Jia woke up suddenly. The images of flaming swords coming at her took a few more heartbeats to fade, and she blinked quickly and tried to slow her breath. When the fire disappeared, her room was dark and silent again, only the light of the moon –
The moon was a new moon. The light came from a shimmering white translucent shape that hovered in the middle of her room. A person. A person she knew.
"Princess," Jia said in shock. She got up so quickly that she almost stumbled, and bowed. "Princess? Is that you?"
'Jia,' the Princess said warmly, directly in her head. Jia had forgotten how intimate it felt.
"Why are you here?"
'Are you unhappy to see me?' the Princess asked, sounding honestly curious.
"No!" It burst out before Jia could think. "No, I… I'm glad."
The Princess smiled.
She still looked exactly like she had fifty years ago. The stories said that the Princess didn't age in her prison, and Yun had described the first vision she had had in detail, but it was something else to see for herself. For the past fifty years Jia had been afraid to forget, afraid that one day she wouldn't remember the shape of the Princess' face or the timbre of her voice in her head. She traced the ghostly form before her with her eyes, trying to commit every detail to memory yet again.
'It is good to meet you again, ' the Princess said.
Jia didn't know what to say. There were so many things she'd wanted to say to the Princess over the years, and yet her mind was blank.
"I thought you could only visit the holder of the medallion," she said finally. Why didn't you visit me sooner?, her inner voice demanded. Why didn't you talk to me for so many years?
'Only the holder of the medallion can see me, ' the Princess corrected. 'Usually. I visited you too, afterward.'
"Oh," Jia replied, wrong-footed. Then: "Wait, usually? Did something happen? Are you all right?" Worry clawed at her chest. If there was a problem – she was too old, and Yun wasn't ready yet…
'I'm fine,' the Princess reassured her.
"Then why can I see you?"
'I don't know.'
They watched each other for long moments.
"Do you come here often, without being seen?" Jia asked finally.
'Every once in a while. It's good to see you doing well.'
"Thank you." There was nothing she could say in return, because she didn't know anything about the Princess' last fifty years. So often she'd been tempted to ask Yun to tell her everything, but she'd held back. Yun's connection to the Princess was special to her, and Jia didn't want to interfere. She remembered how little she'd wanted to share the Princess when it had been her who'd had that connection.
"Yun talks about you often," Jia said, grasping for something to talk about. Many years ago the Princess and she used to talk about anything and everything, nature and poetry and magic and anything else that came to mind; but that comforting ease seemed gone, and in its place was an unfamiliar awkwardness.
Yun did mention the Princess often. Just little things, things the Princess had told her or things she thought the Princess would like. It had only increased in the past few years, and though Jia didn't know, she suspected that the Princess was visiting Yun more often. More often than she'd visited Jia, back then. It had taken Jia almost a week to get over her stupid jealousy that the Princess liked Yun better than she'd liked Jia. Then she'd seen how Yun smiled and blushed when she talked about the Princess, and she'd realized that Yun liked the Princess more than Jia had liked her, back then.
It made her afraid for Yun. A crush could make her student act rashly and foolishly, and foolishness would get her killed. A broken heart would be even worse.
The Princess smiled softly, an expression Jia had never seen on her before.
"Oh," Jia said with relief, "you love her too."
The Princess looked startled at that. 'I… I look forward to meeting her,' she said.
"She does, too."
Yun had asked if she was ready to leave every half year since she had turned fifteen. Jia had refused her every time, but it was obvious how Yun's desire to leave only grew. She didn't just want to fulfill the prophecy and free the Princess; she wanted to meet the person she was falling in love with.
"Do not encourage her to leave early," Jia warned. "You have to be patient."
'She's an excellent sword-fighter, she directs water like breathing, she flies like a bird, and she can walk through a forest blind-folded. What does she have to do so you'll let her go?' the Princess demanded. It was the first time she sounded as young as she looked, and it took Jia by surprise.
"Do you want to get her killed?"
"She's not! I would know."
'Just because you failed doesn't mean she will.'
Jia flinched and looked away.
'Jia,' the Princess said, immediately apologetic.
"You're right." Jia took a deep breath. "And I'm sorry."
'It wasn't your fault,' the Princess said.
She'd been so eager to fight: she'd been the best fighter in the country, the best magician, and she'd gone forth proudly and fought against dozens of Dark Knights and won. And yet when she'd been faced with the Flame Legion she'd been nervous. She had hesitated, and there, with the Sky Castle in sight, she'd lost. The leader of the Knights had destroyed her half of the medallion in front of her.
She'd barely managed to escape with her life. Or maybe they had let her go because she wasn't a threat anymore, she'd always wondered about that. She'd fled and gone into hiding. Legends said that the medallion could never be permanently destroyed, but she'd been terrified that the legends were wrong and that she'd doomed the Princess to live in her flying prison forever. When Yun had come to her with the half of the medallion that had been hers, restored as though it had never been destroyed, it had lifted a huge weight off her shoulders. Here was her chance to make things right.
Jia closed her eyes for a moment, then looked at the Princess again. "I wasn't ready. I wanted to save you so much, but I wasn't ready, and I failed. I won't let Yun make the same mistake. I'll tell her to stay as long as it's necessary, even if it takes years. And if you love her, if you value her at all, you'll tell her to listen to me and wait."
She'd been afraid that her student would start to resent her for not letting her go. It hadn't happened yet. But she'd let Yun resent her all she liked, if only she stayed alive.
'I'm sorry,' the Princess said.
"It's all right." Jia felt tired. "It won't be much longer, anyway. She's a good student. Maybe another year. Then I'll tell her to go, and I'm sure you'll meet in person soon afterward."
'She has a good teacher.'
"You sent her to me," Jia reminded her. It had meant a lot to her when Yun had told her that, to know that the Princess remembered her and entrusted her with her new champion.
'It was the best choice.' The Princess smiled again.
"Will I see you again, when you're free?" The question slipped free, unbidden.
'You will,' the Princess promised. 'Yun promised to take me to meet her family.'
Fondness for her student filled her, and Jia allowed herself a moment of untempered optimism. "Then we'll meet again soon," she said, and she fully believed it.