Heart of Stone
Victory was a heady feeling. To see one's foes defeated, utterly crushed at one's feet, was enough to fill most people with the pride, the glorious exultation of a triumphant deity. Sean, the green-haired Prince of Azura, had won such a victory, one for the ages. He and his friends had in one stroke taken vengeance on the destroyers of his home and family, put an end to the machinations that had shaped the events of three generations in the seven worlds of the colony ship Alisa III, sealed the master of evil, the Dark Force itself away with the five Nei weapons so that it could only whimper and whine to itself, unable to send out even the smallest fragment of its will to any who might hear. The floating city of Lashute that had been the home of this evil lay at the bottom of Terminus's central lake, torn to pieces by Sean's own power, the power of Megido, destruction incarnate.
It was as utter and complete a victory as there had ever been.
But yet, there was another side to the triumph, one that left Sean feeling all at sea, feeling almost as if he was detached from reality.
"Witness the Man of Stone, eternally frozen in place as he looks into the night."
Sean turned in surprise. It was Kara, of course. The android Wren did not have a sense of humor, and while his female counterpart Mieu did, hers did not extend to brazen mockery of the one who was technically her master. The last member of their group, Laya, was usually gentle, sometimes enigmatic, and occasionally fierce when overwrought by emotion, but she, too simply didn't have it in her.
On the other hand, Kara, Princess of Dahlia, most certainly did. Kara was fiery and confrontational; her anger at her enemies blazed openly, unlike Sean's, which he'd kept locked in his heart.
The princess had unbound her long, pastel-green hair from its bandanna so it flowed free around her shoulders; she was likewise without her war-robe of laconia mesh, leaving her lithe, catlike form clad only in her snug red leather dress. She was, for the first time since Sean had known her, positively beaming.
"That's how Mieu thinks of you, you know. I heard her say it to Wren, once."
They were alone by the campfire, Sean realized. Mieu had gone off down by the lakeshore, and Wren, needing neither food nor sleep nor companionship, was standing sentry duty. Laya was off somewhere, out of sight.
Kara waved a hand in front of Sean's face.
"Hey, are you in there?"
"Okay, that's it," she said, her smile vanishing into a worried frown. "What's going on here? We won, you know, or did you forget that?"
"I...it's hard to explain."
Kara grabbed his arm and pulled him down to the soft grass, then started rummaging through her pack.
"Aha! Here we go."
She pulled out a tall bottle of shock-resistant plastiglass, filled to near the top with a brilliant violet liquid in which tiny specks of amber seemed to throw back the flames like stars at twilight.
"This is a bottle of six-hundred-year-old Dahlian brandy, in which I hoped I could drink a toast over the graves of whichever bastards got us in this mess in the first place. Since we did a very effective job of putting them into those graves, I'd say that now is the time. Besides which, my experience has been that whenever things are hard to explain, you need the ear of a friend and a fair amount of liquor to get through them."
Sean couldn't help it; he chuckled.
"Kara, you're something else."
"I'll take that as a compliment, since I'd hate to have to break your jaw before we even get started."
It was comments like those--not completely spoken in jest--which reminded Sean of just how close to the edge Kara really skated. He had learned a harsh lesson when Azura was destroyed, but Kara had been taught nothing but hatred and war from childhood, and the fury that drove her ran much more deeply in her than it ever had in him.
She broke the seal on the bottle and removed the cap. A flick of her wrist tossed the first swig onto the flames where it sizzled and sparked, then she finished the ancient Layan toast.
"Never dream, what can be lived!"
Kara lifted the bottle to her lips and drank deeply, even the battle-hardened girl shuddering as the potent liquor burned down her throat. She handed the brandy to Sean, but he did not follow suit at once.
"Sean," she said in exasperation, "have you ever read a fairy tale in which the beautiful princess has to drink alone?"
"I can't say that I have."
Submitting to the uniquely Karan logic, Sean took a deep draft to match hers. The alcohol seemed to catch fire in him, the clouds of smoke rising to make his thoughts swim suddenly. As he sat there, contemplating the sensations, he realized that it would be good to have someone to speak to--that in fact he had, not once, even made the attempt to open himself up to anyone since the whole thing had begun.
"I never thought it would feel this way."
He took another drink, then passed the bottle back to her.
"Winning, I mean."
She evened the swigs.
"Well, Sean, I didn't think you meant the brandy."
He grinned at her. Kara seemed to be single-handedly forcing more good humor out of the young prince than he'd felt in the past several months put together.
"Maybe I should have; it applies to that, too. What's that aftertaste to it?"
"I thought that was a poison."
"So's alcohol, if you drink enough of it."
"Kara, you can't be getting drunk already."
"I can't? Well, I'll just have to fix that." She downed another healthy dose of the violet liquor, then passed the bottle again. The fire danced happily, sending shadows trailing across her face. Sean stared into it, the leaping flames taking him back almost hypnotically into the past.
"When Azura was destroyed, I lost everything," he said quietly. "I lost my parents, I lost my friends, I lost my home, I lost my people. I was raised to be a prince. That meant that it was my duty to lead my people, but also to serve them, to protect them." He turned to look at Kara. "You should understand that; you're a princess."
"Oh, sure. If you count butchering as many of Dahlia's enemies as I could in the shortest possible time serving its people."
Sean's stomach lurched.
"You say it so casually."
Kara reached out and grabbed Sean's shoulder.
"I was born into war, Sean. My father was a psychotic madman who wanted to spill Orakian blood until the seas ran red. Then he finally had his eyes opened and he became a broken thing because everything he had was lost. My mother was an irrelevancy whose name I don't even know." She blinked, and the brittle intensity went out of her voice. "But yes, I do see what you mean."
The Prince of Azura sighed.
"Well, I can see how your father feels. I had a happy home and--poof!--it went away. I'd been raised, studied all my life how to be a good ruler and--poof!--no people to rule. Eighteen years that might as well never have happened, that was my life." He waved a hand airily, as if the sparks that danced up from the fire and vanished were Azura, his parents, his people.
The bottle passed back and forth again.
"Yeah, but you didn't just sit around useless all day."
"That was because I had something to replace my life with. I had vengeance. So, vengeance became my reason for being--find the ones responsible and destroy them."
"But you were so calm about it. No fear, no anger, no sorrow. All you needed was some heavier armor and a shot and you might as well have been Wren."
"Why not? I didn't have anything else to live for. Anything else would just get in the way, right?"
"You're asking me?" Kara laughed. "What would I know about controlling my emotions?"
"Oh, shut up."
"I thought you wanted me to talk."
Kara sniffed and folded her arms over her chest.
"I changed my mind."
Sean waggled a finger at her.
"No, no, no, you started this, so you've got to hear the end of it."
Some part of Sean's brain realized that both the young royals were by this time quite drunk thanks to the potent brandy, but it was a very small part which did not speak very loudly.
"Oh, okay; that's different."
"So, if you're asking me why I...why I was so distracted, cut off from the world..."
Kara nodded. Intoxicated she might be, but she clearly remembered what had brought her to this point in the first place.
"Well," Sean began, trying to explain. It was slow going for the young man to convert feelings into words, slower still to choose the right words under the influence of the liquor. Ironically, though, the brandy did him a favor, bringing those feelings out into the open past the natural reserve his conscious mind usually kept locked around them. "Well, we won."
"Damn straight we won!"
"But now that we did win, what's left? I've achieved my vengeance."
"Justice," Kara corrected. "Their very scheming to open the doors between the worlds and bring back my father and that insane android Siren also ended up putting the means of their ultimate defeat into our hands. Hoist by their own petard. Whatever a petard is."
"You can call it whatever you like, but the point is that it's over. I've accomplished my quest; there's no more to be done, no more enemies to fight. What do I have left to live for? Nothing!" he spat bitterly. "I have no lands that need me, no evils to vanquish--nothing at all."
Kara's fist crashed against the side of his jaw, sending him sprawling onto his back.
"You idiot!" she shouted.
"No wonder you say you can understand my father. You sound just like him!"
Sean just blinked.
"When he found out his war against the Orakians was no more than the useless murder of innocents, he lost all his strength. Too weak to act because he'd lost the driving passion in his life, too burdened by his guilt to risk doing anything again. Too...damned...blind to look around and see that he was needed."
There was nothing, Sean thought, that sobered one up quite so quickly as a friend's anger.
"Well, maybe he is needed," Sean said. "Maybe he has Dahlia to rule, a sister and a daughter to care for. But I'm not like him. I don't have any of that. I don't have a duty to anyone because I don't have anyone."
In frustration, Kara yanked on her hair.
"You've got your life, twit! Mieu once told me how your parents ordered her and Wren to get you away safely, how the cyborgs basically had to drag you bodily into the shuttle. Doesn't that tell you something? Your parents wanted you to have the chance to live! You aren't some weapon of vengeance they turned loose, you're their son."
He'd never looked at it that way before.
Then again, he'd never looked at it at all before.
"And as for not having anyone, what about us, huh? Aren't we all friends here? Okay, Wren is a stretch," she admitted, "but Mieu'll be there by your side for the rest of your lives. Laya's been asleep for a thousand years; she doesn't have any family left besides us either, y'know. And what about me?"
Before he could get any further in his question, Kara made her meaning painfully clear. She fisted both hands in the front of Sean's tunic and hauled him up to a sitting position, then planted a kiss full on his lips. It was not what one might call a sisterly kiss. There was enough raw energy and passion in it to explain just how, in fairy tales, lovers' kisses could shatter enchantments and wake the dead.
It even held, perhaps, enough heat to melt a man of stone.
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