The Unseen Kingdoms - Epilogue

Things had settled back down to normal by the time April arrived. All those from the Realm had returned there for good, and the former members of Dragonsbane had determined for themselves how they wanted to live out their lives. Talla and Linx had joined Anjelica in the Realm where the twins could be reunited and serve as assistants to Daphne, and Sicily and Siana had gone looking for a witch to befriend. They had found him with some help from Jean and now lived invisibly between planes as Haeth herself did. Reggie and Jaslyn had decided to stay in their human form, for now, to enjoy what Protea had to offer. After adulthood, they would evaluate their decision again. They had discovered another world that dragons were allowed to live on openly, so that could be a possibility.

Aldan and Rachel had finally returned to the future as well, and safely. The altered connectivity of the two timelines would be fixed on their arrival. Effectively, the future would itself be frozen by Time herself in order to allow the two Eras to realign properly again, and while none of the future Castlera family had to be subjected to the freeze, they had decided to do so in order to not lose their current relational space to their friends. It could be a critical thing for those who had to deal with the mostly linear but not wholly element of Memory that they maintain whatever toeholds they had on their grasp of their place in time.

Overall, things felt very normal for being on the last countdown to a large double wedding that had gotten a lot of attention thanks to it involving the new owners of Chivanti Corporation, one of whom enjoyed international fame as a fashion photographer as well. The guest list had been kept on the slim side, however, out of deference for the introverted side of the wedding party. Shana had carefully picked every name included, and some had been non-negotiable.

She covered a smile as she carried two cups of coffee into the family room where Jean was lying on the couch with a pillow over her head. The priestess had come out to stay for the entire month as well as attend the wedding. "Well," Shana said cheerfully, "at least you're not pregnant."

Jean yanked the pillow off her head to glare. "No, thank Goddess, though it was iffy for a while, and that would have just been Destiny screwing with me more because I started taking anti-fertility medication the day Byron moved in with me!"

"Well, you do have to have a daughter eventually," Shana told her reasonably, "and I can't imagine having Byron's genes included in that would be anything except positive and possibly hilarious."

"I'd rather not have said daughter all by myself," Jean muttered as she sat up to accept the coffee, "though I concede the point on not minding Byron producing half her lineage."

Shana sat beside her on a sigh. "Jean. You're in love with Byron. You're soul mates. Just admit it! Why are you still having issues about things?"

"I don't want to love a Defender!" Jean complained. "Y'all are pains in the ass!"

Shana started laughing. "Okay," she managed to say, "I admit that there are some dangers to being the Caretaker of a Defender, but what enemy in their right mind would go after you? They'd send you back with a note of apology after two days!"

Jean snorted and drank her coffee. She could hardly argue with the truth. "Just two weeks left," she said. "Nervous?"

"Why should I be?" She smiled. "As you noted many months ago, Rocky and I have been married for five thousand years. This is just a technicality to make sure everything is legal to match the spiritual." She got to her feet. "You need a distraction. Come with me. My last fitting is today."

"Ye gods, you have a dress that fits that frame?"

"You're just jealous."

Jean looked down at her curvy body. Proportionately, she was not that much smaller than her friend when it came to bust and hip size; she just looked less so thanks to having more plump roundness to offset her light musculature. "No," she said. "No, I'm not. I have enough issues, thank you, not the least of which is looking like a theatrical star preparing to seduce a hapless victim if I try to wear anything that enhances cleavage."

Shana snickered and put her shoes on. "Everyone should have an inner theatrical star capable of seducing hapless victims."

"Mine is named Majika." Jean grinned.

"You named your alter ego?" Shana tossed her a helmet so she could ride on the back of Shana's electric bike.

"I had to," she grumbled. "She got loose every time I was within ten feet of Byron."

Shana burst into laughter and gunned the engine on her bike so that Jean had to laugh and hold on tighter as they roared off down the driveway toward the road.

Their destination was Thread & Candle, the shop Sherry and Justin shared. Sherry had been working almost non-stop to finish the outfits for the wedding, and she had done Siobhan's final fitting the day before. The men had been finished the week prior. Only Shana's gown remained to be done and have the finishing touches added once the fit was finalized.

Sherry waited for them in the fitting area of the shop, and she grinned when she saw them. "There you are!" She shot a little smirk at Jean. "You sure you don't want me to make you something to wear? I might already have something here."

"Hells to the no." Jean smirked back. "But when it comes time for you Lower Queens to get married, we'll talk, since I will have the honor of getting all of you foisted off!" As High Priestess, she alone got the honor of performing the ceremonies for Crown Princesses, or queens as in this case, to get married. Only the High Rulers did not fall under her domain since they had a different ceremony. "You all will just have to deal with me wearing denims and a sweater."

Since Shana and Sherry alike knew Jean would never be that disrespectful, they just grinned at her. "You're just worried," Shana told her, "because you know that if you put on something extra flattering, someone might show up out of nowhere and kidnap you."

"He would not," she muttered. "And I am not! Shut up and try on your dress."

Shana snickered as she hurried into the changing room to put her dress on. She loved what Sherry had made. Rich black with pink accents with full skirts and a cut that very subtly resembled her beloved protea flower. The corset even had beaded vines climbing it across the front and wide lace ribbons to lace it in the back. She held the top in place over her strapless corset slip as she stepped back out to be fastened in.

Jean took one look at her and gave a sigh. "Wow. Damn, you look awesome."

"Isn't it great?" Shana turned in a slow circle and then patiently stood still as Sherry tightened the laces to make sure everything fit properly.

To everyone's shock and horror, the laces tightened and stressed the seams so hard that they split wide open. The entire bodice opened up and fell to pieces. Stunned, Shana could only stare down at the remains of her dress. "How . . . that's impossible!"

"What the fiery hells?!" Sherry demanded. "That can't be possible!" She started looking at the splits, and she felt her stomach churn. "They didn't break. There's no sign of stress. The seams have been unstitched. Someone undid them enough to fall apart without being immediately obvious. How? We keep the shop locked at night, and if someone came in with bad intentions, it would have left a stink all over this place!"

"Or not," Jean told her. "The other day, didn't Justin have in that one customer carrying such a huge cloud of negativity that it spilled out of them into the shop? I had to come in the following morning to help clean it up. Have you worked on Shana's dress since then?"

Fury began to simmer inside Sherry. "No," she said very evenly. "I was working on Siobhan's, because her fitting came first. Which has not been tampered with because things went perfectly yesterday." She thought of something and hastily darted into the storage closet. A few moments later, she returned and said, "Rocky and Edgar's outfits are fine as well. Whoever did this deliberately targeted Shana." Fire flickered through her yellow eyes. "I only know one person who hates Shana that much."

"Save your energy," Shana told her. "Let us look into that. Focus on helping me find another dress to wear. I will not let you kill yourself trying to fix this. If I have to, I will wear my Ruler gown and say 'the hell with it' about people knowing."

Which would kill her last hope for a semi-normal life. Sherry thought about things, and then said slowly, "I might have a solution. Leave it to me. I promise I won't kill myself fixing this, okay? And that you'll walk down that aisle looking every inch the High Queen you are."

"I believe you." Shana kissed her cheek and then went back into the changing room to return to her casual clothes. She then returned, collected her very temperamental and pissed off priestess, and headed for home.

Rocky had returned by the time they did, and he was not a happy groom when he heard about the incident. "Someone dared ruin Sherry's beautiful work, and attempt to ruin our wedding at the same time?" His eyes had turned white. "I'll kill them!"

"Get in line," Jean told him. "And sit down." She shoved him onto the couch before he could stalk away and then shoved a cup of tea into his hands.

Shana's PCA chirped and lit up with her brother's name, and she leaned over to grab it. "Yes?" She put him on speaker, her gut telling her that he had to have a reason to call her in the middle of a work day for him.

"We have a problem," Edgar said without preamble.

She covered her face with a hand. "You mean other than the fact that my wedding dress just fell apart?"

"It what?!" He said something explicitly rude. "Yeah, something other than that, but probably in the same line. You know the old ruins in the mountains on the other side, where there used to be that shrine of the Faith that looked out over the Protea Kingdom? The place Liena specifically had built and cleansed as a sign of the alliance of majik and magic? The one we wanted to have our wedding at?"

She closed her eyes. "Yes."

"It caught fire yesterday. It's been completely gutted. No one was hurt, thankfully, because they had not arrived yet to continue cleanup, but it has been utterly decimated. I just got the call."

Jean's fury rose so hotly that her aura actually briefly sparkled, and her eyes turned their almost-gray black hue. "WHAT?!" Her body began to vibrate as she curled her hands into fists. "Someone dared desecrate my ancestor's work?" It may have been designed as an attack on Shana, but it had spread out to attack just as equally Rocky, Edgar, and Siobhan—and Jean. She told Rocky icily, "I have priority on retribution."

Shana felt both sick and furious but she kept her calm because she knew to lose it would send her temperamental companions over the edge. "Alright," she said briskly. "Then this is what we'll do. Sherry has a plan to tackle my dress issue, and she promised it won't kill her. I'm going to consider that a non-issue because I trust our Defenders and their need to always have us happy. As for a location for the ceremony, well, hell. Let's use our damn position. We effectively own the parks of Lux because they're operated and maintained by Chivanti, so we're going to reserve the protea and delphinium sections of the largest park, where we actually met our lovers in this life. The two butt up against each other, and a bit of work that can be easily done in two weeks will open them up more fully so we can have the ceremony right in the middle. Some work from Siobhan and I in tandem can probably add white delphiniums to that section just to make it more appropriate—I think Delphinium would absolutely allow for such a thing in these circumstances. The reception can move to the Chivanti building and Juliet's new restaurant. It was going to open that week anyway."

Edgar paused and then said, "You know, as you say all that, I wonder why we never went with that in the first place."

"Honestly? Me neither. I actually like it more." She smiled. "So maybe I can't be too upset over things. Other than, you know, someone hating me enough to strike at not just me but my closest loved ones." She winced. "Does Siobhan know?"

"Let's just say I discovered she learned some new cuss words from Jean."

"I live to serve," Jean retorted.

"Siobhan and I are almost home," Edgar said, but with humor. "We'll be there in half an hour. We can sit down and hash out all of the rest of the details, and call Juliet to get her onboard with helping." Which would not take much.

Shana ended the call and then dropped her PCA on the table. "Jean." She looked at her priestess coolly. "That was as much an attack on you and your lineage as anything else. Everyone has always known those ruins belonged to witches of the Faith. There will be karmic kickback for that alone, but if you can go there . . . use your connection to find anything . . . then maybe we can slap them with some living justice as well. We can guess who made the order from in prison, but we will need proof, and need to know just who carried out the order."

"Done." Jean grabbed up the keys to Shana's bike and headed for the door. She headed off the manor's land and then deeper into the mountains. Though the trip through the mountains should have been a day or more, it only took that long if you took the main route. A secret route cut literally through the mountains from near the manor to near the ruins, and had been built by Edgar and Shana as a sort of way to connect their now-lives in Lux area, and their past and future lives with the Protea Kingdom.

It took only about two hours to get to the other side, and she exited early enough to get back on the main road and approach more conspicuously. Even if she hadn't known her destination, she could have easily figured it out from the scene she found. Carriages belonging to legal officers and investigators sat outside the still smoky ruins, and vivid red and yellow tape had been used to block off entrances.

Jean spotted Michael, which did not surprise her, and she waved to get his attention. He walked over to her swiftly and frowned. "Is something wrong?" he asked. "Other than the obvious."

"Yeah. Shana had her last fitting for her dress this morning and it fell apart. The seams had been unstitched. The entire gown is now a pile of material, and Sherry is scrambling to recover lost time. She has a plan, at least."

Molten fury lit his silver eyes, as much for the Aster Defender as for his queen. "Is Shana okay?"

"She's being Shana."

He muttered under his breath in sheer frustration. Shana's tendency to smile even when hurt drove everyone mad because it made keeping her healthy harder. "Are you here because of the connection to Liena?" As soon as he asked it, his investigator's mind clicked pieces together. His eyes narrowed. "That . . . is coincidental, isn't it? That her dress and wedding locale are both destroyed?"

"Watch your language, kid. That C word is a bad one. And Shana wants me to see if there's anything I can sense here that will help." She found a smile as Suri walked up with a curious look on her face. "Hello, I'm Jean."

"It's a pleasure." She lifted a brow at Michael.

"As far as everyone is concerned, she's a witch of the Faith who had a terrible vision and is here to help." Lower, he said, "For your information only, she is the High Priestess of Protea, and here on the High Queen's orders because this place is sacred to the priestess lineage."

"Ah." Suri nodded. "In that case, I understand." She lifted the tape for Jean to duck under. "I assume you know proper procedure?"

"I do!" Jean smiled. "It's actually not the first time I've done something like this. A legal investigator lives on the same street as my apartment. She hits me up for help, too." She tucked her hands into her pockets as she headed toward the ruins and let her Sensing skill open wide. Almost instantly the tiny alarm bell she associated with 'wrongness' began to ring. She followed it around to the back of the building.

It hurt. It hurt to see the blackened wasteland that surrounded the blackened ruins. They had fallen so gracefully. Only weather and time had touched them, and they had slowly gained a sort of patina that had lent itself to their power and their beauty. The shrine had never been meant to be pristine; it had been built to represent harmony between majik and magic and to let Protea age it at her will. In some ways, this attack had hurt Protea herself as much as it had Jean or Shana.

A stone wall still stood around the back, and she slowly approached it. The other side had surprisingly intact land, but the stone had likely served as an effective protective barrier. The moment she stepped close, she gagged as she caught the powerful whiff of hate in the air. It took a moment to get past the initial emotion to figure out any others present. Satisfaction and greed were there as well.

She put her hands on the wall to brace herself and looked down. Something caught her eye and she dropped to her knees to look closer. It was a candy wrapper, and it was still clean enough it had to have been put there recently. Her eyes slowly widened. Had the bastard actually stood there eating candy while he watched the shrine burn?

A hand fell on her shoulder, and she reacted without conscious thought. She shot to her feet and swung around hard enough to the knock the person behind her away, and she hit with enough force that he stumbled back and landed with a thump on the ground. "Damn it, Jean," Byron complained as he glowered up at her. "Would you think before acting?"

She could only stare at him in a blend of sheer disbelief and painful need. She had thought she would never see him again! Her natural reaction when confronted with pain was to resort to anger, and she snapped at him, "If I was the type to think before acting, you would have never gotten in my bed!"

He flipped lithely to his feet and walked over to haul her into his arms. The feel of her was nearly blissful after the lonely months. He pulled her onto her toes and kissed her with a fierce desire that had never ebbed. Her fingers curled into his shirt to hold on just as hard, and she returned the kiss just as desperately. They belonged together. Life might be insane with her, but it was hell without her. "I'd argue that," he muttered against her lips. "At the rate we were going, we were going to end up on the couch faster than your bed."

"Oh why'd you come back?" She buried her face against his shoulder and struggled back the tears trying to well. "It'll just hurt more when you leave again!"

"I'm not leaving again." He released her and skimmed a hand through her hair. She was letting it grow again, and it skimmed her middle back. She kept it long in summer and short in winter, and he loved both equally. "I went home only to put things in order. My sister will have a child for the lineage to carry on, and I asked Ranunculus herself if there was need for me—if there would be further need." He gently cupped her cheek as her eyes widened. "There is no need. There will be no need. I have served what Ranunculus needed of me, and there may not ever be need for another Defender for my world. I think . . . that's why Protea has always felt like home to me as well. I'm free to stay here with you. Forever. Until death do us part—and that might be sketchy considering our power."

She hastily paced away from him for safety. "Byron, I can't become immortal."

"I know." He smiled when she looked at him sharply. "I figured that out already when I better understood your role to fill. And I am perfectly fine with such a thing. We will enjoy whatever years we have here on this plane, and then we will live out eternity in the Realm." Sensing she was weakening, he moved closer. "I want you, Jean. You are the only Caretaker that could ever suit me. You sass me, you make me happy, and your arms take away every bad thing I've ever endured. I will happily start doing theatricals again, and we can share what we love to do, too." He lifted a brow. "And speaking of love, you may as well admit finally that you love me as much as I love you!"

She glared at him and tried to tell herself that walking away would be the saner option, but she just could not do it. An aching pain welled from her soul as if from an echo of her ancestor's suffering, and she saw the horrid lonely years looming ahead of her if she kept letting pride be in her way. Byron was her soul mate. She had known it inside from the moment she had seen him, let alone met him. "I give up!" She stalked over and poked him in the shoulder. "You had better not make me regret it!"

He caught her close and held on tightly. If anyone was likely to regret anything, it would be him. He had the temperamental one for a lover. Yet, he would change nothing about her. He loved her for everything she was, not despite it. "You won't," he promised. He eased back and glanced to the side. "You can stop hiding now. It's safe."

Jean glanced over and felt dismay rise as she saw a woman who bore a striking resemblance to Byron walking forward. Tara Ranunculus may have dressed as casually as her brother, but she still bore a familiar aura of regal presence. Jean groaned. "Goddess. I'm so not up to dealing with this!" She glared at her lover. "Next time warn me we have an audience and I'll yell at you more."

Tara could not fight back the laughter that had been welling all along. "You were right, Byron! She is perfect for you. She won't let you get away with anything."

Jean sighed. "You two can discuss my finer points on your own time. I'm busy." She got out her PCA—she had gotten one of the first official models—and said, "Michael Donohue." When the other side clicked over, she said, "Of course I have all of your codes. I need to know which of you oddballs is calling me. Anyway, make sure your investigating takes you around to the back, near the wall. There's a candy wrapper here. It looks new. My gut hunch says that the arsonist left it."

Byron and Tara exchanged a quick look. They had been wondering what she was doing out there. She hung up the phone and turned toward them. "Let's head for Protea-Delphinium central, and I'll fill you in when we get there. Can either of you transport? I don't have room for two others on the bike." Rulers could transport just about anywhere they wanted; Defenders were limited to their home planet, and, in the case of Blossom Field Defenders, Protea or Delphinium. It would be interesting to see if Byron picked up the later, moving to Protea as he intended.

Tara nodded. "I can transport all of us and the bike alike by looking for Shana's rather significant signal, especially considering what we shared. Talk as we walk back to the bike, and then we will go."

By the time they arrived back at the manor, both Ranunculus siblings were as pissed off as Jean. She walked into the house and complained, "Make them go away! They followed me home!"

Shana looked up from where she and Siobhan had been penning the last invitations, and she grinned. "Byron doesn't surprise me, but it's great to see you again, Tara!" She got to her feet and walked over to hug the shorter woman. "Are you here to see the woman of Byron's dreams?"

"I am!" Tara agreed on a smile, and then hugged Siobhan as well.

"He has weird dreams if I am," Jean muttered.

"You're right. I never dared dream that big." He grinned when she stared at him in shock. Since she wasn't resisting, he tugged her into his arms and rested his chin on her shoulder. "Jean told us what happened. What brought this on? It seems out of place."

Shana sighed. "It's part of a longer story that I'll tell you much later. It actually has some sense to it. Stupid sense, but sense. Right now we're taking care of things. I've made some calls, and Edgar did, and we've covered most of the details. It's just waiting to see what sort of amazing thing Sherry pulls out of thin air."

"Not so much thin air," Sherry said as she walked through the open front door, "as thinking to do something I honestly had not thought to do before!" She lugged two immensely large dress bags with her, and she grinned when Byron hastily moved to take one. "Thanks. And hi again. Do I get to make Jean a wedding dress?"

"No!" Jean muttered.

Tara lifted a brow at Shana, and Shana grinned. "I'm saving it for now. Give Byron a chance to win her over."

Jean ignored them. Sherry just coughed and put down the bag on the back of the other couch, and gestured for Byron to put the other down. "Anyway," she said, "I decided to see if the rules could be . . . bent in the Realm for a very specific circumstance. You know, like the High Queens getting married. So I basically prayed to my mother from my first life, who in turn went to Shanta and Enaya, and they decided that the rules could totally be bent, and that had been a subtle intent all along because . . . well, open the bags."

Shana and Siobhan blinked at each other and then moved to open the bag that had their name. Inside, they found brilliant wedding gowns that looked like an evolution of their Ruler gowns. Dripping in the stones special to each world—opal for Delphinium, amber for Protea—full-skirted and made of the finest handmade silks and laces the weavers in the Realm could produce. Colors so vibrant they almost shimmered.

"Oh." It was all Siobhan could manage. "I can't . . . believe it. W-wasn't this being made back then? I saw it. Before the end came." She heard Jean sneeze and added, "If you're getting sick, tell me now so I can heal it."

"Both dresses were recreated this year," Enaya's voice said from the doorway, "with the intent to be returned to you both."

All turned to find Enaya in the entrance with Shanta, Genevieve, and Hannah. Jean sneezed again, and then told Shana, "You need to do away with the open door policy. Gods walk right in!"

Shana just grinned. "At least you make a good doorbell for them!" She walked over to hug all four of the newcomers. "So you intended all along to come to the wedding, even before crisis mode hit and Sherry contacted you?"

"Of course!" Genevieve grinned at her. "After how much damn trouble I and your father had getting you married off, I wouldn't have missed it for anything! And there may be a few more surprises to come, but those will be revealed on the wedding day! In the meantime," she walked over to hug Jean, who looked surprised, "I very much want to get to know the new High Priestess of Protea! And help Byron wear her down to marriage. I'm good at that."

Jean could only glower at Shana. "Mother's child."

"You know it."

* * * * *

Two weeks later, the day before the ceremony, Lux got hit by an unexpected storm. It rained hard and fast and then zipped off as quickly as it had arrived. Those sorts of storms were normal more for Vericity than Lux, but when the setup crew arrived at the garden to actually put together everything, they discovered the storm had sent the entire now-blended garden into absolute overdrive. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Protea and delphinium bushes that had been beside each other now grew entwined together, especially the black proteas and the newly grown white delphiniums. It felt as if Protea and Delphinium themselves had sought to make the day as beautiful as possible for their Children.

The ceremony did not start until twenty-two hour when Delphinium would be visible from the garden. That gave the entire day and then some to finish setup and preparations, and the two couples chipped in despite protests. As eighteen hour approached, Shanta and Enaya finally grabbed Shana and Siobhan and pulled them aside. "Alright," Shanta said, "now is the time to give you our gift. You had been curious as to why we would insist you wear your Ruler dresses when we know all too well you wish to maintain your anonymity for now."

Shana shrugged one shoulder. "I assumed you thought it time to end the farce."

"Oh, my darling, no. I want you to savor every day until the Resurrection Era." Shanta cupped her chin. "We would never do such a thing to either of you."

Siobhan frowned. "So . . ."

Enaya smiled. "For today, just this while, the truth will be known to all. But as people leave the reception, those who had not already known the truth will find that portion of their memory fading away until they do not remember what was worn or what was said, only that it was beautiful and fitting. It will allow you four to enjoy your moment as it should be enjoyed as High Rulers, and it will allow for the crowning of your kings. Protea and Delphinium crowned you at the end for, if they had not, you could not have reclaimed the crowns during the Redemption War. Therefore all that remains is the formality of properly claiming your kings."

Shana's eyes widened slowly. "Does everyone else know already?" she asked.

"Why do you think they were trying to get you to stop working?" Shanta smiled. "You are High Queens about to marry. There are certain rituals to be completed. I think you will like them!" She linked an arm with Shana even as Enaya urged Siobhan along and they headed toward the large tents that had been set up as changing rooms. Jean waited outside one of them in her full priestess robes, and several of the Rebirth and Elder Defenders alike had taken up guard around the space.

"This starts the Rebirth Era anew," Shanta told Shana and Siobhan alike. She then laughed. "And goddess help the Resurrection Era when LeAnn and Reagan take over!"

As twenty-two hour approached, the seats had been filled with people in all manner of finery. Visitors from other worlds, including Ranunculus, Celia, and a third called Aria, had come out as well. The current Ruler Cultivators of the latter two, in particular, had been in attendance since the one of Celia of course held far distant relation to the couples, and the one of Aria had been personally invited by Shana since Liena had once come from Aria, meaning Jean had a connection herself. Something about the fair-haired, blue-eyed prince of Aria felt oddly familiar to Jean though she could not place it. She chalked it up to ancestral echoes and let it go, though she very much did want to meet him. Weirdly, it felt like meeting a lost brother or something.

Everyone knew, however briefly, about the truth of those getting married, and Clara stood prepared to ease that aspect of memory as soon as the event ended. She, like her fellow Lower Queens, wore not their Ruler gowns but instead their Masks and armor, for the ceremony of a High Ruler always involved their Defenders.

Those of the highest rank in a wedding ceremony was the one to walk down the aisle, to be on display for all to see. Siobhan and Shana, as High Queens, did not even have attendants to walk with them. They walked completely alone except for one another, for that was what they had always wished. The eight Defenders stood in two rows of four on each side of the aisle and would fall into step behind the queens as they passed.

At the end of the aisle waited an impressive stone gazebo. Edgar stood with Matthew and Genevieve on one side with three of his four Commanders behind him. Michael stood beside him instead, as by rights as his twin. On the other side stood Rocky with Quint and Hannah with three of his four Commanders behind him, and Sam of course by his side. All Commanders wore their formal uniforms, but with a little difference: they had switched colors. The four of Delphinium and the four of Protea would officially switch kingdoms upon this marriage, and so Sherry had made them new uniforms.

Rocky and Edgar themselves would make a change as well. Though they now wore far more formal and elaborate versions of their Ruler suits, it would be the last time they wore the suit of their birth. After marriage, they would have suits that marked them as belonging to a new kingdom while still paying homage to their birth world; they would also forever wear a flower pinned to their breast that came from their Mother.

Octavia did not stand at the gazebo with them. She, instead, sat in the very front row in the seat closest to the center as she could be, for she could not see her two Dark children as being any less her own than her two Light ones. To her utter shock, she had been given a very specific gown to wear, one that blended the colors and themes of both worlds, and a small coronet sat atop her head. Genevieve and Hannah had insisted on giving her the honor she deserved for so deeply loving and raising the four High Rulers. Forevermore, she would be seen as a princess within her own right—and indeed it would be forever, for she had been gifted the power to ensure she would ascend to the Realm herself someday.

Shana and Siobhan walked together down the aisle, one hand clasped between them as the other carried a bouquet full of not just their birth flower but the flower of their future husband. Both bouquets resembled the entwined bushes around the gazebo, and symbolized the unbreakable union of the two worlds. The queens themselves made a perfect opposite to one another in all ways, yet the sparks that flew between their fingers also represented their ability to create miracles together.

As they walked the aisle, the Defenders left their post and fell into step behind them, with Dark following Shana and Light following Siobhan. The audience had remained seated, but the Elder Defenders as well as Byron stood in their passage and bowed deeply, respectfully, in acknowledgement of their position. Once the queens had passed, they sat down again.

Rocky and Edgar walked forward to meet Shana and Siobhan, and different hands clasped as the two couples walked the rest of the way to the altar. Genevieve and Hannah stepped forward as well to meet them, and both now wore the crowns of dowagers. Hannah may have been elder, but because Genevieve had always been their ringleader, it was Genevieve who spoke the ceremony.

"We have gathered here," she said clearly, "to honor the marriage between these couples. It has been more than five thousand years since this ceremony was last performed. Their hearts have already united them as one. In their own words, let them speak the vows that will unite them before us all."

Siobhan, the elder of her and Shana, was first. She turned to look at Edgar and felt tears welling in her eyes. She did not bother to fight them; Desiree had given her waterproof makeup to wear. She could not fathom how much she loved this man, and how they would be so blessed as to share eternity together. "I vow on my life to love you until the end of forever," she managed to say. "I will be the Light that illuminates your soul, and the sweet Illusions that always protect you. I will Care for you, and hold you together, when you feel as if you can't stand alone."

Edgar took a long breath and told himself he would not cry no matter how tempting. It had been worth every minute of waiting to finally stand there as he had so dreamed. "I vow on my life to love you until the end of forever," he said softly. "I will be the Dark that brings you rest, and the Nature that encourages you to grow and live. I will Care for you, and hold you together, when you feel as if you can't stand alone."

Shana turned toward Rocky. Her eyes glittered with held back tears as she looked up at him. She could hardly believe that she was standing there. It was a technicality, yes, but it made everything seem so much more real. So much more permanent. "I vow on my life to love you until the end of forever," she said calmly. "I will be the Dark that shelters you when you are hurt, and the warm growth of Nature's sunlight that brightens your day. I will Care for you, and hold you together, when you feel as if you can't stand alone."

Rocky had to swallow before he could speak, and tears ran a bit unashamed down his face. He had never dared dream of loving someone as much as he loved her. She was everything in his world. "I vow on my life to love you until the end of forever," he said huskily. "I will be the Light that helps you see when you are lost, and the gentle Illusions that bring nothing but sweet dreams of the future. I will Care for you, and hold you together, when you feel as if you can't stand alone."

Sam and Michael stepped forward, and each held a box. Within each box sat four rings, two of opal and two of amber. Siobhan and Shana removed the rings with their stone and slowly slid them onto their betrothed's pinkies. Rocky and Edgar then removed their own stone rings, and slowly placed them on their lovers' pinkies. To wear the stone of your mate's world was to promise to the world herself to care and love for the world's Cultivator. Shana and Edgar therefore wore all opal, and Siobhan and Rocky wore all amber. Unknown to anyone except the four Rulers, the inside of all wedding rings held ancient symbols of love and friendship. They had been carved and blessed by the High Priestess of Protea herself.

The eight Defenders knelt with their right arm across their chest to touch their Mark on their left arm, and the eight Commanders likewise knelt. In the audience, the Elders as well as Byron rose once more to mimic the crossed arm gesture.

Though normally at this moment, Genevieve and Hannah would have crowned their daughters, a minor adjustment had been made to account for the fact that both had already been crowned. Shana and Siobhan accepted their crowns from the pillow Jean held that had both on it, and put on their crowns personally. They then turned to face the audience. "In the fall of our kingdoms," Shana said clearly, "we rose from the ashes to become High Queen. We have borne that role alone until today."

"Destiny herself gave us a choice before birth of who we wanted for our soul mates," Siobhan picked up, "and we could have picked none better than the men who stand before you. They will be High Kings that honor not just the world that birthed them, but the world that will now embrace them. Love them with the same dedication you love us."

Jean stepped forward again, and this time she carried the two crowns of a High King. They were smaller, and less ornate, but still held the prized stones of the world that owned them. Shana and Siobhan accepted them, and their husbands knelt. The crowns were placed on top of their heads, and they slowly rose once more. As they turned to face the audience as well, Genevieve lifted her voice to say, "Long live High Queen Shanae and High King Robert!"

Hannah had tears in her eyes as well but managed to add, "Long live High Queen Sayena and High King Edgar!" She gulped back the tears and smiled. "You may now kiss and start your paths anew!"

As ever her father's child, Siobhan grabbed Edgar's lapel, pulled him down, and kissed him quite enthusiastically. Rocky yanked Shana into his arms for a kiss no less combustible, and she caused laughter to rise as she chunked her bouquet carelessly behind her in order to free her arms to hold her husband in turn. Her own laughter bubbled up as he lifted her off her feet and then swung her in a circle.

"Shana, you did that on purpose!" Jean complained as she stared at the bouquet that had landed in her arms.

Tradition dictated that the one who walked the aisle carried flowers, and they would later throw the bouquet out to all unmarried folks to see who would be next to walk the aisle. Shana had effectively skipped all ceremony to the deal by tossing her bouquet with no concern for where it landed, but, "Ha!" she said. "I could not have done that on purpose if I tried. Oh, come on, Jean! Just give in and be done with it. You have to marry him anyway, because he's a Cultivator and there are laws about that sort of thing."


"Hey, Byron!" Siobhan called impishly. "Catch!" She chucked her bouquet out into the audience. Byron stood hastily and the bouquet landed right in his arms, almost as if drawn by a magnet. On a grin, Siobhan said, "Good luck!"

"Very funny," Jean muttered. And as Byron stepped up beside her, she added, "No ceremony. None. Ever. We can elope."

"I am a prince, my lovely priestess. And you are the High Priestess. At least I do still outrank you, so you don't have to walk the aisle," he told her reasonably.

"Thank goddess for small favors."

The party afterward was as joyous as they came. The dowager queens kept an eye on everything so that the two newlywed couples could simply enjoy themselves, and not have to fuss over any details. It was only as the party started to wind down that Byron approached Shana. "Shana?" He took her hands in his. "I would be honored if you would let me perform the next song, the final song, that will end the night."

She brightened visibly. "Seriously? We would love that, thank you."

He immediately went to find Jean. It did not prove hard since she had hidden at the back of the crowd where she could avoid the worst of the noise. His introvert was not quite as terrible as either Shana or Edgar, but she still had to make an effort to endure crowds. "Got you." He put an arm around her waist and began to steer her toward the stage. "Remember that song you helped me finish?"

Her eyes went wide. "I can't sing with you!" she blurted. "We'll blow something up!" Unfortunately, she couldn't seem to get free from her lover's grip. It was gentle but implacable. "I am not singing with you! You saw what happened last time. Byron! Mercy! Let me go!"

He just grinned and kept pulling her along with him. He firmly lifted her up onto the stage and then followed her. "Come on," he told her softly. "Don't you want to give the High Rulers something special? It's not often you hear two Virtuosos singing together. Doesn't this feel like it's supposed to happen?"

It did. She just sighed. "Aw, screw it. Let's do it."

Shana had to smile as she rested her head on Rocky's shoulder. The music itself was, of course, beautiful. It was when Jean and Byron began to sing together, however, that the magic really happened. There was something beautifully intimate about the way the two Virtuosos' voices meshed as deeply as their hearts and souls. Their differing pitch and range fused with utter perfection in a harmony that promised to create, perhaps literal, majik.

A little shiver of a premonition went down Shana's back. Two Virtuosos had a one in a billion chance of having a Mystic descended of them. She felt sure in that moment that there would be one of Jean's blood, and that someday she would meet her. Would it be the final direct descendant? She didn't know, but she didn't mind. The Resurrection Era was shaping up nicely even now, so anything added after this point would only make it more so. Perhaps . . . it would be the outcome of that third, critical, Pivot that had involved Jean's choice to accept Byron in her life and her soul.

"Premonition?" Rocky asked softly.

"A good one." She smiled up at him. "I don't know how long the peace will last until the next inevitable evil comes to test us, but I will love every day of it, just as I've loved you every day of my life. Our love truly will last forever."

He leaned down to kiss her and smiled against her lips. "I notice Siobhan and Edgar are stealthily creeping to the exit. That sounds like a good idea to me too. Wanna get out of here?" he murmured. "I think there's a honeymoon suite waiting for us. No enemies, no friends . . . just us. We can do whatever we want. Be lazy and crazy in love."

She wound her arms around his neck. "You had me at the 'just us' part."

He laughed, and they promptly disappeared. Quint observed the exit and then said dryly to Hannah, "Didn't you accuse him of being just like me? I seem to recall that particular ability to go invisible is a Delphinium Ruler one, and that you did the same thing to us during OUR wedding."

She grinned. "That's my boy." She contentedly leaned against him and listened to the beauty woven between the two Virtuosos. Tomorrow would indeed always have to come, but the moments you stole in between could be the most precious. They created memories incapable of being tarnished by time, and it was those memories that would make the future glow with the promise of peace and freedom for all.

My heart is beating on this night

Much more powerfully than words can describe

Light the candles one by one and turn on the music so softly

Close the curtains to the outside world

And come to me with open arms

Your fingers are trembling; surely you’re not afraid

Just the two of us exist right now

Staring into your eyes, I’m drowning

Let’s dance around the room

As though our bodies were one

The cold blowing outside can’t be heard

By the two of us lost in our dreams

I’m right here with you, and it’s forever

Tomorrow will always have to come

But for right now, don’t ever forget

This love will last forever

I can feel your heart beat under my hand

The strength that’s yours becomes mine

Let’s make a wish on the doves in the sky

Run your hand through my hair and touch me softly

I want to share the future dreams with you but

I don’t want to stop sharing this moment

There’s a pain in loving someone this much

I believe in these powerful, hot feelings

Let’s dance around the room

With the music singing to us

This night doesn’t ever have to end

For the two of us so into each other

I’m right here with you, and it’s forever

My tears are overflowing for you

It’s so sweet this feeling I have

This love will last forever

Let’s dance around the room

As though our bodies were one

The wind blowing outside can’t be heard

By the two of us lost in our dreams

I’m right here with you, and it’s forever

My tears are overflowing for you

It’s so sweet this feeling I have

This love will last forever


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