Marriage and Queenship had done much for Martina. Shouldering the responsibility of rebuilding Xoana, and learning the rotes of partnership –of giving as well as receiving- in a happy marriage had done much to quench her glory-seeking and vengefulness. And she would always be able to hold onto the fact that she had figured out that 'love' thing well before Lina Inverse.
An obsessive personality however, is an obsessive personality. Martina needed a cause, something to do –some form of competition. Happily placed as she was, she decided (graciously, with the utmost condescension) to see to it that as many others were as happy as she. Martina had discovered matchmaking.
And where better to start than amongst her own class? They would be able to appreciate the hardships she went through for their sake (unlike that Lina woman). And of course the best candidate for her first satisfied customer could be none other than the still un-wed, Princess of Saillune.
If only she could find her.
"Amelia! Hey, Amelia… Come out already! Lord Alisdair is waiting to see you!"
Throwing her arms up in defeat Martina stalked off to the banquet hall, where she could be sure to find someone who had an idea of the missing Princess's whereabouts. Sure enough the usual suspects were there; Lina, Gourry and Zelgadiss were present –along with thirty or so Princes, Lords, Dukes, Counts and their entourages.
"Has anyone seen Amelia?"
Amelia's friends exchanged a glance, aware that every other ear in the room was attuned to their conversation as well.
"She said something about a letter that needed a response or something" Lina managed around a mouth of potatoes.
"What! Amelia shouldn't be working! In order to maintain her beautiful and delicate appearance she needs to be as stress free as possible!"
Lina and Zel shared an incredulous glance "Right now what she's doing is avoiding her main source of stress" Lina muttered to which Zel smirked in response; carefully hidden from Martina by his mug.
"Don't worry about it Dearest" Martina jumped as a pair of hands landed on her shoulders, but then relaxed, recognising her husband "This is Amelia's home –she can't be absent from her guests too long"
"She spent most of the day with the Lords anyway" Zelgadiss put in with a contemptuous glance in their direction, one actually had a servant feeding him "I'm sure even she would need a momentary break from such, ah, wonderful company."
"Is that so" Martina said absently, her head tilted at Zel curiously, but then turned with a flounce to join her own delegation, dragging her husband with her.
"Gee, what did Amelia do to deserve this?" Gourry wondered.
Upstairs, Amelia was wondering precisely the same thing. Her forehead was pressed against the cool glass of the room that had once been her study –until Zelgadiss had blown a hole in the wall and the water damage had rendered the room unusable for the rest of the year while the palace and the city were repaired. The princess allowed herself a small smile; couldn't take her friends anywhere.
A servant called her name from the corridor and she stiffened, holding her breath as the door opened. The room was now used as a miniature library, rows of bookshelves cast deep shadows and the only light in the room to brighten it was from the stars outside. After a moment the door closed again, the servant's footsteps receding away. Amelia laughed at herself, hiding in the shadows! Had she known that turning twenty-one would cause such a fuss, she'd have remained twenty! The celebrations had been building for a month and climaxed a week ago with a grand ball, now only her friends and the most persistent of her suitors remained. What it was about reaching the age of inheritance that suddenly made her a bridal candidate Amelia had no idea –and certainly didn't want to find out either.
She sighed heavily –duty called her to her guests and whatever entertainment had been planned tonight. Hopefully it would be cards again so she could watch her friends fleece the suitors for all their worth (they may consider themselves educated, but travelling on the road had given Lina, Gourry and Zelgadiss a lot of time for practice. Amelia herself had been known to win a game or two of poker). She turned from the window and let out a surprised gasp when she found herself face-to-face with Xellos.
Xellos grinned as Amelia placed a hand over her heart and regained her breath –no doubt he'd enjoyed that moment to it's fullest. "Hello Amelia-chan!" he beamed
"Xellos-san" she replied courteously inclining her head slightly "What are you doing here?"
"I heard you'd reached a milestone, so I came to wish you a miserable birthday."
Somewhat surprised by an answer that wasn't a secret, Amelia decided to return like with like "Thank you. I'd have invited you but I didn't think you'd enjoy a celebration dedicated to life." His smile wavered a little, but only for the barest of moments.
"Very considerate of you, Princess." He intoned and raised a finger to begin illustrating some point when a voice reached them
"Amelia my love! Where are you, beauteous one? Amelia!"
Amelia shivered violently and placed a finger over her lips with a pointed glare to the trickster priest. Xellos raised an eyebrow and listened with unabashed curiosity as the voice continued
"Princess, Queen of my heart! Come, release me from my misery, and let me bask once more in your radiance, Lady Amelia! Where are you my love?"
Xellos grinned and spoke in a whisper "Oh my, such suffering! Should I announce you?" he asked, drifting towards the door and pretending ignorance to the various 'No!' gestures Amelia was making, until she resorted to whisper-shouting at him
"I wouldn't do that if I were you. For our mutual benefit!" Xellos stayed his hand and turned to her with a look inviting explanation, Amelia continued in the same hushed tone "I doubt my disinclination would save you from his admiration."
"And if it should?" He returned
"Then I remind you that when it comes to talk of love I can give as good as I get!" Amelia hissed, unfortunately not quietly enough
"Amelia Dearest, is that you?"
In the blink of an eye Xellos had phased across the room, even as the door was opening Amelia felt his grip on her bicep and then, suddenly she found herself under the starlight on the roof of the palace. Her knees quivered and buckled beneath her, and she barely had time to throw an arm out to catch herself before she hit the tiles. Her stomach felt as though it had been turned to ice and her throat had constricted, leaving her gasping for air. Filia's transportation hadn't left her feeling anything like this!
Xellos watched with evident amusement as Amelia re-orientated herself. It only took a moment for the discomfort to pass and the Princess clambered back to her feet easily enough "Thank you, I think…" she said and Xellos gave an over exaggerated bow
"My pleasure, Highness. Now then, seeing as I seem to have obtained a private interview there is a proposal I would put to you…"
Amelia sighed "Xellos-san, is this another of your challenges?" Xellos nodded and Amelia sighed again "We've been doing this on and off for years now haven't you given up? Justice always prevails!"
"If that is the case then you have nothing to fear Amelia-chan." Xellos replied, cat eyes open ever so slightly "And I do believe you lost the last round"
Amelia smiled grimly "Well then, what do you want from me this time?"
"I believe a favour from the Princess of Saillune is of some worth, having you in my debt…" he trailed off and Amelia frowned
"And if I win?"
"Last time your prize was to be a favour from me, unless you'd rather something else?"
Amelia looked away. Even if there was something else she wanted negotiating for it with Xellos was not a prospect she relished. Even here in the very centre of Saillune his power would be only slightly diminished, though he seemed far more interested in a battle of wits than power it was far better to play along.
Although, she thought with sudden enlightenment, that didn't mean they had to play his game.
"As far as I recall there were conditions attached to my prize –namely that they not interfere with your orders, in which case I got a second favour to compensate. I thereby attach a similar clause to yours. Should I consider your request in any way detrimental to Saillune, it shall be denied and you shall instead have two, is this acceptable?"
Xellos bowed his head slightly in acceptance "You've become quite the politician Amelia-san."
"Should I consider that a compliment?"
"Oh yes, I love politicians, they're so easily corrupted." Amelia blanched and Xellos grinned "Now then, the challenge-"
Xellos drew back in shock "Beg pardon?"
"No" Amelia repeated, quite amused by the expression of sheer incomprehension on his face "I have not accepted your challenge, nor do I intend to. This time, Xellos-san, I am challenging you."
Xellos blinked, blinked again then finally opened his eyes to scrutinise the Princess intently, considering everything he knew about her. She was a talented white-mage; to the level of priestess even if she didn't officially bear that title, a shaman particularly skilled in astral-magic, a shrewd negotiator, fiercely loyal, justice-crazed and most alarmingly; a protégé of Lina's. Even Xellos did not deal lightly with Lina Inverse, nor those connected with her. The sorceress had accomplished feats many could only dream of. Gourry, too, had proven his mettle time and again –and it was he who had known Xellos' true nature before the rest. Zelgadiss himself a skilled shaman and swordsman, had managed, once, to catch him off-guard with a fireball –immediately after the brass racquet's tournament. Even Amelia had proven surprisingly resourceful; it had been harder than he first suspected to beat her in the last challenge, then, at the very last, she had found the loophole in his challenge that saved her from humiliation. Not to mention that tiny, insignificant, fact that she had won the first two contests.
Still, he thought, there was little she could do save subject him to a speech on love and justice. Though he shuddered at the very notion, he could still endure it. His face slid into the usual happy visage and he spread his arms with a shrug.
"Very well then, I'll take your challenge."
"You may have noticed that I've recently acquired a number of suitors" Amelia began
"I did notice" Xellos agreed, smirking at the memory of the voice that had so terrified Amelia earlier
"I want them to leave"
Xellos was so shocked his eyes opened. "Is that all?" he demanded "You want me to chase off a gaggle of love-stuck Lordlings? You don't think very highly of me Princess"
"Quite the contrary I assure you. To persuade my suitors to leave you may not use any means that harm them, physically or otherwise. They must leave the city of their own volition, under their own power and you have only until midnight two days hence to do this."
"Of their own volition…?" Xellos frowned "You're making this needlessly difficult."
"That, Xellos-san, would be the purpose of a challenge"
He regarded the princess for a moment further before bursting into a grin "I do love politicians. Very well, shall we return then?" he asked extending a hand, unconsciously, Amelia backed away
"Thank you, but I'll make my own way back."
"Suit yourself" Xellos chirped, then disappeared, leaving Amelia on the roof. Sighing she made her way to the edge and cast a levitation spell while locating the nearest balcony. With luck, she'd make it to Lina before Xellos stirred up too much trouble. The sorceress had been very well behaved lately (due mostly to the large quantities of free food available to her while she remained so well behaved) but one look at her on a rampage would scare off all Amelia's suitors!
As she entered the palace a shrill shriek alerted Amelia to the fact that Xellos had already made his appearance, steeling herself, she marched boldly towards the source of the commotion. What she had not expected to discover, was Martina beating him over the head with a fan (decorated with pictures of Zoamegulstar) while everyone else watched on with various degrees of humour, fear and repulsion. That is, everyone except Gourry who was using the diversion to liberate the steak from one of Lina's plates.
"My, Martina-san, it's been a while" Xellos said, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening
"Not long enough, you filthy, treacherous, tricksy, horrible, EVIL creature! Deceiver! Monster!" she cried, punctuating each word and breath (and syllable) with a whack (and then adding a few more in for measure) when she realised she wasn't having an effect and whined instead "Zan-gu-lus… kill him!"
"I'm ever at your service, Dear. Though perhaps in these halls such judgement must rest with Amelia-sama" Zangulus replied, bowing his head towards Amelia and bringing her to the forefront of everyone's attention. Several of the suitors who were more familiar with Martina now sat straighter as if they hadn't been laughing, while those that had been afraid now looked to her as though they were the most courageous there and would stop her single handed. Those that had been repulsed didn't alter, but Amelia had already judged them the most sensible present.
"My Lords, I present to you Xellos-san, one of my acquaintances from my travels. He'll be joining us for the next few days." Amelia introduced with all the proper grace and poise her rank demanded. There followed an indignant squawk, and Amelia looked quickly at Martina. However the noise hadn't come from her and Amelia quickly realised the source when Lina's fork crashed heavily into Gourry's plate. "Count Frewine, Lord Edward you requested billiards yesterday" she continued hurriedly to cover the noise "if you would follow me I shall repair to the game room for the evening."
She curtsied and swept from the room, immediately all the suitors present stood and turned to follow, dismissing their servants. The two that had been named striding forward with smug satisfaction. Xellos made to follow but even as she duelled with Gourry for the last meatball Lina reached out an arm and snagged him by the neck of his cloak. Eventually they were the only ones left in the room, Lina and Gourry continued the duel while Xellos waited for whatever Lina wanted from him. Zelgadiss regarded the whole situation coolly while Martina was glaring daggers at Xellos, Zangulus stood at the ready just behind his wife.
Finally with a yell Gourry forced the side of Lina's fork down so it cut through and halved the meatball. Quickly stabbing one hemisphere Gourry sat back with a contented sigh while Lina stared bemusedly at her plate. Common sense soon kicked in and she forked her half before Gourry changed his mind
"So, Xellos," she began; now releasing him "long time no see. What are you doing here?"
"Surely you know me better than to ask Lina-san" He replied with mock offense, clutching a hand over a heart they all knew wasn't there. "Naturally, that is a secret."
"But you are not staying" Martina said, finally finding her voice and clutching her fan just a little tighter.
"Actually I am" Xellos replied with a genuine smile for Martina, genuine for a Mazoku anyway "I'll be here at least the next three days."
"You horrible creature! Coming here and imposing on Amelia so shamelessly!" Lina and Zel shared another incredulous glance at Martina's hypocrisy
"Imposing? Now, now Martina-chan, I'm doing Amelia-san a favour. And speaking of, I'd better start, bye!" he grinned and disappeared from sight, leaving Martina fuming, until at last she shrieked and stamped a foot just to release some frustration and whirled around to storm off to her chambers, dragging Zangulus with her.
"Gourry! Training field at noon!" Zangulus called back as he was dragged off. Gourry raised a hand in acknowledgement of the challenge before sighing. Lina interpreted the noise and gave the swordsman a reassuring smile
"Don't worry, Amelia can handle Xellos, even with all these popinjays swarming round as well."
"I guess" Gourry replied then brightened "Yeah you're right Lina."
"Of course I am!"
"Still," Zelgadiss interjected "It won't hurt to keep an eye on things."
Lina grinned and stood up rubbing her hands together, a familiar glint in her eye "Good point Zel, and while we're at it we may as well get some compensation! How good are you at billiards?"
If either Lina or Gourry thought it odd that several of Amelia's suitors took their leave the next morning, neither of them showed it. Gourry had risen early, dragging Zel from the comfort of the softest bed he'd ever slept on to be his sparring partner for the morning, before Zangulus came to duel. Lina had joined them later, spread out across a sun chair on the veranda that overlooked the training ring, a few spell books scattered on either side as she flicked absently through them.
But Zelgadiss noted it, and worried. True, the guests had been slipping off over the past weeks since the festivities wound down, but twelve had left that morning –suddenly having given no hint of it before. That Xellos had arrived the night before Zelgadiss knew was no coincidence. As far as Zel was aware, Xellos had done nothing the night before but flit from group to group, making light enquiries and being generally pleasant.
That more than anything assured Zel he was up to no good. But why he would want the suitors to leave he couldn't fathom, and had no chance to ask Amelia either, as she was stuck in council all morning and would be surrounded by smarmy lords the moment she emerged.
Zelgadiss had always thought Phil and Amelia a little bizarre and far too informal for nobility. Now he seriously wished they were the norm for royalty (even with the justice mania) if it meant he would never again have to listen to a simpering speech filled with empty compliments and no sustenance at all.
The pampered pooches, as he had taken to calling the assembled Lords, had been seriously grating on his nerves. But compared to whatever Xellos was after, they were infinitely more appealing.
Zel stepped back as Zangulus finally arrived and gave Gourry a few moments to stretch out and to warm up himself. He no longer challenged Gourry to duel to the death –he had a family to think of now. Said family was now peering anxiously over the ring and the surrounding area
"Has anyone seen Lord Alisdair?" Martina asked
"Left this morning" Lina replied carelessly, closing her book and dragging her chair to a better position to watch the duel. Martina scowled darkly and bit her lip, though Zel was certain he heard her mutter something about a conniving monster under her breath before cheering for her husband.
So he wasn't the only one to make the connection.
The Mazoku in question appeared a moment later, eyes trained on the duel. The air between Xellos and Martina practically hummed with the intensity of the glare she gave him, he shot her a smile but to Zel's amazement she didn't take the bait and turned back to cheer for Zangulus. Although the main competition at the time seemed to be who could cheer louder; Lina or Martina.
One of the lords ran through the door at the other end of the veranda, and pulled up a chair. A moment later Amelia appeared with the rest of them and he bowed with an elegant flourish. Zel didn't hear what she said, but the crushed look on his face spoke for itself when she went to stand with Lina, the other suitors stood a respectful distance away, commenting mostly on the duel.
Xellos meandered over to the first suitor and bent to whisper something in his ear. Zelgadiss watched as the youth sighed and nodded at whatever the trickster had said then slunk off back through the door, Zel had a gut feeling they wouldn't be seeing that lord again tonight. The click of heels alerted him to an approach and he turned his head to find Martina eyeing Xellos with the same distrust he felt.
"If Xellos said anything… tried to convince you to leave, you wouldn't, would you?" she asked slowly, eyes still on the priest
"No" Zel replied "The fact that it's Xellos would make me more inclined to the opposite."
Martina smiled haltingly, her eyes then flicking down to meet his with a new expression on her face that Zel couldn't quite place "You know there's a ball tomorrow. You danced with Amelia on her birthday didn't you?"
Zelgadiss shrugged "Barely half a dance. Phil asked me to step in while he dealt with something."
"Phil-san did…?" Martina mumbled mostly to herself and Zel was about to ask what she was getting at when a cry went up from the ring; Gourry had disarmed Zangulus. With a yell Martina dashed over to make sure he was unhurt.
"Hey Amelia" Gourry called from the ring, breathing heavily, much to the credit of his opponent "is lunch ready yet?" Amelia smiled at the request
"Yes Gourry-san, the tables are just being set."
"Milady, please allow me to escort you to dine." A suitor instantly requested and in the next instant was echoed by every other man there.
"I apologise my lords, but I have business in the shrine this afternoon and will be joining a friend for lunch." The was a visible deflation in the men as this announcement was made, but Lina smiled
"Say hi to Sylphiel for us will you?" she asked, guessing who the friend was "and tell her to take a break and come visit, that girl works too hard."
"Certainly compared to some I know." Amelia replied without thinking, and didn't notice the dark look that spread over Lina's face at the implication "Still it can't be good for her to work so hard. For the sake of justice and friendship I will convince Sylphiel-san to take a break!" she concluded, fire in her eyes and a finger pointing dramatically skyward. Lina's fingers were twitching as her hands moved slowly towards Amelia's neck when the princess continued "Yes, alright then! Good day everyone, Xellos-san will you walk with me for a moment?"
"Eh?" Lina squeaked and lost her balance falling over so she was lying with her back on the ground and legs tangled up in the sun chair, which naturally chose that moment to fold in on itself. With a flourish any of the lords would be proud to make Xellos offered his arm to the princess, who, still caught up in thoughts of justice, did not notice Lina's predicament, nor the glance that passed between Zel and Martina. Zel quickly broke the glance; what was he doing conspiring with Martina of all people!? Still, what business did Amelia have with Xellos?
"You are keeping to the rules, aren't you Xellos-san?" Amelia asked once they were out of earshot.
"Yes, yes" Xellos chirped "No harm to them, leave of their own volition, under their own power. It's not actually as difficult as I anticipated, though I will admit the time constraint might be a problem"
"I doubt time will be an issue, you got a dozen to leave this morning. I may even resort to spending more time with them, as I don't intend on losing. Justice will prevail, Xellos-san!" she insisted "Though I wonder how you're managing it. Lord Alisdair left before dawn and by all accounts he was particularly pale."
"Alisdair? Alisdair… ah yes, your effusive Lord. He had a particularly potent nightmare of a Mazoku in his room" Xellos broke of into a giggle then –there was no other word for it, Xellos was giggling "he actually called out for his teddy! Which of course, had not been packed in an attempt to be masculine. Really, Princess, some of your admirers are the most incredibly spoilt, pampered, idiots I ever came across."
"That might constitute mental damage, Xellos-san" Amelia said slowly
"One nightmare won't do that idiot any damage." Xellos scoffed "He'll get home, cry into his teddy, throw a tantrum, make some ridiculous demands of his servants and be well again."
Amelia sighed, loath to admit it as she was, his opinion was not so far from hers, and she could readily believe the lord would find succour from his 'trials' the moment he arrived home. "And of the others?"
"One had to leave immediately for damage control; he received word that someone was spreading rumours about his sister eloping with a common solider"
Amelia rolled her eyes "And of course he'll arrive and find no such rumour."
"Now, now Amelia-chan! I'm nothing if not thorough." Xellos chided, and Amelia hid her face in her hand
"Right, of course. Do I want to know the rest?"
"Probably not." He said, but continued anyway "The rest discovered from reliable sources that you're not as rich as they thought, that your sister's return and claim on the throne is imminent… of your family's propensity towards madness" Amelia looked at him with a glare but Xellos continued "of your loose habits while travelling…"
Amelia ground to a halt, her grip on Xellos's arm holding him with her "My what?!" she demanded, Xellos grinned.
"Your loose habits" he repeated "Now Amelia, you said I couldn't harm them, you said nothing of your reputation."
"I –gu – bah –whu?" Amelia stammered, torn somewhere between indignation and horror. Xellos extracted himself from her grasp, and bowed before her still grinning
"Enjoy your lunch" he said and disappeared, but lingered on the astral plane nearby long enough to hear the cry of frustration that finally escaped her before going back to the guests.
He had to admit, he was enjoying this.
After lunch, yet before Amelia returned two more of her suitors announced their intention to leave that evening.
Zelgadiss noted darkly that Xellos had spent a long time in the company of each lord. Nor did he miss that when Amelia retuned during dinner she spent some time trying to convince them to stay at least until the end of the week, and when that failed, threw herself into conversing with each of the remaining suitors, being polite and amiable far beyond anything she had previously displayed except to her closest friends.
Something was up.
"Something has to be done" it surprised Zel that he wasn't surprised to hear Martina addressing him. "How am I going to get Amelia married if this continues!" she moaned and Zelgadiss reintroduced his forehead to his palm.
"Amelia's marital status should be the least of your troubles. Xellos is by far the most worrying factor here."
"I prayed to Zoamegulstar to send him away, but it doesn't seem to be working." Martina sighed and Zelgadiss looked at her incredulously "Maybe it's because we're in Saillune." She continued, and Zel introduced his forehead to the table. "If we knew what was going on it might be of use, but it's impossible to get Amelia-san alone these days and there's no point asking Xellos" Martina finished darkly, practically spitting the name from her mouth, Zelgadiss nodded his agreement.
Prince Phil strode into the room at that moment, and all eyes turned to him; his sheer presence alone demanding attention without a herald.
"Queen Martina," he began with an inclined head to her, "Prince Irvine, Archduke Walter, Duke Magyar, Count Frewine, Count Austen," he continued, with a brief bow to each he addressed "If you would please accompany me, the matter of the new trade route between the Costal Alliance and Saillune has been through council and now awaits your approval."
The named all assented and rose to follow the Prince. It occurred to Zel then that some of them actually did have a reason for remaining in the palace long past the party. Phil called out to Amelia as well and offered his arm, with a curtsey to the guests she was leaving Amelia also rose to attend him. No sooner had they left the room than Lina plonked herself down beside him, drumstick in hand.
"Okay, what is going on with Amelia and Xellos."
"If I knew I'd tell you, but whatever Xellos is after…"
"It's not good. Alright then what's going on with you and Martina?" she asked plainly
Zelgadiss lifted a stony eyebrow at the question, a faintly amused expression on his face, it hadn't been a loaded question, but both were aware it could have been "Conspiring to undermine Xellos, if possible. She realised he was up to something before you did."
Lina snorted and flicked back her hair "Please, I know Xellos is always up to something. And I, beautiful sorcery genius that I am, know better than to worry about Amelia. Martina's just going to give herself wrinkles" she said with a hint of glee "Amelia can handle Xellos, she's done so before."
"Twice if I remember rightly" Zelgadiss said, with his own dark smile
"Three times actually" Lina corrected "last time Xellos suffered exposure to unbearably cute pictures of Amelia as a baby." Lina grinned "You should have seen his face"
Zelgadiss laughed, but the noise died in his throat; across the room he saw Xellos speaking earnestly with two of the Lords, both of whom were growing paler by the second.
"Just what the heck is he up to?" Lina demanded, seeing where Zel's gaze was directed. She pushed herself up from her seat and stalked over towards them. As she approached, both men turn to see her and quailed
"Run! Flee the Dragon Spooker!" one cried and both tore out of the hall, their continuing wails floating back along the corridor "The walking force of destruction! Chaos incarnate! The flat-chested terror!"
At the last Lina froze in place, her hands fisted at her sides. In short staccato motions her head twisted round until she was staring at Xellos who grinned beguilingly up at her. Recognising all the signs for an impending Dragon Slave, Zelgadiss jumped to his feet; but Gourry got there first, even as Lina's hands were moving through the rites of the spell.
"Darkness beyond- thawumph!" she spluttered as Gourry's had clamped across her mouth.
"He deserves it Gourry!" she replied as the swordsman removed his hand so she could speak "You heard what he was telling them about me!"
"Lina, think of the food!"
Lina froze again "The… food?" she asked, voice quavering ever so slightly
"If you destroy anything, Prince Phil won't let us stay, remember? No more palace meals! And you might destroy the kitchens or the larders!"
"K-kitchens" she repeated, eyes wide and a little over-bright. Gourry placed his hands on her shoulders and shook her ever so slightly
"That's right Lina, think of the food!"
Lina snapped back to her senses and glared at Xellos "If I promise to use a spell that won't destroy anything will you let me go?"
"Well… okay" Gourry said after a moment
"Elmekia Lance!" Lina chanted, even before Gourry had released her, unprepared for the spell Xellos took it full in the chest and fell backwards, his chair crashing to the floor beneath him.
"Ow" he managed, and his staff rose into view above the table with a white napkin tied to it, waving in surrender.
"Hmph!" Lina turned on her heel, almost offended by the easy surrender, and stalked back to her table, ignoring the stares of the remaining lords. Zelgadiss sighed as she sat down again, across from him.
"You are quite possibly the most ridiculous woman I've ever met."
"Watch it Zel, or you'll be next" she replied tersely. Zel held up his hands in a peaceful gesture and then, deciding he'd rather not be char-grilled, stood to pile up a plate for Lina and on second thoughts, took three plates.
"Phil-san" Martina called as the meeting broke up and Amelia left with the lords "may I have a moment?"
"Certainly Martina-sama, what can I do for you?"
"I was curious as to whether there are any… requirements needed to be a suitor for Amelia-san. Would one need to be a lord or a knight say?"
Phil regarded Martina with an inscrutable expression but Martina held his gaze and slowly his face softened "A deep regard for Amelia and a healthy sense of justice is all I ask in exchange for permission to court my daughter. The ultimate decision rests with her."
"So then, preferably you want someone who can be a friend to Amelia and, er, support her while she, em, spreads justice through the land?" 'I can't believe I said that!' Martina thought
"That's precisely right Martina-sama!" Phil exclaimed "A man who will love and respect Amelia, and help her uphold the law in the name of love and justice!" Phil's eyes were alight at the prospect, his fists clenched before him, when suddenly a new thought occurred to him and his gaze snapped back to Martina "Did you have someone in mind?"
"Yes, but I haven't spoken to him yet, you'll understand I didn't want to get his hopes up."
"How considerate of you Martina-sama!" Phil boomed, nodding his head fervently "Such care for the feelings of others speaks of a heart dedicated to justice! Saillune is fortunate to have such true friends and allies!"
Martina could feel the sweat running down her neck as she grinned, far more forcibly than was natural "Y-yeah, I'll speak with him as soon as possible and perhaps present him to you tomorrow, if that's acceptable?"
"Splendid" Phil agreed and offered his arm "Shall we return to the others?" Martina nodded and gladly escaped Phil's continued effusions on the subject of friendship.
Amelia was worried.
Of the thirty-odd suitors only eight remained on the second day. And all had stated their intent to leave that evening, or certainly early next morning. Xellos, she knew was quite capable of seeing them off before midnight.
The ball given that night was being thrown in honour of Council man Gamgee's sixtieth wedding anniversary and four of the lords were certainly attending it –at least the start of it, but though the party would likely reach into the early hours of the morning, they could all slip away by midnight.
Amelia was very glad she'd put the condition on Xellos's prize; at the very worst only she could suffer from his request, not Saillune.
She hurried through the palace to meet with the lords, so absorbed in getting there she didn't see Martina hurrying the other way, towards the library.
"Zelgadiss!" Martina called searching between bookshelves "Zelgadiss-san!"
With a heavy sigh, Zel revealed himself "Here Martina"
"Zelgadiss! How would you like to be Amelia's newest suitor?" The book Zel had been pursuing crashed to the floor.
"Think about it" Martina said with a grin "You and Amelia are already good friends and Phil likes you. If it works out you get to be Prince-Consort of Saillune, with all those white magic resources at your beck and call, if it doesn't then you've not lost anything"
"Except possibly one of my best friends" Zel snapped back, the barest hint of a blush visible across his nose, Martina waved a hand dismissively
"No, Amelia wouldn't let herself lose a friendship just because a relationship didn't work out. And hey, we're still friends."
"We didn't have a relationship" Zel glowered "No way Martina, I'm not putting myself through the political freak-show. Amelia and I aren't like that."
"That's the point of courting her; to see if you could be like that!" Martina moaned, Zel shook his head and turned beginning to walk away
"It'll annoy Xellos!" Zelgadiss froze mid-pace and slowly twisted round to meet her eyes, Martina smiled smugly "You know he's been chasing all Amelia's suitors away. Maybe if there's one he doesn't know about… one he can't chase away…"
"Then maybe he won't get whatever he's after this time…" Zel concluded slowly. He began to consider how bad it would actually be to be one of Amelia's suitors, he'd certainly done far more unpleasant things in his travels and it wasn't as if he didn't like Amelia. Blushing he nodded "Alright Martina, I'll do it. Just so long as we're clear this is only to annoy Xellos."
"Yep, all clear" Martina agreed and Zel turned again "Clear as rock" she added to herself with a giggle once he'd gone "if this works out I'll give Lina and Gourry a push in the right direction!" she promised herself, moving off to prepare for the dance. She was a queen now after all –she had to look the part!
Dinner had been a strange affair for Amelia. She'd been trapped in her office most of the day catching up with the work that had piled up over the celebrations and relying on her Father to entertain the guests. This of course, meant by the time she was free again, there were few left.
With so many of the Lords gone she was worried that Xellos was at last going to gain a complete victory; she wondered if she'd have any reputation left once he was through. Yet at the same time without so many voices clamouring for her attention over the meal, she was actually able to hold a decent conversation. Much to her surprise and pleasure, Zelgadiss had joined in, for he'd been avoiding the lords as much as possible (and thereby her as well) and greeting them only with contemptuous looks for the past weeks, fortunately those that were left were the sensible ones and she was enjoying it.
At least she was until at ten of the clock Xellos caught her gaze and mouthed 'two' at her, meaning only two remaining. Then before she could grab his attention and distract him, she was herself asked to dance by one of the council men and accepted before she realised what he'd asked.
Once she was on the dance floor that was it. She was asked for the next dance before the final cord of the previous had ended; the party was being thrown by the council men for their friend, it would be unjust to deny such a small request as a dance after all their work bringing it together, but as the night wore on she realised none of the Lords had asked her to dance.
Martina swept by her on Zangulus's arm and seemed to catch her mood, she leaned back to talk in a hushed whisper as they moved through the dance "What's wrong Amelia? This is such a beautiful occasion, if you frown like that you'll never catch a husband"
Amelia grinned and remembered why she had wanted the suitors to leave in the first place "Oh it's nothing, just I think all the lords have left. At least I haven't seen any since I started dancing"
Martina winked "Don't worry about it Amelia-chan. By the power of Zoamegulstar, it'll all work out!"
Amelia was spun out by her partner before she could reply, but when she was pulled back in, found the gentleman she had been dancing with replaced by Xellos, smiling smugly.
"I knew Zoamegulstar would never work" she muttered to which Xellos raised a brow
"Nothing" Amelia sighed "I take it they've all left then?" Xellos's smile stretched out further and he nodded
"Yes, you've lost Amelia."
"No" she said calmly, and was momentarily teleported back to the roof two days ago when she'd said the same; his expression was identical "I haven't lost until midnight, at which point I want I full report of how you got each one to leave. To ensure you stuck to the rules. If you did, then I'll admit a just defeat."
"Don't you trust me Princess?" Xellos asked sounding hurt, but Amelia only raised an eyebrow in response "Alright, alright, I suppose its human nature to want to delay the inevitable" he added with a chuckle
"Oh yes" he continued with a malicious grin "Just thinking of all the requests I could make of you" he cracked an eye open to peer at her "it's quite a dizzying prospect to chose between them all."
"You realise" she replied after a pause "that I am a figurehead of Saillune and that therefore, anything detrimental to me could be considered detrimental to Saillune." Xellos grinned
"You'd be surprised how much scope that still leaves me with. I told you Amelia-san, that I love politicians; I have considered all your arguments. Besides, you don't really have much of a reputation left to lower outside Saillune"
Amelia groaned as the song ended and Xellos lead her off the dance floor, ignoring the tap on his shoulder of the next prospective partner. He drew her across the room to stand next to an old grandfather clock that was now approaching midnight.
"Daughter, there you are!" Phil called out immediately accosting them "I've just had a delightful chat with Queen Martina, a wonderful friend you have there"
"I have?" Amelia asked, exchanging a dubious glance with the Mazoku beside her
"Oh yes, I'm quite convinced this Zoamegulstar must be a force of great justice in the world! To inspire such an act of friendship, such concern for your wellbeing!" his eyes were watering as he spoke and Amelia looked on bewildered while Xellos was slightly green. "It makes my heart glad to know there are such people in the world, fighting for justice and goodwill between all men!" Amelia was smiling but still looked confused, seeing this, Phil restrained himself from continuing in that vein, so he could explain the reasons to his Daughter. That way she'd be able to join with his delight –it was only just.
"At Lady Martina's persuasion, Master Zelgadiss has put forward his suit and been granted the right to court you. Such a noble act, giving him the courage to come forward in the name of love and justice! And Master Zelgadiss is a just and noble man himself, a great ally to Saillune! I do hope his suit is successful" he concluded with a wink and a booming laugh
Amelia blushed bright red and Xellos froze in place. In a panic his eyes searched around the room until he located Zelgadiss. Feeling eyes upon him Zel turned and seeing Xellos, coolly lifted his wine glass in salute and then extended the gesture to Amelia as well, with a small smile accompanying it as well.
At that moment, the clock struck midnight and Xellos sunk to his knees, his head bowed "Not again!" he moaned. Amelia's heeled feet appeared before him and he looked up into her beaming face, repressing the urge to run.
"I told you justice would prevail."
"That wasn't justice, highness" he replied, climbing to his feet "that was the extraordinary amount of luck those who have survived in company with Lina-san seem to posses." Amelia's smile didn't falter and he sighed "What do you wish of me?"
"Oh" she said "No, I'm keeping that favour until I can think of a suitable recompense for the damage my reputation has suffered." Amelia smiled "The scope is quite dizzying, maybe I could ask Filia-san to help me narrow it down next time I see her." Xellos grimaced and Amelia grew serious "You are in my debt, Xellos. I trust you will remember it."
Xellos nodded and Amelia spun and fair flew across the room to hug Martina and Zelgadiss. He caught Lina's laugh at the sight and seriously regretted the day he had underestimated the Princess of Saillune.
Oh how he hated politicians!