The strophic melodies of a Shumi folk song wafted through a primly decorated garden where Rinoa sat alone. The tiers of her cream dress were draped across a gold washed marble bench and her satin slippers peeked out of the bottom of her petticoats. The young woman was doing her best to forget the hundreds of teenagers inside the palace, but the din of their excited chatter and clinking cutlery nearly obscured the music. Most of the graduating students were about to begin their lives as socialites but not her, for the rising taxes had left her family in dire straits for several years. She was to end her studies at the Deling School of Ballet and search for a stable means of income after tonight.

To calm her nerves, she looked past the garden's walls and beyond the geometrically perfect buildings of the inner city. Her dark brown eyes rose higher and higher, until she had to lean back to stare up at the clear night sky. The constellation of Alexander was rising in the east and the golem's eyes were burning brightly. Rinoa knew that while she was looking to these ancient stars for guidance, elsewhere in the world travelers were using these same stars for navigation, and yet elsewhere scholars were studying them. The distant lights reminded her that the world was small and her problems even smaller. A sense of relief washed over her and she smiled back at the stars above.

Feeling brave enough to return to the masquerade ball, Rinoa fumbled with a bronze mask designed to resemble a cat. She raised the lavish accessory to her face until her eyes were neatly positioned inside two almond-shaped holes. Making sure to move her hair out from under it, she then fastened the mask's black ribbons together before standing up to make her way inside.

As she wandered through the gardens, she sadly admired the endless array of rare flowers. This is perhaps the last time I'll ever be here. Her focus eventually settled on a shiny plaque at the foot of an old marble sculpture. She assumed that the statue was made in the image of the Witch who had originally built this area of the palace. Miracle of Lakshmi.

Before Rinoa could wonder what it meant, two young children dressed in formal attire screamed with glee as they ran into the gardens. If it wasn't for their proportions, they would have looked like little adults. Trailing from their hands were red and gold ribbons, likely taken from the graduation party décor.

"Woo!" The little girl giggled as she skidded to a halt. Her deep green eyes quickly darted up towards Rinoa's face and she seemed to be observing the contours of the cat-like mask, until her eyes darted again over Rinoa's shoulder. The little girl then broke into a run towards the statue.

"That ain't fair!" the boy cried as he chased her. "You took all muh gold ones!"

"But the fairies told me to bring them here!" The little girl explained as she ran around the statue to dodge him.

Rinoa laughed at the two before stepping back into the large hall. As she did so, two angry gentlemen wearing darkly colored suits and silk top hats stomped their way past her.

"Children b'have," boomed the voice of one of the men. He was sporting a distinguished moustache and his hands were in tight fists, causing a signet ring to dig into his skin and leave a hexagram-shaped imprint.

"Sela, come back inside. Now!" The other man bellowed. Around his neck was a blue ribbon and an ancient medallion hung from it.

The little red headed girl made a pout as she sauntered towards him. "But papa, we're having so much fun! Pretty pleeease?"

Kneeling down, her father spoke to her in a stern voice. "I told you not to play with that boy. I caught him looking up the ladies' skirts last time we came here." He looked over his shoulder and saw the other man pulling the little boy by his left ear. "Make sure your son stays away from my daughter."

The man let go of his son's ear and glared at the other man. "From mah point of view, it looks more like yer daughter can't stay away from him."

The little boy rubbed his ear and stuck his tongue out at the little girl, who in turn giggled and stuck her own tongue out back at him.

"Cm'on Irvy, it's gettin' late." Grabbing the little boy's upper arm, the man with a moustache dragged his son back to the party.

Inside, Rinoa had joined Quistis in watching an energetic performance. It featured wide drums that men in traditional Shumi clothing would often strike with differently sized sticks. Sometimes they would even strike the sides of their drums. Behind them was one impossibly large drum, and every now and then the drummers would shout between its powerful beats.

The performance continued to grow louder, almost deafeningly so, and Rinoa felt the rhythm resonating throughout her body. The tempo quickened and the drummers stood up to move with the beat, their playing becoming a dance of its own. Everything suddenly went silent and they all slowly raised their arms, until a performer yelled one last high pitched note, signaling the rest to strike their drums a final time. The drummers then knelt down to place their red and gold tipped sticks across the floor, marking a path for someone.

The students cheered at the top of their lungs for the performance, which announced the entrance of several guards donning the dress uniforms of Knighted nobility. They steadily walked through the path, their lapel pins flickering with each step, and upon taking their positions they observed the crowd with stony, unreadable gazes.

Quistis smiled at Rinoa, who was clapping enthusiastically. "Try to keep your back straight, Rinoa. It's a corset, not a basket."

"Yes, My Lady." Rinoa straightened herself and tried to imitate Quistis' perfect posture. The blonde was wearing a light peach gown with a wide silhouette and stiff bodice, while her face was hidden beneath a butterfly-inspired mask made of silver. How is it that Lady Trepe always looks comfortable in the most uncomfortable clothing?

"I checked the appointment list, there will be several dances before your audience with the Queen," Quistis said as she brushed some of Rinoa's unruly hair away from her face. A concerned expression marred her features. Tilting her head, she removed a delicate silver hairclip from her own hair and used it to pin some of Rinoa's bangs back. "I regret to say that I cannot stay much longer."

Rinoa raised her head and gently touched the hairclip. "Why is that so, My Lady?"

"The Trepes have never got along with the Witches in government." Quistis glanced at the Knights before continuing. "Do not fret, Rinoa. I will be back to take you home."

Rinoa nodded understandingly before turning to look at the Knights. Most of them were carrying extravagant weapons and despite their widely varied ages, each stood with an equal amount of dignity and purpose. Amongst them was only one woman; short and stocky, she would have gone unnoticed if not for the dark makeup painted across her bright eyes.

"Everyone looks at her as though a female Knight is something unheard of," Quistis said with disdain.

"Hmm?" Rinoa wasn't sure if Lady Trepe was talking to her.

"Dame Charlotte Tycoon."

"Is she a pirate, My Lady? She seems young."

"Yes. The Witch she has bonded with is also a pirate," Quistis crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Her rare Talent with Fire has earned her a prominent position amongst the Indra..."

"The next song was composed by a good friend of the Queen," the conductor suddenly announced. Beside him was a woman dressed in an unusual style of traditional clothing. On her head was a red cap, and her blue dress had a circular skirt without a petticoat. Holding everything together was a capelet of sheared leather held shut by oversized medallions. The woman whispered something to the conductor before walking back towards the ensemble members.

Picking up a flat drum covered in markings, the woman softly tapped it with a stick until the female pianist behind her began to play. She then sang her song, an aimless aria in a language that everyone present was unable to recognize. Her clear voice sounded like half a whisper and it trailed on in a sorrow melody at the end of each word. A handsome double bass violinist eventually accompanied the pianist, giving the song a deeper texture.

The song was passionate and unlike anything Rinoa had ever heard before. Listening to the airy voice and piano made Rinoa feel cold and lost, but something about the bass violin made her feel warm and safe. As the music continued, she found herself thinking of her mother and held onto the ring that was on her necklace.

Her mother had secretly set aside money for several years, just so that they could afford everything Rinoa was wearing at this very moment. If it wasn't for mom's failing health, she could have been here for the ceremonies. Rinoa looked up at Quistis, who came in her mother's place. The older woman had a somber look on her face.

"I wonder where the songstress is from," Rinoa remarked.

Unaware of the scrutiny, Quistis took in a sharp breath before answering her. "The Northern reaches of Bika Snowfield and Thor Peninsula. Her ancestors were forcibly moved or captured by Esthar's government long ago."

Rinoa looked at the songstress and furrowed her brows. Esthar. When daddy came back from Esthar, he wasn't the same anymore.

"Shumi, Trabia, Balamb as well as Galbadia's government have been working together to ensure their independence."

The song came to an end and everyone in the grand hall gave a mild applause. Nearly all of the students had confused expressions on their faces whilst some of the parents had tears in their eyes.

Rinoa turned to ask more about the songstress but was surprised to find that Lady Trepe was gone. That's impossible… she was right beside me. Rinoa quickly scanned the room for a peach dress before wading through the crowd. She couldn't have left without telling me when she'd be back.

"Sorry!" Rinoa placed her gloved hands together in a contrite gesture as she cut through a couple, only to bump into a younger student who gave her a nasty look.

"Watch it, Heartilly!" the student dusted his jacket with gloved hands, as though it was brushed by dirt.

Rinoa lowered her head and decided to push through, making murmured apologies as she passed everyone. She paid little attention to the insults and curses until a rancorous voice caught her ear.

"I should feed on her for that."

Rinoa whipped her head back and saw nothing but a sea of students in masked faces doing their best to ignore her inquisitive glances. The voice sounded like a man from Balamb but nobody seemed to be wearing anything in the Balamb style.

"Her Majesty Queen Ultimecia," the conductor finally called out, bringing everyone in the room to attention. "Keeper of Bahamut, Daughter of the Talle Mountains, Descendant of Hyne..."

Everything went silent as everyone stood up from their chairs, causing the crowd to shuffle and obscure Rinoa's view even more. The Knights began to recite an oath in unison, but she couldn't quite catch what they were saying.

"Welcome, class of 1710," a foreign voice that was unmistakably the Queen's addressed the students. Her bold accent was softened by decades of living in Galbadia. "When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice." Although she spoke softly, her hypnotic voice carried throughout the hall with Air magic.

Rinoa turned and lifted herself onto the balls of her feet to get a good look at the Queen but with her short stature she couldn't see much. All she could discern was an old man walking towards the back of the hall and stopping beside an ornate headdress. Being able to clearly hear the Queen yet not see her was genuinely disorienting.

"It is with great honor that I introduce you to… Lord Seifer Almasy of Rinauld, who shall be conducting tonight's music." The Queen extended a sleeved arm towards the old man, who bowed as everyone in attendance applauded. "I look forward to meeting each and every one of you," she added before leaving.

At least I'll get to see the Queen when it's my turn. Rinoa let out a long breath, tucking some of her thick hair behind her ear. Where is Lady Trepe?

The intro for a Vienne Waltz began to play and students holding hands rushed to take their places. While everyone else cleared the way, Rinoa stepped back and stood amongst the parents. She bit her lip ruefully as she watched dozens of couples marching onto the floor in a line formation that bent and doubled backwards. The parents beside her noticed that she was quite alone and surely enough the whispers began. Since all the graduating students were expected to be taking part in the ball, it was controversial for a girl her age to be without a partner.

Burying her gloved hands in her skirts, she impatiently looked around in the hope that she would catch a glimpse of Lady Trepe. Instead, a masked blond man with a smile that was more like a snarl surfaced from the crowds, walking directly towards her. Rinoa turned to the people beside her but nobody seemed to take notice of him. She subconsciously took a step towards him and before she knew it, someone else had linked onto her left arm and pulled her into the march.

"May I have this dance?"

Rinoa's mouth was agape, she had no chance to answer. She had no idea who her partner was, and had he been moving any faster, she would have tripped on the hem of her dress. A black mask concealed most of his face, but she could tell from the stubble along his jaw that he was much older than her. From the looks of his fine clothing he was also wealthy, but all of that was unimportant, for the moment she placed her left hand in his right, an indescribable familiarity took over her senses.

"Do I know you, Messieur?"

"Not yet."

His voice was smooth and detached, like silk sliding over steel. It seemed like he had something else to say, yet he was silent as he lead her into a reverse turn.

Mid-turn, Rinoa caught several glimpses of the masked blond, as well as an unmasked old man with graying hair who was also watching them. As though he was aware of her looking back at him, the old man immediately turned away.

"Do you know me, Messieur?" Rinoa asked as they took a few steps forward in unison. She lightly placed her right arm onto his shoulder as he directed her into a turn.

"I know you very well." With an unreadable expression, her partner placed his hands behind his back.

Rinoa shook her head as he continued to elude her. I suppose he wished to spare me the embarrassment of being without a partner. She tried to get a closer look at his face but he made an elegant bow, which reminded her to lower herself in a curtsey. The two took a step towards one another and in one motion she rested her left arm along his right, allowing him to lead them across the floor as the waltz began proper.

"I would thank you for the dance but you didn't wait for my reply, Messieur."

Her partner unapologetically stared at her with an intensity that left her feeling uncomfortable. When it seemed like he had no intentions of speaking, Rinoa decided to break the awkward silence.

"The songstress earlier, I am unsure what she was singing about but it sounded beautiful."

"She wasn't singing about something, her song was the something."

"So… that means…" Rinoa remembered how she felt while listening to the song. The cold snowfields and the warmth, it reminded me of...

"There are no lyrics in the music of Sorbald's indigenous people. For the first time tonight their old music was accompanied by new instruments."

He knows a lot about music. Rinoa blushed, she found herself drawn to his baritone voice. "I think I understand… the song was her mother?"

"…" Her comment had caught him off guard. Instead of replying, he busied himself by steadying her during a slight jump towards the end of the waltz.

"Was I right, Messieur?" Rinoa asked as he turned her one last time.

"That was… a very good guess. Her mother was part of the Lost Generation." His voice trailed off, as he was distracted by a dark figure in Centran clothing exiting the hall. Making a gentleman's bow, he supported her with his left hand as she made a final curtsey.

Rinoa clapped her gloved hands along with the rest of the students as they applauded for the dance. She saw that her partner's attention was still diverted and wondered what he was looking at.

"Pardon me," he finally said. He made a slight bow before he unceremoniously strode towards the back of the hall, leaving a perplexed Rinoa behind.

Two young girls sighed as they rushed past the man in the black mask. The stars in their eyes were surely from seeing the white haired Queen's beauty in person. Taking a sparkling drink from a passing servant, the man casually walked past several students seated in a lounge area. He eventually took a spot beside the female Knight stationed outside the Queen's study. The Knight acknowledged him with a quick nod and he lifted his drink in salute. The sound of a lively waltz echoing through the halls barely muted the voices coming from the study.

Inside the glistening room, Queen Ultimecia was seated on a soft cushion, fervently discussing something with her Keeper. Her extravagant headdress made a faint jingle whenever she shook her head in disbelief.

"Perhaps we misinterpreted the calculations that our Vishnu sisters made," the Keeper said as she stood beside the Queen. Her light green eyes shifted down and to her left, towards to the faint teardrop painted underneath her left eye. "I have not sensed any Talent from this group."

"My fortellings have never been mistaken," Ultimecia wondered aloud as her yellow eyes stared emptily. "But you are right, my sister. There was no Talent amongst them." As she spoke, her hands steadily moved across the string of wooden beads in her hands.

"I trust your premonitions more than the sciences. You have always seen that which others cannot." The Keeper lowered her head as she continued to speak in a soft tone of voice. "But it may not be the best time for a new Witch to join us. For every gain there is loss."

Ultimecia tilted her head towards the sound of the other woman's voice, her unfocused eyes continuing to stare vacantly ahead. "What do you mean, sister? It is the perfect time for a jubilee year born to begin training. She could be an enormous asset to the frontlines."

The Keeper closed her eyes, worried that she might regret what was about to transpire. "We are Seeking a student, not a soldier." Her gold bangles made a light noise as she placed a hand to her chest before adding, "Your Majesty." The Keeper bowed before walking out of the room, her faint steps barely audible save for the small bells sewn onto the bottom of her dress.

Once outside, she raised an eyebrow at the masked man beside the Knight guarding the room. The moment she recognized his long brown hair, a playful grin graced her features.

"Excellency," he greeted her by lifting his hat.

"What an exquisite mask, Sir Leonhart." She blinked as she noticed his gloves. "I thought you had excused yourself from the festivities as usual," then added in a lower voice, "were you looking for someone?"

"No," he flatly replied as he placed his empty glass on a passing servant's tray. "Enjoy the evening, Your Excellency."

The Keeper smiled at him. Despite the cold greeting, there was a mutual regard between the two. She watched with interest as the man made his way towards the side halls leading to the guestrooms. When he was completely out of view, she quickly followed and made a turn towards the palace gardens.

The kid is really going to do it.

I am coming, Artorius. I hope you did not scare the boy, he is special.

Only a little. It builds character!

The Keeper touched one of her bangles and the relic flickered before allowing her to invert several Water and Air strands. Within seconds she was able to project a mirage that would mask her true appearance from both humans and Witches. Now disguised as an old palace servant, she hastened towards the garden fountains, where a raven-haired girl was being teased by several other students. Amongst them was a blond boy whose voice cracked as he made fun of the girl for being flat-chested.

He has no idea that his family is gone. As she projected the thought, her Knight, a tall and imposing man with ash blond hair, instinctively looked in her direction.

"Give it back!" Rinoa screamed. She was unaware of the spark bouncing off her necklace.

Edward tossed her mask to one of his friends. It was the student she had bumped into earlier. She ran towards the other boy, but something clamped down onto the train of her dress, causing her to trip into the fountain pool.

"Should have worn your glasses, Heartilly!" the student spat as he threw the mask at her.

"What's all this commotion!" yelled an old palace servant as she walked towards Rinoa. Upon hearing her voice, the Knight stepped into view, causing all the students to scramble. "I'm going to make sure y'parents teach you boys a thing or two about civility!"

Edward hesitated before he ran with his friends. He recognized the Knight but ultimately didn't want to take any chances by staying.

Rinoa reached for the mask and held onto it tightly as she shivered. "My dress," she whispered in shock. "It's ruined." Tiers of delicately textured cream chiffon were now soaked and matted against her skin.

"Here, girl." The servant lent her a hand and lifted her out of the fountains. "Come with me and we'll get y'dried off."

"Thank you, Madame," Rinoa obediently followed the servant down a side hall, distressed by the new dilemma she had to face. "But without a proper dress, I'll not be able to meet the Queen."

The old woman quietly opened the door to a lushly decorated guestroom and motioned for Rinoa to go inside. "Then y'better make use of that."

Draped across a Shumi folding screen was a wine red gown and several towels. Rinoa removed her damp gloves as she walked towards the garment to run her fingers along the velvet. The quality was almost unreal; she had never touched something so delicate.

"How can I ever thank you, Madame?" Rinoa asked as she removed a towel to dry her face and hair.

"By delivering it back to the palace – clean!" The old woman said as she quietly closed the door.

"Yes, Madame!"

Elsewhere in the room a clock struck 11 and Rinoa remembered what she was there for. The Queen! She quickly changed out of her wet clothing to dry herself off behind the screen.

As she placed the red gown on, she slowly became aware of a piano being played in an adjacent room. It was the same melody that accompanied the songstress' music earlier that night. When she realized that she needed help in tying up the back of the dress, she decided to venture out from behind the screen and towards the source of the music.

Rinoa was astonished to find the man she had danced with and not the female pianist. Although she could only discern his profile, she knew it was him. His appearance was slightly unkempt but every flaw added to the perfection in her eyes. How beautiful. Mesmerized by his virtuosity, she found herself unable to interrupt him, and in her indulgence of each solemn note, she soon lost track of the time.

His playing abruptly came to an end, snapping Rinoa out of her reverie.

"How long do you intend to spy on me?" The man placed his mask back on before shifting to the right edge of the piano seat to face her.

"I didn't mean to, Messieur," Rinoa nervously whispered. "I was looking for someone to…" Unable to find the right words, she revealed how her dress was improperly laced up.

Lowering his head, the man placed his elbows on his knees in a frustrated motion. He took a deep breath and roughly ran his hands through his long brown hair. "Why are you here..." he seemed to ask himself more than her.

"I am so sorry." Rinoa felt guilty for spying on him but deep down she didn't regret her intrusion.

The man steadily lifted his head back up to stare directly at her. "I asked why you were here."

Rinoa felt color blooming in her cheeks as he stood up and approached her. "I heard a piano and… and I came here for help… and…" she mumbled as he went behind her.

"That isn't why you came here."

Rinoa's eyes widened and her heart threatened to leap out of her chest. All she could focus on was the sensation of his fingers as they traced up her back, slowly fastening the gown closer to her skin.

"You've never been touched like this before."

"Messieur…?" Rinoa's eyes glistened. She felt his hands moving her wet hair away from the top of the gown, baring her shoulders.

"You're here because you wanted me to touch you," he whispered as he placed his left arm around her. "You wanted me to see how beautiful you once were, didn't you?"

"No…" Rinoa lightly shook her head, confused. "You shouldn't say such things." She thought she felt his breath on her neck and she instinctively whirled around. "Please, Messieur! I am not yet seven-and-ten!" She found herself confronted with stormy blue eyes that were searching deeply into her own for an answer she didn't have.

"A woman once told me that age is just a number…"

Before he could finish his sentence, several fireworks lit up the night sky. Alarmed, Rinoa turned to the window and realized how much time had passed. Placing her hands on his chest, she gently pried herself away. "I… I must get going." She took a step backwards and made a slight curtsey. His eyes still beckoned her but she lowered her head, focusing her eyes on a thick silver chain nestled between his jackets. "Goodbye, Messieur."

"…she promised me that someday there will a right time for us," the man whispered as he watched her rush out of the room.

Rinoa returned to the guestroom and lifted her wet dress from the folding screen. Tears welled up in her eyes as she remembered how hard her mother must have worked for this dress, only to have it ruined, and her chance to meet the Queen lost forever. She quickly wrapped the dress inside a towel to hold it in one hand, while her mask in the other, as she made her way back to the grand hall.

She spotted Edward carelessly leaning against a column with one of his legs propped up and glared at him. He seemed oblivious to her but she was sure it was an act.

"Rinoa!" Quistis called out. "What happened to your dress?"

"Lady Trepe," Rinoa cried as she ran frantically towards Quistis, her sobs echoing throughout the hall. "I didn't get to meet the Queen…"

Edward despised himself as he looked towards the ceiling. He had retained his gentleman's honor by winning the bet, yet nothing felt right. It soon occurred to him that everyone present had become aware of him being the cause of a crying girl's predicament, so to avoid further alienation he decided to leave unannounced.

As soon as he reached the front of the palace, he had his carriage called for. He was waiting alone for several moments until a tall man with ash blond hair silently joined him.

"Congratulations on the wager," the man said as he held out a sealed envelope. Painted across his forearm was a red dragon that coiled upwards until it disappeared into his sleeves.

Edward glanced at the envelope as he contemplated his response. Earlier, he would have been intimidated by the man's presence and willing to do anything he said. But now, a strange realization had dawned upon him. Stranger still, it was something he always knew, like a shadow hidden in darkness. As the sound of his carriage approaching drew near, he decided that nobody will ever have the power to make him do anything other than himself.

"Keep your money," the boy said in a cool, composed voice as he hopped inside. "I have no need of wealth."

"You don't want it?" The Knight scratched his head as the driver slammed the carriage door shut.

"There is nothing I wish for, other than to see my parents." Edward slightly lifted his hat before adding, "Good night, Sir."


Author Note: For more about this story, the web page is now linked on my profile!