As she walked the corridors of Castle Aquaria the afternoon after the attack, past soldiers in nightshirts, panicked nobles, and runologists so pale they looked like the living dead, Nel found that the world had taken on that surreal feeling it sometimes did after battle. She had never seen such chaos in Castle Aquaria, not even when the Vendeeni's ship had appeared over Aquios. It hardly seemed like the calm, unchanging place where she and Clair had trained, where the continuos sound of flowing water had always been a balm upon troubled hearts. Over the years Nel had become so used to the sound that she generally filtered it out of her awareness, but now, with the water's flow disrupted by the rubble in the waterways on the first floor, its rhythm had changed and the wrongness of the sound gnawed at her, rubbing her nerves raw, even during the few hours of sleep she'd managed to snag amidst the chaos. During these past months so much of what she'd believed in, so much of what she'd thought to be true and unchanging, had proved ephemeral, or even a lie. She had seen an end to the war, seen foes become allies, looked at her world from the stars, seen the very gods that had created that world unmasked. It was hard to find solid ground when so much of what she'd believed had been laid to waste.
Desperate to calm her restless thoughts, Nel ducked into the conference room on the second floor which, by the afternoon, had been emptied out. The wounded who'd been treated here and in the hallways during the standoff had been taken to more suitable facilities, though it had been a complicated process due to the difficulty of reaching the second storey, currently accessible only through the weapon fabrication room. They'd had to lay planks across the remaining sections of the west stairway and carefully bring the injured down over it.
Heaving a sigh, Nel made her way to the one window in the conference room and looked out upon the grounds. At least in this room she could no longer hear the disrupted flow of the castle waterways. She wondered when the Chain Legion would arrive; the Shied Legion and what remained of the castle guard could certainly stand to be relieved.
She took it as a indication of her fatigue that she'd not heard the approaching footsteps, but she was grateful as she turned and saw Clair standing in the doorway. She was dishevelled and still in a nightshirt with the pale dust of powdered stone coating her hair and dark circles beneath her eyes, but Nel was relieved to see that the blood had been washed from her face and a bandage pasted over the gash in her temple. "Hello, Clair."
"Have you gotten any rest?"Clair asked.
"Two or three hours. You?"
"Less than that."
Nel shook her head. "You need to rest before you collapse like the rest of your runologists did."
Clair moved across the room and joined Nel at the window. "I know and I will. There's just been so much to do... I'm glad you're here," she whispered as she embraced Nel, laying her head on Nel's shoulder.
She could feel Clair leaning into her, could almost feel Clair's exhaustion washing over her and knew that it was not only the fatigue of the past day and of the battle that wore on her, but the same doubts and confusion that had troubled Nel's own thoughts. "I wish I could've arrived earlier," she said as she wound her arms around Clair's waist.
They remained like that for several minutes and it was Nel who broke the silence. "Clair, I've been thinking... In a few days when things have settled down somewhat I thought we could talk to the Queen." At this Clair raised her head and looked directly at Nel. "You still want to marry me?"
"Of course," she replied without hesitation and Nel could not help but be pleased with the slight note of exasperation in Clair's voice as she said it. "Nothing could change that, but are you sure you're ready to risk your command? I doubt Her Majesty would really object, but there's a slim chance she'd want to reassign one of us."
"I know," said Nel, nodding. "I'd hoped with the end of the war there wouldn't any longer be a chance of my ending up under your command, but after today... Still, I want this." As she said it, she tightened her grip, pressing Clair against her so that she could feel the warmth of her body soaking into her.
"Then I think we should talk to the Queen."
All at once Nel felt as joyful as she had on the night Clair had first accepted the ring; she was embarrassed by the thought, but a small part of her had feared that Clair might have changed her mind in the intervening years. Nel glanced quickly towards the corridor to be sure no one was passing by and then leaned in and kissed her.
A thrill ran through Nel at the touch of those lips, their softness, their warmth, and, as she let her fingers caress Clair's face and tangle into her hair, she felt for a moment the rest of world fall away– until the familiar trill of a transporter and an even more familiar voice brought the world crashing right back.
"Whoa! Hot stuff!"
They leaped apart and Nel could feel the heat rising in her cheeks as she turned to face their newly arrived guests.
"Hello, Cliff, Fayt," said Clair with such perfect calm that Nel could only marvel.
Cliff was eyeing them both with apparent amusement. "Didn't know you two were so close."
Nel resisted the urge to reach for her sword hilt and, instead, crossed her arms over her chest and said in a glacial tone, "Well now you know."
"Sca-ree," drawled Cliff.
Fayt, shaking his head stepped forward. "Sorry. We didn't mean to– uh– interrupt. Did something happen here?"
"You could say that," replied Nel.
Nel gave them the breakdown of the past days' events, stressing what she'd learned in Peterny about the source of the weapons and what they'd overheard from the man with the communicator about the Sacred Orb. At the end of her account Cliff slammed his fist into his palm. "There was a ship in orbit when we arrived but they took off as soon as we came out of gravitic warp like they had half the Federation fleet on their tails. We didn't even get a proper sensor reading on them."
Her fatigue was beginning to catch up to her, Nel knew, for she felt at the very end of her patience at this news. "Is this going to happen from now on? Are we going to have to spend all our time defending ourselves against people from out there?" She gestured vaguely towards the ceiling and then put her hands on her hips and glared at Cliff. "I thought your people had laws against interfering with other worlds."
Cliff shrugged. "Hey don't get so worked up. Things are pretty chaotic out there right now. With most of the Federation gone there's no one to police these sorts of thing anymore. But I'll look into it, don't worry."
"I wonder, though..." began Fayt. "It had to be somebody who had access to information records about the Sacred Orb. That narrows the field quite a bit."
"It does," said Cliff slowly. "I don't like it."
"Another hunch?" asked Fayt.
Cliff nodded. "Yeah. Not the good kind, though. You still set on staying here, kid? May not be much of a hiding place anymore."
"Actually I'm even more determined. I'd like to keep an eye out for any more off-world activity. Maybe I can even track down the ones responsible."
Nel shook her head. "They're long gone now I imagine. They probably fled to Greeton at the first sign of trouble."
"Well there's no reason I can't travel there. Besides it might be interesting to see the place I'm supposed to come from."
"The Legion of the Void which operates in Greeton reports to me," said Nel. "I'll put you in contact with one of their agents. If you're bent on going to Greeton you'll need to be briefed."
"All right. Thanks."
"I'm gonna go back up to the ship and see if we can't start getting some answers," said Cliff. "You got any of the weapons they used? It might help identify the source."
Clair nodded. "Come with me."
"No, I'll take them," offered Nel. "You should get some rest."
"All right. I'll see you later."
"From the two rebels we captured in Peterny and the ones who survived the battle here, we've been able to get a complete list of names of those involved in the plot," said Nel, remaining on one knee before the Queen as she continued her report, taking up the thread where Clair, also waiting on bended knee at the foot of the dias, had left off with hers. "Several of them were merchants' sons acting without the knowledge of their parents, but the ringleaders themselves were among their fathers, the wealthiest merchants of Peterny and they've already fled. It seems they had made arrangements long in advance to flee our borders if their plot failed. There's little chance of catching up to them now, though Fayt has decided to travel to Greeton to learn what he can."
"I see," said the Queen. "And what of the weapons they obtained?"
"We confiscated whatever was left in Peterny and those that remained after the battle here. Lady Elena is studying them as we speak. However we still have little clue as to the identity of the man who contacted the merchants in the first place. Cliff has promised to do what he can to find out, but at present we have no further leads."
As she came to the end of her report, Nel resisted the urge to sigh. The past week had been a long one, rife with turmoil and heartbreak as the news of the attack on Aquios had spread through the country and arrests had been made in Peterny. Especially difficult had been the services held for the many soldiers and runologists who had lost their lives in the attack. The bulk of the Shield Legion had finally arrived from Arias to take over the protection of Aquios and Nel's agents as well as those responsible for territories within the Samnite Republic and the Kingdom of Greeton were on high alert, making certain that no other powers intended to try to take advantage of Aquaria's weakened state. It seemed, though, that things were beginning to settle into a state approaching normalcy, though Nel did not think things would ever be quite the same again. Even in the castle it would be some time before things were repaired. A temporary wooden stairway had been constructed over the remains of the west stair to allow access to the second floor, but it would be months before the masons were able to rebuild both stairways. The repairs to the Chapel would take even longer.
After a long moment of silence during which the Queen reflected upon the information her two officers had given her, she finally spoke. "Clair, you are to be commended for your quick thinking. Were it not for you the castle itself might have fallen into the rebels' hands. You have truly honoured the Crimson Blade."
"Thank you, Your Majesty."
"And, Nel, thank you for your efforts in uncovering those behind this conspiracy. Your service is, as always, exemplary."
"Thank you, Your Majesty."
"If your report is complete you are free to go."
" I..." Nel trailed off, suddenly nervous at the prospect of asking the Queen for the permission she needed to marry Clair. Their status as commanding officers had the potential to cause conflict within the ranks. She was ready to sacrifice her position in the Aquarian forces, as was Clair, but the prospect of disappointing the Queen whom she'd strived her hardest to serve well and faithfully all these years, made her tongue heavy and her mouth dry.
"Is there something else you wished to address?" asked the Queen.
"Yes, Your Majesty. A personal matter."
Nel took a deep breath. "I wish Your Majesty's permission to marry a fellow officer."
"You mean Lady Clair of course," said the Queen.
Flustered at the Queen's casual tone, Nel found herself quite unable to speak, but Clair replied without missing a beat. "Yes, Your Majesty."
Nel chided herself for being surprised– after all the Queen had many sources of information so why should she be unaware of a relationship between two of her senior officers? And the fact that she was aware of their relationship and had never brought it up seemed to indicate that she found nothing objectionable in it. Yet even realizing this, Nel found herself holding her breath as she waited for the Queen to speak.
"Your relationship has never before interfered with your work and I do not see why it would begin to now. I have no objections." And then she smiled, a rare enough occurrence for the Queen in these troubled times. "May the blessing of Apris be upon you both."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," they said in tandem and, with that, stood and made their way out of the audience chamber.
When they had reached the corridor beyond the chamber, Nel could no longer restrain herself and swept Clair into her arms, smiling broadly. As relief washed over her, a laugh, deep and full, poured out of her like water bubbling from an underground spring. When she drew back to look into Clair's face she saw the joy she felt mirrored there.
"I can't remember the last time I heard you laugh like that, Nel."
Grinning, Nel breathed a sigh of relief. "I was nervous, more than I have been since... since I gave you the ring I suppose."
"You were as pale as a sheet in there. Did you really think Her Majesty would object?"
"I hardly know what I thought, but I am glad it's over. And I have you. And no one can object to it."
As she said this last, Clair groaned and let her head droop on Nel's shoulder. "I'd almost forgotten... My father. We'll have to tell him."
And while Nel did not relish the thought of a another conversation with Adray such as the one they'd had on the way to Peterny, she was in too good a mood to be greatly distressed at the thought. Instead, she placed a kiss on Clair's brow. "We'll manage." And then, as they began walking down the corridor hand in hand, she added, "Or we could always elope." This earned a smile from Clair, and for the first time in the past week Nel felt that she'd again found solid ground.
The Chapel lay in ruins still. Though the water had been rerouted so it no longer sloshed into the main worship area, huge chunks of rubble from the aqueducts littered it, as did shards of glass from the shattered rose window and splintered wood from the podium and several of the pews which had been crushed by falling stone. The statue of Apris set beneath the shattered window had been toppled and remained lying on its side. And yet, even amidst this destruction, today all Clair could see was beauty, for there was Nel standing at the far end of the Chapel, dressed in her formal military attire. Dressed in a long coat, finely stitched, with gold buttons that caught the sunlight which poured through the gaping hole where the rose window had been, trousers pressed to perfection, knee-high boots polished till they shined, and the Blades of Ryusen at her hips, Nel cut a stunning figure and Clair could hardly take her eyes off her. Nel stood there, tall, strong, proud, and Clair felt joy and gratitude swirling through her, making her heart– and her stomach too, for she had to admit there was a smidgen of nervousness in the mix– flutter.
Her head swivelled to face her father as she realized he'd called her name– more than once. "I'm sorry, father. You were saying?"
Adray sighed and cast a glance in Nel's direction, shaking his head. "Never mind. Now, Clair," he said placing his hands on her shoulders.
He was a full head taller than she and Clair was perfectly aware that his stature easily intimidated others– a fact he frequently used to his advantage– but it was an effect he had never had on her, and, as he towered over her, she stared him straight in the eyes, steeling herself against whatever nonsense he was about to speak. She only hoped he wouldn't cause a scene, or otherwise embarrass her– please not today! She half expected him to tell her he had found someone who would be a suitable husband and that everything was arranged, much as he had with her runologists and Fayt. She was surprised at the gentleness of his tone when he did speak. "You have your heart set on this?"
"You're certain? Because there's still time to back out and I'm sure I could find you a suitable–"
"I'm sure, father," she stated, setting her jaw and crossing her arms, ready for an argument if it came to that. She'd been more than a little surprised when he'd taken the news of the upcoming marriage so quietly and she'd had nightmarish visions of his creating a scene at the wedding itself.
But after a slight pause Adray only nodded. "So... no grandchildren then."
This drew a smile from Clair. "I'm sorry, father."
He looked again towards Nel and heaved a sigh. "I often wished Nevelle had had a son, a fine red-headed lad just like he was. I suppose if you have to marry someone's daughter it might as well be Nevelle's."
Clair turned and was moving to join Nel at the far end of the Chapel when her father called her again. "Clair."
"You look beautiful."
"Thank you," she whispered, deeply grateful and trying to pull herself together as she could feel tears welling up in her eyes. The long dress she wore was fairly plain, a deep grey much like her regular uniform, though cut low, leaving her shoulders bare. She also wore a silver neckless studded with a small emerald. It had been her mother's. A circlet was the only thing holding back her dark hair which she had left untied today, knowing how much Nel loved to see it loose.
When she finally moved to join Nel where she waited, Clair found herself keenly aware of the way her footsteps echoed through the Chapel, up to its vaulted ceiling and along the pillared walls and railings above. She could not remember ever feeling so self-conscious and she was thankful that there was no one here to witness it, for they had made a point of having this be a small, private ceremony, with only her father and the high priestess. Nel looked little more relaxed as she kept shifting from one foot to another. She turned at the sound of Clair's footsteps, and the look of utter amazement and love on Nel's face was almost too much for Clair to bear and she found herself wiping her eyes.
Nel's smile looked almost shy as Clair came to stand before her and it seemed so strange as to be comical to see her dear friend, undaunted by the finest soldiers in Airyglyph, by monsters and dragons, struck with timidity by her own presence. Smiling and looking into her eyes, Clair took Nel's trembling hands in hers and the ceremony began.
As per tradition, Nel's right hand and Clair's left were loosely bound by a braided cord during the course of the ceremony. Much of it, however, was a blur to Clair. She knelt when the high priestess asked them to kneel and stood when they were to stand, and spoke the lines they'd rehearsed, but all she was truly aware of during that space of time was that constant contact with Nel's hand and the realization that that cord was a physical representation of the bond that the ceremony itself created, binding them each to the other. Though she had of course known this before, it struck her now with a vibrancy and power that stirred the depths of her being. It was not till they turned to face each other again in order to exchange the rings that she realized the tears that had threatened to spill out earlier were running down her cheeks.
Nel's hands were still shaking as Clair slid the ring she'd worn so long around her neck onto Nel' finger. She clasped Nel's hands for a long moment until her trembling had ceased and Nel was able to slip the ring's twin onto Clair's finger.
And then it was over. The rings became the outward sign of their bond in place of the cord and its removal signalled the end of the ceremony. Nel leaned close and kissed her ever so gently, and Clair's heart nearly burst from her chest when a collective whoop sounded through the Chapel. She and Nel both spun to find a crowd gathered at the back of the Chapel. They must have entered after the beginning of the ceremony while she– and Nel too, it seemed– had been too entranced to notice. Most of the Shield Legion had come and the members of the Secret Legion presently in Aquios, Lady Elena, too, and there, at the forefront, Fayt and Cliff.
"Hey you two," Cliff called out. "Rumour has it you were planning to have a quite ceremony all to yourselves."
"It's called discretion," said Nel as they joined their friends and comrades at the other end of the Chapel. "But I don't suppose you'd have heard of it." Yet no one could mistake the smile on Nel's face and the lightness of her tone. They had spent years doing their best to keep their relationship private. It had been a matter of necessity then and become a habit, but things were different now and Clair felt almost lightheaded at the thought that they no longer had to hide. Everyone was here. Everyone knew. And that was all right. "How it is you're here anyway?"
Cliff shrugged. "Fayt told me what you had planned and what can I say? I wasn't about to miss it."
"Congratulations," said Fayt, stepping forward and offering his hand which they clasped each in turn.
"And how did you know?" Clair asked him.
"Word gets around," replied Fayt with a grin and Clair had a niggling suspicion that her father had once again decided to tinker with her life. At least this one time it had been for the better.
Soon they were swallowed up by the crowd of well wishers who offered their congratulations and the blessing of Apris. "I'm happy to see you finally took some time to stop being busy and instead be young," said Elena when she reach them.
"As am I," replied Nel, squeezing Clair's hand.
"This seems a rather odd choice for the location of the ceremony, however, given the Chapel's current state."
Nel nodded. "That's true, but it had to be here. If it were elsewhere..."
"It would be as if our enemies had won," continued Clair, articulating a feeling she knew they had both experienced but not actually discussed; the decision to be married in the Chapel had been unspoken and understood perfectly between them. "It would mean allowing them to take away something important, the way we live, the things we value. The Chapel can be rebuilt just as the rest of the castle can. Being here is an affirmation of that belief."
Elena nodded thoughtfully and then stepped aside for the others who wanted to wish the two commanders well.
When everyone had passed on their congratulations and well wishes and while Cliff haggled with several members of the Shield Legion about where to go to celebrate further, Nel and Clair seized the opportunity to step away from the others for a moment. Nel leaned her forehead against Clair's, holding her hand, her thumb moving over the ring on Clair's finger. "I wanted to tell you something. I meant to earlier, but then I saw you and... became distracted," she said, tangling her fingers into Clair's hair.
"I'm glad to hear that," replied Clair and then leaned closer to whisper in Nel's ear, "You were rather distracting yourself."
Nel chuckled but then her expression sobered. As she spoke, she looked Clair in the eyes with that intense focus Clair had become so familiar with. "These past months..." She paused and shook her head. "Everything's changed so quickly. So much of what I believed has been reduced to rubble and I don't know what will happen next." Clair was about to speak, but Nel, seeing this, continued. "But I wanted you to know... Clair, in all this madness, you are what I count on," she said, holding Clair's face in her hands. "You are my solid ground, my foundation."
"Nel..." breathed Clair.
Nel's voice was taut with emotion as she went on. "And I know that the life we build out of all this will be wonderful... because you're a part of it."
Words failed Clair utterly then and all she could think to do was reach out to cup Nel's cheek. "Nel..." she whispered finally. "I love you." And as they had loved among the ruins in the gardens beyond the castle walls and fought in the ruins of Arias, they stood now among the ruins of the Chapel, knowing they would make of it something beautiful.
A/N: So here it is the final chapter. I hope you enjoyed reading it– and hey don't be afraid to leave a review and tell me what you thought. Thanks!
And a final big thank you to my beta jenniferlupin!