to the point.

I am sorry I worried you and I thank you for what you were able to uncover about Elementals-knowledge is power, as you well know. If nothing else, it is helpful to know what prejudice we may face, though I have seen it clearly enough in his thoughts.

But let me finish the tale I have left half told, my dear sister, and then you will know that I am as safe as I may be, and yet, that none of us are safe, not in these dark and disturbing times. I am sure you have been as eager to know all and understand our plight as I am to tell it and hear your counsel, for you know I have always prized your level-headed wisdom above all others.

When we fell unconscious together in the woods, we remained that way for some time; with the Witches being dead, we were in no real danger. I blush even still to think of how long I remained in the arms of a strange man, and yet, he was no stranger-has been no stranger since our souls became one. While this cannot lessen the impropriety of the situation, I hope, at the least, you will realize the necessity, for truly, I had neither say nor choice when the exhaustion took us.

When I awoke, it was to the rising dawn, the warmth of his arms both comfortable and comforting before awareness stabbed me like a sword to the gut and I scrambled up and pushed him away from me. He, too, awoke then, blinking up at me blearily with those odd red eyes. They practically glowed in the pink light of dawn and I could not suppress a shudder at his strangeness nor at the idea that I had been so recently nestled in his arms.

Yet, though strange, his eyes were beautiful even through the hurt I sensed. Yes, sensed. Our Bond is strong and I sense his emotions as he senses mine, catch his unguarded thoughts as he catches mine. It is strange and uncomfortable and while I am learning how to keep my most private thoughts to myself, it is yet difficult, especially when I am surprised.

But I get off track again! This is so unlike me, to be so scattered, but in truth, so much has happened and is yet happening that I know not where to find myself in the mix.

Let me continue without such wayward thoughts, for surely they do no one any good. As I said, we awoke and a tense silence took us, his of hurt and mine of mortification, lasting perhaps several moments as I stretched. We parted to see to some quick necessities, and I made a vain attempt to groom myself before we sought water and food in my pack, for we were parched and famished both. I then suggested we see if my horse might be retrieved, that we would travel more quickly that way.

"And where, exactly, do you think we're going?" he asked me then, brow furrowed. I was carefully keeping my mind to myself; having already sensed his hurt, I suspected that the ability to read emotions went two ways.

"To report to camp. My orders haven't changed, and until we may figure out how to sever this ill advised Bond, we must travel together. To be apart when Bonded so is impossible, you must know this as well as I."

He shook his head then, frown deepening. "No, we can't. We need to go to the King. Tell him-"

I cut him off, impatient. Yes! I know it was rude, Tsubaki, but I was exhausted and confused and he brings out the worst in me somehow. All the more reason this Bond can never be allowed to stand!

"We can report what happened here at headquarters. While Witches so near the capitol are concerning, certainly, it is beneath the notice of the King."

He sighed and shook his head. "The Witches? Maybe. What they revealed? It's vital. You-must not have gotten that in the exchange," he heaved another sigh. "Well, then." And before I knew what he would do, he did it, touching my hand and flooding my mind with his own.

Do you know how odd it is, to swim within the memories of another? It is disorienting, unpleasant, too intimate-yet, there is something warm and close about it too. I saw what his eyes saw as he walked through the forest the evening before, his mind troubled by his very existence. I heard what he heard, that ruckus in the woods he went to investigate, the scathing conversation between Witches as he concealed himself behind a tree. I felt what he felt, his surprise, disgust, even fear as they discussed a man they called only Master, a powerful Lord of Kalacanda who plots to wreck the alliance between our nations and dominate both, who seeks to wage war upon our armies and murder our very King. This Master consorts with Witches and sends spies among us.

All this he was able to garner as they argued fiercely, a Witch with long white hair and wearing a deep cowl calling the two that we had slain foolish, telling them their antics would ruin all, telling them that Medusa would see them dead if they weren't careful, that while the plot to kill the Heir had failed years ago, the plot to slay the King must not fail, for it was becoming clear that the Heir was half mad and would be easily conquered. She had been adamant that their foolishness would destroy their plans, that they must stay quiet until all was in place for them to act. I saw all through Soul's memories, and then witnessed what happened as they discovered his presence, as the white haired one insisted even they might take care of such a weakling, witnessed their desperate battle that had resulted in his capture.

They had hurt him, hurt him, and yet, even then his determination never wavered. He knew he must survive, must return to the capitol, must warn his King. The first time he sensed me, before our eyes had even met, he knew for certain he could.

He also knew I was the one he had sought for so long, felt it instantly the moment he sensed my presence, and there was joy amidst his despair that he might be whole.

He'd cut off our connection then, red faced, embarrassed. I was as well, for such intimate thoughts about me left me flustered and confused. Yet there were more pressing matters than our mutual discomfort, and now, we both knew it.

Our King is in danger, Tsubaki, our King and the fragile peace our country has maintained for well over a decade, and only we know the truth-Soul, myself, and now you. I could not have shared this with someone less trusted than my own sister, for with spies in our midst, with Witches wandering so brazenly in our lands, how might one know who to trust?

But my story is not ended, even still.

Ah, Soul has returned to overhear these thoughts. He tells me I am being melodramatic. He also approves of my communicating with you. Through my thoughts and feelings, he has come to trust you as I do, and hopes that you might find some way to inform the King of his danger from your end, especially should we be beset again, should we-Ah! His thoughts take over. You see how troublesome this Bond is? He fears for us, as he should, but I believe we will complete our task. I have to.

Let me continue.

The Witches had come to meet their sister, and it would not be long before she found them missing. We needed to leave, to go to the palace where the King could be spoken to in person-we could trust such news to no one less.

We made for where I left my mount tied to a tree and found nothing-I might have guessed, with over a day having passed, that the beast would have escaped or been taken, but I was wrongly optimistic. It was unfortunate considering our need for haste, but Soul suggested that a horse might be had in the village, so we made our way there. The walk was not long, but what we found broke my heart.

The place had been burnt to the ground.

The flames burned even still.

A small press of people were gathered in the center, and when they saw us approach, some cowered while others clamoured for our attention, crying out "Lord Wizard!" and "Lady Knight!", asking for help or for mercy. A man I recognized as the Innkeeper dared approach, panting, shaking his head.

"Who did this?" I asked softly, my question echoing in Soul's mind.

"A Witch she was, with pink hair and a cruel laugh. She came but a few hours ago and swore vengeance, said she felt the death o' her sisters who was supposed ta meet her here. I tol' her we never seen 'em, but-" he shook his head. "But my Lady Knight, we thought you was dead! We found yer horse runnin' loose and figured ..."

"You have the horse?" Soul cut him off.

"No," he said, followed by another head shake. "The Witch took 'im and rode off, swearing she would find the ones what killed her sisters."

You will think me wrong, I know I do, but at this news I felt a pang of odd relief that I had kept my pack with me rather than with my mount, for without it, without the supplies and the letterbox I use to speak with you, my dear sister, I would be even more lost!

"Then we'll need another," Soul told him, and I couldn't help my surprise at the command in his voice, a tone similar to that my father uses when things are most dire; I had heard my Wizard speak but little, and most of that was pleas, but somehow, it suited him.

"I'm sorry, Master Wizard, but all the horses been burnt with my stables."

I let out a sigh at that, in grief for the poor creatures and in frustration for our plight.

"Do you know where a horse might be found?" I asked, trying not to sound desperate. "It is dire we get to the castle to see the King."

"But-" The man looked confused. "The King ain't at the castle. He passed through two days ago with his people. Goin' to the front they said they were."

"But-" I was confused by his words, for I had left the town only yesterday, and I certainly heard nothing of the King. "That makes no sense. The King was in his palace still when I was there three days ago!"

The man looked at me like I had grown another head. In a way, perhaps, I had, for I felt Soul's rising confusion as clearly as my own.

"Lady Knight, you was here three days ago. You left us that mornin' ridin' opposite the Palace. But the King's entourage was here two days ago, any here can vouch for it."

It was then that it hit us both-we hadn't awoken the next morning, but two days later. The shock of our wretched Bond had cost us two precious, precious days.

I might have sunk to my knees in defeat right then and there if I hadn't felt strong hands supporting me, around my back and under my arm.

It's okay, I heard his whisper in my mind, and I couldn't even push him away for propriety's sake-I was far too stunned. Please do not blame me, sister, that I instead allowed myself to take comfort in his presence just that once, just in that moment. Even I am only human.

He spoke for both of us.

"Is there another horse?"

The Innkeeper shook his head and I could feel Soul's sigh as much as hear it. It was then that I noticed the frightened looks many of the townspeople were giving us, were especially giving Soul.

They feared him, hated him, even blamed him. I could read it all in their souls and, much as I wished to reprimand them, for what right did they have, they had already been through enough.

"Are there injured?" I asked instead, though Soul looked at me sharply.

The Innkeeper cast Soul a baleful look and met my eyes.

"No," he said firmly, and though I knew it for a lie, I would not press him further.

"Then we must leave. We will give word of your plight at the next town we pass."

And with that, I tugged Soul away. I felt hesitation in him, as if he would do or say more, but he heeded me despite any reluctance, and we began to walk away from the town along the road. It was all there was to do.

Both of us felt the guilt of leaving the flaming ruins behind, knew that our actions had caused their plight, felt it press down on us like a weight upon our chests, but we could not pause to let these worries devour us. Because we also felt the urgency of what we knew. We had to get to the King, to stop the madness that threatened us all, yet we were on foot and several days behind.

What we felt was so near despair, but we could not give up-nor have we, Tsubaki.

For two days we walked, hardly resting, sleeping at the roadside for a bare hour or two at a time. No one passed us, and we worried over the lack of traffic, worried at what it could mean.

When we came to the next town, another tiny waystop, it too was in ruins, deserted. No one could tell us what had happened, all fled or worse, but well could we guess-the Witch sought her revenge, seeks it still.

We found a house at the edge of town by the forest's border, abandoned yet intact, and there we sheltered the night, needing to rest and decide how to proceed. We had planned to obtain mounts in town, and had found nothing but desolation.

It was at that house that I wrote my last letter, working furiously as Soul searched the ruins for survivors or supplies or clues. He found none, but it did give me time to share my heart with you, my sister. I hastily sent off the letter when I felt his approach, masking my thoughts, fearing he would censure my correspondence with you, the one thing I had left that I could not do without!

He sensed my trepidation, and his next words stunned me.

"So, you sent Lady Nakatsukasa a letter?"

"I-I mean, how?" I tried to speak, my skin flushing hotly in embarrassment.

He just tapped his head and smirked at me before shrugging.

I couldn't help it, I was furious. I felt so-so violated! It wasn't fair, nor was it rational, but I screeched and then-then I hit him with a book! I was just so-he makes me so angry, and that he is privy to my thoughts when I am not mindful enough to guard them, that he had read my past like a book in my head when we first Bonded, it was all too much.

He did not defend himself, just shook his head and asked if I felt better.

I told him no.

We didn't speak the rest of that night, but when my temper had cooled in the morning, we made plans. I fear what you will say to this, all of this. I know I am comporting myself horrifically, and you always disapproved of my tendency to violence, but I swear I am doing my best.

We have since come to an accord. We travel now disguised. He wears simple peasant's clothes rather than his robes, and I wear a roughspun cloak to mask my armor, all items our temporary haven provided us with. Tonight we are stopped in the woods again, but tomorrow we should reach the next town. The journey is so slow, so tedious afoot! If only we could find a horse, yet still we see no other travelers. It begins to frighten me, truly.

I fear for our King and our people as we travel through this desolation, fear what happens beyond our reach and knowledge, fear that all of our efforts will be too little, too late.

We have begun to practice together as we rest. As long as we are Bonded, it makes no sense not to hone our joint skill, for the threat of the Witch who seems to hunt us or, worse, what we will find at the borderlands, looms large. Our power and control when we can manage to work together and achieve complete synchronicity is truly astonishing, but to be consistent yet proves to be an issue. Soul insists this is my fault, that it is my doubt in him, my wish to break our Bond which assures that we cannot use our combined strength well.

For my part, I am glad for this, as perhaps it means it may still be broken.

We have decided to rest nightly, since to push ourselves as hard as we did those first two days will only ensure our deaths should we find trouble-and trouble stalks us well and truly. I will write to you again tomorrow, and I sincerely hope that if there is news, it is good.

I also sincerely hope that you are still well. Have you news of this marriage that Masamune intends to thrust upon you? Has he yet revealed the name of your intended? That he did not disclose it worries me greatly, I must confess. Even amidst the sea of troubles I have faced this past week, my concern for you does not waver, and it is my most sincere hope to soon hear that this whim of your brother's has passed, that he has regained his senses and ceased this madness, this ill conceived attempt to thrust you into the arms of an unknown suitor.

Yet, though he is your brother, Tsubaki, I fear he may be beyond sense or reason. With the King at the front, when we reach him and share our news, I will be able to intercede on your behalf, to have you called to audience that you may avoid your brother's machinations. Whatever else he may be, Masamune is no fool, and even he would not be so reckless as to interfere with a direct summons from the King, surely. I pray, then, that you will finally give me leave to be your advocate, to act where you cannot to thwart this forced engagement. I await only your word and the arrival at our destination to proceed.

Know that I miss you dearly, both your company and your counsel, and offer my prayers to any who will listen for your continued safety.

Yours,

Maka