Antarian union rites are largely perfunctory and brief, since presumably the people involved bring all the important stuff with (and within) them for the bonding. So while the ceremony itself will be followed according to Antarian custom, we're free to adapt the rest of it along the lines of any Human tradition that we want.

Intellectually, I've known this for some time. Now that I'm here ... well, I don't know what I expected, but I wasn't kidding with Isabel and Maria earlier. They really did outdo themselves.

It's like I'm walking right into the sunset; we're at fairly high altitudes here, and the large, fiery red ball hovers at the horizon, making the candles and torches set about us seem insignificant and inadequate in comparison, tiny points of light dancing in the warm breeze.

I walk with my head high so everyone - on one side of the aisle, anyway - can see the marking on the side of my neck, under my ear.

My incomplete marking.

Kyle and I used to joke about our 'gang tats', but I think that we both know why we got them, because they gave us a sense of belonging and allegiance that wasn't quite 'family' but came close. And although I never really thought about it before, it occurs to me now that getting it voluntarily was probably my way of meeting Max halfway, of making the final product something we'll create together.


Finally I see him. He's standing solemnly on the dais before me, three steps above everyone else, alone and looking stoic. Through our bond I know how hard his heart is pounding in his chest, and I suspect that only he knows how fast mine is pounding in mine. I walk towards him, understanding that in this minute, he is not just my soul mate or the father of my child. I am a confirmed citizen of Antar, and he is my liege, my lord, my king. There's no turning back now.

Again I am bemused by this place in which we find ourselves, and I don't mean geographically. I was raised in a democracy, and I believe in the tenets of a representative government and the rights of the individual. I do. And yet, here I am, pledging myself in service to a monarchy. In my own household, no less. Does this make any sense at all?

We've reached the bottom step. Michael leans down to give me a quick hug and a light kiss on my temple. "Give 'em hell, Parker," he says, too low for anyone but me to hear.

I grin up at him. "That's Princess Parker to you, bub," I whisper back, and he bites back his laughter, bowing slightly before leaving me to go stand between Ander and Kyle in his place around the dais. Isabel and Maria watch from the other side, and I can tell that they're both curious about what Michael just said, and, in Maria's case, wondering how he'd look up on a dais of his own. But that's just a guess on my part.

A subtle deepening of the red around us brings my attention back to the matter at hand, and I lift my right foot to climb the first step.

I've been a soldier for my entire adult life, hell, since before my adult life, so it's not like I don't appreciate order or hierarchy. This is my opportunity to hold a government responsible, because I will be a part of it and I will be responsible ... huh. I've never really gone in for philosophy before. I always preferred the hard sciences. It's probably a good thing my role will be a great deal more ceremonial than political.

I lift my left foot to climb the next step.

More importantly, I'm doing this to be with Max. Because after all is said and done, I've earned this. I deserve my place by his side, just as he's earned his place by mine, and we've earned the right to stand together. I believe this. This is just one more hurdle to overcome, and we'll do it together.

I pause at the edge of the platform, memorizing the sight of him in the waning light. And then I take three steps forward, and he smiles at me.

The rest passes by in a blur of High Antarian and a few traditional gestures. I speak when required, my carefully coached accent flowing smoothly, but the words have little meaning for me. What matters is that just as the last of the sun's rays fade from the skies, my husband's hand raises and the universe witnesses the glow of the royal seal against the navy twilight as it imprints upon my essence and upon my neck.

The light of my inner seal fades in a few seconds, leaving us bathed in the gentle glow of a hundred scented candles, but the marking on my skin remains: complete, unmistakable, and permanent.

I smile at Max. His mouth quirks to one side, but he is very solemn as he takes my hand and together we turn to face our people.

"Congratulations. I am pleased that you are the mother of my heir."

I gawk at the Antarian diplomat in front of me. He seems sincere enough, even sweet, but what the hell? Out of the corner of my eye I see Kyle and Michael look up, similarly startled.

Trying to stave off an incident, I give him the opportunity to explain. "Excuse me?"

He pauses, looking confused. Turning to his aide, who looks alarmed, he says something in Antarian and the aide whispers something back. Nodding, he tries again, a little more tentatively this time, making it sound like more of a question.

"I am pleased that you are the mother of the heir?"

I nod, understanding now. He's been learning English, and thought he'd use it to impress me and show his acceptance of me. Well, I appreciate the effort, so I smile graciously and incline my head in a gesture of courtesy. "Thank you for your continuing support. It means a great deal to both of us."

I give his aide a moment to translate, and the diplomat bows back, smiling widely. He's obviously thrilled that I remember him from somewhere. I don't, actually, but that's why I have an aide of my own stationed discretely behind me, to tell me these things and make sure I don't embarrass myself.

Right now, I'm more concerned with Michael and Kyle. They're about to explode with laughter, and I know I'm going to endure a lot of teasing about this for a long time. I just hope they can contain themselves until the diplomat's out of earshot.

Luckily his aide is also aware of the danger, and with an apologetic glance at me he leads his boss onward.

"Wanna dance?"

It's Kyle, and he's still laughing at me, but I accept. I'm a total sucker for his smile - the one that says he knows me and remembers me and cares about me - and he knows it.

Isabel had arranged to tile an area under the tent, and it makes a creditable dance floor. We don't speak for a minute, just dance, each of us catching the eyes of people we know and smiling and waving. At one point I see Michael speaking quietly to Maria and Isabel, who are very carefully not looking at me. But I can see their shoulders shaking and I know they're laughing.

And then Max joins them, looking curious, and I can't watch anymore.

"Oh, god," I groan, my head dropping against Kyle's shoulder. I sense more than see his grin, and I know he's seen them too.

"Liz, your little affair was going to come out eventually," he chides me, his tone deliberately prissy and self-righteous. "Better that he know now."

I groan and roll my eyes, but I laugh. How can I not?

"Hey," Kyle says then, his voice softening. "Now that's what I'm talking about. Keep doing that."

"Keep doing what?"

"Laughing. It looks good on you."

"Like marriage?" I joke, but his eyes are solemn as he smiles back at me. "Kyle, what did you mean by that?"

I don't have to explain what I'm asking about. He knows, and he's just as reluctant now as he was then to tell me.

Still ... "Kyle? What did you see?"

He's quiet for a moment while we execute a step during a slightly faster bridge in the song.

"Sometimes," he says finally, "you need to look back before you can look forward."

Suddenly the dance is over and he turns to leave. I try to follow, but I lose him in the crowd when someone grabs my elbow.

"Dance with me?" Michael asks, grinning wickedly. "I want to hear all about your latest conquest."

"So ... how does it feel to be married?" Maria asks, after the food's been served and we can all relax somewhat.

I adjust the shoulder line of my deep blue reception gown, wondering how Isabel got everything to shift color to match the navy of Antarian twilight. It's tremendously effective. I love the way everything shimmers under first moonrise.

"I don't know. It's not real yet. Ask me again in a week."

She grins and pops a tiny biscuit of some kind into her mouth. "That was sweet of Michael," she continues, once she's swallowed.

"It wasn't your idea?" I won't burst her romantic little bubble. I know exactly why Michael wanted to dance with me; he wanted to get going on the smart-ass remarks before he forgot any. But if it makes Maria happy, I'll let her believe whatever she likes.

She shakes her head. "Nope. But I wish I'd thought of it. Of course, it's just as well Max was there to heal your foot."

I laugh. It was true, Michael tried valiantly, but he couldn't quite make it through a dance without stepping on my feet once or twice. And I might have stomped on his a couple times, but it was just a coincidence, of course.

"Please tell me someone caught that on camera?"

Maria nods smugly but refuses to elaborate. I assume she's unwilling to give anyone a chance to get rid of the evidence before she can make copies, and I feel a slight twinge of pity for Michael.

Ah well, no good deed goes unpunished and all that. Heh.

"Get any good gifts?" she asks out of the blue, and for the second time today I find myself choking slightly.


"What?" Her eyes dance merrily and, I'm sure, unrepentantly. "I'm just saying, what's the point of getting married if you don't get some good presents?"

I shrug good-naturedly. With everything else going on, I hadn't given it a thought. "I don't know. Where's Isabel? She could tell you. And - hey. What'd you give us? It better be good," I tease.

She shoves me in the arm and we giggle like the girls we used to be, but her answer is strangely cryptic. "I don't know if you'll like it or not, but Isabel, Michael, Kyle and I went in on it, and, well, it just seemed like something that was long overdue. For all of us, really, but we thought it would be especially good for you. You'll get it in a few days, after the coronation."

I nod. I'm curious, but I've had something of an overwhelming day, and I don't have the energy to pursue it any further. "You know who I wish was here?"

She smiles, but it's a different smile now, gentler. Nostalgic. "Our parents? Alex? Tons of friends and family? Some drunk uncle in a corner, toasting the wrong couple and snoring during the speeches?"

I swallow, hard. She just described the wedding I always thought I'd have, and it's enough to make me want to cry. I just nod, and she gives me a big hug.

"Remember when we told Alex he'd have to be a bridesmaid, and he'd have to wear a dress?"

I burst out laughing at the memory. "Yeah, we were in seventh grade, and we promised we'd marry Scottish guys, so he could at least wear a kilt. For a month Billy Campbell ran and hid every time he saw you."

Maria just grinned. "But Alex got us back. He said we'd have to wear tuxedos at his wedding, if we were going to be his ushers."

"With top hats and canes. Maria, I miss him so much."

She nods and blows her nose on a tissue she pulled out of nowhere, handing me a second one, as if she can see the tears I'm crying on the inside. "You know," she says presently, "it's a good thing Tess didn't come. I know we're supposed to pretend we've put it all behind us, but right now, I'd rip her head off so much as look at her."

She gets no argument from me. Always pragmatic, Tess had publicly supported the marriage and accepted the invitation to the ceremony, but then came down with a 'sudden illness' that prevented her from attending. I can't say I miss her.

Alex, on the other hand ... lost in memory, Maria and I stand together, a tiny island in an ocean of people, two people tied together in so many ways we'd stopped counting years ago. And, I believe, the only two people alive in the universe that truly understand what a loss Alex's death was. The others mourn him, and I don't mean to trivialize their pain, but he was a part of us that can and will never be replaced.

Feeling melancholy, I look up to the large, round moon, and wonder if anything will ever make me laugh the way he could.

"So ... how does it feel to be a princess?"

What can I do? I laugh.

His eyes are deep and warm, and silently I thank every deity I can think of. I am with this man, and he is with me, and it is enough. It has to be.

"I love you," I tell him suddenly, and he smiles.

"I love you too."

We come together then, exhausted from hours of celebrating and clumsy with nervous energy but unwilling to waste this precious time by staying apart a moment longer. Everything is so familiar but also new, and we explore each other with wonder and awe.

"Are you ready for this?" he says at one point, and I know what he's really asking. Everything changed this day, and very soon, everything will change again.

"Yes," I tell him simply.

And I am, now.

My coronation is a much grander and more formal affair than the wedding, which despite the number of people present, felt much cozier, almost intimate.

I don't have to say anything. Instead, a court-appointed advocate stands before a panel of Antarian nobility and relates my lineage and genetic profile. This sort of thing is important to Antarians, and in a way I can understand why they wouldn't be too happy about putting their planet in the hands of a future monarch with a familial tendency towards emotional or psychological instability. Just as importantly, I don't have any close ties with political insurrectionists or blatantly criminal types either.

Luckily, no one thinks to look too closely at my own criminal record, but I like to think that's irrelevant anyway.

Max had to go through this too, before he was accepted as king, and I think I was more worried for him then than I am for myself now. Of course, we had to through something similar before we got married and when Kyla was introduced to Antarian society, so I already know I've 'passed'. None of this would ever have happened if I wasn't going to.

This public hearing stuff is just a chance for Antarian society to make a show of solidarity and support, and that's the only reason I'm going along with it.

I struggle to keep a straight face while my so-called battle prowess is extolled and exaggerated, though it's embarrassing to have such a big deal made out of what was, in effect, my job. A million other soldiers suffered the same and worse during the war, and I feel kind of guilty for taking advantage of it.

With some delicacy my advocate alludes to my status as mother to the heir apparent to the throne, and, more directly, refers to my legal and binding marriage to the king - as though everyone in the room weren't perfectly aware of both facts. There is some surprise as he deconstructs an assessment of my psychic powers, but if anything they just seem relieved that my Human contribution to the genetic legacy will reinforce, not derail, the passing along of Antarian powers and Antarian racial characteristics.

Personally, I think that's a load of crap. But I can understand why they'd want future monarchs to be compatible with genetically pure(r) Antarians in a procreational sense, so I haven't said anything about it.

And so on. It's boring and redundant and predictable and not a little invasive, and I can't help but feel impatient, because the others are waiting with my wedding gift and the curiosity is killing me.

So to speak. Oddly enough, I find myself falling back on my old military tricks for staying alert, mentally reciting the mantras that kept my mind processing everything around me by not actually focusing on any one aspect of my surroundings.

War is death. I am at war. Therefore, I am death.

The thing is, the meaning of my old battle cry has changed for me. The battle I fight isn't external anymore. It's inside me, the struggle I face every day to make my life count as something other than just another body to sacrifice on the killing fields.

And I am at war; I have no intention of ever succumbing again to the nightmares, the despair, and the darkness that even now I feel deep inside me. Michael knows this darkness; he earned his when he killed Pierce and learned what it was to destroy, to take life, and he fights the same battles. The others know darkness in their own ways, of course, but it's not quite the same.

As for death, well, there's death and then there's death, right? Sometimes you have to go through a death of sorts to move on, to move forward, to really live. And I like to think that I can face the future with at least as much courage as it took to face physical death as a soldier. I hope so, anyway. Time will tell.

And it's not just my old platoon mantra. These days, I even get new meaning from those poems that used to get me through the dark of nighttime patrols. As I sit here and listen to virtual strangers decide what persona I'm allowed to adopt in their society, I can't help but think that I have a lot more in common with a couple of soldiers who've been dead for a hundred years than I do with most of the people in this room.

More than anything, though, something Kyle said keeps coming back to me, how sometimes you need to look back before you can look forward. Maybe that's what I need to do, because something is missing. I still feel like something else needs to be resolved before I can move on. But what? And how?

I need to think on this.

But first ... I hear my cue and rise so that everyone can get one last look at me before I accept the mantle of royalty. I walked in here Princess Elizabeth Parker, Royal Consort, and I will leave Queen Elizabeth of Antar.

Gee, Michael was right. It does sound funny.

"Good morning, your Highness. Cleaning out your office?"

I look up from the piles of papers on my desk to scowl distractedly at Olan. "We're not going to go through this again, are we? I have enough people calling me that. I don't need more subjects."

I really don't. These days, I need friends a lot more.

Something in my tone forestalls any further teasing. He closes the door and takes his usual seat with alacrity. "What's wrong? You look like you're trying to lose yourself in your work," he jokes lightly, eyes serious.

"That's because I am." And then I yawn.

He nods sympathetically, recognizing the symptoms. "I take it Kyla is rising early again?"

I laugh finally, groaning a little at the deliberate pun. "I'll say."

He shakes his head in poorly disguised admiration. "Levitating, and not even a year yet? She's strong."

I let my head drop into my hands. "We've padded the floor, ceiling, and walls just as a precaution. It's like walking on the moon in there!"

I sigh, and it sounds unexpectedly heavy in the lush quiet of my private office.

"So, how is motherhood? Do tell," he invites, and I know he means it. He's starting to feel more comfortable around my family these days, and he became enchanted with Kyla the second he set eyes on her. He gets along well with Ander, of course, but I love the way he says Kyla's name: reverently, with an Antarian accent that reflects the awe in which he regards the future queen.

Of course, he's also been there when she's spit up or needed a change, and a lot of the mystique has gone out of parenting for him. He asked, once, why we bothered to use diapers; why didn't we simply have a telekinetic nurse teleport the waste? I explained that the sensation was necessary so she would learn how to deal with such matters herself as she grew older, and he'd spent hours stunned at the insight into toilet training.

He's also taken an interest in one of Maria's staff analysts, a widowed Antarian woman with a young child of her own, so maybe he's started taking a keen interest in the world of childrearing for other reasons.

Blinking to focus my wayward thoughts, I consider his question. There are a lot of ways I could answer it. I opt for bleak honesty.

"I'm having a hard time connecting with Kyla," I confess. "She still prefers her father or one of the others over me, and it's hard not knowing how to relate to your own child. Sometimes I feel closer to Ander than her, like when she won't go to sleep for me. She'll cry unless it's one of them."


"Max, Isabel, Michael, Maria, even some of the nurses. She's just more comfortable with all of them. Don't get me wrong," I say hastily, "I'm not sorry I had her, and I think I made the best decisions I could under the circumstances, but it's hard, you know?

I stand up then, pacing agitatedly as I build up some steam.

"And what does she need me for anyway? There's a staff right there to do everything for her." I laugh, but it lacks humor. "My baby has her own staff. A bigger one than I have, if you can believe it. Bodyguards, doctors, nurses, nannies, educators, psychic monitors, even a PR manager, all making plans and waiting for the day they get their chance to do something with her and for her."

"PR manager?" Olan interrupts, and I nod emphatically.

"She needs one! You know that reception we had for her after we came home? Well, she's currently the biggest star on six planets."

Boy, did we need to handle that one carefully. No one really cared that she was born out of wedlock, not really, but there were a lot of questions about why we kept her more-or-less secret. We couldn't admit to the public that I'd knowingly gone out as bait, of course, so we just explained (truthfully) that we hadn't wanted her to become a pawn in the war, another target. That, everyone understood.

What still amazes me is how personally everyone took it that Khivar kidnapped me at all, and not just the Alliance. We've received a number of sincerely apologetic overtures from various Trejantisian sects, and not simply out of fear of political backlash. Take Khivar's cousin, a pureblood Trejantisian who lobbied for and inherited his leadership. He's a mercenary through and through, and as far as we can tell, he's just concerned with making sure he and his people don't fall into economic ruin in the aftermath of war. Well, he went out of his way to apologize to me personally and even sent a gift for Kyla's reception party.

Olan is saying something "You're her mother. Of course she needs you."

What? Oh, right. Max says that too, at least once a week. Usually when she's in his arms and exhausted from fighting me at bedtime, so she falls asleep like a little angel when he puts her down.

"I guess."

There's a bit more silence. I think we're both trying to find something to say. Or at least, I am.


I nod encouragingly. Yes, please fill the void.

"Do you think you might be overreacting a little? Babies are difficult creatures. Are you certain you're being objective about your relationship with her?"

I open my mouth to argue with him, but then his words sink in and I slump back down into my chair. "I don't know," I admit. "Maybe I am being unreasonable. It's just ... I thought that once we bonded ... everything would be fine."

He nods thoughtfully. "I'm not trying to trivialize what you're saying, so correct me if this doesn't sound right, okay?"

I wait, partly amused at the air of fatherly wisdom he's adopted but also curious to hear what he has to say.

"Your very healthy daughter fusses when she's tired, adores people who love and give her everything she wants, and is just as stubborn as her mother. Do I have this right?"

I don't answer immediately. I'm still trying to sort out all the emotions I'm feeling right now.

Finally one wins out: embarrassment. "It sounds kind of silly when you put it like that."

He shakes his head. "Not silly. I think it's entirely understandable. But," he says, leaning forward and for some reason evoking a distant memory of my father leaning over the CrashDown counter with a similar expression on his face, "I think there's another problem here. My guess is that everyone's walking on eggshells around you, and it's feeding into your insecurities."

That one I didn't see coming. It was an interesting thought, though. "You think so?"

He shrugs, and I can tell that he has something else he wants to say, but is trying to decide whether now is the time.

"Olan? What is it?"

He's very serious now, and I feel myself tense up in anticipation. "Liz ... what's this really about? Has something happened since the last time we spoke?"

I don't answer right away, and when I do, my voice is uncharacteristically quiet. "How did you know?"

"Know what?"

I just look at him.

He doesn't budge. "I'm just going by experience. Something is bothering you, and it has nothing to do with being a mother."

I smile crookedly. "You're right but you're wrong. Something is bothering me, and it has everything to do with being a mother."

Now he's worried, but he just nods and waits for me to go on.

"I found out the death toll from Khivar's station."

Shocked, he looks away. Then he takes a breath and looks back. We've discussed this before, and although he says that it was justified, I know it bothers him too, to feel responsible for so many deaths. "And?"

"In addition to the military units Khivar stationed there, approximately eighteen thousand, seven hundred and fifty civilian Trejantisians were registered as permanent residents at the time of destruction. Over nine hundred were listed as under the age of legal adulthood."

He blinks furiously, visibly shaken.

"I killed nine hundred children," I continue, jaw tight. "I killed children, and ... and I'm being hailed as some kind of hero, Olan. I'm -- I'm getting medals. I give speeches at civic functions. People stop me on the street and shake my hand. A school was just named after me. A ... a school ..."

My voice trails off, and the silence that follows physically hurts.

I'm shocked. I hadn't meant to be so specific; those numbers were still considered classified, and he's not cleared for this. Hell, I'm not even cleared for this; Max just can't keep many secrets from me because of our connection. I don't think he even realized how much I saw when I kissed him goodbye this morning. But I did see it, I saw his memory of reading that report and felt how he felt when he read it, and now I've said it out loud, burdening a good friend, perhaps unnecessarily.

I can't undo either act, and I don't know which weighs on me more.

I can't look at him right now, and I try to focus on the suddenly blurry pages before me.

I can see him at the edge of my peripheral vision, so I know his face is unnaturally pale and his eyes closed. After a moment, though, they open and he smiles encouragingly. It looks more like a grimace.

I think he's waiting for me to continue. I can't.

"A heavy burden for us both," he says then, voice neutral. Very carefully, he takes one of my shaking hands in his, and we sit like that for a long time.

I want to cry. Instead, I stare at our hands with painfully dry eyes, trying to make sense of it, of everything. Of anything.

I can't. I just ... can't.

Again, Kyle's words come back to haunt me. I do need to move forward, but I don't know how.

I'm stuck, and I don't know what to do about it.


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