And in the mist there she rides
And castles are burning in my heart
And as I twist I hold tight
And I ride to work every morning wondering why
"Sit in the chair and be good now"
And become all that they told you
"Folken, don't you ever knock/?" Dilandu ran a hand through his hair. "Or is that something that's just not /done in Fanelia?"
"Forgive me for disturbing your--" Folken eyed the two sheepish-looking Dragonslayers under Dilandu's counterpane, Gatti and the other blond one whose name he could never remember. "--sleep, But we've arrived at the Asturian outpost."
"You don't have my permission to go," Dilandu snapped, and the two Slayers edged back under the covers, discreet escape thwarted.
"You did say," Folken continued, "that you wanted to go down and demand supplies in person."
"Right." Dilandu swung a leg over the bed and reached for his uniform, as unfazed as Folken was at his current state of undress. "Chesta. Gatti."
"Sir!" The Dragonslayers managed to look fully prepared for battle and orders even when stripped naked and in their commander's sheets.
"Go and round up the others for my escort. We'll finish this later." Dilandu shrugged into his jacket. "You're dismissed."
"Sir." The two boys got to their feet, scooped up their clothing, and bowed hastily to Folken and Dilandu on their way out the door. Folken returned a nod and a faint smile, which Chesta timidly echoed; Dilandu was too busy freeing his necklace from his collar to pay them any heed.
"Who's in charge of this pathetic little outpost?" Dilandu poured a glass of wine, eyeing the lush green land outside his window.
"Allen Schezar, an Asturian Knight of the Heavens." Folken shifted inside his cloak. "It's an honorable rank."
Dilandu snorted. "Honorable? They honor their finest warrior with a stockade fort and a post in the middle of nowhere?" He tossed back his wine and sniffed disdainfully. "They'll be better off once we've wiped them from the map. All right then, let's go and meet this Allen Schezar. I'd like to see just how flammable the place is."
She jumped, hand instinctively twitching for her hip even though there was no comforting weight of steel there. Her smile, she knew, was uneasy. "Just thinking."
Allen frowned a bit, and Celena braced herself for one of her brother's 'really don't you think you should' speeches.
"Celena, don't you think you should--"
"Allen," she began, and pointedly ignored his flinch at the use of his name instead of the familiar 'Brother', "You know I would be miserable in the capital. I'm much happier here."
Allen gestured to his stockade, which was nothing more than new rough-timber walls filled with tents to house the men until the fort interior was completed. "This is no place for a young lady."
"I would rather your company than that of young ladies," Celena said quietly, one hand curling around the top of the battlement as if to keep her from being removed. "I'm not a flower; I will not wilt."
"You are a flower. You should be kept in a garden, not in the wilderness." Allen lifted her chin, and it took all of Celena's will and love of her brother not to rail at the near-pity in his eyes. At least he looked her in the eye. Not so those idiot princesses he would have been quite happy to leave her with, back in Palas. They were afraid of her, they spoke to her neck, they talked in lowered voices. What dress would you prefer, Lady Celena? Would you care for a veil until your hair grows out, Celena? Oh, It must be a relief not to remember anything, Celena.
I remember, dammit. I remember everything. You think I would forget my men? My life? The roll of a deck beneath my feet, the hum of a melef between my legs? It is only for love of my brother that I say I have no memory; it is only to ease his heart.
"Flowers grow just as well in the countryside, my Brother." Celena reached up and gently pulled his hand away. "Better, in fact. They are stronger, they don't break in a heavy rain." She kissed his knuckles and smiled at him, and felt a little of the tension seep out of his fingers as he smiled back.
She had learned that there were advantages to big blue eyes and a strategic pout, some of the few weapons left to her.
"I think I will spend my life letting you walk all over me," Allen said, but his eyes were grateful. "All right then, I'd rather you be with me as well, I simply fear I am doing you an injustice, making you live like this."
"It's no hardship." Celena ruffled her cropped silver hair. "It's unbearably stifling in the capital."
"I think I might be depriving Palas of a lovely young lady."
Celena sighed. "Palas has enough lovely young ladies."
Allen inhaled as if to speak, but his sister placed a hand on his chest, stilling him. "Yes, Yes, I know it would please you if I became friends with the Princess Millerna. But honestly, Allen, I'd have to get her away from that Eries. She has promise of being an interesting individual, if she can just get out of her lily-white gloves long enough."
Allen opened his mouth, sure to extol the virtues of the princesses of the Royal house, but was fortunately interrupted by a shout from below. Much to Celena's relief, for if she had to hear one more word about the perfect blonde plaster saints of Palas she was going to hang her head over the side of the stockade and retch.
"I'll be right down!" Allen called, leaning on the battlement wall, and Gaddes raised a hand to acknowledge that he'd heard.
"Be a good girl and stay out of trouble." Allen kissed his sister on the forehead, and hurried down to assist Gaddes with the latest wrinkle in fort construction.
Celena sank down against the wall, resting her hips on the rough wood flooring of the battlement walk. She lifted her face to the high, blue sky, and closed her eyes to the bright sunshine, warmth soaking into her skin.
Are you sad, sir?
"Maybe a little, Chesta."
His armor didn't rattle as he sat down beside her. Aren't you happy to be with your brother?
"He treats me like I'm made of glass."
Chesta's eyes went wide in surprise. You? But he knows who you are, doesn't he?
"He would rather not, I'm sure."
He should be proud. You are an excellent pilot; you've bested him before.
"Women are not supposed to be melef pilots."
Chesta raised his eyebrows. You're not just any woman, Dilandu-sama. You are our commander. You will always be our commander. Your shape is irrelevant.
"You were always very generous, Chesta."
It is the truth, sir/. Chesta looked up at the sky, and smiled faintly. /I was a girl too, once.
Chesta nodded, arms circling his knees. When I was three. I don't remember. I wouldn't choose to go back. You're very strong to try. His eyes narrowed at his commander. I would follow you, sir. I would follow you beyond the grave/. He leaned close, lips brushing one pale cheek. /It doesn't matter to us, sir. It never mattered to us.
"Is your tent so uncomfortable, miss?"
Celena started awake, blinking. The sun had slipped perhaps an hour's time in the sky, and her head felt light. "I -- I must have dozed off."
Gaddes offered a hand and helped haul her to her feet, dusting wood shavings off her borrowed shirt as if she were a ten year old boy with dirty knees. "The boss'll think we're not taking proper care of you, letting you sleep on the wall like this."
Celena amended her previous thought. Gaddes had always looked her in the eye, he and the handful of Allen's men that had been there on the battlefield. He didn't treat her like she would shatter, either, which was a pleasant change of pace.
"I'm all right, Gaddes, Just dozed off in the sun, I suppose. Not much else for me to do. Allen won't let me work." She shielded her eyes, squinting at the sky. "What time is it?"
"Suppertime in about three hours." Gaddes shoved his hands in his pockets, strolling along the guard-walk, clearly expecting her to follow. "My men have taken to measuring time by the next break, I'm afraid I've picked up the habit. Gruel's getting tiring though, don't you think?"
"It's better than nothing." Celena tightened her sash. She was in Allen's clothes, flatly refusing to drag about a military outpost in a long satin skirt. The boots and breeches helped her feel a little more like herself--whoever that was.
"Ah, I was just thinking," Gaddes continued, as they ducked the low beams of the stair-tower on their way down, "How nice it would be if we had men to spare for a hunting party. Too bad, though, they're all busy. And we lost our best hunters during the war." He paused at the bottom step and looked up at her, his smile in his eyes. "Don't suppose you know how to handle a dagger, do you miss?"
Celena edged down the last three steps, slowly. "Allen would drop dead at the thought of me riding out of the fort unescorted."
Gaddes whistled something aimlessly. "Just so happens," he said, pointedly looking the other way, "that the boss's down on the south side there, using Sharazade to re-route the water canal to the fort, here. Won't be done for hours."
Celena felt her heart pick up a bit, as if she just realized the door to her birdcage was hanging open and unguarded. Gaddes jerked his thumb in the direction of the east gate. "Funny, that," he said, ambling away, "I just saw a horse all saddled up over there. Wonder whose it is, don't you?"
"Gaddes--" Celena hesitated, wondering what the catch was.
Gaddes stopped to glance over his shoulder. "Well, get goin', girl. And try to get some rabbit, maybe. I've not had it in ages."
Celena took off like a shot, not breaking stride from run to mount, as she hooked one boot into the stirrup and was out the gate before she was even seated in the saddle. Gaddes grinned at the trail of dust and continued on his way, whistling.
"What's it like, having a brother?" Out of uniform, in the silence of his bedchamber, it was easier to talk to Folken, his sorcerer's cape and Dilandu's spiked shoulder armor discarded between them, a willing vulnerability of skin.
Folken frowned, as though looking for words. "Have you no family of your own?"
Dilandu shrugged, shifting in the warm hollow of Folken's shoulder. "My Dragonslayers are my family."
"Aa. Of course." Folken gazed at the ceiling, thoughtfully. "It is often difficult. Especially to be older. An older brother is looked up to, imitated." His metal fingertips were careful on the curve of Dilandu's cheek. "It can make it hard for both of them, one to create expectations and the other to live up to them. Sometimes, if either one expects too much," He looked at his hand, the metal joints moving smoothly as he clenched his fist, "disappointment is inevitable."
Sometimes, Dalet could be found singing as he worked on his melef, humming quietly under his breath. And Folken would whistle when he was thinking, an unconscious sort of tune amid the equipment of his lab, something so unlike him that Dilandu had to catch him at it several times before he believed Folken even knew how to whistle.
No one in the Zaibach empire had ever sung like Allen's men did, digging foundations out as they rebuilt the main fort. Gaddes led, walking along the ridge of the ditch in the sunset, the shovels at his feet flailing out dirt in time with the workers' echoed stanzas. It was a wild, determined sort of music, the sort of thing good to work to, and Celena's fingers and hands found it infectious. The sharp tip of her knife moved in cadence to slit-belly strip-fur clean-carcass. She might even have been humming as she went from the last of the fat fel-rats to the basket of fish, glad for Pyle's advice on how to make a good weir. They'd had fresh meat every night for five days now, and as Allen had been mostly too busy with his men to ask what she'd been doing, her daily disappearances hadn't been questioned. The men knew where she went, of course, but there were secrets kept among soldiers that the commanders never knew, and Celena, most definitely not a commander now, found herself strangely content at the silent camaraderie. She certainly wasn't bored anymore.
"/A san na hi vahina van sa, a san na vi la esa/--"
Gaddes has a good voice, she thought, stripping off scales in a rain of silver about her boots.
"Don't think I don't know what you've been up to."
She startled, just a little, lulled into complacency by her chore and the sunset and the sound of singing. That would have to stop; Dilandu would never have been so easily snuck up on. No doubt her sword arm was falling into disrepair as well.
"Up to, Brother?" It was hard to look innocent, with briar-scratches visible on her arms, her sleeves rolled up and her hands in fish-slime. Her pale skin was golden from riding in the sun.
Allen had disapproval written all over him, from the set of his jaw to the angle of his boot-toes. "You're running wild like a weed."
"Would you rather eat gruel, Allen, or would you rather I stay locked in my room?" She brought her knife down hard, in time with the music, and the fish's head came off with a defiant thump of steel into wood.
Allen made an impatient noise, spinning away. "Just don't get in trouble. And make sure you get enough for everybody, I don't want them fighting over food." He walked away, the line of his back still too stiff, the posture of a man who has made difficult compromises.
Celena smiled anyway. "Thank you, Allen," she said to his retreating shape, and went back to filleting the diamond trout.
However, two weeks later, she found out that hunting in the woods within bowshot of the stockade was one thing--
And melefs were quite another.
"D'you see it?"
Celena, draped on the arm of one of the standard combat issue melefs, had a better view of the cockpit than Gaddes did. "Yes, the sub-coupling has come loose. It's not making contact with the motion modifier."
"That'll sure as hell keep this thing from moving." Gaddes pulled his head out of the service hatch, and drummed his fingers on the melef housing. "We'll have to get a replacement for it, damn. I was hoping we could fix it here."
Celena dangled her legs over the arm, humming absently as she peered at the eviscerated melef. "You could always re-route the coupling current to the modifier; the Zaibach models never bothered with a sub-connector. Everything was wired directly."
Gaddes blinked. "How'd you keep from frying the pilot?"
Celena grinned. "Zaibach melefs had the pilot in an amniotic womb-cockpit. The fluid kept the currents stable, and transmitted commands much faster. They responded almost on instinct."
"Must have overheated all the time," Gaddes grumbled, poking about in the melef's innards.
"They did, but they were fast and clean and --" she trailed off, and went back to polishing a small section of melef armor with her sleeve.
"You remember more than you let on to the boss," Gaddes said knowingly, rapping a wrench on the underside of the arm to get her attention. "What were they like, melefs that top of the line? Even Allen's Sharazade was sluggish next to 'em." He looked up at the vented cockpit. "Musta been weird, wearing a bloody aquarium while you were fighting."
"No," Celena said, tracing small transparent patterns on the shining patch of metal. "It was warm. Warm and pulsing and you didn't feel the weight of the melef at all, it was all part of you. Once the collar floated up into the lock you knew you were secured in, not sliding loose in straps like air-cockpits. It didn't even feel like liquid. It was like being squeezed gently, like se--"
Gaddes coughed and Celena shook herself, blinking. "Sorry."
"No, it's all right, Miss. I asked." Gaddes put a hand on his hip and sighed. "You must miss it."
"I wouldn't dare tell Allen." Celena looked at the yawing cockpit cradle that looked like nothing so much as a body without a soul. "But I do. I dream about it, all the time. I wake up and swear I can still smell the fluid on me. It would break Allen's heart; I know how much he wants me to have nothing to do with any of it."
"Well you can take the pilot out of the melef but you can't take the--" Gaddes frowned. "You know what I mean. It's bred in you, girl. And not just by Zaibach. Allen was a natural, first time he got in one. How long did you pilot one?"
"Six years," Celena slithered down off the arm, and tugged her shirt straight. "Starting when I was ten. And I trained all my Slayers myself."
"They were loyal, those were," Gaddes said quietly. Celena only nodded once, staring up at the melef. "Tell you what," Gaddes said, pointing across the hangar, "there's a 8-36 Heimzhein over there--it's not much but the harness panel is Zaibach-make, we picked it up after the battle. Why don't you give it a try?"
Celena blinked. "But--" she looked back at the empty melef, hunger on her face.
"I'll take the flack. Go on. No sense letting a good pilot go to waste."
"I think you live to get me into trouble," Celena said, grinning as she hooked her foot on the second rung of the access ladder, and pulled herself up.
"I don't think you need the help," Gaddes muttered, but Celena was settling into the cockpit, and did not hear him.
There was no rush of liquid to flood around her and give her the familiar feeling of weightlessness, but the harness curved just so against the back of her knees, and her fingers knew the shape of the armature by heart. It was like being back in the embrace of a lover, comfortable and unconscious. Celena let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding.
"How's it feel?" Gaddes called up, leaning against the melef-cradle.
"Perfect," Celena breathed, listening to the straps creak as she lifted the melef's arm in an affirmative.
Gaddes rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Say, there hasn't been anybody to do the response tests on that one; nobody familiar with the setup. You wouldn't mind helping me out, would you? We can go in the practice yard."
"Wouldn't Allen mind?" Celena felt a sudden surge of guilt, wondering if maybe she should climb out and forget how good it felt.
"I've never known the boss to complain about work getting finished," Gaddes said reasonably, climbing into one of the basic melefs.
Celena wasn't sure about that when she was involved, but Gaddes's melef was already moving out into the practice yard, and in the motion of her own she forgot about anything else, even Allen.
"Nice work on that block," Pyle was saying, shielding his eyes from the hot sun and its glare on the melefs. "Gaddes must have finally talked the boss into running the tests on that Zaibach model. I couldn't make heads or tails of it."
Reeden frowned thoughtfully. "I don't know," he said, squinting down at the dirt practice yard. "You sure that's Allen?"
"Gotta be-- wow, lookit that counter parry-- nobody else that good."
"Yeah." Reeden shook his head. "Real damn good, since he's walking across the practice yard."
Pyle leaned over the stockade, disbelief on his face. "No way. Then who's piloting that melef?"
Allen, stalking over to the dirt ring, was afraid he knew the answer to that question.
"Have you both taken leave of your senses?" Allen demanded, harshly enough to make his owl stir on the perch, as if wondering what could make his usually subdued master slam the door to his room like that. "Gaddes, I expected better of you, at least."
Gaddes frowned. "Miss Celena was just helping me out, Boss. She's got a good touch for melefs, I thought--"
Allen whirled. "I don't know what you thought, but I will not have my sister treated like a common soldier. We will discuss this later. Celena, go to your room."
Celena did not move, her head lowered. Little sparkles of pain burst in her palms, fingernails digging small crescent moons into her skin. Something had been straining to break in her since Allen's voice had stopped their combat practice, since he had chided her like a little girl caught playing with her father's sword, patted her head and said melefs weren't for ladies. "No."
Allen lifted his head. "What was that?"
"I will not go to my room." Celena tossed her hair back. "You will not discuss this with Gaddes later, you will discuss this now, and you will discuss it with me. It was my choice to get into that cockpit."
Allen's expression softened, he took his sister by the shoulders. "I don't blame you, Celena. I'm sure it looked like fun. But it must have strained you, you should go lie down."
"Who do you think I am?" Celena snapped, jerking violently backwards. "One of your pretty princesses? Or our mother?" Allen flinched, but she would not relent, it had waited too long unsaid. "Tell me, Brother, what really frightened you out there. Was it that I was piloting a melef?" Her blue eyes narrowed. "Or was it that I was good at it?"
"You're overexcited," Allen said, an edge of steel in his cosseting tone. "Go to your room."
"Do you think that will solve everything?" Celena demanded. "Go to your room, do this, don't do that, be this, be that, don't talk about the past, poor little girl, how awful it must have been for you. That's what you think, isn't it? You ask me to throw away ten years of my life! Ten years of who I am! My men gave their lives for me and you would have me cast them, and everything they meant to me, aside for the sake of flowers and a satin dress?"
"It wasn't you," Allen said sharply. "that monster they turned you into--"
"Damn you!" Celena shouted, eyes flashing purple. "I'm not a little six-year old girl! It would make it easier for you if I was, wouldn't it? If I'd been returned to you in curls and flounces with a doll under my arm! That's what you want of me, isn't it? God forbid I do or say anything that might tarnish your perfect image! But that isn't what you got, no matter how you might wish it so."
"Be silent!" Allen thundered. "I will not be spoken to like--"
"I am Dilandu!" Celena shrieked, and it was Allen who went silent in shock. "Dilandu is me! We are one person, for good or ill. I have commanded armies, I have burned and been blooded and I know battle as well as you, brother mine." Her mouth twisted bitterly. "But it was all swept under the rug, wasn't it? Brushed aside."
Allen put his hands flat on the desk. "There was no reason for you to stand trial! You were not acting under your own will!"
"Oh, no, of course not." Her imitation of Millerna's court speech was jarringly accurate. " 'Poor little Celena, brainwashed and abused, for surely she had no part in what Dilandu did. She can't be expected to bear the blame or the shame of that name, can't be held responsible for those crimes. We mustn't speak of it, poor fragile thing, it would upset her.' "
"They only wanted to protect you--"
"By obliterating who I am!" Celena shook her head violently. "I will not be protected from my own conscience! All I have done, carefully covered up, and I bear in silence the death-guilt of thousands. Fanelia, Asturia, Freid. At least if I had been tried and sentenced I could have gone to my execution with my head held high, and die with some shred of respect for myself, like those who died for me. By what right should I have to bear all the guilt and none of the pride? Why should I forget who I was and what I did? Why should the dead be denied their justice?" She flung up her arm to point at Allen, "Because it might shame you, Allen Schezar, Knight of the Heavens, if the world knew that your little doll of a sister was a flaming terror, and she brought you to your knees."
The silence that followed was ringing, punctuated only by Celena's ragged breathing and the disturbed rustle of Allen's owl. Celena's last words had struck Allen like a blow, and Gaddes was looking nervously between him and Celena as though painfully aware of his own presence. The scrape of Celena's borrowed boots was enough to make Gaddes jump, stepping back as she walked past him and out the door. Halfway down the corridor he heard her break into a run, and the distant sound of a slamming door. Allen had not moved, his eyes on his desk, curtain of hair shielding his face.
"Gaddes," Allen said, his voice deceptively calm, "if you would be good enough to shut the door behind you."
Gaddes hesitated, but in the end did as he was told. It was best, he told himself, to just not get involved.
A week passed and he was starting to change his mind. Not that there had been any further outburst, or even mention of the previous one. Celena had Allen's ability to bury fire under ice, and they would pass each other with a polite nod and go on their separate ways, with all the warmth of Fanelia at midwinter. If Celena spent more time than usual hunting in the woods and if Allen's light burned too late and he emptied a bottle a night, well, that wouldn't be any business of Allen's second in command.
It might, however, be the business of his best friend.
Gaddes figured that at worst he'd get dismissed from his post, but that didn't worry him much. It wouldn't be the first time.
They'd wanted to throw the armor away, but Celena hadn't let them, just as she hadn't let them remove the chain of beads around her throat in the hopes of replacing it with some more feminine, sophisticated jewelry. Pearls, perhaps. Or sapphires, to match her eyes. Celena had politely declined. The beads were dragonblood stone, from the eastern islands, and Miguel had given them to Dilandu. Celena would no sooner take off the necklace than she would her own head.
Allen hadn't paid any heed to the small purple beads, but a full set of Zaibach armor, in distinct crimson, might have been more difficult to explain. Celena had buried it under clothes she'd gotten in Palas, the skirts and gloves and frilly dresses not suited to the eastern frontier. It would have been impossible for her to procure a false-bottom trunk for herself, but the Mole had helped her with that before they left the capital.
Her bed was strewn with pastel silk and kid leather before she got to the bottom, and pressed her hand on the thin wood panel. It gave at her touch, and her hands closed around something cool and sleek, a finer thing to her than any of the frippery scattered around her bedroom.
Dragon leather. Ridiculously rare, since the process to harvest it was delicate and complicated. Only the animal tribes of the eastern mountains had the knack of it, of keeping the skin intact despite the dragon's almost instant decomposition. It was supple and thin, but did not tear unless cut and repelled liquid without leaving a trace of damp, insulated against heat and cold. It was perfect for melefs, as it kept the cockpit fluid out and was never too warm. Dilandu would have his slayers equipped with nothing less.
Celena pressed her face to the material. It was cool and smelled of leather and sweat and melef fluid, and faintly of smoke. She wasn't used to putting it on by herself. But her fingers knew the fastenings and her new rough wood door was fitted with a sturdy brass lock, so she slid her fingers through the sleeves and felt the weight of the armor settle on her shoulders. She polished the buckles absently, running her fingers over the straps. Her sword belt was missing; Allen had taken it, and she didn't know where it had gone.
He'd given her a mirror, one like the Princesses had, floor length in an ebony frame. Celena recognized it; it had been her mother's. She was not sure what her mother would think of her daughter's reflection, wearing crimson armor, hair cut short like a boy's. Surely it was flattering, though, and suited her? Celena had her father's height, as Allen did, tall for a girl. She was strong and she was smart, and she would not turn back into Dilandu even if she could, but by the same token, she would not turn away from him. Wasn't there pride in that, something a mother and a brother could admire?
Celena remembered the rustle of her mother's skirts, and let the jacket slide from her shoulders. She would find no sympathy from the boy reflected in her mother's mirror.
Dilandu had not been the sympathetic type.
"Boss?" Gaddes knew his captain well, well enough to know when he should bother to knock and when he should dispense with the formalities. This was one of the latter. "I was wondering if I could talk to you for a second."
Allen had his chair out on the balcony, watching the flare of the watchfires, the shadow of his men in the camp below. The fort was nearly completed, but the night was sticky-warm with early summer and most of them were content to sleep outside anyway. "I was wondering when you would turn up." Allen tilted his head to the cupboard beside his desk. "Get yourself a cup."
Gaddes smiled a little. He'd been right to wait until later, when Allen was half-way though his bottle. Vino made some men more prone to argument, but in Allen it had always produced a mellow sort of melancholy, and Gaddes knew the best, most thoughtful conversations he'd had with him had been when Allen was three cups in. Gaddes opened the cabinet, choosing a plain clay goblet. Allen's crystal made him nervous.
Allen didn't say anything until Gaddes had filled his cup and taken a drink from it, both of them watching the blue moon rising on the horizon. "Have you any family, Gaddes?"
Gaddes lifted his shoulder. "None to speak of, sir. Except the men, I guess."
"hm." Allen swirled the liquid in his chalice.
"Of course," Gaddes continued, "I've wished I had, now and again."
Allen might have laughed, under his breath. "I'm afraid I can't see you settling down with a wife and family."
"Can't you?" Gaddes grinned broadly. "Ah, well, I suppose my life doesn't make for a good husband, being a soldier and all."
"I would say your temperament more than your lifestyle." Allen drained his cup, refilled it. "I can't see you letting a wife boss you around and darn your socks for you."
"Ah, well." Gaddes winked. "I wouldn't really want a girl to darn my socks, anyway. That's the problem with most women-- they aren't brought up to be anything but wives." He toasted the blue moon, serene now over the forest. "I always thought I'd like a lady like our Hitomi, Tough, like. Good to talk to. Sharp. Don't get me wrong, I'd like a looker like any other man, but that sort of thing doesn't last. I've known too many men who married a pretty face and wound up miserable when they realized it was all they knew. No--" He took a long drink, and sighed. "Find me a woman who knows who she is and isn't afraid to say so, and maybe I'll think about marrying her."
Allen was silent for a very long moment, and his tone was half wry and half accusing when he answered. "I expect you to ask for my blessing, next."
Gaddes looked at him sidelong. "I just might, someday. Of course, I'd have to get in line."
Allen blinked. "In line?"
"I realize," Gaddes said, "You've been rather busy, and so you might not have noticed that the entire fort is in love with your sister."
Allen started up. "Has anyone dared to--"
"Keep you hair on, Boss." Gaddes cut in easily. "For one thing, they all know what you don't seem to be able to grasp, which is Celena is more than capable of taking care of herself, and she could kick any one of their sorry asses, I'd put money on that. And before you start off on them treating her like a common soldier, you might take a good hard look the next time she walks through camp. She's your blood, and they know it, a Lady, and they know they aren't good enough." He scratched his head, rueful. "Neither am I, come to that. But they'd follow her like they'd follow you, out of love, but out of respect, too. I think it seems to run in the family. You saw how Dilandu's boys fought for him, and they were just kids."
Allen sank slowly back into the chair. "I cannot imagine that monster and my sister as the same person."
"Nobody is asking you to." Gaddes put his cup down on the table. "But I think someone is just asking for a little respect from you, the same way you wanted respect when you were first stationed here. You only had to prove yourself once. She's having to do it over and over." Gaddes put a hand on Allen's shoulder. "Listen, Allen. I know she's not what you expected. But maybe you should find out who she is before trying to turn her into someone else. You might like her better than you thought."
Celena was throwing knives over by the west side of the stockade in the combat training yard. There were targets there, and once the second moon had risen there was enough light from the two moons and the torches of the fort to see clearly enough. It was something she had never practiced much before, but found she liked the clean motion of it better than a bow for hunting, and was glad for a new skill to give her something to think about. None of the men trained at this hour, although sometimes Gaddes would come along and talk with her, and offer pointers as if they were things she already knew and he was merely mentioning them.
She threw her sixth and last knife, frowned as it missed the mark by a full three inches, and walked over the hard-packed earth to wriggle the training blades free of the pitted whitewashed target.
"You've a good eye to do so well at this hour."
Celena jerked the last knife free more out of surprise than strength. Allen's pale hair and white shirt caught the moonlight like a phantom, but his face was shadowed. "I'd rather do it after sunset," she said, wondering if there was an impending armistice or ultimatum. "It's quieter. I can think better."
Allen stopped just before reaching the scuffed mark Celena had toed in the dirt, ten paces from the target. "Will you show me?"
Celena hesitated. It was unlike Allen to ask for things; he was far too used to giving commands. She looked for the usual signs of disapproval on him, but his hand was loose on his hips and the moons did not show her much beyond his shape and the light on his hair. She rattled the tossing knives in her hands, uneasy. "All right."
The first knife missed badly, only just managing to hit the target.
"It must be hard to see," Allen said.
"No." Celena would not let him blame her error on the darkness. The white paint on the target gleamed, and it was flanked by two torches. "I'm just not used to being watched." She palmed the second knife and threw it; it landed better than the first, nearly center. Allen made a faint noise as though shifting his weight, but said nothing. Celena threw until she was out of knives again, three of them neatly buried in the smallest ring. She waited, breathing rather harder than usual.
Allen walked silently to the target and wrenched the knives out, then came back and dropped all of them but one into the dirt at his sister's feet. "Here," he said, and reached out for her hand. Celena felt a slight twinge of shame; Allen's gloves were whiter than the moonlight, immaculate, and her own hands were grubby from a day of work. The expected comment about young ladies and their hands was left unsaid, instead Allen placed the knife in her palm, and curled her fingers around it slightly differently than her usual method of holding it.
"Like this." He moved around behind her and she was painfully aware of his height, but forgot the awkwardness when he spoke again. "Put your leg back. You won't lose balance as you throw, and that can make a difference in your aim." His boot nudged her instep until she had her foot where he wanted it, and he held her hand as if dancing with her, bringing her arm up and back. "bring your arm back to here, and use your wrist when you throw. It will put more force in it."
He went through the motion with her twice, slowly, then stepped away. Celena felt suddenly cold despite the summer air, hand clammy on the knife handle.
"Go on," He said, and she nodded, swallowing. Her throat felt dry. She arched back like he had shown her, her wrist snapping forward as the knife left it. There was a solid thock of metal into wood, and the knife buried itself to the hilt in the target.
Any other time she would have been gleaming with pride at such a throw, but instead she glanced nervously at Allen, not sure what kind of test this was, or how she was expected to pass.
Allen only inclined his head, as if acknowledging a greeting from one of his men. "Good. Throwing like that puts less strain on your arm. If I'd known how to do it like that when I was living in the woods, I would have probably eaten better."
Celena tilted her head, confused. "Living in the woods?" Never to her knowledge had her brother lived anywhere besides their family home in Palas and here.
"I've been thinking," Allen said, not answering her questioning tone, "And I do not like the idea of my sister riding in the forest unprotected. As it is, I cannot allow you to carry on as you have been."
Celena stiffened, a sudden surge of anger making her blood pound in her ears. As if Allen could not see the knife sunk into the target, had not felt the strength in her hands. "Am I to have an escort at all times, then?"
Allen shook his head. "I can't spare my men for something like that."
Celena fought for something to say, but fury left her unexpectedly silent, and her eyes burned. She turned away, staring hard at the target, her blurred vision showing her three knives instead of one. She would not cry in front of him. She bit her lip until she tasted blood, but the tears came anyway, hot against her face.
"I don't like it," Allen said, and she sensed him moving closer. "But it seems I have no choice." He let out his breath, as if he had reached a hard decision. "You will have to look after yourself. But you must swear to me that you will not leave the fort unarmed, and that you will tell me or Gaddes when you go."
Celena forgot her tears, turning. "Unarm--" She blinked hard, unconvinced that the object Allen held was what she thought it was.
The sword was curved faintly, Zaibach make, and the belt was wound around the hilt. Allen held it out to her one handed, and while part of his expression seemed to say that he hoped she would not take it, the rest of him seemed to think that the sword was a burden he'd held on to for far too long, and there was relief in his eyes when her slim hands wrapped around the sheath, and he let it go. "You are my sister, but I cannot say, as much as I would like to, that that is all you are. I trust the warrior in you will look after the woman." He turned his head, and his hair fell like a curtain across his face. "Look after my sister."
Celena was shaking; she watched the swordbelt shivering in her unsteady hands. "...thank you."
"I have done you an injustice." Allen lifted his head, and there was something terrible in his eyes. Celena never thought to see fear on her brother's face. "and a dishonor. As a knight that is enough shame. As a brother it is inexcusable. I would have had myself flawless in your eyes as my flawless image of you, but there is no truth in that for either of us." He looked at her, and for the first time Celena felt he was looking at the woman in front of him, her boy's clothes, her short hair, the sword in her hands, the eyes the same as his. "Forgive me."
She collided with him hard enough to make him stagger, and dropped the sword when she realized she could not both hold it and embrace him. He folded his arms around her, and she felt a hollow place in her fill up and smooth over, as if it had never been emptied.
"There is much I haven't told you." Allen said, into her hair. "About me, about Father. I had thought I was sparing you, but in truth I was afraid of your disappointment."
Celena shook her head into his chest, her fingers curled around the collar of his shirt. "I am your sister, and I have been your worst enemy. There is nothing you can tell me that will give you shame in my eyes." She stepped away, scrubbing at her face with her hands. Kneeling, she picked up the sword, and her fingers moved over the design on the hilt. "There is much I haven't told you, the things I remember, the people who were dear to me." She clutched the sword to her chest. "But I want you to know them. I want you to know /me/."
Allen looked up at the moons. "It's late."
Celena shivered. "Don't you dare try to send me to bed."
"No, I thought we could talk." He paused, realizing how much he didn't know. "Do you like vino? I never thought to ask."
She was laughing without sound, nodding before she could speak. "Yes, I do."
Allen turned to walk back towards the fort, but hesitated, his eyes searching Celena's face for a moment. He offered her his arm awkwardly, like a young boy expecting rejection. Celena paused only a moment, then wordlessly placed her hand on the crook of his elbow. Allen smiled, and memory burst behind Celena's eyes, brilliant, overwhelming, a thousand forgotten images and smells and feelings, locked somewhere inside her mind.
"Are you all right?"
Celena shook herself, glad for his arm. "Yes... I'm all right."
He waited until she lifted her head, and then led her into the fort, matching his pace for hers. The torchlight threw their shadows in front of them, leaping and merging. But when the moonlight caught them Celena could clearly see a shape she knew for her own, her brother on one hand, her sword in the other.
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