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The Destined Kingdom - Chapter Three

(Time: Eighth Hour, Fifteen Minutes)

"Oh look at that!" Raine dashed over to a large cart piled high with art supplies. With stars in her eyes and lust in her heart, she began examining some of the finer brushes for quality and usefulness.

Logan Fujisawa watched her, and his lips curved slightly. Only his Raine would nearly run people over to get to the art supplies and completely ignore the cart next door that sold a wide array of gems and jewelry. Then again, that was why he loved her, he thought as he moved over and looked at the rings that the owner had for sale. She only noticed the simple things, which meant she could be easily surprised and pleased by sparkly things.

They had met by accident in this very marketplace, during a storm, three years before. She had been just over twenty-two, and he had been less than a year older and working at his family's vegetable stand. He had actually known Tasia for all of their lives, so he had known Raine by association though they had somehow never met. Somehow they had just kept doing an impersonation of ships passing in the night. It had changed when a young woman running through the market had knocked into Raine and sent her right into a large puddle in front of Logan's cart.

His farm had actually been closer than her house, so he had taken her home to get dry and clean. While her clothes had been washing and she had been bundled up in some of his mother's clothes, they had started talking and gotten to know one another. Almost from that very first moment, he had just known he had found the only one for him. His desire for her had been unexpectedly powerful for their lack of being adults, but she had seemed adorably oblivious in the way only a Dark core could be, so he had let it go. Instead, he decided to wait until after they were adults before bringing it up.

They had entered into a relationship that had been one of deep and intense friendship that had also been just barely shy of a romance. The closer to adulthood they got, the more powerful the desire had grown, and he had begun to wonder if he would lose his mind before she realized they were soul mates. Then, very shortly after her twenty-fifth birthday, he had invited her over for lunch and she had stared at him as if she had never seen him before. He hadn't gotten a chance to ask what she was thinking before she grabbed him and kissed him the way he had wanted to kiss her for years. In hindsight, he found it amusing. They had been lucky his parents weren't home, though, as they had almost not made it into his bedroom.

He turned the sparkling stone ring he was holding over and over to see how the light played on it. Destiny hadn't given him a chance of not falling in love; who wouldn't love a gentle, sharp-tongued witch with a healer's heart? Certainly not him. The potent blend of her inner and outer beauty would forever take his breath away. He wanted nothing more than to spend eternity caring for her and holding together her heart and soul.

Very taken with the ring, he glanced out of the corner of his eye to see his lover in an avid argument with the supplies owner to haggle the price further down. Lips curved with affection for her mercenary heart, he handed the ring back to the jewelry shop owner. "I'll take it. Can you size it down? She has very slender hands."

"Absolutely," the owner assured him.

After giving his address to the owner and paying for the ring, he went back over to where Raine was gleefully watching the seller package up brushes, paints, and canvases. Both she and the owner of the shop looked highly pleased with the deal. Logan laughed and pulled her close with an arm around her waist. "Pleased with yourself?" he asked.

"Immensely." She grinned up at him, eyes dancing cheerfully. She loved getting a good bargain almost as much as she loved him. Almost. She had loved this witch for over three years and had every intention of loving him until time ended. Really, she could not be surprised by such a thing when she considered how much she had always loved Tasia. The distant cousins not only felt and acted like twins, they even almost looked like twins, and they shared the same age for several months, with him being the elder. Logan had the same height and chocolate hair as his sister, but his eyes stayed caramel brown at all times, and he had a slightly lighter tone to his mocha skin. They also shared many personality quirks as well as their sense of humor, love for life, and driving need to fix everyone. How could she not love him, honestly, when he had all the best of her dearest friend inside him in addition to the little things that made him into him?

She gave him a smacking kiss on the cheek just because and then turned and held her hands out to take the three bags from the owner. Logan, however, was bigger and faster and got the bags before she could even get close enough. She scowled fiercely and planted her hands on her hips. "Logan Fujisawa, give those back."

"What kind of friend would I be if I made you carry these heavy bags?" he asked innocently. He adored riling her and Tasia up; they hated being coddled or protected by anyone. Considering his desperate need to keep both of them safe and healthy—Tasia was honestly as powerfully important to him as his soul mate—he sparked their tempers frequently and so had developed a self-defense of being amused by it.

"You can take your friendly impulses," she retorted, making a grab for the bags as they began walking away, "and shove them up your—hey!" The last was a startled yelp as a black-haired male who had been jogging past skidded on a patch of wet grass and slid right into her.

Raine tried to catch him but her own shoes slid on the grass and they both went down hard. Sprawled on her stomach with the young man draped over her, Raine found herself peering at Logan's boots. A laugh snuck up into her throat. She heard her captor muffle a giggle, and moments later both of them were laughing out loud.

Logan set the bags aside with a wry smile and reached out a hand to help the young man up. Once he was standing, Logan tugged Raine up and helped her begin brushing at the dirt clinging to her clothes. "Grass stains, yuck," she muttered. "Dad'll kill me. He hates trying to majik clothes clean, which is cheating anyway."

He leaned down and murmured in her ear, "Come home with me and we'll wash them so he doesn't know."

In an equal murmur, she asked teasingly, "What'll I wear in the meantime?"

"Possibly me."

Their words were too low to hear, but their smiles looked intimate and telling. Ryan Lukan found himself smiling as well. He loved seeing people in love, especially the deep and enduring kind. He had always been drawn to those of the deepest emotions, and anyone who could laugh after being knocked over was a good person at heart. "Sorry about that," he said. "I miss-stepped."

"Happens to the best of us," Raine said cheerfully. She held out a hand palm up. "I'm Raine Peacer, and this is my fiancé, Logan Fujisawa." She looked Ryan over very swiftly and found the surprisingly handsome young man in the hand-me-down clothes was likely only a year or two younger than herself. He had softly olive toned skin, black hair cropped very short, and almond-shaped sky-blue eyes. He also had a streak of ultramarine coming down over one eye, and a streak of purple coming down over the other, which made Raine's own eyes narrow a bit. She had felt a tug to this young man not unlike her other friends, and now she suspected something about the hair at play. What hadn't Tasia told her about all this?

Ryan smiled and placed his palm on Raine's, aware of the once over but unconcerned because it had not felt derisive. "Ryan Lukan. Nice to meet both of you." He looked around with a slight frown as he tried to locate his sister. "Darn it, Em," he muttered.

"Problem?" Raine tilted her head slightly.

"My sister is late," he sighed. "Which isn't surprising, but it is annoying." He waved a hand as if to brush it off and then smiled and linked his hands behind his back. "So what're you two up to?"

"Shopping," Raine told him promptly. "We were about to grab a snack. Want one? It's our treat for new friends."

Logan skimmed a second look over Ryan and realized what his healer had seen first; the petite male looked thin rather than slender in a way that meant food may be hard to come by. Odd as hell in Protea as a whole, let alone the capitol, but still did happen. He would have offered to buy an entire breakfast, but he understood pride. "If you're in a hurry you can grab the snack and run."

Ryan hesitated, torn between wanting to be with these new friends and having something good to eat, and the knowledge that he needed to meet up with Emily soon. He also felt incredibly guilty about getting something and not having anything for his sister. "Well . . ."

Raine offered, "You can get something for your sister too, okay? I know how that feels," she confided. "Siblings are great for guilt trips, and I'm stuck between an older one and a younger one!"

He laughed again and it felt good. He had refused to let life turn him bitter the way it had turned Emily. Someone needed to take enjoyment in the simple things, and he honestly had never had a problem just flowing with the course of events. "Well, okay, but I really do have to run."

"No problem." Logan headed for the pretzel stand over to the side. "I'll grab four of these and then we'll make our goodbyes."

Ryan watched him walk over to the stand and then leaned over to whisper to Raine, "He's hot, sweet, and nice. How'd you manage that?"

Raine grinned at him. "Somewhere between sheer luck and Destiny. I got mowed down by someone a few years ago, Logan hauled me out, and the rest was history."

"Mowed down?"

"Someone running a wee bit fast in the rain. She had gray-ish colored hair. I never did figure out who it was. I so want to thank her. Hehe."

Ryan bit back a laugh at realizing it may well have been his sister. Emily would be tickled to think she had helped set up true love. He blinked in surprise as Logan returned with a bag that the taller male handed over, and Ryan stared at the giant pretzels inside. "They're huge."

"Of course." Raine took a huge bite out of hers. "And really good." Her eyes sparkled as she lifted a hand in farewell. "Have fun with your sister, Ryan. Maybe we'll meet up again; we've still got stuff to do. Logan needs a new outfit for the All Hallow's Festival at the end of this month; he can't wear the same one as last October."

"Goddess help me," Logan muttered as he followed in the wake of his fiancée.

Ryan snickered as he watched them leave and then clutched his bag to his chest as he hurried the other direction. He wanted to take the pretzels home for safety so that he and Emily could enjoy them as treat when they got there. There wasn't much else about the abandoned building to enjoy.

(Eighth Hour, Twenty-Five Minutes)

Emily knew she should have met up with Ryan, but she couldn't resist wandering into the area with the clothing carts. She loved trendy and beautiful clothes with a secret passion. She just lacked the means to have any of them. It was self-inflicted torture to admire the plethora of wares she couldn't own, but at least it was better than nothing. She could dream.

"What're you staring at?" a male voice asked right behind her. "Because if it's the blue sweater, it'd look awesome on you with your hair color."

"Don't mind him," a female voice said. "He's always like that."

Emily whirled around quickly, more startled than alarmed, and blinked in confusion as she saw two people roughly her age grinning at her cheerfully. The male had thick red hair pulled up in a ponytail where curls danced at the end, and the female had a long mahogany braid flopped over her shoulder. Cerulean eyes to the male, teal eyes to the female. Fair skin on the male, and richly tanned on the female. The only thing they had in common was that they both wore clothing considered currently in style with such utter casual grace that Emily felt a little envious. "I'm sorry?" she finally said. Why were they bothering to talk to her? Everyone else ignored her.

"The sweater," the redhead repeated as he stepped over next to Emily and indicated the vibrant top in question.

There was no denying it was a lovely color and would certainly compliment Emily's coloring nicely, but Emily almost couldn't stand to look at it. She wanted it too badly. "Yeah, it's nice. Who are you two?"

"Oops, sorry." The redhead grinned sheepishly and looked up from his study of a particularly stylish shirt. "I'm Theo Mallory and that's Beth Jackson, one of my best friends. We saw you staring and were hoping for another clotheshorse like us. We LOVE clothes," he continued without pause, "and there are so many great ones here, aren't there? Are you going to buy anything? We can help you get the most out of your money, and I'm really good with styling people!"

Emily gave the brunette called Beth a helpless look, not certain how to handle the bubbly and fast-talking Theo. Beth muffled a laugh at Emily's expression and patted her shoulder consolingly. "Don't worry, Theo's harmless. He's just got too much energy."

"I'm not the one who can drink five espresso shots in a sitting," Theo muttered.

"Yes, but I'm not the one who gets high on a single sugar cookie."

Emily found herself grinning at them. She just really liked them, and she felt strangely comfortable with them. Maybe it was because they had colored locks like she and Ryan did. The locks had appeared on what they suspected were their twenty-first birthdays—neither had ever known the exact date—so Emily now knew her birthday fell on All Hallow's at the end of the month. "Well, to answer the questions, yes, I love clothes and no I'm not going to buy anything." She shrugged. "I'm broke."

Theo and Beth could believe it. Even in an idyllic time, bad things did still happen to good people, and people did still encounter hard times. Protea and Delphinium tried so very hard to minimize those odds, but there was no such thing as a perfect world. The best that the governments could do was try to help back up those that had fallen—if they wanted help. Emily clearly seemed the type to take pride over anything else, so would not accept handouts from anyone. Theo began to think quickly as he tried to find a way to send Emily off with a shirt or two that would give her a bit more variety in her choices. He wandered around back where the owner was standing, and the elder female waved him in quickly.

Beth distracted Emily on the front side by holding up an orange shirt under her own chin. "How do I look?" she asked.

"With your hair? Like someone grew you on a pumpkin patch." Her shoulders relaxed when she got laughter instead of offense. Not everyone got her sense of humor. Like Tasia, she couldn't help but feel drawn toward these two friends and feel as if she belonged. Because she did feel it, and it made her uneasy, she edged backward. "Okay, so it was nice meeting you," she said, "but I have to get going."

"Don't forget your shirts." The owner had popped up and shoved a bag into Emily's hand. "Promotional giveaway!" Her teal eyes sparkled in a strangely familiar way. "You just have to say where you got them, okay?"

"Uh . . ." Wondering if she had wandered into some sort of surreal world where people were nice to her, miraculous things happened, and she got freebie goodies, Emily could only stammer out a thanks before turning and running off.

Beth swung around and happily exchanged a high five with the owner and Theo. "Nice one, Mom," she said contentedly. "That was perfect."

(Eighth Hour, Twenty-Seven Minutes)

Tasia was just entering the marketplace for a second time when she ran right into a black haired young man who was in a hurry toward her. She caught her balance and automatically balanced the person she had hit. The young man was shorter by several inches, assuredly thinner and smaller, and not as well trained. He had taken the hit far harder. "Whoa!" Tasia laughed. "Where's the fire, kid?"

"Sorry!" Ryan felt his cheeks warm as he held the bag of pretzels tighter. "I was trying to get home before these got cold. Say, you haven't seen my sister anywhere have you?"

"Sister? I might have, what does she look like?" She took quick stock of Ryan's appearance and remembered Maya mentioning one of the book-addicts was black haired. The pattern connected in her mind. "Hang on. Slate hair and bad attitude?"

"Oh no." Ryan sighed deeply. "What did Emily do now?"

"Easy, easy." She grinned. "She didn't do anything wrong. I just helped her out of a bad situation and she was being a pain over it. She seemed to be headed toward the 'burbs actually, to drop off the books I gave her."

Ryan's entire face lit up with radiant beauty. "Books? You mean from Maya? That's right, it's the beginning of the month! Oh, what books were they? Do you know?" He very nearly bounced on his toes in excitement.

Enjoying him—she loved meeting avid readers—Tasia leaned against the fence and smiled. "There were three of them, probably fantasy stories, and I know for a fact there was a Cold Steel one in there."

"Cold Steel?!" Ryan dropped the bag to grab her hand. "Which one? Do you know? Is it the new one? I love their work! The stories are so beautiful and the art is amazing! Oh I wish I could meet them!" He sighed and dropped her hand. "I also wish I didn't have to wait three months after a release in order to read their new stories!"

That would change! Tasia would have Ryan and Emily added to the early distribution list as soon as she could talk to Maya again. Screw the critics and literary reviewers; she wanted her stories in the hands of the people who loved them and got lost in them. "It's the most recently released one," she offered. She then added softer, "And you just did."

"Did what?"

"Meet part of Cold Steel."

Ryan's eyes slowly widened as he stared at Tasia. He had been thinking the brown-eyed female was an adult, but she was younger than he had guessed because he knew for fact both members of Cold Steel had only turned twenty-five that year. He had already felt a kinship to the two creators, but now he felt it stronger. "Are you Cold or Steel?" he asked softly.

"Cold." Tasia smiled. "Thank you for loving my stories. I love fans like you. My name is actually Tasia, so you can call me that instead of my pen name."

"I'm Ryan." Ryan scooped up the bag he had dropped and chewed on his lower lip. He'd had an idea tumbling around in his mind for a long time. He had absolutely no ability to tell stories either verbally or written, though, nor a compulsion to do so. It had been sort of inspired by one of Cold Steel's books anyway, so he had always thought he would like to offer the suggestion—if he ever met them. "Do you . . . take ideas from others?"

"Hmm, that depends on the idea."

"What about one inspired by your book? I sort of thought of something you didn't mention that maybe might be incentive for a sequel." He added hastily, "I don't want to presume I'm as good as you, but I know you're said to peruse mini-webs on the spider to see theories about your work so . . ."

"Easy!" Tasia grinned. "I actually love that sort of thing! I learn more about my own work sometimes!" She tilted her head toward the market. "I'll walk with you back through the market and you can tell me what you're thinking of. I'm always open for ideas, and I love theorizing about my stories and characters. Go for it. Try to inspire me! If I like the idea, I will absolutely give you props for pointing it out to me."

Ryan could only smile in bemusement and follow her as she headed further into the marketplace. What the heck was going on with this world where he met all these wonderful people?

(Eighth Hour, Thirty-One Minutes)

"Crap," Raine muttered. She braced herself as she saw the slate haired woman barreling toward her like an arrow from a bow. Logan tried to grab her to pull her out of the way, but he didn't succeed in time, and Emily plowed into them both.

Logan was thankfully strong enough to keep all of them from hitting the ground, and he didn't lose the bags he had been holding. He had enough of them, he thought sourly. Raine had gotten revenge for his request to carry the bags by ensuring she got plenty of them. "Everyone okay?" he asked.

"Fine," Emily muttered. She scowled and swiped at the mud that had spattered her face. She didn't need help getting dirty. Her job did that just fine anyway.

"The hell you are!" Raine had spotted the handkerchief stained with blood and leapt forward to grab Emily's arm. On closer look, she recognized the gray piece of cloth. Her heart immediately warmed as she realized her sister had sent this person toward her. "You're hurt, so let me see how bad it is."

"It's from earlier." She didn't protest, though, as Raine removed the handkerchief. She glanced at the bloody and scraped up skin and felt her stomach roll slightly. There was bleeding, and then there was bleeding. This was the kind that made her vaguely nauseated. "It was just an accident."

"And that's not going to stop it from hurting." Raine towed her over to a nearby water fountain and rinsed out the handkerchief to use it as a cleaning tool. "It's not actually that bad," she decided after a moment. She took a dry handkerchief out of her pocket and invisibly cast a spell on it that would speed the healing process dramatically. "You'll be fine in no time."

Emily stared at Raine's dark hair as she bent over her hand and tied a very tidy knot. Déjà vu, and in more ways than one. "Why are you being so nice to a stranger?"

"Two reasons. One, I hate seeing people in pain. And two, you know my sister. This handkerchief is hers, and since she gave it to you, she must have liked you too. Whichever one works for you." She added a bow for flourish. "That'll do! You'll be intact by tomorrow."

"Gee, doc, don't I get a lollipop?" Emily asked dryly.

"Sure." She pulled a sucker out of her bag, unwrapped it, and stuck it in Emily's mouth before she could voice a protest. "You asked for it."

That she had, Emily thought as she watched Raine and Logan head off in the other direction. Lips curved, she continued the way she had been going. She was looking for her brother or home. Whichever came first was fine with her. It had been one hell of a day and it was only just starting.

(Eighth Hour, Thirty-Seven Minutes)

Ryan was still floating halfway off the ground from the talk he'd had with Tasia. He wandered through the marketplace looking for Emily and his mind tumbled over the events. Tasia had loved his idea, dubbed him an official muse, and then hurried off for home to write everything down before she lost the concept.

He was a muse to Cold Steel. He spun in a giddy circle and almost dropped the pretzel bag as he accidentally bumped into another man and woman loaded down with bags. They all staggered, and he blinked in bemusement at the bright coloring of the two people he had just encountered. "Sorry about that."

"No problem. None of us was watching where we were going." Theo gave Ryan a cheeky smile. "You look happy. Got good news?"

"Well . . ." Ryan hesitated, then said happily, "I just met Cold of Cold Steel and she loved the way I interpreted one of her books, and so she's going to use it as a jumping point for a sequel she had been wanting to write anyway!" He watched Theo and Beth exchange a knowing grin and brightened. "You know her too! She's really nice."

"She's the most amazing person we know," Beth said with simple honesty. "Bet she ran off after getting the idea and made a beeline for her PCM."

Ryan grinned. "Exactly. She said she'd apologize but she'd be lying. I didn't want one anyway. It was enough to meet her. I'm Ryan, by the way."

"Theo and Beth." Theo shifted the bags he was carrying so that he could study Ryan closer. "Nice to meet you. Any friend of Tasia's and stuff like that. Where're you headed to?"

"Looking for my sister," Ryan explained. "I have our breakfast, and she was late to meet me earlier. And has this been one heck of a morning too!"

"You're telling us!" Beth laughed. "Your sister has slate hair and a love of clothes right?" At Ryan's startled look, she grinned. "Definitely been a weird morning! We met her just a little while ago. She won free t-shirts actually, so catch up to her before she takes the best one." She waved as she and Theo turned down another path. "I hope we meet again!"

Ryan was more than a little dazed as he sat down on a bench. He heard his name, and he turned to see his sister running toward him. Emily dropped down next to him, and they laughed as they shared their mutually insane morning. The shirts and pretzels were divvied up equally, and they put on the new shirts immediately since it felt nice to just have new things rather than things they could barely afford from second-hand shops.

Absently licking a smudge of cheese dip off his pinky, Ryan watched as Emily quickly wolfed down her breakfast so that she could get to work. Visually, it seemed very obvious they did not share blood, but after spending time around them, people could forget the differences in the face of their bond. They had just been as close as siblings from the moment a three-year-old Emily had opened the Care House door to discover a two-year-old Ryan on the porch. Ten years later, they had run away to make it on their own with the group of rabble rousers Emily had met, and then, for the last few years, they had scraped by on their own.

Emily ran odd jobs around the market for whatever people would pay her, and Ryan would entertain people by breaking into monologues from stage theatricals, usually resulting in coins tossed in a hat. A lot of new performers did such a thing, so he did not stand out—other than for being rather talented. If he could have gone to university, that's what he would study in additional to history. His rough and tumble sister? She had an addiction to chemistry and borrowed books from the library every chance she got.

They had just finished eating when a male a bit younger than Ryan went running past, chased by a giant barking dog. Moments later he went back the other way chasing the dog with a net. Wide-eyed, Ryan and Emily watched as the young man made a third cross, that time dragging the dog on a leash.

He dusted his hands once he had handed it off and nodded firmly. "There. One down, a million to go." He spotted the other two staring at him in disbelief and walked over to smile cheekily. Something about his slim yet strong frame, beautiful face, and ashy brown coloring seemed strangely familiar—as did the streaks of yellow and green over his eyes. "Hi, I'm Storm and I catch things. No joke. I find things that run away. Like dogs, cats, birds, guinea pigs, lovers etc. You know how it is."

"People pay you for this?" Ryan asked curiously.

"Absolutely! And I figure it's good practice because my sisters are always deliberately losing me." He nodded sagely. "Sad but true phenomena of being the youngest sibling." He added cheekily, "Eldest sis says that if I get used to being lost I can never truly be lost. I'm still working on that one." His attention diverted as he saw someone waving a hand at him. "You lost him again?! I'm charging double fare! Do you realize how difficult parrots are to catch?"

He zoomed off and Emily and Ryan shared a long look before bursting into laughter. Now that was one interesting person they wouldn't have minded getting to know better. With time wasting, Emily hopped to her feet and headed toward a vendor selling bolts and bolts of beautiful cloth. Two fancy looking couples stood observing the wares, but she did not really pay much attention to them as she moved to talk to the vendor in the hopes of picking up an odd job.

Arista grumbled under her breath as she spied two Royal Knights trailing her and Diego as they joined Delilah and Ulyen at the material cart. "What happened to going out without Knights so long as we were Defenders or had Caretakers?" she muttered.

Diego patted her on the shoulder as he fought a grin. "Come on, Risty. They're new. Chance just wanted them to get some training in. They're trying to be discrete."

"And failing."

Delilah sighed and shook her head, but she smiled at Ulyen. They knew full well there was no caging anyone of the Air Flower Element, especially not Hyacinth Cultivators! Arista had spent ten thousand years trying to avoid pomp or circumstance and basically never doing what one would expect of a princess or queen, but she always ended up hauled back in over her protests. Only rarely literally; her slightly shorter husband and Caretaker could not quite manhandle her physically, but he had other tricks up his sleeve.

Diego firmly turned Arista's head back toward the cart. "Find the pretties that Ashe can use to make something for Shanae's birthday in December. We can't fix her," he said in a low voice as he saw his wife's fingers tremble, "but we can continue to support her. To give her those memories of the old days." He pressed his lips to her cheek. "To make it seem as if not as much has changed as she thinks."

Arista could not say anything for a moment. The grief all too often stole her voice. Not much had changed, but too many important things had. Shanae, more than even Arista, had hated to be confined to the duties of a queen; maybe because, as High Queen, she had far more of them. She had not been able to reconcile her desire for freedom and her introvert's need for quiet with the restrictions of her role and the demand to be everything for everyone everywhere . . . so she had killed off the other part of herself. She had effectively killed Shana Toulume.

It had happened the day before the first day of the first year of the new Resurrection Era. The day before the official start of the Protea and Delphinium Kingdoms, months after Delphinium's rebirth and the heavy construction that had restored the two palaces. The two High Queens had stood looking at their crowns and known that they would be putting them on for good, until the day they had daughters to take their place.

Siobhan Chivanti had had no transition to make; she had always been comfortable in her given role. She had only to change her name and retake her birthright. Shana . . . Shana was wild at heart, rebellious, and bound by Destiny to a path she never asked for. As she had stared at the crown she had worn invisibly for millennia but now needed to wear visibly, she had fought a violent inner war that the rest had nearly been able to see. When calm had settled, no one had known the victor until she had picked up her sword and calmly cut all of her hair away. Amid the shouts and tears, she had lifted her crown in her hands and said only, "It's been done."

Her hair had grown back within a matter of hours to its normal floor length—both Apexes literally could not keep their hair shorter—but the symbolism of the gesture had been made. Shana had always felt that binding her hair was a sign of being bound by Destiny; cutting it entirely had all but declared she had cut away her freedom. In the time since, she had never worn her hair down unless alone in her rooms with Robert. He was the only one who could remove the pins and ease the weight at the same time; he fought to keep what remained of Shana alive inside her.

"Arista." Delilah touched her arm gently. "Stop." She handed her a tissue.

"Oh, shit." She hastily wiped her eyes. "Sorry. It just . . . destroys me. Her pain. I can't do anything for it. Evan can't."

"You're her twin soul," Ulyen reminded her softly, "so of course you suffer in her pain. Just remember that LeAnn is in her twenties finally, and someday when she rises to rule, Robert intends to kidnap Shanae and take her somewhere that they can live normal lives again."

"I know." Arista found a real smile. She had always enjoyed watching Robert get heavy-handed with Shanae; no one else really dared. She shook off the past and asked, "Now, what are we looking at?"

"This!" Diego offered a swath of vibrant pink material. "It's sparklier than she normally goes for, but she does sometimes go for beads. Ashe could very much make something from this, don't you think?"

Delilah grinned. "Considering the lightness of that fabric, I am not certain it wouldn't be a gift for Robert as well."

Diego snorted softly. "And this is a bad thing?"

"I'm not sure whether you or Robert is a worse influence on the other," Arista grumbled.

"It's mutual," Ulyen grumbled back, "which means I and Sabin are frequently chasing them and Talon to clean up the trouble they get into. Some things just can't change."

Arista started to reach for her purse when a shorter woman suddenly ran right into her. She staggered a step out of sheer surprise but did not fall thanks to Diego's lightning reflex in grabbing her arm. "Well! Where's the rush?" she asked.

Emily felt her cheeks heat. "I am so sorry. I was trying to finish a delivery and sometimes my own speed trips me up." She looked closer at who she had run into, and her eyes began to widen as she recognized not just coloring, but clothing. The two women wore gowns reminiscent of hyacinth or orchid flowers, and crowns that actually had those flowers in them. The two men wore the familiar black and pink formal uniform of the Commanders belonging to the Protea Kingdom. "Uh-uhm." She slowly backed up a step. "Oh, shit."

"Arista!" Diego whispered into his wife's ear. "Her hair!"

Arista looked closer and spotted the blue and white locks—a blue identical to her own hair color, and the white matched her own cloudy eyes. All of her generation fully embodied the colors of their flower, as had all Defenders and Rulers for millions of years; another sign of the inbreeding. Nothing had diverted the colors of the lineages until the double-intergalactic blood inside the two High Princesses. "Oh, shit."

Ulyen felt a sudden laugh bubble, and Delilah did too. "Tell me she has some of Diego in her," he whispered in his wife's ear.

"I heard that!" Arista muttered back. She hastily caught Emily's arm before the shorter woman could escape. "Easy!" she said. "Hold on, kid. Everything is fine, okay? You're not in trouble for running into me. I'm not at all mad. Actually, I'm happy. I wanted to meet you."

"Beg pardon?"

Ryan, realizing his sister had been delayed, came hurrying out of the crowds and skidded to a stop. "Whatever she said, she didn't mean, and I'm really sorry, alright? I'll just take her somewhere she can't offend people, okay?"

"Ryan!" Emily scowled.

Diego looked at Ryan's hair, spied the ultramarine lock like Delilah's hair and the purple lock like her eyes, and then looked at the Orchid female in question. "I propose the same hope your husband did," he told her dryly, "that's there's as much of him as you!"

Emily and Ryan alike now felt highly confused, and it showed on their faces. "Why would you want to meet me?" Emily demanded. Something dawned. "Oh, hell." Did they know she had been a rabble rouser? Was she going to be in trouble after all? Rather than wait to find out, she grabbed Ryan's arm and took off running. "Move!"

Arista and Delilah hit the ground running behind them, and their husbands stayed close on their heels. The poor Royal Knights tried but they just could not keep up with people that well-trained. Emily and Ryan had had just enough of a head start that if they got over the overpass, they might be home free, but their flight halted abruptly halfway over the obstacle.

A bright swirl of pink and lavender magic appeared in front of them, and a woman appeared from it. She planted her ankh shaped staff on the ground so hard that it trembled. "Stop!" she commanded firmly.

The two siblings gave startled yelps as they tried to skid to a stop before they ran into her. They tripped over their own feet in the process and fell flat on the ground. They stared in disbelief at the skirt in front of their faces and then their eyes followed the skirt up a dress that looked quite a bit like a statice flower before discovering a lovely face framed by short dark hair—and a smaller princess' coronet of chrome tourmaline and statice blossoms on top.

"What the hell?" Emily could not quite fathom how she had come out of nowhere. Sure, Ruler Cultivators could use transport magic, but that had been ridiculously precise!

Racine Statice crouched down and tilted her head as she studied both the future Cultivators in front of her. "So you're some of my partners, huh?" she asked. She looked over their heads to where the other four had caught up. "They actually got the drop on you?" she asked dryly.

"Natural talent seems to be common among your generation," Arista retorted dryly. She was not entirely surprised with Racine's sudden appearance. She was very much her mother's daughter, and Claret had always been notorious about making timely appearances—and Sabin was no slouch himself.

Racine grinned at that, and then, with a strength that shocked Emily and Ryan, hauled both of them up to their feet as she stood. Emily could only gape at her. The partner thing was being ignored because it made no sense; she just wanted to know how that much strength had packed into that slender frame.

"Names?" Arista lifted a brow at Emily.

"Emily Lukan," the sullen runner muttered. "This is my brother, Ryan. And, yeah, he's my brother no matter what your databases might say so don't try and split us up, got it?"

Racine looked at Diego. "I'm so sorry."

He grinned back. "I'm not."

Ryan edged closer to Emily in sheer self-defense. "How much trouble are we in?" He felt overwhelmed by all the power surrounding them. He could actually feel it in the air, though he had never really been that aware of magic before. He also felt a nearly overwhelming kinship toward the woman who had stopped them. She didn't have locks of colored hair, but she called to Ryan the same way all the others he had met had.

"Trouble?" Ulyen shook his head on a smile. "You're not in trouble. We actually just have a lot to talk to you about! We've been looking for you two for a long time now, longer than you may think. Come with us to the palace."

"Is that an offer or an order?" Emily muttered.

"Keep sassing us and it's an order," Arista muttered back.

Delilah fought to not laugh as she called up transport magic. "Oh, you two will be entertaining, won't you?"

The magic caught them all and took them all back to foyer of Protea Castle, and as they landed, it seemed for a moment as if the entire land trembled briefly in realization that the Resurrection Era Cultivators had begun to assemble. There could be no stopping the events now set in motion.

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