It was so familiar, that proud young face with its exquisite allure. Her elegant features were those of a classic patrician beauty and her full lips were the kind that drove poets to despair at the inadequacy of their art. Her golden looks were second only to the intensity of her otherworldly eyes, the mysterious nightscape of indigo that concealed many secrets even when they pretended to be unguarded. Or they would be, if only those eyes were open.
Kara gazed at her beloved friend's sleeping face. If only she could convince herself that Gwyn was really just asleep, taking a peaceful rest before they resumed their journey. But the paleness of her flesh, the wan color of her lips, the frightful tossing and turning as rivers of sweat poured out of her let Kara know that wherever her friend had gone, it was not peaceful.
The moon princess set aside her notebook and pen to pick up a dry rag. She gently wiped sweat from Gwyn's face and frowned as the blonde girl whimpered at her touch. Two days ago, when Gwyn had first fallen into her coma, Landen's princess had been as still as death. Her breathing, even as she thrashed, was frightfully shallow, faint little gasps that came at such long intervals that Kara sometimes doubted her friend was still alive. The whimpers were something new, from the last half-day or so. If it was an improvement, it wasn't a good one.
She had seen her friend like this once before. It had been that first night of their journey, after they had launched from the moon princess' home of Dahlia and arrived at Aerone. Gwyn had retired first, visibly exhausted. Kara had been invited on a walk by her prince, and upon her return to the room she shared with Gwyn, discovered her coeval in the midst of an awful nightmare. That time, it had been enough to shake her awake; this time wasn't going to be so easy.
Her eyes glanced out the window. Dahlia shone in the night sky, a comfort for her, even as it meant they were now entering the third night of Gwyn's coma. Her gaze returned to her friend. Queen Lena had ordered her granddaughter's bed moved under the window, so that Gwyn could enjoy the sunlight in the day. It was such a small thing, but one of the few things they could do.
Gwyn's mother, the Laya herself, was in similar straits, but it seemed that she was not as badly off as her daughter. It was strange that they had both fallen at the same time...and worrisome that the two most affected were Espers. When she had had a free moment, she had written to Dahlia to make certain her father and aunt were alright. The great Lune might be able to defeat an army, but an attack on the mind was a different kind of war altogether.
"The Chirper's chicks go chirp-y, chirp-y, chirp," Mieu sang softly. "When they're feeling hungry and when they're feeling cold..."
The redheaded android was singing a lullaby, Gwyn's favorite when they had been children. Not exactly what Kara would pick to wake someone up, but it was something familiar and well-loved that might soothe her friend's obvious nightmares. Mieu had spent many hours speaking to Landen's princess, discussing all sorts of things, memories of when Adan, Gwyn, and Kara had all been children together, of pranks Mieu had caught Gwyn in and others that the gynoid only suspected were the blonde girl's doing. It was the side of her coeval she knew so well, cheerful, irreverent, mischievous, witty, pert. It hurt to see her so still, lying there as if dead when she very much knew that she still had so much trouble to cause.
It hurt that she didn't know if her best friend even wanted her around.
Gwyn had been incredibly mean to Kara lately. Her remarks, always sassy, felt like they had become more biting and far less friendly. It felt like her friend still did not approve of her feelings for Adan, and was taking it out on Kara. The worst one had been right before Gwyn fell unconscious, when she made a comment about Kara leering at Adan like he was just so much eye candy. It had flustered the moon princess to no end and it had felt like Gwyn was making fun of how she felt about Adan. It upset her enough that she had quietly wished Gwyn would just shut up.
Well, her wish had been granted, and she'd gladly trade everything she owned to take it back. Down to the depths of the sea the royal twins had gone. In their stead, Dark Force had risen. The demon that had pursued the last children of Palma had been safely sealed by Orakio and Laya. A millennium later, their descendants had released it while trying to gather the tools to protect the Alisa III from it. Epics had been written on inferior ironies.
It was a bitter thought and unfortunately had plenty of other unhappy musings for company inside her head. If someone had told her that a situation could get worse than being on a spaceship aimed at a black hole, navigation controls locked, unable to change course, she wouldn't have believed them. Ever since her family had encountered the House of Sa Riik a thousand years ago, things just seemed to keep spiraling out of control. Nothing seemed to go right, be it the escape from Palma, the Devastation War, and in more recent days, the Champions' War and the current dilemma.
Kara felt like a Chirper caught in a maelstrom. A life spent in a carefully managed bubble hadn't prepared her for the whirlwind of chaos. She was afraid. Afraid they would be crushed by the black hole, afraid Gwyn would never wake up again, afraid that her father and aunt were trapped in the same place her best friend was, afraid of Dark Force, and afraid of Adan.
For her, the last of those was the most upsetting. She had spent years loving Adan. Until very recently, she had been convinced she didn't have the slightest chance with him. When he had kissed her in Skyhaven, it had been like a gift straight from the hands of Laya herself. They had gotten closer. There were hidden depths within him that she had only imagined existed beneath his stoic persona and it was fascinating exploring them.
That's what made his fight with his father all the more horrifying. For all his size, the King Nial in her memory had always been an amiable giant, his words kind and encouraging. To see them both, usually so calm and gentle, at each other's throats, screaming imprecations and accusations at the top of their lungs, ready to draw blades and likely spill each other's blood...
It horrified her. She had never thought anything like that existed within either of them. It made her doubt whether she had any future with Adan, especially when she couldn't be certain he'd never turn that murderous ire on her. Queen Lena had said all the Sa Riiks were like that. Could she even survive in a family that violent?
The moon princess picked up her notebook and stared at the words on the page. She'd been trying to compose a poem for him, but she was a historian, not a bard. Expressing her feelings in words didn't come easy, especially when she was worried about what tomorrow could bring, about the uncertainty of Gwyn's life and the future. Gwyn had dreamed that they had fallen into the black hole, so maybe it was all pointless.
Kara ground her teeth together. It frustrated her, all of these doubts, all of the second-guessing. It came from her scholarly nature, seeking for answers, trying to find the truth, never resting, never satisfied. Even so, it upset her that she questioned him. She wanted to believe! But for all the kisses, Adan hadn't said the magical words yet that might dispel her worries.
Maybe he was just toying with her. A man that beautiful could have any woman he wanted. She'd seen how all the women of the court looked at him. What was one more broken heart in a collection? After all, it'd be hard to even notice a new—
A knock interrupted her depressing reverie. She looked up, then glanced at Mieu. The redheaded android was already on her way to deny the caller entry. The door opened and Queen Lena quietly entered the room. Kara scrambled to her feet even as the grandmother of the twins gestured for her to stay put. "No, no, this is hardly the time for courtly courtesies. Mieu, why don't you go spend a little time with Laya? I want to visit with Gwyn a while."
Mieu nodded. "Of course, Lena. Is Laya any better?"
"A bit. The color's back in her cheeks, but she still hasn't woken up."
The gynoid gave Gwyn a worried look. "Gwyn hasn't improved at all..."
"My granddaughter will wake up," Queen Lena said serenely as she sat in Mieu's chair. "Go on, Mieu. I'm certain Laya is sick of having her mother-in-law looking over her shoulder."
"I don't know why. It's not like your cooking is better than hers," Mieu retorted as she left Gwyn's chambers.
Queen Lena issued a very unroyal snort. "I swear! She's a doting mother hen to Nial and the twins, but for Rhys and I, it's her rapier wit!"
"Yes, Highness. I mean, I'm sorry, Highness. I mean—"
Queen Lena smiled at her. Kara blushed and looked down. "Come now, little one. I watched you at play with my grandchildren. No need to be so nervous. Although I suppose I shouldn't call you little, should I?"
Kara felt her mouth curl into a smile. Queen Lena was even shorter than her granddaughter. More importantly, she was as gentle now as she had been back when Kara had been little. The Queen of Satera's shoulder-length brown hair was streaked with gray, while her face still retained some of the prettiness she surely must have had in her youth. She wore comfortable green clothes suitable for travel, a warm-looking shawl draped over her shoulders. Her wrinkles were laugh lines, her big brown eyes unfailingly warm and comforting. Gwyn's eyes, Kara realized as she looked down at her coeval, were the same shape as her grandmother's. Laya might have given Gwyn her beauty, but the shape of it favored Queen Lena's blood.
Much as she loved her father, she prayed her children favored Adan's side of the family. If you even get to have them, an unwelcome voice that sounded like hers whispered in her head. If he even wants you to have them.
"Is this your first visit, Highness?" Kara asked before she bit her tongue. She ought to kick herself for such a stupid question. It made it sound like Queen Lena didn't care about her granddaughter and only now could bother to check in!
"No, dear. I've been here several times," replied the Queen. "But you were asleep each time."
Kara blushed again. Would her skin ever cooperate with her? The Queen blithely continued. "I didn't stay too long, since I was didn't want to leave Laya alone with Wren too long. Besides," she added wryly, "I have had to spend quite a bit of energy keeping my boys from upsetting these sick rooms."
She flinched. Another reminder that Adan might not be as trustworthy as she wanted him to be was the last thing she needed. Especially not from Adan's grandmother.
"You know, dear, you shouldn't be so worried."
"W-what? Er, I mean..."
Queen Lena laughed gently. "Oh, it's so wonderful to see you're still the same sweetheart I knew as a little girl! Tell me true, did the fight between Nial and Adan upset you so?"
The moon princess hesitated before she nodded. "Yes, it did, Highness. I've never seen them like that before, not even when Adan and Gwyn and I were attacked by assassins."
"Oh, love, don't fuss over it too much. Our men can be difficult, make no mistake! There are all sorts of misunderstandings we make, even between two souls as gentle as Nial and Laya. They can be so frustrating! Even then, I promise you they aren't as scary as all that." The Queen of Satera looked at her granddaughter. "Although I admit that the women aren't any easier!"
The moon princess giggled. "Gwyn is in a class all her own!"
"Certainly," Queen Lena agreed amiably as she reached down and stroked her granddaughter's hair fondly. "I have faith she'll soon wake up, as impertinent as ever."
Kara felt a stab of jealousy as she saw Gwyn's lack of whimpers at her grandmother's touch. Did her coeval know how lucky she was? It wasn't precisely Princess Thea's fault that Kara's childhood had lacked the motherly affection she craved, but it still gnawed at her. Even unconscious, did Landen's princess just take it for granted? Worse, did she whimper at Kara's touch because she did not care for the moon princess?
Queen Lena stood up. "I'll go resume my watch over Laya. I'll send Mieu back to keep you company and have someone bring you something to eat." The soft brown eyes met hers. "Don't fret, dear. There's nothing to be worried about. From what one knows of Orakio and Laya, they take care of their own, and our men follow their example."
Kara stared at her best friend's face as Queen Lena left. Whatever else happened, they were still aimed at a black hole and none of Gwyn's dreams to date said differently. There was nothing else she could do, so she did her best to ignore the doubts and fears she felt and prayed.
Please, oh Laya, let my best friend wake up! Please, oh Laya, deliver us from Dark Force!