Dragon Heart

 

Penname: Margot Le Faye

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Summary:  Buffy’s immortal, Angel’s dead.  And in an alternate, medieval universe, a powerful witch needs the Slayer to stop a war that could engulf an entire world.  A Non-AU, non-post NFA fic that mostly takes place in an AU post-NFA. Follows show canon only, ignores all comic books.

Rating: NC-17/MA

A.N.  Language translations and other notes that may be of interest to the reader will appear at the end of the finished story, rather than the end of any given chapter or section.

Dedication:  You are reading this fic courtesy of the amazing ljgould, who first coaxed me into writing for the IWRY marathon, then agreed to beta and, last but very much not least, managed to beta this monster with very little turnaround time.  Thanks so much, lj.  Any remaining errors are mine, not hers.

 

Dragon Heart

by

Margot Le Faye

 

 

Chapter I

 

The Palazzo della Veronica,

outskirts of Rome

Spring, 2004

 

“Thank you,” Buffy said, smiling at her friend and mentor with genuine warmth.  They were sitting on the terrace of his palazzo, overlooking the Roman countryside, a bottle of the hearty chianti produced by his own vineyards on the table between them, along with the remains of a very fine meal.  It had been a beautiful spring day, warm enough for Buffy to wear a simple sheath of lilac organza that she knew made her eyes look a misty gray.  Now, the sun was setting over the seven hills, and her mood had become ever so slightly melancholy.  In another place, another life, she’d have been making dinner for Dawn, or getting ready to patrol before hanging out with her friends.  But Dawn was in school in Paris, and her friends were scattered around the world rounding up more potentials-turned-slayers.  Willow and Kennedy were in Brazil, Xander somewhere in Australia, while Giles was reestablishing the Watcher’s Council in London with help from Faith, Robin Wood and, as hard as it was to imagine, Andrew.  The army of Slayers she and Willow had created was with the nascent Council.

 

For herself, Buffy didn’t patrol much, anymore.  Their recent discovery--the one that had led Giles to inform her about the existence of the Immortal, and to send her to him to learn the things she would need to know--had largely freed her of the duties, obligations and burdens that had been part of being Chosen.  But her new state simply exchanged one set of responsibilities for another, and Giles believed that if anyone could help her understand them, it would be the youthful-looking ancient with whom she was currently sharing a postprandial bottle of wine. 

 

The Immortal inclined his head in gracious acknowledgment of her spoken thanks. “Sta bene, bella,” he told her, pouring her another glass.  Signore Giles was right, was he not?  Your visit here has made the transition easier, no?”  Buffy felt her smile grow just a bit stiff.

 

“Easier,” she admitted, reaching for her glass, aware of the precision in his choice of words.  It would never, could never, be easy.  The Immortal smiled gravely--everything he did seemed full of gravity, solemnity, portent, as if the sheer number of days he’d lived had acquired tangible substance, to weigh upon his slightest gesture or expression.  But it was still a smile and she returned it in kind.  She wondered how long it would be before her own smile became as weighted as his.  That thought led to another, something she’d wondered about before but hadn’t felt she could ask.  Now, several months after she had become a guest at his palazzo, they had become more comfortable with each other, and she felt the timing was right to make her inquiry.

 

“Was there someone to make it easier for you?” she asked quietly.  Her manner was diffident, conveying to him that he need not answer if he found the question too intrusive.  He looked at her closely, his expression unreadable, as it so often was.  She looked right back, not an unduly burdensome task. 

 

Her companion was very easy on the eyes.  The Immortal had classic male beauty of the kind that had been glorified on all manner of ancient amphorae, kylixs, in murals, statues, and lauded in poetry long since lost with the destruction of the tablets and scrolls on which it had been recorded.  He was on the tall side of average by modern standards, and Buffy knew he must have been a giant amongst men in the remote antiquity when he’d been born.  His eyes were large and liquid, kohl black rather than the normal dark brown.  His hair, too, was truly black, thick and waving, though cut in the latest fashion.   His nose was straight, his mouth generous.  If anyone needed a model for a Greek god in the classic style, here he was.  Buffy suspected that not merely his type, but his own image, had decorated those lost artifacts and been extolled in those forgotten poems, once upon a time.  And that he had already been unthinkably ancient when those paintings and carvings and writings had been made.  The thought was not a cheering one.

 

As ever, Buffy couldn’t guess what he was thinking.  His expression remained enigmatic as he sat there like an Olympian god, as comfortable in the modern costume of Gucci loafers, gray tailored slacks and a silk shirt of pale yellow, as he would have been in a Doric chiton or an imperial toga, or perhaps, much later, in breeches, frock coat, bag wig and tricorn hat.  He regarded her steadily for a few moments, his always thoughtful manner growing just a shade more pensive, but he did not withdraw, did not indicate in any way that her probing had offended him.  “As you have guessed, bella, there was not,” he said finally.  Buffy nodded.  She had indeed guessed.  He was the Immortal, because there had never been another before.

 

Now, there was.

 

“Have you decided which of them to visit?” he interrupted her thoughts with a change of topic.  He had business interests to attend to in Vienna for a few weeks, and had suggested that she might either join him, or take her own holiday.  She enjoyed his company, but she dearly missed her friends and family.

 

“Willow, I think,” she told him, sipping her wine.  “I can fly to Paris for a few days with Dawn, then head to Rio. I’ve never been to Brazil.”

 

“Whereas you have been to Los Angeles,” he said lightly.  Buffy gave him a sharp glance.

 

“Well, that was...direct, Rodolfo,” she said, using the name by which his intimates had known him for centuries, if not the one to which he’d been born.  Though there was nothing of physical intimacy to their relationship, they shared the emotional intimacy of their similar conditions.   Which meant Rodolfo felt perfectly free to say things to Buffy other people wouldn’t have dreamed of mentioning

 

“When you are being stubborn, someone else being direct can prove salutary.” he said with a small smile.

 

“Hey!  I am not stubborn!”

 

“Really?” he said with polite surprise. “For months you’ve known about his--their--entrapment in the web spun by the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart, but despite my advice you kept your distance, sending that idiot Andrew after poor Dana instead of risking a confrontation.  Now, I tell you that there are signs of something grim afoot.  It appears that your lover is slipping deeper into the thrall of evil, and you still do nothing.”

 

Buffy set down her glass, her stomach suddenly roiling with distress.  “Do what, exactly?” she demanded.  “Things between Angel and myself aren’t...forget what they aren’t.  What they are is impossible.  And he hasn’t been my lover for a long time.”

 

“Did I specify Angel?” Rodolfo said mildly.  She threw him a dark look.  No, he hadn’t specified Angel, and the fact that she had instantly equated the term lover with the older vampire, when it might be, with justice, applied to either of the two undead men working at Wolfram and Hart in LA, was as telling as Rodolfo had intended it to be.

 

“C’mon, Rodolfo.  We both know who you meant.  And we both know what you want me to tell him.  But how do you think that’s going to help?   ‘Hi, honey!  Guess what?  Remember when Willow brought me back from the dead?  Well, she got interrupted at the end of her spell which kind of had this side effect no one was expecting and now I’m never gonna die.   Just like you.  Not that it matters, because I’ve learned that there is no spell, no artifact, no mystic power known anywhere in this world that can possibly close the loophole in that curse on your soul, so we’re both gonna live forever without ever actually being able to be together.’  Oh yeah,” she laughed bitterly.  “That’s a conversation I’m just dying to have.  Preferably in a sewer, to give it the right heartbreaking ambiance.”

 

Bella....”

 

“Not that it matters,” Buffy cut him off, “because whatever you think, avoiding that conversation isn’t the only reason I’m not rushing off to confront Angel.”  She leaned forward to Rodolfo, speaking urgently.  “Have you thought about what would happen if the Slayer walked into the main offices of Evil, Inc. and tried to have a private talk with her ex-honey, who just happens to be their current CEO?  Wolfram and Hart know all about me.  They know all about...us.  I have to think they know about my spiffy new immortality.  Whatever he’s up to--and if I know Angel, he’s up to something--if I go there, the Senior Partners are not going to be happy about it.  They’re going to know I’m trying to get him out from under their influence, and that might put him in more danger than he’s in already.”

 

“Mortal danger,” the Immortal said agreeably.  “But have you thought, bella, that there is more than his life at stake, or the lives of his associates, even the lives of the innocents in the city he seems to have taken it upon himself to protect?”  She looked at him, confusion plain on her face.  He sighed, shook his head.  “I forget.  This century, the way people live...for me, the world became so secular, so quickly, I often forget that people today barely remember that there are larger issues at play.”

 

“Larger issues than life and death?” Buffy frowned.

 

“His immortal soul,” her companion explained.  “If he loses that--”

 

“He won’t,” Buffy said firmly.  “His soul was resting in the ether until the gypsies stuffed it back inside his...physical form. No reason it won’t go right back to resting in the hopefully very very far future time when that becomes an issue.”

 

“You, who have been to heaven, can say that?”  Rodolfo asked mildly.  She knew his reputation was that of someone who bestrode the line between good and evil, pursuing his own agenda.  She also knew that, though he was careful to foster such an image, the truth was a bit more complex.  His role --and hers, now--was that of a balance keeper, to ensure that nothing went so far in one direction or another, that a destructive backlash ensued.  In order to be effective, he had to preserve the illusion of neutrality, which he had carefully done for millennia.  As a Slayer, it was going to be harder for her to create that illusion.  But not impossible.  Her reputation as the consort of vampires, and the perception that she was now the Immortal’s consort, helped.  No one would believe it if she turned her back on her friends and her calling as the Slayer all at once, so if an apocalypse tried to materialize, she’d be there to stop it.  For another century or so, anyway.  But gradually, over the course of a century or two, she could be seen to move away from the side of absolute good to the neutral position Rodolfo himself supposedly espoused.

 

Strange to think of making plans that would take millennia to come to fruition, that she would live to see such plans through.  But so she would.  In time, Rodolfo had explained, the balance would be stable enough for an ultimate victory of Good over Evil, and she would live to see that, as well.  But that time was not yet. 

 

Rodolfo’s conviction that Good would ultimately triumph was one she wished she shared.  Given the vast chasm between their ages and experience, it ought to be Rodolfo who was the jaded cynic and she the naive optimist.  But it was Buffy who took nothing on faith, while, after millennia of existence, and a seemingly eternal exile from the heaven and the God he professed to believe in, Rodolfo’s faith in that God was absolute and unshakable.   Hers had never been that deep and had been shaken too thoroughly, too often, for her to retain anything other than doubts.

 

“It’s because I’ve been to heaven that I’m so sure that Angel’s in no danger of burning in hell...again,” she told the Immortal now.  “I wasn’t in heaven as some big reward.  My spirit happened to fall into the right place when I took a dive through a portal.  Angel happened to be in the wrong place when he got sucked into the demon dimension of hell...which wasn’t the same demon hell dimension I visited a few months later, and neither of which were the ones in which a certain hell god named Glory ruled.”  She grew somber.  “I hope this isn’t put to the test for a long, long time, but if Angel ever....” She couldn’t finish the sentence.  “He’ll be at peace.  In the ether.”

 

Cara bambina, surely you understand that cannot be the case?”  Rodolfo said, his voice holding the barest inflection of pity.  Buffy flinched, opened her mouth for a heated denial, but at that moment a strikingly beautiful woman hurried onto the terrace.  Anyone looking at Serafina, knowing that she was the Immortal’s personal assistant, could be forgiven for believing that their relationship was very personal, indeed.  Buffy had certainly made that exact assumption.  An incorrect one, it turned out. Serafina was devoted to her employer, but not besotted with him.  She was wildly in love with a young violinist to whom she had recently become engaged.  Right now, the normally immaculately dressed woman looked just a trifle flushed, a few wisps of hair curling in inky tendrils about her face instead of being neatly caught up in her elegant chignon.  Too, the always sedate and relaxed Serafina was agitated, nearly running.

 

Che cosa è la dispersione, Serafina?” Rodolfo asked tranquilly. 

 

Scusilo, il signore, signorina, ma qualche cosa di horrible è accaduto.” Serafina burst into a flood of rapid Italian of which Buffy could catch no more than a few words.  True, she’d been living in Italy for months and had acquired some fluency, but Serafina was speaking much too quickly for her to follow.  Still, she picked up enough to conclude that some situation Serafina had been keeping an eye on for her boss had taken a bad turn.  Serafina seemed shaken, but Rodolfo heard her out in complete calm, so whatever it was, it couldn’t be too bad, Buffy surmised.

 

Si,” Rodolfo said when Serafina’s agitated discourse came to an end.  “To be expected.” Another rapid stream of Italian that Buffy wasn’t fluent enough to catch, to which Serafina supplied a few brief answers.  One thing she said did manage to ruffle Rodolfo’s usual calm.

 

Dove?” he asked sharply.  Buffy understood  both the one word question, Where?, and Serafina’s one word answer, “Qui.” Here.  She looked at Rodolfo, wondering who or what had arrived--or been brought--to his palazzo that had caused him, for once, to lose his cool.

 

The Immortal nodded to his assistant and said something that seemed to reassure her, as she visibly relaxed while he spoke.  Then he rose from the table, coming around to Buffy’s chair, offering his hand.

 

“Come with me, bella.  Things seem to have progressed more rapidly than even I would have expected.”  Warily, Buffy took his hand and let him help her up.

 

Serafina had put whoever it was in one of the guest chambers, just down the hall from the suite of rooms that had been given to Buffy.  Rodolfo said nothing as he opened the door, apparently deciding to let the situation speak for itself.

 

Which it did, all too clearly.

 

There was more than one person in the room.  Serafina had not come to alert her boss to what was going on until the medical team had begun its work.

 

Though what could a medical team do for a vampire, Buffy wondered in growing panic.  Spike had no heartbeat to maintain, and he didn’t need a respirator because he didn’t respire.  But he’d been beaten far, far worse than he had been when Glory got ahold of him, his face nothing more than raw skin, his clothes bloody rags, his hair no longer blond but almost entirely sticky wet red.

 

“What happened?” she demanded, trying to get close without getting in the way of the people working on patching Spike up.

 

“It seems I was wrong,” Rodolfo said.  “Angel was not slipping into darkness.  He was pretending, in order to strike a blow that must stagger even the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart.”

 

Buffy’s stomach clenched in dread.  She stopped inching toward Spike and turned to Rodolfo.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Angel went after their prime operatives in this dimension, the Circle of the Black Thorn.  He and his people appear to have taken them out.”  There was something that might have been admiration in Rodolfo’s voice.  “I did not think it could be done,” the Immortal concluded.

 

“Where is he?  Did he send Spike to you?”  Buffy’s mind was racing, fear beginning to blossom.  She fought it off.  Spike survived.  Angel was older, stronger, tougher.  He had to be okay, too.  “Is Angel going to be coming here?”

 

Bella,” Rodolfo said gently, attempting to take her into his arms.  Buffy pulled away. 

 

“Where is he?” she demanded again, her voice taking on the thin edge of hysteria. 

 

“I’m sorry, Bella.”

 

“You don’t know where he is?” she said, the only meaning her terrified brain would allow her to make of his words.

 

For once, the look Rodolfo gave her was not in the least enigmatic.  It was filled with a terrible compassion. 

 

Bella,” he said gently, “we both know where he is.”  It was the last thing Buffy remembered hearing before the world went mercifully black.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Chapter II

 

Washington High School

Sub-basement below the library

Cleveland, Ohio

December 21, 2005

 

“Did I happen to mention how old this is getting?” Buffy said irritably as she took off the first head of the demon serpent.

 

“What?  Closing the Hellmouth?” Faith replied cheerfully as she vaulted onto the monster’s back and stabbed randomly searching for its heart.

 

“Oh, c’mon,” Spike added as cheerfully, punching something that looked like a cross between a lizard and a goat in its apparently sensitive nose, and sending it back where it had come from.  “A year when we don’t have to stop the world from ending would be right boring.”

 

“Hellmouths, guys, plural,” Buffy said, dodging the biting attack of another serpent head.  “And, why are they always under high schools?” she demanded of no one in particular, twisting to avoid the grasp of one of the inconvenient zombies that had started lurching around when the Hellmouth had begun to yawn open.  “We destroyed Sunnydale to seal the first one, but that got written off as an earthquake.  How are we going to explain away Cleveland?”

 

“Won’t have to,” Faith said with a grin, then somersaulted off the back of the monster she had been riding as it collapsed into its death throws.  “No one’s gonna miss it enough to ask,” she added as she landed on the other side of the chasm from Buffy

 

A dozen assorted demons threw themselves at the two senior slayers and the vampire.  They had to have been good to have gotten through the gang of younger slayers on the perimeter of the eruption. But, not good enough.  The three didn’t even pause in their conversation as they dusted the lot of them.

 

“Hurry!” Giles shouted from his place by Willow, who was straining with the effort to channel enough magick to force the chasm to close once more.  “If the rift grows any wider...”

 

“End of the world, yadda yadda yadda,” Buffy said, but she lost no time racing to where the malevolent sulfurous light was, indeed, growing.  Until Willow could close the portal, all manner of beasties would be coming through...just as all manner of supernatural evil was trying to get into the building from the outside world, in order to aid and abet the coming of Hell on Earth.  The younger slayers were handling those.  She, Faith and Spike, being the big guns, were getting the big job.

 

In the end, of course, they were up to the task.  The beasties were beaten back, the supernatural evil dispersed.  The sulfurous light began to fade, the yawning chasm began to narrow instead of widen, and they could step away from the perimeter.

 

And, in the end, it wasn’t carelessness, or fatigue, or being out fought or even the despair that had settled over her and been steadily growing for the past year and a half that did her in.  It was a simple bit of luck.  In stepping away from the Hellmouth, Buffy’s foot came down on a severed, but still twitching, demon limb that was leaking an unnaturally copious amount of slippery goo...

 

One moment, she was standing, watching the chasm grow smaller, making sure nothing tried to sneak through, and the next her foot slid out from under her, and she was pitching forward.  She saw the horror in Faith’s expression from the other side of the room, heard Spike screaming her name as he made a desperate leap to catch her, heard Dawn’s scream echoing his, and she knew that no one could reach her in time...

 

Buffy tried to save herself.  She really did.  She twisted in midair and scrabbled for a hold on the edge of the swiftly closing pit, and it should have been enough to give her purchase, let her haul herself up.  But somehow it wasn’t.  In one instant, the narrowing chasm sealed all the way closed, cutting her off from her friends, and Buffy was falling, endlessly falling, into the hot and sulfurous light, as she wondered, resignedly, if she’d failed to save herself because her heart really wasn’t in it, anymore.  It occurred to her that she might be about to discover just how immortal she really was.  She rather hoped not very, because Hell?  Not high on the Buffy Summers' List of Places to Revisit Before I Die Again.  Even though Willow would immediately jump on the research to find a way of pulling Buffy out of the Hellmouth without opening the portal they’d just expended so much effort on closing, that research would take time.  Buffy was bound to land before Willow could possibly find the right spell.  If she were as immortal as Giles, Rodolfo and everyone else thought, she was going to survive the landing.  The unknown factors were how hard her landing was going to be, and how unpleasant the recovery process would be.  And what would be hanging around just waiting to make the recovery process as unpleasant as possible.  She’d know when she hit bottom, sooner or later.  Nothing for it now but to relax into the fall.

 

Buffy lay back, executing a midair somersault, trying to see if she could tell how quickly the ground--or whatever she was falling toward--was coming up to meet her.  The source of the sulfurous light was way, way, way below ...but, something was glinting in the lurid illumination, approaching as if it were rising even as she was falling.  In a moment the glimmer resolved itself into a shape, and Buffy watched as a broadsword with a particularly intricate handle and a beautifully etched blade spun lazily, end over end, in her direction.  It didn’t seem to be aimed at her in particular but rather was gently drifting with no real force behind it.  She decided that when it came within reach, she’d try to grab it.  Given where she was, a broadsword was bound to come in handy.  Meanwhile, with no other denizens of the Hellmouth showing up, she had nothing to do but fall.  At least this time was a lot less painful than her swan dive from the platform after she’d defeated Glory, she thought brightly.  For several more minutes her descent continued to be perfectly comfortable, and she had nothing more pressing to do than try to maneuver herself into position to grasp the approaching sword.

 

Then the air around her began to change, growing cooler, and rustling with what she first took to be wind.  As it grew colder, the rustling grew louder, until she realized it was no wind, but the sound of perhaps a dozen voices, united in sibilant chanting. The sound grew louder, the wind colder until suddenly, the sulfurous light was overcome by something else, something dark and icily blue, with a faint scent of...roses?  Moments before the sword would have come within her reach, Buffy’s downward momentum was jarringly arrested as what felt like a giant invisible fist grabbed hold of her, wrenching her sideways, her chest compressed as all air was forced from her lungs, her heart squeezed to bursting, her muscle and skin and her very bones on fire.  She felt as if she were being squashed into a flat line and then threaded through a hole in solid rock.  The pain went on and on and on, stretching out forever, until she would have screamed her lungs raw had she been able to get breath into them to utter a single sound.

 

And then, as suddenly as they’d come, the weight and pressure and burning stopped.

 

Seconds Later

Someplace Else

 

“It is done, majesty,” a soft female voice, vaguely familiar, said above her.  Buffy couldn’t open her eyes to see who it was, to discover why the voice sounded familiar, because her muscles weren’t cooperating.  She realized she was lying on something soft and cool and wasn’t sure she wanted to get up, just yet.  The last part of her fall had been a lot worse than the fall from Glory’s platform, but she was damned sure she hadn’t ended up in the heavenly dimension she’d been in before.  Great.  She really was immortal, and she must’ve succeeded in falling into Hell.

 

Except, no flames, no pain, no demons rushing to attack her, so...?

 

“Interesting,” said another familiar voice, one which she had no trouble placing.  Buffy’s heart sank.  Oh, good.  The Master was probably lining up all manner of demons to help torment her.  She must indeed be in Hell, where she had sent him more than eight years before.  She really, really hoped Willow’s research was going well.  “Although, not what we expected,” the Master went on musingly.

 

“Are you sure there’s no mistake, majesty?” another voice, male, slightly annoyed, and completely unknown, spoke up.  “That’s the gift you want me to take to my liege lord?”

 

Gift? Buffy thought in vague alarm with just a touch of ire.

 

“You were here, Lord Lindsey, you saw the spell,” the Master went on in a bored voice.  “You know the reputation of our witches.  They do not fail.  We asked them to procure the perfect gift for the emperor from wherever in all the worlds it might be, and this is what the magick brought us.”

 

Buffy really didn’t like the sound of that.  She tried to open her eyes again, to move any muscle at all, but she simply didn’t have the strength.  She could do nothing but listen in growing horror to the conversation taking place above her head.

 

“Despite the oddity of her attire, she’s very lovely,” Lindsey admitted, confirming Buffy’s worst fears that they were talking about her rather than the broadsword or some other object that she’d happened to be carried along with when they’d conjured it from wherever it had been before.   Although she thought the crack about her attire was uncalled for.  Her red leather pants were, admittedly, a good six years old, but the classics never went out of fashion.  Her boots and jacket, both in black leather, were from a very expensive little shop in Florence, and there surely was nothing to complain about in her black silk tee, was there?   “Still, the White Palace is filled with beautiful women, women who are not affrighted by an honorably earned battle scar.  Even if this girl proves to be of such mettle, why is one more beautiful woman in any manner a perfect gift?”

 

Buffy was not reassured by being described as lovely or beautiful.  Not in conjunction with the word gift when that gift was being made to some powerful, male, probably demonic, liege lord.  Also, it would seem, hideously scarred in battle.

 

“We cannot imagine,” the Master said dryly, and what the hell was up with the plural pronoun?  How many of him were there?  “We will admit we were half expecting to see the Sword of Amara lying there on the silk.”  Amara.  Why did that sound familiar?  Buffy wondered if that was the sword she’d seen in the Hellmouth, and wouldn’t it be just her luck if a spell meant to bring it to some emperor picked her up, instead, because she’d gotten in its way?   The Master wasn’t finished.  “That is what Dragonheart desires above all else, isn’t it?”  There was something sweetly poisonous in his tone as he said the last words.  Buffy would not have been surprised to hear the other man spluttering in denial.  This Lindsey, it seemed, wasn’t so easily discomposed.

 

“I am not privy to the secrets within my liege’s heart,” he said smoothly.  The Master gave a dry chuckle, apparently appreciative of the politic response. 

 

“My dear?” the Master said.  “Do you have any ideas for us?”

 

“No, majesty,” the soft female voice came again.

 

Majesty? Buffy thought uneasily.  The Master is some sort of hell-king?  Better than a hell-god, I guess.  At least it explained his pronoun usage.  The royal we sounded every bit as weird as she’d always thought it would, now that she was in the position of hearing it used in prolonged conversation.

 

“I do not know why the gift is perfect,” the unknown woman continued, “only that it...that she...is.  That is the nature of the spell you called upon us to perform.”

 

“So it was,” the Master said affably.  “There you have it, Lord Lindsey.  Neither we nor the most skilled witch of our court has a clue why this pretty bit of flesh was procured by the magick

we asked her to invoke on our behalf.  But when you give her to the Dragonheart, I suppose we shall all find out.”

 

“As you will, majesty,” Lindsey said, with more politeness than conviction.

 

Meanwhile, Buffy’s efforts to bestir herself were at last bearing some fruit, and she managed to move one hand a little to her side, trying to get to one of her concealed stakes.

 

“Ah, the lady appears to be awake.”  A snap of fingers.  “Attend to her.”  The sound of footsteps on stone and the clink of metal as a number of people moved quickly toward her.  Suddenly, Buffy found herself gently lifted and settled on something long and flat, perhaps a table?  A moment later, something soft was placed beneath her head, cushioning it.  A cool, damp cloth was smoothed over her face, and left to rest against her brow, a cup was held to her lips, and soothing voices coaxed her to drink its sweet smelling contents.  If this was Hell...there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.  Buffy drank.

 

The contents of the cup were delicious, warm wine mulled with honey and spices.  After the first sip, she didn’t need to be coaxed to finish the rest.  Seemingly, more than spices had been mixed into the wine, for it clearly had restorative powers.  Buffy was able to blink her eyes open and take in her surroundings. 

 

And what surroundings they were.

 

The term cathedral ceiling came to mind.  Which seemed appropriate for a cathedral, or, more likely a throne room, because that’s what she appeared to be in.  An ornately carved and gilded throne room, lit by an absolutely amazing number of candles, hanging in great wheels from the lofty ceiling, or affixed to huge circular stands scattered through the room.  The chamber itself was lavishly painted and hung with exquisite tapestries, right out of a medieval castle.  Or, no, not even a medieval castle.  More like a fairy-tale castle, a place of fantastical, impossible beauty and grace.

 

Well, if you discounted the hideous face of the Master who, splendidly dressed in crimson velvet robes and glittering with gold and gems, sat on a magnificently carved and gilded wooden throne.  You’d also have to discount the demonic visages of the hundred or so vampire knights in full game face--and full plate armor--standing behind him.   Or the five or six vampire knights in full game face who were surrounding the table--because that was indeed what they’d placed her on--where she was currently reclining.  A sweet-faced girl of perhaps fourteen, a fairy-tale maiden, if not a princess, dressed in a long dress of light green silk stood near them with no discernible fear, holding the cup from which Buffy had apparently been drinking and smiling at her encouragingly.

 

Buffy went very still, calculating odds, which weren’t good.  But that wasn’t what was really bothering her because beating incredibly apocalyptically bad odds was sort of her specialty.  No, what was unnerving her was the simple fact that her Slayer early-vampire-warning senses seemed to have deserted her.  From the moment she’d been Chosen, she’d always been able to sense whenever a vampire was near, a palpable, physical reaction tightening her belly.  In the early days, it had been painful, akin to menstrual cramps.  As she’d grown more experienced, the signal became less obtrusive, more a twinge of awareness than a pain.  The only times the sense hadn’t been set off around a vampire had been when Angel and Spike had gotten their souls back.

 

Now, surrounded by what appeared to be hundreds of vampires...nothing.  She could have been in the middle of a kindergarten class for all the non-dead evil she was feeling.  What was up with that?

 

There were others in the room, most of whom, like the girl holding the cup, looked human.  One group stood a little apart, not far from the foot of the Master’s throne.  This was a party of about a dozen vampires, their armor subtly different from that of the other knights.  One dark-haired vamp stared intently at her.  Buffy was willing to bet that was Lindsey.

 

Beyond this, the room seemed to be filled with courtiers.  All of them were dressed in rich velvets or glistening silks, men as well as women sporting jewelry of heavy gold, ornate silver, brilliant gemstones.  Oh, yeah, she’d stumbled into a fairy tale, all right.  With her luck, one of the dark ones.  Warily, Buffy pulled the damp cloth from her forehead and began to sit up.  No one moved to stop her.  In fact, one of the vampire knights leaned forward and offered his arm, as if to assist her.

 

“Uhh, thanks but no thanks?” Buffy said diffidently, sitting unaided.  There wasn’t a point in the world--whatever this world was--of trying to fight her way out of here.  Not, at least, until she had more information, such as, what was outside this castle?  And, was it any less dangerous out there than it was in here?

 

“Independent little thing aren’t you?” the Master chuckled.

 

“You should know,” she said sourly.  He raised a brow, inquiringly.

 

“Majesty, I think I understand why she believes you would know of her independence,” the soft-voiced woman spoke up, and now, Buffy could see who she was and understood what had seemed so familiar.

 

“Tara!” she gasped, and clambered off the table, hurrying across the room to the woman who had been her friend.  Why her friend was dressed in a gown of russet velvet that looked as if it should have been in Queen Guinevere’s closet Buffy couldn’t guess, anymore than she knew why Tara smelled like a rose garden, instead of the light, clean perfume Buffy remembered had been her favorite. She also didn’t know why people who were dead were alive if this wasn’t Hell, a point on which the jury still seemed to be out.  No way should sweet, gentle, kind Tara be in Hell!  Then again, no way should sweet, gentle, kind Tara be serving an evil monster like the Master.  Tara herself turned toward her, and smiled gently, but the look she gave Buffy was one of mild surprise, not of recognition.  Too, she seemed perhaps five or ten years older than she had been.  Did time run differently in this dimension?  Tara reached out to take Buffy’s hand in reassurance.

 

“She seems to know you, as well,” the Master said thoughtfully.

 

Tara shook her head.  “Not us, exactly, majesty.  The dimensions paralleling ours can be incomprehensibly alien, but they can also be somewhat familiar, variations on a theme.  Thus, it may be that versions of you and I, perhaps others of the court, exist in whatever dimension was home to her.”

 

“Oh!” Buffy said, dejectedly, realizing she had not found her dead friend.  “Oh!” she said again as the full import of what she’d heard sank in.  Buffy looked around the room quickly, but other than a man standing behind the Master’s throne whose shadowed features she couldn’t make out, but whose height and build were wrong, she was positive that the one familiar face she would have given anything to find wasn’t here.  She felt a fresh pang of grief and loss, but didn’t have time to dwell on it.

 

Tara’s words to the Master explained everything, including why Buffy hadn’t immediately recognized the other woman’s voice.  This Tara was older, more confident, and never stuttered.  She wasn’t Buffy’s lost friend, Willow’s lover, she was someone else.  Someone with the same face and the same name, and, it would seem, the same abilities, but with a totally different life and memories.  Buffy started to drop the other woman’s hand, but this world’s Tara turned back, gave her another reassuring smile, and clasped her hand warmly.  So, a similar personality, as well.  In the case of Tara, that was a good thing.  In the case of the Master--who appeared to be a king, here-- however...

 

“Fascinating,” the object of her speculation drawled.  “So, my dear, you know others like us, in your own world?”

 

“I knew Tara,” she said carefully.  “You...not so much.”  Excluding a vivid nightmare or two that didn’t count, they’d met once when he killed her, and once a few minutes later, when she killed him to rather more lasting effect.  Three times if she counted smashing his bones to powder.  The nature of their acquaintance didn’t seem like a smart thing to bring up, given that she was one against an army of vampires.

 

“We see,” the Master said, his disappointment obvious.  “Too bad.  We were hoping you could tell us something of our other self.  Here, we are, amongst other honors, King Heinrich of Alba and the Isles, third of that name.  Is it the same, there?”

 

“Uhh.  We don’t have kings where I’m from,” she prevaricated.  A surprised murmur from the gathered courtiers greeted that pronouncement.  “I knew you as the Master.”

 

“No kings, and yet we are known as the Master,” he said, pleased.  “Singular and undisputed.  How very edifying.”

 

Lindsey’s face had remained impassive, but there was a speculative glint in his eyes as he regarded her after she made that statement.  Buffy shifted uneasily.

 

“Well,” the Master--King Heinrich--went on.  “You know our name, and the name of our valued subject, but we do not know yours.  How are you called, my dear?”

 

“Buffy Summers,” she told him, going with her name, rather than her title, which she didn’t think would be appreciated here.  The king arched a brow.

 

“Buffy, you say? How...original.”

 

“Not where I’m from,” she said tartly.  Well, it wasn’t all that common, but it certainly wasn’t as odd a name in her world as King Heinrich seemed to think it was in his.

 

He chuckled again, amused by her spirit.  “Well, Lady Buffy, perhaps we will have an opportunity to know you better, before Lord Lindsey’s visit comes to an end, and he returns to Emperor Varick at the White Palace.  You will be accompanying him, of course.”   Buffy didn’t think there was any of course about it, and decided there would never be a better time to tell them so.

 

“About this whole gift thing,” she said brightly.  “You should know there’s been some kind of mishap with that spell.  I mean, the Sword of Elvira you were supposed to get?  It’s beautiful, really.  Jeweled hilt, etched blade, I’m sure the emperor will love it.  It’s just that I was kind of close to it when Lady Tara’s spell hit, which is why you got me instead of the sword you really want.  So, maybe if she can cast another spell, you’ll get the right gift, and I can go back to where I belong, no harm, no foul, everyone’s happy?”

 

“You say you saw the Sword of Amara?” the king inquired sharply.

 

“Single-handed broadsword?” she chirped.  “Thirty-six inch long, one and a half inch wide acid-etched blade?  Basket hilt with a honkin’ big emerald on the pommel?”

 

Honkin’ big?” the king asked with raised brows.

 

“Allowing for Lady Buffy’s, ah, colorful language, that is the sword’s rumored appearance,” Lord Lindsey said evenly.

 

“So, then, you believe that is what Dragonheart desires above all else?” No mistaking the poison, this time.  It was closer to vitriol.  Lindsey took that in stride.

 

“I would not have thought my liege had any need for such a thing,” he said.  “Emperor Varick’s prowess in battle is unparalleled.  I merely note that a blade said to impart invincibility and invulnerability to any vampire wielding it is far more rare than a woman, no matter how lovely,” here he gave an ironic bow to Buffy. “I must therefore wonder if it is not, in fact, as the lady herself suggests: she was near the spell’s true object, and was brought forth by misadventure, rather than intent.”

 

“Lady Tara?” the king demanded.  “Is such a thing possible?”

 

“No, majesty, it is not,” Tara said firmly.  “Had she the sword in her very hand, there would have been no confusion.  The spell would have chosen betwixt the twain, and brought forth that which it was intended to bring forth.”

 

“You are sure?” the king asked.

 

Tara sank into a deep curtsey.  “On my oath, majesty, but it need not rest so.  It is but the work of a moment to cast another spell, and ensure that the first did not go awry.”

 

The king looked at Lindsey.  “What say you, my lord?”  Something in his tone warned Buffy that the question wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed.

 

“If Lady Tara has given her oath, there is nothing for me to say,” Lindsey replied mildly.  “I am satisfied.”

 

“Then it is settled,” the king said with a gracious smile at Lindsey, and a wave of his hand to Tara, signaling that she might rise from her curtsey.

 

Buffy looked at them aghast.  “Um, hello?  Speaking as the gift here, and really,” she turned to Tara, “I’m absolutely sure that you know what you’re doing and that you didn’t make any mistakes, but, you know, that’s why they put erasers on pencils.  So, maybe we could just do the spell thing to make absolutely one hundred percent certain that something didn’t interfere?  Because you know those crazy Hellmouths.  Mystical convergences, always producing unexpected results.”  A collective gasp from the entire court greeted her words.

 

“Hellmouths?” the king said in shock.  “Heaven defend us!  What have you to do with such foulness?”

 

Heaven defend them?  Foulness?  This world’s version of the Master called upon heaven, and thought the Hellmouth was something foul, rather than something glorious to be released upon the earth?  Buffy noticed his hand was clutching at one of the jeweled items bedecking his person, as if for reassurance and was stunned to realize that it was a large golden cross.  She really had fallen through the looking glass.  But, he was looking at her expectantly, and given the throne and the vampire army, maybe she should answer.

 

“Um.  Chosen warrior?  Professionally fighting demons for nearly ten years, now?”  More gasps, and growing murmurs, some of them loud enough for her to hear.

 

A woman soldier?  Poor girl!”

 

How awful!”

 

What sort of barbarians allow delicate creatures such as that to fight their battles for them?”

 

Buffy smirked.  She was used to being underestimated.  And, if these people thought she was going to be any kind of gift to anyone, well, maybe they needed a better idea of just what they would be giving away. 

 

“I was pulled into one just as we’d finished closing it.”  The murmurs grew louder, both shocked and pitying.  Buffy’s smile widened, and she went on.  “Which, is so embarrassing, because it’s not like it was my first one.  It was, what?  The fourth time, or the fifth?   Well, if we count Acathla or Willow’s fall off the wagon, maybe the seventh, but I think we have to stick with just the actual Mouth of Hell, itself, rather than the other apocalypses.  And, really, the fourth time was much, much harder, what with the First Evil and the Turok-Han and--”

 

“Lady Tara, do you know what she’s talking about?” the king, who had released his death-grip on the cross sometime during Buffy’s recitation, demanded.

 

“Perhaps the stress of the journey between dimensions has overset her,” Tara offered.

 

“Hey!  I am not overset!”  Buffy said indignantly.  “Um, what exactly does overset mean, again?”

 

“If it will ease her mind, perhaps I should go ahead with the seeking spell,” Tara said.

 

“Please do,” the king gave permission.

 

Buffy sighed in relief.  Let them think she was overset whatever the hell that was.  Her little outburst had had the desired effect.  Tara would do a second spell, which would have to show that there’d been a mistake with the first one.  Once Tara realized she’d been wrong, she could go ahead and get her damned sword for the emperor, and send Buffy back where she belonged.  Not into the Hellmouth, of course, but back to Cleveland.  How hard would it be to manage that?

 

“Thanks,” she said aloud.  “So, what happens next?”

 

“I’ll send a spell to seek out the best gift for the emperor.  Unlike the first spell, it won’t draw anything to us, just go toward the one thing in all the worlds the emperor most needs or desires.”

 

“Meaning...?”  Buffy prompted.

 

“Meaning,” Tara said, before she held up her hands and began a brief chant which caused a lovely ball of blue light to grow between them, “that when I release this, if it disappears into thin air, we’ll know it went after something else.  And, if it strikes you, we’ll know there has been no mistake.”

 

“Well, that seems...” Buffy began, just as Tara uttered a final word and the blue light exploded from her hands...

 

...to travel instantly toward Buffy, covering her in a shower of blue sparks which glinted brilliantly for several seconds before fading away.

 

“...reasonable,” Buffy said in a strangled voice.  This just could not be happening.

 

“So, there can be no doubt,” King Heinrich said complacently.  “Lady Buffy, you are the perfect gift for Emperor Varick, the Dragonheart, and will accompany Lord Lindsey when he returns to the White Palace a se’night hence.”  His blithe assurance that she was going to allow herself to be sent off as someone’s present served as a splash of cold water.  Buffy pulled herself together, beating back her panic.  She wouldn’t be going anywhere with Lord Lindsey, she thought grimly.  Not if she could help it. “Still,” the king went on, oblivious to the change in her manner, “we can hardly send you to the emperor in nothing more than the, ah, clothes you stand up in.  You’ll need a suitable wardrobe, proper jewels, and your own retainers.  Lord William?”   The man who had been standing in the shadows behind his throne stepped forward.  Buffy’s heart leaped, and then she remembered that it wasn’t really Spike, or not her Spike, in this world.  The look in his blue eyes, however, was as appreciative as any Spike had ever given her, if oddly devoid of heat.

 

“Lord William, we entrust you with the lady’s welfare.  See to it that our gift is sent to the emperor with suitable accoutrements.”

 

“It will be my pleasure to make the arrangements,” Spike--William--said with a bow. 

 

“Majesty,” Tara spoke up.  “May I accompany Lady Buffy to her chambers?  It may help her to have a familiar face near by.  To be ripped from your own world and carried into another...it must be very strange.”

 

“As you wish, my dear,” the king said.  Tara took that as a dismissal, and sank into another deep curtsey, gently tugging on Buffy’s hand until she did the same...or came close.  The ability to deliver a proper court curtsey had not been covered in Slayage 101.  Plus, she was in more of an ass-kicking mood than a curtseying one, given the whole gift thing.  Still, a world where vampires called upon heaven was too different from her own for her to do anything rash until she had a whole lot more information than she currently possessed.  Buffy managed a quick dip that must have passed muster, as the king beamed at her approvingly and Tara gave her another smile.  Buffy started to turn around, looking for an exit, but a forceful tug on her hand from Tara brought her forward, once more, facing the king.  She, Tara and William then began the very awkward business of backing out of the room.

 

“Word of advice, Lady Buffy,” William said as the doors to the throne room closed, and he led her and Lady Tara off down a long hallway with torches and tapestries as rich as anything in the throne room lining the walls.  At William's signal, two of perhaps a dozen vampire knights who had been standing at attention outside the throne room fell into step a discrete distance behind them, near enough for safety, far away enough for privacy.  “You don’t have kings where you’re from, but where you are now, never, ever show one of ‘em your back.  Unless they ask you to.  Or, until you’re admitted to their ranks.”

 

“You can’t think that’s possible,” Tara said in some surprise.

 

“Why not, my lady?  You said the spell would give the emperor the perfect gift.  Desire has a way of addling the brain, and Dragonheart doesn’t have a consort.  If he takes it into his head to make her that...”

 

“Consort?” Buffy squeaked.  She so did not like the direction their thoughts were headed in.

 

“I can’t imagine he would,” Tara said, giving Buffy a moment of reassurance which was almost immediately dashed.  “He’s had his favorites before, mistresses and concubines, both.  The emperor doesn’t share power.”

 

“I had noticed,” William said dryly, “but if he becomes as taken with her as you and this magick spell think he will be, then she--”

 

She is right here,” Buffy said irritably.  “Could you please stop talking about me as if I were a piece of furniture?”  Or, a sex object, she added mentally, disturbed by the mention of consorts, mistresses and concubines.

 

“Oh, Lady Buffy, I’m so sorry,” Tara exclaimed.  “I hadn’t realized--”

 

“Another piece of free advice, m’dear,”  William cut in brutally, “To a king or an emperor, you, I, Lady Tara and anyone not wearing a crown is a piece of furniture.”

 

“Lovely,” Buffy said bitterly. “I suppose that’s why your king thinks he can just give me to someone as a freakin’ gift?”

 

Freakin’, eh?   What an odd way you have of speaking on your world.  But, yes.  That would be the part where we’re all furniture.”

 

“Lord William, this isn’t helping,” Tara said with exasperation.  “Lady Buffy is clearly agitated, and there is much to do if she is to be ready to leave with Lord Lindsey in a week’s time.  Please, can you not assign her one of the near chambers in this wing?”

 

William shook his head regretfully.  “Sorry, my dear.  But if Lady Buffy is our gift to the emperor, then she can’t have rooms amongst those in the king’s household, she has to be lodged in the same wing as the imperial delegation.  Lindsey will want her under his eye.”

 

“Oh, dear, I hadn’t thought...yes, of course.”

 

“You, however, may stay with her.  As King Heinrich gave that arrangement his blessing, even Lindsey cannot object to it.”

 

Buffy wasn’t allowed to have any objections, or even, it seemed, any thoughts.  Her assertion that she was Ms. Summers, not Lady Buffy, got her an amused laugh from William, and a gentle reminder that she was in a new world, with new customs, from Tara.  She thought about reminding them that she was a warrior but decided better not.  She was used to being underestimated, and that was almost always an advantage.  It would only make it that much easier when she finally made her escape.

 

William hurried them off down a seemingly unending twist of corridors until he came upon the one he deemed proper.   At the end of a long hallway, he finally stopped before a pair of heavily carved wooden doors.  “This should serve,” he said, pushing one of the doors open, gesturing for the women to go before him.  Tara entered first, and with no other option, Buffy followed.   Grabbing a torch from one of the wall sconces, William brought up the rear, leaving the two vampires to stand guard outside the chamber door.

 

Buffy thought her bedroom suite at the Palazzo della Veronica had been lavish.  Torchlight revealed that this one was more so.  The bed was a carved monster, twice as large as a king sized bed on her world.  Curtains of thick bronze velvet waited to be drawn closed about the bed.  There were wooden chairs with thick cushions, a large fireplace fronted with marble, a chaise lounge, more gorgeous tapestries on the walls, and a few high, narrow windows, their wooden shutters latched shut.  There were also several stands for candles, but William ignored these as he set about getting the fire started.  Tara, meanwhile, had gone to where a narrow embroidered panel hung from the wall behind the bed, and was vigorously pulling it. 

 

“We need fresh sheets, the candles lit, perhaps some warm bricks.  Oh!  I hadn’t...are you hungry, Lady Buffy?  Or, perhaps you would like a bath?”

 

Buffy hadn’t given the idea much thought, but at the mention of food, her stomach growled.  Well, before her precipitous arrival, she had been fighting demons, and that always gave her an appetite.  It also worked up a good sweat.

 

“Um.  Both?” she asked hopefully.

 

“Certainly,” Tara said.  A moment later, two young people arrived, seemingly a maid and a footman.  Their clothing was far less elaborate than what the courtiers were wearing, but it was neat and in good repair. The footman bowed, the maid curtsied, and Tara issued orders.   With another curtsey, the woman took a taper from the mantlepiece, held it to the fire, then set about lighting all the candles in the room before she scurried off to fetch fresh sheets and, it was to be hoped, Buffy’s dinner.  Tara turned to William.  “Please ask the Countess of Marsden to attend us.  Lady Catherine has the most exquisite taste of anyone at court, and her assistance in outfitting Lady Buffy properly will be invaluable.  Then we’ll need the storerooms open, and every sempstress you can spare.  If there isn’t enough suitable cloth, I may have to use magick, but I’d rather not.  Sewing a wardrobe in one week...” she shook her head at the enormity of the task.   “We’ll need the cobbler and the milliner, as well.”

 

“And the goldsmith,” William added, signaling the footman to come forward and entrusting him with the message to the Countess.  “It won’t do to send the emperor his gift without the right embellishments.”

 

Buffy shivered, and went to stand by the fire.  They were doing it again, talking over her, about her, as if she weren’t there.  But reaction was beginning to set in, and she found she didn’t much care.  Buffy stared into the leaping flames.  She wanted to go home.  She wanted to see her sister and her friends.  She wanted the simple, stupid, everyday things she took for granted, which were nowhere in sight, here: electric lights, running water, television, ice cream...civil rights.  And she hadn’t the slightest hope of getting what she wanted, or, not right away.  Clearly, it would take strong magick for her to get back to where she belonged, and equally clearly, the people here who had magick strong enough to send her back, weren’t at all interested in doing so.  They’d brought her here, after all.

 

As a gift to the emperor.  Buffy shivered again, moving even closer to the fire.  It was clear from their conversation exactly what sort of gift they expected her to be:  a living sex toy. 

 

Maybe that made sense to the people in this dimension, who seemed to have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of a woman warrior.  But it made no sense to Buffy.

 

If Lady Tara were to be believed--and everyone else seemed to believe her--then Buffy was the best thing the king could give to the emperor.  But, Lord Lindsey said the emperor didn’t lack for beautiful women, and asked why he would need one more.  She agreed with Lindsey on that one:  he didn’t.   Buffy wasn’t vain enough to believe that she was either so much more beautiful than average or so much more sexually talented, that either attribute, or even both combined, could possibly be enough to make her the perfect gift for someone looking for a beautiful, sexually talented bed partner.  Yes, Slayer flexibility, strength and endurance made for a fun romp in bed--though things tended to go better when her partners were slightly more than human, and she didn’t have to worry about breaking them--but, to the degree that would get her summoned here from across the dimensions as the perfect living sex toy?  She doubted it.

 

On the other hand, there was something she did better than just about than anyone else.  Better, even, than her sister slayers.  Buffy, the Vampire Slayer was one of the most remarkable Warriors for Good who had ever been Chosen.  And circumstances tended to take her where her demon fighting skills were most needed.

 

She hadn’t sought out the Sunnydale Hellmouth, but she’d ended up there.  The summer she’d run away, after sending Angel to Hell, demon activity had been minimal in Sunnydale, whereas LA was turning into a hotbed of it, and she’d been able to stop an interdimensional traffic in young human slaves.  There had been a sorcerer trying to maintain his own youth by stealing it from unsuspecting teens when she’d visited Giles in London, a gate into a world of monsters that needed closing when her car had broken down in Tuscon, Arizona, a hellhound on the loose in the college town where Dawn thought she might want to go to school.  Even in Rome, though she hadn’t been actively patrolling due to the whole needing to appear growing neutral thing, she’d still managed to uncover and destroy a nest or two of demons.  In short, it seemed that the Slayer was frequently drawn to those places where her particular talents were needed, with no conscious effort on her part to seek such places out.

 

If that pattern held true again, then something demonic was going on here, something that she would be needed to put an end to.  If she were truly something the emperor would prize, it had to be because he was going to be in the thick of whatever badness was headed this way, and would need all the help she could give him.

 

Turning that theory over in her mind, Buffy decided it was the only one that made sense.   The assumption Lady Tara and everyone else had made about why she was the perfect gift was understandable, given their culture.  But it was wrong in every respect.  Buffy simply had to bide her time, play along, try to find as much info as she could on the emperor and the supernatural threats around here, then plan her strategy so that she could demonstrate her true worth to him before he decided to try out her more personal skills.  If things even got that far.   Because what she really hoped was that Willow’s magick was stronger than that of Lady Tara and her coven; strong enough to find her, strong enough to bring her back, strong enough to counter any magickal spells or bindings anyone here might decide to use to ensure that Buffy stayed right where she was.

 

She wasn’t averse to helping this emperor fight whatever evil he was going to find himself up against.  She’d just rather do it on her own terms, from her own turf.

 

Buffy realized that she might not have that option.  If Willow didn’t find her, and if the emperor couldn’t be persuaded that she’d be more valuable as a demon fighter than a bed warmer--although she intended to be damned persuasive on that point--she had to hope she could learn enough of this world to escape the king, the emperor, their vampire guards and their witches.  Learn enough to forge her own life, her own way.  And still stop whatever evil was gathering to attack.

 

For the moment, she was safe and being treated well.  She’d take Lady Tara up on the offer of food, bath and a place to sleep tonight.  In the morning she would start to learn everything she could about the world in which she found herself so that she could make better plans.

 

Behind her, servants returned with fresh bedding, and there was a delicious odor of warm food.  Other servants brought a large copper bath into the room, and set it near her, before the fire.  Tara came and led her to the table where her meal had been set out.  It looked as delicious as it smelled, some sort of roasted meat in a savory sauce, with roasted vegetables, thick brown bread, a crock of butter, and a flagon of wine.

 

Her body was hungry, even if she didn’t feel much like eating, and if she was going to try to find out if it was worth making an escape attempt--if there was any place worth escaping to--she would need her strength.

 

So, while Tara and William ordered servants around and arranged her life, Buffy sat where Tara told her to sit, ate and drank what was put before her, and when the copper tub was filled with water and a privacy screen set up around it, she went behind the screen and bathed.   Before entering the bath, she learned that there wasn’t a toilet, but there was a chamber pot, which, however primitively, served her need.  She asked for a tooth brush, received a strange look, and was shown how to mop her teeth with a rag.  That so wasn’t getting the job done, she thought uncomfortably.  It occurred to her that if Tara could conjure her from one place to the another, she might be able to conjure a few necessities as well, like a supply of tooth brushes, deodorant, tampons -- just in case her visit became prolonged -- and, most importantly, a case or ten of chocolate.

 

She’d ask later.  Right now, the tub of warm water was calling her, and she relaxed into it, with a bar of coarse soap that smelled of almonds.  William and Tara were soon busily interviewing servants, deciding who had the skills to serve in Buffy’s household and a willingness to leave all that was familiar to live in a foreign land, perhaps forever.  Well, at least they were giving the servants the choice they hadn’t given her, she thought bitterly.  Too, it seemed that a fair number of servants were to come with her.  William had decided that at the very minimum she needed a lady’s maid, a chambermaid, a groom, a footman, and a seneschal to be in charge of the lot, along with two personal guardsmen.  Anything less would mean she wasn’t properly valued by King Heinrich, and if he didn’t value her, she must be a very poor gift to the Emperor Varick.  The guardsmen, though, would get to come home.  They would only serve her until she was given to the emperor, who would supply his own guards and men-at-arms for her protection.

 

Buffy didn’t bother to point out that she was well able to protect herself--the fact that she was now an immortal who didn’t actually need a whole lot of protecting was one she’d keep to herself until she had a better sense of how that little tidbit would be received.  Not that anyone was listening to her, anyway.  She didn’t yet have a way of persuading them to her point of view.  No point fighting that battle, tonight.

 

As the interviews continued on the other side of the privacy screen, Buffy learned that upon her arrival at the emperor’s court, William expected her to be given a much larger staff, including more footmen, grooms, chambermaids, laundresses, scullery maids, pages and perhaps her own cook.  And, of course, her own chaplain, though he would be there for her spiritual guidance, not as a servant.  Still, he would be an important part of her household, and his appointment would require careful consideration.  Once she was established at the emperor’s court, she could keep the servants King Heinrich sent with her, promote them to be in charge of the newer additions to her household if they pleased her, allow them to return home if they wished--but only if doing so suited her own convenience-- or dismiss them outright, stranding them in an alien land, if they proved unsatisfactory.  Buffy thought some of those choices were pretty barbaric.  The idea that people’s lives, welfare and happiness depended on her whim was a bit unnerving.  Seemingly, she had almost as much power over her servants as King Heinrich had over her.  Their lives could be totally disrupted if she chose.  That wasn’t a power she particularly wanted to have.  But it was the power she had been given and which she must keep for as long as she remained at either court.  She determined not to abuse it.

 

William consulted with Tara over the choice of lady’s maid, and her household was soon established.  Her new servants were given the night to make whatever arrangements they needed, and in the morning, they would begin their duties with their new mistress.  It was all settled before her bathwater cooled and a pair of the palace chambermaids came to help her out, dry her off, dress her in a linen night gown, and wrap her up in a fur bed robe.  Buffy’s protests that she could manage such basic tasks by herself were roundly ignored.  She soon found herself seated before the fire, one maid brushing her hair dry while the other directed two footmen in dismantling the privacy screen and removing her bath.

 

“Can you have grooming items sent up from storage?” Tara asked William.  “Brushes, combs, mirrors, hairpins?  The set here in the guest chamber is serviceable enough, but not really appropriate to Lady Buffy’s station.”  Since Buffy was fairly certain the brush being used on her hair was backed with silver, she wondered what was going to be considered appropriate to Lady Buffy’s station.  She’d find out in the morning.  William promised to have them delivered first thing.

 

A moment later, the footman William had sent off with his message returned and announced the arrival of Catherine, Countess Marsden, and bowed her into the room.

 

Well into her middle years, the countess retained her regal bearing, her superb figure, and her strikingly beauty.  She was a tall woman with the porcelain skin, swan-like neck, and large liquid eyes of a Botticelli Madonna.  The red hair intricately braided and wound into an elaborate coronet about her head was only lightly frosted with silver.  The few lines on her face added character, rather than detracting from her beauty, and the smile she bent upon Buffy was a warm one. 

 

“Well met, my dear,” she said taking Buffy’s hands in greeting.  “I hope we shall be good friends during your stay.”

 

“Thank you,”  Buffy said. It was impossible not to respond to the woman’s evident sincerity.  It was also pretty obvious why Tara thought the countess was the perfect person to help assemble Buffy’s wardrobe.  Before she’d been Chosen, Buffy had been a passionate devotee of fashion.  She had possessed a keen eye for color, style, what was flattering and what wasn’t.  She hadn’t spent more than half an hour with King Heinrich and his courtiers, and hadn’t paid too much attention to them, but even a cursory glance at the glittering throng had shown her that here, as well as in her own dimension, wealth did not necessarily equal good taste.  There were people dressed in colors that didn’t suit them or styles that didn’t flatter them.

 

No one could accuse the countess of such failings.  The jeweled caul confining her red hair was shaped so to flatter the perfect oval of her face rather than overwhelm it, and her undergown of cream silk had just enough of a yellow tinge to beautifully accent the topaz velvet of her gown, which in turn brought out warm glints in her brown eyes.  The overgown itself was very loose-fitting, hinting at the countess’ shapely form rather than defining it.  The effect was one of mysterious allure and sophistication.  Buffy was perfectly happy to leave her wardrobe in this woman’s hands. 

 

“William, what have you brought us from the stores?” the countess purred, leading Buffy over to a bench upon which bolts of fabric had been piled.

 

“Everything they held, I think,” Tara said wryly, with a wave of her hand at the mountains of cloth.

 

“Everything short of the royal purple,” William admitted.

 

“Hmm,” the countess said as she fingered a bolt of brocaded satin in robin’s egg blue, unrolling it enough to hold up a corner beneath Buffy’s chin and scrutinized the effect. “We are fortunate the late queen was near to Lady Buffy in coloring,” she said, directing a servant to take charge of the cloth and pile it on yet another table.  “We shall have a fair selection from which to make a good start.  The mercers guild will need to attend us in the morning, though, to supply whatever we cannot find here.”

 

Buffy liked shopping and new clothes as much as the next girl, but the idea that her wardrobe would require even more cloth than was presently on offer was beyond mind boggling.  Unperturbed, the countess was busily holding up swaths of fabric against Buffy, sending back half the bolts as unsuitable for one reason or another.  This green satin made Lady Buffy’s complexion appear drab, that red velvet was too bright to complement her coloring, but this red silk was subtle enough to look beautiful with her blond hair, and so on.  Within half an hour, she’d disposed of all the goods, one way or another, and had launched into a discussion of sleeve types and the cut of gowns.

 

“I think the new laced styles,” the countess said.  “You’re a bit of a thing, Lady Buffy.  The yards of cloth used for a gunnella like my own would simply drown you.  But a gown laced to your figure--and it is an admirable figure, my dear.  Well, such a gown should set many hearts racing, let alone the emperor’s.”

 

“Do not let Lady Buffy believe she can accomplish what no other has,” William cautioned.  “He is not called the Dragonheart because he is known for his warmth.”

 

“There is warmth, my dear William, and then there is heat,” the countess chuckled.  “And you forget, I think, the years I myself spent in the White Palace.  I think I know how the Dragonheart will respond to King Heinrich’s gift.  You have but to look at Lady Buffy to know that she was born to heat men’s desires.  If Lady Tara’s spell brought us the perfect gift for the emperor, we must trust that the heat of desire will lead to the warmth of some gentler affection.”

 

Buffy was getting pretty heated herself.  She wanted to scream, both because everyone was still talking about her as if she were an object and at the assumptions everyone was making about her purpose here.  But, there was no point.  They were too blinded by their own culture to understand hers.  She’d simply have to show them.

 

With her servants selected and the cloth decided upon, the activity around her began to die down.  Lady Catherine returned to her own rooms after promising to break her fast with Lady Tara and Buffy in the morning.  William arranged to have the chief sempstress attend them immediately afterward to begin the arduous task of creating Buffy’s wardrobe.  Tara fretted that it couldn’t all be done in time and resigned herself to helping the process along with magick.  William pronounced himself confident in her ability to pull off miracles, which won him a rueful smile.  He then took his leave of her, bending over her hand, asking if she had any messages for her husband--another difference between the two Taras--and promising to send up her own maid to help her get ready for bed.  He then turned to Buffy, took her hand in turn, and bent over it as well.  Before he could say whatever courteous words he felt the situation required, Buffy dropped his hand as if she’d been burned and leapt away from him.

 

“You’re hand is warm.”  He gave her a puzzled look.

 

“Shouldn’t it be?” he asked cautiously, as if humoring a mad woman.

 

“You’re not a vampire?” she demanded.  He frowned.

 

“Why would you think I was...oh!  Is there someone like me in your world?  A vampire?”

 

“Yes,” she admitted.  “Though he prefers to be called Spike, rather than his given name, William.”

 

“Spike?” William said with something approaching horror.

 

She smiled up at him.  “Our worlds are very different.  Believe me, Lord William, Spike’s name is perfect.”

 

“Really?” William’s expression turned speculative. “And how well do you know this Spike?”

 

Buffy felt herself blushing.  “I...we...he...”

 

“I see,” William said with a grin.  “Lucky dog.”

 

“You don’t see,” Buffy said tartly.  “Spike was my enemy.  He spent years trying to kill me.  But, then circumstances changed and he was forced to become my ally.  Later...” she took a deep breath.  “Yes, we were lovers.  But it was all wrong, and it didn’t last.  But he was still my ally, fought at my side, and eventually we became...friends.”

 

“Fighting?  Alliances?  You were serious?  It wasn’t a jest?   Women are allowed into battle?”  William’s horror at the idea was palpable.

 

“As I said,” Buffy replied coolly, “our worlds are very different.”

 

Lord William took that in, and gazed at Buffy consideringly.  “Why do I feel there’s a lot you’re not telling me?” he mused.

 

“Because there’s a lot I’m not telling you,” she said, folding her arms across her chest and arching a brow at him.

 

“Ah.  Didn’t mean to intrude.  Just...the idea that there’s another version of oneself with a vastly different life in an almost incomprehensibly different world is...fascinating.  But I will contain my curiosity, for now.  Good night, Lady Buffy,” he said taking her hand once more and bowing over it.  “I hope that before you leave us, you will be comfortable enough with me to tell me a little more.”

 

“Perhaps,” Buffy allowed.  “Good night, Lord William.”  He left them with a final bow, and Buffy turned back to the bed.  It was so high, she would need to make use of the little footstool beneath to reach the mattress.  One of the chamber maids was running a warming pan over the fresh sheets.  When Tara’s maid arrived and began helping her own mistress prepare for bed, the other chambermaid helped Buffy out of the bed robe, assisted her to climb the footstool and tucked her between the delightfully warmed covers.  While Buffy thought she could definitely get used to having her sheets heated, she was annoyed at being treated like a helpless child who couldn’t even undress herself or get into bed without assistance.  Since no one paid any attention to her protests, she stopped making them.  Once she was settled in, the chambermaids banked the fire and snuffed out all the candles save for one stout one, which Tara called the hour candle, on a stand near the bed.  Eventually, Tara dismissed all but one of the maids and climbed into the bed beside Buffy.  Not terribly close beside, as the bed was big enough to fit two or three more adults in between them.

 

As soon as she was settled, the remaining maid drew the curtains about them, then left to seek her own bed, which Buffy would later learn, to her horror, was a pallet on the floor before the fire, though the maid swore it was quite a comfortable place to sleep.  That conversation lay in the future.  For now, though, Tara and Buffy were enclosed in a dark warm space, the light from the hour candle much muted.  It seemed like a good opportunity to get some questions answered without a lot of people around to overhear, and Buffy opened her mouth to begin asking a few.  Tara spoke up first.

 

“Good night, Lady Buffy,” she said, clearly stifling a yawn as she did so, exhaustion evident in her voice.  Buffy decided her questions could wait until the morning, so bade her a good night in return, then settled down to try to get some sleep.  It wasn’t what she wanted to do.  She wanted to ask Tara about the world she found herself in, about the castle itself, about whatever might be near by, and most particularly, about any demonic activity that had been going on lately.   She also had a lot of questions about the emperor she was being sent to.  But, not only could she tell that Lady Tara was too tired to handle being given the third degree on all those topics, Buffy was pretty damned exhausted herself.  Nothing like falling into an entirely different dimension after a hard days slayage to tire a girl out. 

 

At least the last thing she’d done in her own world had been to save that world.  Again.

 

Tired as she was, though, she found that she couldn’t fall asleep immediately.  Her situation was too strange, the possibilities too unsettling.  Tara, the Master and Spike all had doubles in this dimension.  If she stayed for any length of time, who else might she find here?  Her friends?  Her sister?

 

Angel?

 

That thought hurt her heart.  Even though when she’d initially realized about the doubles, her first instinct had been to search for this dimension’s Angel, a few minutes reflection brought the realization that meeting him was the last thing she wanted to do.  Finding other versions of her living friends might be fascinating, interesting, and amusing.  Finding another version of her lost love would be devastating.  Bittersweet comfort if he lived on in some form.  But could she bear it, finding someone who was Angel, but who wasn’t?  Someone who looked, acted, spoke like him but who did not know her, did not love her, did not share with her the memories woven between herself and her own Angel?

 

She didn’t know whether the possibility was one to long for or to dread.  She was leaning toward dread, though.  No matter what was true in this dimension, it changed nothing about the truth of her own.  Finding another Angel here wouldn’t resurrect her beloved.  He would remain irrevocably gone, dead, ashes, her only comfort her certainty that his soul rested in the ether, and that in some far distant future when her own immortality failed her, she might rest eternally at his side.

 

There was nothing she could do about the situation, though.  If Angel had a counterpart in this dimension, she might or might not meet him.  She would simply have to deal with it if it happened.  But, he didn’t seem to be at King Heinrich’s court, and there was no use continuing to torment herself with the possibility of encountering him during her stay here.  Best to focus on whatever it was she was going to have to do for the emperor, and leave it at that.

 

On that thought, she finally closed her eyes and slept.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Chapter III

Langdon Castle

City of Westering

Kingdom of Alba

 

It seemed to be little past dawn when Buffy’s new chambermaid, Nan, began pulling back the bed curtains.  Once she and Tara had risen, Nan proceeded to make up the bed.   Buffy’s new lady’s maid, Marguerite, was on hand to help her pick out a dress from a selection that had been sent over by Lady Catherine, gleaned from the wardrobe of one of the ladies she deemed to be about Buffy’s size and coloring.  Getting dressed involved having a pair of silk stockings fastened about her legs with garters, then being put into a camisole and a shift, both made of finely woven lawn, before she could select from several undergowns, most of them heavily embroidered, which would have to be coordinated with one of the overgowns.  In the end, a simple white cambric undergown was pulled over her head, before she was laced into an overgown of fine, light wool in a pale blue to which the sleeves had to be tied on.  Finally a pair of kid slippers, constructed so as to fit either foot, and to adjust to a fair number of sizes, were slipped onto her feet, and laced to a comfortable fit.  Notably missing were panties, and Buffy felt curiously naked without them, despite being swaddled in three or four layers of fabric from neck to ankle.  Once she was dressed, her hair was brushed out and braided, the ends slipped into ornamental cases inlaid with mother-of-pearl and left to dangle down her back.

 

Tara had been similarly assisted, and was wearing a gown of dove gray, her hair caught up in a net of silver.  Once they were dressed, Buffy expected they’d have breakfast.  In this, she was disappointed.  Lady Tara was vaguely scandalized that Buffy would even consider breaking her fast without first attending morning worship, and hurried her down to the palace chapel for a thankfully short prayer service.  Buffy simply had to make a few rote responses that were similar enough from what she remembered of church services attended in her childhood that she didn’t further upset Tara.  They returned to her rooms where a small fleet of palace servants arrived, and began setting out their breakfast:  eggs, sausages, roasted potatoes, but also meats, fish, hot porridge and thick bread. There was warm wine mulled with spices, or she could have a tankard of mead.  Disconcerted by the idea of alcohol with breakfast, Buffy asked about water, but decided not to put Nan to the trouble of drawing it from the castle well.  The closest thing to a fruit juice that could be found was unfermented apple cider.  Buffy gladly availed herself of that, sending Nan to the kitchens to procure a pitcher.  There was nothing remotely resembling coffee, or even tea, to be had.  Buffy mentally added them to the list of things she was going to ask Tara to magick over from her own dimension, along with sugar, which also seemed to be unheard of.  She might be able to survive for a few days without her caffeine fix.  Going without indefinitely was unthinkable.

 

As she had promised, Lady Catherine, dressed today in a deceptively simple gown of lightweight black wool with just a trace of silver embroidery at hem and neckline, soon joined them.  She and Tara mapped out their plans for the day.  Buffy was exhausted just listening to them, but she did learn a few things from their conversation, including the duties of the members of her household.  Nan, a robust young blonde, was to see to it that her rooms were kept tidy, the fire and candles tended to, and certain menial tasks that were required were performed.  Marguerite, who seemed a few years older than Nan, and who was dark but no less robust, was responsible for tending Buffy’s person; that is, assisting her to dress, arranging her hair, taking care of her wardrobe and jewelry, cleaning and mending as needed.   There was also Hal, the groomsman, a freckle-faced boy who could not have been more than fourteen.  Hal’s duty was to care for her horse and riding gear, and to ride behind her whenever she went out on horseback.  Her new footman, Dickon, was charged not only with assisting Nan with such menial tasks as setting up her bath and ensuring that there was always enough firewood in the fireplace within her chambers, but was to act as her messenger, should she need one, and do whatever carrying, lifting or porting might be required.  Finally, there was Jarrad, her seneschal, a man of middling years who could have given Giles lessons in stuffiness.  It was Jarrad’s duty to see that her household ran smoothly, and that all she required was at her fingertips.  He oversaw her other servants, ensuring that they performed their tasks properly so that Buffy need not bother to direct their labors herself.  Buffy later learned that the king had supplied Jarrad with a purse to see to her immediate needs, so that she always had a supply of spices, candles, flour, and other such necessities on hand, and that it was expected that the emperor would continue to supply Jarrad with whatever funds were required to ensure that her servants were paid their wages and that anything needful could be purchased on her behalf.

 

After Buffy had formally met her household staff, pronounced herself satisfied, and given them their orders for the day--which amounted to asking Jarrad what he thought needed to be done, and then letting him tell them to do it--the sempstresses arrived and began the involved process of creating a wardrobe for Buffy.  Tara and Lady Catherine had her sort through the many fabrics once more, this time with a view to deciding which kinds of garment each bolt of cloth would be used to make.  Both Marguerite and the chief sempstress gave their opinions about what fabrics would be best suited for what sorts of gowns: gowns for court, gowns for riding, gowns for working (if she wanted to make her own soap, or candles, or tend her own garden, as a proper lady must), gowns for traveling, gowns for walking in the garden, gowns for taking her music and dancing lessons, gowns for sitting in her receiving room, gowns for great feasts.  And, the gown in which she would be presented to the emperor.

 

“That’s where you’ll need magick,” the chief sempstress warned Tara.  “It takes months to embroider that amount of jewels.”  Tara and Lady Catherine agreed.  Buffy thought she’d be better off with a set of swords and daggers than a set of jewels, but kept her mouth shut.  She simply picked out the bolts of fabric she liked most, let the other women decide what purposes they would best serve, and took their suggestions for complementary fabrics for undergowns, or linings for sleeves, or cloaks.  Medieval shopping was a lot more involved, and a lot more exhausting, than the excursions to the mall she was used to.  Especially as, she learned, she wasn’t just shopping for herself.

 

The other thing that had to be decided was what colors Buffy should use for her livery.  Buffy wasn’t even sure what that was, and upon being told that it was the colors to be used for her servants’ clothing, so that people would know whose household they belonged to, she suggested that maybe the servants themselves should decide.  Marguerite gasped in shock, Lady Catherine laughed outright while Lady Tara and the chief sempstress exchanged significant looks.  Then the four of them went about choosing the colors they thought would work best, eventually settling on grass green--like Lady Buffy’s eyes, Marguerite said shyly--and pure white.

 

There was also the question of Lady Buffy’s motto.

 

“Motto?  I get a motto?  Like, Always Be Prepared?”

 

“That is a possibility,” Tara said with more politeness than enthusiasm.  “Perhaps a few examples will serve.  The motto of my husband’s house is, Faithful in All, of my father’s, Ever Vigilant.

 

“So, you’re looking for something along the lines of, When the going gets tough, the tough get going?”  Buffy said, “or, Don’t Tread on Me?”

 

“Perhaps the latter,” Lady Catherine said doubtfully.

 

Buffy shrugged.  “Sorry.  That’s all I got.  Well, unless I wanted to go way overboard with Death Before Dishonor which, first off, melodrama much? and second--”

 

“Oh, dear,” Lady Tara said.

 

“Well, you said she’d be the perfect gift,” Lady Catherine chuckled.  At Buffy’s confused look she explained.  “Death Before Dishonor is the motto of Emperor Varick’s house.  It is interesting that you would consider those very words for your own.  Well, perhaps we need only vary it a bit.  What do you think of, Honor Above All?

 

“Oh, but that is perfect!” Tara said delightedly and had begun to order the chief sempstress to have it embroidered on all of Buffy’s handkerchiefs and on the banner that was being sent with her when Buffy stopped her.

 

“No,” she said firmly.  “That’s not my motto.  Those aren’t the words I live by.  Not that I believe in behaving dishonorably,” she explained when they looked at her oddly, “it’s just...  If you want to embroider something on my handkerchiefs, I’ll tell you what it should be.”  She took a deep breath.  “Get It Done.  No matter how hard it is.  No matter what you have to give up.  No matter who you lose along the way.  If there’s something important that you have to do, just suck it up and...get it done.”

 

Catherine and Tara exchanged glances.

 

“I’m not sure the wording--” Tara began.

 

“I am,” Lady Catherine surprised them both by saying.

 

‘You believe Dragonheart will approve?” Lady Tara said.

 

“I am certain of it,” the countess replied, then turned to Buffy.  “As an unmarried girl, I accompanied my eldest sister to Zvesk when her husband was appointed to the ambassador’s household.  I lived with her at Varick’s court for several years and came to know him.  He was very kind to a younger daughter of an unimportant House, and I learned to see past his terrifying reputation, and no less terrifying visage, to the honorable man beneath.  I believe yours is a motto the emperor will understand and appreciate, perhaps even admire.”

 

“Very well,” Tara said, and gave the order for the embroidery.  “And, of course, we’ll need it engraved on the shield bearing Lady Buffy’s coat-of-arms.  Well, once the herald has devised a coat-of-arms for her.”

 

Buffy simply shook her head, bemused.

 

Having sorted out the question of her motto, the ladies turned their attention to creating Buffy’s wardrobe.  By the time they were done with the discussion of designs and matching fabrics to cuts, Buffy was exhausted.  But, then she had to stand, be undressed all over again, and measured for her new clothes.   Hours passed, and lunch was brought in.  Buffy was hustled into the borrowed bed robe again--another item the sempstresses would have to supply, and didn’t the chief sempstress have a lovely dark sable that would look glorious with Lady Buffy’s hair?  She was fed, then hustled back into the blue gown which Tara pronounced suitable for their trip to the stillrooms where she was going to show Lady Buffy the basics of candle making, soap making--that was why Tara always smelled of roses: she used essence of roses in her soap making and in her personal perfume--and distilling herbs.  “And I’ll have to use magick to make sure that you don’t forget,” Lady Tara sighed. 

 

“These tasks take days at a time, and we spend years learning them.  I cannot imagine a world in which a lady learns to wield a sword, but not make soap!”

 

“Well, you do not need me for such a task,” Lady Catherine said, rising and shaking out her skirts.  “But, do not overwhelm the poor child, Lady Tara.  Bring her along to the Red Gallery when you are done in the stillrooms.  I’m sure that some time spent relaxing with the other ladies will prove beneficial.”

 

Tara agreed, and they parted company with Lady Catherine while Tara took Buffy off to be exposed to the wonders of the stillroom and all the duties of a medieval chatelaine.  Buffy also had to confess ignorance of embroidering, weaving, or playing a musical instrument.  Tara threw up her hands in despair, after which, deciding that Buffy would look charming holding a lute, cast a spell that would ensure she could play one.  Then, a look of horror crossed her face.  “Please tell me you can dance!” she begged.  Buffy gave her a rueful smile.

 

“I love dancing.  As we do it on my world.  I have a feeling that’s not the kind of dancing you have in mind.”

 

“No matter,” Tara smiled.  “If you have even a little skill, you can learn what is needful.  We’ll have the dancing master in tomorrow.  For tonight, the king will want your attention, so you will not be asked to stand up with anyone.”

 

After their tour of the stillrooms, Tara brought Buffy to the Red Gallery.  Buffy found it to be a large hall where the noble ladies of the court gathered, apart from the men, in order to socialize.  Some women had large embroidery stands at which they were working while they conversed, and one or two had instruments which they played for the entertainment of their fellows.  Lady Catherine was sitting with a group of older women when they arrived.  She smiled and waved them over.

 

“I see your sister-by-marriage is anxious for your company,” the countess said to Tara.  “If you wish to be private with her, I will undertake to entertain Lady Buffy.”

 

The younger women were agreeable to that plan, and Tara left Buffy to speak with a small, dark-haired woman who drew her aside and spoke with her at length.  Lady Catherine introduced Buffy to the women around her, including her sister, Lady Elsbetta.  Not surprisingly the women were curious about the new arrival in their midst, and Buffy spent a half hour answering questions about her life as a Slayer.  The other groups of women in the Red Gallery drew closer to hear what she had to say, until she had the attention of the entire room.  The questions directed to her were courteous, and the women seemed very friendly.  But, she knew they found the things she told them shocking, and many seemed to think that her status as a warrior was something to be pitied rather than admired.

 

“Didn’t your kinsmen protest?” a horrified Isobel, Duchess of Valiers, gasped.  The duchess looked to be no more than eighteen, and she reminded Buffy of one of the sheep who had followed Cordelia Chase in High School.  Not that Isobel bore a physical resemblance to any of them.  It was more a certain vapidity of manner and want of common sense that seemed familiar.  “If you had no husband, surely your father or brothers would not permit you to be so ill-used as to fight where they did not!”

 

“First, sacred calling,” Buffy said easily.  “Second, as an adult woman, I make my own choices.  Fathers, brothers and husbands are pretty much a non-issue where I’m from.”

 

“You have no men!”  Isobel’s eyes rounded in horror, and Buffy was hard put not to laugh.

 

“Don’t be a goose, Isobel,” Lady Catherine said tartly.  “Lady Buffy said no such thing.  It is apparent that women in her world enjoy a degree of autonomy we here reserve for ruling queens.”

 

“So, there are men, but you don’t listen to them,” another woman, whose name Buffy thought might be Rowena, observed thoughtfully.

 

“Well, we listen if they have something useful to say,” Buffy said. 

 

“Sounds a sensible arrangement,” Lady Rowena said with a smile.   “Would I could visit this world of yours.”  Buffy smiled back.

 

Not long after, Tara came back to tell her it was time they returned to Buffy’s chambers where the goldsmith was due to wait upon them.  Before he arrived, Buffy asked Tara about the things she was hoping could be brought from her own world.  Not that she had given up on the idea of getting back there herself, at some point, but who knew how long that would be?  Being stranded without a toothbrush or a clean pair of panties for an indefinite period of time seemed too much to put up with, on top of everything else.

 

At first, Tara was reluctant to help.  Magick was a very powerful tool, not something to be used on a whim or for a frivolous purpose.  She liked the idea of the toothbrushes, couldn’t understand the need for deodorant when scented soaps and perfumes were available, thought panties sounded vaguely scandalous and found the idea of tampons completely repulsive.  She described her own world’s method of dealing with the situation, what she called bleeding rags.  Buffy was equally repulsed.  Tara shook her head, but she was eventually persuaded to cast the spell. Tara explained that she would only be able to procure for Buffy things that belonged to her, limiting the range of the spell to the apartment she had taken in Manhattan after her stay with Rodolfo.  Fortunately, she’d gone shopping a day or two before being summoned to Cleveland, so Buffy got the things she needed, including several chocolate bars.  But the supplies weren’t unlimited.  She’d have to hoard them carefully, ration herself.  Who knew how long she’d be stuck in this place?  Still, she offered one of the chocolate bars to Tara, by way of thanks.  The witch took one cautious bite, then decided that perhaps there were a few things from Buffy’s world that weren’t so bad, after all.

 

Shortly thereafter, the goldsmith arrived. He had some pieces ready made, which pleased Tara who selected a simple gold necklet set with a few diamonds, matching ear drops, and hairpins.  But Tara felt Buffy couldn’t make do with just one set of jewels and described a few more items she wanted made, including the metals to be used, and the gemstones with which they were to be embellished.  “Nothing too elaborate.  Well, aside from the pieces to be worn with her presentation gown, but I believe the king will wish to supply those from his own store.  Other than that, we must allow the emperor to adorn her, of course.”  Considering the detailed instructions she’d just given the smith for an intricate necklace of sapphires and pearls, with matching bracelets, rings, eardrops and diadem, Buffy couldn’t begin to imagine what Tara would consider too elaborate.  The goldsmith promised to have everything ready before Buffy was to leave.

 

Then it was time to change for dinner, and Buffy was stripped of her blue gown and undergown, her face lightly dusted with powder before her cheeks and lips were given a becoming tint of pink from cosmetics distilled by Lady Tara’s own hand.  Lady Tara assured herself that Marguerite had the recipe for them even as Marguerite and Nan helped Buffy into a cream colored silk undergown embroidered with gold thread and an overgown of rose velvet, the long sleeves of which were lined with more cream silk, and tied to the gown with golden laces.  Once Buffy was dressed, her hair was brushed out again--Marguerite had picked out an exquisite set of delicate ivory combs and brushes from the stores sent up by William as suitable to Lady Buffy’s station--then twisted into an elaborate knot on top of her head.  The coiffeur was held in place by diamond pins, while matching ear drops were fixed to her ears, and the necklet fastened about her neck.

 

Buffy thought the gown was so stiff with ornamentation, so thick with gold thread, that she had to be glittering.  The necklet, pins and eardrops were probably overkill.  But Tara, in a much simpler gown of deep blue velvet looked pleased, and bade Marguerite show Buffy her own reflection in a large mirror that stood in a corner of the room.

 

Good bye, Chosen warrior, hello fairy princess, Buffy thought sourly.  She had been right.  She did glitter.  But she undoubtedly looked beautiful, and that made Tara happy, so she smiled and thanked her and her maids.

 

The maids curtsied while Tara smiled happily in return, then showed Buffy how to maneuver her gown as she made a proper court curtsey.

 

Amongst all the other lessons Tara had been insistent upon shoving into her head, Buffy had picked up a fair bit of knowledge about the world in which she found herself.  She was in Langdon Castle in the kingdom of Alba and the Isles, and she had arrived during the Feast of Solstice, in the Year 724 of Heinrich III.  There wasn’t so much as a rumor of demonic activity or gathering evil.  Nor were people disappearing or turning up dead.  Everything seemed relatively normal, and only one important death had occurred, and not all that recently.  More than a year ago, mere weeks following her discovery that she was pregnant with the king’s child after two hundred years of marriage, Queen Darla had died.  The king’s grief was said to have been profound, and the court had only just emerged from mourning.  Buffy got the sense that there was something about the death of this world’s Darla--Queen Darla--that wasn’t right, but no one seemed willing to talk about the subject very much, and the few hints they did drop seemed more to do with political intrigue than demonic evil, so she left it alone.

 

She also learned a bit about the political situation here.  The king was one of the great rulers in the world.  The emperor, another.  There were perhaps a dozen other smaller kingdoms, but Alba and Zvesk were the two that mattered-- this world’s version of superpowers.  And the truce between them was uneasy.  That was another subject people didn’t seem to want to say too much about.  But they were perfectly happy to tell her about the emperor.

 

Varick of Zvesk had risen from obscurity two hundred years before, when he’d slain a dragon that had been terrorizing a village.  That had brought him to the attention of the village’s overlord, who, impressed, enlisted the vampire in his service as one of his warriors.  Saving his overlord’s life earned Varick a knighthood.  Winning a battle for his overlord’s king made him a lord in his own right.  Winning a war for the same king made him an even more important, powerful, and wealthy lord.  Each battle won thereafter increased his standing in court and his importance to his king.  And, when that human king eventually died without leaving a legitimate heir, politics made him the popular choice for monarch.  That had been more than a hundred and seventy years ago.  In the ensuing decades, rival kingdoms had frequently gone to war with his for one cause or another.  He won more often than he lost, and annexed those kingdoms to his own, eventually ruling a vast empire rather than a mere kingdom.  For the past eighty years, Zvesk’s territories had stretched from the Silver Sea in the west, across the plains to the great river in the middle of the continent, south to the Blood Desert and north to the foot of the kingdom of Alba, where King Heinrich ruled.  None of the remaining petty kingdoms had dared to quarrel with Zvesk for decades, and if it was rumored that Varick was considering annexing them anyway, he hadn’t bothered to do so, yet.  Still, having such a formidable rival on his southern borders did not make King Heinrich rest easy in his bed.  He was very careful to maintain cordial relations with the emperor, hence the visit of his most important lieutenant, Lindsey, during the Solstice festivities, and, of course, the use of magick to conjure the perfect gift for Lindsey to bring back to Zvesk...

 

Buffy also learned that vampires and humans intermingled in this world quite comfortably.  The vampires here still had their souls, and didn’t need to kill to survive.  A diet of pig and horse blood seemed to suit them perfectly well.  Humans were only drained in self defense or in matters requiring execution.  The rules during warfare, though, were much more relaxed, another matter no one wished to speak of. 

 

It hadn’t always been this way.  The difference had come about because in this dimension, St. Vigeous hadn’t led hordes of vampires in an ecstatic slaughter of humans, he’d cast out the demons within them, restored their souls, and brought them into the light of day.  Interestingly, though there seemed to be a fairly large vampire population, it wasn’t an unregulated one.  Vampires might drink the blood of willing partners, but were forbidden to turn humans without a petition that had to be processed through both the secular court and the church hierarchy.  The sole exception was for married couples, since no one married outside the church--as in medieval Europe, there was only one -- and since the church taught that married couples were one flesh.  Still, turning your spouse without at least asking the church’s blessing was generally frowned upon, if not forbidden.

 

In the end, even the vampires of this world weren’t simply big fluffy puppies with bad teeth.  Becoming a vampire not only prolonged one’s life indefinitely, it made one more aggressive and ruthless.  That was why both the king and the emperor had so many vampire knights in their train.  There were no better fighters in the world.  It was also the reason why the rulers of the world were also vampires; they were the ones with the strength and cunning to claim power and to hold it, as both the king--properly, King Heinrich III, who had ruled for seven hundred and twenty-four years-- and the emperor--Varick of Zvesk, an upstart whose reign hadn’t even reached its second century--proved.

 

The rest of the world was pretty similar to Europe in the Middle Ages:  peasants supplied labor, lords supplied protection, merchants supplied goods, and the church supplied spiritual guidance.  Perhaps because they had souls, vampires here had no trouble with holy symbols.  Often, they were as devout church goers as anyone else.  Once in a while, those who had had enough of soldiering even became monks and priests, themselves.

 

When she recovered from the shock of that idea, Buffy was struck with pangs of terrible grief.  Angel would have given a lot to be in a world where the symbols of his childhood faith did not reject him. The fact that here, vampires were not only unaffected by sunlight, but could sometimes have children made it even worse.  How he had yearned for sunlight, for the children they could never have...  She fought back the tears that still surprised her from time to time, even more than a year later, and focused on what was happening now.

 

That evening, vampire guards in tow, Tara and Buffy emerged from their suite of rooms to go down to supper in the banquet hall just as Lindsey and his lieutenants emerged from theirs.  Tara froze, then dropped him a brief curtsey.  Buffy did the same.  Lindsey bowed.  But rather than continue on his own way to the hall, he came toward them with a cold smile on his very handsome human face.

 

“Lady Tara, Lady Buffy.  You must allow me the honor of escorting you to the feast.”

 

“So we must,” Tara said lightly.  Buffy suspected Tara wasn’t too happy about this turn of events.  Lindsey’s smile widened, and he took his place between them, offering first Tara then Buffy, an arm.  Following Tara’s lead, Buffy placed the tips of her fingers on Lindsey’s forearm and let him lead her down the corridor.

 

“I must say you look splendid this evening, Lady Buffy.”  A certain warmth in the glance that swept over her assured her that he was perfectly sincere.  “Perhaps my doubts about the king’s gift were misplaced.”

 

Buffy didn’t think he really meant that part, and as she pretty much agreed with his original sentiments, she didn’t feel he owed her any kind of apology.  But she recognized that he was trying to make one, and was attempting to be polite.  So she gave him an equally polite thanks, after which Lindsey turned his attention to Lady Tara, questioning her about the preparations to take Lady Buffy back with him.  No, Tara hadn’t taken her to the stables to select a mount.  Yes, there was a carriage being readied for her use, if she grew tired on horseback.  Yes, proper servants had been selected.  No, the guards had not been assigned, but Tara’s husband would see to that himself.  Did Lord Lindsey wish to consult with him on the matter?  And so on.  Buffy remembered the riding gown being designed for her, and wondered how the hell she was supposed to mount a horse with so many hindering skirts.  Maybe she could convince Lindsey to let her wear her own leather pants and half boots?  Assuming Tara hadn’t burned them...

 

The feast was exactly that:  tables groaning with food, course after course of delicacies, and a wine cup that never seemed to empty.  Buffy asked for water, was greeted with a look of horror, and offered ale, instead.  She stuck with the wine, and wished she’d thought to add diet coke to the list of things she’d asked Tara to bespell from her kitchen for her.

 

Buffy had been seated next to the king, who wanted to know everything she could tell him about her world...and his own place in it.  She wasn’t sure the truth would go down well, so, she carefully edited the facts.

 

She concentrated on explaining technology and democracy, easing him into the concept of female warriors, and herself as one of the best.  As with Tara and William, he hadn’t been able to credit her initial claims, and when he found that she was indeed serious--and upon close questioning, that she was indeed knowledgeable--he was deeply shocked.  He was not, however, entirely disapproving.  Buffy admitted to being a Slayer, left out the part where Vampire fit into her title, and said only that she destroyed monsters who were preying upon the innocent.  Despite what she’d learned about the vast differences between this world and her own, that the king heartily approved destroying those who preyed upon the innocent still gave her a moment of severe cognitive dissonance.  Vampires equal good was so not the equation she was used to.

 

As the night wore on and the dancing began, she was grateful that Tara had been right.  The king kept her by his side, regaling him with stories of her world, while the rest of the court engaged in a series of intricate movements, sometimes stately, sometimes boisterous, while the musicians played.  It was very different from the kind of dancing she was used to, she thought as she watched Lady Tara being lifted into the air by the tall vampire knight with whom she was dancing something called the galliard.  The couple spun in a three quarter circle before the knight set a giddy Lady Tara back on her feet.  It sort of looked as if the dancing ladies were using the knights as leverage to jump hurdles...only without the hurdles.  Buffy hoped Tara’s faith in her ability to learn that sort of maneuver wasn’t misplaced.

 

“Ah, the lavolta,” the king mused.  “I wasn’t sure about it at first, you know.  I forbade it for a decade or so as too promiscuous.”

 

“You thought the Travolta was promiscuous?” Buffy said wryly, wondering what he’d make of the much more intimate dances common to her own time and place.  “And I thought it was called the galliard.”

 

“The galliard is the dance, the lavolta is the step you see being executed now,” the king clarified.  “In a few more measures, they will return to the more ordered patterns of the dance.”

 

“What made you change your mind about forbidding it?”

 

“My dear wife,” he said, his voice taking on just a tinge of sadness.  “The queen persuaded me it was harmless enough, and so it proved.  I found I rather enjoyed dancing it with her.”

 

Buffy tried to imagine the two vampires engaged in what was, for this society, a frivolous and lighthearted--and rather boisterous--dance.  She couldn’t reconcile the resultant image with the two vampires she had known.  Here however...she realized that she was sorry for this king, and for his loss. 

 

“I am glad that the dance can bring back happy memories for you,” she said with a sympathetic smile.

 

“So it does.  Truly, I find I can take much pleasure in the pleasure of those who dance it now.”  They turned their attention back to the dancers.  Buffy noticed that William was frequently partnered by a woman who looked a lot like Halfrek, the Vengeance Demon.  She had also seen that Tara’s partner was usually the very tall vampire who was captain of the king’s guard, to whom, she had learned earlier that day, Tara was happily married.  However, when he came out of gameface, it shocked her to recognize him as this world’s version of Riley Finn.

 

But she’d had a number of examples of the way in which dimension differed from hers, despite all that seemed so familiar, and recovered from the shock quickly.  By the time William and Tara brought their partners to her for introductions, her composure was completely restored.  Only to suffer a minor setback to hear Halfrek introduced as Cecily.  She remembered Spike’s tale of the woman who felt he was beneath her.  In this world, to judge by the adoring glances Cecily turned on her husband, their story had a happier ending.

 

Something of her initial surprise must have shown on her face, because William--as distressingly observant in this world as he was in her own--pressed her for an explanation.

 

“It’s just that in my world, Cecily was not fond of you,” she admitted.

 

Cecily laughed heartily.  “Thank heaven that in this one, I am not such a fool!”

 

“But I consoled myself well, did I not?”  William said with a suggestive smile.  Buffy knew he was thinking about what she’d told him of her relationship with Spike, and was merely teasing her.  She smiled, and decided to tease him right back.

 

“Oh, yeah.  On my world you were totally besotted with your Black Goddess, Drusilla.”  William’s smile froze, Tara and Cecily both gasped and everyone around her grew very quiet.

 

“The same name need not mean the same woman,” Riley pointed out to the group.  He turned to Buffy.  “My lady, what can you tell us of the Drusilla in your world?”

 

“Brunette, medium height, slender build, vampire?  Oh, and she gets visions.”  She was also crazy as a loon, but Buffy wasn’t sure whether to bring that part up yet, not until she was sure who this world’s Drusilla was.  For all Buffy knew, she could be the king’s dear, departed sister, and mentioning that she had been a psychotic murderess in another life wouldn’t go down well.

 

“So, a seeress, not a witch?” Riley probed.  “What else can you tell us?”

 

“For one thing, she turned William into a vampire, and they were together for over a hundred and twenty years,” Buffy said warily, looking at the faces of everyone around her, who were staring at her with varying shades of fascinated horror.  “I take it that there’s a Drusilla on this world, too?”

 

“There was a very holy lady by that name,” the king said.  “And she, too, was gifted with visions.  She was a great friend to the emperor, when he was yet nothing more than a warrior.  When he rose to power, after her death, he built the great cathedral at Syrenia in her honor.  The order of nuns she established is known for their work amongst the sick.  About a century after she passed on, miracles began to be ascribed to her, and she was canonized perhaps twenty years ago.”

 

Buffy was stunned.  The concept of St. Drusilla was a hard one to get her mind around.  Then she remembered what Angel had told her, how the Dru of her own world had just taken the veil when he--Angelus--had tormented and turned her.

 

“In a strange way, it fits,” she said slowly.  “The Drusilla of my world was supposed to become a nun, but, ah, something prevented her.”

 

“I wonder why she decided she didn’t have a vocation,” Tara mused.

 

“Do you know what happened, Lady Buffy?” Cecily inquired curiously.

 

Nothing you want to know, she thought.  Aloud, she simply said this had all been long before her birth, and she didn’t know the details, which was, in the strictest sense, the truth.  Nothing would have persuaded Angel to tell her exactly how he had tortured the living Dru before turning her.

 

“But, the Drusilla of your world is still alive, she’s a vampire?” Cecily asked.  Buffy nodded assent.  “Well, then, if she truly has the vocation, perhaps your Drusilla may yet follow the same path.”  Buffy smiled politely, and kept her mouth shut.

 

“Well, this is a bit unnerving,” William admitted.   Buffy supposed that knowing your other self was the lover of a woman who was a saint in your own world would unnerve anyone.  Cecily patted his arm reassuringly.

 

“They aren’t us, William.  It is interesting to learn that there are others like ourselves, leading such different lives.  But, we are not the same.”

 

William smiled at his wife, lifting her hand to his lips.  “My darling girl.  You always know just what to say.”  A few minutes later, he led her off to another dance, leaving Buffy to entertain the king, once more.

 

Eventually, Buffy was overcome with exhaustion.  The king noticed and suggested that she retire, calling over another pair of vampire guards to escort her back to her chambers.  Now that Buffy was settling in, Tara was going to return to the rooms she shared with her husband.  Marguerite, like all proper lady’s maids, would be waiting in Buffy’s chambers, and would sleep in the trundle bed there--whatever that was. 

 

It turned out to be a small, narrow bed that was stored under the great bed in which Buffy slept.  The trundle bed could be pulled out whenever a servant needed it.  When Buffy asked Marguerite why she didn’t just take the other side of Buffy’s own bed, since there was obviously more than enough room, the girl stammered that it simply wasn’t fitting and insisted that the trundle was perfectly fine.  Buffy continued to argue for a few minutes, before giving it up.  Marguerite was clearly uncomfortable with the idea, and that was all there was to be said.

 

The next day was that world’s version of Sunday.  No one had breakfast until after church and everyone went to church unless they were bedridden, and even some of the very ill would have themselves carried to services in a litter.  Watching the king and the other vampires not only dip their fingers into holy water but also take communion, gave Buffy a major wiggins.  Sure, she’d known that they had their souls, and that on this world, they could face sunlight and holy symbols with no ill-effects, but seeing it in action was still beyond weird.  Buffy reminded herself that in a world where Drusilla was a saint, anything was possible.

 

After church, the entire round of activities began again.  Today, Buffy had breakfast with the rest of the court in the great hall, after which Tara had Buffy summon her groom, Hal, then took her off for a tour of the stables, so they could select a suitable mount.  Easier said than done.  Buffy told Tara that horses weren’t the normal means of transportation on her world, and that though she certainly knew how to ride, she hadn’t needed to do so very often, and thus had little opinion on the suitability of one mount over another.  She also mentioned that her own leather pants might be a better choice of riding clothes than the voluminous costume the chief sempstress and her helpers were working on.

 

“Oh, well, if the emperor allows you to wear such things, fine,” Tara said kindly.  “But, for your journey to his palace, it would be impolitic to wear anything so, well, scandalous.”

 

Buffy consoled herself with the thought that at least Tara hadn’t burned her clothes outright, and let Tara and Hal pick out a sturdy palfrey with a gentle nature that Hal said would be just the thing for a trip over the mountains, which would take the better part of a month.  Buffy asked Tara irritably if she was sure she couldn’t whip up a magic carpet spell.

 

“I’ve already told you, Buffy,” Tara said in exasperation, “Flying carpet’s are very unstable and dangerous.  They can only lift one or two people, and if you go too high and get caught in a strong winds, you could fall to your death.”  Buffy privately thought that even if she weren’t immortal, the risk of death might be worth it to avoid a month-long journey.  She had never missed the advantages of her own world, with cars, and planes and trains, as much as she did now.  Well, perhaps when she had to use the chamber pot...

 

The dancing master came in the afternoon, and Buffy was taught the basic steps of the carole and the bassadanza.  The more complex galliard would wait until later.  After an hour or two of vigorous practice, the dancing master pronounced himself satisfied with her progress, and was replaced by the music master, who showed Buffy how to hold the lute Tara thought she should learn, and how to tune the strings.  The spell Tara had cast made the rest fairly easy.  Buffy understood that she had been given a simple five course lute, and she found she knew exactly how to finger the nine strings to produce the sounds she wanted.  Of course, the sounds she really wanted wouldn’t go over too well here--this world so wasn’t ready for rock music--but following the music master’s instructions over the course of another hour or two, she got the hang of a few pieces that seemed to be the sort of thing she would be expected to play for the emperor.  Oddly, Tara’s spell had made her recall some of the lyrics and ballads from her own world, gleaned from her mother’s collection of albums and CDs by groups like Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steel Eye Span, and Willow’s collection of Loreena McKennet CDs.  She tried McKennet’s The Bonny Swans--a version of The Twa Sisters--on the music master, who practically swooned in rapture.  There was another feast that night--at the solstice celebrations, there was usually an entire week of feasts, Tara had explained--and Buffy would get to show off her new skills.

 

As Tara had returned to her own rooms, the king had ordered Lord William to escort Buffy that evening.  Lord Lindsey, however, had volunteered to escort her, himself.

 

“As my emperor’s liegeman it is my duty, and my honor, to offer the lady my protection,” he had said smoothly.  What kind of protection she could possibly need in the halls of the palace was a complete mystery to Buffy, but no one else thought Lindsey’s remarks at all odd.

 

“So it is, my lord,” the king said affably.

 

Thus it was that Buffy found herself on Lord Lindsey’s arm again, the next night.  Her footman, Dickon, was accompanying her as well, charged with carrying her lute.  Buffy didn’t know why she couldn’t carry her own lute, or simply borrow one from the musicians who were already going to be at the feast, but she’d learned not to argue when people told her that something she wanted to do wasn’t proper, so she just accepted the fact that Dickon would be coming along.  He was probably thrilled to get an opportunity to join the courtiers at the party.  Or, since he’d probably be forced to stand unmoving and unspeaking at her elbow through most of the evening, and wouldn’t be eating or drinking or dancing, maybe not.

 

Dickon was dressed in green and white, the colors which Tara and the chief sempstress had decided should be Buffy’s livery.  All her servants had suits of clothing in those colors for formal occasions.   It weirded her out, but Dickon seemed quite pleased with his new finery.  Buffy herself was in the first of the gowns the sempstresses had made for her, a lovely silk in robin’s egg blue over a pale yellow undergown. 

 

From the brief flare of amber, quickly suppressed, in Lindsey’s eyes when he saw her, she gathered he approved of the sempstresses’ work.

 

“You grow more fair upon each occasion we meet, my lady,” Lindsey greeted her, bowing over her hand.

 

“Thank you, my lord,” Buffy replied formally.  Tara had been drilling the appropriate responses into her whenever they had a spare minute.  Lindsey smiled and led her down the corridor to the feast.

 

“I understand you are taking lessons with the dancing and music masters,” he said.  “These were not things you enjoyed on your own world?”

 

“Oh, believe me, I loved dancing on my own world.  But the dances we do there...well, our music is very different.  Even the instruments are different.  You have lutes and viols and mandolins.  We have saxophones, trombones, guitars, and, um, electric guitars, which, since you don’t have electricity would be kind of useless here.”

 

“I see.  Different music and different dances.  I hope not so different that you are having any difficulties?”  Buffy glanced at him, but he was the ultimate courtier, and though he was currently wearing his human face, his expression was so bland as to be unreadable.  She decided to take the comment at its face value, as a sincere wish that things were going smoothly.

 

“Nope.  No difficulties,” she said cheerfully.  “Of course, I’ve only learned the carole and the bassadanze so far.  I’ll get back to you when they try to teach me the galliard.”  Lindsey surprised her by laughing with what appeared to be genuine appreciation.

 

“I suspect, my lady, that you will have as little difficulty with them as you have had with all else,” he said as they arrived at the hall.

 

The evening went pretty much as she had come to expect.  Buffy had to eat her way through more courses of food in one evening than she typically had to deal with in an entire week, after which she tried The Bonny Swans on the king, who was charmed.  She then danced caroles with Riley and William, a bassadanza with Lindsey, sat out a few dances she hadn’t learned yet, danced again with a few of the other courtiers, and drank far too much wine. Then it was off to bed once more.

 

The third day brought another visit from the dancing master--practice on the carole and bassadanza, basic steps of the quaternaria and the salterello--a slightly shorter session with the music master, a fitting with the chief sempstress, a tour of the gardens, and another visit to the stillroom.  And another feast.

 

On the forth day, the music master declared he could teach her nothing further, which meant that after assuring himself that she had mastered the quaternaira and the salterello, the dancing master had time to devout to teaching Buffy the galliard.

 

As she was lifted into the air, whirled in a circle, and assisted in leaping back to the floor with a toss from her partner, Buffy realized that she rather liked the lavolta.  It was...fun.

 

Buffy was adapting to the new life she was supposed to lead.  There didn’t seem to be any particular reason to try to escape just yet.  She was being treated very well, and she remained convinced that the emperor was going to be making use of her Slayer skills rather than the skills everyone at King Heinrich’s court expected her to employ.  Between the courtiers and the servants, she had plenty of sources of information from which she was still trying to track down hints or rumors or portents of approaching doom.  The royal court was a sensible place to be right now.  She was safe, comfortable, and beginning to enjoy herself.

 

On the other hand, if she tried to leave, she’d have to make her own way in a medieval world where she was bound to be hunted by packs of vampire knights--packs of ensouled, well-meaning and generally very nice vampire knights she couldn’t simply stake and be done with.  There seemed little point in taking such a risk just yet.  Other than magick, she had no way home.  If Willow couldn’t manage to find her and bring her home, Buffy would either have to throw herself on the mercy of the emperor and his witches or find her own way back.  If she were right, and she was here to stop some as yet unrevealed evil, then the emperor would probably be grateful enough to help her.

 

If not, if the emperor dismissed her value as a Slayer and simply expected her to share his bed--and while she really, really didn’t want to think about that too much, she grimly recognized the need to be prepared for all eventualities--that would be a whole ‘nother ballgame.  Buffy would have to do a world of research trying to find an interdimensional gateway, or the spell to call one up.  That could take years, and would leave her with two choices:  try to escape the emperor’s court and hope there were sources outside the courts where she could get her research done, or, force herself to stay, enduring whatever she must with the emperor in the hopes that remaining at court would give her greater access to the scholars who might help her--wittingly, or otherwise--find the things she needed.   Either way, the research process was bound to take years.  Buffy smiled grimly to herself at that thought.  At least, as an immortal, she actually had years in which to conduct her research.  She could only hope it wouldn’t take too many of them to find what she needed...and that she was right, and everyone else wrong, about the things that would make her such a valuable gift to the emperor.  Otherwise, the years it might take her to uncover the information that would get her home could well prove unbearable.

 

She had little enough time to worry over the matter.  The lessons and fittings Tara had for her were keeping her mind too busy to think about the people and the life she had left behind and whether or not Willow would be able to bring her home, while at night, she was too physically tired to lie awake fretting over her circumstances for long.   But still, repress it as she might, the thought was there, and it gradually gnawed away at her peace of mind.  Toward the end of the week, a day or two before she was to leave the place she had just gotten to know and head off to yet another unknown destination, the uncertainty of her situation, the awareness that she could be stranded in this world for years--if not forever-- and the knowledge of what she might be called upon to endure in the meantime, got to her.  Tara was taking her for another walk in the gardens, and they passed by a small arbor Buffy hadn’t noticed before.  The arrangement of some flower beds reminded her exactly of flower beds her mother had gardened at their house in LA before the divorce, and that set Buffy off.  She burst into tears, much to Tara’s distress.  And, even more distressingly, she rounded on Tara.

 

“How could you!” she demanded.  “I’m not a thing, I’m a person!  How dare you just rip me out of my life?  Did you stop to think that maybe I had a family?  Or children?  How would you like it if someone took you away from Riley and told you that you would make a nice present for some man, some vampire, you’d never met?”

 

Tara looked horrified, and for once, she did stammer.

 

“Buffy!  I...I d-don’t know what to say.  I didn’t know that m-my spell would bring you here.  I wasn’t expecting a person a-at all.”

 

“Oh, right.  There was that sword thingy the king was talking about,” Buffy sniffled.  “But when you saw me, no one complained.  No one was horrified that you’d dragged some poor woman away from her own life to serve as a gift to someone else.  It was all, ‘oh, well, how interesting and can’t imagine what the emperor wants with her, but let’s just send her along to him, anyway.’  No one asked me what I wanted.  No one even apologized for what you’d done to me.  It was just decided that I need to be polished up, wrapped appropriately, and sent off.”  She shook her head.  “I don’t want to be sent off, Tara.  I want to go home.  I want to see my family, my friends.  I want to be able to wear leather pants without asking permission, have a diet coke and watch Love, Actually for the millionth time, and ride in a car or an airplane if I need to go anywhere, not set off on a trek by horseback that will take me weeks of dangerous travel to get some place I don’t even want to go.”  She reached forward and grasped Tara’s hands by both wrists.  “Send me home, Tara,” she said desperately.  “I know you have the power.  You can tell the king that something went wrong with the spell, and I just vanished while you were talking to me.  Then you can get that sword the emperor really wants, and everyone will be happy.” 

 

Tara gently pulled her wrists from Buffy’s grasp.  “I can’t do that.  You know I can’t.  King Heinrich is trying to avoid a war, and the happiness of one person counts for nothing against that.  Women are often given as brides or as concubines, like yourself, to secure the peace, and you have told me enough of your own world to know that even there, in your history, it has often been so.”  She drew the distraught young woman to the edge of the terrace, where a number of gardeners were busy at work.  “Look at them,” she urged Buffy.  “These people are under the king’s protection, as is everyone in this court, everyone in this land.  There are thousands of such people, tens of thousands, across the country.  Do you know the devastation a war can bring to them?”  Buffy closed her eyes, remembering televised images of roadside bombs and exploding buildings.  Here, war would be ever bit as bad, maybe worse: close, personal, devastating.  Bombs wouldn’t be dropped from planes, but armies would converge over the entire countryside, laying waste to everything in their path.

 

“Yes,” Buffy admitted bleakly, opening her eyes once more.  “I know.”

 

Tara nodded.  “Then you know why I can’t do what you ask.  I’m sorry you are unhappy, I’m sorry you’ll miss your friends, but...forgive me, but I don’t believe you were married or had children.  You’ve never mentioned them; but more, if you had such ties, the magick would never have pulled you away from them.  It couldn’t have.  Part of the spell ensured not only that whatever was produced would be what the emperor wanted, but that it was...that you were...suited to belong to the emperor.”

 

“Suited?”  Buffy stared at her.  “What the hell does that mean?”

 

“Please don’t swear,” Lady Tara reprimanded automatically.  “It means that belonging to the emperor is your purpose in life, your true purpose.  I’m not sure how, and I don’t know why you fear it so.  Yes, his disfigurement is daunting.  Even so, he has not lacked for female companionship, and any other woman in this court or his own would regard being chosen to go to him as the greatest honor.  Once you are with him, I’m certain you will be more than content. The nature of the magick assures me this must be so.”

 

Her true purpose in life was as someone’s pet?  Being sold into sexual slavery was an honor?  Buffy gave Tara a final, horrified look, and walked away, not quite able to suppress the tears that sprang to her eyes.  Tara hurried after her.  “Buffy, wait,” she said, catching up to her and turning her around.  “I can’t send you back, but there may be something I can do, something to make this easier.”

 

“I doubt it,” she said, trying to pull away before she broke down in outright sobs.

 

“Listen, please! Two of the most powerful witches in the land next to myself have just returned to court.  With their help, I may be able summon enough magick to show you your friends.  Perhaps we could communicate with them, let them know you are all right.  You said your friend Willow was a witch, too.  I might be able to open a channel through her, with your help.”

 

Buffy laughed harshly, tears glittering on her cheek.  She was not in a particularly charitable mood.

 

“In my world, you were the love of Willow’s life...until you were murdered,” she said harshly, perversely pleased when Tara gasped in shock.  For a single moment.  Then, disgusted with herself she pulled away and tried to walk off once more, but Tara recovered quickly.

 

“If your Willow had a connection with the version of me that lived in your world, so much the better,” she said firmly.  “It will be that much easier to open the channel.  I cannot send you back, Buffy, you know I cannot.  But I can at least do this for you.  Let me.”

 

Buffy stood unmoving, realizing this might be the best she could do.  She’d known in her heart that Tara would never send her back.  She’d been here long enough to know the woman’s loyalty to her king was absolute.  And, she understood why, in Tara’s point of view, what was happening to Buffy wasn’t all that terrible.  She wasn’t being sent out to work in the fields until she dropped from exhaustion, she was being taken in state to one of the two most powerful courts in this world, to live a life of pampered luxury in exchange for which tens of thousands of people might be able to avoid slaughter for...however long the emperor was happy with her.  Buffy shuddered, knowing exactly how she was expected to keep the emperor happy, not knowing if she could bear to allow herself to be so used and dreading the consequence if she didn’t. 

 

No, Tara couldn’t send her back.  But, she might at least allow her to see her friends and Dawn again, let them know she was all right, say good bye...and perhaps, inadvertently give Willow enough of a clue to where Buffy was to speed up any rescue attempts.  Drying her tears, Buffy agreed.

 

Tara took her back to her own chambers, rather than the suite of rooms Buffy had.  She summoned the rest of her coven, which proved to include both Amy and Jonathan who were the two powerful witches of whom she’d spoken.  She explained what she was going to attempt, and the others quickly set things in motion.  Buffy was placed on a chair in the center of the room, and elaborate symbols were drawn on the floor around her.  Candles were lit, incense was burned, and the coven began to chant in some arcane language Buffy couldn’t begin to understand.  Tara began a different invocation while her coven poured power into her.  Soon, the wooden floor was covered in mist, and the mist rose to the ceiling obscuring the room around them.  But, she could still hear the chanting figures, even if she couldn’t see them.

 

And then, an eerie, silvery light began to glow, and within it Buffy saw something else entirely.

 

She recognized the drawing room of the estate from which Giles was running the new Watcher’s Council.  Giles was standing with his back to the fire, polishing his glasses, his expression grim.  Faith was seated nearby, Robin standing beside her.  Spike was pouring himself a scotch from a decanter on the sideboard.  Willow was curled up on the leather couch, cuddled with Kennedy on one side and Dawn on the other.  Everyone looked glum as Giles spoke.

 

“...not in the Hellmouth is the only certainty--”

 

“Giles?” Buffy called out.  “Giles can you hear me?”

 

Willow sat up her eyes widening.  “Buffy?  Did anyone else hear--”

 

“Buffy!” Dawn shouted.  “Buffy, where are you?”

 

“Tell them to look into the fire,” Jonathan said, voice hoarse, as the image of her friends flickered, then returned to chanting and the vision solidified again.

 

“Guys, try looking into the fire,” she said.  Giles whirled around, a smile breaking across his face as she came into his view.

 

“Buffy!” he exclaimed as the others hurried to his side and crowded around the hearth.  “Oh, thank heaven.”

 

“You’re alive!” Dawn beamed, then took a closer look.  “And, uh, way overdressed.”

 

“Honey, this is just a day dress,” Buffy said ruefully of the violet gown she was wearing.  “You should see what they make me wear to the feasts.”

 

“There are feasts?”  Dawn asked, but mayhem had erupted in the drawing room as everyone realized that an image of Buffy was being projected toward them, and that she had not, as they had feared, been trapped in Hell.

 

“Well, at least we know why the locater spells I sent into the Hellmouth weren’t successful.  Where are you?” Willow demanded.  “How did you manage to send the image?  Are there other wiccas helping you, and can they send you home?  We can help if they don’t have enough power...”

 

Buffy’s smile dimmed.  “Yes, there are other wiccas, well, witches, here.  And, here is another dimension where I’m being treated very well.  But they can’t send me home.”

 

“Sure they can!” Willow said, nearly bouncing in her excitement.  “We can give them whatever power they need, and if they can’t do a dimensional gate spell, I’m sure Giles has books--”

 

Buffy felt someone come up behind her, knew from the expression on Willow’s face the exact moment when Tara came into her view.

 

“I am sorry,” Tara said.  “Lady Buffy has told me that the version of myself who lived in your world was someone of importance to you.”

 

“Tara,” Willow said numbly.

 

“Yes.  But not the one you knew,” she explained gently.  Willow pulled herself together with a shudder.

 

“I understand,” she said, her voice thick with tears.  “Variations on a theme.”  She managed a smile.  “It is...comforting...to know that some version of her lives on.”  Tara smiled in return. 

 

“Forgive me, ah, Lady Tara?” Giles correctly surmised the proper address from Tara’s own speech and her clothing.  “But you are clearly well versed in magick and very powerful, to have sent us this image across dimensions.  As Willow has said, we can supply any assistance you might need in order to return Buffy to us.  I must ask, then, why Buffy is convinced that this cannot be done.”

 

“Please understand, if there were nothing to this matter but Buffy’s own happiness, I would return her to you at once.  But this is a matter of politics not power,” Tara explained.  “Buffy is needed here for a most important mission.  My king is sending her to the emperor, in hope she can prevent a war.”

 

Buffy forced another smile.  “Duty calls,” she said with strained cheerfulness. 

 

“Doesn’t it always?”  Spike said dryly, gazing intently at Buffy, trying to discern the things that weren’t being said.  And, ever the perceptive one, he did.  “Question is, is this a duty you want?” Spike demanded.  Around him, everyone stiffened as the implications of what he suspected sank in.

 

“It’s all right, Spike,” she said quietly.

 

“Oh, yeah, ‘cause you’re just bouncin’ up and down with excitement over this mission of theirs,” he smirked, and turned his attention to someone else who might give him the answers he wanted.   “Oy!  You.  Witch.  Just how dangerous is whatever you’re planning to have our girl do?”

 

“No danger,” Tara assured him earnestly.  “On my honor.”

 

“So, if it’s not dangerous, it’s not something you need a Slayer for,” Faith said. “Why doesn’t one of your own folks handle it while you send B back to us?”  Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she was looking at Lady Tara measuringly, as if sizing her up for a hand-to-hand.

 

“None of us were chosen,” Tara said simply.

 

“Chosen?” Spike groaned.  “Bloody hell, not again.  Now look here--”

 

“That’s enough, Spike,” Giles said, removing his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose as he turned to the images of Tara and Buffy.  “Lady Tara,” he began carefully, “we believed Buffy to be trapped in a Hellmouth, but clearly your dimension is not such a place.  How did Buffy get there?”

 

“It is as you surmise, sir,” Tara said calmly.  “No accident.  I used magick to bring Buffy to us, to serve our need.”

 

Dawn gasped in horror, and Buffy’s other friends exchanged grim looks.  She could tell that they were getting ready to do whatever it took to get her out of there.  Which was exactly what she wanted.

 

Wasn’t it?

 

Giles was speaking again.  “As your actions undoubtedly saved Buffy from terrible suffering in the Hellmouth, I am, of course, grateful for them,” he said diplomatically.  “May I inquire as to the nature of the mission you have for her?  Perhaps we may be of assistance, and once it is completed, she can be returned to us.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Lady Tara said.  “She’s being sent to the court of the emperor, and I do not believe, once he has her, he will ever willingly be parted from her.”

 

“Sent to the--oh!” Dawn looked at them, her eyes huge.  Everyone else had already figured it out.  But, of course, it was Spike who bluntly put things into words.

 

“Chosen courtesan, right, pet?” he said with a bark of unpleasant laughter.  “Can’t imagine that going over well with you.”

 

“Say the word, Buffy,” Willow snarled.  Behind Buffy, Tara stiffened.

 

Buffy wanted, very much, to say the word.  And realized, with cold shock, that she couldn’t.  The images of the people Tara had shown her flashed across her mind, innocent men and women and servants going about their tasks.  Behind them came other images:  William and Cecily with their three children.  Tara’s son, a page in the king’s train.   Marguerite and Nan and Dickon and Hal and Jarred, dozens of lords and ladies and servants and merchants and priests, the kindly men teaching her to dance and sing, the dutiful vampire knights, the musicians, the carters, the king and the scullery maids.  All of them terrified of the emperor’s might, terrified that he would chose to make war against them, bringing bloody death and wanton destruction across the entire land.

 

Buffy knew, as she had always known, that she couldn’t let innocent people suffer and die if it lay within her power to prevent it.  She couldn’t do it at sixteen, when it cost her her life.  She couldn’t do it at seventeen when it cost her the love of her life.  She couldn’t do it at twenty, when it cost her her life, again.  How could she do it now, when the cost, though dire, was less, and when she had hope that her worst case scenario would never even materialize?

 

Her friends might miss her, but they didn’t need her.  There were other Slayers to fight evil.  Dawn was already beginning to lead her own life.  Here, however reluctant she was to fulfill it, she had a purpose.  She could stop a war.  Not her war, but one that would bring misery and death to tens of thousands of innocents.  Could she really turn her back on such a purpose?

 

“Let’s not jump the gun, guys,” she said temperately.  “Lady Tara’s spell was supposed to bring the emperor the perfect gift, and I’m thinking that he’s probably in need of the best demon ass-kicker available.”

 

“In which case why are you there, and I’m here?” Faith quipped.

 

“In your dreams,” Buffy returned with a wry smile.  “The thing is, there’s a war to be stopped.  I can’t turn my back on that.”

 

“Buffy, there are always wars to be stopped,” Dawn said anxiously.  “There’s evil everywhere, and we’ve got plenty of it right here.  Let these people take care of their own problems, and come home.  We need you.”

 

“Dawnie--” Buffy began sadly.

 

“Buffy, this can’t be what you want!”  Willow insisted.  Buffy closed her eyes in grief.  The only thing she really wanted, the only one she wanted, was ashes in an alley in Los Angeles, forever beyond her reach.

 

“What I want, I can never have,” she told Willow, as she had once told Angel, himself.  “If he were still there for me to come back to...but he isn’t.”  No one asked whom she meant.  No one had to.  “I won’t say the word, Will.  I just...I just wanted all of you to know that I love you, and that I’m fine.”

 

“You’re fine?  You’re being sold into slavery and you’re fine?”  Dawn fairly shouted, angry tears starting in her eyes.

 

“This isn’t what you want, Buffy,” Willow said heatedly.  “It can’t be!”

 

“Don’t make this harder, guys” Buffy pleaded.  Dawn shut her eyes, forcing back the tears.

 

“You’re alive and well,” Giles said bracingly.  “That’s more than we hoped for.”

 

“Well, we kind of figured you were alive on account of being immortal and all,” Spike contributed, his gaze fixed on Tara who gave Buffy a sharp glance.  Oops. One secret out.  Deliberately, though she wasn’t sure what Spike had hoped to gain by that revelation.  “The not being trapped in the Hellmouth part is the bit I’m happy about.  As to your new career as a courtesan...” He grinned savagely.  “Well, let’s hope you’re right about what you’re really needed for.  And if not...I think if this emperor bloke is fond of his wrinklies, he won’t do a blessed thing you aren’t happy to let him.”

 

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Spike,” she said dryly.

 

“Yes, well, perhaps once things are settled with the--ah--emperor, we can arrange another visit,” Giles said diplomatically.  Unspoken was the fact that the instant this one concluded, he and her other friends would be doing all they could to bring her home.

 

In a moment of stunning clarity, Buffy realized that she, herself, was going to be the one to stop them.

 

Tara leaned forward, whispering to Buffy that she could only keep the connection going for a few more minutes.  Buffy nodded her understanding and made her farewells to her friends.  She promised that when she arrived at the emperor’s court she’d see if the witches there could perform a similar spell.  If not, Lady Tara would contact them from time to time to let them know how she was.  And then the image faded.  Dawn’s tearful face was the last thing Buffy saw.  She shut her eyes, forcing back tears of her own. 

 

“Thank you,” she finally managed to tell Tara, then forced herself to say more.  “Willow is extraordinarily powerful.  You’ll need to set up a spell to keep her from pulling me back into my own dimension.”

 

The look Tara bent upon her was filled with compassion. “I know how much it cost you to tell me so, how much you want to let her do exactly that.  Thank you for understanding, for being willing to stay.”  Buffy didn’t trust herself to speak but simply nodded to Tara, then fled to the privacy of her own rooms where she might weep in peace.

 

That evening was a final gala, this one in honor of Buffy’s departure.  She would have loved to have pleaded a headache or some other excuse that would let her sit out the night’s festivities, but she didn’t need Marguerite’s shocked admonitions to realize that skipping her own ball was not an option.  Buffy followed her newly minted motto.  She sucked it up and dealt, choosing a peach-colored gown with a brown undergown for the evening.  To her surprise, Tara showed up while she was finishing dressing, and sent Marguerite away.

 

“There is one thing I must ask,” she said.  “Are you truly immortal?”

 

Buffy shrugged.  “Does it matter?”

 

“I don’t know.  It may be one of the things that make you a perfect gift for the emperor.  Vampires are immortal as well.  Well, unless you behead them, but I don’t think your immortality would survive beheading, either.”

 

Buffy wasn’t sure about that, but she also didn’t intend to put it to the test.  After a brief discussion, Tara decided that she would inform the king but doubted it would change anything.  A moment later Lindsey arrived, and escorted both women to the great hall.

 

Buffy had been playing her lute for the king each night and was surprised when, this night, he asked Lord Lindsey to favor them.

 

“I didn’t know you played,” Buffy said in surprise.

 

“I have been known to do so upon occasion,” he said agreeably.

 

“You are too modest, my lord,” Riley laughed.  “The ballads you have composed are known even in our court.”

 

“Indeed,” Lady Cecily said.  “I am most fond of Winter Heart, such a touching lament.”  Somehow, that was the wrong thing to say, for Cecily immediately paled and began to stammer.  “Of course, it is not the occasion for laments and perhaps--”

 

“No, my dear, you are quite right,” the king said.  “It is indeed a touching lament, and I would fain hear it sung by the one who composed it.”

 

“It will be my pleasure, majesty,” Lindsey said with a bow.  The king called for the music master, who arranged for a larger lute than Buffy played to be brought for Lindsey’s use. 

 

A few moments later, the vampire knight struck the first chord, and in a beautiful voice began a lament Buffy found every bit as compelling as the king and Lady Cecily had.

 

“Ladies fair at every palace

Sunshine turns the sky to gold

Warm warm, it’s always warm here

and I can’t take the cold

 

“Ladies fair bedecked with diamonds

Every one is glistening

Whole world shines so brightly

I can’t see a thing

 

“The one to whom I plighted

She was like a golden ring

Filled my life with love and laughter

I can’t feel a thing

Gone down into the earth now,

Though I may beg and crawl

There is no returning

This end shall meet us all

‘Til the heavens open

My bride and I once more as one

My Winter Heart is numb

 

“The one to whom I plighted

She was like a golden ring

Filled my life with love and laughter

I can’t feel a thing

Till the heavens open

My bride and I once more as one

My Winter Heart is numb

‘Till the heavens open

Ask me not to dance or sing

I can’t feel a thing

I can’t feel...”

 

The final note lingered, and the entire court held its silence for several moments, then, led by the king, burst into applause.  No wonder Lady Cecily had paled and stammered, Buffy thought.  Winter Heart was the lament of a man who had lost his beloved wife to death, even as the king had lost his beloved queen. 

 

Even as she had lost her beloved Angel.

 

The song resonated within her, opening a wound, yet somehow salving it.  She looked at the king wondering what effect the song had had on him, but he seemed perfectly tranquil.

 

“Ah!  I have never heard it sung so well as you have done, my lord,” the king sighed.  “We thank you.”  Buffy had to agree.  Lindsey’s voice was amazing.  She wondered if there were a Lindsey in her own world, but decided there couldn’t be.  Anyone with that much talent and, frankly, good looks, would have to be a rock star by now.

 

The evening progressed, and as ever, Buffy was called upon to dance.  By now, Buffy had mastered all the dances she’d been shown--there was a lot to be said for Slayer agility and being quick on your feet--and only had to sit out the galliard.  Not because she wasn’t as adept at it as she was the other dances, but because no one asked to partner her.  Buffy had wondered about that, until Tara had explained that while it was no longer considered promiscuous, the galliard was still held to be a very bold dance.  Only people who had, or who hoped to form, an intimate connection partnered each other in a galliard.  Courting couples could dance it, even before a betrothal was decided upon, but a properly bred young lady would not simply stand up for the gallliard with anyone who asked her.

 

Because Buffy was already designated as the emperor’s, it would be the height of impropriety for any gentleman of the rival court to ask her to partner him for the dance.  And it would be beyond folly for one of his own knights to so presume. 

 

Which was totally annoying because the galliard, with its dizzying lavoltas, had become her favorite of all the dances she’d learned.

 

At least she could still perform the lively salterello, which was some consolation.  Lindsey asked her to stand up for that one, and they had a merry time of it.  However, the movements of the dance and the loudness of the music did not allow for much conversation.  Buffy had to wait until Lindsey was escorting her back to her room for the evening--after a number of very fulsome farewells were delivered from the court to Buffy in light of her planned departure in the morning--to ask the question she had wanted to ask since Lindsey had sung.

 

“The ballad you sang tonight...was that about you?”

 

“Yes,” he said.  “My wife, Eve, died a year and a half ago.”

 

“I’m so sorry,” she said.  “How long were you married?”

 

“Forty-three years.  I knew I would lose her, of course.  She had no desire to be turned, and a human lifespan is so fleeting.  But the loss...” he shook his head.  “I do not believe I shall ever quite recover from it.”

 

“I understand,” she said.

 

“Thank you,” he said, then surprised her by adding.  “And you, my lady?  How long did you have with your love before you lost him?”

 

“I...”  Buffy wasn’t sure how to answer that. 

 

“I saw your face when I sang, my lady.  I recognized your grief.”

 

“Yes,” she said.  “I guess you would.”  She considered how to answer his question.  Seven years?  That was how long it had been from their first meeting until Angel’s battle in the alley.  Three?  That was how long he’d stayed in Sunnydale.  A single night?   “Not long enough,” she finally said.

 

“No.  It never is.”

 

Buffy wished she could ask him more about his own loss, but she couldn’t intrude on his obvious grief any more than she would welcome an intrusion into her own.  But there were things he knew that she would like to learn from him.   In her own dimension, Mayor Wilkins had taunted her and Angel with the brevity of Buffy’s life compared to that of her lover’s and with his own experience of love turning to bitter hate when Edna Mae grew old while Richard remained youthful.  It hadn’t been the only reason, or even the main reason, why Angel had left Sunnydale, but the specter of such a possibility--Buffy living to regret and resent being tied to someone who would always be young and handsome even as she withered and died--had to have played its part.

 

Lindsey’s wife would have to have been in her sixties when she died.  How had she reacted to aging while Lindsey remained young?

 

And, why did it matter, anymore?  Even if Angel were alive for her to return to, she was no longer in the mortal category.  She was going to be young forever, herself.

 

But some part of her that still yearned, still wondered what if? wanted to know if that particular wedge that had been driven between herself and Angel was as unfounded as she’d always believed it to be.

 

Buffy would never ask Lindsey.  The question was far too personal.  And if she were honest with herself, there was no good answer for her:  if Lady Eve had gone the way of Edna Mae, it didn’t mean that Buffy would have followed.  But, even if Lady Eve had adored Lindsey to her last breath, as she herself knew, had known when she was sixteen, that she would always adore Angel, it would change nothing for Buffy.  Angel had left her.  Angel was dead.   Buffy was going to live forever.  She couldn’t even hope for a reunion in heaven anytime soon.  Her happy ending was never going to happen.

 

It was a gloomy thought on which to fall asleep.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Chapter IV

 

Lord Lindsey’s party, now including Buffy and her household, set out for Zvesk and the White Palace early the following morning.  Buffy was sent off with a great deal of fanfare, and half the court was in attendance.  If news of her immortality had worried the king, he didn’t show it.  Indeed, he took a gold chain, heavy with jewels, from his own breast to drape it over hers as a sign of his favor.  Buffy thanked him, but privately wondered how quickly she could be rid of the damned thing since it weighed a ton.

 

Those she had come to know--Tara, William, Cecily, Lady Catherine and Riley--each had a small parting gift for her.  Buffy was touched by their gestures, and found herself a bit tearful. She realized she was genuinely sorry to be leaving them, especially Tara.  During their good-bye, Tara promised she would visit, if the emperor allowed the invitation and her own king gave permission.

 

But it was Lady Catherine who drew her apart for a final word, in private.

 

“I know you are not best pleased with us for the disruption we have brought to your life,” the countess began, “and I am sorry for it.  But I believe that Lady Tara’s magick has wrought very well for us, and I think, in time, you will come to feel so, as well.

 

“Could be,” Buffy said cheerfully.  After all, if her suspicions were correct about her true purpose here, she’d be very happy.  Defeating major evil had always been Slayer comfort food.

 

“That is my hope,” Lady Catherine went on, unaware of Buffy’s private musings.  “As I hope you will remember one thing when you are presented to the emperor.”  The countess took a deep breath, as if steeling herself for some great or difficult task.  “They call him Dragonheart because he is valiant and brave and strong, but also because they think him cold and unfeeling, like a dragon.  He has had many lovers, but has never loved, many friends, but few intimates, and all the world believes that this is his because his nature is that of a dragon; ruthless and selfish and cold.”

 

“You don’t,” Buffy guessed.

 

“He was kind to an unimportant child from a rival kingdom.  I know his thoughtfulness, his generosity.  His heart might be a dragon’s in fierceness, and in passion, but not in cruelty.  That is what I wish you to remember.”

 

“Why do you think I’ll need the reminder?” Buffy frowned.

 

“Because so many cannot look past his visage to the heart beneath,” the countess replied.  “Emperor Varick is not an easy man to gaze upon.  His wounds are...terrible.  Honorably gained, it is true, but...well.  He conceals them with a mask before the court, but in private he dispenses with such niceties.  Many hold it as a mark of honor to be permitted to look upon his face, his true face, though a grievous honor, if such a thing exists.”  Buffy gazed at the countess thoughtfully.

 

“Were you given such a grievous honor?” she asked quietly.  The countess met her eyes unflinchingly.

 

“Yes, I was,” she said, then smiled ruefully.  “Try not to faint as I did.”

 

“Not really big on the whole fainting damsel thing,” Buffy said lightly. 

 

“That is good to know,” the countess laughed, and led her back to the others to complete her farewells. Soon enough, Lindsey came to assist Buffy to mount the palfrey chosen for her--a task Hal would ordinarily perform--and their company rode away from the palace.

 

Buffy’s seneschal, Jarred, had overseen the packing of her wardrobe into a series of stout trunks that had been loaded onto a baggage cart, her jewels into a large casket that Marguerite would have in her charge.  Although Buffy started out on the palfrey, there was also a sort of primitive carriage, more like a covered cart sprung with leather strapping, if she became fatigued.  If Marguerite, Nan, or any of her other servants became fatigued, they were expected to ride in the baggage cart which wasn’t sprung, at all.  Buffy thought it was crazy to force people into the baggage cart while her carriage remained empty, and said so.  Everyone, including her servants, thought she was crazy for making the suggestion.  Buffy grimly wondered if the evil she were here to fight was going to prove to be the class order.  She hoped not.  It was so much easier to whack a demon than to lead a social revolution.

 

With Lindsey’s approval, Riley had selected two of his most reliable knights as her personal guards, one to ride before her and one to ride behind.  Since Lindsey had placed her in the exact middle of his own guards, and poor young Hal was never more than a few paces behind her when she rode, the protection seemed like overkill to Buffy.  There seemed little point in making a protest, so she graciously accepted Lindsey’s arrangements.

 

The party was soon away from Langdon Castle, riding through the city of Westering.  Buffy had not been allowed outside of the palace since her arrival, and looked about her with a great deal of curiosity as they rode through the streets. 

 

It was cleaner and more orderly than she expected in a medieval city, and the populace seemed well fed.  No ragged beggars were in evidence.  She wondered if the citizens of the country were really that well off, or if Lindsey was simply taking her through the best neighborhoods the city had to offer in order to spare her supposedly delicate sensibilities. 

 

Once they’d left the city behind and were out on the open road, Lindsey dropped back from his place at the head of the column to suggest that she place the king’s golden chain in her jewel cask.

 

“We’re a strong enough force to discourage most brigands, but why tempt fate?” he said calmly.

 

Buffy privately considered that she could use a good fight with a few brigands right about now, but suspected that voicing such a sentiment wouldn’t go over too well.  She removed the chain and gave it to Hal who rode back to Marguerite, placed the chain in her charge, and then resumed his place by Buffy in the center of the column.

 

It was not the most exciting place to be, at least not for Buffy.  Hal, who was all too happy to answer whatever questions she might have about her palfrey or his duties to her, would never dream of having a casual, much less a personal, conversation with a lady of her exalted rank.  Her guards, who, as knights, were of sufficient rank to exchange social niceties with her, turned out to be long on muscle and short on conversation.  Both men were stiff and reserved in her presence.  Lindsey, who might have been more entertaining, was busy at the head of the column.  She had to content herself with looking at the scenery, which was charming enough, she supposed. 

 

At least for the first few days.  By the time they’d been on the road for a fortnight, she was finding it repetitive.

 

Their party traveled through a perfectly medieval landscape in which peasants worked the fields or huddled together in villages.  The latter had the bare necessities of life, but for anything more, such as trade goods or skilled craftsmen, one had to travel to the towns.  Along the way, Buffy kept her ears open for any rumors of demonic activity but received nary a hint.  Maybe the big honkin’ evil was closer to the capital of the empire.  She hoped.

 

Their road led them through several of the larger cities, at which time Lindsey arranged lodgings at the best inns, where Buffy’s maids changed the sheets for fresh ones from her own chests.  Buffy hadn’t even known she had sheets, but between them, Tara, William, Jarred and Marguerite had thought of everything.

 

Buffy learned that, had it been spring, they would have taken a ship from the king’s capital to the great trade city of Syrenia, cutting their travel time by nearly half.  But it was winter, and the seas were deemed too dangerous, too unpredictable for a voyage at this time of year.  The overland route through the mountains would soon be closed by snow, but the season was not yet so far advanced that this would prove a danger for travelers.

 

Their first Sunday on the road found them in a small village, but there was a priest able to say mass which was all her companions required.  Buffy’s opinion about religion hadn’t changed much from the one she’d formed as a high school junior.  Religion was weird.  But the one practiced in this dimension was easy to take as such things went.  Neither witches nor “heretics” were being burned at the stake, and the sermons Buffy heard preached were more about living lives of kindness, compassion, charity and duty rather than condemnations of a laundry list of sins.  If she remained at the emperor’s court for any length of time--which was looking more and more like a certainty--she was going to end up learning a lot more about the faith practiced here, what with having her own yet-to-be-appointed-chaplain, and all.  At least, she thought as she watched the beatific expression on the face of the woman leading services, this religion had a message of universal love and tolerance she could appreciate.  If she’d been expected to put up with something like the Spanish Inquisition--or that lunatic, Caleb--she might have cut and run.

 

For the most part, their journey was uneventful.  At the end of the second week, they came to the foot of the mountains that marked the border between the two kingdoms.  Their party turned west, traveling a few more days until they came to the mountain pass which would bring them into the empire.  Buffy soon needed the warm fur cloak that had been made for her, and she was eventually forced into the shelter of the closed carriage.  She insisted that Marguerite and Nan ride with her rather than in the less protected baggage cart.  Seemingly, it wasn’t completely unheard of for the servants to ride in a carriage so long as their mistress rode with them, as no one protested the move.  There were no inns along the mountain pass.  When they traveled through it, they were forced to make camp in the open.  Fortunately, there were tents which kept out the worst of the wind, but it was still cold enough that Buffy slept wrapped in her travel cloak with Marguerite and Nan bundled beneath the covers beside her.  Poor Hal slept with his horses, while Dickon and Jarred made do with another, smaller tent.  The vampire knights were largely impervious to the chilly temperatures.

 

In the morning, Buffy found that the pass narrowed as it wound through the mountains, and at one point they were forced to ride single file, rather than abreast, and to go slowly in order to get the carts and her carriage through.  The carriage, as it jounced along the unpaved road, eventually proved too stuffy and uncomfortable for Buffy, who decided she’d be better off in the cold on her palfrey.  Marguerite and Nan, for once, made no protest when she insisted that they not return to the baggage cart, but either remain in the carriage or return to their own mounts.  They stayed in the carriage.

 

Lindsey wasn’t thrilled with Buffy’s decision to leave it, but he also wasn’t worried enough to insist she return to the carriage, even though this was the part of their journey where they were most vulnerable to brigands.  Someone hurling rocks down on them from above might incapacitate them enough to make an assault worthwhile.  Of course, vampire knights using cross bows had fantastic reflexes and even better aim, so coming out from under cover in order to hurl rocks was a very dicey business.  Lindsey wasn’t overly surprised that no one tried to assault them.

 

The dragons, however, did surprise him.

 

One moment, Buffy and her entourage were plodding along, single file, over a narrow strip of road next to an impossibly deep chasm.  The next, a huge shadow blotted out the sun, and the knight in front of Buffy, one of her two personal guards, was knocked, horse and all, over the edge of the road and down.  Lindsey began barking orders, including one for her remaining guard to get Buffy to cover, even as another dragon snatched the screaming horse out of the air and made to fly off with it.

 

The dragons preferred live horse meat to dead vampire flesh, it seemed.  The knight continued to fall, screaming, until he landed with a sickening thud on a ledge far below them.  Before he landed, her other personal guard had already swung into action, snatching the reins of her palfrey and dragging her toward an outcrop of rock where she and her human servants, the most vulnerable members of the party, could take shelter behind several of the vampire knights who, crossbows at the ready, arrayed themselves as an unliving barrier before them.  Her own guardsman, with a curt order at her to stay put, went off to help Lindsey fight one of the other dragons.

 

His trust in her ability to follow orders was sweet.  Misguided, but sweet.  Since the vampire knights before her were using their crossbows, they wouldn’t need their swords, so tossing aside her cloak which would only cramp her style, Buffy grabbed one and darted away from them before they realized what she was going to do.  Fortunately, they were too occupied fending off another dragon to come after her.  She had been inactive for more than two damned weeks and had been spoiling for a good fight, damn it.  It looked like she was finally going to get one.  A third dragon, a bigger one, was circling around, and she could tell that it had its eye on the fat pony drawing the baggage cart.  The pony was screaming in fear, as were all the other horses, on general principle.  Buffy managed to avoid the plunging beasts as she moved forward, toward the edge of the pass, where she’d have greater range of motion. 

 

Lindsey was furious and shouting at her to get back under cover, but he was fighting off a fourth dragon and was in no position to do anything to stop her.  Even her personal guard couldn’t disengage from battle long enough to get her back to safety.  Buffy ignored their shouts and focused on the dragon to whose tough leathery hide she was about to deliver the mother of all ass-whuppings.

 

It was more interested in the fat pony, dismissing Buffy as too little to eat, and flew right over her.  Big mistake.  Her sword got it in the shoulder, first try.  A green gobbet of blood sprayed around her, but demon goo was no big.  Buffy kept fighting.  She’d gotten the beastie’s attention, and it took her seriously now, pulling back in a snarl of fangs and wings and carrion-foul breath.  The archers were spoiling her fun, trying to hit it without hurting her in the process.  She yelled at them to back off, but they ignored her.  Just the way everyone had ignored her requests and suggestions and demands from the moment she got here.  That thought made her angrier yet, and the unfortunate dragon was the only thing she could take it out on.

 

In the end, it didn’t stand a chance.  Buffy, the Pissed Off Vampire Slayer needed a target for her pent up energy, anger, and frustration at her position.  She danced around the dragon with ease, landing blows right and left to its most vulnerable spots--the wings, and shoulders--until it stood on its hind legs rearing in pain from one of her blows, and she moved in for the kill, hurling her borrowed sword at the spot she knew its heart would be.

 

No vampire archer had anything on her when it came to aim.  Her sword went in hard and deep, more green blood exploded, and the dragon writhed in pain, hurling itself off the cliff.

 

At which its two companions, smelling blood, dove after it to tear apart the carcass.

 

The good:  One dead dragon, three distracted dragons, and only one casualty.  The bad:  Lindsey was no longer distracted by a dragon, and was stalking toward her in full game face with blood in his blazing yellow eyes and murder in his heart.

 

“Lady Buffy,” he growled.  “If you ever cause a man to disobey a direct order from me again when I am trying to see to your safety, I will have you bound and gagged and brought before my liege lord like a common criminal, rather than as a cherished gift.  And what do you think King Heinrich will have to say to that?”

 

Nothing good, because if Lindsey actually did what he threatened, treating the king’s gift to the emperor with such disdain, it would probably start the very war everyone was trying to avoid.  Still, Buffy had gotten what she wanted, so she was willing to accept some scolding from Lindsey as the price of keeping the peace.

 

But not too meekly.

 

“Oh, c’mon Linds.  It was only a little dragon.”  She had, in fact, fought bigger.  Not to mention a couple of giant demon snakes she’d gone against, mano a mano.  But, fighting on a narrow mountain pass above a deep chasm wasn’t really the safest place to battle.  Lindsey was practically foaming at the mouth, and she was sure he was about to make good on his threat to have her bound and gagged.  She sighed and gave in.

 

“Okay, chill.  I’m sorry,” she began. She took a deep breath and went on.  “Please try to understand.  I’ve told you I was a warrior, Lindsey,” she explained quietly.  “I had just finished a battle when Lady Tara brought me here.  It’s part of my nature.  I can’t simply huddle on the side lines when there is danger.  But, I won’t deliberately do anything to make the men disobey you again,” she promised.  Lindsey gave her a shrewd look.

 

“And me?  Will you obey me, if I need to give an order for your safety?”

 

Buffy prevaricated.  “Just keep in mind that the safest place for me might be at the front of any battles we have, rather than the back.”

 

“I’ll try,” he said stiffly, and bowed to her before he went off to see about rescuing the knight who had not dusted when he’d landed on the ledge but simply been knocked unconscious. 

 

The surviving three dragons wouldn’t attack them, now that they’d eaten the fourth, but they couldn’t be left to infest the pass.  Once he’d overseen the rescue of her guardsman, who would be all right with a flagon of pig’s blood and a good night’s rest, Lindsey dispatched a dozen of his best men to take out the other dragons.

 

“You know, with them being all lethargic from their big meal, they’re not gonna be too feisty.  It would probably be pretty safe for me to go along and help mop up,” Buffy suggested.  Lindsey glared at her.

 

“The emperor has been known to go dragon hunting,” he said coldly.  “I’m sure he’ll be delighted to have you join him.”  His tone implied that the emperor’s chief delight would be in feeding her to the dragons.  She shook her head and walked off.

 

It was not a very cheering thought to realize that from all she knew about the emperor, it was possible that Lindsey was right.

 

She had other fences to mend.  Her uninjured guardsmen, the one whose orders she had disobeyed, had become more remote and stiff than ever.  Clearly, he was angry, and Buffy couldn’t blame him.  If she had been injured, King Heinrich, and probably the emperor, would have faulted him for not staying with her until the attack passed.  She wasn’t injured, but she had risked not only her own neck, but his.  Buffy wasn’t used to this kind of responsibility.  She made a very contrite apology, which seemed to mollify him somewhat, especially when she explained to him, as she had to Lindsey, that she was used to such battles.

 

“The world you are from is indeed a strange one, my lady, if such delicate creatures as yourself are needed to defend it,” he said.  “But you must not fear.  We are here to protect you now, and you need not undertake such burdens any longer.”  He was absolutely sincere, so earnest in his dedication to her well being that Buffy simply couldn’t be offended by this world’s version of the don’t worry your pretty head about it, little lady speech.  She just thanked him and went back to the place where her maids had arranged a more or less comfortable bed for her.

 

They spent the night where they had battled.  In the morning, the men sent out after the remaining dragons returned with the heads of the beasts as prizes. 

 

“Do you mean to present these to the emperor?” Buffy asked Lindsey.

 

“That is the custom,” Lindsey said.  “I cannot compel you to follow it, and if you wish to claim--”

 

“No, no,” Buffy said.  “I very much want to give the emperor the head of the dragon I slew.  Can you arrange for him to get it before I’m presented?”

 

“Again, that would be the usual custom: to give the lesser gifts before the greater,” Lindsey said, eyeing her warily.  Buffy flushed, but she didn’t have the luxury of walking away. Presenting the emperor with the head of a dragon slain by her own hand might be her only way to convince him that he needed her in his army, not his bed.

 

“Good, then.  Just make sure he knows that I’m the one giving it to him.  That’s all I ask.”  Lindsey gave her a measuring look.

 

“You think such a gift will convince him of your worth as a warrior,” he said shrewdly.

 

“Well, duh,” Buffy said, crossing her arms over chest. “Shouldn’t it?”

 

“Of course it should,” he responded coolly.  “Dragon slaying is no easy task, and your abilities are as impressive as you had told us they were.”

 

“Well, then--” she began, but he cut her off.

 

“And if the only thing that mattered were your skill, I would simply present the head to my liege with your compliments and expect you to be rewarded for your prowess in the way you wish to be rewarded:  with a position in his army.  But even if you are worth a hundred warriors, or a thousand, I warn you that he will never allow you anywhere near a battle.  Doing so would put you at risk, and could be construed as an insult to King Heinrich.”

 

“Which would start that war everyone is worried about,” she concluded bitterly.

 

“That is the danger,” he admitted.

 

“Right,” Buffy said stiffly, forcing back tears.  Lindsey noticed.

 

“My lady,” he said gently, “I understand our ways are not your ways.  You are unhappy, and I deeply regret that, regret that I can do nothing to ease your sorrow.  I can only ask you be patient a little longer.  Syrenia is a great city, the jewel of the empire, perhaps the world.  I believe that you will find much there to console you.”

 

“Like the emperor, you mean,” she said, angrily dashing her tears away.

 

“I did not,” Lindsey replied.  “Unlike the court at Langdon, I have difficulty believing that what my liege lord would prize above all things is a woman, whether due to her skills with a sword or any other accomplishment.  I believe he will give you a place of honor in his court to keep the peace with Heinrich, but that you will allowed to establish your own household and live your life as you please, within the constraints of your position.”

 

“Oh, joy,” Buffy said sourly.

 

“You won’t be able to go to war,” Lindsey said bluntly.  “But if you have your own estate and are discrete, no one need know what skills you choose to hone in private.  And, even great ladies of the highest rank have been known to participate in the hunt.”

 

“Not the kind of hunting I do,” Buffy said.  “Lord Lindsey, I know you’re only trying to make sure I don’t get my hopes up.  But here’s the thing.  I haven’t just fought in armies, I’ve led them.  I’m a strategist and a tactician, and I’m damned good at both.  So, fine, the emperor isn’t going to make me a foot soldier.  That’s okay.  But give him the dragon’s head.  Let him know I took it.  Unaided.  At least let him see me in a different light from the one everybody in Alba wants to shine on me.  I’ll make my own case for how I think I can be of value to him.  At least, once he gets the head, I’ll have proof that I can do what I say I can.”

 

“Much good may it do you,” Lindsey said with a shake of his head.  “Still, it will be as you wish.”

 

“That’s all I ask,” Buffy said, rewarding him with a brilliant smile.

 

At the end of another day’s journey, they came out of the pass, and descended into warmer lands once more.  They were now in Zvesk, and Syrenia itself was less than three weeks travel.

 

The remainder of the journey was uneventful.  No other dragons attacked them, and no brigands dared approach.  The beauty of the countryside had long since paled, and one small village looked pretty much like the next.  The towns were better, but there were few enough along their path.

 

As the weeks wore on, and they grew closer to journey’s end, Buffy found herself increasingly nervous.  Lady Catherine might speak of Emperor Varick with warmth, but from everyone else she sensed only dread.  Even Lindsey, whose admiration for his liege lord was boundless, seemed to fear him in no small measure.  Varick was powerful, ruthless and a vampire.  Not the best recommendations in her view, no matter how nice the vampires of this world were compared to her own.  No one knew how old he was.  He’d been a power in the world for two centuries, but his life before he’d fought the dragon was shrouded in mystery.  He’d come to that village as a traveling mercenary, an occupation of many vampire warriors.  He’d lived there for a year or so before he fought the dragon, but he hadn’t made friends, and he hadn’t told anyone his history.  All the villagers remembered was that a man from the far western plains calling himself Skule –that is, by the name of the duchy in which he’d been born--had come to offer his sword for hire, and they’d hired it, and he’d lived quietly, keeping to himself until the dragon came.  Although he claimed to be from Skule, he had not made himself remembered there.  No one seemed to know where he’d been before the village, although the rumors were that he had been anything but newly turned long before then.  He hadn’t shared his history with any of the lords who had assisted him in his rise to power.  If Lindsey were privy to the details of his liege lord’s early life--Buffy now knew that a liege was the person to whom one owed one’s fealty--he wasn’t talking.  So, Varick had to be pretty old, even in vampire terms, and pretty old usually meant pretty inhuman looking, like King Heinrich.  Throw in the scars, and it was no wonder Lady Catherine had fainted. 

 

And, if he had a name, no one knew that either.  Varick was a throne-name, taken upon his assumption of the crown.  It meant honorable defender and had probably been chosen to assure those of his new subjects who were [leery of his rule that he would be a good monarch.  He might, formally, be the Emperor Varick, but to most of the world he was simply the Dragonheart, as before he had simply been the king or the lord, or the knight or, originally, the dragon slayer.  None of which was any more reassuring than the other things she knew about him.

 

And somehow, everyone in King Heinrich’s court seemed to think that sending her to the emperor was the key to keeping the peace.  Simply by being given to him, she’d keep him from making good on whatever plans for conquest had been brewing in his mind for decades, if not centuries.

 

Pressure, much?

 

Why was she the only person who thought that was a pretty farfetched idea?  Well, maybe not the only person.  Lindsey wasn’t sure about it, either, but he was being the good soldier, literally, bound and determined to bring her to his liege lord in one piece.  What his liege lord did with her after that wasn’t his concern.

 

It was, of course, the only thing Buffy could think of, and despite her early conviction that the emperor would find her fighting skills the most desirable things about her, the closer she got to putting that theory to the test, the less sure she was.  She began to wonder if she’d done the right thing in warning Lady Tara against any spells Willow might try to cast.  Nevertheless, when silver mist began to gather near her bed one night and a whisper that seemed to bear her name floated across the room, Buffy had not answered, but kept her mouth firmly closed.  Eventually, the mist faded.  Buffy cried herself to sleep.

 

By the time they came within reach of the capital city, none of her thoughts were good ones.  Though she tried to cling to the idea that the emperor would recognize her value as a warrior, the culture in which she found herself argued against him giving the idea any serious consideration.  Even Lindsey, who had seen her in action, continued to believe that she was best off out of the lines of battle. 

 

Tara had put it as delicately as possible with her mention of brides and concubines.  But, the truth stripped to bare bones was that Buffy was being sent to the emperor as a very pampered sex toy.  And, while the knowledge that she would be saving thousands of lives by permitting herself to be used as a sex toy made the idea just barely palatable, she couldn’t help but be distressed by her situation. The final night of their journey, which saw them lodged safely in a particularly comfortable inn in one of the largest towns, she tossed restlessly on her bed, and it was long before sleep found her.  Barely two hours later, Marguerite was waking her up to eat breakfast.  Buffy didn’t do too well with that.  She had no appetite for the fluffy eggs or the thick sausages they’d been served with, but stuck to a few bites of bread and some hot tea.  Only when Jarrad casually inquired if the cook should be punished for failing to prepare a breakfast suitable for a lady of her rank did an appalled Buffy force herself to eat more.  Fortunately, the food was delicious, and she found herself able to consume a fair amount.  She didn’t clean her plate, but Marguerite seemed to think she’d eaten enough to keep the cook safe.  Buffy suggested that Marguerite could have eaten the food herself and got the shocked look she should have come to expect by now.

 

She had thought Marguerite would lay out the elaborate gown in which she was to be presented to the emperor, but when she mentioned that, she got another look of horror.  My lady certainly couldn’t ride a horse in that!  And, the carriage would absolutely ruin it.  Why would she think of such a thing?  Surely she knew she wouldn’t be presented to the emperor until that evening, after she’d had a chance to rest from her journey?

 

Oh.  Right.  Let’s just drag the agony out for a few more hours, shall we? Buffy thought bitterly.

 

In the end, so much anxiety exhausted her.  She was nearly asleep in the saddle when they arrived at the White Palace just before noon.  Buffy was awake enough to realize the whole damned thing, an absolutely huge edifice much larger than King Heinrich’s seat of power, was fronted in dazzlingly pure alabaster.  Even from the outside, the imperial palace made the Langdon Castle look like a modest country home.

 

It was impressive, but she was too tired to truly appreciate it.  She was also aware that the hallways down which she was led, and the rooms through which she passed, were even larger, grander and more opulent than the ones she’d been living in when she first arrived.  Again, though, she just wanted to sleep.  Which, as soon as Lindsey escorted her to the chamber that had been prepared for her, she did.

 

Lindsey had sent one of his men on ahead, and a very comfortable room had been prepared for her.  It was a temporary situation, and once she had been formally presented to the emperor, more permanent plans could be made.  For the moment, she’d just have to make do with a set of apartments that were twice as grand as her chambers at Heinrich’s court and a bed that was even more luxurious.

 

Buffy slept for hours, not waking until the sun began to set.  The nap had been restorative. She was still anything but eager to meet the emperor, but she was calmer and felt better able to handle the situation than she had that morning.  Marguerite had arranged a tray for her, as the feast would not take place for a few more hours.  It was only a light repast, but Buffy was able to eat it as she had not been able to eat that morning.  Afterward, she requested a hot bath.

 

She got one.  A real one.  Not a simple copper tub that was more like an oversized kettle that could be hauled from one place to another as needed, but a fixed marble structure the size of a small pool, with hot running water delivered by pipes in a scheme that seemed closer to what was found in ancient Rome than to modern plumbing.

 

But it was close enough.

 

Buffy sank into the bath with real pleasure.  After her footman had set up her privacy screen, and while Nan was busy tending the fire in the great hearth that warmed the room, Marguerite brought her soap, one of the bars Tara had taught her to make, scented with Buffy’s favorite vanilla instead of the heavier roses.  Tara had commented that vanilla was rare and hard to come by, but not to dissuade Buffy from using it.  Rather, she wanted to make sure that Buffy knew how to arrange to keep a sufficient supply of the spice available for her needs.

 

Given the luxury of the castle in which she found herself, Buffy guessed that wouldn’t be such a problem. 

 

Buffy soaked her tired muscles for a good hour before she let Marguerite drag her out of the bath, and begin the elaborate preparations needed to get her ready for the emperor.  Other than what was required for the presentation, none of Buffy’s belongings were being unpacked.  It was expected that the emperor would decide, fairly quickly, where she and her staff would be housed as well as what other servants should be appointed.  Lindsey had said that, most likely, she’d be given a wing of the palace to herself, as that was what the emperor had done with his previous favorites.  Those previous favorites were long gone, save for Lady Lilah, and her proximity to the emperor was engendered more by political necessity--she was the most powerful witch alive--than by any affection that might have been between them at one time.

 

“You mean he no longer shares her bed?”  Buffy had asked bluntly. 

“I mean, he rarely shares it,” Lindsey said, as bluntly.  “A situation both of them seem to find acceptable.”  His tone implied that she should find it acceptable, as well.  Buffy agreed.  She hadn’t known a Lilah on her own world, and she had no clue to the kind of person she might be.  But, getting on the wrong side of this world’s most powerful witch just didn’t seem like a good idea.  The emperor could share the other woman’s bed whenever he wanted.  In fact, Buffy would probably be delighted if that were the only bed he shared.  She was increasingly nervous that things wouldn’t go that way, and just hoped she could bear it, that the emperor wasn’t as hideous as King Heinrich, and that bedding him wasn’t too high a price to pay to keep peace between the two kingdoms.

 

She’d find out, soon enough.  Buffy sighed, and allowed herself to be dressed in her elaborate presentation gown.

 

Emeralds, Tara and the sempstress and the goldsmith had all agreed.  Emeralds would bring out the green in her eyes.  And, what better to set off the viridian fire of those gemstones than gold?

 

Buffy’s shift and chemise were the sheerest white silk, heavily embroidered with pale pink roses.  Her stockings were also white silk, and the garters holding them up had been embroidered with more pink roses.  Her feet were slid into a pair of gilded kid slippers, glittering with tiny chips of emerald.  Marguerite disapproved of her mistress’ penchant for wearing the outlandish panties, but grudgingly handed her the white lacy pair Buffy indicated.  Buffy was just grateful that Marguerite’s disapproval of the garment was strong enough that she didn’t demand to help Buffy put them on, since everyone seemed to be vaguely scandalized by the idea of a lady dressing herself.  Next came her undergown, an extravagant garment of heavy cloth-of-gold, embroidered with more roses, these picked out in green thread the exact shade of the emeralds, and embellished with more emerald chips. 

 

This exactly suited her overgown, which was of emerald green velvet so stiff with gold thread embroidery and jewels it could stand up on its own.  The sleeves tied to it, green velvet lined with cloth-of-gold, were extravagantly long, trailing upon the floor and forcing Buffy to take tiny, mincing steps to avoid trampling on them.  The gown was so heavy with gems that she couldn’t have moved very quickly, anyway.  Buffy found herself hoping her presentation wouldn’t take very long because the damned gown weighed more than she did.

 

When she’d been shown the gown, Buffy had given the opinion that there were so many jewels on it, she hardly required more.  She was outvoted.  So it was that after Nan was satisfied that the gown was perfectly fitted, she brought out Buffy’s jewel cask and handed it to Marguerite.  Bracelets of gold heavy with emeralds were clasped about her wrists, emerald rings were thrust onto her fingers.  A great necklace of golden roses, each holding a blazing emerald in its center, was draped over her bosom and clasped about her neck.  Emerald drops dangled from golden chains at her ears, and finally, her hair, which had been brushed dry and curled into ringlets before being allowed to cascade down her back, was confined by a single narrow diadem of gold, set with a dozen emerald stones.

 

Buffy thought that was really quite enough.  Marguerite didn’t.  She directed Nan to retrieve the makeup box from Lady Buffy’s luggage.   Nan quickly brought it to Marguerite, who opened it and drew out a jar of gold dust.  Tara had explained the fashion.  Her own time had had a similar fad, so Buffy was familiar with the concept.  Still, allowing someone to spread powdered gold over her face when she was already wearing enough gold to support a small country seemed--decadent?  Overkill.  Again.  Overkill seeming to be all the rage here, she kept quiet and let Marguerite do her worst.  In the end, Buffy’s eyelids were gilded, while a light dusting of gold highlighted her hair and cheeks.  Her lips were tinted a very light pink, enhancing, rather than overpowering, her natural coloring.  When a pleased Marguerite brought Buffy over to the looking glass, Buffy really couldn’t fault her work.

 

Weeks earlier she had glittered in a borrowed gown.  Now, she stood in a gown of her own, and she did not glitter, she burned. 

 

Buffy blazed with the fire of emeralds and the brilliance of gold.  She didn’t look like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, nor even anything so ethereal as a fairy queen.  She looked--pagan, elemental, dangerous.  And, she understood, terribly alluring.   

 

“You’ve done well, Marguerite,” Buffy told the beaming maid.  No point in mentioning that Buffy really, really wished that Marguerite hadn’t.  Buffy also really, really wished she were Anywhere But Here, but that wasn’t an option.  Lindsey was soon at the door with the requisite number of vampire guardsmen, including the two sent by King Heinrich, to escort her to the throne room for her presentation.

 

Tara had drilled her endlessly on what was to be expected.  She was too keep her eyes downcast.  She would be announced by the Lord Chamberlain.  Lord Lindsey would bring her to the foot of the emperor’s throne, where she was to sink into a full court curtsey--Buffy had been shocked to learn that the curtseys she’d been making were merely demi-curtseys.  The full court curtsey would leave her bowed to the ground, effectively kneeling before the emperor, until such time as he indicated she should rise.  And, she absolutely must not look up at him, or at anyone else, until then.

 

“He is the emperor, and you are his,” Tara had said.  “It will not be easy, as he is much scarred from his battles.  But you must let him, alone, fill your eyes, until all you see is him.”  Meaning, Buffy supposed, that once he gave her permission to look up, she was to look at him, and only at him.  Buffy doubted that was going to work.

 

The first part, though, went smoothly.  Buffy made a slow, dignified progress through the halls on Lindsey’s arm, her vampire guardsmen in their finest armor bringing up the rear of their little party.  The chamberlain announced her as Lady Buffy, gifted to his imperial highness, the emperor, from his royal brother Heinrich III, and Lindsey led her across the threshold into the throne room.

 

That was when smoothness went out the window.

 

Not in her gut, where the sense of vampire had always cramped.  Not down her spine, where a prescience of danger had always tingled.  This...this was in her blood, a singing she had thought silenced forever.

 

Protocol forgotten, Buffy dropped Lindsey’s arm, raised her head, and spun around in a quick circle, scanning the assembled--and somewhat shocked--courtiers.

 

“My lady,” Lindsey began warningly, trying to reclaim her hand to lead her forward.  But he was too late.  Buffy had seen him, one of three men on a raised dais.  She paid no attention to the other two, though the blaze of their jewels and the magnificence of their dress told her one must be the emperor.  She didn’t bother looking at them, all she could see was him, all she could ever see had been him, now a tall figure dressed in plain robes without any ornamentation, a single silver chain of office on his breast.  His face was oddly stiff, expressionless, almost unrecognizable.  Still she knew, could feel in her blood, in her very bones, it was he.

 

“Angel,” she breathed tremulously.  Joy burst within her, a radiant smile transforming her face.  “Angel!” she said again as, picking up her skirts, she ran.    He stepped forward, and a moment later she was in his arms.  “Angel,” she said a final time, throwing her arms about his neck, burying her head in his velvet-clad shoulder.  “I thought I’d lost you forever.”  His arms came about her, as he gave a warm chuckle.

 

“Say, rather that you have found me, my lady, and that we are very well met, indeed.”

 

Buffy froze.  There had been amusement in that so-familiar voice, but no recognition.  She looked up at him noticing, as she had not before, that the face she beheld was no more than a lifelike mask and not even one that closely matched the beloved features of her own Angel.  His hair was longer, worn pulled back in a queue.  Similar, but different.

 

Because he wasn’t her Angel, after all.   She was in the arms of Emperor Varick, the Dragonheart.

 

With a little cry of distress, Buffy tried to pull away.  The emperor was having none of it, pulling her closer, his grip like iron, Buffy too distraught to do anything but collapse against him.  “Not him,” she moaned.  “You’re not him.”

 

“Lady Tara said that the dimension from which she brought Lady Buffy contains other versions of ourselves, my liege” Linsdsey said, by way of explaining Buffy’s strange behavior.  “Indeed, Lady Buffy recognized Lady Tara herself, along with King Heinrich and Lord William, from her own world.”

 

“You believe she knew a version of myself in this other world?”  the emperor asked, drawing Buffy closer, stroking her hair in a soothing gesture.

 

“So it would seem,” Lindsey confirmed.

 

“So it would,” the emperor agreed, then looked back down at Buffy, still swooning in his arms. “Alas, my lady, an angel is one thing I can assure you I have never been.”  Buffy shivered.  This was unbearable.  How could she look at him every day, a constant reminder of everything she had lost?  Buffy wasn’t given long to contemplate the matter.  Having realized that she was too overcome to walk, the emperor swept her up in his arms, then demanded that Buffy’s guards approach.  “You may tell your master that I have found his gift...most pleasing.  Lindsey, arrange a purse of gold for each of these men.  They may remain as our guests for a few days to recover from the fatigue of their journey before returning to Heinrich’s service.  As to the feast...” he gazed down at Buffy.  “Do not bother to hold it for me.  It is possible I will be somewhat delayed.”  

 

“As you will, my liege,” Lindsey bowed.  Having thus dismissed his entire court and sent them off to dinner, the man who wasn’t Angel carried her off, out of the throne room, a dozen startled vampire guardsmen hurrying after him as he swept down the corridor.

 

Any thought of convincing the emperor of her value as a warrior had fled.  With any other man, she would have held her ground, but with this man she could not.  As she was borne through the hallways of the vast palace, Buffy was lost to the magnificence of her surroundings.  She had eyes only for Angel-who-wasn’t, the emperor to whom she’d been given as a gift.  Like her own Angel, he seemed to favor dark colors and simplicity.  His robes were of black velvet, but they lacked the embroidery other members of both courts seemed to think indispensable, and he had limited his jewels to the simple silver chain of office and one lone ring, a signet bearing a dragon-shaped crest.

 

“Please put me down,” she asked softly after a moment.  “I can walk.”

 

“I find I like holding you in my arms,” the emperor replied lightly.  “I believe I shall keep you there awhile longer.”

 

Buffy shivered again.  Clearly, this man was nothing like her Angel, at all.  He swiftly brought her to his destination, one of the vampire guards hurrying forward to open the door.  The emperor swept through, Buffy still held in his arms, leaving his men to close the door behind them and stand outside, guarding a room she vaguely realized was more massive than any bedroom she had yet seen, though she still really had eyes for nothing but him.  She had never expected to see Angel again, and while the emperor wasn’t her lost love, he was so close, so achingly close, that Buffy knew she could lose herself in what was about to happen.

 

But she didn’t want to.

 

“Please,” she begged the man who wasn’t Angel, “I can’t do this.”

 

“Can’t you?” he chuckled.  The mask he wore had holes for his eyes and mouth.  She could see that he was smiling somewhat sardonically. “I rather thought that was the point of sending you to me.  So that I’d be so busy doing this with you, that I’d forget I wanted Heinrich’s head on a plate.”

 

“You don’t understand,” she said, beginning to struggle, trying to free herself.

 

“Enlighten me,” he invited, then ruined the effect by dumping her onto the bed and following after her.

 

Buffy was flat on her back, not-Angel hovering over her, a familiar fire burning in his dark eyes behind the mask.  He was braced on his arms, to spare her his weight--or perhaps merely to tease, she wasn’t sure.

 

She couldn’t think, and taking her silence for surrender, he dipped his head to kiss her.

 

Buffy couldn’t help herself, she turned her face away.

 

That earned her a growl of displeasure.  “Careful, my lady.  At the moment, such coy games do not amuse.”

 

She turned back to him, tears gathering in her eyes.  That seemed to give him pause, his anger transmuted to thoughtfulness.  She knew she had to explain, and quickly.

 

“I loved him,” she began.  “I loved him more than I will ever love anything in this life.  But there was a curse on him.  We couldn’t be together, though we hoped that one day...but he died.”

 

A look of something like tenderness, or compassion, softened those dark eyes.

 

“How long ago?” he asked gently.

 

“A year and a half.”

 

“Ah.  So recently as that?  Then you were right.  I cannot be he.  I have been here rather longer than a year and a half.  And this curse...you and he were never together?”

 

Buffy blushed furiously.  “Once,” she whispered.  “We had one night...and then the curse took hold.”

 

“I am sorry for it,” he said gently.  And the kiss he pressed to her lips did indeed start out gentle.  But he was a warrior, and like the Dragonheart he was reputed to be, his nature seemed to hold little of gentleness or could not hold gentleness for long.  Soon enough he was plundering her mouth, forcing her to open for him, to tangle her tongue with his.  Buffy’s struggles were half-hearted.  His very taste, his very scent was that of her lost Angel.  A moment later, she felt him lift the heavy gown--undergown, shift and all-- to her waist, his fingers brushing between her thighs. And then she realized that he’d already freed himself from his breeches, and his cold, hard flesh was already probing for the entrance to her own.

 

An entrance barred only by the delicate lace of her panties.

 

The emperor disapproved of her choice of undergarments far more than Marguerite had.

 

“What hellish device is this?” he snarled, ripping them apart and tossing the scraps away.  He didn’t seem to really need an answer, since he didn’t wait for one but simply kissed her again, and slid his fingers into her already dampening curls.  She broke their kiss, gasping for air.

 

“Please don’t,” she said again.

 

Shockingly, he didn’t.

 

The emperor held himself still above her, but the trembling in his arms belied the effort that stillness cost him.  With a groan, he dropped his head so that his forehead rested lightly on her own.

 

“Do not deny me, sweetheart,” he begged.  “My need for you is...astonishingly urgent.”  The last was said with a degree of self-deprecating humor.  She could feel him, cold and hard and rampant between her thighs.  His need was, indeed, urgent.

 

Was her own any less?

 

Angel, but not Angel.  And the look in his eyes, there in the candlelit room, was one of pain.  She could never bear to see her Angel suffer.  A part of her understood, bitterly, that the emperor somehow knew this, or guessed, and that though he would leave her the choice, he truly intended that she have none.

 

In truth, there was no choice but the one he desired of her.  Her heart was too wounded to make any other.  Wordlessly, Buffy stopped resisting, and lifted her face for his kiss.

 

With a groan, he fell upon her mouth like a starving man upon bread, and an instant later he’d pushed deep inside.  He peppered her face with kisses, the way Angel had, and he moved inside her with the exact controlled rhythm, building her to sweet madness, that Angel had.  He murmured love words as Angel had.  Held her, stroked her, adored her the way Angel had.

 

“Angel,” Buffy wept brokenly, “Angel.”  The emperor made no objection to being called by her dead lover’s name.  He merely continued to kiss her and caress her until she was beyond speech.

 

Buffy clung to the emperor’s body as fire poured through her veins, and a knot of pleasure tightened between her thighs.  Every powerful stroke brought her closer to rapture, and she did nothing to resist the approaching storm.  Soon enough, her back arched and her muscles tightened, her head thrown back as she screamed her release.  The emperor chuckled in delight, but he himself was far from done. He forced his reluctant partner to three more exquisite peaks before he allowed himself his own release.  Buffy shuddered as she felt the cold spurt of seed release into her depths.   The sensation was exquisite.

 

The emperor collapsed on top of her.  Buffy didn’t object to his weight.  She’d always enjoyed Angel’s.  But she wasn’t mindless with pleasure now, and what she felt was raw, wounded, her grief as new and fresh as if she were back in the room in the Palazzo della Veronica with Rodolfo telling her things she didn’t want to admit that she knew.  She wasn’t inclined to do much, or say much, and she dearly wished the pleasant numbness in her body could extend to her brain.

 

The emperor got up, stretched, and padded over to an ewer on a stand a few feet a way.  He poured water into the matching bowl, then dipped a cloth into it, wringing it out before bringing the damp cloth over to Buffy.

 

“I would normally enjoy the sight of my seed on your lovely thighs,” he sighed.  “But that pleasure must be denied me,” he went on as he used the damp cloth to gently clean her of all signs of their precipitous joining.  “It would be a pity to ruin your gown.  Heinrich must’ve spent a fortune on it.”

 

Buffy gasped and blushed furiously.

 

“You are adorable,” the emperor chuckled, amused by her delightful modesty, and bent to kiss her.  Then he found himself as unable to resist deepening this kiss as he had been unable resist deepening their first one and that his fingers were no longer working to clean her up, so much as to excite her further.  Soon, he’d done away with the cloth and driven his fingers deep inside her, his thumb brushing that lovely bit of flesh that governed her pleasure.  Her arms locked about his neck, and in moments she’d stiffened as another wave of delight rocked through her.  His own satisfaction had not been seen to this time, and he took it into his head that throwing her legs over his back and sealing his mouth to the soft place between her thighs would help with that.  His tongue was soon lashing at the bundle of nerves his thumb had caressed, and Buffy was keening her way through another orgasm.

 

This would not do, the emperor decided.  He wanted her naked and that damned gown was too cumbersome to be gotten rid of easily.  And, if he did, he’d have the trouble of lacing her into it again, before they could return to the feast.  Of course, he could simply avoid returning to the feast at all.  But that would probably be a political mistake.  He damned the politics, and shoved Buffy’s legs to either side.  Then he was over her once more, pumping into her well-pleasured body.  She’d stopped any semblance of resistance, kissing him back with ardor, her hips rising to meet his every thrust.  He wished he could fondle her breasts, decided how that could be managed, and withdrew from her.

 

“Turn over, sweetheart,” he coaxed.  When she obeyed, he drew her up to her knees, tossed the damnably inconvenient gown out of his way once more, and slid back inside her, groaning as he went even deeper than before.  Buffy was making the most delightful little whimpering sounds as if she, too, were lost in the pleasure he was bringing her.  In this position, he thought he might be able to...yes, his hands slid into the bodice of her dress, allowing him to fondle her breasts, which were as full and soft as he’d known they would be.

 

“Oh, God!”  Buffy moaned in something that was half desire, half despair.  Desire won out.  She reached behind her to grab his hips, bring him into her harder, deeper, faster.  He groaned his approval.  In moments they’d built to a furious pace, and he was pistoning into her as wave after wave of rapture swamped her.  Her sweet channel tightened on his hard manhood once more, bringing him to another release.  Once again, the lovers collapsed onto the bed, and once again the emperor was the first to recover.  With a groan, he pulled himself from the bed and went to fetch another damp cloth.

 

He quickly discovered that touching her intimately was not conducive to getting anyone cleaned up.

 

“Dammit, woman,” he growled as he crawled between her thighs once more, “this is not getting us to the feast!”

 

“And whose fault is that?” she rejoined sweetly, tightening her legs around his waist and making him groan.

 

“Yours, of course,” he said, then kissed her.  “Temptress.” Kiss.  “Jezebel.”  Kiss.  “Seductress.” Kiss.  “Buffy....” an endless stream of kisses as Buffy flew into a seemingly endless stream of orgasms.  Eventually, the emperor had his, pouring more seed into her body.  He soon rolled off her and made a third attempt at hygiene.

 

“Maybe you’d better let me do that?”  Buffy suggested dryly, taking the cloth from his hands and moping up as much of his seed as she could.  “This is why you shouldn’t have ripped up my panties,” she pointed out.  The emperor snorted, and went off to bring her a fresh cloth.

 

“Damn Heinrich, damn politics, damn the feast and damn that gown,” he said crossly.

 

“And here Lady Tara thought you’d be pleased with it.”

 

“Not nearly as pleased as I will be once I have you out of it.”  He groaned again, this time in something less than pleasure.  “Which won’t be until after the blasted feast.”  He looked down at his breeches and doublet, shook his head, and set about putting them to rights.  Somehow, they’d escaped getting stained during the proceedings.  A moment later, he helped Buffy out of the bed and gave her appearance a critical appraisal.

 

The gown was obviously crushed, and wouldn’t be set to rights until it was turned over to her maid.  Since he doubted he’d ever let her wear it again--it kept getting in his way--that didn’t concern him.  As everyone had known what he was going to do to her from the moment he picked her up in his arms--what, if he were honest, he’d wanted to do from her from the moment she walked into the room--the rumpled gown required neither explanation nor apology.  

 

Rumpled Buffy was another matter.  For one thing, her charmingly tousled appearance made her even more alluring, if that were possible.  If she continued to look like that, he was never getting to the feast.  Her hair was mussed, her diadem askew, her bodice partially unlaced, her lips swollen from his kisses, and the gold dust over her heavy-lidded eyes smudged and smeared.

 

The emperor closed his eyes, counted to ten, and opened them again, grimly determined to restore her appearance to something approaching respectability.  Logically, he should start with her bodice, but he didn’t dare.  He set her diadem to rights, got another damp cloth to carefully blot the worst smudges from her eye makeup, and only then did he feel up to dealing with her bodice. 

 

Fortunately, Buffy could tuck in what needed tucking, herself.  Watching her do so tried his patience, but by dint of forcing himself to concentrate on the fabric and laces, rather than on what they concealed, he managed to resist the impulse to strip her entirely, and calmly tightened the laces holding the bodice in place.  He resettled the necklace where it belonged, and then stood back to survey his handiwork.  He shook his head.

 

“I don’t know what to do about your hair,” he admitted.

 

“Is it bad?”  Buffy frowned, patting it worriedly.

 

“It’s gorgeous.  But, if we don’t fix it, I’m going to take you to bed again, miss the feast, and probably start that war Heinrich is hoping I’ll avoid.”  The feast was indirectly an honor to Heinrich, in that it formally welcomed back Lindsey, the delegation to Heinrich’s court, and those retainers of Heinrich’s who had accompanied Buffy.  If he didn’t attend, it would be like saying the delegation to Heinrich wasn’t important enough to merit the emperor’s attention, an insult Heinrich would never forgive.

 

Which, considering that the only reason keeping him from the feast was because he was so very pleased with the gift Heinrich had given him, seemed the height of injustice to him.  His disgruntlement was so obvious, his tone of voice when he’d spoken so aggrieved that, despite herself, Buffy giggled.

 

“Or, you could hand me your hairbrush, point me in the direction of a mirror, and let me see what I can do.”

 

“Ah.  An eminently sensible solution,” he agreed, following her suggestions.  Buffy’s ringlets were a lost cause which would require her maid, a pair of curling tongs, and more time than they had to rectify.  Buffy brushed them out until her hair was a river of golden waves.  The effect was perhaps less formal but every bit as fetching as the ringlets had been.  In a few minutes, he was satisfied that they were sufficiently presentable for the feast.

 

“Okay,” Buffy said when he pronounced them ready, “Now, let me ring for Marguerite, get a fresh pair of panties since you ripped up the ones I was wearing, and we can be on our way.”  She looked around for the bell pull she knew would be near at hand but found herself whirled around to face a highly annoyed emperor.

 

“No panties.  Ever,” he said forcefully.  Buffy thought of pointing out that it would help keep her dress clean, but his expression, as much as could be judged from the fury in his eyes and the tightness of his mouth, was formidable, and she decided not to have that battle just yet.  She simply nodded, which restored his good humor, and took his hand allowing him to lead her out of the room.  Once again, the guardsmen fell in behind them as they made their way, at a far more leisurely pace, back to the great hall.

 

Buffy was calmer, but she was not happy.  As lovely as the experience had been, she hadn’t been ready for it and had needed time to adjust to the enormity of the situation.  The emperor had not given her that time.  She understood his urgency, but she wasn’t sure she could forgive him for it.  Her emotions were in tumult, the rapture in her flesh at war with the grief in her heart. 

 

First things first.  She had to stop thinking of him as Angel.  She knew his throne name was Varick, but that was more title than name, too impersonal for use between them.

 

“What is your name, your true name?” she asked curiously as he led her through the hallways of the White Palace.  Angel had no more been her lover’s real name than Spike had been William’s.

 

“Dragonheart,” he said blithely.

 

“That’s your nickname, not your true name,” Buffy pointed out.

 

He gave a bark of laughter, though it held little of humor in it.

 

“It is the truest name I have,” he said.

 

“I don’t understand,” she said.  The emperor sighed.

 

“The first anyone knows of me, I was slaying a dragon.  That is almost the first I know of myself.  But there was, in fact, another dragon. The second dragon, the one that had been terrorizing the village, had attacked me to get me away from the first one’s carcass.   As to why I was fighting the first...I don’t recall.  My earliest clear memory is that we were both falling, endlessly falling through the skies, my sword in its throat, its talons in my ribs.  Later, you will see the scars,” he said casually.  Buffy blanched at that.  Vampires rarely scarred, at least not permanently.  For the emperor to still bear scars two hundred years after the injury meant the original wounds must have been appalling.  Beyond that, there was another issue his words raised for her, an idea that might be almost as appalling as his scars.

 

“Then you don’t really know who you are,” she said slowly.  “You don’t remember your life before the dragons.”  He guessed the trend of her thoughts.

 

“I cannot be the one you lost,” he said gently.  “I have been here for centuries.  More, I do have some memories of the village I was living in at the time I fought the dragon, vague though they might be.  I remember that I had been a vampire for a very long time, and that I had lived in that village for many years.  Once I sufficiently recovered, Sir Gyran took me back there, and I was greeted and told my name, Skule.  But something within me could not accept that name as my own.  It seemed not to...fit, like a shoe too long worn that rubs at the heel.” 

 

Buffy remembered Angel telling her something similar once, about why he hadn’t gone back to using the name Liam when his soul was restored.  Because while he was no longer Angelus, he was also no longer Liam, and needed a new name to fit the new person he had become.  The emperor’s experience seemed much the same. 

 

“Go on,” she said.

 

“I renounced the name of Skule, Sir Gyran took me with him, supplying the village with a garrison to protect it in my stead.  My memories of the place have never been anything but somewhat distorted, vague.  Most likely, a blow to my head suffered when I battled the first beast robbed me of more clear memories of my earlier life.”

 

Buffy nodded.  Yes, that had to be it.  Time sometimes moved strangely between dimensions, but from her conversation with her friends when Tara had projected her into the drawing room, time here ran identically to time in her own world.  If Angel fell through a portal in LA, he hadn’t come here.

 

But Angel hadn’t fallen through a portal.  Spike was sure of that.  No portals had opened in the alleyway during the battle or for as long as he retained consciousness thereafter.  And, he’d been conscious when Angel’s chest was ripped open by the dragon he was fighting, giving him a death wound no vampire could survive.  The fanning of dragon wings as it launched itself skyward had prevented Spike from seeing Angel turn to dust, but the older vampire had already been falling in a welter of blood before the dragon left.

 

Variations on a theme, Buffy shuddered.  Both Angels had fought a dragon.  Hers had lost, this Angel had won.  It was like William and Cecily.  Spike lost her, William won her.  The Angel here was similar enough to her own that the connection she had always felt to him was replicated, but again, that was only to be expected.  Lady Tara had said that Willow’s connection to the Tara of that world would make it easier for the Tara of this one to reach her.  Of course something similar would be true of the bond Buffy and her real Angel had shared.

 

Quite possibly, the name the emperor could not remember was, in fact, Angel.  But she could not bear to call this man by that name.  Nor was she happy with using his title only.  That was far to impersonal for a relationship that was already far too intimate.

 

“I can’t continue to call you emperor,” she said, “or Varick, or Dragonheart.”

 

“And you don’t wish to call me by his name,” he said understandingly.  Buffy shook her head.

 

“Better not,” she smiled sadly.

 

“Then we are at an impasse.”

 

“Maybe not,” Buffy said.  “He had another name, one I think better suits you.”  Not because the emperor struck her as a mass-murdering psychopath, but because he had a degree of ruthlessness and arrogance that she would always associate with her beloved’s darker alter-ego.  “Angelus.  I can call you that, and it won’t hurt so much.”

 

He stopped, turning to look at her, his gaze searching.  “Does it indeed hurt, my lady?”  She couldn’t meet his eyes.

 

“Unbearably,” she whispered. “I asked you to stop.  You didn’t.  And, I know you let me have the final choice, but...you knew I could not deny you, no matter what I wanted for myself.  Maybe that seems fair to you.  Because you're an emperor, used to getting your own way.  You gave me pleasure.  But, oh,”  Buffy drew in a shuddering breath.   “You hurt me.  Hurt my heart.  You can’t know how much.”

 

He tilted her chin up again, forcing her to meet his eyes which were filled with tenderness.  Taking her hands, he raised each in turn for a chaste kiss.

 

“I am sorry for it, my lady.”

 

“Thank you,” she breathed.

 

“I am not done, my heart.  For I am equally sorry, but I shall continue to hurt you in this manner; indeed, I intend to begin hurting you even more thoroughly as soon as this feast is through.”  Buffy moaned and tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let her.  The gaze he now bent upon her was burning, devoid of his earlier humor, almost harsh, and closer to the original Angelus than she liked.  He was, she knew, in deadly earnest.  “Call me what you will, be as angry as you must, but don’t think to deny me or escape me.  I will hurt you in this wise until you are hurt no more, and everything is pure delight between us, undimmed by the memory of past pain.”  He pulled her into his embrace, pressed a kiss to her brow.  “You were his, but not completely.  You will utterly be mine.  It can be no other way.”

 

Buffy stood shivering in his arms and wished there were somewhere, anywhere, she could go to pull herself together.  But he wasn’t about to let her out of his sight.  She’d just have to suck up and deal.  His arrogance and possessiveness shouldn’t come as a surprise.  It wasn’t like she’d never seen that side of her own lover.  Angelus had been willing to suck the entire world into hell in order to deal with her, or with how he felt about her.  Buffy stiffened her spine and pulled back, looking up at the emperor and favoring him with a wry smile.  “Yes, Angelus is far more suited to you than Angel.”

 

“Then Angelus I shall be,” the emperor bowed, and led her on to the feast.

 

They couldn’t, it seemed, simply walk in and take their seats.  The emperor’s chamberlain banged on the floor with his staff of office, getting everyone’s attention.  He signaled the musicians to stop playing.  All talking ceased, as did every other activity.  Even the servants paused in the act of serving, platters of food heavy in their hands.

 

“His Imperial Higness, the Emperor Varick, and Lady Buffy.”

 

Everyone who had been seated rose, and then the entire company sank into full court curtseys or deep bows, depending on gender.  Even the servants bowed, platters and all.  Angelus, as she would now think of him, led her forward, and as he passed the bowed courtiers and servants began to rise and return to their seats or their duties.  Eventually, they made their way to the head table, where Angelus pulled out a very ornate chair for her to sit on.  Angelus took the even more ornate, as well as large and imposing, seat beside her, and only then was the feast allowed to resume.

 

It was similar to the feasts she’d attended at Langdon Castle.  Flagons of blood for vampires, innumerous dishes for the humans, and a ceaseless flow of wine for all.  The musicians played in the background and soon, Buffy knew, there would be dancing.  But at Langdon, no one had decided she needed to be hand fed, or to have especially tasty delicacies popped into her mouth, and, certainly no one had dared use the cover of the table cloth to fondle her thigh through her gown or, more daringly, inch her skirts up so that he could set his hand on bare flesh.  She gave him a scandalized look, blushing furiously.  He smiled devilishly at her and continued to talk to his chancellor, this world’s Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, seated to his other side, as if nothing untoward was going on.  Buffy, mortified, lowered her gaze to her plate and attempted to continue to eat her dinner.

 

She couldn’t do more than pick at it.  Her emotions were in too much turmoil.  He’d warned her that as soon as the feast was through he was taking her back to bed, and she wasn’t sure she was any more ready for that than she had been when she first saw him.  Oh, the sex would be absolutely fabulous, of course, and she’d probably scream herself hoarse before he was done with her.  But her heart would be rubbed as raw as her throat.  She wished she could make him understand and persuade him to give her some respite, but there was little hope of that.  He was an emperor, a man to whom no one said no.  She turned to look at him, her eyes drinking in his tall, strong form.  His face was now ruined, but she knew every line, every feature, it would once have held.  Still, Angel-not-Angel.  Calling him Angelus helped, but only a little.  They were like enough to wound her heart.  Buffy sighed, and turned back to her heavily laden plate, picking at a bit of meat he’d placed there for her.

 

Lord Lindsey, seated near her, regarded her thoughtfully.  The girl sitting quietly at the emperor’s side was subdued, hardly recognizable as the spirited woman who’d captivated King Heinrich or who’d fought a dragon.  He saw her look at his liege, and the expression on her face unexpectedly tore at him.  There was something so sad, so lost, so poignant as she looked at the man who was a double of some other man she’d known.  Her heart was in that look, and Lindsey had an inkling of how terrible this must be for her, to be with someone who might outwardly be exactly like someone she loved, but who wasn’t, to be constantly in the presence of someone who could do nothing but remind her of what she’d lost.  He sipped his flagon of blood.  He had found Lady Buffy an annoyingly independent and willful creature.  He was surprised to find himself being moved by her plight.  But he was moved, indeed.  Then the emperor turned back to her, and something in his eyes as they spoke took Lindsey even further aback, as did the unwilling response Buffy gave the emperor.  Her eyes flashed to his, and she opened like a flower in sunlight, blossoming for him.  For his part, the emperor seemed ready to dip his head to taste the flower’s nectar, but Lindsey was confident the Dragonheart would never so lose his sense of propriety as to do anything so rash.

 

When he proved to be exactly that rash, Lindsey’s weren’t the only eyebrows raised by the very public, very passionate, kiss.  No one was foolish enough to comment upon it, however.  Buffy blushed becomingly, and reached for her wine.  Dragonheart smirked and turned once more to his chancellor, who pretended not to have noticed the emperor’s breach of etiquette.  Lindsey had the feeling there were going to be quite a few such breaches, in future.

 

Buffy could tell that Angelus wasn’t pleased with how little she ate, but she pleaded that excitement had robbed her of her appetite, and he let it pass.  Eventually, the musicians began to play again, and the floor was cleared for dancing.  Angelus took her hand and led her out for the first dance, a formal bassadanza.  Buffy was very glad she’d paid attention to her dancing masters.  No one could dance before the emperor, so they were alone on the floor, and all eyes were upon them.  It was enough to rattle her nerves, or would have been had she not looked into Angelus’ eyes.  After that, it was easy.  She saw nothing but his eyes as he stared into hers, and the steps of the dance took care of themselves.  She sank into her demi-curtsey as the emperor made his bow, then lifted her to perform the swaying side to side steps of the next moves.  Her hand held high in his own, he led her through the next series of steps, then the longer measures, until they once again sank into the reverence, and the pattern began over again.

 

Lindsey, watching them from the dais, thought she floated around the emperor like gossamer on a summer breeze, light and graceful.  They danced together exquisitely, so perfectly matched that the entire court was lost in admiration of their skill and did not join in as they normally would have, but allowed the couple to have the entire dance to themselves.  Only when that tune ended, and a more lively Salterello was struck, did others join them on the floor.

 

The emperor would dearly have loved to have left it at that, and taken Buffy back to his rooms.  But it would be impolitic to rush right out after his arrival had been so long delayed.  He resigned himself to an hour of dancing before they could reasonably withdraw.

 

It was the longest hour of his life.  He had to dance with several ladies, wives of important lords or powers in their own right.  Lindsey partnered Buffy on those occasions, a fact the emperor found unreasonably annoying.  Fortunately, the musicians didn’t attempt to play a galliard until the emperor was able to snatch her away for another dance.  If anyone else had set hands upon her to lift her for the daring leaps of the lavolta, the emperor would likely have ripped away the offending appendages.  As he set his hands on Buffy’s waist, preparatory to lifting her into the the three quarter turn where her weight would be braced on his thigh, he took the opportunity of murmuring in her ear promises of what was to come once he got her alone, making her blush delightfully.  The galliard concluded, it was back to the great ladies, until finally, he’d done all that duty required--well, the bare minimum he could get away with--and once more called Buffy to his side.

 

“Lady Buffy has had a fatiguing journey, and must rest,” he announced mendaciously.  She wouldn’t be resting for hours to come, a fact everyone in the court, including a beautifully blushing Buffy, knew all too well.  “We will leave you, but please continue to enjoy yourselves.”  I certainly intend to, he thought.  Again, the entire court bowed to him and remained in their obeisances until the two of them were out of the room.  Behind them, the musicians struck up another tune, and the noise of the feast resumed.  Buffy was making another slow, dignified progress through the halls.  The emperor frowned down, realized she couldn’t walk any faster because of her sleeves, cursed the damned inconvenient gown again, then solved the problem by hoisting her into his arms once more.  He strode off down the hallway with vampiric speed and libidinous urgency, his guards all but running to keep pace.  His appetite for her ought to have been sated, but it was not.  He was as hungry for her as if he hadn’t disported with her three or four times this evening.

 

The chamber was quickly reached, but this time Buffy was set on her own two feet rather than onto the bed.  The emperor’s valet and a nervous Marguerite were waiting to help them disrobe.  Angelus glared at them, and gave a curt dismissal. The unperturbed valet bowed and walked sedately to the door.  Marguerite dropped a frightened curtsey and fled.

 

“At last, I can rid you of that godforsaken gown,” Angelus said gleefully, as he began to do just that.  She was afraid that he would just rip the laces, and suggested he should have allowed Marguerite to remain. He gave her a sardonic look, but controlled himself enough to untie the laces, instead of shredding them.

 

It took him far less time to get her out of her clothing than it had taken Marguerite to get her into it.  The diadem and necklace were unceremoniously tossed aside.  Her gown was left to crumple on the floor, or stand with the stiffness of its own embroidery, as it would.  Her undergown was discarded with equal disdain, as were her chemise and shift.  Angelus decided to leave her stockings and garters along with the rings and bracelets and eardrops, as none of those things were an impediment to his desire.  Buffy stood before him, naked at last, and she found she couldn’t meet the look in his eyes, a look so hot, so avid, so hungry she wasn’t sure if he meant to make love to her or devour her whole.  If she’d clung to a hope that he might yet be her Angel, that look destroyed it.  Angel had never looked at her with such primitive, unabashed lust.  He had never looked at her with anything less than absolute adoration when they were intimate.  Then there was no time to think about what Angel had or hadn’t done, because Angelus was removing his own clothing with even more dispatch than he’d removed hers.  She gasped when his robes came away revealing the deep gouging scars on his ribs and torso.  And also revealing, when he turned to toss his shirt aside, that his back was all smooth skin, with no intricate tattoo such as her own Angel had borne.  He turned toward her again, and saw her stare anew at the terrible scars. 

 

Some few of his lovers preferred he keep his shirt on, and while he might remove his mask when alone with his friends, he never did so when being intimate with his lovers.  He couldn’t stand to see the revulsion in their eyes, no matter how quickly they tried to conceal it.

 

But, there was no revulsion in Buffy’s gaze.  She reached out and touched the scars gently, as if to sooth them, an oddly tender gesture.  Then she looked into his eyes.

 

“Take off your mask,” she said softly.  He stiffened.

 

“I don’t think--”

 

“Shhh” she hushed him.  “I know your face, your true face.  Whatever damage has been done to it, it was done in honorable battle because you were defending those under your protection.  That won’t repulse me.  It can’t.”  She sensed he was still reluctant, so moved closer.  “You don’t have to hide from me.” she whispered.

 

Angelus found his hands moving to the ties of his mask almost without his conscious volition.  He untied them, but hesitated a final time.

 

“You’re sure?” he asked.  She gave him a rueful smile and reached up, gently pulling the mask away.

 

He tensed, waiting for the inevitable horror, the disgust inspired by his shredded flesh and shattered bone, wounds so horrific no one living could have survived them, and no vampire could heal from them.  Instead, he saw only tenderness, regret. 

 

And then she kissed him.

 

Her move had brought them closer and after one shocked moment, he took advantage, pulling her naked body against his own, so that they were skin to skin together, at last.

 

“My beauty,” he said, devouring her lips with kisses, “My Buffy,” and he kissed her again.  He lifted her once more, carrying her the short distance to the bed.  She wasn’t struggling this time, but spread her thighs obediently, accommodating a need as urgent as anything that had gone before.

 

She was better naked, he thought sinking into her, better the sweet touch of her skin on his own than the softness of the velvet between them, better her smooth thighs wrapping around his waist than the shirt he’d worn earlier.  Better her dovelike breasts exposed for his delectation than hidden beneath silk.  He bent his head to suckle a tender nipple and was rewarded by her moan of delight.  Yes, this was infinitely better, so much so that he had as little control this time as he had the last, and simply pounded into her with no finesse or restraint until she was writhing in ecstasy beneath him, and he pitched over the edge of his own pleasure, filling her yet again with his seed before collapsing once more on her soft body.  At least this time, he thought happily, there was no need to clean her up to avoid ruining her gown.  She might ruin as many of his sheets as she pleased.

 

It had happened again, Buffy thought sadly, and she hadn’t even tried to stop him.  He was unstoppable, and had made it clear what was going to happen between them.  No use pleading for respite.  Perhaps, she decided, if she let him have his way tonight, if she gave herself to him without restraint or reservation, he would be satisfied.  In the morning he would be sated and easier to reason with.  There was still much to discuss, such as where she would be living.  Perhaps he would, indeed, give her a wing of the palace for her own, and she might have a day or two to herself, to settle in, before she was summoned back to his bed or he visited hers.  At all odds, she might get the bit of peace she needed tomorrow.  For tonight, she knew there would be no rest, no respite from his desire.  Or from her own.

 

Because that was the hell of it, the true pain.  He wasn’t Angel, but in some way he was exactly Angel, and she couldn’t help but want him, need him, long for him as ardently as he desired her, even knowing, knowing he was not, in truth, the man she loved.

 

Angelus, feeling his softened flesh stir to life against her thigh once more, was thinking of more immediate issues.  His thoughts were not happy ones.

 

“This won’t do,” he complained.  “I’m as randy as a schoolboy, and my skills have quite deserted me.  You are entirely too lovely.”  Buffy couldn’t help but be pulled from her melancholy to giggle at his words.  He bent to kiss her.  “Far too beautiful.  Hmm.  Turn over.”  She arched a brow but complied, then heard him groan.  “No, that’s no good either.  You have the most delectable ass in the world.” He gave it a light bite to emphasize his point, making Buffy squeal in surprise.  A moment later, she was moaning as he drew her to her knees and entered her from behind.  As before, the position let him go hard and deep and fondle her breasts. 

 

“What is it about you?” he breathed into her ear.  “Why do I ache for you so, even when I have just had you?  Why is a moment when you are not in my arms a moment too long?  Why do I feel that I shall never be free of this ache, this need, this passion?”  She had no answer for him, not in words.  But her body gave him all the answer he required.  He brought her to completion again and again before taking his own.  As before, he was eager for her with renewed ferocity within a very short time, rolling on his back and pulling her astride him.

 

“Ride me,” he invited with a seductive smile.  Buffy found herself unable to do anything but comply.  She liked having control for once, but found that she was unable to do much with it.  She was, quite simply, as hungry for him as he claimed to be for her.  She did nothing more skilled than slide up and down on his cock as hard and fast as she could, while he leaned up to suckle a nipple and sent his fingers dancing over her clit.  She was soon lost in a screaming orgasm, collapsing over him, and being rolled onto her back so that he could pound into her in turn.  Another roar of satisfaction, and he was spurting his seed inside her a final time.

 

Now, though, it seemed that they were both done.  He rolled off of her, but only so that he could turn on his side, pull her into his arms, and spoon himself behind her.  Buffy pillowed her head on his arm and flung a leg behind her, over his legs, to keep him close.  His hand reached for one of her breasts, fondling it lightly, as he nibbled on her neck.  She wondered drowsily if he were going to bite her, and nuzzled her neck into his lips encouragingly.  His fangs came out to graze her flesh, and she shuddered in delicious anticipation, but he stopped there.  “If I start to drink you, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop,” he warned her.  She thought of telling him she didn’t want him to, but decided she wasn’t quite ready for that danger.  She honestly didn’t know what would happen if Angelus drained her dry.  How would being immortal affect that?  Would she recover on her own?  Would she need a transfusion?  Were transfusions even available on this world, and if not, would she simply lie like a desiccated husk on the bed for the minutes, hours or weeks it would take her immortal body to recreate her blood supply?  Or, did she no longer need a blood supply?  Her heart still beat, but was that anything but a habit her body hadn’t gotten around to breaking, yet, like a vampire’s breathing?  Fortunately, Angelus wasn’t putting the matter to the test.  His fangs were retracting, and he was back to simple caresses and kisses.  At length, he pulled her yet closer, and drew the sheet over them.  “Do you wish the curtains drawn shut?” he asked.

 

“Do I have to move to shut them?” she returned.

 

“Why would you?” he asked in surprise, reaching for the bell pull behind him.  To Buffy’s chagrin, a footman arrived within seconds--clearly he’d been sleeping just outside the door--and drew the curtains closed about the bed.  Despite having been caught naked with the emperor--well, covered by a sheet, but still--it was very pleasant to be in the enclosed little world of the curtained bed, Angelus curled around her, caressing her flesh.  She wished they could shut out the world for good, that she need never attend another feast or worry about the political consequences of her least actions, again.  But, that wasn’t to be.

 

Sighing, Buffy snuggled closer to her lover and settled down to sleep.  His voice prevented her.

 

“I dreamed of you, you know,” she heard him say softly.

 

“What?” she asked warily, heart beating rapidly as a buried hope re-emerged.  It can’t be,  she reminded herself.  Even without the difference in their personalities, the absence of the tattoo surely proved that.  Didn’t it?

 

“I said, I dreamed you.” he repeated.  “I’ve been dreaming you for years.”

 

Buffy turned in his arms.  The darkness of the enclosed bed made it difficult to see, but there was enough light from the hour candle burning at their bedside for her to just make out his features, steeped in shadow though they were.

 

“Tell me,” she whispered, unable to say more.

 

“My dear friend, Drusilla knew of these dreams, the same dream really, over and over, haunting me.  I believed the dream held a key to the memories I had yet to recover.  Drusilla used her gift as a seer to help me learn more.  It was difficult, and she said that the indications were confusing, that they seemed to be more of the future than the past, though not entirely so.  She concluded that I had known the woman in the dream, but that I would meet her again.”

 

“And the dream?” Buffy asked.

 

“It is a beautiful day, filled with sunshine, and a blond-haired woman, oddly dressed, stands on a bridge or a pier, gazing out over the water.  She turns, as if sensing something, and I can see that she is heart-breakingly, exquisitely beautiful, but I realize I have always known this.  She waits for me to come to her, and I find my clothing is as odd as hers.  But that matters not.  We say nothing, but fly to each other’s arms.  And we kiss, kiss as if we are starved for one another, kiss as if we have been too long denied.”  The emperor fell silent, his gaze distant, as if reliving the dream.

 

“What happens next?”  Buffy whispered.

 

“I wake up.”

 

Buffy found herself swamped by profound grief, tears pouring from her eyes.  “Oh, God!” she sobbed.

 

“What is it?” he asked, pulling her into his arms. Buffy desperately wished she shared that memory.  What wouldn’t she give to learn that her very own Angel had been miraculously restored to her?  But she knew better, and had already resigned herself to the fact that it wasn’t so.  She didn’t know why she felt such sorrow, such terrible pain, at the memory Angelus described, but it was not a memory she shared.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said, trying to get her tears under control.  “I don’t know why that upset me so.  I mean, your memory isn’t one I share.  In my world, vampires cannot endure the light of the sun,” she said, dashing aside her tears.  “If that’s a memory from your own life, then perhaps you knew and loved another Buffy, a Buffy you lost to death, just as I lost my Angel.”

 

“Why do you think she is dead?” he asked curiously.

 

“First, because if she were mortal, she couldn’t be alive after two hundred years.  And, if she were a vampire and in this world, she’d have found you long before this.  But mainly because of Tara’s spell.  Human or vampire, this world or any other, if your Buffy were alive, and if she felt for you what I felt for my Angel, nothing could have kept the spell from bringing her to you.  No matter where she was, no matter who she had become, she’d have come to you.”

 

“As you came to me,” he said gently.

 

She was crying again, so he kissed away her tears and that led to more intimate comforts, but it was different this time, slow and gentle and exquisitely prolonged, with none of the urgency that had gone before.  She feel asleep with him held tight in her arms, and her dreams were bittersweet.

 

The emperor did not sleep immediately.  It occurred to him that an old mystery had now been solved, and he finally understood why Drusilla could not tell if his dream was a vision from the past or future.  Perhaps the dream was a fusion of both, a memory of the Buffy he’d lost in his past, and a portent of what he would share with the Buffy of his future.  He wished, not for the first time, that he could remember more, that he recalled more details of his former life.  He must have loved her deeply, and she, him, just as this Buffy and her Angel had loved.  It seemed cruel that all he had was that one memory of a kiss in the sunlight.  He grieved for it, even as he recognized that he was profoundly blessed to have been given an opportunity to recreate that love with the woman who was not her, and yet was. 

 

His dreams that night were contented.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Chapter V

The White Palace

City of Syrenia

Kingdom of Zvesk

 

Morning found Buffy more at peace.  It was clear that she was not going to get the respite she’d hoped for, but somehow, Angelus’ descriptions of his dreams the night before had reconciled her to that.  He had suffered a loss as profound as her own, something that surged into his consciousness, even though almost all of his other memories were lost to him.  He’d had one dream, which had come to him who knew how often over the past two hundred years, of a Buffy he had loved as much as she had loved her Angel.

 

Her acceptance of the situation was fortunate, as Angelus decided that, having done his duty at the feast, there was nothing so urgent he need attend to it for a day or two and no reason to get out of bed.  Lindsey and Wesley could deal with anything that might arise.  He had no intention of leaving his chambers until he had slaked his appetite for Buffy, or, as he suspected that was not possible, made a valiant attempt to do so.

 

They made love endlessly, until she was boneless with satisfaction and unable to move.  Then he’d let her rest until she was recovered enough for him to make her boneless again.  Between times, he asked questions about her former life, and told her what he remembered of his own.  Buffy didn’t feel the same reservation with him that she had with others, and was more forthcoming about the differences between their worlds, telling him exactly what her calling had been, which amused him greatly especially the knowledge that her lover had been a vampire, the very creature she was meant to destroy.  She decided he didn’t need to know about her other vampire lover--or anything else about her love life.  She also decided he didn’t need to know what his opposite number had done to their world’s version of his cherished friend, St. Drusilla.

 

For the first day or two, he scrupulously avoided biting her during their lovemaking, insisting that, despite her confessed immortal status, he didn’t want to take the risk.  But their passion was so intense he usually slipped into game face, and she knew it cost him a lot to refrain.  Finally, during a particularly intense orgasm, she lost her own control, pushing his fanged mouth into her neck and forcing the issue.

 

Her blood hit his tongue, and they both exploded into rapture.  Their orgasms were the most intense, the most prolonged, they had yet experienced together, and they both plunged into deep sleep immediately afterward, their bodies still conjoined.  Buffy’s sleep was deep and dreamless.  Angelus’ was not.

 

His dreams were inchoate, flashes of images, many of them Buffy.  They were not as tender as the moment he usually dreamed her.  She was fighting, fighting for her life, a broadsword running blood held in her hands.  But he was at her side, there to protect her, to ensure she came to no harm.  The violent images soon faded to be replaced by more pleasant pictures.  Buffy resting her head on his shoulder as she danced in his arms, or leaning back against him while they sat against the trunk of a tree beneath the moonlight.  Buffy kissing him.  Himself, staring at Buffy while she slept in his bed.  Eventually, the images faded away altogether, and Angelus fell into a deeper sleep.

 

In the morning he remembered his dreams.  Angelus supposed they had been inspired by the things Buffy had told him of her own world.  Perhaps drinking her blood had given him a stronger connection to that world, allowing him a glimpse into it.  Possibly even glimpses into her own memories.   More likely though, they were simply dreams, his own subconscious fleshing out the little he knew of her own world, and meant nothing.  He dismissed them from his mind, and did not mention them to her.

 

Making love and getting to know each other better was a very pleasant way to spend the first few days of their relationship, and Buffy didn’t complain.  Her confusion and grief quickly melted away.  No, the emperor wasn’t Angel, and she would never forget that.  But, the two men shared enough traits beyond the mere physical, for her to come to care for Angelus very quickly.  Had he been her own Angel, Buffy would have been in heaven.  That her own Angel was gone, and that she was now in the arms of someone who was achingly like him, was something short of that, but as close to heaven as Buffy ever expected to come again.

 

Buffy was content to spend their first few days together away from the scrutiny of the court, alone with Angelus.  But, however much they might desire to be left to themselves, they knew they could not close out the world entirely.

 

On the morning of their third day together, Angelus donned his mask, rang for his servants, and instructed that Buffy’s maid be sent to them at once. 

 

“Your mistress will need to dress for church,” he said.

 

“Yes, highness,” Marguerite said, with a curtsey.  “I have readied her gown.”  Because, of course, everyone went to church, and Marguerite would have been prepared.  So, Buffy dressed in a gown of robin’s egg blue with a cream undergown, then donned a simple necklet of pearls, with pearl drops in her ears to complement her gown.  She turned to find Angelus, once again in black velvet, frowning at her.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Your jewels.  Where are the rest of them?”

 

She looked at him blankly.  “Isn’t this enough?”

 

“For the wife of a baron, perhaps.  Or, a countess just putting off her mourning.  But not for you.”  He shook his head, clearly unhappy.  “Were there time, I would order the treasury opened that I might find proper adornments for you, but there is none.  We will have to leave it to this afternoon to amend matters.”  Privately, Buffy thought that matters were fine as they were.  She liked pretty jewelry as much as the next girl, but she thought the simplicity of her pearls was perfect, and that the effect of more would be overwhelming.  She’d have to see if she could convince Angelus on the matter.

 

A short time later, she arrived for services on the emperor’s arm, and they were soon kneeling together in church.  Buffy might still be in the religion equals weird camp, but as she watched Angelus receive communion and saw the look of utter peace that came into his eyes, she found herself powerfully moved.  It struck her, forcibly, what the main difference between her lost Angel and the Angelus to whom she had been given was:  her poor Angel had suffered for more than a hundred years under a burden of guilt for which he could find no forgiveness, from which he could know no reprieve.  The emperor, however, had not only the consolation of his faith, but the assurance of his church that his sins were forgiven, and that at whatever time his immortal life would, in fact, give way to mortality, he would be welcomed into the heaven from which her own Angel believed himself eternally outcast.  Buffy bowed her head, tears streaming down her face, and prayed with all her heart and soul that her beloved Angel was at peace.

 

They took breakfast in the comparative intimacy of the great hall, seated before the fire with no more than forty members of the court at the lesser tables around them.  As they finished, it occurred to Angelus that the only thing he wanted to do was take Buffy right back to the bedchamber they had left only a few hours before.  But the business of running the empire would not wait indefinitely, and Angelus reluctantly told Buffy that they would have to return to their public duties once more.

 

“Duties?”  Buffy  squeaked.  “I have public duties?”

 

“Lady Willow will instruct you,” Angelus assured her.  “She is the most sensible woman in the empire, and will know just what to do.”

 

“Willow!”  Buffy said excitedly.  “Red head?  Smart?  Powerful Wiccan, um, witch?”

 

“Red haired and clever, it is true,” Angelus said thoughtfully, “but no witch at all, though she serves one.  Lady Lilah, who is skilled at determining such things, found no such aptitude in her, though she did discover the lady’s talent for languages, astronomy, mathematics and herbal lore.  Lady Willow is much admired, and the chief of Lilah’s ladies-in-waiting.”  The fact that Lilah had ladies-in-waiting told Buffy a lot about her status.  She had learned that in this world, only women of the very highest noble ranks-- queens, countesses, and duchesses--kept their own courts, in which other, lesser noblewomen served as ladies-in-waiting.  Buffy filed that information away for later use. 

 

Still, she was excited to learn that a version of her best friend existed on this world, and that she’d soon have the opportunity to meet her.

 

For now, Angelus had decided that the first order of business was to arrange Buffy’s household.  Her servants had been at loose ends, and her belongings remained in the chamber where Lindsey had put her, unpacked.  Angelus directed that her luggage was to be brought to his chambers.

 

Given the way they’d spent the past few days, Buffy wasn’t terribly surprised to discover that Angelus had no intention of allowing her to be removed to another wing of his palace.  His bedchamber was part of a larger suite of rooms, of which she had seen his dressing room, the sitting room, and the large bath.  These living quarters were more spacious than some apartments she’d seen, and clearly her presence there wasn’t going to crowd things. 

 

Angelus, however, did not intend her merely to share his chambers, but against all custom, to share his bed rather than one in the smaller Queen’s Chamber that formed part of his suite.  Too many servants were involved in the arrangements for that tidbit to remain secret for long, and something of a scandal resulted.  Buffy didn’t see what the fuss was about.  So, the Queen’s Chamber--which she hadn’t even known existed for the first week she’d been there-- had been turned into an unusually capacious garderobe for her wardrobe and jewels with a small bed for her maid instead of a large one for her own use, since she slept with Angelus after they made love instead of going elsewhere.  She would have been doing that anyway, so what was the big?

 

If Angelus understood what the problem was, he simply didn’t care.  He was more concerned about the inadequacies of Buffy’s wardrobe and the dearth of her jewels.  For the next several days there were more sempstresses, more fittings, more goldsmiths, more jewelry and more gowns.  He’d been literal when he said he couldn’t bear to be away from her for a moment, and she thought wryly that it was a miracle he let her use the chamber pot without him.  If he met with his lieutenants or chancellors, Buffy was present, sitting at his side, though likely bored to tears and plying an embroidery needle to poor effect or reading a book.  His officials, though initially uncomfortable speaking freely around her soon grew used to her presence.  Since the emperor never let her out of his sight, she couldn’t very well pass on any of his secrets, could she?  Buffy and Angelus took all their meals together, walked in the gardens together, rode horses together.  Even her music lessons must be taken in his presence, in their sitting room while he read over whatever documents required his signature and seal.  The library of medieval tunes Tara’s spell had caused Buffy to remember from her own world were going over very well with the court, and Angelus enjoyed listening to her play and sing while he worked.  He participated much more actively in her dancing lessons.  This world, it seemed, had golf. He taught her how to play it.  And of course, they attended feasts and banquets and other such functions together as well.

 

One thing that the emperor had not expected them to do together was weapons practice.  Like every good medieval nobleman, Angelus was proficient with a variety of weapons with which to defend himself and his people, and trained with them on a daily basis.  So had Buffy, but when she casually mentioned that she was looking forward to testing her skill with a broadsword against his, the look she received would have frozen a volcano in full eruption mode.

 

“You will do nothing of the sort,” he pronounced. “It is far too dangerous.”

 

“You mean, you expect me to sit on the sidelines while you have all the fun?” she said indignantly. “Nu-uh, buddy.  If you get to play, I get to play.”

 

“I am not playing!” he growled, brown eyes glinting with saffron lights.  “Practicing the arts of war is something every man must do.  One’s life, and the lives of those under one’s protection, depend upon it.”

 

“I know.  Or, haven’t you been listening to a word I’ve been saying about my former life?  Demon fighter, wielding swords, battle-axes, crossbows, quarter-staves, knives, nunchucks, ninja stars, and a bunch of other weapons you don’t even have in this dimension, professionally, for going on ten years, now?”  He still wasn’t convinced, and they argued back and forth until Buffy’s temper was higher than his, and she threatened to sleep on a pallet in her garderobe rather than in his bed if he didn’t see things her way.  He didn’t take that threat well, and he countered with a few of his own.  Finally, Buffy craftily offered a deal he couldn’t refuse.  One fight with broadswords.  He could go easy on her if he was worried about her safety.  If Angelus won, she would concede the point and wouldn’t bother him about it again.  If Buffy won, he’d let her practice with him.  He looked down at her diminutive form, swathed in layers of silk, and grinned.  She knew he’d fallen for it, hook, line and sinker, and grinned right back.

 

The next day dawned bright and clear, and Angelus led her out to the practice yard.  Buffy had kept the sempstresses up all night altering one of her work dresses so that the hem skimmed above her ankles, rather than trailing along the ground.  She’d also left off the sleeves of her overgown, as appearing in the sleeves of her undergown, which ended sensibly at her wrists, was not considered indecent, and ladies often did so in high summer.  Of course, she’d have preferred wearing her own clothes, from her own world, but Angelus had taken one look at her in the leather pants and tank top and taken her right back to bed.  She was free to wear them in their bedroom whenever the mood struck her, but if she ever tried to wear them in public, he’d paddle her rear end until she couldn’t sit for a week.  He wasn’t going to compromise on that, so Buffy had to make do with alterations to the clothing he considered proper.  If he thought hobbling her in long skirts made a bit of difference to what she was capable of, though, he’d missed the mark, she thought smugly.  She could fight in six inch heels and miniskirts, or boots and tight skirts that came to her ankles.  Slayers before her had fought in corsets and bustles and crinolines.  She’d have preferred her pants, but really, no big.

 

Lindsey looked at them askance when they came to the practice field and Buffy began hefting the available practice swords to get their weight, but having seen her in battle already, he wasn’t overly surprised.  Everyone else on the field, some fifty of the palace guards who were not currently on duty, was, but Angelus waved away their concern with a smirk.  Intrigued, they began to gather around the area where Buffy and Angelus would be working out.

 

“Lady Buffy had an odd fancy,” he explained jovially. “I chose to indulge her.”  At this point, no one was surprised that he would indulge her in anything, so they simply settled back to watch.  They didn’t expect this to take long.  Lady Buffy would make a few passes with her broadsword, and the emperor, being indulgent, would simply parry them without returning them, and when she showed signs of tiring, he would disarm her, and that would be that.  The lady’s curiosity about sword play--ladies did sometimes grow curious about such things--would be satisfied, and things would go back to normal.  The few who watched carefully as Buffy hefted the swords, and noticed the ease with which she lifted them, the confidence with which she tested their balance, wondered if it would be quite that simple.

 

It wasn’t.  Angelus bowed to her, allowing her to strike the first blow.  She smiled sweetly, and spun into a move so lightening quick he barely avoided the sword that came flashing at his heart.  She had his feet out from under him on the next, but he leapt back to them before she could follow up on the advantage.  By his posture, she could tell that he was now taking her seriously and wouldn’t be going easy on her, after all.  She laughed delightedly.  That was exactly what she wanted.  A real test of skill, a real contest.

 

She wouldn’t go easy on him, either.

 

She used to love sparring with her own Angel, and this Angel’s fighting style was, not surprisingly, similar to the one with which she’d been long familiar.  She settled into the routine of it, the rhythm.  In a little while, she could feel him relax into the same rhythm. It was exhilarating to be so well matched again, to have an opponent she didn’t have to hold back with.  Their swords flashed together and away, their moves so quick, the onlookers could barely follow individual feints and parries, but saw only a silver blur as metal flashed in the sunlight.

 

Back and forth across the practice grounds, thrust, block, parry, riposte.   At some point, he forgot he was trying to protect her and began to fight in earnest.  She welcomed it, leaping over a cut that, in real combat, would have severed her legs, forcing him back with a blow that, with a sharp blade, could have taken his head.  She’d known it wouldn’t, as he had known that she would be able to dodge his own move.  His mouth was no longer tight and grim, he was actually smiling wolfishly, enjoying the contest.  She laughed in sheer joy.

 

Big mistake.  The momentary distraction was all he needed, and the next thing she knew, her sword was spinning across the field, and she was flat on her back, panting with exertion, and ready to cry with disappointment.  Angelus had the decency to fall to his knees beside her, too exhausted to continue to stand.

 

“I...didn’t...realize...” he began, but could go no further.

 

“Well,” Lindsey drawled, coming up to them to return the sword Buffy had lost.  “She did slay that dragon.

 

Dead silence greeted that remark.  Everyone around them froze.  Angelus went very, very still, and when he looked up, everyone could see he, even through the mask, that he was in game face. 

 

“Say.  That.  Again.”  Beside him, Buffy forced herself to sit up.  He flashed a look at her that made her decide not to move another inch, just yet.

 

“She slew a dragon,” Lindsey repeated calmly.  “We were attacked by a flight of four coming through the mountain pass.   I presented you with their heads when we returned.”

 

“You didn’t tell me she had anything to do with taking the heads,” the emperor growled.

 

“My liege, you did not give me time,” Lindsey said with admirable calm, given his emperor’s clear show of temper.  “You will remember that I begged leave to tell you who had taken the largest head, and said that the tale of that slaying was one you would find most edifying, but you waved me to silence, intent upon other matters.”  Such as seeing the gift Heinrich had sent him.  After which, there had been no time for tales of dragon slaying.

 

“And how is it that she was permitted to engage in the battle?” Angelus snarled.  “Why wasn’t she under guard?”

“She was,” Lindsey said simply.  “She chose not to stay that way.”  Angelus turned back to Buffy, saffron eyes blazing.

 

“Is this true?”  Buffy swallowed.  Nodded yes.  Oh, boy, he was so not happy with her right now. 

 

The next thing she knew, she’d been tossed over his shoulder, and he was striding back to the castle, clearly in a towering rage. 

 

The first fifteen minutes of their return to his chambers were not pleasant.  As soon as the doors were shut behind them, Angelus dumped her on the divan in their sitting room and began pacing in front of her giving full vent to his wrath.

 

Did she know how much danger she’d been in?  Did she understand the danger she’d put Lindsey and his men in?  Was she always that willful, stupid, careless, reckless?  He continued to roar and bluster, castigating her for her dangerous folly, until Buffy stopped trembling with fear and became very, very depressed.  When he finally wound down, she looked at him, smiled bitterly, and said, as she’d said to Lindsey, “It was only a little dragon.”  He looked at her in horror, so she added, just as bitterly.  “I’ve fought bigger, and I’ve won.”  Then she burst into tears.

 

It was beyond unfair.  She was built to battle things like dragons and demons and all manner of hell beasts, and had done so wildly successfully for over eight years.  Now, she was trapped in a place where she was considered too delicate and helpless to put on her own clothes, she’d lost the practice battle with Angelus, and with it, any chance that she would be able to keep in training.  She was never going to get a chance to do anything remotely related to her calling, again.  Whose bright idea was it to make that stupid, stupid bet, anyway?

 

Angelus stared at his lover in dismay while she sobbed as if her heart were breaking.  With a groan he went to the divan, sat beside her, and pulled her into his lap.  While he tried to comfort her, she sobbed out her fears, telling him how unbearable it was to be considered so helpless and fragile, to not be able to use her own skills, skills she valued and enjoyed.

 

“I don’t think you’re helpless,” he admitted finally.  Her sobs quieted, and she pulled back to look at him warily.

 

“You don’t?” she questioned.  He gave her a wry smile.

 

“After the battle you just gave me?  I think not.  I have a certain reputation, my heart.  Very few men can stand against me for longer than a quarter hour, and none has managed the half of an hour in more years than I can remember.”

 

“Oh?  And, how long did I last?”  No time seemed to have passed since they’d last been in this chamber, so she didn’t think their session had gone on for more than a few minutes.  Still, if she’d been able to go ten minutes with him, he was probably impressed.

 

“Not long,” he said dryly.  “No more than an hour, two at most.”

 

Buffy pulled back to look at him in surprise.  “Really?  I didn’t realize.  I was...” she stopped and bit her lip, not sure what she could say that wouldn’t set him off again.

 

“Having fun?” he suggested wryly.

 

Well, now that he mentioned it...

 

“Very much so,” she told him plainly.  The smile he gave her was crooked.

 

“So was I.”  Buffy looked at him, her expression hopeful.

 

“And?” she coaxed.

 

“If you ever again try to fight a dragon without my permission, I will beat you within an inch of your life.”

 

She pushed herself off his lap and stood facing him, fists on her hips.

 

“Oh, so I should just let myself be eaten, if I happen to be alone when one attacks me?” she said scathingly.

 

He grinned and hauled her back, kissing her soundly.  “You may take it that you have permission to do anything you must to ensure your safety.  And....” he sighed, conceding defeat.  “You may practice with me whenever you wish to do so.  I may even let you give my sword master a run for his money.  I find I enjoyed watching you, and I can’t do that when I’m fighting you myself.”

 

The concession was a huge one, and she threw her arms around his neck with a squeal of delight and kissed him passionately.

 

They did not emerge from their chambers again until the next morning.

 

She was never out of his sight.  There were women enough in his household to make all the soap and candles she needed, scented with vanilla or whatever she pleased, gardeners to cultivate any bloom she desired, herbalists to distill any medicine, or perfume, or cosmetic she could want.  He preferred to keep her by him, and the fact that she could spar with him was one more delight, one more thing they could do together.

 

They did other things together behind the closed curtains of their bed, or, most scandalously, in the warm waters of the Roman-like bath within his chambers, or in shielded alcoves of the garden where no one dared enter when it was known they were within.  After their first night, Angelus had recovered a degree of control, and Buffy had enjoyed being made love to for hours at a time.  They were keeping very early hours these days, and the court was abuzz with slightly scandalized gossip.  Though nothing, of course, was as scandalous as her continued, active presence on the practice field.  Buffy was aware of the gossip but gave it very little thought.  The emperor was far too pleased with her for anyone to say anything rude to her face, and her life continued along very pleasant lines.

 

Her evening bath was one of the most pleasant of times, and Buffy moaned as Angelus slipped between her spread thighs and began a long, leisurely session of pleasuring her.  She floated from one orgasm to the next in an endless stream of them until she was boneless with satisfaction, and Angelus, with a final groan and thrust, had attained his own.  Normally this would be the time for them to playfully clean each other up, which might lead to him doing things that made them need to clean up again.  Buffy was contemplating drawing him out of the water for a nice long session of mutual oral gratification, something that always went well with their hot baths. She licked her lips and reached for him, but, surprisingly, he laughed and shook his head.

 

“I don’t know why, but I’m uncommon exhausted,” he said.  “I think I’ll just go off to bed.”

 

“Bed sounds fine,” she said cheerfully, beginning to rise.

 

“No, my heart.  Stay here and finish your bath.  Give me a few minutes, at least.  With a bit of rest, I might be able to ensure that you are soon as exhausted as I.”

 

“Promises, promises,” she purred, but she let him go with a kiss, and sank back into the bath.  She was aroused all over again and debated fingering herself to release, something Angelus had taught her to do for his pleasure.  But, while she’d learned to enjoy masturbating on those rare occasions when he wasn’t around to slake her needs, himself, and while she absolutely loved the effect that bringing herself to orgasm had on him when she did it while he watched her, she decided it would be better to wait until she was in their bed.  After all, he could rest while watching her bring herself off, and if that didn’t reenergize him...

 

She was giggling over that thought and reaching for the soap when a glowing mist began to coalesce just above the water of her bath.  Buffy froze, waiting to see if Tara’s warding spells were still able to prevent Willow from contacting her, but then remembered that things had changed.  The man she’d been given to was this world’s version of the man to whom she had gladly given herself.  Her friends would understand that, and wouldn’t interfere.  Not this time.  She relaxed and waited to see what would happen.

 

“Buffy?  Are you there?”

 

“I’m here, Wills,” she responded.  A moment later, the mist resolved itself into the wavering image of her friend.

 

“Oh, good.  It worked.  You’re alone?  Eeek.  Bathing, so, yeah, alone, right.”

 

“I’ll get a robe,” Buffy said, about to rise.

 

“No, don’t bother.  I think your friend, Lady Tara, set up a ward to keep me from communicating with you, and I don’t know how long I can hold this.”

 

Buffy flushed with guilt, made a mental note to write to Lady Tara, and assure her there was no further need for the warding.  Willow had continued to speak.

 

“So let’s not waste time. If you’re alone, you can’t be coerced, and I need you to be honest with me.  Is this peace mission really something you want to do?  Or do you want me to keep working on a way to bring you home?”

 

It was the question she had expected.  Nothing for it but the truth.  “No, Wills.  I don’t think I can leave here.”

 

“Can’t or won’t, Buffy?” Willow said impatiently.  “I don’t care if the people there don’t want to let you go, you aren’t theirs to keep.  What is it that you want?”

 

Buffy chuckled ruefully.  “I told you.  What I want, I can never have.” She took a deep breath.  “But, as it happens, I can come pretty close.”  After a moment of stunned silence, Willow nodded.

 

“I get it.  If my Tara is alive there, why not your Angel?”

 

“Not exactly my Angel,” Buffy admitted.

 

“No.  But enough of him, right?”

 

“Yes,” Buffy said.  “Enough of him.  More than I thought I’d get to have.”  Willow took that in.

 

“I love Kennedy,” she said finally.  “But if there were a way I could be with Tara...” she shivered.  “All right, then,” she said briskly.  “I won’t do anything yet.  But, this whole cross dimensional thing?  I’m not sure it's such a good idea, Buffy.  These events tend to cause ripples and have unexpected consequences.”

 

“What do you mean?” Buffy began uneasily.

 

“Remember what happened when I brought you back?”  From the dead, Willow meant.  At which time a particularly nasty spirit had hitched a ride along with her, and had had to be defeated.

 

“Wouldn’t that have happened by now?” Buffy said thoughtfully. “Back then, we noticed the problem within days of my coming back.  I’ve been here for months and haven’t seen anything like that, and believe me, I’ve been looking.”

 

“That might actually be a bad thing,” Willow warned, just before her image began to fade away, then abruptly reappeared.  “...reaction was going to be a small one, then yes, I’d have expected it to manifest by now.  But sometimes the effects build up over time.  Years, or longer.  And then...”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“....the explosion comes, ...not something small, like one ....  It’ll be...”

 

“Will, you’re starting to fade.”

 

“Okay...  Think about...and in a few days....” the image melted away entirely and did not return, but Buffy had gotten the message, and she did, indeed, have a lot to think about.  She sank back into her bath, contemplating everything she’d just learned. 

 

Although she had paid careful attention to the reports brought to the emperor, and had made her own inquiries at Langdon Castle before that, there hadn’t been a single hint of unnatural evil rising since she’d arrived in this dimension.  More, now that she knew who he was, she understood why Tara’s spell had conjured her for the emperor.  Everyone at Langdon been right, and she’d been wrong.  She wasn’t here as a warrior.  But, she was still preventing a war.  More, she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t beginning to enjoy her life here.  Sure, once in a while she’d get the urge for a hotdog, or a mochaccino, or wished she could take in a movie or go for a drive.  And heaven knew she couldn’t wait for someone to invent indoor plumbing.  But, putting on a fantabulous gown and going to a ball wasn’t as bad as she’d once thought it might be.  Angelus respected her abilities, and allowed her to make use of them.  Or, well, he hadn’t actually let her into a real fight, but as far as she knew there hadn’t been any for her to get into around here.  He let her fight as much as he fought himself, and that was all she needed, right now.

 

What it came down to was, he was all she needed, now.  Being with the emperor was as close as she would ever come to the happy-ever-after she’d yearned for with her lost beloved:  something short of heaven, but near enough.

 

Buffy got out of her bath, dried off, and wrapped herself in her bedrobe, leaving her hair in a damp tangle about her head.  Angelus was sleeping, no doubt due to some influence of Willow’s spell enabling her to contact Buffy when no one could overhear them.  Buffy knew that Willow thought she might have to leave here, leave him, to avoid possible danger.  But watching her lover sleep, Buffy honestly didn’t think she could.  Then again, even if Willow’s worse case scenario came to pass, weren’t there other ways to deal with it?  After all, they hadn’t sent Buffy back to her grave to get rid of the thing that had followed her out of it.  She’d fought it, and defeated it.  Similarly, if something evil came into this world, she and Angelus could deal with it, like she and Angel always had.  If something evil entered her own world...well, there was an entire army of Slayers to handle it.  With Giles, Willow, Faith and Spike around to help out, surely they were up to taking care of whatever might show up?

 

She couldn’t go back to a life without Angel, she knew now, even if it wasn’t really him, at least, not him as he’d lived on her own world.  She needed Angel like she needed air to breathe, and if the price of having him was fighting a monster or ten, that was a price she was more than ready to pay.

 

Putting aside the problem for now, she shed her robe and began to crawl into bed beside him, kissing her way up his long legs, nibbling on his tight butt, and laving her tongue over the brutal scars.  He groaned in his sleep and turned over, one eye opening as he took in her appearance.

 

“I’m really not up for this,” he sighed.  Buffy raised a brow and looked down at the part of him that was, clearly, more than up for this.  Then she remembered her earlier plan and gave him a seductive smile.

 

“That’s all right, baby, you just rest.”  He wagged a brow at her interestedly as she grabbed some of the pillows and set them up in a pile by his side, close to his ankles.  This, she knew, would give him the best view for what she had planned.  She lay back on the pillows, spreading her legs until one of them was draped over his own.  She’s positioned herself so that her foot could caress his still rampant cock, which leapt a little in excitement at her attentions.

 

“Buffy,” Angelus growled.

 

“Shhh,” she said, finger to her lips.  Then, she took her time, and let him see her suck the finger until it was good and wet.  “Just watch,” she said throatily, trailing the finger slowly down her neck, over her breasts, circling one nipple and plucking at it until it was a hard little bud.  She raised her other hand to her mouth and suckled at another finger, which she lost no time in bringing to the damp juncture between her thighs.  “Umm,” she purred.  “Nice and juicy wet,” she commented, rubbing her clit with the wet finger in slow circles for a few minutes until she could feel her moisture dripping from her damp folds, and knew he could see just how wet and ready she truly was.  She lazily trailed the finger that had been playing with her clit down the weeping slit to her core.  “So, so hot,” she sighed as she pushed the finger inside, arching her hips upward. 

 

“Buffy,” Angelus growled.  Her glazed eyes found his, and she caressed his shaft with her toes.  Her other hand moved between her breasts, pinching her nipples into a hard little points, kneading the soft firmness of the white globes.

 

“Yeah, lover,” she said throatily, “hot and wet, the way you like me, and creaming on my finger, creaming just for you.” Her thumb began to brush her clit, a second finger joined the first, and she began to tell him in explicit detail what it felt like, how much he would enjoy it, how much she wanted him to enjoy it.  As her excitement built her words became cruder, dirtier, and the flames in his eyes burned hotter than ever.  By the time she pitched into an orgasm, writhing on her own fingers, she was babbling the most outrageous fantasies she’d ever had, one in which he sank his fangs into her burning clit and drank her down.

 

She was still climaxing when her fingers were brutally pulled aside and replaced by Angelus’ hard cock.

 

“Going to fuck you so hard,” he growled through his fangs.

 

“Yes, baby, yes,” Buffy cooed, raising her cream-laden fingers to his mouth and wrapping her legs around his hips.  He sucked her fingers clean of her essence, pumping into her hard and fast until she reached another climax.  She thought he’d just continue pounding into her, but to her surprised delight, he withdrew instead, switching around so that he knelt above her, his mouth beginning to descend on her still-quivering clit, and his heavy cock and balls dangling just within her reach.  She hungrily lifted her head and brought his thick length into her mouth, sucking it down greedily.  His tongue lashed down, teasing her clit then licking the cream away from her channel.  She caressed his balls, sucking on his cock as his tongue stabbed into her sheath.  She came up for air long enough to beg him to bite her clit, but he was having none of it.  She wriggled to get his attention, but he simply held her hips down.  Giving up, Buffy continued to suck on his cock and let him do what he wanted.  Buffy brought him off, greedily drinking every drop of his seed, but he was, uncharacteristically, denying her another orgasm.  He continued to lick her into a frenzy, but wouldn’t give her the pressure she needed to finish her off.

 

“Angelus,” she whined in frustration.  He simply growled and kept teasing.  Buffy began to quiver and shake, being wound tighter and tighter but not being allowed to go over the edge.  He kept it up entirely too long, and she was beginning to get sore.  Then she felt it, the first tentative scrape of a fang against her swollen clit, and she nearly swooned.  Another tormenting scrape, still not enough to bring release.

 

And then three of his large, thick fingers were forcing themselves into her hot sheath and he bit delicately into her clit with his sharp fangs and she catapulted into the hardest, strongest, longest orgasm she could ever remember.

 

He continued to twist his fingers inside her, seeking out the sweetest spots, the most responsive nerves, suckling her clit, draining her ambrosial blood, sustaining her orgasm for a what seemed a delicious eternity.

 

The final tremors were still quaking through her when Angelus withdrew his fangs and his fingers, and switched positions, entering her once more.  He went slow, tight, deep, until she was weeping with pleasure and climaxing yet again.  Exhausted, she begged him to stop.  He obliged, kissing her softly and caressing her.  But though he remained unmoving, he hadn’t withdrawn.

 

“Angelus,” she pleaded between kisses.  “Please.  I can’t.”

 

“You can,” he smiled, kissing her again, and began, slowly, sweetly, inexorably, to prove to her just how well and how long she could.

 

She lost count of how many orgasms he forced her to before he roared his release and collapsed above her.  They said nothing, holding each other in silence, gently caressing, until he recovered enough to roll off of her with a groan.  “I think we need another bath.”

 

“I’ll never make it that far,” she informed him.

 

“I could carry you.”

 

“Is there any reason why we have to bother to clean up?  I mean, do we have to dine in public, tonight?  Can’t we just have the servants bring us our dinner here?”

 

He debated the idea, decided there was nothing requiring their attention that couldn’t be dealt with later, and tossing Buffy her bedrobe, rang for their servants.

 

Dinner in bed was not conducive to getting rest.  Angelus decided that Buffy made a very appealing plate, and he kept resting things on her thighs which he then proceeded to nibble off or lick away, which generally ended with him inside her, driving her to another climax.  After an hour or so of such behavior, on top of what they’d already done, Buffy was so exhausted from her orgasms that she couldn’t even scream any more.

 

“Umm.  Quiet Buffy.  Interesting variation,” he observed as he once more moved over her and plunged within.

 

“I’m asleep,” she warned him, her eyes indeed closed in bliss.

 

“Sure you are,” he agreed and slipped a pillow under her rear end, changing his angle inside her.

 

“Ohhhhhhh that feels good,” she said, and wriggled her hips.

 

He brought her to four more climaxes before he came, and they both collapsed into sleep.

 

As ever when he drank from Buffy, Angelus dreamed.

 

“...we can’t know, Buffy, that’s just the deal...”

 

“I almost lost you, today.”

 

“I love you.  I try not to, but I can’t stop.”

 

“Shhhhh.   Just kiss me...”

 

He awoke with a feeling of profound sadness, but upon turning over and finding Buffy sleeping contentedly by his side, his spirits much improved, and he decided to wake her in a particularly amusing fashion.   Amusing was perhaps not the word Buffy would have used to describe waking up in the middle of a powerful orgasm and finding her lover’s head buried between her thighs, but she had no particular objection to being roused from sleep in such a manner and didn’t complain.

 

As ever, Angelus saw no reason to share his dreams with Buffy.  If drinking her blood was somehow giving him access to her memories, he didn’t want to call to mind things that had ultimately proved painful for her.  Too, he wasn’t sure that he was truly experiencing her memories, still believing it more likely that his sleeping mind was spinning strange fancies suggested by Buffy’s descriptions of her life on her world.  What were dreams, after all, but strange fancies?  Gradually, she’d felt more comfortable sharing some of the details about her relationship with her first love, Angel.  The dream had probably been his mind fleshing out a conversation she’d told him she’d had.

 

It was a pity that her blood wasn’t simply reawakening his own memories, that he wasn’t the man she’d lost, but that could not possibly be the case.  She was from another world, not from the village he’d lived in.  His flesh did not bear the tattoo that had been on Angel’s shoulder.  Angel had been with her, and had died only in the past few years, while he himself had been right here, ruling from the White Palace, as he had for centuries.  No, he was not her lost beloved, but if he told Buffy of his dreams and forced her to relive her past, he would only upset her, so he kept his own council, content in the knowledge that whoever had been in her past, her future was certainly going to be with him. 

 

Later, as they finished dressing, word was brought that a courier had arrived with news.  Lady Lilah was about to return from whatever mission she’d been on for the emperor.  Angelus was pleased.

 

“I cannot wait for you to meet her,” he said enthusiastically.  Buffy arched a brow, remembering what Lindsey had told her about the relationship between the emperor and his witch.  She smiled at Marguerite, who had just put the finishing touches on Buffy’s hair, and indicated that she was free to leave.

 

“You can’t wait for me to meet the other woman you sleep with?” she said dryly, as soon as the door had closed behind her maid, and they were alone.  The look he gave her was grave.

 

“I would say, rather, that I can’t wait for you to meet the woman who has been one of my greatest supporters for as long as I’ve known her,” he said calmly.  “But yes, I have shared her bed on occasion, an arrangement that we have found quite suitable.”  His tone was unapologetic, a mere statement of facts.

 

Buffy flushed.  “If you think you can sleep with me and keep her on the side...”

 

He frowned.  “I think, as emperor, I could do exactly that--”

 

“Oh!” Buffy leapt up from the stool on which she’d been sitting and made a run for her garderobe.  Angelus was having none of it and snatched her off her feet and into his arms.

 

“You didn’t let me finish,” he growled.  “I could do exactly that, if I had the least desire to do so.  You should know, I have not.”

 

Buffy looked up at him.

 

“You say that now,” she said.  “But will you feel the same way in a year?  Or in ten years?”

 

“In ten years, or ten thousand, I will feel the same,” he told her, pressing a kiss to her brow.  The usual consequences unfolded, and Buffy soon found herself braced against the wall, her skirts rucked up past her hips, legs wrapped around Angelus’s waist while she writhed on his cock.  Afterward, he carried her to the bed, where they collapsed in exhaustion.

 

“Why do you want me to meet her?”  Buffy asked, finally.

 

“Because she is one of my oldest and most loyal companions,” he said.  “When Sir Gyran found me slaying that dragon, Lilah was with him.  She had recently become a vampire and was just starting to come into her full powers as a witch.  Sir Gyran was her first protector.  She persuaded him to take me to his overlord, and she and the knight remained with me there.  She was my mentor and my advisor.  She tried everything she could to restore my memory, and when that could not be done past the most vague details, she helped me adjust to my new life, guiding me through the intrigues of court, so that I did not fall victim to the plots of my enemies.

 

“You had enemies?” she said, curious.  An emperor always had enemies.  But a simple warrior such as Angelus had been at first?  Why would anyone become his enemy?

 

“At court, there are always factions, undercurrents.  Everyone has enemies.”  Buffy wasn’t so sure, but she nodded at him to go on.

 

There wasn’t a lot more to say.  Lilah remained Angelus’ friend.  Shortly after Sir Gyran died, they became lovers for the first time.  But it was, Angelus swore, a matter of convenience, rather than love or passion.  They were good friends, neither was attached, and it had seemed a logical step.  Buffy kept her thoughts about that to herself.

 

“Lilah was always there to guide me.  Well, except when we served King Bors, and he sent me to Syrenia but kept Lilah at court.  She’d become much more powerful then, and her witchcraft was important to him.  But, at Syrenia, I had Drusilla, so I didn’t want for advice and help.

 

“What did Drusilla think of Lilah?”  Buffy wondered.  Angelus shook his head.

 

“They never met.  Lilah never left Bors’ court, and Dru never left Syrenia.”

 

“Oh,” Buffy said.

 

“So, you can see why I am eager for the two women who are most important to me to meet.”

 

“Yes, I suppose so,” Buffy admitted.  But, privately she wondered how Lilah, used to sharing Angelus’ bed from time to time over nearly two centuries, would regard the woman who displaced her.

 

Even after they met, Buffy wasn’t sure she knew.

 

Buffy was, as ever, by Angelus side when Lady Lilah and her entourage entered the throne room.  The woman approaching them was a very attractive brunette, slim and stately in a gown of fine black wool, a long rope of gold, thick with diamonds, wound many times about her neck, rather like a modern choker, then draped across her bosom, her red lips curved in a confident smile.  The look she gave Buffy was not unfriendly, but it seemed dismissive, as if it weren’t uncommon for her to find a woman at her emperor’s side, and as if such women were of little concern to her.  Buffy filed that thought away for further consideration at another time, more interested in the woman who walked a few paces behind Lilah.  It was, indeed, this world’s version of Buffy’s best friend, and Buffy couldn’t help but smile in anticipation.  Angelus had suggested that Lady Willow could instruct her in whatever official duties she was going to have to assume, and that meant she’d have an opportunity to get to know this woman much better.  She was so focused on Lady Willow that she almost missed the greeting between the emperor and the witch.

 

“Welcome home, Lady Lilah,” Angelus said with genuine warmth.  “We are pleased at your safe return.”  Lady Lilah dipped a curtsey, a demi-curtsey, Buffy noticed, rather than the full court curtsey any other woman would have given the emperor upon first returning to his court after a prolonged absence.

 

“Thank you, my liege.  I am happy to find you well.”  She then nodded at one of the servants, who bowed and brought her a footstool.  In a moment, she was seated at Angelus' feet.  To judge by the reaction of Angelus and everyone else in the court, which was to say, none, this was probably her usual place. 

 

Lady Lilah’s behavior continued to be perfectly courteous, and Buffy began to relax.  Angelus was questioning Lilah about her journey and the mission she had been on, which seemed to have something to do with trade, some newly cultivated fruit that was becoming popular and imported from a land far to the east.  Lilah went into an explanation of the terms she’d gotten, and the supply they could expect to get, to which Buffy listened with half an ear while she looked at Lilah’s retinue.

 

She soon found two familiar faces, faces she wasn’t all that happy to see.  Ethan Rayne and Warren Meers were smiling blandly at the emperor from their positions with the rest of Lady Lilah’s retinue.  Buffy wasn’t sure what posts they had in the other woman’s household, but hoped they were much nicer people on this world than they had been on her own. Certainly, the counterparts of the Master, Darla, and Dru were all far better people in this dimension.  Still, she couldn’t quite repress the wave of uneasiness that washed over her and resolved to keep an eye out, just in case.

 

She then turned her attention to Willow, and found the other woman regarding her with lively, and not unfriendly, curiosity.  She gave her a smile, and received a tentative one in return before Lilah’s voice called her attention back to the exchange the emperor was having.

 

“....missed Lindsey’s return.  You must tell me what King Heinrich sent you.”

 

“Easily done,” Angelus smiled and took Buffy’s hand, raising it to his lips.  “He sent us a gift with which we are uncommon pleased.”  His smile turned roguish.  “Very frequently.”  Lilah’s expression remained polite but slightly puzzled.  Angelus turned back to her, and made the formal introduction, “This is Heinrich’s gift to us, Lilah.  Lady Buffy.”  Something seemed to flash through Lady Lilah’s eyes, perhaps surprise.  But it was gone so quickly, Buffy wasn’t sure if she had imagined it.  Certainly, the woman’s smile never wavered and her tone, when she spoke, was all that was proper.

 

“My lady,” Lilah greeted her with a bow of her head.

 

“Lady Lilah,” Buffy returned, inclining her head as well.  A greeting between equals. Lilah nodded.  Possibly in approval?

 

“You have returned in good time, my lady,” Angelus said.  “We have great need of your services.”

 

“I am yours to command, my liege,” Lilah said warmly, seeming genuinely pleased.

 

“We would like you to release Lady Willow from your service for a few months.  We know this will be a great inconvenience to you, and we are prepared to make recompense, but we would like her to train Lady Buffy in the public duties befitting our consort.”

 

Everyone who heard his words froze.  Ethan Rayne and Warren exchanged shocked glances, and even Lady Lilah seemed to have been taken aback. Willow's eyes were big as saucers, classic Will.

 

But it wasn’t only Lilah’s household who were surprised.  The chancellor had been standing nearby, and Wesley was clearly caught off guard.  A murmur of surprise was running around the court, and several ladies looked as if they’d bitten into something sour.  Only Lord Lindsey, standing at the foot of the dais, looked unfazed.  In fact, he was smirking, as if at some private jest.

 

It wasn’t a jest Buffy shared.  She was as caught off guard by Angelus’ casual announcement as everyone else at court.  Sure, things between them were unbelievably hot, and they were always in each other’s company, but he’d never said one word about making her his consort.  On her own world, she’d been called the consort of vampires simply because Angel and Spike had been her lovers.  Here, the word seemed to imply something a bit more formal.  Not too formal:  she’d be his empress if he were making her his wife, wouldn’t she?  So, maybe this consort thing wasn’t that big a deal.  Then she remembered the conversation between Lord William and Lady Tara, especially the part about sharing power, and reconsidered.

 

It was Lilah who broke the silence that had gripped the court and called Buffy’s attention back to the present.

 

“Congratulations, my liege.”

 

“Thank you.  You will send Lady Willow to us, then?”

 

“Of course,” she said.  “I will release her to your service at once.”  She turned toward her retainers and beckoned Willow forward.  Willow approached the throne and executed a deep court curtsey.  Lilah bade her rise, and then directed her to attend Buffy.  Willow gave Buffy another curtsey and walked to take a place behind Buffy’s chair.

 

Angelus thanked Lilah for her service, and suggested that as recompense for the loss of Lady Willow, he might gift her with a small estate near her own properties, which had recently become available upon the death of its owner.  As this would increase her holdings, Lilah was pleased to accept, as any noble would be, and she gave the formulaic expressions of gratitude that Buffy had come to expect as required by stuffy court etiquette.

 

The conversation returned to the subject of trade, and Lilah called for one of her own servants, who brought a covered basket to her which proved to be filled with small red fruit.  The kind of fruit Buffy had particularly missed since arriving in this dimensions.

 

“Cherries!  Yum,” Buffy exclaimed.  Lilah looked at her in surprise.  Angelus chuckled, and reached into the basket, coming away with a few of the cherries which he immediately popped into her mouth.  Lilah frowned.

 

“They have pits,” she warned.  Buffy nodded, reaching for the handkerchief all ladies kept up one or another sleeve, and turning her head away to delicately expel the pits into the cloth.

 

“Yeah, they have pits were I come from, too,” she said.  

 

“You do not have the look of someone from the east,” Lilah said slowly.

 

“Lady Buffy isn’t from the east,” Angelus informed her.  “Heinrich had his witches cast a spell to find the perfect gift for us.  Lady Buffy was brought here from another world.”  Lilah clearly found this news astonishing.

 

“Another world?” she said faintly.  Lindsey was called upon to explain. 

 

“You will remember that my mission to King Heinrich’s court was a delicate one,” he said smoothly, “attempting to heal the breech that had arisen.  I found him somewhat less angry than he had been before, though still unreasonably certain that our liege meant ill toward him and his kingdom.”

 

“Perhaps not so unreasonably,” the emperor growled, remembering old grievances.  He looked at Buffy, grinned, and raised her hand to his lips once more.  “At the time,” he amended.

 

“At all odds, I found Heinrich in a moderately conciliatory mood.  His advisors had persuaded him to do what he could to avoid the feared conflict.  To that end, he decided not to exchange the usual gifts between princes, but to seek out something extraordinary.  You well know the reputation of his witches, my lady.  He commanded Lady Tara to conjure for our emperor not simply a wonderful gift, but the perfect gift, something the emperor desired, or would come to desire, above all things.  Heinrich joked that he expected he would be handing over the Sword of Amara, and thus signing his own death warrant, but that, in a show of good faith, he would do even that for his brother of the south.  Lady Tara cast the spell, and Lady Buffy appeared.”  He smiled wryly.  “Whatever my initial doubts, I now believe that Lady Tara’s spell succeeded--brilliantly.”

 

“Oh, I don’t know,” Buffy laughed.  “The Sword of Amara was a really sweet piece of steel.”

 

“But not the sweet piece I prefer,” the emperor murmured into her ear.

 

“You saw the Sword of Amara?”  Lady Lilah asked, a faint frown appearing between her brows.  “It is not merely legend?”

 

Buffy shrugged.  “Just before Lady Tara pulled me out of the Hellmouth, I’d almost had a broadsword within my reach.  When I described it to King Heinrich at court, I was told it fit with what the legends say about that sword.  But, since as far as I know, it’s still floating around in the Hellmouth, there’s no way to tell, for sure.”

 

“You were in the Hellmouth?” Lady Lilah said faintly.  Buffy gave her the Cliff Notes version.  Lady Lilah was all that was sympathetic.  “Poor child!  How fortunate that Lady Tara’s spell pulled you out.”

 

“Yes.  Most fortunate,” Angelus agreed with a chuckle.  The conversation moved on to other topics.

 

Lilah’s return to court was occasion for a feast, rather than just the usual dinner banquet.  Buffy had long since learned the difference between the two:  a banquet had fewer courses (five or six instead of a minimum of twenty) and fewer people (thirty instead of upwards of two hundred).  Also, at a feast, Buffy had to wear more jewels.

 

Tonight it was sapphires.  She was dripping necklaces, armbands, bracelets, rings, eardrops, jeweled girdles, jeweled slippers and a diadem so thickly encrusted with stones, it was almost impossible to tell that the metal they’d been set into was gold.

 

“This stuff weighs a ton, you know,” she complained.

 

“But you look...delectable,” Angelus smiled.  “I can always carry you if you tire.”  He probably would if she let him.  And wouldn’t the court gossips just love that?

 

“That’s all right,” she said with a shake of her head.  “I’ll walk.”

 

At the feast, Buffy received a shock even greater than finding Warren and Ethan in Lilah’s train.  The witch arrived on the arm of one Lord Alexander Harris.  Buffy noted that the smile with which Willow greeted the pair looked a little shaky.  Willow seemed unattached.  Could it be that she harbored the same feelings for Xander here as her own Willow had harbored for their Xander?  Given how devoted to Lilah Xander seemed, Buffy hoped not.

 

At the feast, Lilah sat to the other side of Angelus, who lavished quite a bit of attention on her.  Since his hand was, as usual, traveling under Buffy’s skirts the entire time, she didn’t feel neglected, but she also couldn’t hear what they were saying due to the noise of the feast, and that had her a little disgruntled.

 

“They’re speaking of the fruit trade,” Lindsey, sitting to her other side, leaned forward to tell her quietly.

 

She glanced at him, then remembered.

 

“Vampire hearing, huh?”

 

Lindsey nodded, calling for one of the servants to refill her wine cup.

 

“Becoming vampire has its advantages,” he admitted.

 

“Yeah, like living forever and always looking young.”

 

Lindsey shook his head ruefully.

 

“We are hard to kill, it is true, but that merely prolongs our separation from God in paradise, a sacrifice many of are willing to make in return for our vampiric abilities which make us better able to guard those under our protection and better warriors for our overlords.”  That was a new angle that Buffy had never considered before, but she didn’t have time to think about it as Lindsey was continuing.  “While we may indeed live for centuries, very few of us will actually live forever.  And for those who do...well, I would not say that King Heinrich looks particularly young.”

 

“How old is he?” Buffy asked curious.  Lindsey shook his head.

 

“No one knows.  Even he himself has forgotten.”

 

“Well, actually,” a voice spoke up hesitantly on Lindsey’s other side, “my research indicates that he was born on the Isle of Kalos about 3,300 years ago.”

 

Lindsey chuckled.  “I should have known to check with you before I attempted to answer, my lady.”  Willow blushed. 

 

Buffy leaned forward so she could see Lady Willow more clearly around Lindsey.

 

“How did your research turn that up, Lady Willow?” Buffy asked.

 

“Oh, well, I started with what we knew and worked backwards,” she said brightly, pleased that someone was interested in the process by which she obtained her information, rather than in just the information itself.  She launched into an explanation of property records, census rolls, and other such minutia that had allowed her to trace the path of Heinrich’s life history.

 

“It sounds like a great deal of work,” Lindsey said.  “I am curious as to why you undertook such a task.”

 

“Oh, well, it was partially to sharpen my language skills.  I had to read documents in a number of old tongues, you know.  Lady Lilah suggested the research as an intellectual exercise.”

 

She seemed prepared to say more, but the musicians had begun playing, and she and Buffy gave up trying to have a conversation.  The feast wasn’t really the best place for her to get to know Willow.  It was too noisy and too public.  Buffy was therefore pleased when Angelus suggested that Willow should present herself at their chambers after breakfast the next morning to begin Buffy’s education.

 

That night, alone in their curtained bed, recovering from another bout of love making, Angelus asked Buffy what she thought of Lilah.

 

“I’m not sure,” Buffy said thoughtfully.  “She seemed nice enough, but...”  Perhaps too nice?  Buffy knew it was an unkind thought, and perhaps she’d been unreasonably prejudiced by the presence of Ethan Rayne and Warren in the lady’s household, or the way she seemed to be leading this world’s Xander Harris around by the nose, but she was still reserving judgment on Lady Lilah.  “I don’t know, maybe I just need to get to know her better.  And, what’s with Xander?  He was panting over her like a puppy dog, all night.”

 

“Is Lord Alexander another of those who had a place in your world?” Angelus asked curiously.  “No matter.  Here, he has been her companion for the past year or two.  One of many.  But he is particularly devoted.”

 

“Yeah.  I’d noticed,” she said.  “So did Lady Willow,” she added pointedly.

 

“I do not think that is a likely match,” Angelus chuckled, guessing the train of her thoughts.  “Lady Willow and Lord Alexander grew up together, as their estates were not far apart.  It would have been a good match, and no one knows quite why it did not come off.  But she married Lord Osborne, instead.  Poor man.  He was killed by a wolf last year, and Lady Willow is only just out of mourning.”

 

“Oh, how awful,” Buffy said, shuddering.  Poor Oz!  What a tragic twist on the curse he’d endured in their own world.

 

“Yes, it was most sad,” Angelus agreed.  “Willow was distraught, and for the first few months we thought she would go into a decline.   Lady Lilah had the care of her, though, and she has quite recovered.”

 

To judge by the looks she’d given Xander, Lady Willow had recovered quite well, indeed.

 

“It will make me very happy if you will try to be Lady Lilah’s friend,”Angelus told Buffy.   It didn’t seem an unreasonable request.  She smiled and turned to him in the dark.

 

“All right.  I’ll do my best,” she said and kissed him.  He spent a languorous hour showing her how much he appreciated her choice.

 

Willow presented herself promptly after breakfast and was shown into their chambers.

 

“We have a meeting with the lord chancellor in another hour,” Angelus told her.  “Perhaps you can find a quiet corner of the room to talk to Lady Buffy.” Lady Willow blinked and asked what seemed the obvious question.

 

“Uhm.  Why don’t I just find a quiet room in which to talk to Lady Buffy?”

 

Angelus smiled.  “Because we don’t wish you to.”

 

“Oh.  Yes, my liege,” Willow said with a demi-curtsey.  Buffy rolled her eyes.

 

“Really Angelus,  your meeting is only going to be an hour.  I think you can survive being away from me for that long.”

 

“I am not,” he said, only partially in jest.  She laughed and kissed him, making Lady Willow blush.

 

“Oh, come on.  Let me and Lady Willow have some time for girl-talk.”

 

“Girl-talk?” he asked.

 

“You know.  Boring stuff,” Buffy said.  “Like, recipes for making soap, what kind of wax is needed for which kind of candles, or the best way to card wool.”  Angelus winced.

 

“That’s truly what you intend to talk about?”

 

“Well, I’m also going to ask her if she has any books on one hundred and one ways to make your vampire lover scream in pleasure, but...”

 

Angelus laughed.  Willow’s face turned as red as her hair.

 

“Very well.  You may remain here while I go to my meeting, but I shall look for you at the noonday meal.”

 

Buffy smiled and hugged him, her kiss a promise of rewards for good behavior.  He turned back to Willow.  “We leave our most beloved treasure in your charge, Lady Willow.  We have faith you will serve her as well as you have served us.”

 

“Oh, absolutely, my liege,” Willow said, sinking into a full court curtsey as the emperor nodded to her and left the room.  Then she rose from the curtsey and turned to Buffy with a puzzled look.  “Umm.  What’s an Angelus?”  Buffy smiled and gave her the Cliff Notes version.

 

“Pet name,” she said lightly.  Willow’s eyes widened.

 

“The Dragonheart let you give him a pet name?” she gasped.  “Wow.  Okay.  No wonder he’s marrying you.”  It was Buffy’s turn to have wide eyes.”

 

“Marry?” she asked.  “Who said anything about getting married?”  Willow explained to Buffy that the consort of a ruler, contrary to what Buffy believed, was always a spouse, just not one elevated to the same rank as the ruler. 

 

While Buffy digested the fact that Angelus had apparently made a public declaration of his intention to marry her without asking her first and tried to figure out how she felt about that, Willow chattered on about the duties she would be expected to assume.  While Buffy would not share the imperial throne, the role of consort was not without power, and Buffy would probably acquire an official title, like Princess of Havedon, one of the smaller kingdoms of which the empire was composed, whenever her new status was solemnized, and of course Willow meant a separate church service for her investiture in addition to a church wedding, how else could such things be done?  In time, Angelus might elect to have Buffy crowned as his empress, probably at the great cathedral, but Willow didn’t think that was likely to happen until they’d had at least one child.  Buffy felt the need to sit when Willow dropped that little gem.

 

Willow chatted blithely on, explaining that as consort, Buffy would be expected to represent the emperor at official functions if he were not available to attend them himself, and that his ministers might ask her for advice, if he were busy elsewhere.  Emperor Varick would always have the final say, but Buffy would be expected to know how he would want things to be done and to act in his best interests.  She would have to learn the politics of the empire, and most especially, she would have to understand the enmity between the emperor and King Heinrich.

 

“No one will talk about it,” Buffy said.  “I was sent here as a gift, and Lady Tara was convinced I could stop a war between the two countries, but no one has explained why they think there’s going to be a war.  I thought Angelus hadn’t fought one for decades.”

 

“He hasn’t,” Willow said.  “But...Well, I can understand why no one in Heinrich’s court would want to talk about it.  I mean, sending you here if they really believe that he murdered Queen Darla would--”

 

“Uh.  Hold that thought,” Buffy said, not a little shocked.  “Heinrich believes Angelus murdered Darla?  How?  Didn’t she die in an accident?”

 

“An accident?” Willow frowned.  “Who told you that?”

 

“Well--now that you mention it, no one,” Buffy admitted.  “But I know that vampires can’t be killed short of decapitation, so I assumed...it wasn’t an accident?”

 

“It wasn’t decapitation, either,” Willow informed her.  “The queen was about three months pregnant when she fell ill.  Vampires almost never get ill, but it can happen.  This was some sort of slow, wasting sickness, Killer of the Dead.”  Buffy paled.

 

“A sickness, you said?”

 

“Well...it’s rare.  And, it’s not an illness, exactly.  Some kind of bite, people think, because the vampire in question has usually suffered a small injury.  Most of the times, vampires hardly even notice the initial cut.  But, these injuries don’t heal.  They develop the most awful infection, and there’s no known cure.”

 

Buffy nodded.  If it was the same thing that had nearly killed Angel on her own world, there was a cure, but not one that would have been available to the queen.

 

“What caused the queen’s infection?”

 

“She’d been walking in her garden and when she went to pick one of the roses--she loved roses, always had a bowl of them in her rooms--anyway, she stabbed herself on a thorn, or that’s what everyone thought at the time.  But, a few days later, the place where she’d stabbed herself grew swollen and very red, and then the infection spread from there.  From what I heard, it was truly awful.  The queen was weak, feverish, and in terrible pain. King Heinrich was frantic.  He tried everything he could.  He even asked Angelus to send me, because I’m very skilled with healing herbs.  Lady Lilah and Lady Tara were going to open a portal between them so that I could get there instantly, but before they could coordinate things to begin the spell...the queen was gone.”

 

“That’s awful,”  Buffy said, sincerely.  The Darla on her own world had been a first-class bitch, but she had no reason to think ill of the late queen.  She also had no reason to think that Angelus was involved, and couldn’t imagine why anyone else did, either.  She asked Willow about it.

 

“That’s the thing.  The roses Queen Darla had been picking?  They were a hybrid, something that had been developed just for her.  Want to guess whose gift they were?”

 

“Angelus?” Buffy said.

 

“Delivered by Lady Lilah, herself,” Willow nodded.  “Of course, when the queen died, there was an elaborate funeral.  I mean, she turned into dust like all vampires do, but the baby inside her was left, and that was just horrible, because he was too little to survive; plus, the doctors thought he died in the womb of whatever killed her.  So, they gathered her ashes and enclosed them and the baby in an effigy of her, and of course the funeral procession had to be taken through the whole country, which took about a month, and then she was interred at the cathedral in Heinrich’s capital city, near Langdon Castle.  And, naturally Angelus showed up for the funeral, and, ah.  There was something of a scene.”

 

Buffy could just picture it.  The grieving king about to bury his beloved wife and long-hoped for child, and then the arrival of the man he holds responsible for her death.  Oh yeah.  There’d been a scene, all right.  And Angelus, who knew himself innocent, would have been furious at the accusations hurled at him.  No wonder Angelus had said he wanted Heinrich’s head on a plate.  The only thing that she didn’t understand was why the war wasn’t already going ahead full throttle.  She said as much to Willow.

 

“I’d say the people to thank for that were Lord Lindsey and Lady Tara,” Willow said. “I’ve never met her, but I understand she’s very wise.  She tried to reason with the king, and Lindsey tried to reason with the emperor, and so far...”

 

“So good,” Buffy finished, then shook her head.  “A lot of this makes no sense, Will, uh, Lady Willow.  What possible motive does Heinrich think Angelus would have to kill his wife?”

 

“That would be her pregnancy.  See, the king has already been ruling for centuries.  He’s getting bored with this kingdom.  Having an heir was a step toward leaving it in the hands of someone who could take over for him.  Leaving his bloodline in charge.  Then, he would be free to wander the world doing something else for a while.”

 

“And, then he could come back when he was tired of wandering and take over from whichever of his descendants was in charge?”

 

“Something like that,” Willow said.  “Or, more likely, find a new land to build a new kingdom.  That’s what he’s done in the past, as far as I can tell from the research.”

 

“Why would Angelus care about that?”

 

“The king thinks the emperor wants to take over Alba and the Isles.”

 

Buffy closed her eyes.  “Of course he would think that.  Angelus has already swallowed dozens of kingdoms to form his empire, why not swallow the biggest kingdom left?”

 

“That’s the theory.”

 

“Would you like me to poke holes in it?”  Buffy said.

 

“Oh, there are holes.  Like, why would the emperor want to go after a kingdom that hasn’t threatened him when that’s the only time he’s made war in the past?”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“The king thinks the emperor is bored, too.  He thinks the emperor wants to annex his kingdom just for the challenge of it, to build the biggest empire the world has ever seen.”

 

“You’re kidding.”

 

“No.  That really is what the king thinks.”  Buffy could say nothing to that.  Willow turned the conversation to the instruction she was expected to give Buffy, and began to outline for her the relative rank and status of all the nobles in Angelus’ court.

 

Before their time together ended, Buffy managed to draw Willow out about her life in Lady Lilah’s household.  Willow was enthusiastic in her praise of the witch, not even finding fault with her relationship with Xander.

 

“After all, she’s got so much to offer him, so much knowledge and experience.  And she’s so kind.  Lord Alexander is very fortunate she’s taken notice of him,” Willow said.  Buffy noted, however, that Willow couldn’t quite keep the wistfulness from her voice.  She wondered that Lady Lilah didn’t note it, as well.  Did she not care?  Or, was it simply that she was too close to the situation, too wrapped up in her own feelings for Lord Alexander, and unaware that Lady Willow’s feelings for him ran deeper than mere friendship.  Buffy found that she still couldn’t make up her mind about Lady Lilah, and couldn’t decide if some unconscious animosity toward anyone who had shared the emperor’s bed was making her unreasonably suspicious, or if this was a case of her Slayer instincts picking up signals and clues too subtle for her mind to consciously recognize.  She put the puzzle aside.  She would simply have to try to get to know the woman better, and make up her mind later.

 

At the end of the hour, Angelus returned, and Willow took her leave.

 

After which, remembering her grievance, Buffy read her lover the riot act.

 

“Something you’ve been forgetting to ask me?” she said dryly.

 

Angelus looked at her in surprise.

 

“Is aught amiss, my heart?”

 

“Well, there’s the little fact that you apparently told everyone that we were getting married without asking me to marry you, first.”

 

“You didn’t seem to be bothered by this last night,” he said cautiously.

 

“That’s because I didn’t know last night,” she said crossly.  “Kings and consorts?  Not really a lot of them in my dimension anymore, and even sure the rules are the same in both places, anyway.  I just thought you were telling people you trusted me and valued me as something more than a, well, a sex toy.”

 

“A sex toy?”  Angelus frowned.  “That’s how you think of yourself?  That’s how you believe I see you?” 

 

“That’s how I think everyone sees me,” Buffy said with a touch of bitterness.  “The minute I was brought here, no one asked what I could do that would make me such a great gift.  I tried to tell them that I was a warrior, but nobody listened.  They all assumed you’d want me as a lover.  And given that we were in bed before we’d known each other ten minutes, I’d say that was a pretty fair assumption.”

 

“Buffy...”

“Don’t Buffy me,” she snapped.  “If I’m not just an object to you, if I’m a person, someone whose opinions matter to you, why didn’t you ask me to marry you instead of just announcing it as a done deal?”

 

“Of course you matter to me!  Would I make you my consort if you did not?”

 

“Then why not ask me?”

 

“I thought it was obvious that you must become my consort,” he said wryly.  He gazed at her, and she saw a hint of bitterness come into his eyes.  “I supposed that you loved me, as I love you, and marriage is the usual end to that, is it not?”

 

“You...love me?” she said faintly.  “You never said...”

 

“Did I need to?”

 

Buffy gazed at him, standing before her regarding her gravely.  He had never reminded her more strongly of Angel than he did at that moment, forcing Buffy to look at their time together, at all the things that had been said without saying them.

 

That he loved her.

 

That she had come to love him.

 

“No,” she whispered.  “You didn’t need to.  But you should have.”  He nodded, not disagreeing.

 

“Perhaps we both should have.  But let me make myself clear now.  I love you.  With all my heart and all my soul, and every fiber of my being.  Marry me.”

 

There was only one possible response she could make.

 

“Um.  Okay.”  He smiled and took her into his arms.  They were halfway to the bed when Buffy remembered that she was annoyed with him and broke the kiss.

 

“Just because I obviously love you and want to marry you as much as you want to marry me doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have asked me before you announced it to the court.  Marriage is supposed to be a partnership, and--”

 

“And we will be partners.  I am sorry if my announcement upset you.  I will not take so much for granted in future.”

 

As that was all she really wanted, Buffy let him carry her the rest of the way to the bed.

 

An hour later, as they lay resting in each other’s arms, something else occurred to her.

 

“If we’re engaged, don’t I get a ring?”

 

“You have hundreds,” the emperor pointed out.  “But, yes, you will get a betrothal ring.  At the ceremony when we plight our troth.”

 

“A church ceremony?” 

 

“Of course.  Isn’t that how it’s done on your world?”

 

“Nope.  Usually, it’s very private.  A man gets down on one knee, pops the question, and gives her the ring.  Or, sometimes he’ll ask, and they’ll go shopping for the ring together.  But, its usually as romantic as the guy can make it.”

 

“Romantic, how?”

 

“Um...  Expensive dinner at a private restaurant, usually.  But, some guys really go the extra mile.  They’ll hire a plane to do skywriting or buy advertising time on a football scoreboard.  And, you have no idea what any of that means, do you?”

 

“I think I get the general idea,” the emperor said.  “I understand now, why you were so upset earlier.  Here, a woman usually finds out she’s getting married when her father tells her he’s found a suitable match.  She may first tell her father if she has a preference, and most fathers will try to accommodate such a preference.  But it is not always possible to do so.  I gather that on your world, women make their own choices in the matter.”

 

“Pretty much.”

 

“I am sorry I did not realize how important this was to you.”

 

She turned in his arms and gave him a kiss.

 

“I’m over my mad.  In the end, what’s important to me is you.”

 

Buffy was very late to her next dancing lesson.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Chapter VI

 

Lilah was present at that night’s banquet.  Buffy, remembering that Angelus wanted them to become friends and hoping to make a decision as to whether or not she really wanted to befriend the woman, made the first overture. 

 

“Thanks for letting me steal Wil--uh, Lady Willow from you.  Having her to help me figure out what’s expected of me makes things a lot easier.

 

“It is always my pleasure to assist the emperor,” Lady Lilah said with a smile.  “But please, tell me how you are doing.  It must be so different here for you, so difficult to have been brought from your own world unexpectedly.  What was your life like before Lady Tara brought you to Langdon?”   Lilah’s kind expression, her smile, her tone of voice all indicated that she was genuinely interested, and yet Buffy felt there was something off, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.  And had that been a smirk she’d surprised on Sir Ethan’s face as she’d asked the question before he’d assumed a bland expression and turned to talk to the lady on his other side?  Or was she simply being unreasonably jealous of this beautiful, sophisticated woman who had shared Angelus’ bed and the most important moments of his life for more than two centuries?  Reserving judgment, Buffy briefly described the broad outlines of her life as a slayer.  Lady Lilah seemed to hang on her every word, and Buffy began to feel a little more comfortable.  Maybe Lilah was every bit as kind as Lady Willow thought.  She was certainly distressed by some of the details Buffy shared.

 

“The vampires have no souls?” she said, seeming horrified.  “As it was with us before St. Vigeous.  How awful!  To be forever beyond hope of salvation....”  She shook her head, unable to finish the thought. 

 

“I’m not sure that’s how it works, exactly,” Buffy said.  “Their souls aren’t in Hell.  They are resting in the ether.”

 

“Ah!  That’s a comfort,” Lilah smiled.  As their conversation continued, Lilah invited Buffy to have the noon meal with her in her own apartments the following afternoon.  Realizing that Angelus would be delighted if she accepted, and that she would have a golden opportunity to make up her mind once and for all about Lady Lilah, which she had as yet been unable to do, Buffy made a mental note to reschedule her music lesson and told Lilah she would be happy to join her.

 

However, that morning as Buffy watched Angelus and Wesley playing a game of golf in the garden, a grim-faced Lindsey interrupted the game, a rider with the dust of the road still clinging to his person accompanying him.  The rider, a guardsmen from a nearby village, brought word of strange beasts that had appeared and were ravaging his village.

 

“No, my liege, not wolves,” the anxious guardsman said in response to a question from the emperor.  “The shapes of their heads are wrong, and the way they run,” he shivered.  “It is not natural,” was all he would say.  Buffy stirred uneasily.  Could this be the reaction Willow had warned her about?  Angelus asked the guardsman a few more questions, but there was little more to be said.  “If I believed in werewolves, I might think these to be such beasts,” the guardsman told him.  “For there is something canny in them, something closer to man than animal.  But Alfreck fought them with a silver knife, and he fared no better than those who wielded iron.”

 

Angelus nodded grimly, thanking the man for his service and beckoning Lindsey toward him. “Gather fifty of your best men.  Let us see if these wolves who are not wolves are proof against fire and steel.”  Buffy was so onboard with that agenda, falling into step with Angelus as they returned to their chambers.

 

“Do you think that fifty men will be enough?”

 

“The guardsman does not believe there are more than ten of the brutes.  I think fifty will be more than sufficient.”  Buffy wasn’t sure Angelus wasn’t being overconfident.

 

“The guardsmen said that there were twenty in the garrison, and they could not hold these things off,” she pointed out.

 

“Village guardsmen are not vampire knights, my heart,” Angelus reminded her.  “I promise we shall have no trouble dealing with them.”

 

Arriving at their chambers, he ordered his valet to bring him his armor, but when Buffy told Marguerite to bring her one of the costumes in which she dressed when she sparred with Angelus, he frowned at her.

 

“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, honestly puzzled.

 

“Getting changed, duh,” she said, sending Marguerite off.  Marguerite gave Angelus an uneasy look with her curtsey as she headed for Buffy’s garderobe to retrieve the requested items.

 

“Why would you need to change?” he asked.

 

“You can’t expect me to fight in....” she looked at him, noticed his gathering anger.  “You don’t expect me to fight,” she realized, her own anger beginning to mount. “When you said we, you didn’t mean you and I, you meant you and your knights.  You think you’re just going to leave me here!”

 

“Of course I’m going to leave you here,” he snapped.  “We aren’t hunting foxes for sport.  These wolves are dangerous, and I don’t want you anywhere near them.”  She was stunned by the injustice of his plan.

 

“Angelus.  How many of our practice bouts would you say I’ve won?  About half?”

 

“Buffy...”

 

“Stop growling and answer the question.”

 

“Yes.  I’d say you’ve won about half of the battles we’ve fought,” he admitted stiffly.

 

“And, as you told me yourself, you’re one of the toughest warriors around.”

 

“It has often been said,” he replied through gritted teeth, just beginning to show a hint of fang.  He saw exactly where this was going, and it did nothing to sooth his rising temper.

 

“So, I’m as competent to fight something like this as any man in your guard, and probably quite a bit more, on top of which...”

 

“Your competence is not the issue, your safety--”

 

“On top of which,” she interrupted, “I have eight years experience fighting otherworldy creatures of the demonic persuasion, and from what that guardsman said, that might be exactly what you’re up against.  And since neither you nor your men seem to have gone up against a demon before, it might mean that I’m the best weapon you’ve got against these things.”

 

He continued to glare at her.

 

“I don’t wish to risk you.” 

 

“Hello?  Immortal, here,” Buffy said, rolling her eyes.  “What risk?”

 

“Risk of injury, maiming, all manner of pain.  Being immortal merely means you can survive horrific injury that would kill anyone else.  It does not mean you are safe from all manner of suffering.  Don’t ask me to put you in the path of such.”

 

“But, I should stand aside while you put yourself in the path of such, when you have a hundred guards you could send out with Lindsey, right now?” she countered.

 

“An emperor must sometimes be seen to lead his men into danger,” Angelus said in exasperation, “not just order them into danger while he sits safe at home.”

 

“Yes,” she said coolly.  “When I led my army, I was at the forefront.  I did not ask anyone to take risks I would not take myself.”  Angelus growled again, not enjoying the reminder that his beloved had, indeed, led her own armies. 

 

“Having you with me is a distraction I can ill afford,” he said, taking another tack.  “If I am worried about your safety, I may fail to press an advantage at a critical moment.”

 

“Trust me, I won’t let that happen. I’m not just a weapons specialist.  I’m pretty damned good at tactics and strategy.”  She could see him wavering, stepped toward him, pressing her advantage.

 

“I promise not to do anything foolish,” she told him.

 

“On your honor?” he said sharply.  She knew enough about this world to know just how serious that question was, so she made sure he knew her answer was just as serious.

 

“Yes, my liege,” she replied formally. “On my honor.”  He nodded reluctant approval.

 

“All right.  You may ride with us, between myself and Lindsey.  If it happens you know something of these creatures, and can tell us anything that will help us against them, all to the good.  But do not expect that I will allow you to engage them in combat, yourself.  And heaven help you if you break your oath.”

 

Buffy wasn’t happy with his intention to keep her sidelined, and knew he’d interpret any attempt on her part to join in as doing something foolish thereby breaking her oath.  But, she also knew things could change quickly, and unexpectedly, in the heat of combat.  He wouldn’t deny her the right to arm herself, and she had standing permission to defend herself from anything trying to eat her.  She might well end up putting her sword to use before all was said and done.

 

Buffy changed quickly and had Marguerite braid her hair, then wind the braid into a coil at the back of her neck.  The night being cold and damp, she donned her traveling cloak, then joined Angelus in the great hall where he was discussing final arrangements with Lindsey.

 

“I’ve ordered another ten knights to join us, my heart,” Angelus said.  “They will remain with you at all times.”

 

As long as they can keep up, she thought.  Aloud, she simply thanked Angelus and let him lead her to the courtyard where the knights were getting ready.  Angelus’ war horse, a great black destrier, had been saddled and made ready.  Buffy guessed that the smaller roan stallion beside it was intended for her.  Riding her palfrey into a combat situation was impossible, of course.

 

She let him assist her into the saddle, noticed his frown when he realized that she’d put her leather pants on under her gown, which she’d had Marguerite slit at the sides, from hem to hip.  But, as she arranged her skirts to cover her legs, he could not complain of immodesty.  The costume was practical, and he simply nodded stiffly and mounted his own horse.

 

They made good time to the village.  Lindsey had sent two of his men on ahead of them, and they were able to report a sighting of one of the beasts somewhat off the road and into the woods on their left.   Lindsey ordered five of his men off in pursuit, as he did a second time, when another sighting was made.  Buffy began to feel uneasy.

 

“You might not want to keep dividing our forces, Linds -uh, my lord,” she said.

 

Angelus and Lindsey regarded her in surprise.  “You believe these brutes are capable of forming a plan to deceive us?”  Angelus demanded.  Buffy shrugged.

 

“The guardsman said that they were crafty.”

 

“Planning such trap would require more than mere craft, my lady,” Lindsey said.  “Men, knowing an army was coming toward them, might make such a plan, but how could a beast conceive to do so?”

 

“You’d be surprised,” Buffy said dryly.

 

A third guard reported seeing one of the beasts.  Lindsey looked to Angelus for permission to send more men after it.

 

“No,” Angelus said thoughtfully.  “The others we sent out have not yet returned.  Let us continue on to the village.  Perhaps we should keep our force together, until we know what we’re up against.”

 

Lindsey nodded reluctant agreement.

 

Thus it was that fifty vampire knights arrived at the village.  Or, what was left of the village.  Doors had been torn off of houses, more than one body lay in the hard-packed earth that served as the main street.  Buffy realized that the heads of all three bodies had been badly crushed and mangled, the tops of the skulls torn off.  And the creatures had been wolflike, which meant...

 

“Hellhounds,” she told Angelus, her voice low.  “They feed on brains.”

 

“Weaknesses?” Angelus demanded.

 

“Break their spines,” she said.  “Or, get enough arrows into them, stab for the heart.  It’s difficult.  They’re fast, mindless, aggressive.  Wounds don’t stop them.  They keep going until they collapse.”

 

“It looks like the surviving villagers have taken refuge in the church,” Lindsey growled, nodding toward the one building made of stone. The stout doors were tightly closed, probably bolted from the inside.  Angelus, Lindsey and all the knights had gone into gameface, on high alert for anything that might come their way.  “We need to get them to safety,”

 

“I don’t think--”Buffy began.

 

That was when the attack came, dozens of dark, furry bodies hurtling silently between the small houses, launching themselves toward the vampire knights whose horses began plunging, their eyes rolling in fear. 

 

“Someone’s controlling them,” Buffy shouted to Angelus, even as Lindsey grabbed her reins and called for his men to close ranks around her.  Hellhounds were unintelligent, slathering beasts, demon footsoldiers bred as simple killing machines.  These were uncharacteristically quiet and acting more like a well-trained guerrilla band than mindless beasts, something that was simply beyond their limited capabilities.

 

“Stay here,” Lindsey warned her.  Buffy nodded grimly and he went to join Angelus.  She wasn’t about to break her oath, but pulled her sword free nevertheless, as things were getting very chaotic, very quickly.  Either the guardsman who had given Angelus the news had seriously underestimated their numbers or he’d been deliberately misled, because the furry just kept coming.  Buffy suspected the latter.  While she was sitting impotently within the protection of the circle of knights, she tried desperately to catch a glimpse of what was going on beyond them, see if there were a more human figure lurking about.  Being short was a decided disadvantage to her plan.  She caught glimpses of fur and steel, fire and blood, but no conveniently lurking figure in a dark cloak stood out as the puppet master pulling the Hellhounds’ strings.  There had to be one, Buffy knew, probably hiding in the shadows.  She wasn’t given long to look before the Hellhounds breeched the ranks of her protectors, and she was soon putting her sword to good use.

 

She managed to dispatch three of the beasts before her guard reformed around her.  Buffy sat her restive mount, grinding her teeth in impatience, holding to her oath, knowing it was only a matter of time before the ranks of her protectors were broken, again.  A very short time, in fact. 

 

A number of beasts had been taken out, but their own ranks had thinned as well.  Still, the Hellhounds kept coming.  Finally, the remaining knights kept her guarded while Angelus and Lindsey, fighting back-to-back, dispatched the last of the beasts.  After waiting a few moments to make sure that the slaughter was over, Angelus signaled that her guards might allow her out.  She ran to him.

 

“How bad are your wounds?” she fretted, noticing the blood spotting his clothing.

 

“Negligible,” he assured her.  “Your own injuries?”

 

“None,” she said.  “If there’s blood, it’s not mine.”

 

“Excellent,” he said, smiling and kissed her, before turning back to Lindsey and barking orders for the disposal of the monsters--he wanted their bodies burned-- the burial of the villagers, the tending of their own wounded, an accounting of the fallen and instructions to remove the villagers to safety within the palace until they could be assured the threat had been dealt with.  “You said someone was controlling them,” he said to Buffy when they were finally riding back.

 

“Had to be,” she returned grimly.  “Hellhounds are pretty mindless beyond a basic kill-and-feed mentality.  Well, also mating, I guess, to which, ick.  Point is, they would never have been that quiet, that stealthy or that organized without someone making them be quiet, stealthy and organized.”

 

“So, someone is attacking my kingdom, someone with power,” he seethed.  “Heinrich has the only witch strong enough to--”

 

“She wouldn’t,” Buffy said flatly.  “Lady Tara is a good woman, nothing could make her attack defenseless villagers.”

 

“Her oath to her overlord--” Angelus growled.

 

“Not even then,” Buffy was adamant.  “I think she’d renounce her lands, let her husband put her aside and join a convent--hell even let Heinrich execute her, if it came to that--before she’d raise that kind of monster and set it on innocents.  Everything she did while I was in Alba had one purpose.  She was trying to stop a war.  Why would she provoke an attack that could only lead to war?”

 

“I do not know,” he snapped. “But what is the alternative? That one of my own vassals is working against me?  That I will not believe.”  Buffy shifted guiltily, because she had an idea.  This might be part of the backlash Willow was worried about.  She wasn’t ready to discuss that possibility with Angelus yet, not until she’d had a chance to figure things out with Willow.  But, that wasn’t the only possibility she could see.

 

“It might not be anyone you know, and it might not be anyone at Heinrich’s court,” she reasoned.  “It could be someone from one of the eastern kingdoms, trying to get the two of you to have a war on this front so they can nibble at the edge of your lands on another front.”

 

“I suppose that could be it,” Angelus said, though he didn’t sound convinced.

 

Neither was Buffy.

 

She needed help, she realized, the kind of help with research her friends had always provided.  Lady Tara would be ideal if she weren’t so far away, and Buffy still wasn’t sure she trusted Lady Lilah.  Lady Willow? Perhaps for research, but not for power.  This world’s Willow missed out on the power her own Willow held.  Who, then?  There was no Rupert Giles on this world.

 

Was there?

 

As soon as they were back at the palace, while Angelus closeted himself with Lindsey, Buffy sent her footman to bring Lady Willow to her.

 

“My lady,” Willow said anxiously as she rose from the obligatory curtsey. “What’s wrong.”

 

“I’m not sure,” Buffy told her.  “But, I need someone who can help me with research.  Lady Willow, do you know anyone named Rupert Giles?”

 

“Oh, yes.  Lord Rupert is a great scholar, and a well known herbalist and horticulturalist.  He developed the roses that the emperor sent to Queen Darla.  He was distraught by what happened, and left court.”

 

“How far away is he.”

 

“Not far.  He has a secluded estate maybe half a day’s ride away.  There’s a wonderfully library.  I’ve researched things there.”

 

“Why am I not surprised?” smiled ruefully.  “I think I need to meet him.  Can you be ready to take me there first thing in the morning?” She was already signaling to her footman so he could have a message sent to Lord Rupert to expect a visit from the emperor’s soon-to-be consort.

 

“Uh.  Yours to command,” Lady Willow said.  “As long as the emperor permits.”

 

“He’ll permit,” Buffy said dryly.

 

“Are you sure Lady Lilah can’t help?” Willow asked.  “I mean, she’s much more powerful than Lord Rupert is.  He’s only dabbled in magick and done small spells.  And you are supposed to have your noon meal with her tomorrow, since it was cancelled today.  So, maybe what ever it is, you can ask for her help, then?”

 

“No,” Buffy shook her head.  “This is specialized research.  Trust me when I say I need Lord Rupert.  I’ll send Lady Lilah a note.  We’ll just have to reschedule.

 

Lady Lilah responded immediately, suggesting that Buffy join her for breakfast before setting out on her unspecified journey.  Buffy decided that the opportunity to spend a little one-on-one time with the lady might be useful.  She might get a better sense of her and decide how trustworthy she was.  She agreed to an early breakfast, then sent Willow off to bed.

 

Angelus returned not long after, and though he was reluctant to let her out of his sight while an unknown danger lurked, she was ultimately able to persuade him that allowing her to visit Lord Rupert was in everyone’s best interests.  Of course he insisted on sending a coterie of knights to guard her, but since she was able to convince him that she should be armed, just in case, she didn’t bother to object. 

 

That night, demons haunted her dreams -- things she knew she’d never fought, though she’d been told of them.  Angelus shoving a horn of rock into a monster of rock, Angel hurling a battle axe at another kind of monster, Angel, again, in an alley filled with smoke and blood and the rustling wings of a dragon...

 

Lilah showed up, too, not as a demon but in a modern business suit, and perfect makeup.

 

If the flames actually consumed anything, they wouldn’t be eternal...

 

Buffy sat up, gasping for air.  That had all the hallmarks of one of her prophetic Slayer’s dreams.  And it had involved Lilah, or, at least, the version of Lilah who must exist on her own world.  When she ventured to Lady Lilah’s apartments for breakfast the next morning, she was definitely on her guard.

 

Lilah's apartments were not what Buffy would have expected.  She’d become used to tapestries glittering with gold thread depicting elaborate scenes, heavy furniture and huge wheels of candles.  Lady Lilith had simpler tastes, it seemed.  She preferred hanging thick carpets, with muted, simple designs on her walls rather than the usual tapestries.  They served the same purpose as the tapestries--keeping the chill from the stone walls--but had a less cluttered feel.  She also preferred oil lamps, in the pierced holders popular in the east, to the wheels of candles.  All in all, Lilah’s rooms had a feel to them that Buffy found closer to her own more modern tastes.

 

The woman herself arrived a few minutes later. 

 

“Lady Buffy,” she greeted with a smile “how good of you to come.”

 

“It was kind of you to invite me,” Buffy returned. “And that is a beautiful necklet you’re wearing.”  It actually looked more like a choker, a style she’d noted that Lady Lilah seemed to favor as Buffy had never seen her without a wide band of jewels worn closely about her neck.  In this instance, the choker seemed to be of black pearls, which looked stunning with the ruby silk of Lilah’s gown.

 

“You’re very kind,” Lady Lilah said graciously.  Their conversation moved once more from a discussion of pleasantries to specifics of Buffy’s former life, a topic Lilah found endlessly fascinating.

 

“It must have been awful for you,” she said, pouring a steaming beverage into Buffy’s cup, a wafer-thin bowl of china.

“Jasmine tea,” Buffy noticed as the fragrant steam rose from her cup.  “It’s been ages since I’ve had any.  Where did you get it?”

 

“On my journey to the east.  I brought back a number of such delicacies.  If you like this, you must allow me to present you with a supply.”

 

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Buffy said lightly.  “Lady Tara was able to help me acquire some tea from my own world, so I have it for when I really need my caffeine fix.  But I know that tea isn’t easy to come by in this part of your world.  I couldn’t ask you to give up your supply to me.”

 

“Nonsense,” Lady Lila told her, pouring herself a cup of thick red liquid from a stone flagon.  “As a vampire, drinking tea is more an amusement than something that truly satisfies my thirsts.”

 

“But still--”

 

“No objections, my dear,” she said and gave Buffy a glittering smile.  “I really must insist.” 

 

Buffy smiled back.  Had there been something too eager about the lady’s insistence?  Lilah hadn’t poured tea for herself, and Buffy was suddenly reluctant to be the only one drinking it.

 

“If I’m going to take your supply of tea, maybe you should enjoy a cup with me,” she said artlessly.

 

“Oh, I plan to have several cups,” Lady Lilah said with another of those glittering smiles, pouring for herself and taking a sip of her own tea.  Buffy relaxed, preparing to follow suit.

 

“Forgive me, my lady,” a nervous footman said, bowing deeply as he entered the chamber.  “But Lord Lindsey insisted the matter could not wait.”

 

Buffy put her untasted teacup down as Lindsey himself entered the room.

 

“My ladies,” he said with a short bow.  “The emperor requires that Lady Buffy attend him at once.”

 

“Of course,” Lilah said, though there was a hint of exasperation in her voice.  “Another time, my lady,” she said wryly.  Buffy nodded and let Lindsey lead her back to the emperor’s suite.

 

“What’s happened?” she asked.

 

“Lady Tara is here,” Lindsey said.  “She rode as our couriers ride, stopping only to change horses at the posting inns, and with an escort of a mere ten guards and one of the witches of her coven.  The matter must be of considerable urgency for her husband and King Heinrich to have permitted her to do so.  She said she must see you at once.”

 

Indeed, Lady Tara was still in her traveling clothes when Buffy returned to the chambers she shared with Angelus, where the lady had been escorted.  Angelus himself was with her and another witch Buffy remembered as a member of Tara’s coven, Lady Alinor.

 

“Tara!” Buffy exclaimed, hurrying forward to embrace the other woman, then smiled at the other wtich, “Lady Alinor,” she said.  “You don’t know how glad I am to see you both.  But why didn’t you send word ahead?”

 

“There was no time,” Lady Tara said.  “My coven has been troubled lately.  There have been reports of strange beasts seen at the far edge of the kingdom, beasts which have attacked unwary travelers and are now banding together.  They’ve assaulted one or two villages, and though they’ve been beaten back, there is great uneasiness, and the king is most concerned.”

 

“Hellhounds,” Angelus said grimly.  “We fought a pack of them last night at a nearby village.”

 

“But if  Heinrich is worried, why did the he let you come to me?” Buffy asked.  “Wouldn’t a witch of your power be able to help him destroy that kind of menace?”  Lady Tara shook her head. 

 

“My coven is helping him with that.  I was able to persuade him that this is more urgent.”

 

“How so?” Angelus asked.

 

“My coven has been investigating every possibility,” Lady Tara explained.  “Including the possibility that the arrival of the beasts might have something to do with my actions in pulling Lady Buffy from her own world.  No, your highness, I did not really believe that could be the case, as I took every precaution.  Still, I wanted to eliminate even the most outlandish possibilities, so, I cast a spell on some of the items that had been used by Lady Buffy while at our court, but replaced with things more suited to her station, and left behind at Langdon.”

 

“The silver-backed brushes?” Buffy guessed.

 

“We were fortunate that some strands of your hair remained,” Lady Tara nodded.  “That strengthened the spell.  It didn’t tell us much, but we determined that, whatever is going on, I needed to be here, with you, to get to the bottom of it.”

 

“I think you’re right,” Buffy said, turning to the emperor “Angelus, can you have the carriage readied immediately, and have someone tell Lady Willow to meet us in the courtyard at once?  I think the sooner we’re on our way to Lord Rupert, the better.”

 

“Without permitting the ladies time to rest?” Angelus said warily, even as he signaled to Lindsey to send both messages.  “I’ve no wish to anger Heinrich by allowing his strongest witch and a member of her coven to come to harm while under my protection.”

 

“Highness, there may be some urgency,” Tara said.  “Alinor and I are ready to travel on, if we must.”  Alinor’s curtsey signaled her agreement.  “And as we will be in Lady Buffy’s company there can be no question but that you will see to our safety.”

 

“No, I suppose there is not,” he agreed with a mirthless laugh.   Within moments, Angelus had left to meet with his council to give them the latest information, while Buffy, Lady Tara, and Lady Alinor, escorted by her guards and a dozen of Angelus’ own, headed for the courtyard.  The carriage was awaiting them, and the three women were handed into it.  Tara took the seat beside Buffy while Lady Alinor sat across from them.  A moment later, Lady Willow joined them, taking the seat beside Alinor, and they immediately set off.

 

Buffy assumed that other women had met before, but this proved not to be the case.  Willow smiled shyly at the famous witch from the rival kingdom. 

 

“How do you do, Lady Tara, Lady Alinor?  Lord Lindsey told me that you would join us on our journey.”  The other ladies smiled back. 

 

“It is a pleasure to meet you Lady Willow,” Tara said warmly.

 

“I thought you would have been with Lady Lilah when she took the roses to Heinrich’s court, Lady Willow,” Buffy frowned.

 

“No.  Oz...my husband, Lord Osbourne...didn’t want me to be so far away.  We had only been married a little while, you see.”  Lady Tara chuckled. 

 

“Husbands can be most difficult about such matters.”

 

“Yes, he was,” Willow smiled, but then her smile faltered.  “He passed away not long after that.  So, I’m glad I stayed behind.  It meant we had a little more time...”

 

“Oh, my dear, I am so sorry for your loss,” Tara said kindly, leaning forward to take Willow’s hands.  Lady Willow smiled at her again.

 

“You are very kind.” 

 

And, if Lady Tara wasn’t happily married, it would be interesting to see how this new friendship would develop, Buffy thought.  But, there was no time for that, now.

 

“Lady Tara, can you open a portal to my friends, as you did before?”

 

“It would be difficult without my coven to help me,” she said doubtfully.  But Alinor and I could try.”

 

“It is possible that the scholar we are going to see will also be able to help.  And if I’m right about something, even Lady Willow could be of assistance.”

 

“What?  No magic here!” Willow said.

 

“But your research skills are outstanding,” Buffy smiled.

 

“Oh, yes.  I’d be happy to help with that,” she said.

 

Lord Rupert Giles had retired to something Willow called a cottage, Broad Briars, not many miles from the court.

 

“He wanted to leave, but the emperor didn’t want him to go too far,” Lady Willow said.

 

“He is the man who developed the roses for Queen Darla, isn’t he?” Lady Tara said worriedly.

 

“Yes, but I don’t think that he had anything to do with what happened to her,” Buffy said.  “And, whatever Heinrich thinks, I know that Angelus--the emperor, I mean--didn’t either.”

 

“So I have come to believe,” Lady Tara said.

 

As the carriage hurried toward Broad Briars, Tara explained to Willow what had caused her to make her precipitous journey from Alba to Zvesk, and Buffy gave the women a carefully edited version of the battle against the Hellhounds.

 

They soon arrived at the cottage, which proved to be a four story manner house surrounded by an extensive parkland, most of it devoted to gardens.  Buffy even saw a few greenhouses, where she was told he was cultivating a particularly exotic new plant that had been brought from a far distant jungle.  Something called an orchid.

 

Lord Rupert Giles and his wife, Lady Jenny, were there to greet them as the imperial carriage pulled up to their front door.  Buffy was thrilled that the woman she had known as a techno pagan was alive and well on this world.

 

They were going to need all the help they could get.

 

“My ladies,” Lord Rupert greeted them, bowing as his wife sank into the full court curtsey.  “It is an honor to welcome you to Broad Briars.  Your note did not explain the reason for your visit.  How may I be of service?”

 

“I have a long story to tell you,” Buffy said, taking his proffered arm and letting herself be led inside.

 

The tale was soon told, after which Lord Rupert helped Lady Tara and Lady Alinor remove the spell keeping the Willow from Buffy’s own world from contacting her.  Then, with the help of Lord Rupert and Lady Jenny, Lady Tara and Lady Alinor were able to open the communication portal.

 

Buffy saw her friends, in full research mode, in the newly re-established Watcher’s Council Library.

 

Willow’s head snapped up.  As ever, she was the first to see them.

 

“Buffy.  Good.”

 

“I’m in the home of Lord Rupert Giles and his wife,” she said with a meaningful look at her own Giles.  “Lady Jenny.”  The Watcher stiffened, then nodded.  He was as prepared as he could be to see the image of his own lost love.  “You have news?” Buffy went on.

 

“Some,” Willow said.  “For one thing, it’s beginning to look like you weren’t in the Hellmouth when Lady Tara began her spell.  So, the danger of the Hellmouth spilling into that dimension is less than we thought.  But something is going on.”

 

“My coven believes that, as well” Lady Tara said, stepping forward.

 

“We were working the angle that Buffy’s displacement from the Hellmouth was going to cause one, a large one, to open in your world.” Willow explained.

 

Tara shook her head.  “Did you think I wouldn’t ward against something like that?  It isn’t possible.”

 

“Still, there have been Hellhounds running around both Alba and Zvesk,”  Buffy pointed out.  “We have to take every possibility into account.”

 

Tara shivered.  “It can’t be a result of that spell.” she insisted.

 

“Why can’t it be?”  Buffy’s Giles asked.

 

“Because, while I may not be the most powerful witch in the world, I’m not careless,” Tara said firmly.  “The nature of the spell, the way it was constructed...I said that it was to bring the emperor a perfect gift, but that is only part of the truth.  What even King Heinrich does not know is, that I asked the spell to give us the perfect gift to stop the war.  The result has to be a good one.  It’s the very nature of what I cast.”

 

“If it is as you say, then there is another possibility,” Giles said.  “Someone is interfering with the spell.  Someone powerful.  It is not anyone here,” he said, indicating the people gathered around the table: Willow, Xander, Spike, a strange woman with blue skin whom Buffy had never seen before, Dawn and, of course, Giles himself.  “No one outside this circle knows what is going on, and we have no reason to harm your dimension.  We are, for the most part, people who love Buffy dearly, and do not want to see her come to harm.  And, of course, Illyria, who can have no interest in the doings in your dimension.”

 

“So, someone who is here?” Buffy said.

 

“So it would seem,” Giles confirmed.  “Tell me, Lady Tara.  You said you are not the most powerful witch in your world. Who is?”

 

“Lady Lilah,” Buffy said.

 

“Lilah!” Spike surprised her by saying.  “Thin bint?  Brunette?  Good legs?”

 

“I wouldn’t know about her legs, but...do you know Lilah?”

 

“Not well, thank God.  She died about six months before I joined up with Angel at Wolfram and Hart, so I didn’t really see too much of her.”

 

“Uhm, if she died six months before you got there, how did you see any of her?”

“Just because she was dead, didn’t mean she was free of her obligations to Wolfram and Hart.  She was one of their best lawyers, mind like a steel trap, crafty as a snake, and ambition to beat all.  Wes told me he tried to burn her contract and let her rest in peace, but it was indestructible.”

 

“If the flames could consume anything, they wouldn’t be eternal...” Buffy said, remembering her dream.

 

“Yeah.  That’s exactly what she told him,” Spike said, surprised.  “How did you know?”

 

“Slayer.  Prophetic dreams,” Buffy said dismissively.  “You think she might have something to do with the Lilah of this world?”

 

“It would give me great pleasure to eat the heart of a servant of the Wolf the Ram and the Hart,” a voice Buffy did not recognize spoke up.  It was the blue woman.

 

“Hello.  And you are?”

 

“Illyria,” Spike said.  “Former goddess, worked for Angel.”

 

“I am still a god, and I work for no one,” Illyria told Spike with something that might have been annoyance.  Since her entire demeanor seemed to be one of annoyance, it was hard to tell.

 

“Right, love,” Spike smirked.  “Anyway, Big Blue here fought with us in that alley.  Thought she’d snuffed it, but turned out she just got shoved into a portal.  Took her a while to get back.”

 

“I thought you said no portals opened in that alley?”  Buffy said, her stomach tightening in a knot.

 

“Yeah, well, looks like I missed one.”

 

“You missed one?” she demanded, incredulous.  “How could you miss a portal?”

 

“Well, there was that part where I was beaten unconscious,” Spike drawled.

 

“That is true.  Spike fell just after the dragon launched itself into the sky,” Illyria said.  “The portal opened a moment later, and that’s when we fell through.”

 

“Oh,” Buffy sighed.  After Angel had been killed.  She forced herself away from that thought, to focus on the problems at hand.  “So, this Lilah, who is a very powerful witch in this world, may be a lawyer for Wolfram and Hart?”

 

“A dead lawyer,” Spike said.  “She was our contact with the Senior Partners for a while after she died, but then they pulled her out, and sent her someplace else to do hell knows what.”

 

“I’m beginning to have a suspicion, but I’m not sure,” Buffy said grimly.  “It could be her, or, it could be that she’s really this world’s version of your lawyer, and that the person I’m looking for is someone else.  Ethan Rayne and Warren are both here.”

 

“Well, I can’t imagine any version of Ethan Rayne who wasn’t up to no good,” Giles said.  “He worships Chaos.  This is bloody awful.”

 

“I can’t hold this open much longer,” Tara apologized.

 

“Maybe I can help,” Willow offered, from the other side.

 

“Why do we not just open a bridge?”  Illyria said.  Dead silence in two dimensions greeted this remark.

 

“Bridge?”  Buffy asked finally.

 

“In the mind of the shell, there is a memory of the formula needed to open a bridge to Pylea,” Illyria shrugged.  “There are also memories of the shell working out how to manipulate the data to build other bridges, to other dimensions.  I could do that, if you’d like.”

 

“Illyria,” Willow said slowly, clearly trying to hold onto her patience.  “How long have you known about building this bridge thingy?”

 

“Since I woke within the shell,” Illyria said calmly.

 

“Good lord,” Giles said, taking off his glasses and polishing them.  “Of course you did.  Yes, well Illyria, what are the limits of the bridge you can build?”

 

“I do not understand.  There are no limits.  I will build the bridge.  You may walk from this library to the one in which Buffy is sitting, or she and her companions may come here.  Then you or they can walk back.  When we are done with the bridge, we can close it, and no one will see anything but the rooms as they now appear.  But, the bridge will remain.  Any of you can open it with the proper data, after it has been built.” 

 

Buffy turned to Lord Giles.  “Do we have your permission to do so?”

 

“I should say so,” the fascinated scholar said.

 

Buffy nodded crisply to Illyria.

 

“Build away.”

 

It was decided that Buffy’s friends should come across to Broad Briars.  They had exhausted the resources in the new Watcher’s Council Library, and it was possible Lord Rupert had texts that could help them determine what was going on, and more importantly, how to stop it.

 

Dawn was first across, nearly bowling Buffy over.  “I was so worried,” she said, hugging her.

 

“I know,” Buffy said, hugging her back.  Her reunion with her friends was emotional, but not prolonged.  They needed to be in serious research mode.

 

“What I don’t understand,” a weary Lady Willow said, “is why everyone expects a big backlash.  Lady Buffy’s arrival was a singular incident.  So, if what’s going on is a reaction, then that, too, should be a singular incident.  You know.  Not only an opposite reaction, but an equal one?”

 

“In other words, if there are dozens of Hellhounds being brought into this dimension, it’s a result of some other phenomenon?”  Giles suggested.

 

“I’m thinking a more deliberate action,” Buffy said.

 

“Who would do such a thing?” Lady Tara asked, appalled.

 

“It has to be Lilah.”

 

“It can’t be Lilah,” Lady Willow said.  “Lady Buffy, she’s been here for two hundred years.  How can she be this woman who was living in your world up until recently?”

 

“Perhaps she used a dragon,” Illyria suggested.  “They are temporal oddities.”

 

For the second time in as many hours, everyone was struck silent.

 

“Come again?” Xander asked.

 

“Dragons live outside of linear time,” Illyria said in a bored tone.  “They may be present in it, and also present in another part of it.”

 

“That’s it!” Willow said excitedly.  “That’s how Lilah could be there before she was here.  Time travel.”

 

“Yes,” Illyria agreed.  “That is why I did not find Angel on the other end of the portal.  The dragon had taken him to another time.”

 

Buffy collapsed into a chair near Lord Giles.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Angel died in the alley,” Giles said, looking at Buffy with concern.

 

“I believed the wound was mortal,” Illyria agreed.  “But he was not yet dust when the dragon carried him into the air.  It’s claws were in his ribs, and he was aiming his sword for its throat when the portal opened.  I had tried to go after him, and the portal took me with them, but when I arrived, I was not when they were, or where.”

 

...my earliest clear memory is that we were both falling, endlessly falling through the skies, my sword in it’s throat, it’s talons in my ribs...

 

“Oh, God,” Buffy whispered.  “Angelus...Emperor Varick...he could be...”

 

“We don’t know that,” Xander cautioned her.

 

“What do we know?” Buffy said impatiently.  “What else makes sense?  The emperor doesn’t remember much of his life before he was found fighting that dragon two hundred years ago, and what he does remember is vague and distorted.  He told me himself it was more like a dream than a true memory.  The last anyone saw of Angel, he was riding one of those temporal oddity dragons into the sky, and the first anyone knows of the emperor he was falling out of the sky with a temporal oddity dragon.  Lady Lilah is the most powerful witch in his kingdom, and she has this world’s versions of Ethan Rayne and Warren Meeks in her household.  She’s also got Lady Willow, who is an extremely powerful witch in our dimension but has no power here--”

 

“That is not possible,” Illyria said.  “The nature of parallel dimension is such that she must have a talent for magick, even though she might not have developed it.”

 

“But it can’t be!” Lady Willow exclaimed.  “Lady Lilah herself---oh.”

 

“Can we put it to the test?” Buffy demanded grimly.

 

“I can, if you will help?” Lady Tara nodded to the Willow from Buffy’s world who instantly agreed.

 

The spell was fairly straight forward.  Lady Tara detected the barrier, she and Willow removed it, and a few minutes later, Lady Willow, under their careful direction, performed a simple spell to call up a few will-o’-wisps.

 

Lord Rupert’s library lit up as if a supernova had gone off inside the room.

 

“We should have considered there might be a backlash from Lady Willow’s magic being suppressed,” Lady Jenny realized, banishing the will-o’-wisps.”

 

“Lilah is our girl then,” Buffy said.  “And she’s at the White Palace, so Angelus is in danger.

 

“As she’s been in his company for the best part of two centuries we may take it that the danger is not immediate,” Giles said.  “Buffy, you can’t rush off until we know exactly what we’re up against.  We do not yet know if we are dealing with a Lilah native to this dimension, or the one from our own.”

 

“All right,” Buffy said.  “What do we know about the Lilah from our dimension.  Spike?”

 

“Well, she’s dead.”

 

“Duh.  Vampire, of course she’s dead,” Buffy said.

 

“Lilah Morgan was no vampire,” Spike shook his head.  “Wesley saw to that.  Cut off her head.  Dead bint was always wearing scarves around her neck to hide the wound.”

 

“And the Lilah here has a fondness for choker-style necklaces,” Buffy said.  “Could Wolfram and Hart make her a vampire, after she died?”

 

“I know of no spells that could accomplish such a thing,” Giles said.  The other magic users agreed.  When it became clear that Lady Willow could never remember having seen Lady Lilah go into game face or take a sip of the blood offered to her at the many public feasts she attended, Buffy decided the case was closed.

 

“All right, so there’s only one Lilah, from our world, and she’s dead,” Buffy said, pacing.  “Was she a powerful wicca?”

“Not that I ever heard,” Spike said.

 

“There are artifacts that would have given her powers akin to sorcery,” Giles said grimly.  “We must assume that her employers provided her with such.”

 

“Right, so Wolfram and Hart turn her into a big-time sorceress.  A big-time dead sorceress.  For two hundred years, she’s been using the powers they gave her to help...the emperor.  Why turn against him now?  What does she want?”

 

“Wrong question, love,” Spike told her.  “What you need to ask is, what do Wolfram and Heart want?  The answer to that is simple.  Power over every dimension in existence.”

 

“But they’ve always wanted that,” Buffy said.  “Why act now?  What’s changed?”

 

“Well, you for one thing,” Lady Willow pointed out.  “You weren’t here before, and now you are.  And you’ve stopped a war.”

 

“And the war helps them how?”  Buffy demanded, her frustration clear.  “Why this war, at this time, and not any of the earlier wars the emperor fought?”

 

“Those wars were one initially small kingdom fighting with other small kingdoms and absorbing them, slowly, into a single realm,” Lady Jenny spoke up.  “But Alba is a great power in its own right.  This would be warfare on a scale such has never been seen on this world.”

 

“And that would open the door to chaos,” Lady Tara shuddered.

 

“Which would suit Ethan Rayne, our Ethan, down to the ground,” Giles said.

 

“Not to mention the side bonus of creating a power vacuum for Wolfram and Hart to fill, what with Angelus and the Master--sorry, the emperor and the king--at each other’s throat,” Spike pointed out.

 

“We need to get back to the White Palace,” Buffy said.  “How soon can the carriage be ready?” she asked Lord Rupert.

 

“Why do we not simply return to the other dimension and build another bridge to your emperor?”  Illyria asked.  “If he is indeed Angel, it would please me to see him again.”

 

“Liking that idea,” Buffy said.  The others agreed.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

They arrived to find that the war had started without them, and it wasn’t between Alba and Zvesk.

 

Even vampires found it tough going against Turok-Han.

 

“Didn’t we kill these guys already?” Buffy snarled, unsheathing her sword.  “Never mind,” she added, and began to shout orders instead.  Dawn was sent home to retrieve Faith and the other Slayers, those who had magick were set to guarding Illyria’s bridge between the dimensions, and those who had weapons were set to guarding those who had magick.

 

Except for Spike who decided that his place was at her side as she fought her way to the emperor.

 

Angelus was fighting for his life, back-to-back with Lindsey, as they had fought against the Hellhound.  Buffy was fighting for her life, too.  Immortal she might be, but she had learned through bitter experience that a life without Angel was a life she wanted no part of.  Grimly, she continued to cut a swath through the Turok-Han, forging a path to him.

 

The battle that would become known as The One Day’s War raged for hours.  Before it was over, a hundred Slayers, led by Faith, had crossed the dimensional bridge.  Willow had pulled a reluctant Illyria and the other magick users back to the safety of the Watcher’s Council, from which Lady Tara convinced the god to open a second bridge, this one to Langdon Castle.

 

It, too, was under siege.

 

But as once before, an army of Turok-Han was no match for an army of Slayers.  An army of Slayers backed up by an army of vampire knights?  That was more than enough to take the Turok-Han down.  Faith regrouped and led the forces at Langdon.  Once they’d cleaned up the mess at the White Palace, Angelus and his forces went to Heinrich’s aid.

 

Victory was in sight, and Angelus raising his sword for a killing blow against a Turok-Han that was attacking Heinrick when Buffy was kidnapped.

 

“You have got to be kidding me,” an angry Slayer spat when she found herself suddenly displaced to a set of apartments very similar to the ones in which she’d taken breakfast only that morning.

 

“You have only yourself to blame,” Lady Lilah--Lilah Morgan--said dryly.  “I didn’t want to use the matter displacement device on you, but the Senior Partners were rather adamant.  This would have been so much easier if you’d just drunk the damned tea.”

 

“What was in it?  Strychnine?”

 

“Don’t be silly,” Lilah huffed, taking a seat on her couch and waving Buffy to a chair opposite her.  “You’re an immortal.  Why would I bother trying to kill you?  Speaking of killing, it’s pointless to brandish your sword at me.  Already dead.”

 

“Wanna put that to the test?” Buffy growled.  “If it wasn’t strychnine, what were you up to?”

 

“Influence,” Lilah shrugged.  “If you’d taken the tea, your suspicions would have evaporated, and you’d have been as devoted to me as Lord Xander and Lady Willow.”

 

“And the emperor?  Has he been having tea parties with you?”

 

“Who, Angel?  No.  We had to be a little more...forceful with him.  Memory suppression charms, alternate memory implants...it took a lot of work to turn him into a medieval sell-sword and position him to forge an empire.”

 

“So it is him.  Angel.” Buffy said.

 

“The one and only,” Lilah smiled.  “Not everyone has a doppelganger, Miss Summers.  Some beings have special, unique destinies.  You’re one, Angel is another.  That’s why Wolfram and Hart were so eager to have him in their employ.  And when he took them on and nearly succeeded...well, they couldn’t let that much talent go to waste, now, could they?  Then they found that instead of dying like a good little vampire, he’d landed on this world, of all the dimensions in existence.  Well, that was really too good an opportunity to let pass.”

 

“Why this world?” Buffy asked.  “What makes it so special?”

 

“You mean you haven’t guessed?  I would have thought Rodolfo would have taken better care of your education.  You were with him for what, a year?”

 

“How do you know about Rodolfo?”

 

“Short version?” Lilah said with a smile.  “There’s an Immortal in every dimension, set to guard the balance between good and evil.  My employers, who have a vested interest in skewing things toward evil, find them damned inconvenient, so they keep tabs on them.  Funny thing about this dimension.  No Immortal.  It skews hard toward good, all on its own.  People who are absolute monsters in other dimensions are fluffy little lambs in this place.  And the people who were already good become positively saccharine.  It can make living here a bit...tedious.”

 

“Would you like to move?” Buffy said helpfully.  “Because I know a couple of hell dimensions where a bitch like you would feel right at home.”  Lilah laughed.

 

“I’m intimately acquainted with those dimensions, little girl.  My contract provides certain...protections.  Anyway, the point is that everything was going according to plan.  The murder of Queen Darla had set Heinrich and Angel at each other’s throats, and in another year’s time, with a few more accidents--Angel would have blamed Lindsey’s death on Tara, and Heinrich would have blamed Tara’s on Angel--we’d have had a nice, carefully orchestrated war.”

 

“And once Heinrich and Angel had torn themselves and their kingdoms apart, Wolfram and Hart would have come in to sweep up the leftovers.”

 

“Something like that,” Lilah agreed.  “And then Tara performed that damned spell, and you showed up.  If I’d been able to influence you, we could have kept things on course, but you refused to cooperate.  So, we had to speed up the timetable.”

 

“How’s that working out for you?” Buffy asked sweetly.  Lilah’s smile was just as sweet.

 

“Now that you’re here?  Just fine.”

 

“Maybe you didn’t notice,” Buffy said.  “Angel and Heinrich ended up helping each other.  Your army of Turok-Han is dust.  I’d say the Senior Partners of Wolfram and Hart are pretty much finished in this dimension.”

 

“For the moment,” Lilah allowed.  “But they tend to take the long view.  They may have been defeated for now.  But they can simply bide their time and try again in a millennium or so.  At least they acquired a very important asset.  An Immortal of their very own.”

 

“What?” Buffy said.

 

“Ethan,” Lilah called.  “Would you do the honors?”

 

Ethan Rayne emerged from the antechamber behind Lilah.

 

“My lady,” he bowed to her.  “I thought you would never ask.”

 

Buffy tightened her grip on her sword.  Ethan smiled and aimed what looked like a tranquilizer gun at her.

 

Then spun and shot it at Lilah.

 

The dead lawyer had time to get off one shriek of outrage before her eyes glazed over, and she sank back upon the couch.

 

“Poor girl.  The Senior Partners are not going to be happy with her,” Ethan tutted.  Then he turned back to Buffy with a wicked smile.  “Do you know the one mistake everyone makes?” he asked her.

 

“Supervillains explaining their plans for world domination in endless detail so the hero has time to get away?” Buffy guessed.

 

“Well, that too,” Ethan allowed.  “But I was thinking of the fact that everyone thinks that a devotee of chaos must want evil to triumph.  What they forget is that while chaos may look like evil to an outsider, it is not, in and of itself, evil.  And the way Wolfram and Hart have things organized?” he shook his head.  “That’s as far from chaos as one can get.  Not my thing at all, really.”

 

“Then why are you working for them?” Buffy asked.  She still hadn’t lowered her sword.  Whichever world he was from, Ethan was as far from trustworthy as it got.  Short, apparently, of Lilah.

 

“Simple, really,” Ethan shrugged.  “They offered me a way out of that prison that did not officially exist, and from which I hadn’t a hope in hell of being released otherwise.  The prison your former boyfriend, the soldier, had me confined to after my little misunderstanding with Ripper.”

 

“Misunderstanding?” Buffy said.  “You turned him into a Fyarl demon.”

 

“Self defense, that,” Ethan shrugged.

 

“How can... Never mind.  So, you want me to believe that you don’t really want Wolfram and Hart to succeed, and that’s why you turned on Lilah.  I think it’s a lot more likely that you just want to be on the winning side.”

 

“Same difference,” Ethan smiled beatifically.  Buffy shook her head and lowered her sword.

 

Angelus had gone frantic with her disappearance, on the verge of accusing Heinrich of luring him to Alba so he could capture Buffy. Lindsey had carefully reminded him that Heinrich was the whole reason Buffy had been sent to him in the first place, but Angelus was not in a particularly rational frame of mind, and for a moment there was a real possibility that he would literally take Linsdey’s head off for disloyalty.  Fortunately, Ethan Rayne brought Buffy back before things turned violent.

 

“Buffy,” Angelus said, crushing her in his embrace.  She happily let herself be crushed and did her best to crush him right back.

 

“Angel,” she said.  “My Angel.”

 

It took days for the dust to settle.  There were warriors who needed healing, victories to be celebrated, spells to be undone, memories to be restored, and villains to apprehend.  Or, one villain.  Sadly she escaped.

 

“Although I wouldn’t worry to much about that,” Ethan Rayne confided.  “She’s going to have a lot of explaining to do to the Senior Partners.”

 

“I still can’t believe she had me fooled for so long,” Angel said as a group of them sat in Heinrich’s private apartments after the first night of feasting.  He was Angel again, her own Angel.  The dark sorceries--rather than clean magick--which had kept his scars from healing had been undone, and his face was the one she remembered.  The concealing spell on his back had also been done away with, revealing his tattoo.  Buffy had been happy to see it again and had spent a few hours with massage oils making it clear just how happy she was.  Angel had then found his own use for the massage oils which had made her even happier.

 

“We were all fooled,” she told him now.  “Wolfram and Hart got you when you were vulnerable from your fight with the two dragons.  Of course they would have all the weapons they needed to manipulate you.  It was a long range plan, they moved slowly, and it’s not really surprising they covered their tracks so well.”

 

“I was fooled, also,” Heinrich reminded him.  “Almost embarrassing, at my age.” Angel regarded him gravely.

 

“I am glad there is peace between us.  And I am sorry that Darla was murdered before that peace could be won.”

 

“Thank you,” Heinrich nodded, glad to have the air cleared between them. 

 

For the rest, Ethan used his rescue of Buffy to negotiate a return to his own dimension.  Being a lord was all well and good but no substitute for running water, airplanes, electronics and good bourbon.  Buffy didn’t share his opinion.

 

“We still can’t be sure that your being here won’t disrupt things,” Willow warned.  “Buffy, I know you don’t want to leave, but do you really want to risk a war that’s worse than the one we just had?  I think you’ve got to let me find a spell that will bring you back to our world.”

 

“That would be sensible,” Illyria said approvingly.  Buffy stiffened, prepared to fight everyone tooth and nail on this.  She was not leaving Angel again.  Not now, not ever.  Especially now that his curse, which had no cure on her own world, had been done away with on this one.  Fortunately, Illyria wasn’t done.  “Then she can take the bridge back here, without causing any disruptions.”

 

“I...yeah.  I can do that,” Buffy said slowly, a grin spreading across her face.

 

“Just don’t spend too much time back home,” Angel warned her.

 

“Silly,” she told him, smiling lovingly up into his eyes.  “This is home now.”

 

“But you’ll visit, right?” Dawn said.

 

“Sure,” Buffy said.  “And there will be a suite of rooms at the White Palace waiting for you whenever you want to stay with us.”

 

“Um.  Will the suite of rooms include a bathroom with plumbing?” Dawn asked skeptically.

 

“What about it, Angel?” Buffy asked.  “Think we should invent indoor plumbing a few centuries early?”

 

“Well, there’s the water pollution to be thought of,” he began.  This led to a lively discussion between the two Ruperts, the two Willows, Lady Jenny, Lady Tara and Angel.  Buffy smiled, content to listen.  Dawn eventually got wish.

 

A few days later, and home once more in the White Palace, Buffy and Angel lay the final ghost to rest.

 

It wasn’t only Angel’s memories that had been restored.

 

“Now we know what your dream was,” she mused.  “The pier at Santa Monica on the day you took back.”

 

“You understand why I did it?” he asked.

 

“Understand?  Yes.  Like?  No,” she said.  “But if you hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here, now.  That buys you a whole lot of forgiveness in my book.”  She smiled and kissed him.

 

“Good,” he said, returning her kisses.  “Good.”

 

And so it was.

 

The reign of Varick the Dragonheart, and Buffy the Golden over the Empire of Zvesk lasted a thousand years.  After the first three hundred years, King Heinrich grew sufficiently bored with his own kingdom to cede it to them.  Or, as Buffy put it, ditch his responsibilities and leave them with the administrative headaches while he took a permanent vacation.  Since Angel was with her to take her mind off the headaches, she didn’t complain too often.  Their reign began a golden age of peace and prosperity, one their eldest daughter, Empress Joyce (named in honor of Buffy’s mother, rather than a doppelganger) ably continued for the next thousand years, when they, in their turn, decided to ditch the responsibilites.

 

As to what dimensions they next explored, and what adventures awaited them there...that is a story for another day.

 

The End

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chapter I Notes

Translations from the Italian  These translations were done by machine.  Any native speakers who want to correct my usage, please feel free, as I would like to render things as accurately as possible.  I’m not going to translate the obvious stuff, as I’m pretty sure my English-speaking readers can figure out the meanings of cara, palazzo, signore, and bella without any help.  As to anything else not explained in the narrative, here goes:

Sta bene - This is a colloquial expression, the closest in meaning to, “That’s good.”

Cara bambina Dear child.

Che cosa è la dispersione,...?” What is the disturbance...?

Scusilo, il signore, signorina, ma qualche cosa di horrible è accaduto.”  Excuse me, my lord, miss, but something horrible has happened.

 

 

Chapter II Notes

Cleveland Rocks: There is no Washington High School in Cleveland so far as I know.  Also, Faith’s opinions are not necessarily the opinions of the author.  *G*

 

 

Chapter III Notes

Medieval Dances:  The dances listed here are all authentic dances from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  Be aware that I’m fudging most of the descriptions, though less of the galliard, which I’ve seen performed in various films and Renaissance entertainments.

 

Winter’s Heart:  The discerning reader will, I hope, recognize this as a reinvention of LA Song, which Lindsey performed at Caritas in the Angel ep Dead End.  The original lyrics were written by David Greenwalt, and can be found on the soundtrack from the series, Angel: Live Fast, Die Never.

 

Chapter IV Notes

Skule: Though used here as the name of a duchy, it is properly a Scandinavian boy’s name meaning hidden.