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The Meeting Place of Kip and Pali

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"Cliopher, may I have a bit of your time? I know you're busy as tanà and have a wedding to plan, so it doesn't have to be right now." Pali would be a bit offended if he actually told her to come back later, but she was trying to be reasonable. 

Cliopher pushed away the notebook he had been writing in. "No, this isn't urgent. I have time right now." He cleaned his pen and gestured for her to take a seat. His demeanor was professional and friendly. She could barely tell he was nervous to talk to her.

Pali hesitated, then went to close the door of the study before sitting. Cliopher's nervousness increased, but he did not object. She would get right to the point then.

"Fitzroy told me what you said. That your relationship with him would not necessarily preclude any relationship he wishes to have with me."

Cliopher looked her directly in the eyes. "I meant it."

It was good to see the conviction there. Fitzroy had been hesitant to even mention it, certain it would make things worse, that she would be offended at the very idea of sharing. But once Pali had calmed her jealousy, the childish voice in her head that whined I saw him first! , she considered the offer and found that she liked it. At least, in theory. Who knew how her emotions would react to the reality.

The idea of being Fitzroy's only love had always been a bit daunting. What if he wanted something, needed something, that she didn't want to give? What if she changed her mind and broke his heart? (She had worried, then, that she would not be able to change her mind, that he would not let her go if she said yes. She knew better now.) And she hadn't much liked sex, the one time she'd tried it – maybe it would be better with Fitzroy, but maybe it just wasn't for her. 

The idea of belonging to Fitzroy, and him to her, while he had someone else to turn to if she was busy, or uninterested, or needed space... she saw the appeal. If they could make it work.

Pali was a bit exasperated that it was this man in particular that she had to share Fitzroy with. But she had promised herself she would become this man's friend, and the situation made that promise even more important. Besides, some of Fitzroy's stories about him had been adequately impressive. 

"I am... considering it. But in the meantime, I would like to get to know you better. Of course, Fitzroy has had much to say about you–" she hadn't known what she was getting into when she told Fitzroy to convince her Kip was worth it "–and I'm sure you've heard many stories about me."

Cliopher smiled wryly. "Stories and songs."

"Of course." Pali could see the way he still treated the Red Company with awe, but he had been personable despite it. "But I'd like for us to get to know each other as friends." 

Excitement rose in Cliopher's eyes. "I'd like that very much."

Pali considered where best to start, and remembered one of the stories Fitzroy had told, where Cliopher had been challenged to prove his worth to a god of his people. She had liked that story.

She met his eyes and asked, "What is your name? What is your island? What is your dance?"

Oh, how alive he came at those questions. It was electric. She could see why Fitzroy loved him so, that he would react this way to a challenge.

"I am Cliopher Mdang of Tahivoa. My island is Loaloa. My dance is Aōteketētana ." His voice and baring were steady and sure, confident in who he was. He paused, then added, "I am the former Viceroy of Zunidh. I am tanà of my people. I went to sit at the feet of the Sun, and brought back a new fire."

She appreciated that phrase again, to sit at the feet of the Sun. It was a strange thought that the Sun, in this case, was Fitzroy, but she could admit that he had been a magnificent Emperor. 

"What do those questions mean to you? What do those answers mean to you?" There was a long history behind those questions that she did not know, and deep cultural significance to his answers.

He considered for a moment the best way to explain these things that in his culture needed no explanation.

"The questions are from the Lays , which are the songs of our history and knowledge. The questions are used to... to challenge a person on their identity, their history, their experience. Usually to determine if they are worthy of being trusted, or capable of completing a certain task. There are many other questions that can be asked during a challenge, but we always start with those three."

Pali was amazed at how perfect it was. She did want to challenge him, to understand him to the core of his being, to judge if he was trustworthy and capable in the task of holding Fitzroy's heart.

Cliopher continued, "The question of your name includes not just what you are called, but also your family and the place you live. I am a Mdang, and Mdangs hold the fire."

"What does it mean to hold the fire?" Pali knew many ways to build a fire, to be better for heat or light or cooking. What sort of things are good to burn, and how to make a fire last when you didn't have much fuel. She could see how that was important knowledge. But she knew there was more to it than that, from the stories Fitzroy had told.

"It is two fold. There is literal fire, of course. How to make it, how to tend to it, how to safely contain it. There is also the fire of civilization. Of good laws, and community, and settling disputes."

Pali would not have considered fire as a metaphor for bureaucracy. Government work was about rules and confinement, where fire was free and fierce. But she reconsidered now.

For a fire to benefit a community, it needed rules and confinement to prevent it from burning everything it touched. Likewise, a government could do great damage if not properly corralled. When set up correctly, both a fire and a government could provide many good and necessary things for a community. Both needed tending to, to make sure they didn't blaze too hot, or die out.

"You have tended well to the civilization of Zunidh." Pali could see how much that meant to him, that she, in particular, thought his work was good. And it had been very good, she had to admit, despite her initial prejudice against him.

Fitzroy would say that Kip had tended well to his fire too, kept his heart from burning out while he was imprisoned. Pali still thought Kip could have done better at that, but was learning to move past it. She didn't have to be perfect and neither did he. 

"The next part, 'of Tahivoa'. That's the place we are now?" She knew the city had districts, but not what any of them were called.

"Yes, the part of the city around the Tahivoa lagoon. The house I grew up in is close to here." He pointed vaguely. "It was important to me to get a house in the same area."

"When you lived in the Palace, did you say, 'Cliopher Mdang of the Palace of Stars'?" Pali thought that it had a rather nice ring to it, but Cliopher shook his head adamantly.

"No, home was always here."

Pali thought for a moment, then nodded. "I understand. I have always considered home to be the Oclaresh, where my clan lives." She hesitated before adding her next thought, but she was here to share truth, not just hear it. "I wonder if I will ever be content to retire there. I've tried before, to stay, but I was restless. I couldn't resist leaving to find a new adventure."

A sad look came into Kip's eyes. "Did you... did you feel you had a purpose, living among your clan?"

Pali felt a pain in her heart at that question. It was too insightful, too understanding. She was not ready to speak of how she felt among her people, not even to Jullanar. How she loved them and hated that it wasn't enough. How changed she was, after traveling worlds they had scarcely heard rumors of. How they had thrived without her, and so she felt redundant in their midst. How dare he ask her that.

Cliopher sat back at the look on her face, his expression startled for a moment before changing to a polite courtly mask. "I'm sorry, I should not have said that."

"No, you should not have." Her voice was harsh and low. She had to stop herself from continuing, from spitting sharp words into whatever tender places she could find. She had gotten better at holding her tongue, at least, over the past few years.

Cliopher let his mask fall, to show some sadness and pain. He spoke softly, "I once tried to return here, to stay, before I was ready, and it was... I don't want to talk about it. I shouldn't have asked you. I am sorry." He made a gesture with his hands and bowed his head in a way she thought might be part of Astandalian court customs, an indication of apology, but she wasn't sure. She had only read about them, never seen them in person. 

Pali looked away from him, breathed in and out. He had known what to ask because he had felt the same. Clearly that had changed, as he had retired here and was evidently happy. Her curiosity prickled as her anger started to dissipate. Maybe someday, they could feel comfortable enough with each other to talk about it. For now—

"I accept your apology." Time to change the subject. "The second question is of your island. But it is not the island you live on?"

Cliopher outwardly relaxed, but there was still tension in his eyes. "No. When the Wayfarers found these islands, they decided to stay, and become Islanders. The ship of the Mdangs was Ouvaye-ve and the island we settled on was Loaloa. That is my island no matter where I live."

Pali thought of the meeting-place where once a year all the clans of the Oclaresh would come together for a grand festival that lasted seven days. There was trading, competitions, games, dancing, music, and storytelling. During the evenings the clans recited and sang the history of their people since the Desert of Kaph had been a garden. Her mother had been keeper of their clan's oral history, and her sister Arzu after her. 

Pali remembered one year where she and Sardeet had recited as much as they could remember to the rest of the Red Company. She had written it down, after that, embarrassed at the holes in their telling, though she could imagine the tirade her mother would give if she knew. Lonar had never learned to read or write, decried books as unnecessary weight in a saddle bag, when one could simply remember what you needed to know, or ask another to teach you.

Pali had gone to the festival last time she had been home, and felt filled with joy at the connection to her people, but had left again anyway. 

She decided not to share this information, as she was still stinging from the last question. Instead she asked, "Do you visit regularly?"

"I've gone several times with family. I also lived there for a year with my great-uncle Tovo, when he was teaching me the Lays, pearl diving, and the family dances."

"Does he have a house there?"

"Yes, though we didn't always stay there. Buru Tovo wanted me to know how to live off an island with only what I could make myself, which I am grateful to have learned. He taught me how to make a shelter for myself, and a bed, and clothes, and food of course."

Pali raised her eyebrows, impressed despite herself. "That on top of the Lays , the pearl diving, and the dances? How old were you?"

"I was twelve." Cliopher flushed a little at her approving look. "Buru Tovo was a good teacher, and I was motivated by necessity. The first time I made something, it always broke after a bit and I had to try again."

Pali noticed how he downplayed his achievement, though he was obviously proud of it. It reminded her of Jullanar, how sometimes she would demure that something she had done was not that impressive, really, when compared with the accomplishments of the rest of the Company. It had annoyed Pali then, and it annoyed her now. 

It also frustrated her in the same way an opponent throwing a competition would. It wasn't a real victory if her opponent wasn't trying their best. She didn't especially want to be impressed by him, but she also didn't want him to insist he wasn't impressive.

"If you were training a twelve year old Mdang in the ways of your ancestors, would you expect them to get it right on the first try?"

Cliopher blinked in surprise at this question. "Of course not!"

Pali raised one eyebrow at him, in a manner she had perfected on her students. He smiled ruefully in acknowledgement of her point.

"So the dance Buru Tovo taught you–" She hesitated at the slight reaction he gave to her saying 'Buru Tovo'. "Sorry, should I not call him that?"

Cliopher chuckled and shook his head. "I should have explained the title. It means 'revered ancestor', and as he is not your ancestor..."

"Ah. Is there another title that would be appropriate for me to use?"

"You could call him Tanà Tovo. Or just Tovo. Islanders are pretty lax with titles." 

Islanders are lax with titles, he says, but he had used a title every time. He clearly had the greatest respect for his revered ancestor (what a marvelous title!). Pali thought of her great-grandfather Lord Andrej, the last Warrior of the Fifth Veil, who she might have called her revered ancestor. No, she would not call him 'just Tovo'.

"The dance Tanà Tovo taught you was– was the one you mentioned before?" She didn't quite remember how to pronounce it, and didn't want to mangle the beautiful name.

"He taught me many dances, the final one being the Aōteketētana . That is, the greater fire dance. Unlike the other Mdang dances, it is danced over hot coals."

"That is the dance you did in the Palace throne room? You learned that when you were twelve ?"

Pali saw Cliopher struggle not to say something dismissive again. He said simply, "Yes."

Pali rewarded him with her approving-teacher smile, which made him actually relax into his chair. "Will you tell me the meaning of the dances?"

Oh, he would. Cliopher talked for a while, his voice settling into a pleasant rhythm of speech-giving. He spoke of the knowledge encoded in the dances, the ways of making and tending fire in the lesser fire dances, and the history of exploration in the greater fire dance. He spoke of a journey he had taken, with the dance as his guide.

It was an incredible story, though Kip didn't tell it very well. He over summarized at first, and she had to ask clarifying questions until he told it again with more detail. Pali realized at the end that this was the time he had "tried to come home before he was ready" that he had mentioned earlier that he didn't want to talk about. She cursed herself for pushing, but also cursed that damn courtly mask that she couldn't read. She had made it obvious when he had asked an unwanted question, why couldn't he do the same? 

Pali swallowed her frustration and guilt and fascination with his story. (Using the history and rituals of his people to chart a course through typhoons, using the knowledge of his honored ancestor to survive, alone, at sea for an unknowable span of time, finding distant kin to teach him to build a boat from scratch, all for the goal of making it home to his family that might need him. What a glorious adventure! Though, she understood, not a happy one.) She would, unfortunately, have to move the conversation on.

"So will you dance the Aōteketētana again sometime, and would I be invited to watch? Fitzroy told me it was the most magnificent dance he had ever seen." At the time, Pali had huffed a bit at him calling Kip "magnificent", and had privately thought that the bureaucrat she had met did not seem like someone who could do such an impressive dance. She had seen since then some of what he was capable of, and after his story, believed it now.

Kip blushed at Fitzroy's praise. "Yes, I will dance it at the Singing of the Waters. That is, the festival where all the families perform their dances, and we sing the Lays together. The next one is in four months. You are welcome to come, if you stay that long."

He hadn't said if non-Islanders were usually welcome, but he didn't appear worried about someone kicking her out. "I am honored. I promise I will be there."

Kip spoke a bit softer. "It's... it will be the first Singing of the Waters I've been able to attend since I left for the Palace of Stars the second time. The first time I will dance the Aōteketētana before my people."

"Then I am doubly honored, and I swear again that I will be there." 

Pali remembered the joy of attending the clan festival for the first time in over a decade. How it had been both strange and familiar, overwhelming at times. She could not imagine performing at the same time. She had not been able to join in storytelling then, though that was probably more to do with her sorrow of separation from Fitzroy and the Red Company.

Kip smiled. "Thank you. There will also be dances at my wedding. Not that dance, but others."

There was a pain in Pali's chest at the mention of his wedding, of their wedding. She had brought this on herself, she knew. She had told Fitzroy 'not yet' too many times. But, despite the many flings he had had before, it had never seemed like he would settle with anyone else. It had felt like the option would always be there for her, when she was ready.

The option still was there, apparently, but it came with this man attached now. She would have to make the best of it. And it wasn't going too bad. Pali liked Kip better already, despite the piercing question he'd asked her. She realized she had started thinking of him as 'Kip', as Basil's cousin that she had felt kinship with before ever meeting him.

Oh, Kip was starting to look worried at whatever expression was on her face. She opened her mouth to ask another question, then realized suddenly how little she had spoken of herself, despite the length of their discussion.

"Alright, I've asked enough follow up questions. Your turn to ask what you will."

Kip nodded, then made his face serious and stared at her for a few moments. Anticipation built in the air as she waited for him to speak. 

"What is your name and your family? Where is the anchorage of your soul? What knowledge of your ancestors do you hold?"

Pali felt a shiver run down her spine and her heart beat faster. Is that what he heard when she had asked those three questions? No wonder he had reacted the way he had. The weight of the questions felt the same as being challenged by the Sphinx, by the Siruyal, by Damian and Fitzroy and Jullanar on their first meeting. She sat up straight and held Kip's intense gaze.

"I am Paliammë-ivanar Avramapul of the Oclaresh, second daughter of Lonar Avramapul the Bandit Queen and Aldizar aq Naarun aq Lo of the city of Rin. My mother is a Warrior of the Third Veil for her defeat of the Djinn Ondariin, who had killed over 30 travelers through the desert he wanted to claim as his own. My grandmother was the Bandit Queen before her. She was a weaver of great renown and did magic through her thread, as my sister Arzu does, and brought our clan much wealth. 

"My great-grandmother was called the Flower of Time, for when the sun was stolen away by the ice dragons, and a false sun shone in its place, spreading sickness to those who stood in its light, she climbed the stairs of the sky and slew the false sun, and brought back the rains. My great-grandfather Lord Andrej rescued the true sun by killing five dragons under the stars of an Arctic winter, and placed it back in the sky, and thus was named a Warrior of the Fifth Veil."

Kip was wide eyed and breathless at this account. His clear admiration was gratifying. He swallowed and asked, "Where is the anchorage of your soul?"

"In the largest oasis in the Middle Desert of the Oclaresh, there exists the stele engraved with the names of our clan gods. It is there my clan, and all the clans that are our kin, meet once a year in a grand festival. We have competitions, games, dancing, trade, storytelling, and celebrations for those who have completed worthy goals. And we recite and sing the history of our people, so all may know, and learn, and add to it in turn.

"Though I travel far and have not returned in many years, that place, and the people, history, and culture it represents, will always be the tether for my soul."

Pali felt lighter having declared that, and tears wetted her eyes. She might not want to return home for good, but it would always live in her heart, her soul, in the decisions she made and the way she saw the world. And it would always be a place she was welcome to return to, when she was ready, and leave again if she chose.

Kip's eyes shined a bit too, and he waited a moment before asking the third question. "What knowledge of your ancestors do you hold?"

"I am a Warrior of the Fifth Veil. I have learned the ways of fighting with a sword, a knife, and empty hands. I learned from Master Azaiah and Master Ilkhure, both Warriors of the Fourth Veil, who were unparalleled in their chosen weapons. With the Red Company, I completed the task given to me by the Wind Lords themselves, and was named their champion."

Pali told him of the Warriors of the Mountain. How they were taught to seek justice, to right any wrong, to use words to persuade before using violence. She told him of her first quest, to save her sister, and her second, to return the bones of the murdered wives.

Pali told him of her return to the Black Mountains. She spoke obliquely about her trepidation at returning, her knowledge that she had used violence on the quest that forbade it, even if she had not used a bladed weapon. She was not used to speaking about such things, even to close friends, so her words barely hinted at the depths of the fear and sorrow she had felt then. But she could see, in Kip's clever, calculating gaze, that he saw those depths anyway. He wisely did not comment on it.

So she continued on about being granted the Third Veil, her joy at receiving her great-grandmother's sword, her recognition of Lord Andrej as her great-grandfather. Kip mostly just listened, perhaps saving his questions for later, but she was gratified by his obvious interest and admiration.

Pali spoke of her further adventures in Kaphyrn, of finding the Siruyal and receiving three feathers, then passing into a new world where she had met the first three members of what would one day be the Red Company. She noticed Kip's attention turn to a sort of giddy excitement, despite the fact that he had met all of the Red Company already, and could call several of them his friends (and one, his betrothed).

Pali, a bit teasingly, accordingly drew out her narration of their first meeting. Her first sighting of people in this alien world. How different they were from her, from the people she had known, in their looks and their clothes and their speech. And, surprisingly, how different they were from each other. Two were pale, with blond and light brown hair, the other with the darkest skin she'd ever seen. Each with their own accent and knowledge of other languages. 

Damian's sword was uncurved, his stances unfamiliar. Upon seeing her sword, he had immediately challenged her to a duel. Pali would later learn, to her disappointment, that this was not the common way people here introduced themselves. They fought. She won, after great effort. Then Fitzroy called out that she was magnificent and they should get married. 

Kip had been leaning forward, spellbound by her words, until she quoted Fitzroy. Then he moved back slightly, his eyebrows creasing, a look of... not quite disgust, but perhaps distaste.

Pali wondered if the reaction was jealousy of Fitzroy's feelings for her, but then remembered her first meeting with his cousin Basil. That neither she, nor the Kip in his story, had been impressed with the romance of love at first sight. She couldn't help but burst out laughing.

When she had calmed, Kip, with a small smile, raised his eyebrows to ask to be let in on the joke. Smirking, Pali said, "I also wasn't impressed with his marriage proposal. Though I've heard from your cousin Basil that you have no room to criticize love at first sight, based on your reaction to Emperor Artorin's portrait."

Kip looked startled, then blushed. "That wasn't love, it was fate."

"Wasn't it though? And you hadn't even met him in person yet."

Kip blushed harder. Oh, teasing him was as fun as she thought it would be. She had gotten a few good embarrassing stories from Jullanar and some from Fitzroy, but she didn't want to use them all up at once. Though based on his reaction to praise, she had a different idea that should continue to discompose him.

"And when you did meet in person, Fitzroy was immediately taken with you." 

Kip looked a little surprised at this. Had Fitzroy never told him? Maybe not in those words. "Oh?" Kip tried and utterly failed to say nonchalantly. 

"He said, on the first day of meeting you, that you were 'intrepid, competent, unrefined, and funny'. Unrefined was a compliment, from him. And that was before you met his eyes, which he said was the greatest gift he had received since becoming Emperor."

Kip's blush did get darker, covering his whole face now. But he also started to tear up. Shit, she had overdone it. Pali didn't want him to start crying on her. 

"Anyway, after Fitzroy said we should get married, I told him to ask again when he was famous." Pali continued on with her story of their first meeting, their first adventure as a yet unnamed group. Kip, thankfully, was able to use that time to compose himself.

---

They talked until the sun had set and Kip made a fire in a brazier (using a fire-starter, disappointingly. Pali teased him until he promised to show her the traditional method another time). Pali asked for more details on some of the stories Fitzroy or Jullanar had told her. Kip asked about Red Company adventures, but also about her time at Stoneybridge.

And, of course, they talked about Fitzroy. It was clear how besotted Kip was, when he spoke of Fitzroy. Pali hoped she didn't sound that way. She was actually surprised Kip wasn't embarrassed by his reactions, based on the other things that made him blush. Perhaps he didn't realize how transparent he was being, or thought that his feelings were the normal way everyone should react to Fitzroy. 

It was amazing how sometimes their ideas of 'typical Fitzroy behavior' were so different from each other, but other times, exactly the same. He was loud, he was quiet, he was flippant, he was sincere. He was witty, caring, inspiring. A true leader and a true friend. And, Pali was delighted to hear, an incurable prankster.

Pali could tell Fitzroy had not gotten many opportunities to play pranks as Lord of Zunidh, but she was glad he had some. Kip told her how Fitzroy, after being incognito for the whole vacation, arrived in full glory to his sister's orchestra performance and made him a Lord in front of most of his family, who hadn't even known he worked directly for the Emperor. They laughed together, Kip flushed with remembered embarrassment.

"When did you realize he was Fitzroy Angursell?"

Pali knew she shouldn't have asked. They had been having such a good time. She could feel her old anger rising up again as the questions she really wanted to ask filled her mind. How long had he knowingly kept Fitzroy in his cage? How had he justified it to himself? Had he convinced Fitzroy to stay, with all those smooth arguments he had used on her?

Cliopher gave an embarrassed chuckle and admitted, "It took me far longer than it should have to figure it out. He gave me so many clues... but there was other information that seemed to contradict it. It wasn't until I got the letters from his quest that I knew."

Was he... lying to her? He had known when she had visited the Palace, she was sure of it. How dare he pretend he hadn't. Her simmering rage started to boil, but she also felt... confused.

Cliopher's posture and expression was open, friendly, ready to be teased for being slow on the uptake. He had a reputation for being honest and forthright. And over the course of the past few hours, she had begun to trust him.

She struggled against her instincts pulling her in opposite directions. She needed... she needed to test her theories. See which one bore out.

"When I came to the Palace... did you realize who I was?" Pali asked carefully, trying her best to keep her turbulent emotions hidden.

Cliopher's eyebrows creased at something in her tone or expression, but he continued on politely anyway. "Oh, about halfway through our conversation. I had a clue already though. A few years earlier while on that vacation, Fitzroy made several illusions for people in a marketplace. One of them was an elephant with a woman—you—riding in the pavilion on its back. I know the story of the Red Company and the Elephant, of course, and I remembered the few times he had mentioned the Red Company to me... so I figured it out." He paused, then added, "From the moment I saw you, you seemed like someone out of a legend. I was not surprised to find you were."

Pali had several thoughts in reaction to that, but settled on the one most important to her topic. "If you knew I was Pali, who did you think he was?"

"Bellefontaine, or Ydar, or Tamarill, or... I made a list once, of every name from a song that could have referred to the Marwn in his tower. I thought the Red Company had found it, had befriended him there."

Pali shivered at the mention of that damn tower, that Fitzroy had finally been able to tell them the full account of his exile there. "If I had met the Marwn trapped in his tower, and become his friend, I would not have just left him there."

Oh Cliopher heard the challenge in her words now. Pali saw him realize what this conversation was actually about. He shifted and became like stone: steady and sure and hard. She mimicked him.

"Will you say what you mean plainly, so I do not mistake it?"

Pali knew she should not be doing this, that she had come here to make peace. But if he was asking , she could not back down now. She had finally forgiven herself for not being there to rescue Fitzroy when he had needed her. She had not quite been able to forgive Cliopher, who had been there. Who had been his friend, who had seen that he hated his life. How could he have not done something ?

"When we talked in Solaara, you told me it was your fault he could not come down. You told me that he hated his life, then convinced me to leave him trapped there anyway. Even if you did not know he was Fitzroy—how long did you know he wanted to be free? How could you love him and keep him caged?"

Anger flashed in Cliopher's eyes and his hands briefly clenched into fists. But his breathing was steady, where hers had quickened, and he waited a moment to collect his thoughts before speaking.

"It was five years before he left on his quest, that I suggested his Radiancy take a vacation in the Vangavaye-ve. It was then that he told us that he hated his life, that he was imprisoned, that the walls between us were not of his choosing." Cliopher's voice was calm, measured, polite. Pali couldn't stand it. Five years? Five ? She had thought it cruel to make him wait for one more year.

"It was Ludvic that suggested he retire. It hadn't occurred to him that that was an option, that the Lord of Zunidh could retire where the Emperor could not. It hadn't occurred to the rest of us, either. Once the idea was presented, however, he declared he would retire at the Jubilee seven years from then."

Cliopher looked hard into her eyes. "Since that moment, I have done everything in my power to make that happen. I did not know he was Fitzroy Angursell, but I did not need to know that to desire his freedom to the depths of my soul."

"If you desired it so, why did you not free him then?" Pali let show her anger, her derisiveness, her betrayal from this man who Fitzroy loved.

"Because he did not wish to be free then."

Pali flinched back from that. She wanted to call him a liar, say he kept Fitzroy imprisoned to achieve his own ambitions. But... when she had asked Fitzroy to come with her, he had said no. She had wondered, if she had tried to kidnap him, what he would have said, then stopped herself from thinking about it. 

Gather proof. Test your theories. "I remember how he was, during the start of that quest. He delighted in the smallest things, things that had been denied to him for so long. He flinched away from touch. He could barely express his feelings. He was clearly traumatized." There was a reaction, a wince, a deep sorrow in Cliopher's eyes. Pali's heart jumped at seeing it, this proof of his love, even as she raged against him. "How can you say he did not wish to be free?"

"Let me rephrase. As much as he wished to be free right away, he wanted something else more. He wanted lasting peace and prosperity for all of the people of Zunidh. He knew if he left before rebuilding the structure of the government, there would be a war of succession. Likely, each Prince would fight to expand or protect their own territories. Some would keep the peace, but enough would fight that it would be a many sided war that would last for decades."

War. The Red Company had seen the horrors of war, had done their best to prevent them. She remembered Fitzroy's reactions to burned down villages, to lines of people bringing everything they could carry to a nearby city in hopes of safety, to the dead bodies left unburied and uncleansed. Yes. She could believe that the threat of war would convice him to stay. But she was not quite satisfied yet.

"If he had said he wished to go earlier, would you have let him go?"

Several emotions flashed across Cliopher's face before settling on... exasperation? "Pali, I don't know why you think that I, personally, held the keys to his prison. He did not have to get permission from me, or from anyone, in order to leave. On that vacation, the same day he declared he would retire, he argued with Conju and became so angry that he left the house and commanded his guards to stay behind. He was gone for over an hour. He could have just left and never come back. He could have done that at any time. He stayed because his honor, and his love for his people, were greater than his desire to leave."

That did sound like something Fitzroy would do. Pali remembered Cliopher had told her, 'if he went down now he would not come back'. She had dismissed it at the time, for she felt he should come down and not go back. She thought someone was stopping him. But he had been the one that said no.

Pali felt... deflated. Had she really judged the situation so wrongly? She thought of a few counter questions, but what was the point? Fitzroy had told her that Cliopher had saved him, had kept him sane. She should have trusted that from the start. 

They sat in silence for several minutes while Pali sorted through her emotions. She was, finally, able to set down her anger, her guilt, her sorrow. Fitzroy was free now, was happy, and the ones who had truly bound him had all died in the Fall, or after. (She had done that research on the Ouranatha, hoping for someone she was allowed to stab.)

As those feelings flowed out of her, Pali felt a filling up of light, of joy, of peace instead. It was good to be able to look at Kip and see a friend, an ally, instead of an enemy. (Had she been seeing him as an enemy this whole time? She had thought she had come here to be his friend. She had thought she had put away her anger long before.)

She said, "After we talked in Solaara, I blamed you and Ludvic for his imprisonment. You were the head of the bureaucracy, he the head of the guard. Who else could I hold accountable? I didn't want to be angry at Fitzroy. I needed someone else that I could imagine taking revenge on."

Kip swallowed, looking just a bit frightened at the idea of Pali Avramapul taking revenge on him. Pali delighted in it, even though she shouldn't; she was in the middle of an apology

"I am sorry that I judged you so harshly, with too little evidence, and did not change my views when I received more information. It was badly done of me, both as a scholar and as a Warrior of the Mountains. Hear my sorrow."

"I sit by the fire and hear it." Pali smiled at the ritual words from another culture, given in reply to her own.

"Will you forgive me for my behavior toward you?"

Kip smiled at her. "I will."

"Will you accept my offer of friendship?"

He grinned wide, joyful. "I will."

Her third question should be a gift. "Will you let me teach you sword fighting?"

He startled, suddenly unsure. "I... I doubt I would be that good at it. I'm sure Ludvic and Rhodin would be honored to spar with you."

"I will spar with them. I'd like to get to know them better as well. But I'd like to teach you, if you want to learn. I enjoy teaching and find it an excellent way to get to know someone. You don't have to be good at fighting to learn the stances. And sword fighting... it can be like dancing. I've heard you're good at that."

Kip blushed a bit at the praise. "Well, if you're sure... I would be honored to learn from you."

Pali nodded, pleased at his acceptance of both lessons and her apology. She had sparred with students at the fencing salle in Stoneybridge, had even taught a few times. She was looking forward to teaching the sword to Kip. Besides getting to know him, she would also relish doing an activity with him that she was so much better at than he was.

A sudden realization lit in his face and he eagerly asked, "Does this mean you're staying?"

She smiled at Kip's excitement, glad that he really did want her here, that he wanted to be friends, that he had not offered to share in Fitzroy's love out of perceived obligation or necessary sacrifice. 

Pali realized suddenly that she had been thinking of Kip in those terms herself. She had come here to try to be his friend for Fitzroy's sake, not for Kip's sake or her own. He deserved better than that.

"I'll be staying for several months, at least. Probably a year. I'm writing another book about Emperor Artorin, specifically about how being Fitzroy Angursell affected all his decisions. Fitzroy has agreed to be a primary source."

Kip looked delighted at this idea. "If you need a proofreader..."

Pali nodded and said with a slight smirk, "Fitzroy said you'd offer. He also warned you might give back notes as long as the book itself."

Kip laughed, "I'll try to restrain myself."

Oh, Pali was excited about this book. It would be her best work. She had already had a long discussion with Fitzroy about boundaries, what not to ask about, and what they would do if she said something that upset him. She thought they were at a place, now, where working on this book together could be a positive experience for them both. 

It was widely known that Fitzroy Angursell and the Red Company were back, and that Fitzroy had claimed multiple times to also be Emperor Artorin. But the Last Emperor himself, after returning with an heir and then retiring, had not said anything about Fitzroy Angursell, and no one had been brave enough to ask. So Pali was sure her book would sell well, if only for the intrigue.

But Pali wanted it to be a masterpiece of scholarship as well. She wanted to set down proof that Artorin Damara had been one of the greatest Emperors in the history of Astandalas, and it had been specifically because of his history with the Red Company that he knew so much about justice and mercy. When she had asked Fitzroy what he wanted from the book, he had said simply, "I want people to know me." So that was their goal.

Kip considered her thoughtfully, then asked, "Since you're staying a while, is there anything that I could teach that you would want to learn?"

Pali was a bit surprised, then delighted at the offer. It should be reciprocal, an exchange of knowledge instead of one of them the teacher and the other the student. She considered what Kip knew that she might want to learn. Not scholarship or rhetoric or government—she was already knowledgeable in those areas, and they could discuss them together for fun. His dances were cultural knowledge. But there was one thing she had already been thinking of learning. Being on these islands, these beautiful islands, excited her urge to explore.

"I would like to learn how to sail. I know some things already, but I've always sailed before on larger ships with others who knew what they were doing. I'd like to be able to take a small vessel out myself, with all the knowledge of how to handle it."

Kip smiled wide at her. "I can certainly teach you that. For I have only sailed small vessels." There was a gleam in his eyes as he continued, "I won't even force you to build the boat yourself first."

Pali raised her eyebrows at the challenge in his joking words. She remembered Kip's story, of sailing through storms in a boat of his own hands’ making. Her first instinct was to rise to that challenge, declare if he had done it, then she could too.

But not all challenges were for her, and the point of this whole thing was to be his friend, not to prove she was better than him. Did she really want to build an entire boat herself? ...Maybe. But maybe not. She should see how much she liked sailing before committing herself to it.

"That does seem like it would take a while. Maybe after I learn how to sail, I'll want to do that."

That startled a laugh out of Kip. The corner of his mouth twitched in a half-hidden smirk as he said, as nonchalantly as he could, "If you decide you do, I can get some of my friends to help teach you as well. That way, you'd maybe be able to build a better boat than I was able to do."

Oh, that was a challenge. How much he understood about her already, that he could tease her like this! And she felt she understood him as well. In a different time, she might have taken his words as mockery, an implication he didn't think she could really do it, or that her desire to try was foolish. Now she took them for the light teasing it was, and for the sincere promise to do as he had said, if she so wished.

This was going to work. This was going to work , the three of them together in a pattern of their own making.

Pali threw back her head and laughed and laughed and laughed.