A/N 1: Finally, the chapter you've all been begging for! Danny finally meets Sam! I'm not totally happy with this chapter (when am I ever?) – I really had to do some fancy footwork with Danny's psychology in the first few pages to take the character from where I had him originally to what I'm planning to do with him. And there's no action whatsoever. Blargh. I tried to make the insight into the characters compelling instead. But I feel like the language flows very well, so it shouldn't drag along. And if I sweat any more blood over this chapter, I'm going to die, so I hope you like it AND PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE REVIEW AND TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK! :) I LIVE FOR ENTHRALLING YOU! 3 *hugs*
A/N 2: If you think about all of the vulnerability, the insecurity, and the turmoil many people go through when falling in love, I can't imagine love at first sight is really all that pleasant. At least in a relationship, the vulnerability is soothed by reconfirming your feelings for one another. But love at first sight with a stranger, I would think, wouldn't really feel like love at all.
~ Previously ~
"You will know what is right."
Daniel lifted his head and looked at Clockwork, comprehension trickling over him. Coming from the master of time, such a comment could never be just rhetorical, for the sake of comfort alone, the prince realized. And, indeed, there was a knowing gleam in Clockwork's eyes.
"When?" Daniel asked suspiciously. "When will I know? What's going to happen?"
"That," Clockwork answered with a faint smirk, "is up to you."
Daniel straightened, epiphany pressing upon him as the time ghost began to drift away from him toward the main deck. "Wait, you could have stopped me! Why did you let me come here?" he demanded, following him.
Clockwork smiled, and began to fade out, his last words purling around Daniel on the wind. "Because it's time…"
~ Revelations ~
Daniel stood in the middle of the deck and stared in bewilderment at the place where the time ghost had vanished. His gut twisted in rush of trepidation. "Time for what?" he called after the man. There was no answer. The prince wheeled, lifting his head and shouting up at the air around him in a vain hope that maybe the specter had only turned invisible. "TIME FOR WHAT?" The fury in his voice broke on a note of desperation, the command crumbling into supplication.
But Clockwork did not reappear. There was nothing but the cracking of the sails as they pulled against their bonds, the whistling moan of the wind, and, from below, the murmur of the ocean against the ship, like an old man's rattling sighs.
The music, Daniel realized, had stopped.
The silence that rose in its place was hollow and barren, as if Clockwork had swept up every living thing in his departure. Even the men on the rigging had descended or disappeared behind the sails, leaving the ropes to creak like puppet strings pulled by an invisible hand. For a moment, the isolation rushed in upon Daniel, the vast emptiness twining around him until it plucked at his skin with cold, invisible hands, and his breath quickened in his enshrouding dread, the instinct for air real for all that his need for it was not.
Though he knew the men must be only out of sight and that Tucker and Lancer and a threshold were not far, for one terrible moment he felt that every illusion veiling the world had been ripped away and that this, this was reality: that he was utterly, completely alone, stranded between the worlds.
His rational mind railed against the terror. Of course it was not true. A sail rippled with the heave of some deck man below and caved to the wind. The wood creaked as the prow turned slightly. Wheel and rope both moved only under the hands of men.
But it is true. The thought rose unbidden, the talons of terror only sinking more firmly into his soul even as the absurd impression passed away. And was it not? He was dead, yet drawn inexorably to the living realm till his own death seemed some dream he could tear himself awake from if only he could remember how. Tucker knew of his obsession, and now Lancer as well. But however much Tucker said he understood, the prince knew that if their places had been reversed, his friend would have been persuaded by Lancer's idea of greatness – not out of any desire for it glory, but out of that sense of duty Daniel knew he should himself be commanded by. A chill, like ice crystallizing in his veins, cascaded through his form, the unwelcome recognition forcing itself upon his awareness that it was probably only that same sense of duty, and perhaps some lingering boyish loyalty to a childhood friend that had kept Tucker by his side thus far. For how could Tucker understand the grip this consuming desire had on Daniel's soul when he did not want it for himself?
Then there was Lancer. The old man surely thought Daniel must be bordering on mad. It could only be the novelty of the revelation which kept Lancer from apprehending the severity of Daniel's subservience to this fervored fascination. He still thought the prince might yet be persuaded from it. But every atom of his being reviled the thought of any such attempt. What happened when the governor realized he could not divorce Daniel from his course?
Nothing, Daniel realized with sudden certainty, which is not already inevitable. Lancer would have to go to the king, and his father...
His father would cast him off. It would be as if Daniel had never been his son at all. Daniel searched himself for some sense of shock or dismay, but the surprise was not there. He had known for a while, he realized. He had known the consequences, that it would come to this. And there could be no great grief, he felt, in losing his father's respect or love. He did not truly have it now, when his father was an enemy he had to hide everything from. Already, he found he loved his father with more of a sense of nostalgia than anything else.
And after he left his father's house and name, exiled as a traitor, he could shelter in his cavern and spend his afterlife traversing the threshold there as he pleased, pouring over artifacts of the other realm, perhaps even able to make journeys of several days, or to leave the ghost realm and simply never come back.
But there was no joy or relief in the prospect, as he had expected, only cold fear. For he could never be among men and be seen. It would eternally be thus: that he would be dead among the living, or trying in vain to live among the dead, forced to hide and hated wherever he was.
It was only now, in the moment that reality stood disrobed of its glamor and revealed its true nature that the years of delusion, of pretending this would all somehow end differently, were pulled away and Daniel could admit to himself what he had surely begun to recognize long ago.
That he had always been, and would always be, between worlds, alone.
A tenuous quivering rose from beneath the wind, at first felt more than heard, so diaphanous that it might have been the croons and trills of the air coalescing for a moment into a single voice. Yet the sound did not fade with the change of the breeze, but swelled into a tone of such ecstasy and pain that Daniel was not sure whether it came from without or within. It floated for a breath before tumbling into a coruscation of notes that finally alighted on a higher timbre of such pure desolation that it tore the terror from beneath his skin, revealing a shattering anguish he had thought he didn't feel.
But it was grief for the world never had, not for the world lost.
He stood trembling, burning with despair as the quavering sounds of the bowed instrument, singing alone, drifted over the rail of the stern castle and washed through him, and he buried his face in his hands, his fingers curling into his hair. The inexplicable feeling of homesickness which he had felt before Clockwork's appearance seized him again ten fold, and with it a rage at Clockwork's toying words. You are not different from them. What empty words! What was the ghost's reason to dangle such a cruel, false hope before him, taunting him with what he knew could never be true? He would never know what it was to stand among them, to listen to such music openly and know what it meant, what beauty and suffering inspired it. He would never feel the thread of blood through his form, the quiet driving rhythm of a heart in his breast. He had already been ripped from that.
How could watching from this silent, unseen perch for a century, two, four, ever be enough? How could it do anything but rip this wound open further each time?
Lancer's words echoed in his mind. You're dead... It may not be what you want, but sometimes the greatest thing we can do is be our best at what fate has allotted us.
Greatness. That was his mistake, wasn't it? This world had seduced him with the chimera of it, the glory of becoming something more than you were, or creating something beyond yourself. But greatness required a death to defy. Death had come for him before he was old enough to know what it was, and he would never have another. No matter how much he knew of living, life would always be out of his reach, and greatness with it. He might as well have been grasping at smoke.
But Lancer's mistake was just as grievous, for there was no greatness in the absence of strife. Greatness, glory... it was all folly now.
There was only afterlife, the antithesis to life in every respect: a vapid existence with no end in sight, except at the mercy of some unseen day when the weight of his soul at last pulled him from this world into the next.
That was the only possible end of it.
Daniel turned and stumbled blindly to the railing, turning tangible and lowering his forehead to the cool, leathery wood. Cold mist thrown up by the roiling wake caressed the tips of the fingers he dangled over the edge. The throne he had been so ready to forsake floated against the blackness of his eyelids, the cradle of its seat seeming to draw him with some spectral force. The inevitability of his fate thrust itself upon him – for even if he abdicated his crown and wandered between the worlds for centuries, he was still bound by his very death to everything that cursed chair represented: the enduring static history of the Ghost Realm, the separation of the worlds, and with it this senseless cold war.
It is time.
Daniel lifted his head and stared out at tattered reflections of the emerging stars without truly seeing. His mind raced. He had come with the intent of discovering whether Skulker had been lying, whether humans could really rekill ghosts. Clockwork had known that, and hadn't stopped him.
What is going to happen?
That is up to you.
The realization came over him like passing through a threshold into the crystalline sea. Even before the war had started,few ghosts had crossed regularly into the living realm, and those who had visited had usually gone on diplomatic missions, their contact with humans limited to those whose summons they had answered. Most couldn't fathom the beauty of a world they had not lived long enough to experience. Only Rogues regularly broke into the living world and went among the living, drawn by whatever had kept them from crossing over in the first place and blind to all else.
He was the only Reborn with any real knowledge of this other world. Even his father shunned any ken of it, sickened with hate by the merest mention of the Earth. And now Daniel understood why – his father blamed humans for the loss of his wife.
But he was the prince. And even if his father would not listen, Daniel could sway the court, cornering his father, if he just had the proof that the abduction of the queen could not have happened as told and that the real threat lay in the direction of whoever Skulker had lied for.
He was the only one who could end this war.
And it suddenly broke through his thoughts that there was only one way to test his conviction.
He had to show himself.
Daniel reeled at the idea. For all his desire to be down there among them, the thought of actually doing it filled him with as much agony as not doing it at all. He had seen their Death, the demons and reapers and psychopomps they portrayed with such a passion of fascination and fear. If they saw him, oh... how they would draw back from him in terror!
But they would not be able to touch him. Not if Skulker had lied. Not if Clockwork was right that there was no power in one world that could annihilate a being of the other.
War is always a lie, because it can only stand on the conviction that the side you're fighting is an other that is unfathomable to you, so unlike you as to be a threat in its very existence.
They would fear him, but in that moment before panic set in, maybe there was something he could say or do to stay them, to make them listen... And maybe being on the ship would buy him extra time to pacify them and assure them he meant no harm, for there was nowhere for them to go.
Daniel started to let go of the railing and found his hands shaking, and he quickly grabbed the wood again to still them, energy rushing beneath his skin. Was he really thinking of doing this? If he showed himself, there was no going back. He might only have one chance at this. If he was wrong, if he didn't find his proof tonight, it could throw the whole whole war into flame if his appearance was taken as an act of aggression instead of peace.
Was this really what Clockwork had been alluding to?
You will know what is right... It's time...
He was not certain he was right at all. But this war would never end so long as neither side made the first attempt to break the silence. Humans could not easily reach the ghost realm – most thresholds were underwater, and they would be risking death without some way to fly. It had to be someone from the his own kind.
And it would only ever be him.
After tonight, the guards would know he wasn't to leave the palace grounds, and he didn't know when he would have another opportunity to cross the threshold again. No, it had to be now.
With a deep breath, he pushed down the wild thrum of energy pulsing within him and turned himself intangible. His hands still trembled, but he forced himself to straighten, falling almost unconsciously into the regal posture that had been drilled into him as a default, meant to give away nothing of what he felt. Turning, he started for the stairs, watching the steps he took with a strange detachment as if something were compelling him to walk when he might not have been able to on his own. But he gave himself over to it, grateful he at least didn't have to find the strength for this, and summoning his self-control lifted his head -
And stopped dead.
There at the head of the stairs, barring the way to the deck below, was an angel, her black cloak swirling in the wind, and Daniel stood paralyzed, his momentary flash of fear succumbing to awe. Never had he seen any spirit so ethereal. She was delicate, as dark as she was radiant. Her ivory skin rivaled the moonlight, and the hair that fell about her shoulders could have given the night its color. Her manifestation was so clear that she couldn't possibly have been a ghost. No aura of energy haloed her, but was contained entirely within her form, shimmering beneath her translucent skin. And he felt his soul gripped by her sublime power, her gaze upon him alone greater than all his will, and suddenly he could no longer hear the music or the men or the wind, or feel the rocking of the ship beneath his feet, as if she had silenced the world and stilled the earth.
He knew he should be afraid. Only the oldest ghosts had ever seen angels, their stories of the ancient battles the sole description of them anyone had anymore – creatures of unearthly wonder and terror, their appearance a harbinger of impending destruction and supernal war. The celestial spirits had not left their realm in a thousand years. But here was one before him, walking toward him with steps that hardly touched the wood. Yet as she held him in her gaze, he found fear beyond his reach. All Daniel could feel was surrender. He had never felt more vulnerable and exposed than he did now, as though his entire soul were laid open to her, but the idea of resisting her unraveled before it was complete. She could have taken his soul and more. Even as she continued towards him, all the emptiness, anger, and bitter longing rose at her silent summoning from the deepest corners of his being, transmuting into completion and rapture and an unspeakable need so deep he thought it would sunder him in half.
He felt like he was dissolving and being formed all at once, and with a strange indifference he wondered if he were crossing over, if she had come to stop him and was forcing him into the next world, and this silence and breathlessness and agonizing ecstasy were redeath coming over him. Yet a gentle smile graced her lips, and her eyes were full of tenderness and empathy, as if she knew his entire heart and understood, and she was close enough now that he could see they were the color of the last amethyst light on the edge of the horizon-
-and her cheeks, stained faintly rose by the wind.
The world fell out from underneath him.
Oh god... She's human, she's alive...
And she was looking at him.
He tried to breathe and couldn't. He didn't wonder whether he had turned visible on accident or whether it was Clockwork who had revealed him. He didn't care. The way she was looking at him, it didn't matter, and he couldn't tear his eyes from hers. Sensations flooded through him, fear and impossible warmth and gravity, as though her very gaze could make him flesh, and he thought that if this ecstasy wasn't death, it must be life.
She reached out her hand to him, and his own came up of it's own volition, as if commanded by her, leaving him only able to watch in euphoria and dread both as the space between them closed. For a moment, their fingers brushed, and a great tremor passed through him, like something starting to life within, and he was afraid he had burst into light. But her gaze did not change. He tried desperately to clasp her hand -
- and it fell through his fingers like velvet ash.
And she stepped up to him, and through.
Astonished, he spun to see her step up to the railing where he had stood only a minute before, laying her hand upon it lightly and gazing up at the sky with the same seraphic expression he had thought was for him. There was no trace she knew she had walked through him. She only shivered, pulling her cloak tighter about her, and mistook him for a flourish of the wind.
She had never seen him at all.
The grief that crashed over him almost doubled him over, sound and movement rushing back at him too loud and violent. A gasp ripped itself from his throat, his chest convulsing, seizing, as if he were drawing his first breath. Only the fear that if he looked away from her for a second she would disappear kept him upright. For a moment he had thought she beheld him, and he had felt every discordant piece of his soul brought to whole. The shattering of the illusion ripped him apart again with such violence he felt as though she had really pulled his soul from him as she passed through, leaving a gaping, bottomless hollow within.
"No... Look at me." The whispered plea left his lips before he could stop it. She turned her head at the half heard words, thinking it an illusion of the wind, and for a moment a swell of need extinguished his reservation. "Look at me..."
His voice seemed to have abandoned him, and the words were no more than a breath. Yet she was more certain now she had heard something, and she turned full around, her brow rivelled and lips parted in confusion as she looked in the direction of the sound.
But of course she could not see him, her eyes only looking through where his heart would have been if he were a man, for he remained invisible and intangible. He opened his mouth, but words would not come, and he found himself suspended between longing and terror, unable to do anything but stare at her in captivation.
Did humans really look like this? She was like no woman in any of the paintings he had ever seen. They were always solid and earthy, with warm, rosy skin, fair hair, and round, lush bodies brimming with life. The woman before him seemed another creature entirely, pale and dark and cold, and her very essence so fragile that she might turn to mist in the wind and be eddied away. It was no wonder he had first thought her made of light. This close, with barely a hand's width between them, he knew it must be the reflection of the starlight that moved across her skin, not some energy from within, but the illusion remained. A shiver traced his spine to imagine how much more empyreal the effect would be in the full light of the sun. He was stunned to realize just how slight she was – the top of her head barely reached his chin – and her clothes, he noticed now, were dirty and ripped. But she exuded an unquestionable aura of power and an unspeakable elegance that he could attribute to nothing but the sheer force of her person, and he wondered why he had never seen anyone capture beauty like hers. All the women in the paintings draped in silk and gold couldn't hold a candle to her grace.
And a strange feeling came over him that he was standing outside of himself completely, that his soul had passed from him and lay hidden within her now, ensnared behind the eyes that searched through him in perplexity. Or maybe it was that the illusion of her eyes meeting his had for a moment made him feel as if death had never come for him, and his whole afterlife had been a passing fantasy lived in an instant, his life briefly forgotten in the imagining until her hand had touched his, pulling him back to himself. For that split second, he had almost known who he was...
But there was nothing to remember, no other life, and Daniel felt thin as smoke, more dream than dead, as though he might fade out into nothing if she did not look at him and make him real again.
The desperation aching within him was almost enough to make him throw off his invisibility and appear to her, and at the same time to make him turn and fly from here as fast as he might be able, for he immediately imagined the horror in her eyes, how she would step back in fear and revulsion, and he couldn't bear for her to look at him like that.
But wasn't this what he had intended? To reveal himself? To find out whether they could rekill him? It would be better, safer, to show himself to just one person, rather than stepping into the midst of the throng on the deck below. Alone with her, maybe he'd be able to stall her long enough to assuage her terror...
His breath was so ragged, he was sure she had to hear it. He tried to think of something to reassuring to say, but his tongue lie mute in his mouth. With trembling fingers, he began to reach for her hand instead, intangibility and invisibility already sliding off of him as if they were being pulled into the well of her gravity, following where the other part of him had already gone, and briefly it flashed across his mind that when he touched her, the last of him would follow too, and he would cease to be anything separate from her...
But before he could give himself away, her expression suddenly shifted and a smile broke out across her face. He stopped short, and without warning she stepped through him again, a brief sensation of dizzying warmth that stole his breath.
Her voice... That had been her voice behind him, dark and misty, somehow intimate and regal all at once. The sound pulled at something deep within him, and he turned as soon as the world had righted itself. She was walking towards another woman who had come up the stairs, and Daniel watched in curiosity as she threw her arms around her eagerly.
If the first woman had been everything Daniel had never imagined of a human, the second woman, Maddie, was everything he had. She seemed earthly, of the world in a way the other woman was not, and her beauty was warm. She might have been a model for one of the paintings he had studied, or could have been in her youth, for she was older by some twenty years or more. There were fine lines around her mouth and in the corners of her eyes, and silver shot through her auburn hair which was pulled up into an intricate arrangement that seemed impervious to the wind. Her movements were poised and graceful, and her dress was made of fine azure silk and black lace, and a velvet black cloak was draped over her shoulders, making the other woman's clothes look all the more drab and shabby by comparison. But somehow her elegance remained superficial, almost mechanical like a force of habit, and dim next to the ethereal aura of the young woman she embraced. It seemed to weigh on her, a conscious effort that made the lines in her face more pronounced. But beneath the forced dignity, there was something palpably tender, almost maternal about her that shone through as the younger woman straightened and Maddie brushed her cheek with a hand.
"What's it is? You looked frightened for a moment."
The young woman smiled bashfully. "I thought I heard something. I spent too long listening to old Gino's ghost stories, I think."
Daniel's stomach dropped. Ghost stories? What could she have heard? He had a bad feeling they would all be about Rogues, insane and obsessive, and with no regard for the boundary between worlds. Who else could humans have met with? What chance did he have if she was already afraid of him? If they were all afraid?
Madeline huffed in exasperation. "I told you not to listen to him. It's all nonsense. He made up half of it on the spot just to keep you sweeping the deck," she said conspiratorially. "There is no such thing as ghosts. Just forget the whole tale."
Daniel couldn't decide if this statement was an improvement, or another step back. Maddie seemed to have no fear at the idea of ghosts... but then, she didn't seem to think they existed at all, and the prince's mind raced. She couldn't possibly be aware of the war if she thought the other world didn't even exist... But then, he hadn't known of the war either until today. Would anyone on this ship? That could prove problematic...
"I know, but it's so fascinating." She was almost glowing with barely contained curiosity, and her eyes glazed for a moment as her imagination raced. "I mean, all the sailors have ghost stories. There must be something behind it."
"Drink," Madeline answered wryly, and the woman laughed and kissed her cheek.
"Thank you for today. I couldn't have asked for a better birthday present."
"There is one more thing," Madeline said with a sly smile. From beneath her cloak she pulled out a long, thin wooden box which she had tucked under her other arm and held it out to her. The young woman looked at her in wonder for a moment before taking it almost reverently and kneeling on the deck to open it.
Daniel crept a couple steps closer to get a better look. The wooden box had been painted ebony, and was edged with engraved silver, with latches at either end. She ran her fingers over the delicate metalwork, then set it down before her and lifted the lid.
And gasped. Inside was a sword nestled in a lining of black silk. The groove down the center of the gleaming blade was engraved with scroll work that matched that on the outside of the box, and the black hilt was inlaid with silver vines sprouting laurel leaves and cinquefoils blossoming like stars in mother-of-pearl. A black leather belt and scabbard with a silver tip lay beside it.
"It's beautiful," she breathed.
Madeline urged her, "Try it." She glanced up at her, then lifted the sword out of its bed. Standing, she wrapped her hands around the grip, letting it settle in her hands, and hefted it a couple times, testing its weight. An expression of utter focus fell over her features and she took a couple steps back before lifting the weapon and executing a series of resplendent maneuvers. Daniel watched, stunned at the beauty of her movements. He hadn't thought women used swords, but she was as fluid as if the sword were a natural part of her body, as if the gravity of this world had no hold on her, and moved with a precision of balance that seemed impossible on the rocking deck. The metal sang a high, sweet tone as it whipped through the air, until she finally brought it down one last time and fell still, gazing down the length of the blade in rapture. Almost lovingly, she brought the hilt up again to examine it, her fingers tracing over the design.
"It's perfect," she murmured.
"I had it commissioned myself. The laurel is for victory. The flowers are for hope and joy. ...It was to be a wedding present, but I realized you'll probably travel to your betrothed's land for the ceremony, and I won't be there to present it. Besides, this way you can hide it in your packing and your parents won't know." She aimed for a light tone, but there was an underlying quavering of misery that gave her away completely.
For a moment, Daniel thought the ship had dipped violently beneath him, and his stomach gave a sickening twist. Wedding? She's betrothed?
A similarly ill expression stole over the woman's face, and for a second Daniel wondered if the ship really had rolled. But no one stumbled for their footing, and the deck only bobbed steadily beneath them. The afflicted look vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by a closed, unreadable countenance. She lowered the sword, the reflection of the moon sliding off of it like a drop of milk. Madeline wrapped an arm around herself and pressed her other hand to her mouth, forbidding herself the tears that leapt to her eyes. How could she have been so foolish to bring it up? ...But as the act of speaking was impossible without air, so too did it seem it had become impossible to speak without mention of the wedding. It was the backdrop of everything these days. The joy of the day could not have lasted forever.
Without looking at Madeline, the darker woman went back to the box lying in the middle of the deck and pulled out the scabbard and belt and threaded it around her hips, fastening the belt with a clipped efficiency that belied nothing of what was behind the careful mask. Retrieving the sword, she slipped it into its sheath, the blade sliding home with a cold shiiiing.
She examined the pommel silently for a moment, fingering it absently. "Do you know who they have chosen?" she asked, her voice devoid of any tone.
Madeline took a shaky breath and lowered her hand, letting it fall over her heart. "No," she answered.
The young woman turned away from the box and walked past Daniel to the railing. She leaned her arms on it and gazed out at the blackening horizon. Madeline followed, but was reluctant to join her, afraid to intrude upon her careful dispassion. She hovered beside Daniel instead, unaware of him. The woman spoke. "I've overheard my father discussing two potential alliances near France, one to the east and one to the south."
"Yes," Madeline acknowledged. "The duchy of Lorraine and the kingdom of Navarre."
Standing behind her, Madeline could not see the woman's face. But Daniel could, and for a moment he thought she had forgotten how to breathe. Her already ivory skin turned ashen, and her fingers dug into the wood. "Lorraine... Navarre... They're so far away," she whispered almost to herself, a note of despair creeping in. But her mind caught on something, and she turned and looked at Madeline searchingly. "What advantage does my father think could be had by allying Amity with such distant lands?"
"The king believes he could secure trade with France through Lorraine. Or with England and Castile through Navarre."
Cold shock raced down Daniel's spine. The king... her father... He recognized the names, too, of the kingdoms Maddie had said from the maps in his cavern. And her marriage is to be arranged with one of them...
His eyes snapped to the woman at the railing in disbelief. The woman he had thought had seen him, the woman he had almost revealed himself to...
She's the princess!
Her clothing had not given it away before, but he realized now her bearing should have given him some hint of her rank. He shivered and stared at her in disbelief. This was who he was supposed to be at war with. This was the daughter of the man who was supposed to have captured his mother and rekilled her soldiers. A daughter of the family that was the target of all his own father's hate and rage.
...But his mind skipped back to the beginning of their conversation. Maddie could not know about the war if she didn't believe in ghosts. And the princess had given no hint of knowing either...
Could she be pretending? Was it possible the war was as secret in this world as it was in his own?
His mind fumbled in amazement. He had come to discover if Skulker had been leading them all astray for twenty years, and here before him was one of the few people who could tell him the truth!
It is time...
Clockwork would have known exactly on whose ship the prince had landed. Was this what he had been alluding to?
...But suddenly Daniel didn't want to know. Even if Skulker had been lying, the princess had spent the day enthralled by ghost stories, stories that had left her skittish and afraid of voices in the wind. Even if there was no war, he realized, he was still her enemy. He would rather have her believe forever that he wasn't real than to look upon him with hatred. Grief shuddered through him. The very thing he had come to find out now seemed the most certain thing, and the most repulsive. For how could she ever be his enemy? Everything in him rose up in denial of it. The sense that some part of his soul was hidden within her persisted even now, with a certainty that permeated his entire form. To even ask her would be to doubt her, to betray her in some way... and with her, himself.
The conversation continued, oblivious to his revelation and turmoil, and he struggled to draw himself back to it.
"But there's no tactical advantage," the princess reasoned, gesturing in frustration, "and not much chance of a political advantage. Neither kingdom could send troops in case of war, not from that distance! He might be able to improve trade moderately, but he would have to tax the people even more than he already is to meet as equals with France or England. If they're forced to pay anymore, they'll starve! More than they are already," she bit out.
Madeline hesitated. "I think that is what would would happen."
"It's not tenable," the princess murmured, half to herself. Her head turned to look out across the ocean, as if she could read answers on the foam. After a moment, her eyes flicked back to the older woman, pinning her with a gaze that demanded answers. "I don't understand why he does not make an alliance with one of the neighboring kingdoms. Venento, or Toscana, or with a duke in Corsica if he wants an alliance with France!"
Her gaze would have made any of his father's advisers stutter and fumble for any explanation they could provide for fear of displeasing her, but Maddie seemed immune. She merely shook her head, sharing the princess' confusion. "I don't know. They've never been explicit enemies, but they've never been willing to ally themselves with your father either. I've never quite understood why."
"But if he does not marry me to one of the neighboring kingdoms, who will succeed him? There is no heir, except whomever I marry. Lorraine and Navarre cannot combine with Amity, and they certainly don't have the resources to govern from so far away." A hint of bitterness and defeat slipped into her voice. "You would think my father and his advisers would have the sense to use me to some better advantage."
Madeline looked grief-stricken, and a simmering anger flared within Daniel's chest. "You talk about it as if it doesn't matter what happens to you," she said quietly, and the princess looked away again. "Doesn't it bother you that you probably won't meet your husband till the wedding?"
"No," she stated. "This is my duty. It's what I was raised for."
But the words held no conviction behind them, and the young woman was looking out at the horizon instead of meeting Madeline's gaze, her eyes bright with gathering tears.
The sound was like a shaft of ice through the fierce indignation Daniel found had himself possessed by, and for a moment his rage was swept away by a rapturous joy before he succumbed again to the terrible conversation.
Sam... Her name is Sam...
The princess turned away sharply, facing back out to the ocean, and Madeline's plea fell mute. She knew how hard Samantha was trying to be brave and accept the inevitable. Her heart threw itself against her chest with the ache to push the girl just a little farther, to call her out of her pretense and make her let the tears come so that she could comfort her.
But Sam had not let herself be comforted since she had been a little girl. Whatever majesty had been left unassumed by the absence of a son, the princess had always taken it upon herself. It was a man's dignity and a man's commanding presence that she pulled around herself, even now. Only Madeline, who had spent almost every waking minute of her life with her, knew the times when Sam was close to giving way.
But she had never let Samantha know, and now was not the time to start. The girl was doing what she needed to do to get through this, putting up a front for her parents, the advisers, the court – herself. The mask was all she had. Madeline could hold her tonight, but they would be separated soon, and if she forced the fragile mask to shatter, the princess would know herself to be completely powerless in a situation where it was the only protection she had.
Swallowing her own pain, Madeline reluctantly turned and started for the stairs. But after a single step, she paused, looking back, and said softly, "I only wish you could marry for love as well."
Samantha listened as her governess's footsteps tapped a hollow rhythm down the stairs, waiting for them to fade into the sounds from the deck below before she gave way to the despair and anger. She crumbled in on herself as if in agony, her fingers white as she clung to the railing as though it were her only hope, and hitched sob escaped her. The sound cut through Daniel, a flare of pain bursting through his chest as if he could feel her own, and he took a step towards her involuntarily before stopping himself, reluctant to violate the illusion that her grief was unseen. He knew he should leave her, but no part of him would obey. She clapped her hand over her mouth, stifling the sound.
Not here, she thought. Not where someone could come up at any time.
She took a couple shaky breaths through her nose before she dared to take her hand from her lips and put it back on the railing. She pulled herself almost feebly upright, lest anyone come up to the stern castle and see that something was wrong. She couldn't bear to have that conversation twice. Not tonight.
It was the unexpectedness of it that had left her feelings so close to the surface, she surmised. In the activity of the day, everything had faded but the sheer rush of the wind and the ocean on which they skimmed, the steady bob and rise of the ship like a heartbeat that had drowned out everything else. With blue on every side and above and below, for a few glorious hours it had felt as though there were no other world.
Any other day, she would have expected the topic to come up, more than once, and her affectation of imperturbability would have been safely in place. But today she had truly forgotten – had wanted to forget – and let herself.
My mistake. How many times had Captain Rinato told her, "Preparedness is half the battle"?
Samantha brushed away a niggle of irritation at Maddie. There was nothing sentimental or romantic about this marriage. It was entirely political, a contract in which she was the collateral. Her governess's understanding of politics was brilliant; it wasn't that she persisted in misunderstanding the nature of the princess's marriage. It was just that she wanted more for Samantha than her royal blood permitted.
But I am marrying for love, Samantha thought in a belated retort. The love of my people. She would never rule. She could never order troops to protect the border lands or make decisions about distribution of the surplus harvest in winter. To wed and secure an alliance was the only duty she was allowed. Even if she would be separated from her people, from Amity, her marriage was for the benefit of the kingdom.
…Except it looks like it won't be, she thought morosely.
The feeling that her father was betraying her was impossible to shut out. She tried to have faith: he was a king, supported by his council of advisers. Surely the best political minds and the utmost care was being put into this decision, looking at it from every angle.
But she couldn't help but think her father was aiming too high. She would be thrown away on a marriage that would cede all the benefits to her husband's kingdom, and none to their own.
Then it would be over. She would have been used up, her one card played.
And not by her.
She looked out into the darkness and it felt like staring into the lonely, cold years that stretched out before her without even the comfort that her submission had done some good. A horrible urge clawed within her to shrink back from it, and not for the first time she thought of running away, abandoning her crown and disappearing. Maybe she could become a nun and join the abbey. She would have a chance there to serve her people still...
But the thoughts were fantasy. Wherever she might end up, there was a possibility she could do some good, and so long as that possibility existed, she had to take it. Wait and see.
The wind started to pick up, quickly turning to a gust that whipped her hair around her face. But it matched her mood, and she closed her eyes and tilted her head back, drinking deeply of it and savoring the bitter, sharp chill of the drops of salt water that hit her skin, biting like sparks.
Lorraine. Navarre. They were both landlocked. She might never see the ocean again.
That was really going to be the least of her worries, and Samantha felt silly, shamed for even thinking it. But somehow the prospect of being closed in, away from this endless horizon, seemed to capture the entire situation.
Daniel stood in indecision. All the things he had come to this ship to discover seemed to have fallen away in importance, distant and insignificant next to her grief. Somehow, the realization of who she was had cast the reality of the war away, instead of bringing it into focus. He only felt more connected to her, his fate mirrored in hers – bound by duty and blood to things they had no loyalty to, and no belief in.
But somehow his own situation seemed nothing next to hers. He was already dead. What did it matter if his existence should be purposeless? It wouldn't change his soul. But she was alive, and was being handled as if she wasn't, as if her life was a token, and, with it, her soul. She would be trapped, body, mind, and heart, into a life not of her own making, in which she was no more than a pawn to be moved around at other people's will, with no purpose of her own. The decision was being made for her as if she felt and experienced nothing, and she was trying to convince herself she didn't, denying herself anger and grief. The walls were closing in around her, and she knew it. Maddie knew it. And it filled him with horror. To condemn her to a life with no will, no purpose, was like condemning her to a living death.
He felt guiltily like he was intruding, seeing a part of her she had not meant for anyone to see. But at the same time a passion rose within him to exhort her to fight it, to turn her from the railing and deny to her everything she was trying to make herself believe, hell, to take her away from this and stand between her and her looming fate.
He was so close to her, he could have reached out and touched her. His fingers twitched with the desire.
But what she had said to Maddie about the ghost stories haunted him, and he felt too keenly his own nature.
Showing himself to her would be no comfort now.
A flash of light lit her face, and a low rumble sounded in the distance, followed by another. The music on the deck below faltered and fell into a silence heavy with dread. Sam opened her eyes and peered out into the night. Her lips parted in fear, her breath quickening, and Daniel followed her gaze. Out on the horizon, a roiling wall of cloud was swallowing the ocean behind them, underlit by a tangled web of lightning. Daniel stepped up beside Sam and stared out at it in awe and apprehension.
From far above, the lookout called, "Hurricane ahoy!"
A/N: I know I'm ending this chapter in the middle of a scene (again), but this chapter is now officially at 14 full pages single spaced – 24 if you count it as novel-sized pages. I think I'd better stop here!
I will update again as soon as I can. Now that I've found a better method for writing (I think), I should be able to do the fleshed-out, brain-spill outlines over my morning coffee, and then work on refining it into a chapter whenever I can grab a couple hours to write. Hopefully this will mean slightly more regular updates! :)
PLEASE REVIEW! They really are helping me to improve. :) And they're yummy. Nom nom nom.