There were many hallmarks of civilization.
Different people would give different answers, but they would mean the same thing - something that set humanity apart from what came before, redefining it and sending it down a course that would have otherwise remained forever hidden. Fire. Agriculture. The seven simple machines. Religion. Art. Bureaucracy. Medicine. Currency. The Microprocessor. Space-travel. Reality shows. And all would be good answers.
Yet, despite the importance of the aforementioned facets, Maria knew better. The REAL defining aspect of civilization, the aspect that set humanity apart from their earlier and animal ancestors...
Coffee. Really. Honest.
There was no other possibility that came close. Because after scrubbing away what felt like her own body weight in sulphur and ash, and drinking a big mug of her own personal blend, Maria felt GOOD. Really good. Like she could roll up her metaphorical sleeves, gird her metaphorical loins, and get her metaphorical hands dirty with an impending planet-wide theological crisis, all to help discover a solution that would make a difference for the better. Like she could manage it all in less than two hours.
The last detail was important, because the theological crisis wasn't the least bit metaphorical, and neither was the time limit. And that was why, even as she strode purposefully onto the bridge of the Taeska Jare, Maria held a second mug of coffee in one hand. There was no sense in taking chances, after all.
Odessa Vectra was seated in the captain's chair, her undivided attention presently focussed on the main viewer screen, which was set to the task of replaying what Maria's recording device had seen in the Urssa Lava Caves. Maria could tell, because the on-screen image consisted entirely of Crosell's mug shot, with no room for anything else. Considering how long it had been since she left to shower, Maria guessed that Odessa had probably seen the entire recording, and was simply replaying key portions of it. It wasn't hard to understand her pausing it at this particular point.
"Replaying the best parts?" she inquired lightly, stepping around to stand next to Odessa's position.
Odessa twitched slightly as she was alerted to the other's presence. "My sister regaled me with many of your virtues, Maria, but she neglected to mention your complete lack of self-preservation instincts."
"I don't think it's as bad as you're making it out to be," Maria protested.
Odessa pointedly looked back at the Mona Crosell, complete with its one-of-a-kind smile.
"...They say the camera adds ten tons."
A Question of Fate
A Star Ocean: TTEOT fanfic by Intrasonic
'Because nothing says 'mutual respect' and 'profound thanks' like classifying your friends as a primitive anthropology exhibit.'
Disclaimer: 'Star Ocean: Till the End of Time' is copyrighted by Square-Enix/Tri-Ace. This work of fanfiction is being written for enjoyment and in homage to the original work, and no profit is being made from it.
"Is that so?" Odessa inquired dryly, clearly unamused. "And when you referred to the other ninety tons as an 'over-sized flying horse'?"
"I hadn't realized you were schooled in suicidal mathematics."
"Negotiations were in a deadlock, and I was trying to get the dialogue moving again."
"You diplomats... you're as bad as my sister. Setting aside the fact that I have yet to hear of a successful negotiation that involved the use of a flame-thrower..." The Tetrageniot rolled her eyes, although a less-refined individual probably would have shown less restraint. "What, may I ask, is the 'diplomatic' way of classifying this situation with Elicoor II?"
"Us 'diplomatic' types," Maria informed her wryly, "call it 'deep shit'. What's the archaeological term for it?"
Odessa muttered something foreign and sharp-syllabled under her breath.
"It's ancient Genesian. The Standard translation isn't for the ears of anyone under the age of sixty."
"...Right. So we're on the same page as far as this business with Nel is concerned?"
A resigned nod. "Just to confirm what I inferred from watching the recording... the individuals you encountered in 4D space, who worked for the company that oversaw the 'Eternal Sphere' program? Their names match those of the Elicoorian religion's gods?"
"That seems to be what Nel was suggesting. And just for the record, she didn't mention ANY of this before."
"I understand that much from your conversation afterwards," Odessa allowed. "But in light of this revelation, I don't suppose anything else stands out in your mind? Something new?"
"I'm afraid not," Maria admitted. "I can certainly attest that the 4D inhabitants weren't very... god-like in behaviour. Aside from Luther himself, and a few of the Sphere employees, they certainly didn't claim to be anything other than normal people. They believed that they had created our universe, but they certainly didn't display any..."
"Nothing of the sort. Most of them seemed to think that it would be best to just leave things as they were. And a number of the staff actually went so far as to help us fight back."
"Did they, at any point, suggest that they felt obligated to do so? Or that they expected something in return from you?"
"Never. Their motivation for helping seemed to simply be that, despite us technically being part of a computer program, they considered us fellow sentient beings that deserved the chance to determine our own path, without being subject to the whims and arrogance of those in power."
Odessa looked amused. "Sounds like you and them got along famously."
Maria had the grace to look a little sheepish. Apparently, some emotion had crept into her voice. "Well, I suppose we did, all things considered. I doubt we would have been successful without their help, that's for sure."
"Food for thought, I suppose..." Looking away, "Computer, estimated time before the individuals carrying the transporter beacon approach the central Aquios area?"
"At present speed, approximately one hour and fifteen minutes," was the reply.
"So we have that long to brainstorm," Maria summarized. "And any chance of passing this problem off as a big deception or hoax was probably ruined by what Crosell said to Nel."
"So you're inclined to take him seriously?"
Maria raised an eyebrow incredulously. "Even the largest blasts sent at us during the Creator war barely broke magnitude five in strength. According to both the main sensor array and my quad-scanner, Crosell was harnessing and controlling energy levels well in excess of magnitude SIX - over one thousand times as powerful. I plan to double-checking the equipment when we have the time, but even still..."
Odessa granted the point. "To say nothing of his knowledge? I get the impression that he knew a few things about you that he shouldn't have. And... if I'm not mistaken, I suspect he touched a few nerves in the process?"
Maria met the Tetrageniot's inquiring gaze evenly, having no trouble hearing the more cautious tone behind the last sentence. And perhaps it was warranted. After all, despite the limited rapport that had developed between them, they had only known each other for a few days. To damage that understanding, when there was only the two of them comprising the entire crew, could jeopardize the mission's chances of success.
On the other hand, considering that Maria was technically in the pay of the organization Odessa represented, it could be considered a legitimate question. If half of the crew suddenly developed a personal issue, it could easily jeopardize the mission as well.
"Sticks and stones," Maria finally informed her. "To be honest, he knew some things that I didn't know until a few days ago. I don't like it, I don't think we can afford to just ignore what he said, but I refuse to start second-guessing our actions based on that alone. We'll bear in mind what he said, but unless we get more definite information, we won't do anything differently. Our priority is still Elicoor II's well-being, in regards to both our original mission and this new development."
"Fair enough," Odessa agreed, her tone of voice holding both approval over Maria's stance and tacit acceptance over her disinclination to go into further detail. Glancing back at the viewing screen, "I must say... he IS a magnificent brute, isn't he?"
"I guess so. Among other things."
Abruptly, the Tetrageniot cocked her head sideways, as though something had occurred to her. "...Is it a 'he'?"
There was a moment of stunned silence.
"I... didn't think to check," Maria deadpanned.
Elicoor II's civilization hadn't actually progressed far enough to develop any meaningful level of tourism. Its people travelled for practical reasons - conducting business, visiting immediate and distant family, and transporting goods. Their work, be it working the land or plying a trade, tended to be ongoing and year-round in nature. Amusement was gleaned in small helpings when the workload allowed. The idea of simply travelling somewhere far away for idle pleasure would have likely been met with amusement and disbelief from all but the wealthiest of its inhabitants.
There was however, one exception to this rule - Castle Aquaria. And it was a rare and unfortunate Aquarian citizen who did not, at some point in their lifetime, come to visit it.
Originally constructed just over three hundred years ago, then steadily maintained and expanded since then, the castle was a monument to a civilization that had found itself blessed with fertile and productive soil, remarkably honest and effective leaders, and only one religion. To this end, the workers had first constructed a beautiful, high-roofed, spacious chapel, then built the rest of the castle around it. Fresh water from the mountain streams to the North was diverted to flow through the entire structure, before rejoining the main waterways leading out of the city. Stone was cut from quarries in the Northern Mountains and polished to a finish that rivalled anything else of its type.
The end result was a structure that served as an immense source of civic pride, even while acting as both the religious and administrative centre for the entire country. Simply walking down the corridors and hallways of the castle was enough to soothe the mind and spirit of all but the most disturbed of individuals. To gaze upon the ornamentation and metalwork in the chapel was to be filled with a sense of beauty and awe. To stand before its open doors was to be made welcome, to feel invited to enter and visit what was arguably the most beautiful building in the country - and quite possibly - the entire world.
Or so Nel had previously believed.
More sensing than seeing her friend come to a halt, Clair immediately followed suit. "How are you feeling?"
"Like..." Nel shuddered, trying to will her stomach to stop churning. "Like I'm going to be sick," she confessed.
"I don't blame you."
Nel winced, looking again at the entrance to the throne room. The doors were closed presently, but a gentle push would be more than enough to make them swing inwards. Easy enough, if it didn't mean that she would then be forced to meet with her Queen. And then... "Some help you are."
"I'm here to help you, not make you feel better," Clair admonished, though her voice lacked any edge to it. "I'm not happy with you and I'm not happy with how you've been acting for the last three months, even if your reasons have turned out to be... unexpected. But I wouldn't for moment EVER consider letting you face this business alone."
"I knew there was something keeping me from running away."
"And I can see that you haven't completely lost what little humour you possess," Clair returned, "so you can't be completely beyond hope."
Nel managed a weak smile, although it faded quickly. "Do you think I should have Maria come down right now?"
"I suppose you may as well. If she and Lady Odessa are able to offer any assistance on this matter, it would be best if they were present for your entire explanation."
"You said that this 'Lady Odessa' was a scientist?"
"That's right. I don't quite understand all the details, but I understand that she specializes in studying people and societies, in a very scientific way. I think it's quite likely that she may have some unique insights into this situation."
"I hope so," Nel agreed, opening the cover on the transporter beacon and depressing the button as Maria had instructed. After several moments, a chorus of beeps sounded from the device, which Nel took as permission to stop pressing the button.
"How long will it take for them to-"
Two pillars of blue light interrupted Clair's question, appearing a short distance away and materializing into the familiar forms of Maria and Odessa.
"That was fast," Nel remarked simply, her mind already cataloguing the appearances of the two. The fact that Maria had clearly found the opportunity to both bathe and change clothing wasn't lost on her, but any traces of envy were mostly erased upon taking a closer look at Maria's friend - the aforementioned Lady Odessa, no doubt. She hadn't seen any races with three eyes during her excursion away from Elicoor II, but it wasn't as though the Sanmite Republic didn't have far more unique variations from what most would consider 'normal'. Beyond the obvious, the woman's demeanour spoke of both intelligence and nobility, which made her something of a wild card in Nel's books.
"We've been tracking that beacon this whole time," Maria explained. "So that we would be ready to come down when you arrived here."
"And so you'd know if I started walking the other way?" Nel suggested, unable to help herself. It wasn't that she wasn't glad to see Maria, and it wasn't that she didn't appreciate the offer of help... but she didn't have to be entirely gracious about the way Maria had effectively forced an end to the stalemate.
"Don't worry, we didn't need the tracking beacon to manage that," Maria replied blithely, neither confirming nor denying the suggestion. "But while I have the chance, Odessa, this is Nel Zelpher. Nel, this is Odessa Vectra."
Odessa smiled, giving a polite nod of her head. "It's an honour and a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Lady Nel. Maria's gone into considerable detail about you, so I must warn you that I've been left with some extremely high expectations. Although, if your performance in the Lava Caves was any indication, she didn't exaggerate by much."
Faced with the rather verbose greeting, Nel latched onto the last point. "My performance...?"
"I was wearing a recording device while in the caves," Maria explained, "And Odessa has had a chance to see what happened there."
"Maria and I reviewed the recording," the Tetrageniot elaborated, "and at this point, we at least have a preliminary understanding of the situation. The two things that we can agree on is that your situation is exceptionally unique, and that more information is required before any further conclusions are made."
Nel sighed, even as she berated herself for expecting otherwise. It wasn't as though she'd ever expected to see any of her off-world friends again, much less the plethora of unbelievable technology and vast knowledge they took for granted. Had she really gotten her hopes up so much, simply from the surprise of seeing Maria again? The younger woman hadn't actually promised any solutions earlier, but... "I... see."
"Don't be like that," Maria chided, apparently reading some disappointment in Nel's reply. "Like I said earlier, you never brought this up last time, remember? All that Odessa and I know about this is what we've learned second-hand from your conversations with Albel and Crosell. Once you explain everything fully, we can start analyzing the information properly."
Nel grimaced. "I see."
"So..." the Earthling inquired expectantly. "Ready to start?"
Nel resisted the urge to sigh again.
It had been three months since their last adventure, but coming from Maria, Nel knew that wasn't actually a question. The younger woman embodied every bit of Cliff's arrogance and devil-may-care attitude; she simply disguised it with a generous helping of politeness and diplomacy (and sleeves). And if she lacked Cliff's irreverent humour and vocal bluster, she more than made up for it with a sometimes ruthless sense of logic and a way of speaking that suggested she expected the rest of the universe to agree with her. She tended to ask questions that she either felt were rhetorical, or that she fully expected to have answered very soon.
In this particular instance, asking if Nel was 'ready to start' was Maria's way of saying 'I think you are ready, unless you can produce evidence proving otherwise'.
Nel didn't feel ready to start. In fact, she strongly felt that Maria's modus operandi had the potential to make things even worse. Despite this, she could see no other options or solutions presenting themselves. And she suspected that, at this particular point, what she felt was no longer an issue. Just the same... "Are you sure about this?" she asked, trying to muster the energy for 'defiant', but settling for 'doubting'.
"About what? Telling your Queen about what you've seen?"
"Your Queen asked a similar question, after telling me that she made no secret of the fact that your people had been visited by people from other worlds. She asked if I thought she should have kept it a secret. I told her that, in my opinion, if she could tell people the truth, and if they could accept it and move on, that was probably the best possible outcome."
"This is... different."
"Is it?" Maria inquired doubtfully. "It's a harder and more serious issue, but is it really much different? Your queen said that she didn't want to be remembered as a leader who lied to her people. Do you think she was wrong?"
Nel winced at the question, even though it had been devoid of any accusation. Once again, Maria was asking things that she felt were rhetorical. "No..."
"Do you feel that you're qualified to make a judgment on this situation by yourself?"
Nel winced again. The past three months of failure were proof-negative of that. "No..."
"Then the logical thing to do would be to talk with someone who is qualified. Can you suggest someone who is knowledgeable, especially in the areas of your world's politics and religion, who possesses sound judgment, wants the best for your people, and is available right now?"
Wordlessly, Nel glanced towards the throne room doors, silently damning the younger woman's way with logic.
Equally silent, the other three individuals waited patiently.
She probably could leave, Nel mused, even now. True, the combined efforts of Clair and Maria had forced the issue thus far, to the point where she was now standing before the throne room doors. But if she really wanted, she could probably still back out. Maria wouldn't go so far as to actually fight, that much Nel felt certain of, and if she didn't hold back, even Clair wouldn't be able to stop her by force.
But to what end? Where would she go now? She'd been searching for answers for three months now. She'd combed through every library in Aquaria and Airyglyph. She'd beaten the strongest warrior in the land. She'd confronted Crosell a second time. And come up with absolutely nothing but vague insinuations and hints that served only to create more questions. When you'd done everything in your power and failed, that left only...
With a resigned grimace, Nel squared her shoulders and pushed the doors open. "I hope that you're right."
The throne room was deserted, save for a single figure seated at the far end. Clad in all her imperial garments and headdress, Queen Aquaria XVII sat waiting. Upon seeing the four individuals enter, she made no move to stand, instead remaining where she sat.
Riveting her eyes straight ahead, Nel felt rather than saw the other three follow her, Clair to her side, scarcely half a pace behind, with Maria and Odessa opting to follow a short distance back. She wasn't sure how long it took to traverse the distance from the doorway to the footsteps of the throne, but she felt considerably older at the end of it.
Finally coming to a halt at the edge of the steps, Nel fell to one knee, placing a hand flat on the ground before her, her head bowed low.
"My Queen, I..." Nel trailed off, suddenly realizing that she hadn't thought about what to say at this point. The situation was far beyond 'I'm sorry', 'I can explain' sounded ridiculous, and 'I had reasons' was both redundant and unthinkable.
"Nel," the Queen stated, her voice flat and emotionless, devoid of the comforting overtones it normally possessed. "I see that you have returned."
"Y-yes... My Queen," Nel replied quietly, still staring intently at the polished floor.
"You may rise."
Nel did so.
"When last we conversed," Aquaria began slowly, "I made requests of you. Do you remember this?"
Nel swallowed. "I... do."
Standing from her throne, the Queen slowly descended the steps. Coming to a halt less than an arm's length from Nel, she fixed her ruby-red eyes on the warrior. "And in no uncertain terms, you refused me. Repeatedly. Do you remember this?"
Nel forced herself not to avert her eyes from the Queen's piercing glare, though the effort was almost enough to make her eyes water. The Queen was a tall and stately individual under any circumstances, especially up close, but the presence about her was truly larger than life. And right now, Nel could feel the entirety of it concentrated on her own self. "I... do."
She was shaking, Nel dimly realized, and nothing she could do was making it stop. She had infiltrated the deepest recesses of Castle Airyglyph, faced down alien invaders from other worlds, even fought against a so-called Creator... and she would have done it all again, rather than face her Queen like this.
Though spoken in anger, Clair's earlier words in the caves rang distressingly true - Nel HAD sworn vows of protection, servitude, and loyalty to this woman. Her life as a shield, her hands as tools, and her heart as a gift given freely... all to her Queen and the land she presided over.
She could remember reciting those vows when she began her training, when she had been nothing more than a fledgling warrior with far more talent than experience, optimistically seeking to follow in her father's footsteps. She could remember repeating those vows upon being given the title of Crimson Blade, receiving the Queen's heartfelt thanks for her work, and coming to the realization that her very life could not possibly take on more worth in anyone else's hands, including her own.
And what had she done? She'd lied to her Queen. She'd disobeyed her. She'd doubted her. And finally, she'd abandoned her. She'd run all over the land, going so far as to single-handedly approach Crosell... rather than simply trust in her Queen. It had been for good reasons, but... right now, she couldn't imagine what those reasons might have been.
"I am..." Nel finally whispered, looking straight into her queen's face, "yours to command." And if the Queen was merciful, perhaps the next command would be for her to run herself through with her own blades. Anything more generous was too good for her at this point.
"The concealment spell over your Runic signature," the Queen stated. "Remove it."
With scarcely more effort than twitching a muscle, Nel obediently let the spell fade away.
Only the faintest inhalation of breath betrayed the Queen's reaction as she let her gaze sweep across Nel's form. As the Holy Mother of the Church of Apris, her ability to see runological energies rivalled that of anyone else alive, which meant there wasn't the slightest chance that she would miss the significance of what was present.
"I see," was the Queen's final pronouncement, though she did not offer further details for the benefit of the non-Elicoorians present. "I would hear the story surrounding this development. In its entirety."
Nel nodded curtly.
"I apologize for interrupting, Your Majesty," Maria spoke up, "but it's a fairly long and complicated story. You may wish to make yourself comfortable."
"Is that so?"
"And at the risk of being presumptuous, I'd like to formally request that you allow Nel to tell the entire story before making any decisions."
That evoked a smile of amusement from the Queen. "I have waited three months to hear this story. I can certainly wait a little longer before passing judgement."
"I appreciate that."
"Tell me," she inquired, glancing pointedly between Nel and Maria, "will this story include your recent conversations with Crosell?"
There was a moment of poignant silence, before Maria finally replied, her voice flat. "I think there's a very good chance of that, yes."
"I look forward to it," the Queen agreed. "Let us retire to my chambers."
"...at which point I returned here with Clair."
Maria hadn't been lying when she called it a long and complicated story. It had been bad enough explaining everything to Odessa a few days ago, but trying to retell the story for the benefit of the Elicoorians was another matter entirely.
"I see," was all Queen Aquaria said in reply.
"Ridiculous!" That was Magistrate Lasselle's pronouncement. Both he and Lady Elena had been summoned by the Queen's order, and they had been privy to Nel's entire tale. Early on, the Queen had found it necessary to order the man to remain silent until the story was completed. Now that the story was done... "You expect us to believe this... absurdity!?"
"You can vouch for all of this?" the Queen inquired.
Maria nodded. "I'm afraid so."
Seated next to her was Odessa who, aside from occasionally supplying explanations for things that Nel couldn't explain properly, had remained largely silent. Across from them were Lasselle and Elena, while Clair had taken the remaining seat next to the Queen. That left Nel without a place to sit, but the circumstances had dictated that Nel would NOT be making herself comfortable at this time. She was standing at attention, in a location that left her visible to the rest of the room's occupants, and had been that way for the last hour.
"B-but... you mean to say that our entire existence was nothing but a... puppet show?!? Created by mere mortals? That was then destroyed?" Lasselle demanded. "That is madness! Beyond madness!"
'Puppet Show' was the term being used in lieu of 'Computer Simulation', which had been the best substitute that Maria and Odessa could think up. Courtesy of her limited off-world time, Nel understood some of the fundamentals behind the idea of 'computers', but she was still at a loss to explain it to her own people. For the time being, 'Puppet Show' was the term being used, with the understanding that it was actually far more complicated and 'Real' than that.
Unsurprisingly, Nel's story was NOT being received well.
"Your Majesty," Lasselle persisted. "You cannot possibly be paying any heed to this fabrication!"
For her part, the Queen merely looked thoughtful, which seemed to dismay the man even further.
"Lady Elena!" he tried, "Even YOU must find this story ridiculous!"
The woman nodded slowly, having remained silent throughout Nel's entire telling, although her attention hadn't wavered in the slightest. "Heaven forbid we agree on something," she mused, "but it does seem quite unbelievable. You claim that... the 'Stage' was destroyed? Then how do you explain our presence here and now?"
"We don't know," Maria admitted. "I've spent the last three months trying to understand that. The best explanation that I can think of, is that Luther failed in his attempt to delete, I mean, destroy us. But everything else is almost certain, I'm afraid to say."
"Crosell confirmed this," Clair reminded them, although she looked no more pleased than anyone else. "When Nel asked him, he seemed to know as much already."
"You can't possibly suggest we trust HIM," Lasselle objected. "No doubt he still bears a grudge against us for forcing him to assist us against the Vendeeni invaders."
"And what of the people who created us?" the Queen inquired, clearly directing the question at Nel. "They wore the same names as our gods?"
The redhead nodded. "There was a battle coliseum being run by people named Solon and Dima. And there were people named Shar, Leiria, Oreas, and Aire in charge of running the... puppet show. I also heard them mention someone named Folstar."
"A coincidence," Lasselle interjected.
"Solon fought in the coliseum with a large sword," Nel added, "and Dima used fire spells. Shar and Leiria were sisters. And they referred to Folstar as an incompetent fool."
"This parallels your own gods?" Odessa inquired.
"To a degree, it does," the Queen admitted. "The god Solon wields a giant two-handed blade, while the goddess Dima wields a bow of fire, and together, they act as guardians of our world. Shar and Leiria are twin sisters, while Folstar is the unwanted offspring of Apris, who presides over fear and winter. I notice, Nel, that you have accounted for seven out of the eight deities of our world... did you see any evidence or mention of Elena?"
Both Maria and Odessa immediately glanced towards the chief researcher, which was received with an exasperated noise on the woman's part.
"She means the Goddess Elena," Nel quickly supplied. "And no, I didn't see her there, My Queen. They didn't even mention her, in fact."
"Strange," the Queen mused thoughtfully. "Since she is arguably the most active of the eight lesser gods..."
"On another note," Elena interjected, "there is also the matter of Nel's runic signature...?"
"Could you explain that?" Maria requested. "Obviously, Odessa and I can't see it the way the rest of you can, but there's clearly been some change?"
"It has long been held," the Chief researcher elaborated, "that it is impossible to alter one's Runic Signature. Much like fingerprints, you might say. It can be disguised or hidden with certain techniques, but it cannot actually be changed. The one exception to this rule is the case of the Holy Mother."
As one, all heads turned towards the Queen, who nodded. "Elena is correct. When a woman is chosen by Apris to be the Holy Mother to His followers, she is given His blessing. Her eyes are endowed with the fullness of Apris' own all-seeing gaze, and she is able to perceive the most minute and intricate runological fluctuations. At that time, her Runological signature is both changed and magnified to such a degree that even those with the weakest of sight can perceive it clearly. For someone to undergo such a change, it is an indisputable sign to all, that the person has been set apart by Apris Himself to lead his people in the days to come."
Almost in tandem, every head swivelled to look at Nel, who promptly flinched. "This isn't the same thing!" she protested weakly.
"I don't believe there has ever been a case of two individuals set apart in such a way at the same time," the Queen granted. "But there is also nothing prohibiting such a thing. And the Marquis DID make reference to individuals being set apart, did he not? Our world in particular?"
"He didn't actually say that I was," Nel pointed out quickly. "He only said that Maria was set apart."
Maria's expression darkened slightly, but she refrained from saying anything inappropriate. "It seems fairly obvious that Crosell is in a... position of knowledge," she grudgingly allowed. "But just because he knows something about this, doesn't mean he was under any obligation to tell us the whole truth about it. Or any truth at all, for that matter. He DID say that he thought this whole business was amusing."
"Do you believe those people to be gods?" the Queen inquired. "The people who created us?"
"No," Maria insisted forcefully. "Even if they really did create our entire universe, they weren't gods. They were just people with more knowledge and power. They weren't any more... divine than myself and Odessa. Or the Vendeeni, even. And they never claimed otherwise, I might add."
"And you never questioned them about all this at the time?" Lasselle demanded incredulously, the comment directed at Nel.
"There were other concerns at the time," Nel defended. "Our existence, for starters."
"At this time," the Queen asked, "is there any way to contact these people?"
"None," Maria informed her. "When we defeated the Creator, the secondary gates all vanished without a trace. The primary gate, which we call the 'Time Gate', just like the Sacred Orb and every single other OPA, has gone completely inert and inactive now."
"The Sacred Orb?" Nel demanded hopefully. "You know what happened to it?"
"You might recall that we classified the Sacred Orb as an Out-of-Place Artifact," Maria explained. "Another example was the Time Gate, which you remember. But at the instant of the Creator's defeat, those two, as well as every single other example, either disappeared or went completely dead. Considering that they were apparently intended as devices to interact with our world, that makes sense to me. But I'm afraid that the Sacred Orb is almost certainly gone forever."
The redhead sagged. "I see..."
"So it would appear," the Queen summarized, "that we were created by people who wear our gods' names, yet are nothing more than highly knowledgeable mortals. Yet the Marquis' words clearly denounced these people, and supported the existence of true gods. Yet if this was nothing more than an attempt on their part at impersonating our deities, it was a poorly planned and executed one."
Various non-noises of displeasure and exasperation seemed to indicate that the other occupants of the room agreed upon her summary.
"And," the Queen added, "I have not even introduced my own discovery to this situation."
As one, the room went deathly still.
"Tell me," Queen Aquaria inquired, fixing both Maria and Odessa with a small smile. "Do the two of you believe in prophecy?"
After those words were spoken, an outside observer would have noticed the gaze of every single Elicoorian in the room gravitate towards the table before them, where a single book rested quietly.
"You mean-" Lasselle's voice actually sounded reverent.
"-a prophecy?" Clair finished in a similar tone of voice.
Maria and Odessa briefly exchanged glances, like two new club members who hadn't yet been taught the secret handshake. "Prophecy?" Odessa finally prompted.
Picking up the book gently, the Queen held it out for inspection. "This is one of Ikelos' Books of Prophecy. There are 13 volumes in total, written seven hundred and twenty years ago by the first Holy Mother, Queen Aquaria the First, as dictated to her by the Gods. They contain passages to help the appointed Holy Mother guide her people through troubled times. Over the centuries, there have been many attempts by scholars to anticipate the events described in the passages, but all have invariably met with failure. However, from time to time, a Holy Mother will be strongly drawn to a particular portion of script. And invariably, it will be fulfilled.
"The last time I was drawn to a passage, this is what I read: 'There shall be Chaos in the holy land. From this Chaos shall spread grave Misfortune, and Misfortune shall give birth to a new War. Amidst this War shall the Arrow of Apris be shot down from the Heavens. The Arrow shall rend the Land from the Heavens, and create still more Chaos. Be at ease, for peace awaits, and calm and tranquility shall rule in the end'."
Fixing Maria and Odessa with a smile, "One day after being drawn to this passage, I received word that your Celestial Ship had crashed in Airyglyph. The rest, you are quite familiar with. You and your friends brought chaos with you, but you also brought peace in the end."
"Your Majesty, are you saying that another passage has come to light?" Clair inquired again.
"Indeed. After you departed with Maria to seek out Nel, I sought to ease my mind by reading through this volume. Almost immediately after, I found myself drawn to a new passage. Some, I believe I understand with little difficulty, while the rest is quite confusing. But now than Nel has told her story, I believe a few more pieces have become clear..."
"Are we permitted to hear it?" Odessa inquired hopefully.
"Of course. The passage reads as follows - 'The creator will be destroyed, the gods shown to be false. The shrine shall go dry, while two of three keys shall vanish. The warrior maiden shall be marked and flee in search of answers but find naught.
"Borne by the wings of the beautiful angel, a scholar will visit from a dead world of four moons. Alongside her will come a second warrior of unknown lineage bearing the remaining key, who will seek out the errant maiden. They shall meet before the Great Serpent, who will drop his veil and mock them with half-truths before casting them away.
"In the days to come, both warriors will be tested in mind, body, and spirit, in preparation for a great battle to come.'"
The occupants of the room digested the text for several long moments.
Odessa was the first to break the silence, her voice sounding almost stunned. "This is utterly fascinating. I don't believe I ever expected myself to appear in a prophecy."
"You believe yourself to be mentioned?" the Queen inquired. "I had wondered if you fit the role of the 'scholar' in the prophecy..."
"Quite blatantly," Odessa admitted. "You couldn't possibly know this, but my homeworld of Tetragenesis is actually inhospitable to life. Instead, my people now live on the planet's four moons. And if that weren't enough, my personal spacecraft is christened Taeska Jare. Translated from the ancient Genesian language, it literally means 'Lovely' or 'Beautiful Angel'. A little much to be a coincidence, I should think."
"In lieu of Nel's story," Elena voiced, "The parts about a creator being destroyed and gods being shown false are fairly obvious in meaning. As is the part about a 'warrior maiden' being 'marked and fleeing in search of answers'. The reference to the 'Shrine going dry' likely refers to the Sacred Orb's disappearance, since it is no longer present to create water in the Shrine of Kadden. The passages about the two maidens meeting before 'the Great Serpent' probably refers to Crosell."
"Which is how you knew Nel and I had talked with him," Maria guessed, giving the Queen an amused look.
"It seemed almost certain," the Queen confirmed, "since you were the only individual to visit with Odessa, and you were the one who sought out Nel... which would also make you the 'Warrior of unknown lineage bearing the remaining key'. I presume that your 'unknown lineage refers to your off-world status. Unfortunately, I am as a loss to understand what is meant by 'Key'."
"To be honest, I consider myself a diplomat before a warrior," Maria admitted, "but the 'Key' probably refers to my Alteration Symbol. Originally, there were three symbols in three people, designed to let us travel to and operate within the 4D universe. My symbol was called 'Alteration', Fayt had 'Destruction', and Sophia had 'Connection'. But I was visiting them just a few days ago, and learned that both their symbols vanished without a trace after we defeated the Creator. Which would leave me with the remaining 'Key'."
The explanation was accepted stoically. "I see."
"So we have a prophecy, which has done a flawless job of describing recent events." Odessa summarized. "Furthermore, despite being written on this world seven hundred and twenty years ago, it shows knowledge of things which no one on this world should ever have had any inkling of. Point in case, my own world only become 'Dead' approximately three hundred and fifty years ago. Since I don't think we can simply relegate this to simple coincidence, that leaves us with two questions. At least."
"Two questions?" Nel inquired.
"I presume the first is in regards to the last sentence?" the Queen guessed. "It is the only line that we cannot account for, but it seems to clearly imply that both Nel and Maria are to be tested. For a great battle to come."
"What kind of battle?"
"Relations with Airyglyph are going well," Clair pointed out. "I don't think there are any points of contention that might start something. And I can't imagine anything from the direction of Greeton after all this time."
"You said 'two questions'," Maria reminded her. "What other question were you thinking of?"
The Tetrageniot looked surprised. "It seems fairly obvious to myself. Why is a divine prophecy predicting its own gods being proven false?"
That merited a stunned silence in reply.
The Queen picked up the tome, re-reading the offending portion carefully. "It... clearly says as much," she finally pronounced, voice sounding troubled. "I must confess, such a logical dilemma did not occur to me at first, nor do I understand now how such a thing could be possible. The rest of this prophecy is clearly accurate, but for it to display divine foresight, yet disavow divinity in the process..."
"Crosell did say that there were higher powers than what we faced," Maria reminded her.
"Yet the gods who stand to be proven false are the very same as who dictated this book," the Queen reminded her, the expression on her face contemplative. Finally, she gave her subjects a look. "This matter certainly bears further consideration. Elena, Lasselle, Clair, Nel... you are not to speak of these matters to anyone else. This includes the disappearance of the Sacred Orb, Nel's experiences, as well as the prophecy. This matter will be studied in great detail in the near-future, but rampant speculation will serve no good at this time."
All four individuals nodded obediently.
"I would also ask," the Queen continued, now looking at the two off-worlders, "that you refrain from mentioning this to other inhabitants of this world."
"Of course," Maria assured her. "As I said, our primary goal is to avoid causing further disruption to your world. To be honest, a part of me wants to apologize for... helping to bring this development to light."
"Apologize?" the Queen repeated, sounding surprised. "Nel, had Maria not shown up when she did... what would your next course of action have been? After the Marquis was uncooperative?"
"I..." Nel sighed. "I don't know."
"Were there no other avenues for you to try? No other scholars? No other libraries?"
The redhead shook her head. "None that I know of, Your Majesty."
The Queen returned her gaze to Maria. "So I believe that Nel would likely have returned in the end - if not as quickly. Thus, there are certainly no apologies warranted for your assistance. In fact, I would consider it quite fortuitous that the two of you were on-hand to offer your own perspective. Indeed, it would seem to be quite prophetic, no less."
Closing the prophecy book, the Queen set it gently upon the table, giving the two off-worlders an amused smile. "In any event, while I greatly appreciate your help and insight into this development... it was not your original reason for visiting us, and I would not have you think I had forgotten that. Now that one of my servants has returned, through your assistance, I believe it only fair to obtain her input on the matter. Nel?"
The room turned to focus on the subject, who straightened noticeably. While discussing recent developments had been almost a relief, hearing her name spoken like that had been a solid reminder that she was still highly eligible for high treason, with the injured party also being the judge. "Your Majesty?"
"This woman, Lady Odessa Vectra, is a scholar who has come to our world seeking to learn about us and exchange information. She, on behalf of the organization she represents, believes that it is possible to accomplish such a goal, without bringing harm to our world or its people, and to this end, she has enlisted the help of Maria. I would hear your thoughts on this matter."
Nel's eyes darted briefly towards the two outworlders, certain things beginning to fall into place. During her earlier excursion off the planet, despite the abundance of distractions, she had managed to learn that her planet was considered unique in certain areas. Now it appeared that certain people had decided to try and satisfy their curiosity, and had likely asked Maria to be a diplomatic go-between.
And the Queen expected Nel to offer judgment on the matter? With nothing more to rely on than her own experiences during their frantic rush to find and defeat the Creator? And without having been privy to any earlier discussions about this proposal?
A character reference then, was what the Queen was looking for. And admittedly, what better way to discover someone's character than when they were under pressure? Nel suspected that recent events were revealing a great deal about her own, even if she was at a loss to interpret them. But in regards to how Maria had conducted herself during their earlier time together...
She could fight, certainly, although once you got used to the concept of energy weapons, it was a fairly unremarkable fighting style. She lacked the explosive, super-human speed and power of people like Cliff and Mirage, or even Peppita; nor had she ever been able to manage the awe-inspiring displays of Runology that Fayt, Sophia, and Adray had been capable of. While her speed and accuracy with her energy weapon was first-class, and her coolness under pressure nothing short of phenomenal... compared to the other members of the party, she hadn't really stood out as a fighter of note.
It was outside the realm of combat that Maria had really shone. Sometimes, with all the fighting that been involved in saving their existence, Nel could almost forget how many problems hadn't required fighting, that Maria had solved either in part or by herself. Leading Quark (and its impressive crew roster), negotiating with the Queen against the Vendeeni, strategizing with Commodore Wittcomb, handling the computer systems on Moonbase and in 4D space... and least she forget, granting permission for Nel to continue with the group to Moonbase in the first place.
All in all, it was an impressive resume for anyone, let alone for someone several years Nel's junior, and it was enough to help you overlook a lot of the arrogance and meddling tendencies that came with it. It was also enough to make you seriously wonder how the hell someone like that was created in the first place. So if Maria was now reappearing on the world of Elicoor II, claiming to be part of a proposal that involved the exchange of information, in a way that would bring no harm to the world...
...Well, Maria had never given cause for her integrity to be questioned, and she had always been forthcoming about her intentions on other occasions. You didn't have to agree (or be happy) with her, but you never had to worry that she might be lying to you...
"I think," Nel began carefully, "that if Maria is supporting this, then she honestly believes it would be good for our world. And even though their technology and knowledge far exceeds our own, I think they've shown that they consider that to be secondary." Nel paused to consider her next words, least any hint of accusation be heard in them. "Did this... proposed arrangement involve further... direct intervention in any affairs of our kingdom?"
Obviously, her wording hadn't been chosen well enough, because Maria's mouth turned up at the corners, clearly amused. "Our hands are largely tied in such cases, actually. The only reason I was able to make the offer to assist on this matter was because it was blatantly obvious that the cause of the problem was off-world in origin. In fact, since you're the only inhabitant who has actually left this world, that effectively limits any future possible intervention to issues involving yourself personally."
Translation: 'No, unless YOU cause more problems.'
"I see," Nel agreed stiffly, inwardly entertaining the idea of asking for some time alone, just the two of them, for a chance to wipe that bastard-offspring-of-Cliff Fitter-shit-eating-smirk from Maria's face. It would be worth the diplomatic fallout, she was positive.
It didn't help that several other people in the room were clearly trying to disguise smiles of their own. Some days, it just didn't pay to put up a fight. This was probably why her job involved working with soldiers, rather than diplomats.
"Did you have any further concerns, Nel?" the Queen finally inquired.
Nel shook her head slowly, inwardly lamenting her inability to provide more information to her ruler. "No, My Queen."
"So be it." There was a certain finality to the phrase; one that told all present that something important had been decided. When a Queen did that, it was usually best to pay attention to whatever was said next. "Maria, Odessa, I have decided that we will accept your proposal."
Murmurs of surprise from both Lasselle and Elena indicated that neither had expected the sudden announcement, despite their expressing opposite views on the matter earlier. For their part, Nel and Clair both kept silent, although surprise was still evident in their expressions.
"We will accept your proposal," the Queen reiterated. "An exchange of knowledge and resources, over an indefinite period of time, within the constraints that your own laws impose upon you."
"I'm happy to hear that, Your Majesty," Maria's agreed, her face breaking into a smile. "You have my word, Your Majesty, that we'll do everything in our power to ensure this works out for your benefit. And as soon as Odessa gets her voice back, I think she'll agree with me."
The Tetrageniot nodded quickly, her expression of delight beyond mere words. "Y-yes, absolutely, Your Majesty! I give you my utmost assurances of that!"
"There are of course," the queen continued, "specifics and details to be arranged, but I expect we will have little difficulty agreeing upon such things. Would you be amiable to doing so tomorrow?"
"That would be fine," Maria assured her. "It's getting late, after all."
"Then we may disperse for tonight. Lasselle?"
The man straightened. "Yes, My Queen?"
"Among other things, Lady Odessa has expressed a desire to learn about our country's social structure and hierarchy, and I can think of none more knowledgeable than yourself. You will see to it that she is able to learn what she wishes to know. Lady Elena?"
"The suggestion you made to me earlier has some merit. I would have you create a list of materials that you believe would be deemed acceptable as trade, and you will see to it that Lady Odessa is able to learn what she wishes to know about Runology. I know that you have also expressed interest in working with Maria, so I will allow you free reign to discuss and pursue the matter with her yourself, as your respective duties and obligations warrant. Clair?
"I am grateful for your presence and efforts today. You are free to return to your regular duties. Should there be any concerns regarding these events, I will see to it that you are made aware. Nel?"
Once again, Nel stiffened slightly, reflecting that she was letting herself be distracted far too easily by the sudden change of events. "My Queen?"
"You may retire to your quarters for tonight, I will come to talk with you shortly."
The redhead swallowed. "As you command."
"You may all go," the Queen concluded. "Maria and Odessa, I would talk with you privately before you depart."
It was only a matter of seconds before the other four individuals filed out of the room, closing the door behind them and leaving the two off-worlders alone with the Queen.
Allowing herself a brief sideways glance, Maria could see that Odessa was only barely repressing a markedly giddy smile, likely kept in rein only by an inherently refined and dignified personality. She herself was feeling similarly satisfied, although the prophecy had done its best to sour her mood. For the time being however, she allowed it to be regulated to a background issue.
"Nel speaks quite highly of you."
The opening statement from the Queen was directed at Maria, who nodded in acceptance. "Coming from her, I'm quite flattered. She's an exceptional person herself."
"She also seems to resent your recent interference in her affairs."
Maria raised an eyebrow, taking the obvious lead-in as offered. "Her affairs? I don't think this business can be said to belong to any one person."
"So you find her at fault?"
A brief pause. "I don't have the authority to decide that."
The Queen nodded. "Perhaps, but this situation has no precedent that I am aware of, and your own people clearly strive to ensure it remains that way. Among our Sacred Precepts is the exhortation to punish the guilty, but to not punish the innocent, which is something I have always sought to maintain. Therefore, as a leader yourself, and as someone who has had the chance to observe Nel where I have not... I would ask for your own perspective on the matter."
Maria nodded slowly. It was a reasonable enough request, and closely paralleled what the Queen had just recently asked of Nel. And it had only been three months since she had led Quark. "I think... that Nel was caught between a rock and a hard place. She wasn't with us for very long, but she certainly understood that we have very strict laws about associating with Underdeveloped Planets. So I'm sure that she had some idea of the potential consequences, had she told you what she experienced. On the other hand, she's obviously taken some important vows of loyalty to you, which made her obligated to tell you everything, which she completely failed to do."
"Indeed. So in effect, she was under orders to hurt her own world. So she choose to protect her world, at the expense of her vows."
"She has spent the last three months trying to find a solution," Maria reminded. "She even went so far as to confront Crosell by herself. Her actions may have been wrong, but they weren't an attempt to escape her duties. Knowing this, I suppose that I would try to find a way that punished her for her poor judgment and disobedience, without questioning her loyalty. But that's just my own opinion."
The Queen nodded slowly, turning so that she was facing one of the room's walls. A painting was affixed to the surface, sporting a kneeling figure being bathed in a overhead light source. A gold plate affixed to the bottom of the wooden frame sported a short inscription. "Perhaps, but it an opinion with some merit, and I will take that into consideration when I deal with her. But I will not burden you any further on her account. Suffice to say, her conduct will be dealt with."
Maria nodded, allowing silence to stand in for an acceptance over the matter. She had said what she could, without overstepping her authority. And even if a certain redhead felt otherwise, Maria believed that she yet to do so during her time on Elicoor II.
"Lady Odessa?" the Queen continued, still looking up at the painting. "Your area of specialty involves the study of people, you said. Does this include the arts?"
"Only marginally," Odessa admitted, paying closer attention to the painting. "I have quite a number of colleagues who specialize in such things, however. This example is oil-based, if I'm not mistaken, and less than a century old. I'm afraid that our universal translators do nothing to translate your written language, but it seems to have a religious theme to it."
"The inscription reads 'Elena, Goddess of Light, Gazing Toward the Heavens'," the Queen supplied. "It was painted three generations ago, by Queen Aquaria the twenty-fourth, shortly after her visitation by the Goddess Elena. It was during that visitation that our kingdom was given the legendary blades Ryusen, as well as the sword Shinyuu, which are presently in the possession of Nel and Clair. Being composed of forged runological essence, I can say with little fear of contradiction that the weapons are truly unique in nature, and far beyond our capability to create."
Maria nodded silently. She had seen firsthand how little resistance modern armour put up against Nel's blades. Nel hadn't thought anything of it, save for her explanation that the blades were kingdom heirlooms bestowed by the gods. At the time, Maria hadn't given the explanation much thought or credit, but now...
"Shortly afterwards, the Queen of the time painted this painting herself," Aquaria continued. "To this day, it is considered mildly sacrilegious, in that it has the goddess Elena looking upwards towards the heavens, rather than down from them, which is suggestive of subservience to and separation from the heavens."
"I can certainly see how that could be controversial," Odessa agreed.
"And of course-" and here, the Queen gave an amused smile, "-the figure's appearance causes my own Elena no end of grief."
"Hmm... it does bear a certain resemblance," the Tetrageniot agreed, noting the kneeling figure's purple hair and other general physical characteristics. "But I expect Lady Elena would feel awkward over the comparison..."
"Merely annoyed," the Queen corrected. "Lady Elena is an avowed atheist."
"An atheist?" Odessa inquired, surprised.
"She agrees with the majority of the Church of Apris' tenants," the Queen explained. "She simply denies the existence of the gods and goddesses themselves. In regards to this painting, I recall she once said that if the goddess Elena missed the heavens so much, she ought never have left to begin with."
"My word... I should think that would be considered more sacrilegious than this painting."
"She speaks frankly, and holds little regard for higher authorities, be they mortal or divine, save for those whom she trusts," was Aquaria's elaboration, apparently feeling no misgivings over a subject of hers feeling that way. "But she begrudges no one else their beliefs, she simply has no inclinations to follow them herself."
"Still," the queen murmured, her eyes travelling the expanse of the painting, "being faced with the prospect of my gods being nothing more than mere people... I find myself viewing this picture with new eyes."
"Understandable," Odessa allowed, with more than a little sympathy. "I certainly won't deny that your explanation makes ME curious as well, but this situation is still less than a day old. There's hardly any sense in jumping to new conclusions until there's sufficient evidence to work with."
"You speak the truth... and the input of one such as yourself is something to be grateful for. Whether this situation is people playing at divinity, or divinity being mocked by people... I pray that the days to come will prove fruitful. Maria?"
"You said that you consider yourself a diplomat, rather than a warrior?"
A nod from Maria, who didn't question the sudden shift in subject. "I do, actually. I can appreciate that a lot of what I've done here has been of a... combative nature, but I've always considered myself a diplomat first. Unfortunately, sometimes the other side isn't willing to talk. Or sometimes, when you talking with someone else, there's a third party that stands to gain from a lack of communication, and they're willing to intervene with force."
"Indeed... so you are in favour of peace? Even under trying circumstances, when there is another who does not wish it?"
Maria frowned, trying to decipher the question behind the question. And there was one, she was positive. Unfortunately, Queen Aquaria was on an entirely different level than the likes of Nel or Clair. "I am," she finally offered. "I believe that it's important to pursue peaceful resolutions to disagreements. But if the other party is completely unwilling to talk, then it's also important to defend yourself. But even then... it's important that you not become the aggressor. And when the opportunity for a peaceful resolution appears, it's important that you take it."
"Is that so?" The Queen looked wistful. "I am of a similar mind, but sometimes I think I may be alone in that. As far back as our records go, there have always been battles. Some large, some small, but always battles. In between, things are peaceful and we are friendly to one another, but always something manages to end the peace."
"Surely not that bad, Your Majesty," Odessa began.
A sad smile. "Times are peaceful now, but this is a world of conflict, and we are a warlike people. People like Nel and Clair... two of the kindest people I know, yet they have each shed more blood with their own hands than most could ever manage in a lifetime, to say nothing of the orders they have given to others. Lady Elena desires peace, yet has managed to devise a runological weapon so powerful that you claim it has no equal in its way. Magistrate Lasselle desires peace, yet he was openly suggesting that we burn and salt the Arias plains so that Airyglyph's people would starve to death. I still wonder what might have been, had your friends not come to our world and interceded."
"You can't say for certain," Odessa pointed out. "If peace occurred, then it may well have occurred regardless, even if the means were different."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. Once you peruse our historical records, I think you will see for yourself what I speak of. Regardless, if lasting peace is so difficult for us to embrace, perhaps the endorsement of people such as yourself will make us take a closer look. And perhaps your presence and testimony will teach us to spend more time watching the stars, and less time watching our backs."
"That went well."
Nel didn't bother answering the question until she had closed the door to her quarters, leaving it fractionally open in deference to the soon-expected visitor. "Based on what?"
"What were you expecting?" Clair inquired, unhesitatingly occupying the lone chair in the room, with all the familiarity of someone who knew herself to be welcome in the room. "Lady Odessa displayed some promising insight, considering that she has only just been made aware of these circumstances, and knows relatively little about us. Since the Queen has given her approval for her to learn more, it seems likely that she may be able to offer many more suggestions in the future. Do you think otherwise?"
"Or were you expecting absolution?"
Nel winced at the question, despite the lack of any accusation behind the tone. "No..."
"You spoke highly of Maria when the Queen asked," Clair pointed out. "Do you not believe your own endorsement?"
"It's not that. Maria is just... Maria. She's as bad as Cliff in her own way."
"Master Cliff?" Clair repeated, raising an eyebrow in surprise. "I won't deny the man had a certain... roughness to his demeanour. But surely you don't question his integrity or character? He certainly showed no hesitation about pursuing you into the Kirlsa Training facility. Or about fighting alongside us on the field of battle in many later instances."
"I know," Nel agreed. "But... those things weren't his business. He made it his business. Maria is like that too. She makes things her business, even when they aren't. Especially when they aren't. Don't try to tell me that you or the Queen asked for her help in finding me. Or that you actually admitted the Sacred Orb was missing. You probably told her that I was off on a special mission and couldn't be reached. She probably got you to admit that I was missing, and that the Sacred Orb had disappeared. Then she probably suggested that she help find me. She probably said that the earlier events allowed her interference. She probably assured you that she was only going to find me, and would let you do the talking."
Clair's expression indicated that Nel's guesses were right on all counts.
"And you saw her in the caves - when Crosell wouldn't give me answers, she interfered again! She was even insulting him! And now she's part of a prophecy that talks about a great battle? While she stays here on our world?"
"It's a possible cause for concern," Clair allowed. "Then why did you speak so highly of her before?"
Nel sighed, sitting down on the edge of her bed. Her entire body was lodging protests against the treatment she had levelled against it recently, but she ignored it out of habit. "I spoke the truth. Besides, she was the person who gave permission for me to travel with the others and ultimately fight against the creator. Their celestial ships, their 'transporters', their weapons... what we've seen of their technology just scratches the surface. So much of it is... beyond anything I could have ever imagined. But even though I hardly understood anything about their world, she never once looked down on me or considered me incompetent. And it was her who gave permission for me to continue on with them."
"That speaks very highly of her. Yet you still have reservations about her presence here?"
"I do," Nel admitted. "She just... complicates things. Even without this prophecy."
"A prophecy which also mentions yourself. Should the occasion arise, do you not trust her to stand at your side?"
"Of course I trust her!"
Nel sighed, gingerly leaning back until she was lying down on her bed. "She sees things differently. And I don't understand how she sees them. Sometimes she makes sense... other times not. And she's here."
"Then perhaps you should talk with her. Your previous time with her was under dire circumstances, but these are times of peace. She and Lady Odessa have come to learn more about us, but the opposite also applies, does it not?"
"I don't like talking with her. She's better at it."
Clair looked amused at the admission. "Then you clearly need more practice. Can you think of anyone better to practice with than a friend and ally?"
Nel made an exhausted noise. "Just once... I'd like to be right about something today. Anything."
The silvette's smile widened. "Perhaps you should settle for having friends who are."
Clair didn't quite manage to stifle her laugh.
"The Queen will probably be here soon, you know."
"Mmm... then Her Majesty may ask me to leave. Until then, you will simply have to endure my company."
The two women were quiet for a time, both content to let the silence occupy the room in lieu of further conversation, as they waited patiently for the expected arrival.
The wait was brief, and Nel was the first to detect the approaching footsteps. There were perhaps a handful of people in the entire kingdom capable of discerning the sound of padded footfalls on the main hallway's stone floor, but Nel's espionage-honed senses easily outclassed them all. Within seconds, she had processed the combination of volume, pace, and direction, into a likely profile for the owner of the footsteps.
Upon seeing Nel swiftly rise to her feet and stand to attention, Clair did likewise, both facing the door with the expectation of an imminent royal entrance.
"Remember," Clair murmured. "Never alone."
A ghost of a smile graced Nel's face as she nodded in acceptance. "Never alone."
Several long moments passed by, before the wooden door swung open quietly, the brighter hallway framing the new arrival briefly, before she stepped into the room.
Both warriors promptly knelt in unison.
"Rise," Queen Aquaria instructed. Giving Clair a tacit nod, she let the door shut behind her, the /click/ of the latch precluding any possibility that the silvette had been expected to vacate the room.
"Your unique input earlier was invaluable towards my decision. You have my thanks and gratitude."
The Queen's voice was calm, the expression on her face speaking of simple satisfaction and nothing more, but even as she saw that smile directed at her, Nel knew that her ruler's next words could strip her of rank and title, and condemn her to prison for the rest of her life, and all would still be right with the world.
So she waited.
"Maria has," Queen Aquaria began, her tone of voice putting an end to any further pleasantries, "spoken quite highly of you, and has advocated leniency towards you in this matter."
She would, Nel reflected inwardly. It had never occurred to Nel before this moment, but she strongly suspected that Maria had never sworn allegiance or been beholden to anyone in her entire life. And that was something that made a world of difference. "I have no defence," was all she said in reply.
"You have certainly failed to provide one," the Queen agreed mildly. "Dare I inquire as to your rationalization over the past three months?"
Nel flinched slightly, but said nothing.
"Sound travels well in the throne room when empty," Aquaria informed her. "Well enough that a person seated upon the throne can make out what is being said just outside the doors. Even then, you were having doubts, were you not? It is fortunate that Maria is talented with words, or this conversation might not be taking place now."
That pretty much mirrored Nel's own thoughts on the matter, although her own version lacked the word 'fortunate'.
"Was there a shortage of individuals worthy of assisting you?" the Queen inquired, glancing briefly to the side. "You have a kingdom's worth of scholars who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge. You have a fellow warrior who is closer to you than any blood tie could possibly claim. And as your queen, I have always listened to your concerns and done my utmost to provide good counsel and judgment."
Nel winced slightly.
"So tell me... did none of us deserve the chance to assist you? Have we betrayed your confidence at some time in the past, that we could not be trusted to be of help now? And if so, are the off-worlders also unworthy of consideration, that you hesitated to the end?"
The Queen closed the distance between them, a hint of anger beginning to creep into her normally stoic voice.
"Are we such undesirable options that you would prefer to single-handedly face the Marquis himself? Should I feel grateful that you are not seeking out the king of Airyglyph also? Had the off-wolders not shown up, would you have abandoned your duties entirely, and spent the remainder of your days as a hermit? Is THAT what I am to glean from this business?"
It took every ounce of will power for Nel to maintain her composure before the tongue-lashing, let alone refrain from retreating backwards. Even Maria's ruthless logic paled in comparison to the cutting emotion behind the Queen's words.
"This is not the first time this has occurred," the Queen continued. "I am quite aware of an earlier incident, where you set out to single-handedly rescue two of your subordinates from deep within a Glyphian fortress. I assume you still remember the incident clearly? Do I need to elaborate on how your actions provoked two off-worlders - Fayt and Cliff - into pursuing you deep into enemy territory, despite the incalculable damage their re-capture would have caused?"
Nel shook her head mutely.
"And to talk with the off-worlders now... I gather that you could not be bothered to mention this to them, during your entire time with them? You spoke highly of Maria, yet it seems she remained entirely ignorant of this situation until now. Did even she, with access to superior technology and knowledge, not warrant a chance to help?
"Is that what you think of us all?" the Queen demanded sharply. "Are we all helpless babes, unworthy of consideration as you seek to single-handedly overcome the obstacles which face this kingdom? Pathetic simpletons incapable of learning and adapting to unfamiliar situations?"
"N-no," Nel protested weakly. "I-"
"Am I wrong?" the Queen inquired coldly. "Show me where I am wrong, Nel Zelpher. Tell me the reasons for your actions, that you have yet to disclose to anyone else. There are no unwelcome listeners here... unless you would deem your closest friend and myself as such. So tell me now, what logic has been dictating your actions thus far."
Unlike the plethora of questions up until now, the final demand wasn't rhetorical, and the Queen's stony expression clearly indicated that an explanation was being demanded.
"I..." Nel swallowed. If her throat had felt parched earlier, it now rivalled the Sanmite desert. She had been resolute in her actions until today, confident that her course of action, as overwhelming as it felt, was the right thing to do. Now... her efforts having proven futile, her logic crushed like an egg under a cartwheel, and the depths of her failure and betrayal becoming more evident with each passing moment...
"I... I wanted to find an answer," she whispered, her rigid posture finally wilting.
"I wanted it to... make sense," Nel managed, adequate words escaping her grasp. "I wanted to find out that it was... a misunderstanding. That there wasn't really a problem."
"I didn't want to involve anyone else."
The Queen sighed, a small fraction of her anger fading, but replaced by an equal amount of weariness. "There are times for all of us, that we are forced to act alone, with no help from those around. But these times are unfortunate, and never desirable.
"It is far better to have the difficulty shared, according to each person's abilities. Where one person may break under a burden, two merely become weary, and three may endure with strength. Or do you believe otherwise?"
Nel swallowed again. "But what if... one person can handle the problem? And what if the other people can't?"
"Is that what you believe of this incident? Did you believe that you alone could solve the problem? And that those around could not?"
"I didn't know," the redhead admitted. "It's never happened before. I didn't... want to risk it."
"Risk it?" the Queen inquired archly. "If I thought like that, it would have been myself who led the war against Airyglyph. Is that what I should have done?"
Nel managed to keep from wincing, but she suspected that her expression was still an open book to the Queen's perception. "You're... you're not a warrior," she managed. "Not like... that."
"I am not," Aquaria agreed, almost looking amused at the redhead's hesitant admission. "Yet I believe that it is possible that I could have risen to the task. But at what cost? At what sacrifice? Truly, I am no warrior, and I have no illusions that it would have broken me in the end. So I did not make that sacrifice."
"Instead, I demanded that sacrifice of another." Glancing sideways, the Queen allowed her gaze to briefly fall upon the room's third occupant. "Two others."
"It wasn't-" Clair began.
"It was," Aquaria corrected firmly. "I demanded that sacrifice of both of you. That you both gave it freely does not absolve me in any way, but I believe that it was the right thing for me to do. You have both suffered and toiled, bled and shed blood, wielding the authority that I have bestowed upon you in defence of this land... but you have not broken.
"These are times of peace, and with them comes the chance to lay down some of the burden. Even if those under you are weaker and less capable, this is when you may ask them - indeed, you must ask them to - sacrifice without fear of them breaking. Clair struggles with this too, and I worry often, but I believe she manages. But you?"
The Queen shook her head at Nel, partly in concern, partly in exasperation. "Even as the old burdens lighten, you find new burdens to bear, whether they are yours to bear or not. Do you mean to continue down this path until you finally break? Or is it that you simply lack faith in the abilities of anyone but yourself?"
"I..." Nel didn't finish her sentence. Since first taking up arms in defence of her kingdom, she had never questioned the extent of her loyalty. Her strength, her skills, her life... all tools to protect those around her. Without exception. And now she was being told - by her Queen, no less - that she was somehow in error?
"Does that upset you?" Aquaria inquired, apparently reading her thoughts. "The idea of being told to refrain from protecting our kingdom?"
A wordless nod.
"And yet you strive so hard to deny others that very option."
Nel's eyes widened at the pronouncement.
"It saddens me to see someone sacrificed under any circumstances... but for such a trivial and foolish reason? I think not."
Taking a step backwards, the Queen drew herself up, her blood-red eyes riveting Nel where she stood. "For your conduct in recent matters, you are relieved of your duties. Indefinitely."
Both warriors winced in tandem, but neither spoke.
"You are relieved of your duties indefinitely," Aquaria repeated forcefully. "This may only be rescinded by the word of myself, or should the occasion necessitate, Clair. You will abstain from involving yourself in any business pertaining to your position. You will not find excuses to circumvent this, and I will tolerate no wordplay or semantics on your part. You will obey this directive in both word and spirit."
That was a very thorough way of phrasing it, Nel had to admit. It was almost as though the Queen thought she was capable of rationalizing an act of disobedience - on second thought, best not to think to hard about that. "As you command."
"In lieu of recent developments, you will be overseeing the visitation of the two offworlders. Since you are most familiar with their ways, you are the logical person to interact with them. The details of their hospitality and accommodations will fall under your jurisdiction, but I expect them to be treated as the esteemed foreign dignitaries that they are, for the duration of their visit."
It was hard, but Nel managed to avoid any changes to her facial expression. Being indefinitely assigned to work alongside Maria, without a crisis looming... "As you command."
"And finally, you will finish your training."
"Your warrior's training," the Queen elaborated. "Which was cut short by the advent of the recent war against Airyglyph. Alongside your other duties, you will complete it."
Nel was silent for a moment, trying to reconcile this demand with the other two. It was true, she hadn't quite finished her training when the war broke out, and then things had become complicated, and amidst the initial bloodshed and carnage, she had quickly risen to her present position and... now she had been relieved from it. Although she was at a loss to guess what training could teach her that years of warfare hadn't... "As you command," Nel repeated for the third time.
The acknowledgement was taken at face value by the Queen, who nodded simply and turned to leave the room. "Maria and Odessa will be returning tomorrow. At that time, I will explain the situation to them and leave you to your own means."
A brief nod to Clair, and then the Queen left the room silently, the door's latch clicking shut behind her. In the ensuing silence, Nel was sure it echoed. When even her hearing could no longer hear the footsteps in the hallway, she finally let her posture slump, exhaling noisily.
"That went well."
"Based on what?"
"What were you expecting?" Clair inquired. Unlike their initial exchange upon entering the room, the silvette was not forthcoming with further observations.
"I don't know."
"Are you upset?"
"I don't know."
"Are you angry?"
"I don't know."
"Then you'll be just fine," Clair decided matter-of-factly, earning a mildly irritated look from the redhead. "You've returned home, you've confessed, you've been judged... you need only move forward with the same determination that you always have before. Simply take each day as it comes, and strive to learn from your mistakes. And you can start doing that tomorrow," the silvette added firmly. "After you've had some rest."
Nel managed a hint of a smile. And perhaps her lack of rest was simply catching up to her, but she was fairly certain that her bed was in agreement. "That sounds like a wonderful idea."
Unbuckling her belt, she removed the item before setting it - and the weapons attached to it - on the dusty surface of her desk. She always felt slightly unbalanced when unarmed, but a good night's sleep more than made up for it. In the meantime, since 'deskwork' was something that happened to other people, it would serve as a pedestal for her weapons until morning.
Having a pair of arms wrapped around her caught her off-guard, but she managed to squirm enough to get her own arms free and return the favour. Clair's hug - almost crushing in its intensity - was less restrained than their usual embraces, but Nel didn't voice any complaints, instead letting the other woman lean against her as much as she wished. She was fairly certain that no amount of washing would ever get her clothing clean again, but she was far more certain that her friend didn't care at the moment.
"I missed you," Clair finally whispered into the other's hair, her grip relaxing slightly. Compared to her earlier lecturing tones, her voice had taken on a far softer inflection, the words being breathed rather than spoken. "A lot."
"I'm sorry." Nel didn't complicate the apology with any details. Right now, there were a lot of things she was sorry for, and she suspected that the days to come would only add to the list. She'd settle all her accounts, just as soon as she learned how, but for the time being... to hell with questionable gods. To hell with unexplainable religions. To hell with vanishing sacred artefacts. To hell with obnoxiously arrogant offworld visitors, and the three-eyed scientists they brought with them. And to hell with royal duties that she had somehow failed to uphold, without even truly understanding how.
Because right now, she had a friend her arms whom she had failed, and damned if she wouldn't do everything in her power to atone for it. A friend who had finally - mostly - relinquished her embrace enough to lean back and look directly into her eyes.
Here, the silvette hesitated for a moment, her facial expression showing signs of both conflict and embarrassment, her gaze averting itself slightly. It was a look that Nel had learned to easily recognize by this point. As certain as she was that she knew what her friend's request would be, she was equally certain that no other living soul had ever been on the receiving end of it."Could I..." Clair flushed slightly. "Could I sleep here tonight?"
Nel smiled gently in reply, already knowing her answer. "Of course."
"Just a glass."
"I told you, I don't drink."
"A single glass," Odessa insisted, nudging a glass of... something towards Maria.
It was alcoholic, that much was certain. The glass was tall, thin, and fragile-looking, and managed to suggest that its contents were either illegal or illegally priced. It had demonstrated a syrupy quality while being poured, and was presently waxing through the colours of the red-yellow spectrum as the overhead lights shone through it. Liquids that looked like that belonged inside machinery, Maria had always felt.
"I'll have a cup of coffee," she insisted.
"The gods of favour and fortune frown upon the use of coffee in celebration."
"...How you said that with a straight face, I'll never know."
"There's hardly any sense in taking chances, I say," was Odessa pragmatic opinion on the matter. "That we've gotten this far is nothing short of miraculous."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Maria agreed dryly.
"Oh, don't be that way," the Tetrageniot chided. "This undertaking was to involve nothing more than an exchange of information and material. Instead, we found ourselves embroiled in the midst of several potential disasters, to say nothing of the danger you yourself faced while retrieving Nel. Yet despite these complications, we've not only received permission to pursue our original task, we're in a direct position to influence and blunt any negative repercussions of recent events."
"Well... I'll agree to that," Maria allowed. "Things certainly could have ended up for the worse. And I'm glad that we're going to be able to offer them some help with handling this."
"Therefore," Odessa concluded, nudging the glass closer, "a proper toast is clearly in order."
Surrender. "Fine. One glass."
"Besides, I sampled your coffee, did I not?"
Maria rolled her eyes, easily holding the delicate glass between her finger and thumb. "Are you still bitter about that?"
"Nowhere near as bitter as your coffee, I assure you."
"My coffee stands on its own merits."
"And the spoon stands up in your coffee. Regardless, this wine speaks well for itself. I won't bore you with the tawdry details, but suffice to say that it's an exceptional vintage, more than worthy of helping us toast this auspicious occasion."
"A toast then," Maria agreed, raising her glass obligingly. "To the successful beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship with Elicoor II."
Odessa did likewise. "Despite all obstacles. And may it lead to both parties becoming more knowledgeable by the end."
Both drained their glasses in one swallow, Maria discovering that the concoction went down almost too smoothly for words. A texture that bordered on syrupy, with just a hint of sweetness. For an instant, a faint tingling sensation in her throat suggested that the liquor was skipping the digestive process and entered her bloodstream directly, but it passed quickly, leaving no aftertaste to ruin the taste buds' memory.
"...very good," Maria admitted, knowing she'd get a smug look for the admission.
Odessa didn't disappoint, although she substituted any smart comments for deftly refilling Maria's glass, before doing likewise with her own. "Do help yourself. Once the seal is broken, it ceases to improve with age. And it's actually quite a bit weaker than most Genesian vintages, in deference to your Earthling palette."
"Maybe you should look into trading with Elicoor for a new flavours?"
"Oh, I fully intend to. Vintage bottles from underdeveloped civilizations make excellent and unique gifts, you realize?"
"I suppose they would. So... did you have any idea on how you wanted to start learning?"
"I have a few priorities... although I'm prepared to be as flexible as necessary. I'd like you to start putting that sensor grid to use as we planned, but aside from that, I suspect your presence will only be occasionally needed. If things go swimmingly, hardly at all. If you were thinking of taking Lady Elena up on her suggestion, by all means."
"It's an interesting idea," Maria admitted, taking a sip from her glass. "And I might actually be able to learn a few things about my abilities. And you think that anything she learned in the process would be acceptable?"
"As long as you limited it to practical applications, and didn't delve into the topics of how you came into those abilities, I think everything will be fine." Odessa frowned, the topic seeming to spur a related thought. "An interesting woman... her reactions seemed rather at odds with the other Elicoorians."
"You noticed that too? But she doesn't follow their religion, remember? Telling an atheist that the gods are false isn't exactly ground-breaking."
"True... but having an atheist in a position of authority certainly reinforces my view that they are not, in fact, a theocracy... perhaps you can talk with her about that at some point. I'll certainly be learning everything I can about their religion. If nothing else, it seems to play a significant role in their society, and it will let me begin to address this prophecy business sooner as well. A win-win approach, I should think."
The mention of the Prophecy brought a scowl to Maria's face, even as she drained her glass a second time. "I'd like to know a few things about that too."
"No doubt. If I might ask, any further thoughts about it?" A raised eyebrow. "Perhaps ones that weren't for our friends' ears?"
"One," she admitted. "The part where it refers to me as being from an 'unknown lineage'?"
"The Queen thought that was a reference to your offworlder status... you think otherwise?"
"I was talking with Dr. Esteed just recently," Maria elaborated. "Apparently, Dr. Leingod, the head of the project that gave me my powers, had suspected I had some Expellian history in my genes. On an 'instinctive level', the doctor described it, even though there was no instrument-recorded proof. But Dr. Esteed suggested that some traces of Expellian genetics might have been the reason I kept my powers, while Fayt and Sophia lost theirs. It was just a hypothesis from the doctor, but..."
Odessa took the summarization at face value, absent-mindedly refilling both their glasses. "Indeed... this prophecy could very easily be taken as support of that idea. Is it crucial?"
"...no. Not really. Even if I did have a faint trace of some Expellian genes in me, I don't see it making much difference. I don't know who my birth parents are, so it's still impossible to verify such a thing... it just makes me wonder why the prophecy would mention it, that's all."
"A valid concern," Odessa admitted. "Do you think there's cause for worry here?"
"No..." Maria admitted, taking another drink. This wine really was rather good, she idly reflected. Not as good as her coffee, of course, but... "I just don't like the idea of someone thinking they can just 'test' me. It's... presumptuous. I've trained under different experts to get better, and when they tested me, it was because I had given them permission and trust. Even when the Admiral was testing me to see if I would consider working with the Federation, he wasn't presuming any authority over me. But whoever wrote this prophecy... it sounds different, and I don't like it."
Odessa gave an accepting nod. "That's a valid concern. To say nothing of the additional implications of someone doing likewise to Nel, a citizen of an underdeveloped planet."
"But we don't know anything for sure," the Earthling stressed, emptying her glass. "Until something makes itself known, we're not chasing after ghosts."
"Of course not." Glass refill.
"And if something does make itself known..." Maria added, her voice taking on a rather unhappy edge.
"I'm here for trouble-shooting," Maria reminded matter-of-factly. "I'm gonna DEAL with it."
Odessa frowned. "Er... naturally. Not that we're intending on starting conflicts with unknown individuals, of course."
This time, the entire glass went down in one gulp, hitting the table like it had gained ten pounds. "Of course not! I'm a diplomat, you know. I want to avoid fighting. But if they won't listen to reason, then I'm not going to let someone just mess with me or Elicoor!"
The Tetrageniot's look of concern waxed into one of suspicion. "Maria, are you feeling quite alright? The bottle seems rather emptier than I realized, and I'm only on my second glass..."
Maria waved the concerns aside, a little clumsily. "This mission is going to go PERFECT!" she declared vehemently, possibly for the benefit of anyone outside the spacecraft. "We're going to learn things, and Elicoor's going to learn things, and we're ALL gonna be happy for it. No one's using anyone, and if some stupid... prophecy-writer thinks they can ruin it all... they're gonna deal with ME, got it?"
"Er, yes, of course," Odessa agreed with a wince. "I'm quite delighted that you feel so strongly about this, Maria, but I'm being to feel very strongly that you've had a few glasses too many-"
"And if we're lucky," Maria continued disgustedly, "maybe the queen will get Nel to drop that damn martyr complex she has! What kind of person goes missing for months, rather than talk to a single other person about their problem? And the whole time she was with us, she never ONCE mentioned that whole gods thing! We go out of our way to protect them, I even let her come along with us, and THAT'S the thanks I get from her? I have a mind to take a piece out of her myself!"
"I can understand your frustration," the Tetrageniot allowed gingerly, "but really, she was under considerable duress and distraction at the time, so surely that can be considered water under-"
Like a puppets with its strings suddenly released, and slightly less fanfare, Maria slumped forwards onto the table.
"-the bridge. Maria?"
A sigh, but laced with some amusement. "Perhaps we should get to work tomorrow," the older woman decided for the benefit of all the room's occupants.
"I'm delighted you approve. Computer, transport Miss Traydor to her room, and monitor her to ensure that there are no ill effects from her intoxication. Set an alarm to wake her in twelve hours. After today, she's certainly earned the rest, I think."
Obligingly, Maria's prone form disappeared from the chair in the quiet hum of the transporter effect, leaving the room empty, save one.
"In vino veritas, hmm?" the Tetrageniot mused, delicately sipping from her own glass. "Not as stoic about this business as you claim, are you?"
Pouring what little remained in the bottle, Odessa set it aside and drained her glass. "Well, each day as it comes. In the end, that's the best any of us mortals can hope to do."
Shifting slightly, Nel let her aching body settle deeper in the bed. How long had it been since she'd been able to look forward to a full night's sleep? Even after the war - on Elicoor and beyond - there had always been something to push her onwards. A few hours of nightly sleep were an acceptable sacrifice, if it meant finding a solution that much faster. And after she had fled her post, the need to stay ahead of anyone who might try to track her down had only exaggerated the situation that much further.
She'd completely failed to solve her dilemma, and had succeeded only in passing the burden onto other people. She'd been thoroughly reprimanded by her Queen, who had even suggested that her determination to give her all was somehow WRONG...
In response to her movement, the bed's second occupant also shifted slightly, her body tightly nestled within the curve of Nel's own. The sheer sleepwear both wore was opaque, but only just. Certainly all but insubstantial as far as the sense of touch was concerned. Even now, Nel could easily feel the rhythmic intake and exhalation of her friend's breathing, and even make out her heartbeat. Despite the springtime night air and thin blanket, the body heat being exchanged between them was almost hot enough to make her perspire.
But that was how Clair liked it.
And at this moment, Nel wouldn't have had it any other way. Perhaps her entire world was nothing but an afterthought in the greater scheme of things. Perhaps she'd failed beyond redemption in the eyes of her Queen. Perhaps all her gods were frauds. Perhaps her very existence was nothing but a figment of her own imagination. But this much, she could still do.
Before she had been instilled with her rank, before she had formally taken up arms in defence of her kingdom, before she had begun her warrior's training, even before she had first begun to explore beyond the confines of her home-village... from the time their fathers had introduced them, there had always been Clair. Almost from the very day Nel had come into the world, they had played together, explored together, learned together, trained together, celebrated together, fought together...
...fought with each other. It was no exaggeration to say that the two of them had become infamous long before taking up active military service, and Lasselle's threats to have them shipped to the Sanmite Desert had probably been quite sincere. But underneath all, even amidst the worst of the quarrels and fights, there had always been the love they shared.
Nel had read stories of people who loved each other so much that they would die for one another, as though such willingness was to represent the pinnacle of love. She wondered if those people realized how much further they could go. She wondered if those people had ever tried living for the sake of one another, swearing vows to always return home alive. She wondered if those people had ever tried keeping a vow like that while fighting on the frontlines of a war, or while facing down the self-proclaimed creator of the universe...
No matter what else she'd failed at, she'd managed that much at least.
Nel's brows furrowed as her train of thought was interrupted. "I thought you were asleep."
"Do you think the Queen was right?" Clair whispered quietly.
"It was you under scrutiny today, but our leadership styles are very much alike. Is the Queen right when she says we must demand sacrifices of others? Larger sacrifices than we have?"
Nel was silent for a moment, uncertain if she liked the question, or the possible answers. Tomorrow, she would freely let her thoughts follow whatever path was needed for her to begin understanding her errors. But tonight, she wanted to think about something she understood, that she hadn't failed in. "What does that say about us?"
"I have asked a sacrifice of you, and you have made it."
They had been barely eighteen years old when the dynamics of their relationship had dramatically changed. That they cared for each other dearly had never been up for question (discounting some of their more impassioned arguments), but it had still been a jarring shock to discover that one of them had begun to develop an entirely new set of feelings towards the other...
...or, to put the matter less delicately, it had involved Clair completely failing to exercise due discretion while vigorously fantasizing about someone possessed of phenomenally sharp hearing and quiet movement. It had also involved Nel attempting to surprise Clair on the evening before her birthday. And needless to say, each of their respective efforts had severely interrupted the other's.
It had taken some time for the dust to settle, the tears to clear, and both to collect their scattered wits over the situation. It had been a bizarre experience for Nel, feeling anguish at being heterosexual, but the situation had certainly been equal to the task. But despite her shock, the first words out of her mouth had been to tell her friend that if that was what she wanted, she wouldn't have to ask twice.
In the end, between Clair's adamant refusal to ask any such thing, and Nel's equally adamant refusal to do nothing, they had arrived at a compromise of sorts. From time to time, when Clair would feel moments of weakness... a little contact and some shared body heat over the course of the night. And if there had been one or two instances where Nel had feigned sleep while her dearest friend semi-consciously indulged herself... well, she had never actually withdrawn the offer.
It was a strange situation by any measure, each of them waiting for the other to weaken in resolve, providing the opportunity to either offer more help, or accept less. But along with it, there also came a certain feeling of contentment, a further strengthening of the bond that had developed between them. And if it wasn't perfect for either of them, it was still enough for both...
"You could have asked for more," Nel pointed out, shifting slightly.
"And you would not have hesitated for a moment," Clair agreed, her voice devoid of any doubt over the matter. "But this is enough. Perhaps that middle path is what we must strive for - being willing to demand sacrifices of others, but taking care to never demand too much."
"What about you?" Nel suggested. "Even I can tell that you've been tired lately."
Clair was silent for a moment. "It's you that's been making me tired as of late," she finally retorted quietly, though her voice lacked any edge. "I expect to sleep quite soundly tonight and in the nights to come... unlike the past few months."
By way of reply, Clair burrowed deeper into Nel's form. "Not that this is a new occurrence," she observed dryly. "Should I be grateful you waited until peacetime to spring this on us?"
Nel managed a ghost of a smile, even though she knew her friend couldn't see it. "You've cost me plenty of sleep too, I'll thank you to remember."
"You lose sleep because you find out about my problems. I lose sleep because I don't know what your problems are. I think that leaves you with the better part of that bargain."
"I think you know all my problems out now," Nel offered lamely.
"And when another problem appears?" Clair inquired. Her voice was soft again, although the question was clearly a loaded one. "Will you face that problem alone?"
Nor did Nel miss the undertones present in the question. Looking back, she wondered how she had justified everything she had done thus far. She had hoped a solution was to be found, sparing anyone else from having to deal with the issue, but that had been a lost cause. In the end, she had done nothing but cause frustration and disappointment in those around her, and delay the inevitable.
And now, her oldest and dearest friend - one that she valued more than life itself - asked what would happen the next time she faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle? "No," she whispered. "Not alone."
"I shall hold you to that," Clair murmured softly, clasping Nel's hand and holding it to her chest. "Never alone."
And this time, Nel knew she meant it.
Agony is sitting down at the keyboard for hours and writing down one sentence. Hell is erasing that sentence the next day. Stupidity is when you KEEP DOING IT. At any rate, this chapter is done, and it's as long winded as the rest. Once again, I apologize, but I honestly couldn't' work out a way of spacing the information and revelations out better. On the bright side, I've managed to trim out a couple thousand words from the earlier chapters, and they're better for it. On a side note, Fayt and Sophia will NOT be making a reappearance in this story. I was using them strictly as a sounding board to flesh out Maria (probably excessively so), but now that Nel's in the picture, she can do a lot of that herself.
Originally, I had simply envisioned Nel and Maria as a couple of buddies, who would get closer as the story went on. But the longer I study them (at least within the context of this story), the more potential for friction I'm seeing. Seeing as the finer details of this story's plot are still rather... fluid, I hope this doesn't backfire on me...
Finally, the Nel/Clair approach I've taken? Perhaps a little weird, I admit. Making it mutual would have accomplished nothing that a simple 'deep friendship' couldn't manage just as well, which wouldn't justify the trouble of introducing it. But making it one-sided? I originally jotted it down when brainstorming, more for completeness than anything, but a surprising number of other plot points seemed to mix extremely well with this particular set-up. More trouble to write, but at this point, I'm fairly optimistic about the end result. If it deteriorates into bad cheese, I apologize in advance. For now, the die is cast.
End Part 2-C