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Survivor and Seeker

Chapter Text

It was a dark and rainy night, the kind of dark and rainy that drives happy thoughts from the mind and leaves the heart feeling heavy, almost like the Dementors in Harry Potter. It was a cold rain, making the depression it brought all the more noticeable as it soaked clothes, freezing the skin it touched. The night sky was full of clouds, turning it black. No lightning flashed to light the darkness, though the boom of thunder could be heard. The pedestrians in the city were few and far between. So were the cars that passed, threatening to spray any walkers with cold water from the road.

I was one of those few who trudged over the sidewalks of the city, sloshing through puddles and grime. My reasons for being out on that unholy night were simple enough: I was returning home from a tri-weekly martial arts class. The dojo was within a mile of my apartment, easy walking distance, and pretty convenient. Especially since I didn't own a car. I did have a bicycle that I took to work, however, biking while carrying a bag of martial arts equipment isn't the best idea. I'd learned that the hard way when I'd attempted to do so and ended up wrecking. I'd taken to walking after that, especially when there was a weapons class, like this night.

Sensei Wu had been my martial arts instructor for the past six years, and my weapons instructor since I had turned eighteen, four years earlier, and begun to live on my own. My foster parents had not been too keen on my having a sharpened katana in their home, though, they were perfectly happy to help me find an apartment with a living room large enough for me to practice in. I guess the thought behind it was that, if I wrecked something during practice in my own apartment, I was the one who would pay for it. I had achieved my black belt three years into my training and had continued to add degrees since then. In the past four years, I had become pretty adept at both the katana, my first weapon, and the bo staff, which I picked up later. This night had been the night for kata practice. With the upcoming competition moving closer, and having signed up for performance with both weapons, I had taken both with me in order to practice under Sensei's watchful eye.

It was during class that the storm had come on. Though the sky had been gray on my way to the dojo, the storm itself had come seemingly out of nowhere. I was glad that I had purchased a cover for my staff, as the rain would have quite possibly damaged the wood, even lacquered as it was. I hugged close to the buildings, hoping that they would give some protection from the some. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, as the rain came down in straight sheets, but, I did feel a bit better having something covering my side as I trudged along. My hair stuck to my face, plastered by the same water that obscured my vision. My sports bag was too heavy to lift over my head and use as a shield, though, I desperately wished it was not. Sensei always said that the first rule of self-defense was awareness of one's surroundings. My vision was obscured by the water that ran over my face and clung to my eyelashes, restricting my use of one sense. With the rain pouring down and thunder booming overhead, my hearing was unable to make up for my limited visibility. My two main detecting senses were out of commission.

I hunched further, wishing I'd thought to bring a jacket to cover my tee-shirt. The material was soaked through and sticking to me uncomfortably, giving no protection from the cold. My muscles tensed in reaction, shivering setting in. This frustrated me. I could not react to a possible attack with my muscles being so stiff and preoccupied with shivering. I gritted my teeth to stop them from chattering, gripping my staff all the tighter. Even in this nicer side of the neighborhood, there had been a few muggings and, once, a report of an assault. Though I walked this way often and nothing had happened as of yet, I refused to be the next victim reported in the local news.

I was only a block away from home, my apartment building, a big, ugly, brick thing, standing at the corner, when the sound of the heavy rain suddenly dulled.

"It is time…"

I couldn't help it. I turned quickly, staff raised, half-expecting an attack. For a moment, I was sure I was about to face someone who was taking advantage of the weather to try and catch me off-guard. Upon seeing no one around me, I frowned. I could've sworn I heard a voice. I was still for a moment, looking around. Though I felt stupid just standing there, my paranoia kept me from relaxing.

"I am sorry…"

I turned in a different direction, becoming confused. I was sure I heard a voice, a faint murmur. But, I didn't see how someone was speaking so softly yet clearly in the rain, and without being close enough for me to see them. I glanced around, checking again to make sure I was alone. When I didn't see anyone, I relaxed a bit, blaming my overactive imagination. Too much fantasy and anime, I guess. After a pause, I continued on my way.

I was only a few yards from the door this time.

"You seem happy there…"

The voice was louder now, as if coming from a person who was standing right next to me. Instinctively, I looked over. Again, there was no one.

"I'm going crazy…" I muttered to myself, moving more quickly towards the door.

Hearing voices must be a sure sign of exhaustion from training or, I was getting sick from the rain. I thought I'd better get inside quickly and drink some hot tea, either way.

I reached the front door of the building, fumbling for the key, flipping my wet hair from my eyes to see better. However, my actions were cut short when what appeared to be a glowing, white bird fluttered between me and the door. I stared at it, startled and, well, entranced.

A bird in this rain? Is it even a bird? What…?

It was quickly followed by another, and then another, until I was standing on the front stoop of my apartment building, surrounded by the strange creatures. They flew about me in a tight circle, so that all I could see was a mass of white, glowing wings. The rain and city faded away, leaving me trapped in a small, private space all of my own. In my confusion and surprise, I could do nothing but stand in that space, staring at the birds that whirled steadily faster around me in a cyclone of light until they blurred into an unbroken barrier. The wind brought on by their spinning dried out my soaked hair, bringing it up to whip about.

The light spread inward, touching and then surrounding me. I felt oddly weightless.

"It's time to wake up…"

The weightless feeling grew until I was sure I was floating even though my feet stayed on the ground. With the same suddenness they had moved with before, the birds rushed inward. I flinched, half expecting a burning because of their brightness. However, instead, there were only feather light touches, as though numerous people were gently taking my hands, my arms, and whatever other part they could reach. This was followed by a tugging sensation, as if I was being pulled along.

My vision began to fade, whether this was because of the birds or shock, I don't know. As the tugging sensation grew, and darkness slowly spread across my vision, the voice spoke one last time.

"It's time to come home."

Chapter Text

I woke up, well, I wouldn't really call it waking. More like, I became aware of my surroundings. It was a strange sensation. I felt…odd. I don't know how to describe it. Like…I was made of light, maybe. I felt insubstantial. My first thought was that I had passed out because of the strange birds and had just now come to. I expected to be on the front stoop of my apartment, or perhaps even the hospital. However, what I saw was not either.

A huge, stone room was what I saw. Pillars and arches lined the walls. Ruins and toppled edifices stood further into the room. The entire room seemed to glow gold, and, as I looked up further, I saw that it continued higher. Before I could look about any further, one of the white birds fluttered across my vision. I watched it as it was joined by another and another. They flew about lazily, not like before, where they had gathered around me with a purpose.

As I watched them, the situation finally hit me. I was alone, in a strange place, with glowing, white birds. I had no idea how I'd gotten there. I checked for my belongings, my bag and my staff, but, couldn't seem to find them. That was when the panic really set in. I looked around again and saw nobody else there. So, how did I get there? Who brought me? The birds?

I came to the conclusion that, at that point. It didn't matter. What mattered was figuring out where I was and how to get home. No belongings meant no cell phone. Maybe whoever had taken me had one that I could steal. My foster father was a policeman. Surely he'd be looking for me. After all, he would have called to make sure I'd gotten home despite the storm. When I didn't answer, it would have tipped him off that something was wrong. He would go to check and find me gone. I needed to contact him. Which meant I needed a phone.

Deciding that my best bet of finding a means of communication laid in exploration, I began to do so. There were numerous arches and doorways around me. I could have taken any of them, but they were dark and looked unused. There was, though, an almost ridiculously large set of stairs directly ahead. It was well lit and seemed used. Cautiously, I began to climb them, walking between the gold-stoned buildings that lined them. As anticipated, it took a very long time. The birds fluttered around me, doing whatever it is glowing birds do. I still had no idea what they were, but, they had something to do with why I was there. I couldn't help but flinch away whenever one fluttered too close. I was having enough trouble figuring out this place, I didn't want them to take me somewhere else.

By the time I reached the top, I thought I'd be exhausted. Oddly enough, I felt about the same as I had at the bottom. I glanced back, seeing the floor far below. Frowning, I faced forward again, adding that to my list of confusing things.

In front of me was another room. Or maybe it was just a continuation of the first, but on a different level. I had trouble telling. This room was gold too, and lined with shelves of books, which meant it must have been a library. Many of them were old-fashioned, and had gold-embossed spines. While the books were most definitely cool, though, what really got my attention was the giant blue statue that sat in the middle of the library. It had definitely taken a lot of time to create, since it was surprisingly life-like. It was the figure of a huge, muscular, blue-skinned man. His shaggy hair, which was a darker blue, fell into his face. At first I thought he might be naked. Then, I realized that he was wearing some sort of wrapped underwear, partially hidden by how he was sitting with his legs folded and crossed. Hesitantly, I moved a bit closer, frowning. It was weird for a statue this big and this well done to be in an old-looking place like this. I tilted my head to see if maybe facial features had been added under that hair.

It was then that I realized the statue was breathing.

I went still. There was no way. There was no such thing as…giant, blue men. I took a step back, wanting to move away from it. Waking up in this strange place was freaky enough, now this?

What the hell is going on? What the hell is this?

To my horror, the giant raised his head to look at me. I scrambled back. If he made a move, black belt or not, there was no way I could fight this thing. He could squish me like a bug. I reached the top of the stairs and nearly fell down them in my haste to get away. I caught myself quickly, looking back at the giant, tensed and ready to run. Was…he the one who had brought me to this place?

The giant raised his head completely and looked at me. I was expecting some kind of ugly, angry face and a threat to grind my bones or something. However, that wasn't the case.

The giant was adorable.

He had big, almost child-like eyes and a soft smile. When he met my gaze, the smile widened happily and his eyes lit up, like I was exactly the person he wanted to see.

"Hey, Mina," he smiled so big that his eyes squinted up, "It's been a long time."

I stared at him. He knew my name. The adorable, smiley, blue giant knew my name.

.What the actual hell?

His smile faded a bit, just enough so he could really look at me. He tilted his head thoughtfully, looking me over.

"You haven't changed at all…"

I frowned more deeply, trying to figure out what he meant by that. He talked like he knew me, and, last I checked, I didn't know any blue giants. He chuckled. I guess my confusion was showing.

"That's right, you probably don't remember me," his eyes saddened a bit and he paused.

The expression did not fit well on his face. The smile looked better. But, his eyes seemed accustomed to sadness. My father had always said the way to read someone laid in their eyes. I wasn't as good as he was, but, I considered myself pretty good at reading others. This giant was lonely and sad, and he had been for a while. I felt the sudden urge to reach out and touch his hand, which rested over his knee. I didn't trust him, per say, but, my heart went out to him. I didn't think he meant me any harm. If he had, he would have already done so.

His smile returned, taking on a comforting air, as though he knew what I was thinking.

"It's alright. This isn't a time to be sad. I'm sure you'll remember soon!" his eyes lit up again, "And, besides, he's waiting to see you!"

Just as I thought I was starting to get a grip on what was going on, this guy flipped things on their head. I was beginning to get used to the giant blue man and the fact that, apparently, he knew me and, apparently, I couldn't remember how. Now there was another guy waiting to see me?

What's up with this? What's going on?

I wanted to ask him that, to demand to know why I had been taken from my home and who this 'he' was. But, I found that I couldn't. I couldn't speak. I reached up to touch my lips. When my hand came into view, I froze. It was glowing, even brighter than it had been when the birds touched me. This time, it was like my hand itself was made of light. I stared in shock.

The giant chuckled again, drawing my attention back to him.

"I know you're confused. I'm not at liberty to explain, though. Don't worry. Everything will become clear in time," he closed his eyes, grinning, "We've waited so long for you to come home. Though, it's not much to return to…" he gave a small laugh, like I had gone to his house and he'd forgotten to vacuum or something, "Still, he's the one who's really important. He'll be upset that I saw you first, but, it couldn't be helped."

The more he spoke, the more confused I became. I wanted to scream. He was chatting away, smiling so cutely, talking about my 'coming home'. My home was not this old, run-down place! It was an apartment in the city, just a mile from Sensei Wu's dojo, where my policeman foster father helped instruct when he could. In the city where the hospital where my foster mother worked as a nurse. That was home.

The giant seemed to sense my distress, despite my lack of words. His expression became distressed. His huge hand moved, as though to pat my head. I flinched slightly. He didn't touch me, just let his hand rest beside me, curled around me slightly in a comforting manner.

"Don't be upset, Mina! I know it's hard to take in, but, you'll remember soon. In fact, I'm about to send you to someone who can help you. Just remember this: we djinn are your friends. You might not know us, but we know you. You can trust us."

My confusion mounted despite his comfort. Djinn? The word was vaguely familiar, but it seemed to be connected to fairy tales in my memory. I didn't remember reading or watching anything about giant blue men, though. The 'djinn' was already moving on.

He reached forward to cup his other hand around me, surrounding me.

"Welcome back, Mina. Good luck. Salos won't make it easy on you, but I know you'll come through," he smiled widely, happily, at me, "You always have! Now, off you go!"

He brought his hands up, lifting me, even though he never touched me. I floated above his hands, as if I was levitating. He lifted me up to face level, still smiling. Then, he released me, like someone would release a bird, giving me a little push and sending me sailing away.

"Bye, Mina! I hope we meet again!"

His voice called after me as I very literally zoomed away, the world around me blurring.

Chapter Text

The flight, if I could call it that, to my unknown destination was worse than any roller coaster I had ever been on. I dislike roller coasters with a passion, and this was absolutely terrible. Flying at a breakneck speed with no control over my destination, I was just a passenger, along for the ride. I moved so quickly that, even though I knew I was covering a lot of distance, I couldn't see any of the scenery, or pick out any landmarks. There was just the flight. A number of the white birds kept pace with me, fluttering around me, as if trying to make me feel less alone. Unfortunately, I still wasn't sure about them. After all, they seemed to be the catalysts of all this.

I don't know how long I flew. It seemed like hours, though, probably, was far less. I had reached the point that I was starting to get used to the sensation when, as abruptly as I'd been sent off, I stopped. Gently, I was slowed and then set down. I doubled over when I was sure I was stable, feeling the need to throw up. It took my stomach a few minutes to settle, which I found strange since I was, for lack of a better term, in spirit form. Apparently, spirits have stomachs.

When I was sure I wasn't going to vomit, I stood up to see where, exactly, the 'djinn' had sent me. The first thing I noticed was that, though the walls were stone, the floor was covered in grass. I frowned down at it. By this point, I had accepted that, whatever the hell was going on, it was freaking weird and was attempting to take it in stride. Maybe this mysterious 'him' could tell me how to get home. Though, for now, I didn't where 'he' was.

I continued in my search of the room, slowly scanning it. Though I didn't really trust him, the giant had been nice enough. I didn't think he'd completely screw me over. The room I was in was large and spacious, and lit by a soft light that didn't seem to have a source. It was quiet except for the rush a small waterfall that ran from floor to ceiling in one corner, ending in a pond that took up a part of the room. Flowery vines and multi-colored moss crept up the walls in a wild, untamed way. The grassy floor was uneven, with little rises and dips making it seem more like natural ground. In the center of the room was a large, wood table. It looked like the base of a huge tree that had been cut down, leaving a flat surface. This too had been overrun by vines. Though, these vines had many more blossoms, so many that I could barely see the wood beneath. The table itself wasn't what caught my attention, though. It was the person lying on it.

I guess, since the 'djinn' had kept talking about a 'he', I was expecting a guy. However, the person on the table was most definitely female. She was cushioned on a bed of roses and moss, separating her body from the hard wood of the table. Curiously, I edged closer. She laid, unmoving, her hands folded over her stomach. She wore a pair of loose, Arabian styled pants and a shirt that revealed her midriff. Even from a few feet away, I could see that there was a huge line of knotted scar tissue running from one hip to the other on her bare stomach, cutting through her belly button. Long waves of ice blue hair spread out from her head and over the edge of the table, falling to the ground and trailing from there. Her bangs obscured her face, hiding it from view. I paused then. There was no way that was her natural color. But, I didn't see any other possibility with how long it was. She either had never heard of a hairdresser or had been lying there for a very long time. I was thinking the latter, probably, since little green creepers had crept over her limbs and bare stomach. She was very thin but lean and, as I drew closer, I saw that she had the build of some of my fellow martial artists. There were no signs of life, but, she didn't look dead, really. More like she was sleeping. I wasn't really sure what to make of her at first. Then, I began to notice a few other details. What I'd first assumed were twigs stuck in her long hair, upon looking closer, I saw were antlers. I stared, not sure what else to do.

.What the hell?

As my eyes drifted downwards. She looked human aside from that, and the long talon-like nails that extended from her fingers. I started to wonder if maybe she had a weird face. And what kind of place I was in, where blue giants existed and people had antlers. On impulse, I reached out with one insubstantial, glowing hand and brushed her hair back from her face.

As I moved the mass of hair from her face, I felt a fingertip brush her skin. Immediately, there was a bright, blinding flash. I felt a sharp tug, as if something was yanking me forward. I felt suddenly material again, not so insubstantial.

I took a deep gasp as the flash faded. I was lying on my back. Whatever that was must have hit me hard. After taking a few moments to regain my breath, I pushed myself upright. I felt oddly stiff, like I hadn't moved in a while. Maybe the flash had knocked me out and I was just now waking up. I felt the crush of flowers under my hands and winced slightly as a blast of scent hit me, stronger than any flowery scent I'd smelled before. As I sat up, my head felt heavy. My hair caught on something. I frowned and reached back to untangle it. I was met with something totally unexpected. My hair was longer than before, and had a different texture.

I frowned reaching up towards the front in order to take a strand. It was then that I froze. Again, I was surprised by my hand, which, now, instead of glowing, had long talons in place of fingernails. Quickly, I grabbed a handful of hair and brought it forward to see it better. A long, wavy, ice blue strand was clenched in my fist.

I dropped the hair, scrambling stiffly off the table, which now I was lying on instead of the girl.

"No, no, no, hell no…"

My throat hurt, like I hadn't spoken in a long time, but, I didn't care at that point. This was too messed up.

Quickly, I stumbled to the pond from earlier, dragging the ridiculous hair behind me. Upon reaching the edge, I dropped down to look into it. The water was slightly distorted by the small waterfall in the corner, but, the water was clear. As soon as my face came into view, training and discipline from martial arts fled my mind. I screamed as loudly as I ever remember screaming.

I saw the girl from earlier, and she had my face.

I scrambled back from the water, falling onto the mess of hair with enough force that I felt it pull at my scalp. I pulled my knees up to my chest grabbing my head. First a spirit and now a weird sleeping beauty-esque girl I found lying in the middle of a flower room. This was too weird. Too effed up. I was supposed to be at home, in my apartment, just drinking hot tea and staying out of the rain. This had to be some kind of screwed up dream. It couldn't be anything else. I was ready to wake up now.

I don't know how long I sat there, rocking, holding my head. Hours, may be. At some point, after slapping and pinching myself a number of times, I realized that I wasn't going to wake up. That, as fucked up as it was, this was reality. The blue giant, this place, and my sudden change from girl to spirit to sleeping beauty was real. At that point, I think I broke down. I can't really be sure. That point in time is still a blur. I'm pretty certain I went into shock.

I was curled up in the fetal position when I finally began to recover. I felt stiff, but, it was different than the stiffness from before. I must have been there for a while. The white birds had gathered around at some point, as if concerned about me. One of them suddenly landed on my temple and spread its wings over me, like it was giving me a hug. Feeling drained, I pushed myself up. The bird flew off.

I had to wonder what Sensei or my dad would think about my breakdown. I don't think they would blame me. But, they would say that, once it was out of my system, I needed to move. After all, I was still in a strange place, away from home, with strange things nearby. It was very possible that there were other blue giants around and that not all of them were as friendly as the first one. I needed to get out of here. And, I had a feeling the mysterious 'him' knew how to do that.

Shakily, I stood, my joints popping. I was very unstable on my feet, which was not a comfortable feeling. I walked back to the table, past the yards of hair that laid over the ground. How long must she, I, have been lying there? As stiff as I was and as long as this hair was, it seemed like years.

Upon reaching the table, I stopped, looking down at it. There, on the ground beside it, was my sports bag and bo staff. I looked at them for a moment, struck by an urge to laugh at their sudden appearance. I opened the bag and found that everything was the same, still packed and ready. Whether it was with me the whole time and I just couldn't see it in spirit form or it had been sent later, I didn't know. But, I was glad to have a weapon. I withdrew it from the bag, pulling it out of the sheath enough to check that it was undamaged. While I was no master, I was confident that I could use the sword well enough to put up a good fight.

I pulled my black belt from within the bag and tied it around my waist before sliding my katana into it and using the strings at the top of the sheath to tie it in place. While the talons that now acted as my nails made it more difficult than normal, and my now ridiculous hair was in the way, I managed. I then came to the conclusion that I wouldn't be able to do much of anything, much less fight, with this much hair. Drawing my katana, I grabbed a big fist full of the blue stuff. It was surprisingly thick, which led a very uneven cut, but, I found myself not caring at that point. My head immediately felt lighter. While it was still nearly waist-length, it was manageable now.

Satisfied, I opened the bag fully and checked inside again. I found a few snacks and water bottles, one of which was nearly empty. I usually took more than one to training, just because, while Sensei was nice, he didn't seem to realize that the human body is only meant to go so far. There was also a change of clothes, some sparring gear, and the materials I used to clean and care for my blade. It wasn't necessarily survival gear, but, it would have to do. With the clothes, I found an extra hair tie and quickly pulled my hair back, struggling to work around the antlers.

That's freaky…

Having antlers is most definitely weird. But, I had to move on. I needed answers from 'him', answers on how to get home, and, possibly, how to get back to normal. Feeling the same determination I felt before I go into the sparring ring, I slung my bag over my shoulders and picked up my staff. I slipped its cover off and crammed it into the bag. I glanced over it, checking that it too was alright. Then, when I found nothing out of place, I took a deep breath, gripping it tightly.

I was as ready as I ever would be to face whatever this place was.


 

This place was as freaky as hell.

I had found a door leading out from the flowery room I'd been in. When I'd come within five feet of it, it had swung open on its own. I had expected someone to be there, at first, but, no one had appeared. And so, I had gone through the open door. On the other side had been a long hall that went in both directions. It was lit by torches, the walls decorated with flowers and vines. As I stood, looking first one way and then another, the door swung shut, slamming with a boom.

By the time I turned around, it was gone, just a wall standing where the door had been. Apparently, there would be no going back. I looked in either direction again debating on which way to go. There was nothing to say that one direction was better than another. Both seemed to extend endlessly. I sighed softly, closing my eyes. I thought for a moment, back to all those books I'd read and movies I'd seen that had stuff like this in them. Unfortunately, in the ones I'd seen, the characters went in different directions in each one. Totally unhelpful.

As my eyes were closed, I began to notice a number of different scents. Scents I wouldn't have noticed before. I frowned slightly. It seemed that, along with other inhuman features, I'd also gotten a sharper sense of smell. I cocked my head slightly, intrigued, and took a deep breath through my nose. Down one hall, I got the distinct scent of decay. Flowers that have rotted, plants that have withered, stale water that caused mold, and, if I wasn't mistaken, flesh.

I quickly turned away, not wishing to smell that stench any longer. As soon as I faced the other hall, I found relief. The scents of fresh flowers, rain, cut grass, and other pleasant smells flooded my senses. I opened my eyes, immediately deciding that this would be the better option. I turned and went that way, following my newly heightened sense of smell.

I walked down that hall for what seemed like forever. It didn't seem to go anywhere. Eventually, I had to stop just to rest my feet. As soon as I sat down against the wall, though, I heard a creaking. It was a moment later that, down the hall, from the way I had come, a door swung open. I was more than a little wary. I had just walked past that and there had been nothing but a few vines over a stone wall. When I was sure nothing was going to come out it, I stood and made my way to the door, sword drawn, bo staff tucked as far into my bag as it would go. Upon looking inside, I didn't see anything threatening. Just a room with some pretty big plants.

I crept inside, glad to finally be making some progress. Just like before, as soon as I cleared the doorway, the door swung shut and I was trapped inside.

This room was different than the one where I'd started. It was bigger, and the ceiling was higher. It was lit in that same, weird way that the last room had been. The floor was covered by grass. Large, green plant bulbs sat at intervals around the room, at least twenty of them, resting on top of stalks that were probably as big around as I was. They were still, and so, I didn't pay them much attention. I was too focused on checking for other people that were maybe hiding behind them. It wasn't until I reached the center of the room that I realized that they were what I needed to be worried about.

As soon as I set foot in the middle of the room, the three closest to me sprouted vines that flew at me like suicidal birds on a dive course. If I hadn't been in martial arts for so long, I never would have been able to dodge. As it was, I barely made it out of the way. One of the vines came within half an inch of my face, and I saw that it was at least as big around as my leg. I tried to get some distance. However, a few of the others had sent out vines as well. There were soon no less than ten, wiggling around in the air, making grabs at me. I was most definitely kept on my toes. I had sparred with my katana before, but had never used it in combat. And most certainly not in combat against giant vines. At first, I tried to use some finesse and technique. However, after one easily slipped past my defenses and gashed my leg with a surprisingly sharp tip, I took to slashing at whatever moved near me. While they were fast, they weren't very durable. I cut through them pretty easily, adding vines to a growing pile on the ground. For every one I slashed, another sprang up, keeping me pinned down and unable to try and escape. I was pushed to the limits of my training, dodging, slashing, and, sometimes, kicking.

They wore me down with sheer numbers. Though I had always been very proud of my endurance, especially in the sparring ring, this was different. I had adrenaline, but, it only lasted so long. Fluids from the plants had splattered onto my skin and clothes. Cuts had appeared over different parts of my body, some grazes, and some pretty deep ones that dripped blood. As my adrenaline began to die, I felt the pain of the cuts and the exhaustion of my muscles. This kind of high-intensity fighting was totally new, and, I was wearing out much faster than I would in a one-on-one fight.

Finally, when it seemed like I was going to fall over from exertion, I made a final slash, severing one of the vines, and everything stopped. I looked around, waiting for the next attack. But, all I found were the stumps of the vines that I had cut. They had withdrawn back to their plants and, from the looks of it, were slowly regenerating. Somewhere in my tired mind, I realized that this was my chance. Pushing past my wounds and shaking muscles, I took off, running as fast as I could. There was another door on the other side of the room, and, as it was the only exit, it was my best shot. I jumped over the vines that littered the ground, moving as fast as I could, bag banging against me. I heard a few of the vines making a recovery, the now familiar whipping sound they made reaching my ears. I put on a burst of speed, knowing that I couldn't go through that again.

The door creaked open as I neared. It was dark on the other side, but, I didn't have time to worry about that. I could hear the vines coming. I barreled through, panting hard.

On the other side, there was no floor. As soon as I set one foot outside the door, I was sent tumbling over the edge. I didn't have the skill to grab onto the ledge, and so, I fell, the door slamming behind me. I plummeted into darkness, screaming for the second time that day. It was a reaction I couldn't control. I held tightly to my sword, knuckles turning white.

I fell long enough and gained enough momentum that I knew that, when I hit the bottom, I was going to die. Unfortunately, it was dark and there was I couldn't see anything to grab ahold of to stop my fall. I continued to plummet, downward, for what seemed like miles. I had begun to make my peace with death when, suddenly I stopped. I didn't hit the ground, or a wall, or anything else. I just stopped. I hung in midair, suspended by an invisible force. I looked around, searching for anything that might give away why I stopped. However, nothing was forthcoming. It was still dark and I still couldn't see.

Suddenly, there was a sigh. A loud, echoing, almost exasperated sigh that came out of nowhere and everywhere at once.

"I really thought by this point you would have saved yourself…honestly, have you forgotten everything you learned about magic?"

The voice echoed around me. It was a young man's voice, a baritone that leaned more towards tenor.

"I won't be helping you again, Mina. You'll have to do better than that."

Without warning, I was flipped right side up and yanked to the side. A door suddenly swung open at level with me and I was tossed through. I stumbled, struggling to catch my footing. The door slammed shut behind me. I stood shakily, finding myself standing on solid ground.

My mind spun. I'd been ready to die, had been accepting that, when, suddenly, someone had intervened. It had to have been the owner of the voice. Maybe it was the 'him' the giant had talked about. For whatever reason, he hadn't wanted me to die there. I felt utterly confused, yet again.

Magic? What did he mean by that? Magic isn't-

I stopped myself. All of this other weird Alice in Wonderland stuff was real, so why not magic? I felt sure that, if I tried to figure it out, I'd get a headache for sure. Not really wanting to deal with it at the moment, I shoved it aside into the mental folder I'd labeled 'Weird shit Mina isn't dealing with right now'. I'd deal with it when I wasn't being attacked by plants or falling down endless pits.

Fortunately, aside from being very shaken up, I was otherwise unharmed from my fall. I glanced down. The blood from my injuries had been spread by the wind generated in my fall, pressing back over my skin in odd trails. Some of them seemed to be clotting. Others were still bleeding. I didn't have any medical equipment with me. After all, if someone got hurt in training, Sensei used his own first aid kit to deal with it. I didn't carry my own. I sighed. This meant it was time to pull out the movie knowledge.

I glanced around, making sure that this was a safe place for me to do what I needed to. I was at the end of a short hall, facing yet another door. I was really beginning to dislike these doors. Things got weirder whenever I went through them.

Satisfied that nothing was going to jump me, I crouched down and dug through my bag. I pulled out my spare shirt and, between using my katana and tearing at it with my hands, managed to get some really crappy strips out of it. They weren't the best, but, they had to do. I wrapped the worst of the bleeding wounds on my arms and legs. There was a shallow but long gash on my side that hadn't quite stopped, but, it seemed to be on its way to clotting, so, I left it alone. After I was sure I wasn't going to bleed out, I repacked my things and prepared myself to continue on.

This is where things get a little blurry for me. I went through the door, I know that. On the other side, things did indeed get weirder. I know I managed to outrun some giant flytraps that thought I looked pretty tasty. Then, I found a room where some flowers I'd never seen before made me hallucinate some of the most fucked up things I've ever seen in my life. Though, I'm still not sure if Yoda telling me that the flowers were bad news was actually a hallucination. Whatever the case, he was a little late. After that, I encountered a group of weird flower children. They literally looked like children built out of twigs, complete with little flowers sprouting from their heads in place of hair. We played some sort of odd game that involved them spouting riddles and me getting the hell knocked out of me with ridiculously large pine cones whenever I got the answer wrong. Fortunately, after I got three right, they pretty cheerily let me go. I didn't know where I was going, or why these things kept happening, but, I pressed on. I came across some other challenges too. Like a room full of upended logs that I could only cross by hopping from one to another. And a hallway made of wood with reflective stones set into it where my reflection talked to me, saying all sorts of hopeless things.

Eventually, I reached a dead end. I didn't know how long I'd been in that place. I was bruised, bleeding, weak, hungry, and emotionally distraught. My snacks were gone and I was down to a quarter of a bottle of water. I'd gone through so many doors, and come across so many weird things that I'd begun to doubt what was real and kept wondering if maybe I'd never left the hallucinogenic flower room. But, now, I'd reached a dead end.

The wall in front of me was of a smooth, seamless stone, not like the other stone walls I'd seen. On it was some form of hieroglyphic writing. I stared at it for a minute, tiredly trying to figure out what I was supposed to do now. After all, there was no way to go back. Every time I left an area, the door behind me disappeared. It was as I stared at it that I realized something.

I could read it.

I blinked, finding the energy to frown. I didn't know how, but, I was able to understand what this wall said. I read it, murmuring the words out loud to myself. It was almost like a poem, though, it lacked the rhyme.

Through many trials you've come, oh wanderer

Through rooms and halls of nature's dangers

There is no way back, and but one way forward

So you face your final test, that to open the final door

Answer for me this one last question, this one simple query

Who is it that brings the dawn and makes her subjects smile?

Giver of warmth and life and light, she who rules the day

It is she who is my sister and she who is my friend

And she who does not sleep till dusk reaches its end

I stared at it for a bit longer, trying to figure out if it was as easy as it looked or if I was being screwed with again. It was a lot like the stupid riddles the flower children had asked me. On a lot of those, I'd been over thinking the answer, thinking there was no way it could be so simple. Maybe this was like those. Finally, I went for it.

"The sun," I muttered out loud.

The reaction was immediate. The wall in front of me split down the middle and swung inward with a great grinding sound. Light flooding from within blinded me, making me raise an arm to cover my face. It took me a few minutes to adjust, but, finally I was able to look up.

Through the doorway, I saw a large, circular stone room. It was supported by four, vine-covered pillars. The walls were lined with shelves, and, on the shelves I saw numerous chests and sacks, all of which seemed to hold odd wood and stone objects of no value. I frowned more deeply, cautiously stepping inside. In the center of the room, directly in the middle of the square formed by the pillars, was a dais. On top of the dais, I saw another wood table, much like the one I'd found my…body lying on. Resting atop the table were two objects, both shining brightly in the odd light that had filled most of the rooms and halls I'd been through. I moved closer slowly, expecting to get jumped by more plants or flower children. However, I was able to safely move all the way to the dais and up the two, short steps in order to see the table.

The objects on the table were laid carefully next to each other. Both were made of gold and decorated with green and yellow gems. One was a long staff with an orb set at the top. The orb was held in place by wrought vines that curved up from the haft before meeting at the top. The orb itself was of a gem-like material and, within it, there seemed to be a mass of color, shifting through shades of greens and yellows. The second object was an ornate urn. Engraved into the front of it was an eight-pointed star. It was somewhat like the Star of David, but not quite.

I looked at the objects for a moment before looking around again. I was here to see 'him' and find out how to get home, not look at some shiny stuff. As I checked the room, though, there was no way out but the way I'd come. Surprisingly, that door hadn't trapped me inside like the others.

I looked back at the objects. They were the only things of value in this room, which was weird. On impulse, I reached out and touched the staff. It felt oddly warm, like it'd been lying in the sun. The orb at the top suddenly bright gold, as if there was sunlight trapped inside. I quickly pulled back and it returned to its shifting state. I watched it for a moment.

Is this what that weird voice meant by magic?

I looked over at the urn, wondering if it, too, would do something when I touched it. I reached out, brushing over the star symbol with my fingers.

As soon as I touched it, the lid exploded off and the room was filled with smoke. I scrambled back, not wanting to be caught by whatever had happened. When I was a few feet away, I took a stance, sword ready, body trembling from exhaustion. As I watched, a huge shadow appeared in the smoke, rising up above me in the form of a man, towering at at least four stories if not more. I gripped my sword tightly.

Shit. I bet it's another blue giant…

The smoke began to clear, as quickly as it had come.

"Who will be king?"

It was the same voice that had spoken in the pit. I looked up in surprise. Was this 'him'? The one the first giant had mentioned?

The smoke drifted away enough that I could see him, standing on the other side of the dais from me, his muscular arms folded over his large, blue chest. He wore only a green wrap around his hips, held in place by a gold belt. His arms and neck were decked in ornate gold jewelry, most of which was set with emeralds. As I looked upward, to see his face, I found him looking down at me with a serious expression. His face was young and handsome, with a strong jaw, full lips, and sharp nose. His eyes, slightly slanted, sparkled, offsetting his seriousness. His skin was the same blue as the first giant. His hair, though, was a bit lighter, and his eyes were pale green. The bottom half of his hair was long enough to drape over his shoulders and onto his chest. The top was shorter and spiked up on the sides and in the back. I realized that, on his forehead was a third eye, and that the first giant had had one too, though I hadn't noticed at the time. Sprouting from his head was a pair of antlers, much bigger and more impressive than my own.

I looked back down and met his eyes. He was smirking.

"I am the nineteenth Djinn, Salos, the spirit of Brotherly Love and Guilt," his smirk widened into a grin, "Long time, no see, Mina."

Chapter Text

I stared at the giant, no, djinn, before me. He continued to grin, looking very pleased with himself. Like he'd done something so awesome, bringing me here. I was exhausted, beat up, and pissed off. That grin made it all seem worse. I know Sensei would have told me to let my anger go, especially in the face of a more powerful opponent. That I should exercise caution, but…

I couldn't help it. Looking back, I know it probably wasn't the best idea, but, enough was enough. I'd been through what felt like hell and, due to the fact that this guy was the one who had spoken to me earlier, and the way he was at the end of the maze, I figured he was the cause of it. So, I snapped.

I grabbed the lid of the urn from where it had landed when it was blasted off, not too far from me, and chucked it at Salos as hard as I could. He frowned as it hit his bare chest and bounced off, looking more confused than anything. It made me angrier that it had no effect on him.

"What was that for?" he asked, like he honestly had no idea.

I clenched my free hand into a fist, holding my katana tightly in the other. I know I was glaring. The anger, while founded, had come on rather suddenly. I wasn't sure why. I've never been one to lose my temper quickly. But something about this whole situation, about him, made me see more red than I ever had.

"You…You're a fucking asshole!"

I couldn't help raising my voice. It echoed around the room for a moment before dissipating.

The djinn looked taken aback, though, whether it was because I'd insulted him or my cursing, I don't know. I felt myself shaking, both from anger and exhaustion. Seeing the look on my face, his expression crumpled.

"Thamina…"

I didn't know how he knew my name, but, I didn't really care at that point. I prided myself on being someone who can control their temper, however, this was too much. When he spoke, it set me off. I threw control out the window, not caring that he could probably squish me. Going through a number of life-threatening situations one right after the other seems to do that to someone.

"You took me from my home. You brought me to this fucked up place. I almost died! A lot! And you just sit there and smile like it's the best thing ever! Why?" this little rant had been building up inside for quite a while, and, once I started, I couldn't stop, "Is this some sort of game to you? Do blue giants like screwing people over? Answer me! Send me home! I was perfectly fine before you and your buddy decided I needed to be fucked with!"

My voice echoed once again, driven by how loudly I'd shouted at him. During my verbal abuse, his face had evened out. He looked at me expressionlessly for a long time. Long enough that the echoes faded. I stood there, breathing hard, staring back at him. I was pissed enough that I wanted to stick him with my sword. But, I wasn't actually sure I had the strength left to do so.

Suddenly, he moved, stepping over the table and the dais to stand directly in front of me. I moved back, sure I'd made him mad enough to kill me in retaliation. He knelt down, the force of a being his size moving about causing the floor to shake. He lowered his head until he was right above me, looming over me. I stiffened, wondering what he was doing. He continued to stare at me for a long moment, then, abruptly, he touched his forehead to mine.

It's really weird, having someone ten times your size trying to do something like that. I wasn't really sure what to make of it. I remained still, most of my face covered by his forehead. After a pause, he pulled back just a bit, and looked down at me, frowning again.

"It looks like your rukh retained a lot of your anger from those last few moments…" he muttered, looking me over, "And you don't remember anything. Not surprising…"

I knew my eyebrows must almost be touching. I was still pissed at this guy and here he was, muttering about more weird stuff. I opened my mouth to speak again, but was cut off when he touched my stomach with the tip of one finger, turned slightly sideways so that his long, talon-like nail missed me. He drew his fingertip lightly over the ugly scar on my belly, humming thoughtfully. I held back a shudder as that nail followed his touch. It was sharp enough that I thought he might be able to disembowel me if he wanted to.

"Still, you healed up nicely. I wasn't sure you were going to, since healing isn't really my forte," he withdrew his hand, allowing me to breathe easily again, "Though, since Ugo helped, I'm not really surprised by that either."

I knew that, if it could have, my frown would have deepened. This guy was giving me no answers. So far, I'd established that he and the other one knew me, I apparently didn't remember anything, and, if that scar was anything to go by, I'd been injured badly enough that I'd gone comatose and this guy had allegedly healed me.

The djinn, Salos, settled back into a sitting position, folding his legs. He propped his elbow on his leg and leaned his cheek against his fist. His green eyes remained trained on me.

"Now, then, you had some questions…Unfortunately, I am incapable of returning your memories. And I refuse to tell you what happened like it's some kind of fictional story. You need to remember for yourself," he looked thoughtful, "However, I will share the things you won't remember anyways. First of all…that place wasn't your home."

I stared at him. I was pretty damn sure that, yeah, that place was my home. I had foster parents, a job, an awesome Sensei, a life. So, obviously, one of us was crazy and I was prone to believe it wasn't me.

Seeing the look on my face, he cocked a brow. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I scowled. Damn, I couldn't do that. Why could the giant blue asshole? He sighed, then.

"I'm not going to be able to tell you anything with you glaring at me like that."

Without warning, he reached out with his free hand, moving so quickly there was only a blur of blue before he was touching my forehead again.

"Ablaj sera."

With those words, a wave of calm suddenly rushed through me, drowning out the anger. I swayed dangerously. The adrenaline from my anger had been about the only thing keeping me on my feet. Without it, the exhaustion caught up with me, my trembling muscles and numerous injuries making it impossible to stand. My sword hung limply in my hand, then it slipped from my fingers. I fell to the side. Salos quickly caught me, gently lowering me to the ground instead of letting me fall. He smiled slightly.

"There, much better. I don't want you doing anything rash. Now, all you have to do is sit there and listen."

Once I was seated on the ground, slightly slumped, he withdrew his hand just a bit. Enough that, while his fingers were no longer wrapped around me, he was still touching me. I wanted to be mad at whatever need he felt to invade my personal space, but, whatever he had done had made it so that I didn't have the will to get riled up again. He began to gently stroke my back. I couldn't deny that it felt nice, especially when I was so sore. He smiled softly.

"This always did work best on you. You're like a cat, the way this calms you down," he chuckled, "Now then. I suppose I'll have to start at the beginning."

Though I was tired, I gave him my undivided attention. He was finally going to explain things.

"You see, a very long time ago, there was a big battle, one that we both participated in. We were both rather skilled in our prospective fields of magic. I used my life magic and you used your light in order to fight against a group of magicians who had rebelled against our friends and loved ones," his smile had faded and now a deep frown took over, "During that battle, you were badly injured," his eyes dropped to my stomach and grew a bit distant, "No one was sure if you would make it. I couldn't heal you. While all life magic has healing properties, my life magic focuses more on plant life than that of animals or people. I was…helpless. However, with the help of a few others, I managed to halt you on the brink of death. You were mostly gone, but, not quite. There was hope, at least."

His eyes moved to focus on a point far away as he apparently dug up some old memories.

"However, we failed in this aspect: your rukh separated from your weakened body. Though your body was sustained by magic, your rukh, your soul, what makes you who you are, was absent. It fluttered away to the place you called your home. We didn't give up, though. We brought your body here, to my dungeon, where it would be safe and you would be under my protection. Even when the others left or went to sleep in their own dungeons and it was just Ugo and I who used our power to help you, I continued to heal you while he searched for your rukh. Your body finished healing a few years ago, but, we still hadn't found you….I have waited so long, alone in this dungeon, for you to come back to me. When you finally did, I was so happy. I wanted to go and see you right away," he looked back at me, "But, while my power extends throughout the dungeon, I cannot leave this room. That is the deal that was agreed upon…"

I really had no clue what he was talking about. His story was fantastical to say the least. But, he wasn't finished.

"But, you," he was grinning again, "You did just what I expected you to. Captured my dungeon, fought your way here, and now," his grin widened, "We're back together. I wasn't happy that Ugo got to see you first, but, it couldn't be helped. I'm really grateful to him," he stopped stroking my back and moved to touch my cheek instead, "You're the sun to my flower, I can't thrive without you. Not really."

Now, I was very confused. He was talking like we were really close. The touchy-feely stuff on his part, the poetic name, the whole 'I waited for you' story. He sounded like some sort of former boyfriend.

"…Who are you?" I asked quietly.

Salos's face lit up and he gave a small laugh.

"I'm surprised you don't even remember that. Thamina, I'm your twin."

My mind blanked. The giant blue man was telling me that he was my twin.

I had been sixteen when I was taken in by my foster parents. I'd been found, comatose, with no indication of how I'd gotten to be that way. The ambulance had been called and I'd been taken to the hospital, where my foster mother worked as a nurse. She and my foster father, a childless couple, had taken pity on me and, when I woke from the coma, had taken the proper course of action in order to take me in. There had been an investigation to try and find any relatives I may have, but, nothing was ever found. I was alone. I couldn't remember anything before the hospital, aside from my name being Thamina. Amnesia was suspected to be the cause of that.

While it was quite possible that I did have family from before and we'd just never found them, I found it highly unlikely that Salos was among them. After all, he wasn't even human. I remembered my antlers, claw-like nails, and heightened senses then. Was I even human?

Still, I couldn't help being incredulous.

"What?' I asked, voicing my confusion.

Salos grinned once more. He snapped his fingers and, suddenly, a large, silver mirror zoomed from a corner of the room. I realized that the seemingly worthless objects had taken on the glittering, shining casts of gold and silver. Gems also laid within the piles of treasures, giving color to the metallic scene. I hadn't really noticed, being focused on Salos.

The mirror came to an abrupt halt floating above me, at about my face level if I'd been standing. Salos delicately took my hand between his thumb and forefinger and tugged me to my feet. I frowned at him, wondering what the hell he was doing now. Once he had positioned me in front of the mirror, he laid out on his stomach, lowering his head so that his face was next to the reflective surface. Though his head was much larger than the mirror, I was able to see the comparison. He cocked his head, smiling and fluttering his lashes.

"See? We look so very similar."

Deciding to humor him, I looked in the mirror then glanced at the djinn next to it. I was going to blow him off, but, I realized that he was right. We did look very similar. Eerily similar. From the shape of the jaw to the slant of our eyes. If his hair was a lighter blue and his eyes were a pale gold, as mine were now, we really would look like twins. Even with his blue skin.

He watched me keenly, taking in the look on my face. His smile widened into a grin again, baring a set of straight, white teeth.

"You see it, but you don't remember…hmmm, I wonder if you will once I truly become your djinn."

I looked up at him. I was still confused, but, for whatever reason, that put me at easy. I felt I could trust Salos, even if what he'd said seemed far-fetched.

"My djinn?"

He nodded, propping his elbow on the floor and pressing his cheek to his fist.

"Mhm. You see, originally, like many of the others', the entrance to my dungeon was placed in the human world. Many brave souls entered," his grin turned to a somewhat dark smirk, "But none survived. Once one goes into a dungeon, they must either complete it, or die. No one could complete mine," he chuckled, "I'll admit to being a bit biased, though. I didn't want to belong to any of those humans. I wanted to be with you," his smirk lightened, "You got through it because, even though you don't remember, on a subconscious level, you instinctively remember how I think," he tapped his temple, "You had an unfair advantage, my sun, even though you didn't know it."

I thought about that for a moment. I had no way of knowing if it was true. I decided to take his word for it.

"But that still doesn't explain how you're my djinn."

Salos moved both hands under his chin, smiling, and began to absently kick his feet in the air.

"When someone captures a dungeon, they are rewarded with all the valuables from the treasure room, as well as the power of the djinn who resides within. You are the one who captured my dungeon. Therefore, you are now my master."

I took a moment to let this digest. I'd gotten to the place where the mental 'shit Mina isn't dealing with right now' folder had been turned into the 'shit Mina is giving up on dealing with and just accepting' folder. I'd captured a dungeon and, now, apparently was stupid rich and had a djinn…who was also my brother.

"And…you wanted to be my djinn?"

He nodded happily.

"Of course. You see, twins of our race share a special bond. We have a strong connection mentally, physically, and spiritually. We're two parts of one whole. Without you, I'd only be half, and vice-versa," he cocked his head, "Tell me, have you ever felt inexplicably lonely?"

I thought about that. I suppose I had always been a bit of a loner. I got along better with older adults than my peers and, even though I needed interaction, I didn't really favor it. But, I'd chalked it up to simply being introverted.

Could he be telling the truth…?

Best not to think about that part. Trying to take in everything at once was sure to give me a headache. I gave a nod in response to his question before asking my own.

"So…because of this…twin bond, you wanted to be my djinn. Now that you are…what does that mean?"

Salos gave a Cheshire cat smile.

"It means that I'll take up residence within a metal vessel, something metal that you own, something that's meaningful to you and that you've had for a long time. Then, when needed, you'll be able to call upon my power," he chuckled, "I doubt you'll have any difficulty with that."

I nodded slowly. I was beginning to understand a bit. However, I still wasn't sure how much of this was real and how much was fantasy. Or if maybe he was high and I shouldn't believe anything he told me. The latter seemed unlikely, though. I would just have to wait for him to prove it was real.

I realized that, in order to do that, he would need a metal vessel. Something close to me…I looked over and found my sword. It might work. To me, it was a symbol of hard earned titles and honors and the commitment it took to excel in anything. I reached down and picked up the sword.

"Will this do?"

Salos looked at it appraisingly, reaching out to give it a tap with one of his long nails.

"Hm, I think so. This should work just fine."

I nodded.

"Alright. So, you'll dwell in this…and then I can go home?"

Salos stilled, his expression going almost blank. His eyes saddened, then, his eyelids dropped over them slightly, as though he was in pain.

"I'm sorry, Mina, but, that wasn't your real home," he murmured, "Even if Ugo and I tried to send you back, I don't think we could. After all, you're not of that world. Your rukh and your body are anchored here…to try and send you back is probably impossible, and, if an attempt was made, it might kill you. No, when I dwell in your sword, you and I, and all of this treasure, will be sent to the human world that's connected to this one. We'll probably never return here, either."

His words hit me like a hammer blow. I felt myself sink to my knees again, eyes on the floor. I think, somewhere in the back of my mind, I had realized this. But, to hear it said out loud was devastating. I was a loner, yes, but I loved my foster parents and they had loved me. They had gotten me on my feet, despite my amnesia. They had introduced me to Sensei.

Oh, Sensei…

Sensei was the one I respected most. He'd taught me so many valuable things. How to be confident and strong, but disciplined and respectful. How to fight. How to wield a sword and staff. His teachings had saved my life numerous times in this dungeon.

There were others I knew, coworkers, fellow students, neighbors, who I would miss. But none were so important as my foster parents and Sensei. I felt tears well in my eyes before spilling over and dripping to the ground.

A large, blue finger gently slipped under my chin and lifted my head. Salos watched me with a pained expression, however, it was more like seeing me crying was hurting him more than that he himself was in pain. His lips were pursed and his eyes tight. He carefully used a thumb to dab the spilled tears away. He then took to gently stroking my hair with one finger, waiting until I had worked through my sadness.

It took a surprisingly short amount of time. I'd never been one to cry a lot, though. I said goodbye to those closest to me, tucking them away so that I wouldn't forget them. While I wouldn't see them again, I knew that they were alive and well, and that gave me peace. Finally, I took a deep breath and looked up at Salos.

Meeting his gaze, I suddenly and inexplicably felt the oddest sensation. I felt empathy mixed with jealousy spill into my mind. I knew these weren't my own emotions, though. My eyes widened in surprise.

Salos gave me a tight smile and the emotions tapered to a small thread rather than the stream they had been. Then, they disappeared altogether.

"Sorry. I envy those who you were so close to…I've never liked sharing you, my sun…"

With that, he withdrew his hand and stood, rising to his full, towering height. He dusted himself off before looking down at me, a smile again taking over his expression. He gave no explanation for the emotions I had felt. Instead, he simply moved on.

"Are you ready?" he asked.

I stood as well, wincing at my injuries and soreness.

"I…think so," I replied, picking up my bag from where it had fallen, "Though…I don't like the idea of going to this new place alone."

That was enough to send my stomach into knots. From what Salos had said, I had inferred that the human world wasn't like this…dungeon. Still, I had no idea what it would be like.

Salos scoffed.

"We've already established that you won't be alone. I'll be with you. Don't worry. Even if they decided to make a move against you, we won't have to worry."

I wasn't sure who 'they' was, so, I assumed it was the humans.

The djinn suddenly made a small 'ah!', snapping his fingers.

"I almost forgot. Stupid of me."

He turned back to the table on the dais and gingerly lifted the gold staff from it. The orb at the top, as big as both my fists pressed together, flared green when he touched it. He knelt to give it to me.

"Here. This is ours, well, yours now."

I hesitantly reached out and took it. For a moment, as we both touched it, green and yellow whirled and danced within the orb. Then, Salos released it and yellow took over.

"You must not let that be taken from you. It was a very important gift from our ruler."

I nodded in understanding. Don't let the staff go. Got it.

The djinn tapped his chin thoughtfully, looking around the treasure room. He murmured to himself, seeming to run through a mental checklist.

"Alright, explained things, gave you the Staff…." he looked at me and nodded once, grinning, "I think we're ready."

He folded his arms. Then, with a great rush and a blast of wind, he seemed to deflate, zooming towards my katana. I watched in amazement as he disappeared into it. As soon as he was gone, an eight pointed star appeared on the blade.

"Holy shit…" I muttered.

He'd really done it.

This was really real.

Chapter Text

Their human world, I decided, was not anywhere near as weird or freaky as a dungeon. I'd gone through some kind of space tunnel on the way there from the dungeon, but, that had actually been pretty cool. Now that I had come to the realization that I wasn't going back home, I was actually pretty excited to see what would happen now. How many people could say they went to two different worlds in one day?

Unfortunately, I passed out before I actually arrived. I think the combination of my many wounds had caused me to lose too much blood. Plus, I hadn't slept in who knows how long. Not since the night before I was taken from home. Since then I'd worked an eight hour shift as a librarian, gone through a very intense martial arts class, weathered a storm, been sucked away to another world, talked to a blue giant, found out my life was pretty much a lie, conquered a dungeon, met my brother, and been sent through a space portal.

It'd been a rough day.

I don't know how long I'd slept, but, waking up was a rough ordeal. My brain came to before my body. I had to lay there for a long time, wondering if I'd wake up somewhere safe, or if the space portal had dropped me off in the middle of the bad part of a city or something. I had to wait until my body caught up.

First, my sense of touch returned. I could feel that I was lying on a hard bed and covered with a blanket. I could also feel that I'd been bandaged…a lot. So, someone had found me and, whoever it was seemed to be nice. I then started being able to hear again. Somewhere nearby, someone was humming. It was a nice song, a lullaby. And it sounded like an old woman. Definitely nice then. It's just kind of a general rule that old women are nice. Especially when they seem to have tucked you into bed and made sure you aren't bleeding anymore.

It was a little while later that I was able to actually move. I slowly moved my arm, groaning when I felt the stiffness in it. Sitting up was gonna hurt.

As soon as I made a sound, the humming stopped. Then, a moment after that, a small, calloused hand touched mine.

"There, there, child. Take it easy. You arrived in quite a state. Don't do anything too quickly, now."

I slowly opened my eyes, wincing as light hit them. I managed to turn my head to look at whoever was beside me. At first, it was difficult. I must have been asleep for a long time if I was having so much trouble waking up. Initially, I saw only a shadow outlined in light. Then, my vision cleared and I realized that I was looking at a squat little old lady. I blinked quickly to try and adjust my eyes faster. The old lady smiled, both eyes closed, and moved her hand to cover my forehead. Though her touch was strange, it felt nice, very maternal. It reminded me of when my foster mother would check me for a fever.

The old lady gave my head a few pats.

"Your fever has broken. You'll be just fine, child."

She hobbled away then, using a short staff to support herself.

"Defeating a tower, hm? Quite the achievement."

I slowly sat up, groaning softly as the pain from my wounds made itself known. I really had been sleeping a long time. I was stiff as a board and could hear my joints making all sorts of weird noises.

"A tower?" I muttered, my throat feeling extremely dry.

The old woman paused and looked over her shoulder. I realized then that we were in a large tent. She stood at the flap and sent me a surprisingly toothy grin.

"Yes, child. One of the legendary towers," she motioned with her staff, "You and your sword both attract the Rukh. They told me that you came from within the tower."

There was that word again. 'Rukh'. My brain was too fuzzy to figure out what was going on right now. I glanced towards where she had motioned and saw my bag, sword, and staff leaning against the foot of the bed. A few of the white birds fluttered around them. Others moved about the tent.

"Not only that, but that's the only explanation for how you could have appeared so suddenly with all that treasure," she opened the flap with her staff, then, and called for someone.

A moment later, a young woman entered the tent. She smiled when she saw me and made her way over, the old lady hobbling along behind her. The younger woman knelt next to my bed and touched my forehead.

"Hello," she said by way of greeting, "I am Toya, Baba's granddaughter."

I assumed the old lady must be Baba. She smiled pleasantly, leaning on her staff. Toya moved the blanket off with an apology and began to check the bandages. None of them had bled through, so, I was pretty relieved.

"When we first found you, you had lost a large amount of blood and some of your wounds were in danger of becoming infected. Fortunately, we simply applied a poultice and were saved from needing to cauterize any of them," Toya said as she worked.

Now I was even more relieved. Cauterization did not sound fun. At all. Still, what she was saying was a little odd. Poultices and cauterization, even just bandaging wounds like this, were really…old school. Like, ancient medicine type of thing. I'd heard my foster mother talk about medicine enough to know that they didn't do that sort of thing in modern hospitals

I truly looked at the two women for the first time. Both were wearing odd, oriental clothes, like costumes of some sort. But, I could tell these weren't costumes, they were too well-worn. There were other things that stood out too. Like the fire pit in the center of the tent. The skins and furs that were laid out or hung up. Even, though I felt bad for realizing this one so quickly, the unwashed smell of the people with me. I'm sure they were very clean for their people, but, they both smelled like they hadn't bathed that day…and maybe the day before. My newly acute sense of smell picked that up faster than normal.

Toya went about unwrapping the bandages. She had me move around and stand so that she could reach some of them better. There were a few places where I could see where they'd applied the poultice. The skin had been turned a weird shade of green from the plants. I felt a burst of foreign amusement at this and glanced at my sword. I'd felt the same thing in the dungeon when Salos had been jealous. It had to be the weird 'twin bond' thing he had mentioned. He obviously thought my plant-colored skin was funny. I attempted to convey my own thoughts of his amusement in return. Toya continued with her work, blissfully unaware of the exchange. Some of the bandages she just threw into the fire, commenting on how those wounds had healed nicely. I guess reusing bandages is still considered unsanitary no matter what world you're on. For others, she peeled back the wrappings and frowned before recovering the wound.

"Some of these aren't ready yet," she looked up at me, being shorter, and smiled, "But, you're healing so well, I wouldn't be surprised if you're back to normal in no time."

I nodded, not really sure what else to do.

"Thanks."

She nodded back before turning to the old woman, Baba.

"I'll bring some food. Can I get you anything, grandmother?"

Baba shook her head slightly, still smiling serenely.

"No, that's alright. I'll join the rest of you for dinner."

Toya left, still smiling. I watched her go before looking back down at Baba. The old woman was the shortest adult person I'd ever seen. Her face was at only level with my stomach. Still, it was a nice change from blue giants and those huge plants.

Baba patted the bed.

"You should rest some more. Sit down here and let Baba have a look at you."

I sat down on the bed, watching the old lady as she moved right up next to me. At first, I wondered how she was going to see me with her eyes closed. Then, all of the sudden, her left eye popped open so widely that I could see most of her eyeball. I jumped in surprise, not having expect that.

The old woman ignored my surprise and hummed to herself. She looked me over, focusing on my face, then reaching up to tap my antlers with her staff. I winced. While I couldn't really feel anything through the antlers, they were still connected and those vibrations hurt. She nodded then, looking pleased.

"Not human either, then."

I watched her, waiting for something weird to happen. After all, I still hadn't gotten over the whole 'not exactly human' thing myself. Who knew how she was going to react. I braced myself.

"Not to worry," she grinned broadly, "We were all a bit surprised by your appearance, but, the Rukh have said you're a trustworthy child," she settled again, placing her staff back on the ground and holding it with both hands.

I was again relieved. So I wasn't going to be called a demon and thrown out. Though, if they were going to do that, they already would have. Damn, I really had lost a lot of blood. It was hard to think.

"Um," I wasn't really sure how to address the old woman, so, I just called her by name, "Baba?"

She cocked her head quizzically, one eye still fixed on me.

"Yes, child?"

"What is the 'Rukh'?"

Salos had mentioned them, saying something about my 'Rukh' having retained some anger. Was she talking about that?

Baba smiled.

"Rukh is the home of souls. While we live, everyone has their very own. But when you die, all go back to one place. This is Rukh. When humans die, their bodies return to the earth and the souls return to Rukh, the home of souls."

I stared at her. Rukh was my soul…and where my soul went when I died.

What the hell?

"So, Rukh is…inside me?"

She nodded.

"And around you. To us they look like birds. But they are the Rukh of those who have gone before us. They are the source of all magical power. They see all and, to with those they favor, share immense power," her smile widened, "Do you see them, child?"

"Yeah…do you?"

Baba nodded again.

"Not everyone can. Some don't even believe in the Rukh."

I watched as one of the birds, Rukh, fluttered down to land on my knee. It perched there, flexing its glowing wings. On impulse, I held out my hand to it. The Rukh obligingly made the jump, moving its perch to my fingers. Baba watched on.

"Ah, they seem to favor you… though, not in the way I think they might favor a Magi."

There was another weird word. I wasn't going to ask at first. However, Baba was looking at me expectantly, as if she knew that I was curious.

"What's a Magi?"

She smiled and gave a small chuckle. Then, with a surprisingly spry movement, she hopped up onto the bed with me and settled next to me.

"A magi is someone loved by the Rukh, who uses great and mysterious powers. In fact…there's a very old story about the Magi who brought about the first dungeon and selected a king to conquer it."

I nodded in understanding. More freaky magical things.

As soon as she'd mentioned the word story, I'd come to a realization. This world, just like the world I used to be a part of, would have its own history, legends, politics, laws, people groups, geography, and everything else that goes into a world. I stared at the tent flap. According to Salos, just out there was an entire world I knew nothing about. While I doubted it would be necessary for me to learn everything about everything, I would need to learn enough to get by, and who knew how much that would be. I didn't even know anything about these people who had taken me in and helped me. I took a deep breath before panic could rise.

Where do I start? What do I do?

I glanced over to find Baba watching me with her one eye.

"You are troubled," she observed keenly.

I was surprised. She was reading me very easily. I looked away. She obviously wanted me to elaborate. But, what was I supposed to tell her? 'Oh, well, I'm not really from this world. You see my brother, he's a djinn by the way, told me that I'd died and my Rukh did some freaky stuff'? I frowned slightly. I felt like I had to tell her something. She and her family had saved me.

"I…I don't know anything about this world. I didn't come from here."

Baba's one eye widened and she stared at me. I faintly felt Salos's displeasure at my honesty. I myself was wondering if I shouldn't have come up with a story of some sort, but, it felt wrong to lie to her. She had been nothing but kind to me.

There was a long pause in which the old woman seemed to be observing me and mulling something over. She looked at my antlers, then at my forehead. Her wrinkled face was serious as she thought. Then, she nodded.

"There are many strange things in this world and those beyond. Your appearance might be one of them…."

I breathed a small sigh of relief. She didn't seem keen on pressing me for answers, but, she seemed fine with my being here. She continued, letting her eye close again.

"If you truly know nothing of this world, it is fortunate it was our clan that found you. There are those who would take advantage of your ignorance," again I felt like she was looking at my forehead even though I couldn't see her eye, "And power."

Self-consciously, I reached up to check and see if maybe I had something on my face. It seemed unlikely though. After all, Toya hadn't seemed to notice anything. And she seemed nice enough that I didn't think she'd just leave me hanging. My fingers brushed over something. I frowned, rubbing over it again. It felt like a bump. I traced it, following a circle of slightly raised skin around the center of my forehead. Two smaller lines ran off from the sides and two very short lines from the top and bottom.

What the fuck?

Baba nodded slightly. Obviously, my thoughts about this were written all over my face. I was glad I'd kept my outburst in my mind rather than letting the old woman hear it.

"In all legends, the third eye is a symbol of power," she said seriously, "Even if you do not realize it yourself, having that eye means that you are someone of power."

I rubbed at it again, pushing hard in an attempt to make the raised skin go down. It didn't, remaining stubbornly in place.

Salos scoffed at me in amusement, his presence again making itself known in my mind. I took it as a signal that what I was doing wasn't going to work. I let my hands fall into my lap. I'd try to pry answers out of him later. Though, my experience in the dungeon had taught me that Salos told what he was willing to tell when he was damn well ready to tell it. If I could have glared at him, I would have. He was fucking annoying sometimes.

Baba smiled slightly, reaching over to pat my arm and bringing me back to the present conversation.

"It will be interesting to watch you grow, child. You don't know the first thing about who you are, but, your fate will be one to behold."

I wondered what she meant by my 'fate'. Usually, when someone said something about 'meeting your fate' or whatever, it meant death. But, I didn't feel like that's what Baba meant. It must be different in this new world.

Baba hopped down from the bed with a small groan, her joints creaking audibly. She smiled up at me.

"You should rest after Toya brings you food. You are not yet fully healed and, if your destiny is as important as the Rukh seem to believe, you'll need your rest," she chuckled, "You are welcome to stay here as long as you need to. There won't be a trade caravan through for a month or so and I would not suggest you leave before you learn a bit more about this world of ours."

I nodded, accepting her advice.

"Thank you, Baba. It means a lot to me.

The old woman's smile widened. Then, she hobbled from the tent.

She had been right, I decided as I laid back down. I could have been a lot worse off. These people, or, at least Baba, had accepted my oddness without too much question and seemed perfectly happy to help me and teach me. I found myself smiling. Despite my anxiety and confusion, I had been very lucky indeed. I only hoped my luck would hold out and that I would be able to learn quickly.


 

I ended up healing pretty quickly. More quickly than I ever had previously. Either the ancient medicine they were using was seriously legit or I had discovered yet another inhuman quality picked up during my romp through the dungeon. I suspected it was the latter. Still, I tried to chalk it up to Toya's healing abilities. She seemed to know that it wasn't just that, but, she accepted my compliments gracefully. Plus, when I met her boyfriend, or, rather, wanna-be boyfriend, Dorji, I found out that my getting along with her earned me some brownie points with him. I was pretty happy about that. He and the other guys had been pretty wary of me at first. Apparently, he and his group were the ones who rode out hunting and scouting. They were the ones who had found me and brought me back. They were also the ones who had made a big fuss about my nonhuman features until Baba had done something about it. I'd been a little annoyed, but, I'd realized early on that Baba's opinion was the one that mattered in this tribe. And Toya's opinion was what mattered to Dorji. As soon as she'd said I was cool, he made almost a complete 180. Suddenly, I wasn't so bad. In fact, I was actually pretty okay.

This was amusing to both Salos and I. But, it was also very beneficial. Baba was the clan matron, but both Toya and Dorji seemed to have some sway. They were young, but I could see them becoming prominent leaders as they grew up.

Surprisingly, I adjusted well to the Koga's life. When Baba gave the word, they accepted me pretty quickly. I learned basic household stuff from the women, like how to cook the weird foods they had and how to milk the livestock. I even learned some medical stuff from those who knew it, including midwifery. I just wanna say, hearing about childbirth from my foster mother is much different than assisting with an actual birth. While I worked with them, the women told me stories, legends, and facts that they thought might help me. According to Baba, I had come out of the tower with no knowledge of this world, which was as close to the truth as it got. The clansmen were more than happy to tell me whatever they could about their own clan as well as the world outside.

When the men discovered I carried a blade, they immediately wanted me to prove myself. Apparently, in this world, capturing a dungeon is pretty serious and means that you must be a bonafide badass. I confess, I didn't say anything specific about Salos or what he said about me having an unfair advantage. I liked being thought of as tough, especially since women in this tribe were thought of more as healers and homemakers than fighters. Proving myself came in the form of sparring with a few of the better swordsmen. I managed to hold my own, and, in a few cases, win. Though, it was obvious a few of them had a lot more experience than I did. Still, my time in the dungeon had honed my skills in a way I hadn't expected. I found that I could better track my opponent's' movements from the paranoid hours spent watching out for murderous plants. I wasn't the best, but, I fought well enough to impress the men. A few of them even let me train with them in order to build my skills, boasting that they would turn me into a master swordsman.

In the evenings, I joined the clan for their evening meal, which was like a huge family reunion every night. Everyone from the clan came together, making it a super lively event. The children would surround me after the meal and decorate my antlers with ropes of flowers that they had carefully woven together for me. They plied me for stories about my experience in the dungeon as the tied the flowers into my hair and around my antlers. When I started telling the story, a large crowd would gather around. In a clan where everything was passed down by word of mouth, they were eager to hear what a legendary dungeon was like. I had no doubt that the story would later be embellished and told again. I don't know how many times I told the tale, describing the battles and challenges and my meeting Salos. The kids would sometimes paw at the eight pointed star on my sword's sheath then, like they could touch Salos that way.

During my time with the Koga, I also grew closer to my djinn. With each passing day, the bond between us strengthened. First, we could only occasionally communicate with emotions and mental impulses. By the end of the first week, we could use sensory impressions. By the second, full sentences, just like a verbal conversation. He urged me to spend time communing with him and my sword. I won't lie, I felt like a complete idiot, sitting in the grass with my sword in my lap, meditating. But, it did help. Our bond grew stronger through those meditations and I began to get a sense of what power he held. I also began to dredge up some vague memories, flashes and impressions, most concerning Salos. I remembered his face back before he was huge and blue. He actually hadn't changed much. His hair hadn't been as spike and stylized, but, that was about it. I also remembered bits about our life in the other world. Enough to know that we were the last two of our kind, which he named as Dioscuri. Though, with him being a djinn now, I supposed that I was really the last one.

No pressure or anything.

I spent about three weeks in peace with the Koga learning their way of life, helping out, training, and meditating. I kind of was adopted into the clan. According to Baba, I was part of their family now, so it didn't matter if I wasn't human or didn't know much about the world. It was really nice to have a family again. I was accustomed to having relations that weren't by blood, and, while they couldn't replace the foster family from my previous home, it was a good family to have. Plus, now I had Salos, who was blood related. That was a really nice feeling. Still, even as I got to know the Koga, I knew I couldn't stay there forever. I felt oddly restless as time passed. Something told me that I didn't truly belong here. I needed to move on.

It was in the middle of my third week that an incident occurred to reinforce these feelings. I had gone down a nearby river with the other women, to bathe and do laundry. I was missing the crappy washer and dryer in my apartment. It's amazing how you take something for granted until it's gone. But, I was probably never going to have a washer and dryer again, so, I sucked it up.

The whole communal bathing thing had been really weird at first. But, over time, and after some teasing from the girls my age, I'd gotten over it. I had been a little perturbed by the people who seemed to think that I would have other nonhuman features under my clothes and had shamelessly checked. Fortunately, the men stayed away, so, I didn't have to worry about them too. When it had been affirmed that I did not have a tail or anything else that was weird like that, they were content to leave me be. By the time of the incident, my strangeness had lost its novelty. We were all just going through our normal bathing ritual. Since this only happened every few days, I was relieved, as usual, to be getting clean. We scrubbed ourselves with lye soap, which had hurt like hell at first, and splashed around in the water, messing around more than actually cleaning.

I guess it was the laughing that had told them where we were. We didn't even know they were there until someone screamed. All sound ceased as we looked for the source.

There, on the bank, was a large group of men on horseback. They weren't from the clan. I didn't recognize them and they definitely didn't have that Koga look. They surveyed us, some leering, some without expression. There was a silence in which the groups watched each other. Then, someone screamed. The men burst into action, pulling out ropes, nets, chains, and other tools made for capture.

I'd heard of slavers from the Koga, but, seeing the real thing is much different from a story. They were dirty, unkempt, foul men. Even being in the river, I could smell them as they drew nearer. They grabbed whoever they could. Children, mothers, older women. Though, they seemed to focus on the younger girls. At first, I was shocked by the chaos. Then, as the first women were pulled from the water, I felt hot rage fill me. These were my family members. They had taken me in and taught me and protected me. I'd be damned before I let anything happen to them.

I ran for the bank. I'd left my sword with my clothes, having taken to carrying it with me whenever I could. Something about having Salos's vessel was comforting to me. Fortunately, I'd been further down the river, a bit away from the others, keeping me out of the initial fray. My movement, and the odd color of my hair, alerted one of the slavers to my presence. One of them looked at me with wide eyes before breaking off from the main group, grinning. I watched him for a moment as I ran for my weapon. He was coming fast, readying a net. I grabbed my sword as he charged at me, obviously too intent on capturing a rare specimen to pay much mind to my weapon. I ripped the sword from the sheath, feeling oddly calm and analytical. I'd experienced this just a couple times in the dungeon. Otherwise, I'd freaked the hell out.

My vision seemed to narrow, focusing in on the man charging me. Time slowed. I could feel myself breathing, feel the weight of the sword in my hand. As I focused on where I planned to make my cut, I felt the bond with Salos flare. His rage mimicked my own, though, he was angrier that someone would attack me than anything else it seemed. Through the bond, I felt a sudden rush of something, like an emotion, but different.

Call upon me.

I was confused. Salos was talking to me at that moment. Why would I call him?

Invoke me.

I still didn't know exactly what he was talking about, but, the slaver was bearing down on us. Impatiently, he fed a series of words into my mind. Before I even realized it, I was speaking them.

"Spirit of Brotherly Love and Guilt, use my magoi and lend power to my will. I command you and your household, come forth, Salos!"

The eight pointed star on my sword glowed, bursting into light. The slaver faltered at the sight. I felt the power surge, brought on by my anger. It roared out, seeming to channel through the sword. Subconsciously, I felt Salos prodding it in different directions, using it as an extension. The words to use this power fully came unbidden to my mind.

"Almayshh Alnbaatat!"

The slaver was just a few feet from us, net held out and ready, when the grass at his horse's feet sprang into action. It grew so quickly that I barely had time to blink, wrapping around both steed and rider. The man cried out in surprise, and I think a little fear. I was pretty surprised too. I could feel them, the plants, Salos, the power that continued to rush from me. My djinn was merciless, acting through me. I knew that whatever he was doing was fueled by me, but, I had no idea how to control it. Salos took advantage of this, using the bond between us to channel it himself, to bend the grass to his will rather than my own. It was strong, healthy plains grass. The kind the women used to weave sturdy baskets and mats. When working together in such force, it was impossible to pull away from. The slaver and his horse strained against it to no avail. I felt a dark amusement emanating from Salos at the man's struggles, as well as a possessiveness. He had said during my time spent in meditation that he had waited a long time to get me back. He wasn't keen on losing me now. And this was his vengeance on the one who thought he could separate us.

I got a sense of my djinn's thoughts as the grass crawled higher, circling around the slaver's throat and tightening.

Foolish man, I could almost imagine a contemptuous sneer on his face, You dare to come against us? Suffer and die.

I felt the grass wrench even as I watched it. It dealt a crushing blow to the man's throat. Then, it slipped away. His body, hands still clutching the net, fell from the horse. The animal bolted, leaving its rider's body in the dust.

I stared at the man's face, frozen in an expression of confused terror. I'd killed him. Rather, Salos had killed him through me. This was different than the plant monsters I'd faced in the dungeon. This was a person. One who probably had a family, a home…

He was a slaver, Salos said firmly, He planned to sell you as some sort of exotic object of entertainment. You heard the stories the Koga told you. They would have separated us and done whatever they liked with you. Not only that, but they plan to take the Koga women as well. Will you let that happen?

Not an ounce of regret emanated from him. In fact, he was rather cold. I was surprised. This wasn't the teasing, almost childish djinn I'd gotten to know these past few weeks. He was dark, almost murderous. I sensed that he didn't particularly enjoy being like that, but, he felt it was necessary. For my sake. That possessive streak of his ran a mile wide, and, for the first time, it absolutely terrified me.

We can talk about it later, he said, tapering those dark emotions a bit, For now, you have a duty. You have power. Use it! Use me!

He was right. It wasn't the time to worry. I would work through killing that man later. I had to use this new power to help the others.

A matter of just a few minutes had passed since I grabbed my sword. It's amazing what adrenaline does to slow time. I was still butt naked, but, I was armed, and, as I saw the women who had been dragged from the river by the nets, chains, and ropes, pissed off. I steeled myself, eyes narrowing.

Alright. Help me use this power, then.

I felt his elation. He laughed, dark emotions suddenly turning light at the apparent joy of fighting with me. He really was like a child in the way he would shift moods so suddenly. He began to manipulate the flow of power further, helping me do it as well rather than just commandeering everything.

Focus on the grass. Use it like an extension of yourself.

I couldn't have done it without him. There were at least ten of them to the twenty or so of us. The clan was, of course, larger, but, not all of the women went to bathe at once. I focused on the grass as Salos instructed, but, the power was too new and raw. He had to help me channel it, otherwise, I never would have been able to use it. The grass sprang up around the few men closest to me, the power racing through it. It whipped about them as it had with the first. They yelled, drawing the attention of the others. At first, they just stopped and stared, confused by the strange sight. Then, they realized who the source was.

Me, standing there naked as could be, antlers on my head, holding a sword with a weird glowing symbol.

The general expression that passed over their faces said 'what the actual fuck?'

We took advantage of their surprise, killing the few we had ensnared. Something as innocent as grass, used as a deadly weapon. I never thought I'd see the day. Still, bile rose in my throat as I felt their throats give way under the pressure of the plants' strangling hold. This time, it wasn't just Salos doing the killing. It was me too. But, it just took one look at the trapped Koga women to stir up my rage again. These men, what they planned to do, were evil. My foster father would say that it wasn't my place to deal justice, but, there weren't any cops coming to save us and these men wouldn't stop here. If they lived, they would find others to enslave, or come back here, to the clan that had welcomed me, and try again.

Hell no.

I would kill them before they were permitted to tear more families apart. This was the world I was a part of now. Where the strong survived and the weak were tread upon. Well, these guys fucked up. They were used to being the top dogs and they messed with someone stronger. Now it was their turn to be tread upon.

The grass died down. As soon as the bodies of the most recent victims hit the ground, five of the remaining group drew weapons and charged me, leaving two to guard their catch. I felt coldly calculating, watching them, analyzing, marking where I would strike. Looking back, I think Salos had something to do with that. With our emotional bond, it was possible he was repressing any emotions that might interfere with the battle. I was pissed, yeah, but it was like the anger was being fed into strength instead of clouding my head. I suspect he was worried I might screw up and get hurt if I wasn't rational during this fight.

The grass sprang up again as soon as the first men were within range. It caught three of them, immediately climbing up over their horses to the riders themselves. The other two continued on, charging past their trapped comrades. Something about the abandonment disgusted me. They truly didn't care. Fewer ways to split the profit, I guess.

Those three were quickly disposed of. The other two bore down on me, one holding a spear and the other one a sword. I braced myself, holding my katana ready. I dodged out of the way of the spear then ducked the sword as they rode by on either side of me. My body reacted almost on its own, moving reflexively. I slashed up as I duck, catching the swordsman in the lower leg. Any sounds of pain he made were covered by the noise of the horse. They rode off a bit and wheeled around. It was enough. I turned quickly, instinctively throwing out a hand. The grass moved fast, twining around them, stopping them in their tracks. They died as the rest had, throats crushed by the plants.

I turned back towards the other two, expecting them to attack next. But, that wasn't the case. The Koga men, drawn from the village by the screaming, had come to our rescue. The last two slavers were pierced by arrows. The men were freeing the women, giving them blankets and the like to cover up. I felt relieved by their appearance, and the fact that the river was near enough and the plains flat enough that the screams had carried.

Salos withdrew slightly, allowing our bond to return to its normal capacity instead of the intensity it had been at. The power went with him. I immediately felt weak. I staggered, sword drooping.

We've used up too much of your magoi, Salos said, his voice holding a frown, That's my fault. I pushed you too far too soon, knowing that you aren't at the level you once were.

I had no idea what he was talking about, again. I figured he'd explain later. Or not. It could be one of those weird things about the past that he didn't want to tell me.

I saw a couple of the Koga running towards me, but, they seemed to be moving in slow motion. They looked concerned.

Why…?

The world started to spin and tilt. I felt myself falling.

Oh, hell no…

Everything went black.

Chapter Text

I wake up suddenly, a loud bang startling me from sleep, and sit up quickly, one hand on my sword, the other on my staff. My dreams of the past dissipate and I blink quickly to clear my blurry eyes, sure that we must be under attack for such a loud noise to have occurred. While this is probably a very paranoid reaction, I've been a traveler long enough to know that letting one's guard down is a stupid mistake. I'm still for a moment, listening, expecting swords clashing, perhaps even spells igniting. I don't hear any of that, though, just people moving about. Moving carefully, I go to the back flap of the covered cart and poke my head out. Late morning light causes me to squint until my vision adjusts.

The porters are bustling about outside, carrying crates and sacks of goods down a small alley. I see that we are in an area almost like a courtyard, the rest of the caravan parked in a semicircle. I realize that we must have reached our destination, Utan, and stopped. I sigh, moving back into the darkness of the cart. They must have bumped my cart as they were moving things and accidentally woken me up. I settle back into my spot within the cart, among a number of wares. Since I'm only briefly travelling with the caravan, I was given whatever available space they had. It's actually a rather nice space. I've been subjected to much worse. This group was even kind enough to give me a blanket despite my already having one, which is a true rarity. I'm very seldom welcomed into a caravan like I was into this one. Usually, I'm an unwanted hitchhiker. This group had been very friendly, taking me in, feeding me, and even letting me ride for free. I do have money. Though part of my treasure was left with the Koga clan, enough to thank them and more since I could only take so much with me, the rest has been carefully invested. Though I do travel a lot, I like to base out of the capital of the Reim Empire, due to the amount of time I spent there in the beginning. They have a bank, which was a blessing from Solomon himself for someone like me, and they let me store my treasure there. Of course, this comes with a small monthly fee, deducted from the interest growing on the treasure. If I need to withdraw funds, I merely send word by bird and a transfer circle is used to send the money to any one of their branches. It's a very efficient system, however, their branches are fewer and further between the further one gets from Reim. I've done rather well with them. Though, they're the ones who spread the news of a new dungeon capturer emerging. After all, who else would appear with such riches? Fortunately, though, not much is known about this dungeon capturer aside from it being a female traveler. Despite the excitement and prestige that follows my kind, I've managed to stay under the radar for the most part.

Speaking of travelling, this is my stop. I gather up my things, a blanket, a couple of scrolls, and a bit of food, and stuff them into my travelling pack. My sports bag from the other world was abandoned long ago, since it would draw too much attention in this one. Once I have packed up my belongings, I pull on my dusty travel robe over my salwar kameez, the traditional, Arabic styled clothing worn by the people here. I pull the strap of the pack over my head so that it rests across my chest. Then, I tuck my coin purse into my clothes where it will be much harder for a pickpocket to reach. I had the misfortune of being pickpocketed early in my travels, my naivety of the world working against me. I've become wiser since then, and have learned to hide my coin purse in hard to reach areas, like in my cleavage. The last thief who tried to steal it from there almost lost his hand. I tie my katana to the belt the wraps around my tunic at the waist, securing it and pulling my robe over it so that the eight-pointed star on the sheath is not so visible. Then, finally, I pick up the staff.

The orb at the top of the staff briefly flares bright gold, as though a miniature sun ignited within it. Then, it fades back to its usual swirling of color. It hasn't turned any other color than gold since Salos last touched it, in the dungeon. I suspect that is because of our perspective magic types. But, it doesn't really matter. The staff attracts enough attention without it changing colors all the time. I've had to fight off thieves who set their eyes on it enough to know that. Fortunately, despite its rather gaudy appearance, it's sturdy enough to be used in combat. I left my bo staff at the small house I purchased during my time in Reim. Though it held sentimental meaning, it was impractical for me to carry so much while wandering. Leaving it at the house, though, ensures I still have it as a momento. The golden staff actually works better in a fight. The orb at the top can crack skulls like nothing I've ever seen.

When I'm sure I have everything, I gather up the extra blanket given to me by the caravan leader and exit the cart. I find the leader as he directs the flow of merchandise and return the blanket, along with a few coins in payment for the food. The jovial old merchant won't let me pay full price, but, I convince him to at least take something. Apparently, he liked my stories about my travels more than he likes my money. A bit strange for a merchant, but, still. He bids me a fond farewell and I take my leave.

I wander down the alley the porters had been using and emerge on a busy street. Shops and stalls line the dirt road and pedestrians bustle about in a huge crowd. It is full of noise and odd smells, some of which are not so pleasant. Though, in all honesty, I most likely don't smell very good myself. It's been awhile since I last bathed. At least a week since I last took a true bath, and I haven't even washed from stored water since early yesterday. Still, it's common in this world. Only the wealthy have the luxury of bathing often. While I could use my money to secure that luxury, I have other things to do.

I've been following the flow of the Rukh since I left the Koga clan, three years ago. After the incident with the slavers, it became apparent that my place was not with them. I was also far too restless to truly stay with them. As soon as a caravan had come through, I left with them. Our farewells were bittersweet. They were happy that I was fulfilling what I believed to be my destiny, but, neither did they want me to go. Despite their familial treatment, I wasn't sure that an outsider like myself would ever really belong there. Though, over my travels, I haven't really found anywhere that I belong. I've followed the Rukh all over the world, training and learning things. I fought in the coliseum of Reim's capital early on, training with the various people there. The Yambala Gladiators had taught me to control my magoi and I'd found a wandering magician later who taught me the basics of magic control. My very helpful brother, had refused to tell me anything about magic. I'd been forced to learn and then let my slowly returning memories do the rest. It had quickly become apparent that I could only use light magic, and only when I was using the staff. Salos and I suspect that this is due to my being nonhuman, since only humans on our old home world could truly be magicians, and, even now, I wasn't human. My first year had been spent training my body, magic, magoi, and djinn equip. Fortunately, they'd been very welcoming, despite my nonhuman qualities.

Despite my best efforts to blend in, I've discovered that I'm an oddity in this world even with my nonhuman traits hidden by a glamour. A magician shouldn't be able to use a djinn because their magic would conflict, but, my bond with Salos made it possible for me to use him. It is unlikely I will be able to gain another djinn or that he would have been able to be used by another magician. We were once again two halves of a whole. A magician should also be able to use any type of magic they choose, though they'll naturally be stronger in a particular type, but I can only use one. A magician should be more proficient in magic than physical fighting, but, I preferred physical combat over magical.

I sigh, blending into the crowd and making my way down the street. I did a good enough job hiding my oddities and hoping that no one would take interest. Especially not any high-society fools. I don't know if I can handle another king finding out about me. The last one was bad enough. I'm jostled about by the people around me, but, I press onward, following the fluttering white Rukh that have become my guides over my journey. They had led me to Reim before becoming dormant there during my training. As soon as my year was done, though, they'd become active, leading me all over the world. I'd followed them from Reim to the Dark Continent. Then, on to Sindria, Balbadd, Kou, and so many other smaller kingdoms. For two years, I traveled the world, meeting so many people and learning so many things. I had numerous scars, both mental and physical, from my experiences, but, it had been worth every moment. Together, Salos and I had experienced this world. But, I can't help but wonder what the Rukh are doing. Why they are leading me all over this world. What kind of destiny are they guiding me on?

The Rukh turn down another main road and I follow them, weaving through the press of unwashed bodies. At first, the smell had been overwhelmed. But, after three years, it isn't so noticeable now, even with my sharp nose. The Rukh flutter down the street, easily staying within view, leading me further into Utan. I pay attention to where different stalls are, knowing I'll need to pick up supplies when the Rukh set me on another leg of travelling. Usually, they'll lead me to a caravan or building and land there. Travelling by caravan is often the safest way. I sometimes am a hitchhiker and sometimes a guard. Most of the time, though, they already have their own men who guard them on their trip. Still, even feeling like an unwanted hitchhiker is better than trekking through the desert alone. I really hate the desert. Salos's plants don't work well here and my flash spells aren't as effective against people whose eyes are used to harsh light. Not to mention, the sand is terrible. I absolutely despise it. It gets into my boots and my clothes. The sun burns my pale skin if I'm out in it for too long and heats the staff until it's too hot to carry barehanded. If there is a hell, I'm sure it's a desert.

I watch as the Rukh begin to glide downward, signaling that they're going in for a landing. I push through the crowd, ignoring the dirty looks, annoyed exclamations, and, in the case of one drunk man, a number of curses.

Drunk this early in the day. For shame.

I emerge from the crowd to find the Rukh resting on the edge of a stall table lined with numerous fruits. I've seen many of them during my travels, but, it's obvious that they're exotic to this area. A blonde woman mans the stall, hawking her wares. She's good, having all sorts of people at least pausing to look. A dark haired girl and a small boy in a turban work behind her, pulling more goods from crates and replacing those that have been sold. I walk up to the stall, looking over their wares. Perhaps the Rukh are designating this group as my new travelling partners. The blonde woman is dealing with another customer, and so, I wait patiently for her to take notice of me so that I can secure passage.

As I wait, the Rukh flutter to the other side of the table, closer to the turban-wearing boy, and land, flexing their wings. The boy moves to put some melons up on the table off to the side of the foremost one, heaving them with his small frame. Before he actually reaches the table, though, he pauses. I wonder what he's doing. Then, to my surprise, he reaches out and touches one of the birdlike creatures. Salos joins me in surprise. This boy can see the Rukh. I can't see his expression, since I'm to the side and a bit behind him, but it's obvious by his actions.

One of the others lifts off again, flying back to me. The boy's eyes follow it to where it lands on my shoulder. As he turns, his face comes into view. I feel like I've been hit upside the head.

A regal face looks at us with a fond smile. The man it belongs to is dressed in robes, the magician's mark of a third eye upon his forehead. His hair is a dark blue, much like his eyes, and braided down his back. He carries one of the staves in his hand, much like the one he gifted to my brother and I and the other leaders of the many races. I feel joyful as I look at him. At our savior, the man we would have as king.

"Thamina, Salos," his kind voice carries a quiet power, "How are you?"

My brother, who is at my side, bows in sync with me, smiling as widely as I am.

"We are well. And you, Lord Solomon?" I reply, looking back up at him.

The man's face is replaced with the boy's.

Solomon…

I stare at the boy. He looked just like Solomon. But, that's impossible. Our king did not survive the last battle, that much I know.

Even as I look at him, my face surely betraying my shock, the boy wanders over to stand across from me, staring up with innocent blue eyes.

"Hey, miss, who are you?" he asks curiously.

I take a deep breath. This is not Solomon. That is not possible. Salos voices his agreement through our bond, a brief flicker of his thoughts. I begin to notice some differences then. The boy's hair is not as dark as our king's and his face not as angular. I nod slightly to myself, confident now that I am not seeing a ghost.

"I am Thamina Dioscuri," I finally say in response to his question.

He smiles widely and ducks under the table. After a brief moment, of struggling with the cloths that covered it, he emerges on my side. He stands, looking up at me with that wide smile.

"That's a nice name," his eyes move to the staff curiously before returning to me, "I'm Aladdin!"

I feel a brief flicker of recognition from Salos, but, he doesn't elaborate. I nod in response, allowing a smile to creep over my lips. They boy's innocent happiness really is contagious.

"It's nice to meet you, Aladdin."

He grins, swaying back and forth slightly in a childish way.

"You too, Miss Mina!"

I don't really mind him calling me Mina. Everyone does anyway. Besides, his addition of the 'miss' is adorable.

He looks at the staff again, a bit more intently this time. Unlike everyone else who has watched it so closely, he isn't enthralled with the shifting orb at the top, or appraising it for its black market worth. After a moment, he reached out and poked at it with one finger. If I could cock a brow, I would.

"Hey, Miss Mina," he looks up at me again, face a bit more serious, "Is this a metal vessel?"

I can feel my eyes widen again in surprise. I look at him for a moment before responding.

"No. It's not."

The boy looks terribly put out, his hand dropping from the staff. He pouts slightly.

"Oh," he sighs slightly and looks up at me again, "My friend, Ugo, said that I should look for metal vessels and the djinn they contain."

I feel Salos's flash of recognition mix with mine. There can only be one Ugo this child is talking about if he's also mentioning djinn. After a moment of conferring through brief thoughts, Salos and I come to an agreement. We will not explain too much to this boy. We don't know who he is, truly, or what his purpose here is. But, he needs to learn things on his own. We will also not mention our own connection to Ugo. We suspect that he has a plan in this, and we will not interfere with it.

I glance around. Then, confident that no one is watching, I tug my robe to the side, revealing my sword.

"The staff is not a metal vessel," I tell Aladdin as he watches me with interest, curious as to what I am doing, "But, this is."

I let the staff fall into the crook of my elbow and use my hand to turn the sword slightly, showing him the star. His eyes light up and his grin returns in full force.

"Wow! That means you have a djinn too!"

I nod, noticing for the first time the flute that hangs from his neck. It too is marked with a star.

Ugo's metal vessel?

It must be, Salos responds. Then, he sniggers, But it's so…unsatisfactory. It can't even be used in combat. My vessel is much better, I can almost feel him smirking, Finally, I outdid him in something.

I leave my brother to his ramblings, carrying on my conversation with Aladdin.

"I do. My djinn is Salos."

Aladdin watches in what I interpret to be wide-eyed wonder as I pull my sword from its sheath just enough for him to see the star on the blade. He nearly dances in excitement.

"That's great! I've never met anyone else with a metal vessel before! Can I see him?"

I shake my head, slipping my blade back into its sheath.

"Not presently. Summoning him in the middle of the city isn't a good idea."

Aladdin cocks his head to the side, his innocent eyes still alight with happiness despite his somewhat confused expression.

"Why not?"

I tug my cloak back into place and take the staff in hand again.

"Because, he might scare some people."

The child nods.

"What about later, outside the city?"

I purse my lips in thought, my eyes sliding to the Rukh that have lifted off to flutter about us. At first, I thought that they were telling me to travel with this caravan, now, though, I'm not so sure. Perhaps they just wanted me to meet this boy. I look back to Aladdin.

"If possible, yes. However, I am travelling north as soon as I can find a ride."

He frowns lightly.

"We're staying in the city for another day…"

He looks disappointed for a moment. Then, suddenly, he looks up at me, expression lighting up again.

"Maybe I can go with you, Miss Mina!"

I feel a flutter in my chest at his excitement. I hadn't found a place, or a person, who made me feel like I belong in three years of travelling, but, with this child…I definitely felt something. It makes me feel almost inexplicably happy that he wants to travel with me.

Still, this child cannot come with us. Not when we are mere wanderers with no stability to provide him. Not when the Rukh seem to whisper about his destiny that is separate from my own. I want him to. I want to take him under my wing, to show him the world, to protect his innocence from those I know would ruin it. I want to take in this child who reminds me so much of my king, Solomon.

You can't mother this child, Mina, Salos's voice says gently, Besides, you hear the Rukh as well as I do. His destiny is not ours. Perhaps one day we will meet him again, but, for now, we must go separate ways.

I nod, knowing my face must be sad.

"I know…"

I crouch slightly and lay my free hand on Aladdin's shoulder. Upon seeing my expression, his own falls a bit.

"I would love that, Aladdin," he looks at me hopefully and I fight back a wince, "But we each have our own destinies. Mine lies to the north. Yours lies in following your friend Ugo's advice, right? You need to find other metal vessels and go on your own adventure."

Aladdin nods, a pleasant expression on his face.

"Alright, Miss Mina, I understand," he smiles sweetly, closing his eyes, "We have different destinies," he looks at me again, "But, I hope we get to meet again! I really like you, Miss Mina!"

I don't know why, but, this means so much to me. Enough that I feel I might cry. Completely on impulse, I move my hand to the back of his head and press my forehead to his.

"I'm sure we will."

I pull back then, feeling a wide smile on my face. Aladdin gives a small, contagious laugh. His attention is suddenly taken by the blonde woman behind the table, who yells at him to get back to work. He grins.

"I have to go now, Miss Mina. But I'll see you again really soon!"

With that, he crawls back under the table.

The Rukh that flutter around me circle once before flying off down the street. I cast one more look at Aladdin as he goes back to his melons, still smiling. Then, I follow them.

What was so important about meeting him? I ask them silently as I push back into the crowd, He is a special boy, I know that, but why single him out?

Neither the Rukh nor Salos give a response. I sigh, having expected this.

Fine. I suppose I'll find out when it's time.

I follow the Rukh back towards the outskirts of the city, where a great number of caravans seem to be gathered. They lead me to one in particular, settling atop one of the covered carts and waiting there. I look at them for a moment to make sure this is truly where they intend me to go before going off in search of the leader.

I find him a few minutes later, packing up from what appears to have been a successful sale. Upon asking him where he is going, I find out that he and another caravan are headed for Varang. While I've never been there personally, I've seen plenty of maps and know that it is a kingdom located on a peninsula to the north of the Kou Empire. I assume this must be where the Rukh want me to go. After some haggling and persuasion, I convinced the caravan leader to take me with him.

Within the next few hours, I leave Utan, and Aladdin, behind. I can't help but look back at the city, still wondering about the boy I'd met in the market.

Chapter Text

After nearly two months of travel, the caravan pulls into one of the larger trade cities of Varang after night has fallen. We've been within the country for the past four days. Varang is much bigger than I realized. It is hemmed in by the sea on three sides and Kou on the fourth, separated completely from the other kingdoms of the world. Though, a voyage by sea would get them to Imachukk rather easily. As we pass down the main road, I find that the architecture of the buildings here is quite similar to that of Imachukk, but, not quite so large. The houses are wooden and decorated with antlers and carvings. The shops are much the same. Each building has a thickly thatched roof, meant to contain heat during the cold months. Fortunately, we've arrived in summer. I've heard that the cold months of Varang are full of heavy snows and biting winds. Even now, in the summer, it is much more temperate than many of the places I have been. It is not, however, anywhere close to the coldness of Imachukk. I've begun to think that, perhaps, this means the people of Varang, who are touted as fearsome warriors, are of a normal stature.

This thought is quickly dashed as I leave the caravan and make my way to an inn. The expenses for travel more than halved my purse, but, I have enough to secure room and board for a few days, at least until I can discern what it is the Rukh desire of me. As I walk through the streets, I find that a city of this size does not settle down for the night like a smaller town might. Every city has its night activity. People wander everywhere, going into shops that are still open or to nearby bars. As I pass a tavern, a pair of men come out, laughing loudly and clapping each other heartily on the back. I almost stop to stare. While I know I am of slight build and not among the tallest of women, these men are huge. I estimate them to be somewhere between six and seven feet tall, with barrel chests and broad shoulders to match. Thick beards obscure fierce faces. They are adorned in hide, fur, and leather, simple clothes that do nothing to detract from their fearsome appearances. Even while wearing easy going smiles, I know that they must look like death itself when in armor.

Vikings…

The thought comes unbidden to my mind, a remnant of something from the world I'd previously lived in.

Salos quickly picks up the image in my mind and delves deeper, pursuing my memories of anything to do with these Vikings.

No, he says teasingly, They're Varangians. But, close.

I send him an unappreciative thought in retaliation and go on my way. Even the women I pass are larger than me. Though, not quite as large as the people of Imachukk, who seem to truly defy physics. The Varangians are obviously a hearty people, built to weather their harsh winters and work hard in the warmer months. As one man walks by, I see a large axe hanging from his belt, one that, with his stature, could cleave a smaller man down the middle.

I'd heard the Kou had left them alone, I comment to Salos, This must be why…

I've heard that the population of Varang is rather impressive for a kingdom its size. If all of its people are built like this and can wield weapons, it's no wonder Kou has not attacked them yet. The cost of a venture like that would be too high on both sides, and I suspect neither wants to deal with that. Still, I wonder how long a conquering Empire like the Kou will remain dormant on this front. I've seen their assimilation methods firsthand. To conquer this land, which is rich in resources and manpower, would definitely be a feather in their proverbial caps. It must only be a matter of time…

I wander further into the town, Salos curiously watching through my eyes. Being forced to reside in a vessel as a djinn, he cannot experience the world as I can. However, our bond allows him to live vicariously through me. Quite literally. He expresses a childlike wonder at not only our surroundings but the memories I have of the historical Vikings of my old world as well. He sifts through them as one might through the pages of a book, occasionally commenting and drawing comparisons. I can't help but smile. Though he swears that he's the older twin because, according to him, he was born two minutes before me, I think sometimes that it's the other way around.

All around us are tall wooden buildings and magnificent craftsmanship. Smoke from wood fires wafts from chimneys and fills the air with a distinct scent. I can smell meat cooking as I pass some of the buildings and my stomach twists and rumbles in response. After nearly two months of travel rations, I am most definitely ready for different, real, food. I can imagine a cut of some of that tasty meat I smell. Maybe with a side of some sort of vegetable.

Salos snorts in amusement.

You're drooling.

Despite myself, I check my mouth.

I am not.

He laughs, sending a teasing mental caress my way, almost like those long fingers of his are dragging through my hair.

You're too much fun, my sun.

I quickly learned over my travels that the bond between Dioscuri usually leads to such a deep affection that outsiders might interpret it as incestuous. The use of pet names, a possessiveness of the other, and a very tactile relationship are not uncommon. Salos calls me 'my sun' because of my light magic and how it works in conjunction with his life magic. From the few memories I've recovered of our former home, I know that he's always done this. He sometimes tells me 'you're the sun to my flowers'. To be completely honest, it disturbed me at first. But, over time, I became used to it. Sometimes, only when he's been truly helpful, mind you, I return the favor and call him my flower. But, since he becomes rather overly emotional at that point and gushes all over me, I do this very rarely.

I continue to follow the Rukh as they glide down the street, their glowing forms all the more visible against the clear night sky. Normally, I would simply go to an inn for the night and rest. However, it seems like my compatriots have something else in mind. I follow them until we leave the housing district of the city and venture into the dark, quiet shopping area. The stores are all closed for the night and there is no one else in sight. I glance back toward the better lit place I've left, feeling a sense of danger at being away from both the light and the people there. Then, I focus on my surroundings. Instincts from training kick in and I suddenly feel hyper aware. I feel a strange sense of foreboding. Sensing my discomfort with our new setting, Salos moves his focus to keeping watch as well.

I doubt the Rukh would ever intentionally lead me into a situation where my life would be lost, but, they have taken me into dangerous places before. Salos hisses at that thought.

I will not allow you to die, Mina…not again.

I send him a comforting thought in reply.

I know. Don't worry. With these dirt roads, your plants will be easy to use in a fight. The darkness helps my light magic as well, particularly my flash spells.

He gives a brief affirmation, still tense. I return the gesture from earlier, like I am mentally stroking my fingers through his hair. He relaxes reluctantly, the tone of his thoughts softening.

The Rukh have stopped up ahead. All I really want to do is find an inn, eat something nice, and lie down in a warm bed. However, it seems that destiny calls. I realize that they're hovering at the entrance of a dark alley.

Are you serious?

I feel Salos slip into a calculating mood.

There could be something on the other side…

Or we could get mugged.

To be frank, dear sister, it would be you who was mugged, not I.

I feel my eye twitch at his smart tone.

You are not helpful. If you're not going to be helpful, shut up.

Salos sighs.

So hurtful…he sighs, All joking aside, you can't put off your destiny for fear of a dark alley. You are more than capable of fighting any human thief.

I'm tired. I don't want to fight thieves. I want to go to bed.

You sound like a petulant child. There might not even be thieves in that alley.

When I don't follow immediately, a few of the Rukh fly back and circle me, seeming to gently give me a push towards the alley.

Trust in Solomon's Rukh, Salos tells me.

Annoyed that Salos proved to be wiser than me, I follow the birdlike Rukh as they again go to the mouth of the alley. He's right. My training with the Yambala has made me into a skilled physical fighter. Not as skilled as they are, but, enough that my master told me that he felt alright with my going out into the world. I was glad that it had just been him with me at that time. Had Mu heard that, he would have wasted no time in making fun of me. Mu is a rather upstanding man, but, he can be as insufferable as Salos sometimes.

I continue down to the alley, thinking about how the annoying man would make fun of me for not going down it sooner. The entrance is even more foreboding up close. Shadows seem to fill it to the brim, creeping and stretching. I sigh. The Rukh are beginning to go down it, glowing in the darkness, but, not brightly enough to light the darkness. I stand for a moment more, unable to shake the feeling of foreboding that welled up in me. The last time I felt this was when I was travelling to Sindria and pirates attacked the merchant ship I'd bartered passage on. There were quite a few deaths that day, despite the hired men and I fighting to the extent of our abilities.

Very wary now, I begin to walk into the alley, lifting my staff slightly.

"Lf Khfyfh," I mutter softly, so that I will not be heard by potential thieves.

The orb as the top of my staff begins to glow softly, just enough for me to see the wooden walls on both sides and the dirt road ahead. I can faintly see the outline of the other end of the alley and expect to go through and emerge on another main street. However the Rukh swerve to the side at the midpoint of the alley, leading me onto another backway. I obediently follow, glancing about for possible threats. We continue on like this for a while, me following the Rukh, keeping watch with Salos, going deeper into the city. Deep enough that the buildings begin to look run-down. Mold sticks to some of the wooden walls and they smell of rot. I can tell by that smell, among others, that we've reached the poor district. It's not quite a slum, but, it's close enough. I hear people moving about, oblivious to my passage through the alleyways. I stay to the middle of the path, unwilling to be near the edges, where the smell betrays just what has been dumped there.

Why are they leading us through waste-infested alleys? I ask Salos, more worried than annoyed now.

Only Solomon knows. Well…and maybe Ugo. But, we just need to follow.

I purse my lips and continue on my way.

To my relief, the Rukh leave the alley, drawing me through a narrow gap between two buildings that makes me grateful for my rather small chest and slender form. If the situation wasn't so shrouded in mystery, I know that Salos would make fun of me. He knows that my womanly figure, or lack thereof, is a bit of a sore point. While my hips do follow the rounder quality that all women have, they're rather narrow. My chest, in the other world, would have been a small bra size. As it is, I don't have to use a very large binder. I seem to be built for combat rather than seduction or even childbearing. This is all offset by my face, which I've heard has an exotic look with its prominent features and slanted eyes. At least if I can't have an attractive body, I have a nice face.

Mina, the Rukh have stopped. Stop thinking about body types and focus, Salos says with an undercurrent of laughter.

I look up to find that the Rukh have indeed stopped. I curse my momentary distraction. It was enough to make me miss a rather important detail. I let my previous thoughts slip away and focus on where the Rukh have brought me.

The establishment appears to be a tavern of sorts. I can see firelight flickering through the dingy windows. It lacks the boisterousness of the taverns in the better part of town. It also has a…shady quality to it. I feel apprehensive about entering. This isn't the kind of place I normally go to. For one, it looks like it's about to fall over.

Go on, Salos urges.

This has 'getting into a fight' written all over it.

I grudgingly walk up to the door and push it open.

The inside is much worse than the outside. The smell of unwashed bodies hits my sharpened senses like a tidal wave and I nearly gag. It's obvious that the bartender, an almost normal sized man with a sneer, doesn't pay much mind to cleanliness within his building either. The place is filthy. I keep my poker face on, though, because as soon as I walk in, everyone in the main room turns to look at me and all sound ceases. Every single one of them is what my foster father would have called a rough customer. Large men with angry faces sit alone or in groups. Women with contemptuous eyes and too much cleavage sit near them, obviously providing some sort of service. Everyone is eyeing me in my travel worn clothes and dusty cloak. With my light blue hair pulled back in a long tail of ringlets and my golden staff in hand, it's obvious I'm not from around here.

Oh, hell.

I almost turn around and walk out right then. However, the Rukh have other ideas. They flutter past me, unseen by anyone else, and right over to an empty table in the corner. I follow, pretending to ignore the looks that trail both me and the staff. Once I've taken my seat and made my intention to stay rather clear, activity around the room resumes. The women, who I believe are commonly called 'wenches' in establishments like this, go back to their games of seduction. The men who sit together return to their conversations. The bartender continues to polish a filthy glass with an even dirtier rag. Some still watch me, but not as many. I keep the staff close. While I think I could fight my way out of here, it would be hard, and I'd rather not cause an incident.

I look around, feeling Salos also checking the area. There has to be some reason for the Rukh to have led us here, and I doubt it's for the aesthetics of the place. However, the Rukh are being rather uncooperative, sitting at an empty table between me and a rather large group. At first I wonder if maybe I've sat at the wrong table. Then, I realize I can hear what the other group is saying.

"Dammit, Ingrid, that's not what was agreed. You're gonna be stickin' with us now."

I glance over to see that the group is comprised of three men and two women. All of them look to be fighter types. I spot a quiver and bow on the back of the smallest man. The other two carry monstrous axes. The one woman wears a sword. The other is the smallest of the group and looks much different from the others. She's much fairer in complexion and doesn't appear to be quite as rough around the edges. She doesn't fit with the scowling faces and darkness of her fellows. The bottom part of her face is covered and I can only see her sharp blue eyes under her blonde hair.

"I think it's time for me to move on."

It's the blonde who speaks, her soft but strong voice slightly muffled by the covering over her mouth. The man who was growling at her before clenches his fist on the tabletop and leans in threateningly. The woman who sits on beside who must be Ingrid scoffs.

"We not good enough for you anymore?"

Ingrid shakes her head.

"It's not that. I've just stayed in this area for too long. I got into trouble with the government a while back and I can't get caught now."

The archer cocks a brow. Yet another person who can do that while I can't.

"Your mysterious government trouble seems to be rather convenient. I've heard we aren't the first mercenary group you've run out on whenever big things went down."

Ingrid shoots him a glare.

"Yeah," the first guy speaks again, his red beard hiding his moving lips, "You're a skilled girl. We need someone like you around. We can't just have you running off on us."

The blonde woman's eyes narrow slightly. I take it that the group isn't always so tightly knit. Something is going on. She gets up.

"Sorry, but I only agreed to stay with you for a few months. I'm moving on."

The woman beside her stands as well, reaching over her shoulder to grip her sword.

"What's the rush?"

I see now that Ingrid is wearing quite a bit of fitted leather covered by a short cloak. She flips the cloak back to reveal a pair of daggers, one on each hip. Judging by her attire and choice of weaponry, I'd say she's a thief, or perhaps even an assassin. The other woman wears some rather revealing pieces of leather augmented with metal. She's obviously the more up front fighter.

"You have no reason to keep me," Ingrid says.

This conversation was obviously already quite heated when I walked in for it to have escalated this quickly. The other patrons of the tavern are watching, some curiously, some warily, and some even gleefully. It looks like a fight is about to break out. I'm in the middle of wondering which exit I should slip out if it does, when the Rukh lift off from the table between mine and the group's. In a less than exciting maneuver, they join a few of their brethren, who appear rather suddenly, in fluttering about Ingrid.

I pride myself on controlling my tongue, another skill I learned in training. But this is too much.

"Are you fucking serious?" I mutter.

Chapter Text

Ingrid and the woman from her mercenary group face off. Across the table, the two men with axes nonchalantly reach for their weapons. The archer stands slowly, hemming her between himself and the other woman. Ingrid's blue eyes sweep over them, sizing them up. The Rukh flutter about her head in an almost mocking dance. I feel the need to bang my head back against the wall behind me. 

"Back off," she says warningly, gripping her daggers tightly.

The woman smirks. I get the feeling that there's some tension running between them that goes back a ways.

"I don't think so. You see, there's a big bounty on your head."

Everyone within earshot turns quickly at the mention of a bounty. The archer sighs. Apparently, announcing this wasn't part of the plan.

"Hilde…" he begins.

The woman cuts him off.

"I'm done playing around with this," she looks back to Ingrid, eyes hard, "I'll bet your government problems were caused when you ran away. Right, princess?"

Everyone goes still and silent. I could have heard a pin drop in the room. I almost slam my head down on the table. I just wanted to eat some dinner and go to bed, not get involved in this sort of thing. Not with royalty again.

Fuck my life, fuck the Rukh, and fuck her….

Ingrid's gone very still as well. Judging by the look on her face, Hilde hit the nail on the head. The woman continues, either not noticing the attention on them or not caring.

"Your uncle's put out a big reward for whoever returns you to him. He's just worried sick about his poor little runaway niece," she spits to the side, "I'm not sure why, though. You turned traitor when you abandoned your duty."

Oh, fuck them too.

Patriotic, violent mercenaries who seem to believe that bringing her back to her uncle alive doesn't mean they can't rough her up a bit for running away and abandoning her position. I take a quick look around. It seems that everyone else in here shares the same mindset. Plus, they want that bounty.

Ingrid's hands tighten on her daggers and her eyes narrow. Behind her, the archer slowly moves his hands towards her, looking unnerved by the attention they're getting.

"Where did you get the idea that I'm our runaway princess?"

Hilde glances at one of the axe-wielding men. He reaches into a pouch on his belt and withdraws a piece of parchment. He holds it up for Ingrid to see. From my vantage point, I can see that it's a wanted poster with a portrait on it. I glance between the picture and Ingrid. They really do look uncannily alike.

"This was in the last town we passed through. You're a bit of a unique person, Ingrid, I mean, Princess Keary. With your mother being a foreigner and all. Not too many people match this description," the man rumbles in a deep bass voice.

Ingrid's, or rather, Keary's narrowed eyes are as cold as ice and filled with anger. She's feeling cornered, that much is obvious. If she really is this princess, something drove her to run away, knowing that discovery would warrant this reaction from her people. Something that caused her to give up being royalty and become a lowly thief instead, acting under an alias. Something that would make her abandon who seems to be a loving relative. Something big that's keeping her from returning.

"I'm not going to just let you take me back," she says firmly.

Hilde gives a nasty smile.

"You don't have a choice, princess."

The archer's hands clamp down on Keary's arms just as she attempts to draw her daggers. Guess that's my cue. I stand quickly, drawing the attention of everyone watching this display, and level the staff at Hilde, who seems to be the one most intent on doing Keary harm. Her eyes meet mine, and, perceiving a threat, she begins to draw her sword.

"Tamyh Khfyfh."

I squeeze my eyes shut as a blinding light flashes from the orb at the top of the staff. I hear a number of cries and groans as everyone who was looking at me is affected by the spell. I open my eyes and take advantage of their blindness, dodging around my table. It will last only as long as it takes them to recover, which means I need to move fast. My aim is to escape with the princess, not start a brawl. I don't want to fight everyone in here.

A sharp shout that suddenly jumps a number of octaves sounds from the group and I see that the princess has used my distraction to wrench a hand free and send a fist into the archer's groin. He doubles over, holding himself, and she quickly twists the other hand free. She then grips his wrist and throws him over her shoulder and into Hilde. I'm rather impressed. She's the smallest person I've seen since I arrived in this country and that was a very nice throw. With the way clear, she staggers towards the door, still feeling the effects of the flash spell.

A few of the others in the tavern have recovered a bit faster than I hoped. One of the large men stands from his table to block her way, stepping into her path and looking down at her. His pupils are still contracted from my spell, but, he can see well enough to try and capture his prey. I know I can't make it in time if I try to dodge around the tables. I quickly pick out another way and wince.

Here goes nothing…

I jump onto the table that the Rukh had previously sat on and use it as a springboard, leaping from it to another table. My foot strikes with a dull 'thump' and then I push off again. Fortunately, these tables are made of a heavy wood, otherwise, I'm sure they would slide out from under me. Only two more lay between the man and I. He's drawing his sword. Keary looks up at him, blinking furiously. I grit my teeth. The table I land on next is rather crowded. I manage to get a good enough jump to dodge past one of the men sitting there before sliding around the one on the opposite side. As I make the jump, I aim the staff, knowing I won't make it in time.

"Ahtraq Shmas!"

A thin, intense ray of light fires from the orb and strikes the man. He bellows in pain as a scorched hole appears in his shirt and the affected skin smokes. This spell is as close to heat magic as I'll ever get, however, it's not enough to deter a man his size. Still, it's good enough to buy me the time I need. He turns his attention to me as I make a shaky landing and launch myself for the last time. He readies his sword to swat me out of the air, but, the staff is longer. I let it slide until I can grip it in both hands, towards the bottom. Then, I swing at his head. I hear an audible crack and he staggers. I didn't swing hard, so, I know I haven't permanently injured him, but he's been stunned again.

I make my landing on the table next to Keary, surprising myself.

I hope you were paying attention, brother, because that was possibly the most badass thing I've ever done. And I won't be doing it again.

Salos chuckles.

Very nice. But, you'd better grab her before someone else does.

I slip off the table, glad I haven't twisted my ankle in that little stunt. She looks at me, eyes wide. It seems that others in the tavern are recovering, as I hear quite a few chairs scraping. I jerk my head towards the door.

"Run. Unless you'd rather be turned in."

She glances back before sprinting around one last table and out the door. I follow quickly, not at all eager to get in a further fight.

We emerge onto the street at a dead run, moving quickly away from the tavern. I silently thank the Yambala for their rather intense training methods and my own upkeep of my body that allows me to keep this up. Still, we can't just run. Keary seems to have the same idea.

"Horses!" she calls, "Down the street!"

I follow her as she runs down the street a little ways and stops at a rather run-down stable. Apparently, it doesn't get used very often. It's really more of a rail to tie the animals to with a roof overhead. There are five horses there, all rather nice. Keary immediately goes to one. I choose another, hoping that it doesn't turn out to be undyingly loyal to its master. While I don't like stealing, I like getting beat up by large, angry Varangians even less. I quickly untie the horse and swing onto its bare back, already hearing sounds of pursuit. I quickly wheel the animal around and look over at Keary.

"Do you have somewhere to go?"

She comes up beside me. Her scarf has been pulled down and I can now see her entire face. She's very pretty, with a strong jaw and regal face. Her sharp eyes look at me warily.

"How do I know I can trust you?"

I give a small, humorless smirk in return. We have a tavern full of people after us and she chooses now to ask?

"Without me, I doubt you would have escaped. Aside from that, you don't. But, I have no interest in whatever money you may have on your head."

She looks at me for a moment longer. Then, she gives a grudging nod.

"Alright. I don't have anywhere to go…but we should head north."

I nod in return, glancing at the Rukh that have followed us. They continue to fly about her, clearly marking her.

"Lead on."

She kicks her horse lightly and I follow as she rides off down the street.


 

We come to a stop when neither of us can keep riding anymore. Fortunately, Varang is more hilly than flat, and we find a rather well-hidden spot to rest in a nook between two hills. Exhausted and hungry, we dismount, having nothing but what we brought with us in our flight. I nearly fall into the grass, breathing hard as I take a seat. I learned how to ride when I was living with the Koga, but, I've only rarely had to use the skill since that time, and never in such a frenzied way. I feel Salos run a mental probe over me, checking me for any strained muscles or sore spots that will need attention before riding tomorrow. Upon finding nothing, he gives me the equivalent of a pat on the head.

Your backside will be sore from not using a saddle, but, I think you'll be fine.

I nod slightly, watching as Keary takes a wary seat a few feet away, her eyes on me.

Thanks.

Aside from Salos and I theorizing about our new companion, the ride had been silent. Now, I could tell that was not going to be the case any longer. Keary's eyes held questions. I braced myself.

"Who are you?"

The question was almost deadpan in its delivery. She was tired, she knew I was tired, but, she was still too worried about the betrayal of her group to trust me.

"I am Thamina Dioscuri."

It seemed proper to take on the name of our race as my surname, since I am the last survivor.

Keary looks me over, taking in my dirty clothes, partially empty pack, staff, and sword. I'm glad my glamour has held up and hidden my antlers, because her eyes focus on my forehead, where the mark of the third eye sits on my forehead like a strange tattoo. It's remained on my forehead as the same odd bump since I woke up with it in Baba's tent. Few have seen it and known what it means. I've learned to be wary of those who do.

"You're a magician."

It's not a question, but, I nod in affirmation.

"I am."

Her eyes drop to the katana on my belt and her fair brows furrow. I would have missed the expression in the darkness if it wasn't for my enhanced senses.

"And a swordsman."

"Yes."

Silence falls between us for a moment.

"Where are you from?" she asks.

I cock my head slightly. That's always the hardest question to answer. I give her as close as I can to the truth.

"…Many places. I am a wanderer. I am not from anywhere in particular. When I awoke on the Northern Tenzan Plateau, I had no memory of this world. I do not have a home, though, I have spent a large amount of time in Reim and own a house there. I have traveled the world, but, I do not belong to any nation, kingdom, or empire. I am the last Dioscuri, and, with no others to feel at home with, I do not have one."

How poetic, Salos says with a bittersweet tone, half teasing and half serious.

I ignore him, knowing that I am being watched closely. I have no desire to give him away yet. He's my trump card, and I'd rather keep him unknown for the most part.

Keary relaxes a bit, though, not fully.

"You don't have any connection to the royal families of Varang, Kou, or any of the nations of the Seven Seas Alliance?"

Well, that's rather direct.

And it moves us towards the heart of the issue that she's wrapped up in, Salos muses.

I wish I could cock a brow ironically as I think about that question.

"Well, it depends on what you mean by connection. I've had the fortune, if it could be called that, of meeting Sindria's king and having a rather lengthy conversation with him. I'm sure he would consider us acquaintances, maybe even friends, but," I feel my eye twitch, "I'd rather not take it that far."

Keary's blonde head tilts to the side and her brows furrow in obvious confusion.

"What do you mean? Was he unreasonable? Or perhaps performed some sort of misconduct?"

Ah, such interest. I wonder…Salos is obviously working out the puzzle as I gain information.

"King Sinbad is…an interesting man. He helped me gain information that had been lost in the void of my memory. However…there is a demeanor about him that I find to be annoying. Not only that, but," I can practically feel the shadow that creeps over my face, "He thinks that his charm is irresistible, especially where women are concerned."

I owe Sinbad quite a lot. After the merchant ship I was taking to Sindria managed to make port after the pirate attack, we were greeted by the military. It was our good fortune, or so it seemed at the time, that the king was home at the time and was feeling the need to come and check on us after hearing about the attack. I don't know if he was genuinely concerned or if it was for the sake of appearance. Whatever the case, I was introduced to him as 'the magician who saved us' due to my part in the battle. I do confess that, without my spells and borg, I don't know if we would have won. I didn't expect the king to make anything of it, maybe say thank you and move on.

That's when I learned just what this mark of the third eye means. As soon as he saw it, his expression softened and he took my hand, raising it gently to his lips, saying 'Ah, you must be Thamina. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.'

I was invited to accompany him as a guest of Sindria. Apparently, my master, Shambal Ramal of the Yambala, was an acquaintance and had mentioned me in a few of his correspondences. At first, I was overwhelmed and quite flattered. After all, the king of Sindria is a very handsome man and, I confess, I've never garnered such attention from a man before or since then. He drew me in, like one of Salos's toxic flowers might. Soon, I found myself discussing my experience in Salos's dungeon with him, since, after all, he is a famous dungeon capturer and seemed to understand and sympathize with me. He even managed to get me to disclose my limitations in magic and my ability to see and understand the flow of Rukh. He also told me everything I wanted to know about dungeons, djinn, metal vessels, magi, and even politics and the workings of this world. I stayed in Sindria for a week, caught up in his web. However, despite his kindness, I became wary of him. I realized that he had enticed me to share with him numerous things that I would not have shared normally. For, you see, King Sinbad is a crafty man. I came to realize that he was gauging me, attempting to reason out my threat level and whether or not I was an enemy or potential ally, simultaneously drawing me towards his side.

I lost my temper when I realized his game, and, fueled by both my anger and Salos's, I confronted him. It was at that point that he rendered me unable to hate him completely. He explained that he meant no insult, but, he had to think of what was best for his people, as their king. After all, he said, I was a powerful individual and an anomaly, being able to use both a djinn and magic. He told me that he wanted me to remain in Sindria, that he wouldn't try to exploit me. That I could belong there.

I refused. I didn't want to stay in a place where I was so easily caught up in his game, no matter his reason for playing it. He may be a truly kind man, or perhaps even really care for my well-being, but, I cannot trust him. Despite that, he continued to make gestures of friendship. Even as I readied to depart on the next ship for Balbadd, he took my hand in both of his and very seriously told me that, if I changed my mind, I would always be welcome in Sindria.

Whether I like it or not, I am close to Sinbad. Our long conversations and exchange of information ensured that. His offer looms over me, because, I confess, even though I don't trust him, I know that, if I desired, I could live peacefully under his wing, maybe even belonging. After all, some of his own generals are not truly human. I would be accepted. But that frightens me. I fear that I would begin to trust him, that he would use me and I wouldn't realize it.

No, I shake my head slightly, that man is dangerous.

Keary hums, drawing me back to our conversation.

"I see…"

I watch her keenly, my questions about her again rising to the surface.

"You have asked your questions. But I have my own. Are you truly the princess of this kingdom?"

She stiffens, her lips pursing tightly.

"I think I have a right to know," I tell her gently, "I risked my personal safety to help you escape."

There is a long silence between us. So long that I fear that she may not answer. Then, she sighs and nods.

"Yes, I am Princess Keary of Varang."

I sit back slightly. I had a hunch that this was so, but, to hear it confirmed feels…weighty.

"Well then, princess…it is an honor to meet you."

She gives a wry smile.

"You as well."

I smirk in return, briefly. The Rukh continue to flutter and glide about her, but, I am no longer annoyed at them. I think that I will rather like this girl. There is a hint of spunk within her that I find intriguing.

"Forgive my lack of decorum, but, I prefer to be frank," I continue, "I would like to know what it is I have saved you from. Why were the mercenaries you were with so hateful? Why is there a bounty on your head?"

Keary sighs again, shifting to stretch out her leather-clad legs. She then goes silent, appearing to think.

"…It's a long story."

I settle back, giving her my best unmoving stare, conveying my intention of gaining this information. If the Rukh want me to stick with her, I want to know what I'm getting into.

She nods, as though expecting this. Then, she looks up at the sky. After a long moment, she speaks.

"I ran away after my eighteenth birthday, when my Uncle, the current lord protector of the country, announced that an arrangement had been made. I was to marry either into the royal family of Kou in order to ensure a peaceful alliance rather than a hostile takeover or into the Seven Seas Alliance in order to create an alliance powerful enough to deter Kou."

I frown. I understand now why those in the tavern were so angry. From their perspective, it must seem that she just abandoned her duty. It also explains why her interest in my relations to the three parties she named. However, she doesn't strike me as so cowardly or childish to run away for fear of duty.

"Why?" I ask.

Her face slowly hardens.

"I do not wish to tie our kingdom to any one group when war is on the horizon, much less to the conquering empire that threatens us. I believe that I can protect us without a marital alliance."

"How?"

She looks at me, eyes blazing in determination and conviction. No, I see now that she is not the type to run away for petty reasons. She firmly believes in her choice.

"On the northernmost sea border of Varang, there is a tower. They say that contained within this tower is a great power, the power of a king. I'm going to use that power to protect my kingdom. That's why I've been training for the past two years, working as a mercenary and thief, honing my skills. I need to defeat that tower."

I feel realization settle in as she speaks. Salos's echoes mine.

"A dungeon," I say aloud, "You want to capture a dungeon."

Keary nods, expression set.

"The 43rd Dungeon, Sabnack."

When she says that, the Rukh around her go into a frenzy, flying and diving about. I watch them as I finally come to understand their intent.

This princess is going into a dungeon.

And I am to accompany her.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Keary and I awake at around the same time, as the sun is rising. I sit up out of the grass, feeling dew wetting down my clothes. I'm sure my hair's a mess, but, fortunately, I've never been very concerned with aesthetics, especially since I started traveling. It's hard to care about how my hair or nails look when I'm almost constantly covered in at least a thin layer of dirt. Though, I do have to keep my nails at least filed. They have a tendency to grow out into points. Even after I cut them during my stay with the Koga, they returned to their talon-like shape, though they were not as long as previously. They're rather annoying to deal with, as they're thicker than normal human nails, almost like they're made for clawing.

Such unpleasant thoughts in the morning, my sun, Salos comments.

His words are accompanied by a sudden warmth, almost like a hug. He always is overly affectionate in the mornings.

I sigh, standing and stretching.

Sorry. But they are annoying.

He chuckles. The odd, almost tactile sensation turning into something like a caress on my upper arm. I find myself feeling glad that he can't manifest at will. If he could, I'm sure I would be dealing his embraces and cuddling quite often. It's not that I don't like hugs, but, Salos loves them so much that I'm afraid I would hardly ever get away from him.

He picks up on this thought and I can almost feel him grinning.

I wouldn't mind that at all, my sun. No one would ever touch you again.

I scoff softly, picking up my pack from where I'd rested my head on it.

You're the reason why people perceived the Dioscuri as incestuous.

He laughs at this but leaves me be.

With very little conversation, Keary and I head out again, wary of possible pursuers. We ride our horses back to the road and set off at a quick but steady clip northward. We were lucky that the horses' bridles had been left on despite the removal of their saddles. Apparently, their owners had not planned to stay at the tavern for too long a time.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get the rest of Keary's story last night. We both ended up being too exhausted to continue talking after she revealed that she wanted to take a dungeon. Today, though, I'm intent on learning everything I can about her. If I'm correct, and my destiny coincides with hers, we need to be able to trust each other. It will be rather difficult since we just met the previous day, but, I'm hoping that the barrier between us will be quickly overcome.

We're about half an hour into our ride when we finally are awake enough to carry on conversation, despite our dry throats and growling bellies.

"So, you wish to capture a dungeon," I say, prompting her.

Her sharp eyes cut over to me for a moment before returning to the road. She seems reluctant to talk openly, but, I think she considers herself in my debt and so does not deny me my answers.

"Yes. I will continue to head north until I reach Sabnack. I think that, with the people so restless and Kou steadily growing on our border, it's time for me to make the attempt."

I watch her for a moment, sure that my horse will follow the road without my assistance in guiding it. I realize then just how young she is. If she had run away when she was eighteen, two years prior, she's only twenty now. While she has already passed the age of adulthood, she is still a very young woman. Particularly to have so much weight on her shoulders. However, despite her youth, there is a steel in her eyes. She is a fighter, a warrior, there can be no doubt. I find myself wondering how much blood is on her hands, who she has killed in her quest for strength so that she can defend her country.

I understand her reasoning in running away. Rather than become the demure wife of a man she does not know, she would rather gain the strength to fight for herself, to be the strong head of a strong kingdom. This makes sense. The Varangians are touted as mighty warriors. It's no wonder she would rather take the path of the fighter rather than the political bride. However, what she's proposing is dangerous. Salos himself had said that hundreds of lives had been lost in his dungeon alone. Sinbad had said that most dungeons are like that. There are only certain people in the world who are meant to be King Candidates. Those who don't measure up are destroyed within the dungeon they attempt to capture. While the Rukh seem to be telling me that Keary is a worthy Candidate, I cannot help but worry.

"You do realize that you might not return..."

She gives a curt nod, sitting up a bit straighter. She's obviously thought about this and has come to a decision. I see the determination in her eyes. She is set on her path. I nod slightly, realizing that my worries are most likely unfounded. This one, despite her pretty face and youth, is strong. I see now why the Rukh flow about her so. She is following a destiny that could move and shake the world. And here I thought that my destiny was going to be boring after wandering for so long. If it's entwined with hers, things will get very exciting indeed.

"Where will you go?" she asks, glancing at me again, "What is your purpose in Varang?"

I smile slightly, looking up at the Rukh who flutter overhead. I send them a silent apology for being so cross with them before. I see now that they were setting me on a path I never could have imagined before.

"I follow destiny's path where it leads. At present, it's happened to have led me to Varang."

"Destiny's path?" she sounds more curious than dubious.

"Yes. The Rukh."

She looks at me so quickly I'm afraid she might fall off her horse. Her head snaps to the side with such force that, had her long hair not been bound, she would have slapped herself in the face with it. Her eyes are wide.

"You can understand the Rukh?"

I find myself in yet another situation where I wish I could raise an eyebrow. Obviously, she knows at least a little about the Rukh. Perhaps it has something to do with her being royalty. Or maybe with her travels. I give a nod.

"Yes, I can."

Her blue eyes again find the mark on my forehead and rest there for a moment. Then, they widen further and a strange, excited gleam enters them.

"Are you one of the three Magi?"

I frown. Me, a Magi? I want to tell her just how ridiculous that is, but, then I think about it. Sinbad told me about the three Magi. There's Scheherazade of Reim. I already knew about her. Everyone in Reim sang her praises while I was there. Then there's Judar of Kou. Apparently, he's bad news, though, I've never met him. Lastly, there's Yunan, the Wandering Magi, whom Sinbad spoke of with a rather unpleasant expression. Yunan is the one who raises many of the dungeons. He also apparently brings down Judar's. Salos and I theorize that his dungeon was possibly one of the first dungeons raised by Judar when he was young. After all, Salos knew when his dungeon had a connection with the human world and when that connection was severed. It's possible that Yunan removed it.

That aside, not much is known about Yunan. He's a wild card, the Wandering Magi who appears without warning from time to time. Not even his name is widely known. And, I've introduced myself as a wandering magician. Not only that, but, I have a rather odd appearance and the mark of the third eye, which is the mark of power. I suppose that, to someone who knows of Yunan but not much about him might mistake me for him. I can't imagine what would happen if I didn't glamour my antlers.

"No, I am not."

Keary's expression falls slightly and she turns away, looking a bit dejected.

She was hoping that you were, Salos says, And that perhaps you had selected her as a Candidate and would accompany her.

I think you're right…

I cock my head to the side, observing her.

"Are you going to go into the dungeon alone?"

She gives a single nod, recovering from her dejection.

"I don't have anyone to go with me, so, yes. If I returned home and asked for assistance, my uncle would not allow me to go. I must do this alone with the means I have."

I frown. In all the stories of dungeon capturers I've heard, not one of them managed to capture their dungeon alone. I was a fluke. I'm not exactly human and my brother was the djinn controlling the dungeon itself. I would have died in there if not for Salos's intervention. I find myself shaking my head.

"No, you won't make it out alive. Not even King Sinbad took his dungeons alone. I'll go with you."

She looks at me again, her expression suspicious. She's been on the run for so long, I suppose that she finds it difficult to trust others.

"Why? You hardly know me."

I cock my head slightly, giving a slow nod.

"True. But, the Rukh led me to you. I think that my destiny is to accompany you into that dungeon."

She stares at me. Obviously despite her belief in the Rukh, she's having a difficult time believing this. After all, I'm just some strange magician, who is not a Magi, who she met in a tavern…during a bar fight. I sigh softly. I don't blame her. Even if one needs help in a dungeon, they don't take the random person off the street. This is a dangerous venture. It's necessary to have someone to watch your back. I think about how I can convince her that I'm not insane or playing some odd angle. Something to get her to trust me.

Show her your weapon, Miss Dungeon Capturer, Salos says with an amused tone.

I purse my lips. I conceal my metal vessel for a reason and I'm not very excited to go showing it off. In fact, I don't think I've shown it to anyone since I was in Sindria, and that was over a year and a half ago. Keary furrows her brow as she looks me over.

"I've seen that you're a capable fighter, but, I have no reason to trust you, even if you can see the Rukh as you claim. I mean no offense, but, dangerous or not, I cannot accept your offer."

I let out a long sigh. Then, I feel a small, wry smirk creep onto my face. Salos was right yet again.

"Alright, I suppose I have no choice."

I let go of my reins long enough to untie my katana. Keary's eyes turn wary and she almost nonchalantly grips the dagger on the hip opposite of me. I ignore her movement and hold my katana out towards her, extending my arm fully and holding the sword lengthwise.

"I swear upon my honor as a Dungeon Capturer," I say in the most impressive voice I can muster, "That my intentions are pure and all that I have said is true. I mean you no harm and harbor no ill will toward you. I wish only to follow the path of my destiny."

Salos must do something at this point because the eight pointed star on the sheath glows brightly in a rather nice touch at the end of my speech.

Keary's mouth is slightly agape. Obviously, years of training for propriety have kept her from going truly slack-jawed in her surprise. She stares at the star, blue eyes huge. After a moment, she regains herself and closes her mouth, eyes moving to me. The calculating look they seem to usually hold returns as she processes what she has learned.

"Dungeon Capturer?"

I nod, tying my katana back to my belt.

"Of the 19th Dungeon, Salos."

The princess is obviously unsure of how to deal with this. Her eyes narrowed in thought and she observes me keenly. I let her observe me, knowing that the inevitable questions would come. Finally, not even a full two minutes later, they do.

"But, you're a magician. When learning about the dungeons in my studies, I was told that magicians cannot master the power of the djinn said to reside in the dungeons. Since both are magical beings, their magic would conflict."

I smile slightly. She's very knowledgeable. Intelligent and quick with her mind too. This is good. Her quick wit will serve her well within the dungeon.

I shift the staff so that it lays in front of me, across the shoulders of the horse. Then, I answer.

"It's a long story. However, it will do to say this: my djinn is very unique, as am I. I can use only light magic, though I have attempted to use other forms. Salos is the only djinn I could ever use, and I am the only magician he could ever bond with. We are…specially matched, you could say."

She frowns, looking me over again. It's obvious that she's reevaluating me, taking in this new information she has learned. The silence between us stretches on as she glances at the staff, my sword, and the mark of the third eye in turns.

"…You want to accompany me into the dungeon?" she finally asks.

"I do," I tell her with a small nod.

She nods in return. I have passed her test. It seems that the title of Dungeon Capturer really is a weighty thing, to win over the trust of a woman such as this with only minimum questioning.

"Very well," she says, "We will go in together. Your experience will be useful and I can use the assistance. But, before we go on, I have a question."

I cock my head slightly, wondering what she could be wanting to know.

"Ask away."

"Who are you? Really?"

I can't help but smile at that question.

"I am Thamina, wanderer, magician, and Dungeon Capturer," my smile widens as I turn it towards her, "And I'm going to assist you in taking Sabnack, Princess Keary of Varang."


 

We spend the next three days riding northward, stopping occasionally in the towns along the road to resupply. I do most of the purchasing since word of Keary's reappearance and flight seems to have spread. I rely on Salos's memories of the djinn, Sabnack, as I shop. He tells me that Sabnack used a form of water magic that specifically manifested as ice during the battle for our home world. Despite the fact that his insider knowledge might be considered cheating, both of us are firm believers in using whatever advantage one has when entering a life or death situation. If we needed furs for entering Sabnack's dungeon, we'll buy furs. I refuse to die by freezing in a dungeon when I can prepare. I tell Keary only that I can communicate with my djinn when she asks how I got my information about the dungeon. Though we're trusting each other, I am reluctant to share the knowledge of the true nature of my bond with Salos.

By the time we reach the dungeon, my purse is empty, but, I don't particularly care. After all, when we enter the dungeon, we will either conquer it and emerge with a large amount of treasure, or, we'll die and it won't matter if I have no money on my person. Thanks to our expenditures, though, we have hopefully proper attire and enough food to last for a good while. I learned from Sinbad, that, in some dungeons, time passes differently. For me, in Salos's dungeon, it seemed like a matter of hours. However, it could be that, in Sabnack's, we'll experience a number of days. Once we're inside the dungeon, it's hard to say how much time will pass outside. It could be months. Both of us hope that this is not the case.

When we arrive at Sabnack's dungeon on the evening of the third day, I get to see the outside of a dungeon for the first time. I never actually saw anything but the inside of Salos's, due to my unusual circumstances. He assures me that it had a beautiful exterior that was decorated with murals and reliefs. I take his word for it. In contrast to what Salos says his looks like, the dungeon Sabnack is rather foreboding. It stretches up into the sky in the form of a palace if black rock and ice. Now that we're on the northern border of Varang, even though it's still summer, the air is cold and I can see distant ice flows on the sea. Sabnack truly is on the very northernmost border. Part of it is in the sea, where the choppy water strikes it with a barrage of waves. Both Keary and I stare in awe at the spires and towers of the building, so different from any other architecture I've seen in this world. It's terrifying and hauntingly beautiful. I can see the entrance, a glowing door at the top of a long flight of steps.

"How many have gone in?" I ask, raising my voice slightly to be heard over the wind and waves.

Keary shakes her head slightly.

"I don't know an exact count. But, last I heard, we had lost more than eighty strong warriors to Sabnack."

I nod. A rather low number compared to some of the other dungeons I'd heard about. Perhaps the people of Varang came to realize that, when even their strongest could not defeat the dungeon, they should leave it be. Still, I think of the hulking warriors I'd seen in this land. They were incredibly strong and hearty. I would imagine it takes quite a lot to fell even one of them. If more than eighty had died in Sabnack…

I shake my head. Keary and I are different. We're both quick fighters. And we have combat experience. I didn't train with the Yambala and fight in the arena in Reim just to be killed in a dungeon. Besides, if things really get rough, I have Salos.

The Rukh, which have followed us during our journey, glide around me, some of them fluttering close to brush my skin and hair. I take this as an attempt to comfort me.

No, we won't die in this dungeon. It's our destiny to conquer it, I think as I watch them, The Rukh would not have led me to Keary otherwise.

Salos gives an affirmative flicker of thought, reminding me that there's no way he would let me die.

Keary and I make camp near the dungeon. While it's cold and the ground is damp, we both know that rest will be necessary before we attempt to conquer Sabnack. We both fall asleep quickly, trusting that this area is remote enough that we'll be safe for the night. When we awake in the morning, we find that we were right. No one has approached us in the night. Our horses and belongings remain where they are.

With very little talk between us, we change into our warmer clothing, leaving our old clothes on a rock not too far from the entrance. We gather our packs, which are as light as we could make them while still carrying everything we might need. Then, we take the bridles from the horses and leave them with our clothes, setting the animals loose. As we don't know how much time will pass outside while we're within the dungeon, it would be cruel to keep them here. With luck, they'll return to the last town we'd gone through, at least a three hour ride from this location.

Once we've ensured we have everything, we climb the flight of stairs that leads to the door, silent except for the clicking of the staff on the stone as I use it as an unnecessary walking stick. When we reach the last step, we both stop.

"Are you ready?" I ask, looking over at Keary.

She stares at the glowing door for a long moment. Then, she nods, face hardening.

"Let's go."

As Sinbad had said, passing through the entrance of a dungeon is a bit like walking into a mucus membrane. Though, how he knows what a mucus membrane feels like to make the comparison, I don't know. As soon as I step through, moving ahead of Keary, I find myself back in the space portal. A grin creeps onto my face as I recognize the shafts of light that shine through the stars, linking mine and Salos's home world to the human world. I only have a short time to admire the view, though. The portal sucks me through quickly. I blink, and, when I open my eyes again, I'm standing in what appears to be a foyer.

I look around, taking in the walls of sheer ice. The floor is much the same. I stand on an eight-pointed star that appears to have been carved into the ice. This must be the entrance point Sinbad mentioned. Carefully, I take a step off the star. My foot slips when it touches the ice, but, I regain my balance quickly by moving my other foot as well. It's at that moment that I realize I'm alone. I glance around again, but there's no sign of Keary. I feel my brow furrow. Sinbad mentioned this as well in our conversation about dungeons. He said that it's possible that, when two people enter a dungeon at the same time, there will be a disconnect between times of arrival. Which means I could be the first one here and will have to wait, or Keary might have arrived before me. Though, the latter doesn't seem to be the case.

Deciding that, if she is indeed behind me, it would be best for me to get out of the way of the entrance point, I set off across the ice. By keeping my feet flat and knees bent, I manage to keep my balance. I propel myself along the ice by using the bottom of the staff to dig into the topmost layer and create a point to push off from. The bottoms of my boots are smooth enough that they slid easily. I manage to cross the foyer in this manner without falling on my backside. Though, Salos is convinced that it would be hilarious if I did just that.

Upon reaching the other side of the long entrance hall, I find that the gaping door at the end leads to another icy room.

Damn, this is going to be a lot harder than I thought…

With this kind of floor, it's going to be very difficult to fight any sort of monster.

That thought is interrupted when I hear a shout from behind.

"Thamina!"

I turn to see Keary standing on the star at the other end of the hall. Good, she didn't arrive too long after me then.

"Are you alright?" I call back.

My voice echoes through the still air, bouncing off the smooth walls and floor.

Keary nods.

"I am."

This time, as the resonance fades, I hear a strange tinkling sound. I cock my head, straining my ears. It sounds almost like glass. I realize then that it's coming from above. Slowly, I trail my eyes up.

Hanging above us from the ceiling, a hundreds, if not thousands, of closely packed icicles. They vary in size and length. Some are as large as a full grown Varangian man, some larger. Others are what might be a normal, small size. I mutter a curse, watching as a few of them shiver and rock, disturbed by our voices.

"Keary," I call as loud as I dare.

She has just stepped onto the ice. She looks towards me, alerted by the wariness in my tone. I point up and she follows my finger. I glance down to see her eyes widen even as far away as I am. She looks back to me quickly. I press the finger to my lips and then motion for her to come across the ice. She nods. Then, in a rather impressive feat, begins to skate, using the edge of one boot to push off before sliding on the other. She nearly falls quite a few times, but, she seems better balanced than I am.

As she makes her way to me, I take the time to check out the next room through the doorway. I can see that the ceiling is the same, with dangerous daggers of ice dangling from it. On the other side of the room are three doors formed by open arches. Each leads down an identical hallway. I ponder which one we should take, but, I don't have a lot of information to go on.

Keary arrives at my side a few minutes later, panting softly from the effort of crossing the ice. Upon seeing the next room, she sighs, her breath coming out in a puff of white. I'm suddenly very glad for our furs. It truly is frigid in here.

"Any ideas?" she asks quietly, wary of the icicles above.

I shake my head.

"No…the Rukh are heavy here but they aren't making any significant movements…it seems we're on our own."

She nods slightly.

"We need to prove ourselves."

She stands for a moment, looking between each of the doors. Then, she raises her arm and points towards the one in the middle.

"We'll try that one first."

I almost tell her that there's no guarantee we can return to try another path once starting down one, but, I think she knows.

"Alright. Let's go."

Together, we painstakingly cross the ice, sometimes reaching out to steady each other. It takes us a while to reach the other side as our careful crossing slows us, but, better to be safe than sorry. When we make it to the middle door, we're both already feeling a bit out of breath, despite our states of physical fitness.

Fortunately, it seems that the halls are floored with black stone rather than ice. As soon as we step onto them, I sigh in relief. While the stone is smooth, it's much easier to walk on. I turn around briefly to glance at the room we've left. When I do, I feel my breath leave me.

Under the ice, near the doors, I see skeletons and bodies. Some of them are eerily preserved in the frozen floor. Others have had the chance to at least partially decompose. Each of them was obviously skewered by a falling icicle. I suppose we didn't see them from the other side because we were too far away. And, on our way across, we were too focused on not slipping to truly look at the ice.

"Gods above…" I hear Keary whisper.

I glance over to see that she's noticed my preoccupation and looked as well. It must be difficult for her to see so many of her own under the ice.

"They've been swallowed up by the dungeon," I murmur, "I suppose this is what happens when someone fails to capture it. They become a part of it."

Keary looks on for a moment longer, then, she turns away, expression set again.

"Let's move. We can't do anything for them."

I follow her. It seems like, rather than deter her, the sight of the bodies only served to fuel her determination to conquer Sabnack. I'm glad. Someone with a weak will can't conquer a dungeon.

We continue down the hallway, surrounded by walls of sheer ice. The ceiling above is much like the one in the other two rooms and we make sure to stay quiet. I even keep from using the staff as a walking stick, wary of the sharp tapping that it would cause. Fortunately, the ceiling is high enough that, if one of the icicles did fall, there would be time to dodge. As we venture deeper into the dungeon, we find more remains of our unlucky predecessors who, for whatever reason, were not been able to avoid being skewered by icicles. They're pinned to the stone floor in some cases, or, usually, have been sucked into the icy walls. It's creepy to say the least.

As we come to the end of the hall, we find our path blocked by our first true obstacle. A huge beast of some sort lays in our path. It looks like a mass of breathing feathers. I can see the exit a little ways behind it, but, there's no way to get around the creature. Bones surround it, remnants of previous meals no doubt. I grip the staff tightly and, beside me, Keary draws her daggers. We glance at each other, eyes meeting. We both know that we can't make it through if we don't fight. I nod and she nods in return.

Slowly, I draw my sword. I doubt that the staff alone will be enough here. Then, knowing it would be best to attack first, I begin to creep forward, hoping to catch it while it's asleep.

As soon as I'm within a few feet of it, the beast's even breathing pauses. Then, it picks up. I never would have caught that if not for my enhanced hearing. The thing's awake now, and it's waiting for me to get closer. Which means it's crafty.

Damn.

I scoot back again, leveling my staff. Better to use a range attack than fall for its trap.

"Ahtraq Shmas!"

I pour a bit more magoi into this spell than I did into the one in the tavern, strengthening it. As soon as the intensified light strikes the beast, the creature lets out a shriek that sends chills down my spine and sets my teeth on edge. It rises quickly, giving me a full view of its four, feathery legs, two wings, and long tail. It looked like a strange cross between a bird and a wolf now that I can truly see it. Whatever it is, it swings its head around, revealing the beak that curves down from its wolfish face. I feel my eye twitch at the sight of that sharp, curved tip, meant for tearing flesh from bone. The front legs of the creature are long and knobby, ending in razor talons that scratch the stone even as they brush over it. Its body and back legs are that of a wolf, though, it seems to have more feathers than fur.

What the hell is it?

Salos is unresponsive. I become concerned. He usually at least tells me when he can't share information.

Salos?

Sorry, Mina. I actually don't know.

He sounds tired. He's never sounded tired before.

I slowly inch back, not taking my eyes off the beast.

Are you alright? I ask.

I can sense him frowning.

This place does not agree with me. I cannot be of use to you where there is nowhere for plants to grow.

I feel my stomach drop out from under me. That hadn't even occurred to me. With nothing but stone and ice, Salos can't reach any plants to use. Not only that, but, he can't create any either. Even if I used our Djinn Equip, a skill I have only used in real combat maybe twice before, we wouldn't have any advantage.

Damn it all.

The creature crouches, hissing through its beak. I quickly draw my katana. It's becoming apparent that my spell had a minimal effect on it. As I never really had to fight any dungeon creatures in Salos's dungeon, I'm out of my element here. I'm not counting his ridiculously murderous plants. I crouch as well, mimicking the creature as I wait for its attack.

Suddenly, Keary's hand clasps my shoulder.

"Flash spell," she mutters.

Though her voice is soft, it's so commanding that I feel almost compelled to obey without question. I might have asked why if we had the time. But, the creature tenses, its eyes moving from Keary to me and back, sizing us up. I move quickly, following her order, squeezing my eyes shut and calling out.

"Tamyh Khfyfh!"

The creature jumps at the same time. I hear its claws scrape the floor. Then, it screeches as the spell does its work. I open my eyes and move fast, feeling Keary jump away as well, neither of us keen on being crushed by the large, feathery mass coming our way. As I leap to the side, I turn my head to keep my eyes on the beast, unwilling to let it out of my sight.

It strikes the stone where we had been standing with a loud thud. I hit the icy wall and push off, gripping my sword in one hand and my staff in the other. Though it's an odd style of two-handed fighting, it works rather nicely for someone like me, who must be carrying both a staff and a sword to be truly efficient in combat. I see Keary on the other side. In a rather surprising move, she leaps into the air, taking advantage of the beast's disorientation to sink one of her daggers into its neck. The thing screeches loudly enough that, a little ways down, one of the larger icicles crashes to the ground. The screech and following crash set the ones above us tinkling threateningly. I glance up.

Shit.

We have to end this fast, or the monster might not be what ends us here. Keary dances away, as light on her feet as any fighter I've seen, just as the thing's beak snaps at where she had been. Her dagger is still stuck in the dungeon creature, but, I suppose it can't be helped. I move in from the other side. Judging by the way it's flailing, it still can't see. I put all of my strength into bringing the staff down on its wing joint. Despite its oddness, I'm guessing that the bones in its wings are as fragile as any other creature's. There's a sickening crack, proving my theory correct. I feel a grim satisfaction as it keens. Still, it's not enough. This thing won't be going down easily, I can see that much, just with its sheer size. Up close, it's the size of a large horse. Unless one of us lands a really good strike, this will be a long fight. And, the longer the fight goes on, the greater the chances of that thing catching one of us. Or those icicles falling. I grit my teeth, moving out of the way as the creature begins to recover from my flash spell. Blood suddenly hits the floor beneath it, telling me that Keary landed a nice strike on the opposite side. It roared once more, rattling the icicles.

Icicles…

The idea hits me like a hammer blow. I feel like a complete idiot for not thinking of it sooner.

"Keary! Move!"

She doesn't question me, just like I didn't question her. She moves away, running back towards the place where the creature had previously laid. I move as well, praying to Solomon that this will work. I raise the staff as the beast turns, screeching, its eyes focusing on me. Obviously, it recognizes me as the one responsible for blinding it. I smirk.

"Ahtraq Shmas!"

The beam of light fires off, striking one of the larger icicles at its base. It's enough to sever it at the base and sent it crashing down. Unfortunately, it tilts as it falls, turning it into a blunted weapon rather than the spire of death I'd hoped for. It crashes into the creature, staggering it.

Keary wastes no time. With her remaining dagger, she runs in, and, in a masterful strike, drives it through the creature's eye. It gives a shriek of pain loud enough that, this time, the remaining icicles begin to drop. I run as quickly as I can, unwilling to let her be caught in the hail. I drop my sword and pull her to me as soon as she's within arm's reach, activating my borg. Thank Solomon for that basic talent that all magicians seem to possess.

The force of so many sharp objects hitting the borg is enough to make me break out in a sweat. The barrage seems to go on and on, slamming into my barrier, sucking out a bit more magoi with each strike. I begin to wonder if maybe I'll run out before it ends. But, that's not the case.

The last few strike the ground, shattering around us. Then, there's stillness.

The beast lays on the floor, pierced in many places by icicles. Even if Keary hadn't struck it in the eye, it would have died under the sheer number of projectiles. I let my borg dissipate, panting slightly. Keary grips my arm.

"Are you alright?"

I nod, bending to retrieve my sword.

"I'll be fine…I've just used up quite a bit of magoi already."

I stand and sheath my sword. Once she's sure I'm really alright, Keary goes and retrieves her daggers from the carcass of the beast. Our fight with our first dungeon creature has taken a lot out of us. And we're still near the beginning of the maze. I purse my lips. This could end very badly if everything within takes as much effort to defeat. I feel a frown creep onto my face. I've really come to rely on magic a lot…I didn't use to do that.

Keary walks past, heading into the next room.

"Let's keep moving. Your magoi will return over time. We can't afford to be still."

I find myself again compelled to follow her. Maybe she really is a King Candidate. She definitely has a quality of leadership.

I follow her deeper into the dungeon.

Chapter Text

We've been within the maze for hours. Walls of ice have cut us off over and over. Some are tall and thick, others are so much like glass that we smack into them, thinking the way is clear. Sometimes, traps and pitfalls lay in our path. I nearly fell into one, as I led the way down that stretch. Only Keary's quick reaction saved me from a pitfall in which the floor beneath me had given way, revealing a deep shaft floored by icy spikes. I cannot not equip and fly above, as the walls reach from floor to ceiling. We've been forced to wander, hoping to find a way out. We've made marks on the ice to track our path, however, we never see the marks after making them. This means we're either on the right trail or the ice is not staying marked. Our progress is slow as we attempt to keep our balance on the icy floor, much like that of the original entrance hall. All the while, the deadly icicles hang above our heads.

Keary is losing her patience. She started out being so calm and collected, ready to face anything. But, making no progress is wearing on her. She's as angry as I've seen her in my short time with her, growling at each dead end and wrong turn. She grips her daggers from time to time, as though feeling the compulsion to strike the offending wall that cuts her off. I myself am becoming tired. I've used up quite a bit of magoi very quickly and could use a rest. Not only that, but, I'm frustrated as well.

We decide to take a brief break, finding a corner formed by two walls and resting in it, keeping a wary eye out for any unwelcome surprises. None are forthcoming as we eat some of the rations we'd packed for this venture. I'm so very sick of rations. I've had nothing but travel rations for months now. However, I have to make do as I choke down yet another piece of dried meat. Keary seems to be paying her food no mind as she nearly inhales it, glaring at the wall across from her. Our backsides are most certainly cold from the ice we're sitting on and we both have gotten to the place where we don't feel much of anything, besides hard, soft, and if something colder than we already are. I wonder briefly if perhaps we'll freeze before we reach the treasury. Keary shifts to ease the chill a bit, pulling her furs more tightly about herself.

I look at her for a long moment before speaking.

"Any ideas?"

Her sharp eyes cut to me, anger blazing in their depths. Not anger at me, anger at our situation.

"No, I don't have any."

Her voice is calm, but carries the thick undertone of her barely suppressed temper. I nod, keeping my face impassive.

"We'll just rest here for a while then."

She suddenly throws down the bread she's been gnawing on, whirling on me fully. I'm surprised. I didn't expect such an outburst. She must be more upset than I anticipated.

"We don't have time to just sit here!" she stands, still in her fit of rage, "I don't have time to be stuck here! For all we know, days have already passed outside!"

I watch her carefully as she stalks off a few paces. I suppose I'm seeing the eruption of that anger that's been simmering. She turns and comes back, hands clenched, teeth set.

"Why the concern with time?" I ask, keeping my tone soothing.

She doesn't look at me as she begins to pace. She seems to be thinking carefully about her answer, despite her anger. When she finally speaks, her tone is still clipped.

"…I was planning on coming to Sabnack even before my team betrayed me. I was going to leave them and come here."

I cock my head, wondering where this is going. She hadn't said much about herself on our way to the dungeon. We'd mostly spent that time discussing possible strategies for the dungeon and what our fighting strengths and weaknesses were. She hadn't asked any further personal questions of me and I hadn't asked any of her. Now, though, it seems that she is going to volunteer the information.

"I've heard rumors that, after I went missing, Kou took offense. They seemed to believe that I ran away because I found their possible suitors distasteful. It really had nothing to do with any specific suitor. I just didn't want to get married."

As she speaks, the tension slowly drains from her shoulders and she begins to relax.

"They delivered an ultimatum: Either I step into my role as princess, and political bride, by the time I turn twenty one, or the Kou Empire and Varang will go to war," she finally returned to her seat, leaning her back against an icy wall and sliding down it, "We're a mighty people, but, we can't withstand a war with such a vast Empire. It would destroy us. When I heard about the ultimatum, I decided that I would make the most of my time. I ran away with the intention of capturing this dungeon. I had almost three years to train and then make the attempt. Now, that time is almost up."

It dawns on me, why she's so concerned.

"And if time passes more quickly in our world than in the dungeon, we could miss the deadline."

She nods once before leaning her head back against the wall, wincing slightly at the chill, her eyes closed.

"Exactly," she sighs, "Though, I do apologize for being so on edge."

I shake my head.

"No. It's understandable," I pause, "Though, if I may ask, how did this marriage proposal come about?"

Keary gives a scoff, her eyes sliding open.

"Kou has left us alone because of our military might. Though we are a small kingdom in comparison to them, we have the power of a nation twice our size. My people are bred for battle. We survive hard winters and wrest our sustenance from the land in the warm months. Our men are fighters by nature and our women would lay down their lives before they let themselves be taken by an enemy," there's pride in her eyes as she speaks of her people, and the corner of her mouth lifts slightly, "Our ancestors carved out this kingdom with their own hands. It's built on Varangian sweat and blood. We will defend it and our fellow Varangians to our last breaths. This is why Kou has left us in peace. And it is also why they fear us.

"They know very well that, when they attack, their usual methods of putting down the army and then assimilating the kingdom will not work. We have too much pride for that. They would have to destroy us. But, they wish to unite the world, and cannot leave us as a freestanding nation. Therefore, a peaceful resolution must be made."

I nod, the situation clarifying itself. For someone who focuses on the way of the warrior so much, Keary has a very strong grasp on the politics of the situation. She continues.

"However, we may not need to ally with Kou. Even if we do, eventually, we will be forced under their rule. We could join the Seven Seas Alliance, which is the only force formidable enough to keep Kou at bay, no matter how badly they wish to take us into their fold. While we could simply form an alliance with either party and leave it at that, my uncle seems to believe that I am unable to care for the kingdom on my own. He added a stipulation to any treaty that may be formed. It says that I must be wed to a suitable member of the party with whom we will ally."

She stares at the wall across from her, remembering when this occurred, it seems.

"Kou agreed. They have four unwed suitors of acceptable position. Kouen Ren, the first prince, Koumei Ren, the second, Kouha Ren, the third, and their cousin Hakuryuu Ren, the fourth. Hakuryuu was not old enough to eligible at the time, but, I suspect he is now. And, as I doubt the first royal family would want to welcome an outsider directly into their midst, he's the most likely option. The Seven Seas alliance also agreed to the stipulation. Though, I left before I heard what the options from their side were."

I can't help but think that there is more to this than Keary believed. In games of politics, there often is. Still, I accept the new information and add it to what I already know. This clarifies quite a lot. Kou has been a threat to Varang for a long time, but, both sides know that there will be no easy conquest here. Varang will be utterly destroyed before they let themselves be ruled. Kou doesn't want that, they want to use the might of the Varangian people to their own benefit, which is why the marriage agreement sounds so good to them. This also lines up with what I've heard of Kouen, their first prince. Though set on ruling the world, he wishes to do so in order to stop war from occurring. If he could draw a kingdom into his Empire without warring over it, he would take the offer. Of course, all I've heard of Kouen comes from Sinbad, who dislikes him, and a retired soldier I'd met in the Empire.

On the opposite side, marriage into the Seven Seas Alliance would act as a deterrent. Having traveled those nations myself and understanding their shared politics a bit, I know that it would not do for Keary to marry into one of the separate nations. That would ally her with that specific nation, not the Alliance as a whole. But, if she were to be promised to one of the Eight Generals, two of whom are of noble standing, all of whom are symbols of the alliance itself, that problem would be solved. Of course, there's always Sinbad, the High King, who remains a bachelor. But…he's not the marrying type.

Still, something else troubles me. Keary's plan is flawed. She's operating under the assumption that capturing Sabnack will be the turning point, that the threat of Sabnack's power will cause Kou to back off. However, I know that's not the case.

"Keary…If Kou has threatened to go to war over the marriage agreement, then capturing Sabnack won't be enough."

Her head snaps towards me and her eyes narrow.

"What do you mean?"

I sigh softly. I don't want to crush her hope, but, she must know the truth.

"At the last tally, Kou had five Dungeon Capturers. And, Prince Kouen alone had captured three dungeons."

This information was some that I had pieced together while in Kou. The people were proud of their Dungeon Capturers, and enjoyed singing their praises. I would assume that, due to the uneasiness between Kou and Varang, the Varangians would not be privy to this knowledge.

I am correct on Keary's account. I watch her eyes widen.

"Five?" she asks, in the most tremulous voice I've heard her use.

I nod once, feeling a regretful expression on my face. She slumps slightly.

"I knew that there were a few…but the last count I knew of was from almost three years ago…"

According to my sources, that would around the time that the third prince joined his brothers as a Dungeon Capturer. I would make sense, then, that Keary's information would be outdated. And, while she might have known that Kouen was a Dungeon Capturer, I doubt that the exact number of his djinn were known. The only reason I know is because Sinbad was more than happy to share how he had seven and Kouen was next in line with only three.

"You were banking on the fact that, if there was an attack made, they wouldn't join forces against you, right?"

If there were only a few Dungeon Capturers in their ranks, they would attempt to spread their power. But, with five, they had more to spare. And if the conquering eldest brother himself decided his special attention was needed…

She nods, still appearing to be a state of shock. She knows the tactics as well as I do. Even if she captures Sabnack, Kou is still more than capable of going to war with Varang.

"So this was all for nothing?" she asks hollowly.

In her mind, it must seem that running away and working to capture this dungeon was pointless in the face of this new information. Everything she'd hoped for has slipped away. The need for an alliance is still prevalent because having the power of a Dungeon Capturer simply isn't enough against a force like the Kou Empire.

But, I find myself shaking my head.

"No. While capturing Sabnack may not be the deciding factor, it will gain you a political advantage. Being a Dungeon Capturer gains the respect of even the most hardened of warriors and arrogant of royalty. It proves that you're strong, intelligent, and resilient. It also names you as a King Candidate, someone who is worthy of ruling a country. Even if you can't simply present yourself as a great power, like you had hoped, you can present yourself as a worthy figure in negotiations and on the battlefield," scoot a bit closer, feeling the need to drive this point home, "It might not be what you hoped for, but, it will help you."

She's looking at me now, hope returning to her eyes. She's realized that, while her original plan isn't going to work, this isn't the end. I'm glad she's listening to me and not just wallowing in despair.

"It will?"

I nod quickly,

"Yes. It will make all the more impact when you choose what group to ally with. Because, as a Dungeon Capturer, who is strong and independent, it will be your decision."

Her expression sours slightly at the reminder of the marriage agreement, but, she doesn't look as desperate as before.

"So…I'll still have to get married?"

I shrug.

"Possibly. Unless you work out a different solution," I make sure to make eye contact as I continue, "But, wouldn't you rather approach your suitor as an equal rather than just a political bride? To look him in the eye and tell him that you have as much say in these matters as he does?"

She stares at me for a long moment, processing this. Then, she nods slowly.

"I would."

The determination returns to her expression and she stands quickly.

"I still don't want to marry. But, I'm going to capture this dungeon and emerge as someone they'll have to listen to," she clenches a fist tightly, "I'll show them that I'm not some weak-willed woman for them to pawn as they will."

I find myself smiling at her newfound resolve. Her rage and desperation are gone. She's sure of herself, now.

When did you become so wise, my sun? Salos asks, half in admiration and half in teasing.

I stand, dusting off my frozen backside.

I honestly don't know. I just said what I thought was best.

He chuckles and then falls silent, obviously still feeling the effects of being so utterly out of his element. I send him a few soothing thoughts. Keary is ready to move on and I can't afford to baby him now.

We set off again, Keary charging ahead determinedly. She strides with purpose through the halls of the maze, seeming to have recovered from her earlier meltdown. I brace myself, though. It won't take long for her spirits to be crushed again by this seemingly impossible maze. I watch her carefully as we make our way across the ice as quickly as we can without falling, avoiding traps along the way.

Surprisingly enough, we emerge from the maze not fifteen minutes later. I immediately feel suspicious. That felt too easy.

It was a test, Salos puts in, to judge your weaknesses.

I frown slightly, glancing down at the sword that he inhabits.

Weaknesses?

His thoughts flicker in affirmation.

Keary is hot-headed. She began to lose her temper even before she threw her tantrum. She becomes frustrated too quickly and has been shown to be prone to outbursts. That's not a good trait in a King Vessel.

I glance to Keary. She, too, seems a bit wary of how easily we escaped the maze, but, she's plowing onward.

Now, she's charging in without a plan, too caught up in her own determination, Salos continues.

I wince as I realize that he's right. Keary isn't thinking beyond her own set state of mind. This could get us into even more trouble than her original anger.

You served as her anchor in that moment. My guess would be, if Sabnack is truly testing Keary, she'll find a way to split the two of you up.

I quickly glance at Keary again. I'm certain that, if we're split up, we won't survive this dungeon. If either of us had come in alone, we would be dead by now. I'll have to be extra diligent. I can't let us be separated.

As we continue on, we find that our next big challenge, waiting at the end of another stone-floored hall, is an icy cliff. It looms above us, at least six times the height of a regular-sized man. I look around and find that there is indeed no other way to go but up the cliff. I can see that the hall continues at the top, as if the floor had simply been raised by a wall of ice that sprang up. Which, in a dungeon, could be the case. It's as smooth as polished marble, and, as I find when I tap at it with the staff, just as hard. I grit my teeth. This is far more frustrating than the maze. At least, then, we could find a rhythm for walking in order to ensure we didn't fall. Now, this barrier seems insurmountable. I glance over to see Keary looking up towards the top, eyes narrowed as she attempts to reason out how to reach the top.

Normally, I would use Salos's vines, but, in this icy terrain, that isn't I viable option. And being here is taking a toll on him. As I don't think our blades will work as picks to climb our way up, and they would be rather difficult. That leaves my Djinn Equip. All Dungeon Capturers can fly when Equipped, and, though it would be difficult to carry Keary, as I'm not particularly strong, I think I could manage. Normally, that wouldn't even be an issue, as, when Equipped, Salos and I revert to the true form of the Dioscuri, which is a conjoined state. We become one rather than two, feeding on the other's strength. If we could perform a full Equip in this setting, we would not need to worry about issues of strength. However, as Salos is…unwell, I can only do a half-Equip at best, in which I would only be able to use his powers and we would not reap the benefits of fully combining.

It's a frustrating situation to say the least. And, though I regret not being able to fully Equip, I would be wary of doing so anyway. Every time we join, it becomes more difficult to pull ourselves apart. The Dioscuri are supposed to be joined, it's our natural state. Our bodies do not like being returned to that state only to be pulled apart again, even if Salos is not truly a Dioscuri anymore. Both of us worry that, should we overuse that power, we would become permanently joined, and it would be detrimental to our destinies.

I take a deep breath. The partial Equip is not so dangerous. It teases the edge of that natural state, and, though we both feel the magnetic pull that compels us to join, we have found that we are able to resist it. So long as I don't become too weakened or overuse it.

I take a deep breath, drawing my sword. Keary looks at me curiously.

"You have an idea?"

I nod.

"I do. I would prefer not to use it in this terrain, as it'll put a strain on Salos. But…I don't see how else we're going to make it up this cliff."

I raise my katana, preparing myself, reaching for the bond that joins Salos and I and the power that lays in it.

"Spirit of Brotherly Love and Guilt, use my magoi and lend power to my will. I command you, come forth, Salos, dwell in my body and make me an instrument of your power."

The eight-pointed star on my katana glows brightly. There's a flash. Then, I feel the power begin to flow. I can tell by the sudden bite on my skin that my attire has changed, shifting to what I know to be an ornate, metal brassiere and matching lower garment and boots. The thin, gauzy material that flows from the lower garment does nothing to help with the chill, nor do the vines that twine over my arms and legs. My hair, lined with flowers, flows loosely down my back and my antlers are bared without glamor. I feel powerful, beautiful, and strong, holding my sword in one hand and the staff in the other. I also feel exceedingly cold.

But you look so very nice, Salos teases tiredly.

I was correct, using this form is taking a toll on him. This icy dungeon is almost sapping his strength. There is no life here, no sunlight to sustain us. Our resistance of the magnetic joining pull is weakened. I set my expression. I will prevail in this. It's a short flight, nothing more.

I look over to find Keary staring at me in wonder. I take it that this is the first time she's seen an Equip. She steps closer, taking in my new appearance.

"This is the proper way to use a djinn from a dungeon?" she asks.

I nod.

"Each is different. For me, this is only a partial Equip. But," I look at the top of the cliff, "It should be enough to get us up there."

She frowns slightly, obviously confused.

"How so?"

I cock my head slightly, smirking. I can't help it. Her ignorance in the matters of Djinn remind me too much of my own when I first arrived in this world.

"I'm going to carry you up there as I fly."

She stares at me blankly for a moment before speaking again.

"You can fly?"

I smile wider.

"Every Dungeon Capturer can fly when they Equip," I turn my back towards her slightly, "Hang onto me. I want to keep my arms free, just in case there's something dangerous up there."

She nods, moving around behind me to wrap her arms about my shoulders. I realize then that this might still be more difficult than I first believed. Keary is a bit taller than I, and of a heavier body type. She's also better endowed than I am, with my flat chest and thin hips. It was enough to make any woman self-conscious.

I shake my head slightly. That doesn't matter now. We have to make it to the top.

When I'm sure she has a tight enough hold, I give her a single warning. Then, I crouch before leaping with all the strength I can. As suspected, it's a difficult flight, straight up and carrying the weight of a heavier person. It takes up more magoi than I would have liked, and, even our somewhat tame walk through the maze had not given me enough time to replenish from the fight with the dungeon creature. The biting cold of our surroundings sinks into my bared flesh and I fight the urge to shudder. Even that movement could make me lose my flight path, or perhaps cause Keary to slip. She grips me so tightly I'm sure she will leave bruises. Her legs are wrapped around me as well, everything between my hips and navel. It seems like such a very long flight, though, in reality, I'm sure it's no more than a few seconds

We burst into the air above the edge of the cliff and I immediately come onto land. As soon as my feet touch the black stone, Keary releases me and steps away. I breathe deeply, the air no longer being crushed from my body by her hold. As I recover from the effort of carrying my companion, I release my Equip. My clothes and furs return and I rejoice in the warmth they provide. I can almost feel the sigh of relief from Salos at the relaxing of the strain on our bond. He would never hesitate to lend me his power, no matter the toll on him, but, I would prefer to keep him out of situations like these. I love him too much to heedlessly use his power.

I am sorry, I tell him.

He does not reply verbally. Instead, I feel the ghost of a touch on my cheek. Then, he goes dormant again.

Keary walks a few paces forward. I glance up to see where she is going. When I do, my heart squeezes painfully. It seems that the cliff was only a precursor to the next challenge.

We're standing on a ledge perhaps twelve feet in length and hemmed in on either side by icy walls. On one end is the hall from which we came. On the other is a great, cavernous chamber of ice and rock. Caves are carved into the sides of the chamber, large, dark maws in the crystalline ice. The outcroppings of rock and ice are littered with feathers of all different colors and sizes, marking where the inhabitants have laid. The inhabitants themselves are everywhere. They glide from cave to cave, poke their heads out from the darkness within, or lounge on the outcroppings. There must be nearly a hundred, of every color imaginable. The bird wolves were not limited to the one we fought before the maze. They fill the cavern before us, ignoring us completely save for a few curious glances. On the other side of the space, through the kaleidoscope of color, I catch a glimpse of a gargantuan stone door. That must be our way out.

Keary stares at the scene before us, face pale, eyes wide.

"Gods above…how could we ever cross that cavern?"

I watch as the creatures spiral and above our heads, filling the cavern. Some looked much like the one we had defeated, possessing beaks. Others had the face of a wolf. More are noticing us, but, none made a move to attack. A few of the smaller ones, who I perceive to be the younger creatures, came in to land on the other side of the ledge. They creep towards us, talons clicking on the stone, cocking their heads and chittering or snuffling curiously, based on their manner of muzzle. I see no hostility in their body language or eyes, just curiosity. And a strange intelligence. Keary takes a step back, gripping one of her daggers. I look at her sharply, holding the staff out across her body to stop her. One of the young creatures chirrups through his beak and prances forward to sniff at staff.

"Peace," I say, "They are not like the previous one."

She looks back at me almost incredulously. As if to prove my point, one of the more wolfish creatures steps up and sniffs me before butting its head against my leg. I can't help but smile. Unlike the one we met in the hall, the largest among these are no bigger than a sizable dog. Seeing no threat, I sheath my sword. Then, tentatively, I offer a hand. The wolfish creature sniffs and then nuzzles it before beginning to move around behind me. A tug on my pack a few moments later tells me that it is searching for my food. I gently pull the pack away and step forward.

"They're just young ones. We're curious creatures in their home who warrant investigation, nothing more," I tell Keary.

She's relaxed slightly, but, is still watching the creatures warily as they sniff about her and knock their heads against her. She gives a small nod. I smile in return and continue forward, one of the creatures following me.

At the other side of the ledge is a set of stairs that leads to the bottom of the cavern. The air is still too thick with the dungeon creatures for me to see what is on the floor, but, I am confident that they will not harm us unless we give them reason to. I start down the stairs, leaving Keary to follow me. As I predicted, the creatures make no move to attack, content to fly above or swoop down briefly to take a better look at us. The young ones we encountered take to flying just above us, calling out to each other in a strange mix of growls, chirps, howls, and barks. Keary walked along behind me, looking very nervous. I'm not sure why I don't feel more nervous. Perhaps it has something to do with my travels. I've seen many strange creatures around the world. Or, maybe it's because I've been in a dungeon before. Whatever the case, I find myself in a state of wonderment rather than fear. They're beautiful when they aren't attempting to tear your throat out. Majestic and strange and beautiful.

I reach the bottom of the stairs first. The space down here is clearer. Clear enough for me to see that, in the center of the cavern floor, there lays the biggest of the creatures we'd seen yet. It's stretched out between us and the door, over the path that leads there from the stairs. Slowly, I begin to walk forward, not knowing how this is going to go. The others seemed content to leave us be. But, the last one we encountered in a dormant state like this had attempted to kill us. As I near, I realize that, even though its head is laying on its front claws, its eyes are open and watching me. I stop a few yards from it and it raises its head. Its fur and feathers are a lovely pale gold and its eyes are deep blue. They hold the wisdom of a creature centuries old. It slowly raises its head as I near, watching me with those wise eyes. There is no hostility in its gaze, but, I feel suddenly afraid, like I'm being judged and have been found wanting. I stop.

There's a long pause as Keary comes up beside me, also watching the creature warily. Suddenly, in a move that surprises both Keary and I, it opens its mouth to speak in a deep, rich voice.

"Welcome, travelers who have come so far

Take heart, for your journey is nearly done

Press on, with Sabnack as your guiding star

For power, kingdom, and treasure won

Through the door to find what you seek

And to purge that which mars the soul

Beware, this challenge is not for the weak

Should you succeed, you will again be whole

But, to fail will result in most certain death

An icy prison shall steal your final breath."

Its wolfish muzzle forms the words to the verse rather well. But, I'm more shocked about it speaking in the first place. I hadn't expected that. When it's finished, it simply stays where it is, watching us.

I glance at Keary, knowing my expression betrays my shock. Hers is much the same. Apparently, neither of us saw the talking bird wolf coming. Though, maybe we should have. This is a dungeon after all. Though, in Salos's dungeon, the murderous plants didn't talk.

A nose nudges between my shoulder blades hard, propelling me forward. I look back quickly and find a large gray bird wolf pressing against me, pushing me along the path. It looks up with the same intelligent eyes the gold one has, standing at face level with me

"Go."

My eyes widen.

This one talks too!

Salos gives a tired laugh.

They're dungeon creatures, my sun. It's not that surprising.

I'm about to return a snappy comment, but the bird wolf nudges me again, harder this time.

"Go," it, or rather, judging by the tenor of its voice, she repeats.

"Through the door?" I find myself asking.

She nods her large gray head once.

"Just like that?"

She cocks her head, looking at me with those wise eyes for a long moment. Then, she nudges me again, a bit more gently.

"Go."

I sigh, gripping the staff as I finally give in to her nudging. I glance over to see that Keary's companion is not so gentle. It's herding her around the golden wolf, flapping its wings to ensure it can push hard enough to keep moving. She protests, pushing back slightly. But, the bird wolf snaps its beak at her in irritation and continues to push her. I smile just a bit.

"Go on, Keary. You heard him. We can't capture this dungeon without going through that door."

She looks back at me for a moment before nodding and allowing herself to be pushed along. Above us, the creatures continue to go about whatever business they may be conducting, paying us no mind. Even the young ones have gone back to playing, forgetting us. I glance at the gold bird wolf and see that he has laid his head down again, his message delivered.

We come to a stop before the door. Keary's companion sits back on its haunches, looking pleased with its success in having brought her this far. Mine continues to walk behind me until we stop. Then, she circles around to my side. I glance at her briefly before looking for a way to open the door. It seems to be made of sheer, smooth obsidian, with no handles or grooves by which to open it. I trail my eyes to the side, looking for a lever. It's then that I notice the words carved into the ice around it. I take a few steps back in order to get a better view, as the writing surrounds the whole of the monstrous door.

It's just like the writing in Salos's dungeon. 'The Language of the Dungeons' is what Sinbad calls it. I know better, though. This is only singularly restricted to dungeons in this world. This is the language of my home world, which is why I can read it so easily, despite its hieroglyphic appearance. I focus, leaning against the staff slightly.

Keary steps back next to me, looking up at it as well.

"…What does it say?" she asks, just loud enough to be heard over the flapping of wings above us.

I take a moment to ensure my translation is correct before speaking. Like all languages, there isn't a direct translation for some words, as they represent concepts that this common tongue cannot quite grasp. When I'm sure I have it, I begin to speak, keeping the translation as pure as possible.

"I look flat, but I am deep,

Hidden realms I shelter.

Lives I take, but food I offer.

At times I am beautiful.

I can be calm, angry and turbulent.

I have no heart, but offer pleasure as well as death.

No man can own me, yet I encompass what all men must have."

There's silence between us for a moment. Then, Keary looks at me.

"What does it mean?"

I smirk slightly. If I knew, I would have told her. However, I refrain from making a sarcastic comment.

"It's a riddle to open the door. I encountered something similar in Salos's dungeon."

Except mine were actually good, he says, frowning.

I almost sigh in exasperation. His riddles had been so childish and simple that I had only gotten them wrong by overthinking them.

Exactly. That's where my genius laid.

This time, I do sigh.

Keary reaches up and touches her chin, murmuring to herself softly. Then, she frowns.

"…I want to say a storm…but…that doesn't quite fit."

I nod slightly in agreement, looking back up at the writing. I myself do not know the answer. However, I have an inkling.

"Well, based on our challenges thus far and what Salos has said, Sabnack is a djinn of ice. Ice falls under the second magic type, water. Logically, this would have something to do with water, then. Just like Salos's had to do with Life."

She hums thoughtfully. Beside us, the two bird wolfs sit silently, watching us.

I close my eyes, thinking.

Water magic…it can't be ice, ice doesn't give food. A river perhaps? No, a river is tumultuous at all times and the beginning says it looks flat… but it also says that it can be tumultuous. I quickly run through forms of water. Rain, pond, well? No…

Beside me, one of the bird wolves snorts something that sounds suspiciously like a laugh. Apparently, this is supposed to be simple.

Keary stares at the door, brow furrowed. Then, after a long pause, her expression clears.

"The ocean."

After she says it, it makes so much sense. I feel compelled to slap a hand to my face at my own stupidity. I was going by process of elimination when that was the most obvious answer. The maze from earlier must have really taken a toll on me mentally.

I nod.

"I think you're right."

I suppose that, since the riddle was in the Language of the Dungeons, the answer must need to be spoken in the same tongue. I take a deep breath. Who knows what lays beyond that door. Hopefully, the necropolis that I've been told is directly before the treasure room in other dungeons. I draw myself up and speak the word in as loud a voice as I can without yelling.

There's a long pause. Then, with a great groaning, the two doors slowly swing inward, revealing a gaping maw of an entrance area. I watch it warily, waiting for something to emerge. However, after a moment of waiting, it becomes apparent that nothing will. My bird wolf nudges me once more.

"Go."

I sigh softly, taking this to mean that we've outstayed our welcome in this part of the dungeon. I exchange a look with Keary, who nods. I nod in return. Then, both of us walk through the doorway, stepping into the gaping maw.

Upon reaching the other side, I find that we have indeed reached the necropolis. I tread over a chipped and broken stone path as I take in my surroundings. A silent city stretches out in all directions, its buildings abandoned and crumbling. Overhead is a dark and cloudy sky in which thunder rumbles ominously. Jagged spikes of ice stick up from the ground in various places, most of them at least eight feet in height, creating pillars in the central circle and between the buildings. Frost and icicles cover the structures around us, but, it is not quite so cold here. I keep walking, searching for a door that would lead to the treasury. As soon as Keary and I clear the doorway, the doors creak shut behind us. They meet with a resounding boom. Then, they disappear.

…This doesn't feel good…I don't think we're done quite yet…

Keary and I exchange another glance, this one much more nervous than the last. I reach out and touch her shoulder.

"I'll lead. Watch my back."

She nods quickly, drawing her daggers. I follow suit with my sword, gripping the staff tightly in my other hand. I'm acutely aware of my magoi levels as we creep through the center of the city. While some has returned, it's not enough to make up for what was lost in my Equip. It took a lot out of me to do that in this sort of terrain. I frown slightly. This might get ugly if there's a serious challenge here.

It's once we're approximately halfway across the central circle of the necropolis that I get the sense that we're not alone. I glance about, searching for anyone or anything that might be hiding in the buildings or behind the ice pillars themselves. I don't see anything but our own reflections as we pass one of the pillars. Despite that, I know we aren't alone.

Remember, this is a dungeon, Salos warns, Your foe might not present themselves in plain sight.

I give a single nod, pursing my lips. He's right. In his dungeon, the very plants had attacked me. I eye the ice warily. Who knows what could happen here.

We make it another quarter of the way, watching our surroundings, and come to an area where the pillars have grown more thickly together, forcing us to take narrow paths between them. Still in the lead, I slip between the first two.

As soon as I've fully stepped onto the path, a dark chuckle reaches my ears.

"Still alive, Mina?" a voice purrs.

I freeze, eyes going wide. That's…my voice.

I whip around quickly to find the source, coming to face the ice pillar to my left. My distorted reflection mirrors my movements. Then, it shifts. I suck in a breath. I'm not moving…but it is.

I move almost without thinking, shoving Keary back before she even has time to question why I stopped. She staggers and nearly falls as I burst from the path after her, returning to the clearer area. I position myself between her and the beginning of the path, sword and staff held at the ready as I attempt to reason out what kind of trap this is and if it's still in effect.

"Mina, what's wrong?" Keary asks, voice full of worry.

My eyes narrow. I'm about to answer when I see movement from between the two pillars that flank the path. A small laugh rings out, sending chills down my spine. The non-human part of me bares its teeth defensively.

I hear Keary mutter a curse behind me as a figure steps out from between the pillars. I tense as she comes fully into the light. The woman might as well be my mirror image. She draws herself up, smirking at us, her golden eyes narrowed contemptuously. Her blue curls are bound up like mine, spilling from the nape of her neck like a torrent of water. My heart palpitates as I take in her sword and staff. She wears the same clothes, pack, and effects as I do. She looks just like me, right down to the scar on my neck from Salos's plants nearly strangling me when I went through his dungeon.

Damn.

This must be some form of magic, though, I've never heard of it before. I feel myself slipping back into a fighting stance, my training taking over in the face of this new threat. I don't know what it's purpose is or what it will do in order to attack. I don't even know the series of commands that would have gone into making this thing.

"Mina…what is that?" Keary whispers, moving closer to me.

The reflection, for, as I look more closely, I realize that's what it is, gives us an unpleasantly amused smile.

"I'm Mina. Or, rather…Mina as she should be."

I take in the reversal between us. She's a mirror of me, not an exact copy. I observe her carefully, just in case she makes a sudden move.

"As I should be?"

She nods, smiling.

"Without regret, remorse, or weakness. I'm utterly unlike you."

My eyes narrow. I dislike this. I would be best to take it down quickly.

"Keary," I mutter, "I'll provide the diversion-"

I'm cut off as I see Keary's reflection, over five yards from us, distorted on the ice, shifts in much the way I did.

"Fuck."

Keary looks surprised by my language, however, she's quickly distracted as her reflection quite suddenly steps away from the ice, solidifying into a mirror image of her. It goes to stand next to the first, watching us. My reflection laughs, a strange, dark laugh I myself never have produced nor will produce.

"Oh no, little Mina. There won't be any double teaming here."

I hiss between my teeth. Salos was right. Sabnack has found a way to split us up. My eyes dart to Keary as her mirror draws its daggers. We need a plan.

"Keary, don't let them drive us apart, we need to be able to help each other. Don't-"

"Ahtraq Shmas!"

The borg I throw up around us is purely reactional. I heard the spell being called and reacted. It slams into my shield like a sledgehammer, far more powerful than anything I've produced in a combat situation before. I grit my teeth, willing the borg to hold.

Where is she getting that power?

I can feel Salos scowling.

She's a dungeon creature, which means her power is coming from the dungeon itself. She's designed to be stronger than you.

Dammit, a second spell smashes into the borg, sending me back a step, How do I beat that?

Salos's tone is grim.

You'll have to bring her down hard and fast. I would suggest using your Equip again. I know you don't have much magoi for that sort of fight, but, you can't handle a long, drawn out battle with this sort of opponent.

I know he's right. She's my copy, taking my abilities and most likely my skills too, and amplifying them. However, she won't be able to use Salos's powers. Even a dungeon can't copy a Djinn's abilities, especially not when he's hidden away in his metal vessel. He's my trump card. And I need to use him. I glance at Keary.

"Get ready."

She gives a curt nod, gripping her daggers. I know that she should be able to handle herself. She's a capable fighter. But…against an opponent like this.

"Your opponent is probably better than you at everything you know how to do. Fight smart not hard."

She gives another nod, this one more impatient. It seems that our trip through the maze did not serve to curb her hot-headedness. I just hope she'll be alright.

"Alright…Now!"

I drop the borg and we both burst from it, looking to catch our opponents off-guard. I focus on my mirror self, knowing that, if I'm distracted by concern for Keary, it might mean my end. She grins at me, twirling her copy of the staff.

"Tamyh-!'

I cut her off before she can finish the spell.

"Ahtraq Shmas!"

She dodges the blast of light. I press in. Good, as a dungeon creature, not a magician, she can't use a borg. She watches me as I close the last bit of distance. Then, her smile turns nasty.

"Alqatmah!"

My breath leaves me in a rush of disbelief, my eyes widening. The light around us suddenly winks out, leaving us in darkness.

Are you fucking serious?!

I stop my advance, unable to see. I avoid using this spell because of the amount of magoi it requires. It's devastating, pulling the light from a set area and blinding everyone in it. But, it drains the user's magoi like a siphon. Though, that doesn't matter to this dungeon creature, who has a seemingly incessant supply of magoi.

Sweat beads on my forehead. I can't see her. I blink quickly, but, I know that no amount of eye-clearing will help here. It's a space utterly devoid of light. Nor will another light spell work, the rukh in the area, governed by the commands of the other magician, would blot it out. I hear Keary off a little ways. Apparently, she wasn't hit by the spell…It's a short distance. I move to run towards the sounds of combat and escape the darkness.

A kick connects with my side, spending me sprawling. I cry out in surprise and pain as I strike the ground. She shouldn't have been able to kick me with such precision in the darkness. It effects even the caster…

I sense more than hear her next attack, my heightened senses kicking in. I roll to the side as her foot slams down at approximately where my head would be. I've shattered a man's sternum before with a stomp like that. Who knows what it would have done to my skull.

"Lay still, Mina," she coos in my voice, "I'll put you to sleep and you won't have to worry about Destiny anymore."

I grit my teeth, springing back to my feet. I didn't train with the Yambala just to lose here. I want to tell her to go fuck herself. I haven't gotten to sleep in a bed for more than two months, I haven't had a decent meal for the same amount of time. As soon as I reached a place to settle in Varang, I met Keary and came to this dungeon. I've gone through the hells that Sabnack thought up, my brother is feeling ill from being here, and I'm ready to be done. Yet this creature has the nerve to mock me when wearing my skin.

But, I know that speaking would just make it easier for her to attack me, and I don't know if she actually isn't affected by the spell or just got lucky.

I hear a whistle coming towards me and twist to the side. There's a loud clang. My eyes widen again. That was the staff. She isn't just getting lucky. She knows where I am.

"You can't help anyone," she continues, following me, "You couldn't even help Salos on Alma Torran."

I dance back, trying to escape the darkness that handicaps me. She really does have an immense amount of magoi if she can keep up the spell like this. But…another thing troubles me. How does she know about Alma Torran? Is she using Sabnack's memories or has she copied mine?

The edge of a blade catches my arm and I hiss.

"You're such a coward. You died and still you follow Destiny. Destiny gave up on you."

I find myself shaking my head furiously as I move to get away from her.

"Destiny is Solomon's will. I will follow my King until the day I die."

She laughs as the blade tears through my furs, barely missing my flesh.

"You won't have to worry about that much longer!" she trills mockingly, "This time, you'll stay dead! You should have in the first place. You abandoned your family and went to that other world," she catches me in the shoulder with the staff and I cry out, hearing a crunch, "And then you left them too! All you do is hurt others. You claim to serve Solomon, but, you've already failed!"

I slash with my katana, missing. I had no choice! I died! I would have never left Salos if I could have stayed. It would have been better that way. I would never have known the pain of having a family, knowing my sensei, and then losing them. Her words drive a knife into my heart. She laughs.

"Now you'll fail your precious king one last time!"

Mina, Equip. You'll die if you keep this up, Salos warns.

I don't question him. He's right. Even with my magoi lacking, I can't afford to wander in the darkness any longer. I push aside my hurt feelings, nodding once.

I swing the staff quickly in a circle around my body, just to ensure that I'm clear. Then, I raise my sword.

"Dwell in my body, Salos!"

As soon as I feel the effects of the Equip, I leap into the air. Winglessly, I rocket up through the darkness until I burst from it, twisting quickly to look down at the mass of blackness beneath me. As soon as she realizes that she's lost me, my counterpart releases the spell. The darkness slowly dissipates, drifting into nonexistence like a fog. My eyes narrow as I find her standing in the middle, bold as can be, smirking up at me.

"Running away, Mina? Too bad you didn't do that on Alma Torran."

I frown. I would never have abandoned Salos, no matter the threat presented by those who rebelled against Solomon. Only death had been able to separate us.

Salos's anger races through me in a sudden and surprising torrent.

End her, Mina.

I hesitate. Salos dislikes it when I'm insulted, but, there's no reason for this level of anger. I look down at her dark smirk and realize that she would know this too and is egging him on. This must be related to the memories I have yet to recover. The final battle of Alma Torran is still a fuzzy blur to me, as is much of my time spent at Solomon's palace. That would be the only reason I can think of for my brother's rage. He wants me to remember on my own, not be told in the middle of battle.

Right.

While I'm curious about what kind of memory could send him into such a rage, I respect his desire that I remember on my own.

I drop back to the ground. As I can only use Salos's power in this form, I jam the end of the staff into a crack in the broken mess of stones that makes up the center of the city, leaving it standing there for when I return. Then, I grip my sword in both hands. It's changed form with my Equip, shifting from katana to longsword. As it's Salos's power I'm using, it is also Salos's sword that I must weild. I lack the ability to shift it back to a katana due to the nature of the Equip. However, as I can draw from his knowledge of using it, that suits me just fine.

I bring the sword into a middle guard.

"Alsm Azhr."

A green ooze begins to flow from the eight pointed star on the blade, running down along the sword to coat it. This technique, which coats Salos's sword in a deadly, natural poison, might be his most deadly. I can remember seeing the effects of it during a battle on Alma Torran. The effects are…disturbing to say the least.

My mirror sneers, twirling the staff.

"Salos's tricks won't help you, Mina. He couldn't save you on Alma Torran, he can't save you now," she smirks again, eyeing the sword, "He sealed up in a metal vessel where he can't even touch you. Can't even truly look at you. Can't fight by your side. What a sorry excuse for a Dioscuri."

That pisses me off.

I don't really give a damn if she insults me. But, Salos's flicker of grief as he finds the truth in her words sends a hot rush of anger through me. My brother and I have struggled to work through our separate states, this being together and yet not together. We dream together and speak mentally, but, it's not the same as physically interacting. She knows it's a weak spot, that's why she prodded it. To provoke me.

It worked.

I felt a battle cry tear itself from my throat and I kick off, using the Equip's natural power of flight to skim over the ground much faster than I could run. The mirror's eyes widen in surprise as she brings her sword up to block my first strike. I quickly disengage, whipping it back around with as much strength as I can without overbalancing. There's another clash as she blocks. It she's copied my skills, she's just as good with that katana as I am. Fine. If my skills won't work.

"Alakhtnaq Alkrwm!"

The vines that twine around my arms begin to loosen and unwind, snaking about in accordance with my will.

Salos, if you would be so kind.

Salos gives a somewhat dark chuckle and I feel his will slip in to replace mine.

Anything for you, my sun.

With Salos controlling the vines, I can focus on fighting with the blade. I have to be fast. I only have so much Magoi, and the Equip is eating through it like a ravenous wolf. I'm already having to focus in order to keep the poison on the blade flowing. These two spells are our limit in this form. I'll have to make the most of them.

The mirror knocks the first vine attack away with her staff. I block her following slash.

"How desperate he is to keep you from remembering," she laughs, though her eyes remain cold, "How afraid he is that it'll bring you pain."

I launch myself into a combination of hard attacks, looking to wear her down and find an opening. She blocks each one, but, with half her focus on the vines, she falters just enough for me to plant my foot in her gut, the metal boot causing quite a bit of pain, no doubt. She skids back over the broken stones, gagging from the force of the kick. I follow quickly, not wanting to give her an opening. Her head snaps up quickly to find me as I leap into the air, bringing my sword down on her head. She locks her sword and staff in an 'x' above herself, blocking me. She chuckles even as a drop of the poison drips onto her face.

"You don't even remember him."

I feel Salos's anger once more. The vines shoot forth, catching her by the throat. I disengage my blade, ready to end this. It doesn't matter who she's talking about. I'll remember in time. I've resigned myself to that.

I blink.

When I open my eyes again, it's not my double who is being held by the vines, but a man. I freeze, taking in his olive skin, black eyes, and long dark hair. He's exceedingly handsome, even with the scales that cover his cheekbones beneath his eyes. I spot a long, reptilian tail twitching behind him. He looks at me painfully, eyes pleading. I can't move as a memory slams into my head like a sledgehammer.

I can't help the blush that covers my face as he touches my arm. His lips are quirked in a soft, slightly playful smile. I smile back, sensing Salos's distaste of my attraction. I can't help it. His fingers trail down my bare arm. We're alone in the garden of the palace, a rarity, but a welcomed rarity nonetheless.

"You're right," he murmurs in a deep baritone, "This shade of blue really does look lovely with your pale skin…"

My blush darkens and my heart contracts almost painfully. I had asked him if my new dress looked alright or if it washed me out. Salos had been teasing me. However, this man's compliment immediately wipes away any self-doubt.

"A-aswad…"

I feel a rush of something when I say his name. Affection? Infatuation?

He chuckles, catching my hand.

"You always look beautiful, Thamina," he tells me, pressing my hand to his lips.

I stare at the man caught in Salos's vines. Impossible. That memory was from Solomon's palace. This man isn't really here. It's a trick.

But…I can't move my sword to harm him.

"Thamina…" he speaks in that same, soft tone.

Confusion rips through me. I know he's just a dungeon creature. He was my mirror a moment ago. I know that this is another jab at Salos and I. I want to cut off his head.

But I can't. My body feels disjointed from my mind. And the part of my mind that warns me about the trick feels disjointed from the rest. Why can't I kill him?

I see the flash of his sword in my periphery, but, the part that notices and cares seems a thousand miles away. I can't look away from his eyes. Those soft, gentle eyes that tell me that it doesn't matter. All that I need to do is relax. He'll take care of me.

The next thing I know, the sword in my hands is buried in his stomach up to the hilt. I stare in shock. I don't remember stabbing him. I slowly look back up to find that his face is again replaced with mine. The mirror smiles cruelly.

"You don't even remember him…but Salos still got his revenge…"

The mirror goes limp. Then, it slowly begins to turn to ice. Salos's vines immediately release it before they, too are caught in the ice. My Equip slips away and I drop to my knees, exhaustion taking over. Still, my mind whirls.

Salos…who is Answad? Why…why did it take his form? What did he mean to me?

Salos is silent for a long moment.

….I can't tell you…Mina….


 

Keary and I manage to drag ourselves the rest of the way across the center of the necropolis. We rely heavily on each other. My magoi is exhausted and she's very injured. We've done the best we can in patching her up, but, if we don't get out of here soon, she might bleed out. She doesn't tell me what happened with her mirror, just that she beat it. I don't tell her what happened with mine. We both remain silent and contemplative, disturbed by our encounter. She seems different, though, not quite so ready to rush ahead. I can't tell if that's just her being tired or if she met with some difficult questions too. I came to terms with losing my family from my old world a long time ago. They'll live on without me, peacefully. They are where they belong. Whereas I can never return to where I truly belong. I only have Salos. But, for now, that is enough. I will follow Destiny, with my brother at my side, continuing to carry out my king's will. I know that the mirror was meant to cause me to doubt myself, but, those self-doubts have already been doubt with…at least, I believe they have.

Keary sags dangerously and I grip her more tightly. We're leaning heavily on the other, arms about each other's shoulders. If one goes down the other will too.

"Hang on, Keary, we're nearly there."

She nods limply, almost too subtly for me to see.

We exit the field of icy pillars and come to stand before a door that I hadn't noticed before. It's not as huge as the last one, but, it's big enough. It's at least thirteen feet tall and ten feet wide. It's silver and ornately carved and decorated both in my natural language and different images. In place of handles are two handprint indents, too widely spaced to be for one person. Just as I thought, then. Dungeons are not made to be taken alone. They are meant to be taken by a King Candidate and Household members. From what Salos told me, Ugo set this system up. I can't help but give a tired smile. Ugo was one of the closest to our king, it makes sense that he would put emphasis on the need of a Household.

I jostle Keary lightly.

"I need your hand."

Slowly, she looks up. Exhaustion and bloodloss are taking a toll. She blinks hard to clear her no-doubt blurry vision.

"'K," she slurs softly, "T'gether, right?"

I nod.

"I think so."

She lifts a trembling arm at the same time I do. I begin counting.

"One…two…three!"

On that count, we both place our hands in the indents.

As soon as we do this, the ground begins to rumble. The doors swing inward and light pours out. Keary's eyes widen and she seems to recover a bit, awareness returning to her expression. Even though I've seen a treasure room before, I can't deny that I, too am excited. We've struggled so hard to reach this place…

The light fades and, just as with Salos's dungeon, we find that the room is full of, well, junk.

Keary looks puzzled and distressed as we hobble into the treasury. She casts her eyes about, searching for something that will hint at the power of Kings she's set out to capture.

"Mina…" she rasps, "Where…?"

I slowly sweep the room.

"We need to find the Djinn's metal vessel. When someone touches it, they'll come forth."

She nods in understanding and, together, we set about searching. As we have to separate in order to do so effectively, we move rather slowly. However, it's Keary who eventually finds it.

"Mina!"

I make my way over to her as quickly as I can. She points to an object nestled into a pile of the useless items within the treasury. Upon looking closely, I see that it's a diadem with an eight pointed star emblazoned on it. I look over at Keary and nod.

"That's it," I gesture to it, "Would you like to do the honors."

She pauses for a moment. Then, she straightens her shoulders and nods.

"Thank you."

Without a hint of trembling or weakness, she reaches out and grips the diadem, pulling it from the pile.

As soon as she gets a good grip on it, smoke burst into the air and a cold wind swept up around us, whipping our hair about. I grab Keary's arm instinctively, half-afraid that such a strong gale would knock her over in her weakened state. She hardly notices, her wide eyes fixed on the shadow that rises above us. I look up as well, seeing the silhouette of a gigantic figure. There's a loud flap and a whoosh. The icy air suddenly blasts the smoke to the side from the figure's central location. I shield my eyes against the cold wind.

"Who will be king?" a female voice booms.

I quickly look up.

Looming over us is the blue-skinned Djinn we had been searching for. She look down at us with cold, slit-pupiled eyes that shone like clear water. Her hair, she same dark blue as Salos's, is short and stiffly spiked in the back, as though frozen, and framed by two black horns that curve back from her face. Her bangs hang down to her scantily clad breasts. I quickly look away and to the monstrous, feathery blue wings on her back. No doubt she used them to clear the smoke. She wears only a drape around her hips, which is cut in the sides to show more than it covers. Her breasts are cupped by metal claws, not unlike the front talons of the bird wolves we encountered. Silver necklaces and bands adorn her neck and arms while numerous earrings are pierced through her pointed ears. Her thin lips pull into a cruel smirk.

"I am the forty-third Djinn, Sabnack, Spirit of Warriors and Vengeance," she looks down at us haughtily, cold eyes narrowing, "You have done well in surviving my dungeon. Congratulations."

I get the feeling that, while she's impressed that we had succeeded, she doesn't actually mean that congratulations.

Her eyes slide to me and her smirk widens.

"Hmph, Thamina, you're alive….and you brought Salos along too."

I feel Salos shrink back slightly. I blink in surprise. That isn't like him at all. He's the much more outgoing of the two of us. Sabnack's smirk turns nasty.

"Good," she purrs, "The two of you always were such fun."

I feel utterly confused. I must have known Sabnack back on Alma Torran, but, I don't remember her. Still, she remembers me….and Salos. Salos almost hisses at the thought. Alright, apparently, he doesn't really like Sabnack.

Sabnack is already moving on, eyes shifting to Keary. Her expression becomes one of appraisal. To my surprise, rather than looking nervous, Keary draws herself up and lifts her chin slightly, staring defiantly back. Sabnack blinks once. Then, she grins.

"Oh, I like you. You've got…spunk," she gestures with one hand, revealing the black claws that replaced her nails, "Though, when you met yourself in the city, you weren't quite so spunky…just hot-headed and whiney," she leans down slightly, still grinning, "I think you definitely changed for the better in here. Be glad. I wouldn't have taken you as a Candidate otherwise."

Keary's eyes narrowed slightly. So, something did happen when she met here mirror. Something drastic.

She suddenly sways dangerously against my grip, ruining her proud stance.

"Keary!" I hold her more tightly, unwilling to lose her now.

Sabnack gives a small 'tch'.

"Fine. I wanted to chat longer, but, you look like shit and we need to get me a new vessel before you pass out."

Keary struggles to right herself. She blinks up at Sabnack, struggling to focus.

"Why not…Mina?" she asks thickly.

Sabnack scoffs.

"Thamina's not of this world, she can't be a Candidate."

Well, there goes that secret…

Keary looks at me, surprised. I hadn't told her that. I purse my lips, shaking my head.

"Later. I'll tell you everything later," I mutter to her.

She looks at me for a moment longer. Then, Sabnack speaks again, recapturing her attention.

"Do you have a vessel for me, princess? Something metal…and preferably precious to you."

Keary blinks at her for a moment. Then, shakily, she reaches down her shirt. After a moment, she withdraws a rather ornate ring I had never noticed before. She had done a rather good job of hiding it and the chain that held it. She showed it to Sabnack.

"This is the ring that was given to me when I turned eighteen and was formally named as heir to the throne."

Sabnack nods, smirking. She's still leaning down and I'm afraid that those talons on her rather voluptuous breasts are going to lose their grip any second.

"Very well," she says.

She draws upright again and I breathe a sigh of relief. Wardrobe malfunction avoided.

Sabnack spreads her arms, grinning in that same cruel manner she had earlier. Her blue eyes flash in excitement. She begins to almost glow with power.

"I, Sabnack, Djinn of Warriors and Vengeance, bestow my power upon you, Princess Keary Anselma of Varang," she booms, "I hereby select you as my King Candidate and lend my power to your will!"

With that, the glow dies and she rushes forward, much as Salos did in his dungeon, into the ring Keary is holding. The princess stares in amazement at the djinn disappears within. Then, after a moment, her determination returns and she clenches the ring in her fist.

She looks over at me and nods.

"Thank you, Mina. I would never have survived without you."

I smile tiredly back.

"I'm just following Destiny."

The treasure had dropped its lack-luster appearance as soon as Sabnack emerged. We set about collecting it and then dragging it into the middle of the room. It's hard work, and neither of us is really up for it. But, as there's no way to return, we need to get it now. When we've finished that, Keary and I stand in its midst. She slips on the ring. The blue gem set into it flashes with the eight pointed star as an identical seal appears beneath us. I breathe a long sigh, slipping down to sit on one of the overladen bags.

We've finally captured the dungeon and are heading back.

I just hope we didn't miss our deadline.

Chapter Text

I wake up in a strange place and immediately panic, eyes going wide as I look around quickly to take stock of my surroundings. Then, realizing that I'm alone, I force myself to calm down and breathe. I take a deep breath before really analyzing my situation. I'm tucked into a warm and rather fluffy bed, furs and quilts surrounding me and making me just toasty enough to be comfortable. The room around me is stone and decorated with rugs and a tapestry. A window on one wall shows the darkness outside. It's night time, then. The fire in the wall opposite me spreads heat throughout what I'm sure would be an otherwise cold stone room. Slowly, I sit up, letting the blankets slowly fall away. I'm safe, it seems. My few wounds have been bandaged and I'm being taken care of. No enemy would do that. I can't help but feel a strong sense of déjà vu. Though, I doubt Baba will come tottering into the room to share words of wisdom at this point.

I close my eyes, taking advantage of the situation to try to remember anything that could indicate who picked me up and brought me here.

I know that I passed out from exhaustion not long after Keary did. As we went through the space tunnel, back to the human world, she suddenly collapsed. I did what I could to staunch the bleeding from her injuries, as I assumed her loss of consciousness was the result of blood loss, however, my hands were trembling too badly to do more than wrap the worst of the wounds. She had a stab wound in her left shoulder and a slash across her back, which I saw when I managed to get her shirt up. The most frightening was the cut on her neck. It was bleeding badly and had scared me to death when I pulled the furs back and saw it. Luckily, though, the vital spots had been missed and the cut was shallow, it simply bled badly due to its positioning. I wish I could have stayed awake a bit longer, but, I crashed. Apparently, I'd been running on quite a bit of adrenaline within the dungeon and it had come back to bite me. Still, I'd managed to stay awake long enough to actually make it through the space tunnel this time. I can't say how lucid I was, but, I do remember it. I feel my brows furrow as I try to remember what happened. When we came through, the dungeon was gone, leaving large hole in the earth where it had been. I'd looked up and seen a man standing on the edge of the hole, at the forefront of a small, armed force. Then, as they were sending rappelling ropes into the hole, I'd lost consciousness.

I glance around again, taking note of the plush bed and ornate tapestry. I would assume I'm in a room owned by a rather wealthy member of Varangian society. The size of the room suggests a mansion…perhaps even a castle. I frown. Were we found by the Varangian royal guard? I've heard of them, a group of extremely loyal fighters who are unquestionably loyal to the current regent's son. Of course, I only heard that while travelling with the caravan on the way to Varang. Until then, I was unfamiliar with the kingdom. My companions were more than willing to share all the latest news and gossip with me. It's difficult to tell how much of what they told me is true and how much is rumor.

Moving carefully just in case my wounds are worse than I first realized, I flip the covers off and get out of bed. My feet touch a furry rug of some sort treated hide. I almost sigh as I sink into it. I might not like being around royalty, but, damn, they've got nice stuff. I quickly move on before I decide to curl up on the soft rug.

After a moment I searching, I find my clothes and weapons near the fireplace. The staff leans against the mantle while my sword and other effects rest in a chair sitting before the fire. I glance down to find that I'm wearing a silky dressing gown. It's just a little big, which makes me reason that it must be one of Keary's. No maid would have something this nice. If I'm where I think I am, though, it's likely that it was a maid who took care of me in my less than cooperative state. I notice that, almost as an afterthought, a blue dress is draped over the back of the chair. I can tell just by looking at it that it won't fit right. Still, I look down at my original salwar kameez. Despite obviously having been cleaned, it's rather torn up. My dusty and stained traveling cloak is nowhere in sight. I frown. I liked that cloak.

It occurs to me then that, if I am bandaged, then I was cleaned. My eyes widen and I feel a panic overtake me. I reach up and touch my antlers and the hair around them. It's soft and brushed. And, most likely, I lost my glamour at some point during my unconsciousness. It feeds on a small but continuous supply of magoi and has become a nearly unconscious thing. But, if I slipped into a certain level of sleep...

Shit.

That means someone saw my true form exposed, and most likely reported it.

Double shit.

I hadn't even revealed that to Sinbad. I'd managed to answer his questions without revealing Alma Torran or anything to do with the true nature of Salos and I's relationship, despite his charm. That is a secret I work hard to keep. Now some gossipy maid knows.

I take a deep breath. No use panicking. I'll find out who it is and ensure they keep quiet. Even if they are Varangian, I have the advantage of being an unknown creature with unknown powers. I've used my powers as a magician to threaten people before. That's not to say I enjoy doing so, but, sometimes, it's necessary. Quickly, I mutter the spell to return the displaced glamour.

I return my focus to the matter at hand. I can't do anything if I don't satisfy the cultural demands of this people, and, most likely, that means meeting with their leader. I sigh, pushing the formulation of a plan of action to the back of my mind for now.

After a moment of debating whether or not it will be rude to appear in my torn travelling clothes, I finally reach for the dress on the back of the chair. With some difficulty, I manage to get it on. A series of concealed buttons in the side make it so that the wearer can put it on without assistance. I finish buttoning it and look down at myself critically. The dress made to be tight around the torso and then flare out at the hips. But, with someone like me, who has a small chest and narrow hips, it just…hangs. I scowl. An hourglass figure is a dream I'll never achieve.

Resigning myself to the fact that I look like a board no matter what I wear, I pick up my sword. My bond with Salos, which had been a tiny buzz in the back of my mind until now, opens like a floodgate. He immediately jumps me, running a probe over me to check my injuries, simultaneously sending me a plethora of flickering thoughts and impressions to inquire after my wellbeing. I manage to convince him that I'm just fine, returning the treatment with my own mental check. I was worried when he'd was acting so sickly and tired in the dungeon and I know my using his powers like I did couldn't have been good for him. He, in return, assures me that he's alright. He's recovered well now that we've left the dungeon.

When you're unconscious for a full day, it gives me some peace and quiet, he teases.

I roll my eyes, in higher spirits now that we've been reunited.

I'm surprised you didn't go mad from not having someone to chatter to.

He chuckles and I feel a sensation similar to that of an embrace.

I was sad. Even that short time was too much like our long period of separation.

I return the sensation, knowing what he means. I got off easy, being unconscious. He's become a part of me over these past three years, as it should be. I don't want to imagine how anxious he was while waiting for me.

I won't leave you again, Salos.

He hums in agreement as I belt the katana to my waist. I take up the staff and move to the window. Judging by the height of the view, I was correct in guessing that I'm in a castle. A wall surrounds the entirety of the structure. From my vantage, I have a full view of the walkway. As a guard makes his rounds at a leisurely pace atop it. Beyond that, I see a town. It's well-lit and I can see small figures moving about. The night must still be young.

Good.

I turn and walk to the door. After a moment of hesitation, I pull it open and step into a long corridor lined with torches. I don't have time to take in much more than that, as my attention is drawn by the brawny Varangian man standing beside my door. He looks at me in surprise, blue eyes shining from a scarred and bearded face. He looks old enough to be my father, but, he carries himself in a way that suggests he's in better shape than my adoptive father ever was.

"Lady Thamina," he begins in a deep, rumbling voice.

I feel my eye twitch. Lady Thamina? This is the first time I've heard that one. I don't like it.

"Are you feeling well?" he continues politely, running his eyes over me, as though my bandaged wounds will show through my dress. His gaze lingers on my sword, but he says nothing of it. Nor does he look at my head in any strange way. Either he hasn't heard any news about oddities, or he's too hardened to care.

I nod, leaning on the staff slightly.

"Yes. Thank you."

He gives a curt nod, all military and strictness.

"Good. I've been directed to show you to the dining room," his face softens slightly, "I'm sure you're hungry."

I know that my eyes have shown my excitement. Food. Real food. No dry, lukewarm rations or traveling fare. I only hope I haven't begun to drool. I feel Salos's amusement and hurriedly compose myself.

"Yes, I am."

The man gives another nod.

"Follow me, milady."

I fight the urge to wrinkle my nose as he turns his back. I dislike being treated specially. I try not to stand out, and, being addressed by a title like this definitely draws attention. Besides, I'm no one important. I'm just an outsider. And I hope to keep it that way. It's not my place to become involved in the shaping of this world. I'm just a wanderer.

You have been a wanderer. But, Destiny has an odd way of suddenly changing course. And, as we both know, that group has been polluting the world's path. What once was your destiny, might no longer be…Salos says.

I feel my expression tighten. I'd been hoping to avoid that, however, I know the signs of Al Tharman's tampering just as well as he does. The black Rukh have been popping up more and more, even in these last few years. And the sudden influx in the appearance of dungeons is troubling as well. It's not my place to question the motives of the magi, who assist in the guiding of destiny. But, I am worried. Especially with the activity Kou's magi has been displaying of late. He has fallen to depravity, that much I am sure of. Reim's magi remains in her own land, refusing to intervene outside of Reim's interests. Yunan…I am sure he is the one raising all of these dungeons, but, I do not know why. I can only hope it is for the better, that, perhaps, the Rukh have shown him something that has driven him to do this. If I know one thing in this messy situation, however, it is that this is not the path Solomon intended.

The man leads me through a maze of halls and corridors, some of which are decorated with portraits and tapestries. I glance at them with mild interest as we pass, taking in scenes of battle and the faces of Varang's past monarchs. I don't attempt to learn my way, as I doubt I could even if I tried. Soon enough, my guide stops before a pair of large, iron bound wooden doors. He turns to face me again, expression still serious.

"I will inform Lord Harald of your waking. He is eager to make your acquaintance."

I masterfully mask my displeasure as I nod once.

"Thank you."

The man opens one of the doors, allowing me to slip inside. As soon as I'm inside, the door swings shut once more. I hardly notice. I don't really notice the servants within the room either. I pay them just enough mind to register that there are two standing at each end of the room, both watching me curiously. My attention immediately focuses on the large, round table in the center of the room. It's filled with a number of dishes, at the center of which is a platter with a roasted bird of some sort. It takes all of my willpower not to jump the table like some sort of crazed barbarian. With all the decorum I can manage, I take a seat, not knowing where, exactly I'm supposed to sit due to the shape of the table itself. It's not made for a formal dinner, where the head of the house would take the head of the table in order to display his power. It's much more laid back, which both relaxes and worries me. I suppose that a late supper must have been arranged because it was reasoned that I would awaken this evening. They must have had a doctor take a look at me. Still, this much food is enough for a large family, and there are five chairs. Obviously, others will be joining me.

Despite my hunger, I manage to restrain myself long enough to debate whether or not it would be acceptable for me to begin eating. I've just reached the conclusion that they can deem my outsider culture rude because I'm going to start eating when the door again swings open. This time, Keary enters, followed by a young man. The princess looks displeased, though she's hiding it with a neutral expression. She's wearing a red dress similar in style to the one I'm wearing. Obviously, this dress was borrowed from her. As soon as she sees me, she relaxes and a smile touches her face. She quickly takes the seat directly to my left. Her bandages are more obvious than mine, as they peek out from her sleeves and, especially on her neck, are very visible. The young man who accompanied her sits on her other side, making me glad that he didn't hem me in. If he's eating with us, though, he must be rather important. I glance at him curiously. He's handsome in a rugged way. The ring on his right hand marks him as nobility, but he lacks the refined look of other nobles I've met. He catches my eyes and gives a nod of greeting, smiling under his trimmed beard. Well, at least he's better kept than the other Varangian men I've seen.

Keary catches my attention again by speaking.

"Are you alright, Mina?"

I look back to her. It's odd seeing her in formal attire. Of course, it's odd to be wearing formal attire. I'm used to wearing my salwar kameez and to seeing her in her leathers and furs. Right now, she truly looks like a princess, with her hair all done up and her dress fitting just right. Still, the look in her eyes tells me that this is the same Keary I just captured a dungeon with. The headstrong girl who ran away to be a mercenary. I smile slightly, nodding.

"I'm fine. I wasn't nearly as injured as you," I cast another critical eye over her, unable to help myself, "How are you holding up?"

Knowing that Keary was younger than me, and having just beaten a dungeon with her, cause my motherly tendencies kicked in. From where my sword leans against my chair, I feel Salos's amusement. I ignore him as Keary touches the bandages that peek out from her sleeve and nods.

"I am well," she glances at the man at her side, who still watches us, "Oh, yes, introductions," she gestures to him, "This is my cousin, Leif Anselma."

He flashes another charming smile and a respectful inclination of his head.

"Leif, this is Thamina Dioscuri."

I return the nod, allowing my lips to quirk just a bit.

"A pleasure, Lord Anselma."

"Likewise, Lady Thamina," his blue eyes trail not so inconspicuously to the staff, which leans against the back of my chair, to my sword, and then to the mark of the third eye on my forehead "…You are a warrior?"

I already like this guy. He just managed to ask if I can fight in a polite but blunt way. He doesn't even have that dubious look that some of the men in Reim would give me.

"I am."

"And a magician."

That one isn't a question. But, he still says it politely. He's sizing me up, attempting to figure out what part I played in the dungeon. And he hasn't given any indication of knowing about my…oddities.

"I practice Light Magic, yes."

He leans back in his seat, still fully visible due to the structure of the round table. He cocks his head, still smiling quizzically.

"You are an interesting woman, Lady Thamina. What other talents do you perhaps have hidden?"

His tone is teasing, but, I can tell he's digging for information. Keary shoots him a look, obviously picking up on this as well. I smile in return, enigmatically, to let him know I can see his game.

"Well, Lord Anselma, Sabnack was not the first dungeon I've encountered."

I know that this isn't information I should release freely. I've been hiding it for a while. However, Keary is already aware, and, as the Varangians are a warrior people, I feel that this might put me on better standing.

A voice suddenly booms from my right and slightly behind me.

"Truly? Now that is a story I wish to hear!"

I turn quickly, noticing how Keary stiffens at the voice. The man behind me obviously just came through the door at the opposite end of the room. He strides forward purposefully, grinning widely. A woman walks a bit behind him, at a more refined pace and with a softer smile. Keary and Leif both stand in deference. A bit delayed, I follow suit. As they reach the table, Leif moves to pull out the woman's chair. Now that they're closer, I can see the close resemblance between the two. She's obviously his mother. She looks at me with a kind but tired smile as she takes her seat. Directly to my right, the man sits as well, smiling around at us. I assume that this is the Regent, Lord Harald Anselma. We follow his example, returning to our chairs.

The Regent pulls the roast bird towards himself and takes up the carving knife. Then, he begins to carve portions from the meat. I'm surprised by this. Normally, the serving of food is left to the servants. At least, that's what it's been like in other cultures I've seen. Perhaps, in Varang, this is part of their hospitality. Lord Harald sets a generous portion on the empty platter before me and smiles.

"As we dine, you must tell us about yourself," he begins to cut another piece, "After all, you have returned my beloved niece to me. And you have helped her gain a great power, which, in turn, grants my people a great power," he glances at me, "You have done much for my family already, and proper introductions have not even been made."

The woman on his other side chuckles at his small joke and my own lips twitch. I'm failing to understand why Keary ran away. This man, this family, seems good. The Rukh around Lord Harald are especially pure. Not strong, like Keary's, but pure. He's a good man. His son is much the same. I glance at Keary to find her staring at the table, her eyes full of warring emotions.

"I merely followed my destiny, mi'lord Anselma," I reply, returning my gaze to him as he stands to reach over the deposit a cut of meat on Keary's platter.

He glances at me again, interested.

"Destiny?" he begins cutting again, "You speak of the Rukh?"

I nod, having expected him to know of them. Nobility are usually well-educated.

"Yes. I follow the path of the Rukh."

There is a brief pause as this information is absorbed. Leif holds out his platter for his father and receives his own share. Harald goes back to carving, humming thoughtfully.

"That is interesting…our mages can see the Rukh, but few of them understand its flow…yet you are able to do so…" he pauses to look at me, "Are you perhaps a magi?"

I shake my head, having expected this too.

"No. I am merely a magician."

He nods. There is silence as he gives himself and his wife a portion of the meat. Then, he begins to pass the other dishes about. His eyes return to me. It seems that I am to be the focus of this evening. I sense that Lord Harald is more straightforward than Sinbad, but, he is also a leader. He is grateful to me, but he must ascertain who I am and how I play into the grand scheme of things.

"Merely a magician who has been inside two dungeons…" he finishes filling his plate and leans on his elbows to observe me, "You carry a staff and sword. The latter is uncommon for a magician."

I like this man. He has no problem with being blunt. I appreciate that.

"Indeed."

His lips twitch.

"So, Lady Thamina, please, share your story."

I feel Leif's expectant eyes as well. Even Keary looks up curiously, wondering if I'll share more than I shared with her. Only Lady Anselma remains courteously disinterested in appearance.

I take a deliberate bite of my food, quickly collaborating with Salos to come up with a version of the truth to tell these people. There are certain things they cannot know, like my true connection to Salos. We quickly reach a consensus that I should stick with my usual story and I begin to speak. I tell them of how I woke up within a dungeon and, with no idea where I was, began to wander. I am honest as I describe the events of Salos's dungeon and even Keary stops looking guilty long enough to listen with interest. I leave out Salos and I's conversation, instead glossing over by merely saying that I conquered the dungeon and emerged with a djinn. I then briefly explain how my limitations in magic allow me to use Salos's power, following with a synopsis of my travels, following the Rukh. I highlight my training with the Yambala, my time in Sindria, and my brief visit to Kou. Then, I tell of how I came to Varang and met Keary, and of how we entered Sabnack's dungeon together. They do not interrupt me, only listening as I tell my tale. It takes a surprisingly long time and, when I finish, everyone's plate is empty, including mine, as I had eaten in brief pauses. I leave off with our entering the dungeon and sit back in my chair.

"The dungeon, I believe, is Keary's story to tell."

I look over at her. She meets my eyes for a moment before nodding. She looks at her uncle, sitting with the utmost poise as she begins to tell him of the adventure through Sabnack. He watches her with the same keenness he used with me, save that his eyes are touched with a certain softness. This doesn't make sense. Keary painted him as some controlling relative trying to marry her off for politics. But, seeing him now, I doubt it. I had thought there might be something more to her story, now I'm believing it to be so. Lord Harald loves Keary.

She continues, taking them through the dungeon with her words, occasionally turning to me for help with a description of an event or creature. I notice that she leaves out our conversation, and only briefly describes her battle with her mirror. However, she glances at me in a manner that suggests that we have things to discuss later. Things occurred in the dungeon that need to be spoken about, however, as we were the only two there, they should only be shared between us. I give a nearly imperceptible nod in return. I understand. Despite the fact that we still don't know each other all that well, there is something about having conquered that dungeon that has bound us together. We are the only two who ever defeated Sabnack and the only two who will ever truly know what happened within, no matter how many accounts we give others. After sharing her dungeon experience, Keary then rewinds, summarizing her time spent as a mercenary. This seems to amuse her cousin greatly for some reason. However, she ignores his growing grin, finishing her tale.

Lord Harald strokes his beard thoughtfully when she is finished, watching us both with those keen eyes. Not once has his gaze been anything but intuitive. He looks us both in the eye, speaking to us as equals.

"I see…you've both had quite the adventure, haven't you?"

I give a small nod. Keary simply stares back at him. Their eyes meet for a moment and something passes between them. Then, Lord Harald sighs and sits back and smiles.

"Thank you both for sharing your stories with me. We have talked long into the night, and I am afraid that there are some of us who did not get to sleep so long as the two of you."

There's a twinkle in his eye, and I know he's teasing us. This takes me aback. This powerful regent, ruler of a kingdom, is sitting here teasing me like my adoptive father used to. I feel suddenly very odd. I haven't felt so welcomed since…the Yambala took me in when I went to Reim.

Lord Harald stands, moving to assist his wife in doing the same. Leif and Keary rise as well. I follow suit, expecting to have to stand this time. Lord and Lady Anselma each give a respectful nod, bidding us goodnight. Then, they take their leave. Leif is quick to follow, obviously fatigued as well, though he had not shown it until now.

Keary and I are left alone as the servants begin to clean up. After a moment, she turns to me.

"Will you accompany me to my quarters?"

I look over at her, wishing I could raise a brow.

"Why so formal, princess?"

Her face colors and she clears her throat, glancing away.

"Sorry…being back here…"

I nod.

"I understand. However, don't forget," I pick up my sword and tie it to my belt again, "You don't have to put on airs with me. We conquered a dungeon together," I grip the staff and look at her again, "You can just be Keary."

She looks at me for a long moment, seeming surprised. Then, she smiles slightly and nods once.

"Alright," she turns and motions for me to follow, "This way."

Together we leave the room, and the prying ears of the servants.

As soon as we are within the safety of Keary's quarters, she pulls me into what appears to be a small parlor. Her quarters are much nicer than mine, and are made up of a handful of rooms rather than just one. I don't have much interest in exploring, as I know we're about to have a serious conversation. We sit down in two of the chair within the parlor, facing each other. Keary relaxes, looking more at ease than she had previously. There's a long moment of silence in which we get settled, and I wait for her to speak. Finally, she does.

"Uncle has said that we will postpone the discussion of politics until later. He wants me to be able to become settled into being home again before that topic is dealt with."

I lean back, holding the staff with one hand. My sword lays across my lap.

"How long?"

She meets my eyes.

"Three days."

I nod. No doubt Lord Harald would like to wait longer, but, there's Kou's deadline to worry about.

"…Will you be remaining?" she asks, almost hesitantly.

I glance at the Rukh that remain stubbornly in the air over her head. A smile quirks my lips.

"It seems so. The Rukh have not given me a sign to move on," I shrug, "I will remain as long as they dictate."

This seems to gladden her. She smiles.

"Good. I am glad…I think I will need a friend in these upcoming times…"

I hum in agreement. Indeed she will. I've always thought arranged marriages are such nasty business. Silence again rules. We both stare into the fire at the opposite end of the small room, our thoughts going their own directions. Then, I glance over again.

"How long were we inside?"

Keary shrugs.

"Leif and his men picked us up about a week and a half from the date we entered."

I nod. Not too bad. I was expecting more. This is good. It means that we have plenty of time until Kou's deadline, a few months at least.

"…What did Sabnack mean?"

I tense slightly. I knew this question was coming. However, it still catches me by surprise. She's obviously been bottling it up to spring it so suddenly.

I sigh. I am forbidden to speak of the other world. Of course, Sabnack's always been a 'fuck the rules' type, from what brief things I remembered after meeting her. She's put me in a bad spot with her carelessness.

I close my eyes.

"Just what she said. I awoke in Salos's dungeon with no memory of this world because I am not of this world," open my eyes again to look at her, "I cannot tell you any more than that."

It's obvious that she wants to push the topic, but I lift a hand to silence her.

"It is my sacred duty to my Lord Solomon, whose Rukh fill this world, to keep my silence on this topic," I know my voice is a bit cold, but, I can't help it, "I cannot tell you more."

She looks at me for a long moment, eyes slightly narrowed. I can see her debating on challenging me. But, then she relaxes. I'm surprised. I'm sure that the Keary who entered Sabnack's dungeon would have taken me up on that. However, the Keary who emerged seems much more mature. I find myself wondering again what happened when she met her mirror. However, I do not press her. If she wishes to share, she will.

"…My personal maid attended you," she speaks after another silence.

I look at her curiously.

"I asked her to keep quiet about any…inhuman qualities you have," she glances at me.

Ah, that makes sense of it then. Why no one seemed put off. Keary respects me enough to let me keep my secrets, which I am grateful for, and ensured that they would be kept. I smile slightly.

"Thank you. It means a great deal to me."

She nods.

"You saved my life numerous times. It's the least I can do."

I pause for a moment before replying.

"Keary…do not think I am attempting to push any sort of life debt on you or attempt to help me out of a sense of duty. We came out of a dungeon together. We're sisters in arms. You owe me nothing, as you kept me alive as well."

She smiles in reply.

"Alright…If you're sure."

"I am."

"Then I will respect your wishes," she glances at the fire again, "…If we are speaking on equal terms …Will you advise me in the upcoming political decision?"

I feel my eyes widen. I am an outsider, friend or not, and this decision will affect the fate of an entire kingdom. I know enough about the balance of power to understand that whatever choice Keary makes could cause a ripple effect that would spread across this world. And she wants me to advise her in it? In her fate? The fate of her kingdom?

My grip tightens on the staff as my lips purse. I am a member of Solomon's household, one of the leaders of the Dioscuri, but only because I was one of the last Dioscuri. I never had to deal with politics outside of interactions as a leader of one race speaking to another. Nothing on this scale.

Keary looks at me hopefully. I realize then that refusing would be inhumane. She needs a friend in this hour, she can't make the decision alone. I take a deep breath. Then, I nod.

"I will do my best to advise you…"

She immediately relaxes, smiling again. It's as though I've removed a huge burden from her shoulders.

"Thank you, Mina. You have no idea how relieved that makes me."

I nod, almost absently.

Kou or the Alliance? Slow assimilation or equality? Immediate refuge sounds best, but what of the repercussions? Kou is right on the southern border…but, to accept them would be to give in to their bullying…and I despise bullies. But, do I dare expose Keary, a young and still-impressionable ruler, to Sinbad's scheming? He's the High King of the Alliance. I have no doubt that he would influence her heavily. However, the alternative is not better. Marriage into Kou, only to have her people slowly be sucked into their all-consuming Empire. I close my eyes, furrowing my brow as I weigh the options, comparing everything I know about the two sides.

I don't hear Keary approach. She touches my shoulder and I jolt in surprise. I look up at her.

"You don't have to think of everything now. We have three days before a council is convened to discuss the official decision. While you will not be able to attend that meeting, you can attend the one between my uncle, Leif, and myself. It'll be a small, private discussion in which my true decision will be made. The formal meeting is really just to make the lesser lords feel like they're getting somewhere with their complaints."

My lips quirk.

"I see. Thank you. I'll have my suggestion by then."

She nods.

"Good. I hope we reach a decision that will benefit our kingdom."

I turn back to the fire, frowning slightly.

"As do I."

Chapter Text

Three days later, I'm standing in a small, somewhat secret chamber with Lord Harald, Leif, and Keary. At first, there was some doubt about my presence, however, when Keary argued that I was the only one who had spent any extended amount of time in either Sindria or Kou, he allowed me to step in. I stand beside Keary. She's dressed in a very nice gown of pale blue, the front of her hair pulled back to show her proud face. A gold circlet rests on her forehead above her rather stormy eyes. We spent a good deal of last night talking, and, I think she's set in her decision. Now, we just have to present a good argument to her uncle and cousin. I glance down at where Sabnack's vessel rests on the first finger of her right hand, the eight-pointed star boldly standing out on the gem. She looks every inch the part of heir to the throne. Though, I know that, despite appearances, she has her daggers hidden under that skirt. I fight the urge to smirk. Once a fighter, always a fighter. Appearances or not, Keary still has that mercenary side to her.

I myself have opted for more informal attire. I'm not going to the big meeting after this, so, I reason that no one's going to throw a fit. I've been given a warmer version of my salwar kameez, with a light green tunic and hide pants rather than my thinner former attire. I confess, I like the change. Nearly three years of the same outfit can do things to a person. I stand with my arms folded, the staff in the crook of my elbow. My hair is loose but, on Keary's insistence, I'm wearing a silver band that rests atop my head. Apparently, in their culture, this symbolizes the position she's granted me. I'm still not sure how it happened, but, I went from wandering guest to royal advisor in a span of two days. A ring with the emblem of the Anselma house sits on my left middle finger. This is what really gives me political weight here. Keary has named me as her friend and vassal in a very obvious way. And, judging by how the Rukh turned frenzied when she announced her intentions to me, this is part of my path as well. I'm not sure what to make of it.

Well, it isn't the first time, Salos said as she put the ring on, Our King gave us the metal vessels to show our status as his household…this is very similar.

I had smiled internally.

Yes, it seems that it's my fate to act as a household member no matter what world I'm on.

He brushed a mental touch over my hair.

Perhaps. But, remember, you are Dioscuri and a member of Solomon's Household first and foremost.

Right.

The mood of this meeting is much more solemn than that of our dinner conversation. Even Leif, who has made a point of speaking with me on friendly terms these past few days, is as serious as I've seen him. Lord Harald folds his arms over his expansive chest, frowning lightly. He and Keary have spent much time talking over the past few days. Forgiveness was traded and, while their relationship has not been fully repaired, they're on the path to again having the father-daughter dynamic they did previously.

"You have made a decision?" he asks.

Keary gives a nod.

"I've drawn from Mina's information as well as that provided by our contacts and previous meetings with each side."

As she goes on to explain her reasoning, bringing up many points we discussed last night, I find myself wondering if I really advised her correctly. I talked with Lord Harald and found out that the reason that the marriage is necessary is twofold. One, Keary is a woman, and, while it has been proven that women can lead just as capably as men, he fears that Kou will see this as a weakness. Especially when she is so young. The second reason is that Keary's mother was an outsider. Lord Harald told me that she was a banished warrior from Artemyra. This intrigued me. As far as I knew, Artemyra had no contact with the outside world at the point that Keary's mother would have appeared. However, Harald explained that she had left of her own accord, knowing that, once she did so, she would not be permitted to return. She had never said much more than that, at least, not that he knew of. I don't really understand it, but, I'm no expert in Aremyrian politics. Apparently, Keary's mother eventually came to Varang and, intrigued by their warrior culture, settled here. She eventually met Prince Erik, Keary's father, and the two courted. I suspect the future king thought the warrior woman thing was pretty attractive, being a warrior himself. Keary's mother died when Keary was very young, having caught an illness that, while common to this area, a foreigner like herself had no immunity against. Keary's father was later killed in combat when she was only fifteen, leaving her as his only heir. That left Lord Harald, his younger brother, as regent until Keary was old enough to inherit. According to Lord Harald, Keary's 'impure' blood has been mentioned before in diplomatic meetings with Kou. They'll most certainly use it as an excuse to say that Keary is not a legitimate ruler, even though the right was passed to her from her father.

Due to these reasons, Keary must marry. If she joins the Seven Seas Alliance, she'll not only draw Varang into their protection, but gain the name of a strong man, royalty himself, to back her up. If she joins Kou, they will be appeased.

Lord Harald nods as he listens to Keary. Then, when she finishes, he looks to me.

"You advised to this end?"

I nod.

"I did, Lord Harald. I am not a politician, but, I understand the politics of the situation well enough. I believe that this is the right choice for the good of Varang."

Lord Harald nods.

"Very well. I will contact King Sinbad after this meeting to inform him of the decision," he sighs, almost to himself, "It seems that we will be joining the Seven Seas Alliance."

Keary gives a curt nod.

"Yes. I will prepare to travel to Sindria soon. However, I do ask that we wait to make any sort of official announcement until a meeting with the King of Sindria is completed. It would not surprise me if Kou attempted to strike before we made the alliance, even knowing that they cannot conquer us."

I glance up at her. I'm proud of how she's again taken up the responsibility of princess. I was right in my assumption about what having Sabnack's power to back her would do for her. She's confident, commanding attention and respect. While we both know the other Lords might fuss about her disappearance, I have no doubt she'll be able to handle them. Young though she is, she'll be a good ruler.

Lord Harald makes a small, affirmative noise.

"Agreed."

After a moment, he looks to me.

"You say that you have met King Sinbad before and gained his favor…you are an outsider to Varang, but, my niece trusts you and you have valuable connections. Will you act as an emissary to Sindria?"

I feel my eyes go wide in shock.

What the actual hell?

Why would they trust me with this so soon? The only one who really knows me is Keary, and, even then, we've only known each other a short time. Salos pipes in, then.

They have no other choice. They could send one of their own diplomats, but, he would be recognizable and lacks the connections you have. Kou could realize their intentions and waylay him. You, however, are the wanderer. You can easily sneak past the Empire. You also personally know the king, and are welcomed in his territory. He will lend you his ear as a friend. A diplomat would have to go through political channels. To get this done quickly, you must go.

I think for a moment, pondering this. He's right. I feel my eyes narrow slightly as I glance down at the ring on my finger. I had hoped to avoid being caught up in politics…but, Keary is my friend…and, as I glance up at the Rukh fluttering about her, I believe that this might be what they intend.

Finally, I nod.

"I will go to Sindria and speak with King Sinbad."

Lord Harald smiles slightly.

"Thank you. You honor me with your acceptance."

The meeting lasts only a few more minutes as the proper wording for the announcement is worked out. Then, they leave. Leif claps me on the shoulder as he passes. Keary shoots me one last glance before she too exits. The door swings shut with a dull thud. I stand alone in the room, staring after them, wondering what kind of path I've just been set on.


 

I stay in Varang for a month after the decision is announced to the other Lords. The council took it very well, as only one or two suggested joining the Kou Empire. Though, there were indeed a few issues since some of them doubt Keary's competence due to her previous disappearing act. From what I heard, Lord Harald settled them quickly. With him, a respected leader, and Leif, a renowned warrior, backing her, not to mention her legitimate claim to the throne, no one was willing to push their complaints too far. A letter was sent through secure channels to Sindria, but, it is unknown when the letter will arrive. One detriment of this world is that their methods of communication are so slow unless magic is involved. Unfortunately, Varang does not have any sort of clairvoyance contact with Sindria or any of the other Allied kingdoms. So, we are limited to, as those of my former home called it, 'snail mail'.

We wait the month to send me in order to ensure that those in Sindria will have time to prepare for my arrival. I will be taking a clairvoyance stone with me in order to quickly relay information to Keary, however, even using magical transportation methods, it's a long journey to Sindria. I'll be using one of the dungeon treasures from within Sabnack's dungeon to travel. I suppose some might call it a flying carpet, but, in all honesty, it looks more like a sheet. There were three included in the treasures we captured. I know I personally own a few from my conquering of Salos's dungeon, but, they are currently collecting dust in a bank in Reim, and it would be too time-consuming to go collect them.

I spend the month assisting Keary sort out what is monetary from what is magical in the dungeon treasure. With the help of the Varangian mages, we safely identify any magical items and store them away for later use. Coins and other non-magical items are placed in the palace treasury. Having already dealt with this myself in the past, I find myself unsurprised by the haul. At least, I am until we uncover a clutch of strange eggs. Being one of the dungeon capturers, the mages let me handle them, preferring to stay back from the unknown objects. When I finish collecting them, I find ten in all. Keary and I put our heads together to attempt to figure out what they might be. After some analysis and brainstorming, we come to the conclusion that they must be bird wolf eggs. This takes everyone by surprise. As far as anyone knows, this is the first time dungeon creatures have been taken outside the dungeon. The only reason I can think this could occur is that, because they are not yet hatched, they are not technically dungeon creatures. Still…Sabnack has blatantly flaunted her disregard for order again by introducing them into this world. This is a race not yet seen. It doesn't even have a name.

Lord Harald is actually quite pleased by this find. He reasons that, since they are unknown, they will be advantageous in combat. Still, he wisely approaches the situation with caution, understanding that they must be studied and cared for before they are used in any sort of military fashion. For all we know, the one we fought in the dungeon was rabid and they are actually a peaceful group of herbivores. Though, from what I've seen of their claws, beaks, and fangs, I doubt it.

The sorting of the treasure takes only a few days at most. When that is finished, I am once again without anything to do. I've been so used to wandering that being in one place is maddening. I need to be occupied. Fortunately, Leif comes to my rescue. He suggests that, since I am a warrior, I should train. I accept his suggestion. It's been a very long time since I trained formally, and minor skirmishes don't keep one's skills honed like regular practice. I train with Leif and his soldiers, who serve as Varang's Royal Guard. They push me to my limits, making me realize just how much my time spent travelling has caused me to lose my touch. Still, something once learned is easily recovered, and, by the end of the second week, I am again holding my own with the elite. I've stuck to magical combat during my travels, since it's easier to just blast light from the staff, but, I'm a better physical fighter. It's what I learned first and is what I'm more comfortable with. I decide that, rather than let myself again regress in skill, I'll make sure to continue training, even when on the road.

Keary sometimes joins me. I find out that her performance in the dungeon was not a one-time show. She's wickedly fast with her daggers, and has an eye for finding her opponent's weak spots. Despite the more straight-forward fighting style that is common among her people, she has done well in developing her own. She uses her smaller stature to her advantage when fighting her fellow Varangians and it works well. She's also quick enough that, even if her opponent was a 'normal' size, she would do well. She most certainly gives me a workout when sparring. We also spend quite a bit of time together outside of training. Having been a rather lonely person on my previous world, and having stayed close to Salos on Alma Torran, I've never really had a 'girlfriend'. However, Keary and I are both fighters and both have a sense of duty and an understanding of the world. We become very good friends. Though, I do confess, my motherly tendencies tend to show themselves when she's around.

The month passes rather quickly, filled with training, and, in between physical activity and speaking with Keary, studying. I take advantage of the palace's library to read up on Varangian culture and customs. I also spend a good deal of time speaking with Lord Harald when he is available, discussing politics. The prospect of approaching Sinbad as an emissary makes me nervous. I know that he's a much better politician than I, and I worry that I might say something that would allow him to work me into a corner. I doubt he truly desires to do so, but, if he thinks it necessary, he won't hesitate to blindside me in a political agreement. Lord Harald puts my fears to rest, assuring me that, as long as I discuss what he has told me to discuss, and do not allow myself to be sidetracked, I will be fine.

So it is that, currently, I am standing at the gate of the Anselma palace. The magical cloth, which the seamstresses were so kind to alter so that it doubles as a cloak, hangs in my hand. Keary stands beside me. I've already bid farewell to Leif and Lord Harald. I even said goodbye to Lady Anselma, though, we never really spoke at length.

The wind is cold as it blows through my hair. I have left the silver circlet behind and bound it up once more. Though I enjoy having it loose, doing so while flying would be impractical. In my pack, which is full of rations, the crystalline clairvoyance orb is tucked away, ready for use. I have ensured that everything I will need for the beginning of my travels is packed. And, due to the method of my travel, I even get to take a second, larger pack along with me, filled with items I may need during my travels. The flying cloth, while it produces an exhaustive drain on magoi when used for long periods of time, does well carrying large loads. The Rukh flutter overhead impatiently. It's been a long time since the will of humans matched with the path of my destiny. I still haven't gotten used to it. I glance at them briefly before looking back to Keary.

"I'm estimating a little less than two months flying, just based on conservation of magoi and how long it takes to replenish it…And I'd prefer to get to Balbadd and then take a ship from there since there would be nowhere for me to rest when flying over open water."

Normally, it would take much, much longer. However, air travel is always so much better than hitchhiking with caravans.

Keary nods.

"Good. Don't push yourself dangerously."

I smile slightly.

"Salos won't allow that, don't worry. I'll be safe, and I'll contact you if anything happens."

"Likewise," she pauses, "Be careful, Mina."

I nod. I'll need to move carefully and quickly. Even though Kou's deadline is still three months out, that time can pass very quickly and be upon us before we know it. And, it's close enough that, if I fail to reach Sindria, there would not be time to enact a backup plan. The goal is to avoid war altogether by joining the Alliance before any fighting breaks out.

My smile widens.

"I've been wandering alone for well over three years now. Don't worry. I'll be fine."

She smiles back. There's a moment of silence. And, then, suddenly, she wraps her arms tightly around me in an embrace.

"I'll miss you, Mina."

I stand there for a moment, unable to do much more than blink. I can't really remember the last time I was given a hug…It feels weird. I recover and pat her back a bit awkwardly.

"I'll miss you too…I'll make sure to contact you regularly."

She pulls back, still smiling.

"I'll look forward to it."

I take a step back to make room. Then, I flip the cloth out so that it lays flat, hovering in the air. I immediately feel the pull on my magoi. I dump my packs onto it and climb on myself, settling into a cross-legged position. I ensure that I can maneuver properly, then, I begin to rise, the Rukh rising with me.

Keary raises her hand in a wave.

"Goodbye, Mina! Safe travels!"

I raise a hand in return.

"Goodbye! Thank you!"

With that, I set the cloth on a path southward. As I suspected, truly flying, rather than just gliding about as I did in practice sessions, is much easier to do. I simply point in the right direction and let it go. While it's feeding on my power, it doesn't take so much that I won't make good time. Still, this is going to take a while.

I settle down and begin to meditate, something I've taken to doing in the late evenings before bed. It helps me relax so that I can sleep easily. I lay the staff across my folded legs with my sword. Lately, I haven't had as much success with meditation. I've been continuously plagued by what occurred in the dungeon. When the mirror shifted into that man, Aswad. However, whenever I attempt to remember more about him, I'm met with a solid wall of nothingness. I suspect that Salos is somehow involved, which troubles me. From the single memory I have of this Aswad, we were quite close. But Salos seemed almost enraged when the mirror transformed into that man. And, he had taken control of my body…I hadn't even realized he could do that. Perhaps it was a side effect of the Equip…That aside, he had used my body to slaughter the mirror. There had been no hesitation. Even though my life was in danger, it was the vengeful manner he used our sword. And the comment the mirror had made as it died…

"You don't even remember him…but Salos still got his revenge…"

Salos remains stubbornly silent, as he has whenever I've asked him anything about that moment. He won't budge an inch, won't tell me anything about Aswad or his need for vengeance against him.

I sigh in a huff and reach into my larger pack to withdraw a rather thick scroll, giving up on meditation.

Six weeks drag by. I know that it would have taken me no less than five months to traverse the distance on the ground, but, almost two months of being alone is dreadful. Even with Salos, the lack of physical interaction for such a long time is painful, even when using the clairvoyance crystal every few days to keep tabs on the situation in Varang, which was mostly unchanged. I'm fairly certain I frightened the people I bought rations from during the few times I needed to restock, simply because I was so desperate to see another human being. I'd bought as much as I could carry and would last. I even purchased some really good, but expensive things, like meats. Despite my protestations, Keary had sent me off with a very full purse. I'd barely made a dent in it during my travels. I honestly don't know what she thought I would be buying.

I finally land when I was a few miles outside of the city. Flying in would draw attention. I'd had enough trouble avoiding the eyes of trade caravans. I drop down on the main dirt road that connected one of the desert highways to the capital, Balbadd City. I stagger slightly as my feet touched the ground. I haven't truly walked in a long while. I'd stopped in the evenings to make camp or rent a room in a nearby inn when the chance was provided, but, other than that, I'd stayed on the proverbial road. Still, I kept my promise to myself, training in the evenings despite being exhausted from feeding my magoi to the cloth. I'm still in great shape, much better than I'd ever been in my previous world.

I pull the cloth around myself as a cloak, fastening it with a plain tie that the Varangian seamstresses added to assist with this function. I've found that I miss Varang, as it's the only place I've felt truly welcomed since my time with the Yambala Warriors. Or Sindria. Though, I prefer not to realize how at home I felt there. I've spent the last six weeks attempting not to think about Aswad by steeling myself for dealing with Sinbad. I'm not sure how to approach him. Still, I guess I won't have to do much of anything but navigate his games. He's outgoing enough to strike up a conversation without any effort on my part.

Once I'm sure I can walk in a straight line, I set off, packs over my shoulders, sword on my belt, and staff in hand. Though it's much warmer in this southern location than it is in Varang, I've kept my thicker green tunic and hide pants. Warm on the ground or not, air travel is cold. My sturdy Varangian boots are holding up well against the sand and I feel that, even though I might be a little warm when I arrive, I'll be relatively clean. Good. I'm used to being entirely sandy during desert travel.

I've gone about a mile when a voice calls out to me from behind.

"Miss Mina!"

I turn, surprised to hear my name. While it wouldn't be strange to find other travelers on this road, the odds of meeting someone who knows me well enough to call me by name are slim.

To my further shock, I see the boy from the marketplace running up to me, his blue braid whipping out behind him. A red haired girl follows at a slower pace, her expression one of mild curiosity. I turn fully as he comes to a stop before me, grinning excitedly. Of all the people to see, Solomon's lookalike was not on my list of expected encounters.

"Aladdin?" I find myself asking.

It's been nearly six months since I last saw him, but the name comes to me easily. It would be difficult to forget the one who looks so much like my King.

He gives a small, happy laugh, looking up at me with those big eyes of his.

"Yeah! It's been a long time, huh, Miss Mina?"

I nod a bit dumbly, still recovering from surprise.

"It has…how have you been?"

He throws his arms out, his excitement at seeing me almost too much to be believable.

"Great! I've traveled so much and met so many people!" he grins again, "I told you I'd see you again soon. What have you been doing?"

I find myself smiling in return. It's impossible not to. He's adorable.

"I traveled to Varang and became friends with the princess there. I helped her capture a dungeon."

Aladdin's eyes widen. The red haired girl stands beside him, having caught up as we spoke.

"Wow! I did that too! I helped my friend, Alibaba, capture a dungeon," he motions to his companion, "And Morg helped too!"

I look to the girl. I immediately identify her as a Fanalis now that I can clearly see her face. She looks back at me with a nearly impassive expression. I had the honor of occasionally crossing swords with members of the Fanalis corps in Reim, though I always lost, and, when in Sindria, I met Masrur, one of the Eight Generals. I smile and nod politely.

"It's nice to meet you…" I trail off, not thinking she would like me to call her by what is obviously Aladdin's nickname for her.

"Morgiana," she supplements in an even voice, observing me.

"What a nice name. I'm Thamina, but most people call me Mina."

She gives a small nod but remains silent. Aladdin watches this introduction with a smile. Then, when it's obvious we've finished, he catches my eye again.

"Are you going to Balbadd, Miss Mina?"

I nod in affirmation.

"I am. I'm going there to get passage to Sindria."

Aladdin swings his arms excitedly.

"We're going to Balbadd too! Morg wants to get a ship to her homeland. I'm looking for my friend, Alibaba."

I smile.

"I see…well, Aladdin, it seems that we can travel together this time."

The three of us set off again. Aladdin fills me in on what he's been up to since I last saw him. He's had quite a number of adventures for such a small boy. He has a wonderful time telling me about how he and his friend, Alibaba, captured the dungeon, Amon. I hide a smile, feeling Salos's amusement as well. That old geezer is one of the people I do remember from Alma Torran. He took Salos and me under his wing for a time as we were growing up in order to act as our teacher. Though we sometimes resented him, he was something like a grandfather to us. A strict, sometimes cantankerous grandfather. Still, I'm glad to hear that he's doing well. As well as a djinn can do, that is. I also find out that Morgiana was a slave until Alibaba freed her after exiting the dungeon. This Alibaba friend of theirs is quite the character…

When Aladdin continues on and begins to tell me of the Koga, I can't help but burst out.

"How is everyone? How is Baba?"

He looks at me in surprise.

"You knew Baba, Miss Mina?"

His use of past tense tells me what I need to know. Baba has passed on. I feel my expression fall as I remember the first person I met in this world.

"…She was the first person I met when I left Salos's dungeon…she took care of me and taught me about this world."

He reaches out and pats my arm lightly. Then, he tells me what happened with the Koga clan. I listen carefully, smiling slightly when I hear of some of the things that occurred and feeling saddened by others. I'm surprised to hear about his interaction with the Kou princess, Hakuei, but, I don't interrupt. He finishes by telling me that Baba has joined the Rukh. As if affirming this, the Rukh about us drift by, lightly touching my hair and face. I smile slightly.

"I'm glad they're alright…and that Baba moved on peacefully."

He nods happily.

"Yup. Miss Hakuei asked them to join her. She promised to take care of them."

Though I'm conflicted about Dorji and the others joining Kou's army, I know that it's the best thing for them, and I'm glad they've finally found peace and safety.

The little boy continues on, summarizing his travels from there and ending with meeting me. Morgiana remains silent, simply listening and sometimes nodding along.

"So, you said that you captured a dungeon with someone, Miss Mina?" Aladdin asks curiously.

I smile, nodding.

"I did."

I begin telling my own tale. Though I trust Aladdin for whatever inexplicable reasons, I refrain from sharing anything about Varang's current political state. A child like him doesn't need to worry about such things. I share my travels to Varang, meeting Keary, our adventure in Sabnack, and the generalities of my time spent in the palace.

Aladdin stares up at me with a smile.

"Wow! Miss Mina had a big adventure too. And you know a princess! That's so cool!"

I chuckle. He's a sweet child. I glance over to find Morgiana observing me again with a small spark in her eyes. She's reevaluating her previous opinion of me it seems, whatever that might have been. I smile at her and she quickly looks away. She's a sweet girl too, if a little stoic. I really do just want to hug her, even though I'm not usually the hugging type. It's terrible, what she's gone through. She needs a good hug, no doubt.

Watch out, Mina, your inner mother is showing…Salos says in a dry tone.

I wave him off.

Hush. It's not like these two have a mother. I doubt they would mind if I mothered them a bit.

Salos sighs in amused exasperation.

You're too much sometimes.

You're one to talk.

We cover the next few miles making small talk and generally enjoying each other's company. I'm grateful to have run into them. I really do enjoy their company, and I've been without true human interaction for so long that I can't help but relish this time with them. Even though it won't be long, we simply make the most of the time we have. Aladdin makes me laugh and even Morgiana cracks a smile at his antics. I do my best to draw her into the conversation. She's courteous and answers my questions, but, as she doesn't know me well, she refrains from sharing anything too personal, and I avoid putting her on the spot.

We've just agreed that, when we reach town, we'll stay in a hotel room together for security's sake when Morgiana and Aladdin suddenly stop, eyes going wide. I was focusing on the two of them as we walked and didn't notice whatever has startled them. I quickly turn, thinking that perhaps we're being attacked, or someone strange is approaching us. As soon as I look, I wish I hadn't.

He stands in the middle of the road, feet planted apart, arms spread like he means to offer an embrace, wearing only a tactfully placed leaf. He bears a pleasant smile, as though he isn't blocking the road with his almost completely nude body and we've just met in a socially acceptable manner. I feel my eye twitch violently as he smiles and raises one hand in greeting. There's no way it's him.

"Hey, there! Nice weather today."

Oh my Lord Solomon, it really is him.

I would recognize that smooth, deep voice anywhere.

Salos is more amused than surprised.

So it seems…

Aladdin moves then, recovering from his shock enough to move in front of Morgiana to protect her from this indecent man. I can't find the will to move. I'm still too stunned. I vaguely hear the man attempting to defend himself against Aladdin's apparent plan to attack. My eye twitches again and I can't help but eye the single leaf balefully, knowing it's all that saves us from seeing a truly terrible sight.

Why the fucking hell is he naked?!

Chapter Text

We sit around a small fire off the road a little ways. Rather, they sit, I stand a few feet away, giving Sinbad a leery expression. I've just seen more of that man than I ever wanted to. Fortunately, he's wearing at least something now. Though, I know it's not much, just a wrap around his hips and a too-small vest of sorts. He notices my expression and shoots me an innocent smile. I know he recognizes me. On the road, when I'd finally stopped looking at that offending leaf and met his gaze, his eyes had narrowed just slightly as he gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head. I understood. We don't know each other. At least, for the sake of appearances at this present time. I briefly wonder at his reasoning, but, it's not really my business what he does in his spare time.

He introduces himself as Sin, a travelling merchant. I suppose that's the name I'll be calling him by in public until he reveals himself. Though, that will be odd, since his advisor and friend, Ja'far, is practically the only one to use such a familiar nickname. I frown slightly. I'm not quite sure what his appearance entails for my mission. I suppose I'll have to wait until I can speak with him alone…though, I'm not sure why he's alone in the first place. He's one of the most powerful men in the world and he's been cleaned out by common bandits, according what he's said. Even his metal vessels are gone. There's no way he was that careless…

"Sorry for not listening to your story," Aladdin tells him apologetically, "There's many dangerous things when crossing the desert, so I've become cautious…"

I purse my lips. He must have really been relieved to be traveling with Morgiana and I, then. He was acting so carefree earlier, to have been turned so wary by his travels.

I listen as Sinbad engages Aladdin in a discussion about travelling that ends in him giving a short speech about the wonders of adventure. Passion for the subject is evident in his voice, and I can't help but smile slightly, as I listen to him. I have a feeling that, if he could, he would always show this side of himself, the side of the man who loves adventure and the unknown, and who treasures the memories he holds of his many travels. This was the side of him that caused me to trust him at first, the one that makes him speak with that expression of determination and excitement on his face. I can't help but wonder when he became the man who would do anything for his kingdom. When did he develop the other part of himself, that of the ruthless king?

Morgiana speaks up, reminding Aladdin of their goal of reaching Balbadd before nightfall. I stir from my thoughts and shift to loosen my muscles, which have gone stiff from remaining in the same spot. I cock my head in a manner that I know will pop the crick in my neck and am rewarded with a satisfying sound. I hear the others getting ready as I move back towards the road, using the staff as a walking stick of sorts. I trust Sinbad enough to leave the children with him for a few minutes, even if he is scantily clad and weaponless. I want to check to make sure no shady figures are lurking about before we move into the open again. I see nothing suspicious.

So paranoid, Mina, Salos says slyly, You wouldn't bother if it was just you...or you and the king.

I feel my expression go blank. I know he's teasing me about the need I feel to watch out for the younger members of our strange little group, but, that comment about Sinbad keeps me from focusing on much else. That's a terrifying thought.

There is no way in hell I would be alone with that man.

Salos sniggers, enjoying poking fun at me.

A few moments later, Aladdin darts past me with Morgiana on his heels. He spins around to talk to me, slowing a bit and walking backwards briefly.

"Alright, Miss Mina! We're off again! Thanks for waiting with us!" he grins, his eyes alight with excitement.

I smile back.

"Of course. I told you we'd go to Balbadd together."

He gives a small laugh and turns to run forward again, Morgiana at his side. Apparently, Sinbad told them that Balbadd was just over the next hill and they're rather excited. I myself have been able to hear, and smell, the city for some time. Fortunately, the sea breeze spares me from the unfortunate odors of human civilization.

I start forward, walking at a more even pace than my younger fellows. I don't see how they can have so much energy after traveling like they have. I swear I can feel my bones creaking.

Twenty-five and an old woman, Salos teases, in higher spirits since we're so close to our goal.

Shut up. You're just a spirit in a sword, I grouch back, You don't have to deal with this kind of thing.

He sends me an impression of mock hurt.

So cruel, my sun.

I feel more than see Sinbad as he appears to my right. He matches pace with me, though I know he could easily have caught up with Aladdin and Morgiana. I glance up to find him smiling. His golden eyes meet mine for a moment before I look away. I'll admit, he makes me nervous, and not quite in the 'handsome guy's smiling at me' way. More like in the 'this guy's played me before' way.

"I don't believe I caught your name," he says smoothly, with a small undercurrent of amusement in his voice.

I feel my eye twitch yet again. He's flirting with me. I suspected he would, but, honestly, pretending we're strangers so that he can act like a charmer? Still, I know I'll have to play along as long as he's set on hiding his identity.

I force myself to smile.

"Thamina Dioscuri. A pleasure, Sin."

He chuckles, a rich sound that no doubt has sent many women swooning.

"Likewise," he pauses, looking a bit mischievous, "May I call you mine?"

I shoot him a death glare, feeling the need to hit him in his barely covered groin. He most certainly did not ask that the first time we met. He asked if he could address me as 'Mina'. Apparently, he's decided that, since we're already acquainted, despite the little game of anonymity he's playing, he has leave to come on stronger than he truly is allowed to. His stupid flirtatious pun on my name is not appreciated.

"No. But you may call me Mina, as most people do," I tell him firmly.

His smile widens, half in amusement at my reaction, and he pauses long enough to catch my hand in his. He slips in front of me so that I'm forced to look at him fully and raises my hand to his lips, gaze never leaving me. I feel my face grow hot, quite against my will, and my glare softens. Despite my wariness of him, I can't deny that Sinbad is incredibly attractive. And receiving such attention from an attractive man warrants this sort of reaction.

Salos growls and I can feel the jealous anger rolling off him in waves.

Sinbad's lips linger just long enough to make his flirtations obvious. Then, he rises to his full height again, giving me that suave grin.

"Well then, Mina, it truly is an honor."

I manage to give a nod in return, attempting to keep from being distracted by Salos's rather violent thoughts of death and blood.

"Thank you."

I glance to where Aladdin and Morgiana have stopped at the top of the hill to take in the view. Then, my gaze cuts quickly back to Sinbad. Annoyance aside, I have business to conduct, and I need to clue him in before I lose my chance.

"You said you're a merchant?" I ask with feigned interest, just in case we can be heard.

He gives a nod, cocking his head slightly, his eyes flashing with curiosity.

"Do you perhaps deal with trade to and from Sindria?"

His eyes flash again, this time with understanding.

"I do," he moves my hand to his muscular arm and begins to lead me up the road, towards our destination, "Do you have business you would like to discuss?"

I nod.

"I do. Business concerning Varang."

I move my hand from his arm briefly to pull the Anselma ring, which I've been wearing as a necklace, from where it was tucked beneath my collar.

"Lord Anselma had expressed a desire to engage in certain discussions."

I turn it so that the crest is easily visible before tucking it away again and returning my hand to his arm.

If he's surprised, he hides it well. Still, his smile has slipped a bit and his eyes have gone serious. He nods once.

"Maybe when we reach the city, we can discuss this matter further."

I smile, pleased that I found an effective way to convey my message.

"Excellent."

We catch up with Aladdin and Morgiana and make our way into the city. Sinbad allows me to step away from him and walk independently as he begins to give a rather informative explanation of Balbadd, its politics, and its history for our benefits. I confess, I'm intrigued. I've only been here once, briefly, and he's obviously very knowledgeable. However, the light exploratory mood changes as soon as we enter the poorer district. I'm not the only one who notices the anti-monarchy signs that have been painted on the walls. I frown. I've been travelling enough that I haven't heard of any serious issues within Balbadd. It seems like the government has faltered severely since my last visit. I only hope they will be resolved quickly. And that they aren't caused by a certain, chaos-sowing cult.

Sinbad quickly herds us on, going so far as to place a hand on my lower back to gently propel me along. I almost whack him with the staff for taking such liberties. We might be acquaintances, but that doesn't mean he can be so invasive of my personal space. Then I realize I had remained where I was, looking up at the message when the others continued on. I notice then that I'm drawing quite a bit of attention, as per usual. People have been staring at Sinbad during our passage through the city due to his state of undress. In this poor district, though, I find myself at the center of attention. People hungrily eye the staff in my hand, as well as my quite obviously tailored clothes. I hadn't even thought of the issues these rather nice clothes might cause when I left Varang. I was too focused on getting to Sindria. I need to pay better attention to my surroundings, it seems. My exhaustion must be getting the better of me.

Sinbad meets my gaze grimly as he steers us back into a better part of the city. I clearly read his unspoken message: Stay close. Don't fall behind.

I find I'm grateful to him. He knows very well that I don't really like him, but he's going out of his way to make sure I stay safe. He could have just left me. I sigh internally. Why does he have to be so nice sometimes?

Only a few minutes later, the four of us are standing before a rather grand hotel. It's an actual hotel, not an inn, like I'm used to. I never use them since they're so expensive, but, I suppose when one is the king of Sindria, one doesn't have to worry about funds. Though, with the gold plating and marble shining in the sun, this might be a little extravagant even for a famous dungeon capturer. Upon Sinbad's suggestion of staying here, Morgiana immediately replies that she doesn't have enough money to stay at a place like this. Aladdin agrees, looking down in something like dejection. I have enough to stay for a while, but, I'd rather not spend it here. I'd much rather find a modest place for myself and the children rather than leaving them on their own. A nice little inn back in the middle-class district will do nicely.

Sinbad smiles, holding a hand to his chest in a sincere gesture.

"Leave the expenses to me. It's my way of thanking you for helping me. My subordinates should have arrived before us, so they'll pay. I really enjoy this place, so I hope that you'll accept my offer."

Both Aladdin and Morgiana light up at this. Even I feel rather flattered by his generosity. I can't help but wonder who he's making pay, though. I would assume he's been escorted by some configuration of his Generals. But, who he's brought with him depends on his purpose in Balbadd, which I still haven't figured out.

"Thanks! You're rich, aren't you?" Aladdin cries before he and Morgiana run up the front steps of the hotel.

Sinbad smiles, pleased with himself, and swaggers after them, obviously receiving an ego boost from Aladdin thinking so well of him. I follow at a small distance, noticing the rather scandalized looks he's receiving due to his state of undress. I can't help but smirk as the guards waylay him at the top of the stairs.

"Hey! Stop! You're suspicious!"

Sinbad looks utterly taken aback as they block him, grabbing his arm and preparing to throw him back out.

"Huh? How am I suspicious?" he asks confusedly.

I use the commotion as a distraction to slip inside unhindered and join Morgiana and Aladdin. I wonder briefly if I'll have to step in and make up a semi-truthful story about the situation. A moment later, though, a rather familiar voice interrupts the commotion.

"Enough!"

I look towards the source as the guards back down. A rather slender man in beige robes and a green headdress steps into view, making his way over to where Sinbad stands. I recognize him as Ja'far, Sinbad's advisor and close friend. I can't help but smile. Ja'far and I got along splendidly when I was in Sindria last time. He's such a kind and gentle man, though, he rarely lets Sinbad get away with any foolishness. He, too, has a tendency to mother others. He was very supportive when I decided to leave Sindria. Ja'far doesn't have the manipulative tendencies Sinbad possesses, and, when I realized I was being manipulated, he provided me honest council, suggesting that I speak with Sinbad about the issue. He had done everything in his power to ensure I was happy during my stay in Sindria, even when I attempted to convince him that it wasn't necessary, and even when leaving was in my best interest. I was hoping he would be one of the Generals here with Sinbad.

Ja'far takes his master's arm as Sinbad grins at the arrival of his subordinate. I can see the former's exasperated expression even from here.

A rather large figure breaks away from the small crowd that gathered to watch the spectacle and walks towards us. I look over in surprise and find Masrur, the Fanalis member of the Eight Generals. He must have seen me slip in during the commotion. The large man comes to a halt beside me and give a nod. Even though he isn't standing that close, his sheer size makes me feel like he's directly next to me. I have to crane my head to look up at him. Being small is terrible.

"Thamina," he says in greeting, his red eyes meeting mine.

I nod in return, smiling slightly. I'd gotten along with Masrur as well. Despite his hulking size and frightening Fanalis appearance, he has a good heart.

"Masrur. It's good to see you again."

He doesn't change expression or intonation as he replies.

"You as well."

The children are too busy watching what's going on with Sinbad to truly notice this small exchange a few feet from them. Ja'far drags Sinbad over to join us. His expression turns pleasant when he comes to stand before us, but, it's obvious that Sinbad has just been subjected to a small lecture. He releases his king's arm and bows respectfully.

"Hello. I do apologize for my master's behavior," he stands upright again, "Would you mind telling me how you came to be in my master's company? I'm afraid he wandered off and we were quite worried about him," though he directs this at all three of us, his eyes dart to meet mine.

I masterfully hide a smirk under a polite smile.

Translation: What has this foolish king of mine been up to and how did you run into each other? I think wryly.

Salos chuckles.

Aladdin looks up at me, noticing how Ja'far seems to be waiting for me to speak. I think the older man believes that I will be more honest, having met Sinbad before, and won't try to paint him in a better light. Though, Aladdin's most likely the most honest child I've ever met, and probably wouldn't embellish to make him look any better either.

I sigh, shifting the staff to my other hand. If it's honesty he desires, then honesty he will receive.

"We were making our way to the city when we came across him. He was in the middle of the road, completely nude save for a single leaf. He frightened my companions quite badly. They seemed to be under the impression that he was some sort of pervert."

Ja'far twitches, though his smile doesn't falter. Masrur stares off, looking like he's lost in thought. I doubt he really is. Sinbad grins, at least having the decency to look apologetic. Though that twitch in his eye suggests that he doesn't appreciate my very blunt explanation.

"However, an explanation was given and Aladdin loaned him his current attire. Apparently, he was set upon by bandits."

Aladdin smiles, jumping in then to help the foolish king save at least some dignity in this situation. Shame. I was having fun watching him give me that look of disbelieving indignance.

"Yeah, but Mr. Sin was really nice and led us through the city. He even made sure we found this place!"

Ja'far glances at Sinbad questioningly. The latter nods and leans in to mutter something to his subordinate. Ja'far gives a single nod in return before looking back to us.

"I see. So our master has caused you some trouble…"

Seeing a naked Sinbad was not the best thing that could have happened, no. Definitely troublesome.

"But, in accordance with his wishes, you can leave the bill for your lodgings to us," he continues, smiling kindly.

Aladdin's face lights up and he throws his arms up excitedly. Morgiana bows respectfully.

"Thank you, Mr. Subordinates!"

I suspect I'm included in this, but, I'm not truly sure. Sinbad might just be taking pity on the other two because they're children and expect me, a grown woman, to cover myself. Especially since I rather bluntly explained his foolish behavior to his strictest General. However, Ja'far turns his smile to me, almost as if he read my mind.

"That includes you, Mina. Don't worry about any cost."

I smile back, relieved.

"Thank you, Ja'far."

He gives another bow. Then, he reaches over and grabs Sinbad by the sleeve of his borrowed vest. Sinbad immediately looks at him, a bit surprised.

"Now please," Ja'far tells him, "Don't stray from us again."

He turns his master about quickly and begins to push him off in, assumedly, the direction of the quarters they have paid for. Masrur follows, ever stoic. Sinbad grins widely, looking over his shoulder at the three of us and raising a hand in a wave.

"See you later, Aladdin, Morgiana. Let's meet for dinner tomorrow, alright?"

Aladdin nods, smiling. Morgiana glances at him before silently looking after Masrur. The two of them could be siblings, with that similar disposition and natural coloring.

Sinbad's gaze shifts to me and he raises his voice slightly to be heard as Ja'far pushes him further away.

"Mina! You said you had business to discuss?"

I blink, snapped back to the mission at hand. I've been so caught up in the current conversation that I had allowed it to momentarily slip my mind.

"I do."

I turn to Aladdin and Morgiana.

"You two will be fine on your own?"

"Don't worry, Miss Mina, we can take care of ourselves!" Aladdin tells me cheerfully.

Morgiana makes a small, affirmative sound. I nod and send them on their way before following the group from Sindria. They've stopped to wait for me and I quicken my pace to catch up. Ja'far watches me, a surprised expression on his face. When I reach them, we set off again. Sinbad leads with Ja'far and I directly behind him. Masrur brings up the rear. I can't really think of a better person to have at our backs. Nothing could get past that man.

"Business?" Ja'far asks lowly.

He walks silently beside me, his face turned towards me. He's tucked his hands into his sleeves, something I suspect might be habit. Neither of the other two look at us to my knowledge, but, I know they're listening.

"It's something to be discussed behind closed doors."

Ja'far leaves the matter be, understanding completely. I suppose dealing first with a trading company and then with capital affairs has made him quite savvy in matters of business.

Within a few minutes, I find myself in the rather luxurious quarters of the King of Sindria and his entourage. Though, it only consists of Ja'far and Masrur at the moment. Normally, me being alone in a room with three men would be scandalous. However, the only one I'm worried would try anything is Sinbad, and I doubt he would go further than 'innocent' flirtations unless I responded and showed interest. That happening is as about as likely as Salos donning a frilly pink dress and singing a Torranian love ballad to the tune of "Call Me Maybe", a hit song from my previous world.

Scratch that. Depending on the situation, my brother might actually do that.

Ja'far offers me a seat on one of the sofas as Sinbad wanders off to get dressed. I gladly take it. As soon as I sink into the cushions, I give an involuntary sigh. I hadn't realized how tired I am until just now. The plush cushions seem to almost caress the aches in my body away. It feels absolutely divine.

The two Generals follow their master into the other room. I hear them conversing, but, I'm too busy relaxing into the sofa to even think about attempting to discern what they're saying, even with my enhanced hearing. I don't have to wait long anyways. They emerge within ten or so minutes, chatting about how Morgiana was also a Fanalis and how surprising that is. Sinbad sits on the sofa opposite me, now fully dressed in a white robe with purple and gold accents. Masrur takes a position near the one end of mine. Ja'far approaches the sofa where Sinbad sits.

"By the way, Sin," he says conversationally, "Surely, you didn't mean that all of your luggage was stolen, right?"

"Surly I did," the king replies, smiling innocently.

There's a long, awkward pause in which Ja'far stares at his master in disbelief. Then, with a small huff, he comes around the couch to face him directly.

"Not just your clothes…but your tools, too?!"

Sinbad rubs the back of his head sheepishly.

"Everything."

Ja'far looks like he's on his way to an early grave. He puts a hand to his forehead with a small, distressed sound.

I understand his worry. From what they told me when I was last in Sindria, the metal vessel user must be in possession of his vessels in order for his household members to use theirs. As Masrur and Ja'far are both household members, and Sinbad has lost his vessels, their magical abilities that are derived from having a household vessel are lost. Even though I'm sure they're all very capable fighters without their vessels, this is a heavy loss. Particularly since it's not just them, but all of Sinbad's household who suffer. Seven metal vessels, containing the power of seven djinn, gone.

I eye Sinbad as Ja'far grabs him by the neck and shakes him. What angle is he playing? Is he even playing an angle? Did he really just get drunk and pass out in the outskirts of the city? I can't imagine him being that careless. I also can't help but be a little angry. I know those djinn personally, and he's carelessly let them be stolen, helpless to defend themselves when contained in their vessels. The loss of Baal, Valefore, and Zepar especially irks me, as I got along well with them on Alma Torran. Focalor...I really couldn't care less.

I tug the ring from within my shirt as the king of Sindria finally waves his advisor off. Ja'far hasn't finished lecturing him, but, I've finished listening in. I have business to conduct, even if I'm rather irritated with him. The fact that it will be conducted even sooner than expected sooths my irritation, though. The deadline Kou placed on the marriage stipulation is looming closer, something that has weighed on me since I set out. Time is passing too quickly.

I am suddenly aware of the silence in the room. I look up. Ja'far is standing off to the side, at the midway point between the two sofas. Masrur has not moved from his position beside me. I see. A defensive formation of sorts. Though I think they know I won't make any offensive moves, they are following protocol. Which means we're getting serious. Sinbad watches me with a sober expression. When I meet his gaze, he does not smile.

Good, time to get down to business.

Salos grimly agrees as the king holds out a hand.

"May I see that ring?"

I slip the necklace off. Rather than making me stand to deliver it, I find Ja'far waiting to take it to his king himself. He gives a small reassuring smile as I hand the ring to him. I remain silent as he delivers it.

Sinbad takes the ring, turning it over under a sharp and critical eye, observing the seal of the Anselma house engraved in the blue sapphire. It's a very expensive piece of jewelry, especially since it must have been commissioned for the personalized seal to be carved to carefully. He glances at me again.

"So, Mina, how did you become involved in Varang's royal affairs?"

I sit up a bit straighter, no longer giving in to the softness of the sofa. He most likely already knows the political situation. His true curiosity lies in how I factor in and the story behind my involvement. Though, I suspect he'll also want the news I bear.

"I have continued to follow the flow of the Rukh on the path of destiny, following wherever they take me. They led me to Varang, where I met Princess Keary, who was disguised as a mercenary at the time."

Sinbad hands the ring back to Ja'far and nods. He betrays nothing at the mention of the princess's whereabouts during her time in hiding.

"Go on."

I continue.

"Through certain circumstances, I found myself aiding her, and became aware of her true identity. I assume you know of Varang's political situation?"

Another nod.

"Keary explained it to me when I inquired why a princess would be acting as a sword for hire. She also explained that there was an aspect of the possible agreement with Kou that had not been released to other parties. Kou has placed a time limit on any possible marriage agreement. If Keary does not make formal decision as Princess by her twenty-first birthday, Kou will go to war with Varang. Keary kept this in mind and used the years after her disappearance when she was eighteen in order to train herself by working with numerous mercenary groups and travelling Varang."

All three men watch me now, Ja'far curiously, Masrur stoically, and Sinbad seriously. I suspect that, even though news of Kou's deadline was not widespread, Sindria was already aware of it. After all, Sinbad has many contacts

"Train herself?" Ja'far prompts.

I close my eyes, allowing myself to remember. A small smirk tugs at the corner of my mouth. My Keary, the strong willed princess who would disguise herself as a mercenary to prove her strength, all for one purpose.

"To capture the forty-third dungeon, Sabnack."

I open my eyes. That did throw them by surprise. I have the satisfaction of seeing Sinbad's eyes widen just slightly. Ja'far looks well and truly startled. Masrur, as always, remains motionless. No doubt they had heard that Sabnack was captured. But, we kept Keary's return quiet, just in case there were spies about. We didn't want Kou getting word of her capturing a dungeon and have them decide to crack down before we could contact the Alliance. For all anyone knew, the dungeon was captured by a random traveler. My own capture is unknown for the most part, as Salos's dungeon had no longer been connected to the human world at the time I defeated it. Something that works to my advantage. There's also the fact that Keary was seen as a spoiled princess who simply abandoned her duty and her people for selfishly not wanting to get married. That kind of person doesn't capture dungeons. Little did they know. Also, in the letter sent ahead of my departure, Keary had remained unmentioned, just in case it was intercepted. Only Lord Varang's name was included, which left the princess in anonymity.

I continue.

"I assisted her in capturing the dungeon," I pause, remembering the perils of that specific dungeon, and smile a bit dryly, "We almost didn't make it out alive, but, those experiences caused us to become rather close, whether we liked it or not," my smile widens just a bit, "I'm afraid we both fell into unconsciousness upon exiting the dungeon. I had exhausted my magoi, having been forced to use my Equip numerous times, and Keary had been severely injured. We were retrieved by her cousin, Lord Leif Anselma, and taken to the Anselma palace to recover. Upon waking, I was introduced to Lord Harald Anselma and asked to share my story. He was very kind and granted me a place to stay. Over the next few days, Keary asked that I advise her over the matter of the proposed marriage agreement, as her friend and ally. Kou's deadline loomed closer and a decision had to be made," I take a small breath, "After careful consideration, I advised her to lead Varang to join the Seven Seas Alliance."

Sinbad moves to lean forward, his elbows on his knees. He nods for me to continue.

"The decision was announced to the Varangian Council of Lords and a letter was dispatched directly after. I departed a month later in order to act as an emissary. I made my way to Balbadd in order to go from here to Sindria. However, I met you on the road, King Sinbad, and have been able to meet with you ahead of my target time," I end my story there, having brought him up to speed.

Sibad watches me keenly, obviously considering me carefully. There's a long pause before he speaks.

"…Why you, Mina? You're a wanderer. You told me before that you have no interest in becoming involved in the politics of this world."

I shift the staff so that it lays across my lap, thinking for a moment.

"I follow Destiny, the path of the Rukh. If I must become involved in politics and give up my wanderings, so be it," I sigh, "I was becoming tired of travel anyway. Wandering has its merits, but, the change of pace has been nice. Besides," I look up and meet his gaze, "Keary is a true friend to me. You know better than anyone how entering a dungeon with another creates inseparable bonds, King Sinbad. The Rukh led me to her, and I have done all I can to keep her alive and to assist her in her goal of doing what is right for her people. The Rukh around her are vibrant and radiant in a way that I have only witnessed in a few other instances. I believe that her destiny is one that will affect the world. Even if I did not have a bond of friendship with her, I would support her because of this. The Rukh led me to her, and they continue to indicate that I should aid her."

Sinbad considers me a moment longer before nodding and leaning back. I don't know what I've confirmed for him, but, it's something that satisfies him. He looks a bit more relaxed now.

"I see. So, Princess Keary is ready to come to an agreement…you have a way to contact her, right?"

I nod, glad that the focus is back on politics and not on me.

"I do."

I don't elaborate. I'd like to keep at least a few of my cards held back, even if they're small matters. I like to be honest, but, there are times to be smart with honesty.

"Good. Tell her that we accept the proposal. I've already conversed with the other leaders of the Alliance about the prospect of Varang joining us and, we've come to the agreement that they will be most welcome," he smiles then, "Lord Anselma's letter arrived at an opportune time. We had already planned to convene to discuss some other matters as well."

I feel a great rush of relief. I know I relax visibly. That was fairly painless, aside from the personal anecdote. Then again, my part was supposed to me. It's the discussion of political marriages that's going to be awkward and painful.

"I'll contact Keary to inform her of the decision, then, so that an official announcement can be made"

"Please do. I suspect that further action will be taken after the announcement is made?"

I nod.

"Yes. At least, that's what I was told. Once a decision is announced officially, I believe that Keary may be planning on leaving Varang to come to Sindria herself."

Sinbad exchanges a quick look with Ja'far, whose expression is rather serious.

"Then time is shorter than we thought," he stands, returning his gaze to me, "Thank you for dealing with this personally, Mina. It's good to see you again, even if it was for the sake of politics."

I stand as well, wondering what he could mean by that comment about time.

"Indeed. Thank you for meeting with me, King Sinbad. I'm sure you have business of your own to attend to."

He nods in affirmation and offers his hand, much more formal than when he took it earlier to kiss it.

"I do have some other matters to attend to," he squeezes my hand briefly when I place it in his, "We'll speak again later, Mina. Take care until then."

He releases my hand and steps away. Masrur gives me a nod before trailing after his king like some sort of huge shadow.

Ja'far follows, pausing before me. He takes my hand in his and presses the ring into my palm. Then, he gently folds my fingers over it. Though he is smiling kindly, his next words are serious.

"Keep this hidden, don't wear it openly. And be careful, Mina. Balbadd has grown dangerous of late," he meets my eyes almost pleadingly, "Please, remain in the safety of the hotel. If certain parties within Balbadd were to learn of your current political involvement, you would be put in serious danger."

I smile slightly. While we're on friendly terms, I didn't expect to be mothered so soon after meeting him again. Still, it's nice of him to give me warning and be worried about me.

"Don't worry. I'll stay here unless it becomes absolutely necessary for me to go elsewhere," he looks like he might speak, but, I continue, "Safe or not, I still follow Destiny's path wherever it may lead me. Even into danger."

I can tell he doesn't like this reply, but, he accepts it. Not that he has much other choice. He pats my hand once before dropping it.

"That puts me at ease, thank you," he turns slightly, motioning towards the door, "I'm afraid that I must accompany my king, but, we've arranged for one of the staff to show you to your room. If you have any concerns, please, don't hesitate to speak with me."

I nod.

"Thank you, Ja'far, you're very kind."

This seems to please him. He shows me to the door, and, as he promised, hands me over to the woman who waits outside. After a brief farewell between us, he again closes the door. The woman bows and bids me to follow her. I do, slipping the necklace on and tucking the ring back under my shirt. To my surprise, she only takes me two doors down and bows again. Well, at least I won't have to memorize any complicated hallways.

"These are your quarters, ma'am," she informs me, still bowing, "Your companions are just across the hall. If there is anything you need, don't hesitate to let us know. We will be more than happy to assist you."

I give an awkward nod in return.

"Thank you."

It had taken me forever to get the maids in Varang to leave me be. I dislike this idea of being waited upon. I'm a capable and independent woman, I don't need someone trying to bathe and dress me, as the maids attempted to do. Though I doubt the hotel staff will be so pushy, this whole bowing thing is still annoying. At least she isn't calling me mi 'lady, though. I never got used to that.

The woman bows even deeper, it's a wonder she doesn't fall over. Then, she stands to give me the skeleton key to my room.. As I unlock the door, she disappears down the hall. I glance after her. Then, I look at the door across the hall. With my enhanced hearing, I pick up two indistinct voices on the other side. A smile touches my lips. Good, Aladdin and Morgiana have gotten settled. Satisfied that they're alright, I push my own door open.

I almost drop the staff.

The room I've been given is the grandest room I've seen in a long time. It has that definite 'expensive' feel that all luxuries in the south have. I barely notice as the door swings shut behind me. Silks hang from ornate pillars. Cushions lay around a low, carved table in the center of the room. A vanity sits off to the side, a chair pushed in at its front. Two wooden folding doors hide closets. Persian rugs cover the stone floor, and numerous small tables stand about, holding fruit bowls, incense burners, lamps, and even desert flowers. To the right, the room is divided by two curtains that meet in the middle. To the left is the door to the bathroom, covered by a thick curtain. A real bathroom with a form of running water for the bath. Numerous soaps line the edge of the stone basin and plush towels lay folded on a shelf. A wash basin and mirror stand against another wall while a ceramic bucket with a cover serves as the toilet. Another thing I miss about my former world, running water in the toilets. I've never quite gotten used to the chamber pot idea.

Opposite the bathroom and behind the dividing curtains, is the bedroom. It has only one bed set into the wall, though that bed is big enough to sleep myself and two large Varangian warriors. It's lined with fluffy cushions and rather fine linens. A thin but warm blanket covers the bed, obviously made to keep out the chill of cold desert nights and chilly sea winds. A trunk sits at the foot of the bed and I immediately dump my packs into it, tired of dragging them about. A closed window is visible on one side of the bedroom. I throw it open and take in a view of the tops of the crowded buildings of Balbadd City, the ocean in the distance. The sea air flows into my room, bringing a distinctly salty scent with it.

I find myself smiling as I lean against the window sill. I might not always get along with Sinbad, but, for now, I'll allow him to treat me. Even though I'm a frugal person, even I enjoy luxury sometimes. Even the palace in Varang, with its stone and furs and ornately carved wooden furniture, did not have the overly grand appearance of this place. I suppose it's the cultural difference between the north and the south. I know that, in Kou, for instance, 'grand' would entail an entirely different set of ideas and objects. And the same in Reim.

After a moment, I push away from the window. I need to contact Keary, then I need to bathe. Even though I've been traveling by air, I'm filthy. I can't believe I met with one of the most powerful kings in the world in my state. I can feel the grime on my skin, something I've grown accustomed to over the years. My hair must be a tangled mess. I know strands have fallen from the tail I had it in. I'm pretty, I've been told that numerous times, but, even being pretty can't help when a woman's covered in dirt. Not to mention, I haven't had a proper bath in six weeks. Even if I've been washing off in streams along the way, or with a washbasin when one was available, I doubt I smell particularly nice at the moment. And Sinbad and Ja'far were in my personal space. And Masrur, as a Fanalis has a sense of smell that rivals my own.

I sigh. Well, don't I feel professional now. The official emissary of Varang meets with the king of Sindria and his retainers on official business, looking like she's wandered in off the street. Still, I don't think anyone really cared. Sinbad's an adventurer, Ja'far's just a nice guy, and Masrur…I don't know that Masrur really has another personality setting aside from 'apathetic' or 'stoic'.

I wander back to the trunk and dig the clairvoyance crystal from within the smaller pack. Then, I settle onto one of the cushions in the front area in order to use it, the staff lying next to me. It's getting late, and I'm exhausted from flying, walking, and then dealing with Sinbad, but, I have enough magoi for this. I activate the crystal.

"This is Thamina Dioscuri. I request to speak with Princess Keary Anselma and Lord Harald Anselma. It's a matter of great urgency."

A moment later, Keary's voice emanates from the crystal, which glows slightly.

"This is Keary. Hello, Mina. How are you?"

I smile slightly. Speaking with Keary in this manner over the past weeks has reminded me of when women in my former world would use the phone to chat for hours. Except, we can only talk as long as our magoi lasts. Still, we've had a grand time allowing responsibility to fall away in certain evenings and simply talking about anything we see fit to discuss.

"I've arrived safely in Balbadd. Is Lord Harald there?"

"Good. And, yes, he is."

I nod, even though she can't see it.

"On my way into the city, I met King Sinbad."

There's a long pause. Then, Lord Harald's voice comes through, a firm but gentle tone conveying his next words.

"Tell me what happened, Thamina."

I tell him. I explain in a manner that will keep Sinbad's reputation intact. While I might have personal issues with him, he is a king, and it's not my place to deface him by telling the world about how he was wandering about in the nude. I explain how he led myself and two acquaintances of mine into the city and offered us lodgings. Then, I repeat the conversation to Lord Harald, attempting to get it word for word, but, finding myself paraphrasing in some places. He remains quiet as I speak, merely listening and absorbing what I'm saying. When I finish, he is silent for a moment longer. When he speaks, he sounds a bit relieved.

"Good, then King Sinbad is abreast of the situation. Do you know his purpose in Balbadd or how long he will be remaining there?"

"I do not. I only know that he has business to attend to."

"Very well. Stay with him, if permissible, and let us know when he plans to return so that we may arrange a meeting."

I nod again.

"Understood."

"Good….I am glad that you were able to meet with him ahead of time. This gives up a number of weeks of actions that we had not planned to have. You've done well, Thamina."

I can't help but smile. Despite me being a grown woman, magician, and dungeon capturer, Lord Harald still speaks to me like he would to his son or Keary.

"Thank you, Lord Harald. I was hoping I would live up to your expectations and needs."

"You have. Thank you. Now, you rest yourself and take advantage of the kindness granted to you. You have traveled a long way and have earned yourself a respite," he pauses, "Thamina, stay close to the king and his retainers. I have heard that the political climate in Balbadd has taken a turn for the worst. Tomorrow, we will be making an official proclamation about our joining the Alliance. If enemies of Sindria, Varang, or the Alliance lurk in Balbadd and discover your position, you would be in danger."

I think of the irony of this warning, considering Ja'far told me the same thing not even half an hour ago.

"I understand. Thank you for worrying about my safety. I will remain where I will be out of harm's way."

Unless the Rukh make a spectacular decision to lead me into it, I add mentally.

Salos grimly agrees.

"Good. I will leave you to rest, then. Keary and I wish you well."

"I return the sentiment. I will speak with you again at the next opportunity. Farewell for now."

With that, I sever the flow of magoi. I feel a headache coming on. I've been using so much magoi recently with only short recovery periods in between usages that this has become a normality. I look forward to being able to rest enough that it is no longer so.

After putting the crystal back in my pack, I make my way to the bathroom, looking forward to a long, hot bath to wash away the grime of travelling. I enter leaning the staff in a corner along with my sword. Perhaps taking them into the bathroom is a bit paranoid on my part, but, the staff has almost been stolen numerous times before and the sword is my brother's vessel. Neither are things I'm willing to part with.

I fill the tub, undressing as water pours from an ornate tap in the wall. Steam quickly fills the room. As soon as I've thrown my clothes, flying cloth, and hair tie in a pile on the floor, I slip into the water, sighing. Tomorrow, I'll deal more with the situation at hand, for right now, I'll do as Lord Harald said and just let myself enjoy the many perks of Sinbad's gift of letting me stay here.

Chapter Text

I am awakened the next morning by a knock on my door. I jerk in bed, eyes flying open. For a moment, I panic, not remembering where I am. Then, I recall the events of the previous day and relax. I am in Balbadd, staying at a luxury hotel at Sinbad's request. I'm currently under his protection, which means, for now, I'm safe. I run a hand through my hair, wincing as my fingers catch on the snarls there. Then, I blearily remember what woke me in the first place.

Sighing, I slip the blankets off as another knock sounds, this time accompanied by a voice.

"Thamina? I don't mean to wake you, but I would like to have a word."

I shoot up from the bed, eyes wide. I recognize the voice as Ja'far's. Quickly, I spring from the mattress. It's dark in the room, the shutters having been closed against the night, but there's enough light seeping in through the cracks that I can see the door on the other side of the room. In my haste to make myself presentable, I trip over one of the pillows I'd thrown from the bed in the night, rather ungracefully stumbling into the curtain that separates the sleeping area from the main room. I curse under my breath, quickly snatching a robe from where it lays over a chair and pulling it on. I was so tired last night that I didn't bother to dress before going to bed. I hadn't counted on being awoken by a visitor. I know it might not be appropriate for me to receive him wearing only a robe, but, the only change of clothes I brought is a Varangian dress, and those take a few minutes to get into. Plus, I trust Ja'far. I doubt very much that he'll do anything untoward. If it was Sinbad, I'd make him wait, king or not.

Apparently, he's heard me moving about as he doesn't knock again. When I finally answer the door, he's returned his hands to their usual place inside his sleeves. He smiles slightly as he takes in my disheveled appearance. I wince. I know my hair's a mess. These curls are absolutely monstrous after a long night's sleep. I can feel them standing up at strange angles from my head.

"I apologize. I didn't realize you would still be in bed this late."

I frown lightly, reaching up in a futile attempt to flatten my unruly hair.

"What time is it?" I ask, fighting back a yawn.

My voice is still thick with sleep, despite my rushed awakening. His smile widens just a bit.

"It's nearly noon."

I feel color rush to my cheeks. I can't believe it. I'm on a diplomatic mission for Lord Harald, whom I respect deeply, and Keary, my best friend. The fate of Varang hinges on it and I sleep in till noon?

My expression must show my distress because Ja'far chuckles.

"Don't worry. You haven't missed anything important. Sin insisted we let you sleep to recover from your journey."

I sigh in relief. Good, so I'm not totally incompetent.

"Thank you. I appreciate it," I step aside and motion for him to come in, "Please, come in. I do apologize for my current…state. I wasn't expecting anyone."

Ja'far steps inside, still smiling. He's done himself credit by keeping his eyes focused on my face and not looking down at the robe, which is rather thin. Now, they shift to take in the room in a quick sweep. As he moves past me, I catch a breezy smell that I've come to associate with Sindria, though, his is cleaner than Sinbad's. I can't help that muse that part of the reason I've felt so at ease around Ja'far since our first meeting is because of the way he smells. The non-human part of me relies heavily on impressions gained through scent and Ja'far has always smelt nice. I find that I trust him as much as I can for knowing him as little as I do.

I close the door as he turns to face me.

"I trust you slept well?" he inquires politely.

I sense that he's too used to using pleasantries to simply cut to the heart of the matter. I nod, moving back to the sleeping area.

"I did, thank you," I glance at him, "And yourself?"

He seems mildly surprised by my return of the question. I catch his expression at a glance as I open the shutters enough to let in some light.

"Yes. Thank you for asking."

I nod, stepping up to the chest at the foot of the bed and unlatching it. I feel him watching me.

"You said you'd like to have a word?" I prompt.

As much as I enjoy his company, I'd rather simply speak plainly. He complies with my insinuated request.

"I did," he pauses as I pull the green Varangian summer dress from within my pack, "Our party attended a meeting with the king of Balbadd this morning."

I stand fully and turn to face him, interest piquing. Politics, then. As much as I despise them, I know how vital it is to stay abreast of them. It helps a traveler like myself blend in. Now, though, finding myself so wrapped up in them, I definitely need to pay attention. Ja'far continues.

"Balbadd has cut off trade with Sindria. Apparently, they've been having too many domestic issues. A terrorist group has arisen, calling themselves 'The Fog Troupe'. They've been causing quite the disturbance as an anti-government group, enough that Balbadd has practically shut down their trade routes," he sighs, "The king was rather rude to Sin. He said that, if Sin wanted trade to be reopened, he would have to take care of the Fog Troupe himself."

I raise both brows in surprise.

"Really?" what poor decorum, being rude to another monarch like that, "And how did Sinbad respond?"

Ja'far glances toward the door.

"He said that was fine. That he would take care of them without Balbadd's help."

I frown lightly, moving to draw the curtains that separate the sleeping area from the main room.

"How many do they number?"

"We were told they started out with forty, but, now there isn't a clear count. They're large enough to upset the entire political structure of this kingdom, it seems."

I slip out of my robe, still frowning. Then, I speak again as I begin to pull on the dress, safely hidden behind the curtains.

"While I don't doubt his abilities, nor yours or Masrur's, isn't that a bit extreme? Besides, they're just common people who are feeling the consequences of corruption. They've hardly done anything to warrant such violence."

I've never been one to agree with the law wholeheartedly. If it is in the best interest of the people, so be it. If not…I've had some close calls with the authorities in the past.

I hear him moving about on the other side of the curtain. The sudden smell of burning oil tells me that he's lit the lamps in order to make up for the lack of light on that side of the room.

"You're too kind, Mina. Even if a small group rebels, the rest of the country will follow, and anarchy will ensue. They're close enough to chaos as is, and the king either can't or won't do anything. In order for trade between us to be reestablished, we have to take matters into our own hands."

I struggle with the lacing at the front of the dress, missing the simple zip-up gowns from my previous world. I can almost hear the wry smile in his voice. The 'you're too naïve' look. Though, I think we both know that's highly untrue. Naivety is not my issue, it's just that I don't care about their politics when it doesn't benefit the people. I follow the will of Solomon's Rukh, and people like Sinbad, Lord Harald, and Mu let me get away with things because I'm a dungeon capturer who can see the flow of Rukh. There's a certain amount of prestige that comes with that. The memory loss card still works well, too, for those who I don't share the dungeon capturer information with.

Despite my dislike of Sinbad's womanizing and his tendency to manipulate others, I do respect the way he governs his nation. Everyone in Sindria is happy and prosperous. I know very well that, should Sindria lose a major trading partner like Balbadd, its economy will suffer. Here, Sinbad is making a choice: either let Balbadd handle its own problems and lose their support, or deal with the fog troupe himself and regain Balbadd's trade support.

I sigh.

"I know. I understand the politics behind it, and the implications surrounding the issue," I grimace as I yank the strings under the bodice, where the corseted middle of the dress ends, "I just…don't like violence. Especially not against oppressed people."

When I'm finished tying the strings into a bow at the top of the corseted middle of the dress, I step back through the curtains, pushing one of them aside to make way. Ja'far remains standing in the center of the room, despite the chairs around him. Apparently, it's habitual from acting as an advisor to his king.

He nods in response to my previous statement.

"Sin feels the same. I'm sure he has some sort of plan."

I cross to the bathroom, hiding my look of exasperation. Of course he does, and he'll drag us all along with him on whatever 'adventure' he has in mind.

"I hope so."

Once inside the bathroom, I set about combing through my tangled mess of hair. It's a bit more awkward than usual, maneuvering around the antlers with a visitor. No one in this world except the Koga clan and Keary's maid have seen my true form. By the time I left the Koga with a trade caravan, I had been able to perform the minor glamour I use to hide my obviously inhuman trait. I comb from the bottom towards the top in the most natural way I can.

I glance over to find that Ja'far has moved closer to the door of the bathroom in order to carry on our conversation. He doesn't appear to feel at all awkward, despite my continuation of my morning routine in his presence. He appears to be considering something. Then, he finally speaks.

"I was hoping to ask if you would lend us your aid."

I pause.

"We only need to bring down the leaders of the troupe. After that, we're certain the rest will disband," he explains.

He's assuring me I won't have to kill anyone. I consider this, continuing to pull at the knots in my blue curls.

I've completed my duty to Varang. My latest directive was to stay close to Sinbad. Sinbad plans to fight against the Fog Troupe. This means, I need to assist him. I purse my lips tightly. I don't like it…

A Rukh flutters across my line of vision. I pause long enough to watch it as it continues on, flying over to settle on Ja'far's shoulder. He looks at me quizzically, oblivious to the glowing bird on his shoulder. It flexes its wings as my eye twitches.

You little shit…

I sigh. Well, there was my answer. The Rukh say go with Ja'far. They couldn't be any less obvious? I finish with my hair and set my comb down, pushing the blue mass of curls back over one shoulder.

"Alright. I'll assist you."

I exit the bathroom, retrieving my staff and sword. Safe or not, I will not be separated from Salos. Even if our bond extends beyond my contact with his metal vessel, I need that physical presence. My brother nudges my mind soothingly, sensing my annoyance with the Rukh and the whole situation.

"Wonderful!" Ja'far smiles, cocking his head in an undeniably adorable way, "I'll let Sin know as soon as possible!"

Damn that man. Now I feel all warm inside because he's so happy about my assistance. Why does he have to be so nice? It's hard to be mean to Sinbad when Ja'far's his subordinate.

He waits patiently as I buckle on my katana. I take the staff in my left hand, leaving my hair loose for the day. I suppose I look rather incongruent for this world. Varangian attire, Torranian staff, seemingly Kouian weapon, and, should I enter combat, it would become even more congruent, as my fighting style is very Yambalan. Pieces from everywhere. A good portion of the knowledge in my head was put there by Sinbad and Baba. Nearly every people group on this world has influenced me.

Was that your plan, Ugo? I wonder.

To my surprise, Ja'far interrupts my thoughts by stepping up next to me and offering his elbow, though, he keeps his hands hidden in his sleeves. I blink at him owlishly. He continues to smile.

"This is the custom in Varang, yes?"

I nod. It's considered rude in Varang if a man doesn't escort a woman properly. Sometimes, in Reim, nobles will enact this sort of escort. Though, it's not as common for this type of escort to occur in the south. Not unless the man means something by it, and, usually, that type of escort would be done with the hands holding each other. Ja'far's going out of his way for me. I know he isn't making a move. He's making sure I feel comfortable. I've grown used to being escorted in Varang. Leif insisted on doing so whenever he was around, as my status as a guest practically demanded that I be escorted properly. However, before that, it rarely occurred. I was just another wanderer.

Hesitantly, I slip my hand over the area just under the crook of his elbow. Even through the sleeve of his robe, I can feel where the cords of his weapon are wrapped around his forearm. I've never seen him use that weapon, but, I've caught glimpses of it when his sleeve shifted. I suspect that the cords are most likely connected to some sort of blade, as he wouldn't be able to use a household vessel without it being metal.

Ja'far keeps his polite smile as he guides me from the room. I'm again struck by how nice he smells. It's very comforting. Salos makes an amused sound and I mentally shush him. We pass a maid who waits outside. Apparently, she knew we were leaving, though how she did, I don't know. She bows and then scurries into the room to tidy up.

Ja'far guides me down a number of corridors and we chat about my travels, his duties, Sinbad's antics, Varang, and the like. While Ja'far is kind and easy to talk to, I am aware that anything I say that he deems important will most likely get back to Sinbad. It's a shame, really. I haven't spoken to anyone freely since I left Varang. I never knew who might be listening in when I was speaking to Keary while travelling. Spies lurked everywhere. At least, I thought they did.

Maybe I'm becoming paranoid.

We emerge onto a wide balcony. It's obviously part of the restaurant that functions within the hotel, judging by the numerous tables spread out across it. I blink quickly in the light, not having stepped outside yet today. As my eyes adjust, Ja'far leads me over to a table where Sinbad is already sitting with Aladdin and Morgiana. Masrur stands behind his king, ever the loyal guard. Aladdin sees us first. His already big smile widens even more and he bounds from his chair to rush over to me. He moves to skip alongside me as Ja'far draws me toward the remaining chair at the circular table.

"Wow, Miss Mina! You really look different!" the child says cheerfully.

He reaches out with one small hand to touch the fabric of my dress. I'm glad that it's a summer dress. It's made of a light material that allows me to feel the coolness of the sea breeze. It was specially made by the Varangian seamstresses with Sindria's climate in mind. They also managed to make it in such a way that the corseted top lays between my hips and my bust, giving the illusion that they're bigger than they are. The low cut collar lends to that illusion as well. The cloth over my chest holds it in much the way that a bra from my previous world would, and the soft material rather comfortable. I'm a bit flattered that the seamstresses would modify the dress in such a way, but, that also means that just about everyone noticed my lack of feminine figure.

There goes my pride again.

"How so?" I ask Aladdin in response to his previous observation.

To my surprise, it's Sinbad who stands to pull out my chair. I can't tell if he's attempting to get on my good side or just being nice. Aladdin runs back to his seat, almost directly across from me, as I sit down. Then, he grins. Morgiana watches the goings on with a vaguely interested expression. She sits off to my left, just out of arm's reach. I flash her a smile. She nods in return.

"I've only ever seen you wearing travelling clothes. You look pretty in a dress."

I glance down at the green dress with its darker corset. It is a rather nice dress. More expensive than what I usually wear, but, I'm grateful to Keary for having it made for me.

"Thank you."

Ja'far withdraws to stand beside Masrur. Sinbad commands my attention when he returns to his own seat, leaning an elbow on the table and placing his cheek to his fist, smiling at me.

"Aladdin's right. You clean up very nicely."

He eyes my loose hair and I resist the urge to nail him in the gut with the end of the staff. Ja'far and I get along, but, I doubt he'd appreciate me abusing his king. So, I smile, eye twitching.

"Thank you, Sin. I can say the same for you. You look much better when proper clothing instead of a leaf," I tell him sweetly.

Sinbad's smile turns strained. The look in his eyes tells me that he doesn't appreciate the jab. He gives a small chuckle to cover the discomfort caused by my words.

Did he honestly think I would let him live that down? I wonder, unable to keep a smug glint from my eye.

Salos sniggers.

He should have known better.

Indeed.

"So, Mina," the king draws my attention again, "I trust you contacted our client?"

His eyes drop briefly down to where the ring is tucked into my bodice, given away by the thin trail of its chain leading down from my neck and disappearing under my collar. I give a nod.

"I did."

He lets his arm fall to rest on the table, sitting up a bit straighter.

"And how did they receive the news?"

I continue smiling. This is a rather sensitive subject we're discussing in public. If potential enemies are watching, I need to maintain the appearance that this is a normal conversation.

"Gladly. The official announcement will be made today."

He gives a small nod, smiling back, as though we're just talking about a normal trading deal.

"Good. And where does that leave you?"

I can't help it. My expression goes deadpan. Sinbad looks surprised at the sudden change. I speak in a low voice.

"I was directed to, and I quote, 'Stay with him, if permissible, and let us know when he plans to return so that we may arrange a meeting'."

Sinbad's expression lightens. He looks torn between amusement at my reaction and relief at what I've said. A sly look passes through his eyes. My own narrow. I don't like that look.

"Good," suddenly, I find my hand in his once again. He doesn't bring it to his lips, he simply holds it in one, folding the other over it, "And that is very permissible. I am glad to have you by my side."

I tense at the contact, gripping the staff tightly enough with my free hand that my knuckles are surely turning white.

I must not strike the King of Sindria. It would cause an international incident…

I'm sure you could get away with it, Salos tells me, displeasure coloring his voice, He seems to like you well enough.

Sinbad, unaware of my mental conversation, continues to smile.

"Does this mean you'll be assisting us?"

I catch the curious looks on the faces of the children. They must not know about his true identity or his involvement in Balbadd's politics, then. Good. I want to keep them out of this. I glance at Ja'far. He gives me an encouraging smile and a look that says 'go on'.

I sigh. Sometimes, I hate the Rukh.

"Yes. I will."

The king squeezes my hand once before finally releasing it. He seems relieve by this.

"Wonderful!"

I frown lightly. He is definitely happier than my response warrants. Why? He and the two Generals are more than capable of handling this situation, I'm sure. Does my support equate to Varang's support since I am their emissary? Is there something political behind this?

I quite suddenly feel like someone is watching me and look up to find the source. Aladdin meets my gaze. Though his expression remains curious, there's a strange look in his eyes. I can't quite place it. A look of wisdom beyond his years, perhaps? It strikes me again just how much like my King he looks…After a long moment, he smiles childishly again. I slowly return the smile, not sure what just occurred between us.

The food arrives a moment later. I'm not surprised to see that Sinbad has once again spared no expense, ordering one of Balbadd's delicacies. Still, I'm not one to turn down free food. I've gone hungry on my travels before, when I would be stuck in remote places and use the last of my food and money. I found all that all sorts of weird things are edible, especially if you know how to cook them. Or, sometimes, catch them. I tune out of Sinbad's explanation about the fish, focusing instead on the food that's dished onto my plate. I haven't eaten since I had a bit of dried meat and berries for lunch the previous day, the same stuff I survived on for the past six weeks. And for many, many months during my previous travels. To me, this kind of food is like heaven. I haven't had anything like it since leaving Varang. I struggle not to wolf it down, wanting to enjoy it while I have it.

The meal itself is quiet, interrupted only by Aladdin's occasional comments like "Wow! This is really good, huh, Morg?" and Morgiana's quiet "Yes". When I've finished, feeling more sated than I have in a long time, I find myself staring out over the ocean. Despite the pressing matters of my mission for Varang and the turmoil in Balbadd, I feel rather at peace right now. More at peace than I have since leaving Sabnack. Even though I was happy in Varang, I felt like I wasn't doing anything. Training was important, and I value the relationships I built there, but, I felt…stagnant. Now, I'm moving and working again, following Destiny's path.

I glance up as Sinbad introduces his subordinates formally. He seems especially interested in ensuring that Morgiana knows Masrur is a faunalis like her. Interesting. There's that kind heart of his showing through again. Sometimes, I really think he might not be so bad.

Then he screws it up in some way or another. I know I won't have to wait long for him to mess up this one too.

Salos seems amused by this thought.

Your lack of faith in the king never ceases to amuse, my sun.

I shrug slightly, unable to help the physical reaction.

Can't help it. He always does something. Womanizes, gets drunk and acts like an idiot…has all of his Djinn stolen…

Ah, yes. I admit even I am unhappy with that one.

The mental conversation is interrupted when the children suddenly jump up from the table to go off with Masrur. I smile slightly, for such a stoic and seemingly scary guy, they're quite taken with him. Though, I doubt Aladdin would ever be afraid of anyone and Morgiana is a faunalis as well. I wonder if Mu will attempt to recruit her if he gets wind of her. It wouldn't surprise me.

Ja'far takes one of the empty seats and a waiter brings him a cup of what I assume is tea. It's a rather popular drink in this world. There's a moment of silence as the waiter clears away a few of the dishes. Then, the advisor leans forward, fixing his king with a stare.

"So, what will you do now? You don't have any of your vessels. You can't possibly fulfil this ridiculous promise you've made."

I lean back in my chair and cross my legs one over the other. Out of habit, I take the staff from where it was leaning against the table and hold it in my left. I'd been wondering that myself. Ja'far was much more cordial when discussing the matter with me, but, I see now that he's more exasperated than he was letting on. I look over at Sinbad, whose expression is serious, waiting for some kind of wisdom to come pouring out of him. I want to see a bit of that king who had the willpower, determination, and resourcefulness to build a kingdom out of nothing.

I should have known better.

"I'll figure something out."

Ja'far's eye twitches and I think he might actually hit the man. I sigh, listening as Sinbad begins to explain that he owes a debt to Balbadd as a kingdom. I know a bit about his history with Balbadd and then understand where he is coming from. But for him to decide to fix a kingdom's internal issue without his metal vessels based on a debt to a man long dead…

Not that I have much room to talk. My king has long since joined the Rukh and I still follow his will. I sigh again. He has honorable intentions, but this move is so bone-headed that I don't know what I was thinking when I-

Ugo!

I'm so startled by Salos's sudden exclamation that I nearly fall out of my seat. I recover by gripping the staff and using it to steady myself. A mental shout is more surprising than an audible one, it seems, since you don't expect such force from within yourself.

Then, I sense it, what excited him so. It's a presence I haven't felt since before Salos's dungeon. Images flash through my mind, an odd mix of memories. The smiling Djinn in the abandoned library, the magi who stood beside King Solomon, the bespectacled magician who fought alongside the resistance. Different memories flash by at an astounding speed, triggered by the Djinn's presence. Then, one in particular strikes me like a hammer blow.

I stumble from the wreckage, Salos half dragging me. I feel so numb, tears streaming down my face. So many are dead, so many gone forever. Aunts, uncles, cousins… The survivors are fighting. I'm not. I know I'm covered in blood, none of it my own. It belongs to my relatives. It mats in my blue curls and on my antlers. Salos is in much the same state. He squeezes my hand tightly, almost like he's grounding himself. They'd told us to run. Not to bond, just to run. So we had. We hadn't bonded, we just ran. I hear the voices of the human magicians behind us, members of the Church. They're coming. Soon, they'll catch up. We can't run fast enough.

I trip over a loose brick. Salos immediately catches me and helps me regain my balance. He's been so strong. Even after things started exploding and the people started screaming, he only looked a little scared. He didn't hesitate when father told us to run. He didn't start to cry when mother joined with her twin, our uncle, in order to join the fight. He just took my hand and we ran.

"Come on, Mina!"

His small voice trembles and I can feel the repressed fear through our bond. He's trying to be brave for me. He's only a few minutes older, but, for him that's enough. It means he's the big brother. He's in charge. He has to protect me.

Salos, they aren't coming… I'm crying too hard to speak verbally.

His expression wavers. Father said they would follow. Him and auntie. And mother and uncle. But I haven't caught their scents yet. I can only smell death and blood and ruin.

They'll catch up, Mina. Father promised.

I nod and we set off again, looking to outrun our pursuers.

We've only gone a few feet when a blast of magic slams into the ground to my right, barely missing me. I scream as Salos jerks me into his arms to protect me from the resulting debris. As the dust begins to settle, I look over Salos's shoulder. Two human magicians have crested a pile of rubble, holding their staves. They look down on us with an odd mix of disgust and triumph. Disgust at our not being human, triumph at their ability to wipe us out. Just like the others. I clutch Salos tightly and squeeze my eyes shut as one of them raises his staff. I feel my twin's desperation. Even if we bonded, we couldn't fight them. We're just fawns, and even the adults couldn't hold them off. His arms tighten around me and I feel his surety that this is the end for us. I give a sob, clutching him.

Sorry, Mina...

As the blast from the staff is about to hit, a bright yellow light flares up around us. The blast strikes it and dissipates, unable to break through. The magicians' expressions suddenly change to something like fear. After a moment of shock, I twist around in Salos's arms to see the cause of these occurrences.

A girl with dark pink hair stands behind us, her own staff raised slightly. She can't be more than a few years older than us. The third eye on her forehead marks her as a human magician. It's wide open, signaling the use of magic as she defends us. She glares at the other magicians as the yellow light, which I now see is a shield, falls away. Then, she releases her own blast of magic. Our attackers throw up shields as well and quickly scramble back down the rubble, assumedly to regroup with their fellows. There's a moment of silence, then, the girl looks down at us and smiles.

"Are you alright?"

I sense Salos's surprise as an echo of my own. I'm so shocked that my tears have momentarily stopped. Humans have never been kind to us. We have heard of a rebellious group who have stood against the Church, but we have never seen them.

When neither of us answer, she looks troubled. She looks around, seeming at a loss. Then, her features relax and she calls out.

"Ugo!"

A moment later, a tall young man appears at her side, apparently having flown to answer her call. He looks us over with a serious expression, though the eyes behind his glasses are kind. He too appears to be a human magician, the third eye on his forehead standing out in, what to me, seems an ominous manner. He looks at the girl quizzically.

"What is it, Sheba?" he asks kindly.

She gestures to us.

"Can you take them away from here? I don't know where to take them…"

She seems almost sheepish about this. The man blinks in surprise. Then, he nods, smiling just a bit.

"I can take them to safety. You go help Solomon. I'll be back soon, alright?"

Sheba nods, looking relieved. Then, with one last glance at us, she runs in the direction from which we came.

Salos hasn't released me. I feel his suspicion. We don't trust the humans, not after what they've done to us. Even if the girl saved us, we can't be sure of her intent. We both stare at the man, Ugo.

He gives us a kind if not awkward smile and crouches down to our level.

"Hi…are you alright?"

There's a moment of silence. Then, I burst into tears again. I can't help it. I'm sure now that everyone is dead. After another moment, Salos follows, unable to keep up his strong front any longer.

Ugo jolts almost comically, looking at a loss. Then, hesitantly, he reaches out and pats our heads, awkwardly avoiding our antlers.

"Hey…I'm…I'm sorry we didn't get here sooner. But, I'm gonna get you out of here, okay? They won't be able to hurt you. Solomon and the rest of us will protect you."

I suck in a shaky breath, staring up at Ugo through my tears. He seems genuine. And something about that sad but kind smile puts me at ease.

A hand claps down on my shoulder and shakes me from my reverie. I blink quickly and look up to see Ja'far wearing a rather concerned expression.

"Mina…are you alright?"

The words resonate with the memory I've just had. How many hundreds of years ago did that event occur? The massacre of the Dioscuri? I quickly push the despair of the memory away and give a nod in response.

"I'm fine. Just lost in thought."

He watches me for a moment longer. Then, he releases my shoulder and returns his hands to the folds of his sleeves.

"Sinbad has gone to question Aladdin about his Djinn on the walkway below. Will you join us?"

I look around to see that the rest of the party has indeed left. I stand quickly and dust myself off.

"Yes, I will."

Ja'far gives me a smile and again offers his arm. I take it carefully, my mind still reeling from the memory. I can sense that Salos is in a similar state. It appears that, unlike last time, he was caught up in my emotions and whisked into the recollection as well. He recovers more quickly.

It will be good to see him again.

I almost physically nod, but I manage to stop myself.

Yes, it will.

I allow Ja'far to lead me from the terrace and towards the walkway below.

Chapter Text

To say I'm shocked would be an understatement. I am also more than a little upset that Sinbad realized it before I did. Aladdin is a Magi. I knew he was special when I first saw the Rukh gathering around him, but, I never put together that he is a Magi. I chalk it up to not having met another magi like Sinbad has. I've heard of them, but, I haven't actually spoken with a Magi since Alma Torran. And, really, the magi there weren't much like the Magi here. I sigh softly moving around to Ugo's other side. It doesn't matter. Now I know.

That doesn't explain why he puts me so at ease…could it be because he had Ugo with him? Or because he resembles our king?

Salos remains silent, signaling that this is another one of those things I'll have to figure out on my own.

I sigh again, more in exasperation this time, and reach out to lay a hand against Ugo's arm. The Djinn shifts at the touch and turns toward me slightly. Though his head is absent, an unfortunate consequence of an incomplete summoning, I can tell he's looking at me despite Sinbad's patting his other arm. I smile up at him.

"I wanted to apologize," I murmur.

The others don't know of my correction to Alma Torran. It's forbidden, I do remember that much. Sabnack had told Keary too much in her treasure room even by insinuating that I was not of this world. But, I need to apologize. I was rather rude to him before, when I was first returned to Alma Torran. Granted, I didn't remember him at the time.

That makes me feel even worse.

Ugo makes a slight motion with his upper body that might be a nod.

He says that it's alright. He understands completely. Salos tells me.

To my surprise, the huge Djinn reaches over to pat my head then with one large finger, avoiding my antlers despite their glamour. I can't help it as my smile widens. This feels familiar, like home. I'm quite sure that my flashback wasn't the only time Ugo patted my head. It's a kind, safe gesture.

I feel eyes on me and glance over to find Sinbad watching my exchange with the Djinn. There's a strange look in his eyes. Curiosity mixed with a darker suspicion. His excited smile doesn't fade, but, it doesn't reach his eyes either. I stare back, feeling a chill run down my spine. He doesn't miss anything and has probably been watching me since I first approached Ugo. Even with this short interaction, it's not difficult to see that there is a familiarity between us. I never told Sinbad about my history, just that I exited a dungeon with no memory of this world. But, Sinbad is frighteningly intelligent and keen. He's most likely suspected for a while that I'm more than I say I am. And that scares me. If he should ever figure it out…

At that moment, Aladdin asks Sinbad about his identity, distracting him. I shiver and look away quickly. Ugo gives me another reassuring pat.

He says you're doing well. Just keep following the Rukh.

I look up at Ugo, wishing I could see his face.

"…I've remembered so many things. About that place, about you," I keep my voice low, barely above a whisper, "But I don't remember what happened to end it all…Ugo, I feel so lost sometimes. I'm not a true magician. I-"

You're the one who inherited Solomon's will in this manner, Salos cuts me off, speaking for Ugo, One day, you will remember and understand. Until then, have faith. You're stronger than you think. And you have your twin. You'll make it through this.

I can imagine the gentle, almost childish smile on his face as he says this. I look at him for a long moment. Then, I nod.

"Alright…thank you."

Ugo removes his hand from my head, seeming pleased. I'm glad to have seen him again, even for a short while and in this manner. I briefly touch his arm again.

For everything…For making sure I survived that day…and bringing me back from beyond the void…and watching over me…I owe you so much.

The Djinn shifts slightly, seeming to stare at me and I wonder if perhaps Salos relayed that message to him. I pat his arm lightly and then move to rejoin the others.

Sinbad appears to have introduced himself and moved into providing an explanation of Magi themselves. Aladdin listens raptly, staring up at the King. It seems that the boy didn't recognize Sinbad's name or titles. I find this highly amusing, the innocent boy knocking the arrogant womanizer down a few pegs without even meaning to. Though, they both seem to have moved past that. Sinbad returns to Ugo, resting a hand against his arm again. I find myself disliking the ease with which he does this. Ugo's a dear friend, previously one of the most powerful magicians of Alma Torran, Solomon's right hand, and the creator of this world. And Sinbad's pawing at him like he's some sort of zoo attraction. My eye twitches.

"The first thing you hear about Magi is this," Sinbad tells Aladdin, "They can easily materialize a Djinn and continue to do so with a steady output of magoi."

This intrigues me. Djinn are an occurrence of this world only, as they used to be denizens of Alma Torran. It appears that a Magi, who has a stronger connection to Alma Torran, can call them forth with little effort.

I lean against the staff, listening with interest. While Sinbad had told me some things about Magi before, it's different hearing him explain it to Aladdin in this manner. I see that I'm not the only one watching with interest. Ja'far hasn't bothered to hide his curiosity and even Morgiana and Masrur are showing interest through their usually passive expressions. I mentally file away everything Sinbad tells us. He might not be the most scrupulous man, but, I do trust him to give good information. And I doubt even he would lie to a child.

"Wow…Magi really are amazing, huh?" Aladdin asks after the explanation is done, seeming a bit overwhelmed.

I smile fondly. Even if he is a Magi, he's such a sweet child.

Sinbad nods.

"That's right…can I as a favor of the amazing Aladdin?"

I stiffen. I don't like that tone.

"What is it?" Aladdin asks excitedly.

Sinbad gives a sigh, looking down rather pitifully.

"There is a battle going on right now and, because of certain circumstances, I don't have any metal vessels!"

Ja'far gives his king a deadpan look as I fight back a scoff.

"You mean they were stolen," the advisor points out.

Sinbad ignores him, focusing on Aladdin.

"Would you be willing to lend us your power?"

I freeze.

What?

Did he really just ask this of Aladdin? He's a child! How dare he! King or not, this is going too far! I start forward to step between him and Aladdin, but Ja'far beats me to it. He places himself in front of the young Magi, arms spread defensively and gives his King a rather frightening look.

"What nonsense is this?! He's still just a young child! How could you ask him to enter into danger like this?!"

I'm surprised by the outburst. I know that Ja'far has been called a 'mother hen' before, but to see him stand up to Sinbad like this…

"But age doesn't matter, does it?" the King replies easily, "The most important thing is whether he can face the thieves or not. Aladdin is a Magi, he wields power beyond imagination," he gestures to Ugo as though for an example, "Although he is still a child, his capability already surpasses that of a grown adult."

My grip on the staff tightens and my glare sharpens. The look in his eyes…it's exactly why I dislike this man. He's so quick to use others. Even though he's smiling, there's that shrewd look.

"I was fourteen when I first captured a Dungeon. It was said that thousands had died in that Dungeon. Since then, my experiences during my voyages, adventures, and life-threatening fights have become my weapon in those years where survival wasn't guaranteed. What is needed is power," he clenches a fist, "To stay alive when challenging unknown worlds, you need an ability that surpasses everyone else's!" he gestures to Aladdin, "He has that power. You should be able to see it too, right?"

Ja'far looks unhappy, but, he backs down. I grit my teeth, hissing through them. I haven't felt this angry in…I can't remember. I step forward, slamming the end of the staff into the pavement.

"Sinbad!" I don't bother to contain the rage in my voice.

He looks at me. There's no surprise in his expression. He expected my reaction. I feel Salos cautioning me. Though he's rather angry too, he knows how dangerous this is.

"You have my aid, you don't need to involve a child! I have my metal vessel and my magic."

Sinbad smiles.

"Ah, but, Mina. Aladdin is a Magi. With his aid, victory is assured."

I feel my expression darken further.

"Nothing is assured in combat! You of all people know this," I walk towards him, "I don't give a fuck if you were ten when you captured your first dungeon, that boy is not you!"

I come to a stop before him. Though he's much taller, I know I have enough presence to put us on equal footing. Sinbad watches me with those shrewd eyes, internalizing everything I'm saying.

"He's survived well enough so far, Mina," he says cooly, "He's traveled across the desert alone."

"He wasn't going purposefully into combat!" I hiss, "He's not a soldier, he's not a warrior, he's not one of your Generals. He is a child who until about five minutes ago didn't even know what he was!"

The orb at the top of the staff reacts to my emotions, swirling chaotically with golden color. My grip on it is so tight that my knuckles are white. Sinbad gives a sigh. Then, he reaches out to touch my shoulder.

I take a step back, glaring. He is not permitted to touch me. He pauses, hand in midair. Then, he lets it fall. He cocks his head.

"You are not his mother, Thamina."

I feel my eyes widen. That's a low blow. A very low blow. My grip tightens to the point that it's painful. I'm ready to strike him. He's taking advantage of a child. King or not, I'm going to hit him… A gentle hand covers mine.

"Mina."

I look up. Ja'far has approached me silently. His other hand settles against my back. I get the feeling that this is half to calm me and half to keep me from striking his king, as I so badly want to. He squeezes my hand lightly.

"It's alright. Aladdin's a smart child. Let him choose. If he joins us, we'll make sure nothing will happen to him. Have faith in us," he gives a soft smile.

I stare at him, taking this in. I trust him, even if I don't trust Sinbad. Slowly, I allow my grip to relax on the staff. I take a deep breath, calming myself. Then, I look back to Sinbad. There's a moment of silence before he smiles, a genuine smile. He steps closer, spreading his arms in a placating manner. .

"Sorry…but I really do believe we need him. I didn't think you would react so strongly."

My glare sharpens once more. Then, abruptly, I let my face relax and I smile. Sinbad's expression turns just a bit wary.

"Sinbad?"

"Yes, Mina?"

"If you ever make such a low blow again, Ja'far is going to have to restrain me."

He laughs like what I've said is a friendly joke between us. Ja'far's hand on my back presses a little harder, in warning I think. I heed it, allowing myself to visibly relax. Slowly, the swirling color in the top of the staff calms as well, evening out into the lazy shifting that usually occupies it. When he's sure I'm not going to jump his king. Ja'far steps back to a respectable distance, again slipping his hands into his sleeves.

I watch in dissatisfaction as Aladdin and Morgiana decide to accompany Sinbad. I let out a slow breath as Aladdin shakes Sinbad's hand to seal the deal, feeling my scowl beginning to creep back

Fuck that man.

Salos suddenly makes a sound. I realize with surprise that he has been holding in his laughter. I was sure just a moment ago that he shared my anger, and here he is, laughing at me.

I'm sorry, my sun, he tries hard to tamp down on his amusement, But you cursed at arguably the most powerful man in this world. And threatened him until his subordinate had to step in and stop you. You can't deny, that's funny.

I huff, not appreciating his laughter.

Shut up. I don't give a damn how powerful he is. He can't exploit children like that, I reply, watching the man in question.

He puts his hand on Morgiana's shoulders and begins to steer her away, suggesting she remain at the hotel. I scoff. She's the one I'm the least worried about, as a Fanalis. Having crossed blades with Mu, I know how monstrously strong they are.

"I can fight too," she protests.

"Oh, no. Even if you are a fanalis, I can't let a girl to fight. Just leave it to us."

I feel my eye twitch. Can't let girls fight? Then what the hell does he think I am?

He begins to push Morgiana back in the direction of the hotel, but it stopped when she slams her foot into the ground, cracking it and effectively halting their progress. Sinbad looks startled.

"I want to fight," Morgiana tells him, looking over her shoulder with a pouting glare, "No matter how big that band of thieves is, I can get rid of them."

Aladdin nods, smiling happily.

"Morg is very strong! Just the other day, she took out the thieves that was occupying the rock quarry. She even rescued me since I was captured!"

I allow myself to smile. I like this girl more and more. She's loyal, intelligent, and doesn't let men push her around. Sinbad steps back, looking a bit frightened. He comments something to Masrur, but, the fanalis general remains as expressionless as ever. I feel my mood lighten at that. Maybe this won't be so bad. After all, I'll be able to stay close to the children and keep an eye on them now. I would have worried if they were left at the hotel alone.

We prepare to head back up to the hotel. Aladdin allows Ugo to return to his vessel. I watch as the Djinn is sucked away, into the golden flute, an odd sense of melancholy overcoming me. I would have liked to have him physically with us for longer, but, he is a Djinn now, and it's not possible for Djinn to simply stay outside their vessels. I sigh and turn away.

I've just begun to follow Sinbad, who leads our small band, when I feel a small hand touch my arm. I look down to find Aladdin staring back at me with a wide, excited smile. His hand tightens on my forearm, which is left bare by my dress, small fingers digging into my skin. I doubt he means to grip so tightly, but, something has him excited. I cock my head and give him a quizzical look.

"What is it, Aladdin?"

"Miss Mina said I could see her Djinn later!" he bursts out at the question.

I'm so surprised, I barely notice the others turning back to observe us. I hadn't thought he remembered that. But, it seems he's been waiting for me to show him my Djinn all this time.

"Can I call him?" he asks, eyes alight.

I purse my lips for a moment.

Salos?

Let the boy call me. This will be fun.

We're in a city.

He just summoned Ugo and no one seemed to mind. Besides, we're on the canal and it's fairly clear of pedestrians.

I sigh and give a nod, unable to argue with that. Besides, if I don't let Aladdin summon him, it'll hurt the boy's feelings.

"He gives his permission."

Aladdin grins hugely and moves his hand from my arm to the sheath of my sword.

I feel a moment of victorious elation through the bond between my brother and I. Then, a stream of magoi shoots from my sword to the pavement where, until a moment ago, Ugo had been. Salos bursts forth with a strong breeze that carries the scent of thousands of exotic flowers, petals billowing around him as he takes form. I catch glimpses of blue skin and those impressive antlers of his through the mass of petals and smoke that swirl about him. I see the awed expressions of the others in my periphery, well, except Masrur, who's in his default setting. I sigh. I should've known he'd be overly dramatic like this.

"Greetings, oh great Magi," Salos's voice rumbles.

The petals drift away from him, revealing him fully to us. He looks no different than he did the day I conquered his dungeon. All half-naked blueness with that infuriating smirk. He's added flowers to his antlers, though, some sort of weird display of power, I suppose. He remains connected to his metal vessel by a tail of sorts, an almost smoky substance. It's odd, then, when he sweeps into a bow to Aladdin, lowering his antlered head and bending slightly at the waist.

"I am honored to meet you."

Aladdin stares up at him in awe, eyes bright.

"Wow!"

I feel Salos's rush of smug pride at how impressed the young Magi is. He rises from the bow, green eyes glittering above his smirk.

"I am Salos, Djinn of Guilt and Brotherly Love, created by my Lord, Solomon, to do his will."

Aladdin dances forward to observe Salos more closely, looking over the glittering gold that adorns the Djinn and the numerous flowers and vines on his person. Salos leans down to better interact with the boy as Aladdin begins to ask questions.

Showoff, I think at him.

He glances at me, a mere flicker of his eyes, and his smirk widens.

You enjoyed the show, my sun. Don't lie.

I scoff, looking away from him as Sinbad approaches my side. The king has a hand on his chin and looks thoughtful. His eyes glitter in that same excited way they do when he's talking about an adventure. He shoots me a grin. I'm not sure I like the look.

"So, this your Djinn. He's impressive."

I'm still quite cross with him but, I can't help but sigh at the complement.

"Don't let him hear that. His ego's big enough as is."

Salos is amused by the comment, though, he doesn't show it. He continues to speak with Aladdin in a rather impressive fashion that makes me want to roll my eyes. Sinbad chuckles and glances back at me. He looks curious. However, he doesn't say anything, he just looks between Salos and I once more. I realize then what he's doing. Salos and I look eerily similar, especially for a Djinn and master.

Shit.

I desperately hope Sinbad doesn't ask. Though, any lie I could concoct wouldn't be as seemingly outlandish as the truth. Still, how does one explain that to a human? Fortunately, it seems I won't have to. Sinbad does not address the issue. Instead, he nods once and claps me on the shoulder, leaving his hand there.

"I'm glad I got to see him. It's not often that someone gets to see any Djinn besides their own."

I wince at the clap, holding my ground.

"Yes. Though, I myself have not physically seen Salos since I captured his dungeon."

Salos's green eyes flash to me at that statement and he quite suddenly moves to my side. One large hand curls over my hip, pulling me against his chest. I feel my eyes widen as I sense the sudden spike of possessiveness that runs through my brother. His elongated, claw like nails splay over my stomach and waist, caging me in. His smile is not quite as impressive, appearing more deadly than anything. He has effectively pulled me from Sinbad's grasp. He presses his cheek against my head, staring at the king with cold eyes. Aladdin looks after the Djinn, surprised.

"King Sinbad," Salos says, his other hand forming a barrier between myself the king, "I ask that you don't so casually touch my sun. Especially not after you have upset her," he pulls me even closer, almost crushing me against him, "She is my master to whom I lend my power."

Sinbad obligingly steps back. His expression hasn't lost that interested look, though, it is a bit wary. He inclines his head.

"My apologies, Salos, I did not realize you would take offense," he says smoothly.

Salos smirks smugly at the apology.

"As long as you understand that my claim supersedes any others."

I feel my expression go deadpan. His protectiveness is getting annoying. I push lightly at his chest, but find myself unable to budge. I huff. Even if he does smell like flowers, I don't appreciate being squished against him. I enjoy getting to physically touch and see him again, but, these circumstances are not the best.

"Salos, return," I command.

I feel his rush of amusement.

"Of course," he purrs.

He looks at Aladdin.

"You have my gratitude for summoning me, Magi. I am sorry that I could not be of more help to you. Follow the Rukh and remain in Solomon's will. All will be revealed in time."

Aladdin nods, though, he doesn't appear as happy as before. I can relate. I don't know how many times my brother has told me the same thing.

Salos squeezes me one last time before returning to his vessel in a rush. Aladdin stares at the sword thoughtfully. Then, he smiles up at me.

"Thanks, Miss Mina."

I nod, attempting to return my hair to order after being forcibly cuddled.

"Of course."

Sinbad calls my attention to himself again. He doesn't touch me, though. It seems he's taking Salos's warning to heart.

"Well, then, shall we return to make plans?"

I follow the king as Aladdin launches into a series of questions concerning my Djinn. Morgiana walks beside him, her expression vaguely interested, which, given her usual lack of expression, I take to mean that she really is impressed by the Djinn. Ja'far, who seems to have taken it upon himself to guard me as an official representative from Varang, walks on my other side, maintaining a respectable distance between us. Something occurs to me then.

You didn't snap at Ja'far and he's touched me a few times…

Salos sniffs.

He doesn't remind me of Focalor.

My lips twitch.

True.


 

I really don't like the cold. I put up with it well in Varang because of the warm furs I was provided with. But, it was also always rather chilly there, even in the daytime. In Balbadd, it's warm during the day and then becomes cold at night when the sun is no longer there to combat the sea breeze. I stand with Ja'far and the children, having traded my Varangian summer dress for the salwar kameez given to me in Varang to replace the one damaged in the dungeon. The tunic is of a sturdy brown material that I suspect is treated hide. The pants are the same billowy white material I wore previously. It was made with combat in mind, but, it was also made with the famously warm climate of the southern regions in mind. Due to this, it does little against the foggy chill of the night. I sigh, leaning against the staff and wishing I could do even a little heat magic. Ja'far, who stands between Morgiana and Aladdin, has been wearing the same robes this entire time and I haven't seen him show even the slightest bit of discomfort. He's either extremely disciplined or he really isn't affected by the changes in temperature.

I shiver as I listen to Ja'far explaining to the children why our presence is necessary at this specific location. The Fog Troupe's possible targets were narrowed down to two locations. Sinbad and Masrur guard one, we guard the other. While it was originally suggested that I go with the other two, I had flat out refused. If the children were being brought into this, I would remain with them. Besides, I'm sure that, even without his vessels, the King of Sindria is more than capable of handling himself. Not to mention, I'm still cross with him for getting the children involved. Ja'far had actually invited me along in order to keep the peace. I smirk slightly. If Sinbad wants to play hero, he can do it like a man.

I glance up to find the Rukh fluttering at the end of the alley. I frown lightly. They've been hanging around my companions and I recently, not offering to lead me anywhere. I cock my head curiously. Then, I glance at Ja'far.

"I'm going on a walk. I won't be long."

He nods, eyes meeting mine.

"Be careful."

I offer a smile.

"Of course."

I follow the Rukh. They lead me around a corner and down a side street not far from the house we're guarding. Then, they stop. I frown again. This is odd. They seemed to have a purpose but they've just led me a little ways from the others. I look up at them, waiting for them to do something. Nothing happens. I sigh. They've led me away from my charges and for apparently no reason. I stand there for a moment longer. Then, I turn to go back, not sure what they want me to do.

It's it that moment that I sense it. My head snaps up, my eyes widening.

This feeling…

The darkness of it. I'm sure I've never felt it on this world before. No, not this world.

Alma Torran.

My heart clenches painfully as a flickering series of flashbacks strike me. A battle, dark Djinn, black Rukh, traitors. I clutch my head. Traitors…The face of one man in particular stands out to me. One of the original household members. He joined….in order to…I grip my head tighter. So many blank spaces in my memory. I don't know exactly who he is, but, I remember the black Rukh around him. A traitor. Here.

I look up. This sense…it feels like him. A traitor to my King Solomon is close. I feel my eyes narrow. Salos has remained quiet, letting me work through this before speaking.

Al Tharmen has been very active…you've sensed it. You just didn't know it was them.

I grit my teeth. That name clarifies things. Al Tharmen was the group of those who defected from Solomon's rule. So many things make sense now. The chaos as destiny is diverted, the black Rukh I've seen previously, and the sense of evil that has occasionally struck me in the past.

Al Tharmen. They're here.

I am about to go search for them, to eliminate the threat before they can harm myself or my companions, when the fog strikes. It isn't like the fog that has been chilling me. It's a sickly pink and it smells too good. Almost like Salos's toxic flowers. I panic as I feel the first hints of euphoria. This is toxin. I smell it before it actually reaches me, and that's what saves me.

I move quickly, needing to get above it. I climb quickly up the side of a nearby building, using cracks in the stone and the ledges of the windows as hand holds. My small stature makes this easy for me. There's one thing it's good for. I'm almost to the top when a hand enters my vision. I look up to see Ja'far giving me a tight smile.

"Here. I'm glad you moved so quickly."

I take his hand and he pulls me up onto the roof with surprising ease.

"The children?" I ask quickly.

If we're not with them and this is an attack…my heart constricts painfully. He looks back towards the house we're guarding.

"Morgiana went to receive some news on the situation at the other house. I'm afraid Aladdin strayed from my side and was caught in the fog."

I glance down as the pink mist begins to crawl between the buildings. I give a short nod. Now is the time to act. The fog doesn't smell toxic, more like a hallucinogen. Aladdin is not in mortal danger at the moment.

"I see. We had best return. I suspect the Fog Troupe isn't far behind."

He gives a single nod. Together, we return to the merchant's house, keeping to the roof so as to avoid the fog. As soon as we reach it, I can pick out where the attack is originating from. I move to the edge of the roof, straining my eyes in an attempt to pick out a head count. Morgiana joins us a moment later and I hear Ja'far explaining our situation to her.

Damn…it's too far…

I turn back, tuning in to Ja'far's explanation as I locate Aladdin below. He is unharmed, much to my relief.

"This is not humanly possible," the Sindrian handler tells our young Fanalis friend, "It was likely done by using one of the 'mysterious powers' the Fog Troup possesses."

My eyes narrow.

Mysterious powers?

Salos hums in agreement as he picks up on my train of thought.

Directly after you sensed Al Tharman's presence. With so much turmoil, it must be them…

I'm suddenly transported back to Salos's dungeon. I clearly remember the treasure room, my brother looming over me as a Djinn.

Salos scoffed.

"We've already established that you won't be alone. I'll be with you. Don't worry. Even if they decided to make a move against you, we won't have to worry."

I wasn't sure who 'they' was, so, I assumed it was the humans.

I feel a cold chill. He had known.

Al Tharmen. You knew they were here this whole time…even before we left the dungeon…

I feel Salos's sigh of something like sorrow.

Yes, my sun, I did…I am sorry, but, you needed to remember them on your own so as to fully comprehend their threat…if I thought I could have told you sooner, I would have…you know I would have.

I press my lips together. I do know he would have. And he's right. If he had just told me, I would have simply lived in paranoia of a group of traitors I knew nothing about. But, having remembered them…I am prepared. Not just prepared, eager to deal with them. After three and a half years on this world, events have been set into motion. My destiny is taking off. I remembered Al Tharmen as soon as I sensed the traitor. This must be part of Solomon's plan.

In your name, my King…I will follow the Rukh and bring those who oppose your destiny to their knees…

I am pulled from my thoughts when the wall is breached. I can now see the bandits. A large group of them has gathered to attack the merchant's house. My hand tightens around the staff. I can't allow myself to be distracted. I will deal with the traitor later. For now, I have a duty to help the King of Sindria and his retainers as they combat these thieves.

Ja'far makes the first move. I've never seen him in action until now. He moves like lightning, daggers flying from his sleeves, controlled by the red cord wound around his arms. His sleeves fall back and I briefly catch a glimpse of those cords, which I had felt earlier when he was escorting me. He uses his weapon with what could very well be a deadly accuracy if he wasn't aiming to capture rather than kill. He's impressive to say the least. And I'm very glad he's my ally. Morgiana springs into action as well, jumping down among the thieves. The soldiers that accompanied us are useless, too affected by the fog to put up a fight. I move down to place myself between them and Aladdin, lithely scaling down the side of the building. The pink fog has dissipated since its work is done, taking its threat with it.

As soon as I touch the ground, I begin to move. Three have immediately turned their attention to me. I let instinct take over, remembering my training with Sensei, Master, and the Varangians. My sword remains sheathed as I twirl the staff. I catch the first man with the orb at the top, driving it into his head. He drops like a rock. Apparently, I was underestimated, being as small as I am. And a woman on top of that. Sexist bastards.

The oncoming two are becoming wary, but, it's too late. After spending a month training with Varangian warriors, these thieves don't stand a chance. A few movements of my staff later, they too are unconscious. I can't help the self-satisfied smirk on my lips as I move towards the main fight, where the leaders appear to be.

I'm very surprised when I see Morgiana being dragged down by what appears to be black fog. Ja'far has already been captured, driven to his knees by the weight of the substance. I grit my teeth, victorious feeling gone.

Damn…

The thieves are coming and both of my fighting comrades are unable to continue at the moment. I focus in on the ones who appear to be leading the group. If I bring them down, I suspect the underlings will lose their morale. I raise the staff, aiming at the man who appears to be controlling the black fog.

"Ahtraq Shmas!"

The beam of light misses as the man sees it coming and narrowly dodges.

"Another one?" he asks in exasperation.

He seems to want to attack me as well, but, he's too focused on Morgiana, her Fanalis strength the biggest threat at the moment. I take advantage of his inability to use his power, closing in. As he has a blade, I take the precaution of drawing my own, just in case he's skilled enough that the staff won't be enough.

I'm still a few yards away when I hear Aladdin's voice over the din, followed by the sound of a single note being blown on a flute. Then, the ground shudders. I pull up short and look over. Aladdin has summoned Ugo. The fog troup is thrown into disarray at the sight of the Djinn. I hear cries that Ugo is a monster sent to destroy them. I smirk slightly. If only they'd seen him back on Alma Torran, when he was second only to Solomon in magical power.

My pride in Aladdin is cut short, however, when one of the thieves steps forward and takes off the covering that had previously hidden his identity. I catch a flash of blonde hair from where I am, not too far away. He looks up at Aladdin. Then, he raises a hand.

"Aladdin. It's been a long time. Can you put Ugo away? You're scaring my comrades."

Ja'far immediately calls out to the boy.

"No! Don't listen to the thief!"

I'm shocked when the young Magi does as the blonde boy asks. Ugo disappears into the flute. My eyes widen.

Who is this?! Aladdin was set on helping us earlier, but one word from this man and he changes his mind…

Salos is just as confused and put off as I am. I can almost feel his frown.

Aladdin scampers up to stand before the young man, his eyes wide and eager.

"Erm, actually, I came here looking for you, Alibaba! I have so many things I want to tell you! Do you still remember that time? We made a promise!"

I remember the previous day, when Aladdin looked up at me with those huge eyes of his, grinning widely.

"I'm looking for my friend, Alibaba! We made a promise to see the world together after we came out of Amon's dungeon. But, then we got separated…" he paused, before brightening again, "But I know I'll find him soon!"

I frown lightly. So, this is the friend. I don't like the look he's giving Aladdin. That blank stare.

"Aladdin…sorry."

His hand moves and I do as well, sure he's about to harm the boy. However, all he does is touch his shoulder as he and the man with the black fog move past him.

"I can't keep that promise."

The look of hurt and shock on Aladdin's face causes me to grit my teeth tightly. I move quickly, gripping the staff. My mission is to capture the thieves. The fact that one of them has betrayed Aladdin's trust only fuels me. How dare he hurt a child like that?

I'm barely aware of the military reinforcements arriving at that moment. I'm nearly there, just a foot from Aladdin, when I hear it.

"Spirit of Decorum and Austerity."

My blood runs cold. That's right. Alibaba's a dungeon capturer, like me. I can feel the sudden spark in the air, that telltale sign that a Djinn is being called upon. I pull up short, ramming my sword into its sheath. Amon used fire magic back on Alma Torran. Whatever this boy is about to unleash, my meager attack that I'd been preparing for won't do a thing against it. I grab Aladdin, yanking him back, away from Alibaba.

"I order you and your household, come forth, Amon!"

The effect is instantaneous. Fire roars from the blade clutched in Alibaba's hand, flaring into the night sky. Even as I move back, pulling Aladdin with me, I can feel the heat. And that distinct sense that I always got when Amon used his magic.

It really is Amon…shit.

The boy is not extraordinarily controlled, but, he has a powerful Djinn at his command. Even with my incomplete memory, I can recall the old man putting both Salos and I on our asses during our time as his students. The soldiers don't stand a chance as a torrent of flame is unleashed on them.

By the time the flames clear enough for me to see, the Fog Troup is gone. I stand, still clutching Aladdin's hand. I was woefully unprepared for that attack. We all were. I sigh. We didn't exactly fail. But, we didn't win either. I slowly release Aladdin's hand.

That was Amon...And that boy has obtained his power.

When Aladdin had been describing his wonderful friend, I had expected him to be a bit…more. I sigh. He pisses me off, the way he would throw the young Magi aside, even going so far as to use his flame magic when Aladdin could be harmed. I glance down to see that the boy's face is still downcast in sorrow at the betrayal.

Alibaba had better hope I don't find him anytime soon. I will kick his sorry ass for hurting this child like this. Even if he uses Amon, we'll counter it, and he'll see what the power of a true dungeon capturer is like, not just the barely controlled tricks he uses.

Salos chuckles, though it's not completely in humor.

And the traitor from Al Tharmen?

I tense.

I'll rip his fucking head off as soon as I get my hands on him.

There are currently two people on my shit list and, as pissed as I am, they had best be praying that I don't find them anytime soon.

Chapter Text

I report to Lord Harald the following morning, using the contact crystal given to me by Keary. As I sit at the low table in my room, blue curls touching the ground behind me, I hold the circular gem in one hand before my face. It glows, flickering in time with the words of those speaking from the other side. I've already told them about Sinbad's decision to fight the Fog Troup and Aladdin's being a Magi as well as the events of the previous night. I've left out Salos's summoning and my own remembrance of the past. I really do like Lord Harald. In fact, he's the closest thing I've had to a father since I left the Yambala. Master, though he was strict and a bit odd, had been very fatherly to me. Not as much so as Lord Harald, but, close. Lord Harald reminds me of my adoptive father from my previous world. I feel at ease with him, able to tell him almost everything. Everything but those things pertaining to Alma Torran. Which means I can't tell him about the traitor either. That's a bit disappointing, I would like to seek council from someone who isn't just as bloodthirsty as I am. Salos is clamoring for blood. He's confident that, if I used his power and did a full equip, we could overpower the traitor. And, though a small, logical part of me worries, the larger part is fed by his bloodlust.

"I see…King Sinbad is an interesting man," Lord Harald pulls me from my thoughts, "And this band of thieves has a dungeon capturer, you say?"

I almost nod before remembering he can't see it.

"Yes. He used Amon, a fire Djinn. It was quite the display, but, he's untrained. Based on what Aladdin told me, I'd say he captured his dungeon around the time if not a bit before Keary and I entered Sabnack and he is not nearly so controlled as she is."

Lord Harald hums thoughtfully.

"It's a shame he seemed so eager to cut ties with the boy, especially if the two captured a dungeon together. How is Aladdin handling it?"

I sigh.

"He hasn't left his room yet today. I tried to speak with him but he assured me he was fine and told me not to worry. He tries to act far too mature for a child his age."

"So it seems…my advice is to give him some space. This must be difficult for him and he needs some time to recover. That young fanalis is with him, you said?"

"Yes."

"Good. She knows him more than you do, and she too was friends with the young thief. I'm sure they'll use each other for support and come through this."

I nod despite myself. It's interesting how we started out talking about state affairs and ended up discussing this wayward friendship. Still, I'm glad for Lord Harald's council.

"Oh, yes, Lord Harald, I meant to ask: how did the announcement of Varang's decision go?"

Lord Harald chuckles. I can imagine the smile on his face.

"The people have responded well. By the week's end, the news will be spread even to the far reaches of the kingdom. Our friends from the Kou Empire have not yet made a response, but, I would imagine they're stewing about it at this point. Particularly Prince Kouen. He was the one who pushed the hardest for the alliance, though the most likely suitor was his younger brother, Koumei."

This surprises me. I thought for sure they would rather put forth Hakuryuu, who was not so near the throne. It seems they wanted Varang's military might more than I first thought. I confess I don't know much about Prince Koumei aside from his being a brilliant tactician. Interesting.

"I'm glad it's gone so well. I hope that Kou will not pressure you in response…"

"Not with Sindria and the Alliance backing us. Not even Kou is so bold…at least, not as of yet."

I feel my expression go solemn. It's only a matter of time before the Empire challenges the Seven Seas Alliance. They've been gobbling up smaller kingdoms for a while now, expanding their already monstrous territory. Balbadd will most likely be next. Then, it's a question of which force Kou will go to all-out war with: Reim, or the Alliance. Personally, I'm betting on the Alliance.

"You're prepared for their offensive move if it comes soon?"

"Don't doubt us, Thamina. We are a proud race of warriors. We are always ready to defend our homeland, to the last man."

I can imagine the proud glint in his eyes. The same glint that was in Keary's eyes when she said something similar in Sabnack.

"My people are bred for battle. We survive hard winters and wrest our sustenance from the land in the warm months. Our men are fighters by nature and our women would lay down their lives before they let themselves be taken by an enemy. Our ancestors carved out this kingdom with their own hands. It's built on Varangian sweat and blood. We will defend it and our fellow Varangians to our last breaths."

"I know. I've never doubted your people, Lord Harald."

I can't help but feel a similar rush of pride. These are the people who have accepted me and asked that I speak for them. I picture Lief, the imposing but good humored Captain of the Royal guard. He's strong enough to break a smaller man with little difficulty, but, is slow to anger and would much rather have a drink with said man than fight him. Though, I know from experience how capable he is of the latter. I think of the battalion of Kou soldiers I met while traveling in the Empire. Lief alone could crush many before they finally dragged him down. It's difficult to say how long he would last with the guard at his side. Kou would have the advantage of sheer numbers but, in a war against men like those, it would be necessary for them to use their dungeon capturers as well.

I'm reminded of the commander of the battalion I came across. He was an attractive man, almost fanalis in appearance with his red hair and eyes that were nearly pink in their irises. He also bore himself with a regality that had made me instantly respect him. I had stumbled upon the group after they made camp. It wasn't rare for trade caravans to stop near troop encampments. After all, what bandits in their right minds would attack when there were soldiers nearby? I had gone wandering, following the Rukh, when I found him. He was sitting under a torch, a bit away from his men, pouring over a scroll. Three others had laid next to him. He had sensed my approach almost immediately and hailed me, a bit warily at first. The commander, he had never given me his name, had been wearing a white shirt that reminded me a bit of a gi and black pants with a sword belted at his waist. The only reason I knew he was a commander, aside from his regal air, was because he had told me so. I had apparently wandered into the outskirts of their camp between patrols, something that seemed to amuse him. He hadn't been angry, or attempted to get me to leave. He had just…talked. He was curious about my travels, and who I was. He was one of the few who recognized the mark on my forehead as a third eye. He was blunt and direct, but not unkind. I very much enjoyed our talk. When we had separated, he wished me well and hoped that we would meet again. I suspect he was a noble of some rank, though, I can't be sure as he wasn't wearing any sort of marker to indicate this. That man, I think, would give even Lief some trouble. He was intelligent and I have no doubt he was a very capable fighter.

"I am glad," Lord Harald's voice pulls me from my memories, "But, remember, Thamina, we are your people as well. You brought our princess back to us and have acted as an emissary on our behalf. It is because of your actions that we were able to join the alliance before the Empire made their move. You are always welcome in Varang."

I'm struck again by his kindness. I'm also reminded of Sinbad's similar words.

"You will always have a place in Sindria, Mina."

I know, though, that I will choose Varang before I ever choose Sindria. I smile. Lord Harald is much more trustworthy than Sinbad, Keary is the best friend I've ever had aside from Salos, Lief made sure I had the training I needed, and Lady Anselma was always so very kind.

"Thank you, Lord Harald. That means more than I can say…"

"There is no need to thank me, Thamina," he pauses, "Ah, yes, before I forget: Keary has asked me to inform you that she will be departing for Sindria on the morrow. We received word from Sindria's magician, Yamuriha that they are prepared to welcome her at any time."

I'm surprised. Sinbad works fast. The announcement of Varang's joining the alliance was just made yesterday. This confirms my suspicions that we aren't the only ones who have a magical communication network in place. I'm glad. Sindria is much closer than Varang should something happen and backup be necessary. Though, I doubt it will, even if Sinbad doesn't have his metal vessels.

"Good. I suspect I'll see her sooner than later," I reply, unable to keep from smiling just a bit, "Who travels with her?"

"Lief and one of his men, Lukas. We thought it best for there to be only a small party as they will be travelling over land in much the same way you did."

I nod. I met Lukas during my training with the Varangian Royal Guard. He's a mature, level headed Varangian warrior who is only a bit younger than Lief and myself, closer to Keary's age. With his seriousness and Lief's easygoing nature, they're the perfect pair to accompany the hot-headed princess. Not to mention, they're both exceptional fighters.

"Good. It will be wonderful to see them as well."

Any further conversation is interrupted by a knock at the door of my hotel room. I glance back, a bit surprised. I wasn't expecting any visitors.

"One moment, please!" I look back to the gently glowing stone in my hand, "Lord Harald, I must take my leave. Thank you for speaking with me."

"Of course. I bid you farewell. Until we speak again."

I cut the flow of magoi and slip the stone into my meager bodice. It's a wonder I actually manage to hide it in there. I quickly answer the door, pushing away thoughts of self-deprecation. I'm expecting Sinbad or Ja'far, or even Aladdin. However, it's Morgiana's serious face that greets me. I know my surprise shows, but, I quickly hide it. She seems troubled. Usually, she doesn't leave Aladdin's side, seeming to have taken it upon herself to protect the boy. For her to seek me out is surprising. I would have expected her to go to Masrur if she was troubled.

"Morgiana…" I pause, unsure of how to continue. I love children dearly, and, despite my brother's mockery, would love to mother every child I come across. But, Morgiana is not truly a child. She has been forced to grow up quickly, and I am not quite sure how to proceed, "Is everything alright?"

She gives a small shake of her head, red eyes meeting mine.

"I am worried about Aladdin, Miss Mina."

I feel a brief flash of amusement at how Aladdin's name for me seems to have spread in usage. But it's quickly drowned out by the seriousness of her words. I can guess that Aladdin is still reeling from the emotional betrayal of his friend. He's a young boy, Magi or not. He won't know what to do in the face of this. I can only imagine how it would feel if Keary suddenly told me that she had moved on and didn't need me anymore. She was my first true friend in this world. And I'm an adult. For such a trusting little boy, the pain must be terribly amplified.

I step back from the door so that she can come inside.

"Come in. Have a seat and we'll talk," I give her a small smile.

She nods, walking past me. She moves to the table and stands awkwardly for a moment before finally sitting on one of the cushions that surround it. I suppose she isn't used to being treated like an equal, even now, after being a slave for so long. I sit across from her, back in my original position. The staff lays beside me on the floor, the golden, swirling color in the top moving at a snail's pace without my touch. My sword lays beside it. I can sense Salos, as always. Though our bond does not weaken when I am not in physical contact with the sword there is an unspoken agreement between us that, until the sword is in my hands or at my hip, we are not usually communicating actively. Even Dioscuri need moments of quiet during which we simply act on our own, leaving the bond open as usual but not engaging it. While I was talking with Lord Harald, I know Salos was listening carefully, but, he did not comment, letting me handle the conversation. He's been moping about Valefor's absence. In the past, my twin was ecstatic to speak with his old friend when Sinbad was near. I can remember the two of them getting into a good deal of mischief together back on Alma Torran. With Sinbad's metal vessels gone, Salos cannot sense or communicate with the other djinn, leaving him rather lonely. I suspect he's been chatting with Ugo when Aladdin's near enough to do so, but, he has not mentioned those conversations to me.

Now, I stretch out to brush my mind against his, letting him know that, even though I am not in physical contact with his vessel, I wish to actively speak with him. Based on the depressed look Morgiana has, I suspect I'll need him, as an outside source, to help me navigate this conversation.

Morgiana sits silently, gazing around my room, which I suspect is similar to the one she and Aladdin share. I put on my best maternal smile, resting my folded hands on the table.

"Now, you said you're worried about Aladdin?"

Her eyes snap back to me and she nods, immediately falling into what I dub 'serious conversation mode'.

"He has been standing at the window since he woke up, watching the sky," she says without preamble, "What Alibaba said to him last night hurt him," she frowns then, looking down towards the table, "That wasn't like Alibaba. He would never purposefully hurt Aladdin. When we were in Amon's dungeon, he was very kind. He took care of Aladdin. And he freed me," she looks back up, almost desperately, as though I'm holding the answers, "And the other slaves in Utan. When he left, he said he was going to find Aladdin. But, last night…"

I feel my own expression go dark as I replay the way the little boy's face fell as his former friend spoke to him. I don't doubt Morgiana and Aladdin both still consider Alibaba a friend, but, I'm rather cross with the boy. That might be an understatement. I would have no issue with teaching him a bit about the cost of betrayal as according to the Dioscuri.

Salos sends a calming wave over me and I take a deep breath.

Focus.

"Morgiana," I begin softly, keeping my darker emotions under wraps, "I do not know Alibaba as the two of you do. If you had not spoken of him to me, I would not know that he is acting out of character."

She watches me raptly, taking in every word. I'm surprised again. I didn't think she would take me so seriously. I continue.

"Now, since this is out of character for him, I must assume that something has happened. When I met you and Aladdin on the road, you both spoke highly of him. I do not know the circumstances behind either of these interactions with him, I am an outsider. But, if it were my friend, Keary, who behaved in such a manner, I would speak with her."

Of course, knowing Keary and I, we'd probably do more than talk. We're both fighters and we both can have a…volatile temper from time to time. Though, I do a much better job of controlling mine.

Morgiana cocks her head slightly before nodding slowly. Her red eyes are thoughtful.

"That makes sense…but, I will have to find him…"

I am, yet again, surprised. She works fast. All I had to do was make the suggestion and she has a plan. Or, at least, the beginnings of a plan. However, I don't want her just charging in to retrieve her friend, as she seems to be intending to do. The Fog Troupe revealed themselves to be formidable last night. The one with the black fog managed to drag both her and Ja'far down. If circumstances had turned out differently, I'm sure he would have gotten me as well at some point. I don't want to insult her pride, so, I attempt to voice my worries in a delicate way.

"Yes…and you would have to deal with the Fog Troupe. He is one of their leaders, yes?"

Her eyes go frighteningly dark at that. Maybe I wasn't delicate enough?

"Don't worry, Miss Mina. Thieves are no match for me."

I feel my eyes widen slightly. Salos chuckles.

Delicacy has nothing to do with it, my dear sister. She's as fired up as we'll see her.

I nod slowly, in reply to both of them.

"Be as that may, I would suggest exercising caution. If you intend to retrieve him, be stealthy in your actions so that you aren't forced to fight them."

Her expression lightens and she gives a single nod. I almost sigh. I doubt I'll ever be able to accurately read her or Masrur. At least Muu's blunt in both words and expression. Painfully so, but, still.

"I understand."

I look at her for a moment longer. She meets my eyes, her own full of a quiet determination. She's set. I suspect that Aladdin's depression isn't the only reason she's going after Alibaba. She wants answers for herself as well. And I just presented an easy way to get them. A somewhat wry smile pulls at my lips. For anyone else, taking a thief out of his hideout undetected would be nearly impossible. But, for a fanalis, the task will be quite simple. Still, that maternal instinct within me is crying out against letting her go alone.

"Would you like me to accompany you?"

Morgiana shook her head. I figured. She seems to be fairly independent.

"No," she paused, "But thank you."

I wave a hand dismissively, trying to play it off as no big deal. Really, though, I know this is going to worry me.

"Of course.

Morgiana looks as though she might get up and leave then. But, she pauses and looks at me again, another question in her eyes. I watch her for a moment, waiting for her to speak. She doesn't, hesitating.

"What is it, Morgiana?" I prompt gently.

She fowns lightly, thinking over her words.

"…Miss Mina…" she trails off and then shakes her head, "No. It's nothing."

I frown in concern. It wasn't nothing. But, after being a slave for so long, it must be hard for her to share things with others. I nod once, slowly.

"Alright…but, know that you can come to me at any time, with anything. I'm always willing to listen."

She nods and stands, smiling slightly.

"Thank you, Miss Mina," she bows as I stand as well.

I smile in return.

"You're welcome. And good luck."

I walk with her to the door and open it for her. As she leaves, I can only hope she doesn't plan to get into too much trouble. I suppose that, if worst comes to worst, at least I'll know where she is. She crosses to the room she shares with Aladdin and disappears inside. I sight, retreating into my own quarters.

This trip to Balbadd has been much more emotionally stressful than I anticipated it would be


 

I wake up from my nap feeling refreshed. As Sinbad was off handling whatever the King of Sindria did, Aladdin was in a funk, and Morgiana had taken off to find their friend, I had decided the best way to spend my day was in my room. I had meditated with Salos, regaining a few minor memories of our time on Alma Torran. Usually, during our communing, he guides me towards a memory through verbal hints or a flash of imagery. Though he won't straight-up tell me anything, he does a well in helping me remember what he can. After meditating, I had taken a very long soak in the tub. The soaps provided by the hotel are amazing and, in this world, a true luxury. Soap is expensive and not used by commoners. Hence why just about everyone smells terrible. Most people will wash off with water and oils, but, as for actual hygiene product usage, that's reserved for the upper class. My favorite soap is one I discovered during my stay in Sindria. It's made from a mixture of tallow and herbs, mostly oils derived of the cherry blossoms found in the Kou Empire. It's one of the better smelling soaps, and even has the pink cherry blossom petals pressed into it. I've also found that I enjoy the lilac soap, made in a similar manner, that was supplied at Varang's palace. I suppose my taste for the more floral smells is an effect of my bond with Salos. My brother is rather envious of my corporeal body at these points. Apparently, he hasn't bathed in centuries. Though, how he remained smelling as nice as he does when he manifests, I don't know.

After bathing, I laid down for a bit, feeling a nap was in order before dinner. By the time I wake up, however, it's dark outside and I know I've missed dinner. Sinbad had mentioned that we all might eat together again, but, as no one fetched me, I suppose he became busy. I take some fruit from the bowl provided and munch on that as I search for proper clothes.

It's at this point that I discover yet another thing that Sinbad has done for me. Near the door, I find a large rectangular chest. It's made of wood and embossed with gold and obviously quite expensive in and of itself. A folded bit of parchment rests on top. Curious, I pick it up and read it.

Mina,

My King bade me purchase these for you as he was made aware that you were in possession of only one garment aside from your traveling clothes. I hope that they are to your liking. If not, please inform me as soon as possible so that they might be replaced.

Your humble servant,

Ja'far

My lips quirk. He's always so official. I can remember a few notes I received from him on Sindria and they were all similar. When we speak in person, he's perfectly friendly and polite. On paper, it's like he tries to sound proper on purpose. I doubt it is. I very much suspect it's habit on his part. Still, I'm curious about what's in the chest.

I open the latch quickly, unable to keep from feeling a bit excited. I very rarely get gifts like this, and the idea of Christmas isn't in place in this world. Which was actually really disappointing for the first year. I spent almost a week in a state of depression at the realization of everything that would no longer occur. No presents, no decorations, no Christmas dinner, no getting my adoptive grandpa drunk to sing weird renditions of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer". Salos eventually snapped me out of it. I will never repeat what he said to me. There's a reason people worry about incest with the Dioscuri, and he's proven it time and time again.

I have gotten gifts for my birthday before. Usually in the form of some kind of little trinket from Sinbad and a scroll from Ja'far. I don't know why I informed Sindria's King of when my birthday is, or how he manages to remember it, but, he does. For the past two years, when I dropped by my house in Reim, there were birthday presents waiting for me.

I pause. Speaking of Sinbad knowing things, how did he know I only had one dress? I begin to frown. That's actually more than a little creepy.

Feeling a bit wary now, I flip open the lid.

Inside are at least six well-made dresses. I can't help but stare. They're all beautiful, ranging from pale green to a soft sunset pink with one darker color, all able to be worn well with my blue hair. It's unbelievably hard to match wardrobe colors when my own hair is so odd. All the dresses are made of fine, comfortable materials. Though, they also seem very durable. I know as soon as I pull the first one, a darker blue, out that Ja'far was the one to select them. No one else has such an eye for detail. Eager to see how they fit, I drop my robe and slip it on. As with my other dress, it's made to be put on by the wearer, without the assistance of another. It buttons in the side, leaving the buttons themselves hidden. A gold cord cinches the waist, the color matching that of the accents of the dress itself. The style of the top causes it to dip low and the tied cord makes my hips seem just a little wider, giving the illusion that I do actually have feminine assets. My arms are left bare, perfect for the southern weather. I know based on the color alone that this cost a rather large sum. To dye this type of material such a fine shade of blue, and then to accent it with gold, causes the price to skyrocket. I sigh again. They're spoiling me. I can't even blame it all on Sinbad now, when Ja'far's had such an obvious hand in this.

As I move about, it becomes obvious to me from the manner in which the skirt is made that the dress was created with mobility in mind. The light skirt falls almost to my ankles and is layered in such a manner that I know I would have no difficulty in combat. Ja'far should think about starting a women's fashion business. I have no doubt at all now that he was the one who commissioned this. He must have done so right after my arrival for them to be done so quickly. And paid extra for the fast creation. I sigh softly at the thought. I don't want to be in Sinbad's debt any more than I already am.

I dig further into the chest and find a pair of shoes as well. Black flats trimmed in gold, made to match any of the dresses. I trade my boots for them, finding that preferable style-wise. Normally, I wouldn't care, but, I am here on official business. And, to wear my worn boots when provided with shoes would be rude to Ja'far. If Sinbad was the only one involved, I'd do it on purpose.

As I pull on the well-fitting shoes, I'm struck with a thought.

...How did he get my measurements?

The dress, too, is very well fitting. Especially since it works to emphasize my meager feminine form.

Salos is quiet for a moment. Then, he chuckles. He's been monitoring me in an almost sleepy manner since I woke up.

Well, my sun, it seems that he was rather discrete in his observations. And you thought he never looked.

This seems to amuse him, though, I can sense the underlying protective streak that rears at the thought of a man looking at me. I hardly notice because his words bring another thought to mind.

If Ja'far did commission the dresses and did indeed estimate my measurements, and Sinbad was involved, that means…

I feel the urge to get back in bed, crawl under the blankets, and disappear.

Everyone's aware of my lack of curves. Everyone. And, what's worse, they took pity on me.

Salos. Kill me.

Salos scoffs, long since used to my sudden breakdowns.

Get ahold of yourself, Mina. Take their concern in emphasizing your natural beauty as a compliment. Besides, why do the opinions of other men matter? I think you're one of the most beautiful women I've laid eyes on.

I glance back at the vessel that rests on the table.

Really?

Indeed, his thoughts turn mischievous and he almost purrs, If I wasn't trapped in this vessel, I'd prove it.

I feel my eye twitch, depression receding. He had to make it weird. I can feel him grinning.

Why, my sun, I was speaking of how I'd decorate you in all the blossoms I could find. What were you thinking of?

Shut up, I mentally mutter.

He laughs, gladdened by the opportunity to tease me and his success in pulling me out of my state of despair.

I ignore my brother and quickly bind the front of my hair back, leaving the majority loose. Now that I'm dressed and ready, I plan to hunt down some food. Buckling on my sword and taking the staff in hand, I make my way to the door.

As soon as I step into the hall, I find myself taking stock of my surroundings. My years training as a fighter make it impossible for me to ignore the need to do so. I'm about to go off in search of Sinbad's room in order to discern what might be needed of me, and, grudgingly, thank him for the dresses, but I am distracted by the rukh. They flutter around my head for a moment before crossing the hall to the door of the room next to Aladdin and Morgiana's. I pause for a moment, wary. Then, I sigh. Preparing myself for an awkward conversation with whoever is inside, I cross the hall and knock. A moment later, the door swings open. To my surprise, Masrur was the one who answers. He motions for me to come inside.

What the actual hell?

I enter the room. Against the wall between this room and the neighboring one, are Sinbad and Ja'far. At first, I'm rather confused as to what they're doing, as Sinbad and Ja'far are kneeling on the floor. Then I realize that they have cups of some sort pressed to the wall and are listening intently. Masrur, who seems to be keeping watch, nods to me in greeting, moving back to his post. I nod back before returning my gaze to the other two. Ja'far seems almost embarrassed at being caught in whatever they're doing. Sinbad, on the other hand, grins at me unrepentantly before returning to listening keenly. I finally realize what they're doing: eavesdropping on something going on in Aladdin and Morgiana's room. I feel my expression go deadpan.

With a sigh, Ja'far leaves his post and the cup and comes to stand at my side, eying his king with a small frown.

"Morgiana seems to have brought Alibaba into the hotel to converse with Aladdin," he explained.

I feel my eyes widen slightly. When I'd suggested talking to him, I'd imagined she would attempt to sneak into the Fog Troupe's hideout and converse there. But, it seems that I was wrong. She either reasoned with him so that he came willingly, which doesn't seem like Morgiana's style, or she brought him by force. I smirk lightly, feeling oddly proud. She certainly doesn't let any of these men dictate how she'll behave.

"I see," my smirk fades and I shoot Sinbad a disapproving look.

He either misses it or purposefully ignores it. I suspect the latter. I shake my head. Eavesdropping on a conversation like this. What could he possibly gain from it?

I don't get the chance to ask. I hear a loud crash from the other room at the same time King of Sindria abruptly pulls away from the wall with a wince. He falls back, dropping the cup in order to hold the ear that had been so suddenly assaulted by the sound. He frowns at the wall, murmuring a question.

I don't hear it. That sound came from within Aladdin and Morgiana's room. Which means something is occurring in which both children might be injured. I take my first step toward the door in order to kick it down and force entry, but Ja'far's warning stops me.

"Sin! Behind you!"

I turn just in time to see what appears to be a grappling hook break through the wall. I feel a sigh leave me as I hear the thieves outside clamoring. They pull the hook back through, leaving a rather large hole in the wall.

This trip just keeps getting better.

Chapter Text

Sinbad is at the top of my shitlist. He's been steadily climbing, but, now he's at the very top. I am coming to believe that, before this whole matter with Varang is settled, I'm going to end up killing him. My eye twitches as I grip the staff.

"I'm going to help the Fog Troupe," he says.

I'm going to fucking murder you with this staff, I say.

Rather, it's what I want to say.

It's a good thing there's a promised eventual fight with Balbadd's military, because my state of mind when he said that shot from "pissed off" to "I will stab you in the face with my brother's giant sword". Fortunately, I did not say that out loud, though, Salos is still laughing about it. You would never know he's centuries old from the way he acts. He's been making innuendos about his 'giant sword' since that point. I feel my eye twitch again as the sun beats down on my head, warming my bare arms.

I quickly discovered that the dress I chose is indeed made for maneuverability when the first of the thieves came through the wall. I was quite able to perform at my usual level of combat. I joined the Sindrian representatives in the fight, hoping that, if we dealt with the thieves in the room quickly enough, I could reach the children and help them. That hope was put to an end when Sinbad ordered Masrur to make a path to the roof, where it seemed the leaders had fled. Logically, if Morgiana and Aladdin had left their room, it would be where they had gone too.

I've always admired the strength of the Fanalis. When I would sometimes train with Muu in Reim, he often demonstrated the control he had over his strength. He would fight me hard, yes, but never hard enough to break me, as I know he could. I never experienced his full strength, but I watched him demonstrate it when training with his men, and it was something to behold. As Masrur followed his king's orders by simply jumping straight up through the ceiling, I was again in awe.

Sinbad threw me a grin and a wink before accepting his vassal's help in climbing out through the newly made exit. As I was figuring out how to hop out on my own, a strong arm circled my waist, pulling me against a distinctly male body. I looked over just in time to briefly meet Ja'far's eyes before we too were pulled onto the roof. Ja'far released me as soon as he was sure I was steady.

"Aladdin, are you alright?"

My head snapped around when I heard Sinbad address Aladdin, all thoughts of Ja'far's proximity gone. Leaving the thieves to the trio from Sindria, I sheathed my sword and ran over to where Aladdin and Morgiana stood, just a few feet from the hole Masrur created. I couldn't help the look of worry on my face as I bent to check the both of them for injuries, patting them down and searching for bruises.

"Are you both alright? Any bruises? Did they hurt you?"

Aladdin smiled just slightly and began to assure me. Morgiana seemed taken off-guard by my concern.

At the sudden sound of Masrur using his Fanalis strength to clear a path through a majority of the enemy, I quickly turned to cover the children with my own body, startled. While Morgiana, too, is a capable fighter and Aladdin is a Magi, they are both still too young to be without protection when I am perfectly capable of giving it. I gently began to edge them away from the main fight, towards the low rise that circled the roof, as the Fog Troupe's leader, in a bout of panic it seemed, attacked Sinbad with the Black Fog from earlier. He seemed to believe he could hold the King hostage. I pity him even now. Sinbad was loose again in a matter of seconds.

"Miss Mina," I looked back to meet Aladdin's large, blue eyes. His expression was somber as he spoke. "It's okay, Miss Mina, you don't have to be so worried."

I managed a small smile in return. I did have to worry, even if he was trying to calm me. Salos hadn't even teased me about my motherly tendencies and this was a very serious situation. I was about to reply when I heard Sinbad address Alibaba directly. Both Aladdin and I's attention was reclaimed by the matter at hand. It seemed that Sinbad was challenging Alibaba to a duel. This surprised me. Untrained as he was, Alibaba had Amon as his ally and Sinbad had no Djinn with him. I was again distracted when the remaining thieves on the roof made a mad scramble for the edges of the makeshift arena, wary of being caught in any sort of crossfire. Huffing, I maneuvered the children over next to Ja'far, closer to the fight than I would like to be, but better than letting the thieves surround us.

Morgiana took a step forward, looking worried.

"Please, wait! Alibaba is-"

She was silenced by a raised hand from Ja'far. She stared at him for a moment, but he did not meet her gaze. She then looked to Aladdin pleadingly. I glanced at him as well. He remained silent, eyes focused on Sinbad and Alibaba. When I followed his gaze, I found that Sinbad, too, was watching the young Magi, seeing what he would do.

"Please, Mina, no matter what happens, do not intervene."

I looked quickly to Ja'far to find him watching me out of the corner of his eye. I met his gaze for a moment. His eyes were firm. He was serious. I had the distinct feeling he would stop me if I attempted to step in. When I gave no reply, his expression tightened.

"Mina…"

I pursed my lips. Sinbad had to have a plan. Otherwise, he wouldn't be doing this. I paused for a moment. Then, I gave a tiny nod. Ja'far looked a bit relieved, but his eyes remained on me for a moment longer before glancing away. I frowned. What was so important that he was so adamant? What was Sinbad up to?

"Spirit of Decorum and Austerity!" my own gaze returned quickly to the fight at hand as I felt the familiar spark of power that accompanied the calling of a Djinn, "Use my magoi and lend power to my will. I command you and your household, come forth, Amon!"

The flames roared forth and I was again taken back to a time before this world, when things were simpler and life was different. The nostalgia hit me like a hammerblow and I sucked in a sharp breath, feeling my eyes prick. There was a time when those flames had decimated the human magicians who stood against our King, Solomon, alongside my Light and Salos's plants. Now, they were in the hands of a boy. A child who now faced a great king. This time, the nostalgia came with a much-desired memory.

" Thamina, how do you fare?"

I looked up as the voice of the old man broke my concentration. The orb of light I was holding flickered. I frowned and refocused on it, causing it to solidify again. Amon had appeared at my shoulder, looking at my progress. As one of the first of Solomon's household, and one of the wisest, Amon had taken it upon himself to train a few of us younger members. Namely Zagan, Salos, and myself. He had been teaching me how to perfect my light magic rather than just blasting it all in one attack.

" Well enough, Amon. It's coming, I think."

He nodded approvingly, his old face crinkling in a small smile. He patted my head, avoiding the antlers there. He looked down at the light as it pulsed in time with the flow of my magoi.

" You and your brother have proven rather adept in this mastry of magic, particularly when considering your odd situation…"

No one was quite sure what to make of Salos and I sharing a divine staff and yet developing two different types of magic. Only he and I would understand. Dioscuri twins were two halves of one whole, yes, but they were not the same person. They complimented each other, as my Light complimented Salos's Life. I smiled slightly.

" Thank you, Amon. I do try."

He gave a small nod.

" Continue as you are, Thamina. Your efforts will be met with success."

He smiled fondly. Then, his eyes slid down to table at my side, upon which I had set a chalice of weak wine to sip at during my training. Next to the chalice laid a small grouping of flowers, woven into a crown. The maker had quite skillfully, and thoughtfully, included a hook clasp at the back so that I could put it on without worrying about it being caught on my antlers. Reds, pinks, yellows, and orange petals stood out against the white marble of the table, twined by green stems.

" And which of your fellows are these from?" Amon asked quizzically.

I looked down, holding the orb in my hands as I finally managed to keep the light at a steady output so that it no longer flickered. I smiled. As my brother and I had gotten to know Zagan, he had taken to bringing me flowers as well. I thought it was rather nice of him. I loved flowers of all kinds, and he always brought me different ones than Salos. My twin disliked his gifts, and it served to fuel the growing rivalry between the Life practitioners. Though, it was Salos's flowers that constantly lined my hair and hung from my antlers, staking his claim. Zagan wasn't nearly so frequent in his decorations.

" Zagan. He brought them earlier. He said he's been growing them all this week," I smiled up at my mentor, barely catching the almost sly look in his eye as he smiled in return.

" How kind. Between the two of them, you will be the most beautifully arrayed lady in Solomon's court," he chuckled.

The memory suddenly ended, leaving me feeling happily nostalgic. Even if Amon, like my other fellows, was currently out of reach, he was alive and being used hopefully for the advancement of our King's will.

I didn't have much time to reflect on my newly acquired memory. All too soon, Sinbad brought the fight to an abrupt halt, using a channeling of raw magoi to stop Amon's flames.

That, I blame on the kid. A Djinn's raw power is too much for even a fighter like Sinbad to contain so easily. However, when limited by the user, especially a user so unskilled, the task is quite simple. Still, I'm more wary of Sinbad now than ever before. Even without his vessels, he easily handled the wielder of a very powerful fire Djinn. I doubt he could ever sever my connection to Salos's magic like that, though. My brother and I are too closely bonded. My access to his magic goes beyond the usual system of lending magoi to a metal vessel and harnessing elemental power. But the amount of power he's displayed is fearsome indeed. And, after the fight, I can't hate Alibaba anymore, not when he really seems to believe in what he's fighting for. And not when he's still just a boy trying to be a man.

I sighed, folding my arms, the staff clutched in one hand. Sinbad started into a reprimand of how Alibaba really didn't know how to use a Djinn. I was about to mutter a sarcastic 'you think?', more than tired of whatever game the king was playing. However, I was distracted by the same sense from earlier, much stronger than before. I gritted my teeth as darkness tugged at the edge of my mind. The traitor was near. I gripped the staff tightly, torn for a moment. He was so close. Much closer than before. Possibly even observing us. I could go after him. Fight him. Punish him for what he did on Alma Torran. But Aladdin…

My eyes darted to the boy. His gaze remained locked on Sinbad, that same oddly old expression on his face. I then glanced to Ja'far, who was also focused on the king. My duty to Varang dictated that I remain with the group from Sindria. I couldn't go off on my own. My knuckles turned white as Salos mirrored my frustration. The Dioscuri are incredibly loyal. It's in our nature due to our strong communal bonds with our twins. Traitors are the worst kind of beings. There must be a special circle in hell reserved for them.

We can't. Not right now…I mentally muttered.

But soon, Salos replied darkly.

We'll destroy him.

I returned my attention to Sinbad just in time to see him standing upright, a hand pressed over his chest in sincerity. Then, I hear him say some of the stupidest words he's ever uttered.

"Let me become your comrade by joining your fog troupe."

My mind blanked and my expression went deadpan.

you have got to be fucking shitting me.

My eye twitches as I recall the previous night. I'm now standing in the midst of a crowd outside the Balbadd royal palace, plotting ways to murder Sinbad without causing major flaws in the flow of Destiny. Why he had to be such an influential singularity, I can't understand. The most annoying human in this world is also one of Destiny's biggest linchpins. I can tell by the way the Rukh surround him. And by his life thus far. He's been aided by Destiny. Which means, by extension, it's Solomon's will that he continues living. I almost grind the end of the staff into the ground. I hate that man.

I understand his reasoning in all this, though. Hell, even I believe now that this is Destiny's path. The Rukh went crazy when Sinbad suggested Alibaba go to the palace to speak with his brother, the king, about the state of the country. And I have no doubt that his political expertise will be of a great help to our young thief prince. But I wish he would make up his fucking mind and not drag me along pell-mell into whatever weird idea pops into his head. Capture the fog troupe. Join the fog troupe. Work for the king of Balbadd. Work against the king of Balbadd. My eye twitches as my thoughts turn murderous again. I wonder if I could somehow kill him using those ridiculous hoop earrings he wears. That would be ironic. Or maybe choke him with his stupidly long hair. Who the hell even has purple hair anyways? It's so annoying.

I angrily reach up to rub my eye, muttering under my breath. Aladdin gives me a slightly concerned glance, which I choose to ignore. I'm tired, which might be why I'm so pissed. I'm glad for that long nap I took yesterday. If I hadn't gotten that in, I'd be dead on my feet. I didn't get hardly any sleep last night. After the confrontation with the fog troupe, I was dragged all over the city so that Sinbad and Alibaba could spread the news about Alibaba's visit to the king. I glance around. That's why the crowd is so large. I'm glad that there's so much support being shown, but, sleep is important. I'm just here to ensure my friend's kingdom isn't subjected to Kou's rule, not to get dragged into Balbadd's politics. After our dash through town, I managed to get like an hour of rest in a corner of the run-down house where the leaders of the fog troupe were meeting. Ja'far had woken me up before we left to come here. He'd been very kind about it, thankfully, gently shaking my shoulder and speaking softly. How Sinbad picked up such a thoughtful man, I'll never know. My eye twitches again at the thought of Sinbad. The idiot had the gall to grin at me when he saw I was awake, like this isn't all his fault.

I sigh, leaning on the staff. I'm definitely going to complain to Lord Harald in my next report.

I glance down at Aladdin and Morgiana as they begin to converse about whether or not Alibaba is alright inside the palace. I smile slightly, allowing my anger at Sinbad to slip away. When I'd woken up, I'd found them both asleep with me. Aladdin had laid with his head in my lap and Morgiana had rested against my shoulder. Even though they're strong, they're still young. They had been up late fighting the fog troupe and gotten only a little sleep before staying up for almost a full twenty-four hours. Maybe Sinbad and his generals can do that, even I can do it if I really try, but they can't. I feel the urge to reach over and pat Aladdin's head as he grins up at his friend. They're good kids. Alibaba's proving to be a good kid as well. He has strong convictions and, sometimes, he doesn't know where to point them. But, that knowledge will come with experience. I believe he'll end up doing some great things. I'm starting to forgive him for hurting Aladdin's feelings after getting to know him a bit last night. The young Magi himself bounced back with nary a worry. Oh to be so young and forgiving. My own experiences had made me far too cynical, I believe.

I feel my smile widen as the Rukh flutter about Aladdin, marking him as a Magi. I have yet to figure out why I'm so drawn to him as well. Maybe by the very nature of him being a Magi? I somehow doubt it. And Salos remains infuriatingly silent on the matter.

Even as I watch the Rukh, a bit of fluttering black slips into their midst. My blood runs cold and my eyes widen in horror. The sounds of the crowd around us are suddenly muffled. I can't look away from it, from the way it seems to exude darkness. Salos almost hisses as he picks up on the source of my alarm. Black Rukh, chaos, the opposite of Destiny. The Black Rukh always herald the coming of darkness. Something is about to occur. Something terrible. It never fails. Though, thus far, they've only appeared to me when there are minor hiccups in Destiny's path, a few at a time. A freak storm appears to halt the path of someone who will set events into motion, a wagon breaks in setback, someone is unfortunately pickpocketed in a time when the money was needed for something specific. These are all examples of times when I saw the Black Rukh. I feel sick now, seeing this one at such a critical time.

Aladdin whips around suddenly as the single Rukh turns into a torrent, looking towards the source. I feel bile rise at the sheer number. This is much more than a few. I suddenly realize just how important Balbadd's fate is in Destiny's path. For there to be such a strong opposition could mean nothing else. I reach out towards Aladdin, suddenly afraid that the Black Rukh are there for him, the fourth Magi. Then, a man shoves between us, knocking my arm aside.

This time, Salos does hiss. I grit my teeth at the man's touch, my hand having ricocheted off his hard, bare stomach as I reached for Aladdin. My eyes find his face. He's young, maybe eighteen or so. His black hair is messy in the front and the rest hangs in long, oddly styled tail. He positively oozes darkness. I instinctively recoil, holding my arm to my chest. The Black Rukh follow his steps, seeming to cling to him. My eyes widen further and dart to Aladdin, comparing the way the white Rukh stay close to the boy.

There's no way…

The young man gives us an uncaring glance, an instinctive check of who he's so rudely pushed past. Another chill runs down my spine when I see his red eyes. Not red like the Fanalis or the Kou commander. Red like blood. The Black Rukh swarm around him. There can be no doubt. The way he carries himself. The way the Rukh cling to him. He has to be a Magi. And, by process of elimination, he must be Judar, the Magi of the Kou Empire.

My grip on the staff tightens. I fully understand what his presence means, both politically and in relation to the flow of destiny. I've known for a while that Kou was after Balbadd. Anyone who knows even a little about the spread of an Empire can see that. Balbadd is a trading capitol. To control it is to control sea trade. And if Judar, a Magi, a prominent figure of the Empire, is here, then a big move is being made. I stare after him as he walks away. A Black Magi. My next realization hits me like a punch from a Fanalis. The sickening sense I got from contact with him is a stronger echo of what I felt when I sensed the traitor. And I know that the Black Rukh are associated with Al Tharmen. My eyes are huge as I look down at a single Black Rukh that flutters above me, as though remaining behind to get a closer look at me.

Kou's Magi is most likely associated with Al Tharmen. Which means that they have a foothold in one of the most powerful Empires of this world, one that is steadily growing. One with a goal of world domination.

"No…" I breathe as the Black Rukh finally leaves.

I have to stop this. I can't stand by while the balance of Destiny is upset. I must do something. But what?

Calm down. Think, Mina, Salos sooths, though in his voice is an underlying tenseness, There are two known agents of Chaos at work here.

Judar and the traitor, I reply, forcing my whirling thoughts to slow, Kou's Magi and the Household traitor from Alma Torran…

Yes. And we must eliminate at least one.

I finally take a deep breath, forcing myself into a state of calm in order to reason this fully.

Agreed, I watch Judar with narrowed eyes as he finally disappears into the crowd, But I cannot take on a Magi, even with your power, brother.

Salos flickers an affirmative thought my way. His magoi would long outlast ours since he beloved by the Black Rukh. And, if he's fully trained, he'll command many elements, not just the one I'm limited to. Not to mention, there is the issue of him being of high rank within Kou. To fight him would cause an international incident, especially since I'm acting as Varang's emissary.

But the traitor….he trails off as I nod.

Yes. We will find the traitor. We can't afford to let him work his machinations here. I will not allow Al Tharman to do as they did on Alma Torran. For our Lord Solomon, I will stop him. I will end him.

I glance down at Aladdin. The boy is still staring after Judar, his eyes wide in something like wonder. I wince. To hunt down the traitor, I will have to leave him and Morgiana. I glance at the Fanalis girl as she touches Aladdin's arm concernedly, snapping him out of whatever trance Judar left him in. My lips press into a thin line as he assures her that he is fine. I have no choice. I must stop Chaos's path here. It is my duty as an agent of Destiny. I must oppose Al Tharman. And I will have vengeance along the way.

I glance up. The Rukh are dancing wildly above my head. Beckoning to me. Even had I not drawn my own conclusion about what I must do, they would have told me. I sigh.

The part of my heart that loves these children rebels as I move in front of them, bending slightly to be at eye level. They look at me curiously. I lay my hand on Aladdin's shoulder.

"Aladdin…I am going to need to leave for a little while. There is something I must do."

Aladdin cocks his head, innocent blue eyes looking into mine.

"What is it, Miss Mina?"

I squeeze his shoulder gently.

"I must follow the Rukh. They are telling me that, right now, they need me to go with them."

I can't tell him. Not yet. Not of Al Tharmen and the darkness. He's so young and good and kind. I can't let that be ruined by wariness of the darkness. Soon, though, I fear I may have no choice but to warn him. I must at least warn him of the meaning of the Black Rukh now, though.

Aladdin smiles and nods.

"Okay, Miss Mina. I understand."

My lips twitch slightly. Then, the seriousness of the situation keeps me from smiling fully. I lean the staff against my shoulder and reach out to Morgiana so that I have a hand on each of them, drawing them both into my confidence.

"Listen to me, the both of you," I tell them softly, "Aladdin, you saw the man who just walked past, the one surrounded by darkness," he gives a nod. Morgiana looks confused, but, I continue, "Good. Beware that darkness," I meet their eyes each in turn, "Always beware the darkness, for it is a herald of Chaos. It might be that he is merely passing through and bears no ill-will, but, I fear that his presence bodes ill."

Their expressions are serious. They're confused, but, they are taking my warning to heart.

"What should we do, Miss Mina?" Morgiana asks, her voice tinged with wariness. She's a fighter, it makes sense that she wants a plan of action.

I squeeze their shoulders lightly, giving them my best reassuring smile.

"Take heed, be watchful. And, should Chaos strike, protect each other. I will do my best to ensure that it does not happen, and that the both of you, and everyone else, is safe."

They exchange a glance. Then as they look back at me, I impulsively pull them both into an embrace. Morgiana stiffens in surprise. Aladdin is still for a moment, then, he peeks over my arm.

"I'm going to protect you. I promise."

I press a kiss to the top of each of their heads before releasing them. They look up at me, wide eyed. I look back for a moment, worry grounding me despite the Rukh swarming above me, demanding that I move on.

Come, Mina. They will be alright. They're strong. And Sinbad will not let harm come to them.

I give a nod, a shuddering breath escaping me. He's right. For all his flaws, I know Sinbad will do his best to take care of them.

Yes. Let us go.

Without another word, I move past the children and weave into the crowd, making for the back entrance of the square. I force my mind to move from worry, drawing upon the memories that my sensing of the traitor awakened. I allow my anger to rise up and simmer. Not enough to make me lose sight of rationality, but enough to keep me focused. The Rukh fly ahead of me as I cast out my senses. As I finally leave the crowd and exit the gate, I sense the darkness. Two darknesses. One in the palace that must be Judar, and the other that is my target. I grip the staff tightly as Salos's grim determination matches mine.

You will rue the day you betrayed our king, we whisper in unison, our thoughts melding for a moment.

I press on into the city, leaving the palace and hopeful crowd behind.


 

I have been tracking him for hours. The moon rises in the young night sky to shine down upon me in white light. I'd hoped to face him in the day, when my powers are strongest due to the constant sunlight, but, it seems that will not be possible. He's wily, moving in and out of my sensing range. Even with the Rukh leading me, it's taken all day and I've crossed a large section of the city in my search. Still, despite the passage of time, my desire to find him still burns hot. I am not a murderer. I usually despise killing. My thoughts of killing Sinbad, while fueled by anger, are never serious. But, I want to kill this man, and the desire is echoed back by my twin. Our emotions feed each other, making them more intense. And they've been growing for the past hour or so. Our target hasn't moved. He's settled on this side of the city, preferring to plot and watch from a distance, I suppose.

Now that I'm close, his darkness is clearer than ever. It lacks the raw feeling Judar gave. No. This is refined, controlled. It bespeaks the age and power of the man I am hunting. My lips tug up in a dark smirk. Now that's ironic. I think of myself as almost twenty-six, with a birthday coming up soon. But, being a being of Alma Torran, I am older than this world. Thousands of years old. Just like the traitor and every other original member of Al Tharmen. This war of Chaos and Destiny is just as old. Those like Sinbad and Alibaba who fight on the behalf of Destiny, willingly or unwittingly, are soldiers in a combat they understand only part of. Not like Salos and I. And our fellow Household Members. We know all too well the roprocussions of Chaos winning over Destiny. Even I, whose memory is riddled with gaps, remember enough for the Black Rukh to strike fear into my heart.

My expression is grim as I pass beneath a wooden beam and into an alley. I'm close now. The traitor hasn't moved. I can sense him just ahead, and I'm sure he can sense me. Though, he may yet not know my purpose. The alley is dark, the surrounding buildings blocking the moonlight. I'm silent save for the light tap of the staff as I walk with it. Even in the cool darkness of a seaside night, I am not cold. My lovely blue dress flows around me, the gold accents gleaming as I pass by the opening of a second alley, allowing the moonlight to shine down on me. I'll feel bad if it's damaged in the fight, but, I can't afford to worry about something so trivial as clothes when faced with this enemy.

I come to the mouth of the alley and stop, about to enter a small community square. The single tree in the center is surrounded by cobblestones. It's empty, as the streets have been. The citizens in this area of the tumultuous city don't want to be caught out after dark. But, I've stopped for another reason altogether. I've been sensed. The darkness suddenly moves, coming towards me. I remain still, shrouded in shadow. The darkness rushes forward, then, as it reaches the courtyard, it stops. I strain my inhuman vision, searching for the traitor to emerge from one of the other streets leading to the square, listening for his footsteps. My heart rushes. This is it. But I can't see him. After a moment, a breeze blows a scent my way and my gaze snaps upward.

A figure floats above the square, sitting upon what appears to be a staff. With the moon at his back, his face is shrouded from view. But, there can be no doubt. This is the traitor. I feel an inhuman growl build in my chest, but, I quickly stifle it. I watch as his head moves, showing how he searches the darkness for me. There is a moment of utter silence, me watching him, him searching for me. Then, he speaks.

"So, you prefer to hide in the shadows."

Yes. He knows I am there. He just doesn't know exactly where. I feel my dark smirk return. After another short pause, I step forward, into where the moonlight touches the ground and I will be visible. As I come into view, I allow my glamour to drop, revealing my antlers and talons. I want him to know exactly who is coming for him.

I watch in dark satisfaction as he suddenly sits up straight on his staff. So he does recognize me.

"No. I think that this reunion should be face to face," I reply.

There is another pause in which he observes me. Then, he suddenly chuckles, a deep, amused sound.

"Thamina of the Disocuri. Now this is a surprise. When I sensed my pursuer, I assumed it was a human magician. But it's one of Solomon's prized and loyal Household members, alive…and well."

I cock my head. I'm still not sure exactly who he is. But, he must have assumed that the terrible injury I received in the final battle had done me in. How unfortunate for him that it didn't.

"Indeed. I am doing quite well. You'll have to forgive me if I don't recognize you right off."

He gives an 'hmph'.

"I shall remedy that. As you said this reunion of the former Household should take place face to face."

He glides down to the earth. My eyes track him warily. The ability to fly speaks of Gravity magic. There's one form. He comes to a stop and dismounts, his feet touching the stones of the courtyard. He's taller than me, I see, though that's not much of a surprise. He's wearing a white turban, a segment of which is pulled down over the bottom half of his face. As he turns to face me, I realize that he is wearing a mask over his eyes. Long, light hair flows from beneath the turban, falling over his black robes. He stands upright, his staff gripped in one hand. With the other, he reaches up and pulls the bottom covering aside. I can see that his lips are curved up in a cruel smile. I brace myself, wondering what he plans to do next.

He reaches up to the mask. After a moment, he removes it and looks at me, turning his face so that the moonlight strikes it.

I feel like I've been hit. My eyes go wide. I know him. His face is slightly different, but, I suddenly distinctly remember a younger version. One without the beard and with a third eye on the forehead. One that didn't have such malicious eyes. His cruel smile widens.

"It's been a very long time, Thamina. But, I'm sure you recognize me now."

My mouth moves of its own will, speaking his name.

"Ithnan."

A torrent of memories overtakes me. Suddenly, I'm not standing in a courtyard, facing a traitor. I'm back on Alma Torran. Darkness encroaches on my vision. I sway dangerously, barely hearing the traitor's contemptuous chuckle. Then, the shock of seeing him and the rush of so many memories becomes too much. I fall into the abyss of unawareness, hearing Salos call out for me.

Mina!


 

She slips away, even as I cry out. The memories flood her mind in a greater rush than ever before. Her unconscious mind is whipped through time, from our salvation from the destruction of our people to the final battle. The rush is so strong that it catches me off-guard. I can't push through to help her. Ithnan was one of Solomon's closer followers, especially in the early days. He was always about, and many of her memories are connected to him. When we sensed the traitor earlier, I never would have imagined that it was this man. As she comes towards the middle of the final battle, I lunge through our bond and force the torrent to stop, just as I did when the mirror in Sabnack's dungeon took on Aswad's face. She can't remember that yet. She isn't ready. I will protect her from it for as long as possible.

Her mind calms as the regained memories settle into their proper places. She remains in unconsciousness, dormant. This is bad. When we went to face the traitor, neither of us expected for her to fall so quickly, and without a fight. Frustration courses through me. I can't do anything externally. My physical form is trapped within the metal vessel of Mina's blade. But, if I do nothing, I am sure that Ithnan will kill her. He fought us on Alma Torran. Surely, he would take no issue with ending my sun here.

A growl rumbles from me. I will not allow that. I will not allow him to send my world into darkness again. I will never feel that all-consuming loneliness of being without a twin again. I spent thousands of years in my dungeon, alone save for the occasional visits of those who remained upon Alma Torran, watching over my other half as her shell recovered, empty of her Rukh. No. That will not happen again.

I cast about for a solution, a way to fight the traitor who threatens us now. Any aid is too far away. No one is coming to save her. It reminds me of that terrible moment in Sabnack's dungeon, when Mina shut down, consumed by her memory of Aswad. I pause. I had acted on instinct in that moment. I had pushed through the bond, willing her hands to move, the sword plunging into our foe. I placed my will on her body in her moment of weakness. I think about this for just a moment. The nature of the Dioscuri bond makes this more than possible, but, neither of us have ever done such a thing before. And I've never heard of it occurring in the past. But, it may be our only option.

I take an unneeded breath and push again. Her dormant mind welcomes me, her other half, easily. I find that part of her mind that is needed to use her body. My progress is unhindered, as her will does not stand in my way. I dislike this… possession, but I have no other options. It will be difficult for both of us. My grip on her will be imperfect, not like the usual union that requires a melding of body, mind, and soul. But, as I settle into the figurative helm of her body, I know that I will be able to do it to an extent. Our mission is now survival, not elimination. Though, should I be able to use her body well enough, I may attempt to bring Ithnan down.

There's a pause as my consciousness and will blankets her unconscious ones. Then, feeling her body at my control, I open her eyes.

Ithnan stands over us, his mask back in place. He takes a step back when her eyes open.

"I suppose I missed my chance," he muses.

I can't help the growl that leaves us as I push her body to its feet, using our shared staff for support. The orb at the top swirls green instead of gold now, sensing my presence. I feel a flash of nostalgia. Then, I force myself to refocus, returning to Ithnan's words.

"Yes. You did."

I speak using her voice, but, there are certain inflections that betray my presence. We look up and meet his gaze. He peers at us for a moment before his eyes register something like surprise.

"I see. So it is now the twin I deal with. Salos, in possession of Thamina's form."

We glare at him as my anger rises. I don't know how he picked up on the change so easily, but, he is correct.

"Yes, it is."

He looks at us for a moment longer. Then, he gives a small scoff.

"We should have guessed that this would happen. You became a Djinn in the final battle of the old world and, after casting us out, retreated to your dungeon with your sister. When she awakened, she defeated your dungeon and your bond was reinstated in a different way. Have I summarized correctly?"

I don't reply. He shrugs one shoulder.

"It does not matter either way," he raises his staff, "I will end the both of you here."

We grit our teeth and draw my vessel.

"I think not, traitor."

He moves back quickly as we level the sword. I do not know if what I am about to attempt will even be possible. I do not see why it wouldn't. But, it has never been attempted before. Just as this state of possession has never been attempted. I don't have time to doubt. I must invoke myself in her body. Only by equipping will we stand a chance against Ithnan.

"Spirit of Brotherly Love and Guilt, use my magoi and lend power to my will. I command you, come forth, Salos, dwell in my body and make me an instrument of your power!"

My grip on her body wavers as my vessel tugs at my power. I internally grit my teeth and push through, forcing my will to remain in control as the equip takes effect. I can feel the vines that slide over her arms and legs. The revealing armor that replaces her clothes. The sheer, gauzy material that flows from the lower garment. The solid bronze of the boots. It is a strange feeling, for it is mine and yet it is not. The katana in our hands transforms, becoming the familiar longsword that I wielded on Alma Torran and now that my sun wields on this world. We jam the staff into the cobblestones so that it stands upright. We will need both hands to use the sword. My hands are large enough to do so with only one. But, Mina has always been much smaller than me.

The transformation takes only a moment. Ithnan has moved to stand a few meters from us. He gives a small nod.

"Impressive, Salos. The bond between the Dioscuri is indeed powerful."

I make no reply, instead leaping forward in attack. I despise the way he addresses me like that, his tone patronizing. I focus that hatred into my attack. If I can debilitate him, we can escape. Though, if I can debilitate him, I can kill him. Either way, this will be a hard fight.

"Alsm Azhr," I command with Mina's voice.

My sword becomes coated in the familiar poison that I so often used against our enemies on Alma Torran. I immediately feel the tug on Mina's magoi. I internally frown. Using her body means using her magoi. I will have to be cautious. I cannot use too much. The steady stream of energy begins to flow into the blade to keep the poison flowing and my grip on her wavers. I'll end this quickly, before my imperfect hold on her is lost. Though we are two halves of a whole, we were never meant to be joined in this way. The Dioscuri are two individual souls in one. For one of us to take control of the other is a perversion. But, in this case, it is necessary.

We fly forward, sword slamming into Ithnan's staff as he raises it. The blow clangs across the empty courtyard, driven by the momentum of our flight. He grunts, bracing against the blow. He is fortunate he is dealing with my sister's meager strength and not my own. We step to the ground in order to gain a base for the next attack. Instinct takes over as we whip around, my knowledge of the weapon allowing her body to use it much more skillfully than her usual level when she borrows my memories. The poison on the blade splatters as the blade connects again with the staff, sizzling on the stones around us. Though it strikes our skin, it has no effect. Ithnan, however, is forced to disengage quickly, small holes in his robe marking where the splatter landed. His staff is undamaged. The ferocity of our attack was such that he was unprepared to raise a borg.

He quickly puts space between us. A magician's best weapon is magic from a distance. I can't allow him to use a spell. If I recall, Ithnan was always skilled in Lightning magic. A Lightning attack would damage Mina's body terribly, and, as we are in Djinn Equip, her borg will not work. She is limited to my power as a Djinn alone. I cannot fail her now. My sun, my love, my dear sister. She is mine to protect, and protect her I will. We raise one hand to point at the single tree in the middle of the square as we give chase to close the distance.

"Almayshh Alnbaatat!"

The drain on her magoi strikes hard. We grit our teeth against it. Again, I am nearly thrown from the 'helm' of her mind. The tree shudders. Then, it lashes out, branches elongating and whipping towards our foe with the creaking of wood. I easily bend the tree to my will, much more easily than Mina does. But, every passing second that I use this spell in conjunction with that of my sword, my hold slips further. Ithnan dodges back as quickly as he can, narrowly evading the blows. He's not fast enough for all of them. He narrowly manages to erect a borg before the branch strikes, and is sent flying back, striking a wall. The wall cracks under the impact and he is rattled but undamaged.

Damn.

I refuse to give him an opening. We fall upon his borg with a fury, striking it again and again with the poisoned blade in an attempt to force him to pour more magoi into it. If we can break it, we'll have a shot at his body. This plan is foiled as he recovers and, with a shout, smashes the borg outward. It shatters and blasts away with him as the epicenter.

We are sent tumbling back into the air by the force, the world a dizzying blur as we spin. I clutch to Mina's mind, refusing to allow the pull of my metal vessel to take me from her. My will must prevail

I right us just in time to hear Ithnan call out a spell. I look down to see lightning arc from his staff. We dodge narrowly, the lighting shooting past us by a handbreadth, and shoot forward in attack. He follows that blast with another. We weave around it as well, bringing our sword back for a blow. Our foe calls out another spell before we can reach him and, this time, the lighting from his staff fires in numerous missiles.

Despite my best efforts, we don't move fast enough. One of the missiles catches our leg, blasting us off course and giving my hold on Mina the worst shake yet. I am very nearly thrown from my seat of control. I claw back into it, forcing myself to remain where I am by sheer willpower alone. The pain of our injury is unbearable. A scream erupts from our lips as the flesh at the contact point is burned and electricity runs through us. We convulse in spasms of pain and the shocks given to our muscles. Mina's body begins to plummet as the attack shakes my grip on it yet again in the face of the pain. I barely manage to maintain control and regain altitude. Breathing hard, we call out our own spell.

"Hlwsh Eezhar!"

The ground trembles. Then, a number of large pink blossoms erupt from the stones of the courtyard, scattering them. The drop in Mina's magoi, combined with the shock of the previous lightning attack, causes me to lose my grip on the equip. It disappears and we fall, unable to fly without it. The blossoms wither and die before they can bloom, crumbling into brown dust on top of the holes from which they had come. Our final, desperate spell had been an abject failure.

No!

Ithnan takes advantage of our weakness, striking us with another bolt of lightning, knowing we can't dodge this one. The bolt takes us in the side. If the previous pain was unbearable, this pain is unimaginable. The odor of burnt flesh and hair overwhelms our sensitive sense of smell. The pain of burning shock drags on, elongated by the accompanying spasms. Electricity courses through us even as we fall, trapped in our pain. When we finally hit the ground, the impact barely hurts in the face of what we have suffered. But, it is enough to break my grip on Mina. I am flung from my seat of control. My metal vessel sucks me from my twin's mind, back through the bond and into myself. I immediately attempt to return, but, my will has been stretched to its limits. And Mina's body is too damaged. We are helpless.

Ithnan approaches. I can sense him from my vessel. I am sure he will kill her now. How short our battle was. My incomplete hold on her sealed our fate. We could not take him on. I could not take him on. I wait in raging stillness for the final blow. For the sundering of our bond.

I failed you, my sun. I'm so sorry. I was the one who pushed you to find the traitor, I was the one who could not save you…I love you, my sun. My beautiful Thamina…

I brace myself, sure that I am about to feel the end of her life, which will quickly be followed by mine no doubt. But, it never comes.

Ithnan comes to a stop beside Mina's injured form, looking down. There is a long pause in which he observes her. My sense of him is comparable to the visibility in a dream. I am aware of his actions, the scene taking place, but I cannot truly see him. I tremble in rage at his nearness and my own helplessness. He stands silently. Then, he sighs softly.

"Out of my respect for the bond you two share as brother and sister, I will not end you here," he pauses. Then, his tone becomes cruel, "That, and because Aswad has laid claim to her. He will be most interested to hear of her survival."

I feel my blood run cold at the sound of that name. I had hoped against hope that he had died. That he would never again be seen. That he would never again plague my Mina. Ithnan continues, oblivious to my reaction.

"Pray we do not meet again."

With that, he walks away from us. Then, he is gone, mounting his staff and flying away to complete whatever foul mission of Chaos he may have. I sense his form disappearing. We failed. We came to stop him and we failed utterly. We lived, but at such a cost. I sense out my sister's weak and battered body, sorrow and guilt flowing through me. I can remember all too well the last time I felt this.

How long will Mina lie there without aid? Last time, Ugo was the one who assisted in saving her. Him, and a few others. They are not here now. Where are her human allies. Where is our prince? I stretch out my senses. Ithnan is well and truly gone, but, I sense the other darkness, Judar, quickly. Near him is Aladdin's bright light. As well as the lesser light of Sinbad. Then, I sense Ugo. From the fluctuations in that area, a battle is being fought. I cannot tell who the combatants are at the moment, but, this means that Mina's allies will not come to find her for a while. I resign myself to waiting and remaining with her as I can.

I am about to withdraw my senses when, suddenly, Ugo's presence disappears completely.

I freeze, eyes wide within my vessel. I cannot believe what I am sensing.

No.

His Rukh is no longer in this world. Not even as the spark that means he is within his vessel.

No. That's not possible.

Ugo cannot be defeated. Ugo, second only to Solomon among the magicians. Ugo, who kept us together after the fall of Alma Torran. Ugo, who saved my twin and I alongside our beloved Queen Sheba. Ugo, who loved us with that caring heart of his. Ugo, who created this world, sacrificing his humanity in the process. Ugo who is…

Gone.

My cry of anger and sorrow goes unheard as I remain trapped inside the katana, lying where the sword fell as my sister did.

Chapter Text

There is no in-between in my awakening. One moment, there was only darkness, the next, I find myself in pain. It's still dark, but, sensation returns like a thunderclap. I am unaware of the way my hands grip the bedsheets as a wordless sound tears from me in response to the way my flesh burns. I feel short of breath. I pant, every breath pulling at what must be an injury. I instinctively shift, as though to escape it, but, that only worsens the pain. This time, I am aware of the cry. A number of pairs of hands suddenly restrain me, grips like iron keeping me from moving. Salos makes his presence known as he reaches through our bond to sooth me. His thoughts are tinged with apology even as his ghost of a touch settles on my forehead.

I begin to hear voices.

"Keep her still! Don't let her strain her injuries!"

I don't recognize the voice. I search my memory frantically for some indication of where I am and who I'm with. My last memory flashes behind my eyes: Ithnan, the traitor, standing before me and removing his mask. I fly into a panic, fighting against the restraining hands. Another hand presses lightly to my shoulder.

"Please, Mina, you're alright. Be still," a concerned voice says from close to my ear.

I cease my struggling, recognizing that voice.

Ja'far.

I lay still, breathing hard. Gradually, my senses return. I realize that the scents in the room are mostly familiar. Ja'far, Morgiana, and Aladdin. I then pick up some other scents that I know but can't quite place. Two are unrecognizable, like the voice from before. A small hand begins to pet my hair, avoiding my antlers. My eyes slowly open.

I'm lying on a bed, a number of people standing over me. I glance around slowly, my breathing still labored from pain. The first person I see is Aladdin. He's the one stroking my hair. He looks down at me with worry, but, when our gazes meet, he smiles. Beside him is Morgiana. She holds one of my arms, her eyes equally worried as Aladdin's. I let my gaze slide to the end of the bed, were a truly huge man is gripping each of my ankles in hands that cover much of my lower legs. He gives me a smile, his scarred face framed by blue hair. I recognize him. Hinahoho of Imachukk, one of Sinbad's eight generals. On my other side, the side in the most pain, is Ja'far. His thin hand encircles my wrist with a surprisingly strong grasp. When our eyes meet, he gives me a reassuring smile, his other hand squeezing my shoulder. Past him, I can see a pair of healers rushing about.

I can tell that I'm in a rather nice room. It's large, with a high ceiling. I immediately recognize it from my time in Sindria. The sudden smell of the sea and other scents I associate with the kingdom, as well as Hinahoho's presence, affirms my guess as to where I am. Though, I have no idea how I got to be here.

One of the healers bustles over to my side, carrying a bowl of something. He flips back a cloth that has been loosely laid across my middle. I realize then that only the essential areas of my body are covered. When the cloth is pulled aside, my stomach, legs, and arms are completely bared. The long, ugly scar on my stomach was utterly visible as well. I'm vaguely aware of how inappropriate it is for me to be so undressed with men in the room, but, I can't bring myself to care. I try to look down at whatever the healer is attending to, to see what this injury I have no memory of receiving is. I'm stopped when Ja'far lays a hand over my forehead, gently restraining me. He gives a small shake of his head.

"You don't need to see this yet."

I frown, wanting to inquire why that is, however, the healer begins applying whatever is in the bowl. He dabs it onto my side. With the first touch, I'm gritting my teeth, a muffled groan verbalizing my pain. Then, a moment later, the pain begins to ebb. Aladdin watches the healer's progress, his eyes serious.

"Miss Mina, who did this to you?"

It's Morgiana who speak in her soft, serious voice. Her eyes flicker to whatever the healer is attending to. Her grip has let up, but, her hands remain on my arm as a precaution.

I'm about to answer that I don't remember. I have no idea how I came to be so injured. Then, Salos opens a mental floodgate, memories flowing through our bond. One moment I do not remember, the next I know. When I fell, Salos took over, using our bond as Dioscuri to maneuver my body in combat. We lost, but, Ithnan had left us alive. Salos also reveals that, an hour or so later, when he sensed my allies coming to find me, he had managed to activate my glamour, hiding my inhumanities. The rush of information takes a moment to comprehend, but, it provides much needed clarity. I'm grateful to my brother, despite the apologetic tone of his thoughts. In the transfer of memory, he has carefully blocked out the recollection of the initial blow. I know I was injured severely, and how it happened, but, not the true feeling of the lightning attack.

"Al Tharmen."

My throat is dry and my voice hoarse from disuse as I answer. I briefly wonder how long I've been unconscious, overwhelmed mentally and physically.

The whispered answer has an immediate effect. Hinahoho had stepped back when it became obvious I was done struggling. But, I can see his eyes widen. Ja'far's narrow dangerously, becoming cold. Morgiana looks confused. But, it's Aladdin's reaction that stands out the most. He slowly takes his eyes off the lighting wound and meets my gaze. It holds a look I've only caught glimpses of before. That old, wise look, as though he possesses centuries of knowledge beyond the age of his physical form. I'm struck with the sudden understanding that he knows. When I say "Al Tharmen", it's not just the organization that's messed with Sinbad in the past. To him, as to me, it's that group of traitors that threatens the very balance of Destiny and this entire world. I'm also struck that, in this moment, he looks very much like my king, Solomon. He bears that same look that our king bore whenever something dire occurred. Aladdin knows what the danger that plagues this world is. And he didn't previously, when I warned him of Judar. Something has changed.

The healer finishes with my side and moves on to my leg, calling my attention back to him. The second healer, who had been waiting till now, moves up to take the first's place at my side. She extends her hand over the wound, clutching a magician's staff in the other. Her lips begin to move as she almost silently commands the Rukh. My side is completely numb. Ja'far looks to first man, his eyes still hold that spark of deadly cold.

"Is it working?"

The healer gives a nod, not taking his eyes off his work.

"Yes, Lord Ja'far. The medicine is taking effect. And the magic will speed the healing process. If fortune smiles on us, she will have only the faintest of scars from this encounter."

Ja'far seems satisfied. He looks down at me again.

"I took the liberty of contacting Lord Harald of Varang, in order to inform him of your condition. He was most concerned, but I assured him that you are in capable hands. He informed me that Princess Keary and her guard are currently on their way. They will arrive in Sindria in approximately five weeks' time."

I give a small nod, knowing my expression is relieved. He continues, then.

"King Sinbad has undertaken a political mission to Kou. He has taken Sharrkan and Spartos as his personal guard."

I frown ever so slightly, not quite understanding why Sinbad would be in Kou. But, my sluggish and tired mind moves on to that second bit of information. Keary's two possible suitors are in Kou, and there's no guarantee of when they'll return. That means that Keary will most likely arrive before them and will spend a good deal of time in Sindria before she can move into any sort of courtship. It is a minor setback, more of an annoyance, really. But, I can't help but feel glad. It means I'll get to spend some time with my friend before she is stolen away by her duties.

The healer finishes with my leg and he and the magician switch places. A bandage is applied to my side at the bottom of my ribcage. A second is wrapped around my leg when the magician finishes there. Both areas are void of feeling, but, the healers seem quite pleased with this. The two of them pack up and leave with the same rush that they've shown this entire time. Ja'far watches them go. Then, as soon as the door closes behind them, he looks to his fellow General.

"This confirms Sin's suspicions of that organization's involvement."

Hinahoho gives a nod.

"Should we contact him?"

"I'll take care of that. You inform the others of the confirmation. We'll need to be on guard, particularly since Sin is away."

Hinahoho nods again. Ja'far isn't giving him an order, this is simply the plan they both agree is best. The way they speak to each other is with the ease of those who have known each other for a very long time. The Imachukk warrior shoots me a grin.

"Rest easy. Leave worrying about Al Tharmen to us for now."

I give a weak smile in return. This giant of a man is already babying me. He did it the first time I was in Sindria too. Though, I've heard that's just him. He's a dad and it shows. He leaves then, the same way the healers did.

Ja'far looks down at me, smiling gently.

"I'll send someone with food soon. You may not feel like it, but, you need to eat. You've been asleep for a number of days."

Now that the pain of the injuries is gone, I can now pick out other pains: the pang of hunger in my stomach, a fuzzy headache born of dehydration, and the achiness of being still for too long. I don't even want to know exactly how long I've been out. I give a nod.

"Thank you, Ja'far."

His smile widens just a bit. He gives my shoulder one more squeeze. Then, he pulls the blankets up over me. I can't help the slightly embarrassed look on my face as he gently maneuvers my arms out of the way so that I'll have free range of movement with them. The man quite literally tucks me into bed before returning his hands to the sleeves of his robes.

"You are most welcome, Mina, rest easy," he turns his smile on the children then, "Morgiana, Aladdin, will you be remaining?" he asks politely.

Morgiana shakes her head slightly.

"No. I will be returning to check on Alibaba."

Aladdin gives a smile and nods.

"I'll stay with Miss Mina."

Ja'far inclines his head in acknowledgement before leaving. Morgiana follows, casting Aladdin and I one last look. The door shuts behind them. As soon as it does, Aladdin's smile drops slightly, the solemnity and sadness returning to his eyes. I realize that he mirrors Salos's inexplicable depressive state. My brother has maintained an open connection, letting comforting thoughts drift my way, but not a single teasing remark has been made. He's suspiciously quiet.

"What's wrong?" I murmur, my dry throat protesting against anything louder, "Did something happen?" I aim the question at both of them.

Salos seems to shift uncomfortably. Aladdin looks at me seriously for a long moment. Then, he tilts his head, giving me that close-eyed smile of utter adorableness.

"I'm fine, Miss Mina. I'll tell you about what happened in Balbadd later, okay?"

So, something did happen. And, out of worry for my current condition I think, he's keeping quiet. I wish people would quit worrying about my health and just tell me things. It's infuriating.

Salos's thoughts flicker resentfully at that.

Still, I won't push him. He seems awfully torn up about whatever it is. There's a long silence between us in which the boy's smile fades slowly. He looks terribly troubled, and I'm not sure why. He kneels on the edge of the bed beside me, slouched slightly as he stares down at the blankets, his eyes distant. The silence goes on for so long that I start to drift off.

"Miss Mina?"

My eyes flutter blearily at that, jolted from my almost-slumber.

"Hm?"

There's a pause. Then, he speaks.

"Do you remember Alma Torran?"

That one question jolts me awake faster than any shot of caffeine ever could. My eyes fly open and I stare at the boy. He meets my gaze with that same solemnity as before. That same strange oldness.

"Where did you hear that name?" I whisper.

He reaches up, seemingly unconsciously, to rub his forehead.

"The Rukh. I know about Alma Torran. Through Solomon's Wisdom."

I'm still staring. My first thought is that this is an absolutely terrible explanation. It didn't really answer anything. Though, when I take a moment to think, it starts to make sense. My drowsy mind makes thinking difficult, but I begin to put it together. The Rukh that enter the stream of Destiny are the souls of those departed. It would follow that their memories would also be present. Though, how one would access those memories is a different story.

"Solomon's Wisdom?" I ask hoarsely.

No one really questions that my king was exceptionally wise. Even when he was a young magician, it was practically accepted as a fact. But Aladdin said that like it was the name of a spell or something.

He nods, shifting closer to me in order to earnestly deliver his news.

"I've seen so much through the memories of the Rukh," he glances at the seemingly empty space above my head, "Even how Alma Torran ended," those miserably sad eyes shift to approximately where my stomach is under the blanket.

I'm still shocked. This little boy has complete access to the Rukh. He's potentially more powerful than even the Magi of Alma Torran. Or, rather, he has the potential to be. I'm still too out of it to make complete sense of this. I feel like I should be able to, though. Like this relates to those memories that I still can't bring forth. How could he be able to use this kind of power? He's a child. My head throbs and I wince. Apparently, I won't be reasoning that out anytime soon.

I realize then that I never answered his original question.

"Yes…I remember Alma Torran," I tell him softly, "Not all of it. My memory still holds great gaps."

Aladdin meets my eyes.

"From when your Rukh were taken away?"

He's seen that as well. My…death. Which not even I remember. I nod once.

"Yes."

He gives me a reassuring smile through his own internal pain. Is this what has hurt him so? The memories seen through the Rukh?

"Don't worry, Miss Mina. I'm sure you'll remember soon. And Salos will help you, right?"

My eyes are again wide. But, I guess if he knows about Alma Torran, then he knows about my brother and I's relationship. I give a slow nod. A ghostly touch strokes over my hair, courtesy of Salos. He's still very depressed from our defeat, but, he'll always put me before himself. I mentally squeeze his hand. If anything, it was my fault we lost that battle. I passed out first thing. His thoughts flicker in denial. He had failed to protect me and wanted to pout about it. I sigh internally, lacking the energy to argue with him.

There's a long moment of silence, Aladdin's sad and contemplative, mine tired and lethargic. My head hurts from both dehydration and this sudden revelation of Aladdin's newly acquired power. I watch the boy through sleepy eyes. Solomon's Wisdom. His odd similarity to my king. His sudden appearance in this world. His connection to Ugo. That last one really gets me. When I originally saw Ugo on my return to my body, I know he wasn't in a metal vessel. Unless he was just connected to Aladdin's flute from the Sacred Palace, able to be summoned through the flute. That makes no sense, though. None of the other Djinn are like that. Ugo's always been different, though. Maybe this is no exception.

I wince as my head throbs again, more painfully than last time. Done thinking about that for the present, then. I'll do it after I get some real sleep. Which shouldn't be difficult. I'm already dozing again, despite the seriousness of our conversation and my struggling to stay awake. Being injured is exhaustive and I can sense that I'll need some regular sleep before my magoi is finally fully replenished. I'm about to give up and go to sleep when Aladdin speaks again.

"Miss Mina's boobs have never been very big, have they?"

My eyes snap open as a small hand frisks over my chest, like he's checking to make sure they're actually there. His face is no longer sad, but confused and a bit disappointed. I bolt upright and flip the blankets away, unseating him from the bed. My instinctive reaction is halted by the pain in my side as my injuries are stretched. I grit my teeth, groaning, a hand flying to my side. It seems the numbing agent only works as long as I don't aggravate the wound. My eye twitches as I find the boy on the floor.

"Owie," he pushes himself up from where he'd tumbled, "That hurt, Miss Mina."

I twitch again. After feeling me up like some sort of mini-pervert, he complains about my reaction?

"What do you think you're doing?" I hiss out, "You don't just go around feeling women up like that."

He blinks up at me, all wide-eyed innocence.

"But why?" he sits on his knees, "Big boobs are so soft and so nice," he holds up his hands, miming holding a pair of breasts.

I feel Salos wanting to laugh but restraining himself. The sudden change in the tone of the situation has startled him out of his depressive funk, it seems. I do not find it so amusing. A dark and angry calm descends over me. This little boy is not going to be a pervert like this. Where did he learn that? Even Sinbad has more tact, and I refuse to let him be anything at all like Sinbad. That motherly instinct in me rears its head with a fury. Even if I must take drastic measures, he will be a functioning and upstanding member of society. Aladdin seems to sense the change, as his expression goes from innocent to a bit afraid.

"Aladdin," I begin to attempt to rise, ignoring the pain in my side, "I don't know what you've been doing…but it won't be continuing."

As soon as my foot touches the ground, the boy gives a cry and bolts off. He's out the door in what seems like record time. I stare after him, surprised and still angry. Then, realizing there's no possible way I could catch him, I fall back into bed with a huff. It's followed by a groan of pain. I shouldn't move around so much. But when I'm feeling better…

Salos is still containing his laughter. I mentally smack his arm.

Shut up, Salos.

A mental cuddle comes my way. It seems that, if nothing else, my brother's depressive mood has been curbed for now.

Oh, my sun, he hums, What would I do without you?


 

I recover quickly, thanks to Sindria's medical treatments. The combination of medicine and magic is much more effective, and less nerve-wracking, than Master Rambal's methods of manipulating magoi through acupuncture. Being injured while training with the Yambala is a one way ticket to the acupuncture table. I still have nightmares. Sindria's method I most definitely more preferable. Daily applications of medicine, which thankfully only smells faintly of mint, and magical treatment sessions ensured that the wounds closed quickly. As the healer said, only the barest of scars remains. They're pale red, thin tracks clawing out from the epicenter to mark the path the electricity took through my body. Some run all the way from my side up to my shoulder. Others stretch from my hip to nearly my ankle. With me being a naturally pale person, they stand out pretty obviously. Lightning magic will definitely fuck you up. I'm most certainly hoping I never end up on the receiving end of Sinbad's Balalark Saika. It took me long enough to recover from Ithnan's spells. I can't imagine what it would be like to be struck by such a devastating attack. I never really thought about how scary Baal is until now. I mean, yeah, he was always a very large dragon man, but he was so nice that it was easy to forget.

Speaking of Baal, I heard Sinbad got his Djinn back. Asshole. I still want to strangle him for losing them. Especially Baal and Valefor. And Zepar, too. I always got along with the guy. Even if he was, well, odd. I was honestly kind of hoping Focalor would become unfortunately lost to us. But, my luck isn't that good. Bastard.

When the doctors finally do away with the bandages, I've been in Sindria for nearly two weeks. Over that time, I've been allowed free movement from the palace. When I became well enough to walk, of course. I've spent a good deal of time in the library. Though I want to get to know Alibaba a bit more, the boy has proved very capable of locking himself in his room. Aladdin was much the same. After the groping incident, he's avoided me like the plague. Afraid I'll do something to him, I suppose. Morgiana, unsurprisingly, has taken to training with Masrur extensively. I'm gladdened by this. He can teach her a great deal. But, that removed all of the children from me. And, with Keary still weeks out, I'm left to entertain myself. Salos found his entertainment in teasing me about my motherly tendencies and "premature empty nest syndrome". His access to my memories of my previous world is beyond unhelpful sometimes.

It was as I was searching for time occupiers that I realized just how much time I devote to training and other physical activities. Those days when I was too hurt to move during my recovery were terrible. I thought I was going to die. Salos said I was being overdramatic, but it was true. I couldn't even take a walk. Fortunately, Yamuriha came to my rescue. Though she was busy working as Sinbad's first magician, she did take time to visit me, often with texts on magic for me to read. We aren't besties or anything like that, but Yamuriha's nice. We have a mutual respect for one another when it comes to the magic arts and blue hair. It's not a very common trait. I only know of three people in this world who have it, and they're all in Sindria currently.

Yamuriha is also very interested in my rather unique situation when it comes to using both magic and a Djinn. I told her what I can, omitting everything concerning Alma Torran. We had a good time chatting about magic and many other things. It was from her that I learned about what had happed in Balbadd. To put it simply, chaos won. The Kou Empire took control after the attempt to win Balbadd's freedom was lost. Alibaba was forced to flee. Literally. Sinbad stuck his ass on a ship to Sindria despite all complaints, actually doing something smart for once. Ja'far and Masrur escorted Alibaba, Aladdin, Morgiana, and I to Sindria. Sinbad took Sharrkan and Spartos with him on a diplomatic mission to Kou, where he is currently working to secure Balbadd's future. Sometimes, it's so hard to forget he's actually some kind of master negotiator and powerful king. He acts like such an idiot so often that those times come as a surprise. Yamuriha also revealed that it is Balbadd's fall that has driven both Alibaba and Aladdin into depression. They both appear to blame themselves. That's most certainly sigh-worthy. I'll attempt to sort them out later. Self-pity isn't helping anyone do anything, but, they need some time to sit in their gloom corners before I break out the 'motivate you to get off your ass' speech.

It was also while I was trapped in bed that Salos revealed that Ugo's presence had disappeared from this world after our defeat. That was a devastating blow to say the least. I was so very glad to have the Djinn in this world, for guidance, even though he hadn't provided much. And for emotional support. He'd always been so kind to Salos and I after he rescued us. He was a mentor and friend and fellow Household member. For him to be gone leaves a feeling of emptiness in both of us. However, neither of us truly believe that he could have been killed. Not Ugo. Not being as powerful as he is. He's always been strong. Even after he gave up his human form, according to Salos. He was powerful enough to find me, worlds away, and return me home. With that in mind, I can't believe that he's died. And especially not with Aladdin's sudden acquisition of Solomon's Wisdom. That has "Ugo Was Here" written all over it. Still, it makes me sad to know that he is once again out of reach. We believe he returned to the Sacred Palace on Alma Torran. That would be the most logical conclusion, particularly if Aladdin had only managed a partial summons each time he called upon the Djinn. If Ugo was forced to leave this world, it would follow that he returned to where the rest of his body was. Much like how my Rukh were drawn to return to my body. I'm glad I had the chance to speak with him while he was still here. I smile slightly as I recall one of our first nights with Solomon and the others on Alma Torran.

Salos and I watched the magicians with a wary eye. We were still in shock, recovering from the loss of our entire people. Solomon, too, was upset, that much was obvious. He was glad to have saved us, but, he had been unable to stop the destruction of our people. We clutched each other, huddled in a corner of the common room. It had been two days. In that time, everyone had been very kind to us, but, they were human. Untrustworthy. There were a few of other races who made themselves known to us, but only briefly. The one who stuck closest was a girl not much older than us. Her fox ears, tail, and claws marked her as a Nirin. She had attempted to approach us numerous times. The first time, Salos had pulled me close, hiding me from her, and bared his teeth threateningly. She had huffed and backed off. After that, she'd been more tactful in her attempts. Sometimes, she would slide food towards us and then retreat a short ways to watch us. Other times, she would sit against the wall, just a short distance from us, before sliding steadily closer until Salos or I would tense. She'd left us a blanket, which we'd taken to almost completely hiding beneath.

There were only two we truly trusted, man and the young woman who had saved us. When we dared venture from our corner, it was only when they were near. Neither seemed to quite know what to do with us. The woman, Sheba, would sometimes allow us to sit on either side of her at mealtimes, pressed tightly against her sides, warily watching everyone else. It had been Sheba that convinced us to allow her to wash away the blood that had covered us after our rescue. The man, Ugo, was less open to physical touch. We were slowly becoming used to Solomon as well. He was kind, and he smelled nice. We had accepted a few head pats from him.

It was nearing bedtime in the the resistance's base. Ugo walked past us, rather engaged in a book. Salos and I watched him for a moment. Then, we looked at each other, blinking once in sync as a thought passed between us. Rising together, blanket wrapped around our shoulders and silently followed him at a short distance of a few feet. At first, he was oblivious, muttering to himself as he studied whatever material he had. Slowly, though, he became aware of the amused and sometimes pitying looks of the cave's other occupants. He looked up and then around, confused. Finally, his eyes settled on us. He stared as us, seeming surprised by our presence. We stared back silently. After a moment, he nervously broke eye contact, giving a small laugh as he glanced around again, as though at a loss. We had learned from observing him that he's a bit awkward, but, that put us at ease.

I extended my hand to him, the other clutching Salos's. Ugo looked at my hand for a moment. Then he gave another small, nervous laugh.

"Oh, uh, alright…" he took my hand in his larger one, engulfing it, "Um...what's this for?"

"Stay," I said as loudly as I dared.

My voice was hoarse from disuse. Salos nodded once, reinforcing our desire. Ugo looked utterly taken aback. His eyes widened behind his glasses.

"You want me to… stay with you?"

We nodded in unison, expressions serious.

"Stay," Salos echoed.

The magician was flustered, then. He looked around, as though searching for help. He held my hand gingerly, like he was afraid to hurt me. Upon seeing that he wouldn't be receiving aid, he looked back to us. He reached up as though to drag his fingers through his light blue hair before remembering that he held the book. He lowered his arm, frowning slightly.

"Ah, it's bedtime now…maybe you two should go lay down?"

I shook my head, squeezing his hand. His brows drew together in a perplexed expression.

"What if you laid down with Sheba? Would that be alright?"

Sensing that he was trying to get rid of us, Salos began to frown. My lower lip started to tremble. He didn't want us. He didn't like us. A low whine built in my throat, slowly turning into small, hiccupping noises.

The reaction was immediate. Ugo panicked, obviously not having expected tears. He dropped to one knee to be at our level, squeezing my hand convulsively.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry! Don't cry!" he scrambled for something to say as I continued, well on my way to full-blown crying, "Ah, um….you can stay with me! Alright? You can stay!"

We nodded, accepting this. Ugo's expression turned to relief as Salos cooed to me, reaching up to wipe at my eyes. I allowed my brother to dry my tears. Then, I managed a small smile. We didn't want to be alone anymore. We'd always shared a bed with our parents, curled up between them. We'd hardly slept at all since coming here and being left mostly on our own.

"Thank you," I whispered.

Ugo nodded, setting the book on his knee so that he could push his hair back from his face. That awkward smile of his returned.

"Y-yeah…" he paused, "Ah, what are your names?"

We hadn't spoken since arriving. Our first words since coming under Solomon's wing were to tell Ugo to stay. No one knew our names. Salos answered.

"I am Salos…my sister is Thamina."

Ugo nodded.

"My name's Uraltugo Noi Nueph…or, well, Ugo."

That night, the pair of us dragged a simple mat bed up next to Ugo's curling up together at his side. We were tired from our lack of proper rest and the security of his presence quickly lulled us to sleep. The Nirin girl, after watching us for a few minutes, left her usual sleeping place, next to a woman called Arba, and joined us. At first, we were a little wary of her, but, Ugo only sighed muttering something about everyone wanting to cuddle with him for some reason. The girl pushed him over so that he was between us, snuggling up to his other side. Perhaps the sudden abundance of children joining him made the nervous man uncomfortable, but, I'll never know. I was fast asleep as soon as I allowed my eyes to close, comfortably situated between my brother and the magician. That was the first time we allowed ourselves to be drawn into what would soon become our family.

The memory fades as I round a corner, still limping slightly from my hip injury. I smile slightly. I've recovered many memories and have been reviewing them during my recovery time. It was easiest to do so while I was stuck on bedrest. Still, it's good to be walking again. The staff has been most helpful in getting my feet back under me. It's amazing how many usages it has. After nearly four years of wandering in this world, I can safely say it might be the most useful weapon in my arsenal aside from my katana. And, from what I remember, it always has been. The end clicks as it taps against the stones of the hallway, the orb at the top swirling with golden color. Though I'm its sole user now, I can never claim the staff as my own. When Salos and I wielded it jointly on Alma Torran, we did refer to it as "ours", but, even that wasn't true. The staff was yet another gift to us from our King. He's the one who gave us this tool that allowed us to use magic and join his Household. Without him, we would merely be the last of a lost race. If ever he asked for me to return it, I know I would, no matter how much of a cut in power it would cause. All I truly need is Salos.

At that thought, I feel my twin's emotions swing towards the positive so quickly that it's almost disorienting. I sigh softly, lips quirking slightly as I'm barraged with the warm-fuzzies.

My sun! It makes me so very happy when you say things like that, he croons, And you so rarely do….

I send him a mental caress.

I know. You've always been the more affectionate of the two of us.

Hm, that's true…but, it would do my heart some good to hear a certain term of endearment, just to remind me that you really do love me, I can imagine him giving me that ridiculous pout he does as he puts a hand over his chest, like it really does hurt not to hear it.

But, seeing as it has been a long time, I suppose I'll indulge him.

Fine, I sigh at him, …You're my flower.

If rainbows of joy could possibly come shooting out of him at this moment, they would. As it is, I'm suddenly bombarded by such a wave of emotion that it's almost smothering. Salow practically crows as he engulfs in a mental embrace.

And you are my sunshine! His thoughts are suddenly tinted with a bit of mischief and his voice takes on a sing-song quality, My only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey-

I cut him off before he can go too overboard.

Where did you learn that? I'm torn between amusement, annoyance, and affection.

He chuckles.

From that lovely mind of yours, my sun. It's a most fitting song, I think.

I smile, amusement and affection winning out. I let my fingers drift over the eight pointed star on the sheath of my katana, knowing that it glows in response to the brief caress.

I hardly know what to do with you sometimes.

His own affection spikes in response.

Just keep on being my Thamina. That's all I need. Just like all you truly need is for me to keep on being Salos.

I'm still smiling when I push the doors of the library open. The smell of parchment and ink immediately strikes my sensitive nose. The scent isn't as familiar to me as that of sweat and metal, but, it is one that I enjoy. I wander into the rows of scrolls and books, idly looking about. Reading is enjoyable, but, it's beginning to get boring. Training is much more enjoyable. The rush of the fight, the need to improve, the pulsing of adrenaline in the blood. I love it. I don't love true combat, though. Controlled matches of strength are much different from the chaotic attempt to shed blood that is a real battle. I idly pick up one of the books I find, the cover saying something about customs of the Kou Empire. Just as lazily, I slide it back onto the shelf. I find that picking up customs as you go is much more efficient than book-based study. It does no good to cram a bunch of theory into your head if you don't know how to use it. Hands-on learning is much better, when someone who is a part of the culture can teach you. The ones who taught me most about Kou were that retired soldier and the young commander.

The soldier had settled down to be with his grandchildren. The caravan I'd been traveling with at the time had stopped briefly at his homestead, which had been turned into a large farm in his retirement. While the merchants went about bartering for food and water with who I assume was his eldest grandson, I followed the Rukh and found the old man observing his cabbages. He'd recognized the third eye on my forehead and, surprisingly, had bowed to me. I asked him why he had, rather surprised by this. No one had ever bowed to me in such a manner. He'd told me that it was Kou custom to bow to those of a higher social status. Not so different from how we would bow to Sensei and those with a higher belt rank at the dojo in the other world. We'd stuck up a conversation then, and talked until I'd moved on with the caravan. He'd bowed to me when I left, even though I'd insisted I was just a wanderer and that, really, I should be bowing to him in gratitude for his help.

The commander had been a bit different. There had been no bowing on either side. He, too, had recognized my mark of the third eye, but, rather than being awed, he had seemed more intrigued. There had been an almost instant mutual respect between us. On my part because he spoke so well, and bluntly, and carried himself with such regality. On his part because of who I was, I suppose. He had asked many questions about me and my travels. I'd answered what I believed to be safe, and he'd answered many of my questions as well. When we'd parted, we had exchanged names so as to address each other should we meet again, as we both wished to. He knew me as Thamina, the wandering magician. I knew him as Commander En of Kou.

As my thoughts linger on Commander En, I find a scroll of light magic spells that I think might be interesting. I tuck it under my arm and continue searching. He was very attractive, and not just physically. That blunt manner combined with that commanding presence. The intelligence with which he spoke and the keenness of his eyes. He's a warrior and a scholar, a rare combination. Very attractive. I suppose Sinbad has moments like that too. Moments of keen intellect in which the adventurer and the king line up completely. When he isn't being a manipulative douchebag or a womanizing menace. Yes, I'll confess, aside from the obvious physical aspects, I do have moments where I would say I find Sinbad attractive. He really does care for his people. And he's wickedly cunning and intelligent. Plus, he has some other noble traits. Seven Djinn have chosen him as their King Vessel. There's no way he's all bad if so many of my fellow Household members chose him. I sigh, picking up another scroll, this one on the nature of Household vessels. I'll admit I'm attracted to intelligent, strong men. Usually those who can lead. But, what keeps me from allowing myself to crush on either Sinbad or Commander En is that I know that, no matter how much mutual respect there is, they would both attempt to control me. It's in their natures. En had that same look in his eyes that Sinbad gets when he's trying to place someone in one of his schemes. They're similar in many ways. Too similar.

I let my hand rest on a thick book of medicinal herbs, debating. After a moment, I take it from the shelf and open it to the first page. It's handwritten, most likely the only one of its kind, and includes additions from as far as Artemyra and Heliohapt. Actually, it has a lot from Heliohapt. Not surprising, considering that they're known for their medicinal skill. I place it back on the shelf. If Destiny's path includes me finding a man, I know that it'll be the right one that the Rukh lead me to. After all, Destiny is the will of my King Solomon. I know whoever he'd choose for me would be a good match.

I pause at a table in an open section of the library. There's an open scroll lying on it, a jar of ink set on either end to keep it open as it dries. I recognize the elegant handwriting as Ja'far's. Unbidden, my lips quirk. He's attractive too, in a different way than Sinbad or En. He's just as intelligent and cunning as Sinbad, but, he uses it differently. Not in a manipulative way. He's physically attractive too. He doesn't have the brawn of the other two, but, the slight figure he presents is deceiving. I felt those hard muscles when he pulled me from the hotel back in Balbadd. Most definitely a warrior's body. And he's kind and sweet. Not to mention, his freckles are adorable. Salos's thoughts flicker in annoyance and I realize I'm staring at the scroll, daydreaming about the man. Sinbad's right hand. One of the Eight Generals of Sindria.

I think I might like him…I muse, In that way.

I'm only partially serious. I say this mostly to mess with Salos. He growls.

I'll admit there are worse men…but I don't like it when others take your attention…

I chuckle, moving on from the table.

Ja'far has been rather scarce lately. It seems that running the country in his king's absence is rather engaging. I've seen him occasionally. More often since I began to frequent the library, but, still. I'm worried he'll run himself into the ground. He always puts on a smile when he sees me and makes the conversation all about my health and happiness. He's so polite it's almost annoying. Partially because it's adorable. Mostly because I want to know how he's doing but, every time I inquire, he just brushes it off and turns the conversation around again. His nonverbal insistence that my wellbeing is more important than his own is beginning to wear. I mean, I get trying to be a good host, but, honestly, he's been so supportive that the least I could do would be to support him in return. I have to repay him in some way for his kindness. He even took time to come and see me when I was still trapped in bed, putting aside some of his duties in order to keep me company.

I sigh, turning down a row of shelves that have been marked with an indicator that they contain knowledge concerning dungeons. I look over the scrolls there, only slightly curious. Everything from dungeon languages to a list of known Dungeon Capturers to a map of known dungeon and past dungeon locations is contained there. Uninterested, I again exit the shelves, limping along. My leg has begun to hurt again. I'll most likely only be able to grab one more book before heading back to my room.

I suppose I'll just keep waiting for the right man… I mentally mutter, hobbling towards the next book stack, If there is one. Maybe I'll just be single forever.

I sense a ripple in Salos's thoughts, a fleeting indication that I haven't been single forever, before he again hides away anything that may trigger a memory. It's enough, though. I have a sudden flash of a man of average build. His long dark hair is bound into a tail at the nape of his neck. The scales under his eyes fold oddly as he smiles, but, they do nothing to detract from his handsomeness. A taloned hand holds my own as dark eyes regard me fondly. My own hand flickers by his face, tenderly brushing his stray bangs back. I can hear his deep voice, rumbling through me with audial pleasure.

"Thamina…."

I stare unseeingly at the shelf across from me as the brief memory fades.

"Aswad…"

There's that name again. Ever since the creature in Sabnack's dungeon triggered that first memory, the man has haunted me. I remember only brief flashes of him. A smile. A word. His voice. His eyes. But I can't deny the feelings that come with each memory. I was in love with this man. I feel my expression collapse into confusion. I've searched my mind, attempting to force a complete memory of him to resurface, but, my attempts have been in vain. I know why. Out of all my memories, these are the ones that Salos actively represses. Thus far, aside from my brief attempts to drag one to the surface, I haven't fought him. How can I? He's my other half. But, I'm beginning to lose patience. This man was obviously important to me. And the fervor with which Salos blocks him from my mind goes beyond his usual brotherly jealousy. It's not like he doesn't want me to remember a past boyfriend because he dislikes sharing me. This isn't him trying to let me recover on my own. He's stopping me from doing that where Aswad is concerned.

Please, Mina, he says worriedly when he senses the tenor of my thoughts, Don't pursue it. Just let him go. Please.

I grit my teeth.

Why, Salos? What could Aswad possibly have done to warrant being wiped from my mind?

Salos's emotions darken, but, he gives no reply. As usual. I feel anger rise briefly. Anger that he would keep something from me. But, upon feeling his worry, I tamp it down. He's afraid that this would hurt me. There's no other reason that he would keep something from me.

I mentally reach out to him, as though slipping my arms around him and hugging him tightly. I know he's trying to protect me. It's just infuriating sometimes. He returns the embrace. I remember better days, when these hugs were physical and not just mental ghosts of the real thing. When angry words would lead to hours of silence in each other's presence, reassuring ourselves and each other that we would never be alone. Having remembered my bond with Salos as it was, my time in my previous world isn't quite so happy. I was loved, yes, and had a lovely family, but they weren't my twin. They weren't Solomon, Sheba, and Ugo. Sensei wasn't Amon. I loved those important people, but, I was without Salos. It's no wonder I felt so lost there. And now…he's a djinn and I'm not. I'm just the last Dioscuri, and hardly that. What is a Dioscuri without her twin? I would rather be a djinn. Rather be at my brother's side. No romance could drive away that desire. Though, it might lessen the blow of being without him.

Chapter Text

I continue to recover quickly with the help of the physicians of Sindria. Within another week, I was well enough to begin training again. That gave me four weeks until Keary's arrival. I refused to be lacking in my combat abilities from my time spent in bed. Leif would be insufferable if he saw that I had regressed at all, even if I had been injured. I didn't want to deal with his teasing. I was only given a chance to spar with a guard who, when he'd seen me drilling forms alone, had kindly offered to be my opponent. He really did have his heart in the right place. But, after I put him on his ass in an embarrassingly short time, he had bowed out. And I had sought out stronger opponents. I'd approached Masrur first, on one of the days he was not training Morgiana. He'd obliged me. We'd fought without weapons, him holding his monstrous strength back when it became obvious that I had yet to regain my previous agility. When Masrur had gone off with Morgiana again, Hinahoho had taken over. The large man was gladdened to have an opponent who would so willingly spar with him. I confess, I'd never fought anyone so big before, but I gave it my best. Needless to say, my agility quickly improved by dodging that huge sword of his.

As we continued our daily sparring, my partners began to vary. Sometimes I fought Drakon, who was incredibly fierce. Once, Yamuriha and I battled it out with magic. A handful of times, Ja'far dragged himself away from work in order to 'get some fresh air and practice'. Translation: hand my ass to me. The man's scary, and that's the truth. It's impossible to get the drop on him in combat. It's like he has eyes on the back of his head. And everywhere else, for that matter. The last time we fought, he knew how frustrated I was that he continually beat me when I used only my sword and physical skills and let me use magic as well. I cloaked myself completely with a Light glamour and still couldn't land more than a few hits. Every fight we've had has ended in me either tangled up in the cords of his weapon or with a blade poking into a vital spot. I'd heard that he used to be some kind of badass assassin, but I didn't really believe it until now. I mean, there was that time when that kid in Balbadd insulted Sinbad and Ja'far was pissed enough to attack. But aside from that, he's so nice. And such a badass. It's not that Ja'far's just that much better a fighter than me, it's that I can't figure out how to fight him. He's unpredictable, especially with that weapon of his. It's easy to follow the path of a sword or spear. Even Keary's daggers are easily combated if you learn her fight pattern. But those blades on cords are impossible to track. I never know if Ja'far's going to attack with the blade or the cord itself. When I did use magic, I threw up a borg to protect myself. But, I'd needed to drop it in order to attack. He had just waited for the right moment and outmaneuvered me.

He seems to feel bad about consistently beating me. He often points out what gave him an opening and such. Kind of him, but, it doesn't do much for my pride. Salos tells me it's good for my growth as a fighter. I'm used to being the small, quick one who fights much larger and stronger opponents. An adversary who can outmaneuver me forces me to stretch myself. Plus, he says, at least Ja'far's nice about putting me on my ass. And he always helps me back up and asks if I'd like to accompany him to the library or assist him in some small way. Since I'm back on my feet, he's ensured I'm not bored. When I'm not training, he has me helping him. In the past few weeks, I've done things like organized the records room, written an account of my dealings with Varang, and am even in the process of re-cataloguing the library. I'm nowhere near finished with that one. But, I'm happy doing it. I feel settled. More so than I have in a long time. I'm never idle. I'm of use. And I'm getting used to having my own room to return to with my own bed to sleep in. I'm now accustomed to eating dinner with the Generals and the kids. I love the social atmosphere here. I can laugh and not worry about suddenly being taken off-guard by those with unsavory intent. I haven't felt like this since Varang. This kind of community reminds me of the family I left behind in that other world. The one that has grown increasingly distant in my memory, like a dream I can just barely recall. Things like cars, cell phones, and medical technology seem so farfetched. Illusionary, almost. What's real to me is the dragon-man and giant who drink together and the princess-like gifts from the King of Sindria, who is renowned for his wealth and power.

Speaking of the luxuries of Sindria, the boys have been eating way too much. I'm glad they're out and about again, but, I know that their overeating is a sign of the emotional turmoil both Aladdin and Alibaba still wrestle with. After a week or so of letting them wallow in their rooms, Morgiana and I teamed up to knock some sense into the pair. My speech to the both of them was essentially "Yeah, life sucks, bad things happen, but sitting in your room and pouting isn't doing anything to change that. You want to make a difference and take Balbadd back? Get off your ass and do something, then." Morgiana stood next to me as backup, in case we had to manually drag them out. We didn't. They were fired up for a bit after that. But, then they realized that they couldn't make any moves without Sinbad's information from his meeting with the Emperor of Kou. And it would be months until his return. Rather than returning to their rooms, they decided to indulge in the pleasantries Sindria had to offer. Mostly, its food. When I became concerned with that, and was very seriously thinking about putting a stop to it, Ja'far intervened on the boys' behalf. I swear, the man's soft spot for kids might be even worse than mine. I've left them alone, though. I have too much on my mind without trying to force Alibaba and Aladdin to behave.

Like Keary's arrival. When I wake up on the scheduled day, I'm almost too excited to do anything but wait for her. Hinahoho actually calls off our morning training when it becomes obvious that my head isn't in the game. He just about nailed me with a blow that, if we'd been fighting for real, would have killed me. As it is, I think that portion of the training yard is going to need redone. I try to distract myself by continuing my cataloguing of the library. After I realize I've made it through like three books in an hour, I know that I won't be much use there either. Ja'far's booked for the day, the other Generals are attending to business, and the kids are sightseeing. Only Salos's intervention keeps me from equipping and flying out to meet Keary. It would draw too much attention if Kou is spying on Sindria. As it is, Keary's method of travel, if discovered, would draw attention enough. Magical tools like flying carpets are found only in dungeons. Plus, Varangians are distinctive people. I need to let them arrive on their own time. And, so, I'm left alone in the palace to stare at a wall in anxious anticipation.

It's a bad scene.

Salos manages to keep me from going nuts by instigating a mental game of some sort. Something about rearranging Ugo's full name in as many ways as we can. I vaguely remember that this is something we did on Alma Torran as well, though I seem to recall that the little fox girl from my memories played it with us. Aside from a vague memory of her physical appearance, I don't know who she was.

We're on our eighty-ninth combination of letters when the trumpets heralding Keary's arrival finally sound. I bolt out of my room so fast that I nearly forget to put on my shoes. Impatient, I snatch my flying cape and exit via the balcony, mentally thanking whoever assigned me a room with such a nice addition. I jump without much thought, shocking the guards in the courtyard below, who cry out warnings. A moment later, I have the cape unfurled beneath me and am zipping away. Drakon will probably ask me not to scare his guards later, but, at the moment, I don't really care. The trumpets just sounded, which means that Keary's been spotted but hasn't arrived yet. It's the magicians' cue to let the newcomers through Sindria's protective magical barrier. Which means I'll be there in time to greet her.

By the time I arrive at the docks where Keary is set to land, I'm very glad I went by air. The people of Sindria began to clamor about as soon as the trumpet sounded. The excitement of the princess's arrival causes the streets to become packed by curious onlookers who hope to see her when she makes her way to the palace. I would never have gotten through on foot. I briefly wonder if Aladdin and Alibaba have been caught up in the crowds down below. The thought leaves my mind as soon as I reach my destination.

I drop from the flying cloak and find that the Eight Generals still in Sindria, besides Masrur, are already present, having included this very important event in their busy schedules. Ja'far, Hinahoho, Yamuraiha, Drakon, and Pisti attentively watch the ever-growing dot of Keary's transport on the horizon, occasionally speaking to each other casually about their incoming guests. The smallest General has been especially excited to meet Keary, as the Princess's mother was from Artemyra. Apparently their moms were buddies before Keary's was banished for some reason or another. She wasn't sure about the reasons, but, she knew the name. After having heard firsthand from Pisti what Artemyra was like, I'm hardly surprised that Keary is the way she is. Or that her mother ended up married to the Prince, later King, of such a warrior-like people.

I can barely contain my excitement as the flying transport comes ever nearer. After using so much magoi to cross the ocean, the three travelers will no doubt be exhausted. Their rooms have already been arranged in the guest quarters of the palace. Rooms so fine that I'm really starting to wonder if Sinbad isn't compensating for something.

Mina, dear, Salos drawls, You do realize that you're thinking about the King of Sindria's-

Ew, no, stop, I cut him off before he can continue, sensing where he's going with that.

He mentally shrugs.

Just thought I'd point it out. Though I agree with you, I was afraid that your particular path of thought would dredge up memories of an unfortunate incident concerning a leaf…

Immediately, I have a very vivid flashback of meeting Sinbad on the road to Balbadd, that stupid leaf all that saved the kids and me from a truly terrible sight.

I wince, feeling a bit sick. My brother's a jerk. He chuckles a bit.

I banish the horror in my memory by turning my thoughts back to the arriving party. I'll make sure that they're shown to them as soon as the pleasantries are taken care of. Disgust fading in the face of seeing my friend again, I feel a grin stretch across my face. She's right over the dock now. The carpet, in contrast to my more pliable cape, begins to descend in a steady, gliding way. As it does so, I can pick out the blues and blacks that decorate it. Sabnack's colors, unsurprisingly. The swirls of color grow more prominent as they grow closer, then, they disappear when the carpet finally alights on the deck.

Their entrance is impressive to say the least. Princess Keary of Varang stands on the carpet for a moment, surveying those gathered, her arms crossed over her chest. Predictably, she wears her leather armor over a tunic and pants, black boots covering her feet. She looks nice enough for the purpose of dignitary, at least, this armor is much more heavily decorated than her last set, but fierce enough to prove her status as a warrior. I'd expect nothing less from her. Her blonde hair has been bound into a braid that swirls in a bun on the back of her head, her bangs framing her coldly beautiful face. I can clearly see her daggers at her hips and the silver ring in which Sabnack is contained glinting on her finger. She obviously isn't going for the 'blushing bride' approach in these marriage talks.

Flanking her are Leif and Lukas. Though Lukas is definitely Varangian in size, Leif still towers over him. I can't help glancing between the Captain of the Guard and Hinahoho in comparison. The Imachukk man only has maybe half a foot on him. Keary being regular-sized makes both escorts look even more massive as they stand behind her. The regent's son stands with his hand casually on his weapon's hilt, his blond hair ruffling in the salty sea breeze in a way that makes him look like a contender for a men's cologne commercial. There's no sign of hostility from anyone here, which leads me to assume that him going for his weapon is more habit than anything. He catches my eye briefly and his lips quirk. He's trying to look impressive, with his lordly attire and all. No true smiling, then. Lukas, decked out in full Varangian armor, looks more the soldier. His long dark hair falls in innumerable braids over the gleaming metal and hard leather. A trimmed beard makes him look quite a bit older than he is. Cool Varangian green eyes survey those before him. He's got a massive battle axe strapped to his back, completing his whole 'I am Ragnarok' look. Trust me, when he uses that axe, it's fucking terrifying.

Ja'far steps forward from the other Generals, his hands hidden in his sleeves, and bows respectfully. He then speaks in a soft but still impressive voice.

"Welcome, Princess Anselma, to Sindria."

Keary gives him a regal nod, her eyes like chips of Varangian ice.

"Thank you, Master Ja'far. And the other Generals as well. It is most kind of you to greet me so warmly."

She does the diplomacy thing better now than she did previously. Leif and Lord Harald must have worked with her.

She steps off the carpet, which I see now is a huge contraption, capable of comfortably carrying all three of them as well as their luggage. Her two escorts follow as Ja'far again stands upright to face her.

"Of course. We are most honored by your presence," he gives her an apologetic smile, "Unfortunately, I must inform you that King Sinbad, as well as Prince Sharrkan and Prince Spartos, are currently on a diplomatic mission in the Kou Empire. They will return as soon as possible, but, we are unsure as to how long that will be, and any discussions of business have to wait until that time."

A bit of Keary's true self shows when she shrugs one shoulder just slightly, expression almost bored in its blankness. I bite back a small laugh. The guy just laid out that both of her potential suitors are in enemy territory and she's just too cool to worry about it. I can't help but imagining her on a 'deal with it' meme, sunglasses and all.

"I am already aware. Fear not, we are not in a hurry. Our current participation in the Seven Seas Alliance is enough to ensure my kingdom's safety. We will discuss business when able," her eyes slide to the city beyond, "In the meantime, I will acquaint myself with Sindria," she looks back to Ja'far, "If that is acceptable."

She's not really asking permission. It's more like she's saying "I'm being polite but I'm royalty". Ja'far's expression doesn't change aside from his smile becoming a bit more genuine. Damn. They do this whole political song and dance really well. That aside, Lord Harald must have told her about Sinbad's absence after I informed him via crystal. Though, if Varang's currently stable, I doubt she would be worried about her suitors since she still isn't really keen on getting married.

"Of course," Ja'far's voice pulls me back to the conversation, "We would be honored to assist you in your learning of this culture as well as those of the other allied nations."

Keary nods once, satisfied.

"Good. I look forward to it."

There's a pause. Then, Pisti skips forward, obviously taking the finishing of initial pleasantries as a cue to introduce herself. Her eyes are bright, the feather in her hair bobbing, as she comes to a stop before the princess of Vanrang. Without so much as a flicker of warning, she grabs Keary's hand tightly in both of her own, grinning broadly. Lukas stiffens when his princess is approached in such a manner, but a glance at Leif, who is utterly relaxed, puts him back at ease. Keary looks a bit surprised, maybe even perturbed, but her expression softens in response to the tiny woman's smile. I fight back a smirk. Keary's never been one for excessive physical contact. It's amusing to see her trying to keep up with such a bubbly person.

Of course, I've been trying to keep myself in check since I got here. Thank Solomon for those years of training and discipline that kept me from jumping Keary as soon as she got here. I'm still struggling, though.

"Hello, Princess!" Pisti seems almost beside herself in excitement, "Welcome to Sindria!"

Keary gives her a nod.

"Thank you…Princess Pisti of Artemyra?"

The pixie-like General giggles. She's so adorably tiny. Even though she insists that she's an adult, my maternal insticts kick into gear whenever she's around. She came to visit me a couple of times when I was on bedrest. And we had a race a few days ago, her bird versus my cape. The bird won. And then it pecked me in the ass after the race. I hate that bird.

"You can just call me Pisti. After all, our mothers were friends," her big eyes sparkle as she clutches the taller woman's hand, "I've been so excited to meet you!"

Keary glances up at the rest of the group, not quite sure how to respond to someone who was quite obviously 'so excited'. Especially when they look like they're ten and carry a title like "General of Sindria, Crown Princess of Artemyra". No one offers anything other than fond smiles. She looks back to Pisti.

"Thank you…it's a pleasure to meet you as well."

Her eyes flicker to me, a silent 'help me' written in them. I shrug slightly in response and nod to her diminutive new friend. She has to learn how to deal with these people, and not just the serious, stuffy politicians she's used to. She is obviously not appreciative.

Fortunately, Drakon takes pity on the newcomer and steps forward. He absolutely dwarfs both princesses as he places a clawed hand on Pisti's head. Anyone who didn't know him well might have flinched under those scales and talons, but Pisti just looks up, still smiling.

"I am sure that Princess Anselma will be most happy to speak with you at length later. But, the rest of us must introduce ourselves as well," he rumbles, his tone fond.

Pisti nods and flits back, releasing Keary's hand. She still looks like someone just told her they'd take her to Disney World tomorrow. Drakon bows regally to the Varangian princess. Decked out in his red cape, he looks truly fierce. I can see from the way Leif's eyeing him that there'll most likely be a sparring march later this week. Keary gives a nod in return when he introduces himself, thanking him for his kindness in doing so. Yamuraiha steps up next and Drakon moves on to Leif, who offers his hand rather than a bow. So it goes, each one being brought forward in turn until everyone's acquainted with everyone. Except Masrur. Who is assumedly off teaching his padawan the way of the Fanalis. It's kind of cool to see, since these are some of the powerhouses of the world. Though, it's obvious that, despite Keary being in their territory, she's the one with the highest standing as both royalty and a Dungeon Capturer. No offense to Sinbad, but, I think she'll be the one with the jack even when he gets back. Charismatic as hell or not, Keary's born royalty. He's just a dude who captured some dungeons, bought an island, built a city, made some deals, and said 'yo, I'm the king'. At least, that what he seems to be. Knowing that man, he's probably actually an alien not-so-secretly bent on taking over the world. And terraforming it.

But, I digress.

It's when Ja'far steps back from formally introducing himself that Keary's eyes finally turn to me. Her expression remains stern, the picture of Varangian royalty. I keep mine impassive as well, despite my urge to smile and jump her like some kind of ecstatic puppy. After a moment, she extends a hand. My lips quirk just slightly as I move forward, clasping her arm. Likewise, her fingers wrap around my arm, a few inches below my elbow. It's a gesture of friendship within Varangian culture, beyond the formalities she's previously displayed. To clasp arms like this is to accept each other as equals in all matters. We stare at each other for a moment, solemnity in the air. I guess we must look pretty impressive. Keary, the warrior princess, upon whom a great deal hinges, and me, the wanderer, someone not of this world. It's probably some great historical moment or one that will mark something significant in destiny's path. The thought sobers me for a moment.

Then, I can't help myself. I pull her into an embrace, deftly holding the Staff so as not to knock her in the head with it. I'm aware of a few looks of surprise from the Generals. After all, we were just standing there, all serious, like we were on the precipice of Destiny itself. I don't particularly care what they think. Keary is my friend, and I'll greet her accordingly. After the briefest of pauses, she returns the strong embrace. We hold it only long enough to thump each other a few times on the back before letting go. Hugs or no, we're still badasses and will act accordingly.

When I see her face again, she's allowed herself to smile. It makes her actually look her age. Neither of us really has friends. It's just the nature of our positions. She's a princess, supposed to be higher up than others, confined to her station. When she ran away to pose as a mercenary, she was hiding her identity, which kept a wall between her and others. As for me, while I would consider myself on friendly terms with many of the Generals, or a few of the Yambala, they aren't truly my friends. I didn't entrust my life to them numerous times within an icy dungeon or spend a month planning with them how to best secure the future of their nation. Nor did I sneak through the Kou Empire on a giant flying sheet for any of them. And the kids, Aladdin, Alibaba, Morgiana, are more like my own little fawns than anything else. Keary is the only true friend I have in this world.

"Thamina…it's good to see you again," her tone is relieved, though I can tell she's trying to keep up appearances with the Generals still there.

I grin in return, leaning slightly against the Staff. Despite numerous healings and a good amount of rehabilitation, I still get sore in that hip from time to time and have to shift the weight off of it. If I'm still for too long, it's like that area settles and doesn't want to move.

"You as well. I was getting impatient. I want to regale you with tales of my brave battles and terrible wounds. I fear that the wait has allowed me to expound upon them too much, they might not be believable…" I finish with a faux-thoughtful expression, tapping my chin.

Her eyes flash with amusement. I know I'm one of the few people who gets her sense of humor. Sometimes, we're both kind of morbid, and even Leif gets a little worried about our jokes. But, Keary and I don't really care. She folds her arms over her ornately pressed leather breastplate, cocking a brow.

"Truly? Your words already cause me to wonder if such bravery ever really occurred."

Leif grins behind her. Lukas even looks a little less Eeyorish. Tale-telling is a big part of Varangian culture. The bigger and more badass, the better. Until it's so cheesy that not even your drunk friends at the local pub will believe you.

I frown, fluttering my hand at her dismissively.

"I've waited weeks for you to arrive and this is how you treat me. With doubt and mockery. And I was truly excited to share my adventures with you," I sniff, placing my fist on my hip.

Keary's demeanor softens further. She almost rolls her eyes.

Her cousin slides forward then, extending his arm to me. Everyone's ready to head up to the palace, they're just kindly waiting for Keary and me to finish greeting each other. His blue eyes sparkle with amusement.

"I assure you, my lady, I am most intrigued to hear your tales. But, they would be better told within the comfort of Sindria's halls, no? Though I would remain on these docks as long as my lady commanded, I confess that I would rather retreat indoors after so long spent outside," as he finishes, Leif turns his eyes to Ja'far questioningly.

The General dips his head and moves to motion us into the city.

"Of course. Please, we will escort you."

My playful frown melts into a true smile as I take Leif's arm. He's tall enough that I actually have to reach up to do so, but, I'm used to it. A set of guards appear seemingly out of nowhere to collect the carpet and luggage. Lukas steps forward to offer his arm to Keary, but Pisti beats him to it. She grabs Keary's hand, looking as smug as can be. Drakon and Hinahoho bow out, apparently having some other things to attend to. Yamuraiha wishes the newcomers well and flies away on her staff to ensure that the barrier's been properly restored. I'm a bit envious. Flightlessness without my cape is one of the downsides of my unique magic situation, but, I try not to complain.

Our party sets out towards the palace, another small contingent of guards leading the way to clear the crowd. I was right in coming via cape. It's absolutely crazy once we get into the city. Sindrians have a reputation for being partiers and generally excitable and happy, but the state of the crowd is legitly nuts. People are shouting 'welcome's and praises for her safe arrival. Apparently, they're really excited about the new addition to the Alliance. After all, a delegate from Varang in Sinbad's entourage will give them a new celebrity to engage with. The Sindrians love their Generals. It's not surprising that the stardom spreads to the potential bride of two of them. I hope that Sharrkan and Spartos don't have any super zealous fangirls. Otherwise, Lukas might have his job cut out for him.

Fortunately, though excited, the crowd parts easily for us. The guards don't even really have to push. They just walk and the people move. Without the soldiers and our two Generals, though, I'm willing to bet that we'd never get through. Pisti still clings to Keary's hand, chatting away at her, pointing out specific shops or restaurants, and generally enjoying this new friend she's picked up. I smile slightly at the seriousness Keary displays in response. I know that, until she's comfortable with her surroundings, she'll be as sober as Amon himself. The thought makes me chuckle. I can just see her and the old man meeting. I think they'd get along just fine until her hot-headed side got the better of her. Then he'd lecture at her, like he used to with Salos, Zagan, and I.

That would work well.

"Something amuses you, Lady Thamina?"

Leif's voice pulls me from my thoughts. He's speaking loudly enough to be heard over the crowd but low enough that he's only talking to me and not everyone in the party. I look up to find him smiling, his eyes dancing with a hint of mischief. He knows I dislike the title, but, he enjoys teasing me. I retract my earlier thought about only having Keary as a friend. I think Leif's quickly becoming my second friend. I smile in return.

"Just how Pisti's taken to Keary, Lord Anselma. I think our favorite princess has made a new friend without even really trying."

The young lord glances towards the two. Pisti has taken a flower from one of the many well-wishers and is walking on tiptoe, deftly slipping it into Keary's hair while they still follow Ja'far. Keary looks like she's not sure whether to be annoyed, embarrassed, or grateful for the gift. Leif chuckles the low sound rumbling from him like the clashing of two boulders.

"Indeed, my cousin has never been very adept at making friends. I think it surprises her that someone would take to her so quickly. The princess of Artemyra, is it?"

I nod.

"Yes. She's been going on for weeks about how she anticipated Keary's arrival. She seems utterly convinced that they were destined to be bosom companions."

Leif breaks into a loud laugh at that, surprising many of our party. Keary looks suspicious, shooting us a glare like she just knows we're making fun of her. Pisti watches us for a moment and then gives me an odd, smug little smile. Ja'far glances back only briefly. Lukas doesn't even look. He just maintains that long-suffering expression and marches on.

"The day my cousin ever describes someone as her 'bosom companion' is the day I'll resign my post."

He's still chuckling, barely even able to get the words out. I give a small laugh as well. I will admit, I can't imagine it either.

Unfortunately, once we reach the palace, our new arrivals are so exhausted that they excuse themselves and go straight to bed, putting a hold on any catching up. Leif bids me well, kisses my hand, and then disappears into his quarters. Keary makes me promise that we'll catch up once she rests. I can see that she's noticed the lightning scars from the way her eyes linger, worry easily visible. One downside of wearing these dresses that Sinbad and Ja'far gave me, I suppose. They suit the weather wonderfully, but they do show a lot a skin. The blue one I lost in Balbadd had the most coverage. The one I wear currently, which is the traditional Sindrian green, has a long flowing skirt with two slits that run up to midthigh, allowing for free movement of my legs. As well as visibility with every step I take. My back, from the collar down to the belt just under my bust is left bare by the halter style of the top. The jagged red lines running from my side are clearly visible, clawing across my pale skin like the lightning itself remains under my flesh.

I smile and nod, giving her my word. She then retires and I go to report to Lord Harald that she arrived safely. Ja'far has returned to his duties, but, Pisti stays with me. Apparently, she's run out of legitimate work and has decided that I will be suitable company until the newest object of her fascination awakens. She kindly waits outside as Lord Harald and I exchange information via crystal. Nothing much has changed in Varang, and all I can report is Keary's safe arrival. As soon as I emerge from my room, though, the blonde terror is upon me like an excited puppy.

"So, you and Lord Anselma? I can't believe you didn't say anything before he arrived!" she pouts at me.

I stop in the doorway, giving her a look that has 'da fuck?' written all over it. I suddenly feel Salos's amusement, but, I'm still trying to compute. Me and Leif?

"…what?"

Pisti's childish face morphs into a gleefully teasing smirk, much like that odd smile she gave me on the way here. It's in moments like this that her true age becomes obvious. There's a suggestive look in her eyes that I really don't like. But, what I think she's implying is too far-fetched for her to actually be implying it. Right?

"Don't think I didn't notice," she almost sing-songs, "The way you and Lord Leif Anselma got along so well. He even offered his arm to you instead of his princess. And the way you two were talking and laughing together proves it!"

I stare at her, expressionless.

…What?

She giggles and hops forward to poke me. I don't even flinch, despite usually being ticklish. I'm still in shock.

"Everyone else saw it too! Pretty soon, all of Sindria will be talking about it! It's so cute!"

Cute…What?!

Oblivious to my dawning realization, she continues.

"He treats you so well. Even though you aren't nobility, I'm sure that everything will work out since you're such good friends with the princess. And it looks like you guys have been courting for a while, so there's probably not any push-back in Varang, right? Even though you aren't nobility," she frowns at me, "Are you?" her eyes suddenly light up as she immediately jumps to the next thought, "Can I come to your wedding?"

I lean heavily against the Staff. Was that the impression people got? That Leif and I are…courting? I mean, yeah, escorting in the Varangian way suggests a deeper relationship in the southern countries, but it's not like we were making goo-goo eyes at each other or anything. We just kind of chatted on our way to the palace. He treats me carefully because I'm like half his size, not because we're secret lovers or anything. He would squish me if he wasn't careful! Plus he's super refined and gentlemanly as a lord, and his code of Viking honor or whatever dictates that he behaves a certain way with women. He chose me before Keary because, while I was in Varang, Keary asked him to personally look out for me. I'm assuming that request carries over to here as well. We get along well, we might even be friends, but a couple?

Salos is attempting to stifle his laughter. I ignore him. The only reason he thinks it's funny is because he knows it's not true.

"Pisti, we aren't…engaged…or courting…or anything really."

She actually deflates. Her expression turns disappointed and she slumps slightly.

Oh my Solomon, she was shipping us.

At that thought, Salos loses it completely, laughing so hard I'm pretty sure his metal vessel shakes.

Chapter Text

I spend the next morning with Keary and her two companions, catching up on what has occurred while we were apart and discussing our future plans. As soon as she woke up from her initial long rest, she asked to be taken to my room and immediately barraged me with questions about my new scars. I asked her to wait until Leif and Lukas joined us as well, not wanting to share the story more than once. We agreed to meet in Keary's suite, gathering in the sitting area and relaxing in the plush cushions provided for us. Then, I had told them almost everything. From the moment I met Aladdin on the road to joining up with Sinbad to the political issues in Balbadd to going after Ithnan. Obviously, I didn't explain exactly who Ithnan was. That would mean getting into details about Alma Torran, which is forbidden. I merely told them that he was a member of an antagonistic organization called Al Tharmen, following with a brief explanation of who Al Tharmen was. I could tell that this really freaked them out. To learn that there was an evil organization bent on throwing the world into chaos probably wasn't on anyone's to-do list.

"Why did you pursue him alone?" Keary asks, a bit reproachfully, "Why not wait for King Sinbad to accompany you?"

I lean back in my seat. Salos's vessel rests across my lap and the Staff dangles loosely in my fingers. Ever since my fight with Ithnan, they've never been more than a few feet away from my person. Even being in Sindria doesn't put my mind at ease. Al Tharmen is full of people from Alma Torran. Until meeting that traitor, I'd been very successful in staying under their radar. They didn't know I was around and they didn't know that Salos's dungeon had been captured. Now, though, my advantage is lost. If Ithnan knows, I'm willing to bet he went and told every one of his evil buddies. And their leader. A burst of pain floods my skull as I attempt to remember their leader. It was a woman, I know that much, and dangerous. But, I don't know more than that. Every time I try, I get a killer headache.

"Because Sinbad had his hands full with helping Alibaba, I wanted Ja'far and Masrur to protect the children, and," I reply, my eyes narrowing, "there was no time. I wanted to stop them from even making their move, but, I failed utterly. They succeeded in doing what they desired. I didn't so much as put a hiccup in their plans."

Keary doesn't look satisfied by my reasons for putting myself in danger, but, I don't particularly care. She can be unsatisfied. I did what I thought was right and, friend or no, she doesn't really have an excuse to judge me. She ran away and became a mercenary for three years.

"And the scars?" Leif prompts. His eyes linger on my lower leg, tracing the jagged pink lines.

I sigh, absently running my fingers over my sword.

"Lightning. It's my opponent's specialty, it seems. He caught me twice, on my hip and then on my opposite side," my lips quirk in a dry smirk, "Quite the addition to my collection, no?"

"Indeed. I wonder if any man will be brave enough to court you when faced with such obvious markers of your past battles," he gives me a boyish grin, flirting subtly.

I laugh softly, knowing he probably doesn't mean anything by it. He's flirted before and it's always playful, never serious. At least, I think so. It took me at least half an hour yesterday to convince Pisti that we aren't a couple. I hope that he doesn't do anything to lend doubt to what I told her.

Keary harrumphs, returning my attention to her.

"What then? You were defeated?"

I nod.

"I was. I lost consciousness at the end of our battle, but, my enemy left me alive. Masrur sniffed me out not too long after that and took me to a safe location. Unfortunately, I was injured badly enough that I did not awaken until we had been in Sindria for some time. By then, Sinbad had departed with Spartos and Sharrkan to intercede for Balbadd. They seem to want to make it the latest addition to their empire, but, Sinbad would rather they didn't."

Keary leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees. The morning light filters through the window, setting her blond hair alight as it hands loosely about her face. She steeples her fingers, pressing the foremost to her lips. That's her thinking pose. I know it from the month I spent staying in her home.

"…how did they fall so quickly? Even with the intervention of Al Tharmen, Balbadd was a fairly stable trading nation. How did Kou take them in without a fight?"

I can see why she's worried. Even with Varang being part of the Seven Seas Alliance, Kou is still a looming threat, growing bigger with each addition made to their power. If they could take Balbadd down from the inside, who's to say they couldn't pull a fast one in Varang too?

I repeat what Ja'far told me. That, through the use of a new currency and promise of an alliance, Balbadd was weakened significantly. That the treatment of the poor had caused a revolt and that their hold on the king had stopped significant good change from occurring when Alibaba presented it. All Al Tharmen had to do was give it a little push and the whole thing tumbled into Kou's hands.

"Since Varang's policies are so very different from Balbadd's and the people so unified, I doubt such tactics would be effective. But, it shows how crafty, and patient, Al Tharmen is. And, if they've allied with Kou, they have that military might at their back. Keep your eyes open, just in case," I finish, "I know you're not one to listen to pretty words, but these people are tenacious and will stop at nothing to achieve their goal, no matter how many lives it costs."

Keary nods. Leif is staring out the window, seeming to consider what we're discussing. Lukas has been silent the whole time, just observing. The guy probably knows so many state secrets from meetings just like this that he could make his own spy movie.

The princess sits back in her seat again, eyes serious.

"Who, specifically, has taken control of Balbadd?"

I frown for moment, trying to remember.

"Mm…I believe the First Prince, Kouen Ren, has become the acting ruler there."

I barely catch the way Leif's expression changes at the mention of the prince's name. His eyes flash with something like anger, but not quite, and his lips twitch like he wants to smile. Keary shoots her cousin a look, apparently expecting a reaction out of him. I would raise a brow if I could.

"…what is it?" I ask instead.

There's a pause. Then, Leif chuckles.

"Not long after you left, I received a correspondence from Prince Kouen, expressing that he wished to meet with me personally in order to discuss the possibility of an alliance, one military leader to another," the large man shifts in his chair and the entire thing creaks beneath him, "I replied, telling him that I would not be averse to meeting him. After all, we had to maintain the secret of our decision. His response came quickly, a suggestion that we do so on the border of our lands. Fortunately, you reported King Sinbad's acceptance of our request before I would have sent my letter. The announcement was made and I wrote back to Prince Kouen afterwards, saying that regretfully, our meeting would be moot, as the council of lords had already ruled to join the Seven Seas Alliance. I expressed my apologies of not being able to inform him before, as we had not yet reached an official decision at the time he began correspondence."

Keary absently pulls a loose hair from her dress, smirking at her cousin's story. Leif smiles as well, his eyes alight with something almost savage.

"When his next letter came, he very eloquently insinuated that I had merely been stalling, but that he respected our decision. He also said that he still hoped to one day meet me in person," he reaches up to stroke over his bearded jaw, "I confess that I too would enjoy such a meeting. They say he is a fearsome warrior. I would like to test that, djinn or no," he chuckles, "To defeat such an opponent would ensure that my name was sung for generations to come."

I'd almost forgotten just how warlike Leif can be. Respect in Varangian culture is based in physical prowess. They really do sing songs about ancient badasses who would do crazy stuff like singlehandedly beat the hell out of small armies. The more glorious a warrior's deeds and, often, death, the better. If Leif were to actually beat Kouen, who holds three djinn and has made his name in military might, the Varangians would go nuts. Their Captain is already renowned, but, that would really set him apart in the historical records.

"If you defeat Kouen Ren in combat, I'll have a dedicational statue of you constructed," Keary tells him, smirking.

Leif's eyebrows go up and he gives a half-smile, surprised.

"Really, now? You certainly know how to provide motivation, dear cousin. Watch that you do not incite me further, or I may go charging off at the next chance I have to claim this bounty you've offered."

The Varangians share a laugh, even Lukas putting in a chuckle. I give a smile. Despite spending a month with them, and even longer with the Yambala, I've never really gotten the whole 'I want to become as tough as physically possible' mentality. As long as I can survive this world, I'll be fine. Better than I was on Alma Torran, at least. I can seriously handle myself in a fight, and have only called on Salos's power a handful of times since conquering his dungeon. Including the times I trained with my equip. I know the ins and outs because I'm so closely linked to Salos. It honestly took us about two tries to figure out the entire thing. I equipped, we felt the bond strengthen, and then, together, kind of poked around to figure out what all it entailed. Our experimentation how we learned about the two levels of equip we possess. The first, our 'half equip' is just like anyone else's. The second…

Let's just say that we quickly realized it would be used only in the direst of circumstances. I'm not actually sure I could return to normal after using it for an extended period of time.

"Matters of Leif's heroics aside," Keary says seriously, drawing our attention back to the matters at hand, "Kou grows ever stronger. I think we were very fortunate that we made our move when we did. Else, we may not have had the chance."

A pall falls over the room at that. She's right. If Keary and I hadn't captured Sabnack, she wouldn't have returned to her home and the alliance that's in the works would have died before it even began. Kou would have attacked or somehow pressured Varang into an alliance. Things could have gone so much differently. I glance at a Rukh that sits on the sill of Keary's window, feeling my expression soften. Knowing the nature of the Rukh as I do, that it's formed of those who came before us, I can't help but wonder if there are a few that keep a near-present watch on me, someone I was close to who guides me.

Is that you, Solomon? Or perhaps Sheba? Or Baba? Whoever you were, you helped saved my best friend's nation by leading me to her.

The single Rukh on the window takes off and flutters by by cheek, wings brushing my skin. It was definitely Solomon's will that led me to Keary. Saving Varang aside, he would have wanted me to know her, to befriend her. I remember how isolated Salos and I were when he took us in. How alone I am as the last Household member, even with Salos at my side as a djinn. I firmly believe that Solomon built these bonds I have with Keary and her family, so that I would no longer be alone.

I feel Salos's ghost of a touch and fight the urge to tilt my head, as though leaning into him, knowing it would be just a bit odd to the others.

The quiet is broken by a yip. I start, jerking my head towards the sound. Next to the entrance to Keary's bedroom is a large basket. I hadn't really noticed it until now. It was just another basket, something to help her carry the stuff she's brought. Apparently, I was wrong. It's shaking, and I can hear noises from within. Apparently, there's something alive in there. There's a brief pause, then, a small, dog-like nose lifts the lid and pokes out to sniff intently. After a moment, the head follows, and then the rest of the body.

Out of the basket tumbles a small, blue ball of fluff. I watch with something like awe as it stands and shakes itself. It appears to be one of the dungeon creatures from within Sabnack, which I'm still freaked out about even now. The cub, at least, I'm assuming it's called a cub, looks predominately like a wolf. It's head, body, and tail are definitely wolfish. It's lower legs and feet, though, are those of a bird of prey, with sharp talons and knobby joints. Feathery wings extend from its shoulders, extending slightly as it rights itself. The bird-wolf sniffs about for a moment. Then, apparently catching Keary's scent, it trots over with another excited yip. As it comes closer, I realize that it's only about the size of a puppy, with white accents and feathers mixed into its blue fur. Cute or not, I'm fairly certain that I'm going to start having puppy-triggered flashbacks of that rabid thing we met in the tunnels in Sabnack when Salos pulls me from my beginning memories of that icy hell.

Just focus on the adorableness at hand, my sun. Don't think about Sabnack.

Any mention of Sabnack seriously wigs him out. I remember how he shrank back when we met her in the dungeon With so many memories having returned since then, I now know why that was. And why I was so disinclined to like her despite that apparently being our first meeting. Back in the day, on Alma Torran, Salos was, much as he is now, a handsome bachelor with a great sense of humor. Sabnack took his singleness as an invitation to obtain him. At first, it was just some flirtation from her and awkward smiles from Salos. Then it got creepy. I shudder as I recall it. Salos would never fight another household member, especially a female. With every nonhuman race on Alma Torran endangered by the Church, females were valued. And, that aside, we were all members of Solomon's Household, a united force. A family of sorts. He didn't want to cause trouble. Neither did I for that matter. But, you see, that protectiveness he exhibits goes both ways. I warned her off a few times, we slapped each other around, nothing serious, just two women trying to stake a claim. The other Household members, especially Astaroth and Baal, would keep things from getting too serious. But, that changed when, one day, I felt distress through my bond with my brother. When I found him, Sabnack had turned the seduction on max and way suggesting that she and my brother do some things that he would seriously rather not. This in and of itself pissed me off enough. But, what really sent me over the edge was that, despite his attempts to peacefully fend her off, she was trying to get physical.

Needless to say, my vision went very red. It was a pretty serious brawl, and, I'll admit, I was going for her throat. I'm not human, and my instincts were telling me to put the bitch down hard for trying to mate with my twin. It ended with Baal and Salos holding me back with Astaroth and Barbatos handled her. Phenex worked some of her healing magic to calm us down. I got seriously chewed out by Amon, and Solomon's disappointed look just about broke my heart, but, I can't say I regret it. She left my brother alone after that.

Salos shudders at the memory.

Please don't, Mina. I've been trying to repress that…

I give him an affirmative thought and quickly return my attention to the dungeon creature.

Keary leans down to pick the puppy up when it nears, not at all concerned with the birdlike talons or sharp teeth. Neither Leif nor Lukas seem surprised as she settles it in her lap. The puppy is big enough that it takes up most of the space there, its paws hanging off the edge. It looks around with wide, sapphire eyes, tongue lolling.

Catching my, kinda freaked out, look, Keary shoots me a smile, running her fingers through the puppy's fur and feathers.

"Apologies, Mina. I forgot to tell you. A few of the eggs from Sabnack have begun to hatch for our warriors. This one hatched for me."

She scratches behind the bird-wolf's ear, causing him to tilt his head into her hand and give a groan of contentment.

"I see," I mutter, "…what have you learned about them?"

Keary shrugs one shoulder in response.

"They come in the two varieties we saw in the dungeon. Bodolf, as you see, resembles a wolf more than he does a bird. None of them have begun to speak yet, but, the older ones have already started flying."

Leif chuckles.

"Containing them has proved to be rather troublesome," he says with a grin, "They seem to have a boundless curiosity…and an insatiable desire to steal food from the kitchens."

I manage a small smile, eyes still on the one whose name is apparently 'Bodolf'. As cute as they are, I can't help but feel that there is something incredibly wrong with dungeon creatures being introduced into this world. I mean, yeah, the little ones are adorable, and the ones in the dungeon that weren't murderous were pretty cool, but, these are creatures of Alma Torran. They don't belong in this world. I feel a flash of annoyance. But, as we all know, their former master never cared much for rules. I internally sigh. What a pain. I hope this doesn't do something really freaky with the flow of Destiny. If it does, I'll get Aladdin to summon Sabnack and wring her neck myself.

Keary continues to stroke Bodolf's head.

"Indeed. Mischievous little things," she replies to Leif's comment.

I glance up at her.

"What do you call them?"

She smiles slightly, meeting my eyes.

"My Lord Uncle had the idea to call them 'Warg Fugl' after hearing our descriptions of the creatures we met in the dungeon. Wargs are giant wolves that wander through Varang and Fugl are large birds of prey. Though," she smirks, "Compared to the rest of the world, everything in Varang is larger than normal."

I catch the amused look Leif and Lukas exchange on that 'larger than normal' comment. I fight the urge to roll my eyes. Apparently, there's a dude joke there about just what is 'larger than normal' in Varang. Keary chooses not to see the look.

"An apt name, then. One that encompasses both…types of creature."

Keary nods.

"I thought so too. It's nice to have something to call them rather than just 'Sabnack's Dungeon Creatures'."

Yeah, or bird-wolf things.

Bodolf begins nuzzling his nose against Keary's hand, sniffing for something. Upon not finding whatever he's looking for he sticks his snout straight up the air, whining softly. Keary sighs.

"I suppose that this concludes our meeting. I'm afraid Bodolf will be insufferable until he has a full belly and has worn himself out in exploration of Sindria."

With that, the princess stands, gathering Bodolf into her arms, and begins to bustle about her apartment, getting ready for an outing.

"Leif, will you be accompanying us?" she asks from her bedroom.

The captain of the guard glances at Lukas, who gives a nearly imperceptible nod. In response, the blonde man smirks. I've spent enough time around Leif to know that smile. It means he's definitely up to something, usually something that involves a competition of some sort. The guy literally cannot stand not proving that he's the best at almost everything.

"I'm afraid not, cousin. Lukas and I will be approaching General Hinahoho in hopes of a good match," his eyes shift to me, "Tell me, Thamina, do you think he will grant us one?"

I sigh slightly, but, can't help a small smile.

"Probably. He's been training with me during my stay. He's very good," I turn my eyes to the window, watching the birds fly through the sunny Sindrian sky, "He's usually available in the mornings, so, you should be able to find him without too much difficulty."

"Good. Thank you for the information, milady."

In a surprisingly lithe movement for a man as large as him, he rises from his chair. With me sitting down, my head only comes up to his waist. I have to crane my head completely to look up at him. He shoots me a grin, blue eyes twinkling with mischief and excitement. He holds out one large had to me and I place mine in it, sighing slightly at the way his utterly dwarfs it. My entire hand, fingers splayed, fits easily in his palm. I know, I tested it once. He bends, pressing his lips to the back of it in a truly gentlemanly fashion.

"With your leave, milady, I will fight in your name. Allow me to dedicate my victory to you."

I can't help it, I burst out laughing. I know he's teasing by the glint in his eyes.

"If you truly think you can defeat the General, you are more than welcome to claim the victory in my name. I'll expect the news of your success by day's end."

Lukas moves past us, towards the door. Leif grins widely, standing up to his full height again.

"Truly, Lady Thamina, it will be as you say. By day's end, I will bring you the laurels of victory."

He thumps a fist over his heart in salute. Then, bidding both Keary and I farewell, he follows Lukas out the door. Keary appears from within her bedroom as he leaves, wearing in a long, flowing dress that has obviously been designed for Sindria's warmer climate. Bodolf prances behind her, yipping and growling excitedly. The princess carries a bag and a fan, which is already in use. Her body is used to the cold climates of Varang, where it feels like winter the majority of the year and the summertime is only a short, fleeting time. I'll have to keep an eye on her. It's highly possible that she'll get sick due to the sudden change in climate. Keeping her cool and hydrated will be key. I'm suddenly very glad that my adoptive mother in the previous world was a nurse. Though I don't know much about big injuries, I do know how to deal with little things, like potential heat stroke. I ensure that we have a large water skin to take with us.

"Are you ready?"

She gives a nod.

"Yes. Show me the wonders of Sindria. I am curious about my future husband's home."

There's a hint of bitterness in her tone. I can remember when I first met her and she was on the run from everyone, even her own family. How she had demanded to know if I was connected to Varang, Kou, or the Alliance. How she had desperately been searching for a way to escape the necessity of a marriage alliance in order to keep her country wholly independent. I also remember how her expression fell into shock and despair when I told her that capturing a dungeon would not be enough. That she would still have to act as a political bride.

She still detests the idea of getting married, but, she's resigned herself to it. I think she truly is curious about Sindria and wants to explore, more for her own sake than anything to do with her future husband. In all honesty, with what I know of her potential suitors, I'm really hoping that she chooses Spartos. Sharrkan, I think will get on her nerves, and she won't appreciate his womanizing and drinking problems. Yes, better that she end up with Spartos. I think that he could at least make their marriage tolerable, if not keep her happy. They could talk about weapons…I guess. I don't actually know much about the guy.

I offer my free arm to her, still wracking my brain for information about Spartos. After a moment, Keary links her elbow with mine. We would often walk like this in Varang, when we were taking a break from our responsibilities and simply acting as confidantes and friends. When we walk like this, as friends, we're stepping away from our worries for a brief while and simply enjoying some time together. Arm in arm, we step through the door and head out into the city below. It's time to just be girls.


After Keary and I finish our shopping excursion, which was mostly us trying to avoid getting drawn into an exuberant crowd who wanted nothing more than to interact with the latest star who had come to their little island, we return to the palace with very few purchases. We'd only made it to a few shops before word of our location had spread and the crowd showed up. Still, it had been fun. For about an hour and a half, we'd gotten to just act like girls. With only four years between us, we're close enough in age that we relate rather well. Not to mention, we both have that warrior personality. Instead of going out for perfumes and makeup, we were checking armorers for Keary to find replacement armor. Her own had been designed for the temperature in Varang and, if worn in the south, would be positively murderous. She wanted something light but still sturdy, which she'd been able to put in an order for. When we went into a clothing store, it was to look at what might be easy to move in during a fight while at the same time maintaining style. We'd gotten a couple of odd looks, but, honestly, what did they expect from the Princess of Varang and the Wanderer? We're both known in numerous kingdoms as fighters.

Fortunately, we'd escaped quickly when the crowd appeared. The smell of the sea is repugnant enough for me, but when combined with a pack of sweaty humans who live in a hot climate and hardly ever bathe? It almost made me want to be around their king. He at least usually smells like he's cleaned himself recently, unlike his subjects. I'd forgotten about why I didn't like cities until that point. Traveling with small groups of people, like in a caravan, is so much easier on my heightened senses.

Back at the castle, we go to our separate quarters to drop off our purchases. Miraculously, Bodolf managed to stay with us the entire way and didn't once wander off. I'll admit, I'm surprised. He's exceptionally loyal and very obedient. Unless it's about food. More than once, we'd caught him trying to sneak off towards the scent of cooking food. Keary had to really sit on him at those points, and he kept giving her resentful looks. He's actually a pretty devious little guy, which is telling of that human-like intelligence he's going to display later. He still freaks me out. His presence here isn't meant to be. Sabnack's screwing with Destiny, which is not cool. Cute or not, he smells like Alma Torran, and it makes me uneasy.

I put away my new clothes, which I bought with my own money. I know Ja'far would tell me that if I want anything, I only need to ask. But, honestly, I think I can afford to buy my own clothes. It's kinda embarrassing how Sinbad keeps trying to spoil me like he's my sugar-daddy or something. Not that he's ever getting any of this in return. The perverted douche.

I feel Salos's appreciative thought at that. He's more than pleased by my continued denial of Sinbad on all fronts. When he picks up the meaning of the term 'sugar-daddy' from my mind, he immediately cracks up, laughter echoing through our bond as he fully understands the implications. I can't help but give a small smile as well. He's been in a bit of a slump since our defeat and, in all honesty, it's been a trial getting him back to normal. I know he still blames himself for our defeat in Balbadd. He knows that there was little to be done because of the circumstances we were in, but, that doesn't stop him. I was hurt, scarred, close to being killed, in a battle that he fought to protect me and lost. He was disturbingly quiet for a long while. Only some serious coaxing on my part got him to laugh again afterwards. He's almost back to the same old Salos now, aside from the strange quietness that he falls into from time to time. When we first returned, not even my distaste for Sindria's king was enough to cheer him. Now, he's having a riot over it.

My sun, you needn't worry over me, he says, picking up on my train of thought, I will recover over time, as I am continually reassured of your well-being.

I feel his ghost of a touch, as though he's gently hugging me through our bond.

I know, but, you're my other half. I can't stand to see you in such a state.

He nearly purrs in contentment at that. Even though he'll always be the more affectionate between the two of us, and I might sometimes be annoyed by his over exuberance, he knows very well that I love him just as much as he loves me.

I do appreciate your concern, my Mina, his thoughts are happy as in simply allows himself to bask in our bond.

I'm perfectly ready to go huddle under my covers on my bed and enjoy some time with Salos until Keary's ready to decide on what she'll do next. But, a knock on the door comes, causing me to frown. I can think of any number of people that it might be, but, I can't think of what they would need me for. I go to the door and open it.

Standing outside is Alibaba, much to my surprise. After my 'get off your ass and be a man' speech, we haven't interacted much. After realizing his situation, and reason he'd been so dismissive of Aladdin, I forgave him pretty quickly, despite the Dioscuri not being very forgiving. In a race where loyalty and family connections are everything, any sort of betrayal is the highest form of offence. I can only pity him now. He's lost everything from his home. He has no kingdom, his best friend was used by Al Tharmen, and now he's a refugee from the Kou Empire. I can remember the feeling of displacement after Salos and I lost our people and were taken in by Solomon. The last of our kind, running from the Church, caught in a war against our oppressors, we felt hopeless for a long while. It was partially because I understand his situation that I was able to get him moving again. What had saved Salos and I on Alma Torran was the influence of Solomon, Sheba, Ugo, and…one other. A female…her name eludes my still-broken memories. They had kept us from dwelling in our sorrow, pulling us from the darkness and building us up into the Household members we became. I would be remiss if I didn't do the same for this boy.

Of course, Alibaba has no clue about this. As far as he knows, I'm just a fellow dungeon capturer, mutual ally of Sinbad, and friend to his comrades. He was quick to trust me because of Aladdin and Morgiana's fondness of me. And I was quick to adopt him into my ever-growing family once I realized what a dork this kid actually is.

As soon as the door opens, he gives something of an awkward bow. Which is weird because he's still taller than me.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Miss Mina," he begins, "But I have a problem that I think only you might be able to help me with."

I'm so surprised that I just kinda stare at him for a moment. What kind of problem could have arisen in Sindria? We're safe here. Realizing that I'm leaving him waiting in the hall, I usher him inside.

"Take a seat," I gesture to the low table that sits in the common room of my suit, cushions surrounding it, "What's wrong, Alibaba?"

The young man quickly takes up my offer, seating himself. He's already gaining weight from his continuous partaking in Sindria's luxurious food, causing him to move a bit more awkwardly than he used to. I feel my eye twitch and push my annoyance at this aside. I'll adhere to Ja'far's judgement on this. Aladdin and Alibaba are both individuals who can make their own choices. And even I will admit that Sindria's cultural dishes are excellent. My body's been trained to take in mostly travel rations, though, from years of being on the road. Even in Varang, where the food isn't quite so luxurious, I would get sick if I ate more than a certain amount. It's almost double here, where even the leanest fish is made rich. I can see the draw, but, I'm actually glad that I can't eat much of it. It's keeping me thin.

I doubt the food situation is what Alibaba's come to see me about.

Carefully shifting my katana's scabbard so that I can sit, I lower myself onto the cushions across the table from him. The Staff rests easily across my crossed legs, gold glinting in the light from my open windows. Of course, it's not the only thing that glints. We're surrounded by so much finery that, sometimes, I almost gag. Even the pillows that are literally for me to routinely put under my ass are embroidered with gold thread.

Sinbad's definitely compensating.

Alibaba draws his dagger and lays it on the table between us. I feel my eyes widen. It's been shattered, the blade broken almost in two. The eight pointed star that marks Amon's presence is untouched, but the sword is useless. Alibaba looks at me seriously as I gingerly take it in my hands.

"I can't summon Amon's flames anymore," he says, "And even Aladdin couldn't make him manifest. I thought that maybe, since you're a dungeon capturer too, you might know something."

I frown. That's strange. I can sense through Salos that Amon is indeed still dwelling within the broken sword. I turn it over, feeling Salos striking up a conversation with the old djinn.

"I'll see what I can do. Amon's still there, so don't worry about that," I murmur, running my thumb over the star, "Give me a moment."

I tune into the conversation between the djinn. Salos had to get some pleasantries out of the way, our teacher always holds to decorum, after all. Plus, this is the first time we've spoken in who knows how many centuries. I allow my eyes to flutter shut as I commune with Salos.

Ah, and here is the other twin. Thamina, it is good to know that you are well, and whole.

I feel a jolt. The last time Amon would have seen me was when I received the scar that runs across my belly. The scar that I have no memory of receiving. His tone suggests that he truly is gladdened to 'see' me. I feel my lips quirk, pushing the thought of my scar away.

Thank you, teacher. It is good to speak with you again. It's been too long.

Amon rumbles in agreement. Even though I can't truly see him, I can picture that old face, covered by his long white beard and that ridiculous hat he used to wear. I clearly remember the stern looks he would give Salos and I, and the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled. It was Amon who took us in when it became apparent that we needed to be taught how to use magic. A human option had been unthinkable. Aside from Solomon's close-knit group, we didn't trust any humans. So, we lived among the Hermits for a long time, training, growing, and maturing. He truly was like a grandfather to us, at least partially filling the void left by the destruction of our people.

Indeed it has, he pauses, You come to me with a query concerning my chosen king, do you not?

My thoughts flicker in affirmation. He must understand that, despite all three of us wanting to sit around and catch up, we do have Alibaba sitting there waiting on me.

Yes. Alibaba is concerned because he cannot call forth your flames. I assume that this is because the blade has been broken?

I can sense that Amon is pleased by my guess.

You are correct, Thamina. A broken blade is an improper vessel for a djinn and is unable to channel their power. Unfortunately, I do not know how to remedy this. If I were to guess, I would say that the procuring of a new vessel is necessary, however, I am not entirely sure.

I hum in displeasure at this. Amon knows a lot. For him not to be sure about this is troublesome. I guess it makes sense, though. I mean, I doubt that the djinn know much more aside from 'inhabiting a metal vessel is key'. The fixing of a broken vessel isn't up their alley. At least, it's not up Amon's. I'm glad he told us what he did. It affirms what I originally suspected about the broken dagger. Leave it to Amon to be honest even when he doesn't know.

Thank you, teacher, Salos intones, I look forward to speaking with you further.

I mentally murmur in agreement.

You as well, Amon's fondness is prevalent in his tone, I am sorry that I am not able to offer more aid.

It's alright. You've given us more than we had before. Thank you, Amon. I never thought I would get the chance to learn from you again, teacher. It does my heart some good. I bid you farewell until next time.

I can still hear Amon's goodbye as I open my eyes. Alibaba is leaning on the table, watching me with wide eyes full of trepidation. I sigh softly.

"It's because the sword is broken. It's truly useless, both as a weapon and as a vessel," I tell him, handing the broken blade back, "At least, that's what Amon says."

It just slips out. As soon as I register the surprise in his gaze, I know I've said too much and my mind is scrambling to make up something plausible. Without Sinbad around, and with Aladdin already knowing literally all of my secrets, I've gotten too comfortable. It's been a long time since I've had a slip up like this. Alibaba takes the dagger back, eyes not leaving mine.

"You spoke to Amon?"

His voice is hushed, wonderment in it. It's obvious he's reevaluating me, simultaneously trying to figure out how I accomplished this. The boy may act like an airhead sometimes, but he's highly intelligent. I give a nod, deciding on going as close to the truth as I can without spilling anything classified.

"Yes. Djinn can communicate with each other when within a certain range," I fold my hands on the table, "And I can communicate with Salos. Using him as a conduit, I spoke with Amon."

Alibaba's eyes go wide. He clutches the dagger, seeming to forget about it for a moment in the face of the awe I can see building in his gaze. He's still a new dungeon capturer who doesn't know much about djinn in general, but, he knows that he can't talk to his djinn, which means the fact that I can is odd. He leans forward on his elbows, straining towards me as questions flood from him.

"You can talk to your djinn? And then to other djinn through him? Can other dungeon capturers do that? Is it an ability you develop over time?"

I shake my head, my loose curls bouncing about my face. Despite the heat in Sindria, I've taken to wearing my hair down. I like the feeling of the sea breeze in it.

"No, it is not something others can do. At least, not to my knowledge. If they can, none of those I've met has ever said anything to me concerning the matter. As far as I know, I am the only one in existence who is able to communicate with my djinn."

All of this is true. Unless someone has developed some weird abilities as a dungeon capturer, I am alone in this. It's only because of my bond with Salos that I'm able to do it in the first place, but, Alibaba doesn't need to know that.

"That's amazing!" his eyes, not so different in color from mine, shine.

I allow a small smile.

"Thank you. But, as amazing as you find it, I ask that you keep it a secret. Aladdin is the only other one who knows, and, you can understand why I would not want others finding out."

He quickly nods.

"I do. I won't tell anyone, Miss Mina, I promise."

My smile softens, becoming genuine.

"Thank you. Now, back to the matter at hand," I reach out and tap his dagger with one carefully groomed nail, "While Amon did confirm that this vessel is unfit to host a djinn now, he did not know what could be done to remedy it. And, unfortunately, neither do I. Salos's vessel has never broken, nor have I ever spoken to anyone concerning this."

His expression falls at that. He had really thought I would be able to solve his problem. It bothers me that I can't. I want to help this boy.

Sometimes, even someone with your mothering tendencies can't help with every problem… Salos says, almost in a sing-song tone.

Hush, I'm thinking.

There's only one clear solution, I know it. I almost groan. I hate it, but, I honestly cannot think of anyone else who would be more knowledgeable about dungeons, djinn, and metal vessels.

"My suggestion is to wait for Sinbad to return," I say, a bit resentfully, "If there's anyone who knows a solution, it's him."

I literally want to crawl under the table. I felt the same way when I suggested that Keary join the alliance. Recommending Sinbad to anyone just feels wrong. Especially when that person is a young, impressionable leader who already idolizes him. Alibaba's face lights up in relief at my words and I wince. Mention Sinbad around the kid and he immediately acts like everything will be okay just because the king's name was spoken.

"You're right! He would definitely know!" he pauses, looking at me, "…Miss Mina…I get the impression that you actually don't like Sinbad very much."

I can feel my eyebrows go up slightly in surprise. The kid's sharper than I gave him credit for. I sigh, propping my elbow on the table and leaning my cheek against my fist. He wants an explanation. There's a question that's not quite asked in his statement: why? I've never actually verbalized it, aside from the brief description of his behavior that I gave Keary. A somewhat wry smirk twists my lips as I process my reasons.

"You're right, Alibaba, I don't...Sinbad…scares me."

I try to frame my words in a way that won't utterly crush his idolization. As dangerous as I think it could be, the king seems to truly want to mentor this young prince. It could be a very good thing, something that Alibaba benefits from. He can learn a lot from the older Dungeon Capturer. I sigh again, a bit more in exasperation this time. He's frowning at me, not understanding.

"Sinbad's a good man, I know that. Even if his womanizing and partying annoy me, I know I can trust him…to an extent. But, Sinbad's also a collector. He collects both information and people. For someone like me, who has many secrets and who can't afford to let myself be collected, this is frightening. The things I know…" I purse my lips briefly, "They are things that cannot fall into his hands, except in the direst of circumstances. It's for this reason that I can't be collected. Sinbad is crafty, and he seems to have an innate knowledge of what to do or say to get me to trust him with things I normally wouldn't share with anyone," I bring my hands down to grip the Staff, my expression tightening, "The first time I was here, it was a week before I realized that I had told him more than I'd ever told anyone else in this world. That man knows more about me than anyone but Keary and Aladdin. I didn't even realize. Secrets that I had closely guarded for personal safety were suddenly out in the open and it took me a whole week to even notice that something could possibly be wrong."

A shudder runs through me. I will never forget the feeling of dawning horror and realization that came at the end of that week. The knowledge that I had told him everything but what Lord Solomon had told me not to. Sinbad's charisma is a force to be reckoned with. He's absolutely terrifying to me.

"That's why he scares me. He's been respecting my privacy lately, I think because he doesn't want to run me off again. I hope he'll keep it that way. Holding him at bay when he's constantly trying to take care of me is exhaustive."

There's a moment of silence between us. Then, Alibaba slowly speaks.

"Your secrets…they really mean so much that not even Sinbad can know?"

Not even Sinbad, he says. I have to fight a bout of dark laughter. Not even Sinbad. He still views the man as this pinnacle of heroism. There should be nothing wrong with telling Sinbad everything, in Alibaba's mind. After all, he's a Dungeon Capturer seven times over, the king of an Alliance that has sworn to keep the world free of tyranny, and the man who's actively trying to save Balbadd. He collects people and knowledge because he wants to keep Sindria safe, not for any other reason. What I haven't told Alibaba, though, is that there's another reason Sinbad makes me uneasy. The Rukh about him are not pure. They're vibrant because he's the 'First-class Singularity of the World', but not pure. If I had to guess, I would say that a part of him, and I don't know how prevalent that part is, has fallen to depravity. I don't know the story behind that, but, I can guess. He's the type of man who would do anything for the cause and people he fights for.

That's mostly why he scares me. I know that he wants to respect me as a person, to let me be myself and keep to myself. But, if ever he thought that the secrets he knows I hold were going to be advantageous, he would apologetically give up on those wants and try to take those secrets from me. He would do so in a roundabout way, trying to maneuver and manipulate, rather than acting forcefully or directly. He would try to keep our relationship as allies as intact as he could. And I know that, the longer I stay in his territory, around him, the more he desires to know what I know. It's his nature.

I let Alibaba keep his trust, despite this. It's my burden to deal with, not his.

"Yes," I say softly, "Not even Sinbad can know. And most can't even know that I carry them," I meet his eyes, "I'm telling you because you're Aladdin's chosen King Candidate, and I see something within you that makes me sure that I can trust you with at least this much, Alibaba. Please, do not speak of this conversation."

There's a long pause between us in which Alibaba ponders what I've said. Then, he gives a nod, his expression serious.

"I promise. If your secrets mean that much, then I'll keep them."

I feel myself relax. There's nothing but earnestness in his eyes. He's a good boy. Aladdin made a good choice.

"Thank you," I draw myself upright again, "Now, about your-"

I'm cut off by the door of my chambers slamming open suddenly. I jerk in surprise, instinctively gripping the Staff and raising it slightly in defense. Then, I realize that Keary's standing there. Her face is pale and it seems that she ran here from down the hall. In her hand is clutched a scroll. Before I can even ask what's wrong, she's speaking.

"I've just received a message," she says quickly, voice slightly tremulous, "Prince Kouha of Kou wants to meet with me in two days' time, in Balbadd."

The news is like a blow. I can feel the color leave my face as well. They knew where she was. I can see the Kou Royal Seal on the scroll from here. It came directly from the prince's hand. They knew the whole time that she was here, despite all the secrecy of her travel. They knew she was here and that she would be here to receive that letter today.

I'm vaguely aware of the way Alibaba has tensed and his eyes have darkened. It's another reminder of how he's lost his homeland. The Empire is conducting formal business with other nations out of the palace that was meant to be his.

"What will you do?"

I struggle to keep a firm tone.

Keary pauses for a moment. She looks to the prince at my side for a long moment. Then, her body language changes. Her shock wears off and she draws herself upright.

"I will go. I will view the situation in Balbadd for myself and use what influence I have to attempt to help the citizens there. And, I will show that Varang does not fear the Kou Empire. We will not be cowed or bullied by them. And I will not cower in the face of a mere meeting."

I can feel a smile coming onto my face as pride rushes through me. She's so very brave and strong. Always the fighter. Still, I can't help but be worried. I don't like this. I glance to Alibaba to find him staring at her with something like surprise and awe.

"You would…speak for Balbadd?" he asks, his voice just a little above a whisper.

Keary gives him a firm nod, her expression one of determination.

"While King Sinbad negotiates with the Emperor, I will negotiate directly within Balbadd itself, as the Princess and future Queen of Varang. I might be a new player on the stage, but, this will be a message to Kou and to Al Tharmen itself," her fist clenches around the scroll, crushing it partially. Her blue eyes are cold, "Varang does not, nor will we ever, bow to their whims. Nor do we stand idly by when they threaten our allies and oppress those who deserve to be free. I will meet with the prince, since he's been so kind as to offer an audience. And I will speak."

I feel even more proud of her in this moment than I did previously. She looks, and sounds, every bit the part of future queen.

I just wish I could get rid of this feeling of unease.

Chapter Text

It took a lot to convince Ja'far that Keary's reasoning was sound. A lot. As in, he and Keary spent nearly an hour arguing. Ja'far reasoned that Sinbad could handle the political stuff concerning Balbadd and that Keary should stay put. After all, he told her, it could be a trap of some sort. She said that her desire to help Balbadd was secondary. According to Prince Kouha's letter, he wanted to discuss a trade agreement of sorts between Varang and the Empire. While she agreed that it was rather sudden, she explained that she was not surprised because of Prince Kouen's earlier correspondence with Leif. Then, in a tone that left no room for argument, she said that she would be going to at least ascertain their true goals in contacting her personally. Of course, Ja'far was less than impressed and argued despite her tone. After dealing with Sinbad's bullshit for who knows how long, I guess he's used to verbally sparring with royalty like this. I'll confess, he made some compelling points, but, Keary's Varangian. She might look more like her Artemyrian mother, but, she's a Varangian through and through. They're known for three things: size, hardiness, and general stubbornness. Unfortunately for Ja'far, Keary's only lacking in one of those departments, and she makes up for it with an extra dose of stubbornness.

Finally, I ended it. I had stood back, letting him and Keary duke it out. After all, it's her decision. But, finally, when they were just going around in circles and frustrating each other, I stepped in by moving to Ja'far's side and placing a gentle hand on his forearm. He paused, obviously a bit surprised, and looked down at me. Damn my shortness.

"Mina?"

"It's alright," I told him, "I understand your concern, I have the same worries. But, I believe that Keary is right. At the very least, we need to understand what their intentions are and what possible future moves they could make. Varang's position is still tenuous and the Princess cannot appear weak when the Empire is quite literally at her door. She must show that she is unafraid of facing them," my grip tightened along with my expression, "Unfortunately, this is no longer just about politics, it's also about will. Both Varang and Kou value shows of strength and prowess in a way that Sindria does not. Please, allow Keary to act in the way she believes is best for her people. She's their Princess, it's her right and her duty."

I could feel him slowly relax as he took in what I was saying. He pursed his lips, thinking for a moment.

"And if it turns out to be a trap of some sort?"

I smiled reassuringly.

"I'll be there too. Two Dungeon Capturers and two elite Varangian warriors will be more than enough to at least let us escape if things go badly," when he opened his mouth to respond, I pushed on, "Grant us a clairvoyance crystal. I'll keep in contact with you. If anything goes wrong, I'll tell you immediately."

I could tell that he still wasn't happy, but, he couldn't deny that I was right. Keary had to act as she saw fit, as a ruler. Plus, he knows that we're both strong fighters. And Leif and Lukas are pretty much the most badass bodyguards a girl could have. Finally, he relented. And now I'm carrying a clairvoyance crystal in my pocket.

Keary, Leif, Lukas and I depart the same day on the carpet taken from Sabnack's dungeon. We all thought it best to arrive as early as possible so that we weren't exhausted from travel and magoi loss when the meeting took place. We only take what we believe to be absolutely necessary with us, since we don't plan to stay longer than we have to in order to meet with the prince. The trip there by carpet will take us about a day of travel, and we'll definitely be feeling it when we arrive.

I look over at Keary, who sits just a foot or so away from me, dressed in practical traveling clothes consisting of a tunic and pants. I've opted to wear my Varangian Salwar Kameez. Even though we're still in the south, traveling by air, especially over the sea, is cold going. Thankfully, because there's four of us feeding magoi into the carpet, we'll be able to move quickly, meaning that we'll only need to put up with the chill for the duration of the day. I'm grateful for my cloak to say the least. The seamstresses in Varang truly have a gift, an honest-to-Solomon gift.

"What shall we do about lodgings? It's really only been a few weeks since Kou took power, and we don't know what kind of state the country itself is in. It could be dangerous for foreign dignitaries to stay in easily accessible places at the moment."

Keary gives a small nod.

"I've thought of that as well," she sits with her arms folded and her back straight, "I believe that, since it's on Prince Kouha's invitation that we're coming, he will be able to provide us lodgings within the palace as guests."

Salos immediately starts sniggering. I can't help the smile that tugs at my lips. She says it with such finality. It's obvious that she fully expects the Kou prince to receive her as she wishes to be received. I honestly will pity him if he doesn't.

"That sounds agreeable to me."

"Good. I wasn't giving you a choice."

Even though she still sounds serious, there's a glint in her eye that makes me laugh. The easiness of our banter is still refreshing after going so long without a friend. I'd almost forgotten what friendship feels like, despite the kindness of those in Sindria. After all, I was such a loner in my previous world, and I still haven't recovered everything from Alma Torran. A lifetime of lost memories is no joke.

The rest of our flight is occupied by conversation concerning what Kou could possibly hope to gain by this meeting. Honestly, I have no clue about how to negotiate on this level. The only reason I could speak with Sinbad is because of our acquaintanceship. If I hadn't already known him, I probably wouldn't have been able to work on Varang's behalf. Still, the rukh made it pretty clear that I'm meant to be in Balbadd for this meeting, for whatever reason. I guess, if shit hits the fan, Salos and I can kick some serious ass, but, other than that, I'm basically going to stand there and look like a midget mage with a sword. Because that's what I am.

Salos snorts.

You're not a midget, my sun. You're just…vertically challenged.

My eye twitches at that.

Vertically challenged? Of all the terminology you pick up from my head, you choose to use that?

I find it amusing, he replies with a chuckle.

I have to force myself not to huff at him. I've visibly reacted to Salos before and it's caused some awkwardness when I'm with others.

Ass.

He hums in response, utterly unapologetic, before quite nearly trilling.

You say that so cruelly, but I know that you love me no matter how you might protest.

My eye twitches again and I quickly return my attention to the matters at hand, unwilling to stoke his ego any more.

"I haven't heard much about the first princes of Kou aside from what is widely known about them. All three are Dungeon Capturers and all three hold high military rank," Leif is saying, stroking over his beard, "Prince Kouen is said to be the most fearsome. From our correspondence, I can also say that he's very eloquent, which means that he's an intelligent man. A dangerous enemy. As for Prince Koumei…they say he's brilliant, but, also very reclusive, which keeps us in the dark beyond knowing that he is indeed a great tactician. Prince Kouha," he pauses, thinking for a moment, "I've heard it said that he's an odd character. A fierce fighter with a sadistic streak. Now, do keep in mind, this is just what I've heard. None of us have ever met any of the Princes in person, so, it's hard to say what they are actually like."

Keary nods and turns her blues eyes on me.

"Mina, you've traveled far and wide, even into the Kou Empire. Did you hear anything else while you were there?"

I pause, cocking my head slightly and delving into my memories. The old farmer had only told me about how wonderful the princes were. And Commander En had told me nothing. We had spent our time discussing properties of magoi and such. Sinbad had been throwing so much shade that I'm honestly not even sure how much of what he said was accurate. I wrack my mind, frowning. Muu never talked much about Kou, aside from saying that they were an enemy to be beaten. Master Ramal focused on training, not the politics of the world. And my magic instructor…he was a kinda flighty guy. Said his name was "Yu" and didn't give me anything else to go on. I would assume that he was from Kou by the sound of his name, but, I sincerely doubt it. He was as blonde as blonde could be and wore this funky green outfit, unlike the clothing of any other nation I've seen.

"No, I didn't, my apologies. Not even when I was training in Reim did I hear anything that could give us a leg up. King Sinbad," good Solomon it's hard to add his title, "Described Prince Kouen as being very warlike, Koumei as a bookworm tactician, and Kouha as, well…strange. Our conversation was brief, though, and he is biased against them. I don't know how much of what I've shared actually applies to them."

It's basically the same thing Leif said he heard. Which is really unhelpful. We're going in on reputation alone.

Keary gives a somewhat long-suffering sigh.

"Lovely. We're meeting with the 'strange' one," she turns her gaze back to the sea, "…Let's see how this goes. Stay alert."

Leif's lips pull in a wry smile.

"That goes without saying, cousin."


When we arrive in Balbadd, all I can think is that it looks like something out of one of those crazy Imperialist Japan World War II films they had in my former homeworld. Imperialism at its finest. Kou soldiers march down streets and stand at busy corners, eyeing the common folk, all of whom huddle together as they walk, wary of the invading forces. Already, I can see signs of the cultural assimilation that Kou is infamous for. They've rebuilt a number of the buildings destroyed during the uprising in the Empire's style. Curved roof tops and uniform architectural style sticks out like an ugly rash spreading across the city. I see the common people dressed in the robes of the Empire as they scurry about, my bird's-eye view giving me the perfect vantage to pick out even the little things. My expression is one of distaste, I know. I've seen this in action before, and have heard the fearful whisperings of those who live in the Empire's shadow. They wonder when the conquering beast will finally turn its attention to them and swallow them up too. The thought of being forced to conform sends shudders through me. While in Reim, I had adhered to the Empire's laws, despite my distaste for their system of slavery, and been permitted my individuality. Kou, I know, would crush anything that marked me as different in an attempt to control me. My grip on the Staff tightens and the gold light in the top swirls, marking my agitation.

The general mood of our group had been relatively cheerful up until we crossed into Balbadd as the sun was setting. A Kou ship on the border of Balbadd's waters tried to hail us, but, Keary had blatantly ignored them, standing proud at the front of the carpet, her arms folded over her breastplate. She's wearing the same armor she had on when she arrived in Sindria: a fitted leather breastplate decorated with intricate scrollwork on the edges, and equally stylized leather gauntlets and greaves. She's added a cape, which is a rich blue and lined with grey fur. It clasps to her shoulders with intricate silver buckles inlaid with sapphires. Her blonde hair has been done up in a number of braids that twist over her head and are gathered at the back in a Varangian updo. I realize that Keary's ears have been pierced, twin sapphires in her lobes. In Varangian culture, a woman only does that if she's got rank. They don't hold much regard for anyone who stands on vanity. Every inch of her, from her intricately done hair to her leather boots screams 'warrior queen'. She's coming to Balbadd as a fighter as well as royalty, her armor offset by the very real precious metals and gems she wears. Sabnack's ring glints on her finger, the eight-pointed star glowing softly, as though the djinn within know that Keary's going into potentially dangerous territory.

I stand as well, looking much plainer next to the princess. She's tall, imposing, and curvaceous. I'm short, odd, and flat. I fight back the need to fall into gloom, Salos encouraging me, and move to stand beside her. I've pulled my hair into a passable style, unwilling to wrestle with my curls any more than is absolutely necessary. Especially with the antlers in the way. Those things are honestly like a foot tall from base to tip and each have at least five points. Salos swears up and down that antlers that size are impressive for a female Dioscuri and that the number of points mark how much power I have. Five is synonymous with 'badass', apparently. I'm just surprised I haven't put anyone's eye out yet. I'm fortunate that I manage to keep them glamoured all the time.

"There's the palace," Keary murmurs to me.

I follow her gaze, pulled from my thoughts by the sight of the building. Only a month ago, I stood before the palace, mixed in with crowds of hopeful people as Alibaba and Sinbad spoke on their behalves. It was a wide, beautiful gold thing with round turrets and outbuildings. Decorated in white and green, it had stretched to the sky. Now, already, it's been completely remade. My stomach clenches as I take in the black tiled roof, white walls, and red pillars. A big, ugly statement of Kou's prowess. My grip on the Staff is so tight that my knuckles turn white. I can feel Keary's gaze on me, but, I hardly care. They had moved so fast, wiping out the symbol of Balbadd's power and replacing it with their own. Cruel and efficient. Crush the people utterly and suck them into the Empire itself. I look at the city again and see now how they're deconstructing and reconstructing buildings, recreating them and wiping out the old Balbadd completely.

"Bastards," I mutter, feeling a growl behind my words, "So, this truly is what they do to the conquered. Strip them of their pride and force them to conform."

Keary gives a nod as Leif and Lukas join us.

"Now you see why my uncle so feared them. Whatever promises they might bring, they would never allow Varang to keep its independent nature," her eyes narrow, "And the subjugation of my people is something I will never allow to happen."

Leif claps her on the shoulder, his heavy hand barely moving her, and they exchange grim smiles. I honestly pity anyone who clashes with that pair.

Our arrival is causing quite a stir below. People are stopping in the streets to stare up, and I can hear soldiers calling to each other, apparently trying to relay the message of our arrival before we actually, you know, arrive. Judging by the way Keary's grim smile grows, this was what she was looking for. I push my disgust at the Empire aside and allow a smirk to curve my lips. Salos chuckles when he picks up on what I'm thinking. She's saying 'sure, you can invite me into your territory, but you can bet your ass I'll be accepting on my own terms'. Watching them scramble about the courtyard as our carpet approaches does give me a bit of vindictive pleasure. They hurry to line up on either side of the main path through the courtyard, spears at their sides. We completely bypass them and touch down at the foot of the main steps. I glance to the side and see the soldiers nearest to us looking uncomfortable at this. Immediately, I have to force back an evil smile.

Huh, guess they don't like us doing our own thing. Take that and shove it up your ass, Kou.

Salos's ghostly touch rests on my hair and he chuckles.

Calm down, my sun. I know you're excited to flaunt your individuality, but, you must maintain some decorum.

You're calling for decorum? I return with faux shock.

He sniffs, playing along with me.

Hmph. I did listen to Amon sometimes, I can sense him smiling. Then, he turns serious, Remember, my Mina, don't let them intimidate you. They will try. It will be different from Sinbad, who was purposefully friendly, and Lord Harald and Keary, who have welcomed you with open arms. Those of the Kou Empire want you to fear them…just like the Church.

At that I bristle. He's right, though. I can almost feel his arms around me in an embrace as he continues, softer now.

You are as much a princess as Keary is, sister. We are the last Dioscuri, heirs of our people. Stand strong and bear it proudly.

I allow myself a small smile, irritation fading. He's right again. I have nothing to fear, even in the face of those who would control me. I will stand as the last of my kind, tall and proud.

As we disembark, a squat, wrinkled old man in obnoxiously yellow robes comes striding imperiously down the steps. His arms are folded into his robes and he wears the oddest tasseled hat. As he nears, flanked by four guards, I realize that, without his hat, he'd only come up to my chest. Keary stands impassively, watching his descent. Her blue eyes are hard, and as sharp as the daggers in her belt. I stand at her side, Leif and Lukas flanking us. Leif is so close behind me that I can feel his warmth against my back. I'm glad he's there because, as the old man nears, I get the serious creeps. Every instinct within me is screaming 'snake'.

He comes to a stop before us, smiling and baring a huge gap in his mouth where he's lost all four front teeth. He presses his fist into his opposite hand in a gesture of respect, but does not bow. That in and of itself is a slight. Behind him, the four guards immediately bend at the waist, though, showing deference. Now that he's close, I can smell that he reeks of perfumes and soaps, so many that I'm sure that prolonged exposure will give me a headache.

"Princess Anselma," his thin, reedy voice assaults my sensitive ears, "You've caused quite a stir."

Nobody visibly reacts. By straight up talking to her like that, he's insinuating that he's somehow her equal. Which means that she's lesser than royalty. Yeah, dude's definitely going to give me a headache. Keary cocks her head slowly, observing him.

"…Strange," she states in a firm voice, not even bothering to pretend to be quizzical as she calls him on his bullshit, "I did not think that Prince Kouha was so elderly…but for you to address me in such a way, you must be some manner of royalty. Are you perhaps Prince Kouen, the elder brother?"

The guards exchange uneasy looks. I hold back a smirk at that sick burn. The old guy chuckles, as though she were a cute kid asking why daffodils were yellow or something.

"No, Princess, I am merely your guide. I-"

"And yet, you do not behave as such," Keary's tone is bored, "In Varang, those who are to act as emissaries of royalty treat their guests, particularly those of noble blood, with the respect due to them," she raises a thin brow, "Perhaps it is done differently in Kou? Do you routinely engage visiting monarchs in casual conversation?"

The silence hits hard and fast. The old guy just kinda stares at her for a moment. That wasn't the polite way to do things at all and Keary doesn't give a single fuck as she stares right back at him, her eyes like the ice flows of Imuchakk.

Need some water for that burn?

"Well?" Keary drawls, after giving him a moment to breathe, "Is it also Kou custom to leave dignitaries standing on the front steps of the palace after issuing them an invitation?"

The old guy gathers himself, recovering from her previous words.

"Ah, no, Princess," he bows, apparently realizing that his attempt to be cool is reflecting badly on the royal family, "Please, allow me to call a carriage to take you to a guest house in the city. We don't have any true manors built yet and as such-"

Keary draws herself upright, dwarfing the man as she glares down the bridge of her nose at him. She doesn't even unfold her arms.

"Allow me to clarify what you have just told me," she bites out in a voice full of frost, "Your prince has invited me to meet with him concerning important business and yet is not able to provide proper housing as is befitting of my station?"

The old guy looks thrown for a loop. Apparently, he isn't used to the royals being called out.

"Princess-"

She cuts him off.

"How dare you even think this is a proper treatment! I will not be carted back and forth between the palace and a guest house like a harlot being snuck in for the prince's pleasure!"

I'm pretty sure the old guy pales at that. I seriously want to laugh at the way the guards stiffen like they're about to get the hell slapped out of them by the irate princess. It's a miracle I keep it in, really. The only reason is probably that the tension in the courtyard just shot so high that everyone in the palace can probably sense it. He immediately starts to placate her.

"O-of course not, Princess. But, you must understand, you are not a ruler here. You are a visi-"

Keary unfolds her arms in an enraged rush and takes a single step forward. Every soldier in the courtyard tenses, gripping their weapons.

"I am Princess Keary Anselma, daughter of King Erik Anselma, monarch of Varang and capturer of the Dungeon, Sabnack," her voice booms over the courtyard, "I may not be in my home country, but I am a ruler nonetheless, and a King Candidate, moreover. Four times you have insulted me, and four times I have born it with grace. Pray, do not insult me a fifth time, else I will depart this very instant and bear with me the news of the lack of honor that the princes of Kou show to those they bring into their courts! It is only for the sake of diplomacy that I have not as of yet!"

The old man actually backs up a step.

"Princess!"

I decide it's time for me to cut in. I'm not actually sure how much of this is her purposefully shutting him down and how much of it is her temper actually getting the better of her. Despite what occurred in Sabnack's dungeon, and the way it changed her, she's still hot-headed and has a short temper. I position myself between them just slightly, using the Staff as a barrier by placing it in front of Keary. The old guy's attention is immediately on me. He radiates distaste at my intrusion into the conversation.

"My good sir, there is no need for this to continue," I say in my most pleasant tone, "As you can see, the princess is weary from her long journey and has little patience for games of political standing at the moment," his expression tightens at that. Doubly called on his bullshit, "Surely, in order to uphold the honor of his esteemed guest, Prince Kouha would not mind allowing us even two guest rooms within the palace."

The old guy actually opens his eyes at that, his wrinkles separating to reveal two eyeballs.

"Two guest-?!" he starts to splutter.

"Of course. At minimum," I nod, a bit patronizingly, "You are hosting the Princess of Varang and her cousin, Lord Leif Anselma, son of the current regent and, after the princess herself, next in line to the Varangian throne. You cannot possibly expect men and women to share. Good heavens," I give him a sympathetic look, "I can only assume that your previous suggestion to take us to a guest house was made in ignorance of the appropriate conduct in this situation. Balbadd has just gone through a turbulent time, yes? And with the Empire still working to tighten its hold here, you can hardly expect the Princess and Lord to stay in the city where there is a probability, no matter how small, of unrest. No," I continue, not letting him speak, "I believe that it would be in the best interest of everyone here for us to remain in the palace," I let my hand flutter to my chest, "Just think of what people would say if something were to happen to Princess Keary while she was under Prince Kouha's protection! And, that aside, if she were indeed carted about like a common tourist, or as she herself has said, a courtesan! I dread to think what Lord Harald would say…or King Sinbad," I almost fan myself, as though I honestly can't handle the scandalous thought, but, that might be a bit much and, so, I forgo it.

Though I do allow myself some pride here.

Name-dropping like a boss.

Well done, my sun, Salos gives me some slow applause.

The old guy's staring at me like he can't decide if I'm playing him or seriously a fluttery little politician. Finally, his wrinkles close around his eyeballs again.

"…and who might you be…milady?"

Oh, he didn't like biting that one out.

I give him a brilliant smile.

"Thamina Dioscuri, advisor and personal friend of the princess. A pleasure."

He makes no sound and I can feel his hidden eyes observing me. Finally, after a long pause, he turns back to Keary, forcing another gaping smile.

"Your advisor is…correct, of course. We cannot risk your safety," there's an underlining tone there that makes it sound like we just forced him to swallow vinegar, "I will show you to a pair of guest rooms. And your luggage-"

Leif bends and picks up the trunk Keary and I are sharing. Lukas hefts his and Leif's smaller cases. A short stay only required light packing.

"No need," the Anselma Lord says with a winning smile, "My man and I can certainly handle this," he gives a nod towards the palace, "Please, lead on."

The old man bows, and I swear I can hear his joints creaking in sheer frustration that he wasn't able to come use his political dance of douchiness on us. Honestly, though, has he never heard of the Varangians? They don't do political dances. They do political wrecking balls. Even their governing council is freaking lit. They're required to leave all weapons at the door and I've heard that Lord Harald's still had to break up fist-fights before because everyone's too stubborn to back down like at all. From what Leif told me about the session when Keary gave her decision to join the Alliance, a few of them got uppity with her and she actually got up and told them to "have at me if you have the courage'. Apparently, no one did, and no one really wanted to cross her after that when she sat there and glared them all into submission. Varangian women are scarier than the men, honestly.

The old guy is silent as he leads us into the palace. I can tell as soon as we enter that very little of the old one remains. My expression darkens slightly. They really did strip away everything that made Balbadd unique and replace it with the monotony of the Empire. It's cruel in its genius. I don't even know what we could possibly say to help Alibaba's people. "Hey, mind sodding off?". I'm sure that'll work great. How I despise Kou and its militarism.

Keary senses my mood, and, having calmed herself from her outburst, links her arm with mine in that comforting manner that we use when leisurely walking together. I'm grateful for the support. Keary is one of only a handful I can remember who can so easily read my emotions and act accordingly. Our personalities are a good match. She's a bit hot-headed and forceful, but, I think that, over time, she'll be a wise and well-respected queen. She's certainly been a good friend to me. I have a sudden thought that she would get along with someone else as well, but, the name eludes me. That girl, the one in my memories from Alma Torran…A headache starts in and I wince. Dammit. I hate it when my memories do that.

I notice that we've stopped. The old guy motions to a door, saying something about this being mine and Keary's room. I wince again. Between his smell and his high voice, he's definitely intensifying that headache. Leif enters the room briefly and exits without our chest. I shoot him a grateful smile and he returns it with a wink, unseen by our hosts. Keary pulls me through the doorway with a terse 'thank you' to the old guy. I blink, my train of thought effectively derailed. I was flirting with Leif. It was making my headache feel a bit better. I catch a glimpse of the Captain and Lukas entering the room across the hall, then, the princess shuts the door and bolts it from the inside, obviously not taking chances with our 'generous hosts'. I glance over to see that our trunk has been set at the foot of the single bed. While Keary concerns herself with the door and single window, I dig out my pajamas. I'm honestly not worried at all that we'll get jumped in the middle of the night. The third prince invited us, after all, and Varang's part of the Seven Seas Alliance now. Not to mention, even if something does happen, Salos will wake me. I've slept in some pretty dangerous place before, during my travels, and left Salos to keep watch. It's the advantage of having my brother as my djinn. He just senses about during the night, since he doesn't sleep, and warns me if something happens.

Which is kind of sad. I wish he could sleep. As it is, he just kinda slips into my dreams and keeps me company. He's the reason I dream of Alma Torran. Often, we spend the night in the palace's garden, during that brief time of Solomon's rule. Or in Amon's home, sitting together and watching people pass by, making occasional comments to each other. Sometimes, there isn't really a setting, and we just sit with our arms wrapped tightly around each other, unwilling to ever let go. These dreams, created from our shared memories, are the only times that we can truly be together. The only time that I can feel Salos's embrace, inhale his scent, and look into his eyes. If I had the option to sleep forever in order to be with him even in this way, this shadow of what we used to be, I would. It's the only thing that keeps the pain of being physically separated at bay. We are Dioscuri, it's in our nature to be together, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Two halves of one whole, two spirits bound together. This separated state isn't natural for us.

I pull on a thin nightgown I purchased in Sindria. It's nearly impossible to buy women's clothing that isn't super revealing there, but, I managed. I blame that perverted king of theirs for my troubles.

Speaking of which, if his name gets me what I want, I'm going to start dropping it like crazy. If he wants to be my ally, he can at least make himself useful by allowing me to use his name to get my way.

Salos snickers at this.

Go to bed, my sun. You get oddly vindictive when you're tired.

He's right. It's still pretty early, but, we're all exhausted from using our magoi to travel all day. If anyone does decide to jump us tonight, I'm going to be seriously pissed. I crawl into bed and snuggle deep under the thin blankets there, leaving my day clothes on the floor and the Staff and my sword propped near my head. I can hear Keary getting ready for bed. Then, as I'm almost asleep, she crawls in next to me.

My last thought is that, even though this bed is huge, the old guy is the stingiest bastard I've ever met.


So, yeah, the Kou Empire can go fuck themselves with a rusty spoon. It takes all I have for me not to say that directly to the guard at the door of the council room.

I woke up this morning when Leif knocked on our door. He had just bathed, apparently, since his blonde hair was wet. And he had shaved. It had been too early for that. I'd been the one to answer the door, and there was Leif, all seven and a half feet of him, with only the barest remnants of his beard and mustache. I'd nearly stroked. I'm pretty sure my eyeballs just about popped out of my head, because he actually started laughing at me before either of us had even said 'good morning'.

"Is it really so shocking to see me cleaned up, milady?" he asked teasingly.

I was still gawking, so, it took me just a moment to reply.

"Your beard is gone!"

At that, he really did crack up, huge booming laughs echoing down the hall and probably waking the rest of the palace. Keary stuck her head around the doorframe to peek out. She gave a 'hmph', and went back into our room.

"It's nearly time you shaved that monstrosity," she called.

Leif leaned against the doorframe, his arm about four feet above my head, and grinned down at me, ignoring his cousin.

"Ah, yes, I thought it prudent to do so while in a place where beards are not so necessary to display manhood," he gave me a lazy wink, "What say you, milady Thamina? Is it an improvement?"

I kinda stared at him for a moment. Leif's hot. Like, really hot. And it wasn't super visible before because, even with him keeping his beard trimmed, his lower face was just kinda this mass of blond facial hair. Now, though, he's all noble features and holy shit. Why did guys like him not live in my previous world? Still, he's a bit too tall for me to actually crush on him.

Which means I need to hook that man up because, hot damn, he would make a woman very happy, looking at that face every day. Plus, he's got that whole lordly honor thing going for him.

"You look very well, milord," I reached up to pat his arm, the one within my reach, "Though, I almost didn't recognize you."

He laughed again, bringing a large hand down on my shoulder. I knew he was holding back, but, he just about knocked me over.

"I'm sure I will have difficulty recognizing you as well, Thamina, after you've cleaned up," he tugged playfully at my long hair, "How long has it been since you've at least trimmed this?"

I scowled, pulling my hair away from him.

"I like my hair the way it is."

He grinned unrepentantly, stepping aside as Keary pushed me through the doorway, our clothes for the day under her arm. Following Leif's directions, she practically dragged me to the baths.

The Kou baths are not like those of Sindria or Varang. In Sindria, there's a bathhouse within the palace with a room for women and a room for men. Though, if one desires privacy, there are baths with running water in the nicer guest rooms, much like there was in the hotel we stayed at during the rebellion in Balbadd. In Varang, running water would be too much of a hassle in the winter months. So, when someone wants a bath, they summon the servants to drag a giant-ass wooden tub into their room and have it filled with hot water. Then, oftentimes, the servants are overly helpful and want to help you out. I thought I was going to beat this one old lady off with the Staff the first time I bathed in Varang. She seemed to be convinced that I was incapable of washing myself. I had legitimate nightmares after that until Salos finally dealt with them.

Kou baths are almost like the bathhouses of Sindria crossed with the private baths. The one we used was obviously for women, since there were perfumes and smelly soaps everywhere. The tub, carved from what looked like marble, was freaking huge. I could fit like ten of me in there. They had already filled and prepared it for our usage. There were flower petals floating on the top of the water. I felt Salos's appreciation for this, which made me realize, when Keary dragged me off, his vessel was left in my room. I panicked. So much so that I hardly even felt awkward when my friend just stripped and jumped in without even caring that I was there.

Like, holy crap, give me some warning before you just get naked.

I washed in probably five minutes flat, really struggling to keep the glamour on my antlers without the Staff to channel my magic. Then, I toweled off, dragged a brush through my hair, put on the really pretty dress Keary had grabbed, checked my teeth, and then practically zipped back to our room, which was only around the corner. Lukas was standing guard in the hall, so I wasn't worried for Keary. She was apparently actually enjoying herself in the bath.

As soon as I reached our room, I snatched up Salos's vessel and the Staff and haven't let go of them since.

Which brings me to how I got here.

We're standing outside the conference room, five minutes before the exact time the old guy, who returned for a sequel appearance, told us the prince would meet with us. I'm being told to hand over my sword. While that's no big deal for the others, Keary's metal vessel is her signet ring, which they don't dare to ask for after yesterday, and Leif and Lukas could honestly take out half the guards here bare handed, my brother is in my sword. So, I'm really having to bite back a 'go fuck yourself' when the old guy starts riding me about how 'I can't expect to take a weapon before his royal highness'. That's my brother you're talking about, you wrinkly old asshole.

Finally, Keary speaks up.

"It's alright, Mina, I understand your reluctance to part with your metal vessel."

What the hell, Keary?

The old guy immediately shuts up. Well, shit, I hadn't really wanted to broadcast to Kou that I was a Dungeon Capturer. I prefer to be a free agent as a Capturer, despite my alliances with Varang and Sindria, and not look like I belong to any one group. It's going to garner special attention, not to mention, it'll cue Al Tharmen in on where I've been and who I'm with by connecting me to Keary.

But, cat's out of the bag now.

"Metal vessel?" the old guy asks, sounding like he might have been sucking helium out of balloons, "You are a Dungeon Capturer as well, milady?"

I give him a glare. Might as well use it to my advantage.

"Yes," I say shortly, "Capturer of the Nineteenth Dungeon, Salos, and wielder of the same Djinn."

Salos puffs up even though the old guy can't see him. The man stares at me for a moment. At least, I think he does since he doesn't like, part his eye-wrinkles or anything. Then, he bows.

"My apologies. I did not realize you held such an esteemed title. Please, if you would like, you may remain outside with a guard."

At first, I wonder why he changed his tune so fast, but, as he speaks, it hits me. He hopes that me being out of the room during the meeting will throw Keary off. I glance at her and she nods, picking up on this as well and telling me to let him have his way. I almost smirk. If only he knew.

"I find that to be acceptable," I sniff, as though he bore me great insult and this appeases me just slightly.

Immediately, I sense his suspicion in my easy acquiescence. He wastes no time, though, in snapping his fingers and summoning a guard to his side. He makes the man lean down and whispers something in his ear, then, he smiles, displaying his missing front teeth to the fullest.

"Now, then, are you ready, Princess Anselma?" he motions to the door.

Keary squares herself as another pair of guards, stationed on either side of the double doors, push them open. Flanked by Leif and Lukas, she enters the room. Leif casts me a slightly anxious look, no doubt remembering that promise to protect me. I smile back at him reassuringly. Then, the doors swing shut behind them. The old guy immediately takes off down the hall with his own contingent, saying something about important matters to attend to. And I'm left alone with my new shadow and the dudes at the door.

After a pause, I look over at him. He's probably in his late thirties and wears the customary armor of a Kou guard. At his hip is a sword and a spear is in his hand. He doesn't meet my gaze, his eyes fixed straight ahead, his expression a bit tired. I take it that he didn't really want to babysit today. I stare at him for a moment, then, I sigh.

"So, is there a library?"

The man's eyes slide to me and he frowns just slightly. He stands head and shoulders above me, which I'm accustomed to. Still, I wish I didn't have to talk up to at least one person besides the old guy.

"Milady does not wish to remain here and wait?"

I grin.

"Nope. That would be boring. Besides, the princess can handle herself, I don't need to sit outside and twiddle my thumbs. I'd rather occupy myself in some way."

He considers me for a moment, obviously not quite sure what to do with that. Then, he nods.

"There is one…"

"Great! Lead the way!"

He looks just slightly uncomfortable then.

"I am not sure milord will appreciate me letting you use it freely."

I feel my grin turn into a smirk. Really now?

"If it comes to that, let me deal with it. Now, I insist. I would really like a good book to pass the time. They could be in there for hours."

The guard pauses for another moment. Then, he nods, expression clearing. Next thing I know, I'm being led through a maze of hallways in the formerly-Balbadd-palace. As we walk, I manage to get him to talk. He's actually a really nice guy. His name's Lee, and he's got a wife and two kids at home. One's twelve and the other's five. The older one's a girl who enjoys embroidery and who dreams of eventually becoming a handmaiden to one of the princesses. The younger is a boy who's still more concerned with making himself as dirty as possible throughout the day despite his mother's attempts to stop them. They all live in the central part of the empire. Lee's actually part of the Western Subjugation army, directly under Prince Kouen.

It's surprising, how much he talks once I get him going. I get the sense that he's a naturally chatty guy but that guard duty is usually quiet. In return, I tell him a bit about the places I've been. He seems to enjoy the descriptions of the characteristics of the lands themselves and the cultures of the peoples there. By the time we reach the library, he's smiling easily and resting his spear against his shoulder.

"Here we are, Lady Thamina. I will wait just outside the door, if you have need of me."

I give him a smile and a nod in return. Then, I enter the library, making sure to be quiet just in case I risk disturbing someone who's already inside.

It's like, really underwhelming.

I mean, Sindria's library is this massive thing with rows and rows of stacks, all decorated in gold with really pretty frescos on any bare parts of the wall. There's a reason it's been taking me so long to catalogue it. And I used to work at a library in my old world. I really expected something super grand because, you know, it's a palace. But there's maybe ten stacks and then some wall shelving. And most of its half empty. I just kinda stare at it for a moment.

It's then that I notice some things. Patterns in the thin layer of dusts on the shelves. This collection wasn't big before, but, it's shrunk recently. A lot. It's then that I notice that the style of the room itself is still Balbaddian. This room was incorporated when the palace was redone, and a lot of the books were taken.

Wow.

Hmph, 'wow' indeed. Apparently, the Kou Empire didn't want certain materials remaining on the shelves, Salos agrees.

I give a nod in response, starting to walk forward, between two of the shelves. I can tell that this room is actually really big and I want to see what's beyond these stacks. As I pass the rows of books, I can start to see what appears to be a sitting area. The furniture is of Kou style, which means it's a recent addition. I step from between the stacks and pause. There's a huge gold and red rug covering part of the floor. Settees and chairs are spread around, small coffee tables between them. Near the far left hand wall is a desk with a lot of open scrolls laid on it. Curiously, I start that way, my steps silently muffled in the rug.

I'm almost there when, suddenly, my sharp ears pick up a rustle of fabric and the sound of someone absently clearing their throat. I freeze. It came from just in front of me and down a ways, towards the door, meaning that someone was in the stacks and I almost walked right past them without realizing it.

Stupid, stupid, Mina.

I hadn't even bothered to check for other people in the room. All I could smell was books before, but, now, I'm picking up the scent of soap and sweat and something else that is definitely masculine. I hold my breath as heavy footsteps begin moving my way, toward the back of the room. I'm alone in here with a very large man from the sound of things. I can't smell anyone else. I take a step back, and then another, contemplating who it could be and not really wanting to be like right there when he steps out.

The man emerges and turns right, almost running into me. I obviously startle him, as his hand, the one not holding a large scroll, flies to the hilt of the sword at his side. I jump as well as my face nearly becomes very acquainted with his chest, which is left nearly completely bare by his clothes.

The first thought I have is that the dude has the most well-chiseled chest I've ever seen, and I've seen Sinbad almost naked. My second thought is that, now that he's close, his scent is oddly familiar. Before I can even look up, he speaks.

"Thamina?"

I know that voice.

My eyes snap up. I find myself staring at an angular face framed by red hair done up in the style of a Kou noble, a trimmed beard of the same color on his chin. Wine red eyes meet mine in surprise. My mouth literally drops open. He's wearing much finer clothing than he was at our last meeting, but, there's no mistaking it. Out of all the people in the world I've met, I never expected to meet this man again.

"Commander En!"

Chapter Text

I am embarrassed to say that I pretty much squeaked out his name like something out of an anime. I was so surprised that I couldn't help it. I guess he's super surprised too, because his eyes are wide, and he strikes me as the type of guy who has a lot of control over his emotions. Even as I stare at him, though, he regains control of his expression. He's done being surprised, all ten seconds that it lasted. Even as he schooled his expression, though, I can still see that he's taken aback. Apparently, almost literally running into a midget mage was not on his list of things to do today.

"Out of all the people I thought I might find here, you were not among them…"

His baritone voice betrays only curiosity at my presence. He looks me over, eyes lingering on the mark on my forehead and the staff in my hand. I can remember all too well from our first meeting that he seems to know exactly what at least one of them mean. His observation gives me time to collect myself. I knew that Commander En was an officer in one of Kou's subjugation armies, but not the Western one. In all honesty, I never expected to see him again. I manage to regain control of my expression. What is he doing here? I don't think a mere commander warrants personal, unrestricted access to the library of a conquered city. Is his ranking higher than commander? It could be. He could have lied to me at our first meeting. I mean, it would make sense. Who knows what kind of assassins could be looking for high-ranking officers of the most powerful army in the known world. Hell, even a wandering mage like me might take a crack at someone like that if given the chance, just to cause some disruption in the conquest. Solomon knows we did the same thing when the Church was trying to subjugate and then murder us all.

I glance down at what he's wearing, taking in his rather ornate armor and traditional clothes. He even has a cape. It's a far cry from the casual clothes I saw him in when we first met. Especially the cape. Not even Sinbad's cocky enough to wear a cape. Though, that's a funny mental image. Apparently, En's a lot bigger deal than I originally thought. He's wearing the same sword as before, though, I recognize it by the decorative gold pendant attached to the pommel. In one large hand, he carries a scroll that's honestly big enough to be used to bludgeon someone. Judging by his presence here, within the palace, I'd guess he's at least a general, and a high-ranking one at that. Though, I'll confess, I haven't exactly done extensive research on Kou's military rankings.

"I could say the same…" I hear myself reply steadily, my mind still trying to wrap itself around this weirdness, "In fact, I didn't think we'd ever cross paths again."

I should probably add his title at the end there, but, I've never had much care for human hierarchies. The only reason I defer to Lord Harald is because he's earned it, in my opinion.

I look up at En's face again, taking in the way his thin brow is slightly raised- dammit, it feels like everyone but me can do that. He tilts his head just slightly, allowing me to see the top of it for the first time. I think my heart actually stutters when I see the decorative hair piece that appears to sit atop a small bun. I've been around the block enough to know that only Kou royalty get to wear that. I've been interacting with Kou royalty. One of those who regularly plot to take over the known world.

Holy shit.

It takes all I have not to mutter that out loud.

Salos?

I can feel him rifling through our shared memories, trying to identify the man before us, but so far, he's got nothing. Whatever the case, shit just got real.

Commander En- I don't know what else to call him- brings his eyes to rest on my sword. His other brow shoots up so that both are raised. The second surprised expression I've gotten out of him in the past sixty seconds. That's probably some kind of record, as stoic as this guy is.

"You weren't divested of your weapon?"

I automatically shake my head, feeling my done up hair threaten to shift on my head.

"No, I was permitted to keep it."

I don't elaborate. I know from previous experience how smart this guy is and, now that I know that he's royalty, I really don't want to tell him more than I have to. I don't think he knows that I'm with Keary, he was too surprised to see me. I also don't think he's Prince Kouha. I mean, it could be that Keary's meeting with a decoy of some sort, but, I just don't see the third prince doing that. From what I've heard, he doesn't seem the type. Assuming this is indeed a prince, that leaves three others. Kouen, Koumei, and Hakuryuu. I've heard that Hakuryuu is a teenager, though, and I'd guess this guy at around Sinbad's age. Kouen or Koumei, then. Well, shit. I'm talking face to face with either the most feared military commander in the world or the most skilled tactician the empire has to offer. And I already know that he's a collector like Sinbad. Swell. At least he's blunt. So I'll know exactly when and how he's trying to collect me.

En makes a sound that might be a harrumph. Or him clearing his throat. Or a caveman impression, it's honestly hard to tell with this guy. He turns toward the desk with the scrolls spread over it, motioning me to follow with a sweep of his free hand. The casual authority of the gesture tells me that he's used to being obeyed without question, another marker of his true status. I want to give him a deadpan stare because, excuse you, I'm not one of your subjects or servants. But, I have the sense that this interaction is important. As though to confirm this, a few Rukh flit out of the shelving to float around him. I follow him, watching his back, and the Rukh drift over to me.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they walk, particularly when it comes to confidence levels. En's cape flutters slightly with every step, swirling about his legs. He carries himself with a regality that I've never seen before. Not even Sinbad or Harald bear themselves so well, and they both carry themselves pretty damn impressively. That being the case, I'm leaning more towards this being Prince Kouen. Sinbad had described Koumei as being a bit reclusive, and this guy interacts with too much confidence to be classified that way. Though, he does seem to be a bit of a bookworm, if the scrolls all over the desk are anything to go by.

En marches over to grab one of the armchairs from where it's positioned with another. He lifts it without difficulty, his cape shifting away from his arm and his half-length sleeve giving me a full view of the way the muscles in his forearm coil. Good grief. And I thought Lief and Hinahoho were ripped. This guy's downright scary. And kinda sexy. Okay. More than kinda. He plunks the chair down in front of the desk without a word and gestures to it, glancing at me.

Translation: Sit your ass down 'cause we're gonna have a chat.

That peevish part of me wants to stay standing just to spite him. But I don't, because the Rukh are still fluttering about like smug little butterflies, which means antagonizing him may not be the best idea. Plus, who knows, those Rukh could be Queen Sheba or Baba. Or even Solomon. It just seems extremely disrespectful to be like 'nah, brah, I'm good'. I internally sigh. I honestly just wanted to check out the library, not have a heart-to-heart with one of the Kou princes. Still, I sit, removing my sword and leaning it against the chair to do so. Then, I look up at him expectantly. Because there's no way I'm starting this conversation. What the hell would I even say? "So, how's that campaign to take over the world going for you"?

En sits down across from me, putting us more at eye-level. He sets the scroll on the desk, on top of the somewhat organized pile of open ones, and leans back in his chair, already regarding me with those all-too observant wine red eyes. It feels like he's trying to be intimidating, though, it might just be his default mode. Now I really wish I could cock a brow at him. I'm one of King Solomon's Household members, wielder of a Sacred Staff and last of the Dioscuri, a princess in my own right. Plus, I'm connected to Salos, who has so much confidence that I actually worry sometimes. Dude's got a long way to go before he intimidates me.

"Thamina, the wandering magician," he begins, "It's been a while."

I smile as I fold one leg over the other, resting the Staff across my lap. His eyes track the movement, missing nothing.

"It has, commander," I look at him steadily, "Though, I don't think that's your true rank."

He props his elbow on the arm of his chair and rests his cheek against his fist, giving the impression of a lounging jungle cat. Good Solomon, this man is ridiculously attractive, even when he's being intimidating.

"No, it isn't," there's that bluntness I was expecting, "And what about you. Are you truly a simple wanderer?"

His gaze flickers downward, toward where my hands grip the Staff. With a jolt, I realize that, in preparation for the meeting, I put on the Varangian ring Keary gave me and am still wearing it. I don't grant the satisfaction of glancing down at it. I've had it long enough to know the design by heart. The Anselma crest, woven out of small, intricate bands of silver on a face of blue stone. If En knows anything at all about royal crests, and his question leads me to believe he does, he knows exactly who this crest belongs to and just where I would have gotten it. Rings like this one aren't just handed out or made on a whim. They have to be commissioned and gifted by the royal family. Well, damn, there goes that secret. If this is really Kouen, I was hoping to keep the whole 'friend of the princess' thing on the down low. It makes me more 'collectable'.

"…Less so than I was when we first met," I admit.

His blank expression remains in place as he gives a small nod. There's a pause before I realize that he's waiting for me to elaborate. Cat's out of the bag now, might as well wear it proudly.

"Allow me to introduce myself as I am now. I am Thamina Dioscuri, personal friend and advisor of Princess Keary Anselma of Varang."

I don't know what reaction I'm expecting. A blank stare? Evil laughter, maybe? I don't get either. He looks at me for a moment. Then, a smirk slowly stretches over his lips. He leans forward, resting his arms on the desk in front of him, blatant interest showing in his expression. I recognize the look in his eyes. It's the same as the first time we met, when he recognized the mark of the third eye on my forehead. He's intrigued. Very intrigued. Which might be a bad thing.

"Is that so?" he asks, a chuckle behind his tone, "I was right. You are an intriguing woman."

I feel myself frown just slightly at that. Was that a compliment?

Salos is still on edge since we don't know exactly who this man is. I might be pretty cool about this situation, but, my twin is definitely not. I think it's mostly because I'm alone with a man, though. He gives a mental shrug in response to my internal question.

Who can say? I recall that he's one that says what he thinks without much filtering.

I decide to keep him talking. I remember that he's a lot like Sinbad in the way he'll press you for information without giving a lot away. I want to learn what I can about him, since we're apparently being honest with each other.

"I could say the same for you. You're not a simple commander."

He really does chuckle this time. It's actually really weird hearing it. Like, I kinda expect one of the vases along the wall to crack or something because of it.

"I'm surprised you haven't realized my identity yet. I wasn't very creative with my pseudonym."

It clicks as soon as he says that. En of Kou. Kouen. My smile freezes in place and my eye twitches.

Holy fucking shit. I met the crown prince of Kou and didn't even know it.

I legitimately want to facepalm so hard at that moment. Three years. I met this man three years ago and never put that together. I can just see Amon's disappointed dad face. It usually meant we were going to get a really long-winded lecture, and it was usually because Salos and our fellow student, Zagan, had been fighting again. Putting two Life magic users together is a bad idea, especially when they both have a focus in plants. And Zagan always had this weird knack for pushing Salos's buttons. I never understood it.

Focus, Mina, Salos sings.

I clear my throat, drawn back to the present.

"My apologies. I have limited knowledge about your family. I did have it narrowed down to you and the second prince, your highness," by the grace of Solomon, I manage to keep my voice pleasant, not betraying the way I'm still internally kicking myself.

He scoffs, sitting back again, his amusement still present.

"You're not the type to stand on formality, Thamina."

It's an admonishment, one for using a royal title. Strange. I thought he'd be the type to power-trip. Maybe he's so self-confident that he doesn't need the titles to remind himself of his position. That use of my first name and nothing else suggests that's the case. I let my smile slip away until only a small quirk remains. He's right, though. I don't like to use titles. The only reason I used his was because I'm still feeling him out.

"I'm not, usually, Kouen," his eyes flash at that, not with anger, but with something like amusement, "But you've taken me by surprise. I thought I would spend the duration of the princess's meeting with Prince Kouha perusing the library, not running into you. Almost literally."

"Why not accompany the princess into the meeting? Since you're her advisor."

His expression is mostly blank again, but, his tone tells me that he's still getting a kick out of my position with Varang. Why, I'm not sure. We've been talking for like two minutes and he's already got me going 'what the hell is going on in his head?', which doesn't happen often. Mostly just with Sinbad. I lift one shoulder in a shrug.

"The small man in the yellow robes complained very loudly about my sword and staff, so, the princess bade me to do as I will until the meeting is over."

"And you came to the library?"

I nod.

"I like to read."

He actually seems surprised again. I feel a bit insulted. What about me would make him think I don't like to read? Or does he think I can't? Ass.

"You entered potentially hostile territory and decided to wander to the library, alone?" he asks, tone almost dubious.

Oh, so it's not the reading thing that surprised him. It's the fact that I just kind of do what I want, no matter where I am. Huh. Guess he doesn't know me like he thought he did. I shrug again.

"It seemed better than waiting outside the meeting room. That would give me too much of a chance to cause trouble."

His eyes glitter with that odd amusement and his expression relaxes. I realize that he's actually enjoying this conversation. That he's not posturing or hiding at all. He's just speaking bluntly and expecting me to do so in return. And the fact that I am puts him at ease.

"Somehow, I doubt that you need to be given a chance to cause trouble."

I stare at him for a moment.

Salos, did Prince Kouen just tease me?

Salos seems amused. He's lightened up a bit, now that we know who, exactly, we're dealing with.

His tone certainly suggests that he did, my sun.

Huh. Didn't see that one coming. Maybe it's from being the eldest of numerous siblings? I internally wrinkle my nose. Nope. Not going down that trail. I refuse to think that Kouen, commander of the Kou Western Subjugation Army, is big-brothering me.

"You're right," I reply, before the pause gets awkward, allowing myself to smile slightly, "Trouble usually finds me whether I want it to or not. It's part of my charm, I suppose."

My response causes his barely-there smile to widen just a bit. Another realization strikes me: he's genuinely glad to see me. Not in the weird 'I think we're friends but I know you actually want to kick me in the balls most of the time' way that Sinbad was when I met him on the road, but in a normal 'it's been awhile, how are you?' way. He asked about Varang and my purpose in being there because it's his duty, but, now that those questions are out of the way, he's just…chatting. Like we did when we first met. Like those years of separation don't matter and we're catching up like normal people.

Weird.

Kouen shifts, sitting up straighter so that he can better see and address me.

"And what sort of trouble has found you over these past three years? Considering that Princess Keary only recently reestablished contact with her family, you must have met her beforehand to be such a close friend now," there's unbridled curiosity in his expression, "Did you assist her in capturing the Dungeon, Sabnack?"

Oh, Leif was right. Kouen's seriously smart. He's been keeping tabs on the timeline and is even able to place me in it. I hum in affirmation, relaxing in my chair. No sense in trying to be secretive. Since we're being blunt. And he's already guessed.

"Yes, I did."

His eyes positively light up at that and his lips curve. There's something in his gaze that makes my stomach flutter. Admiration? Appreciation?

"And how did you enjoy your first dungeon?"

I frown before I can help it. First? It's then that I realize that he doesn't know about Salos. Oh Solomon. What now? We're being honest, and I hate lying. I don't want to be like 'oh, yeah, totally my first' but, as comfortable as this conversation is turning, he's still a potential enemy. I also don't want to flat out admit that I'm a dungeon capturer. I can practically hear my collectability value rising. It's bad enough that Sinbad knows-

Hold up.

Sinbad knows. And I know that he and Kouen have some sort of rivalry thing. Essentially, Sinbad's a king and Kouen's next in line and they're both badasses so they can't stand each other. I fight a smirk. As grateful as I am to Sinbad for his attempts to take care of me, I don't want him thinking he's got some sort of monopoly on me. Let's see what happens if I light a bit of fire under his ass.

Salos is silent for a moment. Then, he chuckles.

I know for certain that you did not used to be this devious. You do realize, though, that while this might put pressure on Sinbad in his attempts to keep you near, it could also incite action from this one? I hope you're prepared.

My internal smirk grows. I had realized that.

I am. If nothing else, I want Kouen to know exactly who he's dealing with. Messing with Sinbad is just icing on the cake. As for my deviousness, it's probably from too much time with-

I falter. There was a name. The Niran girl's face flashes across my mind's eye, a wide, mischievous smile revealing elongated canines, her fox ears standing upright from her red hair. She the one I was about to blame, but, her name….I can't grasp it.

Salos sends me a wave of calm and my previous amusement returns on its heels. I allow myself to smirk physically, enjoying Kouen's slightly confused expression, no doubt caused my reaction to his question.

"Sabnack was not my first dungeon," I say, purposefully casually.

I grasp my sword, lifting it from where it rested against the chair. Bringing it to my lap, I pull the blade out just enough to show the eight-pointed star. Salos, unable to resist showing off, causes it to glow. I almost laugh at the clearly shocked look Kouen has. He's the type of guy who can keep some serious composure, but, he obviously never, in a million years, expected me to be a Dungeon Capturer. To him, this means that I'm a King Candidate, and someone with a great deal of power. I smile as is, feeling the brief rush through the bond between my brother and I. Kouen stares at the blade and then looks to me. After a pause, he regains control of his expression, though there's still surprise in his eyes.

"You captured a Dungeon….when?"

Ah, he's wondering if I didn't do it recently, after he and I met the first time. I push the blade back into the sheath and set the sword aside again.

"My first memories of this life are those from within Salos's Dungeon. I conquered it and awakened on the Tenzan Plateau after departing it."

His gaze grows calculating again. He's completely in control once more, and now he's processing what I've told him. He brings one hand up to his chin, subconsciously it seems.

"Simple magician indeed…" he murmurs.

Even as I watch, the calculating look is replaced by one of hunger. My smirk becomes a bit more satisfied. There it is. The look of the collector. What I was waiting for. Now, he wants to know all he can about me…and how he can draw me to his side.

Your move, Sinbad.

"How have you managed to keep this hidden?" Kouen asks.

I raise one shoulder in a shrug.

"I haven't had much need to use my equip. I'm a skilled enough fighter that, against normal enemies, I don't need Salos's power. And, I don't really go about broadcasting my abilities, a woman is entitled to her secrets after all."

The prince sits back, gaze firmly on me. I've completely thrown him for a loop. Good. As nice as the realization that he wanted to chat was, it's even nicer to know that I have the ability to surprise him like this. I meet his eyes, gold on wine red, and wait for his next response. I'm still wishing I could have just read a book, but, this is interesting. A little manipulative? Probably. Okay, yeah, definitely. But, I don't appreciate when these big powerful royals decide they'd like to use me as a pawn. I figure I can handle Kouen a bit better than Sinbad. At least Kouen's blunt about what he wants, and I feel like I can straight up look at him and tell him where he can shove it. With Sinbad, it's like 'oh, Solomon, I don't even know what he wants right now'. And I never get to just chat with Sinbad. I'm too worried about his wheedling.

"I assume Princess Keary knows?"

I'm drawn back to the present conversation by the question.

"Indeed she does. It's part of what helped us capture Sabnack."

"…And Sinbad?"

Ouch. There wasn't even a 'king' in there. Sounds like I was right, that dislike goes both ways. Huh.

"Unfortunately."

Kouen raises a brow at that response but doesn't press. I know what he's doing. He's putting together how many major players in this game of politics have access to me. I'm a complete wild card, and I'd imagine he's not so keen on just chilling now that he realizes that. A Dungeon Capturer with no true allegiance and no authority over her could be an issue. Or a great asset. I guess I ruined our casual mood.

"I take it that you've pledged yourself to Varang, then? And now stand against Kou?" his tone is deceptively calm.

Yup. Killed it. That's a shame. I'd best clear this up. I'm enjoying talking to him. I don't want this to turn political

"Not at all. I've told you before, I follow the Rukh, and the Rukh led me to Keary. And then to Sindria. They even led me here, which makes me think that perhaps this interaction was part of their intent," I lean against the arm of my chair, "For all I know, they might even have me remain here, at your side. But, I doubt it. They've been very adamant about my place with Keary."

He listens and then gives a 'hmph'.

"I see. So, you remain outside of sovereign authority…even within Sindria. How bold of Sinbad to allow you to remain there."

I can't help it, I grin.

"Well, considering that you haven't had me escorted out, I would say that you are rather bold as well, Kouen. Though, it is never my intention to undermine anyone's authority. I'm simply a wanderer."

He takes in my grin a bit wryly. Simply a wanderer. And a magician. And a fighter. And a Dungeon Capturer. And the best friend of a princess. Damn, it'd really floor him to know I'm not even human, but, I draw my line there. No telling those kinds of secrets. I can tell by his expression that he's done being surprised, again, and has returned to what I'll call 'normal Kouen', where he's just being a dude, not concerned with political standing or anything like that. Though, the hunger in his eyes hasn't faded. I've awakened something within him. Mina the Wanderer was interesting in her own right, Mina the Dungeon Capturer, though, is valuable. I wonder how long it will be before he makes an offer.

Kouen shakes his head, sighing just a bit.

"I don't think anyone has ever surprised me as much as you….Just when I think I understand you, you reveal something shocking."

I laugh a little at that.

"I'll do my best not to disappoint in the future. After all, I think life would be rather boring without surprises sprinkled throughout."

He makes a sound of amusement, reaching forward and unrolling the large scroll from earlier. Looks like he's resettled enough that he's comfortable with returning to his research. I can now see that it's a dictionary for the Torran language. I know that Kouen likely had to study for years to be able to understand it. Which, he does quite well, judging by the speed at which he peruses the dictionary. I feel a flash of smugness in knowing that, of the handful of the non-tribal people in this world fluent in Torran, I am likely the only one who never needed to study.

Kouen glances up and sees me looking.

"Do you read Torran?"

I was one of the originals, bro…

I nod, shifting to fold one leg over the other.

"Some."

After a moment of considering me, the prince returns his gaze to the scroll, apparently still searching for the right word.

"Have your wanderings ever taken you as far as the Torran villages?"

"No, they haven't. Though, I'd certainly like to visit them. Then I will truly be able to say that I have interacted with every major cultural group in this world."

Kouen looks up, curiously.

"Is that your goal? To interact with every cultural group you come across?"

I allow my expression to turn thoughtful. Aside from following Destiny's path, what is my goal? To aid Keary? That factors into Destiny's path. To annoy Sinbad? Fun, but not really a life goal. Is it really to see this entire world? I feel my thoughtful expression slowly becoming more melancholy. No…that's not it. Aside from following the Rukh…I don't really have a goal. What a sobering thought. And how sad. Am I really just mindlessly following the Great Flow, with no personal desires and wishes?

"…no," I reply, a bit quietly, "I'm not certain what my goal is, aside from continuing to follow the Rukh…but….I do have a dream."

I glance up and find the prince watching me keenly. I hardly expect him to be interested in my dream, but, the dictionary is temporarily forgotten on the desk. He raises a brow when I meet his gaze, silently bidding me to elaborate. I feel a warm flush suffuse my face and I give a slightly embarrassed laugh.

"It's likely of little interest to you, Prince Kouen. Just a woman's dream."

A scoff causes me to look at him quickly. He leans back in his chair, looking both amused and exasperated.

"At the moment, you are of utmost interest to me, Thamina. Do you think I care nothing of dreams because of my station? Or my post? No, I too have dreams to fulfil, but, I fight to see them realized. A unified world, devoid of war, is my dream. I am doing what I can to make it a reality," he cocks his head, just slightly, "What is your dream?"

I stare at him for a moment. A unified world, devoid of war. A world united under Kou's banner…and Kouen's leadership. Though, I disagree with the way he's going about it, conquering and assimilating, I find myself admiring him. Wasn't this the same thing we fought for under Solomon's command? A unified and peaceful Alma Torran? That's the cause I literally gave up my life for. And, now, I'm essentially working for that same cause, just in a different way and a different place. If you don't count the time I was 'asleep' in Salos' dungeon, I've been fighting for Solomon for nearly twenty years.

I sigh, feeling a bit weary suddenly.

"In comparison, my own dream is lacking, I think. I don't wish for anything so grand, though, I see the nobility in such a cause…" I look down at the staff in my lap, "Now that I think about it, perhaps that sort of unity factors into my own dream…" my fingers trace the golden metal of the staff itself, "I want to live peacefully. To marry, have a family, teach my children how to live well and honorably, and grow old beside my husband."

As I speak, I realize something: I'm tired. Tired of fighting. Tired of wandering. Tired of having expectations placed upon me. All I truly want is to settle and live happily. I feel Salos reach out to me, a ghostly touch all that remains of his embrace. I want to return to Alma Torran. To spend my days in the gardens, with my brother, and our mates. Under Solomon's rule. I want to continue to study under Amon, and to sit with Baal as he insists on acting like a father to everyone in close proximity. I want to hear Salos talk about the latest pranks that he and Valefor and Barbatos pulled. And….it becomes blurry, but, I know that there are other things I desire. Things that are now impossible.

The fact remains, I'm tired, and there's no true rest in sight. Nothing permanent. I guess I'll sleep when I'm dead.

"I do not think yours is lacking," Kouen says, moving the dictionary so that he can retrieve another scroll from the pile on the desk, "A simple dream is a dream, just as a grand one is."

He considers me for a moment, something odd in his eyes. Ah, here it is, the offer…

A knock on the door is all that heralds the interruption of our conversation. We both look up, a bit startled, listening. My first thought is 'oh Solomon, the old fart heard I was talking to Kouen and is coming to put an end to it'. I hear it open and am legitly preparing to engage with the douchie small man again. A moment later, a regular-sized man runs out from between the stacks. He faces us, dropping to one knee and bowing. He wears the traditional armor of the Kou army, and, from how red his face is, was booking it to get here quickly. Oh. Probably not for me, then.

"My Lord! There is unrest on the Eastern side of the city. The Captain sent me to inform you!"

Kouen sighs softly. With deliberate movements, he rolls the dictionary up again.

"Very well. Inform him that I am on my way."

The messenger rises from his kneeling position and retreats from the library. Kouen stands. I do the same, as it expected when dealing with royalty. I may not care much for the hierarchies of this world, but, I won't disrespect him. Besides, it seems that our conversation is at an end. The prince rounds the desk and comes to a stop before me. Again, I'm forced to look almost straight up. He's at least a foot taller than me, much like Sinbad, and I'm rather annoyed by the imposing height difference. But, I put on a smile.

"I suppose duty calls."

He nods once.

"Indeed it does…" he pauses, briefly, "I has done me good to see you again, Thamina. I hope that you and I will meet again in the future…I feel that we have much to discuss that we did not have an opportunity to in this meeting."

I allow my smile to widen. Ah, yes. He didn't get to make his offer.

"I look forward to it. I've enjoyed our conversation. It's isn't often that I'm granted such an honor."

He inclines his head and I do the same the both of us bidding a regal farewell to the other.

"Until next time."

With that farewell, he strides away, cape flaring out behind him. I can't help the amused expression I wear. The man has style, I'll give him that. He doesn't glance back once as he departs. Though, as he's preparing to round the corner and disappear into the stacks, he does call out.

"You may remain here for as long as you wish. Should anyone challenge you, assure them that you have my permission."

He vanishes from view even as I thank him. I stand for a long moment, watching where he had gone. Then, I shake myself and go around the desk to sit in the chair he'd vacated.

Well, that was weird.

Indeed it was, Salos agrees, Your relationship with the Kou prince is an odd one. It lacks the disequilibrium of the one you have with Sindria's king, as well as the intimacy of what you share with Keary…it's something in between.

I ponder this for a moment, looking over the scrolls on the desk. Then, I shrug.

He's my bro.

It's the only way I know how to describe it. We're weirdly casual but not truly friends. I don't think there's any true affection on either side, though, I'll admit I'm crushing a bit. So, the term from my previous world seems applicable. I can feel Salos's deadpan expression in reaction to this.

No. No he is not. I am your only 'bro'. He is your…friendly acquaintance.

I wrinkle my nose.

That sounds awkward.

He sniffs.

I don't care.

Chapter Text

After Kouen left, I perused the library a bit, but, I kept comparing it to Sindria, and to what it obviously once was, which was depressing. I'm trying to convince myself that Kouen actually stole a number of the books, though, and that they weren't just destroyed. I want to see him as a nice guy, but, he does have a reputation as a ruthless conqueror. Which is kinda hot, actually. Intellectual badass might be my type after all... I mean, there are obvious differences between Kouen and Ja'far but, they both fit the category. Ja'far's much nicer, though. And I don't have to look almost straight up to see his face. And I'm gonna stop there because I am not crushing on Sinbad's advisor. That would be an idiot move.

After deciding that I didn't want to be depressed by the assholery that is the Kou Empire's assimilation tactics, I left. Kouen had never specified where 'here' was when he gave me permission, after all. He could have meant the library, but, he could have also meant the palace. Hell, he could have meant Balbadd in general. I settle for the palace. I push the heavy doors open and set off at a slow, wandering pace. Lee trails along behind, leaving his post by the doors and informing me that the Prince gave him new orders to ensure that no harm comes to me. He seems a bit more excited about the job, now. I'm guessing because the orders came from the Prince and not the small douchie thing. And possibly because I like to talk to him. I get him to tell me more about his family and life as a Kou soldier in general as we walk the halls, passing soldiers, servants, and nobles alike. All of them give us at least a passing glance. A foreigner carrying on a conversation with her guard must be a bit weird. Huh.

I can easily discern the Balbaddian troops from those of Kou. The former usually have looks of depression and total subjugation. And they wear turbans with feathers stuck in them, which helps. I find myself wondering if I could lead a revolt. I'm suddenly glad that Lee's there. It would look really bad in the political realm if I took off on that plan, since I'm here as an ambassador of Varang. Really bad. Keep talking, Lee.

As we turn a corner, moving toward where the guest rooms are situated, he tells me about how his daughter loves to experiment with designs and different fabrics in her embroidery and sewing, but they lack the money to purchase much to feed her attempts, that I decide to put the gifts given to me by my royal friends to use. Sinbad, Keary, and even some of my…acquaintances in Reim seem to take this odd joy in giving me clothing accessories. Shawls, scarves, kerchiefs and other items have a habit of appearing with goodwill from someone I know. The problem is, I don't wear that sort of thing. Shawls are weird and scarves are annoying. And what the hell would I even do with a kerchief? Wipe my nose with it and stick it in my pocket? Ew. Still, I haven't been able to bring myself to get rid of them because they're made of things like silk, sheer linen, velvet, satin, and other expensive materials. While I appreciate the thought, I've got little clothing additions out the wazoo. If they really want to make an impression, they need to get me a decent bra. Or like, invent one. I might be small, but there's enough to bind. And it's freaking annoying.

Fortunately for my purposes, Keary had insisted on my packing a few of these ridiculous accessories. And I have a shit-ton back in my room in Sindria. Not to mention, my home in Reim. When we reach my room, I have Lee wait outside. He looks a bit confused but compiles when I assure him that I won't be long.

A rush of amusement comes from Salos when he senses what I'm doing, but, I ignore him. Inside, I toss the Staff up on the bed and go about pulling a rather finely made bag out of my trunk. I have no freaking clue why a purse is in my trunk, but, Keary was the one who packed. I know she has a girly side, no matter how hard she tries to hide it, but, honestly. What was I going to do with it? It's not like we're going shopping here. Fortunately, I know what's mine and what's hers because she's kept everything well separated. Everything on the left side of the large case is mine, as made obvious by the small nature of the clothes. The purse was on my side, and, judging from its style, was a gift from Sinbad. Perfect. The stupid king is gonna be helping a little girl in the Kou Empire with her dream.

I dig through my side of the trunk, pulling out any useless scraps of cloth. Scarves, kerchiefs, veils, a smaller purse- what the fuck, Keary?- fill up the bag. When I'm done, I've got a couple of dresses and my salwar kameez left. Those and a- I dig between the dresses and find a Varangian knife hidden there. I sigh, examining it. It's nothing fancy, just a steel blade with a brass hilt inside a leather sheath. Something that would be overlooked during a cursory glance into the trunk. Not that our hosts would even dare that. If they want peace with Varang, the last thing they'd better do is go digging through the princess's personal effects. What I can't figure out is why she packed it. I mean, what was either of us going to do with it? We have our own weapons, we're both Dungeon Capturers, and I can use magic. And why the hell is it on my side?

Shrugging, I put the knife in the bag too and retrieve the staff. When I emerge from the room, Lee is still there, standing at something like attention, apparently guarding the door. He looks over and I extend the bag. His expression turns to surprise and then confusion.

"I…don't understand, milady," he mutters, frowning at the bag and not moving to take it.

I give it a shake.

"For your daughter. Inside are some pieces she can use. She can modify them, remodel them, embroider them, and perhaps even sell them."

His frown only grows as his gaze moves to me.

"I…still don't understand. Why…would you do this?"

I cock my head slightly, observing him. I didn't expect this kind of resistance. Huh.

"Because I am not the type who enjoys fine things, but for some reason I cannot comprehend, those around me seem to find pleasure in giving them to me," I sigh. Then, my tone softens, "That, and, your daughter has a dream. If she's as talented as you say she is, with the right material, she could become a successful businesswoman. I know I cannot help everyone in this world, but, if I can help your family, that will be enough."

He looks less hesitant, but, it still lurks. Another push, then?

Careful, my sun, Salos cautions, He's wary of you because you are a foreigner associated with a nation with whom tensions are high. And this kind of kindness is odd between those of such differing stations

Got it.

"There's more," I tell Lee, "I've been storing these sorts of gifts away. It's not much in the grand scheme of things, but, it may be enough to get her started. I'd have to have a way to get the pieces to you, but, I think it will help."

He pauses for a moment more, but the frown is gone. After a bit of contemplation, he reaches out and grasps the handle of the bag. When he does, there's an explosion of Rukh from the contact point. It takes me aback so much that I actually stagger a bit, surprised by the suddenness. As they fan out, filling the hall, I realize, I must have done right. Apparently, this interaction, my helping this family, was meant to be. Lee smiles slightly, pulling the bag over his shoulder.

"Thank you, Lady Thamina. It will mean much to her…I will be stationed here for a time yet. If you wish to send more, you may simply send a courier to enquire after me. If I am moved without enough warning beforehand, have it sent on to my family's home in the Eastern Fuung Province."

I allow myself to relax and smile, gripping the staff with both hands as the Rukh flutter around us.

"I shall. Thank you," I nod to the bag, "There's a gift for your son as well, to avoid unfairness," my expression turns wry, "Though, the time of its giving may require some discretion on your part."

He nods again, gratefulness in his eyes. I know very well what I've just done. This isn't a flippant thing. I'm not just throwing some hand-me-downs to a girl because the opportunity was presented. If she really does have talent, and is given the right means, she could become a seamstress who tailors expensive products. If she remains in the rural provinces, she will be a local businesswoman, someone the wealthy and middle class visit for special occasions and commissions. If she pursues her goal of becoming a handmaid, she'll have a very marketable skill. If she decides that she's skilled enough to do things on her own, she might even be able to get an apprenticeship in one of the major cities and work from there. Whatever the case, she'll be stable in a world where an unskilled woman's only chance at success is marrying well or being lucky enough to work for someone of higher social standing. Hopefully, this will give her the option of providing for herself and her family without those slim hopes. Plus, if she builds herself up enough, she'll have the option of marrying quite well in the future. Merchants and businessmen make good husbands, since they have the means to provide for children, and, those would likely be the circles she'd be frequenting. Put that together with her own possible income? Her future family will be good to go. That's terrible and simple way this world works.

I'm about to get Lee talking more about his family, when the dreaded sound of the small douchie thing's voice floats down the hallway.

"My lady! You cannot-!"

"Do not presume to inform me of what I can and cannot do. My business is concluded and I am departing."

I turn curiously, barely catching Lee's long-suffering look. That was Keary. Another showdown then? What happened during her meeting with the prince? I'm so distracted by her approach, and the questions that it brings, that I almost forget that Lee is standing next to me.

Mina, Salos croons.

What? I ask, distractedly.

I doubt your guard would be permitted to keep your lovely gifts if the diminutive annoyance sees him…

That makes it occur to me, before they round the corner, that the little toad might actually take Lee's gifts from him out of spite. I glance back his way and motion for him to leave.

"Go. I will detain him."

Apparently, Lee had the same thought as my brother, because he gives me a grateful smile and bows before departing quickly. I sigh, turning back toward where the indignant sputtering is coming from, giving the Staff a bit of a twirl. At least we're finally leaving. Aside from my interaction with Kouen, our trip to Balbadd has been incredibly…depressing.

I come to the corner of the hall just as they are about to turn, almost running into Keary. Her eyes flash to me questioningly. I discreetly hold up a hand to pause her. She glances at it and gives a tiny nod, accepting it without question. It's still amazing to me, the kind of friendship we share. In the grand scheme of things, we've only known each other a short while. But, we captured a dungeon together. We've literally saved each other's lives. That kind of thing creates serious trust. The kind of trust in which we can just say 'give me a moment' and the other one does.

She stops, Leif and Lukas pausing behind her. The small thing in yellow robes is huffing and puffing as he catches up, apparently too old and short to keep pace with the strides of Varangians. I can sympathize, just a little. Being like half Leif's size causes issues when he's escorting me places. But, I dislike the little creep enough to feel smug about his discomfort.

As soon as he catches sight of me, his face wrinkles impossibly further. Holy shit, I didn't even know that people's faces could do that. Obviously, I am not on the list of people he wanted to see at the moment.

"Are we leaving already?" I ask Keary curiously, looking up at her.

In her Varangian boots, she stands at least six inches above me, making me unable to see the full intricacy of her current hairstyle. She gives a nod in return, short, not ceremonial in the least, just a quick response to my question.

"Indeed, we are. I see no reason to remain any longer. After all, I still have business in Sindria and I have no wish to overstay our welcome."

I smile slightly. Keary couldn't care less about overstaying welcomes. She just doesn't want to put up with Kou any longer. I nod in agreement.

"Very well, then. Let us depart with all due-."

The short man, apparently tired of being ignored even for a few moments, makes a sound of immense disapproval. I look down at him- oh, still feels so nice- and raise both brows in surprise.

"Sir?"

He scowls, his eye wrinkles parting to reveal the full force of his irate gaze.

"The princess cannot depart yet! A dinner is being prepared in her honor! Prince Kouha himself has invited her!"

I'm sure that, if this were a cartoon, smoke would be steaming out of his ears and his face would be turning bright red. I glance at Leif to find him looking down at the diminutive man with something like fascination. Lukas is staring straight ahead, his expression saying "kill it or kill me, either works". I look back down at the man in yellow robes, who Keary has finally graced with a glare.

"An invitation which I refused. I will be returning to Sindria within the hour. Perhaps you ought to make use of the extra food by distributing it to those more in need than I. It is the Varangian way."

She glances at me. A look that says "can we go now?". I nod. Lee should have had enough time to get out of the way. Leaving the douchie thing practically stomping his feet in anger- seriously, his whole body is shaking- Keary sweeps past me, allowing me to fall into step beside her. Leif and Lukas follow just behind. You wouldn't believe how comforting it is to have someone as big and badass as Leif at your back. The douche gives a choked sound of rage, then, stomps off in the other direction, presumably to deliver a report of our extreme rudeness to his superiors. Huh. Guess I didn't need to stall him after all.

As we walk, Keary speaks, in a commanding tone born out of annoyance rather than a desire to issue orders.

"We are packed and ready, I presume?"

I nod.

"Indeed we are. Though, I cannot speak for the men. After all, women are notoriously tidier than they."

I don't even have to shoot Leif a glance for him to know this little dig is aimed at him. He booms out a laugh, drawing a small smirk from me.

"Milady Thamina," he replies, tone full of mischief, "Have you taken ill? You forget that we are elite warriors of Varang, known for our prowess and efficiency…in all things."

Definitely a double entendre. I laugh, though, like I didn't quite catch it.

"Including cleaning? So you are ready to depart even now?"

"Indeed we are," Leif says confidently.

Keary cuts in then, obviously too irritated with the current situation to allow for more banter.

"Then, cousin, you will have no difficulty in immediately retrieving your things so that we may be on our way."

She reaches our door, and throws it open, marching into the room. I follow her, closing the door behind us. I don't think I've ever changed so quickly in my life, stripping out of my nice dress and pulling on my salwar kameez. Keary takes a bit longer, having more layers. Soon, though, she's replaced her formal attire with her more casual clothes and leather armor. She gives me a once-over, and, satisfied that I'm ready, gathers the flying carpet from where we had left it on one side of the room. It clashed horribly with the red and gold of the room, but, I hadn't thought much of it until now. Together, we roll it up and drag it out. As soon as we step into the hall, Lukas takes it from us, slinging it up onto one shoulder. On the other is his own small trunk. Leif moves past us into the bedroom, retrieving our large trunk with one heave. His own is safely under his other arm. He returns, muscles bulging clearly beneath his tunic, and gives me a smile. Good grief, he really can't resist showing off at every chance. Not that I mind in the least. This trip has been seriously weird and, if Leif is going to volunteer as therapeutic eye candy, I've got no complaints.

"Ready, m'ladies?"

Keary gives a curt nod.

"We're off then."

We leave without bidding farewell, probably breaking about two dozen social codes in the process and offending thirty different people. But Varangians do what they want. Which, considering, is probably why we get along so well. Still, as we fly out from the palace, again sending the soldiers beneath us scrambling, I can't help but look back and again feel a stab of pain at the loss of Balbadd.

A flash of black and red catches my eye and I look down. There, standing on the steps leading up to the main door of the palace, is Kouen. Even from our height, I can tell that his face is turned upward. I watch him for a moment, sure that his eyes are on us as we fly away. What's he thinking right now? What's he planning? Our chat may have been amiable, but, with Keary again at my side, I'm reminded of just how much stands between us.

I glance back at Leif.

"My Lord Anselma, look there," I motion below.

Leif shifts carefully to my side and follows my directions. As soon as he sees Kouen, his curious expression shifts to something savage. A crooked grin pulls at his face and his blue eyes spark. He claps a large hand to my shoulder.

"Ah. The First Prince, I presume?"

I nod.

"Indeed. I thought it prudent to give you some physical reference, since you seem so intent on battling him."

Leif pulls me closer, laughing. The gesture is familiar and comforting, an embrace given by a friend.

"Milady, you do spoil me," he chuckles as we fly out over the ocean, picking up speed and moving out of sight of the palace.

Okay, was it a bit of a punk move pointing Kouen out to Leif and fanning the spark of that little conflict, I'll admit. Keary is giving me that cocked brow of 'really?' from her seat on one side of the carpet. I shrug slightly under Leif's arm. Couldn't help it. If Kouen thinks taking me from under Sinbad's wing is going to be easy, he's got another thing coming.

Leif returns to his side of the carpet, looking exceedingly smug as he settles down, a wide smile on his clean-shaven face.

"You had best prepare the builders, cousin," he tells Keary, "You will be commissioning that statue sooner than you originally believed."

Keary scoffs as I sit beside her, raising an eyebrow at Leif. She's still being standoffish, but, she obviously feels more at ease as we come out over the ocean.

"Did you not look at him properly, cousin? I doubt you'll find victory so easily."

Leif laughs and springs back with a response. I close my eyes, allowing myself to smile slightly. The tenseness is gone and we're headed back to Sindria, to safety. I hadn't realized just how on edge I was until now. I'm all too glad that it's over.


We've been back in Sindria for two days and I can tell something is up.

When we returned from Balbadd, arriving late that night, Ja'far had been there to greet us as we came to a landing in the courtyard. After pleasantries were exchanged and the promise of a report was made, we were shipped off to bed. My first clue came when the general himself escorted me to my room and ensured that I was comfortable. I mean, he's been very kind to me, but, normally, he at least lets me get to bed on my own. I thanked him and went to bed, too tired from the magoi expenditure of travel to think much about it. At least until morning.

And that's when things got weird.

I went to see Keary in the morning. She gave me the basic rundown of how Prince Kouha had attempted to negotiate that Varang ally with Kou instead via trade alliances and how, at one point, he had even hinted at offering his own hand. She'd argued in favor of Balbadd's freedom and they'd reached an impasse. I'd informed her of my interaction with Kouen, which she found exceedingly interesting. Then, she'd disappeared with her stupid dog, saying she had important matters to attend to that, unfortunately, I could not help with. I'd been cool with that. She's a princess, she's got princess stuff. Except that, then, I couldn't find anybody, which was my second clue. Leif and Lukas were mysteriously gone. And so was everyone else of rank that I usually interact with. Even Pisti. That wasn't the weird part, though. That, I can blame on duty. What was weird was what happened after that. One second I'm walking down the hall alone, the next, Drakon is swooping in like some kind of crazy bird of prey and herding me in a different direction. Let me tell you, a giant dragon man appearing out of thin air and saying your name in a booming voice is absolutely terrifying. It also gave me a strange sense of deja vu that I'm pretty sure has to do with Baal…

He sets me to watching the palace guard practice their drills, saying something about how he has other matters to attend to, but that their training is of importance and someone with a good eye has to watch them. I kinda look at the guys in the training yard, beating at each other with practice spears, and then turn back to ask if I'm really the best choice, only to find that he's gone again. Like holy shit. Large dragon men should not be able to move as quickly or quietly as he does.

So, for like an hour, I'm stuck standing awkwardly off to the side, watching sweaty shirtless guys with wooden poles run around yelling. What. The. Hell. To their credit, they're pretty cool about the whole situation. The captain leading the drills takes pity on me enough to just call out what they'll be doing next, shoot me a quick "with your permission, Lady Thamina", and let me give a nod because sure, why not, I have no idea what you guys are doing. Give me swords, staffs, and even fists and I can teach basics and then some. I was a senior rank at Sensei's dojo, it was expected. But, what the heck do you even do with a spear? Other than stab somebody, I mean. I guess they could use the haft like a bo staff. A staff with a pointy end. But they don't. They just…jab. There are a few drills where they try to hit someone with the other end, but…yeah.

It's awkward as hell.

When they finally finish, I exchange bows with the officers, who thank me for my nonexistent help. I watch them go before returning to the palace. Since that little bit of weirdness is over, maybe I'll find a book and settle down in my room. Or meditate and try to access some memories. I've made some good progress lately, particularly with my childhood…

As soon as I step back inside, I see Ja'far speaking with a small group of men. I slow and eventually stop, watching from across the opulent atrium. It's the first time I've seen him today, and I can't help but pause for a moment and hope to catch his gaze and at least say good morning. During my time in Sindria, despite his busy schedule, we really have become more friends than acquaintances. I feel a disgruntled sensation from Salos at that thought. Okay, yeah, I've got a bit of a crush on the man. Nothing major, though, which curbs Salos's jealousy a bit. He's Sinbad's right hand after all. It'd be way too dangerous to fall for him. I smile when he catches sight of me and brings his conversation to a smooth end. The men bow and leave, apparently on some errand. Ja'far turns toward me, then, and silently moves to my side.

His lips are curved in a gentle smile as he pauses, a few inches from me. It's quite a bit of progress from when he used to keep that polite distance between us. I can't help but let my smile widen in response.

"Good morning, Mina. I trust you slept well?"

I nod in affirmation, leaning slightly on the Staff.

"I did. Using as much magoi as we did while traveling was exhaustive…" I cock my head, "And you, Ja'far?"

He seems amused by my returning question, but, he nods as well.

"Indeed I did, thank you for asking," he pauses for just a moment, "How did you enjoy filling in for Drakon?"

I can immediately feel my face fall into a deadpan stare. Ja'far looks surprised, then, he smiles, apparently amused.

"That much?" he asks, laughter in his tone.

I can't help but sigh and fold my arms, looking away. The Staff leans heavily in the crook of my elbow.

"I don't know anything about spearplay. It's different than the katana or staff. I really was useless…."

Ja'far doesn't miss a beat, withdrawing his hand from his sleeves and placing it on my shoulder.

"Not at all, Mina. Your presence ensured that everyone was kept on track and the drills went smoothly. You're far from useless."

I look at him, surprised by the vehemence he's displaying. It's subtle, but there. And the serious glint behind his smile is interesting as well….It's almost like I offended him with my self-deprecating comment. I slowly nod, not really sure what else to do. Salos seems displeased as well, but, on a smaller scale. I guess he's more used to it. Still, the reaction from Ja'far is surprising.

He takes my nod as confirmation that I'm done making terrible remarks about myself, because he's all sunshine again.

"By the way, I was to tell you that Alibaba was looking for you. Apparently, he has something important to discuss with you."

What?

The suspicions are mounting. First, a random Drakon attack, now Alibaba is suddenly looking for me? It just seems…odd. I mean, yeah, the kid's slowly coming out of his funk, but, first I couldn't find anyone, and now, all the sudden, everyone needs me. Ja'far doesn't wait for a response. Still smiling, he offers me his arm.

"Please, allow me to take you to him."

Oh. Okay, then. He looked busy, but, I know how stubborn this man can be when he puts his mind to something. Besides, I like it when he escorts me. He's closer to my height and doesn't make things awkward. And, yeah, I'll admit, I've got a thing for muscular arms. Which he has. Like, damn, you'd think he's a twiggy little thing under those robes, but those arms. I will confess that my head went straight into the gutter more than once when he tangled me up during sparring.

Focus, Mina, Salos sing-songs in my mind, a bit grumpily.

I take my brother's advice, smiling at Ja'far and placing my hand on his arm. As with the first time he escorted me, I can feel the cords of his weapon beneath his sleeve and have to repress a shudder. There's a newfound respect within me for him and those cords, since there's nothing quite like being focused on an opponent and suddenly being tied up with a blade at your throat.

I let the general pull me along, through the hallways, the two of us making small talk about current affairs and the way trade will likely turn, my work in the library and the intricacies of documentation. Good Solomon we're such a weird pair of bookworms. Badasses, yeah, but give either of us a good library and we'll hole up for a good long while. There are times when he makes me laugh, and, as he takes me down a path through one of the smaller gardens, on what seems to be the long way round, I feel almost normal. Like any other woman on a man's arm. Like he's not Sinbad's general and best friend, and I'm not Solomon's household member.

The way a low-hanging branch almost catches my glamoured antlers ruins that sense of normalcy.

There's another reason I can't settle down. I'm not human. What sane guy wants a chick with antlers? It would have been different on Alma Torran, where humans and nonhumans lived together at some points. There had been cross-species marriages, even. One couple in particular…

I run into the frustrating block on my memory and sigh. Nevermind, then. I know it happened, though. This world is a different matter. Everyone is human. I saw the way the slavers reacted to me when I first arrived, like a freak and an oddity. My first magic teacher, Yu, had taught me how to use glamour and hadn't seemed that put off, but…he's kind of weird anyways. He's got this strange tendency to hide in barrels and closets. And under beds. That was a terrifying experience. Master Ramal had been the only one of the Yambala to see me. He'd been curious, but, after agreeing with Yu that it was best for me to stay out of sight until I had fully mastered illusion spells, he just kind of…let it go. Fortunately, illusion magic came really easily to me. Like, suspiciously easily. And Yu got the oddest little smile when he realized that…

Ja'far leads me back into the shadows of one of the walkways. We're near Alibaba's room and I force myself to push away my introspection. I doubt my true appearance is much of a turn-on. Scrawny, narrow hipped, flat-chested, with antlers, talons, and eyes that just aren't quite right by human standards. So, just forget that, Mina. Look but don't touch.

Still…did I imagine that softness in his eyes when he looked at me?

Salos, give me a line, here, this is getting ridiculous.

I feel a dark thought flare through the bond. Ah. He's angry that I was being self-deprecating.

As you wish, his ghostly touch settles on my shoulder, a possessive hold, You are my sun, my light. A princess among the Dioscuri, one of our King's chosen Household. These mortal men can never compare to you. They do not deserve even a passing look from you.

I mentally pause. By now, Ja'far and I have fallen into companionable silence, and my brother has my full attention. I should have known better. If he was feeling more playful, he'd be teasing. But, he's in a dark mood…which is when he gets creepy.

Thanks.

Salos all but purrs, like a cat that just ran an intruder off its territory.

Of course, my sun. Put him from your mind.

Easier said than done when he is knocking on the door for you and acting like a perfect gentleman. But, hey.

Alibaba opens the door and my eye immediately twitches. He's getting fatter. Like, I understand stress eating…okay, no, I don't actually. I'm not a stress eater. When I get stressed I either beat the living shit out of something or go find a hole to crawl into. I blame Yu for that one. He had a tendency to drag me into the weirdest of places. Don't get me wrong, I like food. It's just that I don't usually want it when I'm stressed or depressed.

I swear the kid actually looks a little nervous when he sees me, like I'm going to steal all his munchies while chewing him out. My eye twitches as he gives me an awkward smile. And then, Ja'far gives me a look. It's a gentle but firm flicker of his eyes that clearly reads "leave it be", the same look he gives me anytime we're together in the same room with Aladdin or Alibaba. I wish I could cock an eyebrow. Cute or not, he is so not the boss of me. I get doting on the kids, but this is unhealthy. I'll wait until he leaves. Alibaba is already aware of my disapproval, I've voiced it before, but, we gonna have another chat.

"Alibaba," Ja'far speaks, all smiles and rainbows, "You had mentioned that you wanted to speak with Mina, so I thought I might bring her to you."

Is it just me or does an oddly meaningful look pass between them?

Alibaba quickly nods.

"That's right!" way too enthusiastic there, pal. Especially with how nervous you looked a second ago.

My eyes narrow suspiciously as they trail from Ja'far to Alibaba and back. I feel like this is a continuation of this morning's weirdness. Something is going on. I just know it. And everyone's in on it except me.

At least, I hope that's the case, or else I'm gonna sound like a conspiracy theorist and, trust me, I've got enough crazy without adding that.

Ja'far smiles innocently and actually hands me off to Alibaba, already bidding me farewell and saying something about seeing me again soon. Now I really wish I could cock a brow to give him the 'what the fuck?' expression. As it is, I stare at them with a deadpan look, conveying as much 'I smell your bullshit' as I can. They ignore me for the most part. Though, Alibaba smells nervous now. Over time, I've gotten pretty good at identifying scents and their causes. Fear, and the less potent anxiety, are the easiest. Right next to arousal, but we aren't going there. Plus, the kid's hand is clammy when it takes mine. Tip off if there ever was one.

I turn back to Ja'far, fully ready to demand an explanation and get in on whatever is going on here. And he's already halfway down the hallway.

What the hell?

There's a long, awkward pause. Then, I slowly turn back to Alibaba, smiling calmly. His own forced smile twitches on his face. Oh, yes, he knows I'm onto them. He's a good kid, he really is. A bit socially inept, and with a serious hero complex, but a good kid. He wants to please Ja'far by helping with…whatever the heck this secrecy is about…but he also likes me. Which means he's the weak link. I feel like a creepy Disney villain, thinking that, but, I'm not a fan of surprises.

"So, Alibaba!" his eye twitches at my cheerful tone, "You had something important to discuss with me, right?"

He gives a nervous laugh.

"Right! Come in, please!"

Alibaba pulls me into his quarters, which are just as nice as my own. Gold flashes from every corner, and the fine fabrics of the upholstery scream 'wealth'. Oh, yeah. Sinbad's definitely compensating for something. The "his ego is like this big and his equipment is like this big" line from Miss Congeniality comes to mind, not for the first time, and I have to hold in a snort. Though, honestly, I never want a confirmation on that. The prince is pulling me toward the table set up in the middle of the main room, but, I stop just inside the doorway, eyes narrowing.

There, sprawled across a nest of fine pillows, is Aladdin. His turban is askew and his vest pulled just a little too tight. He's breathing evenly, even snoring a little. Sound asleep, then. Around him lay empty plates. If I had to guess, the days' worth. He's just been…sleeping and eating. Like a koala. My eye twitches.

"Miss Mina!" Alibaba says a little too loudly, honestly startling me, "I was wondering if you would be willing to train me. As a Dungeon Capturer, I mean."

I stare at him for a long moment, my maternal instincts warring with my suspicion He seems genuine enough, but there's still that odd undertone of anxiety. At the same time, internal Mina is clapping a hand over her heart because he wants me to train him in something so important. No, no, Mina. Be cool. I shrug.

"If you would like me to. When Sinbad returns and aids you in mending your metal vessel, I would be happy to teach you what I can," I cock my head slightly, frowning, "Remember, though, Salos and I have a different relationship."

He nods quickly, again grabbing my hand to drag me to the table as Aladdin sleeps on, unaware of his surroundings.

"Great! I was thinking about asking Sinbad, but, he's a king and likely has more important things to do. And, besides, you seem to know a lot about it."

'More important things' yes. Like harassing Thamina, seducing women, and making deals with criminal groups. A flicker of amusement comes from Salos' side of the bond.

Come now, Mina, focus on the compliment.

I allow myself to be pushed onto the too-plush cushions, pulling my sword from the sash at my waist to that it doesn't end up twisting and slamming into something. I lay it next to me with the Staff. Salos is right. Sinbad's not even here, which means I don't have to worry about his harassment for now. And Alibaba did say something nice.

"He's a busy man," I reply noncommittally. Don't crush the boy's dreams of his hero, Mina. As much as doing so might save his ass in the future, "And, I'm no expert, but, I can tell you what I do know."

"Thanks so much!" Alibaba says as he sits across from me, still smiling too-widely. My eyes narrow again. The kid really sucks at this distracting thing. He's just too nice.

"…Was that all you wanted to speak about?" I ask, a bit incredulously.

Yeah, training is important, and I'm very happy that he came to me about it, but, dude, two seconds of conversation warranted Ja'far dragging me all the way through the palace? I'm not buying it. Alibaba looks nervous again. He clears his throat. Again, I wish I could cock a brow at him to make him just a little more uncomfortable, like my foster mom in the old world would do to me sometimes.

He's saved from saying anything by a sleepy yawn from off to the side. I turn to find Aladdin sitting up and rubbing at his eyes, apparently having chosen now to return to the land of the living. Even with his recent flabbiness, I'm again struck by just how much he looks like our King. The braided blue hair, bright eyes, even his face shape is the same. He blinks at me blearily for a moment and then smiles.

"Morning, Aunt Mina."

Aunt? That's a new one. Considering the way he's been avoiding me, I wouldn't think he'd be all for calling me 'aunt'. It makes my heart a little fluttery. Damn, these two are hard to be mad at or suspicious of when they let me mother them. I prop my elbow on the table, resting my cheek on my fist in a rather unrefined way, maintaining my cool expression with difficulty.

"It's afternoon, Aladdin."

"Mmhm," he replies, continuing to smile.

He's still not completely awake. But, I can tell when he finally gets full cognitive function back. First, he stiffens, smile vanishing as he realizes just who is in the room with him. Then, his eyes bug out. Literally, they look like they're going to pop out of his head. After a pause in which Salos's amusement is on a steady upswing, Aladdin makes a run for it.

It's honestly really funny in a kinda sad way. He literally snatches up the only plate with any food left on it from the stack beside him and runs for the door. I use 'run' loosely. With that sudden weight gain, he isn't moving anywhere fast. Across from me, Alibaba watches with a surprised expression.

"Aladdin?"

The boy reaches the door, reaching desperately for the handle.

"SorryAlibabagottagofindMorgbyeAuntMina."

He says it so quickly that even my sharper-than-human ears struggle with picking it up. Like…wow, I didn't think I'd terrified him that much with my 'watch what you eat' speech a couple of days ago. He's really booking it. He finally reaches the handle and swings the door open, already running through.

He literally smacks into Morgiana, who looks like she was getting ready to knock, and staggers back, falling onto his backside. The plate of food goes flying She looks down at him in surprise, expression changing as much as I've seen it in good while. I watch the scene with slightly widened eyes and furrowed brows. Salos, who has been oddly distracted, begins to cackle, finding the whole thing hilarious.

What is this, a sitcom? I'm waiting for the canned laughter to start as Morgiana reaches down to grip his arm and effortlessly pull him up. Though, I guess I've got my own in my head. She sets him on his feet and he reaches back to dust himself off.

"Are you alright, Aladdin?" Morgiana asks gently.

He nods, apparently having recovered quickly. I wish again that I could raise a brow at him

"Well," I say slowly, "That was fast."

Morgiana looks at me quizzically before her attention is drawn back to Aladdin, who seems to be discreetly trying to signal to her. After a moment, he motions for her to lean down and she complies. When he mutters something to her, too low for even me to hear, her expression clears in understanding. She mutters something back. I feel my expression go deadpan, unable to help myself. I understand that they're kids, but, seriously.

Morgiana looks up then, meeting my eyes. I'm struck again by just how similar the Fanalis' physical traits are to the Ren family. There are subtle differences, but, honestly, if you put, say, Kouen and Muu side by side, they might be relatives.

"Miss Mina, I've been sent to retrieve you."

I frown. Sent? By whom? I've been with the boys for all of five minutes. As soon as my attention is diverted, Aladdin darts past Morgiana and flees the room. I'm a little insulted but, honestly, not at all surprised. In my periphery, I see Alibaba slump slightly and sigh. In relief? That's what it looks like. I don't question it, as much as I want too. I just nod.

"Alright. Where are we going?" I ask, standing and retrieving the Staff.

Morgiana just gives one of her little smiles, a barely-there curve of her mouth and shakes her head. I frown slightly. What the hell is this? Obviously all the kids are in on it. Did they plan something with Ja'far? And get the others in on it? That's my suspicion. My eyes narrow slightly.

It's then that I feel the amusement from Salos. I immediately hone in on it. Just as quickly, he throws up a mental wall of sorts. It stuns me. I didn't even know he could do that. It's just enough that I can't actively read his thoughts, but, it distresses me on a seriously deep level. Like, for a moment, panic drives into my chest. I'm not being melodramatic. On an instinctive level, it feels wrong to have him separated from me at all. Upon sensing this, he stretches out comfortingly, still shielding his thoughts while feeding his emotions through our bond.

Calm, my sun. I was just talking to Amon and don't want to give anything away.

So that's why he was so distracted. I'm about to push him further, but, a hand wraps around mine. I look down to see Morgiana's fingers wrapped delicately around my own. I'm surprised. She's never initiated physical contact before. Not that I'm complaining. In fact, my maternal streak is crying tears of joy. She looks up at me quizzically.

"Are you alright? You looked unwell for a moment."

I must have changed expression when Salos put that wall up. Enough to worry her. I glance over to see Alibaba frowning at me, having moved from his place at the table. They both noticed, then.

"Sorry. I was just…talking to Salos for a moment and he surprised me."

They exchange an odd glance, but, I don't have time to dwell on it. Morgiana gives my hand a tug and I let her pull me after her, Alibaba following behind us.

"We shouldn't keep everyone waiting for too long."

Everyone? Just like that, my brain does a complete turn-around to the matter at hand. Who's waiting? And why? My frown comes back five times worse than it was and I likely look constipated, but, honestly, what the heck is going on here?

My guides take me down a convoluted path through the palace, using an even longer route than the one Ja'far took. As the kids chat, well, mostly as Alibaba chats, I think, trying to figure out what's going on. It doesn't work out well. Every time I begin to formulate a possible scenario, Salos starts humming "You Are My Sunshine" so loudly that I actually flinch a few times. At one point, he startles me so badly that I trip and Morgiana has to steady me. It's a good thing that girl's as strong as she is.

Fuck you, asshole, I finally mentally snap, thoroughly annoyed by his interference, And your fucking walls and stupid song!

He gives a dramatic gasp and I sense him drawing back, as though horribly insulted.

Thamina! That's my new favorite song! And I took it from your lovely mind! How could you insult it so?

I grit my teeth, preparing to hiss something back.

Morgiana tugging me onto a veranda full of people who suddenly yell at me in unison stops me.

It was honestly probably pretty funny. I'm totally distracted, arguing with my twin, blindly following the kids. Step out onto the balcony. Everyone there yells "Happy Birthday!". This scares me so badly that my only response is to jump like a foot in the air, screech like a twelve year old girl, and then brandish the Staff at them all. I don't care how funny it was, though, that doesn't excuse the way Leif bends over, guffawing so hard his shoulders shake. I relax, face flushing and expression going deadpan in an attempt to control my embarrassment. So, that's where he was.

Come to find out, this is where everyone disappeared to. Every one of the generals, my pals from Varang, and even a few of the higher ranking officers. They're all gathered on the veranda, a long table refreshments laid out in the middle, and another table stacked with parcels off to the side. Salos all but preens, finally dropping his wall. Of course. I'd forgotten with all that was going on. It's our birthday. I normally don't really celebrate it aside from maybe getting a pastry of some sort that I normally wouldn't and Salos and I wishing each other a happy birthday. It's not that I don't like our birthday. But, I mean, it's just another year. And I'm technically what, four thousand and something? When we were growing up on Alma Torran, we were at war, so things like birthdays were minor. My foster parents were more into it, but I just never really…got all that excited. Then I was alone in this world. Aside from that time in Reim, and we don't speak of my twenty third birthday party. Ever.

Apparently, it's going to be a bigger deal in Sindrea than I thought. I mean, Ja'far and Sinbad have always sent me little gifts on the day, and so has Master Rambal. Hell, there are probably some collecting dust back at my house in Reim, unopened. I haven't been back to the house in probably a year and a half, but, I digress. Morgiana pulls me over to the group, at the forefront of which is a smiling Ja'far. I can't help but let my lips tug upward in return.

"So this was what all the secrecy was for."

Ja'far chuckles, his smile growing. Good Solomon, I'm right back to thinking about just how adorable he is. Those freckles are too cute.

"It was," he admits, "Though, I can honestly say it was more Aladdin, Morgiana, and Alibaba's idea than mine."

I look back at the two who are with me, surprised. Alibaba grins hugely, cheeks dimpling. Morgiana gives another quiet smile, though, I can tell she's proud of herself. I lean on the Staff, expression bemused.

"How did you even find out when my birthday was?"

"Ja'far mentioned that he was getting something for you," Alibaba answers immediately, "So, we decided to do something special!"

I feel my throat constrict slightly. That's honestly…really sweet. In the grand scheme of things, I've only known these kids for a short while and they already…

"And we are all most glad you did!" I flinch as Leif's voice booms out, turning quickly. He already has a drink in hand and a big smile on his face, "A toast, to one of the fiercest warriors I have had the honor to cross blades with. May fortune continue to smile on you for many years to come."

His toast is echoed by those on the veranda, everyone with a glass raising it in my direction. I stare, a bit stunned. This is…too much. I'm just a wanderer. I'm alone in this world, not belonging to one people group. I'm not even human. But this…it's just like when I had…

A family.

The Rukh, which have been so content to just flutter about lazily during my time in Sindria, are in motion everywhere, like they, too are celebrating. One of them catches my eye and I'm suddenly pulled back to a time long ago, before Solomon was king, when our saviors had realized when, exactly, mine and Salos' birthday was and celebrated it. I distinctly remember having a great deal of fun with-

Just like before, when I almost remember her, the memory goes blank.

A gentle nudge from Salos returns me to the present and I smile, letting the nostalgia sweep in with the happiness of the moment.

"Thank you, all of you. It means a great deal to me that you would celebrate with me today," I glance back at the kids. Aladdin has slunk in to join them, and looks more excited than even Alibaba, "I suppose all that's left to say is: Let's get this party started."

A loud round of agreement is all that precedes a flurry of activity. Within a few minutes, the party is well underway. A band of musicians who'd escaped my notice in their corner begin to play, lively Southern music floating over the veranda. The food is dug into, many of those present leaving with full plates to mill about. Leif, Lukas, Drakon, and Hinahoho select a table that's much too small for all four of them and delve into a lunch conversation of an undoubtedly manly nature. Yamuraiha snags a couple of drinks and approaches Keary. As I go by, I can hear the magician engaging Keary in conversation about Varang's politics. Pisti bounces over to join them. I elect to take a glass of weak wine and pull Ja'far from where he appears to be attempting to organize a few last-minute things with the few servants who have been charged with the behind-the-scenes aspects. I lean the Staff against an empty chair and take a swig from my glass.

He honestly looks surprised when I approach and take his arm, tugging him away from where he'd placed himself off to the side.

"This is a party, and, for a few minutes, you are going to stop managing things and have a bit of fun."

He looks a bit amused by this, raising one eyebrow at me just slightly. Dammit.

"I usually manage things at parties."

I shake my head, bringing us to the table I'd selected. It doesn't take much to convince him to sit down. I take the seat I'd leaned the Staff against, smoothing out my Sindrian summer dress. Without Sinbad around, I feel more comfortable wearing one that allows a small bit of my stomach to show. The lower half of my scar is visible, but, so far, no one has asked and I haven't volunteered information. I still haven't come up with a good story for that one. I mean, what do you even say to that? "Oh, yeah, that giant-ass scar on my stomach? Tripped off a curb. Sucked." I'm sure that would go over well.

Ja'far raises one hand and, like magic, one of the servants appears with a cup of tea and sets it in front of him. He murmurs a thank you and curls his fingers around the ceramic. Long, pale fingers that look like they belong to an artist, not a great general. Or former assassin. I can see the ink smudges there from recent writing. I glance down at my own, resting in my lap. The nicks from over the years have left little bits of scar tissue that stand out just slightly from the surrounding skin. Calluses have formed on the pads of my hands, just below my finger joints. Marks of training and using sword and staff alike. Not a lady's hands. Just a wanderer's.

I can feel Salos reach out toward my hands, pressing a ghostly touch to them. He gently reminds me that I am more than just a wanderer and I feel my lips quirk just slightly.

I glance up to find Ja'far watching me with a slightly amused expression.

"You know, most people will go about and socialize at their birthday parties," his tone is lightly teasing.

I let myself give a small smile in return.

"I'm not the most sociable person. And the last proper birthday party I had…" I shudder, Salos echoing it, "I'm doing my best to repress the memory."

He chuckles.

"I won't ask, then," he pauses to take a sip of his tea, "By the way, I wanted to ask-"

He's interrupted by Keary appearing at our table, as though summoned by magic. The Rukh around her are all aglow and fluttering around crazily. I instinctively brace myself. I know what that means. Well, so much for a nice conversation with the guy I'm crushing on.

The princess stands with her hands on her hips, a thin Varangian hanging over those curves I'm ever so envious of. Her long blonde hair is loose and there's a fiercely excited look in her eye. She doesn't say anything. And neither do I. And neither does Ja'far. So, there's this long awkward pause where we stare at her and she stares at me. Finally, I realize she's waiting for me to speak, some of her ferocity dimming in impatience.

"…yes?" I ask.

Keary folds her arms, fierce look returning.

"Yamuraiha has informed me of the presence of another dungeon northwest of here. Only half a day's flight."

It takes me a moment to process this, since it's so out of the blue. I know that Yamuraiha keeps track of points of interest in the area around Sindria. It's kinda her job. A dungeon in Sindrian waters isn't super far-fetched either. I mean, Sinbad and his household are forbidden from entering any others. And those from other nations either don't know about it or aren't going to risk messing with the Alliance to enter it. Interesting.

But, from the look in her eye, I can tell that she didn't share this information just for the sake of sharing.

"You want to capture it."

She gives a firm nod. The Rukh go into a violent tizzy and I feel my expression go slightly deadpan. She wouldn't have told me if she wasn't bringing me along. And the way the Rukh reacted definitely indicates that I'm supposed to join her. A third dungeon? Really, Solomon, you want me to go into three dungeons? As if to answer my mental question, one of the Rukh alights on her head and seems to stare at me.

Across the table, Ja'far frowns

"While the monarchs Alliance has agreed that dungeons in our territories are open to anyone whose nation is part of the Alliance, Princess Keary, that particular dungeon is…rather infamous here. It's claimed the lives of many warriors from various lands."

Keary raises a brow, just slightly. Oh, Solomon, I know that look.

"General," I know that tone too. The one that says she's about to argue, "Every dungeon I have heard of has claimed numerous lives. And, until it is conquered, it will continue to do so."

"Would you add yours, and Thamina's, to that list? Your nation is in a tenuous enough position without losing its monarch."

Keary's expression turns absolutely thunderous. I move to intervene before this heats up.

"Excuse me," I say firmly, slapping my hand against the tabletop, "If I may offer input before you two begin another run around the proverbial bush," I lift the same hand, extending a finger. The Rukh from Keary's head flutters down to land there, weightless but undeniably present, "The moment Keary mentioned the dungeon, the Rukh around her displayed heightened activity," I keep my eyes on the Rukh on my finger, drawing it a bit closer, "And, with her confirmation, they became frenzied," the Rukh jumps up from my finger and lands on my forehead, just over the mark of the Third Eye. I go a bit cross-eyed trying to follow the movement before looking at Ja'far again, "I think this is her Destiny."

They both stare at me for a moment. Ja'far seems conflicted while Keary looks surprised and relieved. The confirmation helped with any doubt she may have had. Good. If we're doing this, the last thing I need is a doubtful Keary.

I reach out and touch my fingertips to the back of Ja'far's hand, appealing to him. His eyes dart to mine and I can already read the resignation there. I smile reassuringly at him.

"It will be alright. If this is what path we must take, then I believe we will persevere."

He sighs, nodding.

"I trust your judgement. Just…be careful."

I feel my smile grow.

"I'll do my best."

Any further discussion is interrupted when the kids again find me, this time joined by Aladdin, and pull me from my seat and to the table filled with presents. Apparently, they can't stand waiting any longer. Aladdin babbles something about being sorry for running away, but it was too hard to keep secrets from me, his small hand pulling at mine. Alibaba laughs as he pulls a parcel from the table, while Morgiana stands at my side, smiling softly. Just like that, thoughts of the dungeon and Destiny are gone. As the party attendees gather round for what is now apparently gift-opening time.

It literally takes me almost forty five minutes to open everything. Between Leif heckling me, the kids leaning over my shoulders, and people pressing in around me, it's a wonder I manage to open anything. Alibaba, Morgiana, and Aladdin all pitched in to get a charm for my sword. It comes in the form of a thin metal wire wrapped around small jewels and woven to look like a hanging vine. Expensive and yet not distastefully so. The 'vine' is short, only couple of inches long. It's made to be pretty without getting in the way of combat or breaking. It's utterly girly and, yet, I love it. There are six 'flowers' 'blooming' on the 'vine', each one a brilliantly colored gem. Deep blue, shell pink, bright gold, diamond white, leaf green, and blood red.

"One for each of us," Aladdin chirped as I held it, "Alibaba. Morg, and me!" he points to each color, gold, pink, and blue, in turn, "Then the princess," the white one.

"Yeah!" Alibaba cuts in, "And Aladdin said we should add these two, for your family."

I look at him, startled. Beside him, Aladdin smiles widely. The green, I understand. But the red…

"One day, my hair won't be red anymore, you know. It's gonna turn gold, like my mom's did. Because that's what it means to be-"

The fragment of a memory, accompanied with a flash of red hair and a mischievous smile, fizzles out before it can truly solidify. I blink and realize that Aladdin's watching me with a somewhat sad look, like he knows that I can't quite remember her

Keary stepping in to give me her gift breaks my eye contact with Aladdin, and it goes from there. I'm showered with baubles, clothes, jewelry, and more extravagant things. From Keary, Varangian armor made of leather inlaid in parts with metal. From Ja'far, a new sword, hand forged by Sindria's smiths and modeled after my own katana. From Leif and Lukas, a collection of materials necessary for maintaining blades and armor. From Yamuraiha, a surprising gift of a pair of magic tools for magoi storage in the form of thick gold cuffs to be worn on each wrist. Each one of these 'major' gifts, wonderfully thoughtful and practical.

After the gift opening, as everyone is really hitting the food table and the party is obviously just getting into full swing, I manage to pull Keary aside briefly.

"What dungeon are we entering, and when are we leaving?"

She glances back at where a number of our male attendees are having some sort of arm wrestling competition, drinks flowing freely despite it only being around lunch time. Her eyes are ponderous for a moment before they return to me.

"The dungeon is named Seere. And we leave in one week. That will give us more than enough time to prepare."

I find myself nodding. Before, when we entered Sabnack, we had limited resources. This time, though, we're both better prepared, and we have all of Sindria at our fingertips. We're both more than capable of purchasing necessary supplies, but, I have a feeling that Ja'far might riot if we do. Honestly, we might have to sneak out to keep him from overwhelming us with aid.

I definitely feel better about this go-round. The prospect of being able to better prepare, mixed with the celebratory air of the party that everyone's putting on for me of all people, has seriously lifted my spirits. Still, as I look out over the party and watch the Rukh flutter about, I have an odd tension in my stomach. That name, Seere, it means something. Something big, but, just like with the girl, my memories are blank. Salos is oddly quiet and thoughtful inside my mind, which is what I usually sense when he knows I'm seeking memories. So, it is big, like I thought.

I guess I'll have to wait till this coming week is over to find out just how big.

Chapter Text

I spend the week leading up to our venture ensuring I’m in top shape. Last time I hit a dungeon was seriously physically grueling. I cannot tell you how much my legs and butt hurt after we got out of Sabnack. Skating across large expanses ice with just a pair of boots and a long stick is not advisable. The problem is, I can’t remember much about Seere, aside from the name and that accompanying feeling of significance. For all I know, we’re going into another ice djinn’s territory. Or a water djinn whose dungeon we’ll literally have to swim through, which would suck majorly. So, in an attempt to prepare for the endless possibilities of terrain we could find within the dungeon, I study everything Sinbad’s made note of in his writings, which is a chore because the man totally embellished, and train physically.

Most of my physical training is done while wearing my new armor, including Yamuraiha’s cuffs. I was honestly surprised by that gift. According to her, the devices she was wearing were the only tools of this kind in the world. So, the fact that she gave me a pair was kinda odd, especially when considering that we aren’t best buddies or anything like that. Though…when she attuned them to my magoi the other evening, I definitely got the feeling that those notes she was taking were not just for personal interest…Which, whatever. I just want to know that it’s functional. From what she told me, the cuffs will siphon some of the magoi expended in everyday use and store it without causing issues for me. I can then tap into that supply if necessary to activate magic. Which is super cool. I’ve never heard of anything like it. They also have the practical use of being strong enough to block an attack. When she told me that, I confess that I did ask Keary to test it, and, sure enough, they held up. I feel like Wonder Woman.

My other armor is the stuff Keary gave me. It’s just a piece for the torso, made to be adjusted as needed, and layered for flexibility. Pieces of metal have been added to reinforce the leather over the vital points. It’s a simple enough design, made for practical use rather than decoration, unlike the armor she first showed up in upon her arrival to Sindria. It does have a series of intricate designs pressed into the leather, embellishment that Leif has said is reserved for warriors of nobility or great reputation. At first, I was a bit put off by that. I draw enough attention with the Staff. I don’t need to wear a freaking billboard that reads ‘resident badass’ in Varangian. But, Keary legitly told me that to refuse the gift in any form would be an insult to both her and her people, so…now it’s on.

The only time I’ve ever worn armor was when training with the Yambala. Master Rambal was adamant that I learn how to at least put it on and run around with it. The only time I’ve worn armor in live combat was this one time in the arena when I went up against a psychotic tiger. Not a good day, but, the armor did come in handy. I just didn’t like it because it was heavy. The nice thing about the leather, even modified as it is, is that it isn’t like the solid metal stuff the Yambala had me wear. I can definitely feel it, yeah, but I can actually move. It works well for my fighting style, which relies on me being small, fast, and hard to hit. I can tell it was modeled after Keary’s since her style is similar. She and I go up against each other in full gear a couple of times as the week goes on, her using her daggers and me using my new sword.

Can I take a moment to just verify that Ja’far’s eye for blades has only caused my crush to grow? This new sword is a thing of beauty. The metal is darker than I’m used to, but it’s harder and lighter. It didn’t take me long to realize that this was some quality steel, unlike the kinda cheap katana I carried over from my old world. It’s also in a lot better shape. Though mine was holding up and I was taking good care of it…it’s seen some action. There were definitely some nicks and scratches on the blade, and the handle had certainly seen better days. It actually had finger marks in the grip from just how much I’ve used it over the years. The one I got for my birthday, though, is brand-spanking-new. A perfectly curved and balanced blade, a handle made to fit to my hands and freshly wrapped in black and gold material, an ornate guard of black metal, and a piece of hammered gold made to cap the hilt and serve as the attachment point for the kids’ charm. It’s a beautiful piece, something more fit for a great general or a king than the weird chick who keeps randomly turning up. Something tells me that, like the dresses, Sinbad had a hand in its creation. But, I don’t care, I’m going to use it.

Because of my relationship with Salos, he jumped to my new vessel on my second day of using it. He said that it wasn’t quite meaningful enough to me on day one, even though it was a gift. But, when I connected it to my comradery with those in Sindria, particularly Ja’far, he made the transition. Though, he grumbled the whole time. I won’t lie, it was hard to give up my old sword. It’s one of the last pieces of the other world I still have. That, and the wooden staff that still sits at my house in Reim. The clothes and other things I carried over weren’t safe to have here and I had to get rid of them in a giant-ass bonfire on the Tenzan Plateau. When Salos departs the first sword…it feels like I truly have left that world behind completely. Like the Mina who lived there is dead. I confess, I can’t remember the sound of my foster parents’ voices, or what Sensei’s face looked like, or even the full layout of my apartment. It’s all a blur to me. And...the scary thing is, I don’t even really mind that I can’t remember those things. What’s real is the new katana, forged by the smiths of an island nation that was founded by a king who seems to have made it his mission in life to hit on everything with legs and a pair of boobs.

Isn’t it weird, the way life happens?

When the week is out, I’m still not totally used to my new stuff, but, I can at least use it properly. As in, I don’t fall over after five minutes from exhaustion. Praise Solomon for regular physical activity.

Ja’far, Pisti, Hinahoho, and the kids see us off. Ja’far still isn’t happy, but, once again he agrees to let us go with a clairvoyance crystal. Pisti is all smiles and cheer. She still hasn’t quite forgiven me for not being with Leif, but, she isn’t pouting at me from a distance anymore. She clings to Keary’s hand as she bids us good luck, making the Varangian princess look all kinds of uncomfortable. Hinahoho, Leif, and Lukas have started some sort of weird Big Guys Bro Club during the Varangians’ stay, which Masrur seems to be on the cusp of joining. At least, Leif seems set on him joining. As soon as the pair of them met in sparring, Leif developed a serious bro crush. He got hit hard once and there were stars in his eyes. Then, when he hit Masrur back, the Fanalis looked just a little less stoic. It’s honestly the weirdest and simultaneously cutest thing.

Speaking of Fanalis and sparring, Morgiana and I grew quite a bit closer this past week. Though Masrur is still obviously her mentor, she would come to me on the days when he was busy. At first, I was surprised. Then, after our first match, I got a glimpse into how Morgiana sees the world. She’s a former slave, something that Masrur gets on a level no one else she’s met can. They’ve both been exploited for their Fanalis strength. Plus, he’s the only other Fanalis in a huge radius, and likely the only one she’s spent any amount of time with since the loss of her family. Then, there’s her little adoptive family, which I didn’t realize she considered me a part of until recently. I’d always attributed her asking me for advice in Balbadd to my being the only adult around who didn’t have a personal agenda going. Now, I realize she didn’t even think that far. She trusts Aladdin without question, and Aladdin trusts me, thus, Morgiana trusted me. Now that we’ve actually spent time together, I think I’ve taken on a new role, though I’m not quite sure what it is. Even when we weren’t training on the days we spent together, she stuck very close to my side. I don’t know that she even realized it, but, everything in her movements spoke of a need to guard and protect, from the way she watched those around us to the way she would place herself between me and anyone she might regard as ‘shady’. It was especially noticeable the day I took her out for lunch in town. Somehow, I’ve worked my way into the small number of people she cares for. Which, when I realized it, was a bit overwhelming.

Alibaba, too, has displayed a surprising amount of affection for my only knowing him as long as I have. I also attribute this to Aladdin’s influence, which has something to do with Solomon’s Wisdom. I think Alibaba’s reasoning has to do with me being a fellow Dungeon Capturer and my going with Keary to Balbadd. After my birthday party, I made sure to inform him of the state of affairs there, and my chat with Kouen. I also promised that I would do what I could to use my personal relationship with the first prince to fight for Balbadd’s freedom. I honestly thought Alibaba was going to break down on me when I said that. He gave me one of the biggest hugs I’ve ever gotten. After that, he usually hung around when I was training, careful not to overeat when in my presence. He spent a lot of time watching Keary and I train our Djinn Equips, and both of us made sure to talk him through what we were doing as we did it. I still don’t know how Salos transferred blades or why Amon can’t just jump into a new one, unfortunately, but, I did tell him what I could about my own transference. He’s been like a sponge, soaking everything up with these big, sincere eyes fixed on us. Keary, especially, has developed a soft spot for him, though she won’t say anything. A lot of her advice when he was watching us was about how ‘you are a prince and king candidate, conduct yourself as such’. Which, in Keary speak, means ‘listen, kid, I’ve been around the block a couple times more than you in this politics thing’. Which also means, ‘I like you, so I’m gonna learn you something’.

I’m so proud of her strange endeavors to make friends.

Aladdin, like the other two, has also made some effort to stick around as much as possible. Apparently, he was avoiding me before because he couldn’t stand the pressure of keeping my surprise party a secret. Over the past week, though, he’s been around in much the same way Alibaba has, paying special attention to my magic usage and Djinn Equip. He also spent a bit of time visiting with me in the evenings, talking with me about what I remember from Alma Torran. Apparently, even though Solomon’s Wisdom allows him view the Rukh in a way that literally lets him see the past, hearing my take on things makes him happy. I’ve done all I can to tell him about my relationship with some of the other Household members. Like Baal, who took it upon himself to be everyone’s mentor, protector, and weird dragon dad back when the household was still going strong. I told him about the way Salos, Valefor, and Barbatos formed their own bro squad and ran around causing mayhem. I told him about living with Amon for a time, and how the old man trained Salos, Zagan, and I. Honestly…I don’t remember much about Zagan, and I have a suspicion that Salos has something to do with that. I also told him about how I know there was someone else, someone who I can’t quite remember, though I know she’s there, in the back of my mind. Last night, during his visit, Aladdin summoned Salos so that my brother could actively join in on the conversation. It was the first time we’d had physical contact since Balbadd, and, for a few hours, we were able to just be together and talk to Aladdin. It was…wonderful beyond words.

Now, as I stand on the docks, my kids gather around, Aladdin gripping one of my hands. Morgiana and Alibaba are a bit behind him, though, I still have to look up slightly to see the blonde prince’s face and Morgiana is just tall enough to hide me. Despite their annoying tallness, I’m happy. They’re my kids. I find myself smiling.

“Be careful, Miss Mina,” Alibaba says seriously, “I know you’ve been in two dungeons but, you never know what can happen.”

Morgiana nods.

“And watch out for Al Tharmen. They might come back for you since you’ll be outside the protection of a king.”

Her eyes linger on my lightning scars, visible on my neck where my salwar kameez bares my skin. I know she’s right. Sindria is Sinbad’s territory, and they’d be seriously feeling their Wheaties to come messing around there. And, even though they seem to have a foothold in Kou, I doubt anyone was willing to come rushing over to attack me when Kouen had extended his protection. Plus, their work in Balbadd was complete. They toppled it. No, if they’re going to make a move, Seere will be as good a place as any. Sure, it’s in Sindria’s waters, but, it’s far enough away that no quick backup would be coming. And Sinbad’s not around right now to contest them. Ithnan pretty much promised I would have another run in with at least one of his buddies and, at the moment, Keary’s such a huge player in world politics that she’s likely a target too. If the Rukh hadn’t made this path clear, I’d definitely be saying no way.

“I will. I’ve got a feeling that our next meeting won’t be so good for them,” I give a reassuring smile, “I’ll come back safe and sound.”

They both look a little less worried. Aladdin smiles innocently.

“Don’t worry, Aunt Mina. You’re meant to go there,” he reaches out to tap the charm on my sword. Specifically, the red gem, “You know more than you think.”

Before I have time to question him, Keary places a hand on my arm, apparently having successfully gotten away from Pisti.

“The boat’s ready. Let’s move before the sun drops any further.”

I honestly give her a look like she’s grown a second head because it’s only like nine in the morning according to the sun’s position, but, I guess she’s anxious. I nod, moving to shake Hinahoho’s massive hand, let Pisti squeeze my fingers together in an over bubbly way, and try to keep my cool without being awkward when Ja’far gives me a ‘safe travels’ and gently squeezes my hand. Then, I gather the kids into a group hug.

“I’ll bring you back a souvenir,” I say as I step back.

Leif helps me onto the boat. We could take the carpet, but, none of us wants to give up magoi unnecessarily when there are other modes of transport available. The boat is small but fast, and, according to Yamuraiha’s calculations, it should get us there by the end of the day. The plan is to rest outside the dungeon for the night and then proceed inside tomorrow morning when we’re all good to go. Which…kinda freaks me out. I don’t fancy sleeping in a dinghy or on a beach where someone can easily jump us, but, okay.

Salos is oddly quiet as we leave the docks. Like, broodingly quiet. I poke him mentally and he sends me a reassuring thought but doesn’t say anything. He’s also doing that weird thing again where I can’t get an active read off him, which likely means there are memories he knows about and isn’t sharing. This just reaffirms that, whoever Seere is, and whatever is in that dungeon, it’s big.

Fortunately, the wind is with us throughout the day, which speeds our journey quite a lot. Varangian warriors are all good with boats, something that Leif explains is part of military training. They’re a coastal nation, and all soldiers must be able to man a boat in some capacity. We were relying on that knowledge and possibly some Varangian strength applied to some oars to get us to our destination. As soon as the wind catches our sails, though, we’re practically rocketing over the water. We pass the time with light conversation mixed in with planning for the dungeon itself, rehashing details we’ve gone over twenty times already. But, hey, better to be prepared than dead. I find myself keeping an eye out for a sudden Al Tharmen attack. Meeting them on the open sea would be the worst. Fortunately, we stay clear.

At least for a while.

Looking out over the horizon becomes a legitimate pastime as we sailed onward. Like, I’m all for saving up on magoi for the likely big battle ahead, but, damn flying is so much faster. I guess I’ve gotten pretty spoiled with my flying cape. Who needs to walk downtown to shop when you can literally jump off the balcony and just zoom off? I frown at that. I guess I’ve been pretty lazy in Sindria after all. And antisocial. My main reason for not wanting to walk is the crowds of people that inevitably appear to dog every step I take in the city. They want to sell me things, give me things, feed me things, and put things on me. I was ambushed by a rabid perfume saleswoman on my second day in Sindria and I honestly thought I was going to die. Sudden strong smells with an inhuman olfactory sense? Yeah, not a good mix .

Salos snickers at the memory and I send him a mental punch to the arm.

Any playful response he might have made is cut off when I spot a dot on the horizon. I immediately sit up a bit straighter, going tense. Has Al Tharmen caught up with us at last? I know I’m being paranoid in my fear of them, but, dude, last time we met I got seriously fucked up with lightning. I may not mind my scars all that much, but I am aware of them. And of the fact that they represent where Salos and I got our asses kicked to the Sacred Palace and back. I’m not looking forward to that inevitable rematch.

Keary shifts where she has been leaning on the side of the boat, alerted by my movement.

“What is it, Thamina?”

It kills me when she uses my full name. Like, she went into full-on serious mode and everyone in the vicinity regrets that they have a full name. It gives me horrible flashbacks of Amon, who never called me just ‘Mina’.

“A spot on the horizon,” I tell her, squinting.

It’s still far enough off that it honestly be a flock of birds. Or a large ship. Or a dragon. Don’t judge me. I haven’t seen a single one since getting transported to a freaking magical world. So far, I’ve had to settle for Drakon.

Leif rummages around in his bag for a moment and produces a spyglass, obviously Sindrian-made from the the gold and green adorning it. It might be in Sinbad’s colors, but, damn if my man doesn’t come prepared. The large warrior raises the glass to his eye and extends it out to its full length, turning it toward where I pointed out the dot. A long pause later, he speaks, his voice tense.

“I might be mistaken...but I believe it to be a warship of the Kou Empire.”

Everyone stiffens and the atmosphere in our boat turns a little chillier.

Varang’s  dealings with the Kou Empire are more peaceful now that the Seven Seas Alliance is backing them, but, the princess and the son of the regent caught out on their own? It might be too good a prize to pass up. I glance at Keary, who is watching the speck with narrowed eyes. Damn, I hope she doesn’t do something stupid like decide to jump them first…

“Stay our present course,” she finally says, looking to Lief, “They are still too far for us to guess their heading.”

I feel myself relax just slightly. Leif looks through the spyglass again.

“I would guess they sail Westward. Perhaps they simply test the edges of their new borders.”

I’m honestly not so sure. Kou takes over Balbadd and sends battleships out to push Sinbad’s borders in the midst of peace talks? Seems like a legitly stupid move, but, hey, I’m no politician. The only reason I even get to go on political visits is because I captured a dungeon with a princess. Nothing special, really. Still, when Leif says ‘Westward’, I feel a sense of foreboding. I watch as the Rukh flutter about, occasionally drifting down to brush over me. It seems far more likely that they share our goal. Though, capturing a dungeon in Sindrian waters? Sounds equally stupid.

Unfortunately, as the hours pass, the ship gives no indication of changing course. It actually gets bigger on the horizon, signalling it’s speed of approach. And, as it comes closer, the trepidation in the boat grows. Sure, we’ve got two metal vessel users, which means, even if its a warship vs our dinghy, we’ve got them outgunned.

Leif takes to watching it between bouts of rowing. Honestly, his reaction is what worries me the most. Keary, I expect to be uptight about a nearby enemy. Leif’s a lot more easy-going. If he’s worried, I’m worried that he’s worried. We’re only two hours out from the dungeon’s location, everyone tense and windblown, when the lord sighs. I’m wound so tight by this time that I just about jump him and demand to know why he’s sighing. Was that a ‘good, they moved on’ sigh, or a ‘well, shit, they’re attacking us’ sigh? It's honestly hard telling with Leif. He's the type of dude who would take being attacked as a sigh-worthy inconvenience.

“We have been spotted as well. They have run up a flag from the nest and are signalling for us to near.”

He lowers his spyglass, looking at Keary. By now, the ship is so close that I can make out its shape even without a spyglass. It’s huge, requiring no less than three massive sails to propel it, and can easily carry a military division force by itself. Add a metal vessel user to that, and they could take an entire city with just the guys on the boat. I’m honestly not so sure I want to get closer, and I’m honestly wishing we’d taken Ja’far’s offer of a bigger boat and a small crew. I feel like I’m in a freaking golf cart and just ran up against a tank.

Keary frowns at the ship for a long moment, as though giving it a hard stare will make the crew change their minds and move on. Then, she gives a short nod.

“At present, we are on fair terms with Kou. There should be no harm in hearing them out.”

Leif nods, not looking happy. He and Lukas set to the oars again, propelling us toward the water-borne monstrosity. I can’t help but feel more than a little trepidation about this. Why are they hailing us? Is someone of high status on that boat? Oh, Solomon, don’t let it be Kouen. I’m feeling seriously high strung at the moment and having a battle of wills with that man would not be welcome. He never did get to make his offer and I have a feeling that the next time we meet will be when he springs it. Being stuck on a boat with him and no reasonable way to get away would be terrible for my mental health.

The dinghy bobs over the water, drawing up to the side of the warship. Voices call down directions, followed by ropes, and we accept the help of a few sailors in pulling our small boat alongside their behemoth. Honestly, they’re very nice men, very polite when they tie off the mooring ropes and unroll a wood ladder, asking if either of the ladies require aid, offering to assist us in coming aboard, addressing us as ‘milord’ and ‘milady’. One of them smiles very kindly when I do accept his help, gripping his hand with one of mine and using the other to plant the Staff in the deck boards as I clamber onto the Kou vessel. This does offset my feeling that we’re walking into a trap or about to be jumped and used as political pawns in some Kou scheme. But only a little.

You’re becoming paranoid, Mina , Salos observes.

He’s teasing, but there’s wariness in his thoughts. He, too, is worried about the possibility that our ‘friends’ in Kou might have another use for us.

Keary comes up behind me, actually accepting help and muttering a polite ‘thank you’. She looks to me, silently asking if I’m alright. I nod, raising my eyebrows slightly in return. She shakes her head, almost imperceptibly. No, she doesn’t know why we’re here.

We’ve just finished our little silent convo when a new voice calls out.

“Why, hello, Princess Keary! It’s good to see you again after such a short time.”

I’m still facing Keary when I hear it. Her eyes widen slightly. Then her face changes so that she looks like someone stuck her in the butt with a puffer fish, which is what piques my curiosity. I mean, not just anyone can get that expression out of her. The last time I saw it was actually in Varang, when Leif was recounting some story from her childhood. I don’t really remember much of the story just because I was so fascinated by her expression. I’d never seen anyone make a face quite like that before and the second time is just as weird. There’s something about the way her eyes squinch up and her lips pull away from gritted teeth and her nose wrinkles that just absolutely kills me.

Salos’s amusement floods through me in response to both her face and my strange fascination with it and I have to press my lips together and remind myself that this is a serious situation. Laughing, especially while Keary’s making that expression, would be a bad idea. I turn away from her, both to spare myself and so satisfy my curiosity.

It honestly takes me a moment to form a first impression because the voice I heard was distinctly male but I’m pretty damn sure that’s a girl. Then I realize that his very obviously Kou-made tunic is very open at the front and there are no boobs. Welp, that’s awkward. What’s equally awkward is the fact that my next wonderance is if this individual is a stripper because, wow, that’s an outfit. Under the open tunic are...pants. I think. At least, they’re supposed to be pants, but there’s all sorts of skin showing. Dude, what the hell is this? I can actually feel my brows furrow before I have a chance to stop them. Long red hair drapes down his back and his eyes, a deeper red, regard our little party with some amusement. Yeah, he’s a guy. But the stripper getup isn’t helping his cause at all.

Salos sniggers again, having fallen back into his old playfulness in the light of what he finds to be a very amusing situation.

At least you realized it before addressing him, my sun.

That is true. It could have been worse. Whatever would I do without you pointing out the obvious? My tone is half sarcastic as I gladly take the opportunity to avoid causing some sort of scene with my staring.

You’d be the cause of all sorts of offense, no doubt, and single-handedly lead to war between Kou and Varang.

You’re hilarious.

Keary steps forward, righting her expression to something a little less pufferfish-in-butt. I’m honestly not sure this one’s much better. She’s obviously trying to smile, but it’s like her face isn’t having it. Holy crap, who is this guy to get such amazing reactions out of her? She obviously knows him.

I look a little closer, taking in his coloring. Not Fanalis, but close. Ah. He’s one of Kouen’s brothers, I’ll bet. His resemblance to Kouen, paired with the obviously expensive, if not revealing, outfit and impressive hat tells me that he must be one of the princes. Add his familiarity with Keary and-

“Prince Kouha, what an unexpected...pleasure.”

Bingo.

The prince smiles pleasantly, almost happily. The thing that strikes me the most is that there’s no guile in his expression. He’s actually genuinely excited to see Keary. Though, by the way amusement is showing in his expression, I suspect it’s more because, well...she’s making that face and it’s funny.

To his credit, he doesn’t laugh. Instead, he moves closer, into a more conversational range.

“I was surprised when I saw that it was you my men discovered so nearby. What’s a princess doing so far out in the open ocean?” he asks, tone genuinely curious.

“Sailing for pleasure,” Keary deadpans mulishly, obviously having recovered enough to feed him at least a little crap. Woah, she doesn’t even sass Ja’far this much when he’s annoying her, what did this guy do to her?

Kouha’s smile grows wider at her response.

“It is a very nice day to be sailing,” he agrees, “Though that boat’s not very nice,” he glances at the railing, in the direction of our dinghy, “King Sinbad couldn’t afford to spare one of his cruise ships?”

Ouch. Ragging on Sinbad must be a family pastime with these guys.

Leif steps up behind me, a silent presence at my back as he eyes the prince warily. Lukas does the same with Keary. Kouha pays them no mind for the moment.

“We preferred the smaller vessel.”

Kouha nods, as though accepting this answer. Then, he finally turns his attention to the rest of our party. He looks at Lukas for a long moment, sizing the huge warrior up and not looking the least bit intimidated. Well, I mean, when one is a metal vessel user who possesses the combat ability he’s rumored to have, why would he be? Then, he looks over toward Leif and I. As soon as his eyes land on me, they widen in delight.

“You, with the staff, you’re Kouen’s woman!”

I legitly can hear a record screeching to a halt as everyone pauses at that. Salos goes absolutely silent. Keary whips around to stare at me. I can’t see Leif’s reaction, but, Lukas’s face completely unchanged, bless him. I know that my eyes are probably huge and my mouth is hanging open just a little. Kouha just keeps that same excited smile apparently oblivious to the fact that he just killed my brain function. Then, it jumpstarts.

Kouen’s woman?! What has he been telling his brothers?!

“Thamina, right? That wandering magician he’s so interested in.”

The prince bounds over and leans down to look at me. I’m still too shocked and appalled to even be offended by the fact that he’s only got a few inches on me and he still leans down. While he’s scrutinizing my face, I’m still busy trying to get past ‘Kouen’s woman’. I mean, does he even realize how that sounds? It’s not like I’m having some kind of weird affair with him. I mean, yeah he’s attractive, but I’m not that kind of girl! Salos sends a mental pat to the head, trying to be reassuring. He’s recovering from the intense shock and displeasure of the thought of me being anyone’s ‘woman’. His touch is enough to give me back my voice.

“Y-yes, I’m Thamina Dioscuri,” I manage. Then, I clear my throat, “I didn’t realize that Prince Kouen had mentioned me…”

“Mmmhm,” Kouha responds, poking the mark of the third eye on my forehead, “You’ve really caught his interest,” he moves around to tug at my blue curls and I feel a bit of panic, hoping that he won’t decide to reach up toward my scalp, where my antlers are glamoured. Fortunately, he seems content to just pull at the ends of the strands and watch them bounce back into place, “Did you really capture a Dungeon, too? I thought magicians couldn’t use djinn.”

My face twitches before finally righting itself. Okay, so when he said ‘Kouen’s woman’ it was more ‘the woman Kouen talks about’. I can deal with that. And holy crap this guy has no sense of personal space. I shift away from him and he pouts. A glance back tells me that Leif is watching with mild wariness, apparently perceiving no threat to my safety. Thanks, bro.

“I’m an odd case,” is all I say, causing Kouha’s pout to become more pronounced.

“Aw, tell me more, I wanna know-”

Around us, the sailors continue to bustle, ignoring the prince’s weirdness. A few pull our dinghy up so that it dangles beside the bigger ship. A couple of guys rush past with our luggage and supplies, and that’s when I remember: we’re potentially in enemy territory. And our host is a dude in a stripper outfit with no sense of personal space. I shift away from him as he flails at me, still trying to wheedle information of some kind with a pouty face.

Apparently, the sentiment occurred to the others as well. Keary sucks in a sharp breath and steps toward the prince. It would be intimidating except they’re practically the same height and he’s completely unphased as he looks at her quizzically. Thankfully, her movement draws his attention away from me.

“Prince Kouha, what are your men doing with our belongings?” she demands.

Kouha waves a hand dismissively planting the other on his hip, finally moving away.

“Don’t get so upset, they’re taking them to your quarters.”

Say what now?

Keary frowns at him and I can practically hear the internal teakettle whistling as her temper mounts.

“Our quarters?”

Kouha’s smile widens into a full-fledged grin. His eyes never stray from hers and I get the sense that he actually quite enjoys poking at her. Oh Solomon, this might be really bad. That look is one that I know pretty well, though I can’t remember why. He’s one who likes to tease, and Keary has one of the shortest fuses I’ve ever seen. No wonder she was all huffy when she left her meeting with him in Balbadd.

“You said it yourself in Balbadd. A princess should be shown the proper courtesy. What kind of man would I be if I left you to float across the sea in that toy boat? It would be much better for you to sail with me, don’t you think?”

Bluntness must be a family trait because we’ve been on this dude’s ship all of five minutes and he’s already laid out how things are gonna work around here. He’s a little more...I don’t know... snarky about it, though? I mean, pulling Keary’s words from last time and applying them here. Kouen would have just been like ‘get your ass on the boat, we’re leaving’. Except, you know, without actually saying that. It’s all in the mannerisms.

Keary’s eye twitches. Then, she glares at him.

“We did not need assistance. A princess should also be able to operate independently, without the aid of a man, prince or otherwise.”

“I agree!” Kouha says nodding empathetically, “But, everyone needs a hand sometimes. You’ve made it this far, after all, and, if you left from Sindria, that’s a long way. You’re probably tired and my ship has the proper accomodations for a good rest. You’ll need it if you’re looking to capture a dungeon, right?”

A number of thoughts cross my mind all at once. The first is that the feminist card is not gonna work on this guy. The second is that I can definitely see where he’s related to Kouen. The third is how the fuck did he know where we were headed?

Behind me, Leif tenses, bringing a hand up to hover beside my arm, as though he’s getting ready to grab me a go. Lukas follows suit, moving closer to Keary. The princess herself stiffens. Then, she lets out a slow breath.

“What would lead you to that assumption?”

Kouha laughs, as though she had just cracked a joke, and sidles forward to wrap his arm around hers. Like, seriously, bro just slides up there and links his arm with hers like they’re best buddies. Man, does he not fear for his family jewels like at all?

Salos hums thoughtfully, observing through my eyes.

I think, my sun, we are seeing a continuation of their previous interaction. Keary is prickly by nature, but Prince Kouha doesn’t seem to care in the least. He’s treating her as an acquaintance, not an enemy.

That’s true. And I guess I should be glad he’s chosen to offer help and not just try to lock us in the brig or something.

“There’s only one thing that would bring people like us out here,” the prince responds, leaning on her so that his face is nearer to hers, “And that’s Seere’s dungeon.”

If he hadn’t already proven himself to be a space invader, I’d think he was busting out some overly aggressive flirtations. But, no, this seems to be normal behavior for the dude. Keary leans away, not wanting to disentangle and be rude but obviously not appreciative of his closeness.

“‘People like us’?” she asks, side-eyeing him warily.

“Mmhm,” he places his free hand on his chest, “Princes and princesses and kings seem to be the most likely to go after a dungeon, right? And we’ve both captured one already,” he frowned, “Actually, I’m not all that interested in a second djinn, but Kouen said that Koumei and I should go for it.”

He shrugs, apparently disinterested. I’d heard that Kouha was a weird guy, but he’s proving to be straight up...eccentric. Whatever I imagined about this guy, this isn’t it.

Hold up. He mentioned something about the other brother.

“You mean Prince Koumei is here too?” I venture.

It takes a lot not to flinch when Kouha looks back to me. It’s like hearing me speak was all it took to reignite that look of excited interest. Sinbad had said that Kouha is loyal to his brothers, like, seriously so. That was one part of the rumors about him I did like because no one can appreciate sibling bonds like a Dioscuri. I’m wondering now if I’m not seeing part of that shine through, now. I interest his brother, therefore, I must be something special.

This was not where I was hoping this day would go.

“Yes, he’s down below. I told him we’d spotted you but he didn’t want to come out. He doesn’t like meeting new people.”

That also lines up with what Sinbad had told me of the Kou royal family. Huh.

This situation is still striking me as odd, though. Two of Kou’s princes venturing into potentially hostile territory to capture a dungeon because why the hell not? Doesn’t sound like advice the Kouen I know would give. There’s more to this than I’m seeing, obviously. I feel my eyes narrow slightly.

“And you’re both out here to capture Seere?”

Kouha nods happily.

“I thought Seere was located in Sindrian waters? Isn’t capturing it going to cause political strain?”

The prince pauses, looking at me quizzically for a long moment, cocking his head to the side. He seems to be pondering this, trying to grasp it. Then, understanding lights in his eyes.

“Ah! I see. You thought that Sindria owned this territory,” he tugs Keary along with him as he moves toward me once more, his expression earnest, “It’s true that it’s closer to Sindria, but, it’s difficult for even them to maintain patrols out this far, which means that the sea is just the sea. No one has claimed it because it would be too difficult to maintain the borders. Sindria’s official ocean borders are closer to the island, so we’re just fine.”

He smiles triumphantly at his explanation as he pauses before me. I find my lips stretching in a strained returning smile. Then, I turn my gaze to Keary, who doesn’t meet my eyes, opting instead to glare moodily at the horizon.

Oh. Hell. No.

Salos hums, following my train of thought.

To be honest, my sun, she never said that the dungeon was in Sindrian waters, just that it was half a day’s flight out.

But she let me infer that we were operating safely inside Sinbad’s territory!

She might have assumed you knew where the borders lay.

My eye twitches.

Maybe .

“Thank you for clarifying, Prince Kouha,” I say aloud, “That alleviates my confusion. I suppose I never paid much mind to sovereign borders in my wanderings.”

It’s not like I had a map. I was following freaking glowing bird things and, when I hit a group of people or a town, I would know where I was.

Kouha looks all too pleased to have been of help and again begins pulling Keary away.

“Since it is unclaimed territory, I can definitely say that it will be faster and safer for us to travel together. Pirates are much less liable to go after a Kou warship than a little dinghy like you had.”

The prince motions for us to follow, and, after exchanging glances, we do. Because, well, he’s got a point.


Well, Kouha was right about one thing: we did arrive a lot faster and were a lot less tired when we got there. He insisted that we join them in an evening meal and bunk down for the night. It’s actually not a bad arrangement. I mean, no one has mentioned anything political as of yet. Not that there’s been much of a chance. The youngest prince just kinda dragged us all down into the massive ship, shoved us into four separate, and very nice, quarters, and told us when dinner was before disappearing again. And now I guess we’re his guests? We do divide up our meager luggage and I realize that I seriously brought nothing fit to wear to a dinner with royals. I hope they don’t mind me going  full ‘Mina the Traveller’, cause that’s all I got.

When Kouha said ‘quarters’ I was honestly expecting like a bunk in a corner of a little cramped room. But, it’s not bad. It’s about the size of an average bedroom, with a soft-looking bed and a wash basin, as well as a trunk for storing personal belongings, and a desk with parchment and ink. It’s then that I realized: this isn’t just a warship, it’s meant to carry figures of import, like the royal family. It was a fucking flagship . I had my own room on one of Kou’s greatest military vessels. Talk about mixed feelings. On one hand, it was cool as hell. On the other, this vessel aided in the takeover of the free world by the Kou Empire, who was somehow tied to Al Tharmen.

Maybe-

No, you shouldn’t sink the ship, Mina. At least wait until after you capture Seere.

Despite his amusement at my violent thoughts, he was right. Trying to sink the ship would mean losing us our ride, causing an international incident, and voluntarily taking on two Dungeon Capturers. Huh, yeah, not a good idea now that I think of it. Though, his addendum that I wait showed that he was very confident in Keary’s ability to capture this dungeon, despite the competition.

Speaking of, we arrived at the dungeon last night, after a long-ass and very awkward dinner. Kouha dragged his reclusive brother out of his quarters and with the demand that he socialize, then, he stuck him next to me. That was...interesting. Come to find out, Koumei is probably the most polite of the trio, but the dude doesn’t do small talk, like, at all. And his polite smiles look like he’s in pain. I eventually took pity on the guy and started discussing the pros and cons of various strategies as listed in General Huan Lee’s Battlefield Strategy , a book some dude in the Empire wrote a couple of hundred years ago when the war against Reim was still going strong. Sinbad had a copy in his library and I read it while on bedrest. That’s when I found out just what a scary genius Koumei really is. He had insights I’d never even thought of, all delivered in that patient, well-mannered, quiet tone. I have to say, my first impression of the dude wasn’t good. He’d come out with his robes in disarray and his hair very hastily put up in a messy sort of way and had apparently just splashed his face a little because my sharp olfactory senses could smell a bit more b.o. than is normal for a royal. Still, after a long while of serious conversation, I realized I liked the guy, despite his very rumpled appearance. He’s got a very good head on his shoulders, and the way he actually gave a relieved little smile once he realized I wasn’t going to make him talk about the weather or gossip about politics was absolutely adorable. I wanted to just pat him on his little introverted head.

We’d shifted to the topic of how best to protect trade routes outside of sovereign borders when Kouha interrupted us and told us to stop flirting and go to bed. This had prompted Koumei to give a horrified expression and assure me that he hadn’t been flirting and to apologize if it had seemed that way. I assured him that I hadn’t imagined anything of the sort and that I had enjoyed the more intellectual conversation. This made him give that adorably relieved look again before bidding goodnight and practically fleeing to his room again.

After meeting all three of Kou’s princes, I’m struck by just how different they all are. Kouen’s strong, serious, and commanding. Koumei is introverted, intelligent, and well-mannered. Kouha is proud, boisterous, and has a serious ‘fuck the world, I do what I want’ attitude that his brothers lack. They’re an interesting crew, to be sure.

Keary woke me up at like six in the freaking morning, which I was not happy about, and scowled at me until I got dressed and geared up. Apparently, she was hoping to beat the princes, but, they were already on the deck, eating breakfast, when we got up there. This seemed to amuse Leif to no end, if his expression was anything to go by. That, and the way Keary kept glaring at him like ‘don’t you dare’. Kouha had smiled hugely and invited us to join them. Pleasantries were exchanged, then, the prince did something none of us were expecting in suggesting we all go into the dungeon together.

Keary stared at him like he’d grown a second head, but, he’d just shrugged and said that there was a higher chance of survival with four Dungeon Capturers working together and that the djinn would choose who he or she chose. Not to mention, it wouldn’t matter who left first with us all entering so close to each other, anyway, the dungeon would likely spit us all through the portal at various times.

The breakfast was much better than the dried crap we’d brought for our pre-dungeoneering meal. I’ve gotta say, I’m getting a bit spoiled. I was so used to whatever rations I could pick up for the road, but, now, after living in Sindria for as long as I have, I’ve gotten used to real, fresh food. The spread the princes shared with us included a spread of rice porridge, steamed buns, sweet rice balls, noodles in savory broth, and salted meats. Most of the ingredients were things that would keep well when travelling and could be put together fairly quickly. It was more food options than any one person could eat and it was so good.

Now, I’m actually regretting it a bit. I was hungry from the lack of proper food the previous day, so I might have eaten more than I should have. As we disembark to enter the dungeon, I find myself a little sluggish. Not good. Not good at all. Especially before entering a dungeon. Though, once inside, who knows how long it will be before we get to eat again. In the case of most people who enter a dungeon, it’s never.

Fortunately, we aren’t most people. Four Dungeon Capturers and their retinues makes up a lot of numbers, and we look damn impressive. The Varangians, tall and proud, decked out in their leathers and furs, Lukas hefting his massive axe and Leif carrying a sword that usually takes two hands for him to weild. They look like Celtic war gods, stern faced and ready to mete out judgement upon the unworthy. Throw in Keary, who puts Xena the Warrior Princess to shame, and they aren’t a crew I’d want to screw with. The Kou contingent is just as impressive, though not as heavily armored. All I know is I would not want to be on the business end of that cleaver thing Kouha’s got on him. Nor would I want to run into his odd mix of household members. They’ve been polite enough, but something about them seems more than a little off to me. Koumei’s only got one household member, but, the guy’s the stoic type and they’re usually more dangerous than the big talkers.

I’m feeling pretty impressive myself, with my Varangian armor over my Salwar Kameez. My new sword hangs comfortably at my side and the Staff is a familiar weight in my hand. I’ve even tied up my hair again, something I haven’t done since leaving Balbadd. Despite my very full belly, I feel like I did back on Alma Torran: a fighter with serious determination.

The dungeon looms as the only thing on an island that likely was previously just a hunk of rock in the middle of the ocean. It’s architecture is surprisingly familiar, but, that doesn’t surprise me. Most dungeons reflect the cities from which they came. I have a good idea of what Amon’s looked like from the kids’ descriptions and it pretty much lines up with what I remember from living with him and his people. This one, though...As I look up at it, taking in the huge statues holding up the roof of the outer atrium and the elegant slopes and angles of the roof, I know that I should recognize it. Salos remains quiet on the matter, which just confirms that, yeah, I should.

We disembark, me sticking close to Leif without any prompting. I feel even more nervous about this dungeon than I did about Sabnack because I can just feel that there’s something waiting inside. Something important. Our gangplank ends where the steps to the palace-like structure begins. Golden sconces of ever-burning fire stand at intervals where the steps level out into landings, their trail continuing up to the statuesque pillars themselves. The fire isn’t natural, I know this like I know how the position of the sun denotes time. It’s a natural knowledge learned in my past life. It’s foxfire. The name comes to me as soon as I apply enough thought and my breath quickens. I was right, this place is closely tied to my memories.

I look up the steps and toward the ornate doors. As we climb, Kouha, Koumei, and Keary going on about strategy once inside, I can’t hear a word the others say. I can see now that there is a carved relief that encompasses the lower half of the outer walls, trailing away from the doors and around the corners. My eyesight is a little better than a human’s and allows me to make out the depictions of large foxes engaged in various activities. No...one large fox...and a human-looking woman. I realize as we near that I know this story. This is the origin tale of the Niran, another name that comes to me from the recesses of my memory. My heart feels like it’s going to pound its way out of my chest.

I’m stopped by a hand on my arm, the only thing that keeps me from sprinting up the steps. Reluctantly, I tear my eyes away from the relief and look back. Keary is gripping me tightly, looking up toward the door. Her face is a mass of confusion.

“Thamina…”

Frowning slightly, I follow her eyes. Then, my own face goes slack, and everything else fades to so much background noise.

The statues supporting the roof, overlooked when I turned my attention to the relief, are what have drawn her attention. On the right stands Salos, tall and proud, his lips turned in a fond smile, his hands resting on the pommel of his sword, which is turned with its point in the ground. He’s wearing the clothes he wore on Alma Torran, loose clothes made for fighting. Above his head, his impressive antlers stretch before disappearing into the roof. His head is turned, not looking out toward the steps as one might think, but toward...me. On the other side is the most detailed representation I’ve ever seen of myself. Or, rather, my past self. It’s like looking in a mirror. My long hair is loose and my face set with a sort of contemplative expression. Like my brother, I wear my clothes from before, my bared stomach unblemished. The Staff is gripped in my left hand, and, in my right, a crystalline orb glows with inner light. I’m summoning my magic, observing my own progress while Salos looks on in encouragement. The braziers of foxfire burn at our feet, highlighting the uncanny resemblance between the statues and their living counterparts.

My knees almost buckle as tears come to my eyes. It’s us. Us before .

Oh, Solomon, what is this place…

People are talking, but I can’t hear them. Something draws my shocked gaze away from the statues and toward the door, which shines gold in the morning light. The foxfires send light skittering across it, catching the image that has been pressed into the metal. A woman with long, flowing hair gazes down at us from the gold plating, seeming to challenge and welcome at once with an air of mischief. My already tremulous body begins to shake in earnest. It’s her, the girl who haunts the edge of my memories. The one I know I trusted. The one the red gem on my sword symbolizes.

“Zara,” I breathe.

The name feels right when I speak it, finally, finally able to grasp it. It’s her name. This is her palace, though something deep inside me tells me she was never one for palaces. Whatever is inside will tell me more about her.

I wrench away from Keary with a gasp that might be a sob and throw myself up the steps, ignoring the startled gasps and cries of my name. I know they pursue me, but I don’t care. It’s as though they’re very far away because, right now, all I see is that face emblazoned on the door.

Zara .

I nearly trip on the last step before sprinting between the statues of my twin and I.

Zara .

The portal emerges before me and I don’t even hesitate, barely hearing Keary yelling after me.

Zara .

The portal envelops me and I again hang in limbo as I travel between the worlds.

I’m coming, Zara.