Author's Note: Original Kirala/Merida cover art was done by Winona Campbell. Very appreciative of her wonderful work in a such a short turnaround. This work was written (and the art produced) over the course of two days to fit with a small community challenge theme in time for Valentine's Day. Please enjoy!

I remember the first time I saw Merida dance. I had never seen anything like it. The situation leading up to that wonderful moment was complicated to say the least. I can't just tell the story of that moment without telling my own story and the story of my people. You're gonna need to, as the Meridian's say, "deal with it." I promise the payoff is worth it.

For as long as history could remember, my homeland of Yafutoma sat protected by whirling sky rifts and great walls that warded off pirates. Rumors spoke of wayward travelers who reached our lands in times past —it is clear now that one of these enterprising souls was the dread pirate Daccat Silvertear—but we treated these claims as gossip. Our land was self-contained and peaceful. Or at least as peaceful as any nation of ambitious nobles could be. From a young age, we were taught in the unimpeachable power of the emperor but if the nobility ever received those lessons they sure didn't seem to give a shit. I'm no philosopher but I know power corrupts folks quickly. I've seen it firsthand; lord daimyo eager to impose unfair taxes that nearly ruined my father's farm or else all too eager to skim from his harvest. In those days, for all our teachings, the truth was that the emperor was a figurehead at best. The only person we could really believe in was our father. He did everything he could to support our family; to keep my sister and me from going to bed with empty stomachs. But something needed to change.

That something turned out to be a man: Mikado. He came onto the throne like a tiger ready to pounce on the wayward nobility, which he did. Through edicts firm and punishments swift, he reigned in the greed that was sweeping the land and united Yafutoma into an age of prosperity. To ensure crime remained under control he created a new arm of his military: the tengu. Silent, hiding in plain sight. They could be your neighbors or fellow farmers. They could be the merchant selling you bread on the city streets or that kind lady down the lane. Highly trained and ready to respond in both the case of treacherous noble lords or other matters. Some objected, and I understood: wasn't it a little worrisome to think that your neighbor was secretly some type of assassin? But the results spoke for themselves. Crime went down, the plots ceased and syndicates of thugs simply started to disappear. When the time came, I enlisted. I trained as hard as I ever did in martial arts and subterfuge so that I could protect my countrymen.

As our family farm grew, my sister Urala established a small izakaya in the capital that proudly used ingredients from our father's fields. She was sixteen years; I joined her as both a watchful older sister and tengu. My normal profession was that of a carpenter. Didn't it make sense for me to watch over my sister's place and keep the roof from leaking?

"Urala makes it feel like home, but Kirala built the house," was how the saying went. She tended sweetly to guests; I listened for trouble, dealt with it when needed, and mostly patched up whatever needed fixing at the time.

Anyway, that's the set up. Two sisters and a bar. The younger one is the kindest damn girl you've ever known. The older one is quiet, good with her hands, and secretly an assassin. Normal arrangement.

Then one day, a gleaming ship pulled into the port and our nation's history changed forever. Foreigners arrived. Strange peoples from far lands beyond the rifts. But far from horrid conquerors, our first arrivals showed deference and respect. That was Captain Vyse and his crew. History's given him many names now: Vyse the Daring, Vyse the Legend, King of the Rogues. Back then he was "Vyse, this strange bastard who showed up out of nowhere." And he wasn't alone. He had other companions. Aika, a woman with fiery hair unlike anything I'd seen and a disposition of such brash energy as to shock everyone she met. There was Enrique, the noble-hearted prince of a far off nation whose etiquette and grace immediately charmed Mikado's daughter. And there was Fina, the beautiful girl of a lost people on a mission to save the world from the horrific violence that claimed our ancestors. Those are the ones folks remember the most.

There were others though. Members of that strange crew that history is less enamoured with. The roguish couple of Luke and Mabel, raiders that could put the Tenkou's best duelists to shame. The diminutive Pinta, an impish man who seemed to know everything before you could even ask your question. Harper, the quiet ship's scribe and historian who looked at the world around her and scribbled constantly in her journal. And there was Merida.

What words can I use to describe the first time I saw Merida? She was tall, certainly, taller than any woman I'd ever seen. She had white hair that was pulled back into a ponytail that fell down her back and swayed with each step. Crimson eyes, piercing as a red moonstone. I'd never seen anyone like her, and though Vyse's crew was full of colorful characters I found my eyes drifting to Merida more often than not. If only I understood what that was at the time…

While Vyse and his closest associates held an audience with the emperor, many of the crew were given leave to wander the capital. Of course, both the guards and the tengu scattered in the crowd kept a close eye on these strange new peoples. Thankfully, the most there was to endure was a few rude questions spurred on by the language barrier. The Old World's unified language had endured throughout most civilizations but we'd all developed our own languages as well, with their nuances and differences. Somehow, it mostly worked out. It was clear that some of the crew was hungry and my sister had just the place for them to try local cuisine.

This was the stage for Merida's first dance. Vyse and his crew had left to retrieve the Maga Sphere, the blue moon crystal that was a mark of succession for our people… and which commanded an ancient beast. The Old World magisters called him Blueheim. We knew him as Aoikaze, the great bird that brought the winds that birthed Yafutoma. As Vyse adventured for the crystal, his crew indulged of Urala's cooking.

There was Luke and Mabel, more content to drink than eat. A lone man called Lawrence who ate quietly but always thanked my sister for each serving. Harper, the bookish scribe, seemed to take notes on each new dish. Hans was younger and showed perhaps too much interest in my sister, asking more about her than the new land he was in. Merida? She asked questions too. Every new thing excited her. What were these strange tools for eating the food here? Why was the water in this land so blue? Those swords that the Tenkou had used—apparently they had been attacked upon entering our skies—what was the purpose of their curves and how was the moonstone cut so fine?

That's the set up. Did I mention that's the set up already? I'm not a story-teller. Harper says that you're supposed to show not tell but there's a lot of telling before we get to the show.

Anyway, this is the show.

We talked for hours and hours, late into the evening. But a new excitement had gripped the capital by then: more foreigners. Emissaries of the Valuan Empire, the self-same empire Enrique had fled. They, too, acted with respect but something was amiss and as the night carried into the next day, and our friends in Vyse's crew continued to spend time with us, I could feel the air shift within the city. That was when the doors burst open and Valua's soldier's entered the establishment. They wanted our new friends to go with them. It was not a polite suggestion. The fight erupted almost immediately.

Luke and Mabel fought. Lawrence killed. Hans brawled. Merida danced.

There is no other word for it. No other way to explain the ways in which she spun and pirouetted around the steel-armored foes and their swinging blades, gliding by their flailing attacks with inches to spare. There is no other word for the ways in which her bare feet expertly pivoted to find the perfect position for her to slip her dagger into the joints of their armor. Where Mabel hacked and Lawrence lunged, Merida sliced and poked with a gorgeous precision. It was clearly not the first time that she'd fought the Valuans and each new step, each fresh stab built into a bloody allegro so captivating that I found myself frozen in the middle of the battle, transfixed by what I saw.

Merida danced and men died. She spun and blood rained in her wake. In spite of the violence, in spite of the death.. It was beautiful. I had killed men before; you didn't serve as a tengu without slitting a throat or two—something I was damn glad to do if it meant my sister could live a normal life—but nothing had prepared me for this. For this dazzling and bloody bolero.

I'd been sitting comfortable on a wooden beam within the ceiling during our revelries but leapt down immediately as the brawk began, ushering my sister behind the server's counter. Within a moment, I leapt over and began my own assault along my newfound comrades, a dagger in one hand and my carpenter's hammer in the other. Like Merida, I twisted and struck at the influx of soldiers. I would not let them claim my new friends. I would not let them claim her. A stray kick knocked me backwards and I felt back back press against her own. For a moment, I thought one of the soldiers had zapped me with an electres spell but it was simply the raw allure of making contact with this beautiful woman. The moment passed quick and we both rushed back into the fray until no soldier was left standing.

One by one, we took stock of our situation. Everyone was unharmed; that puppy-dog Hans had even done me the great service of knocking out a soldier accosting my sister. There wasn't much time to rest though; the city was filled with Valuan troops and traitorous supporters of the royal adviser Kagan. As we paused to figure out our next move, a hand reached out to wipe some stray blood from my face. It was Merida.

"It ill-suits your features,' she said plainly. "The blood-dance is over. Now, we must leave."

I snapped into focus. "There are tunnels beneath the city," I said. "We'll head below. So long as you are all with me, I promise none of these iron-heads will lay a finger on any of you.."

That was the first time I saw Merida dance. And I had never seen anything like it.

I remember the second time I saw Merida dance.

Vyse, at the helm of his gleaming ship, had battled Aoikaze in the skies above our capital. Cloud gathered and the winds blew with unmatched force. The power of a god was unleashed upon the skies as Aoikaze turned the heavens themselves against the King of Rogues. But men are not to be underestimated. His ship, the Delphinus , held a weapon unlike anything the world had known: a cannon that fired an intense concentration of moonstone energy. And so the might of man held firm against the God of Wind, blasting a hole clean through the great bird's chest and sending it plummeting into the abyss.

The city found itself in a mixture of celebration and shock. There was the undeniable relief that the raging beast had been slain. There was also a sobering realization that rippled through the populace: our gods could be killed. More shockingly, it was the foreigners who could do it. Strange peoples, some of whom were arrogant enough to say that they had "discovered" us, had weapons that could slay the creatures from our myths. So while there was celebration, there was also an unspoken fear: if not for Vyse and the Delphinus driving back the Gigas and the Valuans, what would have happened? Would our nation have been forced to heel, a gem in Valua's collection? I wandered the capital letting my feet guide me where they may until, hidden within one of the Imperial Gardens, I found Merida. She was dancing.

It was not the blood-dance from before. It was slower, sadder, and something ritualistic. The setting sun cast crimson beams down that fell behind her, creating a spinning silhouette that twisted slowly. Each step had as much purpose as the movements from her first dance but their meaning was lost to me. I don't know how long I watched before I spoke up.

"Celebrating a glorious kill?" The question flowed naturally. Merida was clearly a warrior; it seemed obvious that she was commemorating a grand victory. She did not stop her dancing as she replied.

"Mourning the end of an age," she explained softly. "I danced the same way when Vyse slew the giant of our own legends. It was raging, like your mighty bird, and needed to be quelled."

"If that's the case, what's there to mourn?"

"Everything," Merida said. "For the death of a god is the death of old magicks, and the death of old innocences. Your people are forever changed. I dance for you."

"For me?" I froze, something in my heart skipping at the implication.

"For the person you once were," Merida said. "And for the person you will become in this new world."

"I don't feel different," I said. "I'm the same person today as I was yesterday."

"That is because you are strong," Merida said with a smile. "But even the strongest mountains can chip and crumble. Sometimes in ways we cannot see."

"I suppose it is sad," I admitted. "Such a beautiful thing, even if it was terrifying… gone forever."

Merida continued to pivot, her hands sweeping in a facsimile of the wind or perhaps a flowing river. I started to understand that while it was a dance of mourning, it was also a dance of life. Each step was breathing fresh energy into the world. A metaphor or perhaps something more literal; I couldn't tell you. When Merida moves, it feels as magical as if someone were using a moonstone to cast a spell. I knew she was born under the Green Moon. Perhaps her movements held something of that restorative energy, imbuing this new age with a rejuvenating potential as real as any sacres spell.

As she made another twist, her deep red eyes met mine and she smiled. I smiled back.

"There are still beautiful things in the world," she said.

"There are," I agreed. With a lightness in my body, I wandered to a nearby bench and sat, eyes locked on the dancing warrior. "

"Can I watch? Until you finish?"

"I think I would like that very much," Merida said before continuing. We remained in comfortable silence after that as she danced until the warm sun set and the cool Blue Moon rose to replace it.

Eventually, Merida stopped and looked up at the moon. "Where I come from, the sky glows green," she explained. "And I am ashamed that looking up at a different sky fills my heart with a surprising dread."

That caught me off guard. "Why's that? I can't imagine there's so much different about our moon compared to your own. Each offers their protection, their stones and magicks."

The dancer sighed. "It is a reminder of how far away I am from my home," she said. "From my people. There is so much more to the world than I could have imagined."

"That's a good thing," I said. "New people, new things to see. Inspirations for your dances."

Merida hummed. "You sound like our captain," she says. "It is by his example that I find strength. Without him, my people would still be enslaved by the Valuans."

I hesitated. "Why did you leave? Why not stay and rebuild?"


"That doesn't seem like the best reason to leave your people," I said carefully.

"It is when the anger is righteous," Merida offered. "The Valuans… must be stopped. If that means I sleep under unfamiliar skies and battle troubled dreams, so be it."

That didn't seem right to me. I shook my head. "You looked at peace when you were dancing," I said. "Does the distance really hurt you so much? Because when you dance… the world seems right ."

The taller woman sat beside me. "This is true but the moments are fleeting," she admitted. "I dance to drive away doubt, to honor the world around me, and to find strength for the next battle. But being one warrior in a world of empires and gods? I am made to feel small."

I nodded. "When the Delphinus destroyed the Gigas, I felt that too. We have a story here about an oni..a demon.. who cursed a warrior when he was defeated. "May you live in interesting times," the demon said."

Merida chuckled, looking up at the Blue Moon. "These are our times, I think."

I nodded. "And still, when I watched you… I did not see someone small, someone trapped in 'interesting times.' I saw a warrior, a dancer, whose movements made everything make sense."

"You are being kind."

"I'm being honest,' I retorted. "I can't do that."

Merida stood up. "Then I will teach you."

I hesitated, kicking my legs and remaining on the bench. "Won't the others wonder where you've gone?"

"Let them wonder," she said, taking my hand and helping me up. She guided my body gently into the stance I saw her assume before. Bent knees, arms poised and ready to sway like the guiding wind.

"Is this right?" I felt absurd but held the pose regardless.

"It will suffice," Merida said. "Tonight, I will teach you this part of myself. This dance of my people. And in that sharing, we will both dance and find comfort in these 'interesting times."

That was the second time I saw Merida dance and the first time we danced together.

I remember the eleventh time I saw Merida dance.

My sister and I had agreed to join Vyse's crew on their departure from Yafutoma. Urala had more than enough experience as a cook to help in the Delphinus ' mess hall and while I wasn't an expert on steel-ships, I was able to help fix certain disasters around the ship and ensure that Hans was able to understand the documents he'd taken from the Tenkou about how to increase the engine's polarity. Besides, Princess Moegi had departed with the crew and it was more than sensible to have a tengu accompany her into the new worlds. These were the practical reasons for joining the crew—ignoring the captain's charismatic pleas—but I had a selfish reason for tagging along as well: Merida. I wanted to know more about that beautiful woman who stumbled into my life, even if I was too nervous to speak with her all that often.

Our journey back to the captain's base hinged on a theory: that by continuing east, the Delphinus would wrap around the world and back into known skies. The world, Fina assured us, was round and although the journey would be lengthy we would arrive at our destination. To keep the crews spirits up, and to ensure fair winds, Merida had taken to given performances on a makeshift stage, built by yours truly, on a daily basis. We were well into our first week at sea when I watched her dance once more. Sat off to the side of the mess hall, I leaned upon the table before me and watched enraptured as she leapt about, each step meant to wrap our ship in divine protection.

"Another day, another dance, another sighting of Kirala staring at our resident performer," Harper's voice pulled me out of my reveries. I cleared my throat as I searched for words.

"Nothing wrong with appreciating a good performance," I insisted. I looked over at the ship's scribe with some consternation. "Besides, you haven't missed a showing either."

"If you think we're here for the same reason, you'd be very wrong."

I scoffed. "I come here to clear my mind. To relax. To…"

"See something beautiful?"

I paused, color flooding my face until I could deny it no longer. "Yes," I admitted quietly. "I want to see her dance.

Harper shrugged. "You want to see her dance. There's a difference."

The ship's scribe pointed to another table where Captain Vyse sat along with Aika and Fina. They were chatting happily, watching Merida dance and enjoying each other's company. The weight of command that was often on the captain's shoulders, the strange somberness that clung to Fina like a cloak at times had completely disappeared.

"They're here to see the dance," Harper said. "To find a moment where the responsibilities they bear can be replaced with something else. You and I? Come to watch Merida."

I raised my eyebrows in confusion. "Do you…?"

Harper shook her head sadly.

"No," she answered immediately. "I come to watch her dance in the same way that I sometimes watch Fina practice her magicks. To see the sort of grace and beauty that I don't possess. It's a little selfish but I envy them. I'm clumsy and I'll never brighten a room like they can. But I can watch and I can learn from them."

A frown came to my face. That seemed very sad, although it hardly seemed to bother my fellow crewmate. The scribe continued.

"We're both here to see something beautiful but you're here to see her. Because you like her. We all can see it, y'know."

As if to confirm Harper's statement, I turned to look back at the captain and his companions to find Aika giving me a rather enthusiastic gesture I'd come to understand as a "thumb's up."

I buried my face in my hands. Behind me, I heard Aika's chortling laugh fill the mess hall, muffled slightly by an airy and whispered admonishment from Fina. Harper chuckled too.

"It's okay," she said. "To feel confused or whatever. But let's be honest: you really do like her, yeah?"

"I've never seen anyone like her," I said. "I… Where I come from, it's not always.. accepted to have feelings like this."

"Well, you're here," a fresh voice spoke up.

Captain Vyse had walked over from his table and sat beside me. He looked at me with that gaze only he possessed. The one that saw through to the core of anyone he was speaking to. "This is my ship. A Blue Rogue ship, and while we don't have a lot of rules here, here's an important one: listen to your heart."

I paused. Merida kept dancing, her focus hopefully lost in her steps and not turned to any of the discussion in the mess hall. I smiled at the captain: "Listen to my heart, huh? You gonna do that soon too?"

Color came to Vyse's face. "I… uh, don't know what you mean," he said with a self-effacing smile.

"Blue Roge tenet number one," Harper began. "Always be audacious."

Vyse smiled. He looked at the scribe. "I… will find the right time for it," he said diplomatically. "But that's not for either of you to worry about. For now, lemme tell you what I think."

I rolled my eyes, leaning back on the bench. "What's that, captain?"

The pluckish rogue leaned close and whispered. "The way she's been looking at you this whole time," he said knowingly. "I'd say she's dancing for someone very special and not just for a good journey."

He leapt up from his seat and stretched. "But what do I know? I'm just some kid from Meridia who's been very lucky so far.." He sauntered off back to his friends.

I looked over the Merida and our eyes met, as they often did. Somehow, something felt different. Even more so than before. Her tempo built into a breakneck pace, our eyes locked. Sweat beaded down her forehead until she made one final leap to end her dance. The mess hall filled with applause. Merida departed the stage and began walking towards me.

I froze. If this was some foe, I'd feel no fear. But this was Merida and everyone was right: I had been coming here to see her . And now she was walking over to me?

"The stage you built," Merida began, voice deep and powerful even after so much exertion. "It has served me well. Sturdy, reliable. A testament to your skill and consideration."

"Th.. thank you," I managed. "I figured it would be best if the crew could really watch you perform. It's been… very helpful to all of us.

Merida did not seem to take the compliment. "It is too hot down here," she said bluntly. "After a dance, the blood boils. I will head to the deck. The air will refresh me."

I nodded. She fixed her eyes on me.

"You will join me," she said. Not a request; a fact.

I blinked in shock. "I would like that."

The dancer lifted me from my seat with one hand. We walked out of the mess and up to the ship's deck. I barely remember passing through the halls and over walkways until we reached the hatch leading outside. Merida opened it and a burst of refreshing wind slid over our bodies. She untied her hair, letting the wind kick it about as she twirled to cool herself down. Eventually, she made her way to the nearby railing where I leaned backwards to join her. Crimson eyes locked on me.

"What do you dream of?"

I didn't understand the question. "When I sleep? Nothing important."

Merida chuckled, shaking her head and letting more of her hair whip in the wind. "Not in those sleeping moments," she said. "When you are watching my dance. The look on your face is like you have been ensnared by purple magicks."

I shrugged. "Just like the other stuff. Nothing important. I just let my mind wander.."

"I don't think this is true," Merida said slyly. "When I watch the others, I can see what they are dreaming of. The bookish one dreams of becoming lithe. The hunter Tika'tika dreams of our shared home. The captain thinks of a future with his two companions. Even the drunkard, Don, has his dreams on his face: a good death."

Merida paused. "But you? I cannot tell. Your face is a mystery to me. I puzzle over it often, sometimes through the night."

That made me smile. "You think of me in your bunk?"

Merida blinked, flushing for the first time in all our conversation. "Not as you think," she said. "I merely find myself… curious. What do you dream of? Where do my dances send you?"

What was there to say that would make sense? We had not known each other long but I'd grown infatuated with her in no time at all. Would she understand? Would it be too bold to be honest? Well, Merida, I think of you gripping me tight in those strong arms. I dream of sweat and arching backs. I dream of the future. The words didn't reach my lips. I heard the captain's voice in my mind: she's dancing for someone special . Could it be true? Was she really, like she'd said in the Imperial Gardens, dancing for me?

Merida simply waited for my answer, a smirk on her face that was all too knowing. I recalled Harper's invocation of the Blue Rogue's code and spoke up."I dream of running onto that stage," I said, heat burning my ears.

"Oh? You wish to join in my dancing?" Merida's voice filled with suggestion.

"No, it's not… I don't want to dance.. I don't… Even after you showed me I.." Merida smiled. "Ah, so that is what you dream of,' she said suggestively. "It is a dream I am… familiar with. Many who have watched my dance have felt that."

I shook my head.

"It's not just that," I insisted. "It's something more. I want to rush to your arms. I want to share myself with you. I want to travel. I want us to kick these Valuan assholes into the depths and then I just want to sail… with you. Everywhere."

There was a pause as Merida considered this. "It is a fine dream, I think," she offered. "And a tempting one as well. Perhaps we might test this. A fragment of this dream.

I felt my heart leap and watched as she drew in closer and before I could do anything, drew me in for a kiss. It was a fleeting thing, like how you sometimes see a bird out of the corner of your eye but cannot turn to see it in time, and tasted of fruits that I didn't know existed. When she withdrew, I gasped for air as if we'd suddenly descended into the Deep Sky. I gripped the deck's railing as my legs shook.

The dancer licked her lips and nodded. "A good dream," she says. "One we might explore more of."

I mumbled some combination of sound that could charitably be called words. There was nothing but the beating of my heart, the taste of her kiss, and the deep crimson of her gaze.

"I must change," she said bluntly before turning to leave. "You will see me soon."

That was the tenth time I saw Merida dance. There were so many more after that.

I remember the second time Merida and I "blood-danced" together.

I'm skipping a lot here. The Deliphinus' journey had taken it around the world and back, underneath continents and into ancient cities of ice and stone. More Gigas had fallen before the ship's might, we had braved the depths of the Deep Sky, and our crew's home had grown from a small base into a town unto itself. Much of it I had helped build alongside an aged craftsman called Izmael. Crescent Island, as it was called, became a home as comfortable and lovely as Yafutoma. In the times between adventures, it was a beacon of comfort and vivacity. My sister worked at the local tavern alongside a curvaceous cook named Polly. Izmael had built the foundation but I'd taken the liberty of converting the establishment into something closer to what we'd had back in Yafutoma. I had also made sure to add one important feature: a stage where Merida could dance.

And so as Vyse and the others completed their quest, gathering the moon crystals that controlled the Gigas and denying Valua the tools of their conquest, all seemed well. We had weeks of calm as Fina prepared to return the crystals to her people, and many of those days were spent comfortable with Merida. In the months of adventuring, she had become as close a companion as I had ever known. I'll leave it to your imagination as to the various ways we enjoyed each other's company.

The point is that the story was all but over. We found the crystals. We'd won. And then, in the middle of the night, fire rained down upon our home. Burning cannon shells and incendiary rounds that ignited the island into something resembling Hell itself. In the dark and through the blaze, the most elite of Valuan assassins swarmed through our home in search of the crystals. The Valuan admiral Ramirez led their ranks; he and Vyse faced off in a battle for the crystals.

The rest of us? We simply fought for our lives.

We had both only dressed and grabbed our weapons when the door to our room burst open and two blacksteel-clad Valuan assassins darted into the room, yellow moonstone patas glistening in the mixed moon-firelight. I rushed in low at the first, kunai in hand and my training taking hold over my body. The assassin made a textbook stab and I ran my blade up the pata's moonstone edge, eliciting sparks that flashed throughout the room. Reaching the peak, I spun the knife in my hand and smacked the pommel at the man's armet. A clank smacked through the room as he staggered back. Remaining low, I felt Merida run up to my shoulder and leap off on to the other assassin, her dagger blade slashing down to catch him in the shoulder. He gave a roar of pain as blood splashed up and smacked against the wall. I hopped backwards, resetting my position in a low stance while Merida came to my side. Taller, complementary. Back to back and ready for what might come.

Practice dancing enough with someone and you'll get a good sense of how they move. Spar with them and you'll know exactly how your own style can compliment their own. Sleep together? Well, after a while you knew their body as well as your own. We'd had months of travel and companionship at our back now, although not as many battles under our belt since Yafutoma. It hardly mattered. I was ready to move and Merida knew it. One of her hands drifted to her side, drawing a second dagger from underneath the pillow on the bed. One of the assassins tilted his head.

"Wouldn't you like to know," I said suggestively before tossing my kunai at the man.

As he lashed out to deflect it, Merida had already thrown the other as well. A quick toss before rushing back at the bleeding man. I ran after the blade and managed to take the slightest hold of its hilt in time to shove the blade into the man's neck. He gasped and began to grow limp. As Merida reached the other assassin, we spun each man about and brought their own arms upwards with force, stabbing their patas into each other. They gurgled and then fell to the floor. As much as two men entangled in their own blades could really fall to the ground.

Another dance, a blood-dance. The two of us were covered in red. I reached out and wiped some from Merida's face, smiling in spite of the moment. She reached out and did the same.

"There's bound to be more," I said. "Outside, in the other rooms. We need to move fast."

"Twice now the Valuans have burned a place I call home," Merida said. "I will not stop until they all have fallen."

I stood on my feet to reach up and kiss her. There was no knowing what would happen and if we'd survive the night. "If this is it," I said seriously. "We shared a very good dream."

"Either it ends tonight or we see what comes next," she offered. "Now, let us put fear into their hearts.. A blood dance. A fire dance..lit by crimson.."

With that, we ran out into the night. Here's the crazy part: we beat the crap out of tons of them and even though she and I survived…. we still lost.

The next day was the first day that I'd never seen Merida dance by her own choice. In spite of our own efforts and the rest of the crew's dogged scrapping, in spite of the captain's bold stand against Ramirez, we did not win the battle that night. With skills that I can hardly describe, the admiral cut down our captain and left him bleeding in the center of our makeshift town. He claimed the moon crystals and nearly tore another from Fina's chest—don't ask me how the hell that works—before he could be driven back. We thought we'd been living in a fantastic version of history where the rogues always won; we were wrong. The captain stood on death's door, and in spite of her weakened condition Fina was fighting with every ounce of her magical capability to bring him back from the brink. Meanwhile, Doc and Ilchymis tended to the rest of the injured through a combination of plain old stitching folks together and arcane concoctions I couldn't begin to understand.

That was how the living were being tended to but there were also the dead to reckon with. Plenty of Valuan's had fallen, this hadn't been some miracle fight where folks only ended up with some cuts and scars. People had died. Friends had died. No, that's not the right word. The crew was family. The Valuans had taken some of our family. Luke found his end at Ramirez' blade, rushing the admiral in a desperate attempt to save his captain. Mabel was inconsolable and I couldn't blame her; if Merida had died like that, I wouldn't have had enough tears to capture even a fraction of my pain. I pushed the thought from my mind quickly. If I thought of him or any of the other fallen for too long, it would destroy me.

I made my way to the north end of the island, where Merida often performed in the midday. The ritual would change from time to time. Sometimes, she was dancing for rain to come and help with our crops. Sometimes, it was to bless our upcoming missions. But ever since we'd made Crescent Island our home, she found time to dance. Not just on the stage I'd built for her but with her feet planted firmly in the dirt. On the ground of the island she called home. Not today.

Instead, she sat with her leg dangling off the island looking out towards a sky that seemed darker than ever. I sat next to her and gave a tug, letting her head fall to my shoulder.

"We live in interesting times," I said.

"That's not funny," Merida replied.

"I know," I admitted. "But it's the truth. You remember what you told me that night in Yafutoma, right?"

"That feels a lifetime ago," Merida said softly. "As if it was nothing but a dream."

"You told me that sharing parts of each other, our passions… your dancing...made it possible to find comfort in interesting times. So…"

I rose to my feet, pulling her up. It was as easy as when she lifted me. I looked straight into her crimson eyes with a fierceness I did not know I had. "We're going to dance."

"No," she said plainly.

My gaze did not falter. "Our comrades are in pain, our captain hovers between the realms, and the souls of the lost deserve peace. I'm not telling you to dance alone. I'm saying we will dance together."

"I can't… I… It's too much. We should have been faster, we should have been.."

I nodded.

"We weren't," I said plainly. Just a fact, nothing more. "So we took the hit to the nose and then some. You and me? We weren't born Blue Rogues but that's what we are now, and there's work to do."

I smiled. In spite of all the pain, I smiled… and something in Merida shifted.

"Then we will dance," she said softly. "For those who cannot and for the future we can yet save."

And, look, I'm not saying it was because of us but it was too long after that when Fina managed to dig deep, call upon the swelling power within her heart, and bring our captain back into the world of the living. After that? He went on to save the world.

The theater was packed, as it always was, with tourists and locals eager to be enraptured by Nasrad's dancing sensation. It had been many years since viable trade routes had been established between the continent but Ixa'takan art had not made the migration into Nasr as readily as practical goods like lumber or coffee beans. It was one of the world's stranger and more unfortunate truths: art travels a little slower than raw commerce. Not that it was a bad thing, at least for Merida. Her show was a unique affair and all but one-of-a-kind when it came to entertainment offerings beneath the Red Moon.

It had been maybe a year and half since we decided to move off Crescent Island and to the Nasrean capital, drawn by a lucrative contract deal that was too good to turn down. This was the plan: enjoy Nasrad for a few years, dazzle crowds with dances unlike anything they'd seen, and then move on. Keep traveling from town to town, city to city. Ever forward, following the pace of hearts desires. Turning life itself into one big dance.

I watched from the wings as Merida's performance grew to her finale: the fire dance. It was always a crowd pleaser. Maybe it was because we were under the Red Moon, where fire and heat were such a natural part of life but I'm willing to bet that it mostly had to do with the ways that Merida' would let the legs linger over the red moonstone lit brazier on the stage, letting flames lap at her skin and create an illusion that she was being burned or consumed. But fire, while formidable, was not something to fear. So she pivoted back and lifted her leg to reveal not even a single scorch mark. The audience cheered and I couldn't help but grin. See, they didn't know the trick. Which wasn't really much of a trick at all: Merida was simply used to getting burned. She'd practiced that dance plenty when she was younger, endured the fires of war and other pain, and seen her homes burn.

With a shout to the heavens, she plunged her hand into the brazier and removed a burning bright red moonstone. Leaning back on her knees, she arched backwards and placed the brilliantly hot stone upon her stomach. The audience gasped; those in the front row squinted their eyes as the heat blew out into the crowd. Then, Merida leapt to her feet. She cast the stone down and a ring of magick flame circled around her. She spun and twirled as the music grew faster and faster and faster; the fire raised until her body was all but hidden behind the glowing flames and then, with a stomp of her feet, it flashed out of existence. There was nothing but the lone dancer, brilliant and unbroken.

Out of curiosity, I looked out to the roaring crowd. By now, I was getting nearly as good as Merida was when it came to seeing what folks were dreaming of. A young boy dreamed of magick and adventure, a couple shared a simmering dream of passion and fire, a lone woman held a look not unlike Harper had in the old days—a deep longing to achieve the same grace as the performer before her. Hundreds of faces, one dance, countless dreams.

I've watched Merida hundreds of times now. Maybe even thousands. From time to time, she falls or stumbles but that doesn't stop her from being the strongest woman I know. When that does happen, which is pretty damn rare, she gets back up and keeps going. History itself is like a dance, I reckon. The night on Crescent Island was the biggest fall of our lives. The flames burned higher and higher, threatening to consume everything. People like to think that Vyse was some flawless hero but he failed that night. Because that's another fact of life: even heroes fail. The reason they're heroes is that they get back up. He did, so we did. Fire was nothing to fear, after all.

Now we're here, and there's no place I'd rather be.

The Beauty of Ixa'taxa draws sellout crowds every night in Nasrad. Partly because of her reputation as the King of Rogue's entertainer and partly because of her beauty. They cheer and watch as my beloved ignites their heart in ways that even the Red Moon couldn't dream of managing. Each night, after taking her bows, Merida walks off stage and finds me.

We kiss and she tells me the same thing she said all those years ago: "I dance for you."