Author’s Note: When I started this story, I had this ending in mind from the beginning. That is to say, I knew this scene was coming because it gave me the title, but it didn’t come out on paper the way I had envisioned it.

That Perfect Sunset

“I have something I want to show you.”

“You do?” Agache asked, smiling. He reached for her hand, and Jis gave it gladly, wanting even more of a connection with him than she already had. This was what she’d envied in watching Anokii and Gekin together, and she was glad that they at last had this. She knew, too, that their relationship would always be twinged with some guilt for when they’d started feeling something for each other, but they had not taken that too far, and that knowledge must sustain them as they continued to grow their love now. At least the people had what they deserved—some sort of happiness after what they’d endured, and while she knew they would all carry their scars, while their land might never be united, they could look to the future with hope instead of fear.

She shook that thought away, giving her husband a smile. “I do.”

“That expression on your face is one that I have learned to fear after the time that I have spent with you,” he said, and she laughed. He did not fear anything about her, but she liked the way he teased her. She always had, under all the annoyance. “What torment have you devised for me?”

“I am the queen, not the king, and the new king—you—are a different sort of ruler. We do not torment anyone.”

“That depends on the definition. I think your behavior last night was rather… torturous since you were not willing to let me touch you and yet you would not stop touching me.”

She felt herself flushing. She had been rather bold, even at one point using esibani training against him. He had not complained too much. She’d believed he enjoyed that. “You are displeased?”

“I did not say that.”

“Is that what you’re hoping that I am planning now?”

“I am not sure I can endure more of that.”

“You survived the king’s torture. His brought you near death. Mine was… well, pleasurable.”

He nodded, stopping to touch her face, caressing her cheek before kissing her. She could let them get lost in this, it would be all too easy for them to do, but she had something else she had wanted him to see. She could not allow them to become distracted, not yet.

“Come. We don’t have much time.”

“Why are we rushing? I didn’t think there was any need of urgency. We have had a quiet time since our second wedding. There are quite a few among the Biskane who are very pleased to have you as their queen again, and I think you have made my rule seem more favorable than I could ever have expected. We may even be able to sustain this peace.”

She nodded. “I hope so. I do not want to think we shall lose it, not for our sake or for the people’s. I know there are some rumors of unrest, but I do hope that we can find a nonviolent solution to that. With most of the Nebkasha already settled in the new land, tensions have decreased considerably, and I think the Biskane are starting to accept you and life without the cruelty of the king to keep them harsh and angry all the time.”

He shook his head. “I have little to do with that. It is only that most who would have fought the changes are already gone.”

She tugged him forward. She doubted that he would ever acknowledge his part in keeping their land at peace and their people happy, no matter how long he managed to rule. “Here.”

“Jis, I do love you, but this is the same balcony we have been on many times before and—”

“Look, Agache. Look at the sky. The sun. It’s… Well, it’s beautiful, this combination of the clouds and the colors, but it’s more than that. After so long in the oppression of the twin suns…”

“Yes, I see what you mean, niniamant,” he said, closing his eyes, and she smiled as she saw a faint glow about him. “It is a perfect sunset.”

Author’s Note: So this story has just about reached its end. Once the negotiations were over, there wasn’t much tale left for me to tell, even though I found myself so attached to the queen and Agache that I wanted to do more with them. I just haven’t found a plot that would make a good sequel. Maybe I’ll satisfy my need to revisit old friends with a few short pieces instead.

Taking the Journey Home

“We will have to have a second ceremony according to the traditions of our land, you know,” Agache said, speaking again after several moments of silence. Anokii had been wondering if they would walk without conversation all the way to the castle, but then she knew, too, that first awkwardness after taking the vow of marriage, how timid and shy she and Gekin had been with each other even despite having consummated their love and their vows. Marriage changed so much, and for her cousin and his bride, their union was more complicated than most. They had to rule a country made up of two peoples that hated each other, and even with the permission she’d forced out of her father to allow the Nebkasha to settle in part of their land and buy it, tensions would be high between them and their neighbors for a long time to come. Anokii did think the other king had maneuvered things so that Agache would take Jis as his bride, but she did not know that his reasons for that were honorable.

She hoped the man had done it because he knew his daughter was unhappy, if he suspected that she loved Agache, but he could have done it with deception in mind, as he had with the last treaty. True, they knew what Jis was. They wanted her for a queen. Agache needed her. He did not have the luxury of settling in the Nebkasha’s new land. He was the king. He had to find a way to represent both peoples and would have to remain at the castle, at least at first. He would need support and love, and he had both of those things in the woman he’d chosen.

“I do not mind. We have vowed to be loyal to each other, and that does not change with repetition. Some people, though, they should have it and don’t.”

“Like Wenjige?”

The queen’s lips curved with disgust. “She betrayed her husband for Malzhi. How could she?”

“There were those who considered him attractive.”


He laughed. “I’m not, though. By the standards of his people, he was handsome, and he had power, too. Some find that appealing.”

“They are as sick as he was.” The queen frowned. “You… Do you doubt my ability to be faithful to you after what happened between us? I do not… It is not the same. I had no desire to marry him, did not do it except by obligation, and I am not saying that to excuse my behavior—”

“I do not want excuses. It is not…” Agache sighed. “In some respects, it might be justice to have it all happen again, but I do not think it will. Neither of us wanted to break your vows. Neither of us did, not more than that kiss, and once we had done that… I suppose we should have stayed apart. Had it not been for the king’s death, my ascension to the throne, and the new treaty, we would have.”

Anokii frowned. She did think her cousin meant that—he would not have gone for the queen if he had not needed to negotiate with her people. He would have let her go. Anokii did not know if that was noble or foolish.

“I am rather glad of the treaty then,” the queen said, her voice quiet. He stopped, placing his hands on her face. “I know we are… more fortunate than most in what we now have.”

“You are not regretting returning with me, are you?”

“Of course not. Where you are is where I want to be.”

“We will still have to live in the castle until I can have a modest residence built on the border of our lands. I would like to step away from the throne and give it to someone else, but I see only bloodshed in doing so, and I cannot—”

“I am not asking you to abandon your people now. I would never do that.”

He pulled her close, kissing her. Anokii turned away, not needing to watch. She was glad to see her cousin happy, but she did not want to intrude upon that happiness, either. She knew how much privacy meant to her and Gekin, and Agache had always tried to allow for them to have as much time alone as possible. She could be as considerate in return.

“We should continue on. We still have a long journey ahead of us.”

“Perhaps we should stop for the night.”

“It is not even midday.”

“So?” The queen laughed, wrapping her arms around Agache’s neck. “It will be night, and we both enjoy the nighttime more than the rest of the day. Why not sleep now and wake up when it is night? Or we could not sleep and spend the night together as well…”

He smiled, shaking his head. “You are far too tempting, niniamant.”

“Not tempting enough, though. You are about to make us press on.”

“Anokii wants to be back with Gekin.”

“I know, but she can go ahead without us if she wants. I think we deserve a day’s respite from all we endured before we left my homeland and before we return to our obligations in your kingdom.” The queen stepped up to kiss him, just a gentle one right on his cheek. “Please. We have not had much chance to be alone since we married, and there will be so many distractions, so many responsibilities… We do not have to abandon them, but can we not have one day for ourselves?”

“I do not know that we can as the situation in the kingdom is—”

“I say you may as well stay.”

“Gekin!” Anokii cried, smiling as she ran toward her husband. She had not expected him, thought that she had to get back to the castle before she would be able to hold him again, and this was a wonderful surprise.

“It was too long to wait. I got impatient.”

“You are such a fool.”

“Always, niniamant, always, but only for you.”

Author’s Note: One deceptive king, a major omission and assumption, and a subplot that refused to be denied all come together to create this part. I wrote it out of order, almost pulled it several times, and in the end, it stayed with some alterations to make it fit better.

Certain Terms of Negotiation

“I think you care about them a great deal.”

“The Nebkasha? Yes, Father, I do. I admire them. Their survival after so many years of oppression and hardship, their ability to work against the king without causing civil war and lots of bloodshed, the way that they care for each other and love each other—Oh, if you saw Gekin and Anokii and the way they look at each other, the way they touch… They are people to envy, sharing something so wonderful that everyone should want it.” Jis shook her head. She let out a breath, hoping her cheeks did not betray any sort of color. “I suppose now you will say I should not come to the negotiations. I have exposed my bias, and I cannot act for our people. I would give too much to them.”

“I fear you already have.”

“What, the land? You know none of our people are willing to dwell there, and they are giving us a fair price for it. That is not wrong. They deserve a life without the horrible heat, a place where they do not have to be punished for who they are.”

Her father smiled at her, lifting her head. “Yes, you are a queen, aren’t you? The needs of the people are your concern.”

“I—I was not a true queen, and you know this. Stop calling me that. It is… it is an insult coming from you. You bartered me off and used my loyalty to you and the esibani to do it, you gave me in the place of Zaze when she should have to face the consequences of who she is just once, and you still have no idea what I went through at the king’s hands.”

Her father shook his head. “I mean it as high praise, daughter, and I hope you see that someday.”

She glared at him. She doubted she’d ever forgive him for any of this, but before she could tell him that, the doors opened, and Agache stepped in, followed by his cousin. Anokii had removed her cloak, and Jis was disgusted to realize her father was attracted to the other woman. “She’s married—and she’d never betray Gekin.”

“Zaze is quite wrong about them. They have a certain… appeal.”

“You are revolting.”

She wondered if Agache had heard her as he crossed toward them. His manner was polite, but no more than that. She thought him rather distant instead of how he had been the day before. “I do hope we can resolve the remainder of our mutual concerns today. I regret delaying the proceedings yesterday, but I was having trouble concentrating.”

“How is your arm today? Do not lie now.”

“Better, and you may ask my cousin if you think I am lying. She will tell you I am not.”

Anokii grimaced. “It is not much improved, but yes, there is an improvement, so he is not lying. He is a bit better.”

“Good,” Jis said, smiling. She felt her father’s hands on her shoulders and looked up at him with a frown. What was this? He did not need to touch her—he should not touch her, not with how angry he kept making her.

“I think we must include a clause that will ensure that we… allies will trust each other,” her father said, and she tried to pull herself free only to be tugged backward. “There is, of course, one way this is traditionally done. The oldest sort of alliance. Marriage.”

Agache drew in a breath. Anokii placed her hand on his good arm, and he covered her hand with his as he nodded, though he did not look at all pleased. “That may be necessary.”

Jis frowned. That she did not care for, even if she had been more or less fortunate to be that bride for the first treaty. Now it would be Zaze, wouldn’t it? Oh, how her sister would hate that. Not that she’d be marrying a Nebkasha. She’d get a Biskane and hate that just as much. “Your new leader would agree to this? He wants one of the princesses as a wife?”

Agache laughed. “No.”

Her frown deepened. “No? You just said it might be necessary, but if your leader is not willing to marry one of the princesses—”

“I want you for my queen.”

“Your queen?” She felt sick. She could not do that again. She refused to be a part of that bargain, even for peace between their lands. “Agache, I do not know who ended up gaining power after the king and Malzhi died, but I am not going to marry anyone just because I was married to the king and—”

“I want you for my wife. That is the only term under which such an alliance would be possible.”

She stared at him. “You…”

He nodded. “I am the king now. Did you forget that I had royal blood? They did not all rally behind me, but they did eventually concede after more bloodshed between my opposers eliminated those supporting them. Without enough support, they could no longer fight, could not gain any advantage or power. A few of them died themselves. I think we all saw that there was no reason to let the killing continue. It was not a celebrated thing, but in the end, they named me king.”

She swallowed. “It… I hadn’t forgotten, but I did not think you wanted to rule.”

“I don’t want to be king, but I will do what is best for my people—all of them. I represent both sides, carry the blood of both nations, and therefore I have an obligation to them both. I know that I am not what some of them want, but they have been willing to accept my leadership thus far.”

“I am glad.”

“You do not seem that glad to me.”

She tried to force a smile. “It is… That is… I did not think you… We… I would not have thought you would want me, not after… This isn’t about releasing me from my vows as an esibani, is it? You do not have to marry me for that. You don’t.”

He frowned. “I had, I thought, been too clumsy and obvious with how I felt, with feelings I had no right to feel. I am not sure how you could not know the way I felt, Jis. I have slipped from the beginning, calling you my esibani, considering you a friend… My curiosity began when we traveled together, when you betrayed depths that your half-sister had never shown before. All the times she was present for the negotiations, she was quiet, sullen, and her opinions lacked comprehension. I saw the differences then, since you had removed your cloak, and yes, I suspected the switch, so when I escaped, I did see a need to watch you. I did, on occasion. I saw the esibani training and much more. A part of me knew that when I went to see you, I wasn’t just visiting an ally. I could have sent Anokii to get you or give you word in advance, but I always wanted to go myself. I wanted to see you. That… It was… foolish. Anokii had told me to find a reason to keep living and fighting. I had not thought I wanted any such thing, and to find it in you was… actually quite unpleasant. I did not want to be in love with a woman I knew I could not have, a woman I knew I had to use to free my people and could end up dead because of my plans and manipulations, even my affection. You were married. I did not want to be attracted to you, not even a little. I hated myself for it. I still do. I am not proud of what I felt, but I cannot deny it. I loved you, and that was why I tried to send you away, why I had to send you away, for both our sakes.”

She could not find the words she wanted. She had so many things to say to him now, but she did not know how. She needed to tell him that he was not alone, that she had fallen and betrayed herself and her vows as well. She had not broken them, not by deed, but in spirit, yes, and she hated it as much as he did.

He took a step back. “If you do not want to accept the terms of the negotiations, we can negotiate others. I would only ask that you excuse me for a moment—”

She rushed forward, unwilling to let him leave. She might not have the words, but she knew that she was not going to let go. She grabbed hold of his tunic and kissed him, holding him in place. They were not under the influence of any eclipse, nor was it all that dark in this room, but she swore she saw that same glow to him, and she could not help smiling as she did. This was them. This was how it felt to be who they were, feeling as they did, being in love, and it was… wonderful. She knew it should not be, not after the wrong they’d done, but she did not think that she had ever experienced a more perfect moment, though she would also hope there would be more to come. Perhaps they did not deserve it, but that did not mean that she did not want it.

She pulled back, needing to breathe and to speak. “You were not alone. I… I felt things I should not as well, and I do not know that it is right even now that I am free, but… I accept. I want to marry you.”

“Zigaime, niniamant.” He laughed, the slight glow to his features shifting in color as he did. “I sound so stupid. I am very clumsy at this. I have never been in love before.”

She shook her head. No, he was nothing of the sort—not stupid and not clumsy. “I do not think you are stupid or clumsy. I am glad to be your first—hopefully your only love.”

“I should think you would be, even given my likeliness to outlive you.”

She thought of his words about the dragon blood and the king’s ancestors. “How old are you?”

He smiled. “I cannot tell you that. Anokii would be very displeased.”


“I’m older than she is.”


He grinned and kissed her again, and Jis decided she didn’t care how old he was. She wanted to spend her life with him. That was all that mattered.

Author’s Note: Agache would, of course, not travel without his cousin. She would never have allowed that to happen.

Quiet Discussions of Loyalty and Duty

“My lady.”

“Anokii,” the queen said, and the maid surprised herself with how pleased she was to see the warmth of the other woman’s greeting. “Oh, I am glad you traveled with him—though with his stubbornness and injuries, how could you not? He might not have made it without you.”

She laughed, knowing her cousin hated the truth of the queen’s words. “You are correct. He should not have come. Yet I think if it had been anyone other than him, these negotiations would not have been successful.”

“I believe my father will be persuaded to give your people the land near the border. The Nebkasha can be free at last.”

Anokii smiled, tempted to embrace the other woman, despite the difference in their station. She looked to Agache as he sat down on his bed, taking off his boots. He rubbed at his neck, and Anokii had to check and see if his skin had burned. He had chosen not to wear his cloak to the negotiations—a decision she’d disliked, but he was determined to enjoy the freedom that came with the absence of a second sun.

“Where is Gekin?”

“He could not come. Someone had to remain that could be trusted, and that was Gekin. I regret that he could not be here—I know he was concerned for you after he left you here.”

The queen’s hand touched her side. “I… I have recovered. I would thank him for bringing me here, except I am not so certain here is where I want to be.”

“Are you a prisoner here?”

“No. It is just… I no longer feel the same about my home and my role as I did. I have been… too independent to return to the role of an esibani, not wanting to follow orders. I have grown quite angry with my father, and I fear shall soon quarrel with him in a way that cannot be undone.”

“If we are able to get our land, perhaps you could join us there.”

“Oh, Anokii, I would… Except I have taken oaths of loyalty, and my vows, at least, keep me here.”

Anokii turned to Agache. Had he not asked before? “Surely we could include a release from your vows as a part of the treaty. I don’t even know that they should be able to keep you—you were our queen, after all.”

“Zaze was supposed to be your queen. My replacement of her dishonored the treaty, and I am not a queen here. I am only Jis, the esibani assigned to protect Zaze.”

“Zaze does not deserve you,” Agache said, pushing up his sleeve. The queen—Jis—winced as she saw the wound. “I am starting to believe that will never heal.”

Anokii shook her head, going for the herbs that she had brought with her. He should not have forced them to travel at such a pace, but she knew that he did not want to be gone from the castle for any longer than was necessary. His absence could send their country back into chaos. Were it not for the importance of these negotiations, he should not have come at all.

“It will. You need to rest more.”

Jis nodded. “I should go. I fear I have stayed here too long already, and I will lose what credibility I have as a negotiator if I seem too partial. Zaze already thinks that I am biased, and I admit I am after all your people did for mine and for me personally, but they cannot be allowed to know that.”

“It is not that we do not appreciate all that you did as well,” Anokii told her. “Without you, what we have now might not have been possible.”

“No, it would not have been,” Agache said. He closed his eyes. “Do you want us to ask for your release, Jis? You deserve your freedom as much as we do.”

The queen’s eyes shone, but she shook her head before any tears might fall. “No. That is not necessary. I will see you tomorrow at the negotiations.”

She opened the door and slipped out, shutting it behind her before either of them could speak. Anokii frowned. She stopped herself from giving the herbs to her cousin. “Why did you not tell her—”

“The choice is hers to make. She is under no obligation to join us, and she might find she did not feel as though she belonged there, either. If she decides it is what she wants, she is welcome to join us and I will negotiate for her release if need be. If not… Then she is free to remain.”

“I think she is miserable here, Agache, and she may be too stubborn and dutiful to ask for release even if it is what she desperately wants. You may have to do it for her.”

“Perhaps. We shall see what tomorrow is like.”

Author’s Note: In the first version of the negotiations, things were settled all too quickly. I had to go back and change that so that they were more realistic. That allowed Zaze to make an appearance, since I wanted to show just how different Jis was from the sister she was forced to imitate.

Starting Negotiations

“I have already told you the terms are unacceptable.”

She stilled. She knew that voice. Was she dreaming? She’d thought Agache had died because of Malzhi’s attack, she knew he’d not been moving the last time she saw him, but now she had to wonder how much she could trust her memory. She had hoped that her memory was wrong, but now she had proof that it was—he was here; he was alive—and she could not be happier. She should have known it would be him. He had survived, and that meant that he would be a part of restoring his land to peace, always mindful of the needs of his people. He was a trusted minister before his death, and now he would be again.

Still, a bit of wonder crept into her voice as she drew closer, wanting to be sure that she was seeing—and hearing—the right man. “Agache?”

He rose from the table, smiling at her as he left the others. “At last. Someone I trust enough to negotiate with.”

She laughed, though a part of her was not as amused as she had pretended. “Is that all I am?”

“Oh, no, of course not, but I have to admit that I do not think highly of those who would send you to marry our king,” he said, giving her father a dark look. She thought he felt about the same about the other man as she did. “Especially since they intended to have you kill him.”

She nodded. “That would make negotiating difficult. Perhaps we can make a more equitable arrangement possible.”

“I do hope so, but I think my demands are too much to expect.”

She had not think that Agache should be at all hard to negotiate with, nor did she believe that he would be overly demanding, despite his words. He was a reasonable man, and he always put the needs of his people first. “Oh?”

“We would like to purchase or trade for some of your land. The forest near the border is unoccupied, and it seems to have little value to your people. If that is true, then my people—that is the Nebkasha—would like to live where there is darkness. In fact, we must live where there is darkness. We no longer have a land of our own, so we must find one or buy one.”

“I think that is very understandable,” she said. She took a breath and looked at her father. He shook his head, but she smiled. “I do believe we will be willing to sell you some of that land you’re interested in, as long as we can agree on a price.”

“We should be able to do so. One thing that all parties in the land agree upon is that the Nebkasha should have a place of their own. We want darkness. They would exile us into the north and the twin suns. We will not allow that to happen. Even if we are limited in our first few years in the new land, if we lack money for trades, we will be grateful for what we have in the darkness we have missed for so long.”

“Then we should have no trouble negotiating.”

Agache shook his head. “Well, there are other clauses, including one major one that some may object to.”

“Is there?” She could not see why he would think it would be so difficult, even if her father was fuming in silence after her agreement to what Agache was asking. She would not deny the Nebkasha their land. Her father would be made to see why they had to give them it as well. The Nebkasha had freed them from the threat of the king everyone had feared. “Why is it objectionable?”

“Don’t be absurd, Jis. You can’t go giving him everything he asks for. That land is not yours to pledge, nor can I see why you would want to…” Zaze gave Agache a look. Jis frowned, and her half-sister moved over to her side. She took Jis’ arm, pulling her away from Agache. “Honestly, I do not know how you can stand to look upon him. Them. They are so pale, so colorless and ugly, as though they are little better than corpses that can walk.”

“Why are you even here, Zaze?”

“I am the princess. You are the one that does not belong.”

Agache turned away, walking toward the back of the room. “I can see these negotiations will prove useless. I do not care for your tactics, dangling Jis out as bait to make me think that you would honor any of your promises. We are done here. I cannot promise that the Biskane will not choose to invade you when the unrest settles. The king may be dead, but that does not mean the hatred has died with him. The others are still his people.”

Jis looked to her father. “Do I have the ability to negotiate or not? We owe the Nebkasha. They were the ones to prevent the war. If not for Agache and his cousins, the king would have killed me and slaughtered all of you.”

“And again you discount everything that you did. I do not believe my efforts so important. I did little. You took all the risks.”

“She’s esibani. What do you think she’s supposed to do?”

“Zaze. Enough,” the king said, coming over to Jis. He put his hands on her shoulders. “You have a true air of command to you, and you have changed so much since you left us. You are complete in ways no training could have managed.”

She sighed. “I do not want you to turn me into your negotiator now.”

“You are far more than that,” Agache said. He let out a breath. “I fear we must conclude the negotiations for today. I… I cannot continue at present.”

“Are you still hurting?” She asked, leaving her father and rushing toward him. “Malzhi was determined to kill you, so was the king, and I did nothing—”

“I would hardly call your actions nothing, and I think it is more the travel that is the problem. It was not so terrible after we had passed from the double suns, but I assure you, that is never easy for one of us. It was less so for me since I have some lingering ailments.”

“Then we will let you rest until nightfall when you can renew your strength. Come.”

Author’s Note: I find the Jis’ interaction with her father fascinating. Not sure why. I just do.

The Difficulty of Being a Royal Daughter

“You are more regal than your mother.”

Jis did not turn to look behind her. She did not need to, nor did she think she should. “You are not amusing. My mother was never the queen, and if you dare say she was when she shared your bed, I think you shall experience my training first hand.”

The king sighed. “Why must you be so difficult, Jis? Cannot a father express his pride in all his daughter has achieved?”

She snorted. “Did you even know it was me when you spoke? Supposedly no one can tell the difference between me and Zaze, but you… You never have, have you?”

He shook his head, putting a hand on her arm. “I have. I do. Anyone should be able to if they try. You carry yourself ready for an attack whereas she walks with pride. You have grace and fluidity in every motion. She has to watch so that she does not trip over her own skirt.”

Jis nodded, not as flattered as he no doubt expected her to be. “I am what you had them make me.”

His gaze softened, and she thought there was pity or perhaps concern in it, though she did not esteem her father as she had once done. He was not the man she’d thought he was, and he should never have sent her to another land. Her mind had been opened to all his faults, starting with his decision to send her there to kill, and she had gone back over all her memories, finding more and more reasons to dislike him.

“You suffered, then, in the other land? You have refused to speak to anyone of your time there, so we did not know what had occurred.”

She stared at him, unable to believe what she heard. “You had me wed to a monster, and now ask if I suffered? Are you truly so ignorant of what you sent me into? How could you be when you made me go in her place and expected me to kill him?”

The king did not flinch. “You did not kill him immediately, so why would we think that you were in so dire of a position? You gave us no word of any threat, nor did you do as you were instructed. What were we supposed to think? You seemed to have accepted your new life without any need to contact us. We could only speculate on how you fared, and you seemed to have been fine, since otherwise you would have told us. You were trained for that.”

She almost hit him. “You idiot. I was trapped in the castle with hundreds of guards loyal to their king. He was a man who ruled by fear, killing off even his own troops if it pleased him. No one was safe from his anger or his violence, and he wanted me dead from the moment that treaty was signed. He was not ready for war with us, that was the only reason I lived—and you know how it was when he turned on me. You saw what happened. How dare you say I was under no threat? How dare you say that it was my fault for failing to give word to you? How could I? Was not the return of the servants you sent with me an indication of my circumstances? You ignored that warning sign. You ignored everything.”


“Leave me alone. I have no desire to speak to you again.”

“I know that you do not—”

“I said leave me.”

His grip tightened on her arm. She saw the esibani that protected him moving closer. They would attack her if she made one move against him. Their loyalty belonged to their king, not to their comrades.

“You cannot order the king about. I will demand your presence at the negotiations if I must.”

She would just as soon be imprisoned over helping her father again, but she had heard nothing of what transpired outside of her chamber, and she had not known that there was anyone here. “Negotiations? With whom?”

“Now that the revolt is over, they have come seeking a new treaty between our lands. I want your opinion on their sincerity.”

She would have refused to go if she was not curious about how the land had fared since Gekin dropped her across the border. Instead, she nodded. She would get her information from whoever had come, and she would at last have answers as to the fates of those she cared about. That was worth helping her father. She needed to know about Anokii, about Gekin, about Agache…

She forced the thoughts from her head and said nothing as she walked with her father toward the doors, entering the great hall.

Author’s Note: Strange to wake up at home… and then discover it’s not home after all.

No Relief in Being Home


She opened her eyes in her own bedchamber, frowning. Had she dreamed herself into being a queen? Had she fooled herself so much? Were the negotiations still taking place and she was dreaming of taking her half-sister’s place? Or was she insane? Why was she home? How could she be here? She was not… dead, was she?


“You are back with us. We had thought we had lost you,” he said, reaching up to touch her cheek. “You have been insensible for several days, and while you were, you called out, but we could not reach you no matter what we did.”

“I don’t… What happened?”

“The man who gave you back to us was not all that specific. He said you had been injured and that an infection had set in on you. They had started to treat you, but they feared for your safety so they gave you back to us while the unrest was settled.”

“Unrest? The king is dead, isn’t he? And Malzhi?”

“Both of them, I believe, though I cannot be certain of the second one. At one point, you did say you would kill him, and that would be proof enough for me.”

She groaned, closing her eyes. Her father did not know her at all, but then who was a king to know his children? He did not know the ones he claimed, so why would he know the ones he kept hidden? He wouldn’t.

“Just rest. The important thing now is that you recover. Your duty is over, and you are a widow, it would seem. You are going to need time to heal and even grieve for what you have lost.”

She almost said there was nothing to grieve, since she had not loved her husband and was not sorry that he was gone, but she had lost more than she cared to think about. She no longer had her friends, if she could call Anokii and Gekin that, and then there was Agache. Had Malzhi killed him? She doubted her father knew, and she did not know that she wanted to ask him anyway.

“Did the man who brought me back have a name? Was it Gekin?”

“I hope you were not foolish enough to fall in love with someone while you were there.”

“Gekin is married. He and his wife Anokii were… allies of mine.”

“I see.”

“You don’t. Leave me alone,” she said, turning over so that she would not have to face him. Her side hurt, and she didn’t feel like talking. She did not know if Agache was dead or not, but she had been more than fool enough to feel something for him, even if that was not love, and he was lost to her now. She had not been free to have him, but now she would not even see him.

She felt the tears on her cheek, and she closed her eyes, hoping to stop the rest of them. She did not want to give in to them. If she was strong, she could resist them, resist all of it. She needed to resist it.

The tears continued to come. She was not strong enough to keep them back.

Author’s Note: Agache finally gets to do what he wanted to do for so long. Of course, that also means doing something he does not want to do, but he will do what’s best for the people.

The Answer to Chaos

“How is it out there? Is it still chaos?”

Gekin nodded, sitting down. He shook his head. “I had never thought—it is worse than we believed it would be. I do not think there is any sort of organization to the fighting. No one knows who they want to support. Though at least most of the resistance has been smart enough not to fight at all, some of the Nebkasha have been hurt as well, just for being what they are. We need… order. I do not know how we will get it, but we will tear ourselves apart soon.”

Anokii glanced toward her cousin. He would not like what she would say, would not want to leave the queen’s side. “Agache, it is time to—”

“Why won’t she wake?” Agache asked, his hand moving toward the queen and then pulling back. “If she was awake—”

“She has a fever. The wound became infected. I am sorry, cousin. The catacombs are not ideal for treating the sick, and I fear this place was not fit for her to recovery. Not at all.”

Agache looked down, letting out a breath. His arm still pained him, but Anokii knew he did not care about that right now. She did not think anything mattered to him except the woman he could not have. “Gekin, how long does it take to get to the border?”

“I have made it in two days before, but you are in no condition to do that, and neither is she. There is too much unrest and you are both injured. Did you not hear what I said about what it is like out there? We would not make it close to the border.”

“Yes, you could,” Agache said. “You could if there were a reprieve, if the fighting were to lessen, if someone stepped forward as a clear leader…”

“You know what you must do, cousin,” Anokii said, touching his good arm. She knew how much he would hate this, but what else could they do? Hiding would not save anyone. “You are the heir. You have no choice. You must reveal yourself and take the throne that belongs to you.”

He winced, but then he nodded, his posture stiffening. “I will do what must be done. I need you to take her across the border.”


“It will not be easy to wrest power from those now vying for it, even if Malzhi is dead. There will be plenty that wish her dead, not just for her role in what we have done but also for what she is—a possible heir or a way for their country to seize power if they realize we are in the middle of a revolt. There are plenty here who would want her dead. Her people may want to use her as well. She is better off on their side of the border. Take her, now, or I will say nothing to anyone of my survival.”

Gekin started to object again, but Anokii shook her head. “Agache is right. She is not safe here. She should be returned to her people.”

“I will take her, then.” Gekin sighed. “Be careful, both of you. I know it is his birthright, but it will not be easy to overcome the prejudice of many.”

Agache knelt next to the bed, brushing back some of the queen’s curls. “I shall miss you, my esibani. I almost wish you would wake and make another of your threats. Strange to think I welcome you saying you would stab me, but I already miss your voice. You are too quiet, and silence has never suited you.”

Gekin turned to Anokii, placing his hands on her face before pressing his lips to hers. She could sense his desperation, and she echoed it. She did not want to let him go any more than he wanted to go, but they had little choice.

“We are at the end, my niniamant,” she whispered. “Soon it will all be finished. We will have a true and just leader—or we will leave to settle in other lands—and we will be free at last. We must be strong only a little bit longer.”

“I know, but this is the part that is the most dangerous, when it is almost done,” Gekin said, frowning with worry. He gave her another desperate kiss. “Zigaime.”

Anokii knew he would return for her. She believed that. “Always.”

Author’s Note: Originally, this scene started with them waking Agache, but it needed much more than that.

Rushing to the Aftermath

“He is late. Dangerously so. He was only supposed to tell the queen that he wanted her to go across the border. Given her typical reaction to that, he should have returned to us by now, with orders to sedate her and take her across the border. He made me promise to do it if he could not convince her to go willingly.”

Gekin nodded. “I know. He asked me before if I would take her if it became necessary, and I am not surprised to hear you say he feels it is. He is… You know what he is.”

Anokii closed her eyes. She did not want to think about it. She’d seen too much already, and she knew her cousin was struggling. He should be resting, but he never did. “Come. He must be with the queen still—or he has been found by the king. Either way, we must know what has become of him.”

Gekin took her hand, leading her through the catacombs. She did not need him to guide her, but she didn’t want to let go of his hand, either. She was comforted, knowing he was with her, since she feared the worst for her cousin, again.

“Something is going on outside. I cannot make it out, but there is a great noise out there, some shouting—the walls prevent clarity, but something is wrong.”

Anokii grimaced, though she could not deny her husband’s words. She could hear something outside the passage as well, though she’d thought that she heard wailing, not shouting. Perhaps it had been a scream. They would not know until they returned to the castle.

“Quickly,” Gekin said, pushing her into the hall outside the queen’s chamber. She ran toward the door, shoving it open. She could make out more of the commotion now, and she did not know that she trusted her hearing. “Who is dead? Did they say a name or—”

“I thought I heard the king, but that is not possible,” Anokii said, rushing toward the balcony. She leaned over the edge, backing away when she understood. “Gekin… If I am right about those robes, the clothes… That is the king and Malzhi.”

Gekin frowned. “Impossible. And yet…”

Anokii let the curtain fall down, covering the room in some darkness, needing to find the queen and her cousin. She should not have stepped into the light of the suns—she could not make out much until her eyes adjusted. “Oh, no. The queen. She’s…”

“Tell me what you need, and we will treat her.”

“Where is Agache?”

“It matters little when she bleeds so,” Gekin said, kneeling down beside the queen, pressing his hand over the wound. Anokii ran to the cupboard with her herbs, hoping that she would not find her cousin in a similar state—and yet he would never have allowed that to happen to the queen if he were able to prevent it, so he must be hurt as well.

Anokii carried the bowl over to the queen, crushing some ozaa as she did. “Here. The ozaa will help stop the bleeding. Find Agache for me. He must be wounded as well, and he will also need treatment.”

Gekin nodded. “He would never have let this happen to her if he was not. Still… you only saw two bodies in the courtyard, neither of which had a cloak, right? I did not get much of a chance to look, but that was what I saw.”

She tried to take comfort in that, ripping open the queen’s dress and sprinkling the ozaa onto her wound. “She will need much more than this, but if the king and Malzhi fell from here, the troops must be on their way. She’ll be killed even if she was nowhere near them when they fell.”

“We’ll get them both out of here. If you think you’ve stopped the bleeding, come see to your cousin and what he might need before we move him,” Gekin said, and she bit her lip, uncertain if she’d done enough for the queen yet. They did not have much choice, though. They had to get both the queen and Agache out of here before they were discovered.

“Cousin?” Anokii knelt down beside Agache as he started to stir, putting a hand to his head. She let out a breath. “There you are. We were waiting for you in the catacombs, and then when you did not come, we rushed here, but we were too late.”

He grimaced. “I’d forgotten how petty Malzhi was. My head is—Jis. Where’s Jis? The king had her and he—”

“The king is dead.”


“He and Malzhi fell to their deaths, it would seem. I do not think it had anything to do with either of you since you are here—I didn’t see you at first and thought perhaps you had fallen, but you were only out of sight—and the queen is there, both quite removed from that balcony. I don’t believe either of you had anything to do with their fall, only what passed before that happened.”

Agache dragged himself over to the queen’s side, heedless of the puddle around her. “She’s bleeding. Anokii—”

“I have already begun to tend to her. If you can move, then we must get you on your feet.”

“We can’t move Jis, not like this.”

Gekin shook his head. “We don’t have the luxury of letting her heal here, Agache. They will realize that the king and Malzhi fell from here, and even if she is bleeding, she will be blamed. We must get her out of here before the guards arrive.”

“We do not have long.”

“To the catacombs, then,” Agache said. He reached to lift the queen, but fell back with a curse. “My arm. I don’t remember them hurting it, but I can’t—”

“I will take her,” Gekin said, lifting her up into his arms. “Anokii, help him. We must go.”

Author’s Note: I admit to struggling with writing action sequences. It’s not something I enjoy or can sort out well. I try, but I always have my doubts about these kind of things.

The Final Fight

Time your steps properly. Do not act without thinking of the outcome. One cut is not a victory. One victory is not a war.

She had not wanted to consider what she did war, not ever, and she’d never wanted to kill, but she could not ignore her trainer’s words, not now. She might have the advantage of a blade, and Agache had, despite his lingering injuries, the advantage of his own training—if she was able to soar with footwork, so was he—but if she were to make the wrong move against Malzhi, she could end up giving that advantage away, even hurting Agache when she meant to stop Malzhi.

The minister managed to get close enough to Agache to seize his arm, and Agache grunted, struggling as he attempted to free himself. With his arm twisted, pushing against the more recent wound to his side, Agache could do little against the minister, who laughed with his supposed triumph. She knew the fight had shifted in Malzhi’s favor with the discovery of that weakness. She had to get to Agache before Malzhi could hurt him further.


He jerked his head up, turning toward her. His eyes caught the blade, and he glared at her. Agache turned in his grip, and Malzhi shoved him away, toward the wall. Agache hit the stone, trying to force himself back to his feet with his good arm. Malzhi looked to Agache, and she figured he saw him as a bigger threat, even with the blade in her hands. He turned his back on her and went for Agache.

Malzhi was a fool. She threw the blade, and though it landed off mark because he’d leaned down toward Agache, it hit, causing him to snarl. She went forward, ready to reclaim the knife, but he anticipated her, knocking her down when she put her hand on the hilt. She had to smile, though, as he had helped her remove the dagger from his back with what he’d done.

She wrapped her legs around his ankles, yanking his legs out from under him and knocking him to the ground. She moved forward the instant he was down, climbing over Malzhi and putting her blade to his neck. He frowned at her as she pressed the blade down against his skin, making it draw blood. She gave the blade a glance and then shoved it into his shoulder. She could disable him, and she would. That was all she needed. She would keep him from Agache, and then he would get away from here, go regroup with the resistance, and they would continue their fight. She didn’t care what happened to her now. Let it be war with her homeland. Her death would be enough to stop both the king and Malzhi because the tension and fighting between them had caused enough casualties to make the land vulnerable to invasion.

Her father’s troops should be able to take the city and then the castle with little trouble. They were not quite as trained as an esibani, but they were trained.

She withdrew her blade and forced it into his other shoulder. Malzhi cursed her. “Gizchien.”

She laughed. “No. Esibani.”

He snarled, but he was unable to react. She could have kept disabling him, making his legs as useless as his arms, but the movement she’d heard behind her was not Agache rising. She was yanked away from Malzhi, her wrist twisted near to breaking as she was dragged close to the king.

“You are worse than a gizchien. I should have snapped your neck when you first came here. You were never fit to be my bride.”

“As if you know what to do with a woman,” she said, turning the blade so that she could almost use it against him despite the hold that he had on her wrist. She could not do much damage like this, but she didn’t think that was what she needed just yet. “I do not think that you have anything that can deal with a woman, do you?”

He pushed her wrist further, and she knew it would have snapped if not for the voice that distracted him.

“No, I do not believe he does.”

Agache. He was awake. She’d thought that Malzhi had managed to knock him hard enough to cause him to lose consciousness, but he was back on his feet. She let out a breath in relief.

“Cousin. At last you show yourself. I knew that you were not dead.”

“You did not. If I had not fooled you, I would not have shocked you so much just now.”

“I can’t believe you let him live,” Malzhi said, glaring at the king. “You’re supposed to be this terrifying leader, someone we all feared and despised, but with all your cruelty, you never could turn against your blood, could you?”

“If you assume it had anything to do with loyalty, you are a fool,” Agache said, his look dark as he started toward his cousin. “It might have had to do with blood, though. That much might be true. Why don’t you tell him why I survived? Or will you admit to that? Will you confess the mistake that you made?”

Jis took a breath and struck, pushing her blade into the king’s side. The wound could be fatal, she had not gone for a simple disable, but she did not know that she had a choice. He growled, his arm moving toward her. She tried to dodge, but the blow connected, sending her back to the floor. She hadn’t expected it, thought she was clear, and the knife fell when she did.

Malzhi snorted, rising, and she saw him lurching toward Agache even as she started for the dagger that the king was already headed toward. He stepped on her hand, and she cried out, knowing it was about to break.

Agache went for the king instead of Malzhi, knocking him back and off of her hand. Malzhi, though, seemed determined to kill Agache this time, kicking the blade away from her as he caught Agache’s back, pulling him away from his cousin.

She forced herself up, watching the fight for where she should intervene. Agache could not win against both of them, but she could not find an opening. She turned to look for the dagger, and then she found herself once again on the ground, slammed there by the king. He put his hand on her neck and started to squeeze.

She choked, needing a way to free herself from his grip, and somehow a scream passed through her lips as the blade connected with her side. She couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, and she had almost nothing left when something pulled the king off of her. She blinked, not understanding what she was seeing. She’d thought it was Agache, but no, Agache was on the ground, not moving, and Malzhi had been the one to take the king off of her.

They struggled, twisting and grunting, angry snarls passing between them. The king tried to force Malzhi over the edge of the balcony, but the minister would not let go. If she could get closer, she could unbalance one of them, but she could not move.

The king slammed Malzhi against the rail, and he was about to finish pushing him over when Malzhi’s weight took them both over the edge. She frowned, not sure she’d seen right, but then the pain in her side grew worse, and she lost herself to the darkness.