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  • Beqanna

    version 22: awakening

    COTY

    GHAUL -- Year 209

    QOTY

    "(souls are not meant to live more than once — death was not meant to be temporary, and she is so sure that every time her heart starts to beat again that irreversible damage is further inflicted)" -- Anonya, written by Colby


    blue eyes and blue skies fade into the dark; aten
    #1

    Summer comes to the Taiga as only that season can - all that green vibrancy and the lush promise of things to come. Even the fog that has hidden Lilliana on the western shore starts to burn away by the insistence of the summer sun. And truly, when has the chestnut mare ever been one that is meant to be hidden away?

    No, that isn't Lilliana. That isn't the wildflower child.

    Her pelt sports the dapples of the season and the copper mare moves through the impressive redwoods, those imperial trees that have stood for so much (and stood through so much) with the fluid ease of someone who knows the trails and the seasons of this northern land. It has been her home for three years and Lilliana has come to know Taiga as she has come to know herself: some parts that reveal themselves with startling clarity and other parts that still remain shrouded in fog, places and pieces of her that have yet to emerge.

    But the young woman who emerges today is not an uncertain one. The one who emerges through these trees today is one who searches in earnest for a champagne stallion that she knows lingers in this part of the forest. Lilliana emerges from the trunk of one massive trunk to another, brushing underneath the primitive ferns while frequently looking above to keep an eye out for Turul. The falcon was as much a protector of these woods as the Champion was; locate one and the other was never far away. Her determined stride pauses as she stills behind one trunk and looks around another, as she continues forward trying to find Aten.

    His scent is here as well as Lethy's and their expanding brood of children. That thought tugs a smile at the darkened edges her mouth and Lilli rounds another corner of her trail while glancing upward once more, staring above at the tangle of leaves and branches that wave so impossibly high against the breeze that passes above.

    "Aten?" she calls, her voice inquiring as it echoes against this part of the redwoods as she comes to a standstill - a crimson flame that stands devout in the cathedral of Taiga's woods. "Anybody home?"

    Aten and anyone else who might want to crash

    [Image: sTAi2f.png]
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    #2
    Lethy's words were indeed true; Turul and Aten hardly strayed very far from each other's sides, simply because it made communication between the two of them easier. But in time, their link had strengthened, pushed by the bond they began to develop upon becoming friends and realizing what mutual interest they had. Especially since they now both had growing families of their own to tend to, which wasn't always a good thing. But Lethia understood Aten's position as Champion, and Turul's pretty mate understood the important tasks he was given by his equine friend.

    It was never easy... but they were managing... adapting... working with the fortune they had been given, even if it didn't make life ideal in all situations.

    A rare exception was when neither stallion nor raptor had to attend to any immediate business, the case on this day that Lilliana was in search of Taiga's Champion. Even with new rulers on the horizon, pride struggles still brewing, food was once more plentiful and Turul could busy himself in his free time by hunting for his mate and young. Still dependent on both parents, the male raptor provided for them while his mate stayed by their side to ensure their safety. Their species did not have many natural predators in the sky, but two vulnerable chicks could bring potential danger if they were not careful.

    The mountains where they had raised their young proved very useful during this time, for it was still early summer and the chicks were quite young. Turul often found himself stretched thin, but Aten reassured his friend that, while his chicks were growing, he didn't have to concern himself so much with Taiga's affairs. He informed Turul that while he attended to his mate and young, Amica, herself without a family to raise, would handle the raptor's tasks so he could rest.

    Turul eventually gave in, but promised he would still be around enough that he could inform Aten of any recent developments. The only negative point in this arrangement was that Kalil was the only one who could communicate with Amica, so if it was something important, the colt would have to find an adult to tell.

    Luckily, that hadn't happened yet, and for that, Aten was thankful. He didn't want Kalil to have to deal with such a responsibility yet, even if the colt had been told his job with Amica while Turul tended to his family.

    Kalil and Amica had decided to take some time to play today, the still youthful creatures eager to have fun after the somber mood that had settled over Taiga as of late. Happy to see his foals relieved from their negative feelings for the time being, the golden stallion settled in to graze near Lethia, every so often brushing his muzzle against her pretty coat to relish in her closeness to him.

    The peaceful mood wasn't ruined, but interrupted when Aten's keen hearing picked out some horse calling his name. Immediately recognizing the voice, he told his mate he would return, entrusting watching their foals, including the newly arrived Ruthless, to her, while he went to see who was asking for him.

    Aten easily moved among Taiga's redwoods, his keen eyes spotting the dark chestnut mare against the titanic flora around her. It seemed Lilliana had come here with the intent of speaking to some horse, and who was Aten to prevent that?

    The golden stallion stepped from the shadows of the trees, his golden coat glistening magnificently in the rays of sun that could break through Taiga's redwoods to shine down. He had shed out quite nicely after winter, his form once again sleek and powerful, with firm muscle strapped against his form underneath a silky coat. The pattern was also different, with portions of his back, barrel, and hindquarters now expressing a light dapple shading, further accentuating the variety of golden colors from sparkling in the sun to a warm golden brown.

    He greeted Lilliana with a small smile and a dip of his head, showing his respect for the mare, "Lilliana. It is good to see you again. I do hope you have fared better than some others I have recently come across, though I do not wish to dwell on Taiga's future in the conversation I take you wish to have today."

    lilliana
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    #3
    He reminds her so much of her father that she can't help the tenderness that slips into her gaze. Noble and stoic Aten. The expressions appears almost instantly when he slips into her field of vision and Lilliana smiles, warm and sincerely glad to see him looking so hale after the winter. She closes the space between them and relaxes as she comes to stand before him, her ears pricking forward and the chestnut mare dips her head in greeting.

    His first words give her pause and the glimmer of a grimace spreads across her delicate features. That flame burns again - that anger sparks  - and the gentle smile stills as she exhales quietly. Lilliana looks away from Aten then and looks instead to the sunbeams that break through the branches above, where sunlight trickles down in lovely golden ribbons from the blue sky above. Her nostrils flare once in exhalation before she turns her blue eyes back to Aten, "I've heard that its been an.. eventful winter." She presses her lips together and gives a small shake of her head, "Mine was relatively quiet," she muses. "What of you and Lethia? And your children?"

    She allows him a moment to speak, considering his words before her head dips. "I came to apologize," comes a quiet answer. "I felt that I spoke too harshly that day in Meadow," that day she had been so frustrated. Nerine and Loess, Antares message of change and all the upheaval of the previous autumn had brought back so many buried emotions: ancient scenarios revisited her in ways that she couldn't have imagined and the ghosts of her past lingered too close. Aten might not have held her words against her but it was one more mark of things she had done wrong, poorly as her friend Neverwhere would say.

    "And for the other day with Ruth," she adds. It had been a brazen thing for her to do and yet Aten had taken the girl home with him and Kalil that day while she, Eurwen and Brine had ventured north towards Nerine. "It was rude of me to suggest such a thing without asking your permission." There was more to that situation to explain but it isn't her story to tell and so she has to hope that steady Aten will accept her apology in its stead. An ear flicks to the side as she tilts her head curiously, "How is she doing? Is she settling in alright?"

    Aten
    [Image: sTAi2f.png]
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    #4
    Lilliana, before she spoke herself, closed the distance between herself and the golden stallion, returning his show of greeting by dipping her finely tapered head. She begins their encounter by, vaguely, speaking of all that had occurred in Taiga's forests over the cold season. To use the word 'eventful' was quite an understatement. He was pleased to hear that she hadn't seemed to get caught up in the politics and craziness; she didn't deserve it. She had been a loyal, fair resident of Taiga. Her life was good, quiet, peaceful... she didn't need the stress that Aten and others in charge here were currently experiencing.

    She then goes on to ask about Aten's family, Lethia and their foals. The stallion smiled fondly at thinking of them, "They are all well. Lethia has done well in taking care of Orion; she is the youngest we take care of together. Popinjay is aching to stretch her legs, and I am certain Owin will feel that call soon enough too. Kalil is almost... too responsible. It has me slightly worried he won't be willing to go out and explore for himself, which he should, since he is over four seasons old now."

    He wishes to ask about those Lilliana is close with, whether considered family or not, but before he can, the pretty chestnut mare speaks up. Specifically, with an apology. That surprised the stallion; what was she here to apologize for? Of course, his question was soon answered when Lilliana brought up the events that transpired in the Meadow that day, along with what had occurred not even a full moon ago with Ruth and her dam.

    Aten let Lilliana finish, deciding to answer her question before continuing, "She is doing well. Kalil has grown attached to her; he enjoys her company, and she is pleasant to have around. She no doubt misses her dam, but Lethia nor I do not push her to talk about it. Our foals have done their part in showing her around when they feel like it, but it seems it's fallen more to the others than Popinjay. I will not hold that against her; she is growing and wishes to be on her own.

    "And Lilliana," he changed the subject, "you do not need my permission to do what you feel is right, or even what you wish for yourself. From what I recall that day, you were offering what Ruth's dam believes she needs, and I will not stand against that. When Ruth feels ready to see her dam, she can do so without my permission too. Whether I was leader of your caste in this kingdom or not, you do not need to consult me or ask before you do something. I would have said something if I felt your actions are misplaced; I am not one to bead around the bush."

    His eyes softened, "I am grateful that Ruth's dam had you and Eurwen to guide her up there; she seemed conflicted when she left, even if she was certain she wanted to leave Ruth behind. I will settle this matter, and say I forgive you, even if there is nothing you need to apologize to me for. Our friendship remains no matter what, and I do hope I can always count on you for that."

    lilliana
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    #5

    Aten's features gentle under the mentioning of his family and Lilliana feels her own features, the rigid tension that she held between her shoulders and the taut arch of her neck start to flee. The golden Champion speaks of those closest to him and the smile that graces Lilli's dark mouth is wistful, happy to know that the champagne stallion has a solace beneath these trees. "Fillies at that age are usually ready to run," she adds. Even Lilliana, who had been so content to be with her family, can remember the desire firing within her to try new things and encounter new faces. (And even if she had never been the one to test boundaries, she had never said 'no' when Elaina had prompted them into all sorts of adventures outside of Murmuring Rivers.)

    The crimson mare listens quietly as Aten then worries about his son. Her brow furrows for a moment before she asks, "Depending on where I go," (she throws this idea out tentatively - her ideas have been rather brash lately and she doesn't want to upset Aten), "perhaps I could take him with me on my next diplomatic mission? He could get out of Taiga for a bit and have a little adventure." Her gaze had shifted away from the champagne stallion, uncertain of his reaction. She's already volunteered a ward in his name. This might be a too-large leap of faith. But she remembers the trip she took to Ischia with Lepis and Celina, the way that the then-yearling had looked so enamored of the beach and seemed so excited at the prospect at new things, and thinks that such a thing might be good for Kalil.

    The conversation moves ahead, moves to Brine and Ruth. She had regretted that there hadn't been anytime to speak with Aten before that conversation (but then who can plan for the unexpected?). The idea had come, unbidden, and Lilliana had given it life in hopes that it was the right thing to do. Ruth to Taiga where she could grow under the care of Aten and Lethia and Brine to Nerine where she could be close enough but far enough away that her daughter could blossom. And honestly, Lilliana had liked (and enjoyed) introducing the roan mare to Neverwhere. It was a comfort to know that her friend wasn't alone -  even if Never tried to indicate that being alone was just fine with her. 

    Aten tells her about Ruth and Lilliana commits everything to memory, ready to recount every word to Brine should she ask and her earnest expression as she turns her head to him tells that plainly. (She wants to paint as detailed an image of Ruth's life in Taiga that the roan mare would feel like she had physically been here.) The yearling seems to be settling in as well as can be expected and Lilli softens at those words. Gently, "If you think she'd like, I could take both her and Kalil with me one day. We could take a visit to Nerine or Ischia, maybe." Under the guise of diplomacy or just for pleasure. Neither matters much to Lilliana in that moment; she remembers what it was to be separated from her family and how badly she just wanted something to take her mind off their absence. 

    He changes the subject again, taking her apology and accepting it. She dips her chiseled head, feeling something lighten within her. "Thank you," she murmurs and then gives a shake of her head. "I know.. it just felt so presumptuous not to ask." Aten is one of those golden souls, she realizes. He is someone who seems so untarnished by this life and there are echoes of familiarity there: her father had been like that (Though Valerio had certainly gotten tangled and torn, his intents and his heart had always been in the right place). 

    At the thought of her father, her throat goes dry. It's been years and she can still recall how much his approval had meant. How badly she had wanted to be like him. "You can always count on my friendship, Aten. And I am so grateful for yours."

    Aten

    [Image: sTAi2f.png]
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    #6
    So far, their conversation was pleasant and simple, a neutral but friendly territory where neither was willing to leave just yet. Aten laughed at Lilliana's put in her two cents about Popinjay, agreeing wholeheartedly with her statement. She then moves on to ask about Kalil, if Aten and Lethia would let him accompany the chestnut mare on her next assignment for Taiga's diplomacy. While the stallion was a bit apprehensive, simply because Kalil wouldn't be with either Aten himself or Lethia for his first adventure like that, he was not against it either.

    And there was one very important factor that he would tell Lilliana about her idea. She had turned her gaze away from him, so Aten spoke in a calm manner to let her know he wasn't offput by her words.

    "I think that is an excellent idea Lilliana, for a number of reasons. Perhaps he won't feel as pressured either, to be responsible and enjoy himself at the same time, since he won't have myself or Lethia looking over his shoulder. I trust you to look after him, and the other way around as well. He is a sensible colt, and can learn a lot from you I'm sure."

    The idea grows after Aten spoke more to include Ruth on Lilliana's next adventure, and once again, Aten expressed his approval. Three in a group, four if one counted Amica since the feline would most likely accompany Kalil for they were hardly ever apart outside of the feline's hunting. All three of them knew each other as well, and could watch each other's back in case of trouble.

    The stallion then spoke again, "Perhaps I will accompany you one day on a mission as well; it would be a welcome change of pace, to once again learn tricks of the trade and see how others handle matters like the ones you are trained for."

    lilliana
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    #7
    Her blue eyes flicker apprehension as she turns to gaze up at Aten. The emotion starts to form a knot in her stomach and Lilliana wonders if she has done it again - if one of her ideas has gone too far.

    But, surprisingly, it hasn't.

    The doubt that had started to build in the corners of her mind settle and the chestnut mare relaxes under the calm tone that the Champion uses. His words bring relief and that telltale smile dawns against Lilli's dark mouth. Aten trusts her and that acknowledgement floods her veins with warmth. The chestnut mare raises her head a little higher than it had been and the way her mouth curves borders on fondness, those expressive eyes warming as she considers his words.

    "It can be hard sometimes," she shares with him, "when your parents cast shadows. It can be good to step out of them." Lilli doesn't mean any offense by this but she has seen it, has known it. Memories of her own nephews play in her mind and even her own come as she remembers what it was to be the daughter of the Regent, of the Guardian. She had known - as Tarian, Liam and Kildare had known - what it was to be considered against the reputation and actions of parents who had cast those long shadows. Her gaze sharpens and she comes back to the present, returning her full attention back to Aten.

    And then her expression beams back up at the champagne stallion, "He is a wonderful colt. You and Lethia have done well by him." There is no doubt in her mind that Kalil will go on to remarkable things like his father before him; that he will be another stalwart steward or caretaker for Taiga (or any land he chooses). His next words catch her by surprise and Lilliana finds herself blinking once before inclining her head curiously up at the stallion.

    Her expression turns almost shy before she finds her smile again, "I'd like that." She would - the idea that the champagne Champion would want to accompany her has never occurred to her - and the thought takes a pleasant shape in her mind. "Anytime. You need only ask." Lilli gives her head a playful shake before a soft laugh dances forward, "Or don't. The best plans are sometimes unexpected ones." If she somehow found herself in Aten's company for her next diplomatic mission, well, Lilliana will flow with whatever the Winds send her way.

    Eventually, there is a lull that comes and the copper mare looks away from the Champion again. While she has enjoyed this conversation, she does have a question. Well, questions really. Her expression grows serious for a moment as she studies the impressive redwoods and finds her blue-eyed gaze going up rather than out. There is an electric flash of blue as she finds a patch of sky and that prompts her to ask, "I know you had mentioned the fire..." she trails, gentling her words because the imagery of flames embracing this forest causes a fierce ache in her chest. She can't imagine what it does to Aten and she has no desire to make him revisit unkind memories.

    An ear flicks towards the stallion before the chestnut mare peels her eyes from the trees and turns back to the Champion. "But what else of Taiga's history? Has it always resided in the Kingdom of Nerine?" She wanted to work towards the future of the northern forest but in order to successfully do that, she needed to fill in the gaps of its past.

    Aten
    [Image: sTAi2f.png]
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    #8
    Lilliana's words about stepping out of a parent's shadow strummed a chord in the golden stallion's heart; he knew all too well what that could be like. The pressure that accumulated on the shoulders of a young foal just trying to survive and learn the ways of the world. Aten's own sire had not been around the home herd much, but even to this day, he sometimes felt haunted by thoughts of what his parents might think of him.

    What would his sire say about the stallion's place in the kingdom? Would he express displeasure that Aten had not taken in more than one mare, instead devoting himself to a life partner? And his dam... how the stallion missed her, and Aten suddenly felt very small once again, wishing he could press his thin coat up against his dam's side to snuggle close for warmth during the chilled winter nights.

    The stallion wondered if he had unknowingly been placing pressure on his son, and the other foals he was raising with Lethia for that matter. Was Kalil feeling the burden of one day taking over his sire's place as Taiga's protector simply because it seemed a number of his other siblings idolized what Aten stood for? Was the colt subjecting himself to deprecating, suffocating punishments and allowing the responsibility to build on his shoulders with some fantasized notion that by doing so he would grow stronger?

    Aten knew he could seem stoic to others, including his family. Was that how Kalil saw him?

    But Lilliana has more positive things to say of the colt he bore with Lethia; that he was a fine young thing and he would grow to be a proud, handsome, and no doubt headstrong stallion. For despite how he was willing to listen to his parents and follow rules employed by them, he could still be rebellious and wishing to go out on his own adventures.

    Aten would also take Lilliana's suggestion in mind; he would surprise her one of these days, proposing a kingdom they could go visit to either build or establish relations with the redwood kingdom.

    A peaceful quiet hung in the air for a few moments, and Aten watched the chestnut mare. He could tell she wanted to say something, but seemed to be choosing her words carefully, not out of a fear of hurting Aten, but rather trying to figure out what exactly she wanted to learn from what she would ask.

    Lilliana started by bringing up a topic that Aten still wasn't too keen on mentioning. He'd had a difficult time telling the story of Taiga's history, from the time he started living there before it was destroyed, and whenever he neared the portion that consisted of being separated from his friends and the fire that lit up the redwoods like the sun, the scars on his fetlocks, pasterns, and belly burned with a vengeance, almost like they were screaming at him, reprimanding him for the mistakes he had made and how he was unable to save his home the first time.

    Even as Lilliana mentioned it, he felt a tingling sensation on his barrel, and Aten lifted a hoof to paw at the irritated scars. It did little to help in the long run, for the pain continued; whether the pain now existed physically, or only in his mind, Aten could no longer tell.

    "To the best of my knowledge, yes," Aten informed the mare. "Taiga was always a neutral land in the beginning; leadership was mostly exchanged between horses, rarely ever passed on directly from dam or sire to colt or filly. Taiga eventually joined Nerine for protection since the other lands had been joining together after lands were handed over for political purposes, or taken over by aspiring rulers who wanted to increase their power. Prime example is actually Lepis' parents; Ivar and Heda ruled Taiga and eventually gave Loess' crown to Lepis when she was young. They ruled Taiga, and it one day ended up in Ruan's hooves.

    "Taiga's history has been confusing, and in recent years, it's the first instance of leadership being handed down from dam to colt," Aten said, obviously referring to the current leader, "And it will be interesting to see how he handles the leadership. I do not disrespect Pteron, but he has not yet given me a reason to trust him as a fit ruler for the kingdom. I will not compare him to his dam, for she has done both good and bad, including breaking promises. I spoke with Lepis before she had the kingdom meeting where she appointed Pteron the leader. She asked me which Taiga I would serve, and I said the one that proves to have a worthy leader, not a puppet master pulling the strings.

    "If and when Pteron proves he can be a capable ruler and continue having Taiga flourish under his hoof as Ivar and Ruan did before, then I will acknowledge him as a good ruler and one I will serve instead of just Taiga as a kingdom."

    lilliana
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    #9

    There is a quiet intensity behind her blue eyes as she studies the champagne Champion.

    Lilliana is listening and listening closely. She is looking up at Aten as he answers her question. Like before, he astonishes her in his ability to recall the events that happen not just in Taiga but Beqanna. He's an untapped resource, something tucked beneath the Redwoods, and the copper mare considers herself fortunate that Aten is kind enough to share this knowledge with her.

    "Ruan," she murmurs into a passing autumn wind. It's a name she has heard before, spoken of on tongues of Beqanna natives in association with the Taiga. "Was he a leader you knew?" Her timeline of this place is relatively unknown and while she knows that Aten has been here for some time, exactly when the events he speaks of take place blur together. The smaller mare blinks and tilts her head in that curious way that she always does, one delicately-tipped ear a little closer to catch the rolling baritones of his voice.

    While one ear does remain trained on Aten, Lilliana looks away while she waits for him to speak. She stares out into those Redwoods again and in the empty spaces between the trees, she sees ghosts threatening to emerge like the fog that this forest was renowned for. As she stands there, she is reminded that she has asked and asked Aten. She has asked him for parts of Taiga's past in the hopes of its future and he has never asked anything in return. He has never once extracted or demanded a price - never told her that all these questions and the time he has spent with her could come at a cost. In a world hellbent on taking (and she is as guilty as the rest of them), Aten has been a source of unending patience and kindness.

    He has never asked her for anything.

    The revelation leaves her raw with emotion and she struggles to swallow it down.

    As Lilliana stands there with dancing eyes (going from one apparition to the next, remembering), she fights the black panic that fills her chest as she makes her choice. It's a hard thing, for her, that she decides. It is agony in her mind and the silence that lingers between the Champion and the Diplomat roars in her ears; if anyone deserves to know what she is thinking, what she hopes for Taiga and the things that motivate her for it, it is Aten.

    The chestnut mare lifts her sculpted head and tears her blue-eyed gaze away from the forest and back to the Champagne stallion. Her eyes are a little rounder, a little wider but Lilliana is the daughter of an accomplished storyteller (so that is what she treats this as). The Regents' daughter detaches herself and crafts her voice in a way she had heard her mother do so many times before, "My family was torn apart by war."

    The admission isn't a shocking one. War occurs in many different places, in many different lands, and for all their differences, one thing always remains the same: there is always loss. Casualties can litter the battlegrounds, open eyes staring unblinking into the unknown chasm of death as flies swarm. But it doesn't stop there. It trickles down, like the blood that can stain the ground and seep into the land. It can - and does - echo for generations to come.

    Those who leave can carry those ghosts with them. A war can remain in the past and for the soldiers who fought it, for the warriors who were there, the memory of it can be carried into the present.

    Her father was one of those men.

    "My father made a promise to his sire," she explains. Lilliana blinks, fighting unshed tears. "My home," says the girl from Murmuring Rivers, "We didn't have kings or queens or Comte's or.. anything like that." She means no offense to the leaders of Beqanna, to Taiga's leader or the Nerinian queen who is her dearest friend. All she is trying to do is make someone understand the depth of her love for this place, trying to explain to Aten the source and how such a bond can form between equid and land (but maybe he already knows, unwavering Aten who is as steady as the trees that stand sentry around them). "My father was a Guardian. As was my grandsire before him and his sire before that. The land bonded with its leaders, with the horses who had birthed and breathed and died on it. My brother used to say that if you stood still enough, you could feel the land pulse beneath you."

    She forces the air from her lungs. In her storytelling, for a moment, she has conjured her past and Lilliana can see silver Malachi with his dark, laughing eyes. She can see him smiling at her, shaking his head indulgently at his youngest sister who (at the the time) hadn't understood his meaning. Embraced by the shadows of dancing branches above and the golden rays of sunlight, she understands it completely now. Despite the war she rages inside herself, she knows that she loves this forest. (She loves the Taiga in a way that spans the width of the trees to the fingertips of their branches, from the breeze that whispers from the craggy beaches.)

    There is a boldness in her glance matches the gaze of the golden stallion, a rather uncharacteristic defiant tilt to her chin that paints a picture of generations of Guardians that came before her and ones that could come after. "My father came home," she says quietly. "But his heart did not. Whatever happened to him haunted him for the rest of his life until he left. My mother moved us from place to place, fearful for the enemies that my sire and grandsire made. Magic shielded us for a time but magic can be," she swallows again and makes a weak attempt at a smile, "tempermental at best."

    Other things happened during those sentences, in those fragments of her past life that she offers Aten.

    "Taiga is the first home I've known in a long time," she explains. There is no lover to warm her nights and there is no child to claim her heart and so all that emotion goes into the ground, straight to the roots and lifeblood of this place. Lilliana plants that love here in the hopes that a generation of saplings will take root and remain as impenetrable as the ones that came before.

    The chestnut mare feels the heat of her words creep up her neck and then she can no longer look at him. She can't look anywhere but the forest ahead of her. The smell of clean, silver fog calms her and ebbs away the panic. The way her pulse has risen and that her heart crescendos takes a painful moment to find peace and for them to work in tandem with each other. Aten has been wronged, she knows, and the more she comes to know him, the more she feels the injustice of it. But the thought of turmoil, of any more strife in this forest, fills her soul with iron dread and it sinks with the weight of it.

    And yet, despite everything that has changed these last few months, despite the changes in herself, one thing remains the same: Lilliana is still the dreamer she has always been, always the optimist that is searching for the cracks and breaks in a broken thing where the light might shine through. "Do you think he'd take your counsel?" she asks hesitantly. She doesn't know much about Pteron but from what she has seen, he seems different from both of his parents. Aten speaks of chances and so Lilliana gently prompts, "He might have his own shadows he wishes to step out of."

    LILLIANA

    light me up, i will blaze
    like a soul you have saved



    Aten
    [Image: sTAi2f.png]
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    #10
    "Yes," Aten answered. "Ruan watched over Taiga before it was destroyed in the fire, and for a time after as well. He eventually passed it down to a mutual friend of ours, a mare, who then handed it down to me." Aten phrased it that way, that Ruan had 'watched over' the kingdom, simply because he didn't think of himself as a king. Aten respected him more for that; Ruan had not thought of himself as a leader, a horse above all, but a protector, a friend, one who, if they wanted respect, fought to protect what he loved, not for glory, but out of love.

    Lilliana seemed momentarily distracted, focused, and Aten decided not to interrupt her. The silence was not tense between the two of them, however. Aten found he enjoyed the mare's company; she proved to be a good friend, a good council, much like Lethia. His attention remained on her, despite the occasional ear swivel when a sound in the forest caught his senses.

    When Lilliana opens her mouth to speak again, there was a difference in her tone. It was gathered, controlled, but the words spilled off her tongue with a gentleness and attractive quality that drew him in. she began with a harsh, gut-wrenching statement. Her family...

    Aten's eyes softened, but he did not openly display anything extreme yet. He didn't know if the mare would appreciate such emotions, at least while she still had a story to tell. Aten himself didn't, but knowing himself wasn't the same as figuring out what another wanted.

    She spoke of her sire and grandsire, their jobs as Guardians, how they had grown to have such a bond with a land that Lilliana's sire stated one could feel the land beneath their hooves in a way most others could not. She seemed trapped in her thoughts again for a moment before Aten noticed a change in her eyes, a shift in her posture that helped Aten envision the mare as a Guardian more than ever. Her voice grew quiet as she continued talking about her sire, how she'd moved around with her dam until arriving in Taiga and considering it her home.

    "I am happy that you consider Taiga your home now," he offers. "Even if it may seem quiet on most days, I know that those of us who know you are here are happy to have you. You've proven your loyalty, and Taiga is lucky to have you here with her. Your optimism and hopes for the kingdom are fresh and welcome; you have helped to provide us here with a light we needed. You and others that came after Taiga's destruction have helped in a way that we can never thank you for," he said with a smile.

    Aten didn't know Lilliana suddenly couldn't look at him, but when he brought up Pteron, the mare offered her advice. She expressed the thought of asking Pteron if he'd take Aten's counsel, to listen to what Aten had to say about Taiga and if any advice could help the younger stallion be a good ruler. The golden stallion's head tilted a bit as he thought over the mare's advice, suddenly wondering if that would perhaps be a possibility.

    He remained silent for a moment, "I would certainly hope so, if anything, that he'd be willing to talk to me. If he decides to listen to advice I have, good on him, and if not, well, I can't force him to. How he decides to watch over Taiga will mostly likely differ from his Mother in some way, but, perhaps, maybe there is something I can offer, even small pieces of advice that could help him overcome whatever he may be dealing with if he had any demons."

    He smiled at Lilliana again, "Thank you, Lilliana. Taiga is lucky to have you, but so I am. I am glad to have you as a friend, and hope I can continue turning to your counsel in the future."

    lilliana
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