posted on 24-Dec-2002 1:14:10 PM
This is my friend, April's amazing fic, nominated at the Lustful Fanfiction awards for, like, a four categories!!

Title: Death of the Oleander

Author: April

Disclaimer: The story is mine, but I cannot say the same for the characters. (Too bad)

Summary: What happens when a man and a woman from opposite sides of the tracks fall in love and are forced to stay apart?

Category: Michael and Maria

Rating: PG-13

Author’s Note: Okay, okay, okay, I’ll admit that I did this in a response to another challenge. The challenge rules were as follows:
1) Must be AU
2) Must take place on Antar
3) Must focus mainly on M+M
4) Maria must be a servant girl
5) Michael must be known as “the General”
6) Michael must take Maria riding on his horse
7) Michael and Maria must swim near or under a waterfall
8) Michael and Maria must feed swans
9) Michael must go to big, fancy parties constantly
10) Maria must have a fantasy and/or dream about Michael
11) There must be a big battle at the end with Kivar and Nicholas
12) Has to be packed full with tons of romance and angst
Okay, so, there are the rules. Anyway, just to let you know, the characters will go by their new world names, meaning Michael will be Michael, not Rath, Max will be Max, not Zan, and so on. Again, I’d love feedback, but nothing harsh. It’s only my second piece. Now, on with the story!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Something seemed different about that particular morning. He sensed that something was different from the moment that he woke up. The whole castle had an air about it that made it feel peculiar, indistinct, odd. But he tried to pay no attention to that strange, foreboding feeling deep inside of himself, because he needed sleep. Every day was a busy day filled with tasks and jobs that needed to be done, and he rarely got a chance to rest. He would need all of his energy.

So Michael Guerin laid in his bed with his eyes closed. He wasn’t sleeping, but he wasn’t getting up, either. He supposed that it was late already, for he always liked to sleep a little too late. Isabel was probably already up making breakfast or walking around the garden like she liked to do lately, and Max was probably already in his office, coming up with tactical combat plans. Luckily, none of those plans had needed to be put into use yet.

Michael rolled over and flipped the covers off of him. He grunted as the warmness inside of his body evaporated and was replaced by cold. Reluctantly, he got up and stretched.
“Isabel?” he called. “Isabel, you up?”

His only form of a reply was the echoing sound of his voice as it bounced off the thick cement walls of the palace and came back to him.

Great. Now he’d have to go find Isabel. Many people had been worrying lately that she was spending too much time with Kivar lately. Even the peasants would brave their fears and come talk to him without permission. “Isabel’s spending too much time with that Kivar and not enough time with you,” they would say. To some, Kivar was bad news. To Michael, he kept Isabel away for a few hours.

Michael walked down the winding, narrow staircase that led to the kitchen and sat down on one of the bar stools. The place was a mess right now. He and Isabel had thrown a party for all of the people of Antar a few days ago, but they hadn’t yet gotten around to cleaning up the mess. He just sat there for a moment, trying to figure out what to do, and then decided to go after Isabel. Max would chide and chastise him if he didn’t watch over his sister.

Michael hiked back up the stairs and got dressed in his casual attire. Today was Friday, so he could wear what he wanted to. Usually he would have to wear his General suit that proved who he was and what he was in charge of. He hated it, because it was uncomfortable and itchy.

After checking his badly groomed appearance in the mirror, Michael whizzed down another flight of stairs and through the living room. He opened up the huge double doors and breathed in the fresh air of the outside world. He could see the garden off in the distance, and he could hear the sounds of the people, who had woken up earlier than he had, coming from all around.

“Hello, Sir.” a young boy said as Michael was walking down the street.

“Hello.” He returned the friendly greeting and bent down so that he was eye-level with the young boy. “What are you doing up so early?” he asked with a smile. He loved children. Nobody knew that about him. He absolutely loved children, and he wanted to be a father to one of them someday. Or maybe even two. Or three. Or four.

Just not with Isabel.

“I’m working.” the boy replied. “Momma says that I’ve got to do the wash to get paid.”

Michael sighed. He should have known. It was one of the peasant children. He should have guessed by his ragged, torn, frayed clothes.

“Your momma’s right.” Michael told him, giving him a small pat on the shoulder. “Keep up the good work.” He stood up, then, and walked on, leaving the boy to his tasks.

He felt sorry for the peasants. They didn’t have nearly as much money or power or wealth as he, Max, Isabel, and Tess had. They were the Royal Four. They were a group of aliens so critical to the survival of another planet that they got to live in a huge palace and ride in fancy, cushioned chariots and eat as much as they wanted to, but the peasants were just the opposite. They were lucky if they got as much food for the entire day as he got for breakfast. They walked around on their bare-feet. No shoes. No socks. And they lived in tiny little shacks on the other edge of town. They worked their whole lives away until there was nothing left for them but painful memories of what they had done and beautiful fantasies of what could have been had they been born in to a richer, more powerful, more important family.

Michael shook the thoughts from his head as he walked. When he entered the garden, the sweet smells of roses and oleanders drifted into his nose. The flowers were only a reminder of how even the most beautiful, precious things could be grotesque at times. The roses had thorns, and the oleanders, if eaten, were poisonous. Nothing in this world was completely perfect, even if it appeared to be.

Michael spotted his fiancé sitting on a bench, sniffing a little, white daisy. She was dressed all in black, and her brown hair was tied back in a pony-tail, covered by a black, lace bandana.

“Isabel!” he shouted.

She didn’t even bother to look up. “What is it, Michael?” she asked.

He sighed. Isabel was impossible in this way. The whole world, in her mind, revolved around her and only her. She was the princess of Antar, born into the most powerful of all powerful families.

Michael walked forward and sat down beside her on the bench. “You mustn’t just run away like that.” he scolded her.

“I didn’t run away.” she told him. “I left this morning.”

“But you didn’t tell me where you were going.”

She looked up at him for the first time. “Why does it matter?” she asked him. “Don’t tell me you were actually worried about me.”

Michael sighed. “I just don’t want Max to get mad at me again.”

“So, you weren’t worried about me?”

“That’s not the point.” Michael was becoming very exasperated very quickly. “Isabel, if we’re going to be married in a few weeks, we need to learn to work together as a team.”

Isabel chortled. “Oh, come on, Michael. Do you really wanna do that?”

Of course he didn’t . If he had his way, he wouldn’t marry Isabel at all. He’d let Kivar have her, but his destiny was predetermined. He was supposed to be with Isabel for all eternity, as was Max with Tess.

Max and Tess had gotten married a few weeks back. They seemed to be functioning pretty well together. As a unit. As one. Max even seemed to be falling in love with Tess as time went on.

“Isabel, whether we like it or not, the wedding is in three weeks.” Michael reminded her.

“That doesn’t mean anything to me.” She stood up and dropped the daisy to the ground, and then walked off deeper into the garden.

Michael buried his hands in his hair. He knew people were probably staring, wondering what was going on between the great General and his future bride, but he ignored them all. They were only nosy, and he didn’t want to get into that right now.

So he got onto his feet as well and headed out of the garden. On his way out, he picked up an oleander that was lying on the ground. He twirled it around in his fingers for a minute, and then placed it in his pocket. In their community, it was illegal to pick oleanders, for the simple reason that they could kill if eaten. Legend had it that the once and noble king before Max had accidently mixed an oleander into one of his stews and eaten it and died. But Michael took this flower home anyway, and he really didn’t know why at the time. It was beautiful, yes, but it was deadly.

Perhaps it had some kind of hidden meaning about it. Maybe it was Isabel in a new light that many people could never see her in.

Michael walked on, deciding that if the community of Antar thought that oleanders were so deadly, then they shouldn’t even have any in the garden or anywhere else for that matter.

He marched into Max’s palace, (Yes, they each had a palace, only Max’s was a little bigger and a little nicer.) waving and saying hi to people on the way. The guards allowed him in right away without questioning his purpose. Michael didn’t have guards at his palace. He didn’t feel that they were necessary. He was a warrior, a master at combat. Why would he need guards to protect him? Max, however, felt differently. He was not the warrior as Michael was. He was the planner, the king, but he was not as skilled in fighting, and felt that guards were a must.

Michael walked up the stairs, which were identical to his and stopped in front of the door to Max’s office. If Max wasn’t in the bedroom with Tess, he was in his office. He rarely went outside, because, in his mind, there were always things that needed to be done.

Michael knocked on the door and shouted, “Max, it’s me! Open up!”

“Come on in.” Max told him.

Michael opened the door and was greeted with the familiar site of Max, leaning over his desk, writing something or investigating something. “Max, I’ve gotta talk to you about Isabel.” he announced.

Max exhaled an audible sigh. “Well, can you make it short, Michael? I’m kinda in the middle of something.”

Max was always in the middle of something.

“I just don’t know if we should follow through with the wedding.” he said.

Max looked up at this, a shocked and horrified expression on his face. “Michael, how can you think that?” he spat. “My sister is perfect for you! She’s your destiny!”

“Well, this whole destiny thing really sucks!” Michael shouted back.

Max stood tall and proud and slammed his hand down hard on his wooden desk. “I’m not the one who made this destiny thing up.” he reminded Michael. “But we have to go through with it.”

Michael stuffed his hands in his pockets. Typical.

“Don’t let this get around.” Max warned. “If the citizens found out that you were having doubts, the whole community would be in an uproar.”

Michael turned around and headed out the door. He didn’t want to hear any more. Nobody ever thought about how he felt, when he, himself, thought about every single person that lived on his planet. Even the peasants.

He reached down into his pocket and felt around to make sure the oleander was still there. He would never use it, of course, but there were times when he just felt like stuffing it into Max’s mouth. Isabel’s, too. Whichever one came first.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Every day was the same. Well, for Maria DeLuca it was anyway. Maybe it wasn’t for the more important citizens like King Max, or his bride, or the General, or his fiancé. Maybe even the nobles. But for herself and the rest of the peasants, including her best friend, Liz Parker, it was. Every day, they got up and got dressed in their ragged clothing and headed out the door. They didn’t eat breakfast because food was too scarce for them, and they didn’t wash because the water was more of a murky brown than a crystal clear blue.

Of course, the Royal Four got to drink the clear water. The Royal Four got everything and anything they wanted. There were times, many times, when Maria resented them. They were spoiled, just like the youngest child of a family usually was. While she worked her ass off cooking and cleaning and doing whatever it was that they wanted her to do, they were sitting around smoking cigars or drinking alcohol.

In a way, she envied them. But in another way, she felt sorry for them. They had the weight of an entire planet, an entire race, riding on their shoulders. It must have been a stressful job.

Anyway, after they would go out, they would report to their assigned destinations. Some would walk all the way to the laundry building. Others would go around to the richer citizens’ houses and collect their dirty clothes to bring to the laundry building to be washed. Others would head over by the garden to plant or take care of the animals. Still, others were assigned to a certain person, mostly the nobles and lords. Liz had been assigned to assist Sir Jonathon Warren, one of the most skilled fighters, besides the General, of the entire colony. She got paid a good amount, too, for Sir Warren had lots of money, and lived in a house almost as nice and almost as big as King Max’s. But Maria had a very different assignment. She had been assigned to take care of Captain Meronson. Meronson was a retired war veteran. He had fought for years, but he was too old now, and even in a wheelchair. He couldn’t do anything by himself, and Maria had been assigned to take care of him, due to her wonderful people skills. (She didn’t believe that she had people skills, but apparently others did.) She basically had to help him do everything, including bathe, eat, and go to the bathroom, and that was not exactly pleasant. She spent her days and nights at his fairly nice home, and only went home after he had gone to sleep. And he didn’t have the most money, since he had to use a lot of it for medicine, so she was barely paid anything.

She left that morning and began the long walk over to his house, prepared for her daily routine, and knocked on his door to be greeted with no answer. He usually hollered from inside for her to come in, but this time there was nothing. Maybe he hadn’t heard her. She knocked again, and called his name.

“Captain Meronson? It’s me, Maria!”

Still no answer.

Maria was about to turn the door-knob and walk in, uninvited, when she heard someone speak from behind her.

“Didn’t you hear? Captain Meronson died last night.”

She turned around and saw the General standing behind her. Michael Guerin himself.

“Oh, oh, that’s too bad.” she stuttered. She didn’t know what to say. She had never spoken to the General before. She had seen him out with his fiancé, Isabel a few times, but she had never actually talked to him.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “He was too old to go on, I guess.”

Maria nodded in agreement. She felt bad that Meronson had died. He had been a great person. Funny as hell. He used to tell her stories about his fighting days. One time he had told her about his wife. They had fallen in love during the first war on Antar. He had been sent to a MASH after he had been shot and met her there, like fate. They had gotten married the following year, and had had years of happy marriage together until she, too, had died of old age.

She would miss him, but she wouldn’t miss helping him go to the bathroom, that was for sure.
“You’ll need a new assignment now, won’t you?” Michael asked.

She nodded, mutely.

He bit his bottom lip, as if contemplating his decision. “Well, I don’t think we’ve really got any openings among the lords and nobles,” he thought aloud, “but I could always use someone to help me out.”

Was she hearing him correctly?

“My assistant recently retired.” he explained. “I need a new one. The offer stands . . .”

“I’d love to!” she exclaimed. She had never, in her wildest dreams, imagined that she would be working for the General. He was so powerful and such a good fighter. And he had so much money!

“Great.” he said. “We’ll discuss pay later. Come by tomorrow and you can get started.”

She nodded hastily.

“Well, bye, um . . .” He paused.

“Maria.” she finished for him. “Maria DeLuca.”

He nodded. “Bye, Maria.” With that, he turned around and walked off with his hands stuffed in his pockets and his head held high.

Maria sat down on Meronson’s porch, hoping that he wouldn’t mind if he was watching from the heavens and scratched her head. Had this really happened? Had she really just gotten a job with the General? He was the second most wealthy man on the planet! (Literally) He had to pay some decent bucks!

And he was nice, too. Everyone liked him. Maria distinctly remembered one time, before Meronson, when she had been assigned to Major Jack Creoles. He had had so much power before he died in a freak chariot accident. But he had used his power for his own gain and for his own satisfaction. He had treated people that were lower than him on the class system as insects, except for Maria. He had always been kind to her. He had never treated her the way that he treated some others. But if he stepped on them and they yelled out in pain, he didn’t care. He would only step harder. And he talked to them like they were animals, calling them names and telling them to do things that really didn’t need to be done. Worst of all, when Maria had been assigned to him, he had made advances on her. She had still been young at the time, and looking back, she realized that he probably thought she would be easy to get into bed. He had tossed her onto the bed and pinned her wrists down with his freezing cold hands and yelled at her, calling her names, saying things like, “Come on, Bitch! Let’s get goin’! I’m gettin’ impatient!”

Maria shuddered at the memory, and wrapped her arms around herself. She had been able to escape, thank God, but she still remembered, and it still haunted her. She had never told anyone, not even Liz, and she didn’t have a family. Her father had been an innocent victim of the first war, and her mother had died when she was only three years old after being worked too hard on a manor.

Lucky for her, Major Creoles had died not too long afterwards, and she had managed to avoid him by working at the laundry building secretly instead of with him.

But the General . . . he was kind. She could tell that much by the way he had spoken to her. He had spoken to her like she was of the same class as he was, not lower. And she had seen him with the young peasant children. His eyes always seemed to sparkle when they said hello to him.

Maria got up off the porch and brushed the dirt from her bottom. She felt totally exhilarated. She had a new assignment, and she was serving a kind, decent person for once. Not that Meronson wasn’t kind and decent. He was, but the bathing and helping him go to the bathroom thing . . . ugh. That had been a little much.

Maria walked along to where she knew Sir Jonathon Warren’s residence was, and where she knew she would find Liz. Liz was outside, tending Sir Warren’s sheep. His main product was sheep. He would shear them and sell their furs for high prices. Since he wasn’t a fighter anymore, it was his way of making money.

“Oh, hi, Maria!” Liz chirped. Liz was always in a happy mood, no matter what. Well, she wasn’t bathing Sir Warren yet. In time, she would surely be in the same somber mood that Maria had been in while taking care of Meronson.

“I was just feeding the sheep.” Liz continued. “Jonathon said that if I did a really good job, he’d give me some extra money. That’d be enough to buy a new outfit!” A huge smile crossed her face, and Maria felt happy for her friend.

“Wait,” Liz stopped feeding the sheep and looked down at the ground, confused. “Why are you here when you’re supposed to be with Meronson?”

“Liz,” Maria climbed over the fence that provided the boundaries for the sheep’s living quarters and knelt down beside her friend, careful not to sit in anything she shouldn’t. “The best thing has happened to me.”

“What? What is it?” Liz inquired excitedly.

Maria took a deep breath and then said, “Mersonson died!”

Liz covered her mouth with her hand and a shocked expression crossed her face. “Maria, that’s nothing to be happy about!” she scolded.

Maria chuckled. “No, no, no, I really am sad that he died, although I am happy that I don’t have to help him go to the bathroom anymore, but something good came of it. I was knocking on his door when someone tells me that he died. I turn around and, who do I see?”

Liz shrugged and arched her eyebrows, urging her to continued.

“Michael Guerin!”

Liz gasped. “Michael Guerin! As in the friggin’ General?”

Maria nodded. “And, he hired me as his assistant right there on the spot.” She said the statement with a certain amount of pride, not because she wanted to sound arrogant, but because she was very proud, happy, and excited.

“I can’t believe it!” Liz squealed, forgetting about the sheep altogether. “Do you know how much you’re gonna get paid?”

“I know, I know.” They sat, talking in the sheep’s pen for a few more minutes about all of the possibilities that she now had and all of the good things that could come out of this. It appeared that the only downside was that she was going to have a huge house to clean.

Then, Maria got up and left. She didn’t want to get Liz in trouble with Sir Warren. She wanted Liz to be able to get her new dress, so she left and headed back down the street to her tiny little shack, feeling overjoyed for the first time in her life.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Isabel walked in sometime that afternoon. He didn’t know what time, exactly, but the sun was up in the middle of the sky, shining down through the windows into his eyes, and he could see people diving into his pool for protection from the heat.

“I don’t know why you let all of those kids use our pool.” Isabel snapped. “It’s always so filthy by the end of the day.”

Michael sighed. Isabel seemed to be the queen of Impossible lately. Everything was never good enough for her. Either that or something just wasn’t right.

“They’re seeking refuge from the heat.” Michael explained to her. “Not all of them have air conditioning.”

Isabel snorted and sat down on the couch with her back to him, looking at the wall in front of her. Michael wondered what she was doing for a second, but then he remembered that Isabel would do that a lot. She would just sit there and stare at things, thinking, wondering, pondering, perhaps even predicting. It got really annoying after awhile, because whenever he tried to talk to her, she would never listen. She would just continue to stare.

“Isabel, were you with Kivar again?” Michael asked, although he was fairly sure that he already knew the answer. Isabel had been with Kivar a lot lately. Almost 24/7. He was surprised that she had even come back at all today. He had expected her to stay out all night.

Isabel immediately became alert at the mention of Kivar. She turned around and glared at him. “Maybe.” she said.

But Michael could see right through her. Her hair bandana was already messed up. It was tilting to one side of her head more than the other, and her lipstick was worn off. But most of all, her body language gave it away. A person’s eyes usually gave them away, but that was not the same with Isabel. Isabel’s eyes never gave anything away. Not sorrow. Not disappointment. Not even happiness, if she ever was happy. But her body language gave it all away. Whenever she lied, she became tense, and often began to play with her hair.

“Isabel, you know I don’t have a problem with it.” he said. He stood and walked over to the couch and sat down beside her. “Kivar is a cool guy in my opinion, but not in Max’s. Max wants you to stay away from him, Isabel.”

Again, Isabel grunted. “Max can’t tell me what to do. Even if he is the king, I’m not listening to him.”

At that moment, Michael felt like shoving that flower into her mouth, but he resisted the urge. Instead, he tried to get through to her. “Isabel, I understand how you feel. I have to bow down to Max everyday. When I see him, I realize that he’s the king and I’m only the second in command. I may have the best idea in the world, but he may not like it, and that idea will never become a reality. I may want to help him out a little, but I can’t, because I ‘don’t know anything about a king’s duties’. I understand how you feel.”

Isabel narrowed her eyes and looked at him. “I don’t feel like getting into this right now.” she said. “Tess is throwing a party tonight and I want to get plenty of rest before we go.” She stood up and yawned, then, left, wordlessly, up the stairs and left Michael sitting alone on the couch.

He rubbed his forehead. He didn’t know what he was going to do. What was he supposed to do? He was getting married to a woman who he really didn’t want to get married to in three weeks, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He was supposedly destined to spend an eternity with her, and she was seeing another man already.

There was no possible way that this was going to work out.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Hello, nice to see you, come on in!”

Michael waited patiently at the door with Isabel on his arm while Tess greeted Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield and told them to sit down wherever they would like.

“This should be fun.” Isabel whispered, eyeing the crowd inside. “Oh, look, Margie’s here.”

Michael ignored her as she pointed out people. He didn’t like these parties. Every day, someone else was having a party, and he hated them. They were so stuffy and arrogant. Everyone stood around talking and drinking cocktails, laughing at jokes that weren’t even funny, and sometimes, people would dance. But it was only ballroom dancing, and that was something that Michael had never learned how to do.

“Hey, guys, come on in!” Tess said, smiling that bright and cheerful smile. Michael returned the smile as best he could, but his came out looking more like a grimace. Isabel didn’t smile at all. She rarely smiled or laughed or even talked anymore, since she had been hanging around Kivar.

Oh, well, at least the guy had gotten her to shut up.

Tess lead them inside the palace to the ballroom and down the stairs. It was packed already. A few couples were risking public embarrassment and dancing, and others just stood around talking. Some were seeing each other for the first time, others were acquainting with old friends and relatives, and neighbors.

“Is Kivar here?” Isabel asked quietly, still searching the crowd.

“He’s over there.” Tess told her, pointing to a handsome man leaning up against the stair railing. He was surrounded by tons of people. Some were appraising him, telling him that he was a great soldier and that someday, he would be appointed to king. Michael tried not to let this bother him. He was the greatest soldier. He always had been. He always would be. He was the General, after all. Others, though, were standing around Kivar with scowls on their faces, obviously not happy with him, probably for taking Isabel farther and farther away from her fiancé each day.

Michael still didn’t understand why it was any of their business.

“I’m gonna go talk to him.” Isabel slid off of Michael’s arm and glided over towards Kivar. A mischievous smile came to Kivar’s face when he saw what Isabel was wearing. Yeah, Isabel had been dressing like a slut/gothic lately, and it wasn’t that attractive. To Michael, anyway, it wasn’t. But, judging by the look on Kivar’s face, he liked her new look.

“Michael, Max is around here somewhere if you want to talk to him.” Tess informed him. He had almost forgotten that she was there.

“No, um, that’s alright.”

“Well, I have to go greet people at the door, so . . .”

“Go ahead.” Michael told her. “I’ll find someone to talk to.”

So Tess finally left, and Michael was able to do as he pleased. He didn’t made it a point to actually go up and start a conversation with anyone. Everyone at this party was shallow and insensitive. Those were the only types of people Max and Tess liked to be around. These people were in the same class. But these people, to Michael, were awful.

“Ah, Michael, my boy!”

Michael spun around and came face to face with Walter Montgomery. Walter had been his instructor as a young boy when he had been training to be a soldier. Michael hadn’t seen him for a very long time.

“Hello, Mr. Montgomery.” Michael replied. At least there was one person at this party who he could talk to. Walter had always been a kind man.

“Oh, please, none of this Mr. stuff anymore.” he said, throwing his hands around in the air. “Call me Walter, now, Michael.”

“Walter.” He let the name slip across his tongue. “It’s nice to see you again.”

“Oh, well, the pleasure’s all mine. I haven’t spoken to you for years! I mean, look at you!” Walter ran his fingers through Michael’s spiked hair. “Look at that hair of yours!” he exclaimed. “So rustic!”

Michael laughed.

“You’re all grown up now, son.” he continued. He wiped at his eye with his hands. “Oh, in a way, it’s rather sad. It seems like just yesterday that I was teaching you to hold a sword.”

Michael smiled. “Oh, Mr. Montgomery, I mean, Walter, don’t get all sentimental now. This is a party. You’re not supposed to be crying.”

“Well, I suppose you’re right.” Walter agreed. “I best be going to find Cecile now. We’ll talk later.”

Michael nodded in agreement and watched the old man leave. He distinctly remembered being in training camp when Walter had been only a middle-aged man. He had made them work hard, but it had all paid off. He had told Michael right before he graduated that he was going to do big things in his life. And here he was today, serving as the General, the second in command.

But not the king.

Max was the king.

Really, truly, everything was up to Max Evans.

Michael grabbed a glass of wine from the refreshment table and sat down on a near-by couch. He looked around for Isabel for awhile. He knew that he should make an appearance with her. It would be the right thing to do, and it would definitely save him a chastisement from Max later, but he couldn’t find her, so he gave up.

There was no question where he wanted to be. He wanted to be back at his palace, tending to his horses. He had the most beautiful horses in all of the land, and he knew it. His favorite, though, was Centra. Centra was a stunning white Thoroughbred. She could run as fast as the wind and jump as high as the trees. She was Michael’s personal horse, and he rode her often, but never with anyone else. No one was allowed to ride her but him.

He sat there for an hour on that uncomfortable couch as happier couples danced on the ballroom floor and happier people laughed and talked and ate their hearts out. He was forced to talk with Madame Holly, one of the hairdressers of the community. She had the most annoying voice. Very high-pitched and squeaky, but he pretended like it didn’t bother him. Later, Walter came back, and they had a nice conversation, except for the fact that, as Walter became older, he had begun to lose his memory, and he could not recall many of the fond moments that Michael could back when he had been in camp.

But soon, his back began to hurt, and he wanted to leave. He tried to locate Isabel, but no one had seen her. Great. Now he was stuck here.

Or maybe he wasn’t.

Isabel knew how to drive a chariot. She would be able to get home. Besides, they had Stormy saddled up, and despite his name, he was actually quite calm and gentle, and she would be able to handle him just fine.

Michael left through the back, unnoticed, and walked home in the dark. The streetlights were on, casting shadows everywhere. He made sure to walk with his eyes watching and his ears listening. Anyone could be watching him. Anyone could be near. You could never be too careful.

Finally, he spotted his castle, looming in the dark. There were no lights on inside, and no lights on outside, either, so it looked especially haunting tonight.

Without bothering to go inside and check to make sure that everything was okay, Michael walked around to the back where his stables were located. He fed his horses quickly and made sure to pet each one of them, but he already knew who he wanted to ride. He reached Centra’s stall and opened the door. He unhooked her bridle from the post and lead her out into the hallway. He didn’t bother to saddle her up. He didn’t need to. He was so used to the way she rode that it wasn’t necessary.

Michael climbed up with practiced ease and, after petting her neck to show her that it was only him, kicked her as hard as he could in the sides to tell her to go.

She took off like a bullet. The sound of her hoof-beats on the cold, stone floor shattered the stillness of the night as she rounded the corner and took off out of the corral. They ran past houses of the nobles, all of which were vacant because of the Evans’s party and past Lake Mirron, the communities biggest lake. Michael shouted happily, his voice matching the sound of his horse’s steps, and let the wind tear through his hair. This was pure freedom, sitting perched atop his mare with only the darkness and shadows of the night to cradle him and keep him company.

But then, something caught his eye. He pulled Centra to a stop as he neared the peasants’ homes. He hadn’t been back here for a long time, and now he knew why. This was the part of this planet that he didn’t like, that he hated, that he despised. It was a filthy neighborhood. The homes couldn’t really be called homes. They were barely big enough to shelter two people, and they looked more like tents than actual houses. Mud was crammed into the crevices in the wall to block out the cold at night, and a rusty pump served for the only water supply for the entire village of peasants. There was no sign of movement, for everyone was tired and asleep after a long day of tiring work.

Michael swallowed hard. He thought of his new assistant that he had hired today. Maria something? Yeah, Maria DeLuca, she had said. She was living in a place like this while he was living in a palace with more rooms than he could count. He was so rich, he hadn’t explored a quarter of the rooms in his palace. These people probably got sick of looking at the same room over and over again.

The little boy he had seen on the street that morning lived here.

Michael kicked Centra in the sides, eager to get out of there. All of a sudden, he wanted to go back to the party.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Isabel Evans slipped inside as quietly as she could the next morning. It was still early. Michael probably wouldn’t be awake yet.

Not that it mattered to him anyway. He didn’t care about her. Not in the way that Kivar did.

Isabel checked the grandfather clock sitting in the living room. It was earlier than she had imagined, actually. 4:30 AM. She could still catch a few hours of sleep before she had to get up.

She climbed up the stairs and debated whether to go into the master bedroom. Michael would surely be in there, and she didn’t want to wake him. But the guest bedrooms weren’t nearly as nice and comfortable.

She reminded herself that Michael didn’t care about her and Kivar and continued up to the master bedroom. She opened the door and found Michael sleeping peacefully under the covers. He was laying completely over on one side of the bed, which allowed her plenty of room to get in without waking him up.

Isabel quietly got out of her party clothes and slipped into her pajamas. Now, Michael wouldn’t know that she had gotten back so late.

She peeled the covers off her side of the bed and crawled in, trying to remain as silent as possible. Once she was settled, she closed her eyes and prepared to drift off into a peaceful slumber when Michael spoke.

“You’re back late.”

She snapped her eyes open and stared at the wall in front of her, even as she felt Michael roll over on his other side to face her. Had he been awake this whole time?

“Were you with Kivar?” he asked.

“Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t.” she replied. “It’s none of your business.”

Michael grunted. “Right, I’m only your fiancé. Your life is none of my business.”

Isabel turned over and glared at him. “Michael, it’s your fault. You were the one who left me there with the chariot.”

“You know how to drive a chariot.” he protested. “Besides, I was tired and I wasn’t having fun. I wanted to go home and sleep.”

Isabel raised her eyebrows. “Did you really want to sleep, Michael?” she asked. “Or did you just want to ride your stupid horse?”

His face became red, flushed with anger and rage. “Centra is not just a stupid horse!” he shouted. “She’s beautiful!”

“Then why don’t you marry her instead of me?” Isabel flipped back over on her side and closed her eyes once again.

“You’re impossible, Is, you know that?” Michael informed her.

She tuned him out.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria knocked several times on the door, but got no response. She debated whether to leave or stay. Perhaps the General and his fiancé were just not up yet. After all, there had been a big party the night before at the king’s, and they were probably very tired. But, maybe again, they just didn’t hear her. She knocked harder and louder. “Sir?” she called. “Um, is anyone home?”

This was a very big palace. Almost as big as the king’s, and if the master bedroom was always on one of the top floors like she had suspected it would be, then it might take the General a little time to get down the stairs to answer the door. She found it odd that a person as important as him didn’t have guards in front of the main doors to answer for him.

Finally, the door swung open just as Maria was about to leave and the General, looking very tired, appeared on the other side. He had obviously just been awakened. His hair was tossed everywhere, and sleep clung to the corners of his eyes. And he wasn’t even wearing a shirt.

“Oh, hello.” he said. “I’m, um, I’m sorry if you were waiting here for awhile. It’s just that we had this party last night and I was really tired, so . . .”

Suddenly, Maria felt like she was intruding. “If you want me to leave . . .” she offered.

“No, no.” He shook his head. “Come on in.” He opened the door wide enough so that she could step inside, and, after a little bit of hesitance, she did so.

After he shut the door behind her, she took a minute to look at her surroundings. She had never been in a castle like this before. The ceiling was perched so high above her head, and the rooms were so huge. This made Meronson’s place look like a shack. It even made Sir Warren’s place look like a shack!

“I’m gonna go put something on.” the General said, heading up the stairs. “Just wait here. I’ll be right back.”

She nodded, and he headed up the stairs.

Maria didn’t know what to do with herself once he had left. She wanted to sit down on one of the couches, just to see what it felt like, if it was soft, if it was bouncy, but she resisted the urge. This was the General’s house.

A huge fireplace was set up against the back wall of the living room. Nothing was burning at the moment, but Maria stepped towards it anyway. Several pictures were set on top of it. She smiled as she glanced at them. Some were of the General as a young boy, others were of his fiancé. In the middle was a very recent picture of the General, Princess Isabel, Queen Tess, and King Max at what appeared to be another fancy party. The king and Queen looked happy, like they were having fun. Huge smiles were spread across their faces. But the General and the Princess looked different. Not sad, necessarily. Princess Isabel looked like she wanted to be with someone else. The General looked like he wanted to be somewhere else.

“You can go ahead and sit down.”

Maria jumped and spun around when she heard the General speak behind her. “I’m sorry.” she apologized. “I know I should have asked before I started looking at your pictures. I’m sorry.” She bowed her head in shame to show him that she meant it.

He almost laughed. “That’s fine.” he said, sitting down comfortably in one of the reclining chairs.

Maria relaxed. She had been so afraid that he might do something to punish her. When she had assisted Major Creoles, he had caught her looking at his photos and slapped her, telling her that those were his personal memories and that she shouldn’t just assume that she was free to sort through them whenever she felt like it.

“Go ahead. Sit down.” the General told her, motioning at the couch behind her.

She nodded and sat down on the couch. She had never been on anything this soft before. Oh, she could just fall asleep right here!

“Now, Maria,” he began. “We’ve got a few things to discuss. When I hired you yesterday, it was kind of on the spot.”

She nodded in agreement.

“I’m thinking maybe you could report over here around, hmm, 7:00 every morning, except for Sundays, because I have to go to worship. On Sundays, you could be here around 10:00. Does that sound okay with you?”

Maria was surprised. No one had ever asked her opinion before. Especially no one of such great importance.

“Maria?” he asked again.

“Oh, yeah, that’ll be fine.” she replied. She felt kind of strange answering to such a question, but it also felt good. Really good.

“Great.” the General smiled. “Now, how about we head around back so you can get to know my horses.”

Again, Maria nodded timidly. She got up and followed him out the door. When she laid eyes on his many horses, her heart skipped a beat. She loved horses. She loved to ride them, to groom them, just to be with them. But she rarely had gotten to do that lately, as Meronson didn’t have any horses what-so-ever.

Michael first told her about each and every one of his twenty horses. Oscar, he said, was mean and strong tempered. Stormy, on the other hand was gentle and calm.

“And Centra,” he said, moving onto the last stall where a pure white horse was eating. “She’s my girl. You don’t have to take care of her. I can do that.” He let his hands run along his horses neck and through her mane. Then he turned back to Maria. “You got all that?” he checked.

“Yes, sir.” she replied.

Michael almost laughed. “Oh, please, call me Michael.”

She was surprised, again, that a man of such great importance and rank would allow her to associate with him on a first name basis, just like she was one of his kind. A royal. A noble. A lord. “Yes, sir.” she told him, not thinking about what she was saying.

He laughed for real this time.

“I mean Michael.” she corrected. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be.” he told her. And he went on to tell her about the feeding habits and instructions for the horses.

Finally, when he was done, Maria got a tour of the palace. She had only dreamed of walking around inside this palace. In her mind, it was better than the king’s.

She was told that the swimming pool would need to be cleaned every so often, and that sweeping was a major problem.

“My last assistant couldn’t handle all of the dust that collected in here.” he said, heading up the stairs. “So I let her go. I think she was allergic or something, too, so it was probably for the best.”

Maria smiled. She was beginning to feel more comfortable now. Michael was making her feel more comfortable.

He opened up another wooden door and Maria saw the Princess, his fiancé, laying on a huge, velvet covered bed in what appeared to be the master bedroom. She was doing her nails, probably for something important, something that Maria would never see.

“Isabel,” Michael seemed surprised. “I thought you would’ve left by now.”

Isabel didn’t say anything. Instead, she glared at Maria with an icy glare in her eyes. Maria felt herself shiver and tried not to let it show. She had heard that sometimes, the Princess could be a little feisty and cruel, but she hadn’t expected her to gaze at her as if she were an insect.

Just like Major Creoles had when she was a young girl. Well, he hadn’t stared at her in that way exactly. In fact, he had made her feel special, good about herself. But she now knew that it was all an act, and he had thought of her the same way he had thought of everyone else that was a peasant.

“Who is she?” Isabel asked. “Why is she in our palace?”

“She’s our new assistant.” Michael explained. “I hired her yesterday.”

Isabel blinked in surprise. “And you didn’t even consult me.”

Michael opened his mouth, as if he were about to say something, but then closed it again, clearly realizing that this was not the time. “I didn’t think you’d care.” he said. “After all, you have been pretty busy lately.”

After a long, uncomfortable moment of silence, Isabel got up off the bed and shrugged. “Whatever.” she said. She slipped into a beautiful black sweater and pushed past both Maria and Michael and out the door.

Maria listened for a minute as her footsteps echoed down the stairs, and finally, faded until they became nothing.

“You’ll have to forgive Isabel.” Michael said. He leaned his head against the doorframe and sighed. “She’s . . .” He didn’t finish.

Egotistical? Snotty, Stuck-up? Maria thought but didn’t say.

“Forget it.” Michael said. He walked in and sat down on the bed, running his hands through his hair, which was still unruly and uncombed since she had awakened him from his sleep. “I can’t believe I have to marry her.” he mumbled.

Maria smiled.

Michael looked up at her, then, his eyes pleading with hers. “Don’t let this get around.” he told her. “If people found out that Isabel and I aren’t getting along, they’ll freak out, trust me. They already have.”

“Okay.” Maria told him. “I won’t tell anyone.”

He smiled, his lips curving around perfectly white teeth. “Thanks.”

“No,” she said. “Thank you.”

A puzzled expression came across his face. “What did I do?” he asked.

A memory flashed back across Maria’s mind before she could stop it. It was of Major Creoles, pinning her down to his bed, screaming at her. Her face was soaked with hot tears as she struggled against him.

“Thank you,” she repeated, “for showing me that not all people like you are as bad as I thought they were.”

Michael obviously didn’t get it, but he didn’t ask questions. So she didn’t say anything else.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael reluctantly buttoned up the buttons on his suit. He hated this suit. Besides it being an ugly puke green color, it was tight as hell, more like something Isabel would wear than he would. He hated the snug feeling as it hugged his ribs and sucked in his stomach. Worst of all, it was hot. He sweat in it all day, and there was nothing he could do about it. At noon, the sun would shine directly down on Antar and fry him up from the inside out. He had talked to Max and addressed the issue to him, but he couldn’t get it through to his friend that the uniforms were bad and should go. Max always argued that the uniforms showed dignity, and that others respected you when you wore them.

Michael headed out the door, pausing on the stairs to slick his hair back with his spit. He hadn’t had time to take a shower this morning since Maria had stopped by. He knew there were probably things crawling in his hair, but he didn’t do anything about it. He had to report to Max’s office by 8:30 every day no matter what. (Except for casual Fridays. Thank whatever god existed for Fridays.)

He passed Maria in the kitchen. She was sweeping, as he had instructed her to do, and he bid farewell to her for what could possibly be the entire afternoon if Max followed through with his tradition. All of his meetings were long. Always. Michael had fallen asleep during one of them, and he wouldn’t doubt if he fell asleep during this one, too. He was so tired. He had had an early morning since Isabel and then Maria had awoken him.

The sun hit him right when he walked outside, and he cursed under his breath about Max and his stupid rule-following ways. He was the friggin’ king! He could change the friggin’ rules!

There were already young children playing in his pool. Some were very young and were still using flotation devices. Others were skilled, and could swim without any help at all. The air was pierced with noisy, happy shouts, and Michael smiled as two of the kids got into a splashing fight.

That’s when he noticed her. He looked to the side, ready to leave and go on to Max’s when he noticed a little peasant girl who was probably supposed to be working standing in the middle of the road, watching the richer, happier kids longingly. She was sucking on her thumb and holding a ragged, old blanket in her arms.

Michael stepped up to her and knelt down in front of her. “You can go on in.” he told her, motioning towards the pool. “I don’t mind.”

She shook her head. “Have to work.” she told him, and he felt his heart almost stop as he watched her run off in the direction of the laundry building, her bare feet padding quietly on the hot cement. He stood up and continued to Max’s, wishing that he had driven the chariot so that he had some protection from the sun, and wishing that he could get the little girl some shoes so that the asphalt would not burn the soles of her tiny little feet.

Finally, Michael reached Max’s castle. Once again, he stepped past the guards and inside. He made his way up the stairs to where the meeting room was located. Opening the door, he found Max sitting at his usual spot at the end of the table with many papers laid out in front of him and Tess by his side. Apparently, they had all been waiting on him, because all of the chairs were filled except for Michael’s. He sat down next to Isabel, who had arrived earlier that morning and let Max talk.

“Now that we’re all here,” Max began. “There’s a few things I’d like to discuss.” He began to ramble about the economy and taxes and prices and all of that stuff. When he asked for everyone’s opinions, Michael didn’t hold back. He had a few issues he wanted to address.

“Max, we’ve gotta do something about this stupid dress code.” he blurted. “I’m sweating like a pig.”

Max tugged at his own collar and then looked back up at Michael. “I seem to be fine.” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with the dress code. Moving on.”

Michael sighed and then spoke again. “Okay, there’s another thing.” he continued. “Something more important.” He looked around at the people sitting next to him, wondering what they would think when he said this. “It’s the peasants. They need more.”

A few people began to laugh. Max stared at him in astonishment, and Tess raised her eyebrows in a sign of confusion. Isabel only stared blankly at the wall in front of her.

“I’m serious.” Michael told them all. “I saw a little girl on my way here and she didn’t even have any shoes. Shoes!” He couldn’t control his anger anymore. “We can’t go on like this! It’s not all about us! They’re just as important as we are! They need more than those tiny huts and torn clothes!”

Max pounded his hand down hard on the table. “That’s enough, Michael.” he said. “You’re excused from this meeting.”

“No!” Michael shouted in protest. He stood up, as well, so that he was eye-level with Max. “I want an answer, Maxwell.”

Max seemed surprised. No one ever talked to him like that, for the simple reason that he was the king, the ruler. Only Michael, if anyone, could get away speaking to him like that.

“Fine, you want an answer, Michael?” Max shot back finally. “No! That’s my answer! There are you happy?”

Michael felt anger and rage piling up within him. So many things were pissing him off. Like the fact that the little girl hadn’t had any shoes, and like the fact that Max wasn’t willing to do anything about it. And like the fact that nobody around him was speaking up.

Max began to chuckle slightly, and that agitated Michael more than anything. Max thought this was funny. He wanted to punch him, or at least hit him hard, but he resisted the urge. Even he couldn’t do that.

“I’ve made my decision, Michael.” Max said through chuckles. “And, you know what the funny thing is? You can’t do a damn thing about it!”

Before he did something that he knew he would later regret, Michael stormed out of the room and flew down the stairs. There were no footsteps echoing behind his own, so obviously no one was following him. Typical. The cowards. They were probably all too scared of Max.

Michael threw himself out the doors and back out into the blazing sun, threatening to melt him to a crisp. When he got home, he was taking this stupid uniform off.

He couldn’t believe it. What a friend Max was! He didn’t understand what was really important in life. It wasn’t about power and wealth and battle plans. It was about compassion and sharing and all of those moral value things that people forgot about way too much.

He was on his way back to his palace when he had an inspiration. He pulled out a twenty dollar bill from his pocket and changed direction, back the way he had came. He wasn’t going back to Max’s. That would be a waste of time. He was going somewhere more important.

Michael smiled when he saw the local store around the corner. It wasn’t a huge store. Just enough so that one could get by. It had the basics, and at the moment, that was all that Michael needed. He stepped inside and had a quick conversation with a women (sadly, he didn’t know her name) who was buying silks and then headed towards the back where he knew the clothing and shoes were. He tried to picture the little girl in his mind, her tiny feet, and guessed that she may sit in a size 8 in girls. Yeah, that sounded about right.

He found a pair that he thought she would like and that would be able to stand the demanding labor that she would be put through soon enough, and then walked up to the cashier and set them on the counter.

The cashier looked at the shoes with a puzzled expression on his face. “Pardon me, Sir, but I don’t think that theses are your size.”

Michael laughed. “Actually, there was this little peasant girl that I saw today. She didn’t have any shoes, so I thought I’d do her a favor.”

The cashier smiled. “That’s very nice of you, Sir.” he said. “That’ll be fifteen dollars.”

Michael handed over his twenty and told the cashier to keep the change. “Give it to some little peasant child.” he told him. “Make sure you don’t give it to a lord or noble.”

Although the cashier seemed surprised, he nodded in agreement. “Okay.” he agreed. “Have a good day, Sir.”

Michael smiled and waved as he exited the establishment, determined to not let the word “Sir” bother him. He had told Maria to call him Michael, because he absolutely hated being called Sir. His name was not Sir, and people shouldn’t have to call him that.

He took a detour then. He decided that he should probably see what Maria could get done in a short period of time, just to see if he should keep her or resort her to someone else, although there was no doubt in his mind that he was going to keep her. He wasn’t going to take the chance that she could end up with someone like Max.

The garden was fairly deserted for a Saturday. Usually, Saturday was when it was busiest. The women liked to come as a retreat from the hectic trials of regular life, and the men liked to come to be with their women. But today, the only inhabitants seemed to be the garden tenders, the peasants who had been assigned to work in the garden and keep it beautiful, safe, and clean.

Michael thought about going back to the Fountain. The Fountain was huge. Swans floated around on the watery surface without a care in the world because it was so peaceful, and people liked to feed them by throwing food in the water when they got the chance. Michael used to like to do that a lot when he was young, but as he had gotten older, he just hadn’t gotten the chance, and the swans had only become a distant memory.

He really wanted to go back there, but then he remembered that he would have to walk by the peasants to get there, and among the adults would be children, learning how to plant and water, and he didn’t know if he could take that sight again.

He had lived with this his whole life. Why was it bothering him so much now?

So instead of going back to the fountain to feed the swans, Michael stayed towards the front of the garden near the roses and the oleander bushes. He completely ignored the roses and went straight to the dreaded oleanders. Oleanders had always been his favorite of the flowers in the garden. The were remarkably beautiful, but most people dreaded them because of the stories that they heard.

Michael found what he considered to be the nicest, biggest, prettiest ones, and picked them from their current positions on the bush. He bunched them together in his hand and found that they looked quite nice. They would do just fine in the master bedroom.

Although Isabel would probably freak out when she saw what kind of flowers they were. She would tell him that oleanders were not allowed in the house unless they were in his stables.

But Michael didn’t care. Isabel would have to deal with it. He brought them home anyway.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The palace was big on the outside, true, but on the inside, it wasn’t that much work. It had hardly been 30 minutes, and Maria had already managed to clean almost every room. All she had to do now was feed the General’s . . . er, Michael’s . . . horses.

She was just admiring the splendor and beauty of his palace when Michael came bursting through the doors with a bunch of flowers in his hands along with a pair of shoes for a little girl. “Oh, hi, Maria.” he said. He seemed sort of tired. Maybe even angry. Frustrated?

“Hello,” she said. “I’m sorry that everything’s not quite done yet. I didn’t expect you to be back this early.”

Michael shrugged. “It looks great to me.”

She blushed. She liked the way he said her name. He treated her as an equal, not as a lesser being like some did.

Michael wiped a streak of sweat from his forehead, and Maria suddenly felt glad that she was not a royal and that she didn’t have to wear those awful clothes.

“Could you go put these in a vase of water and set them in the master bedroom?” he asked her, handing her the oleanders he had bunched together in his hand.

“Sure.” she agreed. She took the flowers and her fingertips brushed his lightly. She tried not to let the sensation she got when they made contact bother her. “If you don’t mind me asking,” she called on her way up the stairs, “why do you have oleanders? I mean, most people don’t like them.”

“Oh, I love oleanders!” Michael exclaimed. “I always have. I don’t understand why people are so afraid of them.”

“I know.” Maria agreed. “I love them because they represent life, in a way, if you really think about it. Things can look good and beautiful on the outside, but once you really reach the inside, they’re horrible, sinful, deadly.”

“Kinda describes my life.”

Maria halted on the stairs, dead in her tracks. She didn’t know if she should ask what that meant or not. Michael was making her feel so comfortable here, but then again, Major Creoles had made her feel comfortable, too, and that hadn’t turned out good.

So she continued on her way up the stairs and found an empty vase sitting on a table in the master bedroom. She went into the adjoining bathroom and filled the vase with water, then slipped the flowers down so that they could drink. She set the display down on the table where she had found the vase in the first place and went back down the stairs, still wondering about what Michael had said. How could the General possibly know about pain and suffering? He had everything, didn’t he?

When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she found him sitting in the reclining chair again, staring down at the ground, clearly deep in thought. He looked troubled. Saddened, almost.

“Michael,” she said. It was one of the first times she had used his name aloud. “Is everything okay?”

He exhaled. “Yeah,” he told her. “Everything’s fine.” But even then, she knew it was a lie. “Are you sure?” she asked.

He nodded and got up. She watched him walk past her and to the stairs, and, for a minute, she thought that he was just going to walk away and leave her there with nothing to do with her time and with herself, but he stopped, then, and turned around to face her again.

“I’m sorry.” he told her.

She didn’t understand. “For what?”

His gaze traveled down to the ground and he said, “For not being able to help you.” With that, he headed up the stairs, not providing Maria with anything else. She was left in the living room, alone, wondering, once again, what his words had meant. Why was he sorry? He had given her the chance of a lifetime just by hiring her in the first place. He had only made her life better.

But then Maria thought back. She had seen him carrying shoes when he had come back. She glanced at where he was sitting and saw the same little pair of shoes sitting on the ground. He picked them up and examined them, and then she knew what he was apologizing for. She had seen him that morning watching the kids playing in his pool, and she had watched as he moved over to talk to the peasant girl, Cherie. And she had noticed the expression on his face when he had watched her run away without any shoes.

It was obvious. He had gotten theses shoes for Cherie. And that’s why he was so upset, too. He had mentioned that he had been heading towards a meeting with Max earlier that morning before he had left. He had probably tried to address the issue to Max. (Maria hadn’t known Michael, very long, but she knew that even though he was a warrior, he had a huge heart and it tore him up inside to see people of any kind suffering.) Max had probably shoved it back in his face, and that’s probably why Michael looked so upset, frustrated, and troubled.

Maria couldn’t stop a small smile from forming on her face as she thought about it.

She decided to let him be for awhile. He probably needed his rest. He looked like he had had a rough morning. So, instead, she went outside to the stables and fed his horses. She spoke to each of them personally, introducing herself. She truly believe, inside, that they could understand each and every word that she was saying.

After taking a minute to admire Centra, who was obviously Michael’s pride and joy, Maria went back inside. She knew that she should probably wait a little longer before she went upstairs to talk to the General, but she couldn’t help herself. She just had to tell him what a great thing he was doing.

She grabbed the shoes and headed up the massive flight of stairs. She was beginning to hate these stairs. There were so many of them, and the master bedroom was on the top floor.

She knocked twice on the door and waited for his answer.

“Come in.” he called, but there was no emotion with his words. She peeked in the door and saw him sitting on the bed, just sitting, staring at the oleanders, which she had placed on the bed-side table. “You left these down in the living room.” she told him, holding up the tiny shoes for him to see.

He looked around and smiled. “Thanks.” he said, reaching out and taking them back again.

“Um, forgive me for saying this, but . . .” Maria glanced down at the shoes and then back up at him. “Those don’t really look like they’re your size.”

Michael laughed. “They’re not.” He fiddled with the shoes in his hands, unbuckling them and re-buckling, just for the heck of it, it seemed.

“Michael,” Maria said. She was still getting used to thinking of him as Michael instead of the General. “I know you got those shoes for Cherie.”

Michael looked up and stopped fooling around. “Cherie?” he inquired.

“The little girl.” she told him. “I saw you outside with her today. I saw the way you looked at her, and I saw the broken expression on your face when you watched her run away on the hot pavement without any shoes or socks.”

Michael nodded. “Yeah, I felt pretty bad about that, so I just decided to go and get her these shoes.” He shrugged as he looked at the pair in his hands. “Now I don’t even know why I did.”

Maria didn’t understand. She sat down on the bed beside him, even though a peasant was not supposed to sit beside a royal unless instructed to. She knew Michael wouldn’t care. “What do you mean?” she asked him.

He grunted. “I tried to talk to Max.” he explained. “I tried to get him to understand what life is like for you and the rest of the peasants. But he wouldn’t listen. And, one pair of shoes . . . they aren’t gonna do Cherie any good. They’ll just wear out in two days, anyway, with all of the work that she’ll do.”

Maria shook her head. “No, Michael, you’ve got it all wrong.” she told him. “Those shoes are going to mean so much to her. You have no idea how special those will be to her. How she’ll cherish them. And if they wear out in a few days, she’ll still be happier knowing that you got her those shoes in the first place.” She didn’t know how to tell Michael that what he was doing was right.

Michael ran his hands through his hair exasperatedly. “But I wanna help her, and you. All of you. I wanna make your life better. You shouldn’t have to live in little huts and work every day until you die just to make it though. That’s immoral. It’s cruel, it’s unjust.”

Maria was touched by his concern for herself and her friends, but she knew in her heart that it was all up to Max, and Max didn’t seem too willing to change.

“Don’t give up, Michael.” she told him. “But don’t get your hopes up, either.”

He gave her a confused and sad look, and opened his mouth to say something when the door swung open downstairs. The clanking of high-heels sounded on the hard floor, and Michael was cut off before he had even gotten a chance to start.

“That’s Isabel.” Michael said. “I should go.”

Maria nodded in understanding, but noticed that Michael wasn’t making any effort to get up, either.

“We’ll talk later.” he suggested, finally rising from the bed.

“Okay.” Maria told him.

“Go on home.” he said on his way down the stairs. “Take the rest of the night off.”

Maria got up as well and straightened out her dirty brown dress. Home. He had said the word home. She didn’t have a home. Not there, anyway. She had a hut. This, was a home, this palace was.

She wished that she could live a life like he did.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Part II coming soon!! As in very soon!! Remember, feedback would be greatly appreciated!!
posted on 24-Dec-2002 1:15:47 PM
Okay, here's part II!!


That night, Michael found himself in the same place he always was. He was dressed in his very best tuxedo, driving the chariot while Isabel sat under the hood as the rain pelted down on them. They were going to another party. This one was being thrown by Lieutenant Carl Creoles, son of the late Major Jack Creoles. Carl was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a rich, wealthy, warrior, and so far, he was doing just that. He had just gotten appointed to Lieutenant today, and he was throwing this party to celebrate.

“You doin’ okay back there, Isabel?” he asked.

“Sure.”

He let out a sigh and drove the rest of the way in silence. He usually liked to go fast, but tonight was an exception. He was glad they had saddled up Ferris, their slowest horse, because the less time they had to spend at that party, the better.

All too soon, they reached Lieutenant Creoles’s manor. (His house wasn’t quite big enough to be a castle like Michael’s and Max’s, but it was too large to be a farm, too, so it was a manor.) Michael groaned as he saw servants waiting around on him right and left. They were all peasants of course. Peasants like Maria. Peasants like Cherie.

Isabel walked got out of the car, and Michael reluctantly tied Ferris up to one of the parking posts. It was raining heavily out, now, and Isabel was in a hurry to get inside, so Michael deliberately took his time.

Linking his arm with Isabel’s, Michael stepped towards the manor. He could already hear the sound of ballroom music drifting from inside, and he groaned. He didn’t know why he hated ballroom dancing so much. He suspected it was because the whole dance was already planned out. When you got on the dance floor, you were expected to do a certain dance with certain footwork and certain hand positions, and there was absolutely no room to be creative, no room to be free, and there was no room for sel-expression.

One of the peasants greeted Michael and Isabel and showed them in. After a quick glance, Michael became aware that Lieutenant Creoles had redecorated since the last time he had been there. The manor had the same arrogant feel about it that Max’s palace did, and Michael suddenly began to sweat.

“Michael, you look so nervous.” Isabel whispered from beside him. “Calm down. It’s just another party.”

Michael took a deep breath. He didn’t know why he was feeling so nervous all of a sudden. He had done this so many times. Every night, almost, he went to a party or was forced to throw a party. But he had never seen this many peasants forced to help out and serve at one of these stupid parties before. They all looked tired, weary, drained.

Isabel, of course, was looking over the crowd, her eyes searching for Kivar. Michael spotted him over at the refreshment table. His eyes were locked on Isabel as he sipped his wine.

“He’s over there.” Michael told her. He pointed to Kivar at the table, and Isabel almost smiled, but not quite.

Suddenly, Kivar began to walk towards the two of them, his glass of wine still in his hand. “Princess Isabel,” he greeted. “Hello.” He took her hand in his and bent down to place a soft kiss on the top of it. Then he turned to Michael. “General, Sir,” he said, extending his hand. Michael shook it and returned the friendly greeting. “Good evening, Kivar.” he said. “I haven’t seen you for awhile.”

“Oh, I know.” Kivar agreed. “I’ve been pretty busy lately.” He shot Isabel a quick glance, but Michael noticed. He really thought that Isabel and Kivar interacted well together. He wanted to get it through Max’s thick head that Kivar was a better match for her than he was, but he wasn’t going to start that again. Besides, he wasn’t planning on talking to Max for awhile, either.

“Kivar, I’d like to see your horses.” Isabel announced. “Are they saddled up around back?”

“Yes, they are.” he told her. “Michael, would you mind if I stole your fiancé for a minute?” He took Isabel’s hand in his again, as if sensing Michael’s answer.

“Go ahead.” Michael replied. He watched as the two disappeared into the crowd, and then wondered what he was going to do this time. There were no couches available, and the food didn’t look that appetizing.

So he just stood around. He found Walter Montgomery again, and they talked for awhile, reminiscing about all of the good times they had had back in training camp. Michael remembered how, back then, things had been so simple. He had only been a kid. He hadn’t had to worry about the planet and the economy and the peasants and things like that. He wished life were that simple again.

But soon, Walter’s wife wanted him to dance, and he had to leave Michael. A young women who might have been just a little older than Michael came up to him and bravely asked him to dance. Michael eyed the dance floor and all of the dancers twirling, spinning, and smiling, like they were actually having fun. He really didn’t want to, but he looked down into the woman’s pleading eyes and agreed to her request. He took her hand and led her out onto the dance floor. She had to start dancing first, and he ended up making her lead, because he hated this party and these stupid dancing techniques, and she seemed a little disappointed that he was not a better ballroom dancer.

When the song came to an end, Michael felt relieved, and the woman placed a soft kiss on his cheek. Then, she went running back to her friends, squealing with delight. “I got a dance with the General!” she squealed. “I got a dance with the General!”

Michael shook his head, wondering why she was so happy that she had gotten a dance with him when there were clearly better dancers around. Perhaps it was his social status that she liked. He was the General, warrior of all warriors, or perhaps it was just his good looks. He knew he was good looking. He had known that ever since he was a boy. Every girl had wanted to date him, and every mother had wanted their sons to be like him.

Looking outside, Michael noticed that the rain had come to a temporary halt. He wondered if it would really matter if he left. He knew he shouldn’t make a habit out of abandoning parties like this, but he just didn’t want to be there. There was nothing to do and no one to talk to, and he knew that Centra hadn’t gotten her exercise at all that day. He could take her out running again, like he had done the night before. Isabel could handle Ferris. After all, he was the slowest horse. Or maybe Kivar would bring her home early the next morning.

With those thoughts in mind, Michael bolted out the door and away from the party. He ran down the streets to his palace where his horses awaited. He rushed into the stables and found Centra. He didn’t bother to saddle her up, for he didn’t need to. He got on her and rode her bare-back out of the stables and out onto the road. He rode her down by Lake Mirron and stopped when he heard the sound of running water. It was such a still night, and the water wasn’t moving at all. What was that sound?

Michael steered Centra in the direction of the water. They climbed over countless hills and galloped along through narrow valleys and wide, vast fields. The sound eventually grew louder and louder until it flooded all of Michael’s senses. He could hear it, and it seemed like he could taste it. He could smell it as he approached, and he felt it as little sprays of water hit him.

And now, he could see it. It was the most beautiful waterfall he had ever seen. It reminded him of the things you heard about, but never really got to see. He had never thought of Lake Mirron as extremely beautiful, but now, he thought differently. This waterfall far surpassed even the beauty of the garden. The garden, though it was incredibly beautiful, was man-made. This, though, this was natural.

Michael couldn’t believe that he hadn’t ever known about this. He had lived on Antar all his life, and he still hadn’t known about this.

Then, he heard something else. It was faint, at first, but then grew in audibility until he could hear it clearly. It was music, but not the kind that he was used to hearing. It wasn’t the stupid ballroom music that had been playing at Lieutenant Creoles’s party, or Max’s either. In fact, it wasn’t ballroom music at all. It was some other sort of music entirely, something that Michael had never heard in his life. There were voices singing, too, along with the music. Sometimes, they were screaming, sometimes they were singing, and sometimes they were speaking so fast that Michael could not make out what they were saying.

Michael dismounted Centra and tied her up to a nearby branch. He went on foot then, towards the alluring sound, stumbling on rocks and branches on the way. He peeked around the corner then, and saw a girl. She was dancing, and something was sitting on the ground. It looked like a record player. The players were very expensive, and, judging by her clothes, Michael guessed she was a peasant. He wondered how a peasant girl could afford a record player, but pushed the thought out of his mind when he noticed the way she was dancing. He had never seen dancing like this before. She was moving in time with the music, but she didn’t have a partner, and there was something almost provocative about her movements. Everything looked so free and expressive. Her feet mainly stayed in one place while her hips shook from side to side and her arms floated around in the air in graceful movements.

He wanted to get closer. He needed to find out about this dancing. What was it? How was this girl doing it? And who was this girl anyway?

Michael accidently stepped on a twig and it snapped. The girl spun around, surprised, shocked, and scared, and clutched her hands to her chest when she saw him. She exhaled deeply and turned off the music.

“Maria?” he asked, though he knew it was her. He came out of hiding and stood up straight. “What are you doing out here?” he asked her.

She shrugged. “I don’t know.” She seemed somewhat embarrassed that he had caught her dancing like that.

“That was good.” he told her. “In fact, that was great.”

“What?” Maria didn’t seem to get where he was going.

“Your dancing.” he told her, motioning with his hand towards the record player sitting on the rocks. “I liked it.”

She chuckled and shook her head. “I can’t dance.” she told him. “Not the way you dance.”

“What do you mean?” Now he was the one who didn’t understand. The way he danced? He didn’t dance!

“You guys do all of that fancy ballroom dancing.” she said. “It’s so graceful.”

Michael grunted. “Ballroom dancing sucks.” he told her. “I hate it. Every party I go to, it’s always ballroom dancing. Every palace, every manor has a ballroom, and it drives me insane.”

“Do you dance?” she asked him.

He shook his head. “Nope. I hate it.”

“You hate dancing?” She asked in horror. “How can you hate something so beautiful and expressive?”

“I don’t hate dancing.” he told her. “I hate ballroom dancing. Now, the kind of dancing you were doing . . .” He paused to gather up the right words. He couldn’t think of the right words to describe what he had seen. “That was awesome.” he told her simply.

She laughed. “No, it wasn’t.” she said.

“Yes, it was.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Yes, it was.” The argument continued like this for awhile until Michael gave up. “I forfeit.” he said, sitting down on the rocky ground and looked out towards the waterfall. “It’s not my fault that you don’t believe me.”

Maria blushed and sat down beside him. He really liked that she was growing more and more comfortable around him. Most people, even if they had known him for a long time, still trembled in his presence. Maria had known him for about a day, and she seemed completely comfortable and at ease around him. That was something that many people were not able to master.

“So, how could you afford that record player?” Michael asked. He didn’t want to be rude, so he apologized immediately. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that, it’s just that they’re really expensive and . . .”

“I know what you mean.” she told him. “Actually, my friend Liz and I both saved up money for it. It came with, like, three records for free.”

“Oh.” He understood now, but there was still another question he had to ask. “What kind of music is that, anyway?”

“Well, to everyone that you know, it’s probably crap, and that’s why they gave it to me free, but it’s more commonly known by my people as rock.”

“Rock.” Michael echoed. “I’ve never heard rock before. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve never heard rock. All I’ve heard is that ballroom shit.”

Maria laughed. “Well, you’ve been missing out.” she told him, tucking a stray strand of her golden, blonde hair behind her ear. “Rock’s the best. Rock rocks.”

Michael laughed again. “Yeah, it does.” he agreed.

“I come out here to dance a lot.” Maria told him, gazing out at the massive waterfall in front of them. “It’s so peaceful and beautiful and quite. Most of the time, no one interrupts me.”

“Sorry.” he apologized.

“Don’t be.” she told him. “I’m glad you came. It can get pretty lonely out here all alone at times, too.”

“I understand.” Michael thought back to Lieutenant Creoles’s party. He had been surrounded by people, yet he had still felt completely and utterly alone. He had danced with that woman, and yet he had not been with her. They had not been together, they had remained two separate entities.

“So, why are you here, anyway?” Maria asked him.

“I just stumbled upon this place.” he explained. “First I heard the waterfall, then I heard your music, then I saw your dancing.”

“But, why did you leave the party in the first place? Isn’t your fiancé still there?”

Michael nodded. “Yeah, but she can handle herself.” He picked up a rock and through it out into the water. It created many sets of tiny ripples as it bounced. Michael had always liked skipping rocks as a young boy. He had told his father that it helped him practice his aim, but secretly, he did it for fun.

“Lieutenant Creoles can’t throw a decent party for shit.” Michael told her, answering her question at last.

She visibly stiffened and seemed to freeze in place. Her eyes were still locked on the waterfall in front of her, and her hand were still at her sides. The only sign of movement from her was her hair as the wind rifled through it. She didn’t even look like she was breathing.

“Creoles?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Michael replied. “Carl Creoles. Major Jack Creoles’s son. You know Jack Creoles, right? He died in that chariot accident a few years ago?”

Maria nodded solemnly. “Yeah, I know him.” she said. Her eyes suddenly filled with tears threatening to leak over, but she didn’t allow them that satisfaction.

“Maria, what is it?” Michael asked.

She lost the dazed expression and her body relaxed again. “Nothing.” she replied. She stood up and brushed the dirt from her butt, and wrapped her arms around herself, although it wasn’t very cold out at all. The rain had actually seemed to make it warmer.

But Michael could still sense that something was wrong. The moment he had said Creoles, Maria had shifted into combat mode.

“Do you want me to take you home?” he asked her. “My horses is right over there . . .”

“No!” she almost shouted. “I mean, no. I’ll just walk.” She bent down and picked up the portable record player, and Michael noticed that her fingers were shaking.

“Maria,” he said, standing up. He grabbed her shoulders and turned her to face him and saw streaks of water running down her cheeks in the forms of tears. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Get your hands off of me!” she shrieked, swatting his hands away. She totally forgot about the player and went running across the rocks. Before Michael could go after her, she had fallen over a stick onto her hands and knees. “Ow,” she moaned. He could hear her crying now, her breath coming in deep, ragged pants. He neared her slowly, not sure what to do. He didn’t have the greatest people skills. He was a warrior, not a nurse. He didn’t want her to run away from him again.

“Maria,” he said, kneeling down beside her. “Let me help you.” He reached out a hand, but she swatted him away again.

“I said don’t touch me!” she reminded him.

Michael threw his hands up in front of himself and backed away a little. “Okay, okay,” he said. “I won’t touch you.” He watched helplessly as she tried to get herself to her feet and then looked in horror at her hands, which were cut up. The flesh was torn, and blood poured from the wounds. Her knees, too, were red and looked incredibly sore.

“Maria, let me take you to my nurse.” Michael suggested. “She’ll help you.” Michael knew that the peasants didn’t have a very good nurse to take care of them, and the supplies she had were limited. The nurse for the royals was very skilled and could take care of anything in a matter of seconds.

She shook her head. “I’m fine.” she told him.

“Obviously, you’re not.” Michael stood up, as well, but he made no effort to move closer to her. He knew she didn’t want that.

After a minute of silence, she seemed to calm down a little. He didn’t want to push her, but he also wanted to know what was going on. Maybe he could help her. “Maria,” he whispered. He wasn’t sure if she had heard him, for his voice seemed to blend with the waterfall. “You can tell me.”

She wrapped her arms around herself again, the blood from her hands smearing on her skin. “I . . . I . . .” she stuttered. “I’ve never told anybody this before. Not even Liz.” She made no effort to turn around and look him in the eyes. She took a few steps forward, and Michael was prepared to run after her in case she ran off, but she didn’t. “When I was younger,” she began. “I was assigned to be Major Jack Creoles’s assistant. I was really excited about it, because he was always so nice to me, even though he wasn’t that nice to anyone else. He lived in such a nice manor, and I knew I’d get paid really good if I did a good job.

“It started out that way. Everything was fine. The Major didn’t really make me do a ton of work, so I came home with lots of money and a smile on my face. But, one day, I addressed him as Jack instead of Major Creoles. I didn’t think he’d care. I didn’t think he’d mind, but . . .” She hesitated, then continued. “He did. He yelled at me. He called me things that I had never been called, and some of them, I didn’t even know what they meant. He told me that I was not to address him as Jack unless I was instructed to. He told me I’d have to be punished.”

Michael shivered, suddenly feeling cold.

Maria’s voice broke as she talked, and she began to cry again. “He tried . . .” she stammered. “He tried to . . . to rape me! He threw me down on his bed and pinned my wrists down with his hands. I knew I was no match for him. I thought about just giving in and letting him do what he wanted, but then he told me that I was worthless, that to everyone worth something on the planet, I was just vapor. A waste of space. So I kicked him really hard and managed to get away.” She wiped a tear away from her cheek.

Michael couldn’t believe it. He had never thought that Major Creoles would do something like that. The guy hadn’t exactly been nice to the peasants, but . . .

“How did you avoid him?” he asked.

“I went to the laundry building instead of his manor.” she explained. “If I saw him on the street, I ran the other way before he would notice me. He died a few days later.” She was still standing with her back to him, so he had no idea how much she was crying.

“Did you tell anyone?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I had no one to tell. Liz was just a little girl herself, and my parents were dead.”

“I’m sorry.” Michael said. He had no idea that Maria had had such a troubled life. Of course, he had known that she was a peasant, and no peasants really had a good life, but this . . . this was awful.

“Besides,” she continued. “I was just a peasant girl. He was a Major. Who would they have believed?”

Michael saw her point. Anyone she told that could have actually managed to help her would have believe the Major over her any day. “You could have come to me.” he told her.

She spun around to face him at this. Fear was showing in her eyes, mixed with sadness, stress, and the crystal clear tears that had spilled over the rims only minutes earlier. “I couldn’t go to you, Michael!” she told him exasperatedly. “You were still a boy! You were still in training! You barely knew how to hold a sword! I couldn’t go to you! You wouldn’t have been able to do anything for me, either!”

Michael nodded in agreement. He wished he could have done something for her. Anything. The experience had clearly affected her.

“I just wish I could make it go away.” she cried. “Everything. All of it. The feel of his hands on me, the sound of his voice, the look in his eyes.” She ran her tear-soaked fingers through her hair. “I’ve been living with this for years,” she said, “and I’ve never told anyone until now. And all of this time, it’s been haunting me.”

Michael felt his heart drop for her. She was too good of a person to have that happen to her. She didn’t deserve it. Any of it. He hoped Jack Creoles was rotting away in hell for what he had and was putting her through.

She looked up at him and met his gaze then, the tears in her eyes shimmering and reflecting the moonlight. There was a long silence between the two of them where Michael didn’t know what to do, and where she didn’t seem to want to do anything, and then she ran to him, careful not to fall on the rocks, and threw herself in his arms. He held onto her tightly and whispered in her ear while she cried.

“Shhh,” he soothed. “It’ll be okay. Everything will be okay.” He stroked the back of her head with his hands and pressed his warmer, larger body against her colder, smaller one, and let her tears soak through his shirt and onto his skin.

“Michael,” she cried through sobs.

“Shhh,” he repeated. “It’s okay.”

They stood like that for what seemed like forever, but it was only a minute, if that. This girl, who Michael barely knew, was literally clinging to him for support, and Michael was reminded of that feeling that he had gotten up the morning before the last. He hadn’t thought much about it until now, but now, that feeling was coming back, and he only now realized why he had felt so different that morning. He had met Maria DeLuca, and he now had the opportunity to make her life better, and do something worthy with his, for he was going to show her that she was worth more than she had been to Major Creoles. He would make sure of it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Remember, feedback plz!!
posted on 26-Dec-2002 12:33:24 PM
April's busy, so I'm posting the next part for her!!


Isabel arrived back at the palace early the next morning after spending the night with Kivar. Kivar was the most passionate man she had ever met. She wished she were marrying him instead of Michael. Michael was only worried about the peasants and being nice and fair to them, but Kivar understood that everything happened for a reason. The peasants were born into a lower class family, and they were born into a life of hard work and labor. The royals were born into a family of honor and dignity, and the peasants were meant to work for them. That’s just the way it was, and Kivar understood that. Michael didn’t.

Isabel expected to find Michael in bed again, pretending to sleep or actually sleeping, one of the two, but when she walked in, she heard the sound of music (if it could be called music) from inside the gym. She peered in through a crack in the door and saw Michael inside, vigorously punching a punching bag while someone screamed in the background.

“Michael!” she called over the music as she walked in, announcing her entrance. “What kind of music is that?”

“It’s called rock.” he replied, still punching the bag. He had obviously been doing this for a long time, maybe even hours, because he was drenched in sweat. His forehead was literally dripping, and his bare chest was shining from the salty liquid.

“Well, I’m turning it off.” Isabel flipped the switch on the record player to shut off the horrible screaming from Michael’s rock.

Michael sighed. “It’s better than that ballroom shit.” he said. “What f**ckin bitches came up that?”

Isabel wasn’t used to hearing Michael cuss so much. Granted, when he was very angry, the words tended to slip out, but he had no reason to be angry, did he? Was he upset about Kivar? Maybe he did really love her after all.

“Michael,” Isabel began. “Are you angry about me and Kivar? Look, you’re just going to have to get over it, because I love him and . . .”

“I don’t care about that.” he interrupted. He wiped his arm across his forehead, as his hand was gloved. “Maria’s gonna be here in a few minutes. I better go get dressed.”

“Maria,” Isabel echoed as he moved past her to the doors. “That new assistant? You’re already on a first name basis?”

Michael spun around and glared at her. “She’s nice.” he said. “I like her, so we’ll be keeping her for awhile. You better get used to her.”

Isabel groaned like a little kid. “Aw, do we have to?” she joked.

“Isabel, I’m warning you, shut up!” Michael shouted on his way up the stairs.

Gee, he was sure pissed today. Isabel wondered what had made him so mad, but decided that she wasn’t going to let it affect her, because she still had three beautiful weeks before she was united with Michael in holy matrimony forever, and in those three weeks, she could still do whatever it was that she wanted to do with Kivar.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Her hand shook as she knocked on the door, not from nervousness exactly, but from anticipation. She swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat and wondered what Michael would do when he opened up the door to find her on the other side. Would he run away? Would he tell her that they weren’t going to be able to keep her because she was crazy? She wasn’t crazy, but what if he thought that? She hadn’t even gotten paid yet, and she was pretty sure that the General still had some pretty good money to offer.

But he didn’t do any one of those things. Instead, he opened up the door and smiled when he saw her. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” she repeated. There was a bit of awkwardness between the two of them as he allowed her inside. Once inside, she didn’t know what to do. She saw Isabel perched on the steps giving her the death glare again, and she held back a shudder.

“Clean the bathroom.” Isabel finally said. “It’s disgusting.”

Maria nodded in agreement, but she didn’t allow herself to say anything. She was afraid that Isabel would scold and chastise her if she spoke even one word.

“And get rid of those oleanders in the bedroom.” Isabel added. “I don’t like the feel of poisonous flowers by my bed.”

Michael sighed. “Isabel, they’re not gonna hurt you unless you put them in your mouth, and why would you do that?”

“You know that story about the king.” Isabel told him. “It’s true. I know it’s true.” With that, she turned and headed up the stairs into the master bedroom, where she was no doubt going to get some sleep.

Maria didn’t understand Isabel. Oleanders were known all around for their beauty and charm, but they were also known for their poison. Unfortunately, more people knew them for their poison.

“We should talk.” Michael said.

Maria nodded.

“Later.” he added on. “Not with Isabel here. Besides, I’ve gotta take a shower. Do me a favor and feed the horses?” He said it in the form of a question, not a demand.

“Okay.” she agreed. She pushed the door open and headed out into the blinding, sweltering outdoors where the sun beat down on her like the flames of a fire. The only advantage of walking around in the peasant dress she wore was that it was very cool, and when the royals were hot in their fancy uniforms and gowns, she was comfortable. But when it got colder out, the roles were reversed and she was the one suffering while they were completely at ease.

The horses were, as usual, as simple task. Maria wished she could jump on one and just ride away. It didn’t matter where. Anywhere. Away from Antar. Away from all of the horrible memories that haunted her and all of the horrible visions that taunted her.

When she was done with the horses, she went back inside. She fixed Michael two pieces of toast and peanut butter, figuring that he could use a little breakfast. She gazed longingly at the food that was overflowing from his pantry. He had so much to eat, while she only got one meal a day, if that. She tried to resist the urge to eat one of the slices of toast for herself.

But in the end, she gave into temptation. She was so hungry, and she never got to eat toast, for she didn’t have a toaster. Meronson used to let her eat toast once in awhile, but other than that, her life was toast-free.

The taste of the toast mingled with the peanut butter and flooded her mouth, causing her to moan in pleasure. God, this was so good!

She was having such a good time that she didn’t even hear Michael come down the stairs. “Having fun?” he asked.

She spun around, embarrassed by her actions. She swallowed what was left of the toast and immediately apologized. “I’m sorry.” she said. “I was just so hungry.”

“That’s fine.” he told her. “Go ahead, cook yourself a turkey. I don’t care.”

Maria looked longingly at the second piece of toast sitting on the counter. “I made that for you.” she told him. “Do you want it?”

“Go ahead and eat it.”

“But that doesn’t answer my question. Do you want it or not?”

He smiled. “You sure are a stubborn one, aren’t you?” he teased. “No, thanks anyway, but I don’t want it.”

She didn’t waste any time stuffing the piece of toast into her mouth and chowing down on it. Rarely had she tasted food this good. She usually ate cornmeal for breakfast, and that was it.

“So, I was thinking,” Michael announced, using a towel to dry his hair. “Maybe you and I could go to the garden and head back to the swans.”

Maria felt her face light up. “The swans!” she exclaimed. “I love the swans!” But then a though occurred to her. “But, are you sure you wanna be seen in public with me.”

“Yeah.” Michael replied as if it were nothing. “Who wouldn’t?”

She giggled. “You’d be surprised.” she said. “Are you serious, though, Michael? You’re going to take me back to the swans?”

“Yeah.” he said again. “Grab some crackers. They love crackers. Let’s go.”

Maria quickly rummaged through the kitchen cabinets for a box of crackers, and, after discovering a completely uneaten and wasted box of Cheese Nips stored way at the back, hurried out to join Michael on the front porch. She closed the door behind her and they began to walk through the hot, sunny atmosphere towards the garden where the swans were located.

“Aren’t you supposed to be wearing your uniform?” she teased.

Michael stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Yeah,” he replied again. She couldn’t help but laugh.

They walked the rest of the way in silence. Michael didn’t say anything to her, and she suspected that he was still a little freaked out about the way she had acted last night back at the waterfall. She tried her best to ignore the stares that they were receiving from everyone else that was out and about this early in the morning. She saw Liz at Jonathon Warren’s door and waved. Liz waved and smiled back. Other than that, though, no one was very civil to them. Everyone stared, mainly at Maria, wondering what she could possibly be doing out with the General. Others walked up to Michael and whispered something in his ear, casting sideward glances at her all the while, grimacing at her clothes and her overall appearance, as if she had no feelings. She tried not to let this hurt her, but then she reminded herself that she was out with the friggin’ General, and that the differences in their classes probably became really apparent now of all times.

“Ignore them.” Michael told her once they stepped into the beautiful garden. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“What’d they say?” she asked curiously. She didn’t really want to know, but she asked the question anyway.

Michael shook his head. “Nothing important.” He reached over and picked a white oleander from one of the many oleander bushes. “Here.” he said, handing it to her.

Maria smiled up at him. “What’s this for?” she asked.

He shrugged.

“It’s not about last night, is it?” she wondered aloud.

Michael stuffed his hands back into his pockets and looked up at the sky, exhaling a deep, heavy sigh. “Last night.” he echoed.

Suddenly, Maria regretted bringing it up at all. “It’s beautiful,” she told him, taking the flower from him and placing it up by her nose where she could smell it’s delectable odors. Mmm . . .

Michael still remained silent.

“Michael,” she attempted to get through to him. “Why don’t we just forget about everything that was said last night, okay?” She thought her suggestion was a good one, but he shook his head, dismissing the idea right away.

“No, I can’t do that, Maria.”

She grunted. “Did you ever think that I don’t really want to talk about it?” she asked him. With Major Creoles or even Meronson, she never would have thought about talking to them in this way.

“That’s understandable.” he said. He looked down at her again, meeting her gaze full on. “But, Maria, I can’t get your words out of my mind. I feel like I should have done something.”

“You couldn’t have done anything.” she reminded him.

“I know, I know. But still, there’s just this nagging feeling in the back of my mind.”

“Let’s just not talk about it, okay?” Maria suggested again. She was becoming quite annoyed and irritated. She resumed her pace back towards the swans, but he didn’t make an effort to follow her. His soulful voice stopped her dead in her tracks.

“I can’t, Maria.”

She spun around to face him, her rage growing inside. “This isn’t about you, Michael!” she shouted.

“I’m part of this now.” he said, taking two daring steps toward her. She didn’t back down. Looking around, she noticed a few bystanders staring at her again, but not for the same reasons this time. Now they were wondering why a lonely little peasant girl was yelling and screaming at the General, and why she was calling him by his first name.

“Why did you tell me?” he suddenly asked. “You could’ve told anyone, but you told me.”

“What choice did I have?” she shot back. “You were there and you clearly weren’t going to leave me alone until I told you.”

Michael sighed. “Maria . . .”

“Stop,” she told him sternly, throwing her hands up in the air as he moved even closer. “Go back to your precious Isabel and your wonderful palace. I quit.” She stomped off defiantly, leaving him wondering what he did wrong. She still held the crackers in her hand, but she wasn’t about to give them back to him. She would take them back to her little hut and eat them in secret, only sharing with Liz, because, inside, she was a very selfish person, and she knew it.

“Maria!” he called after her, his footsteps began to echo behind hers, so she broke into a run. She tossed the stupid oleander on the ground where it would surely be run over by a chariot someday soon.

Finally, he footsteps began to fade, and he gave up. She kept running, though, all the way back to her hut. She slipped inside the still, deserted room and laid down on her blanket. She didn’t have a bed. She only had one tiny, torn, frayed blanket and a tiny pillow to rest her head on at night.

She didn’t know what had made her do that. It wasn’t like she really wanted to quit. This was the best job she would probably ever have, and Michael Guerin had the kindest heart around, despite his reputation as the General, warrior of all warriors. She hadn’t even gotten paid yet!

She swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat and tried to stay calm and relaxed, although that did not seem likely to happen.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He couldn’t believe what had just happened. He had lost his assistant. Since when did his assistants quit? They all loved him. He never made them do a ton of work unless they were preparing for a stupid party, and he gave them very good pay. And he always believed he was kind to them.

He supposed that he was butting in a little too much. After all, Maria was right. It was her life, and it was her business. But she had told him. She had told him for a reason, he knew it. Maybe she didn’t know it, but he knew it.

He couldn’t get the vision of that stupid Creoles guy pinning Maria to his bed and screaming at her when she was still a young child out of his mind. It was . . . haunting.

The whole thing was haunting him.

He walked back to his castle solemnly, telling himself that this was all meant to be, that this had all happened for a reason, that it was fate, destiny. He was a better person now. He had heard things, stories, that he had never imagined could possibly be true, and Maria had opened up to someone, even though that someone was him, and apparently he was pretty nosy. Now, she could get back to her normal life and forget about him, and he would do the same. Besides, she wasn’t that good of a worker anyway. She took wonderful care of the horses, yes, but she hadn’t swept the palace very thoroughly. Maybe he was better off with her gone.

But even as Michael thought these things, he knew they were all lies.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Are you okay?” Kivar lovingly asked as he stroked Isabel’s hair away from her face.

She drummed her fingers against his bare chest in a continual pattern. “No.” she replied, not going any farther than that.

Kivar ran his fingers down her bare back, tracing her spine with his calloused fingertips. Everything about her was so soft, but everything about him was so rough. “What do you mean?” he asked, concerned.

She shook her head against his chest. “Never mind.”

“No, tell me.” he insisted.

She was hesitant, but she finally did tell him. “I’m getting married to Michael.” she said in a voice that only he knew. A voice that was not closed off and icy, but saddened and full of worry. “Everything’s set. All of the invitations have gone out. Everyone will be there, even the peasants. The ring has been bought and tested for the right fit on my finger. Oh, Kivar, it’s huge. It’s a really beautiful diamond, but it’s so huge and heavy!” She propped herself up with her elbow, digging it straight down into his chest, but he didn’t complain. “I can’t wear that!” she exclaimed dramatically. “I can’t marry Michael Guerin! I don’t love him!”

Kivar ran his fingers through her hair and gazed into her beautiful brown eyes. “Who do you love?” he asked, though he knew the answer already.

“You.” she replied without hesitation. “I love you. I wish to marry you.”

Kivar pulled her head down to rest on his chest and sighed. “Oh, my love, everything will be fine. You’ll see. You won’t be forced to marry Michael Guerin. I’ll make sure of it.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Sleep did not come easy that night. In fact, sleep did not come at all. Not for Michael, anyway. He kept thinking of Maria as a young girl pinned down by that creep Creoles. He couldn’t believe he had actually thought of Major Creoles as his friend. The Walter with the training sometimes, and Michael had always looked up to him. He had thought of him as his role model, everything that he hoped to be. Now he couldn’t imagine ever thinking like that again.

He ran his hands through his spiky hair and wondered where Isabel was. Isabel being MIA at night wasn’t that shocking. She had been that way every night for the past three days, and he had had the bed to himself. But he knew, in his heart, that she shouldn’t be out this late and come back that early in the morning. If people saw her, they would begin to talk again, and that was the last thing they needed.

Michael was growing sick and tired of keeping up this little charade and putting on this little show, but he kept with it. What choice did he have? Max made the final word on everything, and Max’s word stated that they were going to follow through with the destinies, and Michael would marry Isabel as Max had married Tess.

But Max and Tess were happy together. They had had real feelings for each other before they had been married, and the union had been a happy one for them. But Isabel, on the other hand, was interested in someone else, and Max didn’t happen to like that someone a lot. Michael did, but Max didn’t, and Max would never allow Isabel to leave Michael for him. And Michael . . . well, Michael was wrapped up in his own life, trying to help Maria and every peasant he came across.

He sat up in his bed and thought about saddling up Centra again for another night ride, but he reminded himself that Centra needed her sleep, too. He couldn’t make that a habit.

So he laid back down and forced all of the thoughts about Maria and Isabel away from his mind. He closed his eyes and tried to think about nothing, but still, slumber did not overtake him. Heaving out a deep sigh, he opened his eyes again and stared at the oleanders sitting by his bed in the vase Maria had set them in. He remembered thinking of Isabel as an oleander or a rose, or something along that line. He remembered thinking that things that were truly beautiful and peaceful on the outside were actually conflicted and ugly on the inside.

Maybe the oleander wasn’t so much a symbol of Isabel as it was of him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Another hot day approached quickly. Almost too quickly. The peasant village was a nosy scramble as everyone woke up from their slumber and scattered off in many directions, prepared to do many different kinds of work and get paid very different amounts of money.

Maria laid in bed for a long time. She didn’t have to get up. She had quit, and she had no assignment, so what was the point of waking up early?

Oh, but she was awake. Wide awake, and she had been for the whole night. Sleep had not come, for she had too many things on her mind.

“Maria, aren’t you gonna head out to the General’s?” a familiar, sweet voice asked innocently. Maria tilted her head up enough to look at a very awake and peppy Liz. A huge smile was plastered on her face. It was almost as if she liked working for Sir Warren.

“I’m not going.” she told her. “I quit.”

Liz’s mouth dropped open, and Maria stifled a laugh. “You quit!” Liz shrieked. “Oh, my God, Maria, you could be hanged for this!”

Maria grunted. “Really?”

“Yes! Remember Margie Brown? She stood up to this one really rich lord, and she quit. The next day, as she was sleeping innocently in her little blanket with her little square pillow propped comfortably against her head, the police barged in and took her off to jail. She had this whole big trial and everything, and, at the end, the judge ruled the decision to have her hung. There was a whole public execution thing. Don’t you remember?”

Maria didn’t remember. She had never paid much attention to news and gossip. Most of the time, when the others would sit around a camp fire and share stories of events happening around the town, she would go back to her secret cove and dance. Of course, she didn’t have any music, but she would dance. She hadn’t even heard about Margie Brown.

“Thanks for the encouraging words.” she told Liz sarcastically. Maria huddled down under her blanket and closed her eyes, determined that sleep would overtake her soon.

“That’s not what I mean.” Liz said. “Well, actually, it is what I mean. Maria, the guy that had the police go fetch Margie was only a lord. Michael Guerin is the General!”

Maria sighed. “Michael wouldn’t do that.” she told her.

“Oh, so now we’re on a first name basis, huh?” She pushed Maria over and sat down beside her. “Look, I’m just saying I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. The General . . . Michael . . . he has a lot of power, and he can do a lot of things.”

Nothing can be as bad as what Major Creoles has done to me, Maria thought silently. He may not have actually raped me, but he’s scarred me for life, and he’s given me a horrible memory that, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t get rid of.

“I should go.” Liz said, rising to her feet. “I wanna get that new dress.”

Maria smiled and waved her friend out the door. She didn’t understand how Liz could be so happy. What did she have that made her so much happier than Maria was? She didn’t have a man, of that much Maria was sure, and she sure didn’t have wealth and power? What made her want to wake up every day and keep living?

Soon, everyone had left, and the huts were silent and still. Too silent. Too still. Maria pushed the blanket off of her and shivered when her bare legs made contact with the cool air. It wasn’t hot out yet. Maybe, if they were lucky, it wouldn’t get hot out at all today.

She glanced around the hut and wondered what there was to do. She reached back behind her and pulled out the box of crackers she and Michael had been planning to feed to the swans. She popped a few in her mouth, enjoying their delectable taste, and savoring every bit of them. She glanced down at the box and was reminded of how happy she had been before she and Michael had started to talk about Creoles. She had eaten toast for the first time in, like, ever, and she had been walking in public with one of the most admired men on the planet, literally. And he hadn’t been ashamed. He had even seemed sort of proud. And he had been willing to take her to the swans. She had always wanted to see the swans, but she had never gotten to. She had been going to have so much fun until she ran away.

She sat up and ran her fingers through her hair. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and then stood up, stretching her back and arms, yawning, and then slipping into her old shoes she had owned and worn since she was a child. She grabbed the box of crackers and headed out the door of the little hut.

She made her way out of her village and onto the land of the royals and nobles. She walked the now familiar path towards the palace, now feeling the sun and its white hot rays. It was hotter than she had thought.

She climbed the steps and took a deep breath before knocking twice. She always felt this way while knocking on his door. Nervous, frightened, panicked, scared. She didn’t know why. It always seemed, though, for one reason or another, she felt this way.

He answered almost immediately, and Maria shifted her gaze to the ground at once. She didn’t think she could bare to look into his eyes, knowing that he must be feeling extremely hurt. After all, he had done nothing but be nice to her. He had given her the chance of a lifetime. He had told her that she was a good dancer. And he had never backed away as she told her story about that asshole Creoles.

Michael’s hair was unusually tame this morning. Clearly, either he had woken up early or he hadn’t gotten much sleep, as well.

He didn’t say anything, though, and she didn’t know what to say. How was she supposed to start? I’m sorry for running off on you and embarrassing you in front of everyone after you’ve been nothing but kind to me?

“I didn’t get to feed the swans.” she blurted, surprising herself more than him. The statement sounded completely selfish, as she suspected she sounded many times. More than once, at least.

She heard him chuckle a little, and lifted her eyes to look at him for the first time that morning. She saw him grab his coat, which was hanging right by the door on the coat rack, and slip it over his shoulders. With a grin on his face, he stepped outside into the morning heat and closed the door behind him.

“I’m glad you came, DeLuca.” he said as they began to walk.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m glad you came.” he repeated. “I was worried that you were actually going to stick to your word and actually quit.”

Maria arched her eyebrows. “Who says I’m coming back to work?” she asked. “I’m feeding the swans, Mr. Guerin. That’s all.” She spoke the sentence in her best English accent, and he laughed.

“You’re coming back.” he decided for her.

She smiled for the first time in what seemed like forever, although it had only been one very long night. “Yeah,” she agreed. “Maybe I am.”

“Good.” he said. “‘Cause I’d miss you if you were gone.”

She looked up at him when he said this, confusion sprawled all across her face. “What?” she asked, puzzled.

“I’d miss you.” he repeated.

“Really?” she asked. She couldn’t grasp hold of the concept that someone actually cared for her and about her and would miss her if she was gone.

“Yeah.” he replied, and it sounded honest.

This blew her mind. She knew that Michael had thought of her as a friend, but that he would actually have missed her . . . wow.

“I’m sorry.” she apologized as they entered the garden.

“For what?” he asked. He quickly reached over and pulled another oleander off for her, handing it to her, starting things over again.

“For everything.” she said.

“You have no reason to be sorry.” he told her. He held a branch out of the way and allowed her to pass under his arm through a gazebo into the back part of the garden where they would find the swans. “I should be the one who’s sorry. I had no right to pry into your personal life like that. It’s none of my business.”

“No, it is your business.” she protested. “Michael, I told you, didn’t I? I cried in your arms back at that waterfall. You deserve some kind of explanation.” The expression on his face and in his eyes made it clear that he didn’t agree with what she was saying.

“We’ll just forget about it.” he decided for the both of them. “But there’s just one more thing I’ve got to ask you.”

Maria bumped into something that felt like cement and looked forward to see that they had arrived at the fountain. Several swans floated around in the water, begging bystanders and civilians for food. She was silent, urging Michael without words to continue.

He seemed to understand. “Why did you run away?”

She hadn’t been expecting that. In the back of her mind, she had known that the issue would arise someday, and that, someday, somewhere, he would ask her why she had ran and where she had ran to, but she hadn’t been prepared to answer it this soon.

“I don’t know.” she replied after a long pause. “I really don’t. It wasn’t anything you did, and believe it or not, it really wasn’t what you said. I think . . .” she paused again. “I think I was just scared. Frightened. Worried. All on the inside, you know?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I feel that way a lot.”

“And I just ran.” she continued. “There was nothing else I could do. At least I didn’t feel like there was anything else I could do. I’m just not used to people like you with so much wealth and power being nice to me and actually being considerate of my feelings. I mean, look at Creoles. He sure as hell didn’t care. And Meronson, well, he was a good guy, but he didn’t care about me. And you’ve known me for a few days, and you’ve shown me such compassion, such sympathy, such understanding . . .” She knew she was rambling, so she cut herself short. “I’m just not used to anything like that. And it scared me.”

He stared at her for a minute, taking it all in, and Maria wondered what he was thinking. He looked at her like that a lot, she had found. His mouth hung open a little at the bottom, revealing his perfect teeth, and his forehead crunched together only a little right at that mole between his eyebrows. The wind rifled through his hair, but he didn’t bother to smooth it down. She knew hers was doing the same, but she didn’t care.

Suddenly, he reached out his hand, his palm turned upward. “Can I have a cracker?” he asked.

“What?” She had been so lost in her own thoughts that she hadn’t even been paying attention. She knew people were probably staring at her staring at him, and she knew that she should probably look away, but that didn’t seem possible. She could seem to take her eyes off of him.

“A cracker.” he repeated. “I wanna feed the swans.”

“Oh, yeah.” she replied, coming back to reality. She reached into the nearly full box and handed him a few crackers. He tossed some into the water, and he watched intently as, one by one, the swans each floated by on their angelic bodies and grabbed a cracker to eat.

But Maria wasn’t watching the crackers and the swans. She was watching Michael Guerin. The way his hands moved as he through the food out to the birds, the way his eyes sparkled when one of the swans came into eyesight, the way his lips formed his words and his laughter.

He was beautiful.

How come she had never noticed this before?

“Come on,” he urged her, motioning towards the still very full box of Cheese Nips in her hand. “Throw some out there. That’s what we came here for, wasn’t it?”

She nodded mechanically, but, inside, she wondered what the real reason why she had come back was. Was it because of the swans and all of the fun things she had been doing with Michael? Or was it because of Michael himself?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Dark, threatening clouds loomed overhead when Michael and Maria returned to the palace. They had stayed in the garden for hours, just talking mainly. They had fed the swans until they could eat no more, and then they had sat down on one of the benches and talked, laughed, and joked, until Michael had spotted a little peasant boy who couldn’t have been much older than seven getting yelled at because he had planted the wrong flowers in the wrong spot. Of course, it was a noble who had been yelling. Michael had gone straight up to the man and told him that the boy was only a kid and that accidents happened and there was nothing they could do about it. Of course, since it was Michael, the man had backed down.

Michael had then turned to the little boy and pulled out a gleaming twenty dollar bill from his pocket. The boy’s eyes had lit up with joy at the sight.

“Go buy yourself something nice with this.” Michael had told him. “If anyone out on the streets tries to give you trouble, tell them that Michael sent you.”

The boy had nodded excitedly and taken off through the garden and down the crowded streets.

Now, after hours had passed, they were finally returning back to the palace. Most people were heading inside as the storm approached, but Michael didn’t want to head inside. It was finally nice out. It wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold. The wind tore at his hair and his jacket, and he felt bad, knowing that Maria must be freezing to death with only her peasant dress on.

“Wait here,” he told her. He headed back in side and found a spare jacket that looked like it would fit Maria just fine. He slipped it over her shoulders and she gratefully appraised his gesture.

“We can go inside if you want.” he told her, though he didn’t really feel like it.

“No, I wanna stay out here.” she said. “If that’s okay.”

“Okay?” That was more than okay with him.

“Yeah.”

“Maria, it’s more than okay with me. I hate the indoors.”

She smiled and clutched the jacket tighter around herself. She glanced out onto the streets where one chariot was racing to get home before the storm hit and a few peasants were scattering back to the village, waving to Maria and saluting to him as they went along.

Soon, after everyone was inside, rain droplets began to fall, slow at first, and then faster and faster. Michael didn’t know what he looked like, but when he looked at Maria, he had second thoughts of staying outside. The now pouring rain was plastering her hair to her head and dripping down her cheeks. She was still shivering. “You wanna go inside?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “I hate the indoors.” She declared the last statement in a voice that imitated his, mocking him. He smiled at her attempt, though he didn’t believe that it really sounded like him at all.

Looking past her, he caught a glimpse of his stables to the side of his house. He could see Centra kicking stubbornly in the last stall, begging to get out and go for a run. He hadn’t been on her for at least a day now, and she wasn’t used to that. Usually, he rode her at least twice a day. He had ridden her out into town so much that the young children ran up to her without fear and petted her fur, stroking her main and patting her haunches, calling her by name.

“You wanna go riding?” he blurted out.

She looked behind herself to the stables where his eyes were still glued and then returned her gaze to him. “Won’t the horses get a little cold out in this rain?” she asked, concerned.

He shook his head. “No, they’ll be fine. Come on.” He took one of her hands in his and lead her down the now slippery steps and to the stables.

“Well, I haven’t been on a horse for years.” she told him. “I mean, I used to be really good, but I don’t know how good I’d be now.”

“I’ll ride with you.” he told her. “All you’ve gotta do is hold onto me.” They entered the dry, warm stables and Michael lead her past all of the other horses back to Centra’s stall. “We’ll ride Centra. Bareback or saddle?”

Her mouth dropped open in shock. “Centra,” she echoed. “Your horse? Your pride and joy? The horse that only you can ride and only you can take care of?”

“Yeah,” he said. He didn’t let just anybody ride Centra. In fact, he never let anyone ride Centra. Not even the little children who begged him for just one ride when he rode his horse out on the street. “Bareback or saddle?” he repeated.

Still seeming a little surprised and maybe even a little nervous, Maria answered, “Bareback, I guess. I always hated saddles.”

“Me, too.” he agreed. He went around back to Centra’s stall and unhooked her. She still had her reigns on from the previous ride, and she almost ran out of his hands. She was that excited to get going again.

“Are you sure about this?” Maria asked. “She is your horse.”

Michael brought Centra around to the front and stopped her right ahead of Maria. “It’s fine.” he reassured her. “It was my idea.” He swung himself up on top of Centra in one easy motion. Even bareback, mounting was not a problem. “Need help?” he asked Maria as she moved to the horse’s side.

She nodded. “A little.”

So Michael grabbed her hand and helped pull her up around Centra’s haunches. She scooted forward a little. “What should I do now?” she asked.

Michael reached back and grabbed her hands, moving them forward to wrap around his waist. “Hold on.”

And then they were off. Centra tore out of the stables with a quick kick from Michael’s feet, and Maria tightened her grip around him. He smiled when they reached the outdoors again, and the rain pelted down on top of them in heavy sheets. But it didn’t stop Centra. She ran with the rain and the wind, not beside it, and the extra shove the wind was giving her was making her go faster than she had ever gone before.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria didn’t know if she could take it. It was so fast. So fast. And the rain was cold, but at least now she had a jacket on. She held onto Michael with her hands wrapped tightly around his waist so that she wouldn’t fall off and land in a mud puddle as Centra’s hooves thundered down the road. All of this was intoxicating in its own way. This was freedom, riding atop this horse in the middle of a thunderstorm . . . with Michael.

Despite the cold, his body was still warm, and it warmed her to the core. She rested her cheek against his shoulder, letting his warmth ebb through her, as well. He didn’t seem to mind. She let out a small sigh, and hoped that the howling wind would cover it up.

She felt like she was flying. The ground no longer seemed visible, and all that existed was herself, Michael, and Centra, flying through ecstasy.

She was so wrapped up in all of her thoughts that she didn’t notice when they stopped.

“You can get off now.” he said, breaking her from her inner-self.

“Oh, yeah.” she agreed, reluctantly slipping her body apart from his. She dismounted the horse and landed on the ground. It was a lumpy ground. Looking around, she recognized where she was. She was back at the waterfall, and the lumps she had landed on were the rocks she had tumbled on two nights ago.

“So, what’d you think?” Michael wondered as he, too, dismounted Centra. He tied her up to a nearby tree branch and then wiped the sap from his hands.

“That was awesome!” she exclaimed. “I have never ridden a horse like that before!” That wasn’t the only part of it that was awesome. The other part was that she had ridden the horse with Michael Guerin. He alone was enough to make her heart stop beating for a few seconds. The feel of his hard, muscular back against her cheek, the rock hard abdomen muscles beneath her fingers, the smell of his untamed, unruly hair. It was all intoxicating. He was intoxicating.

“I know.” Michael agreed. “Being on a horse . . . oh, it’s the freest thing in the world, I swear.”

“Yeah,” Her mind was somewhere else entirely. She tried to force her thoughts back to where they should be, but that wasn’t possible. Michael looked so good out in the rain like this. His hair was soaked, plastered to his head, and the rain pelted down hard on his jacket and shirt. The top button on his shirt was unbuttoned, revealing a tiny expanse of tanned skin.

Michael Guerin, the goddamned General was engaged to Isabel, the Princess of Antar. They would be married in a few weeks. She should just give up.

But she couldn’t. What had provoked these odd, strange feelings, she did not know, but she also knew that she should be feeling them at all, but that she didn’t want them to go away, either.

“Why are we here?” she asked, taking shelter from the rain under a tree, although it was probably not a safe thing to do with all of the lightning that would surely start flashing vigorously soon. Actually, being near all of this water wasn’t good at all, but she wasn’t about to protest being alone with Michael.

Michael shrugged. “I like it here.” he said.

“But it’s not safe,” she protested. She figured that if she didn’t say something, it’d seem kind of weird.

“You wanna go back?”

“No,” she said a little too eagerly. “I don’t.”

He smiled. “Good.” he said. “Good.” He patted Centra on her neck and then began to walk over the rocks to the exact spot where she had been dancing that night. She followed him, wondering where he was going and what was on his mind.

After a long silence in which Maria didn’t know what to say and in what manner to say it, Michael spoke again. He turned to face her with soulful, almost pleading eyes. “Will you do me a favor?” he asked.

She shrugged. “It depends.” she answered, but she had a pretty good feeling that she would do anything Michael told her to.

“Will you . . .” He was having a hard time getting this out, whatever it was. “Will you teach me to dance?”

She was shocked. She couldn’t keep the surprise and the shock off of her face. Michael Guerin was asking her how to dance? “You know how to dance.” she said. “Don’t you?”

“No,” he honestly told her. “I hate that ballroom crap. I’ve never seen dancing the way you dance. I wanna dance like you, Maria. I just don’t know how.”

“Oh,” She took a few deep breaths to calm her nerves down. “Well, I’m kind of an eccentric dancer. Sort of crazy really. I kind of think outside the box, you know? You really don’t wanna dance like me.”

“Yes, I do.” he protested. “Teach me, Maria.” He narrowed his eyes and glared at her. “That’s an order.”

She couldn’t help but laugh, because the sentence was so out of character for Michael, and the words didn’t sound right coming from his lips.

“What’s so funny?” he asked. “I’m serious.”

“I know you are.” she said, regaining her composure. “But, what would people think of you if they saw you dancing like me?”

“They won’t see.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“‘Cause nobody knows about this place.”

“You know about it. I know about it.”

“I just happened to stumble upon it. And you . . .”

“I’ve been coming here all my life.”

They talked it out for a long time, until the rain began to let up. Maria let out a deep sigh, knowing that Michael was not going to stop until he got his way. “You really are serious, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” He stepped towards her and placed his hands on her shoulders, sending bolts of heat throughout her overall cold body, and the feelings that she had been trying to ignore rose to the surface again. “Okay,” she agreed in sort of a breathy voice. “Fine. But not now. Tomorrow.”

“Tonight.”

She smiled. “Fine, tonight. Be here whenever you can. I’ll be here the whole night.” She hoped the statement didn’t come out sounding as seductive as she thought it had.

“Fine.” he agreed. Glancing around, he sighed. “We better be getting back.”

“Yeah,” she said reluctantly. “Help me up?”

He nodded. “Of course.”

So they got back onto Centra and resumed their riding position. Maria leaned her cheek against his shoulder again and let the world whiz past her in a massive blur of unrecognizable, undistinguishable. After a sinuous, winding path, Michael dropped her off back at the peasant village. She dismounted, told him good-bye, and watched intently as he rode back to his palace.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

There wasn’t a party that night, thank God, and Isabel was out, once again. Where she was, Michael did not know, but he guessed she was probably with Kivar, enjoying her last few nights of freedom. Once they were married, everything would change. They would need to make more public appearances together, and they would have to act more in love. (The thoughts made Michael sick.) And once they were married, Isabel wouldn’t be able to sneak off with Kivar so much. It was against the law to cheat on your spouse, and the laws on Antar were taken very seriously, by most. A few, could be broken, and weren’t as important as the others, like the law that all uniforms must be worn all of the time except for during recreational activities, by given permission of the king, and on Fridays, but Michael had broken that one just today. But, the spouse/cheating rule was taken very seriously, and, if found critical enough, could even earn the death sentence. Few ever cheated, afraid for their lives. But a few still took the chance. Isabel might be one to take the chance. She was a risk taker, that was for sure, and she was also Max’s sister. She might go see Kivar secretly after they became married, feeling like nothing would happen to her since she was Max’s sister, but things like this were not predictable, and could not be determined ahead of time. Max took this law very seriously. He had given four people the death sentence for cheating within the last two years, and Isabel, though she was family, may not be an exception. Well, Isabel could make her own mistakes. Michael, though he wouldn’t be necessarily happy about it, would marry the icy Isabel Evans, and no one would get him to cheat. No one. Because, first, there was no one he wanted, and, second, he wasn’t going to take the chance that he could die. There were too many people—too many peasants—that still needed helping. He couldn’t waste his life with a mistress.

The palace was empty and quiet when he left that night. It had a spooky feeling to it, and he was glad to get out. He hurried to the stall and climbed on Centra, once again, not bothering to saddle her up, and kicked her in the sides lightly to tell her to go. She took off into her usual fast run, and Michael, as always felt like he was spinning off into another realm. He only opened his eyes to indicate that there was a turn ahead, and steered his horse with such precision that she looked like she was part of the wind. No longer a being, but a spirit. The concept was hard to grasp if you had never ridden Centra before, because she was just no ordinary horse. Michael had known that when he had first purchased her. He had first noticed the fine hairs in her mane, and then the long, legs, which would no doubt be great for jumping. But it was only after he had actually brought her back to the palace and ridden on her for the first time was it that he knew she was his horse and his horse only, and that she would take him to places other horses could never possibly go.

He hoped Maria would be there. Maybe she would already be dancing, and he could watch her again. There was something about watching her dance that was enticing. Maybe it was because it was so different, so unique, so special, and no one else did it, or maybe it was just a nice change from what he was used to seeing. Or maybe she was just so damn good at it that he couldn’t take his eyes away. Well, whatever the reason, he wanted to learn to dance like her, and he was going to learn that tonight. Screw ballroom dancing. Everybody should be dancing like Maria was. It was free. It was expressive. It was . . .

He didn’t even notice that he was even near the lake until he heard the fish splashing around in the water. The waterfall was not audible yet, and he could not hear any music. Good. He didn’t want it to be too loud. Then people might hear and come watch, and he didn’t really need an audience while he was taking his first night of “dancing lessons”.

He crept over the rocky ground after tying Centra up to her tree and walked around the corner. He was greeted with the site of the waterfall right away. It was so beautiful. He wondered, for a moment if the waterfall was another example of the oleander. Yes, it was beautiful, but it could be dangerous if someone fell down one. Perhaps even deadly, right?

Maria was sitting on a little bank, gazing out at the water as little drops hit her here and there, but not like the rain they had been caught out in earlier. She seemed as if she was looking into another world, seeing something that no one else could possibly see. She was deep in thought, and she looked so peaceful, like she didn’t have a care in the world. Michael wished she was free to be like that in real life. Maria didn’t deserve what little she did have. He distinctly remembered riding by the peasants’ huts on Centra one night that seemed like an eternity ago and staring at the little huts in exasperation, wondering how anyone could live there. Who knew what else she was going through? And that whole thing with Major Creoles was bugging him more than anything, even though the guy was dead. Michael couldn’t get it out of his head. He wanted to do something about it, but he didn’t want Maria to get scared and run away again, and there wasn’t really anything he could do, either.

“Oh, hi, Michael.” Maria said, noticing, suddenly, that he was standing beside her.

“Hey,” he returned. “What are you doing?” He couldn’t help but ask. Whatever she was doing, he wanted to do it, too, because she was sitting there at that moment like she didn’t have a care in the world.

“Oh, I don’t know. Stupid stuff.” She stood up with effortless grace and brushed off the back of her worn out peasant dress.

“It’s not stupid.”

“How would you know? You don’t even know what I was doing.”

Michael sighed. Maria was impossible in this way. In a different way than Isabel, yes, but still, nevertheless, impossible. She was head-strong and stubborn, but not obnoxious and icy cold the way that Isabel was.

“Okay, you wanna know what I was doing?” she asked. “I’ll tell you.” She returned her gaze to the waterfall and began to explain. “I was waiting for you.”

“I know that. Be serious.”

“Just shut up so I can talk, okay?”

Michael couldn’t help but smile. People like this were almost obsolete to him now days. Most people still would shrink back or bow when they spoke to him, even though he told them that they didn’t need to. The life he was living was so lonely, and he often felt very alone, like he was living a life of solitude. Maria was helping him to see that not all people thought of him as only a stealthy soldier who loved to fight and win battles. She saw the real him, and she knew that he didn’t care what class she was. They were all equal in his sight, and she knew that.

“As I was saying,” Maria continued quietly. “I was waiting out here for you, and I was just looking out at that waterfall and wondering why everything couldn’t be that beautiful and peaceful.”

“It is beautiful,” Michael agreed, “but it’s not peaceful. Just look at it, Maria. It constantly spills raging torrents of water over its edges to permeate throughout the lake. It’s anything but peaceful.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s peaceful.” she argued. “Just look at the way the water glides over the edge of the cliff. It’s so at ease.”

Michael didn’t understand her reasoning completely. He didn’t understand his own, so he said nothing more about the waterfall and tried to remember why he had come in the first place. Dancing, yes. That was it.

“Are you gonna teach me to dance or what?” he finally asked.

Maria looked up into his eyes for the first time since he had come up there that night. “Yeah,” she agreed. “I’m gonna try. But I can’t make any guarantees. Not with such a stubborn student as you, Mr. Guerin.” She turned around and walked over to her record player. “Did you like the music I was dancing to a few nights ago?”

He nodded. “Yeah,” he replied. “It’s so unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.”

“Then we’ll start off with that.” Within seconds, music was blasting through the speakers of the player, but not loud enough so that anyone in the nearby villages could hear. Michael recognized the song right away. It was the exact same song Maria had been dancing to when he had stumbled upon her a few nights ago. The same kind of exhilaration began to pump through his veins as the signing started in.

“I don’t know what to do.” he reminded her when she started to shake her hips in front of him.

“Sure you do.” she told him, inching forward. “Dancing’s easy. Anybody can do it.”

“I can’t.”

“You can’t do ballroom dancing. Anybody can freak dance.”

Michael laughed. “Freak dance?”

“That’s what it’s called.” she told him. “Really.”

When she noticed that he was just standing while the music played and that she was still the only one dancing, Maria sighed. “Michael Guerin,” she said. “You really don’t believe you can dance, do you?”

“I can’t.” he stated. It was a known fact. To him, anyway.

“If you don’t even want to try, then why did you come here?”

He didn’t have an answer to this.

“You have to teach me.” he finally told her. “I can’t just do it.”

She raised her eyebrows. “If you really want to brave personal injury . . .”

He smiled. “Come on.” he persuaded, taking her hand in his and pulling her a little closer to him. “I mean it.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria had to fight to stay calm. She was so close to Michael. Literally. She could breathe in the enticing scent of his cologne, and she could feel the heat from his body. As much as she didn’t want to, she pulled away. She couldn’t stand that close to him and focus on dancing.

“First of all,” she said, struggling to maintain her composure. “When you freak dance, you don’t hold hands. Your hands have to be moving all of the time.”

“You mean, I have to move my feet and my hands?”

“Yes,” she answered, still amazed that he really didn’t no anything about dancing. “It’s not that hard Michael. And you don’t have to move you feet that much. In fact, you don’t really have to move that much at all. It’s up to the girl, which would be me, to move her hips and all that. You’ve just kinda got to stand behind me.”

A confused expression crossed Michael’s face.

She smiled. “I think it’ll be easier for you to understand just by doing, not listening.” She turned around and backed up so that her back was pressed close to his chest. She willed herself to stay calm. “Give me your hands.” she ordered.

Slowly, his hands appeared at her sides, hanging aimlessly in the air with nothing to do. Maria took his hands in her own and lead them in front of her to clasp around her stomach tightly. She placed her hands on the tops of his to help him. “It’s kind of like horseback riding.” she explained. “All you have to do is hold onto me.”

“What do I do now?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Whatever you want. That’s what’s so great about freak dancing. There are no rules.” She began to sway her hips in time with the music, and, eventually, she felt Michael moving behind her. She could tell that he was stiff and nervous. Maybe she should have started out easier.

But it was too late now, because Maria DeLuca felt herself tumbling farther and farther towards ecstasy as Michael got more into it and got better at it, tracing tiny circles over her abdomen with his fingers. She let out a small sigh and hoped he hadn’t heard it.

“Move you hands back a little.” she instructed him as she lifted her arms above her head to swing in the air dangerously.

Michael, who seemed to be catching on very fast, slowly glided his hands back to rest in the curve of her waist as she moved in front of him. She could feel him breathing down on her neck, and she almost shivered as his breath tickled her. She let her hair fall back over her shoulders and spread her legs apart a little. Michael seemed to get the point, and he slid one of his legs between both of hers, letting the other balance him.

The song ended all too quickly.

“How’d I do?” Michael asked.

Maria reluctantly pulled away from him and turned to face him. Her legs were so wobbly. She didn’t feel like she could stand. “You did great.” she told him. “See, I told you that you could dance.”

Michael smiled. “It was awesome!” he exclaimed. “Maria, I’ve never danced like that before! It’s so fast paced and energetic and . . .”

The next song kicked on with a bang.

“Shut up, Michael.” she told him, pressing her index finger to his lips, surprising herself with how brave she was being. “You’re not a pro yet. You still need a little practice.” She slid her arms up his chest, still moving in time with the music, and let them wrap themselves around his neck. She looked up into his eyes, telling him silently to do something with his own hands. Obviously getting the point, he brought his hands around to cradle her back and smiled.

And for the first time in her life, Maria let the horrible, painful memory of Major Creoles fade off into a land of nothingness, and let Michael Guerin invade her soul.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

posted on 27-Dec-2002 11:44:36 AM
Max Evans was swamped with work. He really felt he had too much to do and not enough time to do it in. He hadn’t seen Michael, his second in command who was supposed to help him out whenever he got the chance, in days, and the work was piling up. Tess couldn’t help him. She didn’t understand the matters of war and conflict.

Max opened a white envelope marked CLASSIFIED and quickly skimmed the paper inside. It read:
King Max,
We regret to inform you that your
missile supply is low. If a battle or
conflict shall arise, you will need
weapons. Please reorder stock as
soon as you get the chance. Thank
you very much. Good day.
Cordially,
Weapon Supply and Co

Great. That’s all he needed. Now he had to spend more money to buy more missiles.

Max opened the next letter. It was an invitation, no doubt. He loved going to the endless parties. The ballroom dancing was his favorite, and he couldn’t understand why Michael was always a grump when it came to the parties. He smiled as he read.

King Max,
We would be honored if you came
to our party! It is tonight starting
at 7:00! There will be ballroom
dancing and lots of fun! Please,
come, both you and your lovely
bride. We’d be honored.
Sincerely,
David and Margaret Pascal

So the Pascal’s were having a party. They were good people. They were kind, but they always knew when to get serious. They had been around only a little longer than Max himself, so he could relate to them easily. They had a very nice manor, even nicer than Lieutenant Creoles’s, down on the other side of the garden. It was a ways away, but it would be fun, and Max wanted to get out of his office so badly. This party was just what he needed.

But Michael would be there, and Max was about two steps away from executing his second in command. He would never understand the way Michael thought, his view on life, everything. He didn’t make sense.

But that didn’t matter. Max was going to that party, and he was bringing Tess, whether Michael and his fiancé were there or not.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Isabel, where are you going?” Michael asked, exasperated as always, as Isabel opened the door. They only had an hour until the party, and Isabel was leaving.

“I’m going to get that servant girl.” she said.

“Maria?” Michael asked.

“Whatever the little rat’s name is.”

“Her name is Maria.” Michael couldn’t help but let his fury pour out. “Isabel, why do you treat people like you do? Maria’s a real human being with real feelings, and she’s never been anything but kind to you, and trust me, that’s a hard thing to do.”

Isabel’s face did not show any emotion. Kivar had turned her into a stonewall. “She hasn’t been doing very much work around here now, has she?”

That was true. Michael had been taking her out a lot, doing lots of things with her that friends did, and she hadn’t been working. She wasn’t his assistant anymore. She was his friend.

“Why are you going to get Maria?” he asked.

“Because,” Isabel responded. “You seem to have a habit of leaving the party before it’s over, and then I’m left all alone, and I have to take the chariot and your stupid horses home all by myself.”

“My horses aren’t stupid!” Michael shouted.

“Whatever.” Isabel said, her voice icy cold. “That girl can stay outside with the horses and then she can drive me home. I’m going to get her.” Isabel threw open the door and slammed it on her way out.

Michael heard the sound of a horses’s hoofs plodding down the street after a little while in a nice, easy walk. He still didn’t understand how Isabel could saddle up a horse and ride it all the way to the peasants’ village but not be able to drive the chariot home without getting completely worked up and frightened.

Each day, the wedding drew closer. In two weeks, now, they would be standing in the alter, preparing to say their vows. They hadn’t written their own the way Max and Tess had. They didn’t mean that much too each other.

In fact, Isabel didn’t mean anything to Michael. He wanted her out of his life, but he knew that if that was up to Max, that would never happen.

And, unfortunately, everything in the community was up to Max.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Pick up the pace.” Isabel frowned in disgust as she rode atop Sarcelles, one of the older, slower horses that she was more fond of. Sarcelles took things slow, but clearly not slow enough for the servant girl. She was trailing behind.

“I apologize.” Maria said quickly, speeding up a little. Isabel had made her walk because the thought of riding on the same horse with her was disgusting.

The girl wasn’t wearing any shoes, which was probably a mistake. Isabel knew they were running out of time, so she had rushed Maria out of her hut, eager to get away from the village and to the party.

Finally, they reached the castle. She could hear Maria panting behind her like a tired dog. Each breath she took was deep and ragged.

Isabel pranced in the door to find Michael sitting on the couch like a bum. A horrible music was playing in the background, the same music that he had been listening to while working out the day before or so.

“Michael, shut that shit off.” she ordered. She wasn’t one to use curse words, but she just couldn’t stand the way the singers screamed on the record. But the beat was sort of enticing . . .

She shook the thoughts from her head. She was the Princess. The Princess ought not to like music such as that.

“Isabel, you made her walk over here without shoes?” Michael asked in disbelief, noticing Maria’s bare feet for the first time.

“Yes,” she replied simply. “We were running out of time, and I wanted to get out of there.”

“It’s cold out, Isabel.” Michael reminded her. “And that road is so dirty.”

“I’m fine.” Maria cut in.

“Did I say you could come in the house?” Isabel asked, glaring at the filthy girl. Maria turned to exit, but Michael stopped her.

“Come in.” he said.

Maria froze in place.
“Get out of here.” Isabel ordered.

“Come in.”

“I said leave!”

“Well, I said come in!” Michael stood up and towered above her, challenging her. Isabel knew that this wasn’t good. They weren’t supposed to have people witnessing their arguments and disagreements like this. People would talk. Word would get around. Everyone would know.

“I forfeit.” Isabel gave in. She tossed her dark hair over her shoulders and slipped on her knee-high boots. “I’ll be out in the chariot.” she announced. “Join me whenever you’re ready.” With that, she pranced outside and waited for her fiancé and his servant girl to get in.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria was good at driving the chariot. She had clearly had practice, because she drove better than he did. Michael remembered that she had been taking care of Meronson. She had probably had to drive him around in his crappy little chariot, too.

“We’re here.” she announced when they reached the Pascals’ manor. They had been running a little late, and the mud on the street had made it hard to drive, so the party was already bustling. The dreaded ballroom music could be heard all the way from where they were parked, and Michael groaned, knowing that his evening was going to be awful already.

“You could have parked closer.” Isabel snapped. “There’s a reserved sign up there for us.”

“I can go closer if you’d like.” Maria offered, already taking a hold of the reigns, ready to start up again.

“No, no,” Michael told her, leaning forward and placing his hand in front of her to stop her. “We’re fine.”

Michael got out of the chariot and unwillingly helped Isabel out as well. He linked her arm with his and prepared to put on another fake show of affection. He caught Maria’s eye when Isabel wasn’t looking and made a disgusted face.

“Stay out here.” Isabel ordered as they made their way inside. “Keep an eye on Sarcelles. We’ll be back in a few hours.”

Once inside, Michael not only heard the ballroom music, but he saw people dancing to it. Didn’t they get tired of hearing the same old thing over and over again? He sure did.

He went and got Isabel a glass of champagne, expecting to find that she would have disappeared and ran off with Kivar by the time he got back, but instead, he found her waiting where he had left her, a disappointed expression covering her face.

“Let me guess,” he said, handing her the glass. “Kivar’s not here?” He didn’t bother to whisper the question. It was so loud in there that no one could hear them anyway.

Isabel was silent. Only her eyes moved as she searched the crowd.

“I guess the Pascals don’t really like him that much.” he continued. “Hey, you know, maybe they have this thing against him because you spend so much time with him. You know, lots of people despise him, ‘cause they think he’s trying to take you away from me.”

“Michael, just shut up.”

Everyone seemed to be telling him that lately. “Personally,” Michael said, “I like the guy.”

Isabel brought her eyes up to glare at him. “Would you like him if I told you I slept with him three nights ago?”

Michael was shocked. Well, maybe shocked wasn’t the right word. Surprised? Yeah, he was surprised. He was surprised that Isabel would give herself to someone so entirely when she knew that it could not last. Isabel was actually quite smart. For her to do something like that when she would be married to another man in two weeks was monumental.

“I’d ask you what you were thinking, Is.” he said a little too loudly. “You can’t be so open about your relationship with him. Do you know what your brother would do if he found out about Kivar?”

Isabel almost smiled. “Yeah, he’d kill you. That’s kind of the plan.”

Michael couldn’t believe what Isabel was saying. Though she had always been a pain in the ass, she had never said anything like that before. Isabel had never been the kind to talk about death like that so openly. She had suffered a great loss as a child when her grandmother had died. She had been very close to her, and death had been a rough subject ever since.

“Isabel . . .” he began again, trying to make her understand that he didn’t want to marry her anymore than she wanted to marry him, but that it was going to happen whether they liked it or not. He knew they shouldn’t be discussing this so openly with other people so close around them. All a person had to do was lean in and catch bits and pieces of their conversation, and, eventually, they would be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together and discover the big picture.

“You see, Michael,” Isabel cut in before he could barely start. “I’m in a win/win situation. If Max doesn’t find out, then I have to marry you, but at the same time, I get to keep the exotic, passionate, flaming affair going with Kivar. Oh, Michael, it’s set off so much inside of me. Almost like fireworks, you know?”

He didn’t know.

“But,” she continued. “If Max does find out, then you’ll be killed. He’ll hate you for letting me do this with Kivar, yet, he won’t be able to kill me. I’m family. But he’ll kill you, and the next person up to the throne is Kivar. I’ll marry Kivar and we’ll live happily every after forever and ever while you rot in hell.”

Michael was so close to just reaching out and grabbing her by the neck to strangle her, but he resisted.

“But Michael,” she said, saying his name with a certain vengeance. “You’re in a lose/lose situation. You’re either married to me for an eternity with no way out, or you’re dead. Take your pick.” A wicked smile crossed her face. Michael had been hoping to see her smile for weeks now, but not this kind of smile. This was not the Isabel he knew at all. This Isabel looked like a witch.

“Isabel, stop talking like this.” he told her in a hushed whisper. “People might hear.”

“So what if they do?” she asked aloud. “It’s not like I’d be in any trouble.”

Michael knew what she meant. If someone did happen to overhear them, they could go running to Max, who was probably around the party somewhere with Tess hanging all over him, chatting with friends he hadn’t seen in a long time due to paperwork. Max would find out, and the lights would soon dim for Michael. Soon, he’d be six feet under.

He had no choice but to get out of there. He pushed past Isabel and through the crowd. Walter was calling something to him as he exited the manor, but he paid no attention. He couldn’t stop now. He had to get away.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria wrapped her arms around herself. She was getting goose-bumps. It was freezing outside, and she had no coat or shoes. All she had was what she had been wearing on the way over to the palace: Her peasant dress and what was underneath. That wasn’t very much. She wished that their community would do something about the living conditions for the peasants. Maybe some kind of plan for them if they got too ill or too weak. She wasn’t ill or weak . . . yet. But that could always change. And it probably would if she stayed outside too much longer.

Sarcelles, too, was shivering. She could see his flesh shaking, the way that horses did when they were cold, and he was coughing, too, and blowing air from his nose. Maria reached into the back of the chariot and discovered a blanket. She placed it over Sarcelles’s back and then searched for a duplicate for herself. She found nothing.

“Hey, what are you doing in there?”

Maria peered over the side of the chariot and met the eyes of a royal. She recognized him as Lord Adams. Lord Adams was a middle-classed man like Meronson had been, but he always liked to boss people around and act higher than he really was in the class system. Liz had been assigned to work for him a few years ago before Sir Warren, and she had hated it. She had come back to the huts every night and collapsed down on the floor. She used to tell Maria about all of the work that Lord Adams had made her do that day, and what she was going to have to do the next day. And Liz hadn’t been that old at the time. Maybe 14 or 15. But not that old. She shouldn’t have been forced to do such manual labor.

“Oh, um, Mi . . .” She stopped herself before she said Michael. She didn’t think that Lord Adams would think to highly of her if she called Michael by his first name. “The General,” she corrected before he noticed her mistake, “and his fiancé ordered me to stay out here with the horse and the chariot while they were at the party.” She put on her best smile, hoping that he would back off and leave her alone.

But he didn’t. “Get out of there!” he ordered, his voice rough and scratchy.

“Yes, sir.” she obeyed immediately, stepping out of the somewhat warm chariot and out onto the cold, hard cement and into the chilly night air where the wind could bite and nip at her all that it wanted to.

It wasn’t until she got out that she noticed how much bigger Lord Adams was than her. He was huge, in fact. He towered above her like a statue, his eyes a piercing yellow and his mouth set in a vindictive smirk. He had a bit of a beer belly, too, and that only accentuated the muscles in his arms. He had obviously been fighting for many years.

“I don’t believe that the General and the Princess would put a servant girl in charge of one of their prize horses and their beautiful chariot!” he exclaimed.

“Oh, Sarcelles isn’t one of the prize horses.” Maria told him, only in an effort to make him understand. “He’s one of the older ones actually. Centra is the real prize-winner. The General is very particular about her.”

“Look, girlie, I don’t care what you have to say about Michael Guerin’s stupid horses!” Lord Adams pointed a threatening finger at her. “You get out of here right now. This is a party for the royals, not the peasants!” Everything he said came out in a shout or yell.

Maria looked back at Sarcelles. He was still shivering, despite the blanket. He might decided to take off back to the stables any minute to become warm again if she wasn’t there. Though he was old, he was still capable of breaking the rope that bound him to the pole in front of him.

Looking back to Lord Adams, Maria stood her ground. “Sir, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.” she said. “I promised the General and the Princess that . . .”

But Lord Adams did not let her finish. Instead, a large, calloused hand came out into the night air and smacked against her face in a brutal slap that sent her flying to the ground. “That oughta teach ya a lesson!” he exclaimed.

Maria gripped her cheek in pain and struggled to get up, forcing the Major Creoles memory to stay out of her mind. When she did make it to her feet again, Lord Adams only swatted her down again. She yelped in pain as her body came in contact with the cement again after his hand had come in contact with her face for the second time.

“That’s right, bitch!” he shouted. “You better listen to me!”

Maria shuddered as the memory overpowered her will, then, and invaded all of her senses. She screamed, remembering how Creoles had spoken to her in the exact same way. “Ahhhh!”

“Hey!” she heard someone shout. She stopped screaming, then, and opened her eyes to find Michael rushing towards her. He ignored Lord Adams and ran right to her, kneeling down beside her and placing his hands on her shoulders. Her heart jumped at his protectiveness.

“Are you alright?” he asked, concerned and worried. His hand came up to rest on the side of her face, and he noticed the red marks from the Lord’s hand. “What happened?” he asked.

Maria couldn’t say anything. She gazed into his eyes, pleading silently for him to help her.

And help her he did. Slowly, Michael rose to his feet, standing as tall as the Lord, narrowing his eyes and moving closer to him. “Lord Adams,” he said with a fake smile. “Do you mind telling me why you’re attacking my assistant?”

The Lord put on his own fake smile, and Maria could see his bottom lip trembling in fright. “Well, you see,” he began shakily. “We had a bit of a misunderstanding. I didn’t really believe that you had told her to stay out here, so I told her to leave.”

Michael raised his eyebrows. “And you hit her.” he said, stepping closer. It wasn’t a question.

Lord Adams shrugged. “Lost my temper.”

Michael chuckled, but to Maria’s ears, that too sounded fake. “You see, I knew we could come to an understanding about this.”

“Of course!” Lord Adams agreed. “Michael . . .”

And suddenly, it was Michael’s fist flying through the air, landing right in the middle of Lord Adams’s face, sending the burly man shooting towards the ground just like Maria had. Maria was surprised, but she was also happy. Happy that Michael had come running out here like her knight in shining armor.

“Come on!” Michael challenged in a voice that she had never heard him use before. He had always seemed so gentle and kind to everyone. “Come on, get up, bitch!” He echoed the Lord’s words.

“Please, don’t hurt me!” Lord Adams begged.

Michael reached down to the ground and grabbed the man’s shirt collar. He dragged him up, scraping his back and arms along the cement as he did so, and then lifted him from the ground, bringing him to his eye level. “If you ever touch her again,” he whispered, “I’ll do more than hurt you. I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you with my bare hands, and I’ll make sure that it’s slow and painful so you can suffer through every waking minute of it.” With that, he released the man and sent him tumbling towards the ground again where he lay, clutching a bottle of whiskey in his hand.

“Come on.” Michael said, helping Maria to her feet. “Let’s get out of here.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael pulled the chariot to a stop right outside the peasants’ village. The moon shone brightly overhead and reflected off of Mirron Lake not too far away. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked for about the one thousandth time since the incident with Lord Adams.

Maria nodded. “Yeah, I”m fine. My cheek hurts a little bit, but otherwise, I’m fine.”

Michael sighed. “I’m sorry.” he said. “Isabel just wanted you to watch the chariot so that if I left early, you’d be able to drive her home. She has this fear of chariots since . . .”

“Since Major Creoles accident.” Maria finished for him. “You can say it, Michael. It’s okay.”

He shook his head. “No, it’s not.” he protested. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” she told him. “You helped me out a lot tonight. Thank you.”

Michael let his gaze travel over to the lake. The water was peaceful that night. There was hardly even a ripple in sight. It was smooth, like a pillow. Like honey.

“I can’t believe I said those things.” he thought aloud. “That wasn’t like me.”

“Maybe it was you. Maybe it was just a different side of you that you didn’t even know about until now.” Maria suggested.

A horrible memory arose in Michael’s mind, one that he didn’t like to think about ever. He hadn’t thought about it until now. Until after this.

“What is it?” she asked him, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder.

He sighed, but figured that she had opened up to him and told him about Creoles, which was much more painful than his memory, when she barely knew him. He felt like he had known her forever, now. He knew he could tell her.

“When I was 12,” he began, “it was my last year of training. After that I was gonna be able to fight with the actual soldiers in actual battles if I chose to. My teacher, Mr. Montgomery, left for a little bit, just a little bit, to go fix Peter Drako’s sword. It was only us kids in there, and, naturally, a few of them began to fight. I was afraid that they’d get hurt, so I stepped in. I tried to split them up, but they kept charging at each other. Finally, I brought them into the back room and sat them down to talk. They made fun of me at first, saying that I was trying to act like a teacher, but I didn’t listen to them. One of them understood, apologized, and left without another word. But the other, his name was Sean, he just didn’t understand. He said that we were in training to become warriors, and that warriors fought. I was just gonna have to get used to it. So I got up, and I punched him. I don’t know what made me do it. I was just furious with him for not understanding. He punched me back, and we began to fight, as most boys do. But then it got more serious. He was on top of me and he was choking me. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t do anything except reach for my sword and . . .” He paused as a brief picture flashed through his mind. “I stabbed him!” he shouted. He buried his face in his hands and began to sob uncontrollably. “I stabbed him! And I remember telling him to never say a word, to never let anyone know that it was me. He promised, and then I ran out to get some help. We told Mr. Montgomery that he had accidently tripped and accidently stabbed himself, but we both knew it was a lie. We both knew the truth.

“Later, I told him I was sorry, and he told me that he hated me for what I had done to him. He would never become a soldier now with such an injury. And he had wanted it so badly. He would’ve been a great fighter. He was always better than me. He was the only one that was better than me.” Michael ran his fingers through his hair as he remembered both of the events. The stabbing and the recent incident with Lord Adams. He thought about them until they coalesced into one. “I don’t wanna be that person.” he said. “I don’t wanna hurt people. I could’ve killed Sean, and I threatened to kill Lord Adams! What have I become?”

Maria reached over and stroked his tear-soaked cheek. “Michael,” she said. “You are the greatest person I know. I’ve never met anyone like you. You’re so caring and considerate of everyone. Like Cherie. Do you know how much she loved those shoes, Michael? She wears them every day, and she makes sure never to get them dirty because she loves them so much. You should hear the way everyone talks about you, Michael. They’re so envious of me because they’d love to work for you. They all love you, Michael. They’re like, ‘Oh, the General, he should be the king. He’d treat us equally.’, or, ‘Oh, yes, the General, what a brave, kind, man. I wish everyone could be like him.’.”

Michael laughed at her impressions. “I can’t imagine why anyone would say that.” he said, his voice cracking.

And then Maria had pulled him to her with surprising strength that he didn’t even know she had. She circled her arms around his back and let him cry on her shoulder the way he had when she had told him about Major Creoles. “I can.” she whispered.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A few people bowed as he passed them on the street. He hadn’t been outside in the broad daylight for a long time in the company of the peasants. He curse them if they didn’t bow, and they immediately complied to his commands. God, Max loved being king. He had so much power, and there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it.

Reluctantly, he climbed the steps to Michael and Isabel’s palace and headed on in without knocking. The door, as usual, was unlocked. Michael would carelessly leave the door unlocked a lot, and that frightened Max. His sister was in that house, and he wanted her to be safe. There were no guards, either. Max believe that guards were a must for anyone that was of the highest class.

“Michael!” he called.

“I’m right here.” a sleepy Michael told him. Max looked over and saw Michael sitting on the couch eating a bowl of cereal. His hair was uncombed and he was in only his boxers and a T-shirt.

“Michael, why aren’t you dressed?” Max spat. “You’re supposed to be in your uniform by now.” He motioned to his own uniform, which he was already dressed in.

“Oh,” Michael took another bite of his cereal. “I’m not wearing my uniform anymore.”

Max was shocked. “What?”

“I’m. Not. Wearing. My. Uniform. Any. More.” Michael said each word slowly and separately. “Do you understand?”

“No, I don’t, actually.” Max stepped forward and snatched Michael’s cereal bowl away from him. He threw it to the ground, sending breakfast flying all over the floor and pieces of glass as well. “What’s with you lately, Michael? You’re so different than everyone else.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

“Yes!” Max shouted. “You’re too different, Michael! You buy the peasants gifts and you care about the peasants and you break the damn rules!”

“Aw, come on, save it, Maxwell.” Michael said, standing up. “I don’t need any of your crap today.”

Max sighed, knowing that this was useless. “I just came by,” he said, “to inform you that it’s your turn to throw a party. You haven’t thrown one for awhile, and you’re overdue.”

Michael groaned. “No, Max, I hate those stupid parties.”

“They’re not stupid.” Max shot back. “And you’re throwing one tonight.”

“Tonight!” Michael shrieked. “You’ve gotta be joking me.”

“No, I’m not.” Max told him. “I know Isabel loves to plan parties. I’m sure you can have a real celebration going by tonight. Have fun. I won’t be here.” He turned to leave.

“Fine, whatever.” Michael mumbled. “Go back to your wife, Maxwell! Get away from me!”

“Not a problem.” Max grumbled as he plunged out the doors.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“So I’ve gotta have this stupid party. Orders of the king.”

Maria listened intently as Michael told her about Max’s visit, his orders, and his accusations. She knew how much Michael hated going to parties. He would really hate throwing one.

“At least Isabel’s taking care of most of it. Invitations have been printed and are being delivered as we speak. The decorators have come by and are setting everything up, and the caterer is preparing a delicious, four-course meal right at the moment in my kitchen.” Michael continued. “Should be great, huh?”

Maria laughed. “Yeah, if you say so.”

Michael exhaled a heavy sigh. “I just don’t understand why I have to throw this party. So what? I haven’t thrown one for a few years now.”

Maria shrugged. “I don’t know Michael.” She absentmindedly played with a lock of her straight, fine, hair. It felt greasy, since she hadn’t washed it for days. The peasants were assigned days that they could wash and bathe, and Maria hadn’t had a day in a long time.

“Wait,” Michael started to pace over the rocks around the waterfall nervously. (Or was that excitement? Anticipation?) The waterfall had become their meeting place. They didn’t like to meet at the palace. Too arrogant and stuffy, as Michael said, and Maria’s hut was definitely not on the list.

“What?” Maria asked. She remained seated by her record player. She had brought that with her, hoping that Michael would ask her for help with dancing again, but he clearly had other things on his mind.

“The music.” he said, as if that explained everything.

“Feel free to elaborate.”

Michael kneeled down in front of her. “The music, Maria! Isabel’s gonna wanna play ballroom music!” A huge smile spread across his face, and Maria didn’t understand. “We can switch the music!” he told her happily. “Before they even know what happens to ‘em, we’ll put on some rock. Of course, they won’t know what it is or how to dance to it, and Isabel will be hiding her face in shame, which is always a good thing. But anyway, they won’t know how to dance to it, and we can get out there and start freak dancing! It’ll be great!”

“We?” Maria echoed. “Michael, I’m not even going to be there. It’s a party for the royals, not people like me.”

“You, me, what’s the difference?”

“The difference is that you have tons of money, wealth, and power, and I have nothing. People would laugh me out if I showed up without an invitation and in the clothes that I wear.”

Michael reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “Here.” he said, handing it to her. “It’s an invitation to my party. Signed by me.”

Maria unfolded the invitation and studied it. She smiled. “Michael,” she said. “I can’t except this. I’m not a royal.”

“That doesn’t matter.” he told her, placing his hand on her shoulder and sending bolts of electricity flying through her veins and arteries, making her heart beat faster by the second. “You’re my friend.” he said. “And you’re coming to my party.”

She kept the tears from rising in her eyes. No one had ever been this kind to her before. It just wasn’t something normal people did. “I still don’t have anything to wear.” she reminded him. “And I have no make-up or hair accessories or anything.”

“Taken care of.” Michael told her. “Isabel’s gonna be gone today while the decorators are setting up, so you can use all of her make-up. Not the black, though. That stuff is hideous.”

Maria giggled.

“And,” Michael added, as if that weren’t enough. “I got you something. Wait here.” He got up and took off around the corner, almost running, but not quite. He was so excited and disappointed all at the same time. Disappointed that he actually had to throw a party, but excited, because he obviously had something in mind. Something big. Something that would blow everyone’s minds.

“Maria!” he called from around the corner.

“Yeah?” she called back.

“Turn around!”

“Why?” she asked, more confused than ever. Her brain wasn’t functioning properly, and she wasn’t noticing the obvious.

“Just do it!” he barked.

So she did. She turned around and faced one of the cliffs that lead to higher ground if one dared to climb it. She heard him coming up behind her, and part of her wanted to snap around and see what exactly it was that he was doing, but the other part of her knew that he wanted this to be a surprise, whatever it was.

“Close your eyes.” he instructed.

She did.

She felt one of his hands slip through her hair and around the side of her face to cover her eyes, just to make sure she wasn’t peeking. “Okay,” he finally said. “Open your eyes.”

He removed his hand and she snapped her eyelids open to be greeted with a magnificent sight. A sight she hadn’t seen in such a long time, if ever.

A dress. A new dress. It was strapless and black. She had always liked the color black. It represented all of the darkness that was really in the world. Towards the bottom, there were glittery sparkles to add just a touch to the dress. Michael held it before her like a shining beacon, calling out to her. “Oh, my God,” she whispered, pressing one finger over her mouth.
“Michael . . .”

“It’s for you.” he told her as if it were nothing. “I want you to wear it to the party tonight. That is, if you like it.” He moved from behind her and stepped in front of her, the dress still in his hands.

“Like it?” she exclaimed. “I love it!” She reached out for the dress and stroked down the front of it with two of her fingers. It was silk. Real silk! She had never seen anything so beautiful. It had been years since she had gotten a dress.

But her happiness suddenly came to an end. She thought about it briefly inside, and realized that she couldn’t keep it. She couldn’t do such a thing. “But I can’t wear it.” she murmured, still running her hands over the silky fabric. “It’s probably so expensive. You’ve done too much for me already, Michael, I can’t ask you to do something like this.”

“You’re not asking me. It’s my idea.” he reminded her. “Here.” He handed the dress to her. “Hold it up to you. Let’s see if it fits.”

Maria reluctantly took the dress and held it up to herself, examining it as best she could. Michael smiled. “That looks great.” he told her. “Honestly.”

She shook her head.

“Michael, I’d get laughed out of the party.” she repeated again, though it was getting harder and harder to protest by the minute. The dress would be a perfect fit, of that she was sure, and she would be able to look beautiful again, the way her mother used to. Maria vaguely remembered her mother. She only had a few glimpses, but she knew that she had been beautiful. Even though she had been a peasant just as Maria was, she always seemed to be wearing make-up, even when she wasn’t, and her hair looked like it got washed every day, when it was usually only once a week, if that. Maria wished she had inherited her mother’s beauty and elegance.

“Not wearing this you won’t.” Michael told her. “Come on. Maria, I need you there. Besides, no one’s gonna know you’re a peasant. They’ll think you’re a royal, Maria. Please.” With that, Michael got down on his knees and folded his hands in the begging position. Maria laughed. She couldn’t believe that he wanted her to go this badly.

“What about shoes?” she inquired. “I have no shoes. I can’t go.” There was no doubt in her mind that she wanted to go. But she couldn’t. She just couldn’t. She didn’t belong with those kinds of people. She wouldn’t know what to do or say or how to act. It would all be too strange.

“Yes, you can.” Michael told her. “Shoes are taken care of. Isabel had plenty.”

“And what if Isabel isn’t my size?”

“Then we’ll have to make a quick trip to the store to get you some, won’t we?”

Maria smiled. “Michael,” she said, “I’m speechless.”

“So, what do you say?” He rose to his feet again. “Yes or no?”

Maria rubbed the material of the dress between her fingers, enjoying the feel of the fabric on her skin. Then, she looked up into Michael’s eyes, and temptation became too strong. “Okay,”she agreed. “I’ll go. But on one condition.” She narrowed her eyes and leaned forward and whispered in Michael’s ear. “You have to pick me up. I don’t wanna walk all the way in the cold.”

“Not a problem.” he said. “You can just stay at the palace until the party starts.”

“But Isabel . . .”

“Can suck it up and leave you alone. She won’t even know you’re there. She’ll be so busy making herself up. And then,” Michael used his hands to speak, providing a visual aid for her to envision all of his words. “You can make an entrance. A grand entrance. You’ll swoop down the stairs and awe the crowd. They’ll all be like, ‘Who is that girl?’”

Maria smiled. “You’ve really planned this out, haven’t you?”

“You bet.”

“And how could you be so sure I would say yes?”

He grinned. “‘Cause I know you.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria stepped in the bathroom and closed the door. The smell of soap and candles filled her nose immediately. It smelt so fresh, so good in there. She loved those smells. Flowers, berries, etc.

“Just come out when you’re done.” Michael called from outside the door.

“Okay,” she agreed shakily. She had to admit to herself that she was a little nervous about this, whatever this was. She and Michael were the only two people in a big, empty, echoing palace, and she was about to get completely naked and step into his shower to clean up before the party.

Maria kicked off her shoes and let them tumble towards the door, not caring where they landed. It wasn’t like she would be wearing those that night. Hell no. Michael had shown her the shoes. They were black and velvet. They matched the dress perfectly.

Next, Maria tore her peasant dress over her head. It wasn’t until she had thrown it on the floor did she see how dirty and repulsive it really was. She checked to make sure the door was locked, and then unclasped her bra, letting it fall to the ground as well. Her breasts flung free for the first time in what seemed like forever. Eagerly, she tore off her torn, ripped, underwear as well and threw them beside her bra. When she was completely naked, she ran her hands through her hair and then turned on the shower. It was a complex thing, but she was able to figure it out. Working with Meronson had helped her learn a lot about appliances and devices in a home.

After testing out the water and letting it run for a little while, Maria stepped inside and slid the glass door closed behind her. Tiny droplets of water sprayed her face and ran down her neck, her breasts, her stomach, and her legs, all of the way to the floor. It had been so long since she had been able to take a shower in such a nice place. The shower for the peasants wasn’t that nice at all. It was disgusting and grimy and it got clogged a lot.

Maria began to work on her hair then, finding the shampoo on a little shelf in the corner. She squirted some in her hand and then worked it through her hair furiously, trying to get out all of the tangles. She felt the grease leave her hair immediately, once the shampoo hit.

She scrubbed her whole body until she was sure that she was spotless. She wanted to glow that night. It was potentially going to be the greatest night of her life, a once in a lifetime chance. She had never imagined going to a party being thrown by the General and his fiancé. Liz was going to die when Maria returned late that night and told her about all of her activities.

She knew she was probably clean, but she didn’t get out. She didn’t want to. It felt too good, and she knew that she wouldn’t get to experience that for a long time to come.

She closed her eyes and let a picture of Michael drift into her mind. It happened a lot lately, when she was talking to him or staring at him, or just being around him. Sometimes, he wasn’t even near her, and his face entered her brain. It was always the same. Smiling, joyful, carefree, and happy, the way he should be . . . always. She loved that side of him. But she knew a side that few people knew. A side that was still troubled about stabbing Sean back in training and a side that was dreading marrying Isabel Evans.

But this time, the image was different. Michael was standing in front of her, smiling as always, but he was completely naked as well. The water was dripping over his tanned body in tiny droplets, looking almost like rain. His hair was plastered to his head again, looking tangled and snarly as it had done the time when he had ridden Centra out in the rain with her. Willingly, Maria’s eyes traveled down his body, just to catch a glimpse of what he looked like, and then back up to meet his eyes again.

“Maria,” he whispered, stepping closer to her and placing his hand in her hair. “Be with me for always.”

She felt water sting her eye and blinked it away. Her hands slid up his bare, wet chest to reside on his shoulder blades. He stepped closer so that his body was pressed against hers. The water on the floor was making it hard for her to stand, so she leaned into Michael for support. She buried her face in his shoulder, breathing in the scent of him. Her lips brushed his bare skin, and, without warning, he bent down and began to suck on her neck, slipping his arms around her waist and up her back to balance her against him. She let out a small sigh, unable to stop it. “Michael,” she breathed as he kissed his way up her cheek to finally kiss her decently on the lips. His tongue slid into her mouth, and then out. He stood before her, panting for air. “Where are you?” she asked, her eyes still closed. She didn’t think she could bare to watch. It was too painstaking. New sensations were taking over her that were threatening to explode.

“I’m right here.” he replied, bringing his hand down to cup one of her breasts in his hand. Maria moaned as he rolled the nipple beneath his palm.

“I need you,” he murmured into his ear as the water continued to slosh all over them. “I want you.” He plunged his mouth down onto hers again, and she was able to kiss him back this time. He was doing things to her, crazy, erotic, sexy things that she never would have dreamed of doing years ago, not with the memory of Creoles still lingering in her mind. But now, Creoles was pushed to the very deepest part of her consciousness where he barely existed.

“Maria . . .”

“Michael . . .”

“I love . . .”

Maria came to with a start, realizing that the water had begun to turn ice-cold. Looking around, she decided that maybe that was a good thing. A cold rinse was definitely what she needed to cool her nerves down now after that steamy fantasy.

Turning off the water, she stepped out of the shower reluctantly, still wishing that Michael had been in there with her, doing those things to her. It had felt so real.

But somehow not real enough. Because it was all fiction. Made up. Her imagination. None of it was real. Not really. She had no idea what he looked like without clothes on, and she probably never would. And she had no idea what he would say to her.

She wrapped a towel around her self to dry off and then headed towards the vanity mirror. She was flushed red, no doubt about that. She took a few seconds to calm down and then grabbed her clothes and tugged them on quickly, eager to get out of the steamy, misty bathroom. She didn’t look back at the shower. She couldn’t . She couldn’t let that fantasy come up again.

She stepped out into the hallway and began to look for Michael. She didn’t see him. This was a big palace. It could take forever to find him. Hell, he may even have been out with the horses!

The question was, why did she want to find him? After her dream episode in the bathroom, that might not be a good idea, but she still didn’t want to go looking through Isabel’s make-up without him around. She could hear the decorators downstairs putting the finishing touches on their plans, and was about to head down to ask them if they knew where he was when a warm hand grabbed her arm. She spun around and looked directly into the face of Michael Guerin himself.

“Gee, are you that nervous?” he asked, removing his hand.

She shook her head quickly. “No, not nervous.” she said. “Well, k, maybe a little nervous, but mostly excited. Anticipating.” She stopped herself before she began to ramble too much and took in a soothing, calming breath.

“Are you okay?” he asked her. “You look flushed.”

Shit. He noticed.

“I’m fine.” she lied.

After a bit of hesitance, he seemed to give in. “Okay,” he agreed suspiciously. “Isabel keeps all of her make-up in the master bathroom if you wanna start getting ready.”

“Yeah, yeah.” she agreed. She pushed past him and up the stairs through the master bedroom and into the adjoining bathroom. Isabel’s make-up was scattered everywhere. Everything was assorted as it should have been. Eye-shadows were kept to one corner along with mascaras. The eye-shadows were divided into lights and darks, and the mascaras were lined up in order of darkness.

“Go ahead and sit down.” Michael instructed her, pulling out a chair for her. Maria reluctantly sat down, still hesitant about the fact that Isabel could come bursting through the doors any minute, and her outrage would, of course, be released on Maria. Michael’s lecture would come later. She stared at some of the accessories and began to feel uncultivated, uncivilized, because she didn’t know what half of it was. But she knew the basics.

“Do you know how to put it on?” Michael asked, noticing her big, long pause. “‘Cause I sure don’t.”

Maria turned to face him. “I know the basics.” she informed him. “I used to watch my mom put on her make-up before she died.”

“How’d she die?” Michael wanted to know.

“She was worked too hard.” Maria replied. “And my father was already dead. We were actually making pretty decent money. She was working for some rich dude, and she could sometimes take me out to eat at a nice place or even take me shopping. The laws weren’t as strict back then when Max wasn’t king. Anyway, she died one day, just like that. I never even got to say good-bye. And then I was an orphan. So I had to start working really early.”

“I’m sorry.” Michael told her sympathetically.

Don’t be sorry, Michael, she thought to herself. You’ve done nothing but make my life better. You’ve shown me that not all of your people are cruel. You’ve shown me that someone is capable of caring about me.

Maria turned back to the vanity without another word and opened the foundation. She had always hated foundation, so she didn’t bother with it. It had always made her mother look blotchy. Instead, she opened up the powder and began disguising the red tint in her cheeks and the somewhat dark circles under her eyes. It wasn’t until she looked up that she noticed the Michael was watching her. She smiled.

“I just wanna see how it’s done.” he explained, as if he needed an explanation.

“Don’t look at me, I’m not a professional.”

“No, you’re good at it. You’ve clearly watched you mom a lot.”

Maria closed her eyes, remembering. “I used to sit there for hours on end just watching her, wishing that I could do it, too, but when I asked her, she said I was too young. Sometimes, though, when she wasn’t looking, I’d sneak into our little bathroom and put her make-up on. I got really good. Especially for a three-year-old.”

Michael laughed. “Yeah, I bet.” He leaned against the wall and continued to watch her. She watched him watch her through the mirror and tried not to let a blush creep up into her cheeks as the Michael in the mirror collided with the Michael in her shower fantasy, and they became one.

She put on eye-shadow so light that it was barely visible, but it matched her skin tone well, and it was the direct opposite color of her sparkling green eyes. She had heard that you weren’t supposed to match your eye-shadow color choice with the color of your eyes.

Next, she pounded on the mascara. She used the blackest shade Isabel had, for she had always wanted to make her eyes stand out and be bold and daring. She made her lashes curl upward on the top and downward on the bottom, until her eyes were framed perfectly. Then, as if she were an expert, she took the cap off of the eyeliner pencil and gently colored the rim of her lids dark black to match her mascara. Michael was still watching her.

“I should probably go.” he said finally. “I’ve gotta get ready, too. I think you can figure everything out from here.”

“Of course I can.” she replied. “I’m a genius.”

He laughed. “Alright, see ya in about an hour, okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed, and watched as he disappeared from her vision in the mirror.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Isabel had came home sooner than expected, so Michael had had to move Maria into the nearest bathroom with a bundle of supplies that she would need to perfect her image. All she had on was her make-up, but she already looked like a new person.

“Michael, why is this door locked?” Isabel asked suspiciously, fumbling with the knob on the door to the bathroom where Maria was hiding out.

“Um, I don’t know.” he lied. “Maybe one of the decorators is in there.”

Isabel nodded. “I’ll be up in the master bathroom.” With that, she headed up the stairs. Her black dress flowed behind her. She was all dressed for the party, and, as usual as of lately, she looked like a gothic. She wore a lace veil on her head, flowing behind her like a veil, and her dress was black velvet, similar to Maria’s but not quite as beautiful. The only thing Isabel needed to do now was put on her make-up, which would, predictably, be black or some dark shade. Maybe brown. Her hair was already pulled back in a low-slung braid that hung on her back beneath the veil.

Michael, himself, was ready. He was glad he wasn’t a woman. They had to do many things to get ready for these fancy events, but he didn’t. All he had to do was get in his tuxedo and comb through his hair. And maybe shave his stubble. But other than that, that was all.

Finally, the decorators cleared out, and Michael took a minute to survey the empty, soon to be full, castle. The party was going to be held in the ballroom, of course. Everything looked really nice, especially for a party like this. A buffet was lined up against one wall, filled with cakes and pigs in a blanket and salads, and then there was a refreshment table close by holding wines and martinis and brandies. Michael wasn’t one to drink much himself, but he knew that the table would be empty by the end of the night.

Several couches and chairs were scattered around for those who liked to sit down and talk, and the record player was already starting to play the ballroom music. Michael felt inside his pocket and felt his reassurance that this was going to be the best party ever. He felt the record under his fingertips, and he imagined the sound of rock filling the ballroom. What people were going to say! They were either going to hate it or love it, depending on what it was exactly that they wanted.

“Michael, Tess and Max are here.” Isabel said from behind him, startling him a little bit. “Get your hands out of your pockets and go get the door. See, I told you we should have guards.”

Ignoring the urge to say something repulsive about the way Isabel looked dressed all in black, Michael headed to the door and opened it up to see two familiar faces. Tess had a huge smile on her face, and came bounding in with obviously delight, hugging Michael on the way, and then going straight to Isabel, commenting about her beautiful veil.

“Max,” Michael greeted, extending a hand. Sure, he wasn’t too fond of Max lately, but he could at least be civil in front of the ladies.

“Michael,” Max mimicked, though he did not extend his hand. He shoved right by Michael and into the living room.

One by one, people came. Michael didn’t bother to leave the door. He stood there like Max’s guards did and flashed people smiles, gave some hugs, and only shook others’ hands. People who he hadn’t seen in years came. Walter came by and he and Michael had a nice, long conversation until the doorbell rang again and Michael had to go answer it. A huge crowd of people filed in, each on greeting him civilly. Among the last to arrive was Kivar. He smiled at Michael and extended his hand for shaking, and Michael returned the gesture. He didn’t know what to think of Kivar anymore, so he didn’t know how to act around him or what to say. Kivar had always seemed nice, but what he was turning Isabel into wasn’t nice at all.

The party started off fairly normal. People came around and spoke to Michael, and a few asked him to dance when Beethoven’s Symphony No: 9 came on, but he refused politely, saying that he had a full stomach and didn’t want to take the chance of getting sick out on the dance floor.

Isabel hung around Kivar most of the time, pointing to various people and whispering about others. Michael noticed that Max was watching her intently, and shifted uncomfortably. Max could not know about what was going on between Isabel and Kivar. It might cost him his life.

So Michael headed upstairs and stopped in front of Maria’s bathroom. He knocked on the door twice and then waited for a response.

There was none.

“Hello?” he called.

“Oh, Michael,” Maria’s voice suddenly answered. “I didn’t know if it was you or not.”

“It is.”

“Michael?”

“What?”

“I can’t go out like this!”

Michael sighed. “Maria, you’ve spent two hours getting yourself ready. You have to come down sooner or later.”

“How ‘bout later when everyone has left and gone home. I can do that.”

“Maria,” Michael made his voice a warning, telling her not to even try. She wasn’t getting out of this. “I’m sure you look beautiful.”

She was silent.

“Now,” he said, starting over, trying a new approach. “Are you gonna come out in that nice, expensive dress and pair of shoes I bought you, or are you going to let it all be a waste.”

She groaned. “I don’t know.”

“If you aren’t down there in five minutes,” Michael told her sternly, “I’m gonna come riding up here with Centra and a net, and we’re gonna force you to come down there. And you know I will.”

“I know, I know.” she said. “That’s what’s so scary.”

He laughed. “Five minutes.” he reminded her. “Then I’m up here.”

“And then I’m down there.” she added.

So Michael went back downstairs and joined the rest of his party. He watched as couples masqueraded around with each other, and he watched how Max kept his eye on Isabel and Kivar at all times. He glared at Michael once in a while, but not too often.

Michael crossed the room to the refreshment table and picked up a glass of wine. He brought it to his lips, ready to drink it quickly and very hard, preparing to wash all of his troubles and worries away with the hard stuff, but something else caught his attention.

He couldn’t tear his eyes away as she glided down the stairs. No one else was up there, only her. Her hair was up on top of her head, kept there with many little butterfly clips that she had obviously found, and the ends curled around her face. Her make-up was perfect, the same as he had last seen it, and her dress flowed behind her, accentuating her curves. Curves he didn’t even know she had before now. The low neckline bared an enormous amount of cleavage, and a gold necklace was hooked around her neck to keep the outfit from looking incomplete.

He was amazed. This was the Maria DeLuca he knew, but how could it be? She looked so different, so beautiful.

How come he had never noticed this until now? After all this time, he was only now noticing this.

She flew through the crowd over towards him with a shaky smile on her face. “That was so embarrassing.” she told him. “I was the only one up there. Everyone was staring at me.”

“No, they weren’t.” he told her. His own voice wasn’t working right.

“Do I look stupid?” she asked. “Be honest.”

“You look gorgeous.” he told her.

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.” He hoped he sounded as honest as he felt inside.

She absentmindedly fiddle with the necklace around her neck. “What now?” she asked. “I’m here. You didn’t have to go get Centra. Now where do we go?”

“We walk.” He motioned for her to link her arm with his, and she did so. They began to walk slowly, as Maria was not used to walking in high-heels, and Michael’s feet weren’t completely functioning, either.

How could he be thinking about her in that light? He was engaged to Isabel.

“Why, Michael Guerin, who is this?” a round, pudgy woman asked as they made their walk through the crowd. He recognized the woman as Minerva Scotts, one of the richest women in town who always liked to get into other people’s business when she knew she shouldn’t. Some people called her the gossip queen, because she always knew what was going on Antar.

“This is Maria DeLuca. Maria, this is Minerva Scotts, one of the wealthiest women in the community.” he introduced them, making sure to mention Minerva’s social status so that the woman would not get angry with him.

“Nice to meet you.” Maria said, extending her hand.

Minerva shook it eagerly. “Oh, you, too. Are you new here? I don’t remember seeing you around.”

Maria looked up at Michael expectantly, but he knew he couldn’t answer for her. She had to decide what she was going to tell and what she wasn’t.

“I’ve lived here my whole life, actually.” she replied calmly. Maria was so composed under pressure. “I’m Mr. Guerin’s assistant.”

“Assistant?” Minerva repeated the word as if it were a bad thing. “As in, peasant assistant?”

“Yes,” Maria replied, not at all ashamed.

“Oh.” Minerva was awful at hiding her true feelings. She brushed off her hand as if Maria was the kind of person that carried germs. “Well, why are you here, and how did you afford that lovely dress.”

“The General invited me himself.” Maria replied with a bit of pride that only Michael could detect. “The dress, though,” Again, she looked up at Michael.

Don’t tell her, he begged silently. Don’t tell her I got the dress for you, Maria. She’ll tell everyone, and then Max will know. He can’t know.

“I’ve been saving up for it.” she lied smoothly. To anyone but Michael, it wasn’t even obvious that she had faltered.

“Oh.” Minerva repeated. She then turned her attention back to Michael. “Shouldn’t you be with your wife?” she asked curiously, gesturing towards Isabel and Kivar over on the opposite side of the room.

“My fiancé.” Michael corrected. “And, no, Kivar’s taking care of her for tonight.

“Oh. He seems to be doing that a lot lately, don’t you think?”

Michael smiled. “Good-bye, Minerva.” He walked away from the nosy, cruel woman and pulled Maria along with him.

“God, what a bitch.” she mumbled, falling in step beside him.

Michael chuckled. “Yeah, tell me about it.”

It continued like this for the next few minutes. People would stop them and ask about Maria, and she would tell them exactly what she told Minerva. Some were fine with it. Others, like Minerva, glared at her with grotesque stares, and Michael got away from them as fast as possible. Others, chose just to stare and not even go up and ask questions. Those were the ones Michael hated the most, because those were the ones who were too scared to do anything.

But Maria never faltered. She never seemed embarrassed, the way he thought she would. In fact, she was now completely at ease. Everyone who actually had enough nerve to come up and ask them would ask if she was new, and she would tell them the truth. She would tell them she was his assistant and say it with pride. Pride that Michael could never manufacture, even though he was one of the most respected and wealthiest citizens of the community.

“This is going well.” Maria said when over the noise of the crowd. It had gotten very crowded, more crowded than most other parties.

“I’m gonna go get a drink.” Maria announced. “You want one?”

Michael shook his head. “No, I’m fine. Thanks.” He watched intently as she maneuvered her way across the crowded floor to the refreshment table. Her dress flowed behind her like wings. It wasn’t too long, but it was long enough to reach the floor, making her look graceful and beautiful and magnificent.

She was so utterly beautiful. He wished people would see past the peasant exterior to the person she really was inside.

He noticed that barely anyone was dancing at the moment, but the ballroom music remained consistent in the background. This would be the perfect moment. If only he could get over to the record player . . .

Michael pushed his way through the crowd, though he knew it was rude. He didn’t bother to say “excuse me”, and, “sorry”. He didn’t have time. He tumbled beside the record player and snapped open the top. He took the record out, but no one noticed. They were all too busy chattering to notice anything. So he seized the moment to replace the record with one of Maria’s rock ones. He cranked the volume so that the music would blare and began to make his way through the crowd as the music began to play.

Faces turned to stare at him as the screaming started in right away accompanied by a very loud guitar. One face stood out in particular. The face of Maria. She was staring at him with wide eyes. Her expression made it clear that she couldn’t believe he was actually going through with this.

“What is this?” a woman shrieked. “It’s not music!”

“Turn it off!” a man of lower class than Michael ordered, obviously with no idea who the person was that turned it on in the first place.

Michael kept his eyes on Maria and moved towards her on an empty floor. The crowd had cleared the way for him now, so that he could do whatever it was he wanted to do. “Help me teach these people how to dance.” he told her over the music, but loud enough so that only she could hear him.

Maria dropped her glass of wine and it splattered all over the floor. “What?” she asked, in shock.

“You heard me.” He grabbed her trembling hand and dragged her out into the middle of the room with him. Hundreds of eyes bore straight into the two of them, but he ignored them. He grabbed her hands, and, in a strange role-reversal, began to teach her how to dance again, lifting her arms above her head and moving behind her to place his hands in the curve of her waist, where they felt comfortable. She let her hands linger in the air at first, not really doing anything with them.

“Come on.” he urged her. “You taught me.”

She chuckled, and began to sway her hips with the music. “Yeah, look where that got us.” she whispered, getting more and more into it by the second as the music flooded her soul. And his.

He moved in time with her. Sometimes she would bring her body down low to the ground and then turn around to face him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and brought him closer to her. He could hear her breathing over the music, and matched his breaths to her own as well. He pulled her up so close to him that it hurt, and they continued to move. Then, sometimes, he would trail his hands down her hips and legs and circle around to reappear behind her, locking his hands together over her stomach.

He knew he was going crazy out there with her, but he couldn’t help it. It was too much. The music . . . the people . . . the lights . . . Maria.

But, soon, the song came to an end, as all songs did, and another one started up. Although he wanted to keep dancing, Michael forced himself to look at everyone else around him. They were in shock, clearly. He knew that they had never seen anything so provocative in their entire lives, and this wasn’t going to help the Isabel/Kivar/Max/Possible Death for the General situation, either, but he just couldn’t resist.

Maria, herself, turned to face him. Her face was slightly flushed from the dancing they had just done. She didn’t look into his eyes at first, but when she did, he didn’t expect what he saw.

He saw terror.

She was scared again.

“Maria,” he whispered, only beginning to speak to her.

But she wouldn’t even let him get started. Instead, she ran away from him, again, as she had done the last time he had scared her in the park by the swans. The sounds of her shoes pounded on the tile floor, and Michael was about to take off after her when someone grabbed his arm. It was a young man about his age. Michael didn’t know his name.

“General, Sir,” the man began. “What kind of music is that?”

“Why? I bet you hate it.” Michael snapped. He didn’t mean to be rude, but he had to go after Maria before she left entirely.

“No,” the man said, surprising Michael. “I like it. Where can I find it? How do you dance like that?”

And before he could stop it, a crowd was swarming around him like a bunch of hungry bees. No one seemed to care that he had been dancing with Maria instead of Isabel. They just all seemed mesmerized. They all wanted to listen to more of it and dance like Michael had with Maria.

This had surely been a success. But Maria wasn’t here to tell them everything. She knew more than he did about that kind of music, and she was a better dancer. After all, she was the one that told him.

“Just move. Don’t think.” Michael told them as he tried to get away. People followed him wherever he went, so he got out on the floor and showed a few of them how to start moving. Once they got the hang of it, they began to do it by themselves. Some were better at it than others, of course. Soon, a few started to partner up, and some gathered around each other in big groups. Michael watched them for a few seconds, and then went to find Maria. He hardly noticed that Isabel was not standing with Kivar in the corner.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria had been standing by the railing for what seemed like forever. Everyone else was dancing to rock now. She could hear the music blaring from the ballroom now, and part of her wanted to go back in and dance with Michael. A big part. She loved the feel of his breath on her neck and the feel of his hands tracing up and down her body. When he touched her or talked to her, she felt things that she had never felt before. Things that she didn’t really want to feel. And that erotic shower fantasy was still playing in her head over and over again, and, inside, she was still hoping that, somehow, someday, someway, it would become a reality.

Yeah, right.

“What was that?” An icy cold voice jarred Maria from her thoughts, and she looked up to see Isabel striding towards her, looking wicked as ever with her black dress and veil and dark, dark make-up.

“What was what?” Maria asked. She normally wouldn’t have spoken those words to the Princess, but she felt different now. Michael had made her feel different.

“What do you think?” The questions continued. “You sure put on a little show with my future husband in there. You know, I came home one morning, and he was playing that stuff. It’s really awful music. I can’t believe the two of you actually like it.”
“It’s easy to dance to.” Maria explained.

Isabel did something between a laugh and a grunt. “That’s not dancing.” she said coldly.

Maria was outraged. Ballroom dancing was the only sort of dancing Isabel knew of, and she was unable to accept anything else. Anything that was different and new. “Then what is?” she asked, challenging. “That’s just as much dancing as what you do.”

Isabel seemed surprised, maybe even a little mad. “Since when do you get off talking to me like that?”

“Since now.” Maria told her. She stepped forward. Although the taller girl was intimidating, she didn’t back down. “I’m sick of all of this, Isabel. Yes, Isabel. I used your name. Not Princess. Or, Miss. I’m sick of all of this. And I’m not gonna take anymore of it. I am not a lower being than you. You may be rich and powerful, but that doesn’t make you any more important than I am. I am a real person and I refuse to be pushed around and treated like a lower class citizen.”

Isabel didn’t seem affected. “So you’ll just settle for sleeping with my fiancé?”

“What?” Maria shrieked. “I am not . . .”

“Oh, it’s obvious how you feel about him.” Isabel continued. She circled around Maria like a vulture and then returned in front of her. “You can see it in your eyes when you look at him. You can hear it in your voice when you talk to him. You’re in love with him.”

Maria tried not to let truth show on her face.

“But the sad thing is,” Isabel continued. “He’ll never love you back. Because, whether you want to face it or not, you are lower than him. Everyone loves him and everyone despises you. He may act like you’re important, Maria, but you’ve got to know that you really aren’t. If something happens to you, we can just replace you. It’s as simple as that. You’re not special. You’re not important. You’re vapor, Maria. That’s all you are to everyone. Including Michael.”

Maria felt tears sting her eyes and a knife stab her heart. Was it really true? Was everything all an act? Was Michael’s kindness all an act? How could it be? He seemed so genuine, so real.

Although she knew that this was Isabel telling her all of this, Maria couldn’t help but let it get to her. She pushed her way past the ice princess and up the stairs that led to the master bedroom and other parts of the castle. She hardly even noticed Michael coming after her a few seconds later.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He opened the door quietly. So quietly that she could not hear him. He didn’t know how he knew she was up here in the master bedroom. He just knew. He could feel her around him. Her being, her presence. He found her standing by the window looking out through the thin veil of curtains. The window was slightly ajar, so the wind rippled her hair only in the slightest. The moon illuminated her face and her body, making her appear almost luminous.

“What are you doing here, Michael?” she asked shakily. Her voice was quivering.

He sighed and stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. “I came around the corner right when you went running up the stairs. Look, I just want you to know that whatever Isabel said, it’s
not . . .”

“True.” she filled in. “It’s not true.”

“Right.” He stepped closer to her, standing in front of the window as she was, fighting the urge to grab her and run back downstairs into the warmth that would surely surround them there. It was a cold night, but she was standing in front of the window in the highest room of the palace wearing a thin little dress like it was a spring day.

“But you’re wrong.” she told him after a brief moment of silence. “It is true. Every word of it. To everyone in this community, I’m nothing. I’m just a waste of space. Nothing more than that.” Her eyes traveled down to stare at the floor and she whispered almost to herself more than to him, “Vapor.”

He tilted her head up with his fingers under her chin, but she refused to look him in the eyes. He spoke anyway. “Maria,” he murmured. “You are not nothing! You can’t let her say those things to you! You are the most amazing person I’ve ever met!”

She slowly brought her eyes to meet his at this. He noticed that they were shimmering with tears. “You’re just saying that.” she said as if she knew him inside and out. “If something happened to me, you could just replace me, just like that.”

Michael knew those were Isabel’s words coming out of Maria’s mouth. “That’s not true.” he told her. “No one cold ever replace you, Maria. You’re . . . you’re amazing and talented and beautiful and . . .” He paused, realizing what he had just said.

“I’m not beautiful.” she denied, jerking her face away from his hands and returning to look at the window. “You don’t think that.”

“How would you know?” he spat. “How would you know what I’m thinking?”

She was silent for only a moment. “Because no one thinks I’m beautiful.”

“I do.” He grabbed her shoulders with his hands and turned her around to face him again. She closed her eyes and groaned a little as his fingers wrapped around her flesh and bones. “I think you’re beautiful, Maria. Isabel doesn’t have anything on you. None of those girls do. And, I’m one of the few people that actually gets you to let your guard down. I’ve gotten to see your beautiful interior, not just the exterior. I feel like I know you like I’ve never known anyone else before.”

“What’s your point?”

He didn’t have an answer. And as they stood next to the window there together, basking in the cool wind and the shining moonlight, it all became too much for Michael Guerin. He saw tears flowing down her cheeks, and he saw her chest heaving up and down with each ragged intake of breath. She was on the verge of breaking, and he was on the verge of giving in.

He just couldn’t take it. He drew her to him in one swift movement and captured her mouth with his. He began to kiss her, slowly at first, and then faster and faster, slipping his tongue into her mouth to mingle with hers. He dragged his hands down her arms to wrap around he waist the way that they would if they had been dancing, and her hands traveled up his chest to tangle in his hair. She pressed his mouth down on hers firmly, and it almost hurt, but he didn’t stop. He balanced her as she arched her body up into his, and he let out a small groan, matching her own earlier one.

“Michael,” she moaned as he kissed his way across her cheek and down to her neck. Her fingers dug into the back of his neck, urging him to kiss her more . . . more.

He urged her even closer to him and lifted her up quickly, taking his lips away from her for only a minute, then returning to her lips again. She wrapped her haunches around him, making it easier for him to carry her to the bed. He laid her down and fell down on top of her, feeling like he was in an imaginary world of pure ecstasy and ravage.

He heard her say something and wondered if he was too heavy on top of her. He thought about moving away, but couldn’t. Instead, found her hand and entwined his fingers with hers as he kissed her violently and tenderly all at the same time.

He could feel himself starting to sweat as they mingled together, kissing, touching, whispering. He pulled back enough to lick his lips and was about to lean in again when Maria’s hand, which was still entwined with his, guided his own over the curve of her hip and across her stomach, up farther and farther to the place where her breasts were heaving uncontrollably with each deep breath.

Michael took control then and shot his hand forward to gently cup one of the fabric covered mounds in his hand while he attacked her neck with his mouth again, sucking vigorously. He rubbed her body beneath his and listened to her sweet mouth forming the words of pure happiness.

“Michael . . .”

Over and over again, his name was all she said. It was like she couldn’t possibly say it enough.

But, then, something made Michael stop. He pulled away and Maria stared at him with pleading eyes. “What is it?” she asked.

He had lived in the palace long enough to recognize the sound of approaching footsteps. It was faint at first, but then grew in intensity until it became very recognizable.

“Quick, hide.” He whispered, getting off of her so she could get around.

“What?”

“Someone’s coming.” He shot straight up and pulled her up with him. He searched around for any sort of cover, but there was none. He tried the bathroom door, but for some odd reason, Isabel had locked it, and he couldn’t get it open. The closet was too full, as well, and she probably couldn’t fit under the bed.

“Out here?” Maria asked when he led her to the window again.

“They wont’ find you out there.” he told her reassuringly. “Just stand on that ledge. It’s pretty wide. Don’t worry. You won’t fall.” The sound of footsteps grew nearer.

Maria quickly glanced over the ledge and then turned back to Michael. She cupped his face in her hands and gave him a quick kiss on the lips, then opened the window and swung one leg over, then the other, and walked farther down the ledge so that she was out of sight. Michael quickly shut the window and turned to the door just as Max barged in.

“Michael, what the hell are you doing up here?” he spat exasperatedly.

Michael struggled to think of an excuse. “I was tired.” he lied. “Dancing really wears you out. I wanted some sleep.” He was impressed that he thought of a lie that would indicate why the bed covers were tossed all around also.

“But this is your party.” Max reminded him. “You don’t go and sleep during your own party.”

“I do.” Michael said. “Besides, it’s Izzy’s party. Now, you woke me up, Max. Can I get back to sleep now or what?”

“Just one more thing.” Max said. He stepped forward a little and glared at Michael. “I wasn’t too happy about your little show out there. Isabel was fuming mad.”

“About what?” Michael already knew. “The dancing?”

“You were dancing with your assistant!” Max shouted. “She’s a goddamned peasant!”

Michael tried not to let this bother him. “We’re . . . friends.” he stuttered. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Max studied him with his dark, menacing eyes. “You better not be anything more than friends, Michael.” he warned. “Because if you don’t marry my sister in a week, I’ll make sure you’re killed.”

Michael took in a shaky breath. “There’s nothing going on between me and Maria,” he lied, thinking back briefly to their passionate kissing and touching only a few minutes earlier.

“There better not be.” Max warned again. With that, he exited the room, leaving the door wide open. When he was far down the stairs, Michael shut the door and locked it, then ran to the window and threw it open. He peered outside and whispered Maria’s name, but there was no sign of her. The balcony was completely deserted, and the only thing that remained was shadows.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

thanks for the kind words everyone!! I'll be back with the next part soon!!
posted on 30-Dec-2002 11:48:10 AM
Thanks to all the kind words!!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Most of the village was asleep by the time she arrived back, and Maria was thankful for that. A few families were still up eating, for some had to work well into the night. A little girl stopped to stare in wonder at Maria as she walked past in her elegant dress. She knew she probably looked like a goddess to the people around her.

She slipped quietly into her hut only to find that Liz was still awake, counting her money. Liz turned around and smiled, then noticed what Maria was wearing. “Oh, my God!” she gasped in a whisper. She rose to her feet and marveled at the dress. “Maria, where did you get this?”

Maria ran her fingers over the fabric. “It’s kind of a long story.” she said quietly. She sat down on the floor being careful not to ruin her dress in any way. She didn’t know where she was going to keep it. Things around the peasant huts didn’t tend to stay real clean for real long.

“Well, it just so happens I’m in the mood to hear a long story.” Liz sat down in front of her with her usual smile on her face. Liz outwardly seemed so innocent and carefree, and if you didn’t know her, you would wonder if she knew anything about the world at all. It’s dangers. It’s pros and cons.

“Well,” Maria didn’t really want to get into it. If she went too far, she might end up telling about the kiss, and that was something that she didn’t want to do. Liz wasn’t a gossip queen at all, but if someone overheard them, then word would soon get around and one of them would end up dead. That was the way Max handled things. If someone disobeyed or broke the rules, they were killed. She personally wished Michael were king instead, and knew many others agreed with her.

“Go on.” Liz urged, still waiting excitedly.

“Michael got me the dress.” Maria began again. “He invited me to his party that he was having tonight, and, naturally, he knew I’d have nothing to wear. So he got me the dress and the shoes and allowed me to use some of Isabel’s make-up. Of course, Isabel didn’t know.”

Liz’s eyes danced as she pictured it. “Oh, Maria, you’re so lucky.” she said. “Today, Sir Warren only gave me half my pay because he said I was goofing off too much.”

“I’m sorry.” Maria apologized. “Maybe I shouldn’t come see you when you’re working so much.”

“That’s alright.” Liz reassured her. “I’ll have enough money for a new dress someday soon. I hope. Anyway, go on.”

A glimpse of herself lying on Michael’s bed with him flashed into Maria’s mind as he touched her, kissed her. She pushed it away immediately. It wasn’t that she wanted to remember it, it was that she shouldn’t. It would cause too many problems.

“I went to the party and that was basically it.” she lied. “Well, Michael and I did teach them how to dance to rock, though. I predict that ballroom music is going out.”

Liz squealed. “Thank God, I hate ballroom music.”

“So does Michael.” Maria told her.

“I love freak dancing.” Liz continued.

“So does Michael.” Maria repeated. She hadn’t realized that she had said Michael’s name three times out of her last four sentences until then. Liz seemed to notice, though.

“Maria,” she said quietly, trying her best not to wake the other peasants in the hut. “Are you and Michael, like, I don’t know. You just talk about him a lot. Are you two, like, . . . involved?”

Maria’s mouth dropped open on its own free will, and she suddenly was jolted with the sensation of Michael’s lips on hers, his hands tracing down her sides, reliving the sensations all over again.
“No,” she replied after a bit of hesitance. “We’re not.”

“Oh.” Liz sighed. “‘Cause I was gonna say that if you were, that’s not a smart thing to do. You wouldn’t do something like that, would you, Maria? You wouldn’t start getting involved with the second richest man on the planet, would you?” She laughed, but it sounded forced and fake.

“Of course not.” she lied again. She hated lying to her best friend, but she had no choice.

“Good.” Liz said. “‘Cause I don’t want anything to happen to you.” She said the statement in a casual manner, but it wasn’t casual to Maria. She put on her own fake smile and pretended that Liz’s words didn’t scare her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The voices of all of the royals in the community rang out in the air that next morning at church. They decorated the morning air gorgeously, though some did sing better than others. Michael, himself, didn’t sing. He had never had that much of a voice. Beside him, though, Isabel was belting out notes and rhythms right and left. Max was sitting on the other side of him, and his voice wasn’t as pleasant. Either was Tess’s.

He could hear Kivar singing behind him, too.

“You may be seated.” the pastor announced when the song came to an end. Everyone sat down in the pews as the pastor called all of the children up for the children’s message. Michael watched as all of the children galloped up in their fancy little dresses, hats, and stockings. He remembered being a child as a royal. He had had to dress up in suits every Sunday for church, and he hated it.

Once the children’s message was finished, the pastor stood up and walked over to the podium to deliver his sermon. Michael had always liked the sermon, even as a little boy. Most others his age had never liked it, but he had always listened for that special message, that special hint in there. To this day, he still did that, but for some reason, they were beginning to get harder and harder to decipher. Whether the pastor was using a more complex language system now or just using more biblical terms now, he did not know. What he did know was that his life was becoming more and more complex each and every day, and that maybe that had something to do with it.

“What is love?” the pastor started off. “Is it a four letter word that married couples use in their every day lives? Is it merely an emotion we feel at certain times during our lives towards certain people?”

Great, Michael thought. He really needed to hear about his today.

“Love . . . love is more.” the pastor went on. “Love is something inconceivable to the mind. We have not discovered why we love. We just do. And for most of us, it is just part of our everyday lives. But for some of us, love is something we fear. We are afraid of love because we do not really know what it is. And when we are afraid, we run away. We run away from love and from happiness and every possibility.”

Michael couldn’t help but think of Maria.

“In our community, we are lucky to have much love. We see it all the time, we just don’t take the time to think about it and cherish it. Love has always been apart of us, of who we are, but what about those who have not experienced love, who do not know what it feels like to be loved or love in return? What, I ask you, are they supposed to feel when you say the word love? Are they supposed to feel happiness and joy? Or are they supposed to feel fear?

“Those who have never loved have chosen not to love, and have chosen to live their lives in an endless void of fear. Running will get them no where. I ask you today to go out and show these people what loving really is. Look around you. Tell them. Show them. Help them, to see that love is not something you should fear, but something you should hold forever in your heart.”

Michael stared down at his hands. He could still feel Maria’s sleek body beneath them. He could still taste her on his lips.

She was scared. She was running away. He had to show her. He had to show her what love really was. He had to show her that he really did care about her, that she didn’t have to run anymore.

He slipped past Max and Tess during the next song and quietly exited the church doors. He found his chariot outside and unhooked Eden, a brown mare with the ability to jump higher than any of Michael’s other horses, except for Centra, of course. Chariots were a waste of time, and he didn’t have time to spare, so he threw the saddle off of her and let it land on the ground. He flung himself up on top of her and kicked her in the sides. They took off, not like a bullet the way Centra did, but at a fairly fast pace. Eden was still young, and she could get him where he needed to go.

When he finally reached the peasants’ huts, he found that they were all gathered outside for their own Sunday morning worship. They didn’t have a church, and they didn’t have any seats, but they made do. Some sat on the ground, others leaned up against trees and houses. They had no hymnals or bibles. They sang the songs and read the verses by heart.

Michael spotted Maria standing with her back turned towards him under the shade of a tree. She was in her peasant dress again, as were the others. He tied Eden up to a nearby tree and walked down a tiny hill into the peasant village. He believe that it was his first time actually inside the village. To his recollection, he had seen the outside of it many times, but never dared to go inside.

He heard Maria singing as he approached, and debated whether or not to wait until the end of the song. He decided against waiting, figuring that while everyone else was singing, they would have a good chance of sneaking away.

He placed his hand on her shoulder and she jerked around, clearly startled. She held her hand to her chest in shock.

“Let’s get inside.” Michael suggested over the voices. He turned and began to make his way towards one of the little huts, and she followed behind him. He opened the little flimsy door with the greatest of care, afraid that something would happen to it if he used too much force. The hut was ill-kept and shabby. Tiny as hell. Worse than he had imagined.

“What are you doing here?” Maria asked, closing the door once inside.

“I came to talk.”

“Of course.”

He realized that this wasn’t going to be an easy conversation. Despite what he was trying to say, Maria was going to be stubborn again. She got that way a lot, he had found. She would never back down.

“What happened?” he asked. “Last night, I mean.”

She cocked her head to the side. “Well, I don’t know. You tell me. You were the one who kissed me first.”

That was true.

“I don’t know.” he admitted. “One minute, you were just Maria DeLuca, my friend, and then, when I saw you walking down those stairs, you all of a sudden became Maria DeLuca, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen before.” He knew it sounded cheesy, but it was the truth.

She blushed.

“Hey,” he reminded her. “You didn’t seem to protest.”

“And why don’t you think I protested, Michael?” she asked him.

He thought about it for a minute, and then the answer came to him. She had had feelings for him all along, and he hadn’t even known it.

“Now you know.” She leaned up against the wall and ran her fingers through her hair. “It seems like just last night I was actually clean.” she mumbled.

“You were.” he said. “You still are.”

“No, I’m not.” She glared at him. “You’ve made me . . . dirty. You’ve made me into someone I never wanted to be.”

“Nothing like the guilt trip here!” Michael shouted. “What did I do, Maria? I showed you compassion! I showed you kindness! What else do you want?”

“I want you out of my life!” she shouted back, tears welling up in her eyes. “I want you gone, Michael.” Her voice cracked as she said his name, and he remembered how she had been saying it again and again the night before as he had kissed her.

“Why?” he asked, feeling slightly hurt. He was the General. He wasn’t used to hearing such words.

“Because,” she answered. “I can’t think straight with you around. My thoughts start running into each other until they just mix into one. I can’t do anything with you around. I see you and I just freeze in place like an idiot. I can’t see anything because my eyes are only focused on you. I can’t hear anything because I’m only listening to the sound of your voice. I can’t taste anything because I still have the taste of your lips on my mouth, Michael! I just can’t do anything!” She brushed a strand of hair back from her face and placed it behind her ear.

He had had no idea that she felt this way. Now he only had to come up with a way to make her understand that he felt the exact same way about her.

“I knew what I was doing.” she went on. “I was Maria DeLuca, the boring little peasant girl in the peasant village. I worked for Captain Meronson for a living and then he died. And you . . . you came along, Michael, and if you never had come, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

“Where are you?”

“I don’t know. That’s the problem.”

“Let me help you.” he told her. He reached out his hand towards her, eager to touch her again, but she backed away.

“No, Michael. Don’t you see? You’re the problem here!”

He felt something clench at his heart. “Did you ever think that maybe you’re the problem?” he spat. “Did you ever think that maybe you’re the reason why we’re not together right now? Did you ever think that maybe you keep running away, because you’re too fuckin’ scared to think that someone on this planet actually might care about you and wanna be with you?”

“And who would that be?” she asked. “You? You’re getting married to Isabel Evans! Even if we were together, it could never last!”

“Who says it can’t?” Michael slowly approached her and took her hands in his own, entwining his fingers with hers once again.

“It’s against the law.” she reminded him, but she was clearly letting her guard down just a little bit. “And you and Isabel could end up being really happy together. If you were with me, you might be missing out on something spectacular.”

“No,” he told her. “I’d be experiencing something spectacular. With you.”

She turned her head to the side so that she wouldn’t have to look at him. He inched closer so that he could feel the heat generated by her body. He cupped her cheek with one hand and forced her to look at him. Pressing his forehead against hers, he whispered, “Would you rather live your life not knowing, Maria, what this could be? Not knowing what this is like?”

She let out a deep breath against his lips. “I can dream.” she told him stubbornly as always.

He laughed. “Or would you rather have the reality?” He bent down and placed a soft kiss on her neck. She took in a sharp breath, and her free hand slid around his waist and up his back to rest between his shoulder blades. “Take your pick.” he murmured, kissing his way up her cheek to her lips. He crushed her mouth beneath his, then, enjoying the now familiar sensation. He had had it last night, and he had had it in his dreams.

“Reality.” she decided when they pulled apart. “I want the reality.”

He smiled. “What made you change your mind?” he asked.

“What do you think?” she shot back. She then bent down and placed a kiss on his Adam’s Apple. On her way up, she whispered, “I’d die for this.”

And then it was only a massive tangle of arms and legs, hands and fingers, mouths and tongues, and names whispered here and there.

“Michael . . .”

“Maria . . .”

Things would never be the same again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Kivar!” Isabel called as she walked through the halls of his huge manor. “Are you here?”

“Isabel,” he greeted, appearing through a huge set of doors. He cupped her face and kissed her, then came up to speak to her. “Did you come here so we can screw again?”

Isabel loved Kivar, but she didn’t understand why all he thought about was sex. But the sex was fantastic. She could always make room for the sex.

“I came to tell you that Michael and I are getting married in a week.” she said. “A week, Kivar, and you haven’t done anything.”

“Relax,” he reassured her. “Guerin’s diggin’ himself a hole. Did you see the way he was dancing with that girl last night?”

Isabel nodded.

“Well, Max saw it, too.” he told her. “He’ll figure things out eventually, and he’ll have Michael killed. Then, it’ll be you and me and that huge palace. Maybe even a few kids who could stand in line to be heir to the throne.”

Isabel smiled. That sounded good. “But how can you be so sure that it’s gonna turn out that way?” she asked, still doubtful. “What if . . .”

Kivar pressed his index finger to her lips. “Just be quiet, Isabel.” he instructed. “Don’t worry. I told you I’ll take care of this, and I will.” He reached out and pulled her to him, embracing her tightly. “Believe me,” he murmured on top of her head, “I will.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria DeLuca wasn’t one to break the law. She had always been a good little girl and obeyed the rules, but she just couldn’t do that anymore. It was impossible. The rules that peasants were not allowed to have relations with royals didn’t matter to her anymore, and she didn’t pay the fact that Michael and Isabel would be married for an eternity in a week any mind.

Michael’s lips felt like satin as the glided across her neck, and his hands felt like velvet as they ran over her bare legs, inching higher and higher.

“Oh, God, Michael,” she moaned. This was better than the shower fantasy, because it was the real thing.

“What?” he asked, bringing his face up to look at her for the first time in what seemed like forever.

She smiled. It was all she could do to keep from screaming at him to undress her. She knew she was moving a little fast, but she couldn’t stop, and it didn’t seem like he could, either.

“This is so wrong.” he said from on top of her. His arms were wrapped securely under her, sliding up and down her back. The warmth of his fingers radiated through the fabric. “This is breaking the law, you know?”

“I know.” she told him. “But it’s all your fault. You kissed me.”

“You kissed me back.”

“That doesn’t matter.” Maria took in a deep breath and ran her fingers up and down Michael’s masculine arm. She tried not to notice the fact that, somehow, the top two buttons on his shirt had become unbuttoned since they had started making out. He had sneaked her back to his castle away from all of the other peasants after they had “made up” while she was supposed to be at church. They had been there ever since.

“Oh, it does matter.” he told her. “Everything matters, Maria.”

She wasn’t going to ask what he meant. Michael had a tendency to speak in riddles sometimes, and she could not decipher his true meaning.

“Imagine,” he elaborated. “If I had kissed you and you wouldn’t have kissed back. Then I would have gone back downstairs to the party like nothing had happened, and there would have been this weird feeling when we were together.”

“You still would have come to the village to talk to me this morning.” Maria told him, burrowing her fingers in his hair. She rolled him over so that he was laying on his back and she was laying on top of him. “I know you, Michael. You still would’ve come.” She bent down and used her tongue to lick up his neck to his ear. “I’m too much temptation,” she whispered, “Too much.”

“That you are.” he agreed. He rolled over on his side, probably trying to get back on top of her, but accidently rolled them both off of the bed and onto the floor. He landed on top of her with a thud, but it only hurt for a second. Then, Maria began to laugh uncontrollably.

“Are, are you okay?” he asked, but he was laughing, too.

She nodded. “Yeah,” she told him. “I’m fine.”

“Michael!” A voice sounded from downstairs, followed by the same clumping sound of shoes that Maria had heard the night before.

“Shit, it’s Max.” Michael cursed. “We’re not gonna be fine for long unless we get out of here quickly.”

Maria didn’t like the sound of that, but Max was clearly coming up the stairs fast, and there was no other way out besides going down the stairs. “Do I have to go on the balcony/ledge thingy again?” she asked in a whiny tone.

“Looks like it.” Michael said. He opened the window effortlessly. “Go, hurry!”

“Michael!” Max was getting closer.

Maria threw herself out the window and Michael followed her. He tried to close the window behind him with little success. “Damn, it’s stuck!” he said a little too loudly.

“Michael, come on!” Maria urged. She began to make her way across the ledge in the same way she had the night before. At the edge was a pipe that they could climb down. Then, they could get away. It was what she had done the first time. Of course, it had gotten her dress a little dirty, but there was no doubt in her mind that Michael would get her a new one.

So Michael left the window and ran behind Maria. They disappeared around the corner just in time and Maria began to make her way down the pipe. She hoped no one outside was watching them. Few people lived on the south side of the castle, but they didn’t need anymore people seeing them sneaking out than necessary.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Michael asked as he made his way down the shaky pipe after her.

“I’m positive.” she told him. “Did it last night.”

“So that’s how you got away.”

She smiled. “Yep. Ain’t I clever?”

He laughed. “Somewhat.”

When they were close enough, they jumped down to solid ground and ran around to the front of the castle, just as Max was coming out.

“Shit!” Michael shouted again. “Run!”

So she ran, abandoning her shoes behind her. She could hear Max following close behind them, but he soon slowed down. His uniform slowed him down a lot, and Michael and Maria were able to escape down the street. She held onto his hand with the greatest of strength, and he let out a whoop of victory when he noticed that Max had given up. A few of the royals on the streets gave them the same curious looks, the same looks that they gave Isabel and Kivar sometimes. The peasants, though, looked at Maria with envy, and she let out her own shout of glory and triumph.

They ran down streets and sidewalks until they were far away from the palace. As they neared the peasant village, the number of people around them became fewer and fewer.

“Come on.” Michael told her. He tugged her hand over onto a little dirt path that led down to Lake Mirron, but they took their usual detour and headed towards their little place by the waterfall.

“You know, we should really give this place a name.” Maria suggested when she and Michael turned the corner and began to walk over the hard soil towards the bank.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “We should.” He sat down on the softer soil closer to the water and pulled Maria down in his lap. She fell on top of him and let his arm hold her body and his large frame support her smaller one.

“What do you want to name it?” she asked, determined that the waterfall place was not going to be known as their secret place anymore.

“I don’t know.” he answered, leaning down to press his lips to her neck. She loved the feel of his lips on her. It wasn’t an entire new feeling. Sure, they had only been doing this for half a day now, but she had experienced his lips many times in her fantasies and dreams, never guessing that they would one day become a complete reality. Never guessing that she might actually get to be with him someday.

“That doesn’t help me.” she told him. She slid her hands over his legs to meet his own, and they entwined their fingers again. She loved entwining her fingers with his. When they did that, they seemed more like one person than two. Maybe they were only one person, living in two separate bodies, waiting to be joined again.

“DeLuca Falls.” Michael replied simply, bringing his lips from her neck to travel up her cheek. His words tickled her skin, and she smiled to herself.

“DeLuca Falls,” she repeated slowly. “I like it. But what about you? We need something with your name in it.”

“DeLuca Falls will do.” Michael told her. “You were here long before I was. I just found out about it recently.”

“Okay,” she agreed reluctantly. She let herself enjoy his warm breath hitting her skin for a few moments. He was tired from running, but obviously not too tired. He was still kissing her like they only had one day left.

They did only have one week left. Less than that now.

“Michael,” she whispered.

“What?” He seemed concerned now, like he had detected the uncertainty and doubt in her voice.

“What’s gonna happen to us?” she asked bravely. She didn’t really know if she wanted an answer. “I mean, you’re getting married to Isabel in a week, and we can’t just, like, keep seeing each other, then. IT’s breaking the law.”

“I am the law.” he joked.

She laughed. “You’re the General, not the law.”

“Oh,” Michael agreed. “That’s right. Max Evans is the real law. How could I forget?”

Maria sighed. “Michael, be serious.” she turned her body around so that she was looking into his eyes. She rested her hands on his knees to keep herself up straight.

“I am being serious.” he told her. “Maria, Max would kill you and me both if he found out about us.”

Maria didn’t like the sound of that. “That’s nice.” she said sarcastically. “Michael, he probably already knows by now! First the dancing, now the running away from the palace thing! We’re gonna die!”

“No,” Michael told her, running his fingers through her hair. “I won’t let that happen. No one’s gonna hurt you ever again, Maria. Not while I’m around.”

She smiled, and the tears that had been forming in her eyes diminished. “Do you promise?” she asked.

“I promise.” he murmured. And then his lips were on hers again, setting her body on fire. Michael had such tantalizing lips. When he kissed her, she felt herself spinning out of control, just like she had the night before when she had taken a hold of Michael’s hand and led it up to a place that shouldn’t be touched until marriage.

Finally, he pulled away and smiled at her. “All that matters is that we’re together, Maria.” he told her. “I know it’s crazy. Completely insane. But it’ll all work out. You just watch.”

She smiled back. “I hope you’re right.” she said.
“I always am.” he told her matter-of-factly. “Now,” He eyed the waterfall and little creek/river area in front of them. “Let’s go swimming.”

Maria, though she wanted to, took one look at the water and shook her head. “Michael, I can’t.” she told him sadly.

“Why?” he asked. “You got something else to do?”

She shook her head again. “No, I can’t, as in I do not know how to swim.” She felt slightly embarrassed for saying the words. Almost everyone in the community, everyone Michael knew, would know how to swim. The royals visited Lake Mirron often during the summer, but the peasants never got the chance to swim. Surely Michael would understand that.

“You don’t know how to swim!” he shrieked. Apparently, he had didn’t understand. “Oh, come on! Everyone can swim!”

“I can’t.” she protested.

“Yes, you can.” he told her. “Everyone can swim, just like everyone can dance.”

Maria sighed. “Dancing’s different, Michael. If I can’t dance, I just can’t dance. If I can’t swim, though, I could drown.”

Michael grunted. “Do you really think that I would let you drown, Maria?” he asked. With that, he slipped his shirt over his head, revealing his nicely tanned, muscular stomach. Maria turned away. She knew that if she looked at him for too long, she would go in willingly and probably kill herself.

“Come on.” he ordered. It wasn’t a cruel, mean sounding order, but a kind order, just to push her along and get her going.

She shook her head and repeated the dreaded words again. “I can’t.”

At that, Michael reached down and grabbed her by the wrist, pulling her to her feet with strength that Maria had become accustomed to feeling even over just a few hours. She reluctantly rose to her feet, knowing that Michael was not going to give her a choice. “Michael, I can’t. I just can’t.” she spewed worriedly.

“I’ll be right there with you.” he told her. He placed one of his hands in the small of her back and held onto her hand with his other one, guiding her down the bank slowly towards the water. “Just stay calm.” he told her. “Relax. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

They were only inches away from the water now. “Promise?” Maria asked as she could feel her worry and doubt sliding away from her.

“I promise.”

The water sloshed on Maria’s bare feet, and she closed her eyes. She let Michael lead her into the water and gasped slightly when the cold liquid reached up around her waist. “I can’t do this,” she told him, shaking her head again and keeping her eyes closed.

“Yes, you can.” he told her. She felt Michael’s arms wrap around her waist. He eased her forward until she could no longer touch the bottom. She began to kick savagely, trying to stay afloat.

“I’ve got you.” he told her, and he stuck to his promise and held her up.

“What do I do?” she asked as she felt his hands slipping away.

“Kick your legs. Move your arms. Just do whatever you have to to stay afloat.” With that, Michael’s removed his arms and hands from her completely and slid under the water. She did what he said. She kicked. She splashed, but she couldn’t hold her weight up. With a deep breath, she floated under the water unwillingly. Seconds later, she felt Michael’s warm arms scoop her up again and lift her above the water so that she could breathe again.

“I guess that didn’t work.” he whispered.

She laughed. “No, it didn’t.” she agreed.

“That’s ‘cause you’ve gotta learn how to float.” he said. “Lay down on your back.”

Maria was puzzled. “How do I lay down on water?” she asked.

“Here, I’ll help you.” he told her. He outstretched his hands underneath the water and Maria fell on top of them. He supported her and kept her up, and Maria finally understood what he had meant. She was laying on the water. Well, technically, she was laying on Michael’s arms, but it was close enough.

“Is this floating?” she asked, enjoying the feel of the water under her back and over her arms.

“Yep,” he answered. “You’re doing it.”

“You’re helping me.”

“No, I’m not.”

Maria took a minute to process what he was saying, and then realized that Michael’s hands were not under her back anymore. She panicked, and almost went under water again, but managed to grab onto Michael’s bare, slick shoulders to stop herself.

“Hey, what went wrong?” he asked. “You were doing it.”
“Yeah, but you weren’t helping me.”

“Exactly.”

She smiled. “I . . . I was . . . doing it. Floating. All by myself.” She felt an overwhelming sense of pride and let her hands slip from Michael’s shoulders. She began to kick and move her hands around in the water as she saw Michael was doing. She stayed afloat. “What am I doing now?” she asked.

“Treading water.” he replied. “God, Maria, you’re a natural.”

“I have a good teacher.” she reminded him.

“I haven’t taught you anything.”

“Yes, you have. You just don’t know it.”

They stayed in the water for what seemed like hours, but in reality, it was only a few minutes. Michael taught her how to do some basic movements, and showed her the key points of not going under the water. Soon, she felt like she had been swimming all her life, and she had only been swimming for a few minutes. She started to splash Michael, and he splashed her back. She began to laugh hysterically as the water hit her eyes, and she had to wait for it to clear out.

When she cleared her eyes, she noticed Michael standing beside her, looking serious again. She was about to ask him what was wrong when he pulled her to him and clamped his lips down on hers. She almost slid away from him. They were both soaking wet, but the heat radiating inside her body through Michael’s soon began to dry her off, and she was able to stay with him.

She kissed him back, urging him through her thoughts to touch her, to hold her. She wanted him. She needed him.

Her head buzzed with thoughts . . . too many thoughts at one time. She couldn’t decipher one from the next. All that existed was Michael. Michael . . . his hands . . . his lips . . . his voice . . . everything. He pulled apart from her and took in a huge amount of much needed air. “Maria,” he whispered. He left it at that.

No words were needed. With the greatest of care, Michael lead her under the waterfall where they could stand again. He gazed at her passionately for a few seconds, and then his hands were around her waist and under her knees, lifting her up. He cradled her against his bare, warm chest, and then began to carry her out of the water, up a little embarkment and into a forest where Maria had never dared to go before. He moved so slowly, almost as if inspecting their surroundings, and then found a tiny clearing of grass. Maria closed her eyes as he laid her down. When she felt his body near hers, she opened her eyes again.

There was a look of uncertainty on his face, the same look Maria was sure she had gotten when they had begun to discuss swimming. She brought her hand up to cup his cheek, and let her fingers run over his lips. Michael brought his hand over hers and kissed her palm delicately, then let his hand fall to the ground. She let hers do the same.

“What is it?” she asked quietly.

He glanced to the side, avoiding her gaze.

“Michael?” she tried again.

His eyes suddenly returned to focus on her. “I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t wanna do.” he told her. “I don’t wanna be Major Creoles.”

“You’re not.” she told him. “You never could be.” Her voice came out in a whisper, but, evidently, he had heard her, because he brought his lips down to meet hers again. She let her hands slide up his chest and wrap around his shoulders, and eventually tangle up in his hair, pulling him closer to her, urging him to her.

“Are you sure?” he asked in a murmur, as his hand began to slide up her thigh.

She closed her eyes as the memory of Major Creoles reappeared, unwelcomed, unwanted. Slowly, it began to fade away until it was nothing. She opened her eyes and was met with Michael’s face. She nodded, forgetting her past and only thinking about the future. “I’m sure.” she whispered.

And then they were all hands. Frantic, panicked, scared, frightened hands.

Maria gasped as Michael removed her peasant dress and the wind bit at all of her skin exposed. She sat up to assist him while he removed her undergarments, and then laid down underneath him, totally free.

It wasn’t long until they were both naked and then kissing and touching again. Maria couldn’t think about anything. Everything was a blur, a huge, whirling blur. Once in awhile, Michael would say her name, and she would say it back, just for comfort.

His hands molded into her body, sliding over her flat stomach and kneading her breasts gently, holding her up around her back. His lips traveled over every inch of skin he could find, kissing her, or maybe even just traveling, doing nothing else.

It was delicate. It was fragile. It was slow. It was beautiful.

It was everything Maria DeLuca’s life had never been before.

The last thing she remembered was Michael pressing a soft kiss on her shoulder before sleep overtook her and dreams filled her mind.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“What are you suggesting, Max?” Tess paced nervously around her husband’s office.

Max stared at his desk, thinking of everything he had seen. It was evidence, alright. He had known that Michael had not been in love with Isabel. He had made that very clear. But after watching him dance with the peasant at his party and then seeing them escape the castle hand in hand . . . this put a whole new perspective on things.

He didn’t want to believe that his sister was having an affair with Kivar. He hated Kivar. It couldn’t be true.

So he only let himself believe that Michael was the one cheating. Michael was the one doing wrong.

“Max?” Tess urged.

He looked up at his wife and spoke. “Michael Guerin is in love with that peasant girl.” he stated. “It’s obvious.”

“But Isabel is in love with Kivar.” Tess protested. “Why don’t you just let them get married and take care of Michael and his mistress later?”

“Because!” Max shouted. “Kivar is my enemy! He has always been my enemy! I cannot let my own sister marry someone like him!”

“So you’ll make her marry Michael, and then they can both just sneak out at night to go have a little rendezvous?”

“Tess, this isn’t your decision to make! This is mine!” Max shouted.

Tess began to back off. “Fine.” she said. “What are you going to do?”

Max smiled. He had a perfect plan. “First,” he said, “We throw that little peasant girl in jail. Then, we up the wedding date to tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!” Tess shrieked. “How will everything be ready by tomorrow?”

“It’ll be ready.” Max told her, getting annoyed with all of her questions and all of her prying. “Michael and Isabel will be married, and then we’ll deal with Kivar. We’ll burn him at the stake and make Isabel watch. As for the peasant, we might just let her rot in jail for eternity.”

“So, Michael and Isabel will have no choice but to be with each other?” Tess asked, stating the obvious.

“That’s right.”

“But what if they seek other options?”

“Like what?” Max spat.

“What if they find someone new? What if they try suicide? Or what if they try to run away? What if they try to find the granalyth and . . .”

“Don’t you ever use that word!” Max shouted. He jumped forward and grabbed Tess by the shoulders, shaking her violently as he spoke. “You never know who could be listening.” He glanced around the office just to make sure that no one else was around, even though he knew there wasn’t.

“I’m sorry.” she apologized in a weak, tiny, trembling voice.

Max loosened his grip on her shoulders. “They won’t do that.” he said. “Even Michael Guerin can’t unlock the chamber to the granalyth. He doesn’t know where the key is. I have the key, and only I know where it is, and I will never tell him.”

“But what about suicide?”

“Oh, Tess, just be quiet!” Max shouted. “Michael and Isabel are getting married tomorrow and that’s final!”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~


So sorry this part was so short. I'll be back to post more lata. Once again, thanks to everyone who has read this and given some nice, kind feedback!! It's greatly appreciated.

posted on 31-Dec-2002 3:17:21 PM
Ooh, just for clarification, this story isn't mine. It's my friend April's but I did come up with the challenge for it, so I got her to give me permission to post it on this forum since she isn't a member. She's already completed it and everything, too. It's pretty long. 182 pages to be exact. It's gonna start getting really good now!! I'll be back to post the next part soon.
posted on 31-Dec-2002 3:45:26 PM
Something seemed different about that particular morning. He sensed that something was different from the moment that he woke up.

Michael expected to open his eyes and find himself asleep in his huge, warm bed with Isabel laying on the complete opposite side, trying to stay as far away from him as she could get, but he didn’t see that. In fact, he saw just the opposite.

First, he was not in his bed. He was in the middle of a forest in a comfortable little clearing. He could hear rushing water faintly a little ways away, and he could feel the morning dew sticking to his body along with something else.

Sweat.

Looking to his side, he found Maria sleeping peacefully in his arms. She was cuddled up next to him like she was cold, and that was understandable. They had no blankets around him.

But Michael wasn’t cold. Her sleeping profile was enough to warm him to the core, and he was reminded of what they had done the night before. He had never imagine that when he stopped to tell her Captain Meronson had died that day that they would turn into this.

She stirred slightly, causing a pain to shoot up in his arm. He jerked it away without thinking, and her head landed with a thud on the ground. She woke immediately, gripping her head at first, and then finding his eyes. She smiled.

“Sorry,” he apologized, reaching out to her. She slipped into his warm, protective embrace again and exhaled a deep breath. “Hi, Michael,” she said innocently.

He laughed. “Hi, Maria.” There was something about being out in the middle of a beautiful forest with this girl that made Michael forget all of his problems.

“I’m cold.” she said. “Warm me up?”

“Of course.” He moved his free hand around her waist and began to rub her back in an effort to generate more heat through her. He didn’t care if he was cold. All that mattered was that she was warm and she was comfortable.

She snuggled down into his chest and began to speak again. “You know I never thought I’d meet someone like you.” she said. “Not on Antar. Not at 22. Not being who I am.”

“Really?” Michael brought one of his hands up to run through her hair. “Because I always knew I’d meet someone like you. Beautiful. Kind. Gentle. Real. Genuine.”

He could feel her smile against his chest.

“You’re all I’ve ever wanted, Maria.” he told her. “I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. I don’t ever wanna let you go.”

Something wet slid down his chest, and he knew it was a tear. “That’s not cheesy, Michael.” she informed him. “That means more to me than you can ever know.”

He brought his lips down to place a tiny kiss on her forehead.

He wanted to tell her everything. He wanted to say the three words that could make her feel things that even making love to her couldn’t make her feel.

He wanted to tell her he loved her.

But he restrained from this, knowing that it would only complicate things more. Sex was an act of pure devotion and love, something that could never be taken back. But when he said those three words, only then would they become truly inseparable.

He didn’t want to separate from her. In fact, he wanted to stay with her forever, but if there ever came a time when they absolutely had to . . . he didn’t want to make it harder on her.

Or him.

“Michael?” she whispered. He had been so absorbed in his thoughts that he had forgotten what was going on.

“What?” he asked.

“You’re going to go soon, aren’t you?”

He hadn’t been expecting the question, so it came as a total surprise to him. “I have to leave soon.” he explained. “I’ve got a big meeting with Max today.”

“So?” she asked. “Don’t go.”

He laughed. “I wish we could just stay here forever and blow off Max entirely.” he admitted. “But he’s gonna be wondering about what he saw when we ran out of the palace, and I’ve gotta be there to tell him something.”

“What’re you gonna say?”

He thought about it, then replied, “I don’t know.”

“Then don’t go.” she said again. She slid her arms over his bare chest. “Stay here with me.”

He closed his eyes. “I have to leave, Maria.” he said. The words were painful. They burned his throat as he said them, and they scratched his lips as they passed.

And before he knew it, they were fully clothed again and swimming back through the water. Once they reached the other side, they began to move slower, both aware how close the real Antar was once again.

They stepped around the corner hand in hand and walked together towards the peasant village. No one was outside, and it was peculiarly quiet. Only a few of the middle classed citizens were out hanging up their laundry. The didn’t pay any attention to Michael and Maria. Middle classed citizens didn’t care who was with who. That’s what Michael liked about them.

“So,” Maria said when they reached the empty peasant village. “Here we are.”

“Here we are.” he echoed. He watched the way the wind shot through her silky hair, wondering how she could look so good in the morning dressed in her peasant clothes after they had made love the night before.

“So, I guess this is the part where I walk back into my little hut and lie to Liz about where I was last night, and you make the long trek back to your palace to get changed and shower before you head off to Max’s.”

“It is.” he said. He wanted to lean down and kiss her, but even the middle class citizens couldn’t be trusted to keep that a secret.

“Good-bye, Michael.” she said sadly. He opened his mouth to return with the same when he was greatly interrupted.

A gunshot pierced the still air, followed by a high-pitched scream of a woman. Michael’s attention shot to the place where the scream had come from, and he noticed the middle classed woman kneeling down beside what was most likely her husband. He was laying lifelessly on the deck as blood seared through a bullet hole in his stomach.

“Michael,” Maria whispered, scared at once.

The woman looked up then and called over to him with a pleading, begging face. “General!” she called. “General! Sir, help me! Please!”

“Come on!” Michael shouted to Maria, springing into action. He ran towards the house and up onto the deck where the man and the woman were. “What happened?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” the woman choked out. “I was just hanging up the laundry and he was just standing out here when the shot rang out and he fell!”

Michael examined the wound and then leaned forward and placed his head over the man’s heart. It was still beating.

“He’s still alive,” he informed the woman, “but we’re not safe here. We’ve gotta get to some shelter.”

“Where?” the woman asked.

“My palace.” he told them. “We can go to the lower level. Come on. We’ve gotta move.” He picked up the man’s top half and motioned for Maria and the woman to assist him with the bottom.

They made their way precariously down the stairs as fast as they could when another shot rang out in the air. Michael heard Maria and the woman both scream.

“Maria!” he shouted.

“I’m okay.” she told him. “Let’s keep going.”

Michael led the way back to his palace as more and more shots rang out in the air. Anyone that was outside at the time went scrambling for cover. Some ran to join him, feeling that they would be safe with him, and others just ran into the nearest house, not caring if they were entering the house of a royal when they were only a peasant, or vice versa.

“We’re almost there!” Michael shouted to everyone as he saw his palace come into view. The weight of the man was becoming quite a load. “Somebody run ahead and open up the doors!”

Two of the peasants shot ahead.

Another shot pierced the air and screams resounded as a middle classed man fell to the ground within the group.

“Come on!” Michael shouted. “We’ve gotta hurry!”

Finally, they were inside his palace and hurrying downstairs. Michael started barking out orders and instructions, determined to keep everyone calm. There had to be at least 30 people in his basement!

“Everyone stay calm! Don’t make any noise! Maria, there’s some medical equipment up in the master bathroom! Go get it!”

She nodded in agreement and pushed past him about to make her way up the stairs, but he stopped her by grabbing onto her arm. “Be careful.” he told her.

She nodded again, and, without a single word, hurried up the stairs on her way to the bathroom.

“Everyone, just stay calm!” Michael repeated again. “You’re all gonna be fine. I’m gonna go back out and get that man.”

“General!” a woman shouted. “You can’t leave us!”

“Stay here!” a man advised him.

Michael paid them no mind and raced up the stairs, through the kitchen and living room and out the front doors. He found the man laying on the ground just as they had left him. Luckily, he wasn’t a big man, and Michael was able to pick him up and bring him back inside. A few more people followed him inside, some with wounds, others just panicked.

He met Maria coming down the stairs with all of the equipment. “This is all I could find.” she said.

“That’s fine.” he told her. He opened the door for her and allowed her downstairs first, then followed and left it up to everyone else to fend for themselves.

Michael began to work on the more seriously injured man first. He had learned how to aid back in camp long ago, but he remembered that part of the training to this very day. A few people who weren’t in complete shock were able to help him.

After long hours, both of the men’s wounds were fixed, and everyone was a little calmer. They sat cowardly in his basement, too afraid to go outside and see if it was over. The peasants huddled together in one corner, and the royals sat together discussing the war that was undoubtedly ahead. The middle class mixed with everyone.

Michael sat alone in the corner, staring at the blood on his hands. He closed his eyes and soon felt Maria sitting down next to him. “You did good.” she said. “You saved all of our lives.”

He shook his head. “No, I didn’t.”

“Why don’t you want to give yourself credit for anything, Michael?” she asked. “We are all alive right now because of you!”

Michael turned his face away from her. “It’s not over.” he told her. “Whoever’s shooting is gonna shoot again, and I’m not gonna be able to help anyone.”

Just then, the door swung open and footsteps pounded down the stairs. Michael recognized those footsteps, so he didn’t panic.

Max soon appeared at the bottom of the stairs. He glanced around at the crowd gathered and then locked eyes with Michael.

“What’s going on?” Michael asked, rising to his feet. “Who’s shooting?”

Max cleared his throat. “I knew it all along, Michael.” he said. “I knew he was no good. But you, you were convinced he was a good guy. I should have gone with my gut instincts and killed him while I had the chance?”

“Who?” Michael asked.

“Kivar!” Max spat. “Kivar was the one shooting! He recruited an army of peasants, promising them that they would be treated as equals if they helped them! He tricked them, and now we’re all paying the price.”

Michael couldn’t believe that Kivar would do something like that. But that did explain why everything had seemed so deserted near the peasants’ village earlier.

“Everyone’s okay here.” Maria jumped in at Michael’s defense suddenly, surprising him. “Michael saved us all.”

Max glared at her. “Did I order you to speak?” he shouted. “You know . . .” He took two threatening steps towards her, his hands curled into fists, letting his sentence trail off.

“Hey,” Michael stepped protectively in front of Maria. “Getting violent isn’t gonna help.”

“I’m the king.” Max reminded him. “I can do whatever I want.” But at the same time, he didn’t make any effort to get past Michael.

“So, Kivar’s got this army and they’re gonna try to shoot us all?” Michael asked, trying to sort things out. “There’s a nice thought.”

Max grunted. “No one is safe anymore, Michael, and it’s all your fault. If I hadn’t of listened to you . . .” Again, he trailed off.

“Well, you did listen to me.” Michael said. “That’s your fault. Not mine.” Michael stepped back and grabbed Maria by the arm, pulling her down beside him. Max’s eyes shifted from her back to him, back and forth, until he finally decided to stop.

“You can all go home now.” Max told them. “Kivar’s not shooting anymore.”

No one made any effort to get up just yet.

“Fine!” Max shouted. “Stay down there! See if I care!” He pounded up the steps and slammed the door behind him, leaving the group of people downstairs to wonder silently to themselves what this was all about and when it would stop.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria let her fingers drum on Michael’s chest as he slept. He didn’t wake up, for he was dead tired and completely out. Everyone was asleep, except for her. She laid on a ting bed in the corner of the room, snuggled up against Michael. She didn’t care what people thought of them anymore. A war was beginning.

A soft rain was beginning to fall outside. She could hear it, and it was keeping her awake.

Maybe it wasn’t the rain so much that was keeping her awake, but her thoughts. Her mind was in complete turmoil. She and Michael had slept together. That alone was enough to send one’s thoughts spinning out of control, but now, before she even had a chance to deal with what had happened between Michael and herself, fighting was breaking out.

She felt tired and she felt dirty. She wanted everything to be happy and fun again, like it had been when she and Michael had ridden Centra about the streets.

She wanted Michael to take her into his arms and hold her tight, but he was too weak and tired to do that. She laid her head down on his chest and listened to his heartbeat. It was fast and jumpy, and she wondered if he was having a nightmare, if he was scared.

She was scared. She didn’t want to show him how scared she was. She wanted to be strong for him, but she was scared. Scared that she was going to die, or that he was going to die, or that they would lose each other in some way.

All at once, interrupting her thoughts, the door to the basement swung open and people began to make their way down the stairs. A group of people. It wasn’t just Max this time. Maria shot straight up, and Michael stirred sleepily beside her.

Was it Kivar?

A group of guards showed themselves at the bottom of the stairs. They were dressed completely in black, and a few had their guns aimed. One held handcuffs in his hands.

They scanned the now awake and wondering crowd in the same manner that Max had, and their eyes settled on Maria.

“Maria DeLuca,” they said. “You’re coming with us.” The advanced towards her and she moved closer to Michael, who was still struggling to regain consciousness.

“What did I do?” she asked as they reached towards her with the cuffs in their hands.

“Maria, baby?” Michael moaned groggily from next to her.

Maria felt her eyes grow big and her mouth drop open when she heard that. She took one glance down at Michael and then back up at the guards. “No, no, Michael and I aren’t . . .”

“We have direct orders from King Max to bring you to the jail as soon as possible.” one guard said mechanically. “You must come with us.”

Maria didn’t know what to do. “Michael and I aren’t . . .” she tried again, realizing only after the words were out that she was making a huge mistake in calling him by his first name. “I’m only his assistant!” she protested.

One guard grabbed her wrists and cuffed them together before she could do anything. With the greatest of strength, he yanked her off of the bed and to the floor. “Get up!” he ordered.

A sharp burst of pain shot throughout Maria only for a second, and then the guards had righted her on her feet again.

“Michael!” she screamed, noticing that he was awake now. “Help me, Michael!”

“Maria!” he shouted back. He bolted up and charged towards her. One of the guards got in his way, though, and held him back, and even Michael was no match for the burly guard.

“Michael!” Maria shouted again. “You can’t let them take me!” She had heard stories about what happened to the people Max ordered to be thrown in jail.

None of those people were alive anymore.

“Let her go!” Michael told them. “She didn’t do anything wrong!”

“We have direct orders from King Max to bring her to the jail as soon as possible.” the burly guard repeated again.

“Take me, not her!” Michael tried. “Take me instead!”

“Michael!” Maria shouted one last time. She tried to hold back, but another guard got in and pulled her up the stairs before anyone could do anything to stop them.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

One of the guards stayed behind after the other two had taken Maria and tried to explain to Michael why she was being sent to jail.

“You’re getting married to Isabel Evans,” he said quietly as the others in the basement tried to fall asleep. “You can’t be having an affair with this girl. And, Mr. Guerin, Sir, she is a peasant.”

Michael grunted. “You don’t understand.” he said. “Max doesn’t understand.”

“We had orders,” the guard continued, “to bring her to jail. We didn’t want to do it, but we had to.”

Michael couldn’t believe it. Any of it. Too much had happened. He and Maria had come back from one passionate night out in the middle of the woods and then everything had changed. He didn’t understand why his life was becoming so complicated.

“Kivar is shooting, Kivar is killing, and all Max can think about is my marriage!” Michael spat a little too loudly, waking some people from their much-needed slumber. “He needs to be worrying about the community now, not my wedding!”

“I agree,” the guard said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it.” He glanced around the room nervously, and then spoke again. “There’s something else I’m supposed to tell you.” he said. “You’re not gonna like it.”

“What?” Michael asked. “What could possibly be worse than this?”

The guard sighed. “We’ve found Isabel. She’s at Max’s house right now. Apparently she was helping Kivar during the shooting.”

Michael could have figured that one out by himself. “So, Isabel’s bad? I knew that already.” he said.

“That’s not all.” the guard interrupted. “Isabel, though she has betrayed us, is still the Princess, and she is still your fiancé.”

“What are you saying?” Michael asked, wary now, knowing in his heart what was coming next.

“Max has upped the wedding date . . .” the guard informed him, “. . . to tomorrow.”

“What?” Michael spat again, even louder this time. He jumped to his feet. “I can’t marry Isabel! No, I won’t!”

“You have no choice.” the guard told him. “Max has already made his decision. He thinks that the only way Isabel might join us again is if you become her husband.”

Michael ran his fingers through his hair and thought about Maria. He had known that this day would come, he just hadn’t been prepared for it.

“You’re all I’ve ever wanted, Maria . . . I don’t ever wanna let you go.”

His words echoed through his head, and he thought for a minute that he was saying them out loud, but realized soon enough that he wasn’t.

“I can’t do this.” he said. He pushed past the guard and ignored every person’s eyes in the room. They were all staring at him, some whispering, others just wondering. He charged up the stairs.

“Where are you going?” he heard the guard yell from behind him.

“To talk to Max.”

Seconds later, he was outside. It wasn’t quite morning out yet, but it wasn’t night anymore, either. It was somewhere in between, sort of like Michael. He felt like he was caught in the middle of a whirlwind with no way out, trapped between a choice to stay loyal to Antar and the people on it and the choice to run away completely and take Maria with him.

But where would he run away to? He had nowhere to do. He was trapped. They were trapped.

The air smelled of smoke, and he could still hear the shots ringing out into the air. There wasn’t really any shooting going on at the time, just memories. Painful, horrible memories of carrying the man’s body from the deck to his basement. Seeing the other man fall behind him when they were only feet away from safety. Hearing Maria’s scream echo throughout the air as she became scared, really scared.

The worst part was knowing how close Maria had come to that bullet. It was bad enough when a stranger got shot. He couldn’t handle it if his lover got shot.

Hurt.

Killed.

He finally reached Max’s palace. The guards were standing outside at full alert, more of them than usual. They even stopped Michael before he entered, something they had never done before. He explained to them why he had come, and they allowed him in.

“Max!” he shouted as he climbed the stairs to the office where Max would surely be, even this early in the morning. “Max!”

He burst through the door and found Max hunched over his table with several soldiers around him. They seemed to be reviewing some tactical plans again, another sure sign of war. They seemed tired. Surely they had been up all night.

“Michael,” Max said without expression. His eyes came up and met Michael’s, and then he returned his attention to the paperwork in front of him.

“Look at me!” Michael shouted, charging forward and pounding his fist down on the table. His heart was thumping rapidly inside his chest with rage, and his voice came out louder and stronger than it ever had before. He felt like he was a stranger to himself.

“Michael, I really don’t have time.” Max said, writing his signature in on a document where it required his signature and approval.

Fed up with it all, Michael snatched the paper from Max’s desk and ripped it between his hands, throwing it to the ground. Max was too shocked to do anything.

Next, Michael dumped a huge stack of papers on his desk to the floor, sending them scattering everywhere. “You’ve got plenty of time,” he hissed, leaning forward so that Max could see how serious he really was.

Max motioned for the other soldiers in the room to leave so that the two of them could talk privately and then rose from his sitting position so that he would not feel so timid of Michael. Even standing, Michael was taller, and that made him feel superior, even though he really wasn’t.

“Michael, if this is about that peasant girl . . .” Max began.

“Her name is Maria.” Michael cut him off. “And she’s not just some girl.”

“I really don’t give a damn what she is!” Max shouted angrily. “I’ve got a war going on, now, Michael, and if you would stop fucking that little bitch, you’d know what that felt like!”

Unable to control his anger anymore, Michael swung his arm out with his fist poised, and he sent Max stumbling as he punched him hard and good, making sure that he would feel it the next morning.

“Don’t you ever call her that.” he warned sternly. “You say whatever you want to me, but don’t you ever call her that.” He was reminded vaguely of Major Creoles, and the story Maria had shared with him.

“Oh, protecting you bitch.” Max emphasized the last word.

Michael hit him again, sending him flying towards the wall.

“How was she, Michael?” Max asked, seeming more cocky and arrogant than usual. “Was she good, huh?”

Michael hit him yet again, and Max tumbled to the floor, but he refused to give up.

“Hold onto that memory, Michael,” he told him. “It’ll never happen again.”

“If you lay one hand on her,” Michael warned him. “I’ll kill you.”

Max chuckled. “I’m sure.”

“What’re you planning to do to her?” Michael asked. He knelt down beside Max, who was still on the floor, seeming almost drunk.

“I don’t know.” Max answered. “I won’t kill her, though. I think maybe I’d like to hear her scream your name while I’m pounding into her. That’d be funny.”

Realizing that Max was talking about raping Maria, Michael clamped his hands around Max’s neck, cutting off his vital air supply. “I’ll kill you!” he shouted again. “I swear, I’ll do it! I’ll kill you! Now tha’d be funny.” There was no chance that he was letting him hurt Maria the way Major Creoles had. Nobody deserved to be hurt like that. Especially not Maria.

Michael reluctantly released his hold on Max’s neck, reminded of Sean and the stabbing that had happened so long before.

“See?” Max choked out. “You can’t do it. You can’t kill me.”

“Oh, I can.” Michael reassured him. “If you touch her, you’ll find that out the hard way.”

“Fine, fine.” Max struggled to sit up and gripped his jaw in pain, then continued. “I’ll just let her rot in their for an eternity, or until Kivar blows the place up, whichever comes first.”

Michael shuddered inwardly at the thought.

“You better get going now.” Max told him as if nothing had happened. “The sun’s beginning to rise, and you’ve gotta get ready for your wedding today.”

Michael had almost forgotten about that. “Isabel’s a traitor.” he said. “I’m not marrying her.”


“Yes, you are.” Max told him. “You don’t have a choice.”

“Yes, I do.” Michael said. “You don’t rule me.”

“Actually,” Max corrected. “I do. You may be the General, but I’m the King, and I’m ordering you to marry my sister today.”

“And what if I don’t?” Michael asked.

Max narrowed his eyes. “Then your little bitch will be screaming tonight.”

Michael resisted the urge to hit him again. Instead, he ran out the door, past the soldiers, who had undoubtedly been eavesdropping, down the winding stairs, out the front door, and down the deserted streets towards the jail, towards Maria.

“I’m sorry, Sir, but you can’t come in here without authorization from the King.” one of the guards said when Michael reached the entrance.

“What?” Michael asked. “Let me in!”

“I’m sorry, Sir.” the guard repeated. “You can’t come in here.”

Michael tried to fight his way past the huge man to get inside, but he had little success. He could almost hear his beautiful oleander inside calling for him, urging him forward, but perhaps it was only an echo.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The dress was really beautiful. It was white with sequins. Tess had probably helped Max pick it out. Tess was a sequin freak. Her own wedding dress had been almost entirely made of sequins.

Isabel smoothed the dress down over her sides and looked at herself in the mirror. She thought she saw Kivar standing behind her, but it was only an illusion.

“Kivar,” Isabel whispered. “Hold me.” She wished he was there to really hold her, to really wrap his arms around her and provide her with all the warmth and comfort she would ever need, but he wasn’t, and somehow, her imagination wasn’t as good as the real thing.

“Isabel,” he whispered back. “Come with me. We’ll escape back to my manner. The fighting will continue, and we’ll win. The General will be defeated. Your brother will be defeated. I’ll be the next one up to the throne. I’ll make the rules. I’ll make the laws. I’ll marry you.”

Isabel shook her head, determined to not let her imagination get the best of her. “You’re not real, Kivar.” she said. “You’re only a figment of my imagination.”

“Am I?”

She was beginning to wonder. She could feel him behind her, holding her, but it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. Would Kivar really be sneaking into the church to find her with so many people around? Would he really take the risk just for her?

“You can feel my presence, can’t you?” he asked, rubbing his hands over the sequins on her stomach. “You know I’m here.”

She spun around to face him. “Kivar!” she shouted a little too loudly. She threw her arms around his neck and pulled him down in a tight embrace. “I’m so glad you came.” she told him gratefully. “I can’t get married to Michael.”

“I won’t let you.”

“Oh, it was awful.” Isabel continued. “Max was holding me up in his palace after they caught me. He wouldn’t let me go anywhere or do anything without an escort.”

Kivar pulled away and looked into her eyes, then glanced around the room. “Well, there’s no escort here, is there?”

Isabel smiled. “No, there’s not.”

A mischievous smirk came over Kivar’s face. “Then let’s go.” he suggested, grabbing her hand.

Isabel ran with him out of the church the back way where they would not be noticed and down the back streets of Antar. They took the long way back to their fighting grounds. It would only be a matter of time. Kivar would kill anyone that stood in their way.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael adjusted his bow-tie and sighed as he stared at himself in the mirror. This was not the wedding day he had pictured. Strangely enough, there were clouds floating about the sky outside. It was a gloomy, dreary day that matched the mood of the town. No one was coming to his wedding. No one was brave enough to venture out. Max, Tess, and a few others were already sitting in the chapel, waiting. The ceremony had already been sped up, with direct orders from Max. There would be no flower girl or ring bearer, and the bridesmaids and best man would be taken out. All there would be was Isabel, Michael, and the priest, and a quicky marriage.

Michael ran his fingers through his hair. He was stressed. He felt like he had too much to deal with. Isabel, Max, Kivar . . . Maria.

Isabel. He was getting married to a woman who he could never love, and who could never love him back.

Max. The guy was getting seriously irritating, and Michael wanted to hurt him . . . or kill him . . . and if he did anything to Maria, he would make sure he would.

Kivar. Michael had been so wrong about Kivar. In his mind, Kivar had always been a nice guy who was an outstanding fighter. Now, though, he was a killer.

Maria. His love for Maria was so strong, and he wished now that he had told her that he loved her after they had made love. She didn’t know, now, and if something did happen to her . . . Michael didn’t like to think about that . . . she would never know. And while he was standing at the alter, waiting impatiently for his bride-to-be, she was rotting in jail for showing him the true meaning of love and showing him what it really meant to be in love, and for making him realize that there was nothing more that he wanted than her.

He let his eyes wander to the back of the church. He could just see Maria walking in wearing a perfect white wedding dress that fit her exactly, matching every hip and dip in her body, her hair long and golden, curling around her shoulders to frame her face and truly make her look like an angel.

His angel.

But it wasn’t real. He shook his head and forced the image to leave before it had time to engulf him completely.

Time passed, and the ceremony did not start. Michael stood at the alter, fidgeting, with the priest only inches away. They all watched the door waiting for Isabel. Waiting for this to get over with.

“King Max!” A peasant girl suddenly burst through the door looking completely panicked. “The Princess is gone!”

“What?” Max shouted at the top of his lungs, rising to his feet. “How can she be gone? I ordered you to watch over her!”

“I don’t know.” the girl answered with a shrug. “One minute she was just there, and then the next thing I knew, she was gone.”

Max rubbed his forehead with his hands. “Great,” he mumbled. “Just great!” He grabbed the girl and tugged her towards him, then slapped her hard on the face, leaving a red imprint of his hand.

“Hey,” Michael stepped in, taking the poor girl from Max’s arms and comforting her in his own. “Stop.”

“Don’t order me around!” Max shouted.

“We’ve got a war starting on our hands.” Michael reminded him as calmly as he could. “We’ve got more important things to think about than my wedding.”

“I agree.” Tess piped up. “No offense, Max, but this has gone a little far. It’s time we start prioritizing. People died yesterday, and we need to do something about that.”

Michael was surprised that Tess had spoken up to her unruly husband, and he sent her a smile, letting her know that her words were appreciated.

Max sighed, something he only did in times of extreme pressure. “Why doesn’t everyone else just decide what to do? Why doesn’t everyone else just make the rules and laws. After all, I’m only the king. I’m not that important.”

“You’re not.” Michael said aloud, not bothering to conceal his voice.

“What?” Max asked, turning to him. “What did you say?”

“I said you’re not that important.” Michael repeated, louder, stronger. “You’re no more important than me, or Tess, or Isabel, or even Kivar.” He took in a deep breath and then added, “And no more important than the peasants.”

Max grunted. “Oh, Michael, give it up. You’re little slut is gonna rot in jail.”

Michael controlled his anger. “She won’t.” he said with certainty.

“Yeah, she is.” Max protested. “And all you’ll be left with is a memory. A distant memory of her skin against yours, or her mouth on yours. Her voice, whispering your name through sobs of pleasure.”

Michael felt his hands clenching into fists. He didn’t want to have this conversation here. “Max, let’s talk about this somewhere else.” he suggested.

“Sure,” Max agreed. “Somewhere private where you can kill me.”

“I’m not gonna kill you.” Michael said. “I just wanna get some things straight.”

“Sure,” Max said again. He pushed his way past Michael and up the stairs where the church office was located. Michael followed him.

Max sat down in one of the big chairs when they were both inside, and Michael closed the door and stood.

“What do you wanna say to, Michael?” Max asked expectantly. “Just let me have it.”

Michael couldn’t bring himself to feel bad for Max. Not after everything that had happened. But he did know that Max was in a position of a lot of stress and responsibility, so he decided to take it as easy on him as possible.

“Max,” he said, “I don’t expect you to understand where I’m coming from. You and Tess had an arranged marriage. You guys had no choice in the matter whatsoever, but Maria and I do have a choice.”

Max sighed. “Are you still trying to get her outta there?” he asked. “Let it go, Michael.”

“I can’t.” Michael told him as calmly as he could. “Today I was waiting at the alter and I kept envisioning her walking down the isle instead of Isabel. Max, can’t you see? I’m in love with her. I need to be with her. Now, more than ever.”

Max remained silent.

“How would you feel if someone so special to you was taken away, and you were forced to stay apart?” Michael continued, trying to get through to him. He needed to get through to him. He needed to get Maria. “I know your feelings for Tess have grown.” he said. “I can see it in your eyes when you look at each other. I can hear it in your voice when you talk to her. I can feel it in the air when I’m around the two of you. You’re falling in love with her.”

Max shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “That’s different.” he said. “Tess is a royal. Maria’s not.”

“Royal, peasant, there is no difference!” Michael shouted. “We’re all the same, Max, and we need to stand united now, more than ever!”

Max stood up and ran his hands through his hair without a word.

“You know, I keep thinking that someone’s gonna shoot, and this bullet’s gonna fly into the jail by accident and somehow hit Maria. And I’m not gonna be with her to do a damn thing about it. I might not be with her if she’s hurt or . . . dying . . . and I don’t think I can handle that.”

“How would she be safer with you?” Max asked. “How could she be safer running around with you than staying in that jail?”

“I’d do anything,” Michael told him, “to protect her. I’d die for her, Max. I’d throw myself into the line of fire to protect her. I’d take the bullet. I’d burn on the stake for her. I’d suffer. I’d do anything.”

Max was clearly weakening.

“I’m begging you, Max,” Michael pleaded, “Please, reconsider your decision to put her in jail. I may not have much time left, but I wanna spend it with her. Please. I love her.”

Max turned to face the wall, his back towards Michael. “Go,” he finally said flatly.

“Go?” Michael repeated. It sounded foreign coming from Max in such a peaceful manner.

“That’s what I said.” Max turned to face him then. His eyes looked softer than Michael remembered seeing them for a long time. “Go get her, Michael.” he said. “Oh, and, you might need my permission.” He took a pen and paper from the desk and scribbled his permission down sloppily.

Michael could have jumped for joy, but didn’t. He couldn’t believe what Max was saying.

“Are you deaf?” Max spat. “I said go! Now!”

Michael let a small laugh escape his lips. “Thank you, Max.” he said. “I’m sorry.”

Just as he was about out the door, Max stopped him. “No,” he said. “I’m the one who should be sorry.”

Michael paid little attention to the fact that Max Evans was, in his own way, apologizing, and bolted. He ran down the small flight of stairs and past the tiny crowd that had been waiting eagerly to attend the wedding of the century. He flew out the doors like a bird and began to run down the streets, closer to the peasant village, closer to the jail where Maria was with each step that he took. He could almost hear her calling out for him. Almost. Perhaps it was only his imagination.

“Maria!” he shouted when he saw the jailhouse come into view. He wanted her to hear him, and since it was dead quiet outside and probably dead quiet in the stone cold jail as well, she could probably hear him.

The guards, though, of course, stopped him at the front door.

“Do you have authorization?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, yeah.” Michael held up the sloppy note from Max, and without waiting for an okay from the guards, pushed past them with all of his strength and might and ran down a tiny hallway.

“Maria!” he shouted.

“Michael!” she called back. He ran towards her voice and found her at the end of the hall in the tiniest of all the cells.

“Maria!” he shouted, pressing his entire body against the cool metal bars of the jail cell to meet hers. She was already standing up, her fingers wrapped tightly around the bars for support.

“How did you get in here?” she asked him at once.

“Max gave me permission.” he told her. “Imagine that.”

She giggled. “So, you’re gonna get me out?”

“Of course.”

She smiled, and she looked happy. Happy like she had been when they had been swimming. Happy like she had been when they were riding Centra together. Happy like she wasn’t enough.

“Good.” she said. “It stinks in here. Literally.”

Now it was his turn to laugh. He grabbed onto the bars as well, wrapping his fingers around hers. It was clear she was cold. There was no heat in the tiny little jailhouse, and it was a strangely cold day out for the planet of Antar.

“We’ve gotta warm you up.” he said, wishing that he could be in there with her at the very moment, holding her, cradling her, comforting her.

“I’m fine.” she said through chattering teeth. “I’m just so glad you came.”

“I told you I didn’t ever wanna let you go, didn’t I?” he reminded her.

She nodded.

“I meant it.”

It seemed like forever, but the guards finally got to the back of the hall and slipped the key into Maria’s lock.

“Come on, come on.” Michael urged them, growing impatient.

Finally, the door slid open, and Maria jumped out into his awaiting arms. She buried her face in his neck and began to sob softly. He stroked the back of her head soothingly.

“Shh,” he said. “Everything’s alright now. I don’t have to marry Isabel. We’re free to be together. Everything’s alright now.”

He had to have been cursed of some sort, because just as he spoke the words, a huge noise sounded out side, resembling that of an explosion. He dropped Maria to the ground.

“What was that?” they asked in unison.

Michael looked out the tiny hole that served as a window in what used to be her cell and noticed streaks of red and orange and yellow flying through the sky not very far away.

“Missiles,” he muttered, “canons, grenades.” He grabbed Maria by the hand. “We’ve gotta get out of here.” he told her, beginning to run down the long corridor. “We’re too close.”

“What’s happening?” she asked worriedly, struggling to keep up with his fast pace. “What’s going on?”

“I think Kivar’s at it again.” Michael told her honestly. He didn’t want to scare her, but he felt like she deserved the truth. “Only this time he’s using more than just guns.”

They ran out of the jail and out onto the street. Once again, they were congested with people scurrying to the nearest shelter. Only they were too far towards the peasant village to find any decent shelter. The only good, safe shelter was the shelter of a royal, but when Kivar was shooting explosives into the air, no where was safe.

“Michael!” Maria gasped, pointing. Michael followed her line of sight and the direction of her finger until he saw was she was gasping at. Half of the peasant village was on fire, the rest of it was just waiting to fall victim.

“I don’t understand.” Maria said. The noises of the people almost drowned her out completely. “Max said that Kivar recruited a team of peasants. Why would they burn their own homes?”

“They’ll burn whatever they can get.” Michael told her. He heard something shoot up in the air and looked up just in time to see a ball of fire flying through the air in the direction of the peasant village.

“Get down!” he shouted. He pushed Maria’s body down to the ground, falling on top of her to shield her from the explosion.

A boom sounded through the air, and several screams rang out in the air. Michael got up slowly, telling Maria to stay down until he was sure it was safe to start running again. There was so much smoke hanging in the air that he wasn’t sure what was what. He couldn’t see a thing.

“I can’t see anything!” he shouted.

Maria coughed from the ground and began to get up without his okay. “Michael, are you okay?” she asked him, concerned as always.

He nodded. “We’ve gotta get to some shelter.”

“Where?” she asked. “There’s nowhere to go.”

“Yes, there is.” he told her, taking her hand again. “Come on.”

They ran in the direction of “DeLuca Falls” as fast as they could, stumbling over rocks and twigs on the way, and, in one case, an arm. Michael tried not to let it bother him. He knew he should be used to such fighting, such gruesome scenes and moments, for he was the General after all, wasn’t he? But he wasn’t. He would never get used to those things.

“Michael!” Maria shouted again, stopping dead in her tracks and causing Michael to stop with her. He stared into the smoke, which was beginning to clear, in the direction of the peasant village where Maria was looking. When the smoke cleared enough, he was able to make out the figure of a young girl. She was standing in the doorway of the only peasant hut that was still standing clutching a teddy bear in one hand while sucking on her thumb.

“Cherie,” Maria whispered.

He knew that girl. He had given her a pair of shoes when he had watched her run down the street without any shoes at all that one day when she had been staring longingly at his pool outside. Cherie.

The shoes were still on her feet, more worn out now, looking less new, less shiny, less brilliant.

Michael scanned the scene. The hut was a blazing inferno, a ticking time-bomb, and the little girl was only standing in the doorway motionless, completely scared stiff. The building was going to collapse soon. Michael could tell by the way that it was swaying back and forth.

“Cherie!” he shouted, running forward, dropping Maria’s hand. “Cherie!”

She didn’t hear him.

“Cherie!” Maria joined in. They both called in unison, running forward towards her. “Run, Cherie! Get outta there!”

The building began to creak, then, and Michael could tell it was going. They weren’t close enough. There was no way they could make it.

“Cherie!” he called. “No!” He watched as the building went down only a matter of feet away from him. The impact knocked both he and Maria off of their feet and onto the ground again.

It took awhile for him to stand again. He felt so tired, so drained, and part of him wanted nothing more than to stay laying flat on his stomach on the hard ground in the middle of a war, but a canon setting off in the distance reminded him that he couldn’t do that.

He got up before Maria did. His eyes immediately shifted to the hut . . . the hut . . . it was gone. There was no hut. Only fire. But there was also no Cherie, no little girl. Only a few limbs, bloody limbs.

“Michael?” Maria asked. He reached down and pulled her up with great strength, pulling her tight against his chest by her wrists so that no one could separate them. He forced himself to turn away from what used to be the peasant village, a home for so many of the community.

“Let’s go.” he said, pulling Maria gently with him. They began to run as fast as they could again, out of sight, away from everything. Michael dragged his lover around the corner to their secret little place and ducked down behind a strong, tall, stonewall. He collapsed onto the ground and pulled Maria down on top of him, holding her in his lap, stroking her hair and her arms, anywhere he could reach.

They sat in silence, and for a few minutes, silence prevailed. The screams died down as more people moved away from the peasant village, and the crackling of the fire eventually died away, too, as the brave firemen of the community came to put it out.

Just when they thought things were okay, another missile was fired into the air, whistling as it went up, and resounding in a boom as it came down.

“Hold me, Michael.” Maria whispered, snuggling down into him and wrapping her arms around his neck.

“I’m holding you.” he told her, encircling his arms around her waist.

“Hold me tighter,” she pleaded, “I can’t feel it.”

He dug her body into his almost so hard that it was painful, but, yet, at the same time, warm and soothing.

“Michael?” she whimpered.

“Yeah?”

She let out a deep, shuddering breath. “I’m scared.”

He knew how she felt. He was scared, too.

“Only this time,” she added quietly, “I can’t run away.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He felt like a coward, a real coward, hiding down in his basement while the town was being destroyed so slowly, oh, so slowly. Max pulled Tess next to him and let out a sigh.

“Are you okay?” Tess asked him.

He shook his head. She must have felt him, because she went on.

“We’ll be okay, Max.” she said. “You’ll see.”

He shook his head again.

“Have faith.” Tess told him. She shifted so that she was positioned to look directly into his eyes. She ran her fingers over the forming stubble on his chin.

He was so glad that he had her. She meant so much, and a few weeks ago, he wouldn’t have even been thinking such thoughts. A few weeks ago, Tess would have only been the woman he had married because she was his predetermined destiny, but now, she was much more. She loved him, and he only now realized that he truly did love her back, and that spending the rest of his life with her was the only thing he wanted to do. He now understood what Michael was going through with Maria. The ups and downs of love. They all meant so much.

“I love you, Tess.” he whispered. He couldn’t remember having said the words before, and now, in this tiny, dark little basement on the lowest level of his huge castle, the words were coming out. And they were coming out with meaning and true emotion behind them.

“I love you, too, Max.” she whispered back with a smile.

He returned her smile with one of his own, and then placed a soft kiss on her forehead. “I won’t let anything happen to you, Tess.” he said, as she placed her head against his chest, listening to his rapid, pounding heart. “I promise, I’ll take care of you.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The sun had set, and it was nighttime. The darkness hung over Antar like a sign as to what was to come. Darkness and pain and suffering. The fighting had come to a temporary heart, but everyone in their right mind knew that Kivar was a stubborn man, as stubborn as a mule, and that he would not just stop shooting like that. He would fight and shoot and bomb and kill until he got what he wanted.

What he wanted was still unclear. Kivar was a complex individual with a lot of complex ways, and when he thought up ideas and plans, they were, of course, complex. So complex that almost no one could figure out what it was, exactly, that he was after, so no one could put an end to the fighting by giving him what he wanted.

Maria had been sleeping in Michael’s arms. She was cold, but he was keeping her warm, and she fell into a deep sleep as she had only a few nights ago in the woods. Only, this time, her sleep was not peaceful. After they had made love, Maria had dreamt of beautiful things. She had seen visions of Michael and herself together, always together and always happy. But now, her dreams were just the opposite of peaceful. They were filled with nothing but death and harm. She dreamt of Michael fighting with the other soldiers at his side. She saw him getting stabbed in the chest by an arrow, and she saw a bullet going into his stomach. She heard him cry out in pain just before a bomb rained down from the sky and exploded all around him.

Maria jolted awake and sat straight up, grabbing at her chest, feeling her heart fluttering inside of her. She took in a deep breath and then felt Michael’s arms wrap around her waist.

“Bad dream?” he murmured onto her neck.

She sighed and nodded, regaining her composure again. “Yeah,” she told him. “Really bad.”

He trailed his lips along open, cold areas of her neck and shoulders and cheek and then laid back down, pulling her on top of him. She grabbed onto his shirt and snuggled down into his warmth. She closed her eyes, but she didn’t sleep.

Little did they know, she wouldn’t sleep for the rest of the night. Fear and apprehension would keep her awake.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Love was the greatest feeling in the world, or on Antar, anyway, but it was even greater when it was dangerous and forbidden. Never before had Isabel experienced love like she was with Kivar. He had proven to her, now, that he would do anything to be with her. Even kill. Because he had killed, and he would kill again.

The mission, now, wasn’t so much as to kill Max and Michael so that Isabel and Kivar could marry. It was to kill Max and Michael so that Kivar could be king, and Isabel could be his queen. They could run the planet the way that they wanted to. They could do whatever they wanted to whenever they wanted to and however they wanted to. There would be no rules, no boundaries, no guidelines, no limitations. Everything would be theirs.

But somehow, Max and Michael kept slipping away. When they shot bullets into the air, they never managed to hit them. When they rained down explosives from the sky, they never managed to kill them.

Max and Michael were good soldiers, especially Michael. They wouldn’t be easy to kill.

“Kivar?” Isabel asked quietly from the bedroom. “Come to bed.” She was wearing only a pair of black, satin bra and underwear, and she was eager for him to take it off of her.

Kivar walked in wearing nothing but his boxers and slipped into the bed beside Isabel. He looked nervous.

“The guards will watch the manor.” she reassured him.

“And who are the guards?” Kivar spat. “The peasants. Isabel, why did I ever recruit peasants? I should have known that they wouldn’t know how to fight.”

“They’ve killed many.” Isabel reminded him. “Besides, we need all of the help that we can get.”

“But they haven’t killed Max or Michael.” Kivar replied. “That’s who we’re after.”

Isabel sighed and wrapped her arms around Kivar’s bare chest. “Just don’t think about it.” she said. “We’re doing good.”

“No, we’re not.” Kivar told her. “In a few days, Max and Michael are going to come marching over here with their huge army, and they’re going to kill us all, and this will only be a waste.”

Isabel closed her eyes and let Kivar’s warmth ebb through her. There were many times when she had worried about what would happen if something did go wrong. There were many times when she had wondered what they would do if something like that happened. There was only one thought that came to mind, but it was impossible. The granalyth. But the granalyth was an impossible solution, because, to access the granalyth, you had to have the key, and no one but Max knew where the key was. The granalyth could transport them to another world. Isabel didn’t know anything about that world, but she knew that they would be safe and free there.

But the granalyth was not an option. She had to shake that thought from her mind. They would fight, and they would win. That was all.

“We need help.” Kivar complained, rubbing Isabel’s back with his calloused hands.

“Help?” a strange voice echoed. Isabel looked up and saw a boy standing in their bedroom doorway. He didn’t look very familiar. He only looked to be about 14 or 15, definitely no older than that. He was short, but muscular, and something in his voice sounded older than it should have.

He glared at them, and then a wicked smile formed on his lips. “I’ve got your help right here.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Who the hell are you?” the man in the bed, clearly Kivar, spat.

“My name is Nicholas.” he said. “I heard about your plan and I decided to join up with you.”

Kivar grunted and shook his head. “Do you think I’m actually that stupid?” he shouted, outraged. He got out of the bed and left the brown-haired woman, obviously Princess Isabel, to sit alone and cold and frightened.

“What do you mean?” Nicholas asked.

“Max sent you!” Kivar seemed to think he knew exactly what was going on. “He sent you to try to trick me! But I’m not stupid, Nicholas! I don’t take help from a ten-year-old.”

Nicholas paid no attention to the comment, though he knew that he was much older than Kivar. “If I were working for Max, would I do this?” he asked. Gathering up all of his energy, he aimed his hand towards the window and sent a huge, flaming ball of fire out the window and directly on top of a middle class house.

Kivar seemed startled, but he held his ground. “What are you?” he asked. “No Antarian being can do that!”

“I’m more than you are.” he said. “I’m more than she is.” He pointed towards the woman. “I’m more than your entire army combined.”

“What are you?” Kivar repeated. “Tell me what the hell you are!”

Nicholas sighed. “If you must know,” he began, “I’ve been on this planet for centuries. When I was young, I was on my way to becoming the King or the General. I knew it. But one day, my mother went out and picked some flowers for me. She said that I needed a fancy birthday party for my fifteenth birthday, because I was getting so old. Why she was picking flowers, I’ll never know. I think she wanted to put them in the center of the table for decoration. Anyway, she went out to the garden and gathered up a bunch of flowers. Roses, daisies, oleanders, everything. She came in and put them on the table and then went up to wash her hair before my party.

“Well, I was only 14, and I was curious. I had heard the stories about the oleanders and how they were supposedly deadly. So, I picked one tiny little flower out of the bunch and put it in my mouth. I chewed it, swallowed it, and it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t feel any effects at all. For a few more minutes, I walked around the house, trying to find out where my presents were, and I was fine. But then, something changed.

“I was on my way up the stairs, and I fell. I fell flat on my face, and not backwards, so I wasn’t hurt, but I felt sick, like I had eaten too much. But I had only eaten one tiny oleander.

“One tiny oleander was enough to do it, though. My mother found me and brought me to the hospital. They checked me over and told her that I had ingested an oleander. I can still remember the surprised look on her face, mixed with that of a shameful one for going out and gathering up the flowers in the first place. I remember how she cried for joy when they said that I wasn’t going to die, and I remember how she wept sorrowfully when they told her I would live for eternity.

“I was still young, and younger kids bounce back faster. The oleander did not affect me the way it would most who ate it, so it would not kill me, but oleanders are never good, you see, so it cursed me into my body. I did not grow. I stayed the same. I watched my mother die. I watched my father die. I’ve watched wars and battles, but I’ve never died myself. I’ve gotten shot. I’ve been lit on fire. I’ve been hung. I’ve tried everything to get myself to die, but I don’t. The oleander has made me indestructible, and now I am forced to remain alive for an eternity.”

“How come I’ve never seen you before?” Kivar asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

“After my attempts at suicide, they exiled me to live in the Darkness of Antar.”

“The Darkness of Antar?” Kivar echoed in question.

“A place on Antar that never sees the sun. A place that remains dark forever with no light, no escape. No one ever goes there. They’re all too afraid. But I’m there. I’m always there.”

“How did you do that fire thing with you hand?” Kivar asked.

“Another side affect of the oleander.” Nicholas wished the questions would stop and that he would just be accepted already.

“How can one little flower do all of this to you?” Kivar asked.

“The oleander isn’t just a little flower.” Nicholas told him sternly. “It’s much more. It has more power than you, than the King, and even more than me. It’s the balance between beauty and pain.”

Then there was silence.

“How do I know this isn’t just a story?” Kivar finally said. “I happen to know that the Guerin’s very fond of oleanders. This seems like something he could come up with.”

“It’s not a story.” Isabel said from the bed, joining the conversation for the first time since Nicholas had appeared in the doorway. She stood up and walked over beside Kivar, placing her hand on his shoulder. She forced him to look down at her. “I can feel it.” she said in a breathy voice. “He’s not lying.” She brought her eyes down to look at Nicholas, and he felt himself turning into nothing before her. She really was beautiful and mysterious. She was everything she ever wanted and had never had.

Kivar uncrossed his arms and glared at Nicholas. “If this is all one big story, kid,” he said, “I won’t hesitate to kill you.”

“Go ahead and try.” Nicholas challenged.

Kivar hesitated.

“Really,” Nicholas told him. “It’s okay. Go on ahead and shoot me.”

Slowly, Kivar reached up and grabbed a gun from its shelf. He told Isabel to get out of the way and aimed the gun at Nicholas. Nicholas closed his eyes and smiled, and soon, he felt the bullet hit his body. He looked down at his stomach. There was no blood seeping through the wound, which, in enough itself, should have shown the couple that he definitely was different than anyone else.

Soon, the opened skin began to close and heal itself, and the tiny bullet dropped to the ground with a clank, looking new again. Nicholas, himself, still looked unharmed.

Isabel, who he had expected to run away like the girl she was, stood in front of him and smiled. She moved forward and ran her hand over his stomach, which should have been opened up, but wasn’t. “I told you it was true.” she told Kivar. She looked up at Nicholas and smiled. “He is greater than us.”

Kivar grunted. “He’s not greater.” he said. “He’s . . . he’s . . .” He trailed off. “Whatever. He can stay with us on one condition.”

“What’s that?” Nicholas asked, letting Isabel keep on touching him. He loved her hands.

Kivar moved forward and pulled Isabel away and wrapped her in his arms. “We need to get out of here.” he told Nicholas. “Take my army to the Darkness of Antar.”

Nicholas looked out the window into the night. In the Darkness of Antar, all of the world looked like night. “Let’s get going.” he said.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was a new day, a new day Michael wasn’t looking forward to. He woke up and found Maria lying awake in his arms. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey.” she said. She seemed tired, like she hadn’t gotten much sleep.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Gee, I don’t know, Michael. We’re at war. You’d think I’d be happier.” she said sarcastically.

He laughed. “Sorry.” he apologized. “Did you get back to sleep last night?”

She shook her head slowly, after a bit of hesitation.

“You didn’t?” he asked, sitting up and taking her up with him. “Maria, you should have told me.”

“What could you have done?” she asked him.

He smiled. He knew the perfect way to make her feel better. “I would have held you closer to me.” he told her, pressing his body into hers, letting the heat emanating from both of their bodies mingle together. “I would have touched you, because I know you like it when I touch you.” He ran his fingers across the outside of her thigh, slipping them under her dress. “I would have kissed you because I know you forget about everything that’s bad when I kiss you.” He set her down on the ground and moved around to the front of her before kissing her properly.

“How do you know all of this?” she asked, as he let his lips travel down to her neck and across her shoulder. He slipped the dress off of her shoulder as he did so.

“I know,” he murmured against her skin, “because I feel the exact same way.”

Her hands soon came sliding up his chest to the buttons on his shirt. She fumbled with them and cursed softly when she couldn’t get them undone. He helped her, taking the shirt off in one easy movement and throwing it to the ground beside her. It wasn’t until he was bare-chested that he truly knew how cold it was outside that morning. The weather had been so strange lately, not warm like it usually was, but almost unbearably cold.

Their kissing began to intensify, all at once, until Michael wanted nothing more than to undress her and press his naked body against his own, but he figured she probably wouldn’t want to do that during a war.

“Michael,” she moaned as his hands slid up her sides and over her arms to slide the material of her dress down completely over her shoulders and arms. He couldn’t control himself. He wanted to see her again . . . all of her.

The filthy bra that held her breasts in came into view now, and all that Michael could think about was getting it off of her.

“Maria,” he said, wanting to make sure that this was okay with her. “I want you so much.”

She laughed at this. Not quite the reaction he had expected. “Freak,” she said.

He grunted. “Loser.”

“Jerk.”

Oh, this wasn’t going to end there. “Pig.”

“Idiot.”

“Bitch.” The word escaped his mouth without his consent. After he said it, he noticed the surprised expression on his face, and she seemed to recoil backwards a little bit. A frightened expression appeared in her eyes, and he knew in his heart that the memory of Major Creoles had been summoned up again, even though she didn’t want it to.

He had made a secret promise to himself never to call her that. Not after hearing her story. Not after seeing the way Lord Adams was yelling at her during the Pascal’s party. Not after hearing Max say that word in connection with her. And yet, he had blurted it out. What had he become?

He had become Major Creoles. He had become the very monster he was afraid of becoming.

“Maria,” he tried to apologize. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It just came out and . . .”

She cut him off by pressing her index finger to his lips again. “Shh, Michael, it’s okay.” she told him. “I’m fine.”

He shook his head. “No, it’s not okay. I should never have said that. Maybe to Isabel, but not to you.”

She laughed again, proving to him that she truly was fine. “Michael,” she told him. “I know you. You’re not like Major Creoles.” She let her fingers drop to trace over the hard muscles of his abdomen.

They laid like that for a long time in companionable silence, silence that let Michael see into her. He saw that Major Creoles was nothing more than a horrible villain in her past now that could never harm her again. He saw that he, himself, was the one who would protect her if something ever did try to harm her.

“Michael,” Maria finally said. “You’re a little heavy.”

“Oh, sorry.” Michael tumbled off of Maria after realizing that he was still laying on top of her. He was a big guy.

They didn’t make love. This wasn’t the time. It might have been the place, but there were
more . . . important things that needed to be done. So, Maria crawled back into her dress completely and Michael put his shirt back on. They hadn’t heard any gun-shots of explosions for a long time, so they took advantage of the moment and left DeLuca Falls. They walked past the lake, which was still and calm, the direct opposite of the rest of the planet.

“I need to find Liz.” Maria told him as they stepped foot onto the streets.

“Your friend?” Michael asked.

“Yeah,” Maria told him. “Hurry!” She took off into a run before Michael had a chance to catch up with her.

“Maria, wait!” he called after her. Running wasn’t safe. They needed to take things slow and easy at a time like this.

He managed to catch up with her, though, for she didn’t have any shoes, and he was faster.

“She was at Sir Warren’s, I think.” Maria said, gasping for air. “I’ve gotta find her.”

Michael knew exactly where Sir Warren’s was, so he led Maria there, even though he was sure that she knew where it was herself. “Liz!” Maria called out. The streets were deserted. Not a single soul stirred. Maybe everyone was inside.

The damage grew greater once they passed Meronson’s house. On their way to Sir Warren’s, they saw dead bodies littered across the ground. Michael stopped and checked everyone to make sure that they weren’t still alive. Sadly, none of them were.

Devastation over swept both of them, however, when they reached Sir Warren’s house, or rather what had been his house. Now, it was only a pile of rubble on the ground, clearly a direct hit.

“Oh, shit.” Michael said quietly, hoping Maria hadn’t heard him, but she clearly did.

“What?” she asked. “They could have survived.” She charged forward without him and climbed onto a huge pile of wood. She began to tear through it violently, looking for her best friend. “Liz!” she called. “Are you here? Liz!”

“Maria, that’s not safe up there.” Michael told her, moving forward. He reached out his hand, prepared to help her down.

“No!” she shouted, swatting him away. “I have to find her!”

“You get down! I’ll find her!” he shouted back. He could tell by the way that the wood was cracking under her that it wasn’t going to support her much longer.

“Maria!” he shouted. “Get down from there, now!”

“No!” she shouted, just as the wood buckled from under her and collapsed into many tiny, broken pieces. Michael quickly reached out and grabbed her around the waist, preventing her from falling and mixing with the wood.

She was breathing heavily when he told her to get down. This time, she came down agreeably.

“Michael, we have to find her!” Maria shouted at him, tears forming in her eyes. “I know she was here! She’s always here, working to get money for her new dress!”

“Maybe she ran for cover.” Michael suggested. “We should check Max’s palace.”

Maria shook her head. “No, she wouldn’t do that. She’s terrified of all of the royals, even you! She’d never go to the King’s.”

Michael sighed. “Alright, stay here.” he ordered her. He turned back to the pile of rubble now, which was slightly smaller since the collapse, and carefully made his way on top of it. He had been trained in this sort of thing many years ago, so he knew how to do it. He made sure his steps were slow and light, and when he tore pieces of wood away, he did it gently, making sure that he wasn’t taking away a vital part of the structure.

He found an arm in the mess. He found a leg. It was disgusting, and he wanted to vomit, but he looked back at Maria and kept going. For her.

“Did you find her?” she asked impatiently. “Is she okay?”

“I haven’t found her.” he told her honestly. “We should really check Max’s palace . . .” He trailed off as he spoke the words, because he had uncovered a girl. She, unlike the others, was still whole and perfect. She had dark, long hair, and her eyes were closed in death.

“Michael, what is it?” she asked. “Did you find her?”

“Yeah,” he told her sadly, not looking up to meet her gaze. “I think so.”

Maria’s footsteps scurrying up behind him almost made his heart break. She was filled with too much false hope. False hope that Liz was going to be smiling and gleaming when she saw her.

He heard her climbing back up on the boards slowly, like he had, and he turned his head away from the girl he had uncovered.

Maria fell silent when she saw what Michael had found. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “She isn’t dead. She can’t be dead.”

Michael turned to look at his lover. He placed what he thought was a comforting hand on her shoulder, but she shoved it away.

“Don’t touch me.” she warned him, turning away from the girl underneath the rubble.

“Maria,” he tried.

“She’s not dead!” she shouted. “We have to keep looking! She’s in here somewhere, and she’s alive!”

“Maria, I already found her.” he said. “You have to believe it.”

“No, that’s not her!” she shouted directly into his ear this time. “That’s someone else! I don’t know who that is, but it’s not Liz Parker!” She tore planks of wood away furiously, too furiously, and Michael felt the boards starting to give in under them. He grabbed Maria and jumped off before they fell into the center again, directly on top of Liz. He landed hard on his back on the cement streets, and Maria landed on top of him.

“Are you okay?” he asked her immediately, smoothing her hair back from her face.

She shook her head slowly. “No,” she gasped. “She’s . . . dead.” A waterfall of tears began to flow down her cheeks rapidly, spilling onto his hands. Her body shook with each sob, and the shaking soon spread to his body, too, as he pulled her down and embraced her.

“Baby, it’s okay.” he told her. “We’re gonna be okay.”

She shook her head against his chest. “No, we’re not.”

“What do you mean?” he asked. “I’m gonna take care of you.”

“Liz is dead!” Maria shouted. “Cherie is dead! We’re all gonna die, Michael!”

He didn’t say anything as the reality of Maria’s words hit him dead on. He had never thought about the very real possibility that they could actually die . . . that Maria could actually die. Now, though, the thought scared him, and he realized that, even though he was the General, death was a scary thought that could happen at any moment of the day.

“We’re not gonna die.” he told himself more than her. “We’re gonna be fine.” Even as he spoke the words, he found himself glancing around frantically. He wanted to get inside now suddenly more than ever. He felt safe inside, even if he really wasn’t.

“Let’s get to Max’s palace.” Michael suggested to Maria. She didn’t seem to hear him through her ragged sobs, so he grabbed her hand and forced her to run with him.

“Liz!” she called as he dragged her away from her dead best friend. “Liz!”

They ran along the deserted streets, their footsteps echoing behind them, creating an odd feeling that followed them around wherever they went.

Finally, Michael spotted Max’s castle in the distance. There were no guards outside now. Michael tugged violently on the door handle, wanting nothing more than to be in a huge group of people, inside, where it was warm and cozy.

The doors were locked.

“Max!” Michael called. “Tess! Somebody! Open up!”

There was no response. They were probably all hiding downstairs like they had been at Michael’s. They wouldn’t be able to hear him.

“Michael, where do we go?” Maria asked him. “What do we do, Michael? What do we do?”

Michael slumped down against the large double doors and let himself fall down to the cement. He closed his eyes and took in two deep breaths to calm himself down.

“Michael!” Maria shouted. “Michael, stay awake!”

“I’m awake.” he told her, opening his eyes to prove it to her.

“Michael, get up.” she said, tugging on his arm. “Come on, Michael. We have to get inside. Michael!”

He remained motionless, sitting on the ground like there was nothing going on in the world that mattered while Maria repeated his name over and over again in full out wails of agony and despair.

“Michael, what do we do? Where do we go, Michael?”

He didn’t know what to do anymore, and now he could no longer pretend that he did.

A frightened, panicked Maria yelling at him and shaking him violently was the last thing he saw before he blacked out.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The Darkness of Antar was, as its name suggested, dark. Very dark. Hauntingly dark. Isabel could now see why no one ever wanted to go there. It was creepy and scary, but it was perfect for their small army. It was hidden and mysterious, but it was close enough that they could shoot good and hopefully put and end to Michael’s existence as well as Max’s.

“This looks good.” Kivar told Nicholas. “They’ll never even know we’re here.”

“They will eventually.” Nicholas told him. “They’re going to put together the pieces of the puzzle. The bullets are always coming from the south. The shooters are in the south. It’s common sense.”

Isabel smiled at Kivar and told him to keep his cool through thought. Kivar wasn’t the type of person who liked to be put in his place, especially not by someone who looked to be 14 years old.

Kivar signaled for the army to come on in, and the peasants rushed in immediately, each carrying a load of things or hauling it around behind them, whether it be a gun or a cannon. Some were overcome with the darkness, wanting to bathe in it, to taste it. Those few were real warriors like Kivar and Nicholas were. The others were fearful of it and stepped quietly and timidly. Isabel looked down upon those, making her disgust at their frightful behavior apparent.

Kivar soon became busy, swept up in all of the chaos, and Isabel lost sight of him. She stood alone in the Darkness, searching. Searching for Nicholas.

She found him leaning up against a tree. He was watching her, tracking her every movement with his eyes. He began to move forward slowly, until he was standing face to face with her. He was looking up at her, and she was looking down at him. She liked be taller than him. It made her feel like she was powerful, even though she was sure his power was much greater than hers. After all, he had done that thing with his hand.

“Do you honestly love that man?” Nicholas asked. “He knows nothing about war. If it weren’t for me, Max would’ve probably stormed your hide-out by now and you’d all be dead.”

“I do love him.” Isabel told him. “He’s going to marry me.”

Nicholas laughed. “That’ll be great.” he said. “The Princess and the Killer. What a holy reunion!”

“What do you mean by that?” Isabel asked.

“I don’t mean anything.” he said, but even as he said it, she knew he was lying. There was some hidden meaning to his message, but she decided not to pry any farther.

“I should go help Kivar.” Isabel said, wanting to get away from Nicholas as soon as possible. It wasn’t that she was scared of him. It was that she was attracted to him.

“Isabel,” he said, grabbing her arm. “Let me show you where you’ll be staying.”

Isabel didn’t want to go with him, but she looked back at Kivar and watched as he designated people to certain areas to build shelters for themselves. She didn’t want to become a part of that.

“Okay,” she agreed slowly. “Let’s go.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It seemed like everyone on the planet was crowded into Max’s basement by the time Michael and Maria got down there. Maria had kept pounding on the door furiously, screaming at the top of her lungs, and finally, someone had heard her. Michael, though, had just sat there, and left her to do all of the work.

He didn’t know what to do anymore. He couldn’t take care of Maria. He couldn’t take care of anyone. He couldn’t even take care of himself. He was only fooling himself.

“It’s time to start fighting back.” Max announced as he walked back and forth around his basement. “We’ll get together and go find an army and go find Kivar. There are much more of us, so we will take over his hide-out and hopefully capture him and Isabel to take back here as prisoners of war. Now, Michael, I need you to gather up your army and go get your supplies.”

Michael sat motionless beside Maria, who was still crying, not as hard now, but still crying. He stared at the wall in front of him with a blank expression in his eyes. He had heard what Max had said, but he just didn’t want to reply to it.

“Michael?” Max asked. “Are you okay.”

“Michael,” Maria whispered in his ear. Her soft, whimpering voice was enough to break him away from his nothingness. “Michael, Max needs you. I need you.”

She needed him. He was vital to her, as she was to him. What would she do if he just stayed like this forever, in his own world, not moving, not speaking, not wanting or hoping for anything?

He blinked several times and then leaned over and kissed Maria. It was soft, sweet, and simple, everything that their first kiss wasn’t. He didn’t need eyes in the back of his head to know that everyone else in the basement was wondering what he was doing and that a few were still wondering how he could act in such a manner with a peasant.

When he pulled away, he found that she had a surprised expression on her face. “What was that for?” she asked.

“For reminding me that I have something to do.” Michael told her. “For bringing me back.”

She still seemed puzzled, but smiled and let it go.

“Michael?” Max asked again.

“Yeah,” Michael answered, still looking at Maria.

“We need you to round up your army and find Kivar. Can you do that?”

Michael nodded. “Yeah,” His eyes never left Maria’s. “I can.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It wasn’t until Michael and the other soldiers hiding down in the basement stood up that Maria was struck with the reality of the situation.

Michael was leaving. He was going to fight. He was going to be in danger.

“Michael!” she shouted over the commotion everyone else was making. She jumped up and stood beside him. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned away from her, not wanting to make eye-contact.

“Michael,” Maria said again, more calmly this time. She tugged on his arm, and he reluctantly turned to face her.

“Maria, don’t.” he told her. He removed her hand from his arm, letting his fingers entwine with hers as they did so, like they usually did.

“Don’t what?” she asked.

“Don’t make this harder than it already is.” he told her. He turned around again, prepared to head up the stairs and leave her alone, but she wasn’t about to just let him go.

“Michael, you can’t just leave.” she protested, following him, causing him to stop dead in his tracks. “Not after that’s happened.”

He turned to face her again and let out an exasperated sigh. “I have to.” he told her. “It’s my responsibility. It’s the one good thing I can do for this planet.”

Maria felt tears sting her eyes as she fought for reasons for Michael to stay. “Michael, I’ve already lost Liz.” she told him, her voice cracking as she said her best friend’s name. “I can’t lose you, too.”

“You won’t lose me.” he told her. He took two tiny steps forward and brought his hand up to cup her face. He kept it there for a few seconds, and then slid it down over her shoulder and arm, and, finally, he let it fall free completely altogether.

“I’ll come back to you.” he told her. “I promise.”

Maria shook her head and fought back tears. “You know, this is just perfect.” she said sarcastically. “A perfect ending to this whole romantic saga. Guy meets girl. Girl meets guy. A strange, undeniable attraction develops after a short period of time. They open up to each other and admit things that they’ve never admitted to anyone else in their entire lives. They go out into the woods and sleep together. They wake up the next day and find themselves in the middle of a war. And then, as if that isn’t enough, the guy leaves the girl to fight for his planet. The girl sits home all alone and waits and waits and waits for days, until she finally receives word that all hope is lost and that her lover is dead.”

“I’m not gonna die.” he told her, sure of the fact. “We’re gonna take care of this, once and for all.”

Maria grunted. “My theory’s more accurate.” she grumbled.

“Maria,” He moved forward again, but she backed away. “Just don’t touch me, Michael.” she told him. “Don’t make this harder than it already is.” She repeated his words exactly, and then added her own quietly. “I can’t let you touch me knowing what’s about to happen.”

He backed down then, and headed back towards the door. He didn’t say or do anything. The expression on his face and the sad, pleading look in his eyes made it clear that this wasn’t easy on him, either.

She stood there, staring at him, wanting so much to hear him say the words. The words. The three words that no one, not even her own parents had ever told her before.

But he didn’t say them. Even with the possibility that they were never going to see each other again, he didn’t say them. Was she supposed to know what he was thinking, what he meant through his silence, because she didn’t.

Finally, he disappeared up the stairs along with the other soldiers, prepared for battle.

Maria sat down in the now somewhat empty basement along with the other women. Tess, the Queen, was laying on a bed identical to the one in Michael’s basement, stroking the covers with her fingers, obviously imaging that Max was laying next to her.

Some other women, both middle classed and royals, sat around with their heads in their hands, weeping, sobbing, crying for their husbands sent off into battle. Maria stared at them in wonder, wondering how they could be crying for men that would leave them behind just like that, just to go fight and die.

She refused to cry for Michael.

But even as she told herself this, she felt herself giving in. She felt her heart breaking in two, and she felt her body growing cold because Michael was not beside her. She felt her hands aching with the need to run across his masculine body, over his chest, across his stomach. Memories played behind her eyelids in her mind, causing the hurt and ache to build up until it was almost unbearable.

Seeing Michael that first day while knocking on Meronson’s door.

Telling Michael everything about Major Creoles and the horrible experiences early on in her life.

Crying on his shoulder, his arms wrapped around her and her arms wrapped around him in return.

Michael, handing her an oleander from the garden.

Feeding the swans with him, and realizing that she had never ever met anyone like him before and probably never would again.

Riding Centra through the streets in the rain with only Michael to hang onto.

Dancing with him, pressing her body up against his and encouraging him to press his up against hers as well.

Holding him tightly while he cried in the carriage after he admitted that he had stabbed a boy named Sean back in training camp by accident and had never gotten past it.

Kissing him up in the master bedroom for the first time.

Running out of his palace after Max arrived while they had been making out.

Swimming in the little creek under and through the waterfall.

Making love in the forest, each giving their body and soul up to the other entirely.

A mass of hands, mapping, tracing, exploring, familiarizing themselves with their partners body.

Two pairs of lips joined together in a passionate kiss to form one.

Sweat soaked bodies sticking together, unable to be pulled apart.

Michael’s face as he stumbled up the stairs, the look in his eyes, begging her to understand, begging her not to hate him for what he had to do.

“Michael,” Maria gasped as she snapped out of the movie playing in her head. She searched around the room frantically, hoping that he would have come back, but found that he didn’t.

She sprang up and ran up the stairs. She pushed through the door and dashed through the living room. She tumbled through the huge double doors that marked the entrance to Max’s palace and found the soldiers outside walking towards Supply Storage where they would find their guns, bullets, cannons, missiles, bombs, and all of the other things that they would need to fight.

“Michael!” she shouted, spotting him at the front of the line. He turned around at the sound of her voice, and she ran towards him. She passed all of the other soldiers, and, though her bare feet ached without her shoes, which had been lost some time ago, she kept running until she was only inches away from him, and she sprang off of her feet and into his arms.

“Oh, God, Michael,” she cried out between sobs. She buried her face in his neck the way she had done on that fateful night when she had opened up and told him of the horrible, tragic events that had happened to her when she had been little.

His hands ran up and down her back as he lowered her to the ground, not loosening his hold on her in the slightest. He held her tight and close, just the way she liked it.

“I couldn’t do it.” she confessed, pulling away to look into his eyes. His hands came up to cup her face and she began to cry harder. “I just couldn’t let you go.”

A single tear leaked out of Michael’s own eye, and he leaned down, then, and captured her lips with his, kissing her forcefully and powerfully, sliding his hands over her shoulders and down her arms to reside in the small of her back, arching her smaller body up into his larger one.

“I’m so sorry, Michael.” she apologized, pulling away for air. “I’m being so selfish.”

“You’re not.” he told her.

“I am, I am!” she protested. “All I think about is myself and my own happiness and what I want. I never think about you.”

“You do.” he told her.

She stifled a cry. “Just come back to me, Michael.” she told him. “I’ll be waiting. For however long it takes. Even if it’s an eternity. Just come back to me.”

He kissed her again, quick and afraid, like she had never felt it before. “I’m coming back, baby.” he told her. “I’m not leaving you.”

She tried to smile, but it just didn’t look right.

He eyed the soldiers behind him and then returned his attention to her. “I have to go now.” he said. “I have to go, but I’ll be back.”

She nodded quickly and leaned in to kiss him once more before she watched him walk away. He never turned back, and they both knew that, if he did, they’d could never be torn apart again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They marched all day and most of the night. Michael’s feet ached, and he was sure everyone else’s feet ached and throbbed as well, but there was another ache inside of him, too. An empty, hollow void inside of him where his Maria belonged. He felt like incomplete without her, and he wanted nothing more than to see her again and bury his face in her warm, soft, silky blonde hair.

It seemed like they had searched all of Antar. After getting all of the supplies and equipment ready, they had headed south, in the direction of the bullets and bombs, but they had found nothing. So they had circled back up to the east and then around the north to the west, still with nothing. Now, they were starting all over again, heading back down south, climbing over debris form the last attacks and ignoring the haunting faces of the dead bodies that seemed to be littered everywhere.

Michael stopped at the Darkness of Antar. No one went there. It was forbidden. Well, not necessarily, forbidden, but feared. He gazed into the darkness, trying to see into it, through it, but he couldn’t.

“Let’s keep going, Michael.” Max said from behind him. “There’s nothing to see here.”

“Yeah,” Michael agreed reluctantly. “I guess not.” He took two steps forward, not letting his eyes wonder away form the Darkness. He stopped in his tracks, suddenly, then, as an idea occurred to him.

“Max,” he said. “Maybe they’re hiding out in the Darkness of Antar. Kivar’s not dumb. The Darkness is secluded and kept a secret, and it’s in a close enough range that they can still fire upon us.”

Max was silent.

“Maybe that’s where they are.” Michael concluded.

“I don’t know.” Max seemed doubtful. “Who’s to say Kivar even knows about the Darkness of Antar?”

“He lives pretty far south.” Michael said. “Maybe he stumbled upon it once, or maybe someone just told him about it.” He turned back to Max and his army, trying to get them to understand. “I think we should go check.” he said. “Who wants to come with me?”

No one volunteered.

“Come on.” Michael said. “You’re not soldiers! You’re not warriors! Your duty, your responsibility is to keep your planet, your community safe! Now, come on!” He yelled the words in a whisper so that if there was anyone lurking nearby, they would not hear him.

Obediently, his soldiers followed.

They crept along slowly, afraid of the Darkness, even though they were surrounded by it all the time at this time of night. The Darkness was quiet. Almost too quiet.

That’s when Michael noticed something in the distance. It was a man. He was pacing back and forth in front of a large building, not quite large enough to be a manor, but not small enough to be a peasant hut, either. He was holding a gun over his shoulder, and he appeared to be guarding.

“Go back.” Michael whispered. “They’re here. Go back.”

They crept back silently, and just when it looked like they were going to get back out of the Darkness, one soldier stumbled on a twig and fell over. Michael, as well as the rest of his army, froze in place, stiff as a board, knowing that the worst thing they could do was create even more noise.

Maybe they had been far away enough so that the guard hadn’t heard him.

“Who’s out there?” a scratchy voice asked. “Is that you, Kivar? Nicholas?”

Nicholas? Who was that?

Quietly, carefully, and slowly, Michael reached down to his side and unstrapped his gun from his carrying belt. He checked to make sure that it was loaded and then waited until the footsteps became closer. When the time was right, he spun around and aimed the gun at the guard. He pulled the trigger and sent a bullet flying into the air, right into the guard’s stomach.

In the stillness and calmness of the Darkness of Antar, the shot created a huge sound, startling the soldiers, who had not been expecting Michael’s shot, and waking the enemy from their sleep.

“Go!” Michael shouted. “We’ve gotta get to cover!”

Everyone quickly ran and ducked behind a huge line of bushes big enough to hide them right next to the boundary between the Darkness and the town.

Soon enough, a number of the peasant soldiers came out with their guns aimed. Michael wasted no time. He shot them down so quickly that it looked like they were all falling down at the same time. He urged the other warriors in his army to get into the action and help him shoot.

For awhile, it seemed to be going their way. None of their army had died, and Kivar’s army was getting shot down one at a time. But then something happened.

A young kid stepped out of one of the houses without any weapons or any way to defend himself. He stuck his hand out in the air and narrowed his eyebrows in concentration. While Michael and the rest of his army tried to figure out what he was doing, a huge burst of energy or . . . something shot out from the palm of his hand and straight at them. The impact of the energy killed three of his soldiers, and it swept around the rest of them, carrying them out from their cover of the bushes into the open area.

Michael stared at the kid, horrified and puzzled, and then glanced around at his surroundings. They were surrounded by Kivar’s army, now, and they had no cover. They would all be shot dead if they didn’t do something fast.

Kivar suddenly appeared behind the kid, his eyes menacing, his voice thick and scratchy as he spoke. “Well, if it isn’t Team Sunshine.” he joked. “Looks like we’ve got you now.” To prove his point, he shot down another soldier.

It was all a blur from there, a blur in which things cannot be described because too much happens too quickly. Things started to go downhill quickly as Michael’s army scrambled every which way, trying to reach some sort of cover. Bullets whizzed right past Michael and hit his comrades, knocking them to the ground. He wanted to stop and help them, but he couldn’t. The kid’s energy and power surged out in the air, causing some to hit the ground hard, causing others to die, and causing people like Michael to just grow more and more terrified at the power that obviously existed within him.

Individuals were forgotten in the bloody battle. Only the two sides remained, and you were either on Kivar’s side or Michael’s side. No one was alone, because no one could take that risk. Bullets rang out in the air, not aimed at any particular person anymore, just towards the other side, trying desperately to kill anyone they could.

Michael barked out orders to his men over the sound of the battle, hoping they could hear him. They had to retreat now. It was the only way.

Just then, though, before they could even begin to run away, the kid stuck his hand out again and sent out another burst of energy. He hurled it straight at a huge pack of Michael’s soldiers.

“No!” Michael screamed. He ran forward, trying to intercept the power and save the lives of his soldiers, but he couldn’t. The energy knocked straight into them, knocking them all to the ground. They didn’t move for a long time, and Michael couldn’t bring himself to touch them. He knew they were dead. He took two deep breaths and, looked around for any of his other comrades.

Dead bodies littered the ground, and it seemed that most of those bodies were from his army. He searched for as long as time would grant him and came to the conclusion that he was the only one left. He dodged a few bullets and energy balls hurled at him from the kid, and escaped the Darkness of Antar. He ran through the woods as fast as he could the way he had come, forcing the images of the dead bodies out of his mind, wondering, at the same time, how he could have survived, how all of his comrades could have died.

It had been the kid. He had so much power. More than Kivar. More than Kivar’s guns and Kivar’s ammunition and Kivar’s missiles.

Michael was running when his foot bumped into something on the ground. He looked down and saw Max laying there flat on his back, close to death judging by the intake of his breaths and the look in his eyes.

“Max!” Michael shouted. He kneeled down next to the King and ran his hand over his stomach, bleeding from a bullet.

Max let out a shuddering breath. “I’m not a King.” he said. “I never was a King.”

“Yes, you were.” Michael told him. “You still are. Come on. Let’s get you back.”

Max shook his head. “Too late now.” he stuttered. “Nicholas.”

“Nicholas?” Michael echoed in question. “Who?”

“The kid.” Max told him. “My palace . . . the records . . . Nicholas Baumer.” He swallowed hard. “It’s all there.”

Michael looked around hopelessly. “I’m gonna get you back, Max.” he promised. “They’ll fix you up.”

Max shook his head again. “Too late.” he repeated. “I’m . . . I’m sorry, Michael.”

Michael stared into the eyes of his . . . friend. Even if he didn’t want to admit that they were friends, they were, and even if he didn’t always agree with everything Max did, that didn’t change the fact that Michael had known Max forever and that they would always share something that few others did. Memories. Memories of bloodshed. Memories of this battle.

“No,” Michael told him as he watched his eyes drift closed. “I’m sorry, Max. I’m sorry.”

So Michael picked the dead man up and dragged him through the woods. He was heavy, and it was strenuous, but he finally spotted the middle classed houses in the distance and felt some hope.

Yeah, he had brought Max Evans back, just not alive.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

I'll be back to post one of the final parts soon!!
posted on 1-Jan-2003 12:43:46 PM
Okay, this is the final part!!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She felt cold without him beside her.

Maria ran her fingers over the thick blankets covering Michael’s bed and pretended that she was running her fingers over his body instead. She had come up to his palace after he had left, feeling completely lost and alone without him. She heard gun-shots farther south every so often. They grew fainter, though, and eventually ceased altogether. She wondered if that meant Michael was coming back.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that their relationship had to be like this. So complex and complicated. She wanted a normal relationship with a normal guy, and she didn’t have that, but she wouldn’t take anything back. Never.

A tear leaked out from her left eye as memories played behind her eyelids again and laid her head down upon the pillow, snuggling down deep into the covers, trying her best to keep warm. She was always warmer with Michael next to her, and she missed his heat.

“Michael,” she whispered.

No one answered her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was a new day now, and, as far as Michael knew, new days were supposed to be filled with hope and promise. But this day was only filled with darkness and despair. He ran his dirty hand over his sweaty forehead, wishing that someone would cover Max’s dead corpse up. He was pale and thin, two things that Max Evans had never been before in his life, not even as an adolescent, and Michael didn’t want to look at him anymore.

“I don’t wanna believe it.” Tess wailed. The wife . . . widow . . . . stood by Max’s side, holding his dead, cold hand in hers, not willing to let go and leave. “He’s not dead.” she told herself more than anyone around her. “He can’t be dead. He’s my husband.”

Michael wanted to say something comforting to her, but, at the same time, he couldn’t think of the words to say. He was still in shock. Everyone was gone. Kivar and that kid—Nicholas—had defeated them. All of them. It seemed impossible, but it was true, and it was horrifying.

I’ve gotta get out of here, he thought wildly. He spun around and rammed into one of the tables on accident.

“Where are you going?” a doctor asked.

He didn’t answer. Words were beyond him now.

Instead, he ran. He ran like Maria had so many times before they had became involved. Before they had kissed. Before they had touched. Before they had gazed upon each other’s souls.

It was another cold morning, and the lack of sun wasn’t keeping it any warmer. He ran north, eager to get as far away from the south as he could. In his mind, he still saw their dead bodies on the ground and heard their shouts and pleas for help echoing in the air. He knew it was all his imagination, but it was still haunting him.

He had to stop by the side of the road and lean over into a ditch to vomit as he ran. He had never been a big one for vomiting. He had always been able to hold that kind of stuff in. It was how he had been taught. Polite young boys and polite grown ones never threw up! But he couldn’t help it now. He felt sick.

It took awhile, but, finally, the nausea passed, and Michael kept going. Slower now, not in a run, but at a slow walk, holding his hand to his stomach to keep from vomiting again. He saw his palace not too far off in the distance and staggered towards it. He hoped to find Maria waiting outside for him, but he saw no one. Oh, but Maria wasn’t the type of person who could be expected to sit and wait out on the porch like a loyal dog, anyway. He didn’t even know why he had been hoping for it.

Out of breath and feeling very sick, Michael pounded on the door. Soon, he heard the sound of footsteps scurrying down the stairs, footsteps that could only be Maria’s. In seconds, she had the door open and was jumping into his arms. Really jumping. She wrapped her legs around his waist, and he had to hold her up.

“Oh, God, Michael!” she gasped, her voice sounding loud and strange in the still, cold air. “I was afraid you died.”

He held her close and didn’t say anything.

“Michael,” She said his name over and over, like there wasn’t such a thing as saying it too much. She slowly lowered herself to the ground and stared into his eyes, using her thumbs to clean off his dirty face. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “You’re alive. We’re together again.”

He brought his eyes down to stare at the ground. How was he supposed to tell her that they were all dead, mostly because of some teenage kid? She thought he was a brave, strong warrior, but truthfully, he was only a coward. That’s why he had survived and Max hadn’t. Max had been brave and gone in there and fought for his people. Michael hadn’t, and he knew that now.

“Michael,” She delicately traced over one of his eyebrows with her thumb and brought his face up to meet her gaze by tipping his chin up with her other thumb. It was only then, it seemed, that she realized that he had come back alone after barely one day, and that there hadn’t been a big victory celebration. “Where is everyone?” she asked. “Where’s your army.”

An image of one of his soldiers lying on the ground flashed in Michael’s mind again.

“Where are they?” Maria asked again, with more force. “They’re not all gone . . .” She seemed sure of herself at first, but then seemed to back down. “. . . are they?”

He nodded as best he could. “Everyone.” he choked out. “Max.”

Maria didn’t seem truly heartbroken that the King had died. “Everyone,” she echoed. “How’d you survive?” She eyed his body up and down, checking to make sure he was okay.

“I don’t know.” he said. “I was lucky.”

Tears shimmered in her eyes, and she backed away to lean against the doorframe. “The whole army is dead.” It was not a question. “The King is dead.”

Michael ran his hands through his dirty, grimy hair. “I don’t know what to do anymore.” he said. “There was this kid, and . . .”

“A kid?” Maria spat. “What’s a kid doing in a war.”

“I don’t know.” Michael said. “He wasn’t a kid, really. More of a teenager, but he could do things that I’ve never seen anyone do before. Things that aren’t human, Maria.”

Maria bit her bottom lip nervously, a habit Michael had come very accustomed to seeing. “Michael,” she finally said. “What are we going to do?”

He didn’t answer.

“You’re the king, Michael!” she almost shouted. “You have to figure something out!”

“I’m not the king.” he protested.

“You are now.”

The knowledge filled Michael with a strange sense of responsibility, one that he didn’t particularly want to carry around with him, not at such a dreadful time.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Isabel looked around for Nicholas, but she found it hard to see anything in the Darkness. She still hadn’t grown accustomed to it, and she still expected to wake up in the morning and find the sun shining up above her. But it was better this way. The dark surrounded her and made her feel at peace. Most people still dreaded it. Even Kivar seemed a little frightened by it, but he didn’t say anything. Isabel knew, though. She could sense it whenever she was around him.

She glided past the dead bodies littered across the ground, wishing that someone would pick them up already, but Kivar refused to let that be done. He argued that the bodies were a reminder of their success, and their success to come.

They had killed everyone in the army. Everyone. Well, everyone except for Michael, but, for him, it was only a matter of time.

Isabel found Nicholas in his little house. He was just standing there, staring at the wall in front of him. She walked in, uninvited, and spoke. “You know you should really get some decorating advice.” she told him.

Nicholas grunted and turned to face her. “What are you doing here?” he asked her.

She shrugged.

“You’re the Princess.” he reminded her. “Why would the Princess want to come here and visit me? Why would you align yourself with me in the first place?”

“Because you’re powerful.” she told him. “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have won that battle. Kivar likes to believe he won it, but he didn’t. It was you.”

Nicholas turned to face the wall again. “Kivar,” he muttered. “What a guy.”

Isabel didn’t know what he meant, so she just went on talking. “Each day, we move closer to our goal.” she said. “Our victory. Soon, Michael will be dead, and there will be no King on Antar. Kivar will step up, and we’ll rule the planet, and I will be free to marry him.”

Nicholas was silent for a moment, and then blurted out, “Do you really want to?”

Isabel was taken by surprise. “What do you mean?” she asked. “This is all I’ve ever wanted.”

Nicholas spun around again and met her gaze. His eyes were dark and intense, and she felt drawn to him in a way she never had to Kivar before, after all of their time together. She felt her feet walking forward, even though she didn’t want them to. “I love Kivar.” she told herself more than him. “I love . . .” she paused. “Kivar.”

“That’s right.” Nicholas agreed. “You love Kivar.” When they were close, his hands came up to wrap around her waist, and he pulled her to him. Their mouths smashed together with what felt like an explosion, and Isabel forgot about Kivar and everything they planned on completely.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The music box played a soft song in the background, each second growing more and more faint and slow as it neared its end. Maria reached over and wound it back up again, not wanting it to end. As the song began to play again, she repositioned herself in Michael’s arms and let his body cradle hers. She closed her eyes and pretended that there was no war, no problems, no pain, and that she and Michael were only a happy couple relaxing together in a perfect world.

His fingers came up to glide through her hair, and she let out a tiny sigh. The simplest touches from Michael embarked the greatest of passion from her soul.

“Are you scared?” he asked, running his hand up and down along the curve in her waist.

“Scared of what?” she asked in return.

“What do you think?”

“Scared of what?” she repeated. “I’m with you now, Michael. I have no reason to be scared.”

He sighed. “I wish that were true.” he said. “I don’t know what to do, Maria.” he said. “And the last thing I want to do is be the king. I never realized how hard Max actually had it.”

“Don’t talk about Max.” she told him, snapping her eyes open. “I know he’s dead and all, now, but I never really liked the guy.”

Michael chuckled.

Hearing the word dead escape her own lips made Maria think of everyone who had perished. All of the soldiers were gone, and all of their widows who had sat with Maria down in Max’s basement while they left were going to be heart-broken. Cherie was dead. She had been blown to pieces. Liz was dead. Maria had seen her body buried under all of the rubble. The lifeless, emotionless look in her eyes, the purple color of her lips, the green tinge in her skin, the blood covering her clothes.

“Liz is dead, too.” Maria whimpered. “And that’s not funny.”

“It isn’t.” Michael agreed. “I’m so sorry, Maria.”

“Just promise me something.” she said, maneuvering around in his arms to face him. “Promise me that you’ll never leave me.”

“I can’t promise that.” he confessed, a pained expression taking over his face. “I was almost killed last night. I should have been.”

“No, Michael.” She brought her hand up to cup his face, wiping away some of the dirt that still stuck there.

“They all died, why didn’t I?” he wondered aloud. “It’s not fair to them!”

“It wouldn’t be fair to me,” she told him, “if you were separated from me when we’ve hardly even had any time together.”

She knew she had gotten him when she saw his face take on a different expression, that soulful, meaningful one that he got a lot when he was with her, that one that meant more than words could ever mean.

And suddenly she was pressed up against him so tightly that she almost couldn’t breathe, and she almost felt like her ribs might be breaking from his strength, but she knew they weren’t, and the security that his touch provided her with was enough to make her not pull away, because she knew he was there, and that she was with him, and that, if she had anything to say about it, they would never ever be torn apart again.

But, then again, she didn’t have that much to say about any of it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Nicholas’s arms, though not as masculine and powerful as Kivar’s, wrapped around Isabel’s naked body and she let herself be lost. This connection she and Nicholas had was so powerful, and even though she had just had sex with someone decades older than she was but who looked years younger, she didn’t feel ashamed.

“What do we tell Kivar?” Nicholas asked, pressing a soft kiss on her neck.

“We don’t tell him anything.” Isabel replied immediately. “He doesn’t need to know.”

“So Kivar destroys Michael and becomes king and we’re right back where we started.” Nicholas said. “Because, then, you and I can’t be together.”

Isabel remained silent, and concentrated on how Nicholas’s hands were gently massaging her body underneath the covers.

“Unless you don’t wanna be with me.” he said. “Do you still wanna marry Kivar, Isabel?”

An image of Kivar flashed through her mind, followed by another, and another, until the images multiplied into what seemed to be hundreds. She thought of all that they had shared, and all that she had given up for him. Her own brother was dead now, because they had decided to fight for their love.

Their love. Fighting wasn’t love. And they weren’t even fighting for their love anymore. They were fighting so that Kivar could have power, the highest of power.

“Kivar wants to be the king more than he wants to be with me.” Isabel thought aloud.

“True,” Nicholas agreed, brushing a loose strand of hair back from her face. “But I don’t. I want you, Isabel.”

“I know.” she told him. “That’s why I’ve decided that we’ll let Kivar fight. He’ll become king . . . until we kill him.”

“Whoa,” Nicholas said. “Devious.”

“You’ll be king.” Isabel finished explaining. “And I will be your queen.” She couldn’t see Nicholas’s eyes from her position, but she knew he was smiling.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Max!”

“I’m not the King. I never was the King.”

“Yes, you were. You still are. Come on. Let’s get you back.”

“Too late now. Nicholas.”

“Nicholas? Who?”

“The kid. My palace . . . the records . . . Nicholas Baumer. It’s all there.”

“I’m gonna get you back, Max. They’ll fix you up.”

“Too late. I’m . . . I’m sorry, Michael.”

“No, I’m sorry, Max. I’m sorry.”

The words echoed through Michael’s head over and over again as Maria slept beside him. He tried to close his eyes, but then he only saw images, memories of Max laying on the ground, dying. He could still feel his friend’s weight on his hands as he carried him back to the hospital. He could still see the look on Tess’s face when she saw her husbands dead body. He could still hear her shout that it couldn’t be true, that he couldn’t die.

“Nicholas.” he whispered.

“Did you say something?” Maria asked, sounding sleepy. He hadn’t thought she would hear him.

“Nicholas.” he repeated. “We have to stop him.” He shot upright in bed and jumped out, leaving Maria laying there all by herself. He found his shoes by the door and slipped them on.

“Michael?” Maria asked, struggling to sit up as well. “Where are you going?”

“Nowhere.” he lied. “I’ll be back in a little while.” He turned to head out the door, but she stopped him.

“I’m going with you.” she decided.

He turned around again to see that she was out of bed now and running her fingers through her hair. “No,” he told her. “Stay here. It’s safer.”

She walked up to stand beside him. “I’m no safer in here than I would be out there with you.” she told him. “Come on.” She pushed past him and started down the stairs. “So, where are we going?” she asked curiously.

“Max’s palace.” he replied. “We’re gonna check out the records.”

“Who’s records?” Maria asked.

“Nicholas. That kid that was at the battle. Nicholas Baumer.”

“Nicholas Baumer.” Maria echoed. “I’ve never heard of him.”

“Yeah, I know, I haven’t, either.” Michael said. He grabbed Maria’s hand and they tore through the doors and out into the cold world of Antar that had once been beautiful and fit to call a home. Houses were damaged, and a few bodies littered the ground. Michael turned away, determined not to look at them. The only thing that still seemed to be in tact and beautiful was the garden.

They walked fast, so they reached Max’s palace in no time at all. There were no longer any guards outside. They had obviously given up the post. The doors weren’t locked, either, a sign that either no one was home, or that no one cared anymore.

Michael entered quietly, pulling Maria in behind him. “Hello?” he called. “Tess?” He didn’t want to scare her, or anybody else if someone was home.

Tess could be heard wailing all of the way up the stairs in the master bedroom. She wasn’t just crying, she was screaming. Pure, full-out screaming in agony and despair.

Apparently, there were still a few people downstairs in the basement. Once they heard Michael’s voice, they came up and threw there arms around him.

“General, Sir, oh, where is my husband?” one woman asked. “Did you bring him back?”

“Yes, yes, where are our husbands?” they all seemed to ask in unison. “Where are our warriors?”

Michael froze. He didn’t know what to tell them. He had assumed that they had heard by now, that someone had come to tell them that there had been only a single survivor known, but apparently, that had not been the case.

“When are they coming back?” another woman asked. “We have a baby on the way.”

Michael looked into the woman’s eyes. She looked hopeful, despite his silence. By now, though, some had noticed the pain in his eyes and figured out that their warriors were not coming back.

“Tell me it’s not true!” an elderly woman shouted. “He’s not dead! He can’t be dead!”

He can’t be dead, Michael thought. Everyone says that, don’t they?

“Dead?” the pregnant woman asked, holding her stomach. “How many? Who?”

Michael choked back his tears. “All of them.” he said. “I’m sorry.”

A wail of the same agony Tess was holding locked away in the master bedroom rose from the small crowd.

“How can they all be dead?” another woman asked, holding her hand to her mouth in utter shock. “It seems almost impossible that you’re the only one out of all of those people that survived.”

“They had too much power.” Michael told them. “I’m so sorry.”

No one seemed to hear his apology.

“You should have taken care of them!” the pregnant woman accused. “It’s all your fault! If it wasn’t for you, Richard would still be alive, and my little baby would still have a father!”

“I didn’t do anything!” Michael shouted back. “I swear, I didn’t do anything!”

“Exactly,” another woman joined in, “and that’s why you’re here and they’re not!”

Michael felt guilt over sweep him at the same time that he felt Maria’s hand touch his arm. “Come on.” she whispered, tugging on him.

Slowly, he backed away from the little crowd of women, some angry and yelling, others sad and crying. Then, he turned and ran up the stairs to the very highest floor where the records were located, Maria following him.

“We’re all going to die!” he heard a woman shout from downstairs. “Our army is gone!”

Michael ran past the master bedroom, hearing Tess wailing from inside still, louder than the crowd downstairs all combined. He burst into the record room, breaking the lock on the door that usually kept it closed off to those who didn’t belong.

“Michael!” Maria shouted. She tumbled in behind him, out of breath after trying to keep up with him. “Don’t listen to them, Michael.” she told him. “It’s not your fault.” She came up behind him again and placed her hands on his shoulders, resting her head on his back. “It’s Nicholas’s fault.” she told him. “And Kivar’s. And Isabel’s.”

“Yeah,” Michael agreed. “All their fault.”

“Michael,” Maria said again.


“Nicholas Baumer.” he interrupted. “Look in the B’s. Max was never really good at filing, so he might not be there.”

The scanned the B’s in silence only to find that Max had filed his name under N for Nicholas instead. Michael slid the file out of its place on the shelf and opened it up. It was big. Very big.

They read in silence, too, and they found out everything.

“He has all of this power,” Maria said finally, breaking the silence that seemed to consume them, “because of one oleander?”

Michael thought back to the first day Maria had come to work for him. He had brought some oleanders in from outside. Oleanders, which he now knew were responsible for Nicholas’s power, and all of the deaths the night before. Oleanders had always been a part of his life. He had never imagined that they could do so much.

“He can’t die.” Maria continued. “He’s immortal?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Michael said. “It all makes sense now. Nicholas never bothered to take cover. He just stood out in the open like he wasn’t afraid to get hit or knocked down or anything.”

“Like he wasn’t afraid to die.” Maria added, finishing his thoughts. “Because he can’t die.”

Michael closed the file. “Let’s go.” he said. He took Maria’s hand again and led her out with the file in his other hand. They headed down the stairs past Tess’s room. They would have gone farther had Michael not noticed that something didn’t seem quite right.

The master bedroom was silent. Tess was no longer wailing. The only sounds in the palace came from the small group downstairs.

“What?” Maria asked.

Michael leaned into the door, trying to make out any sound from inside, whether it be a scurry of footsteps or just a tiny sigh, and he motioned for Maria to do the same.

“I don’t hear anything.” Maria said. “Maybe she left.”

Michael gripped the doorknob and tried to turn it, but it didn’t. It was locked in place.

“She didn’t leave.” he told her. “Her door’s locked.”

“She just wants to be alone.” Maria told him.

Michael couldn’t shake the feeling that he needed to go in there. When Tess wasn’t making any noise at all over the loss of her husband, something was definitely wrong.

“I’m gonna go check on her.” he told Maria. “Make sure she’s alright.”

Maria nodded in agreement and stood aside as he pushed on the door with all of his strength and might until he finally pried it open.

Tess lay on the other side, flat on the bed. A sharp letter opener was punched through the middle of her stomach, and blood was oozing from the wound all over her bed and all over her.

“Tess!” Michael shouted, realizing why the noise had ceased from her bedroom. He ran to her and picked her limp body up in his arms. He checked to see if she was breathing. She wasn’t.

“Maria, we’ve gotta get her to the hospital!” he told her, panicked and scared. He had always liked Tess, always more than he had liked Isabel, and he didn’t want to lose her, too, and not in such a way. She wasn’t even giving herself a chance. The death of her husband had driven her to attempt suicide.

“Go get one of Max’s horses.” he told her. “Hurry!”

Maria rushed out of the room and down the stairs, and Michael stayed with Tess. “Come on, Tess.” he said. “Don’t do this. You’re too good for something like this.”

He brought her down the stairs as quickly as he could, which was pretty quick, for Tess was a tiny thing, even tinier than Maria, and past the women, out onto the front porch where Maria was waiting with Max’s best and quickest horse. They raced off to the hospital, only to find, when they got there, that Tess Harding, the queen of Antar, was dead.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Slowly, their world, Antar, was disappearing, fading, dissolving into nothing, and all the while, Maria felt like she was just standing still, not able to do a thing about it. Antar’s army had been demolished. The King of Antar had been destroyed in that same battle. The Queen of Antar had committed suicide, stricken with grief at the loss of her husband. Michael was the King, now, and the widows left behind from the dead soldiers who had fought in the battle with Kivar and Nicholas hated him and accused him of a crime he did not commit.

“I should go check on my horses.” Michael spoke the words aloud as they made their way from the hospital back to his palace, but he sounded far off and distant, like he wasn’t really there.

“Yeah,” Maria agreed. She reached for his hand and laced her fingers through his. She wanted to lean her head against his shoulder, but she figured that the last thing Michael needed at the time was more weight to carry.

“I hope they’re alright.” he continued. “I’ll just kill myself if something happened to them.”

“They’re okay.” Maria told him. “I checked on them already while you were gone. But they’re a little scared, too. You might wanna get them to some kind of cover.”

“Yeah,” Michael agreed. “I don’t want them to get hurt.”

Maria didn’t have to ask on where he was planning on taking them. There was only one place on Antar, besides the garden, that seemed to remain unaffected by the war. DeLuca Falls. It was secluded and quiet. It was everything that the horses needed.

So, they led the horses, two at a time, past the lake, around the corner, and through the water up onto the other side of the waterfall and into the little clearing where they had spent the most passionate night of their lives together. Centra, of course, was the first to go, followed by Sarcelles, who Michael had owned since he had just started out keeping horses. They tied them each up to their own tree and then went back to the palace to gather up some important items, for Michael planned to stay out there, feeling it was safer. Maria didn’t bother to go back to the peasant village, because there was none. It was gone.

Michael didn’t take much. He, of course, dug through the closet and found a sleeping bag that he had last used when he had taken a field trip during training. He grabbed a few clean pairs of clothes for himself, and confiscated a few of Isabel’s more comfortable items for Maria. She smiled and brought them back to DeLuca Falls herself, and then tried each and every one of them on for Michael, giving him his own personal fashion show. He laughed and smiled for the first time in what seemed like forever. Later, when they grew hungry, they went back and stocked up on food for both themselves and the horses.

They fell asleep that night in each other’s arms, only to wake up the next day from their beautiful dreams and fantasies to find that they were still in the middle of a war.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A shot rang out in the air again, followed by another one of those piercing screams that all of Antar had grown to recognize by now, waking Maria from her sleep. She bolted upright in Michael’s arms and looked around the forest. Michael, however, took a little longer to get up. He rubbed his eyes drearily and muttered something under his breath that Maria couldn’t understand.

“Michael,” she said. “Wake up.” It always took him so long, and she was growing scared. She was sure she had heard a shot.

“I’m up, I’m up.” he told her, but it was clear that he wasn’t. His eyes were still closed, and he was barely even in a sitting position.

“I think I heard something, Michael.” she whispered, afraid that someone was nearby.

“What?” he asked.

“A gunshot.” she answered. “I think Kivar’s shooting again.”

Michael was up, alert, and awake now. “Where?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” she told him. “I just heard it, and I heard someone scream and . . .”

“Stay here.” he ordered, cutting her off. “I’m gonna go see if anyone’s hurt.”

“I’m coming with you.” she decided for him. “You may need me.” She stood up and brushed the dirt off of her backside and then followed him through the woods, through the water, and around the corner out onto the cold, deserted streets of Antar.

“Over there!” she shouted, pointing to one of the few middle-class houses remaining. A woman was laying on her back in the middle of her yard, and another, woman, younger, apparently her daughter, was kneeling beside her.

“Mother!” she shouted. “Oh, no! Mother!”

Another shout sounded, and Maria covered her ears. She didn’t think she would ever grow accustomed to the sound of a gun going off. But Michael was already ahead of her, running towards the wailing daughter and bleeding mother at top speed, the shots not affecting him at all. He was used to it, sadly.

Gradually, there became more and more shots, and more and more screams. Missiles and bombs came raining down from the sky exploding everywhere, and Maria was caught in the middle of all of it.

“Michael!” she screamed as a house was reduced to nothing right next to her.

He didn’t hear her.

“Michael!” she shouted again. She couldn’t see anything. The smoke was too thick. She wanted to run to him and grab onto him like a piece of driftwood out in the middle of the ocean, but that would be impossible.

She screamed as the fires circled around her. She could feel their heat. It tickled her skin and burned her throat.

“Maria!”

Michael.

He called for her, and she called back as best she could. She faintly saw him coming into sight before the heat from the flames and the smell of the smoke became to much for her, and she passed out on the ground.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

When she came to again, she was back in the forest, resting on the sleeping bag. The chaos had stopped, and all that surrounded her was the peacefulness of the forest. Michael was kneeling beside her, running his fingers through her hair and stroking her cheek. When he saw her open her eyes, a smile came over his face. “Hey,” he whispered. “You had me worried.”

“What . . . what happened?” she asked, struggling to remember. She tired to sit up, but Michael shot his hand out to stop her, and she reluctantly laid back down.

“It got pretty bad out there.” he explained to her, running one of his hands up and down her cold, bare arms. “We got separated, and the smoke and the fire started getting to you. You passed out. I got to you just in time. You’re lucky you didn’t die.”

Maria struggled to adjust her eyes to the bright light and glanced around. They were not alone, as she had thought they would be. In fact, it seemed like half the planet was there. Half the planet . . . everyone that was surviving. They were crowded into tiny places, wedged between trees, pressed shoulder to shoulder. Most were women, and most of those women were royals. A few were of the middle class, but Maria saw no peasants.

“What are they all doing here?” she asked Michael quietly. She didn’t like the idea of being the only peasant in a forest full of people of a higher class. Some still stared at her like she was a germ, and they regarded Michael’s affectionate actions with a look of disgust. Others, though, forgot all about class, and sent Maria sympathetic looks. A few of the younger girls about her age looked envious and jealous of her, wondering how she had won the . . . King. Others stared off into space, trapped in their own little worlds, oblivious to anyone else’s presence, lost in their own thoughts. Many were crying.

“They all came here for protection.” Michael told her, not bothering to be quiet. “They’re gonna stay with us. This seems like it’s the only place where we can be safe.”

Maria rubbed her forehead and let out a deep sigh. “We can’t just stay here forever.” she said, pointing out the obvious.

“I know, I know.” Michael said. “That’s why we’re gonna get some guns and ammunition and cannons and stuff and start fighting back.”

Maria didn’t want to remind him what happened the last time they tried to fight back. “What about Nicholas?” she asked.

“We’ll figure something out.”

“When, Michael?” She looked around at the people around her again. “We’re not soldiers, Michael! We don’t even know how to shoot a gun, let alone fire a damn cannon!”

“I’ll teach you.” Michael said. “Just like Mr. Montgomery taught me.”

“Taught?” Maria inquired.

Michael nodded. “I found his body.”

A dark cloud of sadness settled its way over Maria’s body. She hadn’t know Walter Montgomery. She had seen him around a few times. Once in a while, he would go over to visit Meronson, because they were old war buddies, but she hadn’t know him. But she did know that Michael cared about him, and that they had been very close.

“I’m sorry.” she apologized. “I didn’t mean to make it sound like it was impossible.”

“It’s not.” he told her.

She attempted to sit up again, and, this time, he let her. “When do we start?” she asked.

“Now.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Bringing the glass to his lips, Kivar took a big swig of wine. “Mmm,” he concluded approvingly. “Tasty.”

Beside him, Isabel said nothing. She fingered the thin satin material of her nightgown apprehensively. She didn’t think he had noticed, but he did.

“Darling,” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong? Are you nervous?”

She shook her head. “No, not nervous.”

“You’re excited, aren’t you?” Kivar set his glass down on the table beside his bed and wrapped his arms around her waist. She was stiff in his arms, which was very unlike her. “I’m excited, too.” he continued, hoping to calm and relax her. “We had another good fight today. They couldn’t even fight back. Just killed ‘em off like flies.”

“Yeah,” Isabel agreed. She turned over in his arms so that her back was to him, and he let his hands fall away from her waist. Maybe she was just tired.

“Kivar!” a familiar voice shouted. “Kivar!” Luis, one of his spies, came bursting through his door, out of breath.

“What is it, Luis?” Kivar asked. “I’m in the middle of something.”

“I’m sorry, Sir.” Luis apologized. “I was sneaking around the streets of Antar, and I didn’t see or hear a soul.”

“That’s not all that strange for times of war.” Kivar reminded him. “Now, go along.”

“I went looking,” Luis continued. “I thought they might be hiding out down by Lake Mirron, and then I heard something. It was really faint at first, but then I started to hear it more clearly. It sounded like Guerin’s voice, Sir, so I went back along a tiny little path, and I came to a magnificent waterfall like nothing else I ever seen before, Sir. Back in the distance, though, I saw Guerin and his bitch, along with all of the rest of the citizens of Antar. They were hiding out, that’s for sure, and it looked like they were fighting.”

“Fighting?” Kivar echoed.

“Yeah,” Luis answered. “Guerin’s training them, Sir, and they’re gonna try to fight back.”

Kivar grunted. “Guerin never gives up.” he said. He ripped off his covers and stood up, stealing one glance at Isabel. She seemed unaffected by the recent news. “Where was this now?” he asked.

“Way up north.” Luis told him.

“Get the missiles ready.” Kivar ordered. “Aim them that way.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They were making good progress. They had covered the basics, (the parts of a gun, how to use a cannon, etc.) and it seemed that they would be able to stand up to Kivar and Nicholas and the rest of their army in no time at all.

They had been way too hopeful.

All at once, there was a huge boom, followed by a high pitched squeal as a missile flew through the sky and landed in the water by the waterfall not too far away.

“What was that?” a woman asked.

Most of the women didn’t know what this was like, for they had spent most of the war crowded down in Max’s basement, but Michael knew. He turned to Maria, terrified at once.

The missiles multiplied, flying faster and farther, until they were almost directly on top of them. A fire had started up right along the water’s edge, and there was one behind them, too.

“Everyone run!” Michael shouted. “Hurry! Go!” He grabbed Maria’s wrist, and they fell into the crowd at the back. As Michael ran into the forest, he took one last look at his horses. The fire was close to them, now, and poor Sarcelles’s leg was even in flames now. Michael stopped dead in his tracks and gazed at Centra, his gleaming beauty. He had waited all his life for a horse like her, and now it looked as if she would perish with the rest of them.

“Michael!” Maria shouted, tugging on his arm.

“Go!” he shouted, wrenching away from her grasp. He ran back through into the smoke and the flames and reached Centra. He tugged on her rope, but it wouldn’t come untied.

“Michael!” he heard Maria shouting. “Michael, come on!”

Finally, with all his might, he got the rope untied, and he pulled Centra with him, away from the flames and the smoke. At first, she refused to budge, so Michael reached down and found one of his shirts on the ground through the smoke. He coughed several times, and then tied it around her eyes so that she couldn’t see anything. Then, she had no choice but to follow him, and she did.

Coughing, he found Maria again, and they started moving quickly through the forest again. They had lost track of their group by now, and they were all alone. The noise was overwhelming, and Michael couldn’t even hear Maria calling his name.

“Michael, we can’t go this way!” Maria shouted over the noise. “It’s a dead end!” It took a minute for him to decipher her words, and then another to remember what they meant.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Down here.” He took her hand and helped her to start down a tiny path first before guiding Centra down.

“Michael, I see the waterfall!” she shouted. “Over there!”

She was right. It was so close now, and beyond the waterfall was the exit.

They were almost there when an explosive hit the tree, causing it to ignite into flames.

“Ah!” Maria screamed. She had gotten ahead of him, and he had to reach out to pull her back before the tree crashed to the ground in front of her.

“We’ve gotta go back!” he shouted. The smoke was so thick now that he could barely see, but he kept going for Maria. She wasn’t going to die like this. He wouldn’t let that happen. She was too good for battle and bloodshed. She deserved to be an old woman, covered up to her neck in warm blankets in a warm little house when she died, not a young woman who had barely begun to live, not here in this place that had once been so beautiful and that had once held so many good memories.

The only thing they could do was go back the way they had come. The smoke was almost black now, and sight was no longer an option. Michael had to feel his way around, and guide Maria and Centra to safety. He felt fire licking at his feet, and he cried out in pain.

“Michael!” Maria shouted.

“Run!” he shouted back. He could hear the waterfall now. “Run, Maria!”

“Michael . . .”

“Run!”

He felt her hand beginning to separate from his already, slowly, at first, stretching their fingers as far as they could reach, and then she broke away completely and was gone. He heard her scream as she dove through the flames and into the water below.

To think this place had once been a model of perfect bliss and harmony. Now, it felt like hell.

Michael ran after her, as fast as he could with Centra on his heels. They, too, dove through the fire. He shielded his face as it bit at his skin, and it seemed to take forever until they felt the cool water hit them.

When he rose to the surface, he found Maria already out of the water on the other side of the bank. “Michael!” she shouted. “Come on!”

He tried to pull Centra through the water, but she was slow going. Her neighs and whinnies echoed throughout the air as she struggled to swim. Horses weren’t very good in water, but they could manage.

Suddenly, though, just when it looked like they were going to make it across, a missile came falling from the sky. It fell right on top of Centra, hitting her directly in the stomach and causing her to fall beneath the water. Michael sank with her, unable to stop it. He hit his head on a hard metal object, probably one of the missiles that had landed in the water, underneath, but it wasn’t anything he wasn’t used to. He jerked hard on the rope, trying to get Centra to the surface again, but she was too heavy. Finally, he had to come up for air.

“Michael!” Maria was on the bank with her hand outstretched to help him up. Michael took a good, long look at her, memorizing all of her features, everything about her, and then dove back under water. He searched frantically for the rope that was attached to Centra’s reigns, determined to try again, but he found nothing. He came up again, only to go down again. He opened his eyes as best he could, but he saw no sign of the rope. He felt a tiny splash in the water beside him, and came up again to find Maria in the water beside him, treading water frantically the way he had taught her. A mild rain had begun to fall now, too, helping to put out some of the fires, but not helping warm Michael up.

“Get out of here!” he shouted.

“No, Michael! Not until you do!”

He couldn’t hardly hear her.

“I’ve gotta find her!”

“She’s only a horse!”

“She’s my horse!”

“What about me, Michael? Don’t I mean more to you then some horse?”

“She’s not just some horse!”

“You’d leave me for you horse!”

“I’m not gonna leave you!”

“You promised me, Michael! You promised!”

“What’s the point of me living, anyway? Everyone hates me! Everyone blames me for the loss of our army! Nobody cares!”

“I care, Michael!”

“Why?”

The commotion stopped just long enough so that he could hear Maria properly. It seemed, for a moment, that there was no war, and that they were only swimming again, like nothing was wrong, like nothing had changed, and she spoke, soft and quiet, tearful and kind.

“Because I love you, Michael.”

It wasn’t like he hadn’t known that. He had always known that she loved him the way he loved her. He could feel it in her touches and see it in her eyes. He could hear it in her voice, and he could taste it on her lips, but he had never heard her say it. And now it was out. And now he was certain.

He pulled her body to his and crushed her lips with his. He supported her weight in the water and thrust his tongue into her mouth as her hands tangled themselves in his hair. The firing resumed around them, and explosions started up again, but he paid them no attention. He kissed Maria DeLuca, and it felt like he was kissing her for the first time.

They kissed until the moon illuminated the night sky, until the firing stopped. It was the only sense of peace they could find.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was sad to see their town, or what had once been fit to call their town, in ruins. Now, it was no more than a pile of burnt up rubble, and if it wasn’t already burnt up, then it was in the process of burning. There were only a few structures that remained, including Michael’s palace and Max’s palace, or what had once been Max’s palace. He and his queen had once resided there. They had eaten there. They had worked there. They had slept there. Now, though, that palace seemed to be dead.

Everything seemed to be dead.

Everyone seemed to be dead.

The air was a mixture of heat and ice, all combined in one strange, forbidding feeling that settled itself down in the stomachs of anyone that happened to be alive and out walking around in it. Maria felt it. She gripped her stomach in pain, not because it hurt, but because she needed to do something to make that feeling go away. She knew it wasn’t really helping. In fact, she was holding onto her stomach so hard that it hurt, but she didn’t let go. Instead, she told herself that she was helping herself, but she wasn’t, and she knew that. But she ignored that.

She felt cold, and she felt naked, so she walked down the streets as close to Michael as she could get, thinking that he would warm her, only to discover that he was colder than she was. He was shivering visibly, and he was walking slower than usual, obviously growing tired. Maria wished she could do something for him.

“You should sit down.” she advised him.

“I’m fine.” he reassured her, but he had spoken a little too quickly, and Maria knew he wasn’t.

“Michael,” She reached up and stroked his cheek. “You’re not fine. I know you’re not. We should just go back to your palace and rest for a little while.”

“What good will that do?” he spat loudly. “Kivar will just start shooting again, and we’ll be dead in no time.”

She didn’t like hearing the words come from his mouth. “Don’t say that.” she told him. “Just don’t say that, Michael.”

“Maria, there’s about ten people left on this shitty planet, including you and me. It’s only a matter of time before they find us and kill us.”

“Stop, Michael!” she shouted, removing her hand from his face. “You’re scaring me.”

“You’ve gotta face the facts.” he told her. He broke ahead of her in a slow walk again, one that she was easily able to catch up with. “We don’t have much time left.”

“Then we have to do something, Michael.” she told him. “I’m not about to give up, and if you don’t do something, then I will.” She wasn’t going to back down. She had faced too much in her life. She had been assaulted by Major Creoles. She had lost her parents. She had lost her best friend. She had been pushed down and yelled at by people of a higher class than she was, and she had been looked at like she was nothing. She wasn’t going to give up now, not after everything.

“Nobody can do anything.” Michael continued to stick with his pessimistic attitude. “All we can do is wait. Wait to die. Wait to live a life of misery. Take your pick.”

Maria looked around desperately at what she had once considered her home. Antar had been her home, and she had worked for Captain Meronson, and then, on that one fateful day, Michael Guerin had shown up on the streets and offered her a once in a lifetime chance to work for him, and he had shown her the true meaning of life and living without even realizing it.

“Michael, we’ve come so far.” She was begging for him to understand. “I don’t wanna give up. I wanna live! I wanna grow up and marry and have children and be a mother! I don’t wanna die!”

Michael stood as still as a statue, and she might have actually thought he was a statue if she hadn’t seen the tears of emotion shining in his eyes.

“I’m not a king,” he finally said, “and I’m not a warrior.”

“You’re a hero.” She knew she sounded cheesy and really stupid, but she didn’t stop there. “You’re my hero, Michael, and I know you can’t understand that, but you are. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead now. You’ve saved my life so many times, Michael, I can’t even count. I would’ve been walking around with this huge dark cloud hovering over my head, reminding me of Meronson and that Lord Adams guy and everyone else who made me feel like I was nothing. But I got to know you, and you’ve shown me that not everything in this world is bad and ugly. Even during this time, you keep hope within me. All I do is look into your face and I see hope. I see faith. I see love. I see everything that I’ve ever wanted in my life, Michael.”

He reached down and found her hands, taking them into his own. “Maria,” he murmured. “I . . . I love you.” His face was changed, and she saw the hope and faith and love return to his eyes. “Oh, God, I love you so much!”

And then she was in his arms again, right where she liked to be. His hands were rubbing her back up and down, and his lips were seeking hers.

And then they were kissing.

And then she was happy.

“I may not be able to save myself,” he told her when he pulled away, “but I’m gonna save you, because you do deserve a life. You deserve more than this.”

“So do you,” she reminded him.

“I have you.” He pulled her to him and kissed her forehead. “That’s all that matters.”

It was all that mattered. Michael Guerin. Without him, she was merely one half of one, not a whole, but a fraction. Without him, she was only Maria, but with him, she was so much more. They completed each other like night and day, like yin and yang.

“There is a way,” Michael mumbled on top of her head, disrupting her thoughts.

“What?” she asked, trying to get a grasp on reality again.

“A way to get away from Antar.” he elaborated. “A way to run.”

She didn’t understand. She looked up into his eyes, questioning. “Michael, what are you thinking about?”

“The granalyth.”

The granalyth. She repeated the words mentally. They meant nothing to her. The, simply a tiny article, and granalyth, making no sense to her whatsoever.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

He was really thinking now. She could tell by the look on his face. His forehead was wrinkled in concentration, and he had that look on his face and the expression in his eyes that he always got when he was deep in thought. She smiled, and ran her fingers through his hair. She had always expected him to have the most awful feeling hair ever, all dry and hard, but it wasn’t, and she knew this now. It was soft as silk.

“The granalyth,” he repeated, “is sort of like a transportation machine used to get from this planet to earth. You’ve never heard of it because it’s kept in secret. Only the Royal Four know about it.”

“Earth?” Maria had never heard of earth before.

“Another planet in another galaxy.” Michael explained. “It’s inhabited by humans already, so, the granalyth is sort of used as an emergency escape if ever needed.”

Maria felt a new sense of hope rising within her. “So, we could get on the granalyth and leave and be done with Antar and Kivar and Nicholas and Isabel and all of them forever?!”

“We just have to find the key.” He didn’t sound as excited as she thought he would.

“Well, well, okay!” Maria was ready to go, to search for that key all day if they had to. Anything that would get them away, anything that would get them to earth, wherever that was. “Let’s go!” She grabbed Michael’s hand, but he refused to budge.

“There’s just one problem,” he told her. “Max Evans was the only person on the planet who knew where the key is.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She wanted to tell him. She wanted to tell him everything. The part of her that still remained that was a good person wanted to come clean and tell him the truth, so that he would not be left in the dark, but there was another part of her, too, and this part of her was sensible, and knew that if she told him, he would kill her, overcome with anger and rage, and then he would try to kill Nicholas.

He would fail.

Isabel ran her hands nervously through her hair. She still wondered how her life had become so topsy turvy, and how she had become so dark. She did really look like a gothic now. There weren’t many gothics on Antar. Most practiced witchcraft and were banished to the Darkness of Antar. But now, good and peace had entered the world at full force, and even the gothics weren’t living in the Darkness of Antar anymore.

Perhaps they were living somewhere even darker. Perhaps that was where Isabel, herself, belonged.

The good part of her wanted to turn back and just marry Michael Guerin so that none of this would have happened, but the sensible part knew that that was no longer an option at this point in time, and the just plain romantic, sappy part of her didn’t want to for selfish reasons. If she hadn’t embarked on this crazy quest with Kivar, she never would have met Nicholas, and she never would have experienced the dark and most haunting love imaginable.

Her mind worked in weird ways.

“Isabel, come outside.” Kivar suddenly appeared in the doorway. She saw him reflecting in the mirror behind her own reflection, and she almost jumped, but she didn’t.

“I don’t want to,” she told him, making up her own mind for a change.

Kivar sighed. “It’s a beautiful night.”

“It’s always a beautiful night,” she shot back.

He drummed his fingers on the doorframe, clearly at a loss for words. Conversations hadn’t been coming easy for them ever since she and Nicholas had spent their night of passion together.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked suddenly.

“What?” she asked in return, pretending to have no idea what he was talking about.

“You’re so different than you used to be,” he elaborated, “We used to make love every chance we got. Now, it seems as if you don’t want me to lay a hand on you, or even brush my lips across yours for a fraction of a second.”

“A woman doesn’t always feel like having sex, Kivar,” she pointed out, “Get used to it.”

He ran his hands through his hair in frustration. “It just doesn’t seem like you want to be the Queen anymore,” he commented.

“Oh, I wanna be Queen, alright.” She pushed her way past him and headed down the stairs without letting him know who she wanted to be her King.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Sure enough, a missile rained down from the sky. Michael only watched it land a ways away from him. Maria didn’t even flinch anymore, for she was so used to them.

“We should get moving,” he advised, taking her hand into his. They had been walking around like dumbfounded idiots for the past hour or so, just thinking about where the key to the granalyth might be. Now, though, it was clear that Kivar was planning on firing some more, and that they were going to need to hurry.

“We should check in Max’s palace!” Maria shouted as another missile fired away.

“Yeah,” Michael agreed. The palace wasn’t too far away, so he ran as fast as he could, dragging Maria along behind him. Her feet had to be sore. The poor girl didn’t even have shoes. She had lost them days ago.

The doors were left open from the last time they had been there. It was completely deserted this time. There were no lonely widows left down in the basement, and there was no Tess upstairs. There was so much of it to search and not enough time to search it in. The missiles were raining down hard now, and fires were already beginning to ignite again.

They moved as quick as they could. They weren’t dainty with their work. They tossed things on the floor. The bashed locks and broke through things that were never meant to be broken through in the first place. They climbed the stairs after wrecking the main floor and searched all through there. They spent a little extra time on Max’s office, hoping that they would find it there, but they didn’t.

“Nothing,” Maria concluded after they had searched the entire castle at least twice up and down and all around.

“Shit,” Michael cursed under his breath. He had no idea where the damn key was, and the key was their only hope to getting on the granalyth and getting home. Finding the granalyth would not be a problem. Michael knew exactly where that was. But the key . . .

He tried to think of anywhere that it could be. Anywhere at all. He was one of the Royal Four, after all, wasn’t he? He should know of some sorts of secret hiding places or government storage compounds or something, shouldn’t he?

And, without warning, he suddenly flashed back upon a memory. He hadn’t called it to him from the back of his mind. It was like it had come itself, like it knew it was needed. He let it play out in his mind, each detail perfect to the last second.

They had been children . . . They had been in training . . . They had overheard Walter Montgomery and some other man discussing the granalyth . . .

“If I ever become the King, I would hide the key to that granalyth thing where no one would be able to find it,” a very young and eager Max had told Michael in private.

“You’ll never become the King,” Michael had shot back at him, not realizing that he had been wrong.

“Yes, I will!” Max had shouted. “I’ll be the best king ever, and no one will ever know where the key to the granalyth is, because I have the absolute best hiding place for it.”

“Well,” Michael had wanted to know the secret hiding place, but he had known that Max wouldn’t just tell it to him. Max wasn’t dumb, so he tricked him into telling him. “Well, I might be your Second-In-Command, so, you’ll have to tell me eventually. You might as well tell me now.”

“You’re right,” Max had agreed, “I might as well. I would hide it inside that fountain in the garden. You know, the one where all of the swans swim? No one would ever think of diving down there and looking for it, especially with all of those swans pooping and peeing in the water and stuff.”

They had both laughed at the time, not realizing how important this information was.

The memory faded away slowly, and Michael came back to reality. Maria was standing in front of him, now, a puzzled expression on her face. Her hands were on his shoulders, and she was shaking him, clearly worried.

“Michael!” she shouted.

“I know where it is,” he blurted, “or at least I think I do. I don’t know . . . maybe . . .” After all of these years, Max might not have even remembered his idea to put it in the fountain. But maybe he had, and maybe it could still be located there now.

An explosion sounded outside, and he grabbed Maria’s hand. They flew down the stairs and out the front door. There was fire right outside the palace. They had had no idea that the firing had become that close.

The garden was close. Only across the street. It wasn’t that much of a garden anymore. It was set on fire now, just like the woods had been. Michael thought Maria might keep out of there, but she followed him right in without fear. They passed the oleander bush. It was still perfect. It seemed to be the only thing on the planet that was.

He could see the fountain in the distance. The swans no longer swam around in there. It was completely deserted.

“Why are we here?” Maria asked.

“The key,” Michael answered, “I think it’s in there.”

“In the fountain?” Maria seemed puzzled. “What makes you think that.”

“Just a little conversation Max and I had when we were younger.” Michael told her. He eyed the murky, dirty water with disgust. It wasn’t sparkling crystal anymore. It was a combination of green and brown, something of a puce, sort of. It was revolting, and swan droppings could still be seen floating around in it.

An explosion sounded not too far off in the distance, and Michael was reminded that they didn’t have time to waste.

“I’m going in,” he told her.

She didn’t try to stop him. Her fingers slowly slipped from his, and she crossed her arms over her chest as he rose over the side and sat precariously on the edge. He took a deep breath and dove under, surprised at how deep the actual fountain was. It was deeper than the little creek thing at DeLuca Falls was.

He worked his way down the body of the fountain, feeling around for anything. He finally felt a little latch, and assumed that he had found a door. His body told him to go up for air, but he was too close now. He tugged on the latch and finally got it opened, thanking God that it hadn’t required a key as well. He slipped his hand inside and felt around. His fingers finally wrapped around something small and hard.

The key!

He jerked it out of its little cubbie and shot to the surface for air.

“I’ve got it!” he gasped, holding up the key for Maria to see.

She shouted something in the excitement of the moment, but he couldn’t understand it. She helped him back over, and she leaned in and kissed him quickly. How anyone could kiss him after he had just swam in mud and dirt and swan droppings and who knew what else, he would never know, but it calmed him, and, at the same time, it filled him with a sense of excitement. A rush. A high.

They were going to make it.

“This way,” he instructed, taking her hand again and leading her out of the fiery and smokey garden. “The granalyth’s only a little ways away.” His heart began to pound in his chest as they neared the machine. They were almost free. Free of everything. Free of Kivar. Free of Nicholas. Free of the life that had imprisoned them both for so long.

He saw it just around the corner now. It was hidden in a small patch of woods, but he had seen it before, so he could recognize it easily. He let out a whoop for joy, his own voice mixing with the sounds of the missiles and shots and explosions. Maria shouted, too.

They wasted no time. They inserted the key into what appeared to be the appropriate slot. They waited and watched as the doors slid open mechanically to reveal another set of doors. On this set of doors, there was something etched into the metal. Maria ran her fingers over it and asked him what it meant.

OCCUPANCY: 1

“That’s . . . that’s fine,” he told her. “It just means that only one of us can go at a time.” He tried to make it sound like it was no big deal, but he knew it was. They were running out of time. It seemed as if the entire planet was dead, now. He didn’t even know why Kivar was still shooting. But he did know that the shots were getting closer and closer. They were almost on top of him now.

“What?” Maria spat. “No!”

The second pair of doors slid open as well to reveal a cozy little chamber on the other side used for the transportation.

“Go,” he told her, pushing her on the back a little, urging her in.

“I’m not going without you,” she stated sternly.

“Go,” he repeated. “I’ll be fine. I’ll be coming right after you. Now, just go.”

She shook her head. “Not without you.” she said again. Tears arose in her eyes.

“Maria, you have to go!” he exclaimed. “Just get on and go! You’ll be there in no time, and it’ll come back up for me.”

“What if it doesn’t?” she asked worriedly. “What if something happens and something doesn’t work and we never see each other again? What if you don’t get on in time, or what if you do, and you end up in a completely different place than I do.”

An explosion sounded again, closer even yet. “I’ll find you.” he told her. “No matter where we are, I’ll feel you. I’ll see you. I’ll hear you. And I’ll find you. I promise.”

She didn’t seem convinced. “Michael, I can’t do this,” she protested. “You go first.”

“Not a chance in hell!” he shouted. “Get on the damn granalyth now, Maria, and I’ll come a little later.”

She was crying now, really crying. “You promised me,” she whimpered, “that you’d never leave me again. You said you never wanted to be apart from me.”

“I won’t be,” he reassured her. “We’ll always be together.”

Tear after tear leaked from her eyes and fell down her cheeks. “Not if we’re apart.”

Two more explosions rang out, even closer. There wasn’t much time left. “Get on, Maria.” he ordered.

She shook her head again.

“The sooner you get on, the sooner I can get on, and the sooner we’ll be together again.” He knew he was talking to her like she was a young child, but it seemed to be the only thing that was working. She took a few steps back and stepped one foot in the chamber. “Michael,” she whispered, reaching up to stroke his cheek.

“Go,” he urged her. He fought back the urge to cry himself, as he realized that they were going to be torn apart, and that there was a possibility that something would happen and that things would not work out as planned.

“I love you, Michael.” She cupped his face with her hands and leaned in to press her lips against his. He pulled her tightly against him, and he wondered if he was breaking her ribs. But she didn’t object, so he kissed her harder, making sure that, if it was their last, it would also be their most impassioned.

Her body was so familiar to him now. He didn’t even think about where his hands were going or where his lips were going. He knew every single crevice of her, every single indentation, every single curve. Everything.

He pulled away when he heard another explosion that sounded as if it were almost right on top of them. “I love you, too,” he made sure to tell her. “Now go.”

With her eyes closed, she stepped both feet into the chamber. The doors slid close before either one of them could do or say more, and, with a gigantic burst of light and a loud, thundering boom all its own, the granalyth was gone.

Maria was gone.

Michael ran his hands through his hair and let out a deep sigh. He sat down against a tree, looking at the spot where the granalyth had once been, and where his beautiful Maria had once stood crying, as well.

Now it was his turn to cry.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She sat on the floor in the small chamber of the granalyth all alone for what seemed like forever, but, in reality, it was only a few minutes. She couldn’t feel herself whizzing through galaxies, past planets, farther and farther away from Antar . . . from Michael. There was no feeling in her stomach, and there was nothing arising in her throat. It felt no different than being on a chariot.

Maria sat with her head buried in her hands until she felt and let herself continue to cry, wondering why she had gone ahead with it, until she felt a large thud. Figuring that the granalyth had landed, she rushed outside.

She was right. It had landed. The mechanical doors opened up and let her peer out into her new world.

The first thing she noticed was the heat. It was warm, and it felt good. She hadn’t been that warm for a long time. Antar had become a world of coldness, darkness, suffering, and misery.

The second thing she noticed was the smell. Every place, whether it be a household or a planet, had its own distinctive smell. Earth’s smell was not that appealing. It smelled of trash, but she figured she would get used to it.

She didn’t waste anymore time. She bolted out of the granalyth and looked it over curiously. How was she supposed to get it to go back? How was she supposed to get it to retrieve Michael from that horrible planet?

She saw a button on the side of the machine that read, ANTAR, and she pressed it, hoping that it would travel back to Antar and get Michael. With a gigantic burst of light and a loud, thundering boom all its own, the granalyth was gone.

Now all she could do was wait.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A strange, forbidding feeling of fear had found its way to Michael. He felt it all over. In his mind. In his heart. In his stomach. Pulsating through his veins. He wanted to run as far away as he could, but he forced himself to stay where he was, waiting, watching, hoping, praying for the granalyth to return.

Maria was safe, now. That’s all that mattered.

He sat. He waited, and, for awhile, nothing changed. He would hear a few explosions now and then, each one getting closer, but he continued to sit and wait.

Then, the explosions stopped. Michael heaved a sigh of relief. They had almost been right on top of him. He had been sure that one of them was going to hit him directly, but, thank God, it hadn’t.

Suddenly, though, he felt something in his back. Something cold and metal-like. He was too afraid to turn, too afraid at what he’d find.

It felt like a gun.

“You’re some King, Guerin,” an all-too familiar voice said. The gun was suddenly removed from his back, and Kivar made his way in front of him. “Not only did you kill your whole army, but you killed your whole town.” He chuckled a little, and Michael stood up.

“Look, Kivar,” he began, “let’s just talk about this.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” a different voice broke in. Nicholas stepped in front of Michael now, glaring as always.

“That’s right.” Kivar agreed. “You need to be dead, I need to be the King, and Isabel needs to be my Queen.”

“Please,” Michael begged, “I’ll surrender the throne to you. I’ll leave the planet, just, don’t kill me.”

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t,” Kivar said. “All my life, people have looked down on me, because I was never as good as you. You were always the warrior, the person everyone wanted to be around. Everyone loved you, Michael, and everyone hated me.”

“Not everyone hated you,” Michael told him, “I didn’t hate you.”

“Most did,” Kivar continued. “They looked at me like I was a germ, because Isabel was yours, and I was infecting her, making her into something else, someone else. And I was taking her away from you!”

Michael felt his heart pounding rapidly in his chest as he struggled for a way out of this. “Please,” he begged again, “I’ll leave. You’ll be the King.”

“No, you see, that’s not quite good enough for me,” Kivar told him with a smirk. “I want this to be a real tragedy. I want your little bitch to weep for you when she finds out you’re dead, when she finds out that you sacrificed your life for hers. I want this to be one of those real sad stories you always hear about where the hero dies and everyone’s mourning uncontrollably. And I want your bitch to feel so awful about all of it, that she kills herself.”

Michael lunged at him and knocked him to the ground.

Kivar laughed. “Sort of like a Romeo and Juliet thing,” he expanded.

Michael punched him in the face before he felt himself being ripped off of him by Nicholas’s tremendous power. He felt himself fly back and hit a tree, but he stood up again.

“Tough guy, huh?” Nicholas asked sarcastically. He shot his hand out in front of him, then, and a huge burst of energy came hurling at Michael, sending him flying farther backwards, hitting another tree. He groaned in pain as he hit the ground.

They battled, all three of them. For the most part, Nicholas stayed out of it, like he was saving up for something more. Michael charged forward and knocked Kivar’s gun out of his hands, and it seemed to be more hand to hand combat from there on out. Kivar had more energy left, though, and he eventually pinned Michael to the ground. “I hope you enjoyed your time with her, Michael,” he growled, “because you sure as hell don’t have much time left.”

He knew this was true. He could see Kivar reaching for his gun. In seconds, a bullet would be somewhere in his body, probably in his head, and he would be dead, and Maria would be on earth, all alone and afraid.

“Yes,” Kivar grumbled as he coiled his fingers around his gun. “I will be King.”

“No, you won’t.”

For a second, Michael wondered if he, himself had spoken the words, but then he realized that he hadn’t. He was too frozen in fear to move any part of his body at all.

Nicholas had spoken the words.

“What?” Kivar spat. “What did you say?” He loosened his hold on Michael, and the gun dropped from his hands.

“I said you will not be the King.” Nicholas repeated. “I will.”

Kivar laughed. “You?”

Nicholas nodded.

Kivar laughed again. “Says who?”

“Isabel.”

Kivar stopped laughing, and he let go of Michael completely. He stood up and stood in front of Nicholas. “What did you do to her?” he asked.

“I didn’t do anything to her,” Nicholas answered, “I did something with her.”

Kivar seemed enraged. “You slept with her,” he concluded aloud. “Did you force her, huh? Is that it?”

Nicholas shook his head. “No, she actually seemed quite willing. I do remember her mumbling something about how it seemed you had no time from her right about when she was taking my pants off.”

Kivar’s fist was in the air then, and it soon came crashing down on Nicholas’s face. The boy seemed unaffected.

Suddenly, while Michael was watching the two men fight, he saw something out of the corner of his eyes.

The granalyth. It had returned. He looked from Kivar and Nicholas to the machine, wondering if he could make it. He was hurt, and he didn’t know how fast he would be able to run, but now was as good of time as any.

So he jumped up and bolted past Kivar and past Nicholas. He ran with a vision of Maria ahead of him, waiting, calling out to him, opening her arms to him. He heard Kivar call something after him when he finally noticed what was happening, but the doors were already open and ready for him, so he ducked inside right as a bullet whizzed past him.

And he left Antar.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

When he felt the granalyth land, he wasted no time. He was at the doors before they even opened, and, when they did, he saw Maria on the other side, looking beautiful and perfect the way she always had to him. She ran to him and threw her arms around him before he could do anything more, and he embraced her just the same. She was crying so hard that her tears soaked through his tattered shirt and onto his skin. He matched her tears, crying for joy at holding her in his arms again.

“Michael, oh, God, Michael!” she wailed out of happiness. She kissed him again and again until she pulled away long enough to form a sentence. “Oh, Michael, I was so worried that something had happened . . .” She broke off, noticing that he had a cut above his eyebrow. “You’re hurt.” she declared, wiping on the blood with her thumb.

“I had a little run-in with Kivar and Nicholas.” he explained.

“Nicholas,” Maria echoed.

He nodded. If only she knew that Nicholas wasn’t the one he had been afraid of. He had been afraid of Kivar more than anything. Nicholas had saved him. It sounded weird, but it was true. Nicholas had saved his life, and he didn’t even know it.

“Oh, I love you so much.” Maria murmured, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding onto him like he was all she had.

He was all she had. She was all he had.

He was Superman, and she was his kryptonite. She was his weakness, at times. He would do stupid, crazy things for her that he wouldn’t do during other circumstances. But, at other times, she was his strength, the one thing that kept him going in times of trial, the one thing that motivated him and showed him that he wasn’t all he thought he was, that he wasn’t bad, that he was truly good. She was his hero, as he was to her. Everything he ever wanted was in her, with her, and she made everything bad and ugly vanish with one caress.

“So, this is earth,” he commented, glancing around at his new planet. He couldn’t see much from their surroundings. They were in a deserted woody area where no one had seen them land. He looked back at the granalyth once. They would have to burn that or something in time. But not right at the moment.

“Let’s take a walk,” he suggested. “See the world.”

She laughed, and agreed.

So they walked out of the woods and found themselves in a place they had never been with things they had never seen before. Earth was a much more advanced planet than Antar was, in some aspects. They had developed some sort of new transportation that moved on wheels and left fumes in the air. It was hard to breathe around these objects at first, but he slowly grew accustomed to it.

“Michael, what are those?” Maria asked, pointing to one of the fast moving transportation devices. “Where are all their chariots and horses?”

Michael shrugged. “I don’t know,” he admitted. He hoped earth had horses. He wanted horses. He needed horses.

There were so many new things that he couldn’t explain to Maria, and she had so many questions. He had no answers.

They passed a group of people around their age in a dark alley. Their clothing was outrageous! The girls were wearing barely there black, leather mini-skirts, and tops that tied right under their breasts, and the guys were wearing baggy pants that were almost falling off. They all had some sort of pierces in their bodies, whether it be their noses, eyebrows, or bellybuttons, and the hair was so different than what Michael was used to seeing.

In a way, he liked the look, and he really hoped he’d get to see Maria in one of those outfits.

There wasn’t a garden in sight. Michael wanted to find the garden. He wanted to find the oleanders. Even though he now knew what they could do, he wasn’t frightened by them. If anything, he was intrigued. The oleander was a symbol, a representative of everything. Everything had two sides. Dark and light. Cold and warm. Good and bad.

Antar was gone now. The oleander was dead.

There were so many things they didn’t know and didn’t understand. It was overwhelming at first, and even a bit scary, but, soon, music filled Michael’s ears, and he smiled. Looking down at Maria, he saw her smiling, too.

It wasn’t ballroom music.

It was rock.

“Don’t suppose you feel like dancing?” she asked curiously.

He smiled and tightened his hold on her hand. “Always.”

So they walked off in the direction of the music, into the direction of the setting sun, into the direction of the rising moon, not knowing who they would become or who they would meet. Their life was now a mystery. But they walked off together. . .

. . . and, together, they remained.

THE END!!




Remember, this fic is nominated about four times at Lustful Fanfiction Awards, so be sure to stop by and vote for it if you liked it!!

posted on 2-Jan-2003 10:57:33 PM
Hey, April is here with me now. She wants to thank all of you for the wonderful feedback.

THanks guys!! It means so much. Look for my next story, Crusaders' Night soon!!
posted on 4-Jan-2003 6:33:26 PM
Hey guys!! So the thread hasn't died yet!! Well, I'll tell April that she should make a sequel!! I was talking to her about it, and she was like, but no one likes the first one!! Apparently you guys did!!
posted on 6-Jan-2003 7:20:13 PM
BUMP!!
posted on 7-Jan-2003 8:34:44 AM
I've been trying to get her to do that!!
posted on 7-Jan-2003 5:43:08 PM
Yeah, she wants to finish Crusaders' Night first, though, she says. Ooh, if you don't know about Crusaders' Night, it's gonna be another M+M AU that she'll hopefully let me post on here soon!! I've only read about ten pages, but I love it.

Oh, and, btw, be sure to stop by the Lustful fanfic awards site and vote for Death of the Oleander, cuz it's nominated!! Or you could nominate it somewhere, else, too!! April's a new writer, and I know she wants to receive and award!! lol. She says it'll never happen, but, with your help, it might!!