Hidden Beneath

By Lady Onyx

Disclaimer: Insert the Standard.

AN: Wow, these parodies are really fun.  However, this one is also about a couple I like that isn't so popular.  I'm a big Filia/Valgaav fan.  If you can stand that, go ahead and read.  Out of curiosity, are there any other F/V fics out there?

Oh, yes, one last note: To simplify things, ALL of the characters in this story are human.  There is no magic, demons, dragons, etc.


Filia Ul Copt was doing the thing she enjoyed most, which was making tea.  The young woman had lit a few candles, since it was so dark and rainy outside, and had the water heating on the stove as she flitted around the kitchen.  She was just putting the dishes on the serving tray when she began to hum an old love song, one of the traditional ones she was very fond of.

Suddenly both her movements and her humming screeched to a stop as a shout rent the air.  Filia sighed.  Not again.  That was the sixth time today.

"WHERE IS HE GOING?!  OH, HOW DARE HE DO THIS?!  TO ME!  TO ME!"  The horrible screeching continued.

"Oh, like, what is it this time?" came a teenage voice.

"I don't know.  I wish she'd stop," answered an identical voice.

"Yeah, me too," replied the first.  "It's like, so annoying."

"Especially when it's in the morning."

"And it wakes everyone up."

"Like, the whole neighborhood can hear her screaming."

"IT'S SO UNFAIR!  MY LIFE IS RUINED!" and here the screaming dissolved into sobs, which were almost as loud and just as annoying as the screams.

Filia sighed as she finished arranging the sandwiches on their plate.  It looked like tea wouldn't be very peaceful after all.  Still, she picked up the tray and walked into the sitting room, greeting the twins as she served them their tea.  "How was your shopping trip this morning, Mimi, Nene?"

"It was all right, I guess," the one answered as she took her cup.

"We still haven't found what we're looking for," the other said as she picked up a sandwich.

"I'm sorry," Filia told them.  "I was hoping you'd find it."

"Yeah," Mimi replied, "we were hoping to finally get out."  The pretty twin girls were searching for a map to find some famous relics so they could get jobs as singers.  Then they could support themselves and leave this house.  Eventually, the girls wanted to be famous.

All three women looked to where the twins' mother, Martina, was still sobbing in a heap on the floor near the front window.  The girls had never told their mother about their plan and Filia was sworn to secrecy about it, given their mother's likelihood to throw a fit and demand that they not abandon her.

"Could you, like, shut her up?" Nene told Filia.

"Honestly, you'd think she was still seven years old." Mimi added.

Filia walked over to Martina, having known from the start that she would be the one to resolve this.  She knelt by Martina, pulling her into a hug.  Martina responded accordingly, sobbing on Filia's shoulder.  After a minute or so Filia asked softly, "What's wrong, Stepmother?"

"My life is ruined," Martina exclaimed dramatically.

Unfazed, Filia asked what she could do to help.

"Oh, will you help me?" the older woman asked, looking up at Filia adoringly.  "Darling girl!"

Filia bit back her impatience.  Sometimes she wondered if Martina threw these fits to manipulate her stepdaughter or if that was really just the way Martina was.  "What is it that I can do, Stepmother?"

"Oh, that horrid person!  It was the prince's messenger, I was watching his every move from this window, him and his covered carriage and that big hat – it's not raining that badly!"

"The prince's messenger?" Filia asked.  "How could the prince's messenger have hurt you?"  Surely even Martina wouldn't throw a fit because she didn't like the messenger's hat.

"He SKIPPED us!" Martina sobbed.  "I know what he's doing!  He's delivering invitations to the prince's ball, and he SKIPPED us!"

"Oh, that's right…" Filia said softly, forgetting Martina for a moment.  "The prince's birthday is tomorrow.  There's always a big ball to celebrate."  Filia lead a fairly secluded life, and the affairs of the social elite weren't her concern, but Martina was certainly interested in them.

"Exactly!  He's twenty-five and has come of age.  He could now legally take the throne in the event of his father dying."

From across the room came twin sighs.  "Like, who cares?" Nene voiced.

"Who CARES?!" Martina shrieked, jumping to her feet and glaring at her daughters.  "It just so happens that now the prince is of age he also has to get married!  He can't put it off any longer!"

"…So…?" Mimi asked.

Martina got a truly evil look in her eyes.  "So, my dear daughters, you are going to win the prince's dear little heart and make us all royalty."

The twin's reactions were both immediate and violent.  "YUCK!"  "NO WAY!"

Martina let out a maniacal little laugh as she suddenly loomed over her girls.  "Yes, you will."

"But, Stepmother, we didn't get an invitation to the ball.  They can't even meet the prince, much less marry him."

At this statement everyone stopped and stared at Filia, who was still kneeling under the window.

The girls' faces brightened, but the reminder didn't daunt Martina at all.  "Well, you did offer to help, didn't you?" she asked in a sickly sweet voice.

"Yes, but," Filia protested.

"So you're going to be a good little girl and go get us an invitation."

The blond-haired girl was truly taken aback.  "How am I supposed to do that?" she asked in confusion.

"I don't care if you have to steal one.  Just GET ONE," Martina commanded, glaring at Filia.

Filia looked from her stepmother to her stepsisters.  They were all glaring daggers at her.  She sighed and got up.  What to do?  But chances were that she would have to live with Martina longer than with Mimi and Nene.  "I guess I'll get my cloak, then."

"That's a good girl," Martina crooned as Filia exited into the hallway.

'How am I going do this,' Filia thought miserably as she pulled out her raincloak.

She didn't even have time to put it on before Mimi and Nene had her up against the wall.

"You're not really going to get her an invitation, are you?"

"No way you're going to take her side, Filia."

"Now listen here," Filia glowered at the two girls, going into one of her rare but explosive tempers.  "None of us like Martina's fits, but for the past ten years it's always been me who has had to stop her.  It's time for you two to take some responsibility.  I'm the one who has to somehow come up with the stupid invitation.  All you two have to do is go to a party." she finished indignantly.

"But she, like, wants us to marry the prince," Mimi protested.

"We don't want to do that," added Nene.

"I'm not asking you to marry him.  Even if he becomes interested in you, you can quietly let him know you're not interested when your mother isn't around to hear you.  Martina will be angry when he doesn't choose either of you, but at least she can't take it out on us directly," Filia said impatiently.

Neither girl looked quite convinced yet.  "She'll be watching us like a hawk."  "And she'll probably embarrass us in front of the whole kingdom."

Filia sighed.  As usual, she was going to have to give up even more.  "If you'll go to the ball I'll search for the map for you while you're gone."

"Really?"  "Well…"

"That's a whole night's search that you wouldn't be able to do normally.  I'll be able to search in some of the night shops you can't go in with your mother watching you."

The twins looked at each other.  "That's true…"  They turned back toward Filia.  "We'll do it!"

Filia thanked them and promised to do her best, but once she was outside she became melancholy.  A whole night spent searching the more dangerous part of town.  Instinctively she felt for the mace she kept strapped to her thigh.

Filia could handle herself against any goons that might attack her, so she wasn't worried about that.  After all, Martina had insisted that all three girls learn self-defense at an early age, and all three girls had excelled with their chosen weapons.  Despite Filia's confidence in the self-defense area, however, she had NO idea how to wrangle an invitation to a ball.

And besides, this wasn't just any ball.  This was the prince's twenty-fifth birthday ball.  At this Filia's thoughts turned to the prince himself.  The king's only child, Prince Valgaav, could have gotten married at anytime since he was Filia's age, but in seven years he had never found himself a wife.  Of course, this wasn't surprising, since the prince seemed to be rather unsocial, preferring to devote his time to rebuilding the military, a branch of the government he had been in charge of for many years.  In addition to being an excellent leader, Valgaav was reputed to be a powerful fighter. 

This subject was the topic of many conversations recently, what with the heir's birthday coming up.  Everyone was curious to see whom he would end up marrying.  Filia had heard, among other things, many guesses as to the reasoning behind Valgaav's supposed determination to remain single.  There were rumors of a secret love, that sort of rubbish.

Filia was not the type of person to appreciate such foolish theories.  She had a feeling that Prince Valgaav's lack of interest in the social area was not caused by any sort of disgraceful actions His Highness might have made.  Rather, it was probably due to his duty and dedication to the country's safety.

When Filia was still just a small child, back before her parents died, their country of Ephinon had come under attack from a neighboring nation, Forshé.  War was never formally declared, as the outright hostilities ceased after only a few battles, but Filia remembered hearing that right before the Forshé army was driven back out, the palace had been invaded and the young prince had nearly been killed.  After the destruction caused by just those few battles, the King had dismantled the army, rejecting wars as the cause of suffering and declaring that having a large military power would only encourage nervousness in neighboring countries and create more conflicts.

However, the reasons for the battles were not completely clear.  What if Forshé attacked again?  Filia understood that war was still a possibility even after so many years, and was sure that Prince Valgaav wanted to be prepared should it come.

So, as Filia mused, it seemed fairly natural that bringing the military up to scratch had come first.

The wall surrounding the palace finally came into view a few miles in front of her, misty and indistinct in the rain and slight fog.  Filia's reluctant steps kept plodding on.  What was left of the light seemed to disappear in the last mile or so of the walk.  The rain began to pelt the young woman's back and head with more force.  She reached up and pulled her hood farther down.  'It's really starting to come down.  I wonder how long this will take?  I'm wearing a cloak, but I'll probably be soaked through before I get back home.' 

Despite her ominous prediction, Filia was still dry when she arrived at the palace walls.  Approaching the guardhouse at the entrance gates, Filia straightened up to give herself more of a presence.

One lone eye peered out from the gatehouse. "What do you need?"  The voice of the gateman was deep and gruff.  Despite the glow of two candles from within the sheltered cubicle, Filia couldn't quite make out the man's features.  All that was visible was a large form and the occasional glint of a glass eye.

"I would like to speak with the person in charge of the invitations for tomorrow's ball, please."  Filia softly bit her lip, wondering why she couldn't think of a better plan than this.  Stealing an invitation was out of the question, but begging for one was almost as bad.  But what else could she do?

"Why's that?" the gruff man asked.  His voice was neutral without effort, and without being able to see his features Filia had no idea how well this interview was going.

"I would like to speak with him about a mistake."

"What kind of mistake?" the tone was still neutral.

"That's of a sensitive nature, I'm afraid," Filia informed him, desperately wishing she could think of something a bit more convincing.  But what else could she say?  'My stepmother will annoy me if she doesn't get to go to the ball'?  Somehow, she didn't think that would get her very far.

"Whad'ya mean, 'sensitive nature'?  It's an invitation, on a little piece of paper!  What the heck's 'sensitive' about it?"

She definitely should have come up with something more convincing.  Filia sighed.  "Does it really matter to you?"

The gateman snorted.  "Well, yeah, since I'm the one who's gotta decide to let you in or not."

Filia bit back her frustration.  "Look, I just want to talk to the person in charge.  Is that so difficult?"

"If the spelling's wrong, or some other small mistake, we do apologize but the paper itself won't make a difference in the long run."  The voice managed to return to being dispassionate and still give the impression that Filia's time was up.

Desperation was threatening to rise up and seize her.  "No, that's not the problem at all.  You see, I need –"

"What seems to be the problem?" the voice was cruel – hard and unforgiving.  It came out of nowhere, making both Filia and the gateman jump and look around frantically.

There was a form standing just beyond the gates, seemingly unaffected by the pelting rain.  Despite the darkness caused by the cloudy skies and gatehouse shadow, Filia could feel his piercing gaze penetrate her.  Every bone in her body warned her that this was not a man to cross.

The gateman jerked his thumb at her.  "I think she's trying to get an invitation to the ball," he stated matter-of-factly.

Filia could feel her fingernails dig into the palms of her hands.  Was she that transparent?  Had the gateman just been mocking her the whole time?  But even as she thought this, she was trying to keep an embarrassed flush from her cheeks.  She didn't know whether or not the two men could see her face, but Filia knew that any weakness now would have their laughter following her down the streets as she beat a hasty retreat. 'Honestly, the things I go through for those irresponsible people!'

The tall man laughed softly, so softly that the sound was nearly lost in the patter of the rain.  "Oh, is that so?"  His cold voice was now tinged with amusement.

"Yes, I suppose so," Filia replied.  Who was this man?

A flash of lightning split the sky, giving Filia a brief glimpse of the man confronting her.  In that brief glimpse she made out a tall form with hair that seemed to stick straight up.  Filia blinked, trying to study the glimpse she had caught.  But in her mind's eye all she could see was the outline, silhouetted against the bright flash of light.

The man was speaking.  "You're wasting my time.  Go home, little girl."

Filia's temper flared up for the second time that day.  She was wet, she was cold, she was frustrated, she was already embarrassed, and this man had the gall to insult her to her face.

"What's it to you?" the young woman retorted.  She could feel that her face was hot enough to cook on, but she wasn't going to back down.  After all, she had come here for a reason, and she wasn't going to turn tail and run until she absolutely had to.

"I told you what it is to me.  For the last time, go away."  The man's voice, so cruel to begin with, now reached a level of iciness that sent shivers down Filia's spine.  Her hand inched towards her mace again as her self-preservation instincts warned her that she was treading on dangerous ground.

"I could say the same thing," Filia answered.

"Ma'am, –" the gateman started.

Filia didn't give him a chance to finish.  She didn't know what had gotten into her, but all of a sudden she wanted to give this man a piece of her mind.  So she ignored the little voice in the back of her mind that was telling her to shut up.  "You are wasting my time.  I have other things to do today.  You have no reason to stand in my way.  And who gave you the right to insult me, anyway?"  Filia paused to take a shaky breath, the little voice shrieking so loudly it was difficult to ignore any longer.  Logically, Filia wondered if it would be best to stop now.  She could practically feel the waves of anger rolling off the man standing a few yards way.

Suddenly there was movement brushing against Filia.  Her nerves, already tight with tension and fear, snapped.  She yanked out her mace, spinning it around at whatever it was that had so startled her.  She felt her weapon make contact.  For a brief instant, the unfortunate target provided some resistance against her swing, but in another second her hand swung freely again as the person went flying through the air for hundreds of feet.

"Holy smokes…" the gateman muttered in the background.

Filia just stood there panting.  All of her anger, frustration, and energy had gone into that swing.  Unfortunately, her embarrassment had not gone into it.  Not only was this whole predicament completely degrading, but now she had lost her temper and badly hurt someone – she hadn't seen who it was – who was probably just some poor innocent passerby.  In addition to that, her cloak was now twisted around her and her hood had come off completely.  It was really coming down now, with plenty of thunder and lightning, so she was quickly becoming soaked.

The man behind the gates started laughing again.  And it wasn't a low chuckle like before, either.  He was laughing out loud.  That sound nearly shattered her completely.  The irritating, infuriating, humiliating sound of the cruel man behind the gate laughing at her.  The small voice inside Filia told her that although the best time to leave had already passed, this was a pretty good time to leave too.

Before Filia could burst into tears and run off, the laughter died down.  "Gravos, see that this woman gets her invitation."

"Uh, yes, m'lord…" the stunned gateman answered.

What?  Filia blinked, and turned back to the gate.  He was giving her an invitation?  The dark form she had come to associate with everything uncivilized in a short space of time was already disappearing into the misty rain.  As Filia stared after the retreating man, another flash of lightning, longer this time, allowed her the sight of a short dark cape and casual white pants.

As she began to calm down, Filia suddenly realized that the man's laughter had been different the second time.  It wasn't the sound of a man who was being cruel; it was the sound of a man who was genuinely amused by something.  This realization brought with it a modest stream of relief which comforted her pride a little.

"If you'll give me your name, I'll have the invitation made and delivered when Jillas gets back," the gateman stated, jerking his thumb in the general direction of the person Filia had just sent flying.

"Y-You mean that was… someone who works here?"  The small amount of elation that came from her success dwindled away.  Could this get any worse?

"Well, yeah.  He's the prince's personal messenger," the gruff voice answered, the single glass winking in the partial light, as though it was peering out at her.

"I-I didn't see him," she said miserably.  "I thought –" then realizing that she was about the start rambling, she quickly said, "Please deliver the invitation to the Ul Copt manor," and hurried away, hoping to preserve at least a little dignity.

'Oh, what an idiot I am," Filia groaned to herself as she trudged down the street.  I can't believe I just did that – any of it.'  So upset was the young woman that she never even gave another thought to the cold man from the gate, not even to wonder again who he was.

The trip back home was a sad affair.  Trudging through the empty streets and being rained on while trying to forget that she had just made a fool of herself in front of complete strangers was not an uplifting experience.  Briefly Filia thought of pulling her hood back over her head, but discarded the idea as useless.  Not only was she already soaking wet, but the hood was probably filled with water.  She would wait until she could take off the cloak at home.

Filia bit her lip at the thought.  Home.  How much it had changed over the years.  Filia could still remember the days when her parents were both still alive.  It was the happiest time in Filia's life.  Her parents were prominent citizens and, as far as Filia was concerned, model parents.  Filia could remember happy times eating dinner at the table, playing games at the park, or just sitting around the fireplace together before bedtime.

The Ul Copts were expecting a new addition to the family any day and Filia was looking forward to her new brother or sister as much as her parents were.  Unfortunately, neither the mother nor the newborn infant survived the ordeal of childbirth.

It was so devastating to lose her mother and sister at the same time.  Filia hadn't even had the chance to tell them goodbye.  For that matter, she hadn't even been able to say hello to the new baby.  The loss had shaken Filia and her father to their very cores.

Filia bit her lip harder, keeping her gaze fixed on the street below.  She knew she was going to cry.  But even as the first tear fell she couldn't help finishing the story she was remembering.

Her father had remarried a little over two years later.  Filia was still too young to understand why, but her father had sat her down and explained that they were going to build a new family.  She would have a second mother, and two more sisters.  He was careful not to sound like Martina and the twins would replace Filia's real mother and sister, and Filia was brought round.  She admired Father, and surely he knew best.

But why he had ever married Martina of all people, Filia could not fathom.  At first Martina and the twins had been a novelty, and by the time Filia began to wonder "Why Martina?" she could no longer ask.  Her father had followed his late wife a few months after marrying Martina.  Now that she was older, Filia wondered if her father had known he would die soon and simply didn't want Filia to be alone.  Martina may not be reliable or even reasonable, but she had never even considered leaving Filia, loving the sound of "Stepmother" and the presence of someone who was both caring and responsible.  Filia and the twins had gotten along well from the beginning, and the four women had stayed together, although their current comfortable level of living came mostly from Filia's efforts.

Filia looked up through the mist and tears to see that she stood in front of her house.  The young woman kept it as bright and beautiful as it always had been, and sometimes the other inhabitants almost seemed like family, but…

Her step was slow as she walked down the drive, up the stairs, and into the house.

Martina met her at the door.  The blond woman guessed that Martina had kept up her lookout at the window the whole time.  Filia sighed as she hung her cloak up to dry, too tired to pay attention to what her stepmother was saying.  "The invitation's on its way," was all the blond said before she climbed the stairs up to her room and shut the door on the world.  All she wanted now was to go to bed and sleep out her mixed-up emotions.

Filia didn't wake up until early the next morning.  She blinked up at the newly-risen sun, then groaned as she remembered why she went to bed before dinner last night.  Thinking of her adventures the day before reminded Filia what she had dreamed about.  It had something to do with the prince…  She had been at the ball, dancing with the prince, and the man with the hard voice who gave her the invitation came up to her to ask her to dance.  She then sent him flying with her mace.

The young woman sighed.  What a useless dream.  Filia rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, but soon her stomach reminded her that it had had no nourishment since lunch the previous day.  It looked like she would have to get up sooner rather than later.

Reluctant to face the day, Filia dragged herself out of bed and over to her closet to put on a robe over her lavender nightdress.  As she passed the window she looked out to study the weather.  It was a perfect day, as though the horrible storm the day before had never happened.  Filia sighed, wishing she could forget her mortification so easily.

The thought struck her as she moved down the stairs that it didn't really matter.  She would never see any of those people again.  She wouldn't ever have any more business at the castle; she wasn't even going to the ball.  The thought should have been comforting, but it wasn't.  Filia still felt like a fool.

The young woman got to work making breakfast right away.  She forced herself to sing out loud, hoping to raise her spirits.  As the sun continued its morning journey across the sky the world became a brighter and more beautiful place.  Filia, being the only responsible one in the house, was in charge of the housework.  As she worked to dust and polish and organize Filia's bad mood finally began to dissipate.  In fact, it evaporated altogether long before lunch.

Soon the house was back to sparkling and Filia was back to humming.  She once again felt ready to face anything.

Filia soon found out that the invitation had not arrived the previous night.  Martina kept up her vigil at the window all day, awaiting the glorious moment when she held the much-coveted invitation in her hand.  Filia found herself wishing that she wasn't the only one who ever answered the front door.  Leaving Martina to her new occupation, Filia went to start planning the night's strategy with her stepsisters.

"How about, like, that underground place we've heard about?"  The twins were certainly much easier to work with since Filia's promise to look for the map for them so the blond woman didn't complain about the task she was being given.  Secretly, however, she hoped that the girls wouldn't expect more bargains like this in the future.

Martina called for Filia a couple hours before noon, screaming, "HE'S HERE!  HE'S FINALLY HERE!  FILIA!  FILIA, ANSWER THE DOOR!  THE INVITATION'S HERE!"

Filia, Mimi, and Nene were currently poring over a directory in the other room, writing down a list of the places Filia should try first.  All three girls groaned simultaneously, if for different reasons.

"That's wonderful, Stepmother!" Filia answered, vaguely feeling some resentment.  But she obediently went to open the door.

"Honestly, I don't know why she's so hung up on this stupid idea…" the feminine voice followed her down the hall.

Filia silently agreed with her stepsister.  It wasn't as though Martina's plan could ever work.  Sure, the twins were both very pretty girls, but they weren't part of high society.  Filia's parents had been held in high regard once, but that esteem had not rubbed off on the rest of the family.  There was no reason for Prince Valgaav to marry either girl.  Even Filia had never made an entrance into society.

Filia could feel butterflies in her stomach as she opened the door.  The gateman said that he would send the Prince's personal messenger with the invitation – the man she had sent flying.  Jillas, his name was.  She hoped Mr. Jillas wouldn't be too angry.

When the door was opened it revealed a short man wearing a brown cloak over his shoulders and an eye patch under a big floppy hat.  No wonder it had been so easy to send him flying – the messenger was so small he could easily have been mistaken for a twelve-year-old.

"I remember you from last night!" he exclaimed before Filia could say anything.  He spoke in a heavy accent, but his voice was friendly and his face bore no malice.  "You've got some arm, Miss."

"Yes, I'm sorry about that," Filia said, growing red.  "You startled me, I'm afraid.  Are you all right?"

"Don't you worry about that none, and I'll make sure to let you know I'm there before trying to slip past you next time!"  And the cheerful little man smiled as he handed her the invitation.

"Thank you!" Filia called as he headed back the way he had come, waving as he left.

'He was nice,' Filia thought happily.  Well, she didn't have to worry about that, then.  She sighed and turned around, almost running smack dab into Martina in the process.  The older woman pounced on the envelope, opening it with obvious delight.

Filia left her stepmother to her scheming and returned to the twins.

"She's crazy," Mimi declared as Filia took her seat across from the sisters.

"It's, like, hard to believe we could be related to her," Nene put in.

"I know," Filia sighed.  "But anyway, are you sure I should bother with Yolander's Unusual Supply?  They sound more like a hoax store to me –"

"ALL RIGHT, EVERYONE UP!" Martina was suddenly right behind Filia's chair, looking very scary indeed.

The twins jumped up out of their chairs looking guilty as they stowed the map behind their backs, while Filia merely fell over out of her seat in surprise.  The same thought was on each girl's mind: had Martina caught onto them?

"We're going shopping," Martina announced.  The younger women all looked at each other in confusion.  If Martina knew what they were doing, she had a funny way of showing it.

"W-What are we shopping for?" Filia ventured.

"The ball, of course!"  Martina waved the invitation in front of her stepdaughter's face.  "The girls and I have to be at our best, right?"

"Oh - okay…" Filia murmured.

"Sure," Mimi and Nene answered, enthusiastic at the chance to do more searching.

They would have been disappointed if it had been just them and their mother.  But Filia went along to help the three, and she was able to distract Martina while the twins left so they could get their dress shopping over with quickly and search for the map.  They both had to promise their mother that they wouldn't disappoint her, but she let them go in the end.

Filia accompanied Martina into store after store, half listening to her stepmother's blissful chatter.  As always, Filia was surprised she didn't have to keep a handle on Martina's spendings, but despite impressions to the contrary Martina knew better than to be frivolous.  However, Filia did have to convince Martina that the strapless blue gown wasn't appropriate for a widow Martina's age.  Martina didn't have the best fashion sense, preferring some clothes that were simply awful.  Filia helped her select a white gown that was not only proper but tasteful, too.

After the dress was purchased Martina decided that the budget could survive the purchase of a few accessories.  So the two again went into store after store, this time looking for odds and ends that would complete the picture.

Filia was idly inspecting a silver necklace in a jewelry store when she caught something her stepmother said.

"This really is a golden opportunity, you know.  Maybe both girls will find a husband.  After all –"

The younger woman smiled a little.  No doubt Martina wanted to see both her girls in the care of good men who could provide for them.  But Filia wasn't sure the seventeen-year-old twins were ready to make that kind of commitment.  "I don't know, Stepmother.  Men seem to be nervous about courting either girl when they're so close, not to mention how much alike they are."

"Nonsense," Martina said, waving off the warning.  "There won't be any problems if they're both engaged at the same time."

Filia shook her head.  There was no way she was going to deter Martina.  The girls would just have to deal with their mother's latest scheme on their own.

"How's this?" Martina held up a pearl necklace for Filia's inspection.  It was a delicate silver setting with seven blue-tinted pearls in a triangle-type shape.  Filia smiled and agreed with her stepmother's choice.

After several hours of shopping the sort-of family met for lunch.  Filia could tell without asking that the map remained out of the twins' possession, despite all the time they had been able to spend on the hunt.  (The girls had good taste in clothes and could shop much faster than their mother.)

The women had a very good lunchtime, which was quite a treat from the normal routine.  Martina, who was obviously having the time of her life, was not easily bothered and lunch passed without any trouble until Martina suddenly announced that she and the girls had to go home so they could have enough time to prepare.  Mimi and Nene were about to protest that it was only 2 o'clock, but Filia caught their gaze and shook her head.  It wouldn't hurt them to go home now.

Filia had a headache by the time she saw the other women out the door a little after six in the evening.  She threw the bolt on the door and trudged back into the kitchen.  Honestly, putting on a dress and doing your hair shouldn't be that exhausting for the people around you.

The young woman got herself a cup of tea and relaxed at the kitchen table.  She sipped the warm liquid for a while before glancing at the cupboards.  She was hungry, but didn't have enough energy to make anything.  In the end she pulled a hunk of bread out of the drawer and curled up on the sofa in the sitting room with it.  Counting on the large grandfather clock to wake her up at seven, Filia let herself fall asleep after finishing the bread.

The bonging of seven o'clock did not wake the young woman, but the single chime of seven-thirty did.  Filia yawned and tried to roll over, nearly falling off the couch in the process.  Fortunately, she managed to stay where she was.  Shaking her head, the blond woman sat up and took stock.  It was half an hour later than she had counted on, but she had all night, so that wasn't really a problem.  Second of all, and more importantly, Filia now had the energy to make something for dinner.

She entered the kitchen, briefly wondering what Martina and the girls would be eating for dinner at the birthday celebration.  That thought faded fairly quickly as Filia put together a sandwich and a light salad.  Pulling out her list of places to visit, Filia lit a candle to supplement the fading light so she could review the plan as she ate her belated dinner.  As she finished the last bite of sandwich she sighed involuntarily.  She would much rather stay at home and relax, but she had already promised Mimi and Nene.

'That's life, I suppose,' Filia thought as she cleared away her dishes.  Then, seeing no reason for further delay the girl strapped on her mace, pulled on her cloak, and locked the door behind her.

The first stop was at a dismal little lean-to in the slums on the city outskirts.  It was badly lit, smelled bad, and housed several drunkards as well as a form in the corner that seemed to have passed out, from alcohol or drugs Filia couldn't tell.  She kept her hood low over her face to hide her features as she glanced over the wares on the table.  Nothing there even resembled what she was looking for.  Reminding herself not to look like she was in a hurry to leave, Filia managed to slip out the door without a fuss.

Filia briskly turned her pace east.  Hoping she was not being followed, the young woman kept her eyes and ears open for any sign of pursuers.  As ready as she was for any fight that could occur, she felt no need to go looking for trouble.  So she tuned her senses in for any sound that could be made by drunkards or cutthroats.

Fortunately, the night air was clear and silent, devoid of fog, rain, or other people.  So silent and dark was it that Filia soon came under the illusion of being completely alone in the world.  Her steps slowed to a halt, and her gaze focused upward on the pinpoints of light so far away.  It was at times like this that life still seemed wonderful, filled with possibilities.  A quiet, hopeful feeling crept into her.  This night felt magical.

After several minutes had passed Filia shook herself out of her reverie.  What on earth was she thinking, to space out like that in a place like this?  Well, at least she knew no one was following her.  If anyone had been following her, he would have attacked her while she was distracted.

The young woman moved on, quietly crossing street after street, avoiding notice where she could and beating hasty retreats when she caught someone's attention.  In this manner she searched a rowdy tavern, a hectic bar, several dark alleys, a narrow rooftop ("What a place to run a business, even a shady one!' she thought) and a damp sewer.  They were all unfruitful.

By the time Filia was hoisting herself out of the sewer entrance back onto the lonely street she had begun to seriously doubt in the existence of the map which, for all intents and purposes, seemed to have waltzed off the face of the planet.  She was amazed that the twins had enough persistence to still be searching for it.  'They must really be serious about this career,' Filia mused as she leaned over to brush off her skirts, an effort that was doomed from the start.  'I guess that's a good sign.  I'd hate it if they go the whole way towards –" her thoughts were suddenly cut off as an arm grabbed her around the throat from behind.

Gasping for breath, a sudden bout of panic flared in Filia's mind and she struggled ineffectively for a few seconds like, well, like a girl is expected to struggle.  But after that brief moment of panic, her training came back to her.  Lacking the room to use her mace effectively, Filia did not immediately reach for it.  Instead, her first act was to stomp on his foot for all she was worth.  The grip on her throat lessened slightly, but showed no signs of releasing.  So the young woman made a blind reach over her shoulder for his face.  Her fingernails missed the attacker's eyes, but by luck they brushed his nose.  So, despite the discomfort to her shoulder, Filia pinched his nose and held on tight.

Obviously, this was one of the few moves that would have come as unexpected.  The man pulled back, still trying to keep his hold on his victim.  Filia's grip broke quickly, but now she had some room to maneuver.  Wincing inwardly at a shoulder that had been pulled a bit too far, Filia squirmed sideways and down, ducking under the grasping arm just in time.

The assailant made to charge after his quarry.  But Filia, instead of trying to run, turned around to meet him head on.  Her mace was out in a flash, and she swung it right into the face of her advancing foe.  The two objects collided with a sickening fwack, and the man fell back, already twisting and screaming.

Filia stood still, letting the adrenaline drain out of her system.  Then she lowered her mace and stepped over to her assailant, peering at him through the dim light.  He was moaning in pain, holding his face with both hands.  "Serves you right!" Filia told him indignantly, a certain self-righteous tone coming into her voice.  Whether or not the man heard her was debatable.  His nose had been broken and was bleeding, and it looked like his jaw had suffered some damage, but overall he had gotten off pretty lightly.  He would live.

Filia moved her arm around a bit.  The shoulder that had been twisted when she grabbed her assailant's nose was a little sore, but it would be fine.  The young woman put her mace away, thinking that that had turned out rather well.  A sore shoulder she could deal with.  She put her mace away and straightened her cloak, rolling her shoulders a bit to prevent stiffness later.

Not sparing any more of her time on the injured man, Filia turned right around and continued on her way.  It would be difficult getting a policeman into this area to arrest him, so short of killing him there wasn't a whole lot else Filia could do.  It had been too dark for him to see her features in their brief struggle, and he hadn't been in any condition to make note of her identity afterwards, so the young woman wasn't too worried about the man coming after her for revenge.  She put the whole incident out of her mind completely.

Pacing down the street once more, Filia went over her mental checklist.  She realized that she only had three more places to visit.  She was traveling in a circle, and could exit the slums near the street she had first entered them and go straight home.  Briefly she wondered what time it was.  It seemed as though, at her fast pace, she might have been gone three hours or so.  It couldn't be long until midnight.

Filia located the "antique" store called Mere Trifles, double checking to make sure that her hood covered her face and her dress was completely hidden behind the folds of her dark cloak, before entering the building.  Despite the late hour, the young blond woman was hardly the only customer.  Several others were completely covered in long cloaks and hoods as well.  Others were dressed in leather and carrying rusty weapons.  This lot actually looked more mysterious than dangerous.

Still wary, Filia slowly moved around the perimeter of the roughly square-shaped building.  There was a creak from the ceiling, and for an instant, Filia wondered if the upper floor was part of the store.  A quick glance over at the back corner showed that the staircase was blocked off.  Filia went back to searching the shelves.

Near the back she located a bin stuffed full of papers and books.  Trying to glance around to see if anyone was watching her without making it look like she cared, Filia reached the bin and started rifling through them in an off-handed way.  There were all sorts of items in the bin.  A ship's log, an astronomy book, some geography notes.  The ship's log slipped out of her grip and fell to the floor with a soft crash.  Filia jumped, looking down to find that several of the loose pages had come out of the binding.  The young woman looked up again to see the proprietor watching her.  The look on his face was easy enough to understand – you break it you buy it.  Filia leaned down to pick it up, pushing the pages back into place.

Trying to do a better job of balancing the objects in her hand – and wishing for a counter or at least some free space on the floor so she could organize all the objects, Filia went back to sorting through the items in the barrel.  Most of them were garbage, but Filia kept going, knowing that most people's definition of treasure wasn't 'relics for singers.'  The young woman pulled out a large map.  Her hopes rose a bit, but it quickly proved to be hiking routes through the nearby Hochale Mountains.  Filia sighed, disappointed once again.

She placed the map on the top of the ever-growing pile in her left hand.  'Is there an end to this barrel?' she thought, peering back into it.  Looking for something likely, Filia pulled a small scroll out of the way to see what was under it.  More books.  Filia looked at her pile to see where she could stick the scroll.  There was no where to put it.  In fact, Filia must look pretty silly already, trying to balance a whole barrel of miscellaneous items in one arm.  She looked at the scroll and frowned at it, as though it should tell her where it would fit.

It actually told her something completely different.  Filia's frown deepened.  Did it say what she thought it said?  Maneuvering it into a position against her leg where she could open it with one hand, Filia managed to check the contents.  This was it.  This was it.  This was the map!  (AN: I know the map wasn't a scroll, but humor me, okay?)  Filia nearly laughed out loud.  She had found it!  She really had!  With a huge smile on her face, the young woman made to dump the pile back into the barrel when she realized two things.

One was that she had to go back through and find the ship's log that she had dropped.  Said book was near the bottom of the pile.  The second thing she realized was a bit easier to manage.  What she had seen of the map-scroll showed part of the Hochale Mountains.  Of all the luck!  She used two fingers to pick up the Hochale mountains map again, figuring that the twins would find it pretty useful.

However, with two things now in her right hand, picking out the book from the pile in her left hand was going to be even more difficult.  Filia sighed and started trying to pull/prod the desired log out of the pile.  After a few narrow saves of various materials, Filia finally dumped the whole pile back in the bin and sorted through it all again.

Eventually she emerged triumphantly holding the log.  She made her way to the proprietor to pay for all three things.  The price was, of course, high, and Filia attempted some haggling.  Unfortunately haggling wasn't really her forte, and she paid nearly the full price.  Her money purse was nearly empty as she carefully rolled the Hochale mountain map inside the scroll and secreted everything away into her cloak.  It was worth it.

As she walked outside into the cool night air, she still had that smile on her face.  The feeling of success was wonderful.  And the twins would be so excited!  They could finally follow their dreams now!  Filia dashed off down the street, determined to get home and show Mimi and Nene the map.

Her steps suddenly froze as she remembered that the twins were stuck at the Prince's birthday ball.  Who knew when that would get out?  Filia slowly started trudging back home again.  She would just have to show them tomorrow.  And she had been so excited to show them, too!

'Well, it's a good thing I got that invitation after all,' Filia thought, trying to cheer herself up again.  'Otherwise I wouldn't have come tonight at all.'  And suddenly a flash of inspiration hit her.

The only name that had been given for the invitation was 'Ul Copt".  Filia was an Ul Copt, more than the others.  Why shouldn't she go to the ball and tell the twins?  The three of them might be able to slip away from the celebrations on their own.  It wasn't as if the twins would really be enjoying such a formal function, after all.  They would probably spend all night trying not to get their hopes up while avoiding Martina's matchmaking efforts.

Filia made up her mind.  She would try to go to the ball.  The palace was actually farther away from the slums she was exiting than it was from the Ul Copt Manor, but the distance seemed to fly underneath the young woman.  What a difference it makes to perspective when one actually wants to go somewhere!

On the way it occurred to Filia to wonder how she would prove she had been invited to the ball.  Martina had taken the invitation with her, of course, as it was the admittance pass.  The young woman wondered if perhaps it would be the same gateman.  But the palace staff must be huge.  What if she wasn't that lucky?  She tried to think of some way to get around the difficulty of not having an invitation.

Suddenly she chuckled.  She had to stop, lest the laughing use up too much air.  What irony!  She had gone through so much trouble to get that invitation yesterday, and she still couldn't get in to the ball.  'How much longer until my luck runs out?' Filia wondered, patting the cloak pocket that held the maps as she started walking again.

Soon this time the palace gates were looming ahead of her again.  The young woman looked up at the palace grounds, which tonight were well-lit for the festivities.  Filia pushed her hood back a bit to look at the scene in front of her.  'They are very beautiful,' she thought distantly.  'But I wonder if it's worth trying to get in.  After all, it's not like waiting until tomorrow will kill any of us…  And come to think of it, it might be better to wait,' she concluded, thinking of the complications of having Martina in public could create.

But it was too late.  Someone called out to her from the gatehouse.  "Miss Ul Copt, wasn't it?" the familiar gruff voice asked as the glass eye glittered out at her.

Filia started and turned.  It was the same guardsman.  Well, she hadn't needed to worry about that after all.  "Yes, that's me.  I hope my coming late isn't a problem?"  As long as she was here and could get in, she might as well go ahead and talk to the girls.

"No…  That's fine…"  Despite the assurance the man still seemed a little hesitant.  Filia couldn't really blame the man.  The ball must be at least halfway over, if not almost through.  "But…" the guardsman trailed off.

"What's the matter?" Filia asked, a sinking feeling making itself present.

"Your dress…  Well," the gateman paused to scratch his head.  "It's not technically a problem, but everyone else will be dressed up."

Filia glanced down at her dress, which hadn't been properly hidden again after Filia put her things inside her cloak.  This wasn't really proper to wear to a royal function, true, but she didn't have time to run home and change, and if he said it wasn't technically a problem…  Filia didn't like abandoning plans right in the middle.  "Don't worry," Filia told the man.  "I don't mind."

The man studied her a minute, then shrugged and waved her inside.  Filia smiled and thanked the big guardsman before hurrying in.  This would be quick, she told herself.  In and out.

Once she had discarded her cloak in the coatroom and had stepped inside the ballroom, however, Filia couldn't help feeling a little foolish despite her assurances to Mr. Gravos.  She was, as had been expected, the only one not dressed up and so she stuck out pretty far.  Doing her best to ignore a few unfriendly looks Filia looked around for Mimi and Nene.  Unfortunately, Filia had never before set foot into a ballroom of this size and had underestimated the effort this task would take.  She couldn't even see very far because of the sheer mass of people.  The young woman breathed deeply, then began walking.  The twins weren't opposed to parties, but this really wasn't their type of event so Filia figured they wouldn't exactly be in the center of attention.  She plotted a course around the perimeter, keeping her eyes open.

Then she spotted them.  The twins, clad in identical dresses of blue and pink, were standing around looking bored, while Martina was a few feet away talking animatedly to a man her own age, who had curly dark hair and wore a sword at his side.  Martina looked pretty engrossed in her conversation, so it shouldn't be hard for Filia to get the twins aside for a private conversation.

Suddenly Filia was being pulled onto the dance floor.  "Wha-a…" she said, glancing up at the man who was currently leading her into the middle of the ballroom.  He wasn't facing her, and she could only see that he was tall and had shoulder-length green hair.  She didn't know anyone like that.  Filia began spluttering a protest, confused by the sudden change in direction.

"You're not going to make a fuss about getting here and then deny me a dance, are you, Little Lady?" the man asked, stopping his onward movement to turn to Filia and take her right hand in his left and place his other hand on her waist.

Filia was mortified.  In front of her – no, holding her – was the Crown Prince Valgaav himself.  Not only that, but he seemed to have heard about the incident at the gates yesterday.  The young woman fumbled for words, knowing she was going red again – again – but unable to say anything.  Numbly, she put her free hand on his shoulder and followed him into the waltz.  Unable to meet his gaze, the blond woman watched the view over his right shoulder.

How, oh how did she get into these situations?!

"When I heard your name I began wondering why you weren't invited in the first place," the prince was saying in a conversational tone.  "I think it must have been because of your stepfamily."

Was that supposed to comfort her or something?!  Filia looked him in the eye.  "I'll have you know that I got the invitation for my stepmother and sisters," she told him tartly.

"Oh, really?  Why do you say that?" he asked, sounding amused.

"They were the ones who wanted to come.  I wasn't even planning on coming."  She was once more using a tone of voice that could easily be described as self-righteous.  Possibly not the best way to address the Crown Prince, but she didn't see any reason for him to care about her stepfamily.

"Then why were you the one who came to ask for an invitation?"  The question was purely logical, but Filia looked away again.

"I don't know," she answered.

They danced for another minute or so in silence.

"I only meant that your stepmother has a slightly bad name around here.  Your parents were a different matter," Prince Valgaav said flatly.

Filia frowned.  "What is that supposed to mean?" she asked, not sure if she should feel insulted or not.

At first it seemed that the prince wasn't going to answer.  But the confusion on the woman's face must have convinced him to answer.  "Your parents were well-known and, as far as I know, accepted everywhere.  Unfortunately, many people disapproved of your father's second wife.  I've never met the woman myself, but people disliked her.  I suppose you could say that she was the reason for the Ul Copt's fall from grace."

The irony in his hard tone went unnoticed as Filia digested this information.  It was hard to swallow, but… it made sense.  Martina was a difficult person to get used to.  Most people would have expected Filia's father to marry someone like his first wife, and comparing Martina to Filia's mother was a disturbing experience.  Still…  "How do you know all this?"

"I knew your father.  I remember him."

"Oh!"  Filia eyes shot up to those of her dance partner.  "You knew him?"

The prince no longer seemed interested in the conversation.  "Not very well.  I was a teenager at the time, already interested in the military.  Lord Ul Copt was very much involved in public affairs.  His last project was completed just after his passing, I believe.  A center for orphaned children."

"Yes, that's right.  I believe the project was inspired by my mother's death.  It was dedicated to him at its completion."  Filia found she could speak quite easily on this subject, even to the prince – after all, she still looked up to and loved her parents more than anything, and talking about their accomplishments was never a problem for her as it allowed her to focus on their lives rather than their deaths.

Prince Valgaav's interest seemed to revive a bit as Filia talked about the project.  The couple spent several minutes more speaking of Filia's father.  Then Filia remembered something.  "Father once told me that he was very impressed with you."

"Impressed with me?"

"Yes," Filia answered.  "He said that despite how young you were he felt confident with you leading Ephinon."

"You're making this up," the prince accused, a hint of anger coming into his tone.

"I would never!" the woman answered in scandalized tones.  The music stopped, and the two broke apart, facing each other.  Filia didn't know the reason for the prince's sudden mood swing, but she had no intention of just letting him say these types of things to her.

"Few people would say they were 'impressed' and 'confident' where I'm concerned."  Although the prince sounded angry, Filia thought she could detect a bit of hurt behind the words.

What was with this guy?  "Why not?  You spend all your time caring for the safety of this country.  Everyone knows that."

"You should be a bit more careful when you use the word 'everyone'.  You obviously don't know what it means."

Filia's coloring was now due to anger rather than embarrassment.  "All right, that's completely possible.  I'm not you and I don't know how people treat you.  But you shouldn't take it out on me, just because some people are foolish enough to believe the worst about you!"  Those stupid rumors again.  Of all the nerve.

"You still don't understand," Valgaav hissed.

"Then what?  What is it?" Filia demanded.

The next song was starting.  He took her arm and pulled her off to the side of the dance floor.  Once they were a decent distance from everyone else Valgaav turned back to face her.  His voice was quiet to avoid notice, but full of suppressed hatred.  "Some years ago, we had several battles with our neighboring country of Forshé.  They say that war was never declared because the battles stopped.  The truth is that Forshé pummeled us.  They brought this nation to its knees, forced an agreement that gave them a high tribute each year, and went home within the week.  The agreement was kept quiet because everyone is frightened of Forshé.  So the high taxes were blamed on rebuilding costs.  Even today few people know where their high taxes are going.  My father won't fight the contract.  But I intend to make Forshé choke on its own treaty!"  Valgaav's fist clenched

Filia simply gaped.  What?  Ephinon was paying tribute to Forshé?  How could that be?  Filia knew she was out of touch with the rest of the world, but this was ridiculous.  Except… except that it almost made sense.  "But…" Filia searched for something to say, unsure what question to voice first.  "Wouldn't Forshé know what you're doing?"  Everyone knew Valgaav was building up the military.

"They know I want to fight them.  They just don't know how prepared I am," he answered, and now a bit of pride entered his voice.  "The army at my command is twice the size of Forshé's forces."

Twice the size of Forshé's forces?  When and where had that happened?  This man was full of surprises, each one harder to take than the last.

"I will take back what belongs to Ephinon," Valgaav finished, the gleam in his eye speaking of his resolve.

Filia thought this through.  Everyone knew that Valgaav was rebuilding the military.  And if everyone also knew he wanted to attack Forshé, but didn't know that Valgaav's forces could actually take the Forshé army on and win…"And everyone's scared you'll start a war we can't win.  In fact, most of the country thinks the war is unnecessary," Filia finished.

"Yes."  The one word carried a great deal of bitterness.

Filia looked up at the handsome, embittered young man.  She could see the power and passion, hurt and humiliation in his eyes.  Where did his duty to keep his country safe end and his own revenge on a hated enemy begin?  How much had he sacrificed to this cause?  To what lengths would he go?  Why did he carry this burden alone?  But even without answers she… she still…

"I hate them for that," Valgaav concluded, the finality in his voice obvious.

Filia blinked at that statement.  Hate?  Hate was a strong word.  Did he really feel that way?  He looked like he did.  His posture, his words, his tone, his face all spoke of that strong but destructive emotion.  She might have believed his words if she had not been studying his eyes.  The person who stated that the eyes are the windows into the soul must have been a wise person, for Filia saw the truth there.

"If you hate them so much, Valgaav, then why do I see such sadness in your eyes?"

It was the man's turn to be surprised.  He drew back, looking at Filia sharply.  "What did you say?!"

"Valgaav, I believe in you."

Valgaav's bitter and angry expression melted away, leaving a look of bewilderment and shock.

"You were right.  I don't know you or your life.  But I still believe in you.  I still…  I still feel confident with you leading us," she said, unconsciously quoting her father.  Perhaps it was her father's influence that allowed her to see more in Valgaav than most people would see.  Perhaps it was that influence that allowed her to say those words with complete honesty.

The two remained frozen in this position for some time.  Suddenly, the huge tower clock began bonging midnight, snapping them both back to reality as if they had been in a trance.

"I-I'm sorry," Filia said shakily, taking a step back.  "I really am…"

"Wait –" he said.

Filia shook her head.  "No, I –" and she suddenly remembered why she had come here in the first place.  "I really must go speak with my stepsisters.  Please forgive me."  She turned and fled toward where she had last seen the girls.

The twins were now alone, seated against the wall with the same exasperated expressions on their identical faces.

"Filia?"  "What are you doing here?" they both asked when they spotted her.

Filia sat next to them and took in a shaky breath, trying to calm down.  What on earth had possessed her to say such things to him?!

"Is something wrong?" one of the twins questioned.  Filia looked up at them.  They were beginning to look concerned.  The blond woman considered telling them about her experience, but realized that they would never understand.

"No, I'm all right.  But, well, I found the map," Filia told them.

"No way!"

"You're kidding!"

"Do I look like I'm joking?" Filia said indignantly.

"Where is it?" asked one twin.

"Let's see it!" exclaimed the other.

Filia almost brought it out before a thought struck her.  She looked around.  "What about Martina?  This is the last place we'd want her to learn what you two have been doing."  Even though Martina's recently-revealed wish to see the girls married could be construed as wanting the girls to be on their own, Filia was sure that going off in search of famous relics was not what Martina had in mind.  She didn't think her nerves could stand one of Martina's fits right now, especially here.

"I don't think she'll notice," Mimi told Filia.

"She's been, like, really hung up on that guy ever since we got here," Nene added, pointing the older woman out to Filia.  Martina was out on the dance floor, slow-dancing with the dark-haired swordsman from before.

"Who is he?" asked Filia.

"I think his name is Zangulus," Mimi answered.  "They haven't been able to take their eyes off each other all night."

"Good news for us – she's been too distracted to try playing matchmaker," Nene stated.

Filia was surprised by that.  True, Martina was fickle, but she had a tendency to become obsessed at well.  Filia wasn't quite sure how Martina did that, but if Martina wanted her daughters married as badly as she let on and wasn't even trying to find them beaus then this must be serious.  Filia studied the swordsman for a few minutes.  Filia hoped that the man was as serious as Martina, or the green-haired woman would be heart-broken.  As soon as she had the thought the blond woman was grateful that she was thinking it out of concern for the older woman, rather than a selfish desire to have Martina become someone else's problem.

Suddenly Filia was struck by a random thought. She frowned and looked at her stepsisters.  "Why aren't you two interested in the prince?"  Did they think those things about Valgaav?  They weren't cruel by nature, but they had a certain disregard for others, and that could amount to the same thing.

The girls shrugged.  "He's not our type."  "He's, like, too old for us."  "We aren't interested in that type of life."

'That's true enough,' Filia mused.  'He's only eight years older than they are, which isn't too big a gap for marriage, but they're right on the other accounts.  The responsibilities of royalty wouldn't be right for them – they're not the most responsible of people.  And I guess just because I think Valgaav is handsome that doesn't mean everyone else does.'

"Let's go home.  Mother will never notice."

Filia nodded, thinking that the twins wouldn't understand Valgaav anyway.  Few people would.  No wonder he had never married.

The three girls hurried back around the dance floor.  As they weaved around the various couples and groups Filia suddenly got the feeling that someone was watching her.  At the door she half turned, giving the huge room a quick glance.  She saw no one and berated herself for being jumpy as she hurried out into the hall where the twins were already securing their wraps.  Filia's cloak was quickly retrieved and the three girls headed outside.

"You're leaving already?" a voice called to them as they exited the palace grounds. 

Filia groaned to herself as she recognized the gateman's gruff manner of speaking.  The twins slowed, facing the speaker to reply. "Yes!" Filia called out to Mr. Gravos, grabbing both twins by the arm and hurrying them past the gates.  Mr. Gravos probably thought she was insane by now.

'Not to mention what Valgaav must think,' Filia sighed to herself.  'My debut into society wasn't exactly stunning, was it?'  Her walk home was much like the walk home the previous day.  Successful, but not exactly victorious.

Once safely back in the Ul Copt manner, Filia left the twins to examine their cherished and sought-after map.  The sound of their excited talking followed her up the staircase and into her room.  There Filia firmly shut the door on the outside world, mentally shutting the door on yet another exhausting day.

Filia woke later than usual the next day, which surprised her.  Although she could occasionally sleep past the normal time (when her body was used to waking at) she could always count on Martina, Mimi, or Nene to wake her up for some various purpose.  Said purpose always benefited the waker rather than the sleeper.

So it was a rare treat for Filia to sleep in, especially considering how late she had been up the night before.  It must have been nearly one o'clock when she finally got to bed.  Filia found herself a little suspicious of the late hour.  She dragged herself to her closet, picking out a plain sky blue dress to wear.  Why hadn't anyone woken her?  What could they be up to?  Obviously the twins hadn't told their mother of their plans yet, for Filia would have been woken by Martina's screaming.  Filia felt a chill up her spine.  What if the twins had simply abandoned them?

There were many what-ifs, Filia told herself, trying to be rational.  What if Martina hadn't come home?  What if someone had been hurt and she had been rushed to the clinic so fast that Filia wasn't summoned?  'You see, Filia, each one sillier than the last.'  Besides, there were good what-ifs too.  What if the three had all been so happy they had gone out and left Filia to sleep?  What if they were tired after the long night and were also sleeping in?

Nevertheless there was a hurriedness in Filia's movements.  She brushed her long hair and left the room without bothering to take any more time on it.  Her footsteps beat out a short, quick rhythm on the stairs.  By the time she had reached the bottom step she heard Martina's laugh coming from the parlor.  Filia slowed to a stop at the base of the stairs, wondering about that.  Then an answering male voice came from inside the room.

'Who could that be?' Filia wondered.  Treading softly, she moved to the parlor door, hesitating only a moment before opening it and looking in.

Her stepfamily was all there, conversing in pleasant tones with a dark-haired man who was dressed in simple, sturdy clothes of nondescript colors.  Oh, they had company…  That was rare, but it did happen.  It took Filia a moment to recognize him as the man from last night, the swordsman called Zangulus who had danced with Martina, but when the young woman realized who the visitor was she smiled a little.

By then the blond woman had been noticed.  "Oh, Filia, come in!  I want to introduce you to Zangulus!" Martina exclaimed, her voice sing-songey with happiness.  "Zangulus, honey, this is my stepdaughter Filia."

Zangulus stood and Filia moved into the room before the two exchanged pleasantries.  As they sat down Filia cast a glance at her stepsisters.  They were both beaming.  In fact, Filia realized that she must be the only one not beaming.

Zangulus cast a friendly smile in Filia's direction before telling her, "Martina told me that you're almost a daughter to her.  So I guess you'll be happy to hear the good news."

Filia cocked her head a little.  Good news?  What good news was that?

"We're getting married!" Martina announced joyfully.

Hold on!  'Getting married?!'  Filia thought.  'But didn't they just meet yesterday?!'  Surely this was a joke, or an assumption of Martina's.  Filia's surprise and disbelief must have shown on her face, for everyone else in the room nodded affirmation.

"Yep," Zangulus continued, "Martina's done me the honor of accepting my proposal.  How do you like that?"

Filia found her voice, and put it to good use voicing her concerns.  "Didn't you just meet?"  She would have said more, but she didn't know how the happy couple would take to objections.

"Yes, last night at the ball," Martina answered, and by her tone Filia knew that the point had been missed.

But Zangulus understood.  "Now, don't worry.  I may still be a bachelor used to bachelor ways, but that kind of life isn't all it's cracked up to be.  I'm ready for marriage.  And Martina, well, it's just not right for her to be alone for so long.  We'll have plenty of time to get to know each other.  The rest of our lives, in fact.  I'll take good care of her, and we'll be all right.  You'll see."  Martina beamed at this little speech.

Filia nodded agreement, but still felt a little dismayed inside.  So soon?  How could you know someone was right for you so soon?  Surely you couldn't.

"It's perfect timing, too," Mimi announced.  Filia looked up at Mimi and her sister sharply.

"That's right," Martina answered her daughter, "with you two planning your trip."

Zangulus inquired about this trip, and soon was being told all about it.  He seemed interested, taking the girls seriously and offering a few pointers out of his seemingly vast store of knowledge about adventuring. The tips were welcome, because although the girls were well-trained, they didn't have half the man's experience.   The three talked, and listened, and got along quite well.  And Martina smiled all the while.

Filia, meanwhile, sat in shock.  She had just realized a few things.  One of which, was that the twins had taken advantage of Martina's euphoria to announce their plans.  It was a clever move.  That meant that Martina wouldn't have one of her fits over the situation.  But it also meant that the twins would be able to leave right away.  Martina, too, would be getting married within the next week or two, by the looks of it.  Filia would hardly be welcome with the newly-weds.  That meant that Filia would be completely alone.

She digested this for a few moments.  When she was a child she had had her parents, and then her father, and the Ul Copts had always employed two or three servants.  Then when her father died the income stopped.  The servants had been dismissed, but Filia still had her stepfamily.  The four women had been living off the inheritance from Filia's and the twins' fathers ever since, and they had managed.  Filia still had some of her inheritance from her father, and she wasn't afraid of working if she had to, but…  It would still be different.

"Please excuse me," Filia said suddenly, interrupting the conversation.  "I haven't eaten yet, and I really must leave you now…" she stood and left the room, barely giving anyone enough time to bid her goodbye.

Out in the hall Filia leaned against the closed door.  Who could have known how much this silly, disfunctional family meant to her?  She certainly hadn't known.  The young woman let out a long breath and closed her eyes.

After a few minutes she began to feel better.  It was all right, really.  In some ways Filia had been alone in this house for many years.  This was just a different kind of alone.  She would get used to it, just as she had adjusted to all of the changes in her life before now.  Filia smiled.  Come to think of it, there were many advantages to this change.  Filia would no longer be bound to other people's whims.  She could get up late every day.  She could have peace and quiet.

It might be a little too quiet sometimes, though.

Valgaav's voice came back to her.  It must have been because of your stepfamily  ...  your stepmother has a slightly bad name around here  ...  Your parents were well-known and accepted everywhere.

Filia barely heard the doorbell as it rang.  Perhaps Filia would start going out more, find some circle she could join.  Not High Society, she was sure, but there must be a niche for her somewhere.

She crossed the entry hall to the door, smiling brightly again.  As soon as the door was open, the smile faded away as though it had never been.  The young woman clutched the door frame, very much in danger of going into shock.

In front of her stood a man in his mid-twenties, dressed in white pants and a loose blue shirt covered by a short cape.  A thick headband held some of his hair straight up.  Filia instantly realized who he was – the man from the palace gate, the one who had given her the invitation.  But even worse than that, now that she could see his face Filia realized that he had been Valgaav the whole time.

Well, that makes sense, the little voice in the back of Filia's mind said.  She paid it no attention.

Perhaps Filia's reaction made it look like she would faint, for Valgaav reached forward to steady her.  "I – I'm all right!" Filia gasped out.

The man hesitated, then slowly let his arms drop.  The two looked at each other in silence for a few minutes.  Then Valgaav raised one eyebrow slightly, asking in that half-mocking tone of his, "I hope I'm not interrupting?"

Filia's face heated (but only a little, she noted) as she stepped back to let Valgaav enter.  "No, of course not.  My stepfamily is just … celebrating."

"Celebrating?" Valgaav asked, stepping into the entry hall.

"My – my stepmother is remarrying," Filia told him.

"Again?" Valgaav asked in surprise.  He waited for Filia's nod before continuing.  "Well, that's convenient."

Filia remembered Mimi saying much the same thing.  Why did everyone say that?  "Why?  What do you mean?"

Valgaav folded his arms as he leaned against the wall.  "Your stepfamily won't be depending on you any more."

Filia swallowed.  Hadn't she just been thinking those very thoughts?  But to hear them out loud made them sound so… heartless.  Was she really like that?  On one hand, her first reaction was sorrow to be alone.  On the other hand, wasn't that reaction selfish too?  She couldn't keep them from moving on with their lives.  'I guess I still have a few more things to learn,' Filia thought.

Valgaav was watching her.  The expression on his face said that he was waiting for some sort of rebuttal.  The expression turned to surprise when he didn't get one.  "Which is good for me," he concluded, his voice betraying his wariness, something that was lost on his confused companion.

Filia looked up at the man that managed to turn her world upside down every time they met.  "Why is that good for you?" she asked, expecting some passing of wisdom, some lesson she could learn.

"Because I want to marry you," Valgaav said simply.

Filia blinked.  This was not what she had expected to hear.  "What?" she asked incredulously.  Was he – surely he wasn't proposing?

Valgaav stood up from his leaning position, looking into her eyes.  She could see that the kindness had come out full force, and he no longer seemed sad.  "I would have to be an idiot to ignore a woman like you," he said.  Then he took her by the shoulders, leaning towards her a bit.  "Filia, will you marry me?"

He was proposing.

"But – we just met!" Filia protested, thunderstruck.  Had sudden marriages just gone into fashion?

Valgaav didn't answer immediately, instead opting to give Filia a few moments to reorient herself.

The young woman was breathing a little heavily at the moment.  'I can't marry him!' Filia thought wildly.  'Yes you can,' said that wise little voice in the back of her mind.  'He's everything you want.'  'Oh, shut up!' she told it severely, as usual not in a hurry to listen to it.

"We did just meet," Valgaav said after a few minutes.  "But a marriage isn't made up of what comes before.  It's made from the effort you put into it.  I love you, Filia, and I'm willing to do what it takes to build a life with you."

Filia was a little taken aback.  Those words had just come from Valgaav's mouth?  She looked back up into his eyes, again seeing the change there.  "You're… you're happy," she murmured, wondering a little.  Had this change really occurred over night?

Valgaav didn't answer at first, but a small, quiet smile slowly came to his lips.  "Yes," he answered after a moment's reflection.  "I'm happy.  And it's because of you."

Filia found herself smiling in return.  How many people had the chance to see this side of him?  This change, this one change, was definitely good.  And suddenly Filia understood what he was trying to tell her.  They could get married now and it would be worth it.  They could succeed because they cared about each other.  She understood him, she wanted him to be happy, and she cared about him.  Her smile became both happier and more timid at the same time.  "I'll marry you, Valgaav," she told him shyly, then stepped into his embrace for their very first kiss.

It was a short kiss, by many standards, but just right for two uncertain people just starting out.  After pulling apart they both just smiled at each other for a few minutes, both pleased with the experience that was so new to both of them.

"My father will be relieved," Valgaav said in amusement, breaking the silence.  "He thinks my having a wife will rid me of my rebellious side."  Still smiling, Filia nodded, understanding and accepting that Valgaav had had all the tenderness he could stand for the time being.  She could also tell from his amused smile that getting married wasn't going to change Valgaav's plan.

Which reminded her – "Valgaav, what about the war?"

"Don't worry," Valgaav answered.  "My father isn't going anywhere.  The war won't start for some time."  He squeezed her hand.  "Let's go tell your family, shall we?  Then you can come meet mine."  She nodded and led him towards the parlor door.

So Filia married her prince, Martina married her swordsman, and the twins found their relics and became famous singers.  And they all lived happily ever after.

The End.


A/N: … That took a LOT more time to write than I thought it would.  And it was a LOT longer than I thought it would be, too.  And good grief, do you know how hard it was trying to turn Valgaav into Prince Charming?!  Whew… 

Anyway, I'm sure the question on everyone's mind is "Will Lady Onyx write about the war?"  Answer: I might.  I want to do a sequel, but I don't know if I'm good enough to write it the way I would want it to be yet.  It is possible that I'll have some good inspiration.  There are a couple openings for events in a sequel.  All I can say for certain is that if there is a sequel about the war it will be a multi-chapter story with the other main characters in it as well.    So, please let me know what you think, and many thanks to those who review!