Guests Arrive

By: SilvorMoon

It was unusually busy in the marketplace that morning. Carly held her spectacles in place with one hand as she fought her way through the crowd, dodging elbows and stray livestock and people carrying too many things to see where they were going. This was one reason why she was glad she lived outside of the town, away from all this noise and stink. Still, things seemed a lot more hectic than usual today. She wondered what the fuss was, but there was so much noise that she couldn't make out any individual conversation enough to get an idea what anyone was talking about.

Fortunately, she would be able to get a moment of peace and quiet once she reached her destination. Shifting the bag she carried so that it rested more comfortably on her shoulder, she forged onward into the heart of the village. She rounded a corner and gave a yelp as someone reached out to grab her arm.

"Get off me!" she shouted, flailing.

"Repent!" boomed the man, still gripping her elbow. He was dressed in a long red robe with a hood, from which a beaky nose and a scruffy brown beard projected. "The day is coming when the Crimson Goddess shall emerge from her temple to purify the land! Repent, before it is too late!"

"I'm fine, thanks," said Carly, finally managing to shake him off. She began hurrying up the road again. She could still hear him shouting to her - or maybe to the other passers-by - to renounce their wicked ways and sacrifice their material possessions to appease the Crimson Goddess.

"Where did these guys come from, anyway?" she muttered as she trudged along. She couldn't remember there being so many of them before. The whole Crimson Goddess thing seemed to have sprung up practically overnight - one day, no one had ever heard of her, and the next day, there was a red-robed acolyte on every street corner, preaching to the masses. The Goddess herself was a bit more elusive, but from what Carly had gathered, she was a goddess of life and healing, and would perform miracles for those who made the right gestures of faith. Since the right gestures were usually expensive, Carly had chosen to do without miracles.

In the most well-to-do section of town, there was a bookshop. Carly spotted its sign with relief and picked up her pace. The crowds were a bit easier to manage here - not much less thick, but they were standing still in gossipy groups instead of pelting about in every direction. She actually managed to pick up a few words as she passed.

"...very beautiful, at least."

"I heard her father..."

"...a party? You'd think he'd have better things to do with his..."

"It's for the good of the kingdom. He couldn't have made a better..."

Under ordinary circumstances, Carly might have stopped to eavesdrop a little more. She had a healthy curiosity, and while she never would have thought of herself as being someone who spread gossip, she liked to be in the know and would happily pass on any information she learned that might be interesting or useful to someone. Living on her own as she did, she didn't often get the chance to catch up on what the townsfolk were up to. It was only the weight of the sack she was carrying that convinced her that she needed to finish her errand before indulging her curiosity. She reluctantly continued on her way to the bookseller's shop.

A bell overhead rang as she pushed her way inside, and the store's owner looked up from his desk with a smile.

"Ah, Carly," he said. "So pleased to see you. I wasn't expecting you until next week."

"I finished early," she said as she swung her bag onto the counter. "All that rain last week. I couldn't get outside, so I stayed in and worked."

The bookseller untied the sack and carefully extracted a pile of books. A few of them were originals, but most of them were Carly's work - copies she had made carefully by hand. While there were a few places that were experimenting with machines that would print books mechanically, most people of wealth and taste preferred books that had been hand-lettered. Carly was an odd choice for the job, since common-born women weren't even expected to read a great deal, but her father had done the job before her and she had picked it up from him. She didn't have the artistic skills to do the beautiful illuminations you could find on some books, but she could write in a fair hand and no one would ever notice that it hadn't been written by a man. She liked the work; it meant she got to read things. One reason why her eyes were so weak was that she had spent most of her life poring over books.

"A beautiful job as always," said the bookseller. "My clients will be pleased. Here you go." He counted a handful of coins into Carly's hands.

"So, what's going on today?" she asked, as she made the money vanish into a pocket. "Why is everyone so worked up?"

"You haven't heard? No, I guess you wouldn't have," the bookseller replied. "The word is that the King is engaged."

"Wow, that is news," said Carly, suitably impressed. "To who?"

"The daughter of a lord from one of the conquered territories," the bookseller replied. "Something to secure our ties to them. I hear she is quite a lovely young woman, though..."

Carly nodded. She found herself wishing that she could be there to see the wedding celebrations. Though her village wasn't far from the capital city, she had never had any need to go there herself, and had never even set eyes on the young king. Most of the time she was happy minding her house and weeding her garden and copying books, but now it struck her that it might be nice to see the castle and the king and his beautiful bride...

She shook her head. Nobody was going to let a drab little bookworm like her anywhere near the king's festivities. It was nice to dream, though.

"Do you have any new orders for me?" she asked.

"Of course," said the bookseller, and retreated to the back of the building.

He returned a few minutes later with a stack of books and a list of how many copies of each were needed. Carly accepted them all and packed them up neatly in her bag. At least now, she thought as she began the walk home, she would have something interesting to think about while she worked. She wasn't even sure she could imagine what a royal wedding would be like. She could barely imagine being married herself, in one of the informal ceremonies they held in the village, where festivity meant putting on your best clothes and hanging up some flowers, and putting out a good meal for all your friends afterwards. She didn't think she was bad-looking, and she was good enough at cooking and mending clothes and the other things that a housewife was expected to know, but she'd never had any prospects. Not many people seemed inclined to marry a girl who spent most of her time crouched over a desk and trying not to spill ink on something important.

On the street corner, the man in the red robe was still exhorting everyone who passed him to come to the Crimson Goddess and be purified.

"Renounce your selfish love of material objects!" he bellowed. "The miracles of the Crimson Goddess come only to those who are willing to worship her with pure hearts! Come to her, and she will answer your prayers!"

One of these days, I'm going to go see what that Goddess business is all about, Carly thought. It would be kind of nice to have a miracle...

Jack had holed himself up in the library. It wasn't ordinarily a place where he would have spent much time, unless it was absolutely necessary, but it seemed to be the best option. Ordinarily he would have gone to the training yard if he wanted to blow off steam, but that was the first place anyone would look for him. Here, at least, it was quiet. Unlike most of the castle, the library didn't require a great deal of preparation for the upcoming wedding. It also had plenty of room to move, so Jack walked restlessly up and down the aisles.

"Well, you look happy."

Jack spun, glaring, to face the new arrival, and relaxed only marginally when he saw that it was just Crow. The young guardsman had a knack for finding things that other people missed, and that apparently included Jack.

"I'm fine," Jack snapped.

"Sure. You sound great," said Crow. "Come on, lighten up! It's not as if the girl's a cow or something."

"So they say. I've never set eyes on her," said Jack

Crow laughed. "Now you're just being contrary."

"Look, I don't care if she's the most beautiful woman in the world. I have more important things to do," said Jack. "Of all the ridiculous time-wasting schemes..."

"Relax," said Crow. "The kingdom isn't going to fall apart because you took a week off to get married."

"I shouldn't have to do it at all," Jack complained. "Look around! We're lucky this kingdom isn't still in the middle of a civil war."

"So maybe people want to forget all that and have a little fun," said Crow. "Come on, be a sport."

"That's easy for you to say. You aren't the one getting married."

Crow just laughed. "Okay, maybe so. Maybe instead of moping around, you ought to be enjoying your final days of bachelorhood. You ought to come riding with Yusei and Kiryu and me later. It'll clear your head."

Jack made a noncommittal noise. Crow just grinned.

"Think about it," he said. "Anyway, your advisor is looking for you. Should I tell him where you are or tell him you went somewhere else?"

"Don't tell him anything," said Jack. "I'll sort him out myself."

"Your choice," said Crow with a shrug. "But seriously, any time you need us..."

He didn't finish that sentence, but he didn't need to. Jack had known him for years, and they understood each other better than Jack liked to admit at times. He, Crow, Yusei, and Kiryu had all trained for knighthood together before Jack had attained his majority and become king, and while his three closest friends were now technically his subordinates, they still had a measure of familiarity with him that no one else did. It could be annoying at times.

After Crow had gone, Jack pondered a moment before deciding that if his advisor was looking for him, it was probably a good idea to be found. He had never really liked, or even particularly trusted the man, but Jack knew full well that Rex Goodwin was not to be trifled with. Years ago, when the old king had died during the war and the months-old prince had vanished without a trace, it had been Goodwin who had taken on the gargantuan task of keeping the kingdom functioning in the absence of its ruler. He had been the one to trace the bloodlines and prove that Jack was the next legitimate heir, and had served as regent until Jack had attained his majority at the age of sixteen and could assume the throne himself. It had been on his advice that Jack had weathered the after math of the great civil war and the subsequent smaller uprisings and attacks from bordering kingdoms, as they tried to take advantage of the kingdom's perilous state. Even now, Goodwin continued to supply his guidance.

He found Goodwin in his office, going over some papers. He barely glanced up as Jack entered the room.

"Highness," he greeted.

"You were looking for me," said Jack.

"I am merely concerned for your well-being," said Goodwin smoothly. "You have been withdrawn, as of late."

"You already know why."

"We've been over this before. Lady Mikage is a lovely young woman and possessed of a gentle and pliant nature. She will be no trouble to you."

"That is not the problem," said Jack.

"No," said Goodwin placidly. "The problem is that you feel that this is a waste of time and resources. This is understandable. You have always been clever with matters of war and strategy, but you have yet to master diplomacy. Lady Mikage's father was the ruler of one of the lands that were conquered during the most recent uprising, and his people still feel some resentment to the throne. Marrying her will help to ensure that her people will remain peaceful. You know perfectly well how fragile our peace is now. I should think anything that would preserve it would meet with your approval."

"Well, it doesn't," said Jack. "I never said I wanted to get married to anyone."

"It is not a matter of what you want, Your Highness. It is a matter of what is best for your people. I worked very hard to arrange a good match for you. I assure you, the other options were much worse. Beautiful princesses are not as easy to come by as one might think. Besides, you remember what happened when the old king died unexpectedly and there were no heirs close at hand. Do you want that to happen again?"

"There was an heir. He just went missing," Jack muttered, but his heart wasn't really in it. He knew Goodwin was right - he should have been picking out a suitable bride as soon as he'd gotten himself situated on the throne, and been thinking about heirs. He just didn't want to.

"My brother and I will take every measure possible to see that this does not happen again," said Goodwin, "but perhaps you had better worry about producing an heir before you worry about protecting it. First things first."

"You have a glib answer to everything," Jack snarled.

Goodwin, as always, was unruffled. "Lady Mikage will be here in three days. Will you offend her family by sending her away?"

"I," said Jack, "am going outside."

He turned on his heel and swept out of the room, not waiting to see how Goodwin would react. He knew what it would be anyway - a bow and a bland look that wouldn't quite hide his smugness at having worked Jack around to his plans once again.

Sometimes I wonder which of us is really the king here, Jack thought sourly. Oh, he knew that if he simply put his foot down and demanded that the whole thing be called off, and Goodwin would find some excuse to send this Lady Mikage back where she came from, and the whole wedding thing would probably never be mentioned again. It was just that it wouldn't be the end of it, because somehow, Goodwin would turn out to be right - someone would get offended and the people of the newly annexed lands would take it as an excuse to revolt, and probably Jack would end up losing his hard-earned throne, and there would be no immediately available heir, and everything would go to pieces. And then he would just have to listen to Goodwin saying, "I told you so." Even if it didn't get that bad, putting up with Goodwin's insufferable you-should-have-listened-to-me manner would be punishment enough. Most of the time it was better just to let him have his way.

He wasn't sure that this time it was going to be better.

Jack made his way to the training grounds, and was not surprised to find that they were already in use. Crow, Yusei, and Kiryu, who together comprised the elite royal guard, were working out with wooden practice swords, hacking at each other with an enthusiasm that might have convinced an outsider that they were really trying to kill each other, save for the grins on their faces. Jack watched a while as he idly picked up a spare sword and turned it over a few times in his hands, getting a feel for it. All the practice swords were much abused and most of them wobbled on their hilts or were completely out of balance, but for Jack, that was never a problem.

In a sudden lunge, Jack sprinted across the yard and straight into the center of the melee. Before anyone knew what hit them, Crow had been thrown off his feet, Kiryu disarmed, and Yusei was caught with his sword locked against Jack's. The two of them stood braced against each other for a few seconds, glaring into each other's eyes, before Yusei relaxed and let Jack push him away. He grinned.

"I saw you coming," he said.

"And yet you're still not fast enough to stop me," said Jack. He smiled. Fighting with Yusei always put him in a better mood.

"You're still the best out of all of us, no question," said Crow, as he hauled himself to his feet. "The only reason you still train with us is you like seeing us get knocked back on our asses."

"I have to train with someone," said Jack. "You three aren't much, but you're the best I've got."

"One of these days, Yusei is going to beat you," Kiryu opined.

Yusei laughed. "I have a long way to go. But you're right - I'll get there."

"Hmph. Not likely," said Jack.

This sort of posing and banter could easily go on the rest of the day, provided they weren't interrupted. It had been going on for the past eighteen years or so, so the odds were that it would continue indefinitely. Jack and Yusei had, in fact, known each other nearly since they'd been born. Jack had begun his life inside the palace, the offspring of a lord who had perished during the wars. Yusei was the offspring of a minor noble, and had turned up in the rubble of a manor house that had been razed in the fighting. He'd been turned over to the same nursemaid who had been taking care of Jack, and the two of them had been together ever since. Crow and Kiryu were likewise war orphans who had started out as pages and quickly worked their way up the ranks - Kiryu beginning as a member of the minor nobility, and Crow as an ex-thief who had devoted himself to the king out of gratitude for pardoning him. Jack trusted them more than he trusted anyone else, particularly the people who were supposed to be his advisors.

"So, how are the plans for the wedding coming along?" asked Kiryu. "Have you killed your advisor yet? I know a few good places to hide the body."

"Don't tempt me," said Jack.

"You need a break," said Crow. "I told you before, we should all just go riding and forget about all this for a while. Who knows when our next chance will be?"

Jack thought about that for a moment, then nodded. "Fine."

"Great!" said Crow. He began sprinting toward the stables. "Race you!"

The others just looked at each other.

"Should we?" asked Yusei.

"Let's let him enjoy it," Kiryu replied.

Together, the three of them walked at their leisure out of the yard.

Three days later, the lady herself arrived with a number of servants, ladies in waiting, and at least one very grumpy bodyguard. He looked like a very effective bodyguard, standing comfortably above six feet tall and proportionately broad, with a scowling scarred face. He appeared to have taken an instant dislike to Jack, and also appeared to be permanently glued to Lady Mikage. He glared at everyone who got within hailing distance of her, and since Jack was required to be near her as often as he possibly could, he had to bear being glared at a great deal.

But for now, he was safe. A grand feast had been spread out in honor of the king's betrothed, and for the moment, at least, everyone had settled in to enjoy the food and drink. Jack himself was seated at the head of the table with Mikage at his right hand. He had been prepared to dislike her on sight. She had, in fact, turned out to be exactly as described. She was quite pretty - not glamorous, but with a wholesome, fresh-faced radiance about her. Her manners were flawless. She never made a move that was not graceful. She rarely spoke except when spoken to, but when she did speak, it was in a sweet, pleasant voice. At the moment, she was listening attentively to the conversation flowing around her, occasionally putting in a remark or polite question. Much to his surprise, she was well-spoken on a variety of topics, including several that he wouldn't have expected a lady to be familiar with.

Jack didn't like her anyway. He had a sneaking suspicion that she probably had all the strength of will of a stick of butter. Already she was showing a distressing inclination to agree with everything he said and to stare at him adoringly whenever he addressed her. Her company would have been agreeable enough for an evening, but he wasn't sure he could tolerate her as a wife. She was better suited to be the bride of some minor lord, where her responsibilities would be limited to acting as hostess to guests, overseeing the household accounts, and being companionable to her husband. As a queen, she would be miscast - the stresses of co-ruling a fragile kingdom would be too much for her.

Damned if I do, damned if I don't, Jack thought, trying not to let his irritation show on his face. The last thing he needed was for a roomful of people to see him being rude to his bride-to-be.

But at least he wasn't having to deal with her bodyguard. Jack had taken the precaution of seating the man as far away as he possibly could, away at the table where the soldiers were fed. He was making the most of the situation, eating a great deal and drinking a great deal more. The feast hadn't been going on very long, and already the man was visibly drunk.

What sort of bodyguard behaves that way? If any of Jack's guards were caught drunk while on duty, they would have been dismissed instantly. Jack frowned and made a gesture, and instantly Yusei was at his side.

"Let me guess," he said.

"I would rather not have an incident," Jack replied.

Yusei nodded and slipped away again. A moment later, he appeared as if by magic next to the unruly guard and gently coaxed him away from the table. He seemed to be complaining about something, though Jack was too far away to hear what he was saying. Mikage bowed her head, looking embarrassed.

"I'm sorry," she said. "He usually doesn't behave that way."

"Probably just getting carried away with the celebration," said Jack, who didn't believe any such thing. Still, it seemed to soothe her.

"He always was most enthusiastic," she said, "and this is a time for celebration."

She looked hopefully at him, and Jack found he had to avert his gaze.

The whole thing was, in fact, quite embarrassing, and Jack was relieved when the meal was finally over and he could escape back to his room. There was entertainment planned for after the meal, but he announced, truthfully, that he had a headache and wanted to go lie down.

"Need someone to walk with you?" Kiryu asked him quietly. "There are a lot of strangers in the castle tonight."

"I'm fine," said Jack curtly. "I want to be left alone."

Kiryu nodded and backed down. Jack was glad. The last thing he wanted after this day of annoyances was to get into a fight with his own guards.

It was a relief to be away from the hot, crowded, noisy banquet hall. As soon as Jack was well away from the crowd, he slowed his steps and took a few deep breaths of the comparatively cool air, letting it calm his nerves. He was, he thought, going to go crazy if he had to put up with much more of this, and the wedding wasn't slated to happen for another two weeks. Two weeks of trying to be diplomatic, of making dutiful small talk, of avoiding suspicious guards...

Speaking of which, he could hear a small commotion coming from the hall ahead of him. Someone was shuffling unsteadily down the passage, occasionally tripping and blundering into things. There was a heavy thud as they fell to the floor, or perhaps ran into a wall, and a good deal of cursing as they picked themselves up again. Jack sighed heavily and went to have a look at the problem.

It was, of course, the surly bodyguard. He seemed to have regained his footing somewhat, but his feet were planted the wrong way around, and he was having some difficulty untangling them.

"I thought I sent you to your room," said Jack.

The guard glared at him.

"I don't take orders from you," he slurred. "I only work for Mikage. Not you. Her."

"Fine," said Jack. "I'll go find her and she can send you to your room."

It was the wrong thing to say. The man's face twisted in fury, and he took a staggering step in Jack's direction.

"You keep your hands off her," he growled.

Jack raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

"Keep your filthy hands off! Just stay away from her. Don't touch her." The guard lurched closer, so that Jack could smell the wine on his breath. "You're not good enough for her."

"Funny, I feel the same way about her."

Jack watched the guardsman's face twist in confusion as he tried to work out what that meant. Then he snarled with fury and slammed Jack against the wall. Jack watched levelly as the guard loomed over him, breathing heavily.

"Don't you ever speak like that about her," he growled. "If you don't keep away from her, I swear I'll kill you! I'll break your neck!"

Jack did not reply. Very calmly, he pushed two fingers against the man's forehead, tipping his head back, and the rest of him tipped along with it. He staggered a few paces backwards and ran into the wall. The guard stood there for a moment, feeling at the wall and looking vaguely confused. He turned himself over; Jack got the impression he thought he had landed on the floor and was trying to get up again. Sure enough, the guard pushed firmly against the wall and looked honestly surprised when he tipped over again. This time he did land very hard on the carpet and looked around dazedly.

"How'd you do that?" he demanded.

Jack just rolled his eyes.

"You're drunk," he said. "Give it up, go back to your room and sleep it off."

"Not until I'm done with you!"

"Hey, what's going on here?"

Crow came around the corner and sized up the situation.

"Hey," he said. "You haven't been fighting, have you?"

"If you can call being threatened by a drunken lout fighting," said Jack disdainfully. "Deal with it, would you?"

Crow nodded. He'd always been rather good at dealing with unruly drunks; his easygoing manner combined with surprisingly strong muscles was generally an effective combination. He sauntered over to the guard, who was still trying to work out which way was up so he could stand.

"Up you go," he said, hauling on his arm. "One too many, huh, buddy? You're gonna feel this in the morning, I'm tellin' you. Take it from me, it's just not worth it. Come on, let's get you back to your room and I'll get you a drink of water..."

With a few careful nudges and a constant stream of encouragement, Crow was able to ease the drunken soldier back to his barracks. Jack rubbed at his temples.

"This is going to be a long week," he said.

"It isn't going to work, you know."

Rex Goodwin gave his brother a mildly curious look, but otherwise declined to comment on the remark that Rudger had just made. The court wizard was not known for his optimistic and cheerful attitude, and while Rex had learned to cover his true feelings with a veneer of civility, he usually agreed with his brother. Now he only settled himself onto a stool - one of the few in Rudger's workshop that wasn't piled with the tools of his trade, and took a sip from the wineglass he was holding. Rudger scowled at him.

"Aren't you listening to me?" he grumbled.

"You have my undivided attention," Rex assured him. "I was merely waiting for you to elaborate on your point."

"Don't get diplomatic on me," said Rudger. "You know exactly what I'm talking about. Weren't you paying attention? He's known that girl less than a day and already he can't stand her."

"It doesn't matter whether he likes her or not," said Rex. "He merely has to agree to marry her. She's already in love with him, by the look of things. He'll do what he has to for the good of the kingdom, and once he's gotten an heir by her, nothing else will make any difference. We can afford to wait another year."

"You sound awfully confident," Rudger grumbled. "It's not going to be that simple, little brother. Just look at this."

Rex obligingly walked over to the table where Rudger was working. He had in front of him a wooden board with a number of silver pins stuck in it, with a thin white thread stretched back and forth between them, forming a web.

"Why must it always be spiders with you?" asked Rex.

"Spiders are useful," said Rudger, in the tones of someone who has answered this question before. "Look! Just look at his fatelines. Do you see how tangled they are? Every one of these threads is the life of someone of significant importance to him - someone who could redirect the course of his life. Do you really think you can control them all?"

"That depends entirely on who they belong to."

"You. Me. His elite guards. His fiancee and her guard," said Rudger. "That and a number of quantities as yet unknown."

"Hm," said Rex thoughtfully. "The known quantities, I believe we can deal with. As for the others... I think I will have to arrange a backup plan, just in case."

"Better that than letting all your work go to waste," Rudger agreed.

Rex nodded. Really, things had been so much simpler before Jack had reached his majority and could start doing things for himself. It was only the stupid masses who insisted on having a king who had some connection to royal blood, no matter how tenuous it was. It was a ridiculous system, and Goodwin firmly believed that the person who ruled the kingdom should be the one who was best suited to rule, regardless of his parentage. The only way a common-born man like Rex could rule the kingdom was by acting as regent. As long as Jack had been considered a child, it had been fine. When Jack had a child of his own, then Jack would no longer be necessary. His gentle, weak-willed bride could hardly be expected to control the kingdom herself, and it would be another sixteen years before the new heir would be ready to take his father's place. Of course, there was a small matter of taking Jack out of the picture, but surely that could be arranged. There were plenty of ways a hot-blooded young man could get himself accidentally killed...

"If you will do me the favor of learning what you can about the rest of those fatelines, I will be most grateful," Rex said.

"Only for you," said Rudger. "It will take some time. They aren't all located anywhere near here."

"We can afford to wait," Rex replied. "If they are far from here, I doubt they can be affecting him directly yet... unless they are plotting some sort of revolution, in which case they may just solve our problems for us."

"I'll find them. Leave it to me."

Rudger dragged himself to his feet and walked over to a shelf containing a vast array of boxes, papers, bottles, and other miscellaneous magical trinkets. He removed a small wooden container, almost like a jewelry box, and opened the lid. There were seven spiders inside, each the size of Rudger's thumbnail and each a different color. He carried the box to the window and gently tipped the spiders onto the ledge. They scuttled along the windowsill, their legs making tiny clicking noises as they moved, their jewel-toned bodies glittering in the moonlight. Rudger leaned over and whispered to them. They stood perfectly still until he had finished, and then scampered off in a blur of legs, disappearing into the night.

"There, that's done it," said Rudger. "Give them time, and they'll find everyone."

Rex nodded. "Thank you, Brother. I can always count on you."

"You're not the only one who would rather see anyone than that trumped-up kid on the throne."

Rex smiled, pleased by his brother's loyalty. With his help, dealing with Jack would be nothing more than a minor annoyance. All they needed was time.

So far, it had not been a good morning.

Ushio stood stiffly at attention, doing his best to look as though everything was normal. The actuality was that he was feeling anything but normal - he felt, in fact, not so much hung over as already fallen in. It had been a while since he'd gotten himself well and truly drunk beyond reason, and now he was paying the price for it. Nevertheless, he did his best to keep his discomfort to himself. He was going to man his post and do what was asked of him, even if the effort was enough to make his head feel ready to split open.

No one was paying attention to him, anyway. There was no one in the room but the king, Mikage, and a couple of servants hovering discreetly nearby. They weren't paying attention to anyone but the king and the lady, and those two weren't paying any attention to anyone but each other. They spoke quietly, so that Ushio couldn't hear every word they were saying, but he got the impression that they were discussing plans for the upcoming wedding. They did make a beautiful couple, sitting together that way, their heads bowed towards each other and their knees nearly touching. Jack was dressed in nearly pure white, and the morning sunlight shone on his golden hair, making him gleam like some sort of heavenly being. Mikage wore a simple blue dress with only a few strands of pearls for ornamentation, but the way it fitted her flawless body transformed it into the most beautiful garment ever worn. Ushio sighed. He couldn't deny that they made a perfect couple. They were so perfect that he wanted to push his fist into Jack's face. Maybe if he had a broken nose and a few missing teeth and two black eyes, Mikage wouldn't look at Jack quite so adoringly.

Not like she'd ever look at me like that, he thought, with malaise that wasn't completely the result of his hangover.

After all, Mikage was a lady. His family was respectable, but they were no more than unlanded knights, barely better than a commoner. He had been given the job of guarding her because he was an adequate fighter but not so good that he couldn't be spared from active duty, so there wasn't much chance that he'd ever win enough honor and glory to rise in rank. The best he could hope for would be to be allowed to stay here with her and continue watching over her. Which was worse - to be sent away from her forever, or to stay here and watch her being happy with someone else?

Pushing Jack's face in sounded like the best option, far and away. Too bad it would lead to difficulties later on.

Mercifully, the peaceful scene was interrupted by a messenger.

"Your Majesty," he said, "there's someone here demanding to speak to you."

"Nobody demands to speak to the king," said Jack coldly.

"This one does," the servant replied. "He says he's been sent by the Crimson Goddess herself. He says not even a king outranks a goddess."

"I don't believe in their goddess," said Jack irritably.

"But this man does, and he won't go away until you speak to him," the servant replied. "Please, your highness. He's making people nervous."

"Oh, fine, then," said Jack. He stood up and stalked out of the room, radiating irritation. He swept past Ushio without appearing to see him and slammed the door behind him. Ushio winced; that sound had been far too loud and far too close to suit his aching head.

"Well," said Mikage. "I have a feeling he's going to be a while."

"Should I walk you to your room, Lady Mikage?" asked Ushio.

"All right," she replied.

She rose and smoothed her skirts in a graceful motion, and then glided over to him to rest her hand on his arm in a familiar gesture that nevertheless never failed to set his heart racing. He walked slowly, pretending that he was not yet fully familiarized with the castle's hallways and trying to remember the way to her room, but really just trying to make the moment last. It was hard to know just how many more moments like this he would have, so for now, he would have to make the most of them.

And hope that someone out there felt the same way about Jack that he did.

Jack was struggling not to roll his eyes in exasperation. He'd spent the whole morning going over wedding plans - first with his advisor, then with Mikage herself. He'd done this under the watchful eye of that bodyguard of hers, who looked, if anything, even more sour than usual after his night of heavy drinking. And now, to top it off, he was getting a religious lecture.

"I don't see how you can say that," Jack answered the robed man, "considering that the peace was established long before your Goddess turned up."

"Don't be a fool. A goddess is eternal," said the other man. "Peace came to this kingdom because she favored it with her presence. Her incarnation was born the same year that the wars ended. Surely you cannot say that is a coincidence."

"So a girl was born that year. So were a lot of other babies. None of them had anything to do with the wars ending," Jack snapped. "Peace was established because one army overcame the other army, and a legitimate king was located. That's all there is to it. It had nothing to do with your goddess."

"But surely you can't deny her power," the robed man persisted. "Hundreds of people have been healed by her - they line up at the door to the temple hoping for miracles. No healer in the land has as much power as her."

"So she's a powerful healer. That doesn't make her a goddess any more than my court wizard's powers make him a god," said Jack. "As far as I'm concerned, you can take your Crimson Goddess and shove her."

The man's eyes darkened. "You'll be sorry you said that. Mark my words, the Goddess will punish you for your blasphemy."

"I look forward to it," said Jack. "I could use a challenge."

The man didn't seem to have an answer for that. He gave a low growl and stalked out of the audience chamber, his red robes fluttering dramatically behind him. Jack was not impressed.

"How foolish," he muttered.

He decided he'd had enough headaches for one day. It was time to make an escape. He left the audience chamber and slipped towards the exercise yard, hoping that there would be someone there who could help him work off his frustrations. Yusei would be best, but he would settle for even a lesser soldier as long as they could handle a sword. He wanted to hit something; he wasn't picky about what.

Luck was with him, and he found Kiryu in one corner of the yard, working out with a practice dummy. The silver-haired man smiled as he saw Jack approach.

"I had a feeling you'd be along," he said.

"Another minute and I would have hurt someone," said Jack. "I can think of several candidates."

"You need to get away from all this for a while," said Kiryu.

"I need all of this to go away, but it won't happen."

"But you could go away," Kiryu pointed out. "You're the king. Nobody can make you stay here if you really don't want to. There's no reason why they can't pick out the tablecloths for the wedding without you... or whatever it is they're doing in there."

"I know that. You know that. They don't know that."

Kiryu grinned. "And since when do you let anyone tell you what to do?"

Jack smirked back at him. "So I should let you tell me instead of them?"

"Well, what do you want to do?"

"That should be obvious," Jack replied. "I want to be far away from all this nonsense. If I could, I would let them have the wedding without me."

"Then take a day off," said Kiryu. "Ride up to the hunting lodge and get some peace and quiet. I'll cover for you. You'll feel better after you've had some time alone."

Jack couldn't argue with that. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had more than an hour or so to himself - he even had guards watching over his room while he slept. A day or two of perfect isolation sounded wonderful. Surely he could slip away for a little while without there being too much of a problem. Goodwin would run things. He had run them for nearly sixteen years; he could manage by himself for a day or two. It was ridiculously irresponsible to think that way, but... well, Jack had been responsible for most of his life, and he was nearing his breaking point.

"You're sure you can manage?" he asked Kiryu.

His friend nodded. "I'll stall them long enough for you to get well away."

"Fair enough," said Jack.

He clapped a hand on Kiryu's shoulder. It was the closest he would come to thanking him.

Within a few minutes, with Kiryu's help, Jack had gathered a few provisions, a change of clothing, and a few other odds and ends, the kind of thing he would take with him on a hunting trip. Kiryu had acquired and saddled Jack's favorite horse, a sleek blood-bay that could outrun anything on legs.

"I'll be home tomorrow," Jack promised.

"Don't rush," said Kiryu. "Take whatever time you need."

Satisfied that all would be well, Jack set out. Though the day was warm, he was wearing a dull brown cloak that would hopefully get him through the city without attracting too much attention. Hopefully, he thought, no one would think to identify him by his horse. Thankfully, the city was crowded with visitors who had been attracted by the news of the forthcoming wedding and the promise of a grand celebration, and there were so many people crowding the city that no one noticed one more man on a horse.

Outside the city, things were far better. He raced along the main roads, and then down lesser-used paths, and finally over unbroken grass. By the time he reached the forest, he slowed his now-tiring horse and took off his cloak. He should, he thought, be far away enough from any other people that no one would see his face. He let the horse pick its way through the underbrush while it got its wind back. There were still several hours of daylight left, so he could take his time getting to the hunting lodge. For now, it was enough to be alone in the cool forest, breathing the scent of the pines and enjoying the solitude.

Being a king wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have to deal with so many people, he mused. Everyone thought it must be wonderful to be the king, and have everyone do what he said, but most of the time it seemed as though his life was nothing but people making demands on him. Goodwin, Mikage, that surly bodyguard, those Crimson Goddess people... why did they all have to gang up on him at once?

Forcing that thought out of his mind, he continued to ride, always working his way more or less in the direction of the lodge. He had used it often when he had been younger, and had more time for lazing about with his friends. It had been disused, as of late, and he expected it would probably require some cleaning by the time he found it, but he didn't care. He wasn't so much attached to his status that he couldn't stand to sweep the dust out of a room before he slept in it. It would feel good to be doing something productive for a change, instead of engaging in endless diplomatic talk.

After he'd gone a few miles, he came upon a stream. He frowned at it for a moment.

"This isn't supposed to be here. I must have gone off-course," he said.

He knew from maps that there was a curving track of water that looped back on itself as it meandered through the forest. The fact that he'd found it at all meant he'd tended too closely towards the nearest village, which was not where he wanted to go. Jack felt chagrined by the fact that he'd nearly gotten himself lost. It really had been too long since he'd passed this way.

Still, there was no point in turning his nose up at a perfectly good stream. He could let his horse have a drink while he was there, and have a bit of cool water for himself as well. It would taste much better than something that had been warming inside a metal flask all day. He was just about to dismount when he became aware of the fact that someone was watching him.

Jack paused. How did he know someone was there? He stayed very still, alert to what all his senses were telling him. Yes, there it was - the crack of a twig, the faintest rustle of clothing. Someone was nearby.

"All right, I know you're there," he said loudly. "Come out where I can see you!"

Someone moved. They moved quickly, in a rapid darting movement that his finely-tuned sense of battle told him was the wrong way for someone to move if they meant him no harm. Jack turned toward the sound, already reaching for his sword.

It was the turning that saved him. The arrow that would have otherwise found its way to his throat instead lodged in his shoulder. He gave a bellow of pain, and his horse, frightened by the sudden noise and movement, gave a lurch that sent the stunned Jack toppling from his saddle. He landed in the stream with a splash. He was dimly aware of the sound of footfalls racing away from him, but he had fallen at the wrong angle to see anything. He had a vague impression that his horse was running away as well, but he was in no shape to do anything about it. Spots were spinning before his vision, and soon his whole world spun away into darkness.

He awakened some time later - he was not even sure how long, though the angle of the shadows suggested that he'd been out only a few minutes. He was cold and wet. He was also in quite a lot of pain. He'd landed half-in and half-out of the stream, so that his legs were soaked with cold water, while his upper half was sticky with blood.

Think, Jack. You can deal with this.

First things first. Physical condition - had the arrow hit anything vital? No, he didn't think so. It was bleeding, but sluggishly, not spurting as he'd expect it to if it had struck a major blood vessel. It was in deep, though. He could feel the edge of the arrow grinding against his shoulder blade when he tried to move, and the pain sent sparks across his vision. He gave his attention over to the pain, trying to get the shape of it, to isolate it and control it. He thought that the arrow must have gone nearly all the way through; there was a sharp prick that he imagined was the tip protruding through the skin of his back.

I need to get this out. Then I need help.

The easiest way to get an arrow out, after it had gone in this far, was to push it out the other side. He wasn't going to enjoy that, but he reminded himself that trying to drag it out the same way it had gone in wasn't going to be pleasant either, and there was no telling what the edge of the sharp arrowhead would do to him if it went back through him. He used his good arm to carefully lever himself up off the ground, feeling his stomach churn; no matter how cautious he was, he couldn't stop his other arm from shifting. He managed at last, and braced his hand against the shaft of the arrow. He took a breath, closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and pushed. The sheer wrongness of feeling something sliding through his muscles, past his bones, was enough to make him gag, but he managed to reach around with his good arm and clumsily fish the bloody projectile free. Only once he was free of it did he allow himself to pass out again.

The next time he woke up, he could tell that a good deal more time had passed. He felt weak and lightheaded, even lying down, and he had a sneaking suspicion that the next time he went out, he wouldn't wake up again unless he could find some help. He forced himself to sit up again, and with shaking hands, managed to tear a strip off the hem of his shirt to use as a clumsy bandage. He had already lost more blood than was good for him, but he was sure that trying to walk would only make things worse. Any protection he could get would be a help.

As soon as his head had nearly stopped spinning, he began the task of crawling to the nearest tree. Fortunately, it was a pine tree with lots of low branches that he could use to haul himself up with, if he was careful. It took him a moment to find his balance once he was upright, and he didn't trust himself to last very long that way once he let go of the tree.

Too much blood...

But he had no choice. Once the sun went down, the wild animals would come, and his only hope then was that they would kill him before they started eating him. The scent of his blood would draw them, so he would have to be far from here before they came. He measured the distance to the next tree and lurched towards it. Having reached it, he leaned there a moment, catching his breath and choosing his next goal. All he had to do, he told himself, was move to the next tree and the next one, and eventually he would reach the town...

It was slow, painful going. Each step of the journey took a little longer to recover from; he spent more time leaning against trees and resting than he did walking, and every movement sent new threads of pain radiating away from his wound. His vision began to take on a fuzzy edge, and it grew harder and harder to gauge distances. The shadows grew longer and longer, and at last blurred into one great darkness. He could not see where he was going at all, and he was tired, so tired...

Just before he began considering giving up and letting the wolves take him, he became aware of a light. He stared at it, trying to work out if it was just another trick his eyes were playing on him, but it remained clear and steady. He staggered towards it, tripping over roots but keeping himself upright by sheer willpower, knowing that once he fell he wouldn't be able to find the strength to stand again. Gradually, he became aware that what he was moving towards was a window. There was a light inside, as of a candle. There were people in there. There was help.

At last, he reached the door and slumped against it, too exhausted to go on. With the last of his strength, he raised his good hand to knock. It was not a particularly forceful knock, and he wondered if whoever was inside would hear it.

Inside the house, Carly was crouched over one of her books, writing slowly and carefully by candlelight. She was so caught up in her work that when she heard the sound of something colliding with her door, she thought at first that it was only her imagination. It was enough to alert her, though, so when the sound of someone knocking on her door reached her, soft as it was, she recognized it.

"Just a minute!" she called.

Now, who could that be? she wondered, as she stood up. She stretched carefully, working the kinks out of her joints. Standing and looking around a bit was enough to make her realize just how late it really was. She should have been in bed long ago. Who on in the world would come knocking at her door at this hour?

"Who's out there, anyway?" she demanded, but there was no answer.

A little worried now, but also intrigued, she carefully unlatched the door, and someone fell on her. Carly gave a little yelp as she tried to stop the man from hitting the floor. With a great effort, she managed to not so much catch him as redirect him, so that instead of landing on his face, he instead dropped into a kitchen chair. She gawked at him, panting from the effort and surprise. He was terribly muddy, and his shirt was covered in blood. His face looked paler than the paper she had been writing on, but his eyes still blazed a dazzling violet. He looked like he was at Death's door. He was still the most beautiful man she'd ever seen.

"Who are you?" she asked.

He shook his head a little: he couldn't answer that question.

"Help me," he whispered, and then slumped into a dead faint.

To Be Continued...