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Swordbreaker Chronicles 9: Storms and Stars

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Florica felt a fresh surge of gratitude as Nero seated them away from the Grimmholts and even imposed himself between them. His intuitive understanding of her idiosyncratic anxieties had always been a wonder to her, and soothed her now as much as it had ever done. She smiled with real warmth at the way her hero loaded his plate, affectionate amusement bringing a soft sparkle to her eyes, and reached for the food with equal enthusiasm. Healing always sharpened her appetite in a way that nothing else could. And there was something about the simple joy of breaking bread with her brother after so long that satisfied far more than just hunger. She relaxed further as another stolen glance revealed that Nate had fallen asleep at the table, effectively removing the shadow of his presence from the room. Listening idly to Nero and the Countess' conversation, she watched as Claire rose to greet Sai, who seemed to have gone through a transformation of his own that morning. She met his eyes for a brief moment, offering him a smile before she returned her gaze to her plate, letting him keep his attention on Claire.

At Nero's perceptive question, Mia nodded, offering a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes as she excused her lord's absence. "Resting, aye. Clarissa would'nae let him go, she's missed him so. They had their breakfast together, and both asleep before you could say jacks," she chuckled. Until they could discover what the full extent of the damage to his arm would be, it seemed to her that it would only invite trouble if she spoke of it further. She had wanted nothing more than to stay in the small refuge of Janey's bedroom with her slumbering husband and child, for she had still not slept for worry since the warriors had set out the day before; but her pride was stronger than her need for rest. She knew her husband was relying on her to be the face of the Greys in his absence. "But how are you two doing?" she smoothly changed the topic, smiling again and glancing over at the shy girl at Nero's side. It gladdened her beyond words to see the transformation that had come over her from the bitter, ice-cold woman she had met just the day before, though she could not account for the change.

Grinning at Claire's words, Sai nodded and reached willingly for the chair next to hers, though he politely waited for her to be seated again before he took his own place at the table, quickly acknowledging the others around the table with a nod and a glance before returning his attention to Claire. "It's served me well," he agreed, patting the scabbard for a moment. "As did your lessons." His eyes brightened at her mention of a restaurant. "I'd love that," he confirmed, grinning. "And of course you'll have to come see the Swan, once she's got her new feathers," he chuckled. "It seems like we both have our work cut out for us."

Edited by Song Sprite

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"Resting, aye. Clarissa would'nae let him go, she's missed him so. They had their breakfast together, and both asleep before you could say jacks." Nero gave a smile at that. "Sounds like the little miss," he agreed. "She wasn't up all night waiting for us too, was she?" A moment of guilt passed through him at the thought. You came with us willingly, 'Ric, but you could easily have stayed here. Stayed with your family, safe and secure. We pulled you into this mess and you were hurt as badly as the rest of us. 

"But how are you two doing?"

Better than he is, I imagine. "We're fine, I think," Nero replied gently. He tilted his head to see Florica smiling at Sai, and laughed softly. "Some of us more so than others." He was about to pick up another helping when a thought occurred to him. "Mia," he said, "I was meaning to ask Ric about the succession rites." He paused, considering what he was about to say. "I.. would like to formally acknowledge my sister as one of us. Name and title. But to do that.. I will need to succeed my Uncle as Lord Caesar." 

And I can only do that if all three bloodlines are present. 

- - - 

In darkness he dreamt, flashbulb memories sliding past in a jumbled haze. 

Burning a loaf of bread in the oven while Claire doubled over laughing at him. Slipping into a fountain with a pretty girl watching, smacking his head against the stained marble.  

The rhythmic clang of his hammer on red hot steel, each motion exacting in its force and direction. At his side, a young boy stood watching eagerly, ice blue eyes reflecting the sparks as the sword began to take form. 

The gleaming, polished surface of a bronze obelisk as it rose smoothly from the ground, supported by black stone and glittering red crystals that shone like blood spatter in the light, a terrible crescendo beginning to pound in his ears as - 

Nathaniel awoke with a start, hurling himself backwards in his chair. Only the timely intervention of his knees slamming into the underside of the sturdy table kept him from falling. Silverware and plates protested the sudden jolt, and his face burned with deep embarrassment. What the hell was that? He could hear the blood in his ears, almost as loud as his own breathing. Nate kept his gaze down, unable to meet any of their eyes. He knew what they thought of him. He knew what they would think of this. Claire reached across without looking and reassuringly patted his hand. He just pulled it away from her, and slid his chair backwards. 

"I'm not that hungry," he stated quietly, giving the room the barest of nods before he strode away into the hallway, past the concerned faces of the house servants. I need some air. Before I really do wind up losing my mind. There was a balcony at the end of the hallway that provided a sweeping view of the ocean and the cliffs to either side. He briefly considered jumping, but knew that would only wind up harming Claire more than himself. 

What is wrong with me?

"What isn't?" came a reply whispered on the wind. 

- - -

Claire watched Nathaniel depart with a look of deep worry etched into the lines of her face. It did not take a sympathetic binding to know what he was suffering with. Might be easier to describe what he isn't suffering with, I guess. " It's served me well, as did your lessons." Sai's good humor restored her smile. He seemed much more confident to her, and she realized for the first time that she was beginning to see the true Kimura Sai. He cleaned up rather nicely, she thought, both in temperament and when in proper clothes. "I'd like you to hold onto Thorn for me," she answered honestly. "I may, at some point need it back, but it seems to have taken a liking to you and I think it would serve you well as we rebuild the Swan." Left unspoken was her worry that he might really need a weapon capable of protecting him. 

She laughed softly. "If you enjoyed my lessons, perhaps I shall visit you soon and provide some more. I'll bring the bandages, this time." Claire grinned. "It's.. nice to have a challenge ahead of us that isn't something life threatening. I'd take the lunch rush over duels any day of the week," she agreed. 

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The sudden clatter and crash of dishes as Nate lurched into wakefulness was followed in almost the same instant by the sharp scrape of Florica's chair against the floor as she leapt to her feet in terror. Heart pounding in her throat, she watched him with wide eyes as he made his excuses and left the room, and only once the door had shut behind him did she sink down again in her chair, taking a few deep breaths to try to calm herself and staring fixedly at her plate, ears burning. "S-sorry," she whispered to Nero.

-

The countess' eyes lit up at Nero's proposal. "That's a wonderful idea," she agreed warmly. It will be nice to have something to celebrate, for once. Perhaps it would even pull Audric out of his grim mood, though she suspected that was just wishful thinking on her part. "We'll need the Baron here, though. I'll ask Audric to write him straightaway when he wakes. In any case I think it's best that-" she paused and glanced over in surprise as Nate woke with a start, seeming to do his best to upend the heavy table with his knees before he got his bearings and hurried from the room. Poor lad. "...that we all abide here, for a time," she continued smoothly after a moment. "At least until we can ensure that your homes are all safe to return to." She glanced over at Florica as the nervous lass settled back into her chair. "If there's anything we can provide to make your stay more comfortable, please, just let us know."

-

Sai nodded in agreement with Claire's proposal to lend him Thorn for a little longer. He had already decided that whenever she needed it back, he would have to get a sword of his own. Despite his reservations about just how much he enjoyed the thrill of a fight, the most important thing was that he be able to protect the people he cared for, the number of whom seemed to be increasing daily. Claire, the Chibas, the Greys... he knew unquestioningly that he would fight to protect any of them. The thought warmed him, and he grinned fiercely at her offer of more lessons. "Only if you let me return the favour," he replied. "Sword lessons for dance lessons. Deal?" he offered her his hand to shake.

* * *

Baroness Alicia Grimmholt reread the letter in her hand with a sense of deep satisfaction. Addressed from the Count to her husband, it was little more than a politely worded request for him to participate in the younger Caesar boy's rites of inheritance. But it proved what she had hoped and believed: they suspected nothing. "The fools," she muttered to herself, carefully refolding the letter and resealing it in its envelope with a simple spell that, by now, came as easily to her as breathing. She tossed the letter onto Siegfried's desk and settled herself into the large chair to think, wincing a little as her shoulder twinged at the movement. The high-collared dress she wore concealed the bruising from the brief, explosive confrontation she'd had with Marcus, but it didn't make it hurt any less. Good help is so hard to find, Jenny. The old adage only seemed more true with each passing year. She should have dealt with Marcus years ago, but his usefulness as a tool of destruction could not be denied.

Of course, his usefulness was matched in equal measure by the inconvenience of having him turn against her at such a critical moment for the Rising Star. She knew she had lost face with Fraest and the others with how badly her plans had gone awry. This gathering at the Grey Castle offered her the chance to gain back the ground she had lost, and more.

Her children needed their mother.

* * *

The date of the ceremony was set for the following Saturday, giving the inhabitants of Grey Castle much-needed time to recuperate. At the Countess' request, Florica attempted to heal the damage to Audric's arm, and she was able to restore more of its natural range of movement, but repairing the delicate network of nerves controlling his hand proved beyond even her considerable talent. Most of her skill lay in accelerating the path of healing that the body was already set upon, providing the energy to knit muscle, bone and skin. Nerves were much trickier; they did not have the same natural healing tendencies as larger body parts. Eventually, what remained of the damaged network might learn to compensate for what was lost, but Florica privately doubted the Count would ever be able to use his fingers with the full fluency of youth.

She spent the first few days mostly sleeping and resting in her room, trying to regain her sense of equilibrium after the trauma of the past months. Even with the comforting sense of her aquila ever near, it was easier said than done. Her nightmares were back with a vengeance, their whispers of monsters and sickness rising from the depths of her mind like a dark sea determined to swallow the land.

Her sense of the miada, though, continued to grow. She didn't always understand what its whispers were trying to tell her, but more and more often as she wandered the castle and grounds she caught glimmering glimpses of silver strands, ever-shifting, and the more she turned to follow them, the more they revealed themselves to her.

It was when she was visiting with little Clarissa that something more dramatic occurred. She had fallen instantly in love with the kind, merry child, and loved nothing better than to play her little games with her, often whiling away the afternoons pretending to be fairies or adventurers, and soaking up the motherly affection Amirah was happy to shower on them both. Sometimes they played out in the gardens, under the watchful eye of the guards, but today a summer storm had blown in from the sea, trapping them indoors while fat, warm raindrops slapped their staccato rhythm against a hundred windows. "An' this is the treasure from the bower of the Sidhe," Clarissa was saying, skipping over with a basketful of trinkets she'd gathered, "The water that when you spill it makes a sea, an' the wee mirror tha' shows the way to Tir na nOg, and the pearly comb tha' makes your hair grow a hunner' feet long!" She giggled and cast a wistful glance at her mother's long red hair, pressing the comb into Florica's hand.

The moment that Florica took the comb in hand, she felt a sudden disorientation. In a flash of silver light, the scene before her faded away, along with her own self, and instead of the drumming of late-afternoon rain, suddenly early morning sunlight streamed in through the windows. The Count, Countess and Clarissa were there, the Countess running the comb through Clarissa's hair with one hand, the other resting limply in her lap. Both the Count and the Countess looked like they had just gotten out of a fight, though Clarissa seemed none the worse for wear, and happily oblivious. The vision shifted before Florica could piece together their quiet conversation, and then she beheld a young lady standing before a mirror, running the same comb through her waist-length blond hair, a contemplative expression on her pretty features. That's Clarissa, Florica recognized, shocked that she was suddenly grown up.

The comb fell from Florica's fingers into her lap as she gasped loudly, flinching as though it had bit her. Instantly both mother and daughter surrounded her, wearing twin expressions of concern. "Florica? What's wrong?" asked Amirah.

"Did the comb prick your finger?" chimed in Clarissa, retrieving it from her friend's lap and visually examining her hand for a droplet of blood.

Florica took a deep breath, rubbing her tingling hand on her skirt and shaking her head as her heart rate began to return to something like normal. "N-no, I... I'm fine." She gave the little one a reassuring smile.

"Clarissa, why don't you go tidy up," Amirah prompted gently in Gaelic, "And then we can have our tea." She turned back to Florica as her daughter obediently wandered off. "Are you sure you're alright, Florica? You look as though you had a fright."

"Y-yes, I'm f-fine," Florica replied, letting out another long breath, her mind racing at what she had just seen. "C-Countess, d-did you ever h-hurt your arm?"

Amirah blinked in surprise and nodded. "Aye, not a year ago. But how did you know?"

Florica gestured towards Clarissa, and the items she was carefully stowing away in her jewelry box. "I s-saw it. When... when I t-touched the c-comb. I s-saw you h-here," she pointed to the spot on the bed where the Countess had been sitting, "A-and th-the c-Count, a-and c-Clarissa. A-as c-c-clearly as I s-see you now." She decided not to mention that she had also seen Clarissa all grown up.

Amirah's brow furrowed, and she leaned back, not sure what to do with this revelation. "Aye, and there we were indeed - but how?" she asked again.

"I th-think it's a... b-Banjari thing," Florica said haltingly, uncertain. She knew that some grandmothers had such a gift, but now that the moment had passed, it seemed impossible to believe that she might have such a gift.

"A Banjari thing?" the Countess repeated. "Fortune-telling, you mean? And here I thought tha' was just a tall tale."

Florica nodded slowly. "Th-that's what... the gadje call it. When w-we d-do it for c-coin. B-but it's... n-not really f-fortunes. It's... h-hard to control. But when we... we t-t-touch s-something, or s-s-someone, sometimes we can s-see.... how the miada is t-t-tangled w-with it. T-time." She stood. "I should g-go... f-find m-my b-brother. D-do you know where he is?"

"The library, I think," Amirah replied with a fond smile.

Returning her grin, Florica turned to go find Nero and tell him what she had seen.

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The hammer sang as it fell from his fingers onto the floor. Audric swore as he bent for the hundredth time to slip the familiar grip back into his struggling fingers. Sweat trickled down his brow, both from the heat of the forge and the stress of trying to make a damn horseshoe when his hand refused to cooperate. Florica had done her best, but while the pain had dulled significantly, he had only regained some of his dexterity. I just need to do this. And keep doing it until it comes back to me. He lifted the hammer, his hands shaking. In his mind's eye he knew the shape he wanted this simple, stupid piece of uncaring iron to take. All it would take was one perfect strike or two. Maybe a half dozen poorly aimed ones. His hammer came down and the shock of  striking the anvil sent it singing onto the forge floor below. Audric bellowed and flung the u shaped hunk of worthless metal against the wall where it sent his other tools cascading to the floor in a terrible din. 

If I can't even do this.. how the hell am I going to perform my own part of the rites? How am I going to - going to  provide for us?

Janey was too young to begin learning at his side. Even then, how would it look if he had to have her help him fulfill the duties of the Count of Grey tonight? 

- - -

Today, his old injuries had finally managed to fade into the back of his mind. Nero panted heavily as he sank the steel training sword into the grass and leaned heavily on it. His upper body was bare to the air, slick with sweat and covered with slowly darkening bruises. On his back, an aquila spread its wings over a long faded scar. Yes, today his old wounds were unimportant, for the short figure before him had endeavored to provide him with entirely new ones to nurse. "Again!" George de Sande said, bringing his cane up. By contrast, the swordmaster's torso was relatively unmarred, save for the beginnings of a nasty looking scar that slithered down his abdomen to the leg he did not favor. 

Nero grunted his agreement, feeling every muscle ache with the strain as he raised his blade. George made no effort to move from his position, his chestnut eyes perceptive and his diminutive frame relaxed as though he had no issue at all staring down one of the three or  four most lethal swordsmen in the land. Nero made a sharp feint towards his master's head, but George merely wagged his cane chidingly. Nero swiped for George's weak leg, but The Lion simply pivoted on his better leg, avoiding the attack at the same time he lashed Nero across the ribs with a savage blow. Had there been steel in his hands, it would have undoubtedly proved fatal in seconds. But Nero did not stop, instead following up with a ruthless barrage of attacks, intending to pry every last second of life from his chance before the training spell inevitably activ- and then he was  falling to the ground, frozen. 

"Nero," George said lightly, "you do recall the intention is not to die, right?" 

If he could move his lips,  he would have employed some choice words about cruel and unusual teaching methods. But instead, he tried to ignore the blades of grass ticking his nose and waited a half  dozen heartbeats for his body to return to his control. He flopped over onto his back, wincing at the new bruising over his ribs. "This isn't fair," he managed to get out. "If you're going to beat me this badly, at least let me have two swords." 

"So you can lose twice as fast?" George snorted. "Better to fight well with one than wildly with two. You're not as young as you used to be, my student." If the man had any inkling of the irony of that statement, it did not show on his wrinkled face. "I'm tired of burying my students. Be a good boy. Stay alive until you and the other two can throw me into the grave." 

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As though the thought had summoned her, Janey's voice came from behind him, where the door to the forge was. "Da? Mumma says to tell you it's time to clean yourself up so you don't scare off th'guests with your stink," she reported, unable to hide the merriment in her tone at relaying such a cheeky message. "Oh, your tools are all a'fallen!" She came forward to stand beside him, surveying the mess with no small degree of consternation. The few times she'd had the privilege of watching her father work, he'd always been very particular about how he treated his tools, and where they ought to hang. She glanced up at him, her slim hand sliding into his, misreading the troubled look on his face as concern for the same. "Don't worry, Da. I'll help you pick them up!" She offered him a bright smile, hoping to chase away the dark stormcloud gathered in the lines of his forehead and set of his jaw.

* * *

Florica had been wandering again, following the glimmering miada trails wherever she found them, so long as they did not lead her off the protected grounds of the castle. Oddly enough, once she had drawn that line in the sand, they had stopped leading her that way in any case. Do you know where I should be going? she wondered. There was so much she didn't know; so much she had missed out on learning when her tribe was destroyed. She had always heard that the miada led them on their long journeys from city to city, and so she had thought that it was only a guide for such sustained traveling. Yet here it was, content to lead her in playful, eddying circles from room to room and hall to hall, down into the gardens and back again. It was a wonder, and the wonder of it kept her following. I am a little hungry, though, she thought, her mind jumping back to the luncheon that had probably already been left in her room for her.

Trustingly stepping through the swinging double doors before her, she was suddenly hit with the warm smell of fresh-baked bread, and she laughed to find herself in the castle kitchens. You really do know where I should be going, the amused thought passed through her mind as she surveyed the largest gadje kitchen she'd ever seen, full of servants hard at work preparing for tonight's meal. A few of them smiled over at her, though most didn't bother looking up from her tasks. "Hungry, child?" asked an old, rotund woman as she hurried by, hands covered in flour to the elbow and seeming ten kinds of distracted, but with bright, merry eyes and a grandmotherly grin. "It's not quite lunch time yet, but why don't you have a butter biscuit, there's a good girl." She pointed to a large basket on a table near the door, which a length of clean linen had been draped over.

"Oh, um, th-thank you," Florica replied shyly, though by the time she finished uttering the phrase the cook had passed out of earshot once more. Slipping a hand beneath the cloth, the little gypsy found and withdrew a warm biscuit. With one last smile over her shoulder at the tableau, she turned and headed back out into the hallway.

The miada took her up a winding stairway that she'd never mounted before, half-hidden behind a statue, and she ate while she climbed it, dusting the last crumbs off her hands as she emerged back into the upper levels of the castle. The glimmering threads were brighter here, as though reflecting the sea's silver light streaming in through the wide windows of the hall. She followed them through another unlocked door, still smiling at the memory of the busy kitchen.

The smile suddenly died on her lips, and she took a lurching half-step back as though struck.

On the far end of the balcony, Nathaniel stood, leaning on the railing and staring out broodingly at the sea, his white shirt gleaming like a sail. He hadn't looked over at her, yet. She took another step back and started to close the door, but then hesitated. You brought me here for a reason, too, didn't you? she thought, seeing how the miada still led her onward instead of back.

I can't run from this forever.

It's not befitting of a Caesar.

Bravely, she took a step forward, emerging fully onto the balcony, the sea-breeze lisping at her long hair and pale blue dress. "Nate," she said, a hundred emotions warring thickly in her voice, barely any louder than the distant, constant thunder of the waves dying below the cliffs.

* * *

Seated beside her husband, Alicia stared out the window of the carriage, watching with deep satisfaction as many of the villagers they rode past paused in their tasks long enough to courtesy or tip their hats to them as they rode past. The Grey holdings seemed to be thriving, and while she had never approved of the love-match Audric had made, even she could recognize that his... robust partner had probably had a part to play in holding things together after James passed. She allowed herself a quiet smirk at the memory. Though she had only intended Elise's death as a warning to the Greys to keep their disgustingly rich, pampered noses out of Rising Star business, it seemed the late Count had taken it upon himself to remove himself from the picture altogether. One less thing to worry about.

She had spent most of the past week working on Siegfried, talking about how nice it would be to finally see Nathaniel and Claire again, how empty their mansion had felt without their children. She had had quite enough of them running around making a muck of her best-laid plans; better to have them close, where she could control them. Especially Nate, since he was now their best remaining link to the Master. She suppressed the flash of anger as the memory of the desecrated Holt flashed through her mind. The former source of their power. But on the bright side, their hereditary lands were now open to being reclaimed. Beneath the blighted surface of the land there was still good, rich soil; she had felt it, while she walked over the scattered bones of long-dead family. There was potential there. She would not let it go to waste.

Her mind turned to what her source in the castle had been able to tell her about the new players who had appeared on the scene. Apparently the Caesar boy was going to be formally adopting a sister, a little nobody he had picked up over the course of his melancholy wanderings. She shook her head again at that. Just when I thought the House of Caesar couldn't sink any lower... She was more glad than ever that she had managed to break off that rash engagement her daughter had made. Claire deserved better. Their family deserved better than to be tied to that family of brutish sellswords.

Her mind turned to the other newcomer, whom she'd been able to find out frustratingly little about - the Welander boy. She had heard everything from him being a pauper to a young lord. She hoped the latter, but that was probably being too optimistic. Oh well. They would find out soon enough.

Her eyes narrowed as the rolling scene out the window suddenly brought her daughter into her line of sight, along with the very same person who had been occupying her thoughts and speculations. He seemed well-dressed enough, and she was gratified by his respectful half-bow towards the carriage, but- Is that Thorn!? She bristled at the sight of the family heirloom in the hands of this stranger. Blood and stones, Claire, what are you playing at? She met her daughter's eyes for a brief moment as they rolled past, and offered her a brittle smile.

This was going to be an interesting evening.

* * *

Steel rang against steel as Claire and Sai continued their training, practicing today on the low hills beside the road for the benefit of the uneven footing. With little else to focus on while they were effectively grounded at Castle Grey for safety's sake, they spent long hours at it daily, and it was a deep satisfaction to them both how quickly Sai continued to improve in the basic skills which provided a more firm foundation for his already prodigious intuition for swordplay. As well, they both knew that once they returned to their respective cities, the luxury of such times would dwindle to next to nothing, and Sai was content to spend nearly every moment in the company of the friend who so willingly stepped in to the shoes of the older sister he'd lost all those years ago. Thriving in the new life she had made possible for him, he carried himself now with confidence, his personality emerging from the pale shroud it had worn for so long.

They were pausing to catch their breath as a carriage rolled past, no doubt carrying another visitor for the ceremony tonight. Sai offered a polite bow to its occupants as they rolled past, and then straightened, doing a double-take at the look on Claire's face. "Someone you know?" he guessed.

Edited by Song Sprite

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He looked up at the stone walls, blackened by thousands of hours of Grey hands busy at work, hammering the legendary tools and weapons that had won them fame and fortune. He could remember standing beside that anvil, pouring his heart and soul into creating his own blade. And now he might never again craft something truly wondrous. Utterly worthless. He walked over to the pile of equipment, his temper rising with every footfall. 

"Da? Mumma says to tell you it's time to clean yourself up so you don't scare off th'guests with your stink." Audric choked down a curse at her sudden arrival, opening his mouth to answer her before she continued onward with her observations in steadfast fashion You definitely don't get that boldness from me, little one. "Oh, your tools are all a'fallen!" And then his mouth closed, briefly unsure what one could say in response to such an earnest description of his life at that precise moment. Alright, that one's all me.  Her warm hand slipped into his own, and he turned to face her, that bright smile of hers bringing a small one of his own out at last as she offered to help him put the tools back in order. 

Maybe it's not that important right now. He lifted her up into the air, laughing softly as he spun with her. Oh, he might be incapable of swinging a hammer at the moment, but this, this he could do. Audric set her down gently after a few good cackles, and joined her in surveying the calamity of his forge. "I would be very happy for the help, little ember," he said thoughtfully, cocking his head to the side. "But first, I think I shall need your help, Lady Grey. How would you feel about helping your dad put on a little show of magic tonight?" He took her hand and led her from the forge, taking one last look at the scattered tools before he gaze down at Clarissa. Maybe the best thing I ever made was you, little one. And I can't even take full credit. He smiled broadly at that. 

- - - 

He closed his eyes, and for a moment the dull crash of waves below, the wailing cry of seabirds above, even the soft breeze caressing his face began to fade away into the dark. There, he found peace. Here, of all the places within this fortress castle, he could rest free from the waking nightmares and twisted memories of a dozen lives he had not lived. And then the whispering voices came back, begging, pleading for power. Begging to be strong, to be smart, to be better. It turned his stomach. His eyes flicked open, a mismatch of silver and gold orbs that reflected the endless ocean beyond. 

Nothing would please him more at that moment than diving into the icy depths below and fading into the void. But eventually, he knew he would wash up somewhere, and the cycle would begin anew. And it would kill Claire. He leaned out onto the railing, feeling the wind against his face, wondering how it might feel on the way down regardless. He felt a familiar presence prickling at the outer edges of his awareness long before she showed herself, though part of him hoped against reason that she would stay away, far, far away. 

But when she spoke, he turned to her, and the sheer weight of the longing that swept through him at the sight of Florica dressed as she never had been before. It caught the words in his voice, and he had to look away. Conflicting emotions echoed in him as he answered her. "Florica," he replied cordially. For you, I died. For you, I killed. For you, I burn and wither away. How could one feel so torn just hearing your own name? The right thing to do would be to end things, to spare them both the torture of living like this. She was kindling. He was fire incarnate. But even so, part of him wanted nothing more than to throw caution to the wind, to beg her to save him from the misery of his own failings. 

You know you have to let her go. This can never end well.  You know it's true. 

But it would be so sweet.

Coward. Murderer. Liar. 

The wolf owes no apology to the lamb.

Be better than that.

Give in.

Fight! 

He fixed her with his mismatched eyes, and said nothing. This is what I deserve. 

- - -

Claire chuckled as Sai continued to keep pace with her, blow for blow. Since they had formally begun his education, he had grown by great leaps and bounds. "You'd have been the terror of my team," she called, blocking a casual thrust and returning a flurry of light counterstrokes. "I mean, it'd have been a little weird what with you being so young, but we'd have bullied them into submission." She ducked under a quick slash and spun back out of his range, laughing at the clever improvisation. There was something wonderful about teaching someone. She had always enjoyed that part of it. Nathaniel had always been so fragile she could never have brought herself to put him through this. 

Well, now he isn't, she thought, parrying his next series of attacks. But hurting him would just be hurting me with extra steps. And, she  realized grimly,  I've already crossed swords with him twice. Why put them both through that again when there was a much more willing opponent? Besides, she enjoyed seeing more of Sai come alive again. If what she had seen beneath his mourning half-death was splendid, seeing that promise come to life was a hundred times so. Enough to sweep away the guilt, at least momentarily. She held up a hand for a break, wiping her brow with a sleeve. As the carriage passed, her merry expression swiftly fell into something cold and distant. 

"Someone you know?" he guessed.

"Something like that," she replied. "Although I assumed she had better things to do. Perhaps burning down an orphanage or hunting endangered animals for sport." 

Edited by Grimmholt

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At the cool tone in which he spoke her name, and the look he fixed her with afterwards, Florica felt a chill run through her that had nothing to do with the sharp ocean air. Her determination wavered, but did not break. She could not have said what, exactly, she was trying to accomplish; she just knew she didn't want to run any more. Taking a few steps forward beneath his scrutiny, she leaned against the railing as he was, leaving a generous several feet of space between them, and directed her gaze out to the sunlit ocean, a pensive frown marring her smooth brow. "How... h-how are you?" she asked. It was a laughable question, with all that hung between them. But she didn't know what else to say.

Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn't that.  He scoffed, tilting his head back to the sky. Perhaps this was as good a time as any to develop a conscience and free her. But instead he sighed and replied honestly. "Every day, I wake up to the sound of these waves. I always wanted to be somewhere like this, quiet, surrounded by the people I love." He turned to her,  and his voice was  a dry monotone. "But no matter what I do, I'm going to be a monster. I was weak. I gave into the worst parts of me. People lost so much because of me." Nate shook his head slowly. "No matter what I do, even if I threw myself from this balcony. I can never change that. Never change the way everyone here looks at me. Never change the way you see me."

Her heart ached at his stiff-toned words of despair, an ache that quickly spread to her throat and eyes, tears threatening. In that moment, she knew she had forgiven him. The first fire of their affection was still gone beyond recall, lost behind the long, cold months of absence, and that was probably for the best - but she couldn't hate him. Not when her own weakness had so violently flung him down this path. She shook her head, slowly, her fingers stiffening on the rail. "Th-there's more than e-enough b-b-blame to g-go around, n-Nate. It w-wasn't your b-blood th-that f-freed the m-m-Master." She shuddered at the memory, and at the mention of that black day a shadow seemed to fall over the balcony, stealing the joy of the sunlight. "I... d-d-don't th-think you're a m-monster." She finally looked back at him as she spoke the words, meeting his varicoloured gaze, determined that he believe her.

It was a struggle for him to watch her at the verge of tears and not try to comfort her. But he did not move, not even as she offered him the absolution that his soul cried out for. The words that no one else would say. The words he could not accept. This is your chance. She's so vulnerable. Just push, and she'll be yours again. He met her eyes. He smiled an empty smile. And Nate closed the distance between them to a few scant inches. He could smell cinnamon and sugar, could remember the taste of her on his lips and the need to burn her beautiful heart soul away until there was nothing dignified left of her. Desire and disgust mingled in his heart until he turned away from her, pain spreading through his chest as he spoke. "You're wrong. I'm just as broken and twisted as He was. You should go. Before something stupid happens. Run, and don't you ever find me again."

She turned to him as he stalked over to her, facing him without backing down, though the white-knuckle grip of her right hand on the railing hinted at what it cost her to do so. When, after a few seconds that felt like an eternity, he turned away again, she let out a shaky breath she hadn't known she'd been holding, her cheeks bright-flushed and burning. But she knew what he was doing. Wasn't it the same thing she had so often done? It's easier to think you're a monster than to know that the world's this unfair. She swallowed hard, studying the angular symbol of pain that was his back turned to her. Wanting to reach out to him. Wanting to tell him that he was just as human as she was. But she knew it was just as likely that he would only go even further to prove her wrong - and she could not go down that path again. She couldn't do that to Nero and Claire again.

The silence gathered and ebbed like waves between them, full of everything she couldn't say.

She took a step back, and another, her paces measured. She did not run, but she finally turned away from him, opening the door once more. She paused and glanced back at him, her hand resting on the handle. "Nate... I'm s-so sorry. F-for everything," she said softly.

And then she was gone.

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Three ancient iron chairs stood beneath the shadows of the Guardians, gleaming brightly in the firelight cast from crackling braziers mounted to the walls. The quiet burbling of the wellspring and the slow sound of footsteps echoing down the steps were the only sounds that intruded. Audric was the first into the Vault, a circlet of bright crimson steel around his head, his strides uncharacteristically short and measured to account for the little girl holding his hand as they entered. They were garbed in black and silver, the proud crossed spears and sword of the House of Grey emblazoned above their hearts. He tucked his right arm into Amirah's as they walked, doing his utmost to appear as strong and stern as his reputation demanded. He came at last to the foot of the chair beneath Weyland, standing on the Grey seal with the two he loved most in this world. 

The other families would be making their way down the steps one by one as he had, their retainers left in the hallways to congregate among themselves. This place was sacred to the three bloodlines. This ceremony, even more so. Beneath the watchful eyes of the stone guardians, each of them would prove their heritage and right to rule. For him, it would be a feat worthy of the First Among Craftsmen. For the Grimmholts, a feat displaying their inborn powers as befitted the First Among Spellsmiths. For Nero, something that exhibited the uninhibited strength and prowess of a Caesar warlord. 

Behind him, Siegfried Grimmholt the Lesser came through the open doors. A tall, spare man, his leonine mane had once been ash blonde but had since faded to a pale white. He wore a robust beard, and his emerald eyes were inquisitive, darting around the room he had not seen for many years. Not since that dreadful business with Audric's father, at any rate. At his side, his wife Alicia strode confidently into the room. He wore a suit of the finest white cloth atop a black shirt, and the proud viper of the House of Grimmholt entwined its way around his heart. This had been a room of many painful memories for them both. It seemed that few good gatherings occurred in this room. He found that to be a tragedy in itself. 

Nathaniel and Claire followed. The former kept his eyes forward, his face an impassive mask in the firelight. His white suit was of similar design to his father's, with the notable exception of the deep black gloves that disappeared into his sleeves. The latter wore a stark white dress that bore no insignia at all, though she had chosen to compliment her austere outfit with a polished cavalry saber and a fierce scowl. She flashed Audric a thumbs up, and a quick nod in Nero's direction. 

Siegfried made his way to the chair at the right and turned before it. He stood alone, leaving his family to stand just outside of the Seal. It would be safer there, he reckoned. Perhaps the Greys could get away with performing their own feats with others, but his was not so easily restrained. But at least it wasn't the Caesars' destructive dance of blades.

Nero strode down the steps with a vigor that did not reach his face. His was a suit of fine charcoal grey, with a sash that gleamed in the light like freshly spilled blood. The symbol of his office, the signet aquila, was nowhere on his person. His personal eagle lay beneath his clothing, etched into his back by elvish needles and ink. They would have to kill him before he surrendered that one. He wore the charred handle of Flamesong at his side. It would go back into the Vaults where it belonged, but it had one final duty to perform as a remnant of their ancestral weapon. He walked to the edge of the Seal with Florica, staring down at the polished bronze aquila carved inlaid on the floor. It had been the better part of a decade since there had been a Lord Caesar to stand and treat with the others. He tilted his head to the side, glancing at Florica. 

If he was to grant her name and title, he would have to do this first. And in a way, perhaps it was right that she, who had given him another chance at life,  should be the first new Caesar to join the family since his birth. 

"Trust me," was all he said, as he stepped onto the seal and motioned for her to follow him. Audric turned and inclined his head in a show of respect. Siegfried did the same. 

"Tonight, we honor the pact of our forefathers, forged in blood, in steel, and in brotherhood. The Caesars have suffered long these past ten years. They have lost Lord Cato, and Lady Anne, and Marcus Caesar to tragedy. Lord Antonius fell to the blades of assassins. But here stands Neromius Julianis Caesar. Last of the Caesars, my friend, and a man who fought nobly at my side to vanquish a foe who threatened us all." Audric formed much of the runes in the air with his left hand as he spoke, and he lifted Clarissa into the air with his other hand to finish the rest. "I recognize Neromius as Lord of the Caesar Dominions, First Among Blades. May you stand triumphant where others have fallen."

Audric snapped his fingers. Nothing happened. He took a slow breath, gathered his power, and snapped again with his left hand. The runes dissolved into a shower of multicolored sparks. Above, Weyland Grey tilted his head in a modest show of acknowledgement. "Thank you, little ember," he whispered.

"I have not personally witnessed his valor," Siegfried intoned. And at that there was a slow, seething silence in the room. Claire fixed her father with eyes that glinted in the light like naked steel. Nathaniel coughed once, and folded his arms across his chest.  

"But my daughter and son have." A slow pulse of power flowed from the Baron and his voice reverberated in the air. "Cato was a friend to us all. A friend to me, personally. Our differences aside," Siegfried nodded to Alicia before looking to Nero, "he would have been proud to see you here today." Siegfried slammed his fist into the ground at the foot of his chair in a fountain of crimson lightning, and the groaning black stone of Siegfried brought its sword before its face in a salute. "I, Baron of the Grim Holt, recognize you as Lord of the Caesar Dominions, First Among Blades. May you live your life as honorably as your fathers before you." 

Nero took in a long breath, and the world around him slowed. He dropped Flamesong's hilt onto the aquila, where it rang with metal against metal. "Hail," he whispered tot the statue. "I come here to claim my birthright. Not for my own sake, but for another." He met the stone eyes of his scowling ancestor. "I swear on your blade to honor your vows. No harm shall come to any Caesar for so long as I live. No blow shall go unanswered. No blood lost without blood in turn." There was silence as he turned and sat in the iron chair, first of the three to do so. 

After a moment, the groaning statue ground to a knee,  offering the hilt of its sword to his back. Claire arched an eyebrow. That was.. not what I remember. But the guardian had accepted whatever he had done, and knelt in fealty to a man who had run from this destiny for ten long years. 

"Hail, Lord Caesar" called Audric and Seigfried in unison. 

"Hail," he answered bluntly. "My first act is to recognize Florica Veshenga as a Caesar in name, right, and title." He reached into the folds of his cloak and offered her the handle of a narrow dagger. Faint tendrils of vapor dripped from its worn sheath as he directed Florica to kneel.  "Do you swear by the same vows as I do? To leave no blow unanswered, and remain unbowed?"

He waited for her response.

"Then rise, Lady Florica of the Caesar Dominions. May you be a light to our House as you have been for me.." 

Edited by Grimmholt

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Walking into the sacred chamber beside her brother, Florica held her head high. She wore a dress of charcoal grey that matched the shade of Nero's suit precisely, draping to the ground and whispering with each step she took. Her bright eyes took in at a glance the statues of the Betrayed, lingering on Caesar. The first Eagle. There was nothing in the statue's face that intimated kindness or love; he was every inch the hardened warrior. Perhaps for that very reason, she felt a flash of affection for the ancient figure, remembering Nero as she had first met him.

Or perhaps she was just happy to finally have a family again. Her heart skipped a few beats with sheer joy and pride, a glow within her that not even Nate's dour nearness could dim. Somehow, beyond every likelihood, she and Nero had come to this point. Together.

"Trust me," he whispered, and for a moment, her mask of solemnity cracked, revealing a fierce grin.

"Always," she whispered back, and then fell silent to listen to the rest of the ceremony, swelling with pride as the Count and the Baron acknowledged her aquila's bravery in the presence of their ancestors. 

Nero's vows sent a tingle down her spine, knowing that he was, really, swearing them for her. She could do no less. 

She dropped to one knee as the Lord Caesar addressed her, but her eyes remained fixed on his as she laid her slender hand on the dagger. Immediately she felt, along with the cold, the tug of the miada at the edge of her mind, whispering of the tangled knots of time the weapon had traveled through. She pushed the sensation aside, a knack she had been working hard at over the past few days. There would be plenty of time to witness the dagger's stories later.

"Do you swear by the same vows as I do? To leave no blow unanswered, and remain unbowed?"

Florica took a slow, steadying breath, rehearsing her vows once more in her head, determined to get through them without stuttering. "I swear," she began, and her soft voice rang clear as a bell through the quiet chamber, weaving like a faerie spell between the murmurs of the brook and the breaths of those gathered. "To live unbowed beneath the sun, to...always be loyal to th-the House of Caesar, and...to leave no blow unanswered. By the Dance, the Road, and the Wheel, I swear it," she concluded in the manner of the Banjari.

"Then rise, Lady Florica of the Caesar Dominions. May you be a light to our House as you have been for me.." 

Gracefully, she rose to stand beside her seated lord, taking the cold dagger in her right hand and resting her left hand on his shoulder.

A sudden rush of magic filled the room, stealing the breath from her lungs. She felt the full weight of the statues' perception pressing down upon her, rifling through her mind and memories as carelessly as the pages of a book. Her grip tightened on Nero's shoulder as she remembered him lying on the ground, cut open by his own sword - and her scream of rage as she all but unmade the Master in retribution. Other memories fluttered by, disordered, ephemeral. The first time she had healed him. The strident tones with which she had defended his name before Claire. Her offering of blood and body to save a desperate party of Caesar, Grey and Grims. Her mana mingling with theirs, offered freely in healing until there was no clear line where her spirit ended and theirs began.

Time had slowed, all these thoughts and a hundred more flashing through her mind between the space of one slow heartbeat and the next. She could hear them discussing her, deliberating amongst themselves.

She is no warrior - but she fights bravely. Strength honours strength.

She is no sorcerer - but her magic is deep. Magic honours magic.

She is no smith - but she forges body from spirit. Craft honours craft.

Lady Florica Caesar, speak these words...

The flow of time resumed. Florica let go of Nero's shoulder and in one smooth motion drew the damaged dagger and pointed it at the ceiling, looking up at it. "Praeteritis futura sit reconcilietur. Crevisset fractum reficere!" her voice rang out. With a crack and a blinding flash, the glowing image of a two-headed golden eagle appeared, beating its gleaming translucent wings as it hovered above the blade. The eagle screamed proudly, reached down and grasped the blade in its talons. There was another bright flash, and the image of the eagle vanished, leaving a glowing, gold residue that sank into the blade.

"Shatter," she commanded, and four gleaming spikes of ice shot from the blade to collide with the ceiling. Three of them shattered on impact and fell to the floor in tinkling shards, but the fourth was so sharp and cold that it embedded itself in the stone, freezing an area of several feet around it while the bedrock groaned in protest.

Lady Florica Caesar sheathed her blade, turned to the statue of Caesar, and pressed her closed fist over her heart, saluting him. After a moment, the statue rose to its feet and returned the gesture, granite fist colliding with steel lorica. The other two statues turned to her and did the same.

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A blur of emotions swept through Nero as she knelt and accepted Frost from his fingers. He heard her vows, and the sheer bravery she showed drew a fierce smile onto his face. He could just barely see the ghostly impression of a wisp of a girl, grateful to the world for simply leaving her alone beneath blue skies, starlight, and wind. He could faintly see the young woman who had dived into the sinking depths of his dying soul and dragged him back. He blinked away the sudden wetness in his eyes, and then she was rising to her feet to take her place beside him on the Aquila. My family. 

He felt her hand tighten around his shoulder,  and he turned to make sure she was still okay - it had been a rather strenuous task, he was sure. Steel rasped on leather as she drew Frost and pointed it at the bedrock above. "Praeteritis futura sit reconcilietur. Crevisset fractum reficere!" He watched in stunned silence as she summoned a symbol of their House from the blade cruel fate had broken, drawing forth  power he had never truly seen her use before. And then shards of ice were falling around them as a layer of ice and rime spread through the rock itself. The sound of the three guardians slamming their fists against their chests in salute echoed like an explosion in the Vault. He felt utter satisfaction in watching even Siegfried and Audric in shock at what they had witnessed. Best not to let this wonderful opportunity pass. 

Nero rose from his seat and turned to face her, grinning broadly. He dropped to one knee as he had once done so long ago and saluted her as well. "Hail. Hail, Lady Caesar!" You were never simply a dove caught in my wake, were you?" After a moment he rose and took his seat, staring over at the other lords. Audric stifled a laugh and dropped into his seat with Clarissa. Siegfried remained standing for a moment, staring at the Caesar siblings with questions forming in every slow movement of his lips before he nodded and sat as well. Nero whispered to his side. "Now that was an entrance befitting a Caesar. How did you know Frost could do that? Audric said the crash damaged it badly." 

- - -

Nathaniel's eyes swept from Florica to the shard of ice embedded in the ceiling and then back again. 

"Close your mouth, little brother," Claire whispered. 

His teeth clicked together. I had no idea you could do something like that. Except that she had. He had tasted that wellspring of power within her, once. She had destroyed him, or a part of him, once. Left him shattered and melting together like the chips of ice scattered around the bronze aquila at her feet. Her whispered apology from earlier came back to him. So much stronger than I thought. Stronger than I could ever have been. He finally found it within himself to look away. Claire stood beside him, her silver eyes intently searching the new Lord Caesar's face for something. She gave a thin smile and rested her hand  on her sabre's hilt as she looked away. 

"I'm going to stay," he said after a moment. "I can't go back home with you. Can't live two and a half streets from her again. It's too much." At that, she merely tilted her head over and rested it against the side of his own. "I know," she answered. "I know." 

- - -

"With that," Audric intoned over the sounds of the statues returning to their original positions. "We have restored balance to our three noble bloodlines. The events of the past year have been deeply trying for all of us. Brave men and women have lost much to bring us to this point. I believe we managed to best the enemy that lurked within Nathaniel. But there are those lurking in the shadows who would seek  to do us harm." Audric's expression was a mirror of Weyland's above as he swept those gathered with his gaze. "We were unable to capture any of them alive. But they used our own weaponry against us. Bloodstone. Bloodsteel. Siegfried, I fear we may eventually end up at war with whatever cabal plots against us." 

He folded his arms across his chest.

"Be wary. I fear they were not satisfied with claiming my parents and Nero's. I offer you any aid the House of Grey can provide." 

"And the House of Caesar will join them," Nero added.

Siegfried gave a short laugh that cut off abruptly. "I know well the price of a Grimmholt life. They killed my brother and his fiancee as well." His expression turned cold and hard as ice. "I'll die before I let them touch anyone else of our blood. Now is there anything else?" 

Audric paused for a moment. And then he shook his head. "No, Baron. Please be safe as you travel home." 

"Feh," Siegfried answered, rising from his seat. He inclined a polite nod to both of his counterparts and then stormed from the room. 

Nero gave a powerful shrug. "Went as well as could be expected." 

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Nero rose from his seat and turned to face her, grinning broadly. He dropped to one knee as he had once done so long ago and saluted her as well. "Hail. Hail, Lady Caesar!"

The young Lady Caesar smiled down at him, flushed with triumph and excitement. For once, no shy tilt of her head or crease of her brow rebuked the honour paid her. She returned his salute as the statues had returned hers, closed fist pressed over her beating heart. Thank you, brother. She wondered if he knew, if he would ever truly know what he had done for her. She had a name because of him. She had a voice because of him. And it was not because he had fought for her. It was not because he had died for her. It was because he alone of all the people of Mir had looked at her and seen more than scars. He alone had sought her gaze each time it fled, had listened to her quietest, most halting stutters and called them poetry.

Her heart ached with gratitude and love, feeling as though she might burst. The silent witnesses to the Caesar siblings' performance of familial loyalty seemed to fall away, reduced to irrelevance in that shared, golden moment between them.

And then it ended, and the Lord Caesar stood and took his seat again. Florica sheathed her dagger and resettled her hand on his shoulder while the others talked.

"How did you know Frost could do that? Audric said the crash damaged it badly."

Florica tilted her head towards him, her long blond hair trickling over his shoulder as she murmured in his ear. "The Eagle told me how to heal it." She nodded towards the statue of Julius. Somehow, she was not surprised that the others had not heard the voices that had whispered to her. "I think th-they like me," she added, her glance encompassing all three statues, still frozen in an attitude of salute. Her soft tone was one of mingled amusement and smugness, delighted to be able to uphold the Caesar name so spectacularly in front of the other two houses. Straightening again, she finally took in the reactions of the others - the Grimmholt siblings studiously looking away, the other lords' incredulous glances, Amirah and Clarissa's twin delighted grins. And the intense, unreadable stare of the grey-eyed woman she presumed was Claire's mother.

* * *

At Audric's first, failed attempt to activate the spell that he had had to have his offspring's help to draw, Baroness Alicia cleared her throat delicately into the silence, her face a neutral mask, though inside she was bursting with laughter. How the mighty have fallen, Jenny. She allowed herself the smallest of amused smirks, raising her auburn eyebrows as Audric finally managed to pull off a weak cantrip, earning a grudging nod from the statue of his noble forebear. She could feel the Countess' glare burning into her from the left, and she basked in its warmth like the glow of a warm fire. If you can't earn so much as a nod from Weland without your brat's help, are you even worthy to be called a Grey, young Audric? She had heard a rumour that he had been favouring his right arm since returning from last week's confrontation, but she had had no idea that the damage was so severe. It served the young lord right for trying to meddle in the family business. He should have known he would never be able to succeed where James had failed - but then, the Greys had always been a short-sighted lot. If they had only-

Her musings were interrupted as the new Caesar girl made her vows. Hardly the most militant of proclamations, but then, the pale girl looked as though one good curse would probably leave her on her arse and crying mercy. Idly, she wondered what Marcus would think of his brother swearing this timid mouse into the house of Eagles.

But her thoughts were interrupted again as the little mouse suddenly drew the dagger Nero had given her, and with a few well-chosen Latin words forced the Baroness to completely reevaluate everything she had assumed about the frail-looking creature. She looked sharply at Claire and Nathaniel, somewhat mollified to note that they seemed as shocked as she felt. Noting, as well, something more than surprise in Nate's eyes. Her eyes narrowed in thought, recalculating her opinion on that potential relationship in light of the power the girl had just displayed. Without training, evidently without preparation of any kind, she had just performed a feat of spellcraft that James and Siegfried together would have been hard-pressed to match, mending a severely damaged spell-blade without the aid of a forge or knowledge of its enchantments. 

The final nail in the coffin came as not just Julius, but all three of the Betrayed turned to acknowledge the waif. She shot a glare at the statue of Siegfried, her husband's namesake. Traitor. What did this mean? Was the little gypsy a member of all three houses now? Perish the thought. But it would explain why her feat had encompassed aspects of the three houses' magic... Alicia ground her teeth as Nero knelt and hailed his new sister. She hated not knowing things. Gaia's bones, she didn't even know what they had done to Nathaniel, or what powers he might now bear.

It was time to take a more direct approach. As the others began to file from the room, the Baroness stepped closer to her son, lightly but firmly touching his elbow, holding him back. "My son. May I have a word?" she asked in a low voice, her tone and expression betraying nothing but affection.

* * *

Sai had been waiting in the hall among the crowd of strangers, and was relieved when the familiar faces of his friends began to emerge from the vault. He immediately approached Nero and Florica, offering them a low bow. "Lord Caesar, Lady Caesar. I believe congratulations are in order," he said. The words were politely formal, but his expression was openly delighted for them. He had little idea what had actually gone on in the Vaults, but the satisfied expressions on their faces conveyed plenty.

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At the physical contact, something within Nathaniel snarled with outrage. He turned sharply, his expression relaxing instantly as the face of  his mother appeared. The years had been kind to her, and silver eyes that mirrored one of his own seemed sincere and warm. He pulled his arm back slowly, but nodded his assent. "Sure, Mother. What do you need?" He folded his arms over his chest. Behind him, Claire stopped in her tracks, fixing her mother with a ferocious glare. "Alicia," she said cordially, placing a hand on Nate's shoulder. "I believe Nate and I had another engagement to make it to." 

Nate turned to her, and shrugged. "It's okay. I can catch up." But Claire pursed her lips, and stepped back. "I'll wait for you, then," she said. Her smile did not reach her eyes.

The Baroness swallowed back a few choice words as her daughter addressed her so irreverently. I taught you better than that, child. Outwardly though, she only gave Claire a thin smile. "I know you and I have had our differences, Claire," her gaze flickered for a moment to Nero's back as he disappeared up the stairs, "But I have only ever wanted what's best for both of you. I'm... not as young as I used to be," she admitted softly. "Neither is your father. It's not right for us to be estranged like this. I miss you. We both do."

"That's a mild way of putting it," Claire said under her breath. She followed Alicia's gaze to Nero and her eyes narrowed. She ground her teeth together. This is not the time nor the place for this. "You've wanted what was best for the name of  Grimmholt. I have nothing to discuss with you, nor that man. He and I have already made our peace." Whatever game was being played here, Claire wanted none of it. And she had done everything she could to keep Nathaniel from it, as well. 

"Nate,  we really should be going." She reached out for him, but he shrugged aside her hand. He spoke softly, just barely enough to be heard. "Claire. You've done enough for me. I can't keep having you fight my battles for me, or save me from my mistakes. I want to hear her out. Please. I'll come and find you. I promise." He smiled wanly. "You'll know how to find me if I don't." She sighed deeply, tilting her head back in frustration. 

She relented, and brushed past Alicia as she left. "We'll discuss this later, Alicia." 

Nate watched her bound up the steps and exit the room before he responded. "I don't.. remember you. Flashes here and there, but Claire's the one who raised me." His demeanor changed, and he stood more straightly as he spoke. "What do you want from us? From me?"

Alicia tilted her head, her quick grey eyes studying her son with mingled sadness and sympathy. Idly, she smoothed the front of her black dress, trying to compose her thoughts. Nathaniel's admission that he didn't remember her... hurt more than she had expected it would. Well. She could use that. Genuine pain bled into her voice as she spoke. "I'm... sorry, Nathaniel. The curse... it has taken from all of us, but you most of all, I would say. I wish to Gaia I could give you back some of that time. Some of those memories." She sighed. "I'm not here to ask something from you, my son. But isn't there anything that you want?" Her thoughts travelled to the Lady Caesar, but she held her tongue on that point, knowing that she would have to tread very carefully there.

He looked away at the sound of her words. He was at once irritated at himself for causing harm and, oddly enough, sad. Were there any good memories among those I lost? Nate was silent for a few seconds as he thought. "What I want?" He frowned deeply. Anger and resentment sank into him. What I want? When has the world ever cared what I wanted? I wanted a normal life. With parents that loved me more than life itself. I wanted to love. To learn. To find a place in the world where only I could fit. He closed his eyes. "I want peace," he said, each word delivered with a slow, cold cadence. "I want to fade away without ever hurting another person ever again. But I'm never going to get that."

"Peace..." his mother echoed, with a wistful smile. Such a small, simple dream. "Such a selfless wish. You were always such a kind boy, my beautiful son..." There was not a trace of condescension in her voice, only longing. She turned away from him, walking slowly back to the edge of the water, staring at the silent guardians. "Peace always seems to elude our Houses, somehow. You would think that in six generations of superlative talent, we would have found it." She looked at each of the sternly carved expressions in turn, and for a moment, silence fell, broken only by the murmur of the spring.

"You could come home, you know," she said at length. "I know you don't remember it, but... you were happy there, once. Perhaps you could find a little peace there." She continued to stare out over the water, letting her son process the offer.

His eyes opened as she called him selfless. And yet, I sought to steal Florica's gifts for myself. When had he slipped so  low? Had it been when he had killed David after falling out of the tree? Or perhaps it had been at that first tantalizing taste of the life he had been unable to live. His mismatched eyes opened and followed her as she walked over to the spring's edge. After a moment, he joined her. Part of it was simply curiosity. Was this how she saw him? Someone kind, and selfless? Had he ever been? Could he be? Even with all of the blood on his hands? Something in him longed for even that small, nearly worthless redemption even as more rational parts of him protested. "Home.." he repeated. "With you and Father?"

The memory of a slap across his face intruded. He could hear shouting and the screech of drawn steel. His expression darkened. "I don't have a home, any more. I'm not that boy any more. He died in the Holt. I am merely what's left."

Her hopes rose at his cautious question, only to plummet again at his harsh statement. She turned away from the statues to face him, so close that she could see every fleck and flaw in his mismatched eyes. "You're still a Grimmholt," she said fiercely. "You're still my son. And you always will be."

I'm so tired of it all. Everything I touch, I break.

But breaking things can feel so right.

Get out of my head.

I'm only trying to help. Their expectations, their hopes for you. Everything you touch will turn to ashes. Better to burn it all before they get too close.

Before he realized it, he was striding to the edge of the silver serpent. He ripped his glove off, feeling the steady thrum of power pulsing through him. His Power. Power bargained for with a maniacal, cruel  creature. Power bought with blood and sacrifice. Power that had twisted him into something that should never have been allowed to walk free from the Swan. Crackling crimson light arced from his fingers as he poured all of his rage and frustration into his hands. He turned to face her, his face contorted into something inhuman. "No," he said simply,  and  smashed his fists against the silver serpent. The metal shrieked as he drove raw, unrelenting force into the fine serpent's midsection, clawing at the rents he had made. It cracked in two with a brilliant shower of red and green sparks. 

"No." He stood, stray arcs trailing from his body. "I am not a  Grimmholt. I am not your son. I reject the House of  Grimmholt. I reject my title, and I reject you and Father. I vow that I shall be the last damned son of Siegfried the Grim to walk Mir.  You all make me sick."

Alicia flinched despite herself at the display of raw power as Nathaniel split a massive crack in the emblem of their family. Broken in half. She saw herself in the top half of the once-proud serpent, Claire at the bottom. It cannot be mended. The truth she had avoided for so long felt like a slap in the face. She saw Jenny's body, still and cold, bereft of the fiery energy that had filled every moment of her life. She heard her husband shouting, rejecting her son for the sins of his great-grandfather's grandfather. She had married into this family for power - but what good was power if it couldn't keep those you care about safe and close?

The baroness clenched her fists, and ice crawled over their surface, cold steam drifting towards the stone floor as she strove to control herself. She took a long, slow breath and let it out again. "You are mine," she snarled, "And no words can unmake that truth. You are blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, child of my womb. Make your damned vows if you wish - I will always be a part of you."

Her response surprised him. He had never seen her - or at least, could never remember - seeing his mother so openly angry. Her words clawed against the walls he had thrown up. And something in them chilled him to the bone with how absolutely she believed in them. In the stark ideal that he could never willingly throw away any of his ties to them. There was something dark and twisted in that. No matter how far I run, you all will find a way to drag me back into your happy little delusions. And for once, the other voice in him was silent. 

What he had done had shaken her. The great seals had remained there for six long generations, nearly two centuries of his family's past. They were bound to withstand tremendous stress as his forebears proved their power, and yet, he had broken theirs. Perhaps irreparably so. He fixed her with his eyes, staring back intently at the intellect within that so desperately wanted him to go with her. To the place where his descent had begun all those years ago. "If my words cannot, then allow my actions," he answered, stripping the other glove off and tossing it onto the ruined seal. He strode past her without making any contact, without so much as looking at her. "Goodbye, Lady Grimmholt. I wish you and your family good fortune." And then he walked away from her. He had only two ties left in the world to anchor him here. Sooner or later, they would break too. And then he would be free.

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"The Eagle told me how to heal it." At Florica's casual statement, Nero arched an eyebrow. I've never heard of them reaching out to us before. Judging us, acknowledging our power, yes. But you seem to have a habit of getting even stone to feel. I shouldn't be as surprised. He grinned. "I think th-they like me." 

"For once, I think my ancestors and I can see eye to eye on something." Nero dropped his arm around her and gave a warm hug. "You did spectacularly, aqulia mea." As they walked up the stairs, he found Sai amidst the other retainers. He inclined his head politely in the direction of a tall man with salt and pepper hair and warm green eyes before returning his attention to the young Welander. Where the others, save Lord Howe, had more or less shied away, Sai seemed to be the only one genuinely happy to see them. "Thank you, Kimura-dono," Nero replied, giving him a formal bow. "I only wish you had seen my sister's entrance. It was.. something else." A broad smile crossed his lips. 

"Thank you for allowing us to use the Swan. I do not believe we could have made it out without both it, and your direct assistance." He paused, thinking back to the moment where he had almost ruined everything by leaving the bounds of their spell. Sai had simply dashed through the door and gone to Claire's assistance. It was what he wished he could have done at that moment. But he had his duty. Nero rested his hand on Florica's shoulder without really thinking about it. "And thank you for defending Claire when no one else could. She.." He trailed off, as she emerged from the vaults, a storm in the lines of her face. She strode straight past them and out towards the balcony without acknowledging them. 

I know that look. He wanted to leave and comfort her, but the last thing she would want to see was him. Nero smiled stiffly. "She's a good person. Fate has been unkind to her,  as it has been to all of us. Please look after her." 

- - - 

He lifted the glass to his lips, and drank deeply of the pale wine within. Sir John Howe was a man of middling height, his raven dark hair peppered with gray, bright green eyes warm and a lazy smile on his face as he observed the other retainers. He returned Nero's nod of acknowledgement with mirth, and returned to waiting along the wall. His lord had already departed to the carriages, intent on making it home in time to spend poring over his latest project, no doubt. From the look on his face, however, John figured something had set him off. 

His Lady, on the other hand, was still in the Vault where he could not see. Claire had emerged, looking as angry as she had the last time he had seen her nearly a decade ago. Although at least her sword remained sheathed this time. It was rather unnerving to see her with steel in her hands, particularly with how similar she and her mother looked. He had given her a polite smile, and to her credit, she had simply given him a small wave of acknowledgement as she stalked away rather than unloading her emotions on him. Now that's progress. 

 

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"Claire is a very good person," Sai agreed, glancing out thoughtfully towards the balcony but deciding that Claire looked like she wanted to be left alone for the moment. He made a mental note to check in on her presently. "I owe her a debt I can never repay, as does the Swan. She's become like a sister to me," he said with his usual forthrightness. 

Florica smiled at his words. Though she still had her private reservations about the woman, she was happy to know that Claire had such a good friend in Sai.

She was about to say something to that effect when the youngest Grey came skipping up to them, unable to contain her excitement as she gleefully hugged the new Lady Caesar's waist. "I did magic!" she proclaimed proudly. "Did you see? Did you see?"

Florica giggled warmly at the little one's exuberance, bending down on one knee to give Clarissa a proper embrace, and remaining knelt to chat with her on her level. "I did! You d-did w-wonderfully," she praised, barely a hint of her usual stutter in evidence.

"And you did wonderfully, too!" the generous child added, kissing Florica's cheek as she'd often seen her father do when he was particularly proud of her mother. "And now we're all family! Will you stay and live with us forever?"

Florica chuckled again, but shook her head. "I d-don't think so. But I'll b-be sure to visit," she promised. In truth she wasn't sure where she would live, after this, but she knew she wanted a fresh start - somewhere where there were no Greys, Caesars or Grimmholts for her to bring to harm.

"Has work begun on rebuilding your home in Ashville yet?" Sai asked, presuming that's where both Caesars would be heading once it was. "I'll probably be heading back to Weland soon, myself. I have friends I can stay with, and I'd like to be able to keep a close eye on the Swan's progress." He glanced over briefly at  Nate as the younger Grimmholt emerged from the Vault with a dour look on his face and followed Claire out onto the balcony.

* * *

Alicia looked down at her closed fist for a moment, examining the ice glittering over it. The cold sent a familiar ache down into her bones. It grounded her, kept her focused. I will bring you home one day, my son, she vowed, her determination only strengthened by the boy's show of strength and rebelliousness. She glanced back at the cracked serpent and shook her head. Siegfried was not going to be happy about that. But then, if he had not banished their children in the first place, perhaps the seal might remain unbroken.

The baroness gave Nate a few more moments' head start, and then banished the ice from her skin with a dismissive flick of her hands, walking over to examine the broken seal more closely. So, you still bleed, my son. There wasn't much there - but for the right spell, one didn't need much. Withdrawing a vial from her pocket, she whispered a spell, waving her hand over the traces of blood. It rose from the seal in a fine, red mist, and at her direction, flowed into the vial. Stoppering it, she held it up to the light for a moment. Hm. More than I thought. This could be interesting. Her good mood somewhat restored, Baroness Alicia pocketed the vial again and turned to rejoin the party upstairs.

Edited by Song Sprite

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"I owe her a debt I can never repay, as does the Swan. She's become like a sister to me."

At that, Nero glanced fondly over at Florica and nodded. "Strange how that happens, isn't it? But I'm glad. What she did to take care of Nate.. that was a bitterly lonely road. She needs all of the friends she can get. And all of the family." Nero chuckled softly as Clarissa came up to them and immediately launched into an animated conversation with his sister. He felt a familiar ache in his chest as he watched Audric's little girl ask if Florica would stay forever. In another world, another time, he might have been a parent by now. Perhaps Clarissa would have been friends with them, playing hide and seek through the grownups. Fond memories of wandering the castle with Audric came to mind. But here I am. And the Caesar family isn't dead yet. Marc lives. I live. And Florica Caesar lives. Perhaps one day we'll be seeing her children wander around here, too. 

If I can find and kill whomever did this to us. 

"Has work begun on rebuilding your home in Ashville yet?" Sai's question drew him back to the real world. "No," he admitted, tilting his head to the side. "And I may not, right now. It may be safer for the world to think Nero Caesar is still dead, until I've had a chance to find out who burned our home down in the first place." He felt the loss of his blades acutely now, missed the comforting weight of their steel. 

"I'll probably be heading back to Weland soon, myself. I have friends I can stay with, and I'd like to be able to keep a close eye on the Swan's progress."

At that, he nodded along. And an idea began to form in his mind. The greatest defense against determined attackers was simply to not be where they expected one to be. They could expect eyes to remain on the Grey Castle, and on his properties and probably the Grimmholts' as well, but they might overlook a seemingly neutral party's. For all any conspirators of the Master might know, their choice of the Swan might simply have been due to its derelict state, rather than any arrangement with the owner. And if they played their cards right, perhaps he could fortify it enough that it might deter a second attack long enough for him to dismantle their enemies. 

But they had already asked so much of the young Welander. It protects him as well. It wouldn't take much to discover where Audric's money is going. 

"Perhaps I could assist with the reconstruction," he ventured at last. "I think Florica might be safer there. And there is a chance - albeit a small one - that our enemies may well seek vengeance on you for your assistance. I would arrange the cost of any fortification or additional materials, of course." 

- - -

The lazy smile on John's face turned into something much more genuine as the familiar form of Alicia Grimmholt sauntered from the Vault. He waited a polite enough amount of time to allow her to greet the others, and then crossed the floor to fall in at her side. He handed her a glass of her favorite wine, white gloved hands precise and smooth. "Judging from the look on the little miss's face, I take it your reunion was an eventful one. Junior's brooding up a storm, as well." He spoke plainly, masking the true intent of his words beneath the affable veneer of a concerned manservant tending to his Lady's every whim. "As for our previously terminated employee, I haven't been able to find his forwarding address to deliver his severance pay, but rest assured I've located a few promising leads." 

He smiled blandly as a pair of bodyguards matched their stride, the poised viper of the Grimmholts embroidered on their sleeves. "I've taken the liberty of preparing a carriage home for you. My Lord Siegfried has already departed. He was issuing orders to the House guard for double duty. I have, of course, placed our best men onto the task." 

- - 

Claire turned sharply at the sound of footsteps behind her, not at all in the mood for any interruptions. Her expression softened as she saw Nathaniel emerge, his ungloved hands a bloody mess. She sighed deeply, and took them in her own torn hands. As she expected, his wounds had closed, leaving only the sticky residue of drying blood to be dealt with. "And people say I'm the hothead of the family," she murmured. Nathaniel gave her a tired smile. "Sorry. I might have... lost my temper a little. Maybe destroyed the seal. Maybe told dear old Mom to go to hell and take the family name with her."

Claire remained silent for a moment. I honestly didn't think you had it in you. But then again, I didn't think you could snap my wrist like a toothpick or try to do... any of the things you did. The throbbing in her hands slowly faded away as Nathaniel's body fully healed. That wasn't you. You fought it. You tried to die to stop it. I need to remember that. There IS good within you, and you know it. There's just.. something else in there with you. 

Nate gave her an apologetic look and pulled a handkerchief from his pockets. He busied himself with tenderly wiping the blood from her healing hands. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I just.. lost it. She kept trying to convince me to go home. Claire, that's not home. Not any more." She let him finish wiping her hands, and then she hugged him tightly, uncaring about the blood that he left on her dress. "It's okay, Natey. I understand. Really, I do. I mean, when I left I threatened to burn down an entire wing of the manor. I.. there's a lot you know know about us. About why we left." 

He turned to look down the hallway at the figure of his mother. "I think.. I get a little of it. Maybe not all of it, but I can see the shadow of something there." 

She released him and stepped back to the balcony, listening to the distant waves. "So where do you really want to go?" 

"Here, I think. I want to stay with Audric. I won't be a burden to you, and I won't be near... her. And maybe I'll figure out where I go from there. But until I figure out what's going on with me, I don't think it's a good idea to be in public." 

Claire took in a deep breath, and then exhaled. "Yeah. I'll talk to him. I'll miss you, little brother." 

"I'll miss you too, Claire. Thanks for everything." He turned to walk away, and slipped into the side hallways. 

 

Edited by Grimmholt

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