Willow slipped out of bed after several hours of trying to sleep andfailing. Too much was racing through her mind, and her thoughts refusedto settle long enough to allow her any rest. She quietly pulled abottle of wine from the cooler unit, a glass, and wrapped herself in ahouse robe before slipping out into the night air.
She strolled out across the terrace, looking up at the sky at stars thatshe didn't recognize, constellations named after people and beasts thatwere unfamiliar to her, walking on ground that no one from Sinai hadever walked on. It made her feel as though perhaps she wasn't reallyhere. As though she might wake up from some dream at any moment. Butshe could feel the surface of the walkway beneath her bare feet, shecould smell the night air and feel the breeze gently tousle her hair.
"I suppose it's good that I didn't ask X along on this trip. He probablywould have ripped Light-Of-Star's arms off first chance he got," shechuckled to herself. Despite the quiet attempt at humor, Willow stillfelt as though she had a pile of rocks in her stomach.
Her wanderings took her to a balcony overgrown with red ivy. A lonefigure knelt there, gazing up at the stars, his hands folded at hisfront in silent prayer. The Skreek shifted on her feet uncomfortably,unsure if it would be proper to interrupt one of the People in theirprayers.
He stood. Long hair tied neatly back behind his head rustled in thebreeze.
"I didn't mean to interrupt, your Excellency." The Skreek bowed.
Yoshua, newly sworn in as Archon, shook his head and leaned against thebalcony. He gestured at an empty spot at his side and bowed to Willow."It appears I was not the only one who couldn't sleep tonight."
"Misery loves company," Willow answered dryly. She set the bottle downon the balcony ledge and poured herself a glass. "Want some?"
The Archon shook his head. "I cannot. I must avoid such thingsnow."
"More for me, then." The Skreek shrugged and sipped from her glass,looking out across the blackness beyond the tower.
There was an easy silence between the two. Willow and Yoshua had theircommon ground and didn't need to exchange too many signs to mutuallyappreciate the scent of the ivy on the walls or enjoy the silence of thenight.
Willow's gaze slowly shifted upwards again, looking at the twinkles oflight in the sky and wondering which one was Light-of-Star's Cathedral.Her face unconsciously puckered into a scowl as she studied the glints oflight.
Yoshua tapped the Skreek's shoulder to get her attention. "I knowthe look of someone with much weighing on their mind. I wear it morethan I used to, and I don't need Storm-Born's powers of perception tosee it hang across your face now."
She nodded, draining the contents of her glass and refilling it. "I'vebeen thinking of the best plan of action. Mostly trying to come up withsomething really creative, or searching for some great flaw inLight-of-Star's plan that we could take advantage of and use againsthim."
The Archon twirled his hand lightly in a "go on" gesture.
"I haven't come up with a thing… because I don't think that ultimatelyfancy tricks or political games are what we need right now. I'm scaredout of my fur that he's got some horrible trick or great card to play inhis sleeve if we hit him head on, or he's got a billion allies hiddenaway that will cause problems if we try to go against him."
The Skreek took another sip from her glass. She idly plucked a leaffrom the ivy and sniffed at it, mechanically judging it as a potentialherb for her supplies.
"Is that what is keeping you from sleeping tonight?" Yoshuasigned.
"No." Willow dropped the leaf off of the balcony, watching it twirldownwards and vanish into the night fog. "I'm awake because I know whatwe have to do, and it scares me."
The Archon nodded.
Sighing, the Skreek looked up to the stars again. "I would like nothingbetter than to humiliate him. To pull some great plan out of my headthat will utterly make him look like a fool and would cause each andevery one of his followers to throw up their hands and deny him. Butthat's my anger talking." She gritted her teeth. "One of the peoplethat led me to the path of the Star once told me that without love, aperson is nothing."
"Are you implying that we attempt to deal with Light-of-Star byloving him?" Yoshua signed.
Willow shook her head. "I have to be careful. I shouldn't be sofocused on my contempt for this man so much that I lose sight of my ownbeliefs." She took another gulp from her glass. "Truth and love. TheStar will ultimately prove itself. I need not go out of my way to ruinits opponents in my crusade to prove that it's right. A lot of peoplehave lost sight of the Star and lost their souls because of some fanaticwho decided that he should play judge for the Star. What I need tofocus on his Truth and Love."
The Archon shook his head. "You are speaking noble words, but I'veno idea how to translate that into a way of dealing withLight-of-Star."
"I think that the best way of dealing with this is a straightforwardapproach."
"Which is … ?"
The Skreek straightened herself. "We invade the cathedral. Swiftly, withas few casualties as possible. We do it now while Light-of-Star is away,and we show his experiments to the world. We show people the truth."
"Something tells me that every day we waste is another day that his plangrows stronger. It brings things closer to the time when he startspopping people out of those cylinders and claiming he can raise themfrom the dead."
"What do you wish to do with the clones, should we take control of theCathedral?" A look of concern could easily be seen in the Archon'seyes. He could tell that there was some unspoken fear or anger stillinside of Willow, and he just touched upon it.
The Skreek tensed her grip on her wine glass. "They're innocents. I wantas many of them spared as possible. Maybe re-educated or something andintroduced back with their people here in space."
Yoshua put a hand on Willow's shoulder and looked down at the emptyglass in her hand. His other hand repeated the "go on" gesture.
Willow's ears flattened. "In the past five years, pretty much everymajor leader on Sinai has croaked. The Astromancer, the Emperor, theSabaoth and his son, the Czar, and Third-Vision. I saw what couldeasily be a clone of the Emperor… and I'm afraid of what else I'llfind there." She closed her eyes. "Dammit… there was all this scruddytalk of a bride. And I'm afraid I'm going to peek in one of thosecontainers and see a clone of Third-Vision in one of them."
She shrugged off the Archon's grasp and shakily started pouring herthird glass of wine. "I don't know what's going to happen to me if Isee her. It's not enough that he's got no respect for living people,but what about the dead? What if he made a clone of her and has it allprogrammed up to be his black bride or whatever?"
Yoshua picked up the bottle of wine and placed it on the ledge. "Iknow that the two of you were close, but you saw no such thing while youwere in the chambers originally. I don't think you should work yourselfup over something that might be a fantasy."
"Real enough. It's a blasphemy, a perversion. It's like taking a corpseout of the ground, prettying it up, and passing it off as somethingthat's still alive." The Skreek shut her eyes. "You don't know how it'sbeen for me. It took me so long to accept her death. For a year I'dlook for her in the face of every lady Savanite I met, but when Nene wasborn, I finally accepted things. But here… now… it all comes back.The fact that I regret not going with her when she went to Abaddon.That I only got to spend one day with her and that was it. I hate it.And I hate even more that he might have defiled her memory by making afake, especially for the purpose of having a wife, after the Third-VisionI knew had married."
The Skreek felt a hand gently grip her shoulder. She buried her face inher arms. "I try not to think about it. But I don't know what I'll doif I see it. I'll probably run like hell and try to kill Light-of-Starmyself. It won't be her." She sniffed. "I've thought about it somuch. I've got a mother, a father and three sisters that are all dead.Once I actually went to the graveyard where they were buried and had mysisters dug up so I could look at them. So I could see them and tellthem what I thought."
The hand on her shoulder abruptly lifted itself.
"It's not like it sounds, but it would take too long to explain. Justthat so many people I love eventually die. Everybody wishes for moretime or just a word or a moment after it's over. It's probably whyLight-of-Star has so many supporters right there." She wiped her faceon the sleeve. "Nene is my daughter. Not an adopted daughter, but areal child that I carried and gave birth to. Having her taught me thatI can't lose myself in the past at the cost of the people that areliving. And on Sinai, whenever someone comes back from the dead, it'seither as a zombie that's having its strings pulled by a necromancer, orsomeone who made a deal with dark magic and gave up their soul inexchange for a little bit of power. So when you see someone you lostback from the dead it's almost more of a tragedy than losing them tobegin with. It's a monster wearing the face of someone you love… which makes it all the harder to look at."
The Skreek's arm flailed out, trying to pick up the half-empty winebottle and found that it was not in the place she had left it. Shelooked up and saw Yoshua slowly pouring out its contents over the edgeof the balcony. He caught Willow's confused look and set the emptybottle down. "You do not need to be feeding your feelings withalcohol right now. I agree that you should focus on Truth and Love, butyou will not find the truth by hiding your mind inside of a bottle. Sofar you appear to have only found nightmares."
Guiltily, the Skreek just nodded.
"I lack the wisdom of Methuselah, but I do know how important it isto keep those that you love close at hand. You have a habit of wishingto do everything on your own or trying to take care of everybody aroundyou. But who cares for you? You nurse your fears and anger and take onthe fears of those around you, but do not stop to allow anyone to helpyou when you deeply need it. Your husband tries, but I've seen you rushahead of him before you allow him to touch on something that might bepainful."
Willow glared at the Archon's hands. Her eyes stung. "Can we talkabout something else? I know my faults, but they're not the issue athand right now. When all of this is over, Sebazhan and I will go back toKroz and have some time together there."
"Or you will find some other thing to lose yourself in. But I willconcede and shall not sign any further." Yoshua rubbed hisfingers, letting a silence sit between himself and the Skreek for aminute or so.
Willow's voice sounded strained when she finally spoke again."Regardless, I think that a quick and hard assault will be for thebest. Maybe also send a crew to Primus to disable the gate there, or dosomething to cut off communication between Zion and there, so they won'twreck things or cause havok once word gets to them of what happenedhere. I think Light-of-Star feels that he's untouchable or probablyexpects us to try and out-talk him instead of just hitting him. But asdifficult of a maneuver as it is, I think it's the best one open to us.Get his base while he's gone, drag his secrets out for everyone to see,and have him arrested before he has a chance to say or do anything. Ifpossible, I'd like to have a large force hit the main section of his baseto keep the bulk of his defenses busy, while a smaller one goes in andtries to secure the restricted areas. Make sure nobody goes in alone, sothey won't risk getting brain-zonked, and maybe snag one of hisacolytes ahead of time and find out if there's any kind of implant intheir hands that will allow them to open doors. It might be importantif we can do the same thing without having to tackle someone during theattack… "
Yoshua blinked and nodded, rubbing his head a bit.
"I'll… I'll explain it more later." She looked at her empty glass."Since I'm out of wine, I might as well try to get some sleep again."
"I hope you manage to find some rest, Lady Dack," the Archonsigned. He signed 'rest' in a manner that might translate more towards'peace' or 'comfort' instead of simply getting sleep.
The Skreek nodded somberly and quietly strolled back to her room.
It seemed darker than usual in the sleeping chamber. Nene had flippedherself upside-down and had thrown her blanket off in her sleep getting used to a new bed wasn't easy apparently.
Willow carefully pulled the pillow out from under the kitten's feet andtucked it behind her head again. She kissed Nene's cheek and thenfolded the blanket over her. The Skreek folded her robe over a chairand curled into her own bed. She watched Sebazhan's face while heslept. His whiskers twitched slightly and one ear flicked as she settledin.
Sighing to herself, Willow scooted closer to her husband until she waspressed against his chest. Unconsciously, perhaps by instinct, he foldedhis arms around her and mumbled something incoherent. The Skreek closedher eyes and sighed to herself. Despite everything around her, for nowat least she could feel safe in this one little spot. She let her mindslowly quiet itself and eventually drifted off to sleep.