Author's note: Sorry about the delay—I've been working on other fanfics, and original stories, and waiting for inspiration to strike. I know some of you thought the story was finished, but let me remind you that this is not about the fluff… remember the Merindar plot? Remember Flauvic? Minor loose ends needing to be tied up? ;-)

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Eventually, the sound of rapidly approaching hoofbeats dragged me back to the present, and we pulled away from each other just as a weary, mud-spattered courier entered the tent after being stopped by the guards outside. He struggled to attention and saluted. Shevraeth gestured for him to relax. "Remalna-city is deserted," the man gasped out.

My eyes widened, and so did Shevraeth's, but not as perceptibly. "What do you mean?"

"I got there second-gold. There should've been people in the streets, but there weren't. No animals, either." He shook his head. "Didn't see Keira. Turned around and rode straight back."

I looked in confusion from the courier to Shevraeth, but all he said was, "Good. You did the right thing. Go to the cook-tent and get something to eat; you're off duty."

As soon as the man was gone, I said, "What's going on?"

"I didn't get a chance to tell you," he said. "I arranged with my parents to send a courier from Athanarel once each day, even if there was no news to report. She never arrived yesterday, so I sent a runner to observe and return." He extended his hand to me. "It would seem that the Merindar threat is not yet over. Are you ready for another ride?"

Get rest, hot food, and warm, clean clothes, or go with Shevraeth to Athanarel? It was no decision at all.

We didn't leave until after nightfall, and consequently rode at a gallop for the capital—though I think we would have ridden headlong no matter when we had left. As a result there was little opportunity for conversation, but much opportunity for thought. And I had a lot to think about, and not just that kiss—though I did seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time dwelling on it.

When we stopped at an inn, sometime during white-change, I looked over at Shevraeth, and though he and I were both weary, I couldn't help but laugh. He smiled down at me somewhat quizzically and guided me inside.

"I should have guessed," I said when we were settled inside a parlor, with a welcome fire roaring in the hearth and a tray of hot chocolate at hand. "I can't believe I didn't! The sword, your not responding to any of my written messages—and worrying that I'd read the one you had sent, after you left—Savona knowing about the roses…"

"There were times when it was hard to keep from telling you," he admitted. "That day in the archives, when you said I couldn't have anything to say to you—I nearly told you then."

"Why didn't you?" Even as I spoke, the answer came intuitively.

"Because I did not know how you felt," he said, his eyes serious again. "I hoped—but my own emotions were too involved for me to see clearly. And, also, I wanted to keep the Merindars from taking an unhealthy interest in you. Though that seems to have been a fruitless endeavour."

I hugged my knees. "I felt so guilty," I said. "I'd fallen in love with the Unknown—and then I think I knew I was falling in love with you. And then—" I shook my head, remembering one of the sources of my confusion. "What about Elenet?"

Now Shevraeth looked confused. "What about her?"

"There was—well, there was gossip," I said, though my conclusions had come only from my own observations. "About the two of you. And she'd be better suited to ruling."

"Gossip was inevitable, given our social proximity," he replied. "We both knew that. Yet her true purpose in coming to Athanarel was to inform me of Grumareth's activities, and I spent time with her as a warning to the Merindars not to consider retaliation."

Somehow, he didn't know, I realized, and knew instinctively that the only honorable thing to do—and the kindest—was to keep it that way. So I merely nodded, and said, "You didn't capture the Duke, did you?"

He shook his head. "He probably went home, either to Grumareth or Athanarel. In either case he'll find Renselaeus warriors waiting for him."

Athanarel. Remalna-city. "What do you think happened? Flauvic?"

Shevraeth grimaced. "I see no other possible explanation. With magic, he would have had no trouble eluding the ridings I set to watch him."

"But I thought you said he hadn't been trained?"

Shevraeth looked even grimmer. "He has not been trained by the Council of Mages, which leaves only the possibility that he has been instructed in black magic."

I shivered. There were two types of magic in the world, black and white. Some regarded black as more powerful—it certainly had a greater capacity for active harm. But it was also more dangerous, and there was only one way Flauvic could have learned it: from Norsundrian sorcerers.

And Galdran had made very sure Remalna had no mages. I shivered again. There was so much more I wanted to know from Shevraeth—above all why, and how—but the thought of what we would face at the end of our ride effectively curbed my curiosity. "Should we be riding alone, then?"

"Numbers have no effect on a mage," he said. "I would rather not send any of my people into danger they had no chance of facing." He gave me a sidelong look, and for once I knew what he was thinking.

"Absolutely not," I said firmly. "I'm going with you, and you're going to let me, or else we wouldn't have gotten this far. I've been in danger before, remember?"

"Quite well," he said drily. His face softened. "I think that's when I fell in love with you. That day in the throne room, when you glared at Galdran as if you were queen in your own Court, not a sick captive. And then on the subsequent chase, I had long hours to think of you."

I laughed. "I was thinking of you, too—only not in a good way." Shevraeth's eyes gleamed with humor. "I think I loved you from the very beginning. Only I didn't want to admit it, because I didn't know what it was."

Before he could answer, a servant bustled in to tell us our fresh horses were ready, and I looked at the fire longingly—but only for a moment. Then I struggled to my feet, and Shevraeth was there to help me up. "Wait," he murmured as I started for the door. "There is something I want you to have." He pulled something out of his boot top, then rolled up his sleeve, and I saw a slender sheath of dark blackweave fastened to the inside of his wrist, the steel of the knife gleaming softly in the firelight.

"You had those at Chovilun," I said.

"Yes. I carry them with me always." He offered the blades to me, and I tucked the one in my boot and fastened the other to my left wrist. The strap was large, and I had to pull it past the last hole and tie it back on itself to get it to stay. The knot made an awkward bulge, but when I rolled my sleeve back down it was hidden.

I looked up to see him standing quite near me, and smiled as he bent down to kiss me again, sending delightful shivers through my body. With the greatest reluctance, I remembered Athanarel and Flauvic. "Let's get this over with," I said.

-

Remalna-city was deserted; it was odd to see the streets without their usual bustle of people. Our horses' hoofbeats echoed off the stone walls and reverberated in a strange humming that seemed to fill my ears, shifting in pitch as we rode. No matter how I shook my head, I still heard it, and the air seemed to sparkle as well.

Those thoughts vanished from my head when we reached Athanarel and I saw with shock that the doorwards had been replaced with white statues… no. I looked closer. The doorwards had become white statues, their every feature etched with a detail that no hand could have reproduced.

We halted in the courtyard and dismounted in silence, Vidanric surveying everything with his assessing gaze, me looking around at more of the statues. Everyone was frozen in the middle of some action, which meant they'd been caught unawares. And none of them seemed to be in pain. I took my sword from its saddle-ties and strapped the belt around my waist.

"The throne room," Vidanric murmured. We were right outside it. "There are servant's passages there that will allow us to move through the palace undetected."

Neither of us mentioned, as we ascended the steps, that Flauvic could have spells watching the passages, or waiting for someone to stir in his dead realm. And then we didn't need to, for there on the throne was Flauvic himself.

He smiled gently. "I expected you earlier," he said. Then he saw me, and his golden gaze flickered between me and Vidanric. "Though not in such… charming company. I take it that was the reason you were delayed?"

I felt my face grow hot. "Administrative details," Vidanric said.

"Ah, thank you," Flauvic said. "I find such things trivial. Magic serves as a conveniently expedient substitute for alliances and armies."

"You included among your acquaintance in Nente Norsundrian sorcerers?" Vidanric asked.

"I did," Flauvic confirmed. "After all, we couldn't have my dear family suspecting what I was studying, could we? Thus the necessity of learning from other than the Council of Mages." He turned to me. "So ignorant was my mother, in fact, that she asked me to retain you in hopes of making you her pet mage. I hope you will appreciate the irony," he added. "It was not lost on me."

I thought furiously. So that was why the Merindar men had pursued me—not to kill me or use me as a hostage, but because one of the people responsible for my mother's death had decided I might possess some of her skills. I wished desperately that I knew some magic, any magic, to counter Flauvic… But wishing never got anyone anywhere but right where they were, I thought. It was one of Julen's favorite phrases.

"As my spells, regrettably, could not extend to your army of yours, I suspect your people will be here shortly," Flauvic said, still smiling gently. "It would be… felicitous… if the transfer of power were concluded by then." He gestured lazily to a side table upon which were spread several papers. "A simple signature will suffice."

Vidanric opened his mouth to say something, but Flauvic stood up and strolled over to one of the statues. "I am aware that physical threats against your person would be ineffective in procuring your cooperation," he said. "Therefore, a demonstration." He drew a knife from his clothes and stabbed it into the statue. I gasped as the figure, which I recognized as the Duke of Grumareth, crumbled to the ground. "I spent my time during Meliara's charming entertainment ascertaining the probable whereabouts of those of value to you," he said. "I have people with them now."

The room seemed to hum with silence after Flauvic delivered his threat. But that's ridiculous, I thought, silence is quiet. But the feeling was there, pulling at my senses as sound and vibration and scintillation. It must be the black magic.

I glanced at Vidanric. His head was bowed, and he was deep in thought. Flauvic's gesture to him caught my eye. "This is regrettable," he murmured to me. "I'd anticipated waking you when events were over for some diverting entertainment. Would a promise of safekeeping and amusement entice you to change partners?"

I felt my cheeks burn at the crudeness of his—his—statement, before I realized he'd done it on purpose. Well, if he could humiliate me, I could humiliate him. "Sadly not," I said. "I'm afraid my time at Athanarel has improved my tastes."

I felt satisfaction in seeing him blush as well before he turned away. I was armed, with throwing knives as well as a sword, but knew I couldn't use them quickly enough. Vidanric, on the other hand… I had gotten a glimpse of his aptitude that day in the dungeon at Chovilun. But if Flauvic sensed what he was up to, he'd get the stone-spell—or worse, because Flauvic would still need him to sign over the kingdom.

"On the other hand," I said, my heart pounding in my chest. "Who would this promise of safekeeping extend to?"

Flauvic's lazy smile returned. "Not my dear cousin, I'm afraid," he said, and I felt Vidanric look at me, but I couldn't look back and direct Flauvic's attention that way. "Was there someone specific you had in mind?"

"Bran and Nee," I said, trying to slow my heart, which was inexplicably racing. What was wrong with me? I'd faced danger before. "And me, of course."

His eyes narrowed. "I had not marked you for a coward."

Well, I wasn't, though I certainly felt like one at the moment—and then I heard a soft whistling, like the sound of a reed pipe and realized. It wasn't my heartbeat. Somehow, it was the wooden drums of the Hill Folk.

"I hadn't marked you for a traitor, either," I said. If I could draw Flauvic into a battle of wits—I knew he wouldn't pass up the opportunity to insult me, not now that I'd refused him—

"Traitor to whom? To an uncrowned king? To a hazy set of ideals that is his plan? Power rests with those who can hold it, my dear Meliara. You—" his eyes widened as he heard the muted thunder, and he stared out the doors. I risked a quick look over my shoulder to see that a forest, shimmering oddly in the light, had sprouted outside Athanarel. It was the largest gathering of Hill Folk I had ever seen, and I stared.

Flauvic's gaze snapped to me. "You did this," he said, and advanced on me. I backed up and drew my sword. His eyes narrowed and he muttered something, and with a wrenching yank my sword fell to the floor. I reached for it, but it had fallen right between us, and he kicked it away. "Send them away," he said.

I backed up some more. "I couldn't, even if I wanted to. I didn't summon them." Knowing it was probably futile, I drew the knife from my boot-top and circled around—and this time, when Flauvic muttered, I flung the blade at him.

It missed and clattered to the floor by his shoe. "Interesting," he said, picking it up and examining it, still keeping Vidanric and I in his sight. "Marloven work. Yours, cousin?"

Then suddenly Flauvic's weight shifted, and my fingers twitched towards the other knife as Vidanric started forward, but before either of us could fully react Flauvic grabbed me and pulled me to him, and I felt the cold steel at the hollow of my throat. "I wonder how you will feel watching your knife spill her blood?" his voice purred in my ear. "Tell them to vanish, or I will satisfy my curiosity."

The chant of the Hill Folk increased in volume and in speed, and with Flauvic's wrist pressed to my chest, I could feel the hammering of his pulse. The knowledge that he was afraid catalyzed me into action: thinking he would not kill his hostage, I snatched the knife from my sleeve and plunged it wildly over my shoulder, throwing my weight backwards against him as I did so that his knife would not find my neck. I felt my blade hit flesh—he gasped and the point of his knife tore from the hollow of my throat towards my shoulder—I ducked blindly away from him and collapsed to the floor, and as he started towards me, blood dripping on the flagstones, Vidanric was there, blocking his knife-thrust with a sword-parry.

Flauvic dropped his knife from his injured arm and backed up—he glared at us and chanted under his breath, and a red glow arced from his left hand towards Vidanric—but he was too late, as the song of the Hill Folk reached its zenith and he was enveloped in golden light, glowing so brilliantly that I had to hide my eyes. I felt Vidanric wrap his arms around me and take us two steps back—there was a feeling like silent thunder, a resounding crash! and the feeling of dust raining down on my hair--

-- then stillness. I looked, and in the place of Flauvic, was a magnificent goldenwood tree, the branches arching through the new hole in the mosaic ceiling. And the Hill Folk were gone.

I felt hands at my throat. "You're hurt," Vidanric murmured, and I could hear the apprehension in his voice.

"It's not bad—I don't think it's bad—" If Flauvic had cut one of my major blood vessels, I would be dead by now, but Vidanric's fingertips were still covered in blood.

A pause. "No. It's not bad." A tearing sound, and he folded part of his sleeve and held it to my neck. "Mel," he whispered, drawing me to his chest, and I closed my eyes, slipping my arms around his back. Then I tilted my head up as I felt his hand guiding my chin, and leaned into the gentleness of a long, lingering kiss.

"This is an interesting development," someone said from behind us.

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One more chapter left, than the one-shot and maybe some alternate stuff. This ending didn't turn out exactly how I wanted it, but oh well.

Sorry about the delay—I lost my ideas, worked on other stories, stuff happened. The other chapter is half-written, though, which should speed things up.