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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190673
It's Only a Paper Moon
CHAPTER ELEVEN

It's Only a Paper Moon


“?????????”

??????
Divider (2)

Kingdom of Sindell
Capital City of Hamon


In the center of Sindell Castle’s main lobby, Jace stood at the base of a towering ivory pillar staring up. At the top, a miniature golden airship was fixed, depicting an eternal climb towards a dazzling dome overhead.

It was at this time of the day, when the display was most brilliant, when the sunlight poured in through the high arches and circular openings, the dazzling sculpture glittering in the glow.

​This was the place where the main corridors of the castle converged; the hub of activity. All around him there was urgen business as pilots passed to and from the Royal Hangar which was just through a large door not more than a few paces away. He stood here as often as he could, observing all the goings on and basking in the white noise of hurried activity. In those rare moments over the past few months when he had time between missions, this was his favorite place to be.

​Today, the electricity in the air was palpable. Everyone was on their business with a little more energy, a little more spring in their step.
​Now, oddly, Jace noticed something he hadn’t before, turning his head slightly when he realized there were names reflected all around the base of the pillar with the names shining down on the floor. Of the significance of the names he wasn’t sure, whether it was a monument for fallen airmen or a monument of honor or both, he did not know.

​Staring down at the incandescent script, he had just read the name Tharod Grace, when a screechy excited voice startled him out of his thoughts.

​“Jace!” screamed a little, but highly excited voice.

​The outrider turned to face down the wide wall to his right, beaming instantly at the sight of a little blonde-haired girl running full speed towards him from the direction of one of the more major Halls called the Corridor of Kings.

​Small shoes slapping the marble floor, and echoing off the walls, little Casey Ferris – blue ribbons in her hair that matched her sky blue dress tying her hair into pigtails – was running full speed towards him, arms outstretched.

​“Casey Bear!” Jace yelled, laughing. Crouching slightly, he picked her up off the floor, groaning at the sudden reminder of his ribs; a not so pleasant reminder of Hazel Lien’s handiwork.
​The little girl didn’t notice the grimace, she was too busy choking him with her hug around his neck.

​“You’re back! I’m glad you’re back!”

​“Yep,” Jace said, and he transferred her to the crook of his arm, winced again, and then bounced her a bit to a more tolerable position.

​“Me too,” Jace said. “How are you?”

​For a few moments, she didn’t answer, lost in her own world, focused on Jace’s face.

​“Good,” she said, distractedly reaching up and touching his cheek. “You shaved all the hairs off your face.”

​“Yeah, what do you think?” he asked, and he leaned back a little bit as if to give her a better view.
​“Hm,” she said, little fingers on his cheek. “Soft.”
​Jace laughed a little again, bobbing her around, but he was looking around now amidst all the busy activity around him.
​“Hey, I got something for you,” he said.
​“What?” she asked.
​Jostling her around now so he could reach into his pocket, he pulled out her little blue arm band.
​When she saw it, her mouth opened and she sucked in breath.
​Jace imitated the same exact face, and then she was very pleasantly and happily holding it with both hands in her own private world.
​Jace smiled at her a moment.
​“Where’s your mom?” he asked, still looking.
​Jace actually caught sight of her amidst the crowd at the far end of the hallway near the mouth of the long hallway known as the Corridor of Kings, just an instant before Casey pointed in that direction. Danielle Lang was talking to Constable Thean, in deep conversation, and while she didn’t really acknowledge Jace she glanced towards them just long enough to track where her daughter was. She didn’t have much room in her mind for anything else, no doubt inquiring about her husband.
​Then Jace was suddenly drawn immediately to the task of holding up Casey as she leaned back hard specifically, no doubt, to force Jace to have to make sure she didn’t fall out of his arms.
​“Talking to my daddy’s big boss,” she finished, laughing at the fun of the dip.
​“Oh your daddy’s big boss?” he asked, starting to tickle her and she squeled out in uncontrollable laughter that echoed off of the walls. “Your daddy’s big boss?” he repeated and she howled on.
​By the time Jace stopped, both Constable Thean and Danielle Lang were on their way to him, and Jace lowered the little girl down just as they reached them, lightly hugging Danielle Lang and kissing her on the cheek as she reached them.
​“So good to see you,” she said, smiling, kissing his cheek back. “I’m so glad you’re back.”
​“He shaved the hairs off his face,” Casey pointed out from her place next to her mother’s leg. “Ah, yes, I can see that,” she said reacting to her daughter but then looking back to Jace with another smile. “You clean up good, Dabriel.”
And then the reason why he had spent most of his first three months there growing those hairs on his face grow in the first place seemed to occupy all of her thought, or become relevant once again, and some creases of worry were there.
​Jace read them immediately, distracted a second as a team of pilots walked into the giant door to the hangar beside him.
​“He’s fine,” he said, assuredly. “Everything’s fine.”
​She sighed a little and nodded.
​“Yes, Constable Thean was just telling me,” she said, turning slightly towards him, although just like when they were back home, she never seemed to really believe it until she heard it from him. “He and Darvin are expected back this afternoon.”
​“Ah,” Jace said, happy to hear it. “See, there ya go then.”
And he turned to Thean.
​“Sir,” he said.
​Thean nodded back.
​“Jace.”
​Seeing the pause between them, she seemed to sense that there was something they were meant to discuss.
​“Okay, well, I’m sure I’ll leave you two to talk then,” she said, bending down to pick up Casey. “I’m sure I’ll see you soon, though,” she said to Jace. “At the Ball.”
​A line of confusion wrinkled Jace’s brow.
​“What now?”
​“I got a dress!” Casey chimed in.
​“Ohhhh,” Jace said, not really understanding.
​“A green one!”
​“I’m sure I’ll see you there,” she said, starting to walk away, and then she looked over to Constable Thean. “Constable,” she said. “Thank you so much for you time.”
​“My pleasure, as always, Danielle,” he said, and then with another smile she walked away. As they did, over her mother’s shoulder she made a tough angry face.​Jace made one back and the little girl smiled and turned back around in her mother’s arm.
​“Daddy’s boss is grumpy,” she said, in a not quiet voice, and it was very clearly heard coming back to them.
​“Shhhh!” Danielle Lang’s voice came back, and then she glanced back and made a an exagerrate mortified face, making eye contact with Jace and smiling.
​And watching them go for a second or two longer, Thean looked back to Jace and they made eye contact.
​Jace looked back at him, calm and cool.
​“It’s true. You are.” Constable Thean grumbled, and Jace raised his eyebrows a little. “Ball?”
​Now Thean sighed.
​“Walk with me,” he said, and they started together down a short hall leading north, up to a small flight of stairs leading up to another section of the castle, leaving the ivory pillar and golden airship behind them. “That was good work on the Zarponda mission,” he said. “Damn good job.”
​None of them had exchanged a single word about Jace’s experiences in the Tunnels of Armageddon or Lornda Manor. There was some reflecting and discussion of Cedwyn and the events as they pertained to the events of what was now being referred to in the cold, realityless military classification of the Lornda Manor Affair.
​“I appreciate that,” Jace said. There was a time not so long ago when the simple words for such a massive undertaking would have annoyed him, but no longer. Perhaps it was what he had been through. Perhaps just that he was maturing.
​They were in route to Jaden’s room. A place Jace had gone at least once a week since he had arrived in Sindell, and that Constable Thean had started leading him there, knew that he had an appointment with her within a few minutes. It was starting to be apparent that as Jace’s relationship with Jaden got closer, the more nervous he became. When he had seen them joking around in one of the gardens one day, he did not seem to disapprove, but the accompanied visits started then, he was told to meet him at the base of the pillar and wait before going to the weekly appointments. It was only ever trivial things they discussed, sometimes even walking just in silence all the way to her door, but he always looked like there was something he wanted to discuss, but in typical Thean fashion couldn’t. Tight as a drum.
​ “Ball?”
​“Tomorrow night. In celebration of the Zarponda victory.”
​Jace sighed, looking around.
​“What the hell’s wrong with these people?” but he didn’t say it like he was really that disgruntled, then glanced back to Thean as they reached the part of the hallway that was the end where Jaden’s room was and stopped outside the door. “I don’t know what’s weirder. Having a Ball now, or the fact that the Veil’driel legions actually brought dress uniforms.”
​“Everything of a military nature came with us,” the Constable said, though he looked annoyed himself, either at the Ball or that he was now forced to explain something and use extra words to do so. Annoyed especially that he had apparently been seeking out Jace, maybe even as Danielle Lang had spotted him. That much was clear to him now. “Everything. It is our business to represent Veil’driel to the fullest and under the best light and that is what I intend to do. If the King of Sindell says we’ll have a Ball, we’ll have a Ball. Even if it is the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard of. And by Gods if we’re to look like jackasses having a Ball in the middle of the apocalypse, then we’ll look like sharp jackasses who represent our nation to the fullest.”
​Finding it funny, Jace laughed a little. Thean was not exactly known for his sense of humor, and it was hard to tell if he had been humorous on purpose, but he laughed any. Now Thean glanced towards the closed door.
​“Good luck with your …,” he waved his hand around the door. “Whatever this is.”
​“Well, thanks for walking me, honey.”
​Oddly, Thean seemed a bit nervous and this threw Jace off a bit.
​“Nothing you can’t tell me now?” he asked.
​Thean sighed, and again his reaction concerned Jace.
​“Are we still on for later then?”
​“If you’re up for it.”
​“I’m up for anything that increases your training to the best of-”
​“Okay, okay,” he said. “Alright,” he said, almost laughing and stopping him from going into the whole thing, and he put a hand on Thean’s shoulder. “I understand. Training. Yes, I’ll be there.”
​“Noon, then.”
​Jace offered a little half salute.
​“Noon,” he said, then he turned, opened the door and passed through it. Thean stood by a little longer and looked at it. Then sighed and continued back down the stairs.
​When Jace first walked into the room it looked as if it were abandon for centuries, nothing more than a ruin. Another step and it was less time that had passed. Another and it was dusty, exactly as he and Cedwyn found that library in Lornda Manor with dust all over it like it was abandon for months. When he took another step, Jaden appeared and the room was Jace walked past her into the room, and its giant window that looked out on some of the roads behind the castle that were alive with activity and merchants. Today, on this beautiful late-summer day, they were all open, and Jace walked over there first. Looking out on the city.
​“Getting better at that,” she said.
​“Well, you know what they say, practice makes ….” He caught site of a chair that was bent back and immediately pointed at it. “You’re not gonna, like, operate on me this time or something are you?”
​Jaden laughed.
​“What?” she laughed.
​“Thean was just talking to me like it was the last time I was ever gonna see him. I have a feeling he knows more about what’s about to happen here than I do.”
​Jaden nodded and smiled.
​“Fenlow knows a great deal more about a lot of things than he lets on,” she said. “But I promise you, this will be painless,” and she stepped aside, urging him into the room to the chair. “What’s a matter, doesn’t look comfortable?”
​“No, it looks plenty comfortable,” he said, but as he sat down in it he motioned around the tables scattered around with a bunch of stuff on them. “It’s all these things and stuff all around,” he specificed.
​She was obviously amused with him and smiled a little.
​“Well, you’re in safe hands, I assure you,” she said putting a potion together and looking to the side of it and holding it up to the sun. “Goooo ahead, ask me about this Ball.”
She smiled at the reaction he knew he gave her.
“Ha. Sorry. That magical intuition of your ain’t gonna work this time. Guess I’m getting better at that, too.”
She made a little impressed face as she put down the one she was working on and picked up another vial.
“So what’s the story with this Ball?” he asked.
She turned around to look at him quickly.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said.
She was smiling as she turned back to the concoction she was mixing.
In the relatively short term he had spent with her, one thing was clear. He liked her very much and they had a very easy repoire with her immediately.
​“The King believes it a good idea,” she said.
​“Just the King, huh?” he asked skeptically.
​ “It’s not merely enough to survive, Jace. People must live as well. The world is not filled only with the mighty Jace Dabriels of the world. There are also the…” she paused, and again, seemed to intuit something from him. “The Danielle Langs,” she said.
“Those who have nothing to do but wait and watch.”
“I’d like to try that sometime.”
“It can be a lot harder.”
And she looked to be hesitant and look away and take a moment to herself.
“Hey,” he said. “I know.”
She smiled at him a little, like she was embarrassed at getting caught in the moment, and surprised too that she was capable of letting her guard down in front of him.
“The Ball will give them something to look forward to and enjoy,” she went on, some of the melody in her voice to lighten things up again a little. “Up until a few months ago, these people thought all was lost. That the entire world was the dominion of some mysterious, unknown force. A feeling you only glimpsed when they started their attack on Fairlawn City. You can imagine that helpless, lost. Now imagine thinking everyone you know and care about, the world as you know it was gone forever. And that you had to go through that for years.”
​Jace sighed.
“Yeah, look, I hear you,” he said, getting serious for the first time. “I’m just saying what if an attack or something happens. They’ll be sipping cocktails one minute and then the next everything you just described might be true.”
​“So the whole city’s coming to this Ball, eh?” he said sarcastically.
​“The whole city will taking part in festivities and celebration, yes. I’m sure there will be many more celebrations and parties than the one tomorrow night, but this Ball is ours … for a more specific guest list.”
Jace raised his eyebrows playing with some instrument on the table near him and playing with it.
“Hm,” he said. “Will I actually know any of them?” he asked, distracted.
Whatever Jaden was doing, she was ready now and she was coming back and sat in a chair right near him.
“Oh, I think you’ll know a few,” she said. “And all your outrider friends will be there.”
Jace laughed still playing with the stuff on the table.
“I say something funny?”
“All your outrider friends,” he mocked in a very pleasant way, and it was clear that he liked her a great deal. “Thanks mom.”
“Ok, shut up, be quiet and listen. You remember what we talked about last time?”
Jace nodded and had a look of trepidation on his face, and nodded, annoyed.
“I remember what I told you about it.”
“Gotta be done now, Jace.”
“Not yet,” he said.
“Jace.”
“It’s not that bad yet.”
“Then you didn’t have an attack? In that flower shop?”
He looked at her confused for a second and then a moment of recognition swept across his face.
“It was an apothecary…” Jace said, and then he snapped off like he was suddenly hit with a vision and held his hand up to the side of his head.
“Jace?” she asked, leaning closer to him.
“I’m getting something.”
Now Jaden looked very confused.
“It’s a …. Cocky little bowman that has been here recently.,” he said, annoyed but not really that angry.
“Yeah, yeah, under the orders of your Constable. Which means he told Thean. I guess I know why he was talking to me like it was the last time he was gonna see me, now.” And then he looked a little nervous. “Seriously, what’re you gonna do to me?”
“It’s gonna induce a trance. It’ll connect you in a way that can heal you, start your clock from zero with the progression of the …. “ she hesitated again with the same expressin of trying to find the word earlier. “Disease.”
“Well, isn’t that what we’ve been doing?”
“The longer this goes on, the more that’s gonna be necessary. Now you gonna let me do this or not?”
He looked away.
“Yessss,” he said annoyed, but was smiling.
“Shirt off,” she said.
He stood up.
“Oh right, noooow I see what you’re all eager to do this treatment for.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Shirt off,” she said with an annoyed expression.
Jace turned to the side and took his loose cotton white shirt off, his feet on the side of the lean back chair and laid it over the back of the chair. She was stunned when he did so, looking at his darkly tanned skin. The scar from where he was hit in the shoulder right above the heart, and as she looked at it now she couldn’t figure out how it didn’t kill him. Lower still in his ribs were the bruises from this last mission, on the other side. Below the shoulder threre was a cut, and on his hand, as she saw when he firt waked in there was a nasty looking gash. The discoloration, grayish scars of the plague that came back even more this time. And tracing through all of this there was a cluster of Lunar Rose flowers starting up in the upper left behindhis shoulder blade, and weaving all over his back were elegantly arranged, starting down there was a lunar rose, the Veil’driel national flower, and next to each were initials.
“Are all these….”
“Outriders,” Jace said and in a tone much different than the previous tone of this conversation, and he was looking down to the floor.
Not thinking, she touched it, and Jace jumped just slightly, his head looking up an straight ahead.
Jaden pulled her finger back as if touching a hot kettle briefly.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“These two are new,” she said pointing to two of the new ones. “A.R.”
“Something Rackham,” Jace said. Then he looked to the side, started with a joke of “Strange, too. That one was really….” But then his breath skipped. “Lucky.”
She watched him a little longer, and he leaned forward and put his hands on either side of his head and held the back of it. It was starting to take a toll, she could see it, but he was strong, recovering quickly.
“Right, so ….” He cleared his throat and was fine again, leaning back in the chair again, and just like that there was no detectable trace of the emotional waiver. “So go ahead and do your stuff.”
“We don’t have to do this now.”
“Making excuses?”
She smiled at him, knew she had no chance of getting through anymore. Knew it all too well.
She smiled, but it was kind of sad.
“Drink this,” she said and handed it to him.
Slowly he downed it.
“Blah what’s in that?”
“Just relax,” she said. “He closed his eyes and leaned back.”
Jaden closed her eyes and held her hand over his chest. Then a second later she opened them again.
“Relax, I said,” she said.
He smiled a little and squirmed.
“Well, alright, I’m try’in. It’s just that I haven’t had to endure one of these things in three months.
“Mmmm,” she said with her eyes still closed. “What about seeing General Lockhardt’s great grandfather on that wall?”
He opened his eyes.
“Stop. Doing. That,” he said again.
“Shhhh,” she said, a thing smile on her lips.
He closed his eyes. And then his body totally relaxed and he looked truly at peace. Then amazingly, the bruises all over his body started to fade before they were totally gone. The gash on his hand disappeared, and then, it looked like she was causing her a bit of exertion, she had to concentrate and the grayish scars of the plague started to fade. And then after awhile her hand started to glow pink, the color of the potion she had him drink.
And Jace gasped, and opened his eyes with a start, and there was a bright flash and both of them reacted simultaneously with a similar reaction of sudden exertion in their faces and for the first time in 3 months, Jace saw a bright flash, and the feeling of sereneness was replaced by a sudden rush.
​The first vision that raced through him was back to Zarponda when that family came out. The woman had just gone back into their house and there was Calloway, standing bloody behind the family and looking out at the alley, shaking his head disapprovingly as he closed the door.
​Another Flash.
​He was sitting at a wooden table, in the Communion Vault, his feet were up on the table, crossed at the ankle. He was looking at a woman’s back, he swore it was Isabelle. She was talking to someone to her left, straight ahead, and to the right, in a meeting but all he could stare at was her, and then all the torches around him flicked from the colors to back to the normal orange of flame. She twisted back to him and smiled, and his breath caught in his throat by how beautiful she was.
​Another Flash.
And he was watching a little girl run around with cabbits in the peach orchard near the stables behind Lornda Manor. He was sitting on a stone bench in a courtyard, his arm around Jaden’s waist, her head resting on his shoulder.
​Another Flash.
They were in the same spot. But this time Jaden was gone, it was just him. It was the same little girl riding a pony and trotting happily around in a circle around the paddock. He glanced over and there was Charles, he was young and strong and fit, a small golden pin on his lapel, admiring the scene from a distance, approvingly.
​In his peripheral vision, four glints of green sparked on the border of Terrill Silva as four golden riders came running out of it enroute to Lornda Manor. Neither Charles or the little girl paid any attention, and somehow Jace thought to himself that this was routine.
​“See me, daddy?” the little girl screamed jubilantly, and Jace turned around to see Jaden, her hair in a different style but just as beautiful and otherwise looking the same with a beaming smile on her face.
​“Yes, sweetheart, I see you!” Jace yelled back, and when he did so, Jaden opened her eyes and gasped, looking at him just long enough to see him add: “Good job!” Taking a few quick gasps, trying to say his name but only saying it weakly, she gasped and reluctantly, looked like she couldn’t resist closing her eyes, wavered a little bit, but then did. And as her eyes fluttered closed, she whispered “open your eyes.”
​Another flash.
And now the golden riders were dismounting at the edge of the paddock and walking their horses gently past, admiring the little girl as they passed, all of them helmetless and looking friendly. They saluted Charles as they caught site of him as they passed.
​And Jace knew all at once that the little girl riding the horse was Hazel Lien … Ward.
​Jaden’s eyes were open again, she shook her head a little, took a deep breath, and then looked down at him, narrowed her eyes a little. “Jace,” she tried again. And then mustering all she had yelled. “Jace!”
​When she did his eyes flashed open and in one motion without wasting any time he sat up, grabbed her hips and picked up her off the stool, and she didn’t resist him, draping her arms around his neck as he charged all the way back to the wide indoor ledge of the windowsill and sat her on top of it. He had one hand grabbing her thigh, pushing up the cloth loose sky blue cloth of her loose dress, nearly all the way up to the top of her thigh showing nearly her full leg, the foot of which the only part of her touching the floor.
​Jaden’s eyes, throughout the commotion, never left Jace’s as he pushed her back, not even remotely resisting.
Suddenly the door kicked open, slamming into the wall and knocking vases all about, all of them crashing the floor.
While Jaden, her world feeling like it was in slow motion, blinked in the space of what felt like an eternity and looked over to Thean, Jace never moved. He just opened his eyes slowly as she looked back to him and made eye contact. And they stayed in that position, as it was impossible to know how he stopped himself so quickly, he had halted just inches from her face, and when his eyes opened, they were staring at her her lips, and then slowly the rose up to meet her amethyst eyes. The entire time his eyes came up slowly to meet hers, she was brething in deep but steady breaths, a look of concern all the way up until the point when his eyes met hers and he smiled, and she did too, her eyes opening a little wider, wrinkling her nose as if answering a challenge.
Jace heard what sounded like a thousand echoes coming from a million directions changing ‘ace, ace, ace’ pouring in on him and then focused, and time seemed to catch up to them with a focused “Jace!” And Thean was standing next to him. He was standing straight up, looking at himself in the reflection of the window, seeing the reflection of a young Artemus Ward looking back at him.
“Dabriel!” Thean yelled again, and then sleepishly he looked over to him.
“Out! Now!” he yelled furious.
Jace looked over to her in the window sill, and she was sitting there looking at him, not having moved, perspiration still on both of them. He took a step over, picked up his shirt, glanced back to the reflecton, it was him again. Then he hesitated, looked at Thean as if he didn’t know why he was standing there for a minute, looked at him with almost complete disregard, and then looked back at Jaden. She still hadn’t moved, but looked to be recovering. She nodded a few quick times, and without another word Jace picked up his and left.
Thean turned around to watch him all the way out, and when he got to the doorway he stopped, slid his arms into the sleees of his shirt, and peaked back in as he buttoned them back up.
“Can we make it 12:45, constable?” he asked as if nothing had happened at all, and then he walked out of site descending the stairway.
Thean looked back at Jaden who was standing again, the look on his face like he was going to start yelling, but then hesitated and looked back to the doorway.
“Why?” he barked.
“Just thought of something I wanted to do,” came his voice floating up from halfway down the stairs.
“Are you out of your god damn mind?”
She started drinking some water, looking out the window, her hand on her hip as she drank a whole thing of water.
“What the hell are you thinking?”
“You know what I was going to do.”
“I hoped I was wrong. I gave you the benefit of the doubt. That’s a mistake I won’t make again. These little meetings of yours? End. Today. That’s it.”
“Not your decision to make,” she said simply.
“The hell it isn’t!” he stopped and turned around.
“He doesn’t belong to anyone. He’s not a possession.”
“Yeah. He’s not a possession. Say that over again a few times.”
“You initiated a trance!” he yelled.
“He needed a break.”
“He isn’t ready, Jaden! He’s just a kid!”
She smiled and cocked her head to the side.
“Well, that’s certainly up for debate,” she said, opening her eyes a little.
Thean charged her and walked up to her and grabbed her wrist, took the glass out of her hand and put it on the ledge, and she barely resisted, like a child being disciplined and still being a brat and then he made her look at herself in the reflection and as she stared there.
“The meetings of yours. The end. Now,” he said to the reflection as if that image may still be open to sense.
He turned around and started walking to the doorway.
“Or what?” she asked. And Thean stopped, the look on his face of infuriated impatience that his outriders had seen countless times before. “You’ll torture me? Like you’re going to torture my daughter?” He stared a little longer, and then Thean’s expression relaxed, expelling a fraction of a breath that qualifies for a sigh in his world. “No one is going to hurt Hazel, and you know that.”
“Do I?” now she was asking her own reflection. She looked over to Thean who was still looking at her.
“Because you’re not crazy.” Thean looked at her a little longer, turned and started to the door. When he was almost at the doorway he stopped again, and Jaden’s head looked up a little, for the first tiem looking like she hadn’t been expecting him to stop. “And because I will personally gut any son of a bitch who goes near her without my permission.”
A silent exchange seemed to pass between them, a meaningful silence that seemed to ease some tension from the air.

“He’s been through so much.”

“He can take it.”

“Do you know that? I mean, do you really now that, Fenlow?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Because I’ve spent the last every waking moment of the last 27 years making sure,” he said, the hardness returning. He proceeded to the top of the stairs right outside the door.

“If you care about him that much, you should tell him,” she said. “Before it’s too late.”

“He isn’t Artemus, Jaden,” Thean said at last, stepped out the door and grabbed the handle on the otherside. “Sorry about the vases,” he added, and closed it. Jaden, looking at her reflection, sighed and slowly leaned her head against the window, letting herself relax.

***

Kingdom of Sindell
Throne Room

​The Kingdom of Sindell Throne Room was very impressive, a great round dome at the top of the center tower with great descriptions. Giant windows looking out all over the countryside as far as he could see it in all and any directions.
​But there were many maps spread all over the place that added a disorder to everything, and a place meant to impress any visitors, who had to walk a tall staircase to even get there was dulled with maps and charts all over the place.
​William Bryce, King of Sindell, was sitting in his throne, at one of the very rare times you could find him doing so. And he was only doing so today because he was meeting with his parliament. The meeting was wrapping up and Tharod Chaypin was speaking.
​“… which brings us to our next order of business, majesty. A rather delicate matter.”
​At this the head of parliament hesitated, and Will sitting on his throne, elbow resting on one of the large armrests with his chin on top of a balled fist, raised his eyebrows.
​“Well? Go on, then.”
​“Yes,” Chaypin went on, clearing his throat and looking to the others. “The issue of Hazel Lien. There has been concern that she should perhaps … be moved …”
​“Chaypin,” Will said, losing patience.
​“Outside the castle, Majesty.”
​“Isn’t she still unconscious?”
​“Why … yes, your Majesty but if she were to wake up she could be a tremendous threat.”
​“No”
​At that moment, the door knocked, and a messenger walked in. He walked up to the Throne Room, and lowered his head.
​“Majesty, the Veil’driel Outriders are here. Lady Jaden waits with them outside.”
​Will acknowledged this and the messenger left.
​“I’m afraid we’re going to have to continue this a little later…”
​They looked at each other, angry, and then left. Jaden came in, followed by Darvin Nash and Ferris Lang. They had worked together before, in the events leadng up to Whistlers. Nice connection.
​“Meeting with pariliament, I see,” she said.
​“Humoring them keeps them busy and occupied. Gives them purpose.” he said, standing from his throne and making his way down. He smiled at her and she smiled back at him.
​“Ah,” Jaden said. “A true king, afterall.”
​He smiled and looked past her to the two outriders.
​“Outriders Nash and Lang,” he said. “We can’t thank you enough for your service and part in the Zarponda mission.”
​“Sir,” Nash said, bowing his head.
​Ferris Lang did the same but said nothing.
​Now General Creed and Constable Thean came in.
​“Seems we’re a little late,” Creed said, walking up to the outriders. “Seems congratulations are in order, gentlemen.”
​They nodded at him, then turned to Constable Thean, and when they did so, they both stood up a little straighter.
​“Constable,” they both said simultaneously.
​“What’s the status of the Dock Complex?” Will asked.
​“General Lockhardt reports that a lot of the airships are missing, sir.”
​Will ran his hand over his mouth.
​“How many?”
​“About three hundred.”
​“I don’t understand, they’d need people to fly them, right?”
​“Yes, sir,” Lang chimed in. “There’s word on that, too. They were training this whole time. Townspeople reported missions being launched, the pilots in the Dock Complex were all jailed within it, the entire occupation, but none knew what was going on. They said they weren’t flying at all.”
​“Which means, they had people training on the airships.”
​Now Will looked across the room to Jaden.
​“So it’s as we feared, then.” Jaden sighed and Will went on. “Well, they won’t have the same advanced weapons as us, right?”
​“I did not devise the weapons your airships currently have using amethysts. They were instituted long ago, I merely took away the ability to use them, in collaboration with your father after the Bryce Valley incident.”
​“Yeah,” Will said. “You told me. And then you approached my father and he voluntarily gave up that power after he found out he acted on not all the information and that was too much power to wield for future kings so it would never happen again.”
​“Right, but when we saw this threat coming from Arkhelan, your father and I began plans to reinstitute those weapons, which we eventually did here.”
​“And those were meetings that Artemus sat in on, correct?” Thean said, understanding.
​She sighed again and nodded at him.
​“What’s even more,” she said looking back to Will. “I believe he had your father killed to specifically prevent that from happening. Knowing what we do now.”
​“How do you mean?” Will asked.
​“There was an attempt on your father’s life 3 years ago, two days before we finished work on the technology, the gemstone configuration to complete work on the forcefield that would protect the capital. Knowing what I know now, I believe Artemus tried to have your father assinated before it was completed, just as he tried to assainate me in Bryce Valley.”
​“I never knew about that,” Will said, shocked.
​“It was kept a secret, but at the last minute, General Lockhardt saw the threat and saved his life. Then, about a year ago,” she glanced over to Creed and nodded at him. “Right around the same time Veil’driel was held was under attack,” she looked back to Will. “Work was coming to an end on finally reinstituting the amethyst weapons back on the airships to protect against the Winged Creatures and what both of us suspected was coming. Tears, etc. And your father was coming to visit me at Lornda Manor, for final preparations, he flew as far as his airship would take him before the emeralds started to die out by their limited range, which it’s the proximity to the Emerald Grotto in Caladrayd that gives them their power, and the farther they get away from them, the less power they have. Which is why there’s always been limitations in that regard. He flew to Bryce Valley, the extent of where they can fly and which it is why the natural barier to your Kingdom. He got out with his body guard, and was assinated, as you know, by two Tears.”
​“Valith and Orinus,” Will said with anger.
​“The same who tried to kill me as well,” he nodded, and she looked around to all the others to emphasize the point. “By the instruction of the only person who knew when where I was going to be there.”
​“Artemus,” Thean said.
​Jaden nodded.
​“It isn’t a coincidence that the first city to fall was Zarponda, and I didn’t make the connection until after I found out Artemus betrayed me. The hub of Sindell Air Force intelligence, the cusp on military development, the dock complex.”
​Will walked up the small stairs to his throne and sat in it, plopping down for no other reason that at that moment he needed to sit. It could have been a rikety chair in a corner somewhere, and that, to Jaden, definied this king’s reign. He leaned to the side, supporting him up on his elbow.
​“Still, my pilots have been flying since they were barely teenagers. They couldn’t compete.”
​“They might not have to, the weapons can shoot through forcefield. And you know what that means. You know what they’re target might be. The place that would bring down the forcefield. They don’t have to do battle with your pilots. They just have to bring down the forcefield.” She looked now to Thean. “Jace said he had a vision at Lornda Manor that told him the forcefield was going to be lowered. That Artemus had found some way to do it.”
​Thean grumbled, but said nothing.
​“Then this is most definitely it,” General Creed said, and he looked over to Will who was sitting in the throne.
​“Do you think we should cancel the Ball in light of this new information?”
​Will sighed, and he stared out the giant window that was in the throne room.
​“You’re assuming, I even could,” he said, looking out the window. In the dusk different color lanterns and sporadic occasional fireworks were being fired. “The entire city is in celebration. There’s hope where there wasn’t before. A reason for living. Nothing can take that away from people once that starts. Not even a King.” He turned back addressing the assembly. “No. We won’t be calling it off.” He concentrated on Creed now. “But let’s be ready for anything, General. Let’s spread the legions around the perimeter of the city at all the main gates, not just concentrating the force. Let’s act as if the forcefield does not exist and every gate will have to be protected simultaneously. And I’d ask, General, that this be done immediately.”
​Creed nooded ever so slightly.
​“It’ll be done at once,” he said, and started out.
​“You two assist him in the recoordination,” Thean said to his outriders. “Moving that many men will not be an easy task. Even with the sapphires making it easier, I want you to be the General’s eyes on the process.”
​“Sir,” Ferris Lang said.
​“Sir,” Darvin Nash chimed in.
​But before they were able to get too far, Will called after them.
​“What is the status with the Winged Creatures attacks?”
​“They never came,” Lang said after turning around. “General Lockhardt thinks it might be because the enemy knows they wouldn’t be much of a match for the amethyst weapons on the airships.”
​Will nodded.
​“Thank you.”
​And the enthusiasm at which they accepted this more than suggested they were happy to be leaving the complicated meeting, and excusing themselves, they followed Creed out, already quietly talking over some aspects of what they were ordered to do.
​Will was looking back to Jaden and Thean from his throne.
​“I have patrols spanning as far as Bryce Valley and the Hezlin Sea. They’ve reported nothing of airships there, if they were there, we’d know about it.”
​“No,” Jaden started. “Artemus always thinks at least three steps ahead. He’ll be in a place he can defend from a ground attack. A fall back place from Zarponda.”
​“Well, in that case,” Will started. “I’ll get Shamblin on it right away. He knows everything about the information coming in from the patrols, and the details of the best places to start something like that. But given the enemy’s talent for illusions, and hiding stuff from the air, we might need to also send in away teams,” he glanced to Thean. “I’ll contact you when that becomes necessary?”
​“Of course,” Thean said with a slight head bow.
​He tapped his sapphire, walking to the door.
​“Shamblin,” he said.
​A voice came back over the sapphire.
​“Sire?”
​“Where you at?” Will asked through it on the way to the door.
​“In the Hangar, sire.”
​“I’m on my way,” he said.
​“Understood, sire,” Shamblin’s voice came back. (A subtle call back to exchange that starts off Tears in the Reign.”)
​The heavy double doors were opened by the guards, and immediately the loud yell of “His Majesty, the King!” echoed back in as Will vanished out into the hall, and then they left the heavy doors open, signifying that the King was not in there. And over the wide table, Jaden and Thean looked at each other, left alone.
​“He never came to see me,” Thean said.
​Jaden sighed.

​“Things took an unexpected …. Turn.”

​Thean sighed.

​“So he doesn’t know?”

​Jaden shook her head.

​“Maybe it’s best that we wait for Foy, anyway.”

​Jaden nodded slightly.

​“I don’t like that he’s taking them through the tunnels.”

​“He’s always been immune, ever since studying with the Shaman healers who the ignorant call druids. That’s not what I’m concerned about. What I’m concerned about is that he better be busy.” He looked to Thean who understood but didn’t really show it. “For all our sakes.”

​Leading into Sindell from the eastern side, guarded heavily now by a few legions who had moved there as part of the reorganizing of the defense of the city overnight who probably couldn’t have believed their luck, and in a twist, Jace’s old cavalry legion, The Third, was even present, his old command no Constable Thean’s legion. And here there was a wide green lane of grass that had immense dimensions, meant as an emergency runway if something was wrong with an airship or multiple airships and they wouldn’t be able to either make it back to the Hangar. Since the occupation and invasion of Sindell, it had not been able to be used at night, as when the forcefield was up at night to guard against unknown ground forces and the winged creatures, it cut the immense lane in half. And before the time of the forcefield, for security, a series of evenly spaced doors were capable of being closed upon it, only to be quickly opened at a momen’t notice were there some kind of an emergency. Making the forcefield literally a contradiction, a thing that both saved lives and was responsible for taking them over the last year. The very magic reflecting the wizards themselves. (clean last sentence up, good thought.)
​Today, it was a lane on which all of the cavalry legions stood as well as most of the infantry divisions. Others were civilians watching from highrises on either side of the lane looking down upon it, giving the feeling that this was taking place in a stadium. The way totally out of the city was more than 500 yards (find out in relations to miles this distance.) But only 100 was going to be the distance he was going to ride. To the Veil’driel troops, this was a treat for them, something Jace often did to improve morale, but since their arrival though the Sindell people and troops had never seen it, as Jace’s legend grew through all of them there were two favorite things. His forbidden romance with Isabelle Talabray, that was the stuff of strarstruck mothers telling their children (Toa reference stuff) and him riding what everyone called “The Gauntlet.” Usually, it was just done on the battlefield, in which case there was a lot of people watching him, however, this was beyond anything he had ever done before. It was an event. People hung Veil’driel and Sindell flags from the buildings and high up on either side it went up and all around him, then down below. The atmosphere was electric and even the idle chit chat was loud.
​Usually he did this for the morale of his own men on the battlefield, today, he had been asked to do it by the Parliament of Sindell as part of the festivities leading up to the night’s ball, and he was in the middle of talking to two men who had just recently returned to the capital city, both of which had seen him do it plenty of times.
​“Don’t be do’in that spinny twirly thing you do when the shot comes low,” Darvin Nash was saying, holding his leather glove so Jace could push his hand all the way in. “You wipeout every single time you try.”
​“I do a spinny twirly thing?” he asked.
​“Yeah,” Ferris Lang chimed in. “You do. And it never works.”
​Both gloves on, Jace looked up to find they were both more serious than he had anticipated. Finally he smiled looking back down to minding the feel of his gloves. He rolled his eyes, feigning annoyance.
​“Aren’t you two supposed to be helping Creed with something?”
​“Finished last evening,” Lang said.
​“Yeah,” Darvin chimed in. “Don’t worry about it, we wouldn’t miss you breaking your neck..”
​“Mmhm. And how much you boys have on this?”
​“Enough,” they both said simultaneously.
​Jace smiled again, shaking his head, amused.
​“You guys crack me up. Whole damn world is ending and you’re worried about money.”
​“Yeah, well, just don’t go jump’in him into anymore oceans,” Darvin said.
​Jace smiled again.
​“Oceans?” he looked over to Malcolm. “It was a bay, wasn’t it.”
​Malcolm nodded, twirling a toothpick in his mouth.
​“Bay,” he nodded.
​“I’ll do my best. Let’s just hope that horse of yours is up to the task.”
​Darvin tossed him a look and Jace seemed to appreciate that the joke had succeeded.
​“That is a lot of people,” Malcolm said, holding a toothpick in his mouth and looking up at all the buildings lining the entire way down the wide long lane. He was leaning against the base of one of the massive arches that was the outline of one of the immense doors, that when the doors were open the arches ran the entire course of the long lane.
​Jace looking down, adjusting something on the bracers now, glanced up at all the buildings and the people at the comment and then looked back down to those he was talking to again.
​“Alright, you know what?” he said. “I’m going to stand over here now.”
​Darvin and Ferris both smiled.
​Malcolm stepped forward just as Jace looked like he was about to start over towards Darvin’s horse. The horse he was going to ride.
​“Hey, Jace, you got a second?”
​Jace looked up at the announcer who was discussing something with someone standing next to him from a recently erected wooden tall structure. There were precious stones all over it that he understood the Sindell Air Force used for communicating over the noise of airship engines in the hangar. Now it was to be used to amplify his voice over the army of spectators.
​When Jace walked up into the front part of the lane, out of where the archway of the closest door to the city hid him, he came into view and there was a brief elevation in cheers and clapping that would have been mild if not for the sheer size of the crowd and made it tremendously noticeable, of those chattering to each other telling each other they could see him, and fathers pointing them out to their sons. They weren’t yet in a frenzy, but it was getting there.
​“Yeah,” Jace said turning now to face him. “What’s up?”
​Now Malcolm stepped out into view after him, and it had the same effect with the crowd.
​“Ladies and gentlemen, the twin stars!” the announcer said, and ruckus applause.
​Malcolm sighed and waved around though it was impossible to differentiate between the massive crowds rising up on many levels up and away in buildings and beyond. Then his attention was back on Jace.
​“I was wondering if I might be able to get some of that feverlew,” he said, and Jace looked up with a slight frown.
​“C’mon, don’t give me that look,” he said. “You know what our workload’s been like, and now with being in charge of all the archers I have all kinds of briefings and things I have to do. Just need a little pick me up.”
​“You know that stuff can be addictive, right?”
​Malcolm hesitated a little at this, conflicted.
​“Yeah,” he said very weakly, but then cleared his throat. “Yeah, of course,” he went on with more conviction. “I’m talking about a pick-me-up here, Jace. Nothing more.”
​Jace sighed.
​“Yeah,” he said. “But don’t tell anyone. It’ll be my ass.”
​“Of course not.”
​“Right.” And it looked like he was actually waiting for it, and Jace didn’t notice at first but then did a double take to him. “After this,” he said surprised he had to and gestured all around. “Unless you want me to slip you an illicit substance in front of the whole damn city.”
​Malcolm smiled. Right.
​In what felt like a strange bit of timing, then, the announcer began speaking, although he then realized that the announcer could have seen him from where they were talking and was probably waiting until it was finished.
​“Ladies and gentlemen of the two great nations of the Republic of Veil’driel and the Kingdom of Sindell, we are gathered here today in honor of the tremendous retaking of the city of Zarponda, and as a symbol of this unprecedented alliance, we present Outrider of Veil’driel Jace Dabriel.”
​Jace, still standing there offered a little wave at the sound of his name, and now the crowd did raise to a frenzied pitch.
​Jaden nodded, smiled, looked around.
​“Good luck,” she said and bowed and took a step back and walked away.
​Over the crowd the announcer’s voice boomed.
​“Bowmen, take your positions!”
​Jace was just about to mount his horse when Malcolm took a couple steps forward past him, he reached out at the last second and put his hand on his chest.
​“Don’t. Even think about it,” he said.
​Then, without another word he turned and mounted up, Malcolm laughing a little as he went back into the crowd.
​In the saddle, Jace stood straight up in the stirrups and spread his arms and acknowledged the crowd elevating it all to a fever pitch. Then he sat, took his hat out of from a pocket, put it on his head, and in the same motion withdrew cigarettes and put them in his mouth. Lighting it he looked up, down the lane and the world was beginning to slow. He took a drag, thinking of how he wished he hadn’t done it one time and it hadn’t become a thing. It was all for show because the first thing he did upon taking off he dropped the cigarette.
​Just off the lane near where he was a large man with a big bushy beard was standing there holding a bunch of slips of unofficial bets. There was a time when the bets would be whether or not he made it through or not without getting hit. Now they were whether or not he would even be challenged.
​“That smoke a his is just be for show,” the giant man was saying to a bunch of the younger men around him, infantryman. “Drops it as soon as he’s off.”
​“Seen one or two of these shows before, have ya?”
​“Aye, 27 point of fact. Used to take bets as ta whether he’d be hit or not.”
​“Has he ever? Aye, once. By a shot the likes the devil himself could not have made.”
​“A shame they don’t let us rifleman have a go.”
​Now for the first time the infantryman with the bushy beard turned to face him.
​“Ha. Is it now?” he asked, the infantryman he was with also turning around to face the rifleman. “Those contraptions ya boys got there’d be useless. Might as well be shoot’in at flies ina windstorm.” He nodded back over his shoulder to where Jace was no preparing. “The ‘ol Captain there have yall sites so backward, by the time you thought you had anything to aim at he’d be outta yer range ten times.”
​The rifleman laughed.
​“Think I’m joke’in da ya?”
​The one rifleman looked away from his friends, and back to the infantryman, and he eased a bit when he saw the seriousness on the men’s faces.
​“Look, no disrespect. That’s Jace Dabriel. All us here love the guy and’ve heard he’s an amazing rider.” The others with him nodded their agreement as he exchanged a glance with them as to say “right?” And he turned back to the infantryman who was standing there with his group of infantryman, all with their big busy beards of the north provinces.
​“Ah yer misunderstand’in laddy. It’s not offense we’ve smelled in the breeze of the trees. But a proper wager on our hands. Ina right, boys?” he asked his own group. Their beards were not as bushy, and they looked a bit younger. They were in their dress uniforms as appropriate for the festivities of the day, all the same color to mark their legion, and while the Sindell rifelman didn’t know their ranks completely, he didn’t need to to realize this man was a sergeant and those with him his unit. “Well alright then, it would appear we got a proper wager on our hands doesn’t it boys?”
​“Alright, what’re the stakes?”
“Pints a night at this upcoming shindig, that ba tha time,” he pointed at Jace in his saddle still getting ready without looking. “That lad gets through with riding through that lane, yall be force ta admit you’d have no chance to hit’em wit dose well to do toys ya got there.”
The look in the rifelman’s face was that it was too good to be true.
“Drinks all night? …” he started then paused as if to hyper clarify because he couldn’t have possibly heard that right. “Bought by us if we have to admit we could never hit him, drinks bought by you if we don’t.”
“Righto ya got it, we dance’in to the same tune now.”
He turned back to his group of rifleman, the looked almost guilty for accepting the bet and he looked back.
“Right. Okay my roughneck friend, you’re on then. Place’in quite a bit in our integrity. What when we could simply deny admitting we couldn’t hit him no matter what we truly think.”
“Ah na trust me, boys,” the bushy bearded infantryman said, staring in now again at his captain. “In just a minute now you’ll see it’s you boys who’s taken all the risk.”
A loud horn sounded and then there was that dead silence. Thousands of people to the point where you could hear a pin drop. It was extraordinary silence. The world began to slow and he stared down the lane, and then he let the silence consume him.
​Finally he cracked the reins, and in his own mind, things still stayed absolutely silent as he dropped the cigarette out of his hand and grabbed the rein with his other hand in a fraction of an instant, and the stallion bolted with the same extreme energy he remembered from the Gliveren Arcade, even as the horse bolted and there was an eruption as the buildings and very ground they stood on shook. And the cheering became thunderous, and the announcer screamed at the top of his lungs: “Ladies and gentlemen!” he yelled as Jace thundered forward down the lane. “Jace—”

***

“—Dabriel. Veil’driel Star recipient and Outrider,” the ball announcer heralded him in as he entered the extravagant Ball Room, and by the looks of Jace’s face he was surprised by the introduction, and the deafening applause that immense gathering gave him, filled with high society, and regular people as well, people from all over the city, dressed in their finest. For tonight, at least, the war was put on hold. At a loss for what to do he gave a little wave and a smile, standing there in his dress uniform, then continued down the rest of the short stairs down into the room.
​Immediately, he had spotted Outriders Darvin Nash and Ferris Lang standing over by a giant ice sculpture, one of many scattered throughout the immense Ball Room, and walked over to them through the crowd, the attention of the ball room as he walked towards them. When he reached them, all of them were smiling, realizing his surprised reaction, Ferris handed him a champagne glass as he walked up and taking it with one hand he shook Ferris’ hand with the other, then shook Darvin Nash’s hand, hugged Ferris’ wife and they kissed each other on the cheek.
​“You look beautiful,” he whispered to her, then looked over to Ferris as he added: “I don’t know what you’re doing with this guy,” he said. And they all laughed. Then he looked down to see little Casey Lang, wearing the promised green dress, obviously standing quiet and still waiting patiently for Jace to notice her. When he looked down, he opened his mouth and gasped.
​“Wooooooah, pretty girl,” he said. “Look at you. Very beautiful.” She beamed at him, looking shy for a second before putting her arms up to Jace. Jace handed his champagne glass to Darvin Nash, put his hands under her arms, picked her up, pecked her on the lips when she pursed her lips and then transferred her over to his arm as he took the champagne glass back from Darvin.
​“Good job today,” he said as he handed back the champagne glass.
​“Mmmm,” Jace said as he took a sip. “Didn’t do that spinny thing.”
​Darvin winked at him.
​Jace glanced up at the ice sculpture.
​“What is this? A horse?”
​“Supposed to be,” Ferris said. “Don’t think the sculptor had much experience making them. Think he only made some for our benefit and presence.”
​“Huh. Kind of looks like a….,” Jace tilted his head a little to the side. “A giant … dog or something.”
​Casey who had caught sight of a small table filled with pastries and things had been transfixed by it and now was sort of squirming, and still staring asked “Mommy, can I…”
​“Yeah,” she said, go on.
​Jace put her down and she ran over there.
​“It’s ridiculous how big she is,” Jace said, watching her go.
​“Yeah, well, she just loves you,” Danielle said, but the she smiled. “But who doesn’t these days? Pretty popular, aren’t ya? For a minute I thought we were back at the Avaleen Riders Ball.” She said, referencing the annual Ball held by the outrider order.
​Now Ferris stepped a little closer to his wife and slipped his arm around his wife’s waist, pulling her a little closer.
​“I could have been the most popular outrider if I wanted,” he said.
​She laughed.
​“Awww,” she said, kissing him on the lips and then wiping off the lipstick that was there.
​“Speaking of the Rider Ball, I’d say this has got it beat.”
​They all took a moment to really look over the room and take it in at that moment. Splendor. The protocol staff, who hadn’t much to do in recent memory had gone all out, but they were among the best in the world anyway. And they had a moment, where it was as if the beauty really hit them all at once and made them reflective. The music continued on, string instruments, violins, it was all so beautiful. The ceiling had steel beams all over the place but was mostly transparent, with airships flying over and around. And thinking about those annual balls, which led him to thinking about the past, about when Cedwyn was there with them.
​Jace was the first to turn back to them, holding his champagne glass a little highter in front of his chest.
​“To those we’ve lost, and those absent,” he said. “To Cedwyn,” he managed to get out, but just barely, and his hand was trembling ever so slightly.
​“To Cedwyn,” they all said.
​And Jace’s reaction made it even worse. Danielle Lang was tearing up, and Darvin reached up and squeezed Jace’s shoulder after he took a sip and it was obvious that he wasn’t recovering, and was in fact, on the brink of losing it, the beautiful music, the surroundings, and being with people he loved only intensifying the moment that he probably was just now truly reflecting all at once.
​Eyes wet and breathing through his wife to fight off doing just that, he was saved only by the sudden distraction by the guards deeper within the hall yelling out the king’s entrance into the hall on the way to the Ball. Then, as he reached the top ledge, the herald announced proudly: “His Royal Majesty, King William Bryce,” and many of his subjects bowed down to the ground. And it all got silent, the music stopping, those who were not his subjects, were quiet and bowed their heads slightly, and he was dressed in the dress uniform of the air kingdom. He went and assumed his spot at the giant table slightly elevated over all the proceedings, the Parliament sitting there with him, all old retired pilots themselves. Then, as tradition required, he motioned to the muscicians who started playing the beautiful Air Force song that was the national anthem. It was beautiful.
​And the airships zoomed over in every high note, every perfectly timed display. It was enough to make the hair stand on end. The must have been taking their cues from sapphires in the room.

***

​In the high eastern corridor of the Sindell Castle, Jaden was standing outside the heavy door where her unconscious daughter was in her bed. She just stood there, staring, her arm outstretched touching the wall.
​“Looking at it won’t make the courage come any faster,” the voice of Gabriel Foy came down the hall. “No matter how powerful a Tear you might be.”
​She smiled, sighed, and without hesitation walked fast over to him, hugging him and he hugged her back.
​“Has she regained consciousness, do you know?” he asked.
​Jaden shook her head.
​“Then let them be. There’s something that feels right about Avery being in there with her, you must feel it to, and we’ll wait to see how it developes.” He paused, then leaned away from the outrider sitting beside Hazel’s bed on the other side of that door, and to another, one he was much more interested in at the moment. “Heard he saved her life,” Foy said. Jaden said nothing just kept looking at the door, nodding. “Has he been told yet?”
​“I meant to,” she said. “But there was an incident. He’s been impossible to reach since then.”
​Gabriel nodded, seeing she was looking weak and supporting her.
​But Jaden knew him far too well and his silence spoke volumes.
​“What?” she asked.
​“Nothing. It’s just that he’s been here for months. It’s surprising that it wouldn’t have come up.”
​“There was never the right moment.”
​“Okay. As long as it’s not something else.”
​She stopped, and sighed.
​“You know he isn’t Art-”
​“I know he’s not!” she snapped.
​Foy didn’t seem to mind, letting it roll of him. Now would be the time she wished he was anyway. Not only did Jace resemble him so much when he was younger, but now, knowing his betrayal, it made the memory of when he was young and good that much more appealing.
​“Well, I imagine we’ll be doing it together, then,” he said. “Along with Fenlow. We’ll be doing the rest of this together, actually. As far as it takes us.”
​She looked at him, seeming grateful.
​“I still just can’t believe that Artemus. That Hazel…” she trailed off.
​Gabriel nodded.
​“Damn bad business,” he said. “No easy answers. No good or bad. No black or white.” He stepped closer, taking control, putting his hand on her shoulder. “We’ll sort it out, and there will be a time to talk to the girl. Let her rest now,” he looked away a second. “She isn’t awake yet. We’ll check on her shortly.”
​He stuck out his arm, a triangle away from his body.
​“Now what do you say we go check out this shindig I’ve heard so much about.”
​She smiled a little, sighed, nodded.
​“Have I mentioned how wonderful it is to see you again?”
​“No,” he said. “But that goes without saying.”
​She laughed a little and they started down the hall, making their way down to the Ball.

***

Now the National Anthem was over, Will stood up and held up a glass, his speech, also tradition about to be made.
​And while he held up the champagne glass, and hundreds of people fell to exact science, as even people all around his city and outside in the courtyards were all silence, as they had their sapphires attached to this room, listening. And so as he spoke to everyone in the room, he was speaking to everyone in his city.
​“I’m not really one for making speeches,” he joked and people laughed, knowing that was one of the most important jobs of a king, and he had made countless by the time he was a late teenager. “Now it might seem silly to some that we would be gathered to have a Ball in the middle of an unprecedented war. But I say there is never a more important time, more appropriate time than now. Not so long ago, we thought the entire world had fallen, that we were alone. We were protected by a forcefield that was orchestrated by my father, but we didn’t know as it was done behind the scenes with Jaden, as the first stage in long preparations, and then we lost him right when the rest of our world had fallen into darkness. Jaden was kept away from us, falling victim to the same lies of a deceiving force. And it was our fault. Generations of nations acting as one. Isolated from each other, only interacting out of absolute necessity, only a few places in the world where that kind of contact was acceptable or practiced. And it has, in turn, We’ve lost so many. We will undoubtedly lose more. But then there was a spark of light. Jaden arrived to us, and we learned we were not alone. And in fact, it was whistlers, outriders, another nation that made her getting to us even possible.” He turned around above him to where he knew Constable Thean and General Creed were up on the balcony looking down on everything and he saluted them with his glass and they saluted him back, and then the King turned back towards the main beautiful Ball Room. “Another nation willing to sacrifice so much so that we might be warned of what was going on. So that Jaden might reach us. Despite what happened before. Then Jace Dabriel came to us, against all odds, and yet more light shined through the dark clouds of deception and illusion, and for the first time we were not isolated behind our forcefield, but on the offensive as well. And then, the reason for this ball, the retaking of Zarponda City. No longer are we divided, never shall we be again. Even in the darkest night, there is always hope. As my father, our king who too sacrificed everything so that we might get tot his point to have a chance once said …. Even in the darkest night, there is light. And so we will fight, all of us, and we will live, not just survive, and we will win, and then we will unite the rest of the world. For that’s what tonight is about. The corner we have turned forever, and the world we have earned and know we want but now find ourselves in the position to fight for, to earn. It what we live for, it’s what we fight and hope for.” He held up his glass. “To Something.”
​Hundreds of people in the Ball room raised their glasses in unison, and though they couldn’t be seen, it was likely all over the city the scene was the same. People who had been so transfixed by this man and his words all raised their glasses and nodded.
​“!” he shouted back.
​And then wild applause broke out, the music kicked back up, and the parliament was shaking his hands and they continued to talk, and all on the parliament, especially Tharod Chaypin looked genuinely moved. And then throughout all of it, the king glanced over towards where the outriders were, and they were all looking back at him, to Jace, and to Darvin and Ferris who had been the first of Veil’driel to reach Sindell with Jaden on that fateful night that felt like lifetimes ago. And to Jace, who his own people loved the way his own did.
​They saluted him back with their glasses just as Casey came running back with a cupcake in both hands and simply jumped up at her dad, knowing that he would catch her and pick her up, that absolute trust that can only exist in that kind of relationship. He flung her up, bringing her to his arms. Then she poined up, motioning up with one of her cupcakes at the glass ceiling.
​“Look!” she yelped, and all of them did. To see a beautiful shooting star streak fast across the sky. “That means a soul is going to heaven, right mommy?”
​She laughed, a little self conscous that it was now obvious that she had told her that at some point.
​“That’s right, honey.”
​Satisfied, Casey jammed one of the cupcakes against her mouth, taking a big bite, frosting all around her mouth.
​Now another small group of people walked over and took a few of the glasses of champagne from the giant pyramid in front of the ice sculpture, smiled, even they looked a little nervous around Jace. But then a servant came up to the group and looked at Darvin and Lang.
​“Excuse me, gentleman, but you wanted to be told when it was …” he paused, not knowing what he was bout to say. “Time, sir.”
​“Ah, right, Nash and Lang looked at each other.”
​“Actually, you know what? I’ll take this one.”
​“You sure? Want us to go with?”
​Jace shook his head, finishing the rest of his champagne.
​“Mm mm,” he said, and then placed his glass down.
​“You coming back?” Casey asked.
​“Right back,” he said looking down at her. “go dance with your daddy.”
​“Tell’em we said good luck,” Nash said.
​Lang took out a map he made.
​“We took the liberty of going and double checking those mines again, his route through the the mines again and we made our own map. Checked the route for him where he’s going. Kind of a superstition like last time.”
​“Thanks,” he said.
​And then he left out towards the wide open balcony door where he could walk through the courtyard, as he exited he walked to the giant exit balcony glass door, the giant bearded infantryman, raised his giant pint in salute as Jace walked by, walking slowly because he had already opened the map as he walked to the wide open door.
​“A hearty hail to ya, Captain,” he said.
​“Neville, almost didn’t recognize ya without yer axe,” he said, mosing over to him.
​“You’re look’in surprisingly sober.”
​Jace was shaking all his group’s hands and then got to his.
​“Early yet sa, early yet. Got a limitless supply of deese fair ladies com’in ma way for this shindig is over. On account of dem boys over there and that rid’in a yers.”
​Jace twisted back around and saw the rifleman who also saluted them with their drinks, wearing the dress uniforms of a Royal Rifleman.
​Jace acknowledged them with a little upward nod, knowing the powerful sergeant’s penchant for betting on his riding of the gauntlet.
​“Well enjoy,” he said, not having read the map anymore. “Oh, and by the way, it’s an open bar,” he picked up the crystal class and the brown liquid out of the man’s hands. “Means the drinks are free,” he commented at their hesitation and then tossed it back in one shot. Wincing he blew out a breath and raised his eybrows. “Which is good for you,” he said, handing it back. “Believe me. I’ll see ya boys.”
The burly bearded infantry man whispered, staring in: “Aye. Come on then lads. Bout time we had a word with those fine lads.” That probably costs as much with the ice cubes clinking around in the glass, Jace drank it all in one shot, winced and handed it back. It’s an open bar.”
​They all looked at him in confusion as Jace had his hands in the pockets of his dress uniform, and turned around doing in a full circle as he exited out the giant sliding glass door so he could specificy. “Drinks are free,” he said, smiling as he left out of sight.
​“Ah well if that don’t beat all (funny line irish),” They started walking to the riflemen. “If that don’t beat all outta beat all,” he said. “A word, fair gents. A word!” He started over.

***

“You spilled all the drinks on that ice doggy!” she yelled, and when she looked at her parents, expecting them to share in their shock.
​But they were both staring at Jace, shocked themselves.
​But Jace was staring, absolutely frozen to the top of the stairs where Isabelle was standing in a gray Outrider of Veil’driel dress uniform. The whole world was a heartbeat. And no force, natural or otherwise would have gotten through to him at that moment.
​Amazingly, for the second time, the muscicians stopped playing, this time, tradition had absolutely nothing to do with it, it was that wherever Jace went, stories of his forbidden romance was spread like wild fire, some exaggerated, some not, but his romance with Isabelle was told to young daughters by wide-eyed mothers in both Veil’driel and Sindell alike. No one could believe that Isabelle was present. It shouldn’t have been possible. And now everyone was quiet, staring at the living icon Jace Dabriel and they were the center of everything as she walked down slowly towards him, you could even hear her footsteps.
​All the eyes, even that of the king and parliament, followed her path until they all centered on the same place, right where she was standing directly in front of Jace. They were standing there, standing inches from each other, just staring.
​Danielle Lang noticed that Jace’s hands were trembling, just like they were not long before when Cedywn had come up, and he was keeping them down at his sides. It was as if the entire kingdom was holding its breath, as they were face to face, they knew that even the slightest interaction beyond military courtesy could have serious consequences. For as Darvin noticed when he glanced up back to the high level where the king had saluted them a little earlier, he saw Constable Thean and General Creed staring down at them. Everyone who was everyone was in that room, staring at them.
​Isabelle seemed to understand the situation, and nodding slightly, she actually took a small step to the side, but she looked sad as well, something torturing inside of her that she was keeping inside.
​Then Jace’s eyes drifted up to Thean up on the top balcony, whether he knew he was there or just sensed him was unclear but he looked up. And even in the dead silence, the massive attention that would be the talk of the city and everyone else for who knew how long to come, Constable Thean, standing next to General Creed motioned with two fingers towards himself. And Isabelle was standing there, nodding a little, and Jace took two or three steps away from her, towards the stairs that would lead up to where Constable Thean was.
​When he did, Isabelle nodded a little to herself, knowing that it was the right decision. The only decision, and she would have to talk to him later. But she bobbed a little in place, eyes welling up a little, and after only getting two or three steps away, Jace stopped suddenly and there was mumbling throughout the crowd, perhaps anticipating what was to come or at least talking about the fact that he just stopped.
​He spun around, and as he started back towards her he mumbled the words “To hell with it,” fluctuating, not caring about anything else as he charged her, his hands going up to the side of her face and he kissed her, like he never had before, then he kissed her cheeks, kissing her forehead, and the ball room erupted in ruckus cheer, and then he just hugged her, they hugged each other in this sea of jubilation. It was a perfect moment. An absolutely perfect moment, and the consequences didn’t matter, neither did the war. And they just hugged in spite of the consequences that were sure to come. Both of them somehow simultaneously emotionally energized to the highest level and exhausted all at once.
​And with all the laughing and the cheering, the muscicians started up again, and people went back to dancing, all over the floor, under the glass ceiling and the stars all overhead, and Isabelle was still in Jace’s arms, their eyes locked on each other, when suddenly both Darvin Nash and Ferris Lang straightened into a more locked up position as if almost to attention, but not quite, and being one to have had Thean sneak up on him many times throughout his life, a simple glance over and Jace knew the man was no doubt standing near him. He didn’t even know what to expect. He had never broken an ancient outrider edict in front of a Ball room literally filled with hundreds of people.
​Little Casey didn’t know what was going on but she recognized the serious mood that settled on the area all of the sudden, and the unreadable expression on Thean’s face.
​“Are they gonna be in trouble now?” she looked up and asked her mother.
​Danielle bounched her a little.
​“Shhhhh.”
​Even in Jace’s rebellious heyday, this would have been pretty bold. This was as crazy as anything he’d done.
​It was Darvin’s wife, who saved Isabelle without a single word, and she looked so excited like she could barely contain herself. Little Casey was similarly transfixed, stunned and quiet by the curious thing she had probably never seen before, and certainly a little intimidated or dumbstruck.
​“C’mon you,” Darvin’s wife said, grabbing her wrist and pulling her away. Before Jace knew it, Isabelle was doing just that, being pulled away deeper into the party and out of his arms. Isabelle held her eyes locked with his as long as she could as she was pulled away, until finally they were both, along with little Casey in the other woman’s arms, swallowed by a throng of other party guests and people wanting to talk to.
​Confused as to what just happened and how it could even be possible, Jace cleared his throat, straightened his posture and tried to prepare for whatever was coming, he turned and face Constable Thean.
​“Constable,” he said.
​Before Thean could respond, the heralder, who had also must have been distracted by the spectacle of the Isabelle Jace kiss, had resumed his duty, and announced a few more people who came in, and Jace could not get himself to turn away from Thean. It was an authority the man carried, the same he had seen in Artemus at Lornda Manor, that seemed to hold everyone’s attention, and two things surprised Jace. One, Thean did not look near as furious as he would have suspected, and if he was furious the expression wouldn’t have been that different, but Jace could read them all. Second, despite what had just happened, he actually looked past Jace a bit to acknowledge the other outriders behind him.
​“Gentlemen,” he said simply.
​He was answered by two nods and rigid postures with a successive: “Constable, constable.”
​And then his gaze was back on Jace.
​“Well,” he said simply in his gravelly voice, and Jace could smell the liquor on his breath. “That was interesting, wasn’t it?”
​Darvin and Ferris exchanged a quick glance, barely registered, and then their stunned eyes were back on Jace and Thean.
​“Whaddya say you walk with me?”
​And with that, amazingly, he simply turned and started walking away into the crowd.
​“Yes, sir,” Jace said, trying to figure the situation out.
​He felt Darvin’s hand on his shoulder but didn’t turn around.
​“Good luck, brother,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry too much. I’m at least 70% sure he’s not going to kill you.”
​Jace barely reacted, this was all almost too much.
​“What. In the hell. Is going on?” he whispered.
​“Don’t know,” Ferris chimed in. “But you better go find out.”
​“Yeah,” Jace whispered to himself, in a daze, and with that he started taking his first steps after the man.

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 Chapter Twelve  (E)
Carpe Diem
#2190675 by Dan Hiestand
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