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Thread: A Little Opposition (Slayers) - Complete

  1. #1
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    Default A Little Opposition (Slayers) - Complete

    Rating: PG-PG-13
    Fandom: Slayers
    Genre: Romance/Comedy
    Status: Complete
    Pairing: Zelgadis/Amelia, Lina/Gourry

    Summary: Phil decides that some reverse psychology might be in order to get his daughter and Zelgadis together and enlisted Lina and Gourry to help him.

    Author’s Note: To new readers: welcome! To readers of Oracle's Wish: welcome back! I'm very excited to start this brand new Zelgadis/Amelia (and Lina/Gourry) story and I hope you enjoy it as well. This takes place after TRY but makes no reference to Revolution as I haven't seen it yet. Also posted up on my fanfiction.net account.

    ---

    A Little Opposition

    Chapter 1. An Important Matter.


    Seyruun City–the white magic capital of the world! The Big Starfruit, as it is locally known. Whatever you want to call it, Lina, Gourry, and Zelgadis were fast approaching it as they crossed over a grassy hill. The rural setting they were passing through, replete with haystacks and bored looking cows, seemed downright strange when you considered that a massive city block lay just ahead. But a massive city block needs feeding after all.

    “Man, I can’t wait until we’re at the castle,” Lina said, easing a crick out of her neck. “I deserve to sleep like royalty. None of this sleeping in ditches crap we’ve had to deal with the last few days.”

    “We wouldn’t have had to sleep in any ditches if you hadn’t blown up that tavern,” Zelgadis reminded her irritably.

    “Aw, come on,” Gourry said. “You know how she gets when they’re stingy with the portions.”

    “That’s no excuse for lobbing fireballs at innocent waiters!” Zelgadis exclaimed. “Massive property damage costs money. That’s why we don’t have any!”

    “Don’t worry about it,” Lina said with a casual shrug. “We can probably beg some money off of Amelia.”

    “Oh, that sounds nice,” Zelgadis said, crossing his arms. “‘Hi, Amelia! How’ve you been? Can we have some money?’”

    “I wasn’t going to put it like that,” Lina said sourly, turning a sharp eye in his direction. “What are you so bent out of shape about, anyway? Aren’t you looking forward to seeing Amelia?”

    Zelgadis looked off to the side, but Lina noted the blush. “It’s not that,” he said. “I just don’t understand why we’re going to Seyruun in the first place. It’s not as though we’re likely to find my cure or a new sword for Gourry there. We don’t have time for social calls.”

    Lina didn’t really see why they didn’t. It wasn’t as though Zelgadis was getting any more chimeric, and Gourry was doing alright without a super-special one-of-a-kind magical sword. It wasn’t like anyone was after them at the moment beyond a few irate waiters and all-you-can-eat buffet owners, and they don’t really count after all.

    “If we’re going to figure out where we’re going to go next and what we’re going to do then we might as well do it in a place where we can get free rooms and food,” she pointed out sensibly.

    “I guess,” Zelgadis said glumly.

    “And don’t even pretend you’re not psyched about seeing Amelia again,” Lina said slyly, sidling up to him and elbowing him in the side in a way that warned him that he wasn’t going to like whatever came next. “I know you always have that little keepsake she gave you close by.”

    “I–That’s not even—,” Zelgadis began nonsensically. Damn it. How did Lina know about the bracelet? He’d always kept it hidden. Amelia had probably told her before she’d even given it to him with an energetic and only slightly anxious “so you don’t forget me while you’re out traveling the world!” he thought glumly. Girls are like that.

    I mean, he thought, what was I supposed to do: not take it? He’d already snubbed her offer to stay in Seyruun with her for awhile and refusing to hold on to a bracelet would’ve been downright mean. It wasn’t like it was any trouble. And it actually did remind him of her. …Which was oddly irritating. Alright, sometimes it was nice. But it just seemed like ransacking temples and breaking into libraries wasn’t as much fun as it was before they’d parted last.

    If he was going to be totally honest with himself, which he didn’t even necessarily want to do, he was aware that Amelia had a somewhat… special regard for him. And well, just occasionally, in high-stress moments where death was close at hand, he acknowledged that she was somewhat… different from the others. At least to him.

    On the subconscious basis that if these two acknowledged but unspoken truths in some way crisscrossed there could conceivably be… well awkwardness and all those other social problems that come with deeply entrenched relationships, he’d decided to completely avoid this issue (and, where that failed, ignore it) until the whole thing worked itself out. He was dazzlingly tactical that way.

    Because this went on somewhere under the radar, he was always surprised at himself in how much he tried to avoid Amelia after they’d been separated for awhile. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Amelia or anything. She had her quirks, the same as Lina and Gourry, but she was a great person to be around. Unlike the other two, she actually cared about his quest to regain his human form. Lina and Gourry had some sympathy, but Lina mostly went along with him because she had some other errand that ran alongside his goal, and Gourry went along because Lina went along. Amelia possessed actual compassion. She took on other people’s problems.

    Which would’ve made her an ideal traveling companion during his search. And they had traveled together for awhile… but for some reason he always put up a gigantic fight against it. His arguments generally consisted of this being “his problem” and her “just getting in the way”. Once he’d actually lost these exchanges, traveling with her was fine. She was helpful. Depressingly cheerful, but helpful.

    And it was the same thing with the visits. He felt he would never be able to just come by on a social call. He had to have some purpose in going to Seyruun. Sometimes even then he’d make an excuse to avoid seeing her. Something about her wealth and connections just slowing him down? It certainly didn’t make any sense when you thought about it clearly.

    But again, once he actually stopped by, he wondered why he’d made such a big deal of it in the first place. Amelia was nice, obliging, and sympathetic. She rarely asked anything in return for helping him… she rarely asked anything at all (and when she did, she seemed to already expect her request to be turned down).

    He supposed, in the more well-lit areas of his conscious, that it was down to a certain amount of pride. Sure, he’d worn make-up, dressed up as a woman and as a rabbit, stolen, peeled potatoes, and worked for no end of crazy people all in the name of his goal. But… even those slightly questionable practices seemed more prideful in his mind than just asking for help. And, in any case, he didn’t need Amelia around to distract him from his quest.

    …Not that I find Amelia distracting, Zelgadis thought slowly, with the hunted feeling that something from the back of his mind had just tried to slip to the front.

    But yes, he’d just have to get over this bizarre instinct to avoid Amelia. It wasn’t like he tried to avoid her when she was actually around. And it was, he reflected with a guilty twinge, somewhat mean to pass through Seyruun without talking to her. Whenever he did he felt terrible for days.

    “That’s not even what?” Lina asked, as it became increasingly clear that Zelgadis wasn’t going to come back from his reverie without prompting.

    Zelgadis felt a mental slap send him back into the real world. He took a second to focus on the conversation he’d been having before he’d gone on that little tangent and, once he’d figured out what she was asking, he scowled at her and said: “Any of your business.”

    “Fine,” Lina said with a sniff. “But you could at least stop ignoring her. How do you think it makes her feel when you do that?”

    “I don’t ignore her,” Zelgadis scoffed. The scoffing didn’t work though. Lina gave him such an unconvinced look that he might as well have been a silhouette caught in a spotlight.

    “We’ll see,” Lina said in a significant way that meant: we’ll see me being right!

    *****

    “Miss Lina!” Amelia called out, seeing her trio of friends approaching across the drawbridge and racing towards them.

    “Hey, Amelia!” Lina said. “How’s it going?”

    “Good,” Amelia affirmed as she reached them. “What are you all doing here?”

    “Just passing through and thought we’d visit,” Lina said, an idle hand scratching her head as she chose to avoid the whole out-of-money issue.

    Amelia sighed. “I wish I could’ve gone with you guys,” she said. “It’s been too long. But…”

    “Gotta do important princess-like stuff?” Gourry asked.

    Amelia nodded grimly. “Daddy wants me to be more involved in the leadership process,” she said.

    Princess, Zelgadis thought, hanging back somewhat behind Gourry and pointedly not drawing attention to himself. It was so easy to forget that she was a princess. She certainly didn’t act like any princess Zelgadis had ever heard of. Surely princesses weren’t supposed to climb trees and punch demons to a quivering pulp. No, they were supposed to do things like attend cotillions and… and… Zelgadis groped uncertainly here, sleep on a mattress with a pea underneath it? Something like that.

    Not that Zelgadis really wanted her to be the ball gown and glass slipper type. It wouldn’t work. She always wanted to play the hero, but she’d been born into a role that tended to lean toward the damsel in distress. It probably all came down to that famous Seyruun family craziness. As far as he could tell Amelia was the most well-adjusted of the bunch, which was sad.

    “And how are you doing, Mister Zelgadis?” Amelia asked, looking beyond Gourry to him with a smile. It should have been an ingratiating, slightly pitying smile. He was doing exactly what Lina had said he would… hanging back, not acknowledging her. The smile should have been a polite and slightly condescending nudge that socially well-adjusted people greet one another after a long parting. It wasn’t though. It was a sincere smile. “It’s so nice to see you again!”

    “I’m fine,” he said grudgingly, as always slightly uncomfortable with the fact that his presence seemed to make her happy unconditionally.

    “Miss Lina?” boomed a mighty voice as the towering figure of Prince Phil stomped across the bridge to greet them.

    “Phil!” Lina shouted after sighting him. “What’s up?”

    “Nothing too major,” Phil said with a jovial smile as he reached them. “We’ve been lucky; things have been pretty quiet lately.”

    Quiet around Seyruun was something to be grateful for. There was always the completely correct sense that it wasn’t going to last and should be enjoyed while available. What with royal family feuds, explosions from the magical quadrants, philosophers challenging each other to fisticuffs in the streets, and the fact that several of the surrounding nations hadn’t necessarily adopted Phil’s policy of pacifism and kept trying to nudge Seyruun into conflict… well… there always seemed to be some major catastrophe lurking around the corner. Phil was a great ruler for the most part, but he didn’t always help this. He’d been reading which is no good in a monarch. Going on about the rights of man is one thing, but a ruler encouraging civil unrest is quite another.

    “I was actually hoping you all’d come around soon,” Phil said. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk with you about.”

    “Does it involve a reward?” Lina asked, with money-bags glinting in her eyes.

    “A good deed is its own reward,” Phil countered virtuously.

    Lina deflated and gave him a sharp look. “What good deed?” she asked flatly.

    Phil looked around. “I’d prefer we didn’t talk about it in the open. You understand.”

    “Sure,” Lina said, thinking it must be another snatch for the crown.

    Phil headed toward the door with Lina, Gourry, Zelgadis and Amelia trailing behind. Suddenly Phil turned back and gave Zelgadis and Amelia a worried look. “Actually,” he said awkwardly. “This is something I have to discuss with Miss Lina and Mister Gourry privately.”

    Amelia and Zelgadis exchanged looks and tried not to feel snubbed. Amelia’s suspicion turned back in on itself to cheer at her friends’ arrival. “That’s okay, I guess,” she said, shrugging off whatever secrets her father wanted to keep from her until such time as he chose to reveal them. “I wanted to show Mister Zelgadis the new courtyard they’ve set up by the cleric’s quarters. It’s really nice.”

    “No!” Phil shouted so suddenly he made them all jump. He coughed and got a hold of himself. “No,” he said more calmly. “You’ve got permits to approve for the road-works commission.”

    “I can do that later,” Amelia said with a wave of her hand. “There’s plenty of time.”

    “Sight-seeing is not a priority,” Phil said in that special father-voice that isn’t quite harsh, but will get there if it’s not heeded. “You’ll have to do the permits before anything else.”

    “But they just got here!” Amelia exclaimed, realizing with the bitter tinge of unfairness that she wasn’t going to get her way.

    “Your duties as a princess of Seyruun come first,” Phil reminded her.

    Amelia looked like she was going to start pouting, so Zelgadis did his best to defuse the situation. “It’s alright,” he said. “I wanted to check out the library anyway.”

    He had. Seyruun was a focal point of learning and deep thought on the continent. Therefore it had some of the best libraries. And, of course, the royal family could afford the very best collections of books. He’d been through the royal library before, but it was so expansive that he probably hadn’t even been able to tour of tenth of it. On those dusty shelves might sit the book that contained the lead he was looking for… the cure to his body.

    He had wanted to go to the library. He hadn’t wanted to stroll around some stupid courtyard looking at the shrubberies and stone angels and whatnot. When Amelia had suggested it, he’d groaned inwardly. But yet… he couldn’t help feeling a little bothered that Phil had shut out the option just like that. It seemed odd. Were road-works permits really so time-sensitive and important? He doubted it. What was wrong with Amelia showing him the grounds?

    Something was up with Phil and he wasn’t sure what. All he knew was that, at least at the moment, it was something he wanted to keep from him and Amelia.

    Lina and Gourry followed Phil with great curiosity. Well, Lina followed with curiosity; Gourry just kind of ambled along with an expression of good-natured ignorance, which might look like curiosity to the untrained eye. Amelia risked a worried second-glance back at Zelgadis.

    “Well, I guess I’ll see you later then,” she said, and then headed off to one of the many chambers that lined the castle hallways.

    “Yeah,” Zelgadis said vaguely. He plodded off in the direction of the library, finding to his great annoyance that he had absolutely no interest in books anymore and couldn’t help but thinking that a stroll around the gardens might have done him some good.

    *****

    “Excuse me? Miss Lina?” Phil raised his voice over the sound of relentless mastication from the other two at the table. “Do you think we could talk about the matter I wanted to discuss now?”

    The sound like a chainsaw tearing into something fleshy ceased as Lina put down her fork. “C’mon, Phil,” she said, picking at her teeth with a toothpick. “We just got here. Me and Gourry are starving! Right, Gourry?”

    “You said it,” Gourry said, slightly incomprehensibly into a drumstick.

    “But you’ve eaten five chickens already!” Phil said helplessly.

    “Yes,” Lina said, fairly weighing this accusation, “but they were very small chickens.”

    “Please, this is important,” Phil said beseechingly.

    “Alright,” Lina said, sitting up and looking suddenly interested. “So what is it? Is there another tussle going on for the crown? Is someone trying to tip poison in your ear as soon as you fall asleep? Is there someone going around who looks just like you that’s claiming to be the real prince of Seyruun? Are vampires squatting in your castle?”

    Phil looked at her dumbstruck, perhaps becoming aware that his problems weren’t so big in the grand scheme of things.

    “Geez, Lina. Just let him talk,” Gourry said.

    Lina gave Gourry a sulky look. She liked guessing.

    Phil cleared his throat. “Actually, it has to do with your friend: Mister Zelgadis.”

    “What about Zel?” Lina said, sipping her glass of wine.

    Phil looked around awkwardly, as though trying to communicate nebulous concepts in as few words as possible. “My daughter… talks about him quite a lot.”

    “Ah,” Lina said. She had a pretty good idea where this was going, but wasn’t entirely sure what Phil’s take on it was so she figured it would be best to wait it out.

    “I was wondering if you knew, because you’re his friend,” Phil went on: “how does Mister Zelgadis… feel about my Amelia?”

    Lina set down her glass and gave her response due consideration. “I think,” she said deliberately, “that he likes her.” When no negative cloud came from Phil, she went on: “But he’s just not the kind of person to go forward with something like that very quick. I don’t know if you’d call it shy, or just plain anti-social, but there you go.” Lina allowed herself some smugness here. She’d never be standoffish like that.

    Phil nodded solemnly. “I thought it might be something like that,” he said.

    He steepled his fingers in front of him in a serious gesture that was only slightly marred as Gourry started to choke on a chicken bone. Lina thumped him on the back absentmindedly as Phil launched onward: “The thing is… I approve.”

    Lina looked dumbly at him as Gourry coughed pitifully from her side. “You do?” was all she managed to get out. Not every kingdom would be anxious to have a chimera marrying into the royal family. And let’s face it, she thought, Zel didn’t have a perfect track record when it came to the law. To be fair, neither did Lina, but she wasn’t cozying up to anyone of royal blood. And if Phil was cool with it then what had that thing with the courtyard been all about? Just… just what?

    “Why not?” Phil asked. “He’s overcome many obstacles to fight on the side of justice. From what my daughter says he’s very intelligent and strong-willed. He seems quite solid and dependable.”

    Rock solid, Lina couldn’t help but thinking weakly. Phil forgets that not every one of his subjects is as open-minded about appearances as he is.

    “And,” Phil went on deliberately, “my daughter loves him and that is good enough for me.”

    Lina stared for a moment, and then grinned slowly. Good ol’ Phil.

    “But I’m worried,” Phil said. “Amelia says that he is very focused on his quest to return to his human form, and she doesn’t think he’ll ever have time for her until he’s done that. But it’s very possible that that might never happen.”

    Lina nodded. Zel was downright obsessed, and someone as single-minded as him wouldn’t be about to settle down and worry about love with something like that on his plate.

    “And if that happens my poor daughter will suffer as well,” Phil went on. “You might not understand this, but a girl’s heart is fragile.”

    Lina bristled. She was a girl too!

    “And when one as pure-hearted as my daughter Amelia gives her heart to someone, she’ll never give it to another,” Phil finished.

    “So why the rush?” Lina said, still just slightly edgy from the shot at the relative fragileness of her heart. “Who knows? Maybe Zel will finally give up on his quest and decide to settle down. Maybe he’ll actually find his cure and settle down. If you just wait long enough—”

    “I’m in a bit of a difficult political position,” Phil cut in. “You see, Amelia’s getting close to marriageable age.”

    As far as Lina was aware, Amelia was a year younger than her. Either she was way off or something was wrong with that arithmetic. “Seventeen is marriageable age?” she asked disbelievingly.

    Phil sighed. “It is when you’re a princess. See, a marriage also acts as a political arrangement. It facilitates unions of land. And the kingdom of Seyruun is quite powerful. I’ve already received several letters from princes, dukes, and counts all asking for my Amelia’s hand in marriage.”

    Lina blanched. Amelia was already getting multiple marriage proposals, while she, Lina, was only asked out by greasy men wearing eye patches? Life was hideously unfair.

    “I won’t sign my dear daughter’s freedom off to some stranger for political expediency no matter who his family is,” Phil said firmly. “But I can only stall them off for so long, and they won’t be happy with refusals.”

    Lina thought about it. It was true, Phil must’ve be under a great deal of political pressure. If he chose to deny all the marriage requests, the would-be suitors could take offense and when royals take offense you’re in for a world of hurt. So Phil was being forced to play the waiting game and hope Zelgadis would get his act together eventually. She couldn’t blame him for wanting to speed up the process a little. It wasn’t like Amelia had to get married right away, but an engagement would at least stop the suitors from hounding at her door.

    “So… what do you want to do?” Lina asked. Her only idea consisted of creating some bizarre rule about only marrying the youngest daughter after the oldest was married. She was really hoping that Phil could top this. But she wasn’t sure what they could do to get Zelgadis to spontaneously decide that romance was more important than finding a cure for his body. It would probably be a bit more complicated than just shoving them both in a closet together and locking the door for a few hours. Anyway, that was probably a bit of an indelicate suggestion to make to Amelia’s father.

    “I was thinking that in a case like this,” Phil said with a mustachioed smile, “a little opposition might do the trick better than anything.”

  2. #2
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    Chapter 2. Practically Asking For It.

    “Opposition?” Lina repeated, nibbling at her corn in a gesture that bespoke both curiosity and peckishness. “What are you talking about?”

    “Have you ever noticed that young people like to flout authority for no other reason than a desire to be contrary?” Phil asked.

    “No we don’t!” Lina spat back, standing up angrily on automatic. Then a thought struck her. “…Oh.” She sat back down. “You may have a point,” she said sullenly. “Go on.”

    “I was remembering a time when I was just a young boy,” Phil said, looking off into the distance through the curtains of dewy-eyed nostalgia. “I knew this girl who was the head maid’s daughter. For the life of me, I can’t remember her name now.”

    “What does this have to do with opposition?” Lina asked impatiently, wondering if they were going to have to go through an entire flashback before Phil would get to the point.

    “I’m getting to that,” Phil said. “Anyway, this girl and I were just playmates, nothing more. But then, one day, my Aunt Myrtle took me aside and forbid me to see her because she didn’t think it was right for me to associate with commoners.”

    “Uh-huh,” Lina said. Imagining Phil as a child took some doing. She was pretty sure her mental image was less than accurate considering he still had his moustache.

    “Well, I’d never thought of this girl in any way other than a friend until that point,” Phil explained. “But as soon as my aunt forbade me, I couldn’t get her out of my head.” He tapped his head knowingly. “It’s like reverse psychology, y’see?”

    “Whatever happened to the girl?” Gourry asked.

    “Oh, Aunt Myrtle sent the girl and her mother away to serve a distant cousin in Erosha,” Phil said offhandedly. “But that was many years ago. Still,” he frowned, “I never did like Aunt Myrtle.”

    “So, what you’re saying is,” Lina said slowly, endeavoring to bring them back to the point which was not the story of Prince Phil’s first heartache, “if Zel thinks that he could tell Amelia how he feels at any time: he won’t. But if he suddenly feels like the path is going to be closed off to him: he’ll want to?”

    “That’s right,” Prince Phil said. “What do you think?”

    Lina shrugged. “It’s probably worth a try. Zel’s a pretty willful guy. I could see something like that working on him.”

    “So what’re you gonna do?” Gourry asked, trying to follow the conversation. “Just start shouting things like: ‘Stay away from my daughter?’”

    Lina clucked her tongue in distaste. “Probably something a little more subtle than that, Gourry.”

    “Yes,” Phil said, steepling his fingers and looking over them. “Something along those lines. For this plan to work, I must play the part of an ogre.”

    Lina gave him a sidelong glance. Looks-wise it wasn’t such a stretch. “You okay with that?”

    “For my daughter Amelia I will play the part of an ogre willingly!” Phil declared.

    “That’s sweet and all,” Lina said. “But she’ll probably be pretty mad at you while you’re doing all that shouting at Zel.”

    “It’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.”

    “So…” Gourry said, scratching at his shaggy blonde hair, “what do you need us for?”

    Lina’s eyes widened in the customary surprise that always came whenever Gourry asked a good question. Sometimes being simple is a good thing: you don’t get all distracted.

    “If this plan doesn’t work, I’ll have alienated the man my daughter loves,” Phil said gravely. “I need this to work. I’m not taking any chances and I want to have you two on my side to help things along. Can you do that?”

    Lina sat back in the chair and looked at the ceiling thoughtfully. It wasn’t what she generally thought of as an “important” mission. Slaying demons? Sure; Breaking up royal coups? Alright; Searching for treasure? Any day of the week. But… matters of the heart? Now that was a tricky subject. And anyway, if Zel found out he’d be really really pissed off at them.

    On the other hand, she could definitely see the political position Phil was being put in. And, honestly, it couldn’t be more clear to Lina how her friends felt each other. Yet they felt the need to be so astonishingly stupid about it. Instead of just coming out and being honest about their feelings they had to tip-toe around the subject and get all flustered and awkward about it. What was the deal with that? It’s not like there was any point in shuffling around.

    “Hey, Lina?” Gourry said, suddenly looking pensively at her and invading her personal space bubble.

    You gotta watch Gourry when he starts asking questions. Sometimes he gets on a roll, Lina thought. Perhaps he’s thought of something basic that I was jumping too far ahead to notice. “What?”

    He squinted at her close. “You got a little something there,” he said, gesturing vaguely to his own face.

    Lina resisted the urge to slam her face violently against the table. Damn it, Gourry!

    “Here, let me get it,” Gourry said, taking up his own napkin and dipping it into his glass of water. He was brushing the cold cloth lightly against her cheek before she had a chance to react. After a moment in which Gourry felt absolutely no apprehension but Lina suffered an overdose of conflicting signals, Gourry smiled and said: “It’s gone now.”

    Lina would be prepared to swear on a stack of bibles (Claire or otherwise) that her face did not turn bright red. She did however, shout: “Don’t treat me like I’m six!” and whack his hand away before slamming his face down towards the table.

    “I was just trying to help,” Gourry said helplessly into the soup he’d landed in.

    There was a panicked scurrying of half-thoughts in Lina’s head for a moment that went something like: How could he—? What does he—? Does he even think of—? He doesn’t! You know he doesn’t even think about… nothing. Nothing at all. No.

    Where were we?

    Oh right. Zelgadis and Amelia.
    Lina calmed as she returned back to her original line of thought. The point was, she’d probably be doing them a favor by getting them together. It was going to happen anyway, at least by all rights it should happen. If they were too immature to deal with this themselves then they were practically asking for a push.

    And yes, she didn’t gain anything directly by getting them together. But, well… they were her friends. And it wasn’t like she was particularly busy doing anything else at the moment. Plus she was downright sick of Zelgadis’s gloom. Maybe Amelia would be able to cheer him up a little and get him to quit his very likely doomed quest for a cure.

    “Alright,” Lina said. “I suppose we can at least give it a shot while we’re staying here anyway.”

    “Oh, thank you, Miss Lina! Thank you!” Phil said heartily. “You won’t regret this!”

    Funny, as soon as he said that Lina felt like she’d just signed onto something that would turn into a colossal mess. It was probably all that reverse psychology mumbo jumbo.

    *****

    “So… what are we supposed to do, anyway?” Gourry asked, walking with his hands behind his head as they made their way down the hall to the Royal Library to meet up with Zelgadis some time later.

    Lina rolled her eyes. “We’re matchmakers, Gourry,” she explained.

    Gourry gave this some thought. “Do we have to wear diapers and shoot people?”

    “I don’t think that’s compulsory,” Lina said vaguely. She was getting a headache.

    “What?!” Gourry said, staring at her in confused surprise.

    Lina sighed. Small words. You gotta use small words. “I mean: no.”

    “Oh,” Gourry said, relaxing. “Okay.”

    They walked on in the companionable silence that occurred while Gourry’s few remaining brain cells buzzed and smoked in the effort of cognition, and Lina valiantly hoped that whatever he’d say next would be more in the order of the holy fool and not just the extremely annoying fool.

    “So… do you really think this is the right thing to do?” he asked.

    “What do you mean?”

    “Well, like…” Gourry shifted his weight awkwardly, “….I mean, shouldn’t we just leave Zel and Amelia alone? They’re gonna be mad if we try to trick them.”

    Lina shook her head. “That may be true,” she allowed, “but I say it’s practically our duty to push them a little. C’mon, you know the two of them. They’ll never act on their own.” She threw her hands up dramatically into the air. “They’d be perfectly content to just go around traveling together for the rest of their lives keeping everything a secret and purposefully avoiding talking about it whenever the subject comes up.”

    She rubbed her chin and looked thoughtful. “Y’know, it’s probably because they’re scared to be in a relationship. Because they definitely do like each other. Huh. So that’s it: they’re just a couple of cowards.”

    Lina felt she was really onto something at this point. She turned to Gourry and said, “Remember back when we were all at that fake temple of marriage? Amelia and Zelgadis were all upset about the pairings but they wouldn’t say why they were really upset. They blamed it on other things. That just proves that they’ve been avoiding the issue all this time!” Lina looked proud of herself. This psychology stuff was really very easy when you got right down to it.

    Gourry reacted to her brilliance with a less-than-convinced expression.“I don’t know, Lina,” he said. “It kinda seemed like everyone was mad at that temple thingy except me. I mean, it’s not like you were avoiding something, right?”

    “I—Well—” Lina began. She took a moment, regained her zeal for her argument, and then fired back: “That’s different. You wouldn’t even know. You were spending all your time getting lost in the dark.”

    “And hey,” she added with a sniff, “since when do you remember things that took place more than a week ago?”

    Gourry shrugged. “I don’t know. How come you get mad at me both when I remember stuff and when I forget stuff?”

    Lina gave him a sharp look. “Anyway,” she said through clenched teeth. “That’s not the point. The point is that getting Zel and Amelia together is practically our duty. We are they’re friends after all and we should want them to be happy.”

    “That’s awfully nice of you, Lina,” Gourry commented. There was only the slightest suggestion of distrust in this statement that Lina would’ve noticed if she’d been paying the least bit of attention.

    “Yeah, and think about how well connected we’d be if they got married,” Lina went on. You probably get to be a countess or something when you’re best friends with the King and Queen, she thought. And that comes with a castle. She deserved her own castle.

    “Oh,” was all Gourry said. He’d known her for a long time and wasn’t at all surprised. Lina Inverse always needed a selfish reason to do the right thing.

    *****

    Zelgadis sat amidst a pile of books. Sure, the shelved sections of the library were easier to navigate, but the stacks were where you found real information. The shelved areas were replete with go-to reference books that were needed on a frequent basis by the castle residents. If you wanted the weird, the rare, and the downright obscure then the stacks were where you wanted to be.

    Of course, he realized as he shut a book with a fading cover that turned out to be about leaf mold, the problem was that almost all the information had no use to him and was arranged in no particular order.

    Oh well, he thought, I’ll just have to keep looking. With that he reached for the next book in the pile.

    “Find anything?” a cheerful voice asked from behind him.

    Zelgadis didn’t even have to turn around. “No,” he said. He set down the book which seemed to be the biography of Empress of Tai-hu. “I thought you were supposed to be signing permits or something,” he said, turning toward her.

    “Oh, that,” Amelia said, making a face. “I can do that anytime. I really don’t know what got into Daddy.”

    “He was acting pretty weird,” Zelgadis agreed.

    “I wonder what he wanted to talk to Miss Lina and Mister Gourry about,” Amelia said.

    Zelgadis shrugged. “They’ll probably tell us later.” He reached for another book and let his eyes flick between it and Amelia. “You know, it sounds like Phil’s not going to be happy if he finds out you snuck out on work.”

    “Yeah, but there are much more important things than that right now,” Amelia said, fishing in her pockets. She pulled out a crumpled, ink-stained piece of paper and passed it to him. “Here,” she said. “It’s probably not any help, but I wanted to try.”

    Zelgadis took the paper and inspected it curiously. It was a note-sheet. There were a lot of crossings out and question marks, but Amelia’s neat handwriting was quite legible. It contained notes on a lot of different things. Zelgadis recognized some phrases. “The Temple of Arkhuras” for example, was a temple he’d “visited” (and by visited, he meant broken into and ransacked) a few months ago in search of a tome that was supposed to contain lost magic techniques. And “The Fountain of Time” was a myth he’d researched extensively a year ago and found to be a dead end.

    He looked up at her. “This is…”

    “You probably already know about everything I found,” Amelia said nervously, “but I wanted to help if I could. So I spent a lot of time in the library. I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to get this to you since I didn’t know where you were to write.”

    Zelgadis looked at her, dumbfounded. From what he could see it was true that all the leads Amelia had dug up were ones that he’d already chased and found to be dead-ends. But that didn’t change the fact that this was probably the nicest thing anyone had done for him in a very long time. She’d actually taken the time to worry about his quest, not because she would benefit from him finding his cure, but because it worried her if it worried him… Well… it just wasn’t the kind of thing he expected of people.

    He folded up the note and put it into his pocket. “Thank you,” he said.

    She beamed back at him.

    “Zel?” a voice called a few decibel-levels higher than a library-voice should be. “You back here?”

    Their shared eye-contact was broken as they both turned to see Lina emerge from behind a teetering pile of books with Gourry right behind her. “Oh, you’re both here,” she said, looking to see Amelia.

    “What did Daddy want to talk about?” Amelia asked.

    “Oh that,” Lina said in a voice she hoped was the very last word in casual. “He was just trying to get me and Gourry to join the castle guard. I told him: not a chance.”

    “That doesn’t seem like something he’d need to talk to you two alone about,” Zelgadis said, showing his unhappy habit of skewering holes into perfectly acceptable cover stories.

    “Yeah, but you know Phil,” Lina went on, untroubled. “He can be so dramatic sometimes.”

    Well that Zelgadis couldn’t deny. He was about to ask Lina if she’d noticed anything odd about Phil’s behavior when a sudden thundering made him look towards the faraway library entrance, hidden behind stacks and shelves of books.

    Someone was approaching at speed. Someone with big feet.

  3. #3
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    Chapter 3. So Dramatic Sometimes.

    “Amelia?!” Phil said in his outside-voice as his massive bulk appeared from behind a stack of books so that he could see the occupants of the room. “What are you doing here? I thought I told you to take care of those permits for the housing association!”

    “Road-works commission,” Zelgadis corrected quietly.

    Phil’s eyes slid purposefully off his increasingly distressed and confused daughter and focused on Zelgadis who ought to have known better than to draw attention to himself.

    “Well if you knew that,” Phil said harshly, “then why have you been luring my daughter away from her important work?”

    Luring?” Zelgadis repeated, dumbstruck. “Who’s been luring?

    “She’s very busy and she doesn’t need people like you dragging her away from her work!” Phil shouted. “Just leave her be!”

    Lina wanted to break into applause. Phil was, as a matter of course, a kindly person. Nevertheless he definitely had qualifications in the insanely overprotective father category. The performance was flawless–perhaps he’d had a chance to practice on some earlier boyfriend of Amelia or her older sister–nuanced even. The mixing up of what work Amelia had been supposed to do clearly said: the work isn’t actually the important thing, I just don’t want you around. The “people like you” bit had been a nice touch as well.

    “It’s not his fault, Daddy!” Amelia shouted back. “Why are you being so rude to Mister Zelgadis? He’s our guest!”

    “Interfering with a princess of Seyruun is an act far ruder than I could ever be!” Phil declared. “Since even after my clear warnings you can’t seem to focus on work without this… this man here enticing you to abandon your responsibilities,” Phil gestured to Zelgadis with an unpleasant expression.

    “Now look here—” Zelgadis began, destined to be cut-off.

    “Then I will have to put my foot down,” Phil shouted over him. “Amelia, until you finish all the work on the docket today you can’t see your guest.”

    “But that’s not fair!” Amelia shouted back in the best tradition of teenage arguments.

    “It is fair: I’m your father,” Phil declared in the better traditions of parental arguments. “Now march!” he said, pointing out the door.

    Amelia glared up at him with bitter tears in her eyes. She looked like she was seriously thinking about talking back, but she turned up her chin and walked out the door projecting anger with every step.

    “And you,” Phil said, turning back to Zelgadis after Amelia had left, “stay away from her. She doesn’t need your influence.” And with that, Phil swept out of the hall.

    Lina wanted to give Phil the slow-clap, but it would’ve ruined the whole thing. But damn the man was good. The “stay away from my daughter” bit is probably built into fathers at a genetic level, but Phil really stepped it up. She’d been worried that Phil would’ve been too obvious and Zelgadis might have at least guessed that something was up, but she’d worried in vain. Gourry had a look of horror on his face that suggested that he might have forgotten it was all a play. And normally she might’ve been like: “Oh, there’s Gourry being stupid and forgetful again. What a change,” but honestly? She couldn’t blame him. She was feeling anxious and uncomfortable herself.

    Zelgadis turned to her and Gourry with befuddled shock on his face and asked the very pertinent question: “What the hell is wrong with Phil?”

    Lina felt that this was her cue and she was damn well going to make the most of it. “Oh you know,” she said casually, “I think Phil’s just being a little overprotective. It’s not that surprising when you think about it.”

    “Overprotective of what?” Zelgadis demanded. “There’s nothing to be any kind of protective about. What’s his problem with me? He’s never been like this before.”

    “You heard what he said,” Lina nudged on. “He doesn’t want you interfering with Amelia.”

    You could see the exact moment when the meaning of that sentence hit Zelgadis. “But he—we’re—she—” he began nonsensically, his face reddening. “He’s wrong!”

    “Well obviously,” Lina said because she felt the comment had barbs on it, “but it makes sense when you think of it from his perspective. You and Amelia are pretty close and Amelia’s at the age where fathers take a thoughtful attitude toward that sort of thing. Somewhere along the line he must’ve gotten the wrong idea.”

    “Well he’d better get the right idea soon,” Zelgadis said. “I can’t stay here if he’s going to act like this.”

    “Calm down,” Lina said. You’re not allowed to leave. It ruins the plan. “I’m sure that if you and Amelia explain to Phil that he misunderstood your… eh… relationship, he’ll go back to his old self in no time.”

    Zelgadis’s shoulders relaxed slightly. “Alright. I guess it’s worth a try.”

    “But Zel?” Lina said.

    “Yeah?”

    “If I were you I’d wait until she’s done with all her work before you try to talk to Amelia again.”

    “…Lina?”

    “Yeah?”

    “Just how stupid do you think I am?”

    *****

    “Well, this is scintillating,” Lina said sarcastically some time later as she tossed aside a book on fisher cats.

    “That’s research,” Zelgadis said, from behind a book. “It’s not supposed to be any fun. No one asked you two to stay anyway.”

    “But I’m bored,” Lina whined.

    “Why don’t you go upstairs and take a nap if you’re going to be cranky?” Gourry suggested from a reclined position against a pile of books.

    “Who asked you?”

    Zelgadis was well acquainted with the doldrums of heavy and likely pointless research. He’d done a lot of it in his time. But he privately agreed with Lina about the state of this particular section of the library. Now all he wanted to do was find the head of selections and acquisitions and demand to know what crazy model he was using to stock the library–and maybe punch him in the face.

    “Hey,” Lina said. “You know what this Amelia thing got me thinking about?”

    “What?” Zelgadis asked wearily.

    “It’s just kinda weird to think about, isn’t it?” Lina asked. She hadn’t been spending most of her attention on the eclectic wisdom of the library. Oh no. She’d been strategizing. “I mean, in a few years Amelia will probably be married off to a prince or duke or something.”

    Zelgadis said nothing so Lina pressed on. “Princesses get married pretty young, don’t they? I just hope Seyruun doesn’t do that crazy cousin-marrying thing a lot of royal families do.”

    That sentence might have had an adverse effect on Zelgadis, but that was mostly undone as Gourry said: “Nah. Phil would never allow that.”

    Lina glared at him and made a mental note to step on his foot later. Had he forgotten what they were trying to do here?!

    “Well, whatever the case,” Lina said, sitting back, “in a few years time while we’re still running around the country looking for treasure, Amelia’ll probably be set up with some good-looking duke or something and be focusing on ensuring the royal succession.”

    Now that did it. Zelgadis set down the book he’d been trying hard to pay attention to a little harder than is strictly respectful to library property and stood up abruptly. “What do I care?”

    Lina’s heart did a smug little dance, but she kept her features carefully neutral. “You don’t have to care. I was just talking.”

    Zelgadis looked down at the stack of books, said: “I need a break. I’m taking a walk.” and left.

    Lina beamed at Gourry after Zelgadis had left. “Am I the best matchmaker or what?” she asked.

    “I don’t know, Lina,” Gourry said. “It kinda seems like you’re just upsetting people.”

    “That’s part of what being a matchmaker is all about,” Lina said defensively. Don’t be a killjoy, Gourry.

    *****

    Zelgadis was tramping through the halls of Seyruun castle and trying to get his thoughts to settle. He really couldn’t focus on his research with all the hubbub of Phil’s spontaneous descent into insanity.

    Not that there had seemed to be much in the way of usable information in the library anyway. He’d had words with the head librarian (and no, he hadn’t punched him in the face). Apparently the library had a large budget and the head librarian’s attitude toward acquisitions was that whenever he didn’t know the answer to a crossword clue he’d send away for a book on the subject. The man had made up for it, however, by promising to show Zelgadis a collection of ancient magical scrolls later though. So all was well.

    …Except for the part with Phil being crazy. But Amelia would talk to him later and they’d be able to sort this entire mess out. Hopefully.

    It was just the… well, he’d never actually thought about it until Lina brought it up, but… well, it made sense didn’t it? Princesses have to get married and… produce heirs. It’s how the whole system works. This shouldn’t have come as any kind of surprise for god’s sakes.

    Except that it did. It just didn’t seem right for some reason.

    Well, weren’t both Phil and Amelia big on justice and idealism and all that romantic ********? Arranged marriages were completely against that! If they really went through with something like that then they were total hypocrites–practical, socially responsible hypocrites!

    No. If Amelia really lived up to everything she claimed to believe in then she’d have to marry for love. Probably not a prince or a duke or a count or anything like that either. Amelia believed in stories and that’s not how stories go. Princesses should marry… well, commoners because everyone likes that sort of story. Not just a commoner though, but someone like a hero. Someone strong enough to… oh, earn her favor or something.

    Eh… but not him of course. Don’t be silly.

    That idea was absolutely laughable when you thought of it. Where Phil had picked it up he had no idea.

    …Had Amelia said something to him to make him think that she…? Well, had she said something to make Phil get the wrong idea? Accidentally, of course.

    Because otherwise it seemed like Phil was being haphazardly paranoid. I mean, Zelgadis thought, why me? He has just as much reason to think something could be going on between her and me as… oh, for example, her and Gourry!

    …Okay,
    he thought fairly, maybe he does have more reason to target me than Gourry, but still.


    It just… I mean, it was obvious that it wouldn’t work, right? Even if he did… well, consider her that way. He had the quest for his cure to worry about. It wasn’t like he had any interest in government or anything. He wasn’t the knight on a white charger kind. And anyway, there was his appearance to consider. If bars with signs over them that said “Where everybody knows your name” didn’t quite accept chimeras, then an entire kingdom wasn’t very likely to. Anyway, he wasn’t crazy enough to fit in in the Seyruun family.

    Glad we got that settled.

    His footsteps had taken him through the halls on the upper floor and along towards Amelia’s room. Given Phil’s apparent misconceptions, this was probably an extremely stupid thing to do, he knew. But he wanted to know if she was done with her pencil pushing yet. He needed to tell her what Lina suspected so that she could go to her dad and explain things. He also wanted to subtly find out if she was planning on getting engaged to some prince or duke or something in the near future just out of… oh, curiosity.

    He turned the corner down the hall that would lead to her room, took one look and then abruptly jumped back around the corner with his back to the wall.

    What the hell?!

    *****

    Gourry and Lina were trying to figure out how to play old maid with tarot cards in the guest room Lina had been given when Zelgadis burst through the door, panting and clutching his side as if he’d run from all the way across the castle.

    “What’s wrong?” Gourry asked, putting down his hand of flashy cards.

    “Guards,” Zelgadis said, trying to catch his breath, “at her door.”

    “What?” Lina said, raising an eyebrow.

    Zelgadis appeared to get it together and said: “Phil has completely lost his mind. He’s put guards all around her room!”

    “O…kay,” Lina said slowly. “That does sound crazy. On the other hand, what were you doing going to her room? You gotta understand that kinda makes it sound less crazy.

    Zelgadis hesitated for a fraction of a second and then said: “I just wanted to let her know why you thought Phil was acting the way he is so that she could talk to him. That’s all,” he added sourly.

    I’m sure that’s part of it, but it’s not all, Lina thought. “Well, in that case, yeah, Phil has lost his mind. He can’t just lock her in her room at night!”

    “Yeah!” Gourry agreed.

    “You know what I think you should do, Zel?” Lina began. “I think you should wait until it gets dark out, go outside and stand under her window, and then throw a pebble at it until she comes out onto the balcony.” She sat back feeling self-satisfied.

    Zelgadis gaped at her. “…Why?” he asked.

    “Well, obviously,” Lina said. Obviously it was how things were done! “So that you can talk to her about what Phil thinks without Phil catching you. That way Amelia can talk to him and fix this whole mess.”

    Zelgadis just stared. Damn it, Lina cursed mentally. I may have tipped my hand with that balcony thing.

    “Isn’t that the kind of thing,” Zelgadis began slowly and carefully, “that guys do to talk to girls that they like?”

    Lina put on her best surprised look and exchanged glances with Gourry. “I hadn’t heard of that,” she said. “Have you ever heard of that, Gourry?”

    Gourry shrugged. “I don’t think it counts unless there’s serenading.”

    “Well, there you go,” Lina said, turning back to Zelgadis.

    “Hmmm,” was all Zelgadis said.

    *****

    It was late. The sky was dotted with glittering stars, a crescent moon shone down from the heavens, and the scent of lilac filled the air. It was a night for lovers. It should’ve been romantic. It should’ve been.

    Lina and Gourry were hidden in some of the bushes in one of Seyruun castle’s many courtyards. That wasn’t at all romantic. Some sweaty-palmed, grabby teenagers would probably disagree with that, but even they would recognize that it certainly wasn’t romantic the way Lina and Gourry were doing it.

    Most of their shrubbery-camouflage activity consisted of pushing one another for a better view of the castle beyond the curtain of leaves and complaining about bug bites. The fact that an opportunity for debauchery was being missed had not crossed either of their minds.

    They were waiting. Lina was sure that after all their pushing Zelgadis would show up and toss a pebble at Amelia window, and then Amelia would come out onto the balcony just like in the stories… and then… and then…

    “And then what?” Gourry asked, raining on Lina’s parade for like the fifth time that day.

    “Well, uh,” Lina faltered. Then she rallied. “They’ll be so swept up by the romantic atmosphere that they’ll realize their feelings for each other,” she summoned up.

    Gourry looked doubtfully at her. “Really?”

    “Count on it,” Lina said, confidence back. “I mean, that’s what happens in all the stories and you get clichés for a reason.”

    “I don’t know,” Gourry said thoughtfully. “Do you really think all that serenading from balconies and knights with white horses stuff actually happens?”

    “Of course!” Lina said. Look, Phil had ruined princes for her, she wasn’t about to let Gourry ruin the few girlish notions she had left to treasure up.

    “Don’t you think,” Gourry nudged on, “that sometimes two people just meet, hit it off after awhile, and decide they want to stay together?”

    “What’s the point in that?” Lina exploded.

    “Not everything has to be dramatic, right?” Gourry said with a shrug. “Isn’t it better if it’s not?”

    “No!” Lina said, crossing her arms as a shower of leaves cascaded into her hair. “What would you know about it anyway?”

    Lina had good hearing and she was pretty sure that she heard Gourry mutter: “More than you.”

    Lina knew her ears had gone red. That’s right, she thought. Gourry’s older.

    She shook her head angrily as though to dislodge unwanted thoughts. No, that’s not even worth thinking about, she thought. What kind of girl would go for that jellyfish-brain anyway?

    ...Only a girl who liked tall, good looking, strong, and kind men, her brain provided snidely.

    Whatever, Lina thought severely. That wasn’t a train of thought she wanted to follow.

    It was getting later and later. A night breeze was picking up and sending more lilac than was strictly palatable in Lina’s direction–pollen too. She was getting cold.

    She glared up at the open area right below Amelia window.

    Where the hell is he?!

  4. #4
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    Chapter 4. Sneaking Out.

    A breeze blew through the courtyard outside of Amelia’s room. All was quiet except for the occasional chirping of crickets and a few light snores. Lina had fallen asleep with her face in a patch of shiny green leaves. Gourry had dozed off from a sitting position with his head jerked off to the side and a bit of drool hanging indelicately from his chin.

    But no star-crossed lovers appeared on their rounds. Well… not quite yet.

    ******

    Zelgadis lay in bed and tried to let the sounds of nighttime drift him off to sleep. It wasn’t working. The problem with having a brain is that the off-switch is very hard to locate.

    Maybe he should’ve done the whole… pebble to the window thing to see Amelia. Lord knew he wanted to get this thing worked out. And anyway, after her father’s behavior and the fact that he’d actually set guards to keep her locked in her room… she must’ve been feeling very upset. It would’ve been right to go and see her.

    He shook his head. It wasn’t his job to comfort her.

    And anyway, Amelia would talk to her father about this anyway. It didn’t really need his intervention. Either Phil could be reasoned with and he could stay for awhile longer, or Phil couldn’t be reasoned with and he’d just have to leave. It was as simple as that. There was no need to go skulking around and make things worse by confirming Phil’s suspicions. No matter what Gourry said about serenading being the sticking point, Zelgadis was still pretty sure that anything involving a balcony fell under the category of wooing.

    I mean, what other reason could a person have for doing something as drastic as that?


    And that’s when he heard something. There was a scrape of boots and a creak from the walls. He sat up and slowly reached for his sword while his ears twitched to find the source of the sound.

    His eyes fell on the open window where a hand had just clasped the ledge. He soundlessly got out of bed and waited without breathing.

    “…Amelia?!” he exclaimed as the figure climbed breathlessly into the room.

    “Hi, Mister Zelgadis!” Amelia said cheerfully as she tried to get her breath back.

    “Don’t ‘hi’ me!” Zelgadis said. “What are you doing here? How’d you even get out? There were guards posted by your room.”

    “Yes, I know.” She frowned thoughtfully. “That’s kind of why I’m here.”

    “You didn’t—” Zelgadis began with a foreboding feeling about how Amelia tended to react to unjust situations like being held prisoner. “You didn’t fight them did you?” More of a ruckus was the last thing they needed at the moment.

    “Oh no!” Amelia said. “I just walked past them.”

    Zelgadis gaped. “And they didn’t do anything?”

    “Well, one touched his forelock and said ‘Evening, Princess,’ but that was about it,” Amelia said with a shrug.

    “Weren’t they supposed to be keeping you locked in?” Zelgadis asked.

    “I think they were just there to keep something out,” Amelia said slowly. “I’m not sure what the story is with that to be honest.”

    But I do, Zelgadis thought dully. Considering, however, who had actually snuck into whose room though… Phil might’ve been better off putting guards around his room.

    “Something is very wrong around here,” Amelia said, brows furrowed in concern. “I’ve never seen Daddy act like this before. I’ve got to do something about it, but I don’t know what’s wrong.” She looked up at him with her big, blue eyes. “Do you have any idea why he would act like this?”

    Zelgadis coughed and looked down. This was going to be awkward. “Lina did have an idea,” he admitted.

    “Really? What?” Amelia asked.

    “She thought, well,” Zelgadis twisted his shoulder back fretfully, “that Phil might have somehow gotten the idea that you and I are… well, that there’s something going on between the two of us.”

    She just tilted her head at him in puzzlement. Oh boy, Zelgadis thought shaking his head.

    “Something romantic, I mean,” he finished reluctantly.

    “I got that,” Amelia said, cupping her chin in her hands. “I just don’t see how that would make him act so…”

    “…crazy?” Zelgadis supplied.

    “Yes,” Amelia agreed miserably.

    “Well obviously he’s not thrilled with the idea,” Zelgadis answered.

    “But he’s always liked you!” Amelia burst out. “He’s never said a word against you before! He’s really proud of all that you and Miss Lina and Mister Gourry have done to help us in Seyruun over the years. And… well, whenever I’ve asked if we could invite you to stay for awhile he always seemed really agreeable to the idea.”

    Maybe he changed his mind after I turned down one too many of those invitations, Zelgadis thought with a streak of guilt. A father can only see his daughter left heartbroken so many times…

    …Well, not “heartbroken” really,
    he thought hastily. Because Phil’s assumption is wrong. Just… generally disappointed… in the most platonic of ways.

    “I guess his opinion of me has changed,” Zelgadis said leadenly. “I mean, you saw how he was acting.”

    “He was mostly yelling at me to get work done,” Amelia said doubtfully.

    “Yes, but he forgot the name of what he wanted you to do,” Zelgadis pointed out. “It seemed as though it was just an excuse.”

    “I suppose,” Amelia said, but she still didn’t sound convinced.

    “And when you left he told me to stay away from you,” Zelgadis said sourly. “That you didn’t need my ‘bad influence’.”

    Amelia gasped. “He didn’t,” she said disbelievingly.

    “He did,” Zelgadis said dully.

    Amelia sank down onto the nearest thing in the room to sit on, which just so happened to be the bed, Zelgadis couldn’t help but notice. “I can’t believe he would say something like that,” she said numbly.

    “He’s always only had nice things to say about you. I don’t see what could’ve changed,” she said miserably. “He shouldn’t be acting like this even if he knew.” She paused. “I mean, even if he thought that.”

    “Well something must have changed,” Zelgadis said indistinctly. Amelia was definitely upset by this. She was starting to put off “I might cry” vibes. Make that number one on the growing list of things that were making him feel uncomfortable about this situation. “I mean, he put guards around your room,” he pointed out. “He really thinks I might try to,” he blushed here, “you know. Sneak into your room or something.”

    “That’s another thing,” Amelia, sneaker-into-other-people’s-rooms, said. The clouds were clearing from her eyes. She sounded more curious than upset now. “The guards he put around my room… well, they were Rodney and Steve.”

    This meant absolutely nothing to Zelgadis. He hated it when people assumed that everyone knew everyone they knew. “…And?” he asked.

    “Rodney and Steve are...” she trailed off. Amelia wasn’t the kind of person who took pleasure in insulting others. “…not the best guards,” she finished lamely.

    “I mean, they try their best,” she pressed on. “But the fact is that Rodney’s always falling asleep on his feet and Steve has to take a bathroom break every five minutes because of his… condition.”

    “Not only that,” she shifted awkwardly. “But… well… a few weeks ago they let a thief into the castle because the thief had a business card saying that they were my daddy.”

    “Well, that’s not very—” Zelgadis began.

    “And the thief was female,” Amelia finished pointedly.

    Zelgadis gaped at her.

    O… kay. So distractible, brain-dead and possibly vision-impaired guards were probably not the choice a worried father would make to keep prospective boyfriends at bay. But everything else made sense, right? What other explanation could there be?

    “Maybe he didn’t know they weren’t good guards,” he pointed out in a last ditch attempt at defense. “He can’t know every guard in the squad. And maybe he just told the Captain of the Guard to handle it and he put his two worst men on it because he figured it would be an easy job.”

    “Maybe…” Amelia said vaguely.

    “Well, whatever the case,” Zelgadis said, “something’s going on with Phil and I’m not in his good books. It might be best if I just left.”

    “Oh no!” Amelia said, turning her eyes up on him in an expression that Zelgadis considered to be unfair in some obscure way. “You’ve only just gotten here and it’s been so long since we’ve seen each other!”

    Zelgadis focused on the floor and muttered: “I can’t be expected to just stop my search for a cure to visit.”

    “I know,” Amelia said, bending over and turning her head so that Zelgadis’s eye-contact was no longer with the floor but with her. “And I can help! We’ve got lots of stuff in the library and I can be there to help you find stuff since I know it better than you do. And I’m sure you could always use an extra set of eyes for research and taking notes.” She gave him a determined and slightly desperate look. “I’ll do anything to help you.”

    Zelgadis, Mister Self-Reliant, was caught off-balance in the face of this unsolicited helpfulness. “Well, I guess you could—” he began uncertainly, and then stopped. He pulled himself together. “That’s not going to work out with whatever crazy bend Phil’s on.”

    “Don’t worry about Daddy,” Amelia said with a harsh glint in her eye that seemed alien to such a generally good-natured face. “I’ll take care of that.”

    Zelgadis nodded. With the face Amelia was pulling he almost felt a little sorry for Prince Phil.

    There was a pause. It seemed like they’d run out of things to say. Suddenly they both had the uncomfortable feeling of two people trying to figure out what came next. Cool night wind swept through the open window and made the curtains dance gracefully as wind-chimes from a nearby courtyard tinkled in the distance. Starlight flowed into the room giving the moment a hazy, unreal feel. Amelia gripped the covers of the bed she was sitting on in a distracted way. The scent of nighttime flowers drifted around the room looking for a nose to accost.

    “So—”

    “I guess I’d better be—”

    They both paused, having spoken at the same time.

    “Go on.”

    “No, you first.”

    “I was just going to say that, um,” Zelgadis didn’t really know what he’d been going to say, “it’s getting late,” he finished lamely.

    “You’re right,” Amelia said. “I guess I’d better go.” She got up gingerly off the bed as though it might explode. “After all, it’s a long climb down.” She gave him a wan smile.

    Why wouldn’t you just levitate down?” Zelgadis asked incredulously.

    “A good climb does a heart full of justice good!” Amelia said with a broad smile as she made a fist and struck a pose.

    Zelgadis couldn’t help but smile a little too. “Well, don’t fall and get yourself killed,” he said almost kindly.

    “I won’t!” Amelia said brightly.

    And with that Amelia disappeared over the ledge, clinging to the wall like the urban warrior that she was. Some grunting and creaking of wood followed.

    Zelgadis shook his head. Typical Amelia; why do things the easy way when the hard way is so much more fun?

    “Good-night, Mister Zelgadis,” he heard from outside his window as the creaking briefly ceased.

    “Good-night, Amelia,” Zelgadis said, making his way back to bed, feeling that with that out of the way he might actually get some sleep.

    *****

    “This isn’t working,” Lina said bluntly the next morning in Phil’s chambers.

    “You waited all night and he didn’t show up?” Phil asked dejectedly.

    “Yes!” Lina said bad-naturedly. “And I got this rash on my face from your stupid herb garden!” she shouted, furiously scratching had the red half of her face.

    “It wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t fallen asleep,” Gourry pointed out.

    Lina glared at him as Phil narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Are you sure he didn’t show up while you were—”

    “Positive,” Lina said through gritted teeth. “We would’ve woken up if he had.”

    Phil drummed his fingers against the arm of a chair. “I had hoped for better progress than this,” he said.

    Lina glared. There was a certain courtesy being missed. “Hello?” she shouted. “Rash? Sympathy?”

    “I’m sure they carry some ointment for that in the cleric’s quarters,” Phil said.

    “Well, thank you,” Lina said, crossing her arms. She shouldn’t have to nudge people for these things!

    “But he wanted to see my daughter, didn’t he?” Phil asked, getting back to more important, non-rash related issues. “You said he was all upset about my little performance earlier and your suggestion that Amelia might marry a nobleman.”

    “I thought he did,” Lina said with a shrug. She wouldn’t have spent the night curled up against a poisonous bush if she’d thought otherwise.

    “Guys, you’re forgetting that this is Zel we’re talking about,” Gourry offered up. “It doesn’t matter if he wanted to see her or not. If he doesn’t feel like he has a really good excuse to give himself then he’s not going to do it.”

    “Oh good god; what’s wrong with you men?” Lina said. She was getting sick of this game.

    Phil stroked at his moustache thoughtfully with the side of his index finger. “So we’ve got to give him an excuse,” he said thoughtfully.

    “Yeah, and we better hurry,” Lina said. “I think the only thing really keeping Zelgadis here is that collection of scrolls he wanted to read.”

    “We do have a lot of scrolls,” Phil said uncertainly.

    “Enough to keep Zelgadis here until he decides he loves Amelia?” Lina asked.

    “Maybe not that many,” Phil admitted.

    “She’s a very pretty girl though,” Phil added.

    “I know.”

    “With a lovely personality,” Phil went on.

    “I know.”

    “I don’t see why anyone would put up such a fight,” Phil went on with some distaste.

    “That’s just Zel, I’m afraid,” Lina said helplessly. “Don’t ask me to explain it.”

    “Well, you’d better think of something fast,” Phil said.

    “What? Why me?” Lina demanded. “This is your show; can’t you think of an idea?”

    “I have a few ideas already,” Phil said calmly. “But they all involve Mister Zelgadis being here. You’ve got to find some way to keep him from leaving.”

    “And give him a reason to be around Amelia,” Gourry piped up, adding to their laundry list of planning objectives.

    “Fine,” Lina said, clutching her forehead as an early-morning tension headache started up. “Just get me some French toast already. I can’t be expected to plan anything without French toast.”

  5. #5
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    Chapter 5. Brewing Up a Plan.

    The pleasantly spiced scent of brewed orange peels wafted through the room. Strictly speaking it was a little late for tea, but it had taken Lina all day to concoct this plan. Anyway, they weren’t planning on drinking it.

    “Man, Filia’d be really mad at us for wasting all this tea,” Gourry said, staring into the murky brown depths of the rectangular basin that they’d poured the tea into.

    “Don’t even think about drinking that!” Lina snapped. “It’s for staining.”

    It did smell good though. They’d used about eight tea bags for it since it needed to be strong. The smell had driven some of the cooks into a bit of a tizzy. Some people can be very funny about their tea. Lina couldn’t see what was so great about boiled, flavored water, but then again we all have our quirks.

    They’d had to leave the kitchen anyway. There was always the chance that Zelgadis could’ve walked in on them, and then he’d have asked all sorts of inconvenient questions like: “what are you guys doing?” He could be so nosy sometimes.

    So Gourry had carried the oversized, boiling hot tea pot up the stairs. He sustained only mild burns in the process. Of course, leave it to those tough swordsman types to laugh off bleeding gashes as “But a flesh wound!” yet whine like babies over paper-cut level injuries.

    Gourry sucked at the red, welty area on the back of his hand almost as though he was reading her thoughts. Maybe those clerics had some kind of ointment for burns too. The one they had given Lina had certainly worked wonders on the poison oak that she’d picked up in the bushes the night before.

    …Of course, he could just be a man and tough it out.

    Lina took out a roll of paper from the stack she’d brought up. It was heavy stock, good quality. She’d nabbed it from one of legislative chambers. This was the kind of paper good enough to write laws on. But it just didn’t have that old-style look about it that it would need to make it convincing.

    She crumpled it up and submerged it in the tea pool, gently swirling it in the liquid. When it had soaked to her satisfaction she removed it again, smoothed it out, and said a very low-grade fire spell over it. This accomplished two things: first off, it dried it out, and secondly, it gave it the slightly burned look that practically screamed “ancient scroll.”

    “So… what are we actually doing?” Gourry asked, peering over her shoulder as she got a quill out and dipped it into an inkwell. She really hadn’t filled him in much on the plan beyond the fact that it involved him lugging a heavy pot of tea up several flights of stairs.

    “Shh,” Lina said. “I need to concentrate.” She took a moment to think and then put pen to paper.

    After several minutes she looked up and said, “When’s the next full moon, do you know?”

    Gourry gave her a look of perplexion on two levels. First because he didn’t know the answer, and secondly because he didn’t know why she’d asked him.

    Lina sighed and got out of her chair. She went to the closet and fished out the small bag that she kept in her mantle. She took out a cheap looking book and flipped through a few pages.

    “Hmm,” she said. “The almanac says it’s in about two weeks.” She looked up at Gourry. “Do you think that’s long enough for Zelgadis to realize he loves Amelia?”

    Gourry gave her a look.

    “Fine,” Lina said. “We’ll go with the new moon than. That’s appropriately magical and it’s in twenty-eight days. If we can’t make any progress in a month then we might as well give up.”

    She crossed back to the table and made the appropriate notes. Occasionally looking up and tapping the end of the quill against her chin before writing on again.

    “There,” she said after awhile, sitting back and looking pleased with herself. “That should keep Zelgadis here.”

    “What is it?” Gourry said, craning his neck to see the document.

    “It’s a recipe for a potion to change a person’s appearance,” Lina said with a smug smile.

    “Really?”

    “No!” Lina said with a derisive snort. “It’s basically my sister’s goulash recipe with a few magical modifications.” I hope it doesn’t turn out to be toxic or anything, Lina added in her own head.

    “So… it won’t work?” Gourry said slowly.

    “Of course not,” Lina said. “That’s not the point. The point is that it’ll keep Zelgadis here until it’s done, and that’ll buy us a lot of time.”

    Gourry paused for a minute as though he had something on his mind that he wasn’t sure he wanted to say. “Isn’t that… kinda mean?” he asked. “Zel will be really disappointed when it doesn’t work.”

    Lina waved a dismissive hand at him. He was being too sensitive! “He won’t be that disappointed,” she said. “Zel’s been on plenty of wild goose chases and knows not to get his hopes up too high. He’ll just move on to the next thing, you’ll see.”

    “Anyway,” Lina went on, “You haven’t even seen the best part of this whole thing.” She pointed to a line of the parchment.

    “‘Each ingredient must be blessed by a shrine maiden immediately before being added to the potion,’” Gourry said, squinting at the crabbed lines. He looked up at her. “Oh! So he’ll have to ask for Amelia’s help?”

    “Got it in one, Gourry,” Lina said, standing up and giving him a slightly harder than necessary slap on the back. “So they’ll have to spend time together and figure out a way to do it behind Phil’s back. It’s genius!”

    “It is pretty good,” Gourry admitted, studying the scroll with his chin in his hand. “But there’s one problem.”

    “What?” Lina said. She thought she’d been over everything. She’d made the paper look authentic, she’d gotten period-specific ink, she’d used a lot of stupid mystical phrases to make the thing read more believably sorcery-like, she’d thrown in a bunch of junk about the moon to make sure the spell took a while to complete (and to get Amelia and Zelgadis out in the moonlight together), and she’d justified seriously misleading Zelgadis to herself. What had she missed?!

    “Your handwriting,” Gourry said, “is really bad.”

    “What?!” Lina exclaimed, pushing him aside to get a look at the parchment. “No it’s not! It’s perfectly legible!”

    “Come on, I’ve seen the way they write these spell scrolls whenever you drag me to sorcery guilds,” Gourry said. “It’s all curly writing and stuff. This looks like your grocery list.”

    Lina opened her mouth to protest. There was nothing wrong with her handwriting! It was… just a little casual, that’s all.

    “My grandma always said that penmanship is a dying art,” Gourry said, nodding sagely.

    Lina shut her mouth, crossed her arms, and glared at him. “Well, it’s not like you could do better!”

    Gourry shrugged. “Maybe I could.”

    “Fine!” Lina said, striding angrily back to the stack of papers before selecting another long sheet, staining it, performing the fire trick over it, and then slamming it down on the desk in front of Gourry. “Go ahead!”

    Gourry smoothed out the paper thoughtfully, took up the quill, looked at the original paper that Lina had written, and then began to write. He wrote slowly and carefully using long movements, as if each stroke took careful thought.

    Lina had cooled down her indignation over the shot at her penmanship. Now she was just studying Gourry very carefully as he wrote with his tongue sticking out slightly in concentration. Something here… wasn’t right. She conjured up a picture of Gourry holding his sword in her mind.

    “You’re right handed,” she said almost accusingly. “Why are you writing with your left hand?”

    He looked up at her. “Oh,” he said. “I write faster with my right hand, but I write neater with my left hand.”

    Lina paused for a moment. You travel with a person for years and you think you know more about them than they know about themselves, and then something happens and you realize that there’s a lot you don’t know. “You’re ambidextrous?” she asked.

    He blushed suddenly. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “I just can write with both my right hand and my left.”

    Lina rolled her eyes. “That’s what ambidextrous means,” she said. I don’t know what you were thinking about!

    He shrugged and returned his focus to the copying down of ingredients. Lina looked over his shoulder. It was true, at least with his left hand, his handwriting was much nicer than hers. It had all the curly, cursive hallmarks of eldritch old scrolls. Surely there must have been some ancient mages who had bad handwriting, but that wasn’t what people expected. Gourry was right; there was a certain instinct among scroll readers that calligraphy should be involved.

    When Gourry had finished she inspected the work formerly. “It’s passable,” she admitted. She didn’t say perfect. She wondered where on earth he’d learned to write so nicely. Perhaps it was from the grandmother that thought penmanship was a dying art. Grandmas can be very… fixated on what they see as valuable life skills.

    The one problem was spelling. Gourry might write nicely, but even with Lina’s master copy he’d managed to mess up on quite a few words. After some consideration, Lina deemed this to be fine. It was better than fine. When you really think about it, old scrolls did have a lot of misspellings; mostly because they were written before spelling was invented. So as far as she was concerned, his mistakes just made the thing more authentic.

    It was done. Now to plant it.

    *****

    “Hey, Zel,” Lina said as she and Gourry strode into the library the next day. “How’s the scroll reading going?”

    “It’s pretty boring,” Zelgadis said from his pile of unrolled parchment. “There’s been nothing of interest to me so far, but you never know.” He selected another rolled up bit of paper from its pigeon hole and glanced at it before tossing it over his shoulder.

    “Seems like Phil’s been treating you better,” Lina commented with as much nonchalance as she could manage. “Guess Amelia must’ve had a talk with him.”

    “She said she explained things,” Zelgadis said doubtfully. Lina knew for a fact that Amelia hadn’t so much “explained things” as threatened to never speak to Phil again if he didn’t ease up. Lina had to admire the daughter-wrapping-her-dad-around-her-finger thing. Gods knew she’d never been able to manage it. “But I don’t think he believes her,” Zelgadis finished.

    “Why would you say that?” Lina asked, giving Gourry a subtle nudge. He had the scroll behind his back and had been told to let her do the talking and act as soon as Zelgadis was distracted. He made subtle moves toward the rack of scrolls.

    “Because he did this at breakfast,” Zelgadis said pointing to himself, then spreading his fingers into a V and pointing at each eye, and finally pointing outward. “I’m watching you.” Phil had found a way to keep up his act under Amelia’s nose.

    “Well,” Lina shrugged, “it’s better than all the shouting, right?”

    “I suppose,” Zelgadis said, moving back to his scrolls as Gourry suddenly pretended to be interested in a knothole in the shelf. “But it’s not exactly nice, if you know what I mean. I was thinking we could leave for Recery in a day or two. There’s a temple exhibition there that could be interesting.”

    “Awww! But we just got here!” Lina sulked as Gourry reappeared at her side empty-handed. “I wanted to rest some more after being on the road all that time.”

    “Well, it’s clear that I’m unwanted here,” Zelgadis said. “And I don’t want to stay here any longer than I have to.”

    “I suppose I can understand that,” Lina said with her hands on her hips. “But let’s not make our minds up right away, okay?”

    “Fine,” Zelgadis said, waving them away. “But I’m not going to change my mind.”

    “Whatever you say,” Lina said, turning around to walk away with Gourry trailing behind. “Have fun with your scrolls.”

    “Yeah, yeah,” Zelgadis muttered to himself, picking up another scroll and undoing the knot on it as Lina and Gourry left to pursue less academic interests. His eyes ran over it wearily, ready for another disappointment. Then he froze and brought the parchment closer to his face. It said:

    The Spell of Transformation

    …And for some reason it smelled slightly of oranges.

    *****

    It had long past nightfall and Zelgadis was walking like a man not in a hurry to reach his destination. He held out the spell of transformation in front of him.

    It was a good lead. Obviously he had to check it out. But it looked like it was going to be a pain and a half to accomplish. First of all, this potion took about a month to make and seemed to require attention every night. For some mystic reason it had to be brewed by moonlight and different ingredients had to be added and have different magic mumbo-jumbo said over it every night. It seemed very complicated and time consuming.

    And he didn’t like making potions. It didn’t even seem like magic to him. It was practically cooking! Most of what these kinds of things brewed up didn’t turn out to be magical or even edible.

    Still, he had to try.

    And there was that other thing. The thing with the white magic spells. This spell needed a shrine maiden to complete it, and since he didn’t fit the bill on that he’d have to ask for help. He hated asking for help. He really didn’t want to involve anyone in this in case it didn’t work. But he really had no choice.

    He sighed. He’d reached his destination.

    He looked up from the grassy lawn and to the second floor where there was a small balcony and flickering candlelight somewhere behind the gauzy curtains and glass. He asked himself for a moment what light through yonder window was breaking, and then wondered why he’d think something so stupid.

    He selected a small pebble from the ground, felt its weight in his hands, and then tossed it with precision at the second-floor window. It tapped against the glass.

    For a moment he felt like running and then told himself to just get it together for goodness sakes.

    For what seemed like too long to Zelgadis, nothing happened. Then there was movement beyond the curtains and the glass door slid back. Amelia stepped through looking somewhat bleary-eyed and dressed in green pajamas. For some reason Zelgadis felt she should have been wearing a flowing nightgown. It somehow would’ve suited the atmosphere better.

    No. Get it together!

    “Mister Zelgadis?” she said, looking curiously down at him. “What are you doing he—”

    “I need your help,” he cut her off.

    *****

    From some ways off in the palace gardens, Lina Inverse silently pumped her fist while carefully avoiding the treacherous leaves of the poison oak plant.

    She mouthed: “Got ‘em!”

  6. #6
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    Chapter 6. Not Dressed for the Occasion.

    He was really there! She’d heard a sound that must’ve been a pebble hitting her window and when she’d gone out on the balcony to investigate she’d seen him down on the lawn looking determined and slightly nervous. It was the kind of thing you read about in books!

    …Really bad books, now that Amelia thought about it. The sort of books that make you feel slightly ashamed to read them but nevertheless you do so because, however bad they are, they’re fun. Well, she had the right to read them every once and awhile, didn’t she? Being a princess isn’t the job everyone thinks it is. There’s a lot of shoveling through paperwork and making important decisions in an office all day while you’re isolated from people your own age. She deserved to indulge in a crappy romance novel every so often.

    Admittedly it really didn’t seem to be that kind of circumstance. He was explaining something about a spell he needed her help with, so it seemed unlikely that romance was on Mister Zelgadis’s agenda. But that would have been highly unlikely in any case. You’ve got to enjoy the small, unexpected moments.

    Wow!

    She wished that she wasn’t wearing her green pajama pants. Sure, they were comfy and all, but they didn’t seem in keeping with the setting. What with moonlight and balconies and all… you need something more… airy. She had just the thing, too, in her closet. It was a white nightgown with short, ruffled sleeves and lace edging. It was just the sort of thing that would feature in those aforementioned romance novels.

    …Well, perhaps not just the thing. The nightgowns in the romance novels tended to be a little on the… chilly side when it came to the neckline. They also seemed to tear very easily in revealing ways. The nightgown Amelia had in mind wasn’t like that. First off, it was made of 100% Arcetian cotton and was therefore quite durable. Secondly it was… very demure. Yet, it was demure in a very artful way. It advertised demureness. It was practically an assault of demureness. It screamed to anyone who would listen: LOOK AT HOW DEMURE I AM!

    It was the perfect thing for the moment and she couldn’t change into it or else he’d want to know why.

    …Then again, she thought with a small sigh, if he did ask at least it would show that he paid a little bit of attention to my appearance.

    But no. She wouldn’t do that. It’d be too hard to explain.

    “So that’s how it is,” Zelgadis finished from the lawn. “Will you help?”

    Amelia was a princess of Seyruun. She had to give audience on a frequent basis to all sorts of princes, dukes, counts, presidents, beloved leaders, and viziers, all with varying levels of eccentricity (known in commoners as intractable madness). In those situations you learn very quickly to be able to listen carefully to a person while carrying on an inner monologue in your head. As such, she’d heard Zelgadis’s explanation even through a haze of nightgown-related thoughts.

    “Of course I’ll help!” she called out. “Didn’t I say I’d do anything I could to help you?”

    The night was dark and she was too far up to see whether he was blushing or not. She squinted and the said, “Do you want me to come down there? It’s a bit hard to hear you from up here.”

    “Fine. We need to get going on this potion as soon as possible anyway,” Zelgadis said. He paused for a moment, then tensed and added, “But don’t try to climb down this time. I don’t care how much you like it, it’s not worth breaking your neck. Just levitate.”

    “Alright,” she said, and chanted a short spell to facilitate her descent to the ground. This was one thing that the pajama pants had on the nightgown, she reflected as she floated downwards. The nightgown was definitely a weak point in both the areas of climbing and levitating. After all, she didn’t want him to look up her skirt.

    Umm. Really, she didn’t.

    Mostly.

    Certainly not at the moment at least.

    She pushed aside her blush-worthy thoughts as she touched down on the ground. He nodded a sort of greeting to her and passed the scroll to her. She ran her eyes across it.

    “So… this will turn you back to your human form?”

    “Maybe,” Zelgadis said firmly. “I’ve run across a lot of dead ends that looked like the real thing. Obviously,” he added in a quiet, slightly sulky voice that seemed to say: “Just look at me.” “So it’s best not to just put too much faith into it.”

    “I understand,” she answered in a small voice. He’s gotten his hopes up so high only to have them dashed so many times that he can’t do it anymore. That kind of disappointment must be hard to take.

    Zelgadis felt uncomfortable. She was giving him that look of womanly pity. He coughed. “It takes twenty-eight days to make and can only be brewed by moonlight. So we’d better get started as soon as we can.”

    “It looks like we’ve got some long nights ahead of us,” Amelia observed, reading over the document.

    And we’ve got to be careful so Phil doesn’t find out,” Zelgadis said darkly.

    “Oh, don’t worry about Daddy,” Amelia said. “I explained things to him and he said he’d back off.”

    Well. That was partially a lie. She hadn’t explained anything. What she’d said to Phil was: “Don’t you dare ruin this for me!” which could probably be seen as fueling her father’s apparent suspicions. But she’d thrown a hissy fit until he promised to lay-off. She didn’t relish throwing hissy fits, but sometimes they were the only way to get things done. And she wasn’t about to let Zelgadis get bullied out of the castle after she’d been hoping for so long that he’d come for a visit.

    “Yeah, but to get this potion right, we’ll have to be up at all hours of the night,” Zelgadis pointed out, not mentioning the “I’m watching you” incident. “He might get ideas no matter what we say. And anyway, I don’t want to bring in more people on this than is necessary.”

    “Okay,” Amelia said, feeling a slight flutter in her heart. Secret meetings. That was another thing the romance books had a lot of.

    She mentally pinched herself. This isn’t about anything like that, she scolded herself. This is about helping Mister Zelgadis. You know that’s the last thing he has on his mind. “I’m sure we can keep him from finding out. There’s a lot of land around the castle, and Daddy goes to bed early.” And was an early riser to boot.

    Zelgadis nodded. “We’ll need to get a cauldron to start off with. And then of course the ingredients.”

    “I’m sure the kitchens can spare one,” Amelia said. “I’ll stop by tomorrow and ask if we can borrow—”

    “No,” Zelgadis cut her off. “It has to be tonight.” He pointed up into the sky. “Look at the moon.”

    She did so, dutifully. It was a thin crescent of white, glittering among the stars. Looking at the sky at night is almost magnetic. It’s hard to put your head down again because there are all those stars out there to look at. Amelia felt this pull and couldn’t look down immediately.

    “It’s a waxing crescent,” Zelgadis explained. “Last night it was barely a sliver. There are twenty-eight nights until the new moon.”

    Amelia swung her head out of the clouds to look at him in awe. “You always did know all sorts of things like that,” Amelia said, twiddling with the edge of the scroll with “impressed” written all over her tone. “When we were traveling in the Outer World, too. I bet you even know how to navigate by the stars.”

    Zelgadis coughed and pushed away a flustered feeling. Admittedly he couldn’t navigate by the stars. Not, at least, without a mathematical compass and a star chart. He had once been briefly shanghaied, though, so perhaps he would’ve learned if he hadn’t ray winged-it back to shore. No sense in telling her that though.

    “The point is,” he went on, as if this interruption hadn’t occurred, “the potion takes twenty-eight days to brew and needs to be finished under the new moon. So if we want to hit the next new moon, we need to start tonight.”

    “Well, alright then,” she said. “We’ll just have to borrow the cauldron tonight.” Without asking, which is technically stealing, but it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs when a princess can’t take a pot from her own castle.

    “I’ll go get it then,” Zelgadis said, turning toward the kitchens.

    “No,” Amelia said, grabbing him by his cape. “I’ll go,” she said, and passed him. Her father had been acting strangely, and the last thing she wanted was for him to have an excuse to make Mister Zelgadis leave because he’d been pilfering their pots and pans.

    *****

    Amelia padded into the kitchen softly on fluffy white slippers. The tiles creaked eerily under her feet. But it was dark, and it looked empty. All the cooks should have been in bed by then.

    Looking both ways just in case someone materialized in the shadows, she blindly made her way to the cabinet and took out the largest pot she could find. She slid it out of the cabinet with a metallic scraping noise and heaved it into her arms. Then she tip-toed back towards the door.

    Suddenly there was a scratching sound and a hiss of smoke as a flicker of candlelight pierced against the darkness. “Aha!” a voice called out.

    Even if it was her castle, Amelia knew that what she was doing at least felt like stealing. As a result, the tremendous guilt and the voice calling her out made her want to put her hands up in the posture of the caught. But she didn’t because if she had then a large amount of cast iron would have landed on her toes. Instead she turned around slowly.

    “Oh, it’s just you Princess,” said the head cook’s face, illuminated in the darkness.

    “Sorry Mrs. Periwig, I just needed to borrow this,” Amelia said. It wasn’t the best explanation, but the smugness had gone out since the “aha!” so she was pretty sure she was in the clear.

    “I thought you was the thief that’s been coming ‘round these parts,” Mrs. Periwig said worriedly. “You know, an entire roast turkey disappeared last night? That’s what I call odd.” Her expression suddenly turned sharp. “You didn’t take it, did you?” Cooks tend to view kitchens as their domains, even in castles.

    “No!” Amelia said. “Really, I just wanted to borrow this.” That would probably be Miss Lina and Mister Gourry though.

    “Well… alright,” Mrs. Periwig said, as though to indicate that she was willing to accept this, but that her suspicion wasn’t entirely gone.

    “Umm…” Amelia went on, shifting the weight of the large cauldron. “Could you… not tell my daddy about this?”

    The cook shrugged. “I really don’t care if you keep that old thing. And it’s none of my business if you don’t want his Royal Highness to know.” She paused, looked thoughtful for a moment and added: “Could I maybe tell him it got stolen with the turkey? Only, I’ve wanted a new one for awhile and people won’t just let you buy something new if you still have an old one that works perfectly—”

    “Sure!” Amelia cut-in. The weight was really starting to get to her. She used her knee to keep the cauldron up. “I’ll just be going then!” And with that she raced out into the grounds as fast as she could while carrying the pot.

    Mrs. Periwig stood there for a moment. “Strange,” she said. “Why would she want an old cauldron?” She shrugged to herself. It wasn’t her concern.

    With that, she walked through the familiar darkness of her kitchen to make sure that the pickled radishes were still where she’d left them.

    *****

    Amelia ran back to the waiting Zelgadis, lugging the cauldron whilst huffing and puffing.

    “Did something happen?” Zelgadis said, looking concerned. “You’re pale.”

    “Nothing,” Amelia said, out of breath. “It’s just heavy.”

    Zelgadis took the vat from her as though it was lighter than a feather. “The first ingredient we’ve got to add is borage leaves,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Do you know where we can get that?”

    “There are a lot of herbs in the garden over there,” Amelia said, pointing to the garden viewable from her bedroom. It had tall hedges that were shaking oddly considering that there was no wind.

    Zelgadis nodded. It would probably be a good place to brew the potion. Tall hedges would hide most of the smoke, and there would be a lot of herbs on hand for when they needed them. Plus it was close to Amelia’s bedroom.

    “Let’s go,” he said.

    *****

    “Did you see that, Gourry?” Lina said from her hiding place in the bushes, smacking him painfully on the back yet again. “The plan is going off without a hitch. Too bad about the nightgown, though.”

    “What nightgown?” Gourry asked, rubbing at his sore back ruefully. “She’s not wearing a nightgown.”

    “Exactly.”

    “Oh.”

    “And did you see the way he watched her as she left? Ha. So that’s the way he looks at her when he thinks no one else can see. I really think this is going to work!”

    “Where’d she go anyway?” Gourry asked, squinting through the leaves.

    “Well, assuming that she showed up again with a cauldron I’d say she went to get a cauldron,” Lina said not-so-kindly. Why did she have to do the deductive reasoning for both of them?

    “Oh,” Gourry said, almost distractedly as he peered through the leaves. “And why are they heading over here?”

    “Well, that’s because,” Lina began, and paused. “They’re coming here?!” She whipped around and looked through the leaves. Sure enough, Zelgadis and Amelia were approaching their little garden of uninformed observation. She closed the leaves. Crap!

    “Hide!” she commanded.

    “Where?”

    “Anywhere!”

    *****

    “Watch out for the poison oak, Mister Zelgadis,” Amelia said, as she stepped into the garden.

    “I know what poison oak looks like, Amelia. I’m not an idiot,” Zelgadis said, feeling somewhat overwrought.

    Suddenly Amelia turned around and stared at the hedges. Zelgadis gave her an odd look. “What?” he asked.

    “…Nothing,” Amelia said after awhile. “I just thought I heard that bush swear.”

    Zelgadis transferred his odd look to the bush. It didn’t look especially profane. He turned it back on Amelia. “Bushes don’t usually do that,” he pointed out.

    “I know,” Amelia said, putting a hand on her forehead. “I guess it’s just late.”

    “You’ll have to be up at this time every night for the next month,” Zelgadis chided.

    Amelia gave him a smile. “Don’t worry; I can do it!”

    “Good,” Zelgadis said, feeling that uneasy feeling return again. “Let’s get going then.”

    They selected a nice place to sit and set up the cauldron. There was a bench right nearby it. Zelgadis immediately distrusted the bench because the back of it was entirely composed of hearts, but let it be. One magically created fire, an Aqua Create, and ten minutes later they had boiling water. It was time to begin.

    “I found the borage leaves,” Amelia said, holding up some likely green leaves.

    “Good,” Zelgadis said, and looked back at the scroll. “Now it says you’re supposed to bless them, and then we can put them in the pot and let them stew for about twenty minutes. Then we should be done for the night.”

    “Alright,” Amelia said. She held out the leaves in her hand and there was a faint glow from within. It seemed to Zelgadis as if her hair was being blown back by unearthly winds.

    Vessel of earth, child of dust,” Amelia began, “instill in your shell the blessings of heaven. Nils Bless!

    The effect was pretty good. Though it probably would’ve been better if she’d been wearing her white nightgown. Nevertheless, with the leaves blessed and left to stew in the pot, she took a seat next to Zelgadis on the heart-emblazoned bench as they watched the pot boil away.

  7. #7
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    Chapter 7. I’ll See You Tomorrow.

    The fire crackled stalwartly against the breezes of the evening, cooking the meager ingredients in the big pot. Zelgadis and Amelia sat around it, occasionally giving it a stir or adjusting the temperature with a spell where required. It was high summer, but it was late at night and there was a chill in the air. Amelia hugged herself to retain heat.

    “You’re cold,” Zelgadis said. He’d meant it to come out as a concern, not an accusation.

    “It wouldn’t be bad if it weren’t for the wind,” Amelia said, feeling the goose bumps against her arm.

    “You shouldn’t be out here in just your pajamas.”

    “Well, I didn’t know I’d be getting up at this time,” Amelia chided gently.

    “We’ll be done soon.”

    “It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” Amelia chirped in her way that indicated boundless patience and energy. She was, however, much happier that she hadn’t worn her pretty nightgown now.

    Of course, she didn’t really have it so bad, now did she? The high shrubs of the garden insolated it from the wind’s bitterest bite. And she had a fire to warm her hands against. A lot of people had it worse than her. Such as–and this is a totally random example–anyone who might have been hiding in the bushes: unable to move or make a noise for fear of drawing attention to themselves; cold and miserable and definitely getting a cramp; with a caterpillar industriously crawling up her forearm and a chipmunk nesting in his hair.

    But she didn’t think of any of that. Ungrateful.

    “So…” Amelia began, seeking to keep the conversation going. You got so many silences with Zelgadis, and she wasn’t used to silences. They were nice silences in their way, but at the moment she’d prefer to talk with him. “How was traveling with Miss Lina and Mister Gourry?”

    “Oh, you know what it’s like with them,” Zelgadis said dismissively. “They haven’t gotten any less typical.”

    There was a hiss of angrily indrawn breath from one of the bushes that was neatly covered up by a sudden gust of wind. The caterpillar fell off its perch as a hand tightened into a fist.

    “I do know what it’s like with them,” Amelia said deliberately. “And I know that, no matter where they go, there’s always an adventure along the way. So please tell me.”

    Zelgadis shuffled anxiously in the face of this sudden interest. “Nothing major happened,” he said. “Just the usual little scrapes. Nothing you’d want to hear.”

    Amelia looked off to the side quietly for a minute and then said: “Mister Zelgadis,” she took a deep breath, “you heard my Dad. I have responsibilities that I have to take care of here as a princess of Seyruun. It’s all for the best possible cause, but it’s work. It’s not what I’d choose to do if I didn’t have to.”

    “You know I’d rather be out there with you guys instead of being stuck in one place,” she went on, “but I can’t do that all the time. So please, at least tell me about it.”

    Zelgadis stared at her. He’d never seen her in this light before. She was… she was basically a silly person and she never really complained about anything. But obviously she had her own… wishes and regrets. She was a princess, yes. But he’d never thought of that as being basically a civil servant with a tiara. It was a job. She took it seriously. And that meant that she owed something to her people before herself. But what she really wanted…

    Well, she wanted to travel to exciting new places and beat up some bad guys along the way. That’s more the Amelia way. But she loved her country, and if her country demanded paperwork and ribbon-cuttings of her, then she’d do that too.

    “Well,” he began tentatively, “we did join the circus once.”

    She turned to him, all quizzical smile and fascinated interest. “Seriously? Tell me!”

    *****

    So he’d recounted the brief period of time that he, Lina, and Gourry had joined up with the circus. Amelia was an excellent audience. She oohed and ahhed at all the right moments and occasionally would say: “And then what happened?” Best of all, she was sympathetic. No one did righteous indignation on the behalf of others better than Amelia Wil Tesla Seyruun. So when the scouting ringmaster up in the highlands had found them and thought that Zelgadis would be perfect for his, eh, freak section, she pulled out all the aghast stops against the “horrible man.” And when he’d gotten to the part about Lina talking them all into joining the circus since they were low on cash and a job was not to be sneezed at in the rural, mountainous towns, she’d railed against “Miss Lina always acting so insensitive!”

    Miss Lina, who wished she was feeling insensitive considering the bush she was in was full of thorns, could only glower.

    So, Zelgadis had gone on, they’d agreed to work at the traveling circus though not, as Zelgadis had insisted, as freaks. Lina and Gourry had ended up as clowns (which Amelia found hilarious) and Zelgadis himself had only agreed to helping out behind the scenes since making himself the center of attention in a big crowd was the last thing he’d wanted to do. He’d gotten to see an elephant, which Amelia found pretty impressive until he told her what he’d been shoveling out of its pen.

    The whole thing had ended, predictably, in tragedy. Lina didn’t really have the temperament to be a clown and she had already been feeling irritated for not being slated into a more glamorous role. Gourry, however, took to it like a duck to water. Lina just didn’t have the knack for it. And, after a particularly trying afternoon of getting hit in the face with whipped cream pies and sprayed with water-hose flower button-holes, her twanging temper finally snapped when a snotty little seven year old asked for a spider-monkey balloon animal and then brought his mom around to complain when he didn’t get one. The resulting Dragon Slave hit the fireworks tent and caused a horrible, but very impressive looking, explosion.

    And that was the end of their circus careers.

    Amelia thought it was an excellent story and certainly not “nothing she’d want to hear.” She only regretted not being able to join them as figured it would’ve been really cool to be one of those people shot out of cannons.

    “But you’ve already been shot out of a cannon,” Zelgadis pointed out weakly. “And you nearly got a concussion because of it.” I… probably should’ve apologized for that at some point. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

    “Yeah, but I bet it would be better with a net,” Amelia said. “Plus I’d get to wear a helmet with stars on it and a cape.”

    “You already wear a cape,” Zelgadis pointed out sensibly. “And you could just buy a helmet and put stars on it.”

    “It wouldn’t be the same,” Amelia insisted, “without the cannon.”

    And so they talked on. Amelia wanted to know more about what had happened while Zelgadis had traveled with Lina and Gourry. To his surprise, he wanted to tell her. That’s the effect of a good listener; they pull out of the speaker more than they ever thought they’d tell.

    He told her about the time they’d accidentally hijacked a warship from the Lyzeille royal navy (they thought they were hijacking a less important ship). He told her about the time they’d been looking for swords in the city of Metteole and ended up on the pitchfork end of a peasants’ revolt. He told her about the time they’d searched for the Tome of Passing On and ended up getting chased by the badly bandaged undead. And, of course, he told her about all the times Lina had ended up enraging innkeepers, cooks, and wait staff. Including–and he blushed as he related this–the time Lina and Gourry had run afoul of an extremely angry erotic baker. Amelia had giggled a little too easily at this for his comfort.

    They talked for so long that the time just went away from them. They’d spent more than enough time on the potion for the evening and it seemed to be time to pack it in. It was strange. Zelgadis had viewed this as an unpleasant and likely extremely annoying chore earlier. But now he was wondering why he’d worried. This was going to be fine. And he hadn’t even gotten the chance to tell her about that weird bee-eating herbalist they’d encountered in the forest of Nicali.

    “I guess that’s about it,” he’d said.

    “Yeah,” she answered, with clear regret in her eyes.

    He looked doubtfully at the cauldron. “Oh, we can probably just keep that in the ice shed,” Amelia had said, noting his gaze. “No one’ll notice it if we keep it in the back.”

    Zelgadis nodded, and lifted the pot. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow night then,” he said. I should say thank you too, he thought. But somehow thinking that directly made it hard to do so. If it had come out without thought it would’ve been a different story, but…

    Amelia laughed. “Well, you’ll see me tomorrow too, Mister Zelgadis,” she said. “But I’ll definitely be here tomorrow night.”

    *****

    It was the next day and he did indeed see her. They were walking through the halls of the palace. Not really together, of course. More like she was going off to the legislative chamber and he was going to check around to see where they could get some crushed Gruddi seeds for the potion later that night and they’d just sort of met along the way and were going in the same direction. Not walking together by any means.

    As they were walking not-at-all-together side by side, they met Lina and Gourry coming from the other direction. If either of them had been less adrift in their own personal concerns they might have noticed that both their friends were covered in scratches and had a gooey layer of ointment over nasty looking rashes.

    “So, what’s the deal, Zel?” Lina asked bad-naturedly. It had not been a good night in the bush. “Are we heading out or what?”

    “Oh, that,” Zelgadis said, looking cornered. “Actually I was thinking we could extend our stay.”

    “Really?” Lina said with wide-eyed faux-innocence. “I thought you said we should get going. What changed your mind?”

    “He found—” Amelia began, but was elbowed into silence by Zelgadis.

    “It just might be good to have a long break, you know,” Zelgadis said hurriedly over Amelia.

    “Hmm,” Lina said, treating both of them to an intensely suspicious look. She shrugged. “Well, you won’t get an argument from me. Let’s stay awhile! As long as that’s okay with you, Amelia,” she added.

    “Of course it’s okay,” Amelia said, looking confusedly at Zelgadis.

    “Well, great then!” Lina said, giving Gourry a headlock in an easy-going sort of way. “C’mon Gourry, let’s go down to the kitchens and see if they’re cooking anything up for us!”

    “But it’s two in the afternoon,” Gourry pointed out somewhat raspily on account of his compressed wind-pipe.

    “Yeah, but I’m feeling lucky,” Lina said, as the two made their way off to the kitchens.

    Amelia turned a looked of befuddlement on Zelgadis as soon as the other two were out of earshot. “Why didn’t you want me to tell Miss Lina about the potion?” she asked.

    “You heard what I said before,” Zelgadis said with his arms crossed. “I don’t want to bring more people into this than necessary. Anyway, you know Lina. She’d meddle.”

    Amelia considered the wisdom of this. Lina Inverse was a Grade A meddler.

    “Alright,” she said. “I won’t tell.”

    *****

    “So it’s working?” Phil asked later as Lina and Gourry reported (after a short visit to the kitchens for a very tiny snack of three bowls of spaghetti and meatballs a piece).

    “I think so,” Lina said. “It’s starting to at least. They fell for the spell thing at least so they’ll have to spend time together secretly for twenty-eight nights.”

    “Do you think that’s enough?” Phil asked.

    Lina sighed. She wasn’t a miracle worker here. Why should she be expected to do everything? “I don’t know,” Lina said. “But it’ll keep him here for a while.”

    “Anyway,” Lina said, striking out for a more optimistic note. “It’s a pretty good start. I know for a fact the first night only called for the stuff to be brewed for twenty minutes and they were talking for…” she looked over at Gourry. “How long would you say, Gourry?”

    Gourry checked the rash on his arm as though it would provide him with an accurate time-line. “More than an hour.”

    “More than an hour,” Lina repeated to Phil. “So, that’s pretty good, right?”

    Phil smiled. “It’s a good sign.”

    And,” Lina went on. “They’re not just keeping this secret from you, but Zelgadis didn’t even want to tell us.” She crossed her arms and nodded thoughtfully. “He’ll probably say it’s because he wants to keep everyone out of his business, and that’s partially true. But I bet you, subconsciously or something, he wants to be alone with Amelia.”

    Phil nodded. “Keep up the good work then,” he said, smacking the arm of his chair with the palm of his hand appreciatively.

    “Whoa! Hold up a minute there!” Lina yelled. “We’re not like your employees or something. This is your harebrained scheme so why aren’t you doing anything? I thought you said you had some ideas?”

    “I do,” Phil said. “And I’m looking into trying out one.”

    There was a beat of silence. “Well, what is it?” Lina demanded.

    “I don’t want to tell you in case it doesn’t work out,” Phil said, sitting back in his chair and lacing his fingers together. “But you’ll know in a few days anyway.”

    *****

    Amelia sat on her bed and watched the clock. In about half-an-hour she’d head out to the garden to meet with Zelgadis to work on the potion. She wasn’t tired. She’d taken a nap earlier in the afternoon. When questioned about this change in her sleeping habits, she’d merely explained that it was called “siesta.”

    They’d been working on the potion for a few nights in a row now. Ingredients weren’t too hard to find. In fact, they were a little odd in their… normalness. Paprika and kidney beans hardly seemed like magical ingredients. Oh, sure there were a few magical things that were pretty easy to find in a city as focused on magic as Seyruun. But… but well, lamb was called for later on. She’d never heard of a magic potion that needed lamb as an ingredient. Even if the potion didn’t work, it’d probably be tasty.

    She was… really enjoying this. There wasn’t much to do but stir the ingredients and stoke the fire. Other than that it was just waiting and… talking. She and Zelgadis hadn’t talked this much since the last time they traveled alone with each other. It was nice. So often in the past there was danger hanging overhead that clouded their conversations. But now there was a break.

    And if it wasn’t for the fact that he needed her to bless the ingredients, she wouldn’t even be there. She bit her lip. For some reason this made her feel oddly… guilty. And something else… not worried: stronger than worried. Irritated.

    She shook her head at herself. She was being stupid. Like Zelgadis should want to seek her out just for her sparkling company or something. He wasn’t like that. He was too… pragmatic. She shouldn’t focus on that, she realized. She should just focus on the good parts.

    She boredly fished around under her mattress where her secret stash of romance novels was and picked one up at random. She looked at it. It was her favorite one.

    The cover featured a man in black with his arms around a breathless woman who looked about ready to pop out of her dress, all against a setting sun. That’s how you can tell it’s a romance book. They always have covers like that. It was called Passion’s Masque which she found slightly embarrassing.

    She was ashamed of all her romance books; that was why they were under the mattress. Bad though they were, they struck a chord in the common denominator of humanity, which was why they sold like hotcakes.

    This particular one was about a young heiress that got saved from muggers by a mysterious man in a bone white mask. She seeks him out and tries to find him, but he runs from her. In the end, she finds out that he was born deformed and abandoned by his mother. He roams from town to town hiding his face thinking that no one will ever accept him. Of course, the woman falls in love with him (and not that sneering Claude Akins with his twirly black moustache and high society family) and they get married in secret (so the woman’s father doesn’t find out), and run off to the coast to buy a ship and sail around the world.

    She closed the book. It was stupid, she told herself. Not close to real life at all. And there’d been a ballroom scene for no adequately explained reason!

    And anyway, she thought hotly as she put it back under her bed, it’s not like it reminded her of anyone or anything.

    *****

    The next day at breakfast Amelia and Zelgadis were visibly tired from their late-night potion brewing. Because of that they were unlikely to wrestle much breakfast away from Lina and Gourry. As it was, Lina was already hoarding the basket of bread and Gourry was chewing on the butter pads. When the eggs and sausages came out there would be a very good chance that anyone else reaching for them would be stabbed with cutlery.

    Phil stood up from his chair and tapped on his glass with a fork as a call for attention. Every head in the hall turned to see what he had to say. Lina sprayed bread crumbs in her surprise at this sudden interruption in her mastication.

    “May I have your attention please?” Phil began, and he needn’t have asked; he already had it. “Well, I thought I’d let you all know the good news right away so that preparations can begin. We soon will be lucky enough to be receiving a visit from her grace, the Duchess of Halrune!” He beamed at them.

    Amelia dropped her fork, a look of horror plastered across her face. Lina, Gourry, and Zelgadis turned to her in surprise, but she was only looking at her father.

    “G-great Aunt Myrtle is coming?” she asked in helpless disbelief.

  8. #8
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    Chapter 8. The Duchess.

    “So let me get this straight,” Lina said, tapping her fingers agitatedly on the table as she and Gourry had another private audience with Phil to talk strategy. “The Duchess of Halrune, Amelia’s Great Aunt Myrtle, is coming here?

    “He already said that at breakfast, Lina,” Gourry pointed out as Phil nodded. Geez, and people picked on him for having a poor memory!

    Lina spared a moment to glare at him before plunging onward. “As in, your Aunt Myrtle?”

    “Yes,” Phil said.

    “As in, the same Aunt Myrtle that destroyed your budding romance with some maid whose name you can’t even remember?” Lina asked combatively.

    “She wasn’t a maid, she was the head maid’s daughter,” Phil answered calmly. “And I’ve remembered her name. It was Katarina.”

    “That’s pretty,” Gourry commented.

    Lina was ready to Moe-slap them both across the face at this point, but resisted the urge on the basis that Phil was a prince and Gourry wasn’t being annoying on purpose. “How very special for you,” she said acidly. “But has it occurred to you that inviting a person like that here when I’ve finally got everything worked out with a nice romantic atmosphere for Zelgadis and Amelia might be the worst possible thing you could do?” She didn’t want to see her handiwork destroyed, damn it!

    Phil gave her a blank look. “Nope,” was all he said.

    “Nope?!” Lina exploded. “Is that all you can say?!”

    “Well,” Phil said, clearing his throat, “I thought it was a pretty good idea. Didn’t we decide that the name of the game was opposition to them? Reverse-psychology is what we need to really push Mister Zelgadis. And, as we’ve seen, there’s only so much I can do as Amelia’s father without creating more of a problem between my Amelia and me than affecting Mister Zelgadis.”

    “That’s ‘cause she’s got you wrapped around her little finger,” Lina commented.

    Phil coughed. “The point is: Aunt Myrtle is opposition personified.”

    Lina sat back and thought about this. She’d been working so hard on nudging Zel and Amelia together that she’d mostly forgotten about the opposition part. Rose petals have a tendency of clouding one’s vision.

    “Well, that may be,” Lina said, determined to remain a little bit upset even in the face of Phil’s completely reasonable strategy, “but she’s not in on this. We can’t control her, so if she goes too far she could ruin this completely.”

    Phil waved a hand. “That shouldn’t happen. There’s only so much that she can do as a guest, and anyway, Mister Zelgadis won’t leave while he still has that potion to finish.”

    “Well…” Lina said, “maybe.”

    “Trust me,” Phil said, “After even a short period of time in her company, Mister Zelgadis will be justifying to himself why our family should be positively grateful to have him as a son-in-law. Aunt Myrtle can sow defiance in anyone.”

    “Sounds like you’re speaking from experience,” Gourry said. Lina privately agreed.

    “Yeah, yeah, fine,” Lina relented. “But we’d all just better hope that dear old Aunt Myrtle doesn’t send Zelgadis away like she did with your little ex-girlfriend.”

    *****

    Cleaning went on long after it was too dark to see. Candles blazed in the hall, burning their light into sleepy eyes. Lighting spells hovered like diligent little angels. The smell of solvents hung in the air like an unwelcomed baptism to the sinuses. And all the while, the frantic background beat of scrubbing echoed like the accompaniment of some mystic chant. If the chant had words, it might have said…

    The duchess is coming!


    Oh, the duke was coming too, but that wasn’t really the issue. No one would’ve run themselves ragged cleaning between every tile in the ballroom with a toothbrush for the duke. But for the duchess… well, it was what she would do if they didn’t bathe the entire castle in bleach that had the cleaning staff worried.

    So they scrubbed and mopped and dusted and decontaminated at a fevered pitch. They were good. They knew they were good. Seyruun was a wealthy and powerful nation, and the castle was the symbol of that. You didn’t get to be on the cleaning staff at Seyruun castle by sweeping dust under the rug. But they all knew that they wouldn’t last a second in the household of the Duchess of Halrune.

    Stories of what she’d done to a young maid that set down a cold drink for a minute on a table without using a coaster were filled with dark and disturbing details so unbelievable that they had to be true. This was enough to keep the cleaning staff going even as their elbows, knees, and nerves gave out.

    They cleaned; they twice-cleaned; they coated furniture in plastic; they cleaned the plastic. They even cleaned things a person wouldn’t normally think to clean like the backsides of paintings. They only quit when the combination of fumes, exhaustion, and running through a year’s supply of cleaning product in one go made them stop. They led each other away, leaning on one another for support and crying softly.

    How could you do this to us Prince Philionel?!

    And Zelgadis watched all of this from the landing of the stair. He hadn’t meant to stop, but it was just too pathetic a sight to avoid. When the last of the maids made her sniffling way to her quarters, he shook his head sadly in the growing dark, and walked to a side door and out to the gardens.

    Of course, he only set foot on the plastic mats that had been set out especially for this purpose. He was not a cruel man.

    *****

    “What’s the story with everyone in the castle?” Zelgadis asked later as he and Amelia sat around the bubbling cauldron after adding the night’s ingredients. “I mean, is it really such a big deal that the Duchess of Halrune is coming?”

    “My Great Aunt Myrtle tends to set people on edge,” Amelia said, with an oddly fixed, extremely unhappy looking smile on her face.

    “Is she a neat-freak or something?” Zelgadis asked, remembering the tireless work of the cleaning staff.

    “She just… likes things to be proper. She’s very… exacting,” Amelia said as though walking on eggshells. She was staring into her knees as though doom awaited her.

    “Is something wrong?” Zelgadis asked. “You look worried.”

    Amelia sighed, as if being asked to explain something so nebulous that she wasn’t exactly sure where to begin. “She’ll just… cause problems. And she’ll probably be very rude to everyone too.”

    “Why?”

    “She’s very,” and again Amelia paused as though deleting a harsher word, “class conscious.”

    “Oh,” Zelgadis said. He’d come across people like that before. Good breeding: it’s like they think their pure bred while the rest of humanity is more like that scraggly little dog that everyone’s pretty sure is just a giant rat.

    “It’s, like, she went to charm school, right?” Amelia went on, now on the momentum of someone who’s denied themselves venting time for a long while and can deny no more. “But she doesn’t consider the manners she learned worth wasting on people who didn’t go to charm school.”

    “I think I know the type,” Zelgadis said grimly.

    “No you don’t,” Amelia said vehemently. “I’ve met lots of people that are snobs–that think they’re better than everyone else just because of the family they were born into or married into. But my Great Aunt Myrtle is different. She’s horrifying.”

    “How bad can she be?” Zelgadis asked. People get so melodramatic about that type of person. Some minor hygiene-based psychosis, a set of manners meant to smother people, and a waspish comment or two. Sure, it was unpleasant. But there’s no need to be afraid of people like that. Those type of people depended on that fear.

    “There was a story about her from when I was little,” Amelia said distantly, “that if you were bad and she caught you–and she’d always catch you–that she’d cut off your little finger with a carving knife and put it in her purse. And if you looked in her purse you’d just see dozens of shriveled up little fingers.”

    There was a long, uncomfortable silence.

    “Oh come on.

    “That’s what everyone said!” Amelia went on hysterically. “And they said she could talk to cats and get them to spy for her, and she never has to sleep, and she made a pact with a demon for the power to read people’s minds, and—”

    “Amelia,” Zelgadis cut across her, seeing a trend here. “Who are ‘they?’”

    “My cousins,” Amelia said simply.

    “Ah,” Zelgadis said. “And this was when you were…?”

    “Six,” Amelia answered.

    Zelgadis made several assumptions about the dark powers of elderly, aristocratic women and the attitude of cousins toward their younger relatives. “Don’t you think they were just trying to scare you?” he asked.

    “I know, but…” Amelia muttered miserably. She folded her knees up into her face. “…it worked.”

    Zelgadis sighed. He didn’t know how to comfort people to save his life and wasn’t at all willing to learn. Seeing someone in need of comfort caused him to automatically become irritable when irritability is extremely unhelpful. Snapping at people who are already upset isn’t a healthy way to deal with conflict. He knew this. He also knew that he needed Amelia’s help in the coming weeks. And it would be really hard to get her to venture out in the dark hours of the night if she was afraid a psychotic old woman would jump out and cut her finger off.

    “Look, you’re not six now, right?” he said, turning partly away from her. “You’ve beaten tons of enemies more dangerous than some old woman. There’s no reason to be afraid of her, no matter what charm school she went to.”

    “I know,” Amelia said again. “It’s just… she’s not going to like you.”

    Zelgadis shrugged. People like Great Aunt Myrtle didn’t usually like much of anyone. “So what? She probably won’t like Lina and Gourry either.”

    “That’s true,” Amelia allowed. “But… I just know she’s going to give you extra trouble.”

    “Why?” Zelgadis asked. Then he got an unpleasant feeling. “Is it… the chimera thing?”

    “No,” Amelia said, shaking her head. “It’s not that.”

    “Then what?”

    “I don’t know,” Amelia said. “I’ve just got a bad feeling.”

    There was another silence, filled only with the bubbling from the cauldron. Maybe, Zelgadis thought, she knows this Aunt Myrtle’s personality well enough to get the sense that it’ll clash with mine. Maybe she’s getting a flash of the future like shrine-maidens get sometimes.

    …Or maybe she was just more worried about him than she was about Lina and Gourry.

    He shook his head as though he could physically dislodge the thought. “Why did your father invite her here anyway?”

    “I don’t know,” Amelia said. “I always got the feeling that Daddy didn’t like her. It’s strange.”

    Zelgadis sat back. “Well… Phil has been acting strange lately.”

    “I know,” Amelia said. “I wish I knew what was going on.”

    The night was warm and even the satiny sky seemed to give off a strange glow. The darkness wasn’t as thick that night. The smell of hyacinth drifted through the air. …Well, maybe not hyacinth. Zelgadis wasn’t really that good with flowers. He hadn’t bothered with them beyond their basic medicinal uses. There hadn’t seemed much point. In any case, some flowery smell was in the air. It was girly and sweet and made him feel uncomfortable and out of place.

    Amelia was staring up at the moon, still hugging her knees. The lacy edges of her nightgown moved gently by her feet in the breeze. Zelgadis had wondered about the nightgown. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call practical outdoors wear. When he’d commented about it, Amelia had said that it was laundry day and the rest of her stuff was in the wash. It seemed a lame excuse, but perhaps the obsessed maids had carted off all her clothes for emergency sanitation and hadn’t left her much choice except to wear an almost astonishingly demure nightgown.

    “Me too,” he said.

    *****

    There was a crowd spilling through the halls when she arrived. Bad news like the Duchess of Halrune travels fast. The cleaning crew loitered around doorframes, biting their thumbs in anticipation. Lina and Gourry and even Zelgadis had come along with Amelia to see the woman that would’ve been described as a dragon-lady if it wasn’t for the fact that they knew Filia would’ve been offended.

    She was very tall. She was old, but had a tough, weathered look: like a mountain. A pile of grey hair was practically nailed on top of her head with some very formidable looking hairpins. She wore a burgundy dress with a hem that touched the floor and a collar that must’ve tickled her chin.

    She surveyed the illustrious entrance hall with eagle eyes as though it was dilapidated, abandoned, and on the brink of collapse. She appeared to be waiting for something. Phil opened his mouth to greet her, but she held up an admonishing hand.

    “Since it appears that I will not be properly announced,” she enunciated in rigid tones, “as is the custom befitting a lady of my status, I will have to announce myself.” She cleared her throat. “Lady Myrtle Erzebelle Syra Challacia Nexe Halrune. Duchess of Halrune.” She glared forward as if daring someone to challenge her.

    “Sorry, Aunt Myrtle,” Phil said sheepishly. “We had the announcer all lined up, but I’m afraid he’s home sick in bed.”

    He wasn’t. He’d just been terrified of messing up Lady Myrtle’s name and his palms sweat too much to write it on his hand. Plus he didn’t have enough hand for a name that big.

    “‘He who excuses himself, accuses himself,’” Lady Myrtle responded sharply as she removed her gloves with a snap and put them in her oversized purse (which probably didn’t contain any detached fingers).

    “You always were so full of wisdom,” Phil said with a slightly strained look.

    “Isn’t she though?” said the skinny little old man beside Lady Myrtle. You almost wouldn’t notice him next to her. Myrtle had an overshadowing quality about her. The man smiled in a collapsible sort of way, as though the structural work of thirty-two teeth was being undertaken by four. He was giving Myrtle an adoring look.

    “Quiet, Edmund,” Myrtle responded harshly.

    So that was Lord Edmund, the Duke of Halrune: perhaps the second most powerful city-block in the entire nation of Seyruun. Despite the fact that he was wearing a pair of expensive looking pinstriped trousers and his wife had a full skirt, it was pretty clear which one of them wore the pants in that relationship.

    “It’s such a shame that it’s been so long since we’ve last seen you,” Phil said, doing a stupid thing by distracting Myrtle from her irritation at her husband.

    Myrtle turned her full and horrible attention back on Phil. “I don’t go where I am not wanted,” she said accusingly.

    She walked further into the hall, clucking her tongue as she looked around. “I can see the place has gone to rack and ruin since I was last here.” Her eyes fell on Amelia who, for a moment, looked like she might make a run for it.

    Myrtle bore down on her and grabbed her face in one hand, turning it from side to side as older relatives tend to think they have a right to do. She shook her head, and released her. “Much work to be done all around I see,” was all she said.

    She looked beyond her grand-niece, whose face was burning with embarrassment, to Lina, Gourry, and Zelgadis standing behind her. She wore the expression of someone who has seen the rats and is trying to remember where the poison is.

    “And who are these?” she asked.

  9. #9
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    Chapter 9. Arrangements Not Made.

    Lina, Gourry, and Zelgadis were caught off-guard. Having to deal with a woman as formidable as Lady Myrtle giving you one of her signature “you are vermin” looks is never pleasant. Well, Lina and Zelgadis were caught off-guard; Gourry seemed alright, but he just might not have been paying attention.

    “We’re uh…” Lina began uncertainly.

    “This is Miss Lina Inverse, Mister Gourry Gabriev, and Mister Zelgadis Greywords,” Phil swooped in to explain. “They’re friends of my Amelia’s.”

    “I see,” Myrtle said, not taking her steely eyes off of them. “And the nature of their visit would be?”

    “Umm… to visit?” Lina offered. It seemed pretty obvious.

    “And for how long?” Myrtle asked sternly.

    Lina scowled. Where did this woman get the right to interrogate them about their stay? “For as long as we—” Lina began, not caring who she made enemies with.

    “They’re welcome to stay for as long as they want,” Phil cut in, deciding perhaps it would be better if Lina didn’t answer that in her current temper. “Miss Lina and her friends have served the kingdom on a number of occasions. Seyruun owes them a great debt,” he said firmly.

    “Really?” Myrtle said in a chilly tone. “And they served Seyruun… for free?”

    “What?” Phil asked, uncomprehendingly.

    “Well, I’ve heard something of Miss Inverse before,” Myrtle said, and right there Lina knew that was a bad sign. No one ever spread nice rumors about her. “And I understand the prices she asks for her aid are somewhat outrageous.”

    “What?!” Lina exploded. “Look lady, have you ever tried to fight a monster? It’s no cake walk! My prices are completely—”

    “They are a little outrageous,” Zelgadis commented, without much rancor.

    Lina turned to glare at him. This was no time to be a smart aleck!

    “It’s ‘cause she’s so greedy,” Gourry agreed.

    “Hmmph,” Myrtle went on. “Well it seems to me that Seyruun’s debt has been paid.”

    “They’re our friends!” Amelia exclaimed. “We’re not letting them stay here because we have to. We’re glad to have them here!”

    Myrtle looked at Amelia as though she was a rather irrelevant detail. “I see,” she said icily. She turned her gaze back on Lina, Gourry, and Zelgadis. She gave them a… well, technically it classified as a smile. Her lips turned up at the corners, but the look in her eyes didn’t change. “Then I’m sure I will look forward to their company.”

    The three of them got the impulse to take a step back. The thought: “We’re doomed,” ran across their minds.

    Myrtle snapped her attention back to Phil. “Philionel! Where is Eldoran? Are you taking good care of him?”

    Phil’s expression darkened. “He’s on the second floor. We have several skilled doctors and healers attending to him, but he doesn’t improve.”

    “I wish to see him!” Myrtle demanded.

    “Of course,” Phil said, closing his eyes. He nodded to a servant who stepped forward, gave a little half-bow to Lady Myrtle, and motioned for her to follow him. For just one second, Myrtle’s expression seemed to soften and she was just an old woman. But then she snapped back to attention.

    “We shall talk later, Philionel,” she said in a rather threatening manner. “Come along, Edmund.”

    “Yes, my treasure,” her husband cooed, trailing after her billowing skirts.

    *****

    “What a horrible woman!” Lina exclaimed as the four of them took refuge in the privacy of Lina’s room later on. She looked to the side with some embarrassment and said: “Sorry Amelia, I know she’s family, but honestly—”

    “Don’t worry about it,” Amelia said, resting her chin in both hands. “She scares everyone.”

    “The nerve of her to act like we have no right to be here!” Lina raged on, once it was clear that she had permission to. “Where does that old bat get off thinking she can just come in here and boss everyone around?!”

    “Calm down,” Gourry said. “You gotta be nice to old ladies. Even if they act mean, they’re just doing it ‘cause they still want to be important.”

    Lina gave Gourry a surprised and suspicious look. “That’s oddly insightful for you, Gourry. Where’d you get that from?”

    “My mom used to say it,” Gourry said calmly, “about my grandma.”

    “The same grandma who liked good penmanship?” Lina asked, but underneath it all she felt a little annoyed. Why didn’t she know anything about these people? Shouldn’t Gourry have told her about the important people in his life? Seriously, they’d traveled together for ages. You’d think he’d care enough to let her know.

    “Yep,” Gourry said.

    “What about penmanship?” Zelgadis asked.

    “Oh, nothing,” Lina said dismissively. Zelgadis wasn’t to know about anything related to the fake spell.

    “Hmm,” Zelgadis said. He wasn’t really dwelling on Gourry’s family history or the merits of respecting your elders. Myrtle asking to see King Eldoran had jabbed at something in his mind. He never thought about it. He’d had opportunities, but he’d brushed them away. Phil’s father… Amelia’s grandfather was bedridden and was heading into a steady decline. He knew that. But he didn’t know much of anything else. He’d never asked. Not because he didn’t care precisely… more like he didn’t want to care. And he didn’t want to upset Amelia either. He knew she went to visit her grandfather occasionally, but never looked any further. His excuse was that it was a private family moment… but he knew he had more selfish reasons for keeping himself out of the loop.

    And Myrtle’s brother seemed to be her soft-spot. Well, even an old bird that tough had to care about something.

    There was a polite knock on the door and, when given permission to come in, a messenger opened the door. “Princess?” he said. “Lady Myrtle has requested you to take tea with her and Prince Philionel and Lord Edmund in the sitting room.”

    A look of panic crossed Amelia’s face. She might have been about to blurt out: “Do I have to?” but the messenger beat her to the punch.

    Please,” he said with a pained expression, “don’t make me go back and tell her that you won’t come!”

    Amelia found her resolve and nodded. “Alright,” she said. “Tell her I’ll be down in a minute.”

    The messenger nodded gratefully and bowed his way out of the room.

    Amelia sighed and turned to her friends. “Well, I guess I’d better be going then. I’ll see you all later.”

    “Unless she poisons you or something,” Lina commented acerbically.

    “Come on,” Gourry said. “Don’t be mean.”

    “All I can say is: good luck,” Zelgadis said, rolling his eyes.

    Amelia nodded miserably and walked out of the room. At an extremely slow pace.

    “Well, that’s that,” Lina said, after Amelia had disappeared down the hall. “Wonder what that Myrtle lady wants to talk to them about.”

    Zelgadis shrugged. “It depends. It probably has to do with why Phil invited her here.”

    Lina knew exactly why Phil invited her, and that didn’t help much since Myrtle didn’t know. “The sitting room,” she said vaguely. “That’s the one they barely ever use with all the covered furniture and the vaulted ceiling.”

    “They probably took the covers off the furniture since they have guests,” Zelgadis said. “That should be good news at least. Apparently she’s a neat freak.”

    “There’s a really loud echo in that room,” Lina said almost wistfully. “A person could be just outside the door and hear every word that’s been said.”

    Zelgadis stared at her. “No,” he said firmly.

    “Oh, come on!” Lina said earnestly.

    “Why would we want to eavesdrop on Phil and his guests?” Zelgadis said. “There’s no reason to do that besides the fact that you’re nosy.”

    “That’s a good enough reason!” Lina insisted. “Don’t you want to know what she’s saying?”

    “I don’t care,” Zelgadis said simply.

    “Well, I’m going,” Lina said petulantly. “Stay here and brood all day if you want.”

    “Fine,” Zelgadis said, though he really hadn’t planned on doing much brooding. But then again, you never plan on brooding. It just happens naturally.

    Lina tried one last shot: “And don’t think for one minute that I’ll tell you what she said!”

    Damn it.

    *****

    So Lina, Gourry, and Zelgadis found themselves hovering outside Seyruun castle’s sitting room. It was a rarely used room. Phil had the general attitude that entertaining should be done with the accompaniment of a banquet (a policy that Lina wholeheartedly approved of) so most meetings with guests were done in the dining hall. Meetings that didn’t require a wide variety of condiments were held in what in another castle might have been called “The War Room.” Phil disagreed with the idea of war, so he called it “The Long-Term Peace Strategy Room,” which wasn’t as catchy, but was fine since “war” and “long-term peace strategy” have a lot in common. Since it was where Lina, Gourry, and Phil had been talking matchmaking strategy, Lina had started thinking of it as “The Love and War Room.”

    But the sitting room wasn’t used much. Neither Phil nor Amelia were into stifling manners, but clearly Aunt Myrtle was. She probably hoped someone would slurp their tea just so she could give them one of the looks she’d been practicing in the mirror.

    “So,” they heard Phil say in a fit of jovial awkwardness, “isn’t it nice us all being together like this?” You really had to feel sorry for the guy.

    “Drop the lies, Philionel,” Myrtle said bluntly. “I know you wouldn’t invite me here unless you needed my help.”

    “That’s not true!” Phil protested. “I just thought a visit would be—”

    Ha,” Myrtle said, to make her disbelief known. She gestured to Amelia with her tea-cup. “It’s about getting an engagement set up, isn’t it? A woman’s help is generally needed in these affairs.”

    Amelia gripped the handle of her tea-cup a little harder than necessary. Being treating like an object was getting old fast.

    “Ah,” Phil cleared his throat awkwardly. “No.”

    Myrtle looked surprised. “You have something in the works already?” she asked.

    “No,” Phil said. “We were actually thinking that we’d wait a bit.”

    Myrtle gave him a look that suggested that she doubted whether he was doing any thinking at all. “Really, Philionel? You can’t be that foolish, can you? She must have gotten proposals already. With the other one gone, this one will no doubt be on the throne one day. Any nobleman would jump at the chance of being king, even if the girl is a bit,” she sniffed, “untraditional.”

    There was the sound of china being slammed into “this one’s” saucer.

    “Well, I mean, we have gotten some—” Phil began, only to be cut off again.

    “You’ve gotten proposals and you’re just going to wait?” Myrtle asked. “Have you any idea how insulted her prospective suitors will be? Trade relations will suffer. Have you been thinking of Seyruun at all?”

    “Well, of course I have, but—”

    “It’s this… fairy-tale stuff you’ve been feeding her, isn’t it?” Myrtle spat. “She probably thinks she’s going to go out there and find some romance.” It was clear that the words “fairy-tale” and “romance” were on a long list of words that Lady Myrtle disapproved of.

    “Arranged marriages can be romantic too, my dear,” came the slightly whistley voice of Lord Edmund to Amelia. “Why, I remember the day I met your Great Aunt Myrtle,” he said, misty-eyed. “It was a magical moment.”

    Myrtle snorted. It was an odd sound from such a genteel lady. It was a refined sort of snort, but nevertheless a snort.

    “Our eyes met across a crowded room,” Edmund reminisced.

    “It was our wedding,” Myrtle said firmly. “You asked your father which one the bride was and he pointed.”

    “Yes, but it was love at first sight,” Edmund countered.

    “You thought you were marrying my handmaiden for half-an-hour before someone corrected you,” Myrtle said harshly.

    “It was love at first sight then too,” Edmund said with a sigh.

    Myrtle shook her head in disgust. She turned back to Amelia. “I was two years younger than you. When I was your age I was already expecting our Edgar.” She waved a hand toward Edmund. “Sixty-eight years of marriage. Eight children. Our marriage was for the good of Seyruun and for the good of Halrune. It was a political arrangement. It didn’t have any of your romance. But sixty-eight years,” she said, giving Edmund an appraising look, “and it’s been mostly tolerable.”

    Edmund smiled as though he couldn’t ask for a more glowing review.

    “There’s plenty of time,” Phil said, trying to take control back of the conversation as Amelia gave Myrtle and Edmund a horrified look. “We don’t need to rush into anything if she’s not ready to get married.”

    “Pish posh,” Myrtle said dismissively. “The marriage isn’t that important. At least not immediately. Let her have a long engagement if she’s so immature. Maybe she’ll grow out of this awkward stage and grow out her hair so she doesn’t look like a boy anymore.”

    Zelgadis had to gape from outside the room. How many cataracts, he thought in disbelief, does dear old Aunt Myrtle have to have to think Amelia looks like a boy?

    “The point is to get the arrangements made,” Myrtle said firmly. “That way everyone knows where they stand and the political climate can calm down.”

    “But I don’t want to get engaged now,” Amelia said, red-faced. Well, she thought, at least not to anyone Aunt Myrtle would pick out.

    “That hardly matters now, does it?” Myrtle said with withering scorn.

    “I think if she wants to wait we should let her wait,” Phil said loyally.

    Myrtle eyes were ping-ponging suspiciously between Phil and Amelia. “There’s already someone, isn’t there?” she asked sharply.

    “No!” Phil and Amelia both said at once.

    “Yes, there is,” Myrtle said certainly. “Please don’t tell me it’s one of your little vagabond friends. A bunch of free-loaders if I ever saw one.”

    The free-loading eavesdroppers shifted awkwardly outside the door.

    “Don’t talk about them like that. They’re good people!” Amelia shot back. Though she might have occasionally used the word “free-loaders” too.

    “Aha!” Myrtle said, triumph shining in her eyes. “It is one of them. It’s not the tall one because I see him trailing after that Inverse girl. I recognize that behavior.” She shot a contemptuous look her husband’s way. “It’s the chimera one, isn’t it? Got his eye on the throne, has he?”

    The Inverse girl and the tall one exchanged a flustered look. What behavior?

    “No! You’re all wrong about him!” Amelia said, really getting upset at this point.

    “Or maybe his eye is on something else then?” Myrtle said in a low suspicious voice as she looked Amelia over.

    Outside in the hall, Zelgadis had his eye on the floor.

    “Listen, we’re just friends!” Amelia said, blushing. “Trust me when I say that that’s the last thing on his mind.”

    “Is it that far back, Zel?” Lina couldn’t resist asking in a whisper.

    “Shut up,” he said.

    “What is he, a swordsman or something?” Myrtle asked in an unimpressed tone.

    And a sorcerer,” Amelia added with a certain touch of pride.

    “Hmmph,” Myrtle said again. “And that’s supposed to make him king material?”

    “I never said—” Amelia tried.

    “Might be nice to have a warrior king,” Edmund commented lightly. “Not that I see anything wrong with your pacifistic nature, Philionel,” he added deferentially, “but an experienced battler could bring something new and valuable to the game.”

    Zelgadis couldn’t believe that they were actually talking about this. Like it was a possibility! They just steamrollered over Amelia when she said she didn’t want to.

    …Well wait. She hadn’t actually said that she didn’t want to. Just that it was the last thing on his mind.

    “The chimera thing could be a problem,” Edmund said thoughtfully, “but I’m sure that given time the people could—”

    “Do you even listen to yourself, Edmund?” Myrtle rebuked. “We’ve had hunchbacked kings, half-paralyzed kings, elderly kings, child kings, and occasionally even undead kings. The chimera issue hardly matters. The public will stand for practically anything.”

    Zelgadis found that all rather hard to believe, especially coming from Myrtle of all people.

    “But what they will not stand for,” Myrtle went on, “is a common king.”

    Zelgadis clenched his fist. Oh yes, he thought. It does make more sense that that would be her problem. There’s a certain type of people that think if your name is shorter than theirs then your blood is worthless.

    “He’s not—”

    “The public has gotten used to common queens,” Myrtle allowed. “I can’t say that’s been for the greater good, but it’s a fact. Too many princes running off with servant girls,” she added with a sneer. “But the people hold their kings to a higher standard. Seyruun must have a king of nobility. Which it is obvious to me your Mister Greywords does not have.”

    “He’s not my Mister Greywords,” Amelia said. “And what makes you think he’s not noble? Just because you don’t know who his parents are? He’s one of the most noble people I’ve ever met!”

    This surprised Zelgadis who would’ve never ascribed that characteristic to himself.

    Ha. ‘Love is blind’,” Myrtle quoted scornfully. “Of course nobility is about more than blood, you silly child. There are lords out there who have never even seen nobility. But your little friends look more like common crooks to me than nobles in disguise.”

    There was a sound that Lina, Gourry, and Zelgadis knew with absolute certainty was Amelia rising to her feet in righteous indignation. They should not have been able to hear her point, but nevertheless they did. Experience with Amelia did that to you.

    “Great Aunt Myrtle you are wrong!” she boomed. “My friends are brave and noble and true! They are allies of Justice which is more than I can say for you! They may have a few character flaws,” she allowed.

    “Thanks a lot,” Lina mumbled.

    “But they’re honest about the big things!” Amelia rallied. “They don’t deserve to be spoken about the way you’re speaking about them!”

    “Furthermore,” Amelia added, gaining speed. “I can get married when I like to whom I like without your intervention!”

    Lina, Gourry, and Zelgadis exchanged nervous looks. There might be an explosion in the sitting room shortly.

    Myrtle was watching her coolly. Her words seemed to be written across her face before her mouth went to the trouble of shaping them.

    “We shall see about that.”

  10. #10
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    Chapter 10. Cruel Tactics.

    “She’s a terrible woman!” Amelia raged from by the cauldron fire later that night. “In fact, I might go so far as to say she’s downright evil!

    “She certainly is unpleasant,” Zelgadis commented, knowing from experience that Amelia considered herself good and that, therefore, whoever stood against her was evil by default.

    “Oh, Mister Zelgadis,” Amelia said, turning her big, blue, pity-laden eyes on him, “she was saying such mean things about you.”

    “I know,” Zelgadis said without thinking.

    “You know?” Amelia repeated, furrowing her brows. “You were listening?”

    “Busted,” whispered a bush (and not a poison oak bush thank-you-very-much. Some people do learn eventually).

    “Uh,” Zelgadis floundered, looking up into her searching eyes. “…Yes,” he admitted with great reluctance. “But it wasn’t my idea,” he added. “Lina dragged me along. You know how she is.”

    Oh like you didn’t want to hear what crazy old Aunt Myrtle had to say, Lina thought sourly from the cover of her non-rash-inducing hiding place.

    “Yeah,” Amelia said vaguely. Then she blushed. She searched her memory frantically. Had she said anything… incriminating? No… no, she was probably fine. She hadn’t said anything about wanting to marry Mister Zelgadis or anything. She’d just defended him against Aunt Myrtle’s claims. Perhaps a little um… zealously, but she was an enthusiastic person and that was only to be expected. No, she hadn’t revealed anything to him about how she really felt.

    …Which was oddly disappointing.

    Oh, but Aunt Myrtle… she’d been so… so callously cruel.

    “I’m so sorry you had to hear her say those things about you,” Amelia said earnestly. “She… she called you common and you’re not common.”

    Zelgadis shrugged, unwilling to let Amelia know how much Myrtle’s words had bothered him. “To her worldview, I am. There’s not much I can do to convince her any different even if I cared enough to.”

    Amelia hesitated as though she had something on her mind that she wasn’t sure was safe to share. “You could tell her that you’re the great grandson of—”

    “No,” Zelgadis said firmly.

    “Okay,” Amelia said meekly.

    Zelgadis shifted uncomfortably. “Anyway, it wouldn’t really make any difference to your great aunt anyway. It’s not enough to be famous or talented. With people like her it’s about being able to trace your lineage back to primordial days. It’s about political status and prestige and… money. Not just money: money that’s been in the family for centuries. It’s about blood,” he spat the word.

    Zelgadis turned to Amelia. “Have you ever heard of a man named Johan Tagice?”

    “No,” Amelia said.

    “He was a merchant who converted a wine press into a device to print books at unheard of speeds about two years ago,” Zelgadis said. “He’s created an entire industry for printing. It’s because of him that books have become so easily and cheaply available. It’s because of him that so many people have the opportunity of making a living with the written word now. It’s because of him that even the poor are now able to more readily access education.”

    …and it was also because of him that certain people had cheap romance novels tucked under their mattress.

    “And your great aunt,” Zelgadis said, winding up to a point, “wouldn’t think he was worth much at all because he was a merchant and his parents were merchants and his parents’ parents were merchants.”

    “It’s like horse breeding,” Zelgadis said, really working himself up into a tirade now. “They don’t want to muddy the blood-lines of a champion with a lower class creature.”

    Amelia was silent for a moment. Finally she said, “What a horrible way of looking at the world.”

    “Perhaps,” Zelgadis said. “But I suppose it’s better than most people who just don’t think about it at all.”

    “What do you mean?” Amelia asked.

    “Well,” Zelgadis said vaguely, trying to put his argument into words, “people just… go around falling in love and getting married without ever actually thinking about anything. It’s just so… disorganized.”

    “Disorganized?” Amelia repeated weakly.

    “Look at it like this,” Zelgadis said, “did you know that people with low intelligence levels have more kids than people with high intelligences? If this continues then the intelligence of the human race will just keep getting lower and lower over time. And no one bothers to do anything about it.”

    “So does that mean you’re going to have a lot of kids?”

    That question caught Zelgadis totally off-guard. “What?” he asked, face red.

    “You know, someday,” Amelia said, joining him in blushing. “Since you’re so smart and all.”

    Zelgadis stared at his knees. Finally he managed to get out: “I… hadn’t really thought about it.”

    “Me neither,” Amelia said. It’s not like I’ve picked out names already, such a –and this is just a random example–Zachary for and boy and Violet for a girl.

    “Do you think Miss Lina and Mister Gourry will ever have kids?” Amelia asked, deciding to deflect a topic that was getting too personal.

    “Them?” Zelgadis said incredulously. “Maybe. If they ever manage to settle down.”

    “Do you think they’ll ever figure it out?” Amelia asked.

    Zelgadis shrugged. “I don’t know. But I think the real question we should be asking ourselves is: do we really want a bunch of dim-witted, quick-tempered little kids with bottomless appetites?”

    The bushes shook angrily in the wind. At least… it was probably the wind.

    Amelia gave a little giggle. “I don’t know. It might be kinda cute.”

    “Cute? I don’t know about that,” Zelgadis said. “I don’t think Lina Dragon Slaving Gourry every time he makes a stupid remark is really something children should be exposed to.”

    “Awww, come on,” Amelia said. “Miss Lina hardly ever does that anymore. I think they’ve really mellowed out a lot. People change, you know.”

    Zelgadis shrugged. “Not really. Not in any meaningful way they don’t.”

    “Well, I think they do,” Amelia offered. “I think people change with every new person they meet.”

    “You would,” Zelgadis said, realizing too late that he had put a more negative spin on the words than he’d meant to.

    Amelia gave him a long, slightly sulky look. “I know I’ve changed,” she finally said, “because I met you.”

    Zelgadis felt a familiar sense of unease, but couldn’t help asking: “Really? How?”

    “Well,” Amelia said, giving him careful consideration, “whenever I feel like a problem’s too big for me to handle and I want to give up, I always think about you and how you wouldn’t give up. And then I have the strength to try again. And whenever there’s a problem I can’t solve I always try to think about how you’d tackle it.”

    “I know I let my emotions get the better of me, but you don’t. So I try to keep a part of myself calm and logical even when I want to freak out.”

    “And,” she bit her lip at this point, “and I’m not as quick to judge as I used to be. I know now that there aren’t just two sides to everything. There are… shades of grey.” She blushed.

    “Actually, it’s kind of embarrassing to think back on how I acted when we first met,” she went on, looking down. “You must’ve thought I was such a… an immature spazz.”

    “No, I—” Zelgadis began. Well… maybe a little bit immature and… rather spazzy, but it grows on you! Anyway, what did Amelia really have to learn from him? She was preternaturally good. Maybe preternaturally good didn’t always work out in the real world, but it was better than being preternaturally bad.

    So what did she see of value in him? Stubbornness, emotional-detachment, and moral uncertainty? They sounded a lot more like vices than virtues. Maybe he was changing Amelia. But if it was him doing the changing, he dreaded it would be for the worse.

    “So… how do you think you’ve changed since you met me?” Amelia asked.

    Zelgadis could practically hear a cage being lowered over him. But it was his own fault. He’d taken the snare. He’d asked her the question so it was only fair that she got to ask it back. Should’ve paid attention to that uneasy feeling.

    There was no chance he could change the subject now. At best he could hope for some kind of convenient distraction, but one didn’t appear to be forthcoming. Shouting “hey! Look over there!” and running probably didn’t show the appropriate amount of dignity.

    He could… actually think about the question.

    Well… Amelia had sort of become his conscious, hadn’t she? Even when she wasn’t there to tell him something was wrong–in fact especially when she wasn’t there–he’d always think of how she’d react. Sometimes he’d go ahead with what he was doing anyway… but he always felt a little bad.

    And she… always had the energy to worry about everyone else’s problems but never burdened people with hers. Sometimes he wished he could be like that–to sort of escape from himself every so often. And he occasionally found that in her because, well, she was always rushing headfirst into danger, wasn’t she? A person couldn’t help worrying over someone like that, could they? And in some ways that was… good. Because it’s nice to think of people besides yourself every so often.

    And if Amelia thought that he had the market cornered on stubbornness, then she had another thing coming. He had no idea where she kept her reserves of energy, but it was a constant inspiration.

    …But there was absolutely no way he was saying any of that.

    She was looking at him! He had to say something. In Zelgadis’s paranoid state it seemed like even the bushes were paying too close attention to him. He sought around his head for a safe answer.

    “You uh,” he began. Finally he said, striking out desperately: “You taught me Recovery. It’s uh… it’s really been helpful over the years and I uh… I appreciate it.”

    Amelia stared at him for a minute. “Oh,” she said, and then she looked down. “I’m glad I’ve been… helpful,” she said hollowly.

    “You are,” Zelgadis said emphatically, sensing her disappointment. “You’re always helpful.”

    Amelia just stared doubtfully at her knees.

    “We’ve gotten off topic,” Zelgadis said, desperate to leave this misstep behind. “We were talking about your Great Aunt Myrtle.”

    “Yeah,” Amelia said, still sounding a bit distant. “She’s going to be really mad after what I said to her.”

    “She can be as mad as she wants. It doesn’t matter,” Zelgadis said firmly. “You’re a princess of Seyruun. What power does she have over you? All she really knows how to do is bully people to get her way. Now that you’ve called her out, there’s nothing she can use against you.”

    “With people like that,” Zelgadis said, crossing his arms and nodding, “you’ve just got to call their bluff and then you’ve won. Who knows? She might even respect you more for it.”

    “You’re right,” Amelia said, and to Zelgadis’s relief she sounded much more cheerful. “I mean, after all, what can she really do?”

    *****

    The next morning at breakfast it seemed that glaring menacingly at them from the seat next to Prince Phil would be the extent of Myrtle’s retribution. But the fact that she wasn’t raining terror down on them didn’t do much to ease the edginess that the group was feeling.

    “They forgot to put out the bread baskets,” Lina muttered bad-temperedly. “Hey, you!” she shouted at some hapless servant. “People are starving over here!”

    “Easy,” Zelgadis said. “Breakfast will be out soon. You can stand to wait a few minutes without stuffing your face.”

    “Oh, shut up,” Lina snapped.

    Lina was not feeling very positively disposed toward Zelgadis. Let’s forget the fact that he and Amelia had made a series of–to use Zelgadis’s favorite word–ridiculous comments about her having kids with that jellyfish-brain; he was just messing up great opportunities with Amelia one after another. Considering the amount of energy she and Gourry had put into their matchmaking scheme, it was upsetting to overhear conversations like she’d heard the night before.

    Zelgadis was just… he was blowing it! He hadn’t even acted like he gave a damn whether Myrtle thought he was good enough for her grand-niece or not.

    What was worse, he’d totally messed up an opportunity to let Amelia know how important she was to him. I mean, “you taught me Recovery?” How lame can you get!

    …And referring to love as “disorganized?” What was he thinking?!

    Lina just hoped that Amelia would be understanding enough and patient enough to see through Zelgadis’s bullshit and not give up on him. And that Aunt Myrtle would continue her campaign of opposition with enough force to make Zelgadis push back.

    The clink of a plate of food being set down in front of her attracted her attention, as it was wont to do. The day would look a lot brighter on a full stomach. She stabbed her fork down absentmindedly and encountered only a strange, pulpy substance. She looked down. She stood up. She backed away in horror.

    “What the hell is this?!” she demanded.

    Instead of the generous stack of pancakes, globby mass of scrambled eggs, heaping pile of potatoes, and assorted breakfast meats that should have been on her plate there was… there was…

    …half a grapefruit.

    Less brutal sights have been seen on battlefields.

    “I’m sure this wasn’t on the menu for this morning,” Phil rumbled, looking uncertainly at the dinky little fruit that hardly seemed a suitable breakfast for such a big man.

    “Ah, yes,” Lady Myrtle said triumphantly. “I’ve made a few changes with the kitchen staff.”

    Phil turned a baffled look on his aunt. “But why would you—”

    “Honestly, Philionel,” Myrtle said, giving him a disdainful look. “Bacon, blood pudding, and enough carbohydrates to put a pig into a coma? Did you really think you could get away with all that?”

    “But it’s my—” Phil began, and might have been gearing up to say “my castle.” It was very lucky for him that he was interrupted.

    “As of now, this entire castle is on a nutritious, restricted diet. There’s been far too much,” her nostrils flared, “gluttony around here.”

    Phil muttered something that might have been: “a man needs a hardy breakfast to pursue the cause of Justice.”

    “What’s more, so no one finds themselves tempted: I’ve given orders for the kitchen to be closed when daily meals are not being cooked. It will also help us with the little,” her eyes rested for just a moment on Lina and her friends, “rat problem we’ve been having.”

    Phil opened his mouth to argue.

    Myrtle held up a hand and gave him a stern look. “No arguments. It’s for your own good.”

    Phil looked like he might be gearing up to pull rank as a prince, but then wilted under a look that had commanded him stand in the corner as a child. He looked down at his meager breakfast, sighed, and began eating.

    Lina was flabbergasted. “Is that all you’re going to do?” she demanded. She took a deep breath. “I – want– FOOD!”

    “My dear girl,” Myrtle said, with a wicked gleam in her eye, “food is right in front of you. Stop making a scene and eat it.”

    “Oh, no you don’t!” Lina said, slamming a fist down. Messing with food crossed the line. “You’re not the boss of m—”

    “I’d do what she says, Miss Lina,” Amelia said urgently.

    “What?” Lina said, rounding on Amelia. “Why? She can’t just come in here and—”

    “Because,” Amelia said, cutting across her, “Mister Gourry’s already eaten even the rind of his grapefruit and he’s going to take yours.”

    “Oh like hell!” Lina shouted, wielding her fork in a deadly manner.

    *****

    “When’s lunch?” Lina asked Amelia as she and Gourry occupied slumped positions in her room, crippled by their debilitating hunger. Zelgadis stood upright, occasionally shooting them scornful looks.

    “In about two hours,” Amelia said.

    “We’ll never last that long!” Lina whined. “Can’t you just go down to the kitchens with us and ask them to make some food? They can’t argue with you! Princesses outrank duchesses!”

    “Yeah, but they’re more scared of her than they are of me,” Amelia pointed out.

    “What are we gonna do, Lina?” Gourry asked miserably.

    “Isn’t there any food left in this castle?” Lina asked, throwing her arms up dramatically.

    “It seems like she’s already cleaned everything out,” Amelia said. “Except for the meat in the ice house,” she added, giving Zelgadis a sidelong look that said: It’s safe. The potion is still safe.

    “Well, that’s fine!” Lina said, now hitting on desperation. “We can just eat that then.”

    “They’re frozen solid and they’re not exactly going to give us access to the kitchens,” Zelgadis pointed out sourly. “Anyway, you don’t even know how to—”

    “We’ll cook them outside,” Lina said, warming up to the idea. “We’ll use some fire spells and cook ‘em on the grounds. Gourry’s a lean, mean grilling machine.”

    “It’s true,” Gourry said, having an attitude shared by many men that, while simply boiling water indoors was out of the question, the great outdoors was a culinary realm in and of itself.

    “Please don’t, Miss Lina,” Amelia begged. “You’ll only get away with that once and then she’ll just put guards around the ice house.”

    Lina was about to respond that just once was enough for now and that she’d do anything to oppose Lady Myrtle’s food embargo, but then she remembered where Amelia and Zel were keeping their proto-potion. “Fine,” she said irritably. “But either there need to be more meals added to the day or your aunt needs to learn about bigger portions!”

    The food thing struck at the heart of Lina and Gourry, Zelgadis knew that. But he could take it. If that was the best that Lady Myrtle could throw at them then he wasn’t the least bit impressed. Sure, it might make getting ingredients a pain, but he was sure that he could still manage. He’d already squirreled away a lot of what they would need in the garden itself. Not that he could tell Lina that. She was about to eat the wallpaper as it was.

    There was a knock on the door.

    “Come in,” Amelia said with slight trepidation as she worried it would be another messenger from Lady Myrtle.

    It was worse than that. The door slid open to reveal the duchess herself.

    “Great Aunt Myrtle?” Amelia said in horrified surprise. Lady Myrtle had people to summon others! It was just unfair and unexpected for her to seek people out herself!

    “I’m afraid I’m going to have to borrow your little friends for a moment, Amelia,” Myrtle said, with a not-at-all-pleasant smile.

    “What? But—!” Amelia looked desperately from her great aunt to Zelgadis and back again. “Why don’t I just go with you instead?” she asked in the manner of someone ready to throw herself on a grenade to protect her comrades.

    “No,” Myrtle said. “Now don’t be silly, girl. I’ll return them in roughly the same condition as they are now.”

    Amelia looked like she found that difficult to believe. “Why don’t I just go with you all then?” she tried.

    “No. I must speak with them privately,” Myrtle said firmly. She turned her eyes on the other three. “Now, I hope at least you’re not afraid of a harmless old woman.”

    “I’m not,” Zelgadis said determinedly. He didn’t buy the “harmless old woman” bit, but he wasn’t going to let her push him around.

    “Good, Mister Greywords. Good,” Myrtle said as though she didn’t find this good at all. “Miss Inverse? Mister Gabriev?”

    “Yeah, I’ve got a bone to pick with you about this ‘special restrictive diet’ thing!” Lina said fiercely, reanimating from her hunger-stricken blob form.

    “I’m sure you do, Miss Inverse,” Myrtle said with a thin-lipped smile.

  11. #11
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    Chapter 11. Standard for Judging.

    Lady Myrtle ushered Lina, Gourry, and Zelgadis into what looked like a small office. There was a desk stacked with papers and a series of chairs in front of it. Myrtle crossed the room and took a seat behind the desk.

    “My nephew has deigned to allow me this small space in which to work,” she said, looking disdainfully around the less than opulent quarters.

    “Work? On what?” Lina asked. She thought that Duchesses just went around… duching. Buying jewelry and living in castles and whatnot. If paperwork was in the job description then why would anyone want to be nobility?

    “The princess’s engagement of course,” Myrtle said, putting a slim pair of reading glasses on the end of her nose to complete the book-hording librarian look.

    Lina looked sideways to Zelgadis, hoping he’d cut in at this point. When he just took a seat with the rest of them and said nothing she was forced to respond: “I thought Phil was going to let Amelia wait.”

    Myrtle looked up sharply. “Oh? You thought that did you?”

    “Umm… yes!” Lina said. Thought. Definitely thought. Not overheard at all.

    Myrtle gave her a long, slow look and then turned back to her papers. “Oh, he’ll come to his senses eventually,” she said. “Right now, the princess is Seyruun’s most valuable bargaining tool. Philionel may not like that, but if he cares about Seyruun at all–which he claims to–then he won’t let her dally for much longer.”

    Zelgadis gritted his teeth in as stealthy a way as he could. It would’ve been nice to think that Amelia could remain single for as long as she liked, but she was a princess and certain things were expected of her. A lot of power-hungry nobles probably wanted her hand in marriage. And as long as it was still available other issues would increasingly get crowded out. Not to mention that nobles tend to take rejection rather bitterly. From a practical standpoint: it was best if she made a decision, made it official, and made it fast.

    But that was wrong. Completely wrong. It was obvious to Zelgadis that Amelia was not ready to be engaged to anyone. Should she really be used as a pawn just because political currents were going against her favor?

    Not that he could raise any objections. It wasn’t really his place to. And Myrtle already had ideas about him. No need to make it all worse.

    Anyway, Phil didn’t want Amelia to get married off right away. Knowing the Prince of Seyruun, he probably didn’t care for all this impersonal arranged marriage nonsense. Phil wouldn’t let it happen.

    …Except that Myrtle seemed to have a remarkable intimidation edge against her nephew.

    “I’m compiling a list of candidates for when Philionel finally accepts facts,” Myrtle said. “It’s not an easy job. There are many proposals and files to look through and a great many names to consider.”

    “Yeah, yeah. Your job is tough,” Lina said dismissively. “Now let’s talk about this ‘restrictive diet’ thing you’re forcing on us!”

    “The diet is for the good of the castle,” Myrtle said serenely. “We may discuss it in good time, but don’t expect my opinions to waver.”

    “Is that so?” Lina asked, burning with rage in defense of her beloved food. “Well, who died and made you—”

    A rustle of wrappings cut Lina off as efficiently as a cannon blast. Myrtle had reached into her pocket and taken out a single piece of candy. It was old lady candy–more lozenge than anything–but to Lina and Gourry it looked mouthwateringly delicious. They watched, entranced as she unwrapped it and slowly popped it into her mouth. A sigh of disappointment went up from the duo.

    “What I actually wanted to talk with you three about was the suitors,” Myrtle said, slicing into this distraction for her own purposes. “You are Amelia’s little friends are you not? Perhaps you can be… helpful to me as I make my decisions.”

    Zelgadis highly doubted that Lady Myrtle cared a whit about their opinions. This was just a knife-twisting session. She’d already got Lina and Gourry. They kept looking agonized every time she swished the lozenge to the other side of her mouth, and occasionally they’d steal glances at her pocket, wondering if more candy was hidden within. Zelgadis knew there was a knife with his name on it planned somewhere down the line.

    “Now, let’s see,” Myrtle said, holding up an opened letter. “A Sir Murdo Vieben of New Sairaag has sent a proposal. He is a young man with very deep pockets, the heir to the Vieben diamond fortune. Alas, I don’t think he’ll do.” She tossed aside the letter. “Knighthood is meant to be granted to individuals who perform a great service to their land. In this case, I understand the service was a large donation to the Sairaag restoration fund. I understand New Sairaag’s funding issues… but I strongly disagree with people thinking nobility is something you can buy. It’s a unique distinction for individuals of merit.”

    “Or ones that get born into the right family,” Zelgadis couldn’t help but comment.

    Myrtle gave him a pointed look. “Quite,” she said, and then returned to her stack of letters.

    “Ah, here’s a good possibility,” she said, holding up another one. “Lord Stanley Phi Un Daellon, son the Duke of Daellon. A good family. I’ve met the young man on a few occasions and he seems competent enough. And a good looking boy too. That counts for more than we all might like to admit what with… portraits and whatnot. And of course the children.”

    Zelgadis was sure that she’d look up and give him another barbed look, but she didn’t. He was left to grip the seat of his chair in impotent anger. He wasn’t going to let her get to him. He wasn’t going to let her—

    “Why exactly do we have to sit through this?” he asked.

    This question seemed to rouse Lina momentarily and she looked like she might start making contributions to the conversation again when Myrtle abruptly crunched her piece of candy between her teeth with about the same effect as someone cracking a whip. She fished in her pocket for another piece of candy, completely ignoring Lina and Gourry’s wild attempts to catch her eye.

    “Don’t be obstinate, Mister Greywords,” she answered. “I merely thought your opinion might be helpful.”

    “Who else do we have… ah, Mister Calther Icus, another rich man who’d like to be king,” she said sneeringly. “As if we’d put a fish merchant on the throne.” She laughed.

    Zelgadis looked away.

    “What are you thinking, Mister Greywords?” Myrtle asked. “Are you thinking I’m being closed minded? Are you thinking that a successful businessman might be a better king than some aristocrat born with a silver spoon in his mouth? Are you thinking that maybe we should put a fish merchant on the throne?”

    “No,” Zelgadis said simply.

    “And why is that?” Myrtle asked.

    “Because Seyruun is landlocked.”

    Myrtle surveyed him slowly. “Thank you for keeping up, Mister Greywords.” She turned back to her papers.

    “Ah, here’s one from Padu Murask the Prince of Eltobar in the Outer World. His family background goes without saying, and ties to the Outer World would put Seyruun head and shoulders above the rest of the continent. But I’m afraid he’s unacceptable.”

    “Why?” Zelgadis said in a deadpan, being forced to recognize that he was going to have to take part in this pantomime whether he liked it or not.

    “By all accounts he’s an imbecile with a wandering eye,” Myrtle said.

    “But a pedigree imbecile, right?” Zelgadis asked, because he was feeling nasty.

    “Quite,” Myrtle said again.

    “Ah, and now there’s the Count of Sarusough, Elias Saursough,” she said, sounding almost fond this time. “I know him quite well. A good man, as kind as they come. And no slouch in the governing department either. Yes, he would be perfect for her.”

    What was Myrtle trying to do? Zelgadis couldn’t help but wonder. Was this all supposed to be upsetting him? Myrtle thought he and Amelia were involved, so of course she probably thought bringing him into the selection process of Amelia’s husband would be the height of cruelty. Well, she was all wrong. He wasn’t going to give her the reaction she wanted.

    “If it weren’t for the fact that he’s 62,” Myrtle concluded.

    Zelgadis nearly jumped off his chair. “62? And he wants to marry Amelia?” This did not sound like the action of a “good man!”

    “Don’t be simple,” Myrtle said unkindly. “Age differences of this kind often come about in these arrangements. This isn’t about creating the ideal marriage, this is about giving Seyruun as strong a governing force as it can get. In that regard, Elias is perfect.”

    “If you like him so much then why don’t you marry him?” Zelgadis asked. It was childish, but he was shaken. Are all these aristocrats completely out of their minds?

    “I am already extremely married, Mister Greywords. And I advise you to think before you speak next,” Myrtle said bitingly. “However, if you think a man that age is improper for Amelia, then perhaps you’ll approve more of eight-year-old Prince Horatio of the Olgar Island Nation. His parents have been trying to marry him off to someone suitable for the last few years.”

    “Eight?” Zelgadis repeated in disbelief. Completely. Out of. Their minds. “You’re not really considering that one, are you?”

    “Of course not,” Myrtle said.

    Zelgadis calmed. At least there was some standard of sanity here.

    “His family are followers of the Church of Ceifeed: West-lake committee division,” Myrtle said with distaste. “Seyruun has always followed the Church of Ceifeed: Aqua division. Anyone from his family would be completely unacceptable.”

    “Heretics,” Zelgadis commented sarcastically.

    Myrtle leaned an arm on the desk and looked him straight in the face. “If age appears to be such an issue, then what do you think should be the cut-off ages?”

    Zelgadis hadn’t wanted to involve himself in this, but the idea of Myrtle setting Amelia up with an eight-year old was too creepy to allow. “No younger than her,” he said after thinking.

    “Alright,” Myrtle nodded.

    “And no older than… 25 maybe,” he said.

    “Hmm,” Myrtle said. “Just out of curiosity, how old are you?”

    Zelgadis mentally kicked himself for not seeing that coming. “That doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re talking about,” he said warningly.

    “You’re absolutely right,” Myrtle agreed with a mean little smile. “It doesn’t.”

    Ouch, Zelgadis thought. That would hurt if I cared. …Good thing I don’t.

    “So,” Myrtle said, looking speculatively at the still large pile of papers in front of her, “age is important. Rank is extremely important. Competency is also extremely important. If I found a candidate around her age with a fancy title and the capabilities to run a nation, would you accept that?”

    Zelgadis balked at this. “Why should it matter if I accept it? It’s Amelia you’ve got to convince.”

    “Right,” Myrtle said distantly. “And what do you think she’d use as her standard for judging them?”

    Zelgadis wished he wasn’t a part of this conversation. He wished Myrtle wasn’t focusing in on him. He wished Amelia was there to answer for herself. Most of all, he wished that Gourry and Lina would stop looking around the room for a candy dish with drool hanging from the corners of their mouth.

    But knowing Amelia… He shrugged. “Whether she likes them or not, I suppose.”

    “Personality,” Myrtle said. “And just what kind of personality would the right man for the princess have?”

    Zelgadis glared. “Why would you ask me?”

    “You are her friend, aren’t you? You’ve spent some time with her. You know her personality. Who do you think she’d like?”

    Zelgadis glowered. What did Myrtle expect him to do here? She thought he and Amelia were involved so… was he supposed to create such a grand image for what the right man for Amelia would be that Myrtle couldn’t possibly find someone like that?

    …No. She must expect him to characterize himself as the perfect person for Amelia. Well, he wasn’t going to play into her hands.

    “I don’t know,” he answered brusquely. “She’s your grand niece. Why don’t you figure it out?”

    She gave him another slow stare and then smiled. Zelgadis cursed mentally. It was a “just as I suspected” smile. “There’s no need to be prickly, Mister Greywords. I was just looking for information.”

    She shook her head and stood up. “I can see we won’t be getting anywhere with this. You three may go.”

    Lina and Gourry came out of their hunger-based stupor slowly. “Hey,” he said, “what about—” she said. This was their last chance to beg/threaten Aunt Myrtle into lifting her diet.

    “Oh, I’m sorry,” Myrtle said, suddenly looking at the two of them. “Would you two like some sweets?”

    They nodded vigorously. Salvation was at hand!

    Myrtle reached into her pocket, there was a crinkling sound, and she drew out a fist. She opened it slowly and a mock expression of dismay crossed her face. “Would you look at that,” she said, showing them the contents of her hand. “Only one left.”

    The tension in the room abruptly tightened.

    “I guess you’ll have to decide amongst yourselves,” she said, placing the candy on the far edge of the desk.

    As soon as her hand was withdrawn a melee of epic proportions began to decide who would get the candy. A fighting dust-cloud of flailing limbs was being formed.

    And Zelgadis looked at Myrtle who watched the fight with a sort of wicked gleam in her eye.

    Sadistic old bitch.

    *****

    It had been a miserable battle full of ups and downs, victories and dismal losses. At one point it seemed that Gourry would be the clear winner. Well, he had gotten the sweet in his mouth and he had swallowed it. It seemed that victory was absolute until Lina pulled out an emergency Heimlich maneuver and won the day.

    But that little sweet and all the action it had seen were long gone. They’d left Myrtle’s makeshift office behind and Zelgadis had gone off to brood somewhere. So it was just Lina and Gourry, and of course their stomachs.

    Groan. Gurgle.

    “What are we gonna do, Lina?” Gourry asked, joining with their stomachs in conversation.

    “I don’t know,” Lina said dismally.

    They were hanging out in the hall by the kitchens, leaning against each other back to back, clearly weakened by their debilitating hunger. But none of the kitchen staff seemed to be willing to take pity on them. They were all too scared of the duchess to bother.

    “Maybe it’ll be better when we follow Zelgadis and Amelia tonight,” Gourry said optimistically.

    “How?” Lina asked gloomily. She certainly wasn’t looking forward to squatting in a bush all night with an empty stomach.

    “Well, like, aren’t their berries and herbs there?” Gourry asked. “We’ll have something to eat there.”

    Lina turned to look at him with hope radiating in her eyes. “Gourry, that’s genius!”

    “Yeah,” Gourry said uncertainly. “But that’s not for a couple hours. What are we gonna do until then?”

    Lina’s face fell. “I take back the genius part,” she said, and began walking down the hall.

    “Where are we going?” Gourry asked.

    “To the gardens!” Lina answered.

    *****

    “Did a flock of birds come through here?” Amelia asked later that night as they set up their cauldron in the garden. “Everything’s picked clean.”

    “Maybe a flock of birds,” Zelgadis said darkly. “Or maybe Lina and Gourry.”

    “I hope not,” Amelia said. “Someone ate all the Holly berries. They’ll be sick if it was them.”

    There was a rushing sound from the thicket.

    “What was that?” Amelia asked, on guard.

    “Probably just a fox or something,” Zelgadis said, distractedly reading through the spell. “Hey, could you give me a hand with something?”

    “Sure,” Amelia said, losing interest in the sound and going to help Zelgadis with the potion.

    And far across the grounds by the lake, Lina and Gourry hastily emptied the contents of their stomachs.

    Why do they have to put so many poisonous things in that garden?! Lina thought angrily between heaves.
    Last edited by Skiyomi; 2nd September 2013 at 4:14 AM.

  12. #12
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    Chapter 12. Safe House.

    The stars were out again that night in impressive numbers; the scent of the potion was sharp and somewhat appetizing as it brewed; the flames danced and billowed in the warm breezes of the night; and, though they didn’t know it, Amelia and Zelgadis were alone for the first night since they’d begun brewing the potion.

    “So, what did Great Aunt Myrtle want to talk to you guys about?” Amelia asked.

    “The expected,” Zelgadis said with a shrug. “She’s still trying to get you married off. She was going over candidates that she had in mind. Maybe she was trying to sell us on someone. Like we’d try to convince you or something,” he said with a scoff.

    …But Myrtle was shrewd. She wouldn’t honestly believe they’d do something like that. No. It was more like “she’s going to marry someone like this. Not someone like you.”

    Zelgadis shook off the offending thought. “To be honest, I think she’s just bitter,” he said. “She had to get married at fifteen to someone she didn’t like at all. Now she wants to inflict her misery on you.”

    “I don’t know,” Amelia said thoughtfully. “Do you really think she’s miserable? I mean, she’s a mean old woman and I know it seems like her and Uncle Edmund don’t get along, but,” she shrugged. “he really seems to love her at least. And they do have eight children,” she pointed out. “I always got the impression from her that she’s never regretted a single thing she’s done.”

    “I’m sure that’s what she’d like people to think,” Zelgadis said. People like that never like anyone else to think they doubt themselves. Anyway, yes Edmund seemed to be crazy over her, but that was just weird. Maybe the guy liked domineering women. Zelgadis supposed that someone out there had to. It didn’t mean Myrtle cared about him at all. And all eight children proved was that they’d gotten together on a minimum of eight occasions. That was a shudder-worthy thought in and of itself. “But really, who’d want to get married at fifteen, or sixteen, or seventeen?” he asked. “It’s just too young.”

    “Oh, I don’t know about that,” Amelia said her tone rising to arms slightly to Zelgadis’s surprise. “I mean, I don’t see any problem with marrying young as long as you do it for the right reasons.”

    Zelgadis stared at her, taken aback. “You’re not honestly saying you’d get married now are you?”

    “Well, why not?” Amelia asked. “If there was someone I really cared about who cared about me, then why would I wait? What would I be waiting for?

    Zelgadis couldn’t quite form an answer to that. He was trying, but the turn this conversation had taken had thrown him for a loop.

    “My age isn’t really the thing I object to,” Amelia continued. “It’s just that I’m not going to marry some rich aristocrat just because I’m a princess and people think I should. I’m going to marry someone I love.”

    Well, that was typical Amelia, Zelgadis thought. True Love had to be the most important thing next to Justice in her ideal world. But something about what she said went a little beyond ideals. “What makes you think you wouldn’t love a rich, aristocrat?” he croaked out.

    It was Amelia’s turn to be taken aback. “What?” she said. “I didn’t say that!”

    “You said you were going to marry someone you loved and not some aristocrat,” Zelgadis pointed out. “It just seems like you don’t think you’d love an aristocrat.”

    “Well, I didn’t really mean it like that,” Amelia explained hastily. “I just meant I’m not going to choose a husband because he’s wealthy or from an important family. That’s all.”

    “Hmm,” Zelgadis said. No matter what she said, it seemed to him like Amelia had already written off the upper crust …which made him feel oddly light-hearted.

    “They are a little snobby and boring for the most part, though,” Amelia admitted.

    “I bet,” Zelgadis said, imagining the failed attempts of nobility to woo Miss Amelia Wil Tesla Seyruun. It would take more than polo trophies and fancy uniforms to impress someone like her. No, she’d be more impressed with… well, with someone who could fight as good as her, for one, and practice magic, and talk a good game, and…

    …Zelgadis decided to drop this line of thought at this point.

    “But Great Aunt Myrtle doesn’t care,” Amelia said sullenly. “She pulled me aside at tea today and kept talking about how I should take my station in life more seriously. I think she’s trying to guilt me.”

    “Is it working?” Zelgadis asked.

    “Not yet!” Amelia said brightly.

    “Good. She can’t stay forever, right?” Zelgadis said encouragingly. Then a dark cloud passed over his face. “Or can she?”

    “She won’t,” Amelia said confidently. “She’s a control freak and she wouldn’t leave Halrune alone for very long.”

    “Good,” Zelgadis said. He didn’t know how much more of Myrtle he could take.

    “She mentioned you a few times when we were talking,” Amelia said tentatively.

    “In only the most glowing terms, I can imagine,” Zelgadis said sarcastically.

    “She said you were too smart by a half,” Amelia said.

    Well, that wasn’t the worst insult you could get from a lady like Myrtle, Zelgadis reflected. It was certainly better than being too dumb by a third.

    “She also said that you were shifty and untrustworthy,” Amelia added.

    Now that one was unfair coming from a woman as psychologically twisted as Myrtle. “What’d she say about Lina and Gourry?” Zelgadis asked.

    “Just that they’re a bunch of freeloaders that should be kicked out,” Amelia said, as though what Myrtle had to say about Lina and Gourry wasn’t nearly as important as what she had to say about Zelgadis.

    “Now, that one’s not completely inaccurate,” Zelgadis said fairly.

    “I know, but it’s still mean,” Amelia sniffed. “She doesn’t have to be so mean all the time. She hasn’t even tried to get to know you.”

    Zelgadis had the uncomfortable feeling that Myrtle knew a lot about him and didn’t like any of it. “Why should she bother?” he asked. “As far as she’s concerned I’m just a cockroach. It’s not like she has to get used to me or anything.”

    “Of course she should!” Amelia said. “She should at least try. I may not like her, but she’s family. And you’re… you’re practically family.”

    Zelgadis nearly knocked the entire cauldron over at that one. “What?” was all he managed to choke out once he’d stabilized the pot.

    “Well, you’re one of my best friends,” Amelia said a bit timidly, like she’d like to pull back a little but had decided not to. “You’re going to be around, so she should at least be nice.”

    Zelgadis turned back to the potion to stir it for cover, this time being careful not to knock it over. Amelia… considered his place in her life important enough that Myrtle should respect it. That… he’d be around for a long time… long enough that Myrtle should just deal with it. Long enough to outlast Myrtle. Because they were… friends.

    …Practically family? What did she mean by that? That one had Zelgadis feeling uneasy.

    A lifelong battle with Myrtle… that was enough to make a person want to avoid Seyruun castle entirely. But that would be letting her win, which he couldn’t quite stomach.

    It would probably set Myrtle’s teeth on edge to know that while she was family and upper-class enough to be rude to anyone and make it look like good breeding, her grand-niece valued a lowly traveler who was shifty, untrustworthy, and too smart by a half more than her.

    …But then again, that’s what she already suspected, right?

    “I don’t think she does nice,” Zelgadis said finally, realizing it was his turn to talk.

    “She should learn,” Amelia said firmly.

    *****

    Across the grounds at an increasingly less sparkling lake, Lina and Gourry were still feeling the repercussions of their ill-advised meal. Gourry was gallantly holding Lina’s hair back; not that she was in a position to really appreciate this as she not-so-gallantly blew chunks.

    Someone is going to pay for this, she decided.

    *****

    It was the next day and it was looking increasingly brighter because Lina and Gourry were no longer throwing up at regular intervals. Sometimes it’s those little things that make life worthwhile.

    “You don’t think anyone’s following us, do you?” Gourry asked, looking alertly over his shoulder as they left the castle block and moved through the quaint parks of Seyruun City’s better side.

    Lina rolled her eyes. “Who’d follow us, Gourry?”

    “Well,” Gourry said, “it’s a secret meeting, right? I just thought someone might not want it to be a secret.”

    “Myrtle’s the problem, and I don’t think she’d actually bother to have us tailed,” Lina said. “It’s just better not to meet with Phil in the castle anymore since she could waltz into the room at any minute. Or eavesdrop,” she added darkly.

    “Do you really think a duchess would eavesdrop?” Gourry asked, as if it was a hard thing to attach to the noble class.

    “I don’t see why not,” Lina said. “The only difference between eavesdropping regular people and eavesdropping duchesses is that duchesses probably have better excuses when they’re caught. Anyway she’s the type to eavesdrop,” she added harshly. “Nosey, opinionated, always butting in where she doesn’t belong…”

    “But Lina, we eavesdropped too,” Gourry pointed out.

    “It’s different when we do it, Gourry!” Lina said, not quite sure how to explain what made it different aside from the fact that it was them doing it.

    “Oh,” Gourry said, just sort of accepting this. “So… where are we meeting Phil again?”

    “We should be pretty close by,” Lina said, taking out the piece of paper Phil had surreptitiously passed her, “but…”

    “A tree house?” Gourry said, looking at the note over Lina’s shoulder.

    “Well, I guess Myrtle wouldn’t look for him there,” Lina said doubtfully.

    They walked on until they saw it ahead of them. It was a fairly big tree house in a sturdy looking tree with a rope ladder down the side and a sign that said ‘No Girls Allowed’.

    Gourry noticed Lina reading the sign and said, “Don’t worry. I don’t think anyone’ll notice,” in a way that indicated that he truly thought he was being helpful. Lina thanked him by ramming her elbow into his stomach.

    “Let’s just get this over with,” she said irritably, as he clutched his stomach in pain.

    It was a bizarre sight when they climbed up the ladder and entered the tree-house. It was just… odd to see the monarch of Seyruun slightly hunched under the low roof of a tree-house.

    “Welcome, friends!” he said, oblivious to this fact. “I hope you found the place alright.”

    “Phil,” Lina said leadenly because she felt the need to inject some reality into the situation, “you’re in a child’s tree house.”

    “I know,” Phil said in a manner that suggested he didn’t see why in any way this could be considered a low. “I used to hide in here from Aunt Myrtle when I was a kid. Ironic, right?”

    Lina could see the irony, but didn’t really appreciate it at the moment.

    “These days it belongs to a boy named Davis, but he has graciously allowed us to use it,” Phil went on.

    “Well, you are the prince,” Lina pointed out, because occasionally she thought that, what with all the preaching about equality among men, Phil occasionally forgot that under the law he was supposed to be the boss. “What’s in it for him?” Lina asked because the idea of doing something for nothing was foreign to her.

    “He is getting to help his ruler and his country in a time of need,” Phil declared dramatically. “…And a puppy.”

    “That’s a pretty good deal,” Gourry chimed in.

    “Yeah, when you’re eight,” Lina said dismissively.

    “So,” Phil said, shifting to business, “how is the plan working out? I understand that Aunt Myrtle had a talk with you three about Amelia’s prospective suitors. What was Mister Zelgadis’s reaction?”

    Lina and Gourry shifted uneasily. “We… uh… we don’t really know,” Lina admitted.

    “What?” Phil said. “But I thought you were watching them?”

    “We would’ve been if we hadn’t been puking our guts out from the poisonous berries in your garden!” Lina nearly blew up. The nerve. She’d come in mad at him and he was being all accusatory?

    “The stuff in those gardens isn’t all for eating,” Phil said, somewhat confused by the sudden Lina-explosion. “A lot of it’s just there to look nice.”

    “Well, what choice do we have with this stupid restrictive diet thing in place?” Lina asked, on edge from hunger. She and Gourry hadn’t bothered to try any advanced foraging today: once bitten, twice shy. So they were basically subsisting on carrot sticks. “It’s practically inhuman!

    “I don’t like it either,” Phil confided, “but I talked with a nutritionist and it’s a reasonable diet. A bit bland and spare, but reasonable.”

    “It’s not reasonable at all!” Lina declared, not giving a damn what some two-bit food wizard said. “We’re dying out here!”

    “You could just eat out in the town,” Phil pointed out.

    “Yeah, but she’d know,” Lina countered darkly.

    “She’d know,” Phil agreed. “And she’d give you a look so that you knew that she knew. And then she’d try to think of something nasty to do to you later. But she’s always trying to think of nasty things to do to people, so I think you’ll be on even ground.”

    Lina shot him a frustrated look. “I can’t believe you’re not doing anything about this! Who’s in charge in Seyruun anyway? If it’s her after all, then we’re all stuck eating diet food forever and Amelia will get married off to some yutz of a duke without her or anyone else’s consent!”

    “Is that what you think is going to happen?” Phil asked, raising a bushy eyebrow. “Aunt Myrtle knows that I am in charge. No matter how many papers she shuffles or suitors she suggests, she knows that this will never happen without my approval. Amelia’s not in any danger of getting bullied into marriage by her.”

    Lina stared with her mouth open. “Then why can’t you do anything about the restrictive diet thing?” she demanded.

    “I can,” Phil said. “But I won’t. You’ve got to choose your battles with Aunt Myrtle. I’m not going to strong-arm her over the menu while she’s here. It’s too much trouble over a little thing.”

    “Food is not a little thing!” Lina shouted, as if her delicate ears had just heard blasphemy.

    Suddenly the curl-covered head of a little boy popped into the tree-house. “Umm… Mister Prince?” he said, holding up a bag.

    “Ah, Davis,” Phil said, as if he was greeting one of his staff members. “Thank you very much,” he said, taking the bag. “I’ll make arrangements to have that puppy delivered to your house tomorrow.”

    The boy’s brow furrowed slightly. “You said two puppies,” he said.

    Phil’s smile slipped slightly. “Alright, Davis. I forgot we renegotiated. Two puppies then.”

    Lina marveled, and not for the first-time, at the pure, cut-throat bargaining skills of young children. “What’s in the bag?” she asked.

    “I know you two think better on full stomachs,” Phil said, passing her the bag which contained…

    Food! Food! Glorious food! How I’ve missed you!
    “So, even though you weren’t watching them last night,” Phil said over Lina and Gourry’s desperate mastication, “how do you think the plan is working so far?”

    “Well,” Lina said, halting her frantic chewing for a minute. “Zel definitely can’t stand Myrtle. And I think she’s got him thinking about the engagement more or less constantly. We’re probably making some progress… but… he’s still just not doing anything.”

    Lina glowered. “Why can’t he just stop being so emotionally backwards for a minute; realize his feelings for Amelia; confess them to her; propose marriage; and live happily ever after in his new life as a politician and give up on his crazy quest to get his human body restored?!” Was that really so much to ask?

    “I think you just kinda said,” Gourry commented.

    Lina glared at him. Perhaps those expectations were a little high, but… “I don’t see why he won’t do anything at all, though,” she said. “I mean, here’s some crazy lady trying to pair up the girl he likes with someone else. You’d think he’d do something?

    “Right,” Gourry said. “But doesn’t Zel know about all that other stuff?”

    Lina narrowed her eyes at him, despairing as usual in Gourry’s lack of specificity. “What other stuff?”

    “Like how Phil wouldn’t let that Lady arrange a wedding against Amelia’s will,” Gourry said. “I mean, Zel’s usually the one that points this kind of thing out to us.”

    Lina thought for a minute. Gourry was right. Zel was the one that generally pointed out things like that when the rest of them were getting hysterical. Damn him and his detached, detail-oriented ways! As long as he knew that he didn’t have to do anything. He might be worried or even a little doubtful, but action on his part was not required.

    “So…” Phil said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “It seems Mister Zelgadis won’t do anything major as long as he feels safe.”
    Last edited by Skiyomi; 2nd September 2013 at 4:40 AM.

  13. #13
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    Chapter 13. The Pressure is On.

    Lina and Gourry were enjoying a lovely second lunch in one of Seyruun’s many fine eateries. Apparently they’d made quite an impression the last time they’d been there: the waiters kept pushing other waiters toward their table.

    Sure, they’d just gorged themselves on the parcel of food that Phil had acquired for them, but they were still hungry. And, anyway, they’d been pretty much starved the last couple of days. Better to get some food while they were out before heading back to the flavor-deprived prison that Seyruun castle had become.

    Not only that, but they had plenty to think about and Lina needed food if she was going to do that. She had to think of something she could say to Zelgadis that would shake his confidence about this whole Amelia-marriage thing. Something to make him act. She wasn’t alone in her effort. Apparently Phil was working on an idea. It was, according to him, a “real humdinger.” That did nothing but worry Lina.

    “Why don’t we just wait and see what Phil comes up with?” Gourry asked through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.

    “Have you been paying attention at all?” Lina demanded. “Haven’t you noticed how every time he comes up with a new idea we’re the ones that suffer?”

    “Well, if you feel that way, then why don’t we just pack it in?” Gourry asked. “I mean, it seemed like a bad idea from the start and things are much worse than we thought they’d be.”

    “Do you have any idea how pissed off Zel will be at us if he finds out about all this?” Lina asked, shaking her head. “Anyway, we’ve gone through too much to give up now. I at least want all of this to be worth it.”

    Lina slammed her fist down on the table in a frustrated manner. “We wouldn’t have to go through any of this if Zel would just bite the bullet and tell Amelia how he feels. Is that really so hard? God, what is it with you men?”

    “Hmm?” Gourry said, looking up from his meal.

    That actually brought up another point… Lina smoothed her hair back from her forehead irritably. She’d been thinking more and more about this the last couple days, and now that it was practically out of her mouth she might as well push forward and ask, no matter how awkward it was.

    “Umm… Gourry?” she asked tentatively. “Let’s say… you liked a girl. Would you tell her you liked her?”

    Gourry put down his fork and gave the matter due consideration. “I guess it would depend,” he said.

    Lina felt herself leaning across the table on automatic. “Depend on what?” she asked.

    “On whether she wanted to know or not,” Gourry said simply.

    Lina found her gaze glued to the plate in front of her. This wasn’t a totally unusual situation for her, only this time it wasn’t gluttony that held her gaze but… something else. She knew she was blushing and swore angrily to herself because of it.

    “Gourry I…” she began, not entirely sure where she was going with this.

    “Yes, Lina?” he asked.

    “I…”

    She looked around helplessly. “…wondered if you wanted to get some ice cream before we go back,” she finished lamely.

    *****

    Meanwhile, back at the castle, Zelgadis was sharing a dietetic lunch with someone he hadn’t expected or wanted to share lunch with. Lord Edmund had run into him and practically insisted that they eat together. Now, Lord Edmund seemed nice enough, but anyone who claimed to love a woman like Myrtle had to be at least a little crazy. Plus he was probably just spying for his wife. Whatever the case, it was clear that Lord Edmund had to have some kind of agenda and Zelgadis really didn’t want to be a part of whatever it was.

    “The problem of status really isn’t that hard to get around, you know,” Edmund said after a long silence.

    “What?” Zelgadis said, looking up from his unappetizing meal.

    “Nobility and whatnot,” Edmund went on. “If you wanted to marry Amelia, and you were worried about not being part of the gentry, that could be fixed.”

    Zelgadis stared at the Duke. “I don’t know where you’re getting your ideas,” he said slowly, “but Amelia and I are just friends.”

    “I’m sure,” Lord Edmund said in a way that suggested he was sure of the opposite. “But if you did want to marry her then I think a knighthood would satisfy everyone. From what I understand, your achievements are enough. I’ve spoken with Philionel and he said he would support having you knighted.”

    Zelgadis nearly fell out of his chair. Why was everything coming out of left-field these days? “Only a week ago he was doing his best to get rid of me!” he exclaimed. It was probably a damning thing to say considering that Myrtle would look for any excuse to get him out of the castle and Edmund was likely her spy, but it just didn’t make sense. Why would Phil hate him one minute and then want to knight him the next?

    “Fathers can be a little bit tetchy where their daughters are concerned,” Edmund said wisely. “Take it from me.”

    “Whatever the case,” Zelgadis said, recovering from his surprise and getting back on message, “I have no interested in a knighthood. Why would you even offer that? Pardon me for saying so, but I got the impression that your wife couldn’t stand me.”

    “Oh, Myrtle has her funny ways about people,” Edmund said, toying with his silverware. “She means only the best for Seyruun, I assure you. If you became a knight, I sincerely doubt she’d stand in the way of your marriage to Amelia. And becoming her grand-nephew,” he added with a trace of humor. Perhaps he’d find it funny if Myrtle wound up related to someone she hated …or at least someone else she hated.

    Becoming Myrtle’s grand-nephew… now that was a horrifying notion. “It doesn’t matter because Amelia and I are not getting married,” he said.

    “You’re against this rather strongly aren’t you? That’s strange,” Edmund asked with a bemused expression. “You said you were friends, right? So you like her at least?”

    “Well, yes,” Zelgadis said, “but as a—”

    “She’s a pretty girl, is she not?” Edmund pressed further.

    “Well, of course she is,” Zelgadis said, feeling the heat-lamp of inquiry metaphorically burning into him, “but I—”

    “And a person marrying her would have everything to gain,” Edmund went on. “The man who marries her would literally become king. Most people would consider that a plus.”

    Edmund shook his head. “To be honest, I don’t really see the problem here. So you two aren’t involved? So what. Amelia must marry sooner or later, likely sooner. This is non-negotiable. Better for her to marry someone she likes who would take care of her than for her to be stuck with some spoiled Lord she doesn’t like who may be cruel to her.”

    Zelgadis was at a loss. Of course the man’s logic was completely ridiculous, but for some reason he couldn’t manage a response to it. Finally he said, “Maybe it would be better for her. But that’s not what Amelia wants.”

    “It isn’t?” Edmund asked with one raised eyebrow.

    “No,” Zelgadis said. “She wouldn’t accept a marriage of convenience. She’s not going to marry someone unless she loves him.”

    Edmund stared at Zelgadis long and hard after that while Zelgadis cursed himself mentally. Why had he come out with that? He could’ve easily said it wasn’t his business who Amelia married and asking him to take that responsibility was unfair.

    “Very good,” Edmund said finally. “It is important to be attentive to a woman’s needs.”

    *****

    Zelgadis sat in the garden setting out the ingredients he and Amelia would need for that evening while he waited for her. His brain was barely into it. It had just been one thing after another that day.

    The conversation with Lord Edmund had been jarring but, now that he thought about it, the old man’s actions made sense. He just wanted to make sure that his grand-niece ended up marrying someone who’d be good to her. He was also eager to defuse the tension created by his wife’s objections. It had been… diplomatic and a goodwill gesture. It just hadn’t been appreciated.

    A knight, really? Phil was interested in knighting him?

    After that seemingly random bit of hostility from Phil, he’d been pretty sure he’d landed on the prince’s bad side. According to Edmund, this was all out of Phil being an overprotective father. But being willing to knight him? Did that mean that Phil actually approved of him and Amelia and wanted to make it possible for him and her to get married?

    He dropped a pepper pod to the floor. Were these people all completely crazy?

    Why was everyone so easily accepting the idea of him and Amelia being together as legitimate? Even Myrtle, who couldn’t stand him and wanted him as far away from Amelia as possible, only felt that strongly because she perceived him as a threatening presence. Even she didn’t think it was such a crazy idea.

    He sat down on the bench and stared down at his hands. To top off the day, Lina had come around saying that she’d heard a rumor that Phil was weakening against the pressure Myrtle was putting him under and that he might start looking seriously at suitors for Amelia.

    “Phil wouldn’t really do that,” Zelgadis had said in disbelief. “Amelia would hate him for it.”

    “Maybe,” Lina had said, “but he’s got to think of Seyruun too, right? And anyway, I guess he figures that Amelia might hate him at first, but she’d get over it in the long run.”

    “She’s not going to stand for this,” Zelgadis had said firmly.

    “Yeah, but what can she do?” Lina had asked. “Abdicate?”

    Zelgadis knew this wasn’t an option. Amelia loved Seyruun. She wouldn’t run away even if it meant marrying someone she didn’t love. Even if her friends begged her to. She was disgustingly noble like that.

    “You know what we could do?” Lina asked with a thoughtful expression that definitely meant trouble. “You could marry her.”

    “What?” Zelgadis asked suspiciously. Lina was now the second person to ask him to marry Amelia that day. Things were clearly getting out of hand.

    “Not for real,” Lina explained hastily. “Just an engagement to keep her from having to marry someone else. It’s the only way I can think of to put this off.”

    “Why not make Gourry do it?” Zelgadis asked grouchily.

    “Gourry?” Lina said, as she and her swordsman companion exchanged a look. “Gourry’s all wrong! Umm…” she paused, trying to put into words just how he was all wrong. Finally she slammed her fist into her palm and looked triumphant. “Gourry’s memory is too bad. He’d never stick to the plan.”

    “I see,” Zelgadis had said sourly.

    Well, he wasn’t about to get involved in one of Lina Inverse’s hare-brained schemes and told her so.

    “Fine,” Lina had said, blowing her bangs out of her face irritably. “But don’t come crying to me when Amelia’s married to some Lord Snobbington and has eight kids.”

    It was insane. On the one hand, it felt like all the forces of the universe were trying to pull him and Amelia apart, even if they were never together in any sort of grand romantic sense. Yet it also felt like they were being pushed together more than ever.

    Why couldn’t everyone see how ridiculous this was? Everyone seemed to be operating under the same delusion. It made him wonder if… if Amelia thought it was ridiculous. Or if it was just him.

    *****

    Amelia had just washed her face and slipped on her shoes and was heading out to meet Zelgadis in the garden. She opened the door of her bedroom only to freeze in surprise as she saw a very unwelcomed face.

    “Oh umm… Hi, Great Aunt Myrtle,” Amelia said weakly after she recovered. “What are you doing here?” She tried to banish any thoughts of fingers being cut off from her mind.

    “I’m an old woman with trouble sleeping. I thought I’d take a walk,” Myrtle said, almost like a challenge. “And you?”

    “Just uh…” Amelia began anxiously. There was no way she could leave this way now. “Just thought I’d check to make sure they left the candles lit tonight,” she said, deciding this was a viable explanation. “Last night I nearly stubbed my toe on my way to the bathroom.”

    “I see,” Myrtle said icily.

    “But umm… now I see that they’re lit, so I guess I can just go to bed now,” Amelia finished at a break-neck pace. She yawned for effect. “Good-night, Great Aunt Myrtle.”

    Myrtle nodded and Amelia closed the door. The Duchess stood motionless in the night-stained hall for several minutes. She seemed to be counting under her breath. When she reached whatever number she’d been waiting for, she put a hand on the doorknob to her grand-niece’s bedroom, and pulled the door open.

    She walked soundlessly through the empty room and towards the open window. The curtains blew in the breeze.

    Myrtle leaned her head out the window in time to see a retreating shape in white running across the lawn towards one of the gardens where a thin stream of smoke was rising from within the hedged enclosure.
    Last edited by Skiyomi; 2nd September 2013 at 5:17 AM.

  14. #14
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    Chapter 14. The Offer.

    Zelgadis roamed the halls of Seyruun castle gloomily. What with the whole Amelia-possibly-being-forced-into-marriage thing and people alternatingly telling him to stay away from her and marry her… he was a little out of sorts. And he hadn’t even been able to unburden himself at all.

    He’d thought about mentioning the rumor Lina had heard to Amelia, but decided against it. It was a rumor. Who knew where it came from? It was probably just the mindless gossip of one of the cooks. At this point in the Myrtle-approved diet the castle was under, Lina would probably believe anything said by someone holding food. And there was no sense worrying Amelia over something that might not be true after all.

    And he certainly wasn’t going to share Lina’s little brainwave as to what he and Amelia should do if the rumor turned out to be true.

    …It probably wasn’t true. Phil was a great dad and the idea of him selling his youngest daughter into marriage was just… unacceptable. He wouldn’t risk losing her like that. Not after all the royal family had gone through.

    …Still… it was worrying. Zelgadis resolved to keep an eye open for any sign that this unlikely rumor was true.

    “Mister Greywords,” an unpleasantly sharp female voice said from behind him.

    Zelgadis swore inwardly as he turned around to see Lady Myrtle walking behind him. This fell firmly in the category of “what I don’t need right now.”

    “What?” he asked bluntly.

    “I must speak with you,” Myrtle commanded.

    Zelgadis scowled. You know what? he thought. I have enough things to worry about without having to chat with Myrtle. To hell with politeness. “I don’t think that would be enjoyable for either of us,” he retorted.

    Myrtle raised one slightly overgrown brow. “Over the years, Mister Greywords, I have grown used to unenjoyable tasks,” she said tersely. “The fact of the matter is that you and I will speak on this highly important matter concerning you, and you will not get rid of me until we are through, young man.”

    That appeared to be that. “Fine,” Zelgadis said, starting to get extremely irritated by this whole exchange. “What did you want to say?”

    Myrtle nodded to one of the empty offices in the palace. “In here, Mister Greywords,” she said.

    Oh that’s just perfect, Zelgadis thought bitterly. This is the part where a goon knocks me out, a sack goes over my head, and I get shipped off to the Outer World, right? Nevertheless, he followed her.

    *****

    Myrtle crossed to the desk in the room and took a seat behind it, gesturing to Zelgadis to take one of the three chairs in front of it. There was a bit of a sense of déjà vu and he wondered for a moment if she’d found more suitors for Amelia to taunt him with. She didn’t appear to be shuffling through any papers though.

    In fact she was just sort of sitting there, her chin resting on her steepled fingers as she stared at him. It was a nasty sort of stare with a sneer playing on her lips. She looked like she was mentally dissecting him and weighing up the pieces.

    Zelgadis was about to break through the long silence and ask again why she wanted to talk to him when she opened her mouth and said: “Ten thousand gold coins.”

    Zelgadis stared back at her, trying to find some sense in this. He didn’t find any. “What?” he asked blankly.

    “I will pay you ten thousand gold coins,” Myrtle said, a steely, determined look in her grey eyes, “if you leave this castle and never return.”

    Zelgadis reeled angrily. “There’s no call for that,” he shot back. “You may not like me but does that really give you the right to—”

    “I know, Mister Greywords,” Myrtle said leadenly.

    Zelgadis felt a nameless chill fill his body even as he said: “Know what?”

    “About your little garden liaisons with my grand-niece,” Myrtle said with a corrosive smile that owed nothing to humor. “About how you’ve been enticing her away from the palace on a nightly basis.”

    Oh no…

    “Obviously as a guardian of Seyruun and a protector of my family I cannot allow this to continue,” Myrtle said seriously. “If words about your… meetings gets out then the princess’s reputation could be irreversibly damaged. Especially during this crucial time when suitors are looking to join with our family. Can you imagine how they’d react if they found out that the princess was wasting her time in a relationship with some common mercenary who has no business marrying her? The scandal would ruin her.”

    “You’re wrong,” Zelgadis said fervently, feeling the anger bubble in the pit of his stomach. “It’s not what you think.”

    “Tell me what I think,” Myrtle said with a dangerous sort of calm.

    “The wrong thing!” Zelgadis exploded back at her.

    She stared at him with the same immovable expression from the tranquil waters of fury and sighed. “Have it your way, Mister Greywords. Fifty thousand gold coins and not one iota more.”

    Zelgadis nearly fell out of his chair. Myrtle wanted to get rid of him bad. “Are you insane?” he demanded, now completely shot of his cool. “I’m not going to sit here and be insulted like this!”

    “Fifty thousand gold coins is a lot of money,” Myrtle reminded him. “And there are other girls in this world.”

    Zelgadis glared at her. “I can’t believe you think you can bribe me with that. Is this really how you conduct business in Halrune?” he asked harshly. “Well, I’ll have no part in it,” he said forcefully.

    “You stupid boy,” Myrtle said, a hiss of the contents-under-pressure rage within her finally leaking out. “With that kind of money you could buy a lordship, double-cross me and come back to marry Amelia if you so desired. What would I be able to do about it?”

    “You know what?” Zelgadis said, temper flaring. “You can keep your lordship. If this is the kind of nobility that the upper class aspires to then I don’t want anything to do with it. Amelia’s wrong: I’m not noble. But at least I have more integrity than you.”

    “I have integrity enough to protect my family,” Myrtle fired back. “And I will do so at any cost. Think. Reject my generous offer and I could have you jailed to get rid of you. I am a duchess with an army of my own. Due process stands no chance against me.”

    “Go ahead then!” Zelgadis dared her. “I’ve been in jail before,” he added, because he knew it would mortify her. “I always seem to get out in the end.”

    Myrtle leaned forward and treated him to a high-intensity glare. “Not out of mine you won’t,” she said in a tone that implied barbed wire and scorpion-filled dungeons.

    “Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” Zelgadis challenged. “Because I’d rather rot in your dungeons than take your filthy money.” He got up to leave.

    “You’re making a big mistake, Mister Greywords,” Myrtle said dangerously.

    Zelgadis whipped around to glare back at her. “No, you’re the one that’s making a mistake,” he said. “You know, I’ll admit, I didn’t like you at all before. You’re a sadistic control freak who’d rather intimidate people than talk to them. You think you know better than anyone else and will steamroller over anyone who gets in your way. But I at least thought you had more class than this.”

    “I’m supposed to take a pile of money and agree to just abandon a friend? What kind of person do you think I am?” Zelgadis asked, insulted. “You sicken me,” he said.

    The guiltless look of opposition on Myrtle’s face was enough that Zelgadis had to get one last parting line in before he slammed the door. “Fifty thousand gold coins? Is that really all you think Amelia is worth?”

    Slam.

    Myrtle sat in the empty room, watching the place where Zelgadis had left. Finally, she said to no one in particular: “No. But I thought you did.”

    *****

    That evil-minded, unscrupulous, deceitful old hag! Zelgadis thought angrily as he stormed down the hall on a fresh adrenaline rush from his horrible meeting with Myrtle. Where did she get the nerve to—

    Well, first off, she shouldn’t have made any assumptions about him and Amelia. So what if they were meeting in the garden late every night? That didn’t have to be… bad. Even if he couldn’t honestly have expected Myrtle to guess that they were brewing a potion, there were certainly other things that they could be doing besides…

    He felt the blood in his face heat up and abruptly looked at the ground. Anyway, it was ridiculous for her to be so presumptive. The fact that Myrtle’s mind jumped there automatically said something about her.

    But even if Myrtle had been right about what was going on, that still wouldn’t have excused her actions. So what if he and Amelia actually were… involved? Was bribing and threatening to get rid of him really the appropriate action for a duchess to take?

    And the thing that really upset him was that she honestly thought he was the kind of person who’d take her up on that offer. What kind of person willingly agrees to abandon their friend (and, worse yet, Myrtle thought they were lovers) for money? Even Lina Inverse wouldn’t stoop that low.

    …Well, to be fair, she might’ve taken the money and immediately double-crossed Myrtle, but that was another story.

    It just… he really wanted to punch a wall at this point. Did people in Myrtle’s class really think that they could bully everyone else into doing what they wanted by throwing some money around? It was disgusting.

    And she hadn’t even bothered to consult Phil about any of this. She’d just decided to take matters into her own hands.

    It didn’t do any good to call her out on any of this either. The woman thought she was fully justified. He couldn’t stand the idea of even being in the same room as her anymore even just thinking about it.

    Well, he realized he might not have to endure that for much longer if Myrtle made good on her threat to have him jailed. He knew it wasn’t an empty one. She could bring some trumped up charge against him, or, better yet, dig deep to find a real charge to keep him on. Yes. That would be more like her. Even Phil and Amelia probably wouldn’t be able to do much if the charge was real.

    At times like this he really regretted all those smash-and-grabs at temples.

    It was just all so stupid and unfair. Myrtle had had him picked out from the start. Why him? Anyway, so what if people started rumors? Amelia’s reputation had weathered being friends with the infamous Lina Inverse. Would being with him really be that much worse?

    …I think I will punch that wall now.

    The sound of the stone castle taking the brunt of his anger drew footsteps. Great, Zelgadis thought. Maybe someone will run and tell Myrtle and she can get me on destruction of castle property too.

    “Mister Zelgadis?” Amelia said as she turned the corner and appeared in the hallway. Then she took in his expression. “Are you okay? What happened?” she asked worriedly.

    Part of Zelgadis really wanted to say “it’s nothing” and just leave her out of this. But it was getting to be too much now, even for him. Anyway, at least she could have some fair warning if he was incarcerated at the Duchess’s pleasure.

    “Your great aunt found out about our garden meetings,” he said walking along as she fell into step at his side.

    “Oh no!” Amelia exclaimed, a look of miserable remorse crossing her face. “I’m so sorry, Mister Zelgadis! I saw her last night on my way to the garden. I thought I threw her off with an excuse, but she must’ve seen me leave.” Her eyes looked wide and wavery. “It’s all my fault.”

    “No,” Zelgadis said. “She’s been sneaking around behind the scenes this whole time. It was only a matter of time before she found out anyway.”

    “But what are we gonna do?” Amelia asked. “Is she going to try to stop us from finishing the spell?”

    Zelgadis shuffled uncomfortably. Oh well. They’d gotten this far. Might as well confess it all. “She doesn’t actually know about the potion,” he said. “She uh… seems to think something else is going on.”

    “What does she—” Amelia began. Then she paused. Her face reddened and she said: “Oh.”

    Oh indeed, Zelgadis thought.

    Amelia had a moment to try this idea on and then exclaimed in a tone of dread: “She’ll kill us.”

    “Only me,” Zelgadis said. “I think she’s just going to make you stand in the corner for awhile.”

    “What did she say to you?” Amelia asked, a look of horror crossing her face.

    Zelgadis gave a pained sort of scowl. “She tried to bribe me into leaving. Then when I wouldn’t take the money she threatened to have me imprisoned.”

    Amelia nearly fell over as they walked along from the shock. “She can’t!” she exclaimed. “Daddy would never allow it. I’d never allow it!”

    “Amelia,” Zelgadis said impatiently. “I’ve done a lot of things that weren’t exactly following the law while trying to get my body back. Myrtle’s not even going to need to make up an excuse if she looks far enough. There’s nothing you or Phil would be able to do.”

    “No!” Amelia said, pumping her fist furiously. “I’d break you out if I had to!”

    That would really endear him to Myrtle: making the princess of Seyruun an accomplice in his escape. “I’m hoping it won’t come to that,” Zelgadis said, turning his eyes back to the floor as he walked.

    Amelia followed him thoughtfully. Finally she asked: “Can’t we just explain to her that we’re not having sex?”

    Zelgadis tripped over nothing and was barely able to keep himself from falling. It was just… well, he hadn’t expected her to just say it like that! Like it was no big deal! She was supposed to hem and haw and say “you know.” She wasn’t supposed to say…

    Never mind. Zelgadis recovered his stride and tried to get his mind back together as he answered: “I already tried that. She doesn’t believe me.”

    “So… what are we going to do then?” Amelia asked again.

    “I don’t know,” Zelgadis said. “I honestly don’t know.”

    ******

    “You can’t be leaving!” Phil exclaimed. “You only just got here!”

    “Honestly, Philionel,” Myrtle said with a suspicious expression as she stood in the great hall with her baggage-toting husband as Phil, Amelia, Zelgadis, Lina, and Gourry watched her in a sort of confused haze. “I don’t know why you invited me or why you want to keep me around considering you haven’t heeded any of my valuable advice. But it ends now. I have more important things requiring my attention and I can see I’m not making any headway here. I’m going back to Halrune.”

    Zelgadis had heard through the grapevine that morning that Myrtle was leaving. And yes, it was surprising. But he took very little solace in it. It didn’t mean that Myrtle’s vendetta against him would cease. The woman was determined. She was probably just going back to Halrune to give him a false sense of security while she trudged through his past to find something incriminating. And then she’d send her army out to collect him. Problem solved.

    “It’s been a lovely visit,” Edmund announced cheerily. “We should do these more often.”

    “Yes,” Phil agreed vehemently. “Starting with extending this stay!”

    Lina had mixed feelings. She could see why Phil was bent on keeping Myrtle there. They needed her as pressure on Zelgadis. Once Myrtle was gone he wouldn’t have to worry as much about Amelia getting married off. He’d relax and then their whole plot would be back at square one. On the other hand…

    On the other hand: good riddance you nasty old *****!

    “Enough, Philionel,” Myrtle admonished. “I think I liked you better when you were avoiding me.”

    She picked up her handbag, which was tiny in comparison to all the luggage her frail husband was carrying. She looked around the room. “Good-bye, Philionel, Amelia,” her eyes settled on Zelgadis, Lina, and Gourry and she gave them the same “you are vermin” look she’d given them when she first arrived, “friends of the crown,” she added cruelly through her teeth.

    “Oh, and Mister Greywords,” she said, her sharp eyes focusing on Zelgadis.

    Zelgadis braced himself. What would it be? A parting threat perhaps? Something to remind him that she wasn’t done with him? Or perhaps a revelation of her suspicions in front of Phil. That was all he needed. Unnaturally kind man or not, Phil would probably break his kneecaps.

    Her eyes rested on him for a long time. Finally she sighed and said: “Just take the knighthood.”

    Okay… that was not what he’d expected.

    WHAT?

    “You’re not going to get anywhere with this reverse version of elitism you’ve been clinging to,” Myrtle said. “You’ve got to make some concessions and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a knighthood. It’s an earned position, so you can’t complain about it being something you’re born into or bribe your way into. And I understand that you are qualified for it.”

    Zelgadis was still not quite able to make words.

    “And for gods sakes don’t dawdle,” Myrtle said sharply. “I think you must be able to appreciate that matters such as this are time sensitive.”

    And,” she continued, “you don’t have to talk to me or anything, but I do expect to get an invitation. I expect Amelia will be polite enough to remember that.”

    Zelgadis and Amelia exchanged a look. She was sporting the exact same stunned expression he imagined was on his own face.

    He turned back to Myrtle and was finally able to verbalize: “What?

    Myrtle rolled her eyes. “Don’t be simple,” she said. She turned back to her husband. “Come along, Edmund.”

    “Yes, my treasure,” Edmund cooed, following the bustling woman out of the hall with baggage in tow.

    Zelgadis turned his look of open-mouthed shock on the others. “What?” he repeated.

    “Apparently,” Phil rumbled, a bemused expression breaking through his own surprise, “she approves of you.
    Last edited by Skiyomi; 2nd September 2013 at 6:21 AM.

  15. #15
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    Chapter 15. The Last Plan.

    Phil coughed to try to attract Lina and Gourry’s attention away from their more than generous helpings of jambalaya. When that did nothing, he coughed louder. Then he slammed his prodigious hand against the table. That seemed to do the trick as they looked up for a moment.

    “I’ve got everything set up for the idea I mentioned earlier,” he said before their eyes could wander back to their bowls. It had been so hard to get Lina and Gourry to focus on anything since Myrtle left and took her diet plan with her, “but I need to know if it’s still necessary.”

    “Necessary?” Lina repeated, taking a long swig of water to dispel the effect of the spicy food taking the patina off of her taste-buds. She didn’t really want Phil to go through with whatever his next crazy plan was. She certainly hadn’t liked his last plan.

    “Well,” Phil said. “Mister Zelgadis surprised everyone by actually earning the approval of the Seyruun family’s toughest watchdog. With this hard-to-get blessing… well, it almost seems like it’s got to be meant to be, don’t you think?” Phil asked, furrowing his brows. Apparently earning Myrtle’s favor was significantly more difficult than earning the gods’. “You’ve been watching him. Does he appreciate the magnitude of this?”

    Lina shrugged. “I’m sure he gets that it’s a big deal. But if you mean has he been doing anything… well… not really.”

    “He hasn’t got to do anything,” Gourry said, slightly muffled with a shrimp hanging part way out of his mouth. “‘Cause the lady’s gone.”

    Phil nodded gravely. “It’s as I suspected.”

    “He does seem happier,” Lina pointed out. Then she added, “You know, for Zelgadis at least,” since it was hard for people who didn’t know him to distinguish that slightly cheerful shade of glum.

    “I had hoped he’d understand how very close the situation is to him after what Aunt Myrtle said,” Phil said sadly. “To have the most respected and feared Seyruun matriarch give him an endorsement…” He shook his head. “How can he pretend that he’s not involved?”

    “That’s just Zel for you,” Gourry said brightly, downing another spoonful from his bowl.

    “Then it appears we have to turn the pressure back on again,” Phil said. “You can’t say I haven’t given him time.”

    Lina got goose bumps down the back of her neck. She didn’t like it when Phil plotted. It was bad news for her and Gourry. “What are you gonna do?” she asked.

    “I’ve made arrangements to invite another very special guest to the castle,” Phil said.

    Lina raised an eyebrow. “Another aunt?”

    “No,” Phil said. “No one related to me.”

    “…This isn’t going to involve any food restrictions, is it?” Lina asked guardedly.

    “No, Miss Lina. In fact, it’s safe to say that this plan will involve feasting.”

    *****

    “Should we go to the apothecary or the marketplace first?” Zelgadis asked from the town square as he peered at the list of ingredients they’d need to purchase to continue their potion.

    Amelia crinkled her nose. “The apothecary smells kind of funny,” she said.

    “We’ll have to go there anyway,” Zelgadis pointed out. “It’s just a matter of whether we do that first or go to the marketplace.”

    Amelia thought for a minute. “Marketplace,” she said, deciding to delay the inevitable.

    Zelgadis nodded and the two of them began walking toward the bustling farmer’s market. He hadn’t intended to take Amelia along on this ingredient gathering trip, but when he mentioned he’d have to go out to get the rest of the ingredients for their potion, she’d wanted to come along. He wasn’t about to deny her. She was part of this after all.

    It was nice that they were able to deal with acquiring ingredients for their potion in a straightforward manner now that Myrtle was gone. So many of the things they needed for the potion were just… regular food items. It was strange, but Zelgadis supposed that you made pragmatic use of the ingredients you had on hand.

    Yes, so many things had been nice with Myrtle gone. He could walk the halls without getting ambushed by an old lady and her spy of a husband. It was nice to be able to talk to Amelia without apprehension hanging over their conversations. And, what with what Myrtle had said before she left, Phil wasn’t bothering him and he didn’t have to worry about Amelia getting married off against her will.

    He frowned. Unfortunately it seemed that things weren’t destined to stay nice for long.

    “So who’s this guy your father’s inviting for a visit again?” Zelgadis asked.

    “His name is Stanley Phi Un Daellon, the Lord of Daellon,” Amelia said, sounding like this wasn’t really something she wanted to discuss.

    Zelgadis’s frown deepened. He’d heard the name before. It was one of the suitors Myrtle had suggested for Amelia. “But Phil said he wasn’t going to make you marry anyone you didn’t want to,” he said.

    “Yes,” Amelia said, sounding slightly weary. “And he stands by that. But he said he just wants me to meet some people to see if it changes my mind.”

    “He’s not going to try some crazy match-making scheme, is he?” Zelgadis asked suspiciously.

    “What, Daddy?” Amelia asked with an incredulous smile. “I don’t think he’d do anything that silly.”

    Zelgadis had known Phil to act silly before, so didn’t doubt it quite as much as Amelia did. She probably thought that she could shrug this whole thing off and just be polite to the guy. Zelgadis didn’t think it was quite that simple.

    It was so… unseemly! Even if Phil said that Amelia had the choice in the matter, Zelgadis thought it went too far to invite the guy. It was like: “Sure. The choice is yours. Nudge-nudge. Wink-wink.” He didn’t like it one bit.

    And anyway, Myrtle had said that the Lord of Daellon’s best recommending feature was that he was good looking. Why would Phil choose him for the candidate to wed his daughter and be the next King of Seyruun? It seemed like an irresponsible choice. And if he thought that Amelia would be swayed by a handsome face then he needed more faith in her.

    And… and…

    “I thought that he…” Zelgadis began, trying to put his last objection into words. “I mean… after what Myrtle said I thought your father was under the impression…”

    Amelia stared up at him.

    “The false impression,” Zelgadis added quickly, “that you and I were…”

    Amelia continued to stare at him, and then smiled slightly. It wasn’t a happy smile, it was just slightly puzzled.

    “I guess he thought you waited too long,” she said, turning her face back to the pavement.

    Zelgadis let out a breath. So there it was. It seemed like everyone in the castle had held out some hope that he’d… spontaneously ask her to marry him or something. He didn’t really know. It was all so stupid. But he was Myrtle’s choice. Amazingly. Mistakenly. All because when he turned down her bribe she thought he was doing it out of love for Amelia. And that had impressed her apparently. He hadn’t meant to. It had just happened.

    So everything had been quiet for awhile. Phil had been nice to him and no urgent mentions were made about Amelia getting hitched. But it seemed like now Phil was out of patience with him and ready to start throwing suitors at his daughter.

    But really, a week? What had they expected? Wasn’t Myrtle’s judgment supposed to mean something to this family?

    They should’ve waited longer, Zelgadis thought vehemently. …Not that their waiting would have been rewarded, he added. Just… it wasn’t fair to bring in someone new so soon after Myrtle’s pronouncement.

    “What did you say to her anyway?” Amelia asked.

    “Hmm?” Zelgadis asked, still thinking.

    “Great Aunt Myrtle,” Amelia said. “You know how she is. What did you say to her to make her approve of you?”

    That you’re worth so much more than all the gold in the world, Zelgadis thought numbly. Now that he thought about it, it did sound disturbingly sentimental for a notion that had actually come out of his own mouth.

    “I don’t know,” he copped out.

    “Huh,” Amelia said thoughtfully. “I wonder what it was…”

    It was just… well, any friend would’ve said the same, right? Except maybe Lina. But Zelgadis wasn’t as greedy as Lina. There were penny-pinching Christmas-hating misers that were less greedy than Lina Inverse.

    “It’s crazy isn’t it?” Zelgadis said, almost to himself.

    “What is?” Amelia asked, putting some onions in the shopping bag.

    “This whole you and me thing that Myrtle’s got everyone believing,” Zelgadis said waving a hand vaguely. “Can’t everyone see how ridiculous it is?”

    Amelia stared down at the tomato in her hand, perhaps inspecting in for bruising, perhaps not. Finally she said: “I don’t think it’s ridiculous.”

    Zelgadis stared at her. He wasn’t sure what would’ve happened next or how the conversation would’ve ended if it weren’t for the interruption of a ruckus caused by two elderly women arguing over a rutabaga in a fight that got so heated that the city guard had to be called in to pry the two brawling old ladies away from each other.

    *****

    “So, why this Stanley guy?” Lina asked Phil at the meeting after he’d announced the Lord of Daellon’s impending arrival.

    “I figured he’s practically the image of what Mister Zelgadis wouldn’t like in a noble,” Phil said. “He’s good looking, polite but likely conceited, sheltered, and spoiled.”

    “You think we’re going to make Zel jealous?” Lina asked. She had to admit it was very possible. Zelgadis had certainly wrapped himself up in this Amelia-marriage thing despite his better instincts.

    “Yeah, but is he really going to do anything, jealous or not?” Gourry asked.

    Lina sighed and let her forehead fall into her open palm. “Who knows? It’s Zel. We just have to keep poking him with a stick and hope he eventually does something.”

    “He’s the one with Aunt Myrtle’s blessing,” Phil pointed out. “Hopefully he feels like he should have more rights than some stranger.”

    Lina opened one eye and looked up. “You mentioned feasting?”

    “Of course!” Phil said with a jovial smile. “We must show off for our foreign guest. That means banquets… and, of course, a ball.”

    Lina could see the way things are lining up. “We gonna do something at the ball to try to pair Zel and Amelia off?”

    “Well, Stanley will be dancing with Amelia,” Phil said. “Hopefully when Mister Zelgadis is waiting against the wall watching her dance with someone else, it’ll spark something.”

    Lina nodded. It was cruel and juvenile. Therefore it was perfect for matchmaking. “And Gourry and I will be there to say things like ‘what a cute couple they make’ or something,” she said, feeling she was catching on.

    “No,” Phil said.

    “No?” Lina repeated, raising her eyebrows.

    “No,” Phil confirmed. “You will be dancing with Mister Gourry.”

    Lina gave a sidelong look to Gourry who seemed untroubled by this news. “Why would I want to do something like that?” she asked.

    “Because,” Phil said patiently, “just imagine how that’ll look to Mister Zelgadis. Amelia will be dancing with some Lord that wants to marry her, and you two will be dancing together. He’ll feel like everyone’s pairing up but him. That might put some pressure on him to act.”

    “I guess that makes some sense,” Lina grudgingly admitted.

    “Plus he thinks he’s more mature than you two,” Phil pointed out. “So he’ll think he should’ve gotten his act together before you two.”

    Lina narrowed her eyes. True, Phil had a point. He didn’t have to call them immature to make it.

    Lina elbowed Gourry in the side. “Hey, Gourry,” she said.

    “What?” Gourry asked.

    “Do you even know how to dance?” she asked doubtfully.

    Gourry thought for a moment. “Maybe,” he said finally.

    “What do you mean maybe?

    “I guess I won’t know until I try,” Gourry said simply.

    Lina glanced back at Phil and gave him a “do you see what I have to deal with?” look. Phil merely shrugged.

    “If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what else we can do,” Phil said.

    Lina frowned. “And we only have so much time with the potion,” she said. “If Zel goes into a slump when it doesn’t work, we might never get anywhere.”

    “And then he might leave,” Phil said sounding troubled. “If he does, the political pressure here will just increase.”

    “What if Amelia falls in love with this Stanley guy?” Gourry asked.

    Lina balked at this, but Phil just shook his head. “She won’t. Amelia’s given her heart to Mister Zelgadis and won’t give it to another. That’s the trouble, really.”

    Lina looked down at this sobering thought. Then asked: “Can we really put all our faith in this Stanley guy making Zel jealous? I mean, have you even met him?”

    Phil shook his head. “All I’ve got is reports. But I knew his father. We don’t frequently speak because we don’t see eye-to-eye on issues like divine right.”

    Lina crossed her arms. “Well, the reports better not have been exaggerated. I don’t want to have gone on a restrictive diet and danced with Gourry all for nothing.”

    “You don’t have to say that like they’re equally bad,” Gourry pointed out, sounding only slightly hurt.

    *****

    It’s okay, Zelgadis assured himself as he and Amelia made their way back to the castle with their bags of nascent potion ingredients. She just meant… that it’s not ridiculous in the way that she wouldn’t consider me a suitor because of the way I look. You know how she is about not judging people by appearances. That’s all. She’s just saying that if she was interested in me–which she didn’t say she was–then the way I look wouldn’t hold her back. She was just being nice.

    Yeah. Nice. That was it.


    Amelia sighed to herself. “I wish Daddy wouldn’t bother with this kind of thing,” she said. “It’s just a waste of time for everyone involved. And I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

    Zelgadis raised an eyebrow. “You’ve already made up your mind that you don’t like him?”

    Amelia shrugged. “Maybe I’ll like him. I don’t know. But I won’t love him.”

    Zelgadis felt the weight of the bag in his hand. He’d love to be as sure of things as Amelia was. “How do you know?”

    “I just know,” Amelia said gravely.

    With that kind of attitude, Zelgadis could see why Phil and Lady Myrtle had been concerned. Amelia was utterly opposed to everyone they brought up without even meeting them. But then… she said she wasn’t opposed to the idea of getting married at her age.

    It was like… she already had someone in mind.

    Zelgadis stared at the ground.

    Not ridiculous, she’d said…
    Last edited by Skiyomi; 3rd September 2013 at 11:22 PM.

  16. #16
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    Chapter 16. Pairing Up.

    “A dance?” Zelgadis asked as Amelia passed him a ladle full of newly blessed noodles for the potion.

    “Yeah,” Amelia said, sounding none too thrilled. “It’ll be tomorrow night to welcome the Lord of Daellon to Seyruun.”

    So… no doubt Amelia will be dancing with Lord Stupid Name, Zelgadis thought. After all, Phil wanted to get them hitched on the basis of… well, nothing, so of course he’d make them dance. Then again, it probably wasn’t even a huge deal to Amelia. She was a princess. She probably went to dances all the time. That’s probably what happens when you become a royal.

    Well, you could be sure he wasn’t going along. As if he wanted to watch Amelia dance the night away with someone who was, when you get right down to it, a total stranger, or watch Lina and Gourry eat themselves into comas.

    “Well, I hope you have a good time there,” Zelgadis said leadenly.

    Amelia turned her wide eyes on him. “You can’t mean that you’re not coming along!” she half-squealed.

    “I don’t see why I should,” Zelgadis said. “There’s no real point in me being there.”

    “But Miss Lina and Mister Gourry are going,” Amelia pointed out.

    “Lina and Gourry,” Zelgadis said slowly, “are just going to chain themselves to the buffet table.”

    Amelia sighed. “I suppose you’re right. But I really wish you’d come along,” she said. “I really don’t want to be there by myself.”

    “You’ll have that Daellon guy there,” Zelgadis said. “Phil probably expects you to spend time with him.”

    “But I don’t even know him!” Amelia exclaimed back.

    Zelgadis almost said that that was probably the point Phil had in mind when he wanted her to spend time with him, but didn’t. After all, he didn’t agree with Phil.

    “Anyway,” Amelia said, “the ball will run late at night and you need me for the potion that evening. So it’s better for you to go along and then we can go off and do the potion when it’s over or whenever we can manage to sneak away.”

    Zelgadis had to admit she had a point.

    “Alright,” he relented, knowing that he would very likely regret this. “I’ll go.”

    ******

    “Are you going to eat that?” Gourry asked at breakfast that morning, fork hovering over Zelgadis’s plate in a manner that suggested readiness to strike.

    “Yes, Gourry,” Zelgadis said impatiently. “That’s why I put it on my plate.”

    Gourry’s fork relented for a minute as he watched Zelgadis not eat his fried egg, but instead crane his neck to look out the long windows of the dining hall.

    “Are you sure—” he tried again.

    “Yes,” Zelgadis snapped, cutting him off.

    The Lord of Daellon was supposed to be arriving sometime during the meal. That was why he, Gourry, and Lina had been moved from the front table to one of the many long tables in the hall: to make room for more important guests. Zelgadis would’ve expected Lina to protest at their being shunted aside, but she clearly had other things on her mind.

    “Did you see the size of the cake they’re working on in the kitchens for the ball tonight?” she asked, eyes gleaming with pastry-based greed. “They might as well just get married tonight with a cake like that!”

    Zelgadis cringed. Lina was supposed to be Amelia’s friend. Hadn’t she been against Amelia marrying some stranger when Myrtle had been around? But maybe that had been more about getting back at Myrtle than making sure Amelia was married to someone she loved. Maybe Lina didn’t care as long as there was cake.

    Was he the only one left to defend Amelia against this scheme? If so, this was certainly a sad state of affairs.

    He was awoken from his musings by an ostentatious trumpet blast from the grand entranceway. As everyone in the hall turned to look, the trumpet blower announced: “Introducing Stanley Phi Un Daellon, the Lord of Daellon. Son of His Grace, Mitchell Reus Hyata Daellon, the Duke of Daellon.” He stepped aside and opened the doors.

    To Zelgadis’s annoyance, Lina and Gourry stood up to better see the arrival of the Lord of Daellon. Through the doors a procession of soldiers and courtiers was led by a man around 25. He had short, blonde hair and was dressed in only the finest (yet least hilariously femme) attire of nobles. When Zelgadis saw that he had a feather in his hat, he knew he must hate this individual.

    The Lord of Daellon walked along a… had that royal blue carpet with the silver embellishments been there before? Zelgadis couldn’t remember. Had they put it out just for this joker and his parade of toadies to walk across?

    The Lord of Daellon reached the head table, stood before Phil, and bowed, removing his plumed hat. “Your servant, Prince Philionel,” he said.

    Phil nodded. “Very well, young Stanley,” he said. “Thank you for coming on such short notice. Is your father well?”

    “Still holding strong,” Stanley said with pride, putting his hat back on. “He’s always been a fighter. But I assure you, we all keep a very close eye on his health.”

    “I’m sure you do,” Phil said, and it appeared that there was some complicated thought going on in his head when he said it.

    “Father used to talk about you quite a bit,” Stanley said with a broad grin. “He said that one of your favorite mottos was that rulers wield their power by the consent of ruled.”

    “He’s always found that funny,” Phil said with an almost microscopic smile.

    Well, this is just too much, Zelgadis couldn’t help but think as he watched this scene from the table. Phil didn’t get along with this guy’s father and he’d still rather choose him to marry Amelia than…

    …than any of his other options?

    “You certainly had your differences,” Stanley said. “But I could tell he greatly respects you. And I am honored to finally get to meet you.”

    A servant walked up to Phil carrying a large and heavy looking chest of the kind that, as Lina pointed out while elbowing Zelgadis, gold coins are usually kept in. He placed it reverently on the table.

    “A token of our goodwill and a thanks for extending this invitation,” Stanley said with a nod.

    “Polite in every way, just like your mother,” Philionel commented. “Now, enough with this formality,” he said, waving his hand. “You must meet my daughter Amelia.”

    Phil made a gesture and Amelia got up from her chair and approached him looking nervous and slightly awkward. Zelgadis blanched at the timing. It just didn’t look right. That Stanley guy hands over a box of treasure and then Phil introduces Amelia? It… it looked like an exchange. It was just insulting.

    “Princess Amelia,” Stanley said with an overly flourishing bow. “It is such a pleasure to finally get to meet the beautiful and eloquent princess that Seyruun is famed for.” Then, from his bowed position, he reached up, took her hand, and kissed in genteelly.

    Zelgadis couldn’t believe it. What a phony! It was obvious to him that this guy was nothing more than a power-hungry noble who would say and do anything to get the throne. Aunt Myrtle had been worried about him marrying Amelia? Well, she should’ve been worried about Mister Actually-Just-Went-And-Kissed-Her-Hand!

    …Please don’t let her giggle and blush.

    Amelia gave a small smile as the Lord of Daellon let her have her hand back. “It’s nice to meet you too, Lord Daellon,” she said reservedly but politely.

    YES! I mean… good. Good. She’s not taken in by his charade.

    “I haven’t forgotten to get a gift for you, dear princess,” Stanley said with a smile as he got to his feet. He snapped his fingers and a servant appeared at his side with a box. He took it and handed it to Amelia. “Earrings,” he said, as she opened the box. “Vivid red diamond with golden framework, made by the famed Rehlarr Brothers jewelry company. I hope you like them.”

    Zelgadis scowled. Sure, jewelry. If you’ve got buckets and buckets of money then that’s probably a safe bet to get for any girl. But it showed he didn’t actually know anything about her. Someone who knew about Amelia would get her… oh, something from that damn Justice Federation novelty catalogue she liked so much. One of those impractical “hero of justice” costumes in vibrant colors that could easily be spotted by any bad guy (accessories extra). Someone who actually knew her would get her a gift like that.

    But this Stanley guy didn’t know her. He was just trying to buy her.

    Amelia smiled. “Thank you. They’re lovely,” she said. “I’ll wear them tonight.”

    “Ah, the welcoming dance my messengers told me about,” Stanley said with an expectant smile. “I must say I’ve been looking forward to it.” He gave her a faux-nervous look. “I don’t suppose you’d even consider dancing with a weary traveler such as myself, would you?”

    Zelgadis glared across her room.

    Before Amelia had opened her mouth, but Phil cut her off, saying: “Of course she will!”

    “Geez, talk about an awkward blind date,” Lina whispered from next to Zelgadis. “Poor Amelia, right?” she said, elbowing him in the side.

    For a moment Zelgadis couldn’t quite manage to say anything. Then he stared back at his plate, said: “I’m sure she’s used to it,” and wolfed down his fried egg in one vindictive bite.

    Gourry put his fork down and sighed. It didn’t seem right that breakfast was the only meal that didn’t get a dessert.

    *****

    Amelia sighed as she looked at the ball gown that had been hung carefully in her room so as not to get wrinkly. Big dances were another thing that some of her guilty-pleasure books had a lot to say about. They somehow seemed much more… romantic in books than in real life. In a perfect world, no ball should be complete without eyes meeting from across a crowded room, dancing until dawn, and for some reason a loss of footwear. But Amelia had been to a few dances as a matter of her official duties, and had always found them to be procedural nightmares full of forced conversation, awkward meetings, and dresses that looked pretty on the hanger, but were so uncomfortable that you wanted to burn them after the dance ended.

    There was no reason to expect this dance to be much different. Sure, Lina and Gourry might make a scene, which would actually be a bit of a relief from the stuffy atmosphere you usually got at these balls. But she’d still end up having to dance with a stranger and make polite conversation. What made it worse was that he wanted to marry her. Politely refusing something like that is an art form.

    But… well, part of her still wanted to believe that things could be… magical.

    It’s worth hoping for fairy-tale dreams, right? She’d always been one for hope. And… well, to the point, Mister Zelgadis was going to be there, right? He hadn’t wanted to initially and he put up a fight but… he always did that. He’d be there and she’d be there and…

    Well, hope was one thing, but deluding herself into disappointment was quite another. If she went around wondering whether he’d ask her to dance then she was sure to end up feeling down when it inevitably didn’t happen. Dancing wasn’t really Mister Zelgadis’s thing. She really shouldn’t even think about it.

    …But it wasn’t… completely impossible, was it?

    She shook her head. Mister Zelgadis had agreed to come along, but it was pretty clear that he didn’t have any intention of dancing with her. He’d probably be thinking about the potion and about the new ingredients they needed to add that evening and how he hoped that this would finally be his cure.

    Yes, she thought, hanging her head as she unhooked her dress from the wall. I’ll definitely be the last thing on his mind tonight.

    *****

    Zelgadis stood on the outskirts of the ballroom in uncomfortable clothes that had been laid out for him. He ate pistachios from a bowl on the table next to him moodily as he watch an abundantly female figure in yellow dance with a Lord. More abundantly female than he seemed to have remembered at least…

    “S’matter, Zel?” Lina said thickly from the food-laden table next to him where she and Gourry were gorging themselves on pudding.

    Zel spared a side-long scowl at Lina and Gourry while keeping one eye trained on the waltzing figures on the dance floor. “Something’s not right,” he said finally.

    “Yeah,” Lina agreed emphatically. “They didn’t put out enough canapés. Am I right, Gourry?”

    “Too true,” Gourry said, nodding his assent.

    “Not that,” Zelgadis responded testily. “I mean this Lord Stanley guy. Did you see that train of people he brought with him? Who needs a hundred soldiers just for a simple visit? Something’s fishy here.”

    “Do you really think so?” Lina said doubtfully, chewing on the end of a kabob she’d lifted off of a passing waiter. “I mean, nobles usually travel in style and this one’s got a good reason to want to impress people.”

    Zelgadis looked away as though, for once, he couldn’t be swayed by mere logic.

    “Anyway,” Lina went on, “there’s no way he could ever invade Seyruun with just a measly one hundred soldiers.”

    He doesn’t have to, Zelgadis couldn’t help but thinking sullenly. He’s planning on invading Seyruun all on his own by way of Amelia’s bedroom.

    He blushed, looked down, and fervently wished he hadn’t thought that.

    “Well I still think he’s untrustworthy,” Zelgadis said to cover for his moment.

    “Isn’t that what Myrtle said about you?”

    Zelgadis took another handful of pistachios irritably. “That’s not the point,” he said.

    Lina shrugged. “I think you’re making too big a deal out of this. He seems nice enough from what I’ve seen.”

    “You mean rich enough,” Zelgadis snapped.

    “Nothing wrong with being rich,” Lina said idly, following his gaze to the pair dancing on the floor.

    “That’s a nice dress on Amelia,” she commented. “Yellow doesn’t look good on everyone.”

    Pink certainly doesn’t look good on red-heads. Not that Lina Inverse seems to notice, Zelgadis thought bitterly. He didn’t say it because he knew his bad mood wasn’t actually Lina’s fault, and because he didn’t want her to throw the salad at his head.

    Lina sighed. “Seems like everyone is pairing up these days, doesn’t it?”

    “They’re not ‘pairing up,’” Zelgadis retorted. “She’s only dancing with him to be polite.”

    “And anyway,” he challenged. “What do you mean ‘everyone?’”

    “You know,” Lina said. “Like, there was Martina and Zangulus awhile back.”

    Zelgadis grudgingly accepted that one even though it still boggled the mind that people like them could actually form a stable relationship. And now that he came to think of that… well, Lina and Gourry were going to pair up eventually. They probably even knew that. They just didn’t quite accept it yet. And Amelia was… well, obviously not “paired up” with anyone and certainly not Lord Stanley, but nevertheless she was facing the prospect of getting married soon. She actually felt she was ready for marriage.

    Put it like that, it actually did seem like everyone was…

    “Well, at least Filia hasn’t,” Zelgadis said, clinging onto the tiny shred of comfort he could find.

    “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Lina said distantly.

    “What?” Zelgadis exclaimed, turning to her. “You’re not honestly telling me that Filia’s paired up with someone. She brains people with her mace and tramples cities when she’s upset!”

    “From what I’ve gleaned from her letters, Xellos is spending an awful lot of time at her shop,” Lina said carefully.

    Zelgadis paused for a moment, as a tiny portion of the all-that-is-good-and-holy section of his sanity zoomed off the edge of a cliff. “…Buying pottery?” he hazarded as a kind of last-ditch hope.

    Lina shook her head.

    No.”

    “I’m afraid so.”

    Xellos and Filia?!”

    “Yep.”

    Zelgadis stared off into the distance as his psyche began the arduous task of repairing the universe as he saw it. “Well, she has no taste,” he finally said.

    “Obviously,” Lina said.

    Lina watched as Zelgadis labored under uncomfortable thoughts. Like, maybe it seemed wrong to him that so many immature people were managing to work out their feelings, while oh-so-mature (so he thought) him couldn’t manage to get his act together. Not to mention that Lord Whatshisface (who seemed to be an excellent dancer) was waltzing the night away with Amelia and looked like he had no intention of quitting. That had to sting. Staying put and watching it all hurt, but doing something about it might put himself at risk. And that was his conundrum.

    Lina slid her gaze over to Gourry who was still busily engaged at the buffet. He was all dressed up in a suit with his hair pulled back, and would’ve looked quite handsome if it weren’t for the fact that he was practically buried in pudding. But then again, as far as Lina was concerned, pudding was attractive in and of itself.

    …Time to do her part.

    She took a deep breath. This was all for the plan. No need to be nervous. Just…

    “Hey, Gourry,” she finally said, adding blush to the shades of red that made up her ensemble. “You wanna dance?”
    Last edited by Skiyomi; 4th September 2013 at 1:22 AM.

  17. #17
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    Chapter 17. Mixed Results.

    It’s not as bad as I thought it would be, Lina thought as she and Gourry followed the slow beat of the music around the dance floor. In fact, it’s not bad at all.

    She chided herself for thinking this would be weird. After all, she’d traveled with Gourry for years. Sometimes it seemed like it had been forever. How could a little hand holding and a leisurely walk in circles have worried her so much?

    Admittedly, they were a lot closer together than they usually were. And Gourry’s hand was around her waist, which was… different. But nothing she couldn’t handle.

    The thing that actually got to her was that, once she’d gotten past the watching her feet to make sure she didn’t trip stage, there was really nothing to look at but, well… Gourry. It was just… a little awkward. Not too awkward, but a little. Of course, he didn’t seem to notice it at all. Typical.

    “You’re actually not a bad dancer at all,” Lina found herself saying, to her surprise. It was just… she had to say something. It was just getting weird looking into each other’s eyes with the music playing like that. One of them had to talk!

    “Thanks,” Gourry said brightly. “You’re not either.”

    Lina Inverse had not built her fabulous (alright, occasionally infamous) reputation by shying away from praise, so she didn’t admit to the fact that she’d been following him around at the beginning until she got the hang of it.

    “I guess sword fighting and dancing have a lot in common now that I think about it,” Lina said, taking refuge in something to focus on. “Y’know, rhythmic movement, insight into what your partner’s going to do… that kinda thing.”

    “Though I guess it’s kinda different because you’re not trying to stab anyone here,” Lina said, feeling like she was starting to babble and getting slightly embarrassed because of it.

    “Kinda,” Gourry said.

    Something to talk about! Lina’s brain screamed at her after another silent beat. Oh yeah, she thought in relief. Can’t forget why we’re doing this in the first place.

    “You can see Zel, right?” Lina asked.

    “Yep.”

    “Well, is the plan working?”

    “What plan?” Gourry asked.

    Lina gnashed her teeth and tried to remind herself that any information put into Gourry’s memory had about the life-span of a mayfly. Also that throttling him on the dance floor would not send the message they were trying to send.

    “The plan to make Zelgadis do something about his feelings for Amelia!” she said in all the hush of a whisper and all the frustrated anger of a shout. “When he sees us dancing he’s supposed to think we’re…” She paused, reddened, and then said: “Oh, just forget it.”

    Ooh, I get it,” Gourry said. “A guy I knew used to say that the last guy without a partner at the dance was a loser who should get shunned by the rest of his peers forever.”

    “What kinda guy was that?” Lina asked quizzically. And did Gourry really just use the word ‘peers?’

    “A guy who was the last one without a partner at the dance and got shunned by his—”

    “I get it,” Lina said firmly, fighting off a tension headache.

    “So… Zel is supposed to want to dance with Amelia?” Gourry asked, trying to get on the same page as Lina.

    “Maybe,” Lina said. “Personally, I wouldn’t hold out for that good a result, knowing him.”

    “Well, what kind of result are we trying for?” Gourry asked, trying to get to the bottom line. “What’s the best case scenario?”

    Lina gave it some thought. “Best case scenario? He storms up to the Lord, punches him in the face, says something like: ‘Stay away from my girl!’ and proposes marriage to Amelia on the spot.”

    Hey, if you’re going to dream: dream big.

    “O-kay…” Gourry said doubtfully. “What’s the worst case scenario?”

    Lina shrugged. “Either he doesn’t care at all, or he decides to leave or something.”

    Gourry peered over Lina’s shoulder. “Well, he’s not punching anyone, but he’s not leaving. And he looks pretty mad.”

    “Really?” Lina asked. That, at least, was a good sign. “Madder than he was before?”

    “Yeah,” Gourry said. “He keeps glaring at Amelia and the Lord guy. And he’s really putting away those pistachios!”

    Lina nodded gravely. “Rage eating,” she said. “I’ve seen it before.”

    “You’ve done it before!” Gourry pointed out. Lina could eat a pork chop in a way that could make you honestly believe it had insulted her mother in some depraved way.

    Lina coughed. “Anyway,” she said, preparing to change the subject back, “I just hope he does something this time instead of just watching Amelia moodily all night. That can’t be healthy, mentally speaking.”

    “So…” Gourry began questioningly, “do you want to just keep dancing until he does something?”

    “Um… why?” Lina asked, trying not to feel hurt. “Would that bother you or something?”

    “Nope,” Gourry said good-naturedly. “I’m up for it as long as you are.”

    “Good,” Lina said, her feelings surging unexpectedly. Then she spied something behind his back that improved her mood even more.

    “Dance us over there,” she said, nudging him in the ribs. “They just put out a plate of chicken wings.”

    *****

    Unbelievable, Zelgadis thought to himself, as he cracked another pistachio between his stony fingertips. Lina and Gourry actually dancing. No one had nudge them to, no one had made them… they just went and did it all by themselves. And Lina had actually been the one to suggest it! Lina “Embarrassed to the point of violence about anything related to love” Inverse had asked to dance with Gourry! It was just… what was happening to everyone?

    Maybe it’s just a girl thing, Zelgadis thought sourly to himself. Girls like dances, don’t they? They get all excited about that sort of thing. And Amelia certainly was doing a lot of dancing with Lord Show-off. Or at least… she had been. He’d been watching them for awhile, but lost them in the crowd at the back of the room. He wasn’t sure where they were now. And… was trying not to be bothered by that fact.

    They were probably still dancing in the back of the room behind that crowd of people. Or maybe his Lordship had actually given her a break and gotten her a drink and let her rest her feet for a moment after making her dance all that time.

    Yes, just because he couldn’t see them didn’t mean they had… oh, say: stepped out onto the patio, where the crowd was thin, but the strains of the music could still waft through the inviting night air, to enjoy the moonlight. It didn’t mean Amelia was leaning against the railing, watching the fireflies glow on and off with an expression of contentment as Lord Whatever prepared to let loose with some smooth compliment guaranteed to make her blush under the stars.

    He paused. Perhaps he’d given that scenario a little too much thought.

    Anyway, he could always… check on her. But he didn’t want to appear worried. He was sure everything was fine.

    …Mostly sure at least.

    He reached down to an empty bowl by his side. He looked down at it in surprise. It had been full of pistachios at the beginning of the evening. Someone must have eaten them all when he wasn’t looking.

    *****

    Amelia had hitched up her skirts and was politely but quickly making her way through the crowd. The Lord of Daellon sure liked to dance, it seemed. She was beginning to worry that she’d never get away from him.

    Not that he wasn’t nice. There was nothing really wrong with him or anything, but well… she’d seen Mister Zelgadis standing alone by one of the buffet tables, just watching the dance with an unhappy look on his face. And why wouldn’t he be unhappy? He was stuck hanging around waiting for her all alone. Even Lina and Gourry had abandoned him to dance themselves, which was… well, good for them, but still must have been a rotten deal for him.

    Needless to say, this hadn’t been the fairy-tale ball she’d hoped for in her secret heart. But the tiny trace of that hope was still alive; the evening wasn’t over.

    “I made it!” she said breathlessly, as she charged through the crowd and reached Zelgadis.

    “Has he gone?” Zelgadis asked her.

    “No. But I managed to lose him by saying I had to talk about something with Daddy,” Amelia said.

    Someone probably thinks he’s got his feet under the table, Zelgadis thought sourly. “I thought you’d never get away after all that,” he said. “You must be sick of dancing by now,” he added with a slight note of hope in his voice.

    “Oh, I don’t know,” Amelia said carefully, the ember of all her hopes and dreams for the evening flickering, threatening to either grow into a plume of flame or go out entirely. “I don’t think I’d mind one more dance.”

    “If you’re so set on it then you can probably find his lordship before we go,” Zelgadis said bitterly. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind at all.”

    Amelia sighed. “That’s not what I meant,” she said. “Never mind,” she added at his questioning look. After all, he wasn’t about to take the hint and she’d been stupid to think he’d ask her to dance anyway. “Let’s go before anyone sees us.”

    “Right,” Zelgadis said, locating the patio of his aforementioned completely imaginary Amelia-Stanley liaison. “We can leave that way.”

    *****

    “Oh!” Amelia gushed, as they left the stuffiness of the ballroom and got into the open air. “It’s so beautiful out tonight!”

    She raced up to the railing around the patio and leaned against it in a way that Zelgadis had already seen in his imagination. She looked over her shoulder and said: “Look at the moon. You can see it really clearly tonight!”

    This was the point in the narrative where Stanley would’ve said something about the way she looked in the moonlight, but Zelgadis wasn’t Stanley and glad of it. He tore his eyes away from her and looked up at the wedge of moon in the sky. “We’re almost there,” he said to himself.

    Amelia walked over and patted him on the shoulder. “I’m sure this’ll work!” she enthused.

    “I’m not,” Zelgadis said cynically. “But there’s no point in discussing whether it’ll work or not. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

    “Right!” Amelia said, pumping her fist in an ever-determined way.

    They set off across the lawn at a rather slow pace since Amelia had a long dress to contend with.

    “Did you see Lina and Gourry dancing?” Zelgadis asked as Amelia tried not to get tripped up by hidden rocks and weeds.

    “I did!” Amelia said. “Good for them! I wondered if they were ever going to do something.”

    “And Lina was actually the one to ask,” Zelgadis added. “I was surprised. It just came out of the blue.”

    “Well, I mean, how long could they really go without admitting their feelings for each other?” Amelia asked. “It was just starting to get silly for a moment there. She knows how she feels about Mister Gourry. So why avoid it just because she’s too…” Amelia paused thoughtfully for a moment, “not even shy, more like too stubborn to admit she needs someone else. Where’s the sense in that?”

    Zelgadis was feeling uncomfortable and put it down to the suit. It wasn’t exactly outdoor wear in high summer.

    “It mostly doesn’t make sense because nothing would really change if they did,” he said thoughtfully. “They’re already constantly in each other’s company and they seem to want the same things out of life. It’s not like it’d be hard for them or anything. It’s not as though… it’s not as though they’re from two different worlds and want different things out of life.”

    Amelia had her eyes so glued on him that she missed the rock that snagged on her dress and tripped her up in her pretty, but impractical shoes. She nearly toppled, but Zelgadis reached out a hand for hers and kept her upright.

    “Be careful,” he said. “I don’t think that dress was designed for nature walks.”

    “N-no,” she said, flustered as she regained her balance.

    They walked on in a hot, oppressive silence that wasn’t entirely to do with the weather. Zelgadis held her hand as they walked along because… because clearly she was having trouble getting around on the terrain of the grounds with her long dress and heels and helping her along was obviously the only decent thing to do.

    “So what’s this Lord Stanley guy like?” Zelgadis asked, tone dipping to the irritable.

    “Oh him?” Amelia said, as though to suggest that, whatever Zelgadis might have thought, Stanley was an afterthought. “I guess he seems nice enough.”

    “Nice enough to what?” Zelgadis asked sharply.

    Amelia looked down, taken aback by this sudden tone. Zelgadis himself seemed to realize it came out too harsh.

    “I just meant that he seems polite,” she said, slightly sullenly. “That’s all. I still don’t have any intention of marrying him if that’s what you were thinking.”

    Zelgadis bared his teeth at the grass. The words “I’m sorry” were queued up in his brain, but his mouth wouldn’t let them come out. “He seems to have other ideas.”

    Amelia sighed. “I know. But they’re not my ideas.”

    Zelgadis held onto this statement in relief. At least Amelia was still behaving sensibly; especially for Amelia. “No matter how good a dancer he is?” he asked, feeling better.

    Amelia chuckled. “Do you dance, Mister Zelgadis?” she asked, almost shyly.

    “There’s a chance you’d find out at gunpoint.”

    “Aww, come on!”

    Zelgadis smile slowly faded. There was something else, but he wasn’t sure exactly how he wanted to put it. “It… wasn’t really my intention to drag you away from your party,” he said, almost apologetically.

    “It’s fine,” Amelia said brightly. “Don’t worry about it.”

    “I was just thinking,” Zelgadis began awkwardly, “tonight’s ingredient is the red wine, and there’ll probably be a little left over and… it’s supposed to be a party and all so… I snuck some glasses out of the kitchen, if you wanted to…” he trailed off.

    Amelia’s face lit up like the sun against the darkness of the sky. “I’d like that very much,” she said.
    Last edited by Skiyomi; 5th September 2013 at 5:25 AM.

  18. #18
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    Chapter 18. Titles.

    “These chicken wings are so messy,” Lina complained, snatching a wad of napkins off a table as she passed.

    “I don’t think you’re supposed to eat them while dancing,” Gourry said doubtfully, taking a moment to gnaw on one of them after moving in turn.

    “We’ve got to dance,” Lina said firmly. “That’s the whole plan. So what are we supposed to do?”

    Gourry took a minute on that one. “Not… eat them?” he dredged up from the depths of his brain.

    Lina gave him a sharp look. There are some things you shouldn’t even joke about.

    “Damn,” Lina said, wiping ineffectually at her wing-sauce covered hands with a napkin. “It’s not coming off. If I ruin this dress it’s not going to be my fault!”

    “Whose fault is it?” Gourry asked.

    “Whoever put the wings out!” Lina said emphatically. They should’ve been able to easily see what would happen! “Not that I get why there are chicken wings here anyway,” she added. “Seems like a weird food item for a fancy party like this.”

    “I think Phil likes them,” Gourry commented.

    “That wouldn’t surprise me,” Lina answered, dunking her napkin into a glass of water as they waltzed across the room. The fact that the water belonged to some woman in a tiara who had seemed intent on drinking it was a minor detail.

    “You know what they need?” Lina asked, as she washed her hands with the baptized napkin. “Napkins that are already wet. It would save a lot of hassle with messy foods.”

    Gourry thought about this for a minute. “Wouldn’t they like… fall apart after awhile?”

    “Maybe something stronger than napkins,” Lina relented, admitting that there was a problem but still convinced that her basic idea was good. “Like… a towel?” she tried.

    “Sounds like it would be pretty bulky,” Gourry said doubtfully.

    “Not like a full towel,” Lina said. “Kind of a mini-towel. A towelette, if you will.”

    “Could they be lemon scented?” Gourry asked.

    “I don’t see why not,” Lina said, really warming up to the idea. “They’d be great with ribs and stuff. It’s always such a pain to get that sauce off your hands afterward.”

    “So… why hasn’t anyone invented them yet?” Gourry said, asking the question that was on Lina’s mind.

    “I don’t know,” Lina said, sounding slightly irritated by that fact. “Maybe if those geniuses in the Outer World spent less time trying to make their so-called ‘magic-less, fire-less’ lighting system, and more time working on things that are actually useful, then I wouldn’t have to be dunking my napkin into water to clean up.”

    “I think that was champagne,” Gourry commented.

    Lina froze. “What?”

    “Yeah,” Gourry said. “Isn’t champagne usually in those bell-shaped glasses? Plus it was all bubbly.”

    Lina frowned. So that was why her hands were sticky.

    “Never mind,” she said, casting aside the napkins. “What’s Zel up to?”

    Gourry scanned around the room slowly, then again quickly. “Umm… he’s gone.”

    “What?” Lina demanded, letting go of his arm and looking around the room. “Where’d he go?” She walked back up to Gourry and smacked his shoulder. “You were supposed to be watching him!”

    “When… did you say that?” Gourry asked.

    “It was implied,” Lina said frustratedly. She paced around the dance floor, disturbing the path of several waltzing couples. “Great,” she said. “He probably got all pissy and left to mope somewhere.”

    “Wait,” Gourry said, squinting around the room. “Where’s Amelia?”

    Lina whipped around. She couldn’t find her either. “Hmm… interesting,” she said. “There might be hope yet.”

    “You don’t think they’re together, do you?” Gourry asked.

    “May-be,” Lina stretched out the word. “I mean, they’re both gone, right? So that’d make sense?”

    “You think they’re dancing like you wanted them to?” Gourry asked, standing on tip-toes to look above the crowd of dancers. He’d certainly have a better view than Lina would.

    Lina shrugged. “I just hope they’re talking at this point. Dancing was kind of a lot to wish for. I mean… it’s like… a romantic thing. And Zel’s got no romance in his soul.” She nodded grimly.

    “We danced,” Gourry pointed out.

    “Yeah,” Lina said awkwardly. “But that was just for the plan.”

    “Right,” Gourry said.

    “Right,” Lina agreed, touching her shoulder.

    “So… you wanna go look for them?” Gourry asked.

    “Yeah,” Lina said, seeming to regain her zeal upon this suggestion. “I want to make sure he’s not just angsting in corner somewhere.”

    *****

    Zelgadis sipped his wine awkwardly from his perch on a bench in the garden and tried not to look Amelia directly in the eye. For that matter, there were several zones of Amelia that he tried not to look directly at. In the dress she was wearing there were less safe places than usual to let his eyes rest.

    He wished he hadn’t suggested this whole wine drinking thing. Talking with Amelia was no problem while they were waiting for the ingredients of the potion to brew, but then they were… passing the time. Now the potion was done simmering for the night and now it was just… hanging out. It just seemed… strange in the setting they were in. It was quiet, and he couldn’t think of anything reasonably intelligent to say.

    “So, this is nice,” Amelia chirped, trying to catch his eye.

    “Yeah,” Zelgadis said vaguely, looking at his glass.

    It was just that… well, he’d thought about things, and started to feel a little guilty. Amelia was helping him out with the potion and he hadn’t even given a second thought to her sacrifices. Maybe she’d wanted to stay at the party even if she had to get stuck with Stanley. But she was helping him out anyway just because she’s… kind like that.

    And he hadn’t been very nice to her lately. To be fair, the Stanley situation was… irritating. But then again, it wasn’t her fault and she probably got the worst from it. She was the one that should’ve been mad.

    …In fact, it would’ve probably made him feel a lot better if she was mad.

    So, when he’d noticed tonight’s ingredient was red wine… well, it seemed like the least he could do to let her celebrate a little, considering what she was missing.

    “Can I ask you something?” Amelia asked, looking at him intently.

    “Yes,” Zelgadis said hesitantly.

    “Well, you know, if this potion works like it’s supposed to then you’ll have your human form back like you always wanted,” Amelia said, twisting the hem of her dress absentmindedly.

    Zelgadis nodded.

    “I was just wondering…” Amelia said, “What are you going to do after that?”

    “It’s too early to think about that kind of thing,” Zelgadis said dismissively. “Believe me, if you’d come across as many false trails and dead ends as I have, you’d realize that planning something like that now would just be a waste of time.”

    Amelia gaped at him. “But isn’t that what you’re doing this for? You’re working so hard to get your human form back! You must have dozens of things you’re waiting to get your human form back to do!”

    “Yeah,” Zelgadis said distractedly. He should have dozens of things. It was strange that he hadn’t bothered to think of one.

    “Well, like what?” Amelia asked.

    Zelgadis searched his mind. This should’ve been an easy question. Why wasn’t he coming up with anything?

    “I suppose it’ll just be a relief not to be gawked at anymore,” he finally said.

    Amelia looked sadly into her drink.

    “That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to come tonight,” Zelgadis went on, still feeling the need to justify his opposition to the dance. “I don’t need a bunch of ladies in tiaras looking down on me.”

    Amelia looked thoughtful for a moment, took a drink of her wine, and said: “What if… what if they still gawk at you when you get your human form back?”

    That one really threw Zelgadis. “Wh—? Why would they—?”

    “Well, maybe they’re not gawking at you because of your skin,” Amelia said, blushing and looking at the moon with determination in her eyes. “Maybe they just think you’re cute.”

    It was Zelgadis’s turn to gawk. Then his expression sharpened. “Don’t make jokes,” he said. “I get enough of that from Lina.”

    “I’m not joking,” Amelia said almost sulkily, still eyeballing the moon. “It’s possible.”

    Zelgadis followed her gaze to the moon and said nothing.

    “But really,” Amelia said, after a long silence, “you’ve been traveling around for such a long time in search of your cure. Once you have it, are you going to settle down somewhere, or keep traveling?”

    Zelgadis was glad of the change in subject, but they were still in murky territory. “I suppose it depends,” he said, which was just another way of saying he didn’t know.

    He’d gotten so used to traveling around, that it was hard to imagine not doing so. Then again, he’d always traveled with a purpose. He didn’t want to be like… like Lina—drifting from town to town, always on the lookout for the next big lunch or treasure. It had often struck him as a wasteful way to live.

    On the other hand, could he really settle down somewhere? Was it really in his nature to live like that again? Where would he go? What would he do?

    “You know, you could always stay here,” Amelia offered carefully.

    Zelgadis frowned. He couldn’t really see mooching off the palace for the rest of this life and told her so.

    “Well, I mean… there are plenty of things you could do here,” Amelia said.

    “Like that… knight offer Phil brought up?” Zelgadis asked.

    “I guess,” Amelia said. “But knighting isn’t really… a job. I mean, there’s a title, benefits, and a pension. But most knights just travel around doing,” she waved a hand vaguely, “knightly deeds. They only really do anything in Seyruun when there’s a battle.”

    There was a lot to wonder about, but Zelgadis just had to ask: “What benefits?”

    “Your own white horse and forty gold coins’ allowance for replacement of shield in case it’s melted by a dragon,” Amelia said promptly.

    Zelgadis gave her an odd look. “…And you know that… why?”

    “I looked it up,” Amelia said studiously.

    Zelgadis’s odd look did not abate. “Okay… if not knighting, then what? Guarding?” Zelgadis asked. He’d done a lot of guarding in the past. It was pretty standard mercenary work.

    “Oh, you could be Captain of the Guard easily,” Amelia said dismissively.

    Zelgadis had seen guard captains. They mostly wore feathers on their helmets and shouted at guards. He’d never seen himself as one of those people.

    “But I think that might be a waste of your talents,” Amelia said. “Daddy’s really trying to get the old Seyruun police force into action. I think you’d make a great Force Commander.”

    “Me? A cop?” Zelgadis asked incredulously. He’d had some experience with cops before, mostly running away from them with an ancient artifact tucked under his arm as he fled a temple.

    “Or there’s always the Senate,” Amelia said. “You’re so smart; I think working with law would be a breeze for you. Or a diplomat… Really, the possibilities are endless.”

    Zelgadis couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t really expected to be offered any high position in the kingdom. But it seemed like Amelia was determined to make him one of Seyruun’s heroes of justice. …Though, when he put it like that he wondered why he was surprised.

    “Like I said before,” he said. “It’s too early to make a decision.”

    “Right,” Amelia said, sounding slightly reluctant to abandon this topic.

    *****

    “Do you see them?” Lina asked, trying to crane her neck over the crowd.

    “Nah,” Gourry said. “But it’s pretty crowded on the floor. We could just be missing them.”

    Could they really be dancing? Lina asked herself. It almost seemed too good to be true. But they’d combed the outskirts of the ballroom and hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them. If they were just talking then that would be the place to do it; that or the patio, which they’d checked too. The only place she could think they’d be would be the dance floor where there were so many people that they could easily be missed. And if they were on the dance floor… then chances were that they were dancing.

    “Excuse me, Sir,” came a high voice.

    Lina looked up to see a woman in a gaudy dress with a high powdered wig and very pale make-up. There was a mole on her cheek that looked like it had been drawn with a marker. She had approached Gourry and was presenting her hand for chivalrous hand-kissing.

    “Might I have this dance?” she asked, still holding out her hand to the oblivious Gourry.

    “Well, actually I—”

    “Gourry’s busy,” Lina said, elbowing Gourry aside to give the woman an unpleasant look.

    “Oh?” the woman said, opening her fan and casting light breezes over her features. “Pardon. I thought you were finished. Very well, then the next dance— Mister Gourry, was it? I am Madam Theria.”

    “Actually I’m not—”

    “Gourry’ll still be busy,” Lina said fervently.

    “Ah,” Madam Theria said, giving Lina a sharp look. “We see. Well,” she closed up her fan and tapped Gourry on the shoulder. “If you should find yourself less busy than your little friend has described, you may find me by the violins.”

    Madam Theria walked away or, more accurately, flounced.

    “Was that a bug on her face?” Gourry asked.

    “I think it was a beauty mark,” Lina said in a low voice. She was trying to master the urge to barbeque the woman’s ridiculous wig. “Little friend,” huh?

    “It didn’t look very beautiful,” Gourry commented.

    “Shut up,” Lina said, massaging her temples. “Let’s just go find Zel and Amelia.”

    “What’s up with you?” Gourry asked, looking a little concerned.

    “Nothing is up with me!” Lina snapped. “Now come on! We have things to do. We can’t waste time like this. We’ve got to find Zel and Amelia.”

    “Alright,” Gourry said with a little shrug, as they weaved their way through the crowd.

    “Hey,” Gourry said out of the blue. “We haven’t seen that Lord Whatshisname around either.”

    *****

    “Princess?” came a voice through the shrubbery as a hand brushed aside the leaves and a figure entered the garden. It beamed. “I hoped I’d find you here.”

    “Lord Daellon?” Amelia said, nearly dropping her glass as she stood up in shock. “What are you doing here?”

    That saved Zelgadis the trouble of hissing: “What’s he doing here?”

    “Well, you vanished from the ballroom and I just wondered if you were alright,” said the smiling face of Lord Stanley. “I saw smoke coming from the garden and follow it here.”

    “Ah,” Lord Stanley said, spotting Zelgadis and rushing forward. “You must be Princess’s Mister Zelgadis that I’ve heard so much about. A pleasure to meet you.”

    He held out his hand to shake. Zelgadis just stared at it. Lord Stanley quickly withdrew his hand, with his smile still intact, as though the incident had never occurred.

    “Well,” he said, surveying the surroundings. “What a lovely place you’ve found to congregate in. And is that stew I smell cooking?” he asked excitedly, moving toward the pot that contained the potion.

    “Don’t eat it!” Amelia warned, holding up her hands.

    “Oh, but surely one taste wouldn’t hurt?” Lord Stanley asked, his smile suddenly getting nervous at the warning.

    “Amelia,” Zelgadis said in a low “get him out of here” kind of tone.

    “Ah, what a lovely name!” Lord Stanley opined, seeming to have forgotten about the boiling pot. “Would you mind if I called you that too, Princess?”

    “Umm…” Amelia mumbled, looking thoroughly anxious. “I suppose that’s okay.”

    “Then you must both call me Stanley,” Lord Stanley said. “After all, I’m sure we’ll become good friends.”

    Zelgadis was giving him a look that indicated that he’d only call him “friend” in an ironic way. Amelia looked desperate to diffuse the situation.

    “You should really go back to the dance, Mister Stanley,” she said. “After all, it’s for you.”

    “Ah-ah-ah,” Stanley said, wagging a finger in admonishment. “Just Stanley.”

    Huh. Good luck with that, Zelgadis thought bitterly. Amelia might occasionally jump on tables and make loud speeches, but other than that she was very polite. There was a kind of… properness built into her. Maybe it had been beaten in by the likes of Myrtle long ago. But he’d known her for a lot longer than Stanley and his honorific had never dropped.

    “Anyway,” Amelia said, seemingly unwilling to say the name alone, “you should really go back.”

    “Well, why don’t we all go back?” Stanley said, seemingly oblivious to any tension in the air. “I’m sure Zelgadis and I have a lot to talk about.”

    “I’m not,” Zelgadis begged to differ in a low voice. “You two go.”

    “But Mister Zelgadis—” Amelia began.

    “Go,” Zelgadis said dully. “I have to clean this up anyway,” he said, walking over the cauldron and taking it down from its stand.

    “Need a hand?” Stanley asked brightly.

    “No,” Zelgadis said firmly. “Not from you.”

    “Shame about that,” Stanley said, not seeming to notice any slight. “Well then, shall we go, Amelia?”

    Amelia looked from Zelgadis to Stanley and back again with an utterly wretched expression.

    “You’ll come back when you’re done?”

    “I wouldn’t count on it.”

    Amelia sighed, miserably took the Lord of Daellon’s proffered hand, and let herself be led back to the castle.
    Last edited by Skiyomi; 6th September 2013 at 7:37 AM.

  19. #19
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    Chapter 19. Nice Things.

    “What happened?” Lina demanded, pacing through her room the next day.

    “Don’t ask me,” Gourry said, perched on the bed. “I was with you the whole time.”

    Lina scowled at him, as if to indicate that she hadn’t been asking him, just the world in general when she noticed where he was sitting. She added blush to her scowl and looked away. “Look could you just… get off my bed, okay?” she asked, fingers pressing against her forehead as if that could banish the memory of them dancing the night before.

    Gourry looked around the bed in a mildly confused way. “Why? You’re not using—”

    “Just get off!” Lina shouted in her “I will be obeyed” voice.

    “Anyway,” Lina went on, once Gourry had stood up. “What I was saying was that we need to find out what happened.” She glared out the window. “Zelgadis, Amelia, and Stanley all disappeared from the ball for a certain amount of time. Zelgadis never came back, but Amelia and Stanley did. This could mean any number of things… and I don’t want to have to explain to Phil that we have no idea what’s going on anymore!”

    “But we don’t,” Gourry pointed out.

    “So we’ve got to ask someone,” Lina said.

    “…Zel?” Gourry asked.

    “He’d lie,” Lina said automatically.

    “Amelia?” Gourry tried, figuring he could get this right the second time.

    “She’d tell the truth,” Lina admitted. “But I don’t think we should ask her yet. After all, she’s part of the solution. It’s Zel that’s the problem.”

    “So… we’ll listen to his lie?” Gourry asked, trying to see the sense in this.

    Lina nodded. “Hopefully what he lies about will give us some clue as to how he’s feeling and that’s what we need to know.”

    Lina folded her arms and leaned against the wall. “It’s too late for this not to work,” she said. “We’ve already put too much time and effort in. The new moon isn’t that far away and I don’t want to have to deal with the angst that’ll be pouring off Zel in buckets if he finds out that the potion doesn’t work.”

    “Maybe we shouldn’t have tried that part, then,” Gourry commented.

    “Well, we had to do something to keep him here!” Lina snapped. “Anyway, don’t forget Amelia.”

    Gourry looked up. Lina had a serious look in her eyes.

    “I guess,” Lina began, “I guess I didn’t take what Phil said when we first came here that seriously, but… after everything with Myrtle and now this Stanley guy… everyone’s really pushing her to marry someone. And we’ve got to make sure that Zel gets his rear in gear so she doesn’t end up with some awful guy.”

    Gourry stared. Lina had just shared a poignant, emotional, and, above all, selfless reason to continue their task. He counted silently to himself.

    When he got to three, Lina said: “And if we pull this off right then we’ll be friends with the future King and Queen of Seyruun. Imagine what we can do with that, right?”

    “Right,” Gourry said wearily.

    “I just... don’t want to go back to the drawing board on this one,” Lina said. “This plan has got to work.”

    “I don’t think there’s anything left to draw,” Gourry said. “I mean, we’ve tried everything else.”

    “We haven’t tried the locking them in an enclosed space plan,” Lina said half-heartedly.

    There was a pause. Then Gourry said: “…Do you think that’d really work?”

    “No,” Lina said dismally. “They’re not the kind of people that’d work on. Now if we’d done that with Xellos and Filia on the other hand…”

    Gourry’s brow furrowed in good-natured confusion. “…Can’t they both teleport or something?”

    Lina waved a hand. “I just meant with their personalities. Anyway, forget them. Let’s go find Zelgadis.”

    *****

    “I left,” Zelgadis said firmly, trying to navigate through the halls and back to his room as quickly as possible.

    “Why’d you leave?” Lina asked as she and Gourry tried to keep pace with him in a way that they certainly wouldn’t have considered chasing.

    “I don’t need a reason to leave,” Zelgadis said, looking straight ahead and ignoring him. “There was no point in me being there anyway.”

    “Well, Amelia and that Stanley guy went missing too,” Lina said, trying a different tact. “Do you know where they went?”

    Zelgadis stopped in front of his room so suddenly that Lina cannoned into him and Gourry into her. He froze for a moment, then deliberately reached for the handle of his door, opened it, stepped inside, said: “No idea,” and slammed the door behind him.

    It was none of their business anyway, Zelgadis decided from the other side of the door as he retreated to the non-inquisitive depths of his room.

    He walked over to the window and looked out at the gardens. It was a sunny, beautiful day. Storms clouds might have been on the horizon… but wait. That was just the reflection of his expression in the glass.

    He sat down in the chair by the window and leaned his head against his hand in thought. Stanley. “Just” Stanley. He’d like to know where that guy got his confidence. Perhaps it came about being a Lord and whatnot: knowing everyone had to call your dad “your grace.”

    But when you thought about it, even a Lord’s confidence should’ve been shaken coming into the garden that night.

    It… it wasn’t as though he’d set it up to look this way; there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of it, but from an outsider’s perspective… well! No one had even had to say “this isn’t what it looks like!”

    He’d come out into the garden to find the woman he was trying to get to marry him had snuck out to a secluded spot under the moonlight we another man and they were enjoying a drink together!

    It wasn’t as though anything… untoward had been going on or anything obviously. But Stanley hadn’t known that! For all he knew it was exactly what it looked like! He hadn’t even asked any questions about it. He’d just come in with his “let’s all be friends” routine! As if… as if…

    As if he didn’t consider Zelgadis a threat at all.

    Zelgadis’s hand gripped the arm of the chair. It wasn’t as if he was part of this whole stupid suitor game anyway, but where did Stanley get off thinking of him as nothing?

    He had no right when you got down to it. After all, Zelgadis had been friends with Amelia for years. Her dad liked him (eh… most of the time. At least when he wasn’t in psychotic-overprotective Father-mode. That seemed to have passed for the most part though). He’d even earned Myrtle’s support which wasn’t an easy thing.

    And who was Stanley? Just some faceless Lord from a tiny dukedom, whose dad didn’t get along with her dad.

    Given that… Stanley should have been threatened by him. Even mistakenly. Because hey, how could he know Zelgadis’s intentions?

    The roaring fires of indignation had done their self-esteem rebuilding work, but he knew his upswing was about to end. He slumped.

    Maybe Stanley knew something he didn’t. After all, he and she had done a lot of… talking… and dancing.

    No. Amelia had said that she didn’t have any interest in marrying the guy.

    …What if she changes her mind? She did say he was nice. And anyway, she’s rejected every possible suitor that’s come her way. She’s not going to keep that up forever.

    You can only sweep things under the rug for so long. Small, but insistent areas of Zelgadis’s subconscious had been doing the metaphorical equivalent of clearing their throats loudly for the last couple of days. Zelgadis had done his best to ignore them, but a mental chair was about to be thrown for attention.

    She didn’t reject you.

    Zelgadis sat stock still.

    She just didn’t reject me to my face. She said it to Myrtle, he thought.

    No. She just said you wouldn’t want to marry her, came back the recollection. It came from the part of the brain that didn’t really have any bias or agenda beyond an occasional bend for contrariness. It simply dealt in the delicate area of “facts you don’t want to hear.”

    Well, of course she wouldn’t reject me, Zelgadis thought irritably. We’re friends. She’s not about to just come out and say “I don’t want to marry you.” She’s too nice for that.

    The fact-checker of the mind pointed out: You’ve been saying how ridiculous the notion is to her face this whole time.

    Well, yes, Zelgadis thought dismally. But I can be… tactless sometimes.

    The fact-checker of the mind did not seem to have any disagreement with that statement. So it moved on to: she said she didn’t think it was ridiculous.

    She was just being… nice, Zelgadis thought weakly.

    She offered you as many reasons as she could think of to stay in Seyruun, the fact-checker pointed out.

    Now, see, Zelgadis thought back, gripping onto some small argument, If she thought I would… if she wanted me to… well, she wouldn’t need to give me a job if she wanted me to… He trailed off.

    She asked you about the future. About what you’d do if you got cured.

    Zelgadis tried to ignore this. You couldn’t really jump to any conclusions just because Amelia was… well… nice.

    There’s no way, he thought firmly and without ambiguity, that she’d want to marry me.

    The fact-checker paused. Why not? It asked, likely looking for more inconvenient facts to throw at him.

    Because, Zelgadis began, scrambling around to find a way to articulate the obvious to himself. Because things like that don’t happen to me.

    …What kind of things? it asked.

    And that’s when Zelgadis stumbled on something. Nice things, he thought.

    There was silence in his mind for a moment. It was almost like holding his breath. The devil’s advocacy of his own mind seemed to finally be at an end on this unexpected thought. But there was one more thing to add.

    …Maybe that’s because you talk yourself out of them.

    ****

    Courting activities among royals have the major downside of a parent or chaperone being present. Though, actually, this is not often considered a downside since most royals forced into each other’s company are rather disinterested in each other—especially if they are cousins.

    As such, courting activities largely involve a sitting room. The activities can range from staring at each other awkwardly while trying to think of something to say to chess. When the couple truly needs a little privacy, a garden stroll is allowed.

    …With a chaperone at a discreet distance watching their hands.

    Amelia didn’t really know what had gotten into her dad as she and Stanley paced across his line of sight. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t been in the company of men by herself before. Why get all proper now?

    …Probably because it was how Stanley expected things to be done. She sighed.

    Partly, though, she was glad her father was watching. But she didn’t have any desire to be around Stanley anymore, alone or otherwise. She knew he’d upset Mister Zelgadis quite a bit. He hadn’t wanted anyone to find out about the potion, and suddenly a stranger had come along and practically tried to taste it. He’d certainly seemed pretty angry about it. She cursed herself for not having the fortitude to stay with him. Even if he’d been mad and wanted her to leave, it’d probably sent him the wrong message to go away with Stanley. Still, Stanley was a guest and it wasn’t really his fault any of that had happened. He didn’t know.

    “Amelia,” Stanley said, looking under her parasol to her. “Can we speak frankly for a moment?”

    This was the moment Amelia had been dreading. The proposal. It would be so awkward having to reject him to his face like this. At least her father could only see them and not hear him. The way he’d been acting lately, he might’ve accepted for her.

    …Which wasn’t right at all. He’d seemed fairly keen on Zelgadis after Myrtle had approved of him. She couldn’t fathom what was wrong with him.

    “I think it’s pretty clear that your father and my father have arranged this get-together in hopes of the two of us becoming engaged,” Stanley said.

    Amelia hadn’t expected the pragmatic approach from someone as friendly as Stanley. That would make things worse. If he’d tried for the romantic approach she could’ve gone with the serviceable and quite honest “I don’t love you” and have been fine. If he was going to just say it was sensible for her to marry him it was harder to argue because… well, it was.

    “But in the short time I’ve known you, I’ve come to realize how unlikely that is to happen,” he said.

    Amelia had already been shaking her head on automatic. She stopped walking, looked up at him in surprise. “What?”

    “I think it would be clear even to a blind man that you’re already in love with Zelgadis,” Stanley said with a small smile.

    Amelia just stared at him with her mouth open. Then her face went red. She couldn’t very well deny that one.

    “…Though admittedly it doesn’t exactly seem like it’s clear to him,” Stanley added as an afterthought.

    Amelia looked down. “No,” she said.

    “Look,” Stanley said, fixing her dismal look with a smile. “I’m sure he’ll come around eventually. In the meantime, I think you’re a lovely girl and I’d be pleased just to be friends with you. So please, just forget about any of this engagement nonsense.”

    “Thank you,” Amelia said, “for understanding.” It’s so nice when people actually surprise you… in the good way.

    “No trouble at all,” Stanley said. “It just… well, excuse me for saying this, but it just seemed like you didn’t have anyone you could talk to about it.”

    “Well, there’s Lina, I guess,” Amelia said reluctantly. “But… she’d just make fun of me.”

    “There’s no reason to make fun of someone for being in love,” Stanley said, suddenly serious.

    Amelia said nothing as they began to walk along again.

    “Do you think he has any idea?” Stanley asked.

    Amelia sighed. “I hope so,” she said. “I’ve been dropping giant hints but he just…”

    “Have you tried just… telling him how you feel?” Stanley asked carefully.

    Amelia turned a tormented, slightly angry face on Stanley. “I’m not afraid to tell him if that’s what you mean!” She seemed to deflate for a moment and then looked down. “I mean, he’s got his whole… search for a cure, and that’s so important to him. If I told him it’d be about choosing me or the cure and I don’t want to ask him to do that.”

    “Because you’re afraid he’d pick the cure?” Stanley asked in a sympathy-laden voice.

    Amelia said nothing and stared at the grass.

    “Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll come around eventually,” Stanley repeated himself, trying to cheer her up. “He’s got to.”
    Last edited by Skiyomi; 6th September 2013 at 7:57 AM.

  20. #20
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    Chapter 20. Maybe.

    “So,” Stanley said, as they turned around and began another circuit around the short garden path, “what are you planning to do about him? I mean, obviously if Zelgadis finds his cure, you’d tell him how you feel because you’re not afraid to,” he added, as if he wasn’t a hundred percent confident about this, but wasn’t going to push the issue, “but what if he never finds his cure?”

    Amelia sighed. “I suppose… I guess I’d just hope he’d accept it at some point.”

    Stanley cupped his chin in his hand. “Could be. I don’t know your Zelgadis very well, but he seems like a stubborn one to me.”

    “Yes,” Amelia said emphatically. There was a trace of pride and a trace of weariness in her voice.

    “He’s trying to do something that I don’t think anyone’s ever done,” Stanley added thoughtfully. “Are you sure that perhaps you shouldn’t be dissuading him from this? Doesn’t it look better if you emphasize that you don’t care how he looks? Maybe even go so far as to say that you don’t want him to change?”

    “I’ve tried all that,” Amelia said in a frustrated tone. “He just says I don’t understand or acts like I’m trying to make fun of him or something. It seems like it’s better to just… support him. He seems to appreciate that more.”

    “Hmm,” Stanley hummed discontentedly. “I suppose I understand your desire to support him, but in doing so… it seems like you’re just enabling him to not have to make a decision about you and the rest of his life.” He shrugged. “I think in the end, you’re going to have to ask him to make a choice, no matter how risky that is for both of you.”

    Amelia looked down dismally at the elegantly manicured lawn.

    Stanley, noting the sense of despair that had swept over Amelia, seemed to decide not to pursue that thought. “Surely he’s got at least some idea how you feel, right?”

    “He should,” Amelia said. “I mean, he’s really very smart and I’ve been dropping giant hints. But he doesn’t act like he understands them. I think he purposefully tries not to understand them.” She continued to stare at the ground. “Maybe it’s just… me. Just because I feel this way doesn’t mean he has to.”

    “What kind of attitude is that?” Stanley asked. “You know your friend Zelgadis better than anyone, and I’m sure you recognized that last night in the garden he was barely able to contain himself from tearing my head off.” He said this with such a smile that Amelia stifled a laugh.

    “You kind of… stumbled in on something,” Amelia tried to explain without revealing the nature of the potion. “Something he was working on. I’m pretty sure he was mad because he didn’t want anyone finding out.”

    “Ah,” Stanley said. “Secrets. Well, I won’t press, but consider this: he’s letting you in on some of his secrets which means he trusts you. And he doesn’t look like the trusting sort. I assume he has his reasons.”

    “And I don’t think whatever you two were working on would justify wanting to tear off an interloper’s head,” Stanley added, to another laugh by Amelia whose mood was improving.

    “I’ve been trying to get him to agree to stay here even after the,” Amelia stopped before she said “potion.” Stanley was easy to talk to, but that wouldn’t excuse violating Zelgadis’s trust, “well, permanently, I guess. I mentioned we had a lot of jobs here I thought he’d be great at… Commander of the Seyruun Police Force, Senator, diplomat, Captain of the Guard…”

    “Did he express any interest in Captain of the Guard?” Stanley asked, suddenly quite alert.

    “Umm… not really,” Amelia said, caught off-guard by this sudden interest. “He basically just said it was too early to make any decision. But I didn’t think Captain of the Guard was really the best choice for him anyway,” she added. “It seems like kind of a waste of his talents.”

    “That may be,” Stanley said, waving this comment aside with a gesture of his hand, “but think of it like this: what is the Captain of the Guard entrusted to do?”

    “…Lead the guards,” Amelia said, wondering where Stanley was going with this.

    “Lead the guards in protecting the royal family,” Stanley pointed out. “In other words, if Zelgadis became the Captain of the Guard, protecting you would be his first priority.”

    Amelia turned this idea over in her mind. She’d gotten so used to not being Zelgadis’s first priority that actually taking that role in his life by definition was a beguiling possibility.

    “He probably wouldn’t even take the job,” Amelia said guardedly. “I mean, our current Captain mostly just smokes cigars all day and shouts at people. I don’t think that’s the kind of life Mister Zelgadis wants.”

    “But he doesn’t have to be like that,” Stanley pointed out. “He could be a good Captain. Sounds like your current Captain is pretty subpar. I’m sure your Zelgadis could make a lot of improvements.”

    “Maybe,” Amelia said. She liked Stanley referring to him as her Zelgadis. The phrase was like a cup of hot apple cider on a cold winter’s day.

    Stanley slapped his leg as if an idea had suddenly struck him (either that or a mosquito bite). “I know!” he said. “Let’s go take a look at the guard house. Scope it out a bit, see if it’s the kind of environment he would like. We can even talk to the Captain of the Guard and see if he’s really someone you’d want to replace.”

    Amelia wasn’t sure how much that would help, but the idea of actually being able to do something about this emotionally awkward situation filled her with hope. “It can’t do any harm,” she said. Then she cast a nervous eye over to where her father was watching them.

    Stanley tapped the side of his nose as he saw this. “Why don’t I ask one of my lieutenants to come with us?” he asked. “I don’t really think we need a chaperone at this point, but there’s no sense in disappointing your father.”

    *****

    Amelia and Stanley left the guard house and strolled back into the garden in good spirits. They both agreed that there were plenty of improvements that could be made there. And even Stanley’s lieutenant, who had mostly been a silent watcher during the visit, agreed that the current captain was not a fit commander.

    And then Stanley had another bright idea. He knew from Amelia that Zelgadis was a very talented sorcerer, so he suggested that if Zelgadis was Captain of the Guard then he could be head of Seyruun’s Magical Defense Division as well.

    Amelia thought this was a great idea. The Seyruun Magical Defense Division was a very strong force, but she had to admit that they’d had coordinating issues with the guards in the past. They tended to get in each other’s way. With one leader for both groups, they could be a much more unified force.

    “Well, I don’t know if Mister Zelgadis would ever agree,” Amelia said, as they walked out of the Magical Defense building, “but it’s certainly a nice idea to think about.”

    “Absolutely,” Stanley said, as his lieutenant trailed behind him. “And I wouldn’t count yourself out just yet. It’s an interesting and challenging possibility and I think if you try mentioning it to him, you might be surprised.”

    “I will,” Amelia agreed with a smile and a nod. She’d thought spending this day with Stanley would be miserable, especially thinking of how upset Zelgadis had been the night before. But it was easy to cheer up around Stanley. He was encouraging and positive. Suddenly the future seemed like it was full of all the promise that had vanished the night before.

    *****

    Zelgadis walked through the same garden with his hands in his pockets and his faced turned down. He was trying to think straight, but things kept getting crooked.

    The fact was, alright he’d admit it. It was possible that Amelia had feelings for him. There.

    When you got right down to it, this wasn’t a new or strange thought for him. He’d had an… inkling very early on after they’d met (but only after she’d stopped referring to him as “that creepy guy”) that she had… maybe a little crush on him. But Amelia was, well, romantic like that. She got carried away with ideas. He didn’t think she was serious and he’d always assumed it would… pass.

    …Because something in him said that things didn’t work that way. People like her and people like him did not meet, fall in love and live happily ever after. That’s something for stories.

    …But Amelia believed in stories.

    And she was serious. It had been wrong of him to not take her seriously. Amelia didn’t play around. Amelia didn’t do things half-way.

    So… was he just… resisting the fairy-tale because he didn’t want it taken away from him? Was he saying it was impossible because if it was possible he couldn’t stand for the universe to exact its inevitable toll against him?

    Maybe the stars could align. Maybe the story could be real. Just for a minute he needed to ask himself not whether or not it could be, but what if it was?

    What if the potion worked? What if he became human again?

    …What if Amelia loved him? What if he loved her? What if they got married? What if they lived, if not happily ever after, at least contentedly sometimes after?

    That’s a lot of what-ifs, Zelgadis couldn’t help but thinking. But he was trying to answer the question—to seriously answer it instead of dodging it or claiming it couldn’t happen.

    But answering was hard. He’d left his room and walked out to the gardens, toward the courtyard where she and he had brewed the potion these past nights. It was a little early, but he thought he might meet her along the way and then this whole thing might make sense again.

    He stopped and leaned against a tree. It might not be so bad… for a completely unrealistic dream-life and all.

    But it wasn’t really a perfect life, he thought after this. There were plenty of problems with it. He wasn’t really interested in being king, or being tied down to Seyruun his entire life. Not that he didn’t like Seyruun, he’d just prefer to leave if he wanted to. He didn’t know how to be a king.

    Even more pressing was the fact that he didn’t have a clue what to say to Amelia. Not in the slightest.

    …Come to think of it… the situation had plenty of problems. For some reason that made it all seem less surreal.

    Maybe, maybe if all those what-ifs could come true and stay true then…

    The sound of laughter distracted him from his thoughts. He looked around the tree keeping himself hidden behind it and saw Amelia and Stanley walk along the garden path. They were smiling at each other and Amelia was laughing.

    *****

    “Hey,” Gourry said in the silence. Lina had been sitting on her bed (which he wasn’t allowed on for some reason) staring at the wall with a cross expression and occasionally tapping her foot agitatedly for the last half hour. “Shouldn’t we… go and see what Zel and Amelia are up to? Aren’t they going to be meeting soon?”

    There was another annoyed foot tap, then Lina got up and shrugged theatrically. “I suppose so,” she said. “But let me tell you, I don’t have high hopes.”

    “Zel wouldn’t tell us what happened,” Gourry said. “We don’t know if it was something bad.”

    Lina mussed up her own hair angrily. “It seemed pretty bad. I swear, Gourry, everything’s going downhill. And if this gets messed up, Phil loses, Amelia loses, Zel loses, and we lose.”

    “Maybe something good will happen tonight,” Gourry suggested, looking for a bright side.

    Maybe,” Lina said, as though she had very little hope for this. “But if something doesn’t happen tonight then I’m taking drastic action. We’re scraping at the bottom of the barrel for ideas anyway so we might as well try it.”

    “You don’t mean—” Gourry began, with a thoroughly appropriate sense of drama.

    Yes,” Lina said, sporting an evil grin. “That’s exactly what I mean.”

    There was a pause. Then Gourry said: “What do you mean?”

    Lina nearly fell over. “You don’t know?!” she demanded.

    “Well, I thought you’d say,” Gourry said sheepishly.

    “Stop trying to pretend that you’re not a jellyfish-brain!”

    *****

    Unlike Lina, Amelia had had high hopes when she went down to the garden to find Zelgadis already there. She’d been talking with Stanley about him all day. She’d told him about so many things that had happened between her and Zelgadis, and Stanley completely agreed with her that Zelgadis really did return her feelings. That had been encouraging to hear from someone else. At least she didn’t have to worry that it was all in her head.

    And then there was the idea of Zelgadis becoming Captain of the Guard. She had to admit that it had possibilities. She’d been hoping to bring up the idea to him again, thinking that without the awkwardness of the dance he’d be more at ease.

    …And... more and more she’d been thinking about what Stanley had said about her enabling Zelgadis… and how in the end he’d have to choose between her and the cure. She didn’t want to ask him to do that… but… she was beginning to think that she wanted Zelgadis to know. Maybe that would make the difference. She wasn’t sure if she should wait until the time was right because the time always seemed to be wrong. But maybe… maybe tonight…

    But her hopes had dissolved as quickly as Zelgadis had looked up at her. It had only been one second and then he deliberately broke eye contact, bluntly told her the ingredient of the night, and stood back for her to bless it.

    He felt so cold and distant. Well… more cold and distant than usual. She nervously went through her incantation before she dropped the herbs into the pot. Maybe she should explain to him how Stanley was letting her off the hook on the engagement thing… Maybe she should explain how he hadn’t meant any harm the night before… Maybe…

    “That’s it,” Zelgadis said, as the herbs were absorbed in the brothy cauldron. He looked off to the side, not meeting her eyes. “You can go now.”

    Amelia stared at him. “What do you mean?”

    “You’ve already blessed the herbs,” he said hurriedly. “I think you have some idiot Lord you’d prefer to spend your evenings with.”

    Amelia bridled. “How can you even say something like that?” she demanded. “And you don’t have to be so mean about him. He’s really very nice!”

    “Oh? So he’s very nice now?” Zelgadis snapped, looking up for just long enough for Amelia to see the flash in his eyes before he looked down again. “Then you should go see him,” he said, his voice slightly calmer. “There’s no point in you staying anymore.”

    “But I always stay until we’re done!” Amelia said, still in the shocked end of hurt.

    “There’s no point in it,” he said again, looking determinedly at the grass. “You already did the blessing.”

    If he had been looking at Amelia, he would’ve seen an expression on her face that he hadn’t seen since the debacle at the shrine of marriage. Her eyebrows were drawn together in confusion and distress with anger just barely bitten back.

    “Is that… the only reason why I’m here?” she choked out.

    “Yes,” he answered. No.

    Hot, frustrated tears filled the brim of her eyes. They’d be falling even now without the self-control that kept them in check.

    “Then maybe you should get someone else to do it for you!” she shouted, before turning on her heel and walking briskly out of the garden with her arms pumping furiously, and her tears succumbing to gravity.
    Last edited by Skiyomi; 7th September 2013 at 5:13 AM.

  21. #21
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    Chapter 23. Siege.

    Amelia’s sleep had been fitful enough as it was without the addition of explosions. Her eyes flew open as an earsplitting ka-boom hit the night.

    “Miss Lina,” she murmured wearily.

    She got up and pulled on her clothes as hastily as she could. She cursed herself for not getting worried when Lina and Gourry hadn’t shown up for dinner. Something like that could only mean trouble. It was just that she’d been distracted by… well…

    She hopped over to the door as she put her other shoe on. She eased the door open slowly so that only the mildest of squeaks issued from it. There was always a chance that the explosion hadn’t been caused by Lina and that there were more sinister forces at work, so she needed to be careful.

    But… well… when it came to explosions, Miss Lina was pretty much suspect number one.

    She walked out into the hall. It was dark and… strangely quiet.

    Where are all the guards? she asked herself. An explosion had just gone off… the place should’ve been swarming with guards, springing into action to neutralize whatever threat they were facing and protect the castle’s occupants while doing so. …Or at least running around like chickens with their heads cut off. But yet the place seemed abandoned…

    She moved briskly through the halls and down the staircases trying to find the site of the explosion, or Miss Lina, or a guard… or someone.

    She halted for a moment on a creaky step and strained her ears. There was definitely some noise going on downstairs. She’d better hurry down there are see what was going—

    “—find out what’s going on out there!”

    Amelia looked down the hall where the sudden, muffled shout had come from. That sounded like…

    “But what can we do? We’re still stuck,” a second voice pointed out.

    “Desperate times call for desperate measures. I’m gonna bust us out with a fireball,” the first voice said.

    “But you said that would burn us to a crisp!” the second voice exclaimed, worry wavering its voice.

    “Yeah. I’ve got that all figured out,” the first voice responded. “See, if you stand in front of me, then I should be shielded from most of the blast.”

    “But I still get burned that way!”

    “Right. And don’t think I don’t appreciate your noble sacrifice.”

    Amelia reached the door that the muffled argument seemed to be coming from. “Miss Lina?” she tried hesitantly.

    There was a loud silence from behind the closet door, then: “Amelia?”

    Amelia gave the door a quizzical look. “Why are you—”

    “Don’t worry about that now! Just worry about getting us out of here! Geez, it took you long enough to get here!” Lina snapped from behind the door.

    Amelia tried the doorknob, but it held fast. “It’s stuck, Miss Lina,” she called through the crack in the door.

    “Well, duh!” Lina yelled back. “Like I didn’t figure that out in the last twelve hours. Just keep pulling! It’ll open eventually! Look, Gourry and I’ll push from in here.”

    The next several minutes was filled with groans from Amelia’s side of the closet as she pulled against the stubborn handle, and was punctuated by occasional calls of “Put your back into it, Gourry!”, “Get your elbow out of my face!”, and “I will if you get yours out of my ribs!” from the inside of the closet. After some time, the door flew open and Lina and Gourry shot out into a pile on the floor.

    Lina took a moment to push Gourry off of her with an unnecessarily disgusted look, then she got up and brushed herself off. She looked over to see Amelia watching her with a perplexed expression. “What?” she asked sharply.

    Amelia’s lips paused in forming the words, as though not entirely sure if she wanted to ask this question. She went ahead anyway with: “Why were you and Mister Gourry—”

    “Look, don’t get any funny ideas,” Lina cut across her, hands on her hips. “The door just got stuck and we couldn’t get out.”

    Amelia gave her an ‘I understand that you two lost of the keys to the handcuffs, what I don’t understand is how they got on in the first place’ look.

    Lina scowled. “Don’t give me that look,” she said. “This is all your fault anyway,” she mumbled darkly.

    “My fault?” Amelia repeated. Lina cursed the girl’s exceptional hearing, then remembered that without it she and Gourry would still be stuck in that closet, and withdrew her curse.

    “Yeah,” Gourry said, picking himself up off the floor. “And Zel’s.”

    Amelia’s brow furrowed as Lina glared desperately at Gourry. “What?”

    “Yeah,” Gourry said, seemingly blind to Lina’s ‘No. No. NO. Don’t you DARE. Stop right now!’ glare. “But I’m kinda glad we couldn’t get you guys in here. I don’t think it would’ve worked and you two’d just be fighting worse than ever.”

    “JELLYFISH BRAIN!” Lina shrieked, smacking him upside the head. “What on earth made you think it was okay to tell her that?”

    “What?” Gourry said, patting his injured head. “I mean, it’s okay to tell Amelia, right? She should be on our side. It’s not like I told Zel or anything. He’s the one you said we’d have to trick.”

    “Just shut up right now!” Lina shouted, continuing to rain a barrage of slaps down upon him. “Haven’t you already said enough?”

    “Miss Lina,” Amelia said, quietly, but with force enough to halt continental drift.

    Lina caught Amelia’s expression. “Eh?” She scratched her neck. “Gourry’s just talking some nonsense. Don’t pay any attention to anything he says at all. I know I don’t!” She giggled nervously.

    Lina’s nervous giggles didn’t seem to cut it with Amelia. There wasn’t so much as a dent in her stony expression. Lina recoiled slightly.

    “Miss Lina,” Amelia began, calmly but forcefully, “I know that you and Mister Gourry are up to something with Daddy. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve seen you two sneaking around and going off to meet with him enough to know that much. I wasn’t going to pry, because honestly I had enough to deal with with,” she faltered for a moment, then got back into step, “well, I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, that’s all. Now there’s been an explosion out on the grounds, there’s some kind of mayhem going on downstairs, and now I find out that you and Mister Gourry were hatching some kind of plot to lock me and Mister Zelgadis in that closet.” Her eyes pierced. “Tell me what’s going on right now.”

    Lina held up her hands. “I’ve been trapped in a closet for half a day!” she said in a persecuted tone of voice. “I have no idea about any explosion, and it’s unfairly biased for you to assume all explosions are my fault!”

    “And the closet?” Amelia asked, not to be deterred.

    Lina looked around desperately as if some kind of fabulous lie would present itself to her. This didn’t seem likely to happen. She tapped her index fingers together guiltily. “We were just trying to…” the second half of her sentence was drowned out in low mumblings.

    “Trying to?” Amelia prompted.

    Lina sighed. “Just… trying to do some match-making,” she finally admitted.

    Amelia gave her a hard look for a moment. Then she said: “Miss Lina?”

    “Hmm?” Lina said, wanting nothing more than to slink far, far away.

    “Playing with matches is a good way to get burned.”

    Lina took a half-step back. Damn. It would’ve sounded trite if she hadn’t said it so darkly.

    “We were just trying to help,” Gourry offered.

    Amelia closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Please don’t tell me it was you two behind this potion thing.” She caught the two of them exchange a guilty look. “I don’t believe you two!” she shouted, fists clenched. “You know how important his cure is to Mister Zelgadis! You can’t just hold something like that over his head for no reason! It’s too cruel!”

    “Look, we can divvy up blame later,” Lina said briskly, retreating as always to aggression when shamed. “Right now someone’s setting off bombs or something on the palace grounds and nobody seems to know what’s going on. We gotta deal with that first.”

    Amelia took a deep breath and nodded. “You’re right, Miss Lina,” she said. She turned around and pointed. “I think the blast came from that direction outside. Let’s get going.”

    “Hold it,” Lina said, putting an arm out to stop Amelia from charging onward. “You’re the princess around here, right? Me and Gourry’ll go and check it out. You stay here and make sure that Phil’s okay.”

    Amelia barely hesitated. “Right!” she said, before heading off down the hall.

    Lina waited until Amelia was out of sight and then gave Gourry another jab in the arm, before walking in the opposite direction. “You just had to tell her, didn’t you?”

    “Well, what was I supposed to do?” Gourry asked, rubbing his arm as he followed her. “There was only one other explanation I could think of for why we were in there, and I figured you wouldn’t want Amelia thinking that.”

    Lina froze for a moment, then blushed. “So…” she began coolly. “You were just looking out for my reputation?”

    “Yeah,” Gourry said enthusiastically, feeling he’d hit on an explanation that would not cause him to be injured further.

    “So… thanks to you… I’m just a bumbling busybody who can’t keep her nose out of other people’s business and is stupid enough to get caught in her own traps instead of… someone who’d end up in a closet with someone for the other reason?”

    “Right,” Gourry said brightly.

    “Idiot!” Lina shouted. “Do you really think that’s any better?”

    Gourry lowered the arm that had been shielding his face. “Well… I figured that to you it is.”

    Lina stopped in her tracks for a moment, then regained her pace with him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked suspiciously.

    “I’ve noticed that you kinda have a hang-up about those kinds of things,” Gourry said, chin cupped in his hand, in his ‘contrary to what you may think, I do notice things’ voice.

    “Wha— I—” Lina scowled at him, gnashing her teeth together. “I do not!”

    “It’s okay,” Gourry said in a soothing voice. “So what if you’re easily embarrassed? There’s nothing wrong with that.”

    Fire seemed to shoot from Lina’s eyes. “Easy embarrassed?” she intoned in a voice that could cut teak. “I’m Lina freakin’ Inverse! I’m a force of nature not some… flustered little pipsqueak!”

    Gourry stared at her. “Yeah?” he said. And then in a voice that radiated only wide-eyed innocence asked: “Then you wouldn’t mind if people found out that you fell asleep leaning against my shoulder and that when the blast went off you threw yourself into my arms?”

    Lina transferred her scowl to the floor which was in serious danger of being melted by the heat radiating from her face. “We will never speak of that again,” she said forcefully.

    “Whatever you say, Lina.”

    *****

    “Please! You can’t come in here!” one of two women in white shouted as she held her arms open across a doorway.

    “Just get out of the way, little lady, unless you want those pretty arms chopped off,” your typical hairy muscle-head in a tin can snarled, waving his sword around in a way that didn’t really impress his lower-ranking soldiers, but certainly made an impression on the two healers he was terrorizing.

    “You don’t understand!” the younger one squeaked. “He’s—”

    “We know who he is,” the lead shoulder said, resting his sword on his shoulder in a tough-guy pose. “Why do you think we’re here?”

    The younger woman squeaked in terror as the older one clasped her hands together in prayer. “Oh heaven help us!”

    “Fireball!” a voice shouted as a plume of flame knocked the soldier and his small band of minions over and made them seriously wish that they hadn’t worn heat-conductive armor.

    …Close enough, the woman thought, hands still together.

    “You could’ve left one for me, Lina,” Gourry commented, bursting onto the scene, sword in hand.

    “What? And let you break another crummy sword?” Lina said, appearing from the smoke. “You really need to learn your own strength.”

    “I just need more time to get a hang of them,” Gourry said, looking at one of the many supposedly top-of-the-line swords he’d bought. Comparing them to his original made them seem less top-of-the-line.

    “How long?” Lina asked.

    “I’d say a little longer than it takes me to break them,” Gourry said honestly.

    Lina sighed and then turned her attention to the two frightened women. “Hey, do you know who those guys are? What are they trying to do here?”

    “W-we don’t know! Honestly!” one of the women responded. “They just showed up after that terrible noise outside!”

    The other woman shivered in fear. “We were supposed to stay here to attend to…” she trailed off. “But… how can we stay? We’d be no match for any more of them! But we can’t leave with…” she trailed off again. Her eyes drifted toward the open door of the room.

    Lina watched her curiously, then, cautiously, entered the room. It was an ornate room, one of the better ones in the palace. Silvered tables were stacked with all manner of books and syrups and pills. In the middle of the room stood an impressive canopy bed with green and gold curtains. Lina walked over to it and slowly twitched aside the curtain.

    The figure sleeping in the bed was not one she’d seen before, but… there was a certain familiarity. The shape of the nose, the curve of the chin, the bristling moustache, even though that was the color of frost. Lina looked up at Gourry who’d appeared over her shoulder, he gave her a searching look.

    “Eldoran Seyruun,” Lina said, “King of Seyruun.”

    Gourry took a breath. “Lina, if those guys were after the King, then whoever they are, they mean business. Amelia and Phil could be in serious danger.”

    “I know,” Lina said, thinking carefully. “That blast… it could be something important or it could be just a diversion…” She looked over at the cowering healers. “And we can’t leave them here… or him unguarded.”

    She sighed and closed the curtain. “Gourry, can you guard him?”

    Gourry gave a fierce nod. “But what about you?”

    “I’m gonna find out who’s behind this,” Lina said determinedly, thumping her fist over her heart. “Let’s just hope Amelia can take care of herself and Phil.” She scowled off to the side. “I just hope Zelgadis hasn’t left already when he could finally do something useful.”

    “I don’t think Zel’s bailed on us yet,” Gourry said confidently.

    “Let’s hope not,” Lina agreed.

    She rushed to the door and turned back toward him. “Take care of the king,” she said. “Whatever you do, don’t let anything happen to him.”

    “Alright,” Gourry said. “And Lina?” he added just as she was about to head through the door.

    “Yeah?”

    “Don’t let anything happen to you either.”

    *****

    Zelgadis moved cautiously across the grounds, his sword drawn and ready to deal with any foe from the shadows. He knew where he was going; the column of fire that was once a building was a hard landmark to lose.

    “Ah, I see the prodigal son has returned,” a voice called from beside the torrent of flame.

    Zelgadis turned toward the speaker. He couldn’t see the man very well, beyond the flames that reflected off of his polished armor. His face was heavily shadowed.

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Zelgadis said forcefully. “I never went anywhere.”

    “Really? There’s a pity,” the man said. “My Lordship was hoping you’d turn tail and run. But you can still be dealt with. It’s not a problem.” He stepped forward and drew his sword.

    “Security’s not so good here,” the man said with a shrug. “Kind of a sad statement for such a kingdom, but it’s the kind of thing that gets mismanaged all the time. Trust me, I know.” He waved a hand toward the flaming building. “The former guard house,” he said. “And all it took to get past that hurtle was a key; one that the princess was only too eager to help us acquire, though she didn’t know it.”

    “Amelia!” Zelgadis shouted out. Then he grit his teeth and lowered his body into a lunging position. “What have you *******s done with her?”

    The soldier smiled. “Nothing. Yet.”

  22. #22
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    Chapter 24. Moving Targets.

    “Forgive me, but I seem to have you at a disadvantage,” the soldier said, sidestepping away from the flaming guard house. “I know you quite well. You’re Princess Amelia’s Mister Zelgadis Greywords, of whom she is very fond, but who sadly does not seem to feel the same way about her.” He sneered. “But you don’t know my name.”

    Zelgadis said nothing, but watched the circling man warily, sword in hand.

    “I am Lieutenant Hartwell of his Grace the Duke of Daellon’s armed forces,” he said, holding up a finger. “But under the employ of someone you know better.”

    Zelgadis grit his teeth. He knew that Stanley was up to no good! …Admittedly the no good he’d imagined had largely consisted of wooing Amelia into marriage (which seemed kind of obvious now that he thought about it), but still! It counted!

    “I won’t bother to remember that,” Zelgadis said, shifting his stance.

    Lieutenant Hartwell smiled. It was a smile that said: ‘I’ve seen all kinds of battlefield bravado. Yours is nothing new’.

    “You should feel honored, you know,” Hartwell said. “Lord Stanley regarded you as enough of a threat to delay putting his plan into action until he thought you had left.” He sighed. “I suppose we should have made sure you truly were out of the way first, but my Lordship seemed confident you’d flee. No matter. Not having you out of the way yet won’t hurt our plans.”

    “And why did he want me out of the way in the first place?” Zelgadis asked, more to keep his opponent talking than anything else.

    The Lieutenant laughed. “Let’s just say it’s best not to have more prospective princes running around than necessary.”

    “And that’s what he’s after, is it? Being a prince?” Zelgadis spat. “Well then he’s messed up big time. I may be back, but there’s no guarantee that Amelia and I—” Zelgadis stopped, tripping over his own words. “Anyway,” he said briskly, “wouldn’t it be better just to stick to what he was doing in getting Amelia to like him? He’ll never be a prince after bombing the palace.”

    “But that’s just the thing, Mister Zelgadis,” Hartwell said. “He doesn’t want to be a prince. He wants to be king.”

    Zelgadis stared at him for a second, then made a mad lunge at the lieutenant, his sword raised high. Hartwell deflected the stroke easily, sending Zelgadis careening into the ground.

    “Now what kind of attack was that?” Hartwell asked.

    “Where is he?” Zelgadis growled, picking himself up from the ground.

    “What?” Hartwell said, watching him get up.

    “Where’s Stanley right now? Tell me where he is,” Zelgadis commanded.

    “I think that tactic would work better if you’d actually managed to get the sword to my throat,” Hartwell observed.

    “Look,” Zelgadis said squaring up. “I don’t have time to waste on you if your regicidal master if after Amelia and Phil.”

    “Oh, Princess Amelia should be quite safe,” Hartwell said in a faux-reassuring tone. “After all, without her how could Lord Stanley claim his kingship?”

    *****

    Lina crouched behind a partition in one of the throne room balconies. She’d decided to not worry about the outside explosions for the moment in case they were just distractions. What with the King’s life being threatened and all… it seemed like whoever the big boss was would probably be making himself at home in the throne room. And she’d been right. Stanley was waltzing around the throne room ordering his soldiers around as if he’d already cleaned the crown for excess blood and put it on his head. Chalk one up for Zel’s paranoia.

    And she’d thought about coming out swinging and showing Lord Stupid Name what was what, but the place was crawling with soldiers. She felt like she needed to know more about what was going on before she struck.

    She let out a barely muffled gasp as the soldiers let in a struggling figure. No… not Phil. She braced herself.

    “Ah, Prince Philionel,” Stanley said, making himself comfortable on the throne. “I’m so glad you could join me/be dragged kicking and shouting into my presence.”

    “You villain!” Phil shouted in true form, nearly lifting one of the soldiers holding him back off the ground. “How dare you and your brutes invade my castle! What have you done with my guards?”

    “Guards?” Stanley said speculatively, shining the finish on the armrest of the throne with his sleeve. “Do you mean the band of vagrants you seem to have rounded up and given uniforms? Well, the ones on duty that we couldn’t bribe into leaving their posts were easily dealt with by my men. As for the ones off duty in the guardhouse… well, I’m afraid they’re all burnt to a crisp now.” He tut-tut-tutted. “A bomb and changing the locks seemed the most expedient way of dealing with them. I’m sure that doesn’t fall into your ideals of fair fights, but…” He shrugged. “I prefer to win.”

    “You coward!” Phil raged. “How did you even managed to get in there?”

    Stanley gave a wry smile. “Oh, your daughter helped with that. Though she didn’t really mean to.” Another BOOM filled the air. “That would be the Magical Defense Division,” he said matter-of-factly. “And just like that, Seyruun’s defenses have been crippled.” He smiled. “That was rather easy.”

    But Phil hadn’t seemed to have heard anything beyond the first sentence, including the explosion. “What have you done to my daughter Amelia?” he demanded, this time actually lifting three struggling soldiers off their feet.

    “That brings up an interesting point,” Stanley said, looking peevishly at one of his soldiers. “Where is she?”

    “My Lordship!” the soldier saluted. “She was not in her room!”

    “Well then go look for her,” Stanley said, narrowing his eyes. “She’s probably wandering around the castle after all the commotion. Either that or in the garden pining away over her lost love,” he said with a sour little smile. “Just find her.”

    “Yes, my Lord!” the soldier said, beckoning to several other soldiers as they ran out of the throne room.

    Stanley turned his attention back to Phil. “Why so grave, your Royal Highness?” he asked. “Surely you don’t think I’d harm the Princess, do you? After all, with you and your father, the king, out of the way, she’ll be needing someone to take care of her. And I’d be more than happy to take the job.”

    The soldiers groaned with the effort of keeping Phil under control as he lunged forward to take a swing at Stanley.

    “You see, a takeover can be so… messy,” Stanley said. “The local populous tends to object to it ever so slightly, and the last thing a new regime wants to deal with is bloody revolt. But if the invader marries the last remaining heir to the throne? Well, that’s nice and legal.”

    Stanley stood up and looked at the raging Phil. “You see, your Royal Highness, when I received your invitation to come here and contend for your daughter’s hand in marriage, my father told me I’d be a fool to go. He said that you’d never allow your precious daughter to marry someone raised with his ideals. He said you were just taunting him or making the offer for appearances. But I saw… opportunities where he didn’t.” He gestured expansively. “And won’t father be proud of me when he sees what I’ve attained with this little expedition? I will have the power of a king that he’s always longed for but never managed to reach.”

    “Stanley,” Phil said. He’d stopped raging and there was a sort of dread calm about his voice. “Your father and I had our differences, but you can’t honestly believe that he could be proud of you for this. Mitchell is a royalist. He believes that a King is an agent of the gods – partially godlike himself. To Mitchell, killing a king is the greatest sin it is possible to commit. Whether you succeed or not, he will disown you if you go through with this.”

    For the first time since Lina had been watching, Stanley’s face contorted angrily. “Well, what does that matter?” he shot back. “If he’d did it would only be because I’ve attained more power than he could ever dream of! Any god that can be killed deserves death!”

    After that blasphemous scream, the man seemed to regain his composure. He sat back in his chair and gestured wearily to one of his soldiers. “Take him away,” he said.

    He looked back up at Phil. “You’re lucky Philionel,” he said. “I had intended to kill you along with your father. But unlike him, you can still be of use to me. You know everything about how this place is run and I’m sure you could be persuaded to help us with a little diligence on our part.” He glared. “Yes, keeping you should turn out to be quite useful. Though of course we’ll have to hide this from the general public. Can’t let them know that another heir is still hanging around. We’ll have to fake your death with a look-alike,” he said, surveying Phil. “I’m guessing someone from the lumberjack district.”

    Because Phil was a traditionalist in these matters, he shouted: “You’ll never get away with this!” as he was dragged off by a mob of soldiers.

    Stanley grinned, lounging in his chair. “I do so appreciate the irony of a ruler being locked in his own dungeons.”

    *****

    “She’ll never agree to that,” Zelgadis said coldly.

    “Well, I know my Lordship had hoped to persuade her,” Hartwell said with a shrug, “but force, ungallant as it is, is not off the table.”

    “The people will never stand for it,” Zelgadis said, taking a step forward.

    “The people will never find out about it,” Hartwell countered. “You won’t tell them because you’ll be dead soon. Here’s the story: a gang of mercenaries attacked the castle, bombing all their defenses. But then Lord Stanley and his men stepped in to defend the castle. Tragically, both the King and the Prince were killed in the ensuing attack. But the Princess was saved and gratefully married her savior.” He smiled. “And they all lived happily ever after.”

    Zelgadis slashed at the air impatiently with his sword. “No one’s going to buy that load of garbage!”

    Hartwell shrugged again, as if to say ‘are there not prisons?’

    Behind Hartwell, another building was consumed in flame as a BOOM shook the sky.

    “The Magical Defense Division,” Hartwell explained. “The guards in this building are all dead by now,” he said with a gesture to the burning building beside them. “But a few of the magicians might have a chance… though not for long.”

    Zelgadis made a move to run toward it, but Hartwell blocked his path. “Not so fast, hero,” Hartwell said, holding up his sword. “Do you want to try that again?”

    *****

    Lina sat on the balcony with a dilemma. The King should be safe for the time being. Stanley would be suspicious soon after not receiving a report from his men, but they still had time. And anyway, Gourry had that taken care of.

    She could take care of Stanley herself. But the guy had a lot of soldiers that seemed pretty darn loyal. Anyway, killing Stanley didn’t necessarily guarantee that the danger would cease. Soldiers don’t automatically throw down their weapons when the big boss gets fried. And there seemed to be some very high ranking officers steering the mob. Ambitious high ranking officers. Ambitious high ranking officers that might consider themselves as possible candidates for kingship. After all, they’d already invaded the palace. Might as well go all the way with it.

    That left Amelia and Phil. Technically neither of them had death awaiting them. But even more technically Amelia had forced marriage awaiting her and Phil had a red hot poker if he didn’t cooperate (and he wasn’t exactly Mister Cooperative at the moment) awaiting him. So that didn’t really make her feel any better.

    She made a fist. There was only one of her! Where the hell was Zelgadis when you needed him?

    It was a tough decision to make, but… well, she didn’t know where Amelia was. She knew she could find Phil in the dungeons. And… she knew that it was in Stanley best interest to be polite to Amelia for as long as he could. And… well, Phil going missing could really mess up Stanley’s plan. Even if he married Amelia and cemented himself as King, with Phil hanging around the countryside his goose would be cooked. With their true ruler exiled, the citizens would form a militia to attack the usurper. And there’s only so much room in jails and there’s only so many people you can execute before the hangman wants to be paid overtime. That can really take a chunk out of a tyrant’s budget. Not to mention that Phil could drum up support among his allies. Then Stanley would have a war on his hands.

    It… it was the smart thing to do.

    …Still, that didn’t exactly make her feel any better about leaving Amelia alone to stumble into this mess.

    She got up and, moving quietly so as not to draw attention from the hoard below, trotted toward the dungeon.

    *****

    Dug Haut!” Zelgadis shouted, slamming his fist into the ground on the basis that if they were gonna have a fight it might as well be now.

    “Ha!” laughed Hartwell as he jumped. He moved alarmingly fast. The stone spikes that should have skewered him neater than stick in a corndog missed in their every monolithic maneuver.

    Dirt and debris rained down on the scene as Hartwell landed neatly on the blunt side of one of the spikes that had stopped moving when the magic ran out.

    “You sorcerers are all the same,” Hartwell complained. “With all your crazy mumbling to make a bunch of sparkles. A true warrior can run circles around even the most studied enchantments with speed, strength, and steel.”

    He landed back on the ground a few feet away from Zelgadis. He looked at the sword in his hand with disdain. “Grimcrack artists like you have no right to hold something like that.”

    Zelgadis breathed deep as he stared at the swordsman. He… yes, he certainly recognized this attitude. And he knew just how to exploit it.

    “Then I’ll face you with steel!” he shouted, charging up with his sword raised for an unstoppable downward stroke.

    Hartwell groaned. “Amateur mistake,” he said, gliding forward with a swifter sidestroke aimed straight at Zelgadis’s side.

    Hartwell’s blade hit first. Claaang! Krring! Craaack!

    Hartwell’s sword shattered against Zelgadis’s rocky skin. He looked up at him in bewilderment.

    “What were you saying about amateur mistakes?” Zelgadis asked.

    Slash!

  23. #23
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    Chapter 25. Rescuers.

    Amelia was extremely worried at this point. She’d already come across several of the soldiers that seemed to be overrunning the palace, but she was still pretty much in the dark about what was going on. The soldiers were more inclined to draw their swords than to explain themselves, and after a good one-two of Visfrank they were even less inclined to explanation.

    Her father’s room was empty. She knew that that was no reason to panic. There were a lot of explanations for why that could be. He… well, he’d probably heard the ruckus same as her and gone off to investigate. In fact, he was probably looking into her empty room and worrying about her. He was probably fine… there was no reason to worry.

    …But still…

    She heard footsteps approaching around the corner. She looked at the walls of the hall she was in. Stone. Well then, let’s try a fireball, shall we?

    She held her hands low, gathering energy between her palms and waiting for the right moment to let go. Several figures in soldier’s attire ran from around the corner and she was about to hurl the ball of energy when—

    “Princess!” the lead one said, pulling down his helmet so his face was visible. “Thank God you’re safe!”

    She let the energy between her palms fizzle and dissipate. She looked up at him. “Who are you?” she demanded. “What’s going on?”

    “We’re from Lord Daellon’s squad,” the leader explained. “My lord sent us to find you to be sure you were safe.”

    “Mister Stanley sent you?” Amelia asked, squinting at them.

    “Yes,” the leader said emphatically. “Look… something’s going on in Seyruun tonight. We still don’t know who’s attacking. The ones we’ve tracked down aren’t willing to talk and there are still loads of them crawling around the castle. And it looks like someone’s killed all the swordsmen and magicians in their beds!”

    “Those blasts I heard…” Amelia said numbly.

    The leader nodded gravely. “Lord Daellon has been mobilizing the forces he brought with him to overpower the invading horde. He’s set up a barricade in the throne room and I am to escort you there to safety.”

    “No way!” Amelia said, to the soldier’s surprise as she pumped her fist. “An evil army is even now lurking through the halls of the heart of Seyruun! As its princess I cannot allow such villainy to go unchecked!” She brought her fist down in a dramatic pose and it seemed to the soldiers watching in bland horror that she had righteous tears in her eyes. “That is why I, Amelia Wil Tesla Seyruun, must do everything I can to crush their evil ambitious with my own two hands!”

    The leader stared at the princess as she remained frozen in her fighting pose. He coughed and said, “I really must insist princess, at least for the time being. Anyway, there’s something else. We don’t know the details, but we’ve received word that Lord Daellon had some grave news concerning your father.”

    “Daddy?” Amelia said in a small voice. Her justice pose crumpled. Then her voice regained its commanding quality: “Take me to Mister Stanley right away!”

    *****

    Zelgadis stepped over the immobile form of Hartwell. He barely had time to acknowledge his victory to himself as he raced across the grounds toward the blazing inferno that was the Magic Defense Division headquarters. He couldn’t understand why no one was putting out the fires. A blast from a conventional bomb couldn’t have killed all the sorcerers, and surely they knew some water spells.

    When he reached the doorway he didn’t hesitate to grip the handle. Any ordinary person would probably have sustained severe burns on their hands, but Zelgadis’s skin was made of stronger stuff, as Hartwell had failed to take into account. It would take temperatures that could turn rock into lava to slow Zelgadis down.

    But the door didn’t budge no matter how hard he pulled. It was locked. There was no padlock on the door so either it was locked from the inside, which wouldn’t make much sense for whoever set up this trap because it would give the people inside a good chance of escape, or it was magically locked.

    Time was running out so he tried an incantation and pulled at the door once more. It opened, and as the night air rushed in the flames rose to greet him. He pulled his scarf over his mouth and dove in, low and under the smoke, dodging the hungry plumes of flame that crept up on him as he crawled.

    He knew he couldn’t stay inside the building too long. Not only had it been rendered extremely unstable, but the smoke was getting to him and the flames would soon block all exits. He coughed and coughed as he finally found his way to the sleeping quarters of the sorcerers, but even if he wasn’t plagued by smoke inhalation, what he saw would’ve taken his breath away.

    They were all sleeping! Not fitfully, not the comatose sleep of the oxygen deprived, but… peacefully. He could see from where he was standing that several were already dead. They’d been consumed by flames, choked by ash, or crushed by fallen debris. But none of them had moved from their beds.

    He moved over to one of the recumbent magicians. This… wasn’t right at all. Even if the blast had occurred while they were sleeping, they should’ve woken up and done something…

    Then he got a shiver. Sleeping spells… they were all under sleeping spells. Not blast, nor smoke, nor fire, nor catastrophic collapse would wake them up. And they were already in their beds. That meant that someone… more than one someone judging by the number of people that were asleep, had cast sleeping spells on the group while they were already asleep. Their natural sleep had been replaced with the impenetrable sleep of the enchanted.

    Those *******s! It made him itch just to think it. They could have slit the sorcerers’ throats in their sleep and in some way that would still have been more honorable. But if one cried out then the others would awaken and then Stanley’s men would have a fight on their hands, and they didn’t want any of those if they could avoid it. So they’d put out their lights and then gassed them.

    He wondered if they’d bothered with sleeping spells in the guardhouse. Probably not. Guards couldn’t unlock magical locks or put out fires with water spells. It would’ve been a waste of effort. So Stanley’s men had put the sorcerers in the sleep of death and let the humble guardsmen tear each other apart in the panic-stricken firestorm.

    Not everyone in Stanley’s crew appeared to have Hartwell’s negative attitude toward magic. Sleeping and locking spells weren’t difficult, but military men don’t usually bother much with white magic beyond the few ones that know healing spells. If Stanley had men that knew a broader base of spells then it was probably safe to say that they had some dangerous tricks up their sleeves too.

    He pulled a dozing sorcerer out of his bed, and then another, and then a third that was blowing snot bubbles with his nose. He held one in each arm and slung another on his back.

    “Come on,” he said to his sleeping passengers, muffled against his scarf. “You’re needed. Now more than ever.”

    *****

    Lina meandered her way down to the dungeon, occasionally pausing to burn whoever shouted “Hey you!” after her to a crisp. Technically she’d never been to the dungeons, but she figured she’d hit them if she kept going down.

    The bottom of the long and winding staircase led out into a large, open space. The rooms were made of moist rock, there was the occasional drip of water in the background that was fine for all of five minutes and then would drive the listener insane, and there were cells with bars on them. Yep, Lina thought. It’s safe to say that this looks pretty dungeony.

    “Miss Lina!” a gruff voice exclaimed from a tabletop ahead of her.

    “Hey you!” a soldier shouted, turning.

    Lina sighed and put her head to her forehead. “You should work a little harder on last words,” she said. “Dimil Arwin!” she intoned.

    After the ball of pressurized air had done its work of throwing of the panicky guards against the hard and unforgiving dungeon walls, she focused her attention on Phil.

    “Geez! Are you okay?” she asked, rushing over to where he lay strapped onto a tabletop with a great many straps. “Did they do anything to you?”

    “Not yet,” Phil said as jovially as if she’d just joined his tea party. “The one you blew away first said something about a red hot poker, but I’m afraid I may have knocked out a few of them when they tried to tie me up.”

    Lina looked over at the corner where a few concussed soldiers lay. “And I got the rest of them,” she said. “That’s what they call teamwork.”

    “You understand,” Phil said, as though wanting to clarify something, “that it was only in defense against them tying me up. I tried to make them see reason, but they refused to listen.”

    “I’m not surprised,” Lina said, beginning to undo the straps that bound him.

    She got a better look around the room and blanched. “Phil,” she said nervously, “please tell me that Stanley brought those and that they don’t belong to you.”

    “What?” Phil asked, lifting his head.

    Lina pointed mutely to the opposite wall and Phil looked over. “Oh, those,” Phil said. “No, they’re not Stanley’s. They belong to the castle. Why?”

    “Well, uh,” Lina said, brushing her bangs out of her face. “It’s just that you really don’t seem like the kind of guy to keep a rack and an iron maiden around. I don’t even know what some of those things are, but I can guess what they’re for!”

    “Oh, but they’ve been unused for at least a century,” Phil said, waving his hand dismissively as Lina undid the strap on his arm. “It may not be enlightened,” Phil continued, “but long ago every castle had a torture chamber.”

    “So… why keep this stuff around?” Lina asked weakly. After all, Phil counted himself among the enlightened. “Why even have a dungeon for that matter? That’s awfully old-world-tyrant if you ask me.”

    “Well,” Phil said, massaging the life back into his wrist. “They sort of came with the place and it’s hard to get rid of… implements like that. I’d worry about how they were being put to use if they were out of my possession. And a dungeon is very hard to convert into a rec room.”

    “Anyway,” Phil added. “We do need a place to quarter our prisoners of war,at such unhappy times that we are forced into a confrontation. They are, I assure you, treated with the best care and consideration.”

    “Really,” Lina said weakly.

    “And they are told up front that the torture devices will not be used. In fact,” Phil said exuberantly, “we try to turn their terrible nature into something for good! Any prisoner that passes through here will at least come out having learned some exciting facts about historical weaponry.”

    Lina looked off to the instruments of pain cloistered together against the far wall. She could just see it now… ‘Oh no, don’t be silly! We wouldn’t dream of actually using these on you. They haven’t been used for hundreds of years and the blades have gone all dull and quite rusty. But let me tell you, just for the sake of education of course, exactly what they are and what they do to people. …Oh? You’d like to tell me the location of the enemy encampment? Well, that’s awfully sporting of you!’

    Sometimes she had the feeling that Phil might actually be extremely cunning. It always made her uncomfortable to think it.

    “Now,” Phil said, getting up after being freed from his bonds. “Where is my Amelia?”

    Lina scratched the back of her head. This wasn’t going to go over well. “I don’t… actually know.”

    “What?!” Phil exclaimed, turning on her. “You’ve just left my poor daughter Amelia alone to face that killer?”

    “Easy,” Lina said. “Amelia can take pretty good care of herself, and if I’m right then Stanley’s going to at least be polite to her at first. It helps him if he doesn’t have to keep her prisoner too. So we’ve got some time.”

    “It pains a heart as just as mine to think of my darling daughter Amelia in that villain’s clutches,” Phil said genuinely. “We must find her, Miss Lina! And immediately!”

    “No problem,” Lina said. “Stanley’s probably already done that for us,” she added in a mutter.

    “What was that?”

    “Nothing! Let’s go… check in the throne room.”

    *****

    “What do you mean they haven’t reported back yet?” Stanley spat.

    “It’s just as I said, my Lord,” a man in shining armor answered. “The forces sent to assassinate King Eldoran never came back.”

    “Crap,” Lina whispered from her hiding place on the balcony. “I was hoping it’d take them longer to miss those guys.”

    “Is he alright?” Phil whispered, which was a great effort for someone with such well developed lungs.

    “Gourry’s guarding him,” Lina answered.

    Stanley drummed his fingers on the armrest of the throne. “You don’t suppose they joined the others in rounding up the rest of the castle residents, do you Drash?”

    “I doubt it,” Lieutenant Drash answered. “Captain Neph knows better. He would’ve reported first.”

    “So…” Stanley said slowly. “There’s a rat lurking around… one of Seyruun’s guards, perhaps? It could be that we missed one?”

    “Possibly,” Drash allowed. “But Neph is a good soldier and he had a squad with him. I doubt a rogue Seyruun cadet could manage that. And,” he added, his eyes shadowing over, “there’s something else.”

    “Yes?” Stanley asked, sitting up and suddenly alert.

    “When my men and I had completed our objective and set off the bomb in the Magical Defense Division we went to rendezvous with Lieutenant Hartwell at the guardhouse. …He’s been slain.”

    “What?” Stanley said numbly. “Hartwell is… dead?” he asked, looking so sad that you could almost feel sorry for the little monarchy-toppling prick.

    “Yes, my Lord,” Drash answered gravely. “And I doubt the best of Seyruun’s soldiers could beat Hartwell even if they banded together. Something is amiss.”

    Stanley settled into his chair and looked thoughtful. “Drash, you take a troop down to Eldoran’s chambers. Finishing that job is the most important thing right now. And assign another troop to comb the grounds. We can’t have people wandering around and interfering,” he said, withdrawing from his reverie.

    Drash’s stance changed subtly. “I will make the commands to send both troops out, but with all due respect sir, I will not go with them.”

    “What?” Stanley said harshly, thrown for a loop.

    “The situation has become uncertain,” Drash said calmly as though talking to someone much younger than himself. “At this point, we don’t know what we’re fighting against. It might be something we can beat, and then it might not. Hartwell has already fallen. So I will send the troops out, but my priority now is to make sure that you are safe, my Lord. Whatever roving powers are here, their next target will likely be you.”

    “Bulls-eye,” Lina whispered from her hiding place.

    “Can you defeat him, Miss Lina?” Phil asked in as close as he got to a muffled voice.

    Lina surveyed the Lieutenant. “He looks like he knows what he’s doing,” she observed. “And he certainly seems to think he’s the number one guy to protect their boss. But…” she squinted. “He’s not wearing a sword that I can see…”

    “Why wouldn’t a soldier have a sword?” even Phil the pacifist had to ask.

    “I don’t know…” Lina said, eyeing Drash. “That’s part of the reason why we’re waiting to make our move.”

    “…And the other part?” Phil asked.

    “The giant band of soldiers,” Lina said, nodding toward the droves behind Stanley. “Let’s wait until our eager little usurper spreads his troops thin looking for their mysterious enemies. Then I’ll strike.”

    Stanley looked as though he’d recovered from the initial shock of insubordination and was about to argue back when another soldier came up to him and saluted.

    “My Lord!” the man said. “The princess has been recovered and will be here any moment!”

    “About time, too,” Stanley muttered. He gave Drash a dark look and said quietly: “Do as you will,” before adjusting his features into a more sympathetic expression as his band of soldiers came in escorting Amelia with them.

    “Amel—” Phil managed to get out as Lina slammed her palm over his mouth.

    “Quiet!” she hissed. “Or you’ll give us away!”

    “But we have to rescue her!” Phil cried out.

    “I told you,” Lina whispered harshly. “She’ll be fine for the time being. We just have to wait for our moment. For god sakes, were you listening to anything I just said?”

    “Amelia!” Stanley said in his most concerned tone as he rushed toward her and took her hands. “Are you unhurt? You have no idea how worried I’ve been about you!”

    Lina made a pfft noise from the balcony.

    “I’m fine, Mister Stanley,” Amelia answered. “Now please tell me what’s been happening here!”

    “I’m sure my soldiers must have told you that an army has broken into the castle,” Stanley explained. “We still don’t know who they’re working for, and they’re very strong, but my men are fighting back. You’ll be safe now that you’re here with me. Don’t you worry, Amelia.”

    Amelia didn’t appear to be comforted. “Daddy… your soldiers said you had some news about Daddy…”

    Stanley’s face turned grave. He looked down for a moment as if words failed him and then held her hands tighter and close to his chest.

    “Amelia… I don’t even know how to tell you this, but… both your father and grandfather were killed in the attack.”

  24. #24
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    Chapter 26. Uncooperative Hostage.

    “What?” Amelia said numbly, as if she’d just been slapped.

    “I’m so sorry, Amelia,” Stanley said, holding her hands close to him. “I…” he turned his face away from hers with an anguished expression. “I wish I could’ve done something to stop it, but…” His shoulders shook slightly.

    “Well, he’s a good actor, I’ll give him that,” Lina deadpanned from the balcony.

    But Phil was practically radiating anger. “We have to do something about this, Miss Lina!” he insisted. “We can’t just let him lie to her like that!”

    “I told you: she’s safe for now, which is more than I can say for the two of us if we just jump in right now!” Lina responded. Her throat was starting to hurt from whisper-shouting. “There are kind of a lot of them and that Drash guy is still pretty iffy. When the schmucks he sent Gourry’s way don’t come back he’ll just keep sending more of his men off. We have an opportunity to take away his advantage of numbers, here!”

    She didn’t tell him that she didn’t want to risk herself protecting his butt in battle. Phil’s punch might’ve been able to send a lesser demon cowering, but she didn’t like his odds against a crowd this big. Well trained too. And that Drash… that one was a weasely piece of work if she was any judge. Phil had already had a bad day, and explaining that to him would just be kicking him in the pride.

    “It’s just… not right,” Phil said, eyes locked on his daughter’s tearful face below. “He shouldn’t be putting her through this. It’s inhuman.”

    “Didn’t you fake your own death and do the same thing?” Lina asked, before she could stop the words coming out of her mouth.

    Phil looked down shamefacedly and didn’t say a word.

    Yikes, so much for not hurting his pride, Lina thought, cursing her big mouth. Oh well, at least he’s quiet now.

    “It’s going to be alright, Amelia,” Stanley said, comfortingly, holding her closer. “I’ll take care of everything. Just you trust me.”

    Amelia withdrew from his attempted embrace, backing away slightly and looking straight ahead. She didn’t see, but behind her a wall of soldiers closed ranks.

    “Where are they?” she said, wiping at her eyes viciously with the heel of her hand. “I need to see them.”

    Stanley made eye contact with a soldier behind Amelia who shook his head vehemently. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” Stanley said in a put-on understanding tone. “You’re in shock now and seeing them in this state could only—”

    “I want to see them now!” Amelia insisted, tears misting the air as she turned her head sharply toward him.

    Stanley paused for a minute, trying to recalibrate. Then he closed his eyes and nodded. “Of course you do,” he said. “And of course you shall, and with all possibly speed. …But not right now.” He gave her another anguished look. “It was hard enough to get you here safely, Amelia, and I don’t want you to leave this place while those terrible men are still lurking around.”

    “But that’s why I have to go!” Amelia responded, clenching her fists so hard that they shook. “Those evil evil people are still out there and I won’t let them get away with what they’ve done!”

    “And they won’t,” Stanley said calmly. “My men will take care of that, I assure you. But you must understand, Amelia: you are the last living heir of Seyruun. If those assassins found you…” He turned away as if this was an unbearable thought instead of something that had already happened. “As the princess, no, as the Queen of Seyruun you have a responsibility to stay alive. Please… won’t you think of your country?”

    Phil muttered something from next to Lina. The only words she could make out were ‘think of the country’. She was keeping a close eye on him and making ready to strike if he made a move to expose them. You couldn’t trust that Seyruun family when they started muttering.

    Amelia looked down, and when she looked up she was a queen, not a rosy-faced queen that waves at passerby from her carriage or asks people what they do and if they enjoy doing it, but a queen that will kick your *** if you even think about messing with her tarts. Stanley took an unconscious step back.

    “Well, if that’s the case, then I want full reports of what’s going on,” she said with fire in her eyes. She turned to the troops behind her who shuddered at her gaze and tried to look like they weren’t getting ready to jump on her should the need arise. “You!” she said, pointing at a soldier who nearly dropped his spear. “Organize a squad and go search for a skinny girl with long red-hair and a tall guy with long blonde hair who looks like he’s daydreaming. And,” she paused, her voice losing its commanding edge for just a second. “If you see him, a man all in white with bluish sort of skin. He’s… well, you’ll know him when you see him.”

    “These are your friends?” Stanley asked, slightly coolly as though he didn’t take kindly to his hostages ordering around his soldiers. “I’m afraid that Mister Zelgadis has already fled. As for the other two…” He paused and then decided that Amelia’s mind couldn’t possibly be too grief-roasted for his purposes. “They’ve probably already succumbed to the invading force.”

    Amelia gave him a fierce look. “Not Miss Lina and Mister Gourry!” she insisted. Then she turned to glare at the soldier she’d been badgering before. “Well?” she demanded. “What are you waiting for?”

    “The soldiers only take commands from me,” Stanley said in an oil-slick of a voice.

    “Then tell them!”

    Stanley gave a put-upon sigh and looked at the soldier in question. “Yes, Sergeant, do take out a squad of our very best men.” He said with a wink over Amelia’s shoulder.

    *****

    Gourry sat on a chair he’d pulled up to the old king’s bedside. He watched Eldoran sleep his sickly slumber. He’d had to sit up with the terminally ill when he’d been very small, so he knew the feeling well. A lot of people hated it. It made them feel uncomfortable. But Gourry didn’t mind. It could even be peaceful in some circumstances and, anyway, a person’d want company in that state. It probably helped them.

    The two healers were doing their business mixing up ointments and syrups, but watching him warily. They stopped what they were doing altogether when Gourry stood up and drew his sword.

    “More of them are coming,” Gourry said. “You two should hide.”

    The two women didn’t need to be told twice. They ducked behind gilt ornamentation of the drawer under the king’s bed where the spare royal linens were kept.

    Gourry held out his sword and waited calmly, eyes utterly focused on the door. When it burst off its hinges, he didn’t need to tense up; he was already ready for battle.

    “Hey! There really is someone here, Sarge!” the lead soldier shouted.

    “Stand aside, man!” the sergeant commanded, elbowing his way past the soldier. “So,” he said, narrowed eyes falling on Gourry. “You’re the one that beat Neph’s men, is it?”

    “Oh, no,” Gourry said. “That was Lina. She took care of them all and didn’t leave a single one for me.” He lowered his head but didn’t take his eyes off the armed men for a minute. “She can be so greedy, you know?”

    “Is that so?” the seargant said, hands on his hips. “Well, let’s see how you fare alone against us! Men! Strike!”

    The younger of the two healers couldn’t resist temptation, and peeked around the corner of the bed. What she saw was an utterly panicked troop trying to deal with a man who moved so fast that they couldn’t see his sword strokes. It seemed like only a matter of moments before they went down, some of them still twitching. Only one was left conscious and he’d fallen and lost his grip on his sword.

    The fallen, unarmed soldier looked up at the blonde man in terror. He whimpered and tried to edge backwards.

    “These regular swords just don’t cut it,” Gourry complained, probably punning only accidentally. “They seem to go dull in no time at all.”

    The fallen man stared at the sword in mute horror. It still looked plenty deadly to him.

    “So what I’m thinking you ought to do is run away now,” Gourry continued conversationally. “People think a sharp sword’s more dangerous, but a blunt sword can hurt a heck of a lot more if there’s enough strength behind it. So… you wanna get going, right?”

    The man nodded repeatedly, unable to believe his lucky reprieve. He crawled backwards until he was out of the room and then took off at a dead run.

    Gourry watched until the man was out of sight, then sheathed his sword.

    “You can come out now,” he said. “It’s safe.”

    The two healers left their barricade, the older one had her fists clenched and was looking scandalized. “How could you just let that one go?” she demanded. “Don’t you know he’ll just go back to his master and they’ll send more troops?”

    “That’s true,” Gourry said, nodding. “But I’ve still gotta do my part, right?”

    “What?” the younger one asked, perplexed.

    “Well, I’ve only gotten six of them so far, and Lina already took care of a baker’s dozen before we even separated. Who knows how many she’s taken care of now?”

    “So it’s like… a contest?” the younger one asked in disbelief.

    “No, no,” Gourry said, moving over to the doorframe and trying to slam the fallen door back into place. “It’s just that Lina’s going to have enough of a headache dealing with the rest of those guys, so I can at least do my share.” He turned around and scratched at his forehead with a slightly nervous expression. “You don’t wanna get Lina mad when she’s got a headache.”

    The two healers stared at him. They’d seen this guy take down six fully-armed, well-trained soldiers single-handedly like it was no big deal. But that girl…

    …she must be really dangerous.

    *****

    “Where does that guy get off telling Amelia that me and Gourry are probably dead?” Lina fumed from her balcony hiding place. “As if Gourry and I are gonna get overpowered by a bunch of thugs after all we’ve been through!”

    “The more allies she thinks she’s lost the more she’ll have to rely on Stanley,” Phil muttered, staring with concern at his daughter who was trying to put up a strong front.

    “Well, that might be true,” Lina huffed, “but look at it this way: Stanley only put his plan into action after Zelgadis flew the coop, right? So he probably wanted to make sure he got rid of Zel so he wouldn’t interfere with his operations.”

    Phil nodded. “That seems to be it.”

    “So he had a plan for dealing with Zelgadis, but not for me?” Lina demanded, sounding deeply insulted. “I’m Lina Inverse! He should be more worried about me than anyone! Where does this loser get off discounting me?!”

    Phil cleared his throat. “Well… he probably has no idea who you are.”

    What?!” Lina hissed, barely remembering to keep her voice down.

    “I mean, he certainly knows of the Lina Inverse, but I don’t really think he’s bothered himself too much over my Amelia’s friends. He might have heard her mentioning a Lina, but I doubt he knows that you’re that Lina Inverse. I mean, you two haven’t even spoken.”

    Lina grumbled to herself. It made some sense… but still… the indignity of it all!

    “He probably only worried about Mister Zelgadis because there have been some rumors about him and my Amelia,” Phil murmured. “As his rival for my Amelia’s hand, Mister Zelgadis has the most to fight for, so that’s probably why Stanley was more comfortable waiting around for that situation to be resolved.”

    “Rumors?” Lina repeated, raising an eyebrow.

    Phil shrugged. “Castle gossip; it’s hard to fight. And you can see how the topic appeals to people.”

    Lina could. There was something… well, interesting about watching something like that from afar. Guilty pleasure or not, she could see how everyday people could fritter away the day talking about who a prince or princess might marry.

    She was just considering the prospect that there might be money to be made in some kind of pamphlet with updates on the social lives of royalty when a shout drew her attention back to the room below her.

    “Blonde, stupid-sounding guy!” a lone soldier panted as he burst through the heavy doors, “in the king’s room! He overpowered us like we were nothing! My Lord, I’m sorry! We couldn’t kill the ki—” The man paused and then shook with fear as he was treated to a look by both Stanley and Lieutenant Drash that suggested that his future career prospects included being dead.

    “That’s Mister Gourry!” Amelia called out, then she turned to Stanley with a look of pure, betrayed rage. “You! It’s been you doing this the whole time!”

    Stanley closed his eyes and rubbed at his forehead in a mildly frustrated way that might come about if, after a long day’s work, a waitress at a diner forgot to give you sugar for your coffee. “Oh dear…”

    Amelia surveyed him, shaking in rage, thinking: Grandfather. Grandfather is still alive. But what about Daddy and the others? What’s true? Now that I know who’s really responsible for all this I must find out… and then make sure he pays!

    “You dare to come into this castle as an invited guest, pretend to be our friend, and then do something so evil and treasonous!” Her pointed finger turned into a fist. “By heaven’s name you will be punished for what you’ve—”

    “Drash!” Stanley commanded, cutting her off mid-Justice speech.

    The lieutenant held his hands up in an odd gesture. “Lafas Seed!” he intoned, and with that Amelia fell to the floor, bound by magical ropes, struggling fruitlessly against the spell’s grip.

    “No… Amelia…” from Phil.

    Lina shared his worry, but her tactical mind was shouting out above all her concerns: So he is a sorcerer!

    Stanley walked up to the thrashing Princess and shook his head. “This could’ve been so much easier for you if you’d only played along. You would’ve come to no harm whatsoever. And now…” he sighed. “Now everything is much more difficult.”

    “You—!” Amelia began, struggling to get free.

    “Of course, you won’t be killed,” Stanley went on. “I need you to cement my kingship. …But it won’t be anything like it could’ve been. I’m sure carriage rides through the town square as we greet our subjects will be quite awkward with a dagger to your neck to make sure you don’t give anything away.”

    “And, of course, we won’t be able to puppet you and hide you away forever,” Stanley sighed. “You will have to be killed eventually, but I will wait until the royal succession is assured and the people accept me as their king.”

    A crack appeared on the floor of the balcony that Phil had been leaning on. Lina looked up at Phil nervously. She could’ve sworn his eyes flashed red for just a second when Stanley said ‘royal succession’.

    “Miss Lina,” he said quietly but dangerously.

    “Umm… Phil—” Lina tried desperately.

    Now,” Phil commanded.

    Lina looked at him, then down to the trapped Amelia, then back at Phil and nodded. Numbers weren’t on her side and she was really hoping that Drash wasn’t as good as he seemed… but there was no choice now. They’d been pushed to the wall and she’d be damned if she let that ******* hurt Amelia.

    You’ll rue the day that you disregarded Lina Inverse, Stanley of Daellon! she thought fiercely.

    Amelia looked up at her captor, defiance in her eyes. “You’ll never get away with this,” she shouted, because, like her father, she was a traditionalist.

    Stanley laughed and delivered the appropriate response: “Who will stop me?”

    “That’s my cue,” Lina said, rising from her hiding place, but she hadn’t peered half-way over the banister when another voice echoed through the hall.

    “Me,” was all it said.

    “Mister Zelgadis!” Amelia cried hopefully.

    “What?” Lina said, nearly falling over.

    Every eye turned to see Zelgadis standing in the entrance to the throne room, flanked by a crowd of singed, groggy, and very angry looking sorcerers. They were all covered in ash, but as Zelgadis stepped forward into the room, locking eyes furiously with Stanley, he shone bright under the blazing candles of the hall. It was a trick the Seyruuns appreciated. It was… catching the light.

    “But… I was going to—” Lina began.

    Phil put a hand on her shoulder and guided her back down to their hiding place. “Let him have this one,” he said, eyes not leaving the throne room floor where Zelgadis and his ragtag troop of sorcerers met Stanley and his army.

  25. #25
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    Chapter 27. Time and Tide.

    Zelgadis glared across the long hall at Stanley, fists clenched. Stanley tried to look back coolly, but it was clear under his in-control expression that he was displeased.

    “Ah,” Stanley said loftily. “I see the prodigal son has—”

    “Your Lieutenant Hartwell already got in that line,” Zelgadis spat, cutting off Stanley’s lame villain speech, “that is, before I killed him.”

    Displeased went straight to enraged as Stanley’s eyes narrowed and he drew out his sword. It was only Lieutenant Drash stepping in front of him that kept his Lord at bay. Zelgadis didn’t give anything even close to a damn about this. His eyes were on Amelia.

    “Are you okay, Amelia?” he called.

    “Yes!” she called back from her bound position on the floor. “I’m alright! But they’ve got me in the spirit bind! Watch out for the one without a sword! He’s a sorcerer!”

    Zelgadis swore under his breath. Lafas Seed would be inconvenient to deal with. While bound, Amelia not only wouldn’t be able to move, but wouldn’t be able to use any of her spells. And there wasn’t any counter-spell either. Only time could free her.

    “How long since the spell was cast?” he asked.

    She blinked. “Only a few minutes,” she called back.

    Time was not on their side.

    “Enough of this!” Stanley snapped, holding his sword down so its metal rested against Amelia’s throat. “You two won’t be chatting any longer, I’ll see to that.” His gaze locked with Zelgadis. “I don’t care what kind of grand illusions you’ve conjured about this gambit, but my plan is not about to be outdone by some last-ditch ‘save the princess’ effort from you. Romantic as that notion is,” he added spitting the word. He slung his head toward his men. “Kill them!” he ordered.

    The men didn’t need to be told twice. They charged at Zelgadis’s small army with swords raised. Zelgadis tensed up and shouted at the sorcerers behind him: “Well, what are you waiting for? Before they get any closer!”

    The sorcerers nodded. It had been a weird day. There wasn’t one of them that wasn’t burnt or suffering from smoke inhalation, but they were alive. They’d been dragged out of their beds and summoned out of their spell-induced slumber only to be informed that an invading force was trying to take over Seyruun and had killed all the guards and half of their sorcerer-brethren. Now, they weren’t about to shed many tears over the guards; those were the same people who beat them up when they were kids, and circles of magic were highly competitive so the loss of half their rival sorcerers didn’t faze them at all. But these… invaders in front of them had tried to kill them! That had to be worth some retribution. And anyway, they had a strong feeling that if they tried to run that the chimera that had saved them would probably take some drastic action. He was not someone they wanted to mess with at the moment. The guy had a kind of crazy look in his eye.

    The fireworks that the sorcerers kept volleying toward Stanley’s encroaching troops were impressive looking. They sparked and sizzled and burnt and filled the air with noxious smoke. They were noisy too. Before long the roars of the men could hardly be heard over the pings! and crrrrshes! and BOOMS! Not only that, but in no time at all, it seemed that at least the carpet of the hall would have to be replaced and that massive property damage might well be on the way. But still, Stanley’s troops advanced through the smoke and around the plumes and projectiles of flame. What was worse, Drash was sending out a hail of freeze arrows and it was only by sheer luck that none of the sorcerers had been hit. Their luck wouldn’t hold out for long.

    “Get it together!” Zelgadis snapped at Seyruun’s sorcerers. “It’s like you’ve never fought as a team before! You can’t just send spells in random directions! You have to coordinate your efforts and look out for each other. Half the time you’re almost hitting the head of the person in front of you!”

    Zelgadis cast a wind barrier that shattered an arrow of ice into frosty fragments. It wasn’t enough, he knew, to be a good fighter on your own. When you battled alongside someone you had to establish a certain rhythm. In order to maximize your team you had to be able to count on your partner being where you needed them to be, and you had to be where your partner needed you to be. You had to know each other’s moves like the back of your hand. You had to watch out for each other and always be there whenever your partner got backed into a corner. Signals helped, yes, but truly good teams needed to almost know what the other was thinking without it needing to be said. If all this could be done, then the team would be effective. If it couldn’t then you might as well fight alone because you’d be a menace to your teammate. When he and Amelia fought side by side they barely ever needed to strategize out loud anymore. They just… knew.

    But he couldn’t have Amelia’s help this time. She needed his, and the people he had on his side were looking at him as if the words ‘teamwork’ had never before entered their vocabulary.

    There was a very good reason for this. The Magic Defense Division, as mentioned before, was a highly competitive force. There were many different ranks, and only so many sorcerers were assigned to each rank. Since sorcerers generally had high longevity rates and weren’t likely to switch careers, that meant that the usual manner of promotion would be someone getting killed. Sorcerers were a highly ambitious lot. So why worry about accidentally clipping one of your fellow mages with a spell? After all, he might be an eighth rank wizard, and you might be a senior ninth-ranker.

    Zelgadis glared at them like they were a worthless bunch of cretins. “You,” he shouted, pointing at a still shocked and mildly confused batch of sorcerers. “Front lines! And keep your collateral damage to a minimum. There’s few of us as it is and I don’t want to see any blow-back. You!” he pointed to another group. “Flare arrows on the troops in the back. We’ll get them from both directions. But don’t go after their sorcerer,” he said, raising up another shield as an ice shard from Drash shot his way. “You can’t handle him. Focus on the troops.”

    “You three,” he said, pointing out three mages from the back. “Heal anyone who gets hurt. We can’t afford to lose even a single man. The rest of you,” he said, looking around, “get up high and shield anyone in danger. Am I clear?”

    The sorcerers fidgeted uncomfortably. Clear orders and team work were not things they were used to. On the other hand, the head magician had been killed in the fire… and as much as all of them would’ve liked to have taken that job and the prestige and fat paycheck that went with it… well, it was clear who was projecting authority in this situation. And it’s never too early to get in a leader’s good graces.

    A sorcerer from the Zelgadis-appointed long-range flare-arrow troop raised a hand. “Umm… what if we get a shot at Lord Daellon uh… sir?”

    Zelgadis ignored the sir and turned around to glare at Stanley. “Then for heaven’s sake: don’t take it. If you hit him then you might hit Amelia, and her safety is our number one priority.”

    “Ha! Do you like that?” Phil whispered from the balcony, slapping his knee in good spirits. “You heard that, right? Number one priority. Can you beat that?”

    “I heard,” Lina said, not sounding super enthusiastic as the Seyruun sorcerers broke up into their assigned groups and took up their jobs of keeping the hoard of soldiers back.

    “What’s wrong, Miss Lina?” Phil asked, turning wide eyes on her. “He came back to save my Amelia! We couldn’t possibly ask for more!”

    “Yeah, I know,” Lina said, shifting uncomfortably. “But… you know… don’t you think I should help?”

    “What? No!” Phil exclaimed. “It makes so much more of a difference if he’s the one to rescue her! And it doesn’t look like he even needs your help. I know he’s outnumbered, but he’s already turned the Magic Defense Division into a cooperative fighting force! That place has been such a mess that we were starting to think it’d never get cleaned up!” he enthused, as a well executed cluster of water spells sent some of Stanley’s men crashing into a wall in a wake of tidal force. “Anyway, you were all for waiting on fighting earlier.”

    “Well, yeah,” Lina said wretchedly, watching the conflict unfolding below, “but I thought I’d get to fight eventually.”

    “So what?” Phil asked. “What does it matter if Mister Zelgadis takes care of them?”

    “I just…” Lina began, not sure how to make her point. “I just don’t like other people fighting my fights for me!”

    “Your fights?” Phil repeated. “Stanley has kidnapped the girl he’s in love with and tried to kill her entire family. How is this more your fight then his?”

    Lina made a fist. “Because Stanley didn’t even bother to make a plan for dealing with me! I have to teach him a lesson!” she exploded.

    Phil would’ve fallen over if he wasn’t already crouched on the ground.

    “Look, I’ve just got all this pent-up aggression,” Lina explained. “And now I’m not going to get to use any of it and… well, that kinda sucks!” She changed her tone to a more persuasive one: “Couldn’t I just send out a couple of shots over their head? Zel probably wouldn’t even notice it was—”

    “No!” Phil responded.

    As his temporary troops actually seemed to come to grips with Stanley’s men, Zelgadis waited for his opening. He knew he wouldn’t have a chance of rescuing Amelia until the man Stanley called Lieutenant Drash was taken care of. Drash was a skilled sorcerer; that was clear. He also didn’t carry any kind of weapon. That was a bit odd. Considering how much long range attacks are favored in sorcery, most magical practitioners would carry around at least some weapon in case they got into a close combat situation. It was for defense as much as anything. Sure, Amelia didn’t carry one, but she was the exception and not the rule.

    But Zelgadis could see why Drash, a military man, was so arrogant as to not carry a weapon. As he dodged the barrage of elemental arrows being sent his way he realized that there were probably very few people in the world that could ever get close enough to Drash in a battle for a sword to be useful. Nevertheless…

    Astral Vine,” he intoned, powering up his broadsword. “Shielding squad: cover me!” he shouted, before darting forward.

    To which the newly appointed Shielding squad thought: Yeah, that’s right. Can’t just let the offensive magic squads take all the credit. We’re the real heroes here.

    Drash didn’t look amused at all by this advance against his person or by the fact that Zelgadis’s team was now focusing almost their entire effort on blocking his spells. He stopped sending out deadly ice crystals and held his arms together in front of his body. He muttered a spell that Zelgadis had never heard before.

    “Damn! What’s he doing?” Zelgadis swore, as he easily slung a foot soldier out of his way.

    When Drash had finished, his fists and forearms seemed to glow. He subtly changed his stance and then in one quick moment slammed his entire arm against the ground shouting: “Blade Haut!

    “What?!” Lina exclaimed from the balcony at the same time that Zelgadis began muttering his surprised counter move.

    A shock-wave issued out of the ground from the spot that Drash had swung at. The shock-waved lumbered speedily toward Zelgadis, who moved to the right. The shock-wave changed direction to follow him.

    Zelgadis waited until the last possibly second when the blast of moving rock was almost touching him before shouting: “Levitation!” He flew out of the way just as the ground beneath him exploded.

    “That shouldn’t be possible!” Lina spat indignantly.

    “What?” Phil asked.

    “Blade Haut! Blade Haut! Just use your common sense, would’ya?” Lina said angrily, forgetting for a moment that she was berating a sitting monarch. “Do you see a blade in his hand?”

    Zelgadis landed on the ground in a shower of disturbed foundation and looked even more ****** off about this impossibility than Lina.

    “Lieutenant Drash, I would appreciate it if you would lay off the earth spells,” Stanley instructed without much care. “After all, I don’t want my Throne Room badly damaged.”

    “Understood, sir,” Drash said obediently.

    “This will never be your Throne Room!” Amelia yelled indignantly, taking this moment to aim a kick at Stanley. It landed even in her bound state. “Mister Zelgadis!” she called out, as Stanley clutched at his shin. “He’s magically infused both his arms!”

    Drash didn’t give Zelgadis any time to react to this. “Wind Brid!” he shouted, and Zelgadis was on the move again.

    “Wow… that really works?” Lina said to herself.

    “What works?” Phil asked, trying to keep up with current events.

    “Well see… Blade Haut requires a sword to use it, hence the, y’know, blade part,” Lina explained. “But Drash didn’t have one. Instead he’s used some kind of magical infusion spell on his arms, like Amelia’s Vis Frank or Astral Vine. I’m not sure exactly what he used, but it’s probably a variation on that kind of magic. So basically… he is the sword. Not a physical sword, but an astral one. And that’s how he was able to use that spell without a sword.”

    Phil watched the fight with increasing worry. “This Drash man really knows his stuff.”

    “He does,” Lina said, nodding worriedly. “And now he’s cast a spell that’s almost impossible to dodge.”

    Zelgadis moved hurriedly, watching the air like a hawk for any sign of disturbance. The arrows of air were almost entirely invisible… almost. He had to keep on his guard to dodge the entire volley as he moved ever closer to Drash.

    His band of sorcerers weren’t much help in defending against this air-based onslaught. They had no practice in watching for air vibrations. In fact, they were inclined to feel rather elitistly against Drash. Casting an attack that can hardly be seen? Where’s the showmanship in that?

    But Zelgadis slashed and dodged his way through the near invisible attack and actually had the audacity to land a stroke against Drash, who blocked the slash with his powered-up forearm.

    “Looking at you, one would expect defense to be your strategy,” Drash commented, slashing back with his other powered-up arm. “But you’re actually remarkably speedy.”

    Zelgadis said nothing and continued his onslaught with his broadsword, never making it past Drash’s flying fists.

    “This is rare,” Stanley commented, watching the fight from up close. “I haven’t seen you fight close-combat in a long time.”

    “It has been long,” Drash allowed. “But not too long.”

    Stanley smiled. That comment seemed enough to alleviate any fears he might have had about this fight. “So what is it you’re thinking Mister Zelgadis?” Stanley asked, turning his malevolent confidence on the chimera still locked in combat with his lieutenant. “That you’re going to save the princess and wind up standing where I stand right now?” he asked, with a meaningful nod to the throne behind him.

    Zelgadis blocked a stroke from Drash and didn’t respond.

    Stanley’s smile wavered, but then came back. “Well, if you do, then you’re fooling yourself. You are no match for Drash. Your rag-tag band of fat, lazy sorcerers will not last too much longer against my impeccably trained men. Then this exercise in futility will be over, and all this will truly be mine.”

    Zelgadis hesitated, but finally responded. “Amelia’s right. This will never be yours,” he said, and even in the midst of combat with Drash, a sly smile crept onto his face. “Even if you beat me, you’ll still have Lady Myrtle to deal with.”

    “What?” Stanley came back with, face contorting.

    “Yeah,” Zelgadis said. “And I don’t like even an entire army’s odds against her.”

    “Ha! You tell ‘em!” Phil enthused.

    “I don’t see what you’re so happy about,” Lina said in a glum voice.

    “What’s not to be happy about?” Phil asked, as the slash of bespelled steel sounded against Drash’s enchantment. “Look at him! He’s fighting the man head-to-head!”

    “Yeah,” Lina said, watching the display below. “That’s the problem.”

    Phil surveyed the fight below for awhile, trying to see what Lina meant. “But he’s doing just fine! He hasn’t let a single blow touch him! And from what I can see, that Drash might be good when it comes to spells and fireworks and whatnot, but there’s a good reason he doesn’t carry a sword! He’s a real amateur from what I can see! Oh, he’s blocking the slashes, sure. But that’s just because he has both his arms powered up. If it was just one then he’d be toast! But he’s completely amateurish when it comes to offense! Look, it’s like he’s aiming for the sword!”

    Lina could see this too, but she saw the truth behind it. “Drash is no amateur,” she said gravely. Sure, there were plenty of swordsmanship newbies that seemed to take awhile to get the idea that you weren’t supposed to just hit the other guy’s sword, but Drash wasn’t one of them. “He is aiming for the sword; and he’s doing it on purpose.”

    Phil looked at her with his mouth open. “But why would he do that?”

    Lina grumbled to herself. “Look, both Drash and Zel are using magically infused weapons. For Zel it’s his sword, for Drash it’s both his arms. But every time they clash, the spell weakens for both of them and Zel’s sword gets that much closer to being an ordinary sword that’s breakable by magic, and Drash’s arms get that much closer to being cut-able flesh. This isn’t a battle of strength, this is a battle of magical capacity. It all just depends on how much power they put into their weapons to see who breaks first.”

    Lina slammed a fist on the floor. “I just don’t see why Zel keeps playing this stupid game,” she said. “He should try another strategy before his spell weakens and Drash is able to disarm him. It’s obvious that that’s what Drash is trying to do. If he keeps up this long struggle until the magic degrades then he’ll end up weaponless and at Drash’s mercy. Drash’s long-range spells are too good. He needs that sword if he’s gonna win.”

    “Not only that,” Lina added, shifting her gaze to Seyruun’s fighting magicians, “but those price-cut sorcerers aren’t gonna last too much longer. Once the healers and the shielders run out of juice then there’s nothing to stop Stanley’s army from picking them off one by one. And they’re the only thing that’s allowing Zel to focus his energy on Drash. Zel’s good, don’t get me wrong. But facing an entire army on your own is generally something even the best of us try to avoid.”

    Phil watched as Zelgadis and Drash continued their fight, with Stanley standing behind Drash. His fists were clenched, as though Drash were just his proxy.

    “Then why is he dragging this out?” Phil asked in a bewildered and worried voice.

    Lina shrugged helplessly. “Who knows?” she asked. “He’s probably got some sort of bee in his bonnet about beating Drash at his own game. There’s probably some psychological reason or something. You know how guys are with their swords,” she finished in a dark mutter.

    “How?” Phil asked.

    Lina let her face drop into her hands irritably. “I miss Gourry,” she said in a muffled voice.

    The battle below wore on and on and on. Zelgadis showed no sign of changing course from his ill-advised pissing contest with Drash. Zelgadis’s sorcerers were getting tired too. Though they’d managed to take care of quite a number of Stanley’s men, they were running out of energy. Stanley’s forces had the numbers to keep going, but the remaining sorcerers of Seyruun did not. If something didn’t happen to change the tide soon, then their efforts would come to a grinding halt.

    Unfortunately, things only looked like they could get worse. Zelgadis and Drash had been slashing and parrying for so long that Lina was starting to get a headache. You could tell that Zelgadis’s Astral Vine was fading fast. The glow in the blade was dying. But Drash still seemed to have energy to spare.

    Finally, Drash made one last bash against the metal. Even from her balcony perch, Lina could both feel and hear the resonance as Astral Vine died and the full force of Drash’s magically infused forearm hit the blade; which shattered.

    Stanley’s eyes gleamed with triumph; Drash shifted position to take out his now disarmed opponent; and Zelgadis was left holding a hilt with only a meager square of metal left on it where the blade had broken off. He didn’t seem to appreciate his predicament at all. Drash brought around his fist to make a stroke. Even with Zelgadis’s strong skin, the energy in those fists would be enough to pummel him. Zelgadis didn’t even look at Drash. He looked past the lieutenant for a microsecond, then tossed his broken sword into the air.

    Stanley was a classically trained swordsman. Even so, he had little combat experience so he made the amateur mistake of watching the sword in its arc as it was thrown. Drash, however, had extensive combat experience, so he kept his eyes on Zelgadis and shifted his stance to block whatever attack the chimera was planning on lobbing his way. They were both looking in the wrong place.

    Elmekia Flame!” a voice rang out.

    Drash was completely unprepared for the energy that hit him from behind, suffusing his body in a flaming pillar of light.

    Zelgadis caught his broken sword easily as Drash fell twitching to the ground, his nervous system popping and sizzling as the spell tore it apart. He smiled and looked beyond the fallen lieutenant.

    Stanley followed his gaze in horror to the source of the spell. Amelia’s arms were reached out and her hands were open, with the crackling energy still playing off her fingertips. Before he could think to make a move with his sword, the princess stood up. Lafas Seed had worn off. She was free.

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