Title: A Prisoner's Dilemma

A/N: Meanwhile, across the ocean, Jara finds an interesting distraction from her boredom...

There are some very slight consent issues in this chapter, so please read the spoiler-lite trigger summary at the end of the chapter if this concerns you.

Tsk. Clatter. Plop.

Tsk. Clatter. Plop.


"Look at that!" I cheer. The pebble rolls another fingersbreadth, but stays atop the stone fish's broad stone forehead. It bumps against its brethren, all huddled clear of the water spouting from the fish's ugly mouth, and comes to a gentle stop. "I declare General Jazimen to be the winner."

I do swear the good General Secundus almost smiles, before she appears to remember that her feat is tossing a rock onto a statue's head and the prize is no more than a sense of satisfaction, and then she scowls instead. "Your commentary is hardly necessary, soldier."

"But how else would we know there was a winner, General?" Laris drawls from beneath the tree he's taken shelter under. The day is only warm enough to bring a colt to sweat but he insists the sun will ruin his complexion and refuses to venture out into it. The brown broadcloth trousers the Princess gave him are going to be coated in mud, but no doubt he'd say that's good for his skin, too. I've told him before that laziness will ruin his figure, but he ignores any advice that's actually useful.

"There was no competition, soldier," she snaps, and there goes the afternoon.

When Father had been here, everyone had been too busy trying to hold their breath to argue. His misery had been a solid weight in the air, stilling every fidget or attempt at conversation. Now that his ransom has been paid, we're all lurching back the other way, as quick to shout as if we're trying to make up for those long days of stillness.

Although it makes me feel like the worst daughter in the world to think this, I'm glad he's gone.

That doesn't mean I want to hear General Jazimen and Laris have it out, even if he's not shouting so much as making innuendo at the top of his voice. I push myself to my feet, wipe dirt and fountain drops off of my own nondescript trousers, and say, "I think I'll go see how Derek is holding up." No one appears to be listening.

The eastern courtyard of Holly on the Rocks is exactly forty-three of Laris's strides across, fifty-five-and-a-half of mine long, and contains one fountain and eight hundred, twenty two cobblestones.

I make the eight and three quarters strides from the fountain to the archway, where one guard peels off from the group waiting there to follow me; my favorite, to be specific, the one with the doe-eyes and the sweetest lock of amber hair. He keeps a polite distance to my rear, and I do check in the reflection of the decorative shield on the wall that it is a polite distance. As always, his gaze is well above my waist. I'm never sure how disappointed I should be about that. On the one hand, it would be fraternizing with the enemy. On the other, getting into a relationship would have to be better than counting the cobblestones again.

(Laris maintains that there are eight hundred, twenty three cobblestones. One argument about this had led to General Jazimen prying up the twenty-third stone and chucking it over the wall, whereupon it dislocated the shoulder of a guard on the other side, and subsequently lost her a week of outdoor privileges.)

(We try to keep to safer topics now, like pebbles.)

(For the record, there are eight hundred, twenty two cobblestones.)

In the scintillating strategy lectures every new army recruit is forced to attend, our officers have a lot to say on the subject of captivity, because it used to be one of the quickest ways to win a war before the notion was stricken from the honor tournament rules. Royal prisoners are supposed to stay in royal suites with beds and windows and foods in more than one course, and just a guard or two at the door in case of trouble. They go on hunts, find suitors, and sometimes even become great friends with their captors.

Prisoners of war, meanwhile, get to stay in the tower with piles of straw and arrow slits and foods slopped onto shields, and just a guard or two to peek through the bars and check for signs of life.

The Wzaritecs must have attended the same lectures that we had, because they'd sent a stiffly worded message in the first days of our capture that made clear that Father and I and General Jazimen qualified for the first category; but Laris and Derek, lowborn, did not. I hadn't hesitated to demand I be put with them, and I didn't regret that decision, even if the way Father had spent those weeks slumped in the darkest corner he could find had made me feel pretty low about it. But it was General Jazimen, of all people, who'd pointed out to me that he would slump himself into a corner painted with gold as easily as he would the corner of our cell. And at least that way he didn't have the room to pace himself sick.

I've no idea why General Jazimen stayed locked up with us. She certainly didn't tell me.

But the Princess had done some negotiating on our behalf, and another week later it was decided that we'd be war captives for two days and then half-royal on the third, getting to walk about the castle as we please. Mostly we don't. The only spot worth visiting is the courtyard, so it's there we spend our third days, when the press of the stone walls becomes too much for us to stand.

We run into Princess Farilm as my guard and I make our way back to the tower. As always, she's all smiles and soft lines, clutching a stack of scrolls to her chest as she apologizes at length to the servant who's trying her best to carry them for her. "Jara!" she cries when she spots me, beaming as if finding me in her castle was a particular treat she hadn't hoped to have.

"Princess," I reply, smiling, because there's really no way to have Farilm beaming at you and not smile unless you're a stone fish.

"Have you finished reading about the Galean War yet?" the Princess asks me, nearly vibrating with excitment. "I just found another chest of scrolls I hadn't known of," she shifts her burden in demonstration and draws an exasperated noise from the servant, "and some of them look wonderful! Do say you'll help me categorize them later. If you've nothing more pressing to do, of course—I don't want to take up your time, if you'd rather spend it elsewise!" The very thought leaves her wide-eyed with worry.

When the guards had first dragged us, bound and furious, into this castle, I had been determined to hate the Princess. Mother says I use the word hate too easily, but she doesn't understand that I mean something different by it than she does, or Father. When Mother hates something, she wines and dines it, praises it in public, praises it in private, and somehow that thing makes its way magically out of her life. When Father hates, he picks up his sword and pursues it around the world's circle until whatever it is lays at his feet in a thousand pieces.

I want to bring up a good hate sometimes, roll about in the feeling of blind justice-seeking rage. But if I'm going to be honest with myself—and let's be honest, because in a dungeon, there's not too much to do but be honest with yourself—the burning fiery feeling never seems to last for more than a week for me, let alone all the way around the world. I don't mean to give it up so easily. Every time I hate someone I do it with the full intention of making them my mortal enemy forever. But then I end up in a fist-fight with them and lay them out on the ground, or overhear something—and that's that.

The only person that I've really hated for years and years is that horrible Ferrax Alim. But trying to hate his sister? That had lasted all of an hour, until she had shown up in our tower cell with her own bedding, determined that we should have something nice no matter what her guards insisted. It's pretty much impossible to hate someone when you're wrapped up in her lacy pink sheets.

"I would love to help," I assure her, and the Princess's face lights up again. "Would after supper be acceptable?"

"Oh, of course!" she breathes, and I think if she didn't have the scrolls to worry about I might have received a hug. Instead, the Princess just smiles and sings, "Tonight, then!" before bustling away, the servant running after her.

After the first month of enthusiasm I had started to wonder if the Princess had some sort of feelings for me, but given that she acts the same ways towards myself and my Father, and General Jazimen, and Laris, and Derek, I've decided she is just that friendly—or has the broadest taste of anyone in the world.

I wave at her back and think, for a fleeting moment, that it's a shame she doesn't have those feelings, because it would be really nice to have someone so cheery in my life, who smiled like that at me every day. Of course, given that Father's freedom is based entirely on the lie that he might marry her someday... I can just picture his face if I told him we'd decided to elope instead. Or, even better, my Lady Tzesa's.

Or Alim's. Hah, that'd serve him right.

Normally my guard would have to unlock the tower for me, but since today is a third day, it's standing open. He just goes to stand by the other guard there, and nods me in. I look at him and consider saying—something, I don't know, I never was very good at leading statements even when I was free to make them. It's probably for the best. I give him a wave, too, and trudge my way up the curving stone steps.

It takes me a moment at the top to spot Derek from where he's curled up beneath half of the bedding in the cell, in the shadows beneath the southern arrow-slit. He sniffles when he sees me, managing to compress himself another miserable handspan into a ball. "Hi," he says, in a voice that couldn't be more pathetic if it was spoken by breeder who's just lost the last prize stud in a flood.

"Hi," I say back, softening my voice in a way I wouldn't if it was Laris laying there—because if it was, I'm sorry to say that I'd probably be laughing instead. I sit down beside his poor head, reaching out to lift it onto my thigh so I can better stroke his sweat-plastered hair. "How's the cold?"

"S'fine," he mutters, still sniffling. "You aren't going to braid my hair, are you?"

"Only if you sneeze on me again," I promise, drawing a weak laugh from him. "You've eaten something, right?"

"Apples and gruel. The cook sent some up."

"I think that cook is sweet on you," I tell him, and smile when he casts a hopeful look up at me. "No, I have no idea what the cook looks like."

"'m not that superficial," he mutters, scowling when I snort. "I'm not!"

"You keep telling yourself that, boy."

We sit like that for a good while in silence, but this is the sort of silence I don't mind, broken by the soft sounds of comfortable breathing and rustles of cloth as we try to find more comfortable positions, and occasionally pathetic coughs from the soldier curled up against me.

"Hey, Jara," he murmurs when I push his head a little further down my leg in hopes of regaining bloodflow there, "what do you dream about?"

I rub at the tingling spot, asking, "You mean, what do I want to do with my life after we get out of here?"

"No, I mean, at night."

"Oh. Normal sorts of things, I should think," I tell him, rolling my shoulders back against the cool stone. "You know, falling out of the sky, riding in the forest, showing up to court without any clothes on."

"I—don't know," he admits. "You can keep a secret, right? I've, um, got a dream talent. I don't dream of anything at all myself, just blackness until I wake up. But, I... I can send people into other people's dreams."

I grin, charmed at his confidence in me, and ruffle his hair until he protests. "You have the weirdest talents, kiddo. Though, here I thought you didn't have anything that wasn't awesome. What use could a talent like that have?" I think for a moment, then whoop and say, "Actually, if everyone has those naked dreams, I could think of a few people whose heads I wouldn't mind visiting. Pjetri's, for a start. Oh, Officer Sira's!"

I think I've got Derek blushing, although it's hard to tell with the flush of his fever. "I-I think that would be kind of, um. Not very polite?" he all but squeaks.

"Aw, really?" I snap my fingers, something Calentine's got—no, I swore I wasn't going to think of that stupid grinning face until I was ready to forgive him—I snap my fingers for no reason at all, and say, "I guess I'll just have to stay out of other people's dreams, then."

"Actually I was hoping... well, maybe it's foolish," he trails off in a mutter.

"What is?"

"Well, I tried it once, sending people into a dream, and I think it worked. I think that, that maybe you can talk to the person whose dream I send you to. But I'm not sure."

"What, like," I try to recall the conversation from the last dream I can remember, "about how to construct the best defences against cannibal goats?"

"I hadn't considered that one," he says politely, "but I was more thinking... about asking how the war's going. Find out how everyone's been."

Derek yelps when I accidentally almost rip out the handful of hair I'm petting. "How soon can you send me?"

It's surprisingly difficult to fall asleep on command, although I suspect my commanders wouldn't find it strange at all that I was having trouble following an order, and that's pretty much been my army career. Well, outside of the times when I'm managing to take down soldiers twice my size. "Just—relax," Derek whispers, waving his hands a bit helplessly, as he eyes General Jazimen and Laris's still forms. General Jazimen tends to rise snarling if anyone dares wake her before she's ready for it. "As long as you're thinking of the name of the person you want to contact before you fall asleep, it should work. And remember, you'll get thrown out when the scene changes, so talk quickly!"

"I am relaxed," I grumble, yanking the blanket higher. The lace keeps trying to go up my nose. I think the Princess is great, really, but she could use better taste in her bedding. Although maybe that's why she gave it away in the first place...

Who to pick? I've been running a list of soldiers through my head all evening, mulling over them as I helped the Princess go through her new scrolls, as I shoved down my own serving of apples and gruel. I need to pick someone who will know about the state of the war and who won't mind if I do accidentally show up in a naked-court dream, and that list is rather pathetically small. Pjetri is on it though—we'd spent one revel together, after my first battle—and I figure he's the best bet. He'll know how Father is doing, and if the stupid-sailor-I-refuse-to-think-about has turned up yet or is still off galavanting in his village home.

I wish the list wasn't so small. I never meant to be the only person in the army who can't seem to get a lover. But I've only been to two revels, which doesn't help, and the second one, well—

The ballroom whirls, bright with a hundred brilliant cloaks, spinning to one of my favorite songs.

I'm wearing one of my mother's dresses; the blue silk monstrosity, the one that appears to be cut open from my collarbones to my navel and sheer as moonlight. Mortified, I attempt to tug the cloth shut, but that just makes it worse, my breasts swing forward like I'm trying to draw attention to them. Which, granted, is probably the point of the dress, but has never been my point before, and my mother fills out the fabric twice as well as I do.

I crane my neck around, then start squeezing through the dancers as I look for Pjetri's lanky frame. They're all people I know, even if they don't have familiar faces—maybe they don't have faces at all—and that apparently isn't strange, although some distant part of me insists it must be. The dancers just aren't important.

"You should go," a voice is saying, quite coldly. "If you aren't properly dressed, then you shouldn't be here." It's a man standing in the corner, unfamiliar and uncomfortable, scowling over his drink.

I immediately start looking for someone who is naked, but there's no one. The woman he seems to be addressing is wearing blue, the plainest linen shift, and her long black hair is left loose down her back, not bound up in fancy arcs like everyone else's. Like mine is, now that I reach up to feel the weight with a little happy trill in my stomach. I miss my hair, no matter how many times I've told myself I don't.

The woman's hands are clenched in fists at her sides, her head bowed forward until her hair has become a veil.

I have to push my way past two more whirling couples before I see her face. "Majerern?" I gasp, startled. She'd given me permission to use her skin name, Hazshi, but it seems a violation to do so when I've snuck into her dream like this. When I hadn't been trying to come here at all, although now that I am—I can't say I mind it too much. At least it's not one of the naked dreams.

She doesn't seem to hear me, or at least doesn't do more than twitch at my voice, but the man does. "She's not dressed for a ball," he sneers at me. I hate him already.

"Sure she is," I snap back. "If the Queen invites you, you can wear whatever you want."

"She wasn't invited; she snuck in."

"Then she's here as my guest, and I was definitely invited." I might not remember receiving the invitation, but the Asotegis always are. I just never go; I've never seen the point of attending anything that didn't involve swords in some way.

But Majerern must see a point, if she's here. So I hold out a hand to her and say, "Would you like to dance?"

She raises her head.

The answer must be yes, because now we're whirling about with all those other couples, her hand on my waist and her hand in mind. I just have to pray that my dress isn't gaping as widely as I think it might be as we turn. Majerern is half a head taller than me—pretty much any tilt of her head and she's going to see nothing but cleavage. "It's a nice night for dancing," I tell her, embarrassment starting to catch up with me.

Especially because she's not frowning at my unfortunate dress, but rather just staring at my face like she's never seen it before, like we didn't spend weeks on the march together and one very brief, awkward night that we had made an unspoken pact to never, ever mention again. "It is," she says, like she doesn't quite believe me but is too polite to say otherwise. Majerern is pretty much always polite. She's pretty much everything I am not, except for when it comes to dueling, because I'm really quite excellent at that and she's even better.

The thought makes me smile. "We should duel each other sometime," I tell her. "I've been practicing. I can almost beat General Jazimen now, on good days."

"I don't really want to fight you," she says, and presses her mouth to mine.

I'm staring up at Derek's face for a good three seconds before I put up a hand and shove him to the side so I can stare up at the dungeon ceiling instead. "Did you learn anything good?" he asks, voice rather muffled against my fingers.

"Uh," I say.

"Are we winning yet?"

"Uh," I say again, then scrub across my mouth with the back of my hand and half-ask, half-demand, "You can't see what I'm dreaming?"

"If I could, then I wouldn't have to ask."

"Good," I say with feeling. "Then no, I didn't get to ask. How soon can you send me back?"

"One dream per night," is the reply. I attempt to glare a hole through the ceiling, until I can almost imagine I see stars beyond.

Tomorrow is going to be a long time in coming.

The stables are quiet, all of the horses secure in their stalls for the night, making sleepy contented noises and dreaming of green grass.

"The war, the war, the war," I mutter to myself, trying to keep my mind focused this time as I duck beneath the cross ties into the stable aisle proper. "The war—hey, that could have been dangerous, dropping me off in a stall if the horse decided to go after me." I glance over my shoulder, frowning, but the stall is empty, the ties hanging in an X to the floor. Then I take a frantic look down at myself, but no, I'm not a horse either; just dressed like a groom. At least my tunic goes up to my neck this time.

She is brushing her horse in the aisle, a big beast with a lowered head and a hoof contentedly raised. I pat ihis side as I pass, so that he knows I'm there and so I can feel soft, warm skin for the first time in weeks. I miss horses. "You're a pretty boy, aren't you?"

Majerern looks up with one of her rare smiles, and I know I should ask about the war but I can't let something like this lie, with her looking happy to see me and not even knowing. "I wanted to apologize for last night," I say as quick as I can, before she can get a word in. "I never meant to..." I can't quite decide if it's more important to apologize for having put her in a situation to kiss me in a dream in the first place or for leaving so abruptly, leaving my words to trail off uncomfortably into the dusty air.

"It's fine," she says, just as quickly. "He didn't get so much as a scratch once I tightened the saddle another notch. Please, check him over if you aren't certain."

I stare at her a moment, then the horse at my side. "Oh, dreams," I murmur, and sigh. "No need for an inspection, I trust you."

A terrible thought strikes me, and I lean back enough so that I can take a glance at the trough by the doorway. Gods all be thanked, the face looking back at me is mine. Although, what if it's some property of the dream, making me see whatever I want to see? Maybe I should ask Majerern. Although that's an awkward sort of question, isn't it, asking someone to verify that I'm me? Maybe I should just hope.

"I've always wondered why," Majerern murmurs, and I snap my head back towards her a little frantically, trying not to look as panicked as I feel. She's frowning at the horse, though, running her hand across his broad side. "I am a traitor, you realize."

Indignation floods me by pure reflex. "You left a General who had just burned thirty innocent people to death," I bark out as I have a hundred times before at my more idiotic fellow soldiers. "That's not traitorous, that's godly."

"It is still a vow broken."

She sucks in a breath at the admission, reaching up to take a lock of the stallion's pale mane between her graceful fingers, running a thumb down the strands. If I had long hair still, would she do that to mine?

"Sometimes I regret my decision," Majerern continues in a low voice. "Is that not terrible? I know what General Szaze did, and I would choose my path the same a thousand times, and yet—I still sometimes regret breaking my vow."

"Oh, sweetness," I murmur, and wonder if she regrets breaking my heart that much, too. I go over and lay a hand on her arm, so I can give it a little shake as I say, "That's because you have so much honor, you just overflow with it. Regret doesn't matter one bit, so long as you don't think he was right to do what he did."

"If only it was that simple," she sighs, and kisses me.

In my defence, we were in a stable talking about traitorhood; I had no reason to expect that to happen again. Derek's blinking down at me hopefully. I snap, "I'm trying, alright, dreams are tricky." And then I feel bad just about immediately as his face falls, so I add, "But I'm willing to keep trying so long as you are. Same thing tomorrow?" That makes him beam again.

Tomorrow drags on even more slowly than the day before it, because I spend most of the hours pacing worse than Father and worrying at my lip and wondering if I might just be a terrible person. I'm pretty sure that I'm treading on territory that no one good ought to—no, I'm confident of it. If Hazshi wanted me to know about her fears and dreams, she would have told them to me. I've no right to keep sneaking into them like this.

And if she ever does want to kiss me, for real—then it would be nice if it was real, and not dream strangeness.

But the desperate need to know about the world outside these pale castle walls is still buzzing in my head as loudly as it was before, and besides, I think a bit wistfully, it would be really nice if I could have a real conversation with her. If I could find some way to keep a conversation going for longer than a few brief exchanges.

One more try, I decide, before I just declare my ability to keep friends as hopeless.

Sleep is a long time coming again, not just because of my nerves, but because General Jazimen and Laris get into a screaming match so loud and vicious that the guards end up dumping water on them. It was about whether pikes were better than glaives. I'm not sure if this captivity is going to end in their mutual deaths or marriage.

But when I do sleep...

The fires are burning around me, heat on my skin, heat in the air. The stars are beautiful overhead, and the gasps are beautiful down below.

I take one look at the beach around me and say, "Oh, horsecrap."

She's standing there before me, her dark eyes awash with shadows, her dark lips just parted. She had never looked more beautiful than she had that night, the smile of victory staying and staying on her mouth, and she's no different now in her dream. "Would you consider," she murmurs, just as heartbreakingly hesitantly, just as uncertainly as she had the first time.

I feel like the worst person in the world when I say, "Majerern, do you think we could—"

Her hands are at my waist, my neck, and, oh gods, her lips are as firm as they were that night, pressed against mine. "Is this all right," she whispers.

I kind of whimper and grab her head and bolt out as fast as I can, "Just listen for a moment, I'm here, I'm actually here, you're dreaming but—"

"Of course this is a dream," she says with this little laugh that makes my heart stutter, and stutter again when she touches her tongue to the crease of my mouth, so gently. "This is always a dream."

"You've... you've dreamed about this before?" I ask, only consoled by the fact I didn't squeak quite as high as Derek had.

"Not with you," she murmurs, and only sheer determination keeps my heart from plummeting me right out of this dream. "But I keep dreaming of you, don't I."

"Yeah, I... I guess you're stuck with me," I say, and make sure I do it with a smile. "That's because I'm actually here, in your dream."

"You are," she agrees in a wondering sort of tone, reaching out to brush a lock of hair off my forehead. "You are."

"Oh, good," I sigh, and then, crap—not crap—gods damn it—she's kissing me again, dipping me back with the surety of someone who'd never let me fall, her arm tightening at my waist until I can barely breathe, or maybe that's just because of the way her breasts are pressed against mine, and her breath warm on my mouth. Panicking, I do the only thing I can think of to get away, namely biting down on her lip. Which—crap—not crap—ahhh—just makes her gasp and pull me closer.

"Mmph!" I protest wildly, and that does make her let go, jerk back rather with a frantic look that makes me feel like a jerk too. "Listen," I gasp out again before I can lose my resolve, "please listen, I am actually in your dream, I mean I'm in Holly on the Rocks but I'm appearing in your dream, it's one of Derek's talents, I'm supposed to ask you how the war is going!"

Majerern looks at me for a long, contemplative moment. "Tell me something I don't know."

I gape at her, shocked. "Wait, you knew—oh. You're serious. That's actually really smart of you," I add with a grin, because no one compliments Majerern as much as they ought to, before I remember what I'm supposed to be doing and yank my head back into the game. "Um... the Holly's eastern courtyard has eight hundred, twenty two cobblestones. Except Laris still insists it's twenty three, but it's not, because General Jazimen almost brained one of the Princess's guards with that one, and if the cobblestone is outside then it's not in the courtyard, is it."

The soldier frowns, considering my answer, before she glances up at the sky with a sigh. "It was not actually terribly clever of me, because that could be something someone would say in a dream."

"Oh, crap, you're right." I bite my lip for a bit—the lip that—crap—and say a bit desperately, "Couldn't you tell me about the war either way?"

"Of course," she says at once, and I think my smile probably goes ridiculous because she's polite even in dreams, even in bizarre situations like this.

And then Majerern starts to fade because, argh, because telling me about the war sure isn't having a revel on the beach. I grab for her face again and just manage not to shriek, "Couldn't you do it and kiss me at the same time?"

"I... suppose," she says with a slow blink, and then a frown that sets my heart ticking again. "Except if you actually are real..."

"Then I would like to hear about the war and have you kiss me," I say, with complete surety, until my brain catches up and I make myself say, "Only if you've nothing more pressing to do. And not if you don't want to. Please, please don't if you don't want to—"

She slides a hand down the back of my head, and I hold very, very still. There's the briefest brush against my lips, like a family kiss, and then she murmurs, "The army is still camped outside of your walls."

"Oh good," I breathe against her. We are going to do this, and this might just be the best idea I've ever had. "You... you too?"

"Me too." This kiss is a little longer, a little more firm, still closed-mouthed. "Calentine and your father have secured us a human army."

"That sailor," I growl, then say, "wait, he came back?"

"Came, and went again, at the General Superior's orders. The General is doing as well as can be expected." That's alongside another sisterly kiss, and a frown, which is worrisome.

"I guess I'll have to forgive him, then," I sigh. Majerern's still frowning and doing nothing more, so I fidget a bit and say, "Are they still both being foolish about each other?"

"I would not speak poorly about a superior officer," she says at once, "but—yes, I believe so. You are... alright with this? I—there was a rumor you had intentions on Calentine."

I sort of hiccup and say, "Not even a little." That gets me a real kiss, and I think for a wild moment that if all debriefing meetings were like this, you'd never hear another peep of complaint out of the army.

It goes on like this for some time until I can't think of any more questions to ask—and believe me, I have great incentive to think of everything I can. We're sitting in the sand against the base of a tent now, her arm curled around my shoulders, mine about her waist. At some point all the people reveling faded out of the dream unnoticed, and although I wish a little wistfully that I could have been one of them, this is nice, too.

"If you are real," Majerern says slowly, her side warm as the fire against mine, "if you are, and this was not just a very peculiar sort of dream..."

"Yes?" I ask, my heart remembering to tighten again.

"...will I remember this when I wake?"

It wasn't the question I was expecting, but I don't know if it's any better. "I don't know," I tell her. "Derek didn't say."

She nods, her darks eyes thoughtful as she stares into the fire. "I cannot be certain I remembered the previous dreams in my waking hours, either," she muses, "only that I know them now. The dance, the barn, the castle foyer."

"I wasn't actually in one about a castle," I tell her.

"I am glad to hear that, even if you are just a dream consoling me, because that one... that one was a bit strange." Majerern's lips curl into the sweetest smile, and I press tighter into her side, enchanted, before it fades again to something sad. "You kept leaving, whenever I touched you."

"Not on purpose," I swear. "The dream kicks me out whenever a scene changes."

"When—oh." She coughs and jumps to her feet sudden enough to give me whiplash, trying to keep my eyes on her. "Then you'll go soon, I suppose?" The height of her voice makes me really wonder about what had been in that pause, but that's for me to find out some other time. I hope.

"Probably," I sigh. The dream has started to fade at the edges, the beach no longer stretching so far, the fires no longer so bright, like morning light is leaking through them. I climb to my feet too, taking her hand in mine. "I know you don't believe I'm actually here, but—thanks, Majerern. I really mean it. For telling me about the war and... and spending time with me."

"You're welcome," she says, soft enough to break my heart again.

"Before I go," I blurt out before I can stop myself, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't ask this question at all but I have to know—who do you usually meet on this beach?"

She turns to face me at last, her smile faint as the sky. "I walk past the couples," she says, "but everyone has already found someone, and," her thumb brushes around the curve of my eye, catches my breath in my throat, "and I've already turned you away, so it doesn't matter. There's no one there."

"Hazshi," I breathe, and just about almost kiss Derek because he is leaning far too close. He shrieks loud enough to wake the dead when I hit him, and certainly loud enough to wake General Jazimen, who lunges up in her bed snarling, "Do you two know what time it is?!" Laris drawls, "Any time is good enough for loving," and my favorite guard is the one who eventually ends up dumping water on all of us to end the ensuing brawl.

In his defense, I probably needed that.

Trigger summary: Jara is sent into another character's dreams, who consensually kisses Jara several times without knowing she is not a dream. Jara frets about this, and tries to convince the other character of her presence. The character does not really believe her, but doesn't care either way.

A/N: Author's notes will be located on the blog (google livejournal, iceramyst.) As always, I appreciate comments, feedback, and encouragement as I make this new attempt at getting this story completed! Thank you for reading!