I must admit that I have an affinity for this part of the story of the First Empire. For me it's more family history than anything else. Of course, most of the tales from my great-grandmother required a grain of salt.
Tabitha Summers-McHeath, from an Interview in Imperial History Quarterly Volume 14, Issue 6
Always, Tara thought as Willow slept in her arms. I've thought that before, but never said it.
Tara looked at the redhead in her arms. Willow's dream had awakened the blonde. Tara had known it was a dream, even in her own sleep. Tara looked at the way Willow had unconsciously adopted a position that left them both comfortable. Tara reached out to brush a lock of hair away from Willow's sleeping eyes. Tara saw the innocent smile Willow gave just before her hand touched sleeping girl's hair.
I thought I was in love before, Tara thought with a smile. But it was a candle compared the noonday sun. Does she feel the same?
For a second Tara felt a wave of fear. What if she wasn't right for Willow? What could she offer? What if...
Willow's hand draped itself over Tara's tummy and Willow gave her a hug without waking.
Tara let her fear go without another thought. Then she yawned and nestled against Willow. In seconds she joined her love in slumber.
Giles looked through the cable from Oldenberg again. It gave a list of countries now investigating the offshore nature of various newspapers. From a conversation with a wealthy Pomeranian metal trader Giles had learned the newspaper controlled from Zenda printed in the Grand Duchy of Pomerania had had it's building torched by the same people who had read it religiously.
Promising, he thought. But the larger conflagration could still catch with a spark.
His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden burst of frantic activity outside. Giles opened the window and caught the newsboy's call below.
"Louis takes the throne in Aquitaine!" the boy piped. "Wire service disrupted! Read all about it!"
William was shaken awake, Lady Beth Summers and the ball slipping away quickly, as the best dreams do, to be replaced by a tired looking Riley Finn. The Prince sighed.
"Now what?" he asked, knowing he did not want the news.
Liam looked at Cordelia as she stared out a window with a borrowed robe around her shoulders. The overlarge garment and the air of worry that wrapped about her that was almost palpable made her seem small and distant. He froze for an instant, afraid if he stepped too close she might disappear altogether.
"What's wrong?" he asked softly.
"Father's in Aquitaine," Cordelia replied without turning around.
"He'll be all right," Liam said earnestly. "We'll find him."
Cordelia turned to face him, her tears untouched. Liam took a step closer. He held out his hand. She hesitated, then stepped forward and let him slip his arms around her.
"We'll find him," Liam said again softly.
Alex awoke swiftly. He looked to his side and saw Anya there looking at him with half closed eyes. He lifted the bedclothes to cover her shoulders. Before he could speak Anya placed a finger on his lips. Alex stilled his unspoken question as she laid her head on the thick of his arm and slipped an arm across his chest. He closed his free hand on hers gently as he marveled at how right her warmth felt against him.
Prince Etienne had always taken the stories about the stamina and strength of a heavy worlder with a grain of salt. Now as he panted behind the slim whirlwind of a girl he found the tales much more credible.
"We're almost there, Stevie," Faith said without showing the strain. "It's the back way into Sussex, like I promised. I'd better get that airship ride."
"Why-are-you-in-such-a-hurry?" Etienne gasped.
Faith's face looked impassive for a second.
Why? Faith thought to herself. A warm meal, a bed that was my own and never shared by a drunk, someone who sang to me while I was sick, who wouldn't let me run free until I'd actually studied, a new mother handing me their child without a second thought... A wise fool who doesn't even know I'm alive.
Then Etienne saw the mask fall into place again and an urchin grin spread over the lithe brunette's face.
"Family business," she quipped. "Next stop Sussex."
The Countess of Sussex looked at her youngest daughter as she slept. A soft knock came and then Von Pritwitz stuck his grizzled head in and nodded. Joyce sighed and pulled a blanket over Dawn, then she joined the old knight of Saxony.
"My lady," Von Pritwitz said with a restrained energy. "There is a development."
"What kind of development?" Joyce asked hopefully.
"One that will shake that little weasel off the throne," Lady Dunbar said as she stood up from the chair by the fireplace.
Joyce let her politician side take over as she tried not to notice the grace and slim figure of Lady Dunbar, a woman twenty years older as she listened to the news from Sussex's southern border.
Buffy walked through the streets of Hastings. It was important to let her people see her. Her worries were unfounded, at least here. No one gave credence to the rumors of the tabloid press.
No one here in Sussex, she corrected herself.
She turned to go into the telegraph office. There was one more dispatch she owed the Times. As she handed over the message she caught a glimpse of herself in the glass. Her hair was pulled back, and while she had worn her best riding skirt somehow she'd taken the beaten up old jacket she'd been living in for most of the last week.
Lady Beth can't wear this, she thought sadly.
Then her eye caught a folded newspaper in the kindling bin of the office. It was a Bugle from Mercia with her picture and Banner headline RIGHTFUL HEIR? Buffy scowled as she left the office and pulled on her battered hat. She jammed her hands into the jacket pockets and felt Willow's borrowed notebook. Buffy pulled it out and looked the book title she's seen in Willow's neat script.
"You deserve a present, Will," Buffy said softly. "'Tribadism and Other Practices.' I hope she likes it."
"I fear for the Summers line," the old bookstore clerk sighed as Lady Beth left his shop. "Brazen about it, didn't blink an eye. Maybe it's just a phase."
"What are you going on about?" his apprentice asked as she came in with an armload of Clare Durano novels for the window display.
The apprentice shook her head. Old people were strange sometimes.
Willow looked down at her notes. Etienne was the rightful heir, but Louis was on the throne. For the moment the jingoistic papers of a dozen nations were cut off from their secret source of funding. It was looking less like a planet wide war and more like one of the many internal fights for succession that dotted Europa's past.
"The Bishop of Morlaix was able to convince about half the boys to go home," Jonathon reported.
"Which leaves a thousand coming south," William added.
"And several parties in the United Kingdoms talking about their own expeditionary force," Jonathon replied. "Not wise, but understandable."
Willow looked at the short young man. It was hard to believe the arm in a sling had come from fighting off two assassins defending his king. William seemed to be treating him with more respect.
Lots of things have changed, Willow thought looking at Buffy. Beth would have blushed for a week when she gave me that book. Buffy just laughed and said it would make a good excuse to go to a lot of dances with handsome young men.
"Any suggestions?" William asked.
"Speed of action," Willow said without thinking.
"Explain," Lady Dunbar said as she gave Willow her full attention.
Willow felt the eyes of every person there on her. Officers, nobles and diplomats from a dozen countries filled the Countess' drawing room. Tara was there too, behind her and quiet, but Willow knew exactly where she was, her anchor in an ever-changing sea. Willow looked out confidently at the notable assembly.
"If the matter of the question of the Aquitaine Succession is settled before the various forces could arrive, the danger passes," Willow explained. "It would be volatile, but a strictly internal matter at best, a matter for the French League's High Court at worst."
"If Etienne can be returned to Aquitaine, with a credible force, and without too much input from any one power block," Joyce pointed out.
"Do you have a plan?" Jonathon asked.
"Sometimes a small move can unbalance the most intricate chess defense," Willow said confidently. "I do have a couple of thoughts on the matter."
It wasn't until Willow had closed the trysting door behind her that she let go of the tension that had been building since the meeting. Tara felt Willow's fear and nerves almost swamp the slim redhead. The dark blonde girl took Willow in her arms and smiled as she felt Willow's resolve return for the most part. Tara looked into Willow's eyes and knew there was still something worrying the redhead.
"What is it?" Tara asked gently.
"I'm sorry, it's just... we have to move and there's not going to be time and, and I know you'll always be there for me but what if always gets cut short, I mean after everything I've been through now I know how, how much can happen and if it happens to always I'd, I'd..." Willow looked at Tara with frightened eyes. "I've got to go Tara."
"We've got to go," Tara corrected her.
"I knew you'd say that and not stay safe," Willow whispered. "Hold me, Tara."
"Always," Tara replied gently as she took Willow into her arms.
"Tighter, please," Willow said urgently. "I need to feel you."
Tara looked into Willow's green eyes and knew there would be no turning back, and she knew didn't want to turn back from Willow ever again.
"Always," Tara said with a longing note in her voice that thrilled Willow.
But not as much as the kiss, and more, that followed.