Author's note: This was originally started out as a scene for A Shade of Gray, but gradually became its own story. That said, it does directly tie in to a much later scene in Gray, and will have a sequel-ish chapter when I get there. :)
This piece is for my mother, whose lamentations of how having children ruined a potential career inspired this story.
Before the arrival of Baron's finest knights to Mist, Rydia hadn't been a child prone to nightmares. She'd never woken in naive terror, shouting for the comfort of her mother, or trembled at imagined creatures lurking in shadowy corners.
But as the fragile walls of her childhood home melted around her and the warmth of her mother was replaced by an unresponsive, rapidly cooling body, the memory seared itself into Rydia's young mind. Never would she have need for an overactive imagination, local horror stories or misunderstood shadows. Her terror was quite real.
She woke; a would-be scream swallowed mute, tangled in sheets that her nightmare registered as hot, greedy fingers of flame. She fought her way from the bedding, falling off the bed's edge.
"Mommy?" the word was wrenched from her, uncertainly; "MOMMY!"
What came next was something also out of a dream -- not the same nightmare, but from the soft, fuzzy edged dreams of babies contently fat on milk. Strong arms circled around her, lifting her from the floor, a soothing voice murmuring in her ear, her head cradled carefully against the curve of a breast. For a moment, Rydia could believe that these were her mother's arms, but in the shallow light she could see they were too white, too long, too muscled from years of practiced archery.
Rosa held her, not her mother, but the very act of being held, rocked, of Rosa's soft shh's and gentle thumps on her back was enough for Rydia. This was not mother, certainly, but it was as close as she'd get for now.
"You're all right, dear. You're safe."
Rydia's sobs gradually subsided into short, shallow breaths, her face still pressed into Rosa's shirt. She said nothing, and let Rosa's soothing tones continue, "Are you scared about tomorrow? It's going to be just fine, I promise. You and I will be safe inside the castle."
Rydia's tiny voice finally emerged, "There's so much fighting. Everyone's getting hurt and dying. There's no reason to smile. Everyone's so sad."
"Oh, love." Rosa's arms tightened around her, "There are reasons to smile, we just have to search really hard to find them, sometimes, especially in times like this." She brushed a wet lock of hair from Rydia's cheek, peering down into the girl's honest face, "If I tell you a secret, do you think you can keep it?"
Curious, and distracted from the fading horror of her dream, Rydia perked up, "What is it?"
"After we spoke with the king, and promised to help with the battle tomorrow, Cecil took me aside and asked me a very important question." Rosa lifted Rydia, to set her down on the edge of the bed, kneeling beside her so they were eye to eye, "He asked me to marry him, and I said yes. Have you ever been to a wedding, Rydia?"
Rydia shook her head.
"Well, at the wedding, there are a lot of important jobs. One little girl has a very big responsibility. She gets to walk down the aisle before the bride, and sprinkle flower petals everywhere. I want you to be my flower girl."
"Me?" Rydia asked, eyes wide in disbelief.
"Yes, you. But it's a very big secret. We'll get to have the wedding and a very big party after all the fighting is over with. I want you to hold onto that secret, and remember it when you're sad, okay? You'll get to wear a beautiful dress, and a tiara, and carry a basket of flowers. That's something to smile about, isn't it?"
Even in the dark of the room, Rydia's smile could be heard in the bounce of her voice, "Oh, yes it is.
Fabul did not fare as well as Rosa had promised. Rydia watched in mute horror as her second mother was snatched away, along with the Wind Crystal. In spite of this, Rydia clung to Rosa's words that everything would be All Right, and that, someday, the fighting would end.
Even when swallowed whole, Leviathan's belly couldn't stop her dreams of softly floating petals, a cascade of silk and satin, and the gleam of a sparkling headpiece.
The loss of her white magic came as a tragic, albeit brief blow, quickly replaced by her growing enthusiasm for learning the summoning craft. Asura was another mother to impress and please, which Rydia did well.
When Rydia emerged from the Land of the Summoned Monsters as an accomplished black mage and summoner, she was thrilled to find Cecil and Rosa in need of her magic. Together, they could finally end the fighting.
Rydia had assumed the affair would be as understated as Rosa herself was, nothing extravagant or over the top. But faced with a sea of varying reds, pinks, and whites -- dozens upon dozens of rose bouquets, Rydia was forced to reconsider the idea of "simple."
She wondered just how many diplomats and nobles thought themselves so-damn-clever for sending the future Queen of Baron her flowered name sake. By Rydia's confused nose's count? -- all of them.
Rydia, herself, stood in a frothy mess of pink layered silk, while a babbling seamstress tried her damnedest to put as many pin pricks into Rydia's side as possible. She endured the abuse without complaint — mostly.
"So darling. So sweet. Don't you think?" the seamstress mused, and when she received a distant look from Rydia instead of a proper reply, another pin found itself deep in Rydia's thigh.
"Sorry, dear," the seamstress, sounding anything but apologetic, continued, "The flower girl, I meant. Porom, isn't it? Doesn't she look like a doll? I did a damn fine job, there."
Rydia looked up in time to catch Porom in a surprising moment of unrestrained childishness. In a miniature version of Rydia's own dress, Porom twirled, the skirt flaring about her pale legs.
If seeing prim and proper and oh-so-adult Porom acting like a child -- as her very age dictated -- wasn't enough of a surprise, the seamstress' words created a lead weight in Rydia's belly. "But. I -- I thought I was the flower girl," she said, quietly, self-consciously pulling at the bodice of the dress. Despite the volume of her words, three other similarly dressed women looked up. Rosa, in the middle of them, met Rydia's gaze.
"Oh." Rosa's face was one of sudden sympathy, while the other three women giggled together, "No, Rydia." She said, gently, "You're too old to be a flower girl. So I asked Porom instead."
An unwanted, childish hurt bubbled up in Rydia, spilling out in her next, tight words, "But you promised?"
Rosa wasn't fully dressed; anyone would have looked at least halfway ridiculous bound up in a corset and frilly petticoat, but Rosa managed the crossing of the room with more elegance than most women in proper ball gowns. The other women tittered behind their hands, while Rosa's expression was still unyielding sympathy.
"I know, I know. But this turns out even better, you see? You're my maid of honor, Rydia, which is a much more important job than anything else."
There was a new look that flashed over the three pink-dressed women, one that Rydia didn't recognize then and there. Years later, with more life experience dealing with people, Rydia would remember as unadulterated envy, edged with resentment.
But now, Rydia was lost in a childish naivete, and could only manage a nod at Rosa's words, "Oh. Oh. That's fine. Just fine."
Rosa looked skeptical, a frown disgracing the perfect line of her mouth. Rydia floundered internally, then forced a smile. She was relieved to see Rosa reflect the smile back, looking all the more dazzling for it.
"Perfect!" Rosa's hands came together in her excitement, "You'll have heaps of fun, Rydia, I promise. You and the other bridesmaids look stunning."
This was the first, but certainly not the last, incident where Rydia felt at a disadvantage at the fault of her upbringing. She wouldn't have traded her years with the Summoned Monsters for anything. But -- there was always a but -- she felt cheated, somehow, unaware of even the most basic social customs. Monsters, no matter how civilized where still just that -- monsters.
The next week passed in an awkward blur of countless fittings, rehearsals, and formal dinner parties. Rydia had never been anything but confident, armed with a wealth of magic to oppose anyone who stood in her way, but these social gatherings were different from battles. Direct confrontations could be dealt with in a straight forward, obvious manner.
This was the act of dancing around one another, with subtle, biting comments; thinly veiled political moves in every act, every carefully posed phrase. Rydia watched the bridesmaids, and others that surrounded Rosa. They offered gossip and advice, always coming back to, "Well, in Fabul, we do it this way..." Or Eblan, or Damcyan, or whatever respective country. Rydia was slowly coming to the realization just how important a friendship with the new Queen of Baron could be, and was ever aware of the web being woven around Rosa, even if she couldn't precisely identify the blurry threads.
"Ladies, could you kindly give Rydia and me a moment of privacy?" Though it was posed sweetly, Rosa had perfected the art of a gentle command. The three women exchanged a significant glance, then bobbed a mutual nod before filing out.
The morning of the wedding, thus far, had been nothing but chaos. Rydia could hear the distant murmur of the assembled hundreds in the throne room, only a few walls away. Rosa sat at the vanity in her dressing room, the flow of her white gown spilling out in glorious silken ruffles, to the floor. The neckline rose in sharp, smooth detail, ending in a clean line at her collar bone.
"Come sit with me a moment, please?" Rosa spoke to Rydia's reflection in the vanity, and it was only now that Rydia noticed the weakening of Rosa's smile. Mindful of her own ridiculous pink concoction of a dress, Rydia took up a seat beside Rosa.
Rosa had been so elegant, so refined and perfect throughout all the wedding preparations, so Rydia was utterly surprised when Rosa seized her hands.
"I think I may puke." She declared, her face as white as her gown.
"Do.. do you want me to fetch a healer?" Rydia offered, uncertainly, already rising to head for the door. She'd never seen Rosa unraveled before, and it disturbed her in a way she couldn't describe.
"No, no!" The force in Rosa's voice was startling, and it caused Rydia to plunk back down into her seat, "No," Rosa said, more softly, equally surprised at her own tone, "Just sit with me. My nerves are a mess, and I just need a moment without someone fussing over me."
They sat in silence for a long moment, Rosa's vice grip still on her hands, while Rosa simply concentrated on breathing. Finally, when Rosa's hands loosened from hers, Rydia spoke, "...Do you not want to do this?"
"No -- that's not it. I want to do this. I want to do this more than anything else in the world. It's just doing it in front of more people than I've ever met in my entire life that makes me nervous." She finally let go of Rydia entirely, and though her hands still shook, she distracted herself with fastening a bracelet about her wrist.
Rydia, for the life of her, didn't understand why someone would put themselves through so much unnecessary stress. She looked between the door, Rosa, and her own reflection, and asked simply, "Why are they all here, then?"
Rosa drew in a deep, steady breath, "Because it's smart, politically. Cecil says that Baron -- the world -- needs a reason to celebrate, and a wedding is as good a reason as any." She sounded like she was reciting from an often heard speech. She turned to fussing with the fit of her necklace, "I wanted something quiet. Only the people that mattered in attendance. It's funny, but I never thought that saving the world would upstage my own wedding."
"How do you know, Rosa? How do you know this is what you want?" Rydia fidgeted, too, letting Rosa's anxiety spill over into her.
"I've always known." Rosa paused, letting her hands fall to her sides, suddenly still. "I've never wanted anything more than to be with Cecil. To marry him, bear his children, and live out our lives together. I never expected or wanted to govern a country, granted, but it's happened."
"And your magic? Did you ever want to pursue your talents in white magic? To see where they would take you?" Rydia's gaze was direct and honest in her question, looking to Rosa.
Rosa shook her head, "I never wanted power. Not for myself. I just wanted a way to stay with and help Cecil. White magic came naturally to me, of course, but it's not what I want out of life."
Rydia had grown up with three mothers, each having a brief but significant impact on her life. However different they were, there was a common thread throughout: their magical prowess. She felt like she'd been dowsed in cold water, hearing Rosa speak so, "You don't feel an obligation to your magic?"
Rosa frowned, obviously confused at the posed question, before a dawning realization softened her face with a laugh, "Is this about a certain Eblan Prince?"
Rydia scowled and stood abruptly, the heavy rustle of her skirts making the effect more dramatic than she intended, "No."
Rosa reached for her hand, and gently tugged her back down into the seat, "You can pursue your magic and still marry, Rydia. Nothing is stopping you."
"Not every big question in my life is about Edge, you know." Rydia sounded dangerously close to sulking, she hated to hear it even with her own words, "This is about you: Why are you giving up your magic?"
"Why wouldn't I? I've helped people, Rydia. Dozens of people. So has Cecil. I used my magic to help him, to help you, stop the single most evil being known to creation. I've paid my debt, to the world and to the Crystals. What else can they demand of me?"
Rosa paused, taking a moment to sigh at her reflection, to brush aside imagined loose strands of hair from her face, "Maybe it sounds selfish, but I've done what I've had to, and it's time to set aside magic and study, and finally get what I want -- Cecil, and a family."
They sat in new silence, now, this time awkward, before Rosa ventured, hints of humor curving up at the corners of her mouth, "If this is about Edge.."
"It's not!" Rydia was surprised at her own outburst, and continued more quietly, "It might be. I don't know. He wants me to come back to Eblan with him."
"Rydia... that's a good thing."
"No, it's not," she hesitated, "Well, it might be. I don't know. I feel like I'm standing at a great crossroads in my life, and I have to choose, like you did. At one end, there's a husband, a family, and even royal responsibility. At the other, there's my duty to my magic, the legacy of the Summoners and the monsters."
"You can do both. If anyone could manage, you could."
"One is enough for a dozen lifetimes. And..."
Rydia said nothing, at first, until the weight of her epiphany carried her words forward with a sudden force: "How many mothers do you know remain powerful wizards, Rosa? Honest and truly. I've done some research, reading in Mysidia's great library. Magical history is largely written by men. There are great mage women that fade from the pages after a small footnote of their having children. There are sons of great witches recognized as rising to power, and even powerful old crones, but always noted as being childless. What does this tell you?"
"But your mother," Rosa offered, her perfect brow furrowed, "she possessed you, and still wielded great magic."
"Her dragon fell," Rydia's voice softened to a dangerous degree, as if afraid to say, "Despite her most powerful efforts. I can't help but wonder, if I hadn't been born, if she would have been able to protect Mist fully."
Rosa said nothing, as she considered that -- the great white dragon rearing back, while Cain and Cecil's freshly cooling corpses lay in the grass.
Rydia was oblivious to Rosa's discomfort, and continued, "We know that powerful mages come from powerful parents, that magic is often passed down from parent to child. Do children take their magic from their mother, permanently? Tellah the Sage continued his work well after having his daughter. Why not women? Or." Rydia sunk back down into her chair, deflating with the gravity of her own words, "Or maybe mothers choose to do so, willingly. They just give up, and give up their power, for the mediocrity of motherhood."
Rosa scowled, the expression especially harsh on her soft features, "It may not seem much to you, but sometimes the very greatest thing a woman can do is to mother the next generation."
Rydia realized the impact of what she had said and reached for Rosa's hands, "I didn't mean that. I just..."
"I know it sounds dreadfully simple to you. But this is the life I want. I never wanted war, or magic, or great epic adventure. I want something simple. I want to do what women have been doing since the beginning of time. A husband, a family, and a home." She turned a glance up toward Rydia, "Maybe you're right. Maybe we can't have both, and that's our women and wizard curse. But I know what I want."
"What if I make the wrong choice?"
Rosa smiled, though a very small one, "I don't know. I'm sure the Crystals will let you know, eventually, if you've chosen the right path. I suppose the same goes for everyone, mother or mage."
Someone knocked, and a muffled feminine voice came through, "Rosa, dear, it's almost time!"
Rosa winced at the sound, and moved to stand, "I'll be glad when they're gone."
"Who? Your bridesmaids?" Rydia asked, confused, as she followed in a fumble of her own dress.
"Oh, yes. They're just terrible." Rosa was suddenly sheepish; simultaneously too good natured to approve of gossip, but too much of a woman to genuinely resist. She waved Rydia over, and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial murmur, "I know how they smile at me one moment then make veiled insults the next. They resent my rise in status. They say, I was only in the first place at the right time, sleeping with the right knight. How appalling is that?"
Rydia was genuinely shocked, trying to replay the past few days' events with this new perspective, "Why did you ask them to be in your bridal party if you dislike them so?"
"Another political move, I'm afraid. Fabul, Eblan, and Damcyan are three of the most wronged by Baron during the Crystal War." She nodded toward the door, "And those are daughters of the standing noble families in each. This is just a small step in reestablishing relations with them." She shook her head, "Apparently being friends with each of their monarchs, or saving the world, wasn't enough."
Rydia remembered that intangible, ever reaching web of politics, and saw none of those threads spawning from herself, "Why am I here, then? Shouldn't you have given that honor to someone else?"
Rosa's sudden hug was a surprise, one that left Rydia literally breathless, "No one else deserved it. Politics or not, you're my very closest friend." She released her, then laughed at the wrinkles the embrace had created, and set to smoothing out Rydia's dress, "Honestly, I don't think I'll ever stop trying to mother you, despite how old you get."
Another knock interrupted them for a second time. Rosa looked reluctantly to the door, and sighed, "We've got a show to put on, I suppose. I shall think of it as one last battle before victory."
Rydia experienced the wedding itself like a dream. She felt like an entirely different person floating down the aisle. And while she still felt like great green weed next to the graceful flowers of the other bridesmaids, she could ignore that displaced feeling at the sight of Rosa's unfiltered happiness.
Rosa chose diplomatically, once more, in her selection of bouquet. No single nation's rose, but one from each.
She watched the ceremony and the dancing that followed, in a daze, wondering if she wanted the very same thing for herself. Edge caught up with her at one point, and twirled her around the dance floor. The prince was a surprisingly talented lead, and even unskilled as she was, Rydia felt graceful in his arms.
He whispered promises, mostly of lovemaking at night under the balmy Eblan moon. She saw herself as a powerful queen at his side, helping to rebuild his homeland to its former glory. It would be hard work, granted, but it would most certainly write their names in the pages of history.
It was a dizzying fantasy, and between the constant turns and spins, and the several glasses of champagne, she almost let herself believe it.
Curled and naked against Edge's side, Rydia dreamed of her mother again. Her head filled with screams of pain and terror as she watched her mother's face melt away, engulfed in hot flames, still continuing to shriek even after there was nothing but the white bone of her skull.
She saw the children of Mist, wielding but little power, burning alive similarly in their beds.
She saw the scarred, black land where the village once stood; a once magical and sacred place, connected so intrinsically to the under world of monsters below. She stood by mutely as foreigners came to the broken village, and build it back up, and knew how they were deaf to the magic thick in the air.
She watched, also, as her own life might play out. She saw the birth of her children -- Edge's children, and felt the echoing disappointment as they proved to be magicless. She witnessed her own power fade, somehow swallowed up by the greedy lives of her talentless sons and daughters.
Rydia woke in a shaking, cold sweat. Edge slept on, still drunk from the night's festivities, unaware of the turmoil that boiled beside him. She afforded him a brief kiss on the brow, before gathering up her clothes and tiptoeing from the room.
She was gone by morning, having caught one of the departing ship for the southern islands.
The heat of the Underworld was a familiar welcome. While the other above-world passengers desperately fanned themselves, Rydia stood at the railing of the dwarven airship, and let the waves of thick air roll over her.
She knew Rosa would be content in her queenship and motherhood. There would be other great white mages to rise up and take her place -- women or otherwise. But Rydia couldn't afford that luxury. Even if she did have children, the magic would fade with the thinning blood line.
There would never be another great Summoner.
While Rosa was also pleased with the impact they had already made on the world, Rydia wasn't yet satisfied. Her magic was still increasing, she knew, and her greatest contribution to the world would be when her power reached its peak.
If she was wrong? She thought of Rosa's words.
The Crystals would let her know, in due time.