Act 3: Scene 4

My curling, fanciful signature looked quite at home on the ivory scroll. I studied it for a long moment, and then at Faowri's much blunter marking, before passing the document back to her.

"And that's it?"

"What more did you expect?" She raised her eyebrows questioningly at me. "That's it. This manor and all income and finances related to it are now half yours."

I narrowed my eyes. "That wasn't why I did this . . ."

"I know." She sighed, and the hat she'd previously been holding in one hand was pulled firmly back onto her head. "And now I have to get ready."

"Ready?" I slipped out of the chair, dropping the quill back into the inkpot and hurrying to catch up with Faowri as she turned and exited the small study, the document held tightly in her hand. "For what?"

Out in the corridor, she whipped her red cloak from the hat-stand it had been hanging from for a fairly long while, and swung it over her shoulders. "I told you last night . . . or this morning, I suppose. I'm going to finish my apprenticeship and earn my mastery as a red mage."

"Right now?"

Faowri nodded. "My mentor will be here soon. I'll go with him."

Gnawing on my lower lip, I paused mid-stride. "Faowri, I can't be here all the time in your absence . . ."

"I know that. Kuja, I meant what I said before - whatever little secret agenda you have going, feel free to spend on it. By helping me, you've earned my lack of intrusion. And I know you won't be here all the time . . . but if you could come back to check up occasionally? I'll be doing that, too. Mostly, it's just fieldwork that will keep me away from home, but . . ."

"All right!" I held up my hands in defeat. "I'll do it. After all, I did agree to."

Faowri kept walking, down the corridor and into the main hall, where we were both met with Manchi arriving on our floor from the left staircase, and a loud knock at the door. My companion fastened her cloak hastily with one hand and flung the other, holding the signed document, at the startled servant.

"You know where to take it?"

"Yes, ma'am." Manchi nodded obediently, and scuttled off to the side door of the manor even as another servant crossed his path to reach the main door. I marvelled at the efficiency of well-trained staff, and blinked as Faowri turned back to me.

"Kuja, you're no longer a guest here. You're part owner. Ask the servants for anything you need. All the facilities are yours, including", she smiled fondly, "the theatre. Feel free to entertain yourself there."

I turned and surveyed the extravagance of the mansion, and mentally compared it to the tiny bedroom the Second and I had shared. Quite a difference, in both size and grandeur . . . and it would also offer me the resources I required to complete my task.

Someone endeavoured to open the door, and I looked beyond the tall, white-haired red mage standing in its frame to the grey morning behind him, where rain drizzled through the dank air and bounced against the pavestones outside. Faowri dispelled my entrancement with the pretty phenomenon by greeting the visitor heartily, and inviting him inside, out of the rain.

The red mage shook his head briskly. "Not right now, Miss King. I'm going on a field mission, over in Dali, and assumed you would want to come, now that you've decided to keep at this."

"A field mission?" Faowri nodded eagerly. "Of course."

"Are you ready yet?"

"Certainly." She gave her hat one last tweak and turned to me. "I'll . . . see you later, Kuja. I hope."

Unable to think of anything to say, I nodded weakly, admiring the way the bouncing water droplets created a sprinkling white aura around her as she stepped outside. I opened my mouth, knowing I should say something, but the appropriate content eluded me. A tumble of words sat on the tip of my tongue, but refused to budge any further. It had been too fast, she was leaving too soon . . .

The expression she wore as Manchi bade her farewell for now and closed the door behind her and her mentor lingered on the surface of my mind's eye. She'd been expecting something. Expecting me to say or do something . . . But there was nothing. Nothing I could have said that would have granted us closure. It would only have encouraged a hope for something that was more than likely never going to be attained.

I clenched my fists at my sides, hating Garland more than ever for burdening me with his misbegotten purpose, for . . . for inflicting me on Faowri. For letting me - and her! - catch a glimpse of something we could never have. One day she would find out what my 'secret agenda' really was, and she would despise me for it. And until I had accomplished at least a part of it, Garland would never leave me alone.

It wasn't fair.

"Master Kuja?"

I half-jumped, barely noticing Manchi's slight emphasis on the word 'Master'. The servant fixed me with a look of surprise.

"I . . . are you all right, sir?"

Pressing a finger to my temple, I shook my head. "No, I feel a headache coming on. I think I'm going to take a nap. Please, make sure no one disturbs me?"

Manchi nodded emphatically, and before he could utter another word to me, I turned on my heel and strode up the stairs towards my room in the guest wing. It had already been prepared, and I flopped onto the freshly made bed on my back, staring at the ceiling.

I hadn't expected her to leave quite so soon . . . Ah well, it was probably for the best. Now I could get on with what I had to do.

Almost directly following that thought, I felt some of the pressure on my mind lift a little, like the unblocking of an airway. Combined with the shuffling that was coming from the roof, I knew instantly what had happened. Hurriedly, I rolled off the bed, swerving around the low table to swing open the balcony doors.

The silver dragon was perched on the lip of the roof, peering down at me. Suppressing a mixture of anger and relief, I folded my arms and glared at it. "Back now, hmm?"

It tilted its head at me, eyes whirling. "Indeed. You did not feel quite so aggressive when I tested your temper."

"Well, perhaps I don't need you anymore. Did you think of that, by any chance? Hmph, running off and leaving me at a crucial moment . . ."

"If you truly don't want me around any longer, I will leave," the dragon snorted, extending its wings with great dignity. Affecting unconcern, I folded my arms after delicately running a finger the length of my feathery fringe.

"I suppose you have some use still," I smiled coyly, at which the silver dragon gave a mental rumble of high amusement, plunging its long neck forward to the balcony.

"Isn't it time to return?"

"Soon enough. I just need to ensure that the servants know what they are doing, and we can leave and get on with our real task." Extending a hand to its head, I ruffled the crimson feathers near its ears, unable to suppress a regretful sigh. The dragon clearly caught it, and its implications, for it released a comforting ripple of sound and breath that sent my silvery hair fluttering back from my face. Putting my pretences aside, I leaned into the creature's bestial head and wrapped my arms around its bulk. I focused all of my being on replacing my disappointment at the unfair situation with the desire for revenge on Garland, and the taste of the renewed priority was bittersweet; it bore a flavour I had almost forgotten, one of justice and potential happiness.

I wanted those things. My determination to get them reached new heights as I released the silver dragon's head and gestured for it to retreat to the rooftop again. It was time to go back to where things would really begin.

"I'll be back momentarily," I assured it, and turned from the balcony, quickening my step to ensure that my words would be no lie.

End of Act 3