Disclaimer: If they were mine, you wouldn't be reading this on your computer screen, now would you?
A/N: This is a bit choppy. I kind of tried to fit a ton of stuff in one chapter, with the end result that a lot happens, but makes no sense whatsoever. Feel free to use (a lot of) imagination in the gaps. The story is always more interesting that way.
Yeah, I'm babbling. So anyway, about that story I was supposed to be writing...
Karigan snuggled closer to Zachary and put her head on his shoulder. The remains of their picnic lay discarded in front of them and their horses grazed peacefully on the shores of the Lost Lake. Fastion stood an uncharacteristically respectful distance away, on guard for any intruders, not that many people passed this way any more. Zachary brushed her hair with his lips and Karigan felt a tingle run down her spine.
Peaceful as the scene was, Karigan could not help remembering the last picnic she'd had here with a man who meant something to her. That picnic had ended in disaster, with the ill-fated hunting party that had ended in battle. Groundmites had ambushed the King's hunt and many had been killed, including six of Zachary's most faithful hounds. This loss had hit Zachary particularly hard; if Karigan closed her eyes, she could still see his tortured expression as he wept for his lost dogs.
And there, on that hill, she had battled Shawdell the Eletian as he tried to put Zachary's brother on the throne so he could destroy the D'Yer wall protecting Sacordia from the black forces of Mornhavon.
His soft voice interrupted her mournful thoughts. "You're remembering, aren't you." It was not a question.
Karigan nodded slightly and turned her face into his tunic so he would not see the tears welling up in her eyes. It's all right now, she told herself. He's gone now. For good. But she could not convince herself that everything was all right. There was the small matter of Timas trying to kill her, as well as… No. Don't think about it. Everything will be fine. This method had worked for Karigan in the past; whenever the fear of the future became too great, she repeated the mantra over and over again in her head. You're fine, you're fine, you're fine.
Zachary hugged her and Karigan inhaled deeply, content to simply breath in his scent.
After a while, he spoke again. "Uhh, Kari? Could you perhaps reposition yourself? You are putting my arm to sleep."
Grumbling and with much commotion, Karigan eventually adjusted herself until she was lying across his lap, head cushioned in the crook of his left elbow.
They lay like that for a time, sprawled in the sun, content simply to be in each others' company before they both spoke at the same time.
"You go first."
"What? Nah, you can go."
Karigan huffed; why was it that she always lost these encounters? "Fine. I've been wondering-"
She was cut off by his lips covering hers; her eyes widened, but she didn't pull away until breathing became necessary.
"Sorry, Rider. Couldn't resist." Karigan could hear the laughter in his voice and the self-satisfied smirk was really just too much-
"My lord?" Fastion's grave voice interrupted the moment. "We must be back at the castle in approximately" - he glanced up at the sun- "twenty minutes for your meeting with the ambassador from Rhovanny."
Zachary sighed and got to his feet, dumping Karigan unceremoniously to the ground. She squeaked in indignation, but allowed him to pull her to her feet.
"Why is it," Zachary muttered under his breath, "that we are always interrupted just when things might be getting interesting?"
Karigan decided to ignore this comment, but scowled at Fastion when she saw him wink at the king as he passed.
"Men," she growled to Condor as she mounted.
Condor looked thoroughly unconcerned.
"Marriage?" Karigan squawked. "But your duty to the crown, to the country-"
"It is my opinion, and the opinion of the public, that common blood is needed, and that you would be the best candidate."
She surveyed the King. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and she noticed for the first time how nervous he looked. His cheeks were tinged with pink and sweat beaded at his hairline. All in all, Karigan decided, he looked exactly like Ben had when about to ride a horse for the first time.
"Well," she replied carefully, "I would be delighted-"
"Excellent!" Zachary shouted. "I'll start preparing at once- if I hurry, I can have the invitations sent out by tomorrow!"
"Zachary," Karigan interrupted.
"And we can have all the Green Riders, and of course a few weapons, I think we should keep it small…"
"…and maybe your friend from Selium, what was her name? Ella? Esther? Oh yeah, Estral. And-"
"ZACHARY!" she bellowed at the top of her lungs.
Dust fell from the ceiling and a bird shrieked indignantly before fleeing the premises. Zachary stared at her, bewildered.
"You didn't let me finish! I would be delighted to marry you, except that it will probably incite civil war, bring violence down on both our heads, alienate all the Lord Governors, and cause endless complications in matters of state-"
This time Karigan was the bewildered one.
"Who cares? I mean, we can avoid all that, it won't start civil war, the public will be happy to have common blood on the throne, the Lord Governors, well, I don't know what to do about them yet, but… You're exaggerating. I've already discussed this with many of my advisors, and-"
He froze mid-sentence at the death glare she was giving him.
"Zachary Hillander, if I ever hear you say 'Who cares?' when talking about the welfare of your people, your country, an entire way of life, I swear, I will get out my staff and beat you with it until you cannot walk for a month."
Zachary grinned. "You can't mean that, Kari."
"Oh, but I do."
He looked into her eyes for a moment before dropping his to stare at the ground beneath her feet. "Okay, I didn't quite mean it like that. But still-"
Karigan interrupted him. "I will marry you if you get the Lord Governors' permission. Until then, don't speak of this again."
She turned and strode out of the supply shed, leaving the King behind with a radiant smile on his face.
Condor snorted quietly in the still, cold, exhaling two puffs of steam which curled up and dissipated into the darkness. Karigan stroked his nose soothingly and cinched up the girth, poking him in the ribs so he would be unable to hold his breath and cause the saddle to slide off. He chomped threateningly on the bit and flicked his ears to show his disapproval at being dragged out of his stall hours before dawn.
"It's not my fault, you know. Now hush."
She adjusted the stirrups, measuring them from fingertips to arm pit, and ran them back up again before leading Condor down the road to the Castle gates into the sleeping Sacor City.
A sleepy guard greeted her and opened the small side gate so she could exit without causing a ruckus.
"Thank you, Brenton," she whispered, putting a toe in the stirrup. The guard merely nodded and elbowed his fellow, who appeared to be dozing off against the cold stone wall.
Karigan let Condor hang his head droopily as they walked through the silent city, the only sounds his hooves clomping on the cobblestone streets. It was eerie, Karigan decided, walking through the city at this time, when all the pub-goers had retreated to wherever they went after drinking their fill, the respectable people long asleep in their houses. No one stirred just before dawn; there was no reason to. It was a time for ghosts and angry spirits. Not that she hadn't already had her fair share of those.
A candle flickered on in a house up ahead and Karigan nudged her heels into Condor's sides, urging him into a sluggish trot. He shook his head in distaste and jangled the bridle.
They were nearing the city walls when Karigan heard a faint voice behind her.
"Come along, my sweet. They can't be far. We'll catch them, you just wait and see." Karigan whipped around to see a faint shimmering outline of some ancient soul and his feline companion as they disappeared down a street that had long since ceased to exist, built over by a large line of shops. She shivered and turned back around, eager to reach the countryside before dawn.
She had just exited the city and was debating urging Condor into a ground-eating canter when the hooves of a galloping horse echoed behind her. Huffing irritably, she turned to see King Zachary (of course) riding lopsidedly. One hand clutched at the reins and another was wound in the mane in order to hold the saddle in place. Karigan was unable to stop her lips twitching into what might one day evolve into a smile when she saw his boots. One was a normal, everyday work boot. The other was made out of sky blue fabric and embroidered with silver stars, obviously part of some set of ceremonial robes.
"Karigan!" he panted, slowing when he caught up with her. "What are you-I mean- why- where are you going?"
Karigan avoided his eyes, instead looking towards the horizon where the trees of the Green Cloak spread across the horizon, contrasting with the pale pink sunrise showing over the edge of the world.
"I must go back to Eletia."
"What?" Zachary's voice was naught but a whisper, a dry, hoarse croak that rasped in his throat.
"You heard me," Karigan replied, doing her best to keep her voice steady, perhaps even a bit haughty.
"I can't tell you. I can only tell you that it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with me, Aleron, and the future of Sacordia."
Zachary drew himself up to his full height. Karigan had to admit that he made an impressive figure, even with his mismatching boots. "Well, it will have to wait, whatever it is. Is Mornhavon back?"
Karigan hesitated. "No, but-"
"Is Sacordia under immediate threat of invasion?"
She hesitated longer this time. "Well, not exactly-"
"Then you will return with me to the city. One more day can't possibly hurt, and you deserve a break from trying to save the world."
"Karigan G'ladheon, don't make me pull you off that horse!"
Karigan snorted and glared at him. "I'd like to see you try."
He huffed back at her. "Okay, fine, you win. Only this time try putting some clothes on before the call makes you ride halfway across the country."
The call. Karigan had not considered this aspect of her escape. Would the Rider Call even let her leave the city? She wasn't exactly abandoning her country, but she wasn't exactly planning on staying a Green Rider, either…
"Right. I'll come back. But only for a day or two."
The King smiled smugly. "Of course, Sir Rider. Only a day or two." They turned back toward the waking city side by side.
"So, Karigan, I've been meaning to tell you something…"
"Do you mean to tell me," Zachary exploded, "that after all this deliberation, days of worthless conferencing, you have still not reached a conclusion?"
Many of the Lord Governors looked wary and leaned away from the ferocious king. Just king or no, he could always lop a head off if he wanted to become a tyrant as his brother had been.
Lord Mirwell, naturally, was the first to speak. "My lord, we feel that a more… advantageous match is required of a king. Ties need strengthening with Rhovanny and the Cloud Islands, perhaps you could be persuaded to marry one of-"
Zachary slammed a fist on the table, causing those nearest him to lean away further, trying to avoid being sprayed with spittle. "I do not want to marry a princess!" Zachary roared. "I am the king and can marry whoever I well damn please, and you can do nothing-"
"Actually, my lord," Lord Penburn interrupted, though his manner was rather less oily than that of Timas. "We can. Under the law which you yourself passed, we can vote to-"
"Yes, yes, I know, you can vote to impeach me if you have just cause. However, since I have committed no crime, you cannot."
It was Lord Coutre who spoke this time. "My lord, with all due respect, you write the laws. Of course you have not broken any. However, we fear that this break of tradition will destabilize the country! The people will rebel! Chaos would rein!"
Zachary gave the old man a scathing look. "I think, my dear lord governor, that you care less for the welfare of your people than for perhaps the security of your position. Certainly, if I was a citizen, I would have long since rebelled, due to the fact that our government no longer functions as it was meant to."
An outbreak of protest met this statement.
"You can't possibly-"
"Do you really mean to say-"
"Come now, Zachary!"
The only calm faces in the room were Zachary, Lord Timas, and the faithful Weapons along the walls who had moved forward to ensure no harm came to their king.
Finally, Zachary had had enough. "Silence!"
The Lord Governors stopped mid conversation and stared at him.
Zachary continued. "Yes, I would have rebelled. It is obvious to me that the monarchial system is failing us. When the most powerful man in the country is unable to wed the woman he loves, something is seriously wrong. If you will not agree to this course of action- which, if you look past your personal desires and look at the political advantage of it, makes perfect sense- then you leave me no choice. If you cannot reach a conclusion by this time in three days, very drastic actions will be taken! And I can promise you, if you are a more interested in your positions as Lord Governors than as people of Sacordia, you will not like the coming changes one bit!" Zachary picked up his chair from where he'd kicked it in his anger and pushed it under the table. "Fastion!"
The Weapon hurried to his side at once, and Zachary swept from the room, leaving those behind to notice bemusedly that he wore one brown boot and one blue.
Karigan limped angrily through the castle, impatiently brushing sweat from her forehead and wincing when she moved the shoulder she was sure she'd just pulled a muscle in. Drent had decided she was now good enough to begin advanced swordsmaster initiate training, a more rigorous training program, in which she was forced to rise early, get out of bed in the middle of the night, and spar during the hottest parts of the day. It was apparently a great honor to be indicted into this elite group . Bah. Karigan thought. Punishment is what it is.
A hiss from a suit of armor distracted her. Hoping she wasn't about to be harassed by more unhappy spirits, Karigan turned hesitantly to see a familiar face poking out behind the left elbow of the decor. She glanced around cautiously before casually changing direction and diving into the alcove behind the suit.
"What are you doing?" she huffed at him, removing a pointy elbow from her ribs.
Zachary breathed in her ear, whispering so quietly she could barely hear him. "Be ready in your chambers at 7:00 tonight. I'll send someone to get you. Wear the dress your father sent you.
He was gone before Karigan could interrogate him as to exactly how he knew her father had sent her a dress. It had just arrived earlier in the day. She glared after him, though she wasn't really angry at all. She could never stay angry at him for long.
Karigan looked once more into the mirror on her wall and once more didn't recognize herself. She was dressed in a simple yet elegant dress of off-white, accompanied by matching, surprisingly comfortable slippers. Her hair, taken out of its typical braid, hung in soft ringlets down her back. A few shorter pieces framed her face. Karigan admitted, though only to herself, that she looked, well…queenly. She licked her fingers, styled a lock more satisfactorily, and contemplated her reflection again. It seemed to lack something…
Bang! The door swung open with a crash and bounced against the opposite wall. Karigan dived for the sword the death god had given her before realizing the intruders were Mara and Garth, grinning from ear to ear.
Karigan glared at the pair of them. "Are you two going to tell me what this is all about yet?"
"No," Mara said promptly.
Karigan glared more viciously. "Well, I'm not going anywhere until you-"
Garth interrupted her by bowing deeply and offering an arm. "May I escort the gracious lady to the stables?"
"No," she answered, mimicking Mara's smug tone.
The two Green Riders rolled their eyes. "Too bad," smirked Mara. "You have to go. King's orders."
Karigan opened her mouth to argue but was cut off when Garth lunged for her and carried her over his shoulder from the room. She spluttered indignantly "Garth, I can walk!"
He set her down at the end of the hallway and shoved her out the door into the fading daylight. "Fine," he growled. "Walk." Mara followed them, grinning ear to ear again, before taking Karigan's arm and pulling her towards the stables.
Condor, Chickadee, and one of the cavalry horses Karigan was relatively sure was named Scarlet Star waited for them, tacked up and ready to mount. Karigan attempted to put a toe in the stirrup, only to realize her dress most certainly would not stretch that far.
Mara looked lost. "We could borrow one of the side saddles,"
"I don't know how to ride side saddle."
Garth huffed and dismounted from Chickadee, giving her reins to the stable boy before he vanished into the tack room. He reappeared seconds later with a large pair of breeches and threw them at Karigan's head. She held them out; they were at least two times the size of her. Vanishing into a stall, she struggled to out them on under her dress. Feeling rather walrus-like, she returned to Condor and hitched up her skirts in order to mount. When she had gotten herself adjusted in the saddle, Garth led the way out of the castle grounds while Mara rode beside her.
"Garth, whose pants are these?"
He shrugged. "No idea."
As they entered the city, a group of dark figures detached themselves from the shadows and joined their small procession. Karigan started to reach for the sword strapped to her saddle, but Mara stopped her with a hiss.
Karigan was tempted to disobey simply to be difficult, but she refrained from doing so and rode on in silence, glaring at the Weapons who were astoundingly un-stony-faced. One, who she vaguely remembered the face of, but not the name, winked.
Night was falling in earnest and it was pitch black by the time they reached a set of gates Karigan had never seen before. They had followed a winding, circuitous route that she hadn't known existed and she was thoroughly lost. She decided to ask one more time.
"Where are we going?"
"Shh," came the reply from Mara and the Weapons. Karigan growled and decided to occupy herself by braiding and unbraiding a small part of Condor's mane. He flicked his ears and plodded on, no doubt wishing he was back in his stall with a nice large bucket of grain.
After ages, it seemed, the group stopped in front of the chapel of a small village. The area was brightly lit by a mixture of torches, and candles. One of the Weapons helped her dismount before vanishing. Karigan strained to see where he'd gone, but to no avail.
Mara bustled over to her and brushed the dust off her gown before standing back to admire her work.
"There. That'll do."
Karigan crossed her arms, prepared at last to get answers, but music started to play from the building and a figure dressed in G'ladheon purple and blue emerged from the doorway.
Karigan felt her jaw drop and rushed to embrace her father. "Father! But- what are you-"
"Hush, Kari." Stevic G'ladheon held her at arm's length to look her up and down. "You look just like your mother," he whispered. "I am so proud to call you my daughter."
Despite herself, Karigan felt tears well in her eyes. Stevic laughed and hugged her once more. "Oh, hush, now, don't cry! This is about to be the happiest day of your life."
He led her into the church and up the aisle and Karigan understood. She felt the tears start to well up in earnest; if she wasn't careful, they would overflow and that would be terrible…
With a rush of sudden clarity, she understood everything, and beamed. She could hardly believe it; she was marrying her love; the Lord Governors had consented; she was to spend the rest of her days in happy bliss; Timas could hardly protest or plan more assassination attempts now that she was to be queen…
Karigan tripped on the hem of her gown as that thought hit her. Queen. What an awful responsibility. I'm not meant to be Queen! Who am I kidding?
And then she saw Zachary, and any thoughts of being Queen fled from her mind.
He was not wearing anything more impressive than he had been that morning (though the boots were now matching), yet he somehow exceeded an aura of handsome glory that she wanted to melt in his arms; he outshone all there, even the pastor, who Karigan now saw was Aleron…
And then she had reached the dais and was kneeling before her brother. She vaguely noticed the ceremony going on around her, of reciting the words every child knew, of pledging herself in life and death to the man who meant the most to her on Earth, but the only thing that she was truly aware of was the warm, strong, callused hand of the king sitting next to her, and Karigan G'ladheon became Queen Karigan. A dainty silver circlet was placed on her head and a silver ring placed on her finger and she rose, still hand in hand with her husband, Zachary, King of Sacordia.
Applause rang through the tiny village chapel. Though they filled up only four rows of pews, Karigan's heart swelled to see her dearest friends present. Captain Mapstone, Mara, and most of the Green Riders were there, as well as her family, her three aunts reduced to tears. Fastion sat in the first row next to a group of Eletians, corners upturned in what was the equivalent of a raucous cheer from the Weapon.
And as Karigan and Zachary left the church, hand in hand, to a small house in the village where they had secured lodging for the night, Karigan could have sworn she saw the pale outline of a figure so like herself she could only be Kariny, smiling a bit sadly in the moonlight.