Chapter 1 - With an Edge and a Charm

Rogue continued to brush her long hair as the door behind her opened. She watched her foster mother's reflection enter the room and make her way over to the bed.

"You're not dressed."

She was unable to keep her smile from entering her voice as she spoke. "Not that it matters...even if you could see, there's no shame in being in night clothes in front of my own mother."

"I thought by now Raven would've instilled a sense of propriety into your thick skull," she replied disapprovingly.

"Aye. Every day both she and you speak to me of propriety...and I've come to indulge you both..." She put down the brush and turned away from the mirror to face the other woman. "But I'll not be told how to dress or behave in my own chamber."

Irina nodded slightly. "What you do in private is your own business...but what would you have done if it was someone else on the other side of the door?"

"Like who? A stable boy? A soldier looking for a woman to satisfy his primal urges? The people of this country know better than to lay a hand on me." Rogue paused, looked down at her bare hands, and continued with bitterness. "And even if some stranger should miraculously make his way into these halls, you know as well as I that he'd be unconscious before he could do me harm."

"I'm sorry, child. I was only concerned for your safety."

Irina meant well, but she often forgot that Rogue's skin could not touch the skin of another without serious consequences. Whether this was because she was not exposed to the sight of her daughter wearing gloves every day, or because she had foreseen a time when Rogue would be able to control her powers, Rogue didn't know.

"I know." She stood and walked over to the bed, where she sat next to her guardian. "Now, what brings you to my door at such an early hour?"

"I come bearing news - there will be visitors today, and you must be ready to receive them."

"How many?"

"Three."

"Do you know any of them?"

"I could not see their identities."

"Do they warrant a formal welcome?"

Irina didn't answer her right away, and that was all the answer Rogue needed. She rose and began to pace the room. "This ruins my plans for the day...I promised to spend time with the children, and..."

"With the queen away, it's your duty."

"Do not speak to me of duty," she cut her off sharply. "I know what I must do." Taking a deep breath, Rogue sat down before her mirror once more. "When do they come?"

"Shortly after the sun has passed its peak."

"Then I will delay the midday meal until they arrive. Leave me now...I wish to commence my exercises so the day won't be a total waste."

"You haven't the time..."

"I will be ready to receive them," she promised gently. "If it'll ease your mind, I'll only engage in target practice. It's certainly the least physically demanding of my practices, so I won't get all sweaty and dirty."

"You're a good girl," Irina said as she headed for the door.

"I just do as I'm told."

~

A little over an hour had passed since the sun had reached its zenith, and there was still no sign of visitors. Rogue had been washed and dressed for quite some time now, and the longer she waited, the more annoyed she became...she would've rather spent her morning perfecting her technique with a sword, and her afternoon presiding over mock-battles the neighborhood children often performed. Instead, she was forced to settle for shooting arrows at stationary targets, and send word that she was unavailable to play with the children.

As she climbed the steps of the watchtower, Rogue silently cursed her foster-mother. If Irina didn't have the gift of foresight, none of them would've been any the wiser to the day's events - she could've gone on as she planned, and there would be no shame in her being in work clothes when these guests showed up unannounced. But to have a seer and not be prepared was unacceptable.

When she reached to top of the stairs, she found two guards standing on opposite sides of the tower, scanning the horizon. She handed both goblets full of hot soup, then looked over the land herself. It was considerably windy up there, and Rogue was glad she hadn't done her hair yet, for it would surely have been ruined by the strong gusts. She stood there for several minutes while the guards drank their meal in silence, searching for any sign of motion in the distance. It wasn't until she had collected the empty cups, and about to return below, that something caught her eye.

"Tell me, sir," she shouted over the wind to the nearer of the two guards. "Does that look like animal or man?"

The guard followed her pointed finger into the fields and squinted at its target. "Men, three of them. On horseback, I think."

"How long would it take to get here by horse?"

"It depends on their speed, milady. They're too far away for me to guess...but even at a hard gallop, they should not arrive in less than 15 minutes."

"Thank you," she said, turning towards the stairs. "If their heading should change, inform me at once."

After stopping in the kitchen to make sure the food would be ready to serve within the hour, and dropping off the empty goblets to be washed, Rogue headed for the weaving room. Upon entering, she asked two of the queen's handmaidens to attend her in her chamber. She had none of her own, as she always dressed herself for obvious reasons, but she often had the handmaidens arrange her hair when a formal hairstyle was required. When she had successfully brushed the knots out of her wind-ravaged hair, the two women went to work, their fingers nimbly weaving her mane into two braids, one starting on either side of her head, until they met in the back and became one large braid. Because the queen often wore braids herself, the girls were able to do an excellent job in a short period of time.

Thanking them, Rogue let them go to fulfill whatever duties they had to attend to, while she went to the great hall to await her visitors. She walked the hall to make sure everything was in its place. Torches were lit, guards were posted, and the red and black banners of Órënár were prominently displayed...it was ready for whatever manner of man might walk through the doors. Satisfied with the state of the room, she walked up the three steps that led to the thrones, and seated herself in the larger of the two.

Her wait was not long. It was only a matter of minutes before a messenger appeared to announce the arrival of her guests. "A man claiming an acquaintance has requested an audience with you, milady."

"Who is this acquaintance?"

"You know him as Xavier...he brings two strangers I have never laid eyes on."

"Send them in...Xavier is an old friend of Órënár. Anyone in his company is always welcome."

The messenger slipped out for a moment, then swung open the large oak doors with great ceremony and presented her. "Lady Rogue, the Steel Magnolia of Órënár, will see you now."

Rogue stood as the three men entered the hall. Xavier stood in the middle, thin and frail-looking, distributing his weight between a large white staff and the companion to his right. This companion was shorter than he, with dark, wild hair, rough face, gleaming eyes, and an overall savage look about him. In spite of he stature, he looked strong and fierce...a force to be reckoned with. She was struck by the gentleness and respect with which this feral creature treated Xavier. She liked him immediately.

The other companion, taller than either of them, was wearing a cloak with the hood obscuring his face. He wore gloves with several of the fingers cut out, and had a sword hanging at his side. Of the three, he was the only one carrying a weapon.

To them, she looked every bit the queen she wasn't. She wore a black gown the queen herself had made, with red, yellow, and orange flames reaching up from the hem to about mid-calf, and a bright red flaming Phoenix with its wings outstretched, head lifted towards the heavens, and claws extended, that covered her torso. The edges of her dress - around the neckline, the drooping bell sleeves, and the hem - were highlighted with gold thread. Her braided hair was perfect, her white streaks adding age and maturity to her young face. The headpiece of gold and rubies, fashioned specifically for her, subtly highlighted the rank she held.

When the trio reached the foot of the stage upon which the thrones sat, they moved to kneel.

"No," she said, holding up a gloved hand, "Pray, do not kneel before me." The men stopped where they were and stood erect. "I have not earned such respect, nor do I desire it."

Xavier nodded approvingly. "Whatever you wish, my lady. May I present my friends?" She gestured for him to continue. "This is Logan, of the Wild Woods of the North," he said, indicating the man to his right before pointing to the other, "and this is Remy, son of Jean-Luc. We have come on a mission of great importance."

Rogue gave herself away, then. She descended the stairs, retrieved a chair from the side of the room, and dragged it over to where they stood. "Please, sir, you have traveled far. Will you not sit?" Xavier smiled gratefully as Logan helped him into the chair. As the wild man turned to face the lady of the hall, he caught Remy's eye and saw that their thoughts were the same - all appearances to the contrary, this woman was not a royal. Royalty had others fetch chairs for them, they did not do it themselves.

Rather than returning to the throne, Rogue simply stood before them. "I'm sorry that the Lady of the Phoenix is not here to receive you properly...she and the king left two days ago to seek you out. I suppose they did not find you."

"I'm afraid not."

"If you have pressing business you wish to discuss, we can do so now...but if you are agreeable, I can have the midday meal laid out, and you can rest from your journey."

"Our business is not so urgent that we can't accept your hospitality, Lady Rogue."

"Then I will have you taken to your rooms so you may get settled, and when you return, we will eat."

She led the men to three adjoining rooms down the hall from her own before heading to the kitchen. After having a lengthy conversation with the cook about dinner, she returned to the great hall, where she found her guests sitting on one side of a long table, talking quietly amongst themselves.

Unaware of her approach, the wild man complained to his companions. "...to leave a woman alone to watch over the land is unfair. I don't understand how the king can permit such a thing."

Rogue waited for him to finish before speaking up behind him. "Órënár has long been a matriarchal society, Lord Logan." The men stood at the sound of her voice as she walked to the head of the table. "It will continue to be so as long as the logic of this arrangement is understood by its people." She motioned for the others to sit, and followed suit a moment later.

"Logic?" Logan ventured skeptically.

"A bloodline may only truly be traced through women...no matter how much a woman insists that a particular man fathered her child, it is only her word. But it's easy to see who the mother of a child is, since she must go through childbirth. So this country follows the bloodflow from mother to daughter, especially when it comes to its leaders.

"It is the queen, not the king, who rules over these lands...and until the Lady of Órënár bears a daughter, I am her heir. When she is absent, it is my duty to rule in her stead."

Logan stared at her for a moment, thinking over her words before speaking. "Yes...there is a kind of logic go it. I'm sorry if I offended you."

But Rogue was surprised to discover that she had not been insulted. "There is no need to apologize...I'm well aware that the ways of Órënár are different from the rest of the world."

The food was brought in then, so conversation was suspended for a short while. As they ate, Rogue became aware that Xavier's other companion, Remy, still wore his hood. She didn't like the fact that his face was hidden, as it seemed to her that he was trying to challenge her. Her annoyance grew with each passing second, until it finally became too much for her to ignore. "Perhaps it is acceptable to conceal your face where you hail from," she said diplomatically, fighting to keep her tone civil, "but while you are here, manners dictate that your show yourself during meals."

"My sincere apologies," Remy replied softly, reaching up to remove the hood. "I meant no disrespect."

His face was handsome in a rugged sort of way, framed by wavy, brown hair, cut shoulder-length, as many of the men of the time wore it. Though he didn't have a beard, there was noticeable stubble on his chin and cheeks, as if he had recently decided to grow one. The smile he gave her was full of warmth and mischief, and his eyes...her gaze stopped at his unusually colored eyes in fear and excitement.

"The eyes of Órënár," she muttered to herself.

"Pardon?"

"Oh," she said with a start, diverting her eyes. "Nothing...I just..it's nothing." Slightly flustered, she turned her attention to Xavier. "What news do you bring?"

"My news is for the Lady of the Phoenix, and will be of little use to you..." He saw that she was about to protest, but he held up his hand to silence her. "However, as you are the current ruler, I will certainly share whatever information I have."

"You are too kind."

"I have come to the great hall of Naira to ask for the queen's help. There is a disturbance on the astral plane...at first, I thought it was some kind of anomaly, but it has grown in strength in recent weeks..."

"She has sensed it too...in fact, that is why she left to look for you."

"When do you expect her to return?"

"She gave me no set date, though she rarely leaves the city for more than a week. She'll certainly be back in a fortnight. I do not know what your plans are, but you and your companions are more than welcome to remain here to await her arrival."

Xavier thought over the offer before responding. "I'd rather find her sooner than later, though I fear we will miss her if we leave." He glanced at the other two men, then looked at Rogue. "If you don't mind putting up with three wanderers for a while, I'd like to stay."

"As long as you don't expect much in the way of formal entertainment," she said bluntly, "for I am not the queen proper, and have other duties to perform."

"Of course," he replied matter-of-factly. "We are able to amuse ourselves if left to our own devices...do not trouble yourself with trying to think up ways to keep us occupied."

Rogue stood, and the men rose as well. "Your are gracious guests, and I am happy to have you in my home. Should you need anything, please let me know." With that, she excused herself from their company, eager to escape the role of hostess, at least until dinner.

~

Hours later, the three leisurely roamed the halls, Xavier acting as tour guide to the two men who had never before laid eyes on Naira. When they reached the great hall where the thrones stood, Logan suggested that they go outside for some fresh air. Exiting the hall through the huge oak doors, they walked out onto the ledge that encircled the building and studied their surroundings. The city of Rámaurúva, capitol of Órënár, was built on a hill in the middle of a large valley, and the hall of Naira, where the king and queen lived, was built on the highest point, so the land surrounding the city could be surveyed easily from almost anywhere outside the building. The watch tower was obviously much taller, and therefore granted the best view of the land in all directions at once, but from where they stood, Xavier, Logan, and Remy could see a good part of the valley.

Almost immediately, a lone figure shrouded in a black cloak with a blazing phoenix on its back caught their eyes.

"I hope that isn't the Lady Rogue," Logan said, turning to Xavier.

"Who else would it be?"

"You there," Logan began, addressing one of the guards stationed outside Naira, "can you tell me if that's the Lady Rogue?"

"Aye. She often walks the countryside in the afternoon."

"Afternoon?" Logan grumbled, turning back to his friends, "The sun is setting...it's nearly dusk. How could she be so careless? How can the guards allow her to..."

"I have known Rogue a long time," Xavier interjected, "and she is more than capable of taking care of herself."

"I don't like it," Logan spoke up again. "I'm going out there."

Remy held out his arm to stop him. "Allow me, mon ami," he said, racing down the steps of the great hall to the path that lead to the gate.

After a few seconds pause, Logan moved to follow him, but Xavier prevented him from doing so. "Let him go."

"But you know what he's gonna do..."

"Wait."

He shook his head, annoyed. "I don't approve of this...allowing that innocent girl to fall into his clutches..."

"Wait," Xavier repeated with a knowing look, suppressing a grin. "Be silent and watch."

Down below, Remy had made his way through the gate, and was soundlessly creeping up on the lady in question. She strolled away from the city in a relaxed, easy manner, oblivious to the man behind her. Or so he thought.

Just when he had gotten close enough to touch her, she unexpectedly whirled around, grabbed his collar, and threw him to the ground. The cold sting of a blade was at his throat before he could say a word. And those same quick reflexes that allowed her to swiftly respond to the approaching threat, also allowed her to recognize her stalker right before she ran him through with her 16 inch knife.

"Good afternoon," he said calmly.

Keeping the sharp metal against his neck, she looked down at him suspiciously. "What do you want?"

"I saw you walking out here alone...I came to protect you."

"As you can see, I do not need your protection."

He glanced at her hip, where the knife's empty sheath hung from a loose belt around her waist. "Against one opponent, surely you do not...but you couldn't possibly defend yourself against an entire company."

"I need only slit one man's throat to take his sword," she said quietly as she removed the blade from his skin and put it in its place. "Then I could hold my own until reinforcements from the city arrived."

"It seems you have no fear," he commented, slowly getting up. When he reached his full height, he found her frosty green eyes boring into his own.

"Anyone who makes such a claim is either a liar or a fool...and I am neither."

Stunned by the unprovoked anger he heard in her voice, he didn't respond until she had taken a few steps away from him. "What do you fear, milady?"

"My fears are my own to keep...they are not your concern."

Defeated, Remy watched her walk away with a combination of awe and respect. He had known many women in his time, and the few that were warriors were willing, sometimes even eager, to play the submissive role around him. Never before had his intentions been so wholeheartedly ignored; she had twisted his chivalrous attempt to save a would-be damsel in distress until it became a mockery of both his strength and intelligence. This girl was a worthy adversary.

"May I walk with you?" he called after her.

"You may do as you wish, my lord...but sneak up on me again, and I will spill your blood across the valley."

Only the son of Jean-Luc would consider such words to be an affirmative response to his request. As he jogged to catch up, she paused mid-step to wait for him, and when he reached her side, they continued together in silence.

Back on the hill, Logan turned to Xavier, whose once hidden smile now spread across his face in victory. "You were right."

"What Rogue neglected to mention earlier is that, because bloodlines are traced through women, they are on equal footing with their male counterparts, and are allowed to pursue interests forbidden to women of other countries."

"Like swordplay."

"Although their numbers have decreased through the years, especially in the outskirts, there are a fair number of female soldiers in Órënár." He looked out at the couple. "Rogue has been trained as a royal shieldmaiden. Her skill with weapons would rival most men's."

"Her rejection will humble him," Logan said thoughtfully. "She will not submit to his charms readily....experiencing defeat will be good for him."

"Perhaps the experience will be good for both of them. I suspect Remy won't give up as easily as you think...he loves a challenge, and this woman may prove to be the ultimate one. As for Rogue, it's about time she was pursued by a man who doesn't fear her."

"Because of her reputation as a warrior?"

"Because of her gift." Xavier lowered his voice then, though what he was about to say was no secret. "When Rogue's skin touches the skin of another, she absorbs his psyche and life force...in the case of those like us, she also absorbs his gift. She is unable to control this power, so there are few who would dare seek a relationship with her...and even fewer she'd let in."

This explanation answered a secret question Logan had been considering. "That's why she wears gloves indoors."

Xavier nodded. "It is a means of protection...but it will take more than a pair of gloves to protect her from Remy, should he set his heart on her..."

 

Chapter 2