Disclaimer: If you're looking for this story's disclaimer, please refer to Chapter One.

(September 10, 2011) Here we go - the chapter that actually started it all when this story first popped into my head. I'd rather have published it on 9-9 (I do love my nines, you know) but I couldn't quite swing it. 9-10-11 is almost as cool, though. As it is, this has not been beta'd yet. I'll update as needed after they've looked it over. Preemptive thanks to Lucrecia LeVrai and Blue Persuasion!

Despite knowing exactly how this chapter was going to go, it was crazy-hard to write. I just couldn't seem to get the words to line up with the pictures in my head… To jog the creative juices, I did sketch out a few things for this chapter – Nel's, Clair's, and Albel's outfits, as well as Rozaria's wedding dress from chapter 8 and a little scene that occurs about halfway through this one. Feel free to check them out on deviantArt, though I recommend reading the chapter first, as the scene drawing's a bit of a spoiler. The link's my "homepage" in my profile.

(December 11, 2011) Revised (by me; my betas are still swamped with RL stuff) for my best friend's b-day. ^_^ He probably won't ever read this, but oh well. Happy Birthday, Joel! ^_^ I'd have preferred to have Chapter 10 for you, but didn't make it. Maybe for my birthday, we'll see.

Thank you to the reviewers of the original chapter (especially BlueRyuu) for pointing out some things I fixed in this new version!

Longest chapter yet! Woo!


The Nature of Strength
By: BlueTrillium

Chapter 9: Foreign Relations


Albel smirked with mild satisfaction as the annoying white cloak collided with the wall, sliding down to form an untidy heap on the floor as the suite's door clicked shut behind him. If only he wasn't about to replace it with something else nearly as confining… He stared blankly at the rumpled pile of cloth for a moment before shaking the introspection aside and looking around the room.

It was quite small, and mostly empty – possibly a store room or servant's quarters, hastily cleared to give space for the visiting dignitaries to have someplace private to dress. To the side, an open doorway led to a second room for His Majesty and Count Woltar. Anyone seeking to get to them would have to go through him. Albel approved.

Whatever had inhabited it before, now this room contained only his (locked) traveling trunk, a desk and chair, and an armor stand – of all things – modeling the outer layer of his court costume for the reception. The inner layer, of course, he had already been wearing beneath the wedding cloak. The corner of his mouth twisted up sardonically as he took in the sight of the sleek jacket waiting on the stand. Well, fancy clothing was armor of a sort, he supposed, but there was one thing he needed to do first before donning it. He strode across the room to his trunk.

He could hear the bustle through the open door to the next room as people shuffled around, no doubt aiding Arzei and Woltar with the last touches to their attire. One attendant poked his head through the doorway and timidly asked if Albel needed any assistance. Albel dismissed him with a grunt before slipping his fingers up along his neck, fumbling a bit, and finally unclasping the silver chain hiding underneath his collar.

The key slid easily from the loosened chain into his palm, and he bent to fit it into the trunk's lock. A quick turn, and the lid popped up a bare inch. Albel caught the edge of it and raised it the rest of the way. Various garments met his gaze, already disordered somewhat from the removal of his court clothing. Impatiently he pushed the cloth aside, uncovering the large box containing the offworlders' gift. He dragged it out and set it on the desk before flipping the catches that held it shut and lifting the top.

There, nestled in some odd foam-like material, lay an arm. It was so lifelike that, save for the lack of blood, it could be any one of the many severed limbs Albel had seen (and caused, some) in the course of his life.

Except that it was his arm.

Reaching out, Albel spread his good hand alongside the splayed fingers of the prosthetic. The length of the fingers, the width of the palm, the coating of fine, pale hairs – it was the same. The only difference between true flesh and false was the perfection. No calluses, no scars or blemishes or uneven fingernails marred the arm in the box. It was the ideal of an arm. Even if he had not failed his Accession ceremony all those years ago, his true arm would never have been so flawless. It was a bit eerie.

Slightly unnerved, Albel jerked his hand back as if it had been burned, before cursing his own foolishness and turning his attention to his claw arm.

The bulkier armor plates had been removed before the wedding, so as to allow the blasted cloak to lie more smoothly across his shoulders. But it was still a claw, still joined to metal plates in the shape of an arm, all the way up to the midpoint between his elbow and shoulder – ugly, and therefore "inappropriate" for dancing and other "courtly activities". Albel scoffed, but quietly.

A flat panel near the join where flesh met metal flipped open at his touch and revealed two oddly-shaped protrusions. The first was a toggle; Albel pressed it and gritted his teeth as all vitality drained out of the prosthetic, leaving only a disconcerting numbness and the dead weight of the limp mechanism behind. Grasping the second knob, he turned it forcefully three times sunwise. He heard the faint snicksas somewhere inside, several hooks and latches disengaged.

Albel withdrew his fingers and allowed the panel to fall closed, and then clasped his hand around the metal of his upper arm and gave a twisting yank. With a quiet rasp of metal-on-metal, the claw-arm detached from the stump of his arm and pulled free.

Unbalanced by the sudden loss of weight, Albel staggered a bit, then righted himself and laid the now-lifeless contraption on the desk next to the box. Out of habit he averted his eyes from the unsightly mechanical port that was grafted into the end of his arm and determinedly reached into the box, pulling out the new prosthesis. The false skin gave a bit under his fingers. Ugh, it even felt like a real arm…

Feeling a bit ghoulish, he carefully fitted the raw end of the false arm into his port and twisted, reversing his earlier steps to lock it in place. A brief bolt of pain zinged through him as he pressed the last toggle to engage the runology that brought the arm to life, and he drew in his breath with a hiss, riding it out. When it had passed, he carefully smoothed the edges of false skin over the prosthetic boundary, blending in to his real skin and solidifying the illusion of a complete limb.

Ghoulish though it might be, it really was a remarkable bit of technology, Albel mused. He flexed and wriggled the fingers and swung the arm back and forth a few times to build up a feel for the new limb. Its movement was clean and fluid as ever. The air brushing against it ruffled the pale hairs, and Albel raised an eyebrow at the unusual sensitivity. Truly impressive, not that he would ever admit such to anyone. He wondered if it would transmit pain as well…and hoped he would not need to find out. Not today, at any rate. He had enough to deal with.

Shrugging off his wayward thoughts, Albel moved to the armor stand and removed the formal jacket. He examined it briefly before pulling it on, sliding his arms into the loose belled sleeves. It really wasn't so bad, he thought, though the stiff silver-embroidered pads on the shoulders were a bit uncomfortable. Nothing like the ridiculous get-ups some of the others were no doubt wearing. Unlike theirs, his outfit was modeled after a formal military uniform. It was just simple, midnight-blue silk with silver piping around the edges, falling like water down his back to mid-calf, open in front to display the form-fitting top and skirt of the main costume he was already wearing – also mostly a plain midnight-blue.

Albel glanced back at the armor stand and noticed the long ribbons of midnight and silver fabric draped over it, previously hidden by the jacket. Inwardly he groaned. Re-wrapping the long tails of his hair was tedious at the best of times. He silently snarled as he snatched up the bits of cloth. Well, this was one bit of torture he wouldn't suffer through by himself. He angrily packed his claw into the arm-box, dropped the box into his trunk, lowered the lid, and relocked it. Then he refastened the key to its chain around his neck (easier now, since he could use both hands, though clenching the ribbons slowed him somewhat), and stalked into the next room.

Woltar, apparently finished with his grooming, turned at Albel's entrance. He smiled. "Albel my boy, I must say you cut quite a striking figure."

Albel ignored him. He flung the wad of ribbon fabric at the nearest unoccupied attendant with the command "Hair" and moved to stand in front of the tall multi-paneled mirror next to the king. Arzei's outfit was one of the complex monstrosities Albel was glad to avoid, and his servants were still clustered about him rearranging, folding, and fastening bits of cloth, following no pattern Albel cared to discern. The results so far did look imposing, though. Arzei quirked a long-suffering brow at his subject via the mirror but said nothing, and Albel returned in kind.

Reluctantly he drew his gaze back to his own image in the mirror. As the attendant began painstakingly wrapping the ribbons around his hair, Albel tightened the front panel of his outfit, meticulously drawing it flat and fastening the column of silver buttons that ran up the left side one by one. A line of silver piping ran from his opposite hip up to each button, resulting in a fan of silver lines across the dark material covering his chest once he had them all fastened. He pulled the collar of the outfit up, hiding the metal neck cuff he still wore, and buttoned that as well. He smoothed all the wrinkles out of the garment, then re-settled the jacket on his shoulders and fastened the heavy silver chain that linked the lapels across his front. He shook out the sleeves to make them settle properly at his wrists, and then crossed his arms, impatiently waiting for the servant to finish with his hair.

At last, all the preparations were complete. The attendants pulled back with murmurs of flattery and allowed the three men to examine the results. The king pronounced their appearance as satisfactory.

"Well, shall we?" Woltar gestured grandly, and Arzei nodded. The old man preceded the others back into Albel's chamber, where he opened the hallway door and held it for his king, before falling into place behind him as he and Albel flanked the king down the hallway toward the celebration.


Nel yawned discreetly into her palm as she let the chatter of her companions wash around her. Really, she was grateful to Clair and the girls for keeping her company between dances, but… She distractedly smoothed out a fold in her skirt and gazed across the room.

A change in subject directed her way caught her attention. "…So, when do you think you'll be able to go back and visit your Glyphlings?" It was Clair that asked, a cheerfully teasing smile on her face.

"Well, I hope to go back soon after the celebrations are over here. Jos's birthday is coming up, and it's his first one with us, so..." Nel shrugged. "I have hopes that the queen might assign me at least temporarily as liaison to Airyglyph and send me back with them."

Farleen perked up at that, saying, "You don't think she'll send Lasselle?"

The red-headed former spy shook her head in negation. "He might think so, but no, he doesn't really have the tact for it, and she probably needs him here, to finish paperwork on the treaty and work with the liaison Airyglyph sends here."

"Darn; guess we're stuck with him then," the younger woman giggled. "But that'd be great if you could go. Oh! And I know just the thing for Jos's birthday present."

Nel opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a tap on her shoulder. "May I have this dance?" a light tenor voice asked from behind her. Nel stiffened, shocked. She hadn't heard that voice since… With blinding speed, she spun around and hugged the man that had spoken, hard. "Mik! When did you –"

"Ah, ah!" He shook his finger at her chidingly. "Dance first. C'mon, milady." He bowed grandiosely before grabbing her hand and escorting her out onto the floor, ignoring her laughing protests.

Reaching an open spot on the dance floor, Mik grabbed her other hand and they began to dance. Nel was grateful it was a relatively slow dance, since that allowed her to get a good look at the young man before her. She beamed up at him. "You look great, Mik. The islands agreed with you, then?"

He shrugged easily and returned her grin. "As much as anything does, I guess. The food was great, though, and you should just see some of the flowers up there. Amazing colors, and some as big as your head!" Mik gestured expansively with one hand to demonstrate. "We did try to press a couple of blossoms to bring back and show you. Not as good as the live thing, though. And the scent! It reminded me of Mama's perfume, and…" He faltered and stopped dancing, biting his lip.

Nel pulled him closer and rested her head on his chest. "I am so, so sorry, Mik," she murmured, before releasing him a bit to look him in the eye once again. "It happened so fast, and then they rushed you off…I didn't even get to say goodbye, after…" She clamped her lips shut on a quiet sob and closed her eyes, but a lone tear escaped to roll down her cheek.

"Hey." Mik reached out a hand to brush the tear away. "Not your fault. And don't let the munchkin see you cry, or –"

A deafening screech cut off whatever he had been about to say, as a brown-and-pink projectile shot out of the surrounding crowd, resolving itself into a small girl as she bulled into Nel's knees and latched on to her skirt.


Albel was not having a good time.

He'd done his duty, dancing once with Airyglyph's new queen. The annoying chit refused to talk (not that he'd have had anything to say to her, anyway) and instead gazed up at him measuringly like he was some kind of research project. And then, when her distraction led her to step on his foot, all his resulting glare had elicited from her was a soft laugh. A laugh! At him, Albel the Wicked!

He couldn't decide if that made her brave or foolish. Brave, because very few people were allowed to laugh at him and escape intact, or foolish for believing that her newfound rank would exempt her from his retaliation – which was true, inasmuch as Albel wouldn't be able to harm her physically, but…well, he'd come up with something.

It was a relief to hand her off to her next partner when the music ended.

After that, he'd done an excellent job of ignoring and being ignored by the majority of the wedding guests. Albel didn't quite manage to blend in with the scenery – conversations tended to stop as soon as he got within hearing distance before starting up again after he passed by – but it was an acceptable time, if lamentably boring.

The young knight managed several civil nods with other Glyphian guests, and even exchanged a few words with some scholarly Aquarian runologist he didn't know. He ignored several sets of eyes taking in his now-normal-looking hand before looking quickly away. No one had attacked or insulted him, at least. Albel had just decided to find a glass of cider and an out-of-the-way spot along a wall to settle in for awhile when his latest torment arrived.

A slim dark-haired woman planted herself in his path. Elena. She eyed him up and down critically before nodding to herself. "A dance, I think," she said, holding out her hand imperiously.

Albel bit back his first and second reactions at such a high-handed demand, and finally settled for just rolling his eyes a bit as he reluctantly accompanied her out to the dance floor.

For several moments, they danced in silence. Then, "She laughed," Elena said.

He quirked an eyebrow in confusion.

Elena smiled gently. "Rozaria. She laughed when you danced with her." Seeing the young man's expression immediately darken, she continued. "Don't worry; I think very few – if any – others noticed, if that's what you're worried about. It's just that I haven't seen her laugh very much, in these recent days. And so I am curious – what happened?"

Albel's scowl deepened. "She stepped on me," he bit out, his voice low. "Only that. Apparently, such a thing has become the height of entertainment," he concluded sarcastically.

His dance partner chuckled. "No doubt you supplied her with a copy of your current ecstatic facial expression, as well. Who could resist?" He grumbled to himself and swept her into a turn with only a little unnecessary force. "Seriously, though," Elena continued, "most likely she was taken by surprise at getting any expression at all from you. You have been particularly statue-like this evening. Not to mention that it was probably quite refreshing for her to have a partner that wasn't gushing about her beauty or congratulating her good fortune or some such. I expect she's heard quite enough of that today."

"Hmm." Albel contemplated that a bit as they moved through several more swirls of the dance. At least the girl's head is not turned by flattery, if that's true…

"I hope someday you'll see that—" Elena cut off abruptly as she caught sight of something in the dancing crowd. "Oh! So they did make it back in time, after all!"

Despite himself, Albel turned to follow her gaze, only to see Nel for the first time that evening, dancing in the arms of a young man he didn't recognize. They were standing rather close…his eyes narrowed as he examined the man. Wiry, but fit, he decided, noting the flex of the man's arms as he pulled the redhead a bit closer. His deep emerald formalwear was expertly tailored, and the gold trim drew glints from his brown wavy hair. Inwardly Albel scoffed a bit at the almost foppish short cape and completely pointless bandanna, willfully neglecting to remember that many guests were dressed similarly.

What is Nel doing with someone like that, he wondered. And why is she smiling so broadly?

The couple seemed to be having quite an intense conversation, Albel noted, as the man flung out one arm in a gesture that narrowly missed the neighboring dancers.

Abruptly, the pair stopped moving, and both their faces fell. Messed it up already, has he? Albel had time to think smugly, but then Nel hugged the man even closer. Albel watched in stunned disbelief as she stepped back a bit, evidently crying, and the man lifted a hand to cup her cheek.

What is he doing? Albel thought, not very coherently, as he took an involuntary step in their direction. I'll— He was yanked back to reality when his own forgotten dance partner tugged him out of the way of a screeching child running through the crowd.

The slim warrior watched, bewildered, as the little girl barreled right into Nel, clutching the woman's skirt in one tiny hand while the redhead blindly reached down to pat her head. The child – no older than four, he judged – was unmistakably related to the man. Same wavy dark brown hair, same nose…and yet, the hair held a tint of auburn that the man's didn't have, and she was clinging to Nel, not the man…could it be? Surely not…

"Who…?" Albel coughed out. It felt like the world might have rearranged itself when he wasn't looking and stolen away all his air at the same time.

Elena took pity on the Glyphian's wild-eyed expression and drew him gently out of the crowd of dancers, over to the side where they were out of the way. Losing sight of Nel and her companions, Albel turned to stare at her instead. Elena patted his hand calmly.

"The little girl? That's Rielle, Lady Nel's heir. And the young man is Mik, Rielle's guardian until she reaches her majority. They've been out of the country, staying in the northern islands, ever since those sky-ships attacked. I knew word had finally been sent that it was safe for them to return, but I was surprised they received it and got back in time for the wedding – that's what I was talking about earlier."

"Guardian? He looks related. Is he Rielle's…? I didn't think Nel had any family…?" Albel still wasn't sure what was going on, but he didn't like the off-balance feeling one bit.

"Yes…Mik is Rielle's older brother…" Elena cocked her head, wondering at Albel's rather extreme reaction. Then a glimmer of understanding awoke when the word 'brother' seemed to drain some of the tension from his shoulders. She elaborated to put him more at ease. "They are Nel's cousins – their mother was Nel's mother's younger sister. Clair is Nel's cousin, too – did you know? Adray was a Zelpher before he married into the Lasbard family; he's Nel's uncle." She smiled at Albel's slight grimace at that information. "As for Rielle being Nel's heir – well, unless and until Nel marries and has little girls of her own, Rielle is her nearest female relation in the Zelpher line, since Rielle and Mik's mother was killed in that awful attack." Elena tapped her chin thoughtfully, scanning the crowd. "Their grandfather ought to be around here somewhere, but that's it – that's the extent of Nel's living family."


Albel made his way through the crowd toward the buffet tables, figuring some food might help settle all the new information in his mind. It was odd, realizing that Nel had family; he'd always thought she was like himself – no direct blood kin left.

She had all this – family that would actually care if she was gone – and still risked it all in the war… He shook his head. Of course she had. That's the kind of person she was; guarding her country and her loved ones was what she did.

Reaching the table, Albel quickly scooped up a plate and some snacks. As he turned to look for a place to sit, something bumped heavily into his knees from behind, early oversetting his food. The Glyphian growled and spun around to find his assailant, but at first saw nothing.

"Ahem." The rather pompous noise drew his eyes downward, where he found a plump, stripy-tailed Menodix brat batting his large brown eyes up at him in seeming innocence. It was Roger, son of the mayor of Surferio. Albel sighed; this was just what he didn't need right now.

"Hiya, Albel!" the boy chirped enthusiastically. "Long time no see! Didja miss me?" Without waiting for a reply, the brat babbled on and on; about the guests, about the food, about how many points he was up on his friends in their latest Real Man contest and would Albel help him plan the next one, and by the way where did Albel's super-cool claw go? Blah, blah, blah. Albel waved a hand dismissively, and then began to walk away.

"Hey!" came the indignant squeak, followed by an obnoxious tug on Albel's jacket. "I'm not done yet!" The Black Brigade commander turned and bent down swiftly, coming nearly nose-to-nose with the little pest. Roger gulped at the sudden proximity. "S-so?" the boy stuttered.

Albel gave his most evil smirk. "Can it, worm," he said, slowly and clearly, before showing his teeth again and straightening back up, careful of his plate. The little Menodix scuttled away, temporarily cowed.

A stifled snort caught Albel's attention, changing quickly into a full-on laugh as the sound's owner lost control of it. He looked over to see Nel, by herself this time, trying in vain to politely muffle her merriment. "C-c-can…worm?" she gasped out. "Going fishing, Albel?"

He couldn't help it; the image that statement brought to mind made him grin along with her. "Hmm….think he'd be any good as bait?" Albel scratched his chin in pretend thought, and then shook his head mock-regretfully. "Nah, the fish'd probably spit him right back out. Might jump on shore to escape him, though; that might work." Nel's laughter rang out again, and he surprised himself with a few chuckles of his own.

Albel waited, content to watch as Nel regained a hold of herself. It was the first time he'd really gotten to look at her this evening, and he was struck by the elegant picture she made. Her vibrant hair was twisted up along the back of her head, held up by small jeweled combs and two long golden spikes. Large golden rings formed a column down her front and, combined with sparkling threads that wound around her body, cinched the dress close around her slender torso and hips before allowing the white skirt to flare out and pool around her feet. The top of the dress left her arms and back bare, displaying more of the sinuous runes than he knew she had. And the drape of the cloth in front seemed to hint at more of a bust than he would have believed, too.

Any male would notice that, he justified when he found himself ogling a bit.

Her laughter finally dying down, Nel caught where his eyes were straying to and blushed slightly, straightening up and fidgeting with her skirt a bit. "A little fancier than my usual, I admit," she self-deprecatingly mumbled, not looking at him. "And the white's got me feeling rather like a sacrificial virgin from a fairy tale…"

The word 'sacrifice' triggered a thought in Albel's head and he abruptly sobered. "You're not, are you?" he asked, leaning forward. The idea that she might have come over and been keeping him company – 'sacrificing' herself and her time – just so that others wouldn't have to deal with him was ridiculous, given the way his evening had gone so far, but persistent.

Startled at his change in demeanor, Nel's eyes darted up to meet his. Something she saw there seemed to betray what he meant, though, and triggered a bit of mischief to answer it. Embarrassment forgotten, she put her hands on her hips in a scolding pose. "Not what? Sacrificial, or virgin?" She smirked.

The mischief was contagious, and somehow laid his suspicions to rest. Albel crossed his arms and took up his own arrogant pose, leering at her exaggeratedly. "Well," he drawled, "I had meant to ask about the sacrificial part, but if you're offering to answer the other…" He left the question dangling in the air tauntingly.

"None of your business, Albel Nox!" Clair said, amused, as she walked up beside Nel. Her lavender dress draped gracefully from where it was gathered at her right shoulder and swayed gently with her movement. Clearly, she had overheard most of the conversation. Albel felt a moment's dismay that their banter had been interrupted – this was the closest he'd been to having fun all night. But Clair didn't seem truly upset, so perhaps…

There is a way to continue this, you know, his subconscious urged. And it'll serve the double purpose of keeping Woltar happy that his instructions are being followed…

Albel smirked and looked down his nose at Clair, continuing the game. "Well, then," he sniffed, doing his best imitation of the snootiest courtier he could think of. "I'd best take my…business…elsewhere." With a sly glance at the women, he set down his mostly-untouched plate on a nearby end table, then made as if to leave. As he passed the chuckling redhead, he bowed slightly and offered his hand. "If you would?" His tone was mock-solemn, but he looked up at her with real question in his eyes.

Nel hesitated a moment, looking from him to Clair and back again. "I don't know…"

Clair gave her a scoffing laugh and a small push. "Oh, go on you two." Nel smiled and accepted Albel's hand, and he pulled her into the dance. Not long afterward, the pair saw Clair get drawn into the dance by another elegantly-dressed young man. Nel huffed a bit in relief.

"Worried about leaving her alone?" Albel raised a sardonic eyebrow. "She can take care of herself, it would seem." This close, the subtle scent of some exotic flower wafted up from Nel's hair. Unidentifiable, but pleasant. He tried not to breathe it in too obviously.

"I know. We've just always had each other's backs at this kind of thing. It's become a bit of a tradition." She looked up at him through her lashes. "We keep each other from being wallflowers."

Albel scoffed. "You'll never convince me that a pair of women like you two ever lacked dance partners. You're…not exactly hags, you know," he said, a little uncomfortable with the almost-compliment. His hand pressed a bit harder into her back, as if to keep her from running away.

The corner of Nel's mouth turned up, and she moved slightly closer at his cue. "Thanks, Albel," she said dryly. "Coming from you, that means a lot, I suppose." Her smile softened a bit. "You look nice, too, you know."

"Hmph." That was all the sound he made, but a small, pleased smile crossed his lips and he relaxed a bit as they entered the next figure in the dance.

They were silent for a moment, just swaying to the music. Suddenly, Nel's gaze shot upwards, past his shoulder, and widened in panic. Caught off-guard, Albel allowed himself to be dragged along as Nel suddenly spun the two of them around, yelling, "Watch o—"

With a dreadful thwack, a crossbow bolt drilled high into Nel's back. She staggered, slumping against his chest. "The…Queen…" she gasped out, before her eyes rolled back in her head and she went limp. Albel held on to her tightly as his eyes flew up to the balcony that ringed the upper level of the great hall, searching for the source of the attack.

There – a flicker of movement, and another bolt whistled toward them. Instinctively, the young knight raised his false arm to guard, and it thudded home there, stuck fast. As part of the same movement, Albel yanked one of the golden skewers from Nel's hair and flung it with deadly accuracy back along the path the crossbow bolt had flown. There was a choked cry and a thud, as a third bolt flew wide and struck the wall.

"To arms!" Albel roared, as more bolts started to wing down from the balcony, pinning several other guests. "'Ware!" He snatched the other spike from his partner's hair and looked around wildly for another target, hindered by the need to support the woman in his arms. The crowd had begun to panic, pushing him this way and that.

Clair appeared beside him. "Here, I'll take her." She offered her arms out for Nel. "You protect Their Majesties." He glanced at her, skeptical, and she raised her skirt just high enough to show a bloody gash along her calf. She grimaced. "They clipped me – I can't run. You go."

He nodded and gingerly handed over his charge. "Careful," he said. "Might be poison – Nel went down too fast, even for a hit like that."

The silver-haired woman nodded in grim agreement. "I feel it," she admitted. "We'll get under cover. Go!" Without waiting to see what he'd do, she pulled Nel's arm across her shoulders and started dragging her towards the nearest tables.

Albel watched them only a moment before whirling and shoving his way through the mob towards the royal dais, where a protective shield had already sprung up. It flickered under the onslaught as bolt after bolt struck it.

Another frightened courtier jostled him, jarring the quarrel still embedded in his false arm. The bolt's tip grated against something, and while it didn't hurt, precisely, it definitely felt odd and hampered his movement. Cursing softly, Albel broke off the shaft as closely to the arm as possible, letting the shaft fall to the floor as he continued through the crowd.

As he got closer, though, it was clear the tide was turning. On the dais, he could see that Woltar had managed to build a shelter of sorts from tables and overturned chairs, and had forcibly pressed all three royals down into its slight protection. The old man brandished a bronze platter like a shield as he stood over them. Queen Romeria seemed to be focusing on holding the runological shield steady, assisted by Lasselle. New-made Queen Rozaria knelt next to her husband, and with a frown of concentration she worked to mend a vicious-looking wound in his side. The missiles from the balcony had started to slack off as runologists around the room gained their bearings and started firing spells of their own.

Nel's purple-haired subordinate – Farleen, that was her name – ran up, panting, at the same time he reached the dais. Seeing that the situation was mostly under control here, he grabbed at her arm, formulating the next plan. "How many ways up to the balcony? And where?" he shouted over the cacophony.

"Two!" she squeaked, pointing out two doors at opposite sides of the hall. "There!"

"Disable and apprehend!" he bellowed, and shoved the tiny woman towards one door while he himself took off for the other, his mind working out scenarios furiously. They'd need at least one assassin alive to interrogate…but probably no more than that. A bloodthirsty grin spread across his lips. Oh, they would pay…

He lowered his shoulder and rammed the door without pausing. It flew open and crashed violently into the wall – crushing and trapping the arm of the black-swathed man that had been near-behind it. Almost without thought, Albel kept his weight on the door to hold the man pinned and swung his fist around, still holding Nel's hair spike, and drove it right into the assassin's neck. Blood fountained. One down, Albel counted gleefully. He bounded towards the stairs where he could see another assassin coming down. Silver glinted in the enemy's hand. Faster…too late.

A sudden, stabbing pain hit Albel in the ribs and rocked him backwards a step. Looking down, he saw the hilt of a throwing knife protruding from his right side just above the elbow. With a snarl of rage, the berserk Glyphian warrior tore the blade free and flung it up the stairs, into the chest of the assassin standing there, hand still raised from his own throw. Two.

Faintly he heard the voice of someone back in the grand hall calling his name. "Albel, look out!" He turned in time to see a third black-clad person step out of a niche in the hallway where he had passed it in his rush for the stairs, swinging a heavy candlestick at his head with impressive speed. Albel's turn moved him right into its path, too near to avoid it –

There was a flash of light as they collided, then only darkness.

Ha-ha, cliffhanger! Coming up next chapter – the aftermath of the attack.

Don't forget to poke me if/when I take too long to update!

I should note that Nel's family tree, as described in this chapter, is completely my own invention. And there is no canon proof (or denial, for that matter) that Adray and Clair are related to Nel. I just arranged it that way for this story.

To clarify this story's Zelpher family tree a bit, if anyone cares –

Nel's Zelpher grandparents had three children: Adray (oldest), Nel's mother (middle), and Mik/Rielle's mother (youngest).
Adray married into the Lasbard family line and they had Clair.
Nel's mother married Nevelle and had Nel.
Mik/Rielle's mother had, of course, Mik and Rielle.

Living (oldest to youngest) are: Grandpa Zelpher, Adray, Clair, Nel, Mik, and Rielle.

My version of Aquaria is matriarchical and inherits through the female line – which pretty much follows at least implied game canon. Therefore, even though Adray was the oldest, he was not the Zelpher heir; Nel's mother was, followed by Nel as her oldest female child. If Nel died without a daughter of her own, inheritance would have fallen to her aunt (Mik/Rielle's mother), but then when her aunt died in the Vendeeni attack, Rielle became Nel's heir. Clair isn't Nel's heir because she's related to Nel by the male line (through Adray) not the female line.

I may add some dead relatives somewhere along the way if I need them (in particular, I am considering one or two older brothers for Nel, for several reasons) but I have no intention of adding any more living ones, so the OC expansion stops there for now. Don't worry; they won't take over the story. ^_^

Other notes… I forgot to mention in the original version of this chapter that my version of Albel's claw-arm and how it works draws somewhat from the automail concept from FMA, though greatly tweaked to work on Elicoor II and in my story. ^_^

Also – my mental soundtrack for this chapter was composed mainly of three songs: Slow Dancin' (reasonably expected), Turn the Beat Around (interesting, but still works), and Drop-kick Me, Jesus (I bet nobody saw that one coming). Heh.