Table of Contents

The King and Her Queen Grimoire References Afterword 2 260 265 266

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Chapter 1: One Long Summer
A summer breeze played with her hair as she gazed down at the green valley below. There was a farmstead here and there, and she could see workers milling about as they drove their orange harvesters in neat horizontal stripes across the field. Just beyond, mountains circled the valley protectively, and their peaks reaching, but not quite touching the sapphire blue sky. Patches of white dots graced the lower mountain slopes like white lichen on tree roots. As usual, the shepherds have let their flocks out to graze. As she gazed down at the valley below, a sigh escaped her lips. If only she had more free time, she could have enjoyed this moment more often. Living here in this green valley had been peaceful and refreshing compared to her chaotic high school years. But today marked the end of her time in this place of learning. "One must always move toward the future." she said to herself. She raised her face to meet the rays of the shining sun. "Isn't that right, Father?" The question was left unanswered as her eyes followed a brown speck that soared across the sky. "Hey, Rin..." A young man's voice jolted her out of her reverie. "So this is where you are." The wind played with his reddish hair as he sauntered over to stand next to her. His eyes followed the landscape. "It's too bad, isn't it? We can't take this with us." "Since you're here, dear apprentice, I take it that you're ready to start packing?" Her eyes twinkled with mischief as she glanced at Emiya Shiro. Due to his amazing growth spurt, the gangly teenager had grown into a nicely built young man. But for a magician, size mattered not; only skill. She watched with amusement as his face broke into that familiar grimace whenever she pulled rank. "I'm not your apprentice anymore, Rin. That was a long time ago. Besides, I graduated too, didn't I?" She had to give him credit for that. The boy spent many hours to catch up to students who had studied magic since they learned to read. Although he managed to achieve passing marks, Rin could not resist teasing him about the time he slaved under her tutelage. She flicked her hand toward the dorms with an air of mock solemnity. "Couldn't you at least help a lady in need?" Shiro sighed. "Do you really want me touching YOUR stuff, Rin?" "You can pack the books." Shiro groaned. Rin had a lot of books. "All right, fine." His broad shoulders drooped as he turned toward the dorms. "Let's get started then." said Rin as she fell in step with Shiro. After a few steps, she paused and looked back at the valley below. "Shiro was right... we can't take this with us." she thought. As she walked back to the dorms, she realized that she already missed the valley. People swarmed about the dorms like bees around a beehive. Various luggage and furniture were being moved from the dorms into cars, trucks and even curiously antique carriages that were no doubt enchanted by someone with an archaic sense of style. Rin and Shiro dodged their way through the quadrangle and made it safely to her room. She opened the door and Shiro groaned again. He went looking for her because he wanted to treat her out to brunch to thank her for all her help last semester. Brunch would have to wait. Sullenly, he accepted the boxes that Rin handed him and set out to accomplish his task. Meanwhile, Rin began to sort her closet and to empty its contents into several chests. The chests began to fill up, and soon, her eyebrows knitted with consternation when she realized that the closet's
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content gauge mislead her to believe she had less stuff. "Shiro." "Yeah?" "I need three more chests from Tayson's." She held out several bills to Shiro. "Three? How am I supposed to carry them back?" "Oh, very well..." She glanced over her chests and grabbed a pair of bracers. "Wear these. You can stack three of them and carry them." He took the money and bracers. He looked at the bracers doubtfully. "Gee, Rin, you should've started packing earlier, you know..." She glared at him and the air around him seemed to warm up. "Ok, ok... I'm going." Rin watched Shiro leave and continued to sort her things. She pulled out a brown box and opened it to view its contents. Underneath the tissue wrap was a blue ribbon, a white shirt and a blue skirt. Her eyes widened with nostalgia as she remembered. Her mouth formed a name as she held the shirt on her lap. "Saber..." ----Shiro struggled up the steps of the dorm towards Rin's room. The bracers had begun to disintegrate since he entered the quadrangle. With a last burst of strength he sprinted up the steps and let go of the chests when he reached the platform of the fifth floor. The bracers turned into ash and spilled onto the floor. "Dammit, she coulda warned me about the time limit." He pushed the chests to Rin's room and opened the door. He found her staring out the window. "Hey, I got the chests... you can keep packing now." She appeared not to hear him. Shiro took a few steps forward. "Umm... Rin... I got the chests..." "I've decided..." "Huh?" "I think I'll stay here for the summer." "What!? But isn't our flight at 9 pm tonight?" "I'll change my departure date." Rin looked at him with a smile that curved up the right side of her face only. Shiro felt a prickling at the back of his neck. "You might want to do the same too... after you hear me out." He swallowed visibly. That smile can only mean one thing. She was up to something, and it was very possible that he would be involved. His shoulders drooped again as he settled himself on one of the many boxes of packed books. "What is it?" ----"That's crazy!" exclaimed Shiro. The entire idea was just too insane to fathom. "We won't know unless we try." Rin leaned back in her armchair and interlaced her fingers. Her smile faded as her face grew serious. "At least, I want to try." Shiro stood up and walked over to the window. He turned his back to her and gazed outside. Rin watched his back in silence. She had thought that he would agree with her immediately, but this time, she might be wrong. "Shiro... I don't need an answer right now. I'm not even sure how to proceed, so I'll be doing some research first." She paused as she ran through some estimates in her head. "I need at least two weeks to make a plan. You can let me know by then." Shiro remained silent as he crossed his arms. She watched him silently as she twiddled her thumbs. Finally, he spoke, "You're really serious about this, aren't you?" Her lips tugged to a crooked smile. "And since when haven't I been serious about this stuff?" "What's your real goal, Rin?" He turned his head enough to see her out of the corner of his eye. "If
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you're gonna change history, I won't let you." "I'm not going to do that! All sorts of repercussion could happen." Rin glared at Shiro. Shiro turned to fully face Rin. "Then why do it? You don't know how to do it. And even if you do, all sorts of things could go wrong." "Right now, I admit that I don't know how. But I still want to try. I just feel... that I have to try. No, if I don't try it, I just know that I'm going to regret not trying it." "That doesn't sound like you. You always weigh the risks and rewards. Your idea just now... it just sounds too plain risky." Shiro turned to the window again. "Besides... I thought we put all of that behind us." Rin considered for a moment. "Is it really?" While she waited for a reply, her eyes rested on the white shirt and blue skirt lying on top of the chest. A feeling of nostalgia swept over her again. "If we pull this off, what are you going to do when we get there?" She tilted her head sideways. Her usually fast thinking mind drew a blank. She smiled sheepishly. "Good question. I'm not sure..." "Eh?" "I'll decide when I get there." "Geez, if you're not gonna do anything, why bother doing it? You should just give up the idea. Besides, weren't you supposed to look at that internship at Furisame? They seemed real interested in..." Shiro's words were filtered out when her mind latched on to what he said earlier. "You said 'we'. So you're in, right?" "and it seems like a nice pl-... what?" stalled Shiro. Rin wagged her forefinger at Shiro. "You said, 'If WE pull this off...'" "I did, but I didn't say I'd do it!" She smiled winsomely. "Then why say 'we'? It already means that you've decided, right?" "Well, if you're really serious, you'd do it even if I don't help. What if you get into trouble, or even worse, get hurt? How am I supposed to live with that?" Rin stood up and patted his cheek. "You're such a nice boy." She quickly turned about and began to sort things again. "Well then, now that that's settled, I gotta finish packing." Shiro sighed. "You really are serious." His eyes fell on the white shirt and blue skirt on top of the chest. He went over and knelt down to hold the shirt up. "This... is hers, right?" "Yeah..." replied Rin. "I must've packed it when I left your house." Shiro ran his hand on the fabric. "It was tough back then. But I..." He fell silent. "Miss it?" "... yeah... a bit." "Me too." She paused her sorting. "Y'know, you got to say goodbye to her. I didn't get a chance to." He looked up. "Is that why you're gonna do this?" "Hmmm. Maybe... I really am not sure why... I'll figure it out along the way. Besides..." Rin deposited a pair of scales in a nearby chest. "Do you have other plans?" "No... not really... Do you?" "Nothing that interests me more than this. I figure, since we're here, we might as well use the school's library. And it'll be easy to investigate historical sites. Unfortunately, new students will be assigned to these dorms this summer. We'll have to apply for graduate housing. And you'll have to get a job with a professor so they'll approve our request." "Me? What'll you be doing?" "Research, of course." Rin said solemnly and then broke into raucous laughter. "The look on your face is too much!" She composed herself. "Don't worry. I'll help too. Master Wilter needs some help creating a new batch of potions for next semester's class. And Master Grynberg needs help with his fields. The roving mandrakes are out of control. You like the outdoors, right?" Shiro covered his face with his hands. "Not enough to work with Grynberg! There must be something else!"
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"I'm sure of it. But it's a fallback job, if you can't find anything." Rin closed a chest and locked it. "After I send these to storage, I'll ask the Housing Director if there's anything open in graduate housing." She picked up a box and checked its contents. Her eyes light up with delight. "Now, for an impromptu celebration..." She brought out two goblets from the box. "Instant toast goblets." She handed one to Shiro. "Here's to our graduation!" They clicked their goblets once and the enchanted globets filled with liquid. Rin downed hers in an instant. Shiro took a quick gulp and spat the liquid back into the goblet. "Rin! This tastes like vinegar!" "Oh..." said Rin. And then she rubbed the back of her head with her hand and sheepishly said, "Sorry... it was on sale." Shiro hung his head down in exasperation. He had a bad feeling that his was going to be one long summer.

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Chapter 2: The Lady of the Lake
Somehow, it had come to this. Shiro still could not believe how far they had come. Despite all his misgivings, somehow, the pieces just steadily fell into place as they tried to reach their goal. There were times that their research reached a dead end. But some way or another, something cropped up to put them on another lead. It was as if some invisible force was lending a hand. If there was such a thing as karma, then Rin must have done something good in the past. When he first heard of Rin's idea, the concept seemed simple, but the execution seemed impossible. Rin's words echoed in his mind as he took his place on the glowing arcane glyphs. "The servants were summoned here by magic, right? What if we can reverse that process; i.e. 'summon' ourselves to where they were in space and time?" He watched apprehensively as Rin finished the last glyph. The arcane circle was complete. Rin walked over and took her place in the circle. "So... are you ready?" Rin smiled slightly. "I really appreciate you coming this far with me. If... if you don't want to do this, I'll understand." "Geez, Rin! Why are you saying this now?" said Shiro with mock exasperation. He held out his calloused hands. "I didn't do all that work just to let you reap the benefits. I'm with you on this one. No matter what." "Thanks." Rin smiled widely. Shiro felt that this was one of the few smiles that Rin gave from the heart. The sight of it eased his anxiety a little bit. Rin raised her hands. "Shall we begin?" "Un." nodded Shiro. Rin wove her hands and chanted the incantation. Shiro swept his eyes across the landscape around them. The lake shimmered like silver under the bright sun. Above the distant hills, a lone eagle glided across the clear sky. Above them, the willow trees bent their crooked branches to give them shade. Here and there, small irises waved in the gentle breeze as if to bade them farewell. As Rin started the last stanza of the incantation, Shiro hoped that whatever luck had led them here would bring them back as well. Finally, Rin drew the last glyph in the air with her finger and spoke the activation spell word. The arcane circle burst into a cacophy of light and energy. Shiro unconsciously balled his hands into fists. As the landscape faded into the light, he wished with all his being. "Please let us find you... Saber..." ----Rin floated in a dimensionless space filled with light. She could not tell which way was up. But her honed magical senses alerted her that the spell was nearly complete. It was do or die. Rin adjusted her body slightly and prepared a levitation spell just in case they materialized too high from the ground. Then the spell faded into darkness. Rin's first sensation was pressure and a dull ache in her ears. An attempt to breathe resulted in an unpleasant sensation in her sinuses. The horrible realization caused her to panic. They were underwater. She flailed for a moment and noticed a dull light coming from above.
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Holding her breath, she swam upwards toward the light. Soon, she could see the surface of the water. She reached out her arm as if to grasp her way to safety. As her arm broke through the water's surface, something cold landed on her hand. Her hand closed on reflex, thinking that it might be something that could help her float. Instead, her arm drew backward and sank back into the water. She turned to see what it was. It was a sword. Her fingers loosened to let go of such a heavy object, but her mind emerged from its panicked state to identify the sword. She willed her left hand to grab the hilt as the sword began to slip from her grip. Now with both hands on the hilt, she kicked upwards again to get some air. Her muscles and lungs burned as she attempted to reach the surface. She felt something slide around her waist. She looked down and saw a yellow inflatable tube around her. Shiro was nearby in a similar tube. Rin grabbed the tube gratefully with her left hand and together they broke through the surface gasping for air. "Haaah... haah... Th- thanks, Shiro. Haaahh... You saved me." "Haaah... yeah... haaah... no problem... haaahh..." After swallowing several lungfuls of air, Rin held up her right hand. "Hey... check it out..." Shiro's eyes grew wide. "Where'd you get that?!" "Found it." "No! Seriously..." "It just fell into my hand." Shiro gaped at her, speechless. When he finally found his voice, he growled, "Rin... don't tease me..." "Hey! I really did!" Rin put forth her most serious face and menacing tone. "Think about it! If this is the lake where Bedivere threw the sword back, where's Saber?" In his mind, Shiro quickly scanned through his research on the legend of King Arthur. His eyes grew in alarm. "He threw the sword back, because Arthur asked him to. Rin, we have to find Saber fast!" Shiro thrust out his hands and an outline began to form from it. "Hey! Wait a sec!" cried Rin. They had agreed to conserve mana for the return trip. Even as Rin kicked toward Shiro, she knew it was too late to stop him. However, when he finished, Rin had to admit that she was impressed. "A jet ski!?" "Yeah..." Shiro hauled himself onto the seat and reached out towards Rin. Rin grabbed his hand and climbed up to sit behind him. She pulled off the tube and was about to throw it away when Shiro stopped her. "Don't. We might need it..." "C'mon, Shiro! We don't need it anymore. Besides, we're too old to be using rubber ducky tubes." Then something dawned on her. "Hey, if you could make something like this, why didn't you make a life vest or something?" "..." Shiro turned away from her. "It was reflex, okay? It was the first thing I could think of!" Rin noticed that Shiro's ears turned red. One side of her mouth curved up to a lopsided smile. "Fine... I'll hold yours and let's go." Shiro revved the engine and headed toward the shore. Meanwhile, Rin sealed Excalibur and cast a masking spell. When they were halfway to the shore, Shiro turned left. "Umm... can you sense her?" asked Rin. "Yeah... sort of. I feel a slight pull." Rin hoped that Shiro was right. Finally, they were almost at the shore. However, the jet ski was still moving too fast to get off. "Hey... we're moving too fast..." Rin grabbed Shiro's arm. "Oh, sorry." The jet ski slowed down, but showed no signs of stopping. Rin gripped Shiro's arm tighter. Shiro only replied, "Yeah, it might be a good idea to hold on." "Eh?" Rin felt the jet ski scrape the sandy bank near the shore. Rin cried out in alarm, "Shiro!" "Just a sec..." The jet ski became semi-transparent and its lines began to morph into a different shape. Rin readied herself to jump off when her seat didn't feel solid anymore, but she didn't have to as the jet ski transformed into a stout dirt bike. It took several moments before the shock was replaced with awe as they
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sped across a field. "Pretty impressive, Shiro..." thought Rin. They continued across a meadow and went up a hill. At the top of the hill, they were appalled at the grisly scene before them. There was no doubt that a gruesome battle had taken place. Shiro was so shocked that he stopped the bike. Rin covered her mouth to control herself from retching while Shiro gripped the handlebars angrily. After a moment, Shiro turned the bike around so that the battlefield was behind them. "Let's keep going." he said. Rin nodded and they went around the battlefield. They rode across a small meadow and into a forest. Eventually, they came unto a leaf-strewn path. The soil and leaves on the path were torn up in a stream of patches. Rin and Shiro shared a glance as each came to the same conclusion that someone on horseback rode here recently. "Let's get off the bike." suggested Rin. "We shouldn't be seen on it." Shiro nodded and dispelled the bike and the tubes. They continued cautiously along the path until they saw a grassy clearing about thirty feet ahead. "She's close..." whispered Shiro. Suddenly, the silence of the forest was broken by a deep, resonant command. "Halt!" Shiro and Rin stopped in the middle of the path. A tall knight stood where the path ended at the edge of the clearing. The knight's flaxen yellow hair was braided in the same way as Saber's except for a pair of braids held in place by a pair of silver cylinders. A gloved hand rested on the pommel of a sheathed sword. The knight held a red shield that had a bronze bar with 3 fleur de lis on the top half of the shield. A sword with its tip pointed down adorned the bottom half of the shield. "Art thou friend or foe?" Rin gasped in surprise. She wasn't sure then, but she is sure now. She cleared her throat and took one step. The knight slid her hand onto the handle. Slightly alarmed, Rin replied haltingly, "We come in peace... Sir Bedivere. We mean no harm." Rin faltered at the salutation, since she did not know if Bedivere should be addressed as 'Lady' or as 'Sir'. She settled on 'Sir' since Bedivere was a knight. "Thy speech... seemst not common." Bedivere's eyes narrowed. "Yet thou knowst me by sight. Who art thou truly? Art ye Mordred's spyes? Speak plainly, lest I yield to grimly means for thy truth." Rin swallowed visibly and thought fast, then spoke quickly. "We art travelers, Sir. And have traveled far. Thus thy tongue is not our own. But thy prowess is well known in our land." Rin gestured her hands extravagantly. "I recognized thee by thy device on thy shield." Rin smiled as charmingly as she possibly could. Beside her, she could sense Shiro gathering his will. She could only hope that Bedivere would buy her story and that she and Shiro wouldn't be forced to do something rash. "And from which land that thou hast hailed from?" She did not expect Bedivere to ask that. A drop of sweat trickled down the side of her forehead. "It is the land just beyond the eastern seas." As soon as she said that, she felt a sense of dread wash over her. On instinct, she curled her middle, ring and small fingers and straightened her index finger to form a pointing hand. Bedivere's face darkened. "So ye art spyes! Saxon spyes!" Bedivere advanced toward them and drew her sword as she approached. "Before I banish thee from this kingdom, know that thy kind art not ---" A black bolt of energy struck Bedivere on the chest and she collapsed face down on the path. "Rin! What did you do?!" Rin lowered her pointing finger and observed Bedivere for any sign of consciousness. "Don't worry. I didn't use full power. It'll only knock her out for a bit. She'll feel a little sick when she wakes up though. Can you carry her off the path?" Shiro resheathed the sword. He put Bedivere's arm over his shoulder and put his arm around her waist. "Ugh... she's heavy. Yeah... I think I can." Rin took the other arm and lifted the shield. "Ohmigod... it must be the armor." Together, they half dragged Bedivere into the clearing. When they entered the clearing their eyes rested on the large tree at the opposite side of the clearing. There, resting under its shade, was Saber.
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Quickly, they laid Bedivere on the grass and ran to Saber's side. Rin felt her forehead and her pulse. "Is she...?" "... no... she's not all dead... just mostly dead..." "Mostly?! Can you save her?" "Yeah... I think so... Help me take off her armor." After they removed her armor, a thought occurred to Rin. "Now go over there and stay with Bedivere. Or better yet, take the time to change your clothes. Just don't look over here." Shiro bore a confused expression on his face, but he obeyed. He walked over to Bedivere and selected a thicket to change his damp clothes. Rin unbuttoned Saber's tunic. When she finally undid the tunic, she was horrified at the sight of the bloody bandages and serrated flesh. An initial scan indicated broken ribs, severe internal bleeding and several ruptured organs. She steeled her resolve and reached into her pack for medical supplies and her pouch of jewels. Rin worked steadily as she removed the crude bandages and attended to each broken bone and wound. She had anticipated the possibility of treating Saber's injuries, but her imagination did not even come close to the severity of her injuries. Rin grew a bit apprehensive when she went over her estimated jewel allotment for this treatment. As jewel after jewel was used, Rin bit her lip. There would be fewer jewels to use for the return trip. She entertained the possibility of doing enough to keep her in a coma. But a part of her reviled the idea. "Either I will have all of her or none!" she thought. With her determination renewed, she set out to finish her task. At last, she bandaged the last wound and chanted the spell to help it heal. She pulled the tunic close. Then she leaned against the nearest tree. She closed her eyes and sighed. She should be safe now. She glanced over to Saber. Something was not quite right. Her skin color was still a shade of gray. She knelt over her and passed her hand over her body for a scan. Her heart skipped a beat when she discovered that the bile spilled from her organs was polluting her bloodstream. Even worse, Saber had lost a lot of blood. Rin cursed herself for not noticing. She took out the ceremonial dagger that she got during graduation and drew it from its sheath. She used the tip of the dagger to etch glyphs on the skin of Saber's palms. Rin gritted her teeth as she etched similar glyphs on the skin of her palms. She dropped the dagger and straddled Saber. She quickly interlaced her hands with her and chanted the spell to perform a blood cleansing. When the spell activated, Rin stifled a cry of pain as Saber's blood flowed into her left hand while a mixture of her own blood and her purified blood flowed out of her right hand. Rin's body sagged and she tried to balance herself on her knees and elbows. Already, she could feel goosebumps all over her body. "I'm going to break out in hives after this..." thought Rin as she panted heavily. She licked her lips and tasted something bitter in her mouth. She spat out a curse. There was some sort of toxin in Saber's bloodstream. She hoped that it was something she could deal with. "I'm in for a bad time..." grimaced Rin as she gritted her teeth while her innards began to ache. "Uh... Rin... are you done?" asked Shiro from a distance. "Don't look..." said Rin hoarsely. "I'm not looking. Just... just wanted to know if you're finished." "No... ask me later." Her body temperature had risen drastically and beads of sweat began to form her brow. She swallowed the bitter taste in her throat and concentrated on keeping the spell going. After a few minutes, Rin felt like retching again. "Ugh..." thought Rin. "I don't think I can go on much longer..." Rin shifted her grip slightly. "I'm sorry, Saber... I hope that this was enough..." she mumbled. As if in reply, Saber's eyes opened slightly. Her green eyes seemed to focus on Rin's face. Rin gasped in surprise. As she was about to call out to her, she was interrupted by Saber's hoarse whisper, "Guinevere...?" Rin's jaw dropped and her eyes widened. She stared back at Saber's sleepy face and watched as she drew a shallow breath through her trembling lips. Then she smiled slightly and closed her eyes.
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Alarmed, Rin drew close and positioned her ear near Saber's nose and mouth. "Thank God... she's breathing better now..." said Rin with a sigh of relief. She released her grip on Saber's hands and rolled over to lie next to her. Her exhausted body was coaxing her to sleep. Rin shook her head slightly in an attempt to keep herself awake. There were things that still needed to be done. "Shiro... come over here." Shiro came over and took one look at Saber. "Damn... she looks pretty bad." "Yeah... tell me about it..." Shiro's gaze shifted to Rin. "Rin! You look awful! What happened?" His eyes rested on Saber's upturned palm. "Did you use that spell?" Shiro asked, his voice laced with concern. "Yeah... s'okay... I'll get over it..." Already, she could feel the itchy rashes forming on her skin. "Is she okay?" "She's stable... for now. I think there's some sort of poison in her body." Shiro knelt next to Saber and put his hand over her palm. "Trace on... analyze composition..." Shiro moved his other hand over her wounds. His brows knitted in anger. "Dirty bastards! There was poison on their weapons!" Shiro stood up. "Wait here... I think I could make something for it. I'll be right back." Before Rin could reply, Shiro left. Despite her exhaustion, Rin pushed herself up on an elbow and looked at Saber. Then her gaze moved over to Bedivere who was lying at the opposite end of the clearing. To her alarm, Bedivere shifted her head to the right and moaned. Rin prayed that Shiro would come back soon. It would not be long until Bedivere regained consciousness. They must think of a plan before then. About ten minutes later, Shiro came back with a bunch of flowers. "I could do this the quick way or the long way. The long way will take about twenty minutes." Rin thought for a moment to consider Saber's condition. "She's a bit stable now. We can take the time to make the antidote. However..." Rin gestured to Bedivere. "Bedivere's gonna wake up soon. We have to move somewhere else and make the antidote there." Rin stood up and leaned against the tree for support. Shiro watched her curiously. "Rin... how do you feel?" "Sleepy and a bit stiff. Why?" The corners of Shiro's mouth drooped. "I'm sorry to say this, Rin. I think you're poisoned too. Drowsiness is one of the symptoms of Belladona poisoning. It also attacks the nervous system and causes numbness and paralysis." "Oh, great..." muttered Rin. "Hey, how do you know it's Belladona?" "Grynberg likes to talk a lot while he works." Shiro put the flowers down and went over to Rin. "I guessed I picked up a little bit from him." He put his hand over Rin's palm. "Trace on..." After a few moments, Shiro sighed with relief. "It's not as bad as Saber's. But you'll have to take the antidote too." Rin nodded. "Let's get out of here. I'll tell you my idea and you can tell me how to make the antidote." Rin slowly reached over and shouldered her pack. "Can you carry Saber?" "Yeah. Give me a second." Shiro put the flowers in his pack and slipped his backpack on. Then he knelt next to Saber and carefully lifted her into his arms. Together, they left the clearing to locate a suitable thicket. On the way, Rin told Shiro about her idea on how to deal with Bedivere. After hearing it, Shiro balked at the thought of executing Rin's plan by himself, but he could not think of any alternative, and so he agreed to do it. Finally, they found an adequate thicket. Shiro laid Saber on Rin's sleeping bag and then instructed Rin on how to prepare the antidote from the bulbs of the flowers. "Well... I'm off." Shiro picked up a bundle of clothes wrapped in a towel. "Have fun." replied Rin. "I have the utmost faith in you." "Gee... thanks. That makes me feel so much confident." said Shiro with a hint of sarcasm. "You'll do fine. You're a magician, right? So go out there and show your stuff!" Shiro straightened up a bit. "I'll be back as soon as I can." "You better. Someone has to check if the antidote is good."
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Shiro smiled. "Yeah, I will. Later..." With a small salute, Shiro exited the thicket. Rin sat still for a few moments and then yawned. "I better get started on that antidote before I fall asleep." she thought. Rin reached for the flowers and the tin pan. "I hope the plan works out." ----Bedivere woke up with a start and berated herself for collapsing. She looked about her anxiously to ensure that they were still safe. Reassured, she knelt beside her king. She took off her right glove and felt for a pulse on Arturia's wrist. She sighed with relief. It was not too late. "Milord... I hath the strangest dream. In it, I beheld a tall maid appareled in splendid guise rise from yonder lake. Deep forest green eyes adorned her bronze face while fairy scarlet locks framed that elegant visage. Might it be the Lady of the Lake as such as thou spake?" Bedivere paused for a moment to regard her king. "Ah, forgive mine idle prattle, Milord... so earnest was I in telling thee mine dream that I overlooked thy slumber. Pray that thou pardon me once more." Bedivere gently lifted Arturia into her arms and was surprised that she seemed heavier than before. She grunted as she carefully positioned Arturia foremost on the saddle of her horse, Haut. Then she mounted Haut and sat behind Arturia. "Pardon mine weariness, Milord. I fear the battle hath taken mine strength." She gazed fondly at Arturia as she cradled her in her arms. "Thou sleepst like a log. Thy dream must be most enthralling." She spurred Haut towards the direction of the lake. "If the Lady in mine dream spake true, then thy wounds can be attended to in most haste. Until then, please endure this brief journey." She patted Haut's side. "Fly like the wind, Haut." With a slap, she urged Haut to a gallop. Bedivere tried to minimize the amount of disturbance that the ride would cause to Arturia and let Haut gallop as fast as she dared. When they reached the shores of the lake, she dismounted and carried Arturia in her arms once more. Over the lake hung an unusual fog which was not there when she threw the sword. Out of habit, she looked about to spot any possible threats. Once assured, she ventured towards the lake until its waters lapped at her boots. She peered into the fog apprehensively. To her delight, she discerned a shape coalesce from within the fog. With great anticipation, her eyes followed an unmanned boat as it glided away from the fog and toward them. The boat stopped about fifteen feet from where she stood. "Tis just as the Lady saith, Milord." she said as she waded into thigh deep water. "Fret not. The Lady saith that this boat will carry thee to Avalon. There, the Lady shall minister to thy wounds." She laid Arturia unto the satin cushioned cot in the boat. "Aggrieved am I, that by the Lady's behest, I am not permitted to accompany thee." She reached over and caressed Arturia's cheek. "When thou art well, come unto us in all haste. I will await thy return." Then she bent down and kissed her gently on the lips. She stared at Arturia's face for a moment before whispering, "Fare thee well, Arturia, and farewell." Bedivere drew away and the boat slowly departed into the fog. She watched until she could no longer see its outline. She stood for a few moments and turned to her horse. As she stepped onto the sandy shore of the lake, her steps began to falter and her body slouched forward. Eventually, she fell upon her knees. Then with a great shudder emanating from her very core, she expelled a cry of grief and wept. Inside the fog, Shiro was startled by a distant cry. He quickly cancelled the transfiguration spell on the log and tipped the boat to let it sink. He carefully swam to the edge of the fog and focused his gaze at the hunched figure near the shore. His ears caught the sound of faint weeping. For a few moments, he watched mournfully from the edge of the fog. A part of him wanted to go over to Bedivere and console her. He steeled his resolve and swam in the opposite direction of where Bedivere was.

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Chapter 3: The Awakening
Shiro parted the tangled branches and entered the thicket. Rin was hugging her knees and was resting her head on them. He noticed that she had changed out of her damp clothes and into medieval clothing. She wore a reddish brown open-fronted gown which laced closed across a white kirtle. He nudged her shoulder. "Hey, I'm back." Rin did not answer, so he shook her shoulder slightly. Suddenly, she scrambled away and pointed her index finger. He backed away from her line of fire. "Rin! It's just me!" Her eyes focused on him and she lowered her hand. "Oh, sorry." She dusted her clothes and stood up slowly. "How'd it go?" "Ok... I guess..." Shiro went over to the boiling pan and sampled the brown liquid with the ladle. "You guess...? Did something happen?" "Well... I didn't expect her to cry. I thought that she'd be happy that Saber was gonna get cured." Rin thought for a moment. "Yeah... that is strange... Do you think she suspects that something's wrong?" Shiro stirred the liquid idly. "Don't know... I couldn't tell. But she seemed convinced about the Lady of the Lake." "Hmmm..." Rin rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Oh well... what's done is done. How's the antidote?" "It's ready." He took out two cups from his pack. He poured a third of the liquid in one cup and the rest in the next. He handed the cup with less liquid to Rin. "Sip this over the next hour. Don't drink it all at once." She took the cup and blew on the liquid to cool it down. Then she took a sip. "Gaaahhh... it's really bitter..." Rin took out a bottle of water from her pack and drank enough to wash away the bitter taste. Meanwhile, Shiro cooled some liquid on the ladle and tried to put the liquid into Saber's mouth. The liquid spilled over the corner of her mouth. He attempted a few more times before turning to Rin. "Rin... she's not swallowing it." "Here, let me try." Rin knelt next to Saber and took the ladle. She did not have much success either. "Oh, great... looks like one of us would have to give it to her orally." said Rin with an exasperated tone. "Orally... as in...?" He pointed to his mouth. Rin nodded. "If you have a better idea, I'm listening." Shiro hung his head. "No, not really." They sat there for a few moments in silence. Finally, Rin spoke. "Go ahead and give it to her. You like her, don't you?" Shiro blushed and protested, "I can't do that... She might not like it." "Oh? And why should I be any different?" "Because... because..." Shiro turned away slightly. "She may not mind if another girl kissed her." Rin was taken aback and her jaw dropped. She moved her mouth but no words came out. When she composed herself, she said slowly, "Why do you think so?" Shiro swallowed and told her about what Bedivere did after she put Saber on the boat. Rin's eyes widened and her hand involuntarily covered her mouth. All sorts of scenarios were running amuck in her
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mind. She forced her inner self to gather those images and lock them in a closet. She looked at Shiro coolly. "So, you want me to give it to her?" "No... I mean... yes..." Shiro covered his face with his hands in embarrassment. Rin took the ladle. "Tell you what... we'll take turns. As long as she doesn't wake up, it's fine right? I won't tell if you won't." Shiro nodded dumbly. Rin bent over and used her hand to prop Saber's head up. Then she quickly slurped the liquid and pressed her mouth against Saber's. On contact, a jolt tickled her spine and her body shuddered for a brief instant. Surprised at her own reaction, she stayed still for a second. Then, remembering her task, she parted Saber's lips with her tongue and delivered the liquid into her mouth. She maintained her position until she felt Saber swallow the liquid. Rin drew away and laid Saber's head gently on the pillow. Her face and body felt warm. She kept her head low and handed the ladle to Shiro. "You're up." She took her own cup and walked away. Rin continued to ponder why she reacted that way until she absentmindedly sipped the liquid in her cup. She fought to control her gag reflex and forced herself to swallow. She turned around towards Shiro. "Can't you do something about the taste?" Shiro wiped Saber's mouth with a piece of tissue. "Grynberg says that the best medicine is best taken in its purest form. So... do you want to get well or not?" Rin muttered darkly under her breath. She surveyed their meager hideout. "I think we should try to find a better place for Saber's recovery. I don't mind the great outdoors, but I won't prescribe it for someone with grave injuries. Maybe one of us should go look around for a nearby town. What do you think?" Shiro nodded and stood up. "Sounds like a good idea. I'll go. You gotta get some rest too." He paused before the exit of the thicket. "Hey, you wouldn't happen to have medieval money, do you?" Rin's face fell. "Darn it! I knew I forgot something. We should've shaken down Bedivere for some." "Rin!" "Just kidding!" joked Rin, holding up her hand. "But you know what, maybe you could shake down someone else..." Shiro stared at Rin for a bit before her implied meaning hit him. "That's gross, Rin! I'm not touching any corpses." "Yeah... it is, isn't it?" laughed Rin nervously. "We'll figure something out. Anyway, come back with good news." "Yup, I will." With that, Shiro headed out. Rin sat next to Saber and prepared to administer the antidote for Saber and herself. As she repeated the procedure over the next two hours, she kept wondering why she was reacting so unusually. "It's probably just a side effect of the spell." she reasoned. She felt a little tired, so she put the cup down and laid down on the ground next to Saber with her pack as a pillow. She closed her eyes and tried to meditate. ----"Rin... Rin..." She slowly opened her eyes to see Shiro looking down on her. "So how's sleeping beauty?" said Shiro with a teasing tone. Rin managed a drowsy grin. "Fine..." She yawned. "Drat... I must've dozed off." She sat up slowly. "So... what've you found?" "There's a village about three miles away and another about five miles away." "That's a bit far." "Don't worry. I found some horses." "You did?! Where did you find them?"
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"They were wandering around. My guess is that they belonged to some knight who probably won't need it anymore." Rin felt a stab of pity and remembered that bloody field. "A shame..." She looked up to Shiro. "How many horses do you have?" "Three, one for each of us." "Hmmm... at the moment, I don't think Saber could ride. One of us will have to ride with her. Do you think you can handle that? I think I'm still a little stiff." "Yeah. That I can do." Shiro grinned heartily and was glad that he could be of help. "Is there a place we can stay in the next village?" "Yes, it has an inn. It's 50 coppers a night." "Let's check it out. We can sell one of the horses to get a bit of cash." "Good idea." Shiro showed Rin the horses. They examined the equipment on the horses and decided what to keep and what to sell. They return to the thicket and put a cloak on Saber to keep her warm. Then they packed up the campsite and headed for the next village. At the market, they managed to sell a horse and some equipment after a bit of difficulty with deciphering the local accent. After buying some food, they got a room at the inn and stabled their horses. Shiro checked Saber's condition. "She's doing better now. But I think she still needs more antidote. I'll go make some more." "Ok..." said Rin, who was already reclining on one of the straw beds. She yawned. "Be back before dinner." "Of course." replied Shiro. He gathered some cooking utensils and went out. That evening was uneventful and so were the next two days. When they were not caring for Saber, they spent their time exploring the village and the surrounding area. News of the great battle and the disappearance of King Arthur had reached the village. The reactions of the townspeople varied from great sorrow to indifference. Both Rin and Shiro were stunned that the people did not love the king as much as they thought. In fact, some people seemed to favor Mordred's rebellion. Then on the afternoon of the third day, as Shiro and Rin were constructing a map of the surrounding area, there was a soft rustle from Saber's bed. Shiro and Rin turned towards the sound at the same time and were elated to see Saber staring at them. Both of them rushed to the bedside. "Saber! Thank goodness, you're awake." said Rin. "How are you feeling?" asked Shiro. Saber's mouth opened and closed a few times before she spoke softly, "Who art thou? Whither am I?" Rin and Shiro glanced at each other. It was too much to hope that Saber would know them. Rin was the first to reply. "Uh, I am known as Rhynne and he is known as Syrowe. Thou art in a small village inn." Saber shifted in bed and brought out a bandaged arm from under the bed sheets. "Why is it, that e'en so forwounded am I, that mine mind lacks memory of how I am wrought thus?" Rin arched her eyebrows in surprise while Shiro dropped his jaw a bit. Rin cleared her throat. "Thou wert wounded in battle over yonder hills. We hath found thee in grievous hurt and hath tended to thy wounds." "I thank thee. When I am fit, I shall find a way to acquit thy kindness." Saber's face grew pensive. "But still... mine mind remain veileth, for I remember not such past battle. Truly told, I remember not a great many things." "Dost thou remember thy name?" asked Shiro haltingly. At a moment like this, he regretted not having enough time to practice medieval English at the Academy. Saber smiled. "Arturia... at least, that I knowst to be true." Rin clasped her hands with glee. "That is well, Lady Arturia. Tis a good omen of thy healing." Arturia studied Rin for a moment. "Dost thou knowst me? Thou firstly spake to me with such familiar cheer."
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A drop of sweat trickled down Rin's forehead. "Pardon mine speech, milady. As a physic, I assume such manner to lift the spirit of mine patient. I believeth that cheer doth stave away unhealthful melancholy." Arturia let out a small chuckle. "Then blessed am I to have thee attend me. Know that thy cheer liveneth mine spirit, though mine limbs refuseth yet to yield to mine bidding." At these words, Rin's lips drew into a smile. "Pray tell, Lady Rhynne, how long must I abide till I can rise on mine own strength? And e'en more so, how wilt mine memory fare?" "Thou bore grave wounds upon thy person, and thy blood floweth forth in great quantity. In many a patient likened to thee, some regained their self o'er a fourtenight. But some remaineth abed and their past forgotten. I truly hope that providence will grant thee a boon and thou will overcome this trial." Arturia nodded. "Then I shall await thy counsel." Her eyes softened. "Once again, I am in thy debt. Know that mine gratitude knoweth no bounds." "Then my first advice to thee is thus. That thou shall consume food when thou hunger and thou shall rest otherwise." "I shall follow thy counsel. Please allow me to partake a meal with thee." "And that you shall." Rin stood up and walked toward the door. "In honor of thy waking, I shall request a feast fit for a king." Rin beamed Arturia her most charming smile. With the word 'king', Shiro stifled a chuckle. "Please await mine return." She opened the door and left. This time Shiro felt Arturia's gaze upon him and turned to meet Arturia's eyes. After a few moments, Shiro felt his cheeks flush and he glanced away with a bit of embarrassment. "Dost thou knowst me, goodman Syrowe?" Shiro wasn't sure what to say. After a moment, he decided to follow Rin's example. "Tis such as my companion hath said. I only wished to greet thee with cheer." He walked over to the table and began to move it over to Arturia's bed. "I shall prepare this table for our meal." "Thou seemst not accustomed to thy speech. Whither dost thou hail from?" Shiro remembered Bedivere's reaction and swallowed. He had to be careful. "From a land far, far away. It is called Nihon." "Nee-hun? Then thy land must be far, for I hath not heard of such a place." "Tis far, indeed." Shiro began to roll up the crude map on the table. "What, perchance, might that be?" "Tis a map of the village and the fields nearby." Arturia noted the quill and the inkbottle. "For what purpose dost thou construct this map?" Shiro tried to do some fast thinking. "Er... um... we art travelers. We construct a map so that we would remember this village just in case we pass this way again." Arturia was silent for a bit and then nodded. "That is prudent." She shifted to lie on her side. "Pray, tell me, of the lands that thou hast seen." Shiro scanned his memory for all the touristy places that he had been to and their medieval counterpart. He did not want to pick a place that might cause a belligerent reaction from Arturia. After some consideration, he settled on Greece. "There is a land beyond the southern ocean and west of the Aegean Sea. It is called Greece." Shiro continued to tell Arturia about the landscape of Greece and its culture until Rin entered carrying a tray of food. One of the inn's maids was behind her and was also carrying a tray of food. Shiro went and took the tray from the maid who blushed when their hands touched near the tray handles. When the maid left, they put a bowl of soup and some bread within Arturia's reach. Rin took a pillow from her bed and helped Arturia prop herself up. By habit, Shiro clasped his hands together and was about to say "Itadakimasu", but was interrupted by Arturia's soft prayer for the meal. After the prayer, they enjoyed a pleasant meal together while Shiro continued his description of Greece.
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After the meal, they talked for a bit about other lands. Eventually, Arturia yawned. "Methinks, I shall heed thy counsel and rest." Rin nodded and helped Arturia lie down. Then she gestured to the bell-pull near Arturia's bed. "Should thou require anything, thou needst only pull yonder rope. We shall be with thee anon." "Mine thanks. And good night." said Arturia and closed her eyes. Rin took Shiro's hand and together they left the room. She turned to Shiro and whispered in Japanese. "We shouldn't tell her that she's the king. Did you mention anything like that when I was gone?" "No, I was worried about it too. She's supposed to be in Avalon, right? Just like the legends say." Rin nodded. "We were in luck that she has amnesia. But I don't know how long that would last. If she regains her memory, I'm not sure if I can stop her if she decides to go back to Camelot." Shiro paced a bit. "I heard in town today that the lords are meeting to talk about choosing the next king if King Arthur isn't found within a week." Shiro thumped his fist into his palm. "Oh yeah! While I was gathering some herbs outside of town this morning, I saw a bunch of guys on horseback." "Which way were they headed?" Shiro closed his eyes and tried to remember. "I think they were headed toward the battlefield." "Hmmm... I think it's too late to look for survivors... they may be looking for something else." "If they're looking for Arturia, they'll search the battlefield." "Or... if Bedivere told them about the lake, they'll search there too." "Do you think they'll look here?" Rin rubbed her temples and thought for a bit. "I doubt it... but we're so close to the battlefield. If they're not looking for Arturia, they may be looking for other survivors. I think we should leave as soon as possible." Shiro nodded and then crossed his arms. "Yeah, we should leave... but Rin... what are we supposed to do in the long run?" Rin froze. Of course, if Arturia was supposed to be gone, how long could they maintain their secret? Rin bit her lip. "I... I don't know... at the moment, I just wanted her to get well. Ask me again in the morning." Shiro sighed and uncrossed his arms. "Yeah, I wanted to save her too. But now..." He ran his fingers through his hair. "I'm not sure what we should do." He smiled ruefully. "It's been a long day. Let's get some rest." Rin agreed and they went back into the room and went to bed. ----Rin and Shiro woke up early and had a small breakfast of bread, cheese and tea in the common room downstairs. After breakfast, Rin began packing while Shiro went to the market to get supplies. While she was packing, she heard a rustle from Arturia's bed. She stood up and turned. "Good morning." said Arturia softly. "Good morning." replied Rin as she made her way to Arturia's bed. "How art thou?" "Mine slumber was deep and mine spirit refreshed." "Tis well." Rin paused. Now that Arturia was awake, Rin felt a bit uneasy about changing her bandages. For some reason, she felt more self-conscious. She took a deep breath. "Thy bandages must be redressed." Arturia merely nodded. "If that needs be so, then I am ready." "Abide here for a moment. I shall ready mine self." Rin took out some soft cloth and a roll of bandages from her pack. Then she fetched some warm water in a basin. When she entered the room, she was surprised to notice that Arturia had pulled aside the bed sheets and had unbuttoned her gown which exposed her upper torso and her trewes. Rin paused for a moment by the door as her mesmerized eyes wandered over the length of her body. Internally, she shook herself, and laid the basin on the table next to the bed. She poured a bit of sanitizing alcohol into the
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warm water. Rin sat on the bed and cleared her throat. "I will remove thy bandages from thy... chest. After that, I wilt lift thee to mine self to unroll thy bandage from behind. Art thou ready?" "I am." "I beg thy pardon." Rin leaned forward and undid the bandage over Arturia's chest. Rin's hands made their way behind Arturia's shoulder blades and back. Arturia lifted her arms and put her hands around Rin's neck. Rin's eyes grew wide at the contact and her skin broke out in goosebumps. She drew a deep breath and lifted Arturia off the bed. She sat up straight and leaned Arturia against her upper body. Arturia shifted her arms to go around Rin's neck and rested her chin on Rin's shoulder. Rin had changed Arturia's bandages in the past, but Arturia was unconscious during those times. Changing her bandages was a practiced procedure and this occasion should be no different. But today marked the first time she would change her bandages while she was awake. For some reason, Rin found it hard to concentrate. On her own volition, Arturia had wrapped her in this peculiar embrace. The unexpected action caused a bit of confusion in Rin. However, a part of her interpreted the action as proof of Arturia's trust. Thinking about it left a warm glow within her. Still, she had to concentrate and do her job. Rin took a deep breath and focused on her task. She carefully peeled the bandages starting from Arturia's chest and around her back in a counter-clockwise motion. She also peeled off the bandages around her left shoulder. Finally, she removed the bandages around her waist. She picked up a soft cloth and dipped it in the warm water in the basin. "I shall now cleanse thy skin with this cloth. The cloth boreth some tonic, so thou might feel its sting. But be at ease, the tonic wilt improve thy healing." Arturia's voice whispered softly near her ear. "Please proceed." Rin slipped her hand between herself and Arturia. Since she could not see a part of Arturia's front torso, she relied on the tips of her fingers to guide her hand. Just underneath the folds of the cloth, she could feel those sinewy muscles born out of wearing armor. Rin closed her eyes to help herself concentrate. Tracing the contour of her body, she gently wiped across her chest twice, just over her breasts. Then she moved down just underneath her breasts and across to the other side. When she identified scarred skin, she slowly wiped around it. But sometimes, whenever she passed near the scarred skin, she felt Arturia's arms tense up around her neck for a brief moment. Other than that, Arturia made no other reaction. She rinsed the cloth and wiped Arturia's sides and upper arms. By now, Rin's confusion was replaced by a sense of serenity as relied on touch alone to sense the contour of Arturia's body. She rinsed the cloth again and reached around Arturia to wipe her back. As she was wiping her back, Arturia leaned a bit closer to her and her breasts pressed against Rin. Rin's cheeks flushed when she felt its warm softness through the thin fabric of her summer tunic. The sense of serenity was quickly supplanted by the increasing beat of her heart. Goosebumps were spreading all over her skin. "This fragrance about thee... reminds me of camellia." said Arturia, her breath tickling her earlobe. Rin paused for a moment and wondered why Arturia said that when there were no flowers nearby and she wore no perfume. Then, with practiced discipline, Rin resumed her task. She rinsed the cloth from time to time until she finished wiping Arturia's back. As she was reaching for the clean bandages, she lost her balance and fell with Arturia onto the bed. Arturia let out a small gasp. "Ah! I'm sorry!" said Rin into the pillow. Arturia put her hands on her shoulders and pushed her up slightly. Her face wrinkled to a slight grimace of pain. At that moment, there was a rushing of wind and the sound of heavy footsteps on the floor. A hand gripped Rin's shoulder tightly and lifted her off Arturia. Then, like a rag doll, she was tossed against the wall where she hung as if she were a fly stuck on a web. Rin's vision exploded in stars as her head hit the wall and air was driven out of her lungs by the force of the impact. When she finally managed to focus her vision, she saw a tall figure clad in a dark brown cloak with a large hood. Frizzled gray hair
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spilled out from the hood. A wrinkled hand with long thin fingers which ended with yellowed long nails slipped out from the billowy sleeves to touch Arturia's cheek. The very image screamed evil magician in Rin's mind. Her face paled and she trembled in fear. That wrinkled hand moved down to Arturia's throat and then to her breast. Arturia's lips moved, but Rin could not hear anything. The hand pressed against the breast and Arturia appeared to gasp in response. Then the hand moved to slide across her stomach and down to her abdomen. A dam of rage broke inside Rin, washing over her fear. She gathered her will. "A binding spell... counter..." thought Rin as she wove her fingers to cancel the spell. "Curse him... CURSE HIM! How DARE he!" Her right arm broke free and she leveled her pointing finger at the dark figure. She directed all her mana at the tip of her finger. "GANDR FYRE!" she screamed the curse with all her will. A dense amount of black energy erupted from the tip of her finger and sped toward the magician. The magician looked up and held up a hand as if to block the energy. The dark energy hit the hand and splattered like paint hitting a wall. The force of the impact caused the magician to fly backwards and to be pushed up against the opposite wall. The dark energy continued to push against an invisible barrier. Behind the barrier, Rin could see the magician gesturing frantically. A circle of bright light appeared behind the barrier and the magician sidestepped swiftly to the left. To Rin's great chagrin, the curse broke through the barrier and sped into the circle of light which closed in upon it and dissipated, leaving only a shower of white sparks. Rin shook herself free of the remnants of the binding spell and wove her hands to cast another attack. Meanwhile, the magician had leveled a glowing staff in her direction while those long fingers drew glowing glyphs in the air. "This is bad... he's got an artifact..." thought Rin as she wove a defensive spell with her other hand. She stopped for an instant when Arturia's outstretched hand blocked her vision. Arturia seemed to be saying something to the magician. The magician lowered the staff and dismissed the glyphs with a wave of his hand. Arturia turned to Rin and spoke clearly. "Be at ease, Lady Rhynne. Tis my old friend, Merlyn." Rin blinked. Her thoughts were a jumble. "Merlin...? Wait... it can't be... is it really? That this is the real Merlin?" An image of the distinguished old man flashed in her mind and her excitement of meeting the real Merlin rose. The magician drew the hood back and Rin gasped in surprise as voluminous tresses cascaded down as they were freed from the hood's confinement. A wizened face that could have belonged to somebody's doting grandmother greeted her with a tight smile. But her eyes trapped Rin in their gaze. Those golden eyes studied her with trite amusement. "Ye surprised me, girl. I almost dinna catch that." said Merlyn dryly. "Mine apologies fer roughin' ye up. I thought ye were tryin' to have yer way with Arturia." Rin's shock at Merlyn's gender gave way to her anger. "Me? Have mine way? Doth thine eyes doubt mine womanhood?" exclaimed Rin. "I dinna doubt it." replied Merlyn calmly. "She's not like that, Merlyn." explained Arturia. "She was dressing mine bandages." "She dinna look it when I found ye." "Ye art mistaken. She hath fallen upon me unwittingly." "Oh? An' I suppose those moments when Guinevere fell upon ye wert also unwittin'." "Guinevere?" asked Arturia slowly. "Who do ye speak of?" Warning bells rang in Rin's mind. "Ah! She must be thy friend." said Rin as she quickly made her way to Merlyn's side. "Pardon us for a moment." She grabbed Merlyn's arm and with surprising strength, pulled her out of the room and into the hallway. Merlyn let out a small yelp as she was tugged out of the room. Rin quickly closed the door behind her. She drew a circle above them and chanted "Silentium." Merlyn looked up and her eyebrows arched up in recognition of the spell. She turned her gaze on Rin. "Ye have somethin' to tell me, lass?"
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Rin bowed her head slightly, and looked off to the side. "Well... yea... but I am unsure of how to commence mine tale." Merlyn studied her for a moment. "How did ye meet Arturia? Ye can use common. I've no need fer high speech." Rin felt a bit at ease and reverted her speech pattern to match Merlyn's as she told her how Shiro and her found Arturia in the forest. She told her that she bandaged her wounds but did not mention using any spells in the process. She also left out the part about Shiro's enchantment on Bedivere. Merlyn listened patiently. Her eyes never left hers even though she had finished her tale. They stood there staring at each other for few seconds. Then, with a blur, Rin found herself pushed up against the wall with Merlyn's hand over her forehead. "Ye lie, girl." accused Merlyn. Rin screamed as a vast pressure swelled in her mind. She felt like she was falling in a great abyss as memories of the last few days flowed like a stream past her. Images of the summer sped past, followed by her last year at the academy. Then, she caught a glimpse of her favorite professor, Arase. His words pierced her mind, "Give in, then it's all over." "That's right! I have to fight this!" Rin gathered her will and obliterated the images flying past. Then she raised her head high and pulled the mana stored in her earrings, bracelet and amulet. She expelled it all with a great outward thrust into the pressure around her. When the sensation of gravity returned to her body, she heard loud thud across from where she stood. Her eyes fluttered open as she sank down to her knees in exhaustion. On the opposite wall, Merlyn sat against it with a blank look in her eyes and blood trickling down her nose. "Oh great..." muttered Rin as she stood up unsteadily and leaned against the wall. She walked as if in a trance. "Now we really have to leave... soon..." She opened the door to the room, walked in and closed it quickly.

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Chapter 4: The Aerie of Light
On her entry, she found Arturia reclining on her bed with her gown around her shoulders. "Lady Rhynne? Art thou well? Thou seemst weary." inquired Arturia. Rin made no reply and just waved her hand in a dismissive manner as she walked slowly toward the bed. Her body felt numb and exhausted. She reached for the antiseptic ointment and began applying it gently on Arturia's scarred skin. "Whither goeth Merlyn?" asked Arturia. Rin did not answer right away and continued applying the ointment. Then she stopped and answered hoarsely, "Left... on an errand...". She went behind Arturia and applied the ointment on her back. "I see... something hath demanded her attention." said Arturia in a disappointed voice. Rin reached for the bandages and began to wind it around Arturia's torso. After the bandaging was done, she stood up unsteadily and used the table for support. Her feet dragged along the floor as she walked toward her pack. "Lady Rhynne... thou seemst unwell. Perhaps, thou should sit and rest?" Rin ignored her and opened her pack to put her medical kit and leftover bandages in. Just then the door opened and Shiro staggered in while supporting an unconscious Merlyn. "Rin, I found this old woman..." "Merlyn! What hath happened?" exclaimed Arturia. Rin quickly stood up and mumbled in Japanese, "We have to leave... Merlyn knows... we gotta go..." With faltering steps, she trudged toward Shiro. "You look pale, Rin!" exclaimed Shiro in Japanese. He put his hand on Rin's forehead. "Looks like you over did it. You better sit down and rest. Your mana levels are in a flux." "We can't..." Rin grabbed Shiro's shoulder and shook it slightly. "We have to leave..." Shiro looked at Rin, and then Merlyn. He sighed. "Ok, I think I understand..." He put his hand on Rin's shoulder by the crook of her neck. Rin began to smile in relief but her smile melted away when she felt Shiro press his fingers deeply into the side of her neck and next to her spine. "You... jerk..." was all she could mutter as her body went numb and the room around her swam into darkness. Shiro caught Rin's arm as she fell forward. "Goodman Syrowe... pray tell me what hath cometh to pass? Thou spake in a tongue unknowst to me." asked Arturia with a voice laced with agitation. Shiro cleared his throat and tried his best to come up with a plausible answer. "It seemst that Lady Rhynne hath not taken enough rest. A few moments in bed will rouse her to wellness. As for the old woman, I hath found her fainted in the hall." Arturia considered his answer. "I understand. Mayhap, the spell Merlyn hath cast was tiring and didst sap her strength. She forgeth her years sometimes." Shiro laid Rin and Merlyn on the other bed. "She cast a spell?" "Yea. She and Lady Rhynne hath mistook mine situation and cast spells against each other." Shiro covered his face with his hand and groaned. He paced up and down the length of the room. Eventually, he stopped and concluded, "I'll let them rest for now. And then, I'll wake them up and ask
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them to explain what happened." Then he suddenly remembered that he should try to speak in Medieval English. "In the meantime, if thou art hungry, I hath bought thee some breakfast." Shiro lifted a covered basket on to the table. When he uncovered it, the smell of fresh baked bread and bacon wafted into the air. Arturia gazed appreciatively at the food. "Thy plan hath mine approval. And I shall accept thine offer." "I am pleased that thou art pleased." Shiro helped Arturia prop herself up with some pillows. As he laid some prepared some food for Arturia, he thought in the back of his mind, "And I'll get to the bottom of this mess..." ----Rin drowsily opened her eyes. A pair of golden eyes stared blankly at her. When her mind identified the owner of those pair of eyes, Rin let out a surprised yelp and pushed herself off the bed. She stumbled onto the floor and attempted to raise her hands. When she felt resistance, she looked down to find her hands encased in a spell restraining shell. "Shiro!" Rin yelled angrily in Japanese. "What the heck is this!?" Shiro stood by the bed where Merlyn was struggling to sit up. Her hands were also encased in a similar shell. He replied in Japanese, "Just a precaution. Arturia said that you and Merlyn were having a spell battle inside this inn." Shiro emphasized the word inn. He wore a stern look on his face. "It's not my fault! She tossed me up a wall and then she... she..." Rin's cheeks flushed at the memory of Merlyn groping Arturia. "She what?" asked Shiro with a cocked eyebrow. "Arggghhh!!!" growled Rin in frustration. "It doesn't matter! Anyway, we have to leave. Merlyn knows about us." Rin jerked her head in Merlyn's direction. Merlyn heard her name and took the opportunity to interrupt the private conversation. She cleared her throat. "Tch, ye can't talk about me without me understanding ye. Tis unfair." Shiro turned to Merlyn and replied in English. "Lady Rhynne hath told me about how thou tossed her up yon wall." "Aye. Tis I who must apologize for that. She seemst to be havin' her way with Arturia." "I WAS NOT HAVING MINE WAY WITH HER!" protested Rin loudly in English. "Aye, aye... hold yer peace. Tis I who mistook ye. Again, please accept mine apologies." Shiro stared at the fuming Rin. He wondered what had happened when Merlyn came. After assessing Rin's state, he decided to ask her later. "Pray tell, Merlyn. Why wert thou outside this room?" Merlyn chuckled. "I dinna know if Arturia was hurt, so I was inspecting her injuries. Whilst I did that, yer lady attacked me with strong dark magic." "I'm not his lady." corrected Rin. Shiro held a hand up in Rin's direction. "Please, Rin." Then he turned to Merlyn. "Please continue, Lady Merlyn." "Dinna call me 'lady', boy. An' ye dinna have to speak high speech, if tis troublesome fer ye. Anyway, as I was tellin' ye, yon lass cast strong magic, and mine barrier cannae hold against it. I tried to send it somewhere else, but methinks I dinna step aside in time when mine barrier broke. A wee bit of it affected me and I fainted after I spake to her." Shiro's brows knitted with worry. "It's worse than I imagined..." thought Shiro. Rin probably cast Gandr and he hoped that it was sent somewhere where there were no innocent bystanders. "Where did ye send it?" asked Shiro. "I sent it to the battlefield o'er yonder hills." Merlyn seemed to notice the worry on his face. "Dinna worry about it. Only the dead lie there and mayhap an occasional bandit. Bandits art not welcome anywhere. They prey on the weak and loot the dead." Shiro sighed with relief. "I understand. Anyway, what did ye talk about?"
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"She told me how ye found Arturia in yon battlefield outside this village. An' I agree with her. Ye must leave this place." At this point, Rin's jaw dropped. She expected Merlyn to oppose them. Merlyn spoke to Arturia. "Can ye ride?" Arturia shook her head. "Nay, I am unable to hold mine self up." Rin stepped forward. "I can not allow that. She hath not healed enough." Merlyn sighed and then spoke seriously. "If ye say so. Boy, can ye get a wagon fer us? A covered one will do well." Shiro reached into his pocket and counted their money. "How much doth a wagon cost?" "I dinna know." Merlyn paused. "I can give ye more coin if ye take these off." She held up her encased hands. "All right." Shiro waved his hand and the shell enclosure dissolved. The enclosure on Rin dissolved as well. Merlyn watched the shell dissolve and stared at her hands for a second. "Ye have an amazing spell, boy. Ye must show it to me another time." She held out a hand to Shiro. "Give me yer pouch." He handed the pouch to her. She emptied it on the bed, put her hand over the coins and chanted, "Mutatio." When she withdrew her hand, all the coins changed to gold pieces. Merlyn scooped up the gold and put it back in the pouch. "That should be enough. Go quickly." Shiro accepted the pouch with a sense of admiration. As he looked inside, he blurted out, "Ye turned them to gold!" Merlyn shook her head. "Nay, tis an illusion. The illusion wilt last till sundown. Transmutation magic needs a lot of mana, and I've cast too many strong spells today." She smiled mischievously and pointed to the pouch. "Ye better use them soon." "Yea, I go at once." Shiro walked out quickly. Merlyn spoke to Arturia and Rin. "Both of ye need to ready yerselves too." Then she laid down on the bed and closed her eyes. "Wake me on the boy's return." Rin stared incredulously at Merlyn. Then she put rubbed the back of her head in irritation. Even though Merlyn seemed to be cooperative, she was still worried about protecting their secret from Arturia. After some thought, she decided to go along for now. ----They left the village around noon. Merlyn gave directions while Shiro drove the wagon. "Whither art we bound?" asked Rin. "A safer place than this." replied Merlyn. "Tis a bit far. Twould be faster by horse." She turned to Arturia who was lying in a makeshift cot. "It seemst that ye require rest." She waved her hand in a small arc to emphasize her suggestion. Arturia yawned. "Verily, it seemst that I require some." She closed her eyes and began to sleep deeply within a few minutes. Merlyn edged away from Arturia to sit near Rin and Shiro. She raised her hand and drew a circle above them with her fingertip. "Silentium." chanted Merlyn. "Firstly, I thank ye both fer saving Arturia. Without ye, she woulda died. Ye cast fine magic to heal her. I'm impressed with yer work. Secondly, I dinna know what to do with ye. Ye art not supposed to be here. But, ye art not scheming to steal the throne or enslaving innocents, so I will stay my hand. Thirdly, I dinna know what ye plan to do will Arturia. Tis a feat to travel this far. So now ye've found her. What do ye plan to do?" The same question nagged at Rin once more. She stared at the floor of the wagon and stayed silent as she searched for an answer. Merlyn had assessed their situation with brutal clarity. Why did they come all this way? Rin admitted to herself that she wanted to see her again. She remembered that feeling of nostalgia when she found Arturia's clothes in her closet. It was then that she decided that she wanted to see her and to talk to her once more. If she could have enough of that, then she could return to the future
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fulfilled. It was a selfish simple wish on her part, and yet, she was not sure how to tell Merlyn her wish. Then, she recalled Merlyn's accusing tone outside the room in the inn. At that time, Merlyn could sense that she was not being truthful. It that was the case, then it would be difficult to lie to her. Rin drew a deep breath and answered with sincerity. "I wanted to see her again. I planned to stay for as long as I could, and then go back to mine own time." Merlyn studied her with an unreadable expression on her face. Rin tried to hold her gaze with equal indifference, but ended up blushing with embarrassment. She was thankful that Shiro could not see her since she sat behind him. "What is Arturia to ye?" she asked softly. Rin was startled by the question and hesitated for a moment. "A friend, of course." she answered quickly to cover up her hesistation. Merlyn arched her eyebrow slightly. "Is that so...?" She observed Rin for a few seconds and then called out to Shiro. "What about ye, boy? What do ye plan to do?" Shiro glanced briefly at Merlyn. "I wanted to see her too." "An' what is Arturia to ye?" Shiro blushed to his ears. He was glad that he was not facing Merlyn. "I... I like her. I want to be with her again, even if it's just for a short time." "Oh-hoh..." said Merlyn with a hint of amusement. She chuckled. "I like ye, boy. Ye art bold and true. Now, I'm curious. How did ye meet Arturia?" "Umm... Tis a long tale..." "Tis a long journey we're taking. Pace yerself as ye will. I have time to listen." Shiro swallowed and took a deep breath. He started at the time when Lancer attacked him. He ended with Arturia who he knew as Saber at that time, fighting off Lancer and Lancer's retreat. Rin kept silent during this time and watched Merlyn's expressions while Shiro told his story. Her reactions were varied but seemed most intense when Arturia was summoned and when Shiro described Lancer. Merlyn crossed her arms. "Hmm... why did she say that she wert yer servant?" Rin cleared her throat. "Allow me to answer thy question." Rin explained the system of masters and servants and the battle for the Holy Grail. After she finished her explanation, Merlyn's forehead furrowed and a frown etched itself along the wrinkles of her face. "Did Arturia say why she wanted the grail?" asked Merlyn. Rin bowed her head. "Yea. She saith she wanted to redo the selection of the king." "What?!" exclaimed Merlyn with surprise. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth hung slightly open. "Tis true." said Shiro from his seat. "She wanted to redo it so that she would not be chosen as king." At these words, Merlyn's expression revealed her shock. Her eyes wandered to rest on Arturia's sleeping form. She stared at her for a while. Then Merlyn's shoulders drooped and she leaned forward to take her face into her hands. Rin watched Merlyn silently. Seeing Merlyn hunched over like that stirred her heart with pity. A cool breeze blew into the wagon and Rin wrapped her arms around herself. Rin looked out the back of the wagon and noted the coming of dusk. Finally, Merlyn lifted her head. The waning light of sunset only served to deepen the shadows under her eyes and hair. "Ye have given me much to consider." She looked out of the wagon towards the setting sun. "Tis getting dark. We need to camp." Merlyn made her way to sit next to Shiro. She looked about and gave Shiro directions. They drove the wagon into an offbeat path and into a small clearing. The clearing appeared to have been used before since it had a burnt out campfire. Rin prepared dinner while Shiro prepared their sleeping bags and fed the horses. Meanwhile, Arturia woke up. Merlyn stayed in the wagon and asked Arturia about her memories. Rin and Shiro eavesdropped to hear that although Arturia remembered Merlyn from her childhood, she could not remember anything about Merlyn after the age of twelve. As for other memories, she could describe places that she
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visited or lived in when she was young and the presence of people who grew up with her. They had a quiet dinner. Merlyn appointed herself as Arturia's server and remained with Arturia in the wagon. Rin and Shiro sat by the fire and ate their dinner in silence. Neither dared to speak in Japanese for fear of Merlyn's curiosity. After dinner, they prepared for sleep. Shiro volunteered to keep watch and Rin agreed to watch after him. The night passed uneventfully. ----The next day, they ate a quick breakfast, packed up and started again. Rin took the opportunity to take a nap since she had kept watch last night. She prepared her sleeping bag next to Arturia and crawled in. Before she closed her eyes, she turned her head slightly and noticed that Arturia was looking at her. She began to blush and rolled over on her side away from Arturia. She shut her eyes, but for some reason, she could feel Arturia staring at her back. "Maybe ye should rest too, Arturia." she heard Merlyn say. "Yea... tis still early and the wagon's sway doth entice slumber." replied Arturia softly. Sheets rustled behind her. She waited and listened as the wagon creaked. After a few minutes or so, she heard shuffling from behind her. The shuffling stopped somewhere near the front of the wagon. Then she heard Merlyn chant, "Silentium." The sound around Rin became muffled and dull. At this point, Rin relaxed and let the swaying of the wagon lull her to sleep. Meanwhile, Merlyn spoke to Shiro. "Boy, tell me about the grail. Describe it to me." Shiro explained what the grail was and how the winner of the war could use it to grant their wish. He told Merlyn about how his stepfather participated in the war and the conflagration that robbed him of his family and home. He described his final battle with Kotomine and Arturia's destruction of the grail. Merlyn listened quietly and only interrupted when something was not clear. After he finished his explanation. Merlyn muttered, "Methinks, that yer grail is not the same as the one in Gwent." Shiro glanced at Merlyn briefly. "There's a grail in Gwent?" "Aye. Sir Galahad, Sir Percival and Sir Bors accompanied the archbishop of Arimathea who is the hereditary guardian of the Holy Grail. The archbishop is currently staying in the monastery of Gwent." "How far is Gwent from here?" "Several days ride south of here." Merlyn watched his reaction. "Art ye disappointed? Did ye want to see it?" Shiro shifted in his seat. It unnerved him that Merlyn was very astute. "Yea. Twould be well if I could see it." "Be at ease. The archbishop of Gwent is a holy man." "I hope so." said Shiro sardonically. His mouth drew to a tight line as he was reminded of Kotomine. Behind him, Merlyn sighed. "I see... ye dinna like clergy. Tis well with me. Clergy and I ne'er see eye to eye. Some monks think ill of magicians. 'Worshippers of the unholy one' is what they say. I cannae blame them. There art magicians who use their craft fer their selfishness. The task of keepin' them in their place falls to magicians like us. Do ye agree, boy?" Shiro nodded. "Yea. To wield magic against the innocent is wrong. I shall do what I can to stop such evil." "Well said, boy!" exclaimed Merlyn. Shiro blushed in embarrassment at her praise. "Now, tell me the rest of yer tale about the war." Shiro continued his story after Lancer retreated and Rin appeared with Archer. Merlyn listened patiently. He talked until about mid-afternoon. Rin woke up and Merlyn indicated that they should break for lunch. Once again, Merlyn directed them to a campsite and they prepared a lunch of bread, soup, ham and fruit. While Rin and Shiro busied themselves with lunch, Merlyn announced that she was going to change Arturia's bandages. Rin gave her new bandages and the medicine kit. She accepted them with a twinkle in her eye.
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"Smile, lass. Ye will have a turn at it soon." Her face broke into a lopsided smile. Rin glared at her with unbridled annoyance. "If ye need anything else, please call." Then she turned about and went over to stir the soup in the pot. When the food was ready, Rin gave Merlyn and Arturia their share and ate with Shiro. She whispered to him in Japanese. "So... what did you two talk about?" Shiro shrugged. "She had more questions about the war. So I told her more about it. Oh yeah, she told me that a Holy Grail is at Gwent." "Really?" exclaimed Rin with surprise. Then she lowered her voice. "Is it related to the grail?" "Not sure." whispered Shiro. "It's south of here." "Hmm... I think we should check it out, if we get a chance to." "I think so too. But Merlyn thinks that it's not the same one." "If it isn't, then we have nothing to worry about." "And if it is?" Rin sat still for a moment and assessed the possibilities. If it was the same grail, then they would be forced to take action. However, since they were in the past, they would have to risk interfering with the course of time. "Shiro..." said Rin quietly. "do you know how to pray?" Shiro looked at Rin quizzically. "Only enough to wish for something on New Year's. Why?" "Well, we better pray that it's not the same one." replied Rin. She resumed eating her meal quietly. Shiro sighed and did the same. When they had finished, they packed up and resumed their journey. After Arturia went to sleep, Merlyn began to interrogate Rin about the war. When the topic of Ilyasviel came up, Rin and Merlyn exchanged theories about how one could fashion a human being around a magic circuit. Shiro sighed with exasperation as Rin launched into a heated debate with Merlyn. He was glad that the silentium spell masked their argument and would prevent Arturia from hearing their racket. The rest of the journey settled into a regular pattern of talking about the war or magic and making camp. On the afternoon of the sixth day, they came upon a green valley at the foot of a majestic mountain whose peaks were covered with snow and obscured with fog. "Behold." said Merlyn with her eyes twinkling with pride. "The valley of Eryri and the mountain Yr Wyddfa. Our journey is almost done. Our destination lies just beyond yon valley." She sat next to Shiro and clapped him soundly on his back. "Ye've done well, boy. We've arrived sooner than I expected. Let us go on. Tis not far now." Rin looked out of the wagon and gasped as she gazed upon the valley. The valley reminded her of the same valley near the Academy. Her eyes brimmed with tears at the memory. "It's... beautiful..." said Rin in a voice filled with awe. "Yea. Tis indeed." remarked Arturia who sounded so close to Rin that she backed away with a start. Somehow, Arturia had managed to crawl out of her cot and to sit beside her without her noticing. "Thou... thou art better!" said Rin excitedly as she crawled back to where she sat before. "Yea. Mine thanks to all of thee." replied Arturia with a cheerful tone. "Strength hath begun its return to mine limbs." Meanwhile, Merlyn climbed back into the wagon. She knelt by Arturia and examined her. She sat back on her heels with a look of wonder on her face. "Tis true... yer bones have set faster than any I've seen... tis amazing. Tis almost as if..." Instead of completing her sentence, Merlyn threw her arms around Arturia and hugged her. "Thank the fates!" She pulled back. "Tonight, we shall hold a small feast and drink to yer health." With their destination in sight and the great news of Arturia's progress, they made their way into the valley in high spirits. Merlyn directed them to the nearest village. There, they got some rooms at the inn and ordered a big meal in the pub downstairs. Merlyn raised her tankard of ale. "Tis been a long journey fer all of ye. But let us nae forget that every journey begins with one step. Fer now, let us look back and remember how far ye've come. Ye can take pride in that. I give ye a toast! To yer health and success!" They clashed their tankards lightly, spilling some ale on the table. Merlyn brought the tankard to her
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lips and emptied it with several mighty gulps. "Ahhh... that hits the spot..." she said merrily as she set the tankard down. Arturia took several gulps but with much less bravado than Merlyn. Rin scrutinized the inside of hers doubtfully before taking a sip. Her face scrunched up and she put the tankard down with her right hand on top. Shiro stared at the brownish liquid for a moment and then took a mouthful. He made a wry face but swallowed the ale with a bit of effort. "Go on, boy. A man will finish what he started." chided Merlyn. Shiro looked at Rin helplessly. Rin simply shrugged her shoulders. He stared at the tankard in his hand for a moment and then brought it to his lips. His other hand grabbed the edge of the table as he downed the ale with several gulps. Finally, he set the tankard down with an audible clank which proclaimed its emptiness. He let go of the table and brought his hand to his mouth as if to keep himself from retching. "Well done! An' what about ye, lass?" "Oh, very well..." Rin took the tankard with both hands and drank its contents daintily. She set the empty tankard down calmly. Merlyn cocked an eyebrow. She leaned forward and grabbed Rin's tankard. She verified that it was empty and glanced at Rin who sat with a small smile on her face. Merlyn sniffed the inside of the tankard and did not detect the strong scent of ale. She set it down with an air of disgust. "Cheater. But I'll let ye go fer now." Their waitress came by with their meal and more ale. Shiro groaned at the sight of another tankard before him. They ate their meal with a relaxed conversation about the village and other parts of the valley. After their meal, they retired to their rooms. Merlyn declared that she would share Arturia's room, so Rin and Shiro shared the other. After almost a week of camping, the straw beds of the inn were a welcome comfort. They all slept well that night. ----On Merlyn's urging, they set out early next morning. Rin put a cloak on since the air in the valley was chilly. Arturia sat across from her with her blanket wrapped around her. Merlyn sat next to Shiro and obviously looked comfortable in her layered brown robe. Rin felt drowsy and yawned. She recalled the warm softness of the bed and wished she could have slept a few more hours. She drew her cloak around her and closed her eyes in an attempt to meditate. Internally, she chanted the mantra in her mind and let herself drift with its rhythm. Before she realized it, she had fallen asleep. She woke with a start when she felt something heavy hit her side. One of the small casks of water had fallen over and rolled to her side. But what surprised her more was the unusual warmth she felt next to her. It was then that she noticed the patterned blanket wrapped around her. The sound of her heart was thumping in her ears as she slowly turned her head to see Arturia's smiling face. Rin's cheeks flushed slightly at the closeness. "Milady... ye didn't have to..." She leaned her body to move away, but Arturia's arm was around her and eased her back. "Nay, thou seemeth to tip when we began our ascent. Besides, thy hands succumbed to the chill of the mountain breeze." As if to emphasize her point, she squeezed Rin's hand under the blanket. "And, thou needst not address me as 'milady'. We art bosom companions. Twould gladden mine heart if thou wouldst address me by name." "Th-- Then, please extend the same courtesy to me..." Rin blurted out and blushed even more. Ever since Merlyn arrived, she kept her distance from Arturia. Being under the same blanket caused her to become even more conscious of Arturia's warm body next to hers. Her fingers tingled as she clasped Arturia's left hand. Arturia's arm was behind her while her right hand held her shoulder and steadied her
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when the wagon swayed over uneven ground. Her intense green eyes were so close that Rin was caught in its gaze. Arturia tilted her head to the right thoughtfully. "Art thou well? Thy skin seemst suffused with rosy hue." She leaned forward and touched her cool cheek against Rin's. "Hath thou contracted a fever?" Rin's body went rigid and she found it hard to breathe. "Tis the forehead, Arturia." corrected Merlyn who was observing them with amusement from the front seat. "Ah, is it so?" Arturia slipped away slightly and rested her forehead on Rin's. She could not see anything else but Arturia's eyes. She could not breathe anything else but Arturia's breath upon her lips. She could not feel anything else but Arturia's cool forehead against her own. The sensations flooded her brain all at once. The world whirled around her and she fainted. "Merlyn!" cried Arturia as she held Rin against her. "She's bleeding!" Merlyn sighed and crawled to Arturia's side. She ripped off a small piece of clean bandage and instructed Arturia. "Tilt her head back and put this around her nostrils... that's good. Keep it on till the bleeding stops." "Is she sick?" asked Arturia with a worried note in her voice. Merlyn smiled mischievously. "Aye... but tis a minor malady o' the heart. Besides, as ye've discovered, the lass is a skilled physic. She can cure it when need be. Dinna worry about it. An' remember to tilt back a bit." "Really?" remarked Arturia with a puzzled tone. She tilted Rin's head back slightly. "What an unusual malady. Mayhap, I shall inquire about it later." Merlyn stifled a chuckle while Shiro pondered over the weird conversation. In the back of his mind, an idea began to form, but he dismissed it as improbable. Meanwhile, Merlyn crawled back to sit next to Shiro. With her directions, they navigated up the mountain pass without incident. By late afternoon, they drove the wagon into a mine. Merlyn lifted her staff and chanted, "Illumina". The tip of her staff burst into a bright light which filled the damp dark cavern. "Tis an old mine shaft used to mine copper." explained Merlyn. "Twas abandoned when the miners cannae find anymore copper." They proceeded until the wagon could not pass through the narrow passage. Merlyn jumped off the wagon. "From here, we go on foot. Leave yon supplies. We shall fetch them later. Boy, can ye carry Arturia?" Shiro grinned widely and nodded. "Of course. Leave it to me." "Rhynne... Rhynne... we must disembark." Arturia shook Rin slightly. Rin opened her eyes and lifted her head from Arturia's shoulder. She looked about inside the dim wagon. When she realized that she was next to Arturia, she slid away slightly. "I... I beg thy pardon. I didn't mean to fall asleep..." "Worry not. The wagon doth sway and tilt a bit. Twas of little effort for me to provide thee some means of comfort. Art thou well? Merlyn saith that we must go on foot." Rin extracted herself from the blanket and assumed a kneeling position with her arms outstretched. "Of course! As ye can see, sleep hath refreshed me." "I am glad." She took off the blankets and turned to Shiro. "I beg thy pardon and hope that I will not burden thee too much." "Not at all." replied Shiro warmly. He helped her to the edge of the wagon and let her settle into his arms. Together, they followed Merlyn into a narrow passageway. Rin hurriedly picked up Shiro's pack and her own. Their equipment was inside and she wanted to ensure its security. She then jumped off the wagon and caught up with them in the passageway. They walked through several labyrinthine tunnels. As they walked along the passageway, Rin noticed an animal's skeleton in the dim light. That unnerved her enough to ask, "Art there any wild animals here?"
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Merlyn replied without a beat. "Only an occasional mountain lion, or sometimes... a lost child who cannae find his way out." Rin and Shiro followed Merlyn closely after that. After about half an hour, Merlyn stopped at a rocky wall and began to poke her hand in several crags. There was a rumbling and grating noise and the wall swung back like a door. Except for Merlyn, the three of them stood there in amazement. Merlyn strode in and beckoned them to follow. They entered a large cavern and walked on a well-paved path. After they had passed through the rock-hewn doorway, Merlyn selected a lever among a set of levers and pushed it down. The door swung close with more grating noise. Merlyn pushed down another lever and the series of ropes and chains at the end of the cavern began to move. The ropes and chains extended so high up the cavern that they could not see where it ended. All three of them watched curiously. Finally, they could see the outline of a wooden platform. When the platform finished its descent, they boarded it. Merlyn reached over and pushed down one of a pair of levers to the right of the platform. The platform began to ascend. At the top of the cavern, the platform entered a vertical shaft. Shiro took the opportunity to ask about the platform. Merlyn replied that the platform was originally constructed as an escape route for a nearby fort. However, the ruler at said fort was killed in battle and the construction of the shaft stopped. She had discovered its location by accident and decided to modify it to suit her needs. Finally, the platform reached its destination. The three of them were amazed to find themselves in large well-lit hall. The walls of the hall seemed to be made of semi-transparent glass. In some areas, the walls were transparent enough to see a view of the valley below. It was then that they realized how far up the mountain they had come. Merlyn stepped off the platform and bowed extravagantly in their direction. "Welcome to mine home. Welcome, to the Aerie of Light."

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Chapter 5: Tonight's Entertainment
Warm sunlight filtered through the great hall to welcome them from the cold dark cave. Before them stretched a lush green and brown carpet which ran from the platform to the opposite side of the hall. Potted trees were equally spaced along the carpet. Their branches extended overhead and offered the visitor a sample of its blossom or its fruit. Tall narrow windows stretched from the floor to the ceiling and provided a clear view of the valley below. A bench was conveniently placed next to each window. On the walls hung various colorful tapestries of different sizes. Most of the tapestries were nature themed and some were semi-transparent so that the weave seemed to glow. When their initial shock of amazement wore off, they followed Merlyn across the sunlit hall. When they reached the doorway at the end of the hall, they heard the sound of someone sprinting towards them. Merlyn stretched out her arms to welcome the sprinter. "Mother!" exclaimed a young maiden with a twinkling musical voice. She was about sixteen years old and was six inches shorter in height compared to Merlyn. "Welcome home!" She hugged Merlyn tightly. She was dressed in a light brown and pale yellow ladies shirt with a laced waist corset and a dark brown skirt. When they heard the girl's greeting, Rin and Shiro's jaws dropped and they stopped walking. They stood there in shocked silence as the girl kissed Merlyn on both cheeks. Then, the girl noticed them. "How wonderful! Ye've bought visitors!" The girl skipped towards them and beamed a charming smile. Her facial features were similar to Merlyn's but were enhanced with rosy cheeks and fair smooth skin. Her waist length hair was brown and braided in some places. But the most striking features were her dazzling eyes which matched Merlyn's golden ones. Merlyn cleared her throat and gestured as she introduced them. "Tis Rhynne, Syrowe and Arturia. And tis mine daughter, Airianne." "Arturia!" She glided over to grasp Arturia's hand in hers. "Mother told me a lot of stories about ye! She..." Merlyn put a hand on Airianne's shoulder. "We've journeyed far, Airianne. Can ye prepare tea fer us?" Airianne gazed at her mother for a moment as if lost in thought. Then she smiled warmly. "Of course! I understand. I will serve it in the rose garden! Or... will the lily pond be better?" "The rose garden is fine." replied Merlyn. Airianne curtsied gracefully and skipped to the left hallway at the end of the hall. At her exit, Rin and Shiro released their bated breaths. They followed Merlyn across what appeared to be a sitting room furnished with padded chairs and sofas. On several small tables lay scrolls and crudely bound books. Stringed musical instruments hung on one side of the room. The carpet was thick and lush compared to the sunlit hall. They walked for a minute through several hallways. Merlyn led them to an intricately wrought stained glass door. The stained glass depicted an image of red, yellow and white roses intertwined together. She opened the door and ushered them into an indoor rose garden. The soft scent of roses assailed their senses. The rose bushes were separated into three groups by color and were equally distant from each other. Rin recognized the pattern of an equilateral triangle
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formed by an orderly arrangement pebbles ingrained upon the grassy ground. Her sense of direction indicated that the red rose bushes were at the northmost point of the triangle. At the center of the triangle was a small iron table with a stained glass top. "This place can be used for rituals." thought Rin. "A hidden function, no doubt." She tried to recall if she had seen anything else that might serve a hidden purpose besides decoration, but could not think of any at the moment. Rin set their packs down at a corner of the garden. Merlyn pulled a chair and gestured at Shiro. He carefully lowered Arturia into it. They all sat down to wait for Airianne. Shiro looked up at the high ceiling and marveled at its construction. "Was this made with magic?" "Nae all of it. Ordinary craftsmen trusted by mine family did a lot of the masonry. Mine great grandmother enchanted the rock that lets the light in. It looks like rock from the outside but lets light in to the inside. Each generation of mine family adds enchantments to our home. Mine is the platform, as ye can see." "But before ye had the platform, how did you get up here?" "We flew." "Flew? As in using a broomstick?" "Do ye mock me, boy? I'm not a conjurer of cheap tricks. Only charlatans use broomsticks." The door of the garden swung open and Airianne glided in with a tray in her hands. She set the tray down on the table and served them tea and small loaves of bread and butter. Then she sat down beside her mother. "Tis mine favorite bread, ale bread. Have some. Airianne made it herself." Merlyn picked a loaf and spread a generous amount of butter on it. "Why am I not surprised..." thought Rin as she took one and broke it to examine its contents quickly. She noticed some green onion and melted cheese. "It can't be that bad..." She took a bite and was pleasantly surprised at its enticing flavor. "Tis delicious!" she exclaimed. Shiro nodded in agreement. "Yea. It is." He took several large bites. Merlyn quickly finished her bread, slurped half her tea and stood up. "I must greet mine wife." she declared. Rin almost spit out her tea while Shiro almost choked on his bread. Arturia let her bread drop onto her plate. Merlyn kissed Airianne on her forehead and patted her shoulder affectionately. "I'll be back, mine dearest. Will ye entertain mine guests fer me?" "I'd be glad to, Mother." replied Airianne warmly. Merlyn nodded and exited the garden. Airianne smiled at them charmingly. "How was yer journey? Did ye travel by horse?" Shiro replied, "Nay. We rode a wagon which I drove." "Did ye visit any great castles?" "Nay, we traveled in haste." "Ah, a pity. Some castles art a marvel to behold." Airianne poured some milk into her tea. "Yer features art not Bryton. Art ye Erisch, Pict or Saxon?" At the mention of the word 'Saxon', Arturia's eyes narrowed and she set her tea down. "Nay, I am neither. Mine people call ourselves Nihon-jin, which translates to a person of Nihon." "Nee-hun? And where may that be?" As Shiro told her all about Japan, he had a feeling of deja vu. While he answered Airianne's barrage of questions, he was reminded of his original conversation with Arturia. He hoped that Rin would add to the conversation, but she merely sat there drinking tea daintily. Eventually, Airianne giggled. "Ye're a nice boy. Do ye have someone dear?" A drop of sweat trickled down his forehead. "Yea." "Ah, a pity." said Airianne with a note of disappointment. "Is she beautiful?" Shiro smiled dreamily. "Yea." Airianne's eyes grew wide. "Is it Lady Rhynne?" At this point, Rin was doing her best to suppress
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giggling. "Nay." "Then it must be Lady Arturia!" "Yea." Airianne clapped her hands with glee while Arturia sat up when she heard Shiro's answer. "What?" Shiro faced her. "Tis true. Though our time together wert short, I hath grown fond of ye." Confusion reigned on Arturia's face. "I am flattered... so much that I know not what to say." "Oh, how delightful! The beginning of a budding romance!" Airianne broke out in tiny giggles. "And ye, Lady Rhynne, do ye have someone dear?" Rin shrank back in her seat. She was hoping that Airianne would not ask her. "Yea." she admitted softly. "Is it goodman Syrowe?" "Nay." "Ah, a pity. How interesting if it wert a love triangle!" To Rin's great relief, Merlyn came back. Her face bore a solemn look which changed to a slight smile as she neared the table. "Have ye eaten yer fill?" "Yea. Twas very good." Merlyn nodded. "Then come and rest. I will show ye to yer rooms." Airianne stood up quickly. "Allow me, Mother. Mama hath been waiting fer ye fer so long..." Merlyn's eyes misted over. "All right. Show them the large rooms in the west wing." Shiro carried Arturia and Rin picked up their packs. They followed Airianne along several hallways. Eventually, Airianne stopped and opened the door to a room. "This will be goodman Syrowe's room." The room was about 30 feet by 30 feet. The ceiling of the room and west wall were semi-transparent. In the center of the room was a canopied bed with thick curtains. A small fireplace was on the north side of the room. On the south side was a vanity mirror and several dressers and closets. Colorful rugs and carpets enhanced the stone floor. Rin put Shiro's pack by the bed. "Next door is Lady Arturia's room." declared Airianne with a mischievous smile as she opened the door to Arturia's room. Shiro went in and put Arturia on the bed. "This room is similar to the other room except that this bed is very comfortable, and can sleep two people." continued Airianne. Rin's jaw dropped with surprise when she realized Airianne's subtle innuendo. She glanced at Shiro who stepped away from Arturia. Because of the light in the room, it was easy to see Shiro's flaming ears even though he was facing away from her. From his reaction, she concluded that Shiro realized it as well. "Am I to share this room with Rhynne?" asked Arturia. At her unexpected question, Rin almost dropped her pack. Airianne's smile was replaced with a surprised look as she turned to Arturia. She cleared her throat. "The room next to this one is to be Lady Rhynne's room." Airianne blushed slightly. "But if ye wish to share yer bed..." Rin could guess what was going through Airianne's mind and did not wait for her to finish her sentence. "Mine pack is heavy. I shall go to MINE room and set it aside." Rin quickly exited Arturia's room and went to the room next door. She put the pack down and closed the door. "I am confused." She heard Arturia say. Rin pressed her ear against the wood door. "If Rhynne hath her own room, then why is mine bed so large?" The silence that followed was deafening. Finally, she heard Airianne clear her throat. "Since ye art injured, it might be of help to give yer limbs more room so that ye art comfortable." The excuse seemed flimsy for Rin. Arturia had been recuperating on a narrow straw bed and a makeshift cot on a wagon. The lack of room did not deter her progress. Rin waited for Arturia's response. "I understand." said Arturia after a brief pause. "That is kind of ye. And if I may beseech ye, please tell Rhynne that mine bandages hath not been dressed yet." Rin's eyes widened and she quickly grabbed the pack. She sprinted to the nearest closet.
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Airianne's voice echoed faintly in the hallway. "Aye. I shall see her now." Rin opened her pack and scattered a few items. She opened the closet door and pretended to be putting stuff into the closet. There was a knock on the door. "Come." answered Rin. Airianne opened the door. "Lady Rhynne, Lady Arturia wisheth to let ye know that her bandages hath not been dressed." She tilted her head as if in thought. "Do ye wish to do laundry?" she asked. "Err... no... not really." Airianne smiled and walked to where Rin stood. "If ye need to wash yer clothes, ye need but toss it in yon chute." She gestured at the open closet. "Clothes art washed every third day." Rin looked in and saw that there was indeed a chute in the closet. "Whither doth it go?" "To the basement. Now, please excuse me. I shall prepare dinner." Airianne curtsied and closed the door behind her. Rin examined the chute for a while. "This place is really cool." she thought. Then she fetched the medicine kit and bandages from her pack. Suddenly, she realized that the basin she used for water was still in the wagon. Furthermore, she needed some warm water. She would have to ask Airianne. She picked up her kit and walked to Arturia's room. The door was slightly open, but Rin knocked anyway. "Enter." replied Arturia. "Tis I. Didst Merlyn forget to dress thy bandages?" Rin put the kit and the bandages down on the bedside table. "Yea. Methinks, in her haste to finish our journey, she hath overlooked it." "Tis an important task." said Rin gravely, with an air of a professional doctor. "E'en though thy physic forgeth, as a patient, thou hath a duty to remind her. Shall I fetch her for thee?" Rin tried to reign in the teasing in her voice and attempted to sound as serious as possible. Arturia bowed her head slightly. "Nay." said Arturia guiltily. "The thought hath occureth to me, but yet, I kept mine peace." Rin raised an eyebrow in curiosity. "Why so?" "Methinks, thou perform the task better." Rin blinked several times. "How so?" she asked with curiosity. Arturia bowed her head some more. She remembered the tenderness of Rhynne's touch and how refreshing it was to feel her wipe her skin. In contrast, Merlyn rushed through the task and sometimes the washcloth would catch on a scab. She also had a tendency to bind the bandages rather tight. Maybe, she could convince Rhynne to do it instead of Merlyn. However, words seem to fail her and she blurted out, "With thou, it feels gentler and... cleaner." "Cleaner?" repeated Rin. She tried to make out Arturia's face, but her long bangs obscured her line of sight. "Yea." Her hand curled to grip the blanket. Somehow, it felt embarrassing and inappropriate to describe how she felt. Rin was not sure how to respond. After a bit of thought, she replied with mock solemnity. "I am pleased to hear that. A physic must do what she can to promote her patient's cleanliness. Is it not saith that the cleanliness of the body reflects the cleanliness of the spirit?" Arturia raised her head slightly and her eyes lit up. "Ah! I see truth in thy wisdom and mine thoughts art in accord with thine." She was relieved that Rhynne accepted her reason. Just under the shadows of her hair, Rin could see that Arturia's cheeks colored to a slight shade of pink. For some reason, a part of Rin enjoyed seeing Arturia that way. Her amusement escaped into her lips. "I will need a basin and warm water. Please abide here whilst I fetch some." "Please pace thyself. I will rest until then." Rin excused herself and went to look for Airianne. After a few minutes of searching, she smelled the mouth watering scent of baked bread and followed it to a large kitchen. There, she found Airianne juggling several tasks of baking, frying and chopping. Airianne glided about wearing a cute apron embroidered with yellow chicks.
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"Lady Airianne! Ye art cooking so much! Please let me assist ye." Rin stepped forward to flip over some slices of meat in a frying pan. "Nay, Lady Rhynne. Ye art mine guest." Airianne set a knife on a carrot on top of a cutting board. "Besides, ye hath come for something?" After a quick flurry, butterfly shaped carrot slices were lying on the board. Rin stared in amazement for a moment. Meanwhile, Airianne basted several roasting chickens in the oven. "Yea. I require a basin and warm water to dress Arturia's bandages." "Warm water? Ah! Ye mean to do some cleaning." Airianne crossed her arms and thought for a moment. "Is she well enough to bathe?" Rin assessed Arturia's current progress. "Yea. She hath recovered enough." "Then, why not bathe? Tis much better than a basin and warm water. And the bath and privy art just at the end of the hall from yer rooms. Bath supplies and towels art stored in a closet within." "I will let Arturia know about the bath. However, if she chooses not to bathe, dost the bath have a basin?" "Aye." Airianne chopped some mushrooms and onions with lightning skill. It was obvious that Airianne needed no help, but out of politeness, Rin asked her anyway. "Art ye sure that ye doth not require assistance?" "Verily. Dinner will be ready in half an hour. I shall fetch ye when it is ready." "If by chance that ye require any assistance at a later time, I would be glad to lend mine aid." Airianne abruptly stopped chopping and looked up. "Any?" she repeated. "Yea, any." Airianne's lips drew into a wide grin. "Mayhap, I shall accept yer offer later. I will surely let ye know. Now, off with ye, and dinna be late fer dinner." At the sight of that grin, a chill went up Rin's spine. She felt like she had just signed away her life. She hoped that it was just her imagination. "Mine thanks." muttered Rin. Then she returned to Arturia's room and told her about the bath. Arturia's face lit up. "A bath would be refreshing." "Then I will ask Syrowe to carry you there." Rin went to Shiro's room and told him about the bath. "That's great! I want to take a bath too!" said Shiro with great enthusiasm. So Rin gathered a change of clothes while Shiro carried Arturia. Together, they went down the hall and looked for the bath. They found two doors at the end of the hall. The left door was a privy. After Rin opened the right door, they gaped in astonishment. Rin and Shiro expected to see something like a regular bath room but instead they found something like an onsen. They marveled at the size of the bath for a few moments before Shiro put Arturia down on a nearby bench. "Methinks, I shall bathe later." Shiro said sheepishly and left, closing the door behind him. Rin found some shelves and put their clothes in it. The cabinets were nearby and she located some towels, washcloths and soap. Then she turned to where Arturia sat to give her a towel. Rin's voice caught in her throat at the sight of Arturia undressing. She watched with bated breath as her shirt slipped off her shoulders and down her back. She put it aside and was only clad in her bandages and trewes. Arturia looked from left to right and then turned around to look behind her. Her green eyes met Rin's and she smiled warmly. By now, Rin realized why Arturia looked so different. The sun had begun to set and its rays suffused the stone around Arturia with a rich golden orange color. Even Arturia's hair caught some of its light and each delicate strand seemed to glow. She released her breath and walked over to Arturia. "I hath found some towels." She handed her a towel and a washcloth. "Mine thanks." Arturia accepted them and put them beside her on the bench. Rin sat beside Arturia on the open space on the bench. She cleared her throat. "Shall I... remove thy bandages?" "Yea." Arturia lifted her arms and put her hands on Rin's shoulders.
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Rin shuddered slightly at the contact. She bent her gaze to where the bandage was secured and attempted to undo the knot which was located between Arturia's breasts. She was not sure whether to thank Merlyn or curse her for tying it there. She decided to curse her after spending a minute trying to untie it. Arturia noticed the scowl on Rin's face while she undid the bandage. "Mine apologies, Rhynne. Merlyn hath secured it tightly." "Nay, tis no one's fault." replied Rin. She carefully unrolled the bandages. As she unrolled them, she noted the wounds underneath. It was indeed amazing. The wounds had closed and it was only a matter of time for the scabs to fall off. The bones and ligaments were healing quickly as well. After she was done, she put the bandages aside. "Whither thou wish to wash?" Arturia looked about and pointed to a recessed area with stools. "Methinks that one washes over there." Rin nodded. "Mine strength doth not match Syrowe's, but I can carry thee there." "Art thou sure?" "Yea." "But Merlyn saith that thou art weak of heart. I doth not wish to exhaust thee." "What? I have no such malady. When didst she saith this?" "Today, after thou fell into a swoon." Rin's jaw dropped slightly and her brain tried to come up with a good excuse. "I... I... hath kept watch almost ev'ry night and... the lack of sleep hath done its toll. Tis I who must ask thee for forgiveness for the inconvenience I caused." "Thou needst not apologize. At the moment, mine concern is for thy health." "I am fit now. As thou shall see..." In her mind, Rin chanted the spell, 'Strength of a Thousand'. "...now." When the spell activated, Rin scooped Arturia into her arms. It was an extravagant use of her mana, but she decided to splurge for this occasion. Arturia let out a small yelp and wrapped her arms around Rin's neck in surprise. When she found her voice, she said, "I see... Thy strength proveth thy malady false." Rin beamed her a smile of confidence and sauntered over to the recessed area. She sat Arturia upon a stool near a flowing waterspout. Then she fetched their towels and washcloths and placed them nearby. "I beg thy pardon. I will now change mine clothes." "Why not change them here? I will be glad to assist thee." Rin blinked several times. The zipper on the back of the dress was a pain to reach. Rin was about to refuse but she got caught in Arturia's expectant gaze. "All right." She sat down on a nearby stool with her back to Arturia. "The dress is fastened by a clasp near mine neck. Just pull yon clasp down." Arturia located the clasp and pulled it down. She was amazed at how easily the dress parted. "Thy dress is of marvelous construct. I hath ne'er seen a clasp such as this. And what, perchance, is this black strap? Ah, I see it hath hooks." She unhooked the strap. Rin's eyes grew wide when she realized that her bra was undone. Her hand hastily reached for a towel while Arturia undid the knot of the sash around her waist. When the knot was fully untied, the dress began to slip off her shoulders. Rin brought the towel to her chest and blushed at the thought of Arturia undressing her. Arturia reached over and pulled down the sleeves of the dress to reveal Rin's upper arms and back. She noticed that the black strap went around Rin's front and over her shoulders. She touched the strap with her fingers. "And how doth this strap come off?" Arturia's fingers upon her skin caused Rin to break out in goosebumps. She put her hand on her bra strap and turned towards Arturia slightly. "Thou hast giveth me enough aid. I shall complete the rest." "I am glad to be of assistance. I shall finish undressing as well." Rin remembered that Arturia was still wearing her trewes. She kept her back to her and stood up. She let her dress fall and took off her bra which she tossed out of the recessed area. Now only her panties remained. She blushed some more in embarrassment, for she had forgotten that she was wearing her lacy
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black bikini style panties. She hoped that Arturia would not notice as she tugged one side down. After Arturia had removed her trewes, she spread a towel over her lap. Then she glanced over to Rhynne and was surprised to see her wearing an unusual piece of clothing for her underwear. She watched as she pulled it down over curve of her buttocks, past the length of her long slim legs and off her feet. She picked it up with the dress and tossed them aside to where the black strap lay. Just as Rhynne began to turn around, her sense of propriety warned her to turn away before she caught her in the act of observing her. Quickly, she turned her head away guiltily. She suddenly realized that this would be the first time in which she would see her naked. The thought filled her with excited curiosity. Behind her, Rin cleared her throat. "Shall I wash thy back?" Arturia faced Rhynne with an innocent smile. "Yea. Please do." Rin repositioned herself and her stool behind Arturia. She prepared her washcloth with soap and water. With slow, gentle strokes, she began to wash Arturia's back. Arturia closed her eyes and smiled to herself. She had missed Rhynne's treatment since Merlyn met them at the inn. For now, she was content to relish Rhynne's treatment for the next few minutes. Her smile melted when Rhynne poured some warm water to rinse her back. It was over too soon. "Let me know when thou wish to soak in yon pool. I will carry thee there." She picked up her washcloth and began to wash herself. Suddenly, an idea entered Arturia's mind. "Allow me to return thy favor and wash thy back." She held out her hand for Rhynne's washcloth. Rin stopped and gaped in surprise. She was about to refuse but the sight of Arturia smiling so expectantly changed her mind. With hesitation born out of uncertainty, she slowly handed Arturia her washcloth. "I... I thank thee for thy kind offer." She turned around to provide Arturia easy access to her back. She felt the washcloth touch her back. Once again, her skin broke out in goosebumps. Arturia mimicked the slow, gentle strokes that Rhynne had used. She worked on her task methodically. Internally, Rin was squirming with the sensation of Arturia wiping her back. "Ohmigod... is this how she feels when I do it?" thought Rin as her breath came in ragged gasps. She tried not to make her gasping audible. Meanwhile, just to make sure that she scrubbed well enough, Arturia ran her finger over Rhynne's skin. It slid smoothly over her skin. On Arturia's touch, Rin shuddered and clasped her hand over her mouth to suppress a gasp. Her other hand gripped the towel with all her might. Pleased with her work, Arturia smiled and continued to scrub. Soon, Rhynne's skin had assumed a nice healthy sheen. Arturia leaned back in satisfaction. "I am done. Thou may rinse." Rin let out her breath. "M-- mine thanks..." she blurted out. "Thou art welcome." said Arturia. After Rhynne rinsed, she returned her washcloth. Then Arturia washed her own hair and the rest of her body. Rin reached into her small pouch of bath supplies and extracted her shampoo bottle. She squeezed it until a pea-sized amount of concentrated goo landed on her finger. Despite the need to minimize their luggage, Rin made a special exception to this shampoo which was a special blend of camellia that would keep her hair lustrous and silky. Of all the lessons in Ise jingu, the shampoo formula was the most practical one for everyday use. Of course, the true reason of bringing it was vanity, but she reasoned that it was essential for hygiene and health. She lathered it on her hands and then shampooed her hair. When she was satisfied, she rinsed and waited for Arturia. Eventually, Arturia finished and turned to her. "May I ask thee to convey me to yonder pool?" "Of course." She knelt by Arturia and took her into her arms. She stood up and felt something slither off her torso. The horrible realization that her towel had just fallen off filled her with embarrassment. It was not easy to ignore Arturia pressing against her breasts. She calmed her nerves and proceeded to a pool that did not look like a boiling pot. She dipped her toe
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into the water to test it, and was satisfied with its temperature. She stepped into the pool and carefully positioned Arturia on a small bench attached to the sidewall. She selected that particular bench so that Arturia can have a view of the landscape beyond the walls of the bath. "Is this satisfactory?" asked Rin. "Yea. Tis perfect." "I am glad." Rin waded to the steps to get out but Arturia called out to her. "Whither goest thou?" "Mine towel hath slipped off. I will fetch it." "Why dost thou require a towel?" Rin was uncertain how to answer. She decided to act conservative. "Tis for modesty. Besides thou hath don one upon thy waist. I doth not wish to offend thee by not observing thy customs." Arturia shook her head. "Nay. Tis not a custom." To emphasize her point, she pulled the towel off, squeezed the water out and placed it outside the pool. "And be at ease. I shant take offense in viewing thy exquisitely shaped form." Rin blushed slightly. Her thoughts were in a jumble. "Was... that a compliment?" she asked herself. She attempted to untie her tongue. "M--- Mine heart gladdens with thy words. Thanks to thee, I will no longer need to fetch mine towel." Rin waded to the sidewall on Arturia's right and sat on the bench there. To prevent herself from staring at Arturia, she closed her eyes and let her body relax. In an effort to keep time, she decided to recite a meditative mantra in her mind. Arturia watched Rhynne for a moment and then turned her gaze to the landscape before her. She tried to find the road which led to this valley, but could not recognize any. Memories of their journey filled her mind. Even though she had known Rhynne for a short period, she felt a familiar camaraderie between them. However, every time she tried to search her memories for Rhynne's presence in her past, she could not find any. "What hath happened to me?" she asked herself. She raised her left arm to examine it. Rhynne told her that bones in her forearm were broken and that the flesh around it was sliced open and was further damaged by the broken bones. She touched her arm and let her hand open and close. Her muscles felt stiff, but she did not feel any pain. As her eyes examined the skin on the arm, she noticed a red mark on her palm. The mark was not there when she washed her body. She touched it. It seemed to glow under her skin. "What could this be?" she asked aloud. Rin heard Arturia's question and opened her eyes. "What is it?" "There is a mark upon mine palm." Rin waded over and held out her right hand. "May I see thy palm?" Arturia was about to show her palm, but stopped when she noticed a red mark on Rhynne's palm. She took Rhynne's palm with her right and gently turned it up so she could view it fully. She held her left palm next to it. "Thy palm hast a similar mark." Rin's eyes grew wide with surprise when she realized that the marks from the blood cleansing ritual were visible. She tried to remember if she cancelled the spell properly. "Mine mark seemst to be a mirror of thine." remarked Arturia. To test her observation, she aligned the marks and pressed their palms together. Arturia gasped as a tingling sensation spread from her palm and into her body. The sensation filled her with a sense of exhilaration. For a moment, she felt like she was somewhere else. She could see a wood paneled room. The floor seemed to be covered with light green woven mats. Rin gasped as mana gushed from her palm. She pulled away abruptly. Suddenly, the vision of the room faded away along with the feeling of exhilaration. Her heart was beating fast so she sat still to calm herself. Her thoughts wandered to the vision of that room. Somehow, she felt like she had been in that room before. She was jolted from her thoughts by Rhynne's voice. "Arturia... Arturia... art thou well?" She looked at Rhynne with dazed eyes. "M-- methinks so..." "Didst something happen to thee?" asked Rin anxiously. The meeting of the marks had caused some
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sort of side effect. She hoped that it did not do any harm. "I felt a great excitement overwhelm me... and then... I saw a vision of a strange place..." "Didst thou feel any pain?" "Nay." "And what didst thou see in thy vision?" "I beheld a room boarded in wood. Upon the floor lay woven green mats." As soon as Rin heard about the mats, a sense of apprehension welled up within her. She began to consider the possibility that Arturia would remember her time as a servant. She needed to know more. "Was there anything else?" Arturia shook her head. "Nay. When thou removed thy hand, the vision faded." She stared at her hand. "Mayhap... if we hold our hands again... I may see more of it..." Warning bells began to ring inside Rin's mind. She had to derail this train of thought somehow. "Hmm... methinks that thou hath seen a part of mine memories. The mark on thy hand activated a spell which allowed thee to peer into mine mind." "Thy mark was mine mistake. I didst not dispel it properly after I hath healed thee. Please, allow me to correct mine error." Rin held out her hand. Arturia stared at Rhynne's hand. She felt that the vision was part of her memories and not Rhynne's. She could not fully accept her explanation. If Rhynne dispelled the mark, then she may not be able to see that vision again. "Nay." she said firmly. "Allow me to keep it." A mixture of surprise and disappointment filled Rin. She considered insisting on removing the mark. However, if she insisted, it might arouse Arturia's suspicions. She lowered her hand. "As thou wish. If thou wish to dispel it at a later time, please let me know." Rin noted the waning rays of the sun. "Dinner will be ready soon. We may stay for a few more minutes before we must ready ourselves." Rin waded back to her bench. "All right." agreed Arturia. When they had soaked long enough, Rin carried Arturia to the dressing area. They dried themselves and combed their hair. Rin quickly put on a shirt and skirt while Arturia dried herself. When she was done, she applied ointment where needed and bandages to protect sensitive skin. She assisted Arturia in dressing up. When they were done, Rin went to Shiro to ask him to carry Arturia. Together, all three of them went to the dining hall. Merlyn and Airianne were already there. They sat on either side of a hunched old woman at a wooden round table. The old woman's thinning white hair and waxen complexion indicated her advanced age. Her face was lined with wrinkles, but she displayed a serene smile. She wore a simple beige gown. Shiro carefully put Arturia down on a chair next to Merlyn and sat down next to her. Rin sat down next to Airianne. When they were seated, Merlyn introduced them. "I'd like ye to meet mine wife, Wybrenne. Wybrenne, the lass next to me is Arturia, the young lad next to her is Syrowe, and the lass next to Airianne is Rhynne. They will be staying here fer awhile." The old woman answered in a warm voice mellowed with age. "Welcome, all. Tis mine hope that thou will enjoy thy sojourn here. Avail thyselves of our abode as thou wish. And now, let us sup and partake of Airianne's efforts." Together, they ate with animated conversation. Naturally, Wybrenne and Airianne wanted to know more about them and they eagerly supplied answers. Merlyn mostly simply sat back and ate like glutton who had not had a meal in weeks. The meal was delectable and was a veritable showcase of Airianne's talent. Shiro had to control himself from overeating. At the end of the meal, Merlyn got up and pulled Wybrenne's chair away from the table. "We shall now retire for the night. Good night, all." Wybrenne nodded in their direction and then Merlyn pushed the chair which had small wheels attached to its legs. Rin and Shiro cleared the table and wiped it clean. Airianne washed the dishes while Arturia dried them. When they were done, Airianne whirled about and asked, "What art yer plans for the evening?
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The night is still young." Rin and Shiro looked at each other questioningly. Rin shrugged. Shiro decided to reply. "We haven't planned anything. Doth ye have something in mind?" Airianne's face broke into a wide grin and glinting eyes. "Aye, I do. Come hither." They followed Airianne into the sitting room which was near the great hall. She pulled out a board with an arrow stuck to it like a compass. She laid it on a table and they sat down on the chairs around the table to look at it. The board had labels such as 'Singing', 'Tales of Romance', 'Tales of Adventure', 'Dancing' and more. "When Mother is here, we choose our evening's entertainment by using this board." She brought out a pack of cards. "And we decide who gets to spin yon arrow by cards. The loser must entertain the winner." "What card game will we play?" asked Shiro. "Old Maid. Doth ye know how to play?" They all replied affirmatively. Airianne clapped her hands in glee. "Splendid!" With a whir, she shuffled the cards. Her hands flew across the table as she dealt them their hands. Her movement reminded Rin of a nightingale. When she was done, she faced Arturia. "The winner is the first who discards all of his or her cards. If it pleases ye, Lady Arturia, start the game." "I shall." She picked a card from Shiro and placed a matching set onto the table. The game was afoot. Soon, matching cards were piling up in front of each player until Airianne had one card left. Rin held out her cards to her. Airianne's finger alighted over the joker which was drawn as a crotchety old hag. "All right!" thought Rin. "I can still win!" Suddenly, Airianne's finger moved over to the other card and pulled it. Rin's face fell in disappointment as Airianne plopped down a matching set. "Done." said Airianne with a note of finality. She touched the side of the arrow with her index finger and spun. "And now, tonight's entertainment is... 'A Romantic play'. Airianne clapped her hands with joy while the other three grimaced at the thought. "Oh how wonderful! It will be so much better with three people." She flitted about the room as if looking for something. "Oh, what should we do? What should we do?" She opened a cabinet and began looking at scrolls. "Ah, this one should fit our cast!" She pulled out several scrolls. "Hath ye heard of the play, 'Cinderella'?" Shiro and Rin replied that they had, but Arturia did not know the play. Airianne began handing out scrolls. "Tis well that ye art not familiar with it, Arturia. Ye will be both audience and performer. And now, I shall cast ye to yer roles. Goodman Syrowe will be the narrator and all the male roles in yon script. Lady Rhynne will be the stepmother and her daughters as well as the fairy godmother. Lady Arturia will be Cinderella." Airianne gestured to a slightly raised platform on one side of the room. "This will be yer stage." She opened a door near the platform. "If ye require any theatrical devices, ye may search for it in this room." She glided over to a comfortable armchair in front of the platform. "Ye may begin when ye wish." Shiro sighed. He and Rin went into the room and returned with a small rug, a basin and several pieces of cloth. Rin laid out the props on the stage while Shiro carried Arturia to the stage. After Shiro put Arturia on the rug, Rin tied the piece of cloth around her waist and handed her a towel. Shiro stood at the left corner of the stage and begin his narration. Arturia tried her best to do what Syrowe described in his narration. Rhynne entered the stage when one of her roles came up. Arturia watched with admiration as Rhynne acted out a conversation between the stepmother and stepsisters. She was so entertained that she often forgot to read her own lines. She blushed in embarrassment and tried her best to concentrate. Meanwhile, Rin was glad that she could rely on her theater experience at the academy. She pitied pour Shiro who was obviously trying his best with his monotonic reading and stiff acting. After she acted out her roles as stepmother and stepsister, she waited for Arturia's response. Instead, she found Arturia gazing at her with undisguised wonder. Rin blushed and cleared her throat. She repeated her last line and emphasized the word 'Cinderella'. Arturia blushed and fumbled at her scroll until she found her line and
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recited it. Rin chuckled to herself. "How cute..." she thought and continued her acting. Arturia acted through the play with a sense of bewilderment. Just as Airianne had predicted, she was caught up in the play as an actor and as a spectator. She had a few moments to watch Rhynne without interruption when the stepsisters tried to coerce the prince to dance with them. Syrowe seemed so wooden compared to Rhynne. Eventually, it was her turn to dance with the prince. Syrowe put her on the stool and pretended to dance with her. When the scene was done, she was relieved. She was treated to one more scene when Rhynne acted out the competition of the stepsisters to fit the glass slipper. Somehow, Syrowe actually managed to find a glass slipper in the room behind the stage. Her turn came and Syrowe fitted the slipper perfectly on her foot. He beamed at her with genuine adoration and declared that he had found his princess. Finally, the play was finished with their wedding. The script indicated that the prince was supposed to kiss Cinderella, but Syrowe merely stood there and declared, 'The End'. At this point, Airianne stood up and protested, "Nay, nay, nay! Ye must kiss the bride." Shiro flushed in embarrassment. "Now...? In front of... all of ye...?" "Aye." said Airianne firmly. Shiro hesitantly placed his hands on Arturia's shoulders. He leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek but Arturia stopped his advance with her hand. "Nay..." said Arturia softly. He pulled away. He did not want Arturia to misunderstand his intentions. "I was going to kiss ye on the cheek. I apologize if I made ye feel uncomfortable." "Apology accepted." replied Arturia curtly. She spoke to Airianne with a firm voice. "Mine apologies, Airianne, for a rather poor performance. Methinks that the journey hath taxed mine strength. I must ask thee to excuse me and let me retire for the night." Airianne shook her head. "On the contrary, twas splendid! Much better than Mother's. Tis I who must apologize fer poor manners." She clapped her hands with great enthusiasm. "A wonderful play! Know ye that I hath enjoyed every scene. And ye wert amazing, Lady Rhynne!" Rin bowed deeply. "Mine thanks. I am pleased that it was to yer liking." "Well then, let me escort ye to yer rooms and bid ye good night." They did just that and prepared for bed, except for Shiro who declared that he wanted to take a bath before going to bed. That night, they all slept well under the starry sky provided by the ceiling above.

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Chapter 6: Maidenly Games
The next day, they gathered downstairs to have breakfast. After breakfast, Merlyn announced that she was leaving on another trip. Airianne pouted greatly. "Mama will be cross with ye." she warned. "Aye, aye. She gave her permission already." said Merlyn. "Boy, ye will accompany me. Pack light. We journey on horse." "What? Why me?" protested Shiro. "Will ye let an old woman travel alone unprotected?" replied Merlyn with a dramatic air. "And besides, ye did say that ye wanted to visit Gwent." Shiro immediately dismissed Merlyn's first reason since she was obviously a powerful mage. But the second reason tugged at him like a kite on a string. However, if he went, he would spend less time with Arturia. The two choices weighed heavily in his mind. He strengthened his resolve and decided. "All right. I shall be ready within half an hour." "Good, good. Meet me in the great hall." said Merlyn. She left to prepare as well. When they had returned Arturia to her rooms, Shiro tapped Rin's arm. "I have to talk to you." said Shiro in Japanese. Rin followed Shiro into his room. "What is it?" replied Rin in Japanese. Shiro closed the door behind her. "It's about Arturia... she... seems different." Rin cocked her head slightly. "In what way?" "She... she doesn't act like Saber." "You make it sound like they're two different people." "That's exactly like what it seems to me. What do you think?" Rin reviewed the past events in her mind. Finally, she voiced her opinion. "I think that... the Arturia we know now is the Arturia without the burden of Saber's past. This persona is the essence of her personality." Shiro stood deep in thought for a few seconds. "I suppose so... it still bothers me though." "Maybe it's too early to tell. She's still recovering." "Yeah. And about that... will you look after her? You know how stubborn she can be sometimes." Rin realized that Shiro was referring to the persona of the headstrong Saber. "Yeah. I'll look after her and make sure that she doesn't do anything rash." "Thanks." said Shiro gratefully. He stared at his pack and sighed. "I guess I'll have to get packing." "Okay. See you later." She nodded and left Shiro's room. ----In about half an hour, Shiro bid Arturia farewell. Rin accompanied him to the great hall to see them off. Airianne was there as well. With teary eyes, Airianne bid her mother good-bye and waved as the platform descended into the tunnel. When they could no longer see them, Airianne lowered a lever, and two stone slabs closed the mouth of the tunnel. "Why do ye close it?" asked Rin. It seemed unlikely that intruders would attack from the tunnel.
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Airianne replied, "To keep the bats out, of course." Then she turned to walk onto the carpet. Rin followed her. While they walked down the hall, Airianne declared, "Methinks, I will accept yer offer of aid." Rin recalled Airianne's grin in the kitchen yesterday. She tried to dismiss her apprehension. "How may I be of assistance?" "Well, our home is rather large and requires a lot of cleaning. And then, there's an indoor garden which I attend to." "I understand. What do ye wish me to do?" "I have a list. I will do half and ye will do the rest." She held up a pack of cards. "Winner decides the loser's chores. And let us fetch Lady Arturia. Twould be more fun with more players." Rin groaned inwardly. The loss of last night's game was still fresh. "All right. Whither will we play?" They started walking to Arturia's room. "In the sitting room." replied Airianne. When they reached Arturia's room, Airianne knocked. They entered with Arturia's permission. To their surprise, they found Arturia leaning against one of the dressers and was obviously inspecting its contents. "Thou can stand?!" exclaimed Rin who rushed to where Arturia stood. "Yea. It seemst that I can bear weight upon mine right leg. But I feel some pain when I move mine left." "That's because thy pelvis and left thigh were fractured. With thy permission, allow me to examine thee." Arturia nodded and Rin held out her hand in front of Arturia to scan. When she was done, she said in an awed voice, "Thy improvement from yesterday is astonishing. In fact, thou will not need to be bandaged anymore." "Oh. Tis well then." Although she was happy about her recovery, Arturia was a bit disappointed. "I am glad for thee." said Rin with a warm smile. "Anyway, we hath come with a proposal." Airianne explained the plan for the day. Arturia smiled with amusement. "I understand. Let us go. I am glad for an opportunity to avenge mine loss." Airianne and Rin served as Arturia's crutches. Together, they went to the sitting room. They went to a wooden square table with four chairs around it. The center of the table was inlaid with a curious pattern of lines and circles. The chairs did not match at all. Each one boasted its own unique style. Airianne pulled out a chair for Arturia and Rin helped her sit on it. She also pulled out a chair for Rin as well and Rin thanked her for it. "The pleasure is all mine." replied Airianne with a mischievous smile. She sat on a chair facing them and dealt the cards. When she was done, her face broke out into the wide grin again. "Let us begin." she said with ominous tones. ----Many games later, Rin acquired the most heinous chores on the list. Airianne had won most of the games and assigned her to clean the privies, to gather eggs from the hen cages and to sweep the eagles' tower. Arturia managed to win a couple and kindly assigned Rin to dusting the hall fixtures. Arturia also got some chores which did not require her to move about. Rin wrapped a bandanna around her head with the word 'Fight' in japanese. She would be a good loser and do a good job. With painstaking patience, she completed each chore in turn and only took a break for lunch. It was about mid-afternoon when she was ready to sweep the eagles' tower. Rin asked Airianne what it was. "Tis where birds roost. Tis located in the north tower." Airianne gave her directions to the tower. Rin followed her directions and came to an old wooden door. The words 'Twr Eryr' were engraved
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into the wood. Beside the door was a pail and a broom. Rin tugged on the door and cringed as cold air whipped into the hallway. She could hear the wind howl through the tower. The tower was about fifty feet tall and was mostly hollow except for crisscrossing beams which served as structural support for the tower. Its moss crusted stone walls were riddled with many windows. Each window was about one foot by one foot. The floor of the tower was a disgusting mess of bird droppings and pieces of unidentifiable rotting carcasses. Rin took the pail and the broom and began sweep the crud into the pail. As she swept, she heard a rustle of wings and a screech. She looked up and saw a falcon peering at her from one of the windows. She stared at the falcon and it stared back. Then the falcon turned and flew away. Since her hands were getting cold, Rin quickly finished sweeping the tower and closed the door. She dumped the trash at the nearest trash chute. After such a disgusting chore, she felt like taking a bath. The mere thought of the bath conjured up images of Arturia taking her clothes off. She shook her mind vigorously. "What's wrong with me?" she thought. "I'm acting like a pervert." She shook those images out of her mind and walked away from the disgusting tower. She passed by the kitchen on her way to the bath. Arturia was sitting at a table with sorted piles of beans and pea pods. She was scooping twigs and leaves into a basket. Her eyes lit up when she saw her. "Hast thou finished thy chores, Rhynne?" "Yea. I am now on mine way to the bath." Arturia remembered their conversation from yesterday. Now was a good time to practice cleanliness. "I am finished as well. Let me join thee in the bath." Rin took off her apron and offered her arm to Arturia. Arturia reached out to her and leaned on her as she balanced herself on her good leg. A sickly stale odor permeated from Rhynne. "Whither hast thou been?" "The eagles tower. A most despicable place. I pray that I shall ne'er sweep it again." They began to hobble towards the bath. "I, too, shall pray. This fragrance is ill suited for thee. I shall help thee restore thy sublime scent." A drop of sweat trickled down Rin's forehead and she wondered how Arturia would accomplish that. When they were ready to wash, she found out how Arturia planned to do it. To her great bewilderment, Arturia insisted on washing her back and her hair several times. Unwilling to decline, she let Arturia do as she pleased. For the next ten minutes, she submitted to Arturia's blissful torture. Rin closed her eyes as Arturia poured water to rinse her. As she rubbed the excess water from her eyes, she felt Arturia lean against her. Her soft breath tickled her ear. Her back detected the softness of Arturia's breast. Arturia let her nose check her handiwork. She sniffed next to Rhynne's ear, on the top of her head and the nape of her neck. "The foul scent is gone." she declared proudly. She moved away from Rhynne, picked up some soft soap and began to wash her own hair. At this point, Rin's fingers were pinching her nose as warm blood trickled onto her lip. Her heart was beating rapidly. A part of her wanted to release the tension that she felt inside. She stood up and ran out of the bath. She went to the privy, closed the door and screamed into the towel. Meanwhile, Arturia sat staring at the door of the bath with confusion. Her eyes wandered to where Rin sat. A small red spot on the floor caught her attention. She reached over and touched it. Her eyes grew in alarm when she recognized what it was: blood. After her nosebleed ceased, Rin wrapped the towel around her and calmly walked into the bath. "Art thou well, Rhynne? Thou left in most haste." asked Arturia in a concerned voice. "Yea. I required use of the privy." "Ah." remarked Arturia and she did not ask further out of politeness. They finished bathing and went to the dining room for dinner. Only Airianne was at the dinner table. When Rin inquired about her mother, Airianne replied that she was resting and will have her dinner later. They ate their meal with light conversation.
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Suddenly, a thought occurred to Rin. "There art a lot of chores to do. Canst ye use magic to aid ye?" "Nay. Mother forbid me to use magic." "Didst she saith why?" Airianne put her fork down. "She saith that I am not ready to use magic. I must wait until I come of age." "How old art ye?" "I hath lived here for thirty-six years e'er since I was born." Her jaw dropped and Arturia gaped at Airianne. "But... ye look so young!" stuttered Rin. "Aye. Tis because the enchantment in the Aerie keeps mine youth. Without it, mine body will fade in time." Several ideas began to click in Rin's head. She recalled Merlyn's arguments over the creation of a magic circuit. A wave of pity washed over Rin's heart when she realized the source of her logic. Merlyn had crafted Airianne into being, but at a price. The Aerie was not only her womb, but her prison as well. She could only nod her sympathy. "I understand. Anyway, what art yer plans tonight?" Airianne's grin returned to her face. "I dinna know yet. Methinks, I will let fortune decide it." By her answer, Rin knew exactly what Airianne had in mind. With a smirk, she said, "We'll have to see who fortune favors, now, won't we?" Airianne met Rin's challenge evenly. "Aye." ----"And tonight's entertainment is... Tales of Adventure!" declared Airianne. Airianne took her place in her favorite chair. "Ye will both tell me a tale of yer choosing. Begin when ye art ready." Meanwhile, Rin was staring at the pair of cards that won the game. Once again, victory was snatched from her grasp. She was jolted from her melancholy by Arturia's voice. "If I may, I shall tell mine tale from here." Airianne rotated the chair in Arturia's direction. "Please do." "A wandering minstrel told this tale in mine father's hall when I was young. I will do mine best to tell it as I hath heard it." explained Arturia. She took a deep breath and recited her tale with a rhythmic cadence. 'Of Robin Hood and his merry men, A tale to be told to thee. Cast thy cares, and listen And free thy ears for me.' Rin sat back in her chair and listened to Arturia's rising and falling voice. The rhythm of her voice mesmerized her. She had never heard Robin Hood narrated like this. She listened with rapt admiration. When her tale was done, Rin and Airianne burst into applause. "Twas well done, Lady Arturia! Ye wert a fine minstrel." clapped Airianne. "Yea. Tis the finest telling of Robin Hood that I hath e'er heard." added Rin. Arturia bowed. "Mine thanks. Thy praise is too kind. And now, I yield the stage to Rhynne." Rin stood up and went to the platform. She may have lost the game, but she will not be outdone in this arena. "Mine tale is from the far off Orient. Tis about a lady who defied the bounds of tradition and fought for the good of all. Hear me now, about the tale of Mulan." Rin accompanied her narration with sweeping gestures. With the aid of her theatrical training, she used her voice to add suspense and an aura of mystery. She utilized her aikido training to enact the action scenes. Finally, she reached the end of her story and bowed extravagantly. Airianne and Arturia clapped with equal fervor. "Amazing, Lady Rhynne! A fascinating tale!" exclaimed Airianne. "Agreed. I shall ne'er forget thy performance." said Arturia. Rin wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. "Mine thanks."
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"Come hither, Rhynne." called Arturia. Rin walked over thinking that Arturia was going to ask her to take her back to her room. Instead, Arturia pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped the sweat from her brow and from her neck. Airianne watched them in silence. Rhynne's eyes never left Arturia's face as Arturia slowly wiped her sweat away. The scene reminded her of Mama wiping Mother's face. A pang of loneliness invaded her heart. She missed her mother terribly. When she was done, Arturia took Rhynne's hand and pressed the handkerchief into her hand. "A maiden must keep her appearance prim at all times." she said with a smile. "Yea." said Rin softly, but she made no move to take her hand away. They remained still for a few moments as if the time were suspended around them. Airianne cleared her throat. "Tis been a long day. I will now retire and bid ye good night." she curtsied and hurriedly left the room. When she was out of sight, she wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her finger. She made her way to Mama's room to seek comfort in her arms. As Airianne left the room, Rin and Arturia called out, "Good night!" Then Rin faced Arturia and asked, "Shall we retire as well?" "Yea. Or... dost thou wish to play with me some more?" Rin blinked several times as her mind processed several meanings behind that question. Her sense of propriety selected the most innocent meaning. But what would they play? Her curiosity urged her to gather up her courage and find out. "Yea... I would be delighted to play with thee. Methinks, however, that Old Maid is poor a choice for a game of two." "Nine men's morris is engraved upon the table. Dost thou know how to play?" Now that Arturia mentioned it, she recognized the layout. On a whim, she learned the game at the Academy's medieval fair. "Yea." "Tis well. But first, we must find the pieces." Arturia's hands slipped under the table. "Canst thou find a drawer under the table?" Rin felt under her side of the table. "... yea." She pulled the drawer open and selected black and white pieces from the various tokens within. "Will thou have black or white?" "White. To decide who starts, each of us will draw a card. The highest card starts first." They drew cards and compared. Rin started first. She placed her pieces at the most strategic positions. She thought that she had the advantage, but when they started moving their pieces, her pieces were forced to deadlocked locations. One by one, her pieces were captured. With four pieces left, Rin knew that she lost. "I forfeit..." she admitted dejectedly. At Rhynne's crestfallen face, Arturia felt rather sad for winning. She restored the board to the state before they started moving pieces. "Thy game was well played... however..." Rin listened with rising admiration as Arturia replayed their game from memory and made comments about each move. She began to have a deeper understanding behind the strategy in the game. After her explanation, Arturia asked, "Dost thou wish to play some more?" Rin grinned at her challenge, "Yea. I hath learned from mine mistakes and wish to redeem myself." Arturia was glad to see Rhynne's smile on her face. She gave her pieces back. "Then let us increase the stakes. The one who hath the most losses shall grant the winner a boon." "All right." They drew their cards and began a new game with Arturia starting first. They continued playing until the clock tolled midnight at the middle of their sixth game. "Ah... tis late." remarked Arturia. "I enjoyed playing with thee so much that I neglected to asked thee if thou wisheth to retire." she said apologetically. "Nay. Be not, for I felt the same as well." She looked at the board. If only she could position her piece there, she might be able to win. "Shall we finish this game?" "Only if it doth not tire thee." "Nay, I am anxious to win this time."
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"So am I." Arturia slid her move. The game ended with Arturia winning. Rin sighed in defeat. "Twas well played. Shall we?" She offered her arm and helped Arturia stand up. "Ah, before I forget... hmmm... three out of two. Thou must grant me a boon." Rin gulped. "What dost thou wish for?" "Mayhap, I shall ask for it later." Arturia picked up a black piece. "Until then, I shall hold thy piece hostage." Rin exhaled with relief. If she was lucky, Arturia might forget about it. Together, they exited the sitting room and limped back to their rooms. She helped Arturia to the privy first before bringing her to her room and wishing her good night. Then she went into her room and sat on the bed. She pulled the handkerchief from her pocket and gazed at it before bringing it to her cheek. She remembered how it felt against her skin. After a few minutes, she tucked it under her shirt and resolved to keep it close to her for the rest of the night. ----The day's list lay open like a sore wound after a harsh battle. Rin slumped down onto the table. If gods existed, then she must have offended one of them. "Why... why... why?" she asked herself as she thumped her fist on the table's surface. Arturia watched Rhynne as she cradled her head with her arm on the table in defeat. She observed her with curiosity as Rhynne began to pound the table with her fist. Arturia reached towards her but stopped just before she touched her hair. She pounded the table once more and her sympathetic heart encouraged her to bridge the distance. She stroked Rhynne's head gently. "Tis but a game." consoled Arturia. "I know..." mumbled Rin. "Didst she coerce thee to participate in this game?" Rin sat up and Arturia's hand slid to rest on her shoulder. "Nay. I hath offered mine aid to her. This game is her way of assigning the tasks of the day. But... I am sore that I hath not claimed victory e'en once." "Tis but a game, and doth not reflect the strength of thy character." Rin put her hand on Arturia's and squeezed it gently. "I take comfort in thy words. Mine thanks." said Rin. She looked over Arturia's list. "What art thy chores?" Arturia picked up her list and read it. "Sweep hearth. Cut vegetables. Darn clothes." "I shall take thee to the kitchen." said Rin. She stood up and offered Arturia her arm. Arturia pulled herself up and leaned on Rhynne. As she inhaled her soft scent, Arturia smiled with satisfaction. Together, they walked slowly to the kitchen. Rhynne helped her sit near the hearth and bid her farewell. Arturia grabbed a nearby apron and put it on. She found the cinder brush and dustpan and began her chore. Suddenly, she had a feeling that she had done this before. Her bewilderment passed when she realized that she had acted out this task as Cinderella. Memories of the play and of Rhynne's acting flooded her mind and she smiled softly as she remembered Rhynne's profile. Although she wished her no ill, she secretly hoped that Rhynne would lose so that she could see her act again. Meanwhile, Rin followed Airianne's directions to the lowest level of the Aerie. Laundry and carpet cleaning where on the list. With a lit lantern before her, she descended down the stairs. Unlike the bright and warm level of the living area, the lower levels were dark, damp, cold and smelt of mold. When she reached the laundry level, she found piles of clothes, bed sheets and tablecloths. Above each pile was a hole in the ceiling. Rin took out Airianne's instructions and followed them. After each load was washed, she opened a nearby door which lead to a deck outside the Aerie. She hung the clothes on the clothesline. After she was done, she went back to the main level. There she found Airianne waving to her.
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"Lady Rhynne! Let us rest a bit and enjoy some tea." said Airianne. Rin smiled gratefully. "All right. Lead the way." Airianne led her to another enclosed garden which included a small pond with lilies floating on its surface. A modest stream gurgled out of the rock face from south corner of the garden. Arturia sat at a wooden table by the pond. Rin and Airianne took their seats while Arturia poured tea into their cups. Airianne offered Rin a slice of cream pie which she delightfully accepted. Meanwhile, Arturia helped herself to some grapes from the fruit bowl. As they were eating their pie, Airianne pulled the stem off her cherry and issued a challenge. "If ye put this cherry stem in yer mouth, can ye tie it into a knot?" "I shall find out..." Arturia picked a cherry with a long stem and put the stem in her mouth. Rin did the same. After a minute or so, Arturia stuck her tongue out to reveal a knotted stem. Airianne clapped with glee. "Amazing! Ye must be a wonderful kisser!" The cherry stem fell from Arturia's tongue while Rin almost choked on hers. She spat it out into her hand. "Why didst ye saith that, Lady Airianne?" asked Arturia with her cheeks turning slightly pink with embarrassment. "There is a saying that if one can tie a knot with a cherry stem in one's mouth, then one is a good kisser." "Preposterous! I hath ne'er heard of such a saying. Besides... e'en if it were true, I doubt I would find a use for such a talent." She lifted her tea to her lips. "Mayhap, we should test the saying." She leaned towards Arturia. With all the control at her disposal, Arturia prevented herself from spitting out her tea. "Lady Airianne!" she exclaimed with indignation. With a chuckle, Airianne sat back into her chair. "Twas merely a jest." Then her eyes glinted with mischief. "But... if ye e'er want to test it, I will aid ye." "To saith that twas a jest and to make yer offer within the same breath... ye contradict yerself." replied Arturia sullenly. Airianne raised her hands in surrender. "Please dinna be cross with me. I apologize fer mine inappropriate conduct." Arturia glared at her for a moment and then relented with a smile. "Apology accepted. Ye startled me, that's all." They laughed. With that, the cherry stem jest was forgotten, and they enjoyed the remainder of their brief respite. ----"And tonight's entertainment is... Singing!" declared Airianne. "Ye will both sing me songs until the clock strikes ten. Ye may use the instruments on yon wall." She glided over to a cabinet and opened a drawer. "Scores of many songs art stored within this cabinet. Ye may use these as well." Airianne walked to her favorite chair and sat down with great anticipation. "Begin when ye art ready." Rin groaned as she dragged her feet to the stage. "I'm stuck in a medieval form of karaoke..." she thought. She searched her mind for a simple song to sing. With an unsteady voice, she began. On top of spaghetti, All covered with cheese, I lost my poor meatball When somebody sneezed. It rolled off the table
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And onto the floor, And then my poor meatball Rolled right out the door! It rolled in a garden And under a bush Now my poor meatball Was nothing but mush The mush was as tasty As tasty could be Early next summer It grew into a tree The tree was all covered With beautiful moss It grew lovely meatballs In a tomato sauce So if you like spaghetti All covered with cheese Hold on to your meatballs And DON'T EVER SNEEZE! Rin bowed and quickly left the stage. Airianne began to giggle and finally exploded into a fit of laughter. Meanwhile, Arturia was laughing into her hand. When she managed to control herself, she rubbed the tears in her eyes. "Twas a funny song, Lady Rhynne! I dinna know what spaghetti is, but I can imagine a meatball growing into a tree." Airianne turned to Arturia. "Lady Arturia, art ye ready?" "Yea. Rhynne, canst thou fetch me yonder harp?" Rin unhooked the harp from the wall and handed it to Arturia who leaned it against her left shoulder. With lithe fingers, Arturia checked the harp's tuning. When she was satisfied, she began to strum a slow and haunting melody. She played for about twenty seconds before she allowed her voice to mingle with the melody. The notes of the harp harmonized with her resonant alto voice. [Author's note: For a reference song, listen to: Fate/stay Night Animation Original Soundtrack, Kishiou no hokori] Rin closed her eyes to listen more intently. Although she could not understand the lyrics of the song, she felt happy just listening to her singing. As she listened, an image of Arturia standing on a grassy hilltop in her armor formed in her mind. Excalibur was in front of her and its tip was plunged into the ground. Her hands rested on Excalibur's pommel. Her eyes stared beyond the grassy hilltop. Rin watched her in silence. Then Arturia turned her head to face her and called her name. "Rhynne... Rhynne..." Rin opened her eyes and sat up. Her eyes alighted on Arturia's concerned face. "Oh, is it mine turn?" asked Rin. "Yea... but thou seemeth to fall asleep. Art thou tired?" "Nay... thy song enthralled mine heart so much that its melody lingered on within me and I remaineth enraptured." "Oh." said Arturia with her cheeks turning a slight shade of pink. "Thy praise is too kind." Rin smiled a bit as she made her way to the stage. She consoled herself that having to sing in front of an audience was a small price to pay to hear Arturia sing.
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The farmer in the dell, The farmer in the dell, Hi-ho, the derry-o, The farmer in the dell. The farmer takes a wife, The farmer takes a wife, Hi-ho, the derry-o, The farmer takes a wife. The wife takes a child, The wife takes a child, Hi-ho, the derry-o, The wife takes a child. The child takes a nurse, The child takes a nurse, Hi-ho, the derry-o, The child takes a nurse. The nurse takes the cow, The nurse takes the cow, Hi-ho, the derry-o, The nurse takes the cow. The cow takes a dog, The cow takes a dog, Hi-ho, the derry-o, The cow takes a dog. The dog takes a cat, The dog takes a cat, Hi-ho, the derry-o, The dog takes a cat. The cat takes a rat, The cat takes a rat, Hi-ho, the derry-o, The cat takes a rat. The rat takes the cheese, The rat takes the cheese, Hi-ho, the derry-o, The rat takes the cheese. The cheese stands alone, The cheese stands alone, Hi-ho, the derry-o, The cheese stands alone. Rin bowed herself off the stage and hurried over to table to sit. Airianne clapped her hands politely and quickly turned her attention to Arturia. Arturia smiled, closed her eyes and lifted those nimble fingers to stroke the harp's strings. A soothing melody issued forth from the harp. After the intro, Arturia's voice weaved its way into the melody. Rin closed her eyes once more to enjoy the song. For the rest of the evening, she stuck to her strategy of singing simple songs and sitting back to enjoy Arturia's. Finally, a deep resonant chime issued forth from the clock in the sitting room to announce the hour of ten. They bid each other good night. As Rin and Arturia hobbled their way to their rooms, Arturia's voice rang in her mind and she absentmindedly hummed one of her songs.
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Suddenly, Arturia's clear voice sang the matching lyrics near her ear. Rin stopped humming in surprise. "Why didst thou stop?" "Uh... I didst not realize that I hath hummed thy song, so I was not expecting to hear thee sing it." When they reached Arturia's room, Rin helped her sit on the bed. "Wouldst thou like to hear more songs?" asked Arturia. Rin's face lit up. "Y-- yea! If... if thou art not tired, that is..." Arturia patted the bed with her right hand. "Please sit comfortably." After Rin was seated, Arturia closed her eyes and began another song. Her voice echoed through the chamber and added a pleasant resonance to the song. Rin closed her eyes to listen as well. The image of the green valley below the Academy formed in her mind. As she listened to the song, the softness of the bed tempted her. Absentmindedly, Rin leaned sideways to lie on her left side and rested her head on the crook of her arm. As she followed the song, she imagined herself climbing down a grassy slope and walking across a meadow. An apple tree beckoned her with its cool shade and she walked over to sit against its trunk. The grass in the meadow bent like waves as a stiff breeze passed by. The song complemented the serenity that she felt as she gazed across the meadow. Soon, she lost herself within the song and let herself drift away. After Arturia finished the song, she glanced over at Rhynne. She nudged her gently and then again. Since there was no reaction from Rhynne, she reclined beside her and crept close enough to confirm the slow breathing of sleep. Arturia smiled with amusement. As she watched Rhynne sleep, she tried to decide whether she should wake her up or not. Suddenly, Rhynne's fingers on her right hand twitched. Arturia stared at her hand which was resting between her and Rhynne. She gently lifted the hand and turned it to look at her palm. She brought her left palm next to Rhynne's hand. The marks were not there, but she could feel a slight tingle in her left palm. She interlaced their fingers together. She wanted to see more of that vision. She wanted to know Rhynne's connection with that vision. With those thoughts in mind, she pressed their palms firmly together. Suddenly, she felt herself swallowed up in darkness and then standing on her feet to see a dark hallway. Someone was standing next to her. It was Syrowe but he was younger and not as tall. The construction of the hall was similar to the room that she had seen, but the floor was made out of polished wood instead of mats. They walked to a paneled door which Syrowe slid open. He stepped into the room and pressed something on the wall. Light from the ceiling flooded the room and she beheld a most horrifying sight. Blood splattered like paint on the wall across the room. Rhynne sat leaning against that wall in a puddle of blood. Blood trickled down her forehead and painted half her face in gruesome crimson streams. Even her red shirt could not fail to hide the blood that seeped into the cloth. Half the silver cross embroidered on her shirt was also dyed red. As she stared in horror, Rhynne opened her eyes which lit up when they met her own. Her lips slowly drew into a smile of relief. And then, the vision faded to reform into another one of Rhynne gripping her wrist in a very awkward position which caused her joints to scream in pain for being stretched beyond their range of motion. Her eyes focused to meet Rhynne's stern gaze. When Rin felt Arturia's resistance drop, she released her grip on her wrist. Arturia's hand plopped down on the bed. Concerned that she overdid the wristlock, she scanned Arturia's wrist. The wrist was within normal parameters, and she sighed with relief. Her gaze returned to Arturia's eyes which stared at her blankly. "Arturia..." Rin called out. Arturia blinked her eyes several times. "Rhynne... I... I..." Her voice was a rasp whisper. "Dost thou feel pain?" "Nay..." replied Arturia. Rin stood up. "I fear that I underestimated how tired I was, and thus hath been a rude audience. Please allow me retire to bed. Good night." She quickly left the room and closed the door behind her.
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She went to her room and threw herself onto the bed. And then she lifted her right hand to scrutinize her palm. She could still feel the mana converging upon the mark. She closed her hand and hoped that Arturia did not see anything that would give her secret away. ----They greeted each other that morning as if last night's incident did not happen. Then they met Airianne in the dining hall to have breakfast. After breakfast was done and the dishes put away, Rin steeled herself for the next round of games. However, Airianne declared, "There will be no chores today. Today is a day of study." "Study? What will ye study?" asked Rin. "Magic, history, or whatever Mama tells me to study." replied Airianne. "Ye art free to do as ye wish. The sitting room hath games, scrolls and instruments. Use them as ye will. Or... ye can wander about in town. Just tell me an appointed time for yer return and I will open the passage." "Whither dost ye study?" asked Arturia. "In the library or sometimes in Mama's room since she tires easily." Rin's eyes lit up at the word library. As a mage, she was curious to know what Merlyn kept in her library. "I would be interested to see yer library." "If ye wish, I shall take ye there." said Airianne. "Studying won't be so lonely if there art other people about." Together, they made there way to the library. It was a large sunlit hall like the great hall. Rin and Arturia gaped in awe at the sight of many bookcases and cabinets suspended in the air. Large maps where also suspended in the air as well. Along the walls were tables and chairs. On each corner of the room was a small room with a door. Rin went to the nearest table and helped Arturia sit. "Lady Airianne, how dost ye travel to yonder bookcases?" inquired Rin with a sense of wonder. Airianne went to a pedestal about halfway to the center of the room. She placed her hand on a large crystal ball and said, "Apprentice spells, high level." Several bookcases weaved their way toward the floor and settled unto the floor in equidistant rows. Airianne walked to a bookcase. "Ye touch the crystal and say what ye wisheth to find." She pulled out a crudely bound book and held it out for Rin to see. "The books will come to ye." Rin walked over to read the inscription on the book. The words 'Prentis swyn' were brushed on the cover in large black letters. "In which tongue art the words writ?" "Welsh." "I see. Art all the books writ in Welsh?" "Nay. If ye wisheth to find a book in a certain tongue, ye only need to ask fer it." Airianne went back to the crystal ball and said, "Bryton History in common". A bookshelf landed on the floor. On it, several books glowed silver. Airianne pulled out a glowing book and showed it Rhynne. "Canst ye read it?" Rin took the book, glanced the cover and leafed through its contents. "Yea." she replied with relief. "Art we allowed to peruse yer library?" "Aye, peruse as much as ye desire." Rin's face broke into a wide smile. "Mine thanks." She went to the crystal ball and requested, "Curses and charms, in common." A bookcase landed on the floor and Rin walked toward it in great anticipation. Meanwhile, Airianne walked over to Arturia. "Doth ye wish to read a book?" "Mayhap, later. But I wish to speak to ye privately." Airianne cocked an eyebrow in curiosity. "All right, let us go to yonder room." They hobbled over to the nearest corner and entered the room. Airianne helped Arturia sit and then locked the door. "What is on yer mind?" she asked. "Methinks, that thy prank hath gone too far." said Arturia sternly.
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"What prank?" asked Airianne innocently. "Ye chose that chair and bid Rhynne to sit upon it. She hath sat upon it e'er since and hath ne'er won a single game." accused Arturia with a rising tone of anger. She would not let Airianne deny it. Airianne assessed Arturia thoughtfully for a few moments. "She chose to sit on it." she countered. "She can't read Welsh. I doubt she wouldst sit upon it if she read the inscription on the chair." "Ye dinna warn her." "I just found out yesterday afternoon." "Then tell her." "Nay. I insist that ye apologize." "Why? Tis but a game." The images of Rhynne laboring under her assigned chores flashed in Arturia's mind. The image was followed by the incident where Rhynne had fainted and bled in the wagon. Then an image of red spot on the white marble floor came next. Finally, the horrible vision of Rhynne in that bloodstained room filled her mind. "Rhynne may look healthy, but she hath been harboring the ill effects of a grievous wound taken in the past. She hath deceived us with her cheer and charming smile. E'en though she was weak of heart, she accepted her chores without question and bravely finished them though her body plagued her." At this point, Airianne's eyes brimmed with tears. "I dinna know! Oh, poor Lady Rhynne! What hath I done? Hath I worsened her malady?" Arturia was moved by the sincerity of Airianne's remorse. "Methinks not." It felt odd to console someone she was scolding. "But I beseech ye to assign her lighter chores. And, ye employed foul means to wrest victory in our games. In the spirit of fair play, I beseech ye again to reveal thy prank and apologize." Airianne wiped her tears with her handkerchief. "Aye... I will do both. And I will ask Mother to examine Rhynne for her malady. Mayhap, she can yet be cured." "Twould be well if Merlyn can lend her aid." said Arturia. "And one more thing, tis mine belief that she wouldst prefer to display a front of good health than cause us worry. If she knew that we knew about her malady, she wouldst further her efforts to hide it." "Oh, how noble!" wailed Airianne into her handkerchief. "Yea. Thus we must take steps to insure that she doth not overwhelm herself." "Aye. I shall keep yer words in mind." said Airianne as she dried even more tears. "I must thank ye fer unmasking mine prank and fer taking me into yer confidence. I shall go now and apologize to Lady Rhynne." "Pray, abide a moment and dry yer tears. She might be alarmed to see yer pretty face wrought with sorrow." "Aye..." Airianne took a seat next to Arturia. ----Meanwhile, Rin was busy pouring over several books of magic. So far, she had not found any topic that was not covered in a book in some way or another. She was reading a book on elemental summoning when Airianne approached her. Airianne cleared her throat. "Lady Rhynne, I must tell ye something." "What is it?" "Th-- the reason why ye hath not won a game... well... tis because..." Rin's eyebrows went up a bit. "Because...?" "...because the chair that ye sit upon is cursed." Rin's jaw dropped. "Cursed?! How?" "Tis enchanted with a spell of misfortune. Whoe'er sits in it will have ill luck." "So that it explains it..." said Rin. Suddenly, a thought occurred to her. "Why do ye keep such a
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chair?" "The spell is engraved upon its back. There art mages who would challenge the spell's power and some who overlook the spell only to fall prey to mine Mother's games. Mother would often invite visiting mages to sit in it just to observe their reaction." Airianne's face melted into a mischievous grin. "Do ye care to guess how many mages dinna bother to look at the chair?" "Half?" "Nay. O'er two-thirds." "Really?" The fact amused Rin and she chuckled. Airianne giggled with her. "And... so... I must apologize fer letting ye sit in the chair." said Airianne as she looked down on the floor. Arturia's words echoed in her mind. "Tis only a game." said Rin, accepting the apology. "And one more thing... I must also apologize fer giving ye the most difficult chores." Rin stared in confusion as Airianne seemed to be in the verge of tears. "Tis of no matter. I hath promised ye mine aid, and am glad to assist ye." Airianne seemed even more sadder. "But if the chore doth tax yer strength, ye must stop and rest! Nay, ye must call me and let me assist ye." Rin blinked in confusion. "Yea... I shall call upon ye if need be." "Ye promise?" "Yea. I promise." Airianne bowed deeply. "Mine thanks, Lady Rhynne, fer all yer aid! Since I cannae use magic, an extra pair of hands is most welcome! And now, if ye excuse me, I shall resume mine studies." Airianne curtsied and left. For a few moments, Rin sat contemplating the conversation that just took place. It was so baffling to see Airianne so distressed. Since she could not make any sense out of her behavior, she put her thoughts aside and resumed her reading. After devouring a chapter's worth of spells, Rin detected some movement at the edge of her peripheral vision. She looked over and saw Arturia limping towards her by using the rows of tables for support. In one arm, she carried a book. Rin rushed to her side to help her. "Please call upon me if thou require assistance. I will be glad to offer mine aid." Arturia took her arm. "Thou wert so engrossed by thy book. Twould be a shame to disturb thee." "Thy health is more important than a book." A slight shade of pink colored Arturia's cheeks. "I hath come to thee with a proposal." "A proposal?" repeated Rin with confusion. In a flash, her mind associated the word with 'marriage'. She quickly brushed away that thought. "What kind of proposal?" "Airianne tells me that this library hath more books in Welsh than in common. Therefore, I propose to teach thee Welsh so that thou may read such books." Rin's face brightened at the prospect of being able to study more magic. She was even more delighted that Arturia would be her teacher. "I am so elated by thy offer, that I know not what to say." "Yea would be a good answer." Rin helped her sit on a chair at the table where she was studying. She slid her chair next to Arturia's and sat. "Yea. I will be honored to receive thy instruction." Rhynne's glowing face reflected on her own and she was happy to be able to help Rhynne with her studies. Arturia set the book down between her and Rhynne and opened it to first page. "Then let us begin thy lesson." ----Arturia reached over and flicked the arrow with her finger. With bated breath, they watched the arrow spin. Eventually, it slowed down to rest on "Tales of Horror".
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Rin sat back and cracked her knuckles. Tonight was her kind of night. Airianne went to the stage and told a tale about leprechaun who tricked people into giving him their gold. A young man fell for his trap and tried to get revenge by stealing the leprechaun's gold pot. He succeeded, but the leprechaun found out and chased him all over the countryside. He suffered many wounds as he tried to escape the leprechaun's wrath. With the help of a soothsayer, he lured the leprechaun to an enchanted well where the leprechaun fell in and was trapped. As the young man looked into the well, he heard the leprechaun say: I'll not rest 'til I have me gold. Curse this well where me soul shall dwell, 'Til I find me magic that breaks the spell. The young man hurriedly left the country, never to pass near that well again. Rin and Arturia clapped as Airianne bowed at the end of her tale. After Airianne was seated, Rin grinned wickedly as she walked over to the stage. Before she started her tale, she snapped her fingers and the lights of the lamps dimmed. "Tis a tale from mine land." declared Rin with ominous tones. "One dark night, a young traveler found a young woman, crying and forlorn by the side of a road. He attempted to console the young woman and offered his assistance. The young woman stopped crying and turned to face him. The young man jumped back in horror to see the blank countenance of a faceless ghost." For effect, Rin conjured up an image of the young woman's face. Airianne and Arturia gasped in horror. Rin continued. "Frightened, the young man ran as fast as he could until he came across a food stall. The young man peeked in. Although the cook had his back to him, he welcomed the young man and asked him what he wanted to eat. The young man was relieved to meet a real person and sat down for a meal. He told the cook his tale about the young woman. When he was finished, the cook announced that his meal was ready. He turned around to deliver his meal. He, too, had no face." Airianne shut her eyes and cradled her head while Arturia's hand leapt up to cover her mouth. Her eyes betrayed her shock. As the tale went on, Rin described how the young man met people on that lonely road and how each person showed him a blank face. "The young man ran and ran until dawn began to break. By then, he was exhausted. To quench his thirst, he stopped at a nearby pond. He knelt by the water's edge to scoop some water, but he stopped as he beheld his own reflection. He, too, had no face." Rin paused for effect before she bowed. "The End." Airianne and Arturia sat still for a few seconds. Then they clapped politely at her tale. "Me-- methinks, I will now retire. Good night." said Airianne. "Good night." replied Arturia and Rin at the same time. Rin added with a smug smile, "Pleasant dreams." Airianne's face blanched at the thought. "And to ye as well." She curtsied slightly and quickly exited the sitting room without her usual grace. Arturia and Rin limped their way to their rooms. From time to time, Rin noticed that Arturia would glance at her face. She smiled evilly to herself. When they reached Arturia's room, Rin helped Arturia sit on her bed. As she was about to leave, Arturia grabbed her wrist. Rin turned to face her. "What is it?" Arturia kept her head bowed. Before she could control herself, a subconscious impulse compelled her to grab Rin before she left. After the previous night's incident, she felt awkward talking to Rhynne. She did not know what to say to explain why she grabbed her. Rin looked at Arturia's bowed form. Her eyes followed Arturia's arm to the hand that grabbed her wrist. A strange thought began to form in her mind. "No way... the king of knights is afraid of a faceless
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ghost story?" she thought incredulously. Rin waited for Arturia to say something but she remained silent. It was hard to believe that this young lady holding her wrist would be afraid of a simple ghost story. But perhaps, for now, that was all it was. At the moment, Arturia was just a young lady who grabbed her wrist. Rin almost felt sorry for telling the tale. Rin sat next to her. "Dost thou wish me to stay till sleep beckoned thee?" Arturia looked up, her eyes wide with surprise. "I... that is... if thou wisheth to stay... thou art welcome to..." she stuttered and blushed. "I will go now to change mine clothes. I shall be back anon." Arturia nodded and Rin went to her own room to change. When she returned, she saw that Arturia had changed as well and was lying on the side of the bed furthest from the door. Rin doused the candles and closed the curtains around the bed. Then she crawled onto the bed and sat on the unoccupied side. She looked over at Arturia and met her eyes as she lay on her side. "Sleep now. I will stay." said Rin. Arturia smiled at her assurance. She closed her eyes. Rin leaned on the headboard. To pass the time, she tried to remember her Welsh lessons. However, Arturia's shocked face kept popping up from time to time. Her lips tugged to a smile in amusement. After a while, she checked her watch and noted that about thirty minutes had passed. She looked over at Arturia and was convinced that she was asleep. Rin carefully made her way to the edge of the bed and pulled back the heavy velvet curtains to stand. "Thou promised..." came Arturia's voice behind her. Rin turned around slowly to find Arturia propped up on her elbow. Her large eyes seemed to plead silently. Then Arturia sat up and pulled the covers aside. "The bed... is large enough for two." said Arturia. Rin blushed. She laid down on her back and rested her head on the pillow. "Yea. It is." Arturia pulled the covers over Rhynne and laid down to face her. Rin noticed that Arturia was facing her. Once again, she felt more self-conscious and turned away so that Arturia could not see her face. However, she could still sense Arturia watching her. Arturia's face melted into disappointment as Rhynne turned away. Her behavior caused her to think that Rhynne was still upset over the previous night's incident. At least, she decided to stay which was enough for now. Even if the dreams come, she was not alone tonight. She closed her eyes to sleep. ----It hurt. Several parts of her body were screaming in pain. But she ignored it. In battle, there was no time to deal with pain. She braced her sword and impaled a soldier. A hastily raised shield deflected a blow to her head. She put her foot on the soldier's stomach and pushed him off her blade. The soldier slid and fell on his back, his blank face declared his demise. She whirled about and decapitated another soldier. The head rolled and stopped a few feet away with its blank face turned to the sky. The onslaught continued and the bodies of men with blank faces piled up around her. Someone called her name. She turned to meet her new challenger. A knight wearing a helm attacked her with a wide silver blade. She met her charge and they exchanged blows that would have felled a lesser knight. Finally, she found an opening and cut down to split the helm in half. The helm fell away to reveal not a blank face, but a face similar to her own. Arturia woke up with a start. It was yet another dream about another battle. Cold sweat trickled down her brow and she wiped it on her sleeve. She quickly groped the covers on the other side of the bed. Her hands confirmed Rhynne's sleeping form. She sighed with relief and slipped back under the covers. Her hands crept towards Rhynne until she located her arm. She snuggled closer until she could smell Rhynne's familiar scent on her nightgown. She closed her eyes again and hoped for dreamless sleep.
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----Airianne paced up and down the dining room. They were late and breakfast was getting cold. Finally, she decided to check on them. She went to Arturia's room first and knocked. When she heard no response, she carefully opened the door and peeped in. The bed still had its curtains drawn. Airianne grinned mischievously. She would give her a nice wake up call. She tiptoed to the bed and pulled the curtain aside to shout her morning greeting. But the sight on the bed surprised her enough to catch her voice in her throat. "So... ye did want to share yer bed." she thought wryly. She restored the curtains and tiptoed out of the room to let Arturia sleep in Rhynne's embrace.

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Chapter 7: Teacher
The round crystal on her hand sparked into life and a face formed within it. "Hail Bedwyr Bedrydant ap Bedrawt." Merlyn's voiced echoed from within the crystal. "Hail Myrddin Emrys." responded Bedivere. "How art ye?" Bedivere hesitated for a moment before replying, "I am well." Merlyn peered at her. "Stubborn lass. Ask Rhynne to treat yer wounds when ye return." "Tis but a scratch." "A scratch?! Yer arm's broken!" "I've had worse." With a tinge of pity, Merlyn understood the meaning behind Bedivere's statement. If only she had been nearby, she might have healed her or at least tried to. "Anyway, see Rhynne. She healed Arturia, so she can heal ye." "Arturia! Is she alive?" "Aye." Bedivere crossed herself. "Thank heavens!" "Dinna go riding away yet. I must speak with ye." A thundercloud formed on Bedivere's face. "I am sore with thee, Merlyn. Thou left me behind and led me on a merry chase." "Ye wert drunk." "I can still ride." "Unless yer horse grows wings, ye cannae keep up with me." "Thou should have left me a message." "I did. Airianne gave it to ye." "..." It was futile to argue with her. "Be quick now." she demanded. "I wish to see Arturia in all haste." "Mine apologies, lass. I have much to tell ye. Sit." said Merlyn firmly. Bedivere selected a smooth rock and sat on it. Meanwhile, Merlyn conjured an image of Rhynne and Syrowe in the crystal. "Have ye seen these two?" A veil was lifted from her mind and Bedivere sucked in her breath. "The Saxon spyes! What of it?" "Nay. They're not spyes. They're from the future." "The future? How is that possible?" "Yon lass managed to do it." "Why art they here?" Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. Merlyn chuckled. "Would ye believe that they came all this way to visit her?" "Visit? How didst they meet her?" "I can show ye the boy's memories. Do ye want to see?" Bedivere nodded. "Yea." "Ye will feel a bit strange, but it will pass. And whatever happens, dinna drop the crystal! Tis a fam56

ily heirloom." Bedivere cradled the crystal securely on her lap. "Proceed, old friend." "Brace yerself..." Suddenly, Bedivere felt a sense of vertigo. The forest blurred away and was replaced by a vision of a wooden house. Someone was attacking her. She ran around the house and made her way outside. The moon shone brightly and she got a glimpse of her attacker. It was an Erisch warrior. She ran into a barn and grabbed a piece of metal. Desperately, she parried the warrior's attacks, but her efforts were in vain. And then, when all seemed lost, a flash of light blinded the warrior. A figure blurred within the light and attacked the warrior. Her eyes grew in recognition of that familiar form. Arturia stood in her armor before her and said, "Servant Saber. Upon your summoning, I have come forth. I ask you, are you my master?" Meanwhile, Merlyn monitored the progress of the memory spell. There was no sign of Syrowe's resistance to the spell. She sensed that he was still asleep. She maintained the spell until Bedivere saw Syrowe's memories of arriving in the lake. Then she released the spell and waited for Bedivere to return to her senses. "How do ye feel?" asked Merlyn. "Weary... and thirsty." replied Bedivere with a shudder. Some of the images that she saw unnerved her. She noticed the slant of the shadows on the ground. "How much time hath passed?" "About three hours. So... yer thoughts?" With an incredulous voice, she exclaimed, "I can not believe that she kissed him!" Merlyn sighed in exasperation. "Besides that... anything else?" Bedivere thought for a moment. "Twas disturbing to know how Arturia felt about her life." "Aye. I agree with ye." She paused. "Is there truth in his memories?" "Methinks so... but I will put it to test." "How?" "In two days, the lords will meet in Camelot. If his memories art true, then the decisions of the lords will match the history in his memories." Bedivere nodded in comprehension. "Will thou be there?" "Aye. The boy and me will be there. And then we journey north. I hath reports of Saxon attacks on villages. But, methinks a mage hath a hand in it." "Why dost thou think so?" "Before the battle, I examined a village that was supposedly attacked by Saxons." Merlyn's face darkened. "Some of those folk died by magical means. The cuts on their bodies wert made after they died. Tis a challenge to me, for to leave the remains of their spell is an invitation to find them. I can see the pattern of their mana. So I wish to search this other village to see if I might find the same. Since I will be busy, someone needs to watch over Arturia's progress. I need someone who knows her very well." "Be at ease. I shall watch her well." "Good, good. And make sure ye greet her properly. I want to know if she has Avalon." "Avalon? Was it returned to her?" Bedivere asked excitedly. "I dinna sense it on her person. But methinks that it is somewhere nearby. Arturia's healing is not natural. Tis as if mana is trickling into her body and is being used to heal her. Methinks Syrowe has it, but I cannae find it on his person. So I want yer opinion. Call upon me again at this time." "Very well. I shall do so without fail." "Good. And beware of Rhynne. She hides her strength. Tis difficult to sense her attack. Take care not to rouse her temper." "Is the boy dangerous as well?" "Yea. E'en more so. He is likened to a sword waiting for its first cut. Most magicians hide their magic, but he dinna bother to mask his magic. In the realm of magic, his aura shines like a candle in the dark."
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"Art there moths who would flock to his light?" A conspiratorial smile etched itself on Merlyn's face. "Aye." "Will they test his mettle?" "Possibly." "Thou art cruel sometimes." chided Bedivere. She stood up. "I am hungry. Was there anything else?" "Nay. Ye may go. I shall tell ye more tomorrow. Dinna forget to cancel the spell." "Yea. I will do so." "Mine thanks, Bedivere. Fare ye well." Merlyn's image faded, and the light in the crystal dispersed in small sparkles. Bedivere deposited the crystal in its padded velvet pouch. Then she removed the runes set into the stone boulders in the proper order and put the runes in the same pouch as the crystal. She mounted her horse and galloped back to the mine. ----They finished another day of lessons and headed towards the dining room for dinner. As they approached the dining room, they heard Airianne speaking to someone. When they entered the room, Airianne's visitor turned to greet them. "Hail Arturia." Bedivere raised her right hand about the level of her heart for the customary courtly greeting. Arturia paused as images began to flood her mind and a name rose up from those images. Her eyes widened in recognition. She transferred the staff to her left hand and reached out to clasp Bedivere's hand in hers in reply. "Hail Bedwyr Bedrydant ap Bedrawt." Then Bedivere took a step to stand close to Arturia and bent to kiss her fully on the lips. Arturia's first reaction was to push Bedivere away, but a feeling of nostalgia swept over her and she let it wash away her resistance. With her mouth ajar, Rin gaped at them in shocked silence while Airianne looked on with a bemused expression. An eternity seemed to pass before Bedivere pulled away and released Arturia's hand. "Mine heart soars to see that thou hath survived the battle." said Bedivere. Her expression softened with concern. "How art thy injuries?" Arturia shifted the staff to adjust her balance. "Thanks to Rhynne, I will be fully recovered within a week." "Then thou must introduce me to her so that I may show mine thanks." Arturia gestured to Rhynne. "Tis Rhynne. Rhynne, tis mine dear friend, Bedivere." "Milady, I am pleased to make thy acquaintance." Bedivere knelt in front of her and held out her hand palm up. She tried to keep an impassive face. Their last encounter was still fresh in her mind. Merlyn was right. At that time, she did not even detect Rhynne's attack. But what disturbed her even more was the way that Arturia addressed Rhynne. Leaving out the formal salutation was an indication that she was no longer a mere acquaintance to her. Meanwhile, Rin's mind was still stuck on the word 'dear'. She tried to discern Arturia's relationship to Bedivere with that word. Since Rhynne did not reply to Bedivere's greeting, Arturia assumed that Rhynne did not know how to respond. She whispered in her ear. "Give her thy hand to kiss." Arturia's voice jolted her out of her thoughts. Without thinking, she put out her hand. Bedivere took her hand in hers and kissed it gently. Her lips lingered upon her skin just slightly longer than necessary. Then, without letting go of her hand, she stood up, looked into her eyes and spoke with utmost sincerity. "Know that thou hast obtained mine gratitude for thy aid rendered to mine dearest friend. I am in thy debt. If e'er tis in mine power to grant thee a boon, thou only saith so." Rin's face blushed in embarrassment and because of Bedivere's closeness. For a moment, Rin felt like
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she was in a fairy tale cast as a damsel in distress who was rescued by a dashing knight. Bedivere fit the part of the knight so well with her tall noble figure, her earnest steely gray eyes, her angular face and her thin lips which drew to a tight roguish smile. She tried to convince herself that the beating of her heart was due to the nervousness of being so close to someone who almost attacked her. Once again, Rhynne did not reply as expected. She merely stood there, gazing at Bedivere. Arturia cleared her throat. As if released from a spell, Rin blurted out, "I... I am pleased to meet thee as well." She withdrew her hand and took a step back. Bedivere radiated a dangerous kind of charm. She did not want to fall for that kind of charm. Airianne cleared her throat. "Before I serve dinner, methinks there is a matter to attend to." Bedivere stiffened slightly. Merlyn must have told her about her injury. She did not want to ask Rhynne and did not look forward to it. "Yea. Bedivere, thou must bathe." remarked Arturia. "Thou reekest of horse and sweat. And, is it not saith that the cleanliness of the body reflects the cleanliness of the spirit?" Bedivere's eyes lit up at Arturia's unexpected intervention. "Yea. I will do so anon." Airianne cast Bedivere a stern gaze. "Should anything else be done before bathing?" A sigh of resignation escaped from Bedivere's lips. She knelt in front of Rhynne again and began to unclasp her riding cloak. She removed the two silver rosaries that held the front flaps together. "Milady, Merlyn hath informed me of thy skill in healing. And now, I must implore thee to bend thy skill upon mine person for I hath been slightly wounded in battle." The cloak fell away to reveal her left shoulder and arm. All three of them gasped at the sight of her injuries. Her tunic was starched stiff by dried blood. Her forearm bore a crude splint. But what shocked Rin and Airianne the most was the absence of her left hand. 'Slightly wounded' was obviously an understatement. Rin knelt beside her and quickly did a scan. Her left shoulder blade was fractured and several muscles were severed. Her upper arm was fractured and her left forearm was splintered in several places. The wrist, however, indicated a very old injury. A surge of pity rose within her and she wondered when it happened. Even though there were signs that she received some basic first aid, she should be bedridden from the pain. Rin could only guess that the crusty residue under her bandages might be some form of pain reliever. After the scan, she spoke to Bedivere. "I will need to clean thy wounds and set thy bones. Before that, I will prepare a draught for thee to drink to lessen the pain whilst I set thy bones. Since thy wounds hath closed, thou can bathe, but only briefly. I will bandage thy wounds first to repulse water." Airianne stepped forward. "If ye instruct me, I can prepare the draught in yer stead." "Yea, tis a simple method." replied Rin. Airianne provided a piece of parchment and a quill. Rin wrote down the instructions for the potion and handed it to Airianne. "Mine thanks. Let me know when tis ready." "Aye." Airianne left the room to prepare the potion. Arturia, Bedivere and Rin headed for the bath. Along the way, Rin grabbed her medicine kit and bandages from her room. When they reached the bath, Arturia and Rin helped Bedivere remove her armor and clothes. Bedivere undid her hair and let it fall. Rin gasped in admiration of Bedivere's almost naked body. Her cascading flaxen yellow hair softened the angles of her face. The slant of her gray eyes accentuated an image of an aristocratic lady. She was so endowed that Rin wondered where she could contain her breasts in that confining armor. Her tall slim body was muscular but she carried herself with grace and poise. However, her skin was streaked with light scars: the signs of countless battles. The scars adorned her like scratches on a glass sculpture. She reminded Rin of an amazon warrior, beautiful and deadly. Arturia unrolled the bandages and waited for Rhynne's instruction. However, Rhynne just stood there staring at Bedivere. The expression on her face betrayed her awe. She had never seen that kind of reaction from Rhynne. It amused her and confused her at the same time. Meanwhile, Bedivere stood in front
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of them with an air of calm patience. Tentatively, she touched Rhynne's arm. "Rhynne..." she called out. Arturia's voice shook her out her enthrallment. She picked up a washcloth with sanitizing alcohol on it. "I shall clean thy arm. The cloth hath tonic on it that may cause discomfort. Please endure it." "Worry not, Milady. I bear pain well." Rin did not doubt that statement. Bedivere showed no sign of being injured when they first met. She cleaned around the wounds to remove dried blood. Then she took the bandages from Arturia and bound them around her arm and shoulder. She poured some body oil on her hands and spread it on the bandages. "Thou may bathe now, but do not soak in yonder pool. When thou scrub and rinse, avoid thy left arm." instructed Rhynne. "Yea, I understand." replied Bedivere. "Let me assist thee in bathing." said Arturia. Bedivere faced Arturia and replied, "As thou wish. Shall I help thee undress?" Arturia nodded and Bedivere knelt before her to remove her shoes and hose. A surge of panic rose in Rin. She had forgotten that Bedivere knew that Arturia was the king. She could have sworn that Bedivere bowed slightly as if to acknowledge a command from a superior. How did Bedivere find them? Did Merlyn know that she is here? The questions nagged at Rin and a drop of sweat trickled on her forehead. Bedivere assisted Arturia to a stool next to the waterspout and sat with her back towards her. Arturia wet a washcloth and began wiping Bedivere's back. Bedivere's eyes widened with surprise. She and Arturia had bathed together before, but Arturia never scrubbed like this. It felt very pleasant. In fact, it felt so sensual that she was glad that Arturia offered to help her bathe. At the sight of Arturia wiping Bedivere's back, Rin felt a spark of jealousy. The kiss in the dining room flashed in her mind. She moved away silently and left the bath quietly. She went to her room and threw herself on the bed. Her heart was in turmoil. It made sense. Arturia had a lover. At first, she thought it was Guinevere, but that kiss showed it was Bedivere. She put her hands over her face and emptied her mind. She emptied herself to forget. But who was she anyway? She did not have anything to claim. She was not even her master. Shiro had snagged that prize and her attempt to force him to surrender his command seals failed. A wistful sigh escaped from her lips. When she asked him if he had gotten over the war, he said that he had. The conviction in his voice convinced her of his truthfulness. As she lay on her down-feathered bed inside an enchanted mountain fortress, Rin realized the irony of her question. In the end, she was the one who did not get over it. She was the one who could not let go. She curled up in a ball. She would have to go home anyway. There was no reason for her to feel this way. But a part of her had hoped. She punched her bed with her fist. No, it was too much to hope. The time she spent with her would be enough. It had to be enough. Rin willed herself to stand. Airianne should have finished the potion by now. She dragged herself to the kitchen. ----They assembled in the kitchen. Rin instructed Bedivere to drink the potion and to lie upon the long kitchen table. Bedivere did so. Rin removed the bandages and laid her arm on the table's surface. She spread numbing ointment on a wound and opened it with a surgical knife. Blood and pus oozed out and Rin squeezed the wound gently to let the blood bleed out the infected area. When she was satisfied, she applied some antiseptic and cast a spell to accelerate its healing. Then she bandaged the wound. She did the same for the other wounds. "Art thou sleepy?" asked Rin.
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"Yea... is it the effect of the draught?" "Yea. Now thy body is prepared for me. I will now set thy bones." "Please proceed." Rin started with her forearm. She cast a spell to align the bone fragments and pulled at the arm to give them space to fall in place. Once in place she cast another spell to keep them there and bound her arm with a splint. She did the same for the upper arm and shoulder blade. Bedivere gritted her teeth. Something was moving inside her arm and she restrained herself from flinching in pain. When she was finished, Rin wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. "Tis done!" she declared with relief. Suddenly, she felt a piece of cloth touch her temple. She turned slowly to face its owner. Arturia calmly wiped the sweat from her forehead. When she was done, she pressed the handkerchief into Rhynne's hand. "Thou must remember to carry one and use it." Rin closed her hand upon Arturia's. "Yea." She slowly withdrew her hand and put the handkerchief in her pocket. Even through the haze of pain, Bedivere witnessed the scene with sense of amazement. She had rarely seen Arturia act so kindly with another person other than her sister. "If ye art hungry, I will now serve dinner." offered Airianne. All three of them replied positively so Airianne began to move the entrees from the oven to the dining room. Meanwhile, Rin fashioned a sling for Bedivere's arm and helped her off the table. Then they went to the dining room and took their seats. When they were all seated, Rin was about to reach for a bread bun when Bedivere crossed herself and began to recite grace. Arturia and Airianne put their hands together as well so Rin imitated them. After Bedivere finished grace, she did not reach for food and waited until Arturia had selected hers. As they ate, Rin sat uneasily. She hoped that Bedivere would not say anything that would give her away. Then Arturia asked Bedivere, "How didst thou find us? Didst Merlyn tell thee?" Bedivere shook her head sadly and put her fork down. She addressed them all together to tell her tale. "Alas, to mine great shame, Merlyn found me wallowed in drink and grief in mine camp in the forest. She beseeched me to reveal whither Arturia went and I told her that the Lady of the Lake hath offered to heal thee so I let her attendants take thee. After I hath finished mine tale, her visage furrowed with worry and she saith, 'There is no such Lady of the Lake'. Then she left towards the lake in all haste." "Her words cast such harrowing doubt in mine heart! I tried to follow her but mine legs wert leaden with drink. When I reached the lake, there wert no sign of her. Ne'ertheless, for several days, I persevered and hath found folk who hath seen her likeness traveling by wagon due north." "I scoured the roads all o'er and found a campsite wherein a half burnt piece of stained bandage lay among the cinders. Encouraged by this, I spyed the wagon tracks upon the road with the best of mine skill. When the tracks were lost to me, I asked traveling folk if they hath seen a wagon passeth by. By divine providence, their assistance and yon marks lead me to this valley." "Twas easy to follow the tracks up this mountain. Great was mine joy when I hath found the wagon. But mine joy was short-lived when yon cave below foiled me. To mine great puzzlement, thy footprints seemeth to lead into a wall. For days, I searched that wall for sign of entry. Then one night, as I camped near that wall, the faint sound of a maiden singing reached mine ears. I pressed mine ear to the wall and listened. Mine heart leapt with joy when I recognized the song that Arturia had sung for me!" "I renewed mine search on that wall. When I grew weary of the darkness, I would venture outside and break mine fast. Yesterday, I spyed upon men who set a carcass of rabbit upon the ground and hid amongst a group of boulders. Curiosity befell me and I observed them for a while. Within half an hour, a young falcon flew down and feasted upon the rabbit. Suddenly, the falcon began to flap its wings frantically but it didst not rise. Then the men leapt from their hiding place and ran to the falcon with large nets aloft. I knew then that the poor bird was ensnared by a trap and I rushed forth to prevent its capture." "I smote the men down with mine gloved hand. Nay, I didst not take their lives. Then I freed yon fal61

con from the trap and set it free. When I was satisfied that it could fly once more, I resumed mine search on the wall until sleep beckoned me. Then, this afternoon, as I rested, the wall swung open on its own accord! A musical voice beckoned me in and instructed me to stand on the platform within. And to mine great astonishment, the platform rose until it reached that great sunlit hall. There, I beheld a beautiful young maiden. Twas kind Lady Airianne. She granted mine request to see thee and escorted me here." Rin breathed a sigh of relief. Bedivere did not say anything to give her away. "I am glad that thou hath found us. Merlyn should have left thee a sign so that thou may follow us easier." remarked Arturia. "There was not a day in which I hath wisheth that she did." said Bedivere sourly. "I almost rode poor Haut to the ground in mine efforts." "But something puzzles me... if there is no such Lady of Lake, what became of me?" Bedivere hung her head. "So anxious was I to have thee healed that I neglected to surmise for the possibility that they might be bandits. I heard about their presence from folk at the nearest village." She turned to Rhynne. "Milady, when thou found her, didst she have her sword and purse with her?" Rin swallowed. Bedivere did not say what actually happened. She tried to go along with her tale. "Nay, she didst not." "Pray, forgive me, Arturia! They robbed thee and left thee for dead. Tis mine own negligence! If it wert not for Lady Rhynne, thou might have..." "But I didst not, old friend. Fret not. Thy concern warms mine heart. Raise thy face for I bear thee no ill." Bedivere wiped a tear from her eye. "Mine thanks..." After that, they spent the rest of the dinner with idle chatter. Rin helped Airianne clean the table and put the dishes away. Meanwhile, Arturia accompanied Bedivere to her room which was next to Rhynne's. "If thou art not occupied, Arturia, I wish to speak to thee privately." "I am not. What is it?" Bedivere closed the door, led her to the bed and sat. "How far back canst thou remember?" Arturia sat down next to Bedivere and closed her eyes. "I could remember more before mine twelfth year and less after that." "How much of me canst thou remember?" "I remember meeting thee and thy brother. I remember training with thee. I see thee winning a tourney. I see us fighting in battle. And... I..." Arturia blushed at the memory. "And?" "Thou... and I... we..." stuttered Arturia. Her hands gripped the staff firmly. "Art we lovers?" asked Arturia softly. Bedivere grasped the meaning behind her question and blushed as well. "Nay. Dost thou remember anything before that?" "Nay... mine memories seemeth like an unbound book. I can find some pages, but not all the pages art there." "What about Rhynne? What dost thou remember?" Arturia hesitated. The image of that bloodstained room flashed in her mind. "I doth not remember meeting her in mine past." Bedivere reached out and gently pried her right hand from her staff. She turned the palm face up. "What hath she done to thee?" asked Bedivere with a dangerous edge in her voice. Arturia stiffened with alarm. Bedivere must have noticed the marks in the bath. She had to choose her words carefully. She did not want to give Bedivere cause to get angry with Rhynne. "She saith that the mark upon me was the result of a healing spell which she did not dispel properly." "Then we must beseech her to dispel it. To have a mark upon thee is unbecoming." said Bedivere with a note of anger. She could not bear the idea that Arturia was marked like a piece of property. "Nay." Arturia pulled her hand away and stood up. "But why?"
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"Methinks... that it may aid me in restoring mine memories." Bedivere sighed and stood up to face Arturia. "I understand." She reached for Arturia's shoulders and pulled her into a hug. "I want thee to know, that I am glad that thou remembered me." Arturia let the staff drop on the bed and hugged her back. "I am glad as well." ----After putting away the dishes, Airianne declared that she had to attend to Wybrenne's needs and will not be available for their usual nightly entertainment. Rin bid her good night and bottled some of the leftover potion for Bedivere. In small doses, it could be administered as a pain reliever. As she wrote down instructions for the dosage, she was reminded of Bedivere's request. 'Milady, Merlyn hath informed me of thy skill in healing.' That implied that Merlyn knew of Bedivere's injuries and that she and Bedivere had spoken. The conversation during dinner indicated that Bedivere knew about Arturia's situation. However, she did not mention meeting Merlyn after she met Airianne. If she had met with Merlyn, then there was a possibility that Merlyn might have told her about her and Shiro. So far, she did not mention anything about Arturia being the king. Rin picked up the instructions and the bottle. She would have to ask her directly. She recalled Airianne saying that Bedivere's room was next to hers. She made her way there and knocked on her door. When she heard no answer, she opened the door. To her great shock, she saw Bedivere and Arturia holding each other so closely that Bedivere's face was just a few inches from Arturia's. Bedivere pulled away and scolded her. "Tis customary not to enter unless one hath permission." Rin bowed with a fluster. "I... I beg thy pardon." she stammered. She held out the bottle and the folded instructions. "I hath brought thee draught to lessen thy pain. When I heard no answer, I meant to leave it on thy table." Bedivere strode over and held out her hand to accept them. "Mine thanks. Thou may go." The power of command in her voice compelled Rin to obey. She backed away and closed the door. Then she went to her room and closed the door behind her. Tears began to drip down her cheeks. She ran to her bed and wept into her pillow. Meanwhile, Arturia rounded on Bedivere. "Twas unseemly of thee, Bedivere! Why didst thou not answer?" Bedivere examined the instructions with cool indifference. "Tis mine room. I can choose to answer or not." Arturia picked up her staff and almost half ran to the door. "I have a matter to attend to. Good night." She exited quickly. Bedivere stared at the closed door. "Is that so?" The question was directed more to herself than to Arturia. Arturia was upset at her, but at least, she was able to observe Rhynne's reaction. She lay down on her bed and tried to plan her next course of action. Arturia knocked on Rhynne's door. There was no answer. She knocked several more times until she decided to enter. "Forgive me..." she whispered as she grasped the handle. As Rin lay prone on her bed, she heard the click of the handle and waved her hand to douse the candles. She did not want Arturia to see her puffy face. The door opened and Arturia stepped into her moonlit room. "Tis customary not to enter unless one hath permission." said Rin sarcastically. Arturia was a bit surprised by the sarcasm in her voice. She could only guess that Rhynne was upset over Bedivere's actions and that she became even more upset at her rude intrusion. "Please forgive me." Arturia paused. "May I have thy permission to enter?" Rin turned her face away from the door and stared at the moonlit landscape of the valley. A part of her wanted to say no while another wanted to let her in.
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Arturia watched Rhynne's still form on the bed and waited for a reply. She hoped that Rhynne would give her a chance to explain the situation. Finally, she concluded that her silence meant that she did not have permission, so she turned to exit the room. Just then Rhynne's soft voice reached her ears. "Thou... may enter." Arturia breathed a sigh of relief. She closed the door, carefully made her way to the bed and sat down beside Rhynne. However, Rhynne did not acknowledge her presence. She waited again before she decided to grab her attention. "Hail Rhynne of the land of Nee-hun." Rin glanced over in Arturia's direction. She had raised her right hand in the same way that Bedivere did. "Tis customary to acknowledge a greeting between friends." said Arturia. It would be rude to ignore Arturia, so Rin sat up and clasped Arturia's hand. A slight tingle on her palm alarmed her for a moment, but she reminded herself that the mana flow would only activate if the marks were aligned. "Hail Arturia." she replied. Before she could react, Arturia pulled her close and leaned in to kiss her on the lips. Her body went rigid with shock and she tightened her grasp on Arturia's hand. Arturia's lips where soft and nimble as they caressed her own. Rin's cheeks flushed in reaction. Rhynne was no mere acquaintance. With her lips, Arturia tried to express the depth of friendship that she felt with Rhynne. Words seemed ill suited to show her feelings. She marveled at the softness of Rin's lips as she caressed them with her own. She pressed against them gently, feeling its texture as her lips slid against them. Its sweetness seeped onto her tongue and she was tempted to deepen the kiss. But that would be inappropriate. She pulled away before the temptation grew. She left a few inches between their faces and gazed into Rhynne's eyes. She watched her reaction carefully. Rhynne's eyes were distant and she looked at her as if in a trance. Arturia cleared her throat. She hoped that Rhynne was not too upset about Bedivere after her explanation. "Twas ill-mannered of Bedivere to speak to thee as though thou wert a common servant." She put her left hand over Rhynne's. "Know that I hold thee in high regard and on equal footing with Bedivere. Thus I greet thee in the same way as I greet Bedivere. As for Bedivere, she hath received mine rebuke and will eventually seek thee to beseech thy forgiveness." It took for a few moments for Rin to realize Arturia's intentions. When she did, she felt both happy and disappointed at the same time. Even though it was her first kiss and not as romantic as she had hoped, she was happy to gain Arturia's trust. "Thy skin seemeth warm. Didst the healing tire thee?" Arturia touched her cool forehead on Rhynne's. "Yea, it seemeth that thou hath a fever. Mayhap, we should retire early." She stood up beside the bed and tugged gently on Rhynne's hand. Doubt left her heart when she remembered the day when Arturia handed her the black piece and announced her request. "Yea. The healing did tax mine strength. I shall heed thy advice. Allow me to change. I will be with thee anon." With her reassurance, Arturia let go of Rhynne's hand. "I shall await thee." Then she limped to the door and left the room. ----Bedivere woke up refreshed. By the height of the sun, she had slept longer than usual. She looked out into valley and felt like going for a morning ride. She quickly freshened up in the privy and changed into some riding clothes. Then she went to Arturia's room to invite her to go riding. She knocked on her door several times, but heard no response. Cautiously, she opened her door and peeked in. The curtains were still drawn. Bedivere strode over and unceremoniously pulled the curtains aside. She gasped aloud. Arturia's eyes fluttered open and she drowsily lifted her head from Rhynne's shoulder to look in Bedivere's direction. Her eyes remained unfocused for a few moments before locking on to Bedivere like a hunter on its prey. When she recognized her, her eyebrows knit with annoyance. Like a disturbed lion,
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she growled in a low voice. "Bedivere... tis customary not to enter unless one hath permission." Then she resumed her position on Rhynne and closed her eyes. Bedivere's shock was replaced by a wave of irritation. "Mine apologies." she grumbled. She drew the curtains back and stalked out of the room. She marched down the hall towards the dining room. Airianne sat at the table sipping tea and reading wrinkled pieces of parchment. "Good morning." greeted Airianne upon her entrance. "Good morning." replied Bedivere. She stood for a moment and then started pacing back and forth. A flood of questions filled her mind. Airianne followed her with her eyes for a while. "Please help yerself to breakfast." said Airianne. She returned to her reading. Bedivere stopped and faced her. "How long hath this been going on?" "About what?" "Arturia and Rhynne." Airianne noted the lack of honorifics. Bedivere must be upset about something to neglect her manners. "Oh that. Methinks e'er since they came here." "Why dost thou thinkst so?" "Because she asked if Rhynne would share her room, e'en though Syrowe confessed his love for her." "What? Thou surely misunderstood her intentions." "Did I?" Airianne glanced at the freshly baked muffins. "Mayhap, we should invite them to breakfast." She expected Bedivere to offer to fetch them, but she just stood there with her arms crossed and with a sullen frown on her face. When the reason for her behavior dawned on her, she almost laughed out loud and managed to conceal it with a cough. She stood up and announced, "I shall remind them to have some. Pray, sit, Sir Bedivere. They may yet grace us with their company." ----Her boot squashed something. She did not bother to look. Friend or foe did not matter. They were all dead. Hers was the hand that slew them. The ground was soggy and uneven as she staggered across the bloody plain strewn with the bodies of countless warriors and horses. Someone was behind her. A demon appeared with blazing red eyes and a gleaming red sword. Red lightning spewed from the sword in arcs. "No... I refuse to be judged by ye!" she screamed. She broke into a sprint and urged herself. "Run... run and ignore the pain..." The demon walked towards her and swung the blade in her direction. She dodged as the ground beside her exploded in a shower of debris and bits of flesh. In the distance, she could see a silver cross and with it, the hope of salvation. She ran towards it with all her might. Behind her, the demon continued its assault. The cross melded into the red robe of a hooded cleric who reached out towards her. She grabbed the outstretched hand. The battlefield melted away into a sunlit green forest. As she looked up into the hood of the cleric, she saw her face reflected in the deep pool of blue eyes. She was safe now. Suddenly, her ears were assaulted by a loud noise. Annoyed, she looked about to locate the source. A large cuckoo perched on a tiny twig. "Cu--ckoo... Cu--ckoo..." it called. She swung at it to shoo it away. It tumbled off the twig and hit the ground with a blinding explosion of light. Arturia woke up with a start. She found herself sprawled on her stomach with her hand on the bedside table. Somewhere behind the bed's curtains was the warbling call of a cuckoo. "Cu--ckoo... Cu-ckoo..." She lifted herself up with her elbow and was surprised to find Rhynne beneath her. She moved away quickly. "Good morning." greeted Rhynne casually.
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"Good morning." replied Arturia. "Cu--ckoo... Cu--ckoo..." replied the cuckoo. Rin sat up and got out of the bed. She drew the curtains aside and located the mechanical bird. She flipped a small lever to turn it off and returned it to its place on the bedside table. She could not believe that Arturia managed to crawl from the opposite side of the bed and swatted the bird without seeing it. She chuckled at the memory. She looked at her watch which was calibrated to the current time using the sundial in the rose garden. It was probably 10:30. Airianne would be upset at them for missing breakfast. She turned to Arturia who had also gotten out on the other side of bed and was tying the curtains up. Rin noticed the staff leaning by the bedpost. "Thou can walk?!" she exclaimed as she made her way to Arturia. "Yea. I had found out yesterday when I walked to thy room." Rin put her hands on her shoulders. "I am glad for thee! This calls for a celebration!" "Tis thanks to thine skill. All I did was sleep." replied Arturia with a sheepish smile. "Come! Let us tell the others the good news." said Rhynne happily. Without thinking, she reached for Arturia's hand and grabbed it firmly. Suddenly, Arturia was transported into a dark cave. She felt the weight of chains on her body. She struggled against the chains and tried to yank them off her hands. To her great amazement, her hands were covered with leathery lizard like skin instead of human skin. Someone was walking towards her. It was the red robed cleric. Arturia shouted with joy but a roar erupted from her throat instead. Undeterred by her roar, the cleric advanced bravely and lifted a silver staff to strike at the manacles on her hands. The chains dissolved and she roared in delight. A great wind filled the chamber as large bat-like wings unfolded from her back. Freed from her chains, she flew out of the cave and into a lava covered landscape. The cave melted away from her vision and she found herself lying on her bed. Rhynne was lying next to her. She cradled her right hand to her chest. Her face seemed paler. "Art thou well, Rhynne?" asked Arturia with a concerned voice. "Yea." replied Rin. "I... was just surprised." "Mine apologies." "Nay... I was careless." Rin sat up. "How art thee?" Arturia sat up. "I am well." She deliberated whether to tell Rhynne about her vision. Since Rhynne was not in it, she decided to tell her. As she told her, Rhynne's face showed subtle signs of apprehension. Arturia wondered why she reacted that way. She ended her story by asking, "Is mine vision an omen of some sort?" Rin shook her head. "I am unable to discern anything from it since I am not a soothsayer. Mayhap, Merlyn can advise thee when she returns." But the vision hinted that Arturia remembered part of the mana replenishing ritual. During the ritual, Rin discovered that there was a seal to limit Arturia's mana intake. So even if Shiro was able to replenish her mana, the quantity and speed of replenishment was limited. The vision symbolized the breaking of the seal. Rin stood up. It was hard to think when she was hungry. "Mine stomach urges me to eat. I would be pleased if thou would join me for some late breakfast." Arturia laughed softly and stood up. "Yea. Mine stomach agrees with thine." As they made their way to the dining room, the experience showed Rin another disadvantage of having the marks. She could not hold hands with Arturia. Once again, she cursed herself for not dispelling it properly. "Damn, I suck at romance." she thought to herself. She wished that she was better at it. For now, she had to work with what she had. ----66

They enjoyed a quick breakfast of muffins and tea. With a bit of searching, they found Airianne and Bedivere in the rose garden, weeding the ground near the rose bushes. Rin rolled up her sleeves and wore an apron to take over for Bedivere. She convinced her that it was a physic's duty to insure that her patient had enough rest in order to heal properly, and that her honor would be stained if she failed to do that duty. Bedivere reluctantly complied and sat down at the table. Rhynne's ears detected the sound of scraping. She followed the sound to the ceiling. Just beyond the ceiling, a falcon perched and appeared to scrape the ceiling with its beak. "Ah!" exclaimed Airianne. "Sir Bedivere has a visitor." She walked over to a corner of the garden and pulled the outstretched hand of a statue. A square portion of the ceiling slid open and the falcon flew down. It landed in front of Airianne and screeched. Airianne screeched back in reply which surprised everyone else. Then the falcon faced Bedivere and cocked its head in her direction. Then the falcon rose up and flew out of the garden. "He wisheth to thank ye fer yer timely rescue." said Airianne as she closed the opening in the ceiling. "And, he was the one that told me that ye were in the mine." "Ye can speak with birds?" asked Arturia. "Aye. I inherited the gift from Mother." responded Airianne as she sat down on a stool to weed near a rose bush. "Amazing..." remarked Rin. Then she returned to the chore at hand. As she pulled the weeds out, something caught her eye. She called out to everyone. They came over and she pointed with her finger. "Behold! Tis a four leaf clover!" Airianne clapped her hands with glee at the sight of the little plant under the rose bush. "How wonderful! Now ye can make a wish!" "That's true... Oh, what the hell... I wish I could be more romantic." she thought to herself. The light from above seemed to shine brighter for a brief instant. Rin looked up with bewilderment. "What was that?" she asked herself. "So... what is thy wish?" asked Arturia with curiosity. "I... uh... it's a secret." Rin winked at her. A small laugh of amusement escaped from Arturia's lips. "Is that so? Mayhap, when it comes true, will thou tell me?" "Ah... of course." Rin rubbed the back of her head sheepishly. "I hath decided." declared Bedivere. Curiosity caused all three of them to turn their attention to Bedivere. Bedivere grinned widely as if she was announcing a great event. "Lady Airianne told me yesterday that she hath not left the Aerie since her birth. Nor hath Merlyn prepared a ball upon her sixteenth year. Therefore, since Lady Airianne cannot go to a ball, we shall bring the ball to her. What saith thou? Tis a minor requital for the kindness that her family hath bestowed upon us." Rin sat in stunned silence. One glance at Airianne's gaping face indicated that she was not aware of Bedivere's plans. "Methinks that tis a wonderful plan." said Arturia with a note of approval. "Then tis settled! I assume that thou knowst how to dance?" "Mother showed me some steps..." started Airianne. "Pah! I hath seen Merlyn dance, and it shamed me to see a lady dance so badly. I shall give thee proper instruction." "I am not sure that I remember how..." said Arturia slowly. It was obvious why. "Do not worry. I shall refresh thy memory." Their eyes fell on Rin. She swallowed and with great embarrassment, she admitted, "I hath ne'er been to a ball." It was true. "Then I shall instruct thee as well. When our chores art done, we shall begin thy lessons. We shall have a ball within a fourtenight."
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----After the chores were assigned, Arturia cornered Airianne in the kitchen to speak to her privately. With a testy voice, she asked, "Lady Airianne, art ye sure that the curse of the chair hath been lifted?" "Aye. The chair is not at the table, so she did not sit upon it." "Then why doth it seemeth that curse still remains?" Airianne smiled mischievously. "If ye look upon her face, ye will know her hand." Arturia's eyebrows went up. "Really?" "Aye." Airianne giggled. "And... I've discovered something." "What?" inquired Arturia curiously. "She hates to lose." She giggled some more. "Oh, how amusing tis to see that pert mouth curl into a frown when victory slips from her grasp. Ah... she is so interesting. Tis a pity that someone hath her favor before I met her. I would leap at a chance to win it." "Though ye art amused, I am not. How can ye delight at her misery?" "Why art ye disturbed? Tis but a game." Why indeed? It was only a game. But yet, Arturia felt like she had to do something. "For once, may I implore ye to leave yer selection to chance instead of yer method?" Airianne sighed. "Oh, all right, since ye asked." With a wistful face, she added, "Ah! How I will miss her pouting visage!" An image of Rhynne pouting after another loss crept into her mind. A small smile wandered into her face and she relented. "Well... mayhap, tis all right to employ yer method once in a while..." Airianne smiled gratefully. "Aye. I will do mine best." ----The crystal burst into life. Merlyn's face flickered within. "Hail Myrddin Emrys." greeted Bedivere. "Hail Bedwyr Bedrydant ap Bedrawt." replied Merlyn. "What news?" Bedivere recalled the kiss. "She doth not have it on her person. There is some mana there, but tis not Avalon's. Tis more like... a cool breeze on a summer day." "Tis Rhynne's healing magic. Did ye feel it when she healed ye?" "Yea." "Did ye feel anything else? Like the bitterness of cold steel?" Bedivere thought for a moment. "Nay, I did not feel such mana. Is that the boy's?" "Aye." Merlyn sighed in frustration. "Tis possible that Syrowe or Rhynne asked Avalon to hide its presence." Merlyn paused in thought. "There is one test... if she were to get injured..." Bedivere shook her head vigorously and with an air of disgust, she replied, "Nay, Merlyn. I shant be party to such lowly tactics." With a twinkle in her eye, Merlyn suggested, "Well... there is another test... one in which ye may use yer special skills to check Rhynne's mana." Merlyn watched Bedivere with amusement as her face changed from puzzlement to indignation. "Saith that when thou perform the task!" Her eyes flashed with anger. "Nay, mine wife will be cross with me for dallying with a young maiden. Besides, didst ye not use yer skill with countless maidens in many courtly occasions?" Although Lancelot held the honor of the most favored knight among the court ladies, Bedivere was the third or fourth most favored. This reputation often led to many amusing situations among ladies who were either aware or unaware of her gender. Bedivere turned away sullenly to hide her embarrassment. "I was merely entertaining them as chivalry bade me to, and took no delight in doing so." Merlyn laughed at Bedivere's expression. "All right... toss that idea away. I suggest ye watch her
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then. Any other news?" "Arturia can walk on her own." "Tis good news indeed! And how about ye?" "Still in a splint, as thou can see." "Can ye draw mana from Arturia?" "I dare not without Avalon in her possession." "I understand. So... what do ye think of Rhynne?" "She reminds me of thee, serious and curt." "Really? She reminds me of ye, loyal and trusting." "Surely, thou jest." "And ye as well. I am married, ye know." "So was I." "..." "..." They sighed in unison. Then Bedivere's face grew serious. "Doth Rhynne fancy Arturia?" In the crystal, Merlyn's face indicated surprise. "Aye, methinks so." "Then why didst thou leave her behind?" An image of a vulture preying upon an innocent Arturia flashed in her mind. "She touched a soft spot in mine heart. I wanted to give the lass a chance." Now it was Bedivere's turn to be surprised. Then Merlyn's statement filled her with sudden mirth. She began to tremble to contain her laughter but she gave in and let it out in a rich guffaw. "What's so funny?" Bedivere took a few moments to calm down. "I hath heard of thy many titles, Merlyn. Mage paramount, Counsel to the High King, Seer, Protector of eagles... But now I add a new one to mine list: Matchmaker." Merlyn's face twisted with indignation. Bedivere chortled at the sight of it. "Dinna mock me, lass! I may turn ye into a toad!" "Pray, hold thy spell. I may drop thy precious crystal." For several tense moments, they glowered at each other. Finally, Merlyn laughed at the absurdness of the situation which prompted Bedivere to laugh along as well. When they calmed down, Merlyn coughed into her hand. "The lords art asking about ye. They wish to honor the hero of Camlann. What will I say?" "Tis obvious that some lord will attempt to reward me with an offer of service under their banner. I will only serve mine king, Merlyn. I refuse to pledge mine sword to another. Tell them that I will retire in honor of mine king." "I will do so. That is all I have fer ye. Return the crystal to Airianne. When I need to speak to ye, I will leave word." "Yea. Consider it done. Farewell, old friend." "Fare ye well, Bedivere." The crystal dimmed. Bedivere removed the runes properly and galloped back to the Aerie. It was time to teach her charges how to dance. ----They gathered in the great sunlit hall. To gauge their skill, Bedivere danced with them in turn. When it was Rin's turn, she slowly waltzed her away from Arturia and Airianne. When they were far enough away, Bedivere whispered near her ear, tickling it with her warm breath. Rin broke out into goose bumps at the sensation. "Milady, I must apologize for mine rude speech last night. There is no excuse for mine unchivalrous conduct."
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The scene flashed in Rin's mind and she hesitated before answering. "Nay, tis I who must apologize. I was presumptuous and careless." She looked away but Bedivere's hand left her side to tilt her chin up towards her face. Then her hand returned to her side to guide her. Bedivere's face seemed so close and her eyes were trapped in that steel gray gaze. "E'en so, twas unseemly for me to lose mine calm over such a small matter. I shall take it as a lesson and pledge that it shall ne'er happen again. To compensate thee, I shall take up a quest in thy name. Thou only need to name it, and I shall do it within mine power." "Since I am a visitor in these lands, I have no knowledge of suitable quests for thee. Consider thy quest complete." "Nay. Providence will surely guide thee and thou will have need of one. Until then, I shall await thy behest." As she smiled roguishly at her, Rin felt that dangerous charm again. Her knees felt weak and she stumbled, but Bedivere drew her close to her body to give her support, causing her face to squash into her ample bosom. With cat-like agility to avoid Rhynne's stumbling steps, Bedivere led her back to Arturia and Airianne. She released Rhynne and bowed to signal the end of the dance. Then she turned to address them like squires in training. "Arturia, thou remembered the basics, so teach all that thou knoweth to Lady Airianne. Milady, I shall instruct thee." Rin grimaced internally as Bedivere led her back on the dance floor. She did not like how she was reacting to Bedivere, so she tried her best not to look her in the eye for the next hour. However, she seemed to notice her behavior. "Milady, tis customary for one to look upon one's partner whilst dancing." Rin cursed her bad luck and made an effort to look. "If only she didn't look so dashing..." thought Rin. Suddenly, an idea formed in her head. "I have thought of a quest." declared Rin. Bedivere's eyebrows rose. "May I know it?" "Yea. From now until a day before the ball, thou must dress like a lady." Bedivere's jaw dropped and for a moment she was speechless. Then she laughed at the strangeness of the request and replied, "As thou wish." She waltzed Rhynne toward Airianne and Arturia. "Lady Airianne, I require thy assistance." Then she led Rhynne back to the end of the great hall and bowed. "I shall change mine clothes and shall return in most haste." Bedivere turned to Airianne. "I will require clothing more suitable for a lady." Airianne clapped her hands with glee. "Ah! I hath often wondered how ye would look in a dress! Come hither, Sir Bedivere. Ye shall choose from mine wardrobe." ----Thankfully, that dangerous charm did not manifest itself when Bedivere wore a dress. Thus, she managed to keep her concentration on learning the dance. However, she did not expect to get sore feet from learning it. Rin limped slightly as she and Arturia walked to their rooms. "Is something bothering thee, Rhynne?" asked Arturia. "Yea. Mine feet art not used to dancing. Tis a bit sore." "Ah! I have a remedy for that." "Thou hast one! May I try it?" "Yea. Thou may. Follow me." Arturia led her into her room and bid her to sit on her bed. Then she left the room. Rin sat there wondering what the remedy was. Eventually, Arturia came back with a basin of hot water and a washcloth. She put the basin near her feet and knelt. "Allow me to remove thy shoes and hose."
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"Nay, let me do it..." "Thou art my guest. Please sit." At her insistence, Rin obeyed and watched nervously as Arturia pulled her shoes off. Then her hand crept up her leg to find the end of her socks below her right knee under her skirt. She pulled the sock off and did the same for the left. She took her right foot and gently wiped it clean with hot water. Then she dipped it the basin. Rin gasped as her skin met the hot water. It was not as warm as the pool water in the bath, but felt just as good. "Is it too hot?" asked Arturia. "Nay. Tis well." Arturia smiled slightly. She lifted her foot out of the water and cleaned the left foot. After cleaning it, she put her left foot in the water. Then she took her right foot and started massaging it. Rin sighed contentedly as her sore muscles relaxed under Arturia's hands. By the time Arturia switched to the left foot, her other muscles decided to relax as well and she let herself lie upon Arturia's bed. Arturia alternated massaging and soaking for several times. When she was done, she got up to tell Rhynne that she was finished, but Rhynne had fallen asleep. She bent over to wake her but suddenly remembered that as of yesterday, Rhynne had fulfilled her boon. In her heart, she wanted to ask for a more than week, but prudence dictated that asking for more would be selfish and wanton. She stood thinking about what she should do for a few moments. Then a voice within her told her that it would be rude to wake someone who had worked so hard all day. She agreed with the voice and picked up the basin to return it to the bath. After that, she changed her clothes and doused the candles. She threw the covers over Rhynne, and drew the curtains shut. Then she took a nearby pillow and crept under the covers to sleep beside her. ----Bedivere tapped her fingers on the dining table and noted the height of the sun over the horizon. They were late... again. She stirred the tea idly before her and dropped a sugar cube in the cup. Meanwhile, Airianne noticed the sugar cube drop. "Tis the fourth one." she thought with wry amusement as she watched Bedivere from behind the parchment that she was reading. Finally, Bedivere stood up and began to walk out of the room. Airianne called out, "Art ye going to see them?" Bedivere stopped, like a hound on a leash. "Maybe..." "Dinna wake them. Ye will only earn their ire. Besides, I have arranged for a little bird to wake them up." "Is that so?" She did not look forward to barging into Arturia's room. Airianne nodded. "Please sit, and lend me the company of one of the most favored knights of the court." Bedivere laughed. "I hardly look like one dressed in this manner." She gestured to her dress which accentuated her bosom and slim waist. Then she returned to her chair and resumed her stirring. Meanwhile, the mechanical bird on the table in Arturia's room sprang into life. "Cu--ckoo... Cu-ckoo..."

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Chapter 8: Private Lessons
Since Airianne would be studying with Wybrenne, Bedivere decided that it would be a good time to go down into the valley and buy supplies for the ball. Airianne provided them with a basket and some knapsacks to carry their purchases. For Bedivere, she presented a corded belt and a velvet cloak to replace her worn sword strap and riding cloak. "Tis in fashion and will suit thee." explained Airianne. Bedivere replaced the strap on her sword and belted her sword on her waist. Then she unfolded the cloak. She gasped aloud when she saw the patch in front. It was an embroidered heart which encircled three roses of red, white and yellow. "Lady Airianne, tis an heirloom! Tis I who am unsuitable to don it." "Mama gave it to me. She insists that ye wear it. It would lift her heart to know that the colors of Rosenharte art displayed proudly." Bedivere nodded in understanding. "Then I shall be honored to wear it." After Bedivere put on the cloak, they made their way to the lower levels to fetch their horses. Then Airianne operated the platform so that they descended into the mine. With Bedivere's tracking skill, they emerged from the mine into the bright sunshine of the valley. Bedivere helped Rin on to her saddle and then sat behind her. She threw Arturia a sly grin. "Last one down is a rotten egg?" challenged Bedivere. "I am at a disadvantage with this common pony." protested Arturia. "Mine horse bears two riders." They sized at each other up. Arturia laid down her conditions. "Only if thou let me ride with Rhynne. And, should thou accept mine terms, I will allow thee to start as fitting." Bedivere sighed. "Oh very well..." She and Arturia got off their horses. Bedivere handed the reins to Arturia. "No leaping." she warned. Arturia nodded. Rin stiffened at the word leaping. "Hold thy horses! What saith thee about leaping?" "Fret not, Rhynne. Haut will not leap in this race." replied Arturia as she mounted Haut behind her. "But..." Arturia's hand slipped around her waist to grasp the reins. "I am with thee. Please trust me." With that, Bedivere spurred her horse down the path and rode it to a gallop. Arturia urged Haut to a slow canter. Rin stared at her hands clinging to the rim of the saddle. She had ridden horses before, but not one that was as large and tall as Haut. As she watched the pebbles on the ground, she felt a sense of vertigo. Suddenly, Arturia whispered softly near her ear. "Rhynne, tis better to look up and see beyond the path." Rin looked up and was rewarded by the magnificent sight of the valley below. She marveled at the gentle slopes of the green hills and the scattered patches of forest. The roads snaked across the valley like stitches on a quilt. Here and there, farmers looked like ants in their fields of golden grain. "Amazing..." "Yea. Our rooms art on the west side, while the village is on the east." Arturia felt Rhynne lean back, so she shifted slightly to let her settle against her. The mountain breeze
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played with the strands of her hair and brought the familiar scent of camellia to her nose. She turned her head slightly and allowed Rin's hair to brush against her face and lips. Somehow, the scent felt very soothing, and she felt an urge to bury her face in Rhynne's hair. She managed to restrain herself and just let the scent envelop her senses. As they admired the scenery, a question popped up in Rin's mind. "Arturia, why didst thou decide to race?" Arturia laughed sheepishly. "Oh that. Bedivere and I would often race each other when we went hunting. Tis a sport for us. And the loser must grant the winner a boon for the day." "I see. So if thou win, what boon shall thou ask for?" Arturia thought for a moment. "Mayhap, I shall ask to ride Haut instead of the horse." "Will I be riding with thee or with Bedivere?" "With me, of course. I doubt that the horse would enjoy carrying two people. Haut's strength far exceeds that of a common horse. He is used to carrying Bedivere and her weaponry." Rin nodded in understanding. She remembered how heavy Bedivere was when she and Shiro tried to carry her. She craned her neck to see if she could spot Bedivere. As she wondered whether they could catch up with her, an idea popped into her mind. She untied a short red ribbon around her sleeve and tied it around Arturia's wrist. "Tis a race, so I shall cheer mine champion on." Arturia recognized the token and laughed. "I am honored to be thy champion. Mine heart gladdens with thy support." Then with a twinkle in her eye, she asked jokingly, "Art thou cheering me on because thou wish me to win, or because thou wish to ride with me?" Rin blushed at the question. She was hoping that Arturia would win so that she could ride with her. But she felt that she did not need to hide that wish, so she answered, "Both." Her heart leapt with delight at Rhynne's answer. She felt happy that Rhynne wanted to ride with her. "Then I am doubly glad. I shall surely win this race for thee." They rode on for a while until Arturia caught sight of Bedivere on a path below. Arturia whistled loudly to warn Bedivere that she was starting. "Tis time, Rhynne. Please hold on." Then she snapped Haut's reins and urged him to run. Haut neighed in eager response and began to gallop. Rin clung to the saddle's rim as firmly as she could. The mountain path sped past her in a blur. They rounded several bends and the path became straight for about two hundred yards. The side of the path leveled off steeply down to the next path below. "We shall go this way. Please hold on to me." Arturia warned Rhynne as her arm snaked around her waist to hold her close. To Rin's great horror, Haut turned off the beaten path and galloped down the very steep mountainside. As they gained speed, panic rose within her and she screamed in fright. "Mine apologies, Rhynne." Arturia's words were diminished by the wind whipping by her ears. Haut reached the path below leaving a cloud of dirt behind him. They galloped down the path and around several bends. They came upon another path with a similar steep slope that ended down at a path on a lower level. Bedivere was on that lower path and rounded a bend. However, they continued on the path. Rin realized that if they had gone down the slope, they would have caught up to Bedivere. But Arturia did not go down. "She's worried about me." thought Rin. She did not want to be a burden. "Arturia, if by chance thou may come upon a slope to take us to a lower path, thou must take it!" yelled Rin into the wind. "Nay! I can not risk thy well being!" "I was surprised! Thou need not worry!" She put her hand on top of Arturia's and squeezed it. "Trust me!" They were nearing the base of the mountain. Based on their last sighting of Bedivere, she was quite ahead of them. They rounded a bend and the path straightened for a while. To Rin's relief, it had a slope that led to a lower path. "Arturia!" she cried. As if on cue, Arturia guided Haut down the slope. Rin shut her eyes and gritted her teeth until she felt
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the ground return to a normal level. She released her bated breath. They rounded several curves and the path straightened out once more to reveal Bedivere racing towards its end which widened to empty into the main road. "Tis the last leg!" cried Arturia. "Come Haut! Let us meet thy master!" As if encouraged by her words, Haut quickened his pace. His hooves tore up the path with his thunderous gallop. The road seemed to shorten before them. Bedivere was halfway to its end. Arturia urged Haut on once more and he seemed eager to comply. The distance between them began to shrink. Finally, they rode side by side within thirty feet of the main road. As Haut thundered past to win by a head, Arturia crowed with victory. They slowed down to a canter on the main road. Arturia's face shone brightly while Bedivere's face was a thundercloud. "I hath seen thy trick, Arturia. How dare thee employ such... such... tactics?" Since Rhynne was present, Bedivere reigned in the foul words on her tongue. She got off the horse and went over to stroke Haut's head. "Thou only saith to come down. Thou did not saith how." said Arturia smugly. "Will thou grant mine boon?" "Yea, what is it?" asked Bedivere sourly. "Allow me to ride Haut until we return." Bedivere's reaction was like that of a child whose favorite toy got taken away. Arturia sneered calmly at her, patiently waiting for her compliance. "As thou wish." she bit out. Then she turned to Haut. "How could thou let thy master lose? Thou could have slowed down." Haut snorted in response. Rin wondered if he really understood while Arturia added, "Haut hath his pride. He will not lose to a common pony." Haut neighed as if in agreement with Arturia's explanation. Bedivere's frown was replaced with a proud grin. "Thou did well though." She kissed him on his forehead and patted his cheek before returning to the other horse. "Come. We have a lot to procure." They rode to town and stabled their horses before going on foot to the marketplace. Rin swore that she could feel the eyes of the villagers as they walked by. All three of them made a rather unusual sight among the plainly clothed villagers. Bedivere seemed to draw stares of admiration from men and of envy from women. Meanwhile, Bedivere noticed the red ribbon around Arturia's wrist. When she saw Rhynne's unfettered sleeve, she realized the significance of the token. Her calm face masked her displeasure over this new development. When she noticed her own reaction, her lips drew taut. She gathered her thoughts. "E'en if this is her decision, I will support mine King." She forced her irritation aside and concentrated on finding good supplies. Every merchant that they dealt with seemed more than happy to receive their patronage. Bedivere stopped by the local blacksmith to pick up her repaired battle gauntlet for her left hand. She asked Arturia to test it. Rin watched in fascination as she slid the switch below the palm. The fingers opened and closed in response. Bedivere complimented the smith for his work and paid him. Then they continued searching for supplies. Soon, they acquired the necessary supplies and filled their basket and knapsacks. They took their horses from the stables and strapped their purchases on the backs of their horses. When they were ready, they rode out of the village in high spirits. Bedivere rode off the main road. She led them into a meadow and to a grove of fruit trees. She selected a shady spot and dismounted. "Methinks, that tis a good place to take our noon time meal." Arturia and Rin dismounted while Bedivere opened a pack on Haut's side to take out a blanket. Arturia took the blanket and spread it out under the shade. Rin took out wrapped sandwiches, fruits and a water skin. Each one selected a sandwich and began to eat. Bedivere opened the water skin, drank and handed it to Arturia. Arturia drank in turn and handed it to Rin. Rin stared at it for a moment. The thought 'indirect kiss' floated in her mind. She shook the thought
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away and drank from the water skin. To her surprise, she tasted wine, not water. And it was very good wine. The food was good, the meadow was beautiful and the company was pleasant. Rin felt very happy. Her day was perfect. "Arturia..." whispered Bedivere in a low voice. "We're being watched." "Yea. I count five." "Shall I take care of them?" "Do as thou wish." "Wait! Thou art injured. Allow me to deal with it." offered Rin. Arturia held up a hand. "Nay. Let us not give them cause to despise mages. If they invent malicious tales of thy witchcraft, thou may ne'er come to the village again. I shall deal with it." "Then I shall refrain from casting. I have some skill in defending myself. Allow me to aid thee." "I beg thy pardon, but thou art not a warrior." "I do not need to be, because I am with thee." Arturia blinked several times. Rhynne seemed very serious and confident. She was also brave enough to endure the race despite her initial fear on the mountain slope. She could trust her. "Thou may aid me on the condition that thou will not tire thyself." "Yea, upon mine honor." "Here they come." warned Bedivere. Five young men dressed in drab clothing walked across the meadow to them. The tallest one spoke first. "Wael looky here... Rosen'arte lassies with no escort?" A scruffy one spat out the twig in his mouth. "We'd be 'appy t' be yer escort. 'ow 'bout we escort yerselfs 'ome. Me 'ome's not far." Arturia stood up and walked half the distance toward them. "Please leave." "But we've just met. Come on, dinna be shy..." The tall one strode over to Arturia to grab her shoulder. Arturia batted his hand away. "Methinks that ye need a lesson in manners, uncouth knave. If ye persist with unruly cause, ye will find me a most exacting teacher." "Oh, tis a frisky one." He moved in to grab her wrists. Arturia blocked his attack and grabbed his sleeve to yank him down. At the same time, she cocked her arm to drive her fist into his nose. The man staggered back with a bleeding nose. His hand went up to nurse it. "Ye blode me node! Ye'll pay fer tha'! Get 'er!" The men began to surround Arturia. She assumed a boxing stance. Suddenly, there was a whistle to her left. From the corner of her eye, she saw Rhynne standing about twenty feet away. "Hey boys... can I have some fun too?" All the men turned their heads to look at Rhynne. One of them began to edge towards her. Then she realized what Rhynne had done. She lunged at the closest man and decked him under his chin. Then she drove her fist into the stomach of another and gave him the knee. Rin watched the young man edging towards her. When he rushed to grab her, she stepped aside at the last instant and landed a hammer fist on the back of his neck where the skull meets the spine. Another one tried to grab her arm, so she diverted it with a circular motion and repositioned her hands to do an elbow lock. She twisted the arm until she felt a satisfactory pop under the skin. The man screamed in pain and crawled away from her with a limp arm. During the war, she received a very painful first lesson in unarmed combat from Kuzuki-sensei. Since then, she devoted some time to training in Aikido and grappling. Finally, all those long sweaty hours and bruises were worth it. Meanwhile, the man who received the hammer fist recovered from it. He circled Rin warily. Rin backed away slowly in Arturia's direction and kept an eye on Arturia who was beating the rest of them
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into a pulp. She continued to back away until the man grew bold enough to lunge at her once again. She stepped aside and grabbed his arm to execute a throw. She directed his momentum towards Arturia's opponents. The man flipped head over heels to tangle his legs with another man who lost his balance as he landed. Those who were on the ground scrambled to their feet and they all retreated a distance of fifteen feet. "Saucy wenches!" The fat one snarled angrily and reached into his coat to pull a dagger out. His companions did the same. They stalked towards Arturia but stopped as the screech of steel scraping on steel reached their ears. They stared in disbelief beyond Arturia. Bedivere strode over to Arturia with her large sword held at her side. At the sight of it, Rin wondered how heavy it was. The blade was over four feet long and its width was at least three inches wide. Bedivere presented the handle to Arturia who grasped it with both hands and held it before her. Then Bedivere casually walked back and resumed her meal. "Tis yer last chance to leave." growled Arturia in a low voice. "Or else..." The men started talking amongst themselves. "There be five o' us!" "Nay, jus' four! Trent's gone!" "She cannae swing it! Tis too big!" "Aye, we'll go 'round 'er and attack 'er all t' same." They nodded in unison. Meanwhile, Rin was dumbfounded by the idiotic situation. "Um... hello... we can hear you..." she thought. She returned to the blanket and sat with Bedivere. Arturia brought the blade behind her and held it at waist level parallel to the ground. She waited until the men advanced close enough before she swung it in a large arc from side to side like a farmer cutting grain with a scythe. The men backed away as she advanced in their direction, but one of them was too slow. The blade cut his belt and his breeches fell to his ankles. He leapt out them in fright and ran behind a small boulder. Arturia continued her advance and slashed the sword in his direction to chop off the top of the boulder like a knife upon butter. The chopped top went flying ten feet into the air. The man stared in horror at the chopped boulder and then at the apparition of death before him. He was smart enough to run. At the sight of their fleeing comrade, the other men ran away as well. When she was satisfied that they were gone, Arturia walked back to the blanket. She rotated the sword around and presented the handle to Bedivere. "Mine thanks." Bedivere accepted it and resheathed the sword. "Twas mine pleasure. Mine only regret was that twas not I who greeted them." She cast a glance at Rhynne. "A physic must look after her patient." Bedivere handed the water skin to Arturia. "Come, Arturia. Finish thy meal. I wish to leave before they come back with friends and prompt us to resort to more drastic measures." ----They returned to the Aerie without further incident. For most of the afternoon, they stayed in the library to keep Airianne company as she studied. As part of her education, Bedivere told Rin the basics of court etiquette. It was then that she learned the difference between High speech and common. "One uses High speech in formal occasions, such as in court. Tis also used to denote a sign of respect to the person whom one is speaking to. Furthermore, if one is addressed by someone in High speech, then one must respond in High speech if one is knowledgeable in it. Twould be disrespectful not to. Of course, one can converse in common if the other party requests it. Common is used by merchants and peasants because they lack the necessary education to speak High speech properly." From her explanation, Rin discovered that one could gage the social position of a person by judging the way they spoke. It was an unusual way to determine the other person's place in society. Then another thought occurred to her. Arturia used High speech with Bedivere and used common with Airianne. How76

ever, she did this to match Bedivere's and Airianne's preferred speech pattern. But for herself, Arturia chose to address her in High speech from the very beginning. Was her appearance and manner worthy enough for Arturia address her that way? The idea warmed her heart. When they were done, Arturia came over with a book on Welsh grammar. "If thou art not tired, shall we continue thy lessons?" Rin's face lit up. "I am not. Pray, continue thy instruction." "What is this instruction?" asked Bedivere. "Since a lot of mage lore is in Welsh, I am teaching Rhynne how to read Welsh." Bedivere nodded. "I see. Then I shall see both of thee later. I wish to brush Haut." When she was at the door, Bedivere looked back at Arturia and Rhynne. They sat close to each other and were bent over a book. Arturia would point to a word and Rhynne would repeat it with a shy smile on her face. It was quite a remarkable difference compared to the impassive expression she wore when she taught her. Bedivere shook her head and left the room. ----When Airianne was finished with her studies, they adjourned to the great hall to practice dancing until dinner. Once again, Rin was paired with Bedivere. Rin grasped Bedivere's gloved hand. Just underneath the leather, she could feel the metallic bulge of the gauntlet. She felt sad holding it, knowing that her left hand was not there. At least, she was able to do something about her arm which was supported by an iron brace. The brace was fashioned from her armor and seemed out of place when Bedivere wore a dress. "Please give me thy undivided attention." said Bedivere as she swept her away into the waltz. They danced for about half an hour with Rin stumbling and nearly stepping on Bedivere's feet. Bedivere waltzed further away from Arturia and Airianne. "I am sure that if thou give me but a fraction of thy enthusiasm when thou learned Welsh, thou would surely master the basics." Rin blushed with embarrassment. "Mine apologies. I shall be more attentive." At her blush, Bedivere thought of an incentive to motivate her. With a silly grin, she wondered what Rhynne's reaction would be. She leaned close to her ear and whispered. "If thou perform this lesson to my satisfaction, I may be persuaded to offer a hint on how to court Arturia." Rin's eyes grew wide with surprise and she was speechless for a few moments. When she gathered her wits, she protested, "Methinks thou art mistaken! What prompted thee to think that I... would want to do THAT?" "Me, Merlyn and Airianne art in accord. Surely, three people can not all be mistaken." "Is it that obvious?" thought Rin in a panic. She shuddered slightly. As if she sensed her panic, Bedivere said, "Fear not. I shall not reveal thy affection. But do keep mine behest in mind. Tis tiring to dodge thy feet for an hour." Bedivere waltzed a rather embarrassed Rhynne back towards Airianne and Arturia. Half an hour later, she noted an improvement in her technique. She smiled to herself and thought, "Mayhap, there is hope after all." ----It was amazing. She actually won. And everyone else would be singing for her. Arturia would be singing for her. She waited with excited anticipation as Arturia sat on the stage with her harp. To her great surprise, Bedivere declared that she would join Arturia on the stage. She selected a smaller harp and sat on the stage. Arturia started a melody and then Bedivere's quick and nimble fingers followed up with a simple counterpoint. Then Arturia's voice entered the melody. After singing a stanza, Bedivere continued with
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a deep alto that was almost within the range of a high tenor. Their voices mingled harmonically in the chorus. [Author's note: For an example of their playing, listen to: The Maid and Robin.] Rin was stunned by the sheer elegance of their singing. She was even more amazed that Bedivere could play with one hand. When they were done, she gave them a standing ovation. "Bravo! Magnificent!" "Bravo? I hope that tis a word of praise." remarked Arturia jokingly. "Yea. Tis of Italian tongue." "After that, mine song will be a poor offering." said Airianne with mock sadness. Bedivere patted her gently on the shoulder. "Allow me to be thy judge, for I hath not heard thee sing. E'en now, thy speaking voice is musical to mine ears, so it must be that thy song would shame the choirs of heaven." Then she smiled with sweet sincerity. Airianne blushed at her words. "I will do mine best!" "She's smooth..." thought Rin when she heard their conversation. "She really knows how to treat a girl nicely." She glanced briefly at Arturia and sighed. As the singing went on, Rin felt that she was in heaven. When the clock struck ten, she was surprised that time had passed so quickly. With great disappointment, she bid Airianne and Bedivere good night. Airianne and Bedivere wished them good night as well, and left the room together. As they walked back to their rooms, Rin wondered why Bedivere left with Airianne. She was jolted from her thoughts by Arturia's voice. "How didst thee fare in thy lesson?" Rin smiled widely. "Bedivere saith that mine step hath improved. With a bit more practice, she saith that I will master it." "Really? If thou art close to mastering it, shall I further thy instruction?" "Is she offering to teach me?" she asked herself. Suddenly, Bedivere's parting reward surfaced in her thoughts. "If Arturia offers thee a favor, thou must refuse thrice before accepting. She will think that thou art concerned about inconveniencing her and art considering her efforts. She will be delighted by thy concern and will think that thou appreciate her efforts." "Oh, what the hell..." thought Rin as she threw caution into the wind. She replied, "Nay, thou must be tired from thy playing." "I moved mine hands, not mine feet. I am not tired at all." "Okay, second excuse... hmmm..." thought Rin. She quickly protested, "I am a poor dancer. I will surely step on thy feet." "I doth not mind." "But what if Bedivere doth not approve of thy instruction? She will be cross with thee." Arturia winked at her. "Then, we shall keep it secret." "Whither will we waltz?" "This way, Milady." Arturia beamed her a beautiful smile and offered her hand in the customary gesture of invitation. Rin put her hand on hers and was careful not to get too close to the mark. She let Arturia lead her into her room. Then they assumed the starting position of the dance. Arturia began to hum and they waltzed in the basic pattern. Rin felt awkward at first, but managed synchronize with Arturia's rhythm. As she gazed into Arturia's eyes, she let her body flow with her rhythm. They just danced and danced. Rin lost track of time. Arturia stopped humming but continued to guide her. The rhythm played in Rin's brain and she kept up with Arturia. After a while, Arturia smiled proudly at her. Her heart leapt at the sight. "Thou no longer look at thy feet. And thou followed thy partner's lead e'en without music. Tis well indeed."
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Rin blushed. "Mine heart gladdens with thy praise. But methinks I can still improve." "Yea. I look forward to it." Rin was loving this day. The race, the picnic, the singing... she enjoyed every moment of it. And now, dancing the night away with Arturia filled her cup of joy to overflowing. Suddenly, her foot caught on the edge of a rug and she reeled backward. She reached out to try to grab something. Arturia felt Rhynne slip and tried to catch her. Without thinking, she grabbed her hand. The room melted away into darkness. When she opened her eyes, she saw that she was on a dingy bed in a dimly lit room which was illuminated by moonlight shining through broken windows. Rhynne was sitting next to her. Syrowe was standing a few feet away with a concerned expression on his face. She felt really weak and could not move. Rhynne pulled the ribbon off her shirt. Then she unbuttoned her shirt halfway and slipped a hand in to caress her nipple. She gasped at the sensation. She felt lips nibbling the tip of her ear. Rhynne's lips traveled down her neck trailing soft kisses while her hand moved from her breast to her stomach. Her breathing became ragged as Rhynne sucked the nape of her neck while her hand slipped under the waistband of her skirt and twirled the curly strands of hair over her loins. Then the room faded away and her eyes focused on the pattern of a rug. With her elbows, she lifted herself up. Her eyes left the rug to focus on Rhynne's apprehensive face. The vision of that room flashed in her mind. She could almost feel Rhynne's touch on her bosom. She hastily sprang to her feet, her arms crossed before her as if to protect her chest. The kisses lingered on her neck. Her hand involuntarily rose to touch the place where Rhynne had planted them. "Why?!" she thought. "Art thou all right, Arturia?" asked Rhynne who sat up. Was the vision true? Was it a dream? Her palm tingled with the answer. She trembled at its truth. But the truth nagged at her and finally, she blurted out, "Rhynne, what am I to thee?" Rhynne seemed startled at her question and did not answer right away. When she did, she spoke softly. "Thou art mine friend." "Is that all?" Once again, Rhynne did not answer right away. And when she did, she turned her head away and answered, "Yea. Thou art mine dear friend." She had to get away. So she did. Before she knew it, she had left the room and ran to the lower level to find solace in something that she knew to be true. To her great relief, she found Bedivere crooning Haut to sleep. At her approach, Bedivere turned to her with a puzzled expression. "Bedivere... I must speak with thee." Arturia seemed very agitated. Something must have happened. Bedivere patted Haut and kissed him good night. "As thou wish. Come, let us go somewhere more appropriate." She led Arturia to the library and stepped into one of the private rooms. "Say what thou wish. This room is enchanted so that none may hear beyond its walls." She pulled up a chair for Arturia and sat on another chair nearby. Arturia sat down and started slowly. "Dost thou remember the marks upon mine palms?" "Yea. Thou wisheth to keep it to find thy memories." Arturia nodded. "Yea. But to do so, I must match mine marks with Rhynne's. Bedivere's eyebrows shot up. This was new information. She wondered if Merlyn knew about it. "Whenever the marks match, I have a vision. Most of the time, Syrowe and Rhynne art in the vision. But they both look younger. Tonight, mine hand touched Rhynne's as I tried to stay her fall. And I beheld a vision of a most disturbing nature. I was in a dark room upon a bed with Rhynne. She... she... touched my bosom. And then she bit mine ear and swept kisses down mine neck... and then her hand... her hand slipped under mine skirt to... to touch mine..." "Thou need not tell me if it makes thee uneasy." interrupted Bedivere. She had heard enough. Her face was hot and was probably as flushed as Arturia's. Her description matched Syrowe's memories of
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the mana transfer incident. Bedivere's thoughts raged with disgust. "Damn these mages and their perverted rituals! Why must mana transfers require such intimate contact?" Involuntarily, her hand covered her mouth. She had no right to complain. Each courtly greeting shared with Arturia transferred the mana that maintained her youth. She returned her hand to her lap and wondered how she should deal with Arturia. Since she had seen Syrowe's point of view, perhaps it would be best to determine Arturia's state of mind. "How didst thou feel when she touched thee?" "I felt... embarrassed. Syrowe was watching and..." "What if Syrowe was not there? How didst thou feel?" "... Her touch... made mine skin tingle. Her kisses filled me with a strange sense of exhilaration. But... I felt that it was wrong." "Why?" "It seemeth to me... that she hath done so out of necessity. During that time, I felt weak... so weak. I did not want her to do something inappropriate because of mine weakness." "Aha!" exclaimed Bedivere internally. A mote of understanding formed in Bedivere's mind. Arturia was more concerned that Rhynne was being forced to touch her. Now she had something to work with. "Arturia, tis not a flaw upon thy character to ask for aid." "But... to do such an... an intimate thing with me... tis far too much to ask." "Dost thou revile her touch?" "Nay!" "Oh, so will thou accept her touch?" Arturia fell silent. Was it all right for Rhynne to touch her? She thought back to the time when Rhynne bandaged her in the inn. Then she remembered the times that they bathed together. Slowly, the answer crept out of her lips. "Yea..." "So... why dost thou think that she will not want to touch thee?" Arturia's eyes grew wide and stared at Bedivere. Until now, it did not occur to her that Rhynne would want to touch her. It seemed unlikely. "She hath no reason to want such a thing. I'm sure of it!" Bedivere rubbed her forehead with exasperation. As usual, Arturia was being very oblivious. She had to phrase her words carefully. "Suppose then, that she did want to touch you. Would thy vision disturb thee so?" Arturia blinked. If Rhynne did not mind touching her, then there was no need to worry about her being forced to do something inappropriate. But the very thought that Rhynne would actually want to touch her still seemed unlikely. "Why art thou suggesting such a thing? Rhynne is... she is..." "Thou didst not answer mine question. Would thy vision disturb thee if she didst want to touch thee?" "Nay..." "So then, if thou knew that she didst not mind touching thee, then thou would no longer be disturbed. Is that correct?" "Tis true... mine heart will be at ease if Rhynne didst not mind it." "Thus we art left with one more question. Doth Rhynne mind touching thee?" "I... know not..." With a mischievous grin, Bedivere asked, "Shall I ask her for thee?" "Nay!" Arturia stood up with a face full of indignation and embarrassment. Bedivere held her palms out in resignation. "Well, I know not her mind either." Arturia sat down and cradled her head in her hands. "What should I do?" Bedivere slouched in the chair and thought for a few moments before an idea manifested itself. She smiled at herself for thinking of it and even more as she imagined Arturia following her suggestion. She put aside her own amusement. "Instead trying to pick up the pieces of thy past, why not start anew?" Arturia looked up. "Start anew? Pray, elaborate." "Court her." "Court... her...?" Arturia stood up and began to pace. Eventually, she stopped and mumbled. "But I'm
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not sure if I desire her that way..." "Mine ears reject thy words. Doth she not sleep in thy bed?" "That is a different matter! Mine dreams have been ghastly as of late." "What didst thou dream of?" Arturia gripped the cloth of her skirt and shuddered. "In one dream, I was in a battle. Many fell before mine blade. But... when I beheld their faces... they had none..." "None?!" exclaimed Bedivere. "Yea... no eyes, no nose, no mouth... tis very unsettling." Arturia paused. "But... there was a knight who challenged me... she wore a helm and smote me with such mighty blows. But eventually, mine blow struck true and her helm sundered twain. And, when the helm fell, I beheld... I beheld a face like mine own." Her tears were streaming down her cheeks. She could not stem their flow. Her heart wrenched at the sight of that face. With a trembling voice, she cried out, "Oh! What have I done?!" She bent over and wept into her hands. Bedivere took her into her arms. She held her in silence. Her thoughts wandered to that awful battle. When she finally spotted them fighting, she rushed to them as quickly as she could. But in the end, she watched in horror as a parent struck down her own child. She slew the enemies around Arturia and carried her out of the battlefield. Then she tended Arturia's injuries as best as she could. With a silent prayer, she went to look for Mordred. When she found her, she hoped that her mutilated body would still show signs of life. Sadly, her hopes were in vain and she returned to Arturia with a prayer to God to save her. And thankfully, God was listening and led Rhynne to Arturia. Bedivere held her closer. She wanted to be God's instrument in saving Arturia. But Rhynne was granted that honor. Ever since she came to the Aerie, she could only watch silently as Arturia showed Rhynne her kind smile, her cheerful laugh, her gentle touch, and most of all, her trusting gaze that betrayed the warmth of her heart. Bedivere sighed. At least, Arturia was alive. That was enough for her. When she had calmed down, Arturia asked in a muffled voice, "Bedivere... who am I?" Bedivere paused for a moment to choose her words carefully. "Thou art a knight like me." "Will thou tell me about mine self?" "Mayhap, a little. But Merlyn saw it fit that thou should wait until thy memory return by itself." "Why?" "I doth not know. When she returns, thou may ask her. But for now, I shall heed her counsel." "I see." Arturia paused. "Canst thou tell me the lord whom we serve?" "We serve God and country." replied Bedivere evasively. "Then who is our king?" Bedivere repeated Merlyn's message with a note of finality. "Constantine is king." It was done. King Arthur's reign was over. She stroked Arturia's head. But Arturia was still alive and she was determined to fulfill her oath until she released her from it. "Oh. Methinks I doth not remember him." Her hands gripped Bedivere's dress. "Must I return to his service?" "Nay. Thou art granted leave until thy memory returns." "I am glad. For e'en thou I know not mine self, mine time here hath been most pleasant." "And I am in accord with thee." They held each other in silence for a while. Finally, Arturia spoke up. "What should I do about Rhynne?" "Dost thou still wish to know her heart?" "Yea... though mine own beats with trepidation on acquiring such knowledge, mine curiosity remains unabated." "Then tis a good time to find out." "How?"
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Bedivere smiled sweetly at her, but there was a wicked glint in her eyes. She lifted her chin with her finger and lowered her face to gaze into her eyes. "I hath given thee instruction before. Shall I refresh thy memory?" Arturia shuddered as she remembered those lessons. "Nay... I remember." "Tis well, for I would be shamed if mine pupil neglected to apply mine instruction." She spread her hands to her sides as if she were presenting a play. "The stage is thine. I look forward to thy performance." "Will thou be mine judge?" "Nay. Rhynne shall be thy judge." She grinned widely at her. "Art thou amused by mine misery?" "Nay, thou art mistaken." "Then why dost thou sport a grin on thy face?" "Thou remindeth me of mine son when he came to me for counsel on how to court a certain maiden." "Why did he come to thee? Should he not ask his uncle?" "I asked him the same question." Bedivere blushed. "He replied that he hath heard many a court lady spake fondly of me. At first, I was shamed that he hath heard such inappropriate rumors, but he assured me by saying that he was proud to be mine son, for not many can boast that their mother is a knight of such noble bearing." Arturia laughed. "Tis an amusing tale!" "Not as amusing as the time when mine daughter sought me for the same counsel." "Nay!" "Yea. It seemeth that a young maiden hath captured her heart. As a mother, I had to caution her of the pitfalls of such an endeavor, but I wisheth her well all the same." Arturia's face grew serious again. "What counsel didst thou provide her?" "Not the same as thine, Arturia. Thy lessons were special." Bedivere held her hands in her own. "For thee, I hath given all that I can give." Arturia blushed at the memory and looked down. Bedivere had done her best to instruct her. She must do the same. She faced Bedivere with sincerity laced in her voice. "Mine spirit hath lifted with thy counsel. Know that I am in thy debt." "Tis mine pleasure to provide thee counsel." Bedivere put her arm around her and walked her to the door. "Tis late. Shall I accompany thee to bed? For e'en if thy dreams plague thee, we shall face them together." Arturia laughed and opened the door. "Then I shall expect thee in mine dreams." They laughed at themselves and headed towards Bedivere's room to get some sleep. After they changed into their nightgowns, they slipped under the covers. Arturia fell asleep within a few minutes. Bedivere stared at the bed's canopy. It had been a long time since she and Arturia shared the same bed. She closed her eyes and remembered a past that she would never forget. ----The wine gushed forth like a geyser. Bedivere hastily brought her hand to her mouth to keep the rest of the liquid in. She swallowed quickly and put her goblet down. Then she pulled her handkerchief out and wiped her mouth. "Milord, stay thy jest when I drink wine. Thou hath made me spill a most excellent vintage." said Bedivere with a slight frown. "I jest not." Arturia stood before her with nervous determination. "Once again, canst thou tell me how to consummate mine marriage?" "Surely, thou must have heard something from Sir Kay about the method." "I hath asked him, but he always hath some matter to attend to." "And thy sister?"
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"She is away on a voyage." Bedivere leaned back and tapped her fingers on her leg in thought. "Why now? I thought her Majesty was content to be thy queen in name?" Arturia began to pace. "Yea, twas mine thought too. But recently, she hath beseeched me several times to... to lay with her." Her cheeks flushed. "I pressed her to tell me why and she claimed that she loved me. But I continued to refuse and eventually she told me that she wanted to bear me an heir. Then I tried to explain to her that I hath no manhood to accomplish her behest, but she insisted that we must make an attempt anyway for surely I will find some means to give her a child." "Even Avalon can not do such a thing." Bedivere paused. "Is she aware of Avalon?" "Nay. Twas no need for her to know." Bedivere sighed. "Tis inevitable, I suppose. Eight years hath passed since thy marriage and she hath not given thee an heir. She must have overheard the scorn of some court lady about it." Arturia sighed. "Mine apologies. I hath asked something inappropriate of thee." "Nay, thou need not apologize. I hear and obey mine King's command. I will be honored to instruct thee." "Thou will?" asked Arturia excitedly. "Yea." Arturia wrung her hands. "So... uh... how will we proceed?" "From the beginning. First, thou must express thy love to thy lady. But thou must accomplish this in a way that will make her feel special." "How?" "Sing her a song about thy love, write her a poem extolling her innumerable virtues, and so forth. Since we have the entire day to ourselves, why not sing me a song, Milord?" "Ah... all right." Arturia cleared her voice and began to sing nervously. Alas, mine love, thou do me wrong, To cast me off discourteously. Bedivere held up her hand. "Nay. E'ery minstrel from moor to high tower hath sung that to countless maidens. Thy lady is the love of thy life. She deserveth much more than a paltry wayside song. Hmm... methinks twould be best if thou accompany it with an instrument. There might be a harp in the storeroom." Arturia sighed. "Very well, I shall fetch yon harp and sing thee a song." Arturia found the harp and tuned it. She took a deep breath and began to sing in a crooning melody. Bedivere had not heard this song before. The harp's harmony wove through her song like silk. The lyrics were sweet and endearing. When she was finished, Bedivere clapped graciously. "Whither hath thou heard this song?" Arturia put the harp down on the table. "When I was a squire, the bard Taliesin graced Sir Ector's hall with a visit. When he was done, Sir Ector asked him to pen down the words of the song. Then, when no one was near, I would spy upon the writ song and sing it until I committed it to memory. Is it to thy liking?" "Verily so. I am taken by its elegance. Thou wert lucky to have heard such a song from such a famous bard." Bedivere refilled her goblet. "Since thy song hath mine approval, I beseech thee to take up a quill and pen me a poem." Arturia got some parchment, a quill and an inkbottle from a cabinet. She sat down on a table and began to write. While waiting, Bedivere sipped her wine and munched on an apple. Finally, Arturia stood up and handed her the parchment. Bedivere made no move to take it. "Nay, Milord. Thou must present thy poem appropriately. Thou may recite thy poem to thy lady or enclose thy poem in a bundle of flowers." Arturia nodded in understanding and read the poem to Bedivere. Oh mine love, thou art true and strong.
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No three men smite more than thee For thy sword is sharp and long... Bedivere cleared her throat. "Milord, thou must speak of thy lady's beauty, her grace, her kindness and so forth. Mayhap, thou might examine Taliesin's song for an example." Arturia tried again and recited her new poem. Bedivere nodded in approval. "Tis well. Now, I shall present thee several situations with thy lady. After I describe it to thee, thou shall answer with thy course of action to deal with the situation. Art thou ready?" "Yea. Let us begin." Bedivere patiently described each scenario to Arturia and evaluated Arturia's answers. She explained why it was more appropriate to do one thing versus another. She ended the exercise by saying, "Thou must show that thou hold her in the highest regard and art considerate of her well-being above all others. E'en if tis not true, thou must make it appear so." Bedivere glanced out the window and noted the shadows cast by the sun. "Shall we have our noon day meal?" "Yea, I am quite hungry." "Then let us have it outside. When thou take thy lady out for a picnic, thou must prepare the food and a blanket to sit upon. The kitchen should have some food and a basket to put the food in. I shall prepare our horses and await thee outside." "I understand. I shall be with thee anon." When Arturia was ready, they secured the manor and mounted their horses. "Lead the way, Milord. Find a place suitable for a picnic." Arturia thought for a moment and smiled. "Methinks I know of a suitable place. Follow me." They rode through the woods and up a steep hill. They rode down the hill and stopped by a stream. A small waterfall that was flowing out of a rocky crevice on the side of the hill fed the stream. On both banks of the stream were bushes of blooming wild flowers. Arturia dismounted near a thick patch of grass. "Is this satisfactory?" Bedivere dismounted as well. "Yea, tis quite admirable. Well done." Arturia laid out the blanket and the food from the basket. Bedivere sat down and selected some food on a plate. When Arturia finished picking her food, she held out her plate to Arturia. "I will feed thee and thou will feed me." Arturia blushed. "Bedivere... this... what thou ask... is it not embarrassing?" "Of course it is, since I am not thy heart's desire. But when thou art with thy lady, thou may not mind at all." "Really?" Arturia fell silent for a moment. "I am ashamed to admit that... I would be embarrassed to do this with Guinevere." Bedivere looked at Arturia sadly. She held out her plate once more. "Here..." Arturia took the plate and gave hers to Bedivere. After a bit of practice, Arturia got better at feeding Bedivere without shoving her fork too far into her mouth. Bedivere picked up some grapes. "Now feed me some grapes, Milord." Arturia took a grape with her index finger and thumb and held it out to Bedivere. Bedivere leaned forward and captured it along with the tips of Arturia's fingers. Arturia gasped and withdrew her hand hastily. "Must thou do that?" "Yea, and thou must do the same." Arturia blushed and did as she was told. While they ate, Bedivere gestured towards the patch of blooming flowers. "Milord, dost thou know the meaning of those flowers?" "Meaning?" "When a lady presents thee a red rose in a tourney, dost thou know what she wisheth to convey?" "Uh... to ask me to be her champion?"
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"Tis true that she asks that of thee, but the rose bears the meaning that she fancies thee. Thus, she is able to convey her heart at the same time." "Oh. No one e'er explained that to me." Bedivere sighed. "Then listen well, Milord. I shall tell thee the meaning of each flower nearby." She gestured to each one and told her what it symbolized. Then she discussed the meanings of flowers that were not present. She ended her lecture by saying, "So when thou assemble a bundle of flowers for thy lady, select ones that will convey thy heart to her." When their meal was done, they packed up rode back to the manor. They stabled their horses and went back inside. "Come, Milord. Let us refresh ourselves with a bath." They went to the bath and undressed. After gathering some towels and soap, they went to the washing area. Bedivere handed Arturia her washcloth. "Let me guess..." said Arturia dryly. "I must wash thee and thou must wash me." Bedivere smiled smugly. "Thou art learning quickly." They washed each other and rinsed. Then they soaked in the small pool. "Milord, massage mine shoulders." "Uh... I doth not know how..." "Then tis a good time to learn. I shall instruct thee." After a bit of practice, Arturia softened up the muscles in her shoulders. Bedivere sighed contentedly. "Milord, when thou art done, massage mine feet." Arturia nodded and went to her feet to massage it. "Bedivere..." "Yes, Milord?" "After all this... I can not help but wonder... why thou would do this with... them...?" Despite the warmth of the bath, Bedivere felt her cheeks flush. Did Arturia hear those wild rumors about those court ladies? How should she answer? After a few seconds of thought, she decided that she would satisfy Arturia's curiosity but not betray their trust. "Milord, I know all too well the demands of duty. Thus, I acted out of compassion for those who sought solace. However, tis unchivalrous of me to discuss any details. Thus, I beseech thee to press no further." Arturia silently nodded and continued massaging. When they had finished bathing, they wiped each other dry. Bedivere asked Arturia to brush her hair. After her hair was brushed nicely, Arturia reached for her clothes but Bedivere stopped her. "Nay. We shall wear these robes, Milord." Arturia's face betrayed her puzzlement, but she obeyed. Bedivere led her to the upstairs bedrooms. She selected a spacious room with a large bed and closed the door behind them. Then she went to each window and drew the curtains shut. She took Arturia's hand and led her to the bed. She pulled the bed covers aside. "Milord, take mine robe off. Slowly." Arturia reached over and unknotted her sash. Her hands rose up to grasp the lapels of the robe and slowly pulled them apart. The robe slid off her shoulders and down her arms to reveal her ample bosom. "When thou undress thy lady, doth not forget to marvel at her God-given gifts." said Bedivere as her robe fell to the floor. Bedivere reached over and disrobed Arturia in a similar manner. Then she took a step towards Arturia and gazed into her eyes. "Milord, please pay attention to what I am about to do. I beseech thee to be patient and allow me to do as I wish." Arturia swallowed. "Very well." she replied in a nervous voice. "Do as thou wish." Bedivere smiled and ran her fingers through Arturia's hair. Then she lowered her face to kiss Arturia's lips. She felt Arturia stiffen so she gently caressed her lips and brought her hand down to her cheek to stroke it. When she felt Arturia relax, she parted her mouth and slowly guided her tongue in. She explored the inside of Arturia's mouth and noted her reactions.
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Bedivere's hand slid down Arturia's arm and slipped around her waist. Slowly, she turned until she faced the bed. Then she lowered Arturia onto the bed. She ended the kiss and trailed kisses down Arturia's neck. Meanwhile, her hand crept up to Arturia's breasts to play with them. Arturia gasped as she tickled a nipple. Bedivere's lips settled on the nape of her neck. She licked it and savored the taste of Arturia's skin. Then she sucked on her skin gently. Arturia gasped again and squirmed under her. Her right hand traveled lower and her legs slid between Arturia's to part them. She watched Arturia's face as her fingertips raked across her stomach and abdomen. Arturia's lips trembled as she did so. Her hand reached the curly hair above her loins. She ran her fingers through them, enjoying its downy softness against her skin. Then her fingers slid further to caress the soft flesh between her legs. Bedivere lowered her head to take Arturia's nipple in her mouth. Her fingers explored the folds of her flesh and stroked its sensitive spots. Arturia brought her hands up to her shoulders, as if she were preparing to push her off. Bedivere looked up questioningly. Arturia was breathing heavily. She stared blankly for a moment and then closed her eyes. She lowered her hands to her sides and nodded. Bedivere understood and resumed sucking on her nipple. Arturia squirmed and gasped as she played with the nipple with her tongue. Her legs parted Arturia's even further and her mouth left her breast. She trailed kisses down her stomach and abdomen. Soon, she reached Arturia's loins and spent a few moments looking at it. "Bedivere..." whispered Arturia hoarsely. Her face was flushed and turned to the side. "...must thou look?" "Yea... and thou must do the same for thy lady. Prepare thyself." Arturia let out a loud gasp and gripped the bed sheets with her hands as Bedivere expertly stroked her flesh with her tongue. She continued to gasp with each stroke. Bedivere looked up. "Thou must observe thy lady carefully. Watch her face, hear her breathing, feel her move under thy body... watch and learn how she reacts to thee. For instance, how is this..." Bedivere flicked her tongue at a certain part of her flesh. Arturia gasped in response. "Compared to this..." She located that sensitive spot and sucked on it slightly. Arturia let out a small scream. Bedivere smiled in satisfaction and crawled up to meet Arturia's flushed face. "Watch thy lady carefully, and thou will know her need." She turned Arturia's face to gaze into her eyes. "I didst not take thee. Thy chastity is intact." She slipped her arms around Arturia's back and straddled her. Then with a flip, she brought Arturia to lie on top of her. Arturia lay upon her as if exhausted. Bedivere waited until her breathing returned to normal. Then she bent close to her ear and whispered, "Didst thou pay attention? If so, do unto me as I hath done unto thee." Arturia lifted herself up with her elbows and stared at Bedivere. Bedivere leered at her. "Art thou afraid of me, Milord?" challenged Bedivere. "Nay... tis I whom I fear." Arturia bent to kiss her lips. For the next ten minutes, Bedivere gasped, squirmed and writhed just as much as Arturia had. This time, Arturia wore a smug smile on her face. "Was that satisfactory?" "Yea... verily..." replied Bedivere hoarsely. "Thou art an apt pupil. Now... go down to mine loins... and feel it once more." Arturia obeyed. "Dost thou feel the wetness of mine flesh?" "Yea, tis rather slick." "That is a sign that thy lady is ready for thee. Feel around mine flesh. Thou will find a small cleft that deepens." "Is this it?" "Yea... now take thy finger and plunge it into the cleft." "What?!" exclaimed Arturia in surprise. "Do it. It will not hurt me." Arturia swallowed visibly and did as she was told. Bedivere felt Arturia enter her.
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"Listen carefully, Milord. That is where a man's manhood enters to deliver his seed into his lady. He will thrust his manhood repeatedly within her to coax it to dispense his seed. With God's grace, that seed may bear fruit as a child. But... thou art not a man. E'en so, thou may still give thy lady pleasure. This part of a woman's loins is very sensitive. Thou only need to discover how to stroke it to delight thy lady. If thy lady is chaste, enter her slowly, for a part of her flesh bars the entrance of the cleft. This will lessen the pain that she will feel. But be at ease, for the pain will pass. And, just above this cleft, is another sensitive piece of flesh. When thou screamed, twas that part that I touched." Arturia trembled at the memory. "I suppose then, that I am to discover what delights thee?" "Correct. Stroke the insides of her flesh and that part above the cleft. Use everything that thou hath learned so far. Master her body as thou mastered thy harp, and she will fill thy night with her song. When thou had pleasured thy lady enough, a strong tremor will run through her body and she will convulse and writhe against thee with great fervor. That is a sign that thou had achieved thy goal. Art thou ready to undertake thy lesson?" "Yea." Arturia planted her lips on Bedivere's neck and began. She was an apt pupil indeed. Bedivere squirmed and gasped in pleasure as Arturia's fingers ran rampant all over her skin and within her. Slowly, waves of passion built up within her. Then it gathered itself to a mighty crest and swamped her senses under. She screamed hoarsely and shuddered against Arturia. But Arturia did not stop. Instead, she coaxed those waves to well up again, like a cavalry regrouping for a second charge. The waves crashed again and her other senses were dulled by the fire raging between her legs. She threw her head back and cried out in bliss. There was a sound of fabric being torn. Arturia stopped and lay down on her side to face her. She was flushed from her efforts and was breathing hard from her exertions. Bedivere took the moment to catch her breath. She lifted her hand to wipe the sweat dripping into her eye and was surprised to find feathers clinging to them. She glanced to her side. The bed sheet was ripped and downy feathers spilled out of the tear. "Behold what thou hath made me do..." whispered Bedivere. "Me?! Twas thou who clawed the bed like a mad beast!" Arturia paused. "Art thou satisfied with mine performance?" "Yea... twas more than I expected... much more." Arturia leaned back to lie on her back. "Am I ready to... lay with Guinevere?" Bedivere paused for a moment. "Nay... I have one more lesson for thee." She lifted herself up on her elbows and caressed Arturia's cheek. "Milord, when a lady gives herself away, she bares both her heart and body. She doth not do so lightly, for as thou hath seen, she loses both her innocence and her chastity. Once she loses her chastity, she can not take it back. That is why it is so important for her to give it to the one she loves." Bedivere paused and reflected on her past. "When I married mine husband, I did so out of duty, not love. Our first night together was very painful for me. There were nights when I wept silently after he took me. At the time, he did not have a place in mine heart, and e'ery time he entered me, I felt that he invaded mine heart." A scowl began to form on Arturia's face and Bedivere noticed it. "But do not despise him so. For if it were not for our marriage, God would not have gifted me with mine children. And, when thou requested that I join thy court, he was kind enough to look after mine children's needs and education whilst I was away in court. So, by the time he joined God in heaven, he hath earned a place in mine heart as a friend." "So when thou lay with thy lady, think of the trust that she hath in thee and of the gift that she offers. If thou art unsure, imagine thyself in thy lady's place, and think of offering thyself in the same situation. Let thy heart and judgment guide thy actions." "Bedivere, thou contradict thyself!" cried Arturia in alarm. "Why didst thou let me take thee?" "Because, Milord... I love thee." Arturia's eyes grew wide at her confession. She stared at her in shock. When the shock passed,
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Arturia blurted out, "I was a fool to beseech thee in this manner! Mine heart aches at the immensity of thy gift. I must repay thy kindness!" She grasped Bedivere's arm and pulled her towards her. Bedivere pushed her away slightly and said in a firm voice, "Nay, Milord! Thou wert not paying attention! No matter how much thou command me, I will not take thee." Then her eyes softened. Ever since they started this morning, she tested not just Arturia's skill, but also her heart. The signs that she saw from Arturia told her the answer to her own question. She tried to restrain the disappointment in her voice. "That honor is reserved for the one who hath won thy heart. And though it pains me to admit it, I am not the one." Arturia cupped Bedivere's face in her hands. "What must I do to compensate thee for thy gift?" "Nothing, Milord." Bedivere lay back on the bed and closed her eyes. "At the moment, I feel very compensated." "There must be something..." Bedivere turned her face towards her. "The only thing that I might wish for, is for thy permission to serve thee and stay by thy side." Arturia smiled. "That I can grant." She held out her hand. Bedivere looked at her hand until her intention dawned on her mind. She clasped her hand firmly with her own. Then Arturia pulled her into a kiss to reaffirm the oath of service between them. Fresh mana flowed from her lips into Bedivere's mouth. When the transfer was done, Arturia pulled away and leered at her. "There art still a few hours before sundown. Shall I compensate thee some more?" Bedivere trembled visibly. "Nay, Milord. Methinks the bed will not last. And twould be difficult to ride back if we exhaust ourselves." "What should we do?" "Allow me to rest, Milord. Unlike thee, mine stamina hath limits. And thy instruction was tiring." "I shall accompany thee." They slept for a couple of hours before they dressed up and rode back to Camelot. When they dismounted at the courtyard, Guinevere greeted them. Her finely chiseled face reflected her noble Roman bloodline. A fragile but intricate gold headpiece which symbolized her crown nestled in her braided brown hair. She wore a blue and beige gown which was richly ornamented with gold embroidery. Her poise and dignity befitted her regal manner. Bedivere knelt on one knee in her presence. "Good evening, mine King, Sir Bedivere. How didst thou fare in thy hunt?" Guinevere extended her hand to Arturia. Arturia took Guinevere's hand and kissed it. "Poorly. As thou can see." Guinevere turned to Bedivere. Her hazel brown eyes narrowed as she looked down at her. She extended her hand. "The deer must have become crafty to evade thy renowned tracking skill." Bedivere noted the slight chill in her voice. Her brother's warning came into her mind: "Have a care in her Majesty's presence. Methinks she is envious of the bond thou shareth with his Majesty." Keeping her head bowed, she took Guinevere's hand and kissed it. "Methinks thy assessment is correct. I must devise new methods to find them." "Mayhap, Sir Kay may share his methods with thee. He hath returned with a fine buck an hour ago." Bedivere ignored the subtle accusation. She lifted her face slightly to show her elation. "That is splendid news! I shall consult him as soon as possible." "Shall we go, mine Queen?" Arturia offered her arm to Guinevere. The conversation was taking an unusual turn, and she felt the need to separate Guinevere and Bedivere. Guinevere hooked her arm with Arturia's and sidled up to her. She smiled winsomely. "As thy Majesty wishes." With that, they parted ways. Arturia escorted Guinevere to the inner keep of the castle while Bedivere went to her quarters in the outer keep. The next day, Bedivere rode out for her usual morning gallop. After she was done, she rode to her
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favorite tree and sat down to have some breakfast. While she was eating, she heard the sound of galloping and was surprised to see Arturia. "Good morning." greeted Bedivere as she put her food away and stood up. "Good morning." replied Arturia as she dismounted. "How art thou?" Arturia did not reply at once and turned her gaze to the valley. Her eyes stared into the distance sadly. Finally, she spoke, "I could not do it, Bedivere. I could not take her." Arturia faced her. "Have I failed in mine duty as a husband?" "One may argue that thou hath failed." Bedivere strode over to stand next to Arturia. "I will not judge thee. And I will smite anyone who judges thee." "Thy last lesson was too harsh." Bedivere looked around to see if anyone was nearby. When she could see no one, she hugged Arturia. "As thy teacher, I must do mine duty to the fullest of mine ability." She paused and reflected on Arturia's decision. "If it is of any solace, tis mine thought that tis better to be hated than to do something that will scar thy conscience for the rest of thy life." Arturia tightened her hug. "Mine thanks. Mine spirit lifts with thy words." Arturia pulled away. She looked at Bedivere sadly. Then she reached out and grasped her left wrist. She put her hand on the gauntlet that replaced her left hand. "Thou hath given me so much..." "Nay, Milord. Thou hath given me much more. If thou hath not called me into thy service, I would have lived the rest of my life as an ordinary married woman. For that, I am grateful. Very, very grateful." "Mine thanks. It gladdens mine heart to hear that." Arturia let go of the gauntlet. "Court will commence soon. I must prepare. I shall see thee later." "Later, then." Bedivere watched her gallop away. Then she sat with her back against the rough bark of the tree. She closed her eyes, and with a smile, relived yesterday's events.

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Chapter 9: On the Night of the Ball
Rhynne wandered into the dining hall. Airianne put her muffin down. "Good morning." "Good morning." Rin sat down and picked up a muffin. She started nibbling on it. Airianne glanced at the sun above the horizon. Rhynne was early. She listened for more footsteps from the hall, but detected none. "How odd." she thought. She made a pretense of reading her Mother's messages and glanced several times in her direction. There seemed to be dark shadows under her eyes. Rin munched on the muffin to feed her grumbling stomach. After Arturia ran away so suddenly, she waited for her to come back until the clock struck one. Finally, she gave up and went to her room. But she kept worrying about Arturia and could not sleep. After she finished her muffin, she poured herself some tea. Footsteps and voices in the hall declared the arrival of Bedivere and Arturia. From their voices, they seemed to be talking about horses. They entered the dining room dressed in riding cloaks. Their hair was tousled and there were several small stems of hay stuck to their cloaks. "Good morning." They greeted them and took off their cloaks. Bedivere sat next to Airianne while Arturia sat next to Rhynne. They both reached for a muffin. "Art we late?" asked Bedivere. "Nay, we hath just started." replied Airianne. Bedivere noted the wrinkled parchment. "What news?" "Mother and Syrowe attended a ball." Airianne giggled. "Poor Syrowe hath so much trouble with the ladies. Mother and he had to leave early." "Tis well that they left. Some art rather desperate to catch a mate." "Doth I hear the voice of experience?" asked Airianne jokingly. "Methinks this conversation hath exceeded the bounds of propriety." said Bedivere dryly. "Anyway, dost thou have a spindle? I wish to sew banners for the ball." "Ye can sew?" exclaimed Airianne. "Yea. Twas part of mine studies at Rosenharte." Rin sipped the last of her tea and put it down. She watched Arturia warily from the corner of her eye. Arturia picked up the teapot. To her surprise, she poured tea into her empty cup. Rin blinked several times before she responded, "Mine thanks." Arturia smiled slightly at her. "Thou art welcome." Rin felt relieved at those words. She was so worried that Arturia would not speak to her. She looked at the stack of freshly baked muffins. She picked one and bit into it. She was much hungrier than she thought. ----For the rest of the day, Arturia acted as if last night's incident did not happen. Rin felt very relieved at this, but kept observing her for any sign that she might be upset with her. The day passed quickly and Bedivere began their dance lessons once again. She and Bedivere waltzed for about half an hour before she commented, "Thou hath improved vastly.
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Shall I give thee a reward?" Before she had a chance to react, Bedivere twirled her about and released her. She spun awkwardly and felt someone catch her. When she looked up, she found herself gazing at Arturia's face. Just behind them, Airianne waltzed with Bedivere. Rin quickly checked her hand position and was surprised to discover that Arturia was wearing gloves. She returned her gaze to Arturia's face. She smiled calmly at her. Rin smiled back and did her best to keep up with her. After waltzing for ten minutes, Rin felt that this dance was different from last night. Arturia's guiding hand seemed more confident and her steps were more evenly paced and smooth. And the way that Arturia gazed at her seemed different as well. Rin shook the thoughts from her mind. It must be just her imagination. But she was happy that Arturia did not seem upset and that she had another chance to dance with her. Furthermore, she did not have to worry about the marks since Arturia was wearing gloves. At the thought that was she wearing it for her sake, her heart became giddy with joy at her kind consideration. She enjoyed the rest of the dance in a state of bliss. ----After the evening's entertainment was over, Bedivere and Airianne wished them good night and left the sitting room together. Arturia's eyebrows rose with an unspoken question and she looked at Rin. Rin answered back with upturned palms and a shrug. They walked back to their rooms. "What art thy plans tomorrow morning?" asked Arturia. Rin was startled a bit. She tried to figure out what Arturia was thinking. "I hath not planned that far ahead." "Then will thou be interested for a morning stroll?" Her question perked her curiosity. "Of course. Whither shall we go?" Arturia held her index finger to her lips and winked briefly. "That... is a secret." Rin forgot her nervousness and chuckled at the sight. Arturia looked so cute for a moment. "When should I wake?" "I shall wake thee when tis proper. But I must advise thee to sleep early, for we shall rise early." Arturia paused and added as an afterthought, "Oh, and I will need permission to enter thy room." Rin opened the door to her room. "Thou may enter whenever thou wish. Thou art always welcome in mine room. Now I shall take thy advice and sleep. Good night." Arturia was a bit surprised at Rhynne's gracious reply. She regained her composure quickly and replied, "Good night." Then she made her way to her own room to sleep. ----It was still dark when Arturia woke her. She dressed up and met her in the great hall. Arturia was carrying a knapsack and a traveling pack. Rin offered to help her, but Arturia refused and insisted on carrying them. They fetched Haut from the stable and secured the knapsack and the pack on him. Then they descended on the platform and made their way out of the mine. Arturia handed Rhynne a dark red riding cloak. "Please wear this. Tis a bit chilly in the morn." Rin slipped the cloak on and flicked the hair caught under it. Arturia nodded appreciatively at the sight of Rhynne flicking her hair. "This hue suits thee well." She offered her hand to help Rhynne into the saddle. Rin noted her gloved hand. With a smile of relief, she grasped it in hers. Arturia helped her up and then mounted Haut behind her. They galloped down the path with only the crescent moon to light their way. They continued down the main road and took a side road that cut into a forest. After about twenty minutes, Arturia slowed down a bit and guided Haut down a narrow path. The branches blocked the light of the moon so she dis91

mounted and lit a small lantern in front of Haut's chest. Then they resumed their journey. Soon a small river broke the path. Arturia backed up Haut about thirty feet from it. Her arm slipped around Rin's waist. "We shall jump over it. Fret not. Haut can do it easily." "All right..." said Rin. She grabbed the rim of the saddle and steeled her nerves. Arturia urged Haut to a gallop and then pulled up with his reins just before the river. With a mighty leap, Haut jumped over it. Rin felt her stomach flipping over as they sailed through the air. Leaves brushed her face and hair. Arturia slowed Haut down to a canter. "Did the leap alarm thee?" "Nay." Rin felt for Arturia's hand on her waist and squeezed it. "It was an exciting leap." She chuckled. "I felt mine stomach fly." Arturia felt Rhynne's squeeze. Her heart leapt at her touch. Then she laughed at Rhynne's last statement. She reached up and slowly removed a leaf from Rhynne's hair. "Methinks I made him leap too high." This time she removed a petal. Rin felt her cheeks get warm as Arturia took her time to remove the leaves and petals from her hair. When she was done, they resumed their journey. They exited the forest and galloped across a meadow. Then they returned to a paved road that entered another forest. When they exited the forest, they came upon a small meadow that ended at the shores of a lake. They dismounted near a clump of bushes. Arturia went into the bushes and pushed a small rowboat out on the lake's sandy shore. Once again, Arturia refused Rin's offer of help. She helped Rin into the rowboat before fetching the knapsack from Haut's side. Arturia pushed the boat into the water and hopped in with the grace of a cat. She picked up the oars and rowed into the lake. Rin watched her with a puzzled look and then watched the shore. The light from Haut's lantern grew smaller and smaller. Finally, Arturia stopped rowing. She secured the oars. Rin rubbed her hands and blew into them to warm them up. Arturia noticed Rhynne. She reached for the knapsack and pulled out a quilted blanket. To prevent the boat from rocking, she made her way slowly towards Rhynne and sat next to her. She put the blanket around her shoulders. "Mine thanks." said Rin with a blush. "But this cloak is quite warm. Only mine hands felt the chill." "Is that so? Shall I warm thy hands instead?" Arturia held out her hand. Rin stared at Arturia's hand for a moment. She remembered Bedivere's advice. "Oh, what the hell... I'm too lazy to think of excuses right now." she thought. She gathered her courage and put her hand on Arturia's. Arturia put her other hand on top. As she pressed her hands together, Rin's fingertips edged forward and touched the cold skin of Arturia's wrist. Her heart warmed with Arturia's act of kindness. With a half-joking voice, she playfully told Arturia, "How can thou warm mine hand, when thy own skin is just as cold?" She pulled her hand away and lifted the edge of the blanket. Then she scooted closer to Arturia and draped the blanket around Arturia's shoulders to enclose them together under its warmth. Arturia was surprised at Rhynne's behavior. Her sense of chivalry prompted her to refuse, but the feel of Rhynne's bosom pressing against the side of her arm barred the refusal from leaving the tip of her tongue. She regained her composure and stammered out, "M-mine thanks...". "Tis thy blanket. Thou should enjoy its warmth as well." Rin withdrew her hand under the blanket and attempted to rest it on her own leg. But instead, she missed and landed on Arturia's upturned palm. Since she did not intend to do that, she began to move her hand away. Arturia felt Rhynne's hand on her own. Thinking that she still wanted to be warmed up, she enclosed Rhynne's hand with her both of her hands. Rhynne's hand felt so small even though they were almost the same height and build. Her chivalric nature told her that something so fragile should be protected. She
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cradled it gently, like holding a delicate sculpture. Rin felt the warmth of Arturia's hands around hers. As she gazed back at Arturia, her heart decided to beat faster. That self-conscious feeling rose again, and she broke the gaze to stare at the bottom of the rowboat. They sat in silence in the rowboat. It was very warm under the blanket but Rin felt even warmer with Arturia's hands around hers. In fact, it reminded her of the time when Arturia held her under the blanket in the wagon. She closed her eyes to experience the memory again. Arturia saw Rhynne's eyes close. A sense of alarm filled her when the thought entered her mind that Rhynne may be tired because of her malady. Remorse began to fill her heart. It was selfish of her to forget. For now, she had to make do with the situation. Her hand left Rhynne's and went across her back to grasp her shoulder. Then she pulled Rhynne to her so that she could rest her head on her shoulder. "Mine apologies. I hath awakened thee too early. Please rest a bit. I will wake thee when the time comes." Rin was surprised when Arturia pulled her close and even more so when she thought that she was sleepy. Because she was so close to Arturia, it took a while for her to sort her thoughts. Eventually, her mind processed the words, 'when the time comes.' "I am not sleepy." However, she made no effort to lift her head off Arturia's shoulder. It felt too nice. "But for what shall thou wake me for?" "Thou shall soon see. Please abide patiently until then." Rin waited with curiosity. With her head on Arturia's shoulder and her body under the same blanket as Arturia's, Rin felt that she could wait forever and not care. They waited for about twenty minutes before Arturia spoke. "Behold. Cast thy eyes at the horizon." Arturia gestured before her. Rin did and saw the sky change color to herald the coming of dawn. The first rays of the sun peeped over the distant hills. As more rays escaped from behind those hills, they ran over the water of the lake, leaving sparkles on the tip of its small waves. Rin's eyes grew in wonder as the sun rose and illuminated the lake. The lake shimmered as the sun's rays glittered on its surface. But there was a white patch on the lake that interrupted the golden tide. She wondered what it was. As if to answer her question, the white patch stretched out wings into the sky and dispersed into the air with a flutter. Rin watched in amazement as a flock of swans rose majestically into the sky and formed a pale formation against a background of orange and blue. "Beautiful..." thought Arturia as she watched Rhynne's varying reactions. She smiled with satisfaction. It was worth all that effort to bring her here. "It's beautiful..." said Rin softly. "Verily." Ever since the breaking of dawn, her eyes had not left Rhynne's face. Underneath the blanket, her hand shifted to intertwine her fingers with hers. There was slight tingle in her palm. Rin felt Arturia's hand move. She shifted her head on Arturia's shoulder to look up at her. She did not know that she was looking at her, so her lips ended up brushing against the side of her jaw as she moved her head. She pulled away abruptly and blushed. "Mine apologies... I did not mean to..." Arturia touched the spot on her jaw. Only an inch more and she would have grazed her lips. The image of Rhynne meeting her lips flashed in her mind. She blushed slightly and pushed the image out of her mind. She was a knight and not a wanton knave. Such thoughts were unbecoming. She looked over at Rhynne who seemed to be in a state of panic. Technically, it was her fault for having her face so close to her head. Hopefully, Rhynne would not realize that she did so because she was looking at her. She had to divert her attention. "Be at ease. There is no need to apologize. Tis but a small matter and not worth missing God's blessing upon the world." She gestured again at the rising sun. "Behold." Rin turned to look at the sun. The morning haze was slowly dispersing and the sun was becoming more blinding to look at. But it did look like that the sun was slowly pushing aside the darkness. She remembered her basic catechism, and quoted, "And God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light.
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And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness." "How true..." remarked Arturia and watched the sunrise with Rhynne. They watched it until it was too bright to look at. "Methinks that now would be a good time to have breakfast." Arturia began to move to take her seat, but Rhynne's hand on her arm stopped her. "Allow me to help thee." "Tis a tiring task, and may blister thy hands." Rin held out her palm. "I already have calluses." It was true. She had formed some during all those chores. Arturia shook her head. "I hath awakened thee too early. Please rest. I doth not wish to tire thee." "I am not tired. Allow me to help. Please." With the best of her ability, which was not much, Rin tried to create similar puppy dog eyes that Sakura would often use on Shiro. She hoped that she did not look too silly. Arturia blinked several times. For some reason, Rhynne's eyes had changed from her usual serious gaze to one that seemed absolutely adorable. Her heart melted at the sight and she had a sudden urge to hug her. With all the discipline at her disposal, she restrained herself. "Oh, very well... but thou must promise not to tire thyself." Arturia put the other oar in its brace and handed her the handle. As they rowed back to shore, Rin cursed Merlyn for whatever she said to make Arturia think that she was sickly. As soon as Merlyn gets back, she would convince her to correct Arturia's misunderstanding. They climbed out of the rowboat and beached it. Then Arturia fetched the pack from Haut. She laid out the blanket under the shade of a tree and began to lay out their breakfast, plates and cutlery. Breakfast composed of warm bread, butter, grapes, and strawberries. Arturia poured tea from a clay jug into small tin cups. Arturia picked up a strawberry by its stem and held it in front of Rhynne's mouth. "Try this. Tis very sweet." Rin's first inclination was to refuse and say that she could feed herself. But the very thought of Arturia feeding her spurred her imagination. She decided to make it a reality. She leaned forward and touched the tip of the strawberry with her lips and bit halfway into it. "Tis good!" declared Rin after she ate it. "I am glad." said Arturia who finished the rest the strawberry. Rin's jaw fell at the sight. She had just shared food with Arturia. In school, she had overheard many conversations of girls sharing their drink with a boy they liked. She laughed at their giddy expressions. But now, she could laugh no more. At last, she understood. Arturia reached for some grapes and popped them in her mouth. When she finished the last one, Rin reached for some grapes. Emboldened, she held out a grape by its stem in front of Arturia. She smiled winsomely. "Allow me..." Arturia smiled and leaned forward to envelop the entire grape. Her lips touched the tips of Rin's fingers. Rin sucked her breath in at the sensation of those moist warm lips. Arturia pulled away, leaving the stem behind. "Dost thou... want another?" asked Rin, her cheeks burning. Arturia observed Rhynne with amusement as her cheeks took on the color of the strawberries nearby. "Yea." she replied and accepted the offered grape. While they fed each other fruit, a thought occurred to Rin. "Dost thou come to this lake often?" "Nay. I hath found this lake yesterday while trying to find Bedivere. I was tracking her, but a wolf scared mine horse and we fled over yonder river. Twas amazing that the horse managed to jump across it." She chuckled. "I tried to find the main road and return to Bedivere. I found this lake during mine search." Arturia's face grew menacing. "I wish that I hath a sword with me. That wolf caused me to lose mine
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way." "I am glad that thou wert not hurt." said Rin. "But... tis not always bad to lose one's way. One can discover new things sometimes. For if thou hath not lost thy way, thou would not have found this lake. If thou would not have found this lake, I would have never seen such a beautiful sunrise." "Mine thanks." Arturia's heart soared with Rhynne's words. It was a pleasure to see her happy face. Rhynne finished the rest of her tea and sighed with satisfaction. Airianne was right. She was so amusing to watch. Though it was a little reckless of her to invite Rhynne to come despite her malady, she was happy that the trip was going well so far. She had one more task to do. She got up. "Please abide here a moment. I will be back anon." Rin watched with curiosity as Arturia mounted Haut and rode back into the forest. She nibbled on strawberries while she waited for her. About five minutes later, she heard hoof beats and turned to the direction of the sound. Arturia was carrying a bouquet of flowers. She dismounted and offered them to Rhynne. "For thee. Tis small recompense for thy timely aid in mine hour of need." With eyes shining with overflowing joy, Rin accepted the bouquet. It was a myriad of lilies, daisies and other blossoms that she could not recognize. They were held together by broad leaves and a small vine. Fresh dew glistened from their petals and the air around her became suffused with their fragrance. Rin's nose sampled several flowers. "Tis a gift fit for a queen! Thou undermine the value of thy gift." Arturia laughed and sat down next to her. "If tis truly a gift for a queen, then tis appropriate for thee." She smiled at her warmly. Rin blinked several times before she realized what Arturia meant. She blushed greatly. Somehow, she had to hide her embarrassment. "Is that so? Well then..." Rin untied the vine and laid the flowers on the blanket. Then she selected some with pliant stems and fastened the vine around them to form a small garland. She went up on her knees and held out the garland over Arturia's head. "A queen must have a king." said Rin jokingly as she laid the garland on top of Arturia's head. Then she sat back to enjoy the sight. Arturia blushed as Rhynne smiled at her. She could only imagine how silly she looked with a crown of flowers. But two can play at this game. She picked out some flowers and made a similar garland. "A queen must have a crown too." She carefully placed it on Rhynne's head. Then she sat back to admire her handiwork. They stared at each other for a while. "Beautiful..." said Arturia softly. "Thy garland was well crafted." Arturia smiled. "I spake not of the garland." Warmth spread across Rin's face and to her ears. Her mind shut down. She ran out of things to say. "How adorable..." thought Arturia as she watched Rhynne's ears turn red. With her sense of propriety forgotten, she gazed at her with undisguised admiration. After a while, Rin could not bear her embarrassment anymore and broke the gaze. She glanced quickly at her watch. "Mayhap, we should go back..." she said softly. As if a spell was broken, Arturia returned to her senses. She noted the height of the sun. Rhynne was right. They should go back since Bedivere would be waiting for them at the platform two hours after sunrise. She sighed. Time had passed quickly when they had taken their time rowing to shore since it was so amusing meandering back and forth across the lake. "Yea. Let us do so." They packed the utensils and the blanket. Arturia helped Rhynne on to Haut and then sat behind her. She slipped a hand around Rhynne's waist. During all those times when she felt like hugging Rhynne, she restrained herself. And now, with Rhynne so close, she could not resist anymore. She shifted slightly and let her settle against her.
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"Come Haut. Take us home." With that, she urged Haut to a gallop. They rode back in time to catch Bedivere exiting the door to the platform. "Good morning." greeted Bedivere with a knowing smile. She waved. "Good morning." replied Arturia. She noted Bedivere's hand signals: 'How was it?'. She waved back: 'Tis well.' "Good morning." replied Rin. Bedivere's presence was not a coincidence. She had a feeling that something else was afoot. She looked warily at Bedivere and hoped that it was just her imagination. ----Bedivere closed the door of the private room. "I want details." she said as she sat down on a chair. Arturia scratched her jaw absentmindedly. "Well... tis not much. We watched the sunrise, then we ate breakfast, and then we came back." Bedivere slouched back and regarded Arturia critically. After a moment, she asked, "And what of the petal in thy hair? Surely, thou did not roll among the daisies." "Oh, that... tis from the crown, I suppose." "The crown?" "Yea... Rhynne made a crown of flowers and laid it on mine head." Apparently, more had happened than what Arturia had told her. "Methinks thou should start from the time that thou hath left the mine." For the next fifteen minutes, Arturia condensed their entire trip to the lake for Bedivere. After she was done, Bedivere smiled approvingly. "Well, now. Methinks that thou should have an answer to thy question. Thou only need to pursue it further." Arturia sighed. "E'en so, methinks that tis all in vain." Bedivere's smile faded. "Why dost thou think so?" "Because... she already hath someone dear." Bedivere leaned forward. She had not heard of this. "How dost thou know this?" "When we first came to the Aerie, Airianne asked Syrowe and Rhynne if they hath someone dear. Strangely, Syrowe hath named me e'en though we hath known each other briefly. And Rhynne saith that she hath someone." "Did she saith who?" "Nay. Merlyn came and Airianne did not ask her." She sighed. "I know not what to do." But Bedivere was sure, so sure that she almost wanted to shout, "She fancies thee, thou loggerheaded flax-wench!" However, it was very unbecoming of a knight to use such language. Instead, she swallowed her words and counted to three. Though it was typical of Arturia to be very oblivious, it sometimes tried her patience. She returned her thoughts to Arturia's predicament. She sat before her looking so forlorn, with a countenance matching that of a lost kitten. Even her sigh echoed her despair. She had never seen her so despondent. It was a large contrast to King Arthur who had an uncanny sense of purpose and would forge ahead regardless of any obstacles in her way. If only there was a way to infuse that kind of purpose on Arturia, then she could break out of her melancholy. Bedivere tapped her fingers on the table in thought. The idea that came to her could either spur her to action or depress her even more. She had to be careful. "Dost thou recall her visage when Airianne asked her?" Arturia tried to remember. "Methinks... she seemeth rather reluctant to admit it." She sighed dramatically. "I suppose that's it then. Let us hope that he is a man of honor." She paused for effect as Arturia looked up with questioning eyes. "I doubt that he is a knight, though. He must be a mage. From Merlyn's knowledge of Nee-hun, tis customary for parents to arrange marriages for their children. Tis likely that she was promised to him since birth. Her reluctance may stem from that. Mayhap, she is unsure of her own heart and thus hesi96

tated in answering Airianne's question." She was stretching the cultural aspect based on Syrowe's memories. Hopefully, she sounded convincing. Arturia's eyes grew wide. "Thy argument hath some merit... but tis mere conjecture until proven true." "Suppose then, that she is betrothed to him, but hath not yielded her heart to him. What dost thou think of that?" "Methinks she would not be happy if she married him. And, if she doth not love him, then she should tell her parents that she doth not want to marry him." "I see no ring upon her finger. Hast thou?" Arturia sat up straight. "No... I hath not seen one e'er since we met." Bedivere's argument started to make more sense. Bedivere put a hand on her shoulder. "Tis mine opinion then, that thou may still have a chance to win her heart." "But... what if she truly hath someone dear?" "Then, she will let thee know. E'en though I have known her for a short time, methinks she will not lead thee on. She is a very considerate person." "Yea, she truly is very considerate." Arturia stood up. Her eyes shone with determination. "He hath an advantage of meeting her first. But I will not be outdone. I shall prove to be better than him!" "Nay, Arturia. Methinks that is not enough." Bedivere stood up and put both her hands on her shoulders. She spoke firmly. "Thou aim too low. Rather than being better than him, thou must aim to be the only one for her. Thou must be her ideal, so that she would only want to love thee and only thee." "How can I become that?" "Patience and observation. She will let thee know the way to her heart." Arturia nodded in understanding. "If that is what it takes, then I shall do it." Bedivere grinned widely. "Then I shall pray for thy success." "Mine thanks." Arturia paused in thought. "Bedivere, I hath always wondered. Thou art very knowledgeable in the matters of the heart. Whither hath thou learned all this?" "I hath learned the art when I was studying at Rosenharte. But most importantly, sometimes only a lady can understand another lady's heart." She winked. Arturia giggled. "How true..." Bedivere laughed with her. "Now then, fellow teacher, I have some lessons to teach and so doth thee. Shall we?" She opened the door. Arturia smiled at the prospect of teaching Rhynne. "And so we shall..." ----Whenever they were not busy with chores, dancing or preparing for the ball, they went to the lake. Most of the time, they rowed across it and explored its many hidden spots. They saw a variety of birds, flowers and turtles. On other times, they just ate under the shade and practiced conversing in Welsh. Sometimes, Arturia would bring a harp and she would sing. It was on one particularly hot afternoon that they did something entirely different. They were in the middle of conjugating verbs when Arturia closed the Welsh book. As Rhynne stared at her in puzzlement, she declared, "Methinks tis too hot to study. Shall we refresh ourselves in yonder lake?" Rhynne's jaw dropped. "But... we did not bring any swimsuits!" "Swimsuit? What is a swimsuit?" "Oh... I am unsure how tis called in thy tongue. It means a garment that one wears when one goes swimming in public." Arturia inclined her head in thought before she answered, "Tis not customary to wear such a garment. Tis difficult to keep clothing secured in water."
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A drop of sweat trickled down Rin's forehead. She realized that Arturia meant to swim in the nude. Her mind started crunching. If she agreed to swim with Arturia, she will get to see her swim in the nude. However, she would be expected to swim naked too. She had seen Arturia naked in the bath, but that bath was secure from prying eyes. Before she could stop herself, she protested, "But what if someone sees us?" "Haut can easily drive them away." replied Arturia casually. "He can?" "Yea. He is a trained warhorse." She walked over to Haut and patted him gently. "Thou will protect us, right Haut?" As if in response, Haut neighed and stamped his hoof. Arturia turned to Rhynne. "See?" She walked to Rhynne and sat down next to her. She picked up the Welsh book. "But if thou art uncomfortable swimming, we shall continue thy lesson." Was swimming with Arturia no longer an option? Her heart rebelled and spewed forth a small cherub with black wings. The cherub flew up to her brain where a button marked 'Inhibition Override' was and pressed it. "Nay! Let's swim!!!" cried Rin as she stood up with a fist towards the sky. Her jaw fell when she realized what she had done. Arturia giggled at Rin's sudden enthusiasm. She stood up and held out a gloved hand. "Come this way to change, Milady." Arturia led her to a clump of bushes close to the shore. She pulled some branches aside and let her slip into a small enclosed space. Then she followed her in. "Shall I help thee undress?" "If it doth not inconvenience thee..." Rin turned around to give her access to her back. Arturia had undressed her on numerous occasions, but she still could not get used to it. At least, she could look forward to undressing Arturia. Oh, what fun! They hung their clothes on an overhanging branch of a nearby tree. Arturia offered her gloved hand once again. Hand in hand, they waded into the lake. The water was cool and Rin shivered slightly. When they were about waist level, Arturia suggested, "Shall we swim to the end and back?" Rin stiffened. She was not very good at swimming. But she did not want to disappoint Arturia, so she nodded, "All right." Arturia dove into the water like a fish. Rin watched her pale lithe form disappear under the waves. Her arm resurfaced about ten feet away. She continued to swim further. Rin swallowed. She had to follow. She squatted until the water was to her shoulders and dog paddled to Arturia. Arturia switched from the breaststroke to the backstroke to get a view of Rhynne. When she turned her head left and right, she did not see her nearby. Alarmed, she stopped and looked around some more. Then she saw her splashing around about thirty feet away. She swam to her until she was about five feet away and watched her dog paddle. It was obvious that there was great gap between their proficiencies. She took a deep breath and dove under about five feet underneath Rhynne. She had seen children swim like this before, but when Rhynne does it, there was a certain kind of innocent charm to her efforts. She tried to maintain her position and continued to watch silently. Rhynne hoped that the cool water of the lake would extinguish her burning cheeks. She watched nervously as Arturia stopped, turned around and swam back to her. But when Arturia suddenly dove out of her sight, she looked around her. She was not to her left or to her right. She was not behind her either. There was only one more direction left. Rin stopped paddling and dipped her face into the water. Slowly, she opened her eyes. Through the blurry water, she could see Arturia looking up at her. And it seemed that she was getting closer. Rin resurfaced and began to thread water. Arturia surfaced next to her and took a few breaths. "Mine apologies. I did not realize that thou art not as adept as I am, and caused thee to accompany me across the lake. Though thy skill will keep thee afloat, it will tire thee faster. If I may be presumptuous,
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I would be glad to instruct thee in the finer points of swimming." "Nay... I can't possibly... ask that... of thee..." sputtered Rin as she bobbed up and down trying to thread water. She was barely succeeding. Rhynne was obviously having trouble. If she were at sea, she would have a hard time fighting against a strong current. Arturia did not want to be insistent, but she felt that Rhynne needed to understand that her swimming was very poor. "As thou wish." Arturia submerged herself underwater and swam underneath Rhynne. She swam to the nearest clump of reeds and resurfaced to conceal herself behind it. She picked out a long hollow stem to use for breathing and dove under the waters to stealthily watch Rhynne. "Oh no..." thought Rin as she submerged her face to look for Arturia. "Did I offend her?" Her eyes followed Arturia for as long as she could. Then she resurfaced for air. She looked again, but could not find her. Her eyes quickly scanned the waters around her. She dog paddled in the direction that she last saw her. She hated to admit it, but she was getting a bit tired. She dipped her face in the water again and tried to look for her. She did this several times before she decided to head for the shore. The shore seemed farther than she thought. Her face was bobbing underwater more frequently. It felt like she was not making much progress. Panic began to well in her. Before she realized it, she called out, "Arturia..." There was no response. "Arturia!" Then she sank into the water up to the crown of her head. She thrashed about to stay afloat. When she resurfaced, she heard a splash next to her. "Art thou all right?" "Arturia!" Her hands reached out to her with relief. Arturia caught them in her own. When she realized what she had done, Rin blushed and looked away. "Umm... I... am fine." "If thou saith so." Arturia let go of her hands and submerged into the water. Rin panicked. Her hands darted down to grab Arturia's. She managed to grab her hands, but was jerked down as Arturia descended. Arturia felt Rhynne grab her and looked up. She was spewing bubbles into the water. Alarmed, she swam up, wrapped her arms around Rhynne and covered her mouth with her own. She blew a bit of air into her. They resurfaced together. Rhynne coughed and drew several gasping breaths. Then she wrapped her arms around her neck. Arturia felt bad for leaving her alone. She held her closer. The effect of doing so startled her a little. She could feel Rhynne's heaving bosom as she drew her breath. Even with the cool water, she could feel the warmth of her skin against hers. She had never held her this close before. It felt rather... wonderful. They floated in the water for a few moments before Rhynne spoke. "Mayhap... I may need more instruction in swimming." "As thou wish. Let us move to the shore first, so that thou may have stable footing." Reluctantly, she unwrapped her arms around Rhynne and held her waist. "All right." Arturia waited for Rhynne to remove her arms around her neck. When she did not, she smiled in amusement and cleared her throat. "E'en with mine skill, methinks twould be difficult to swim to shore in this position." "Oh..." Rin pulled away and blushed in embarrassment. "Mine apologies..." "To get to shore quickly, I must ask thee to lie on thy back. Please turn around." Rhynne complied. Arturia raised her left arm over Rhynne's left shoulder and placed it across her chest so that her left hand would be under Rhynne's right arm. Then she tilted her back until her head rested on her shoulder. While keeping Rhynne's head above water, she swam to the shore with steady strokes. As Arturia swam underneath her, it seemed that she was lying on a bed of water. The sky was the canopy and the clouds served as decoration. And Arturia was... her pillow. Rin smiled at the thought and forgot her embarrassment. Arturia stopped when the water was about four feet deep. Then she began to instruct Rhynne with breathing exercises and basic threading technique. When she was satisfied with her progress, she started to teach her breaststroke. When she had learned the basic motions, she swam about thirty feet away.
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"Swim to me." said Arturia. She held out her hands. Rin was eager to comply. Her motions still felt awkward, but Arturia's smiling face caused her to redouble her efforts. She was really enjoying her instruction. Internally, she berated herself for refusing in the beginning. She could have spent more time learning how to swim better. Slowly, she swam towards her. When she was about three feet away, she kicked with all her might and grabbed the tips of Arturia's fingers. "Good. Thou hast done well." said Arturia approvingly. Rin beamed happily with her praise. Suddenly, their lesson was interrupted by the call of the cuckoo. "Ah..." Arturia sighed regretfully. She glanced at the mechanical bird on the blanket. Time had passed quicker than she anticipated. She shifted her hand to intertwine her fingers with Rhynne's. "Tis time to go back." "Yea." agreed Rin with the same regretful tone. Hand in hand, they waded back to the clump of bushes to change. After changing, they packed up their things and mounted Haut. Arturia slipped her hand around Rhynne's waist. There was no need for her to invent chivalric reasons to explain why she did it. It had become a habit, and a good one, too. For at least once a day, she could hold her closely without waiting for an event that would allow her to do so. The thought brought a wide smile on her face. Then she pulled on Haut's reins and prompted him to bring them home. ----It was time. A regal melody filled the hall as Bedivere pushed Wybrenne's wheeled chair in time with the melody to the raised stage in the middle of the hall. She positioned the chair at the middle of the stage and faced the entrance of the sitting room. Although Wybrenne wore a conservative gown as appropriate for her age, she held herself in an elegant manner. Bedivere stood beside Wybrenne with an air of poise and noble calmness. She presented a dashing figure in her white and gray waistcoat, halfcloak and breeches. If someone were to take a picture of them, they could easily be mistaken as a noble mother and her son. Arturia and Airianne took their cue. Arturia offered her gloved hand and Airianne put her hand on top of Arturia's. Then Arturia escorted Airianne to the stage. Airianne was stunning in her pearl colored gown. Arturia looked just as dashing in her blue and gold waistcoat and white breeches. When they were about two feet from the stage, they bowed in courtly fashion to Wybrenne and Bedivere. Wybrenne nodded while Bedivere bowed to them in return. Arturia and Airianne took their places beside Wybrenne while Bedivere walked back to the sitting room. She stopped at the entrance and offered her hand to Rin. Rin put her hand on top of Bedivere's and let Bedivere escort her to the stage. Arturia watched Rhynne approach the stage. In her flowing dark red velvet gown, she was like a flower in bloom. She could almost imagine her scent upon her nose. In retrospect, she should have insisted in escorting Wybrenne to stage. That way, she would be the one escorting Rhynne instead of Bedivere. When they were close enough, Bedivere and Rhynne bowed to them. As she bowed back, Arturia noted grace in which Rhynne did so. Her eyes drunk the sight of Rhynne's braided hair, her half-lidded eyes, the elegant curve of her pale neck and the depth her cleavage. When she realized what she was staring at, Arturia wrenched her eyes away with great effort. Bedivere cleared her throat. "Ladies, we art gathered here today to witness the coming of age of Lady Airianne who is of the most esteemed House of Emrys. Let us welcome her warmly into our embrace. Glory be to the one who will gain her favor tonight." Bedivere knelt before her and offered her hand. "If it pleases thee, may I have thy first dance?" Airianne placed her hand out to accept. "Yea, twould give me great pleasure to dance with thee." Bedivere smiled roguishly and led Airianne to the dance floor. Rin turned to the musical instruments hanging under a potted tree and snapped her fingers to change the tune. The instruments faded the cur100

rent melody and started playing a slow waltz. Meanwhile, Arturia asked Wybrenne to dance. Wybrenne accepted and Arturia pushed her chair toward a padded swing hanging under the intertwined branches of two trees. Gently, she moved Wybrenne from the chair to the swing. Then she secured her to the swing and adjusted its height with a nearby pulley. Arturia and Wybrenne assumed the proper waltz hand and arm positions. Then they began to waltz in place. When the song finished, the dancers exchanged the customary farewell bow and went to find a new partner. For the next dance, Arturia partnered with Airianne and Bedivere partnered with Wybrenne. When they assumed the starting position, Rin snapped her fingers again to change the tune. Wybrenne chuckled at the sight of Bedivere dancing with her. She spoke softly. "Thou art too charming for thy own good. What is thy proficiency in Advanced Charms and Allure?" Bedivere matched the softness of Wybrenne's voice. "Twas the highest the academy e'er awarded when I finished mine studies. I know not if anyone hast bested it." "Was thy nickname 'Dangerous Beauty'?" "Why... twas so..." replied Bedivere with a note of surprise. "Thy name was whispered as a legend within the halls when I studied there long ago." "Then I shall have to live up to the legend." Bedivere dipped her backwards slightly and gazed into her eyes. Wybrenne laughed softly. "Art thou trying to make me feel like a maid again? Cease thy seduction, sir knight. Mine Merlyn will be sore with thee. Besides, I am old." "If thou art old, what am I?" Wybrenne gazed back with a puzzled look in her eyes before understanding reflected on them. "I see... so tis true. Thou art fortunate in that respect." "Since I am thy elder sister, thou art certainly a maid. Allow me to treat thee as such." "Merlyn will not let this go lightly." Bedivere winked at her. "Tis our secret then." They broke out into soft laughter and continued their slow waltz. Since she was not dancing, Rin just watched the couples dance. When Bedivere and Wybrenne started talking softly, she pricked up her ears and tried to catch their conversation. Amidst the flirty conversation, she deduced something that seemed illogical. Bedivere was older than Wybrenne. And yet, Wybrenne looks very old. She glanced at Airianne. Airianne said she was thirty-six. She added twenty years to Airianne's age to estimate Wybrenne's age to be fifty-six. Her jaw dropped. That would mean that Bedivere was at least fifty-seven or more. Her eyes drifted to Arturia who did not look a day over twenty. Bedivere was supposedly older than Arturia, but certainly not thirty-seven years older. In appearance, Bedivere was between twenty-five to thirty years old. The sight of Arturia offering her hand to dance interrupted her thoughts. Hastily, she placed her hand on Arturia's and snapped her fingers to start the next tune. As she gazed into Arturia's eyes, she could not help but wonder how old she really was. However, her thoughts melted away when Arturia spoke. "I would like thee to know that I hath been looking forward to this moment." Bells were ringing with joy inside her mind. Rin felt so happy. "M-- me too..." Arturia pulled Rhynne a little closer. This beautiful blossom was hers to hold for this dance. When the dance was over, they reluctantly separated and bowed. The dancing continued for five more songs before Bedivere announced that they would break for dinner. They adjourned to the dining room and ate a five-course meal. A set of flutes played while they ate. Airianne's cooking was far more exquisite than before, and she earned everyone's high praise. After dinner, they bade Wybrenne good night. While waiting for Bedivere to escort Wybrenne to her quarters, they went to the sitting room and listened to Arturia play the harp. When Bedivere returned, they continued to waltz for about twenty songs. After each song, they
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exchanged partners. For three songs, Rin was entertained by a waltz with Airianne while Bedivere and Arturia challenged their skill in waltzing by switching between the male and female roles in the middle of the song. "Thy skill is not as lacking as thou hath spake it to be." remarked Bedivere as Arturia led her in time with the music. "Methinks that e'en though mine memory was lacking, mine body remembered well." Bedivere chuckled. "Indeed." She glanced over at Airianne and Rhynne. "Her gown is quite fetching, is it not?" Upon hearing Bedivere's statement, Arturia was speechless for a moment. Then her eyes narrowed and a scowl formed on her face. "Bedivere! Must thy tongue speak of Rhynne like an uncouth knave?" "Rhynne? I spake not of her." replied Bedivere calmly. Arturia's voice caught in her throat like a boar in a trap. Bedivere smiled roguishly. "It seemst that thy thoughts art preoccupied. If I may venture to suggest, please take Airianne into consideration. Tis her ball after all." Arturia cheeks burned with embarrassment and she did not bother to meet Bedivere's gaze. She increased the rhythm of their steps and hoped for the song to end. Meanwhile, Rin tried her best to lead. There were several moments where she almost stepped on Airianne's gown, but managed to reposition herself at the last instance. So far, the most enjoyable waltzes were the ones she danced with Arturia. Whenever she gazed into Arturia's eyes, she was fairly certain that she felt the same. After the last song, Bedivere clapped her hands and announced, "Tis time for Lady Airianne to announce the one who hath won her favor tonight." Airianne went to the stage to stand in its center. She looked at everyone and declared, "Twas a difficult choice, for I hath enjoyed mine dances with thee. But tonight, the one who stirred mine heart the most was..." Her eyes alighted on Bedivere. "...Sir Arturia." Rin gaped in astonishment. A quick glance at Arturia and Bedivere indicated that they were surprised as well. All three of them stood in silence until Bedivere began to clap her hands. "Hail, Sir Arturia. The chosen one." Arturia walked to the stage to claim her prize from Airianne. She knelt before Airianne and offered her hand. Airianne placed her hand on Arturia's and Arturia kissed it. Then Arturia stood up to kiss Airianne on the cheek. But instead, Airianne moved slightly to capture Arturia's lips with her own. Arturia's eyes widened. At first, she wanted to push Airianne away, but that would be humiliating for Airianne. Suddenly, the cherry stem jest leapt into her mind. Since it was Airianne's ball, she could be magnanimous. Her hand snaked behind Airianne's head and her lips parted Airianne's. She guided her tongue in and showed her what she wanted to know. Rin stared in horror at the spectacle before her. As it went on, she could not bear to watch anymore. She turned to run away, but Bedivere was standing behind her and blocked her path. "Nay... Please abide a moment." asked Bedivere. "She is almost done." As if on cue, Airianne went limp and swooned. Arturia caught her in her arms. Bedivere put her hand on Rin's shoulder. "I shall not be outdone!" declared Bedivere. She pulled Rhynne towards her and cupped the side of her face. Her large gauntlet slightly obscured Rhynne's face from Arturia's view. Then she dipped her and lowered her face towards hers. Before she touched her lips, Bedivere whispered, "Count to three and pretend to faint." And then she added, "For revenge." Arturia watched in horror as Bedivere dipped Rhynne into her trademark kissing position. "Wait..." she cried out and stepped toward Bedivere and Rhynne. But she was too late. Bedivere cupped Rhynne's face and kissed her. After a few moments, Rhynne swooned. "Bedivere!" growled Arturia. "Be at ease. I shall take her to bed." said Bedivere. She took Rhynne in her arms and with long powerful strides, exited the hall.
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Arturia stared after her in confusion. She told herself that there was nothing to worry about, since Bedivere would take Rhynne back to her room. But her mind narrowed in on Bedivere's words 'to bed'. Her first inclination was to assume that those words indicated Rhynne's bed. However, an insistent voice in the back of her mind told her to make sure. Arturia carried Airianne to the sitting room and laid her on the padded bench. Then she hurriedly went to Rhynne's room and found it open. She peeked inside before she entered. Rhynne was not there. Arturia checked her room, then Bedivere's and even Syrowe's. Rhynne was not there either. Where did they go? Arturia punched her fist into her palm. With patience born out of knightly discipline, she had endured Bedivere's teasing during the ball. But now, she had gone too far. She would pay dearly for this. ----When Rhynne opened her eyes, they were walking hurriedly in a strange corridor. The walls were etched with many arcane symbols. Every twenty paces or so, they passed by a suit of armor or a statue of a mythical beast. When they passed by a window, Rin realized where they were when she saw the village illuminated by moonlight. They were in the east wing. Bedivere entered a room which appeared to be a study. Several desks and chairs were up against the walls. A large tapestry with faces of people was hanging from the wall. There were cabinets full of scrolls and bound books. But what caught Rin's eye was a cabinet full of several types of round crystal balls and other strange trinkets. Bedivere sat her down on a chair. "Whither art we?" asked Rin. "We art in Airianne's study." "Why didst thou bring me here?" Bedivere chuckled. "Can I not engage thee in friendly conversation? These past few days, I hardly spoke to thee unless I was instructing thee. Besides, thou seemeth to be disturbed by Arturia's conduct recently." Rin bowed her head as she remembered the kiss. Her heart ached as the image flashed in her mind. "Fret not. Arturia is not like me. Methinks she hath done so as a boon to Airianne." Bedivere stood up and offered her hand. "Forgive her, and I will show thee something that will surely interest thee." Rin looked up. She wondered what Bedivere meant by something interesting. She thought for a moment. Her experience with Arturia seemed to coincide with what Bedivere said. So she put aside her doubts, put her hand on Bedivere's and replied, "I understand. I was just surprised, that's all." Bedivere laughed. "Verily. She surprises me all the time. Come. I shall show thee thy reward." Bedivere escorted her to another room. She struck the flint by the door to light the lamps in the room. Rin's jaw fell in astonishment. The room was full of paintings of Arturia. The paintings were arranged in chronological order from her birth until the formation of the Round Table. Rin's eyes devoured the rows of paintings. "Incredible, is it not?" said Bedivere. "Yea... verily." said Rin with undisguised awe. Bedivere waited until Rhynne was done with all the walls of the room. Then she strode over to a set of curtains. "If thou art done, please look here." Rin turned around to look at Bedivere. Bedivere pulled a brown sash and drew the curtains back. Rin sucked in her breath when she saw what was hidden behind them. "Behold, " proclaimed Bedivere. "King Arthur." She was majestic. No, she was beyond majestic. Arturia wore an intricately wrought golden crown upon her head. Her intense green eyes spoke of a calm strength and a noble heart. A blue cloak lined with white fur and decorated with ornate silver stitching was secured around her shoulders with a golden chain and a blue sash. On the side of cloak was an emblem of a silver and gold dragon. Over her blue tunic and skirt, she wore a polished set of silver armor with embossed markings in blue. Just under the
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cloak, her left hand held a golden scabbard which in turn held Excalibur. Since she had never seen Avalon before, she could only guess that the scabbard was Avalon. Bedivere smiled with pride as Rhynne gazed in wonder at the painting. "I want a copy..." thought Rin as she gazed at the painting. "Actually, I want a copy of EVERYTHING." She would have to fetch her camera and take pictures. And perhaps, she could spare a jewel or two to make a duplicate of the King Arthur's painting. A thought suddenly occurred to her. "Sir Bedivere, why didst thou show me this?" "All the paintings in this room were commissioned by Merlyn. As thou can guess, she thought of Arturia as her own child. Airianne hast a similar room, but larger." Bedivere paused. "Merlyn loves Arturia very much, and so doth I. We would be very, very displeased if someone were to break her heart." Rin swallowed. Did she just hear a threat? She had to show that she was on their side. "I understand. I, too, would be very displeased if someone did Arturia ill." Bedivere smiled wolfishly. "Then I am glad that we art in accord." The door to the room opened. Airianne walked in. "Oh, so here ye art. I was wondering where ye were." She cast a stern look at Bedivere. "Ye dinna show her mine room, did ye?" Bedivere laughed. "And earn thy ire? Of course not." Bedivere drew the curtains close. "Methinks, we should adjourn to thy study." Airianne turned to Rin. "Oh! Sir Arturia was looking for ye." "All right, let me go find her." "I'll show ye where to look." Rin and Bedivere followed Airianne into her study. She went to a map on a table and waved her hand over a crystal ball. "Sir Arturia." A tiny figure of Arturia materialized on top of the map. She was at the lily pond and was walking about. "Can this map show ye where everyone is?" asked Rin with a sense of amazement. "Aye." replied Airianne. She waved her hand over the crystal. "Lady Rhynne and Sir Bedivere." They showed up on the eastern part of the map. "Amazing..." said Rin. "Verily." Airianne pointed to Arturia's little image. "Methinks she's going to the lower levels now." "I beg thy pardon. Allow me to go to her." Bedivere nodded. "I shall escort thee to the sitting room." They walked through that strange corridor again. Rin's mage sense indicated that the entire hallway was enchanted to only let certain people pass. That was probably why Bedivere was escorting her to the sitting room. She glanced at Bedivere and wondered how she was granted access to the east wing. When they reached the sitting room, she bade Bedivere good night and went to search for Arturia. She found her as she was descending down the stairs to the laundry room. "Rhynne!" cried Arturia with obvious relief. She reached out to take Rhynne's hands in her own. "Art thou well?" "Yea. I am." "I am glad!" Her face grew dark. "Did Bedivere do anything unusual to thee?" Rin shook her head. "Nay. Be at ease." Arturia sighed with relief. "Thank God! I feared that she was going to..." She stopped abruptly and berated herself. She almost let out an indiscretion. "Going to...?" Arturia shifted her hand to intertwine her fingers with Rhynne. "Tis of no matter. Shall we leave this place?" Rin nodded and so they made they way back to their rooms. When they were near Arturia's room, Arturia turned to her. "If it pleases thee, may I have the last dance for tonight?"
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Rin's eyes grew wide and her heart leapt with anticipation. She smiled at Arturia and replied, "Twould be mine pleasure." They entered Arturia's room and selected a wide space to waltz on. Then they began a slow waltz. The only music that Rin could hear was the beating of her own heart in her ears. And the only thing that she could see were Arturia's intense green eyes. Arturia held her so closely that she could almost feel her breath upon her face. Arturia gazed in wonder at the beautiful flower that she held in her hands. The familiar scent of camellia wafted in the air. It felt so intoxicating as she inhaled its fragrance. She gazed into Rhynne's eyes and felt trapped in its deep blue depths. Those eyes seemed to pull her in and she bent slightly closer to comply. It was then that she saw her own face reflected in Rhynne's eyes. It was then that she knew the answer to her question. Her face inched forward until the tips of their noses touched. She paused for a moment to observe Rhynne's reaction. Rhynne's eyes indicated surprise, but her lips parted slightly. Arturia smiled at the invitation and bridged the distance to accept it wholeheartedly. When their lips touched, a tingling jolt spread out from her spine to her hands and feet. Her heart began to beat rapidly as she caressed Rhynne's lips slowly. The taste of her lips seeped onto her tongue. Its sweetness spread across her mouth and she savored it. Her hand left Rhynne's waist to snake its way behind her head. She could no longer resist. Her tongue parted Rhynne's lips and entered her mouth. She shifted slightly to deepen the kiss and the hand behind her head helpfully assisted in the effort. Rhynne's hand trembled in her own and told her what she needed to know as she explored her mouth. As she sampled the luscious nectar of this beautiful flower, she thanked God above for his kindness. But God was not that generous. Rhynne suddenly went limp in her arms. She drew back in alarm. The blood dripping from her nose proclaimed the reason why. She gritted her teeth in frustration as she carried her to her bed. As she applied the usual treatment, she was reminded of the first time Rhynne fainted in her arms. In her mind, the last piece of a puzzle fell into place and her heart filled with delight at the discovery. The wonder in her voice was louder than her whisper. "Didst thou love me then?" She cradled her closer and kissed her cheek. When the bleeding stopped, Arturia changed out of her coat and breeches and into her sleeping gown. Then she took off Rhynne's shoes, loosened her gown and undid her braids to make her sleep more comfortably. When she was done, she gazed at Rhynne's face and stroked her cheek. It was her fault. She should have restrained herself. It was God's punishment for her indulgence. Next time, she would be more careful. She doused the candles and drew the curtains shut. Then she planted a gentle kiss on Rhynne's lips to wish her good night. She snuggled against her and for once, dreamt of a shining lake.

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Chapter 10: Sisters
Rin opened her eyes to the see the familiar canopy of Arturia's bed. The weight on her right shoulder declared Arturia's presence. She turned to look and met Arturia's eyes. Arturia smiled and kissed her on the cheek. "Good morning." "G--- good morning..." stuttered Rin. Last night's kiss surfaced in her mind. She sat up and noticed that she was still wearing her gown. Her eyes grew wide in alarm at its disheveled state. Did Arturia do something? Naughty thoughts began to creep into her mind and her left hand pulled up more cloth to cover her chest. "Be at ease. I only loosened thy gown to help thee sleep better." said Arturia as if she sensed her panic. "M--- mine thanks..." Arturia put her hand on top of the back of Rhynne's right hand and intertwined their fingers. She sat up and faced Rhynne. "I have something to tell thee. I have seen visions of thee when our palms touched." When Rhynne appeared to be apprehensive, she tightened her grasp on her hand. "Please listen." She paused and waited for Rhynne to give her attention. "At first, I wanted to see more of those visions. But thou seemeth uncomfortable yielding thy past to me. So, I will not press thee." She lifted Rhynne's hand and cradled it with her other hand. "For now, I still want to know more about thee. I want to discover what makes thee smile. I want to understand thy sorrow and pain. I want to hear thy hopes and dreams. But most of all, I want to see if there is a future with me by thy side. I do not expect thee to understand. I just want thee to know mine selfish wish." Rin could hardly believe her ears. However, her heart did and tears began to flow from her eyes. Those were the sweetest words that she had ever heard. The thought that Arturia would want to be by her side moved her so much. Rhynne was crying. Arturia felt her nightgown for pockets but found none. So she pulled Rhynne into her embrace. "Mine apologies for making thee cry. I have no handkerchief upon mine person... so... allow me to be thy handkerchief instead." It was too much. She could not hold back anymore and wept openly into Arturia's bosom. Her hands slipped around Arturia's waist and hugged her tightly. Arturia's heart wrenched. Why was she crying? She stroked her head. "Mine apologies if I hath offended thee. I... I was too bold..." "Nay..." came Rin's muffled reply. "I... I am happy... so happy to hear thy speech..." Rin pulled back and kept her head bowed. "Thou art so honest with me... and yet... I... hath not done the same." It was only fair that Arturia should know. Rin intertwined her fingers with Arturia's. Her palms tingled as they drew closer to Arturia's palms. Arturia realized what Rhynne was doing. She shifted her hands away from the marks and put Rhynne's hands on her shoulders. "I appreciate thy offer. Mayhap, I shall accept it at a later time. But the past is not what I want right now. If I am getting too close to thee, thou only need to push me away." Rin looked up to meet Arturia's eyes. She had a feeling that something special was about to happen. The prospect frightened her and excited her at the same time. She swallowed her fear. "I... appreciate thy consideration. But to push thee away... is not what I want right now."
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Arturia's eyes lit up at Rhynne's words. Her hands encircled Rhynne's back. She guided her down to the bed and leaned toward her face. She paused a few inches away from her face to observe her reaction. Rhynne closed her eyes. As if on cue, Arturia closed the distance to capture her lips. Rhynne slipped her hands around her waist. Because of last night's incident, she kept the kisses short. She would caress Rhynne's lips and tugged them a little to prompt her to kiss back. Rhynne's kisses were a bit clumsy, but endearing in their innocence. Each one was a treasure just for her. She lost count of how many kisses they exchanged. But somehow, it was not enough. She wanted to be closer. She wanted to feel Rhynne against her, just like the time when she held Rhynne in the water. Her hands crept up to Rhynne's shoulders and her legs straddled Rhynne's waist. She leaned over to the right and rolled over so that Rhynne would be on top of her. Her hands flew behind her and located that familiar clasp. She pulled the clasp down with her right hand while her left hand located that black strap and unfastened it with a flick. Rin's eyes grew wide. In a span of three seconds, Arturia had just succeeded in unzipping her dress and unfastening her bra. Her gown slipped off her shoulders by its own weight and exposed her upper torso. And all that time, Arturia continued to kiss her. Arturia's hand pushed her left shoulder and guided her to lie on her side. That same hand slid down her arm to slip off the sleeve of the gown and the strap of the bra. Only the right side remained. Arturia pushed her shoulder again and caused her to lie on her back. Her hand found the other sleeve and strap, and pulled them down her arm. Rin could not believe it. In less than five seconds, she was half-naked in bed with Arturia. Arturia stopped kissing to admire her handiwork. Rhynne's skin radiated a pink hue and was warm to touch. Her lips were moist and full from all that kissing. Her bosom heaved with each breath. She bent down and laid her cheek against the center of that bosom. Just underneath that smooth skin, she could hear the rhythmic beat of her heart. She closed her eyes and just listened to her heartbeat. Rin could not believe what was happening. Arturia's words came back to her: "If I am getting too close to thee, thou only need to push me away." She glanced down to look at Arturia's head lying on her chest and felt embarrassed at the sight. She certainly was really close. However, she had no will to push her away. Instead, she stroked Arturia's fair hair and kissed the top of her head. They lay together in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Rin gathered her courage. After all that happened, she could say it. "Arturia... I love thee." She kissed the top of her head again. Arturia's eyes flew open. Her mind quickly went through the previous conversation. To her great chagrin, her supposedly meticulously crafted speech was immensely lacking those three words. If Bedivere were here, she would make a merry jest out of her error. She must compensate quickly. She lifted her head and gazed into Rhynne's eyes. "And I love thee as well!" She kissed Rhynne more fervently in an attempt to make up for her mistake. She pulled away and repeated, "I love thee very much!" At first, Rin was puzzled by Arturia's enthusiastic and somewhat frantic kisses, but she forgot her confusion when she noticed how cute Arturia was when she said those three words. She wrapped her arms around Arturia's neck and kissed her back. They kissed several more times before Arturia's lips left her own and began to journey down her neck. She squirmed as Arturia caressed the nape of her neck with her lips. Then those lips traveled further down until they stopped above her breast. Rin watched with bated breath as those lips descended. "Cu--ckooo... Cu--ckooo..." Rin and Arturia froze. Their faces turned towards the mechanical bird sitting on the bedside table just beyond the curtain. Rin narrowed her eyes in annoyance. She extended her index finger and willed a bolt to shoot out. A dark pellet erupted from her fingertip and sped across the bed to punch a hole in the curtain. There was a metallic clang and something skidded across the floor. "Nicely done..." remarked Arturia.
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Rin laughed. "I refused to be disturbed at a time like this." Airianne and Bedivere would probably wonder why they missed breakfast. At the thought of those two, she suddenly remembered last night's conversation in the east wing. She glanced down in horror to see that Arturia's lips were less than an inch away from its destination. With lightning speed, she shifted her hands and pushed Arturia away. She grabbed a nearby bed sheet and covered her front. Arturia's face was painted with disappointment. Her eyes were already asking why. "Mine apologies... but I must tell thee something." Rin told Arturia about the map in Airianne's study and how it can show its user where a person is in the Aerie and what that person was doing. Arturia's eyes grew in alarm. "They can see us?!" exclaimed Arturia sharply. "Yea... tis possible." "Canst thou use magic to foil it?" "Mayhap... but I can not guarantee that it will succeed. I am unfamiliar with the inner workings of the map." They fell silent for several moments. Arturia broke the silence by punching the bed. She spoke through gritted teeth. "This means... that we can not stay here. We will have to find a place secure from prying eyes." ----"Ahhhhhh!!! A pity! So close!" wailed Airianne. Bedivere dispelled the image above the map. "Cease thy lament. Thou may not complain since thou told her about the map last night." She paused in thought. "If thou wisheth to observe them, then why didst thou tell her?" Airianne explained her logic. "If I dinna tell her, tis mine fault for eavesdropping. If she knows, then tis her fault for not remembering." She looked at Bedivere slyly. "But ye... ye dinna stop me. Ye sat there and watched as well. Why?" "Watch thy tone with thy elders, lass." scolded Bedivere sternly. Airianne shrank back in response. Bedivere regarded her for a moment before grinning wickedly. "To answer thy question, firstly, I thought that twould be a nice compliment to thy education in Advanced Charms and Allure. And secondly, twould save thy mothers the embarrassment of instructing thee in such matters. And thirdly..." Her lips curled to a sly smile. "...tis refreshing to see a maid in love." "Aye, I agree." They giggled like giddy maidens. Finally, Bedivere regained her composure and stood up. "Arturia did well... except for those three little words. They will be preparing to come to breakfast now. Let us go and lay the food upon the table." "Oh..." whispered Airianne nervously. "About that... I... dinna bake anything this morning..." Bedivere's jaw fell. "What?!" She scrutinized Airianne who shrank back in her chair. "Thou... how long hast thou been watching them?" Airianne twiddled her fingers and refused to meet Bedivere's stare. "I wasn't sure when they would continue from last night... so..." Bedivere turned pale. She grabbed Airianne's arm and marched towards the kitchen. "Sir Bedivere!" cried Airianne as Bedivere yanked her along. Bedivere faced her with piercing eyes. "Hast thou e'er seen Arturia angry?" "Nay..." Airianne trembled slightly. "Then pray you ne'er will. We have less than half an hour. Exhaust thy skill and make breakfast within that time. I will assist thee. And let us hope that their suspicions will not be roused." ----108

She tiptoed cautiously. Her clothes barely rustled as she made her way to her target. Finally, with less than two feet to go, she reached out to trap her prey. Her hands encircled Rhynne's waist from behind and she whispered in her ear. "Boo." She felt Rhynne straighten up in surprise. She smiled. Mission accomplished. "Thou startled me!" exclaimed Rin who dropped her feather duster. "Shall I help thee finish thy chores?" "Nay. Tis only a little bit left to do." Rin's eyes wandered to the harp hanging on the wall. "But... there art other things here that thou can use to work thy idle hands." "Mine hands art not idle, Milady..." Her fingers reached up and found the knot of her bodice. She began to unravel it. "Arturia!" cried Rin with indignation. Arturia laughed. She should not ought to, but she loved the look on Rhynne's face. Rin quickly retied the knot. She still was not used to this playful Arturia. She put her hand on hers and asked jokingly, "Mine dearest, how am I suppose to finish when thou hast me trapped in thy embrace?" Arturia solved her dilemma by saying, "Use magic." It was possible. She preferred to conserve her mana, but the amount of mana needed to finish her chore would be negligible since the sitting room was not that dusty. She waved her hand to activate the cleaning spell, and the feather duster rose up and attacked a patch of dust. Then she turned in place to face Arturia and wrapped her arms around her neck. They exchanged several sweet kisses before Arturia pulled away and hugged her tightly. "Ah, the day wears on so slowly! If I could advance the hands of time, twould be tomorrow by now." Rhynne smiled. They decided to go to the lake early in the morning. She blushed. Based on what happened this morning, they would probably continue where they left off. And only God knows how far they would go. A brief glance at her watch told her that it was about three o'clock. How will they pass the time? Perhaps, they could go to the lake now instead of later. "When thy chores art finished..." whispered Arturia near her ear. "Shall we go to the lake?" Rin giggled at their coincidental thoughts. "I was thinking the same thing." The feather duster lay idle on top of the cabinet. The dusting was done. She beckoned it to come to her and caught it in her hand. "Mine chores art finished." she announced proudly. Arturia drew back, her eyes shining with excitement. Then she kissed Rhynne soundly. "Let us pack right away!" They had walked halfway to the entrance of the west wing when they heard a loud noise from the direction of the great hall. The instruments hanging on the wall shook slightly. They exchanged questioning looks before running to the great hall. A dark shape loomed outside the semi-transparent walls of the great hall. From its shadow, it appeared to have wings. It dropped something. There was a loud thud from the ceiling and Rin saw chunks of rock fall to the floor of the hall. To her great horror, she realized that it was dropping boulders on the ceiling. "Arturia..." said Rin in a shaking voice. "find Lady Airianne." "But what about thee? I can not leave thee here when that creature is out there!" "I will run when it becomes too dangerous to stay here. Whilst thou search for Lady Airianne, I will devise a way to strengthen the walls. But Lady Airianne must know, for she may have a way of fending off this creature." Arturia did not want to leave Rhynne, but her argument made sense. She reluctantly nodded. "I will be back anon." She ran out of the great hall. Rin went to the wall nearest to the source of the attack. She placed her hand on its surface and tried to sense the mana flow. If she could redirect that mana to harden the stone instead of making it transparent, then she could strengthen the ceiling until Airianne comes. She concentrated in detecting it. When
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she synchronized with it, she was awed by the complexity of the flow. She was even more amazed when she detected an enchantment that converted the heat from the sun into mana which in turn was used to maintain the transparency spell. It was truly the work of a master. She tried to change the mana flow on a small portion of the wall. After a few attempts, the stone became less transparent. She adjusted the flow a few times to achieve more density. She exhaled with relief at her efforts. "Levitiam." She floated towards the affected ceiling and put her hand on it. She closed her eyes to prevent debris from falling into them and chanted a spell to change the mana flow to the one that she had figured out. The ceiling became more opaque starting from her hand to a diameter of about twenty feet. That was the extent of her spell. She would have to move to another section to change the flow. To her great relief, the next attack on the ceiling sounded more muffled and did not cause as much debris. She floated down and moved away from the attacked area. There were several more attacks before the creature stopped. Footsteps behind her announced the arrival of Airianne and Arturia. Airianne looked up at the opaque ceiling and the dark form beyond the walls. She turned to Rin. "Mine thanks. Ye did what ye can. But we must call upon Mother. If anything happens, run to the lowest level. There is an enchanted cell there. Lock thyselves within it." She fetched up her skirt and ran out. A few moments later, Bedivere came running in with her large sword. She looked up at the ceiling with narrowed eyes. Rin explained to her what was going on. She drew her sword. "Mayhap, thou should..." There was a large hiss and the wall melted away to grant a gruesome black dragon entrance. As it descended, it began to transform. By the time it reached the ground, it had transformed into an old woman in an elegant gold and black robe. "At last, I found ye, Arthur. At last, I will have mine revenge." The old woman held out a hand whose fingers bore many rings. The rings began to glow and dark energy began to cackle around them. "Die." Black lightning sped towards them. Rin pushed Arturia aside and quickly erected a barrier. Upon impact, Rin's arms trembled and she stumbled back at the sheer amount of force. But she held her ground until the lightning dissipated. "I see... Merlyn hath left a guard." She raised her other hand. "No matter. Only Merlyn is mine equal." She began to weave her hands. Rin slipped a hand under her bodice and detached the jewel in her necklace. A drop of sweat trickled down her forehead. If the old woman was right, her magic may not be strong enough to protect them. But there was no other choice. She had to try. "What hath I done to deserve thy ire, lady?" yelled Arturia. The old woman stopped for a moment to stare at Arturia. "After all these years, ye ask that! Ye, the usurping bastard! How dare ye mock me!" "I mock ye not, for mine memory hath faileth me! Who art ye, lady?" The old woman stared at Arturia for a few seconds. "So... the battle struck ye dumb. Very well, I will tell ye, so that ye will know mine pain." She stretched out her hands her sides. "Behold, and see what ye hath done to me, yer own sister!" Now, it was Arturia's turn to stare. "What...?" was all she could utter. Meanwhile, Rin took the opportunity to prepare a plan. "How did I come to this? Tis by yer fault. I am the legitimate child of our father whilst ye wert begat by adulterous means. And so by custom, as first born, the throne should come to me." Her voice rose to a thunder and the walls shook with her anger. "But ye had that meddling Merlyn enchant the stone to draw Caliburn! With Caliburn in yer hand, ye fooled the lords to give ye the throne while, I, true heir to the noble line of Pendragon, was set aside to marry a wanton duke!" She drew a few deep breaths and continued her tale. "But I was patient. When yer queen gave birth to Lancelot's child, I gave a kinswoman mine own child to raise as her own, knowing that Merlyn will seek
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to exchange the queen's child with one that resembled ye. So, e'en if I could not have the throne, mine dear Mordred would take it. And thus shall the noble line of Pendragon reclaim the throne. As I predicted, Merlyn came and took the child. News of the birth spread, and the kingdom rejoiced that yer queen hath finally given ye a fine heir. But Mordred aged faster than ye and there was no sign that ye would give up the throne. So I had mine spyes arrange for Mordred to steal Avalon and delivered unto her an enchanted blade and armor. Then I caused mine host to lure ye to battle where Mordred shall claim victory." Suddenly, her cheek contorted horribly. Rin watched in horror as she noticed something writhing under her wrinkled skin. "But, twas not to be! For days, I waited to hear news of Mordred's victory, but instead, I heard defeat! I rushed to the battlefield and found her broken body and on it, the wound that caused her death. Twas the wound caused by yer blade, Excalibur! But the fates wert against me, for as I left the battlefield, a portal opened and a bolt of dark magic hit me. It was a trap set by that insufferable Merlyn! For many days, I nursed mine wounds in the forest. Although that vile Saxon spell destroyed mine beauty, mine strength hath returned with mine anger ten-fold." "With mine strength renewed, I tried to find ye. I searched many towns high and low for ye. By chance, I happened to overhear a farmhand telling a tale about a girl wielding a large blade that can cut stone." Her eyes alighted on Bedivere. "That can only be yer Stone Cleaver. Stone Cleaver will ne'er acknowledge a lesser knight than its master." Her malignant gaze returned to Arturia. "I asked the farmhand to tell me whither he hath heard this tale. And so, I came to this valley in most haste. And now, I finally found ye." She resumed casting her spell. "Ye wert conceived in sin and ye reigned in sin. Die, Arthur. Die knowing mine sorrow and the sins that ye hath wrought. Die, ye usurping bastard! For Mordred!" Rin pulled her hand out and held the red jewel before her. "Raging Soul!" she cried out. The old woman's spell hit a barrier with such force that a small shockwave from the impact knocked down several vases in the hall. Arturia shielded her eyes from the brightness of the impact. When the light had cleared, Rin stood unscathed and clad in a small black cloak and black leather armor with red straps. A silver cross was emblazoned on her chest armor. In her hand, she raised a short handled silver scythe. A fist sized red orb was embedded in the widest part the scythe. "Ye'll have to go through me first, old hag." said Rin menacingly. "And me as well, thou gorbellied pox-marked strumpet!" yelled Bedivere. "Old hag!? Strumpet!!" The old woman simmered with anger. "I will make ye regret those words, both of ye!" She erected a wide barrier. Then she took out a twisted dagger and cut her forearm open. Gray ooze dripped out and sizzled as each drop hit the floor. Rin motioned them back. "Sir Bedivere, take Arturia to the lowest level. There is a secure room there." "Nay. I cannot leave thee. I will fight with thee." "If thou must help, protect Arturia. Move to the next room. She is summoning shades. Do not help me. Thou will only get in mine way." Bedivere nodded and carried Arturia who seemed to be in a state of shock. Rin gritted her teeth as she saw several shades slowly shape themselves into armed knights. Behind her, she could hear the sound of furniture being moved. She exhaled with relief when she realized that Bedivere was trying to form a barricade. She let the end of staff elongate until it hit the floor. "It's now or never." She held the staff with her left hand and cast a barrier behind her. Then she ran to the nearest tree and plucked a leaf. She put it to her lips and whistled an ancient melody. Hopefully, her brief training as a miko at Ise jingu would be enough. To her great relief, the nearby trees began to respond. Their branches contorted and bundled up together to form makeshift arms. The trees stepped out of their large pots to stand on misshapen feet which were formed by bunched up roots. Rin grimaced. She was only able to get five. It would have to do.
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Just beyond the barrier, Rin could see the fully formed shades. The odds were three to one. She directed her trees to the forefront. Then she pulled out a dispenser of jade beads from her pouch and attached it to her belt. The barrier fell. The old woman's eyes narrowed when she saw the trees. "Give me Arthur, girl, and I will let ye live." "Never! Begone, vile witch, lest I send ye to the deepest bowels of hell to consort with yer putrid host." "So be it!" The shades charged. [Author's note: Recommended listening: Tenchi houkou, Fate/stay Night Animation Original Soundtrack] "Go!" cried Rin in Japanese. The trees crashed into the shades and swung their stout limbs. Several shades were knocked back. The shades swung their dark swords and hacked at the trees. Rin ran to the left, away from the fighting. "A Saxon witch?! Didst ye teach Merlyn that vile Saxon spell?" demanded the witch after she heard Rin speak. Then she grinned maliciously. "No matter. I have a spell to burn heathens like ye." She began gesturing. Rin shot a bolt from her finger and blew off the sword arm of a shade. The arm landed on the floor and dissolved into a puddle of muck. Meanwhile, the end of her staff scratched the first glyph. Half a dozen yellow orbs of light flickered around the witch. She pointed at Rin. "Sunburst!" The orbs raced toward Rin. Rin hastily erected a temporary barrier and the orbs hit it with a great booming crash. She counted five. She glanced left and right and then up. It was coming down. She leaned sideways and raised her hand to shoot a quick bolt. The bolt and the orb met but the bolt was too weak to cancel out the orb. The stray energy hit Rin's hand and she screamed in pain. A quick glance at her hand told her that it was burned. She gritted her teeth and ran to the left again. Her hand took a bead from the dispenser. She aimed and shot a bolt at a shade. Then she shot the bead at the north wall. It embedded itself into the wall upon impact. She continued shooting bolts at the orbs until the end of her staff etched the second glyph on the floor. The orbs were annoying. She needed a distraction. At her silent command, one of the trees broke away from the shades and lumbered towards the witch. Rin intensified her attack on the witch and hoped that she would not notice. Amazingly enough, she did not and was struck down by a swinging limb. Rin ran to the left and etched the third glyph. She ran again to risk etching the fourth. While she did so the witch gestured and fired a dozen orbs at the tree. The tree burst into flames. Suddenly, Rin had an idea. She pointed at a nearby lamp. "Kinensis!" The lamp tore itself from the wall and splashed its oily contents on the witch. Rin made a fist and flicked her hand open. "Zerborsten!" The tree exploded, showering sharp splinters and flame on the witch. The witch screamed as she was impaled with wooden shards and her clothes caught fire. She fell to her knees and tried to put out the fire with her hands. Several shades came to her aid and tried to smother the flames. Meanwhile, Rin ran about and etched the fifth, sixth and seventh glyph. She emptied her dispenser and shot beads at the walls. When she was done, there was a bead embedded in the northwest wall, the west wall, the southwest wall, the south wall, the southeast wall, the east wall and the northeast wall. Then she took out a cylinder. "Kinensis..." she whispered. She willed it roll toward the witch. The shades supported the witch as she tried to stand up. Half her hair was burned. A cut on her skin oozed gray goo. Her tattered robe smoldered. The only flame left was in her eyes. "Ye'll pay fer that!" she screamed. She gestured towards Rin and all the remaining shades charged. Rin ran behind a potted tree. "Spear form!" The scythe blade elongated. She had to buy enough time for her trees to make it over. "Schild!" A ghostly silver shield appeared in front of her. It deflected the blows coming to her front.
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The shield would not be good enough to deflect all the blows. Rin wished that she had enough skill to maintain two barriers. She would have to deal with the other attacks herself. "Eile!" As the Haste spell took effect, she felt adrenaline pump through her body. A shade attacked her side. Her movements were a blur as she parried the attack. Then she impaled it. To finish it off, she fired a bolt to destroy its head. There were several explosions in the direction of the sitting room. Rin hoped that the barrier would hold. She speared another shade. Eight more were left. Only a little longer, and her trees would be here. More explosions occurred. She felt a sudden chill, indicating that the barrier was weakening and more mana would be needed to sustain it. Her hand dove into her jewel pouch and grabbed several jewels. The barrier faded for an instant and a shade rushed through. Bedivere met its charge and sliced it to bits. Its pieces melted into dark puddles on the floor. Rin threw the jewels towards the barrier. "Freiwerden!" The jewels hit the barrier and it glowed with renewed mana. The witch stared at the barrier until understanding crept into her twisted face. She turned to Rin. Orbs began to multiply around her. Rin concentrated and commanded her trees to grab the shades. Three shades were captured. The trees turned and positioned themselves between the witch and her. Meanwhile, Rin frantically speared and shot the other four. Suddenly, the shades withdrew and began to merge into one large shade with four hands. Each hand held a long spear instead of a sword. At the sight of it, Rin cursed her luck. She no longer had the advantage of reach. She quickly transferred several jewels from her pouch into the red orb of her spear. "Double spear form!" Another spearhead formed on the other end of the staff. She needed to take it down before the witch decided to fire those orbs. She did not get a chance to. The orbs sped towards her. Some hit the trees and the captured shades while others hit the large shade and potted tree. The rest hit her ghostly shield which moved frantically to block each orb. The shield shook with each impact and began to weaken with each hit. Rin held up her hand to reinforce it, but before she could do so, the large shade ran up to her and attacked with all four spears at the same time. The shield caught two spears. Rin spun the spear like a propeller and chopped off the other two. Then she braced her spear and drove it into the shade. Lightning arced from the spear and its intensity fried shade from within. The shade began to dissolve. A flash of light just beyond the dissolving shade caught her eye. She tried to dodge as quickly as she could. But she did not react fast enough. Rin screamed in pain as an orb grazed the left side of her face. The scent of burnt hair and flesh filled her nostrils. "Now ye know how it feels like to be burned." said the witch darkly. More orbs began to form around her. "Kinensis!" The leftover chunks of trees flew towards the witch. Some of the orbs were fired to destroy the chunks. Rin tried to ignore the pain and gritted her teeth. She must finish before the spell ran out. In a blur, she ran to the left and quickly etched out the last glyph with the blade of her spear. With her good eye, she located the cylinder near the witch's feet. "Bind!" The cylinder broke open and spewed a gelatinous substance all over the witch. It quickly hardened and the witch struggled against it. With the witch trapped, she released the Haste spell and ran to a corner. She raised her hand and yelled in Japanese, "Eight Mansions of Earth lend me your strength!" The jade beads began to glow. The stone around them reverted to its natural form. Streams of mana began to form, joining each bead with the other beads. She willed the silvery web of mana to settle on the floor. Meanwhile, the hardened substance on the witch began to crack. "Staff form!" Then she raised the staff high into the air and chanted, "Mysteros porta... expositus!" A thunderous roar resounded through the hall when she struck the butt end of the staff against the floor. The glyphs glowed as they absorbed the streams of mana. A dark chasm opened underneath the
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witch. Meanwhile, the substance flew off the witch in pieces. She was free. The left side of Rin's face throbbed in pain. She did not dare open her left eye. Anger welled up inside her and shaped the spell that leapt off the tip of her tongue. "Flammentod!" Red flames erupted from the chasm and enveloped the witch. It rose through the air and reached as high as the ceiling. The pressure generated by the intense heat lifted the witch's body five feet into the air. The witch's hair was the first to go, followed by her clothes. Her eyes rolled back and smoke drifted from her open but silent mouth. Her skin turned to the consistency of charcoal. Drops of sweat fell from Rin's forehead as she tried to maintain the spell. The pain on her face fueled her anger and encouraged her even more. On her left arm, her magic seal flared bright green as she poured more mana into the spell. She would not stop until only ashes remained. Suddenly, a large eagle swooped down from the hole in the ceiling and flew towards her. Before she could react, the eagle landed on her staff and pulled it down with its weight. Then the eagle began to morph. To her great astonishment, it transformed into Merlyn. With her concentration broken, the spell ended and the dark chasm closed, leaving behind the charred remains of a skeleton. "Tis enough lass." said Merlyn softly. "Merlyn! Thank God!" Tears of relief flowed freely from her right eye and stung her left. "Let me look at ye..." Merlyn reached over and gingerly touched her face. Rin winced and hoped for a good diagnosis. "Tis not that bad. If we..." There was a loud crash behind them. Rin turned around to see several chairs on the floor. Arturia leapt over and sprinted towards the smoldering heap in the middle of the hall. "Stop her, Bedivere!" yelled Merlyn. Bedivere dropped her sword and tackled Arturia. They fell soundly on the floor. "Let me go!" screamed Arturia as she wrestled Bedivere. "I must save her! I must save Morgan!" Merlyn grabbed Rin's arm. She gestured at the furniture piled at the doorway and caused it to move aside. They walked briskly into the sitting room to where Airianne stood. Merlyn put her hand on Airianne's cheek. "Take her to Wybrenne. Dinna let her leave the east wing." Airianne nodded. She took Rin's hand in hers and led her towards the hallway to the east wing. As she walked with Airianne, Rin heard Merlyn say, "Cease this, Arturia. Tis too late to save her." "Nay! That cannot be! Ye must try, Merlyn! Please!" "She was already dying. Nothing can be done." "Is yer magic for naught? If ye refuse to save her, then I will! Let me go! What art ye doing?! Nay! Stop! Stop! Morgan! Morgaaaan!!!" Rin's step faltered and she turned her head toward the sitting room. But Airianne's hand firmly gripped hers. "Come, Lady Rhynne. Please. Trust Mother." Her logic and her heart warred with one another. A loud wail of grief and rage penetrated the air. Her heart won. Rin tried to shake Airianne's hand off, but Airianne held on tightly. "Mother!" yelled Airianne. A sharp jolt ran from Airianne's hand and into Rin's body. The room swam around her and her knees buckled. Merlyn's voice echoed in her ears. "Stubborn lass..." A second jolt came and she promptly passed out. ----When Rin woke up, she found herself on a bed. The dark valley indicated that she probably slept into the night. Her hand rose to her face and confirmed that it was bandaged. Her burned hand was also bandaged. Her eyes alighted on Merlyn who sat on a chair next to the bed. "How do ye feel?"
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Rin slowly sat up. "A bit dizzy..." Since she could move, she tried to get out of bed. "Where art ye going?" "I have to see Arturia." "Nay. Ye must stay here." "Why?" "She is not herself at the moment." "Then I must go to her and help!" Rin threw off the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Merlyn grabbed her arm and spoke firmly. "Nay. Do not. Ye killed her only sister. Ye art the reason why she is mad." At those words, Rin held her breath. Her shoulders slumped at the horrible reality of Merlyn's statement. She had killed her beloved's sister. She was so intent on protecting Arturia from a witch who had schemed to overthrow her that she ignored the fact that she was her sister. Merlyn watched sadly as Rhynne's face turned pale. She stood up and gently guided Rhynne to lie down on the bed. "Rest now. Ye art injured. Once again, tis important fer ye to stay in the east wing. Dinna go out without me or Airianne." Rin nodded dumbly. Merlyn turned to leave. Before she exited the room, Rin called out, "Please, tell me how Arturia is right now!" "Her body is uninjured. But her spirit..." Merlyn's voice dripped with sadness. "Her spirit hast suffered a terrible blow. It will take time to mend. But be at ease for Bedivere is with her. She will watch over her well." "Mine thanks." said Rin. She swallowed and steeled herself against Merlyn's wrath. Her words tumbled out apprehensively. "And... I am so sorry about the hall..." Merlyn expelled a sigh that betrayed her sense of loss. "What's done is done. But fret not. Tis much more important to me that all of ye are safe." She stood up. "Rest now. We shall speak more in the morn." Rin blinked back her tears of relief. "I thank ye fer yer forgiveness." Merlyn simply nodded. She doused the lamps, exited and closed the door. She tried to sleep but her efforts were in vain. In her delirium, she witnessed the mage battle again and again. Arturia's stricken face would flash before her and ask, "Why?" "I'm sorry, Arturia... I'm so sorry..." Her restraint was spent. She turned towards the wall and wept into her pillow. ----"Come hither, mine love." Wybrenne extended her hand to invite Merlyn to bed. "Thy countenance speaks of a troubled heart." Merlyn took her hand gently and sat down next to her. She sighed. "All hast come undone. Rhynne and Syrowe must go back." "But I thought that thou hath approved of the match!" "Now I cannae do so. Rhynne hast shown that she can be tempted by power. She knowst dark magic and casts it without thought of the consequences." "She was merely protecting the one she loved. Thou did not see her desperation." "She should have waited fer me to come." "Didst she know that thou wert coming?" The question startled Merlyn. She had assumed that Airianne had told Rhynne that she was coming. She had to make sure. Her mind reached out to Airianne. From her memories, she saw that Rhynne had erected a barrier and Airianne did not get a chance to tell her. She cursed at the awful timing of the events and rubbed her temples in exasperation. "Nay... she did not." Then she added stubbornly, "She should have known better though."
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"Tis the folly of youth. Forgive her." "Nay, I cannae risk the chance of more folly when Arturia is involved. The lure of power is great, e'en with pure magic. I hath hoped that she hath enough wisdom despite her youth." "Then instruct her." Merlyn shook her head vigorously. "I hath spent a lifetime watching over a nation of whelps. Tis time I returned to ye and Airianne." Wybrenne's eyes glistened at her words. The thought of having her Merlyn home again filled her heart with joy. But the image of Rhynne fighting alone against a mob of shades would not leave her mind. "I am glad to hear it. But... since she cannot return without Syrowe, why not lend her thy counsel until Syrowe returns? Methinks that she will welcome it better than that curt speech that thou hath given her." As always, Wybrenne was too kind. Merlyn's eyes misted over as she cupped Wybrenne's hand within both of her own. Even though she had clearly indicated that she wanted to devote all her time with her, Wybrenne had subtly suggested that she did not have to. "I will, if she asks fer it." "Tis well then." She stroked Merlyn's cheek with her other hand. "Now come unto me. I will have thee smile before we sleep." Merlyn smiled widely as she crawled to her place on the bed. With a wave of her hand, she doused the lamps and drew the curtains shut. Tonight, she was not Merlyn, the Mage Paramount. Tonight, she was Wybrenne's wife. ----Around mid-morning, Merlyn went to check on Rhynne. Rhynne sat on a chair which was turned towards the valley. She rose to meet her. "Good morning." "Good morning." replied Rhynne. "Feeling better now?" "Yea." She paused for a moment. "Merlyn..." "Aye?" "May I speak with ye?" "What's on yer mind?" Rin's eyes turned towards the floor. "About yesterday... I hath heard ye say that Morgan was dying. Was it true?" "Aye. Did ye not see the corruption of her flesh?" "Could she still be saved?" "Nay." Merlyn observed her expressions. Rhynne seemed to be debating within herself. Merlyn waited patiently for a response. She suspected that Morgan was using dark magic to create the illusion of youth at the expense of introducing a small amount of its foul taint into her body. An examination of Morgan's remains proved her theory. However, her examination also revealed that Rhynne's Gandr Fyre disrupted Morgan's enchantments which reversed its youthful effect and combined with Gandr to amplify the existing taint within her. But her condition was not Rhynne's fault. It was her portal that directed Rhynne's spell out of the inn. Morgan just happened to be on that battlefield when her portal opened. Fate was strange indeed. Rhynne lifted her face. "But the fact that I killed her makes mine sin no less." She walked to the wall and looked down at the valley. "I hath never killed before. What would ye have done?" Merlyn's eyebrows arched in surprise. There may be hope after all. "I would have tried to stop her rampage and let her die of the corruption which courses through her blood." Rhynne faced her once more. "Then please, teach me. Teach me so that I will never kill again." Merlyn shook her head. "E'en I have to kill sometimes. I have nothing to teach ye." "Ye art the most powerful mage in the realm! Ye must know something! Please!"
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"Nay! I am not a god!" exclaimed Merlyn loudly. Rhynne shrank back at the ferocity of her words. Merlyn cursed herself for letting her emotions take over. She did not want to be associated with power. She had seen too many good mages fall into its fell embrace. The very memory sickened her. She composed herself and cleared her throat. She put her hand on Rhynne's shoulder and spoke slowly and softly. "Mages art not gods. The magic that we wield should ne'er be confused with power and miracles." At the sight of Rhynne's contrite expression, she was reminded by Wybrenne's suggestion. She really did not want to spend less time with Wybrenne, but she had made her promise. She could spare a little time. "Although her body could not be saved, there may still be a chance to save her spirit. If ye can save her spirit, then she can journey to the otherworld in peace." She paused. "But to do so is difficult. I can only show ye the paths that I have taken to achieve that end." Rhynne's eyes lit up with hope. "Then, I would be glad to hear yer wisdom!" She blushed and looked away slightly. "That is, if it is not inconvenient for ye." Merlyn smiled slightly at her enthusiasm. She raised her palm and an amulet with a leather strap appeared on it. "Then I accept ye as mine apprentice." She unwound the strap and held it over Rhynne's head. "Will ye accept me as yer master and do mine bidding?" "Yea." Rhynne's face was solemn and determined. Merlyn put the amulet around her neck. "Follow me to Airianne's study. Yer instruction begins today." ----Arturia tried the door handle. The door opened. Grimly, she walked into Rhynne's room. She went to the nearest dresser and pulled out a drawer. It was empty. Methodically, she opened all the drawers and cabinets. They were all empty. Her eyes wandered through the room. She spotted a garland of dried flowers on a table. She went to the table and picked up the garland. Petals crumbled and fell to the floor at her touch. She stared at it for a moment. Then she crushed the garland within her fists. Her face contorted with rage and she pulled her hands apart, snapping the fragile vine which held the garland together. The pieces of the garland scattered about. She took several deep breaths before collapsing to her knees. She looked at her hands where the several dried petals still clung. Tears burst forth from her eyes. She wept into her hands and wailed a cry of deep sorrow.

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Chapter 11 Omake Arturia: *sob* *sob* *sniff* Bedivere: There, there... Merlyn hath sealed the evil Saxon witch. Now come into mine arms and let me console thee... Rin: Hey!!!

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Chapter 11: Falling Petals
She knocked on the door. There was no answer. Bedivere placed the tray on the floor and opened the door. Then she picked up the tray and went into Arturia's room. She put the tray on a nearby bedside table and drew the curtains back. "Time to rise, sleepy head." she cajoled. Arturia turned away from Bedivere and pulled the covers over her head. "Leave me be." Bedivere sat down on the bed and watched Arturia's still form for a few seconds. She sighed. "And how long dost thou plan to stay here?" "Until thou goeth away." came her tart reply. Bedivere rubbed her forehead in exasperation. Arturia was in a very foul mood. She prayed to God that she would be patient enough to endure it. "Well, I shall not until thou rise to greet the morn." She poured herself some tea and buttered some muffins. She bit into one and chewed noisily. Then she picked up her tea and slurped it. Her plan was simple. The best way to get a lion's attention was through its stomach. Halfway through her second muffin, she heard the muffled sound of a grumbling belly. And yet, Arturia did not stir. Bedivere had one more card to play. She put her muffin down and lifted the silver cover to unveil the strawberry scones. She broke a warm scone in half to let its fragrant contents spill into the air. Then she made a show of sniffing it. "Mmmm..." There was a rustle behind her and a pillow smacked her on the head. "Get out!" yelled Arturia. Bedivere grinned wickedly and put the scone down. She picked up the pillow and smacked Arturia back. Arturia sat up and whacked her with the pillow that she was lying on. They exchanged blows until it escalated into a messy pillow fight which snowed downy feathers on the combatants. When the pillows were exhausted of their contents, Arturia hurled herself at Bedivere in a fierce charge. Bedivere went limp and rolled with the impact, cradling Arturia so that she would not be injured when they hit the floor. They lay on the floor panting from their battle. Bedivere laughed heartily. "I yield!" She crawled away from Arturia and bowed with mock ceremony. Then she marched out of the room and closed the door behind her. With her anger deflated, Arturia stared at the door. She sat there for a few moments to gather her wits. Then she stood up slowly and made her way to the bed. Her eyes fell on the broken scone half covered in feathers. Her stomach grumbled at the sight. She had not eaten anything for over a day. Her hand brushed off the feathers and picked up the scone. It was still warm and its scent of honey-baked strawberries enticed her. She gave in to temptation and nibbled on a protruding strawberry. Its sweet and sour taste melted in her mouth. She took another bite and another. Soon, she finished the whole scone. Her eyes scanned the tray and located a second teacup. Damn Bedivere. She had planned this all along. But she was thirsty, so she poured herself some tea from the pot and sipped it. "Dost thou want more?" came Bedivere's muffled voice beyond the door. "There is a second scone under the silver cover."
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Arturia stared at the door with a bit of irritation, but her hand went toward the silver cover. She pulled it back as if it was about to touch something forbidden. "And if thou refuse to eat it, I will." threatened Bedivere. Before she could stop herself, her left hand lifted the cover while her right claimed the scone. It was still warm, and most importantly, untouched. She bit into it. As she munched on the scone, her eyes fell on Bedivere's half eaten muffin. Prudence dictated that food should not be wasted. She walked to the door and opened it. Bedivere was leaning on the wall next to the door. "Good morning." said Bedivere casually. "Good morning." mumbled Arturia. She left the door open and walked back to the bed to sit on it. Then she picked up her cup and sipped her tea. "Thou did not finish thy meal." Careful not to let Arturia notice, Bedivere smiled slightly in triumph. "How careless of me..." She strode in, picked up her plate and dusted the feathers off the muffin. They ate in silence for a while. After Arturia finished her scone and tea, she faced Bedivere. "Why dost thou love me?" Bedivere almost dropped her cup. That question was totally unexpected. To buy some time to think of a good answer, she set her cup down slowly. She debated within herself. No, mere flattery would not be appropriate. There was a hidden reason behind the question. If she could find out what the reason was, she could give a more fitting answer. "Why not?" Arturia stared at the floor. "Then thou art blind, for I am a wretched being who doth not deserve any affection." "Thou art not!" protested Bedivere. "How didst thou come to this thinking?" Arturia glared at her. "Was I not conceived in sin?" She stood up and paced. "I studied the records in the library. I was born seven months after mine father and mother were married." A frown formed on her face. "They were married five weeks after Morgan's mother died from a malignant fever." "Many children art born before their time." countered Bedivere. "But that is not all. Mine mother's former husband died in battle; a battle which mine father hath commanded him to go to." She threw Bedivere a conspiratorial look. "Coincidence?" "The circumstances of thy birth art not under thy control. Tis not a flaw on thy character." "But there art things that I do have control o'er." Arturia stopped pacing and looked at her hands. "Thousands... these hands have slain thousands..." "Tis them or our country, Arturia. For each one slain, ten, nay a hundred wert saved from the sword, slavery or hunger. Tis a small price to pay." "What about Mordred's host? They were Bryton! I slew those whom I swore to protect!" "Some were, but not all, Arturia. Merlyn tells me that o'er half the host wert shades. Besides, didst thou not entreat them to surrender? They wert given a chance to follow thy banner, and yet they chose otherwise. If thou hath not defeated her army, she would have rent our country in twain with civil war." She paused. "As for slaying her host, doth not forget that I hath done the same." Arturia looked at her sadly. "Yea. And that is mine deep regret as well. I hath dragged thee to hell with me." Bedivere quickly went to her and hugged her. "And gladly would I follow thee there!" She kissed her golden hair and caressed its unruly tresses. "Light of mine life, e'en if I were to relive mine life again, I would leap at the chance to be by thy side." Arturia hugged her back tightly. She did not feel so lonely anymore. Her room felt so empty and lifeless last night. Even in her dreams, she saw herself running and running with no sight of sanctuary. But Morgan's parting words still haunted her. How many sins did she commit? Could she ever be forgiven? Bedivere was here. Maybe, she could give her some answers. "Dost the good of all weigh more than the sin of one?" Arturia waited patiently for her reply. Bedivere cursed providence for giving her the most difficult questions. Silently, she cried out to the heavens, "Why me?" Frantically, she tried to think of a good answer, but found none. Her battle instincts
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took over. When faced with an overwhelming attack, one must dodge instead of blocking it. "I fear that I lack the wisdom to answer thy question. Mayhap, Merlyn can give thee an answer." Arturia snorted. "Merlyn? She answers in riddles and leaves thee with more questions than answers." "Yea... I agree with thee." They laughed together. When their laughter subsided, they held each other silently. After a while, Arturia asked again, "Why dost thou love me? Why would anyone want to love me?" "Love needs no reason. I simply love thee. From the moment that Sir Ector hath brought thee to mine home, I hath begun to love thee. Thou shone like a light in mine eyes. As we studied together, I learned about thy quick mind and curiosity. When we trained together, I fought thy unyielding bravery and determination, even in defeat. As we played together, I received thy kindness and warmth. There art many more reasons... too many in fact." She cupped her cheek in her palm. "I love everything about thee." "I still doth not understand why thou would feel that way about me. There art knights who art similar to me and uphold the same ideals as mine." At her words, Bedivere made a startling discovery. Although many loved her, Arturia did not understand the depth of the love given to her because she had never loved anyone just as much. No, that was not a correct statement. She did not allow herself to love. As a king, she only cared to be obeyed. She did not care to be loved. It was her typical, brutal efficiency to exclude anything that seemed unnecessary. Her eyebrows knitted with thought. With Rhynne, Arturia had skimmed the surface of love. If she had taken the plunge, she would understand its depths. Perhaps, therein lay her salvation. Without this basic understanding, she could not recognize how much she was loved. It was no wonder that she felt so desolate and lonely. Bedivere imagined a world without her children and without Arturia in it. Without them, she would probably feel just as desolate and lonely. The world would be lifeless, and her very existence would be without meaning. She closed her eyes. It was too much to think about for one person. She needed to talk to Wybrenne about it. Maybe together, they could plan a course of action. She stroked her head. "Fret not. I doth not expect thee to understand. One day, surely, thou will. Set aside these thoughts for now. Merlyn wishes to speak with thee." Arturia stiffened. "What doth she want?" she asked acidly. Bedivere noted the venom in Arturia's voice. She was devastated when Merlyn translocated Morgan's remains to God knows where. She spoke calmly. "Only she can answer that. Will thou come with me to see her?" There was nothing left that Merlyn could possibly take from her. She grudgingly replied, "All right. I will see her." They walked to the Lily pond. Merlyn, Wybrenne and Airianne were sitting at a table. By the state of the plates and food on the table, they had just finished breakfast. After exchanging greetings, they sat down at the table. Arturia wasted no time. She turned to Merlyn. "What do ye wish to speak to me about?" "In two days, King Constantine will hold the eulogy for those who hath lost their lives at Camlann. Bedivere, me and ye will attend." "Why me?" asked Bedivere and Arturia at the same time. They looked at each other in surprise. "Bedivere must go to honor the Knights of the Round Table. And ye will do the same." Her gaze softened as she looked at Bedivere. "I'm sure that he would appreciate that." Bedivere turned pale and nodded. She had tried to forget, but now it was time to face reality. Her heart ached as she remembered that grim battlefield. So many familiar faces joined God in heaven on that day. "Wait a moment..." said Arturia. "Is King Constantine the High King?" "Aye."
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"Then... who was I?" "Ye wert the High King before him." Arturia was baffled. "Did he overthrow me?" "Nay. Ye died, so the lords chose him as the new High King." "I died?" said Arturia incredulously. "How can that be, when I am still here?" Bedivere hung her head. Merlyn waited for her to explain, but she kept silent. She cleared her throat to answer. "The Lady of the Lake took ye to Avalon to heal yer wounds. Unfortunately, she dinna take ye back. For two weeks, the lords searched fer ye at Camlann and at the lake." Arturia was even more puzzled. "I doth not recall meeting the Lady of the Lake again. Did ye take me to her?" "Nay... I did." answered Bedivere. "Forgive me, Arturia! I hath dreamt of the Lady of the Lake, but twas an illusion cast by Syrowe. So anxious was I to have thee healed that I put thee on a boat upon the lake and let that boat float away with thee. But twas not thee upon the boat. Twas a log enchanted by Syrowe. I should have realized it when a splinter caught upon mine lip." Despite the gravity of the situation, a small smile escaped to Merlyn's lips. She cleared her throat again and tried to sound serious. "Bedivere told the tale to Sir Bors, who hath returned with four dozen knights and soldiers to aid ye in battle. Since there was no one to fight, they searched fer ye in the battlefield and on the lake. Of course, they dinna find ye." "Because I... I was with Syrowe and..." Arturia paused as a deep pang penetrated her heart. Finally, she said it softly. "and Rhynne..." She looked around her. "Whither is Rhynne?" "She is resting. Her injuries wert grave." replied Merlyn. Although Rhynne's injuries were beyond the skill of a normal physic, Merlyn was confident that she could restore her to her previous health. However, she decided to exclude this information, so that she could observe Arturia's reaction. A sense of dread filled Arturia. She wanted to see her, but she should not see her. Images of the battle replayed in her mind: flames rising over a dark pit and her sister burning before her eyes. Like a devil incarnate, Rhynne dispensed judgment, her face contorted with malice. Her hands clenched with anger at the memory. The Code of Chivalry stated that she had every right to avenge her sister's unnatural death. But still, a part of her heart ached to know her current condition, so she asked, "Can ye heal her?" Merlyn sighed dramatically. "She will live, but her injuries exhaust mine skill. I will do what I can to heal her." Merlyn's reply did nothing to ease her anxiety. In fact, it made it worse. The urge to see her was stronger now. "Whither is she?" Arturia was obviously worried. Merlyn decided to change the conversation. "In her bed, resting. As ye know well enough, healing requires much rest." She stood up and pulled Wybrenne's chair away from the table. "I have much to prepare. The Aerie's defenses have been breached, and I must secure it before leaving." She eyed them both. "Dinna leave the Aerie until we leave. As usual, ye art welcome to avail the hospitality of mine home." Still seated, they watched Merlyn, Wybrenne and Airianne leave. Bedivere rose. Although she had promised to watch Arturia, a sense of foreboding crept into her mind, and she feared the questions that Arturia would ask. She would have to watch her discreetly. "I shall prepare as well." She strode out of the Lily Pond as fast as she can. What did she need to prepare for? Arturia could not think of anything. All she could tell was that Bedivere was leaving her alone. She stood up hastily. "Wait..." But Bedivere was already closing the door behind her. She ran to the door and opened it. The hallway was empty. She cursed herself. She ran through the hallway and started looking for Bedivere. To her great consternation, she could not find her. She cursed again. This meant that Bedivere did not want to be found. She paced back and forth. Even if she could not find Bedivere, maybe she could find where Rhynne was resting. She did not need to talk to her. To see her would be enough. For the rest of the day, she
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searched the Aerie from top to bottom. After dinner, she resumed her search. Time passed quickly, and soon the bell struck twelve. With a weary heart, she returned to the west wing. She went into Rhynne's room to search one more time. Empty. It was so empty. Her eyes leapt toward the table where she found the garland of dried flowers. The table and floor had been swept clean. She flopped down on the bed. Her eyes grew wide as her hand sank into the pillow. She picked up the pillow and hugged it tightly. The faint scent of camellia was still on it. Her eyes watered with tears and she bawled into it, clutching the only thing that belonged to Rhynne. ----Instead of going to the main gathering, Merlyn and Arturia rode to a distant hilltop. From there, they could see a platform erected at the shores of the lake. Barges of various sizes were tethered to temporary docks and were adorned with ribbons and flowers. Large tents were erected on the small meadow by the lake. A banner with the dragon standard flew over the most elaborate tent, and announced the presence of the High King. Merlyn noted the height of the sun in the sky. She gestured to Arturia. "Tis almost time. Follow me." They rode to a forested enclosure and dismounted. Merlyn put her hands on Arturia's shoulders. "Anifail Cyfnewidiad." Suddenly, Arturia felt her insides churn. She screamed in fright, but only heard a shrill squawking sound from her throat. The trees spun around her and she flailed to catch a branch. When the world stopped spinning, she found herself inches from the ground. She lifted her head and saw a large eagle standing next to her. Merlyn's voice echoed in her ears. "Come this way. If ye fly now, ye will only get caught in yon branches." The eagle waddled towards a space between the bushes. Arturia gaped in horror, or at least, tried to. Her eyes wandered over her feathered body. She tried to move her arms and felt the gush of flapping wings. Merlyn eyed her across the space between the bushes. "When ye art done flapping about, follow me. Birds dinna stay too long on the ground. There art too many snakes and weasels about." With that said, Merlyn flew up to a nearby branch. The feathers on top of Arturia's head flared at the thought of snakes and weasels. She waddled clumsily out of the enclosure and flew haphazardly to Merlyn's branch. She gripped the branch tightly with her talons as she tried to balance herself on it. Merlyn's voice advised her. "Use yer tail feathers... flare them out... that's the way." "Ye should have warned me!" replied Arturia angrily. "Do ye expect me to fly too?" Merlyn winced. "Dinna shout! Even yer whispers art loud enough. And aye, we shall fly. Art ye ready?" "Do I have a choice?" asked Arturia sarcastically. Merlyn shrugged her wings. "Nay." She launched herself off the branch and with powerful strokes, soared into the sky. Arturia tried to do the same and nearly fell to the ground. She managed to stay aloft at the last moment. "Dinna try so hard. Tis like walking. Relax yer wings and feel the air." After several nerve-wracking moments, Arturia figured out how to flap properly. Slowly, she rose to where Merlyn circled about. "We shall go to Bedivere now." As they flew to Bedivere, Arturia saw the world in a new perspective. Her eyes could see farther than normal. Despite the great distance between them and the crowd, she could still see the details on armor and flags. As the wind rustled through her feathers, she luxuriated in the sensation. Gliding through the air was actually very calming. When Merlyn dove down, she followed her reluctantly. Her keen eyes singled out Bedivere among
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the throng. Bedivere seemed to know that they were coming. She lifted her left arm horizontally. But Merlyn did not land on her arm. With amazing grace, she descended and perched on Bedivere's shoulder. The arm was for her. Arturia tried to slow down and land like Merlyn, but she came in too fast and Bedivere's arm sagged on impact. Her talons dug deep into her arm and felt the hardness of steel under her clothes. She was wearing her bracer and gauntlet. Arturia perched precariously for a few moments before she regained some balance. "Ho! What have ye here, Sir Bedivere?" A barrel chested knight with a scar on his forehead approached them. "Mine eagles have come to pay homage, Sir Bors." replied Bedivere. Bors poked his thumb toward Merlyn. "Tis Cloud Dancer, is it not?" "Yea." "And this one?" "Saxon Scourge." Arturia laughed at her name, but only a squawk escaped her beak. "Tis a lively one! Is it male or female?" Before she realized what he intended to do, she found herself trapped in Bors' strong arms. His hand ruffled her tail feathers. "Tis female!" Bors lifted her up in his wide hands. "What green eyes! I hath ne'er seen such intense hue." Bedivere laughed heartily. "Yea. She is quite unique, is she not?" Bors looked away to reply to Bedivere. "Definitely! I have an eagle of mine own. May I borrow her?" That did it. She lunged forward and pecked Bors with all her might. With a yelp of pain, Bors loosened his grip. She spread out her wings and quickly rose into the sky. She began to curse loudly, but only managed to put out shrill shrieks. Bors took out his handkerchief and pressed it on his wound to stanch the bleeding. "She hath a temper." Bedivere's eyes followed Arturia as she circled above them. She laughed again. "Thou handled her roughly. She is very displeased." Bors smiled widely. "But such spirit! Will ye let me breed her?" Bedivere's smile melted. "Nay." "I'll joust ye fer her." At this point, Merlyn swooped down and pecked Bors several times on the head. Arms raised, Bors backed away. "Pray, withdraw thy challenge, lest Cloud Dancer turn thy head into a pin cushion." "All right, all right!" cried Bors. "I withdraw." He peeked under his arm. "But if ye e'er change yer mind..." Merlyn switched to clawing this time, and Bors ran away to the safety of a nearby tent. With Bors out of her reach, Merlyn flew to Arturia and calmed her down. Merlyn's voice echoed in Bedivere's mind. "We art going over to a tree to watch." "All right. I will be here if thou require assistance." Merlyn and Arturia perched on a nearby tree which was close to the platform. From their vantage point, they could see and hear everyone. Arturia's keen eyes scanned a nearby barge. She noticed that each ribbon had a name. She read some of them: Ualraig, Aodhan, Caldwell, Coinneach, Fletcher, Domnall, Tames... Since she did not recognize any of them, she looked at the next barge which was curiously shaped like a circle. She read the ribbons: Sir Gareth, Sir Danielle, Sir Agravaine, Sir Kay... Arturia did not read anymore and stared at the barge in horror. There were too many ribbons on the barge. It was more than she wanted to see. She closed her eyes to banish it from her sight. "Nay, lass... look. Tis about to begin." said Merlyn softly. A procession of priests approached the platform and took their places on it. By the voluminous robes
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of the priest who stood behind the altar, Arturia guessed that it was an archbishop. The archbishop began the mass. At the end of the mass, a knight came forward and declared that he was going to announce the names of the soldiers who had lost their lives in battle. Arturia heard some of the names that she read off the ribbons. After he was done, Bedivere stood up. Arturia cringed and bowed her head in shame as Bedivere announced each name. Each name pierced her heart. What kind of king was she to have them throw their lives away for her? Suddenly, Bedivere paused. Arturia looked at her closely. Her face was lifted towards to the heavens and a tear trickled from her closed eyes. Then Bedivere spoke softly. "Farewell, dear brother. I will miss thee sorely. Until the time of our reunion, may thou rest in peace." Her heart wrenched in sorrow over Bedivere's loss. Her vision blurred. She pitched forward. Merlyn's wing draped over her and steadied her on the branch. "Be strong, lass. Tis not o'er yet." Bedivere left the stage and everyone stood up from their seats. A tall middle-aged man with blonde hair and a rich mantle approached the platform. He was Constantine. He stood on the platform and faced the crowd. "Friends, we hath all keenly felt the loss of such brave and noble warriors." He paused. "But above all, Britain hath lost the greatest light that hath e'er shone upon its lands. As an instrument of God's grace, that guiding light hath rid our dear country of the Saxon plague and led us into a glorious age of peace and prosperity. Let us join our hands in prayer to remember our most noble King Arthur." Arturia's eyes grew wide after hearing Constantine's speech. As each person in the crowd reached out to his or her neighbor to join hands, his words began to sink into her consciousness. Constantine clasped the hand of his queen with his right and Bors with his left. Then he raised his clasped hands to the sky. The crowd raised their hands in turn and those hands rose like a ripple spreading across a pond. The entire crowd was joined as one. His voice boomed to reach the ears of everyone in the crowd. "God in heaven, we ask thee to show King Arthur mercy when he appears before thee for thy judgment." "Amen." answered the crowd. "God in heaven, we ask thee to deliver the love in our hearts to him. "Amen." "God in heaven, give us the strength and wisdom to continue King Arthur's work upon these lands. Show us the way to continued peace and prosperity." "Amen." "King Arthur, may thou find peace in the love of God." "Amen." At his words, Arturia was crying internally. Her heart felt so relieved to know that she was not hated. Once again, she felt Merlyn's steady wing over her. When she calmed down, she saw that the barges were being paddled across the lake. A black standard with a golden dragon flew over the largest barge. When the barge was in the middle of the lake, the crew dismantled the tent on the center of the barge to unveil a statue made of flowers and wood. The statue resembled her when she wore her armor and mantle. The crews on each barge moved to a rowboat and paddled back to shore. The barges began to sink. The flowers on them floated on the lake's surface, spreading petals across the lake. Merlyn's voice interrupted her. "Come. There is one more who pays homage to ye." She followed Merlyn across the lake and to a distant hilltop. On it, she beheld a knight on horseback. He was throwing petals into the wind from a basket. She knew who he was by his dark curly locks and his chiseled handsome features. "Merlyn... let me be mine self." Merlyn tossed her a warning look.
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"Please." Merlyn nodded and dove toward a grove of trees. They transformed back. Arturia quickly sped up the hill. He must have sensed her since he wheeled his horse around at her approach. His jaw fell and he dropped the basket. "Milord!" "Lancelot." Arturia inclined her head in acknowledgement. He leapt off the horse and knelt before her, extending his hand. "Stop that, Lancelot." Lancelot stood up, abashed. "Forgive mine habit. Milord is dressed like a maid." "I know." Arturia raised her hand in the customary courtly greeting. Lancelot caught it firmly. They exchanged a short and chaste kiss. Arturia drew away. "Mine time is short. I hath come to ask a boon of thee." "Name it, and if tis in mine power, I shall do it." "Care for Guinevere and meet thy child." Lancelot's jaw dropped again. "Child?" Arturia turned to Merlyn. "Merlyn will explain." Merlyn sighed. Arturia was right. He had to know, so she told him about her role in exchanging Mordred for his son. Lancelot glared at Merlyn. His bulging neck muscles showed his restraint. "Whither is mine son now?" "With Morgan's kin in Lot's fief." She conjured a scroll and handed it to him. "Herein lies instruction on where he is." "His name?" "Mellant. He is a fine man." "Mine thanks." "We must go now." declared Arturia. She lowered her voice and spoke menacingly. "Tell no one of this visit. And, if thou doth not keep thy promise, I will haunt thee till thy death." Lancelot swallowed visibly. "Consider it done, Milord." He paused. "Will I e'er see thee again, Milord?" She shook her head sadly. "Nay." Lancelot took a step toward her and hesitated. She understood what he meant to do and opened her arms. He smiled and embraced her in a tight bear hug. He released her and turned to Merlyn. Merlyn sighed and reluctantly held out her arms as well. He hugged her just as tight. Tears began to pool in his eyes. "I am truly sorry for all the trouble that I hath caused thee. Wherever thy journey will take thee, be well." "Farewell, Lancelot." "Farewell, King Arthur." They went back into the grove and transformed into eagles. As they rose in the sky, she saw Lancelot raise his sword to the sky in salute. Then he rode away into the forest. Later, they met up with Bedivere at the village inn where they were staying. "Art we done here?" asked Arturia. "Yea." replied Merlyn. She was pleased with the remarkable change over Arturia. She seemed calmer and less depressed. "Then let us go home in most haste." Merlyn nodded. "And so we shall." ----Rin was studying with Merlyn when Bedivere came marching in. She tossed a basket on a nearby
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table. "Merlyn, methinks we may have a problem." She grabbed Merlyn's hand and put it on her forehead. She closed her eyes and concentrated on an image. Merlyn understood that Bedivere wanted her to read her mind. She opened her mind and inhaled sharply at what she saw. "What is it, Master?" asked Rin. Merlyn put her hand on Rhynne's forehead. "See fer yerself." Rin lowered her defenses and let Merlyn project the image into her mind. She saw a dimly lit church. A couple of workmen were trying to hang a portrait. She sucked in her breath when she saw the man in the portrait. He bore an unusual resemblance to Kotomine. The image faded. "Who is he?" asked Rin. "The new archbishop of Gwent." replied Bedivere. "The workmen saith that the previous archbishop died of fever about a week ago." Gwent sounded familiar. She tried to think where she heard about it. "Ye and Rhynne must go. I cannae leave here when Wybrenne is ill." said Merlyn. "Dinna meet him. Talk to Brother Jacob instead. Make sure that the Grail is safe." Rin broke out in goose bumps when Merlyn mentioned the Grail. A thought occurred to her. "Master, will Syrowe pass Gwent on his way here?" Merlyn paused in thought. She looked at the map on the wall and pointed at it. A long glowing white line appeared on it and a red spot appeared a short distance away from the line. "The start of the line indicates where we were when I received Airianne's message. I told Syrowe to take these marked roads back to Eryri. Yonder red spot is Gwent. Tis about half a day's ride from a marked road to Gwent. I told him to ride as fast as he can." "Only half a day's ride!" exclaimed Rin. "Master, ye don't know Syrowe as much as I do. He will definitely go there! Tis been five days since yer return." Merlyn paled. She had a sinking feeling that she was right. "Then both of ye must go at once. Bedivere, meet us at the Eagle's tower." Bedivere nodded and ran. Merlyn reached for the basket that Bedivere brought in. She extracted a small bottle from it. "Tis a potion that can help heal yer eye. I shall put some on before ye leave." Rhynne flinched slightly as she reached out to undo the bandage. "Dinna move, lass." Rhynne obeyed and she took off the bandage. She held her hand in front of her eye to check it. Her eyebrows knitted with anger. "What have ye done, lass!?" she bellowed. She pressed her palm over Rhynne's eye and dispelled the low level barrier that was preventing the healing process to occur. "Master, please! Let it be!" Rin grasped Merlyn's wrist tightly, but she did not pull her hand away from her eye. "Nay! Ye will go blind! How can ye do this after all I've done fer ye?" "So that I will remember!" yelled Rin. "To remind mine self not to kill again!" "Do ye think that this will help Arturia? Tis a useless gesture!" Merlyn began to apply mana over her eye, but felt resistance. "Stop that!" "Tis not for Arturia! Tis for me! Tis mine punishment!" "To disfigure yerself? Have ye learned nothing from me?" Her other hand pushed against Rhynne's chest. Rin felt a surge of mana erupt from Merlyn's hand on her chest. Suddenly, she could not move. Her breathing became very shallow. It was high-level petrification spell. She tried to gather her mana but she could not sense any. It was just as she feared. The spell also slowed down the flow of mana. Another surge of mana welled over her eye. Her eye began to itch, which indicated that it was healing. There was another surge of mana. From the feel of it, the flow seemed very complex. "I will grant yer wish, girl. Ye will be blind, but only because I have sealed the sight in yer eye. Yer eye can still heal beneath the seal, but ye cannae see from it unless ye break the seal. If ye want to
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remember something, then remember this: ne'er do anything that ye cannae undo. Do yer best t' find another way." Merlyn took her hands away and picked up the bottle. Rin slumped into the chair as she was released from the spell. "Tilt yer head back and let me put some of this on yer eye." Rin did as she was told. The cool liquid coated her unseeing eye. She shut her eye when she saw the bandage in front of her face. Merlyn finished bandaging her eye. She stood up, walked to the cabinet full of crystals and began rummaging through it. "Take what ye need to prepare for the worse. Meet me in the hallway. We shall go to the Eagle's tower together." Rin nodded and spoke contritely. "Mine apologies, master, for mine conduct. And I thank ye for yer kindness." Merlyn waved her away. "Just go. We shall speak of it when ye return." ----They flew as fast as they could. Finally, they arrived at the monastery. They circled over it and chose to land on one of the towers to transform. Rin transformed first and then she dispelled the spell on Bedivere. She sat down to catch her breath. They had flown for four hours. Her arms felt like lead. Bedivere seemed to be in the same condition. Drops of sweat fell from her temple and down her cheek. Bedivere wiped the sweat away with the back of her hand. Then she detached the small water skin from her belt and handed it to Rin. Rin gratefully accepted the water skin and drank her fill. She handed it back to Bedivere who emptied it. "Canst thou go on?" asked Bedivere. "Yea." Using the wall for support, Rin stood up cautiously. She looked around her and below for signs of people. A few monks strolled in the main courtyard. Another monk was working in a small vegetable garden. As she shifted her gaze around the tower, something caught her eye in the distance. She had noticed a silvery flicker. She stared at the place where she thought she saw it. A few moments later, she saw it again: a silvery outline against the blue sky. "A kekkai!" exclaimed Rin. "Bedivere, I think I know where Syrowe is. Follow me." Rin transformed Bedivere and then herself. She launched herself from the tower and flew toward the kekkai. They flew as close as they can to the kekkai then they landed and transformed. Rin reached into her robe and detached the jewel in her necklace. "Raging Soul." she whispered. She transformed into her mage battle suit. She clipped her staff to her belt then she put her hand near the boundary of the kekkai and warned Bedivere. "Prepare thy sword, Sir Bedivere. I cannot see what is within. We may be attacked as soon as we go in. Give me thy left hand." Bedivere stared at the empty air where Rhynne held her hand up. Try as she might, she could see nothing unusual. She would have to trust Rhynne's skill. She drew her sword and extended her left hand. Rin felt the hardness of steel under the glove. It would not do. "I beg thy pardon." She pulled Bedivere's sleeve up and gripped her forearm. "I require direct contact with thy body." With Bedivere in tow, Rin concentrated mana on her hand and pushed against the kekkai. If it were Shiro's, then it would be easy to breach since she was the one who taught it to him. To her great relief, her hand melted into the boundary. She walked in and tugged Bedivere behind her. She was not prepared for what she saw. The sky was a cloudy shade of red. Gray mist and large metal gears hung lazily in the air. Instead of a meadow, they stood on a sun-baked field littered with dozens of swords. In the distance, they heard the clash of swords. They raced to the sound, avoiding swords and sizzling gray puddles. They found Shiro battling about thirty shades. Kansho and Bakuya flashed about, ripping shades with
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each strike. Bedivere charged in with a battle cry. Rin shot shades as fast as she could. Shiro sidestepped an attack. Suddenly, a fallen shade grabbed his ankle and drove his dagger into Shiro's leg. Rin aimed anyway and hoped that she was not too late. She was. To her great astonishment, the dagger plunged deep into Shiro's leg, but Shiro did not cry out in pain. Instead, he leapt away and grabbed a nearby sword. He threw the sword and impaled the shade, causing it to melt into a puddle of ooze. Rin was not sure what had happened. She resumed shooting more shades. There were only half a dozen more shades left. Then it happened. Shiro dropped his swords and collapsed. "Shiro!" cried Rin in alarm. She went to his side as soon as she could and cast a barrier around them. She knelt beside him. He was pale and breathing heavily. She put her hand over him to scan for injuries. When she did not sense anything, she tried again. To her great horror, Shiro began to fade in and out. She put her hand on his shoulder and applied mana. His shoulder began to solidify. "S'no good..." whispered Shiro hoarsely in Japanese. "Don't waste it..." Shiro turned himself over. The whites of his eyes were streaked with swollen red veins. "Take care of Sakura for me..." "It'll be okay! Hold on." She was not going to lose him. Rin grabbed his hand and applied mana. His hand solidified. He yanked his hand away. "Don't Rin. S'kay... I have to go anyway." He began to dissolve into mist. His eyes pleaded with her. "Let me go..." The barren ground was becoming translucent. Just beyond it, she could see long weeds. The kekkai was being dispelled. "As if!" yelled Rin. "You stupid ass! Use Avalon!" "Can't... gave it to Merlyn..." "What!!! Why?!" Shiro's mouth moved but no sound came from them. "No!" cried Rin. She put her hands on his body and poured as much mana as she could. Shiro's hand flew to her chest and a strong force pushed her back ten feet away. The swords around Shiro rose in the air and formed a barricade around him. Rin scrambled to her feet and fired shots like a machine gun to destroy the barricade. Swirling red and silver mist rose in the air and the swords turned into mist as well. She sprinted toward it and reached out, hoping to grab Shiro. Instead, she grabbed empty air. He was gone. Tears stung her eyes. "You will all pay!" Orbs began to multiply around her. Bedivere saw the orbs and retreated as far as she could. She assumed a defensive stance in Rhynne's direction. Rin screamed in rage and sorrow. "Sunburst!" The orbs flew to the remaining shades and incinerated them. Their remains burned the weeds underneath them. Rin raised her tear-streaked face to the cloudless blue sky and cried, "Why God?! Why?" ----Airianne's panicked voice rang loudly in her mind. "Mother! She's disappearing!" Merlyn quickly teleported to Airianne's location. Arturia was slumped over the kitchen table. She was turning into mist.

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Chapter 12 Omake Wybrenne: I haven't done anything useful! Am I just an ornamental character? I know... I'll teach you about sex. Arturia: ... Arturia: No, thank you. I already know. Wybrenne: ... Wybrenne: Oh, fiddlesticks...

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Chapter 12: The Rose
Illuminated by dim lamplight, they picked their way around the rubble of the great hall. Since the stones were no longer translucent, the great hall felt more like a great cave. Rin's heart twisted with guilt as she passed by the crater in the middle of the hall. She and Bedivere walked toward the east wing. The recent events replayed over and over in her mind. She could not believe that it happened. She wanted to be free of those memories, even for a moment. Perhaps, a bit of meditation would help. The rose garden would be best with its inlaid geometric patterns for rituals. She would need Bedivere's cooperation first. "Sir Bedivere..." "What is it, Milady?" "I would like to meditate for a few moments. Today weighs heavily upon mine mind, and I would like to lift that burden before I sleep. Canst thou wait for half an hour before taking me back to the east wing?" Bedivere tapped the pommel of her sword thoughtfully. Before they left, Merlyn told her to bring Rhynne back to the east wing when they returned. However, Rhynne's request did not seem too extravagant, so she scrutinized Rhynne and tried to discern if she had any ulterior motives. Finding none, she replied, "Yea, but only if thou promise not to go anywhere else but the rose garden. When the time comes, I will meet thee there." Rin smiled gratefully. "Mine thanks." She made her way to the hallway which led to the rose garden. Even in the hallway, the scent of roses floated in the air. She inhaled the scent deeply and felt refreshed. She grasped the handle of the stained glass door and opened it. The sight that greeted her in the rose garden almost stopped her heart. Arturia floated upright in midair in the middle of the triangle of inlaid pebbles. She was wearing her familiar battle armor. Her eyes were closed and her face was expressionless. A golden scabbard glowed in front of her and produced streams of bright mana into her upturned palms. The glyphs on her palms glowed bright red as the mana was absorbed. Rin approached her cautiously and stepped into the triangle, calling out, "Arturia... Arturia... canst thou hear me?" Arturia made no response. For a few moments, Rin watched her intently. Then her eyes shifted to the golden scabbard. It was similar to the scabbard that she saw in King Arthur's portrait, so it was probably Avalon. Her gaze returned to Arturia. She wondered what happened. As she gazed at her, Arturia seemed to become translucent for an instant. Rin's heart was seized with a terrible feeling that her condition was related to Shiro's disappearance. She had lost Shiro, but maybe she can do something to help Arturia. Careful not to disrupt the mana flow from Avalon, she reached out to hold Arturia's hand. The garden melted away into an abandoned warehouse. She was stepping on someone's neck. Her stomach threatened to expel its contents when she recognized the man under her armored boot. "Father!" she cried out. But her father did not seem to hear her. She heard herself speak in Arturia's voice, "Your orders, Master?"
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"Kill him." In the dim light, she saw Kiritsugu Emiya standing nearby. However, his face bore none of the gentleness shown in his picture at Shiro's house. A gloved hand pointed to a dismembered arm about five feet away. "With all due respect, Master, the command seals have been nullified. But if you insist, I will ask you to surrender a command seal." "Command seals can be placed anywhere on the body. And Berserker needs a master." Her fear rose within her and she felt like retching it out. Unfortunately, she could not do anything except watch in silence as master and servant regarded each other. A few moments later, she spoke, "May I propose an alternative, Master?" "What?" asked Kiritsugu irritably. "Separate his soul from his body temporarily. When the war is over, return his soul to him. That way, you will not waste a command seal." Kiritsugu looked thoughtful. Then he said gruffly, "I don't want to waste mana." "Then I will lend you mine. I recover faster than you and shall regain the mana back in a few hours." Kiritsugu rubbed his chin. "All right, if it'll make you happy." He knelt on one knee next to her father. His words dripped with derision. "Hey, Toki-kun... any last words? You can even tell me what you want from the Grail. If it's easy, I'll get it for you." "B--bastard!" Her father's voice was raw, choking with spittle. "You want what I want, and you know it! I hope you lose! Anyone else would be a better disciple for Master!" Kiritsugu laughed. "Someone else can be his disciple for all I care!" "What?" exclaimed her father in a bewildered voice. Kiritsugu voice dropped with disgust. "I'm not like you, following another man's shadow. Good-bye, Toki-kun." Kiritsugu plunged his hand into her father's chest. Rin screamed in protest, wishing with all her might to stop him. Suddenly, a sharp pain erupted from her side and she was sent flying through the air. She landed heavily on the ground. Fist-sized objects spilled over her face and chest. She brushed them off in panic. "Stupid girl! Can ye at least stop and think!?" Merlyn's voice echoed in the garden and attacked her ears. Rin's brain snapped to attention when she heard Merlyn's voice. She propped herself up on her elbows and pushed aside the sack of potatoes on top of her. She quickly assumed the seiza position and bowed deeply. "Forgive me, Master..." Merlyn rubbed her forehead with exasperation. "Just... just dinna touch her again. Ye could have been pulled into yer past." Rin gaped with astonishment and horror. "I... I thought I was seeing Arturia's memories as a servant..." "Nay... she has been summoned as a servant. I have managed to keep her physical form in this time by using Avalon." She sighed and her sigh seemed so sad. Merlyn beckoned her. "Come, lass. Leave her be. We shall speak of this in the morn." Rin obeyed and followed Merlyn. Along the way, they met Bedivere who flushed with embarrassment when she saw Merlyn. Merlyn simply threw her a disapproving glance, and she withered away under its might. Bedivere managed to mumble, "Good night." and began to turn away. "Arturia is in the rose garden." said Merlyn curtly. "Dinna touch her." Bedivere's face went pale. She swallowed and nodded in acknowledgement. Then, with hurried strides, she strode past them towards the rose garden. Merlyn led her back to her room in the east wing. "Sleep well, lass. I have a lot of questions fer ye tomorrow." With that, Merlyn walked down the hall to her quarters. Rin changed to her nightgown and flopped down on her bed. How was she supposed to get any sleep after such a horrible day?
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----Because of Merlyn's enforced isolation, she had breakfast by herself in Airianne's study. Bored, her eyes wandered about the room until they landed on the map. She put her muffin down and hesitantly hovered her hand over the crystal. Gathering her courage, she spoke. "Arturia." Arturia's image flickered in the rose garden. She was still wearing her armor. Memories from last night tore at her heart and she quickly dispelled the image. She went back to her meal and finished it in silence. About half an hour later, Merlyn and Bedivere came. They sat down on the table where she was seated. Merlyn leaned back in her seat. "Tell me what happened." Rin drew a deep breath and told Merlyn about how they found and lost Shiro. Then they went to the monastery to find Brother Jacob. Brother Jacob revealed that the archbishop and Shiro met the day before. Shiro had spoken to the archbishop privately and spent the rest of the day with him. The next day, the archbishop announced that he was leaving to see the archbishop of Lundein. They set out very early in the morning. Shiro came about an hour after the archbishop and his entourage left. When he found out that they were gone, Shiro indicated that he was going to follow them. After Brother Jacob finished, Bedivere asked to see the Grail. They were escorted to a spartan room whose only extravagance was a marble altar. He opened a small silver cabinet on the altar with gloved hands. In it was a small tin goblet. Bedivere bowed her head and extended her hands toward the goblet as if she was praying. After five minutes, she lowered her hands and prostrated herself. Brother Jacob closed the cabinet. Bedivere thanked Brother Jacob and told them that they were leaving for a previous engagement. They exchanged farewells and left the monastery. "Well?" asked Merlyn anxiously. "Is it safe?" Bedivere's face fell. "Nay. I could not sense the Holy aura." Merlyn stood up and paced about while cursing loudly in Welsh. Although she could not understand all of her words, Rin cringed at the words that she did understand. Bedivere's face turned a shade of green which indicated that she understood all of it. Merlyn banged her a fist against the door of a wooden cabinet so forcefully that wood split in two. She stared at broken door for a moment and waved her hand. The wood knitted together to fix the split. She sighed remorsefully. "What's done is done. All this time, I hath been one step behind." She sat down on the armchair and buried her face in her hands. "A step behind?" echoed Rin. "Master, pray, elaborate." Merlyn shook her head. "Nay, tis no matter." Her face grew serious. "Right now, we must look to Arturia's condition. To do so, I will need everything that ye know about the Wars." Rin shuddered and recalled the unpleasant experience of Merlyn reading her mind. She kept silent. Merlyn noticed Rhynne's apprehension. "I cannae do this without reading yer mind. I understand that ye can speak to me about it, but I need to see it for mine self. So, please... aid me by concentrating on the memories that art related to the Wars. Twould be easier fer me since I dinna have to search through yer mind. E'en with mine skill, mind reading tires me and uses a lot of mana." Hesitantly, Rin replied, "As ye command, Master." She closed her eyes and tried to recollect all her studies and experiences about the War and the Holy Grail. Merlyn laid her hands on her head and she felt the surge of her mana. This time, however, she was not sent reeling through an abyss. Instead, she walked through her memories like a silent and calm observer. It seemed like hours before she was finally released from the spell. She leaned back into her seat and breathed a sigh of relief. When she opened her eyes, she was surprised to see Merlyn leaning against Bedivere. Bedivere helped her to an armchair. Merlyn closed her eyes and appeared to fall asleep. Rin
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glanced at her watch. It was over two hours since they started. Bedivere beckoned her and whispered, "Come... let her rest." Rin followed Bedivere. They walked out of the east wing. "Whither goest thou?" asked Rin. "The Library. Merlyn suggested that thou search the books about a cure for Arturia's malady." "I see. I will do mine best." "And I will pray that thou will find it." Bedivere's words echoed her own fears. Silently, Rin prayed as well. ----They met with Merlyn late in the afternoon in Airianne's study. She paced up and down as she explained her theories. "Tis obvious that Shiro's disappearance is related to Arturia's malady. Shiro was her previous master, and served as her link within this time. Furthermore, when he disappeared, Arturia's spirit was drawn to the master before him, which is his foster father, Kiritsugu." "And thank the fates! She was not drawn completely to him." She looked sharply at Rin. "The glyphs on her hands forged a weaker link... with ye. I saw them glow brightly when she was disappearing. Twas then that I used Avalon to strengthen that link and moved her to the rose garden to sustain her physical form in this time. However, the other half of her spirit lies outside this time. That is why ye were able to see yer own past." Rin bowed her head as memories of her father's funeral replayed in her mind. When she was old enough to understand the police report, she thought that one of the knight class servants had killed her comatose father in the hospital. "I dinna know if Arturia used Excalibur while Kiritsugu was her master. To prevent inconsistencies with time, ye must yield Excalibur over to her." When Rin did not respond at once, Merlyn stared at her. A great sadness was written all over Rin's face. Carefully, she probed Rin's mind and walked over to lay a hand on her shoulder. "Mine apologies fer yer loss, lass." "None needed Master. I... I will overcome mine grief in time." "Forgive her, lass. I ask this as her friend, not yer master." Rin was not sure how to answer. If she forgave her, would she betray her father? Her thoughts wandered to all those nights when she waited for his return and went to sleep dreaming of the day when he would open the gate and take her into his arms. But that day never came, and now, she knew why. Merlyn waited patiently for Rin to answer. When she saw the pain on Rin's face, she realized that she had to convince her that it was not entirely Arturia's fault. "Kiritsugu would have returned his soul after the war. I am sure of that." Merlyn's words shook her thoughts. If his body remained intact, and if Kiritsugu returned his soul, her father would still be alive. She bit her lip. Even though Merlyn had made a good point, she could not ignore the fact that his body died and that Kiritsugu kept his soul or destroyed it. But these last two facts did not involve Arturia. At least, she could take some comfort in that. Merlyn observed Rin's reactions. She seemed to be weighing her last statement about Kiritsugu. For now, she had to be satisfied that Rin would not lay all the blame on Arturia. And now, she had to determine how much Rin cared for Arturia. "There may be a way to make Arturia whole." She paused and waited for Rin's reaction. Rin's head jerked up and she half rose from her seat. "There is?" Merlyn was pleased with her initial reaction. "Aye. When a servant is defeated, his spirit returns to the Throne of Heroes. Tis likely that the other half of Arturia's spirit will be found there." Rin leaned forward. "Do ye know where it is, Master?" "The Throne is not in the physical realm. Tis in a realm beyond time and space. Ne'ertheless, methinks I know of a way to reach it. Einzbern's history indicated that they hath attempted to force their
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will upon the Throne of Heroes. But, if they were successful in doing so, then the Wars would not be. Methinks that they hath managed to find a way to reach it, but not a way to master it. Furthermore, methinks that the gateway to the Throne lies hidden within their ancestral lands." "Tis in Germany!" Rin said excitedly. Rin was glad that she had gotten over her initial dislike for Illya and that she had asked her about her family's history. To her amazement, Illya cheerfully replied to all her questions. "I hath seen their castle from afar. Tis good news, Master! We can go there at once and search for it." "Nay, lass. I cannae go with ye. I am needed here, in this place, in this TIME." Merlyn emphasized her last word. Her mouth fell open as Merlyn's words began to sink in. Her voice trembled as she tried to confirm what Merlyn said. "Ye mean... that I must return to the future?" "Aye. E'en if we go to the Saxon lands now, we will not find the gate. The Wars started within a century of yer time. Tis likely that the gate was constructed within that time as well." Rin's knees buckled and she leaned on the table for support. She knew that she would have to go back someday, and now, she had to. It felt too soon. She did not want to leave without knowing that Arturia was safe. But she must go to free Arturia's spirit from the Throne of Heroes. "Will ye go?" Rin gathered her determination and stood straighter. "Yea... I will." "E'en if it means leaving Arturia behind?" Tears welled up in her eyes and she blinked to keep them in. In a choking voice, she replied. "Yea." "I am glad to hear it." Merlyn put a hand on her shoulder. "I will teach ye all I can to help ye succeed. Bedivere will instruct ye to improve yer battle skills. Once past the gate, the rules of magic may not apply. Ye will need something else to rely on." She took her hand away. "Prepare yerself, mine apprentice. Yer task is great, and failure is unacceptable." Rin swallowed and tried to look confident. "As we say in mine time, 'Bring it on.'" ----The days passed like the monotonic ticking of a clock. She spent the mornings with Merlyn and the afternoons with Bedivere. Then, one cloudy day, Merlyn came to her with a wide grin on her face and a bundle of scrolls under her arm. "Methinks that I hath found a way to further strengthen Arturia's physical form. Tis a ritual that we can cast together." Merlyn unfolded the scrolls on Rin's desk. Rin beamed with joy. She eagerly listened as Merlyn translated a scroll. To her relief, she discovered that she could read it on her own. Rin cleared her throat. "With all due respect, Master... I can read Welsh." "Ye can?" said Merlyn incredulously. She handed the scroll to Rin. "Read it to me then." Rin did and watched with amusement as Merlyn's face betrayed her surprise. When she was done, Merlyn laughed boisterously. "So ye can! This makes it easier fer me. I dinna have to translate those books in the library anymore. I can just tell ye what ye need to read. Did ye learn Welsh at the Academy?" "Nay." A pang of nostalgia poked Rin's heart. "Arturia taught me." Her thoughts wandered to all those times they practiced Welsh by the shores of that wonderful lake. It seemed like a distant memory now. "Oh... tis well then. Study the scrolls. I will be back in an hour to discuss it with ye." She did and discussed the ritual with Merlyn when she returned. They agreed to cast it the next day. Rin was excited. If the ritual was successful, Arturia would be able to maintain her physical form within the Aerie. However, she would have to spend a few hours in the rose garden to refresh the spell daily. Before she went to sleep that night, she crept into Airianne's study and activated the map to view Arturia. It made more sense now: an incomplete servant for an incomplete master. And what a pair
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they made! Rin was glad that she went against her better judgement and Archer's to help them. For if she did not, Shiro would surely be defeated, and with his defeat, Saber would disappear. There was no way she could let that happen then, and no way she could let it happen now. So when she went to sleep, she dreamt of Arturia opening her eyes and grabbing her to bring her into a tight embrace. The next day, they cast the ritual perfectly. Rin watched with bated breath as Arturia's form began to solidify. But her attention was interrupted by Merlyn's hand on her arm. "Bedivere will take ye back now. Ye can watch her on the map." "But... Master..." "Go." said Merlyn firmly. Rin held back her disappointed tears as Bedivere escorted her to Airianne's study. She rushed to the map and commanded it. Arturia was leaning against Merlyn while Avalon and Excalibur floated nearby. Then Merlyn carried her in her arms and laid her on the cot that was within the boundaries of the reinforcing triangle. Avalon and Excalibur followed and hovered near Arturia. Merlyn sat down at a nearby table to begin her vigil over Arturia in order to confirm that the spell would indeed maintain her form over time. She watched for about five minutes before she dispelled the image. Although Arturia's physical form was restored, she needed to absorb more mana to sustain it. She could check again after four hours. Rin breathed a sigh of relief and returned to her desk to attack the mound of books that Merlyn wanted her to read. She felt like she was in the academy again. However, instead of aiming for a grade, she was aiming for Arturia's freedom. Drawing on that for strength, she opened the first book and began to read. Later that afternoon, Airianne came in with a tray of tea and muffins. "Have a care and rest yer mind, Lady Rhynne." She laid out the teapot and dishes on a nearby table. "Mine thanks, Airianne." replied Rin gratefully. The scent of the muffins made her mouth water. "Mama sends her best." She placed a vase full of heather flowers on the table. "How lovely! I shall thank her for the beautiful flowers when I see her." Airianne looked at her inquiringly. "Do ye know what this flower means?" "Er... not really..." "It means: may yer wish come true." "I see." Her eyes misted over. "That's really thoughtful of her. And thank ye for the tea and for telling me about the flowers." She smiled warmly. "Ye're welcome. Anyway, please enjoy yer tea." "I will." Airianne curtsied and left. Rin quickly finished her tea and muffins. Then she went to an adjoining room that gave her access to the library. She placed her hand on a crystal ball. "A book about the meaning of flowers." A book appeared on the receiving mat on top of a nearby table. She took it and went quietly to her room. She opened the top drawer of her cabinet and carefully lifted the collection of pressed flowers which she made from the bouquet that Arturia gave her. She leafed through the book and tried to identify each flower. "Dandelion... Happiness. Iris... Thy friendship means much to me. Pansies... I think of thee. White lily... Purity, Tis heavenly to be with thee. White Violets... Take a chance with me." The words blurred before her and a tear stained the page. She went to the map and commanded it. She saw an image of Arturia sitting on her cot and eating from a tray. Rin's fingertips hovered near her head in attempt to caress her and her heart whispered, "I love you..." She would have stood there for the rest of the day but she ended her vigil when she heard footsteps in the hallway. With a regretful sigh, she dispelled the image and went back to studying. ----136

Arturia awoke to the sound of humming. She looked around and saw Wybrenne seated at a table. She was picking off the petals from a white rose and depositing them in a small basket. Two other small baskets contained red and yellow petals. "Good morning." Arturia sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Good morning." replied Wybrenne. She continued to hum a melody. Arturia got out of bed and stretched out. Her limbs felt so stiff. She had not felt this way since that long campaign against the Saxons. Three days had passed since Merlyn cast the ritual to cure her from her fainting malady. She felt that she should have recovered by now. As she massaged her shoulders, she listened to Wybrenne's humming. The melody seemed to tug at her heart. "Pray, what is thy song, Lady Wybrenne?" Wybrenne smiled and sang as an answer. [Author's note: Recommended background music: The Rose] Some say love tis a river that drowns the tender reed. Some say love tis a razor that leaves thy soul to bleed. Some say love tis a hunger an endless aching need. I say love tis a flower and thee, its only seed. Tis the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance. Tis the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance. Tis the one who won't be taken who cannot seem to give, And the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live. When the night hast been too lonely and the road hast been too long, and thou thinkst that love is only for the lucky and the strong. Just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snows lies the seed that with the sun's love in the spring becomes the rose. Arturia's hand rose to wipe away a tear. Then she clapped appreciatively. Wybrenne bowed slightly at her applause. "Didst Taliesin compose this song?" asked Arturia. "Nay. Tis by mine own dear Merlyn. She called it, 'The Rose'." replied Wybrenne. She snickered when she saw the disbelief on Arturia's face. "Is that so?" Arturia could not believe that Merlyn even had a romantic bone in her body. Wybrenne's wide grin told her that it was true. "Tis so." With a twinkle in her eye, she added, "She takes pains to hide it, since mine Merlyn is very shy when it comes to matters of the heart."
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"Still... I find it hard to believe." "Be not deceived by her gruff manner. Tis her way of masking her nature. Ah... I vividly remember the first time I saw her..." Arturia sat on the bed. "I would hear thy tale." After three boring days in the rose garden, a good story was welcome relief from the monotony. "Tis a long one. Thy breakfast is behind thee. Partake of thy meal whilst I tell mine tale." Arturia hopped over the cot and grabbed the tray on a stool. After placing it on her lap, she picked up a muffin and bit it. Wybrenne smiled at her attentive audience and began her tale. "One winter's night, a young bard appeared before the gates of Rosenharte. She implored the gatekeeper." "Please, lady... A rose in exchange for shelter from the bitter cold." "The gatekeeper consulted the Lily Alliance. The falling snow indicated that a storm was brewing. The Sisters gave their consent. The bard seemed to be betwixt sixteen and twenty years of age. She was dressed in a threadbare cloak, a patched tunic and peasant skirt. Her gloves were ripped at the fingertips and mismatched leather sandals adorned her feet. Slung on her shoulder was a leather knapsack which contained her harp. Her silver hair hung like a mop on her head. But what stood out of her unkempt and shabby appearance were her piercing golden eyes." "The Lily Alliance, three elder students, welcomed her. She introduced herself as Lyn, the Cloud Singer. The sisters introduced themselves as Lady Lloydia, Lady Nymphae and Lady Majalis. They invited her to dinner. She sat at their table and ate under the scrutiny of all the students in the hall. The students exchanged whispered speculation about the bard and as each speculation passed from ear to mouth, they grew into ridiculous conjectures." Wybrenne laughed softly. "Truly told, I hath seen her first. She was walking along the road whilst I was on mine way back from the barn. Out of curiosity, I followed her discreetly and listened to her conversation with the gatekeeper." Arturia was amused by Wybrenne's choice of words. She heard the same phrase when a court lady claimed a new knight as her champion by the right of being the first to see him. She returned her attention to Wybrenne. "A rose! A clever tactic to gain the trust of the Sisters. But... even if a rose were grown indoors, its growth would be stunted by winter. The rose she held was full... like a summer's rose. I knew then that there was something peculiar about this bard." "After dinner, she offered to sing in return for the kindness that she was given. She took out her harp and sang the song that thou hast just heard. When she was done, the entire hall rose in applause and demanded more. Lyn sang song after song until the clock struck nine. Then Lady Lloydia announced that everyone must adjourn to bed." "I had chosen to sit as close as possible to the Sisters. When Lady Lloydia made her announcement, I sprang to mine feet and offered the hospitality of mine room. I explained that mine roommate hath left to be married and so mine room hath a vacant bed. Lady Lloydia weighed mine offer and gave her consent. Normally, guests stayed in a stately furnished guest room. But there wert only a few guest rooms, and a custodian would have to clean the room after the guest left. If she stayed with me, she would not have to use the guest room. I was certain that Lady Lloydia would agree." Wybrenne chuckled. "Ah... many went to their rooms cursing mine name. But the night was far from over. As I led Lyn to mine room, students approached us boldly to talk to her. Some even touched her hands." Wybrenne's face darkened. "But Lyn did not protest enough to make them stop. I was compelled to shoo them away. We raced down the hall and into mine room." "Against the surging tide of students, I locked the door behind me. Since she was mine guest, I offered to hang her cloak. She gave it to me and I hung her dry cloak on a wooden peg. Seeing that she did not bring a change of clothes with her, I offered her a spare nightgown. She stared at it like she had never seen one before." Wybrenne blushed. "Twas only after we were married that I understood why. She either went to bed in a shirt and trewes or... without."
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"What?!" exclaimed Arturia. The thought of Merlyn sleeping in the nude was... unthinkable. She decided that it was and stopped her thoughts right there. "Yea... without. I didst not know this, so I insisted that she wear it, saying tis what proper maidens wore to bed. Then I picked out mine gown and began to change in front of her. To mine surprise, she turned her face to the wall, and refused to face me until I was suitably dressed. From mine vantage, I could see her ears turning red." Wybrenne laughed again. "Never have I met a maiden so shy! Ah... she amused me so much during her stay. She was so shy, that I had to step into the closet before she changed to that nightgown. Even then, she was already under the covers when I stepped out." "Before I went to bed, I sketched out the locations of the bath and the privy relative to our room. I advised her that if she required its use, she must wait until two o'clock so that she would not be disturbed in the hall. She smiled gratefully and bid me goodnight." "Overnight, the storm came and buried Rosenharte under four feet of snow. Since she would be staying for a while, the Sisters allowed her to attend classes if she wisheth to. I lent her some clothes and accompanied her everywhere. She asked a lot of questions about the classes and about the Sisters. Her manner and speech were rough, but the questions she asked revealed an intelligent nature and a maturity beyond her years. Soon I hath questions of mine own, for she obviously hath been schooled far beyond a bard's apprenticeship." "I answered her questions, but I watched her carefully. Why was she here? What did she hope to find out? Soon, I noticed that she kept asking the same questions about every student that we met. She wanted to know each maiden's family history, her performance in school and her personality. After two days, twas apparent to me that she was more interested in the students than the school. Who was she looking for?" "Since the matter involved mine sisters, I cornered her in mine room and asked her if she was a mage. She did not reply at once, but the startled look in her eyes spoke volumes. Finally, she waved her hand in the air and chanted, 'Silentium.' She explained that she hath cast a spell to prevent anyone from listening to us. Then she asked me how I knew. I told her about the rose and about her condition when she arrived at the gate. The nearest village was three miles away. If she had walked from there, her cloak would be soaked with melted snow. But it was not. Her skin should have been pale from the frigid cold, but her cheeks were flushed as if she had ran a mile." "She laughed nervously and rewarded mine observations by revealing that she conjured the rose and had arrived near Rosenharte by flying there. I then asked her why she was here. She told me that she was trying to find a bride." Arturia choked on her tea. Wybrenne stopped and was relieved to see Arturia recover from her mishap. Arturia wiped her mouth with her napkin. "Didst she want to get married?" "Twas not for her. Twas for a dear friend of hers. I asked her who and when she seemed reluctant to tell, I fell upon her and tickled her." Arturia's eyebrows shot up. "Tickled?! Merlyn let thee?" Wybrenne nodded. "I dared as much as I can. When I saw signs that I had exceeded her limits, I withdrew. Then I asked why she did not petition the Sisters to arrange a meeting with her friend. If her friend is of noble lineage, then the Sisters will try to find suitable matches for him. I explained that Rosenharte takes pride in finding a suitable bride in the name of happiness and love. As a result, many noble families hath benefited from our Sisters' diligence. She saith that her friend is very special and she must see Rosenharte firsthand." "I told her that I hath attended Rosenharte since I was a young girl and hath grown up with many of the students here. I offered to introduce her to students who might be a match for her friend if she would supply her friend's history. She seemed reluctant to yield that information. When I asked her about her friend's family, she only saith that he was from the noblest bloodlines in Britain. With a set of desired qualities in mind, I introduced her to all students who were of an equal lineage. There were not many.
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When we discussed them later that night, twas apparent to me that she hath not found any to her liking. I asked her again to tell me more about her friend. She yielded little new information." "Finally, I threw up mine hands and jested that her search was as difficult as finding a bride for the High King, who still remained unmarried after fifteen years of ascending the throne. If I hath not been watching her carefully, I would have missed it: the subtle shiver in her shoulders and the alarm in her eyes." "Twas then that I knew for certain who her friend was. Mine hand flew to mine mouth when I realized it. She must have been watching me too, and implored me not to tell anyone. In whispered tones, I asked her if she was counsel to the High King. She cast Silentium again and told me that she was. The puzzle began to take shape in mine mind. Her name, her magic, her role as counsel..." "The discovery wiped away mine discretion and I blurted out, 'Thou art Merlyn!' As soon as I blurted out her true name, she shrank back. And then her hands clenched and she stared at me, wearing the power of her true name like a mask." Wybrenne laughed. "The conversation thereafter was rather amusing. I can remember it clearly." She recited their conversation, mimicking Merlyn's speech patterns when needed. "And so I am. What of it?" "Thou... art not what I hath envisioned thee to be." "Did ye expect an old man with a large staff? I can be that if ye want." "Nay. I prefer thy true form. Tis more beautiful and pleasing to mine eyes than any I could imagine." "..." "A blush crept onto those pale cheeks. Mine heart was delighted at the sight. In that instant, she hath won mine heart. Nay, she hath won mine heart on the night she offered that rose, but I did not realize it until that instant." "But mine curiosity came with a price. I hath lost her trust. I tried to be sincere in mine offer to help her and offered to introduce her to students who were of lesser rank but possessed a mature temperament. I argued that lineage may not be enough to assist the High King and that a maiden of virtue and wisdom might be more appropriate for His Majesty. She considered mine words and agreed to meet the students." Arturia interrupted her with a question. "Lady Wybrenne, how long ago didst thou meet Merlyn?" Wybrenne calculated the years. "Methinks... about seventy-five years ago." "Seventy-five... then... the High King at that time..." Arturia's eyes grew wide as plates. "She was looking for a bride for me?!" she exclaimed. Wybrenne laughed heartily when she saw Arturia's reaction. It had taken Arturia long enough to realize it. "Yea... she was." She watched Arturia with amusement as she tried to contain her shock. When she seemed to have recovered, she ventured, "Shall I continue?" Arturia nodded. "Yea... please do." "We met more students the next day. After we returned from dinner, we discussed them. Once again, none matched her standards. I threw mineself upon mine bed and implored her to tell me more about His Majesty so that I can find a new set of students to meet." "And then she saith that perhaps she hath already found one. She stared at me and the hairs on the back of mine head prickled at her implied choice. I refused and stated that I was unsuitable for His Majesty. She flattered me by saying that I was wise for unmasking her guile and that I was beautiful and charming. Still, I refused until she gave up. She sighed. However, the sigh did not sound like a sigh of frustration, but rather, a sigh of relief. Twas then that I began to entertain thoughts of a future of us together." "But I also discovered something else: that she would put aside her own needs to fulfill the needs of the High King. I was not pleased with that discovery at all. It meant that I must share her time with the duties of being counsel to the High King." Wybrenne sighed. "But if that is what it means to love her, then I must learn to accept it." She saw the anguish written on Arturia's face. "Fret not, Sir Arturia. Even with her duties, know that
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Merlyn hath made me the happiest woman in Britain." "Mine thanks. Thy words hath soothed the sorrow in mine heart. If I knew that Merlyn was married, I would have found a way to give her more time for herself." Wybrenne shook her head. "Nay... she had to keep me secret. Merlyn hath many enemies... far more than she let thee know. Thou may ask her about it later. So... shall I continue?" Arturia murmured her assent. "Since she was so reluctant to share His Majesty's information with me, I asked her to describe the woman that His Majesty could love instead. This time, twas she who threw up her hands. Her reply drove a nail into mine heart." She recited her words. "Alas! How can I? His Majesty will not love." "How can that be? Everyone must love!" "Nay... not King Arthur. Tis an emotion unneeded to rule. If e'er it comes to him, he will squash it like a Saxon under his boot." "Then if tis true, I must tell thee plainly as thy friend. I will not allow any of mine sisters to enter in such a loveless union. I will not assist thee anymore. And if thou persist at a later time, I will prevent thee for as long as I am here." "Merlyn sat down on her bed and buried her face in her hands. She saith that she was at her wits end, and that Rosenharte hath been her last hope. I forgot mine anger over her plan to find a bride, and sat by her side. I put mine arm around her and we sat in silence whilst I tried to think of an alternative." Wybrenne leveled her gaze at Arturia. "As thou can see, I hath been an accomplice in this part of thy life. We meant no harm, and only wisheth the best for thee. If thou hath felt slighted by our schemes, then I greatly apologize." She paused and observed Arturia carefully. "What comes next may shock thee. I will understand if thou will hate me for it. But I must ask thee to forgive Merlyn's part in this. Dost thou still want to know?" "Yea... now more than e'er..." Wybrenne drew a deep breath and continued. "I told her if she could not find a bride who would marry out of love, then she must try to find one who would marry out of duty. This lady would have to come from a family who values lineage and honor. She must be a queen who could strengthen the High King's reputation in Britain and the lands beyond the sea, particularly, Rome. The emperors of Rome hath ruled Britain in the past and the Pope hath dispensed his blessings from Rome. So if more ties could be forged with Rome, then Rome will respect King Arthur's authority and trade could flourish between our lands." When she heard Arturia gasp, she knew that Arturia realized the implications of her tale. Arturia spoke softly. "I see... I understand now... why Guinevere and I were married." "Art thou angry?" "Nay... there is no reason to." Arturia closed her eyes and sighed. When she looked up, her inquisitive eyes probed Wybrenne. "That is another story. However, I sense that thy tale doth not end here." Wybrenne flushed. A part of her hoped that Arturia would not ask her to continue, while another part of her argued that Arturia needed to hear the end of it and encouraged her to finish the tale. She gathered her courage and drew a deep breath. "Since I hath voiced mine objection over a Rosenharte bride, Merlyn hath no reason to stay. However, she asked to stay one more day to see what Rosenharte students do in their free time during the weekend. The next day, I showed her the rooms where various societies engaged in their activities: knitting, singing, poetry, acting, cooking and so forth. Twas late in the afternoon when she asked what I liked to do. I showed her the barn where I cared for the cows and sheep." Wybrenne laughed. "I taught her how to milk Bessie. Ah... that was so amusing! Her grasp on the udder was not quite right and the udder squirted milk in her face. She pouted so much when I laughed at her mishap!" "Eventually, she did it properly and filled a bottle of milk. I put it in the snow and handed her some
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special boots to wear. When she examined them, I explained that I hath attached worn horseshoes underneath the boots. When she asked why, I told her to come with me behind the barn. I led her to the frozen pond behind it and stepped onto its icy surface. She watched with amazement as I slid across the surface with ease. I beckoned her to come and she fell to her knees on her first step. I helped her up and showed her how I manage to stay upright. Hand in hand, we slid across the pond until the bell tolled, calling everyone for dinner." "When we returned to the dining hall, I boiled the milk and served it to her with honey. When she tasted it, she said that it was best milk she hath ever had. Ah! She hath such a beautiful smile..." "After dinner, we returned to mine room. She asked me what I liked to do after dinner, so I showed her mine unfinished plays. She read them and criticized them rather harshly. I was infuriated at first, but when I noticed the crooked smile on her lips, I realized that she was doing it deliberately. So I challenged her to pick a play and finish what I started. She did and twisted the plot so much that the ending was so absurd! I retaliated by continuing the play from her ending to something more proper. However, she did not give in and continued mine ending to resolve into another bizarre one. By the great bard! She truly hath an unusual imagination!" "We went to sleep by the time the clock struck twelve. I told her that I sang in the choir at morning mass which was at eight o'clock. She saith that she would leave before then. I asked her to write to me when she could, and she promised that she would." "The morning came, and we got out of bed to prepare. When she was ready, she walked toward the door and stopped with her back toward me. She told me that I was the kindest host that she hath ever stayed with. She turned around and raised her hand to me. She told me clasp it to receive the traditional courtly farewell. I was not well versed in courtly manners, so I was eager to learn about it. To mine great surprise, she pulled me to her and kissed me fully on mine lips." "She released me and turned to leave. I grabbed her arm and pulled her toward me. I called her a liar and kissed her back." Wybrenne was blushing fiercely at this point. One glance at Arturia told her that she was expected to continue. She swallowed and explained, "She lied about the courtly farewell. I knew so because I saw her. Even though her back was turned, I saw her face reflected on the mirror on the wall. She licked her lips. Twas obvious that she was just using the supposed courtly farewell as an excuse." "Thou thinkst me bold. Yea, I was. But I could not let her leave without showing her what she meant to give up. I pushed her onto mine bed and began to love her. She seemed reluctant at first, but after she cast Silentium, I knew that mine efforts wert not wasted." "She hath sang many songs for us. But her song that morning was for mine ears alone. And when she sang mine name to shame the choirs of angels, I knew that she was mine." Wybrenne snickered. "Needless to say, I did not make it to morning mass... nor any mass during that day." By now, Arturia's face mirrored her own. But her eyes were still anticipating for the rest of her tale. "Twas with regret that she told me that she must leave tomorrow for certain. I made her promise to visit me during the school festivals. The next day, she thanked the Sisters for their hospitality and bid them farewell. They were gracious enough to invite her to stay whenever her journeys take her to Rosenharte. Then I accompanied her for as far as I dared to walk. We hid behind some bushes and held each other. Then she released me, and transformed into a marvelous eagle. Before she flew away, I asked her to give me one of her feathers and she held out her wing to let me pluck one. I still have it to this day." Wybrenne reached under her shirt and took off an amulet around her neck. The amulet was made of clear amber and trapped within it was a feather. She held it up proudly for Arturia to see before wearing it again. "An amazing tale..." The wonder in Arturia's voice was praise in her ears. "I am grateful to thee for sharing thy tale. And if I may implore thee again, may I hear Merlyn's song one more time?" Wybrenne loved an appreciative audience. "Of course." ----142

Later that night, Wybrenne joined them for the customary nightly entertainment. Except for Rin, everyone else was there. Wybrenne won the game and the board was placed before her to spin. But her hand rose in refusal and she said, "Since I rarely join thee, may I request that thou sing for me tonight?" Everyone agreed to do so, and sang for her. When Arturia's turn came, she strummed her harp and began to sing 'The Rose'. The look on Merlyn's face was priceless. Merlyn raised her hand towards her as if she was about to cast a spell but Wybrenne pinched her forearm. Arturia reigned in the impending laughter within her and tried to sing it in the style that Taliesin often used. When she was done, she lingered not for the applause, but to enjoy the mortification painted on Merlyn's face. She winked when she passed Merlyn who blushed some more. After everyone had sang at least twice, Wybrenne indicated that she was sleepy. As Merlyn wheeled her to the exit, Wybrenne turned her head and caught Arturia's eyes. Her eyes asked an unspoken question. "Didst thou see it? Dost thou understand now?" Arturia nodded gratefully. After she memorized The Rose, she asked Wybrenne what it was like to be loved by Merlyn. Wybrenne replied, "Exciting. Everyday with her is like discovering something new about mineself, or herself, or about the world around us. Tis like seeing everything with new eyes. Even something so insignificant as a feather can begin to have meaning." And tonight, Wybrenne had indeed acquired more discoveries. Her eyes did not leave Merlyn's face while she sang her song. Arturia was certain that she was savoring Merlyn's every emotion and reaction throughout the song. Every discovery became a treasure in her heart. At the word treasure, Arturia's thoughts wandered to Rhynne and the only treasure that she had from her. Ever since she destroyed the garland that she made for Rhynne, she had regretted her moment of weakness. But she had learned her lesson. From henceforth, she would be more careful and guard every treasure that she discovered. And when she prepared to sleep, she held Rhynne's pillow close to her and guarded her treasure even in her dreams. ----Arturia loaded a laundry basket on the platform in the shaft. She read the first step of the instructions and found the crank. She rotated the crank and watched the basket rise into the shaft. Doing laundry seemed like a boring chore, but to Arturia, any chore became a welcome relief. Ever since the day that she collapsed, she spent each morning at the rose garden. Then she spent the afternoons searching for the entrance to the east wing or for hidden passages that may lead to it. When she got tired, she would go to the sitting room to play the harp. Unfortunately, playing did very little to ease the ache in her heart. So after a week, she asked Airianne to give her chores to do. At least, she could have something to do to help her forget. As she cranked away, she seemed to hear a voice. She strained her ears to locate the source of the voice. It seemed to come from the ceiling. The crank resisted further rotation, so she did the next step in the instructions and pulled a lever. Then she cranked in the opposite direction to bring the platform back down. She put the instructions aside and tried to locate the voice again. She walked around until she was underneath a laundry shaft. She closed her eyes to listen more carefully. Her heart skipped a beat when she identified the voice as Rhynne's. If her guess was correct, the shaft would lead to her room. She gathered empty baskets and stacked them high. Then she climbed the stack and stuck her head in the shaft. It was wide enough for one person to crawl in. Arturia ran her hand along its smooth surface. Since she would have to rely on the friction of her skin to keep herself from slipping, Arturia removed her shoes and skirt before crawling in. She pushed against the walls of the shaft to wedge herself within it. Slowly, she crawled up with only Rhynne's voice as her guide. Her efforts were rewarded when she realized that she was singing. She
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could even hear music. She crawled faster. Suddenly, her head hit something. She recoiled slightly and reached out in the darkness. Something was blocking her way, and it seemed to repel her hand. Her heart sank. It was probably a magic barrier. Rhynne's voice was much clearer now. However, she seemed to be singing in a different language. Judging by the way it was spoken, she guessed that it was Rhynne's native tongue. She sighed. At least, she could listen to her voice. As she clung to the shaft, she heard her sing. "Let me be with you..." Arturia's ears strained to understand the song. She waited for a while and then she heard the phrase again. "Let me be with you..." Could it be that the song was sung in two languages? She closed her eyes and listened. [Author's note: recommended background music: Let me be with you by Shela, from the Album Cherry Blossom] Ano hi onaji mirai o shinjita Futari wa itsushika Yureru tagai no kokoro tashikana Kizuna de musunda Meguru kisetsu no naka o narande arukitai Let me be with you Wakariau tabi Sunao ni nareta kimi to nara Let me be with you Haru no sasayaki Hoshi no kirameki Aiseru deshou Let me be with you Nagai nemurenu yoru wa nando mo KISU shite kureta, ne? Soushite watashi wa yagate honto no Shiawase wo shitta Ame ga niji e to kawari Soshite hana wo hagukumu you ni Let me be with you Kakegae no nai Taisetsu wa toki dakishimete Let me be with you Asa no tokimeki Yume no nukumori kanjiru mama Let me be with you Let me be with you Let me be with you Wakariau tabi Sunao ni nareta kimi to nara Let me be with you Asa no tokimeki Yume no nukumori kanjiru mama Let me be with you
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Aiseru deshou Let me be with you Nostalgia flooded her heart as she listened to song. The language seemed so strangely familiar that she felt that she should understand it. But why was she feeling nostalgic? She searched through her memories frantically for a clue but found none. Eventually, the song ended and she heard silence. She gathered her courage and called out. "Rhynne? Canst thou hear me?" She called out once more and touched the barrier. It probably did not let her voice through. Her head bowed in defeat and she began to crawl down. "Arturia...?" echoed Rhynne's voice from above. "Rhynne!" Arturia yelled excitedly. She heard Rhynne say, "Illumina...". A bright light appeared about twenty feet away from her. The light descended. Just beyond the light, she could see Rhynne's face. Her mouth fell open and she disappeared from her view. "Wait!" cried Arturia. "Please!" Then she heard Rhynne say, "Levitiam". She saw Rhynne crawl into the shaft. When she was close enough, Arturia realized that she was floating. When she was within an arm's length, Rhynne reached out to her. "Arturia..." An invisible barrier stopped her hand as well. Rhynne pressed her palm against it. Arturia pressed her hand where Rhynne had hers. "I missed thee." Rin was so happy to hear those words. "I missed thee as well." Tears streamed from her eyes and she made no effort to wipe them away. "I am sorry... truly sorry about thy sister." Arturia did not respond at once. After that awful battle, she spent each night debating a proper course of action. But given her near demise, it appeared that her days were numbered. Right now, she could no longer afford to debate. No matter what action she took, her sister was gone. But Rhynne was still here and she knew for certain how she wanted to spend her time. Silently, she asked her sister for forgiveness. "Mine heart still aches over her loss. Even though we hath our differences, she was still mine sister. I cannot hate her, despite all that she hath done. And I can not hate thee either, for I love thee too much." Rhynne cried openly and pressed her other hand against the barrier. Tears sprang from her own eyes as well and she leaned forward to rest her head where Rhynne's head was. When Rhynne had calmed down, she whispered hoarsely. "I am glad... so glad to hear thy words..." With Rhynne's hair over the left side of her face, she did not notice it before. "Rhynne... what happened to thy eye?" Her hand flew to cover the light brown patch over her eye. "Tis a minor injury. It will heal in time." "Is Merlin healing thee?" "Yea. She hath found a potion to help it heal." Arturia exhaled with relief. "Thank God. Twould be a shame to suffer an incurable injury to thy beautiful eye." She felt something brush against her forearm. She looked down to see Rhynne's sleeve against it. Her heart began to beat with hope as she pulled the sleeve. Rin felt something pulling on her sleeve. She turned her head towards it. Her mouth fell open at the sight. Quickly, she pulled her arm out of the other sleeve and guided the sleeve towards the barrier. The sleeve passed through. Her heart began to pound with the thrill of discovery. She pulled the sleeve back and put her arm through it but not all the way through. She pushed the sleeve towards the barrier again. The sleeve passed through up to the point where her hand was. Undaunted, she pulled the sleeve back and tied the end of the sleeve. She pushed the sleeve again. To her great delight, her hand passed through the barrier. "Methinks I hath found a way to pass the barrier." declared Rin. She noticed that Arturia was still holding on to her other sleeve. She smiled at the sight of it. "Please let go for a moment."
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Reluctantly, Arturia let go. She watched as Rhynne pulled her hood over her head, and pulled her arms out of her sleeves. She brought her knees to her chest and chanted, "Aenderungs". The robe wrapped itself around her and completely covered her. Then Rhynne moved towards the barrier. When the top of her robe passed through, Arturia crawled back to make room. Soon, the entire robe had passed through. From within the robe, she heard Rhynne's muffled chant. "Aenderungs." Rhynne's robe unfolded and returned to its original form. She pulled her hood back and grinned widely. "That actually wo---" Arturia's lips sprang forward to capture Rhynne's. She kissed her like a starved lion feasting on its hard won prey. She devoured its tenderness... its sweetness... its warmth. A few moments later, she felt Rhynne's hands slip under her arms and wrap around her. Rhynne whispered into her mouth. "Touch me..." Her heart roared with exultation. Her hands left the surface of the shaft to comply with Rhynne's command. Instead of slipping down, her body floated. Her feet left the surface as well. Together, they floated down the shaft. Her hands slipped under Rhynne's robe. They wandered about until they located the buttons of her shirt. One by one, the buttons opened a path to her target. Her hands eagerly entered the breach and swarmed underneath her shirt. Rhynne gasped against her lips. Encouraged by Rhynne's response, her hands cupped the mounds of her soft flesh and teased their apex. Rhynne's hands clenched over the folds of her tunic. Arturia smiled mischievously. She continued to kiss and caress Rhynne until they floated into the laundry room. Arturia kicked the baskets away and landed on her feet. Then she raised her arms to receive Rhynne. Rhynne floated down into her arms. They stared at each other for a few moments before moving in unison to exchange fiery kisses. Arturia felt like she was still floating. Her right foot scraped the ground to confirm that it was only her heart floating with bliss. Rhynne's hands wove through her hair and her scalp tingled at the sensation. Her hand pushed against the back of her head slightly, and she took that as a sign to part Rhynne's lips. Her tongue entered Rhynne's mouth and probed her carefully. Rhynne's tongue pushed against hers and she let Rhynne do as she wished. Then Rhynne's tongue entered her mouth. She let Rhynne play with her... tease her... It was such sweet torture to let her do so since she wanted to taste Rhynne, to feel her and to take as much of her as she could. But deep in her heart, she also wanted to know if Rhynne desired her just as much. She was not disappointed. She drew her closer to her body to urge her to continue. Then Rhynne commanded her once more. "Put me down... I want thee to touch me..." Slowly, Arturia lowered her until she could stand on her own. Rhynne wrapped her arms around her and whispered in her ear, tickling it with her warm breath. "There is a place unseen by the map." "Where?" asked Arturia excitedly. "Where we hang our laundry." Arturia's face fell. "Merlyn saith that I can not venture outside the Aerie." "Tis within the Aerie's defenses, but not part of the map's enchantment." "Is that so?" "Verily." Arturia closed her eyes and thanked God. She went to a nearby basket of clean laundry and took out a blanket. She offered her hand to Rhynne. "Shall we go?" Rhynne smiled and took her hand. Together, they went to the deck where laundry was hung to dry. Arturia laid the blanket near the wall to minimize the effect of an occasional gust of mountain wind. Then she took Rhynne into her arms and lowered her onto the blanket. They exchanged enough kisses to subdue the chill of the mountain air.
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Like moths drawn to a flame, her hands dove into Rhynne's shirt and luxuriated in warmth of her heaving bosom. The tips of her fingers played with her nipples and Rhynne gasped rapidly in response. Arturia was pleased to honor her lady's commands. Her lips decided not to be outdone by her hands. They traveled down Rhynne's neck and usurped the exalted position held by her hands. Rhynne let out a small scream as her mouth sucked her stiff nipple. Suddenly, the door to the deck swung open. "Sir Arturia! Art y--" Arturia jerked away and landed on her behind. Rhynne turned away from Airianne and pulled her robe over her front. Arturia and Airianne stared at each other for a few seconds. Then Airianne recovered from her shock. "M--- mine apologies." Airianne turned to go back in. Arturia sprang forward with all the speed that she could master. She caught the edge of the door before Airianne closed it and grabbed her arm. "Wait!" she cried. She pulled Airianne back onto the deck and trapped her in her arms. Airianne struggled a little before she dropped her resistance. The silence hung about them like a sword over their heads. Finally, Rin stood up and walked to them. "Let her go, Arturia. Tis mine fault. Merlyn hath forbidden me to leave the east wing." "Mine apologies for mine rough manner, Lady Airianne." said Arturia as she released her. "Ye surprised me... both of ye." Rin and Arturia blushed fiercely. Rin cleared her throat. "Please forget what ye have seen. And... please... though I am loath to ask this of ye, please refrain from telling Master that I hath left mine room. I will not ask ye to lie. If ye must tell her, then please do so." Airianne sighed. "I will try. But know that Mother can read mine mind within the Aerie." Arturia and Rin gasped in unison. It would only be a matter of time before Merlyn found out. They exchanged glances. The resolution on Arturia's serious face made Rin believe that Arturia would risk anything to be by her side. She took some comfort in that. She returned her gaze to Airianne. "Pray, withhold it for as long as ye can. We would be ever grateful." Airianne reached out and held Rin's hand with her right and Arturia's with her left. "Mine heart goes out to ye both. I wish ye all the best. But I cannae tarry long. E'ery second with ye is another second of memory that Mother can find. That is why I wanted to leave." Arturia's face paled with remorse. "Tis mine fault! I should have let thee go!" "Be at ease. I will do what I can." Airianne let go of their hands and quickly went back in. "I must go back. Master might visit me." Rin adjusted her robe. "Will I see thee again?" "Mayhap." Rin cupped Arturia's cheek in her hand. "But we must be careful, lest Merlyn take away our only means of being together." She hugged Arturia. "When the time is right, I will give thee a sign." Arturia hugged her tightly. "Though it pains me to wait for it, I pray that it will be soon. Oh Rhynne... I love thee so much..." "I love thee more than I can say..." replied Rin. They kissed a few more times before going in. Arturia watched sadly as Rhynne ascended the shaft to return to her room. When she could not see her anymore, she sat down against the wall and closed her eyes to savor the short but delicious feast that she just enjoyed.

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Chapter 13 Omake Airianne: Thanks for doing the laundry again. Arturia: You're welcome. Airianne: You seem to be drinking a lot of tea lately. Bedivere: Loooove letter! Love-love leeee-----mmmmpppphhhh!!! Arturia: Excuse us... we have to... uh... brush the horses... *drags Bedivere away* Airianne: ......

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Chapter 13: Sealed with a Kiss
"Now I can sympathize with ye... I understand what it means to be confined." From her stool, Airianne looked up at Arturia inquiringly. "Confined? Of what do ye spake of?" "This... I must spend every morning to refresh the spell. Is it not the same for ye?" Airianne stood up and wiped her hands on a washcloth. "Tis true that I may not leave the Aerie. But in time, I will be able to." She inclined her head. "Ye speak as if ye hath yer freedom taken away." Arturia paced within the triangle and wrapped her arms around herself. "I do... tis unsettling. I feel... trapped... Do ye not feel that way?" "Nay. Though I often wonder what the world is beyond the Aerie, I hath ne'er felt trapped. In fact, I feel most secure here." Arturia sighed. "Tis yer home... of course..." She sat of the cot. "Ye hath lived here o'er thirty years. Doth it not tire ye?" "Nay. There is always something new for me everyday. I must admit that I feel lonely when Mother is away. But Mama is here. We keep each other company." "About that... may I ask why yer mother can not walk?" "She is very old." "As old as Merlyn?" "Nay. She is about 90 years old." "But Merlyn is older than that... and she still looks spry." "Most mages live longer than common folk. And most of mine ancestors hath lived o'er two centuries." Airianne studied the wilting yellow rose on the ground. "But Mama... is not a mage. She ages like everyone else. Almost all of the children born to the House of Emrys have no father. To bring a child into this world, both mothers give up some of their magic and their life. Since Mama hath no magic, she gave up more of her life to compensate. That is why she is so weak. She is beyond her normal lifespan, and hath only lived this long by using the mana in the Aerie to slow her aging." "I did not know that... forgive me for prying." So the rumors were true. When she was young, she heard that Vortigern was advised to sacrifice a child who had no father in order to appease the spirits that plagued his fortress. Merlyn was brought to him. It was then that Merlyn displayed her skill as a Seer and saved herself from being sacrificed. "Nay... I am not ashamed to show it. In fact, I am proud to. If she hath not done so, I would not be here." "But... she hath aged before her time..." Airianne sighed sadly. "Though I dread the day when she will return to the Great Light, I must live on for her sake. She hath loved mother so much that she gave her life for me. She hath loved me e'en before I was born. For as long as I live, I will honor the love that she hath shared. Thus will she live on within me. One day, I will give up a part of mine life to have a child of mine own. And that child will also have a part of Mama. When ye have a child of yer own, I am sure ye would feel the same." A face flashed in Arturia's mind. Her eyes brimmed with tears at the sight of that face. She closed her eyes to hold them back. "Sir Arturia... have I troubled ye?" Airianne sat beside her on her cot.
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"Nay, tis I..." Arturia raised her hands. "I hath committed a murder most foul... With these two hands, I hath slain mine own child. Oh, God! Forgive me!" Airianne put her arm around her. "Ye must be mistaken! Mother ne'er saith that ye bore a child." "Nay... Guinevere... mine wife did." Her tears were falling freely now. She used the back of her palms to brush them away. "E'en though I was not Mordred's sire, I pledged to raise her as mine own." She remembered the cold grip of Guinevere's hands as she pleaded her to save Mordred from the rebellion that she unleashed. Guinevere believed that Mordred was misguided and must be convinced to lay down her arms. And then she remembered the promise that she could not keep. "But Mordred took up arms against me. Before I left to confront her, mine wife made me promise to save her for she knew that I was not Mordred's father. I thought that Mordred knew who her true father was. But in the end, Mordred didst not know, for she calleth me 'Father' with her dying breath. And now mine sin doth grow heavier knowing now that Morgan was her mother." Arturia stood up and walked away from Airianne. "In one fell swoop, I hath doomed the line of Pendragon. Revile me as ye will. I deserve it." Instead, Airianne went to her and hugged her from behind. "Who am I to pass judgment on ye?" Arturia did not know what to say anymore. She hung her head in shame. They stood there in silence. After a while, Airianne spoke. "Do ye want to speak to Mama about it?" "Nay... I doth not wish to trouble her with mine sin." Airianne went over and held her hand. "If ye e'er change yer mind, let me know." Arturia nodded silently. Airianne noted her expression and took it as a sign that she wanted to be alone. Quietly, she gathered her tools and left the rose garden. Arturia stood alone in the rose garden. She raised her face to the heavens and crumbled to her knees. The tears would not stop. She bowed her head in prayer and hoped that God would forgive her. ----It was late in the afternoon when Bedivere approached her while she was raking the leaves by the lily pond. "Arturia, canst thou come with me?" "Yea... what is it?" Arturia leaned her rake along the wall and walked behind Bedivere. Bedivere led her to one of the library's private rooms. "There is someone whom thou should meet." She opened the door and ushered her in. An elderly priest stood up on their entry. His face was lined with cares but his eyes were gentle. He wore a simple brown frock and straw sandals. A small wooden cross hung from a skinny leather strap around his neck. "Tis Father Benedict. He hath agreed to intercede on thy behalf." explained Bedivere. She turned Father Benedict. "I have brought thee a lost sheep. When thou art done, I will be outside this room." "Mine thanks." replied Father Benedict. Bedivere bowed and left the room. "Peace be with ye." He lifted his hand to bestow the sign of the cross. "From this moment on, I am an instrument of God's grace. All that ye say will be for His ears alone. Come... sit... and let God lift the burden in yer heart..." He pulled out a nearby chair and let Arturia sit on it before sitting on his own. Arturia hung her head. "I hath sinned so much... Father..." "If we saith we hath no sin, we art only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth. But if we confess our sins to God, He is just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong." She looked up and gazed upon his face. His calm manner radiated an inner strength. His eyes did not judge her at all. Instead, they reached out to her in compassion. Arturia drew a deep breath and began her confession. ----150

The clock struck two. Bedivere shifted in place to ease her lethargic muscles. She peeked around the corner and confirmed that Arturia was still in absolution. She was dressed in a simple white gown and knelt in prayer. In her hands, she held Father Benedict's wooden cross. She had been in that position since an hour before dinner. At the thought of dinner, her stomach growled in complaint. She had started her vigil since then and only had a sandwich which Airianne secretly brought to her. Only one more hour remained before she would ask Arturia to stop. By Merlyn's instructions, she would have to persuade Arturia that it was enough. After the largest battle against the Saxons, many Britons died and Arturia felt responsible for their deaths. She was in a similar state of penitence which bordered on self-inflicted punishment. Pity welled within her knowing the burden she bore on those slender shoulders. She knew all too well for she made every effort to be by Arturia's side during her rule. Like then and now, all she could do was be there when she needed her. At last, the clock struck three. Bedivere shook off the stiffness in her legs and went to Arturia. She touched her shoulder gently. "Tis enough, Arturia... rest now." she said softly. When Arturia ignored her, she shook her a bit more. And when she ignored her once more, Bedivere knelt next to her and whispered a threat in her ear. "If thou would not rest, then I will withhold a message from Rhynne." Slowly, Arturia lifted her head and faced Bedivere. "What... didst thou say...?" Bedivere stood up and began to walk away. "Wait..." Arturia tried to stand up and stumbled on the ground. "I... I will rest." Bedivere strode over and helped Arturia to her feet. She glanced down and noticed the reddish stains on her gown. Alarmed, she scooped Arturia up and laid her on her cot. She pulled the gown over her knees and gasped. The skin on her knees was raw and bleeding. She threw a reprimanding look at Arturia who refused to meet her eyes. She huffed in exasperation. "Stay here... I will be back anon." She hurriedly fetched some salve and bandages from the medicine room. When she returned, she cleaned Arturia's knees and applied some salve on them. As Arturia watched Bedivere dress her knees, she asked, "Whither is Rhynne's message?" "I will give it to thee after thou hast rested." The corners of Arturia's lips drooped to a frown. "Thou art cruel. Canst thou not give me a piece of it?" "Nay." Bedivere tied the bandage securely. "I know not its contents. Sleep now. I shall yield it to thee tomorrow." "I see..." Bedivere walked to the door of the rose garden. She was about to exit when Arturia spoke once more. "Bedivere... I am sorry for the troubles that I hath burdened thee..." Bedivere closed her eyes, drew a deep breath and turned around. "There is no need to apologize for I perceive no trouble." Arturia was watching her from the cot. The soft moonlight glistened on her golden hair and illuminated her emerald green eyes. In her simple white gown, she seemed so innocent. Bedivere paused at the sight before wishing her, "Good night, Milord..." "Good night, Bedivere..." ----After lunch, Bedivere led Arturia to one of the library's private rooms. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and pressed it into Arturia's palm. "Rhynne sends her love, sealed with a kiss." Arturia blinked. "Is that it?" "Yea." Arturia looked at the handkerchief and then at Bedivere. Bedivere's vacant expression showed that
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she was just as puzzled. "So... how was thy first kiss?" Blood rushed to Arturia's face. She turned away in embarrassment. "How can thou ask that? Tis... tis inappropriate!" Bedivere held out her hands. "Oh, come now! Dost thou not tell me everything?" Arturia clutched the handkerchief to her breast. "But tis... tis very... intimate..." "Who listened to thee when thou wert disturbed by thy visions? Who lent thee a horse and waited for thee to come back? Who ..." "Oh, very well!" Arturia sighed and sat down on a chair. She frowned at the smug expression on Bedivere's face as she sat down next to her. She looked at her expectantly. She sighed once more and closed her eyes to remember that wonderful night. "Twas..." Slowly, her cheeks began to burn. "...incredible... she was so soft... so warm... so sweet... I felt that I could melt into her." Her hand leapt to her mouth. "Ah! What am I saying? How can I think like that..." Bedivere chortled. "Thou art in love... tis expected that thou would desire her." Her thoughts flew to the morning after. Arturia's face burned even more as she remembered undressing Rhynne. Bedivere seemed to sense her thoughts. "Didst thou do more than kiss?!" exclaimed Bedivere. Arturia stood up. "Nay! Well... we did... but... tis not what thou thinkst so..." Bedivere's lips drew to a mischievous smirk. "Then, pray, enlighten me..." Unable to stand Bedivere's scrutiny, she turned around and looked at the handkerchief again. It did not have anything written on it. The only thing that broke its simplicity was the lace stitching around its borders. Arturia's eyes grew wide when she recognized the stitching. She had given Rhynne the handkerchief after she told the tale of Mulan. If Rhynne returned it, then it must hold some secret. She held the handkerchief close to her breast. "Mine thanks, Bedivere, for the message." She hurried out and scarcely heard Bedivere's protest. She went to her room and locked the door. She held the handkerchief next to a lamp and tried to see if anything was revealed. Then she went to the bath and dipped a corner in water. Nothing happened. She went back in her room and lay on her bed. She scrutinized the stitching on the handkerchief in an attempt to decipher any codes. She did not find any. Arturia groaned in exasperation. What could it be? She tried to remember what Bedivere said. "Rhynne sends her love, sealed with a kiss." "...sealed with a kiss..." repeated Arturia. She stared at it. Could it really be as simple as that? She brought the handkerchief to her lips and planted a kiss on its silky surface. To her great delight, words began to form on the handkerchief. She read them hurriedly.
"To mine dearest love, I hope that thou hast read mine letter. If thou hast done so, return this handkerchief upon mine pile of laundry with thy message. To write thy message, rinse this with hot water, and write upon it with tea. Then affix thy kiss to seal it. Thy message will disappear and will only be seen by me. When I have a message for thee, I will drop this down the chute a day before laundry day. I await thy reply. Truly thine, Rhynne."

Arturia quickly went to the bath and washed the handkerchief. She hung it on a chair to dry and got a
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cup of tea from the kitchen. When the handkerchief was dry, she dipped a quill in the tea and began to write. "Dearest Rhynne, Mine heart leapt with joy upon reading thy letter. Forgive mine awkward script, for mine hand trembles with exhilaration. I miss thee terribly... the warmth of thy hands, thy deep blue eyes, thy beautiful smile that brightens up mine darkest nights. If only I could show thee how much... Why must we be apart? Is this Merlyn's doing? If so, I will convince her to release thee. Alas, I should have given thee a larger handkerchief. For now, I will await thy next missive. Until then, Arturia" She kissed the handkerchief and watched the words fade away into the cloth. The next day, she dropped the handkerchief in Rhynne's pile. ----Rin skimmed through her basket of clean laundry. A small cry of joy leapt from her throat when she found the handkerchief. She unfolded it and quickly kissed it. Her eyes scanned the letter it revealed. The temperature of the room rose as she read it again. She grimaced when she realized that her method of communication was flawed. To reply, she would have to erase Arturia's message. As she picked up a parchment and quill to copy the letter, she cursed herself silently. When she was done, she prepared the handkerchief for her reply.
"Dearest Arturia, Thou art quite a flatterer to say such sweet speech. Thy words stirred mine heart so much that I was almost unable to write mine reply. But I wish to hear from thee, so mine hand bent to pen the stirrings of mine heart. As for Merlyn, stay thy hand. Tis of mine wish that I accepted her as mine Master. As her apprentice, mine seclusion is necessary to devote mineself to mine studies. And belittle not this handkerchief. Tis thy first gift to me. I shall treasure it always, as I treasure each moment with thee. Sincerely, Rhynne."

----"Beloved Rhynne, I doth not understand why thou must seclude thyself. Airianne studies in the library. Why must Merlyn treat thee differently? Our separation wounds me like a slash from a blade. I spend
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mine days searching for the entrance to the east wing, but it eludes me thus far. Mine heart aches to see thee. I will climb the shaft again if thou will consent, but I will be guided by thee to advise me when the moment is right. Thine always, Arturia" ----Rin read Arturia's reply. She had a point. After Morgan's death, Merlyn forbade her to see Arturia because she was grieving over Morgan. But Arturia did not look like she was grieving anymore. In fact, based on her observations, she was doing laundry on the day that she met her in the shaft. If that was the case, then Arturia was allowed to do chores. She drummed her fingers on the table. There was no reason for Merlyn to separate them anymore, and yet, she was not allowed to venture out of the east wing even for a meal. Rin's eyes narrowed. Although she was grateful for Merlyn's instruction, she felt that it was unfair that she could not see Arturia. Merlyn must have a reason why. She would have to wait for a good opportunity to ask her without arousing suspicion. But for now, she must reply to Arturia's letter.
"Dearest one, Tis part of Master's instruction. Be patient, for I will surely finish mine apprenticeship in time. As for the east wing, Airianne told me that one will not find it unless one was taken there before. Furthermore, one needs a token to pass the enchantment in its halls. I wish to see thee too, but I fear Master's discovery. Ne'er has a day passed when I wisheth for thy letter to reach me. I apologize for mine awkward method. I merely wisheth to avoid her knowing. With all mine heart, Rhynne."

Rin sent the handkerchief down the chute. In an hour or so, Merlyn would be coming by to give her more exercises to improve her magesight so that she could sense and identify different types of auras, mana and illusions. She laid down on the bed and massaged the areas around her eyes to prepare herself for the exercise. Finally, Merlyn came and they went to a practice room. She practiced on several enchanted items and described the aura around each one. On some items, she was able to see past the illusion. "Well done, lass." Rin smiled at the compliment and turned around. "Mine tha---" Her jaw dropped. Merlyn was no longer an old woman. Instead, she looked more like Airianne, with just a slight hint of wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth. Her hair was no longer dull gray but a lustrous shade of silver. "Master... ye..." Merlyn raised an eyebrow inquiringly. And then she realized what Rin saw. Her face became serious. "If ye can see me, then dinna tell Wybrenne." "Why, Master? Ye art so beautiful!" Merlyn actually blushed. "Aye! And there's the rub. I cannae be like this when Wybrenne is not! I do not wish to remind her about our differences in aging." Her hand passed over her face and reinforced the illusion. She was an old woman again. "Once again, dinna tell Wybrenne. I ask ye as yer Master."
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"Yea, Master." Rin was touched by Merlyn's empathy. She wondered when Merlyn started using the illusion. She watched as Merlyn rubbed her forehead in a gesture that she understood as exasperation. She seemed a little off-guard by her discovery. Maybe she could take a chance without arousing suspicion. "Master, when will I be able to leave the east wing?" Merlyn looked at her critically. "When ye art ready." "When will that be, Master?" "I will let ye know." Merlyn picked up several enchanted items. "Now help me put these back." "Yea, Master." Merlyn could be cryptic when she wanted to be. This was one of those times. She would have to keep trying. She picked up several nearby items and helped put them away. ----They exchanged words of love and comfort for the next two weeks. At last, Arturia received the letter that she dreamed of reading.
"Dearest Arturia, Merlyn will leave tomorrow to meet with the Chief Druid. She will be gone for a day. Meet me in the laundry room at one o'clock tomorrow night. Until then, Rhynne."

Giggling like a court lady, she held the handkerchief to her heart. Then, she went to her closet and perused her wardrobe. What should she wear? When her mind drew a blank, she tried to think of what Bedivere would do. She snapped her fingers. Of course! Those hard won lessons should provide her some insight. After some thought, she selected a dress shirt, a pair of breeches and a dark blue formal coat. She also picked out a nice pair of gloves just in case. Flowers... she would need flowers. She searched for Airianne and found her in the library. She cleared her throat. "Lady Airianne... forgive me for intruding in yer studies, but I have a favor to ask of ye." Airianne looked up from her scroll. "What is it?" "I would like permission to pick flowers near the Lily Pond." "Oh, of course. Ye dinna need to ask me fer that." "Mine thanks..." Arturia smiled gratefully and turned to leave. "Is it fer Rhynne?" Her heart leapt into her throat. "Er... tis... tis for mine room... I prefer having fresh flowers nearby..." She bowed slightly. "Please excuse me." Airianne watched Arturia hurry away. She smirked at Arturia's behavior. Tomorrow night's entertainment would be quite amusing indeed. ----It was fifteen minutes to one. Arturia checked herself in the mirror once more. That stray strand of hair was sticking up again. She tucked it under some hair, but it slowly sprang up. She checked one more time before fetching the bouquet of flowers on the table. Then, as quietly as possible, she made her way down to the laundry room. When she got there, she put the bouquet in a basket and positioned herself under the opening of the shaft. A few minutes later, a light reflected off the surface of the shaft. Soon, an orb of light descended and
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heralded the arrival of Rhynne who was dressed in a simple nightgown. Arturia raised her arms to receive her. Rhynne floated gently onto them and put her arms around her neck to embrace her. Then she drew away slightly and greeted her with a kiss. They kissed several times before Rhynne remarked, "Thy kisses seem refreshing tonight..." Arturia smiled. "I rinsed with a mint draught. Is it to thy liking?" "Yea..." She wet her lips. "It tempts me to consume thee..." She was not sure what Rhynne meant by that. Her own imagination betrayed her by presenting some rather provocative images. Warm blood rushed to Arturia's face. She drew a deep breath and mentally herded them into a closet. Then she cleared her throat. "I have something for thee..." Arturia walked to the basket with the flowers and knelt on one knee next to it. When she had balanced Rhynne on her other knee, she reached over and presented the bouquet. "How thoughtful of thee!" Then Rhynne's face melted with worry. "Is this from the Lily Pond?" "Yea, but be at ease. Airianne gave permission to pick them." "That is kind of her." Rin inhaled the fragrance from several blossoms. Then she noticed that there was only one red rose in the bouquet. Her heart leapt when she remembered its meaning: I still love thee. She looked at Arturia with adoration and kissed her tenderly. "Mine heart hath received thy message." Arturia beamed with joy and kissed her back for words failed to express what her heart wanted to say. After exchanging several kisses, Rin planted her feet on the ground and stood up. "This place is cold. Let us go to mine room." She led Arturia under the shaft. She removed the sash from her waist. "Hold this and follow me up." Then she gathered her mana and chanted, "Levitiam". They floated up the shaft until they reached the barrier. Rin handed a sash attached to a rope to Arturia. "Hold on to this sash and release the other for I must pass through the barrier." Arturia complied. Rin yanked the bed sheet off the noose of the rope and threw it over her. "Aenderungs." The bed sheet completely covered her and she willed herself to float across the barrier. After she was past the barrier, she undid the spell and floated to the top of the shaft to put the flowers aside. Then she floated down and slid the bed sheet to Arturia. "Please put the sheet over thee. I will envelop thee with it." Then she grabbed the noose of the rope and cancelled Levitiam. After Arturia did so, she cast Kinensis to make her float and then Aenderungs to cover her up. Her hand trembled with concentration as she willed Arturia across the barrier. Once she was across the barrier, she cancelled Aenderungs. "Grab... the... rope..." she said slowly while trying to maintain Kinensis. Rin held the spell until Arturia gripped the rope. She exhaled sharply as she released the spell. "Art thou well?" "Yea... tis difficult to maintain several spells at once. Come. Let us climb up." Rin crawled out of the shaft first and then helped Arturia out. They grinned widely in triumph over their imposed separation. Then slowly, they inched toward each other and kissed. Somehow, they wandered near the bed during the exchange of many kisses. Rin sat down on the bed and leaned back to bring Arturia with her. Arturia kicked off her shoes before crawling over her. Rin grasped the lapel of her coat and pulled it over her shoulders. Arturia helpfully allowed her to take it off. She tugged on the tie around her collar and undid it. Then she reached around her neck and yanked the ribbon that held her hair in place. Her fingers threaded through her hair to let them cascade in a golden shower over her cheeks. Her hair was so soft... so silky. She let it glide between her fingers to enjoy its coolness. During the war, when Arturia was unconscious after being injured by Berserker, she took a chance and touched her hair. "I hath always wanted to do this..." Rin whispered. "Since when?"
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"Since... since the day I saw thee in the forest." She did not dare mention the day when they first met. Arturia smiled to hide her disappointment. Rin still did not want to reveal her past. She took it in stride and asked playfully. "Didst thou do anything to me whilst I was betwixt life and death?" "Well... I had to dress thy wounds... so I had to do this..." Her hands methodically unbuttoned her shirt and exposed her pale shoulders. Arturia was not wearing a bra. Rin's breath caught at the sight. She had seen her naked so many times, but each time felt like the first time seeing her. But a warning rang in her mind as her hands attempted to remove her shirt. Rin gathered her wits and pulled the shirt over her shoulders. Arturia's eyes pleaded and inquired at the same time. Rin cupped Arturia's face in her hands. She whispered, "I keep forgetting about that map." Arturia's faced paled and then broke into a frown of frustration. She protested softly. "But tis late. Surely, Airianne must be asleep." "Thou may be right. But... there is one way to find out..." Rin sat up and adjusted her gown. "I will be back anon." Rin padded into the hall as quietly as she could and went to Airianne's study. She listened at the door before opening it. The room was dark. She breathed a sigh of relief. She was about to leave when she thought of checking the map. She closed her eyes and opened them with her magesight. Her eyes focused on the map. Her teeth ground with irritation and her eyes scanned the lamps in the room. The sinking feeling in her stomach grew as the lamps confirmed the residue of mana. With a wave of her hand, the lamps lit up. "Yer eavesdropping is not appreciated." When nothing happened, she went to the door in the corner of the room and opened it. She gasped in surprise. She expected to find Airianne, but Bedivere was there as well. She glowered at them as they filed out of the closet. "I am sorely disappointed in both of ye..." she managed to say. "In mine land, we have a name for eavesdroppers like ye: Ecchi." Airianne held up her hand. "We apologize. We shant look at that map anymore. Good night, Lady Rhynne." She grabbed Bedivere's hand and quickly left the room. Rin followed them with her eyes and watched them enter Airianne's room. She sighed and caught herself rubbing her temples in the same way that Merlyn did. She shook the gesture away in hopes that she would not be influenced by any of her mannerisms. She went back to her room. Her face must have shown her irritation for Arturia narrowed her eyes on her entrance. She flopped down on the bed in resignation. "I fear that thou hath discovered the worse." Arturia whispered. Rin kept her voice low. "Yea... I found not one, but two mice." Arturia's eyebrows shot up. "Two?! Art they still watching?" "They went into Airianne's room." "Tis strange... why would Bedivere go to her room?" Rin's hand flew to her mouth. "Perhaps... she fancies her?" Arturia shook her head. "Nay. She doth not." Since she was not sure how Rhynne would react if she told her who Bedivere loved, she prudently decided not to mention it. However, there was still a puzzle to solve. "Is there more than one map?" Rin swallowed at the possibility. If there was more than one, and if a second map was in Airianne's room, then that would explain why they went there. "I know not. But tis possible." Arturia hugged her from behind. "Let us forget them for now. Our time is better spent on other things." She nuzzled Rin's neck. "I just want to be with thee..." Rin squirmed at Arturia's ticklish ministrations. She turned around and pushed her down playfully. And then she ran a finger along Arturia's cheek and asked softly in her most seductive voice, "Dost thou have something in mind?" Arturia smirked mischievously. "Many things... but only few are innocent to prying eyes. Rin leaned down until their lips almost touched. "Is kissing one of the few?"
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"Yea..." Arturia slipped her arms around Rhynne's waist and pressed their bodies and their lips together. Arturia's kisses were very refreshing. It was like drinking sweetened iced tea during Japan's dry summer heat. She savored each one and became unaware of the time until her arm began to cramp. She shifted slightly to relax the muscles. Something brushed up against her chest. Her eyes flew open when she realized that Arturia's shirt was still undone, and that her breasts were brushing up against her. She grinned wickedly. Revenge would be sweet. She broke away from her lips and went directly to her target before Arturia could realize what she intended to do. Once over it, she opened her mouth and enclosed as much of Arturia's breast as possible. Arturia gasped loudly before her hand clamped around her mouth to stifle her cries. Rin continued her revenge until Arturia's hand pushed against her shoulder. She rose on her elbows and looked at Arturia who was breathing heavily. "Cast Silentium... if thou knowst it... I... I can not bear it anymore..." Rin's face fell. "I do... but I dare not. Master's magesight is keen. She will sense the spell upon the bed. I was confident in casting the other spells because twould not be likely that she would look down the chute. And e'en so, I used as little mana as possible to avoid her notice." Arturia pulled her up and spoke with teasing reproach. "Thou art cruel to tempt me with that. And tis not fair that I can not give thee all that I can give for fear that thy 'malady' will overcome thee." Rin blushed sheepishly as she twirled a lock of Arturia's hair. "Perhaps... with practice... I can overcome it in time." "Then we must practice as much as we can." Arturia captured Rhynne's lips and caressed them with increasing passion. When Rhynne sagged against her, she broke the kiss and carefully laid Rhynne on her back. The glazed expression of Rhynne's face caused her heart swell with pride over her skill. She had done this to her. She waited until Rhynne's breathing returned to normal. She caressed Rhynne's face. "Shall we continue... or do something else?" "Perhaps... something else... lest I swoon from the immensity of thy loving. I doth not wish to spend mine time with thee sleeping." "Shall we dance?" Arturia's hand slithered over the curves of her body. "I love to feel the grace of thy body next to mine." "Flatterer! I wonder how many ladies hath fallen under the spell of thy sweet speech." Arturia laughed softly as she remembered those balls that Kay forced her to attend in hopes that she would fancy someone to be her queen. "Mayhap a few, but none after I married." "Oh." She had forgotten about that. Now that the topic came up, she wondered if Arturia loved Guinevere. Rhynne's playful smile melted away and her eyes grew distant. Arturia sensed that her marriage disturbed Rhynne, so she embraced her to reassure her. "Fret not. I did not love her. Twas Lancelot that she loved." Rin remembered Morgan's revelation sadly. "If I may ask... why didst thou marry her?" "For duty." Arturia got out of bed and tugged at Rhynne's hand. "I hath instructed Lancelot to take care of her. She hast been reunited with him and her true son." At Arturia's urging, Rin got out of bed as well. She let Arturia sweep her away into the silent rhythm of a waltz. Their dance was slow and sensual as they gazed into each other's eyes, green mirrored with blue. Their bodies swayed in unison, the result of practice and an uncanny anticipation of each other's intentions. Rin dreamt of moments like these ever since she argued her way into Shiro's house. Her imagination fell horribly short of reality. The beating of her heart, the tingle of her skin and the warm glow spreading over her body was unimaginable. Her senses were overloading and she loved every moment of it. She almost did not hear the muffled toll of the hallway clock. It struck three. Without warning, Arturia twirled her and dipped her. As she held onto her upper arm, she felt sinewy muscles contract
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under her clothes. Those same muscles held her in midair as she watched Arturia's lips descend. She closed her eyes as they made contact. Arturia's kiss seemed more passionate than before. The warm glow over her body intensified. She was floating higher and higher. Then a wave of red washed over her senses and she let herself drift away in its torrent. Then the next thing she felt was a sharp poke on her head. She reached over her head and touched cold metal. It was the cuckoo which was set to peck in order to wake her up in the morning. She turned it off, sank into the pillow and groaned over the lost time. She glanced down to see Arturia snuggled against her with her head on her shoulder. She kissed the top of her golden hair and held her closer. With a wave of her hand, she parted the curtains slightly to peek at the horizon. Soon it would be dawn. She nudged Arturia gently and hoped that she would not mind waking up. Arturia simply snuggled closer. Rin grinned wickedly when she decided to try something else. Her hand flipped the unbuttoned front of her shirt to expose her torso. Her fingers went around her breast and played with it. Within twenty seconds, Arturia's eyes jerked open. "Good morning." greeted Rin softly. She continued to trace circles around Arturia's breast. "Good morning..." Arturia's face soured into a frown as she caught Rhynne's hand. "Thy stamina was severely lacking last night. Thou art a skilled physic. Canst thou not cure thy malady?" "Mine apologies... I was confident that I could overcome it. I will try to restrain its effect." She caressed Arturia's cheek. "But I am uncertain of mine success, for thou arouse such great fervor within me." Her eyes noted the light near the horizon. "And I apologize for waking thee. I wanted to watch the sunrise with thee." The curtains parted with a wave of her hand. The transparent walls of her room revealed the dim valley. The sky was slowly lightening up. When Arturia turned around to see the sunrise, Rin cupped her body against her and hugged her from behind. Soon, the sun began to peep over the hills that formed the horizon. Its rays raced across the valley and lit the golden fields of wheat. Rin felt Arturia squeeze her hand. "When I am well, I will take thee to the lake again. And thou must get well too. There will be no prying eyes and no malady to overcome." Her heart wrenched. She knew all too well what needed to be done to cure Arturia. She held her closer and kissed the back of her neck. It was enough to hold her like this. She steeled herself and replied softly, "I look forward to that day." They watched the sunrise in silence until they heard the creaking of a door. Rin sighed. Airianne would be getting up to prepare breakfast. She kissed Arturia's cheek. "Though it wounds me to say this, but it is time for me to return thee." Arturia turned around and wrapped her arms around her waist. Her eyes pleaded. "So soon?" With great reluctance, Rin pulled away. "Yea. I know not when Master will arrive, and I must mask the spells that I used on thee. Furthermore, the spells would be more difficult to detect with the passage of time." Then she added sadly. "And thou must refresh thy spell." Arturia sighed. "Thou art right." She got up and gathered her clothes while Rhynne changed to her robe. When they were ready, they passed through the barrier and levitated down the shaft. Then Rhynne wove her hands before her in strange gestures. When she was done, she embraced her tightly. She hugged her back. "I will leave word of when we can meet again. And I will have thee know that I enjoyed every moment with thee." "And I as well." She drew away slightly and kissed Rhynne. "I love thee." Rin kissed her back. "I love thee very much." She kissed her one more time. "Go now. Refresh thy spell." Arturia nodded and moved away reluctantly. She walked toward the door but stopped to see Rhynne ascend into the shaft. Rhynne waved and she waved back. When she could no longer see her, she
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walked up the stairs with a heavy heart. ----Merlyn returned an hour before dinner. During dinner, she could not help but notice the stifled yawns and drooping eyes of Airianne, Bedivere and Arturia. She clucked her tongue and wondered whether Airianne had tricked them into doing some unusual entertainment last night. Before she could restrain herself, she yawned as well. But she had a long day. She deserved a good yawn.

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Chapter 14 Omake Arturia: For you, I will climb the highest mountain. Rin: Oh, Arturia... *kiss* Arturia: For you, I will sail the stormy seas. Rin: Oh, Arturia... *kiss* Arturia: For you, I will overcome time and space. Rin: Oh, Arturia... *kiss* Arturia: For you, I will change my gender. Rin: Uh... you don't have to go that far...

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Chapter 14: The Throne of Heroes
"Good news... the Chief Druid hath divined an auspicious date fer the ritual. He suggested that we cast it on the third Sunday from now. And, he also suggests that ye arrive on November 25, 2011. We shall leave for Stonehenge on the third Saturday." Rin forced a smile. "Tis good news indeed, Master, but art ye sure that I am ready?" "Aye... if ye art not, ye will be, e'en if we have to work night and day." Internally, Rin cringed at the thought. "If ye say so, Master." Merlyn looked out to the valley. "Besides... tis not well to rely on that spell to keep her here. We cannae know when it will fail. Twas luck that Airianne was with her when she started to fade." She faced Rin with a grim expression. "Ye shouldna rely on luck." Rin nodded. "Yea, Master. What should we study now?" Merlyn scanned through the pile of scrolls, picked some out and handed them to Rin. "Illusion and Mana masking. Ye dinna want to be hounded by the Einzbern after ye free her spirit. Study these. I will be back in two hours and ye can practice what ye hath learned." "As ye wish, Master." ----"Art ye still angry with me?" Arturia ignored her and pretended to read her book. She heard Airianne sigh and watched her leave the rose garden. She returned about ten minutes later with a tray of tea and strawberry scones. Damn Bedivere. She must have told her. Airianne smiled winsomely and put the tray on the table next to her. She carefully poured some tea into one of the two cups on the tray. Arturia shifted on her cot so that her back was towards the tray. She heard Airianne's shuffling steps behind her. The scrape of a stool and the click of shears indicated that she had resumed her pruning of the rose bushes. Arturia was prepared to ignore her offering of peace. However, a familiar scent wafted in the air. Unable to believe her nose, she paused her reading and slowly turned around towards the table. She went over to the table and lifted the teacup to her nose. Then she cooled the tea with a few puffs of breath and sipped it. A sense of nostalgia swept over her. There was no doubt. It was camellia. "Whither didst ye get this tea?" Airianne looked up and smiled. "From Rhynne. Tis tea from a plant that only grows in the land of Nee-hun. Is it to thy liking?" Arturia paled. She stared at the tea. "Yea..." If the plant only grew in Nee-hun, then did that mean that she was there before? Or, did Rhynne visit Britain before and serve her tea during her forgotten past? Airianne was confused by the changing expressions on Arturia's face. She was sullen, then surprised and then disturbed. She noted how she stared at the tea. Something about the tea bothered her. "Pray, if the tea is not to thy liking, then dinna drink it out of politeness. I will not be offended by yer
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refusal." "Nay... tis not so... I do like it." She slurped it to reassure Airianne. The feeling of nostalgia rose within her once more. She held the cup between both of her hands and stared at it again. "I like it very much." Arturia's face seemed more pensive, with a twinge of sadness in her eyes. Airianne sensed that Arturia did not want to talk, so she simply said, "I am glad. Please feel free to have more." Then she resumed her chores. ----Arturia stared at the blank handkerchief before her. She did not know what to write. Or rather, she was afraid to write. A part of her wanted to know more about Rhynne, while another part of her suggested patience. She glanced at the clock. She had been sitting for the past thirty minutes and wrote nothing. With a small cry of frustration, she stood up, threw herself upon her bed and pounded it with clenched fists. After much pounding, she felt a little better. She needed to clear her head somehow. Her feet guided her into the sitting room while her hands fetched the harp from the wall. She sat down on a stuffed armchair. Her eyes closed while her fingers began to strum a soothing melody, but somehow, the notes rushed forth like a torrential downpour that matched the storm in her heart. She played and played until her fingers were sore. When she opened her eyes, she noticed Bedivere sitting nearby. Bedivere simply smiled slightly and asked, "What disturbs thee?" "Nothing... I merely wisheth to play." "Is that so?" Bedivere paused and assessed whether she could press Arturia. She decided to try. "Then, thou will not mind continuing where we left off." "About what?" "Thy first kiss... and thereafter." Arturia's cheeks began to flush. "Canst we speak of something else?" Arturia's bowed head and hunched shoulders touched a soft spot in Bedivere's heart. She sighed. "Oh, very well..." Her eyes glanced at the locked door to the great hall. "What dost thou thinkst of Rhynne?" Arturia's eyes lit up. At last, a question that she was not ashamed to answer. She closed her eyes and remembered the first time that Rhynne bandaged her. "I like how she touches me... tis so gentle. Tis as if she was trying to care for a fragile babe. I like the fragrance of her hair." She paused for a moment as she remembered the cause of her distress before continuing. "Tis a soothing scent that makes me want to caress those raven locks and bring it up to mine face." She smiled warmly at the memory of Rhynne dozing in the wagon. "When she's asleep, tis like an innocent babe. I feel like... I want to protect her." And at that time, she did in her own way, even though the imagined peril was a swaying wagon over a rocky path. It was a bit difficult to scout over to where she sat, but she managed to do it. Holding her under that quilted blanket seemed so natural. She remembered the first night in which they slept together in the same bed. The next morning, the first thing that she saw was her face. She lay there and watched Rhynne until she opened her eyes. As Rhynne whispered her morning greeting, the smile that graced her face brightened the room. It was then that she decided the boon that she wanted: that she must be with her when it was time to sleep for a week. "Her presence soothes mine troubled heart, especially during those nights when mine terrible dreams shook my sleep. Tis a joy to have her near." Then she recalled the nightly stories and plays which she narrated. "I love the sound of her voice, her grace, her manner... Her stories art so entertaining. And when she acts, tis as if she were that person in the play."
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Bedivere nodded. "I am in accord with thee. I hath seen many plays, and her acting is superior to most." "Verily so! Dost thou recall 'The Maiden and the Green Knight?'" "Yea, she played two roles side by side, and one can still distinguish the old woman and the maid." "Precisely." Arturia sighed and strummed an aimless tune on her harp. "I miss those nights." "So doth I..." Bedivere leaned back into her chair and grinned widely. "Thy affection for her seems deep, but art thou sure tis not a passing fancy?" Arturia stopped strumming and shook her head. "Nay... I hath ne'er felt anything like this for another person. E'en though we hath met scarcely five months ago, I feel as if I hath known her longer. I want to be with her, to sense her presence nearby. And when she holds me in her arms, I feel as if I belong there. Is that strange?" "Not at all. Tis what I expect from a maid in love." A corner of her mouth curved slyly. "That assumes, of course... that thou art still a maid." "Of course, I am! Thou knowst that I did not lay with Guinevere!" Suddenly, the sound of rock crashing to the floor reverberated in the great hall. Arturia stared in horror at the door and then at Bedivere. She stood up, put the harp down and tried to open the door. It was locked. "Should we see if we art being assaulted?" she asked Bedivere with alarm. "Nay, be at ease. The hall is being repaired. And tis futile to unlock the door. There is a barrier beyond it." "Oh. Didst Merlyn hire masons to repair it?" Bedivere stood up. "Nay. Anyway, mine thanks for thy song." She strode to the exit of the sitting room. "Then... who is repairing the hall?" Bedivere answered over her shoulder. "Someone who can restore it." Arturia ran to the doorway. She cursed when she saw the empty hallway. It annoyed her that Bedivere was better at hiding herself than she was at finding her. The Aerie probably had secret passages just like Camelot and Bedivere used them well. She marched back to the chair and slouched into it. Bedivere's words came back to her. The hall was enchanted, so a mere mason would not be sufficient. A mage would be needed to restore the enchantment. There were only two capable mages in the Aerie. She got up to look for Merlyn and found her with Wybrenne at the Lily pond. She hurried back to the sitting room and examined the lock on the door. If only she had the key. Suddenly, she remembered the loose brick on the top of the kitchen hearth. She had discovered it while she was cleaning it. She hurried to the kitchen and was relieved that Airianne was not there. Then she located the brick at the upper left corner of the hearth and dislodged it. She grinned in triumph as a small crevice was revealed which contained a set of keys. She took the keys and replaced the brick. Then she hurried back to the sitting room and selected a key that might fit the lock. She turned the key and the door clicked open. She opened the door to the great hall. The swaying of a suspended scaffold caught her attention. Just above the scaffold was the hole that Morgan created. It was about three-quarters full with new stone. On the floor below the scaffold were pieces of broken stone. Cautiously, she tried to peer around the corner of the doorframe, but her face hit something. She recoiled back and stared at the empty air of the doorway. She picked up a nearby cushion and pushed it toward the doorway. It compressed against an invisible wall. She cursed. Bedivere did mention a barrier. "Rhynne..." she called out. "Rhynne... if thou art there, answer me... please..." Every second of silence pounded a nail into her heart. After a minute of waiting, she closed the door, but took care not to let it latch completely. Then she walked noisily out of the sitting room and into the hallway. She stopped
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in the hallway and removed her shoes. With all the stealth at her command, she crept silently into the sitting room. When she reached the door, she pressed her ear into it and listened. She could hear the faint sound of scraping, some rustling and an occasional creak of wood. If she remembered correctly, the scaffold was made of wood. She twisted the doorknob and slowly opened the door to a slit wide enough to peek into the great hall. Her heart leapt into her throat. Sitting on the scaffold was Rhynne. A small orb of light floated above her. Her back was toward the door and she appeared to be holding a trowel which she used to scoop some mortar from the box to her right. On her left was a small pile of irregularly shaped stones about the size of a teapot. She put the trowel in the box and raised a stone toward the hole. The stone floated away from her hands and fit into the outline of newly laid stones. She selected another stone and scooped up some mortar. Arturia closed the door. Her thoughts were in turmoil. Why did Rhynne choose not to reply? She could only surmise that Merlyn told her not to. She did not know if mages had a code of honor, but if they did, then Rhynne would be compelled to obey her master. Furthermore, the door was locked and a barrier was in place. It indicated that Merlyn did not want anyone in the hall. Then she recalled Rhynne's lone figure on top of the scaffold. When did she start repairing the hall? Her heart ached at the thought of Rhynne spending all those lonely hours in that dark hall, quietly repairing it stone by stone. It seemed so sad. Perhaps, that was why Bedivere baited her to talk about Rhynne. She chuckled to herself as she realized which answer caused Rhynne to betray her presence in the hall. She walked to her chair, sat down and picked up the harp. She began to play Rhynne's favorite melody. At least, she would not be lonely anymore. [Author's note: Recommended background music: Fate/stay Night Animation Original Soundtrack, Kishiou no hokori] Rin paused when she heard the harp. She glanced at the door and saw that it was closed. The melody tugged at her soul. Arturia played it for her whenever they were at the lake. Rin raised her sleeve to wipe a tear from her eye. She thought that she had left the sitting room. And yet, there she was, playing for her. Rin remembered the time when Arturia snuck up behind her without her noticing. This time, she caught her again. She smiled gratefully and continued her work on the ceiling. The clock struck three. Arturia had been playing for over an hour. Her fingers were sore, but she kept playing. She would play until Rhynne exited the great hall. Suddenly, a hand tapped her gently on her shoulder. She stopped and looked up to see Bedivere. "Tis enough. She hast gone to study." "But... I did not see her leave!" "There is a portal within the hall that sends her back to the east wing. She need not pass this way." "I see..." Her face fell with disappointment. She stood up to hang the harp on the wall. "Fret not. The hall needs much repair." Arturia stared sharply at Bedivere before understanding crept into her mind. "I suppose someone must come by every day to repair it." she said slyly. "Verily so. Most likely, after lunch and till about this time." Bedivere put an arm around her. "And since thou art idle, why not tell me of more of thy maidenly explorations of Rhynne?" "Bedivere!" ----"Aenderungsmana." Mana flowed from Rin's palm into the inlaid channels of power within the stones. One by one, the stones began to become translucent. Rin concentrated and maintained the spell. The hall began to
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brighten up. Sunlight filtered through the stone and reflected off the smooth marble floor. It took about half an hour to transform all the stones. Wearily, Rin sat down on the bench and glanced at the closed door to the sitting room. She could still hear Arturia singing. She laid down on the bench to get some rest. When she had rested enough, she went to the wall next to the door. The job was done, and she felt like she deserved a reward. She put her hand on the wall and chanted, "Aenderungsmana." The portion of the wall near her hand slowly became translucent. The sitting room came into view, along with Arturia and her harp. She gazed fondly at the scene. Without warning, Arturia opened her eyes and looked in her direction. Rin took her hand away and fled to a nearby potted tree. The door creaked open. She was certain that Arturia was looking for her. "Rhynne..." Arturia's voice echoed in the hall. "Why, Rhynne?" Rin hugged her knees. Why indeed? She asked Merlyn the same question after Merlyn locked the door and erected the barrier. Merlyn told her that it was needed to prevent Arturia from seeing her. But that was when Arturia was grieving over Morgan. When she asked Merlyn again, Merlyn simply said to do as she was told as required by her apprenticeship. Rin felt the amulet underneath her rough work apron. The penalty for disobedience was dire: the master could choose to seal, or even worse, destroy one or more magic circuits. She could not resist bringing Arturia to the east wing. After meeting her in the laundry room, every day without her was torture. Her messages were the only thing that she looked forward to. So when Merlyn left to visit the Chief Druid, she risked a chance to see her. But her chances were running out. Tomorrow, they would leave for Stonehenge. She gazed at the valley below. She would never forget this place. So many wonderful things happened here. The door clicked behind her, but she continued to huddle by the potted tree. Her eyes wandered over the hall. In time, the trees would sprout leaves again and the banners and carpet would adorn the hall. The hall would be restored to its former glory. Rin closed her right eye and peered only with her left. She saw only darkness. She sighed and wondered if her sight would ever be restored. But even if she could not restore her sight, she still had a chance to help Arturia. She gathered her determination and stepped into the portal to the east wing. ----Arturia was reading on her cot in the rose garden when Bedivere opened door and held it for Airianne and Wybrenne to pass through. Arturia put her book down and gave a respectful bow to Wybrenne. "Good morning, Lady Wybrenne." "Good morning, Sir Arturia." Wybrenne drew a deep breath. "I regret to say that I bear grave news. Mine Merlyn and Rhynne hath left to go to Stonehenge. They will perform the ritual to return her to the future tomorrow." Arturia's eyebrows shot up. "The future?" "Didst she not tell thee? She is from a future over a thousand years from now." "Nay." Arturia paced within the triangle. "She didst not." Although she dreaded to hear the answer, she asked anyway. "When will she return?" The silence that ensued stopped her breath. Eventually, Wybrenne shook her head slowly. "She will not. Merlyn will close the portal behind her." Arturia trembled with agitation and anger as she tried to restrain herself. "Why?!" she managed to say. Wybrenne avoided the true reason. "I heard that tis needed to preserve the flow of time." Arturia collapsed onto her knees and buried her face in her hands. The sorrow from her heart overflowed to her eyes. Between sobs, she slowly asked, "Why... didst she not allow Rhynne... to bid me farewell?" She felt Bedivere's arm around her. "Be at ease. There is yet a way that thou can see her." Airianne knelt in front of her. "Yer physical form is maintained by the mana of the Aerie. But that is
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not the only kind of mana that can sustain the spell that keeps yer form. Within ye is Avalon. Its mana can be used to refresh yer spell for a few days. Please unbutton yer shirt, so I can release Avalon's mana." "But... ye can not do magic." "I discovered that I can when I tried to hide mine memories from Mother. I suppose I have ye and Rhynne to thank fer that." Airianne's lips curled into a smirk while Arturia's cheeks colored to shade of pink. She held up her right hand. "If ye please..." Arturia quickly unbuttoned her shirt. Airianne slipped her hand in between her breasts. "Skies above! Ye have such soft, creamy skin..." "Lady Airianne!" cried Arturia indignantly. Airianne began whispering in a language that she could not understand. Something began to throb inside her. It felt cool, like diving into a river on a hot summer day. The coolness began to spread from her center to her limbs. Airianne took her hand away. "Tis done. The spell will last fer at most two days. After that, ye must refresh yerself in the Aerie." She reached into her pocket to pull out an amulet and put it around Arturia's neck. "This amulet will mask yer presence from Mother, but ye must keep a distance of at least a hundred yards." "I have readied Haut with provisions." offered Bedivere. "They left this morning on horse. Thou can reach them easily." "There is one more thing. The ritual will be cast fer two. Mother hath decided to cast it as it was devised fer she feared ill effects if she changed it." Airianne grasped Arturia's hand. "Listen carefully, Sir Arturia. There will be eleven glyphs and two smaller circles within the casting circle. Rhynne will be standing in one of the smaller circles. When the ninth glyph shines forth, ye must go to the other empty circle before the eleventh glyph shines. When ye do, Mother will have no choice but to continue the ritual. She cannae cancel it." Arturia's eyes grew wide. "If she completes the ritual, then... I will go with Rhynne..." Airianne nodded. "Aye." Her eyes softened. "Tis yer choice. Ye can meet Rhynne secretly and bid her farewell. Or... ye can go with her." Arturia already knew her answer. "Mine thanks... to all of thee." Her eyes watered with gratitude. "I know not how to acquit thy kindness." "Tis simple. Take this time that has been given to you and be happy." replied Wybrenne. Airianne went to her mother's side and put her hand on her shoulder. "Aye. I agree." Arturia knelt in front of Wybrenne and held out her hand. Wybrenne recognized the gesture and offered her hand which Arturia kissed. "Mine thanks, Lady Wybrenne, for the hospitality of thy home. Know that I will ne'er forget thee and thy kindness." "We art honored to host the High King. Thou art welcome here always." Arturia held out her hand to Airianne and kissed Airianne's hand when she offered it. "Mine thanks to ye, Lady Airianne, for yer assistance. Mine heart soars knowing that I have a chance to be by Rhynne's side. And I am most grateful for all the entertainment that ye hosted for us." She grinned widely as she remembered all those silly games and nightly activities. Airianne matched her grin, but her eyes twinkled with mischief. "The pleasure was all mine." Arturia stood up and turned to Bedivere. Before she was able to say anything, Bedivere spoke. "I will accompany thee till the mine's entrance. When thou art ready, meet me at the great hall." "The great hall is open?" "Yea. Rhynne's craftsmanship is superb. See for thyself." "I will. I shall meet thee there anon." She faced Wybrenne and Airianne once more. She went over to Wybrenne and embraced her. Then she did the same for Airianne. "I shall ne'er forget either of thee." "And we as well." Wybrenne reached over and stroked her cheek gently. "Time flies. Gather thy belongings and may God be with thee. Farewell, King Arthur." "Farewell, Lady Wybrenne, Lady Airianne."
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Arturia left the rose garden with Bedivere. She went to her room and scanned her closet. Except for a pair of gloves and a change of clothes, she did not find anything that wanted to bring. Then she hurried to the great hall. She stood at the doorway for a moment to marvel at its restoration. She could not discern the hole in the ceiling or the pit in the floor. Rhynne truly did well. Bedivere stood by the platform. Arturia jogged over to her. Together, they descended the platform. From the map, Wybrenne and Airianne watched them until they descended into the cavern. Then Wybrenne dispelled the image. Arturia was determined to go with Rhynne. Merlyn would be incensed. Whether Rhynne succeeded or not, Merlyn would make arrangements for Arturia to live in the Aerie or in the valley below. She could easily convince Bedivere to look after her and keep her company. Wybrenne wrung her hands. "Forgive me, mine love. Thou must let go. And... I can no longer share thee." Airianne seemed to sense her thoughts and touched her shoulder in a reassuring manner. "I hath a hand in it too, Mama. Besides, Mother cannae stay angry with us fer too long." Wybrenne squeezed her daughter's hand lovingly. "Yea... thou art right. Let us wish for her safe return." ----Meanwhile, Arturia and Bedivere made their way through the labyrinth and passed the wagon. Arturia grabbed Bedivere's left wrist. "A moment, Bedivere." "What is it?" "Come this way." Bedivere followed Arturia back to the wagon. Arturia leapt in and picked up the quilt inside. She dusted it off in front and spread it on the wagon's floor. She knelt by the wagon's edge and held out her hand to Bedivere. "Come up." Curious, Bedivere placed the lantern on the ground and took Arturia's hand. Arturia pulled her up. Then Arturia reached behind her neck and unclasped the cylinder that held her braids. She unclasped the other one and ran her fingers through her hair to unravel it. Bedivere's heart began to beat faster. She suspected what Arturia had in mind. "Milord, thou will need to catch up to Rhynne." "I know." Arturia's unclasped the rosary on the front flap of her cloak. "Whither is the other?" "I gave it to Rhynne." "Ah... a gracious gift. Mine heart warms to know that thou thinkst highly of her." She removed the cloak that covered Bedivere's left arm. She began to unbutton her vest. "With all due respect, Milord, think of how Rhynne would feel." Arturia did not stop. "I am no longer High King. I cannot reward thy faithful service with land or gold or title. However, Constantine can award thy service with wealth or honor should thou deign to accept. But I doubt any of that will suffice thee. Know that mine heart will not rest until I hath shown thee mine gratitude. So allow me to be selfish." She slowly slipped off her vest. She knelt closer to Bedivere and looked into her eyes. "I cannot give thee mine heart, for that is no longer mine to give. But allow me to give thee what only I can give." Bedivere clenched her fists to keep them from trembling. She narrowed her eyes and spoke sternly. "Nay, Milord. As a lady, thy love is meaningless if I cannot have thy heart. Besides, I merely rendered thee service as required by mine pledge." Arturia sighed. "Must it always be duty, Bedivere?" Her manner grew rigid with the authority of her kingship. "Then hear me, Sir Bedivere. Thou will let me do as I please, and thou will enjoy it. This, thy King commands." Arturia cupped Bedivere's face with her hands and stroked her cheek gently with the pad of her thumb. "What will it be, Bedivere?" she asked softly. "Will thou accept mine love or will thou obey mine command?" Bedivere blushed furiously and warmed Arturia's palms. Arturia leaned forward until her lips almost
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touched Bedivere's. "Mine time is short. How long will thou make me wait?" Bedivere swallowed visibly and quailed before her gentle eyes. Arturia loved Rhynne. Then it should be wrong to accept her love. But her words rang in her mind. Had she always chosen duty and honor over love? Her thoughts went to that fateful day when she invited her to go hunting. Arturia asked her and she did it out of duty. But now, Arturia offered her a choice. She released her clenched hands and closed her eyes. She wanted to be selfish too. As if sensing her decision, Arturia's lips claimed hers. One by one, her clothes were discarded and Arturia guided her down to the quilt. Her hands and lips wandered all over her body and she surrendered to her touch. Arturia parted her legs and slipped her head between them. She gasped. She screamed. Soon, her thoughts were rendered incoherent. There were only the tremulous sensations surging through her body. And then Arturia entered her. Her legs and arms wrapped around Arturia. Her need was deep and Arturia slowly filled that need. She clutched her fiercely as fire raged between her legs and threatened to swallow her into madness. She screamed as the fire grew, her hoarse voice filling the mine with her cries. And then that fire exploded within her and she cried Arturia's name in bliss. But Arturia continued to fan the flames which set off a series of smaller explosions which reverberated through her body. Although she wished that she could share her passion with Arturia, what she received was more than she hoped for. It was a culmination of a lifetime of friendship, of trust and of love. When Arturia stopped, all she could do was lie there and catch her breath. The throbbing within her eclipsed the aching muscles of her legs and arms. Arturia kissed her on the cheek. "Twas beautiful, Bedivere... I hope thou art pleased." From the edge of her consciousness, she could hear Arturia adjusting her clothes. Then she felt her grasp her hand and plant a kiss on top, as one would do so on a lady. "Fare thee well, Bedwyr Bedrydant ap Bedrawt, and farewell." She heard Arturia leap off the wagon and lead Haut away. Her thoughts were in a jumble and she desperately tried to gather her wits. Finally, she managed to rise. Wrapping herself in the quilt, she wobbled her way to the entrance of the mine. Arturia was galloping on a path halfway down the mountain. "Arturia!" Her voice was hoarse, but the mountain's echo carried her voice. Arturia slowed down and looked in her direction. She waved to her and waited until she waved back before resuming Haut's gallop. Bedivere watched sadly until she could no longer see Arturia. "I hath loved but one woman in this world, and I hath lost her twice." Tears flowed freely from her eyes, but her sorrow was diminished by Arturia's parting gift. She lifted her face to the heavens and prayed to God to keep her safe. ----"Hail Taliesin ab Elphin." "Hail Myrddin Emrys." "How art ye, Milord?" "Very well." Merlyn gestured to Rin. "Tis Rin of the House of Tohsaka. Rin, tis Lord Taliesin." Taliesin inclined his head. "I am pleased to meet ye, Rin. But I am saddened that our first meeting will also be our last." Rin curtsied. "Tis I who am honored to meet ye." She really was. In her research, she came across Taliesin's name. But legends only indicated that he was a bard, not the Chief Druid, Lord of the Pentacle. The legends mentioned his nickname, "The shining brow." It was appropriate indeed. Never had she seen hair so golden and fine that it almost glittered in the sunlight. He could pass for a model in a men's
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magazine. Internally, Rin laughed at her thoughts. Furthermore, she expected him to be an old man. Her imagination was far from the truth. He seemed to be in his late thirties. Merlyn turned her attention to three other mages. As she greeted them, Rin attached names to each member of the Pentacle. The young woman with flowing reddish hair and blue eyes was Vivian of the Lake. She wore a reddish orange robe with a light blue sash. A lanky man with brown hair tied up with a vine and wearing a brown cloak and light green tunic was Lailoken of the Woods. An elderly man clad in a gray robe with matching gray hair and beard was introduced to be Merlin Ambrosius. Rin was surprised at his name. When they were introduced, she asked about his name. "Tis by coincidence that Emrys and I have names that sound similar." His voice grated with age. "Do other people confuse ye with her?" He laughed softly as he leaned on his oak staff. "All the time." Then he winked. "Sometimes, she pretends to be me and sometimes... I pretend to be her." Merlyn flushed and cleared her throat. "Erhmmm... there art a few things I wish to discuss with ye." Rin took a moment to study Merlyn who dispelled her illusion as soon as they entered Stonehenge. She could see her much clearly now without her illusion. Women would kill to look as good as she did at her age. She waited patiently as they conversed for a while, exchanging news of their studies and duties. From their conversation, Vivian and Ambrosius were in charge of the study and protection of magical artifacts while Merlyn and Lailoken were in charge of the archive and protection of lore and rituals. Taliesin simply listened. Rin wondered if he had any duties. Then she heard Vivian say, "I have retrieved Avalon from Morgan's fortress and have succeeded in its return." "Well done." said Taliesin with a nod of his head. Vivian faced her. "Morgan was mine apprentice. Tis mine fault that she discovered Avalon's power. I must apologize for her assault on ye." "I thank ye for yer apology." replied Rin. Taliesin tapped his staff. "The day wears on. Shall we proceed?" "Aye, Milord." They walked to the central ring of stones. Merlyn selected an even spot to draw the circle while Taliesin walked to the top of the stone altar. Vivian walked to a slightly raised circular stone slab to the North and stood in its center. Lailoken went to a similar slab to the Southeast while Ambrosius went to the one to the Southwest. Rin noted that the slabs were equidistant from each other, thus forming a triangle. When everyone was in place, Taliesin began to sing. Rin paused etching a glyph to listen for a moment. There was power in his sonorous tenor voice. A low humming joined his song. It was then that she realized that the stones were responding to his song and singing in return. Soon, the humming intensified so much that she could feel the vibration in her bones. A quick glance at Vivian showed her that she was chanting and tracing intricate patterns in the air. She guessed that she was doing something to assist Taliesin. A sharp look from Merlyn compelled her to resume her task. When the arcane circle was complete, she took her place within it. Then Merlyn began to chant the first stanza of the ritual. Taliesin continued to sing and the first glyph burst forth in a quavering note of light. Never before had she ever seen mana being supplied in this manner. She watched the second glyph shine and then a third. As each glyph flared into light, her fascination gave way to the sadness which escaped from her heart. She blinked away the tears that threatened to spill. She was leaving, never to return. ----170

They had begun. Arturia peered through the leaves of the tree to get a better view. The first glyph glowed. About ten seconds later, the next one glowed. Arturia measured the time between each glow and estimated it to be around ten to fifteen seconds. She only had thirty seconds to get there. She hoped Haut could make it. The eight glyph glowed. She quickly leapt from the branches and landed in Haut's saddle. In her head, she counted: eight, nine, ten... Then she spurred Haut to a gallop. In the distance, the ninth glyph glowed. As she neared them, she saw Taliesin turn in her direction. His reaction surprised her. He merely inclined his head as if he were greeting an old friend. Merlyn's back was turned to her still. The tenth glyph glowed. Arturia veered Haut to the side so that he would not run into the circle. Then she leapt from the saddle and rolled with the fall. She sprinted to the circle and slowed down enough to carefully hop over the glowing glyphs. She landed on the second circle facing Rin. As the eleventh glyph glowed, she looked up with a triumphant grin. The arcane circle burst into light and began to blind her. The last thing she saw before her sight blurred into whiteness was Rhynne's tear-streaked but overjoyed face. ----Gone. They were gone in a blaze of light. Merlyn clenched her fists and screamed in rage. Her scream echoed through Stonehenge. Suddenly, she felt a hand clamp over her mouth. "Remember where ye art, Emrys." cautioned Taliesin. Merlyn inhaled sharply through her nose and simmered down. Taliesin took his hand away. Vivian, Lailoken and Ambrosius walked over. They stood there in silence as the arcane circle's light faded away. "Didst ye know?" Merlyn asked softly. Taliesin looked up into the clear blue sky. "Tis been awhile since we hath all flown together, old friends. Care to fly the friendly skies with me?" Merlyn felt betrayed. She had assumed that Taliesin would support her decision. But her anger faded as she glared at Taliesin's gentle and calm face. Perhaps, his visions showed him something. Perhaps, if she waited long enough, he would tell her. She looked up into the sky. It was a good day to fly. "Aye." Merlyn and Taliesin transformed into eagles. Vivian became a red hawk while Lailoken and Ambrosius turned into brown and gray falcons respectively. In unison, they launched themselves into the sky. Haut watched the birds in the air. He wished that he had wings too. Suddenly, he felt a tug on his mane. It was Merlyn's mare. Her ears pricked up with a question. "Go for a run?" Haut neighed in response and they galloped across the green grassland. ----The light faded into darkness and they reeled to catch their balance. When Rin felt her feet touch the ground, she released her breath. At least, they did not end up underwater. But they still got wet. As expected, it was raining and the cold wind caused her to shiver under her robe. As Rin shifted the packs on her back, Arturia caught her in a tight embrace. Rin held her just as tightly to convince herself that she was actually here. Tears sprang from her eyes as she confirmed her warmth, her scent, her very being. Then Arturia drew back to plant a kiss full of longing on her lips. As she returned her kiss, she forgot about the rain and wrapped her arms around Arturia's neck. "Erhemmm..." Their heads turned in unison at the direction of the voice. About five feet away from them stood a
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young girl about four feet tall. She was holding an umbrella and was staring at them with a lopsided grin on her face. She handed the umbrella to Rin and bowed towards Arturia. She greeted her in a small piping voice. "Hail Arturia Pendragon ab Uther, Former High King of the British Isles. I am your host, Emrys... Marlen Emrys. Welcome to the year 2011." She held out her gloved hand. "Your Highness, I wish to check Airianne's spell on you. May I have your hand?" Arturia held out her hand which Marlen took between her own. The glyph on her palm flared and she felt that coolness within her again. "It's fine, but to be on the safe side, please wear this." Marlen produced a ring and slipped it on her index finger. Then she opened the umbrella that was hanging on the crook of her arm for herself. "Sorry to interrupt your snoggin', but the weather's been beastly this week. Seeing that Queen Elizabeth rules now, how do you wish to be addressed?" Between her grammar and her accent, Arturia was not quite sure that she understood everything Marlen said. "Arturia is fine." "Arturia it is, guv." Her eyes landed on Rin. "Evenin' Tohsaka Rin. Betcha chuffed to bits to be back. Any hoo, come along." Arturia took the heavy packs from Rin who gladly gave it to her. Rin held the large umbrella over them while Arturia held her other hand as they followed Marlen across the soggy ground of Stonehenge. After twenty minutes, they reached an access road where a BMW was parked. Marlen opened the passenger door and then opened the trunk. Arturia deposited the packs and the scroll case in the trunk and then went into the car. Marlen went in after her and closed the door. "Take us home, Miles." A crystal embedded in the dashboard responded, "Yes, Master." The car revved into life and drove off. Rin stared at the unmoving uniformed driver. "A puppet, just to get cops to bugger off." explained Marlen, who sat across from them. The car looked like a four door sedan from the outside, but the inside defied the laws of physics. There were two sets of backseats which faced each other. The distance between the seats was generous enough to stretch one's legs. Marlen opened a large duffel bag and pulled out some towels. She handed the towels to them. "Dry yourselves. I also have some clothes if you want to change." "Thanks." said Rin as she accepted the towel. She began to dry her hair. With the overhead light, she had a better view of her host. Marlen seemed very young, about twelve to fourteen years of age. Rin watched as she removed her black bowler and her black trenchcoat. Marlen looked very goth in her black suit, black patent leather shoes, the black ribbon that tied her braided hair and the lacy black tie around her collar. When she took off her black gloves, Rin noted that her fingernails were painted black. She also noted the ring on her finger which bore the crest of the Pentacle, the highest authority for magicians in Britain. The only colors that contrasted in her gothic appearance were her brown hair and golden eyes. She was an Emrys all right. Marlen bent over and opened a hidden compartment under her seat. "Thirsty? I have pop and wine. If you're hungry, I have some sandwiches." "If you have it, can I have some ginger ale?" asked Rin. "Methinks, I will have the same." "Rin, pull the tray out by your seat." Marlen dug into the duffel bag and extracted three paper cups and a couple of sandwiches. When Rin unfolded the tray, she put the cups and sandwiches on the tray and poured ginger ale out of the cans. For herself, she uncorked a bottle of red wine. "Aren't you a little too young to be drinking?" asked Rin. Marlen sipped the wine. "Girl, I'm going to say this once. First off, I'm twice as old as you are. And second, since Merlyn didn't release you from your apprenticeship, I'm now your master. So belt up and
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mind your manners." "Sorry, Master." She kept forgetting that among the Emrys, appearances could be deceiving. To her left, she sensed Arturia gag on the ginger ale. "What manner of draught is this?" asked Arturia as she stared at the bubbly liquid. "Carbonated water mixed with corn syrup and imitation ginger ale flavor." When Arturia looked at her blankly, she ordered Rin. "You explain." Rin cleared her throat. "Tis sweetened water with ginger and sugar. The ale makers found a way to trap air within it to create a prickly sensation within thy mouth." "How fascinating..." Arturia sipped the ale cautiously. "Don't have to chug that..." Marlen got another cup and poured some wine into it. She offered the cup to Arturia. "Here you go." "Mine thanks." Arturia gratefully accepted the cup. Marlen faced Rin. "You have to teach her how to speak normally. She'll stand out too much. Go ahead and do that." She pulled out a planner and began to leaf through it. "All right." Rin began to explain the differences between medieval and modern English while they ate their sandwiches. About forty-five minutes or so later, Marlen yawned. She checked her watch. "Three more hours to go. I'll have a kip till then." Marlen moved the duffel bag to the floor and pushed the back of the seat down. She opened another hidden compartment and pulled out a pillow. Then she took a quilt, and an eye mask from the duffel bag. She laid down on the seat and fluffed the pillow before she rested her head on it. She pulled the quilt over her. The appropriately black eye mask went over her eyes. "With all due respect, master, what time is it?" "2:37." Rin adjusted her watch. Then she reached up and turned off the overhead light as a courtesy. She and Arturia sat in silence in the dim car. A few minutes later, she felt Arturia's warm hand over hers. Her fingertips curled into her palm and tickled it with gentle strokes. Rin's skin broke into goosebumps at the sensation. "What do you want to do, Arturia?" whispered Rin. "Twould... it would be ill mannered to speak whilst thy, um... your master sleeps. Mayhap... we should rest as well." Rin nodded and moved the empty cups and wrappings off the table. She refolded the tray. "Please move aside for a moment. I will try to change the seat." Arturia complied and Rin pushed the back of the seat down. She felt the floor for the duffel bag. She reached in and found another quilt. Marlen was certainly prepared. In the meantime, Arturia found two pillows from the compartments under their seat. She put the pillows down and laid down on the seat. Rin spread the quilt over her and slipped in next to her. They stared at each other for a few moments before moving in unison to kiss. Arturia's arm went around her waist and drew her closer. They exchanged several kisses before Marlen's voice pierced the air. "You know silentium, right?" Rin blushed in embarrassment. "Er... yes, master..." "Just checkin'..." Arturia whispered in her ear sheepishly. "Methinks, we should restrain ourselves for now." Rin nodded and snuggled into Arturia's embrace. She felt Arturia kiss the top of her head and her eyes moistened with tears. Silently, she wished for many more nights like this and let her fantasies guide her to dream. ----When Marlen woke them up, they found themselves in an enclosed garage. There were several differ173

ent models of cars, motorcycles and boats lined up neatly on both sides of the garage. They followed Marlen to an elevator. When the elevator opened at their destination, they noticed the familiar platform at the end of the also familiar great hall. However, the scene beyond the translucent walls was not familiar. A thriving town replaced the valley below. Some of the decorations in the hall were also different. There were a lot more pieces of art and sculpture. Rin's heart soared at the sight of the restored hall. She was glad to see that her efforts were not in vain. The sitting room was different too. More instruments were available including a baby grand piano. There was a stereo system and plasma TV as well. Suddenly, something caught her eye that made the back of her neck prickle in horror: a karaoke player. Silently, she prayed that she would never have to participate in that dreadful activity. They followed Marlen into the rose garden. A rollaway bed stood in the center of the enchanted triangle. Marlen gestured to it. "Arturia, I suggest you refresh yourself as soon as possible." She pulled the rim of the bowler over her eyes and peered at Rin. "Rin, pick a room in the west wing and get some rest." "But master, I am not..." Suddenly, the amulet under her shirt seared her skin. Instinctively, her hand flew up to clutch it away from her skin, but it stopped an inch before it. Underneath the bowler's hat, Marlen's eye seemed to glow. "Go. Come back to the rose garden at 9:30 for breakfast." "Y-- yes, Master..." Rin turned on her heel and walked out of the rose garden with luggage in tow. She did not stop walking until she reached the room she once occupied in the past. Then she exhaled a deep breath. She threw herself on the bed and contemplated what happened. It felt like deja vu; she was being separated from Arturia again. Rin opened her blouse to look at her skin. She breathed a sigh of relief to see that it was not burned, but just irritated. A quick glance at her watch told her that it was around 6 AM. She did not like it at all, but she had no choice but to obey. ----Breakfast was served from a wheeled trolley. Rin and Arturia helped themselves to pastries and fruit. The tea was excellent. When they were done with breakfast, Marlen pulled out a remote control and a laser pointer from her pocket and pressed a button that unveiled a recessed plasma TV. An image of a mansion on a hill flickered into view. "For generations, the Emrys watched the Einzbern to detect when they attempted to access the Throne of Heroes. About eighty-three years ago, my Mum detected a large surge of mana from this location. The mansion is recent. It serves to guard the caverns below." The image changed to a chart of some sort. "Here are some geological surveys of the site. The surveys were done before they accessed the Throne. Miners needed it to locate deposits of precious and semi-precious gemstones." "Now, if you look here, this symbol indicates water. Further research indicated that the water was coming from a nearby lake. To check whether that was true, Mum turned herself into a fish to gen up. She went full monty and confirmed it." "By the way, treat her out to dinner when you meet her. From what I hear, it was nasty business swimming down there. You owe her big time. So here's the plan: sneak in, release Arturia's spirit and sneak out." Arturia cleared her throat. "Please excuse my interruption, but what dost you mean by mine... er... my spirit?" Slack-jawed, Marlen stared at Arturia and then shifted her gaze to Rin. "Do you want me to tell her why you're doing this?"
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Rin bowed her head. There was no reason to keep it a secret anymore. "Arturia... when you died, your spirit was being absorbed into the Throne of Heroes. But I... I somehow managed to prevent all of it from being absorbed when I tried to save you. Merlyn thought that I was able to succeed because Avalon was nearby. The spells that refresh you everyday are required to keep the rest of your spirit from going to the Throne. However, Merlyn feared that your spirit will slowly be absorbed over time. Thus, my mission is to free the other half of your spirit." "But... why did she not tell me to go with you?" Arturia tried to restrain her anger, but her voice showed her resentment. "I... I don't know." Marlen cleared her throat. "Anyway, both of you will fly to Germany and travel to the lake. For that, you'll need passports. Rin, is yours current?" "Yes, master. But why should Arturia come?" "I'll get to that. Arturia, you'll need one. You can't use Pendragon for your last name. Is Tohsaka okay?" Arturia asked Rin. "Umm... what does 'okay' mean?" Rin's heart leapt in her chest. She could not believe that Marlen suggested it. "Er... it means 'all right' or 'fine'." "I see." She faced Marlen. "No. It would not be appropriate. It would be difficult to convince a priest to marry us if we had the same last name." "Oh..." Marlen's mouth formed the word. She grinned widely. "Then what do you like to use?" Arturia thought for a moment. "Wledig. It was my mother's maiden name." Marlen nodded. "All right. Let me make some arrangements." She put the remote in front of Rin. "While I'm gone, you can look at the slides of the geological surveys. Be back in a few minutes." She quickly walked out of the room. Meanwhile, Rin's heart was pounding like crazy. Bells and organ music were playing in her mind. Was Arturia really thinking of getting married? It seemed too good to be true. However, she wanted to hear it again. "Arturia..." "Yes?" "About what you said... about the priest and..." She blushed. "And marriage..." Arturia began to blush as well. "Oh... my apologies for being presumptuous. I... I was merely trying to avoid future conflicts... if... if we were to... marry." For several moments, they stared at each other with eyes full of built-up emotion and love. Rin wanted to reach out to her and to hold her, but Arturia slipped off her chair to kneel at her side. "Rin... when your mission is over... will you... will you marry me?" She dreamt of hearing these words over and over. Just in case, she pinched herself. She did it again just to make sure. Through her tears and the smarting pain of her arm, she whispered in a choked voice, "Yes... by God... yes!" "Of course! We will be married before God. I would not be married by pagan ritual." Rin chuckled a little at Arturia's misunderstanding. Then she knelt next to her, put her arms around her and kissed her. "We will, my dearest one." Arturia drew away and put Rin's left hand on top of her own. "I regret that I can not draw upon the wealth of the High King to present you a suitable ring. I can only offer you my love." She pressed her lips on Rin's ring finger and sucked on its skin slightly to form a small red mark. Could her heart beat any faster? Apparently, it could and it pounded in her ears as she gazed at the red mark on her finger. Slowly, she reached for Arturia's left hand and sucked on her ring finger to create a similar mark. "Now... we have matching rings..." declared Rin proudly. The space between them was too much. They banished it away and filled the space with kisses full of promises of the future. They would have continued making more promises if it were not for the sound of
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the door swinging open to announce Marlen's return. Marlen sighed in exasperation. "I thought I told you to study the survey." She dragged an empty chair and placed it ten feet away from the table. "Rin, sit here." Reluctantly, Rin walked over to the chair and sat on it. Meanwhile, Arturia's face formed a scowl. "Why must she sit over there?" she demanded as she stood up. "Because I told her to. Moving on..." Marlen took the remote control and navigated to the next slide. Arturia was about to argue when she caught Rin's shaking head and pleading eyes. She restrained herself and sat down. "Since you have to swim in the lake, you'll have to wear this special wetsuit. It will enable you to breathe underwater. It has a containment field to prevent you from leaving stray skin cells, hair or whatever body parts you have. It also has a heat insulator and ultrasonic absorber to help deter motion detectors and a camouflage field to fool video cameras." "I can see that you're wondering why we're worried about technology when we're mages. Look around you... it is possible to create an amalgam of technology and magic. The Einzbern may or may not use this kind of magic, but we have to assume that they do." She held up a translucent cylinder full of pebbles. "There will be barriers. Each of these pebbles holds a special kind of mana that will interrupt the barrier field. When you come across a barrier, just match the mana flow with the one in the pebble. Place the pebble on the ground near the barrier. A hole big enough to crawl through will be formed. But remember, the hole can only be used four times." She picked up a Y-shaped rod with a crystal fastened to its end. "The main chamber is a giant cavern. When you reach the main chamber, use this dousing rod to find the location of the gate. The crystal on the rod is attuned to the mana expended by the Einzbern to open it." "I will instruct you on the ritual to open the gate. It may not be precise, since it was surmised from the detection and analysis of the opening of the gate. You will have to adjust it as needed. When the gate is open, go to the Throne and hold Arturia's hand to serve as an anchor for her. Allow Arturia to be absorbed into Throne. "Arturia, it's up to you to find your other half. There's a lot of energy in the Throne. Whatever happens, don't let go of Rin. Because if you do, you may not be able to find your way out. Once you're restored, get out." "The ritual generates a tremendous amount of mana. There's no way we can hide it. Leave as fast as possible. However, if you have to fight, cast spells using these crystals. They contain mana signatures of Einzbern's most hated rivals." She gestured to a jar of marble-sized crystals of varying colors. "After you escape, take the next flight out and follow the itinerary and use the identities that I gave you. You'll be globetrotting for a week to skive off any pursuers. When you're ready, come back here, so I can check if Arturia is okay. Any questions?" "When can I start practicing the ritual?" "After we finish here. Anything else?" "When do we leave?" "Tomorrow or the day after. It depends on how well you can cast the ritual." Rin's lips drew taut at the challenge. "Then let us get started as soon as possible." "What about me?" asked Arturia. "With all due respect, please practice modern English. You can find a book in the library. I have prepared a video for you about the countries that you'll be visiting on your way back, so it won't be so confusing." Marlen took out a folded piece of paper from her pocket. "Here are the instructions to view the video on the telly. Rin, when you're ready, meet me in the north hall." "Yes, master." ----Rin changed to her mage robe and met Marlen in the north hall. Marlen closed the doors of the prac176

tice room and cast silentium. Her face was grim. "Rin, I hate to say this... but if you fail, you must never let yourself be captured by the Einzbern. They won't kill you. Oh no... A mage of your caliber would be more valuable alive. Even I can't imagine the bloody things they'll do to you." Marlen put her hand over the amulet. Rin felt mana flowing from her hand. "I've cast a disintegration spell on the amulet. To activate it, form the word 'Datgymalu' in your head and release your mana." The sides of her mouth drooped. "I hope that you never have to use it." Rin's hands were cold and clammy. The very thought sickened her. "I hope so too, Master..." Marlen sauntered to the middle of the room. Her right hand extended to her side. The space around her seemed to blur and her clothes swirled to form a black battle robe. A staff appeared nearby and her hand closed to grab it. Rin's eyes widened in recognition. It was Merlyn's staff. Airianne told her that it was handed down through generations and was only wielded by the head of the House of Emrys. Her robe billowed about her as she whirled around to face Rin. The hall echoed when she hit the marble floor with the end of her staff. "Forget about that. First thing's first. Let's get you ready. We Emrys have put a lot into this. As Merlyn said, 'Failure is unacceptable.'" "I understand, master. I will succeed... or die trying." ----With patience and perseverance, they made it to the main chamber. As she located the access point for the gate, Rin was thoroughly amazed by the research of the Emrys. She took out her red jewel. "Raging soul, scythe form." Her staff materialized. It was now or never. She chanted the ritual to open the gate. As the ritual progressed, she felt mana being accumulated around her. Using the crystal on the dousing rod as a guide, she adjusted to the mana flow. The mana began to concentrate in the direction pointed to by the rod. Her magesight showed her when it attained the desired levels. She swung her staff back and prepared for the final chant. "Offenes gatter!" She swung the sharp edge of her staff against the coalesced mass of mana. The mass began to writhe and expand. Bright light began to filter through it. A small hole opened and widened into a large portal in space. Beyond the portal, a huge ornate golden throne floated in midair. Rin looked at Arturia who nodded. They reached for each other's hands. Using Levitiam, they floated together towards the throne. They landed on its seat which was large enough for several people to stand on. Rin touched the back of the throne. It felt solid. Arturia touched it. Rin's eyes grew in alarm when she saw the tips of her fingers dissolving. Arturia's hand gripped her right hand tightly. "I will be back anon." Rin swallowed her fear and squeezed her hand. "Come back safely... you have a promise to keep." Arturia smiled reassuringly. "And I shall keep it." With that, she dove into the back of the throne. Rin's hand sank into it up to her wrist. She sighed in relief when she could still feel Arturia's grip. Rin waited patiently for her to come back. A minute or so passed. Suddenly, she felt a surge from beyond the portal. To her horror, she saw a little girl who resembled Ilyasviel standing at the entrance of the portal. Then another little girl walked over, and then another. Rin plucked a crystal from her belt and used it to cast a high level barrier around the throne. By the time she finished, thirteen little girls stood outside the portal. And then she saw a man walk up behind the little girls. It must be their master who controlled their bodies. Unlike Ilyasviel, the girls lacked the aura of a soul. "Who are you?" asked the man in German. Rin did not respond. Instead, she leveled her staff in front of them. She waited for them to make the first move. She did not have to wait to long. The girls fanned out and cast fireballs at the barrier. The barrier flickered on impact. Rin cursed silently and reinforced the barrier with another crystal. She fed a crystal into her orb and raised it. Bright orbs began to multiply around the throne.
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"Sunburst!" The orbs sped towards the man who held out his hand to create a barrier. Rin took the opportunity to target one of the girls with a spare orb. The orb smashed into the girl's head and incinerated it. The man screamed. Rin's eyebrows arched in surprise and understanding. The link between master and puppet goes both ways. She smiled at her discovery. She aimed at a nearby girl and willed a hole in her barrier. "Gandyr Fyre!" Black energy spewed forth from the red orb of her staff and zipped towards the girl. When it hit the girl, the girl was flung away with a terrible force. The skin of the girl began to dissolve, leaving trails of blood behind her. The man screamed again. He clutched his chest and arms. Rin could see that he was applying healing magic. Then the man looked up and stared at her. She quickly reinforced the barrier. The girls were firing with renewed intensity. She expended three more crystals. She tried to peer through the flames and smoke to target a girl. Suddenly, she felt a surge to her left. To her great horror, one of the girls had made a hole in her barrier and was holding it open with her bleeding hands. Another girl had stuck her hand through the hole. She fired a lightning spell. Hastily, Rin cast a shield which deflected most of the attack. But it did not block enough. She screamed as lightning struck her forearm. Her staff clattered to the seat of the throne. Internally, she began the pain suppression exercise which Merlyn taught her. Through the haze of pain, she willed the shield to bash the two girls. The girls reeled away from the barrier. She tried to move her hand and did not feel it. Her nerves must be damaged. The flames and smoke around the barrier began to swirl as if a wind was swirling around the cavern. She felt more mana being concentrated around the barrier. She noticed the man chanting and drawing glyphs in the air. She looked around and saw that an arcane circle floated over the throne just beyond her barrier. Fear rose within her as the circle glowed and rained motes of light at the throne. Rin screamed as the throne arced bolts of electricity around her. Her muscles spasmed and her body tumbled away from the throne instinctively. Thankfully, her shield absorbed some of the bolts. As she fell from the throne, she raised her right hand and willed her staff to her. While waiting for the bolts to disperse, she cast Levitiam and erected another barrier around her. But the bolts did not disperse. Instead, she felt more mana coming from the throne. An unseen wind whipped the clothing of the girls who were chanting. Rin's heart fell when she guessed that they were doing a ritual. She braced herself for whatever spell that they planned on casting. However, with her unfeeling hand and arm, she could not cast over half of her defensive spells. To her great chagrin, more little girls stepped across the portal. As mana gathered around her and the throne still arced lightning, she had to accept that she had only one option left. She prepared to die.

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Chapter 15 Omake Archer: Hey babe, nice sword. Wanna see mine? I bet I can make it nice and long just for you. Gilgamesh: *Whack!* She shall see mine first! Berserker: Oh yeah? Mine's the biggest! Saber: That's not a sword! Let me out of here! Rin!

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Chapter 15: Reunion
Rin trembled in fear as she watched another thirteen girls enter the portal. A woman stood next to the man who was chanting. His little girls were chanting as well. She checked her crystal dispenser and was dismayed to find that it was three-quarters empty. But she had no choice. She put two more crystals into the barrier. For now, she would wait for an opportunity to use the other crystals on the man and woman before she destroyed herself. "I'm so sorry, Arturia... My only hope is that I'll be with you when I die..." The wind whipped around the cavern in great gusts. In fact, it was so strong that one of the little girls tumbled over. Rin thought that it was strange that the man did not bother to control the spell. However, the girls were probably expendable. The man lost his balance. The woman steadied him and began to chant as well. Meanwhile, one more girl tumbled and hit another girl next to her. Rin began to wonder what ritual they were chanting. She pricked up her ears and tried to listen. The wind seemed to be whispering. "sssssssssss........" Just then the lightning around the throne intensified, and Rin backed away from the crackling arcs. The new girls floated in between the previous girls and joined the chanting. They lifted their palms toward the throne. "................kkkaaaahhhhh..........." Streams of mana floated from the girls' palms. The wind increased in intensity and threw some of the girls against each other. "...................................leeeeeeEEEEE............" Rin's eyes grew wide with surprise as the whisper of the wind grew to a recognizable voice. She glanced at the throne with her magesight and blinked from the brightness of the mana gathered on the back of the throne. ".....................................................BUUUUUUURRRRRR!!!" [Author's note: Recommended background music: Unmei no yoru, Fate/stay Night Animation Original Soundtrack] Bright light erupted from the back of throne. As if on cue, the girls released the gathered mana from their palms toward the throne. The light and the mana collided which such force that the resulting shockwave tossed Rin about like a ship in a storm.
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Rin scrambled to keep upright and turned toward the throne. A rift had opened on its back. A bright blade burst forth from the rift and carved out chunks off the back to widen it. The girls fired fireballs at the blade. With quick, deft strokes, the blade deflected the fireballs. The armored gauntlet that held the sword emerged from the rift. As the owner of that gauntlet stepped out of the rift, the girls sent another volley of fireballs and lightning. Each strike was deflected with expert ease and some were even reflected toward a group of girls who became injured from the counterattack. Rin almost broke into tears with relief as she recognized that familiar armor. As she flew toward the throne, a golden head turned in her direction. An armored hand left the hilt of the sword and unhooked a golden scabbard. The scabbard floated in the air and expelled streams of light which surrounded the throne and Rin. Green eyes looked at her with concern. "Daijoubu desu ka?" Rin's jaw dropped at her question. When she recovered from her surprise, she answered back in japanese. "I'm fine..." Meanwhile, fire and lightning raged just outside the streams of light. Arturia held out her hand. Rin offered her right which also gripped her staff. She looked at her left arm critically and guided Rin to the seat of the throne. "You lie just as bad as Bedivere. Let's fix it before it gets worse." She pulled her into a kiss. Rin felt a surge of mana flow from her mouth and towards her arm. She let go of her staff and used her right hand to fine-tune the flow of mana to heal her arm. She should be feeling pain with the accelerated healing, but instead she felt like she was drinking refreshing spring water. When they were done, Rin examined her arm and was satisfied with the results. Meanwhile, Arturia turned away from her and peered at the army of little girls around them. "What kind of mage would use children to fight?" she muttered with disgust. "They're not children. They're puppets controlled by that man and woman. Don't worry about destroying them. They have no soul." "Well, that's good to know." Arturia's lips widened to a predatory grin. "Shall I take care of them now?" "Wait a sec... I have to mask Excalibur's mana. I don't know if it'll work though." Rin took one of the crystals from her dispenser, but Arturia put Excalibur back into Avalon. Arturia clutched the air as if she were holding a sword. A tremendous pressure built up around her hands. "Will this be easier to mask?" Rin smiled at her idea. "Yes..." She sent the crystal into the pressurized air. It dissipated into tiny sparks. She stepped in front of Rin and knelt. "Climb on my back. It's easier for Avalon to maintain a barrier around us if we're closer." "Won't I interfere with your fighting?" Arturia's eyes shone with confidence. "No." She eyed Rin's floating shield. "Will your shield become solid against a physical attack?" "Yes." Rin picked up her staff, climbed on and wrapped her legs around Arturia. "Good. Move the shield where I tell you to. Is Levitiam still active?" "Yes." Arturia's hand grasped the hilt of Excalibur. "When Avalon releases the barrier, I will begin my attack. And on my signal, close the gate." She perched on the top of the left armrest and launched herself at the nearest group of girls. The streams of light faded and she swung her sword in a wide arc. Arms flailing, the girls tumbled across the dimensionless space. Droplets of blood and torn clothing trailed in their wake. Rin felt sickened by the sight. Why did they have to make them so lifelike? She was shaken from her thoughts by Arturia's voice. "Left." As soon as she directed her shield to their left, Arturia stomped on it and used its blocking power to
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launch them toward another set of girls. She slashed across like she was swatting flies off a meal. The girls smashed into each other and tumbled head over heels. To normal sight, the sword would be invisible. But to Rin's magesight, it appeared as a swirling mass of yellow mana. Each attack from the sword created a pressurized shockwave. Rin chanced a glance at the first set of girls that she attacked. Some had regained their balance and were flying toward them with hands gesturing attack spells. The rest of their companions were either floating motionlessly or still tumbling about, arms and feet waving in the air. "Behind." The shield moved behind them and Arturia stomped on it once more. She swung her sword. Rin noticed that Arturia used a weaker wide area attack instead of concentrated single attacks. Since the attack was weaker, it did not overwhelm the mana mask. She also noticed that most of her strikes moved the girls away from the portal. "Left." The shield went to the left. Instead of stomping on it at once, Arturia slashed from behind it. The first slash collided with the spells of the flying girls while the shield moved about to deflect stray spells. The second and third slash disrupted their flying and sent them reeling. Then Arturia turned around and slashed across before stomping on the shield. "Right." Rin was beginning to see a pattern. Arturia was trying to keep the girls off balance to prevent them from casting spells. Since there were no solid objects in this dimensionless space, it was difficult for the girls, or rather, their master to restore their balance. "Behind." They were getting closer to the portal. Rin saw that the man and the woman were slowly backing away. Arturia slashed another set of girls. She held Avalon before them. "Right." With a powerful leap, they hurtled across the portal. Arturia landed on her feet with the grace of a cat and assumed a defensive stance before the man and woman. "Now!" "Sendeschluss!" yelled Rin with her staff aloft. The edges of the portal crumbled into itself. Pieces of loose gravel rose from the cavern floor and sped towards it. Streams of light erupted from Avalon and enveloped them. Meanwhile, the man and the woman clung to the walls. The woman lost her grip and was sucked towards the portal. Her hands raked across the cavern floor desperately. Her ankles passed through. Arturia twisted to the side and tried to push through Avalon's barrier. Her hand made it through and tried to grab the woman. But the woman looked up at her with hatred and unbelievably, let go. She hurtled into the portal which collapsed after she passed through. Arturia bowed her head and clenched her hand. Being trapped in that space was not a fate she would wish on anyone. Sensing Arturia's distress, Rin hugged her reassuringly. "It's not your fault... she went willingly. Don't worry about it. Besides... her pride wouldn't allow it." She got off Arturia's back and dispelled Levitiam. "Let me handle this guy..." Rin aimed her staff at him and prepared to fire as soon as Avalon released its barrier. "Gandr!" Black energy shot out from the orb on her staff and struck the man in the chest. He collapsed into a heap against the wall. Rin quickly walked toward him and put her hand on his head. She changed his memory to remove her and Arturia and replaced them with the woman. She made it appear that he had to fight the woman in the cavern and the woman's doppelganger who arrived after him. She allowed him victory over the women, but at the great sacrifice of his girls. When she was done, she checked the cavern for mana signatures from her and Arturia and manipulated them to look like the woman's mana. Rin dispelled the shield. "I'm done. Let's go."
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The barriers and detectors were still circumvented and they quickly made their way back to the lowest levels of the caverns. Finally, they arrived at the underground pool which was fed by waters from the lake. A sudden thought occurred to Rin. "Do you still have the suit?" Arturia shook her head. "No..." She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Does yours still work?" Rin pulled her goggles down and inhaled through the nosepiece. "Yes." "Then we can share." As Rin stood there puzzled, Arturia waded into the pool. Her armor and clothes dissolved as the cold dark waters rose around her. Rin waded in after a few moments. "Wait... what do you mean by sharing?" Arturia's eyebrows rose. "Surely, you don't expect me to swim without any air?" Understanding slowly crept into Rin's mind and she blushed with embarrassment. "Oh..." "Since it will be dark and murky, you'll have to guide me until we get to clearer water. Shall we go?" Rin swept the cavern with her eyes to detect any pursuers. Finding none, she replied, "Yeah, let's get out of this place." They dove into the cold, dark waters. Rin turned on the light of her goggles to illuminate their path while Arturia swam underneath her. Rin slipped her hands under her arms and nudged her forward. Arturia's legs paddled with powerful strokes to propel them forward and Rin felt herself tugged along. She paddled along to help. After thirty feet or so, Arturia flipped towards her and her hands felt around for her neck. Her hands cupped around her face and Arturia's face rose to meet hers. Rin leaned forward and enveloped Arturia's lips. She expelled any water in her mouth before parting her lips. Then she inhaled fresh air from the nosepiece and transferred it to Arturia. Arturia broke away when she had enough. She flipped over again to resume swimming. They repeated the exchange every thirty feet. Eventually, they exited the tunnel and swam upward. Slowly, they rose from the lake's depths and broke through the surface. Arturia took in great gulps of air. "Are you all right?" "Y--yes..." Arturia's teeth chattered as she replied. Rin paled as she realized that Arturia was suffering from hypothermia. She reached out and held Arturia's hand. "Let's swim to shore... it's not that far. Go to the closest secluded area. Don't wait for me." Arturia nodded and she dove in to swim to shore. Rin followed as best as she could, hoping that Arturia's swimming lessons would help her keep up. She reached the shore about two minutes after her. Arturia was huddled within a grove of bushes, her arms wrapped around herself. Rin ran to her and pushed her goggles up. She reached into her pack and pulled out a thermal insulating cloak. She wrapped it around Arturia before unzipping the front of her suit. She pulled her arms out of it and slipped under the cloak to hug Arturia from behind. She winced as her skin came in contact with Arturia's and she suppressed the urge to move away. Her arms and hands tried to cover as much skin as possible. She felt something warm trickle near her cheek. Her head twisted to see what it was and she was horrified to see blood trickling from Arturia's ear. She moved her head to look at Arturia's other ear. It was bleeding as well. Rin cursed herself. They were over 200 feet underwater. Without the suit, Arturia was exposed to cold and pressure. As soon as they were safe, she would treat her ears. "Rin... don't worry about me..." whispered Arturia through chattering teeth. "We should get away... before they find us..." "I can't... I'm sorry... Let me worry about you. Just for five minutes..." "All right..." Rin periodically checked the area and her watch. When the time was up, she moved away from Arturia. She reached into her bag and took out two sets of clothing which consisted of a lightweight one-piece dress and sandals. She handed one set to Arturia. "Here... wear this."
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Arturia took the dress and slipped it on. Meanwhile Rin slipped out of the suit and tossed it into her pack. She put her dress on and then her sandals. After she finished dressing, she put the cloak around Arturia's shoulders. "We have to hike about a mile or two before we get to a main road where we can catch a bus. Are you ready?" "Yes. Let's go." They hiked through the overgrown brush. By the time they reached a bus stop, the sun was setting. They waited at the bus stop and tried to keep out of sight from the other waiting passengers. Rin shivered a bit from the drop of temperature. She felt the cloak over her shoulders and glanced at Arturia. "It's big enough to share." Arturia's hand slipped on top of hers. Rin smiled and relished the warmth of Arturia's hand. Eventually, the bus came and they boarded it. They tried to sit as far back as possible to avoid the stares of other passengers. When the bus arrived in the city, they got off the first stop and hailed a cab. Rin told the driver to take them to their hotel in German. After arriving at their hotel, they went to their room to change and pack. Rin hoped that they could take the last flight out. They checked out and took a taxi at the airport. To her great relief, there were still some seats in first class. She exchanged their vouchers and paid the upgrades in cash. While waiting for boarding, Rin took Arturia to the women's restroom to treat her ears. To her great surprise, they were already healed. Arturia noticed the look on her face and smiled reassuringly. "Avalon healed it while you were getting tickets." "Thank God... I was so worried." "I apologize for worrying you. Since we were so close to the mansion, I asked it not to heal them." "I see..." They returned to the waiting area and boarded when called. The stewardess offered them some drinks and Arturia asked for wine. After they received their wine, Rin lifted her glass. "To a safe trip back..." Arturia clicked her glass against Rin's and they drank in unison. Then she lifted her glass. "To us..." Rin blushed and smiled sweetly. "To us..." She drank to the toast and felt that the wine tasted better than before. After takeoff, they were served dinner before the captain turned off the cabin lights. Rin raised the armrest between them and pushed it into its recessed area. She snuggled as close to Arturia as possible. Arturia pulled her blanket over them, shielding them from curious eyes. Rin's heart beat excitedly as she inched toward her face. They shared several good night kisses, each one tasting sweeter than the one before. Then they reclined together in their stuffed leather seats to fall asleep in each other's arms. They hopped from flight to flight and flew for hours at a time. Their stopovers were as brief as possible. However, upon arriving in Australia in the evening, they had to book a hotel room since the next flight out was early morning. As they lay in bed, Rin took the opportunity to ask Arturia about what happened in the Throne of Heroes. "It's better if I show you." Arturia took her hand and placed it on her forehead. Rin understood and chanted a mind read spell. When the spell activated, she allowed herself to see Arturia's memories as if they were her own. ----Bright light flooded her eyes. When her eyes finally adjusted, Arturia saw a golden hall filled with large, faceted crystals. She looked at the nearest one. "Someone's inside!" Her palm tingled. She must hurry. Her eyes scanned the hall. If her hunch was right, there should be a crystal with her other self. She tried to look for the rift behind her but she could not discern where it
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was. She would have to trust that it was there somehow. To mark its place, she took her pocketknife and laid it on the floor. It would have to do. Trusting her instincts, she ran from row to row until she found her crystal. Pleased with her efforts, she cocked her fist and hit the crystal with all her might. But the impact did not come. Instead, she found herself standing on a blood-soaked plain. Bodies of British warriors and horses were scattered across the plain as far as she could see. The air was polluted by the stench of rotting bodies and the smoke rising from the burning pyres of corpses blotted out the sun. She trembled when she recognized it. "My dream!" Even so, her dream was nothing compared to this. Here, everything assaulted her senses with alarming clarity: the foul air that choked her lungs, the dreadful landscape before her eyes, the frigid wind that chilled her core, and especially, the shrill keening of bagpipes that tortured her ears like a banshee singing praises for the slaughter of so many lives. It hurt her so much. This was the perfect nightmare for her. She closed her eyes and covered her ears to keep it out. Bile rose to her throat and she fought the urge to throw up. "This... this was meant for me to see... to hear... to feel..." Then she realized. "I saw it through her eyes!" Her palm tingled again and she drew strength from it. Steeling her heart, she hurried across the plain and did her best to ignore the carnage around her. Then she saw her: a bloodstained figure leaning on her sword atop a pile of dead knights. When she approached her at the base of the pile, the figure turned in her direction. Her forlorn gaze shifted to surprise for a moment before returning to its previous state. "This place is not for ye, Mordred. Go back to whence ye came." Now she understood. There was no one to judge her, so she judged herself. This place was specifically crafted to remind her of her every failure, true and imagined. She also realized that her other self did not know why they were divided. For now, she would play along. "I will not." It was odd to see herself scowling. A moment passed before she spoke. "Why art ye here? Have ye come to judge me?" "Nay." She reminded herself that this place was not real before stepping on the bodies of knights to climb up to her. "Instead, I bring judgment from on high." Her eyebrows arched. She did not say anything and seemed to be waiting for an explanation. When Arturia reached the top, she reached into her suit and unclasped Father Benedict's wooden cross. She held it before her. "Here is yer judgment... and absolution." Hope kindled in those desolate eyes and an armored hand left the hilt of Excalibur to reach for the cross. But the hand hesitated. "Nay... I am not worthy..." Her hand fell. Arturia caught the hand and pressed the cross into the gauntlet. "Ye deem yerself so because ye know not the truth. God is kind. He hast forgiven me. Ye art forgiven as well." "How do ye know this?" "Do ye wish to know?" Her other self nodded grimly. She reached out, placed one hand on each side of her head and willed her memories to flow from her mind into hers. She showed her everything that had transpired since Camlann. When she was done, she held her gauntlets between her hands. "So ye see, God hast forgiven ye... she hast forgiven ye." Tears were flowing from her eyes. "Tis enough to know forgiveness." She whispered between sobs. "But should I really be allowed to leave? E'en after all that I wrought, ye wouldst risk making the same mistakes and tempt fate once more?" "Yea. Weigh not the battle so heavily, for e'en after yer passing, yer rule was still revered throughout the land. And worry not about tempting fate for ye will not face it alone. She hast promised to be by yer
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side. She will catch ye if ye fall. So come. End this dream, for the future holds a far better one." "Ye art such an idealistic, romantic fool." She wiped her tears with the back of her gauntlet. "Yea. Verily." Suddenly, her palm flared. The pit of her stomach sank with dread. "Quickly now, I have a promise to keep." She tightened her hand around her gauntlet. "Promises should be kept." She pulled her close and kissed her. Images rushed through Arturia's mind. She felt herself reeling among the multitude of old and new memories. Everything swirled around her and she toppled over in her confusion. Her lungs were emptied of air as she hit the ground. After catching her breath, she looked around. Instead of the plain, she was standing in front of the pedestal that held her crystal. She carefully got up to avoid the crystal shards and to test her limbs. When nothing seemed to be broken, she exhaled with relief. Her eyes widened in alarm. She was wearing her armor. Frantically, she scanned her memories and was relieved that she remembered Rin and their current mission. Spurred by the thought of Rin, she turned and ran the way she came. As she ran, lightning struck from above several times. Thankfully, it did not strike her. She continued to run. When she rounded a corner, she stopped abruptly. "Caster..." She drew Excalibur. Caster stood in front of a crystal which was tinted with a dark streak. For a moment, Arturia thought that she was freed, but the crystal revealed that another Caster was inside it. She could only guess that a part of Caster was released from the crystal. Arturia charged and asked Avalon for protection. Meanwhile, Caster raised her palms and cast spells in rapid succession. She evaded and blocked while Avalon deflected the rest. With an upward slice, she cut off Caster's hands. Then she reversed the blade's momentum and chopped off her head as she ran by. She did not run very far before she encountered her next opponent. Assassin shifted into his trademark stance. Arturia continued to run and parried his attacks. Side-stepping at the last instant, she dodged and countered. He crumpled behind her. As she continued to run, she heard heavy steps to her left. A quick glance revealed her opponent and she ran even faster. She had no time to deal with Berserker now and hoped that she could outrun him. As she ran, she heard the clash of steel but she did not look back. "Only a little more..." This time, she had to stop in her tracks. Standing before her with an arrogant sneer on his face and her pocketknife in his hands, was Gilgamesh. "You've come back to me." "You wish." She charged. They clashed mightily and exchanged powerful blows. She did not have time for this. She leapt back at the first opportunity and prepared to unleash Excalibur. Gilgamesh sensed her intention and smirked while he raised his dark blade. "Excalibur!!!" "Enûma Elish!!!" As soon as Excalibur unleashed its attack, she charged, hoping to catch Gilgamesh off-guard. The attacks cancelled each other out and she struck. He blocked at the last moment and she growled in frustration. His eyes leered at her as their swords locked in battle. "Gáe Bolg!!!" Blood spurted from his mouth and his grip relaxed. Quickly, she broke the lock and beheaded him. His body shuddered and slipped off a crimson spear. A bloodied Lancer stood behind him. "Go raibh maith agat." said Arturia gratefully while greeting him with the traditional Erisch warrior salute. Despite his assistance, she maintained a defensive distance just in case. "Such a horrible accent..." His gaelic brogue was derisive and taunting. He thrust his spear into the body repeatedly. "I didn't do it for you. Something's urging me to fight you. He just got in the way." The body began to dissolve into mist. As his face scowled in disappointment, he yanked his spear out. His spear sprang toward her, but he hastily lowered it. His muscles bunched up as he gripped it tightly.
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Defiance burned in his eyes and he spoke through gritted teeth. "Nobody... tells me what to do. Besides, if I hit you once, it's over. I prefer challengers who are much more difficult to kill." Then he sprinted off in the direction of the battle raging several rows behind her. Despite his bravado, she understood his intentions and ignored his insult. She concentrated on looking for the rift. She raised her hand and swept it across the empty air in hope that the glyphs would react. Apprehension rose within her for every second that she failed to sense anything. Finally, in an act of desperation, she unleashed Excalibur. This time, her prayers were answered when a glowing rift appeared. With eager strokes, she widened it. As she began to step out, she sensed several projectiles and blocked them. She continued to block and to counter as she stepped through the rift. She sensed a movement to her right and turned to see Rin floating nearby. ----Rin ended the spell and wiped the tears from her cheeks. Arturia drew her close. "Hush... we're together now." Rin cried some more, finally releasing the anxiety in her heart. "I was so scared... I thought I lost you." Arturia tried to be strong and calm, but as Rin's hot tears seeped into her clothes, she could sense her fear and pain. She understood what it meant for it mirrored her own fears as well. Tears welled in her eyes and she held her tightly. They wept together, taking comfort and relief in each other's presence. Eventually, Rin calmed down and fell asleep. Arturia relaxed and simply enjoyed this moment of peace. Morning came and they headed out to catch the next flight. The days flew by as they serenely enjoyed each other's company. Finally, they boarded the plane that would take them home. At this point, only the excitement of their pending return repelled the weariness in their muscles. Their plane landed in due time and they followed Marlen's directions to the Aerie. After arriving at the train station, they hailed a cab and told the driver to take them to the designated rental car office in the valley. When they arrived at the office, the driver handed Arturia their luggage while Rin wearily stepped out of the cab. After paying the driver, they dragged their luggage toward the office. For the last part of the trip, they had to drive to the tunnel that would give them access to the Aerie. Around the world in eight days had taken its toll. Rin's internal clock was so confused. But she was determined to end their journey as soon as possible so she gathered her determination and trudged toward the office. As they crossed the parking lot, they passed by a classic BMW convertible with yellow and silver trim. "Hey girls... do you need a ride?" Their heads turned in unison at the speaker. A woman in her late fifties with gray hair and horned rimmed sunglasses sat in the driver's seat of the Beemer. Her multi-ringed fingers tapped the leather wrapped steering wheel. Several gaudy necklaces adorned her neck. She leered at them, tilting her head down to peer at them over her sunglasses. "I'll make it worth your while..." Her tone was suggestive in a way that was meant to entice. Rin was appalled by her behavior at first, but when she noticed the color of her eyes, she changed her mind. Just to make sure, she opened her magesight which confirmed the presence of mana on various objects on the car and on the woman. "Do you like what you see? If you come with me, I can show you more... much more..." "She's... such a flirt..." Rin concluded in her mind. And, she had another conclusion to confirm. "We would be delighted to accept your generous offer, Lady Emrys." "Oh please, dearie... call me Eileen. YOU look like you're about to collapse. Have a seat, dearie, and let your sweetheart put the bags away." She reached over and opened the front passenger door. Then she folded the passenger seat so that they could get into the back. The trunk popped open. Rin obeyed dumbly and sat in the backseat. She thought that the backseat was cramped, but it felt
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unusually spacious. Arturia put the bags in the trunk and hopped into the car next to her. When the passenger door closed, the car roared out of the parking lot, leaving the scent of burnt rubber in its wake. They sped through the back streets of the town. Rin was fairly certain that they were over the speed limit. Through the rear view mirror, she could see Eileen's wide grin, like that of a child playing with its toy. Soon, they left the outskirts of town and sped towards the mountain. She noticed Eileen shift gears. Suddenly, she realized that she was actually driving. A drop of sweat rolled down her temple. "Um... Mrs. Eileen..." "Eileen." "Eileen... you don't have to rush. I'm not that tired." Eileen laughed. "I don't mind. Besides... doesn't it feel good to feel the wind in your hair? Doesn't it feel like flying?" Rin's hair whipped around her in all directions. "At the moment... not really." "Tut... tut... we can't have that..." With a snap of her fingers, Rin's hair moved away from her face and waved like a flag behind her. "How about you, your Highness?" "No, thank you." "As you wish..." Eileen shifted into a higher gear and revved the engine. The car sprang forward. Rin gripped the edge of her seat. As if sensing her fear, Arturia's arm went around her, pulling her close. When she met Arturia's eyes, her apprehension slowly abated. However, her apprehension returned once more when Eileen began to navigate the winding road around the mountain without slowing down. Her eyes followed the long drop to the valley below. They rounded another bend and appeared to be driving straight into the mountainside. Rin's magesight opened and revealed an illusion. She squeezed Arturia's tense hand. "It's the tunnel." They passed safely through the illusion and into a dimly lit tunnel. The car screeched to a halt at the end of the tunnel and drove onto a platform which ascended into the garage. Eileen parked the car. "Here we are." announced Eileen. She popped the trunk. When they retrieved their luggage, Rin glanced at the license plate. It read, 'MYW1NG5'. She chuckled and followed Eileen to the rose garden. There, they found Marlen sitting on a large woman's lap. Instead of her goth outfit, she wore a colorful dress which made her look like a doll. An elderly woman sat across from them and was packaging sachets of dried rose petals. She rose when Eileen entered. "Welcome back, dahling... How was your drive?" "Great as always." She kissed her on both cheeks and then passionately on her lips. Marlen cleared her throat. "Arturia, Rin, let me formally introduce my mothers, Eileen and Michelle. And this is my wife, Nell." Rin was surprised enough to meet her mothers, but was even more surprised to know that she had a wife. One glance at Arturia showed her that she too, was equally surprised. She regained her composure and replied. "I am pleased to meet all of you." "And I as well." "Rin, you need to rest. My mothers will bring you to your room." Rin paled. With a sinking feeling, she knew that she was going to be escorted to the east wing. Michelle grabbed the handle of her luggage. "Come along, ma cherie... a lovely girl such as yourself needs her beauty sleep." Her lilting accent seemed almost musical. "You say that, but you rarely sleep at all." said Eileen playfully as she hooked her arm with Rin. "That's because a certain someone keeps me awake." Michelle winked back. As the mothers led her out of the rose garden, Rin could already tell that these two were dangerous in ways she dared not imagine. She hoped that Marlen would not keep her in the east wing for too long.
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"Arturia, please come over here. I want to check that you are complete." Arturia obeyed. Marlen put her hand over her chest. "Please don't resist." Arturia relaxed and Marlen pulled Avalon out. Arturia staggered back. Marlen clucked her tongue. A chair moved behind her. "Just as I thought. You've been using Avalon to stay awake. Have a seat, guv. I won't take long." Arturia sat down gratefully. "I wanted to make sure that we were safe. I didn't want to be caught offguard." The chair moved again to bring her closer to Marlen. Marlen's hands hovered over her body starting from her head and down to her feet. The chair rose to allow Marlen easy access. "Physical check's okay. Now for the hard part - your mental state." Marlen started asking questions about her reign as King Arthur. Then she followed up with questions about her experiences as a servant. Arturia answered them as seriously as she could. Marlen nodded her head with satisfaction. "Good... good... So, what is Bedivere to you?" Arturia's stoic face fell. She quickly answered, "A friend, a comrade in arms, a confidant..." "Is that all?" Marlen's eyes seemed to bore into her. "Yes..." Although she had been intimate with Bedivere, she could not love her the way that Bedivere wanted to be loved. "And Shiro? What about him? How do you feel about him?" Arturia's eyes widened in alarm. Did Marlen know what happened between her and Shiro? "Shiro... is a friend." she managed to say. "That's all?" "I've said that he is." Arturia repeated with a note of irritation in her voice. "And Rin? How do you feel about Rin?" "I love her. I will marry her when she is ready." answered Arturia resolutely. "Oh..." Marlen smiled. "Congratulations! I look forward to the wedding. I apologize for my last two questions. As her master, I am concerned for her well-being. I want to know what you're going to do about Shiro." "What do you know about me and Shiro?" asked Arturia defensively. "Merlyn made a copy of Shiro's memories. As Rin's new master, I was compelled to listen to Merlyn's instructions. Unfortunately, she included his memories." Marlen paused to observe her. "You seemed a bit disturbed when I asked about Shiro. Do you want to talk about it? Sometimes talking helps put your thoughts in order." When Arturia did not answer at once, Marlen probed her with more questions. "You're wondering what it was that you felt with him, aren't you? You're not even sure why you told him that you loved him, don't you?" Arturia glared at Marlen. "Please stay out of my mind!" Then she simmered down and she sighed. "Yes... I have thought of that, ever since Rin and I escaped." Her eyes traced the outline of pebbles on the ground. "I was touched that Shiro cared about me, even though the ways in which he did so were outrageous and ridiculous. But when he wanted to kiss me, I objected. And when he did kiss me, I felt like pushing him away... but I didn't." "Why didn't you?" "I'm not sure... perhaps, I felt something for him. But... during that time, I felt surges of emotion, even when I was alone. Sometimes my heart ached so much that it almost made me want to cry. And there were times when I suddenly felt so lonely without apparent cause." She paused as she remembered Shiro's kiss. "But I do know for certain... that Shiro's kiss felt different from Rin's..." Her hand covered her mouth and she blushed as she recalled her first kiss with Rin. But can a kiss determine what is true and what is not? She did not want to betray Rin, but how did she feel about those moments with Shiro? Desperately, she looked at Marlen and Nell for an answer. As a
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couple, they contrasted in many ways: tall and short, plump and thin, large and small. How can two people who seemed so different fall in love? "How... how did you know that your love was meant to be?" Marlen interlaced her fingers with Nell. "We just knew. From the moment we met, our hearts were drawn to each other. Unlike a lot of things in this world, there is no concrete method to verify that your love is true. And, there's no need to explain why you would love someone over another. When you do, you just do. Of course, this is just our opinion. Other people may tell you otherwise." Her eyes softened. "Perhaps, your heart had already decided for you. Perhaps, if you listen closely, it will guide you." Arturia closed her eyes. Where did her heart lead her? Then she realized where she was. Against all odds, her heart led her to this place and this time. Arturia sighed with relief. Marlen's words set her mind at ease. "Now, I think I understand. I've been thinking about it too much, and got caught up in my thoughts that I couldn't step back to see it from another point of view. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and I apologize for my earlier outburst." "Don't worry about it. I purposely asked Nell to be here, so I can assess your state of mind without casting a spell. I should be the one apologizing." She smiled slyly. "I'd be careful, if I were you, about what you're thinking of while in Nell's presence. She can read minds." Arturia stared unbelievingly at Nell. "Really?" "Yes." Marlen glanced at her watch. "I've kept you long enough. We'll talk more later. You should get some rest. Allow me to keep Avalon until you've rested. It's too happy to have you back and way too eager to help you in anyway it thinks it could." Arturia laughed. "Yes... its mana was a bit overwhelming sometimes." She rose slowly, steadying herself with the armrest. Her eyes landed on Avalon. It was good to have it back. She remembered how angry she was when she found out that Avalon was stolen. Merlyn tried to console her by saying, "Fret not. One way or another, it will find its way back to you. It wants to be found." Marlen's voice jolted her out of her reverie. "Too tired? I can float you to your room." Arturia grabbed the handle of her luggage. "No, thank you. I'll walk there." "Okay. Sleep tight, and don't let the bed bugs bite." When Arturia's face melted with disgust, Marlen quickly added, "I'm just kidding! The Aerie is bug free!" Arturia chuckled and walked towards the door with her luggage rolling behind her. As she exited the rose garden, she heard Marlen speak. "What? You want to do it again? Oh... you have something new for me to try? It's in our room? Okay, let me talk to Rin first, and then we can try it." As she walked to her room, Arturia wondered what Marlen was talking about. But her thoughts wandered away when she saw her bed. She tossed herself onto it and quickly fell asleep. ----"Show me your amulet." Rin took out her amulet from under her nightgown. Marlen tugged it off and deposited it in a small wooden box. Her hands wove around the box and it disappeared. With her magesight, Rin saw five or six seals created in rapid succession before the box disappeared. Although she was amazed by Marlen's skill, she was even more curious why she sealed the amulet away. "Master, am I released from my apprenticeship?" "Hell, no. The Emrys have done too much for you, and honor demands that you return it with service. For now, I'm just giving you, and me as well, a breather." "I'm honored that you think I could be of service to your House. But... why is it inconvenient for you if I wore the amulet?" Marlen's face darkened. "It's Merlyn. As your new master, I am bound by honor to follow her instructions. But her bloody instructions told me to keep you away from Arturia." "What? But why?"
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"My thoughts exactly. Why should she care about what you do with Arturia? Just to get a second opinion, I showed them to Mum, and even she thought she'd gone barmy. Then I checked Airianne's diary and found out that she was really gutted when Arturia left. Figure that." Marlen threw up her hands. "What am I supposed to do when she bullocks up her instructions like that? That amulet forms a link between master and apprentice. Through it, I can check up on you anytime I want. And even worse, use it to punish you with the strength of a geas. So, here's the deal. Don't let me catch you snoggin' or whatever, even if Arturia started it. I don't need to know, I don't want know and don't force me to punish you. After you wake up, I'll give you some potions to make and then, it's free reading anywhere you want. As always, I suggest that you study away from any distractions. Of course, I'll leave it to you to decide where." A corner of Marlen's mouth tugged into a lopsided grin. Rin noted the hint. "Yes, Master. And thank you." "Don't mention it. Really." Marlen walked to the door. "Sleep well." "Um, Master..." "Yes?" "Nice dress." Marlen blushed. "Er... thanks..." Rin held back her snicker while Marlen quickly shut the door. And then, she laughed into her hand. It was so silly to see Marlen wearing something other than her goth outfit. After she giggled her fill, her hand went to her chest where the amulet used to be. She did feel lighter, as if a burden was lifted. She sighed anyway. The bed was too big and too empty. Even though it was a poor substitute for Arturia, she embraced a nearby pillow and pretended to hold her in her arms. Underneath her dark eyelids, she imagined her smiling face and earnest emerald green eyes. She held that image and hoped to see her in her dreams as she drifted off to sleep. ----Arturia opened her eyes to see the familiar canopy of her bed. She yawned and stretched. She rose quickly and slumped back on the bed again, feeling lightheaded. Her eyes filled with stars. As she rubbed her eyes, the curtains of her bed parted. "Good morning, sleeping beauty!" Arturia broke into a wide grin. "Rin!" She tried to get up again, and the room swam around her. She tried to fight it and held her head between her hands. But Rin's hands pushed her back onto the bed. "Take it easy... you were asleep for three days." "Three?!" "Yes..." Rin took the other pillow and slipped it under Arturia's pillow. "If you do it gradually, you won't feel as lightheaded. Anyway, I'll be right back." Rin quickly exited and left Arturia with just the ticking of the bedside clock for company. Arturia's eyes wandered around the room. The furniture was essentially the same, except for some modern conveniences like a hair dryer and a plasma TV on the wall. The desk, however, was piled with yellowed and wrinkled scrolls and dusty books. Was Rin watching over her while she slept? The idea warmed her heart. Her eyes spotted a vase of flowers on the bedside table and recognized them as Lily of the valley. She smiled broadly. "The return to happiness... tis truly fitting..." Just then, her body reminded her that three days was a long time to be asleep. Reluctantly, she got up slowly and used the wall to support herself as she made her way to the privy. After she refreshed herself, she went back to lie down on the bed. A few minutes later, Rin walked in with a small cart of food. The scent tickled her nose and her mouth watered. But first, she needed something else. As Rin wheeled the cart next to the bed, she sat up and held out her hands. Rin looked at her quizzically. "Doesn't sleeping beauty get a kiss when she wakes up?" complained Arturia.
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Rin went to her immediately. "Oh! I'm so sorry! I've been a bad prince!" She enfolded Arturia in her arms and kissed her. Arturia kissed back, devouring the taste of Rin's lips. She leaned back to bring Rin on top of her. Her body welcomed Rin's weight, an affirmation of how much it missed her presence. Her hand went behind her head and she deepened the kisses as much as she dared. After a few minutes, Rin whispered between kisses, "Aren't you hungry?" "Very... can't you tell?" Rin's heart leapt at her answer and she renewed her kisses with more passion. They would have continued all day but a growling sound rumbled under her. Rin giggled while Arturia looked away in embarrassment. She kissed her cheek. "Since I've fed your heart, let me feed your stomach." She began to pull away but Arturia held her fast. "I can live on you, Rin..." Arturia's lips found their way to the nape of her neck and began to nibble lightly on her skin. Rin gasped at the sensation. A thrill went up her spine and she broke out in goosebumps. She moaned as her tongue caressed her skin across her collarbone. Arturia's hands wandered about, trying to find entry into her robe. Once again, Arturia's stomach grumbled. Rin took the opportunity to whisper in her ear. "I cooked something for you." Arturia stopped. "You did?" Her eyes targeted the cart. "It's crepe, a French dish for breakfast. Michelle taught me." Her face warmed. "Since... since I'll be your wife... I should learn how to cook better food." Arturia's eyes shone brightly. "In that case, it is my duty to consume your cooking." "Here... let me prop you up." She helped Arturia sit up against the headboard. Then she got the bed tray from the cart and put it over Arturia's lap. She moved a plate of crepe, a fork and a teacup to the tray. She sat next to Arturia and broke off a piece of crepe with the fork. "Say 'aaahhh'." Arturia complied and she gently guided the crepe into her mouth. She watched with bated breath as she chewed. "Delicious! The texture of the dough is soft and springy and the strawberries have absorbed the flavor of the sauce. I taste a hint of orange and wine." Rin grinned in triumph. Many strawberries and ingredients were sacrificed to the compost heap to create this palatable dish. "I'm glad you like it." She daubed another piece with some whipped cream. "Try it with cream." Arturia chomped on the offered piece. "Mmmmm... the cream adds a nice blend to the sauce. Can you add some more?" "Of course." Rin applied a generous amount and Arturia wolfed it down. About half the crepe was finished when Arturia took the fork away from her. "Allow me..." She offered a piece of crepe with whipped cream in front of her mouth. Rin opened her mouth and engulfed the offering. She was still chewing when Arturia put her hand on her shoulder and pulled her closer. She leaned toward her and licked a spot of whipped cream from the side of her mouth. "There are no napkins." explained Arturia with a sly grin on her face. They had kissed before, and yet this unexpected action made her heart race. Rin's face warmed and she could not think of a witty comeback. Arturia offered another piece, and she nibbled it off the fork. Eventually, the crepe, muffins and tea were consumed. Arturia moved the tray to the bedside table. Her hands reached for Rin. "Now, I'm ready for dessert." Arturia pushed her onto the bed and captured her lips. Rin's lips tasted of strawberry and cream, and she devoured every bit of it. Just then, something fluttered near her ear and pecked her on the head. "Cu-ckoo... Cu-ckoo..."
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Rin caught the bird and pressed its head. Marlen's voice came through its beak. "Rin, I need some help with a ritual. Come over to the north hall. And, if Arturia's awake, tell her to talk to my mothers." With a sigh of regret, Rin put the bird down. "I'm sorry... I have to go." Arturia reluctantly got off her. "That's quite all right." With a gleam in her eye, she added, "I can always save dessert for later." Rin blushed and wondered what she had in mind. She stood up and straightened her wrinkled robe. "By the way, I have to go to Japan as soon as possible. Would you like to come?" "Do I! Of course! When?" "As soon as you're able to." She walked to the door. "I'll see you at dinner." "All right." Arturia waved her farewell. Then she tried to stand up and was happy that the lightheadedness was gone. She went to the dresser to change before meeting Marlen's mothers. ----As Rin looked at the starry sky from the airplane window, she wondered if an unlucky star was shining over her head. Meanwhile, Arturia laughed in the background. "Did she really?" "Why, yes, dearie! Wasn't she just the cutest thing?" "Vraiment! I think I have a picture somewhere... Oui, here it is!" "That's Marlen? Rin, come see!" Rin forced a smile. "What is it?" She saw a picture of Marlen buck naked with only flowers to clothe her. Her forced smile became genuine. Marlen really was cute. She was probably two or three years old in the picture. Then a thought crossed her mind and she asked a question that nagged her ever since she returned. "What happened?" Eileen's face fell as if she understood the real question behind those two words. "Oh, dearie! I truly don't know! We tried to raise her to be a happy, fun-loving child, and yet, she turned out so serious! So morose and quiet... She kept to herself all through her teenage years." "Oui... That's when she started wearing black. We thought it was typical for young people to express themselves, but we worried anyway. At least, she didn't hang out with the Witches of Westmick, or any coven by that matter." "Thank the great light that she met Nell! That kind soul put color in her dark and moody personality." A drop of sweat trickled down Rin's forehead. She chanced a glance at the other passengers in first class and was relieved to see them sedately unconcerned over their boisterous conversation. Eileen's spell was working well. Nevertheless, Rin sighed and hoped that the plane would get to Japan as soon as possible. ----Perhaps, they passed by a lucky star and the rest of the trip went by without incident. As they drove up to the house, Rin felt nostalgic at the sight. After parking, the chauffeur opened the passenger door to let them out. Rin went out first and swept her hand before her. "Welcome to my home! It's not as grand as the Aerie, so I hope you'll find it comfortable." "I'm surprised! I would've thought that your house would be traditional Japanese." remarked Eileen. "Please give Takeo-san your luggage and follow me. I'll show you to your rooms." Rin selected a nice airy bedroom with lots of windows for Eileen and Michelle. They went to the bed immediately. "Mmm... soft and bouncy." "Oui... and satin sheets!" exclaimed Michelle who peeked under the covers. She glanced at Eileen and leered seductively.
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A drop of sweat trickled down Rin's forehead. "I'm glad you like it." She turned to Arturia. "I'll show you to your room." Arturia's brows knitted. "Why?" It took a moment before the reason behind Arturia's question hit her. She paled and swallowed nervously. "Well... I want you to be comfortable..." "Is your bed too small?" Rin glanced at the servants who were bringing in the luggage and refreshments. She grabbed Arturia's hand. "Just follow me." She led Arturia to a room next to hers and closed the door. She could not meet Arturia's eyes. "This... will be your room. Mine is just next door." Arturia was silent. When she spoke, she heard the pain in her voice. "Are you... ashamed of me?" A dagger through the heart would have been more merciful. She embraced Arturia tightly. "No... but... I... I want to break the news to everyone slowly..." Arturia did not hug back and Rin could sense her tense muscles. Arturia could not fathom why she had a separate room. As far as she could tell, Rin wanted to keep her a secret. In the back of her mind, a sliver of doubt began to form. "I'm sorry... please... please understand." begged Rin with a quavering voice. Her muscles relaxed and she hugged her back. For now, she would be patient. "I still don't understand, but I'll follow your lead." she said softly. Rin hugged her tighter. "Thanks." They held each other for a while before Rin spoke. "I want to take a bath. How about you?" "A fine idea! Lead the way." Rin fetched some bathrobes and towels. Along the way, Eileen and Michelle joined them. As they entered the bath, Rin presented it proudly. "It's not as big as the Aerie's, but the water's great." "Ah! How nice! It's just like a... hmm... what was the word, dahling?" "Onsen, I believe." "Oui! I haven't been in one for a long time." Michelle put their clothes down on a bench and began to change. Eileen helpfully assisted her. Rin and Arturia glanced at each other with knowing smiles. Undressing was something they did very well. After Rin put her bundle down, they began to do so. They scrubbed and rinsed themselves before soaking in the hot mineral water. Then a thought occurred to Rin. Michelle's statement spurred her curiosity. "Michelle, did you visit Japan before?" "Oui... just for a short time to see your birth." Just then, Eileen elbowed Michelle in the ribs. Michelle let out a surprised yelp. "But dahling... there's no need to hide it anymore..." "My... birth?" Eileen sighed. "I suppose..." She drew a deep breath. "We just wanted to make sure everything's on track. Over the centuries, the Emrys worked toward one goal: the retrieval of King Arthur. So we have to make sure that everything is happening as expected. That's why Michelle went to Japan to see your birth." Rin and Arturia stared at them in astonishment. Of course, it made sense now. Merlyn knew the future through her memories and Shiro's. Her eyes grew wide when she realized the implications. "Then... during my research... all those times when I reached a dead end..." Eileen nodded. "Nell is one of the senior archivists of the Academy libraries. She made sure that you found what you'd need." Then she winked. "Discreetly, of course." "Wow... I have to thank her..." Eileen laughed. "Oh, about that... I have a few ideas about souvenirs that she would appreciate." They talked and soaked for about ten minutes before Michelle gestured towards Arturia. "Ma cherie, whatever is that on your hand?"
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Arturia held out her palms. "It is my bond with Rin." she said with a proud smile. Eileen waded over and examined one of her hands. She reached over and touched Rin's wrist. "May I?" Rin nodded and let her examine her palm. Eileen laughed softly. "I see... so that's what happened." She winked at them. "I bet you have a lot of fun in bed." They both looked away, embarrassed. "No... don't tell me you haven't yet!" exclaimed Eileen with surprise when she saw their reaction. Michelle blinked several times and looked down. "They haven't!" Eileen splashed water at her and she shied away. "Stop using that!" She sighed. "You know how it is, when you're young and in love. These things take time." A slow languid grin which bordered on seductive formed on Michelle's face. "Pardon, but I don't recall YOU taking your time." "That's because YOU didn't give me any peace." Rin took this chance to make an exit. She leapt out of the onsen. "I just remembered that I need to make a call..." She strode over to her bundle to fetch her bathrobe. "I'll go with you." Arturia got out as well. Eileen's eyebrows arched. "But Rin's just going to make a call..." "It's a mutual friend. We talk by speakerphone." Rin said quickly while belting her robe. She walked to the door and waited for Arturia. She waved before exiting. "I'll see you later! Please enjoy the bath!" "Cheerio!" waved Eileen and Michelle. As they quickly walked down the hall, Arturia asked, "Who do you have to call?" Rin whispered hurriedly. "No one... I just wanted to get out of there." They reached Rin's room and Rin opened the door. A tray with some pastries and green tea was on the kotatsu. She beckoned Arturia in and closed the door behind her. She picked out a strawberry scone and offered it to Arturia. "Have some." Arturia's mouth watered as she accepted the scone. She sat down at the kotatsu. Her heart warmed with nostalgia as she remembered the first time she sat in one at Shiro's house. Meanwhile, Rin played some Jpop on the stereo system. Rin sat next to her and picked up a fork. She sliced off a piece of the scone and offered it to her. Arturia smiled and she ate the piece off the fork. As they fed each other, the notes of a familiar song floated in the air. "Isn't this...?" "Yes, it is." confirmed Rin. She did not understand it before. But now she did and she realized why the song tugged at her heart when she first heard it. [Author's note: recommended background music: Let me be with you by Shela, from the Album Cherry Blossom] That day, we believed in the same future. Without knowledge, before we realized Our failing hearts were already bound together. I want to walk through the changing seasons with you. Let me be with you. Whenever we understand each other, I can become honest when I'm with you. You make me love you. Let me be with you. On the long sleepless nights,
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You kissed me many times, didn't you? It was then that I finally knew True happiness. The rain turns into a rainbow; So that it will raise flowers. Let me be with you. Hold onto the precious time, Embracing these valuable moments. Let me be with you. Savoring the morning's excitement And the warmth of the dream, Let me be with you. You make me love you. Let me be with you. Let me be with you. Whenever we find out more about each other, I find myself helpless in front of you. Let me be with you. Savoring the morning's excitement And the warmth of the dream, Let me be with you. You make me love you. Let me be with you. Suddenly, Arturia remembered what she forgot to do and stood up. "I'll be right back." Rin watched her leave and wondered why she left as she waited. Finally, Arturia came back. She knelt to her left and held out her left hand. Rin recognized the gesture and put her left hand on Arturia's. Arturia kissed the top of her hand gently, causing her skin to break out in goosebumps at the contact. Arturia locked eyes with her. Her own grew wide when she noticed a flash of silver between the fingertips of Arturia's right hand. Her heart pumped faster as the feel of cool metal slid over her ring finger. When Arturia took her hand away, she found a silver ring adorned with a moderately sized diamond. A Celtic pattern was etched on the mount that supported the diamond. "It's beautiful..." breathed Rin. "I'm glad you like it." smiled Arturia widely. Rin raised her right hand. "Kinensis..." Her luggage unpacked itself and a small black box floated from the luggage. It landed on her upturned palm. "Show off..." chided Arturia with a teasing tone. Rin smiled sweetly and extracted a ring from the box. She slipped it on Arturia's ring finger. This time, Arturia's eyes grew wide. "Why, it's the same!" Rin laughed loudly and then smiled winsomely. "Amazed by my magecraft? Yes?" Arturia sat there openmouthed at first, but when her eyes wandered to the open luggage, she deduced that Rin did not conjure the ring at will. "Did they tell you?" "More or less..." Rin snickered. "I had to prod them a little. You know how excitable those two are." Arturia sighed. She should not have asked Marlen's mothers to help her pick out a ring. Then a thought occurred to her. "But you acted like you've never seen it before." Rin blushed. "When they brought it to me, I didn't open the box. I... I was waiting for you."
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Arturia's heart leapt at her words. She embraced her and kissed her lips which were lightly flavored by the meal that they just shared. She glanced at the kotatsu, noting that they were almost finished with their meal. She grinned widely. It was time for dessert. Rin yelped as she scooped her up. With quick long strides, she carried her to the bed and laid her there. Her hand caressed her face. "I love you, Rin. And I want all of you." Her palm cupped her left eye. "So, I must have you whole." Mana surged from her palm. Rin could feel it probing the seal in her eye. Then one by one, the links of the seal began to break and she could feel her eye tingle with each one. When Arturia lifted her hand, light flooded into her eye, causing it to tear up as receptors tickled into life. "Can you see me?" she asked softly. Rin blinked to bring her into focus and a tear slid down the side of her face. The outlines of her face were blurry, but she could definitely see her. "Yes..." "Thank God, it worked!" "You didn't know that it would?" Arturia shook her head. "No. Marlen wasn't sure, but she told me to try anyway." Rin ran her fingers through Arturia's damp hair, relishing its coolness as the strands slipped between her fingers. "I'm glad that it did... thank you..." She paused for a moment. "Did Marlen tell you?" "When we were traveling, I noticed that you had a tendency to turn your head to the left. I asked her to confirm my suspicions and she admitted that your left eye was sealed." Her voice cracked. "Th--- that's because... I..." Arturia silenced her with the tip of her finger and kissed the top of her left eye. When she drew back, her own eyes gleamed with hunger. "Like I said before, if I'm getting too close, just push me away." Rin's cheeks flushed as she remembered the morning when she spoke those words. "I did once before..." she paused, surprised at her trembling voice. She put some backbone behind it and spoke more clearly. "...at another house. But... this time, I am master of this house." She glanced at the door and the locks obediently clicked into place. Then she raised her hand and traced a wide circle with her fingertip. "Silentium." Arturia grinned ferally, and the gleam in her eyes intensified so much that Rin shivered at the sight. Arturia reached out and interlocked her fingers with both of her hands. She expected mana to flow between them, but the glyphs merely tickled as they aligned with each other. She did not have a chance to think about it, since Arturia was already devouring her lips. But when Arturia deepened the kiss, she tensed in panic. Internally, she prayed that she would last. Soon, she felt that dreaded pressure in her sinuses, rising with each heartbeat. "No!" she wailed internally. "Too soon..." Then Arturia's hands tightened into hers and mana flowed between them. Arturia took her left hand away and maintained the mana flow with her right. The mana surged into her and the pressure in her sinuses faded, only to be replaced by an intense floating sensation as Arturia kissed her passionately. Her mouth tingled with each caress of Arturia's tongue and she began to return her kisses more actively. She felt Arturia's weight shift. Fingers fiddled with the sash of her bathrobe and pulled her robe open when it became untied. She shifted her body to allow the robe to be removed. Then her hand wandered to Arturia's waist and undid her sash. Arturia's robe slithered off easily, leaving only the sleeve of her right hand which still held her left. Arturia released her hand for a moment and the robes were unceremoniously kicked off the bed. With the robes off, they slipped under the covers and pressed their naked bodies together. Rin's skin broke out into goosebumps on contact, and the pressure built up again, only to be quelled by another surge of mana. Arturia whispered, "Looks like... I found a cure for your 'malady'..." Meanwhile, Arturia's left hand wandered slowly over her body, tracing its contours like an artist. Her skin warmed against her touch and left prickling sensations in its wake. After her hand reached her thigh, it traveled upward and settled on her breast.
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Rin gasped into Arturia's mouth as her fingertips teased her nipple. On her second gasp, Arturia's mouth left hers and slid to her ear. "I remember what you did to me back then..." whispered Arturia. Then she nibbled her ear in the same way. Rin squirmed at the sensation. Arturia nibbled down her ear and formed a trail of kisses as she moved toward the nape of her neck. She gasped and moaned as Arturia sucked the nape of her neck and stimulated her nipple. Then her hand slowly traveled lower, raking its fingertips lightly over her skin and then burying its fingers in the frizzled hair over her loins. Her fingers threaded over that hair, and the sensation seemed so soothing that it calmed Rin's irregular breathing for a brief moment. However, it was difficult to remain calm when Arturia was constantly kissing her, tasting her and sucking at places that were oh--- so sensitive. She should have passed out by now, but Arturia's mana kept her awake, and she was so glad that it did. Arturia's legs parted hers and her fingers slipped down to caress the soft flesh of her loins. A soft cry left her lips as those nimble fingers slid over her moist flesh. She cried out once more when her mouth captured her nipple and tortured it with pleasure. Mana was flowing freely now. Her entire body squirmed and arched against Arturia. The satin sheets of the bed helped cool the rising temperature of her body. Her hands wove around Arturia's neck, keeping her in place over that source of bliss. Rin moaned softly as Arturia's fingers probed between the folds of her loins. Her heart beat in nervous anticipation at what she thought Arturia would do. She had read about sex in the books at the Academy's library, but so far, none of them had described any of the sensations that she had experienced. Arturia stopped and came up to Rin's face to lock eyes with her. She held her gaze as she probed deeper. Rin quivered as her finger slid across her flesh. She slid her finger deeper until she encountered resistance. "This may hurt a bit." warned Arturia. She kept her eyes on Rin to witness the moment in which she became hers. Her finger slowly pushed against the flesh that barred her way and felt it give in. Rin inhaled sharply at that moment and grimaced as muscles tensed up around her finger. She bent down to soothe her with gentle kisses. "It's all right... relax... relax..." Beneath her, Rin's bosom rose and fell against her with every deep breath she took. While waiting for her to relax, she resumed kissing and teasing Rin. When the muscles around her finger relaxed, she slowly slid her finger deeper until all of it went in. The feeling of Arturia within her felt so... so intimate. Her muscles contracted around her finger to feel her more keenly and Rin quivered at the tingling sensation. Just then, Arturia began to slide her finger against those muscles, and she gasped loudly as the tingling intensified. As her insides were probed, caressed and teased, she moaned and cried softly with each one. She felt hot all over and more so between her legs. Then she felt Arturia's thumb against the upper portion of her loins, rubbing against something stiff. She had a fleeting notion about what it was, but her mind shut down from the trauma of all the intense stimulation within her and wherever Arturia decided to kiss, lick or suckle. Rin's only indication of how much time had passed was the hoarseness of her voice. And yet, she could not help but react to Arturia's touch. She found all her sensitive spots and mercilessly aroused them. Her flesh slowly absorbed each sensation and she felt like a dam ready to burst. Just a little more, and the dam would surely break, bringing with it welcome release. Her hips shifted forward in hopes of bringing a sensitive spot within Arturia's reach. But her finger slid further away, and Rin whimpered at the loss. Her hips tried again, rising a little higher, but her finger eluded it. Rin's hand moved to Arturia's waist and embraced her closer. "Arturia... please... please..." she pleaded. "Rin, what am I to you?" Arturia asked softly. Through the haze of her bliss, Rin tried to process her question. "My lover..." she managed to say. Arturia did not say anything, but her finger began to slide out slowly. Rin began to panic and her mus198

cles clenched to keep her in. "No... please..." "Rin, what am I to you?" she asked again, watching her intently with those emerald green eyes. If not her lover, what else? What more could she be? And then the answer hit her with alarming clarity and she replied with a half-shout, "My wife!" Arturia's finger plunged in, filling her depths and pressing against that spot she craved for touch. She slid against it, and elicited a wave of pleasure from that spot. Her flesh reacted violently as the wave spilled into the dam and broke it. Rin screamed in bliss as her flesh released what it had absorbed and provoked her muscles to contract forcefully against Arturia. Her body arched against her as an intense pulse originated from her loins and traveled over her spine and her nerves, filling her with unimaginable pleasure. Nothing in her research prepared her for this, for words failed to describe the bliss flowing through her. She squirmed and writhed with it, crying out and moaning shamelessly. "Oh... ah... my god... oh, Arturia... aaahhh... aaahhh..." When the pulses began to ebb, she took a moment to take a few deep breaths. Through half-lidded eyes, she could see Arturia grinning at her with a mask of triumph and mischief. She felt her slide her finger out and examine it. Her fingers glistened in the dim light, and her face burned at the sight. As Arturia looked at her fingers, a strong scent tickled her nostrils. She was surprised that she could smell it from this distance. She brought it to her face to inhale its heady perfume deeply. Still, the scent beckoned her and her tongue slowly extended to touch the base of her middle finger. It swept upward, cleaning it. Her tongue retracted into her mouth to deliver its precious cargo. She swirled it around, savoring the taste of Rin's desire for her. A hand rose to caress her face. "T--that... was amazing..." Rin managed to say between breaths. A wicked glint shone in Arturia's eyes. "It's not over yet..." Arturia entered her and her fingers played with her again. This time, Rin's flesh was too willing to be excited. She was filled again so soon, so quick and once again, she screamed for release. This time, Arturia kindly gave her what she wanted, what she needed and she cried out her name in a voice all too hoarse from the effects of her passion. She lay there, drowning in it. But when Arturia tried to begin the cycle once more, she gathered what little strength she could muster and grabbed her left hand to stop her. She gripped her right hand and extracted enough mana to keep her alert. In her mind, she chanted, "Strength of a thousand." Then, using the wrestling move that Bedivere taught her, she flipped Arturia over on her back. The motion caused a small pulse to emerge from her aroused loins and she gasped at the sensation. She gathered her wits for a moment. When she managed to speak, her voice was barely a whisper. "My turn..." She captured Arturia's lips and caressed her lips to show her the depth of her desire. Her hands wandered all over her, luxuriating in the smoothness and warmth of her skin. Arturia was surprised at Rin's sudden move. But when Rin began to touch her, she surrendered to it with eyes closed to further enjoy her caresses. Then Rin sought her breasts and suckled and played with them. But sometimes, Rin was a little too hard and she winced slightly when she did so. Still, her touch was so soothing and alluring. Soon, she felt her loins warming up as desire built up. She spread her legs out slightly to let Rin know. Thankfully, Rin seemed to sense her need and her hand traveled lower, tickling her skin in the process. She played with the hair above it first, like she did during the mana transfer ritual. Then she moved lower. Arturia sighed with relief and moaned with Rin's caresses. Her loins were slick with anticipation. When she could bear it no longer, her hips tilted upward in an effort to catch Rin's fingers. Rin must have noticed it and probed around to find her entrance. When she found it, she plunged in. Arturia stifled a cry with clenched teeth as something within her snapped. So this is what Bedivere meant by slowly going in when one's lady is a maid.
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"I--- I'm sorry!" said Rin in a panicked voice. She must have seen her reaction. She cupped her face and kissed her. "I'm fine... it will pass. But please, a bit more gentle." She kissed her some more to reassure her. This time, Rin was, and she gasped as each stroke of her finger stimulated her insides. For what seemed like eternity, she tried to lie still and let Rin do all the work, but the spots where Rin did not touch enough screamed for more and she caved in to her desire. With a deft move, she flipped Rin onto her back and straddled her hand against her leg. And then she rocked back and forth to allow Rin's finger to slide within her. She gasped and moaned with the rhythm of her rocking as her flesh luxuriated with the pleasure of being touched. Rin watched her with wonder. Soon, she began to see a pattern and smirked evilly at her discovery. "So... this is what you want..." she thought. As she slid against her, she could feel well-toned muscles tensing up and relaxing just underneath that smooth creamy skin. Her Arturia was both soft and firm; an elegant British beauty and a powerful knight. Her sense of wonder grew even more when she realized how she was thinking about her: her Arturia. She liked the sound of that. It was time to truly claim her. She pressed her leg upward and Arturia yelped at the sensation. She lost her balance for an instant and Rin took the opportunity to flip her on her back. She grabbed one of her hands and pinned it over her head. Then she used her body to pin her to the bed to prevent her from flipping her over. Once secured, she resumed control. Arturia struggled against Rin and was surprised at her strength. She was getting close to fulfilling her need, so she struggled to gain leverage. However, she could not ignore the new sensations within her and she stopped struggling against her. "Yes... there... oh... oh..." she heard herself say. But Rin did not mimic her rocking to her satisfaction. Sometimes she was right there, and sometimes she missed it by a sliver. Nevertheless, a tightness gathered within her like a spring being compressed, and she yearned to release it. She tilted her hips and raised her legs to wrap them around Rin's waist. She shuddered as Rin went deeper and her innermost flesh tingled at her touch. Blood rushed down and her body temperature rose with her desire. Thankfully, the satin sheets cooled her down a little, but not nearly enough to quench her burning skin. She struggled again in an attempt to quench that desire, but Rin held her fast. All she could do was move with her to try to catch her in places were her need was great. This continued for a while before she realized that Rin was deliberately teasing her, darting away when she was close. "Rin!" she complained bitterly. Rin merely smiled smugly and kissed her lips. "Sorry... I just liked the look on your face." "Why, you..." Her irritation faded when Rin stroked a sensitive spot. She did not want to admit it, but she was helpless under her mercy. And yet, there was no other place she wanted to be. It was time to switch tactics. She caught Rin's eyes and pleaded in a way that Rin had done once before. "Please..." Rin blinked several times when she beheld Arturia's face. Her eyes glistened brightly with the most adorable puppy dog eyes that she had ever seen. Her heart melted at the sight and she felt bad for teasing her for so long. In reply, she kissed her gently and slid her finger in the rhythm that she wanted. Arturia arched against her as the sensations flooded within her. Her frustration gave way to a twinge of anger when she realized that Rin knew what she wanted all along. But just as before, her anger melted away as the rhythm grew to a crescendo. She moved with her and the tightness intensified, almost causing her to stop her breath. And yet, like a puppet on a string, her body moved to the pull of her desire, seeking the moment of its climax. She moved a little faster now, and thankfully, Rin moved with her, bringing her to the edge. "Oh... Rin!" she cried, and Rin complied, thrusting deeply into that aching tightness. She screamed long and loud as a spring unwound, and her insides exploded with excruciating pleasure. Her breath moved with the rhythm within her, expanding and contracting. Rin watched her face and felt her squirm under her. Her eyes rolled back and her breath was fast and
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shallow. Her muscles clenched her finger so tightly that her joints ached from the pressure. But even so, she would not take it out for she could feel the throbbing of Arturia's flesh, announcing her orgasm. She grinned proudly over what she had done. She watched in silence, to let Arturia enjoy this sacred moment of their joining. When she could no longer feel her orgasm, she tried to start it again, just like Arturia had done for her. This time, she would listen more closely, now that she learned that the way to arouse Arturia was not the same as the way she became aroused. Arturia struggled again. After all that teasing, she wanted revenge. However, Rin's grip was strong, far stronger than she ever sensed before. Then she realized why and she cursed the fact that she was a mage. But she struggled less and less as her loins flared with renewed pleasure. Her body betrayed her and moved at Rin's command. Soon, she was lost in the rhythm of their dance and was once again swept away as she reached its climax. At its apex, her hoarse voice cried out in acclamation. "Oh... ohhhh... Riiiiinnn!!!" This time, her release was long and hard. Her body convulsed with it and her mind could not sense anything except the sensations flowing from within her. When her contractions within her finally ceased, she opened her eyes drowsily. As if sensing that she would struggle no more, Rin released her grip and flopped down beside her. She pulled her into an embrace and kissed her. "I love you." said Rin. Feebly, she kissed her back. "I love you, too..." she whispered. Then she snuggled into her arms and surrendered to the temptation of sleep.

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Chapter 16 Omake Rin: Annoying cuckoo bird... Arturia: Destroyed! Rin: Nosebleed malady... Arturia: Cure found! Rin: Master's amulet... Arturia: Sealed! So... can we... Rin: Ummm.... I hate to tell you this, but it's that time of the month.... Arturia: What do you mean? Rin: You know... *whisper whisper* Arturia: Oh that... is that a problem? Rin: I guess not...

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Chapter 16: Ties that Bind
The roar in her mind shook her awake. "DEARIE, it's dinner time!!!!!" Her hand flew to her ear before she realized that it was a mind link spell. "Please don't shout..." she replied. "We'll be down in a moment." "See you then." Eileen's voice faded away. Rin looked down at Arturia's sleeping face. With her golden hair and ruddy cheeks, she seemed so angelic. She kissed the top of her head and nudged her gently. The movement only caused Arturia to snuggle into her. With a naughty smile, her hand wandered to her chest and attempted to wake her up in a special way. Arturia gasped and her eyes fluttered open. "It's time for dinner." Arturia looked up and smiled ferally. She leaned in to catch Rin's lips. Rin giggled between kisses when she realized how Arturia interpreted 'dinner'. "Silly... you can... have me... later. They're... waiting." "Let them wait..." Arturia continued kissing her. "I'm their... host..." Arturia sighed, her breath tickling Rin's face. "Oh, all right..." She stole a few more kisses before rising from bed. Rin stretched and turned on the lights. For a few moments, she watched Arturia pull on her white long-sleeved shirt. Then she threw the covers off, stood up and picked up her watch from the bedside table. It read 7:39. They had spent most of the afternoon in bed. She blushed at her new and wonderful memories before shyly glancing back at the bed. Her eyes grew wide when she noticed two sets of small red stains on the cream colored sheets. "Rin... here's your clothes..." Arturia walked over, but Rin did not meet her gaze. Curious, her eyes traced where Rin was staring. Then she saw it as well and blushed. "Is... that..." "I... think so..." Arturia reached over and held her hand. Rin moved closer and embraced her. Once again, she glanced at those stains. She felt a twinge of loss, but she was glad that Arturia was the one who took it. But in return, Arturia had given her something so glorious and sacred. Memories of their joining flashed in Arturia's mind. As she remembered the moment when Rin entered her, she recalled Bedivere's last lesson. It was so true. They had given and taken freely of each other and in the process, had bared each other's heart and soul. She relished that moment knowing that she was loved despite all her faults and all her sins. She was glad to have given herself to Rin. When Rin returned her gaze to Arturia's eyes, she was not surprised to see that Arturia felt the same way. She leaned in and kissed her gently. Arturia kissed her back with equal tenderness. "Shall I help you dress up?" asked Arturia with an eager note in her voice. "Sure... if you can dress me up as fast as you can undress me." Arturia clucked her tongue. "Then I better start practicing..."

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----Since Eileen seemed eager to experience things Japanese, Rin ordered the chefs to make a traditional Japanese dinner. And so they did with outstanding results. Eileen and Michelle voiced their compliments during the meal and after. As Rin wondered what they planned to do after dinner, Eileen seemed to read her mind. "Dearie, are you busy?" "No, not really." "Can we talk to both of you for a bit?" "Sure." After they finished, they went to Arturia's room and sat at the small table there. Eileen cleared her throat. "It occurred to us that you might not know what to do in bed." She intertwined her hand with Michelle's. "We've been married for over ninety years. We have a lot of... experience in bed. So... feel free to ask us. We could even do a demonstration if you want." Rin was not expecting this, so she just sat there dumbfounded. A few moments later, Arturia cleared her throat. "Thank you for the offer. But that won't be necessary." She grinned wolfishly. Eileen stared at them. "Oh?" Meanwhile, Michelle blinked her eyes several times and looked down. "Mon Dieu! They've done it! I think..." "What!?" exclaimed Eileen. "You have...?" Then she pinched Michelle's arm. "Stop peeking!" "I thought you wanted me to check?" "YOU wanted to check!" Eileen faced them. "I guess we were worried for nothing. Anyway, if you ever want some advice, just ask." "Thanks. We'll keep it in mind." replied Rin with an embarrassed smile. "Well, since that's settled, I guess we'll turn in for the night. I'm sure all of us need a spot of rest from traveling and jet lag. If you don't mind, dearie, we'll go on ahead." "I don't mind at all. Good night." "Good night." After they left, Arturia stifled a yawn. She felt comfortably content and warm after that nice meal. "Sleep sounds like a good idea." Rin laughed softly. "You too?" She stood up. "Well, let's get ready for bed, just in case." Rin went back to her room and changed. She waited for Arturia, but she did not come. Concerned, Rin hurriedly went to her room and found her lying under the covers. She sat down on the bed. "Arturia... are you asleep?" "No." "Then come to bed." "I'm already in bed." came Arturia's tart reply. Rin's heart tore and she bit her lip. She should not have done this. She touched her shoulder gently. "This may be your room... but this isn't our bed." Rin stood up and held out her hand. "Come to bed." Arturia sat up slowly and took her hand. She let Rin lead her into her bedroom. In her mind, Arturia knew that she was childish to try something like this. However, part of her wanted to hear what Rin would say. And what Rin said helped subdue the doubt that formed in her heart when she announced their room arrangements. Once in bed, Rin turned off the lights with a wave of her hand. A few rustling moments later, their nightgowns were pushed off to the side. Then Rin remarked with her characteristic dry wit that she had come to enjoy. "Why do I even bother to change?" "So I can undress you?" came Arturia's mischievous reply. "Oh, yeah..."
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With their initial hunger sated, they sought to play and to explore each other rather than to pleasure. But the day had been long and the bed was too comfortable. Eventually, they snuggled into each others arms and surrendered to the lulling embrace of sleep. ----Once again, Eileen's wake up call rattled her mind. Rin woke Arturia and convinced her to have breakfast with them. They adjourned in the dining room where the chefs had prepared a western breakfast of omelet, pastries and fruit. After they were done, they went to Arturia's room. Rin secured the room with silentium before they began their discussion. "Master showed me a copy of the letter that Shiro wrote before we cast the ritual. It's a good thing that she did, since the actual one is hidden somewhere in his boxes in storage. That idiot expected me to paw through his stuff! Like I'm going to do that..." She drew a deep breath. "Anyway, he asked me to take care of Sakura. He said that I'd find her at his house, except that he sort of put a seal on her room and I'm supposed to break the seal." "Did he give any hints?" asked Eileen. "He said I just needed to knock and call his name. Then the door will open." Eileen tapped the kotatsu with her fingers. "It seems to me... that he worded his message so that only you would know how to decipher it. Well, best of British to you! Don't worry about Michelle and me. We'll just explore until you're finished with what you need to do." "Well... I promised to treat both of you, and the Takarazuka only has a few shows left before they go to their next venue." Eileen smiled. "Thanks for keeping us in mind. And I do look forward to it." She patted her shoulder. "I have utmost faith in you." "Thanks..." said Rin dryly. ----Rin and Arturia stood at the gate in disbelief. Shiro's house was being rented out. A quick conversation with one of the boarders revealed that Taiga-sensei was managing the house for Shiro. Since Taigasensei would probably ask about Shiro, Rin decided not to see her. Instead, she thanked the boarder and led Arturia around the block to the back of the house. Once out of sight, she cast Cloak of Shadows over her and Arturia before sneaking through the back gate. They stealthily made their way to the Shiro's room which, strangely enough, was where Shiro told Sakura to stay in. Rin pinned up some seals to force people to avoid this corridor. Then she stared at the sliding door before knocking on it. "Shiro." She knocked again. "Emiya." She frowned and knocked. "Emiya Shiro." Then she tried various honorifics combined with his name. Unfortunately, none of them seemed to have any effect. Exasperated, she hammered her fist on the wood panel of the door and yelled. "Dammit Shiro! You stupid ass!" Frustrated, Rin leaned on the doors as she tried to think of other ways to interpret his message. Then, without warning, the door slid open. Rin stumbled in while someone blithely dodged her fall. "Onee-sama!" Rin looked up from where she was kneeling on the floor. "Sakura! I mean... Matou-san..." Sakura embraced her. "Call me Sakura, onee-sama. And... it's not Matou anymore. It's Emiya." "What?" Sakura drew away and held her hand. "I'm legally Shiro's wife." "No way!!!!!"
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Sakura stood up and helped Rin stand. She was wearing an apron that a housewife would wear and the fresh splatter on it indicated that she was cooking. "It's a long story. Have a seat while I get you some tea." Her eyes fell on Arturia. "Oh... Saber-san... are you her servant?" "No." Arturia's lips tugged upward into a sly grin. "I'm her fiancée." "What?" This time, Sakura's facial expression matched Rin's. "It's a long story." "Onee-sama...?" Rin proudly held up her hand to show her engagement ring. "She is." "No way!!!!!" Arturia chuckled at the sight of Sakura's incredulous face. As her gaze wandered between the two sisters, she thought, "It's easy to tell that they're sisters like this..." After their initial shocks were over, Sakura finished her cooking and they sat down at the kotatsu for some tea. Rin idly picked out a rice cracker and bit it. "By the way, please don't call me onee-sama. It sounds so old fashioned. You can call me Rin or neesan. And Saber was just a designation of Arturia's servant class. Please call her Arturia from now on. So... how in the world did you become Shiro's wife?" "Shiro met me secretly last summer. He didn't want grandfather to find out. He told me that he wanted to take me away from the Matou. He said that I didn't belong there and that he couldn't stand the idea of me being at their mercy. I told him that it was too late, and that grandfather planned to marry me to one of his nephews since Shinji died. He said that he didn't want them to use me anymore. So he proposed that I should marry him." Sakura gripped her apron. "I know that he didn't love me. I'm sure that he loved someone else." She glanced over at Rin and spoke with a slight note of relief in her voice. "I guess you'll have to let him know, nee-san. Please let him down gently." Rin snorted. "Me? And Shiro? No, no, no... I'm not his type." Suddenly, Rin regretted her answer. "I mean... I don't think he's interested in anyone." But even as she said it, she knew that she was too late for Sakura fixed narrowed eyes at Arturia. However, instead of meeting Sakura's gaze, Arturia focused her attention on the teacup in her hands. A sinking feeling crept into her belly. Her quick mind was already assessing the possibilities of Arturia's reaction, but her heart refused to listen to what her brain had to say. In the end, those thoughts were ignored. Sakura sighed and continued. "It doesn't matter. All that mattered to me at the time was that he cared. He came back all the way from England just for me. Together, we planned on how I could run away from the Matou without them expecting it. After I ran away, he married me before a magistrate. Then he used all his magic to hide me here until his return." Sakura held Rin's eyes with doubtful hope. "But... he's not coming back, is he?" Rin swallowed. "Why... why do you think so?" "Because... because he said that... if he doesn't come back, you'll return to take care of me." Damn Shiro. Sakura's story revealed why Shiro suddenly returned to Japan before they cast the ritual. "Nee-san... what happened?" Rin drew a deep breath. "It's a very long story..." She gave a summary of their trip to the past up to Shiro's disappearance. "I'm really sorry, Sakura. I tried my best to save him." The memory of those rising specks of red and white light stirred her hidden sorrow and tears began to flow down her cheeks. Sakura was crying as well. "It's okay, nee-san. You did what you could." "I see... so that's how it started." said Arturia calmly. "Don't worry. One way or another, we'll get him back." Rin and Sakura stared at her. "What?" They exclaimed in unison. "Shiro is trapped in the Throne of Heroes. Since the Throne has been damaged, Marlen said that summoning him might be easier now." Rin caught her head between her hands and stared at the surface of the kotatsu. "Oh great. I'll try, but
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I don't think I can control who I summon." "Why not?" "Well... I wanted to summon Saber... I mean, you... but Archer showed up instead. Chances are, I'll probably summon that jerk again." "The chances are good then. Marlen recommends that you should try on the anniversary of his summoning." Rin was confused. "Why do you think that my chances are good?" Arturia raised her eyebrows. "Haven't you realized it yet? Shiro is Archer." "Eh?!!!!!" "It's true. When I was in the Throne, I felt his presence there. I wanted to bring him with me, but I wasn't sure if he could even leave. So I waited until I could talk to Marlen about it." It seemed hard to believe, but if it was true, then she might be able to get Shiro back. "Let me see if I understand. Shiro was absorbed into the Throne, and can be summoned as Archer." "Yes." Rin whistled. "Damn. I bet something happened to him in Gwent to cause him to be absorbed." "We'll have to ask him when we get him back." "Nee-san, can you do it?" "I hope so. But I swear I'll get him back even if I have to do the summon ritual over and over again." "Nee-san!" Sakura embraced her sister tightly. "Thank you..." Rin hugged back. They held each other for a few moments before Sakura withdrew. Then they exchanged news of what had transpired during their years of separation. As Rin recounted stories of her academic mishaps, Sakura noted how close they sat together. She did not need to guess that they were probably holding hands underneath the kotatsu. "You fooled us, nee-san." she thought. "You made us think that you wanted a Saber class servant for power." She remembered all those moments when Rin would rant about how events could have happened differently if she summoned Saber instead of Archer. Since Rin hated to lose, she automatically assumed that she was bitter over losing in the war. "How I misunderstood you... winning wasn't really your goal..." Arturia's movement of refilling the teacups caught her eye. Small sparkles reflected off the facets of the ring's diamond when she moved. "I'm glad, nee-san... that you finally got what you really wanted." she thought with a smile. "By the way, something puzzles me." said Rin. "Shiro's created some sort of pocket dimension to hide you. But since he's not here right now, how is mana being supplied to power it?" Sakura stood up. "I don't know the details, but I feel something over here." They followed Sakura to an adjoining room. A small shrine was on top of a small drawer. Kiritsugu's picture, incense and a bowl of rice indicated that it was a memorial for his father. Rin opened her magesight. Trails of mana flowed from the drawer. She followed the trail and removed the second drawer. She sat at a nearby desk and emptied its contents on it. Her magesight showed her various seals and that something was just behind the bottom of the drawer. She smirked when she recognized Shiro's seals. She wrote the corresponding seal breakers on paper and tossed them at the seals. The seals dissolved. Rin examined the drawer for a way to remove the bottom without breaking it. A tug on the front panel indicated that it was not nailed to the sides. She eased the panel off the retaining pegs. The drawer showed a compartment about an inch high. She slid the false bottom out. She felt her breath catch when she saw its contents. Held in place by straps on a glyph-ridden mat was a mage's dagger. Behind her, Arturia inhaled sharply. Rin looked up at her. "Is this what I think it is?" "Rin, I don't know how to tell you without causing you pain. But I think you need to know, so please forgive my bluntness. This is Kiritsugu's dagger. Within it is the soul and core magic circuit of Tohsaka Tokiomi, your father." Blood drained from her face. For several moments, she stared at the dagger. Arturia put a hand on her shoulder.
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"I have to tell you that I am partially responsible for getting him in this state. Kiritsugu wanted me to kill him, but since he was my master, all I could do was convince him not to make me kill him. The result is what you see before you. He was supposed to return his soul and circuit to his body." Rin's voice choked with the memory. "But he didn't, because Father's body died. Someone broke into the hospital and stabbed him in the heart." "One of the other servants found him, no doubt." Rin shook her head. "It doesn't matter who did it. It's in the past, and nothing can be done about it." She started to slide the bottom back but Sakura stopped her. "Just a minute, nee-san." Sakura reached out and touched the dagger. Her hand twitched, but she kept in contact with the dagger. Her fingertips swept over it in a slow caress. With her magesight, Rin saw a stream of mana leap from the dagger to envelop Sakura's fingers. The mana stayed on her fingers until Sakura moved her hand away. It lingered in the air for a second before settling over the surface of the dagger. Emboldened by Sakura's action, Rin did the same. The mana was cold and her hand shivered from the sensation. But as the mana probed her, she felt a sense of calm wash over her. And when she began to pull away, she felt a slight opposing force as if she was pulling her hand out of something sticky. "Do you recognize me, Father?" she thought. It would be nice if he did. She restored the false bottom and reattached the front panel. Then she rose to return the drawer to its proper place. She pressed her palms in prayer. Beside her, Sakura and Arturia imitated her. "Rest in peace, dear Father, and protect Sakura." Internally, Rin smiled sadly at the irony of her request. She just asked him to protect the daughter that he had given up. Now, it seemed strange that he would protect her in death. She faced Sakura. "I have some guests that I have to show around town. But after that, I want you to come with us to England. Shiro was right in hiding you from the Matou. However, I think it's too risky to hide you here when they're so close." Sakura nodded. "All right, I trust your judgment since I don't know much about magic except for the few occasions when grandfather would accidentally leave spell books lying around." Rin hissed sharply. "You shouldn't read spell books without proper training. There might be a trap on the book, or you might try to unconsciously cast a spell just by reading it." Sakura's hand flew to her mouth. "Oh... I didn't know that." Rin patted her shoulder. "It's ok. I'll teach you, so you won't get yourself into trouble." The sisters stared at each other for a few seconds before pulling each other into a hug. "Welcome back, Sakura." "I'm back, nee-san." ----They returned in time for dinner. Before they left for Shiro's house, Rin asked the head chef to hire a regional chef to cook special dishes. He managed to find an Osakan chef. The food was exotic and a bit strange to the palate, but overall, it was a delightful meal. After dinner, they adjourned to the library to plan their activities for the week. About forty-five minutes later, the butler came in. "Miss, Kurogami-sama is here to see you." Rin paled and stood up slowly. "I'll see him right away." She turned to her guests. "Please pick whatever you like and fill out the time sheet. I'll be back in a while." "Take your time, dearie." Rin nodded and left with the butler. Out of sight, she slipped off her ring and pocketed it. He led her to the main living room. An elderly gentleman wearing traditional japanese clothing smiled at her entrance. Rin smiled back and bowed before him. "Good evening, godfather."
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"Good evening, Rin. Let me look at you." They regarded each other for a few moments. "You look well, Rin. In fact, you resemble your mother quite a bit. But your eyes... are just like your father's." "You look good, too, godfather. I can see that age hasn't caught up to you yet." "And I hope it never will." He sat down on the couch and Rin sat on the couch opposite him. "But you know, I don't want to take my chances. I have to accept the fact that my wife and I are getting old, and I have to enjoy what I can before my legs give out. I know that you've just returned, so forgive me for imposing. You see, I'll be retiring soon. It's been my dream to circumnavigate the world on my yacht with my wife. To prepare for that, I'm trying to tie up as many loose ends as possible." He opened a folder on coffee table. "Your father's will states that formal transfer of his estate can only occur when you come of age and when you graduate from the Academy. Both conditions have been met. All that's left is for a bunch of documents to be signed by you and me to legalize the transfer." He grinned at her proudly. "I've spoken with the headmaster and he has nothing but nice things to say about you, Rin. Because of that, my mind will be at ease when I turn the estate over to you. But don't worry. I'll help you adjust to the role. There's much more to the estate than property. You'll inherit the duties of the Tohsaka to the Association and its allies. In fact, I'll be meeting with the Einzbern this week. You should come with me to meet their representative." "Umm... godfather... I'm really honored that you think I'm ready to be the head, but I think I need some more training. In fact, I'm thinking... er... planning to do graduate studies." "Oh... well, that's fine too. Like I said, I won't go away until you've adjusted to the role. Based on the conversation that I had with the headmaster, you're very talented, so I'm sure that doing some of the duties of the head won't interfere with your studies." "I see..." As Rin glanced over the small stack of papers on the table, a sinking feeling swept into her stomach. "Where should I sign?" Kurogami slid the first sheet and a pen towards Rin. "By the X." When they were halfway through the documents, Kurogami asked, "I don't want to pry into your private affairs, but I have to ask to ensure the legacy of your father. Have you given any thought to marriage?" Rin's hand stopped in midstroke. What did her godfather have in mind? "No... not really." She completed her signature. He slid another sheet to Rin. "Rin, I know I'm not your real father, but allow me to say that you should consider it to preserve the continuity of the Tohsaka line. A mage would be best for a husband. Even better if he's japanese. I could introduce you to several eligible young men. Rest assured that I will only recommend those that are suitable for your position and personality." Rin nibbled the inside of her cheek. She had a vague notion of where this was going. "I understand, godfather. But do I have to meet them so soon?" "Well... if you're going back to England, you should at least meet some of them so you can establish a relationship before you leave. I assume that you'll resume your studies in January." Rin returned the signed sheet. "Are any of them willing to meet me?" She hoped that none of them were interested. He slid the next sheet over. "I'm sure they will be when they meet you. Oh, that reminds me... my nephew seemed interested when I told him about you. In fact, he's interning at a local shrine. He can meet you when you're available." "So that's it." thought Rin. "Let me check my schedule first. Shall I call you?" "No. I'll have him call you and let both of you work it out. It's best if the man calls first, right?" He winked at her. Rin laughed softly. "Yes, you're right." Her godfather mentioned a few more young men before she signed the last sheet. He gathered them up and put them in the folder. "That's done. I'll have a magistrate look them over first. I'll let you know if there are any mistakes. If there isn't, I'll submit them."
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"Thank you, godfather. I really don't know how the estate would have managed without you." Kurogami stood up. "Don't worry about it. Your father and I grew up together. Besides, your mother's great grandmother was Kurogami." He patted her gently on her shoulder. "You're like family to me." "Thank you... that means a lot." He glanced at his watch. "Gotta go back. Suzumi is waiting for me." "I'll walk you out." Rin escorted her godfather all the way to the gate. She watched as he got into a waiting car and waved as the car drove away. Then she shuddered and exhaled a deep breath to release the stress within her. She felt that she had signed her life away. She closed the gate and went back in. ----At her entry, she was greeted with several smiles. Rin put her worries away and smiled back. She reviewed the schedule that they put together and made some suggestions to make better use of their time. When the schedule was finalized, she ordered their tickets online. It was almost midnight by the time she was done. She yawned and felt warm hands massaging her shoulders. "Mmmm... that feels good." Rin closed her eyes and relaxed into the massage. "Thanks for working so hard." said Arturia. After a few minutes of massaging, Arturia leaned down and whispered. "Rin, is something bothering you?" Rin's eyes flew open and she tried to speak as calmly as possible. "No. Why do you think so?" Arturia shrugged. "You seemed... a bit preoccupied at times." Her arms wrapped around her shoulders. "I was a bit worried." Her heart warmed over Arturia's concern. She stroked the top of her hand. "There's nothing to worry about." "Well... if you're ever worried about something, talk to me. I would gladly share your burden." Her fingers slipped around her hand and buried themselves in the warmth of her palm. "Thank you." Arturia noted the absence of the ring on her left hand. Although she wanted to know why she was not wearing it, she trusted Rin to tell her in due time. She put her own worries aside and whispered close to her ear. "By the way... shall I continue your massage in our bed?" Rin blushed. Massage plus bed equaled less sleep tonight. Her heartbeat sped up in anticipation of a correct answer to the equation. "Sure." After completing their preparations for bed, they met in Rin's room. Rin locked the doors. She decided not cast silentium until she had the right answer. Once in bed, she turned off the lights. With practiced ease, their nightgowns were discarded. Arturia turned Rin over and began to massage her shoulders and back. Rin sighed contentedly as her shoulders, back, arms and legs were massaged. Then Arturia turned her over. Her hands cupped her breasts. "You should cast silentium now." With gentle strokes, she massaged her nipples. Rin gasped sharply. "Si--- ah... silentium!" One thing lead to another, and before she knew it, she was caught in the throes of passion. However, unlike the first time, her climax came with quick intensity. After her third set, she croaked hoarsely between breaths. "What... have you done to me?" Arturia kissed her tenderly. "I gave you a massage." she replied as if that explained everything. "Did you like it?" "It was... incredible..." She gathered her wits and pulled mana to clear the fog in her head. She chanted the strength spell silently. "My turn..." She flipped Arturia over and began loving her. When she sensed Arturia's need, she slipped her hand between her legs to stroke that moist flesh. After teasing her a little, she found her entrance and slowly
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went in. Arturia gasped sharply. She did not expect to feel it again. Rin pulled out. "Did I hurt you?" she asked with concern. "Can you turn on the lamp?" The lamp flickered on. Arturia lifted Rin's hand to the light and saw the bloody smear on her finger. She laughed bitterly. "What's wrong?" "I never thought I would have a wound that I wouldn't want to heal." Understanding crept into Rin's mind. "Oh... it's Avalon, isn't it?" "Sadly, yes." Rin's face fell. "Then that means that... every time I..." Arturia caressed her cheek. "Don't worry. There's a solution. I just need to take it out for a while. Will you help me?" Rin nodded. Arturia closed her eyes and imagined Avalon leaving her body. When Arturia opened her eyes, Avalon was shining in Rin's hands. Arturia took Avalon and deposited it in a nearby drawer. Then she crawled under the covers. "Unfortunately, there's still a lot of mana stored in me which may be used to cure my wounds." "Do you have a way to drain it?" Arturia held Rin's left hand and grinned evilly. "Yes..." Rin swallowed as her heart sped up again. She really was not going to get much sleep tonight. "we'd better get started then..." ----Last night took its toll. By mid afternoon, they could barely keep their eyes open. Rin tried to sip at her sugary shake and hoped that it would keep her awake. "Too much fun last night?" asked Eileen with a sly smile. "Yes... I mean... no... it must be the jet lag." "If you say so." Eileen watched their drooping eyes. "Dearie, if you're that tired, you should go back. Michelle and I can go on our own." Rin rubbed her eye a little. "I'm not that tired. Besides, we have good seats for the Kabuki show." "In that case, ma cherie... let me help." Michelle took their milkshakes and stirred them with the straws. She sang something in French. When she was done, she gave it back to them. "Drink about half of that. It should 'energize' you a bit." Eileen frowned. "No, just a third... maybe even less." Rin was too sleepy to ask why. "Okay." She finished a little over a third of the shake when she suddenly felt more alert. "Hmmm... I do feel a bit better." She glanced at Arturia who was sitting up straighter. "I don't feel sleepy anymore." She slurped some of her shake and looked at Michelle. "What did you do?" "Oh, just a little recipe ma mere taught me. Since you both feel better now, shall we go?" "Okay." They filed out of coffee shop and took a cab to the theatre. About halfway through the show, Rin felt a bit warm. Arturia's equally warm hand slipped on top of hers. Her touch felt good, really good. Throughout the rest of the show, Rin tried her best not to do more than hold her hand because if she did, she felt that she would not be able to restrain herself. Unwilling to let go, they held hands till the end of the show and until they got back to the house. Rin walked quickly to her room and Arturia kept pace with her. Once the door was closed, she reached for Arturia and met her lips halfway. Their kisses were hot and urgent. It was as if they had developed a thirst for each other and they
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sought desperately to quench that thirst. Rin felt a great longing for closeness and her hands clutched at Arturia's clothing. Arturia did the same, undressing her as they made their way to the bed. Once there, they did not bother going under the covers. Their hands and lips wandered over each other's skin as if trying to touch and taste as much as they can. "Rin... take me..." Arturia moved Rin's hand between her legs. "Then take me with you..." They entered each other. Arturia repositioned her legs to interleave with Rin's. Then she laid on her side and straddled Rin's leg between her own. Her hands grabbed Rin's waist to keep her in place and her hips rocked against her leg. Their bodies rocked back and forth to answer their own need and eventually, they managed to satisfy their thirst. "Rin... this feels good... but... somehow I feel strange." breathed Arturia as she continued to slide against Rin. "Yeah... me too..." Arturia raised her hand. "Avalon." The drawer shot out and crashed on the floor. Avalon floated toward Arturia who took it and let it melt into her. Arturia stopped and tensed up as Avalon's mana began to fill her. Soon, the strange urge of desire began to ebb away. She took several deep breaths to clear her mind. "That seemed to help. Here... maybe it will work for you too..." Arturia interlaced her right hand with Rin's. Then she heard footsteps in the corridor. Did Rin lock the door? She leapt out of bed despite Rin's soft protest and sprinted toward the door. She clicked a bolt into place. There was a knock on the door. "Miss... is everything all right?" came the head maid's muffled voice. She glanced at Rin who just stared blankly at her. A few seconds later, the doorknob rotated and the door rattled as an attempt was made to open it. Assured that the door was locked, Arturia returned and quickly applied mana into Rin's left palm. The glaze in Rin's eyes disappeared. "Miss... are you all right?" Arturia whispered next to her ear. "Rin! Say something!" Rin swallowed and tried to think. She spoke loudly. "Uh... I dropped some books. I'm fine. Sorry for troubling you." "It's no trouble, Miss. If you need to move heavy things, please ask." There was a pause. "Do you need any help, Miss?" "Uh... no... I'm fine." "Please excuse me." The maid's steps echoed in the corridor and faded with distance. Arturia flopped next to Rin. "I feel so tired." "Yeah... me too." She reached for Arturia and cuddled her. They held each other for a few moments before Arturia spoke. "That strange feeling... I don't like it. It seemed so unnatural." "I agree." Rin frowned as she guessed that Michelle's 'energy' drink was the cause. She kissed Arturia gently. "I don't want to make love to you like that." Arturia kissed her back. "And me as well." She yawned. "Can we sleep now?" Rin laughed softly and kissed the top of her nose. "Last one awake is a rotten egg..." Arturia caressed her cheek. "Don't worry, I'll still love you even if you're rotten." "Hey!" Giggling and lightheaded, they slipped under the covers and cuddled. Rin waved her hand to lock the rest of the bolts on the door and to turn off the lights. Then they closed their eyes to get much needed sleep. ----212

Unfortunately, Eileen did not do her wake up call so Rin did not get an opportunity to snap at her over the 'energy' drink incident. Her watch read 9:43. They were allowed to sleep late. About thirty minutes later, they got ready and went down to have some brunch. Today was packed: several sightseeing trips, Takarazuka in early evening and a late dinner with her godfather's nephew. Rin hoped that all would go well. After brunch, they met Eileen and Michelle in the greenhouse. They were pruning the plants. "Good morning." "Ohayo." replied Eileen. Rin was surprised at her Japanese. She had a slight accent, but it was good. She decided to test her and spoke to her in Japanese. "How are you?" "I'm fine, and you?" "Okay, somehow. What did Michelle put in that shake?" "She activated the sugar in the shake to make it easier to absorb. But..." "But...?" "It creates an unusual side-effect." "What kind?" "It becomes a mild aphrodisiac." "And you let us drink it?!" asked Arturia in Japanese. "Your highness has Avalon and could get rid of it easily." Arturia scowled at them. "In the future, you will inform us of such effects before we consume magically enhanced food." "Yes, of course. And we ask forgiveness for neglecting to tell you. We didn't think it would be an inconvenience." A trap. Rin grabbed Arturia's hand before she mentioned anything embarrassing. "If we want to do everything as planned, we have to follow the schedule. Will you be ready by eleven?" "Yes." "Please meet us at the driveway. My chauffeur will drive us to the shrine." She and Arturia left the greenhouse and headed back to her room to prepare. Once in her room, Rin remarked, "Avalon sure is useful." "Yes. It can heal and protect." "By the way... I was wondering. How did Shiro end up with Avalon?" "Before I left, I gave it to Shiro so that he can heal you." So that explained it. When she woke up in Shiro's house, she was surprised by the progress of her healing. Shiro was there, but he did not mention Avalon until they started researching the reverse summoning ritual. Nonetheless, she was happy that Arturia was thinking of her at that time. "Thank you. That's kind of you. But... what if you needed it?" Arturia laughed softly. "The other reason why I gave it to Shiro was to use its other power." "What other power?" "After Avalon was stolen, Merlyn assured me that it will eventually return to me." Her face grew dark. "Unfortunately, it didn't return in time. But when I gave it to Shiro, I felt that I had nothing to lose." She looked into Rin's eyes and smiled gently. "If it returned to me, I hoped that you and Shiro would be its instrument." Suddenly, Rin remembered how Shiro managed to find her after they arrived in the lake. She smiled widely. "And it did! When we arrived near Camlann, Shiro sensed you somehow. That's how we were able to find you." Arturia's eyes brightened up. "I see. It makes sense now." She held Rin's hands in hers. "I'm so happy that you found me."
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"Me too." They leaned forward in unison and kissed. After they exchanged several kisses, Rin drew back. "We better get ready to meet them." Arturia stole a quick kiss. "All right." As they gathered their things, Rin prayed that nothing unusual would happen. ----The gods must have blessed her. The day went rather smoothly. By the time they left the Takarazuka theatre, everyone was in good spirits. "Truly a classic!" exclaimed Eileen. "I love their costumes!" "Moi aussi! But... their French is horrible." "It's passable... for a non-French speaker." "It could be better! They should..." Rin's ears drowned out their banter as she thought of her impending meeting with the nephew. About fifteen minutes later, the chauffeur pulled up at the corner a few blocks away from the restaurant. Rin opened the door. "I'm sorry. I have a business meeting tonight. My chefs will make an attempt at French cuisine. Please try it. I'll be back later. Until then, please enjoy yourselves." Since the Takarazuka show had a French theme, Rin decided to follow it up with a French style dinner. She hoped that her chefs were up to the challenge. "Take care, dearie." Everyone waved goodbye. Arturia's eyes locked onto hers with an unspoken question. Rin dropped her eyes. She watched the car drive off before walking to the restaurant. When she got there, she found the nephew waiting for her in the lobby. "Tohsaka Rin?" he asked smiling. "Yes. I'm Tohsaka Rin." She bowed. "Matsuo Shintaro." He bowed back. To her great chagrin, the waiter led them to a somewhat secluded corner of the restaurant. At least one row of tables separated them from the other guests. He asked what she wanted and ordered two more expensive dishes in addition. After she ordered her drink, he asked for a bottle of champagne. Rin did her best to make conversation. They talked about school and magic. When their food came, the piano player at the opposite corner of the room, began to play Rachmaninoff. Rin shifted uneasily in her seat. The boy was trying his best to be romantic. About halfway through the dinner, someone unexpected came in. Rin turned away but it was too late. They had locked eyes for an instant. She chanced quick glances to see a waiter hand Arturia a nicely wrapped take-out package. Rin bit her lip when she saw Arturia glance back in her direction before leaving the restaurant. With the patience of a snail, she weathered through the dinner. They finished around 10:30. He escorted her to the door where her chauffeur waited. "Umm... thank you for having dinner with me." "You're welcome. Good night." Rin smiled and darted inside before he could reply. To her dismay, he grabbed the door before it could close. "Umm... do you want to go out again?" "Hmmm... maybe. I have to look at my schedule first." "Okay. Can I call you later?" "Sure." He closed the door for her and waved as the car drove away. Rin waved back and then rubbed her forehead in consternation when they were far enough. When they got home, she hoped that Arturia was not angry. She found her with Eileen and Michelle in the den. They were watching the anime version of the Rose
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of Versailles. "I'm back..." "Welcome back." chimed everyone. Eileen patted the couch. "Have a seat dearie. We're watching episode three." "And try some escargot." Michelle moved the plate in front of her. "One of the local restaurants makes it quite well. I hope you don't mind that I took the liberty in showing your chefs how it should be done." "Thanks." She selected a skewered escargot and sat next to Arturia who seemed engrossed in the show. They watched several episodes until the clock struck midnight. Eileen put the remote in front of Rin. "Michelle and I are going to bed. You can keep watching if you want." "Do you want to watch more, Arturia?" "No." came Arturia's flat response. Rin turned off the projector and DVD player and tried to gage Arturia's mood. "I'm kinda tired, so I'll turn in too." Arturia stood up. "Me too." They all went back upstairs and prepared for bed. On their way back to their rooms, Rin held Arturia's hand to assure herself that Arturia would come to bed with her. Arturia said nothing. Rin locked the door behind them. "You seem quiet tonight. Are you all right?" "Rin... where's your ring?" Rin paled. "Ummm... it's in my purse." She quickly went to her purse and extracted the ring. She put it on. "I... was thinking of going to bed after I got home, so I put it aside so it wouldn't get wet in the shower." "I see." Arturia slipped under the covers to her side of the bed. She laid on her side with her back toward her. Rin fidgeted in place as she stared at her back. She was not sure what to do. She slipped under the covers and turned off the lights. She stared at the ceiling helplessly. Finally, she could not stand the distance between them. She cupped her back and slipped her arms around her waist. The silence between them was deafening. After a few minutes, Rin gathered her courage. "About the restaurant..." She felt Arturia tense up, but she did not say anything. Rin continued. "...about that... my companion was the one who picked the restaurant. I didn't know how fancy it was." Somehow, she had to explain that she had no choice. "Because I'm the head of the Tohsaka, it was my duty to meet with him." "I see." Arturia shifted slightly and seemed to lean back into her. Rin hoped that this was a good sign. She sighed theatrically. "In fact... I have to meet with the Einzbern tomorrow." "What?!" This time, Arturia turned around to look at her. "It's true. My godfather and I are meeting them after lunch." "Oh... so that's why you shuffled things around in the schedule." "Yes. In addition to that, I have to meet several mages this week." "Why are you meeting?" "I don't know. But the Einzbern requested a meeting. The Matou were also asked to come." "Rin... this is dangerous." Arturia's eyes filled with concern. "I know... but to refuse would arouse suspicion. Don't worry. I have a great mind block spell from Merlyn." "Thank God." Arturia hugged her close and Rin was so relieved. "I don't want the Einzbern to find out. I'm confident that I can keep you safe, but I want to live peacefully with you without looking over my shoulder." Tears formed at the edge of Rin's eyes. "M--me too." Arturia drew back and caressed her face. The pad of her thumb traced the outline of her lips. "Rin..."
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She closed her eyes as Arturia's lips touched hers. If she played her cards right, she could maintain the peace they had now. Her worries slipped away with every gentle kiss. Arturia pulled away and they gazed at each other affectionately. Then Rin snuggled into her bosom and prayed for good luck. ----Rin followed her godfather into an ornate meeting room. They sat down at one side of a long table. A portly German foreigner sat at the head of the table. He twirled the tips of his mustache as he waited for the Matou representative to sit. The Matou did not have the characteristic purple hair and eyes of Shinji, but his hair shone a twinge of dark purple. His pockmarked face indicated a harsh life and his slanted eyes only added to his brooding manner. Introductions were made and Rin attached the name Rikhart Lemstein to the German and Matou Hachiro to the Matou. She listened idly as the men exchanged pleasantries and news. Then Lemstein cleared his throat and spoke with a serious tone. "Gentlemen... and lady, I have asked you to come today to request your assistance. About three weeks ago, the Throne of Heroes was accessed." Matou whistled. "Who did it?" "We think that it's the Refliech, but we're not sure. We're still investigating." He ran his hand through his thinning gray hair. "Our spies in their manor report that they don't seem to know about it." "So... what assistance can we offer?" asked Kurogami. "We're ashamed to say that our defenses have been breached. We've added more defenses and traps. But we'd like to blend some eastern magic in them." Matou drew himself up and crossed his arms. "I see... you want to make it more difficult to break. The intruder would have to know both eastern and western magic." Lemstein smiled. "You catch on quick, my friend. Yes. That's what we want. It will be a challenge though, to blend it well. Do you think you can do it?" "Not a problem." said Matou confidently. "Rin may be a recent graduate, but she has studied with the priestess of Ise. She's well versed in both western and eastern magic. She and I can offer our help." Lemstein rubbed his hands happily. "Splendid! We will, of course, provide lodging and meals, as well as tour guides if you wish to do sightseeing while you're in Germany. When can you come?" "I'm sure I can go in about two weeks. But I have to clear everything with our head." replied Matou. Kurogami laughed heartily. "I'll have a much harder time." He winked. "I have to clear it with my wife." They all laughed with Kurogami. Then Kurogami cleared his throat. "Chances are, she will probably want to come. Give us about two or three weeks. Rin is on break until January. You can come, right Rin?" "Yes." answered Rin tonelessly. Right now, she felt like a trapped mouse. "Your wives are welcome to come. We will take care of them while you're busy." Lemstein's hand slipped under the table. A few moments later, the door opened, and a servant wheeled in some appetizers and wine. "It's been a while since we've gathered together like this. Care to share a drink with me?" "Of course." The servant poured a glass for Matou. "Anytime." replied Kurogami. They raised their glasses in a toast and drank. The rest of the meeting went by with the exchange of old stories between the men. Rin was glad when it was finally over. ----Later that night, they met in Arturia's room to talk about the meeting. Eileen drummed her fingers on the table.
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"It would be best that you don't go at all. There's no reason for your involvement." "I know, but I can't seem to figure out how to get out of it." said Rin with a note of exasperation. "When do you have to go?" "Probably in two or three weeks. It's godfather's call." Eileen ticked off her fingers. "Three more days of sightseeing, then about three days to help your sister. That leaves one or two weeks to teach you protective and counter spells. Can you handle that?" Rin nodded. "I think so." "Good. Anything else?" "No." She was not going to discuss her meeting with another suitor two hours ago. Eileen and Michelle stood up. "Since you've had an exciting day, you should rest. If you want to talk some more, Michelle and I will be watching Rose of Versailles downstairs." "Thanks." After they left, Rin asked Arturia. "What do you want to do?" "Well, since you have to rest, we should go to bed." Her lips drew into a sly smile. "That assumes that we'll be able to rest." Arturia's lips matched her own. "Then we'll just have to try, won't we?" Hand in hand, they exited the room to prepare for bed. ----The days passed without incident. Rin zipped her luggage and checked her purse for their tickets and passports. Then she wheeled her luggage to the door. She stopped at the threshold of her room to take one last look before closing the door. Arturia was waiting at the driveway. Eileen and Michelle left the day before with Sakura in tow. They should be arriving in London this afternoon. The chauffeur loaded her luggage. The creak of the gate announced the arrival of a guest. Rin turned to see who it was. "Godfather!" She paled and quickly put her hands behind her back. She went to him and bowed deeply. "Rin." He bowed slightly. "I heard you were going back already. So I came to say goodbye." "Thank you for coming all the way here." "Before you go, can you tell me where you're staying? I need to know so I can contact you about the estate paperwork and the Germany trip." "Of course." Rin took out her address book and scribbled her address and number at the academy on a blank sheet. She tore off the sheet and gave it to him. "Thanks." Kurogami gave her a light hug. "Oh, you have a guest?" Rin stiffened slightly. "Yes, she's a friend that I met in England. I invited her to see Japan." She dropped her voice and whispered. "But she's not a mage." "Oh. I see. Well, I don't want you to miss your flight, so you better run along." "Thank you. Please take care." "You too. Have a good trip." Rin walked back to the car and opened the door for Arturia. Arturia wore a puzzled look on her face when she went inside. Rin followed her in. As the car drove away, she waved to her godfather. Rin waited until they were in the waiting area in the airport before telling Arturia about her godfather. "So he's the one who'll come with you to Germany?" "Yes." "He seems like a nice man." "He is. He's my father's best friend." On the word 'father', the image of the dagger that was stored in her checked-in luggage flashed in her mind. At her pause, Arturia seemed to sense her thoughts. Her hand held hers reassuringly. "At least, your father is with you."
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"Yes." Her fingers curled against the warmth of her hand. Her eyes stared beyond the horizon of the airfield. Her thoughts went to her sister and her father. It was good to have them back. Then her eyes wandered to Arturia's smiling face. It was even better to have Arturia back. As she looked at her, those emerald green eyes stared back in bewilderment. "Is there something on my face?" "No, my dearest. I just feel like the luckiest girl in the world." Arturia blushed and Rin's heart leapt at the sight. She looked forward to many more moments like this. Then the stewardess announced their boarding, and they stood up to get in line. As she took her seat in first class, she stared at Arturia again, and she blushed at her close attention. She reached over and intertwined their fingers together. No matter what, she would do everything in her power to keep them together: her sister, her father and most of all, Arturia.

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Chapter 17 Omake Arturia: Rin... why are you dressed like a cat? Rin: Meow...nya nya... meow... nya... Arturia: So we won't be recognized at the masquerade? Eileen: Screech.... reee reee scree reee.... Arturia: No, I don't want the pig costume, nor the ass. And definitely not the cock. Michelle: Ruff.... graa-rufff... rrrufff... Arturia: Oh, fine. Give me the panda.

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Chapter 17: The Gift
They arrived in London safely. Eileen met them at the airport. She drove at her unusual nerve wracking speed and they got to the valley in record time. "We'll make a stop at Sakura's first." said Eileen. "Sakura's?" "Yes. Because she was with the Matou for so long, Marlen did not want her anywhere near the Aerie. She wants to examine her before she is allowed in the Aerie. We've rented a house for her to live in." "Oh." Rin was perplexed. If that was the case, then why did Merlyn let them in? She was a stranger then. "But... what about me and Shiro?" "During your journey to the Aerie, Merlyn examined both of you." "She did?" Rin tried to remember. Merlyn read some of her memories in the inn, but after that, she just asked a lot of questions. "I doubt that you'd know, dearie. She'd do it while you were asleep." Her voice suddenly dripped with mischief. "And then, she'd ask questions to see how truthful you are." Rin's eyes grew wide. "Really? Whoa... I didn't sense it at all." "But you passed." Her simple statement hinted of praise. "She let you in." For several moments, Rin was silent as pride welled within her. "Thank you. That's nice to hear." Still, she could not help but wonder. "I apologize for my curiosity, but couldn't you examine Sakura on the plane?" "I could, but Marlen and Nell would do a better job." "Really? Why?" "Oh, she'll let you know when you need to know. She's your master after all." Eileen did not turn around, but Rin could hear the sly smile in her voice. She made a note to ask Marlen later. They parked in front of a small cottage near the foot of the mountain. Rin and Arturia got out of the car and followed Eileen up the brick path. She rang the doorbell and the door opened a few moments later. "Nee-san! Eileen! Arturia!" Sakura hugged each of them, but she hugged Rin a little longer. "Come in." They sat down on the couch and chairs in the small living room while Sakura went to the kitchen to get some tea and snacks. She returned a few minutes later and laid out the tea and snacks on the coffee table. Rin looked about. "Did you do all this when you got back?" "Heavens no, dearie. Marlen arranged all of this. The day after you found Sakura, we told her that she would be coming here." She swept her hand across the room. "All of this is her doing." Rin gulped. "Wow... I have to pay her back." "Oh, I'm sure you will." Rin blanched at Eileen's tone. She hoped that the debt would be payable with cash and not by other means. After they finished the tea and snacks, Sakura showed them around the house. In addition to the living room, it had a small kitchen, two bedrooms and a bath. It was sparsely furnished, but Rin noted
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the extra bed in the second bedroom. There was a small garden behind the house. After they went back in the house, Rin asked, "Eileen, will she be safe here by herself?" "Oh... did you see a hole in the defenses?" Rin blinked. Then she caught on to her question. She opened her magesight and looked around. She spotted a perimeter spell, reinforcement spells on the walls of the house and security spells on the doors and windows. Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. She should have looked first before asking the question. "Ummm... I meant was... can she work these spells on her own?" "Yes. I showed her how to use the crystals that control them." Rin sighed with relief. "Thank you. I feel better now." Eileen patted her shoulder. "Don't worry. We put it on your tab." Rin's shoulders drooped in response. She dreaded to know what is on her tab, and how she would end up paying for it. She wanted to stay longer, but Eileen insisted in bringing them back to see Marlen. "You can visit her later, dearie." assured Eileen. ----They deposited their luggage in their rooms before seeing Marlen in the rose garden. As usual, Marlen sat on Nell's lap. "Welcome back." greeted Marlen. "Arturia, I would like to speak to Rin privately. Please see my mothers. I believe they have something to tell you." "All right." Arturia was puzzled, but she complied. "Have a seat, Rin." Marlen gestured to a chair which slid behind her. "From what my mothers tell me, you've accumulated quite a bit of trouble. Please tell me about it. As your master, I'm concerned about your well being." With a wave of her hand, a cart laden with tea and pastries wheeled over to her side. "Have a spot of tea while you're at it." Rin blinked. This was a first. Merlyn treated her kindly, but she never said anything so nice. She sat down and poured herself a cup before she began her story. While she told her story, she could not help but notice the cute dress that Marlen wore. It was a large contrast to the black outfit that she wore whenever they practiced spells in the north wing. She also had a chance to study Nell in more detail. She was a large woman and was easily over six feet tall. Slightly plump, her arms were twice as large as Marlen's, thus making Marlen look like a doll. Her shoulder length blond hair was swept back by a headband. Her hazel brown eyes caught her gaze and Rin had a strange feeling that she knew that she was being studied. Rin broke away and stared into the teacup in her hand. She suddenly felt compelled to tell as much as she could, and she did. After she was done, she was scared for revealing so much. Marlen clucked her tongue. "In deep, aren't you? First off, consider telling Arturia about the suitors. You dropped a clanger on her already, and it'll only get worse if you keep hiding it. Next, I suggest telling your godfather about your engagement. No sense making him shower you with men. And finally, we'll ante up your training on mental and psychological defense. We'll have you swotting in no time." "...We?" "Nell and I will train you. But not today. Go and get some rest. We'll start tomorrow." Rin stood up. "Master, thank you for taking care of Sakura." "You're welcome. By the way, she has adopted a new identity here. Please refer to her as Cheryl Vellason." "What?!" Marlen spread her hands out. "It's too risky to use her real name. You might as well put a searchlight on her, if she uses it. Shiro only managed to hide her because she was shunted not only through space,
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but also time." "Really?" "Yes. That's what Mum discovered when she was helping Sakura pack. The overall effect was that any magical search will fail to find her because they're looking for her in the current time, not the past time. The difference is only a second, but that's enough." Stunned was the closest description that Rin could attach to how she felt. The blood drained from her face. Perhaps it was wrong to bring her here. Her expression must have made her thoughts obvious. "Don't worry. If we have to, we can probably recreate Shiro's spell. Mum thinks it's a variation of that ritual. Anyway, run along. Arturia will be coming to speak to me." Rin bowed deeply. "Thank you, Master." She turned and made her way back to her room. "So that's it. Clever jerk." thought Rin. Shiro probably used his talent in creating pocket dimensions and the ritual to create that spell. ----Arturia yawned. Although two days had passed since their return, she still seemed jet-lagged. However, she was curious about the people that Eileen wanted her to meet. They arrived at a classy hotel and went inside. Eileen ushered her into a meeting room. Two men and a woman stood up on her entry. Eileen closed the door and cast silentium. She cleared her throat. "Lady and gentlemen, I have the honor of introducing her Highness, Arturia Pendragon ab Uther, former High King of Britain." The men knelt before her and the woman curtsied. The younger man spoke first. "Your Highness, I am Kyle Hecter. I'm a descendant of Sir Ector and Sir Kay." "Your Highness, I'm Peter Armstrong. Sir Bedivere was my ancestor." "Your Highness, I'm Jenna Lakeridge. I'm descended from Sir Mellant." "I am pleased... very pleased to meet you all. My heart soars in knowing that friends long gone have left their legacy with you. Please stand tall. I am no longer king." She reached out and pulled Kyle and Peter to their feet. She glanced up at Kyle. "You have Sir Kay's height and sturdy frame. We gave him the nickname, Kay the Tall. It would fit you well, too." Kyle grinned broadly. "Really? Thank you, your Highness." Her eyes alighted on Peter and noted his flaxen yellow hair on his balding head and his steel gray eyes. "I see that Bedivere's blood flows strongly in you." She extended her hand. "I wonder if you live up to her nickname?" Peter grinned widely and gripped her hand with all his strength. Arturia laughed. "And so you do!" Then she turned to Jenna. "Your face looks like hers, but your hair and eyes are his." Jenna merely nodded. There was no need to elaborate. Peter cleared his throat. "Your Highness, speaking of legacy, allow me to show you Armstrong's greatest treasure." He gestured to a long chest on a cart. He opened the three locks on the chest and pulled the lid up. Arturia let out a small gasp. Peter smiled. "You recognize it?" "Of course. Stone Cleaver was Bedivere's constant companion as she was for me." She paused as nostalgia brought both a smile and a small pang in her heart. "The Stone Cleaver... so sharp that it can cut stone... Forged using the same metal as Caliburn..." recited Peter as he lifted the sword in its scabbard out of the chest. He unsheathed it and took out a fistsized piece of marble from his pocket. He began to pare the stone as if he were cutting away the skin of a potato. The pieces bounced off the hardwood floor when they hit it. Peter resheathed the sword and held it out to Arturia. "Your Highness is without a sword. Please accept this as a replacement." "No, Peter. In this time of peace, there's no need to wield a sword. However, I have yet to greet Stone
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Cleaver. May I?" She held out both hands. "By all means." Peter lowered the scabbard into her hands, and paused for a moment before he let her hands bear its weight. To herself, Arturia's smiled smugly as her suspicions were confirmed. By offering Stone Cleaver, Peter was trying to verify her identity. She unsheathed the blade and let her eyes examine its polished surface. With quick glances, she noted the expressions on Kyle and Jenna. They, too, wanted proof. She resheathed the sword. Keeping a calm facade, she tried not to show that she discovered Peter's intentions. "You've done well to preserve it." She offered the sword to Kyle with both hands. "Don't you think so, Kyle?" Kyle accepted it, but as soon as she let go, his wrists bent awkwardly. He clutched at it and was relieved to keep the rest of it from falling when the tip of its scabbard hit the floor. Peter quickly took it from him. "Sorry, Kyle. Stone Cleaver can't be wielded by anyone other than its master, and its master's master." He returned it to the chest and locked it. Meanwhile, Kyle was rubbing his wrists. Jenna's eyebrows rose and her mouth fell slightly open. Arturia could guess that she received the proof that she was hoping for. Arturia glanced at Eileen. There was a reason why she was brought here. She decided to wait for their move. Peter cleared his throat. He must be their appointed leader. "Please sit everyone, and help yourselves to the tea and snacks on the table." Arturia sat down on the nearest chair. With wry amusement, she noticed that the table was round. Was this shape purposely chosen? After everyone had a chance to sit down and get some tea, Peter spoke again. "For centuries, we, the descendants of the Knights of the Round Table, have waited for King Arthur's return. And now, at last, our wait is over. Your Highness, I speak for all the descendants. We have all agreed to serve you once more upon your return. Please accept our service and loyalty." Arturia was silent for several seconds. She did not expect this. Her eyes met each of theirs in an effort to gauge their sincerity and she was surprised at the eagerness in their eyes. "I am... deeply moved by your offer of service. But how can you serve two masters?" Jenna spoke. "Yours is the true bloodline. The current royalty is only in power because of your absence." "We will still act as normal citizens just for show. But your Highness will be our true king." added Kyle. "Based on my study of current affairs, the Royal family has little influence in the government of Britain. I don't see how I can be any different." "There are many of us who can sway the course in business and politics. Knowing that you would return someday, we worked hard to earn positions of influence in Britain. You don't have to be the official king. You only have to be our king." explained Peter. "No. You shouldn't be loyal to me. You should be loyal to Britain." She studied the puzzled looks on their faces and continued. "After I came to this time, I traveled across the world and had a chance to see how people lived. Although there is a bit of unrest here and there, overall, the world is in peace. And when I finally returned to Britain, it was even more apparent. I can only guess that it was no easy task to reach this point. If that's the case, then the British people have achieved this peace with their own hands. You, and those before you, have achieved the dream that I longed to see: a united Britain where everyone lives in peace and prosperity. You don't need a king to bring you peace. Peace no longer lies on the shoulders of one, but the shoulders of all. So instead of ruling over you, I wish to learn about this time and work with you for the further glory of Britain." "Then... if you're not going take power, why did you return to this time?" asked Jenna. "Jenna! Don't talk to her Highness like that!" admonished Peter. Arturia raised a hand. "It's all right." She faced Jenna and told her honestly. "I did it for love."
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"Oh." Jenna covered her mouth partially with a hand. "I don't expect you to understand." Jenna nodded slightly. "I do understand. The House of Mellant was founded on it." Her eyes glanced down and noted the ring on her finger. "Is your Highness getting married soon?" Arturia was a bit startled, but not as surprised as Peter and Kyle. "Eventually, once my fiancée is ready." "Who is she?" asked Jenna. Peter's eyebrows went up. "She?" Jenna threw a sly look at the men. "Do you really expect King Arthur to yield to a man?" Then she drew herself up with pride. "Besides, King Arthur had a queen. Your Highness, may I be so bold as to offer my assistance for your wedding? I'd like the lessen the burden of planning on your fiancée." "And me as well!" added Peter quickly. "I have several properties which would be suitable for a reception." "And me too! My family owns several restaurants. We can provide catering." Arturia laughed. "I am grateful for your offers of assistance. But I have to consult with Rin first, since I am not acquainted with modern wedding customs." "Just leave it to me, your Highness! I can plan everything for you." "Now, wait just a second..." protested Peter. Arturia watched with wry amusement as the conversation escalated into an argument between the three. After a few minutes, Arturia clapped her hands loudly and spoke with authority in her voice. "Be silent and sit down!" They immediately stopped and took their seats with embarrassed looks on their faces. She cleared her throat. "In Camelot, the knights settled their differences by jousting. Perhaps, you can decide your duties in a similar fashion." Kyle announced his challenge. "18 Holes!" "You're on." accepted Peter. Then he paused. "But what about Jenna?" "I can play." When Peter's jaw dropped, she added cheekily, "What, don't think a woman can play?" Peter chuckled a little. "Sorry. Didn't mean to offend you. You don't look like the type." Jenna just shook her head in exasperation. Then she composed herself and gave Arturia a card. "Your Highness, if there's anything you need, please don't hesitate to call me." Peter and Kyle offered their cards as well. Arturia smiled at their enthusiasm as she accepted the cards. "Thank you, all." Then a thought occurred to her, and she decided to ask them since she had their attention. "Actually, since I am not familiar with modern customs, may I ask for some suggestions on what to give Rin for Christmas?" In an instant, Arturia was inundated with suggestions. Each suggestion was countered with a reason why it was not acceptable. And once again, the conversation escalated into another argument. But this time, Arturia let them argue. To be among friends like these was just too amusing. ----After they left the hotel, Arturia thought that Eileen was driving back to the Aerie. Instead, she drove through a heavily forested park and even left the paved road to drive through a dusty path. They parked at a small clearing and went on foot until they reached another clearing where a circle of stones was arranged. Three men and a woman were seated on small boulders within the circle of stones. They stood up on their approach. When they were close enough, Eileen stepped aside and the four spoke in unison. "Hail Arturia Pendragon ab Uther, former High King of Britain." Eileen gestured to a tall young man with very blond hair. "Your Highness, allow me to introduce Lord Alvin, descendant of Taliesin and current Lord of the Pentacle." Alvin bowed. "Please have a seat, your Highness."
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When Arturia was seated, Eileen introduced the rest. Each one bowed as Eileen made the introduction. First was a middle-aged woman with graying black hair. "Your Highness, this is Amelia, descendant of Merlin Ambrosius." She gestured to a plump middle-aged man with balding brown hair. "This is Vincent, descendant of Vivian of the Lake." Then she gestured to an elderly man with a white beard and thick glasses. "This is Luke, descendant of Lailoken of the Woods." "I am pleased to meet all of you. But if I remember correctly, the Pentacle has five mages." "Yes. Marlen is the fifth. I am here on her behalf." explained Eileen as she sat down on a leveled boulder. "Oh." Her eyes wandered from face to face. The last time she met with the Pentacle was before her coronation. She wondered why they had gathered here. Her eyes rested on Alvin. As Lord of the Pentacle, he would lead the conversation. She did not have to wait too long before Alvin spoke. "Your Highness, we have listened to your meeting with the descendants of the knights. Despite all of that, we implore you to be our king as well as theirs. But our reasons are different. We want a king who could not be influenced by magic. We want a king who is unfettered by modern politics... a king who would rule by just and humane morality. As our king, you would preside over not just the British mages, but the entire European mage population." Arturia was stunned. "Why me?" "Because you were chosen by Caliburn." answered Amelia. "It's fate." "For generations, my family kept Excalibur and Avalon for the one who would wield it. They turned away so many kings until they accepted you. You are the chosen one." added Vincent. "With Excalibur and Avalon, you are immune to most magic. That makes it difficult to threaten you. It also makes it easy to enforce justice on errant mages." "The stars foretold your birth and your rise to the throne. There were signs in the heavens on your return to this time as well." said Luke with an air of mystery. "You were once king over both normal and magical people. As far as people are concerned, then and now aren't that much different." said Amelia. "The current royalty is not aware of the presence of magical people nor would they understand us. Our issues are too different from normal people. But you have experienced both worlds. We understand that you are new to the modern world. We are prepared to wait until you are ready to assume the throne. All we ask is that you please keep us in mind." said Alvin. Arturia sighed and gave a speech similar to the one that she gave Peter, Kyle and Jenna. After she was done, she saw that she was not able to convince any of them to give up the request to be the king. In the end, she gave up and just said, "Let me think about it." ----She heard a careful step behind her and a soft rustle of clothing. Arturia smiled and returned her attention to the historical video before her. She did not have to wait long until Rin's hands cupped her eyes. "Guess who?" "The man of my dreams?" "What?!" exclaimed Rin in a sharp tone. Arturia stood up and wrapped Rin in her arms. "My greatest treasure?" Rin smiled winsomely. "Better." She awarded her prize. After several sweet kisses, Rin drew away and asked, "How's it going?" Arturia eyed the stack of DVDs. "I'm watching the Industrial age now. There's a lot to learn." She laughed. "It's hard to believe that dinosaurs existed."
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"If you think that's unbelievable, wait till you watch the Americans land on the Moon." "What?! Really?" "Yeah. You'll see. Anyway, I came to ask if you'd like to come with me to the Academy." Arturia's eyes brightened. The videos were interesting, but she had not gone outside for a week. "Of course! I'd love to see it. When?" "Tomorrow. I have to register for classes and deliver a package for Master." "Okay. Just fetch me. You know where to find me." Rin kissed her. "Break's over. Gotta go back." Arturia kissed her back. "See you at dinner." ----They entered a grand hall with two corridors extending to the right and to the left. Rin led her aside to one of the benches along the wall. "In the Academy, mages have to wear robes." She touched a bracelet on her wrist and her clothes changed to a red robe with a silver cross embroidered in front. A triangular piece of cloth with embroidered symbols was draped over her right shoulder. On the sleeves of the robe was the emblem of the Tohsaka. Arturia gasped slightly. She recognized the robe from her dreams. Rin looked at her. "What's wrong?" "I've seen this robe in my dreams, especially the one during the mana transfer." Her eyes shone with wonder and she cupped Rin's hand between hers. "It was you all along. I should've realized it sooner." Rin blushed and glanced around for people who might be watching them. Then she took Arturia's hand in hers. "Let's go. I want to show you the Academy." They visited the classrooms, the large lecture halls, the training halls and the library. Then they went to the dorms. Rin led her to the hilly slope behind the dorms. She swept her hand across the landscape below. "This was my view from my dorm room." "It's beautiful..." breathed Arturia. For several minutes, they stood there and watched. As Arturia's eyes wandered over the thriving fields and the bustling town, joy filled her heart. To see people living peacefully in the land that she loved so much overwhelmed her restraint and a tear sprang from her eye. Then she remembered Bedivere's question before she lost consciousness after the battle of Camlann. "Do you behold it, King Arthur? The continuation of your dream..." A gentle warmth flowed through her as she watched the valley below. She could answer it now. "I see it, Bedivere... the continuation of my dream..." Then she glanced at Rin. "...and a new future." They watched the valley in silence for a while. So many things had happened to bring them to this moment. Once again, Arturia thanked God for His kindness. Then she turned to Rin and asked, "Where's your room?" Rin pointed to a window on the fifth floor. "Third window from the right. I can't show it to you since someone else is living there." Then a thought occurred to her and she took Arturia's hand. "But I know someone who lives in that building." They went up to the fourth floor and made their way to a room. Rin knocked on the door. The door opened after a few moments. "Hey, Rin. Long time no see." greeted a brunette who was about five and half feet tall and wore thick glasses. Freckles adorned her pert face. "I was beginning to think you weren't coming back. Come on in. I'll get your mail in a sec." "Sorry. I couldn't send any letters from where I was. By the way, this is Arturia. Arturia, this is Gail. We studied together in school." Rin closed the door behind her and tried not to bump the piles of books and scrolls all over the room.
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Gail extracted a box from a pile and put it on the desk. She extended a hand to Arturia. "Nice to meetcha." Arturia shook her hand. "I'm pleased to meet you." Gail looked her up and down and smirked at Rin. "So... when's the wedding?" Rin and Arturia twitched. "How... how did you know?" asked Rin. "Matching rings was a tip-off. And her face looks like the sketches you'd do in class. Especially the hairstyle." Rin blushed. Was she that obvious? To change the subject, she went to the desk and looked in the box. "Umm... is this my mail?" "Yup. That's all of it." Then she added, "Blimey, Rin... You don't have to be embarrassed in front of me. I'm a modern woman. It's not like I haven't heard of same-sex relationships before. There are lots of couples like that in school." "Really?" "Yup." Gail counted with her fingers. "Helen and Ivy. Olga and Zelra. Tina and Yeshwe. Jasper and Nelson. Plus, Master Jill and Master Falia." "What?" Rin could not believe that the professors of astrology and predictive arts were seeing each other. "Yup. Betcha no one saw that coming but them." Rin laughed heartily and Gail laughed with her. Good old Gail. Quiet, attentive and reliable, Gail was her partner for the projects that required teamwork. Rin gathered the mail out of the box and stuffed them in her bag under her robe. "Hey, do you mind if I show Arturia the view?" "Sure." Gail waved her hand and parted the curtains. Rin and Arturia looked outside for a minute. "Are you graduating soon?" "Staying for another semester. Are you taking grad?" "Yeah. I'm here to register." "Well, you better get going before the office closes. I'm going to the library in a bit, so I'll probably run into you later." "Okay, see you later." They left the dorms and went to the professor's hall. Rin wanted to deliver Marlen's package first. She knocked on Master Skalyon's door. Meanwhile, Arturia leaned on the wall to wait for her. "Come in." Rin opened the door. An elderly man with a single spectacle over his right eye peered at her behind a desk piled high with scrolls and books. The walls of the office were lined with strange artifacts and mutated modern gadgets. "Master Skalyon, I have a package for you." She handed him the package. Skalyon tore the package open and gently lifted what appeared to be a GPS with an old-fashioned compass attached to its top rim. "Ah, splendid..." he muttered. After playing with it for a while, he put it back in the box and took a letter out of the box. He opened the letter and read it. "Rin Tohsaka?" "Yes?" "Please thank Renierre for the gift. Are you studying here?" "Umm.... I'll be taking graduate classes next semester." "Do you have an advisor yet?" "No... I was thinking of asking Master Arase." "Arase already has a dozen students working for him. Do you really want your thesis to be the same as a dozen other people?" Rin blinked. She had not thought about it that way. "Well... I guess not." "Renierre studied under me. She found my work very interesting. I'm sure you will too. And, I have
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no students at the moment." Rin was not sure why Skalyon referred to Marlen as Renierre instead of Emrys. She would have to ask Marlen later. However, one fact remained. If Marlen studied under him, then he must be very old. The man must be at least an Emeritus. "Forgive my ignorance, but what is your field of study?" "Pre-Roman lore and amalgam magic." "Oh. I have to say that I haven't done amalgam magic before." "All the more reason to study under me. Anyway, I won't force you if you really want Arase. But I'd pleased to have you." "Thank you. But first, I have to register before the office closes. Bye, Master Skalyon." "Bye." Skalyon made a small wave. Rin stepped out and closed the door. They left the hall and went to the registrar's office. She selected two classes. After a moment of thought, she wrote down Skalyon's name under advisor. It would be interesting to see how Marlen was taught. They were walking by the library when Gail caught up with them. "Done with registration?" "Yeah. Are you taking Advanced Alchemy?" "Yup. Need a partner?" "Sure do." Suddenly, Gail grabbed her arm. "Let's go this way. He's coming." They did not get very far when a haughty male voice called to her. "Hey, Tohsaka!" A rustle of feet sounded behind them. Rin bristled. She turned around to face Perecroft and his friends while hiding her left hand under her robe. "Hello, Perecroft." "Let's go to the Christmas ball." Rin's eyebrows arched. "Ball?" "You should've gotten your invite. You got yours, right Trollworth?" "It's Traleworth you ass. And yes, I got mine." "Top five students from each class get invites. Since Troll's number five, you should've gotten yours. You can meet me at the manor at 5 PM sharp." "I haven't agreed to go with you, Perecroft." "Why not? I'm the top guy, you're the top girl." "'Cause I don't want to. Let's go, Gail." They turned around to leave, but Perecroft spoke with a leer. "Sorry, Troll. I won't ask you. And don't ever call me ass again." Gail let out a surprised scream as her robe and skirt flicked up to reveal everything below her waist. There was blur and a crack. When Rin turned around, Perecroft was lying unconscious on the grass about five feet away. A bruise was beginning to form on his jaw. "For shame! Don't ever treat a lady so rudely!" scolded Arturia even though her intended target was knocked out. Rin just grabbed her arm and ran. Gail ran with them. Meanwhile, Perecroft's friends shook themselves out of their stunned disbelief. The taller one took out his wand. "Bitches..." He was about to run after them when his friend stopped him. "Don't go, mate." "Why not?" "'Cause that girl broke through his barrier." His mouth fell open. "Shiiit..." Meanwhile, the three of them ran until Rin felt like they were far enough away. Rin and Gail panted to
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catch their breath while Arturia looked back as if she was checking for pursuers. Gail sat down on a bench. "Wow, Arturia... what did you do?" "I punched him." "I know that, but how did you get past his barrier?" "What barrier?" Rin intervened. "He probably forgot to put it up. Arturia got lucky. Anyway, we have to get going. Take care." "You too. Bye." Gail waved. "Bye." Gail stared at them as they left. "What are you hiding, Rin?" she asked silently. She decided to go to the ball after all. Perecroft would be there. If Rin went with Arturia, things would certainly get very interesting. And that was something she did not want to miss. ----After they returned to the Aerie, Rin told Marlen what happened in Skalyon's office. Marlen nodded approvingly. "I guarantee that you won't be bored at all." "Master, may I ask a question that might be personal?" "What is it?" "Skalyon called you Renierre." "Oh, that. Maman's maiden name. After the incident with Vortigern, the Emrys didn't want people to pry into our private lives. So when we deal with the outside world, we use the last name of our other mother." "Oh. Makes sense." After she finished with Marlen, Rin went back to her room. As if on cue, Arturia exited her room and followed her in. Rin dumped her mail on her desk. Sure enough, the invitation was there. She tore it open and read it. The ball was on December 20th. "Let's go Rin." said Arturia who was looking over her shoulder. Rin glanced up. Arturia's eyes glinted with eagerness. "You don't mind being with me in front of strangers?" "No. Do you?" "Well... I... no. I don't mind." Why did she feel so uncertain? What was she afraid of? Arturia clasped her hand. "Rin... if it bothers you, then let's not go." Rin swallowed. She must face it. "It doesn't. We'll go." "But if you change your mind, just let me know. All right?" "Okay." "It's getting late. Shall we go to bed?" Rin's face brightened up. "Sure." ----The moment of truth had come. Rin walked nervously behind her godfather within the Einzbern manor. They went to a large room and discussed the spells that were in place. Then they descended to the lower levels by a hidden elevator. As they examined the traps and barriers, Rin tried to make elementary suggestions that would be appropriate for someone who just graduated and purposely held back advanced techniques that she learned from the Emrys. Finally, after four days of consulting, they finished revising all the traps and barriers. When they left the manor, her godfather praised her for all her suggestions. "Well done, Rin! By the way, the paperwork should be done by the beginning of next year."
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"Thank you, godfather. You give me too much credit though. They took a lot of your suggestions." "Hahahaha... they certainly did. Anyway, Suzumi and I will be touring Germany for the rest of the week. Do you want to come with us?" "Ummm... no, thank you, godfather. I have to meet with my advisor over my graduate work." "Oh? Who's your advisor?" "Skalyon." "Hmmm... he's an eccentric one. When I was there, I heard he only takes one student. But I also heard he's really good. But if you want another advisor, try Welltinton." "I'm sorry, godfather. Welltinton passed away on my third year." "Oh, a shame. Well, good luck with Skalyon then." They returned to their hotel and her godfather went back to his room while Rin went to hers. As soon as she got to her room, she called to book her flight. She missed Arturia so much. ----Marlen grinned widely after Rin made her report. "You did well, Rin. I don't think they noticed anything." "Thank you, Master." She beamed happily with her praise. Marlen put an arm around Nell's neck and Nell stood up with her in her arms. "This calls for a celebration. Be prepared for a full French course for dinner. We'll get you bleeding drunk tonight." ----Rin woke up with a dreadful hangover the next day. But she smiled happily. As an added bonus, Marlen allowed her to stay at Sakura's place until the ball. Eileen even gave her permission to use one of the BMWs. The door opened and Arturia came in with a tray of food. Rin glanced at her watch. 1:54 PM. "How are you feeling?" "I want my head chopped off." "That's unacceptable. It'll be so hard heal you. Can't you do something about it?" "Maybe... I'll have to look up a potion for it." "Michelle made some soup for you." Rin sat up and let Arturia setup the bed tray for her. She cheerfully played the part of the helpless patient and let Arturia feed her. After eating, her head was still aching, but she felt a little better. "Eileen said that she'll drive us over tonight." "But how will she get back?" Arturia laughed. "Silly. She can fly." "Oh yeah." They laughed together. It was good to be home. ----To celebrate their visit, Sakura made a delicious japanese meal. Rin's mouth watered at the sight. After the harsh German cuisine, the sight of japanese food was very appealing. They ate with much appetite and finished almost all of the entrees. Then they helped Sakura clear the table and wash the dishes. After that, they watched a movie before going to bed. The bed in the second bedroom was smaller than the beds in the Aerie, but comfortable enough for two. Arturia began to kiss her gently. Soon, their exchange of kisses ignited flames of desire, so Rin locked the door and cast silentium. After their raging passion consumed itself, they snuggled against each other and dreamt the night away.
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The morning greeted them with the sound of Sakura cooking in the kitchen. Rin looked at her watch drowsily and decided to stay in bed a little longer. Suddenly, there was a knock on their door. "Nee-san?" Before she could react, the door opened. The best that Rin could manage was to pull the blankets over her shoulders and Arturia's. Sakura's wide eyes met her panicked ones. Her hand covered her mouth. "S--- sorry..." She hastily exited and closed the door behind her. Rin cursed internally. It did not help that their nightgowns and underwear were on the floor. But wait. She was certain that she locked the door. How was Sakura able to open it? Later that day, she left the house and used the crystal to call Marlen. Marlen's image floated within the crystal. She told her what happened. Marlen looked thoughtful. "It's rare, but there have been accounts of spontaneous sorcery. I wouldn't be surprised if your sister is such a case." "What should I do, Master?" "Continue to teach her, of course. The more she understands how to control her power, the less the chances of 'accidents' happening. I hate to say this, but unless she shows a greater degree of control, I can't let her in the Aerie. There are too many magical things around that may react to her." Rin perked up. "Does that mean that I should stay with her longer?" Marlen's face darkened for a moment and then she sighed. "Yes, I suppose so. We can arrange for you to do your studies over there and only come here when I need you." Rin jumped with joy internally. "Thank you, Master. Is there anything you need at the moment?" "No. Just carry on and let me know if anything strange happens." "Of course." "Cheerio." The crystal went dark. Rin smiled widely and pocketed it before returning to the house. The days passed peacefully. One afternoon, Rin was brushing Sakura's hair when she noticed that her roots were black. She glanced at the mirror and also noted that her purple eyes were tinted with a shade of blue. "Sakura... your eyes..." "Hmmm?" Sakura stared at the mirror. "You mean this? Shiro said that the Matou cast a spell on me. Before he left, he broke the spell." She looked up at Rin. "I can feel it, Nee-san. Soon, I'll be my real self." Rin's eyes brimmed with tears. "I look forward to it." She brushed her hair and braided it. "There. All done." Sakura shifted left and right to look at the braids. "It's pretty! Thank you." "You're welcome." A shuffle near the doorway caught her attention. Arturia stood there with her hair down. "Er... my ribbon came off." Rin laughed. "Come here." Sakura stood up to let Arturia sit in front of the mirror. She walked out of the room quietly, but turned around to watch Rin brush Arturia's hair. Arturia breathed a contented sigh as Rin ran the brush through in gentle strokes. Then she gathered up a lock of hair and let it cascade through her fingers in a falling shower of gold. Sakura felt like she was intruding, so she padded away silently to let them have some privacy. ----They arrived at the ball in Marlen's BMW sedan. Before they exited, they put on their masks. The masks covered the upper half of their face, but exposed their mouths and lower cheeks. They followed Eileen and Michelle into the reception room where they were asked to sign in using pseudonyms. Arturia wrote down "Bedivere and Airianne". They were given an armband with 'Bedi231

vere' on it and a wide ribbon with 'Airianne'. "Why those names?" whispered Rin as she pinned the ribbon on her dress. Arturia slipped the armband on. "No reason." Then they went into the grand ballroom. Eileen and Michelle immediately engaged in conversation with other people. Rin looked about with her magesight and tried to unmask the attendees. The object of the masquerade was to hide one's identity and to let the other person guess who you are. If the guess was correct, the mask will dissolve. So far, Eileen was leaving a trail of unmasked attendees in her wake. She got excited when she recognized a few professors. And then she frowned. Their masking spell was too simple. Did they want to be recognized? Then Rin noticed that Arturia was staring at the fruit table, particularly, the tray of strawberries. She chuckled to herself. She led her to the table and they selected some fruit. They went to an empty table and ate. While they ate, they watched the attendees who wore a variety of outfits from the medieval era to the modern time. Rin laughed at the sight of a matching couple of Elvis impersonators. There was a daring couple wearing revealing Greek tunics. She ran a hand on the gown she wore to the first ball she ever went to. Wearing it felt like reliving that night again. She glanced at Arturia who was wearing her outfit from that ball. She wore the blue double tailed waistcoat and white breeches. Instead of a bun, her hair was tied back with a ponytail and thin ribbon. She looked so dashing. About ten minutes later, the emcee got their attention with a fanfare of trumpets. They listened to the welcome speech. But what caught Rin's attention was the contest. Several types of dances would be held. The Pentacle would judge the dances and award the title Lord and Lady of the Dance to the couple who won the most points. The winning couple would also be allowed to extract a magical artifact from the Chest of Wonders. Dinner would be served first, followed by a resting period and then the dance contest. About fifteen minutes after the emcee was finished, Eileen and Michelle joined them at their table for dinner. Both of them were already unmasked. Rin wondered who could have guessed their identities. Dinner was a choice of a succulent steak or grilled salmon with braised vegetables. An open bar provided a variety of drinks which Eileen and Michelle took advantage of. When they were finished with dinner, Rin and Arturia wandered off to explore the ballroom. She was not expecting to find it, and was elated to discover it. Rin selected one that was in an area with less people around. "Are you familiar with this custom?" Rin pointed at the mistletoe. Arturia's eyes brightened. "Yes." She reached up and plucked a berry off the mistletoe. Then she took Rin in her arms and did her best to kiss her even with their masks in the way. After their first kiss, she reached up again. "We should leave some for other people." She plucked another berry. "Let them find their own mistletoe." Rin laughed heartily and savored another kiss. When the berries were gone, they went back to their table. Eileen and Michelle had resumed their unmasking frenzy. To pass the time, Rin pointed out all the people she recognized and what they did at the Academy. However, she was surprised to see Gail and Wilbur. She was tempted to call them over, but that might reveal their identity. Instead, she pointed them out to Arturia. "There's Gail in the green dress. The short fat boy next to her is Wilbur. He ranked third in the Academy. He may look harmless, but he's very smart." To her great chagrin, she also recognized Perecroft among the crowd. Thankfully, he was too busy bothering some professors. Around ten minutes later, the emcee announced the first dance of the contest to be the Jive. Rin peered over the heads of the dancers to see five masked mages sitting at a table on a raised platform. They were surprised to see Michelle return alone.
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"Where's Eileen?" asked Arturia. "Marlen isn't here, so she took her place." "Oh." Rin craned her neck and tried to identify Eileen. Unfortunately, her magesight could not penetrate any of the masks. They watched the dancers and voted for the ones they liked. They repeated this for each dance. Finally, the emcee announced the final dance: the Waltz. Arturia grinned widely and touched Rin's hand. Rin paled under her mask while Michelle laughed. "Go, ma cherie. Don't worry about winning. Just enjoy yourselves." Arturia stood up and went to Rin's side. "Milady, may I have this dance?" Rin hesitated for a moment and then put her hand on Arturia's upturned palm. Arturia escorted her to the dance floor as if she were presenting a beautiful blossom to the world. They faced each other and bowed before assuming the proper position. When the music started, they flowed through its rhythms. Eye to eye, they felt each other's movements and responded with elegant grace. Arturia led Rin in time with the music, tracing intricate patterns across the floor. Rin answered in kind, and their swaying bodies moved as one. When the music ended, they reluctantly parted and bowed to signal the end of the dance. Suddenly, they heard clapping all around them. When they looked around, they saw the other dancers and the audience clapping. They blushed under their masks and bowed to receive the applause. Then they made their way back to their table. Michelle beamed at them proudly. "Magnifique! Both of you were so beautiful!" exclaimed Michelle as she hugged them. "Thank you." "Thanks." The emcee announced that while the votes were being tallied, the floor was open to free dance. Rock music began to play and people milled onto the dance floor. Michelle grabbed both of their hands. "Come, mon amies. Let's dance." "But I don't know how to dance to this." protested Arturia. "It doesn't matter. Just follow along." They walked back onto the dance floor. Rin could feel the weight of stares in their direction. She hoped that her masking spell would keep her identity secret. About twenty minutes later, Eileen came back. Michelle whirled her and dipped her. "Dahling, what took you so long?" Eileen giggled. "We had to make sure that each ballot was valid." Michelle gave a mocking laugh. "I can just imagine their faces when they get an artifact from the Chest." Eileen winked. "All in good fun." Then the emcee caught everyone's attention. He announced each dance and invited the winners to come to the stage. It became evident who would be the Lord and Lady of the Dance when a couple won thrice. Then the emcee announced the winners of the waltz. "Bedivere and Airianne! Please come to the stage." They walked to the stage amidst the applause and whistles of the attendees. Then they stood there with the three other couples. "And now, ladies and gentlemen... let me present the Lord and Lady of the Dance! Aladdin and Leah!" The crowd clapped loudly and cheered as the couple waved and blew kisses to the crowd. A cart with the Chest stopped before them and each of them pulled out a colorfully wrapped box. "And now, for the moment you've all been waiting for! Winners, please remove your masks and accept your glory." The Lord and Lady flung off their masks and the crowd cheered. The other winners took off their masks as well. Meanwhile, Rin was petrified. Her hands trembled slightly as her eyes took in the large crowd before her. She glanced at Arturia who stood just as still. She was waiting for her.
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Rin drew a shuddering breath. She could do this. She did not mind. Not at all. Her hands slowly rose to her face and removed the mask. It disappeared in a shower of sparks. In the audience, she could see the surprised looks of Gail, Wilbur, Perecroft and the professors from the Academy. That's right. She should not care about what they would think. A shower of sparks beside her indicated that Arturia took hers off. The surprised expressions turned to incredulous ones. Wilbur's mouth moved and Gail slapped her hand over it. A sinking feeling sank in Rin's stomach. They might have seen them by the mistletoe. Meanwhile, Perecroft glared with obvious malice at Arturia. After accepting a bouquet of flowers, the winners left the stage. The floor was open for free dance once again. They went back to their table. People came by and complimented them. A few minutes later, Gail and Wilbur visited them. Their masks were already gone. "That was absolutely brill!" said Gail. "Y--yeah... Y--you were g--great." said Wilbur. Poor Wilbur. If he did not have a stutter, he would be a great mage. But he was able to work around it by practicing silent incantation. Rin smiled sincerely at both of them. "Thanks. By the way, Wilbur, this is Arturia." Wilbur extended his hand. "N--nice t-- meet y--you." Arturia shook his hand. "I'm pleased to meet you." "Hey, Rin, did you see them?" "See who?" "The Pentacle. I tried, even with my Lens of Misillusion, but I couldn't see them." "No. I didn't." "But yours was good too! I didn't recognize you." Then her face twisted with annoyance. "That ass Perecroft unmasked us. By the way, that snotty git is probably planning something. Be careful, okay?" "Always. Thanks for the warning though." They talked about school for a few minutes before Eileen and Michelle danced by and hustled them all onto the dance floor. Soon, they were laughing at each other over their awkward attempts to dance. However, when the music switched to a waltz, some dancers, including Eileen and Michelle, stopped to watch Rin and Arturia. "They dance so well." remarked Eileen. "Dahling, they're not just dancing." corrected Michelle with a twinkle in her eye. Just then, Arturia dipped Rin and gazed at her longingly. For several moments, they seemed frozen in that position as Rin answered in kind. Then Arturia drew her up and resumed their slow waltz. Eileen released her bated breath. After the dip, she expected Arturia to kiss Rin. She glanced over to her wife who followed them with her eyes fondly. Deliberately, she stepped before her to block her view. Michelle arched her eyebrow. She extended her hand. "Shall we try it their way, my lady?" Michelle smiled, crinkling the soft wrinkles around her mouth. She took Eileen's hand. "Lead the way, my Emrys." Around eleven, the guests began to leave. Thankfully, Eileen and Michelle wore themselves out and wanted to go home. They made their way out. Rin was not surprised to see Perecroft waiting outside. "I've a score to settle with you, bitch. I challenge you to a duel." "Where?" said Arturia, indicating her acceptance. "Over here." They followed Perecroft to an open area on the snow-covered parking lot. Rin glanced back and was surprised to see Gail and Wilbur following them along with other attendees. "Rin, what are the rules of the duel?" asked Arturia. "You pretty much beat each other up with spells and weapons until one of you yields or falls unconscious, or in some cases... dies." Rin's face hardened. "But killing your opponent counts as murder even
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in a duel." "I see. Can you give me a sword?" Rin conjured a steel sword and handed it to her. Then Arturia strode toward Perecroft. Perecroft stood about twenty-five feet away from Arturia and took out his wand which elongated into a staff. His clothes melted away into a black battle outfit with reinforced armor over vulnerable areas. "Hey Kincade! We need a referee." Wilbur waddled over and stood off to the side equidistant from Perecroft and Arturia. He took out his wand. Crisscrossing beams of light flowed from him and formed walls twenty feet high to his left and right until the walls formed a fence around the duelers' battle area. The fence defined a battle area of fifty feet wide and seventy feet long. Meanwhile, everyone else stood about thirty feet away from the fence. "D--duel ends w--when..." "Skip that. I'm going to win anyway." boasted Perecroft. "R--ready... s--set... g-" Perecroft leveled his staff. "Fireball!" A ball of flame sped towards Arturia. She crouched very low and sprinted to the side, slashing left and right. The flame angled upwards and flew harmlessly into the sky. Perecroft fired again, but somehow the flame veered when she slashed with her sword. She was getting closer. He concentrated and manipulated the fireball for speed instead of power. "Let's see you dodge this..." He released it. To his great chagrin, she dove to the ground and rolled. The fireball missed her by mere inches and punched a hole through the fence. Still on the ground, she slashed across, and the snow before her flew up in a flurry of white. Snow hit his barrier and he cursed as it covered his view. He cast a low power heat spell to melt the snow and looked at where Arturia was before. She was not there and he could not tell where she went because there was no snow to show her footprints. Suddenly, he heard a loud crack behind him. He whirled around and blacked out as strong blow hit his jaw. "W--win g--goes to A--Arturia." declared Wilbur proudly. With a wave of his wand, the fence disappeared. The audience nearby clapped. Arturia dusted the snow off her clothes and walked to where Rin was. "Shall we go?" "Yes." She turned to Gail who was still wearing her Lens of Misillusion. "I hope you enjoyed the fight. Anyway, Happy Holidays and I'll see you next year." Gail took off her Lens. "Happy Holidays, Rin... and Arturia. Take care, both of you." Wilbur waited until Rin and Arturia left in their car. Then he turned to Gail. "W--what d--did y--you s--see?" "Oh my God... I think she's a class A Paladin." Wilbur's jaw dropped. "No w--way..." Gail rubbed her hands to warm them up. "I'll tell you in the car." Before they walked back to the car, she went over to the unconscious Perecroft and kicked dirt into his face. She was so glad she came to the ball. ----They celebrated a quiet Christmas dinner with Sakura. When the clock announced midnight, they opened their presents. Sakura gave them matching hand knit scarves. They gave her a cute winter outfit and a down-filled winter coat. Arturia handed Rin an envelope. She opened it and found two tickets to a spa inside the Christmas card. Arturia smiled sheepishly. "My massages aren't really that good. I was told that this place is the
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best." Rin smiled back. "Don't say that. I love your massages. Anyway, here's your present." Arturia removed the wrapping and opened the box. Inside were several shirts and skirts of different colors. "You always seemed to be wearing that." said Rin, indicating the white shirt and blue skirt. "I hope you like these." Arturia tugged on her shirt. "This? Why shouldn't I wear it? It's your first gift to me." Rin blushed and hugged her. Suddenly, she felt self-conscious. Sakura was nearby. She pulled away. At Rin's rare display of affection, Sakura giggled at the sight. Then she yawned. "I think I'll go to bed now. Good night." "Good night." Rin and Arturia responded in chorus. Rin took Arturia's hand and whispered. "I have another present for you in our room." Arturia's eyebrows arched in curiosity and she let Rin lead her to their room. Rin handed her another present. She tore the giftwrap off. "Edible underwear. Strawberry flavored." she read. She gazed mischievously at Rin. "You're going to wear this for me?" "It's for you. You're supposed to wear it." protested Rin with an increasing blush on her cheeks. "But a gift is meant to be enjoyed by the receiver." Arturia pinned the box under her arm and began to unbutton Rin's blouse. Her eyes leered at her. "And only the receiver knows the best way to enjoy it." As her blouse fell to the floor, Rin almost regretted giving that kind of gift. ----After the New Year, they returned to Japan in order to make an attempt at summoning Archer on the fifth. Sakura wanted to go, but Marlen forbade it. Eileen felt sorry for her and told her that she would devise a way for her to see Shiro. Rin asked her how, but she merely smiled and said that it was a secret. On the day of the summoning, Eileen revealed how. Rin stared at the life-sized inflatable doll wearing a purple wig and a dress. "So you say that Sakura is somehow controlling this... doll?" "Yes. Say hello, Sakura." The doll waved a puffed up arm. "Hi..." "I knew she was weird... I just didn't understand how much." thought Rin. She began to pity poor Marlen who had no choice in being raised by two weird mothers. "Well... as long as she's not detected, it's fine." Rin etched out the summoning circle with the butt of her staff. This time, they moved the furniture to the adjoining room since Archer caused so much damage in it when he was summoned. After she was done, she began the ritual. She formed the image of Archer in her mind and concentrated. The magic circle glowed red. She could feel an energy similar to the one she experienced during the first summoning. Her heart began to beat excitedly and she tried to focus on finishing the incantation. The energy around her rose with each word, and with the final word, caused the magic circle to burst into streams of red light. Rin held her breath for a moment before opening her eyes. She looked around but only saw Arturia and Eileen's hopeful faces. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. It was too much to expect to succeed the first time. With a deep breath, she lifted her hands to make another attempt. Suddenly, there was a loud crash in the adjoining room. They rushed to the doorway. There, seated amongst the rubble and broken furniture, was Archer, or rather, Shiro. "So... which of you ladies is my master?" asked Shiro in a cocky tone. Rin recovered from her shock and conjured a harisen. "Sakura..." The inflatable doll grabbed the harisen and bounced over the rubble. It began to whack Shiro repeatedly.
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"How dare you! Don't you recognize me? This will teach you to leave me alone!" Arturia whispered in Rin's ear. "You trained her well." "What training?" "Oh... it's in her blood then." "Are you implying something?" "No. Not at all." Finally, the doll stopped, threw its arms around Shiro and cried. "You big dummy!" Shiro hugged the doll on reflex. A few moments later, he asked, "What am I doing?" Rin rubbed her forehead at the weirdness of the situation. She was glad that she decided to send the servants on vacation. "You're hugging Sakura. Well... not Sakura... she's controlling that doll since she can't be here." "Oooookaaaay....." Shiro carried the doll and walked out of the rubble. He put the doll down. "You're looking good, Rin." Then he turned to Arturia. "Nice to see you again, Saber." Without warning, he grabbed her shoulders and kissed her. Arturia's eyes bulged out in surprise. She pulled away and slapped him. Hard. As she wiped her mouth on her sleeve, she glared at him angrily. "Don't ever do that again." she growled. Then she put her arm around Rin and pulled her close. "You should take care of your wife, and I'll take care of mine." Shiro stared at them with disbelief. Then he ran his hand over his white hair. "Damn... I guess I'm too late. Oh well..." He went to the doll which appeared to be crying its eyes out, and looped an arm around its shoulders. "On second thought, I think I got the better bargain." The ensuing silence was only broken by pieces of rubble dropping from the hole in the ceiling. Then Rin bristled with indignation and conjured another harisen. "You jerk!" Rin wound up for a strike. But the doll held up its arm. "Stop it, Nee-san. This is my job." "Oh... okay..." She handed the harisen to the doll which proceeded to beat Shiro again. After things settled down, Rin introduced Shiro to Eileen. Then she ordered some take-out and made Shiro clean up the room. "So... when are we going to the Throne?" asked Shiro as he swept the floor. "Excuse me?" said Rin. "It's the root of all this mess. If the Throne is destroyed, there'll be no more wars." Rin simmered with anger. At least, Sakura did not hear him since Eileen dispelled the doll. "You've just gotten back! Can't you let up?" "No. I can't. Not when I have a chance to destroy it. Besides... a part of me is still in the Throne." "What?! Didn't I summon you?" Shiro nodded. "Yup. But as insurance, a part of the hero is left in the Throne to make sure he'll go back. Your summon was very good. I'll probably hang around for a month or two. But after that, I'll get pulled back." "Damn. We have to talk to Marlen about this." "Who's Marlen?" "My master. And her daughter." "Don't worry. We'll figure something out." assured Eileen. "I sure hope so..." said Shiro glumly. ----The take-out food was barely edible compared to Sakura's cooking. They cleaned up the dining table after eating. Rin yawned. The ritual consumed a lot of mana, and she felt sleepy. She and Arturia were halfway up the stairs when she heard the doorbell ring. She went back down the stairs and activated the gate monitor.
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Her heart leapt when she saw the shadowy face of her godfather in the dim light. With a press of a button, she released the gate and ran out to meet him. He stopped when he saw her halfway down the path. "Good evening, godfather." Rin bowed. "Good evening, Rin." responded Kurogami curtly. He paused for a moment and then asked, "Rin, is it true that you're seeing a girl?" Rin paled. "What...? Where did you hear that?" Kurogami's mouth drew to a tight line. "Yoshida-san heard a rumor at the Academy. It's not true, right?" Yoshida was one of her suitors. During their 'date', he told her that he was a third year at the Academy. "I never bother with rumors, godfather. It's beneath me. Anyway, please come in. It's cold." "Then explain this to me." He pulled a picture out from his pocket. It was a picture of her and Arturia dancing at the ball. "That's her, isn't it? The girl who was here last November." Trapped like a mouse, Rin was forced to agree. "Yes." She could not say anything more. Words caught in her throat. Kurogami's warm breath billowed like smoke in the cold air. "Rin, you're the only heir of the Tohsaka. It's your duty to continue the Tohsaka line." His voice dropped like the temperature around them. "I hate to do this to you, but I have no choice. You have six months in which to find a husband and get married. He doesn't have to be a mage. Just someone you like." Rin's eyes blazed in defiance, but she did her best to remain calm. "What if I don't?" "Then the estate will go to your next of kin. One of your cousins." "I see. Is there anything else you want to talk about, godfather?" she asked icily. "No." He paused and stared at her with a melancholic look in his eye. "I love you like a daughter, Rin. But I have to do my duty. I hope you'll do yours. Good night." He turned on his heel and walked back to the gate. Rin watched him leave before heading back into the house. As soon as she closed the door, Arturia and Shiro came over. "Rin... I'm so sorry that being with me is difficult for you." said Arturia with a breaking voice as she reached for Rin's hands. Rin's eyes widened. Shiro shrugged. "Sorry, Rin. I saw you talking, so I read his lips and told Arturia what he said." Rin embraced Arturia closely. "It doesn't matter what he thinks. You're the one I want." That's right. Even though she worked hard for her original goal of becoming a worthy heir, that was not the goal she wanted anymore. She held her tighter. She would damn anyone who would prevent her from enjoying the fruit of her labors. "But what about the estate?" "The money would be nice to have, but it also comes with duties to the allies of the Tohsaka, which includes the Matou and the Einzbern. After being in Germany, I don't want to be around them again." Sakura's face flashed in her mind. "I don't need the estate. I already have what I need." She tenderly touched her left arm. "Rin... I... I can't give you any children." Her heart stopped. The reality hit her and her muscles went rigid as understanding crept into her mind. The Tohsaka were not defined by wealth or influence. They were defined by the strength of their magic. It was their pride, their true power. For generations, this power was transferred to the child who was born with the magic seal. Goosebumps erupted on her left arm as her seal stirred with mana. Even if her next of kin took over the estate, even if his last name was Tohsaka, he would not be a true Tohsaka without the seal. Was she selfish enough to abandon their pride, the magic that defined who they were? But there was one more Tohsaka who had a strong magic circuit even without the seal. She hoped and prayed silently for forgiveness. "I'm so sorry for this burden, Sakura..." She took Arturia's hands, steeled her voice and spoke carefully to mask her loss. "I know. But even so, please stay with me." "Oh, Rin..." Arturia buried her face in her shoulder and let a tear seep from her eye. "I love you."
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"I love you too." Rin moved to kiss her. "Aherrrmmm..." Shiro cleared his throat noisily. "I'm still here, y'know." Her eyes narrowed into slits. "Perv. You don't have to stay and watch, y'know." He threw up his hands. "Suit y'self... I'm going to bed. I do get a bed, right?" "Yeah. Turn right after the stairs, three doors to the left." After Shiro disappeared up the stairs, Rin asked, "Shall we go to bed?" Arturia looked into her eyes. "As long as you want me in it, sure." Rin laughed and kissed her lightly. "Always." ----"Well... that certainly throws a wrench into the whole thing." remarked Marlen after she heard their story. "If it wasn't for that, I'd say you'd be barmy to try. Getting Shiro back is just a matter of careful planning, since Rin knows the layout. But give me a day to plan." "We need to destroy the Throne." said Shiro firmly. "You and what army?" "I still have most of my servant powers, and so does Arturia. You can help too." "Leave me out of it!" said Marlen angrily. "As a member of the Pentacle, I have to stay neutral. Knowledge of my involvement will start a feud." Her face darkened. "And if you insist on destroying the Throne, then I won't help you at all. Nor will I allow Rin to help you. The Emrys have worked too hard to help her and Arturia. I won't let them risk their lives for you." Shiro glared at her and then stalked out of the rose garden like a spoiled child. Marlen sighed and rubbed her temples. "We have to watch out for him. He'll change his agenda at the last minute. I'll have to figure out a way to restrain him if he decides to destroy the Throne when you go there." "Why is it difficult to destroy the Throne?" "Because it can draw upon the spirits within it to defend itself. Even if you manage to destroy it, your mana will be depleted, and you can't defend yourself against the Einzbern." Marlen paused, and when she spoke, there was an edge of anger in her voice. "But that boy... doesn't care if he comes back or not. He gave up everything to be a hero of justice, and it looks like he's still at it." "How do you know that?" "I just know." Marlen put her arm around Nell's neck. Then Nell stood up and carried her. "I need some time to think. I'll let you know when I have a plan. Meanwhile, watch him. If he starts acting strange, call me." "Yes, Master." Rin held the door for them and followed them out of the rose garden. ----It was almost too easy. Rin hated to admit it, but foreknowledge of the traps and barriers came in handy. After she opened the portal, she cast Levitiam on Shiro and Arturia so that they could fly to the throne. About halfway to the Throne, the bracelets on Shiro's wrists crackled with energy. "I am the bone of my sword..." Arturia's eyes flashed with alarm. She dove toward Shiro to restrain him before he could complete the spell. Rin could only watch helplessly as they wrestled each other in midair. "My, what a surprise... I didn't expect to see you here, Tohsaka Rin." Her head whirled toward the sound of that gruff German voice. A tall man with graying hair and a cropped beard gazed at her. He wore a black outfit with white gloves. Even though he was standing
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next to her, Rin did not sense his approach. Her hands trembled as she gripped her staff. He leaned on his cane and turned his gaze into the portal. "Kiritsugu's servant? No... not a servant anymore." His German was thick and Rin had to listen carefully to understand. For a few moments, he watched Shiro and Arturia wrestle before speaking again. "That's quite a feat. Your father would be proud. I can easily say that you've surpassed him." "You knew my father?" "Yes. He was my student. He would have been my disciple, but he died in the war. Worst of all, the man who killed him refused to be my disciple. He just wanted to be a hero of justice." He sighed deeply. "What a waste. He killed his rivals to wish for something that he already had the power to be." "You mean Kiritsugu?" He nodded. "I assumed that he wanted to be my disciple when he participated in the war. But in the end, he wasted his chance. I had given up finding a worthy disciple after that. But now, here you are. Multilayered counterspells... Advanced magesight... Mana masking... Amalgam magic... Temporal mechanics... You've learned so much in your short time at the academy." He paused for a moment before adding, "Last I checked, the academy did not teach such subjects to undergraduates. Did a professor take you as an apprentice?" He paused for an answer but only received Rin's defiant stare. Finally, he broke the silence with a chuckle. "That look in your eyes! You are truly your father's child. The chance that I would have given to your father, I now give to you. Will you take his place as my disciple?" Rin trembled partly in fear and partly in anger. "Let me get this straight. The war was a test to see who'd be your disciple?" "For me it was. But the masters had different reasons for fighting." "Well, forget it. I'm not going to be a disciple for someone who selects the winner of a cruel war as his student." "A pity. Your father would be disappointed." "Don't talk like you know him!" Rin remembered that awful vision before her father lost his soul. "He respected you! But in the end, this is what became of him!" Rin reached into her pack and pulled out the dagger which she brought along as a good luck charm. The man stared at the dagger. "Tokiomi...? I see... so that's what happened." He closed his eyes and bowed his head. When he opened his eyes, they glowed with a strange flickering light. A strong aura began to grow around him. By now, Arturia and Shiro noticed the strange man standing next to Rin. They stopped and cautiously approached them. "In exchange for your freedom, I request a drop of your blood on the dagger." "Why should I?" "In case you haven't noticed, your friends are in the portal. You know that I can easily overpower you and close it in their faces. Furthermore, I've trapped the Einzbern in a static field which is why I'm able to chat with you. But I can release that field and gate them in here in a blink of an eye." Rin swallowed. She had to stall long enough to get Shiro and Arturia out. "So if I give you a drop of blood, you'll let us go?" "Yes." Rin extended the index finger from the hand that held her staff and pricked its tip on the sharp edge of the scythe blade. Then she squeezed a drop onto the dagger. "There." "Release!" yelled the man. Rin let go of the dagger as its sealed contents burst out. Shiro and Arturia exited the portal and rushed towards her. "Disturb me, and you lose your father's soul forever!" "Shiro! Arturia! Stop!" yelled Rin frantically as she threw herself in their path. The dagger broke into tiny particles which surrounded the drop of blood. The blood expanded and spread out like a spider's web. Rin took several steps back and held her staff in front of her. The concen240

tration of mana was immense. Then the particles and tiny rivulets of blood began to form an outline. Soon, she could make out a head, a body, arms and legs. Her chest constricted when her mind formed a guess that seemed so improbable. The man continued to chant. His hand wove in intricate gestures as he manipulated the mana like a potter shaping a clay pot. His eyes slit with concentration and sweat dropped from his brow. And when he finished, Rin felt like she just witnessed a miracle. A small baby floated where the dagger was once before. With a wave of the man's hand, the baby moved in front of her. Rin caught him in her arms. The man leaned heavily on his cane. "Take what you need and go." he said hoarsely. "His chances are better if you anchor him. I will keep the portal open." When she made no response, he stared at her sternly. "Do you still insist on defying me, even with an innocent in your arms?" Rin stared at him incredulously. Then she nodded and gave the baby to Arturia. "Let's go, Shiro. And don't you dare try anything funny." Shiro's mouth drooped. "Fine." She and Shiro flew to the Throne. When they got there, she grabbed Shiro's hand before he entered the Throne. About ten minutes later, Shiro emerged from the Throne. They exited the portal which closed behind them with a tap of the man's cane. The man extended his forefinger and drew a portal before them. "Go. And don't come here again." Rin moved toward the portal but Shiro held his ground. Then the man spoke in Japanese. "I promise you, that until the boy's thirteenth year, no one will be able to access the Throne or be able to summon a hero from it. Until then, grow strong, and challenge me when I return for the boy. Now, go. I will erase all trace of your presence here." "Why are you doing this?" asked Rin suspiciously. The hard lines of his face softened as he smiled gently. His eyes alighted on Shiro and Arturia as he spoke. "It seems to me, that this is a time for second chances. So consider it a gift for all your efforts. Good-bye, Tohsaka Rin." "Good-bye." Rin ushered Shiro into the portal and followed Arturia in. At the other side of the portal, they found themselves on a field in the country. Rin checked her GPS and noted that they were over a hundred miles away from the manor. Then she turned her attention to the baby wrapped in Arturia's spare dress. He stared at her with intense blue eyes and clutched her finger with his little hand. "Welcome back, Father."

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Chapter 18 Omake Cyberano: I am the bone of my pen. Imagination is my body, and inspiration is my blood. I have typed over thousands of words. Unaware of sleep. Nor aware of gain. Withstood pain to create many chapters. Waiting for one's muse. For five long months, this was my only path. Thus I shall end, "The King and Her Queen, Royal Fanfic Works." Rin: That is soooooo cheesy. Cyberano: Ungrateful wenches! You're just upset that it's ending! Arturia: Write us more sex scenes!

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Chapter 18: The Distant Utopia
"This is Daddy?!" exclaimed Sakura as she took the baby from Rin. A drop of sweat rolled off her temple as she watched Sakura. "Well... yeah... but I don't think we should call him that." "Toki-chan then?" Rin sighed. It still did not sound right, but there were not many options to choose from. "I suppose so." Arturia came in with a bottle. "Allow me to feed him now." "Oh! Let me try..." Sakura held out her hand for the bottle. She gave the bottle to Sakura who offered it near baby's mouth. The baby latched on to the bottle and began to suck. "If milk is spilling from his mouth, pull the bottle away and let him swallow. Give him a few moments to breathe." Out of all of them, only Arturia knew how to care for an infant, having raised a child before. Rin smiled at the tender scene of Sakura feeding the baby. The only one who was not gathered around the baby was Shiro who remained in a foul mood ever since they got back. He was sprawled on the couch, watching the news. Sadly, Rin understood why. When they asked him what happened at Gwent, Shiro refused to talk about it. After they returned from Germany, Arturia led her to one of the library's private rooms and offered to tell her Shiro's story on the condition that she would not ask her how she found out about it. Rin agreed. Arturia told her that after Merlyn left him, he defended several villages from rogue mages who were extracting lifeforce out of the helpless villagers. Unfortunately, some mages escaped with vials of captured lifeforce. He stayed to help the villagers whose lifeforce was drained, but for some reason, some villagers accused him of murder. He was chased out of their borders. Then he decided to go to Gwent first before going back to the Aerie. He was welcomed there and offered refreshments. Rin's face paled when Arturia somberly described the tin goblet from which he drank. It was too similar to the Grail. Then Arturia described Shiro's apprehension when he met the Archbishop. He suspected them, so he followed them when they left the next day. Along the way, he encountered the surviving rogue mages who were attacking some travelers. He fought the mages until the travelers got away, only to discover that the mages were shades in disguise. Suddenly, he was surrounded by shades. He did not want to lose the Archbishop's trail, so he activated his ultimate spell to dispatch them quickly. But he did not have to worry, since the Archbishop and his entourage ambushed him. Outnumbered, he fought them desperately. As he fought, he felt himself growing weaker and weaker. Then, the Archbishop broke a bundle of vials and summoned another army of shades. He quickly left with his entourage. When he realized what the shades were made of, he tried his best to destroy them and go after the Archbishop. Unfortunately, their savage attacks did not give him that luxury and he only destroyed half of them before she and Bedivere showed up. But even then, it was too late. He felt his body coming apart. It was then that he heard a gentle voice asking him if he wanted a second chance.
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Images of those helpless villagers flashed in his mind and without further thought, he accepted. Arturia continued by saying that during his time as a servant, Shiro deduced that the ancestors and allies of the Einzbern were trying to find a way to control the power of the Grail. He felt that he became their experiment. He was ashamed for falling into their trap and even more ashamed when he was tempted to kill his younger self during the last war. After she heard his story, Rin could only guess that Shiro wanted a way to redeem himself, and destroying the Throne seemed to be on his list. Unfortunately, due to the untimely intervention of Tokiomi's master, he was forced to wait for another chance. At least, he offered to take care of Sakura and to assume the responsibility of reimbursing Marlen for the house. Rin was grateful that he did, since she would be returning to the Academy in one week. Maybe she could get some rest until then. "By the way, Rin, when do you want to get married?" Rin sat up, and so did Shiro. She had forgotten about it. "Well... I have to go back to the Academy in a week. Do you want to do it before then?" "I see... but I thought you only did that because you wanted to delay taking over the estate?" "Yes, that was my original intent. But after... after meeting that man, I feel like I don't know enough." Rin clenched her hands. "I want to be strong enough to protect you and Sakura." "Hey, I'm here too..." said Shiro. "Okay, I'll protect you too, Mr. I-killed-Berserker-five-times." said Rin sarcastically. Shiro shook his head. "You got it wrong. I'm offering to help." "Ah, thanks then." Rin felt relieved with Shiro's assurance. "By the way..." Arturia's put her hand on her shoulder. "I'm here too. You don't have to bear the entire burden. I'm sure that if we work together, we can do anything." "Everyone will help you, nee-san! I may not know a lot of magic right now, but one day, I'll be as strong as you." Rin could not help but smile. Teaching Sakura magic was like trying to teach someone how to ride a bike. She had started on training wheels. Soon, she would be able to ride without them and only the future can tell how far she can go. "That'll be great." After some discussion, they decided to hold the wedding over spring break. Arturia grinned widely over the prospect. "Are you sure it's fine to wait until then?" asked Rin anxiously. Arturia cupped her hand between hers. Her earnest emerald green eyes spoke sincerely. "Rin, I've waited over a thousand years for you. I can wait a little longer." Rin blushed and hugged her to hide it. "All done." announced Sakura as she put the bottle down. "Oh, that reminds me." Arturia took the baby from Sakura and cleared her throat. "Mr. Tohsaka, I would like to ask for your daughter's hand in marriage." The baby did not smile and just stared at her. A moment later, she exclaimed in surprise. She lifted the baby away from her to reveal a damp skirt. They laughed heartily while Arturia pouted. After their laughter subsided, Rin opened the duffel bag to get a blanket and a fresh diaper. She spread the blanket out on the coffee table. As she laid the baby on the blanket, Arturia remarked wryly, "I hope this means that I have your blessing." They laughed once more. ----"A bachelorette party?" Rin's eyebrows shot up in surprise. She did not expect this from Sakura. "Yes. Michelle says that it's more fun than a normal bridal shower. In addition to bringing gifts, you and the guests play games and hold activities."
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"Sakura, do you have any idea what kind of games are involved?" A slow evil smile crept over Sakura's face which caused Rin to twitch at the sight. "Something that will embarrass you." Rin let out a long sigh. "Can't I have a quiet bridal shower?" Sakura's smile melted and her eyes pleaded with full force. "But nee-san..." She ground her teeth and attempted to resist those eyes. After a few moments, her resolve crumbled. "Oh, all right..." Sakura's smile returned. "It's going to be fun!" Rin groaned inwardly. Marlen's mothers were a dangerous influence on Sakura. ----A month or so later, they went over the guest list. Rin was surprised at the sheaf of paper before her. Each guest was listed with a picture, a name, and a short biography which included their lineage, education and occupation. "Do you know all these people?" asked Rin. "Yes. I have been introduced to them over the past months." "I see... But are you sure that they're who they're supposed to be?" "Yes. Some of them bear a resemblance to the their ancestor. With some, I can feel the bond of the vow between their House and mine. Furthermore, Peter and Jenna have verified their lineage." "Oh, okay." Arturia took her to meet Peter and Jenna over dinner at a local restaurant. Just by looks alone, Peter was obviously Bedivere's descendant. Jenna seemed bossy at first, dictating the schedule to Peter. Later on, she found out that Jenna won the right to plan the wedding. That explained Peter's sullen expressions throughout dinner. Rin leafed through the list. "I've always wondered... why were you called King Arthur instead of Queen Arturia?" Arturia laughed heartily. "Oh, that... it started with exaggerated stories by the fleeing Saxons who returned to the European mainland. They can't say that they were defeated by an army led by a woman, so they told others that I was a giant with a sword that cut through steel and stone, and so forth. A Roman consul who was Guinevere's relative, heard of their stories and wrote to her for fear that she was wed to an uncivilized barbarian. She wrote back to tell him the truth and to ask him to propagate the stories. By reinforcing those tales, she hoped to scare the Saxons so they won't raid anymore. He complied with her request, even going so far as to refer to me as Arturius Rex, instead of Arturias." Rin laughed with her. "That's awesome!" She imagined a mighty King Arthur, larger than life. Those must have been glorious days. As she leafed through the list, she noticed that some of the names of the knights sounded feminine, like Danielle and Palamydesse. "How many of the knights were female?" "A little under half." "Wow... that's pretty cool." The image of Bedivere and the rest of the female knights flashed in her mind. They must have been quite a force to reckon with, both in and off the field. Then she remembered a passage from the Code of Chivalry: 'To always do ladies, gentlewomen and widows succor.' She wondered what a female knight did with a lady and chuckled at her naughty thoughts. Then she flipped to the last page on the list and noted the index of the last guest: 107. "How many knights were in the Round table?" "Twenty-four in the inner circle and fifty on the outer." "That's... a lot..." She was horrified at the idea of Arturia 'greeting' seventy-four knights. Her thoughts must have showed on her face, since Arturia waved her hands. "Oh, no... I only gave the courtly greeting to the inner circle, who were my most trusted knights." "Hmmm... okay." She looked at the list once more. The number of guests began to sink in. Of that
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number, only eight were invited by her. "There's going to be over a hundred people at our wedding..." "So... is that too much?" Arturia hoped that Rin would not refuse any of the descendants. Deep in her heart, she knew that they would be very disappointed if they were not invited. "As you know, Sakura is the maid of honor. I'm not sure if she can handle this many." "Keeping track of the guests won't be difficult since Jenna and her squad will help her." "And her squad...?" Arturia explained that Jenna gathered eleven other descendants to help with the planning and coordination. Rin began to envy Arturia's instant network of friends. She could count the number of friends that she trusted with one hand. "When you're at school, they come here to discuss the wedding and sometimes, just to chat." Arturia laughed. "Poor Shiro locks himself in their room whenever they come." "I see..." The cart was in motion, and Rin felt that she could not do anything but ride it to its inevitable destination. "Well, it looks like she has everything under control." "Then, you approve?" "Yes." Arturia kissed her cheek. "I'll tell Jenna to prepare the invitations." Given the size of the wedding, Rin was glad that she was not planning it. ----"Rin Tohsaka, you have a visitor." Rin flipped her cell phone off. Who could be visiting her? She gathered her papers and stuffed them in her book bag. Then she made her way to the visitor's office. To her surprise, she found Arturia with Tokiomi in his travel cradle. "When you left this morning, he wouldn't stop crying." explained Arturia. "But when I told him we'll visit you, he calmed down a little." She held up a duffel bag. "Do you have time for a picnic?" A soft smile graced Rin's face. "Sure. I know just the place." They walked to the grassy hillside which overlooked the valley and selected a level spot to sit. Arturia took out a blanket from the duffel bag and spread it on the ground. Then she laid out containers of food, bottles of juice and plates. After Rin took Tokiomi out of the cradle, Arturia handed her his bottle. "Is it alright if you feed him? He... doesn't seem to like me very much." Her face was apologetic and rueful. "Sure." Rin accepted the bottle and offered it to Tokiomi who latched onto it. When Arturia held him, he would struggle and cry. She had a very good idea why he did not like her. As she held him, her eyes swept the valley below. Her thoughts went back to that fateful day when she made her decision to find Saber, or rather, Arturia. "One must always move toward the future." She heard herself say. She looked down at the baby who was her father and asked softly, "Isn't that right, Father?" Her gaze wandered to Arturia, who was selecting pieces of sushi rolls from a container. Only in her wildest dreams did she even hope that this was her future. She kissed his forehead and whispered, "Please forgive her, Father, and let us build a new future together." Tokiomi's hand reached up and caught a strand of her hair. He did not pull, but just held on with his little hand. Although Rin could not tell whether he understood or not, she smiled slightly at his behavior and hoped that he would forgive her. Arturia held a plate with portions from each container. Her lips curved up expectantly. "Your hands seem to be busy. Do you want me to feed you?" Her lips matched Arturia's. "Sure." She fed her several pieces before they heard footsteps behind them. "Hey, Rin!" greeted Gail who was followed by Helen and Ivy. Her eyes noted the fork poised in front of Rin, Rin's munching and the baby in Rin's arms. "Are we... uh... interrupting your... family gather246

ing?" Rin chewed quickly and swallowed. Her ears burned with embarrassment. She did not expect anyone to be walking along this area, so she did her best to remain calm. "No... not at all. Are you hungry? We have a lot of food." "A bit." She craned her neck to survey the food on the blanket. Rin chortled. To a student, free food was always welcome. "Have a seat, all of you." The three murmured their thanks and sat down. Rin introduced Arturia to Helen and Ivy whose eyes widened. "Did you go to the ball together?" asked Helen as she picked up a sliced sandwich. "Yes." replied Rin sheepishly. Much to her dismay, the school paper published the winners of the dance. She could feel the curious stares of students whenever she was on campus. Thankfully, her rank intimidated other students and no one dared to bother her. "So... you're... together?" asked Ivy. Rin shifted her left hand so that her ring became more obvious. Ivy inhaled sharply when she noticed it. "Totally ace... So when's the wedding?" She smiled proudly and told them when it was. They got even more excited when she invited them. "I'm sorry for being curious... just tell me to bugger off if it's too personal. But I have to ask... is the baby yours?" inquired Gail delicately. Rin laughed a little. "No... it's my... s- friend's. Arturia is babysitting for her since she's busy." Internally, Rin berated herself for almost implying that she had a sister. "Oh... okay." said Gail as she sat back on her heels. "It's just that... his eyes look like yours." A drop of sweat rolled down her temple. Sometimes it scared her when Gail was so perceptive. "Hey, Rin, do you want to go with us to the Foxxy Lady? If you and Arturia come, it'll be more fun." Ivy winked at them. "Do you want to go, Arturia?" asked Rin. "What is the Foxxy Lady?" "It's... uh... a place where only girls are allowed. Girls go there to dance, drink or watch whatever show is on stage." "The dancers are cracking! You just have to see them. And if you're lucky, you can get on stage and dance with them." said Ivy animatedly. "In that case, I must respectfully decline." "Why?" asked Helen. "I have my lady. I don't need to look at other women." Rin's heart leapt at her answer. Her cheeks blushed some more and she bent toward Tokiomi in an effort to hide it. Just then, more footsteps caught their attention. To Rin's chagrin, Grynberg led a stream of students on the path nearby. They were probably headed toward the orchard at the foot of the hill. As the students passed by, they could hear some of their comments. "Hey... isn't that Tohsaka?" "Crikey! Is that her kid?" "Which one is her girl?" "Maybe they're all her girls..." Apparently, the chattering was loud enough for Grynberg to hear. He turned around and bellowed, "Stop fannying around and chivvy along!" When they were out of earshot, Arturia remarked dryly, "I see that you're quite popular." Rin groaned and hung her head. Her plan to have the picnic away from prying eyes failed. She dared not imagine what kind rumors would be spreading around after today. ----247

While they waited for their order to arrive, Arturia took the opportunity to ask Peter. "Peter, being a King was my duty and I don't need any compensation for it. So why is everyone still insistent on helping us?" Peter thought for a moment. "I don't think it's for that, your Highness. If anything, it's small compensation for the legacy which you left with each of us... a legacy which endured to this day." His gray eyes held hers. "You gave us your dream: a peaceful Britain in which everyone can pursue their dreams to the fullest. Your gift enriched the lives of our ancestors and eventually, our lives as well. That, in our hearts, is priceless. So, please, even just a little bit, accept some of our offers of help. Your dream helped shape our future. Please let us assist you with your new life in this time." His sincerity warmed her heart. "Who am I to deserve such loyalty? And who am I to refuse it? From this moment on, I shall consider everyone's generosity." Peter's eyes shone with pride. "Thank you, your Highness." ----"A specially brewed honey mead, your Highness." offered Wayne, a descendant of Sir Gwaine. Arturia took the glass. "I'm supposed to drink this after the wedding." Wayne winked. "Doesn't hurt to get a headstart." "A toast then!" Fifteen glasses rose in the air and clicked against each other. "Cheers." Arturia laughed and downed the mead. Then Eileen clapped to get everyone's attention. "Everyone cozy? Good. Thank you all for coming. I'd make a long speech, but everyone would hate me. So, let's get started." She dimmed the lights and turned on the projector. The slide read 'The secret photo album of King Arthur'. As Arturia wondered what it was, Eileen explained. "These are from Merlyn's collection of portraits of our dearest royal Highness." The projector displayed the next slide. Everyone 'oh'-ed and 'aw'-ed. "After twenty minutes of her birth." declared Eileen proudly. Arturia twitched. To her horror and subsequent embarrassment, the slides showed her progression from infancy to her teenage years. "And here is her most glorious portrait, when she was crowned King." Some of her embarrassment melted away at the reverent expressions on everyone's faces. Then Peter suddenly stood up and raised his glass. "To Arturia, our past and future King." The others stood up. "Hail Arturia!" They downed the mead and sat down once again. When the slide show was finished, Eileen inserted a DVD in the player. "And now, for something completely different..." The screen flared into life. Arturia read the title: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As she watched, her curiosity gave way to indignation as she saw an insulting parody of King Arthur portrayed in the movie. Her hands gripped the armrests so hard that her knuckles turned white. "Is this what they think of me?" she thought angrily. "I'll show them... I'll show them that the quest for the Grail was a sacred honor." Then she watched as King Arthur fought the Black knight. Her stomach churned in horror as the knight lost his arm and then the other arm. When the knight lost his leg and refused to surrender, her restraint dissolved and she yelled, "Yield, you stupid knave!" The movie paused and she found everyone looking at her. She blushed in embarrassment and sat down. "It's nothing..." Eileen stifled a chortle and resumed the movie. After King Arthur and his attendant rode away while the Black knight was yelling for him to come back, she heard a loud guffaw erupt from Arturia. She paused the movie again.
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Arturia's body shook with her laughter and her fist banged the table. Everyone took hold of their glasses since the table shook with each strike. Then slowly, they all began to laugh with her. When Arturia finally regained her composure, she remarked, "Thank goodness he wasn't the Green Knight. He'd pick up his limbs and reattach them. And that would be a problem." "It certainly would be." slurred Wayne, cradling his empty glass between his hands. "If Sir Gwaine hadn't shagged him, I wouldn't be here today." The room fell uncomfortably silent as everyone digested his words. A few seconds later, Peter exhaled in exasperation. "Too much information, Wayne..." "Sorry..." mumbled Wayne. His wine-flushed face grew even redder. Eileen merely shook her head and resumed the movie. This time, the atmosphere of the room eased up and everyone made fun of whoever's ancestor happened to show up. When the movie was done, she restored the lights. "Now that's done, it's time for some games." She picked up some cards and spread them face down in front of Arturia. "Your Highness, please pick a game." Arturia picked a card and read it. "Dirty minds." Eileen took a box from the pile of board games and prepared the game on the table. Meanwhile, more wine and mead was passed around. After she finished, she explained the rules and added another rule with a twist. "If you guess correctly, you must drink from your glass." With a snap of her fingers, bottles of wine rose from the bar and filled each person's glass with their contents. The rule was greeted with much enthusiasm. Eileen slid the cards and dice in front of Arturia. "Your Highness, please go first." Arturia rolled the dice and picked a card. She read, "Schwarzenegger has a long one. Spike Lee has a short one. The Pope doesn't use his." "His Johnson!" guessed Leonard, Sir Lionel's descendant. A trickle of sweat rolled down her temple as everyone else made raunchy guesses. "So this is that kind of game..." she thought wryly. The evening progressed with more games, food and a lot of wine. Her sense of chivalry almost forced her to interrupt the 'strip the stripper' poker game, but Eileen assured her that the stripper was being paid to perform. As empty bottles piled up in a corner, the men began to pass out one by one. However, Arturia seemed unaffected, despite having downed a glass on every toast. Eileen whispered in her ear, "Your Highness is cheating." "So are you." Eileen shrugged. "Someone has to take them back to their rooms." "I suppose so." Arturia sighed and looked at the drunken men sprawled on the couches or face down on the table. "At least, they had fun. I wonder how Rin's doing..." "Do you want to see?" Her eyes lit up. "Sure..." Eileen took her to an adjoining room and cast a spell on the wall. The wall melted away to reveal what was happening in Rin's party which was on the next floor of the hotel. The scene that greeted her eyes caused her jaw to drop. "Liiiiike a viiiiirrrrrgin.... tooouched foooorrrr the verrrrryyyy first tiiime..." Rin wore bunny ears on her head. Her low-cut vest revealed far too much that she would want other people to see. Her sequined stockings glittered as she shook her hips. When she clumsily twirled around, there was a white fluffy ball of fur attached to her lower back. By the way she moved and her slurred singing, Arturia knew that she was drunk. Even though a part of her wanted to rush over there and rescue her, the other part forced her to stay and watch her sing the song. It did not help that the lyrics seemed a bit provocative. Warm blood rushed to her face and naughty images flashed in her mind.
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"Oh, oh, oh, oh, oooooh, baaaaby... Can't yooou heeeear my heeeart beeeeat... For the veeerrrrry fiiirrrrst tiiime?" The song ended and Rin stumbled away. Just then, something snapped in her mind. "I must go to her!" Arturia rushed out. Eileen sighed. She sent a warning to Michelle, who was overseeing Rin's party. Michelle received the message and clapped. "Party's over mes amies... Arturia's coming over." "What?! It's just getting good!" complained Gail. "It's hard to get Rin to do anything." "Well, she's coming up the stairs now. Better hide that camcorder." "Shimatta..." Taiga hastily hid the camcorder under her coat and Sakura added hers on top. "Can't we reason with her?" asked Jenna. A heavy knock on the door announced Arturia's arrival. Michelle opened it. A bristling Arturia walked in. "Where's Rin?" The edge in her voice dictated that negotiation was out of the question. Her eyes located her target lying unconscious on the sofa. Arturia knelt next to her, removed the bunny ears and covered her outfit with a tablecloth. She pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and gently wiped the drool from her cheek. Then she gathered her clothes, took her in her arms and carefully carried her out of the room. Everyone exhaled their bated breaths at her exit. Then Helen spoke. "Wow... she's like a knight coming to her rescue." "Will you carry me out like that on my bachelorette party?" asked Ivy playfully. "Hell, no... I'd watched till you strip naked." Her response earned her a tickle torture from Ivy. Meanwhile, Gail poured herself a drink. "Taiga, does the camcorder have video out?" Taiga pulled the camcorder out and looked. "Yes." Gail grinned mischievously. "I don't know about you girls, but I'm still in a partying mood. So let's hook up the camcorder to the projector and get a good laugh. 'Sides... I haven't sung enough songs." She gestured at the karaoke player. Taiga matched her smile. "I like how you think." ----After the altar boys, servers and priest assembled at the altar, the music for the wedding procession began. Arturia walked down the aisle accompanied by Peter who was the best man. She was dressed in a white suit with an ivory colored vest and tie. Her hair was tied back into a ponytail with a slim blue ribbon. Peter wore a gray suit with a tie which symbolized the colors of his House. They took their places in front of the altar. Behind them, the groomsmen escorted the bridesmaids. After them came the ring bearer and flower girl, courtesy of the descendants of King Pellinore and Sir Tristan. Everyone cooed over their cuteness. As the maid of honor, Sakura took her time walking down the aisle. She beamed with pride and smiled sweetly for the photographs being taken. Then the music became a bit livelier to announce the arrival of the bride. Since the bride's father was only capable of sucking a bottle, Marlen escorted Rin to the altar. However, she changed her form so that she would look older and taller. The effect was astonishing. In her gray suit and braided ponytail, she looked like a pretty boy from a distance. However, those with a keen eye would guess her true gender by the subtle swell of her breasts under her coat. Cameras flashed to capture an image of the beautiful bride. Her pearl colored gown and trail were elegant with a mixture of modern and medieval patterns. Rin smiled shyly from behind her white veil. After Rin and Marlen reached the altar, the bridal party took their places in reserved pews while Arturia and Rin stood behind the pew in front of the altar. The mass began and proceeded smoothly. Rin went through it in a haze. A part of her still could not believe that she was getting married to Arturia. She pinched herself from time to time to convince her250

self that she was not dreaming. Before she knew it, the priest asked her, "Rin Tohsaka, will you take Arthur Wledig as your lawful wedded husband according to the rite of our Holy Mother and the Church?" [Author's note: Recommended background music: Nocturne for orchestra by Hirano Yoshihisa] Rin cleared her throat and answered with her heart beating wildly in her ears. "I, Rin Tohsaka, take you, Arthur Wledig, for my husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." "Arthur Wledig will you take Rin Tohsaka, as your lawful wedded wife according to the rite of our Holy Mother and the Church?" In a clear voice which resonated through the church, Arturia answered, "I, Arthur Wledig, take you, Rin Tohsaka, for my wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." The priest blessed them and recited several traditional blessings. Peter handed Rin's ring to the priest who blessed it, and handed it to Arturia. "With this ring, I thee wed, and pledge thee my troth." She slipped the ring over Rin's finger and noted the wonder in Rin's face. Despite the solemnity required, she grinned broadly. The process was repeated for Arturia's ring. Rin accepted ring and slowly slipped it over Arturia's finger. "With this ring, I thee wed, and pledge thee my troth." The priest continued to offer prayers and blessings. Then Communion was served. After Communion, more blessings were given. Finally, the priest recited the dismissal. "Brothers and sisters in Christ, please welcome Arthur and Rin Wledig. Arthur, you may kiss your wife." Arturia reached out, took Rin's left hand and kissed her ring. Then she slowly lifted the Rin's veil. Rin shyly looked up, the blush on her cheeks was scarcely hidden by the makeup on her face. A small sigh escaped Arturia's lips. She was so beautiful. Her left hand caressed her cheek and she leaned forward to receive her first kiss from her wife. While she and Rin shared their kiss, a soft breeze came from the direction of the guests as if everyone exhaled their bated breaths. Then someone clapped, and everyone else followed their lead. Reluctantly, Arturia drew away. Rin's eyes promised her more later. Sakura stood next to Rin with a bouquet of roses and lilies. The priest spoke once more. "The new couple will now honor the Virgin Mary for her role as Christ's Mother." [Author's note: Recommended background music: Ave Maria by Gounod] The choir began to sing 'Ave Maria' as Rin took the bouquet from Sakura. She and Arturia proceeded to the statue of the Virgin Mary and set the bouquet into the vase before the statue. They recited Hail Mary before returning to the altar for the recession. At the end of the recessional march, a white limousine waited to take them to the reception. They went in and waved to everyone as it drove away. Once they were away from the church, Arturia turned to Rin and stole more kisses. As they kissed, a movement towards the front of the car caught her eye. Arturia stared at the reflection of Leonard's eyes on the rearview mirror. Judging from the way it was angled, it was certainly not directed at the road behind them. "Aren't you supposed to keep your eyes on the road?" she asked with mock reproach. "I have two eyes." responded Leonard with a chuckle. Arturia simply laughed and put her arm around Rin to hold her close. Rin reached for her other hand and enveloped it within her hands. They sat quietly, enjoying each other's company until they arrived at the restaurant owned by Kyle's family. While they waited for the guests to arrive, Jenna removed the
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trail from Rin's gown and fixed her hair without the headdress and veil. Once everyone arrived, they went to the garden. There, Kyle introduced the wedding party. After the introductions, Michelle led the happy couple in front of a gazebo. Eileen approached them with a white dove on each hand. Meanwhile, the waiters passed out glasses of champagne. Eileen thrilled softly and one dove hopped onto Arturia's hand while the other one hopped onto Rin's. Then with a loud voice, she declaimed, "Let these doves symbolize the purity of your union. May your love soar to the heavens above." As rehearsed, Arturia and Rin brought the doves together and the doves touched their beaks. Then the doves flew into the air and wove an aerial dance of matrimony. Everyone cheered and clapped at their acrobatics. Michelle handed them a glass of champagne while Kyle announced the toast of the Best man. Peter smiled broadly. "Let us raise our glasses and toast to their health, happiness and prosperity." Everyone raised their glasses to the toast and drank. Arturia offered the glass to Rin, who drank a mouthful and gave it back to her. Then she drank some. Kyle announced the toast of the Maid of Honor, Cheryl Vellason. Sakura stepped forward. "In Church, both of you vowed to be together for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Rin and Arturia, I think you've already gone through much worse than that. So I'm pretty confident that you can face whatever that comes your way together! So here's to both of you! Kanpai!" Rin smiled at Sakura's developing sense of humor. Then she drank half the champagne from the glass and let Arturia finish the rest. "And now, let us go in and enjoy the feast!" said Kyle. Everyone clapped and slowly went to their assigned tables. The food consisted of five-course meal which included a main serving of roast beef or chicken and sautéed vegetables with mashed potatoes. However, guests could supplement their meal from the sushi and oyster bar. While they ate, the musicians played pop music by British or Japanese bands. When it was time for desert, a five-layer cake was brought before the main table. A delicate miniature sculpture of Rin and Arturia in their wedding outfits stood on top. Photographers lined up to take pictures of the cake cutting. Rin held the cake knife and Arturia enveloped her hand with her own. Together, they guided the knife and cut a slice from the cake. They maneuvered the slice to a plate. Then Rin took a piece from the slice with a fork and held it before Arturia's mouth. Cameras flashed as Arturia engulfed the piece. Arturia took the fork and offered Rin a piece. Cameras flashed once again as Rin ate the piece. After they were done, the waiters cut the rest of the cake to give to the guests. Thirty minutes later, Peter announced that it was time for the dance. Arturia led Rin to dance floor. When they reached the center of the dance floor, several harpists began to strum the introduction. A few moments later, the Japanese koto players joined them to create the melody that evoked the memory of their days by a shining lake. [Author's note: For a reference song, listen to: Fate/stay Night Animation Original Soundtrack, Kishiou no hokori] Although the melody was not a waltz, it moved them to express the feelings that rose from their hearts. They stepped in harmony and let their bodies sway slowly with the alternating rhythm of the harps and kotos. Arturia held Rin closer, her eyes shining with love. Rin's eyes gazed back with equal adoration. Green mirrored blue as they gazed fondly at each other through the dance. Eventually, the music faded and they reluctantly parted amidst the applause of the guests. To honor Rin's father, Rin danced with Shiro to her father's favorite Japanese song. After their dance, Arturia danced with Eileen to honor her mother. The musicians played an old Celtic melody in her memory.
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After their dance, the floor was opened to free dance. Rock music began to play and people spilled into the dance floor. When Arturia excused herself to go to the restroom, Gail went up to Rin. "Okay, girl. Fess up. Who did you marry?" Rin forced an innocent smile. "What do you mean?" "A bunch of these people are like nobility. Their bloodlines extend over centuries." "How do you know that?" "Their crest is on their cufflinks or rings. And then there's that." She pointed to the banner hanging on the wall behind the main table. The banner showed Arturia's modified crest which included a golden dragon that held a variation of the Tohsaka mon. "The supporting Houses around the crest are Armstrong, Hecter and Lakeridge. These Houses serve the Crown." Her voice lowered. "So... is she some sort of royal or something?" "Sort of... she's a knight." declared Rin proudly. "And...?" "Why don't you ask her?" Gail huffed. "Heck, no... that's why I'm asking you." "Well, in case you change your mind, here she comes." Gail pouted and scurried away. Rin giggled at her retreating back. Arturia threw a puzzled look at her. "Gail was asking about you. She's getting a few clues from that." She pointed at the banner. Arturia smiled sheepishly as she sat down. "I know it's a bit ostentatious, but I have to show that you're part of my House now. Besides, today is a special day." Rin squeezed her hand. "Yes. It is." The main table offered a great vantage point to watch other people dance. Rin spotted Eileen and Michelle. "When we're old, I hope we'll be like them." At her comment, Arturia stared at her in horror. Rin tried to fix her misunderstanding. "No, no, no... not like that. What I mean is, to be able to love each other even after being married for so long. Even though they're old, they play around a lot, and it looks like they're having fun together. It's... I don't know how to say it... sort of sweet in a weird way." Arturia intertwined her hand with hers. "I agree. It's almost as if they forgot being old." Rin snuggled close to her. "I want to be with you for the rest of my life." Arturia cuddled her in her embrace and kissed her forehead. "Then prepare yourself. I'll be with you for a very long, long time." It took a few seconds before Rin realized the impact of Arturia's statement. Her eyes misted over and she kissed her tenderly. Arturia kissed her back with equal fervor. Suddenly, they heard cheers from the crowd near their table. They pulled away in embarrassment. Then Eileen and Michelle came over and coaxed them to dance. The reception went on for as long as the guests could hold their liquor. Finally, after the last guest left, Jenna escorted them to the limousine. "Leonard will drive you home. I'll take care of the cleanup." They thanked her in unison before getting in the limousine. To Rin's surprise, Leonard drove through a gated community and parked in front of a house. Arturia led her through the gate and to the front door. Her astonishment continued to increase when Arturia opened the door with a key from her pocket. She reached around the doorframe and turned on the light for the living room. Rin gasped as she read the banner hanging from the ceiling: 'Welcome Home, Arturia and Rin'. Meanwhile, Arturia sketched a salute in the air for Leonard who replied with a similar salute. Then Leonard drove off. She turned to Rin and caught her in her arms. "Milady, allow me to carry thee into our castle."
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"As Milord wishes." replied Rin as she curtsied. Then she let Arturia carry her up the stairs. "Is this really our home?" asked Rin. "Yes. Our own home." "How were you able to get this?" She winked at her. "With a little bit of luck." They arrived in their bedroom and Arturia carefully laid her on the bed. She sat beside her. "Do you want to take a bath first, or do you want to..." Her trailing voice and blushing cheeks hinted at her unspoken question. Rin laughed at the sight. "A bath would be nice." They undressed each other and stole a few kisses in the process. Hand in hand, Arturia led her to the bathroom. "Is that a jacuzzi?" asked Rin with a note of excitement in her voice. "Yes." Arturia turned on the water to the jacuzzi so that it would fill while they washed. After washing and showering together, they soaked in the bubbling jacuzzi. "Aaaaahhhh..." sighed Rin as she sank into the relaxing hot water. "This is nice..." "Mm." While they soaked, Rin asked her about the house. Arturia drew a deep breath. "It all started when I complained to Marlen about the incessant offers of assistance from the descendants. Marlen said that they were concerned about my financial well-being and that they wanted to help. The next day, she gave me an envelope with a lottery ticket in it, courtesy of Lord Alvin. She told me to watch the lottery numbers. I was curious, so I did, and lo and behold, the numbers matched, making me the winner of two million pounds. When I debated over collecting the money, Marlen commented that if I don't, the descendants will continue to make their offers. Since I would not accept their help, she suggested that this is one way that I could support you. She also suggested that if I feel uncomfortable claiming it, then I should ask Peter or Kyle to claim it for me. In the end, I asked Peter. I used the money to buy this house with Peter's help. It's small, but it has a nice view." Arturia stood up and pulled the string for the blinds just enough for Rin to see. Rin looked out and saw the full moon in the sky casting silver slivers over the surface of a lake. Her eyes spied a balcony nearby. "It's beautiful!" exclaimed Rin. "I'm glad you like it." Arturia rolled the blinds down since she did not want anyone to see them naked. "The furnishings were provided by the descendants." "Wow... We have to thank them. Do you know who gave what?" "Yes. Jenna made a list." "But still... why do they insist on helping?" "After a meeting with the descendants of Sir Tristan, I asked Peter over lunch." Arturia explained Peter's reason to Rin. Rin's eyes misted over and her hand encircled Arturia's. "That's wonderful..." When they were done soaking, they dried themselves and put on their bathrobes. Then they dried each other's hair with the blow dryer. As Arturia combed Rin's hair, she asked, "What do you want to do next?" Rin's face broke into a sly grin. "Can you guess?" Arturia put the comb down and swept Rin off the chair. She carried her into the bedroom and laid her on the bed. She crawled over her and grinned ferally. "Did I guess right?" Rin tugged at Arturia's sash and opened her robe. "Yes... now come and claim your prize." Arturia's face descended to accept her prize. Her lips caressed Rin's while her hands undid her robe. Lips kissed and sucked while hands wandered and caressed. Arturia's lips began their journey from her mouth, to her ear, down to her neck and then her breasts. By now, Rin expected Arturia to enter, so she spread her legs to welcome her. But instead, Arturia's lips went lower still, traveling over her stomach. Rin looked downed to see Arturia's head just inches
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between her legs. "What... what are you doing?" asked Rin in a slightly panicked voice. Arturia did not answer. She was marveling at the sight before her. It reminded her of an orchid in full bloom, with its petals spread out and its protruding style tempting an insect to sample its nectar. "What are you looking at?" Rin's legs shifted together, threatening to close the blossom before her. With her left hand, she held back one leg. She looked up at Rin's anxious face. "I'm done looking." She dove down to sample the blossom before her. Rin gasped sharply. "Aaaahhh... wait... aaaahhhh... no... oohhh..." The sensations between her legs were so overwhelming that she unconsciously dug her heels into the mattress in an attempt to scoot away. But Arturia's hand around her hip held her in place. She had no choice but to thrash helplessly as Arturia devoured her. She moaned and whimpered as the flesh between her legs was stimulated to heights that she had not experienced before. Slowly but surely, pleasure welled within her and she trembled for release. "Please... Arturia... aaahhh..." she cried. Instead, Arturia shifted her hips forward and nuzzled deeper into her. She purposely avoided granting her request. In an effort to control her, she put her hand on her head, but Arturia remained untamed and controlled her. She moaned with renewed writhing. "Aaaahhh... oh... oh... aaah... aaaahhhh..." Finally, release came when her flesh, overwhelmed by so much stimulation, contracted by itself and mercifully granted her desire. She lay panting heavily as she experienced the heights of her climax. Arturia sensed her release and crept up to her face to watch her expression. Through half-lidded eyes, Rin gazed at her wife. They had spent many nights together, but this was the first time that Arturia ever did something like this to her. She reached out and embraced her tightly. "Go in and feel what you did to me." Arturia obeyed and felt Rin's muscles contract against her in a slow steady rhythm. She grinned ferally at her accomplishment. A minute or so later, Rin flipped her. Her eyes blazed with revenge. "My turn." Arturia swallowed and prepared herself. By the time Rin completed her journey to her destination, she was slick with need. She glanced down and saw the wicked glint in Rin's eyes as she examined her. Her face flushed in embarrassment. When Rin finally descended, she realized that her preparations were worthless. She tried her best to contain her moaning and cries, but as Rin stoked the growing flame between her legs into a passionate fire, her restraint broke down and she heard herself moaning even louder than Rin. Then Rin probed her, deeper and deeper, until she felt herself filled. As something wriggled inside her, she realized that Rin was cheating. But she did not have a chance to complain, nor did she wish to complain when the fire within her fed on the intense sensations created by Rin. Rin smiled to herself on the success of her plan. Arturia writhed and thrashed before her, her muscles clenching around her tongue. Every now and then, the tip of her tongue would reach out and tickle a certain spot that caused Arturia to arch in response. "Ohhh... Haaahhh... Rin... oh... haaah... aaahhhh..." She wanted to torture Arturia for as long as she could, but eventually, Arturia's orgasm came. She remained within her to feel it. When it began to ebb away, she cancelled the spell to return her tongue to normal. Then she crawled up and hugged Arturia. When Arturia managed to regain her wits, she accused Rin. "You cheated... it's not fair." Rin kissed her soundly. "All right... I'll level the playing field. But this time, do you want to do it together?" Arturia's eyes widened in anticipation. "Do I!" Rin grinned mischievously. This was surely going to be a most memorable wedding night.
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----"And so the Lady of the Lake said goodbye to Sir Bedivere. Fairies came out of the mist and escorted them to the Isle of Avalon, the utopia of peace and harmony. Once there, the Lady of the Lake and her attendants healed King Arthur's wounds. Then the Lady told King Arthur to rest until the day that Britain would need his aid once more. And so there he rests, until the day that Britain shall call him back. The End." Arturia closed the picture book. "Does Avalon really exist?" Her intense blue eyes lit with curiosity. Arturia ruffled her unruly golden hair, eliciting a string of giggles. "I'm sure it does." Rin removed the spectacle for her left eye and rolled up the scroll that she was studying. "It's time for bed." "But I'm not sleepy yet!" She wriggled from Arturia's embrace and ran around the dining table as fast as her little legs could carry her. "Bedivere! Come back here, young lady!" With that, the chase was on. Rin watched with amusement as they circled around the table several times before Arturia caught Bedivere and slung her on her shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Bedivere just laughed and giggled. With the fugitive captured, Rin kissed her forehead. "Good night, sweetie." Bedivere kissed her cheek. "G'night, Mommy!" Then Arturia went upstairs and tucked her in. "Mum, is Bedivere a boy's name?" Arturia stroked her head. "It's for a girl or a boy." "Oh, that's good then. I like my name." Then she paused. "But in the story, Sir Bedivere is a boy." "In that story, yes. But the Bedivere I know, the Bedivere who you're named after, was a wonderful girl, just like you are." "Was she a knight?" "Yes. One of the best." "Then, when I grow up, I'll be a knight too!" Arturia laughed at her enthusiasm. "That'll be nice." Then she paused. "But what about King Arthur? Don't you want to be like King Arthur too?" Bedivere inclined her head thoughtfully before she shook her head. "Uh-uh." Disappointment throbbed in her heart. "Why not?" "'Cuz, King Arthur has to stay in Avalon." "But Avalon is a very nice place." "Yeah, but..." Then Bedivere threw her arms around her. "but I want to be with you and Mommy." The disappointment in her heart vanished as she hugged her back. She kissed the top of her head and stroked her unruly hair. "I want to be here with you, too, sweetie. Anyway, since you want to be a knight, you have to get some sleep, so you'll grow up." "Okay." She kissed her cheek. "G'night, Mum." Arturia kissed her again and tucked her in once more. "Good night." She stood up, turned off the light and closed the door behind her. Meanwhile, Rin looked through the pictures that Sakura sent from New Zealand. Sakura, Shiro and their twelve-year old son, Shinichi, were spending three weeks worth of vacation there. Judging from the pictures, they were having a great time. When she was done, her eyes landed on the collection of pictures on the cabinet. There was Marlen and Nell with their newborn daughter. The photo beside it showed the elated grandmothers with their new grandchild cradled between them. A smile lit her face at the sight of their overjoyed faces. But her smile faded when her eyes landed on Tokiomi's picture. Right on schedule, his master, whom Eileen identified as Zelretch, showed up on Sakura's doorstep on his thirteenth birthday. Despite everyone's protests, he decided to go with him and learn magecraft. It was then that Rin realized that Tokiomi
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was being groomed to be his disciple. Then Shiro challenged Zelretch to a duel. After he said that, Tokiomi and Zelretch suddenly disappeared. In their place, they found a letter in which Zelretch apologized for breaking his promise for a rematch. However, in return, he would continue to block access to the Throne. Six years have passed since then, with only monthly letters to tell them of his progress. She wondered how he was doing. Then her eyes wandered to the pink frame next to it. She smiled softly as she remembered the day she received that wonderful bundle of joy from the nurse. She marveled with wonder at the fruit of their love. As her little darling suckled her first meal, she felt that she could hold her forever. She was perfect in every little way: her smooth pale skin, her round face, those chubby little hands and that golden crop of downy hair with a stubborn strand that stood out. While she suckled, her little hand reached out and grabbed a strand of her hair. Gently, she pried it open and was surprised to sense a slight tingle from her palm. Carefully, she examined it with her magesight. She saw a faint yellow glow on her right palm. There was no doubt. It was a magic seal. Rin's heart swelled with pride. A quick examination of her left hand showed another seal which glowed faint red instead. Warm tears dripped from her eyes and blessed both seals. It only seemed like yesterday when she was so small and tiny. Her eyes followed the pictures that chronicled her special events: her first step, her first birthday and her first day in nursery school, with Peter's little granddaughter, Brendan, standing by her side and holding her hand. Her eyes rose to the portrait over the dresser. It was a modified version of Arturia's first coronation portrait with her sitting by her side in the gown that she wore at Airianne's ball. When she first saw it, she was amazed at Marlen's clever skill. Later on, she discovered that Arturia requested Marlen to create a portrait with her in it as a wedding present. Her heart warmed at the thought that Arturia considered her to be her real queen. Little did she know that she would truly receive that title when Arturia consented to be High King ten years later. Her eyes wandered again to Bedivere's pictures. After their coronation, she and Arturia examined their gifts. A soft smile broke on her face when she recalled reading that cryptic message on the card with the gift from the Emrys. It read, "Something to help you do your duty." She and Arturia removed the wrapping on the gift and were surprised to find a scroll case. Rin extracted the scroll and read the title: The Ritual of Life. Her face warmed to crimson after she examined the ritual. When Arturia asked her what it was, she answered with a sense of wonder and excitement. "As your queen, I... no... we will have to cast this ritual someday... to conceive an heir." At first, Arturia's jaw dropped. But she recovered quickly and caught her in her arms. "Do you want to cast it now?" she asked solicitously. At that time, she had to reluctantly refuse, since the ritual required an immense amount of sex for some reason. When she asked Marlen, she declined to answer how much and sent her to her mothers instead. To her horror, they told her that the success rate of the ritual increased after two days of uninterrupted sex. It was then that she realized that Marlen declined to answer because even she had not cast the ritual yet. After their lecture, she concluded that only the Emrys could possibly craft such a perverted ritual. Even more perverted was the previously forbidden section in the library. She had never seen so many books that described various ways to enhance and intensify sex. But despite all of that, she was very thankful for their gift. With it, she was able to accomplish her duty. But now, her duty changed from conceiving an heir to raising one. And what a pleasant duty it became. Approaching footsteps declared Arturia's arrival and jolted her from her reminiscence. She turned to her beloved wife. "I'm surprised you read her that." Arturia shrugged. "Brendan let her borrow her book. She wanted to read it." "I see." Then she added wistfully, "I still wonder though... if Avalon really exists. The place, I mean, not your scabbard. It might be interesting to see a place like that." "Yes, it does. I've seen it."
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"Really? Where is it?" "I'm here with you, aren't I?" "What do you mean?" Arturia leaned in and whispered its location in her ear. Her eyes brimmed with tears of joy which Arturia wiped away with a kiss. As she led her to their bed, Rin knew that she would never forget her answer.

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"Avalon... is where you are."

Here ends this tale of the King and her Queen.

This story is dedicated to those who have loved and lost. May you find love again.

-Cyberano

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An Apprentice Grimoire
by Master Trevor Arase (A guide to the spell usage in the Fate/Stay Night fanfic, The King and Her Queen.)

Basic Spell Casting Types
Spells are one of the following types or are a combination of several basic types. 1. Spoken After one gathers the necessary mana in one's body, the activation word brings the spell into existence in the physical world from the magical realm. The word shapes the mana into the form envisioned by the mage. 2. Thought Instead of speaking the word, a skilled mage can think of it instead. To cast the spell, more concentration is required from the mage. 3. Gestured In most simple spells, a gesture can minimize the concentration required by a spell cast by thought. The gesture aids the mage in shaping the spell in the physical world. 4. Written Instead of speaking the word, the mage can write the word and activate it by releasing the mana required by the spell. Some spells do not require words, but use symbols or runes to form itself in the physical world. 5. Enchant Enchantment involves imbuing an item with a spell. The spell can lay dormant in the item, or can work continuously given a source of mana. If a dormant spell is used in an item, the power of the spell degrades over time unless the item is recharged with mana. 6. Artifact A spell's power can be enhanced by using an artifact. The artifact is usually a specially enchanted wand, staff, amulet or ring, but can be almost anything provided that it is made of fine materials that can absorb and focus mana.

Spells
Blood Cleansing Origin: possibly Roman Activation: Complex Latin chant, arcane glyphs The mage creates matching arcane glyphs on the donor and receiver. Then their palms are pressed together to form a closed link. As long as the mage keeps the spell active, the donor will draw the tainted
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blood from the receiver and send purified plasma to the receiver. The effectiveness of the spell depends on the health of the donor. Silentium Origin: Roman Activation: "Silentium", gesture The mage indicates the range of the spell by drawing a circle over the protected area. After the spell is cast, any noise inside the protected area will not be heard. A side effect of the spell is the muffling of sound a few feet from the protected area. Gandr Fyre Origin: Norse/Scandinavian Activation: "Gandr Fyre", gesture The mage points his index finger at a target. The spell manifests itself as a dark bolt of energy at the tip of the finger, and is fired like a shot. If it hits the target, it degrades the target's physical form. Depending on the intensity of the attack, the attacked area of the target will disintegrate or will rot away slowly. The low level version of this spell is often used for torture since the target will be subjected to pain as his body rots away. Mind Read Origin: Celtic Activation: "Amlygu", lay hands on target On activation the mage can read the target's mind. The most recent memories are more readily accessible than older memories. The amount of memories read are related to the mage's skill and concentration. Mutatio Origin: Roman Activation: "Mutatio", gesture The mage projects an image from his mind into an object. The object will acquire said image and will seem like that image to a non-magical person. The spell lasts for about half a day, and then the object will resume its original form. Strength Origin: Celtic Activation: "Strength of A Thousand" This spell grants the mage or its intended target the strength of a thousand men supposedly. Historical records indicate that the spell was probably devised and used to erect the great stones in Stonehenge. Recent experiments have shown that the actual strength is relative to the caster's mana, physical strength and skill. The current strength record is held by Leif Rejtalkiv with a weight of 134485694823584395 lbs. Levitiam Origin: Roman Activation: "Levitiam" The spell lifts the mage into the air. The spell is active for as long as the mage supplies mana. Summon Shade Origin: Celtic Activation: gestures The mage sacrifices blood as well as mana to summon otherworldly beings. These beings are formed
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from the sacrificed blood. Their intelligence and skill are derived from the mage who manipulates them like puppets. The number of summons are limited by the amount of blood sacrificed. The Song of Trees Origin: Japanese Activation: leaf melody The mage whistles a melody which acts like an the activation spell on the leaf of the target tree. Upon completion of the spell, the target tree will reform into a human like form. The intelligence of the tree is derived from the mage who manipulates them like puppets. The number of trees affected are limited to the whistling skill of the mage and the amount of mana supplied. This spell is a special case of the Spoken spell type. Sunburst Origin: Celtic Activation: "Sunburst" The mage calls upon the sun to supply fiery orbs. These orbs can be fired like bullets or guided to a target. To guide an orb, concentration is required. If concentration is lost, the orb snaps back to the mage and explodes. For this reason, the mage usually guides just one orb. The number of orbs created depends on the mage's magic circuit and the mana supplied. Kinensis Origin: Roman Activation: "Kinensis", gesture The mage can move objects with this spell. The strength and speed of the spell depends on the mage's skill and concentration. Zerborsten Origin: German Activation: "Zerborsten", gesture The mage causes the target to explode. The power of the spell is limited to the size of the target. The smaller the target, the easier it is to explode. If the target is too large to explode, the target will remain unaffected and the mage will suffer a minor backlash of mana. Eile Origin: German Activation: "Eile" The mage enters a dimension of time which passes more quickly than the present. This causes the mage to move faster than normal. However, for every minute that the mage spends in this dimension, he ages one year. Freiwerden Origin: German Activation: "Freiwerden" Upon activation, the mana stored in objects or artifacts is released. Bind Origin: Celtic Activation: "Bind" An item is enchanted with mana or substance that can be used to trap a target. Upon activation, the item explodes and traps the target with its contents.
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Eight Mansions of Earth Origin: Japanese Activation: "Eight Mansions of Earth, lend me your strength." Item: Enchanted jade beads Eight jade beads are enchanted to draw mana from another enchanted object. A jade bead must be positioned in the eight directions of north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, northwest. When the beads are in place, the mage chants the activation keyword. The beads will draw the mana out of the object that it is embedded in and will connect the mana to the other beads. This is often used to extract mana and spread it over a wide area. Mysteros Gate Origin: Roman Activation: "Mysteros porta, expositus", written runes The Mysteros Gate is a channel to the magical realm. Since it requires a lot of mana to activate, at least five mages participate in its opening and its control. Its purpose is to be a power source for a spell that requires a lot of mana. Because it uses a lot of mana to open and control, it has fallen to disuse. Flammentod Origin: German Activation: "Flammentod" Upon activation, the target is consumed by fire. The intensity and duration of the fire depends on the mana provided. Animal form Origin: Celtic Activation: "Anifail Cyfnewidiad" The mage forms the image of the animal that he wants to turn to and speaks the activation word. Translocation Origin: Celtic Activation: "Adleoli", gesture The mage draws a circle around the item or area that will be translocated to another place. He forms an image of that place in his mind and speaks the activation word. The size of the item is limited by the amount of mana provided and the distance that it will travel. Mana Transform Origin: German Activation: "Aenderungsmana" This is used to change the flow of mana in an object. It requires a lot of concentration and synchronization from the mage. Protective ward Origin: Japanese Activation: Ofuda with the spell The mage sacrifices an ofuda with the spell for the protective ward or kekkai. Anything within the ward is shunted into a different dimension. While the ward is in effect, destruction within the ward is not reflected into the physical world. The effective area affected by the ward is a limited radius from the mage. The range of the radius depends on the amount of mana stored in the ofuda.
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Illumina Origin: Roman Activation: "Illumina" When the spell activates, a small orb of light appears in front of the mage. The mage can move the light within a ten foot radius. The spell is in effect for as long as the mage supplies mana. Object Transform Origin: German Activation: "Aenderungs" This is used to transform the shape of an object. The physical composition and quantity of the object does not change. The complexity of the transformed object is dependent on the imagination and concentration of the mage. Disintegration Origin: Celtic Activation: "Datgymalu" The spell disintegrates the target into nothingness. In principle, it opens a tiny rift in the physical world to another dimension. The target is sucked into that dimension atom by atom, but is not reassembled in the other dimension. The mana needed to cast the spell successfully is related to the size of the target. Cloak of Shadows Origin: Celtic Activation: "Cysgod Hulyn" The spell camoflauges the target with its surroundings. The target will be difficult to discern with the naked eye, but not impossible since there is a small discontinuity at the fringe of the spell boundaries. The mana needed to cast the spell successfully is related to the size of the target.

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References
* Wikipedia o King Arthur o The Knights of the Round Table o Sir Bedivere o Fate/Stay Night o Taliesin o Snowdon lily, water lily and lily of the valley o The Lady of the Lake o Lailoken o Sir Gwain and the Green Knight o Mulan * The Legend of Myrddin Emrys * The Leprechaun * The Rose * Monty Python and the Holy Grail

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Afterword
When the anime version of Fate/Stay Night came out, I was very excited. Patiently, I prayed and chanted: "Rin and Saber... Rin and Saber... Rin and Saber...". Then I watched the mana transfer episode. "That's it?!" Needless to say, I was disappointed. To add salt to my wounds, the anime ended so sadly for Saber. I was angry. But I threw up my hands and took comfort in Strawberry Panic to ease my pain. And then I saw Ephemeral's fan art. Soon, two voices in my head demanded that I write a fanfic about them. No was not an answer. So every night after I got home from work, I slaved away in front my PC, typing and typing until I got tired. Five months later, I released the first set of chapters. It's been a long ride, with ups and downs when the story got stuck and I couldn't write. But overall, it was fun. The first edition was released in November, 2006. After getting some feedback, the fic was updated to this second edition to correct grammar and add a few more scenes. I have some ideas for some short stories but I have to work out the details. In the meantime, I’ll try my hand at drawing some short comics to complement the story. Anyway, I hope that the readers enjoyed reading it just as much as I enjoyed writing it. Once again, I extend my thanks to everyone who has read my fanfic. Cheerio!

-Cyberano

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