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The War Bride

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Added to the Roswell Slash Archive January 15, 2001

Title: The War Bride
Author: Nes
Email: spitfireness@yahoo.com
Rating: NC17, violent and sexual content
Category: Future, Alternate Universe, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Unconventional
Spoilers: If you haven't ever seen an episode of Roswell -Max, Isabel, and Michael are aliens.



PART ONE: 2007

Like all children, he learned to swim.

Yet water never interested Max Evans.

Mentally, he could appreciate it: Blue. Wet. Necessary.

He would never drown.

But could be buried; covered in earth and gone crazy.

In his youth, he'd believed it was because he was bred in the desert, a child of rock and dune.

He asked himself, shouldn't that make me fascinated by water?

More so than other people?

When he found his home, he was surprised that it was not desert also.

There was forest, mountain, and waterfall.

No desert.

There was clay, silt, and soil. Loam the color of chocolate; fertile as a woman.

Like a woman in its persistence. It sang to him with soft-bellied intensity; so filling, he sometimes forgot he needed to eat.

He tried to describe it to someone once: plum-tender.

He'd even tried to shape the buttery sound with his mouth, but the yearning and yielding wouldn't spill. He was inadequate to encompass it.

No one could. It was not susceptible to itemization, to being hunted down.

And even if it was, he alone could hear the song.

His people had a name for the ability. Earth-magic.

It's what marked him as Monarch.

Max was linked to the land. He felt the land and all its people through the music.

The music they made. He wondered, sometimes, why they couldn't hear it.

It was always there.

And he could be buried in it.

So every morning, he had a ritual. As soon as he realized he was awake, he shut his eyes again. He grounded himself to take the force of it.

But one morning, something new happened.

The melody snapped and something that was never made to have ends, slapped against itself.

There was no discharge from memory or from the pain.

He sank.

It dug at him, fragmented and screaming.

He felt emptier.

And Max Evans wept when he understood why.


"Shalel Outpost was attacked this morning. The Aidem Empire. Everyone was lost."

"I know," Max said. "I felt it."

Michael nodded in sympathy. He'd seen his friend's pallor.

He continued to debrief his king, "I expected the Empire to notice us eventually. They've already destroyed or conquered most of this sector. But I thought we'd have more time.'

"It appears that they employed a new weapon. Technological. It vaporized the moon in under five seconds."

"Can it be used on a planet?"

"We have no idea. Yet."

The door to Max's study opened.

Max looked up, "Prime Minister. You may enter."

Irduthun bowed to Max and nodded to Michael. "Your Majesty. Lord Martial. We've received a communication from Laovas."

"Laovas," Max asked.

"Ringed planet on the outer edge of the other sector," Michael said. "They've been fighting the Empire for centuries."

"One planet, and they've held?"

The Prime Minister replied, "In addition to having a warrior-based culture, they are scientific. Laovas controls many important resource asteroids. And their navy alone is two-thirds the size of the Empire's."

"And what do they want from us," Michael narrowed his eyes with suspicion.

"They offer alliance. Protection. A fleet of five hundred ships including twenty Trebuchet-class dreadnoughts and the soldiers to arm them."

Max blinked, that was a considerable force.

"It's too convenient," Michael argued. We have resources but only enough for ourselves. We've no army to speak of, maybe two hundred soldiers and half of them are in intelligence. We don't have use technology and won't use our powers to kill. Plus, we're on the other side of space. They'd have to go through the Empire to get us."

"The Laovas, as you said, have been fighting a long time. The people grow tired. The Senators are afraid they'll demand surrender. An alliance with us would raise morale."

Max nodded, "Sound reasoning."

"What else," Michael pressed.

"A bride."

"No," Michael pushed himself up from his seat. Isabel's claimed. We're all out of royal princesses, no deal."

Irduthun said calmly, "You misunderstand.

Then he looked to Max, "They offer us a bride for our king."


Part Two: Interlude for the Past

"Riverdog found a book in the caves," Michael said as he climbed into Maria's bedroom window. "Eddie's at Max's house. He said we go now."

"Go," she asked, still mazed with sleep.

"Home. To our planet," he breathed. "To Gwythin."

Her eyes widened, "Now?"

"Riverdog says we won't be able to open the portal for another fifty years. We have to go now."

"Just wait a minute. Let me write my mom a letter," she turned to her desk. "Pack my for me; you'll know what I want."

"You'll come with me?" He had dared to hope or ask.

She looked up from her writing and smiled, "Of course."

***

They landed roughly and the portal spiraled shut behind them.

Michael and Isabel leaned against each other, both fascinated by the difference in the sky.

"A whole different sky," Michael whispered.

"Max," Liz said shakily. She had not thought about the consequences of leaving her planet. She'd thought Max and their love. Of course, she would go with him.

But so far away from home, she felt uncertainty. Now she was the alien.

"Max," she tugged at his arm.

Her boyfriend had knelt down through grass into loam. He cradled the almost black dirt, held it to his nose and hummed into it.

"Michael?"

"Huh?" He turned from the sky to look at Liz.

"Where's Maria?"


Part Three: The present

Isabel watched her brother stand calmly at the center of the empty field.

"Not nervous at all," she asked.

"I'm not sure if you could call it that. Shock, maybe."

"I can't believe you're doing this."

"You've done it twice. Were you nervous?"

"It's different. I knew them both first. I can't believe you're marrying some stranger."

"You know why," he said.

"I do," she said. "And I understand. But what about love?"

"I...am doing this for love, does that count?" He chuckled, "I never imagined that I...well, you know me."

"Mr. Romantic?"

He smiled, "I only hope we ca be happy together. And maybe it can grow."

She nodded in sympathy; any words she might have said were covered by the sound of a Katana yacht landing

Michael and Liz had joined them by the time the hatch opened and a small white figure stepped out.

She walked to them; her long blonde curls tumbled down to her knees and were topped by a silver helmet. The helmet looked like it was made out of light aluminum. It covered half her face, coming to a point right below her nose. Studs ran down in two lines crossing at the apex; cheekguards extended from both sides of her face.

She stopped straight in front of Max and said in a burnt-sugar voice, "I am the War Bride."

***

"You'll want to change first," Isabel said as they walked back to the palace complex. She eyed the War Bride's white unisuit; it covered her lithe body from neck to toe; including both hands. Its only adornment were the circuits printed onto it.

"I was made to understand the alliance would be sealed upon my landfall."

"Well, yes," Liz joined. "The city's been decked out especially for the ceremony."

"Then there will be no delay." She lengthened her stride leaving Isabel and Liz behind.

***

Max stood on the white platform in the center of his capital city; it had been built especially for the wedding.

"What's taking them so long," Michael asked, tugging at his collar. He and Max wore matching white silk tunics and loose pants embroidered with black stars.

"Stop tugging," Max said. "Isabel hates that. And at least you don't have to wear this." He knocked on his heavy oaken crown.

"Why are you so calm?"

Max didn't answer because Bride was walking up the platform towards him.

A tranquility had settled over him since she'd landed. Mr. Romantic had made a swift return to his system; he was already smitten. He had a suspicion that was just the beginning.

He watched her pad to the place opposite him. She was still wearing the unisuit and helmet. Poor Isabel, she'd slaved over every stitch in the wedding gown she'd designed herself.

But what she wore was fine with him. He couldn't take his eyes off the slight sway of her hips and arms.

He wished he could see her eyes.

Isabel coughed and he turned towards her. She bound his wrist with white ribbon, tying him Bride's own wrist. She wound the silk up both their arms until they stood no less than an inch apart. Then she drenched the knots with water, tightening them.

The entire ceremony took place in silence.

It ended with a chaste kiss.

At least that's what it seemed to everyone else in the square. Max felt her teeth scrape at his lips, her tongue whisper to his skin.

He didn't know what it was saying but he wanted to get out of the public eye right away.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so alive. Maybe the marriage wasn't just a political necessity, maybe it had been fated. The Aidem's maneuvers inspired by the universe's will to bring this woman into his arms.

But then she retreated as far as she could while bound to him.

No expression on her face.

***

"Are you happy," Liz asked while Max twirled her on the dancefloor.

"I think I could be," Max said.

"I'm glad," she said. "There's something about her that I like."

"There are lots of things about her I like."

"Oh, really," she teased, "because I'll have you know it's nearly midnight."

"Michael getting jealous," he looked over his shoulder to his brother-in-law."

"Don't tell him that," Liz laughed, "when you know Isabel is the jealous one."

"Then what's so special about midnight," he said, feigning ignorance.

Bride clapped a hand to Liz's shoulder then. She looked towards Max, "I believe it is time for us to leave."

Liz stepped aside, allowing Max to take Bride's extended hand. She watched them as they left the room.

***

Max opened the door to his, their bedroom and let her pass before him.

He couldn't pretend that he was not eager for what was to come, but at the same he felt shy.

His War Bride apparently did not have those problems. She shed her unisuit, revealing muscled arms and smooth skin

He stared appreciatively at his wife. Wife, he smiled, liking the sound.

"Are you a virgin," she broke into his thoughts.

"What," he looked up from her breasts. "No, why?"

She rested on the bed, hair smoothed out beneath her like open wings.

"You still have clothes on. To seal the alliance, we must consummate the marriage."

"Are you sure," he asked. "We've only just met..."

"The treaty is clear on the point," she said.

"Well, okay," he said, joining her on the bed. "But why don't you take off your helmet."

"Turn off the light and draw the curtains," she said.

"I want to see your face."

"No."

He turned off the light and drew the curtains. When he returned to the bed, her helmed was gone. He touched her face. The skin around her eyes was delicate.

She moved against him like a tongue of flame. Her mouth was at his neck and her little hands kneaded his shoulders.

He did not know how he should play this. Soft and slow building or hard and fast. Would she want this over quickly and businesslike?

But then she closed her mouth to his own.

It seemed it was not his decision to make.


Part Four

"Good morning, Bride," Liz called as she joined her on the balcony overlooking the palisades, "I didn't see you at breakfast."

"I don't eat breakfast."

"Oh, you should try it. The Gwythins make a fabulous thing out of pastry and strawberry crème.

"Even so, no breakfast."

Liz laid a hand on Bride's shoulder. "It must be very hard for you, leaving your home. If you need someone to talk to, I'm always around. I am an alien here, too.'

"I know it must be hard for you. Max always being in council meetings, he's in one right now with Michael. I bet he always talks to you about the war and the Empire. You must be tired of it, hearing about the war all your life."

"I have a somewhere else to be," Bride said and walked inside.

***

Irduthun was giving a speech. "We need to crust the Empire! Our outpost at Thaneh was struck yesterday. This cannot go on."

War Bride entered the council chamber, silencing everyone.

"My lady," Irduthun said, "This is a closed meeting. Council, only."

"Why wasn't I invited," she said. "I believe you were discussing the war. I command the fleet, I need to be here."

"My lady," we have a Lord Martial, naturally he would assume command of the military."

Michael shook his head, "I know nothing of fleets and spaceships, Irduthun. She is correct," he stood and offered her his chair.

She nodded her head and moved to sit, but Max stood up then. "Until you get your own seat, take mind. We are co-rulers."

She took the chair at the head of the table.

"Your defenses are weak," she began. Pointing to the star chart on the table, she continued, "Here, here, and here, you need to evacuate all citizens."


Michael lay in bed, his shoulder pillowing Isabel's head.

"Liz," he whispered. "Are you still awake?"

"What-"

"Oh, good," he sat up, softly placing Isabel's head on a real pillow.

"I'm up now, too," Isabel said groggily.

Michael kissed her on the forehead. "Sorry, baby. I just wanted to talk about the War Bride."

Isabel frowned a little. "I like her well enough. I didn't think I would. She's so cold."

"Do you remember what they used to call you in high school?" Michael chuckled. "I don't think the prime minister likes her."

"But he's the one who pushed for marriage," Liz pointed out.

"I think he expected someone more dainty, and biddable," Michael said.

"I like her spirited," Isabel said. "But she doesn't fit in yet."

"She's lonely," Liz said. "Michael, you should talk to her."

"Me?"

"You're close to her as anyone."

"How do you figure?"

"You both like weapons and things," Isabel said.

"I'll try," he relented. "At least Max is happy

"Oh, is poor Michael not happy," Isabel teased.

"I could be happy, if you really cared."

Liz joined the banter, fluttering her eyelashes. "But however can we help."

"I have some ideas," he said.

"Do they have anything to do with this," Isabel purred.

Michael jerked upright, his eyes widening.

Straining, he replied, "I'm not sure. Try it again."

***

Max sat in bed, waiting for Bride to return from space.

Every week, she debriefed and inspected the Laovas troops.

He smiled, already they'd fallen into a routine.

For many days, they'd been on the brink of chaos, the people had been so rocked with fear.

Even Isabel and Michael kept their distance when the earth-magic overtook him. Early on they had found that it sometimes took control of him. Worse, their proximity usually worsened his condition.

She'd stayed by him the entire time.

It was her simple acts that moved him. He'd awake from his oblivion to Bride washing his face. Once he thought he heard her singing softly.

But after he recovered, few were the moments they had together. He had to make regular visits to the other planets to calm his people down during the evacuation. When he wasn't doing that, he had to hold court.

They saw each other in council, but the discussion of war was not the most suitable time for love talk.

Another reason to desire peace.

At times he couldn't remember what peace was like.

War made everything urgent.

Had she really been here only a few months?

Time itself seemed to move more quickly.

"Are you still awake?"

Bride liked to enter quietly. He smiled, "I missed you."

"It took a long time, there were many preparations to be made," she joined him under the covers. "What are you reading?"

He'd forgotten he was holding a book. "It's a book from my childhood planet."

She paused, "Childhood planet?"

"Isabel, Michael, and I weren't raised here. When we were very little, we liked to explore and once we found a dormant portal. Not all the portals are mapped, you know."

"No, I didn't know."

He put his arm around her. "The reason we don't have spaceships is because we have the portals. We didn't create them. but we can find them. Sometimes they take you only a little way, say from city to city, others lead to other planets. The portal we found took us very far away, according to our written records Earth has only been visited three other times. But I think at least two of those were on purpose.'

He continued, "There are different kinds of portals. One kind can be used whenever, and they go both ways. The other kind is sort of...cyclical. They go both ways but can only be used at certain times. That's the kind we found. It operated on an irregular calendar opening on every fifty years, then every ninth, then another fifty years."

"We were very fortunate in our timing.'

"When we came home, we found out that Michael wasn't related to Isabel and I, and our parents were dead.'

Hastily, he added, "But it turned out to be okay. Irduthun, who was regent then, stepped down and I found I was a good king. Isabel and Michael fell in love so it was good he wasn't our brother."

"What about Liz?"

"Earth is Liz's planet. She and another friend of ours-"

"So tell me more about the book."

She was like that sometimes, changing subjects abruptly. It was sort of endearing. "It's called Ender's Game."

She pillowed her head against his. "Will you read it to me?"

He smiled and opened the book up to the first page.


Part Five

"He isn't here," Bride said before Michael could say anything.

"Actually, I was looking for you."

She didn't answer. But it was more than he usually got, usually she left.

"I'm leaving."

He waited.

"I'm going into space, a scout has just returned from Aidem space."

He waited.

"Would you like to accompany me, Lord Martial?"

"Well, yes." Two birds, he thought. He could keep his promise to Isabel and Liz and learn more about the Aidem. He realized he wasn't being the best Lord Martial he could be.

"My yacht is outside the city. We leave in an hour." She walked off.

Michael smiled. Bride might not realize it, but she was giving him a gift.

All his life, he had dreamed of jockeying around in outerspace. Just him and the stars. Truth be told, he'd been disappointed by the portals.

But now, in less than an hour, Bride would fulfill his fondest childhood wish.

He ran to tell Isabel and Liz, grinning like a demented fool.

***

Max was very good at filtering people out. He could listen without hearing, especially when he'd been hearing the same story for a few days.

"It was so cool," Michael said reverting to the speech of his youth. "She even let me fly! I was born to fly."

"That's not the way she tells it. Bride said you were gripping the controls so hard you almost ran into her flagship."

"I wasn't even close!"

Max looked at him. "She also said your eyes were closed."

"Okay, maybe," he grinned cockily. "But I'll learn."

"In what ship?"

"I was, uh, hoping you could, uh, talk to your wife."

"Uh uh," Max shook his head, "that's her ship."

"Please, Max!"

Max thought about it. Coming home to Gwythin had given Michael a sense of purpose, guarantee of safety, and family that brought out the best of him. But at best he could still be described as standoff-ish.

Bride hadn't accepted the companionship of Liz, Isabel, and certainly none of the court ladies. Yet she had thrown some spar of courtesy at Michael. He knew there were parts of Bride that were so closed off even she didn't remember them. Her natural mental shield was dense, but sometimes he got flashes from her.

Disturbing visions of men standing overhead, or girls surrounding her. Hunger. Anger.

Loneliness.

"I'll talk to her."

Michael smiled, "You have the coolest wife. And I have the coolest best friend. Thanks, Max."

"Anything for you, Michael."

Anything for Bride.


Part Six

He missed her.

The last night she was here, they'd made love for hours.

Somewhere in the middle, was his favorite part.

He'd just found her only ticklish spot in the most private of her places.

He'd attacked it ferociously, giving no quarter and sending her into drifts of laughter.

Throaty, warm cinnamon laughter that seemed in counterpoint to the earth-magic.

When it subsided, she touched their hands together.

He kissed her shoulder, up her neck to her forehead. She still refused to take off the helmet unless it was dark.

For him, the forehead became the most erotic of places.

Dancing her fingers along his side, she said, "There are phases of fire within me."

She'd kissed him then, searing the words into his mind.

Max often wondered what she meant by that.

She had gone into the stars again, to stop the small coercive force the Aidem had sent.

He'd wanted to go but he knew his place was on the land. Michael and Irduthun had gone with her.

He missed her.


Part Seven

If she had been at all fragile, he would've said she'd been broken.

Burned.

Michael was tight-lipped. He and Bride had established a rapport that Max was nearly jealous of.

Especially since she'd returned. He saw her rarely now. She refused to portal with him to the other planets, but that wasn't new.

Gone were late nights of intimate laughter and conversation.

Now it was like she was searching for something to fill her.

The sex was never mechanical but it wasn't lovemaking anymore no matter how much Max strove to make it so.

He couldn't love enough for the both of them.

He couldn't stop trying.

He wanted to know what happened.

Irduthun (gladly) had told him, it had all gone wrong.

The plan had been that Bride would intercept the Aidem force, intimidating them. It would be the first show of the Gwythin-Laovas alliance.

The Aidem, as was their standard procedure, should have returned to their own space to report it.

Instead, they'd torpedoed two of her ships.

Including the one she on.

The Aidem had boarded the flagship forcing them to fight hand to hand.

Barely, Bride and her crew survived.

Two Aidem lived. And they had refused to exchange information for safe passage.

Not Michael, not anyone could get them to talk about the moon-destroying weapon.

Finally Bride took them into her cabin.

She returned with coordinates and specs.

But no hostages.


Part Eight

Max had urged Michael to help Bride. If his wife would not open to him, he wanted her to open to someone.

Michael would have done it, without the plea.

She was his friend.

He didn't have many of those.

"Our people have long been dependent on powers of the mind," Michael said.

He looked slyly at Bride as they walked along the parapet, "One might say too dependent."

She did not take the bait, "One might also be too polite to do so."

"We're going to the Shieldman's Room." He'd invited her for the walk but had not disclosed their destination."

"Ah."

"Here we are, in fact." The cedar doors opened at his mindtouch revealing an unfurnished room with wood paneling and a lightly padded floor. She followed him inside and waited patiently while he went to one of the walls and "opened" another door, this time to a weapons closet.

He returned with two staffs and threw one to her.

She hefted the six-foot staff, "Nice balance."

It had a cruel hook at one end and a zigzagged dagger point at the other. It would enter smoothly but it would come out smeared with blood and organs if pulled out.

"They were used to hunt otashen, nasty creatures that could pull down a man in pack or a lone otash could take a child." He grinned, "They're extinct now."

"Why not arrows?"

"Tough hides except for their bellies and they were low to the ground; you had to get in close."

She nodded and then spun it experimentally.

"Spar," Michael asked.

"Only if it is no holds barred."

"No other way."

They moved to the center of the room and faced each other.

"Maxwell won't touch a penknife," he said conversationally while thrusting at her at her chest.

She feinted, "And yet he rules?"

"Of course, I mean, he's Max." He left unsaid, "Who else is there?"

She swung her staff at his head. "On Laovas, one who cannot fight is not fit to rule. For to rule means you must be able to protect."

He blocked. "Well, we're not on Laovas. And I said Max wouldn't touch a weapon; it doesn't mean he's unable to fight. He has other resources."

"Weapons of the mind." She dipped to whip the weapon at his legs and sweep him off his feet but he jumped and disarmed her. "Were we on Laovas, I believe you, O warrior would rule a small pig farm at least."

"Oh, that much?" He ran at her.

She flipped backwards and landed neatly besides her own staff. "Do you think you are fit for something more significant?"

"Oh, hell no!" He said as he crouched defensively. "You couldn't sit me on a throne for anything. Give me Isabel and Liz and some orders, I'll be a happy man."

Suddenly folds of metal extended from her helmet to effectively cover the rest of her face, head, and neck. A spark of light on her circuit covered body signaled that her force-shield had been activated.

She approached him as a tiger stalks its prey and he found that he could not move, he was caught in stasis. She aimed the jagged dagger point at his belly. To die this way, would be a slow death -one the victim could watch. He watched in anger and disbelief as she drove it in a killing arc- and stopped right above his liver.

"Good," she said and the helmet retreated back upon itself, revealing her mouth. She reached her empty hand to him and helped him up.

Sweating and hurt, he said, "It was a test? What, you don't trust me?"

She sat down on the padded floor, not visibly affected. "It was a test. In more ways than one."

He crouched beside her, "What do you mean?"

"There are no rules in battle. You could've pulled the staff from my hand with a thought or overwhelmed my mind," she said. "Your mistake has not been dependence on powers of the mind but a single-mindedness. It will kill you. It will kill you all."

He was taken aback.

"Bride?"

"My name is War Bride for a reason, Lord Martial. Do not forget it."

She smiled. "This is heavier conversation than I had intended, let us speak of other matters. I understand you have a religious role. Are you a priest of the war deity?"

"You've steered me towards my favorite subject," he smiled.

"Religion?"

"Liz and Isabel. You don't know much about Gwythin theology, do you?"

"The Laovas prefer...more tangible concepts like battle, science, and technology. We had not reckoned that your religion would affect you so."

"Hnmm. It's not exactly that our that religion is anti-science. I think it is a combination of things and our society reflects the disinterest. Yes, disinterest. Perhaps it is because our lives are so full with the god and our continuing exploration of our mental powers; we simply do not feel a need for science."

"Perhaps," Bride responded.

"Anyhow, there's no war deity. But there's no specific food or sex deity, either. We're monotheists and Isabel is our high priest."

"Not priestess?"

"Oh, no. She represents all aspects of our god. He's rather earthy, that way." He coughed.

"Is that why she is bonded both to you and Liz," she asked.

"I prefer to think it's because she likes us.'

"Actually, that's not a requirement for the High Priest. She was an acolyte when we both fell in love with Liz. You see, we'd been together some time before then. Anyhow, she was an acolyte because at least one of the Monarch's siblings has to be in the hierarchy and since she's Max's only sister -well, there wasn't much choice. It was lucky for us she happened to deeply believe and love the god," he said.

"Long story short, Liz fell in love with us, too. And after the relationship was, um, consummated we noticed some changes. Sometimes, in the throes of...consummation, Liz'd say strange, specific things. And what she said, came to pass."

"She became a prophet when you or Isabel brought her to orgasm?" Bride chuckled, "Earthy, indeed."

Michael reddened, "Well, yeah. Anyhow, Isabel and I were changing, too. I couldn't stay away from them for very long. More than an hour and I'd break out into a cold sweat. Thank the god I've learned to control that, it was long being tied to their apron strings.

"Then one day during a ceremony, Isabel spoke in the Voice of the god. In front of the High Priest, the entire hierarchy, everybody. We hadn't known what was going on. We were scared." He laughed, "But it turned out another, older name for the High Priest was Speaker. It was a sign that Isabel was chosen to follow him. You should've seen the High Priest dance around the cathedral, jumping for joy. The man was getting old, even though you couldn't tell from the way he was moving, and was tired. Plus having a brother and sister for Monarch and Priest was good luck."

"Then they found out about me and Liz. The old guy practically flipped. Even better luck for the High Priest to have a double bond; when they say all aspects of the god, they do mean all. Some ceremonies actually require a man and a woman-"

"Ceremonies," she quirked an eyebrow.

"For the sexual mysteries and harvests and such. In fact, we've Travennight coming up in a few weeks, that's a harvest festival that lasts one complete day and night. It's a system-wide masquerade. You should enjoy it."

"Masquerade?"

"Well, you've already got a mask," he responded. "And everybody participates in the ceremonies -number of participants in your particular ceremony being at your discretion, of course. Totally anonymous, no recourse."

"Interesting," she stretched on the mat.

"Those stretches, they help?"

"Yes, the Laovas picked it up from the Orwawals before they absorbed by the Aidem. Want to learn?"

"Please."

She moved behind him and began pushing his arms and legs into the correct stance.

Neither noticed as Irduthun watched them from the open doorway.


Max rubbed his temples and tightened his mental shields as the council meeting raged on. Tempers were running high and he could feel each of them through his earth-bond. Except Bride.

Proving that she was no more tied to the land than she was to him.

Initially Max had not been able to feel Liz, which had worried him until he realized it was because she was not of Gwythin. But after the bond to Michael and Isabel had been established, she'd become rooted and he considered her the same as any native-born.

He had hoped a similar bond would form between Bride and him.

"This is madness," Irduthun yelled. "Your people promised us protection. Yet you sit here and do nothing."

"What do you suggest," Michael yelled back. "You've seen the fleet numbers and the numbers of the Aidem. If they enter Empire space, they will be destroyed. Would you leave us with no protection at all?"

"That is no excuse for being passive" The prime minister's arms waved in the air, buoyed up by his anger.

Bride stood up from her council seat, at the opposite end of the table from Max. Coolly, she said, "You expect results, prime minister."

"Yes, I do," he said. "And it is not an unreasonable expectation as per our treaty with Laovas."

"I can tell you how to win this war in a minute's time."

If Max hadn't already been looking at Bride, he would've broken his neck turning it quickly to look at her.

"You do not use all your resources, Irduthun." She looked pointedly at the Lord Martial and he gasped when he understood her. She continued, "Use your powers of the mind."

"Would you have us stop their hearts in their sleep? Have our children kill theirs?" Irduthun raged. "Even should this be our desire, we simply do not have that kind of range and focus."

"He could do it," Bride looked back at the Monarch.

Irduthun replied, "He would not. There are innocents."

"Did I say you would have to kill," she said calmly. "Overwhelm their minds, take their star charts so they cannot find us. Take all knowledge of space from them! Leave them planet-bound."

"It would cripple them," Michael argued.

"And you think they do not wish to cripple you?"

"Enough," Max said. He stood and let his gaze touch them all. "It still would not be clean. Face to face, I would fight a man with my powers but what you suggest, this overwhelming of the mind -taking their knowledge. It is mental rape."

Coldly, she said, "You do not know what rape is." And walked out.

Irduthun and the other councils began to speak all at once. Michael slipped out, but Max still had to deal with the mess. He sat back down.

"You are all dismissed."

Even through their anger, they heard him. All but Irduthun gathered their possessions and left.

"Irduthun, you are dismissed."

The prime minister, instead, took the seat to his left. "Majesty, even though I recommended the alliance with Laovas, I think now that it was a misinformed decision."

Max looked up, but stayed quiet.

"I personally do not trust the War Bride. She captains the fleet, yet she wears a mask. How do we know she is whom Laovas intended you to wed? Maybe she is a subversive, a plant of the Empire-"

"I have said once already, Irduthun, that I have had enough. Do not make me say it again. You are a good man, I try not to forget that when you speak ill of my wife."

Irduthun moved to gather his belongings and leave. But before he exited the council chamber, he asked in a voice Max could not ignore, "And just who do you think your wife is with right now? Did you not notice the Lord Martial leave? Whose side do you think he is on?"

"Enough," Max shouted.

But the doors had already slammed shut.


"Why did I ever agree to be on the council," Michael said to no one in particular.

"Because Max asked you to be and so did Isabel and I," Liz answered from behind him and slid her arms around him. She kissed him softly on the neck.

"Um, that's nice." He turned his head so he could kiss her.

"Rough council session?"

"Hey, nobody asked you stop," he said grumpily.

"Nobody's stopping," she answered, kissing him along his jawbone. "But somebody will, if you don't tell me what's wrong."

"It's Irduthun again."

Liz sighed, "He is a good man. He wants what is best for our people. You have to remember, he ruled here once."

"That's exactly what the problem is. I sometimes think that man craves the rule again."

"He is a good man, Michael. And a Gwythin, through and through. He does not have the earth-magic, Max does; and Irduthun knows it."

"But-"

"Isabel and I have already discussed it-"

"Without me?"

"We will make it up to you," she smiled lasciviously. "Besides, you were with Bride. Speaking of Bride, how is she adjusting? She has been here for three months and it took me longer than that myself."

"I really am not sure. You know how she is, always nonchalant."

"But?"

"She suggested something, in the council meeting. I should have seen it coming. She suggested Max focus all our minds to overwhelm the Aidem Empire and take away their space knowledge."

"Tidy."

"But not clean enough for us, Liz. You know that."

"Still but you cannot help but admire her expediency," she bit her lip. "Did Max take it well?"

"Not at all. I've never seen him so unraveled. She walked out."

"In the middle of the meeting?"

"Uh huh. That surprised me, too. I expected her to back her plan up. But she's been so distant since we came back. I know she's hurting Max."

"Huh," she pursed her lip. "What did she say?"

"I told you."

"No, silly, after."

"I don't know. I came right here."

"Go," she shoved him. "Find her, she needs someone to talk to."

He looked at her closely.

"Please, for me. You are as close to her as anyone," she paused. "She reminds of someone else. Someone I loved. But Bride avoids me."

"Avoids you?" Michael was a little shaken; Liz doesn't usually talk about times on Earth. Then he realized she needed to be alone. With a parting kiss, he left to find Bride.

***

He found her in the Shieldman's Room.

Her helmet was deployed, as was her force-shield. Her palm circuits glowed, he watched as she directed them at random points on the wall and thin laser beams shot out.

"If you don't stop, pretty soon you'll hit the supports and the palace will collapse."

"I wouldn't do that," she tapped her silver helmet. "Perks of science, I know exactly where the support beams are."

"Even still," he said, sitting down. "That was some plan you brought up."

She sat beside him, "I suppose I knew that."

"Then why?"

"Because it's a viable strategy. I know that you will never agree to it, but I had to bring the point up."

"It had nothing to do with needling Irduthun?"

"Well, I must admit I enjoyed that bit."

They sat quietly for a moment.

"Who are you fighting for, Bride?"

"Hnmm?"

" I fight because I love my world, my people. I love Max, Isabel, and Liz." He paused, "Who do you love?"

"You think I'm ruthless, don't you? Because of what I did to the hostages."

She changed her tone, "Not long ago, in this same room, you shared with me some customs of your people. Now I ask you, what do you know of Laovas tradition?"

"Nearly nothing. That yours is a warrior culture, that you have science and technology, that you have been at war with Aidem for a hundred years."

"Do you know," she began, "how the War Bride is chosen?"

"I assumed that it was a great honor -maybe you were a princess or some rich merchant's daughter."

She laughed and it was not pretty or bright or any of the things he had come to associate with her laughter.

"You think this is a gift." She laughed again, almost hysterically. "Let me tell you of my life on Laovas. Before I came here, I had not seen the sun for seven years, except for through barred windows.'

"Family. I had sisters once. A thousand, exactly. We barely spoke and did not share parents. We were all orphans. They put us in the school together. Do you know what games we played? Games of war, of strategy," bitterly, she said, "of death. You admire my prowess, my genius for combat but you think it is a gift," she said again. "It is the product of being pushed to the edge, for playing their games for seven years.

"Of course, I had not known it was seven years. I had long since stopped trying to count."

Michael remained silent, knowing if he interrupted she might never speak again.

"Do you want to know what happened to my thousand sisters?"

He nodded.

"I killed them. All of them. Because I am a survivor. At the end of seven years, they locked the doors. They told us they would be back in three days and the one who stood ready at the door when they came, would leave with them.'

She breathed.

"But of course we knew what they meant. Not the first one standing or the closest one to the door.'

"The one who was alive.'

"So I killed them all. The ones I did not slay personally, I had second-hand or third. I don't know their names, I'm not sure if that is better or worse. A thousand girls, just like me, who all wanted the same thing.'

"We wanted to live. Fighting this war, being on this planet, marriage to your king -I do not care for it, I do it to survive."

She looked up at him then and he could feel her gaze through the mask. "So you understand this is not a gift? That I was sent to your king because the Laovas wish to survive. You question my plans, my ruthlessness. Let me tell you this, I do not have bloodlust. I am good at killing because I am good at surviving."

She stood up and saw that he was crying. "Do not ask me again who I fight for."


Part Nine

Max was waiting for Isabel when his sister came home. She found him in the gardens, chatting with Liz.

Liz stood, kissed Isabel on the mouth, and left them alone. "Later," she mouthed.

"What's wrong, brother?" Isabel sat in Liz's chair. "Michael told me about the last council meeting."

He told her about Irduthun's insinuations.

"It doesn't make sense. The prime minister has never doubted Michael. They have been on opposite sides before, but he knows Michael would never betray us. He has to know that."

"I think it has more to do with Bride than with Michael."

"Your wife? He said this to your face?"

"Yes," Max sighed.

"The nerve," she fumed.

"So you don't think there's a basis for-"

Surprised, she asked, "Did you?"

"No. Not even an inkling. But she's shut herself away from me. More so since the space battle. I still don't even know what her real name is."

"I forgot that Bride wasn't it," she admitted. "So you two haven't...?"

"No, we have," he smiled a little dreamily. "We definitely have." He paused. "You see, I don't think I can trust my judgment about matters that concern her."

"You're in love with her! I can tell, I should be able to tell."

"Yes, I think so."

"What's the problem then?"

"She doesn't reciprocate, Isabel. To her, this is a marriage of state. I am afraid that when this war is over -if it is ever over- she will leave me. What I should be thinking is that when this war is over, well, there can be no bad parts to that. Instead everything I think returns back to Bride, my world revolves around her.'

"I think she impairs my ability to rule. Sometimes I don't understand her. She doesn't understand us. This idea of hers to rape the minds of the Aidem, it disturbs me."

"Have you spoken to her?"

"As I said, we exchange no words, our only interaction is at night in the dark and mostly silent.'

"Isabel, she's there every night but I miss her so much'

"Give her time, Max. That's all I know, give her time."


Part Ten

They'd made it their routine to meet in the Shieldman's Room in the early morning during false dawn. Usually they sparred and when they spoke, they never mentioned what Bride had told Michael about her past.

Today it had been hand-to-hand combat and Bride had, as usual, won. They lounged on the mats, at ease as anyone could be while at war.

"Tomorrow is Travennight," Michael started.

"Indeed."

He was used to her ways by now and so did not drop the topic. "All day and night."

"Is that why you have exercised with me every day for a month?"

"Funny, ha ha. We'll be going to Celin at midnight so Isabel can start the ceremony."

"The third planet? Is that really necessary?"

"Since most everyone who can goes to Celin for Travennight, yes. There's a very important shrine at Iath, the main city. Besides, it's only a portal away."

"A portal," she shook her head.

"It's perfectly safe, Bride. As good as your spaceships."

"No one's ever gotten hurt? Or been lost?"

He shook his head no. Then he got a sad look and said, "I've seen it happen once. Only once."

"Just the same, I will take my personal ship."

"But that'll take hours!"

"Then I guess I must leave now."

"But your costume and your mask-"

"As you said, I already wear a mask." She turned away from him, towards the door.

"I swear, you are as stubborn as Maria. Maybe worse."

She stumbled and fell.

In all the time, he had known Bride; she had never tripped or so much as lost her balance. She had never moved with anything but confidence and grace.

"That one of you many god aspects, Lord Martial?" She picked herself up.

But he had seen a girl fall like that once, long ago, when he was a teenager on Earth.

He grabbed her arm and stared at the bottom of her face, ran his hands through the ends of her long hair.

He couldn't speak for many seconds. He could think, can't be. Can't be.

"Maria!"

She shook her head. "No. I am Bride, I am the War Bride."

In English, he said, "That's why you never say my name, isn't it?'

"Or Isabel or Max or Liz's.'

"That's why you avoid Liz, isn't it, Maria?"

"Stop!"

"Then stop lying, Maria. We looked for you for so long. Liz didn't stop crying for a year. I was devastated."

"Maria died a long time ago! I am the War Bride now." She had switched back to Gwythin; she was almost whispering. "Please do not call me that. In respect for what she was and what I am now, for what I have done she would not want any part of."

"Don't talk like you're two separate people. I still grieve for you."

"We thought you died."

"I did die."

"You let us think all this time- you've been here for six months, Maria!"

"Stop saying that name!" She held her hands to the sides of her helmet.

"Does it hurt, Maria," he grabbed her arm. "Maybe I want to hurt you the way you hurt us. How could you lie to us?"

"How could you lie to me, Maria? You were supposed to love me. You were the only one."

He shook her and she let him, "Why won't you say anything, Maria. Lie to me some more. Do it. Talk!"

He let go of her arms, shoving her to the ground.

"Were you ever going to tell us?"

"No."

Michael turned his back and left, the heap of blonde hair and shining hair still collapsed on the floor.


She fought the urge to run.

Take the ship and go.

Start your life again.

For the third time.

Lose the past.

Leave them again.

Protect them.

Protect him.


Michael found her before Maria before she boarded her ship.

"Maria," he called as he ran to her. "Bride, War Bride."

She stopped and turned around.

He wouldn't stop touching her hair. Then he said, "Let me see your face. Please, I want to see your face."

Nodding solemnly, she removed her helmet.

He ran his fingers down her face, touching her skin. Looking into her eyes. "You look exactly the same," he said reverently.

"I'm still angry, Maria. But I want to understand.'

"Help me understand. We could have helped you.'

"Michael," she said gently, "I am Bride now. Everything I told you still holds true. But please, tell me about Lizzie. It knocked me for a loop that she ended up with you and Isabel."

"So you're okay with it?"

"I gave up on ever finding any one of you years ago."

"Tell me what happened, where did you go?"

"I stepped through the portal with the rest of you but I ended up in Laovas," she frowned. "Even if I could have spoken the language all I could say was your names. Over and over. The people who found me took me to the marketplace."

Tentatively, Michael said, "Max got flashes from you once. Did someone try to...hurt you?"

"Rape me?" She looked him in the eye. "Someone tried. I fought back. That's how I got to the school. The man who bought me saw my natural ability and decided to sell me to the Bride-hunters. I was very old for so much training, but I guess in the end it didn't matter.'

"I don't want to talk about that right now. Tell me about Liz, what happened with her and Max? I would've thought she'd be Queen."

"No, when we got here it was hard on her. She was the alien now and vulnerable, the only who couldn't do things with her mind. Max couldn't help her. He'd been shocked by his earth-magic. He can feel the land of every planet in this solar system and every person of the land. It's what makes him the monarch but it nearly put him in a coma. He had his own issues to deal with. Bottom line, they grew apart. But they are both fine now," he added hastily.

"So did I interrupt anything when I married Max?"

"No, he'd been so busy with ruling and all."

"Oh."

"Wait until everyone hears about this. Who would have figured you would be my best friend and marry Max?"

"Michael, no." She shook her head violently.

"What?"

"Max -all of them, they would not understand what I have become. Even you expect me to be Maria. I cannot do it. I am the War Bride."

He sighed.

"I don't like it but I will respect you. I also believe you cannot keep up the lie for much longer. You call out to us, Maria, you belong with us. Things happen as they are meant to.'

She smiled a little, "You have changed, Michael, you have changed. And it is good to not be War Bride. If only for a little while."

"You're my friend."

"And you are mine."

"But, uh, whatever we once had...um, I think it's in the past."

She laughed then, and it was a thousand fold more beautiful because he could see the laughter touch her eyes.

She spoke again in English, "As if you could handle another woman, Guerin."

He held her close and smiled.

And they laughed together, neither altogether happy but both relieved and pleased to have found one another again.


When Max awoke, the first thing he did now was feel the other side of the bed to see if Maria was there. When they first married, she had been beside him but always fully clothed and wearing the helmet.

It was of his most cherished joys. Awaking to her after the accepting the crash of his earth-magic.

Lately, she was not there at all.

His hopes that a bond would form grew both less and more desperate each day. They had not exchanged a word except during council meetings or formal dinners. He almost could not believe it was the same woman he held at night.

Someone knocked on the door, it was Irduthun. "Come in, I'm just dressing."

"Good morning, your Majesty. I wondered if you would like to take a walk. Discuss preparations for tomorrow, perhaps."

"Of course, Irduthun," he said even though Isabel and the hierarchy managed religious events. He followed him out of the palace.

"I understand your sister intends to hold mass on the shrine."

"Like every year, Irduthun. But she does have a special sermon prepared, I believe."

"How devoted she is."

"Yes," he was tired of the run-around. "What exactly do you-"

And then he stopped. They were on the city walls, overlooking Bride's ship.

Michael held a woman who was neither his sister nor Liz. A woman who was his wife. And she wasn't wearing her helmet, which meant she let Michael see her face.

He had never seen her face, or even asked to since the first night.

And they were laughing like they had done this before.

Hurt and something more, he turned around to look at his prime minister. Irduthun looked singularly pleased.

"You manipulated me," he was angry.

"Your majesty-"

"You maneuvered me into this," he picked the other man up. "Irduthun, I demand your resignation effective immediately."

He set the former prime minister down and walked away.


Part Eleven

Michael returned to his home glad, but still frustrated and sad. Maria -War Bride, she insisted, had ordered her ship readied to fly to Celin and already left.

He desperately wanted to tell Isabel and Liz, but he had to respect Bride.

He knew she would come to her senses sooner or later.

He found Isabel and Liz still in bed, holding each other. He smiled; he'd been so lucky.

"Liz," he said as softly shook her, "Baby, it's time to wake up."

"I don't wanna," she said, hair in her mouth.

"Liz."

"No."

Then another voice joined, "Uh uh, Liz, he woke me up and if I have to be awake, so do you!"

Together Michael and Isabel pulled the blankets off Liz, leaving her naked in the early morning cold.

"I'm awake, I'm awake! You two are beasts," she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself as she walked to her robe.

"Tomorrow is Travennight," he said.

Isabel asked, "Do you feel it? I can feel it in my bones. The ache."

Liz shivered, this time not from the cold, "But we must wait until tomorrow."

Michael nodded his head, "Dawn. In Celin."

"No," Liz said, "More than that. Something will happen tomorrow and it will change everything."

A quiet settled over them before Liz spoke again.

"It's gone. I'm sorry, I don't know anymore."

"You're fine," Isabel said as she wrapped her legs around Liz and kissed her forehead.

Michael sought to break the mood; "I have the masks for tomorrow and your costumes."

It was Gwythin tradition for the men to pick out the costumes for Travennight and the women returned the favor at Overamy, the halfway point of the year.

"Ooh," still the fashionista, Isabel cooed. "Let me see, please."

She and Liz sat up to see the silk dresses he held up on hangers.

"This one," he said, "is for you. It's an apple blossom." The gown began with a sleeveless bodice that dipped between her breasts creating a V down to her belly but the skirt was of full red, pink, and white layers that alone would have been translucent. The pink mask covered her eyes only; it was decorated with glittering apples and a spray of pearls.

"And this one is for Liz, it's a leaf." The dress he held up was varying shades of green from darkest forest to mildest jade. Her dress cut straight across her breasts but had diaphanous netting for on her arms that ended in trailing tendrils around her wrists. Its skirt was similar to Isabel's. Her emerald half-mask was covered with jeweled insects.

He watched them try on their dresses happily while lounging on the bed. "You'll find my outfit in the wardrobe."

Liz's giggles sparkled when she took a look at the costume he'd chosen for himself. "You're a stag!"

"That's awful," Isabel laughed.

The long-sleeved silk coat buttoned once at mid-chest and flared down to the knee, the loose pants were exactly the same rich shade of chocolate brown and ended in hooves. His mask consisted of the coat's hood, which was topped with antlers.

"What's Bride wearing?"

He grimaced, "What she wears everyday."

Liz and Isabel stared at him.

"She's already left for Celin in her ship. Nearly an hour ago."

"What? But we're not scheduled to leave until midnight."

"Poor Max," Liz spoke up. "Poor, poor Max."

"Why poor me," Max said with ill-hidden temper from the doorway.

"We're decent, brother, you can take your hand from your eyes.

He did so, "I need to speak to your husband. Alone."

***

After the women left, Michael turned to Max with a curious look.

"Max, what's wrong?"

"I need a minute. What I'm about to say -I need to say this right."

Michael waited while the man who was almost his brother clenched his fists until they were wait.

"What does the War Bride look like?"

Michael was silent.

"My wife," Max said. "You were with her this morning."

"Yes. I was," Michael said slowly. Each syllable dropped heavily into the air between them.

He was determined not to break his word to Maria.

"Why wasn't she wearing her helmet?"

"I can't tell you that, Max."

"Michael-"

"No. I want to Max, I do. But it's not for me to say."

"I'm her husband," Max said more calmly.

"I can't." Michael answered sadly.

Finally, Max put his head between his hands in frustration.

"Tell me one thing, please?"

"If I can?"

"Is she beautiful?"

Michael smiled, "You already know she is."


Part Twelve

Travennight was always cloudless, moonless. Torches had been placed randomly in the bowl-shaped Valley of the Shrine; the shrine wasn't an actual building but a natural rock formation. Isabel had given mass (with Liz and Michael at each side) from the shrine from dawn till noon. Now the globes atop each torch had been set alight and each flame created its own dancing shadow in the dark field. Max had been wandering among the stalks allowing his sense of the lifesong to drown out the soft murmurs coming from about him.

Whispers and fire.

She had avoided him all day.

At least he thought so; he had not seen her since the other morning from the doorway of the Shieldman's room.

Briefly he had hoped she was searching for him among the crowds at mass and had not recognized him in his mask. But he knew such hopes were foolish. His mask covered only a quarter of his face, his left eye and his nose. It was a feathered mask except for the nosepiece that was a piece of gold beaten into a beak. He wore his everyday clothing of loose pants and a tunic except in red silk, but a red-feathered cape cleverly shaped to give the appearance of wings covered him.

Also he had realized she was too well trained not to be able to identify him by walk and mannerisms alone.

All of which led to the conclusion that she did want to find him.

Although Michael had told him Bride had no intention of masquerading, Max had brought her costume through the portal just in case. Entrusting it no one, he had carried it himself. He'd had it made weeks ago -a backless, sleeveless, straight-skirted creation of silvery blue silk the exact color of the sea in storm. The simple half-mask was of the same material. There was also a shawl fashioned to drape like seaweed and adorned with real shells, amber starfish, and small ruby quickfish. His additional gift was a platinum diadem, each tine topped with a diamond. Perhaps not in keeping with the theme, but made to suit her golden hair.

He was sure of that since seeing her bared head yesterday morning.

Briefly he entertained the idea of returning home. His staff had unearthed new information on the tactics of the Aidem. Max was sure that if he could just learn enough about the Empire, he'd find a way to end the war.

He'd noticed that Travennight was even more wanton than usual. One of the reasons it was a masquerade was because it didn't matter who (or how many) one spent the night with for they were all aspects of the god. But his people had all paired up and disappeared into the fields as soon as the mass was over. The bonfire at the shrine, customarily a place for families and young people to dance or the weary to rest, was nearly empty. There had been fewer families this year; parents had decided to keep their children at home even though it was unlikely the Aidem would strike. He realized the night's ardor was likewise borne of fear; it was an affirmation of life.

He felt his own ache.

Max had never regretted being monarch, it suited him. He had felt, until recently, he was the best king possible for Gwythin.

But Bride disconcerted him. Sometimes he felt if he could shed the responsibilities of the monarchy, he could reach her. What paradox that if he was not king and they were not at war, she would not be in his life at all.

Max feared he was so haunted by her that he had missed some crucial thing that would stop the war. He had discharged his prime minister and suspected his brother-in-law. Yes, Bride did affect him.

But he also knew that Bride had her own agenda and would not allow him lose the war.

"It is not a night to be alone," a low caramel voice whispered from the shadows.

Shaking his head he answered, "Apologies, even on Travennight infidelity is beyond me. I have no desire for anyone but my wife."

She stepped out then, directly in front of the torch so that the light streamed around her without revealing her face. Her hair was wildly flying about her -everywhere, down her arms and below her wrists.

Naked.

"Follow then," Bride whispered and led him into the field.

He did not know how long he ran behind her and did not ask.

They left the fields and began to hike up the valley walls, into the mountains. He could hear the slow descant of flowing water and realized Bride was following a small stream.

She stopped and he looked down, he could see the bonfire but the torches looked like pinpricks.

Moans floated up to them.

She was behind him, spooning him and barely touching the side of his neck with her tongue.

"I know a few things about your customs," she whispered. "Tonight is for supplication to your god. But since I am not from this world and not of your god, I am not a vessel suited for such devotions."

She began to remove his cloak, "Still I shall honor your god. Tonight I worship you."

Her hands were on him then and swiftly she coaxed his clothing off.

As she turned to rub herself against his chest, he silently promised himself that she would be worshipped later. But now her mouth was on his neck, her legs sliding against his own, and her little hands were pumping him furiously and he could do nothing so complicated as plan ahead.

Later, he thought and lost himself to the night's devotions.


They had been lying together in the mud by the bank of the stream when the drums awoke them.

Still Travennight, Max thought as Bride took herself from his embrace and began dressing, her helmet and suit produced from he knew not where.

He put on his own pants but left off the tunic, cloak, and mask in haste. The drums were beating faster, more urgently and yet he knew nothing had happened to harm his people. The shock or pain of it would have alerted him first.

Wordlessly he and Bride ran down the mountainside to the shrine. Irduthun was standing there with his sister and yelling.

Before he could call out, Michael saw him and ran to his side. "Laovas has been destroyed."


Part Thirteen Isabel was there when Bride regained consciousness.

Bride's mouth shaped words but no sound. Isabel had forgotten how small her brother's wife truly was.

"Shh," Isabel said, putting a hand to Bride's shoulder. "You went mad when they told you; Max had to knock you out to bring you through the portal.

"Laovas?" Bride's voice was barely audible.

"Yes," Isabel confirmed. "Max and Michael are in council now."

Bride moved to stand.

"Wait," Isabel pleaded.

"I cannot," she said. "An answer must be made."

***

"Laovas is lost," Irduthun declared. "The treaty is null. I call for a divorce."

Several council members murmured their consent.

"You cannot support what is not a proposal," Michael spoke up. "Irduthun is no longer prime minister. He has no place here."

"Dead people and their promises will not save us."

The council doors swung open and War Bride walked in. Max rose and gave up his seat to her.

"I remain a weapon," Bride began. "I still command the fleet and what is left of Laovas. The planet is broken but not the shipping yards or the mining asteroids. I have the resources to hold my end of the treaty. Do you now wish to breach our alliance?"

She stood up then and looked each one in the eye. She bowed briefly to Irduthun and finally to Max before leaving the chamber as quietly as she had come.


He did not expect to find her crumpled on their bed.

He did not expect her to be crying.

Yet there she was, knees to chest in the autumn moonlight.

"It is becoming a habit," he said. "You leaving the council. If you are not careful, you will become predictable."

She looked up at him and smiled a little, if bitterly.

"Some will call it the least of my faults."

Max sat on the bed beside her and tentatively held her. "I never will."

He took a breath and offered, "You do not need to be my wife, to fight this war."

She did not answer.

He could feel her tears wet his tunic, the thud of her sobs against his thighs. Softly, he began to rub the nape of neck and felt the tension dwindle.

She raised her head, seeking his lips. "Please," she said. "For release."

He nodded and went to draw their heavy curtains. When he returned, she had not moved. He kissed her gently and reached around to the device on her back that would disengage her circuit-suit. He pushed it and massaged around it before tugging the tight suit from her body. He alternated tugs with kisses. He cast it aside. He put both hands on the side of her helmet, waiting until she nodded. He pulled it from her head and caressed her hair until she sighed.

For a while they lay together, her sighing and he touching.

He let his fingers laze over her body until he felt all worry drain away and her breathing became shallow. When she was fading to sleep, he spread her legs and dipped his tongue between them, careful not to wake her. Feather-like he lapped at her inner thighs and in between and delicately held her down because though her hips bucked slightly she remained in the peaceful place between dreams and pain. Her eyes snapped open and briefly fluttered when she came but soon she began to drift again.

Max moved to lie beside her and they fell asleep together.


Part Fourteen

For the second time that night they were awakened by a disturbance.

He awoke covering her body and with the snout of a laser pistol at his head. Quickly he skimmed the outermost thoughts of the gunman.

Empire Assassins!

Mentally he called for aid.

He felt Bride's own eyes open against his own. Her body went taut beneath him.

Swiftly she rolled him off the bed, leaving the pistol aimed at her. The assassin blinked in shock, Bride's ankles shot up around his neck and twisted until she heard a crack.

Unable to mentally focus on what he could not see, Max had gone to the window and drawn the curtains. The moon was set and the sun was rising. In the light, he saw two more gunmen, one tussling with Bride and the other aiming at him.

Max twisted the man's own gun to aim at him.

Bride had disarmed the remaining assassin but he was choking her. Her own hand enclosed around his throat and his grip loosened enough for her to kick him. In rapid sequence she hit him in the stomach, chest, and neck. He doubled over and Bride broke his back.

She retrieved the man's pistol and shot him in the chest and head.

She turned to see Max at the window, "Are you all right?"

In the dawn light, he could see her face.

A face he knew.

Irduthun, Michael, and the guards found them still, staring at each other.


Part Fifteen

One would have thought the revelation would bring change.

Instead she had picked up her suit and helmet, walked out on him for the third time in a day.

To Max's knowledge, she had not removed them since.

He had turned to Michael after she left, ignoring the broken bodies in the bedroom.

Michael had nodded painfully, "I will tell you all together. It's not something I wish to repeat."

Isabel had shouted, "How long have you known? How long?"

Liz had taken it surprisingly well. "It makes a kind of sense, but it hurts. I think she must be hurting badly. I am glad to have Maria back, I've needed her these years."

Only Maria was not back.

She rebuffed all attempts at contact from Liz and Isabel, refused to answer to anything but the full title of "The War Bride." She had ended her morning sessions with Michael.

Max only saw his wife across the council table, she only spoke on matters of war.

He wanted so badly to speak to her not only because she was Maria but because she was his wife.

One of his first and most lingering beliefs had been that Maria still wanted Michael. All his previous jealousy had returned and to him, it made sense.

He had refused to see Michael, pleading winter sickness and headaches though autumn had not yet ended.

Liz had allowed him to stew for all of three days before setting him straight.

She had shown up at the palace, a large heavy jar at her side.

"I've brought you medicine, Max."

Reluctantly he allowed her inside.

"How much do you want me to take," he asked as he took it from her.

Frowning. He unstoppered the jar and looked inside, "This is empty."

"I know," she replied. "I'm going to hit you in the head with it."

He looked at her and saw that she smiled.

"Max, even though she denies it, there's still a lot of Maria in her. If Maria still wanted him, she would have made it known. If Maria did not want you, she would not have you."

"It is an arranged marriage," he said.

She looked at him pointedly, "Maria would not make love to just anyone. I think you know her better than that."

It was some small scrap of hope and he had gone with Liz to see Michael.

But when he returned Max found she had moved into her ship; the chasm between them was greater than ever.


Part Sixteen

"We're being attacked," Irduthun announced at the emergency meeting. After much pleading, Max had reinstated him to the position of prime minister. Max knew that Irduthun had good intentions but made it clear he would brook no machinations.

The council members looked at him in panic and confusion.

"She's deployed the fleet and they've left our space," everyone knew who Irduthun was talking about.

Max said, "That is not a declaration of war."

"She has broken our treaty. She knows our weaknesses and even now she moves towards Empire space."

"How do you know?"

"I kept a watch on the fleet. They all simply pulled up thirty minutes ago; we are defenseless."

Michael strode in then, two of Bride's captains behind him.

"Not true," he said, "she's left two ships."

"A token!"

"Sit down, Irduthun," Max ordered. He looked at Michael. "I take it you bring recent news, Lord Martial."

"Bride plans a lightning strike. She intends to capture and neutralize the Aidem capital and the surrounding planets. With the base of power broken, the satellite planets should be able to free themselves from the remnants."

"Neutralize," Max, asked with a sick feeling.

One of the captains spoke, "Utter destruction. The War Bride captured one of the weapons that tore through Laovas. There is a summit of all the client kings and governors to the emperor tomorrow. There's been a power grab and lots of in fighting so most of them are bringing the bulk of their personal troops. The War Bride wants to get them all."

"How long has this been planned," Irduthun asked.

"The War Bride took the weapon in the third week of winter, she has been planning since then."

"Why weren't we informed?"

The other captain looked at Max, "The War Bride said Gwythin would want no part of this, she claims all blood for herself."

She was right, Max would never have approved of such a plan.

"What are the odds they will succeed?"

"Most of the fleet ships will be creating a decoy outside their central system. They will most certainly succeed since no one has attacked the Aidem in their own territory, ever.'

"It is the War Bride's ship that will be landing on the capital planet. She is taking no one with her. Hers will be the most dangerous part. She must land the ship without detection and plant the weapon in their most powerful generator. The weapon's time mechanism cannot be tampered with and we were unable to devise a remote so we don't know how much time she will have to leave the range of it's destruction.'

The captain said with pride, "I have no doubt the War Bride will complete the mission."

Max said, "But will she come back?"

There was no answer.


Part Seventeen

"The Aidem have fallen," Irduthun said as he entered the room. "The Laovas fleet has entered our borders. They had to a lot of fighting to get through on the way back. There are less of them, but they are heroes."

The prime minister's views had changed since War Bride had claimed all blood for herself.

His smirk gave Max the urge to re-fire him.

"Has the fleet had contact with the War Bride?"

"Sadly, no. It's been three weeks since anyone's heard from her. I suppose we can assume she's dead."

Ignoring Max's stricken look, Irduthun continued, "Now, I've incorporated a funeral ceremony into the plans for the system-wide celebration. We've predicted their homecoming..."

His voice blended into the background as Max let the earth-magic overtake him.

He needed an affirmation of life; he lost himself in its song.


Part Eighteen

Irduthun's celebration was a success. Not all the evacuees had returned to their homes, so the streets were crowded with people who wanted to welcome the Laovas fleet. They had even extended an invitation for the fleet to stay as citizens.

Music was still playing in the streets and people were dancing. He saw her on the edge of the crowd, still wearing her helmet and suit. Crown falling to the ground, he ran to her side.

Maria saw him coming and backed away.

"You came back," he said.

"Only to tell you I completed my mission and held up my end of the treaty."

"I don't believe you," he reached for and she backed away.

"It doesn't matter what you believe. I cannot be the old Maria, that's who you want."

"I fell in love with you."

"You do not know me and what I have done." She turned her back on him.

It was a mistake.

He grabbed her shoulder and winced at the shock.

Images and feelings flooded him. Loneliness, desperation and the singular purpose of survival. He saw everything that had happened on Laovas, how she'd closed off parts of herself to deal with it. He saw her pain and contrary relief when she realized he, Liz, Isabel, and Michael were healthy and happy.

She'd resented their happiness.

He lost himself in her love for him.

It was overwhelmed by guilt and self-loathing. She had murdered millions. He saw her twisting inward on herself, the grief feeding off itself.

They connected and connected.

She pushed him away, self-disgust written on the coil of her lips.

He still gripped her hand.

So many things to say.

Stay.

I can help you.

Stay.

I love you.

Stay.

But he knew he was helpless in this, she would not accept her help. She had to work through her pain on her own.

She saw his wishes written on his face anyway, and answered.

"You know I cannot."

He said the thing he least wanted to, "I understand."

Closing his eyes, he let go of her hand.

When he opened them, she was gone. But it was too late; their bond had already (finally) been shaped.

He could find her now, no matter where she ran. And though he would not exercise that ability, he did say a goodbye.

"I will wait," he sent over their bond.

She accepted it but gave no reply. Instead she shut him out of his mind.

He felt an dull ache, but resolved to be patient.

Time, he promised himself.


Part Nineteen

Winter passed, the snow lacing the trees was replaced by flowers.

Max had hoped Maria would appear at Overamy, but she didn't.

The remnant of the Empire was clinging to its last station. As predicted, most of the formerly subjugated nations had raced to smash their conquerors.

Laovas' mining asteroids and shipping yards had gone freelance. Most of the fleet had formed a mercenary company. Some had adjusted into Gwythin society.

Gwythin continued to prosper, untouched by the aftermath of the Empire. He was glad to remain uninvolved and seriously considered raising a shield similar to personal mental shields for his entire solar system. He didn't wish to keep them cut off from the rest of the universe only safe. He devoted his time to the shield development while he waited. He wanted to have something to show Maria when she came back.

Irduthun had died. His heart gave up during an impassioned speech. The new prime minister was not as excitable.

Isabel gave birth. Michael doted on blonde Shalel. Liz was trying to conceive but they weren't sure if she could; she was content to mother Shalel for now. Between the three of them, Max knew his niece would be loved. He had already confirmed her as heir. His sister had agreed on the condition that it was temporary.

Motherhood had mellowed Isabel considerably. She'd been furious when she'd found Max had allowed to Maria to go.

He was restless.

And even though Maria had closed off their bond, he could still feel her on the land. Knowing she remained in the system helped him wait through summer.


Part Twenty

Travennight found Max once again wandering the fields of Celin. He refused to go up the mountainside.

He was still waiting.

He could hear children yelling at the bonfire and smiled. There were more families than ever at Celin this year.

His people were content. He was glad that no one bothered him about marrying again. They'd been without a king for so long, he knew they craved a true heir with the earth-magic.

But they also assumed that his wife had died saving their planet so they gave him allowance.

He was wearing white this year and trying to deny it had anything to do with Maria.

"I'm a knight," he told his sister and her lovers. He pointed to his silver brigandine, gauntlets, and greaves with his light sword.

No one had said a word.

'It is not a night to be alone,' he thought and headed back to the bonfire.

It was better than seeking refuge back at the palace.

He danced with the children there, in circles.

After spinning wildly with a tulip, a turtle, and a dove, he felt a light touch on his waist.

"It is not a night to be alone," a whiskey-textured voice breathed into his ear.

Shaking his head he answered, "Apologies, even on Travennight infidelity is beyond me. I have no desire for anyone but my wife."

"Follow then," the voice answered and he turned around.

She was gowned in jeweled violet silk that draped over one shoulder pretending to hold the dress up. It slid down to her calves. Her wings were made of frosted blue gossamer with gleaming pale gold wing tips, they were bound to her by lavender ribbon that crossed her shoulder and wrapped around her waist. Her dainty tinted-glass mask mimicked a butterfly, it sprouted wildly twisting eyebrows, and antennae.

She was a faerie; she was magic.

She was here.

"I would ask instead," he began, "that you would follow me. Tonight is a night for supplication. You are now of my world, of my god, and part of my whole. You are a vessel suited for such devotions.

He touched her hand and her mind blossomed to him.

She was in the clear. And ready.

Max and Maria raced together from the fields, past the valley walls, into the mountains to a stream he knew, whose muddy bank made a fine bed for two.

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