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Lunar Silver Stary Story

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


Chapter 9

"The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can ever end."--Benjamin Disraeli

Jessica was on a mission. Her jaw was fixed and her gaze never left the trail straight ahead of her. Her gait didn't yield or slow no matter how congested the path became as she strode through the hallways of the Magic Guild. From moment to moment she would glance back and smile pensively to the blue-haired woman accompanying her, as if in encouragement to keep up with her long stride. People in the corridors greeted them with cheerful hellos, and some even bowed, a gesture she was still getting used to here in Vane. (They didn't bother with such foolish formalities at home.) Still, they meant well, so she forced herself to give at least a quick nod of her head in acknowledgement as she pressed on, expecting Luna to do the same.

She had wanted to embark on this quest last night, while her annoyance and anger were fresh in her mind, right after it all hit the ceiling at that dinner party. But, in a rare moment of contemplation, she realized that it would be best to wait and let the dust settle. So, this morning, armed with a night's careful planning, her ire up, and Luna to keep the peace, she went to hunt down one of the biggest players in the disaster from the previous evening--Mia. Oh yes... someone has a LOT of explaining to do.

Oh, it had been a dream at first--just sitting and joking with her friends again. It was like old times, or how she had wanted to remember them. Even Alex's little dragon, Nall, had taken up a spot on Mia's shoulder, nuzzling her on the cheek and laughing with the rest of them. Kalyn had found happiness in her father's lap and seemed caught between an endless curiosity of everything that that was being said around her and the fact that it was well past her bedtime. No one, not even her energetic daughter, could keep going all day, and sleepiness had finally started to set in.

All about her the rest of them smiled and told stories as they waited for Nash to arrive for dinner. He was surprisingly late, and Mia had seemed to grow more irritated by the second, casting glances at the still doors that began as worried and quickly grew to annoyed. Finally, after twenty minutes had passed, in through the doors had blown the storm himself, reluctant to meet any of their eyes and taking a quick and decisive seat with a hurried apology for his tardiness.

She should have seen it as an omen. A dark cloud seemed to have followed Nash into the room, and although the gathering had started out pleasant, it quickly began to change tone. Every time Nash addressed Mia, he did so with a formal 'Yes, Majesty. Of course, Majesty.' The cold and stiffness in his voice quickly chilled everyone at the table and brought the cheerfulness that had once filled the room to an abrupt end. Sitting only a few feet from him, Jessica wanted to slap him, and by some miracle was able to resist the temptation.

Conversations, no matter who started them, or what they were about, didn't last long enough to even be called that, and the tension between the two mages quickly drained any and all joy and life from the room. Luna and Alex seemed to feel it first, setting their glasses down and making regretful, if obviously fabricated, excuses as they stood and exited the room, dragging Nall behind them. Finally, Jessica herself couldn't take it any more and, with as stern look between Nash and Mia, pardoned herself to put Kalyn to bed, her eyes telling Kyle to follow. Jessica frowned as the memories of the night before filled her, urging her to a faster pace as Luna rushed to catch her. Today, one way or another, she would find out what was going on. Silently she prayed it was just stress from this Festival and everything else that was going on, but instincts told her it ran deeper--much deeper.

They came to the door to Mia's private wing and stopped. Decorated in lush gold leaf with her family crest, the entrance to the Guildmaster's suite spoke well of the luxury that lay within and showed an astonishing touch of extravagance. Jessica tried to walk past, but the two guards stepped in front of her. The younger of the two spoke, "I don't believe Majesty Mia was expecting you. My... lady, and no one enters without her permission."

Jessica glared at him, and spat, "She doesn't need to expect me, you twit!"

"Jessica," Luna said sternly.

She paused, taking a breath and then continuing in a much more pleasant, yet still direct tone. "Tell her it's Jessica and that I'm coming in whether she's awake or not. This is important."

The older man slipped into the room on the other side, his response to the women nothing more than a nervous nod. A moment later he returned and held one of the double doors to the suite open. "My deepest apologies, Mistress Jessica. Please understand we have tightened security for the Festival. Majesty Mia will receive you in her bedroom. Please take the first door on the left."

With only a curt nod to the two sentries, Jessica stepped into the parlor of the suite. She noticed that the younger man kept his eye on them as they passed by, and was glad to be rid of him when she heard the door close. Kids these days, give them a uniform and they think they're important or something.

The parlor was plush; just like everything else in the newly reconstructed city. Jessica really didn't have time to admire the décor, but one thing caught her eye. Hanging over the fireplace was a framed portrait of a very young Lemia dressed in her formal robes, and smiling at some distant admirer.

Luna also stopped and stared at the artwork for a moment before giving a saddened bow of her head and moving on. The blue haired woman knocked on the door they had been directed to, and yet another guard--this one female, opened it.

With less than a glance to her, the two stepped into the bedroom, both taken aback by the grandeur of the space. The room itself was at least twice the size of the faculty dorms they had been assigned, and far more luxurious. At the far end was a large bed with its purple velvet curtains pulled back, as if proclaiming the ornate gold headboard, decorated with the Ausa family crest. Strangely, sitting on the bed was a stuffed toy in the shape of some kind of monster. Jessica shook her head remembering her friend's bizarre fondness for the creature called a Gorgon. I wonder where the hell she got that hideous thing? Well, I guess it's cute... in a crazy way... like if you don't have any taste...

Other furniture in the room was typical of the faculty quarters. The dressers, desk and tables were all made of fine wood, with polished marble tops. A dressing screen was in the far corner, and two large doors opened out onto a private balcony, letting in some fresh air. The only oddity was a hole in the ceiling, square in shape, and patched with rough pieces of lumber as well as a tarp. Effective for keeping out the elements, but certainly out of place with the fulsomeness of the rest of the place. What? Did they miss a spot?

In the center of the room, stood the Guildmaster, balanced atop a small stool and dressed in an elegant red and gold gown while an older woman bustled around her. The seamstress was constantly adjusting this fold and that seam, and pinning this to that as her hands danced around the soft fabric. All the while the old woman was muttering under her breath, her words mostly obscured by the pins and needles she held in her mouth. Another female guard stood a few feet away, watching them closely. Is she afraid of getting attacked by the dressmaker?

On hearing her friends' entry Mia gathered the wide skirt about her and, with her happy laugh pealing through the room, jumped from her perch, and ran toward them, the train of her dress pulling the stool over behind her. "Jess, Luna! Good Morning! I hope you slept well?"

The old woman spat out the pins and threw the pincushion she'd been holding to the floor, watching as it rolled a short distance from her. She gave a disgusted look to the young woman as she righted the footstool. "If you want me to have that dress finished by the time you inaugurate that new Premier of yours, you will get right back over here, Miss Ausa! You are more difficult than your mother and grandmother combined!"

The guard moved with Mia, hovering around the three women, but not quite positioning herself between them.

Mia glared at her shadow. "Do you have to take Master Alastair's orders so literally? I can fend for myself--especially in my own bedroom and with my best friends!"

The guard's ears turned a pale pink as she backed away a few feet. An order may be an order, her steady gaze seemed to speak, but her hand stayed near the hilt of her sword, and her eyes never left Jessica or Luna.

Mia laughed as she hugged her friends, blushing a bit from embarrassment. "I'm sorry, but Alastair is getting downright paranoid with all the visitors coming in these days, and even Magda is a bit testy at the moment--come to think of it, everyone is on edge lately. But she's right; I really do need to let her finish working on this dress. Please, stay with me while she does. Being a human clothes hanger is awfully boring."

With that Mia grasped her friend's hands and pulled them back with her, as the seamstress angrily saved the train from being destroyed a second time. The Guildmaster didn't release her friends until she stepped back up onto the stool. She teetered for a moment, almost losing her balance as her friends steadied her. "Is this okay, Magda?"

The old woman mutely nodded and again began trying to reset the creases and seams that Mia's movements had pulled loose, marking where the garment would have to be altered from its last resizing.

Jessica grinned at her petite friend and the fantastic gown. The bodice fit tight, pushing up in all the right places without compromising Mia's tiny frame. The short, decorative sleeves fell off her shoulders, letting her black curls brush the golden fabric and her alabaster skin. Red beads trailed across her chest in a flame pattern, the crest of her house in the center. Within the folds of the skirt more red showed, seeming to shimmer as the eye tried to catch their detail, and giving the illusion that the woman wearing the gown was aflame. "Wow, Mia. That's some dress. Something special I take it?"

"It looks stunning on you, as though you were designed for it, or it for you," Luna added.

"It's a family heirloom. It's ancient, as old as Vane I think. No one really knows what the cloth is. It never seems to tear or show wear, even after all these years it looks brand new. It only comes out when we instate a new Premier."

The old woman's voice came out in a soft mutter as she tugged at a stubborn hem. "And it's about the closest thing to a wedding gown you'll ever see an Ausa in."

There was a stunned silence as Mia turned and glared at the seamstress. A look of horror crossed her wrinkled face as she realized that she'd said the words out loud. "I... I..." Then she fell silent, looking down to the floor to hide her embarrassment and frown.

Mia's voice was casual as she gave her reprimand. "Magda sometimes forgets herself, and she's always been something of a gossip, haven't you my dear?"

The old woman only nodded in silence as she reached out again to resume her needlework.

Jessica gave her friends a wink as she broke the uncomfortable silence, "I don't know how much swearing in Nash is going to be doing with you standing near him in that! I'll be surprised if he'll be able to chain two words together without stammering."

Luna chuckled, "She does have a point. Maybe you should wear a burlap sack?"

Mia seemed a bit sad as she said quietly, "You're too kind. I'm an ugly duckling in comparison to my mother. And, to be honest, I'm not sure he'll even notice it, or me."

Jessica gave the Guildmaster a sympathetic look, and was about to speak when the seamstress muttered again, "I just hope this one performs his duties quietly and leaves the rest of us well enough alone."

Mia forced a smile, desperately trying to change the subject. "Where's Kalyn? I adore your daughter, Jess. She looks more like you every time I see her."

Jessica smirked. "Off being Daddy's Little Girl. Kyle said he'd take her down to some of the Festival this morning. I never have to worry about him getting into trouble with Kalyn around, she runs him so ragged he's too exhausted to even look for it."

Luna smiled, as she winked at Jessica. "I sent Alex with them. He needs some practice."

"Practice?" Mia looked between the two of them, her expression saying she knew they were hiding something.

"Practice," Luna repeated with a warm smile.

"Oh!" Mia exclaimed, suddenly understanding. She jumped off the stool again and threw her arms around Luna. "Oh my goodness! That's wonderful! How many months now?"

"Two," Luna replied as she hugged her friend again. "Although I admit getting sick every morning isn't all that wonderful."

"That should end shortly," Jessica said with a bit of authority.

Jessica gave a soft cough, trying to cover her forwardness. "You know, come to think of it. You do seem to be falling behind the rest of us here."

Mia turned to her. "Behind? I don't understand, Jess."

Jessica's next thought was interrupted by the noise made by the seamstress as she picked up her things and left in a huff. "I'll come back when you're not quite so... distracted, Majesty."

Mia didn't even give a reply; it was clear that at that moment all she could feel was joy at hearing such wonderful news from her friends. "Why didn't you tell me last night? I mean, why wait? This is such happy news!"

"I wanted to--at dinner--but things seemed a little too... tense."

Mia frowned. "Yes... my apologies on that. Nash has a way of aggravating me easily these days."

Jessica looked to Luna, concerned. "Well he was always good at that; probably just a lot of stress from this Festival and the Guild and all. Although I did want to smack him when he called you 'Majesty.' Goddess, Mia, it was as though you'd hit him with a freeze spell or something."

Mia sighed, "No it goes beyond that. But let's not get into it. There are too many things to be happy about. A week of parties, a few weeks with my best friends, Luna's pregnant..."

Footsteps came from behind them. Standing there was a dark haired boy in his early teens, dressed in a tunic. "Pardon me, Majesty, but your appointment--?"

"Oh!" Mia cried as she ran behind a dressing screen, the train of her dress dragging across the floor. "I completely forgot about that, thank you. Tell him I'll be right there, Kant."

The boy bowed in the direction of the screen and left.

Jessica called out to her through the screen, more than a touch annoyed at being interrupted before she could ask Mia about Nash's act the night before; "You have a meeting? When will you be free again?"

"It's not a meeting--it's more of just a welcoming of a special guest--a very special guest. Come with me. This is someone I want you to meet."

"All right," Jessica replied, as Luna nodded to her.

Mia was wearing in a much more simple dress as she came around the front of the screen and handed the gown to the guard in the room. "Please take this to Magda, and be careful with it. She would have both our skins if it got dirty or torn."

% % %

The walk to Mia's office wasn't all that long or tedious, and Jessica was pleased that the Guildmaster shrugged off all interruptions for the moment. The blonde woman smiled to herself as she took in all of the improvements made within the building. Sadly, the last time she had been to Vane was the past August, for Lemia's funeral.

Back then, the buildings were still in disarray, and she secretly wondered if it would all ever come back together. Her doubts increased when she had seen her dear friend and how she was taking the inevitable. Everyone had known Lemia was dying; everyone but Mia it seemed. Perhaps the poor girl had been deluding herself for so long that a false hope had sprouted. The strong and quietly confident Guildmaster did little the week of the burial other than cling to Nash, like a child afraid of her own shadow hiding behind her trusty and protective teddy bear. Jessica shook away the dark memory. No point in bringing up bad things of the past, they only cloud the view of the present.

Down some stairs and around a corner they turned, only to be greeted by yet more of Mia's elite guards, both of them bowing to the women. "Your guest said he'd return shortly, Majesty. He said he'd forgotten something."

"Show him in when he arrives," Mia said, giving a perplexed look as one of the men opened the door for her, and she led Jessica and Luna into the office.

Although it wasn't quite as large as her bedroom, the office was elegant nonetheless. Jessica stared in awe at the tapestries and exquisite furniture, but what intrigued her the most were the six statues arranged on columns near the window. She moved closer to examine them further, taking careful note of the placement of each in relation to the others around it. Hmm... interesting she's put herself as far from him as possible...

"My mother gave those to me. She said I should always remember my friends. Aren't they fantastic?"

"They are beautiful, and you even have Nall in there."

"I couldn't forget him."

Of course not, but I still say that he likes you a little too much...

"Who is this person we are meeting?" Luna asked as she looked at the tapestries, all of them depicting what appeared to be different scenes from Vane's history.

As Mia started to answer, a loud knock echoed through the door and it swung smoothly open. Before it had ended its movement, a guard entered, came to attention and bowed. "Gravitt of Briggatt is here to see you, per your request, Majesty."

Mia smiled to the guard. "Please show him in, Sebastian."

The sentry turned and nodded to the shadowed figure that had stepped into the entrance. Without a sound, an enormous man walked forward. His pace was more measured than any guard Jessica had ever known, but unexpectedly casual. Her head jerked in response to the appearance of the man and stared at him critically. He was large, bigger than Kyle, or at least close to it. His massive frame spoke of his strength and the grace with which he balanced on his feet screamed of his unmatched skill in combat. His tunic and cloak were of excellent quality, yet seemed somewhat out of place on him as though tailored for someone else of near, but not identical, size and build. He wasn't bad looking, in a rough-hewn sort of way, again reminding her of her husband. But then her gaze fell on his bright silver eyes... and a frightening chill ran down her spine. He has the eyes of a reptile... She instinctively recoiled, but still watched intently as the man ducked to enter the room, and then gave a deep bow to Mia as he stepped forward.

The stranger's voice was deep, smooth, and strangely convincing. "I received your message, Majesty, and came as quickly as I could. I trust I've not interrupted anything?" He asked, turning to the other two women, though his smile seemed to grow thinner as he looked at Jessica, perhaps enjoying her repulsion of him.

"No, not at all. These are my closest friends. May I present Luna of Burg and Jessica de Alkirk?"

Jessica forced a smile at the man, and noticed Luna did the same. "A pleasure to meet you ladies. I thank you, especially, Miss Jessica for your efforts in the years past." The smile that accompanied these words failed to touch his eyes as he gave the two others a quick, appraising glance.

"You're... most welcome," she responded, not even sure where her voice came from, because she couldn't stop staring at his eyes.

"Please have a seat. I'm sorry, I don't know your title or proper name," Mia said with a smile as she gestured to the large sofa in the office, motioning for her two friends to follow and sit in the chairs next to it. "I'm afraid the letters you included with your generous donations didn't really mention that."

"Ah, it's just Gravitt, Majesty. In Briggatt we really don't have time for titles or namesakes. We see ourselves more as a community of equals. I merely have the honor of... speaking for them, you might say." His words sounded like oil rubbed over the cold edge of a sharp sword to Jessica.

Mia gracefully lowered herself next to him on the sofa. "Very well, Gravitt. Let's set aside the formality and, as you do in your homeland, speak as equals. I asked you here to thank you personally for all you have done for us. You were by far one of our most generous benefactors, and yet I feel as though I know nothing about you."

"Ah, you're most welcome, Majesty. It does sadden me that you don't remember me, but then I shouldn't have expected you too."

Mia looked at the man quizzically, tilting her head and letting some of her locks fall to the side of her face, framing it perfectly.

"Many years ago, when my father, Ziggratt, was still alive, we traveled to Vane. It was still flying then, and I was little more than a child. He came to bring some of the jewels from Briggatt here to trade. They have been our life's blood for longer than we have records. Anyway, I remember wandering the halls of the Guild enamored with the magic, the school, and the society in general. My appearance must have come as a shock to many of the finer students, for we hadn't changed from our riding clothing and must have looked rather out of place to them. I wandered away from my father and somehow found myself in the vast Library that used to be outside the Guild proper. I understand you've moved it inside the academy now. Anyway, I was very frightened and lost. I asked several people for directions but no one would talk to me--no one except a pretty little black haired girl who seemed to be hiding behind the pages of her book."

Jessica saw her friend's face flush.

"Yes, Majesty, it was you. You must have only been seven or eight years old at the time, but you put your book down and with a smile agreed to help me find my father."

A look of surprise manifested on the Guildmaster's face as the memory of that event returned to her. "I remember that. We found him equally as lost--down near the gardens, I believe."

The man's eyes warmed, or seemed to. "Yes. Well, I never forgot that small act of kindness."

"All of this... just for that?"

The snake reached for Mia's hand, and to Jessica's surprise, she didn't resist. "That, and because I've always longed to be a part of Vane. Ever since entering that Library and feeling the knowledge pulsing from within its very walls, I have wanted to study here, and to be part of this wonderful world. I wanted to learn about magic, even if I'm not really Gifted. Then, after the tragedy of the Fall, I heard you were going to open this magnificent place to anyone who wished to study both magic and other subjects. I greatly admire that."

"Gravitt, I don't know what to say... Of course you are welcome here now. I apologize for the traditions of Vane past. I wish I could have changed them earlier." She paused, and placed her other hand on his massive one. "What do you mean, 'not really Gifted?'

The benefactor gave a heavy sigh. "I have magic, of a sort, but it is not like yours. I have anti-magic, if you will. I guess you could say I've been cursed with immunity to magic. It's as though it ceases to exist when it comes near me in any form. My father had the same Gift, but I see it as more of a curse."

I think you are a curse.

"How fascinating--I've never heard of anything like that, but how sad for you," Mia said, her voice soft with sympathy at the man's story.

Gravitt smiled at her again, and then stood up. "Well, even without magic I've managed to do rather well. I don't want to take any more of your time, Majesty. I know you don't get to see your friends very often, you deserve to enjoy their company."

Mia rose to her feet, still clearly drawn by this man or his revelations. "Gravitt, I don't know how to thank you. The least I can do is ask that you honor me by sitting at my table during the receptions this week."

Gravitt bowed. "Ah, no, I would be honored with that offer, Majesty."

Mia smiled as he righted himself and Jessica's eyes narrowed with a bit of suspicion as he fished in his pocket for something. He produced a small box and placed it in Mia's hands. "For you, Majesty."

Jessica moved closer, though still keeping a strategic distance between her and the two-legged serpent. She was, despite herself, intrigued the package and watched as her friend lifted the lid. Inside was a magnificent necklace of alternating diamonds and sapphires, set into to a silvered chain that seemed to glow from the reflection of the stones themselves. It wasn't silver; its color was softer than that, yet it wasn't pewter either, for it had a luster like none she'd ever seen before. Then she gasped, as Mia lifted the glowing chain from its box and the pendant, the crowing glory of the necklace, came into her view. The large, deep blue stone was almost the size of a robin's egg, and seemed to glow softly in the room's light. As Mia turned it, she saw that deep within the stone was a four pointed star, it's sharp tips standing at ninety-degree angles as though carved from within in a silvered light. With every move the image of the star seemed to shift, growing brighter or dimmer, larger or smaller as the Guildmaster studied it with fascination.

Mia gasped, "It's... beautiful. Gravitt, again... I don't even know how to thank you. I've never seen such a stone. It's amazing, and the color of the Blue Star. Look! Luna, Jessica, it even has a small star within it, it follows you as you turn it."

It seems to glow as it if were alive...

The man bowed again, as Mia put the necklace on with some assistance from Luna. "It's nothing, Majesty--just a small token of respect from the citizens of Briggatt. The setting is a rare metal found only in our city, or it was. The one vein of it was exhausted years ago, and the magic it took to refine it has also been lost. This is the most extraordinary of precious metals, and the rarest of gems. But it is nothing, your real gift, your gift from me, will be delivered later on this week."

Mia touched the jewelry with a sense of incredible gratitude. "Still this is more than magnificent. It seems your generosity is without end."

"I'll leave you with this--consider it a preview of the things to come," he said as he placed a single green stone in her palm.

Mia stared at the gem; it was crudely cut, but her eyes telling that she had never seen anything like it before, yet it still captivated her. "There is strong magic here, but a kind I'm not familiar with. What is it?"

"Ah, that would spoil the surprise of your gift. Just accept that for right now. I shall deliver the rest with an explanation in a few days. Let me just say that I have heard of your dream, and this is a part of making it come true."

"You don't need to-"

Gravitt smiled at Mia and touched a gentle hand to her cheek. "Oh, but I do. Someone as exquisite as you should not just be revered, but worshiped."

Mia's face burned as the man backed out of the doors, closing them, as his eyes never left her; Jessica felt like she was going to vomit.

"Well... sounds like you made a friend," she said wryly.

"I... guess I did."

"He seems very nice," said Luna.

Jessica snorted. "Yes, as pretty as nightshade, and every bit as deadly. I'm surprised he didn't leave a slime trail behind him."

Mia looked away, seeming to concentrate on the statues at the far end of the office, but then returned the conversation. "He's one of the reasons Vane is what it is today, Jessica. I think you are over-reacting."

"Perhaps, but just... be careful. At least get those annoyances of guards to do their job when he's around you."

Luna walked up to the window and stared out, trying to ignore Mia's rejection of Jessica's warning. She sighed, "It's just so beautiful, Mia. I remember the first time Alex and I saw Vane. I'll never forget it. I've still never seen a place so magnificent."

"Thank you. I just hope we regain our place as the seat of knowledge in the world. My mother valued that above all of the magic."

"I think you're already there, Mia."

Another knock came on the door, this one more pounding than the guard from before, and Jessica heard a voice she knew too well arguing with the guards.

Mia quickly stepped to the door and opened it, beaming at the people there. "Oh come in! All of you!" she said as she waved the group in, not even bothering to talk to the guard who seemed, this time at least, to recognize defeat as she gestured to him to close the door behind them. Kalyn ran straight for her mother, her blonde hair waving behind her as her small beast ears twitched with excitement. As she gave Jessica a quick hug she cried out in a happy voice; "Mommy! We saw fire! We saw lots and lots of fire! We saw a man eating fire! Like a dragon!"

"We don't eat fire!" Nall retorted as he resumed his perch on Alex's shoulder, but a careful glance from Luna silenced him.

"Really?" She gave a dubious look to Kyle who just shrugged.

Mia giggled, giving a soft smile at the girl and her parents. She turned to Alex, and gave him a hug. "I heard the good news. Congratulations!"

The quiet man's cheeks turned a little pink as he returned the embrace with a glance to his wife. "Thanks."

A swift yet friendly silence filled the room, until Kalyn shouted again, "I wanna go back! I wanna go play the games and watch the magic!"

"She's addicted to that carnival," Kyle said to Jessica. "I need a break, but I'll take her back after lunch. Besides, I think Alex was having fun playing chase the three year old."

"Could be worse, I guess," she replied playfully.

Alex smiled at them all, not saying a word.

"My wings are tired after following Kalyn. Your kid better not be as energetic!" Nall said, glaring at Alex.

Jessica frowned at her husband, sensing that he had failed in his mission. "Where's Nash?"

"I don't know. He all but disappeared. We tried his room, his office, and even the Library. Someone said he was out by the stables, but by the time we got there, he was gone."

"He does that," Mia said quietly. "He'll turn up soon enough."

Jessica noted Mia's tone was enough to halt the entire conversation, and she gave Kyle a look that suggested he follow her request. "Why don't you take Kalyn to lunch at the Festival?"

"Yeah! Lunch! Outside! With the fire people!"

Kyle scooped her up and looked to Alex. "You ready for another round, Daddy?"

"Actually, I'd like to borrow him for awhile," Luna said, tugging on her husband's sleeve. "Come on, Alex."

Alex was smarter than to put up a fight, and followed her as Jessica glared at the pair. Don't you leave me to handle this! The grin on Luna's face told her that she knew she'd just ducked having to sit in on her little talk with Mia.

Jessica watched as the pair left, a smile breaking across her face, the annoyance fading quickly. They are such a perfect couple... She turned to Kyle, and nodded, letting him know it time for him to go. She still had matters to attend to, and they did not involve him. She hoped he would take care of what he promised to, but realized with Kalyn so wound up, it probably wouldn't happen. The little girl gave an excited wave to her mother and Mia, and then she and her father left, the door closing behind them.

Mia opened the huge double door next to the window the statues sat in front of and stepped out onto the balcony. Well, at least I have you alone now. Enough of this beating around the bush...

The two of them stood for a moment, looking out over the city. Jessica found some words, not as direct as she hoped, but the sadness she sensed around her friend kept her demeanor gentle. "It's beautiful, Mia; maybe even more so than it was before. I could enjoy a week or two here, but I don't think I could stay. Might make me soft or something."

"Soft? What are you talking about Jess? A lot of what we've done we adapted from your city."

"Not my city, Mia. My father's city. I don't run it, and I enjoy being able to leave it from time to time. In fact, Kyle and are even thinking of going back to the barrier once Kalyn gets a little older."

"Why not? I don't understand, Jess. I mean, I could never leave Vane--even if I wanted to, I just couldn't."

She laughed, "And that's where we differ so much, Mia. You force this responsibility on yourself."

"I was born into this position, Jessica. Just as you were born into your title."

"My title? Titles are meaningless to me. I have told my father flat out that I'd rather not rule the city. He understands. He has many good years left in him, and if at some time I chose to change my mind, then fine. If not, fine too."

"So what will he do if you don't change your mind? It sounds to me like you're running away from the situation, Jessica."

The beast eared woman turned quickly, almost snapping out her reply. "I never run away from anything. You know me better than that, Mia." She hesitated a moment, as though regretting the strength of her reaction. "Ruling a city, though--especially after seeing what you've had to go through to do it, well I just don't want that headache. It's not that I couldn't handle it. I'm sure I could, especially with Kyle's help--it's just that you don't get a break. I watch Dad run himself crazy with some idiotic things--and that's why he's not here for your Festival, by the way. Some absurdity with the dock masters and taxes again or something. Anyway, he just couldn't leave. It's almost funny, he's supposed to be the most powerful man in Meribia, yet he has less freedom than a bondservant. I don't ever want to be in that position. I want some degree of independence." She paused for a moment and looked at her friend. "And you know what? I can tell you want some of that, too."

Jessica frowned as she saw Mia's perfect face twitch in either self-hatred or anger--she wasn't sure. She put a hand on her friend's back and glanced back to see the ever-present irritation of a guard. "Go away!"

Mia turned to the man. "Please, I'm all right. Wait for me inside. Thank you."

As the guard left, Jessica walked over to the edge of ornate balcony, and looked out over the carefully tended garden and sculpted hedges. Shaking her head she began studying the nearby buildings and the city's complex layout. Most of what she'd seen was familiar, new but still familiar. She tilted her head as she squinted at a thin, bronze colored needle that stabbed high into the sky at the building's corner.

"What is that thing? I've never seen anything like that before. What, you don't want people sitting on the rooftops or something?"

Mia fought a laugh. "No! It's a lightning rod... or at least that's what Artemus calls them."

"Artemus? Who's that? Oh, never mind. What does it do? It doesn't look much like it's made of lightning or anything like that... What is it, bronze?" She squinted a bit as she looked at the skyline of the city. "Hey, there's a bunch of them all over the place."

"No, they're supposed to keep us from getting struck by lightning. And yes, she said iron was best but Tamora raised a howl over anything that didn't look 'proper' sitting on top of the guild itself, so that one's Brass or something. Artemus came up with them after the storm that nearly ruined the Guild. She said she got the idea after watching the way lighting kept hitting the bronze statues down in the courtyard. They're supposed to catch the lightning and run it into the ground. I guess it's better than it hitting the buildings. They protect us from storms and thunder mages with very short tempers."

"Well, I guess that makes sense... if anything in this crazy place makes sense." She hesitated for a moment, then looked back to Mia in surprise. "Storm? What storm? You never told me about a storm--"

"I... didn't get the chance. It's the main reason we're so far behind. We should have been ready to open a month ago, instead of all this last minute chaos."

"Can't you people control the weather? I mean you can control everything else."

"Normally? Yes, within reason. But this one was too sudden, and unexpected. Besides, it was controlled... and created by someone--it was pure magic. I could feel it the second I..." Her voice trailed off.

"It was sent by someone? Couldn't you feel who was behind it then? Who was it, tell me and I'll split his gizzard for shoelaces."

"Yes. I could. Though I didn't want to. I... I knew right away who created it. I didn't even need to sense the magic. I just knew."

"Well? Who was it?"

Mia shook her head, not wanting to meet Jessica's eyes. "That's not important, and it certainly won't happen again."

Jessica stepped closer, leaning over the smaller woman. Her voice was rough and her tone abrupt. "It was Nash, wasn't?"

"That's enough Jess, I didn't say it was Nash!" Her reply was too fast, too forced for Jessica to be convinced otherwise.

"You also didn't say it wasn't Nash, and you're being way too defensive for it to have been just anyone. I know Nash has been pain in the backside for most of his life, but why would he want to do something like that? Goddess, Mia, he worships the ground you walk on, and wanted to see this place rebuilt as badly as you. It doesn't make any sense, and judging from the way you two don't talk to each other, this makes perfect sense! But why destroy the Guild?"

"I didn't say it was Nash, and that's all I'm going to say about it!" She marched back into the office, not even looking back to see if Jessica was following.

Jessica watched from behind as Mia's eyes fell on a faded sheet of parchment sitting under a small stack of papers on the desk. Although she was trying not to rush or seem too desperate to change the subject, it wasn't convincing. The Guildmaster stepped over, and carefully pulled it from the pile. "Jess, since you've brought Nash up, I... I want your thoughts on something. I... Nash doesn't know, at least I don't think he knows, that I have this," she said, holding the paper against her chest to conceal whatever was written on it.

Jessica reached for it, but Mia continued. "Let me tell you how I came about it first."

"All right."

Mia motioned to the couch and they both sat down. Once comfortable, the black haired woman began her story. "A few months ago... Goddess, it feels like forever, I sent him out on a mission--something special for the library. I was feeling bad about that, and kind of... lonely. Anyway, I thought I'd try to find something special to do for him, and went to his room to see if I could find... I don't know what I was going to find, but I didn't have any other ideas.

"I think I was looking for some sort of familiarity, something that said 'Nash' to me when I saw it. He was--he is--such a slob. There were dirty clothes everywhere, and papers tossed on the desk like autumn's leaves scattered by the wind. For someone as careful about his appearance he doesn't take much pride in his quarters. Anyway, I looked at his bookshelf and saw his sketchbooks--I'd almost forgotten about them, I don't think anyone else really knows this, but he's a very talented artist. Believe it or not, he's very shy about his work."

Jessica snorted. "Nash? Shy about anything? Tell me another one!"

"No, really, he is. Anyway, sometimes he'd let me see some of it, but most of it he kept hidden, claiming they weren't ready or not good enough. I flipped through one of them and found pictures of me in various everyday poses--sitting, smiling, reading, sleeping--you name it. I didn't sit for the drawings, so he must have done them from memory."

I wonder what other poses he had you in...

"I took another book, sat down on his bed and studied all the pictures. This one had rough sketches of all of us, as if he was documenting our adventure. I stared at those sketches just examining the sweeps of his lines and trying to figure out how he could create such vivid images with just a pencil and memories. I almost cried; they were so real. I felt like I was invading his privacy, yet I couldn't understand why he would keep these things from me. They were so exquisite--so genuine and beautiful.

"I decided I should leave, and as I was putting the sketchbook back, a piece of paper on the bookshelf caught my eye. It had been folded and tucked behind all the others, so I took it out and opened it. It was another unbelievably realistic portrait of two people in ink and paint--a man and woman." She held the paper out to Jessica. "Look at this."

Jessica did so. It was a remarkable work--the colors and shading having been done with exceptional care. The man looked a lot like Nash--but with long hair and a full beard. The female was blonde--blonder the she was--yellow blonde, and very pretty. They both wore strange clothes and ribbons plaited into their hair. Written underneath them was something in a language that looked familiar, but she couldn't understand it. At the bottom wasn't his full signature, just a simple little N.

"So, I took the drawing with me. I wanted to ask him about it--there was something there, I knew it, and I still think so. I... I've wondered if they might have been his parents. He never did talk about them. Don't you remember? Even during the quest he'd ignore every question about it, or snap back with one of those nasty little comments he used to use so often."

"Oh I remember that... and how close he came to getting his butt kicked by the rest of us for it. He did seem to outgrow that, afterwards. I always figured it was your influence."

Mia looked at the parchment over her friend's shoulder, ignoring her implied compliment. "You tell me, Jess. Have you ever seen anything like this before? The language, or the way these are dressed? Something about them reminds me of Tempest, but that can't be."

Jessica frowned as she stared down at the portrait. "You're right. The clothing's similar to what he and Fresca wore, but I don't know about the writing. It does look like Tribal script, or at least what I remember seeing of it while we were there. Mia, you can count the number of people that can read Tribal on the fingers of your left foot--at least anywhere outside the prairie itself. Besides, that can't mean anything. So maybe Nash copied something he'd seen on one of those 'trips' you kept sending him out on..." She peered at the painting more closely than she had before, then folded it and handed it back to Mia. "I still can't believe that runt did this. Apparently he's got more talent than I thought, other than being annoying like he was last night. Tell me, is that act something new?"

Mia sighed, "Oh no, this has been going on for six months, and believe me when I say he was more civil with you and everyone else around."

"Civil? You call that civil? That emotionless demeanor? I though Ghaleon had been reincarnated for a moment there. And now you tell me he nearly destroyed the city?"

The Guildmaster gave her a fierce look; a hate far deeper in her violet eyes than Jessica had ever seen in her friend. "Don't say that! Don't ever say that!"

She fought a desire to recoil from her friend's reaction, and instead waved a hand flippantly, "Well at least you seem to still care about him, for what it's worth. So, what's his problem?"

"I am the problem."

Like I wouldn't have ever guessed... right... "What did you do to him?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

Jessica moved closer to her friend. "Let me tell you something, Mia. Nash may be a lot of unpleasant things, but he is madly in love with you. He would do anything for you--he has told you so himself. Now, at one time, you said you loved-"

Mia interrupted her flatly; "I don't deserve him. Let's just leave it at that."

"You damn well deserve each other!"

"He doesn't even notice me any more... I doubt he even remembers caring for me."

"Make him notice. Make him remember."

"I don't really know how."

"Oh sure you do! It goes with being a woman. Wear something that will get his attention and go see him when you know he'll be alone. You know, some of the uhh... best times... I ever had with Kyle is when we'd make up after a fight."

Mia closed her eyes, something obviously still bothering her. After putting her dainty little hand to her forehead, she sighed. "Jessica, I have to get some things ready for my welcome speech this afternoon and the reception this evening..."

Taking the hint, but not really wanting to, she nodded, "All right, but you know, there is no reason for either of you to act so hateful towards the other. If I have to beat some sense into him, I will. Hell, I'll probably enjoy it."

She saw Mia give a weak smile as she left. Although you both might need a pounding...

% % %

The reception was about as boring as Jessica could have imagined, and she knew Kyle felt the same way. The ground floor of the Atrium had been converted into a lavish banquet. Tables, chairs, and banners decorated the space that only earlier in the day was occupied by mages and guests running through it on their way to somewhere else. She smiled as Mia made her descent down the colossal staircase, but frowned at noticing her friend was unescorted.

She and Kyle had been seated at the head table with the rest of their friends, the Council members and that Gravitt man, and she constantly felt like people were watching her every move. Facing the rest of the room was quite unnerving, and it certainly wasn't conducive to private conversations. I wonder how interesting I look when I eat... these people need to focus on something else...

Mia gave a wonderful speech welcoming everyone and outlining the week's events. Then she made history as her decision was announced and she formally extended her invitation for anyone who wished to attend the Guild to do so. A blurred carousel of food and dancing commenced and the crowd seemed to swirl around them until she couldn't tell one from the other. That strange Gravitt person was eating up most of Mia's attention, much to her discomfort. Jessica felt a brief feeling of relief for once at the presence of the guards, seeing how close to her friend a flock of them stayed, not one of them leaving their post, and all keeping their hands ready on their weapons.

She scowled at Nash as he sat in his chair and sulked, his face only softening when Kalyn climbed up on his lap. The little girl managed to get more of a conversation out of him than any adult, and was reeled into giggles when he let her play with the upswept curl in his hair. From her seat, Mia gave a soft, admiring glance in his direction, but as soon as their eyes met, he handed the child back to Kyle, and said that he wasn't feeling well. He stood up and quickly walked away, making quick escape down one of the side corridors, and keeping a lookout over his shoulder for disapproving glances. Finally sick of the entire situation, and tired from the travel the day before, Jessica again used her daughter as a convenient excuse for an early departure, and her husband willingly followed her.

Jessica went back to her room and laid on the bed while Kyle tucked Kalyn in. The little girl must have been either exhausted or bored to death, and quickly fell asleep. Kyle asked if she was all right, and she assured him she was; that she was just tired. He gave her a quick kiss and then fell asleep himself. Lucky stiff... I wish I could sleep like that.

She had spent most of the night before awake worried about her friends and had a bad feeling tonight wasn't going to be any better. Yes , she reminded herself, it was she who had prodded them to finally stop acting like scared children and tell each other how they felt. She was so happy for them; they really did need each other. But this... this...whatever it was... it certainly wasn't good. Both of them had seemed to change, and it was for the worse. The frustration of the day seemed to eat at her and she tried to force herself to think back to earlier, happier, memories.

As she closed her eyes, a vision of an especially happy moment slid through her mind. Three years ago, just after Kalyn was born and they had all gotten together, she and Mia stayed up beyond everyone else. They had probably had a bit too much wine, but neither of them seemed to care, and as they stood out on the balcony--the same balcony where she knew her friends had shared their first kiss--the conversation had gotten a little risqué. She smiled to herself as she heard and saw it again in her mind... Such happy days... back then...

% % %

Jessica filled her friend's glass again, "So... are you going to give me the dirt or am I going to have to drag it out from you?"

"Dirt? What dirt?" Mia said as she fixed the slipping neckline of the over-sized shirt that had been obviously liberated from Nash's collection.

"About you and Nash. Or is it just a coincidence that I found you wandering around in his clothes?"

Mia didn't bother to adjust the garment this time, and instead just let it fall; one of her bare shoulders peeking through the collar of the shirt that draped on her like a tarp. "It's no secret, Jessica. You know that. Besides, it's your fault in the first place, remember?"

"Yeah, I know. And to think, he was so afraid of you rejecting him... I knew I was right. I knew you had it bad for him, too. Although I have to say I don't know why, talk about opposites attracting... but to each her own, I guess."

Mia shook her head, and then took another sip of wine. "He's not as bad as people make him out to be. He's really sweet... and gentle. I knew from the start that all that arrogance of his was just an act. Though I'm still not sure why he felt he had to hide behind it. He's grown up a lot and put that behind him. It's as if he's a completely different person than he was when you first met him."

"I know, and that's one of the few reasons he's still alive. I'd have wrung his neck a long time ago otherwise. But just the same, I'd like to find out for myself why he had to put on that idiotic charade. If he wasn't primping himself he was insulting someone else." Jessica chuckled, giving Mia a smile as she nudged her. "So, do you really love him or what?"

Mia pushed the sleeves of the shirt back. "Of course, at least, I think I do. I mean, I've never been in love before, but if love makes you happy just to be with someone, to know they're there next to you, then yes, because I'm very happy whenever he's around, and I miss him when he's not."

"You think? It's not a think thing, Mia. This has to be something you're sure about. If you've found the person you want to sleep next to every night and wake next up to every morning, and if you can do that without getting grossed out seeing him all unwashed and unshaved, then maybe it is love. And if you can't imagine that person being anyone other than Nash, though I'm still wondering about your sanity if not your judgment there, then I guess it is as simple as that. As sick as it sounds to me, you really do love that idiot."

The Guildmaster traced a finger around the lip of her glass. "If you put it like that, then yes, I do really love him. And my sanity and judgment are just fine, thank you... But if you want to talk judgment, should I bring up the subject of some of Kyle's past antics?"

"Okay... truce, I give up. Seriously, Mia, I'm happy for you. I still think you're more than a little crazy, but you know me. I'd never think of criticizing my friends," she paused a moment, "slapping upside of their heads maybe, but never criticizing." Jessica laughed and downed another swallow of wine before Mia could respond. "So... any ideas when we're going to have a royal Vanetian wedding?"

Mia looked away for a moment as she tried to gather her thoughts. "Not for a long time. I have too much work to do without worrying about being married. I mean, right now, I'm married to my job."

There was a brief silence before Jessica bombarded her friend with a torrent of suddenly important questions. "So no marriage. I assume that also means no little Guildmasters running around, either? Unless..."

Mia closed her eyes in deliberate concentration. "I don't know what you mean. I've been very busy."

Oh come on... the innocent act is old, Mia... She narrowed her eyes, determined to make her friend understand, hoping she wouldn't have to be any more blunt. "I assume that the two of you have become... very... close?"

Mia stared at her. "Of course we have. I mean, he's been very good to me, and we're getting the Guild rebuilt... together. He's... he's my best friend."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it. I meant... are you sharing sheets with him?"

Mia's face turned redder than the wine in her glass and she gave a shy smile at her friend.

That was all the answer Jessica needed before she smirked. "I knew it. Spare me the details, please. I don't want to throw up, but... I have to ask this. You don't have to answer if you don't want to, okay?"

"All right..."

"Well... I mean, I know all about healing magics, but... that's different from all that elemental magic you two wield... does it... uhh... affect... certain moments?"

"Certain moments? I don't understand Jess."

She shook her head and gave Mia's shoulder a playful slap, almost dropping her glass in the process as the gesture unbalanced her. "You know what I mean."

Mia laughed out loud, nearly spilling what was left of her drink. "Honestly, Jess, the things you think about!" She took another sip as she tried to stop her laughter, finding it harder to do with each swallow of the potent wine. "No, Jessica. For most of us magic requires concentration, to gather and direct the power. Far too much work when you're... distracted like that. Besides, magic isn't tied to your emotions unless you are an empath, and those are few and very far between." She paused a moment, tapping her cheek in thought, and forcing herself to recite some obviously rather old and well taught lesson. "Although when you get angry, you can feel the rush come from within, sort of like when you're getting ready to fight. That's dangerous though, because you can lose all control if you let anger control you. But no, to answer your question, just... no."

Jessica grinned. "Sorry, just had to ask. I mean, I couldn't help but wonder if you didn't get struck by lightning."

"No, but sometimes it feels like it," Mia said with a sloppy wink, the blush on her cheeks hidden behind the flush the drinks had given her.

Jessica laughed at her friend, then almost lost her balance on the seat and had to quickly reach down to straighten back up. She looked down to her now empty wineglass and shook her head as she gave a distracted look to the now empty wine bottle. "Oh... Then I guess you've not managed to melt or freeze any of his more... tender parts either?"

Mia almost doubled over in hilarity; reaching out to the equally blitzed Jessica and the two of them slid onto the polished marble floor amid gales of laughter.

Jessica gave a very drunken nod as she tried to stand, her legs surprisingly unsteady, but managing the task nonetheless. "Woah... that stuff's got a kick like a... a..." She shook her head as she tried to weave her way to the door, halting to a staggering stop as she made out the small outline that seemed to have just materialized at the door.

Jessica really hadn't known how long he'd be standing there, listening to them talk, when he finally made his presence known with: "Well, that's where my shirt ended up..." Mia looked over towards the open door and started laughing hysterically at Nash leaning on the doorframe in just his pants. I hope he didn't hear all of that...

Mia stood, clearly unsteady as she teetered towards him before holding her arms out. "Don't you want to kiss me?"

He helped her regain her balance, or as much of it as she had at that point. "Yes... very much so... but not when you are drunk. I'd prefer that you at least know whom you're kissing, and right now I'm not sure you even know where you are. You need to go to bed, Mia. Come on, I don't think you should walk. Come to think of it, I'm not even sure you can, right now." He scowled at Jessica as he effortlessly lifted her off the ground and began to carry her to her bedroom down the hallway.

Jessica followed them; Mia laughing as she was carted down the hall while Nash held a cold and wrathful silence. The blonde stood in the doorway of the room they had been assigned as he gently placed her on one of the single beds and pulled the covers up over her. His voice was soft as he spoke: "You're going to have one hell of hang over tomorrow. Better start sleeping it off."

Mia laughed at him and ran her fingers through his hair, in an almost suggestive manner, had she not been so drunk. He pulled away from her, brushing his hair back in an unconscious gesture, but not before giving her a kiss on the forehead. "Get some sleep. You'll need it."

As her friend closed her eyes and almost instantly fell asleep, Jessica started to back away and close the door, but Nash stopped her. "Wait a minute," he said as he grabbed a shirt from his traveling bag and pulled it on. He walked out into the hallway, and glared at Jessica. "Why did you have to do that to her? Why did you have to destroy her like that?"

"Oh come on, Nash. It's not like you've never been drunk. You're not her mother. She can make her own decisions."

"That's not the point. You... corrupted her!"

"I've corrupted her? With two glasses of Hynat Red? Give me a break, Nash. Besides, from the sound of it I'd say you've done more than your share of..."

He growled at her, "What goes on between Mia and me when we're alone is none of your damn business!"

She laughed at him. "I wasn't even talking about that, but all right, since you brought it up. Yes, she did imply that you have some... hidden talents..."

She wasn't sure in the low light of the hallway, but she could have sworn he blushed. "Enough," he muttered. "You're Mia's best friend, but..."

"That girl has got it bad for you. Break her heart and I'll have to break you into tiny little pieces, Nash. Nothing personal, mind you..."

He laughed at her, and then turned return to his room. "You're something else, Jessica. You know that? One of these days I'll figure out just what."

% % %

Jessica shook her head, looking over to her snoring husband. I know it's not the sleep of the innocent, but I'd love to poke him just to wipe that drooling grin off his face... I give up! I can't sleep. With an irritated look to Kyle, she slipped from the bed and threw some clothes on, being careful not to wake either Kyle or their daughter. What the heck, I may as well see the sights. Besides, I've been wondering what changes they made in the rebuilding, and who knows, maybe I'll run into something interesting...

She had been wandering a good twenty minutes, up the stairs, down the stairs, but wherever she went there was the omnipresent non-descript guard who would give her a respectful, yet suspicious bow. She found herself somewhere on the first floor, and realized that the party from earlier in the evening had already been cleaned up; apparently the mages of Vane and their servants were far more efficient that she had given them credit for.

She stepped down one of the side corridors, and a noise beyond and down the hall had caught her ear; someone, just like her, was restless. She walked down the hallway quietly, and saw a lamp on under a door to a classroom. As she drew closer, she saw the door had been left open a good two inches and so, she peeked in. Sitting at the large desk clearly reserved for the instructor was Nash; his back was to her, and what he was doing up at this hour, she wasn't sure. She stared at him for a moment, watching him twirl a pen in his right hand as he stared off into space. I don't know what his problem is, but this seems as good a time as any to find out. Besides, this way there's no witnesses.

She pushed open the door and slipped in, closing it behind her with an audible 'click.' She was surprised when he didn't turn around or even try to notice the noise. His voice, though obviously tired, was one of unexpected self-control.

"Go away, Jessica."

"Nice to see you too, Nash. What are you doing up so late and how did you know it was me?"

He turned around, gesturing towards the brightly polished brass base that sat below the flickering flame. "Your reflection in the lamp. And I couldn't sleep."

She sat at one of the student desks in front of him, and for a moment, considered trying to at least look like an attentive apprentice. That impulse quickly died as she fixed him with a questioning gaze. "So you came here to just mope?"

"Maybe. Why aren't you in bed? It's almost three in the morning"

"Couldn't sleep either, though I'll wager it's for different reasons."

"No doubt, nosiness usually doesn't keep me awake at night."

Jessica ignored his comment, for the moment. "Want to tell me about it?"

"No."

"Let me guess, then. You're tired of being the self-absorbed jackass that that you've spent most of your life as? You're regretting that little scene at dinner last night, aren't you?"

"Thank you for your insight, whatever would we do without you?" He paused for a moment before nodding sadly to himself as he added; "Among other things, maybe so."

"Such as?"

He gave a little sigh as he scratched the back of his neck. "If you really want to know, it's money. There's just not enough to do what really needs to be done, let alone everything that Mia wants. For one thing, I don't see how we're going to be able to pull this Festival off. I know this is important to her, but I don't think we can afford it. More people showed up for that reception tonight than she anticipated, and we have three more of them planned. I'm sure they'll grow as the week goes on, too."

"She seems to think she has plenty of money."

He shook his head. "Don't I know it! We've gotten a lot of gifts from benefactors, but... well..."

"Well what?"

"I told you, it's just not enough. Vane's own treasury is all but exhausted, and even the donations haven't made up the difference. With this Festival, we're spending twice as much as we're getting. We're down to looking for silver under the floorboards now."

At her puzzled look he continued. "Look, let me give you an example. The faculty of Vane used to get a stipend. Not a lot of money since we've always lived here for free, but most of us have been refusing it. Some of us have even been selling off personal possessions and then donating the money anonymously. Mia would be furious if she found that out, but I don't know if any of us have anything left to help finance this fiasco."

"Money troubles? Is that all of this, Nash? I mean, all you had to do is ask... you'll find a rather hefty donation from the citizens of Meribia tomorrow morning."

"No Jessica, that's not it. Vane needs to become self-sufficient, and Meribia has already been too generous, far more than we have any right to expect. Besides, we can't rely on the good nature of others forever. I don't think Mia sees that. Gregory told me that Vane's always operated on a fairly thin margin, with contributions and tuitions just enough to cover the costs. But now, with the rebuilding... and Mia's insistence on everything being not just as good as before, but better, I don't see how we'll ever finish or repay our debts.

"On top of that, I've been trying to trace some of the donations we have received, so we could thank everyone that's helped rebuild Vane. But... there's just too much money that I can't track. It was sent, and it's been spent, but I have no idea who or where it came from. Frankly, I'm worried that it may have come with strings attached that I don't know about. For all I know we may have a debt we may not want to repay."

"Hmm... I met one of your so called benefactors today. You certainly have a point there. I'm not sure what he wants, but he made my skin crawl." She paused, "Have you mentioned this to Mia?"

He shook his head. "No... we don't... communicate very well these days."

She stood and, with only a few swift steps swung herself up on the desk in front of him staring down into his startled brown eyes. "I noticed. In fact, I told her that you reminded me of Ghaleon. You know, he'd come to see my Dad when I was a kid. That shell, that façade he put up, just creeped me out every time I saw him. When I saw it in you yesterday, I damn near panicked. It was as though his ghost was staring out through your eyes. Then I heard that you nearly destroyed Vane... I guess he did teach you some lessons after all..."

Nash's skin paled as his eyes hardened in response, his voice little more than a grated whisper as he replied; "Thank you for that, Jessica. Knowing I remind you of Ghaleon makes me feel so much better! Would you like to try again? Maybe twist the hilt on that dagger in my back just a little harder?!"

Her voice was a desperate plead as she touched his shoulder. "Please don't scare me like that. Forget the storm for a minute... just the look in your eyes... that hollowness and the way you drag yourself around..."

"Look, I'm sorry. I have to do that when I'm around Mia, but I don't have a choice any more, otherwise I'm... I'm afraid of what will happen to her."

Oh yes, make her worried about you... brilliant... for someone that thinks they're Althena's gift to women you really don't have a clue do you, Nash? "What do you mean, what will happen to her? You don't think enough has happened to her already? The Fall of Vane, the death of her mother, the betrayal by her... lover?"

He winced at the apparent painful truth of her last statement. "It's a long, agonizing story, and it's late. Just forget it, all right Jess? Besides, to be blunt, it's none of your damn business."

"All right, be that way you arrogant little snot! But I'm going to say this anyway. Something's happened between the two of you, and since it's my fault you're together in the first place that makes it my business. I still don't know what happened, but I suspect Mia must have done something... something she blames herself for and in retaliation you tried to destroy the Guild. She won't tell me what it was she did, but I know she isn't upset about what you did. Can't you just forgive her and move on with your life? And let her back into it?"

"I already have forgiven her. It doesn't matter anymore, anyway. Some things, no matter how desired, are simply never meant to be." With those words he stood, cupped his hand over the chimney of the lamp, and blew it out. As he was nearly out of the room, he turned back over his shoulder and gave a small bow of his head. "Good night, Jessica."

She stared at him in the near darkness; the chill in his features, and the ice in his voice again reminded her of his mentor. As he left the room, a small shiver began to run down the tall woman's back.

I have an idea now... but Althena, I pray I am wrong...

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


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