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Violets in the Window Box

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Artemis wakes to a sharp chill in the air. She fell asleep with her bedroom window open. Her breath condenses as she blows on her hands to warm them. The glass windowpane is coated with a thin layer of frost. She curses. It's only November, it shouldn't be this cold for another few weeks. Her to-do list is full enough without having to squeeze in chop extra firewood.

"Artemis!"

Her Father's voice shakes the whole house, as do his heavy boot-steps stomping from the entryway to the kitchen. Artemis' shoulders tense, and she clutches her blanket to her chest. His "hunting trip" was supposed to keep him away for a week. Why is he back after only two days?

Artemis gets out of bed with her blanket slung over her shoulders. The hard, wooden floor is like ice on her bare feet. She steps into her house-slippers before crossing the room to deal with her window.

During the springtime violets sprung up in her window box. She still isn't sure how they ended up there. She didn't plant them them. Her Father certainly didn't either, as he's allergic to flowers and hates all things feminine and colorful. Last night's frost should have killed them off. There's chunks of ice in the soil, but the little flowers are vibrant purple and in full bloom. She plucks a petal, and it's warm, as though it was basking in the glow of the summer sun.

"Artemis, what's taking you so long?"

Artemis jumps. With a loud thunk her head collides with the top of her windowpane. Lingering in her room will only worsen his already foul mood. She shuts her window and shoves all thoughts of flowers aside as she moves to join her Father in the kitchen.

Her Father taps his fingers on the kitchen table with his eyebrows furrowed and his lips pursed in a severe frown. His fingernails are caked with dirt and dried blood. He never wears gloves, prefering to do his dirty work with his bare hands. It's one of the many things about him that disgusts her.

"Hey Dad, how was your… hunting trip?"

He narrows his eyes and scowls. It's as if he thinks the Royal Guard is standing outside their house, listening to their conversation, and waiting for him to confess what The Light, his so called hunting group, was actually out doing.

"What is this?" He thrusts a paper in front of her face. It's a flier advertising the Royal Guard's search for new members. Damn, it was careless of her to leave it out in the open. If he ever got the slightest hint she wants to join… She keeps a neutral face, but her heart rate spikes to a fast and frenzied beat.

"It's nothing. Some guy was going door-to-door passing them out. I thought we could use it for kindling."

Her father grunts, but seems satisfied with her fib as he doesn't press her further. He leans back in his chair and kicks his muddy boots up onto the table.

"I noticed we're out of ale. I told you to buy more while I was away."

"Sorry, I haven't gotten round to it yet. I was going to go to the marketplace later today."

She wants to tell him how re-thatching the roof should take priority over buying alcohol. She toiled over it yesterday until the sun dipped low on the horizon. Of course, he isn't going to thank her when the rain isn't dripping into their house, or when she mops all the mud he's tracked in, or when she gets back from the marketplace with his stupid ale. He shouldn't even be drinking this early, another thing she could tell him. But in this situation, she wagers it's best she hold her tongue.

Her father fishes three gold coins from his pocket and slams them onto the table. "You'll go now, and you'll return within the hour, understand?"

"Yes Dad."

"I don't want you wasting precious daylight idling around and gossiping with friends. We have training to do."

Artemis nods, biting back a retort about how she doesn't have friends to gossip with anyway. She collects the coins, throws on her cloak and boots, and heads off to the marketplace.

Artemis was born to a family of assassins and thieves. She knew the feel of a bow and arrow between her fingers before she could spell her name. While the other children played games on the street, her Father taught her how to move so quietly the Royal Guards wouldn't hear her steps. She knows all the vulnerable spots on the human body. Where to land her blows to inflict the most pain, what angle to slice a man's throat so he can't scream. She knows a dozen ways to kill someone with only her hands.

He thinks he taught her everything she knows.

Her father planned for her and her sister to become two more weapons in his arsenal. Except Jade ran away seven years ago. She didn't waste time after her mother's arrest to get out from under their father's thumb. Now the Crock family legacy rests on her shoulders. A fact her Father is quick to remind her of whenever she so much as pauses to take a breath during their training sessions.

The marketplace is too chipper for this cold, cloudy morning. Shopkeepers and patrons smile and chattering on about something. Artemis catches a few of the same phrases: Prince Wallace, marriage, ball. She might have to break her promise to her Dad to find out what all this is about.

"Good morning Miss." A girl around her age approaches her. A scarlet beret covers her black curls, and the bag over her shoulder carries a lightning bolt insignia. A royal messenger. "Have you received your invitation yet?"

Artemis shakes her head. Something about this girl's pink cheeks and rosewater perfume makes her tongue-tied. The girl tips her hat, and presses into her hand a scroll rolled tied with a red ribbon. Despite the cold, her hands are warm, and far too soft for that of an ordinary laborer.

"Well, carry on with your shopping." She smiles once more before turning on her heel to go.

Her curiosity piqued, Artemis unravels the parchment and squints at the ornate, golden calligraphy. It's an invitation. There's to be a ball in celebration of Prince Wallace's 18th birthday. All eligible maidens are encouraged to attend.

She re-reads the last line. It's nearing time for the Prince to be married, and yet he hasn't announced his fiancee. Could he be selecting his bride from among the girls in the kingdom? It would explain why everyone's in a tizzy.

Artemis entertains the thought of being the Princess. She would live in a castle and wear fine jewels and never have to worry about things like hunger or her Father's temper. And she's seen The Prince's portrait in the town square. There's a boyish charm to him, with freckles and fiery red hair. She's heard tales of his intelligence and charity. As far as husbands go, she could do far worse.

She shakes her head. She'd never be satisfied with a life of sitting still and looking pretty, being seen and not heard. She craves action and adventure, and getting her hands dirty in the process. Besides, she knows how these things go. Sure the Prince says he'll consider every girl in the kingdom, but he'll end up marrying the daughter of a low-ranking nobleman or a wealthy merchant.

And it's not like her Father would let her go the ball, even if she wanted to. He'll say it's the perfect training opportunity. All those empty, unguarded mansions full of jewels and expensive artwork. The temptation will be too sweet for him to pass up.

Artemis crumbles up the invitation and stuffs it into her pocket. Later that night she uses it for kindling.

-

Her Father ends their training session early the night of the ball. She doesn't think anything of it. Perhaps he needs time to prepare for his night of thievery with The Light. He hasn't asked her to accompany him, as she feared he might. She can kick off her boots, relax her shoulders, and cook a supper for one as she'll have the house to herself. But as she's chopping up carrots, her Father appears from nowhere and thrusts a long, flat box in front of her. Her knife clatters to the floor, and she takes the parcel into her unsuspecting arms.

"Here, this is for you."

"What is it?" She asks.

"Just open it."

Artemis raises an eyebrow. Her Father isn't the type to pass out presents as though he's Saint Nicholas. She lifts the lid, and her eyes widen at the contents. It's a dress. No-- it's a ball gown. It's a pale pink, and made from a thick, woolen fabric coarse to the touch. Gingerly she takes it out from the box and holds it up against her frame. The bottom hem runs several inches past her feet, already gathering breadcrumbs and dirt from their unswept floor.

"Well, aren't you going to say thank you." Her father stares at her, waiting, with a satisfied smirk.

"Where did you get this?"

"Does it matter? You want to go to the ball don't you?"

"I--" Artemis hesitates. This dress must be stolen, or purchased with stolen money. She thinks of the shopkeeper who spent hours or days laboring on this dress and lost out on a profit. Or the girl who dreamed of dancing away the evening and now has nothing to wear.

Her Father puts a hand on her shoulder, and leans in to whisper in her ear. "I have an arrangement with my hunting group, Artemis. Make a favorable impression on the Prince, and you will be Queen."

At that hot anger surges through her. He wants her to seduce the Prince so he can have an ear in the court. And once again her Father proves how little he thinks of others unless he has something to gain from it. After all, this is the same man who let her mother, his wife, take the fall for his crimes. Artemis still doesn't understand how she could do something so selfless for a man who's never once thought of anyone but himself.

Artemis stuffs the dress back into its box.

"I'm not going to the ball."

All her Father's false kindness is gone in an instant. His fists clench, and scowls at her as though she's scum on the bottom of his shoe.

"You ungrateful child. I do something nice for you and this is how you respond? You will go to the ball."

"I won't ."

"You will."

Her Father seizes her by the wrist. She kicks his thigh, grabs his wrist, and twists, forcing him to let go of her. It's a move she learned from her mother. He glares red-faced and lunges, but she's out of his reach. She does the only thing she can think to do. She runs.

Artemis sprints out the door and into the forest. Her Father shouts after her, but he doesn't follow beyond their back door. She runs fast and far until her legs are on fire and her chest is heaving. Then she keeps going until her body quits and she can't go another step. She collapses onto a tree stump.

Artemis has never ventured this far into the woods. The path is unfamiliar. She shivers. The temperature is starting to drop and soon it will be dark. How will she find her way back? Because she has to go back.  She has no one to turn to. She has no money. She's not going to make her way as a thief, but she has no skills to find a real job. A Royal Guardsman doesn't count. It's time to tuck her heart's ambition away.

Sitting alone in this dark forest, Artemis feels small and helpless. She wishes for her mother, or a friend, or even just a pair of shoes. She didn't have time to put her boots on before she ran, and her toes are starting to go numb.

From out of nowhere, without any warning, an impossibly bright light appears before her. Artemis has to turn away and holds her arm in front of her face to shield her eyes. She's heard stories of spirits lurking deep in the forest. People who wander alone at night and are never heard from again. That's what's at the forefront of her mind when she lowers her arm to look into the eyes of it's source.

"Hello Artemis."

It's the royal messenger from the marketplace. Except she holds herself differently, and she's wearing a long dress that shimmers and almost looks to be made out of light.

"Who are you? How do you know my name?"

"I'm Zatanna, and I'm your Fairy Godmother."

Well… that's certainly a name for a Fairy Godmother. But in the stories her Mother used to tell fairy godmothers were older women, with wild, grey hair and laugh lines. Zatanna is too young, and far too pretty. With sparkle in her eyes and perfect curls she has this strange urge to run her fingers through.

"You're my Fairy Godmother?"

"Well-- my Dad is actually. I'm… stepping in for him at the moment."

"What happened to your Dad?"

"Isn't someone feeling inquisitive tonight?" Zatanna's expression goes solemn. "It's not a pleasant story I'm afraid, and we haven't the time for it anyway. If we don't get started soon you'll be late for the ball."

Artemis groans. She's run all this way, and she still can't escape from this stupid ball. "Ugh.. not you too. I don't want to marry the Prince."

"Who said anything about marrying the Prince?" Zatanna laughs, soft and breathy. "You deserve a night of carefree fun. I'd like to give that to you, if you want it."

"I do." She says, surprising herself with her eagerness. "But-- I don't have anything to wear."

"Leave that to me."

Zatanna takes her by the hands and pulls her up from tree stump. She looks her up and down, and grins. "Hmm... I bet green would look lovely on you. And your hair is so long and absolutely gorgeous. It would be a shame to pin it up, don't you think?"

Uh… whatever you think is best." Artemis feels her face heat up, and she shifts her weight from one foot to the other.

Zatanna raises her arms, and her voice reverberates unnaturally against the trees as she chants in tongues. Artemis is engulfed in a cloud of smoke and lightning. A chill runs down her spine. She tries to scream, but there's no air. But as quick as the cloud forms, it dissipates.

Zatanna beams at her. "Sorry, I should have warned you about that. I forgot how frightening it can be the first time. But you look beautiful."

Artemis stares at her hands, now clad in fine white gloves that reach her elbows. Her old work dress has transformed into a long, flowing ball gown. It's emerald green, and strapless with a sweetheart neckline. The fabric is soft as silk, and seems to sparkle in the moonlight. Gone too is her messy ponytail. Her hair cascades down her back in delicate curls. Woven in are tiny violets, which must be held in place by magic as there aren't any clips on her head.

"Nrut siht snikpmup onti a esroh dna egairrac." Zatanna chants again. Artemis realizes this time she's not speaking in tongues, but saying her words backwards.

The patch of pumpkins are engulfed in smoke, and emerge as a gilded carriage and four dapple horses. Artemis gazes at her reflection on the door. Her lashes are long and dark, and there's a light dusting of rouge on her cheeks.

"So… what's the catch?" Artemis asks.

"What do you mean?"

"Isn't there always a catch with this magic stuff? Does the spell wear off at midnight? Do I owe you my firstborn child? Will I turn into a frog tomorrow?"

Zatanna looks amused. "No, there's no catch, I promise. It's a gift."

"Oh. I-- thank you." Artemis is at a loss of words. People aren't nice to her like this. At least, not without expecting something in return.

"You're very welcome Artemis. Oh! One last thing. I can't believe I forgot." Zatanna mimes smacking her forehead. " Ssalg sreppils ."

From thin air Zatanna creates a pair of sparkling, crystal heels. Artemis slips them on, expecting them to be uncomfortable, but they're molded to the shape of her feet. They don't sink into the mud as she steps into her carriage. Zatanna waves at her as she settles into the plush velvet seat. She waves back with a shy smile, and at lightning speed she's whisked away to the palace.

As the world passes by in a blur outside the carriage window, Artemis takes a moment to catch her breath and gather her thoughts. What a whirlwind this evening's been, and it's only just begun.

Heads turn as Artemis walks down the grand staircase into the ballroom. It's a mixed bag of expressions. Some gawk openly. Others sneer with distaste. Her eyes dart around, searching for the object of their intrigue. She's hit with a revelation-- it's her.

An uncomfortable feeling settles in her stomach. Her palms sweat inside her gloves. Her dress is far finer than anyones-- even the wealthy, noble ladies. She's a peacock among pigeons. Is this jealousy? Are the other girls worried she'll steal the Prince's heart before they get the chance? She wants to shout to the masses she isn't interested in him. Maybe then they'll stop staring at her.

Or-- what if they sense she doesn't belong here? That she doesn't come from wealth or nobility, and she's the daughter of one of the kingdom's most wanted criminals. Perhaps they think she stole the dress and the heels. Who would believe her if she said it was a gift from a fairy in the woods? She hasn't done anything wrong, and yet here she is feeling out of place an guilty over nothing.

Artemis crosses the ballroom to a banquet table laden with heaping platters of food and drink. She takes a goblet of red wine. She's never much enjoyed the taste of alcohol, but it gives her hands something to do. She seats herself far from all the excitement. So she's a wallflower. Well-- it's not the worst way to spend an evening. At least she's warm, and there's food and music. Though the orchestra is scarcely audible over all the scattered bits of conversation.

Several couples have taken to the dancefloor, some confident, others stepping on their partner's toes. Others mingle by the grand staircase, or the banquet table where Prince Wallace sits deep in conversation with a dark-haired gentleman next to him. Several ladies eye the Prince with interest, but the only things that have captured his attention for more than a minute are his companion, and the rotisserie hen on his plate.

"Mind if I join you?"

Zatanna's changed into a black jacket with shiny, silver epaulettes and a yellow sash across her chest. Her hair is tied back into a low ponytail, and her shiny leather boots reach her knees. It's a man's outfit, yet the way it clings to her curves is so distinctly feminine. She wears it better than any gentleman ever could.

"Of course." She looks away, only realizing now she's staring, and tucks a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "I wasn't expecting you."

Zatanna raises an eyebrow. "You didn't think I'd abandon you, did you? My mission is to make sure you have a perfect night. And right now, you don't look like you're having very much fun."

She shrugs. "It's nothing. I'm just not very good at mingling."

Artemis takes a sip from her wine goblet and finds it's too bitter for her liking. Zatanna rests her elbows on the table, and stares at her with her chin resting on her hands.

"I think I was wrong." Zatanna says.

"Wrong about what?" She asks.

"Perhaps what you need isn't a party and a pretty dress. Perhaps what you need is a friend." Zatanna pauses. Artemis thinks of something to say to fill the silence, and comes up with nothing. Zatanna stands, pushing her chair back under the table, and offers her a gloved hand.

"Care to dance?" She asks with a soft smile.

Artemis hesitates only a moment before taking her hand. She intertwines their fingers as Zatanna leads her to the ballroom floor.

The orchestra plays a quick, upbeat waltz. Couples sway around them. The other gentlemen hold their partners at arm's length and keep their guiding hand under what looks to be their partner's armpit. Zatanna wastes no time with modesty, and places a gentle hand on her waist and holds her in a close, almost intimate embrace.

"I don't really know what I'm doing." Artemis says. She means it to be about dancing, but her answer can be taken a multitude of ways.

"Start with your right foot." Zatanna whispers in her ear. "Step back, side, together. Then forward, side, together. And repeat."

Artemis repeats the steps over and over in her head until she doesn't have to. She looks up from glass slippers into Zatanna's eyes without fear she will tread on her toes. Zatanna smiles at her, tender and warm. Artemis can't help but return it.

With each new song the orchestra plays they attempt more complex steps. Zatanna leads and they turn it tight circles. Artemis raises her arm and Zatanna spins underneath her. Zatanna puts a hand on the small of her back and dips her low. Then they aren't doing any kind of dance, just holding each other close and spinning out of time with the music.

As the night winds down they return to their table and share a plate of warm bread and roasted vegetables, though Artemis does most of the eating. She's far more famished than she realized. Around her several ladies have removed their shoes and rub red, angry blisters. After all the dancing she thought she'd be joining them, but her feet, clad in their glass slippers, feel fine.

"Care for a walk?" Artemis asks. Zatanna nods.

They stroll through an garden of marble fountains and tall hedges. The cobblestone path is lit by soft lanterns and the bright sliver of the moon. They walk so close that their hands brush occasionally. The flowers almost seem to bloom to life as they pass, filling the air with their sweet scent. Artemis pauses at a patch of purple geraniums. She plucks one and tucks it behind Zatanna's ear.  

"Are you using your magic on these flowers?" She asks.

Zatanna shakes her head. "These are carefully maintained by the Royal Gardener."

"What about the violets in my window box?"

She smirks. "Guilty as charged. It's what my Dad called- calls- ordinary magic. Little things you wouldn't notice, but still brighten your day just a bit."

Artemis thinks back to the times the rain seemed to stop just as she was leaving the house, or how the scrapes on her elbows and knees always seem to heal overnight. She thought it was dumb luck, but all this time she's had someone watching over her.

"So making glass slippers and turning pumpkins into carriages? Is that ordinary magic?"

"Uh... not exactly." It's hard to say from the dim lantern lights, but it almost looks like a blush sweeps across her cheeks. "Strictly speaking, fairy godparents aren't supposed to present themselves to their godchildren. I may or may not have broken several rules tonight."

"Why?"

"Because I wanted to make you happy."

And it's like something shifts between them. Zatanna must feel it too, as her expression softens. They're so close. Artemis can smell Zatanna's rosewater perfume. She wants to trace her jawline with her thumb, and taste the sweet cider on her breath.

Ding Dong Ding Dong

The clocktower bells chime for the hour. It's midnight. They both jump back in alarm. Artemis shivers. The night air is frigid on her bare shoulders. This is all moving so fast. She's only just met this girl. This beautiful girl, who makes flowers bloom for her and took risks and broke rules so she could have a taste of happiness.   

"You look cold. Do you want to go back inside?" Zatanna asks.

Artemis nods, even though every impulse is telling her to stay. As they walk Zatanna removes her jacket and places it on her shoulders. Once back inside they warm up with mugs of hot cider. Artemis nibbles on a fruit pastry, though she doesn't have much of an appetite.

The ball is nearly over now. The orchestra finishes their piece, and instead of starting another they pack up their instruments. Ball goers climb up the grand staircase back to the palace entrance. Prince Wallace sits snoozing at his banquet table with his head balanced his hand.

Outside the palace Artemis' carriage idles at the front of the line. Courtesy of Zatanna pulling a few magical strings she's sure. Zatanna offers a hand as she steps into the carriage, then she slides in beside her so close their shoulders touch. Their carriage sits motionless for a minute. Artemis hadn't noticed earlier, but this coach has no driver.

"Why aren't we moving?" She asks.

"It's waiting for you to give directions."

"I… don't know where to go." An uncomfortable lump forms at the back of her throat And she feels stupid and small again. This whirlwind of excitement temporarily erased from her memory that she no longer has a home

" Evird. " Zatanna chants, and the carriage springs to life.

Zatanna puts an arm around her, and she rests her head in the crook of her neck. Her eyelids are heavy, and she can feel herself nodding off as their carriage races to an unknown destination.

Artemis is so tired.

--

The sky is a murky grey when Artemis wakes, and rain falls in fat droplets around her. Though not on her, like there's an invisible barrier above her head. She lies in the forest on a bed of soft, purple flowers.

Her ballgown is gone, transformed back into her plain work dress. Though it's cleaner than she remembers and the hole on her elbow is patched. Her hair too has returned to its usual straight, tangled mess, but some of the flowers from last night still remain. Instead of picking them out, she leave them there as a reminder of the strange but wonderful night, and the even stranger but wonderful girl.

Artemis stands, and finds her feet are bare. Her glass slippers are gone, or transformed into something else. A more sensible shoe, perhaps? Her eyes scan the forest floor, not sure what to look for aside from something that doesn't belong. There's a cluster of pumpkins with smiling jack-o-lantern faces carved into them-- the horses and carriage she assumes. Then, leaning against a sturdy oak tree, she spots it. A magnificent bow carved of dark, glossy wood, and a leather quiver with green feather fletchings sticking out.

Her fingers itch looking at it. She takes a few practice shots. The bow is perfectly balanced in her hand, and the arrows are sharp as a tac and soar without drag through the air. It's better than a pair of shoes, better than anything Zatanna could have given her.

Artemis feels reinvigorated, her strength back in full. With this bow and this quiver, they Royal guard will have to let her in, and if not she can make her own way. She's not going to become her Father. She can use all the lessons he drilled into her and turn them around to do something good. This isn't the end, it's the beginning of a grand, new adventure.

She slings the bow and quiver over her shoulder, and follows the forest path to the village, then the castle, then the Royal Guard's practice area. Artemis straightens her spine and gathers her confidence, and approaches the man who appears to be in charge.

"Excuse me, I wanted to know if there's any open positions in the Royal Guard?"

He looks at her for a second before wrinkling his nose. "I admire your spirit, Miss, but we aren't interested."

She grabs him by the shoulder and spins him round. "Let me at least give you a demonstration of my skills. Aside from archery, I can--"

"As I already told you, we aren't interested. We don't take women, and the bow is a coward's weapon."

"Then let me give you a demonstration in hand to hand combat."

"Get this girl out of here." He motions to two guards with broad shoulders, who grab her by the arms and lead her away.

"Let go of me!" Artemis counts five ways she can escape their hold and knock them flat on their backs, but beating up guardsmen seems counterproductive to getting on this man's good side.

"What's going on here?" An unfamiliar voice rings out from the entryway. The guardsmen all drop to their knee as a ginger-haired man enters the room. It's Prince Wallace. The Guard's leader opens his mouth to speak, but she shouts over him before he can say anything.

"I didn't do anything! I only asked to join your Royal Guard, and now they're escorting me out."

"Why didn't you give her an audience?"

"You can't be serious Sir! I mean look at her-- she's not even wearing shoes."

The Prince turns and gives her a hard look up and down. She meets his stare, but curls her bare toes. His expression reads curiosity, but she can't tell if it's positive intrigue, or negative.

"I wasn't aware archery required shoes." Prince Wallace laughs, and shoots her a coquettish smile. "I say we give the lady a fair shot."

She bows her head. "Thank you, your Highness."

Prince Wallace gestures to a portrait of himself on the wall. It's a larger, nearly lifesize version of the one hanging in the town square. "I'll tell you what, archer, if you can hit this from 20 paces away, I will take you into the Royal Guard with open arms."

She smirks. He makes it sound like this is a challenge.

"Make it 40 paces."

He shrugs. "Have it your way."

Artemis counts her steps aloud, and walks with a gait far wider than normal. The other Guardsmen drop their practicing to watch. Good, she's in a mood to show off. She draws her bow and takes aim, her heartbeat steady as a drum. She releases an arrow, then without missing a beat releases another. They each lodge dead center in one of the portrait's deep, black pupils.

-

There's a small, flickering candlelight from inside her old house, and smoke rising from the chimney. Amazing, he can start a fire without her assistance. She knocks on the door twice, then lets herself in. He's in the kitchen, drinking of course. He looks up from his mug and smirks.

"I knew you'd come back eventually, Baby Girl."

He reaches to caress her chin. She steps back, and thrusts her shiny, new Guardsmen's badge in front of him.

"Lawrence Crock, you're under arrest for crimes against the kingdom."

He scoffs and waves her hand away, but she notices the brief hesitation and a flash of fear in his eyes.

"Very funny, Artemis. Like the Royal Guard would take you in. Tell me, do they know where you come from, who your family is?"

She hesitates, but only for a moment. She hasn't let them in on that detail yet, but she isn't going to let him goad her. "The Royal Guard is waiting for you outside. Look out the window if you don't believe me."

He peeks over her shoulder, where a dozen armed guards stand with their weapons drawn. He moves for the backdoor. She was expecting this. She kicks him in the back of the knees, sending him flailing to the floor. Before he can get up she pins him down with all her weight. He squirms under her hold, trying to break free, but she remains steadfast.

"You can either come quietly without making a fuss, or I can knock you out. Your choice Dad."

Her Father isn't one to surrender in a fight. It's one thing they do have in common. He twists with all and knocks her off him. Her back collides with the kitchen table. Before he can manage to stand she kicks him in the stomach, then in the head. His body goes limp, and he's out cold. Artemis binds his hands behind his back, and heaves his unconscious body over her shoulder.

Prince Wallace, she's found, is a ruler who likes to throw himself into action, rather than sitting on a throne while others do his bidding. Which is why she isn't surprised when he appears at her side, and helps her carry her Father and place him into the barred cart bound for the Kingdom jail. She smirks with satisfaction as it rolls down her street and out of sight.

"I'm impressed," The Prince says, "you've done more in your first week than some of my Guardsmen have done in years."

"Thank you, Your Highness." She curtseys, wobbling as she bends her knees. Funny how taking down foes twice her size comes naturally to her, but poise and elegance does not.

"No need to be so formal. Call me Wally." The Prince- Wally- says. "May I ask something of you, Artemis?"

"Of course."

"You're aware I'm supposed to be selecting a fiancee, correct?"

Artemis nods. She's heard all sorts of rumors. That he chose a princess from a kingdom across the sea. A kitchen maid he's yearned after for years. The dark haired boy he sat next to at the ball. Most ridiculous of all, he fell madly in love with someone but didn't catch her name, and is going door to door having girls try on the shoe she left behind. Artemis has spent the better part of the week warning women not to let strange men claiming this story into their homes. They aren't Royal footmen, they're thieves.

"You're not asking me to marry you, are you?"

He laughs. "No, of course not. Don't get me wrong, I admire you, but we lack the kind of chemistry necessary for a happy marriage, don't you think?"

Artemis stifles a sigh of relief, not realizing until now how tense her shoulders had become. "Then what did you want to ask me?"

"Well-- tomorrow I'm going to announce I'm delaying my nuptials, and will instead travel to The Central Kingdom to study alchemy with my Uncle, Lord Bartholomew. I wanted to know if you would accompany me, as one of my personal Guardsmen."

"Yes! Of course! I'd be honored."

Wally claps his hands together. "Fantastic! We're still making all the arrangements, but you'll receive a fair stipend for your work, and you'll get your own private quarters. You can even bring your um… friend?"

"My friend?"

"Yes, the woman you were with at the ball? You two seemed… quite close."

Artemis blinks, and her mouth gapes a tad in surprise. She didn't realize Wally had seen them together, or even noticed her that night. She hasn't seen Zatanna since the ball, but she's made her presence known in little ways. The clean plates that appear in her cupboard every morning or the pile of firewood that never seems to shrink. Her acts of kindness don't go unappreciated, but it's no substitute for Zatanna's soft smile, or the floral scent of her shiny black curls.

"I'll ask if she wants to come."

There's a very good chance her house will get ransacked in the three years she's away. Wally encourages her to sell it, but she doesn't always have to listen to her boss. She'll keep it, just in case her mother or sister ever come home. She writes a note and leaves it on the kitchen table, telling them where she's off and how to reach her.

The journey to The Central Kingdom lasts five days. They travel by coach, but it's so bumpy and so slow she would have rather traveled by foot. Wally too is antsy cooped up in their tiny, gilded box, bouncing his knee so fast it almost doesn't seem natural.

But the close quarters are a good way to get friendly The Prince's entourage. Or rather, her companions for the next few years. She meets Kaldur of Atlantis, Lord Kent, or Conner as he prefers to be called, Miss Megan Morse, and the dark haired boy at the ball, Dick Grayson, who has no title but is the son of an obscenely wealthy tradesman. They're a strange hodgepodge of people, thrown together like stone soup, but somehow they click.

When she arrives at her quarters she almost thinks she has the wrong room. It's overflowing with flowers, as if she's stepped into an exotic greenhouse. Violets, daisies, forget-me-nots, roses and tulips of every color, beautiful fragrant blossoms she doesn't even have names for. And at the center of the room, Zatanna beams at her with a warm, welcoming smile.

Artemis never understood the expression 'so happy I could cry' until this moment, where tears well up in her eyes but a smile stretches from ear to ear. Without a moment's hesitation she rushes toward her throws her arms around her middle with so much force and enthusiasm she knocks them both giggling to the ground.

"Sorry I-- I'm just glad you're here. I've missed you."

Zatanna's face softens. She's so lovely, lying on a pile of flowers with her curls splayed in a black halo around her head. "I've missed you too. I'm so sorry I haven't come to call on you sooner. But I hear congratulations are in order, Royal Guardswoman Artemis."

Her cheeks flush with pride. "Thank you, for everything."

"All I did was give you a dress and bow. The rest was all you."

"You did more than that. You showed me kindness and friendship and--" she hesitates, "and love. I think I may have fallen a little bit in love with you Zatanna."

Zatanna reaches up and caresses her cheek with featherlight fingers.

"I think I may have too."

Artemis isn't sure which of them moves first, but their lips crash against each other's in a long overdue kiss. Zatanna wraps her arms around her middle and presses their bodies so close she can feel her thumping heartbeat against her chest. Their pulses beat in sync, and as her tongue explores Zatanna's mouth, it's almost like they have one heart instead of two.

When they break apart Zatanna's cheeks are rosy and the red paint on her lips is smudged. Her eyes flutter open slowly, her lashes dark and long.

"So as much as I like the flowers, do you think we can get rid of a few of them?" Artemis asks. "They take up quite a bit of space."

"I can't get rid of them, but I can send them somewhere else. Anywhere in particular you'd like them to go?"

"To my Father."

Zatanna eyes her a puzzled expression. The way her lips pucker as she purses them is adorable.

"Flowers make his eyes water, and his skin break out into hives."

" Dnes eseht srewlof ot smietra rehtaf. " Zatanna says, and the flowers vanish in a cloud of smoke, all except for the violets in her window box.