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Lunar Silver Stary Story

If Love Were Only Part of the Equation
By K'Arthur [ 04-01-03 ]
Chapter: Prologue 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15


Chapter 13

“Shallow men believe in luck.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The slip of paper had only given Gravitt one word, but it was more than enough. After snatching it from the floor and reading it, he crumpled it into a tight ball with a silent snarl and headed to where it told him to go—the Library. For some reason his contact had an infatuation with the place; it certainly wasn’t his choice in a rendezvous, in fact it bothered him to even go into the so-called pride of Vane. While it concerned him that others might be there, he was more irritated at the fact of being recalled to it to truly consider this minor detail at the moment.

The huge man sneered at the entrance to the Library. Tucked away on the second floor of Guild (perhaps so the mages could horde the knowledge it contained) it almost surprised him the place wasn’t guarded. He despised even the concept of this place, reminding him again of the endless boring lessons he’d been forced to endure while his father had still lived, and he ever the respectful and obedient son. Although he had been here before, that time was at night, and he hadn’t noticed that the gold leaf on the doors swirled into the pattern of the seal of House of Ausa. While this minute detail had passed him before, it wasn’t a shocking revelation—the empty-headed Guildmaster seemed to have left her mark on every other place of importance in this opulent city. He growled under his breath; excessiveness wasn’t something he enjoyed, particularly when it didn’t belong to him.

A single press of his massive palm swung open one of the ornate doors to the Library. Revealed within was the scene he had expected: young people engaged into books, some visitors wandering aimlessly about, and a plethora of people hovering around the center, gazing excitedly at an object he couldn’t make out in the distance. Trying to remain inconspicuous, he picked his steps carefully, making an effort not to attract any attention even though it was at odds with his usual arrogant stride. Slowly, and quite methodically, he wandered back among the stacks, looking blankly at some of the empty shelves and growing more impatient by the second. So where the hell is he?

Finally choosing a spot near the very back row, he ripped one of the volumes off the shelf and put his nose in it, pretending to read the words. The language wasn’t one he knew, but the markings seemed familiar for some reason, and that bothered him. Ignoring the feeling, he flipped the pages arrogantly, until the noise of a book being removed from the shelf behind startled him. Instinctively, he started to spin around and crouch to reach for the dagger in his boot, cursing himself for being so inattentive, but the command that followed froze him in his place. Such an order he was used to giving, not receiving, but something forced him to keep his eyes on the book as the words controlled him. “Do not turn around!”

Gravitt gave a loud grunt at the rasped command, held the book up close to his face and whispered harshly, “What do you want? You’re going to get both our throats slit by taking unnecessary risks if you keep calling me to these stupid meetings.”

“Shut up, you idiot! You're who’s taking foolish risks and will be the one to jeopardize our position! I'm not prancing around with the Guildmaster hanging on my arm and making sure everyone knows my name!”

He snarled and started to turn around, but the voice again spat at him and he jerked back in barely controlled rage, the book nearly falling from his hand. The voice behind him hissed: “Control your temper! If anything sabotages this, it will be your complete inability to manage yourself like a decent human being!” There was a pause, as if waiting for his reaction, which came with the clenching of his fists and an almost audible grinding of his teeth. He had come too far and spent too much time on this to ruin it by reaping just the wrong kind of attention from the other people in the Library.

The voice smiled behind him, clearly content at his reluctant compliance. “Now, you’re ready for tonight?”

“Yes. Like I’ve told you time and again.”

The response was coated in doubt. “Are you sure?”

“What sort of idiot do you think I am?” As he snarled the rhetorical question he slowly turned to try and see who it was that thought they could play him for a fool. But this time he was in for an even greater shock as he looked into the hood of the person standing behind him. The voice had been distorted from the beginning, making it impossible to tell if the speaker were man, woman, or anything in between. But when he tried to look into the hood itself all that could be seen was darkness and a shimmering swirl of white mist. A cloaking spell-- how unoriginal. Just one little touch… just one…. And all the questions will be answered. He fought back his irritation and curiosity, knowing that giving in to it would destroy all his plans. Still…Somehow I know this is a female. No man would dare to do this to me.

A short “hmph” was followed by: “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to.” These words seemed to fill him with a new rage and he started to straighten up and draw back a fist. Again he was reprimanded, “Don’t even think about it!” Then without even a delay the other continued: “How long will the large ones take to charge?”

“Taben said at least a week. Maybe ten days.”

“Do not use his name! Especially here of all places, you’ll get us both killed!”

“And don’t speak to me like that! And who’s going to hear us? I’ve seen more life in a tomb than in this place! Even with all these people around we are virtually invisible! Like a corpse at a funeral!” He glanced around. “Besides, this entire place is a waste of good stone.”

The other frowned; he could feel their glare even if he couldn’t see their face as the other’s voice snapped out in a harsh and barely controlled whisper. “You have no concept of what this place is, or what it means to this world! This room is Vane! It has always been Vane and it will always be Vane! We must preserve what little dignity and knowledge we have left before we are made to be extinct by mere commoners!”

Gravitt grinned, and with a mused smirk muttered, “Taking things so personally will cost you in the long run.”

“Shut up you simpleton! You will not ruin this with your arrogance or with your stupidity! You will follow my orders as you were directed to and not make any decisions without my permission!”

“And how do I know you are to be trusted?”

“You don’t, but I don’t know about you, either, and with each interruption I begin to realize that I don’t want to know you! You are one of them, but you at least know your place!”

Gravitt frowned, shaking his head as he returned the unseen glare. “I don’t care about you or what you think of this pit of weaklings. As for what you think of me--” His laugh was cold. “Like it would make a difference between us? All I know is that I’d better get my prize once this is over. Four years of work—it better pay off!”

“It will, I can promise you that. As for your prize…I assume you are referring to that brainless bit of fluff we’re forced to call ‘Majesty.’” The tone of the voice became almost musical under its shrouded rasp, “Don’t worry, once I’m finished with her, she’s yours. You’ll like her when I'm done with her. No arguments, no backtalk, and certainly no problems. Just simple compliance.”

The huge mercenary grinned and flipped another page in the book, the ancient paper cracking in the process as a fragment of broken parchment fell to the floor unnoticed. “Excellent. Although I don’t see why I can’t have her before you do whatever it is you need to do with her.”

“For one thing, I need her to give me something…something she won’t want to give me and can’t unless--” The voice cut off abruptly and then snarled, “Do you even know how to read? Don’t treat that book with such disrespect!”

Gravitt stopped turning the pages, and growled audibly, barely constraining the urge to reach out and silence his partner forever. Snapping the book closed he reached up and shoved it back onto the shelf, not caring where it belonged or if might have knocked another loose from its place.

Again the form seemed amused at his clearly forced self-control, and sighed, nearly losing its ambiguity. “Never mind, you don’t need the details. Just accept my word that she’ll be much more agreeable to your…proposition…after I’ve dealt with her.”

Gravitt grinned; this person might just trust him now, or at least trust him enough to let something useful slip. With an obtuse air, he asked, “What do you want out of this anyway?”

The voice turned cold as it began to preach what was clearly a much-practiced and self-righteous litany to him: “Mia is stupid, beyond stupid! She has never understood what Vane was nor what it needs to be today! This city, this room even, was the pinnacle of culture and the seat of education of all Lunar! What is it now? A pile of rubble stacked upon itself and polished up into a faint shadow of its glory. And even that shadow is soon to be made even less than that by just the quality of people she is allowing to meander through our gaping gates!”

The voice stopped only long enough to catch its breath; “Our revered leader wants this place to become overrun with hicks, idiots, inferiors, and worst of all even those who are not Gifted! Such practices will cause magic to become a lost art among the masses, dare I say cheap parlor tricks for the slack jawed and ignorant to amuse themselves with! I’ve said it for years, and I’ll say it again: this archaic dynasty should be--no, must be--eradicated. The only thing keeping them in power is the Spire and a handful of blindly loyal Guild Members who actually seem to believe that mindless drivel!

“All of them have been weak, pathetic rulers, more consumed by their romantic exploits than their appointed duties! There hasn’t been a Guildmaster worthy of the title in generations! Relina spent her life pining for a man who left her, Lemia surrendered the power of the Guild to a madman, and Mia is more driven by her futile ideals and dreams than the reality that she needs to restore the city to its proper place of authority and dignity. Not some insane dream of equality! In a way it’s a blessing she’s not chosen to follow tradition and reproduce! It saves us from having to deal with yet another Ausa. These ideas of freedom and equality will be her undoing and end her family’s grip on power forever—and once she surrenders the power of the city to me, we’ll be invincible.”

Gravitt felt the conviction in the other’s voice, even if he didn’t understand all of the vocabulary. It gave him a feeling of undaunted hope—this would work. Zealots always make the best villains, but they need to be watched. So, he simply reminded the other, in an almost flat tone, “Even so, you best not hurt her, or you’ll deal with me. And just to make sure, I’m not giving you the Key until I’m ready.”

It was a panicked reply that filled the space between them. “That is not an option! I must have it before we begin!”

Gravitt felt his temper begin to heat, and forced it back down his throat. It was good to know he had something to hold over this person. “So you say, but remember, I’m not sure I trust you. You’ll get it soon enough--when I’m satisfied that your end of the bargain has been filled. Maybe I’ll have the chance to take her before you can finish your own end. Wouldn’t that be entertaining?”

The voice was a strange combination of desperation and hatred as the other roared back at him. “Haven’t you been listening? She can’t be hurt or touched, by either of us, or the whole thing is over before it’s even begun!”

He closed the cover of the book and put it back on the shelf, nonchalantly selecting its neighbor as his new prop. “Perhaps, but again, you also said there were no threats besides the Premier, and yet you hurt that engineer girl. She could have been an ally. Did you lie to me or just change your mind? That bit with the chimney was sloppy.” He glanced around the enclosure for a second as though counting the many faces that might have turned towards them in curiosity after the other’s outburst. “And who’s doing all the attention grabbing at the moment?”

The cloaked person actually showed some degree of annoyance at his observation. “I know it was. You’d think with enough murderers, delinquents, and thieves inside our fair city I could at least hire a capable one!”

“You didn’t answer my question! And what about the Council and the other Heroes? They seem more threatening than one magic-using fool or a little girl with a hammer!”

It was a smirk-filled reply that came to his ears, “For all her base-born origins, that ‘little girl with the hammer’ is far too smart for her own good, and just another example of the trash that has been given the title reserved for only the most talented magicians. As far as the Council goes, I can certainly handle them, and the Heroes we will need to wait out, but Nash must be dealt with—if by some miracle he comes to his senses and alerts our precious Guildmaster, it will all be over.”

Repetition--especially unnecessary repetition--ate at Gravitt’s last nerve. “Yes, you’ve said all of that before—although I doubt we need to worry about your Premier. The few words I spoke to him at the last reception proved to me he was incapable of any thought above than what color robe he was wearing. But the girl, doesn’t she know this place inside and out? We could have used her. If your shoddy assassination attempt hasn’t put her on guard, she might still be valuable.”

“Its hardly worth the effort to talk to her about it—all you’ll get is curses and rhetoric about magic being useless. A Master of the Magic Guild of Vane who refuses to use magic! Its incongruous!”

“Huh? In what?”

“Absurd! Ridiculous!” In a mutter the voice added, “Why was I selected to work with someone with a total lack of vocabulary!”

Gravitt chose silence as he pulled another, smaller book from the closest shelf and flipped it open, his fingers curling around its edges in restraint.

The other stopped their ranting tangent and, with an obvious effort, continued; their voice a bit more collected. “. “Please, don’t underestimate Nash. He acts like an idiot but his opinion is highly valued here among many of the people, though I have no idea why. It’s insane; he might even make a decent leader with a little guidance and direction. At least he has a few brains in his head, unlike Mia. Don’t be tricked by him though; he’s quite an actor, but why he chooses to play the fool is beyond my comprehension. Speaking of which, you said you had a plan for him. Now, there’s rumor going around the Guild is that the woman you brought spent the night in his rooms, and that both of them walked out the next morning as happy as pigs and twice as healthy. That doesn’t sound like a plan to me.”

A grin sprouted on the man’s face as he stared at words in the book, trying to hide his delight. She did? Oh, now that is amusing. “That’s just the beginning. By dusk I promise his name will be as dirty as the floor of the stable. Trust me, its all part of my plan.” The smile on his face was almost frightening--or would have been--had the other been in a mood to notice.

“It better be, and you will give me the Key the next time we speak. No questions, no arguments!” The other hesitated a moment, “Your plan? Goddess, spare us from the plans of idiots and dreamers! Never mind, just have that damned Key ready for me! That’s all for now. I’ll let you know again when I need to talk to you again, and next time don’t be late!”

Gravitt heard a book behind him slide back into place, but when he turned around, his friend was gone. Most definitely a woman…they are so particular about being on time and always disappear when it suits them…

******

It took every scrap of self-control that Gravitt could muster not to let his rage show as he worked his way back to his room. His stride was rapid and discordant as he tramped down the long empty hallway, and his fists were clenched to prevent him from accidentally smashing something or someone. He was about to rip his door off its hinges, when he looked at the next entryway and a sneer slowly spread over his face. After being belittled by his associate, the least he could do was to vent a little misdirected anger on the person he despised the most.

He raised his fist, preparing to slam down onto the door and demand entrance but then paused, the cruel smile growing wider and showing his teeth. No, she would expect that. Maybe I should make it even more fun. He lowered his fist, and gently knocked down towards the center of the door as though he were a much shorter, weaker person.

The response from within was musical—a gentle, yet excited call saying she was coming. He could hear her feet dance across the stone floor, over the rug, and then back to the marble near the entrance. I wonder which of her suitors the slut thinks I am? The Premier or the Tribesman?

Sabre’s expression, as she opened the door, began as a smile--one that quickly vanished as she took in his outline and vicious smirk. In that instant he could see that she knew he had predicted her every thought before she had opened the door. He held her eyes as he marched past her, looking around for the boy. “Where is he?”

She glanced at the privy, and opened her mouth to speak, but he didn’t give her chance.

That second she looked away he grabbed her wrist, knowing that her reaction would be as instinctive as it was unstoppable. As she turned to glare at him he saw the shock and hatred flash in her features as her talent, her curse, snapped out at him against her will.

She squirmed in his grasp, her arm glowing in the dark burgundy color of her aura as it flew out of her and into him. He hissed in pleasure as her blue eyes pressed tightly closed in pain, and her head shook violently as he drained her power out of her. Of course it wouldn’t hurt him, but just the fact it would make her violently ill was enough enjoyment to compensate for the incident in the Library.

It was with a devilish smirk, he gratified himself with thought that had another person done this; he would have wound up flat on his back or worse, while he didn’t even feel a tingle. She whimpered in agony, so he squeezed her wrist harder, until he could feel the thin bones begin to bend. Then, with a harsh laugh, he grabbed her by the back of her hair and forced her to look at him. I can’t risk leaving any obvious marks…yet.

He leaned over her, knowing his height intimidated her more than anything. In a ferine whisper he spat into her ear: “I hear you’ve been working fast, Sabre. Why, you’re the talk of the town! Imagine, my little slut found her way into the bed of Vane’s newest Premier! I’m sure he’s quite a step up from that Tribal piece of shit I caught you with last night!”

The woman's reaction was stronger than he had anticipated; the loathing smeared on her face he had expected, but the ice in her eyes was colder than it had ever been before. He liked getting that sort of response out of her, so he stabbed again. “I wonder how he broke you? With gloves like your ‘lover’ or some form of higher magic?”

Sabre didn’t blink as she let her frozen hatred peer out from behind her soul. He smiled at her; it was so wonderful to have her full attention, and he wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass. He released her mane and just held her with his gaze and words. “I see, you are choosing to keep that tidbit to yourself for now, that’s okay. Tell me now, tell me later. You’ll have to tell me eventually. Now, I just have to wonder why he’d bother to step down to you, though? Do you think the women of Vane are so boring that he’d degrade himself to, well—you? Although to your credit, I must say that you do live up to the Tribal tradition of being wild in the sheets. Perhaps he just wanted to test that theory for himself.”

Her voice was small but direct, as he saw her fight the pain he had inflicted. “I didn’t sleep with him. Now what do you want?”

He sneered at her boldness, and snarled, “What I always want and the only thing you’re good for, my little whore!” Taking a step back from her and using a much more cheerful and faked voice, he called, “Darian! Come here! We’re going to meet some people!” He forced a grin. Keeping the child trusting him was a top priority.

The boy called from the privy. “Okay Gravitt! I’m coming!”

The woman nearly fell to her knees as the last bits of color left her face. He smirked as he calmly brushed his dark hair back into place. It was too much for her to be drained and then robbed of her child, and he knew it.

Darian bounded out of the small room and up to the man as he asked a barrage of questions. “Can we go down there? To the street? Can we buy things?”

He smiled at the boy, answering all of the inane queries with a single phrase, “Of course we can.”

Darian smiled from ear to ear. “Can Mommy come?”

Gravitt was sadistically pleased that Sabre knew the answer well in advance and she knew that he would expect her to voice it. Her voice was shaky as she obviously held the tears back. “No, sweetie. I have to do some things. Now go with Gravitt and be a good boy.”

The little auburn haired boy nodded to her and ran past them toward the door, the sound of his energized giggling irritating his father and clearly worrying his mother.

As he reached for the doorknob, the child called happily, “Don’t worry Mommy. We’ll be back soon!”

Gravitt gave Sabre a wink, and couldn’t resist echoing the boy’s words in a tone that he knew would make her shiver. “Oh yes, don’t worry, Mommy. We’ll be back soon.”

Her eyes were half hooded in hatred and exhaustion, but he wasn’t through with her. Not just yet. Leaning back over her, and flipping her fire-hair up off her neck, he licked her from cheek to ear before adding in a most malicious whisper: “I’m proud of you for anticipating my desires. Keep our new friend close.”

******

Gravitt led his son down to the Festival, impatiently winding his way through the crowded streets and only barely in control of his temper. He hated crowds—there were always too many knives to his one back. Still, he was sure that he’d garner some attention from the right people there, and the boy would make him more approachable. What he didn’t anticipate, however, was Darian’s insatiable curiosity. The child’s wanting to stop and look at everything he saw, then try to touch most of it, was costing him valuable daylight. He hadn’t planned on purchasing anything from the vendors, nor wasting so much time watching the demonstrations, but certainly couldn’t make an issue of it with the child in public. So, with a well-rehearsed and utterly false grin of good nature, he took up his son’s hand and allowed him an arm’s length of freedom to enjoy Vane’s Festival. He is easier to deal with asleep, I long for the day I can be rid of him forever…

Everything fascinated the little boy. Street games, magic demonstrations, merchants and their wares, and even an old man standing in front of a group explaining the history of Vane. Gravitt recognized him as one of the members of the Council with whom he had shared a table only two nights before. The man’s name was Gregory, he was sure. His audience was held captive by his stories, told in a conversational but clearly educated voice and illustrated by images produced in puffs of smoke and small globes of silver light that appeared from nowhere and floated around the gathered crowd.

Darian jumped up and down trying to see over the person in front of him, and after a moment of irritation, the child darted away. Gravitt looked around, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. He forced a growl back down his throat as he moved through the congregation of people listening to Gregory. I’m going to tan his hide for this, and then that miserable bitch of a mother as well for raising such a disobedient little…

It was only a moment later that he spotted the child. Down the street a little ways, amidst a group of dancers stood the boy, his eyes transfixed on the people’s movements. Before Gravitt could get to him, however, a little blonde girl tagged him on the back and ran away. Darian stood still, looking utterly confused. The girl returned just as Gravitt walked up, and he decided to just watch for a few moments, since something told him it would be to his benefit.

The girl reached out and tapped the Darian’s shoulder again. As he gave her a blank stare she became obviously aggravated with him. “You’re supposed to chase me!”

“What?”

“I tagged you! You’re supposed to try and tag me.” The blank stare from the little boy made her ask, “Haven’t you played tag?”

Darian shook his head, the mass of hair atop it flopping with the action.

The girl put her hands on her hips and squinted at the boy, her long beast ears twitching under her blonde hair as she regarded him contemptuously. “It’s a game. I tag you, then you chase me and tag me.”

“Oh,” Darian shrugged, looking at her face. “You have funny ears.”

“No, you do. Mine look like my Mom’s and my Grandaddy’s. My Dad has funny ones, though. Like yours. Must be awfully boring for you.”

Gravitt grinned from his position behind them, and decided not to interrupt just yet. He knew this girl, and smelled an opportunity to get some more positive attention.

The little boy just stared at her. “Oh.” With that, he reached up and tugged at one of his ears, as though trying to make them longer like the girl’s.

She smirked at him, “All you say is ‘oh.’ What’s your name?”

“Darian.” The boy mimicked her irritated pose, “What’s your name?”

Before the girl could answer, there was a sudden flurry of tiny wings as a small, white cat-like creature hovered over their heads shrieking, “Kyle! Kyle! She’s over here!”

The boy screamed as he pointed at the animal, “What is that!?”

She sighed, “Its not a what, it’s a who. It’s Nall.” Then her voice fell and a touch of worry crept out. “My Dad is going to be soooo mad.”

Gravitt knew it was time to act, and with a grin, he stepped up to the children, took Darian’s wrist in one hand, and touched the girl’s arm in the other. In an amazingly musical voice he called, “I’ve got her, don’t worry!”

It was the girl’s turn to shriek, “Lemme go! Who are you?!”

Nall continued his shouting, not noticing the commotion below him as Darian spoke over the noise. “S’ok. This is Gravitt. He won’t hurt you. He’s just kinda big.”

The frantic child settled down at the other’s reassurance, and within a second a black haired man just about Gravitt’s size burst through the crowd. He scrutinized the mercenary for a moment then realized that he was holding both children with little actual pressure. With a word of thanks, he picked the girl up, despite her rebellious squirming. Then with a grin, he looked up to Nall. “Tell Alex I found her.”

The creature stuck its tongue out, as it flew away, “Yeah, you found her.”

With a shake of his head he asked the little girl, “Kalyn, what were you doing?”

“Trying to play tag.”

“Trying?”

She pointed at the other child, who had taken to hiding behind Gravitt’s massive legs. “Darian don’t know how to play.”

“Doesn’t,” he corrected her. “Doesn’t know how….” Kyle said, almost in disbelief of himself. As he shifted the girl’s small weight to sit on one of his large arms, a smile formed on the lips of the Hero as he turned back to Gravitt. “Kids just get away from you, you know? Anyway, I owe you one.”

“It was nothing. In fact I was just chasing my nephew down for the same reason.”

The black haired man regarded him again with a kind face, “Aren’t you that guy who gave Mia a lot of money?”

It took all his strength to feign a look of embarrassment. “Guilty as charged. I mean, I’m just one of her many admirers. There’s a lot of us in the Stadius Zone that support Majesty Mia and her cause—for many it means the opportunity of a lifetime, to be able to come to Vane and study without being treated like cattle.”

Kyle flashed a toothy smile. “I can imagine. They didn’t even want me here when I was helping them. I was just another barbarian at the gate, or worse… inside the gate. But I know Mia will change all that—she already has—and people respect her for it. Well, most of them anyway. Too bad her city had to fall down—I know that hurt her more than anything.”

Gravitt nodded. “Yes, that was truly a tragedy, even if it did prevent a larger one. However, I have faith that perhaps there is hope for Vane to fly again.”

The Hero gave a dubious look as he shifted his daughter’s weight to rest on his broad shoulder. “Well, it never hurts to dream big, I guess. At any rate, I knew you looked familiar. But seriously, thanks for all you did for her. She’s a good person, and a great friend. I only wish we could have done more, but Meribia has its own problems right now, although my wife will be the last to admit it.”

Gravitt nodded and gave a bow of his head. “It was nothing.”

“I hope you’ll be sitting with us again tonight,” Kyle said as he offered his hand. “I’ve decided that the only real men at our table are you, me, and Alex.” He gave a wink, “Maybe Nash—but that one’s always been up for debate.”

Gravitt shook the Hero’s hand and gave a snicker at the mock-insult. As Kyle walked away, a feeling of victory saturated him. Luck is with me today.

Such a feeling was fleeting, however, for a moment later Darian noticed something in the trader’s cart behind them. The child’s dark eyes grew wide with glee as he tugged on Gravitt’s sleeve eagerly. “Look! Gravitt! For Mommy? Please? Can we buy it?”

The huge man squinted at the object that held the boy’s attention. It was a simple bracelet made of tin with characters he couldn’t read pressed into it in crooked letters. The owner of the cart stepped around the front of his cart, his dirty brown hair plaited with black and blue tribal ribbons. He smiled at the boy. “Ah, such a lovely gift for a mother.”

Gravitt scoffed at the horrible craftsmanship of the object as well as its filthy peddler. “It’s poorly made and I don't even need to ask the price to know you want too much.”

The little bracelet captivated Darian, and the seller used it to his advantage, just as Gravitt had expected he would. “For the child, I’ll sell it for twenty silver.”

The mercenary was irritated, but not so much at the price. Parting with his silver for himself was one thing, and buying the child’s trust was acceptable, but having to purchase a ‘gift’ for the slut all but made his nostrils flare in hatred. He looked around at the other traders, trying to find a way out of this, and asked the child, “Wouldn’t you rather buy a toy?”

Darian shook his head emphatically. “No. Mommy’s sick. She needs a present.”

The Tribesman smiled, knowing he had the sale. “Such a selfless child, so sincere, so caring. I haven’t seen that sort of kindness in Vane all week. I’ll drop the price to fifteen silver.”

The child’s face lit up again as he looked to Gravitt, those dark eyes begging him in a way he absolutely detested. As if prying a sword from the cold hand of a corpse, he reached into his pocket, and produced the money. “Ten is all I’ll give you, and you should be happy with it. It’s twice what it’s worth and you know it.”

The merchant grinned as he took the payment, and a moment later the pathetic piece of tin was in the boy’s eager hands, as his eyes flitted with wondrous excitement.

Following this reluctant purchase, Darian’s squeals of delight proved to be more than enough for Gravitt. So, after giving the boy an empty promise of a swift return to the festival, he led the child back to the Guild, trying to ignore both the boy’s laughter and the sales pitches of the many vendors along the way.

Once inside the massive Atrium, he could not have asked for a better scene. Standing in the center, framed by the two flying staircases was Mia and her entourage. Three of the Council members flanked her and four guards stood at attention just behind them. The mages were engaged in an intense and, unless he missed his guess, rather heated discussion. He recognized all of them by name and discipline—being placed at the Head Table certainly did have its privileges. The only one missing was the sour-faced blonde woman, but she was useless to him anyway.

To his delight, Mia looked up and called him over. It was a relief to leave Darian (and the object which would keep him busy) on one of the many ornate couches a few feet away from the group. He gave a stern word to the boy to stay put, and then stepped up to the mages and bowed respectfully.

The Guildmaster told her companions, “Let us get a fresh perspective on our dilemma.” She gestured to the large man as he bowed. “You remember Gravitt of Briggatt?”

Tamora gave the new arrival a cold glance and then rolled her eyes, discreetly enough for Mia not to notice, or at least allow her to ignore it. “Pardon my forwardness, Majesty, but someone who does not live here cannot possibly understand the situation.”

The raven haired woman gave a quick smile to her advisor and responded curtly, “Well it seems that those of us who do live here can’t seem to fix it, either.” She nodded to the slightly heavyset man on her left. “Master Alastair, if you would?”

Alastair sighed and spoke in the quiet voice Gravitt remembered all too well from the last reception. It was a tone of age and tiredness, but there was still some resolve behind all of that—resolve he didn’t like. “Majesty Mia is concerned that all of her guests will not be able to join in the feast in the Atrium. The number of people has nearly doubled from only two nights ago. She does not wish to dismiss anyone, nor does she want to have two seatings for dinner.”

“To show equality, I presume?” Gravitt asked as he glanced back to make sure Darian was still on the sofa.

Mia nodded, her lips forming that angelic smile that could calm anyone. “I want everyone at the receptions. Cost is not an issue. I want them to see that they are welcome and having some eat before the others would give the wrong impression.”

The pretty brunette interjected, “Perhaps, Majesty, that is why so many of them have come. They have heard about your… generosity.” The long pause in her statement clearly showing she had wanted to use a much different word. “I strongly suspect that most have come only to take advantage of the free meals. It would fit in well with the nature of… rabble.”

The young woman glared at her elder, “That may be so, Master Tamora, but no matter their intentions or their origins, I do not plan to compromise my convictions, or break my promise to my guests.”

Gravitt grinned. Something was definitely on his side today—fate, luck, something. “May I suggest you move it outside, then? Perhaps it is not normal for people from this city to dine out of doors, but where I come from, it is a special treat.” And it will make my presentation all the more spectacular…

Mia beamed. “That sounds like a wonderful idea!” She turned to her elders, “Is it possible?”

Gregory said, “There’s plenty of space and the stone tiles around the plaza will help keep everything from getting too messy, or at least keep it from turning into a mud bath.”

The Master of Attack Magic snorted, “And it’s completely unprotected, not to mention wide open to the elements.”

Gravitt paused for a moment, glancing back towards the brunette with a calculating look in his eyes. She’s going to be trouble…

Alastair rubbed his chin, “A simple reassignment of the guards would take care of most of any security concerns, Master Tamora. As for a magical attack, I could fasten a spell to whatever jewelry you intend to wear tonight, Majesty.”

The Illusionist smirked at the suspicious woman, his eyes telling of his mischievous nature, as he interrupted her before she could speak again. “As for the weather, well… you are so talented with controlling things, like the elements, Tamora, don’t tell me would hesitate to practice that gift now? If you don’t think you’re up to a few simple weather spells I’m sure Master Nash would oblige.”

The glare that the woman gave Gregory would have withered hardened bronze, yet the grin on his face didn’t waver in the least as he awaited her response. It came in a soft, sweet voice, but conceded a bit of defeat. “Thank you for offering the services of your son, but I am fully capable of providing the necessary weather magic.”

This old man is the Premier’s father? I highly doubt that.

Mia beamed at the group—even Tamora. “This is wonderful, but I’ll need to get the word to the kitchen staff as soon as possible.”

The Master of Illusion Magic turned to the others, and started giving orders. “Master Tamora, if its not too much trouble, could you take care of that? Then inform the students who will be serving tonight? Let’s get them moving tables and chairs outside.”

The woman nodded, but she was obviously not happy about the plan, much less to help initiate it. With a clenched jaw, the brunette gave an irritated wave of her hands and in obvious disgust stomped up the stairs—presumably to take care of her assigned tasks.

The Guildmaster looked at the departing woman with sad eyes. “I hope she’ll come around.”

The Illusionist apparently couldn’t resist the urge to try some humor. “It takes time to teach an old mage new tricks, Majesty. Just give her some time.”

Mia didn’t smile—she just kept watching the woman climb the stairs, her robes dragging behind her as if they were some sort of undesired burden.

Alastair frowned, his wrinkled face held in deep thought. “We may need to ask some of the merchants to relocate out of the plaza. They may not be happy with that.”

Gregory gave a playful wink. “I can handle that—Al, just worry about security.”

The portly man grinned at his friend. “I’m sure you can. You could sell a lame horse to a Tribesman!”

“Only if it had good teeth!”

Idiots. No wonder my contact isn’t concerned with these people.

“We’ll need lighting, too.” Mia said quietly, interrupting the moronic banter between her trusted advisors. “I had forgotten about that.”

Gregory gave a quick bow. “Definitely not a problem, my child. Alastair and I might be able combine our efforts and leave quite an impression on all of them.” He turned to his counterpart, “Do you suppose a few guards could be spared to erect some tall poles around the plaza? Say ten to fifteen spans apart? They would need to place a pike on the head of each pole.”

The other man nodded with a smile. “I think I know what you mean, old friend. But I don’t know if I have the personnel. What about Artie and her group?”

Mia’s voice was full of concern, but backed with resolve to make this work. “Artie is taking the rest of the day off, on Robin’s orders. Use some of my personal guards—I don’t need them at the moment.”

Gregory shook his head, “No. I’ll find people. Don’t worry about it.”

“Where?” Mia asked in confusion. “All of the apprentices and guards are working double shifts. There’s simply no one left. I insist you take the ones assigned to me and have them set the poles out. Sometimes I think you worry about me too much, Gregory.”

“Worry is the one thing I do well, Majesty.”

“Indeed.”

Gravitt bowed, knowing when it was time to act. “If I may, gentlemen, I am not busy this afternoon. I could easily watch over Majesty Mia for a few hours so her guards can assist you.”

He felt Alastair’s blue eyes search him and heard a tinge of doubt in his voice as he spoke. “I don’t think anyone would attempt anything against a man of your size, Gravitt, but I leave the choice to Mia.”

This man is a joke.

Her smile was all the answer they needed. “Then it’s settled.”

Gregory gave a quick, disapproving, shake of his head, but it went unnoticed by the naïve woman.

With a perceptible sigh, Alastair turned to the four guards standing a few feet behind them. “Jared, you heard Majesty Mia. Go get the others.” One of the sentries departed up the stairs, and the Master of Defense Magic sent the others to collect the pikestaves. He started to follow them, but then looked back to Mia, “Don’t forget the jewelry, Majesty. I don’t want to take any chances.”

“Of course. I have it here.”

Gravitt grinned as she removed the star sapphire from her neck and placed in Alastair’s palm. “This will be it. A gift, from a very dear friend.”

The old man took it and after a moment’s glance at the beautiful stone smiled and carefully tucked it into his vestment pocket. The glare from his illusion-making counterpart, however, spoke volumes as though he had watched the gem give birth to a serpent in the mage’s hand. As Alastair put it away, Gregory turned and looked directly at Gravitt, an out of place but very compelling frown on his face. It wasn't like any frown he'd seen before; it was so eerie and calculating, and worse, there was something almost inhuman about it. The mercenary couldn’t help but see the expression, but even as arrogant and immune as he was, he found he could almost feel it. Don’t look at me like that! With one slice of my sword, your pathetic life would be over!

It was as though the Illusionist had read the thoughts behind his eyes for a second later, the old man's stern voice echoed in his head. “Be warned, if you should choose to bring harm to my city or my Guildmaster, I promise your regret will last far beyond this life.” With that silent warning the other turned and left, marching out of the Manor with such strength in his pace that it made Gravitt forget his age.

Shock filled the huge man. No one, ever, had been able to force magic upon him—except this mage. He almost stumbled over, but Mia touched his sleeve, and helped him regain his balance.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, quite fine,” he replied, recovering quickly and turning the charm back on. “Now, I’m supposed to stay with you for an hour or so. Is there something you’d like to do?”

She smiled, “Actually, yes. Something I haven’t had time for in weeks.”

******

A few minutes and some many confusing steps later, Gravitt found himself standing inside a small room on the north wing of the third floor. Trying not to be seen, the Guildmaster had led him and Darian up some back stairs, and then around many an ubiquitous corner to their destination—the Tea Room.

Many things about Vane puzzled Gravitt, as they would any outsider to the Magic City. But having a room set aside for no other reason than sipping tea made absolutely no sense to him. As far as space went, it was tiny--with only a few couches and chairs placed in a wide circle, though all were exquisitely carved and embroidered. Tables set between the seats held books, papers, and other articles the mages of Vane seemed to hold in high regard. On the far wall, facing out into the street, there were large windows that opened to a balcony, much to Darian's delight. However, it wasn’t any of that which caused the trouble-making grin to form on Gravitt's face--it was the portrait hanging over the fireplace on the western wall. Yes, Lady Luck most definitely slept in my bed last night…

Mia smiled as she lowered herself ever so gracefully onto one of the couches facing the fireplace. “I wish the faculty would use this room more often. I had hoped it would bring them together—although I admit that at the moment I am grateful for the solitude.”

“I can imagine.” He glanced over at the boy, who was preoccupied with staring out the windows—his nose pressed to the glass of the doors. Why does he do that so much? And why does it annoy me like this?

Trying to retain his gentlemanly air, he walked back to the door where the teacart had been set. “I suppose if we’re in the Tea Room, we need some tea?”

Mia chuckled, “Yes, we do. The pot should be warm—it always is—we have magic for that.”

With a grin of pseudo-good nature he replied, “Of course you do.” You’d waste it on brewing tea.

She glanced over at Darian, as if noticing him for the first time. “This must be your nephew? I think I met your sister in law earlier.”

She is incredibly unobservant for the ruler of one of the largest cities in the world… “Yes,” he said, and then called, “Darian, come here.”

The fluffy haired child ran up to him, the maddening tin object still in his hand. “Are we going out again?”

“No. I want you to say hello to someone.” He motioned the boy over to Mia, and then continued pouring the tea.

The boy scampered up to the woman and his adorable face all but melted her as he whispered, “Hi.”

Her expression was tender as she looked at the little boy standing before her. “Hello there. My name is Mia.”

Darian twisted his entire body from side to side as he said, “Hi Mia. You’re very pretty.”

She responded with a giggle in the range of that of child’s. “Oh, you’re so sweet, Darian! Thank you.”

“My Mommy is very pretty.”

“I know. I met her earlier today.”

Darian held up the weak excuse for a bracelet. “I got her this.”

Mia smiled at the boy as she examined the trinket. “It’s beautiful. I’m sure she’ll love it.”

Once the gift was back in Darian’s hands he just smiled at her and said, “Yeah.”

Just as he had anticipated, the Guildmaster couldn’t resist the child’s charisma. “Oh Gravitt, he is so precious! Since he’s here with you and just his mother, I assume his father is away on business?”

The big man frowned as he placed the warm cup into her hand. He crossed to the large glass doors and opened them, forcing a grin at the boy. “Darian! Come here! Look!”

Mia took a tip of tea, and tilted her head ever so slightly to show her curiosity at his action. The child obeyed, and in a moment was looking up at him with wide eyes.

Gravitt made a conscious effort to try and be as paternal as possible, even going so far as to bend down on one knee. “I need your help, Darian. I want you to stay here, behind the stone rails and when you see Brinson, come tell me. Okay?”

The boy nodded, and began his ‘watch’ as the man slipped back into the room. He took a cup of tea (even though he detested the stuff) and sat next to Mia, being careful to let a tired sigh spring from his lips.

“Is everything all right?” She asked, warming her tiny hands on her cup.

Gravitt shook his head, “Pardon the solitude, Majesty, but it’s for his own good. His father is dead, and I don’t like to bring up the subject in front of him.”

She gasped, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. Oh, the poor child!”

“Yes, well, its all right. I was hoping to enlist your aid along this line anyway.”

Mia tipped her head again, the black curls almost forming question marks as her expression showed clear concern.

“You see, to be honest, I have never truly believed that Darian actually is my nephew. His mother was married to my brother, there’s no question of that. But it is quite impossible that the boy could have been his son. Still, I do not press the issue since he’s already been through so much.”

At Mia’s puzzled expression he explained in greater detail. “I’m afraid my ‘dear’ sister in law is not as chaste as she portrays herself—most Tribals are not, it seems. In fact, most appear rather proud of their—shall we say—conquests?”

The woman’s face turned bright red.

“Do not be embarrassed, Majesty you are not responsible for Sabre’s indiscretions. However, I have a confession to make, and this is where I would like to ask for your help.” He paused, watching her eyes flitter as she timidly sipped at her tea. Then, with a faux nervous cough he continued, “I brought Darian here for more reasons than just the Festival. I hope to find his father.”

“Here? In Vane?”

“Yes, to this very day my…. ‘sister in law’ still brags about the mage she… ‘met’ in one of the towns outside the Prairie.” The frown on his face was well practiced and did its job of impressing Mia, as he had hoped. “It happened some four years ago, hardly a month after she married my brother. Anyway, I came here to find the child’s true father, I believe he owes the boy more than just the horse.”

The word nearly choked in the Guildmaster’s throat as she fought not to spit up and spill the tea she’d just begun to swallow. “Horse?”

Perfect. “In Nerak, last December. The man was there and he gave Sabre his horse as ‘compensation.’ I don’t know who I’m more disgusted with: her for accepting it, him for thinking that was all he owed the child, or the fact that they both thought he could buy his honor so cheaply.”

Gravitt followed Mia’s icy stare to the portrait of the Five Heroes hanging above the fireplace. Her face twisted in thought and then in a strictly female rage. ‘Oh yes,’ he thought to himself, as he struggled with only limited success to hold the thin smile of victory from his face.

She surprised him then, when she beamed him another flawless smile, and then asked simply, “Tell me, Gravitt, what color are you wearing tonight?”

Ah, so even the reserved, regal, and dainty Mia Ausa is not above a little spite! Although knew where this was going, he played dumb. “Blue, Majesty. Why do you ask?”

“So I can dress to match—if you do not mind.”

He bowed his head, “I would be honored.” Oh yes, the stars are with me today.

******

Gravitt ushered Darian back up to his room, the conquering smirk that had manifested on his face only seconds after Mia had left under the escort of a member of her guard still shining bright. Either the fates were with him or the empty headed Guildmaster was more gullible than he had planned, but his promise to his associate had been kept, and that gave him a sense of closure on top of a wicked kind of fulfillment.

The door to Sabre’s room was ajar, so Darian just darted in, but he waited a moment before following the child. He was startled as he heard his son’s high-pitched shriek as the child apparently spotted someone he didn’t know.

“Where’s Mommy? Who are you? Gravitt! Gravitt!!”

By Darian’s reaction and the perversion of his name, the man knew something wasn’t right. He pushed on the door and raised an eyebrow at the cause of the boy’s screaming, which had now escalated to screeching, “Where’s my Mommy!?”

It was Nash.

Standing in front of the closed door to the privy was none other than Gravitt’s personal project himself. The short mage stared at the child for a moment, a softness spreading across his face. Turning away from the door, he bent down to the hysterical and crying child. “You must be Darian.”

The boy looked at the man, clearly surprised that he knew his name. “Where’s my Mommy?”

The mage looked up past the nervous boy to Gravitt, but didn’t get up as he nodded towards a closed door. “She’s in there. She’s ok, but she’s a little sick, ok?”

Darian nodded, and settled down a bit, but then cocked his head and looked the man square in the eyes. “Who are you?”

Gravitt smirked. Some strange power was definitely aiding him in this effort; the resemblance between the mage and the little boy was uncanny. If he hadn’t known otherwise, he would have believed his own ruse.

The mage hesitated a moment but replied with a charismatic smile, the water running from within interrupting his train of thought, as he stood up and looked at the door with some kind of distinguished worry in his features.

The red head emerged. Gravitt was pleased to see her looking so miserable. Her eyes were pink from the tears, and her face spoke of many unpleasant moments spent vomiting.

Darian dashed towards his mother, and she smiled at him, but looked charily between the two men. Whatever she was thinking, Gravitt would have paid a handsome sum to know, but the boy broke the silence. “Mommy, you’re ok, right?”

She nodded.

The child pulled on her sleeve, and said in one continuous breath: “Who’s the man in the dress?”

The redhead forced a laugh as she gave a gentle look to the mage, much to Gravitt’s annoyance. He wanted to see her hurt some more. “That’s Nash. He’s a friend of mine, and its not a dress. It’s a robe. People who use magic wear them.”

Darian scowled, “Even boys?”

Nash grinned as he lifted the heavy burgundy robe at his waist kicked a leg out to convince the child, showing his black pants. “Yeah, even boys. But we get to wear trousers underneath.”

“Even girls?”

Nash gave a wink, “You'll learn what they have under theirs when you're older.”

Sabre glared at him, as the entire scene produced a truly honest laugh from Gravitt, quite possibly the first one in his life.

“Oh.” The boy turned to his mother, “I wanna wear a robe.”

Sabre looked wounded, and a strange silence held. Finally Nash turned to Gravitt. “We met at the last reception, but I’m afraid I didn’t know you knew Sabre so well. It makes me happy to know she’s been in good hands.”

Gravitt formed a large smile, and it almost hurt his face to do so. He gave a bow to the mage. “Ah, she’s family. Where I come from that’s more important than anything.” A glance to the side yielded a most gratifying moment: the expression of vehemence on the woman’s face was priceless.

Nash gave a nod, not noticing Sabre’s reaction. “Agreed. I’m worried about this sickness, though.”

“It’s nothing,” she snapped.

The short man waved a finger at her playfully. “Oh, now don’t you give me that. I promised I’d help you, diantha, and I will.”

She shook her head, covering her eyes at the word.

Gravitt just smirked. Oh, it was all simply too perfect.

******

The reception was just like the last; not even the seating at the head table had changed. Facing out to the other guests, they were elevated on a small platform with guards positioned at each end watching the crowd with caution and a bit of suspicion. At least someone seems to know what their job is around here. As before, Mia sat in the center, flanked on both sides by five people. To her left was Nash and then the rest of the so-called Heroes, on her immediate right was his place, and the Council filled the last four chairs. These people are such creatures of habit… that just makes this all the easier for me…

The table conversation wasn’t anything Gravitt was interested in—small talk mostly and boring beyond description. To his right sat Gregory, and then the ever-irritatable (and irritating) healer woman he didn’t care to remember from the last party. She constantly gave disdainful glares in his direction and then scoff to whomever was in earshot. Judging from the smirks on their faces it was clear she wasn’t handing out compliments. The Illusionist didn’t seem all too pleased with the woman’s comments, or Gravitt himself for that matter, but did nothing but smile about it. Gravitt grinned. Whatever else he was supposed to be, and he had some major questions there, the old man seemed quite subservient and knew his place—even if he did give dirty looks in Atriums. At any rate, he didn’t seem to be in any position to cause more trouble. While the incident earlier had given him some momentary worries and concerns, he quickly passed it off as little more than some sort of fancy ventriloquism. With a smirk Gravitt also noticed that while Mia didn’t say much to Nash, she made a concerted effort to at least seem pleasant, although her gaze told of something that went far beyond standard hatred. Why play politics when lover’s quarrels are so much more entertaining?

The boredom of the formal dinner seemed unending as envoy after merchant after diplomat, after… endless, dull and unimaginative speaker droned on and on about how ‘happy’ they were to be there and how ‘wonderful’ it was that Vane had returned in all it’s glory. Finally, just as he began to fear it would never happen, the meal ended and Gravitt sensed his moment had finally arrived. With as subtle a wave as he could manage, he motioned for one of the guards and whispered to him a request, and the password needed, to fetch one of the carts that had caused such a problem earlier in the day. A span of ten nerve itching minutes passed for the huge man, and even the idiotic banter of Vane’s Finest couldn’t squelch it as he felt that last of his patience slip beyond his control and he began to frown openly in frustration.

As the wagon was brought into the city and pulled into the square, it quickly caught the attention of everyone and the cacophony of whispers from all of the guests brought an anxious grin to his face. Mia stared at him in surprise as he stood up, and whispered into her ear, “If you would, Majesty, could you please call their attention so that I may present you with your gift.”

Her violet eyes sparkled with childish anticipation Mia smiled and an equally childish giggle broke from her lips as she turned and addressed the Illusionist. “Master Gregory, I need your assistance.”

The old man smiled, and knew exactly what she meant as she stood up. A whispered spell fell from his lips as, with a small gesture, a mysterious black mist appeared and wrapped around her throat. With a smile she nodded to the old man and spoke, her voice echoing across the large plaza, “My friends,” was all she said, and the noise immediately stopped. “Please allow me to interrupt you for a moment. One of our guests of honor wishes to speak to you.”

Gravitt walked off the platform, keeping his eyes on the head table—none of which, save Mia, seemed especially pleased with him. With a grin, he gave an exaggerated bow towards her and the distinguished people sitting by her side, and then turned to give a much smaller one to the assembled crowd.

“Good people,” he said, his voice carrying surprisingly well above the din, even without the assistance of a spell. He continued: “My friends, many of you do not know me, so I will tell you my name. I am named Gravitt, and I am the ruler of a small mining city on the Southern Continent called Briggatt. Years ago as a child I traveled here with my father to conduct some trades and I was fascinated by this beautiful place. I wanted to stay and study magic, but due to the entrance requirements, I could not. You see, good people, my family carries a curse, one that renders us immune to magic and all its effects. For more generations than I can speak of we have been denied the gift…the honor…of wielding magic and thus, under the laws at the time, I was not welcomed here.”

Gravitt took a pause for effect and to examine his audience. The Heroes all seemed politely attentive, except Jessica for some reason. With a raised eyebrow, she tried to stare him down, so he gave a wink in her direction, just in the hopes to irritate her and he smiled slightly at seeing the tactic work.. The Council members were much more intrigued; Gregory shifted in his seat as his expression became mistrustful, Robin gave an arrogant snort, Tamora leaned back in her chair, clearly bored, and on the end, Alastair kept a scrutinizing eye on the cart.

A second later the blonde leaned over and whispered into the Illusionists’ ear, but he said loud enough for Gravitt to hear: “Shh…let’s see what he has to say before we pass judgment on him, Master Robin. Though I begin to share some of your…concerns.”

The mercenary turned back to face Mia and the head table and continued. “However, while my visit was short, there was one person who made me feel welcome, and now I plan to repay that debt of kindness and to her.”

While the crowd seemed about as receptive as the head table, he knew he had the person's attention that mattered the most when color spackled the cheeks of the smiling Guildmaster.

“That said, I am more than honored to have been able to in my own small way help rebuild this wondrous city. But that is not enough, for I owe one far more than that. Thus, I am even more honored to bestow this gift upon you and your people, Majesty.”

As Mia soaked up the false admiration, Gravitt gave an irritated glance at Nash, who had started to rub the rim of his glass with his finger, making it sing. Alex (who was seated next to him) gave him a slight push, but that didn’t deter the Premier from his adolescent antics. Finally, the Guildmaster whispered something at him and the noise stopped.

No longer distracted, Gravitt managed to keep from smiling too hard in his already claimed victory and clasped his hands together as he circled around the cart, reaching out to run his hand along its wooden side. “As I was saying, a few years ago, some of the workers in the mines of Briggatt found an unusual stone in the bottom of our deepest mine. I had it examined by one of the greatest mages in the Stadius Zone, and with his help and that of others, I have been able to modify the stones such that they can help you.” He pulled a small silver canister out of the cart—one only about the size of his forearm—and placed it on the table in front of Mia.

The Guildmaster reached a hand to the container and lifted it, commenting on its beauty to the other members of her table. Gregory analyzed the canister as she did so, his hand starting to reach out towards it before being quickly pulled out of his grasp as a grimace formed on his aged face.

Oh, don’t you ruin this for me, old man.

Gravitt had his audience now, and it showed. He stepped back from Mia and pulled two more out of the cart, placing them on each end of the large table. As the guests admired the tokens, Gravitt grinned, “Ah, yes they are beautiful, especially the test cylinders. But they also have a function, and keep in mind that these are smaller than the real ones, for ease of demonstration.”

He turned back to Mia’s guests. “Now, if you can set the tubes on the table, I will need the assistance of a powerful magician.” Ignoring Gregory’s response as Mia’s ornate silver tube was set before him he continued, “Majesty, could you might select one for me?”

Mia turned to look down her table to the left, and then to the right. Her gaze stopped exactly where he knew it would—Nash. Before she could ask him, however, Alastair stood up. “Allow me.”

The Guildmaster nodded to the old man, and then Gravitt gave his instruction. “Cast a spell on the canisters. Any kind. It doesn’t really matter what it is just so long magic is involved.”

The Master of Defense Magic nodded, closed his eyes, and began to whisper to himself. As the spell formed, he held his palms flat out towards the nearest tube and a burst of white light surrounded it and its brothers. Nearly blinding the entire party, and causing many members of the head table to shield their eyes, the magic oscillated against each of the canisters and then suddenly disappeared.

Alastair stared at his hands. “That should have sealed them. What happened?”

Gravitt smirked, “Oh, it takes a moment, but—“

The abrupt racket of his gifts trembling interrupted him. Each of the small tubes burst forth with a bright emerald luminance from underneath, washing the entire table in a pale green light, and then, as everyone’s mouths hung open, the canisters leapt into the air a good ten feet, over the table. Slowly they began to circle around each other as their soft green glow reached down to envelope the table below it and, shuddering slightly at first, the heavy wooden slab began to slowly rise upwards until it too hovered in the air just below the now rapidly spinning cylinders.

Everyone gave a panicked look to Mia. She was sitting there as prim and proper as ever, staring heavenward at her banquet table floating above her head. He could see the hope sparkling in her violet eyes, reflecting the hovering jaded object.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a smirk form on Tamora’s mouth, and with a snort she said, “Parlor tricks! Cheap parlor tricks! Why even the most inept student can learn levitation! Observe!”

The Master of Attack Magic clasped her hands and all of the guests at the head table and their chairs found themselves sitting at their table—floating ten feet in the air. Squeals of delight and some cries of fear from the audience filled Gravitt’s ears as his triumphant smile spread across his face. It was with more than a touch of annoyance that he noticed that none actually seated at that now floating table had spoken a word or let their surprise slip beyond a startled expression or two.

Mia shouted from her place in the air, “Master Tamora! If you don’t mind! I have come to expect more of you than from any inept student!”

Apparently the woman knew defeat and was all too familiar with reprimand. With a scowl she broke the spell and safely guided everyone back to the ground.

Gravitt didn’t miss a beat. As soon as the occupants of the head table hit the ground he continued his lesson. “You see, Majesty. These stones absorb magic. It takes a rather large amount of magic to start them, but once they are activated, they are able to absorb all they need from the stray ambient magic in the air around them to remain aloft. They are quite harmless, but I suggest not touching them once they start glowing.” He paused and gave a devilish smile, “So I guess you want to know what this means.”

“I think we know what it means,” Tamora supplied. “But there is no way in Althena’s name that a simpleton like you or anyone you could possibly know would ever be able to master such magic. This is totally impossible and you must think we’re all idiots to expect us to believe even an instant of...”

The Guildmaster snapped at the woman, not letting her finish her tirade. “Your opinion was not asked for, Master Tamora.”

No one moved. They all just turned and stared at Mia, who seemed to be holding her own breath. It was a perfect finish, even down to the sharp scolding of the wary and indignant Council member. With a shake of his head Gravitt firmly grasped the moment of triumph he felt and, as the gathered crowd held their silence transfixed on him, he bowed again. “I suppose you have guessed what your gift is now, Majesty. I have brought you canisters large enough to raise the city of Vane to its former glory in the skies.”




Chapter: Prologue 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15



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