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God and Mind - Volume III - Freedom
By Dark

Presented by: Xenogears: God and Mind

Chapter thirty seven

     At first she didn't know she was dreaming; only that she was watching him leave. She watched his quick, sunny smile, the jaunty wave of one arm as the buttons of his red jacket flashed in the fireworks' explosive light. She wanted to cry, but knew she must keep her blue eyes free of tears, knew she must be strong as he would want her to be. She saw his expressive lips move, and knew he was saying something brave, clever and funny, something to put her mind at ease, but all she could hear was the whirr and crackle of the rockets exploding above, noisy flowers of flame against the pale desert stars. He turned from her then, flicking his long blonde hair arrogantly as he leapt aboard the small wooden boat and cast off by the shore.
     It was then that the spark landed on Bart's pony-tail, a single dot of bright dreadful flame that settled slowly down with the grace of a feeding fly. She opened her mouth to shout a warning, but it was as if her throat had been stuffed with scratchy muffling wool. Frantically she floundered forwards towards the blackly glittering water, thinking vaguely of swimming out to the tiny bobbing boat.
     It was only then that she realized she was dreaming, as she felt the two pairs of hard cold hands settle firmly across her arms and begin to drag her steadily backwards. Even though she knew it wasn't real now, knew she was safe asleep, she struggled, frantically trying to break the heavy remorseless grip of the two unseen automatons, while Bart's boat faded to a single point of bright bloody light away on the horizon. She knew they were dragging her back to a dull steel box, a slamming door, an impersonal annihilation of cold silence and processed death, away from everything, away from him.

     Princess Marguerite woke with a start, her heart pounding as the dregs of the dream fluttered away from her in dimming strands. Slowly she lifted her head and scanned the small room, letting her eyes rest on the familiar shapes of wardrobe and table, window and drawers. She was here, safe, nobody had caught her. Then she remembered Bart drifting slowly off into the maelstrom of exploding fireworks and shuddered reflexively, you didn't need to be an expert on dream interpretation to work out what that meant. But still it had been a dream, just a silly, pointless dream, after all she'd have known if anything had happened to Bart wouldn't she? Whatever dark platitudes Shakhan mouthed in his broadcasts, she knew! Bart was fine! Knew it!
     Angrily the princess nestled down into the bed, pulling the blanket and sheet up like a soft pale wall, her eyes peeping suspiciously over the parapet at the tiny thread of grey light that slipped between the curtains. So it was early morning. Still time for more sleep. She quickly squashed a dim flutter of dread at the thought of returning to the dream, the dream had been silly and if she could do anything about it she wouldn't be having anymore like that. Grimly she forced her mind into a path of happy memory, times when she'd been growing up here in Nisan with Bart. He'd been wild, adventurous and distracted, always having mad plans and schemes that inevitably ended in disaster.
     Like the time he'd decided to build a working raft. For hours she'd patiently gathered logs and helped her cousin tie them together, sending Sister Agnes into hysterics with the state it left her clothes in afterwards. Bart had been so busy painting a brave Yggdrasil 'Y' on the large triangular sheet of canvass he'd scrounged for a sail that he'd barely spent any time on actually making the sail moveable.
     The raft (or Roni's Galleon according to the young Bart), had held up well enough when they'd boarded her, but after the wind had pushed them far out into the center of the river, the current had spun them off downstream in a frighteningly swift whirl of colour and movement.
     They'd eventually been rescued of course, but Sister Agnes' voice as she'd told them off had shaken the cathedral all the way up to the top of its steeple.
     Poor Bart, Margie thought. He'd really needed a brother to share his long rambling escapades. She'd always been the patient one, reluctant to break rules, worried over consequences. But then again, didn't that just mean they complimented each other? And wasn't that the point of male and female? Maybe Agnes was right after all when she said a woman's job was to make a man happy and visa-versa. Maybe Agnes was right about marrying ---
     Margie stopped herself, whatever the order said about men and women, she certainly was not! going to marry anyone on somebody else's say so. And anyway --- it was all a load of rubbish, she couldn't be bothered to think about it right now.
     Slowly she recognized sleep creeping up on her, stealthy black and soft as a hunting panther. But never mind, a little more sleep wouldn't hurt.
     The knock on the door was soft and professional, three tiny precise raps on wood that said quite plainly that the person knocking was someone refined who wished not to cause offence, but who would certainly prefer if the door was opened fairly soon.
     "Tea, Miss Marguerite?"
     "Come in, Maison."
     She turned towards the wall, huddling down even further among the clumped blankets, her mind still filling with the dark warm fog of approaching sleep. It wasn't until she'd heard the butler's familiar soft tread cross the room and the musical plink of a cup being set down on the dresser that she suddenly realized what was happening.
     "Maison! ---" Margie flung herself forwards and caught the slender old man in a wild hug, sending bedding cascading in all directions. "--- What happened!? Is Bart with you? They said you were --- but you're not!"
     Maison gently disengaged her arms from about his waist and held her critically at arms length. Margie couldn't help smiling as she imagined what Maison with his stiff old fashioned sense of propriety would make of her appearance, dressed as she was in a pale nightgown with her hands face and neck still stained a rich earthy brown.
     "One question at a time please, Miss Marguerite."
     Maison sank slowly down onto the bed, his glasses winking in the thin sliver of grey daylight. Margie was suddenly seized with a horrific sense of how old he was. Always before he'd just been Maison, a basic elemental presence of stiff mannerisms and careful affection. But now, as she saw his lined face, despite the neat grey hair he seemed suddenly old and fragile as a dry stick. Maybe it was just the sturdy sand coloured clothes and thick boots he wore, a far cry from his usual dapper blue suit and comber bands.
     "I'm sorry, Maison --- it's just I thought --- I can't believe---" Abruptly Margie felt a pricking at the corners of her eyes, the slow heavy warmth of tears.
     "Here, Miss Marguerite ---" One slim butler's hand held out a china cup and saucer brimming with a familiar brown liquid. "--- You'd better drink it before it gets cold."
     Gently Margie took the cup, but before she had a chance to drink, her hands started to shake. A flood of warm golden memories welled up inside her, a river of images and tastes so thick and heavy she thought her head would burst.

     A breakfast table in the upper rooms of the cathedral, morning after morning, Maison brewing tea from a silver pot and daintily pouring it, his movements an unconscious ritual.
     There had been the dull winter morning when a twelve year old Bart had asked for coffee, she could still see the old retainer's scandalized face. Then there had been the evenings, sitting before a crackling fire, a cup at her elbow as Maison, Sigurd or Sister Agnes read to them. There had been the time that Bart switched the sugar for salt, a petty revenge for a long forgotten punishment. Unfortunately it had been Margie herself who got the bitter, foul tasting brew, sending Maison into a fit of worry as she coughed and spluttered. For once the old man hadn't objected to the state it left his beautiful white tablecloth. Bart had worked so hard to make it up to her, over the next few weeks, doing her homework, making her breakfast in bed (the toast had been burned and the egg hard as iron, but she hadn't minded). Finally, the young prince had confessed to Maison, and the old butler had taken him down into Nisan city, to visit an artist friend Bart had explained later. Margie well remembered the pair of small ivory angels, each bearing an engraving of her and Bart's names along with the cross symbol of the Nisan order.

     Slowly, she rubbed a hand across her eyes, catching the tears like pearls. "I'm sorry, Maison."
     The old man shook his head and smiled. "There is nothing to be sorry for, Miss Marguerite --- unless perhaps you allow that tea to grow cold!"
     The Princess smiled, wet sapphire eyes glowing. Slowly she raised the cup and drank, shaking her head to move the cloud of night tousled hair away from her face. "Thank you, Maison."
     The old man nodded sagely, his glasses flashing as he accepted the compliment. "You are most welcome, Miss Marguerite. Now ---" Maison folded his hands, leaning backwards against the pale plaster of the wall. Once more familiar memories threatened to overwhelm Margie, the many hours she and Bart had spent, learning court etiquette, politics and history from the patient retainer. "--- To answer your earlier tirade, young Master Bart is indeed currently in excellent health."
     Margie sipped the tea slowly, feeling a tingle of relief. Of course if Maison was here then Bart must be alright --- but still. "On the news --- Shakhan said the Yggdrasil had sunk. Of course I know he's a bloody lying bastard but ---"
     Maison held up a long fatherly finger, his lips twisting in apparent amusement. "Language. You're becoming as profane as your cousin ---"
     Margie hid a sudden smile behind her teacup, some things never changed.
      "On this occasion, Shakhan was indeed truthful to a degree. The Yggdrasil did indeed have a rather unfortunate altercation with some enemy forces, and was indeed submerged. We fell into part of the Stalactite cave system that runs beneath the central desert. I must confess that our situation was a little desperate ---" Maison paused dramatically. "--- but that was when the young master found the second Yggdrasil!"
     Obediently, Margie let her round face quirk into a look of surprise. Raising the teacup for another sip she cast a sideways glance at Maison, and couldn't help noticing the proud smile crossing the old man's lined face. Maison had always loved bragging about her or Bart's various achievements. "So, you're hiding out in the desert then?"
     "No Miss Marguerite --- the Yggdrasil II is a seagoing vessel. We gather it would be unwise to come too near to Nisan, so Master Sigurd and Prince Bartholomew are making alternative arrangements."
     Margie finished the last of the tea and set the cup down on the bedside locker, her thoughts whirling. A seagoing Yggdrasil? Obviously the ship was parked somewhere off the coast --- or whatever you did to seagoing ships. But didn't Shakhan have a navy? Dimly she remembered dirty military ships sculling up the river Nisan, their sides bulging with thick metallic armaments, a greasy smoke pouring from their funnels.
     "What alternative arrangements? I hope Bart isn't going to do anything ---"
     Maison stood, old joints creaking and began to automatically dust off his long brown overcoat, just as if it were his usual spotless formal attire. "If you don't mind, Miss Marguerite, I would rather discuss such arrangements in a more -- formal setting, especially as they closely concern the Sisters of the Nisan order. Sister Agnes has been kind enough to agree to hold a meeting to discuss the issues," Maison crossed to the door, the sturdy dust covered boots seeming odd and ungainly against the room's rough brown carpet. "So if you would be pleased to present yourself in Sophia's shrine ---"
     "Sophia's shrine! I thought that was forbidden except for ceremonies!"
     Maison nodded wisely. "Indeed, but such is the point. If the Cathedral is searched, there will be good reason to bar entry to the sanctum. I'm sure it would be no irreverence to mother Sophia, though perhaps appropriate dress would be respectful"
     Abruptly, Margie realized that she was wearing nothing but a rather immodest nightgown. With a slightly contrived squeak of surprised she snatched up one of the heavy brown blankets from the bed and wrapped it around herself, belatedly realizing that Maison had already been in the room for some considerable time --- and anyway, propriety was a little pointless when dealing with a man who'd bathed her as a child.
     "Alright Maison, I'll be down in a minute."

* * * * * *

     Margie was almost surprised at how small Sophia's shrine actually was. Always before the room had seemed large and imposing as a wide hall with carven pillars. The two replicas of the Nisan order's symbol were almost heavy, as though cast in silver and ruby rather than in light and a woven carpet. But now, with three people sitting around a squat trestle table set up in the center of the room, the shrine seemed somehow smaller, more friendly, though Margie thought that was probably all to do with the stiff form of Maison sitting at one end of the table, and Sister Agnes at the other.
     "Welcome, Sister Margie. Please sit."
     Obediently, Margie crossed the room to take the chair between her old guardians. Sitting opposite her was a neat blonde haired man in a light cream coloured jacket, his small capable hands folded on the table in front of him. "Captain Long!"
     The man nodded, raising his head to smile shyly at Marguerite.
     "But he's in the Nisan Militia --- I thought that Gebler had ---"
      "Well, no." The old nun's voice was gentle, almost apologetic. Margie turned to face her, tugging distractedly at the hem of the red shawl covering her hair.
     "You see, as I was explaining to Mr. Maison just now, after the Cathedral was searched a few days ago, we were able to provide hiding places for several of Prince Bartholomew's compatriots"
     "It was a clever plan." The captain added, switching his admiring gaze to the grey haired sister Agnes. "Everyone just packed up and left. Of course, our neighbours thought we'd been captured by Gebler, so they didn't discuss it."
     "But why didn't you tell me!?" Margie's sapphire eyes blazed for a second, making her bear an uncanny resemblance to her cousin. She remembered the hours spent watching through the window in the cathedral tower, watching as house after house became empty and dull, boards covering windows like the closed eyes of a corpse. The nights had been worst, hearing the slam of doors and thud of marching feet. Each night it had seemed that more windows were darkened, more lights snuffed out.
      Sister Agnes shifted uneasily, setting her vestments rustling. "We wanted as few people to know as possible --- just in case Gebler ---"
     A shudder ran around the table like dark electricity, and for a second the silver and red of the cross symbols seemed to dim, flames bowing before a wind. Margie gazed around the room, and her eyes locked with the painted blue eyes and warm smile of mother Sophia's portrait. Had she ever known trouble like this? Margie supposed not, the pale delicate face beneath the cap of flame red hair seemed far too peaceful for such dark imaginings.
     "Well ---" Maison's voice was unexpectedly loud. "--- we are concerned now with a far more cheerful prospect. The Young Master is, despite Shakhan's propaganda, in perfectly good health. He managed to locate a maritime vessel in the caves after the Yggdrasil sunk, however he is most concerned about his people here in Nisan --- and also woefully lacking in supplies. He wondered if the Nisan order might be able to help"
     Sister Agnes raised greying eyebrows, her lips pursing into a severe no nonsense line that Margie remembered only too well. "If he is planning to sail this boat up the river Nisan --- well, the prince has always been reckless but ---"
     "No, Sister." The Captain bobbed his blonde head in a half bow to mitigate his slightly abrupt interruption. "Prince Bart wants us to go to him."
      "Precisely." The old butler fixed Captain Long with an approving smile. "The young Master recalled the hospital ships that the Nisan order used to send on errands of mercy."
      "And even Gebler would have a hard time justifying searching a hospital ship"
     Margie wrapped her still brown stained hands in the red shawl and hugged herself, too well she remembered the big cold fingers searching through her clothes and draws, emotionless eyes dissecting her privacy like surgical scalpels. "I wouldn't put it past them. I wouldn't put anything! Past them!" For a moment her own bitterness shocked her.
     Agnes reached over one thin hand and patted Margie's shoulder, her face wearing a gentle understanding smile."You are right, we shouldn't underestimate Gebler's effrontery. However, I received a transmission from Etone headquarters yesterday evening which might change the situation."
     Maison frowned thoughtfully. "I understood that the Etones were a militant wing of the Church whose main concern is hunting down dangerous demi-human mutations"
     "That's right. Their own medical facilities in the Ethos Headquarters are of course excellent, but as you can imagine they frequently require ---" Sister Agnes flicked one hand, as if searching for the appropriate word. "--- Healers in the field. And everyone knows that healing is one thing that our order is famous for."
     Captain Long turned surprised green eyes on Agnes, his short blonde hair seeming to bristle. "I didn't know the Nisan order went anywhere near Reapers?"
     Agnes smiled almost mischievously. "You might be surprised at some of the things members of our order have done in the past."
     Margie leaned forward eagerly, her eyes shining. "And you think that Gebler won't interfere with the Ethos business?"
     Sister Agnes nodded decisively. "Indeed. Apparently a nest of --- er, Reapers," her mouth turned up in distaste, "have taken over a cargo ship somewhere down near Aquavy. Whenever it drifts near land the Reapers attack. There are a lot of small villages around there, and a lot of people getting hurt."
     Maison straightened his thin shoulders beneath the brown coat and glowered in what he plainly thought was a brisk military manner. "How soon may a ship be made ready --- if you don't mind my asking?"
     Margie covered her mouth with one hand to hide her smile.
     "Well Mister Maison, we always keep a ship half stocked with medical supplies at the docks, just in case of emergencies. Gebler searched it of course when they searched the river side. Provisioning the ship should be easy." The Captain gave Sister Agnes another quick, nervous green glance, leaning his pointed chin on one hand. "But getting Princess Marguerite and the rest of us down to the ship won't be."
     Maison adjusted his steel rimmed spectacles and sighed. "I now have infinitely more respect for Mister Sigurd and the young Master, these conspiracies are not as easy to arrange as they sometimes appear."
     Margie looked up, and a thin thread of sunlight from the round window in the shrine's far wall coiled lightly about her hair, lighting the slightly unnatural gloss of her brown dyed skin and the warm, festive red of her dress and shawl. "We'll find a way."

* * * * * *

     Ramsus hated silence. Though most high ranking Solarians avoided unnecessary sound or energy wasting activity, Ramsus preferred noise, violence and strength. After the huge flying gunship and its accompanying squadron had thrust a cacophony of jets and engines into the blue desert sky, silence had flooded the area behind Bledavik's citadel like a thick murky tide, Ramsus couldn't have that.
     The six shots were so fast that they blended into one long roaring note, punctuated with the six simultaneous smashes as the row of empty wine bottles disintegrated. Ramsus lowered the still smoking revolver, taking a casual swig from the glass of pale yellow wine in his other hand.
      "Perfect score again Commander."
     Ramsus spared a quick angry glance for the girl in the short blue dress who sat demurely on a rock, a long stemmed glass poised politely in her white gloved fingers. She was only of medium height, but something in the dainty almost timid way she sat made her appear small and fragile. With the thick glossy dark hair, glinting occasionally with unseen hints of silver falling around her shoulders she seemed almost doll like, particularly when her face wore such a look of vacuous adoration."Stationary targets, Tolone."
     "Hmm." Tolone pursed her small red lips like a child disappointed of a treat. "That's true Commander, I shouldn't expect anything less of you."
     The wide grey eyes didn't lose their vacuous adoring look, but suddenly the silk clad fingers flicked, like a lady delicately drying her hands, and the wine glass flew in a glittering arc end over end straight at Ramsus' face. The still hot muzzle of the gun rose in a short violent swipe, catching the glass in mid air with enough force to send the cloud of sharp fragments winging off into the desert distance.
     "Oooooh Commander, I wanted to see you speed load!"
     Ramsus strode towards her, his military issue boots crushing the desert sand, his wide angular shadow spread out before him. "Stupid girl! Those wires in your head malfunctioning? This is a revolver not an automatic!"
     Tolone stood, brushing stray scraps of sand from the pristine white hem of her dress.
     "That's cruel Commander, especially when I came back just to see you. Dominia's off with the Hecht, and Seraphita and Kelvena are off in the south ---" Tolone took a couple of steps closer towards the commander, eyes lowered to the level of his chest. "But I'll stay here with you ---"
     In an almost determined gesture, Tolone reached one gloved hand towards Ramsus' white Gebler uniform jacket, but when the quiet voice spoke from behind, she jumped backwards like a scolded cat. "Playing Kahr?"
     Ramsus turned slowly, knowing exactly what he would see. Despite the desert dust, Miang's blue flecked Gebler uniform gleamed as if newly washed, her hair a sheet of unbroken indigo.
     "What if I am?"
     Tolone glanced towards Miang, her eyes filled with grey steel, even as her pale gloved fingers stroked lightly across the back of the commander's bronzed hand. "The commander was just practicing his target shooting"
     Miang's pale face remained expressionless. "Element Tolone, you are required in the control center to monitor communications with the Hecht strike force"
     The girl's bow-like mouth tightened into a small thin line, but she was too much a Solarian not to obey a direct order. Her back bristling, she turned and flounced off across the golden sands, ruffling her dress angrily.
     Ramsus started to pace restlessly, kicking up puffs of dust, his blocky shoulders hunched into a tense wall. "What's the problem then Miang? You getting jealous?"
     "No." Miang's voice was thin and matter of fact. "But I am concerned about whether it is wise for the Elements to remain on the surface. The unpredictability of their office requires a certain amount of emotion, and thus they will be far more prone to ideological contamination. Particularly one who required intelligence augmentation."
     Ramsus growled, his flat yellow eyes sullen as a hunting cat's. "Don't lecture me, Miang. I know what the Elements are for as well as anyone. But they're fine ---- even that Lieutenant Van Houten's being considered for Element status."
     Miang nodded, her azure hair rippling. "But the Lieutenant is a very different case from Tolone and the others. They do not suffer, as she does from a surfeit of empathy, but they are far more likely to allow basic desires and emotions to color their thoughts ---- and actions."
     Ramsus continued to pace, his shadow swinging around him in rapid dark circuits. "I thought that was the point, creative strategy ---- unpredictability. And anyway!" Abruptly he whirled on Miang, a menacing statue with brazen hair gleaming in the sunset. "What's wrong with basic desires and actions?"
     Miang's ice blue eyes gazed levelly into furious gold. "If you are referring to yourself, you should remember that your own nature is to a fair degree predictable --- as is mine."
     Miang moved closer, reaching one pale hand forward in an unhurried placating gesture. But Ramsus turned abruptly away, snorting a bitter barking laugh as he kicked a stone high into the darkening desert air.
     "Natural! There's a joke."
     Miang watched coldly as the lean tall figure in white and gold strode away across the sand. Even though her expression didn't change, something in her stance, perhaps a deep unconscious knowledge that bone and muscle has of emotions beyond the mind seemed to resonate regret.

* * * * * *

     Nisan had always been quiet, Margie thought. The idyllic quiet of a small untroubled town lying across streets and fields like the golden haze of a gentle sun. Even all Bart's noisiest boyhood antics had totally failed to disturb Nisan's perpetual piece. It was still quiet now, the night time streets silent but for their echoing footfalls on cobbled paths.
     Yet Margie found herself hating the silence, the creeping fear of boarded up windows and locked houses where before most doors had stood open. Even if Gebler's surgical purge was finished, few of the remaining Nisan residence wanted to risk drawing attention.
     Margie shivered and pulled the long brown cloak closer about her shoulders. She wished she could tell all those people, all those who'd gone around in a forced parody of everyday life, that hope waited for them on a dark rolling sea far to the south. A slight breeze whispered up the street, bringing with it the scent of night blooming jasmine and the cool smell of the river. Not far now!
     Beside them the old stone houses of Nisan loomed against the deep blue sky, their curls and mantles of ornamented stone turned to grotesque lowering shadows by the dim light. Every alley they passed Margie expected a challenge, a cold voice ringing in the night, but why should she? All day the preparations had gone smoothly, boxes and barrels of supplies carried down to the docks, each bearing the red cross signifying medicine (though only a small proportion of the goods was in fact medical).
     Then there had been the truly dangerous part, as the troop of supposed nuns in their plain habits walked sedately down to the ship, but the few bored olive uniformed centuries at the dock entrance hadn't even bothered asking questions. Thank God they were Aveh guards, Gebler surely wouldn't have been so sloppy.
     She had expected some of the male members of the militia would object to the disguise, but none did. But then again given the alternative, Margie would have been willing to cover herself in manure if it would have gotten her out of this enclosed, silent place and back to Bart and freedom.
     Margie remembered running down summer streets to the Nisan docks to see ships from distant places come ploughing up the wide slow river. It had seemed such a short journey then, Bart running beside her, talking excitedly of far places and dramatic voyages even as they ran. But now, everything was still and silent as a long deserted ruin, and the winding stone streets seemed to extend on endlessly into the deep blue night like tunnels into nowhere. Once the streets had been bright with warm electric lamps set up at every intersection, but all lights in the town seemed to have been snuffed to give Gebler enough darkness to do their work in.
     They turned a corner, and before them Margie saw a wide way filled with the dull box like shapes of warehouses --- almost there! Beside her, Maison walked in slow measured steps, the sturdy desert boots ringing echoes from the flat brick walls surrounding them. Margie resisted an urge to run, as she had in those summers that seemed years ago, even an Aveh guard would be suspicious of a cloaked sister of the Nisan order pelting down the twilight streets. With an effort the Princess pushed each foot forward, as though her feet were untamed animals she had to forcibly keep in check, one step --- two --- three.
     But as the harsh vibrating note dropped through the still air, Margie stopped, her body rigid beneath the enfolding cloak, frozen like a rabbit caught in torchlight. It wasn't until several seconds of gritty sound had poured down around her that she could identify the noise as a throbbing chorus of engines, high above in the dim blue sky.
     A small phalanx of shadow shapes rushed into view, a large mass of black in the center accompanied by a host of smaller forms, a few harsh white lights cutting a path in front of them into the gloom. Margie scarcely had time to wonder if one of those dim aerial shades was about to stoop down on her like a hungry vulture, when they were gone, off into the distance, trailing their harsh perpetual engine blare behind them.
     Determinedly, Margie started off again, walking carefully so that the cold trembling in her knees didn't spill her down onto the cobbles. At another time she might have wondered where the vehicles were flying to, and what other horrors Gebler might be inflicting elsewhere, but tonight she had no room in her mind for such speculations, there was only herself and this long dark journey.
     At last the warehouses fell away to either side and Margie found herself facing a long stone apron that ran down to the softly rippling glitter of the Nisan river. Her heart started to beat faster as she saw the dim shape of the ship waiting only 20 paces away, a long tongue of steel gang plank resting on the stone jetty like a comforting hand on a friend's shoulder. It was only the slow deliberate presence of Maison, walking beside her that stopped her dashing straight to the ship, kicking away the ropes and other detritus of the docks.
     "Who's that?" Once more Margie froze, as if all her insides were filled with lead. To one side of the docks a light suddenly flicked on, and behind it Margie could dimly make out a figure in crumpled green, half slouching on a loose heavy coil of rope. To Margie's relief, Maison's voice rang out, slow and careful as though reciting a list of dates he wished her and Bart to learn.
     "Ah, my good Corporal, perhaps you recall that we met yesterday evening?"
      "Oh yes, --- you're the old fellow with the sand bike." The figure rose from its slouch and took a few steps towards them. Margie tensed herself, as though like Bart or Fei she could spring forward and knock out this menacing man with a single blow, but those were not her talents. Yet as the guard moved closer, she saw that his broad unshaven face was split in a wary smile.
     "Indeed." Maison replied, nodding his head in a half bow. The guard cast an interested look in Margie's direction, casually swinging the beam of his torch to cover her.
     "And this is your daughter?"
     Abruptly, Margie felt her fear suddenly withdraw, leaving her mind cool and swift as a flowing stream. Around her everything seemed to sharpen, the stone beneath her feet, the ripple of the water against the jetty, even the feel of the rough cloth of her cloak and the slightly acrid smell of the docks. Fei, or Bart might have told her, this was the calm of battle, the point of balance between fear and hope.
     Taking a couple of steps forward she extended one hand to the guardsman, still glossy with the brown stain of her disguise.
     "Hello Corporal. I'm Sister Agnes."
     A look of slight surprise flickered across the corporal's face. "Pleased to meet you --- " He clumsily shook Margie's hand. "--- Your father said your name was Falicia."
     A few seconds earlier Margie might have been petrified, but now she surfed the wave of calm. There was no suspicion in the guard's face, only a mild curiosity. Almost as though she was a machine churning out print she let the flood of words and ideas carry her forward, fixing the guard with an intent sapphire gaze. "Everyone calls me Agnes --- it's my middle name. Everyone except my father anyway --- "
     Only giving the guard a second's pause Margie continued, her words a breathless rush. "--- Well, of course when I joined the order, Sister Agnes was a lot easier to say than sister Falicia-Agnes. There's already a sister Agnes in the order but --- "
     The guard abruptly took a step backwards, then tottered slightly as his foot slipped on a wet plank. As though to shield himself from the flood of inane words he held the torch a little higher. "Sister Agnes --- er, if I can just ask ---"
     Margie took a deep breath, then waded in again. Even though she wasn't sure whether the guard could see her expression in the torchlight she let her eyes grow wide and anxious, her brown dyed face radiating slightly silly sincerity. It's this news about the Reaper ship --- you must have heard ---?" She deliberately gave the guard no time to say whether he had heard or not. "--- some vicious creatures have taken over this cargo ship, and they're causing all sorts of horrible things! When I heard I just had! To go and help. People killed, terrible! --- of course father's been very kind about coming along, even though it's probably going to be a hard trip, I just hope we can do some good --- "
     The guard held up the hand not holding the torch as though forestalling an oncoming wave. "Well sister, I don't want to hold you up ---- that's your ship? Please go aboard"
     For the first time in all that long journey, Margie let her pace quicken. Within only a few steps her feet were ringing on the steel gangway of the ship, and with each clang she felt her heart leap. Behind her she dimly heard the guard's sardonic voice.
      "You are a very patient fellow my friend!"
     "It is the duty of the Nisan order to teach virtues to others --- " Maison answered smoothly. "--- including the virtue of patience."
     Margie heard the old butler sigh dramatically and the guard give a sympathetic chuckle.
     A few seconds later she was standing on the long wide deck of the squat utilitarian ship, and behind her she heard Maison's quiet tread on the metal. She looked ahead, and in front of her she could see the Nisan river following away into blue distance, its banks first filled with the hulking cliffs of buildings, then further down was the flat grey expanse of fields and open land. Far off in the distance she knew was the sea, a long ever moving mass of free floating water, and somewhere out there was Bart and the new Yggdrasil. From behind, the Princess heard a deep heavy clang. Looking back she saw that two crewmen had raised the gangplank behind Maison. Over the low bar of shadow that was the ship's rail the docks were still, the guard evidently having extinguished his flashlight and gone back to his semi-doze on the pile of ropes. Margie looked forward again, her eyes following the long faintly shining track of the river out into the distance. Whatever came next, she knew that Nisan was behind her, and the days of hiding in helpless fear had at last ended, only the future was unknown.

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~ End of Chapter 37 ~

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