Berran cautioned her ward to silence with a raised hand. Her other hand rested on her sword hilt as she edged towards the window. Viatrese held her breath as if even its slightest motion would set off a tempest. Branches rustled. The night shadows outside swelled in the shape of a man.
Berran pressed her right shoulder against the wall as she drew. The intruder shifted his weight.
“Berran, the door.”
Her ears told her what she needed to know. A coordinated attack, not a lone assassin. In a way, it was a compliment. A blood-daughter of Viatrese’s lineage would only have the best of bodyguards, and Berran understood her skills well enough to accept that distinction.
She also would have been just fine with being underestimated.
The man in the tree jumped, landing on the windowsill. Berran lunged. He swung aside, dropping to the floor. The door burst open. No crack of wood; the attackers had a key. She wasn’t surprised.
She stabbed down. He caught her sword on his blade. The figure in the doorframe–taller, broader, in padded armor–charged towards the bed. Viatrese rolled off, landing behind Berran. Berran didn’t want to allow the first man time to recover, but she had no choice. She spun to confront the larger man. Her sword glanced off his arm, forcing him back a step.
The first man tried to dodge past her. She blocked him, knocking his blade aside. She buffeted him with her arm, sent him sprawling. Once again, she couldn’t follow through on her advantage: his ally was instantly upon her.
Three rapid exchanges showed her where his weakness was. She drove the blade beneath the padding under his arm. He staggered back. She shoved him into his ally. The smaller man struggled against the weight, but was able to brace himself quickly enough to use the injured man as a shield. Berran broke off, took a half step back. The smaller man let the other slide to the floor. A muffled groan rose up.
Once free, he snarled and lunged. Berran let him come. She faced him unflinching until it was almost too late. A flick of her wrist brought her sword under and around his blade, catching the hilt. A twist, and it flew out of his grasp.
The clatter of its landing echoed absurdly. Voices stirred outside. The assassin turned to flee, then drew up short, as he found himself confronting a brick wall where the window had been. Berran gave him no time to contemplate. She knocked him out from behind.
The illusion dissolved, miniature fibers of light swallowed by the moon. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything earlier,” Viatrese said. “It all happened so fast.”
Berran turned to face the princess. Viatrese was currently raven-haired, slender as fashion dictated. Like every member of the blood, she could change her shape. Every face she had worn had one thing in common: Berran wanted to gather her close and shelter her. She felt, as always, like a looming giant, and a homely one. Her skin was rough copper, her hair cropped and dull corn in hue; she had lost most of one ear in a training bout.
“Your only responsibility to me,” she said, “is to let me protect you.”
“Then I suppose I failed my responsibility to myself, to always be of use.” Viatrese flashed a strained smile.
Berran shook her head. Viatrese was already doing more than anyone could have asked, traveling to a hostile kingdom to marry a prince she had never met. The alliance would end the threat of war between the two realms…a war which their home of Taona would lose. That this attack had occurred in Anaras did not bode well. Their hosts had clearly been involved.
It was not a detail Berran intended to mention. “You’ve given us a chance to get answers,” she said. “That’s no small thing.”
The royal steward barged in, followed by members of the household. Answers would have to wait.
The assassins would not reveal who had hired them. Berran left the manor with only the promise of thorough interrogation. She downplayed her concerns to Viatrese, who had enough to worry about.
Viatrese distracted herself by creating folktales and epic poems in miniature. Berran recognized some of the stories. The talent for illusion was rare among the blood. Berran admired Viatrese’s gift of details, tiny flecks of imperfection that bound everything together.
Upon their arrival in Anaras’ capital, Viatrese was presented to King Feldar, his queen Thiora, high warlord Urnek, coinmaster Sagilin, interminable other advisors, and prince Diyan. Her intended always wore a handsome face and directed every conversation to the subject of hunting hawks.
“He has a passion,” Viatrese said to Berran that night. “That’s a good thing.”
Berran confined her response to a nod. She wondered if Diyan would have his new bride looking like a hawk. To the blood, shapeshifting was vanity, not disguise: they sensed the person beneath the face. Berran had the knack as well, rare among humans. It was partly why she had such an important ward…and she would have known Viatrese anywhere.
The day of the marriage ceremony was dismal and foggy. A thousand candles lit the royal temple, but failed to enliven the stained glass windows. The pressure of bodies made it hot without relieving the damp. This was the first time in weeks Berran had not been within five paces of her ward, and her veins itched. The reassurances of the royal guard only made her study every angle they might have missed.
The bell sounded, echoing deep in her spine. On opposite sides of the hall, doors opened. As tradition dictated, bride and groom were cloaked and gloved, not even a flash of wrist for distinguishing mark. They approached the heartline that speared through the center of the temple. They faced each other. Viatrese’s breath carried, short and sharp.
He bowed his head to her. They faced the priest together, an arm’s length apart but separated by the heartline.
“We come this day to bind together the souls of Prince Diyan of Anaras and Princess Viatrese of Taona,” the priestess said. “In each other’s eyes, let them find their true form.”
It was neither poetry nor metaphor. The blood spent a few years in birth form, but as soon as they learned to change, they did, a weaving of flesh that took skill and time. The marriage ceremony gave each person a form they could assume without thought, a soul body matched to their spouse. It seemed too intimate to Berran for people who married for alliance and strategy.
Viatrese removed her hood. The blonde, waifish face widened into a full moon beam, deepened into coppery skin, a conflagration of red hair…one flowed into the next.
He lifted his hands to his hood, then hesitated. Viatrese reached out as if she would reassure him, even as she took on the visage of an old woman.
He pulled off the hood. The face revealed was unkempt and unchanging. “Prince Diyan sent me with the message he has no wish to marry this creature.” Under the gasps and murmurs, he added a mumbled, “I’m sorry.”
He fled. Berran wanted to rush after, but he was only following orders. She should not have taken her eye off Viatrese for even that instant: the princess had made a dozen transformations, spanning age and gender, sometimes slight, sometimes towering.
“Where is that boy?” the king said, springing off his dais in military ire. “He forgets–” The coinmaster silenced him before he could paint a full picture of Diyan’s failings.
The gathered courtiers seemed to prize the spectacle more than anything else. Viatrese was their theatre of choice, along with the royal family–the queen as flat as the back of a mirror, other relatives marble white. The high warlord said something that contained the word “war,” and the single syllable exploded around the temple.
Viatrese’s changes grew ever more rapid, as if the interruption of the ceremony had left her soul spinning. No storm could have pulled Berran’s eyes away. Why did no one interfere? Someone must have the ability to end the ceremony.
Viatrese wobbled, her body blurred. The changes were almost too fast to perceive, a current where each drop was invisible. She mouthed at the priestess. The woman stared at her…stared through her. Anger piled up in Berran. Her training kept her rooted. She was an observer to all aspects of Viatrese’s life, except for ensuring the princess had one. Her duties did not extend to the quality of that life.
Yet if they did…
The queen strode up to the priestess. Berran tensed herself against the weakness of relief.
“…do it again?” The end of Thiora’s words carried.
“If we halt the ceremony, your highness,” came the reply–Berran had to strain to hear, “she will remain unmarried the rest of her life and never assume a soul body.”
Was that really such a terrible fate, when such pain wracked her? Berran edged closer. She could catch Viatrese if the princess fell…and she needed the proximity to hear over the furor.
The queen shook her head. “Unacceptable. Continue. The guards will find my son.”
The priestess hesitated. “She could die.”
“Let her. Her only use to me is this marriage.”
“Do not move.”
The priestess rocked back a step, lowering her hands. Berran didn’t wait for her to finish her retreat. She surged across the temple, crossing the heartline they all considered so momentous. No god struck her down. She reached Viatrese in two breaths. She clasped Viatrese’s hands in a moment between copper and cinnamon, childhood and calluses. The princess lifted her head, rising out of the haze of herself.
Their eyes met. Viatrese’s eyes blossomed into impossible blue and held. Her body became slender, a cloud of saffron curls, a few inches shorter than Berran with arch cheekbones…and remained that way, so beautiful it reverberated in Berran’s bones. Viatrese was in every way perfect. She always had been.
Viatrese clutched her hands. “Berran.”
“Princess.” The two syllables took all the air she had.
“It’s Viatrese,” she said, “considering we belong to each other now.”
At those words, Berran realized what she had done. She tried to figure out the next step, but before she could move, even speak, the crowd went mute. The wave surge of silence surrounded her, then shattered on the rocks.
“Someone stole the bride!”
“The princess belongs to us.”
“A common bodyguard?”
“This is a calculated insult from the kingdom of Taona.”
Berran wrapped her arms around Viatrese. Viatrese retreated into her shelter. Despite the chaos, Berran knew she was in exactly the right place.
The king’s command cut through the noise. The crowd subsided as he advanced, advisors Urnek and Sagilin a step behind. “What is going on here?”
“The ceremony is complete, your highness,” the priestess said.
“She’s married? To that?” The king cast a desultory down Berran’s frame. She had height on him, but his regard squashed her beneath his notice.
Viatrese stiffened, taking Berran’s hands. She took one step out of the embrace, not enough to separate. “Be respectful as you address my wife.”
The color drained from Thiora’s face. The king squeezed his wife’s hand in comfort. “You were promised to my son,” he said.
“Your son,” Viatrese replied, “ran away.”
“Watch your tongue.”
“And this,” Thiora added, “is no fit substitute.”
“The insult is grave,” Urnek said. “Wars have been started over less.”
“Yes,” Viatrese said, “they have. I’m fortunate Berran chose to step in.”
The crowd’s whispers buzzed, increasing in pitch. Berran tried to ignore the eyes assaulting her, a thousand pinprick blades. A commoner–worse, a servant, a foreigner–had stolen their prince’s bride. Never mind Diyan had abdicated.
King Feldar frowned. “Nothing in this situation is fortunate. You should depart the temple before the fire explodes. Guards! Escort them out.”
Berran could have fought through the crowd if it had been necessary, but she was grateful for the human wall. She kept a hand on Viatrese’s shoulder, the other on her sword hilt.
The guards left them in Viatrese’s temporary quarters. Everything but the essentials had disappeared, whisked away in anticipation of the wedding.
Viatrese rotated to take in the bare room. She exhaled, dropping the marriage cloak to the floor. “This is what we are worth to them now.”
“I acted without thought,” Berran said. “I should have considered how a strange woman claiming your hand would anger them.”
“Strange, perhaps—” gentle affection surfaced in Viatrese’s voice “—but not because you’re a woman. Shapeshifting means the blood can be what they need to be, even bear children. It is rare, but families have wished to form alliances and had only daughters between them…or even less common, a love match. There’s no point in marriage without heredity.” Her words were as removed as a scholarly tome discussing the formation of mountains.
“Besides,” she continued, “clearly it doesn’t bother you, or I would be a young man now.”
Berran tried to wrap her head around the statement. “I wouldn’t want you to change.”
“And I’m comfortable just the way we are,” Viatrese said.
There were whispers here, hope Berran didn’t know how to hold. She had admired Viatrese from afar, and now they were too close. “We have a lot to talk about, but I’m not sure it is safe here.” It was easier to rely on the obligations of a bodyguard.
“You will keep me safe. I think we should—”
A servant cracked the door open. “Coinmaster Sagilin wishes to speak to you, your highness.”
Berran turned away from the arguments on Viatrese’s lips. “We should see what he wants.”
Viatrese huffed, as much a child as Berran had ever seen her. “Send him in.”
Sagilin entered, forcing a smile. “I should offer my congratulations, but I fear they would be lonely.”
“I’m sure I have Diyan’s,” Viatrese said, “under the circumstances.”
Sagilin barked laughter, then looked guilty. “The prince can be flighty, but he’s a good boy at heart.”
“Boy” was the problem, not the word for a future monarch. “What can we do for you?” Berran asked.
“Not for me, but for yourselves, if you will permit some advice.” Sagilin cleared his throat. “Marriage to a common human–and a foreigner–could be insult enough to declare war.”
“Urnek?” Berran said.
“Not as much as you might think. He knows a successful war needs the support of the people–and I’m not sure they would understand the finer points of this insult.”
“I’m not sure I do,” Viatrese murmured. The anger in those words took Berran aback.
“With respect, your highness,” Sagilin said, “you do.” He cast an apologetic look to Berran. “There is a service she might do that would change minds. There is a waterbeast in the mountains near the capital. It has flooded towns and destroyed bridges. Our warriors have withdrawn from hunting it because of a seer’s claims it can only be slain by an outsider.”
“I’ll do it,” Berran said.
“We need to talk about this,” Viatrese said.
“We can talk, but this is what needs to be done to protect our homeland and you.”
“You no longer get to make unilateral decisions about my safety. We have entered into partnership.”
Berran hesitated. She would have pointed out that partnership meant no more obedience to orders, but her training ran deep–and they were arguing in front of a foreign dignitary, possibly an enemy. “You are right. We have much to discuss…but we need all the information.” She turned to Sagilin. “Tell me where we can find this beast.”
“It is a two-day journey.” He spoke to her for the first time, responding to a shift in authority she hadn’t intended. She had no place in the court structure…did she?
Sagilin’s directions were straightforward. “Whatever you decide to do, I suggest you act soon.”
“Thank you, coinmaster,” Viatrese said.
He bowed and showed himself out. Viatrese sighed, sprawling in a chair.
“If slaying this beast is necessary to make amends,” Berran said, “I’m prepared to do it.” Putting her sword into action was familiar territory.
“There’s nothing to make amends for.” The words punched out of Viatrese in exasperation. “Their prince abandoned me. You saved me. If anyone deserves an apology…”
“You. For being put in this situation.”
“Not exactly what I meant.” Viatrese smiled wryly. “It needs to be done. And I’m going with you.”
“You should,” Berran said.
That halted her like collision with a wall. “What?”
“Someone tried to kill you before we even arrived,” Berran said. “Now would be the ideal time to try again. We have a lot of enemies here. You’re safest with me.”
“Because no other guard could protect me as well?” It was teasing, sly.
Berran arched a brow. “If I pondered that and said you had a point, you’re perfectly safe here?”
“I wouldn’t let you do yourself such insult.”
Something eased in Berran’s chest. The banter felt so easy, so right, pulling Viatrese into the circle of her thoughts. Maybe there was a chance for this strange marriage.
“We make the journey together,” she said, “but when it comes to the waterbeast, I have to face it alone.”
“We can discuss that on the way.” The levity in Viatrese’s tone didn’t fool Berran into thinking the princess would easily give in.
“Agreed. We should leave as soon as possible, and with discretion.”
“You mean we need to sneak out.” Viatrese sobered. “I can make us invisible. We can reach the stables that way.”
A royal entourage wasn’t set up for traveling light, but Berran made the best choices she could. She offered Viatrese a maid’s cloak. “You’ll need this for warmth.”
“Let’s go.” As they stepped into the hall, Viatrese placed a hand on Berran’s arm. “We’ll have to move slowly to maintain the illusion.”
Berran inhaled sharply as her arm seemed to turn to mist, a faint outline. She could see them both, but only as a haze. She shortened her stride to match Viatrese’s definition of slow. They passed a maid, then a messenger hustling past. Neither noticed them.
A phalanx of guards stood at the entrance to the dignitary wing. While they weren’t there to keep Viatrese prisoner–yet–they would insist on escorting her. Berran tensed, instinctively quickening her step.
Viatrese tugged her arm. “You’ll break it.”
Berran checked her stride, despite her instincts. She waited for the guards to challenge them. They slouched and joked amongst themselves. Off-duty behavior.
Five steps past. Ten. Viatrese tightened her grip. Berran forced herself to halt.
Boisterous laughter behind them. It faded out.
“Don’t look so surprised,” Viatrese said. “Of course it worked.”
“Your face did.”
Berran flushed, chastened…and then she saw the little smirk at the corner of Viatrese’s lips.
Five non-encounters later, they reached the stables. Berran saddled up two horses, picking a mild mare for Viatrese.
Viatrese stared intently at the horse, body braced. Berran was about to assist when she grabbed the saddle and scrabbled up. She clung to it, panting. “I’m fine.”
Berran decided to take her at her word. They rode out through the back gate. Berran threaded a hand through the reins of Viatrese’s mare.
“Hold on,” she said. “We’re going to make some time.”
She urged the horses faster.
Shortly before sunset, Berran eased the horses into a slower pace. Viatrese’s cheeks were pale and wind-wracked, but she smiled fiercely.
“I’ve never ridden like that,” she said. “Without a parade, that is.”
Berran chuckled. “Are you well?”
“I will be, once I catch my breath.” She reached up to rustle the leaves. The forest path wound on a slow incline, heading into the foothills. “Is this marriage taking you away from someone? From family, friends, a loved one?”
The question cut deeper than Viatrese could have known. Berran’s whole life had been in training, then in service. She had never been allowed anything else. “No. My work is all I have.”
“And I’m still your work, hmm?” It was a delicate balance between humor and irony.
“You are my ward. Anything else…we can figure out.” She cleared her throat. “Perhaps the answer is there is nothing to figure out. This can be in name only.”
Viatrese flitted her a startled, anxious look. “Is that what you want?”
No; Berran had been fascinated with Viatrese since their first meeting. She could have remained perfectly content in her shadow. It was no longer so simple, and too fraught to lay those expectations on Viatrese’s shoulders. There was a safe answer. “I want what you want.”
“Don’t do that. Tell me the truth.” Viatrese lowered her eyes to the reins, fingers tangled infinitely. “I’m sure you never pictured yourself with someone so fragile, so sheltered–someone who can’t even lift a sword, much less wield it.”
“Swords aren’t as heavy as you’d think,” Berran said by reflex. “You may be sheltered, but you’re far from fragile. I don’t want to make your life more complicated, or the answer would be easy.”
“My life already is more complicated.” Viatrese lifted her gaze. “When this is done, we have a lot to talk about.”
“When this is done.”
When the shadows became too deep, Berran chose a campsite. The air was damp and chill. She set up a fire.
Dinner was candied almonds and crackle buns. Viatrese laughed. “Strangest meal I’ve had since I was a child.”
“I’ll forage in the morning, scare up a rabbit or fowl,” Berran said.
“I don’t mind,” Viatrese assured her. She peered into the fire. She stretched out a hand, wiggling her fingers. Sparks seemed to spin out in threads to greet her, forming ephemeral figures, faces, a fleeting festival. Berran couldn’t help her smile.
“We should get some sleep,” she said at last.
Viatrese dismissed the illusion with a wave. She climbed into the mound of blankets made up for a bedroll. “Berran? Thank you stepping in.”
Berran paused before answering. The pat reply–that it was her duty–seemed to bother Viatrese and could start an argument she didn’t want to have. “I would do it again,” she said, only to find she spoke to herself. The princess was already asleep.
Rueful, Berran settled into watchful slumber.
The next morning, Berran found bird eggs and wild greens. She used a gold platter to make an omelette. It was a less than effective cooking vessel, but she persevered.
Viatrese stirred, rolling out of the blankets with bleary eyes. Even disheveled, she was poetry made flesh.
“I’m sorry it’s such a plain meal,” Berran said. “I couldn’t find any herbs.”
“It’s lovely. I’ve never had anything like it.”
“That’s because your chefs have skill, unlike myself.”
Viatrese shook her head. “Maybe they make things too complicated.”
After breakfast, they mounted up. The princess suppressed a little groan. “Everything is stiff.”
“That’s normal for a novice.”
“I expected as much.” Viatrese made a face. “It’s only three more days.”
There…and back. Berran admired her confidence. “Why don’t you spin an illusory tale for us?”
Her face glowed. “With pleasure.”
Viatrese created an illusion of four birds turned into humans, trying to find their way in the world. It distracted them as they rode. They passed the last village before noon. Berran detoured to the tavern and traded for food.
Soon after, Berran dismounted to lead the horses up the steep path. The rest of the day passed swiftly, until she judged she was close enough to reach the waterbeast’s cave within an hour. She called a halt.
Viatrese nodded off in front of the fire once, twice, catching herself each time as she slumped over. “I could sleep like the dead.”
“Do that,” Berran said. “The waterbeast is the only large predator here. I’ll come back to get you.”
Viatrese nodded. “Strength and fortune to you.”
Berran frowned; something about the response bothered her, but she couldn’t pin down why. “Wait until mid-day. If I’m not back by then…”
“You will be.”
“Go to the village and tell them who you are. It’s the best move.”
“It won’t be necessary.”
Berran surrendered. “Sleep now.”
Her own sleep was restless, streaked with nightmares. She awakened at dawn. Viatrese did not move, buried under the blankets, only a streak of blonde escaping like sea mist.
Berran regarded the bag that held breakfast. She left it there.
She climbed over rocks, heading for the cave. She heard the growl of the waterfall first, masking other sound. The waterbeast should be in its lair; it did its hunting in the rain. She crested the ridge.
The landscape dipped to a pool, the waterfall feeding it. The cavern lay behind. She stared at its shadows until she felt herself imagining movement. No. Too much thinking.
She eased over the rock, picking her way through the ruts made by claws. A narrow space between waterfall and cliff allowed entry. She drew her weapon, following the line of stone.
Sticky mist clung to her skin. As she passed behind the waterfall, a raspy thrum filled the air and pressed against her bones. Even before her eyes adjusted, she realized it was the waterbeast snoring. The swell of its body arced like waves, ebbing and flowing with its breath. The motion seemed boundless, skin warping beyond the possibility of bone.
The waterbeast curled away from the entrance. Berran edged deeper into the cavern. Scattered bones glinted white in the shadows. Previous kills–she hoped animal, but they could as well be human.
The creature’s head was shaped like a conch shell with a ruffled rose beard. With its eyes closed, it was impossible to see the lids. Berran hesitated. Could she estimate where the eyes should be?
The thrum stuttered. Berran forced herself to stillness, waiting for some flicker of lids. The snoring resumed.
If not the eyes, then the gills. She angled closer to the waterbeast’s neck. She had trouble making out the gills until they fluttered, reacting to its breath. She readied her blade, feeling across the slick stone with her feet.
As she lunged, the waterbeast awakened. Roiling coils surged towards her. She pivoted out of her strike, narrowly avoiding their swell. Her feet skidded. Its head whipped around, the conch parting into a sea of teeth. She dove, rolling under its jaw. It followed, teeth clashing. She swung her blade up. An aching, scraping connection of metal on bone.
The waterbeast reared back. She had a precious instant to spring past it. Her footing almost betrayed her. She couldn’t see clearly, couldn’t map the littered stones and bones that were no hindrance to the creature, but could send her tumbling.
Fixate on that, and the beast would have her. She tracked its claws as it climbed upright, its tail dim thunder in the depths of the cavern. It snapped out. She ducked aside, running down its flank. For a beat, she was out of its reach. She thrust at its side, expecting nothing. She was not disappointed: the blade cut only as deep as a hand.
Black blood sprayed her arm. The waterbeast snarled, more in annoyance than pain. It whirled faster than she would have thought possible. Its neck buffeted her. She slammed into the stone. Blind, instinctive, she shoved to the ground, body throbbing. Jaws snapped above her. She rolled to her back and drove upwards.
This time, the blow struck true. Blood poured as the waterbeast screamed. Its head jerked up with such force it nearly ripped the sword out of Berran’s hands.
She gathered herself, sprinting towards the waterfall. The waterbeast sucked in air and blew out a torrent of water. It knocked her backwards. She pivoted out of the stream. Now she got a good look at the eyes, all five. Even as she watched, the eyes shifted, flowing in a spiral across its face.
Plan in place. She let the waterbeast home in on her. The bulk of a boulder behind her. The waterbeast’s chest swelled in readiness, the conch beard arcing upwards.
At the last instant, Berran spun to the right, thrusting at one of the eyes. The waterbeast twisted instinctively; her sword skidded along the lid. The contact squished, peeling away flesh.
The waterbeast jerked away, its shriek reverberating off the walls. In its gyrations, its claw connected with her shoulder. Scarlet pain rushed over her. She landed hard.
Her fingers went to the injury. Deep, bloody, but she could bear it; it was not on her dominant side. She still hadn’t allowed herself to consider failure. If she lost, so be it…but the consequences for her homeland were not acceptable.
Humor flickered. If she could think of a way to kill the waterbeast by expending her own life, she might take it. Certainly easier for Viatrese than dealing with a commoner wife.
She ducked behind the boulder, kicking aside a bone. The waterbeast tried to recover. The eyes rotated again, one drooping. She had no idea of the mechanisms that made such eyes possible, but it made sense it would be vulnerable, softer than bone.
The waterbeast scanned the cavern. The conch unfurled, three tongues rolling out. Each was tipped with a pale pad. The tendrils tasted the air. Berran suspected they could scent blood. She had also chosen her next target.
The waterbeast’s head swayed over the boulder, tongues feeling out like fingers. One curved about, probing in her direction. As the appendage neared, she swung. The blow severed the end of the tongue.
The waterbeast’s head plunged down. Berran flattened herself to the stone. Teeth scraped her back, but could not connect. She lifted her head to sight her escape route. It was not going to be a pleasant crawl.
Horns sounded from outside. The creature’s head lifted as it tracked the sound, ocean coils undulating. Berran freed herself from behind the boulder. She wondered at the intrusion. Knights hunting the beast? Sagilin had told her no one was willing to pursue it.
Later. It was distracted; she had an opening. She darted along its flank. Its neck started to swivel. She drove the sword between its gills.
The waterbeast hacked air and blood. Its body shuddered, convulsing in on itself. The coils bended, knotted, guarding its body and neck. Berran backed off, searching for another opening.
Light flashed behind her. She flinched into her shoulders, startled but refusing to turn. The waterbeast cringed away, its eyes closing in sequence. She took the opportunity without thought. She leapt near, held back for a beat…
Its eyes opened, attempting a squint.
She thrust her sword home. The flesh gave way. Her arm sunk in to the elbow, like into marshland deeps.
The waterbeast thrashed. She could not pull free. Its wild momentum flung her to the right, then the left. She was trapped in its second flail, the third…her arm slid free. She dropped.
The waterbeast slowed in its writhing. Berran inched forward until her hand encountered a discarded bone. She pushed into a crouch, wary. The waterbeast might be waning, but it was still dangerous.
She knew where the flash of light had come from, as well as the horns. “I thought we agreed you were to stay at the camp,” she called.
“I don’t recall agreeing,” Viatrese said from within the waterfall.
The waterbeast gathered itself, snarling. Berran spun to place herself between it and the entrance. She held the bone low; it would not serve to deflect bite or claw. The eyes had stopped spinning, fixed in place. The one she had stabbed was lowest, her blade still embedded.
The waterbeast huffed out a breath. She braced against the torrent, letting it surge over her. As soon as the spray slackened, she plunged the bone into the softness of its palate, putting the full weight of her body behind it.
She jumped free as the waterbeast’s jaws snapped shut. It jerked one final time, claws skittering across stone, then collapsed. It did not move again.
Viatrese rushed to her side. “Are you all right?”
“I think you made my heart stop,” Berran said. The throbbing in her body made her legs wobble.
“I think you mean ‘thank you.’”
She coughed laughter. “Thank you.” That moment of levity was too much; it dissolved the last of her adrenaline. She slid to the ground, landing on her tailbone.
“How do I help?” Viatrese asked.
“I can’t ask anything more of you. I just need time to gather myself.” She probed the injury, winced.
“You’re not asking. I’m offering.” Viatrese knelt beside Berran. Her eyes reflected sapphire in the shadows. She took hold of her sleeve. “You could bind it with…”
Berran jerked away. “Please stop.”
“You first.” Anger frosted Viatrese’s voice. “Is it pride? Do you still think of yourself as my servant?”
“That’s what I am.” Berran peeled the cloth away from her shoulder, wincing. “Do you know where my name comes from?”
“I assumed it was a name from Old Kerrish,” Viatrese said. “It has the sound.”
“It is Old Kerrish, but it’s not a name.” Focusing on the wound gave her an excuse to keep her eyes averted. “Berran is a word, meaning ‘six.’ I was the sixth child in my training unit. I was never a person, Viatrese. I am a number.”
“A number would have remained in its rank. It would never have stepped forward to rescue me.” Viatrese laid a hand over hers. “You may have started as a number, but you have become boundless. Besides,” she continued, “do you think I would have come to the rescue of a number?”
The laughter rumbled up from Berran without her willing. “You didn’t come for a number. You came for your kingdom.”
“That, too–but not only.” Viatrese pulled the hand to her heart. “Let me help you.”
Berran told herself it was exhaustion that made her give in. It felt good–too good. “Please. If you have dry cloth, that would be best.”
Berran directed Viatrese in bandaging the wound. Once the binding was secure, Berran rose and made her way over to the fallen beast. She bent down to withdraw her sword.
Viatrese crinkled her nose at the squelch. “Eww.”
“We’ll need one eye,” Berran said. “For proof.”
Cleaning her sword was a messier business than her wound. Once her sword was sheathed and the eye wrapped, they left the cavern and started down the slope to the campsite.
She halted Viatrese within sight of the smoke. “Someone is there.”
Berran shook her head. It was unlikely to be bandits, her first fear: the sole path led to the waterbeast’s lair, with nothing else to recommend it. “Stay behind me.”
Viatrese nodded. Berran advanced, hand on her sword. Six men in the white and red livery of Anaras. Unlikely they had been followed, but if someone knew their destination, it was not hard to meet them on the way down. She stepped out of the trees.
The captain, a rangy man with a hawk nose, turned her way. “Greetings. Have you slain the waterbeast?”
“Have you come to escort us to the capital?” Berran asked. The soldiers had tied their horses to the same tree as her mares.
“Come to the fire and tell us the story. Are you well, princess?”
Berran lifted a hand to hold Viatrese back, but she had already halted, body tense. “Why are you here?”
The captain sighed, irritated. “Suspicious, aren’t you? Well, it’s warranted.” He gestured to the soldiers. They spread out. “You won’t be returning to blemish Anaras further.”
Berran wished she could be surprised. “By whose command? If we are to die—” which she had no intention of doing “—I would like to know who wields the blade.”
He hesitated, but arrogance won out. “We act with the will of the queen. You could slay a hundred waterbeasts, and you would still not be welcome in our home.”
Berran glanced back at her ward. “You assume,” she said, locking eyes with Viatrese, “that we killed this waterbeast. We only escaped from it.”
Viatrese’s lips twitched in a moment’s delight. She understood perfectly.
The waterbeast’s tsunami cry echoed overhead as trees shuddered and rustled. The horses bolted. So did two of the soldiers. The others fell back, scanning the sky. Berran surged forward, blade flashing out at the captain. He jerked instinctively, shoulder twisting into her blow–enough to turn it from fatal into debilitating. He collapsed. She whirled to his right, disarmed the man next to him, then faced the other two.
Uncertain, still with half an eye skyward, the first man lunged. She parried him even as she dodged the other. The disarmed blond searched for his sword, but could not find it. Berran didn’t have to guess why.
“Idiots,” the captain gasped, “there is no waterbeast.”
It took them a moment to believe it. In that space, Berran wounded the taller of her attackers, coaxed the other away from Viatrese. Her shoulder screamed, but she refused to heed it.
The shorter man’s sword lashed out at her flank. She twisted away, grimaced. She still had to keep an eye on the blond, even though he was unarmed, and that divided her attention. She saw the blow aimed at her hip, but could not avoid it. She thrust out an elbow to disrupt the angle of the blade, succeeded in turning it into a shallow cut.
That gave her an idea. She drew back, moving towards Viatrese as she did. She flitted a glance behind her, then to the captain, without really looking–enough to suggest she was distracted. The taller man took the bait, jumping to the attack. She threaded her blade inside his guard, laying open his arm. He gasped, dropping his sword before it could connect.
“Call your men off,” Viatrese said, voice shaking as much as the sword she gripped in both hands. She levered it at the captain’s throat. The soldiers halted, uncertain.
He glared. “You have no power over me.”
She leaned closer. It threatened to tip her over. “Are you sure?”
Berran moved to her side, supporting her elbow with her free hand. “You had better do as she says.”
He spat curses under his breath. “Stand down.” The men backed off, lowering their swords.
“Take your horses and go,” Berran said. “You can return to the capital, but I’d consider how your failure will be met.”
The soldiers scrambled backwards and grabbed reins. They retreated out of the clearing.
Viatrese sagged against Berran. The captain shifted, propping himself up. One look at Berran convinced him not to move further.
Berran hesitated. She had killed men before, but only in the heat of combat. “Viatrese?”
Viatrese let the blade fall. “We take him with us, of course.”
The ride back to the capital was swifter than their arrival, even with their captive bound to his horse. Just shy of the gates, Viatrese insisted on hooding the captain. As they rode up, she announced herself in a ringing voice. The gates swung wide. Royal men scurried to clear their path. Berran followed in Viatrese’s wake, dragging their captive.
The royal audience hall was not empty; the queen and a handful of advisors were present, engrossed in debate, which ended when the guards opened the doors. Viatrese strode in, Berran a half pace behind. Sagilin stared, astonished and visibly relieved. When Berran caught his eye, he flushed ruddy and ducked his head.
“My wife has slain the waterbeast you all fear, and with ease,” Viatrese said. “But despite that service, someone did not want us returning alive.”
The queen turned slate pale. King Feldar thrust himself from his throne. “Is that the man?”
“It is,” Berran said, removing the hood.
Feldar raised his brows. “This is one of your men, is it not, wife?”
Before she could speak the denial poised upon her lips, Sagilin interjected. “I told the princess where to find the waterbeast. Queen Thiora insisted upon knowing where they had gone. To my knowledge, she is the only other person who does.”
“This is ridiculous,” Thiora said.
The captain roused, struggling to his feet. “I was only following orders.”
Calculation flashed across the queen’s face, followed by concession. “We should never have let Taona across our borders,” she said. “Even worse, to have sacrificed my perfect son to this flighty frill. Someone had to put things right.”
Had she encouraged Diyan to flee the marriage ceremony? If it was so, she had put Viatrese at risk of a painful and public death.
And otherwise, Berran would never have married her.
Feldar’s face hardly changed, but his voice came as iron. “We have much to discuss, my wife. Great ladies,” he continued, his tone expanding as he addressed them, “you have done this kingdom exemplary service. Let no one ever doubt your right to stand in the highest halls.”
Berran recognized a dismissal when she heard one. She laid a hand on Viatrese’s shoulder. “We should go.”
Berran and Viatrese soon found themselves in the same chamber that had begun their adventures. So much had changed, Berran couldn’t wrap her hands around it. She slumped against the wall, relying on the strength of stone.
Viatrese collapsed on the couch with an excess of dramatic posture. She remained for only a moment before she pierced Berran with her gaze. “You can no longer say you are not worthy to stand with me,” she said. “A high authority has proclaimed it.”
Berran had no argument. She retreated with, “I will always have the habits of a lifetime. I was born to guard and serve you.”
“Which is what a spouse should do, and I will guard and serve you.” Despite her serious tone, Viatrese’s eyes glinted. “Can you deny I did a good job?”
“I can’t,” Berran said. “I might not have survived without you. That isn’t an invitation to make battling beasts a regular pastime.”
“If you wanted to abandon the court, travel out into the world, and hunt monsters, I would do it gladly,” Viatrese said. She was wholly sincere, and for two beats, Berran agreed with as much heart. Then she came to her senses.
“Let us not,” she said.
Viatrese laughed. “Oh, very well. I suppose we must return home now. Things will be very different when we arrive.”
That was an understatement. It swirled past Berran, inexorable as the waterbeast’s coils. Still…“They don’t have to be. It can still be in name only.”
“I’m going to ask you again.” She rose, chin notched, eyes gone to a blaze. “Do you truly want that? If a man as distinguished as King Feldar can acknowledge you, then I defy anyone else to do otherwise. Perhaps when we come to know each other, we will find nothing to hold us together, but that is the future.”
Exhaustion or not, moving away from the wall was as easy as a feather floating. Berran went to her, taking her hands. Pale, delicate, capable of great things…and nearly dwarfed within her own powerful palms, callused and tough.
“I want to try,” she said. “I know I will always find you fascinating…”
“If you are going to say that I might get bored of you,” Viatrese replied tartly, “I may just scream.”
Berran surprised herself with her own laughter, deep and full. “Your bodyguard wouldn’t come running.”
“Oh, she had better.”
It was the second time Berran had held Viatrese’s hands in this fashion. They had fought together, almost revealed secrets, and for the first time, Berran thought they might be able to exist in the same world.
Viatrese was braver than she had imagined. It was time for a different kind of bravery.
“In all this time,” she said, “we’ve never kissed. We should fix that.”
“It does need righting.” Viatrese leaned up as Berran tilted her head down, closing the distance between them. Their lips met, breath joined. It was not a perfect kiss, awkward and searching and bright as fire. It was a kiss of beginnings, and it hoped for a thousand more.