Lily clenched Iris’ hand tightly, fingers interlocking, Iris’s synthetic flesh temporarily stripped. There was a light clinking sound as the two metal surfaces played around each other, the fingers closing, opening, and closing again. A smile graced Lily’s face, a joyful tear leaking from the edge of her eye, as she watched Prei and Tate exchange their marriage vows. Prei wore her armor, granted a ceremonial coat of paint for the occasion. Tate, meanwhile, was clad from head to toe in white, looking hilariously uncomfortable in a dress. She constantly checked her bridal train, making sure it had not caught anything, while Victoria, wearing a ceremonial suit, read aloud the procedures in the officiation of their union. Neither of them wore a veil – they had nothing to hide from each other.

The hall – Victoria’s hall – was crowded with many familiar faces, humans and demons, mixing together and watching the proceedings with anticipation. Soldiers lined the walls, dressed in ceremonial armor, a sign of respect for Prei. Everyone in the room was a friend of Tate’s or Prei’s, and Lily marvelled at the amount of influence the two girls had gained in this town, the number of connections they had made. It made her feel slightly lonely, but a reassuring squeeze of the hand reminded her that she had the company of the woman that was most important to her. She leaned her head on to Iris’ shoulder, reflecting on how much her little girl had grown. Prei was not hers by blood, but Lily loved her nonetheless.

Victoria finished saying the customary phrases, then nodded at the newlyweds. Prei, being slightly taller than Tate, took Tate’s chin in hand and lifted her face upward, kissing her long and deep. Prei’s wings fluttered behind her, making numerous minute movements. Lily briefly wondered whether her tail would have been wagging, if she had it in this form. The thought of it made her giggle.

Prei and Tate broke off their kiss and gazed into each others’ eyes, then joined hands and turned to face the crowd. Joyous applause erupted through the hall. The soldiers, moving as one, brought their ceremonial spears before them in salute. Victoria herself took a step back and drew her sword, her family’s treasure, and held it before her in salute. Prei and Tate walked down the room, the applauding guests parting before them. Still holding hands, they approached Lily and Iris, standing near the back of the room. Following the traditions she had learned from a young age, Lily held out her hand, the one which wasn’t being claimed by her own wife. Iris did the same. The crowd quickly grew silent. In turn, Prei and Tate bent down and kissed the backs of the proffered hands. Lily turned to Tate and, prompted by ceremony, said the required words.

“Tate, henceforth, I trust you with my daughter. Keep her safe always.”

“I swear to always protect her, and to love her, and to cherish her… Mother.”

Tate responded solemnly, completing the ceremony. Then she grinned.

“She might be a great warrior, but I daresay there’s nobody in the world who’s better at protection than me.”

The family of four girls laughed together, tears leaking out from Lily’s eyes. She had never known, so many years ago, that she would come to love her adoptive daughter this much. While they laughed, the sound of bells rang out, heralding the union. The sound of metal striking metal rang out, resounding, crashing. The bells rang, then shuffled, then shouted, then resolved themselves into the sounds of metal scraping metal as the soldiers around Lily scrambled to take up positions.

Lily opened her eyes. The lookout was ringing a bell, signalling that some change in the situation was occurring. When had she fallen asleep? She must have been more tired than she thought. The soldiers around her were in a scramble to find their armor and weapons. Lily leapt to her feet, scanning the mess for Victoria. Lily found her descending the stairs from the lookout post in a hurry. Lily hurried to meet her at the midway point of the stairs.

“What’s going on? Are they attacking?”

Victoria shook her head, but a troubled expression crossed her face.

“The enemy is packing up their camp in preparation to move. But they have one person on approach, on horseback. He’s carrying a white flag.”

Lily felt a surge of hopefulness. Their strategy, had it worked? Could they now avoid the dangerous proposition of fighting Vessel? Then she felt it quickly drain away, replaced by suspicion. It was possible, but it could also be a trick.

“Victoria, are you going to meet the messenger?”

Victoria nodded. Lily clapped her shoulder.

“Let me go instead. I’m faster.”

Victoria contemplated this for only a moment, but quickly nodded. She knew Lily was right.

“Alright. Sorry for imposing on you.”

Lily quickly ran up to the gates, just as she had done before; only this time, she was not the one bringing offer of parley. As the gates swung open, she felt Prei come to stand next to her. The dream she had seen floated vaguely through her consciousness, barely out of reach. The details were rapidly fading, but she knew it had something to do with Prei. Something happy. Prei noticed Lily staring and tilted her head in curiosity. Lily shook her head and focused on the opening doors.

As Lily and Prei ran out, Prei transformed into her dragon form, prompting Lily to leap onto her back. Soaring quickly over the plains, they soon met with the messenger sent by Vessel’s army, who reared his horse back as he contemplated the extremely large dragon barrelling towards him. Prei flew quickly, stopping just short of the mounted messenger, her powerful wings buffeting the ground. The messenger blanched at the sight of Prei – perhaps he had borne witness to her massacre. He frantically waved the white flag, whereupon Prei lowered her neck, depositing Lily. Lily walked up to the messenger, a stern look in her eyes. She crossed her arms and waited. The messenger was visibly trembling, overwhelmed by fear. He kept his eye on Prei, who stood behind Lily in her dragon form, quietly watching the messenger. Then he began to stammer out his message.

“O-our commander, Vessel, has decided to bypass your city. Y-you have our word that we will leave it u-untouched, a-as long as you do not impede us on our path to the capital.”

Lily fought back a grin. This was exactly the result she had hoped for. But there was something odd.

“Where’s Vessel? Why did she send you, instead of coming herself?”

As if to punctuate Lily’s question, Prei let out a snort of air, causing the messenger to become several shades paler.

“V-Vessel is busy planning our assault on – on the demon capital. She d-does not have the leisure to come out to p-parley.”

Lily frowned.

“You do realise that if your commander isn’t present at a parley, we can’t take your words as reliable, right? Without her here, there is no guarantee that you won’t attack us when we let down our guard.”

Prei narrowed her large, reptilian eyes and bared her large, white fangs. The messenger shrank back, his terror palpable in the air.

“P-please! You have our word, our guarantee.”

“And as I’ve just said, your word means nothing.” Lily sighed. “I’ll relay the message. We won’t impede your passage. But we’ll be watching your movements very closely. If you make even the slightest hint of turning toward our city, we will pay you back in kind. And I am not merciful to those who turn on a promise.”

The messenger frantically nodded, and turned his horse around, racing back to his army’s lines. Lily turned to Prei.

“What do you think?”

Prei’s voice reached her ears, carried by a magical wind.

“Might be a trap, but his fear certainly seemed real.”

“It certainly did. Prei, what exactly did you do to their cavalry?”

“Acts hardly befitting of a lady.”

While they joked, Lily leapt back onto Prei, who shuttled her back to Riasode. The first person to greet her at the gates was, naturally, Victoria. Lily quickly relayed the message to Victoria, but this only caused Victoria’s brow to furrow.

“It could be a trap.”

Lily nodded.

“That’s what I’m worried about, too. Still, if it’s not, then it means we’ve accomplished our goal. Let’s just keep watch on it for now, and pay attention to their movements. If they keep their promise, all will be well. If not, well, it’s back to the fight for us.”