Disclaimer: I don't own Suikoden III or its characters - that belongs to Konami.

Emily often jogged laps around the castle, usually with others, sometimes by herself, often with Koroku at her heels. But today, even the friendly dog knew better than to go near her. No one ran that fast unless they were extremely angry.

"How dare he!" Emily snapped through clenched teeth. "I don't care if he is a Zexen Knight! No one does that to me and gets away with it!"

Emily had been delighted when Sir Leo stopped by the inn, earlier in the day. She'd immediately seized the chance to challenge him to an arm wrestling contest.

"Well? What do you say?" she asked, eager to have such a strong opponent.

"I refuse," the knight said.

"Huh? Why not?"

"I don't want people to think I enjoy taking advantage of children," Leo replied, heading to the door. "How can I be proud of beating a little girl?"

It took all of Emily's willpower to keep from attacking him right there, along with the fact that three other Zexen knights were standing just outside. No, it was better to run around the castle and cool down, to try thinking about it logically. She found that rather difficult. Little girl! Who did he possibly think he was? What made him so sure he'd win, anyway?

The sound of metal hitting stone knocked her out of her thoughts. She turned a corner and almost ran into Rody, whose face and clothes were heavily smeared with dirt. His enthusiastic smile rivaled Twaikin's.

"Hello," Emily said, curious. "What are you digging?"

"A hole," the apprentice replied. "Maybe this isn't the best place - there's a lot of rocks."

"Want me to help you?" Emily asked, watching him struggle with the heavy iron shovel.

"Would you? Yes! That'd be great!" Rody looked on admiringly as she got to work. When she was done, he jumped into the pit. "Perfect! Quick, help me fill it back in!"

"Wait a minute!" Emily cried. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Improving my earth magic," the magician said, as if it were obvious.

"By burying yourself alive?" Emily demanded, horrified.

"Of course not!" Rody said cheerfully. "Only up to my neck. My master says this is the best way."

"Your master?" She didn't know much about magic, but Emily was sure this wasn't the normal procedure for boosting magic skills.

"Yes, you may have met her before. Her name is Estella, and she's the greatest magician in the world!"

Emily vaguely remembered a woman with pink hair and lots of makeup telling her and Sharon that Hortez VII was really a spy for Harmonia, and his inability to follow directions was a clever ruse to make people trust him.

"If my master says something, you can bet it's definitely true!" Rody said seriously. "I guess I'll do the rest myself. Thanks for your help!"

Emily sighed and figured to herself that the boy would come to his senses soon enough. She turned to walk back to the castle.

"Hey, wait! Will you do me another favor?" Rody asked. He had given up on fumbling with the shovel and was throwing dirt back into the hole with his bare hands.

"Depends. What is it?"

"Can you bring my dinner out here later?"

Emily stared. He really meant it, even though how he would eat if his arms were buried was beyond her. She certainly wasn't going to sit there and stick a fork in his mouth. She cast about for a way to talk him out of this idea, and was intensely relieved when a raindrop fell on her nose.

"You know, maybe you should wait until tomorrow. You'll just be stuck in the mud if you stay out here now."

"I guess you're right," the mage said, sounding disappointed. He pulled himself out of the hole with an effort and followed her back to the castle, chatting happily about his wonderful master the whole time. Emily hoped he planned to head for the baths before doing anything else.

Emily tried her hardest to put Rody and his master's dubious training methods out of her mind, but she couldn't help worrying that one of these days the young mage was going to get himself seriously hurt. Then she would feel responsible. Out of curiosity she went to the library that evening and asked Ernie if there was any truth to what Rody said. She was a little surprised at the tutor's reaction.

"Hmph! You can't listen to a word that woman says!" Ernie said, slamming down a stack of thick books with a bang. Eike turned to give her one of his looks. "If that's all it really took to learn magic, we'd all be powerful mages. Studying and hard work are the only way to improve your skills."

Emily thought about dismissing Ernie's words because the tutor might be bitter due to the fear that Estella was taking away her credibility, but then young Viki unexpectedly jumped in.

"That's right," she said. "I took a bath with her once, and she tried to convince me that Hallec was a spider. I also overheard her telling Koroku that Hallec wanted to eat him."

"I don't think she really means any harm," Lady Chris spoke up from where she sat poring over a book about water magic. "I had the misfortune of taking a bath with her before, too. I think she just enjoys teasing people. But it's true she sometimes takes it too far."

The knight's fists clenched when she thought about how she'd actually fallen for the female magician's outrageous lies. No one else knew, but it was still quite embarrassing.

"It's usually men who have the hardest time seeing through her fabrications," Ernie said, stopping to push her glasses up her nose. "That young detective, for instance. But I haven't time to gossip."

The tutor returned to her work, and the others went back to their books. Emily left the library thinking that Estella's odd sense of humor would get her in major trouble someday, but she was sure that the mage was more than capable of taking care of herself. It was her apprentice she was worried about.

Emily had a strong sense of justice, inherited from her hardworking parents, and she just wouldn't stand watching people be taken advantage of. It was the same feeling she had when Shabon told her in the bath about how that awful Guillaume harassed her. Emily smiled to herself - she sure enjoyed cutting that bully down to size, at least temperarily. The appraiser shot her nasty looks whenever she walked past his shop, but she was confident that he wouldn't dare to actually try getting revenge. The Flame Champion didn't stand for that kind of nonsense.

She knew she had to help Rody somehow, but had no idea how to actually go about it. Emily went to bed thankful that Piccolo predicted the heavy rain to last for the rest of the week. If she couldn't continue with her usual training, she might as well try to do a good deed or two to pass the time.

The castle was always a bit gloomy on rainy days, since most of the residents had to change their plans. A large number of them usually ended up milling around looking for something to do. Nadir's plays were very popular during bad weather. That morning, Emily went to the warehouse to drop off a package, carefully avoiding the elevator since Kenji was currently on it, giving its passengers a hard time about not using the stairs and ignoring anyone who pointed out that he was there with them. Thomas, Futch and Elliot were only a few of his unhappy victims. After leaving the warehouse, she headed to the infirmary to seek out Estella and try to get her side of the story. Maybe she knew something they didn't, although the fighter doubted it.

The Infirmary was almost empty, except for Landis, and Emily didn't plan to ask him why he was there. Tuta looked up and smiled at her when she entered. Mio and Iku were busy changing sheets on the beds, and Estella sat at a table by the door, examining her nails. Emily realized that she would have to try being tactful, definitely not her strong point.

"Can I help you?" Estella asked, sounding bored. Emily sat down across from her at the little table and nodded eagerly.

"Yes! I heard all about you yesterday from your apprentice. He said you're the best magician in the entire Grasslands, and Harmonia, too! Rody is such a great mage, and he says he learned it all from you! In fact, he says you're an even better spellcaster than that wicked man trying to destroy the True Runes! He says that if you ever got in a duel with that guy, you'd bash him in a minute!"

She paused for a moment, wondering if she was laying it on too thick, but Estella beamed at her like a cat being poured cream.

"So I guess I just want to know if you'll give me a few tips," Emily finished, uncomfortably aware of the odd looks Mio and Iku were giving her. Emily had no real interest in magic, never did, and made no secret of the fact.

"Everything Rody says is quite true," Estella said, with a shameless smile. "Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt to share my knowledge. But don't tell anyone. It's our little secret, okay?"

"Yes! Yes!"

"It's easy, really. The best way to improve water magic is to swim twenty laps in the bathtub."

That didn't sound too bad, and Emily strongly believed that swimming was great exercise. Rody couldn't come to much harm doing that. "Okay. What about wind magic?"

"That's not hard, either. Just blow on a piping hot bowl of soup until it gets cold. It has to be chicken, though. Other kinds don't work."

"Really?" Emily asked, feeling a bit disappointed. These things sounded ridiculous, but making Rody uncomfortable was the worst they could do.

"Of course!" Estella said, eyes widening innocently. "Would I ever lie to you?"

Before Emily could think up a suitable reply, the woman went on, dropping her voice to almost a whisper. "But improving fire magic is a little more challenging, my dear. The best way is to expose yourself to a dragon's breath. Bright does admirably."

"What?" Emily demanded, jumping out of her chair. "That's downright dangerous!"

"No pain, no gain." Estella said, and shrugged. Emily hardly believed what she was hearing.

"Come on!" she exclaimed. "How can you say such a thing? How can you possibly be willing to put your poor apprentice in harm's way like that? He'd probably get killed! Unless," she added sarcastically, "you have some advice for him to improve fire resistance, too?"

Estella rose from the table too, an ugly scowl on her face. "Who do you think you are? I don't have to take this from you!"

Before Emily could snap back, the Infirmary door opened and Rody strolled in, carrying his broomstick over one shoulder.

"Hi!" he said cheerfully. "I'm ready for flying les - huh? What's wrong?"

He looked from Emily to his master, confused.

"Nothing, nothing," Tuta said quickly, putting down the bandages he was rolling. The women ignored him.

"Rody, I forbid you to ever talk with this girl again! Do you understand?"

Rody frowned. He didn't know her very well, but Emily had been kind to him the night before. "Master, why not?"

"You don't have to listen to this old bat!" Emily shouted, sensing his dismay. Tuta winced. "You're a grown boy, aren't you? Make friends with whoever you want!"

"What did you just call me?" Estella demanded, looking as if she was going to strangle her right there.

"You heard just fine! Old bat!"

"Why, you!"

"Not here!" the doctor said desperately. "If you have to fight, do it outside."

"This girl isn't worth my time." Estella said, recovering her composure and leaving Emily looking awful in comparison, still angry and flushed. "Rody, you're to have nothing to do with her."

The mage looked from one to the other and sighed. "All right, Master. I promise."

Estella smirked. "Good child."

Tuta grabbed Emily's arm. "You'd better leave," he almost begged her, pushing towards the door. He shut it with a loud snap, leaving her out in the hallway, absolutely furious. The anger she felt now made her earlier feelings towards Sir Leo seem like a mere annoyance. Playing tricks on credulous people like Lady Chris was one thing, but this, deliberately taking advantage of Rody, knowing it was only a matter of time before he got hurt...

"Now it's personal!" Emily shouted at the closed door. "I'm not going to let you get away with this! Not if it's the last thing I do!"

"Yuh huh will be." a voice said from inside the room.

"You shut up!" Emily whacked the door with one fist hard enough to make her arm tingle and stormed off.

By the time she reached the entrance hall, Emily calmed down considerably. As her own mother always said, she had to learn how to control her emotions once in a while and think things through before acting. Emily hated when she told that, since if the war stories her parents loved to tell were any indication, her mother had been far wilder than her daughter, but she admitted to herself that there was some truth in it. She needed to come up with a plan.

She remembered Cecile telling her all about the brilliant ideas that Caesar Silverberg thought of to save Budehuc Castle before, but shook her head seconds later. The castle strategists had more important things to do, like preventing the complete destruction of the Grasslands. That meant she couldn't ask Salome Harras either, which was a shame because Emily was sure that the knight would heavily disapprove of Estella's behavior, and treat her to one of his lengthy lectures.

Thomas might be able to do something, since the welfare of everyone in the castle was partly his responsibility, and he took his responsibilities very seriously, but with the sudden increase of people at the castle, Thomas was extremely busy, too. She also thought about asking the Flame Champion for advice, but remembered overhearing Kidd say that Hugo liked to hang out his bedroom window, thinking it would make him taller, so she dismissed him.

Maybe she could just talk to Rody herself and convince him not to take his master so seriously. But she knew that wasn't an option either, since the mage would undoubtedly start avoiding her like the plague from now on. How about if she asked someone else to talk to Rody for her? That might work. She just needed to find the right person - another powerful magician who could prove that people didn't have to do weird things like bury themselves or blow on soup to get better. She needed someone amiable, not too busy, renowned for their magic skills. Someone like...

"Bishop Sasarai!" Emily exclaimed, seeing the man walk past her in the direction of the tavern. "Hey! Get back here!"

"Well," Nadir said peevishly, glaring at the small group assembled before him, "if you don't want to be in the play, why did you sign up?"

"I didn't," Sasarai said. "I had no idea there was even going to be a show soon."

And he hadn't, until he overheard Kidd and Belle talking about it earlier on his way back from the baths. The director shoved a sheaf of papers at him.

"Then please explain what your signature is doing here!" he snapped.

Sasarai scanned the list of volunteers for "The Match Girl" and handed it back. "I didn't write that. Someone must've forged it."

"How can you possibly expect me to find a replacement on such short notice?!" Nadir cried. "You already skipped two rehearsals, and - "

"How could I attend rehearsals for a play I didn't even know existed?" the bishop retorted, but Nadir just threw a script at him and busied himself seeing to the set, muttering about ruffians who defiled his theater.

"If it's any consolation, your Worship, I don't want to be here either." Captain Geddoe, who was serving as narrator, said, but Sasarai wasn't listening. He remembered something similar happening when Nadir suddenly announced that he was going to be William Tell's son the week before. The forged signature on the sign-up sheet looked familiar, but he couldn't place it. Since arguing with an already irate Nadir obviously wouldn't do much good, he resigned himself and looked over his lines instead.

Just then, Emily burst into the tavern triumphantly. Nadir gave her an extremely dirty look.

"Didn't you read the sign?" he demanded.

"What sign?"

"The one posted on the door! The one saying that a rehearsal is in progress and cannot be disturbed!"

"Huh? There wasn't any sign." Emily said. "Someone must've ripped it off... is this it?"

She rooted through the trash can and held up a crumpled ball. Nadir snatched it from her and unrolled it. Before he could explode, two other cast members spoke up.

"There's no way I'll be able to memorize this!" Muto, the passerby, moaned. "It's too much!"

"I'm sorry!" Rico, the grandmother, cried, as a wooden tree fell over with a loud crash. It narrowly missed Elliot, who was cast as the child. "I didn't touch it, honest! All I did was give it a little poke!"

The narrator rolled his one eye and ignored his script. "What's going on here?" Emily asked curiously. "Anything I can do?"

"I doubt it," the director said sulkily. "My leading actress says - "

"Actress?" Emily looked at Sasarai incredulously. "If you haven't noticed, that's a - "

Muto examined another wooden tree. It toppled off the stage and Rico screamed.

"Enough!" Nadir shouted. "Never, never in my entire career have I dealt with such... such..." Words failed him, and he just shook his head. "Have you no respect for fine art?!"

"I'll stand in as the Match Girl, if you'd like." Emily said, preventing the director's outburst. Now Nadir looked at her as if she were an angel.

"Really? You're too kind, Miss... Miss..."

"Emily," the girl supplied. "Just let me talk to the bishop first, and I'll come back for the script later."

She grabbed Sasarai by the arm and headed for the door. Nadir recovered his usual good humor and the last thing she heard was him telling Geddoe to at least try making an effort to infuse his voice with some emotion.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Sasarai asked when they were at the front entrance, managing to yank his arm free.

"Do what?" Emily looked confused for a minute, then laughed. "Oh, be the Match Girl in his play! Of course I don't mind. If I did, I wouldn't have volunteered for it, would I?"

Ever since arriving at Budehuc Castle, Emily wanted to be in one of Nadir's plays, but the director always skipped over her in favor of someone else. The only time she'd gotten a part was when Nadir cast her as the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, even though she'd signed up for Juliet. That part went to Viki. Emily remembered standing offstage, watching Viki mess up every line, and thinking to herself that she could definitely do better. Now she was going to be the star. A shame that her parents wouldn't be there to see her. She wondered if there were any theaters near her home in Toran.

Sasarai waited for her to tell him what this was all about, and when it became clear that she was too busy daydreaming to notice, he cleared his throat politely. But now that Emily had him, she wasn't sure what to do next.

"Um... you know Rody and Estella, right?" she asked. The bishop shook his head.

"I haven't been here long," he reminded her. Emily didn't think that was much of an excuse. When she first came to Budehuc Castle, Emily made it her business to meet as many people as possible. She met Sharon and Sanae Y. on her first day, and within a week the three girls were best friends. But Sasarai's social life wasn't any of her business, so she explained the situation with the mage and her gullible apprentice.

"You see how it is," she finished. "Somebody's got to talk some sense into him before it's too late! Do you want to help me?"

"Of course," Sasarai replied. "Rody seems to be a bright young man, and it would be a shame if anything like that was to happen to him."

It sounded a bit strange hearing him refer to Rody that way when he looked hardly a day older, but she decided not to get distracted with minor details. "Good! Now all we have to do is find him! That shouldn't be too hard."

After the scene in the infirmary was over and Emily left, everyone visibly relaxed. Tuta let out a relieved sigh, and Estella went back to her nails. Rody tried his hardest to focus on his broom, but couldn't bring himself to.


"What is it?" Estella asked, frowning at a chip on her index finger.

"Why am I not supposed to talk with Emily anymore?"

The magician dropped her hands and treated her apprentice to a withering glare. "Don't question my decisions."

"S-sorry, Master." Rody turned back to his broom.

"If you absolutely must know, I'll tell you." Estella continued a moment later. Rody looked up, startled. "That girl accused me of being a liar! She even went so far as to say I purposely want to hurt you. Now, surely you don't believe that?" The glare switched to a blinding, surprisingly sweet smile.

"Of course not, Master!" Rody exclaimed sincerely, but he couldn't help feeling a little confused. After a few minutes passed, he decided to head to the baths and work on his water magic for a while. Maybe he'd run into Louis or Melville - talking to them usually took his mind off things, although he hadn't seen either boy since mistakenly telling them that his dream person was Wan Fu two days before.

Emily and Sasarai made their way down to the basement, using the stairs in case Kenji was still harassing people on the elevator, on their way to speak with Kidd. Sasarai figured that the young detective would have the information they needed.

"But I'm broke!" Emily protested. "I spent all of my potch on a new casque."

"I'll pay for it," the bishop assured her.

"Are you sure?"

"It isn't much."

"Well, maybe for a - "Emily stopped suddenly and a Calerian man close behind them fell into her. "Hey! Look, it's Rody!"

The mage stood by the entrance of the ship, eagerly asking Twaikin if he dug holes for people, but he froze at the sound of Emily's voice. Then he ran inside, looking as if he'd seen a ghost.

"Wait!" Emily chased after him. "I need to talk to y - "

The mage ran into Goro's bath house. "Hey!" Goro shouted from his place behind the counter. "The ladies' bath is to the right!"

"We can just wait for him to get out," Sasarai suggested. "He can't be in there too long."

Emily shook her head. "He'll stay there until the end of time if we wait. I have a better idea! Do you feel like taking a bath?"

The bishop gave her a revolted look. "Are you serious? I've never met the boy before!"

"So? Do you think Thomas, Duke and Edge know each other very well? Or Ayame and Lady Chris?"

"I'm not going to barge in on a complete stranger like that! There must be another way."

"Come on!" Emily said, rolling her eyes. "You agreed to help me, right? I didn't know Harmonians were so prudish!" Then she remembered what kind of Harmonian she was talking to and flushed. "Um...I mean..."

"'I don't want to be here anymore,'" Sasarai murmured under his breath. "'Grandma, take me with you so that I can be next to God.'" He already knew some of his lines. Maybe it wasn't too late to tell this girl that the agreement was off.

"What's that?" Emily asked.

"Oh, nothing."

"Good! I'll wait here." Emily moved a box of soap off a bench and sat down. "Take your time."

After he left, she struck up a conversation with Goro, pretending to listen intently while he told her enthusiastically about the huge difference burning various types of wood made. Then he got into a heated argument with Franz.

"How many times do I have to tell you? Get that monster out of here!"

"Monster? How dare you call my Ruby that! Who do you think you are?"

"The proprietor, that's who! If I say that thing can't come in here, it can't!"

"Thing?! Ruby's not a thing! He's my best friend!"

In the end, Franz demanded that the Flame Champion come and stand up for his Mantor's rights as a member of the Fire Bringer. Just after Hugo arrived, Futch walked in, a towel on one arm.

"Hey, Franz! Mind if Bright and I join you?"

Goro took a deep breath, clenched his fists, and tried counting to ten.

"I, uh, have important business elsewhere," Hugo said quickly, edging towards the door.

"Besides, isn't this a matter for Thomas?" Franz asked, certain that the timid castle master would let him have his way.

"That's right!" Hugo ran out, shouting that he would fetch Thomas over his shoulder. Other people planning to take baths saw the ruckus going on and changed their minds.

Sasarai and Rody finally came out of the baths half an hour later, dressed in fuzzy robes and chatting happily. Then the mage looked up and saw Emily sitting on her bench. He squeaked and ran into a dressing stall, slipping a little on his wet feet.

"How'd it go?" Emily asked Sasarai, ignoring the shouting match between Franz and Goro, and the pitiful peacemaking attempts by Futch and Thomas going on in the background. Thomas tried to get out of having to make a decision by saying that business owners were in charge of the rules in their own shops, but no one listened to him.

"Nicely," the bishop replied. "He told me all about his mentor. That took a while. Then he became excited when he realized that I'm a fellow magician, and begged me for some tips." He frowned suddenly. "He asked me how often I bury myself, and what kind of soil I prefer. Is that an example of Estella at work?"

Emily nodded. "That's how I met him. What did you say?"

"I told him we don't do things that way in Harmonia." Sasarai said, his voice carefully neutral. "It wouldn't do to offend Estella even more by - "

He glanced over at the entranceway and froze. Emily turned to see who was there.

"Bishop Sasarai!" Dios exclaimed, looking thoroughly scandalized.

"It's not what you think!" Emily cried. "Not at all!" she added, when she saw his skeptical expression.

Goro finally succeeded in kicking out Futch, Franz and their mounts, ignoring the Mantor rider's muttered threats that he'd be back. "She's right!" he said cheerfully. "I've been here the whole time! Trust me!"

"All right, your Worship." Dios said doubtfully. "I'll leave you two alone for now. I don't want to interrupt anything."

"You don't need to worry about that," Sasarai assured him. "Why are you here? To take a bath?"

"I just... wanted to know where you were," Dios said lamely. He fled out to the ship's deck, although it was still raining. Emily realized something.

"Rody is still hiding in a stall," she said. "I wonder how long he plans to stay in there."

"Until we leave," Sasarai guessed. He shivered and pulled the robe around him more tightly.

"Oh, go ahead." Emily watched Goro scrawl a big sign that read "No Beasts Allowed!!!!!" with a flourish and pin it to the hanging towel that served as a front door.

"We're never going to get anywhere with him as long as you're around." Sasarai emerged from a stall a minute later, dressed in his usual Harmonian uniform. "I hope he doesn't associate me with you now."

"Why would he?" Emily asked, as they left the ship and headed back to the main part of the castle. "When he was telling you about his training before, why didn't you just tell him it's total rubbish? He'd have to believe you."

"Rody has such complete faith in his master," Sasarai said. "He clearly admires and cares about her very much."

"I know that," Emily said. "That's why we've got to convince him not to listen to her lies! And what do you mean, care about her?" The girl grimaced. "You're saying Rody's in love with that witch?"

"Not quite." the bishop explained. " It's more like hero worship. Are you sure it's wise to shatter his life like that? It'll be a terrible blow."

"I see what you mean," Emily said slowly. She preferred to know the truth about everything, and to see things the way they really were, but she knew that there were more sensitive people out there who didn't share her view. She noticed something odd about her companion's expression. "Are you speaking from experience?"

"You might say that," he replied, thinking of a certain incident at the Circle Palace shortly before he left. "But I do agree that we have to tell him. He'd eventually find it out on his own. We just have to break it to him gently."

"Which would be easier if I could talk to him," Emily pointed out, frustrated. She was the one who decided to solve the problem in the first place, and didn't want to leave it all to her new friend. "I guess I could try getting myself back on Estella's good side, but honestly, I don't ever want to see that woman again."

"I doubt she'd forgive you anyway." Sasarai said. Then he changed the subject. "I heard that Sir Hugo is going hunting tomorrow. Maybe you should ask if he would let you accompany him."

"Why? Are you trying to get rid of me?"

"Never that! You just seem to be the type who thinks best when they're in action."

"And you'll do some thinking of your own?" Emily asked shrewdly.

"I have an idea," he admitted. "You'd better go back to Nadir and pick up your script before he decides that you lied to him."

Emily ran off to the tavern, and the bishop left to deal with his own affairs.

The next day, Hugo politely turned down Emily's request to join him, pointing out that he already had his five companions. She ended up going on a day trip to Brass Castle with Sharon and Sanae Y. The three girls returned around nightfall, laden with various trinkets, a pound of fudge, and happy smiles. As much as she loved the place, Emily felt much better after spending some time away from Budehuc with her friends.

After they said goodbye and went their separate ways for the night, Emily wondered if Sasarai actually came up with anything, but she knew it was too late to go looking for him. She went up to her own room at the inn and got ready for bed instead. She thought she heard a thump in the wardrobe, but figured that it was just imagination from being so tired. She threw back the covers on her bed and crawled in with a deep sigh.

Then her foot touched something damp and scaly. She could feel it writhing on the mattress. When she jerked her foot back, she heard a faint hiss. Emily shrieked louder than she ever had in her life, jumping out of bed and fumbling with the lamp on her nightstand. The thumping in the wardrobe grew louder and she heard a muffled oath. Then it finally opened and Guillaume stepped out, a horrible, satisfied look on his face. He jabbed his trident in her direction and laughed.

"That's what you get for sticking your nose where it doesn't belong, girl! Ho ho!"

Emily just stared at him in disbelief, torn between fear that the appraiser was really out to get her and anger that he dared to sneak into her room. But before she could put her thoughts into words, the door was flung violently off its hinges and Rody ran in, clutching his broom like a weapon.

"What's going on? Are you okay?" he demanded. "What are you doing here?" Guillaume made a move towards him and the mage struck him down with a lightning bolt. Emily crept over to the bed and ripped the quilt off, revealing a large snake commonly found in the Amur Plains. Its bright markings clearly showed that it was poisonous. Emily figured that it wouldn't bother her for now if she left it alone, so she moved to the other end of the room. Then he gave Rody an inquiring look. The mage blushed and shuffled his feet.

"I heard you scream, so I thought you were in trouble," he explained awkwardly. Now it was Emily's turn to look embarrassed. She normally prided herself on not being terrified of bugs, rats, spiders and other unsavory creatures, like most girls her age.

"Was I really that loud?" she asked.

"Probably not. My master and I have the room to the right." At the mention of Estella, he glanced nervously at the door.

"Is she going to be mad at you now?" Emily didn't want him to get in trouble on her behalf. Rody looked puzzled. "You know, since she doesn't want you talking to me."

"Oh, I see! Whenever somebody or something annoys her, she always says things like that. She usually forgets them the next day."

Then he looked over to where Guillaume was sprawled out on the floor and examined him. "I guess I overreacted. It looks like I just stunned him, though."

The snake started moving again, closer to the edge of the bed. Emily realized that she forgot it was there. "We'd better tell the Flame Champion about this." she said, confident that Hugo or one of the other castle leaders would punish the appraiser soundly. They were all very big on peace and unity between the army members. "If he's not up, we'll get Thomas."

Hugo and Thomas were both asleep already, exhausted from the usual work involved maintaining a castle, but Emily managed to get Lady Chris to come to her room and dispose of snakes, with and without legs. The female knight agreed that what Guillaume did was intolerable and promised that he would be dealt with in the morning.

"I still don't understand why Hugo let him join us," she said. "It was obvious that he would only be a nuisance from the start. I caught him chasing little Shabon in Vinay del Zexay once, and he was extremely rude to me. Salome says he actually has reason to believe that Guillaume is a criminal."

"Will that be enough to convince Hugo to throw him out?" Emily asked hopefully. Chris sighed.

"Probably not. Hugo couldn't bring himself to throw a poor old appraiser out into the cold."

"Poor old appraiser?!" To Emily, that was like calling Captain Geddoe jolly.

"Whatever else he may be, Guillaume is good at getting others to pity him." Chris shrugged and bid them good night before returning to her room at the castle. Rody also left. Once they were gone, Emily tried to fall asleep, but was too excited. When she finally did, she had nightmares about snakes.

She woke up later than usual the next morning, feeling even more tired than when she went to bed. She took a casual stroll past the appraisal shop, peering in the windows, and was startled to see Guillaume leer back at her.

"I thought you'd deal with him!" Emily said angrily, when she ran into the Flame Champion at the restaurant.

"I did," Hugo replied, taking his tray over to a table and gulping some orange juice. He saw Aila sitting at another table and shook his head, wondering how the other Karayan could possibly have soda even at breakfast.

"He's still here!" Emily almost shouted. "Didn't you punish him?"

"Of course," Hugo said, thinking to himself that it was too early to put up with people like this. When he decided to become the Flame Champion, he expected to lead an army, not deal with their domestic problems. Thomas made it clear that those were his job, but people came to Hugo anyway. "And I've got Kidd keeping an eye on him in case he tries doing anything else. If he does, he'll really be sorry."

"Sure." Emily walked away feeling extremely let down. She was almost to the library before she noticed that she forgot to order her breakfast. She cheered up a little when she saw Sasarai sitting in an armchair with a hardcover book, but right after she greeted him she noticed Dios next to him and realized that the Harmonians were doing work. She started to leave when the bishop dropped his quill pen and called her back.

"Come in, we're not doing anything important." he said. Emily pulled up a wooden stool and sat. "I heard about what happened with Guillaume."

"Already?" Emily was surprised that news traveled that quickly, even in a small castle.

"No one even tries doing something like that in Harmonia." Dios said darkly. Sasarai gave him an indulgent smile.

"He's homesick. He can't wait for this war to be over so we can finally go back to Crystal Valley."

"You don't like it here?" Emily asked.

"It was bad enough when we were just going to Chisha Village." Dios said. "I hope this war resolves itself soon."

"We all do," Sasarai replied.

"I'm not sure," Emily said, looking thoughtful. "I doubt this place will be so active then. Everyone will go back where they came from and it'll be dead like Juan says it was before Thomas came."

"Aren't you going home?" Dios asked.

"Not if I can help it." Emily went on. "I love my parents and all, but I want to see more of the world and meet more people first!"

"I talked with Rody yesterday while you were out." Sasarai said. "Have you seen him yet?"

"Why? Did you do something?" Emily explained how Rody helped her the night before, watching the bishop closely.

"Not really," Sasarai said. "I just told him that you didn't really mean what you said earlier - "

"I meant every word of it!"

" - and that you just lost your temper because you were so worried that he might get hurt," Sasarai finished, as though she never spoke. "I told him that you didn't mean any disrespect to his master, and he forgave you immediately."

"I guess that's all right," Emily said. "But I wish you didn't change my words around like that."

"Sometimes it's necessary." he told her. After so many years of being a bishop, he knew all about diplomacy. It was second nature to him.

"He still needs convincing to stop this stupid training," Emily pointed out.

"I know. This is a good start."

"If you say so." Emily glanced at Dios, who was shuffling papers ferociously, and got the point. She left the library and set off for the theater to check with Nadir about the last rehearsal.

Rody looked out the infirmary window and sighed, ignoring Tuta, Mio and their assistants as they did their work. He was finding it very hard to practice. It rained the night before, making the ground too wet to dig, and the grass too damp to run on to improve his lightning magic. The restaurant didn't have any type of soup or stew on the menu. Bright happened to be out riding with Sharon and Futch. The baths were always open to everyone, but Rody already mastered water magic. He did his usual flying lessons, but couldn't stop his mind from wandering. When he finally left the Infirmary, he bumped into Emily.

"Uh, hi," he greeted her, a little shyly. "Were you... waiting for me?" It certainly looked like it, the way she was leaning against the wall.

"Yeah. Do you want to come jogging with Cecile and me?" she asked eagerly. "It's a great day for it! The sky's clear and the temperature's just right."

"Won't we slip on the grass?"

"The sun's been up for hours, drying everything."

"Just let me tell my master," Rody said, ducking back into the infirmary for a moment. Emily stayed outside, but she could hear the frown in Estella's voice when she spoke.

"Rody, you're not finished with your training. You haven't been to the library all week!"

"Oh, let him go." Tuta said. "Young people need exercise! The fresh air will be good for him."

"He's right," Mio chipped in. "That boy is looking awfully pale. Sunlight will take care of that."

Estella had no choice but to give in. "I feel kind of guilty," Rody told Emily, as they made their way to the castle entrance to meet with the garrison commander.

"Why? The doctor was telling the truth." Emily stopped and glanced at the mage critically. "You could use to come jogging with us more often. And a visit to Juan wouldn't do any harm, either - right now, your arms look so thin I could snap them in half. Figuratively!" she exclaimed, when Rody gave her a horrified look.

"But mages don't need physical strength," he protested.

"That's not true! What if you get silenced, or if your powers are cut off somehow? You'd be totally defenseless!" Emily said. "To me, the perfect mage is like Hugo or Lady Chris - good at magic, but just as good a fighter."

"I don't know if I can do that," Rody said as they went outside. He looked nervously at the appraisal shop as they passed it.

"Of course you can! You'll just have to work at it, that's all. But if you really don't want to, I guess you can find someone else to protect you."

"Like you?" Rody asked innocently. Emily stared at him.

"I wasn't thinking of anyone in particular!" she managed to say, just when Cecile spotted them and ran over, Koroku right behind her. "Hey! You don't mind if Rody joins us, right?"

"More the merrier," the guard replied, making no move to take off her heavy armor. "I tried getting Thomas to come with us, but he says he's too tired." Cecile's expression showed that she didn't think that was a valid excuse.

While the three friends and dog ran laps around Budehuc Castle, Sasarai was in the basement trying to withdraw a few items from the warehouse.

"A ring," he said for the fifth time. "Just a plain silver one with a yellow stone. Are you sure you don't have it?"

"It's here somewhere," Muto murmured distractedly. "'No thanks, I'm in a hurry.' 'No thanks, I'm in a hurry.' I just need to remember..."

Sasarai realized that the Kobold was suffering from pre-performance jitters and resolved to keep his patience, but when Muto asked yet again what he wanted, it was difficult.

"Oh, a ring!" Muto went into the back room, where the Saint Loa knights usually played, and returned a few minutes later with a pair of feather earrings. "Here you go!"

Sasarai was about to ask if he could just look for it himself, when Hugo walked over, extremely annoyed.

"This isn't my ring!" he cried. "My wind ring has a green stone!"

"I didn't know you were a wind magician," Sasarai said, moving aside to let the Flame Champion stand in front of the counter.

"I'm not." Hugo replied. "I dabbled in it a little when I was younger. Captain Geddoe gave the ring to me - he says Luc dropped it when they fought at Mount Senai. It's supposed to boost a mage's potential, but I don't know."

"That's true," Sasarai told him. "These rings are very common in Harmonia. May I see yours?"

"Sure." Hugo slipped it off his finger. "But like I said, it doesn't really belong to me."

"This is my earth ring! Where'd you find it?"

"I got it from Muto this morning. My ring must still be somewhere in there."

Still chanting his one line feverishly to himself, Muto tore the back room apart, then dumped every item vaguely resembling a ring on the counter for his two customers to sort through themselves.

"Poor thing," Hugo said, after the bishop told him about the Kobold's problem. "They made me play the boy who cried wolf once. I've never been the same since - hey, there's a lot of these!" He held up Geddoe's lightning ring in one hand and Lady Chris's repel ring in the other. "Here's mine."

"Didn't you just say you don't like wind magic?" Sasarai asked. "Perhaps I can buy that from you?"

"I'll give it to you. After all, I got it for free." Hugo handed the ring over. "But what use do you possibly have for it? You're not a wind mage either."

"No, but I know someone who is. Not him!" Sasarai added quickly, when Hugo gave him a suspicious look. Before the Flame Champion could reply, Lilly Pendragon stormed down the basement stairs and pushed in front of them, followed by her two attendants. She threw something down on the counter with a bang.

"This isn't my casque! I demand that you fix this mistake immediately!"

Samus and Reed gave Muto sympathetic and apologetic glances. Hugo fled to the upper levels.

A few hours later, Sasarai found Emily, Cecile, Koroku and Rody winding down from their jog at the restaurant. The two girls were flushed and exhilarated, but the dog flopped on the ground panting and Rody looked like he was about to faint.

"That was... quite an experience," he said weakly. Cecile smiled at him.

"I'm glad you liked it! You'll have to come with us again tomorrow!"

The mage groaned and wondered if even Kenji could survive the ordeal he just went through.

"Hey, you should come with us too!" Emily cried, looking up and seeing Sasarai. "If you have time, of course."

"I'm afraid I don't," the bishop said quickly. "Dios and I have to finish what we started this morning."

"That's a shame," Emily said, clapping Rody on the back. "Isn't it?"

Rody choked on his lemonade. Sasarai took pity on him and changed the subject. "I have something for you," he said, and put the rings on the table. Cecile picked one up and looked at it curiously.

"These are nice! But what do they do?"

Sasarai explained the Harmonian custom of using a ring to channel magic and how they raised the wearer's powers. Emily was skeptical.

"Isn't this what we're trying to stop?" she hissed in his ear.

"No, these really work." he assured her. "They're enchanted. I've seen people make them. Most Harmonian mages have at least a few. Besides," he told her in a whisper, "isn't this better than having him cooked by Bright?"

"And these are for me?" Rody asked incredulously. "Does this mean I don't have to dig holes or swim laps anymore?" Then he frowned. "But why didn't my master tell me this? She must know about it. She knows everything."

"No one knows everything." Sasarai told him. "Except Hikusaak." he added, making the others confused. Before they could upset him terribly by asking who Hikusaak was, he went on. "Rody, I'd like you to keep these as a gift from me. I'm rather impressed by your potential." Then he slipped the earth ring off his finger and added it to the pile. "You might as well have this one, too. I don't have a use for it now."

"Keep it! You'll get the True Earth Rune back soon!" Cecile said. "I promise!"

"Then next time I'm in Crystal Valley, I'll get another one. There's only one thing I want you to do for me in return."

"What's that?" Rody asked eagerly.

"Please try not to be so credulous. Keep your ideas grounded in reality."

Emily stared at him in amazement. "Did you just make a pun?" she demanded. "That's not very dignified, you know." Then she looked up at the sky and realized something. "It's almost evening already! I've got to start getting ready for the performance!"

Without another word, she leapt out of her chair and sprinted back to the castle. Cecile sighed and admitted that she needed to return to her gatekeeping duties.

"It's a hard life, but it's my job. Come on, Koroku!"

"I'd better head back too," Rody said shyly, once they were gone and he was left alone with the bishop. "I promised Emily I'd see her play, and I, uh, want to get a front row seat."

Nadir also had a seat in the front row of the crowded theater that night, thinking to himself that things weren't going as well as they might have, but at least they weren't worse. He could see Rico's knees shake from where he sat, but the girl didn't miss any of her cues. Elliot also looked petrified, but spoke in a clear voice that could be heard by all. After all of his hard work, Muto forgot his one line, but he didn't burst into tears and dash offstage like Ernie did when she messed up. Emily was an excellent match girl, instantly inviting the audience's sympathy. The producer smiled under his mask, glad that he found such a gem. And the narrator...

Nadir listened closely for a moment and almost cried with joy. The narrator's deep voice actually carried some emotion! All of his badgering paid off! Then he frowned. Something was wrong.

"The girl has DIED!" Captain Geddoe shouted gleefully as the heavy red velvet curtains dropped. Nadir buried his head in his hands.

When the cast members stood in the center of the stage to take their bows, Rico tripped over Muto's foot and fell into a piece of scenery. It continued standing for a moment, and she backed away, visibly relieved, but then it suddenly toppled over with a crash and she shrieked. It would have fallen on Elliot if Emily didn't snatch the boy out of its way at the right moment. Nadir sighed and resolved to put together a better cast for Imperial Love.

"How was I?" Emily asked Rody anxiously when she came offstage. "Did I do okay? I was so nervous!"

"You were great!" Rody said sincerely. "Fantastic! Wonderful! Magnificent! Awesome! Stupendous!"

Emily cut him off before he needed to use a thesaurus. "You think so? Nadir just asked if I want a part in his next production!"

"This narrating thing isn't so bad," Geddoe admitted, joining his mercenaries at the bar, where Anne served free drinks to the theater patrons. Ace gave him a funny look.

"Hey, Captain! Why did you sound so happy? The poor little girl died!" He pulled out a handkerchief. Joker rolled his eyes.

"For the fourth time, Ace - it's just a play! Don't take it so seriously!"

"Come on! I heard you sniffle too! Admit it!"

"Can't a man have a drink in peace?" Gau demanded, glaring. Cecile hurried over to interrupt if things got ugly.

"That turned out well," Sasarai remarked to Dios when they passed Rody and Emily on their way backstage. He looked up and laughed at the confused expression on his aide's face.

"I was never in love with the girl myself. I just wanted to help cultivate her friendship with Rody."

"I never thought that!" Dios protested indignantly. "And I never would have guessed that you were such a romantic, either."

"The bishop ignored him, looking among the papers stacked and scattered around Nadir's office. A few minutes later he found what he was searching for.

"Does this writing look familiar to you?" he asked, handing him the sign-up sheet with his name. Dios squinted at it for a moment before replying. Sasarai grimaced, but wasn't very surprised. He went back out into the tavern and over to where Nash was busy teasing Sir Borus and tapped him on the shoulder.