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The Quality of Mercy

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She may never have a reign of her own; the ruling Berlinette line may have ended with her mother after all. Zephie tries not to let herself dwell on the possibility, for all it has grown ever closer through their travels. Lanzheim is in tatters after these years of civil war, and the cost of rejecting the cycle of the Magna Carta's sacrifice...the land will never again be what it has been. And perhaps that is how history will remember her: as the selfish princess who cost her people the blessings of endless Kan. It is true.

But it is only part of the truth, and she hopes, when she allows herself to hope, that perhaps that won't be the only legacy she leaves behind. The cycle of war and sacrifice that has been a part of Lanzheim's history for the last thousand years will no longer hold them in its grasp; Zephie has to believe that was worth the cost. And she has tried to be a good leader to her people, caring for their well-being, worrying for their future. It may not ever be enough, but she has tried. She and her soldiers have done their best to keep order in a war-torn land, to protect the most vulnerable of its people. She has tried to learn from the leaders of the Mare and the Trewa, and from the guardian spirits who bless the kings of Lanzheim. And she has found it in her heart to forgive the man against whom she once swore she would take revenge.

The others are hesitant to trust Elgar, even though the man who answers to that name now is not the one who did them such harm, and the one who did -- well. Zephie does have to agree that it's a complicated situation. But she's seen Juto's heart, his past, and she remembers Elgar's fierce insistence on keeping her safe in prison. They are both more than they were made to be. With Schuenzeit gone, she'll have nothing to fear from either of them.

By the time her team -- no longer the Counter-Sentinel Unit; no longer part of the Northern Forces; simply her champions -- returns to Cota Mare from La Strada, Elgar is recovering from his fight with Juto. Nix fusses over him like a mother hen, but he stands to greet them when they return to Navyblue Marsh, straight-backed and alert, the lenses of his visor glinting in the light.

"Princess," he says, as though the others aren't even there.

"It's done," she says.

He nods. "I felt it," he says. He touches his chest. "When I no longer had a master to obey."

"Wait," Crocell says, "so if nobody's controlling you now, that means --" he steps forward, but Zephie holds up a hand to stop him. She's had enough of violence, enough of killing.

"What will you do now?" she asks.

Elgar shakes his head. The long silver fall of his hair swishes gently. "I don't know," he says. He sounds so much like Juto then, hesitant, no longer the untouchable warrior. "Where is First?"

Celestine muffles a sob, badly. "We were separated," Zephie says, trying to keep her voice steady. "I'm sure he'll be here as soon as he can." She doesn't mention the last desperate order she gave him; it sounds foolish now. Absolutely do not die. She takes a deep breath. "Would you like to stay here with us and wait for him?"

Only when Elgar's shoulders slump does she realize how tense he must have been. "I'll do that," he says.

The others erupt in protest, but there won't be any serious argument. Zephie is the one in command.

*

In the days that follow, Zephie can't decide whether Elgar's presence is a blessing or a curse. He doesn't look much like Juto; he insists on keeping his costume and visor, despite how aggressive they make him look. But their voices have the same timbre, and the one time that a pack of raiding werewolves make an attempt on Cota Mare, his sword style is identical to Juto's. Zephie catches herself wishing, when the loneliness is at its worst, that he would embrace her like Juto did -- but it wouldn't be the same, would it? His body may be built the same way, but he never learned the tenderness, never learned to be kind.

She doesn't blame him for that anymore. They were all pawns in Strass's scheme, Elgar perhaps more than any of them. The malice isn't his own, and he relinquishes it once he's no longer required to keep it up. He's still awkward around the others -- he's probably never had friends, never had comrades, only an uncaring master and frightened subordinates. Sometimes Zephie catches him watching the way Celestine and Crocell tease each other as if he's trying to figure them out. It's good for him, she thinks. Perhaps he'll learn from them. Perhaps by the time Juto comes back....

It's always when Juto comes back, not if. She won't allow herself to doubt it. But keeping faith isn't easy, after those first few days. There's no word from him, no messages from the site of La Strada's fall. Days turn into weeks; around them, people begin the slow process of learning how to live in a world whose flow of Kan has begun to die. It's not enough to dampen her wizardry yet, and Elgar says he feels no different, but always Zephie is aware of the change: Kan is finite. One day it will run out.

A month after their final battle, Zephie dreams of Juto. In the dream he's trapped, someplace dark and cold, someplace she can't see clearly but knows, in the way of dreams, is a great ruin. She wakes restless and unhappy, and can't shake the feeling all day. Still, it doesn't seem remarkable until she has the same dream again the following night.

In the morning she meets Rue's eyes at the breakfast table, and Rue looks as haunted as she feels. "I've been...having dreams," Zephie says.

Rue's eyes widen slightly. "About him?" she asks.

A shiver runs down Zephie's spine, and she nods. She sees Elgar stiffen at the other end of the table and cock his head as if he's listening. "A dark ruin," Zephie says. "The same place, last night and the night before."

"It's cold," Rue says, "and so quiet, when he moves, every sound seems loud in the stillness."

Zephie's stomach rolls; she pushes her plate away. "It's the bond," she says. "Calling us to him."

Rue bows her head, acquiescing, though Zephie has not yet asked. "We should prepare carefully," she says.

"Thank you," Zephie says. Relief makes her ache.

*

There is another brief argument when Zephie tells the others she intends to go in search of Juto. Not over the plan itself; they all miss him. But there is disagreement about who should be the third member of the exploring party. Both Crocell and Argo make cases for themselves, Crocell with passion and Argo with reason. Even Celestine tries to come up with an argument for why she should go. Elgar stands watching them, his mouth a tight line, his hands clenched at his sides.

"Enough," Zephie says, when Crocell seems to be trying to bait Argo into fighting with him. She glances at Rue. Rue nods: she'll follow Zephie's lead. "Elgar," Zephie says, and sees him flinch. "What about you?"

"Are you ordering me to accompany you?" he says.

Zephie shakes her head. "I'm not your master," she says. Sometimes she wonders if that's cruelty, if he would be happier bound to her. There's no easy way to ask. "I'm asking if you'd like to."

"Princess," Crocell says. "You can't take him!"

"I can't?" Zephie repeats, lifting her chin.

"I -- no, that's not what I meant," Crocell says.

"Are you certain that is a good idea?" Argo asks. "He is dangerous."

Zephie draws a breath to argue, and Rue steps up beside her. "Do you doubt my ability to protect the princess?" she says. Her voice is quiet, but it's iron. Elgar's lips twitch momentarily, close to a smile.

Crocell backs down, muttering; Argo heaves a sigh. Better.

"Thank you," Zephie says. She doesn't tell them that one of the reasons she wants to bring Elgar along is because of their attitudes, because she worries for him being left in suspicious, unsympathetic company. "If you can't trust Elgar yet, then trust me to know what I'm doing, and trust Rue to look out for me." She looks at Elgar. "If you will?"

He bows. "I'm at your service," he says.

They spend that day preparing -- studying the maps they have on hand, comparing recollections of the dreams and trying to decide where the search should begin. They pack supplies, check and double-check weapons. And that night Rue and Zephie have the dream for the third time.

*

Dawn is filtering through Navyblue Marsh when they leave, making the chill fog glow faintly silver. Elgar and Rue move through it like a pair of hungry ghosts, merciless with anything that looks interested in troubling Zephie. They both fight nearly silently, which feels strange to Zephie now; she's grown so used to the life Juto breathed into their whole company.

Very few of the monsters in the marsh can offer them a serious challenge by now, but even the little ones can do harm in great enough numbers, wearing away at a fighter's strength. Zephie keeps an eye on her guardians, backing them up with gusts of wind wizardry and healing them whenever it looks like they're starting to hurt.

The first time she does that for Elgar, his head snaps up in shock and his swordplay nearly falters. Zephie's afraid she did him some harm until his opponent falls and he glances over in her direction. "Thank you," he says cautiously.

"Of course," Zephie says. "We're in this together." She wants to ask, wouldn't your troops have healed you before? but she's afraid of the answer.

"Careful," Rue says, before the moment can stretch on. "There are more."

They work their way north and east through the marsh, passing on as quickly as they can. At the north end, when the trees have just begun to thin, they encounter a small, agitated pack of the rust-colored hyenas that hunt the Dunan Hills. They're out of place here, unable to make use of the marsh's water Kan, and disorientation makes them aggressive. Elgar's blade sings, and Rue's knives crackle with light.

By the time they make it out of the marsh, the sun is sinking over the trees behind them. "We should make camp soon," Rue says, shading her eyes as she looks back.

Zephie wants to argue, but it's true. Footing will be treacherous in the dark, and more things are likely to be out hunting. "Let's look for a defensible spot, then," she says. "And we should set watches for the night."

"I can keep watch," Elgar says. "You should sleep."

Zephie frowns. "You don't have to prove yourself to me," she says. "I don't want you to exhaust yourself."

Elgar spreads his hands. "I may look like this," he says, "but I am a Sentinel. I need far less sleep than a human, even if that human is the Magna Carta."

It seems unfair to take advantage, but it also seems foolish to waste the opportunity to rest. "All right," Zephie says. "But I want you to tell me when you do need to rest. Be honest."

"Is that an order?" Elgar asks, and when she sees the little twist at the corner of his mouth Zephie realizes he's teasing her.

"Maybe," she says, smiling back. Her heart flutters. They're so much alike.

They find a defensible position in the foothills and share a quick meal -- Rue insists on doing all the cooking, even though Zephie offers to help. They have a small fire, but it probably won't last the night; Rue and Zephie curl up together as Elgar takes up a perch on a rock ledge above. This is no place for anything more intimate, between the uncomfortable ground and the awkwardness of Elgar's presence, but the touch is comforting all the same. Zephie closes her eyes and surrenders to her dreams.

*

She wakes to a hand on her shoulder, squeezing slowly. "Princess," Juto's voice says gently.

No. Not Juto's voice.

Zephie stirs, opening her eyes and looking up. It's gray dawn, and Elgar kneels beside them. He has removed his visor in the night, and his eyes are wide and open, incongruously innocent. "Something the matter?" she asks, reaching up without thinking about it to take his hand.

He startles slightly, surprise on his face for an instant; in Zephie's arms, Rue shifts sleepily. "Nothing," Elgar says, and Rue's eyes open. "It's getting light. If you're rested, we should move on soon."

"Thank you," Zephie says, squeezing Elgar's hand once before she lets him go. She isn't as rested as she would like to be; she's been dreaming of Juto again, of course, and this time she spent most of the night trying to find a way to talk to him, to tell him that help was on the way.

Elgar rises, stepping away to give them room to collect themselves. He slips the visor back over his eyes, and Zephie looks away.

Looks at Rue, who's sitting up now, and frowning. "What's the matter?" Zephie asks.

"I am...still dreaming of him," Rue says stiffly. "You must be, also."

Zephie nods. "Still," she says. "I hope we reach him soon." She rises, stretching to try to ease out the worst of the stiffness in her back and legs before they start moving again. These last few weeks of sitting still have softened her, she realizes; it's surprising how quickly one sheds the habit of hard travel.

They make their quick preparations, packing up their blankets and unpacking a few provisions they can eat while they're on the trail. Zephie watches the way Rue moves, the tiny tells in her shoulders and the set of her mouth.

"It isn't only the dreams," Zephie says gently. She and Rue have known each other for most of their lives. "Is something else bothering you?"

Rue glances past her, at Elgar, for just a moment, then drops her gaze. "You're...drawn to him, also," she says.

Zephie takes a breath, then hesitates. She can't deny it. She knows how little sense it makes, when they have been enemies before now. "Do you think I'm being foolish?" she asks.

"Often," Rue says, deadpan. Then she smiles. "But I would support any foolishness that made you happy." She stretches up on tiptoes and kisses Zephie's cheek.

"Oh, Rue," Zephie says. "I'm lucky to have you with me." She pulls Rue into an embrace, comfortable and familiar, the way Rue's head tucks into the hollow of her throat and Rue's arms wind around the curve of her waist. "I promise I'll be careful," Zephie murmurs, holding on tight. "And I promise I'll still want you, too, no matter what."

Rue squeezes her tight enough that her spine makes an audible crack, and Zephie laughs -- that's just what she needed to get the rest of the stiffness out of her back. "Thank you," Rue says softly as she lets go. "I trust you."

Zephie glances over at Elgar, but his face is impassive, his visor in place, and it's impossible to read him. "Let's go," Zephie says. "We have a long day ahead of us."

*

They spend the second day crossing the foothills, climbing into the higher reaches of Ruhalt. When they have the leisure -- when they aren't fending off more monsters agitated by the disrupted flow of Kan -- Zephie tries to draw her companions into conversation. It isn't easy; Rue has always been quiet, and Elgar is still something of a mystery. But she does her best, and though the conversation is halting, it does come.

It's a long, hard day of travel, and there are plenty of points when they simply can't spare the breath to talk. In the early afternoon, Zephie starts to feel a pull through the bond, Juto's distant but unmistakable presence, and she becomes their guide. The going is rough, taking them away from the trails across Ruhalt's plains and up into even more difficult territory. Loose rock crumbles and falls away beneath their feet, and more than once one of them has to catch another to keep from sliding back down a slope. The first time that Elgar reaches out to help Rue, it makes Zephie's breath catch with the sudden awareness of possibility.

The moment passes quickly; Rue finds her balance and Elgar lets go within seconds, and the murmured exchange of thanks takes barely longer. But the image -- the idea of them touching -- will stick with Zephie for a long time. She swallows hard. "This way," she says. "We're making progress."

Late afternoon, when the light is reddening over the hills, Rue starts to be able to feel the pull, too. Her connection to Juto is weaker -- she came through the ordeal to help Zephie succeed, but she wasn't the one with a Kamond to bind. If they're close enough now that she can feel his presence, too, then they must be doing well.

Still, despite their advantages, it's Elgar who finds what they're looking for. He's been ranging ahead, glancing back at them to make sure he isn't veering off-track, exploring the rocks and gullies, investigating the little stands of scrub brush. And then he reaches a spot where he stops, standing straight and alert, studying something in front of him. Like a hunting hound, Zephie thinks, smiling as she hurries to catch up.

"Have you found something?" she asks. She hopes so; the ground ahead grows ever steeper, and it won't be long before it's impassable at this rate.

Elgar points down, into the hollow ahead of him. "The crevasse there," he says.

It's half-hidden behind a scraggly thorn tree, but Zephie can see the dark shape of a cave mouth. Rue makes a thoughtful noise. "Caverns?" she says.

Zephie tunes her senses to the flow of Kan, lets herself follow the currents of the wind. Breezes cross the high-altitude landscape, swirl through the terrain; she feels the way they move, eddying around the cave. "I...don't think so," she says. "Not natural caverns, at least not for long. There's no Kan inside." She shakes her head. "We'll need to prepare some crystals before we can explore it."

"I'll go down and take a look," Elgar says. He starts down the slope into the hollow, a controlled stumble over the steep incline. He has no need to hoard Kan in advance to be able to use his skills in a barren environment. Sometimes Zephie wonders what that would be like, to be able to rely on the self-generated power of strength Kan instead of using wizardry -- whether it would be a blessing, or whether she would miss the ability to call on the energies of her environment; whether it would be draining, to have no way to call on more power. Will strength Kan disappear like all the rest? Eventually, they'll all find out.

In the meantime, she and Rue set to work, generating and collecting power; the wind whistles in Zephie's ears as she calls for it, and scorch marks blacken nearby rock as Rue pulls down lightning. In the ruins, they won't have any elemental Kan but what they bring with them, so it's crucial to charge enough crystals in advance that they can carry a plentiful supply. Rue's knives will still do some damage without the crackle of lightning along their blades, but they'd have no healing wizardry among them if Zephie couldn't use the wind.

The last light is dying by the time they have enough charged crystals to feel prepared, and the night promises to be cold. Elgar returns from his explorations, carrying a pair of fresh-killed pheasants in one hand. "There's a steep drop at the start of the cave," he says, "but it didn't sound like it went too far. It smelled empty. Stale. There's nothing living near the entrance, anyway." He holds out his prize. "I brought dinner."

"Thank you," Zephie says. They have rations, but fresh roasted meat does sound much more appetizing. "That was kind of you."

He nods. "Show me how you prepare them," he says to Rue. She frowns. "Will you show me how you prepare them," he corrects himself.

Rue nods. "I will," she says.

There's little to burn, up here; they pull together enough dry scrub branches to cook the birds, but it doesn't look like the fire will last much longer than that. Rue gives Elgar quiet, terse instructions for cleaning the birds and setting them over the fire; he doesn't say much to her in response, but he follows her instructions without complaint. The pheasants are delicious when they're cooked through, even with little to accompany them. The skin crackles and browns, fat dripping in the fire, and the meat is rich. It's a messy meal, but satisfying.

There's no chance they'll be able to scrounge enough fuel to keep the fire burning all night. It's already dying to coals by the time they finish eating. Rue unpacks their blankets and lays them out. Elgar turns away, slipping off his visor to be better able to see in the dark.

"Elgar," Zephie says, as she does her best to get comfortable. "You should come here, too."

That time both of them look like she's caught them off-guard. "You don't want me keeping watch?" Elgar says. His face gives away so much, with his visor off, hesitation and awkwardness and hope.

"We haven't seen anything dangerous in hours," Zephie says. "I think we've left them behind, since we got this high up. But it's going to be cold tonight."

He still hesitates; Zephie spends a moment in wishing ill on Schuenzeit in whatever afterlife he's gone to, for creating a servant who's able to kill without a second thought but unsure how to accept basic human kindness.

Rue takes a deep breath. "Come here, please," she says. She gestures to the spot on her other side.

Elgar takes a step closer. "Keeping yourself between me and the princess?" he says.

"For now," Rue says.

That's more lenient than Zephie expected her to be, really, and Elgar looks surprised for a moment himself before he sinks down to join them. "As you wish," he says, and Zephie expects him to add princess, but he doesn't; perhaps he's coming around, and she isn't quite the only one who matters to him anymore.

Rue lies with her back to Zephie's chest, facing Elgar; Zephie drapes an arm over her waist, hand resting on Elgar's bare arm. The blanket stretches just far enough to cover all of them. Zephie closes her eyes, and sleep overtakes her almost immediately.

*

In the morning, she's the first to wake. She stretches, gently easing free of the others, and props herself up on one elbow. Rue's head is buried in the hollow of Elgar's shoulder, and one of her hands clutches at his shirt. He has an arm thrown over her, the backs of his knuckles brushing Zephie's belly. Zephie smiles.

Elgar stirs, his eyes opening slowly. He looks...lost, confused, but grateful, too. Zephie reaches out and strokes his cheek gently, tracing the red marks that trail down from his eye, resting her hand against the line of his jaw. "Good morning," she says.

His smile is soft and sweet as Juto's. "Good morning, princess," he says.

She shakes her head. "It's Zephie," she says. "That's what my friends call me."

"Rue doesn't," he says.

Zephie looks down as Rue stirs at the sound of her name. "That's because Rue is extremely stubborn," she says.

"Had to be," Rue says, "to have any chance of keeping up with you."

"I suppose that's true," Zephie says. She leans down to kiss Rue good morning, and Rue smiles against her mouth. "Now. Let's go find him."

It's the work of moments to pack up their simple camp. They break their fast with bread and dried fruit, pack their belongings, and make their way down to the mouth of the cave. They're definitely going in the right direction; Zephie can feel the bond pulling her toward Juto.

Still, even with Elgar's assurance that nothing waits for them below, it's not easy to face the drop into the dark. But Juto did what she demanded of him and didn't die, so now it's up to her to be a good master and bring him home.

Zephie calls the wind, while they're still at the surface where she can -- with a little coaxing it eases their way down, giving them a gentle descent instead of letting them plummet. The path stretches into pure blackness ahead.

Rue fumbles for a lightning crystal, holding it up as it crackles yellow in her hand. "This way," she says.

The darkness forces them to stick close together, so they don't lose track of each other, and by unspoken agreement there's no conversation. Rue's crystal only sheds light a few paces ahead of them; they need to listen carefully for any hints of trouble further on. After a few minutes of cautious exploration, the uneven natural cavern gives way to something plainly manmade, a hallway of straight lines and sharp angles -- or the remains of one, anyway. It's falling to ruin now, cracks in the walls, a few spots collapsed and half-filled with rubble. Zephie tries to keep moving and not think too hard about what would happen if more of the supports gave way now.

The stonework looks like it dates back to the age of the Carta; Zephie wonders if this place was built below a mountain, or if it was buried later -- buried during Strass's great war. She shudders.

They reach a set of steps, canted slightly to one side but still navigable. Climbing them is hard work; the air is stale and thin. At the top of the staircase, the hallway stretches off in three directions.

Rue holds the crystal high, and looks back at Zephie.

"Left," Zephie says.

They turn without hesitation, heading up the twisting passage. Once they have to climb awkwardly over a pile of rubble, and loose pieces of rock clatter into the darkness. They're still moving further up, as best Zephie can tell.

"Do you smell that?" Elgar says eventually, pausing. "The air is different."

Zephie and Rue stop, too. "It's moving," Zephie says. "This passage must have an exit somewhere."

"Onward," Rue says. Zephie nods.

Another twenty steps, thirty, and then Rue lowers her crystal, hiding it beneath her hands. True darkness, for an instant, but then as Zephie's eyes start to adjust she can see faint blue light ahead.

"Close," Elgar says. "We'll find First there?"

"I think so," Zephie says. She can feel him now, so close by.

Elgar takes a deep breath; it sounds almost nervous. "Let's go."

Rue takes out the crystal again to light their way up the hall; they move as quickly as they dare in the dark.

They reach the doorway and step through into a high-ceilinged, domed room that's a masterpiece of Carta-period architecture. Pillars stretch upward, ornately carved, and the ceiling is set with starburst patterns of stained glass, dappling the tiled floor with blue and green light. In the center of the room --

"A Sentinel," Zephie breathes. It squats in the center of the room on half a dozen slender metallic legs, easily twice the height of a man, its violent purpose evident.

Elgar shakes his head. "A Guardian," he says. He's smiling, but it's not a happy expression. "The enemy of the Sentinels."

Rue shoots him an alarmed look. "We may be able to pass without awakening it," she says. "Look. There's a spot on the other side where the wall is caved in. That's where we're going, isn't it?"

"Yes," Zephie says. "Quietly, then. Everyone be careful."

Rue takes point, knives in hand, and Zephie follows, with Elgar close behind her. They skirt around the edge of the room, hugging the wall, watching the Guardian's spidery metallic legs warily. For a minute it looks like they'll manage just fine; Rue is almost to the hole in the wall, and Zephie only a few steps back -- and then the Guardian lurches to life with a whine and a screech of steel. The ruby eye set in the center of its head glows, and it turns toward them.

It lashes out one skeletal leg, striking the floor where Elgar had been only seconds before -- he dives, rolling away from its strike, and draws his sword as he rises. The second time it attacks, he meets the blow with a strike of his sword. Metal squeals, showering sparks.

"Rue," Zephie says, fumbling for her own supply of crystals. Rue nods, breaking open the one she'd been using for light.

The Guardian backs away, limbs clicking as they strike the floor. The light in its single eye swells, growing brighter.

Zephie calls the wind she's just unleashed, using her Kan to lift Rue into the air, to give her leverage. Rue charges her oversized shuriken, makes it crackle bright with the power of lightning, and sends it hurtling down into the Guardian's back. The monster thrashes and staggers, its building power disrupted.

"What are you doing?" Elgar says as Rue lands lightly on her feet. "It's not after you!"

"I'm not losing anyone on this mission!" Zephie says. She charges her rod, blasting the Guardian as it recovers its balance. "You came this far with us, and I won't leave you behind!"

Elgar doesn't answer, but Zephie thinks she sees him smile for a second before he launches himself at the Guardian again.

It still tries to focus on him, but that's not so easy with Rue harrying it, blasting its metal frame with charges of lightning; the influx of Kan in the room makes the hair on Zephie's arms stand up, makes the air feel charged and alive in sharp contrast to the dead stillness of the buried hallways. She offers her attacks when she can, keeping the wind alive in the domed room, and heals the others when the Guardian's vicious strikes make them stagger. It treats both her and Rue as annoyances, distracting it from its real focus. Elgar is forced to fight defensively, countering its onslaught more often than he initiates attacks himself.

The Guardian backs him into a corner, and Zephie feels panicked for an instant. She gathers as much Kan as she can manage and focuses it into light, a bolt that spears down into the Guardian's back. It lurches and nearly falls, and in that instant Zephie remembers: the first Guardian, the one Juto defeated. "There's a weak spot on the top of its head!" she calls.

Elgar nods once, launching himself into the air. He touches down for an instant on the joint of the Guardian's nearest leg, pushing himself off to reach higher. Zephie holds her breath; time seems to slow. The Kan sigils beneath Elgar's skin glow bright for an instant, marking his bare back and arm with brilliant fire-red patterns as he reaches the apex of the leap and dives, blade first, toward the Guardian's vulnerable point.

There's a horrible roar, and then the Guardian bursts in a ball of flame -- Zephie barely has time to see it happening before Rue is tackling her, dragging her behind one of the pillars. They land hard enough that Zephie feels the breath knocked out of her, but the heat washing past isn't enough to singe, and the pillar shields them from the fragments that strike the wall on either side of them.

"Princess," Rue says, her voice tight with worry.

Zephie shakes her head. "I'm fine," she says. She's bruised, but it's nothing serious. "Elgar," she says, and pulls herself to her feet.

The Guardian's remains smoke and spit sparks in the middle of the room, the tiles scorched around it. Elgar lies slumped against one of the pillars on the far side of the room, his sword flung aside, blood trickling from his mouth. Zephie runs toward him.

"Elgar!" she says. There's no response, but he's still breathing, his chest rising and falling in quick, shallow breaths. Zephie snaps another wind crystal and calls for the healing wind, then a second time when the first doesn't seem like enough.

Slowly, his breathing deepens, and he stirs. His eyes flutter and open slowly, bright sweet blue. He blinks up at her, confused. "Princess?" he says. "Zephie. You're...worried about me?"

She nods, taking his hand. "Of course," she says.

"But...First is the one you want," he says.

"It's not that simple," Zephie says. "It's true that you can't replace Juto. But it's also true that he can't replace you." She leans down and kisses Elgar's forehead gently. "You're both good men, and I want you both with me. With us," she amends, as Rue comes up behind her to place a hand on her shoulder.

Elgar nods, smiling slightly. "Thank you," he says. "Zephie."

She and Rue each offer a hand, helping him to his feet; he's unsteady for a moment, but he recovers quickly. "All right," Zephie says. "Let's find Juto, so we can all go home."

They must be close; the sense of Juto's presence laps at Zephie's consciousness like a wave against the shore. She steps through the gap in the great room's far wall, with Rue and Elgar close behind her. The architecture is different here, and there's light, though it's hard to determine the source; it's hard for Zephie to get her bearings at all in the strange space, but after a moment she recognizes the echoing openness. "La Strada?" she murmurs.

"It fell in sections," Rue says. "People have been salvaging from any crash sites they could reach, but they wouldn't have found this one easily."

"Tread carefully," Elgar says as Zephie starts further into the ruin. She'll do her best, but they're so close now.

"Juto!" she calls, winding her way through the odd, almost-natural shapes of the fallen fortress. "Can you hear me?"

They all pause for a moment, waiting, and then the voice comes back to them: "Hello?" Distant, but unmistakable. "Zephie?"

"This way," Elgar says, starting out across a narrow, twisting path. Zephie follows, quickly as she can, with Rue at her heels. The path circles around, sloping downward, and when it ends at a wide platform Elgar stops so abruptly that Zephie nearly runs into him. "There," he says.

Zephie steps down onto the platform by herself, breaking into a run -- it's Juto, he's there, they've found him at last. He's sitting slumped against a stone dais, and when he sees her coming he breaks into a broad smile. "Zephie!" he says, struggling to get to his feet, but the effort makes him wince.

"Stay where you are," Zephie says, without thinking about it, and they both startle when Kan snaps between them at the directness of the order. "I'm sorry," she says, hurrying to his side, sinking down beside him. "I didn't want you to hurt yourself, that's all." She breaks open the last of her wind crystals, releasing Kan into the room around them.

"It's okay," Juto says, shaking his head. "You know I -- I don't mind."

Heat flushes Zephie's cheeks; she does know that, and to say Juto doesn't mind her orders is...an understatement. She calls for the wind she just released into the ruin, using her power to heal the injuries he's sustained.

"Thanks," he says, relaxing under her care, visibly more comfortable. "That feels so much better. I tried to find a way out of here, but I ran into this Guardian that had other ideas."

Zephie winces sympathetically; it wouldn't be a good battle for anyone to face alone. "I'm sorry it took us so long to come find you," she says.

"Us?" Juto says. Before Zephie can answer she sees his glance flicker past her, and his eyes go wide.

She looks back to see Rue dragging Elgar forward, one hand clenched firmly around his wrist. "Us," she says. Elgar looks nervous, tense as if he's expecting a fight.

"Wow," Juto says. He climbs to his feet, and Zephie rises with him. "Wouldn't have thought you'd come along for something like this."

"The princess asked me to," Elgar says defensively. "She chose me."

They'll still have to work to resolve their problems, Zephie thinks, but they don't have to do it here or now. This is already progress. "I'm grateful for your help," she tells Elgar. "And I've been glad to have your company, too. Now." She looks at Rue, at Juto, including them in her next suggestion. "I think it's time for all of us to go home."

Lanzheim may have some difficult years ahead, it's true; but they'll have each other, and they'll be all right.