(AN) AUTHOR'S NOTES: A long awaited update for an Easter treat for this upcoming holiday weekend. Again apologies for such a long delays but we have been having troubles with the groom to be. Being so stubborn my editor had to practically hit him unconscious to get in in his best thread and up to the alter lol ^^

This is not the final chapter. We have one more chapter and half to go before I can say this story has reached its end. I think there still one more part of chapter 39 if not then we'll be on the last chapter by the next update. Remember I mentioned many times that TBWC is 40 chapters in total. So we are not quite done with the story yet but we are almost there by a nose hair from saying this story in almost complete.

Yes at long last the long waited wedding chapter. Another favorite chapter coming from this story of mine next to chapter 10. This chapter where the wedding is to begin, the wedding in this story was mostly by inspired by the wedding of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine Middleton took place on 29 April 2011. And partly some from the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer took place on Wednesday, 29 July 1981. I'm sure on youtube anyone can check some clips of one or both of those royal weddings to get a feel of tradition to where this wedding will go. Just use you imaginations everyone.

BTW: this will be the last chance or semi last chance of anyone whom has not taken a vote yet to my poll located on my profile page. Please add your vote because we are reaching the finale on this story. On the poll located there are 2 choices. If you cannot vote on . I have the same poll located on my journal section on my Deviantart page.


DISCLAIMER: All rights to Trinity Blood was created and © by late Yoshida Sunao, the anime directed by Tomohiro Hirata and produced by the studio GONZO, as well as a manga drawn by Yoshida Sunao's friend Kiyo Kyoujou. All © rights revered by their respective owners. I own nothing except © to this story, it's plot and it's OC's that will eventually show within later chapters.

Warning: This fan fiction is rated (M) AKA Lemon. This story is ABSOULTLY NOT suitable for children or teens below the age of 16 [So if you're under the age limit turn back now, come back when you old enough to read this. I'd rather not get flamed nor sued by parents whom are just looking for trouble in places their underage children should not be looking nor reading for that matter.

This story contains strong explicit adult themes and sexual ones such slight foreplay - as in hand sex, one-sided love, Attempted Rape, Explicit Sex or anything else mild to hard core kinky for that matter!, references to violence, and strong coarse language. If this disturbs you, do not read any further.


Notice: Trinity Blood War Continuum takes place one month after the events from the anime's finale episode 24 along with some elements, characters and things that will be used and taken from both manga's Rage against the Moons (RAM), Reborn on the Mars (ROM). In addition to some spoilers from stories untold notes left by Yoshida Sunao which he intended to finish off the manga series supposedly. Basically 50/50 will be used on both the anime and manga to those whom are more familiar with manga then others will see this implants as the story develops. Trinity Blood is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the Roman Catholic Church/the Vatican is portrayed as a military and spiritual power. The series also strongly implies major and controversial changes in the Church of present reality, such as women being bishops, cardinals as well as romantic relationships and marriages between members of the clergy. If this disturbs you of form or shape of or on imagination then do not read this story.


(*) As always many special thanks to my editor and co-partner in helping finally get this story off the ground and back burner dragonwriter24cmf. Thanks to everyone, I appreciate your support through this 100% everyone. Keep the constructive criticisms, outgoing comments and reviews coming in.


TBWC Chapter Thirty-Nine: Royal Wedding Part Three: Ceremony

The next several weeks flew by in a dizzying blur of activity. Esther had thought her life to be a sort of controlled chaos before, but it was nothing compared to what occurred as they discussed wedding plans.

First, a date had to be fixed. Abel and Esther chose one near the end of July. The weather was usually best around that time of year, and the roses would be blooming, which pleased them both. Then a place for the actual ceremony had to be arranged. Westminster Abby was traditional, so she and Abel opted to choose that as the venue.

Then they had to decide on a time. Normally, a royal wedding would have been in the morning or early afternoon. But both of them had Methuselah retainers, and friends they wished to invite. William managed to calculate when sunset would be, and they agreed to start the ceremonies half an hour prior to the official sunset. It was late, but it was the best they could do.

Messages poured between the Vatican and Buckingham Palace. Alessandro was perfectly willing to conduct the ceremony, but that sparked a discussion of how many clergy were required for his honor guard, and who needed to represent the Vatican. In addition, Seth and Alessandro were exchanging communications almost daily, trading advice and plans on how to merge the Terran and Methuselah ceremonies. Esther frequently had her paperwork interrupted by a call from one of them, asking for her preference on this or that part of the ceremony. After the first two days, Abel and Virgil arranged a way for all of Abel's work to be transferred to a small computer in Esther's office, simply to make answering questions easier.

Then the colors had to be picked. Albion red, naturally was a major part of the color scheme. Esther added blue and white as suggestions, and Seth contributed with a suggestion of adding silver. In the end, they arranged it so that blue and silver would be the groom's colors, red and white for Esther, though Abel would have some red on his outfit, to honor Albion. Then a tailor had to be selected. Virgil and Mary both recommended the same one, a discreet, older gentleman who worked with quick hands, an excellent attention to details, and a no-nonsense attitude.

Then the place of the reception had to be decided. Esther chose Buckingham Palace. After all, they were almost certainly going to be celebrating until dawn, which meant her guests would be exhausted. The Palace had plenty of room, especially including the guest wing, set aside specifically to house visiting dignitaries.

Those arrangements led to the compilation of the guest list. Esther and Abel both agreed that they would have been perfectly happy to have only close friends in attendance, but it was impossible, given their positions. Besides, as much as they would have preferred a private ceremony and celebration, the people needed something to celebrate. A wedding was as good as any other reason, and at least it didn't have to be fabricated or forced. Still...the sheer numbers of people to be invited was staggering.

Courtesy dictated inviting all other royalty as a show of friendliness, if nothing else. Not necessarily just the rulers either. After all, the Hispania Royal family had several younger members who served in other capacities, like Antonio, and they had to be invited as well. There was also Lady Jane, who wasn't technically ruler of Eire, but was close enough, not to mention being family. Then there were the Vatican officials, Cardinals and the Albion bishops and arch-bishops, as well as the Brothers and Sisters they were friends with. They also had to invite all the nobles of Albion, minor and major, and a fair number of representatives among the merchants and so forth. Several of those would be assisting to host the reception, but they all wanted to be invited to the official ceremony as well. The same was true of merchants and scientists in the Underground. And again, a list of nobles from the Empire had to be compiled, names marked off as to who they should invite. Esther didn't even know most of the names, and Abel didn't either. However, there were a number of influential families connected to the Empress. As Abel was the Crown Prince, all of the major houses connected to Augusta had to be invited.

Then they had to double-check to make sure they'd invited all their friends and associates. That list was longer than Esther had expected. She'd done a fair amount of networking, particularly in Istvan, but she hadn't realized quite how many people she knew in casual relationships. Nor had she realized how many people Abel knew, how many people he'd encountered and worked with in his years as a touring priest. Three times they went over the list and found themselves adding people, as one or another of their friends gently reminded them of someone they'd forgotten about. All in all, by the time they'd finally formalized the guest list, there were several hundred names.

After that, the invitations had to created, addressed, and sent out. Esther had a Palace secretary handle most of that, but still, she and Abel both had to sign them all. By the time they were done, her hands and wrists were aching, and she'd never been more glad that her steward was handling most of the preparations and requisitions.

There were a thousand other details to see to, questions to answer. And even with everything else, there was still the day-to-day business to take care of. Esther had the business of the kingdom to handle. Abel was kept busy helping Virgil in the Underground, and learning about the politics of the Empire, as well as the foremost families in Albion.

To Esther's surprise, Clement turned out to be a huge asset. After his rude entry, Wordsworth took the reporter firmly in hand. The Professor and Virgil had Clement installed in the guest wing of the Palace, and Mary had guards watching him. Esther had expected to deal with several reports of the reporter sneaking around where he shouldn't, asking impertinent questions, but he was surprisingly restrained.

Clement did ask a lot of questions, but he was extremely professional about his work. He spent long hours talking to people in the Palace, and digging in the library records. He also took a day touring the Underground, speaking to Virgil and Vanessa, and another interviewing the delegates from the Empire. He drove Astha absolutely mad, and Ion dismissed him as 'plebeian', but Seth seemed to find him amusing in some strange way.

A week after his arrival, Esther answered a knock on her office door to find Clement standing there. She swallowed hard. "Yes, Mr. Clement?"

"Your Majesty." Clement ducked his head in an awkward bow. "I...was wondering..." He looked into the office. His expression brightened. "Father...er, Lord Nightroad...I was looking for you." He held up a notepad and a pen. "I'd like to interview you. People will want a first person view of the Queen's fiancée and husband." He grinned. "Not to mention being a war hero and everything."

Abel paled slightly, then sighed and set aside his pen and the small pad he'd been working from. "Well, if you must. The Professor has informed you of my wishes regarding this?"

"Yeah. Sure. Absolutely." Clement stepped into the office. "So...where do you want to do this?"

"Oh...I think here is fine." Abel considered, then moved to the window seat.

"Oh...okay. Sure." Clement gave Esther a quick look, and she nodded. Actually, she was glad Abel had chosen to have the interview in her office. She wanted to be able to put a stop to it if Clement got too intrusive.

Clement settled awkwardly on the window seat beside Abel. "Okay, I'll start with the easy ones first. Name?"

Abel considered. "You know my name here. However, in the Empire, my name is Aloysha Kasimir."

"Alo...Alo...right, how do you spell that?" Abel gave him the spelling. "Huh. Nice name. It's got a good ring to it. Okay. So...family."

"One sister, serving as an Imperial Adviser. One brother, and a half sister, both deceased in the war. And I've recently adopted a son."

"Right. Got you. So...two deceased siblings. How'd that happen?"

Abel flinched. "They died fighting the Contra Mundi. I'd prefer to leave it at that."

Clement grimaced. "Well, personally, I'd say a good sympathy story would be better, something to really make the public's heart bleed, you know?"

Abel froze. "Mr. Clement."

Clement held up a hand. "Yeah. I know. The Professor said not to press you on that. So then...moving on...how did you and Queen Esther meet, exactly?"

Abel relaxed, a small smile creasing his mouth. "About four years ago, Cardinal Sforza asked me to assist her with a matter in Istvan. She and I had met by accident while I was dealing with a...personal matter, and we formed a partnership. She knew I was proficient in technology, and asked me to investigate the possibility of a lost technology being revived. At the time, Esther was serving as a Sister there. We wound up working together. She was quite a help to me."

Esther struggled not to blush. Honestly, Abel had been far more help to her. She'd have been dead, if not for him.

Clement was chewing on his pen. "Four years ago...you mean you met during the Star Incident?"

"That is correct." Abel hesitated. "At the time, I didn't reveal my identity to her. I simply led her to understand that I was an associate of Cardinal Sforza's. However, we worked well together."

"Uh-huh." Clement nodded. "So...with your connections, and if the two of you were already used to working together, does this mean you were cooperating together in other incidents, such as Her Majesty's original contact with the Empire, as a member of Cardinal Sforza's AX team?"

"As a matter of fact, we were. I accompanied Esther to the Empire as a guard, as a matter of fact."

"And did you reveal your status then?"

Abel shook his head. "No. While we were in the Empire, my sister informed me that she had received confirmation that the Contra Mundi was alive. We thought he'd been killed in battle several years prior. We agreed that it was best that I maintain my cover until such time as it was necessary to come forward, or until the matter had been resolved."

"Right." Clement scribbled something down, then scratched the back of his head. "So...you, as an Imperial nobleman, run into the Duchess of Milan, form a partnership under an assumed identity, then meet Queen Esther and work with her to establish communications between the Empire and the Vatican, then later rejoin her to serve as her guard in Albion."

"Yes. Essentially correct."

Clement stuck his pen into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "If I recall correctly, you were presumed dead when the queen was crowned and placed on the throne. How'd you wind up her bodyguard?"

Abel sighed. "My injury was severe. I was in a coma for a while. Afterward, I feared I would be targeted, and I wished to strike back at the Contra Mundi, so I left and struck out on my own, rather than return to my former position. My search led me back to Londinium, at the same time that an alternative investigation of an assassination attempt prompted Esther to leave the castle. As it turned out, the assassins she was investigating and my own targets were the same individuals. Afterward, Lord Walsh and Colonel Spencer asked if I would be willing to help guard the Queen, and secure communications between Albion, the Vatican and the Empire."

"Right. So...why'd they ask you to help with something like that?"

Abel sighed. "Cardinal Sforza told them after I was injured that I was working for her, to avoid too many questions. However...I was born in the Underground, and my family happened to have access, nearly equaling that of the Manchester family. Lord Walsh discovered my family history during the incidents surrounding Esther's ascension to the throne. Also, I believe my sister called both Albion and the Vatican after she received word of my condition."

"Right, right. About that. You were born in Albion?"

"Yes. More specifically, I was born in the Underground, several years ago. My family..." Abel paused, and Esther saw one hand clench into a fist. "Well, I suppose you could say they were interested in old medical technology. They studied genetic manipulation. Because of their expertise, they had a great deal of access to Underground technology."

"Right. Lord Walsh mentioned that. But...your siblings, were they born in Albion too?"

Abel shook his head. "No. My sister and half-sister were both born in the Empire. My half-sister was a few years older than I. My brother was born in Germany. We were about the same age. My younger sister was born ten years later."

"Uh-huh." Clement tapped his pen. "Okay. So...how old are you, exactly? I know you're a Methuselah, and older than the Count of Manchester, but what's your real age?"

Abel swallowed hard. "Ah, well...actually...I'd prefer not to say."

"Seriously? This is a big question." Abel shook his head. Clement sighed. "Fine. So...I know Manchester's close to 200 years old. So, if I say 250 or 300 for you, is that going to be an issue?"

"Ah...no, not really. Actually, I'm a bit older, but..." Abel sighed. "I suppose, if you have to be accurate...I'm old enough to remember the border war 500 years ago, though only vaguely."

Clement whistled. "500...nice." He smirked. "You age pretty damn well, even for a Methuselah." he scribbled a note. "So...you're five hundred, and the Queen is only twenty, about to be twenty one. Does that bother you?"

Abel blushed. "Yes, well...it does, a little. But Esther is a very mature young woman, and she's quite...determined, I suppose you could say. And really, if you think about the way Methuselah mature in terms of age, I'm not sure we're really all that incompatible...in spite of how it may appear."

Esther felt herself blushing as well. She bit her lip to stop herself from saying anything. She wasn't sure whether to protest Abel's modesty, or start giggling.

"Ah...right." Clement scribbled that down. "So..." He smirked again. "You know I have to ask...how did you two fall in love?"

"Gradually, I suppose. Esther...well, she reminded me of someone I knew, a long time ago, someone I was very fond of. But then I really got to know her, you know, and that didn't seem to matter so much. And working together...well, I suppose it just happens like that." Abel was genuinely smiling now. "Seriously though...I was really afraid to tell her who I was. But when she got kidnapped...and then I did tell her...and she just, well..." Abel broke off. "I suppose you could say that I discovered I didn't want to be without her. And when I found out she felt the same way...well...that was really..." Abel stammered to a halt. His ears were bright red, his face flushed with embarrassment.

"Uh-huh. So, these rumors that you proposed as a ploy to maneuver Albion into favoring the Empire, or gaining your sister and yourself a monopoly on trade and negotiation rights between the two countries..."

"Completely false." Abel's tone went serious, the laughter disappearing from his face in the blink of an eye. "Mr. Clement, if you even consider publishing such a rumor..."

Clement held up his hands. "Geez, relax. I have to ask. But..." He grimaced. "The Professor already gave me the riot act on that one. So did your sister, come to think about it. I thought she was gonna freeze me solid, the look she gave me when I asked about that." he sighed. "Let's skip to a different topic. This kid you adopted..."

"He's a war orphan. My brother..." Abel's voice cracked. "My brother died defending that child, so I decided to raise him and name after my brother, to honor his memory."

Esther tensed, afraid that Clement would ask another question. She could see Abel's fragile control over his emotions. But either Clement had been warned not to push that topic, or he had seen Abel's tenuous control as well. He made a note, then spoke conversationally. "So...you've got a lot going on. Noble of the Empire, adviser to the Empress of Methuselah, technology adviser to the Underground, consultant and agent for Cardinal Sforza, and being a new father. And now you're about to marry the Queen of Albion. How do you plan to handle all that? Thinking of giving up some of your duties?"

"No. There is still far too much unrest in this world. Until the time comes when all of us live in harmony, without fear, I will continue to work. However..." Abel smiled slightly. "I do intend to keep some of my roles quiet, as much as possible."

"Working in the shadows of the thrones for peace and harmony...nice ring to it. Very noble." Clement wrote a few phrases down. He studied his notes a moment. "Well...I'll want a separate interview with both of you on your official wedding plans but...I hear you'll both have mixed Methuselah and human attendants?"

"That is correct."

"And the rumor that the Pope will be officiating alongside a representative of the Empress..."

"Also correct."

"And there's going to be an Inquisitor as well?"

Abel grinned. "Yes. Brother Petros is one of my groomsmen."

Clement blinked. "Let me see if I've got this right. An Imperial messenger and the Pope are going to orchestrate your wedding, while you're Methuselah attendants and the Head of the Inquisition stand there and clap for you?"

Abel rubbed a hand across the back of his head, looking sheepish. "Well...something like that."

Clement stared at him. "Who else is in your wedding?"

Abel gave him the list. Clement looked to be in danger of losing the unlit cigarette he'd stuck in his mouth to stop himself from chewing his pen. He bit down on the end, looked at his notes. "Holy crap." He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I'm all about a big scoop and sensational journalism, and even I can't believe I'm going to publish this. I'm going to have to get written verification, or even my boss will laugh me out the door."

"Yes, well...I imagine verification shouldn't be too hard to get. I can certainly write a note for you, if you like."

"I'm gonna need it." Clement sighed, then cracked his shoulders and his neck. He looked at his notes again, then smirked. "I'll be honest. I've got most of the real story of who you are, Father. And if I could assemble the required proofs, it would be dynamite. Blow the news world wide open. Of course, that's if they didn't discredit me as a lunatic first. But this...I can work with this." He flicked through the papers on his notepad. "A little bit of scandal, a little bit of mystery, plenty of drama. The romance and tragedy here will reduce Londinium to tears." He grinned and snapped the notebook closed, then rose from his seat. "If you'll excuse me...I've got a story to print." He turned and made his way to the door, then turned back. "So...I'll be back later for a follow-up on your wedding plans. Until then Father, Your Majesty..." He grinned and flicked them a quick, ironic salute. "Try to make life interesting, huh? It sells more papers, and with stories like this, even I don't need to hunt rumors." The door shut behind him before either of them could reply.

Clement's last words made both of them nervous, but when the Picadilly Gazette came out two days later, even Esther had to admit the results impressed her.

'Unsung Hero Comes to Light!'

'The Truth About Her Majesty's Mysterious Fiancee!'

Beneath the headlines, Clement had placed pictures of Abel, both in his Imperial outfit, and the night he'd proposed. Looking at the images, Esther could see why he'd chosen those representations of him, and why Seth, Caterina and Vanessa had chosen those images for the purpose. The regal Prince in those pictures didn't look much like the clumsy priest she knew most of her people recognized.

The story that followed the pictures was almost like a fairy tale. An Imperial Noble who had left the Empire, working to create an alliance following the death of his beloved sibling, on a personal mission to hunt down and destroy the organization that had caused his loss, as well as form an alliance that would prevent further such incidents. He was named as Caterina's ally and adviser, but there was nothing about his identity as a priest. Similarly, although Clement revealed that Abel was well-respected in the Empire, and had some relationship to the Empress, he never came out and said that he was the Empress's brother. There was mention that Abel was in consideration for the succession, should the Empress ever pass away or retire, but that was it. His connections to Albion were discussed both in terms of his coincidental meeting with Esther, their subsequent relationship, and with a brief period of fostering in the London Underground, while his parents studied lost technologies and medicines. It was subtly hinted that he had been taught computers, possibly by the current Lord Walsh or the previous one, and had quite high clearance, due to his family's studies, and to his connection to the Empire, also known for its high technological prowess. The article ended with promising more details as they became available, but Esther was amazed at how they'd managed to portray Abel so well, without ever doing any more than hinting at his true identity, or his past. And yet, Clement had never completely lied either.

The following articles, appearing over the next few weeks, did give the promised details of Abel's life, focusing on different angles. Esther and the others read them with interest. From the gossip Esther heard from the servants, Clement had been right about how the public devoured them. More than that, seeing the stories he'd written gave Esther a startlingly different look at the man she called her fiancée. She even went so far as to save clippings of the articles. It helped that Seth and Caterina were doing the same, though both of them appeared rather amused by the whole thing. Abel was practically hiding in embarrassment.

'Royal Technological Expert Supports Albion Security!'

That story focused on Abel's skill with computers and some of the work Abel had done for Virgil, including establishing the trade houses, and some of the new computer protocols. Esther enjoyed that one. She'd never known exactly how much Abel had done, or what he'd been doing. Virgil and Vanessa had provided detailed interviews, and Clement had made good use of them. There were no details given that might have compromised security, but several things were mentioned to generate support from the masses. Vanessa had explained Abel's involvement in preparing the safe-houses and their connections to the Underground. Virgil had mentioned several projects Abel had taken on for him, either in Underground security, or in technological improvements, and in smoothing over Methuselah-Terran interactions. Esther was surprised by the amount Abel had done, especially since he'd been guarding her. Abel, on the other hand, had looked sheepish.

'Mysterious Rescuer! True Story of Her Majesty's Disappearance!'

That article had taken a full page. They detailed Esther's first kidnapping, rather than her year-long disappearance. Esther read that one several times, shocked again by how much Abel had done. According to the Professor, he'd initiated a planet-wide electronic search via satellite, as well as a photo-retrieval and analyze system, to look for her. Caterina and Seth had both testified to numerous assaults on Order safe-houses and enemy strongholds in an effort to rescue her, or at least recover information on her disappearance. Mary and the others had given firsthand accounts of Abel's prowess in battle, including with several powerful members of Rosenkreutz. Reading the article made Esther's stomach twist at how much he had endured, trying to save her. She'd wondered how he could be as exhausted as he'd been when they'd retrieved her from Germany, but after that particular story, she was surprised he hadn't been half-dead and in a coma with the strain he'd been under.

'Timeless Love! An Affection to Defy the Ages!'

The story that followed that headline was an abbreviated story of their relationship. It revealed their meeting, and their relationship as co-workers and how it had evolved into a romantic attachment. Despite the lack of intimate details, the story had Esther and Abel blushing, and the rest of their friends snickering behind their newspapers.

There were several more articles, but Esther's time was taken up more and more with wedding preparations, and last minute details.

First of all, the Council had to be given a detailed report. Several of them had also read the newspapers and were demanding an explanation of why Virgil's report to the Council differed so highly from the newspaper articles. Straightening that out, and establishing the requirements and demands of secrecy (as well as making the Council swear to uphold them) took several hours.

There were also multiple fittings to be endured for the dress. Esther had no idea what the current fashions were, in any country, and Mary was almost as lost. Seth and Astha were more aware, but their understanding of fashions were those of the Empire. In the end, Caterina and Lady Jane began consultations with each other, and finally produced a design that fit current fashions, would be comfortable for Esther to wear for several hours, and suited her tastes. Seth and Astha added a few alterations, to suit the Methuselah. Once the design was sorted out, it had to be made, then pinned and adjusted to make the fit exactly correct, then matched with the appropriate accessories.

The only thing that made the fuss and fittings at all bearable was the knowledge that Abel and the others were going through the exact same thing. Most of them bore it with good grace, but Abel hated being fussed over, and he was already on edge and embarrassed by the newspaper articles. After the third one, he took to disappearing when fittings were scheduled, resulting in a Palace wide hunt for him. After the third round of searching, William began shadowing him, and snuck a tracking device onto one of his crucifixes, and the edge of his boots, to make life easier for all of them.

It was thoroughly exasperating, and the only thing that kept everyone from losing their tempers was the knowledge of how difficult the whole thing was for him. Caterina scolded her subordinate, but she admitted in private that she understood, having had a similar response when she'd become Cardinal. Esther agreed, remembering her own ascension to the throne, and how nervous she'd been. Seth teased her brother mercilessly, until Mirka reminded her playfully that she still hid from her tailors on occasion.

They'd decided that Esther's attendants would all be wearing red. She'd considered creating a uniform dress for all of them, then decided against it. After all, the discussion over her own gown had made it more than obvious that what one person found comfortable wouldn't necessarily suit another. The ensuing discussion lasted over a week, as all the bridesmaids searched for styles that suited them, and yet at least somewhat matched what the rest of them were wearing.

Wedding responses began to pour in. It appeared that most of the invitees were eager to attend. Of the royalty, only two of Hispania's younger sons and Ludwig II sent back negative responses. The younger sons cited duties. Ludwig sent a graciously worded refusal, claiming delicate health and the need to 'attend to pressing matters within his country'.

Of the minor nobility, the Istvan contingent sent enthusiastic acceptance. Hugue showed up two weeks after their invitations had been delivered, saying he would stay, but that the new Count Four were reluctant to leave their territories, due to the fact that their control over their lands was shaky.

The entire AX turned up for the event, with the exception of Black Widow. Esther had sent her an invitation, out of courtesy, but both she and Abel were relieved that it had been turned down. However, the Gypsy Queen arrived a day after Hugue to announce her own acceptance. Kaya, as she was called, turned out to be a petite, dark skinned individual with a lively personality. She was wary of the Methuselah and only cautiously polite with Virgil, but she didn't make trouble. Despite her disapproval of some the others, Esther rather liked her.

Of the rest of the church, over half of the higher officials were coming as the Pope's entourage. Some of them, particularly those in the Inquisitorial Department, sent in polite refusals. Some of the Arch-bishops and Cardinals also refused, most claiming duties that they could not leave. Francesco di Medici, on the other hand, sent an incensed refusal, denouncing her as a heretic for even considering the marriage. Esther stopped reading that one halfway through, and actually told Virgil to burn it. Fortunately, Abel had been shanghaied by Seth, and didn't get a chance to read it. It didn't particularly upset her, knowing di Medici as she did, but she knew that Abel would have been troubled by it.

Time marched on. The weather warmed up and the days got longer. The roses began to bud, and the garden came alive. Esther, Virgil and Mary began quietly prioritizing business into what could wait until after the wedding and what couldn't. Esther did her best to keep her mind on her work, but it was difficult as July arrived. She felt simultaneously almost sick with nerves and delirious with happiness. She tried to hide it, but she knew she was failing when the Council elected to cut their meetings, and Mary and Virgil teamed up to relieve her of half her work without asking her. She would have felt guilty, but both of them were smiling when Virgil kidnapped the paperwork and they made it clear that they were completely unconcerned.

Abel was as bad as she was, if not worse. By mid-July, Astha, Ion and William were having to coax him into eating properly. Seth stuck close to his side, teasing him gently and soothing his nerves, and more often than not, slipping him sedatives. At night, Abel still slept in her chambers, and the way he held her, lying in bed or standing by the window, told her more than any words could have done about how truly nervous he was. She did her best to reassure him, but understood without asking what he was afraid of.

She still couldn't believe this was happening. Abel had been her hero at one time. Her mentor, her friend, the most powerful existence in her world. She had admired him, depended on him, trusted him, even when he exasperated her by acting foolish, or disregarding his own safety. After seeing the truth of who he was, she'd been in awe of him, shocked by his courage, his kindness, and his strength. After hearing about Lilith, she'd been even more shocked by his devotion, and almost sure that he'd never be interested in someone like her. She'd been stunned to find out otherwise, and she still woke at night thinking it was all a dream, even with Abel's arms wrapped around her and his ring on her finger to prove otherwise. Sometimes, she was afraid that he'd change his mind, come to his senses, realize he could be with anyone he wanted, and that there were far more beautiful or forceful women to choose, like Caterina, or Astha.

She knew too, that Abel hadn't yet gotten past his feelings of being a monster. She saw it sometimes, in his eyes when he looked at Cain, when he watched her, a distant sort of pain that ran too deep to be fully extinguished. He still woke at least once a night with nightmares. He tried to hide the pain behind silly smiles, for her, but even then she could see the flashes of doubt, of pain and fear in those blue eyes. Knowing how deep his darkness ran, and her own insecurities, she knew he probably felt much as she did on the matter, and was determined that, on their wedding day, he'd have no doubt how much she loved him.

Two weeks before the wedding, Clement published a full page wedding exclusive.

'Wedding of the Century! Union of Two Empires!'

The story started with a brief recap of the story weeks prior, of their relationship, then continued on into details of the wedding. The venue was announced, and the reception venue. There was a full paragraph about how the Pope would be officiating, in conjunction with Seth in 'the first ever major social collaboration between Vatican and Empire'. Short briefs were written on all their attendants, Terran and Methuselah, as well as major guests like the Hispania Royal Family, and Hugue 'heir to the Four Cities dynasty, thought to be extinct'. There was also a short paragraph about the time, and why they had chosen that particular time, late for a conventional wedding, and especially for a Royal one. There was also a short section on the proposed coronation of the groom, which had Abel practically flinching.

All of them had agreed that Abel needed a royal title. Quite aside from the offense most Methuselah would take if their Crown Prince wasn't honored suitably, it simply wasn't done, to have a monarch married to someone without bestowing a title.

Abel had flat out refused to be named her King. He had argued that his relationship with the people of Albion was tenuous enough, and they didn't need to split public opinion over a foreign ruler. He also pointed out that Esther's reign was still fairly young. People would be unsettled. And he didn't want people trying to defer to him over her, simply because of social perceptions. He finished his argument by pointing out that many people would be concerned about his undue influence, considering his age and many affiliations. However supportive the Albion public might be of having their queen in a love match, and such a politically advantageous one, the opinion would turn very swiftly at the notion of such a fiancée becoming a ruler. Too many people would fear that he was taking over from the proper queen.

Virgil and Mary had agreed with him after his argument was laid out, and even Caterina and Seth had seen the logic of it. Still, they all agreed that he needed a title befitting his station. Finally, after a great deal of debate, and even more coaxing, Abel had agreed to be crowned as Esther's Prince Consort. Still, he didn't like the idea, and the announcement of it made him nervous.

The week before the wedding, their guests started arriving. The night before Alessandro's arrival, Esther found herself forcibly kidnapped from her office just after sundown. William and Leon spirited Abel away, while Seth and Mary took her off and escorted her into London, where Seth gleefully informed her that she was getting a bachelorette party. And that Abel had been dragged off by the men of the wedding party for the corresponding bachelor party.

Esther was pleasantly surprised. She'd never attended such a party, but she'd heard stories, and once or twice heard the maids discussing such things. However, it was hardly the riotous affair she had pictured. Her bridesmaids and close female friends reserved a restaurant, under Kate's name of all things, and they spent a fun evening drinking quietly, swapping stories, teasing each other, and playing foolish games. Seth proved to be as good at darts as she was throwing knives, and proposed a Truth or Dare game that no one actually took her up on. Caterina was unsurprisingly good at cards, and had an alcohol tolerance that Esther almost envied. Astha and Mary had several entertaining stories, and Mirka had them all in stitches with her talent for vocal imitations. Around 2am, they had all unwound enough to move tables and have an impromptu dancing contest, instigated by Vanessa, of all people. The Lady Walsh wasn't much of a dancer, but had a wonderful voice, even when obviously inebriated. Sister Kate provided other music and even Caterina and Mary participated. By the time they were picked up by Mary's designated drivers at dawn, Esther had to admit it was the most relaxing and entertaining evening she'd had in a long time. Even better, they'd all been responsible enough that, while none of them were perfectly sober, neither were any of them drunk enough to worry about hangovers.

She didn't ask for the details of Abel's party, but Virgil came in as late as she did, looking slightly tired, and more relaxed than she'd seen him in a long while. Abel, when he trailed in at lunchtime, looked rather sheepish, and turned inexplicably crimson when Leon smugly waved a camera at him. She also heard rumors that Ion was still sleeping off the effects of overindulgence in alcohol, Hugue was sequestered in his rooms, and Petros was visibly nursing the last remains of a hangover. William made a joking reference to a drinking contest as he passed the Inquisitor a vial of headache medicine. Leon made a crack about Abel's capacity that made him blush, then smirk over the rim of his tea-cup.

888888888

The night before the wedding, Esther stayed in her office late, Abel working at her side. Mary had already informed them that the Council had approved a two week absence for both of them. Seth and Caterina had added their support as well. Knowing that, Esther and Abel had both decided to get some extra work done. Besides, everyone had agreed that Esther and Abel couldn't see each other on their wedding day. Both of them were enjoying a few more hours together before they were separated for the wedding.

Esther found herself fiddling with her pen instead of writing. She felt nervous. In spite of having been lovers for over a year, the thought of having Abel as her husband felt...strange. She kept trying to picture it in her mind, what their married life would be like. As a girl, she'd dreamed of a simple life in a convent. Getting married hadn't really ever occurred to her. She'd been attracted, a little, to Dietrich, but her mind had been too much on her service to the Bishop, and protecting people from Gyula to give much thought to it.

Her musings were interrupted by a knock on the door. Esther blinked, surprised. It was far later than normal for servants or messengers. She and Abel shared a quick glance, then Esther set her pen down. "Enter."

A guard entered, a slim envelope in his hand. "This was delivered by a townsman to the gate this evening. Colonel Spencer and Lord Walsh have both examined it and determined it is safe to open."

"All right." Esther took the envelope. "Thank you."

The guard nodded, bowed, then turned and left, shutting the door behind him. Abel set down his papers and rose, to come stand beside her. "Odd. Now who would be sending something like that at this time of night?"

"I don't know." Esther turned the envelope over in her hands. She could feel something hard and circular inside. The envelope itself was high quality, the type used for official or extremely formal correspondence. There was no name or address on the outside. She considered it a moment, then broke the seal gently and tilted the envelope slightly.

A disc fell into her hand. Esther stared at it, then activated her computer terminal and handed the disc to Abel.

Abel studied it a moment, then inserted into his computer. He clicked through a number of screens. "It appears to be a simple video file of some sort, but I don't recognize the coding signature." He removed it from his console." I suppose we might as well play it. Unless you'd rather not."

"No. We might as well." Esther set her pen aside.

Abel inserted it into the mainframe. Seconds later, a holographic image sprang into being. Esther felt her insides turn to ice.

"Hello Esther." Dietrich's cruel smile mocked her from the image. He was sitting in a throne-like chair, dressed in a suit, though not his Rosenkreutz uniform. "Did you miss me? I hope you weren't foolish enough to believe I died in that little fight aboard the ARK."

Abel reached for the eject button, but Esther caught his hand. "No. He might say something we can use to track him." Abel hesitated, then drew back to pull her into his arms, as if to shield her from Dietrich's malice with his embrace.

"I wish I could tell you where we are, but you know, I really don't think that would be a good idea. After all, those friends of yours might take it into their heads to do something violent." Dietrich cocked his head to one side. "Honestly, I suppose it wasn't wise to even send you this much, but, you know...I just had to talk to you. After all, I've heard a rather interesting thing. Can you guess what it is?" There was a sadistic gleam in his eyes. "I'm betting you can. What I heard, Esther, is that you're getting married. And to that priest as well."

Dietrich sighed and folded his hands. "Honestly, I would have thought you know better. After all, there's no denying the man is a monster. Personally, I wonder how you can bear his touch, knowing that he killed his own brother. And Master Cain did so care for him too. If I were you, I'd be worried which person that man loves is going to die next." Abel shuddered at the words. Esther put a hand up to soothe him as Dietrich's image continued speaking. "But then, I always did love that about you, the way you could talk like such a saint, while still accepting things as that."

He sighed again; the reached up to brush the hair back from his face. "I suppose I ought to offer my congratulations, and I did think of coming to wish you well in person, but let's be honest. For one thing, I doubt those overzealous idiots you have for friends and guards would let me get close. And with the Neumann brothers destroyed, I don't exactly have a good source of puppets. And besides...when it comes right down to it, it's not as if I actually do want this marriage to work out. I've already made my claim to you, after all, and as I've told you before, I do so hate to let go of my toys before I've gotten my full enjoyment out of them." Esther shivered at the tone of his voice. Abel's arms tightened around her, strong and supportive.

Dietrich smiled again. "I guess I don't mind letting that priest break you in for a little while. After all, this is hardly the endgame. I do hope you learn a lot with him Esther. It'd be nice if you were prepared, but I hope you don't get too comfortable. After all, you might as well understand. Someday I will come get you. I did say it, didn't I? I love you Esther. So...do have fun while you wait for me. And then I can show you how a real man does things. But until then..." He lifted one hand in a mocking salute. "Do enjoy your wedding, and take care Esther. I look forward to seeing you again, someday soon." He blew her a kiss, a perverted leer on his face, then the image cut off.

Esther shuddered, feeling as if she'd been doused in ice water. She'd known that Dietrich was still free, but this...

"It's all right, Esther." Abel's voice echoed right beside her ear. "I promise, I won't let him take you again." His arms tightened around her, a shield and a declaration of love.

Esther nodded. "I know." She looked up into his face. "What he said about you...it isn't true. Surely you know that."

Abel gave her a weak smile. "Well, you might say I'm trying to believe that. Although...he isn't wrong."

"You aren't a monster." She turned in his arms, then reached up and drew his head down so that she could kiss him gently. "I love you, Abel. And didn't I say it? I'm not afraid of you, and you shouldn't be afraid of yourself, nor blame yourself for what's happened. I know you're good man, and so does everyone else. After all, they wouldn't be agreeing to help us get married otherwise, right?"

Abel sighed, then relaxed. "Well, that is true. I suppose I should trust that they'll keep me in control, if nothing else." He smiled at her. "You know, it's almost midnight. If we don't go to bed soon, Lord Walsh and Colonel Spencer will probably come looking for us." His smile turned impish. "After all, I'm not supposed to see you before the wedding, right? And we both should probably get a good night's sleep."

Esther smiled. "That's very true." She pulled him down for a kiss, then released him to tidy her desk. Abel followed suit, then escorted her out of the office and through the halls to her rooms. They shared a last kiss at her door, then parted.

It felt strange, not having Abel by her side as she slipped into bed. Esther forced herself to relax, rehearsing the wedding ceremony in her mind, until she finally slipped into slumber.

8888888888

Esther slept in the next morning. She had no duties, and most of the wedding party had agreed to needing extra sleep. After all, with the ceremony as late in the day as it was, the reception would most likely last till dawn.

She woke late in the morning with sunlight coming through the curtains and Mary smiling at her. "Good morning, Esther."

Esther smiled as she sat up. "Good morning. Did you get any rest?"

"Of course." Mary held out her robe and Esther slid into it. "Everyone else, with the exception of Lady Nightroad, is awaiting you at the breakfast table."

Esther nodded. "All right." She pulled the robe tight, then followed Mary out into the main room of her suite.

A long, informal table had been set up in her sitting room, with a number of dishes arrayed across it. The other women were all seated, but rose as she entered. Esther waved them back down, then took her seat and studied the food before her.

All of her breakfast favorites were there, from Istvan-style porridge to fruit and pancakes, eggs and bacon. The aroma of her favorite blend of tea was wafting out of the cup. It all looked delicious, but looking at it made Esther's stomach roll uncomfortably. She felt far too tense to eat.

"Drink your tea." Caterina leaned forward and nudged her cup. "You'll feel better. Then eat some breakfast. You have a long day ahead of you."

Esther picked up the cup and took a drink, swallowing hard to get past the knots in her throat. "I'm sorry. It all looks delicious, but..."

"You're nervous." Astha grinned, then calmly picked up her plate and began to add a little of everything to it. One pancake, with syrup. A spoonful of eggs. Some bacon. A little bit of porridge. A few slices of fruit. Then she set it back down. "Eat. It will help settle your nerves. At least, that's what I've been told."

"I've heard that as well. Unfortunately, I can't give you any more direct advice on the matter." Caterina smiled.

Sister Kate's hologram smiled as well. "Indeed. Actually, I believe this is a first for everyone here."

Esther froze. "You mean..."

Vanessa snorted. "Yeah. You're the first one of us to get married. Even if you're the youngest of us."

Esther blushed. "I...well, I..."

"Relax." Seth slipped in the door, smirked, and helped herself to a piece of fruit. "After all, Abel's only the second one in his group to get married."

Esther fiddled with her napkin. "How is he?"

Seth's smirk widened. "Abel? He's pretty nervous. When I left, William was badgering him into his second cup of tea."

The idea that Abel was as nervous as she was made Esther feel a little better. She relaxed, then proceeded to apply herself to breakfast.

Breakfast was a relaxed, leisurely affair. Esther found that the food did indeed settle her nerves. The rest of them made lighthearted conversation, discussing the weather, hairstyles, inconsequential details like that.

They were just finishing the last bites when a knock on the door signaled the arrival of the maids. Mary smiled and rose from her seat, and the rest of them followed suit. "It seems it's time to begin getting ready. We'll leave the maids to help you with your bath, and return in a few hours."

Esther blinked. "That long?"

"Of course." Caterina smiled. "You'll want to look your absolute best. Besides...for a day like today, every woman deserves to be pampered."

Astha went to the door as the maids stepped inside, handing the senior maid a vial. The woman nodded and hastened into the bathing room. Esther heard the sounds of water running. She looked up at the Methuselah. "What was that?"

Astha grinned. "The Duchess is right. That's why I brought along a supply of the bath oils that my family uses in our private baths. I'm sure you remember them. They'll go a long way to relaxing you, and making you feel as stunning as you'll look."

Esther blushed and looked down. "Well, I don't know about stunning, but thank you."

Seth snorted. "You really do underestimate yourself Esther." She stretched, then smirked. "I'm going to see how brother Abel is. I'll be back in a little while."

"Indeed." Caterina nodded and followed the Empress, the rest of the women in tow.

Esther rose as the three remaining maids came toward her and ushered her into the bathroom. Inside, she stripped down and, at the maid's gentle urging, settled into the tub.

She hadn't expected the bath to take long, but apparently the maids had other ideas, or very specific instructions. Aside from the bath oils (which did make her feel as wonderful as Astha had promised) she was scrubbed down with rose scented soap. Over her protests, a maid scrubbed her hair for her, washing it with another fresh smelling shampoo, then rinsed out, conditioned it, and rinsed it again. The other maids attended to her hands and feet, making sure the calluses weren't too obvious, and every ink stain, scuff mark and spot of dirt was carefully removed.

After she stepped out of the bath and dried off, the maids helped her into her undergarments and a thick robe, then ushered her into her bedroom and nudged her gently into bed. Two of them tended to her nails, trimming and buffing them, then polishing them with a clear, shimmering nail polish. Another dried her hair and brushed it out, and the final maid gave her a gentle massage. It wasn't as thorough or as skilled as Abel's, but it did relax her, especially the damaged shoulder.

The maids had just finished and allowed her to sit up when a number of other maids came in carrying her dress, shoes and jewelry boxes.

The next hour was a flurry of cloth. With the help of her dressers, Esther slipped into her hose and garters, then her slip. Then came the soft under-dress, a very light, almost sheer linen. Then the dress itself. Two maids slipped it over her head, then another fastened the back. One maid on either side adjusted the sleeves to exactly the right position. Every crease and flow of the dress and train was inspected and adjusted until it hung exactly right. Then she was helped into her shoes, a pair of silvery white heels that matched her dress. She had just settled into them when she heard rapid knocking. One maid went to answer it, and moments later, all her female friends were crowding into her room.

Esther stared at them, feeling herself blushing as she took in their outfits.

Since the flower for her wedding was roses, each woman had elected to have rosettes on their dresses. They'd also agreed to long skirts. Since none of them had long sleeves, they'd all agreed to have gloves instead.

Mary's was the most conservative. A simple flowing dress with a single layered train to mirror Esther's, belted to conform to her figure with a white sash sporting one white rose and crimson ribbons. Her hair had been put up in it's usual bun, though she'd allowed the front to be loose to frame her face. A single rose, a few shades lighter than her hair, was worn as an ornament. She'd finished off the ensemble with heeled sandals, closed-toe with an 'I' style strap secured by small diamond flowers. She'd also elected to wear diamond drop earrings, and a thin satin choker with a diamond cut ruby resting in the center of her throat. She looked beautiful.

Caterina had chosen a dress a few shades darker than Mary's, closer to the shade the Vatican wore, save that this dress shimmered in the light, silver thread woven in amongst the crimson. Her dress was a form-fitting one, hugging her figure, though not enough to be considered scandalous or inappropriate. Her hair had been pulled back in a slightly more relaxed style than what she typically wore as a Cardinal, left wavy instead of tightly curled. Like Mary, she'd used a flower hairpiece to secure her secure her hair, and chosen diamond earrings. She'd also elected to wear a golden necklace, though hers was set with a sapphire rather than ruby. The sapphire matched Abel's eyes, and softened Caterina's own, drawing out blue tints that usually didn't show in her steel gray gaze. For the roses on her dress, she'd elected to have four, two on either side of the skirt, white roses like Mary's. For shoes, she'd gotten simple heels with diamond fasteners.

Vanessa was less conservative than the other two. Where Mary had wide straps, and Caterina had short sleeves, Vanessa had forgone sleeves completely, instead choosing a dress that clasped behind her throat and left her shoulders and arms bare. Like Caterina's it was cut to be form-fitting, though the skirt was more voluminous, more like Mary's without the train. For flower decorations, she'd gone for three sets of three. Each set had two white roses and one crimson. She'd set one at her hip, mirror to Mary's, and one on either side, similar to Caterina's. Her hairstyle was nowhere near as elaborate as the other two, simply pulled back with two clips to hold it in place, each adorned with two pearls and a half-opened rosebud. Esther thought the style would have looked ridiculous on her, but Vanessa wore it well. Her gaze shifted to the two other Methuselah women in the room.

Both Astha and Mirka had elected to wear Imperial style garb, in their own House colors. According to Seth, the choice indicated both respect, and an informal means of pledging support, an unofficial alliance of houses.

Mirka wore pink, lavender and white as her house colors. The Matriarch of the Moldova family had chosen a simple style, a floor-length white skirt topped with a pink and lavender top, with rose-red insets. Golden embroidery highlighted a flower-petal cut across the front. The top was cut low, with a high sweeping collar that framed her face and was fastened with a ruby pendant that matched the gem insets that decorated her full length sleeves. Over the top, she wore a pink shawl, pinned at her shoulder with the family emblem, like a short cloak. Like Vanessa, she'd simply pulled her hair back, holding it in place with a ruby decorated coronet not unlike the ones she wore in the Empire.

Astha's outfit was far more complex. The Duchess of Kiev had chosen a white dress heavily decorated with blue and gold. Her sleeves fitted to her elbow, then fell open in a long flowing waterfall of royal blue and white fabric. Blue insets outlined in gold traced abstract, vaguely floral patterns over the front, then repeated in sideways teardrops up the sides. The bodice was cut almost scandalously low, then trimmed with a wide band of lace-edged blue, making it far more respectable. Like Mirka, she'd opted for a high collar that fastened in front with a gold brooch, though hers winged out away from her face. She'd also chosen to wear an imperial style cap, blue and white and gold to match her dress, and decorated with rubies interspersed among the gold tracings. The dress fell to just below her knees, and from there she wore white silk stockings and silver-white high heels.

Esther felt suddenly shy. They all looked so gorgeous, she felt plain. Only Sister Kate, in her usual garb, looked at all familiar, and even she suddenly seemed more beautiful.

"Esther! Why the long face?" Jane swept into the room, smiling brightly. She swept up and draped an arm over Esther's shoulders. "Having second thoughts, little cousin?"

Esther blushed. "No. It's just...well, everyone looks so beautiful, and I know I've always been rather plain, so..." She glanced at Jane's attire.

Jane had elected to wear a long reddish-purple dress that sparkled from gold and silver interwoven into the fabric. It was form fitting, and slit up both sides, with a low cut bodice that missed being scandalous by only a quarter inch or so. It was held up only by spaghetti straps. She'd compensated slightly with sort of dusky gray sleeves that went up her arms from wrist to just below the shoulder, but left her actual shoulders bare. Her hair was artfully done as well, and she looked stunning. Esther swallowed. "I guess...I'm just a little nervous."

"You think you look plain?" Jane sounded surprised. "Well, we can't have that. Here." She pushed Esther into the chair by her dresser. "I'd say you're quite deluded cousin. Still...close your eyes and let me work for a moment."

Esther nodded and closed her eyes. She felt a damp cloth pat her face a moment, then a dry one. Then Jane began to lightly brush powders over her face. Over her cheeks and forehead. Something that felt like lipstick rubbed gently over her mouth. A soft brush ran across her eyelids.

Finally Jane stopped. Esther started to open her eyes, but Jane laughed. "Not yet, Esther." Esther nodded hesitantly.

There was a rustle of cloth, then hands were in her hair, brushing and gently tugging. Deft fingers carded her hair, rearranging it. At odd intervals, she felt pins slipped in amongst the strands. She felt the light pressure as a tiara was laid atop her head and pinned to make sure it would stay in place for the evening. The barely perceptible weight of a veil fell across her back. She felt a few more slight adjustments being made, then someone tugged her to her feet and guided her across the room. Then Jane spoke. "All right Esther. Take a look at yourself now." Esther opened her eyes and froze, shocked by the image in the mirror.

She'd chosen a simple dress deliberately, in a shimmery white with just the faintest shadows of blue. The design was a basic one, with a full skirt, a low, square cut bodice, and slightly puffed sleeves. The hem of the long skirt had been decorated with a thin line of gold brocade. A heavier, wider band formed the cuff of the sleeves, while a narrower band of scalloped gold tracery, edged with a sky blue, trimmed the bodice. The train of her dress was fastened by a wide band of fabric that wrapped around her waist from both sides, then pulled into an elegant knot at the back, forming a secondary mini-train that also highlighted her slim waist and the delicate curves of her frame.

For jewelry, Virgil and Mary had gotten a blue and gold choker, to match the dress, with a small diamond pendant on it. The tiara in her hair was thin gold, with sapphires and blue beryls set into it, with her veils firmly attached. The front was surmounted by a large blue stone, with a smaller teardrop pendant attached. The effect was elegant, but stunning.

Esther's eyes drifted over her reflection. Jane hadn't used a lot of make-up on her face, just enough to bring out her eyes and enhance her complexion. The lipstick was a rose shade, perfectly suited to her hair and eyes, lightly applied. Esther raised one finger to it, remembering how Abel had often complimented her on how she looked with lipstick on. She'd never really noticed how it enhanced the lines of her mouth, made her look just a little bit older.

She hadn't really paid much attention to her hair over the past few months. She'd noticed it was getting longer, had it trimmed to neaten it. But it was long, falling past her shoulders. Jane had parted her bangs and brushed them in a slope to frame her face, and let the front hang loose, then pulled the rest of it in a sort of half-up style behind her head, leaving it to fall down her back and touch her shoulders, without being in her way. The effect added a few more years to her appearance, making her look like she was in her twenties, and much more feminine, rather than the youngish tomboy look she usually sported.

"Wow. You really do look quite the picture like that." Seth's voice startled her. She turned.

Like the rest of them, Seth was dressed for the wedding. As an official for the wedding rites, she'd chosen to wear formal Imperial Court garb.

Her outfit was primarily green, an indication of her status as the Empress, or a member of her direct household. She'd chosen a simple green dress, with a short front skirt and a long train in the back, somewhat like Astha's though she'd chosen a straight cut rather than an oval one. She wore long sleeves, each sleeve ending in elaborately decorated white cuffs. The upper arms both sported finely crafted armbands, and each shoulder was decorated with a red gemstone. The train was cut to overlap the skirt partially, joining into the body of the dress with a thin belt of golden embroidery, and a white, red and black symbol that reminded Esther of an abstract symbol of an eclipse. Gold thread traced an abstract design up the front of her dress, Then embellished the low-cut neckline, following it up to the high closed collar the imperial women seemed to favor. The throat was pinned together with a ruby pendant. For further decoration, she'd added a white sash, decorated at the ends with rubies, and held at her left hip with a garnet and ruby pin, a circle about the size of the palm of her hand. She'd also chosen knee-high white boots, topped in green and gold, and a tri-corner green hat, peaked like a crown. There was a suggestion of a cross in the gold embroidery on the front, a nod to the church, and red and blue stones decorating the corners.

Esther blushed. "Thank you. You look very impressive."

Seth grinned. "Well, you know, I do have to help the Pope marry the two of you. Actually, I'm a bit excited. I haven't actually done this in public before. And never without veils. It's quite different, doing things like this. And for Abel of all people. I wasn't sure this day would ever come." She stepped forward and hugged Esther gently. "Thank you. For being with my brother."

Esther blushed harder. "I...you're welcome. I..I didn't really do anything though. He's the one..."

"You were there for him. You listened to him, and you helped him. That's quite enough." Seth stepped back, then grinned again. "Before I forget, I have something for you." She drew out two boxes.

Esther blinked. "What are those?"

Seth smirked. "Well, when I was little, there was a rhyme people used to recite. The four things every bride needs to promote luck in their marriage. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. It's a pretty old rhyme, but I always thought that it couldn't hurt, even if you don't really need the extra luck. Your advisers already supplied the new, and the blue, so...I decided to provide the others."

She opened the first box and pulled out a set of teardrop diamond earrings with gold backing. "Here." She handed them to Mary.

Esther tilted her head as Mary gently fixed the earrings in place. "Thank you. But what...?"

"Something old." Seth rocked back. "When Lilith left us, she left a few things for me. Those were in the things she passed on to me. I never wore them. But I think she'd be happy for you to have them now."

Esther swallowed hard, feeling a lump in her throat. "Thank you."

Seth grinned. "It's no problem." She opened the second box. "Give me your right hand." Esther did, then stared as Seth slipped a ring over her finger. Judging from the gasps from Astha and Mirka, it wasn't a simple ring. Seth smirked. "I don't have an official House seal for you, because you and Abel will be a new branch of the Imperial Line. So you and he and your advisers will have to come up with that one. So, just for today, I'll let you wear mine."

"Your...this is your signet ring?" Esther stared at it, unsure whether she was in shock or honored.

"Uh-huh. This can be your 'something borrowed'." Seth stepped back. "There you go. You're ready."

Esther swallowed again, feeling the hot sting of tears threatening to come. "Thank you. Thank you very much." She bit the inside of her cheek, trying not to cry, trying to control her emotions.

"Esther?" Mary moved forward, and gentle arms encircled her shoulders. "What is it?"

"It's...I don't know." She'd always thought, as a child, that Bishop Laura would be there for her wedding. For such a long time, she'd thought it was impossible that someone like Abel could possibly care for her in that way. She remembered when she'd been jealous of Caterina, of the ten years the cardinal had known Abel and she hadn't. Remembered when she'd been embarrassed by Astha's beauty, her knowledge that she could never measure up to the lovely Methuselah.

She swallowed hard. "It's just...I...it seems almost impossible that this could be happening. I mean...three years ago, I was just a junior Sister in the church, and Abel was...he was my senior. I was always seeing him with other people, wishing I could be...like them." Her hands intertwined. "I guess...I just...I know it's silly, but I keep worrying that he'll realize that he could be with anyone. That he'll decide I'm too young, or too short-lived, or not pretty enough." She felt her face heating up, and wondered if the blush was apparent through the make-up she was wearing. "It's just, I remember thinking how different he looked when he smiled at you, Lady Caterina, or how well he matched Astha, how much closer they were. I used to envy you, the time you'd known him that I didn't share. I know it's silly of me, but..."

"You're overwhelmed." Caterina chuckled. "I've been told that's not uncommon."

Astha moved to stand beside her. "Trust me. My tovarish...he isn't that kind of man. If he asked you to marry him, then it will take more than looks or time to change his mind. He can be remarkably stubborn. I can almost guarantee that you'll want to leave long before he does."

"She's right." Seth spoke softly. "After all...he stayed by Lilith's side for 900 years, and what Abel feels for you is a lot more intense. And it's Abel, you know? What he loves, my brother loves until the end of time."

Esther nodded. "I know. I guess...I'm afraid I'll hurt him."

"Well, I wouldn't say it's impossible. But I can promise you that if you do, I'll be sure to straighten you out. Even if Abel tells me not to get involved." Seth grinned at her. "Although, honestly...I don't think you need to worry. After all, you've accepted Abel's past, and his other nature. After that, even if you fight, I don't think there's much to worry about."

Esther nodded, feeling herself relax. "Sorry. I don't mean to be so..."

"You're worried darling." Jane wrapped an arm around her shoulders, hugging her gently. "Everyone gets like that. Even I was a bit frightened, when I first fell in love, and you, darling cousin, are far more shy than I could ever be." She smirked.

Esther blushed, but she couldn't help the smile that spread across her face. "Thank you. All of you."

A gentle knock on the door interrupted whatever might have come next. Esther gave her permission to enter, and Virgil stepped into the room, one hand holding a bouquet of flowers.

The Albion lord was dressed much as he had been for her coronation ceremony, though instead of his business suit, he wore a formal tuxedo. Over that he wore the long outer robe that marked him as a lord, decorated with the symbols of his house. He'd worn a royal purple one for her coronation, but this one was a deep, wine red, the embroidery done in gold and silver. In honor of his position giving her away, the Manchester crest had been joined with the symbol of the Royal House, showing bonds of friendship and kinship. He looked handsome, and regal.

Virgil took in her appearance, then smiled. "Lady Esther." He presented her with her bouquet of white and gold flowers. Normally, she could have carried roses, but she'd decided she wanted something different. Something simple and bright.

Virgil handed her the bouquet and she took it carefully from him, lifting it to her face to inhale the pleasant scent. "Thank you."

"You are most welcome." The odd note in his voice made her look up. He was staring at her, his eyes full of tenderness and warmth. As she met his gaze, he smiled again, and lifted one hand to brush her hair. "You are...radiant. Like your grandmother before you." He took one hand and kissed it gently.

Esther blushed, but his words made her feel warm, comforted. "Thank you. I know...I still have a long way to go, to be as impressive as she was..."

"No. Lady Esther, you are a wonder in your own right." he silenced her gently. "Truly, you have become our Star, and I could ask for no light that would shine brighter for our people." he held her gaze for a moment. "Are you ready?"

"I..suppose so." She fidgeted, getting the bouquet settled comfortably in her hands, then smiled at him. "I'm a little nervous, but I think I'm ready."

Virgil's smile turned amused. "I understand Lord Nightroad is also nervous. I believe you have nothing to worry about." He reached forward and gently brushed her veils into place across her face. "Come. It is almost time."

Esther nodded and took his arm, and the two of them followed her handmaidens out to the waiting carriages.

8888888888

"Abel, if you fidget any more with that cuff, you're probably going to rip the button right off." William smiled at his friend. "Do calm down. It's a wedding, not a funeral."

Abel swallowed. "I know." A weak smile crossed his face. "I have been to my own funeral before. It's just...I feel so..."

"You're as nervous as a kid on his first date Four Eyes." Leon snorted. "Geez, even I was calmer, and that's saying something." The bigger man ran a hand through his hair. "Come on, you guys have been living and sleeping together for over a year now. Esther knows all your dirty little secrets. She actually likes you with fangs and claws and shit. She doesn't mind that you're a world class klutz. As crazy as she is about you, I doubt she'll even care if you spill the wine on her or something."

Abel winced. "I just...I don't know. I'm..."

"You are the man Esther loves. Do you really need to think about it anymore than that?" William sighed. "After all, it's obvious that you love her just as much, my friend."

Abel nodded. "I know. But I..." He sighed. "I..." He ran a hand through his silver hair, left loose for the day. "I don't know how to be a good partner to someone. If...if something happens, with Cain, I might have to leave. And I...there are so many ways I could hurt her, even if I try not to..."

He stopped, then gestured helplessly to the mirror. "I haven't aged in nine hundred years. How will she feel, when she's aging and I'm not?"

"Why? You plannin' on trading Red for a younger model when that happens?" Leon's voice was sharp.

"No!" Abel's head jerked up. "How...how could you even think..."

"Four Eyes, if you still love her, then I doubt Red's gonna change her mind about you, just cause you keep looking like an idiot." Leon snorted. "Hell, the Cardinal's put up with you, and that's the same thing."

"No. It isn't. I...always knew Caterina might send me away one day. Or that, if peace came, I might leave the church." Abel slumped. "It isn't that I intend to leave, and I trust Esther, but...what if...if it upsets her..."

"First of all, it's really rather foolish to worry about something that far in the future, Abel." William shook his head. "Second...I've heard from several people, noble and servant alike, that Esther is a great deal like her grandmother. And, as I'm sure you know, the late queen was extremely close to Lord Walsh."

"I...well, yes, I had heard that." Abel swallowed.

"Lord Walsh would also have aged much more slowly than Queen Bridgette. And yet, by every account I have heard, they were close until her death. So close, in fact, that he remained at her side until the very end, by her own request. Actually, popular rumor has it that he was the only one who was permitted to remain by the queen's side in her dying days. And while part of it most likely involved her request that he search for Esther, can you honestly tell me that you believe that's all it was?" William smiled gently. "Personally, I suspect it was because she wanted the person she cared for above all else to be at her side. Which means, if Esther is as much like her grandmother as people claim, then I highly doubt you have anything to fear."

"I suppose." He sighed. "I know...I'm really being very foolish. But I...still..."

"You might try telling us what's really on your mind." William's voice was kind.

"I...I'm afraid. Of myself. The type of person I am. Of the...of them." Abel's hand clenched in the fabric over his chest. "Even if...if I try, I may someday lose sight of myself. Something might happen. With Cain, or even just myself."

"I seriously doubt there's any danger of that. After all, you've controlled them this far. However, if it concerns you that much, call me whenever you feel uneasy. I'll be more than happy to run a diagnostic on you any time you ask. Besides, you know your sister will also help." William's smile was encouraging.

"Seriously. And if that doesn't fix it, I'll just beat you senseless and tie you up until you get your head on straight." Leon smirked. "We clear?"

Abel managed a weak smile. "Well...yes. That does help." He sighed. "It's just...I really...I'm not nearly good enough for her, you know. I keep worrying that she'll realize that." His voice was soft.

"You're the one who needs to realize something, Abel." Vaclav stepped forward, then grasped Abel's shoulders. "There is no reason for you to feel you are not good enough."

Abel winced. "How can you possibly say that, knowing what I've done?" His gaze shifted to the empty cradle in the corner of his room. Cain would be watched over by Mirka during the ceremony, with the others helping tend to him afterward, and he'd already been taken away by the castle attendants so the preparations wouldn't disturb him.

"Do not be a fool." Petros shifted from where he'd been leaning against the wall. The Inquisitor looked uncomfortable in his wedding suit with his hair tied back in a neat tail. He scowled at Abel. "God demands forgiveness for all those who truly serve him. Whatever you may have done, there is no denying that you have been a true servant of the Lord. To insist that your previous actions do not merit His forgiveness is to insult the grace of the Lord. Do not dare to commit such a breach of faith."

William snorted. "That isn't quite how I would have put it, but...he's right, Abel. Besides, that isn't a judgment you're allowed to make on your own, my friend."

"Indeed." Hugue spoke from where he'd been standing, half in the shadows. The quiet man moved forward, until he was eye to eye with Abel. He studied him a moment, then lifted his hand. "You know what these hands have done. The slaughters I have participated in. Would you think me beyond redemption? Or Father Tres?"

Abel blinked, visibly startled. "Of course not."

"Then you must think no less of yourself." Hugue studied him a moment, then turned and walked back to the corner he'd been standing in.

Leon sighed. "Damn. This is not the kind of discussion you're supposed to be having on your wedding day, Four Eyes." He gestured rudely. "Why don't you think about something important for once, like the fact that you've messed your hair up again, and you've got that cuff link all crooked. You'd better straighten that out before that Methuselah kid gets here. After all, you do wanna look your best for Esther, right?"

Abel blushed. "Yes. Of course. Did I really..." he turned toward the mirror.

"You look fine, Abel." Vaclav smiled. "Leon's just teasing you. And William has a comb for you to straighten your hair with when we get to the church."

Abel flushed again. "Really though...I do wish I could have worn something a little less..."

"Come on. It's only appropriate. You gotta match Esther, you know." Leon huffed, then rose from his seat, grabbed Abel's arm, and shoved him in front of the full length mirror. "Besides...Esther deserves to have a handsome Prince sweep her off her feet, not a bloody priest. Look in the mirror, Four Eyes, and tell me you don't see exactly why we all picked that outfit for you."

Abel looked.

He'd chosen blue, as a neutral color. Everyone else had insisted that he was not wearing black. Green wouldn't have suited as well, and would have looked too much like he was favoring the Empire. Red might have made the Methuselah in attendance feel their newly found Prince was abandoning them and throwing his allegiance in with Albion. Purple was just ridiculous, and the nobles swore brown was absolutely unsuitable. Gold had never been his color, and everyone had insisted that white or silver would make him look like a wraith. Instead, they'd made the main part of the outfit a deep, royal blue.

The tailors had had a field day, and the results...

He'd been clothed in a dark blue dress shirt, the color of a deep evening sky when the first stars were appearing, with a brighter blue jacket over that. Then form-fitting pants the same color as the jacket. For shoes, he wore formal boots. Like his AX boots, these reached to just below his knee, but there the resemblance ended. Where his AX boots had been armored, buckled, and battered, these were flexible leather, and polished to a high shine, with only a single clasp at the shin to make sure they didn't slip. He'd been forced to spend the two weeks before wearing them everywhere, breaking them in so they'd be comfortable for the ceremony.

The jacket had been ornamented with dark gray panels, and fastened with silver buttons. In honor of Lilith, and to match Esther, his cravat was golden, and gold braiding had been used to ornament the cuffs, secured with sapphire cuff links. In addition, a knight's belt had been looped about his waist, as a symbol of his status. They'd also added scarlet shoulder caps, a mark of rank for Albion warriors, and a crimson sash, to which William and Vaclav had solemnly attached all the medals he had received in honor of his services. He'd tried to argue out of that, but Virgil had told him that this was part of an Albion noble's ceremonial garb. Everyone else was wearing their medals as well. Seth had even gone so far as to modify the shoulder guards by having them embroidered with her own emblem, symbolizing his position unifying Empire and Albion.

As a final touch, one seamstress had even added a cream-colored cape, extending to the back of his calves. He'd tried to get out of wearing it, but everyone insisted it made him look regal.

He'd left his hair loose, at Seth's insistence, and Caterina's. Both women had insisted he looked far more dashing like that. Besides, having it loose would minimize the dangers of getting it mussed when he was crowned, after the wedding ceremony. In keeping with his persona as the Methuselah prince, he'd also removed both spectacles and crucifix. He fidgeted with the cravat, feeling slightly naked without the cross that had adorned his throat for so many years.

Abel sighed. "I see your point. Still...I do feel a little ridiculous." He grimaced and tugged idly at the cuff link on his right wrist.

Leon smirked. "I gotta say, I think you look kinda like a peacock myself. Still, you do look kinda princely...Your Majesty."

Abel blushed. "Really now...I haven't gotten used that." he sighed again. "Honestly..."

William rose from his seat and moved to stand beside him. "If it helps, remember that it's not Father Nightroad who's getting married today. After all, as far as most people know, Queen Esther is marrying Crown Prince Aloysha Kasimir. I've seen you handle that role remarkably well. Just think of it in those terms." He studied Abel a moment, then made a slight adjustment to the cravat. "Besides, I guarantee, you'll be more than happy for all of this regalia at the ceremony. Everyone's going to be dressed in their best. Not to mention, this particular outfit is much more suitable with a crown."

"William's right. Think about how much formal wear Caterina dons during her official functions. To say nothing of His Holiness." Vaclav smiled reassuringly. "Personally, I think you look quite magnificent."

Abel slumped. "I suppose." A small smile creased his face. "Though really, I wish we'd just eloped, personally."

"It is too late for that. Besides...a union such as this should be celebrated with all the honor God and man deserve." Petros scowled. "If you attempt to run now, as Nightroad or Kasimir, then I will personally bring you back myself."

Abel shook his head. "I won't run. It's just...I really never thought this could happen to me. Even when...even when I promised Esther...I...I've been pursuing the Contra Mundi for so long...I never really thought about what I would do after that." Another weak smile touched his mouth. "I certainly never expected to be married, certainly not to someone as precious as Esther."

"You'll manage." William clapped Abel on the shoulder.

Any further conversation was cut short by a knock on the door. William called out and Ion slipped into the room.

The young noble had chosen an outfit styled to be a mix of the Empire and Albion, in honor of his position as a liaison between the two. In his case, he wore his colors of mauve, light blue and white. For style, he'd chosen form-fitting breeches, and a tailed jacket, both mainly in mauve, with a high collar and white and blue accents on the jacket. He'd also chosen light colored knee-high boots, a belt of gold links, and tan gloves. In lieu of a cape, he'd wound a long scarf in a similar fashion, fastened at the shoulder with the badge of his noble family. The outfit was decorated with gold tracery and jewels. His final item was an Albion-style cap, with two feathers. Despite the oddity of the style, the young Earl of Memphis looked oddly regal, a young squire waiting on his lord.

Ion looked Abel over, then bowed. "Lord Walsh has gone to get Esther. I believe it's time for us to go to the carriage." He smiled. "You look very regal, Your Majesty."

"Ah...thank you. I did remember to give you the ring?" Abel's voice sharpened with anxiety.

"Of course. I have it here." Ion pulled out a small velvet bag. "I promise, I won't lose it."

"I know, I know. I'm just a little nervous." Abel sighed. "Well, I suppose it's time to go."

"So it is." William made a final adjustment to his own outfit, then took his place at Abel's right side, a little ahead of him. Vaclav took a similar place on Abel's left, with Hugue and Petros following behind. "Shall we?"

Abel took a deep breath, nodded, then followed Ion out the doors.

8888888888

The carriage to take them to the church had wide windows, covered in sheer, translucent fabric. Esther would have preferred to ride in the open-topped carriages they'd driven in during the awards ceremony, but none of them wanted to risk becoming too windblown, or getting dirt and dust on their dresses. Esther contented herself with sitting next to the window, inhaling the air of London, and listening as they rode toward the church.

The streets of London were packed. People lined them, leaving just enough road clear for the carriages to pass through. Everyone was cheering, and the scent of flowers was heavy in the air as men, women and children threw bouquets in front of the carriages in blessing.

As they arrived within sight of the church, the bells began chiming. Esther felt her heart beating faster, resonating with the deep ringing of the bells.

Virgil had taken another carriage and he, Tres and Leon were waiting at the base of the steps for them. Virgil handed Esther gently out of the carriage, while Leon and Tres helped her bridesmaids. Then Virgil offered her his arm, and escorted her up the steps into the cathedral.

Inside, two young girls in simple red dresses were waiting for them, holding baskets of flowers. At their approach, the taller of the two smiled. "Your Majesty."

"Please, call me Esther. At least for today." Esther smiled, looking them over. "Did you have any trouble coming here?"

"Of course not." Wendy's eyes were sparkling with excitement. "We've never been as susceptible to sunlight as ordinary Methuselah, and with Lord Walsh's help, it was perfectly fine." She blushed. "It's just, I never dreamed when we were on Neverland Island, that Carly and I would get to participate in something as amazing as this. And I wanted to thank you." She gave Esther a sweeping curtsey. "We'll be starting in a little while, but I can take you to the waiting room, if you'd like."

"That sounds excellent." Virgil gave Esther a reassuring smile. "If you have no objections, I have some last minute details I must arrange."

Esther shook her head. "No, it's really all right. I'm sure Wendy and Carly will take excellent care of us."

The room Wendy led them to was a spacious one. Esther thought it looked as if it might be used by the clergy for preparing for Mass, especially considering the large mirror on one wall.

She and the others spent a few moments fixing their clothing, making last minute adjustments to their hair and outfits. Jane took a few moments to fuss with her hairstyle, then gave Esther a quick hug. "I'd love to hang around, dear cousin, but I'd best be getting to my seat."

"Indeed." Mirka nodded. "I shall accompany you. I need to collect Lord Cain, after all." The two women bowed, then left the room.

Seth grinned. "I need to be going as well. After all, I have to find the Pope, and we probably need to get in place for the ceremony right about now."

Astha nodded. "I should also find the Earl of Memphis." She bowed, then she and Seth also left, leaving Esther with her bridesmaids and the flower girls.

Esther stood, listening to the church bells playing, celebrating. She knew they would be silenced when it was time for the ceremony. The music for that would be played by the church organ. The bells would only sound at the end of the ceremony, to announce the crowning of the Prince Consort. She swallowed hard, then closed her eyes and settled into a seat, trying to calm her pounding heart.

She wondered how Abel was doing.

8888888888

In another room of the church, Abel was pacing distractedly.

Leon had left them at the doors, citing a need to join Tres and begin his duties as an usher. Ion had gone after they'd reached the staging room, to find the Duchess of Kiev.

"Abel. Do calm down. You're going to wear a hole in the carpet at this rate." Vaclav spoke quietly.

Abel sighed. "I...it's just...you don't suppose it's possible..."

"No. Absolutely not." William moved forward and took his shoulders, then forcefully shoved him onto a chair.

Abel blinked. "You don't even know what I was going to ask."

"I can think of the three most likely things you would ask, and the answer is still the same." William frowned at him. "No, there is no chance that Esther has had second thoughts and decided to leave you at the altar. No, we are not going to let you run off and elope." He ticked the points off on his fingers. "And no, I highly doubt His Holiness has changed his mind and decided not to officiate the ceremonies."

Abel slumped in his chair, a sheepish expression on his face. "Is it really that obvious?"

Vaclav smiled. "We've both known you for over ten years Abel. It's not hard to guess what you're concerned about."

Abel managed a weak smile in return. "I'm sorry. I'm just...well, I suppose I'm a little nervous."

"It's perfectly reasonable. Still...you need to calm down. Otherwise, you're likely to faint at the altar. Unless you think it's more likely you'll sprout wings and try to fly away on us." William smiled.

Abel flushed. "Good Lord. That would be..."

"Exactly." Vaclav put a hand on his shoulder. "So just do those deep breathing exercises I've shown you, and try to calm down. Go over your vows again. You do have them memorized, don't you?"

Abel took a deep breath, scrubbing a hand over the back of his head. "Well, I know what I want to say...but I wouldn't call them memorized, exactly."

"That's good enough." Vaclav sighed. "William, give me your comb." The Professor smirked and handed it over. Vaclav stepped behind Abel. "Why don't you go over them one more time while I brush the last tangles out of your hair." He tapped Abel's shoulder. "Stand up. William, help me straighten his clothing."

Abel stood, standing still as Vaclav ran the comb through his silver hair, straightening it from where he'd mussed it in his agitation. William brushed away some dust from the carriage, then made slight adjustments to the sash and the fall of the cape. He straightened the medals and bent to give a final swipe to the boots, wiping away the faint dust that had coated them as they walked inside. "There. You should be presentable now."

Abel nodded. "Ah...thank you." He took another deep breath.

"The bells have stopped." Hugue had straightened from where he was leaning against the wall. His head was tilted to one side.

"Well then. That means it's about time. We should probably make our way to the doors to line up to enter the sanctuary." William took the comb back and stowed it in his inner jacket pocket, then stepped back. "Ready?"

Abel gave him a weak smile. "Well, I suppose I'd better be." He inhaled, exhaled, then straightened his shoulders. "Is everyone else ready?"

"Indeed." William checked his watch. "We have about five minutes before we hit the hour."

"All right. Then I suppose we'd better go." Abel swallowed hard. William and Vaclav stepped into place behind him, one at his left shoulder, one at his right. Hugue and Petros followed behind them. William gave Abel's shoulder a gentle squeeze of reassurance, then pushed him forward, through the door and toward the sanctuary.

They stopped outside the huge double doors leading to the right hand side of the sanctuary, the groom's side. Abel fidgeted lightly with his collar, then dropped his hands to his sides as the door creaked open, framing Leon in his tuxedo. "You all set?" He cracked a grin. "All right there Abel?"

"I...yes." Abel nodded.

"Good." Leon turned his head, signaling that they were in place. A second later, the music started.

They'd chosen the Imperial March for the groom's entrance song, in deference to Aloysha Kasimir's connection to the Empress. Esther's march would be the traditional Albion wedding march.

Abel waited a full five seconds, then stepped forward onto the red carpet that had been laid out for him, stepping past Leon as the bigger man bowed him through the doors. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he had to force himself to maintain a measured tread as he strode up the aisle. Color assaulted his vision from all sides, resolving itself into the elaborately decorated tunics and dresses of dozens of Imperial Nobles, all wearing their family colors and formal Imperial dress in honor of him. As he marched up the aisle, figures on both sides bowed, bending their heads in the Imperial salute to royalty.

The aisle ended in the wide open area before the altar. At the very end, the front pew, Mirka stood, arrayed in the pinks and lavenders of her house. She was cradling Cain in her arms, the baby dressed in blue to match his. The child was awake, but quiet, and Mirka smiled at him as he came forward, a silent signal that all was well with his brother/son.

That knowledge loosened something in his chest. Abel swallowed and took the last few steps to the altar, bowing to Seth and Alessandro before he took a knee before them, his groomsmen standing to the side, William standing closest as his Best Man.

The music died. Seth waited until the last strains faded before she spoke. "Arise, my brother. I certainly do not want you to kneel on this blessed day."

He rose to his feet. "Empress."

She smiled up at him, her grin so wide he'd be shocked if her jaw didn't ache. "You've come before me to ask for permission to marry?"

"I have." He swallowed. "I would ask your permission to marry Her Majesty, Queen Esther Blanchett of Albion, to join my house to hers."

Seth reached up and cupped his face with one hand. "It is a permission I am most happy to grant, my beloved brother." She raised her voice a little, so she could be heard by those in the front of the church. "Let it be known to all, that I, Augusta Veradica, Empress of all Methuselah, have this day granted my blessing on the forthcoming union between Queen Esther Blanchett of Albion, and my brother and heir, Crown Prince Aloysha Kasimir." She drew him down and kissed him on the forehead in benediction.

Abel accepted the kiss, then turned to the Pope as she released him. "Holiness."

"Crown Prince. Do you still wish to marry Queen Esther?" Alessandro's voice was remarkably calm and steady, his eyes clear and bright instead of filled with nervous energy.

"I do, Holiness." Abel bowed his head. "I ask that you do me the honor of presiding over my vows today, with the blessing of my Empress."

"Of course. I'd be glad to." Alessandro gestured for him to kneel. "Crown Prince Aloysha Kasimir, do you, before these witnesses, profess your willingness to accept the existence of Our Lord God, and his blessing upon the vows you will make here today, along with the blessings of your Empress?"

Abel swallowed. "I do, Holiness." There was a murmur from the Methuselah side, but he caught no sense of discontent in it, only mild curiosity. But then, the Shadow Council and his sister had been hard at work explaining his involvement with the Vatican.

"Very well. Rise and take your place before the altar." Alessandro smiled and gestured to a spot just in front of him.

Abel bowed his head once in acknowledgment, then rose to take his place. William and the other groomsmen came to stand behind him as Seth took her position at Alessandro's right. Then the wedding march began to play. Abel swallowed hard and turned to the doors on the Albion side of the cathedral as they opened and the people in the cathedral rose to their feet.

His breath caught in his throat. Esther was coming up the aisle toward him, supported by Virgil's arm. He noticed the two young girls in front of them, spreading flower petals, and the four women who walked behind her, wearing dresses of red and roses, but his attention was riveted on Esther.

She looked stunning. Her simple white dress and veils made her look like an angel. Her red hair, brushed carefully back, surrounded her face and flowed over her shoulders in a waterfall of crimson fire. Her face was glowing with emotion, the lipstick and light make-up enhancing the brilliance in her blue eyes. His eyes caught on the necklace she wore, and the secondary chain that slipped under her dress. A chain that carried his ring, the reminder of the pledge he'd made her over a year ago.

Gold flashed in his vision, the sparkle of earrings that he recognized from a thousand years before. Lilith's earrings glittered against Esther's hair, like a silent blessing from beyond.

His heart was pounding. He didn't realize he had frozen until Seth poked him lightly in the ribs. "Breathe Abel. It's not a good thing if the groom passes out, you know." Her voice held hints of laughter as he sucked in a ragged breath, trying to calm his nerves.

He swallowed and tried to breathe normally, but all he could do was watch the radiant form coming up the aisle toward him. Esther...

888888888888

Esther found herself fidgeting nervously as she waited for the music announcing her entrance into the cathedral.

She heard the tones of the Imperial March, signaling that Abel was entering, and swallowed hard. She hadn't been this nervous since she'd taken the crown at her coronation. Actually, she thought that might have been easier. She'd already known that Virgil and Mary were beside her, to help her. She'd already known she had Caterina and Seth's support. But this...this was different.

What if Abel decided not to come? What if he'd changed his mind? She knew it was a silly fear, knew that it wouldn't happen, knew that the music kept playing because Abel was walking up the aisle on the Methuselah side of the cathedral. She took a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves and settle her racing thoughts.

The music stopped. She bit the inside of her lip, apprehensive. She was so lost in her thoughts that she actually jumped when Virgil laid a hand on her arm.

She looked up. Her adviser was smiling gently. "It is almost time. Are you ready?"

"I...I think so. But...I'm just nervous." She managed a weak smile for him.

"I understand." He studied her with a solemn gaze, then reached up and brushed a lock of hair behind one ear, his touch light as a butterfly's wing across her cheek. "I have never given away a queen, nor one I cared for. However...I can think of no one else that I would rather entrust Albion's Star of Hope to."

"I...it's just...do you think..." She couldn't even voice it. How could she even compare to everything Abel had done?

"He will be there." Virgil smiled again, and kissed her hand lightly. "Never forget...you are our star, even as he is theirs. And together...even the radiance of the sun pales before you. Never believe otherwise."

The words served to settle her nerves, though she still had butterflies in her stomach. "Thank you."

Virgil nodded. With a careful hand, he flicked the veils over her face, then held out his arm. Esther took it, feeling the warm strength in his grip. Behind them, her bridesmaids lined up. Wendy and Carly took their places in front of her.

The first strain of the wedding march began, muffled by the doors. Then the door opened a bit and Leon stepped out. "Ready, Esther?"

She nodded, not sure she could trust her voice to remain steady.

Leon gave her a quick smile, then turned and pulled the door the rest of the way open, bowing as he did so. "Your Majesty."

Wendy and Carly went forward first, spreading the flower petals in their wake. Rose petals, specially gathered from the garden this morning. The fragrance of them washed over Esther, mingled with church incense.

Virgil pulled her forward, leading her up the red carpet toward the altar at the front of the church. Esther let him lead, feeling dazed. Both sides of the aisle were filled with explosions of color. She saw the members of her Council, representatives of every major family or merchant in Albion, the nobles of other kingdoms, but her mind wasn't focusing properly. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt almost dizzy. Then her eyes found the front of the church, the figures gathered there. Alessandro in his formal robes as the Pope, Seth in her Imperial robes of green and white and gold, four figures in tuxedos and...

Abel. Esther felt her breath catch in her throat as she saw him.

Blue, the color of a deep rich sapphire, clothed him, save for the crimson sash then crossed his chest, bearing the medals he had earned with years of sacrifice. His boots were polished, shining in the light overhead and coming through the stained glass windows.

His head was bare, his hair unbound and flowing freely down his back and over his shoulders in a waterfall of silver, bright as a new-minted coin, and accented perfectly by the deep cream color of the cloak he wore. The red on his shoulder epaulets warmed his complexion, and the blue of his outfit accented his eyes, deepening the blue to that of a summer sky.

He looked stunning. Like a prince. Like a king. Like a figure out of legend.

"Breathe, Lady Esther." Virgil's voice was gentle; a whisper of sound, but it snapped her out of her daze.

Abel's eyes met hers, and she saw his widen in the same wonder she felt, saw the stunned admiration in his gaze. She watched as Seth tapped him lightly in the ribs, saw him startle, and wondered if Seth had given him the same advice that Virgil had given her. He straightened, and she saw him swallow, a nervous gesture she recognized.

The thought that he was as nervous as she was made her feel much better. She felt a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth, happiness filling her as Virgil led her forward, and stopped, leaving her face to face with Abel. She was aware of her bridesmaids taking their places behind her, mirroring the groomsmen, aware of Astha and Ion stepping forward, even as Wendy and Carly bowed respectfully and moved back to take their places in the front row pews. She heard the rustle of cloth the thin tinkle of jewelry of several hundred people taking their seats. It all seemed very far away. All she could really focus on was Abel, standing before her.

Alessandro's voice broke her daze. "Queen Esther?"

She turned to face him. "Holiness."

Alessandro's voice was quiet, but sure. "Queen Esther, you've come here to be joined in wedlock with this man?"

"I have." To her surprise, her voice was still steady.

Seth stepped forward. "You wish to ally your house with mine, to take my brother, Aloysha Kasimir, as your husband?" Her voice was solemn, but her eyes were sparkling.

"I do, with your blessing, Empress." She bowed her head.

"I give my blessing gladly, Lady Esther." Seth leaned forward and kissed her forehead in benediction. "I hereby entrust you with the most precious of my children, my brother, so take good care of him."

Esther nodded, a lump in her throat as she straightened and turned once more to face Abel.

Alessandro's voice rose, amplified by the cathedral. "Dearly beloved friends, people of Albion and her allies, we are gathered here today to witness the union of Her Majesty, Queen Esther Blanchett, and this man, Crown Prince Aloysha Kasimir of the Methuselah Empire, in holy matrimony."

Seth stepped up, her voice echoing in a similar fashion. "People of the Empire, my dearly beloved children, we have come this evening to witness the union of this prince of our people, my brother, Prince Aloysha Kasimir, to her Majesty, Queen Esther of Albion."

Both voices joined together. "If there are any here who would denounce or deny this union, speak now or forever hold your peace."

Esther's heart was pounding, and she saw a flash of fear in Abel's eyes. But no one spoke. Esther breathed a prayer of relief that the remainders of Rosenkreutz were in hiding, and that Cardinal di Medici had refused to attend.

Silence reigned for a full moment, then Alessandro spoke. "Then we will proceed." He paused. "Who brings this woman, Esther Blanchett, to be married to this man, Aloysha Kasimir?"

"I, Lord Virgil Walsh, Count of Manchester, do here today give this woman, Lady Esther Blanchett, to be presented in holy matrimony with this man, Lord Aloysha Kasimir." Virgil led Esther a pace forward, holding her right hand in his left. His fingers squeezed hers gently, then his gaze came up to meet Abel's. "My lord."

Abel lifted his hand. Virgil took it and laid it over Esther's. Abel's hand was warm and trembling faintly. Virgil pressed their hands together and Abel's fingers curled over hers, holding her hand in gentle grip. Then Virgil stepped back, returning to his position as the representative of the bride. Esther saw his expression, proud and sad and joyful all at the same time.

Seth stepped forward then and took Abel's other hand. "And I, Seth Augusta Veradica, do here today give this man, Aloysha Kasimir, to be joined in matrimony to this woman, Lady Esther Blanchett." Esther raised her left hand and Seth twined her fingers with Abel's right.

Alessandro began a long speech about the sanctity of marriage, offering blessings for their union, asking for the blessings of God. Esther listened, but she was distracted by the warm weight of Abel's hands in hers, the gentle strength of his grip as his slender fingers curled over her palms. His eyes were shining, brilliant as stars, and he was gazing at her, wearing the solemn warm smile that she remembered from their first mission together. She felt almost giddy, a combination of nerves and overwhelming happiness flowing through her.

She was brought back to the present when Alessandro cleared his throat. "Prince Aloysha Kasimir, do you take this woman, Queen Esther Blanchett, to be your lawfully wedded wife?"

"I do." Abel's voice was strong.

"Do you promise to hold and cherish her, to love and respect her in sickness and health, for richer or for poorer, in joy and sorrow, for better or for worse, for as long as you both shall live?"

"I do." Abel's hands tightened around Esther's. "With all my heart."

That wasn't part of the vows that she remembered, but that didn't stop Esther's heart from singing at his words.

"Do you swear, before God and your Empress, and all these witnesses here today, that you will stand as an eternal and faithful husband, and support Queen Esther with all your strength, no matter what may come?"

"I do." Abel bowed his head, then turned to look Esther in the eyes. "I do."

Esther swallowed at the solemn promise in his gaze. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt like it might burst out of her chest.

Alessandro cleared his throat again, and Esther turned to face him. The Pope smiled, a gentle smile of reassurance.

"Queen Esther Blanchett, do you take this man, Prince Aloysha Kasimir, to be your lawfully wedded husband?"

She swallowed hard, her voice stuck for a moment, then forced the words out. "I do." She was glad her voice was strong enough to match Abel's when it emerged.

"Do you promise to hold and cherish him, to love and respect him, in sickness and health, for richer or for poorer, in joy and sorrow, for better and for worse, and for as long as you both shall live?"

"I do." She clasped Abel's hands, and felt the gentle pressure of his return grip. "With all my heart."

It was Seth who delivered the final question, her voice filling the cathedral with it's bright tones. "Do you swear to me, before your God and all of the witnesses here today, that you will stand as an eternal and faithful wife, and support Prince Aloysha Kasimir Nightroad with all of our strength, no matter what may come?"

There was a ripple in the cathedral as she gave Abel's last name, but that didn't change Esther's answer. "I do."

Empress and Pope bowed their heads as one, acknowledging the vows, then Seth faced her brother. "Do you have a ring, to present as a token of your vows?"

Abel nodded and extended his hand to Ion. The young Methuselah stepped forward and dropped a simple band of braided white and yellow gold into his palm. Abel turned back and extended the ring to the two on the dais.

Alessandro stepped forward and said a short blessing, consecrating the ring, then stepped back. "You may now recite your vows."

Abel swallowed hard, then turned back to face Esther. He took a deep breath. "Esther...I..." His voice cracked.

Abel stopped and took another deep breath. His eyes blinked closed, then opened to gaze directly into her own. "The first time I saw you, I knew I admired your spirit. When I heard your name the first time, I thought it was entirely appropriate. The Star, shining brightly. And then I got to know you and I was sure. Esther...I..." he paused, swallowing nervously. "I thought about it, but I'm afraid I can't think of anything more to say than this: Lady Esther Blanchett, I love you. I swear to you that I am, always and forever, on your side. From this moment, I will be beside you, heart and soul. I will love and cherish you, body and mind. And I ask that you accept this ring..." He slipped the band onto the ring finger of her left hand. "...as a token of my devotion to you." He bowed his head over her hand as the ring slipped comfortably into place.

The metal felt warm from his hand, as warm as the joy his words had brought to her. Esther swallowed back the sudden tears in her eyes. "I accept."

Abel looked up, relief and love shining in his eyes.

Esther could have gotten lost in his gaze, but Alessandro spoke, grounding her. "Lady Esther, have you a ring, to present as a token of your vows?"

"Yes. I do." She held out her hand, and Astha stepped forward to lay a heavy band of intertwined silver and gold in her palm. The Methuselah woman's eyes were shining suspiciously bright. She looked proud, a glowing smile gracing her features as she stepped back to her place beside Ion.

The Pope blessed the ring, the stepped back. "You may recite your vows."

Esther swallowed hard, her throat suddenly dry. "I...the first time I saw you, I thought you were mysterious, and lonely. And when you told me that you'd be by my side, that you were my friend...those words meant everything to me. So..." Her voice was shaking, and she paused a moment to try and steady it. "I swear to love and cherish you, with everything I am, heart and body and soul, for all of my days. And I promise you, I will always be by your side, and always on your side. I offer you this ring..." She took his hand in hers, noting that they were both trembling slightly. "...as a symbol of my undying devotion." She slipped the ring over his ring finger and settled it into place.

"I accept." All the warmth of Abel's expression was in his voice. His hand curled over hers, strong and gentle, the metal of the ring glittering in the light playing over the back of his fingers. Esther felt almost dizzy as happiness exploded within her, filling every part of her with an almost weightless feeling.

They clasped left hands, the rings shining together on their clasped fingers. Alessandro stepped forward and laid gloved hands over theirs. "In the name of God and the Holy Church of Rome, I do hereby bless this union, and offer you my most heartfelt prayers for this new life that you begin together."

He stepped away and Seth came to take their hands in hers. "In my own name as Empress of the Methuselah Empire, I do hereby offer my blessings to this union, and wish you both all the best in your new life together." She squeezed both their hands. "I am very happy for both of you, my dear brother and my beloved friend." Then she too stepped away.

A taller, older man wearing the robes of an Archbishop joined Alessandro by the altar. He carried a cushion, upon which rested a coronet. It was a simple woven gold band, it's only ornamentation the Albion Lion adorned the front, with a ruby eye, and emeralds on either side.

Alessandro held out his hand and beckoned. "Prince Aloysha Kasimir." Abel released Esther's hands and stepped forward to kneel on the cushion Alessandro had indicated.

Alessandro cleared his throat, then spoke, his words ringing with quiet authority around the cathedral. "Prince Aloysha Kasimir, you are the Crown Prince of your land, servant of the Empire. Are you prepared to offer your oaths and allegiance to the people of Albion as well, and the Queen?"

"With the permission of my Empress, I am." Abel's voice was hoarse.

Seth nodded and stepped forward. "My permission is given. As of this day, I name Crown Prince Aloysha Kasimir my formal and permanent envoy to Albion, to serve as my eyes and ears, and to stand with the Queen of that country in whatever capacity he may be asked, so long as it is not a direct betrayal of family and my people."

"So noted." Alessandro bowed his head, then turned back to Abel. Abel bowed his head, and Alessandro laid both hands on him. "Crown Prince Aloysha Kasimir."

"Yes, Holiness?"

"Will you vow to protect this country, with all your strength?"

"I will."

"Will you vow to watch over it's citizens, to support and protect them, Human and Methuselah alike?"

"I will, most willingly."

"Will you care for this land, and do your best to help it prosper?"

"I will."

"And will you stand beside and aid the Queen with your presence, your power and your knowledge?"

"With all my heart." Abel's voice rasped out the words, full of emotion.

Alessandro nodded. "I have heard your oaths. Therefore, in the name of God, in the presence of his representative the Archbishop, the Empress, the Queen of Albion, and all these gathered witnesses..." He turned and lifted the coronet from the cushion and held it above Abel's head. "I do now formally crown you Prince Consort of Albion, beloved husband of Queen Esther Blanchett." He lowered the circlet onto Abel's brow. "So may it be."

The Archbishop bowed formally and stepped back. Alessandro extended his hand. "Rise."

Abel did. Esther saw him murmur to the Pope before he straightened. She couldn't hear what he said, but Alessandro smiled, obviously pleased. Then the Pope gestured for Abel to return to Esther's side.

Abel's hand caught hers as he came back to her side. His eyes were dazed. Then they met hers and warmth kindled in them, the brightness of a bonfire.

Seth stepped up and turned them to face the crowd. Everyone was on their feet, though Esther hadn't registered the sound of everyone rising. Abel's groomsmen stood to one side, Esther's bridesmaids on the other.

Then from behind them, two young voices echoed out over the throng. "People of Albion, The Empire and the Vatican. We give you Queen Esther Blanchett Nightroad and her husband and Prince Consort, Crown Prince Aloysha Kasimir Nightroad!"

A roar of applause and cheering resonated through the cathedral, deafening in its force. Esther barely noticed though, as Seth caught their hands and turned them to face each other. The Empress's eyes were shining. "Well, my brother, you may now kiss the bride."

Abel's eyes were glowing. He lifted his hands to brush aside the curtain of her veil, then cupped her face with one palm. "Esther..." Then he bent and kissed her.

His kiss was fierce, the passion of his eyes mirrored in his lips, the way he pulled her to him, his hands gentle but trembling with the force of his emotion. Esther's world exploded in a blinding flash of elated ecstasy as she leaned in and kissed him back with all the force she could manage. She could hear whistles, cheers, clapping, and even a deep baritone catcall that she knew was Leon's, but she cared about nothing except the feel of Abel's hands and his lips, and the slim band of cool metal around the ring finger of her left hand.

They finally broke the kiss to breathe. Abel's eyes were shining like stars. Esther felt flushed, but she couldn't stop smiling. Abel returned the smile, then kissed her again, very gently. "I love you Esther."

"And I love you." She felt like her whole being was exploding with happiness. "I suppose we'd best go greet our guests."

"I suppose." Abel's hand caressed her cheek, a promise of a more intimate moment later, then he stepped back, though his hand remained clasped in hers.

The two of them turned to face the assembled crowd as their attendants formed an honor guard in front of them, then led them from the cathedral. Esther followed, Abel by her side as the bells tolled out above the renewed cheering.


[*] AN's dragonwriter24cmf: For anyone who asks, yes, I know it's not the traditional ceremony. But hey, it was being co-presided by the Pope and the Empress of Methuselah. It had to be adjusted. Plus, no one wants a long ceremony when there's a night of festivities to get underway.


[*] AN's smcandy:Again as a reminder to everyone. This is not the final chapter. We have one more chapter and half to go before I can say this story has reached its end. I think there still one more part of chapter 39 if not then we'll be on the last chapter by the next update. Remember I mentioned many times that TBWC is 40 chapters in total. So we are not quite done with the story yet but we are almost there by a nose hair from saying this story in almost complete.

*~I have pixel and paid commissions and free arts done of Esther and Abel's royal wedding attire you check out my Deviantart page under the same user name I use here to see them some are also in my scraps/Scrapbook section of my gallery. There is also arts done by me of Ion, Seth, Mika's wedding attire which were done with some special Tb dress ups found on DA. Along with pixel art work done by me of Astharoshe's, Vanessa and Mary's that was done a long time before and remains the same to this day forth story with some additions to some other fan arts and things my editor decide to add in ^^.

*~ The word plebeian mentioned by Ion calling Clement in the chapter definition means:

1. Of or relating to the common people of ancient Rome

2. Of, belonging to, or characteristic of commoners.

3. Unrefined or coarse in nature or manner; common or vulgar.

*~ Please remember everyone, that only three of the members RCO members are left alive from after the battle on the ARC. Dietrich just wanted to make it clear on his continued intensions with Esther. He and the others will come back more in show time in TBAS: TBWC's sequel. So do not ask nor worry as far as I know no interruptions for the wedding Abel and Esther will have their time to celebrate and go on honeymoon. But there will be this lingering feeling now that Dietrich sent his congregations to Esther that he's still in the shadows with others waiting for opportunity. That will present itself later on down the road to disrupt the semi- peaceful life Esther and Abel have.

*Stay tuned for the next and possibly final update of TBWC ^^*