One moment in time has eluded historians dealing with the end of the First Empire, that moment the first attack was made on the Empire. Dozens of dates have been suggested, most of them around the First Battle of Capitol. Other sources site incidents up to a decade before that most useless battle.
From the Introduction to The Coming Twilight-Understanding The Fall of the First Empire
"What do we do?" Dawn asked in a soft voice as she looked at her sister.
Buffy looked past her at Willow. The redhead nodded very slightly and smiled at her. Come on, Buffy, you can do this. She thought along with her confident gestures.
"We have to split up," the small blonde said evenly. "Alex, you know the way. Cordelia, you know the railroad procedures in case it gets that far."
"I'll go with Alex," Anya interjected.
"Good," Buffy replied.
"I should go as well," Liam added.
"What are we doing?" Cordelia asked.
"Stopping the group that left from coming back and raising an alarm," Buffy explained.
"And the rest of us?" William asked.
"We're going into the manor," Buffy said firmly.
"The secret passages?" Willow asked. "Cause I know the one from my usual room to the library."
"And the kitchens," Buffy grinned.
In the manor the Countess Summers looked at the men in dark cloaks Captain Harrington had brought with him. She looked at the dashing officer with concern in her eyes.
"Who are these men?" she asked softly.
"They're to make sure we get to the stables," Harrington explained with a smile as two men flanked the woman.
Joyce didn't yell when the sickly sweet rag was placed over her mouth. She pushed it away long enough to ask "Why?"
"I couldn't trust a woman who poisoned her guards, now could I?" Harrington shrugged. "One who is about to rush off, poison her own heir and attempt ride off in an escape with her bastard daughter."
Joyce slumped in her attacker's arms. The man behind her frowned.
"That was too fast-" the dark cloaked man started to say. The iron shod rifle butt that slammed into his face prevented his finishing the sentence.
Harrington was drawing his sword by reflex when strong hands pulled his ankles out from under him. As he hit the floor two Aquitaine privates and a Pomeranian lance corporal slammed into him and pinned him to the ground. Huntington fought for breath as the cloaked men were subdued with quick, savage blows from the 'dead' guards.
"Does he live, milady?" the Aquitaine sergeant asked casually.
"We need his clothing unspoiled, Sergeant," Joyce replied. "Are your men alright? Is anyone hurt?"
"All present and accounted for," he replied. The other NCOs confirmed a lack of casualties.
"Get the cloaks and Captain Huntington's uniform," Joyce said quickly. "Then wake up Ensigns Carter, Cogny, and Stoltz."
"We will lead them to the stables, Lady Summers," the Aquitaine Sergeant assured her. Then he turned to the captive officer. "I don't like playing dead at my age. It's the sciatica, don't you know? So I'm looking forward to you resisting us getting your uniform off, understand?"
Tara felt tension in the night around her companions. They were just a dozen yards away from the blank-looking wall towards which Buffy was leading them. There were the mixed scents that meant horses nearby. Willow leaned closely.
"Stables," the redhead whispered.
Tara nodded and looked back at Dawn. The girl was just behind Willow and Tara. Bringing up the rear were Riley and William. Buffy stopped at a corner in the outside wall behind a squat evergreen. The small young woman touched the wall in a complex pattern while reciting a poem under her breath. Tara felt her and her companions become even tenser so when the click came it sounded like a pistol shot to the group. They stayed locked in position as the stillness of the fading night returned. Then Buffy pushed the door open and listened. Finally she reached back for Willow's hand.
Willow followed her friend as she reached back for Tara. The tightness in her chest as she entered the inky rectangle faded with the touch of Tara's hand. She felt more than heard Dawn followed by Riley and William. There was a discreet click as the door shut and the tiny light from the stars was shut away. A moment later two squeezes were passed down the line of hands. Buffy reached for the recessed shelf and found the beeswax candle and matches. The flare from the match was bright in the gloom. Buffy listened for a few moments.
Tara thought she could just hear steps somewhere near. Buffy pulled a small panel from the wall and peered out through what looked like painted glass. Then the small blonde replaced the glass quickly. She turned around, her face grim in the candlelight.
"Mom-my mother is being taken to the stables," Buffy whispered.
"Right," growled Willow. "Probably to meet you when you're dragged back here."
"What do we do?" Dawn asked softly.
"We rescue her," William said steadily.
"And after that we make it up as we go," Riley added.
Prince Etienne felt the roll of the boat and felt panic raising. He slammed into the padded lid as hard as he could to no avail.
I'm going to be taken out and dropped into the deep! he thought on the edge of hysteria.
As if from far away he heard the sounds of an argument. Then there was a sharp blow on the outside of his wooden prison. A moment later the lid was pulled away. Blessed air filled his lungs as he tried to spring out of the box. Hours of confinement made him clumsy. A strong hand steadied him.
"Whoa, chief," a female voice said. "So you're why he screwed me over."
"Who?" Etienne asked his rescuer.
"Him," the slim brunette said jerking her thumb at the crumpled figure wearing a seaman's cap. "I paid for a quick passage to San Sebastian, he wanted to take a side trip and more."
The nobleman noted the small footprint on the unmoving man's fly and the odd angle of the arm. Etienne resolved to be on his best behavior.
"Thank you, Miss..." he said.
"McHeath," she replied. "Faith McHeath. I'm in kind of a hurry. Can you drive or sail or whatever you do with boats? I'd kind of like not to call the authorities for help."
"I will do my best," Etienne nodded. "It's the least I can do for the beautiful woman who saved me from a watery grave."
"Oh, I think they wanted somebody to find you," Faith said as she flipped the lid upright.
Etienne looked at the orange paint and the tall flag of a most visible and ugly yellow. The crate rocked when the slim young woman touched it. He frowned as he looked more closely at his erstwhile prison. He pulled at the padded bottom of the compartment he'd been confined in. It came up with a stout tug. Underneath was a packet of papers, a rifle from Wessex, and a grubby red sash. Etienne looked at the papers and started to place them carefully on the deck. Maps of Morlaix and West Sussex with hand drawn lines and symbols, railway schedules, and letters with the crest of Oldenberg told him a chilling tale.
"Miss McHeath, I must get back to Aquitaine," he said distantly.
"And I've got to get to the Imperial starport," Faith said flatly. "And since only one of us grew up on a high gravity hellhole I think I'd win-oh shit!"
Etienne looked where she was facing and saw the lean greyhound shape of a torpedo boat. He smiled when he turned back to Faith.
"That's a St. George class Aquitaine torpedo boat," Etienne said with a smirk. "I will see you get a first class ticket to the Starport ferry on one condition."
"What's that?" Faith said suspiciously.
"Don't tell me why you don't want to meet the authorities."
Tara followed Willow closely. The narrow walls of the passage felt like they were closing in on her. After a bewildering series of small stairs and turns she could just catch the scent of horses. Buffy stopped and looked back at her small group. She met Willow's eyes and then Tara's.
"Dawn, you stay with Willow and Tara until I call you," Buffy said in a firm whisper. "If anything happens you go with them and do exactly what they say, understood?"
Tara wasn't surprised when Dawn simply nodded. She could feel Willow's relief with the girl's agreement. Then Buffy gave Dawn a quick hug. She looked back at William and Riley.
"We get into position and make our move before they realize what's happening," Buffy said coldly.
"Then we rouse the house and make this public," William suggested.
Buffy nodded. Then she turned back to the end of the secret passage. She reached up and took a small tube of something and applied it to the hinges of the door. Then she opened it carefully and slipped out into the stable. William and Riley followed her. Willow closed the door for a moment and turned to Tara. Dawn looked away as nonchalantly as she could. The redhead leaned forward and kissed Tara.
"Now we stay back, out of the way," Willow said firmly to Dawn.
Willow opened the small door and slipped into the stable. Tara and Dawn followed her. They were behind a wall of bagged oats and grains. Willow eased to the edge and froze. She saw Joyce enter the stable escorted by a man in a Wessex officer's uniform with the hat pulled down. He moved uncomfortably. Several men in cloaks followed them. From where she was she could see Buffy and the other two briefly. They had gone up into the hayloft above. When she looked down to Joyce Willow caught sight of a pair of soldiers in one kind of uniform following the silent orders of a corporal in a different uniform. Then she saw Joyce interlock her fingers in the way she always did when she was worried. One of the cloaked men stepped near her but did not see her. She looked at him and saw serviceable rough boots.
A motion caught her eye as a trio of soldiers headed for the ladder to the hayloft. Willow could feel Buffy's almost predatory tension as she readied herself. Willow concentrated on Joyce and the officer next to her. Their tension was similar, with Joyce's the stronger. Suddenly the soldiers started their climb on the hayloft ladder and Willow felt Buffy's tension spike. Willow stood up.
"Hi, Mrs. Summers," she said pleasantly.
"Willow?" Joyce said surprised. "What are you doing here?"
"Realizing Summers women are really tricky," Willow replied. "Could everybody just stay still for a second? It's kind of important."
Buffy's hand closed on the borrowed automatic pistol in her hand as the ladder shuddered slightly with the weight of climbing men. She let the front sight fill the notch of the rear sight as the top of the ladder became her complete focus. The distant sound of Willow's voice broke her concentration.
"You idiot!" she hissed under her breath.
Tara's hand tightened on her small revolver. Dawn touched her other hand and the blonde realized she was squeezing the girl's arm rather tightly.
Please be right, Tara thought urgently.
"What's going on?" Joyce asked firmly as Willow moved slowly into the light.
"Well, I'd say that the big silver bracelets on your wrists were there to make it look like something else," Willow explained. "Say something a bit confining. That and the fact that the uniform your escort is wearing is tailored, but not for him. Cordy would have a fit if she saw that. Then there's the boots. They're not cheap but he's walking like somebody else was measured for them. Not to mention you've got cloaks of silk and lambswool covering guys with soldiers boots."
"Spending time with Cordelia has rubbed off on you," Joyce noted with a dry smile.
"Then there's the soldiers following orders from other armies' guys with stripes," Willow went on. "That and you're here in the stables with a lot of armed guys, some of which are protecting you but trying not to look like it."
Several of the cloaked men looked down sheepishly.
"Keep watch, sergeant," Joyce said in a no-nonsense tone. "Do you know what's happening, Willow?"
"You're waiting for somebody to deliver what they think they had in their control," Willow said with a smile. "But they didn't know just how tricky Summers women are."
"We really are," Buffy said standing up at the edge of the hayloft. She grabbed a rope and slid to the floor. Joyce let out a cry as her daughter rushed to her. As they embraced the man in the borrowed uniform pushed back his hat and smiled.
"We'll find Dawn, Milady," a voice without a trace of Wessex accent said hopefully.
Willow felt the happy relief fill the room. She turned to Tara and Dawn. The blonde nodded with a smile and let go of Dawn's arm. The girl scampered forward. Joyce and Buffy both reached for her and all three started to cry.
"Well that wasn't how it was supposed to happen," a gangly Mercian soldier said as he shrugged out of the cloak he was wearing.
"Thank God," a lance corporal from Anjou replied as he did the same.
"Riders!" a soldier at the stable door called out.
"Easy, trooper," William said as he stood up. "But be ready."
A moment later eight horses appeared. Alex was in the lead with Anya behind him. Following him were Cordelia and Liam leading the other five horses with bound men draped over the saddles. Alex dismounted and bowed to Joyce.
"Anya said it sounded like things were resolved, Lady Summers," he said politely. "We have men who should be placed under arrest."
"Not very bright ones," Anya said climbing down with a deliberate care. "I mean wouldn't a naked woman in a box car make you just a bit suspicious?"
"Don't ask," Cordelia said quickly. "Just don't."
"Would someone tell us what the Hell is going on?" a new voice said.
Willow looked over at three rumpled-looking young officers, unshaven and confused looking. She smiled and shrugged.
"This could take a while."
Faith grumbled almost silently as the captain of the torpedo boat handed a message to the Prince. Etienne frowned.
"Request clarification?" he snapped.
"My apologies," Your Highness," the commanding officer, a Lt. Commander, replied quickly.
"No need, Captain," Etienne sighed. "It is a fantastic tale, and one full of treachery. I have no doubt I will be telling it for weeks as we get to the bottom of this."
Faith sighed and looked out the porthole. A sailor tossed off a raft and leapt after it.
"Are we sinking?" she asked suddenly.
"Of course not-" the officer started to reply.
"Bomb!" Faith yelled as she grabbed the Prince. "Come on, meal ticket!"
With that she tossed him to the door. The Prince was shocked at her strength. He tried to stop her but she carried him to the railing and leapt overboard. He struggled to the surface as she sank under the water.
"What the HELL-" he yelled before a malignant rose of fire blossomed from the torpedo boat. The prince looked on in horror as the burning ship wallowed to a stop. He jerked as pistol shot snapped out and a plume of water fell apart near him. Etienne whirled to see a sailor in a raft trying to level a revolver at him in the swells.
"A pity," the sailor called out. "She was pretty and your brother would pay handsomely for you, but I doubt you would be good passengers."
Etienne dove just as the handgun barked. He stayed below until his lungs burned. He broke the surface and looked for the raft.
"Over here," Faith called out.
Etienne looked at the soaking girl as she rolled the limp form of the sailor out of the raft. He swam to the raft. She pulled him up just as something brushed past him. Etienne scrambled into the boat. Faith shuddered and handed him an oar.
"I hope you know how these work," she said flatly.
Etienne looked at her. She was shivering, and not from the cold.
"He would have killed you, or worse," Etienne said gently.
"Let's get to land," Faith said softly. "I'm starting to hate boats."
The drawing room was full but completely silent as Willow sat down. Then the questions erupted. William stood up and held out his hands.
"One at a time, please," he said and began to point to people in the room.
Willow let him take the attention gratefully. Tara slipped her hand into Willow's and the redhead felt stronger. She saw a messenger arrive and give Joyce a small envelope. She read it and handed it to Buffy. The girl read it and stood up.
"Last night several assassins attempted to kill the kings of Mercia and Oldenberg along with other dignitaries," Buffy read. "None were successful."
"Gentlemen," Joyce said as she stood up. "We will provide you with any information we receive. The lines to Aquitaine seem to be working but no signals are being received. In accordance with standing treaties all citizens of Aquitaine are welcome to stay until the situation can be clarified. Now, I must insist my daughters get some rest. I will be with you shortly."
With that Joyce nodded to Buffy and Dawn. Then she turned to Willow.
"All of my daughters," Joyce said firmly as she turned to leave the room. "Even the one who's older than I remembered. You're going to bed, Willow."
Willow smiled and followed the sisters. She looked for Tara but saw Joyce was speaking with her.
"I can never thank you enough for what you've done, Miss Maclay," Joyce said politely.
"But if I break Willow's heart you'll horsewhip me yourself," Tara said steadily.
"I'm glad we understand each other," Joyce said evenly.
"How long have you known?" Tara asked.
"The moment I saw her look at you," Joyce replied.
"Then know this," Tara said carefully. "I would never hurt Willow. I-I can't. It's like s-s-she's part of me."
"Something you never knew you were missing but can't live without now?" Joyce asked gently.
Tara just stared at the older woman and nodded, her words stolen by the insight. Joyce smiled sadly. She turned away and motioned for a nearby servant.
"Take Miss Maclay to the Southeast room," Joyce said, then she turned back to Tara. "Get some rest."
Tara followed the serving girl up the stairs and down the hall to a room in the corner. Willow looked out the door next to hers. The redhead smiled and shut the door. Tara barely followed the servant's words about the room. Finally the girl laid out a nightgown and robe and left. As Tara looked around the sun filled room she heard a click. On the wall her room shared with Willow's a mirror swung out and a vision stepped into her room.
"My room is really on the next floor up," Willow said with an almost embarrassed smile. "I was wondering what Joyce meant when she said I was older than she remembered."
"What is this?" Tara asked softly.
"It's a trysting suite," Willow explained. "I never thought I'd ever be here. I mean, who'd want to tryst with me?"
"I don't," Tara said gently. "I want to love you, be with you, live with you. But I have to know you're ready, Willow."
"I..." Willow started but nerves and exhaustion and days on the edge overcame her. Suddenly Tara's arms were around her as the shakes passed.
"Help me get clean," Tara said gently. "Then we'll see."
"Alexander," Joyce said carefully.
"Yes, ma'am!" Alex replied hurriedly. He looked at her with surprise. He still reeked of horse and sweat. The questions had been more frightening then the night ride in the airship.
"Alexander, just be sure," Joyce said with a wistful smile. "And be sure to listen."
"Yes ma'am," he replied with no idea what she was speaking about. He watched her leave the servants' area and opened his door. The shade on the window was drawn. He reached for it, but a soft hand stopped him. He looked at Anya in the filtered light.
"You don't have to do this," he said softly.
"I know," she said with a smile. Her hand caressed his face. "I've never been allowed to ask for this before. Alexander, will you make love with me?"
"I-I've never..." he said in a whisper.
"I've never made love before either."
Shouldn't I be nervous? Willow asked herself. Touching her just makes me feel calmer, like its something I should be doing. Shouldn't bathing with her, being in bed with her, holding her make me shiver with excitement? Shouldn't we be naked?
Willow looked into Tara's soft blue eyes, trying to form her question about how to proceed when wearing sensible nightgowns when a yawn` snuck up on the redhead. When she stopped yawning she saw the blonde smile.
"Later," Tara said carefully. "When you're awake and I can take all the time you deserve."
"Promise?" Willow asked in a small voice.
"Yes," Tara said with all her heart.
"I've never..." Willow started. Tara wrapped her up in her arms so that the redhead was supported and relaxed. Then Tara kissed her softly.
"There are many ways to make love," Tara said with a sleepy smile. "Let's start with this one, my love."
Etienne and Faith landed on a rocky coast at dusk. Faith dragged the raft onto the beach and then collapsed next to the Prince. Finally he looked up at the headlands and tried to figure out where fate had brought him. A moment later a blue lamp appeared in the distance. Faith made a shushing motion and slipped into the rocks as the light drew closer.
"Gaston?" a voice called out.
"No," the Prince answered.
"My apologies," the voice replied. "Clear seas."
The lamplight faded away down the beach. Faith came to him as the stars took over the sky from the last of the sun's rays.
"What was that about?" she asked.
"Smugglers," he sighed. "That phrase, 'clear seas', is their greeting. We're in Breton."
"Damn it!" growled Faith. "I've got to get through!"
"I'm sorry," Etienne sighed. "I don't know what's happening, but I'm sure the worst is happening at home."
Prince Louis strode into the throne room of the Kings of Aquitaine. He looked at the courtiers and saw fear in their faces. He drew himself up to his full height.
"My father is more sick than formerly thought," Louis said clearly. "He has taken a turn for the worse with the news of the death of my brother aboard the Navy vessel. It is with a heavy heart I assume the throne as regent until he recovers. Our first decree to place Aquitaine on alert until the attack on our ship has been investigated. I will expect a report from all ministries, especially the Minister for War, by eight tomorrow morning."
Louis stood up and returned the bows of his court with a short nod. He let his escort fall in around him for the short walk to what was now his study. When the doors had closed behind him with the guard outside he smiled broadly.
"I have the throne," he said gleefully.
"Things have not gone as planned," Travers said evenly. "Now you have to keep it."
"Oh, that should be easy," Tyrrell said with a smile. "The King has resources no one else can match."
A city was in chaos. Fires and bodies were both scattered about. Anya was screaming, and Cordelia echoed her pain. A horseman filled the street ahead of her as darkness filled her...
"Willow, honey, it's just a dream," Tara said soothingly.
Willow looked out the window at the last rays of the day. She had slept the afternoon away in Tara's arms. She shuddered in the safety of those arms.
"It's okay, love," Tara said gently. "I'm here. I'll always be here."
"Always?" Willow asked weakly.