"Goodbye, Mother". Aubrey Fitzwilliam kissed Lady Rose on her cheek and stepped back, eyes downcast. He knew his mother was still angry with him, she had demonstrated that only too well in the past week. Aubrey loved and admired his mother, and nothing could have made this parting more awkward for him.
That is, nothing except the presence of Miss Caroline Hepworth, who stood not two meters away, elegantly shaking his father's hand and exchanging polite farewell's.
Caroline Hepworth was accompanying his mother, the acclaimed naturalist Rose Fitzwilliam, on a wildlife expedition to the Arctic.
Aubrey watched peripherally as Sir Darius amiably wished her a safe and prosperous expedition. He paid especially close attention to her face as she smiled graciously back at the Prime Minister.
Aubury sighed inwardly. I'll be lucky to see that smile directed at me again, he brooded miserably.
"Aubrey. Aubrey? Are you listening to me?"
Aubrey started and hurriedly returned his gaze to his mother.
"Huh… oh, yes… sorry Mother, what were you saying?"
Lady Fitzwilliam sighed loudly and adopted an exasperated expression. Then she smiled slightly and the anger Aubrey had become accustomed to seeing suddenly disappeared from her eyes. She stepped towards him and pulled him into a tight hug.
Aubrey was slightly taken aback and it took him a second before he reacted and embraced her in return. She stepped back a pace she let her hands rest on his shoulders for a moment.
"For heavens sake, Aubrey, try to stay out of trouble". Without another word she turned away to embrace her husband.
Aubrey was attempting to understand this sudden attitude change when he realised that Caroline was standing expectantly in front of him. For a moment he felt a flare of hope that she had forgiven him and would mirror his mother's actions. He focused intently on not letting his knee's buckle, and was satisfied with the results.
However, one look into her perfect – in his opinion – green eyes and his optimism vanished. She regarded him dispassionately, without traces of either anger, affection or even the slightest interest. She held his gaze for a moment, and then offered her hand in a business-like fashion.
"Fitzwilliam". She said it as if addressing a piece of dust she had just plucked off her jacket.
"Ca-… Miss Hepworth". Aubrey took her hand firmly and berated himself for his slipup. In a last ditch effort, he attempted to convey all his feelings of remorse and shame through his eyes. Please forgive me,he thought desperately. I need you to forgive me.
Caroline's retreating back was his only answer.
Defeated, Aubrey stood by his father's side and watched the car accelerate away from the house. His father clapped him on the back in a rare sign of support.
"There go two of the most amazing women I have ever had the good fortune of knowing". Aubrey glanced up at Sir Darius' face and saw revealed there just how keenly he would feel the separation from his wife. Then it was gone, his expression once again that of Sir Darius the Prime Minister, the most important man in Albion.
Back in his room, Aubrey flopped backwards onto his bed and rubbed at his temples. For the hundredth time he took stock of his life since his disastrous foray into Death Magic that had effectively separated his soul from his body and set true death looming over his shoulder.
After foiling a magical attempt to assassinate the Crown Prince – and Aubrey's cousin – Aubrey and his friend George had met Caroline Hepworth, and together they thwarted Dr. Tremaine, Albion's ex-Sorcerer Royal, in his machination's to bring about a civil war. The evil magical genius had killed Professor Hepworth, Caroline's father, in the process. Dr. Tremaine had escaped and fled the country, and Aubrey's father had been elected as Prime Minister of Albion for the second time.
After all this excitement, Aubrey and George had decided it was time for a holiday, and traveled to Lutetia, the City of Light and the capital of Albion's ally Gallia. Aubrey had planned to relax and recuperate, as his condition was deteriorating and he had yet to find a way to fully reunite body and soul. Caroline Hepworth happened to be studying Taxonomy at the University in Lutetia, and Aubrey had planned to engineer as many chance encounters with her as possible.
Unfortunately for him, his relaxing break turned into a shopping list of tasks for other people. His holiday then took a second turn for the worse when he became mixed up in a plot to bring about the downfall of Gallia's government, and the cities most important magical artifact, the Heart of Gold, was stolen. In a whirlwind of Holmland spies, ancient bears, lions and dinosaurs, levitating towers, the return of Dr. Tremaine and a soul stealing photographer, Aubrey, George and Caroline managed to find and return the Heart of Gold to it rightful place.
While in Gallia, Aubury had managed to strengthen his condition immeasurably and bind his soul to his body once again. It was, however, a short lived triumph which was ripped away from him when he took possession of the Heart of Gold. Now, staring at his ceiling, Aubrey touched his chest and felt with magical senses for the rift in his life force. His heart felt like it had been replaced with a gaping black hole, ready to swallow him if he let his guard down. Now, completing even simple mundane or magical exercises caused him undue levels of fatigue and pain. A small part of his mind complained bitterly that this time he a had sacrificed too much of himself to prove something, but Aubrey ignored it. In his heart Aubrey knew that if he had to, he would do it again in an instant.
Then there was Caroline Hepworth. The utterly presentable, formidably competent, endlessly bewildering, and agreeably fascinating Caroline Hepworth. Aubrey chuckled slightly at his epithets, and then sighed. He had grown much closer to Caroline in Gallia, from aquaintances to friends, and had even managed to ask her to a ball without entirely making a fool of himself. But he had made a mistake, and it had cost him. In his efforts to keep her near him in Lutetia, he had determined to have her position at the University closed, thus leaving her with spare time.
What he had not taken into account was how she would feel when her position was taken, or when she found out it was his fault. Despite how he had tried to justify it, Aubrey admitted it was a despicable action, and was appalled with himself to discover just how often he disregarded the feelings of others. This was a character flaw that he determined to exterminate.
Caroline, Aubrey decided, humbled him; he readily admitted that, when compared, hers was the higher caliber.
"I say, old man, your making me depressed, moping around like this".
Aubrey's muscles protested as he raised his head of the bed to look at the door. George Doyle, one of Aubury's longest friends, leaned his muscled form against the doorframe. He shot a wide white grin at Aubrey then ambled into the room.
A county lad, George had attended Stonelea Boarding School for boys with Aubury, and had a habit for attracting lively females with his freckled, open face, sun bleached hair, toned physique and easy manner.
"I say, what you need is a good old leather bound book about magic. Reading about a reverse application of the Law of Something-or-Other always cheer's you up".
George settled comfortably into and armchair just as Aubrey heaved himself off the bed and began to pace the room in agitation, hand clasped behind his back, forehead wrinkled in consternation.
"Not this time, George, old friend, I've already tried. I simply cannot settle to it".
"You were smitten, Aubrey, love-struck, and now she's gone. That will take a little getting used to. And then there's your condition, too".
Aubrey silently thanked the higher powers for giving him a staunch friend like George. He was a rock. He was also the only other person who knew of Aubrey's soul-challenged situation. Aubrey knew he would have faltered and fallen long ago if not for George's unwavering presence.
He stopped pacing abruptly and spun to face George.
"I need to do something. A distraction of sorts. I haven't spoken to Bertie about those documents we found as yet. Let's go visit the Big House".
George scratched his head at this.
"That's a bit sensitive, isn't it? Will the Prince mind my being there."
"No", Aubrey shook his head. "You already know whats in them, and besides, you, Mr. Doyle, were instrumental in finding those documents in the first place".
"I did my part, I suppose", George said, grinning, then bounded out of his chair. "Well then. Tally-ho".
"Tally-ho", Aubury agreed, ginning back. He had always found Georges enthusiasm contagious.