TO ABSENT FRIENDS

By Ian Nathaniel Cohen

It was long past midnight. The Hero's Haven, Meribia's most famous tavern, had finally quieted down. After days of celebrating the defeat of Magic Emperor Ghaleon and commemorating the victims of Ghaleon's madness, it appeared that everyone had finally had enough of celebration and drinking, and the tavern was now occupied by a few lone patrons and a couple of overworked waiters. The excess of customers meant a boost in tips, but also left them feeling rather worn out.

At one corner table, a lone figure in a hooded cloak sat silently, delicately sipping fine red wine from a crystal glass. Curious onlookers could tell that whoever was under that cloak was a woman, certainly attractive, probably well-to-do, and definitely not in the mood for company. None of them recognized her as Lemia Ausa, the now-former leader of Vane's esteemed Magic Guild.

That suited Lemia just fine. She wasn't in the mood for any more well-wishing, any more sympathetic words…hell, she didn't know what she was or wasn't in the mood for. Too much had happened these past few days, and she needed to just not think about it for a few minutes, to settle all the thoughts running rampant through her mind. Vane's destruction, the loss of her magic powers, Ghaleon's betrayal, and the relief that victory had been achieved when all hope seemed lost...it was all just too much to think about.

Not that this was the best place in the world to get away from it all. Back when the Four Heroes had been united, they would often meet in this very same establishment, usually after a victory. In fact, the Haven had been named in their honor. The familiar surroundings were bringing back all sorts of memories she would rather not think about at the moment, but she couldn't think of a better place to go.

She was suddenly aware of someone standing in front of her – someone big, judging by the sound of the footfalls on the wooden floor. "Mind if I join ya?" a gruff, familiar voice said.

Lemia looked up and despite her irritation and being disturbed, smiled faintly. "Of course, Mel," she said softly.

Master Mel sat down, signaling to a waiter. "Gotta say, of all the places I expected you to be right now, this wasn't one of 'em."

"I had to get away for a bit," Lemia said. "All the condolences, all the celebrating, all the panicked questions from the refugees of Vane wondering what comes next…I was just getting tired of it."

"Yeah, I hear ya," Mel said. A waiter, clearly proud to be serving the great Master Mel, brought him a bottle and a large tankard. Mel uncorked it and held it towards Lemia. "Aynekian brandy. The foulest, finest brew ye're ever likely to find. They always keep some for me, just in case I happen ta drop by. Care fer some?"

Lemia shook her head. "Althena knows I could use a stiff drink right now, but whatever that is, it's probably more than I can handle."

"Suit yourself," said Mel as he filled his tankard and drank it down. He smacked his lips in satisfaction. "Ah, that hits the spot." He took another long drink, and then looked at Lemia. "So how're you holdin' up?"

Lemia shrugged. "As well as can be expected, I guess. You know, going through the typical torrent of emotions. Anger, guilt, depression, loss…you get the idea. But oddly enough, I feel very little sense of triumph, or even accomplishment. You'd think I'd at least be happy that the world has been saved from complete destruction."

"Nah, I know what ya mean," Mel replied. "You an' I know better'n most folks that beating the bad guy doesn't fix all the harm he does. Victory doesn't repair the homes he destroys or bring back the victims he kills. An' you an' me, we've been leaders fer a long time. We ain't supposed to ferget about the people we protect. We're supposed ta feel the loss, even after the war is won. That's what makes us different from Ghaleon. He wanted ta lead, but he didn't care about who got hurt in the process."

"At least everyone managed to get out of Vane okay," Lemia said, trying to avoid thinking about Ghaleon. "Cities can be rebuilt, in time, but a lost friend or loved on can never be replaced."

"True. Still, it can't be easy for 'em, goin' through somethin' like that."

"No, it's not," Lemia said sadly. "My people lost their homes and their legacy in a single moment. We always believed that Vane would outlast us, centuries after we were gone. It was something we're – we were – all proud of. Maybe too proud, at times, but there was much to be proud of."

Mel decided to change the subject, hoping to lighten the mood; he always hated it when Lemia was unhappy. "I hear from Jessica that your daughter Mia's been doin' a bang-up job comfortin' the displaced folks from Vane. Talkin' to 'em, counselin' em, makin' sure they're okay. You raised a swell kid, Lemia. Instead of takin' it easy after all she's been through, she's tryin' ta help people get back on their feet."

"She's living up to her responsibilities as the new guildmistress," Lemia said, smiling. "Your daughter, however, has apparently omitted her own part in it. She's been helping Mia around the clock, sharing the burden of comforting the refugees. Jessica's a special young lady, Mel. You must be proud."

"Always am," Mel chuckled. "You must feel the same about Mia."

"I do," Lemia replied. "She had me worried for a very long time. She would always look to me or...or Ghaleon for guidance and support, never trusting herself or her peers. But when she needed to be strong, when she needed to take charge, she did. Even I'm surprised by how much she's changed, and at the type of person she's become."

Mel finished off the bottle, savoring the last of the sharp brandy. "I ain't too thrilled with Jess's choice in men, though. Kyle's a good kid, an' he came through when we needed 'im, but…you know…"

Lemia chuckled. "Let me guess; the standard 'no man is good enough for my daughter,' right?"

"Yeah, I guess," Mel said. "I'd rather she be with someone like Alex than Kyle. Alex is the type that can always be counted on, the kind who won't turn his back on his friends when they need 'im. But Kyle did the same, in the end, so Jess tells me. I guess I've sold him short all this time."

"I did the same with Nash, who is clearly quite smitten with my daughter," Lemia sipped her wine. "I wasn't too happy about it either. I thought he was too much the sycophant, but he too has been changed by this whole ordeal. It's strange how we get used to seeing people one way, and then something happens that completely changes them. Or are we and our perceptions the ones that change, while the person remains the same?"

"I dunno. Never thought it before."

"It just makes me wonder about how well we can really know somebody. Whether what we know of them is real or just an illusion, a mask they wear. I've been thinking about that a lot lately," Lemia said softly. "In fact, I've been thinking a lot about it with regards to Ghaleon, actually."

Mel grunted. "Yeah, it's tough knowin' how to feel about Ghaleon. Don't get me wrong, I ain't defendin' the guy. After all, he did try ta destroy the world, an' he killed a lotta people to do it. Even the Dragons. But even after all that, he was also our friend, our comrade in arms. I learned that long b'fore I became a pirate, back when I was a slave fightin' in an arena. When ya fight by someone's side, an' he put their ass on the line for ya, he's yer brother, no matter what. And let's face it; he was a decent guy, way back when."

"Was he?" Lemia sighed. "I'm trying so hard to remember him as he was, before he became so twisted, and it's hard to. His fanatical belief in control, his suppression of his feelings…every time I picture Ghaleon in the old days, all I can see is traces of the man he became. It's as if the Ghaleon we all knew never existed. All I can see him as is as an illusion, a manipulative illusion designed to mask his true intentions."

"Nah, I don't think that's true," Mel said. "Ye've told me over the years how he was with Mia, especially after Aurelius died, picking flowers for her and telling her stories. Ye can't fake affection like that."

"Can't you?" Lemia cried. "Every time I picture the two of them together, I get cold chills. I see Ghaleon the monster, a predator, trying to manipulate Mia and use her as yet another pawn in his insidious game, an attempt to mask his own evil. Don't you understand? It's as if every happy memory I have of Ghaleon, everything I treasure about the man has been twisted and corrupted by his betrayal!"

Mel sighed heavily. "I understand. That's what makes treachery such a horrible thing...especially when that treachery comes from a friend. Probably the only unforgivable sin there really is in this world."

Lemia said nothing for a long moment, and she avoided Mel's gaze. The grizzled old pirate recognized this expression all too well. "What's really botherin' ya, Lemia?"

"What do you mean?"

"Yer not just talkin' about being betrayed by a trusted friend, and this ain't about Mia, either. Did somethin'...anythin'...happen between you and Ghaleon? Did he hurt ya, or...?"

Lemia looked uncomfortable, and she shifted uneasily in her seat. "I've never really spoken with anyone about this."

Mel put up his hands. "Look, I don't wanna pry if this is too personal."

"No, it's all right," Lemia said sadly. "It might feel good to talk it over with someone. But I think I will have a shot of that Aynekian brandy first, if there's any left."

"Afraid not," Mel said. "I polished it off pretty quick. But I'll see if Daragh's got any more lyin' around."

"No, don't bother. I'll manage without it."

Lemia stared vacantly for a second before continuing. "You know that Aurelius and I were betrothed to each other from a very early age. It's a common practice in Vane. And I accepted it. It was part of the legacy of Vane, part of my responsibility, and besides, Aurelius and I had been friends as children. As a young girl, I thought it would be better to be married to a friend than to some horrible stranger like the ones from the stories my father read to me as a child. At least there would be friendship between us as husband and wife, if not love, although Aurelius and I did come to love each other once we were married.

"But when Dyne and Ghaleon first came to Vane, I felt...something when I first met Ghaleon. He had been alive for so long, had seen and done and learned so much. I was fascinated by him, and there was a certain sadness to him that drew me to him. It was as if he needed comforting, and part of me wanted to be the one to do it. Over the years, as I grew older and as the three of us continued our travels, I got to learn more about Ghaleon, the losses he had suffered because of his longer life than most humans, and his desire to protect a humanity whose lives he saw as fragile and delicate, in need of protection. I admired that selflessness, that dedication to helping others. And that admiration...evolved. I think it did for him as well. I could feel something growing between us, the longer we knew each other."

Mel raised an eyebrow, suddenly uncomfortable with what he was hearing. "So...did the two of ya ever...?"

"No!" Lemia exclaimed, more forcefully than she probably intended. She softened her tone as he continued. "Whatever Ghaleon felt about me, he would never give into his desires, or any other feelings. He believed in the 'proper order of things,' and he wouldn't do anything to disrupt my marriage to Aurelius...or taint my honor. Also, I think he was just afraid to connect to someone in such an intimate way. Maybe something happened long ago that made him feel like he always had to keep his distance to prevent anyone from getting too close.

"Whatever feelings I had for Ghaleon eventually faded, especially once I was married. But there was still love between us. Not romantic love, or anything like that, but a love born of friendship, trust, and supporting each other. We knew that we could count on each other, if need be. He was a great source of comfort to me and Mia after Aurelius died. And the thought of all that bond being all a lie...it just breaks my heart thinking about it."

Lemia choked back a sob. "He didn't even hesitate when he forced me to wear that horrible mask...there was no regret in his eyes, no remorse in his voice as he stripped my powers, my very identity from my mind. There was nothing of the man I trusted, who I would have loved had things been different between us. And now all I can think is that he never existed in the first place...that the only real Ghaleon was the Magic Emperor, the man who believed only in control and domination. The rest was all nothing but a treacherous performance. And it hurts to believe that. I hate to say it, but I'm glad Dyne didn't live to see what Ghaleon became."

After a long pause, Mel sighed again. "I dunno what to tell ya, Lemia. Maybe yer right - maybe it was all just an act. An' then again, maybe Ghaleon really was a decent guy that just went wrong, probably 'cause of whatever happened to Dyne. Maybe it just drove him nuts or somethin'. I ain't a magician, an' I can't read minds, so I can't tell ya one way or the other.

"But think about it this way. If there was ever a shred o' good within Ghaleon, an' you can still remember the good side of 'im after all the pain he's caused, you have to hold onto those memories. Otherwise, the good man that Ghaleon was'll really be gone ferever. Maybe I'm wrong, and what I'm suggestin' ye hold onto is an illusion also. But do ya think you can give 'im the benefit of a doubt?"

"I don't know," Lemia replied. "Maybe, in time. But not now."

"Fair enough," Mel said. "You oughtta get some rest, kid. You look like you need it."

"I do, as a matter of fact," Lemia said, rubbing her eyes and then gesturing to her bottle of wine. "Want to help me finish this bottle off? It's a good vintage, and I'd hate to waste any of it."

Mel nodded, and filled Lemia's glass with wine before emptying the rest into his tankard. "I feel like we oughtta drink to somethin'," he said.

"A toast? Why?"

"I dunno. It just feels like the right think ta do at the moment."

"If you say so," Lemia said. "What should we drink to?"

Mel thought for a second. "On ships, it's common ta salute a dead comrade with the toast 'to absent friends.' That seems like a good one fer tonight, 'specially in light of this little chat. Agreed?"

"Agreed," said Lemia, and the glasses clinked together. "To absent friends."