"In a crowd, you're just looking at girls with the same hair-cut as me."

"FUSE OF EXCITEMENT"

FUSHIGI YUUGI

Before I could think of turning and fleeing, before I could even think of anything, the front door banged open and three forms of varying size tumbled out into the snow.

"Da!" the smallest child lisped, throwing her arms wide open and toddling into her father's embrace as quickly as her stubby little legs could carry her.

The two eldest children stopped dead in their tracks, however, as soon as they caught sight of me. My jaw dropped and we stared at each other; my brain worked overtime, registering the fact that I knew these three already. With wide eyes, I turned to Cai, meeting the bright green eyes of the little girl his arms.

"Celeste?" I gasped and then turned to the other two. "Craig? Alyanna?"

"Maid Winter," Craig's brow furrowed in puzzlement. "What are you doing here?" he turned to his father for an explanation.

I, too, turned to look at Cai. The Stable Master's eyes danced mischievously and a grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. But he didn't answer his son's query immediately; instead, he jerked his chin toward the house.

"In we go," he ordered gently, taking the lead with Celeste still clinging to his neck. "We can talk better in there. Craig – take Winya to the stables and rub her down."

Craig pursed his lips as if he was going to protest, but after catching the commanding look in his father's gaze, the boy merely nodded and trotted past to do his duties. Cai watched for a few seconds, as if to make sure that his son would do as he was told. Then, with a quick smile in my direction, he turned back around and carried Celeste into the house, silent Alyanna following closely on his heels.

The warmth and light spilling out of the open door beckoned to me, but I lingered outside in the cold for a few minutes more. I was simply too stunned for any rational thought or words. I had seen Celeste, Craig, and Alyanna quite regularly during the time that I had spent with the Rogues. They knew me by name and I them.

I had never dreamed that Cairuin Thane would be their father.

I watched as Craig hopped onto the wagon seat and guided the mare down toward the stables. The old animal didn't really need guiding, though. As soon as the boy picked up the reigns, she started toward down the hill and around the house at a pace considerably faster than earlier.

I watched until they had disappeared around the side of the house. Only then did I turn back toward the door, which was still open. I started when I saw Cai standing in the doorway, leaning against one of the lentils, his arms crossed over his broad chest. Celeste stood by his side, the thumb of one hand in her mouth and the other hand tightly gripping the bottom of her father's well-worn, thigh-length vest.

"It's warmer in here," Cai grinned turning his head slightly and glancing into the house.

I could see Alyanna in the background, busily bustling to and fro, laden with dishes, cups, a kettle, and finally, a large, steaming pot of stew. Apparently, whatever confessions and explanations Cai had to give, would be done over a hot dinner. As the thick, rich aroma of lamb stew wafted out past the door, my stomach growled softly – I then realized how hungry I really was.

"Yes…I suppose it is," I murmured in response to Cai's comment, pulling the edges of his coat closer around my body and walking slowly toward him and Celeste.

He moved and touched the back of my shoulder as I moved past him. Like a frightened horse, I shied away and for the merest second, our eyes met – mine, full of trepidation, his a mixture of puzzlement, mild indignation, and something else that I couldn't quite name. But then he smiled, nodded slowly as if to himself, and shut the door, sealing in the delicious warmth.

As I listened to the latch lowered, locking the door in place, I felt a sudden moment of claustrophobic panic.

I'm locked into this now! No way out! A prisoner…trapped…

I felt the fierce urge to scream in gibberish, stomp my feet, and pull at my long hair. But I was brought to reality when I felt a little fist pulling at the bottom of my borrowed coat. Heart still racing – but getting calmer by the minute – I focused on the small girl standing next to me in the middle of the dirt-floor kitchen.

"Are you stayin', Maid Winter?" Celeste's green eyes gazed innocently up at me.

"Um…" I risked a glance at Cai, who was standing nearby, his face thoughtful. "Why…uh…yes," I finally replied, looking back down at Celeste.

"Why don't you take off your coat and stay a while, then," Alyanna's fresh, round, pretty face dimpled in a shy smile.

"Oh…um…thank you," I dipped my head, a bit embarrassed, and fumbled with the buttons.

I then realized that Cai's old coat wasn't buttoned and I felt my pale face flaring a very bright and noticeable red. Gods! How I wished the earth would just open up and swallow me right then and there.

I don't want to be here! And why does everyone have to stare at me?

Needless to say, I felt very close to tears.

Not that I would actually cry. My kind can't cry – that's the truest human emotion. And I wasn't human. In appearance and body, yes. But not in mind, or heart, or soul; there, I was still untamed, still ageless, and still myself.

So lost was I in my thoughts, that the weight of another's hand on my shoulder didn't register at first. But then, when said hand began to tug at "my" coat, my mind returned to the present. Startled, I tried to shy away once again – especially when I glanced over my shoulder and saw Cai standing foursquare behind me, both hands on my shoulders

Was this man determined to touch me? Anger, fear, and indignation began to well up inside of me, but he had to laugh.

It was a soft chuckle really, but it sent pleasant little chills up my spine and arms. What was this human man doing to me? Why did I react so strongly (and so strangely) to his every smile, laugh, and look?

"Winter, relax," his throaty voice tried to sooth me. "You can't have met many gentlemen in your life," his eyes twinkled merrily.

"What do you mean?" I snapped a bit irritably.

It wasn't exactly that I was mad at him. I was simply afraid. Afraid of his kindness, of his attention, and – most importantly – his affection.

"Hasn't anyone ever tried to help you out of your coat?" the tone of his question bordered on amusement.

"Oh…" it was then that I realized that he was only trying to be polite.

He's trying to make you feel welcome, a little voice in the back of my mind berated me. It wouldn't hurt to show some appreciation. At least stop acting like a skittish, week-old filly.

I finally submitted and allowed him to slip the heavy woolen coat off of my shoulders. I turned and watched awkwardly as he hung it up beside three other coats, each of a different color and size. One was a tiny blue – clearly Celeste's. The one beside hers was a deep green, almost the color of fir needles. Since it was feminine in its cut, though not very large, I assumed it to be Alyanna's. By virtue of elimination, the remaining coat – a plain, no-nonsense brown – belonged to Craig.

Which reminded me…Craig was still outside with the mare. Of course, by now, he was most likely inside the stable, surrounded by the warm-blooded bodies of countless horses, but it still amazed me that he was running about without a coat. Clearly, the Thanes were a hardy people, well acclimated to the chill, ice, and snow of winter.

I was not such a person. I could have bundled up underneath all four coats, as well the four matching scarves, and still have shivered in the wake of a passing wind. During Yuki's harsh season, I tried to stay indoors as much as possible.

Of course, it would probably help if I learned to dress properly, I mused, glancing down at Celeste, who still stood at my side, thumb in mouth. My thin cotton shirt and old britches are going to have to go, if I'm going to live in this colder climate.

I thought wistfully of the warm, balmy air of southern Deardaoin and sandy Pyr. But those were memories of the past – for the next year, at least, my days as a wandering Ranger were on hold. There wouldn't be any convenient escapes to hotter regions this winter; I'd have to stick the bone-freezing cold out for once in my pampered, solitary life.

Of course, you have a man now to keep you warm at night, that evil little voice whispered.

Go to Jigoku! my better senses snarled back.

Still, the damage was done. I risked a peak at Cai; he had sat down in a large chair at the head of the simple table that was probably made by his own hand. He was leaning back, hands clasped over his belt, and was dividing his attention between Alyanna who was now busy making tea, and me. As luck would have it, he was looking me when I glanced at him. My pointed ears turned red and I looked hastily away.

No – depending on Cairuin Thane to keep me warm at night was an foolish, self-destructive thought. There wasn't a man of flesh and blood in all of Tir-nan who could sleep with a woman and not at least try to do more than that.

"Why don't you sit down," Cai motioned to the chair at his right; when would I stop blushing like some naïve virgin?

Duh, stupid! That's what you are.

If that Voice had been something tangible, something of bone, blood, and sinew, I would have grabbed it by the throat and throttled the life out of it. Why wouldn't it leave me alone?

"Thank you," I mumbled instead, as I pulled out the chair that he had indicated.

Gingerly, I sat on the very edge of it, as if preparing to leap to my feet at any "threatening" movement. Alyanna came over and handed me some tea; as I took the cup from her, thankful for something warm and hot to pour down my throat, she looked as if she was going to say something. There was a peculiar expression on her face as she glanced toward her father and seemed to think better of saying anything.

Alyanna was a quiet girl and of all the Thane children, I liked her the best. She was extremely mature for her thirteen springs, mostly because it had fallen to her to take care of her family and home in place of her deceased mother.

It suddenly clicked and I eyed Cai surreptitiously from over the rim of my steaming, fragrant mug. He had been married once before, to a woman from the Borderlands, up around the Gwynt-Deardaoin border, west of Fort Vierne, where we had first seen each other. Now, he was a widower and one of the "most eligible bachelors" of lower-class Genma. I had known this much about Alyanna, Celeste, and Craig's father before I ever knew that he was my nameless hunter.

Everyone, it seemed, knew of Cairuin Thane. But probably not as the Stable Master of Sir Kildare, I was willing to wager. No…to all of the people of Genma, be they Common, Noble, or Royal, he was known by a far different title.

I was still having trouble believing the enormity of his true identity, or understanding how he got that identity to start with, since I had first known him to be a simple, north Deardaoin hunter. But I couldn't escape, or explain away the truth. Not with Celeste sitting in his lap, or with Alyanna humming softly herself as she lit the evening candles.

The tiny flames flickered, however, when the door opened, bringing with it a gust of bitter winter wind. I shivered, even in that breadth of a second, before the door was slammed shut once more. Without turning around, I knew who it was – Craig had returned from the stables, bringing with him the crisp smell of snow and the warm scent of horses' bodies.

"All well?" Cai cocked a bluish-black eyebrow at his son, who moved closer to the fire, rubbing his young hands together to warm them.

"As usual," Craig shrugged nonchalantly, hunching his shoulders and leaning in closer to the heat. "Marc told me to tell you that Fryae's having trouble, though."

"What kind of trouble?" Cai's voice became sharper with concern.

I gulped down some more tea, enjoying the liquid fire it spread inside of my body. I could practically feel it slide down my throat, pool in my stomach, and radiate its warmth to all of my extremities from that one focal point.

"She's actin' like she may foal tonight," Craig, sufficiently warmed, sat down in the chair across from me.

Alyanna, having finished with the candles, came over herself and sat beside her brother. Cai gently pushed Celeste off of his lap and she climbed into the higher-built chair sitting next to me. Then, as if it were a comfortable reflex, she pressed her palms together, bowed her head, and rested her thumbs against the center of her forehead. With child-like impatience, she squeezed her eyes shut, then opened one to stare reprovingly at her father.

Cai noticed almost immediately and with a slight chuckle, he winked at Celeste and the rest of us.

"I think Celeste's tryin' to tell us she's hungry," he grinned, adopting the same curious stance as his youngest daughter.

"You were later than usual tonight," Alyanna commented wryly, glancing at me just before bowing her own head.

Feeling remarkably out of place, I hesitantly mimicked Cai and his children. I had seen my father do this before, when he prayed to Lord Sylvan for guidance as we traveled the forest byways. But I had never heard of praying to the gods before eating – perhaps it was a local custom, or a tradition that Cai had brought with him from Vierne. And who would we pray to? Yoko, the sun god? Lady Lynn or Lord Sylvan, perhaps, since they were the patron god of horses and those who cared for them.

But "landers" prayed more commonly to Lord Sylvan, since he was the god of earth and wood. I couldn't imagine a man – especially one like Cai – to pray to a goddess. So that ruled out Inari, who would have been my next guess.

Maybe Lord Januel? I recalled Cai's reference to fate and fortune earlier on in the day. That would be in keeping with his truer nature, I suppose. After all, Januel would be one of his patron gods.

But when Cai opened his mouth after several seconds of reverent silence, I was properly surprised. He didn't pray to any of the gods I thought he might – he prayed to the last deity I would have suspected.

"Lady Vida, we beseech thy blessing on this house and all within. Keep us in thy hand and sustain us, as Mother of all."

With that simple prayer, Cai opened his eyes, lifted his head, stood up, and reached for my bowl with one hand and the stew pot's ladle with the other. I quickly straightened and hid my hands in my lap, trying to hide my amazement as well. But I must not have done a good job, because as Cai passed me my bowl and motioned for Celeste's, he grinned at me.

"Was it something I said, or something that was done? Perhaps both?" he asked kindly, filling his daughter's bowl.

"Uh…" I was at a loss for words; that seemed to be happening to me a lot that night. "What do you mean?" I finally squeaked, fiddling with the wooden spoon set in place beside my bowl.

"You looked surprised about something," Cai replied calmly, picking up Craig's bowl next.

"Um…uh…"

Lady Lynn be beseeched! I must sound like a true idiot, I winced inwardly. Why can't I express myself intelligently tonight? I never have any trouble any other time.

"I…just didn't expect you to pray to Lady Vida, that's all," I finally gathered my wits and spit out the first thing that came to mind – which was more candid than I had meant it.

"To a man without a wife and children without a mother, that's the most logical of Elysium's deities to beseech, wouldn't you think?" Cai, who handed Alyanna her food and finally settled down to his own. "Seeing as Lady Vida is the Mother Goddess and An Dagda's immortal wife."

"Point taken," I admitted, humbled by his logic.

When he put it that way, it made perfect sense. Vida was the perfect deity to pray to, considering the family's situation. She was, as Cai had stated, the "Mother of all." However, all this talk of mothers and wives was beginning to get me on edge and reminding me of why I was present at this man's table in the first place.

As if on cue, Alyanna looked up from her stew and fixed her father with a guarded and respectful, albeit suspicious eye.

"Da…?"

"Aye?" Cai glanced up momentarily, then turned back to his bread and stew, clearly unperturbed.

I, on the other hand, was too full of butterflies to eat as heartily as the four seated around me. Picking up my spoon, I made a pretense of eating, but all I really did was push a particular chunk of carrot that happened to catch my eye, around and around in the stew. I instinctively knew that the conversation was going to get rather heated from this point out – though what the children's' reactions would be to their father's decision, only An Dagda could tell.

But butterflies weren't my only problem. It finally registered that the stew contained a rather generous portion of lamb. I almost recoiled in disgust, as I always did when faced with the sight or smell of meat. It wasn't that I grudged humans and many Mageians their taste for flesh, but I abhorred the thought of killing another creature for one's sustenance. Like all of my kind, I was a vegetarian, and a rather selective one at that. I might have been forced into a human's body, but I wasn't so human, that I would stoop to eating as they did. It went against every instinctive fiber in my true self trapped inside. For twenty years, I had never tasted meat. I wasn't going to start now, despite the precarious situation in which I now found myself.

How in Jigoku am I going to eat around here without Cai realizing that something's wrong? He'll be sure to guess, given time!

"What's Maid Winter doing here?" Alyanna's eyes narrowed.

"Aye!" Craig piped up, breaking off a piece of his bread as he peered across the table at me. "We heard all about your trial," he directed this at me. "We thought ya' were gonna' hang!"

I cringed at his blunt use of the word "hang," even though what he said was truth. I was certainly supposed to hang today. By all rational accounts, I should have been dead by now. Instead, I was alive and well, sharing supper with a man practically a stranger to me (despite what I knew of him through his children), who I was supposed to marry within two days.

Suddenly, the young boy's eyes grew wide and he turned toward his father with something akin to awe.

"Did you rescue her, Da?"

No doubt, visions of a gallant, swashbuckling "rescue" filled the eleven-year-old's imagination. Clearly, he viewed his father as another Aidan Ghile, the infamous lover of the goddess Inari and the most famous of all the Rogue "princes." I couldn't help but smile at the thought – Cairuin Thane was probably quite capable of pulling off such an outrageous feat, but he didn't strike me as the flamboyant, fiery type. Not like Aidan Ghile, at least.

I quickly sobered when I realized that the children were in for quite a surprise. It was one thing to swoop in and rescue a fellow-comrade-in-arms, which I considered myself, after having allied myself with the Genma Rogues. But what Cai had done was something entirely different. That showed some sort of interest, in the most deeply intimate way imaginable. How was he going to explain that to his three children? Much less to me…though I knew what the children didn't.

Cai and I had met before, in a very sensual manner. He, of all men, had seen me naked – who was to say that he hadn't thought of me since then, as I had thought of him?

"Ahh…" Cai squirmed, ever so slightly, in his chair.

As if stalling for time, he took a spoonful of broth and sipped it. His eyes strayed to me and I tried to keep my expression carefully neutral, even though I could feel the heat creeping up into my cheeks. This was the moment of truth. How would the children accept me?

"You could say that, Craig," Cai carefully side-stepped the issue.

"Say what?" Alyanna wasn't so easily pleased; she eyed me with something bordering on hostility.

Did she suspect? Did she know of Akami's ancient custom? With most youngsters her age, I would have said "no," but Alyanna Thane wasn't a typical young girl. She was unusually precocious and even at the age of thirteen, had definite convictions and beliefs about the conventional role of a woman in society. Some day, she would be a great woman, if she didn't befall my own fate and meet with the noose.

"That I 'rescued' Maid Winter," Cai glanced over at me, almost shyly.

"But –" Alyanna definitely suspected something.

"That's all for now, Aly," Cai shook his head slowly and motioned toward Celeste with a small smile.

Alyanna followed his gaze and then clasped her hand to her mouth to stifle a sudden giggle. Little Celeste had finished her meal, but somewhere along the course of Craig and Alyanna's aborted interrogation, the six-year-old had nodded off to sleep. Her head lolled onto her tiny chest and she leaned toward me, her downy head of wispy, strawberry blond hair barely brushing against my nearby shoulder.

"You can sleep in here tonight," Cai opened the door to the room on the left side of the kitchen-dining area.

I peered past his shoulder and candle at the room beyond. It was simple and sparsely furnished, but there was a large bed in the corner. After having slept on a thin straw pallet for several weeks, a heather mattress and fresh sheets was all that I cared about at this point.

But still, I hesitated. I instinctively second-guessed Cai's every kindness as holding some hidden, deeper, unwanted meaning.

"What about you and Craig, though?" I demanded, stepping reluctantly over the threshold and turning around in a circle, taking in the little room.

"We'll both be sleeping in the brood mare stable tonight," Cai explained, his voice in a lower timbre to keep from carrying through the house and waking up Alyanna and Celeste, who had just settled down in their own beds at the other side of the kitchen.

"This is your room, isn't it?" I rounded on him suspiciously, hands on hip.

He nodded slowly. If anything else, he was at least an honest man.

"I can't take you and your son's room," I protested.

Not because I really cared about being selfless or polite. My main worry was the blatant impropriety of it all, the hidden innuendo behind it. I would be sleeping in the very bed that Cairuin Thane himself slept in every night. And even though he wouldn't be in it with me, I'd be sharing his bed.

I'll have none of it! I vowed.

"Nonsense," clearly, Cai wasn't going to have any of my nonsense. "I, at least, probably won't be sleeping tonight – not much, anyway. Craig and I have to go down to the stables anyway, if what Marc says is true."

I suddenly remembered – the mare.

"You think Fryae will foal tonight?" I couldn't help but be a bit concerned; after all, it was in my very nature. "Is she premature?" I added, seeing the wary look in his pale eyes.

"Aye," he nodded solemnly. "An' her first time."

"The hardest," I murmured, more to myself than to Cai.

"Aye," he replied nevertheless; there was a look of great respect and surprise on his face.

"Tell me something, Cai," I stopped him as he turned to leave.

When he turned his handsome head around and gazed at me, though, I lost my voice and tongue. Mutely, I stared at him, trying desperately to remember what I was going to say.

"Aye…?" he prompted gently, setting the candle down on the nearby dresser top.

"Why didn't you tell the children the truth?" I nearly forced the question out through my teeth.
He looked at me, head cocked slightly to the side, as if thinking about his response. Finally, with a deep breath, he answered.

"I'll tell Craig tonight, while we're in the stable. I'll tell Alyanna an' Celeste some time tomorrow when we're alone," he shrugged simply. "I simply didn't want to tell 'em tonight, or tell 'em together. I'd rather do it one-to-one – I can only handle one reaction at a time."

I nodded slowly.

Smart man, I thought.

Of course, I wouldn't know myself how to handle the situation if I had three children of differing ages. I would have probably told them point-blank at the dinner table and have ruined their night. Provide they considered me marrying their father a bad thing. For all I knew, they may welcome it…I didn't really know much about children, so I couldn't say. I just hoped that it wouldn't be a difficult transaction for all concerned. A large part of me wanted to make the best of the next year and at enjoy it in one fashion or another, despite having to ward off Cai's more amorous attention.

I realized that I had been staring at him and flustered, I broke my eye contact with him. But still, Cai didn't leave. Instead, he stepped a step closer to me and asked me softly –

"Is there anythin' else you'd like ask? Anythin' botherin' ya'?"

I thought about who he was and I nodded slightly before I could my nerve.

"Aye?"

"Why didn't you tell me you were the Prince of the Rogues?" I demanded, lifting my head and looking at him again, but not quite in the eye.

The "Prince (or, on occasion, "Princess") of Rogues" was the highest honor one of the elite group of Tir-nan thieves could achieve. That person was the undisputed leader of the Rogues within his city and every major city had one – Genma, Ja'tre, Lagton, and especially Pitaria. However, one didn't become the "Prince" by being a strictly law-abiding citizen; he (or, if it was a Princess, she) was the craftiest, cleverest, smartest, toughest, and often times roughest of all of the Rogues.

Cairuin Thane, apparently, was all of the afore mentioned. More reason for me to keep my guard around him – if he was the Prince of Rogues, he couldn't possibly be a trusted man of honor, now could he?

A quirky little smile tugged on the corners of his mouth, but Cai merely shrugged.

"There wasn't time to tell ya'," he replied, reaching back and scratching the back of his neck. "Not unless I wanted the soldier behind us to hear. I'd have been arrested 'fore we left the city limits an' ya'd have been back to the gallows."

That reminded me of something. I couldn't recall the soldier accompanying past the Kildare Estate gates. Apparently, the young man had assumed that once we reached the gates, I wasn't going to take off. Stupid me. That would have been a perfect opportunity to bolt.

"What about when the soldier left us?" I stuck to my guns, lifting my chin defiantly.

Cai chuckled softly.

"I didn't think o' it, to tell ya' the truth," he grinned, his eyes twinkling. "I didn't see that it mattered. Does it?"

What could I say to that? I couldn't tell him that I was afraid of him. That would only lead to questions that I didn't want to answer just then. So, instead, I went on the defensive and tried to show him how tough I could be. Winter Braille wasn't a woman to cross – I'd make sure that "Prince" Thane knew that long before we ever sealed our obligatory vows.

"So you knew who I was as soon as you saw me up there, didn't you?" I snapped, a bit more harshly than I intended. "You planned this?"

"No to both of those questions," Cai didn't looked ruffled at all; he merely lifted an eyebrow and eyed me curiously. "I knew of you – I knew your name and I knew that you were on our side. I knew that you wrote provocative literature encouraging the people of Genma and Deardaoin in general to support Vatn's move for independence. But no, until today, I never saw your face…I never that you were the…young woman that I saw…so many years before. So no, I didn't plan this."

I wished desperately that I could believe that he wasn't telling the truth. After all, he was the Prince of Rogues, was he not? But as I looked at his face, as I closely studied his eyes, I knew that he was telling the truth.

I don't know what was a more disconcerting thought. A "Prince" who was like every other dishonest, thieving Rogue, or one who was honest-to-gods truthful.

One thing for certain, the next twelve months were going to be very interesting. After all, how often does a condemned woman get intercession from another convicted criminal? Ah…the irony…only Januel himself could have thought of and orchestrated something like this.

As hard as I tried, I couldn't sleep. There was simply too much to think about. For hours, I tossed and turned as if I was in the throws of a high fever.

Cairuin Thane – the attractive hunter that had haunted my dreams for years. He was the Prince of Rogues! The leader of chicanery, trickery, thievery, half-truths, deception, and all things dishonorable. Of course, the way I was going, one may have thought that I was going to marry a murderer, which would be a discredit to both Lady Inari and the Rogues.

The Rogues followed a strict set of rules called the "Code of Inari" (or, sometimes, the "Code of Thieves"). They were forbidden to physically harm another living being – i.e., kill, rape, or maim them in anyway. And they were only allowed to steal from the rich and greedy, those who oppressed the working man and stole for themselves through heavy, unfair taxes.

Still, the Rogues were a questionable lot, especially in my mind. How could I be certain that Cai was a man to be trusted? How did I know that – while well-meaning and affable – he wasn't just as uncouth, rough, and unpredictable as the rest of his people? And to complicate matters further, he was a widower, no doubt desperate for a woman to be a mother to his children and a wife to him.

Even though I hadn't made the connection between Cai the Rogue Prince and Cai the Vierne hunter, I knew about his first wife from my previous acquaintance with his children. Alyanna and Craig especially, were common faces at the "Silent Woman," a Gyptian-Rogue owned bar in the heart of the capitol's "Common quarter." This was where all of the merchants, Common workmen, and, consequently, the majority of the Rogues made their living. The Quarter was full of bustle, Rogue trickery, and industry, and the "Silent Woman" was the focal point for the majority of that activity.

None of the lower-ranked Rogues had ever seen their Prince, but it was common knowledge that he was in the higher echelons of Genma society. To tanners, thieves, and blacksmiths, the Stable Master of an old Deardaoin family is certainly "higher up." But, of course, at that time, I – like everyone else – assumed that our un-named, faceless Prince was an actual Noble, something that brought us lesser Commoners no small amount of pride.

But even though the Rogue Prince had never been seen, his three children were a common sight. I had befriended them shortly after my arrival in Genma, almost a year before. From Craig, who was the more talkative of the older siblings, I knew that their mother, Flora, had been married to Cai for nine years until she died a year after giving birth to Celeste. I also knew that Cai had married Flora when he was 16 and she 15 – it was common practice for youth to marry young all across Tir-nan. A woman of my age was considered an old maid.

Which didn't bother me any. Men were less likely to pursue a woman branded as "over the hill."

By doing some quick mental math, I concluded that Cai must have already been married and probably had Alyanna by the time he had seen me in the lake. A few calculations later, I realized that he was ten years my senior – a man in his prime.

The thought didn't do anything to put me at ease. My thoughts chased each other round and round; there didn't seem to be any stop. With a sigh of aggravation, I rolled over in the bed, burying my face in the pillow so that I could hide from the blue moon peaking through the slats of the window shutter.

Tir-nan's magnificent moon, Caya, was as blue as the sky in the daytime. But it was beautiful, a thing of grace and honored throughout history's poetry. It was said that Lady Daire ruled the night sky and that she had hung Caya in the sky as a mirror opposite of Yoko's blazing sun.

No one knew why the moon was blue, short of the fact that Daire was often pictured as wearing robes of blue and dove gray. At any rate, the bluish-white light slithering through the window annoyed me to no end. I couldn't stand sleeping in room with any kind of light. For me to sleep, it had to be pitch black. Apparently, by the position of the bed, Cairuin Thane thought differently.

Yet another way we're so different, I groused, rolling over a second time, trying to find a more comfortable, moon-light free position.

I ended up getting up, un-tucking the sheets at the bottom of the bed, and sleeping "upside down." That was the only way I could get any peace, the only way I could hide from Caya. It worked…for a little while.

Then the thoughts came back to haunt me. I squashed my face into the pillow to block out the sight of the room – but then I breathed in. My nose was filled with his scent.

Musky. Masculine. With the faintest, earthy scent of horses. Gods! It drove me crazy. It only reminded me that I was in his bed – a place I so desperately didn't want to be.

But finally, as Yoko's first rays began to streak the dark sky a pale red and Caya's glory began to dim, my mind gave into my body's exhaustion. The hectic, jumbled, chaotic events of the past day caught up to me and I drifted off to merciful sleep, forgetting the new, frightening life that I would wake up to, one day closer to a wedding I had never planned for.