In the last hour before dawn, the halls of Aquios Castle were quiet. Though it would not be long before the maids and the castle staff would begin to stir, would not be long at all before the castle would hum to life again to face down yet another day, right now there was only silence. A few guards could be seen haunting the corridors, moving in the shadows between torches like large armored spirits, but just as they resembled spirits they were quiet like spirits as well, walking with a tentative care that had long since become habit to most of them. The loudest thing they ever did was occasionally cough or sneeze, and there were few enough of them that they did not even make a ruckus doing that. No, for all intents and purposes, the place was as quiet as a crypt. The castle was asleep.

All except for her. She was awake, and walking the halls herself. From the fluid vigor of her stride, no one would have guessed that she had not slept at all in nearly two days, yet it was true that she hadn't. By day she attended to her duties as she always had gathering information for the queen, running important errands, training her subordinates, and carrying out all the other tasks her position demanded of her and by night she went over everything else; inspecting every report from one of her informants (no matter how tedious and unimportant the information they had might seem to be), every letter the castle received that she could get her hands on, every stray scrap of paper, every request, every hint of the slightest bit of intrigue. She had always set some time aside for this sort of thing of course; a few hours after every workday. Since her father had died, it had fallen to her to manage affairs in his place, and she was not one to stint in her responsibilities. But it was more than a few hours a night now. Usually, it was at least five hours, and sometimes it was all night. Where once she had spread the work out, now she lumped it all together. Any bit of information she got, she went over that very evening.

And recently, still often finding herself wide awake when all the work was finished, she had taken to poring over the records of the city's accounts as well, when she ran out of relevant things to do. There could be thieves in the system somewhere, after all, and while it was not her responsibility to deal with such, she was awake, and the problem was there, so why not try to solve it if she had nothing else to occupy her time with?

Only on this particular night, she had run out of that too, and it was still not morning yet. Nor did she feel tired. Physically tired perhaps, but her mind was still as active and sharp as it had been when she had woken up two days before, and the only way to make it rest now was to exhaust herself entirely. So now she strode through the castle, checking on security. In her mind, she was helping the guards with their tasks. But in actuality, she was merely trying to come up with another way to waste time.

"Lady Nel." One of the guards said dutifully to her, nodding his head and moving carefully aside for her as she passed. She nodded back, barely seeing him, and walked on.

Though she had only done this before been out at this time of night in the castle on a few occasions, no one seemed terribly surprised to see her now. After all, her work ethic was already the stuff of legends to most of the people in Aquaria. She was doing a bit more nowadays perhaps, but most people would simply attribute that to the changing of the times. In truth however, it had far more to do with her than it did with circumstances in the kingdom. Though the war with Airyglyph was over, little had actually changed. Her old routine would have handled today's affairs just as well as they had handled yesterday's. What her old routine wouldn't handle was her. If she stopped working at her usual times, her mind would still be wide awake when she tried to go to bed, and her mind would give her no peace as long as it had the energy to do otherwise. It was constantly thinking, thinking about things she didn't want to think about, chastising her in its shrill, nagging voice, and the only way to muffle that voice was with work. Layers and layers of work. Because when there was work, it didn't have time to dwell on anything else.

Two more guards greeted her as she passed by the Chapel. The doors were shut, and though she could have had them opened for her if she wanted, there was really no need. It would just be a needless inconvenience to the guardsmen, and it would likely be noisy. And with the entrance to the catacombs shut, there was no way to get into it from outside of the castle anyway. So instead she walked on.

She eventually came to the upper level of the of the castle. There were no torches on the walls here; the skylights in the roof allowed more than enough moonlight in to illuminate the halls as brightly as anyone could have wished. It was better than the torches in fact, as at least one of the three moons generally lit the place nearly as bright as day (a rather cloudy, often orange day, but day nonetheless). And Nel was struck every time she came at the almost ethereal beauty the castle's upper level had at night. The walls glowed amber and silver and blue with the phases of the moons, the plants that had been lined along the walls took on a hazy, ghostly cast in the pale light, and the marble floors reflected the stars almost like a mirror, sometimes giving the impression of being suspended out in space, and at other times giving the impression that one was walking along a pathway strewn with glittering jewels. She often envied the queen for having her chambers on this floor, but of course, it was absurd to envy the queen for something like that, and she always pushed the thought out before it could really even fully manifest itself. This time was no different. There were four guards near the entrance to the throne room and several more inside it, to be sure and they all bristled in unison when they saw her coming.

"Business with Her Majesty at this hour, Lady Nel?" One of them asked her as she approached.

"No." Nel said, almost conversationally, "I just…couldn't sleep. That's all." Or wouldn't. Or won't.

One of them laughed at that for some reason, but otherwise, they bothered her no more than any of the others had. She continued toward the other end of the great hall, actually feeling slightly better for having come up here. Her gaze dropped to the floor, and, ridiculously and without thinking, she started trying to step on some of the stars' reflections as she went. She had done that as a little girl, she recalled. She had made a game out of it. Nel no longer remembered what the point had been, but it had been fun such simple, stupid, pointless fun whatever it was, and she found herself half-playing it again as she walked. She forced herself to stop immediately when she caught herself of course, but she was nearly to the stairs already before she did that. Half-tempted to be ashamed of herself, and half-tempted to laugh, she braced herself and leaned against a wall, and then, unthinkingly, looked up at the starry night sky through the glass roof

and that was all it took to bring on all the thoughts she had been working so hard to keep at bay. The thoughts of her friends, where they were now, what they were doing. Cliff with his ego, Maria with her iron will, Mirage with her genial pretentiousness, Fayt…

Nel shook her head, as if to somehow knock the thoughts out. It didn't work half so well as simply forcing her thoughts back into oblivion by force of will clearing her mind, as her training had taught her to do so very well but reflex forced her do it anyhow.

Now wasn't the time to be thinking of such things. In fact, no time was the time to be thinking of such things. Her friends were gone, gone back to their own worlds, to their own lives, nothing but memories to her now. Nostalgia was stupid and useless, and thinking would not will any of them back here. She would have liked them all to stay, but she understood why they could not, and so now it was better to just let them go, to forget about them and get on with her own life.

Only her thoughts would not allow that. And that vexed her to no end. It vexed her because Nel had not realized how attached she had become to her friends until their time together had come to an end. It vexed her because when the time to part came, she could still not bring herself to give much more than a casual word of farewell, even to people she trusted more than family as if to say that it didn't bother her at all that she might never see most of them again. It vexed her because it almost made her feel like Albel in retrospect, and it vexed her

(because it had seemed like he might stay)

because the world around her now seemed so small and confining, where once it had been bigger than she dared to imagine.

When the thoughts came unbidden, they made her feel as bad as she had back when the news of her father's death had come, before she had learned that absolutely drowning oneself in work was the ultimate panacea to thoughts that one did not want to have. Those times had been hell, and she had no great urge to go through them a second time.

After finally submerging the thoughts once again, clamping down on them with all the willpower she had, she finally made her way down the stairs, walking as if nothing had happened. Her course of the castle complete, she would return to her quarters. She might even lay down on the bed now, but she would not sleep. She had weathered another night, and soon enough she would come out of her room for another day of work, pretending for all the world to be refreshed. Very soon.

Outside, the sun was coming up.

Although I'd really prefer to do away with my cumbersome, often lengthy author's notes, I feel that a few things need to be said about this:

First, I make a few assumptions about things in the game, primarily the issue of scope in Elicoor. I assume for instance, that the distance between cities in the game as well as the size of the cities themselves is symbolic rather than literal. Hence, cities become gigantic, and the landscape between them is generally sprawling and expansive. This might take a few things out of proportion from the way they were portrayed in the game, but since the alternative is that the entire continent of Gaitt is small enough to fit in my city, that the whole of the kingdom of Aquaria contains approximately two hundred citizens, and that the bustling commercial center of Peterny contains less than the average flea-market in a backwoods town, I think I made the right decision. In this I sort of just think of the game as making the story expedient; there's really no need to cover the five days (or whatever) of humdrum between Peterny and Aquios if nothing notable is happening, and it gives characters more than two or three days to get to know each other in the game's storyline. Because of my enlargement of the game's area, I have also added a few other random villages and settlements when and where I figured they would serve. A kingdom is hardly a kingdom with only three cities, I figure. As a side note, I did keep Castle Aquaria at its meager two floors, but the floors are much bigger now (though that may not be apparent in the first few chapters).

Second is the issue of canon. This very hard for me (not that it isn't for everyone else too…), because some of the situations that characters encounter in my story are different from anything that happened in the game, and consequently I have no precedent for knowing how they would act. I tried to keep them consistent of course, but since I spend a significant amount of time in their heads, where the game never even gets close to, and because I'm not that great at appraising my own work (except for the dialogue, which I'm pretty sure I have managed to fantastically screw up), I have no idea how well I managed it. This all just a really fancy, long-winded way of saying: if I messed someone up in some way, PLEASE tell me.

And lastly we come to the matter of Fayt. The epilogue sort of suggests (especially if you get Mirage's ending) that Fayt essentially abandons everything about his old life the moment the game ends, and goes with anyone other than Sophia immediately, but this pretty much amounts to Fayt saying something along the lines of 'Oh well, mom doesn't need to see me again. I'll leave it to Sophia to tell her that I decided to abandon her and everything else so that I could live on some remote medieval planet that she'll never be allowed to go to.' And Fayt just doesn't seem the type to do that. At least not to me. He would at least go to say goodbye. I say this mainly in case the initial appearance doesn't mesh with someone else's interpretation of the ending. Consider it my disclaimer.

Next chapter: My biggest canon headache ('Am I exaggerating Nel's character? If so, how do I work around that? How else would she act? etc.') until really late in the story. Plus alternating Nel/Clair POV. Also contains the first attempt at setting the stage for the actual plot, though it probably won't look like it.