By Nicole Aucoin

"He's touchy, careful."


"Watch what you ask for!"

The whispers barely disturbed the air, consciously not appropriating deep breaths for the warnings. Erlan was, in the normal course of things, jealous at the uses his air was put to use, and today even more so, it seemed. The WindKing must usually be dealt with carefully, but judging by the barely audible words, she must truly watch her step today. The disturbance caused by his sister's disappearance barely two weeks ago must still be present. Hayda continued on as if she didn't take one iota of notice of the court's warnings. This was not a cowed court, but a prudent one, and one to take notice of failings in a newcomer; if she disturbed the uncertain temper of their sovereign, they would feel it and then she would feel them. If, of course, there was anything left of her.

She kept her steps steady, her eyes respectfully lowered, as she advanced on the raised thrones. Even though it was her first time in the hall, her eyes did not, could not, wander. The slightest misstep would cost too much. Her gown was immaculate; her hair severely constrained into a style one step ahead of the latest, thanks to a gifted hairdresser. But if one looked closely, the beads of sweat on the forehead, the slight grimness of the mouth gave away her inner agitation. For what she asked could damn her.

"You could have picked a better day, you fool!" a shrewish voice sounded within her ear alone.

"Quiet, Gaytha!" she replied internally, briefly breaking her concentration from the task of approaching Erlan. Living with the presence of this woman had been an educating, though trying, time.

Almost there. Now the curtsy, swinging the robes gracefully; pause for permission to rise. Poised with head bowed, her worries began gnawing at the edges of her calm--or were they Gaytha's worries? No, she wouldn't care that the foot was positioned just right, that her hair was holding, that she would tremble in body or voice.

"Rise," the curt order came. Hayda rose, eyes raised to the base of the stone-gray thrones, hands clasped in front to still the trembling. "Speak."

She began her presentation to the gray stone. "Sire, I have news of your sister." A shift of fabric before and gasps behind indicated acknowledgment of the statement.

"Does she live?" The royal voice trembled as Hayda's had not, but from what cause, she could not say.

Now, raise the eyes. "In me," a quiet statement of fact, then she braced for the reaction. He could strike her down for impudence or, hopefully, embrace the truth she spoke.

"In you! You worthless mortal, you dare make any claim to be my kin!"

No threats yet, she lived and could speak. "I do not know how to let her speak to you, yet she speaks to me when she wishes, for she is part of me now. Her tale, as revealed to me, is that Bethel the Mad cursed her; her body became mist, losing it's beauty and form, yet still retaining her will. She could just summon a breeze to flee with, though she had to take care not to disperse herself."

"She always was good at the fine things," he murmured.

"Bethel did not pursue her far. It was enough that she was gone and could not compete for Prince Elentian, whom, I have heard, Bethel bewitched, married, then murdered for his wealth when he would not love her on his own, even with Gaytha disposed of."

"She has been dealt with for that deed already, though I never considered that I would regret her easy death. Assuming your story is true!"

"Get him to ask me a question!" commanded Gaytha.

"She wishes you to ask a question of her," Hayda complied. The King studied her for a moment, considering what only Gaytha would know, that no servant or courtier could have overheard and told this impudent one about.

"How old is she?"

"You know I never told anyone that, and I'm not about to begin now, you smart mouthed brat!" Hayda relayed, with some misgivings about being rude to her king, even under command from his sister. But he smiled briefly, and posed one more question.

"Where did you hide your heart?"

Hayda began to worry when an answer was not immediately supplied. "Gaytha? Gaytha, he's waiting!"

"Give me a minute, girl, he's wanted to know that for a perishing long time, but it may be the only thing that will save me. For if I can put my heart into a host newly dead, I may be able to take them over and live again." She pauseed. Then, finally, "Ask him 'Who?'"

"Who?" The court was still at this answer, uncomprehending.

"Her," the reply was even worse, nonsense seeming.

"Tell him 'never', curtsy, and leave right now." Gaytha replied urgently.

"She says 'never', sire." Hayda swept down into a deep but quick curtsy, turning to go as soon as it was done, expecting to be pinioned by a whirl-wind at any moment. The room began to heat, but then subsided. He wouldn't help but he wouldn't hinder either, it seemed. Hayda exited the hall, then shed her dignity and bolted for her rooms. Out of the court robes, into traveling leathers, belongings already packed. To the stables to collect Windmere, and out of the citadel. It was only as they rode down the stone bridge separating the WindKing's domain with that of ordinary mortals that Gaytha stopped inducing a panic in her. As she relaxed, her questions rose up.

"Why did he let us go? And why did we have to leave so quickly?" she demanded silently.

"He doesn't know everything, my dear baby brother," the caustic thoughts came. "He thinks that he'll give me a chance to do it on my own, gather my heart and pick another body. But he will watch for where I get my heart from, and seize it before I can use it; will hold it to enslave me. So we had to flee as if I wished to get away from followers."

"As if? Don't you?"

"No. For he has my heart beating next to his."


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