Author's Note: This was written for the December challenge at the Tamora Pierce Writing Experiment forum. The challenge consisted of adapting a fairy tale or holiday story to a Tamora Pierce universe while keeping with canon. This story is based on the Celtic fairy tale "The Three Blows."

Defying Gravity

Part I: Fury

Adigun jin Wilimia tightened his grip around his sword hilt. Zhir Kasimir might have believed that he could rebel against Adigun's uncle, the warlord king of Sarain, just because the warlord's only son, who had always been sickly, had perished of a hacking cough a month ago. Perhaps zhir Kasimir misinterpreted the death of the warlord's only son as an indication that Sarain was without an heir, even though the warlord had quickly made it known that Adigun would take the throne after him. That had been enough to satisfy most of the quarrelsome nobles in the country, but it had not been enough to quell zhir Kasimir's pugnacious nature.

That was why Adigun, and a squadron of loyal men were riding out to zhir Kasimir's castle, where they would stop the noble's rebellion by force before it even had a chance to begin. A rapid stab in the heart or a neat severing of the head from the neck would ensure that zhir Kasimir didn't have the time or the tongue to inflame the hearts and the minds of any other nobles. In matters like this, it was best to act swiftly before the rebel could raise any troops. In some places, disputes were resolved with words, but in Sarain they were always solved with actions—often violent ones. Anyone who wanted to be warlord had to understand that, and Adigun was going to be warlord after his uncle. No filthy upstart like zhir Kasimir was going to ruin that for him.

Adigun harbored no love for his uncle Mihail, but he would fight to the death for the man because Mihail was willing to promise him a throne. In the past, Mihail might not have cared a rat's dropping about him, but now that Adigun was his only heir, the man did.

Yes, he thought, he and his uncle might not have loved each other, but that didn't matter. Necessity bound them together a thousand times more effectively than love could have. After all, love was a luxury few could afford in a country that was perpetually being ravaged by war. If you wanted to survive in Sarain, it was prudent to focus on your own needs, not on those of the people you supposedly loved.

Unfortunately, Adigun's current needs demanded that he pass through the highlands, because that was the fastest way to reach zhir Kasimir's land, and speed, as it always was in cases of rebellion, was of the essence.

Scowling down at his saddle horn, Adigun noted inwardly that if it were up to him, his black stallion would never set so much as a hoof on the rocky highlands. After all, he told himself as his glower deepened, the highlands were the home of the primitive K'mir with their incomprehensible language who would sooner shoot a man than look him in the eye. Moreover, the highlands, coated in feet of snow and ice, were as inhospitable as the people they housed.

As the roaring winds of the mountains tore through the furs he had wrapped over every inch of himself, Adigun cursed. His ire only increased when the winds swallowed up the harsh sounds of his fury before they had even escaped his blue lips fully. A place was truly benighted if a man couldn't even curse properly in it. No wonder only savages dwelt here.

An instant later, he discovered another disadvantage of the highlands when suddenly, with a mighty battle cry that Adigun could hear even over the howling winds, two dozen soldiers, led by zhir Kasimir leapt out from behind a promontory of stone.

"Unsheath your weapons," Adigun snapped over his shoulder at the squad accompanying him, as he yanked his sword out of its scabbard. Due to the screaming winds, he had no idea whether his men could hear him. Fortunately, however, his soldiers had instincts so well honed from all the skirmishes they had engaged in over the years of serving with him that they had their weapons drawn before he could even issue his command.

Thank all the gods for clever warriors, he thought, as his blade clashed with that one of the assailant's. After parrying his opponent's stroke, he slid around his foe's guard, planting his sword in the other man's chest. Then, baring his teeth in a triumphant leer, he pivoted to engage another enemy.

Before his attention was consumed entirely by the volley of attacks and counters that he was exchanging with his new opponent, he took a second to scan the battlefield. With a pang, he observed that four of his men had been lost in the initial assault, although his grief was mitigated somewhat by the knowledge that three of his foes were bleeding out the last of their life force into the cold, once pristine, highland snow.

Seeing the corpses of his friends only heightened his desire to kill the traitor zhir Kasimir. Unfortunately, the enemy men had circled around Kasimir, protecting him from attack. Well, that just meant that he and his soldiers would have to slay every single one of their adversaries, Adigun concluded, as he plunged his sword into the stomach of the man he was fighting. Then, as the soldier fell to the ground, clutching his stomach, he decapitated him.

Not bothering to determine whether this final action had stemmed from ruthlessness or a cool compassion, Adigun twisted around in his saddle to assist his friend Feodar, who was surrounded by three enemy soldiers. As he fell into the smooth rhythm of supporting his friend's strengths and compensating for his friend's weaknesses as Feodar did the same, a skill that they had perfected over the years they had fought together, Adigun tried not to think about how outnumbered he and his men were.

Being ambushed was disadvantageous enough, but being outnumbered two to one made it worse. Yes, his men were fierce warriors, as he was, but they couldn't, no matter what they liked to believe on the contrary, defy any odds. After all, although they were brave and strong, they were mere mortals, not gods. They could die killing their enemies, but, in the end, they would die. They could kill twenty opponents in a row, but that wouldn't matter when the twenty-first slit their throats.

Frigid metal lanced into his intestines, breaking him out of his morbid musings. For a surreal instant, he didn't know whether he had truly sustained a blow or whether his imagination had played a harsh trick upon him in order to tug him out of the despairing thoughts that were the surest way of getting yourself and your companions slaughtered. A second later, as flames of pain licked through his body, igniting fireworks in his brain, he realized that his imagination hadn't been playing any tricks upon him. Someone had finally penetrated his perfect guard.

Dazed, he felt himself collapse onto the icy wetness of the ground, which mercifully bent to accommodate his body. Ice was flowing through his veins now, and his body was turning to ice, too. What little warmth he had was steaming out of his body through his wound.

Not wanting to lose the scarce, precious heat he possessed, he put his hands over his injury to prevent the warmth from seeping out of him. It was only when his fingers and palms squelched into his own blood that he dimly understood that he was holding in his own guts. Doing that should have hurt, but it didn't. In fact, nothing did anymore. The searing agony of before was giving way to a dizzying numbness.

As his perception of the world around him faded, he heard faithful Feodar cry out in horror, "Adigun, I thought you were going to block like you always do!"

Feodar's words told him that, while it might have seemed to him like it had been hours since he had been injured, it must have been only seconds, since Feodar had wonderful reflexes—better even than his.

Seeing that the three enemy soldiers were poised to take advantage of Feodar's distraction to kill him, Adigun summoned what felt like all of his remaining energy to shout, "Pay attention, damn you!"

Those were probably going to be his last words. To anyone except Feodar, they would have sounded callous, but Feodar would understand that they were a final, desperate attempt to protect Feodar from meeting the same grim fate as he had. Maybe he should have wished that he could have given more inspiring or wiser last words, but what was the point in wishing when he was aware that his wish wouldn't come true? Besides, if he had to choose the person to direct his last words to, he would have picked his best friend, Feodar. His farewell to Feodar wasn't fancy, but it didn't have to be, and that was the wonderful thing about friendship—it didn't require complicated goodbyes. Everything that mattered in a friendship could always go unspoken.

Battling the compulsion to slip into the blackness of oblivion, he watched as Feodar, clenching his jaw, spun around to confront their three foes. With an obstinate roar, Feodar charged the enemy soldiers. Seeing the helpless fury with which his oldest friend engaged the trio of opponents, he knew that Feodar would die before he let any of the adversaries penetrate his guard to inflict another injury upon Adigun. It didn't even make a difference that Adigun was perishing. Feodar would even sooner let himself be slain than permit the enemy to desecrate Adigun's corpse. It wasn't rational, Adigun thought, but Feodar loved him. Love wasn't practical, or at least it wasn't in Sarain, but sometimes it was all you had.

Feodar, in his towering temper, had just managed to chop of the sword arms of two enemy soldiers when a hailstorm of arrows abruptly rained down upon them. At first, Adigun assumed that another squad of hostile soldiers had arrived, but, when he saw that the arrows had mostly slammed into the chests of Kasimir and his guards, he thought better of that asssumption. As Kasimir and his sentries toppled off their mounts into the snow, Feodar seized the opportunity to behead the third man he was fighting. Then, as Kasimir's remaining men fled and were mowed down by a maelstrom of arrows, Feodar knelt beside Adigun.

"I'd sell my own mother into slavery for the healing Gift right about now," grumbled Feodar, ripping off a piece of fabric from his tunic to staunch the blood and guts pouring out of Adigun's wound. Withdrawing a needle and thread from his breeches pocket, he added, "I'm going to have to do this the painful way. Don't flinch too much. Gods above, it's hard to thread a needle in the cold like this, not that I'm particularly skilled at threading needles, anyway. Blast it, why do they have to make the eyes so small?"

"To aggravate heavy-handed, bumbling men like you," remarked a female voice indifferently in accented Common. Tilting his head around as much as he could in his exhausted, dreamy state, Adigun saw a young woman dressed in the ridiculous attire of the K'mir standing behind him, a knife glinting in each hand.

No mortal woman could sneak up upon him and Feodar, whose hearing was sharper than a jackrabbit's in autumn. That meant that this female wasn't mortal, and, gazing, mouth agape, up at her, Adigun knew that she must have been a goddess. After all, she was the most beautiful creature he had laid eyes upon.

Yes, she must be a minor goddess of warfare. Her raven tresses contained all the chaos of battle as they blew in the wind, her hazel eyes were as uncompromising as any weapon, and her cardinal red lips starkly contrasted with her ivory skin, reminding him of the way the white snow made the crimson blood that had just been shed stand out in harsh relief.

"Give me one good reason why my comrades and I shouldn't kill you in the same manner we did your enemies," the vengeful goddess continued.

"We came in peace, unlike our enemy, who came here with the intention of attacking us as we traveled," answered Feodar tightly.

"That's what all the slavers claim, too," retorted the warrior goddess.

"We just wished to ride through the highlands," Feodar growled. "However, if it would bring you satisfaction, harridan, to slay people who didn't harm you when they are weary from a previous battle and can't defend themselves properly, go ahead." Gesturing at Adigun, he went on, "Just know before you kill him that in a fair fight, a savage like you could never defeat him."

"That doesn't offer me much of an incentive to keep him alive or to engage in a fair fight with him," replied the goddess, her tone dry. Her keen gaze scanned the battlefield, where Adigun noticed with a pang that all of his men except Feodar were lying in pools of gore in the snow. "I suppose that I can't leave you here. Wounded like this, you'd never survive. I'll take you back to my father, the chief. He will decide whether you will live or die. Maybe if you are lucky, he will even allow you to see the healer."

That was all Adigun heard before the darkness that had been creeping around the edge of his vision overtook his eyes completely, and he finally surrendered to the complete, painless oblivion that he had been fighting for so long. As soon as he gave into it entirely, he wondered why exactly he had battled it for so long. Not feeling anything at all was better than feeling agony, and all anybody in Sarain could ever feel was pain. Even love and friendship resulted in death and bloodshed in this country.

Part II: Delirium

Sometime later—as far as his oblivious senses were concerned, it could have been a moment or a century—the blackness that had devoured his mind was invaded by a faint light in one corner of his brain. Against his will, the burgeoning luminescence blossomed like a spring flower. Finally, to escape it, he opened his eyes.

"Is this the Divine Realms?" he asked groggily, as he reacognized that the vengeful goddess from the battlefield was hovering over him.

"No, this is the highlands of Sarain, foolish one," responded the goddess, her manner crisp.

Gazing up at the elkskin tent above his head and noticing that he was wrapped up in furs, he knew that she was right. He wasn't in the Divine Realms, but rather among a K'mir clan in Sarain. The knowledge that he was among the savage K'mir didn't disgust him as much as it should have, and he couldn't even muster any excitement over the fact that he was still among the living. Oblivion, he decided, on a whole, had been far superior to life. After all, in oblivion, his intestines hadn't been burning, and his head hadn't been spinning.

"I mended your wound," the goddess informed him. "I was able to heal six of your injured companions. Four of them were dead before I could help. The other two I just failed to save, because it wasn't the will of the Horse Lords that they should live."

"You're the healer?" stuttered Adigun, gawking at her.

"That's what the argumentative man who wouldn't allow me to kill you said," the goddess snorted, rolling her eyes in a manner that was astonishingly human for a deity. "It seems like I really am not the healing type, just like Father has always said."

Shoving a mug full of a mixture of herbs whose smell was enough to conquer seven armies under his nose, she ordered, "Drink. It will clear your head and lessen the pain you're in."

Obediently, he forced himself to swallow the viscous liquid, gagging the entire time. As soon as it reached his stomach, it churned around inside him, threatening to blaze a path back up his throat as vomit. Telling himself that he would not be unmanned by a remedy before a goddess, he said, "It's not that you aren't the healing type exactly. It's just that I never heard of a warrior goddess who was also a healer."

"A warrior goddess?" His healer arched her eyebrows, so that they formed lovely dark question marks over her ivory forehead. "I should warn you that my father has already taught me the levels men will stoop to in order to entice girls to join them on their sleeping mats. Unfortunately for you, I know that calling someone a goddess is a way of flirting with them when you can't devise a less hackneyed compliment."

"You aren't a goddess?" Adigun asked dumbly.

She must have detected the genuine surprise in his tone this time, because she replied in a milder fashion, "No, I'm just the daughter of the chief of the Hau Ma clan."

"Oh." Knives of disappointment pierced into his chest and cut up the sealed wound in his intestines. Once the spasms of shock and pain faded somewhat, he wondered why he was so upset. In some ways, it was better that his savior had been a mortal, and not a goddess. After all, it was reassuring to think that a mortal woman that attractive could exist, nonetheless in war ravaged Sarain, and it was awesome to imagine that such a beautiful creature could also be a good shot and a healer. As the disappointment over her mortal status waned, however, sorrow over her K'mir heritage replaced it. Such a paradigm of womanhood should not have been a savage uplander. "You aren't just a chief's daughter, though. No, you're also a fine archer and a healer. It's a pity you're a K'miri barbarian."

"It's a shame that you are a bigoted lowlander." The K'miri girl's cherry lips puckered in amusement. For a minute, Adigun longed to grab her chin and brush his lips against hers until they both ran out of air. After all, if she wasn't a goddess, he wasn't prohibited from touching her by any divine laws. Unfortunately, the laws of men were just as binding as those of the gods, and the laws of men dictated that he wasn't allowed to touch a K'mir female like that. Of course, the laws of men also forbid him from feeling any attraction to a K'mir, and he had already violated that rule. "I'm going to tend to your less presumptuous comrades."

Unable to tear his eyes from her, he watched her lithe figure walk over to the tent flap. As she was about to open it and flood his tent with the chilly winter winds of the mountains, he asked, "What's your name?"

"Kalasin." The K'mir's hand stilled on the flap, and Adigun rejoiced inwardly at having captured her attention even if it was only for a blissful moment. "It means 'beautiful song' in K'miri."

"Kalasin," he repeated in a murmur, savoring the sound of the sweet syllables on his lips. If he couldn't have her, at least he had her lovely name to admire forever. Nobody could rob that from him. He could keep her name as a talisman about his heart until his death and beyond. "Your name is as gorgeous as your face."

"You are delirious." Kalasin emitted a chuckle that reminded him of the wild, celebratory peeling of summer wedding bells. "Go back to sleep. When I check on you again, I expect you to be in dreamland, and you should know that I don't put sleeping spells on uncooperative patients—I knock them out with rocks."

"You definitely aren't the healing type." Adigun laughed gruffly and regretted doing so when stabs of pain rippled through his recovering intestines. "By the way, I'm Adigun jin Wilimia—the nephew and heir to the warlord Mihail."

"Adigun, you should be aware that your connection to Mihail is more of a liability than an asset among the K'mir," pronounced Kalasin, her hazel eyes piercing into him. "As such, you shouldn't boast about it."

"I wasn't bragging," Adigun protested, his cheeks ablaze. Talking with Kalasin, he griped to himself, was like trying to catch a snowflake. Whatever he said, she had a knack of making his meaning melt away just like a snowflake disappeared the instant he folded his palm around it. Perhaps all the most beautiful things in the world were designed by the gods to be intangible, so as to best taunt mortals with their simultaneously defined and elusive presence.

"Go to sleep, and dream of girls you can impress." With a dismissive shake of her head that caused her mane of black hair to sparkle more than ever, Kalasin slipped out of the tent, exiting so quickly that only a brief gust of frigid wind entered the tent.

Shutting his eyes, Adigun conjured up the image of the lovely K'mir who had just left him in his mind's eye. Then, he drifted off to sleep, serene in the knowledge that he would dream about Kalasin—his vengeful warrior goddess and his beautiful song.

Part III: Challenge

Two days later, Adigun and his wounded men had all recovered well enough to walk, which, as Feodar pointed out to him at lunch on their second day among the Hau Ma clan, really meant that they were capable of riding.

"We should leave tomorrow at dawn," commented Feodar, as they gathered around one of the raging fires in the center of the camp, munching on the spicy mushroom and venison dish that the K'miri women had cooked.

"Yes, we don't know when the K'miri primitives will decide to murder us all in our sleep," agreed Xavier through a mouthful of mushroom.

"If I was going to kill you, I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of healing you first," pointed out Kalasin, her mouth twitching wryly. She was the only K'mir who would associate with the lowlanders. The rest of her clan were sitting around the other two fires in the center of the camp. Optimistically, Adigun chose to regard the fact that she was willing to speak with him and his soldiers at all as an indication that she liked him, even though she had provided him with no other real reason to assume that was the case.

"I didn't say that you would do it." Xavier shrugged. "I said your people would."

"My people aren't the savages you believe they are," snarled Kalasin. "Remember that it was a K'mir who healed you, and a lowlander who almost killed you."

"It doesn't matter whether the K'mir will murder us in our sleep or not," Feodar interjected in a terse voice. "We still have to report to Mihail that Kasimir is dead, and see if he needs us to do anything else to quell the rebellion."

"You call us primitives when you lowlanders never stop waging war against yourselves and the K'miri," scoffed Kalasin, jabbing a slab of venison with her fork. "Whatever your flaws, you lowlanders certainly must have an appreciation of irony."

"Feodar is right," Adigun admitted, unable to conceal his reluctance to leave her. "I must report back to my uncle. It's my duty."

"Of course," observed Kalasin bitterly, shaking her head. "After all, you wouldn't want to take the time to make sure that you were properly healed before you rode off into glorious battle again."

"We don't know that we'll have to go into battle again," Adigun reminded her.

"Nonsense." She rolled her eyes. "You are as aware as I am that you'll end up fighting whether you do so two days, two weeks, two months, or two years from now. As I said, all you lowlanders can do is wage war."

"That's not true." Defensively, Adigun flared up. "I'm a man of many talents."

"Indeed?" inquired Kalasin, arching a dubious eyebrow at him.

"Yes," he insisted, his jaw locking.

"Prove it, then." Her hazel eyes gleamed an irresistible challenge at him.

"How?" Already knowing that his manhood wouldn't permit him to refuse a challenge from a girl, especially one as attractive as Kalasin, he crossed his arms over his chest, so that she would understand that nothing could intimidate a man as valiant and strong as him.

"Be less afraid," she replied simply.

"I'm not scared of anything." Adigun bristled.

"Liar." Kalasin laughed, and, despite his anger, Adigun couldn't help but admire its clarity and timbre. The sound of her laughter was enough to make the blood pound in his veins. "I've been watching you and your companions for two days now. You're afraid of everything: of saying the wrong things, of doing the wrong things, and probably even of dying in the wrong position."

"You don't know enough about me to fill an acorn top," he snarled. "That doesn't stop you from judging me, though, does it?"

"I'll stop judging your people when you cease judging mine," she volleyed back, her ivory cheeks flushing.

"My judgments about your people are accurate, unlike yours about mine," snapped Adigun.

"I challenge you to prove that I'm wrong." Now it was Kalasin's arms that were folded across her chest. "You know how to be a soldier. I've witnessed that, so my challenge is for you to react to the world as just a human being. When you see a sunset, think of something besides how you can manipulate an enemy to be fighting with it in their eyes, messing up their vision. When you see a building, don't think of how you could conquer it. When you see a man, think of something beside whether he would make a good ally or a bad adversary. When you see a woman or child, don't think of how valuable a hostage the woman or child would make."

"You can't know my thoughts," he pointed out irritably, annoyed that she was making such sweeping generalizations about his life.

"No," she agreed, all calmness. "If you want to prove me wrong, though, let me take you for a ride."

"Fine," he responded shortly, pushing himself up without a second's hesitation. He would show this insolent wench just how wrong she was if it was the last thing he did.

"I'll come with you," Feodar announced, rising as well.

"Don't bother." Eager to be alone with Kalasin, Adigun shook his head.

"I can't guard you if I don't come with you," remarked Feodar, his forehead knotting uneasily.

"You don't need to guard me when I go riding with a woman," Adigun blustered, waving a dismissive hand. "I can defeat any woman without breaking a sweat even with my hands tied behind my back."

As he and Kalasin walked toward the pasture where the clan, Adigun, and his soldiers kept their horses, Kalasin lifted her chin defiantly and declared, "Truly, you shouldn't be so smug. You wouldn't be alive without me."

"Just because you saved my life, that doesn't mean that I couldn't kill you," he answered. Looking at her, he knew that he could never kill her, though. She was too beautiful for him to him to want to slay when there was little that was pretty in Sarain as it was. Maybe she didn't believe that he could appreciate beauty, but he wasn't going to prove her right by killing her. His body heating up despite the chilly mountain air as he realized how close he was to her and had to resist the temptation to kiss her, he tore his gaze away from her as they reached the pasture.

"With you being so insufferably arrogant, I'm starting to think that I should have left you to rot on the battlefield." Kalasin tutted impatiently. Then, she whistled, and a chestnut mare trotted over to her.

"Feodar would have healed me," he countered, while he mounted his midnight black stallion.

"Not if I had killed Feodar," she mumbled, climbing onto her mare and jumping the horse over the pasture fence without any sign of difficultly. As he spurred his stallion and showed her how smoothly he could have the animal leap over the fence, she commented, "Nice form. Anyway, I have heard everything you don't like about the K'miri over the past two days, but you never mentioned anything you liked about us. Just out of curiosity, is there anything you don't despise about us?"

"I like that you're one of them." He grinned at her. Feeling less pressure to be rude about her people when Feodar and the other soldiers weren't around, he faltered, "The life of a K'mir seems like a good life—an easy life—but it isn't a soldier's life, and it's not for me, Kalasin."

"You think our life is easy?" Kalasin echoed, glaring at him as they rode away from the village, her hands tautening on her reins. "You think it's not hard to go through life loving and hoping when you created your stupid, modular military society just so you wouldn't have to worry about really losing anyone or anything? In your world, if a soldier dies, you just recruit another. In your world, if something breaks, you just replace it. In your world, you never leave home without expecting to die. What do you imagine it's like to care if someone else actually survives or if something gets broken beyond repair? What do you reckon the world looks like to somebody who actually cares? How strong would someone have to be just to preserve hope when they see loved ones sold into slavery or slaughtered? How much strength do you think it requires to keep your spirits up when everything you've spent a lifetime building—everything that your parents and grandparents spent a lifetime building—can be destroyed by the decision of a warlord too far away to touch?"

"I care about my friends as much as you do about yours." Adigun stiffened. "Feodar would die to protect me, and I'd do the same for him. As for destruction, I've seen enough of that I no longer feel the need to whine about it."

"The devastation you see is caused by men like you," she stated curtly.

"No." Bleakly, Adigun's lips pressed together. "Men like me, Kalasin, we don't start wars. We just fight and die in them. We always have fought and died in them, and we always will. I haven't had choices about what I wanted to do with my life like you seem to think I have. Ever since I was born, I've been told what to do and who to fight. I've been told that I have responsibilities, and you don't pick your duties—you just fulfill your obligations without complaint. Since I have no choice about being at war, I've learned to deal with it, and part of learning to deal with it entailed coming to enjoy it."

Something in his expression or his carriage must have penetrated her anger, because she suddenly softened. "Adigun…"

Unable to tolerate sympathy even from her, he demanded, "How far away are you going to take me?"

"Not much further," she answered, her eyes still gentle. "The cave is up ahead."

"The cave?" he frowned. "What's so special about a cave?"

"You'll see when we get there. I want to see your jaw drop in shock," Kalasin smirked playfully. When he scowled at her, she giggled. "Among my people, we classify people as one of the four elements based on their date of birth. It wouldn't surprise me at all if you were the grim earth."

"And what's your element?" he wanted to know, feeling his stony face relent in response to her teasing.

"It's fire, can't you tell?" Her giggles melting into full-fledged laughter, she tossed her head so that her long hair cascaded down her back in a manner that flooded him with the overpowering desire to comb every strand with his fingers.

Part IV: Magic

"Gods, Kalasin, it's breathtaking," whispered Adigun, feeling as though all the air had departed his lungs and would never be replaced as he stared, awed, around the cave she had led him into.

At first, when they had entered the cave, he had been overwhelmed by the darkness, convinced that this was what it must be like to be a blind man. Then, as she had taken his hand in hers, allowing his calluses to rub against hers so that he could absorb the unique combination of toughness and tenderness that she embodied, and guided him deeper into the cave, he discovered that, paradoxically, the darkness seemed to lighten.

In the beginning, he had imagined that it was merely his eyes adjusting to the blackness of the cave, but, when he caught sight of his first stalagmite—followed not long after by his first glimpse of a stalactite—he knew that he had been blind his whole life because he had never seen those glittering minerals. They speared out of the ceiling like and poked out of the floor like groundhogs in the spring.

All of them shone with an inner light, and none of them had quite the same hue. Some had a mild tangerine tint, others a sunflower color, still others had an emerald cast to them, and yet more had a sapphire glint in them. All of the colors of the rainbow were collected in the cave, and they were allowed to shine here in a way that they were not permitted to aboveground.

Here was a place that felt far more sacrosanct than any temple. After all, this obviously had been forged by the gods far more than any manmade temple had. Looking around at the stalagmites and stalactites, he realized with a jolt that this cave had probably been around since the formation of the world, and it would continue to survive until the end of time. At any rate, it would endure far longer than Adigun would. From the perspective of this cave, nothing he did mattered. In fact, nothing any mortal did was of any true significance.

Perhaps it was the magic of this epiphany of just how worthless his life was in the history of the universe that gave him the courage to admit aloud, "I love you, Kalasin."

Part V: Defiance

"I think I love you too." Kalasin's voice was oddly strangled. Emitting a hysterical giggle that contained no real humor, she demanded, "Isn't this the funniest thing?"

"No." Gingerly, his finger stroked her palm. "This is love, and nothing is more serious than love."

"I'm not supposed to fall in love with you." Desperately, Kalasin shook her head. "The daughter of a K'miri chief has no business falling head over heels for the future warlord of the lowlanders."

"And the future warlord of Sarain has no business falling head over heels for the daughter of a K'miri chief." Unable to resist the magnetism that drew him to her any more than he could defy the gravity that tied him to the ground, he rested his head against hers. "Love isn't something we can control. It's something that happens to us, and we have no choice but to heed it. Believe me, if love were something we could disobey or ignore, we wouldn't be in this cave together right now. Both of us are stubborn and strong enough to have decided not to love each other if it was something that we had any power over whatsoever, but we don't have any. We didn't choose to love each other; love picked us, and, despite our protests, we have to obey."

"We can't be together, Adigun." Again, Kalasin shook her head. "You aren't one of my people, and I am not one of your people."

"We can't be apart, either," he burst out, his grip on her hand tightening as though that alone would prevent her from leaving him. "The gods brought us together for a reason, and we must obey their will. What the gods have brought together, no mortal can tear asunder, and anyone who attempts to do so will be destroyed."

"Loving you will be the death of me, I can sense it," murmured Kalasin, chewing on her lip.

"Loving you will be the ruin of me," Adigun responded, briefly glimpsing his own future as well as any seer could have. "We are like flies that can't help but be attracted to the fatal candle that will be the end of us, and, like candles ourselves, we burn and die at our own cost."

"I never knew you were so poetic." Half of Kalasin's mouth twisted into a smile.

"I'm not normally." Coughing, he cleared the lump that had developed in his throat. "It's the magic of the cave that's getting to me."

"Well, I guess bringing you here has proved that you aren't as afraid of your feelings as I imagined you were." As she established as much in a rather shaky tone, the other half of Kalasin's mouth rose so that she was showing all of her pearly white teeth in a genuine smile that made Adigun's heart soar so much that he was convinced it had sprouted wings and was about to fly up to the Divine Realms without him. "It seems like I am the one who is afraid of my feelings."

"Don't be." Before he was even fully aware of what he was doing, he was kneeling on the damp cave floor by her feet, her hand still clenched in his. "Marry me, Kalasin. I love you, and being without you will be the ruin of me long before being with you will."

"Being without you will be the death of me long before being with you will," agreed Kalasin hoarsely. "I will wed you under one condition, Adigun."

"What's the condition?" he pressed when she paused, wishing that the cave would restore some breath to his lungs before he fainted.

"The condition is that if you commit three crimes that I consider to be unforgivable, I will leave you," she declared, her spine rigid.

"I thought you loved me?" Wrong-footed, he gaped up at her.

"I do," she confirmed, nodding solemnly. "That doesn't mean that I will suffer any abuse you heap on me."

"Love is forgiving." He shook his head. "Nothing is unforgivable to love."

"There are limits to my love and to my forgiveness," replied Kalasin, her voice firm. "Know that now."

Biting his lip, Adigun said, "It doesn't matter that you will marry me under the condition that you will leave me if I commit three unforgivable offenses against you, because I will never do that. I love you, Kalasin. Isn't that enough to see that I will never hurt you?"

"See that it is." Her hazel eyes lanced into him. "If it isn't, I will leave you, and that will be what destroys you."

Trying to ignore the terror that rippled through his body as though she had just accurately foretold his doom, he pleaded in a grating fashion that announced just how unaccustomed he was to begging of any sort, "Marry me, Kalasin. Do it here and now."

"At least I'm wearing red for luck like a K'miri bride should." Chuckling, Kalasin gestured at her clothing, which definitely wasn't the white silk gown every Sarain bride in the lowlands dreamed of wearing. Of course, Adigun told himself, it didn't matter what she was decked out in. She would be the most beautiful bride in the history of civilization even if she were attired in rags. "Father is going to kill me when he finds out."

"My uncle Mihail will probably kill me first," commented Adigun. "He doesn't take being defied very well, and he will see my wedding a K'mir woman as an act of rebellion."

"We're defying gravity, Adigun." Bravely, Kalasin beamed at him. "Even if we come plummeting down to the earth again, at least we can say that we tried to fly, unlike so many people, who are content to just crawl around in the mud."

Part VI: Denial

"You married a cursed K'miri?" spat Mihail, glowering at his nephew. Three days later, Adigun and Kalasin were standing before his throne, and, despite the thick tapestries on the stone walls and the cackling fire, it required an exercise of willpower for Adigun not to be knocked over by his uncle's displeasure. "Don't you know how many noblewomen I was considering pairing you with? Do you realize that your hot blood has cost us a good alliance?"

As he locked his knees to prevent them from trembling like rice pudding, Adigun wondered if his uncle had a similar impact upon Kalasin. Glancing to his left at her, he saw that her expression was impassive, and her spine was straight. If she was intimidated, it didn't show. Anyone who looked at her would only see pride, courage, and a determination never to yield even if the odds were horribly staked against her as they were in this instance.

Still, maybe she had an advantage in this case, Adigun told himself. Perhaps she hadn't heard how many legions of Sarain men that Mihail had slain in the civil war that proceeded Adigun's grandfather's assumption to warlord. Certainly, she couldn't be aware of the mercurial temperament that often caused Mihail to slap soldiers and servants who angered him into the next month.

"Gods, you can't take your eyes off her, can you?" Mihail snarled, his black eyes simmering like coals. "Well, she is good-looking, I grant you that, boy, and, as an heir, you do need a bride, but you don't need a blasted K'mir for a wife. In fact, you don't even require an attractive bride. All you need from a wife is a solid alliance and children."

"No, my liege," corrected Adigun, his chin lifting rebelliously. "That's not what I need in my wife; that's what you need in my wife."

"You need what I tell you to need," Mihail growled, clenching the armrests of his golden throne until his knuckles were white.

"That's not true." At his sides, Adigun's hands balled. "I need a wife whom I love and who loves me in return. As far as heirs are concerned, they can come from Kalasin as well as any other woman."

"You're being selfish," snapped Mihail, spittle flying from his mouth. "In case it's slipped your memory, you aren't some commoner lad who can wed anyone he wishes. You are the heir to my throne, which means you have a duty to Sarain. You owe it to your country to marry a woman who will strengthen the realm, or at least not weaken it, like a K'mir bride will."

"For once, it doesn't matter what you think." Adigun's eyes contracted menacingly. "I've already wed Kalasin."

"Was it a valid marriage?" Craftiness emanated from Mihail's tone. "Was there a priest and a priestess present and everything? Were all the appropriate legal documents signed?"

"All those details don't make a difference." Perfectly aware that there had been no priest or priestess present in the cave and that there hadn't been time on the trip back to the court to procure the legal documents from any magistrate, Adigun chose another, more metaphysical, line of debate. "Those are mortal concerns, not divine ones. Maybe you've forgotten, my lord, but marriage is a divine, not a mortal, affair. The gods have brought Kalasin and me together, and what the gods have put together, no mortal can tear asunder. Mortals who presume to defy the gods court destruction. Do you really want to challenge the gods by ripping apart the marriage the gods created between Kalasin and me?"

"Most men would lose their heads for addressing me like that," snarled Mihail, pounding his fist against the jewel-encrusted armrest of his throne. "Nephew, you are fortunate that I need an heir and will not invite civil war by killing the only male relative capable of taking the throne after me."

"There's no need for you to tell me that you bear no love for me, since I've known that my whole life, Uncle," Adigun retorted. "Still, you needn't worry about Sarain falling apart. Kalasin is willing to surrender her savage K'imiri ways now that she's married me."

"I'm not." Kalasin spoke for the first time, her voice as frigid and uncompromising as ice. "I never claimed that I would be willing to do any such thing, Adigun, and, for the record, the K'mir aren't savages."

"Be silent," hissed Adigun fiercely, grabbing her arm and twisting it. How dare she undermine his authority before his uncle like this?

"K'imiri women don't know their place like proper Sarain ones do," Mihail leered. "The only positive about your marriage, nephew, is that I don't need to punish you for it, because it will be its own penalty. Already I can see that your life will be miserable, and your wife will be forever contradicting and challenging you. If you hoped to gain happiness by wedding this barbarian, you were mistaken. This marriage will be your ruination. I can see that clearly." Before Adigun could devise a reply, he waved a hand in dismissal. "Go and try to teach some sense of propriety to your primitive bride. I can't stomach looking upon you any longer."

Rage at both his uncle and his wife throbbing through his veins, Adigun bowed to Mihail, and, not bothering to explain to Kalasin that she was supposed to curtsy to the warlord, yanked her out of the throne room. As soon as he had dragged her out of earshot of the sentries stationed in the corridor, he released her wrist as though it would infect him with some frightful ailment if he held it for a prolonged period, and barked, "How dare you humiliate me by defying me before my uncle?"

"How dare you deny me?" Kalasin fired back.

"Don't be ridiculous," shouted Adigun. "I never denied you. That whole scene was about me not denying you. If I was willing to deny you, I wouldn't have butted heads with my uncle in the first place."

"You denied me by implying that I would surrender my culture just because I married you," Kalasin spat.

"If you loved me, you'd do that," hissed Adigun, feeling bonfires explode throughout his face. "True love is about making sacrifices, Kalasin."

"I've already made sacrifices for you, Adigun." Kalasin's eyes were sharper than well-honed blades as she glared at him. "Three nights ago, I ran away from my clan with just two of my friends to protect me. If you don't appreciate how big a sacrifice that was for me, that suggests that perhaps you don't love me half as much as you believe you do."

"A woman should never address her husband that way." Furiously, Adigun gritted his teeth. "It's a woman's duty to make sacrifices for her husband and never complain about it, and it's a woman's fate to leave her home to live with her husband. She would do well to accept that and adapt to her home, instead of acting as if she still lives in her old one."

"K'miri women aren't taught to enslave themselves to their husbands," snapped Kalasin. "If you really loved me, you would love me because I am part K'mir, not despite of that, and you wouldn't ask me to abandon my culture, but rather would honor it."

"Shut your mouth." A childhood of watching his father black his mother's eyes and bloody her nose and lips surged through Adigun's memory. Reflexively, without his brain providing any directions he was aware of, his hand swung out and smacked Kalasin's cheek. The sound of flesh striking flesh reverberated in his eardrums, and, immediately, he felt ashamed of his brutality. Every time he had heard his mother's feeble cries and dried the tears from her cheeks, he had sworn to himself that he would never hit his wife like his father had beaten his mother. Unfortunately, that vow seemed like it was one that was far easier to make than to keep, especially since his father had been the only real model he had on how to treat women. All he was really was hands—a weapon that had been taught.

He half-expected that Kalasin would prove that she wasn't going to be a submissive Sarain wife by hitting him back. Instead, however, she froze, so that she appeared as though she had been carved from ice, and commanded levelly, "Tell me, do you feel better now?"

"No." Bitterly, Adigun shook his head. When it came down to it, he had never felt more like sobbing in his whole life. For the past three days, his love for Kalasin had seemed so pure and uncomplicated, but now he was seeing just how ugly and confusing it could be. Yesterday night, it had been so wonderful lying with her that it had been easy to forget how tense the relations between his soldiers and her two guards were. Last night, as he held her close and whispered in her ear how pretty she was, it had been impossible to think that he would ever hurt her. Then, it had been so simple to believe that love would be enough. Now, he knew that it wouldn't be. Nothing was more painful than realizing that his love for Kalasin was already unraveling. It was like having his heart ripped out of his chest, and knowing that he would have to go on living as an empty shell. Truly, it would have been better for him never to have loved her than to have loved her for only a few days, and then be denied her love forever. The gods certainly had been cruel when they brought him and Kalasin together.

"I didn't think so," Kalasin announced brusquely. "Slapping me is your first unforgivable offense."

With that, she spun on her heel and continued down the hall, her dark curtain of hair whipping behind her.

"Wait, Kalasin," he called after her wildly.

"Yes?" Arching an eyebrow, she pivoted to face him, her expression anything but encouraging.

"Don't do this." His words came out as an order, rather than a plea, because his heart had mixed his love up with wrath and pride, and he couldn't show her pure love any more. "Can't you see that Uncle wants this to happen? Don't you understand that he wishes to make our marriage crumble? Can't you see that you are playing into his hands by letting him drive you away from me like this?"

"Don't blame what passed between us on your uncle." Kalasin scowled, and her next words slammed into his heart like an arrow. "It was your actions, not his, that drove me away from you. Until you understand that, you'll push me farther away from you."

Part VII: Birth

Another shriek pierced the air, and Adigun flinched again. Pacing impatiently around the chamber outside the bedroom where his screaming wife was in labor, he grumbled to Feodar, who was beside him in this ordeal, as he had been for all Adigun's other travails ever since they were both boys, "If she screams again, I'll break down the door to get to her."

"That will just rile the healers and alarm your wife," Feodar pointed out, resting a soothing hand on Adigun's wrist. "It certainly won't help her give birth."

"This is the worst thing that's happened in our relationship since I married Kalasin three years ago," muttered Adigun, burying his head in his palms. "Getting her with child was fun, but her pregnancy has just been one nightmare after another. She's been vomiting every morning and craving K'miri food rather than proper Sarain meals for months now. If she gives birth to a son, I'll have to beat the boy as soon as he comes out for causing everyone so much trouble."

"That's what I said when Natalia gave birth to Jasha last year." Feodar smiled slightly. "He definitely deserved a whipping after the long labor my wife went through to bring him into the world, but the second I gazed into his wide eyes , I couldn't feel any anger at him. He was too handsome and too much of a gift from the gods to not love him at first sight."

"When you show your soft side like this, it's hard to believe that you are my most trusted soldier," grunted Adigun.

"What sort of soldier would I be if I didn't have anyone to fight for?" Unfazed by Adigun's remark, Feodar shrugged.

"I hope that I still have something left to fight for after this labor." Feverishly, Adigun resumed his pacing. "It would be dreadful if I lost Kalasin in childbirth, especially if the baby didn't make it."

"Don't fret about that," Feodar reassured him, all earnestness. "Whatever your wife's numerous flaws are, she has an iron backbone. She will not die unless she wants to, and I assure you that every woman desires to see her child. No matter how difficult her labor is, stubborn Kalasin will ensure that she survives it."

"Right." Dully, Adigun plopped onto a sofa and stared blankly out a window at the snow covered castle grounds. "Now I just have to be strong enough to survive her labor."

Feodar sat down beside him, and the two of them listened to an eon of screaming from the next room until a female healer emerged. Curtsying, she told Adigun, "Please feel free to go visit your wife and daughter, my lord."

So eager to see Kalasin that he didn't even care that he was still without an heir to ensure the succession and reduce the odds of a civil war following his death, Adigun raced into his wife bedroom. Ignoring the rusty stains of blood still lining the sheets, he settled himself on the bed beside her. Kissing her on the forehead, on the eyelids, on the cheeks, and finally on the lips, so he could feel the warm face that he hadn't lost after all, he whispered, "I'm glad to see you again, my love."

Then, glancing down at the baby, snugly wrapped in a pink woolen blanket, who was suckling on Kalasin's breast, he asked, "May I hold her?"

"Of course." Gently, Kalasin separated the baby from her breast and tucked the child into her husband's arms. "After all, she's half yours."

"She has your ears, lips, and the little mop of hair on her head is as dark as yours, but she has my nose," commented Adigun reverently, tweaking his daughter's nose, which he was delighted to see was almost as prominent as his. Hoping that he would not drop her by mistake, he added, "We'll call her Thayet after my mother."

"Thayet," repeated Kalasin, swirling the name around in her mouth. "That's a lovely name for our beautiful baby girl."

Suddenly remembering the implications of the fact that his wife had given birth to a daughter rather than a son, Adigun said, "I'm sorry that you gave birth to a girl, Kalasin, but, at least this child is healthy. That means that you should be able to have a healthy son without too much trouble."

"Why should you be sorry that I gave birth to a daughter?" demanded Kalasin, her face, which had been tender as she gazed at him holding their child, hardening abruptly.

"Sarain needs an heir," he explained as patiently as he could, wondering if stupidity was a common side effect of childbirth. "Our daughter is gorgeous, yes, but we require a male heir to hold the country together."

"I, for one, am happy to have a daughter." Her hazel eyes scorching him, Kalasin snatched Thayet out of his hands and placed the baby to her breast, where the child resumed suckling. "Thayet is perfect, and she would be even if she were a deformed runt, because she is our baby, Adigun, and that makes her beautiful in my eyes. When the healer handed her to me and I first put her to my breast was the happiest moment of my existence, and I don't need you coming in here apologizing about her gender. The fact that you could be so selfish as to be upset about Thayet's sex when this should be the happiest moment of your life, too, is your second unforgivable crime."

"Now you're just being uncharitable." Adigun scowled. "Many women would be reassured if their husband didn't blame them for giving birth to a daughter instead of a son."

"Those women are as selfish as you are," retorted Kalasin. "You insult me just by comparing me to them."

"I'm not being selfish," snapped Adigun. "I'm thinking of Sarain, as I have every moment of my life except the minute I married you, whereas you are just focusing on the personal satisfaction you got from dropping a baby out from between your legs."

"Curse you," Kalasin hissed, stroking Thayet's tiny mop of hair. "I'm glad I didn't have a son, because you would have ruined him."

"Rest assured that I'll get a son off you if it's the last thing I do," snarled Adigun, stalking out of the bedchamber.

In the years to come, his daughter would regard the appeals for a son of his that he ordered the priests and priestesses to include in their daily prayers as an insult when they were really nothing more than his attempt to evade the effects of the herbal brews Kalasin supposedly drank to relieve her cramps, but which he knew must really be a sly K'miri method of preventing pregnancy.

Part VIII: Abandonment

"Don't sign this law," Kalasin told him vehemently, her hands clutching the arms of the oak chair opposite his desk as if they were the only pieces of driftwood she could cling to after a shipwreck.

"You'd think that you'd have learned by now to stop ordering me around like a slave," he observed coolly, drumming his fingers on his desk and glancing with satisfaction down at the law that would prohibit the K'mir from meeting in groups of five or more. With his signature, it would be instantly enacted, because that was the kind of power he had.

"The Hua Ma clan has more thirty people in it, and it's the smallest one," pointed out Thayet, and Adigun scowled. He had forgotten that his daughter was here, taking her mother's side against him as she always did. "How can they possibly honor the dead or a marriage or a birth if they are forbidden to meet? Can't you see that this unjust law just inspires more resentment of you among the K'mir? Don't you understand that you are essentially forcing the K'mir to rebel against you?"

"And I can't stand back and watch you abuse my people," Kalalsin added.

"Your people?" Adigun repeated in a growl. "When you wed me, you became a proper Sarain lady instead of a K'mir barbarian."

"My people are those I was born to and raised among," argued Kalasin softly. "Do you love me at all, Adigun?"

"Always." His voice was huskier than he had intended it to be, since he knew that his love for Kalasin would endure forever despite the rift that had settled between them after their marriage. After all, love wasn't just admiring glances, soothing words, sweet compliments, comforting squeezes, and tender kisses. It was also stony glares, cold arguments, heated insults, suffocating embraces, and bruising kisses. When it came down to it, a loving marriage was really just two dragons who were locked in a combat both knew would ultimately be mortal, their teeth sunk so deeply into one another's flesh that neither could release the other for fear of bleeding to death. Anyone who had illusions about the glory of true love could just look at the fiasco that his marriage with Kalasin was.

"Then why don't you act like it?" Kalasin asked.

"No," he spat. "Why don't you act like you love me? Why don't you act like you care about Sarain? Why did you drink all those potions to prevent you from conceiving and to wash out any life that did take to your womb after Thayet was born? Why didn't you try to give this chaotic country an heir the nobles could rally behind when I'm gone? Why did you ruin our daughter—"

"I'm not ruined, Father," Thayet interjected, lifting her head proudly.

Glancing at her and thinking of how wonderful her warrior prowess would be if only she had a male's plumbing instead of a female's, Adigun felt his ire increase. "You are ruined, girl, and the fact that you can't see it just proves my point. With your belligerent ways, no man will want to marry you, and a woman has no value if she can't make a good marriage. If your mother hadn't corrupted you by training you in her savage ways, you might have been able to make such a marriage. Then, I could pass my throne onto your husband, and there might not be civil war upon my death, but there will definitely be now thanks to your mother's hatred of Sarain!"

"It's your people's problem that they won't allow Thayet to inherit in her own right." Kalasin shrugged before saying firmly, "Don't sign this oppressive law, Adigun."

"If you loved me, you would support me as a wife ought to, instead of undermining me at every opportunity," scoffed Adigun.

"You said you loved me." Before he could truly process what she was doing, Kalasin had fallen to her knees in front of his chair, folding her hands in an attitude of supplication he had never seen her affect since he had met her on the battlefield for the first time and mistaken her for a vengeful warrior goddess. "Please, in the name of the love you bear me, don't hurt the K'mir. You may hate them, but don't wound me by harming them. You may have contempt toward me because I'm not a proper bride to you, but don't take out your anger at me upon the K'mir."

"I'm your only child." With a woosh of her gown, Thayet knelt gracefully beside her mother. "Father, I beg you not to sign this law. If you do this, I'll never ask anything else of you."

Staring at these two women who somehow managed to increase their dignity by falling to their knees before him, Adigun snapped, "Enough theatrics." Then, contradicting his own command, he snatched up a quill and signed the law with a flourish.

"Hardening your heart to the pleas of your daughter and me not to sign this oppressive law was your final mistake," declared Kalasin, rage twisting her face, as she rose and dragged Thayet to her feet, as well. "Now I will leave you."

"What folly." Adigun barked out a laugh. "Perhaps among the primitive K'mir a woman may decide to abandon her husband by dumping his things outside their tent, but in the civilized part of Sarain, only men may attain a divorce. It merely amused me to allow you to entertain your delusion that you could leave me whenever you chose. Woman, you will be stuck with me until the day you die unless I divorce you. You would do well to accept that."

"Exactly. I'll be stuck with you until the day I die," agreed Kalasin levelly, her eyes unfathomable. "Thayet, you will go to the Mother of Mountains convent tomorrow morning with Buri and an armed escort."

"Mother, I want to stay with you," protested Thayet.

"Be quiet," Adigun ordered, glad to be harsh with this daughter who had added insult to the injury of not being a male by always siding with her mother against her own father. "Tomorrow morning you will go to the Mother of the Mountains convent, where maybe they can fix some of the damage your mother has done to you over the years. Then, perhaps some crazy man will be willing to wed you."

If he had only known then what his wife was planning, his command to Thayet might have been so different…

Part IX: Destruction

Adigun could hear Kalasin's beautiful, lilting voice through the hard oak door that separated them and over the clash of his and Feodar's swords against those of two of her devoted K'mir guards. Her voice was so lovely that it should have been singing a love ballad, but instead it was chanting about how ashamed she was of his signing the law she had begged him not to.

Wrath surged through him as he heard her publically declare her shame to the crowd that had gathered below her tower room to gawk at the spectacle she was making of herself and by extension of him. How dare she humiliate him by contradicting him so publically? How dare she even be ashamed of him at all? Gods, he could tolerate her hatred if he had to, but he couldn't stomach her shame. To a proud warlord, shame was infinitely worse than hatred. After all, hatred entailed some amount of respect, while shame just involved contempt.

Overcome with the desire to break through the door that separated them, so he could force her to shut her mouth, Adigun attacked Kalasin's male guard with renewed ferocity, as, on his left, Feodar engaged the female sentry with more vigor. Then, as the female guard penetrated Feodar's defensives, Adigun's thoughts drifted away from his wife for the first time.

As he looked on in helpless horror, the female's blade jabbed into Feodar's heart. He was so appalled that he couldn't muster up any words of comfort to shout at his oldest friend as Feodar, his eyes still wide with the shock of the blow, crumpled to the ground, clutching his chest in a final, feeble attempt to contain the blood spilling out of his wound.

Inside Adigun's head, a million stars simultaneously went nova. Feodar was his most trusted advisor, the only one who could make him laugh when he wanted to smash windows, the one who believed in him when everyone else was convinced he was a monster, the only person who had championed him in all his battles, and the person who perhaps had loved him best of all. Now, Feodar was gone, because of one K'mir savage.

Lava replaced the blood in his veins, as he lurched forward. Brutally, he plunged his sword into the chest of the K'miri woman. Then, after spitting contemptuously upon her as she toppled to the floor, he pivoted to behead the male K'miri guard.

Mentally promising the ever loyal and ever suffering Feodar that he would give the man the best funeral Sarain had ever seen, Adigun broke down the door to Kalasin's chamber and charged inside. The lava boiling inside him became at least a dozen degrees hotter as he saw that the room was empty. Cursing, he crossed over to the window. Already knowing what he would see, he peaked his head out the window and looked down at the ground, where he saw his wife's corpse lying amid a sea of servants and nobles who had no doubt witnessed every moment of her suicide.

Feeling vomit burn a path up his throat, he swallowed hard and collapsed against the window ledge. His beautiful song and his warrior goddess was dead. Over the preceding years, he might have thought that he had lost her, but she hadn't really been gone from him until now. Worse still, he finally understood with a blinding certainty that he had been the one who was responsible for his losing her, since it was him—only him—who had driven her away. She was the most beautiful and the most precious thing in his world, and he had killed her.

She had loved him, and he had destroyed her. Maybe she had known that he would be the death of her all along. Perhaps she had been unable to stifle her fatal attraction to him, just as he had been unable to force himself to ever stop loving her.

Oh, and he had loved her, but that hadn't been enough, because he hadn't allowed it to be. He had permitted the weeds of his anger and pride to strangle the love he harbored for her. When he should have been thinking about her, he had only been thinking about himself. It was only now that he recognized the final, ironic cruelty of ambition: that, even if you attained everything you wanted, yourself was all you would ever have, and all the riches of the world weren't worth anything if you had nobody to share them with, which was often the case, as ambition was the surest way to alienate those closest to you.

It was a pity that he hadn't been as loyal to Kalasin as Feador had been to him. If he had learned devotion from Feodar, all their stories would have ended so much less tragically. The gods had brought him and Kalasin together, and he had created both his and Kalasin's destruction by trying to tear asunder the bond the gods had formed between them.

He raged and reached out to crush the shadow inside himself that had destroyed him and her, but he was so much less now that Kalasin was dead. He was like a painter gone blind or a composer gone deaf. He knew where the power was, but he could no longer tap into it, and so, with all his world-crushing wrath, it was only windows that he shattered, curtains and sheets that he tore, and furniture that he smashed, while the shadow inside him remained untouched.

In the end, perhaps he didn't even want to touch the shadow. After all, the shadow was all he had left now. The shadow alone understood him, the shadow alone could forgive him, and the shadow alone could gather him unto itself…

He had heard that suicides like Kalasin were destined to inhabit the worst portion of the afterlife, because their last act on earth was defying the gods. However, he didn't believe that, because Kalasin had died more honorably than he had lived. At least, as wretched as he was, nobody could ever take her love from him. Even she hadn't been able to do that, since love was eternal. That meant that he could carry her love with him to the grave, just as he could carry his regret that he had allowed their love, which could have been both of their salvations, to become their damnations.