Here is raw version of chapter 51. Since I reached limit of saved documents within FF (if I didn't mess something up, that is) I had to merge parts 49 and 50 into one file. Naturally, since I'm not too familiar with FF I could overlook something. Feel free to enlighten me ;)


The green egg was sailing through the air in slowed motion but Cid couldn't care less, temporarily forgetting all of his pent up frustration as he was desperately trying to catch the female and save her from hurting herself.

Both of them probably should have watched out for their surroundings, but as the things were, they were so immersed in their thoughts that they paid no attention to what, or more like who, was in front of them till the very last moment. Add to that the fact that both of them were walking briskly through the corridors and that would sum up the extent of this small 'collision'.

The main reason why the woman practically bounced off, after crashing into his broad chest head-on, was the difference in their sizes. Truthfully, since Cid was quite fine figure of a man, not many as tall as him, it was somewhat obvious that the woman stood no chance 'against' him.

Though, he never expected that she'd accidentally hit him so strong, leaving him still standing, feet reflexively planted firmly in place thanks to the honed fighting skills, while the entire force of the impact would bounce right at her. The poor female lost balance, which caused her untoward fall, resulting in her nearly bashing the back of her unprotected head on the hard stone floor.

In the quick move, belaying his size, Cid grabbed woman's delicate arms in both, now free, hands to stop her rapid dangerous descent, the loud crack of stone hitting stone barely registering, somewhere in the background of his mind. He relaxed a fraction as he made it in time, blowing the lost strand of his dark hair out of his eye, forcing the startled beating of his heart to slow down.

Stunned by the force of impact Brenna experimentally opened thus firmly closed eyes, first one, then both. She blinked slowly at the realization that the expected pain never came. She felt as if suspended in air in mid-motion, large warm hands securely keeping her in place by her arms, causing the long sleeves to slightly roll up thanks to her nearly horizontal position.

The woman glanced over her shoulder warily, to confirm that she indeed was somewhat suspended in the air, around two feet above the ground, literally at that. Her skidding feet were stopped by firmly planted leather boots, the man effortlessly keeping her in place, despite the fact all her weight was threatening his own balance. He didn't seem to even notice the added, unexpected burden, as if he could do this all day long without straining himself in the slightest.

And she knew very well that after giving birth to Bran she was no willowy lass anymore, her body weighting quite unmentionable 'something' more...

She forced her fluttering pulse to calm down and glanced at the face of her saviour. Her fair brows knitted briefly in consternation as she couldn't quite place his face at first, since it was slightly obscured by his dark brown nearly black strands. Only as the man slowly exhaled, his relief obvious, causing some of his hair to lift from his eyes did she recognize him.

Truly, it was hard to forget these unusual eyes, similar to that of a watchful hawk, giving you an impression that nothing missed his attention as he observed you silently.

"That… was close." the corner of Cid's lips slightly curled upwards as he too recognized Sharris's older sister through the haphazard long blond strands escaping her chignon.

"I'm terribly sorry, I didn't pay attention and…"

"Neither did I. I should've looked where I was going, m'lady, forgi…" the man started good-naturedly brushing off her rushed apologies, but suddenly his voice trailed off. He was putting her firmly on her feet, his hands still on her arms slowly trailing down Brenna's bare forearms as he abruptly froze. The hawkish eyes widened a fraction only to narrow in flash of an alarm, swiftly zeroing on her exposed thin wrists, or more like on what he felt there under his calloused fingers.

Rarely was he paying any attention to something as mundane as scars, especially when he was on the receiving end. As a knight, a warrior, it would have been completely irrational and naïve of him to expect he would live his life unmarred, considering the path he chose to follow. Each scar was a lesson to him. Sometimes even a memento allowing him to not repeat his previous mistakes, to remember…

But even as seasoned warrior as him was slightly taken aback with the unexpectedly rough texture of the insides of Brenna's delicate wrists. The countless slice marks across her pearly skin, the newest ones covering their older predecessors, causing the skin to camber in some places, while in other you could plainly see the trace the blade followed in the past. The sheer number of the silver lines crossing each other and her thin wrists brought chills to Cid.

The confused woman glanced down, to see what possibly could cause the knight to freeze in mid-sentence and she winced. Usually she wore long-sleeved dresses to cover the old scars, well aware of their unpleasant sight, but during their struggle to stay on their feet her sleeves had rolled up a little…

She consciously tugged to free her hands to quickly cover their ugliness. When she saw the contrast of Cid's tanned large palms easily circling her white wrists, she had to fight the embarrassment mixing with sudden slight panic attack. Brenna fiercely tried to convince her rebellious body that even though the hands holding her were undoubtedly that of a man, she had no reason to feel threatened by Sharris's friend.

Easier said than done. It was really hard to kill old instincts while feeling familiar callused male fingers, the impressive height of their owner practically dwarfing her, adding to her discomfort. Usually she avoided men in general, feeling comfortable in the presence only of those younger, barely grown out of boyhood, or those far too old to be interested in an activity in her presence other than simple talk.

Brenna berated herself silently in her mind that she should have already conquered her instinctive flight response while facing men. Clearly few months was enough time to grow some goddamn spine, and yet sometimes as she was met with unexpected situation like this one, to her utmost inner frustration and shame it took a little to revert her back to her pitiful previous self.

Maybe it was because of her repeating nightmares, maybe it was because of the memories still tormenting her lately… It all caused her tolerance for male company to shrink drastically to barely civil level.

At first Cid seemed oblivious to her growing discomfort, completely focused on her mauled skin. He unconsciously traced the evident print of small eye-tooth with his thumb. Usually he tried to not think of the fate of his family, especially his younger sister or mother. It was easier to believe their death was swift and as painless as possible, though deep down he knew that was foolish notion if you added Eleanor into the equation.

He couldn't even bring himself to imagine the extent of desperation you had to have, if deprived of blades you'd try to bit veins on your wrist in effort to bleed to death…

The unexpected muted whimper filled with barely contained distraught caused Cid's head to snap up, only for him to see slightly trembling lower lip of Brenna as her widened, strangely blank, eyes were glued to their joined hands, the trickle of sweat rolling down her temple, the pupils large and alarmingly dilated.

He quickly released the girl as if his hands were on fire, feverishly hoping he didn't startle her too much. He cursed his own stupidity with colourful string of invectives picked up from Hugh and froze, waiting for Brenna to shake off the initial fright. He noticed the unhealthy paleness of her face, the small lines between her knitted brows, the dark circles under the eyes so similar to that of Sharris…

Dear God… How could he be so careless?! He wanted to reassure her that everything was all right, that she had no reason to tremble so much in his presence but he feared his low voice would only add to her silent terror, wherever her mind wandered off to at the moment.

To say he was starting to truly panic would be a mild and most inadequate description at least…

The moment the sleeves slowly rolled down woman's lifeless forearms, it was as if veil of curtain covered the door to Brenna's dark nightmares, causing her to blink in slowed motion, as if only now she was waking up. When her long eyelashes fluttered again, her gaze was already more focused allowing the man to exhale thus held breath.

Cid briefly debated if he should apologize for his behaviour, but then thought better of it. If he ever was in similar situation like the woman before him, he'd probably prefer the witness of his slight control slip to pretend it never happened at all.

So, instead of apologizing, he clasped his hands behind his back to hide them from her sight, cocked his head and smiled reassuringly "I heard about your son's antics, I already pity Hugh… When my little sister was teething, her wet nurses often complained behind my parent's back that all of their children sure had strong jaws and lungs…"

At the mention of the 'biting incident' startled chuckle escaped Brenna's lips, surprising even her "I would have warned the poor lad if not for Ley's request to not interfere…" she self-consciously rubbed her left wrist and glanced at the tall man and his respectful distance "Nobody explained me why Bran was left in Hugh's care. Do you, Sir, perhaps know the reason for all this?"

"You could say it's a trial of sorts…" the Kabul knight's eyes flashed with inner merriment, his previous panic carefully masked "The duty of taking care of small baby was a part of a particular bet, you see…"

Brenna frowned in puzzlement "A bet?" pure disbelief coloured her doubtful tone.

The man nodded solemnly, though the corner of his mouth twitched slightly "Lately many are interested in our young queen and her possible future consort. Unfortunately I have to admit, that this particular topic was moved even by Sir Wulf. He is wise advisor and naturally is concerned with the future of our homeland. Though the way he is approaching this issue and trying to convince Ley, in my eyes, is somewhat lacking, perhaps because he doesn't know her too well yet." He muttered the last part with slightly worried scowl.

"If you add to this the crazily baby-obsessed Aran 'fraction', you will see the glimpse of the pressure put on Ley lately. Let's say, Bran is her way of discouraging possible candidates from having some silly ideas…"

"So my son is like some… 'bugaboo'?" the female fought her own amusement at this connotation.

"In a way, I suppose yes…" Cid's flashed her lopsided grin, partially apologetic since her son was used in this fashion, partially just as amused by entire situation.

Suddenly Brenna frowned and looked around in confusion "What was this loud clunk as we bumped into each other?"

The Kabul knight blenched suddenly and muttered heated tirade under his nose while frantically searching the floor near them, only now remembering about the goddamn bohoja.

The woman was still impressed by the inventiveness of colourful string of invectives when the man growled even more impressive curse causing her brows to raise up in mute respect. Cid quickly crouched down and grabbed the same, not even slightly cracked, goddamn stone egg and scowled at it strongly.

Seriously, it came a mucker with audible force with stone floor and as far as he could see there was no visible proof of this incident at all. If he still had any doubts about the true nature of the shell, then this all went down the plughole. It was purely 'academic' dispute of his whenever he would 'try' to crack it open or not, and now even this possibility was taken away from him.

He glared at the offending green surface and the stubborn creature napping inside for the good measure, while standing up. One could think that while crashing from considerable height with considerable strength it would result in something…

Apparently, NOT.

Cid wasn't sure how much Brenna knew about the bohojas, so he closed his palm over the egg and angrily brushed his knees while assuring her that everything was fine.

As the man offered to join Brenna in her short walk to her quarters, she discreetly observed his profile, only now noticing that beside hawkish eyes he also had slightly aquiline nose, though it was hard to tell if he was born with it or simply broke it at some point in the past. Whatever Cid dropped seemed to be whole, strangely causing the man's mood to plummet down, though he did try to mask his clear displeasure while inquiring about her son and sister.

Cid again discreetly glanced at the woman's, now hidden, hands and fought his protective instincts. The idea of what she had to go through, easily could be applied to the fate of his own family and closest friends. His own imagination was testing his usual composure. Only recently he found out about Sharris's near-rape incident and the insinuations of Erebor still felt foul in his mouth. And the most frustrating thing was that he couldn't help petite archer back then, while being imprisoned underground, nor he was of any help to Ley recently.

Thankfully, Sharris managed to protect herself, while Ley seemed to doubt if there even was solid ground for the man's vile speculations.

But Sharris's sister was different…

The little he learnt from reluctant petite blond, Brenna had to endure imprisonment and violation for years… All alone, without any hope to be saved.

Since the war, Cid was more reserved while allowing others to get closer to him, his need for revenge on Jeggers successfully distracting him from forging bonds. Through meeting Ley and the other three friends he somewhat managed to overcome blind rage of vengeance and focus on something more important.

Creation rather than blind destruction.

Brenna through her connection to Sharris was already in a way included to Cid's inner circle and what she had to endure in the past didn't sit well with him, despite fact it already ended. It was hard to ignore the instinctive horror-stricken reaction caused by simple touch of a man, accident or not. If she was still reacting so strongly, after months of freedom, then what was the extent of her pain?

The man absentmindedly pushed the irritating green stone egg into the chest pocket of his kaftan and tried to do everything in his power to distract Brenna from the fright caused by their sudden collision.

He was so deeply focused on his efforts to lighten the mood that he didn't notice that the egg in question had warmed slightly under his touch, as if answering to his fury over Brenna's fate…

He also didn't notice that the green eyelid of small scaled reptilian, barely visible under thickened shell, cracked open a tiny fraction with emerald gleam, the black pupil suddenly narrowing to sharp vertical slit…

Lucien was returning from Ley after informing her about his soon departure, when he decided to give his further 'instructions' to Arena during his absence. Just as he suspected, or more like expected, the exotic woman only nodded at his news in complete understanding.

She calmly asked how serious the problems with his supposed 'family' fraction were, but otherwise didn't seem to be disturbed at all. He never expected himself to feel irked after meeting a woman who didn't sulk or whine about her place in his life and that she was somewhat second in it, and yet… And yet, here she was so damn understanding that it was almost nauseating.

It was good he was somewhat used to her usual aloofness. This way the calm reaction or rather lack of any emotional reaction from her at their soon, albeit hopefully brief, separation didn't sting as much. The fact he was still plotting how to secure 'Sevia-front' also helped to endure the slight pang of frustration at this stubborn woman.

Sir Wulf who was accompanying Ley seemed slightly relieved at the news that three small 'armies' would soon leave his homeland, tough he did try to mask it. Honestly speaking, if Lucien was in the man's shoes, he too probably would have wanted to get rid of foreign forces already. The old knight didn't even want to hear about silent 'evacuation'. He reasoned that it was in their best interest to show Sevians that foreign guests were leaving.

That's why, apart from another huge feast there was appointed festive parade of leaving Kabul allies.

Yess… a goddamn parade…

Since Lucien didn't feel up to argue about this issue, especially after noticing stubborn frown of Sir Wulf, he merely shrugged while pointing out that the farewell feast should be at least a day before the actual parade. After all, nobody likes to travel with bursting at the seams stomach – really unhealthy, just asking for indigestion, especially since he planned to travel fast.

The Tamir king consoled himself with the realization, that the more festive the parade would be, the harder it was for Sigfrid or Shine to wiggle out of it.

The man had to see a bright side in things…

Leaving this issue aside, Lucien was slightly confused by the reluctance with which Knox finally informed him just where he could find his sister, though this confusion of his didn't last long once he saw just WHO kept Arena company…

The arctic-blue eyes narrowed dangerously at the familiar silhouette of man, currently having his back turned to the entrance to the room, standing next to the Tamirian princess. The guy was pointing over her shoulder at the map on the wall, practically embracing her with one arm, while his other hand was firmly braced on his waist.

"…and as you can see the map ends here. Nobody managed to go any further yet. I always wondered what could be there, over the line of the horizon…" the man cocked his head curiously sideways, the mahogany reflections of his hair and slight well-groomed stubble shining in the sun, the multi-coloured eyes widening with the obvious excitement.

"…A-HEM!…" Lucien cleared his throat pointedly, causing Frey to glance over his shoulder and actually grin at him. Either the guy didn't see at all the meaningful glare directed at his impropriate closeness to the woman, or he decided to simply ignore it.

"Ohh? King Lucien? Good to see you…" the blasted Aran smiled widely, slowly lowering his arm and accidentally brushing Arena's, causing her to blush, though he didn't seem to even notice it his focus on the sovereign "I was explaining your lovely sister why I tried to pick up Granny's language…"

The princess smiled shyly at her brother "I wanted Frey to teach me a little of this fascinating language of Ley's, but we somehow got side-tracked by the map hanging over here…" her voice was still quite low and hushed, but with each passing day she managed to slowly lose the previous roughness after years of being mute.

Even now Lucien couldn't believe she could talk again, his confusion sometimes caused mostly by the fact he last heard her speak as a child and now she had a feminine voice of a grown-up woman.

"A 'map', you say..?"

Arena briefly frowned at her brother's strange behaviour and tendency of accenting particular words in nearly challenging way "Yes… a map…" she narrowed her azure eyes and pointed at the wall "It's quite big, hard to miss…"

Frey's grin widened even more at the mildly annoyed expression of the stewing sovereign "My dear Arena, I think your brother simply doesn't like the fact I was monopolizing your attention a moment ago…"

"Already on first name basis?" the king nearly growled while crossing his arms over his chest.

The Aran chuckled uncontrollably, but before frustrated Lucien could move to bodily threats and brotherly overprotectiveness he managed to raise a palm in the air "I meant no disrespect, dear king… It's simply something akin to habit, typical for my family."

"You surely are aware it's hard to stay more formal beside a ruler such as my father, hmm? Well, that and the fact that Granny doesn't care at all about such trivial matters as position. After getting to know people and eventually acknowledging them as friends and inner circle, my family tends to drop these tedious formalities…" he waved his hand dismissively "Hard to kill old habits, besides Arena is such bright, lovely creature it's hard to keep a distance from her…"

The longer Frey talked, the urge to throttle him grew stronger.

"I don't bloody care about the way, your lot, was raised, I expect proper…"

He wasn't able to finish this heated tirade since Arena strongly put her foot down "Lucien Kenrick Idris Cadeyrn Winclef! You shall not speak to my friend in such disrespectful manner."

Her brother's jaw sagged slightly in shock, his eyes widening a fraction "But, Arena…!" her name resonating with pure disbelief.

"I do not want to hear any more of it…" delicate chin raised challengingly.

"Surely you can see that he…"

"I said enough already."

For a moment Frey observed this small battle of will between siblings, fondly remembering his own quarrels with Freya. Clearly the Tamir king didn't expect any resistance, definitely not from his own sister, whom he was supposedly saving from dangerous clutches of 'plotting barbaric Arans', males in particular.

"Arena, my dear, you don't have to protect my honour. I assure you I wasn't offended in the slightest." prince's merriment danced in his mesmerizing eyes, the golden freckles more apparent in his green-blue irises "Since it seems King Lucien has important things to discuss with you, I guess we shall postpone our lesson for the further notice…" he lowered his head and casually brushed with his lips woman's cheek in farewell "You know where to find me…" as he was passing by stunned sovereign, rendered speechless and apparently rooted in place, Frey winked conspiratorially and sashayed out of the room humming happily under his nose, delicately closing door after himself.

Truly, he so loved to tease stodges. Apparently it was a family trait, one he was extremely glad for…

Lucien still gaped at the oak door as he mumbled to no one in particular "Did the bastard just 'wink' at me..?"

Arena was fed up with his behaviour and the way he overreacted. She put her arms akimbo and raised her chin even higher "Did you want something from me? I thought you were busy packing…"

"I'm even more reluctant to leave Sevia now. More than ever…" the king muttered under his nose, still shocked by the audacity of Arans in general and the younger royal male generation in particular "I hope HE too is leaving Sevia..?" he swiftly narrowed his eyes at his sister, as if trying to force the answer out of her.

The female glanced at the pulsing vein at her brother's temple and suddenly had to fight her own laughter. It took some effort to keep mildly displeased, defiant grimace on face. There was no need for Lucien to know that Frey was leaving for Aran anyway. "And how am I supposed to know? He was nice enough to help me with this 'Korean' language, but now? After your disrespectful behaviour I honestly don't know if he will tell you his plans or not…"

If possible, king's face became even grimmer as it occurred to him that he would have to worry not only about Ley, but also about his own goddamn sister. He knew she was a beauty, definitely in the eyes of others, but try as he might he couldn't bring himself to see Arena as a woman. To him she simply was his younger sister, his impression of her often clouded by his memories of their shared childhood.

And now – shocking news – his little crybaby, sometimes snotty-nosed sister turned out to be a full-fledged woman…

Lucien closed his eyes briefly and pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling upcoming headache. Just what he needed at the moment – another crisis situation…

Finally, Arena took a pity on her brother and his utterly miserable grimace "Frey might have mentioned that he is considering returning to Aran to fetch few maps, so Lena and Hugh would check them out…" she nonchalantly shrugged, pointedly ignoring narrowed hot glare shot under her address for keeping him in such uncertainty for so long.

Dear Lord! It was but a moment or two! Certainly not an eon as he's trying it to seem like!

"Couldn't you have mentioned it earlier, before I got an indigestion?" the Tamirian muttered petulantly under his nose, his tone more than slightly accusatory.

"Maybe I could, and maybe I couldn't…" the princess arched her brow meaningfully "I know you are worried and reluctant to leave Sevia at the moment, and for a good reasons, but that doesn't excuse your rude attitude from a moment ago…"

Lucien stood there once again discombobulated today. In his wildest dreams he never imagined himself being scolded by no one else but his younger delicate like petal of some exotic flower sister, no less, but for impropriate behaviour at that, caused by the infuriating teasing Aran royal bloodline.

Seeing certain stubborn expression flashing in Arena's eyes and her pose very similar to certain someone, the young sovereign stifled tortured groan while massaging his temples. He was eternally grateful that his beloved little sister regained her voice. He really was. But… just sometimes one loving brother would expect support from his siblings rather than good dose of lecturing.

Jamie was still not himself. Well, maybe it sounded weird but no matter how many times Lucien tried to strike conversation with the previous chieftain, he couldn't shake the feeling that Ian was someone completely different than his own long-lost brother. Hard to share your heart's burdens when the silence, or any attempts of brotherly talk for that matter, falls utterly awkward for both of them.

Even so, Lucien tried to muster the entire brotherly authority he was capable of, crossed his arms over his chest even tighter and raised his own chin in the best imperatorial challenging way, taught to him by his father as an inseparable part of kinghood "And since when is he allowed to kiss your cheek, huuh?"

Arena mirrored his stance and shrugged dismissively her slim shoulder "Apparently this degree of skinship is quite normal on Aran court. Well, in the inner circle of royal family at least. It's definitely not something for you to preoccupy yourself with…"

The young sovereign scowled in clear displeasure and muttered, little perplexed, under his breath "Where on earth had my lovely delicate sister wander off to? Who are you and what have you done with my Arena?"

The princess slowly exhaled and relaxed a little "I told you I want to change. I want to fight my own battles, no matter how little or trivial they seem to be. I can't be weak anymore, and more importantly I don't want to be. I intended to stay for a while in Sevia since under Lena's guidance I can regain some of the needed strength, even if only physical at first. God knows Dein is even worse than you at times while overreacting about my safety…"

The woman shook her golden head silencing further protest of frustrated older brother "You promised me to leave this matter alone, to give me more space, remember?" at his begrudging silent nod she smiled melancholically "You are aware that I'm the same age as Lena, hmm?"

"That's beside the point…" he waved his right palm impatiently, as if these simple facts and dates were falling on deaf ears.

"No. That's precisely the point. I doubt you'd try to order her around in such manner. Ohh… I'm perfectly aware that this inner little savage male inside of you is desperately trying to get out to make sure everyone you care about is safe and sound, the supposed delicate women in your life especially. The thing is, you don't try to smother Lena with it in fear she'd run away from you…"

"Don't compare yourself to Ley. It's different. You were raised…"

"…in a lovely protective golden cage, with silky and plush white pillows. Yes. I'm aware of that." Arena interrupted him "I also understand that Lena had to go through many hardships that made her as strong as she is now. Really hard to miss. And by no means I'm trying to mimic her in this matter. That would be utterly foolish on my part, and surely I'm no fool either…"

"It's not how I wanted to put this..." Lucien sighed heavily.

"Pretty words won't change the nature of it, Luc." The female shook her head sadly "You can sleep peacefully, I don't intend to turn into some arrogant woman, boasting about her supposed new-gained strength. I'm satisfied with the knowledge that I can protect myself in the time of need. It's enough for me. You don't have to worry that I'd end up challenging guards into sparring duels from now on…" she snorted and waved her hand dismissively.

The king shot her evil eye "Can't you be a little more serious? Don't you see how close he was standing next to you? He was smirking at me and…"

Arena arched her brow sardonically "Lucien, I just regained my voice after years of being mute. Only now I'm learning how to not be helpless. Don't expect me to stay silent now, because I sure as hell won't."

The man nearly recoiled in surprise hearing her sharp tone and the crude way she put it "Goddammit! I don't want you to be silent!"

"Then why are you trying to limit with whom should I speak and with whom not? I assure you Frey is a nice gentleman. You have nothing to fear from him, but…" she leaned closer "Rest assured, the way you overreact is definitely Aran's beloved attraction and amusement nowadays. Can't you see that like little rascals, either Prince Sigfrid or Frey, even Princess Freya just love to yank your chain? If you don't want to have an apoplexy pretty soon, definitely prematurely if I can say so, I advise you to simply ignore their childish barbs. It would be much healthier for both of us. Be above their jokes and surely they will eventually get bored and find other thing to occupy themselves with…"

Lucien rubbed his eyes tiredly "I AM perfectly aware that they find my current situation pretty amusing, Sigfrid especially. You don't have to point it out to me. It's just after years of curbing my own emotions it's hard to keep them in check, now, that the royal Tamir feuding is over."

Arena smiled up at him little ruefully as she crossed the room and caressed his cheek "Dear stubborn brother of mine… You have no idea how joyful I am that you finally can let go and express your feelings more openly. I truly am… But you can't lurch from one extreme to another. The same as you can't hope to keep all bad things from happening to your beloved ones. Nobody blames you for what happened. Neither Jamie since he found another family of his own between the secretive people of Forest of Evil, nor I since now, thanks to what we've gone through found more strength."

She sighed heavily "You can't try to hide everyone behind your protective back…" seeing his stubborn frown and opening in objection mouth she silenced him with her finger put over his lips and emphasized "NO you CAN'T."

Frustrated Tamirian delicately brushed aside her slender finger, briefly frowning at few nearly healed blisters, but wisely refraining from commenting on them "Then what am I supposed to do, huh? Simply watch the goddamn Arans while they 'amuse' themselves in your company?"

"Oh, ye of the little faith… Don't you trust me?"

"It's not what I…"

"Or perhaps my judgment seems to be faulty somewhere?"

"Arena…" the man groaned.

"Lucien. I assure you that my eyes are wide open. Don't forget that I too was raised on the royal court. Give me some credit here. Besides, Frey was behaving perfectly fine until the moment you started growling at him under your breath. If he was fooling with anyone, it was you…"

The king's brows knitted. He seriously doubted that all of Frey's affection for Arena was an act purely at his expense. But he sooner would have cut his own hand off than enlighten his little sister about it. Better if she stayed oblivious to this.

For all interested parties…

The Princess smirked seeing his carefully blank expression and white line of pressed lips "You can relax. I'll make sure Lena won't get into trouble in your absence…" suddenly Arena's face became determined, her eyes flashing dangerously "For once I'm happy of your choice, though I'm still frustrated that you ignored my warnings about Eleanor." She exhaled slowly through her nose and flashed lopsided grin at her brother "I was really worried about your taste in women, but thankfully you proved me wrong in the end." She petted his cheek affectionately "I approve." She nodded almost proudly at him.

Lucien didn't know if he should be offended or amused by being treated so patronizingly.

"Besides…" the woman muttered distractedly under her nose "Since my own childhood crush went down the stream then at least I can help in obtaining her as my goddamn sister-in-law, even if it will be the last thing I do…" the determined note bordering on frustrated snort coloured her tone.

The young sovereign blinked slowly in shock, his sister seeming to be totally oblivious to her slip or his reaction.

He DID NOT hear 'that' just now…

Lena briefly closed her eyes and rubbed her aching neck. She decided that enough was enough and there was no reason for her to stay hunched over some notes of Sir Wulf any moment longer. She leaned more comfortably in her chair and tilted her head back, relaxing some invisible kink between her shoulder blades.

The man was relentless, that she had to give him. He was so relieved that their armed allies were leaving Sevia rather sooner than later, despite their obvious reluctance, that he was practically humming happily while walking briskly down the corridors and supervising preparations for feast and final parade.

She too was slightly relieved that Arans, Leone and Tamirians were leaving Kabul, but for other, more personal reasons.

At first it was easy to explain their presence with recent war, her coronation and then the assassination attempt right afterwards, but not so much now, when most of her noble 'parasites' already left Sevia. Lena suspected that their quick 'evacuation' was caused mostly because of realization that while trying to get closer to the newly crowned sovereign they could end up in the crossfire between her and whomever tried to get rid of the Child of the Prophecy.

Even her wine cellars weren't worth it.

Ohh, she managed to spread the rumours doubting that the explosion was planned by someone. Those present during this incident knew what they saw, there was no helping there. But the rest of the capital? For once, the tendency of people to make too much of such incidents was to her advantage. There were so many gossips, so many versions, one more overplayed that the other, that the real cause and problem paled into comparison.

That though, was causing Ley constant headache. Only few days ago, as she sneaked into the city in her usual mannish garb added with cloak, her hood hiding her raven hair just to be sure, she saw unbelievable scene…

She wanted to return to the site of explosion to see for herself the scale of the damages. It was one thing to read about them in reports, dressed in cold facts, and completely other to see it with your own eyes.

Since she lost consciousness right after blasting the rubble into dust she also didn't see what her powers did to the surrounding buildings. Considering the fact that nobody knew the extent of her ability, she was somewhat unsettled by her friends stubborn silence about the incident and its final results.

Besides, she was a dratted queen for God's sake! She could walk wherever she wanted, leaving the castle whenever the mood stuck her. Period.

Well, that tiny resolution didn't stop her from discreetly sneaking out of the palace when nobody paid attention. Who could blame her for wanting to avoid unnecessary drama? Either way she was going to see the explosion site, she simply didn't want entire garrison following her footsteps.

Simple, isn't it?

To save herself from future headache and another dose of lecturing if someone learnt about her short excursion before she'd sneak back inside, she left a note on her bed. So what it was tiny, barely visible from the door? She was simply saving the expensive parchment, that's all… It wouldn't be her fault if her 'babysitters' didn't notice it at first.

The constant 'yes, my Queen', 'naturally, Your Majesty', 'indeed, Your Highness' were slowly getting on her nerves. She had a small preview once her Aran heritage was out of the bag and the Aran soldiers were respectfully bowing their heads as she happened to pass them by. Seeing their obvious joy that their royal family was finally united she curbed her unruly tongue, stopping herself from snapping and donned the oblivious mask Miriam taught her.

But as the bows and all that kowtowing only increased once she donned the crown (true, briefly since it got flattened soon after, but even this wasn't stopping them) she found her resolve to endure rapidly waning.

It was mostly because since she was raised with the knowledge of her illegitimate status deep down she detested people who so easily licked someone's boots, nearly as much as those who basked in all that grovelling. What was even worse was the realization that the moment she accepted the throne there was no chance to 'cure' Kabuls from centuries old habits of prostrating before their sovereign.

For modern person, unused to such reverent treatment, which was practically in conflict with the very way she was raised, it was bitter truth to swallow. She suspected that even for Hyun-min it would have been easier since he always knew he would inherit huge company and had a small sample of its modern version…

So, after carefully masking her distinctive features with Leone veil, adding the cloak – gift from Eric and her usual mannish clothes, there she went into the city…

Lena reasoned that if they caught her later on she could always claim she wanted to test Aidan's holographic map and bohoja-GPS, while pleading 'not guilty'. After all, what would be point of warning others about her plans? They were supposed to be able to track her down thanks to connection with Michael's bohoja. She certainly didn't have to report every tiny thing she decided upon (and yet, she did leave the note, just to be safe).

For the first time in a long while, she left nearly suffocating atmosphere of the palace and incognito entered Sevia. Not many peasants knew about her 'Ley'-alias, so she figured that she still could use this nickname.

To this at least she reacted if someone called her, learning to do the same to another name was in her opinion unneeded and unnecessary, not to mention a bother.

Even if palatial servants knew about her 'male-persona', it was doubtful that details would leak into the city. Lena supposed that the idea of the sovereign walking beside her subjects, observing their daily life and routine was so surreal for Sevians after Eleanor's arrogance, that there was no need to worry about it. Sure some people saw her from the distance in the royal gardens, but even then she was somewhat on her turf, still inside the castle grounds, it said nothing about her 'eccentric' upbringing and habits.

The old habits, customs and the way her people were raised, thinking about royalty as someone so high above them was another advantage for Ley and her short 'stroll'. It was doubtful that even if someone caught a glimpse of her face in the middle of the crowd, would believe his or her eyes. As if! Sooner they would dismiss this boggling idea of meeting queen in person while buying their purchases.

To avoid even more curious eyes Lena decided to leave her swords, figuring that in case of an emergency her two thin stilettos from Cid, hidden in her high boots would be enough, not to mention she always could summon the Leone blade if needed. No reason to attract more attention.

The woman didn't know how much she needed to take a deep breath without worrying about her new responsibilities until the moment she managed to sneak into the city. Thanks to her disguise she felt somewhat lighter, free even…

She leisurely strolled down the cobbled streets through the route she remembered from her walk with Michael sometime in the past. More houses were occupied now, though still few districts of the capital stayed desolated.

Lena was deeply satisfied with the fact nobody paid her attention as the city seemed to buzz with the visiting travellers, some returning home, some simply wanting to see how the Kabul was changing after the end of the war.

When the woman reached the remnants of the old temple she carefully kept to the shadows, at the edge of the site, to avoid meeting with the Jeggers still patrolling this sector. She was slightly surprised that the most rubble and debris was cleared out.

If she was to believe Ian's observation she'd have to thank Hyun-min and his temporary cleanness obsession.

Thankfully, the other buildings didn't seem to be too much damaged. Nothing indicated that they were in any danger of collapsing because of the explosion.

Little relieved that there weren't many obvious proofs of her 'intervention' Lena quickly sneaked back into the street heading to the main city square, before anyone would notice another cloaked (suspicious) lurking shadow.

That's all she needed to end up arrested by her own subjects…

She was quite happy until the moment she entered the main city market…

At first, like any other normal customer, she strolled through the stalls, curiously glancing at one thing or another while trying to pick up something for her newfound 'family' from both sides, be it Aran or Leone.

Since she felt a little unnerved by this surreal situation where she was shopping for some parting gifts for people who were adamant about being treated as the closest family, she decided to pick something also for Sean's mother and Lucien.

That way she didn't feel as emotionally exposed, while hiding the other gifts in a 'crowd'.

Paradoxically, she had no problem what to pick for the twins.

For Freya she chose some black leather hunt bat, figuring that the princess with her passion for equitation would at least use it, maybe even like. The little Lena knew about horse riding, the theory, since apparently practice didn't cause her much trouble, the thing was often used by seasoned riders.

Personally, she didn't see any point in it, especially since her own sable monster of a horse, would probably snap it in two with his teeth, while snorting at the offending idea of using it on him.

Frey also didn't pose much challenge. For him Ley picked up waterproof leather tube for maps. The guy loved the idea of unlocking the mysteries of new foreign lands, and since he mentioning something about short ship excursion to Aran, this should be enough.

Because of his injury king Eric was temporarily staying in Sevia to recuperate, together with Lady Chun Hei, since apparently for her it was quite a feat to travel in her age.

Granny promptly dismissed the fact she managed somehow to travel to Kabul before. She also justified her stay with the bohoja supervising. So, for now, Ley didn't have to worry about gifts for those two.

The main obstacle on Aran's side was Sigfrid.

Lena could bet any sum of money that if she asked what he'd want to receive from her he'd come up with some nonsense marriage notion or simply other lecherous idea. Only thanks to Bisal's assurance that the prince did do quite well with his blade, but most of the time was simply too lazy to do so, she debated briefly about some weapon for him.

Lucien grumbled once about Sigfrid's passions. According to him the Aran boasted during the memorable feast of Eleanor about beverage and women, without disclosing about the first, the most important, passion. Lena silently suspected that it was either a good brawl, or more probably, joy of plotting itself. Perhaps a brawl caused with his scheming was the biggest present the heir of Eric could receive, but it was all out of the question.

So, while tossing aside the idea of some plotting and women, Ley opted for some really exquisite exotic bottle of wine or something like that. Since she had absolutely no knowledge about drinks, she decided to pick the one with the most ridiculous bottle and highest price.

After all, one could expected that the quantity followed the money you had to spent on single 'carafe' (which was outrageous enough to quiet Lena's doubts about its quantity).

Or so she hoped…

The wife of the Patriarch already received her gift, but since it wasn't something Lena herself bought or made, she decided to add small golden necklace with flowery design. She picked equally subtle earrings for Queen Eileen, though this time silver, with small emeralds.

For Sean's father about whom she had no particular opinion yet, she picked well-balanced slightly curved throwing knife. The guy should start paying more attention to his surroundings, especially scheming of his illegitimate offspring. He sure had to get his butt off the comfy throne and polish his long-rusted fighting skills if he hoped to protect his family.

For the Patriarch she picked small, deceivingly plain pedant, in which once opened you could hide a small picture. Days ago she ordered some supposedly renowned painter to make tiny replica of Ariana.

At first, the man was slightly frustrated by the size of the picture, but then he decided to treat it as a challenge to his skills and somehow managed to create similar enough image of the previous queen (similar enough that Lena didn't have to guess who the blond was).

It turned out, Ley was at complete loss when she had to choose something for either Shine or Lucien. She didn't want for them to look for some hidden message in her gifts, and could only hope that since they would be among many others 'donee's, this foolish notion would not cross their minds.

Fat chance…

Besides, it's not like she knew what was safe for a gift for them. She also had no experience while shopping for neutral prating gifts for a men who weren't here supposed family per se (or at least didn't want to be only a 'family').

Lena knew that men in this era had no problem or qualms with wearing many jewellery, sometimes even more than females, especially if they were of a royal blood. But buying a guy a signet or a ring brought her nearly chills of dread, and necklace or brooch was too feminine to her taste.

In the end, Lena decided to stick to what she was comfortable with, the duo and their hopes be damned, and bought more practical gifts for them.

Since she noticed that Lucien's favourite belt and sheath were asking for quick visit in vesicle, she picked a new set, nicely embroiled with real golden thread. The pattern looked a little bit like some Gaelic runes, but still managed to give a masculine vibe.

God forbids for her to question 'that' about either him or Shine!

For the second in Leone she broke her initial plan and choose a Celtic-looking golden hairpin.

Once in the past, she asked Shine why is he bothering with such long hair that are escaping his hair-clasps during a fight. Since it's really easy to use long hair of your opponent in fight to your benefit, often as handy distraction, Lena always tried to keep her own in simple plait or ponytail during sparring.

As much as having long strands flapping wrathfully in the wind behind you made a wonderfully picturesque sight, it was highly impractical. From her own experience, one good yank could cause you to lose focus or even stumble while cringing in pain.

She couldn't cut her annoying hair for obvious reasons, mostly thanks to sheer stubbornness of Hyun-min, who still banned her from it even now. Though she didn't expect Shine to look at her as if she lost her mind at hesitant mention that perhaps he should cut his hair a little bit if they are so unruly.

Since he was older than the most of the men around her he had quite a time to grew them longer. Even Michael didn't have such long hair, and with Lucien you never knew since his were curly. Nevertheless, each of them had equally stunned and little bit offended grimace written all over their faces at her innocent question about haircut redo.

In this era the length of man's hair bespoke about his supposed manliness. If she asked them to cut off their balls she couldn't offend them more, the hair-cutting somehow nearly equalling to it.

And here she was, proudly packing her gifts to the rucksack she dragged along when she heard the most ludicrous sentence in her life, successfully rooting her in place…

Even now, as she recalled her initial shock she had hard time to digest this whole crisis situation. With the proof in hand she practically stormed back to the palace, without bothering to hide, going up through the front gates as if the hellhounds were chasing after her, to find Sir Wulf as soon as possible.

Without any preliminary she yanked the door of his 'study room', ignored stunned faces of her four friends as she still had her disguise and bag on her and practically vibrating with suppressed fury tossed the incriminating evidence on man's desk.

Now his reluctance to let her wander into the city made sudden sense…

The evidence in question looked quite innocent and unthreatening, and yet it caused her to break in cold sweat and nearly run back to the palace. It was a braided leather bracelet of sorts, and if it was left at this, even with some engraved in it runes, it didn't pose any particular danger. What was unnerving her to no end was entwined in it strand of black horsehair…

The horsehair which was supposed to pose as the 'hair of the blessed Child of the Prophecy', 'a lucky charm' of the Kabul's Queen protecting potential buyer from 'evil eye', 'sicknesses', 'curses' etc.

Whatever you wish for, that's the cure for you and your problems.

Naturally, the bracelet was supposed to be one of its kind, but as Lena panicky searched through the bazaar, nearly every merchant had several of these 'magical unique artefacts', every each one of them claiming it to be the one, 'real' thing.

Most was haphazardly made, clearly riding on the sudden wave of the popularity caused by the divine protection she apparently 'provided' right after her own coronation.

There were obviously 'upgraded' versions, upscale for noble customers. These had actual human black hair entwined in it and the leather straps creating the braid of sorts were dyed in dark blue colour, sometimes adorned with silver beads.

Lena strongly suspected that owners of brunet hair gained sudden small fortunes in exchange for few of their raven strands (if not for all hair they had)…

"Care to explain how on earth I became an actual lucky charm?" the exotic woman asked in deceivingly calm and composed tone, her stance at first sight seeming relaxed even.

That is, if not for betraying black fire glowing in her almond-shaped eyes…

The old knight blinked slowly and while pointedly avoiding her searching gaze he looked everywhere but at her and the 'evidence'. Seeing there was no escape he cleared his throat uncomfortably and feigned ignorance. Well, he tried. "My queen?" he moistened nervously his lips "What do you mean by this?" Sir Wulf glared at the 'evidence' as if his narrowed eyes were supposed to make it disappear.

Ley put her right hand on the desktop, the left perched on her waist and loomed over the siting man "Where are my 'royalties'?" at his empty stare she arched her brow imperially "Surely if I am treated like some goddamn tourist attraction, even the cure for blasted sexual potency or rather lack of thereof then I should receive some redress, huuh?"

"Sexual potency..?" Sir Wulf squirmed uncomfortably in his chair though judging from his guilty expression he was well aware of 'it'.

Lena shook her head in pure disbelief, her plait swaying on her back "Dear God… You DID know about 'this' detail…" she suddenly tossed her aloof mask right out of the window and growled menacingly through her gritted teeth "If that doesn't call for some goddamn aggravated damages for my poor abused psyche then sure as hell I don't know what is. Seriously? A lock of my hair a frigging aphrodisiac?"

"My lady… We are currently trying to minimalize the damage, but as soon as we close one trading abode several other are sprouting in its place, figuring that since we react, then surely there has to be something to it. Through last few days we closed several manufacturing establishments, but so far it's useless, so we…" the old Kabul knight rushed with explanation, but the more he said, the grimmer Lena's expression became as she saw the scale of this entire situation.

"Are you telling me that you purposely left them be in hope they'll eventually get bored with this drama and the trade with my personal devotional articles will naturally die out, but instead, it 'evolved' and increased?" the stifled giggle of Sean and Sharris in the background barely registered in Ley's panicked consciousness.

"Well…" Sir Wulf swallowed with considerable effort, and his voice trailed off as he tried to find some diplomatic answer and found none.

"You've got to be frigging kidding me…"

"Ley…" Cid masked his laughter at her shell shocked face with forced cough "It's not as bad as it seems…"

"It's NOT? What the hell you mean it's not? Can it be even worse than this?"

Michael managed to keep straight face, though his steel grey eyes twinkled suspiciously "In the matter of fact, indeed, you should be grateful." He stated firmly in deceivingly calm voice.

The obsidian eyes narrowed dangerously as Lena hissed through her teeth while roughly putting her backpack on the floor "I should be glad, you say? And why is that so, hmm?"

The silver-haired man shrugged nonchalantly and scratched curious bohoja behind its ear, or at least scaled place where it should be, behind golden membrane and small curved horn "They always could treat you like some devil, demon or cursed witch even. Instead they chose to dub you as something akin to unicorn. See? They view you and your powers in positive light. And that counts as something, no?"

If the woman though she could be more flabbergasted then she was wrong since undoubtedly she just reached another, thus unknown, level of being befuddled.

Taking an advantage of her temporary loss at words Sir Wulf quickly injected "I'm sure that once the novelty of this passes, they'll stop with this nonsense. The daily life like nothing else surely will cure Sevians from this foolish notion. Give it a time, m'lady…"

The woman closed her eyes and pinched the base of her nose while muttering to herself "This is insane…"

Unnoticed Sean curiously untied the strings of her rucksack and glanced inside "Why is this here?" he took out the leather hunt bat "Where did you get it?"

Lena cocked her head and muttered uncomfortably "Well…"

Hyun-min never pegged himself to be clean freak and yet he found that the usual hygiene habits and routine was the most frustrating while living in something close to Middle Ages.

It was one thing to go on some adventurous trip into the wildness once in a while, where you had to deal somehow with your necessities, when you knew that you could always return to the blessed 'civilisation' and its quirks. And completely other thing was to live in actual past with no way to the present, stuck with some abhorrent lack of just mentioned hygiene in the majority of local population...

He never expected to miss something simple like hot shower, shampoo which didn't smell funny and soap that was free from suspicious grey colour. Forget about toiled… this was too horrific to even describe. One word: moss.

The Korean supposed he should be grateful that he lived in the palace where most of his modern needs were met thanks to numerous servants, but even so.. For a person from XXI century it was ridiculous to have to rely on someone for every little thing, like when you wanted to take a simple bath. Normally, without much thinking, you simply open tap and the water runs, filling your bathtub. End of the story. Here you had to actually ask or more like order servants to prepare a bath for you since it was quite a challenge.

The funny grey powder, strongly smelling like mint, the guy named Gideon liked so much, posed as equivalent of tooth paste here. The idea of having tooth problem brought Hyun-min chills like nothing else. He liked Aaron, he really did. But the concept of allowing an actual blacksmith into any proximity to your jaw, with all that rough-hewn claws caused the Korean few blood chilling nightmares.

When you read about medieval, or heard about knights, tournaments, swords, crowns and thrones you think about glory, honour, old rituals, forgotten kingdoms, chivalry... When you have to live in actual past, approximately a millennia from your times, you find yourself yearning for the most basic things you never noticed before, forget about appreciating them, as it occurs that in fact you usually took them for granted.

During the time Hyun-min spent here, his hands which he never considered delicate before, suddenly became rougher, skin as if thicker. His initial impression of being always on the dirty side, even soon after bathing took days to cure, or more like get used to.

The cycle of the day, when you had to be strictly attuned to the sun because of the lack of good light at night and expensiveness of candles and such was another novelty for him. You could only dream about streets lightened with an electricity.

Thanks to Lena's position, as her official guest, he never had to worry about clean clothes or boots, since there was always someone preparing them for him. Truth be told, at times he felt like some goddamn invalid. In USA he lived alone, made his own laundry, bought his own food, took shower wherever he damn wanted, and the blessed toiled... Dear God, he never expected he'd miss the most: toilet bowl, paper and flush.

The palace had special places for your basic needs, thankfully nothing as crude as public outside privy, but even so, the stench left much to be desired sometimes. AND 'this' was already considered as a luxury.

A royal luxury at that…

What a joke…

Hyun-min once asked Lena how was she able to adapt so fast. Didn't she miss anything from her previous life? When he started nagging about local concept of 'toilet' she set him straight by announcing she was living in small rural village called Billa at first, so he should stop complaining, and besides, surely she will figure out a way to send him back one day, so there is no need for him to get too used to this situation.

Hearing this threat he shut his mouth tight, cutting off another frustrated observation about the state of streets of the city, capital no less, and its sewers where you could find nearly everything in some poorer districts.

Sure enough, once out of boredom and curiosity he rummaged in some notes of Lena that she had left in the royal library and was slightly relieved that she did write among them something akin to 'things-to-do' list, where beside education, democracy she included basics of hygiene.

At least she did acknowledge that in this era the worst thing which could happen to country, and to a smaller scale towns especially, was if some plague broke out. Nearly as dangerous was conflagration, spontaneous or deliberate, since as far as he knew there were no actual forces similar to firefighters established here. Mostly people were expected to create grassroots groups fighting with the flames on their own accord.

Naturally, there were few, hmm, enterprising people, who employed crews responsible for extinguishing fire. Sir Wulf explained that rarely any city had their own firemen, forget about ones established by a ruler.

He also heard Lena mutter in frustration that in practice, when the fire started somewhere the 'private' firefighters with their primitive equipment would station next to the building in question, while their employer would try to get the higher price from desperate owners for their services, knowing that with each second they may as well lose everything.

The previous queen never really paid attention to the safety of her subjects, so she wasn't interested in creating public emergency services of any sort. Sure she had her guards patrolling the capital, but they were more like spying on its citizens than maintaining the real peace. And even their definition of 'peace' was questionable, since they treated the city as their private playground with Eleanor's blessing.

When epidemic or fire would start somewhere, according to the old knight, the district in question would be simply isolated, perhaps few buildings in neighbourhood collapsed so it wouldn't spread, and then they would wait until it ended on its own.

Apparently, when shocked Lena asked what about local forces responsible for keeping peace, be it as the representatives of law (not necessarily straight subservient to the sovereign), healers or firemen, the poor nobleman had such vacant expression she only muttered something crude under her nose and stalked to the library to add few new items to her 'list'.

In this era there weren't any public schools, hospitals or just mentioned fire station, or 'police'. If you were sick and had enough money to actually hire so-called healers, they came to you. Not everyone was as altruistic as Gideon, who didn't have a heart to send people empty handed, without help, and thus most of the time the medical help was beyond reach for the lower classes.

The main reason why grandpa called by some the Wiseman was so ecstatic by Lena's plans was because it never occurred to him to reverse the situation within the country.

You couldn't afford a teacher? No problem, you will have a free public school. You don't have money for healer? Ohh, there would be few public hospitals with bed ready for you. Your house is on fire? Well, chill out, don't do something stupid, wait for the firefighters to arrive. You were mugged? Report it to the guards without fear they would be no better than your assailant from before.

The old Tamirian admitted that in most regions a country is usually treated like personal property of the sovereign. If you were lucky like Arans recently, you got a good king, sincerely caring for his subjects. If you weren't… Well, you got someone selfish like Eleanor. A total roulette…

The things of the modern lifestyle, the social 'privileges' you get for nothing and treat as something you have a right to, here becomes some surreal utopia. Rarely a monarch wants to give away so much power and influence by creating autonomous forces, in a way, managing a city for you, depriving you from the sometimes necessary edge while dealing with recalcitrant townsfolk.

The idea of offering townspeople so much support in their daily life without expecting anything in return, for their prosperity, simply because you couldn't watch it from the side, and thought they deserved something more from their country than the continuous increase of taxes boggled minds most of Lena's council members.

In their world, the peasants, the subjects were for a country. In Lena's and his, it was a tying agreement. You did something for a country, and country would do something for you in return, beside keeping you safe from war.

For modern person raised in the XXI century it wasn't something revolutionary, it was a standard.

Whatever these people expected while offering Lena a crown, it paled in comparison with the plans she had in mind for them. She admitted to him that since tossing them straight into the democracy would be too cruel and akin to shock therapy, she decided to do this in slow way, without them even noticing it.

People usually easily adapt to conveniences, it when you have to enforce something from then when the troubles starts…

And she had every intention to tempt them with the concept of modern society and its quirks within natural boundaries dictated by the cultural and time differences.

And why was Hyun-min brooding about his initial impressions of living in the Middle Ages? Well… he was at loss with something…

…Something like what to give to the teething baby without bringing any harm to it...

Truth be told, every previous idea seemed either dangerous since the rascal in question could easily swallow and choke on it, or the Korean's sense of hygiene banned it. He worried about infecting kid with numerous bacteria only waiting to pounce at Bran's still weak and developing immune system. This image caused the exotic man never-ending headache, doubled with little hellion's constant wailing.

If he was honest with himself, Hyun-min practically itched to scald with boiling water, just to be sure he got rid of the most of the dangerous germs from all things which Bran tended to put in his little mouth, which unfortunately was practically everything.

Most of the things the Korean managed to snatch in time – like his leather band – but that still left him with frustrated beyond belief child looking for any possible way to relieve the aching gums. If Bran had anything to say to it, he'd probably end up gnawing at Hyun-min's fingers, and even though the man already washed his hands numerous times, that still didn't solve the main problem, and besides the little guy had strong jaws…

So, here he was, a man raised in XXI century, deprived from basic plastic teething rings, silicon pacifiers, normal goddamn milk bottles, Pampers', desperately searching for some way out of this predicament without further damage to his own body.

Anything with wood in it was dangerous because of eventual splinters given the fact that brat put quite force into chomping at things. Hyun-min also had no idea with what they tended to lacquer the polished pieces of wooden toys. He heard that if you had enough money you could buy a chewing toy made out from ivory or other kind of bones. At the seaside people liked to create things out of coral, but he wasn't sure if that was any safer.

When you rule out metals, bones, wood, then what is left for you?

Too damn little.

Besides, it's not like Hyun-min had any money of his own, at least not the kind you could use here, where they still had actual golden coins. As much as his soaked at some point banknotes were exotic and people were curious just how they were manufactured, they didn't have any value beside this of an intriguing collection.

And it was second day since Bran was entrusted in his care. It's not like he could leave the little fellow to go shopping to the town, even if ultimately it was for the rascal's sake (well, his and Hyun-min's sanity sake)…

Hyun-min rummaged through the modern things he had on himself, but beside his cleaned waterproof iPhone Bran was currently toying with, there was nothing more to occupy the kid and his itching mouth.

Besides, it may be said the phone was waterproof, but was it saliva-proof? The Korean kept it switched-off to preserve the remnants of battery, and since the boy seemed immersed with his own reflection in the screen and few buttons it was safe for now.

It was late evening the same day, as he staggered with baby in tow to the kitchens for next fix of milk. A nice lady called Marry took a pity on him, his dark circles under his eyes and haggard expression and when nobody watched, smuggled into his pocket a firm piece of fruit, a pear maybe, tied inside a square of clean white muslin.

At first Hyun-min had no idea what was that for or how it worked, but Bran seemed to recognize the type of the toy and practically jumped at it eagerly once they were back in the alcove.

Thanks to almost sheer muslin the man didn't have to worry the brat will accidentally chomp a piece of fruit and choke on it, and soon after, as the baby worked its gums on it, the fruit gave a little bit of harmless if not nutritional refreshing liquid. The cloth provided an interesting chomping surface to explore, clearly a challenge, buying Hyun-min blessed moment of peace.

Honest to God! If he knew about it, he'd have sooner used this painfully simple diversion tactic.

The second day of his trial came to an end, next evening there was planned a farewell banquet, and the only thing Hyun-min could appreciate were few peaceful hours of rest…

Lucien paced back and forth in front of certain alcove, but try as he might he couldn't calm down. He knew Arena was partially right about trust and that she was grown-up already, in Ley's age no less, but all that knowledge and reassuring went right out of the window when he was thinking not about some hypothetical female but about his own baby sister.

Her he could trust, even if he worried about her inexperience, but him? Not so much…

He was wondering for the hundredth time what the hell wass he doing in front of these door at such late hour, a day before farewell feast, when the door suddenly opened and the amused male voice chuckled "Are you, Your Majesty, coming inside or not?"

The Tamirian reflexively frowned strongly at Frey and his casual tone, but the moment he noticed that the Aran in question wore only loosely fastened trousers riding low on his hipbones and nothing else save for weird fang necklace, the frown turned into full-blown glare.

Without any preliminary the king pushed by immensely entertained prince inside the room. Then he resumed his agitated pacing, while Frey leisurely lounged on the near sofa without bothering to dress up properly, patiently waiting for the accusations and threats.

When Lucien shot him brief annoyed glance from under his furrowed brows he noticed thin black tattoo around guy's right biceps and scowled even more.

"Prince Frey, I heard you are planning to return to Aran together with your siblings… I that still current?" the sovereign asked in polite tone, Arena's comments about baiting still fresh in his memory.

The merriment twinkling in man's colourful eyes was getting on Lucien's nerves nearly as much as the as it seemed endless patience and outward nonchalance, personified in his sprawled person "As the matter of fact, indeed, I am joining my siblings."

When nothing more followed, no further reassurance or explanation Lucien gritted his teeth and in cultural conversational tone accosted "I also heard you are mightily interested in old maps of all kinds. If that's so, then feel invited to Keunak's archives."

The Aran couldn't help himself and grinned mischievously "Eh? Another tempting offer only to keep me away from your lovely younger sister?"

Seeing that there was no reason anymore for pretence the king knitted his brows "Precisely. Arena is a lovely young woman, but I'm afraid that I sheltered her too much through the years. She has no knowledge of the real world and I'd appreciate if you stopped toying with her feelings…"

The mahogany brows raised up to the ceiling "As a man who knows what to means to have a sister I could even applaud to your speech, Your Majesty…" Frey cocked his head, his expression suddenly sober "But aren't you contradicting yourself? You blame yourself for sheltering your sister, and what are you doing at the moment, hmm?"

At reluctant scowl the Aran prince raised up from his seat and continued "I sympathize with you, my dear king, I really do. You see, I have exactly the same protective urges when it comes to Freya, even more so since we are twins. You probably will never know how it is to have such close sibling and I guess only other twins which spent together nine months in the womb of their mother will truly understand… But bear in mind, the line between brotherly love and suffocating overprotectiveness is really thin..."

"Naturally my dear sister was always far too fierce for her own good and there was never a moment she could be smothered with love between family, though my father sure did try… But even so, I can easily put myself in your shoes."

Before Lucien knew what was happening he was once again standing in front of the door, blinking in surprise at the understanding, jovial even face of Aran "As for you kind warning, duly noted. As for what I will do with it? Well, I have news for you, Your Highness… Whatever happens between Arena and me, IF anything will ever happen, stays between her and me. Period. No negotiations. No growling and hissing threats. Only this much, and as much. Now, I apologize, but I'm truly tired, Sire… I advise you to rest too. After all, in two days we have to move out. For the time being… Goodnight!"

With the last nearly cheerful word the door snapped shut in front of befuddled Lucien and his nose.