The First (again ^^')

Okay, the beginning of the story, including a new, short opening chapter, can be found right here, if anyone’s interested. Updates for this have been a long while coming, but here we go ^^ Fairly soon, pre-game portion of the story will be over . . .

The First - a continuation

It was a grim, grey morning when we returned four days later. The Mist was thicker than ever, swirling sickeningly through the valley below. At its present density, a person would not be able to last more than a day in it without losing their minds or gaining permanent respiratory problems, at the very least.

Fortunately, I was above it. Well, I stood where it dissipated into the air, at any rate. The prototype was seated on the grassy floor, propped up by its own awkward weight.

For a long while, I did nothing but stare at it, contemplating what I was about to do, and ‘feeling’ the dead souls whirling around me. If I concentrated hard enough, I could still hear the quiet, varying patterns of thoughts that had been the last ever transmitted by the owners of the souls. Was it just a case of snagging a random one, and inebriating the prototype with it? That seemed almost too simple, but that was all that the brain of Evil Forest did.

How did Garland choose? Granted, he had live, viable souls to work with but even these dead ones still retained a vestige of their former consciousnesses. Whose soul did I possess? It had certainly belonged to someone else before my Maker had infused it with my body. My own personality seemed to have eroded away whatever essences of its previous owner might have remained. Still, it isn’t pleasant to know that your existence is a mere hand-me-down.

Hah! Like Garland would give a damn what soul went where. Otherwise, I might not have been so rebellious, and the Second not so pathetically sympathetic. So, I could follow on from the mistakes he had made – I would choose weak souls, the kind that wouldn’t question a superior’s authority. The kind that wouldn’t talk back to you – the kind that had no free will, no emotions to personalise their pseudo-lives.


Scowling at the silver dragon’s intrusion of my concentration, I glared at it. “What?”

“There are human beings not far from here.”

“Yes. In Treno. I know.”

“No. I mean that there is a group of wandering humans. I believe they are out hunting.”

I sighed. “How do you know?”

“I smell them. I hear their footfalls.”

“Gods, something always has to get in the way, doesn’t it? Can you give me any more details? The Mist is thickest here along the cliffs, but I don’t want interference from the residents of Gaia, if at all possible.”

“From the footsteps, I’d estimate three or four of them. Their scent is earthy, damp.”

“Earthy?” I took a long look in the direction the silver dragon was pointing to with its head. Through the thinning Mist, I could see the outline of the border gateway. “Probably from Dali, then. It’s a farming town, not doing so well lately. I’ve heard that the menfolk are having to go out and hunt for food to make up for the poor harvests this year.”

The dragon snorted. “Little more than arachnid prey around Treno. I should know. It tastes very rancid.”

“Oh? What do you prefer?”

“The Yans from the lands to the west are most enjoyable, if difficult to kill.”

“Hmm. I shan’t ask. How far away are these hunters?”

It cocked its head to one side, and fixed me with its blue gaze. “Not far. They shall cross this area soon, if they keep going. Should we move?”

“No. If worse comes to worst, I’ll just kill them.”

“ . . . that would be a little cruel.”

“This is a fine time to display your conscience!” I berated the dragon amusedly. “The quicker I get this done, the less chance of me having to actually do that!”

To demonstrate my focus, I shook out my arms and returned my attention to the prototype.

It’s difficult to explain in words how I did it. Looking back, I can only remember the blur of emotions and thoughts that passed through my mind as I bestowed false life upon the black mage. There was the maelstrom of restless souls streaming endlessly around me, and I diverted that flow towards the prototype. This, I intertwined with pure black magic, drawn from shadows of the elements of Gaia. I couldn’t contain a cry of delight when the stack of clothes and material began to shudder. The half-sentient soul of the black mage began to grow aware, so I quickly started to seal its innate abilities away. Once this was done, the creature would lose its capacity to choose, and thus its appreciation of morality . . .


Startled out of the steady trance I must have been engaged in for several minutes, I accidentally shattered the metaphorical seal.


I whirled to face the suspicious, approaching hunters, my favourite Flare spell already glowing in my right hand . . .

. . . and the silver dragon lurched towards me with a blasting roar that shook the entire cliff top. To avoid hitting the infernal beast, I swung the gathering magic out to the right, where the accumulated energy struck the ground bare metres away and flung me backwards. My left side hit solid ground, and I immediately attempted to prop myself up with both arms.

The right one plunged into empty air. Momentary panic seized me when I realised that I was balanced right on the cliff’s edge, but a surge of anger was enough to propel me back to my feet.

The hunters were gone. Apparently, the proximity of a hulking silver dragon and the sight of spontaneous combustion had sent them running. But they didn’t even account for half the source of my fury.

My prototype black mage was gone. Where, I didn’t know, but the bundle of clothes that had filled with pure black magic and an unsealed soul was not sitting where I had left it.

Maintaining a firm tone, the silver dragon said: “There was no need to attack those hunters on account of your impatience, Kuja.”

I continued to stare at the spot the little black mage had previously occupied. If it had fallen off the cliff . . . or maybe it had escaped across the clifftop, towards the forest!

“You have been gifted with phenomenal powers, Kuja, but you do not yet appreciate –”

“Godsdammit, will you shut up?” I screamed. “This is your fault! They were just hunters, for crying out loud! Lowly, peasant hunters from a lowly, tiny, insignificant little village! No one would have cared what happened to them. No one would probably even notice they were gone. And now I’ve lost the product of four years of work, silver dragon!”

“You did manage it before it went wrong. You can easily make another now.”

“It was a prototype! An experiment! I don’t have it perfected; I don’t even know how the bloody thing turned out! Don’t you understand how much time and effort and energy has just been swallowed up in the Mist? Why now, of all times, do you decide to grow morals, eh? I wish that damn spell had bloody well hit you!”

The silver dragon regarded me very coolly throughout my heartfelt rant. “You can’t just kill anything that crosses your path, Kuja. It was not my fault that you could not wait until the hunters were gone to continue the experiment.”

“Just shut up and start flapping! We have to search for the prototype now –”

“I think not. I think you need time to cool down, Kuja. And that time would be best spent alone.”

The dragon did start flapping its wings; unfortunately, I was not riding it at the time.

“Wait!” You treacherous, foul-minded, interfering, deserting little –

“Calm down, Kuja. When your mind is clearer, I will return to you.”

And then, for the first time ever, it blocked my thoughts from its own, and launched itself into the sky, gone from view before I even had time to blink.

There must have been about fifteen seconds of silence, before I vehemently toasted the nearest stand of trees with a Firaga spell. Apparently, this was just not going to be my day.

More to come tomorrow! ^^

Good. I only glanced at it… right now the Texas heat is getting to me so I really can’t read right now. But, I like it so far.:cool:

Whooyay, it’s back! ^^

Neat, LC. I still love the interaction between the dragon and Kuja, those are the best parts :slight_smile:

Eight hours of trampling through the undergrowth of the thick forests at the top of the cliffs revealed no prototype. By then, a blind man could have followed my progress, simply by feeling for all of the charred tree stumps I left in my wake.

I emerged from the woodland a very unhappy man.

The prototype was gone. That much was certain. If only that wretched silver dragon had helped me search, I might have been able to find it, but I couldn’t even reach the creature – there was a very solid wall where its thoughts should have been.

It was right about one thing though; I needed to calm down. It’s impossible for one’s thoughts to be coherent when anger is the predominant emotion.

For the remainder of the day, I hunted the arachnid creatures that roamed the heights around Treno. I kept going until my spirit was flagging and I was forced to sit down and gulp down an ether or two. After that, I felt considerably calmer, but night was approaching, and my eyes were drawn to the not-so-distant lights of Treno. The silver dragon was obviously showing no signs of returning anytime soon, so Faowri was my only option – there was no way I was sleeping out in the open without a tent, at least.

The majority of my anger depleted, I was nothing short of exhausted when I finally reached Treno. The fairly short trek through the town led me to the side door of King’s mansion, and I banged the ornate bronze knocker and waited.

“The residents of the King Manor do not wish to be disturbed,” a muffled voice called from inside.

I raised an eyebrow; this had never happened before. “Manchi, is that you? It’s Kuja!”


The sound of locks being pulled open was followed by the door swinging out and a flash of Manchi’s desperate-looking face.

“Master Kuja! You have to come in right away!”

“What’s wrong?”

And then I became aware of the dead silence and stillness within the hall. The mansion was always full of some noise or other – servants going about their business, other Nobles visiting King . . .

My throat locked. “Oh, no . . . he hasn’t . . .”

Manchi bowed his head. “You have to go and see Lady Faowri. There’s something wrong with her! She hasn’t slept for three days, ever since . . .”

“I see.” I keenly felt the loss of Utendo – he had been a good friend to me ever since we had met. But if something were wrong with Faowri, mourning would have to wait. “Take me to her?”

Manchi sighed with relief, nodded quickly and ushered me towards the staircase. As we ascended to the second floor, the young servant began wringing his hands and talking in a low voice.

“She found him, you see, when she went to read to him like she always does. Did. She hasn’t left his chamber since the body was removed. She refused to attend the funeral. She won’t eat anything, and we know she’s not sleeping at all – we can hear her moving around in the room and talking . . .”

“What does she say?”

“Not sure. She seems to be talking to herself, though . . .”

I bit my lip, glancing to the left once we were on the landing. Faowri’s bedroom door was ajar, and the bed hadn’t been slept in for a while, it seemed. Manchi paused outside King’s room, from inside which a considerable amount of noise was emanating.

“If anyone can get through to her, it’s you, Master Kuja,” Manchi said entreatingly.

“I’ll do my best.”

He opened the door, and I slipped inside, listening to it close behind me.

Utendo King’s room was painfully identical to before his death. The bed was clean and made, albeit devoid of its usual occupant. The major difference was that the majority of his belongings were arranged in piles all over the room. Behind the four-poster bed, I could see Faowri rummaging around in a large chest, muttering to herself.

“Uh . . . Faowri?”

She didn’t hesitate in her searching. I don’t think she even noticed that I was there until I approached her from behind and laid a hand on her shoulder. At that contact, she jumped half out of her skin and swung her head around to look at me.

“Kuja! What a pleasant surprise!”

Faowri stood up, patting her dusty hands down on her coat. I stared at her – at the dark circles under her eyes, at the wraith-like thinness her body had withered away to, but most of all at the blankness of her expression.

“Faowri, what are you –”

“Manchi let you in, right? Come over here, we have business to attend to.”

“But –”

“These”, and she waved a hand at a two huge piles of books sitting on the bed, “are yours. He wanted you to have them. They don’t interest me all that much.”

I spared a half-hearted glance, noting that the name ‘Avon’ was on most of the book jackets. There were several dozen other literary works there, but at the moment, even this impressive collection didn’t interest me.

“Faowri, your father has just –”

“I know, isn’t it annoying?” she smiled cheerfully. “He’s left me with so much junk to deal with. I’m going to have to go through his entire will and sort everything out . . . could take me ages!”

I folded my arms and frowned. “And when do you plan to eat? Sleep? Grieve?”

She flapped a hand irritably at me. “I’m not hungry, tired or sad, Kuja. I’m perfectly fine.”

“The condition you’re in tells me otherwise.”

Anger flashed briefly in her eyes. “Don’t tell me what I need, Kuja. I said I was fine. I’ve been dealing with family death since the day I was born. You don’t look too good yourself.”

“Don’t change the subject.” I moderated my tone to make sure she knew I was genuinely concerned for her health. “Please, just sit down for a minute?”

“No need,” she snapped coldly. There was a lapse in her forced cheerfulness, during which she ran a shaky hand across her eyes. “Now, are you going to help or hinder me? I have a lot to do . . .”

I regarded her sadly, and placed a hand gently on her arm.

“You know, you can always cry, if you want to,” I told her.

Faowri stared hatefully at me. “I don’t cry. I’m not sad, dammit! I’m not crying!” With that, she spun out of my grasp and threw herself down onto the bed, her arms folded and her face hidden from view by her ever-present hat. Sighing, I sat down beside her, and, reaching up firmly, removed her hat from her head.

She moved to protest, but I caught her wrist in my free hand.

“Don’t hide, Faowri. I know that you’re crying inside.”

The mage continued to stare angrily at me, but I held my ground, and her wrist.

“I’m worried about you. If you want to talk, I’ll listen. If you want to cry, I’ll lend a shoulder. But for the gods’ sake, you can’t just hold it in! You have to let it out! You have to allow yourself time to grieve, or you’ll always be tied down with those unrequited feelings. Do you understand?”

The fire in her eyes gradually began to melt away, and she averted her gaze from mine. An idiot would have been able to see the torment raging around in her head right then, so I dropped the hat, gently touched her chin and forced eye contact.

“Do you understand?” I asked again.

A stunned, distraught look had replaced the blank expression on her face, and she nodded weakly. “I’m sorry. It’s just . . .”

She went limp and started to tremble so hard that I gripped her shoulders in alarm.


The red mage collapsed against my chest, and began to sob. There was nothing else I could do, except hold her tight and wait for her tears to abate.

They weren’t going to do so anytime soon, though. Faowri cried until she had nothing left, and was dry-retching. Eventually, she became silent.

“Faowri, are you okay?”

I tilted her head a little – her tear-streaked face was still, and her eyes closed, her breathing easier than before. It looked like she’d simply collapsed with exhaustion. Glancing at the ticking clock on the bedside table, I was surprised to see how long we’d been sitting here.

Removing Faowri from my arms, I laid her down carefully on the overcrowded bed and crept over to the door, although I doubted that an earthquake would wake her from her current slumber. Manchi was still waiting outside for news.

“She’s okay,” I whispered, “but I think she should rest in her own room.”

“Of course.” Manchi bowed. “Her room is already prepared.”

Leaving the door open, I returned to Faowri’s limp body and lifted her up into my arms, unable to contain my concerned surprise at how light she felt. If I had left it any longer to intervene, she might have starved herself to death.

She didn’t stir once, even when I gently laid her down in her own bed and pulled the covers over her. I wondered what she would think if she could see me hovering hesitantly over her; if she could notice how gently I positioned her on the bed, or how fondly I raised the sheets to protect her prone body from the cold the manor seemed to suffer from at this time of year.

“Master Kuja?” Manchi’s uncertain voice called softly from the doorway. “Would you like your old room to be made up for you?”

“That’s all right, Manchi. I’ll stay with her, to make sure she’s okay.”

“Very well. I’m sure Lady Faowri will appreciate that. I’ll bring some things over for you, is that okay?”

I turned and smiled at the servant. “That will be fine, thank you.”

Manchi bobbed courteously and disappeared for a moment, returning with a few warm-looking sheets, an extra pair of burning candles, and a couple of theatre books. I appreciated the thoughtfulness, but tiredness hit me like a brick wall the second the door closed for a final time, and I was too weary to read a single word.
I pulled a chair up to the bed, becoming all too keenly aware of the coldness of the room right then. However, for a moment, I was content to sit with my elbows on the high bed, watching the light from the candles playing on Faowri’s stricken features. Before I had chance to put the blankets to good use, my exhaustion must have overtaken my willpower, because the next thing I knew, I was enveloped in warm, dreamless sleep.

Lunar, you rock. Plain and simple.

Very good. I was able to catch on last night. I love it.:smiley:

AN: I’ve been avoiding this for months >.>

The chiming of a clock woke me up eventually. My head was resting on my arms, which were folded on the bed, and I had drooled on my left one – not a dignified way to start the day, let alone a paragraph.

Still, a swift glance at the offending object told me that it was only five in the morning. I’d been out for about three hours, not half as long as I needed to recuperate from the mental and physical strains of the previous day. The semi-darkness of the room was somehow comforting, but the cold certainly wasn’t. Shivering, I sat up wearily and glanced at Faowri, who hadn’t apparently moved an inch since I had last looked at her. Since she needed the sleep, I certainly wasn’t going to deprive her of it.

Blankets. Manchi had left me blankets and I wanted them before I attempted to get back to sleep. It seemed to be getting colder by the second, now that I was awake to feel the temperature.

I spied the thick sheets, folded neatly in a pile on a small dressing table a couple of metres to my left. Lying in such an awkward position had given me backache, so I took the opportunity to stretch as I scooped them up and prepared to arrange them in a way that would keep me suitably warm.

The pain started small and abruptly grew in intensity until I was forced to my knees. Of all the stupid, inconsiderate, inappropriate times . . .

I looked up. Garland’s image was standing over Faowri. His mouth was pulled to one side in a disapproving frown.

“She’s not even all that much to look at.”

“Pompous bastard,” I growled. “You keep away from her!”

Garland grinned unpleasantly. “I’d expect someone as flamboyant as you to go for a real lady, Kuja. This tomboyish mage is not what I expected at all.”

“I’d be more offended if you and I shared the same tastes in women, Garland. Besides, I don’t see what concern it is of yours.” I also couldn’t hide my apprehension at his proximity to her.

My Maker chuckled. “What’s the problem, Kuja? As much as I’d like to ‘damage’ the person who is causing you so many distractions, I’m not physically here, so I can’t.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Then what do you want?”

“To tell you that you are pushing my patience to the limit.” The old man turned to face me. “You continue to waste your time here, despite what I said to you before. Do you think I’m not taking this seriously?”

“I’m getting the job done,” I snarled. “And at my own pace. If you want it done well, you’d do well to leave me to it.”

Garland maintained his spiteful expression. “Stop pretending to be something you’re not. When this ‘Faowri’ finds out about what you really do in your spare time, she’ll hate you anyway. Hasn’t that occurred to you?”

“Then I’d best make the most of what time I have. Which was an indirect way of saying: Leave me the hell alone!”

My Maker hissed softly under his breath. Unable to resist pushing him, I grinned.

“I bet you’re pining for that second-rate Genome right now, aren’t you? Wishing it were him here instead of me? Oh, I bet you’d have loved that! A little, easy-to-manipulate puppet. One whisper of a compliment in the Second’s ear and he’d’ve licked your boots clean! Well, you need me, so you’re going to have to put up with me.”

He narrowed his eyes and straightened to his formidable height. “The Second was ten times the Angel of Death you’ll ever be.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! The little brat couldn’t zip up his own Genome suit without your guidance and approval.”

“Envy is the ugliest sin of all.”

“Oh, get out of my head! I can think of better things I could be doing right now instead of talking to you. Like gouging my eyes out with a red-hot poker, for instance.”

“Very well.” Garland smiled unnervingly, his wiry white moustache twitching at the formation of the expression. “But bear this in mind, Kuja. I have more power than you dare to think. Get yourself back in line or there will be . . .consequences.”

“You’re a walking cliché, you old fool,” I said with a sneer, but forgot his limitations when he extended his clawed, metallic fingers over Faowri’s head, and thrust them down towards her.

Without thinking, I leapt to my feet and cried out in protest. Flinging myself at the bed, Garland’s deep-throated laughter was only just dying in my ears when Faowri’s eyes snapped open with terror.

“What the hell is . . . Kuja? What are you doing?”

My hands either side of her on the bed, and my face mere inches from hers, I knew that the scene looked very messy.

“Ah . . . I had a nightmare.”

She raised an eyebrow. “And it was your turn to come to me for comfort?”

From the hoarseness and tremors of her voice, I thought she was being serious until I noticed a hint of her former cynical humour in her clouded blue eyes, and then I grinned sheepishly.

“Gut reaction,” I shrugged, and moved away from her before I did something I would probably regret.

Faowri sat up, blinking sleep from her eyes. Even in the darkness, she looked pale and worried. She noticed the chair by the bed where I had been resting and looked at me again. “You stayed with me?”

“I could scarcely leave you, the state you were in,” I responded softly.

“ . . . one of the servants could have stayed.”

“Would you have preferred that?”

“Not at all. Thank you, Kuja. For more than just that. I’m . . . sorry and embarrassed that you had to see me in such a state.”

I turned around to face her, caught the sincere remorse and discomfort in her expression, and sighed. “Not your fault, Faowri. How do you feel now?”

Abruptly, she grinned. “Hungry, actually.”

“Can’t say I’m all that surprised,” I laughed.

Faowri shivered, drawing the blankets closer to her. “It got cold all of a sudden. Now that I think of it . . .” A mischievous expression formed on her face. “I can’t remember the last time I snuck down to the kitchens to grab a midnight snack.”

“I’m presuming that sort of thing is forbidden?”

“Well, the chef is very territorial when it comes to the kitchen. He insists that everything in it be touched by himself and his staff alone. But I always used to creep down there when I was a child. The fact that it was forbidden was half the fun, I suppose. Well, are you up for it?”

Her smile was daring, and I echoed it. “If the Lady wishes to be fed . . .”

“She does. Quite emphatically.”

“Then lead the way!”

Yay, two of my favorite stories updated in two days! I’s is happy! ^^

Looking great, Lunar. :cool:

Wohoo, update! :slight_smile: Nice job, LC!

AN: >.> I neglect this fic so badly. One day, it will be finished. I swear. Honest! Thanks for all the comments and stuff so far :slight_smile:

This was her way of dealing with the grief. I knew that, but played along anyway, because she wanted . . . needed to be strong. It was a part of her character, that bold, almost cocky confidence. She had to hold onto it to get through her loss.

Her assumption that I could appreciate the irony of this situation, with reference to the childish antics of a pair of adults, pained me somewhat. Doing what was forbidden was not new to me, but doing it for fun was. Besides, I’d always had much more at risk than a simple reprimand. Garland would most likely have used any excuse to kill me if he hadn’t needed me alive to do his work for him, once the Second was out of the way.

Faowri remained blissfully unaware of this as she urged me to follow her down the carpeted staircase, carrying a single candle to fend off the thick darkness enveloping us. We reached the main hall without so much as a creak, and the mage nodded towards the kitchens. Once inside, she set the candle on a low table and began to furtively rummage around in the nearest cupboards. I stood by the candle, trying to gain as much heat from it as I could and watching her as she made herself the fastest sandwich I had ever seen prepared.

It was funny; I had always imagined aristocrats to have delicate culinary skills, but Faowri was rough, careless and speedy in her activities. Then again, if aristocrats had chefs to cook their meals, why would they ever need to learn how to cook?

“You want anything?” she hissed.

I shook my head. Shrugging, she perched herself on the table and ravenously began to consume the sandwich. I watched with deep fascination. Finishing it in a matter of minutes, she then licked each finger clean, one by one.

“You have some interesting little habits,” I grinned.

Pausing, Faowri looked at me. “You’re one to talk!”

“. . . I don’t have any habits.”

“You do, too! You do that, that, that hair-flick thing.” She demonstrated with one hand, brushing her hair back from her face and simultaneously swinging her head in the same direction.

“I do not!” I laughed, and to my extreme disgust, did exactly what I had just been accused of doing on a regular basis.

Faowri pressed a finger to her lips, suppressing a chuckle of her own. “Hush! Lady of the house or not, the chef will kick my arse if he finds me in here. Let’s go.”

“Back to the bedroom?”

“No, it’s too cold upstairs. Come with me!”

She grabbed my hand in one of hers, and the candle in the other, and dragged me out of the kitchen, surveying it once before leaving to make sure that everything still looked the way it had before we had intruded. Once out in the main hall yet again, Faowri pushed me in the direction of a simple, non-descript door.

“Go in there and start the fire up. I’ll be back in a minute,” she whispered, handing me the candle. Her footfalls almost silent on the thick carpets, she disappeared into the gloom near the stairs.

Puzzled, I nonetheless pushed the door open. Beyond lay a large sitting room – my eyes had adjusted to the darkness by now, and I could make out an overly grand fireplace at the end. A furry, expensive-looking rug sat in front of it. Strangely enough, the actual chairs were fairly far back from this main feature. Shrugging, I moved towards the fireplace, happy to see fresh logs already in place.

There was an antique lighter, unoriginally dragon-shaped, wedged in the poker rack. I removed it, aimed it at the logs, and stoked the fire. By the time the door creaked open to allow Faowri access, it was blazing nicely, and I was squatting in front of it, relishing the warmth. I turned back to her and raised my eyebrows to see her struggling with a heavy blanket. It was apparently caught on the doorframe.

“Oh, come on, you bastard,” I heard her mutter, to my complete astonishment, and then hurried over to her when the blanket obeyed her commands, snapped free of the lintel and sent her flying backwards into an ornate dresser.

“What are you doing?” I hissed, crouching beside her.

Faowri sat up, rubbing her head, and clapped a hand over my mouth, listening intently for any indication that her antics had alerted the other residents of the house. After a few moments of silence, she breathed a sigh of relief and motioned towards the fireplace.

“Why are you so concerned about them anyway?” I asked after we’d been sitting in front of the flames for a long moment. “It’s not like they can tell you off. It’s your manor.”

Faowri shivered. The mage had the heavy blanket around her shoulders. She’d already offered to share it and I had declined.

“I don’t like being mollycoddled,” she announced. “They worry about me too much. And they’ve probably slept as little as I have lately. Let’s give them a break.”

“I’m sorry, Faowri. I know how close you two were . . .”

“I knew it was going to happen. He knew it was going to happen. I should’ve been more prepared, but I . . . I just snapped. I couldn’t face it . . .” She sighed briskly. “But it doesn’t matter. His death isn’t what bothers me so much, however cold that sounds.”

I looked up at her. “Oh?”

“His will . . . is quite conclusive.” She hugged her knees to her chest, appearing quite frail in the firelight. “I know someone had to stay here to look after the family assets but I never wanted to be an aristocrat. I want to be a red mage. My apprenticeship finishes soon, and I can earn my mastery, but . . .”

“ . . . but?”

“I can’t continue if I have to stay here. I’d have to quit.”

Faowri? Quitting? The idea was so preposterous that it was little wonder she disliked it so much.

“However . . . there is another option open to me.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And what’s that?”

“I can split the inheritance, share the burden with someone else, who can take care of things when I’m away studying and performing my duties as a red mage.”

“Wait a second . . . you’re thinking of me, aren’t you? Faowri, I –”

“Well, I was rather hoping you’d consider it,” she admitted slowly. “It would have to be someone my father would approve of. I guess you could say I’ve been grooming you, in a way, for the part, ever since you fell through my roof.”

“You mean . . . you’ve planned this from the start?” I half-laughed. “Well, that was mighty presumptuous of you, wasn’t it?”

“Please, Kuja.” Faowri turned her blue eyes on me, not exactly pleadingly, but not far from that description either. “I don’t want to stay cooped up forever in this place. If we’re accepted as partners then –”

“Partners? You’re not . . . you’re not asking me to . . . you aren’t offering marriage, are you?”

Faowri stared at me for a long second, and then burst into a fit of laughter. Tears streamed down her face as she fought for breath, clutching her sides in agony. I stared at her with wide eyes and a jaw that had hit the floor some time ago until she managed to overcome the convulsions.

“Kuja, you kill me!” she wheezed, wiping water from her eyes and cheeks. “I didn’t mean anything so serious! The look on your face . . .” Faowri almost started again, her shoulders trembling with laughter.

“Oh, stop it!” I hissed, flapping a hand at her.

“What I meant was”, she continued after she had caught her breath back, “sort of like business partners. You sign your name to a document, and you have complete access to my family’s assets. There’s plenty of it, and you can use it for whatever you wish, for whatever little secret agenda you have going that I am not privy to. That is what will benefit you. And I know father would have approved of you . . .”

“That’s why you made sure I spent time with him.”

She sniffed. “Yes. I . . . I didn’t mean to do this behind your back but I couldn’t face the thought of being stuck here alone. So many ghosts and bad memories . . . but you don’t have to. I’m a big girl, now, I can . . . I can take it.”

A single tear streaked down her cheek, and she irritably wiped it away.

I sighed, and smiled as I turned to face her. “Faowri, of course I’ll do it.”

She blinked. “You will?”

“As long as you understand that I can’t be here all the time . . .”

“Oh, I know, I understand, you don’t have to be . . .” Her face broke out in a smile and she leapt on me, throwing her arms around my shoulders. In my ear, she whispered: “Thank you.”

I found myself unable to resist returning the embrace, and used the short time to simply relax in her close company. The top of her head was in my view, and I noted with surprise, now that her hat was absent from it, that her exploits into red magerie were already taking effect on her – the roots of her ebony hair were whitening. Fairly soon, all the black would be bleached away. Absently, I wondered if my affinity for magic was the reason for my own odd hair colour, but I doubted it. Genomes simply weren’t the same as humans, no matter how similar our appearances were.

I coughed after that moment’s reflection, and Faowri sheepishly let go of me. However, she didn’t move quite so far away this time. We were quiet for some time.

Her snort of laughter broke the spell.

“Marriage,” she giggled, and punched me playfully on the arm. “Who’d want to marry you?”