“The cruelest lies are often told in silence.”—Robert Louis Stevenson
Mia pulled at her dress as she stood in front of the large mirror that reflected most of her room. It certainly wasn’t one of her normal garments these days; it was far less fancy, almost plain, and maybe just a bit too tight in some places. Hopefully in the right places… The lavender uniform had been well stored; even the blue embroidery on the cuffs of the sleeves and the hem had been carefully preserved. She adjusted the white shoulder scarf, and smiled as she admired herself in the glass. The dress didn’t give her much of a figure, but it was the outfit that had kept Nash’s attention all those years ago. He had told her once that it was one of his favorite things to see her in; why this was he wouldn’t say, but perhaps he wondered just what lurked under the simple and unflattering dress.
Finally content with her ensemble, she stared at herself in the mirror once more, and said a silent prayer that this time, he’d listen and accept the apology. Oh, it wasn’t like she hadn’t tried before! The first attempt had come that morning after, and many times since then, but every time she would go to him and beg for forgiveness, in place of the man she loved, all she would find was the statue that lived and breathed as Nash. I know it’s my fault that he is the way he is…or at least a part of it…
She started for the door, but something made her stop. There was one more thing she had to wear—just in case. As she walked to her vanity, and opened the jewelry box atop of it, Mia mentally debated this particular item, but knew she really had no choice in the event that they did make up—particularly in the way that Jessica had suggested.
The small charm sat well on her neck, but no matter how hard she tried it would not hide itself under the neckline of the dress. Nash might not appreciate the jewelry; it was one of those little things in their former relationship that he would constantly gripe about. At first he understood the necessity for it—neither of them were ready for the consequences of her not wearing it. But, as time went on, he grew more resentful every time he looked at it. Was he not good enough? Or was her place as sacred Guildmaster more important to her then he was, or a family? The questions were as sour in her mind now as they were when he had first asked them. Sighing, she touched a hand to it; many nights had passed since she last wore the tiny trinket, but the memories that went with it still stayed…one memory in particular.
Mia wasn’t sure what time it was when she finally awoke that morning. Everything seemed so dark and still; even the violet bed curtains hung somberly around her. She sat up and realized her head hurt. It was a dull, aching pain that extended into her limbs, and caused her stomach to feel queasy. Whatever had happened the night before was a dim blur at the moment, but a twinkling of her dream--a dream so real and so long desired-- tickled her and made her smile for a moment. Then a motion on the other side of the drapes made her hold her breath for an instant and she realized that at least some of it had been more than just a mirage.
The night before, she had wanted to be alone, so much in fact that she had dismissed all of her guards, even the ones that vehemently protested. She was so lonely, but yet at the same time, wanted to be alone. She knew this feeling would continue at least another three days until Nash returned, and decided to try this new approach in combating it.
Word must have gotten around that she was upset, because shortly thereafter a soft knock came to her door. A moment passed without reaction, but then she remembered that she’d sent the guards away, and, throwing a cape over her nightgown, went to the door herself, and opened it slightly. Standing there with a bright smile was Orinth, who explained that he had heard from the sentries of her request for solitude and dropped by to check on her and to try and raise her spirits.
For some reason, she welcomed this interruption of her isolation, let him in and told him of her decision to ask Nash to marry her. After a moment’s surprise, he had been happy for her, and had even called out to one of the apprentices walking down the hall to run to his family’s home (one of the few formal residences in the city) and fetch a bottle of wine. She had told him that wasn’t necessary, but he had insisted they celebrate her soon-to-be engagement in proper style.
The wine was sweet and unexpectedly potent; Orinth had said it was a special vintage, but that this was a special occasion that demanded only the best. She started to feel giggly, just like she had that night she and Jessica drank together, and the same fuzzy shine quickly spread through her. The room had become warm then; too warm, and she led him out onto the balcony. The cold December air was chilly, but the glow of the alcohol kept them both cozy, and his banter, jokes, and memories of their childhood together soon distracted Mia, perhaps a bit too much.
They reminisced and laughed at each other as they shared stories of their youth, the tricks they’d played on their friends, the guards, the teachers, and on each other. Then Orinth made a request that surprised her. He wanted to kiss her, and said that he’d always wanted to, and now if she was going to be getting married he would never have another chance. She smiled, but graciously declined. He begged her, telling her of how he wished he had been the one that she desired, and how their mothers had wanted the two of them to grow up and find happiness in each other. He had sighed and added how he understood her feelings for Nash, and said that had their roles been reversed, he would not be mad if she had just given her friend one little kiss. How could she refuse such a heart-felt appeal?
Mia felt a shy grin cross her lips and she nodded to him. One kiss wouldn’t hurt anything. It couldn’t hurt anything, and Nash would never know. It will be our secret, she thought as a wicked thrill ran up her back, and her friend gave her just one soft, gentle kiss.
And that’s when the dream started to feel real.
Somehow, Orinth had left the room without her realizing it, and Nash had arrived home early. He crept up behind her and found her standing on the balcony; that same balcony she swore she had sensed him from only a few nights ago. She had smiled seeing how well dressed he was—he must have cleaned up before coming to see her. He had taken her into his arms, held onto her tenderly, but with an unexpected determination that said he wasn’t going to let her go. She whispered her proposal into his ear, sprinkling the words with kisses on his neck. He stepped back just enough to admire her, and to smile as his face beamed in ecstatic shock. He didn’t need to say anything. She knew the answer. An ardent kiss, then another, a guiding arm into the bedroom, and the next thing she knew they were making love. It was all too perfect, too simple… There were no words spoken, yet his “yes’ seemed to echo within her ears… Did she actually hear him say that? Did she feel it? Somehow, she didn’t care, and knew it didn’t matter.
Her hand gripped the soft velvet, ready to push it back and gaze affectionately at her soon to be husband. Oh, that word sounded so wonderful now! How could she have been afraid of it for so long?
She pulled the curtains aside and looked over to the shape they had hidden. With sudden and terrifying shock, she realized it wasn’t Nash standing there, but Orinth, straightening his robe in her mirror. What had happened? Where was Nash? Her old friend just looked up at her reflection behind him and shook his head, as though disappointed somehow. It was only then that she noticed the shattered glass of her skylight lying in the center of the room, the shards piercing the carpet in a strange, serrated pattern.
Confusion slapped her back into reality and she asked, “What happened?”
His expression was deadpan, and he didn’t bother to turn around as he gave the succinct response, “We had a storm last night.”
He still hadn’t faced her and was still delivering the words through his mirror image. “Yes. And I don’t thinking it was a natural one, either. I looked from the balcony and some of the buildings seem to be quite damaged.”
Nothing was right, her entire world seemed to tilt on its side and she had a terrible feeling she had done something she would regret, but the details were so unclear and her head hurt so much. She sat on one of the chairs in the room and called to her friend. “Orinth?”
He still wouldn’t turn to face her. “Yes, Majesty?”
She pushed the words out, dreading the response. “Did we…I mean…” Her expression firmed. “You know what I mean…”
This time he spun and glared at her. “You have to ask? I find it rather insulting that you would sleep through that as well.”
She stared at him. Surely she hadn’t…they hadn’t. They couldn’t have! But what if they had? What did this make her? What would happen to the perfect picture she had painted for her and Nash? More from instinct than intoxication, her stomach twisted and she wanted to vomit.
He gave a quick bow as she sat there, her lips pursed in self-disgust. With a few strides he made it to the door and stepped out, leaving her with only one sentence: “I will bid you good day, Majesty, and I’ll thank you to never call me by that jackass’s name again.”
Those few words confirmed it up for her. Her breath shriveled inside of her chest, as the tears started streaking down her cheeks. Suddenly her queasiness turned to heaves; a trembling hand slammed over her mouth, she dashed into the bathroom, and threw up into the polished sink. The stench from the vomit reminded her again of the wine, the night before, and everything else she had tried to purge. Sweat dripped off her forehead as she brushed her bangs out of her face and looked in the mirror. The woman in the glass repulsed her beyond words. How could she have let this happen!? She would lose Nash now, and she knew it! He had warned her many times about Orinth, and had scolded her when she got drunk. And now, his...her…their…biggest nightmare had come true. Maybe he won’t find out…I’ll make sure he doesn’t find out…
Desperate to remove the atrocious feeling of infidelity and to clean away the stain she knew covered her, she turned on the shower and jumped in, nightgown and all. She sat on the tiles, tucking her knees to her chin like a child and letting the water wash away the tears and that horrible realization that she had just committed the most unspeakable kind of treachery against the man that she loved.
Suddenly anger filled her. How had it happened? How could she have lost control so badly? Orinth hadn’t cast a spell on her, she knew that, would have felt that, right? But why would she be so willing otherwise? Orinth knew her feelings for Nash. He had taken advantage of them, of her, and he had given her the wine to impair her judgment. Her black curls were weighted down by the water and clung to her neck and back as understanding hit her harder than Ghaleon’s spells ever could. He hadn’t tricked her. He hadn’t cast a spell on her. He hadn’t drugged her. She had just believed what she wanted to believe, hadn’t she? How could she have been so stupid?
The nightgown stuck to her like guilt as she reached and turned the shower off. Her stomach churned as her tiny hand gripped the cold tiles for some kind of slippery support as she rose. After taking several deep breaths she shed the sodden nightgown and, she prayed, her memories of this night.
A plan was already forming in her head. It would be simple, but she would have to act quickly. She would talk with Orinth first. As a friend, (though she was having serious doubts about that now) she would ask him to keep this private. If that didn’t work, she would order him to keep his silence as a member of the Guild. A slight abuse of my power…but right now I don’t care. I can’t let him talk…brag, about this…There were no guards, so they did not have to be dealt with…but the apprentice who brought the wine? No, he would not know what had happened so he wouldn’t be an issue. She touched a hand to her neck and with a sigh of relief found the most important piece to the puzzle still hanging there. At least I can’t be pregnant, thank the Goddess…
Mia dressed herself quickly, choosing a comfortable, but appealing bright green robe from her closet. As she pulled it on, an eerie feeling passed through her. The walls seemed to gawk as if they were reviling and judging her. She tried to put it out of her mind, and sat on the large winged chair in the room to collect her thoughts. It didn’t help. The broken skylight glared, the fireplace roared, the windows sang, and the furniture just stared at her in a way that made her more than agitated. The room knew, and everyone would know, soon enough. Walls may have ears, but I think these have eyes as well…
Mia fixed her hair without using the mirror, for she was still nauseated by her own reflection. With a newfound determination and urgency to settle the entire matter, she took a deep breath and decided to head for the Library.
The Library of Vane—to Mia, it was the single most important part of the city. Even as a child, she hid from the world in the books and maps of the place, learning and dreaming of lands far away. It had always been one of the few places she felt she could meditate, concentrate, and reflect--and right now that was what she needed to do more than anything. She wanted to make sure all of her bases were covered, but more importantly, she wanted to contemplate exactly what to say to Orinth, and if anything, to Nash.
It must have been fate, karma, or some other strange force, but the second she opened one of the doors to the place which was the pride of Vane, she saw the one person she certainly didn’t expect, nor was prepared to deal with.
Standing at one of the stacks with his back to her, was none other than Nash. She knew he heard the door close; his head lifted up at the sound, but he didn’t even turn around to acknowledge the entrant. Her eyes walked over him; he looked horrible. His robe was dirty and torn and his hair was matted and crusted with mud. She wondered just how long he’d been home. Surely if it had been last night he would have at least cleaned himself up before going out in public! But something nagged at her. Why hadn’t he come by yet? Did he just get in? Even then, he should have come right to her room.
Did he know? Dread echoed inside of her, but she wouldn’t let it have the satisfaction of resound. Lifting her chin, she quickly walked up to him, threw her arms around his waist from behind, and said so cheerfully she surprised herself, “You’re back! Oh thank Althena you’re back! And three days early!”
He stood perfectly still as she embraced him. She felt his muscles tighten, but he did not return her affections, nor did he turn around. He stepped away from her and with a voice full of ice said, “I have just put your books away, Majesty. They came at a higher price than I think you intended.”
She stared at him. He had never been so formal with her before, and his appearance was ghastly. Pushing her way around to face him, she saw he hadn’t shaved in at least three days, and his eyes were distant, as if transfixed on some far off tome. She flinched at the sight of him, a dead hollowness growing in her heart as fears began dancing in her soul. Then, for the first time since she had known him, she read him, reaching out with her magic to see if she could learn what his Gift had endured. Had he been in combat? Wounded? She touched his aura, and felt… nothing, as though every bit of power within him had been drained, and recently. Orinth’s dry voice speaking of the storm the night before itched in her mind. Oh Goddess, please no…
His expression remained neutral, and he stood perfectly still as she sensed him, but his tone implied he was annoyed by the intrusion. “What are you looking for, Majesty? I caused that storm last night. I will save you the trouble of investigating the matter, and plan to do what I can to make restitution.” He paused and then added: “I admit this because I realize that I was gone for quite awhile and that you might have forgotten what my storms feel like.”
The horror that he might just know what had happened throttled her as he distanced himself another few paces. “Nash...”
He bowed, “Always your Majesty’s humble servant.”
“I...did…did someone say something to you, about… about me?”
“I have heard nothing, and I have only spoken with Gregory since leaving the Prairie.”
Then why are you… so...negative... She tried a more direct approach. “You seem upset and distant, Nash...”
The wall he had built around himself didn’t even crack. “I am not distant, nor am I upset. Just a little tired, I guess. We rode for four straight days to get back. I was tired of the Prairie.”
Thank you, Althena! Thank you! I just almost lost him...I couldn’t bear to do that...I know I don’t deserve him...but I need him.... “Why don’t we go to my room and talk about your trip? I’m sure you’ve plenty of stories to tell!” She reached for his hand, and gave a small inviting smile.
He pulled his arm away from her, and as he spoke, the storms flashed in his eyes. “I’d prefer to get some sleep, rather than… serve as your Majesty’s entertainment tonight, if you don’t mind. Perhaps you should consider doing the same—getting rest that is. I gather you were quite busy while I was gone. ”
She studied him for a moment. The mind enrapturing stares he used to give her at all times were gone; those looks she had taken for granted for so long were now replaced by a barricade, a cloud of some sort of distrust, hate…even rage. He knows.
In an unexpected move, he reached towards her, and her eyes followed his hand as it grasped the charm around her neck. He turned it over, his dark eyes holding a profound and reminiscent sadness, and then finally with a slight shake of his head, he let it go. His eyes met hers then, but they were sullen and his voice detached as he spoke; the words almost as painful as the tone in which he delivered them. “What truly brought you here, Majesty? Did you need something to read? Or were you just feeling lonely? It is obvious that your sheets are not warm enough on these cold nights. Is that true? Were you only looking for a friend to keep you…engaged? May I suggest you look for one in the tavern in Dunart? Those men normally don’t have fancy names, and usually don’t bother asking for yours. But, at least they don’t come with as much embarrassment as those who are members of the Guild.”
Regardless of what she had done, his statement, and the implications of it, infuriated her. Her instinct was to slap him across the face; she felt her hand go up as her lips pursed themselves in anger and spat at him, “How dare you….!”
She didn’t expect him to be ready for it. A mere nanosecond before her palm was to smack his cheek; he grabbed her wrist firmly and pulled it away from him. As he held her limb captive, he said quietly, “Not this time, Mia. Not this time.”
Mia pulled her hand free from his grip and shook her head; he did know… somehow, he knew everything. “I know I have betrayed you in the worst way possible, but I swear Nash, I swear it wasn’t my fault!”
His face showed concern for moment, concern and bottled rage, “So you are saying it wasn’t consensual?”
She hadn’t considered that point. “I…”
He put a tender hand on her shoulder, and asked with a hint of hope in his voice, “Say the word and I will kill him myself.”
She couldn’t lie. “No, Nash.” A hand went to her face and she started to cry. Normally such a display would cause him to embrace her, to whisper to her and tell her everything would be all right…but not this time. In a soft voice under her tears she said, “I’m sorry. Goddess, I’m so sorry. I know that sounds trite…but I don’t know what else to say.”
Nash ignored her distress and said flatly, “Well I hope you’re happy and that it was all you expected it to be, because now that I’ve only become another disposable commodity to you--”
She glared at him, her eyes still pouring, as she interrupted and justified the ordeal more to herself than to him, “I certainly don’t consider you that! I…was drunk! That’s why I don’t remember much about it! I know there was a conversation, but I can’t recall…”
“Somehow, I don’t think there was much conversation. And what you were doing entertaining that…that…bastard in your bedroom is beyond my ability to fathom.”
She looked up at him, her eyes begging now, “He was my friend, Nash! I was…just talking to him.”
His response was drenched in sarcasm, “Talking usually doesn’t require the use of one’s bed.”
She started to reply hotly but reconsidered. Defeated, she leaned against the bookcase. “You’re right, of course. But Nash—“
He was still glaring at her, as if questioning her audacity in coming here with his very eyes. “But what?”
“I do remember something.”
“I’m not really interested in listening to this, Mia. I have things to do—things you have asked me to do. May I go change now and see to them?”
He stepped away, turning his back on her, but she let the sentence out anyway. “I thought…I know…I thought he was you.”
The few words she had spoken spun him on his heel. “Please don’t treat me like a complete idiot, Mia! Even a blind man could never mistake that six-foot tall snake for me! It’s not like we even look alike.” He crossed his arms over his chest and added: “And if that’s the case I want to know what you were drinking because I could use some right about now.”
Mia knew he wouldn’t believe her. She didn’t even know why she had said it. But, as far-fetched as it sounded, it was the truth. “I wish you would just trust me, Nash.”
They stared at each other for a moment; a single moment, a single lapse in judgment was all it had taken, and now Mia felt as if Vane was crashing down from the sky again. She watched through drenched eyes as Nash just shook his head at her despondently.
He backed away, one step at a time, but even then short distance to him was as far from her reach as the Blue Star. With an exhausted sigh, he left her with just one statement, and a simple, yet heartbreaking farewell. His voice cracked and a few tears slipped down his cheeks, washing away the dirt that was there. “Indeed, Majesty, and I wish I could again, but you know what? I learned something from all of this! I can’t stand up when I’m always kneeling at your throne! Goodbye, Mia.”
She called out to him, her voice straining to pull him back to her; but this time, he just walked away. Still crying, she watched as he stormed out of the Library. She did not run for him; she couldn’t. Goodbye said it all.
Mia released the charm from her hand, and reached for one of gardenias arranged in a vase on her dresser. She picked off one of the fragrant white petals and dragged it across her wrists and neck, knowing how much Nash loved the scent. Steeling herself once again, she lifted the garment she was to deliver to him off the bed, and silently left the room.
Nash’s rooms were not too far from her own, and the distractions in the halls at this hour of the morning were minimal. The few members of the Guild that she passed raised their eyebrows at her choice in attire, but she ignored them and soon found herself standing at the door to his suite.
Strangely, his guards had left their posts, so she pushed the door to his parlor open and looked around. It was quiet, but she could see light coming from under the bedroom door, so she guessed he was awake. Glancing at the elegant robe she carried with her, she touched a gentle hand to straighten the large ceremonial stole draped across the front. She stared at the door for a moment and then knocked swiftly, waiting (or even perhaps dreading) the response from within.
A moment later the door swung open, and the Guildmaster felt her mouth drop. Standing there before her was certainly not whom she was expecting and most certainly not anyone she thought would have ever been in that room at such an early hour.
A woman, a good inch shorter than she, with bright red-orange hair held the door by the knob as she called towards the back of the room, “You’ve got company!” Mia felt the stranger’s eyes waltz over her, and the woman directed her next sentence to her, “Don’t just stand there gawking at me. Anybody ever tell you that’s rude? Come in!”
Mia found herself following the order of the bizarre woman, and she noticed that the shirt she was wearing was a few sizes too big, and rather familiar. “Umm...sorry. I’m looking for Nash.”
The woman grinned, “Apparently. He’s taking a shower. I can haul him out for you if you want.”
“That won’t be necessary!”
“All right then. You going to wait for him?”
“Yes. I need to give him this robe.”
“I can do it, if you want.”
“No offense, but this is very important, and I need to do it myself.” That’s one of his shirts...
“Suit yourself. Why don’t you have a seat—clear a spot if you can’t find one.”
Mia gazed at the state of the room. Nash still hadn’t unpacked much of his things, and what he had was thrown around without much of a care. At least some things don’t change…She picked her way around the clothing on the floor and made it to the amazingly clean couch. Taking a seat, she looked over at the enormous bed against the far wall. The sheets and blankets were in terrible disarray, which caused her to just glare at the woman for a moment as she felt a rush of color dash across her face, and a burning anger rise from within her.
The redhead pulled a pair of pants off the mantle and put them on, apparently not even caring about her audience. I guess Nash finally found another...distraction? She doesn’t really seem like his type...she’s pretty, I guess...but a little...too.... too...brash? Jealous or not, she was going to be civil. Feigning a smile at the woman she asked, “You wear the colors of one of the Prairie Tribes in your hair? Is that where you are from?”
The girl produced from a pile of laundry on the floor and fastened it around her skinny middle. “Born and raised. You wear the robe of a Vanetian, so I assume you live here?” The stranger seemed to leer at her, as if she was laughing at the entire situation.
“Yes. All my life.”
“How sad for you. Cities have got to be my least favorite type of place.” The woman walked back over to the sitting area and chose the chair closest to Mia, staring at her in a way that made her beyond uncomfortable. “So I guess you are a student then?”
Mia grinned, “Not quite.”
The Tribal asked dubiously, “Then why are you dressed like that? I thought that was the uniform for students.”
The woman smirked, as her eyes scanned the floor for something. “So you’re an apprentice. Oh well I guess he could do worse.”
Mia’s mouth just hung open. “Excuse me?”
With a raised an eyebrow the Tribal changed the subject. “That’s an interesting necklace you wear. What is it made of?”
“I’m not sure of the material, but it’s a charm.”
“What kind of charm?”
Color splashed Mia’s face as she covered the object of the woman’s interest. “It keeps me from having children.”
The woman laughed, “Ah. Isn’t it a little early in the day to go looking for a date?” Then after a pause she added with a smile, “I could have used one of those a few years back, although I wouldn’t trade my son for the world.”
Mia was annoyed, but still she felt she needed to be polite, so rather than entertain the woman’s observation, she made small talk. “You have a son? How old is he?”
“He’s almost four. His name is Darian.”
“That’s a pretty name. Did you bring him here to study magic?”
“Ah...no.” Her expression darkened for a moment before she continued. “My… brother in law—Gravitt—was invited to that party they’re having here, and brought me along.”
Mia noticed she spoke the last sentence with a bit of contempt. “Gravitt? He was one of our biggest benefactors.”
The response was more sarcastic than Mia had anticipated: “Oh yeah, he’s a treasure, let me tell you. But at least I get to travel with him. I can’t tell you how much fun that can be.”
“Really? Where have you been?” Is it possible that Nash knows you from his travels? Or were you just his comfort for the night?
Semi-ignoring her, the Tribal got up, stepped behind the couch and started crawling around on her knees, as if looking for something as she spoke, “All over—except Caldor Isle. I want to go there sometime.”
Mia leaned over the back of the sofa and continued the conversation: “I’ve been there. It’s nice, but it’s certainly very rustic.”
The redhead looked up at her, the expression full of incredulity, “You travel? You can’t be older than fifteen, not to mention you seem too prissy to get your hands dirty with the reins.”
Mia smiled at the woman, “Actually, I’ll be twenty in a few weeks. And you’re correct; I don’t ride, or at least well enough to call it riding. Nash is very good at it though.”
The woman snorted, as she stood up. “He better be. Dammit. I can’t find my shoes!”
Mia feigned another perfect smile. “Perhaps they are with your shirt?”
“I don’t know where that is, either. Must be under the mess or with the blankets.” The woman paused, as she flopped back onto the chair. “Twenty? My, you hide your age well. Or maybe it’s just the uniform.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” the Guildmaster replied dryly, ignoring the rest of the Tribal’s statement. “How old are you?” My guess is eighteen...if that...
“I just turned twenty-one. On April the eighteenth, to be exact.”
“Really? That’s Nash’s birthday.”
“You don’t say,” the woman said tersely.
Mia nodded, and whispered reminiscently, “April the Eighteenth: The Day of Vigorous Defense.”
“Yeah, that’s it.” The woman looked around the room obviously frantic to change the subject. Finally, after a moment yielded no distractions she shouted, “Ashu, hurry the hell up! I’m terrible at entertaining!!” Then she turned back to Mia, “Men. They spend more time bathing and dressing, and we’re supposed to be the fairer sex!”
Mia gave a genuine smile to that sentiment. Ashu??? At least I know his name…unless it means one night stand in the Tribal language? She gasped audibly at this thought, cursing herself for even allowing it to cross her mind.
A rustling from the adjoining room and finally the opening of the door cracked the tension in the room, although Mia thought the woman was laughing at her with her eyes—her bright blue-green eyes. A moment later he came out, dressed in a plain burgundy robe, with his hair still wet and hanging in his face. Shocked, he stared between the two of them. After seeming to think over his next strategy, he walked up to Mia and bowed, “What can I do for you, Majesty?”
The woman covered her mouth in surprise. “Majesty?” She whispered.
“You can introduce me to your—friend—for starters, Nash.”
He turned to the redhead and said as formally as he possibly could, “Majesty, this is Sabre. She is a friend of mine.” Then back to the woman, “Sabre, this is Mia Ausa, Guildmaster of Vane.”
The Tribal appeared to throw daggers at him, but she stood up and bowed respectfully to Mia nonetheless.
“A pleasure to meet you, Sabre.”
“The same, I’m sure,” the other woman said flippantly, still glaring at Nash. “Well, two’s company, but three is most definitely a crowd, so I’ll be leaving. I’ll see you around, Nash.”
Nash grimaced as Sabre over-emphasized his name, but didn’t say anything to either of them.
One night stand, definitely...oh Nash...are you really so desperate? I’d take you back, if you’d let me...
The redhead made a quick retreat towards the door, and just as she was about to close it, she said something in a language Mia didn’t recognize. Surprisingly, Nash turned to her and responded with a nod, indicating he understood, or was pretending to, at least.
Mia smiled at him, and waited to hear the door close before continuing the conversation. “What did she say?”
He shrugged, and started to fix his hair in the looking glass over the dresser. “What do you want, Mia?”
She picked the garment up off her lap, walked up beside him and held it out. “I came by to get you to try this on. I’ll have Magda alter it if necessary.”
His eyes peeked out from the shroud he wrapped himself whenever she was around and looked at his soon to be regalia with a bit of contempt. “You want me to do this now?”
She nodded, putting on a bright smile as she took the stole off the hanger and handed him the rest. Somewhat reluctantly, he marched back into the room he had just come out of a few minutes earlier.
Mia stared at herself in his mirror, and pulled at a few stubborn locks that weren’t sitting right on her shoulders. Maybe I should just tell him...apologize again...I’ve already said ‘I’m sorry’ a hundred times, but maybe...maybe this time he’ll listen...and I should tell him how I feel...not just give him some pathetic regret...but what about the girl? I suppose now is as good a time as ever...before anything more serious develops...I think...I need to—
He reappeared in the room, and she just stared at him, not realizing she was doing so, and certainly not aware that he seemed to read the sudden hunger in her eyes. The midnight blue pants and shirt were basic enough, and the red belt around his slender waist gave him some definition, but it was the robe that simply made him look magnificent.
Although open in the front, it seemed to add inches to his height, as though drawing power and authority from the earth below him and channeling its existence upward and into the young man. The garment itself shimmered in the streaks of morning light pouring in through the large windows. The color of the robe was a blue so deep and intense it shifted from the deepest of sapphire to the cold perfection of an almost liquid ebony. Trimming the edges were narrow veins of gold leaf wire woven so flawlessly, they would give a spider envy.
Without meeting her eyes, he said guardedly, “I think it fits.”
She smiled, and held out the stole. “Yes, it does. You look amazing in it, but me put on the finishing touch.”
He nodded and lifted his chin as she moved towards him. Standing the closest to him she had in months, her mouth ran dry as she fastened the most important piece to his collar and then straightened it with an insecure hand. At a loss for something more intelligent to say, she stammered, “I hope you like the Regalia. I had it redesigned a bit…and the headpiece…well I just didn’t think it was you, and I didn’t want people associating it…well, you know.”
He faintly nodded in understanding as she stepped back and admired him again; the stole certainly completed the ensemble, making him look more regal and proclaiming his position at the Guild. She smiled up at him, giving another compliment. “You really look handsome in that, Nash.” Damn you Robin, you’re right…
She could have sworn he blushed, but his face was so rigid, it was impossible to tell for sure. With a sigh, she backed away from him some more and said, “I need to talk to you, Nash. Promise me you will listen, and consider what I have to say. Don’t just stand there and blow it off like you usually do.”
In a bored tenor he responded, “I am always attentive to you, Majesty. I always listen.”
She closed her eyes, and put a hand to her face, trying to hide the tears that were about to come—he was going to just play the jerk again, and she couldn’t handle that, not now. “Nash, please,” she implored, her voice straining on the two plaintive words.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, just a tinge of anguish in her tone would cause him to run to her side, to hold her delicate little hands and tell her everything would be all right. But when she needed that comfort, as she did now, all he would do was stand back and watch her torment with that indifferent demeanor he had adopted as his own. She knew it was happening again; even as she turned so he wouldn’t see her close what were becoming tear filled eyes. He’s becoming colder by the second, he’s going to…
It surprised her then when she felt his hand on her shoulder, and his voice grow gentle. “Don’t cry, Mia. Tell me what’s wrong. Are you hurt? Do you need my help?”
She smiled as he spoke her name, and her confidence grew with his touch. She took her hand off her face and looked at him. For the first time in six months, he seemed genuinely concerned—compassionate even—and his eyes were not gazing off into the distance, but kindly set on hers.
She sighed, as if she was summoning some sort of strength from within by doing so, and then began to speak. “I’m scared, Nash.”
He looked at her strangely, but kept his hand on her shoulder as he asked tenderly, “Scared of what? Did someone threaten you? There are all kinds of strange people in the city…”
She shook her head. “No, I mean…are we ready for this?”
“Ready for what?”
“For everything we have worked for—the Guild to open and for Vane to be what it used to be…”
He caught her off guard as he touched her cheek, “You mean you’re not happy?”
“No, I’m ecstatic that we have finally built the dream we both wanted for the city, but now that its time to open the doors and actually be Vane again—well, I just don’t want to let anyone down.”
He pulled her closer into a hesitant embrace as the questions rushed through her mind; was he going to come back to her? Could it finally happen?
“I’ve told you time and time again Mia, you don’t have to prove anything to anyone. On the ground or in the sky we will still be Vane. You don’t need to plaster the place in gold—it makes it pretty, but it doesn’t make it our home. Only we can do that.”
She rested her head on his chest; he always knew just what to say to make her feel better. With her eyes closed as she relished the closeness of him, she whispered, “It’s not just that, Nash. I mean, we’re just two kids. What if Robin and Tamora and all the others that say we can’t handle this are right? What if we fail? I mean…people look up to us now! If we let them down…”
He brushed her hair and said with much finality, “We’re not going to fail. We haven’t yet! Remember how badly destroyed the city was? Look at it now, and only four years later. It’s amazing how much we all put into it, and it’s certainly paid off.”
It was a miracle--either that or Jessica had beaten some sense into him. Mia couldn’t believe they were standing there holding each other after all this time. There was more that needed to be said, though, much more. Taking a deep breath and looking up into his dark eyes she said softly, “Nash...I know I’ve done some horrible things to you. I know I have hurt you in ways that people who care greatly for each other should not ever even think of. But I’m asking you, I’m begging you...I know you won’t take me back, and I know I don’t deserve you...”
He flinched at her last sentence, pulling his arms off of her and looking to the floor, as if he had found something incredibly interesting there all of a sudden. No you don’t! You’re going to listen to all of this!!! She grabbed onto his robe, forcing his eyes to meet hers again.
“I can’t torture myself anymore, Nash! I can’t pretend I’m half the person I used to be when you were by my side! Do you remember at my mother’s funeral when I was so tired, exhausted and emotionally spent that you had to practically hold me up? I don’t think I could have made it through that day, and many others, if it wasn’t for you. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t known you—or loved you.”
Again he retreated from her, but this time, touched a hand to her cheek, brushing away the tears that had started to fall. His voice was fractured as he said: “Mia...don’t say any more...please.”
“Why not? Because it’s the truth and you don’t want to hear it? Because it might cause you to think twice about how you’ve been treating me?”
He shook his head and she saw that his eyes were damp, “No. I never wanted to hurt you, and I know that I have been. Please understand that things will never—they can never be the same. However, I will stop calling you Majesty if you want me to, but please don’t ask me to do something I’m not ready for. Not now. There are some things I need to tell you, but I can’t right now.”
“What things? Why can’t you tell me? I don’t understand, Nash.”
“Maybe someday I’ll be able to answer those questions, Mia, but like I said, I can’t right now.”
“Why not now? What is so terrible that you can’t tell me? Do you want me to tell you my horrible secret? The one I’ve been keeping from you? Will that make it easier on you?”
In a miserable mutter: “I don’t want you do to anything you don’t want to do.”
She shook her head and drew him into her arms. “What do I have to bring you back to me? How long are we going to play these stupid games? I can’t do this alone! Vane is as much as your legacy as it is mine!”
For some reason, perhaps because even he could not infinitely bury his emotions, Nash didn’t resist embrace. His voice was weak as he spoke the ambiguous answer into her ear, “I don’t know.”
Mia sighed audibly as she felt his cheek brush hers, and the impossible questions dashed through her mind. Could it have worked? Was this horrid charade finally going to end? She tilted her head, inviting his lips to amble up her neck, and felt the heat rush to her ears, when amazingly, they did. It had been so long, she had almost forgotten what this felt like, but was all the more eager to remember.
She closed her eyes as he tangled his hands into her curls; it was one of those little things that had always relaxed her. His breath was warm and heavy as he worked his way up to her face, making a trail of tiny, tender kisses. When he had finally reached her chin, she studied him for a moment before whispering, “I miss this. I miss you.”
He smiled at her before placing a perfectly devoted kiss on her forehead, and then to her delight, pulled her closer and gazed down into her eyes, with that desperate anticipation and yearning—just the way he had all those years ago at Jessica’s wedding. She closed her eyes and felt his lips lingering just above hers before finally descending to touch.
It was too perfect.
A noise behind her caused him to lift his head, and forget the kiss they were about to share. Mia turned around to glare at, and reprimand the intruder, but stopped when she saw whom it was. Sabre stood there, her mouth open, and her face as red as her hair as she said, “Oh dammit! Sorry, Ashu!” Then as quickly as she appeared, she vanished, and slammed the door behind her.
Mia reached for Nash’s hand, hoping he would ignore the imposition and they could continue, but with his eyes averted from hers, he said simply, “This isn’t right, Mia. Not now, at least. I think you better leave.”
She pounded her fists on his chest, her words full of agony with a streak of fury behind them. “I don’t want to leave! I love you, Nash! I know things can’t be the same, but can’t we at least try? Am I not worth a second chance to you? I can’t run this place without you! I can’t be who I need to be without you!”
The tears came freely now; she buried her face in his chest, and after she felt his arms behind her, she looked up at him again, “You are everything I am not, and everything I have ever looked for in another person! There is nothing the two of us can’t accomplish—together. I know I have wronged you—in the most horrible way even—but I am begging for your forgiveness. I am begging for you to look at me the way you used to! I am begging for any sign of humanity behind that mask you wear whenever I am around! What is more important to you, Guildmaster and Premier, or Mia and Nash?”
“I think you already answered that for me, Mia.”
Although she could hear the sorrow in his words, it still infuriated her. “How can you be so cold? So unfeeling! I have just bared my soul to you and you just stand there! Don’t you care!?”
He recoiled from her and gave a bow, his voice growing flat, and the change—the deformation he always went through in her presence—finally punctured his true persona. “I do care. As the Premier of the Guild I will be able to help you with your duties, and I will always protect, honor and support you.” She heard the pompousness leave him voice for a moment and become replaced with sorrow as he added: “I promised you that a long time ago, and that promise still stands. It always will.”
“I don’t need a protector, a secretary, nor an assistant...I just...I just need you.”
“Perhaps that was true at one time, Mia, but I don’t think so anymore. I think you’ve demonstrated that to me at least once.”
Her face distorted in wrath as the tears returned, and this time, she did slap him.
Even a hot bath, a change of clothes, a bologna sandwich, the satisfaction of her handprint on his face, nor the space of a few hours hadn’t eased Mia’s rage from her last encounter with Nash. Some of it was the enigma of a girl who just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time, but most of it was the fact that he had flat out scorned her, even after she poured her soul out to him. The stone casket he buried himself in whenever he didn’t want to show emotion was what killed her the most though. That, and the question of whether or not he would have shut himself into it, had Sabre not returned.
Sabre… Mia gritted the name across her teeth. Strange that Nash would suddenly decide to move on with his life, and with someone as…bucolic as this woman. That redhead was not only disrespectful--she was tasteless! Didn’t she have any manners? One certainly did not just open doors knowing people to be on the other side! And what is Nash’s fascination with her? He said they were friends. Was that friends in the sense of one night? Or longer? The possibilities were maddening itches that she couldn’t scratch, and ones she knew would drive her insane.
Slumping into the chair behind her desk, she looked at the stacks of papers before her. In no mood to deal with them, she stared at them hatefully in an effort to scare them off, but as always, it didn’t work. It never did. One shiny piece buried deep under the piles caught her eye and grabbed it. It was a portrait—one she had bought a while ago not only for its unusual accuracy, but for the subject. Since he was certainly the last person she wanted to look at right now, she tossed it into the fireplace. Then, giving a tired glance at the statues near the windows, she forced a dim smile. Bathed in the noonday light they still stood proud, reminding her of her friends.
Her mother had given her those as a gift, but they came with the firm instruction to ‘always remember those you love and never let friends be pushed aside by duty.’ It had been such an easy direction, but yet, sitting there, staring at them in the solitude of the office made her feel guilty. Her friends were here to enjoy her company at the Festival, and she had neglected them by been holed up in her office, tied up in meetings, or hiding from Nash, from them, from everything.
Trepidation suddenly ate her. Could history be repeating itself? Was she going to become her ever-busy mother, or even worse, her reclusive, obsessive father? Had Nash really changed so much that nothing would break the spell he cast on himself? The lack of obvious answers for this conundrum made her hands sweat. With a sigh, she rested her cheek on her palm, ignoring the dampness glazing her face. Her eyes closed in concentration of what her mother had told her that previous August, and examined that murky memory for a solution, or at least a path to one.
The room was as dismal as it was on her last visit, and Mia had tried to avoid it at all costs. This time, though, there was no dodging, for her mother had requested an audience with her, and so she would brave the environment she dreaded. Although she knew her mother was ill, she refused to believe it was anything more than that. After all, the woman was barely thirty-six years old, and aside from this small flu she had caught, Lemia was as healthy as anyone could ask, wasn’t she? Besides, no one died from the flu anymore, did they?
Still, denial was one thing Mia had become quite adept at and had worked to limit her trips to Lemia’s sick room to only one quick visit a day, usually to say good night. This evening, however, Nash had told her that Lemia expected her at seven o’clock, and that he was to make sure she didn’t forget.
With a silent nod to the guard at her door, and receiving a worried look from the attendant Robin had assigned to act as Lemia’s nurse, Mia pushed the door open and quietly entered. Walking close to the bed where the former Guildmaster had been spending much of her time lately, Mia felt a strange sensation of dread pulling at her; as though the very air of the room had somehow turned bad, or even evil. She tried to shake the feeling and looked back to the bed’s occupant. Regardless of her premonitions, her mother was sitting up, her back supported with pillows as she leaned against the headboard. Her violet eyes seemed hollow, but she still gave her daughter a tired smile.
Lemia motioned for her to sit on the bed and spoke in soft voice, one that told of much consideration and exhaustion. Even her light blonde hair seemed frayed, old and tired. “Have a seat my child. There are some things we need to discuss. As you know, my time here is growing short.”
Mia could only think to protest. “Mother, don’t talk like that. You are going to be—“
Carefully refolding the small paper she had been holding, Lemia laid it on her blanket and covered it with a shaking hand as she interrupted. “Hush, child, and listen to me. I have many things to tell you, and little time to say them in. First let me say that I could not have asked for a better a daughter or a more worthy successor. You have made me proud in everything you have done my child. Everything. By the looks of it, you’ll have our city rebuilt and the Guild open in less than a year from now. I only wish I could be here to celebrate that day with you, or too look out again from the balcony as Vane floated over the valley. But there’s no point in wishing for the impossible.”
Mia began to reach out to her mother’s hand, the denial expanding into a fear that grew in her heart at Lemia’s words. “Mother, you mustn’t talk like this.”
“Shh… It’s inevitable, my child. You already know we Ausas were not gifted with long lives, perhaps that is the price we must pay for the powerful magic we wield. It’s not exactly a secret, but it’s also something that, by tradition, is not spoken… one of the few traditions that was created to try and help us.”
Mia reluctantly perched herself on the bed, and then waited for her mother to continue.
“I’ve dedicated my life to the Guild, Mia. To this wonderful, terrible, place. And in return it cost me the little joy I’d found. Though it did leave me one treasure, you…my child. Don’t become what I became, Mia. Know your duties but don’t be afraid to delegate your authority when you need to. Share the burden the Guild places on your shoulders with someone, someone you know you can trust. That’s the last advice I can leave you with, though I doubt you’ll need it. You’ve already done a wonderful job…” She paused a moment, a slight look of confusion on her face. “Oh dear, I’ve said that already, haven’t I? I’m starting to wander, aren’t I?”
Mia’s hand lit on her mother’s, and felt it pull back from her as though protecting the small scrap of paper. The light came back into Lemia’s eyes as her voice regained its strength.
“Listen to me, Mia. Because what I need to tell you now is not going to be easy, for me to say or for you to hear. But I’ve got to tell you now, since I may not have another opportunity. I should have told you before, but I couldn’t… Mostly because of tradition, but also because… because I later chose not to. Because I feared that your learning the truth would be more painful for you than not knowing”
“Tradition? What do you mean, Mother?”
“I’m sorry, Mia. Please understand that I didn’t want to keep this from you. I wanted to tell you from the beginning, but Tradition said I shouldn’t and, in this, perhaps it was for the best.” A soft sigh escaped from her. “Tradition… The traditional role of the Guildmaster, as archaic as it may be, is that we never really marry. I never knew who my father was, child, not until my own mother died. You would have liked Relina, and she would have been as proud of you as I am. But she died when I was little more than a child, before she could talk to me about… about what I’m trying to tell you now.” Lemia frowned, and then continued: “Anyway, that’s why you were never told about your father and who he was. It has always been believed that it was best that the next Guildmaster be raised by, and only by, the current Guildmaster… her mother. At least, that’s what became Vanetian tradition over the centuries. The new Guildmaster must be trained, her skill honed and her mind made ready to rule the city and lead the guild. Then, and always before she’s truly ready, she must rule. There may be a small time for happiness in her life, a very small time for her to find love. But love and duty do not make good bedfellows…”
She paused, and then thrust the words out with a great deal of exertion. “Understand that when I tell you that your father loved you, he did. He loved me too, at least for a time.” Lemia nearly fought for breath as she said, “Ghaleon was your father, Mia. And the reason I’m telling you now may be worse than the secret.”
A frigid blow hit Mia as she sat in the warm room. Her mother was looking at her, as if waiting for a response, and so in a tiny voice—a little more than a shocked whisper she replied; “Ghaleon? Mother… I… I helped kill him when he…” A look of regret passed her face. “I could remember him being kind to me, before…before he…”
Lemia interrupted her before she could go further. “Yes, child. There was a time when he was both kind and gentle. He was very caring to a terribly young and lonely Guildmaster. He became her world, and for the first time in memory a Guildmaster fell in love with her Premier. Before he changed… before Dyne died… Oh Mia, I wish you could have known him then. He was a completely different person. But then, then he changed and became someone totally different—as though he had been replaced by something that didn’t have a soul. Even his eyes transformed, they became flat and dead from within. It didn’t happen all at once, but once it began it was unstoppable. And sometimes, Mia, I blame myself for that. I never really let him be a figure in your life—again by tradition—and he seemed to resent me for that. I know he felt used—I can’t blame him there. I honestly thought he understood, but I guess he didn’t. But as you know, my daughter, there were times, when I’d see him holding you, or playing with you, some of that light would again burn within him…even if just for a few moments.”
“And all the times I thought about telling you, even after he started to change, that little nagging ‘it’s not traditional, it’s not how things are done in Vane’ kept coming into my head. Fool that I was, I listened to it. And when you, Alex, and the others had to stop him…kill him, I knew I’d done the right thing, and because of that you were able to do the right thing. If you’d known he was your father, you might have hesitated. Mia, he sold his soul to the Vile Tribe. He saw my reaction when he asked me to join him. He said he could control them…”
As the possibilities and consequences twirled within her, Mia’s breath wrestled to escape to ask, “He…Mother?”
Lemia nodded. “He came to my office and said he needed to talk to me in private. I saw that he wasn’t wearing his badge, but thought nothing of it as he’d done that before. He didn’t say a word as he stepped next to me, but then he touched my cheek and, after a moment, kissed me. The next thing I knew we were standing in my bedroom. Mia, it was as though he had come back to life again, that the Ghaelon I loved had returned. He kissed me in a way that he hadn’t in a very, very long time, and we…”
Mia fought an embarrassed reaction as the last bits of color manifested in her mother’s cheeks, “Anyway…afterwards, he told me of what Dyne and Althena had done all those years ago. I couldn’t believe what he was saying, but I couldn’t find the strength or the will to interrupt him. He told me there was room for me, a place beside him, and that he needed my help and my magic. He was already working on a way to find the child that was the Goddess, and that he knew how to restore her powers… And then, in exchange for doing this, he and I would rule together—perhaps even as gods.”
“I told him he was insane, banding together with the same people that Althena had cast out, the very people we had fought in her name. He laughed, Mia, he laughed and said that meant nothing, that there were more important things in the world than humans’ petty squabbles. I refused him, and then realized that his eyes hadn’t changed at all, that I had only wanted to see them the way they were when we first met.”
“He looked at me, Mia. Goddess knows I’ve never seen an expression like that before, or since. There was anger, sadness, and something I can’t describe… something no one should be able to show. He told me that he had feared that I wouldn’t accept his offer, and that he was sorry for what he had to do next. I…I thought he was going to kill me, but then he bent over and kissed me… and said that part of him still loved me and would never forget me. Then…. Then the room went dark. When I woke up, I was in a filthy cell and chained to a rough bed. He must have used a sleep spell, and put that horrible mask on me.”
Mia saw her mother shiver, and mimicked the motion, purely by happenstance. A pause held—even the air refused to breathe—as both of them looked away from each other, and then Lemia continued: “After you freed me, I found something in my jewelry box. He must have put it there after we…after he… anyway, it was his Master’s badge, and there was a note with it.” She glanced down to the small scrap of yellowed paper in her hand. “It told me that he was sorry that he had to do what he did, that there was no choice but to fulfill his destiny. He said he did care, but couldn’t allow Mel or I to stop him… and that I should never tell you about him, who he really was. Now I’ve betrayed his last request of me, just another failure for me to carry into the next world. I’ve failed you as a mother, and as Guildmaster.”
Finding words to say after all that just been revealed her was a grueling task, but Mia managed, “Mother… You shouldn’t talk like that, you never failed me or--” But Lemia shushed her with a weak wave of her hand.
“Shh, listen to me. I’m getting tired now and it’s becoming difficult to form the words I need to say. I know you love your friend Nash. And from the whispers I’m not supposed to hear, I gather you’re already living like a married couple. Don’t give me that shocked look, Mia, I’m neither deaf nor stupid. But… believe it or not, I’m happy for you. Nash has done so much for us, for Vane. I can tell he loves you, Mia, just in the way he talks and the way he looks at you. It reminds me of…” With another frown the tired woman paused, trying to shove the words out and not let Mia make any parallels between them. “You…you need to know this, Mia. Because it could impact Nash or who ever you choose as your life mate.”
The Guildmaster’s eyes filled with anxiety as they met her mother’s. “What?”
With a tired sigh, Lemia nearly whispered, “I don’t know how old Ghaleon was, but I know now that he wasn’t human. I know you got some of his magic, which was incredibly potent. As a result I know that you’re already far more powerful than I ever was and that growth can only continue. You’ve already proven that many times over. What else you inherited from him I’m not sure.”
Mia just shook her head in incredulity at all of this…it was all just a bad dream, right? She’d wake up in the morning and everything would be fine, wouldn’t it?
Lemia weakly pet her daughter on the cheek. “You know about the Ausa curse, that no Guildmaster as lived past the age of thirty eight, and that we’re raised by the Council and Premier if our mother dies too soon—your great grandmother died in her early twenties.”
“But while I was Ghaleon’s prisoner, in those brief moments of sanity that mask let me, or when he would come to my cell and remove it to just stare at me and gloat over his impending god-hood, I realized something.” In another ragged breath she said, “Mia, Ghaleon was at least a hundred years old—maybe even more—yet he didn’t look a day over thirty. I… you need to know this, because you may have broken the curse, only to inherit a new one. Because of his blood you may have a normal lifespan, or one that would exceed Nash’s by….”
Mia’s own voice seemed to echo from nowhere, her lips hardly moving. “Decades? Longer? I had just started to accept that he would outlive me… but this?”
“Decades or Centuries. I don’t know, Mia. But to Nash, I doubt it will make any difference, but I felt you had to know…and have time to understand it before you…. make your decision.” Her voice was becoming weaker, but she pushed through…having to hurry slightly as her words began to slur slightly from exhaustion. “Child, I think the time has come that we…that you…did away with some of the traditions that have bound us to the past. Guildmasters should not just be rulers, they should be people with lives, and with husbands and children they raise together.”
“You’ve done well, my daughter, but you have a hard road ahead. I can tell you that the.. the coun… the council is difficult to deal with. Find an ally, someone that can help you and your Nash. I’ve….” Lemia’s head dipped and her eyes closed for a moment, as though sleeping. Then, with a jerk, she snapped it back up. “I’ve heard that you’ve spoken to Gregory, and asked him to join the Council. He’s a strange man, I’ve known him all my life and yet I never really knew him, I don’t know that anyone truly does. He never seems to change; yet for all his mysteries there is no greater or more loyal mage in Vane. I feel you can trust him, I wish I had when I had the chance… He will support you, but he’ll also tell you if he thinks you’re wrong about something.” With a saddened shake of her head, she added, “I tried to talk to Tamora about this, and supporting you in your choice to open Vane to everyone. She laughed at me until she realized I was serious. Then, she just, left. I’m afraid I rather upset her, she had such dreams for you and Orinth.”
Mia glanced away from her mother, as if trying again to evade the inexorable. When she looked back, her mother was struggling in her effort to lie back down. With a face plastered in dread, she supported the frail woman’s back and removed the pillows that were keeping her upright.
Lemia closed her eyes, as she lay down and whispered, “Mia…whatever else you do, use your head, but don’t be afraid to make decisions based on your heart.”
“Leave now, daughter… I’m tired and I need to sleep. Please…. And thank you…for your loyalty, and your love. Goodbye, Mia… my love.”
Mia watched in dreadful awe as her mother all but perished before her. Although clairvoyance was not one of her many Gifts, somehow, she knew this would be the last goodbye. Her mother might live a few more days, if that, but she knew, some way, somehow, this was the last time they would speak. Tears spilled down her face as she sat there, perfectly still, perfect proper, watching Lemia find slumber one last time.
Sometime later (she wasn’t sure just how much time had passed) she sensed another person enter the room and walk up behind her. Gentle hands found her shoulders and rubbed them. She didn’t have to turn around, she knew who it was. His voice was gentle as he whispered, “Its past ten, Mia. Are you all right?”
Emotions swirled through her; this was real. Lemia was dying, if not already dead, and the truth—the horrible truth she had just been given would haunt her for the rest of her life. Should she tell Nash? No. At least, not now, not yet. There were preparations to consider—things to plan. Besides, how would he take it? Trying to distance herself from this room that would soon be a death chamber (and all that had transpired here) she stood up, and started to walk past him, “I need to write to Jessica and Alex. I need to let them know—“
He pulled her sleeve, trying to draw her into an embrace. “I already took care of that, Mia. Everyone should be here in a few days.”
At first she wanted to shake him off, but a moment later surrendered and rested her face on his chest. Every bit of strength she had seemed to be ripped from within her; even her legs started to buckle out from under her. For a few minutes he stood there and supported her as he kissed her flooding cheeks. Her voice was tired as she finally slipped out of denial, “Mother is dying.”
He pet her hair soothingly, like he always did. “I know Mia. I wish there was something we could do, but we can’t. We have to accept that.”
“And how do we ‘just accept it’ Nash? We fought death; we fought it to a standstill when we stopped Ghaleon. And now it’s cheating. It couldn’t stop us, so it’s taking Mother for its revenge.”
“I can’t answer that, my love; I doubt anyone really can, but I can tell you that after time, it won’t hurt as much. I know it doesn’t seem possible right now. I…” Nash seemed to make a decision at that point and reached out to take her by both shoulders in his hands, turning her towards the distant door. “Mia, please come with me. You really shouldn’t stay here right now, I want to tell you something—something I can’t do here.”
With one arm around her shoulders, he led her out of the bedroom and into the small parlor just outside. She felt him deposit her onto a sofa, and then sit next to her, his face clouded in thought for a moment before he reached out to lay his arm around her shoulder. She pulled her legs up on the couch, and curled into his embrace like a baby. In a voice barely above a whisper she said, “I don’t understand it, Nash, mother was getting better, she should be healthy. She should be here when the Guild reopens next spring…It’s not fair.” Her voice climbed to a near heartrending shriek of pain. “It’s not FAIR!”
“I don’t think we’re supposed to understand it, and I’m afraid there’s nothing in the rules about anything in life having to be fair, Mia. When my parents were killed, it didn’t make any sense to me, either. But then I remembered something my mother told me once, when I was a kid, and while it didn’t make everything right, it helped me feel better, to accept if not understand.”
Mia opened her eyes in near surprise and barely lifted her head off of him to meet his eyes. In all the years she’d known him, Nash had never mentioned his family—not once, not ever. “Killed?”
He nodded ever so slightly. “It’s not something I like to think about, but my mother’s story has always helped me keep things in perspective.”
Looking down at his shirt she could see it stained with her mascara and tears, and she pleaded, “Tell it to me? Please?”
He gave a feeble smile and lost his fingers in her thick curls, guiding her head to rest against his chest again. “All right, though I’m sure you’ve heard it before.”
Mia smiled as he began the story. The moment he started he realized she knew it, but maybe Nash’s version would be different, and it was Nash, after all. She eased back into his arm and listened, at ease for the moment, for the first time in all that horrible day.
“A long time ago, all the people lived on the Blue Star. It was a beautiful place, with huge oceans and endless skies. Then, one day, two lands led by humans began a war with each other. No one remembers the reason, which makes it all the more foolish because soon all of the other lands and peoples joined in, picking one side or the other. Years went by, and all attempts at finding peace proved to be all but impossible to grasp as death and destruction flooded over all the lands. Soon, almost all were dead, the survivors huddling in caves and lost valleys, fighting for survival. Finally, after many, many deaths, Althena took pity and rescued her children, bringing them here, to Lunar.
“At that time, our world was a barren place without air, without water, without life. Nothing would grow; nothing would survive. The Goddess used her magic to make it habitable, to give it life so that it could shelter life, and told her people to live and prosper, with the promise that one day they might return to the Blue Star.
“Althena warned her children that she did not want war, for that was the very thing that had almost destroyed them, and what she had rescued them from. And so, for a time, the world was at peace. The people gathered together and survived. They formed camps, then towns, then cities that flourished. The people embraced life, and they multiplied. Althena promised them protection, so long as they lived in peace.
“To shield herself and her children, Althena created four dragons. She made one from the ice in the north, one from the water in the oceans, one from the fire within the ground, and one from the night sky itself. After the dragons were formed, Althena decided that they needed a leader, a human, to be able to harness their power, and so the first Dragonmaster was born.
Mia smiled at that part, just as she always did when her own mother…or Ghaleon… would tell her the story. Even now, the thought of all that ‘multiplying’ was funny to her, but she didn’t say anything and let Nash continue, but that’s when the story began to differ from the tale she knew…or thought she knew.
“Soon, the Originals grew old, as all humans must, and it came time for them to pass from this world. The first to die was a woman named Cysara. As her husband was performing the ritual to return her body to the earth, he called to Althena, asking the Goddess what would become of her soul in this new world. For Cysara had been born of another world, the one they had been forced to flee.
“The woods fell silent as his tearful words broke the silence of their ritual. ‘Althena, what will become of her? She is the first, will she…will all of us be condemned to wander the dark beyond for eternity without a home?’
“Althena’s voice came from the darkness surrounding the small glade he had chosen for Cysara’s rest. She spoke to the man, and she said, ‘Look to the heavens. Do they not still exist? Look to the bright Blue Star that you have left behind, does it not still exist? It does and it shall continue to do so. Do not fear, she will be waiting for you there.’
“Siria (for that was the man’s name) shook his head at the Goddess, or where he thought she might be out in the dark woods. He was surprised at the lack of fear in his heart, but not the confusion her words brought him. ‘But the Blue Star is dead, and ravaged in war.’
“The Goddess appeared before him, floating in the air just above his head and surrounded by glory. She was silent for a moment as she stared into his eyes and weighed his soul. Her words to him were firm. ‘No, it is not. Someday all of my children will return to it. For some of you it may be in your lifetime, and for others it may be generations past, but in the future the Blue Star will unite us all.’
“Siria asked, ‘But how? I do not wish to wait an eternity to be reunited with my beloved.’
“Althena again answered the man’s question, ‘Tell the people of this world that they must live as one. While they have lived in peace they have not kept their promise to me. They have begun dividing themselves with titles and cities and walls. That will not do. For soon brother will turn against brother and even that peace will die, as it died on the Blue Star. You have my promise, and now you must remind the rest of my children of the one they made to me. For only a united people will return to the Blue Star.’
“Siria nodded and left the Goddess, promising to spread her covenant. But like today, most mocked him and refused to listen. He wandered far and wide, little more than a beggar living from day to day, trying to convince the people to knock down the walls of their cities and to embrace each other as equals. But none would listen—at the best he was laughed at and ridiculed, at other times he was stoned and driven from their cities. All wrote him off as crazy, and when he died, tired and alone, there was none to mourn him save Althena.
“Still, to this day, Althena keeps that vow she made to Siria. And even when we don’t want to listen, or don’t want to believe it, we have to know its still there. Sometimes, when you hear a whisper over your shoulder, or a little voice inside your head telling you right from wrong, never fear or question it. For it is the voice of your ancestors, and the people who love you, guiding you in the hopes that someday, will we all live on the Blue Star, just as Althena promised.”
Nash took a deep breath, “And that’s the story, as much of it as I remember, anyway.”
“I’ve heard some of that before, but the end—that is different than the legend I was told as a child.”
Nash shrugged—she didn’t see it, but she felt it. “Well, maybe each city has its own version, but I think the belief is the same all over the world—that someday we will go back to the Blue Star, and whether that be in death or in life, we will always have our loved ones with us. They will always be there, in our hearts and in our spirits. Watching and guiding us until we can see them again, on the Blue Star.”
Mia smiled, as she snuggled against him again, but didn’t say anything. She glanced out the window and saw the bright Blue Star—the symbol of Althena’s covenant glowing there against a perfectly black sky, as if confirming the legend Nash had just told her.
Mia had started to retrieve the portrait from the fireplace when a rap came on the door and the ever-present guard peeked in. “Majesty, Master Gregory to see you.”
Mia straightened her dress as she smiled, “Show him in.”
Gregory smirked a little as he walked up to her, stopping before her work desk. It was an unusual expression to see on his face and she hesitated until, without a word, he bowed and placed a scroll in her hands. With that her own smile returned and, laying the document on her desk, she unfurled it and touched a soft hand to his seal. But as she read it, a frown dropped on her face. The Illusionist noticed and with a tilt of his head asked, “Majesty…this is not acceptable?”
She met his eyes, “No…Gregory, this is wonderful. You have done so much for me, and so much for Nash, but I don’t think it matters any more--”
His voice was almost too happy, as he interrupted with a laugh, “It doesn’t?”
Although surprised by his voice, Mia shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. He’s made that very plain to me. Gregory, he doesn’t care for me anymore, or even if he does, he’ll never show it again.”
The mage’s grin faded as he spoke, “How do you mean, Majesty? If you don’t mind my asking.”
She gave him a tiny smile as a sigh parted it from her lips, “I apologized—“ She paused for a second, and with a splash of color on her face continued, “I’m sure Nash told you about what. I begged for his forgiveness, and then, just as he started to come around, and I told him what he was to me, how I really felt, he retreated back into his hole, that hideous little façade of his. Gregory, I don’t know what I can do! I don’t know if this going to work out! How can we run the Guild if we can’t talk to each other!” Slumping down into her chair, she added, “Maybe the Council was right.”
Gregory bowed to her, “Forgive my forwardness, Majesty, but I believe you are very mistaken on that sentiment. Unlike some members of the Council, who seem only interested in the advancement of their respective families, I truly have nothing to gain one way or another. So I can say with the utmost certainty and respect that I believe you made the right choice of Premier. As for the difficulty between the two of you… this too shall pass, in its appointed time.” After a moment, he gave a wink as he smiled at her, “Besides, with me there to rattle his cage constantly, the poor boy doesn’t stand a chance.”
You certainly do have a way with him, Gregory…Mia stood back up and, stepping around the desk, hugged the elusive Illusionist. “If you really think it’s for the best, Gregory.”
He released her and gave another crow-footed smile, “I know it is, my child. All that remains is to convince that hard headed Premier-to-be of yours to reopen that closed mind of his.”
Mia was about to speak again when a sudden commotion outside the door sent her running towards it. Gregory followed, arriving at it just ahead of her. Just as he reached for the golden handle—pushing her protectively behind him—it was thrust open by a guard with a very angry expression on his face.
Three quite agitated sentries were surrounding Gravitt, their hands on their weapons and watching his every move. To his credit, the huge man just stood silently, though the look his silver eyes gave the guards held a cold promise of reprisal. Mia stepped to the side of Gregory and looked at them sternly. “What is going on here?”
Darshak spoke first, “We have a problem, Majesty.”
Gravitt quickly wiped the anger from his expression, retaining just enough annoyance to be accepted as reasonable as he turned and bowed to her, “Pardon me for disturbing you, Majesty, but we do indeed have a problem.”
Gregory asked, “What is it?”
Darshak gave his summary of the situation in a clipped voice, “Gravitt wants to bring in some carts, Majesty, rather large carts. Master Alastair told us no carts were to be permitted through the gate—none whatsoever.”
The huge man with the silver eyes smiled broadly. “I wouldn’t be so adamant about this if it didn’t involve the gift I promised you, Majesty. I simply cannot leave them outside. They must be watched constantly until they can be given to you.”
“Which is another problem,” Darshak said. “We don’t have the manpower for that.”
“Ah, it is just until the reception tonight. I would offer them to you now, but they need to be presented rather that just unwrapped.”
They all stared at her, waiting for some sort of answer, and it took a moment before she put her personal problems out of her mind, drew herself up, and glared at the tall guard. But just as she was about to direct Darshak to personally escort Gravitt’s carts in and baby sit them himself, if need be, a ruckus from within the room caused them all to turn and stare at the fireplace.
A steady stream of curses echoed from within the huge fireplace as small bits of carbon, dust, and mortar fell to the ashes from the last fire. There were a series of scratching noises as the scatter of debris became heavier. Then suddenly a large form fell down from the flue, a shrieked torrent of expletives following it. A form slammed into the base with a meaty thud and rolled out onto the floor, hidden by the fog of ash and carbon. A cough and another choice word from within the black cloud of soot revealed none other than the engineer of the Guild herself. She lay there, stunned for a moment, as the soot began to settle around her and eyes not even trying to focus as she fought for breath.
Mia gasped, as everyone else just stood in shock. “Artemus—are you all right?”
The woman—although barely recognizable under the layer of dirt—tried to roll from her back to her side as she panted, fighting to regain her breath.
Gregory stepped closer to the black-faced engineer. “I’ll get Robin, or some of her staff.”
Artemus waved a hand, and tried to speak, but all that came out was a jagged, hacking cough.
The Illusionist frowned, and then said to Mia: “Stay with her and try to keep her from moving. I’ll be back with help as soon as I can.” He didn’t bother with formalities as he pressed his palms together and disappeared in a swirl of heatless black flame, much to the shock of Gravitt.
Mia gave a smile of thanks to the space that had just been Gregory, and then crouched down next to the brunette. “It’s all right, Artemus, just try to breathe. We’ll get you to Robin as soon as we can.”
The filthy woman just shook her head, clearly indicating she wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having to put up with the testy Healer or her methods, but was still not ready, or able, to talk.
Turning back to the situation at hand, Mia stood up, found her most formal voice, and gave the guards the order that had been on her lips moments before. “Darshak, I assume you have not been introduced to Gravitt. He is a gentleman and one of our most generous benefactors, and as such, he will be shown the utmost respect. Please allow me to supersede Master Alastair’s mandate to keep the gates closed to carts. You will permit Gravitt’s wagons to pass, place them in a secure location, and you will personally stand watch for him until he is able to collect them tonight.”
The sentry simply bowed to her, clearing feeling the less than subtle rebuke. Then, with a nod to his companions, they disappeared from the office and closed the door silently behind themselves.
The huge man smiled, “Thank you.”
Mia nodded an acknowledgement to him and then turned to the now-breathing engineer, “Help is coming. Are you all right? Please say something.”
“Something,” was the sarcastically spiked reply as Artemus propped herself up on her elbows. “Yeah. I’m fine, but I think I have rope burn in places I’d forgotten about.”
The Guildmaster crouched down again, and started to untie the crude rope harness around the woman’s waist. “Please don’t move!”
The engineer obeyed and shook her head again as she looked up the shaft from which she had made her rapid decent. “Ain’t that a kick in the ass!”
Mia couldn’t help but ask as she jerked the harness free from the other’s waist: “What were you doing in the chimney?”
Artemus tried to find her legs, but couldn’t, and just remained on the floor as she gave the Guildmaster a look that said you should know. “You left me a note saying there was a blockage in there.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Strange. Oh well, it’s a good thing I went in there, though, because whole damn thing was caked in soot and creosote. We really gotta clean these things more often.”
Mia nodded, stupefied by the woman’s knowledge of so many abstract subjects, which now, apparently included chimney maintenance.
Artemus tried to stretch herself up just a little, but couldn’t seem to fight the pain in her back. “Twenty silver says it hasn’t been cleaned since the Fa—the rebuilding started. If that thing had caught fire we’d have lost half the Guild Manor before we could put it out. There’s nothing nastier than a bad chimney fire, especially in one as big and caked as this one was.” She looked over to Gravitt, a frown of mistrust creasing the soot-lines on her face. “Well, almost nothing.”
“Don’t worry, I got it out—although I think I’m wearing most of it.”
The room held a collective breath until Gravitt smiled at Mia, “You have such a dedicated staff. I would have expected them all to be at the Festival rather than working. I am quite jealous.” He bowed, “Speaking of which, I believe I have some preparations to make for tonight—if you’ll excuse me, Majesty.”
The Guildmaster gave one of her perfect smiles to the man, and felt a shiver of anticipation race up her spine as she watched him leave, her mind playing with the idea of what exactly this gift was going to be. I know I’m acting like a child, but I love surprises…
With a labored cough, the engineer rolled herself to her knees, and looked behind her at the rope that had followed her down. She picked up the end that hadn’t been secured to her body and examined it closely, as Mia just watched from a few feet away.
Artemus nearly growled as she threw the end of the rope that had just held her interest towards Mia. “I know many of you people don’t like me, but is killing me really worth your time?!”
The mage stood frozen in shock at the action and the accusation. “What!? What are you talking about?”
The brunette snarled, “Someone cut the frigging rope! Look at it!”
Mia slowly bent over and picked up what had been thrown at her moments earlier. Artemus was right; the slice was too clean to be made by anything other than a knife. Finding a business-like demeanor, she asked, “Who was working with you?”
“No one. I tied myself to the top of the chimney. My department is spread so thin, I couldn’t afford assistance—and I shouldn’t have needed it.”
Mia frowned, a pang of guilt hitting her for asking so much of one of the Guild’s most valuable members.
Even through her anger, Aretmus made it clear that she was determined to stand. But as she started to put her weight on her feet, she spotted something out of place in the disturbed ashes. Without rising she reached out and picked up the small portrait Mia had thrown into the grate earlier. With an audible ‘ugh’ the brunette forced herself upright and put the picture on the seat of the nearest chair, before grabbing the back of it to support her aching body. “I think you’ll want that. Maybe not right now, but later, I’m sure you will.”
Anger filled Mia’s face as she started to reply hotly, but Artemus cut her off. “Oh don’t you start that with me too! Every girl around this idiot place wants him—except me maybe, but that’s because I think he’s a schmuck. Somehow you were the one lucky enough to get him.”
The Guildmaster blinked in shock at the forwardness of the engineer, and her use of a strange word. “A what?”
Artemus left decorum in another dimension as she shook her head in both pain and frustration. “A schmuck, and if you don’t know what it means, I’m not gonna tell you. There are some things even I won’t say out loud—so just never mind. All that I know is that for better or worse, Nash will do whatever you ask him to do. And he will be a good leader for this loony-bin, so start treating him right, or you’ll answer to me.”
Mia’s mouth hung open in shock as the soot-covered woman continued, “Yeah, I know I’m speaking out of turn, but since no one around here seems to think I’m much of a member of the Guild—hell, now you nutty people are trying to kill me! Anyway, I don’t have much to lose by being blunt.”
“What do you mean not ‘much of’ a member of the Guild??” Mia’s question was strongly voiced, but it didn’t phase the engineer.
“You mean you don’t know? Or are you just denying it?” Artemus spat back.
Mia shook her head, completely confused.
The brunette scowled, “Tamora told me that you said I wasn’t really a part of this place and that you wanted me to pack up and leave as soon as I finished patching the place up. Then she said that I shouldn’t attend Nash’s inauguration on Saturday as one of the faculty since I’m ‘just the hired help’ and that I don’t ‘represent the ideal that is truly Vane.’ Whatever the hell that’s supposed to be”
Tamora…“That’s not true, nor is it right, Master Artemus. You will be there, and you will participate as one of the faculty. I promise you I will take care of this. While your methods are…unorthodox, you most certainly are one of the strongest members the Guild. As far as the person who cut this rope, when we find him—and we will find him—he will answer to me.”
“Unless I find him first.” The engineer bowed with her teeth gritted in pain as she held her back. “Thank you, Majesty. I’m…sorry about my outburst.” Her face flushed under the grime on her cheeks as she stood up and added, “Nash has always been a good friend of mine—nothing more mind you—and well, I just feel I have to look out for him. Goddess knows he can’t look out for himself. Typical man.”
Mia grinned at the brusque, yet seemingly truthful sentiment. “No apology necessary, Master Artemus. You have done so much for our city; it is wrong how people treat you. I can only hope that as we aim to open our doors fully, more of them come around. However, I will not have members of my Council acting so against my wishes, so know that Tamora will be dealt with, and know that I appreciate your efforts more than I can express—but please, don’t fall down any more chimneys.”
Artemus gave a genuine smile, showing that even her teeth were black. “Well, I’m getting out of here while the gettings good and that healer freak isn’t here to confine me to bed. But I’m taking the rest of the night off.”
Mia gave a serious look to the woman, “Please don’t be afraid of Robin, or her methods. She is the best, and you certainly need to be looked at. You fell a good what—ten feet?”
Artemus started to respond, but was distracted by the hurried reappearance of Gregory through the office door, with Robin in step behind him. The Healer just shook her head at the mess of a woman. “You moved. Gregory said you were flat on your back and that he told you not to move. Can you not follow directions, young lady?”
With a grin, the brunette announced to all of them: “I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I’ll be fine after a few beers and a night in the sack with some guy who I don’t have to remember in the morning!”
Mia’s face heated with color, Gregory laughed, and Robin just started at the girl in disgust.
Robin’s snapped, “I know I can’t make you a lady, but could you have the decency to remember you are in the company of the Guildmaster and two members of the Council?”
Artemus actually looked a little embarrassed, and muttered, “Sorry. But I am fine.”
“No, you are not. Falling such a great distance can cause serious injury, beyond the obvious broken bones and bruises. Just because you’re afraid of healers is no reason for me not to do my job.” With that, The Master of Healing Magic crossed her fingers and Artemus was immobilized. “And since you could not just stay put for the few minutes it took Gregory to find me, I’m going to make sure you don’t move until you can be properly examined.”
Artemus screeched, trying to move her suddenly stiff body, “Master Gregory! Majesty Mia! Please! Don’t let her do this! She’s insane!”
Robin snapped her fingers and the patient fell asleep. Another spell, and the engineer was levitated, prone on her back as if strapped to a board. “That girl needs to appreciate magic—especially healing magic—if she intends to live in Vane.”
Gregory shook his head, chuckling as he reached out to lay a comforting hand on the engineer’s immobile shoulder. “Either that or find a less dangerous profession.”
“Gregory, since I’m sure that you have nothing better to do, why don’t you help me get her down to the infirmary? With all these ruff—people around, I don’t want anyone to interfere with the stun spell.” And then, with a wave of her hand, the Healer’s patient floated behind her, the Illusionist following the two of them, clearly knowing he really didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Mia gave a tiny sigh of disbelief at the entire scene, and her entire day so far. Walking back over to the chair where Artemus had propped herself, she lifted the portrait off the seat and placed it back in the top drawer of her desk. With a reverent hand, she brushed away the soot and ash covering it as her lips moved in a silent prayer that someday, it would be once upon a time once again.