Chapter Ten

To his credit, Magus recovered quickly, masking his initial shock and subsequent discomfort in a guise of unexpected honor that both Balthazar and, more importantly, Schala were quick to accept. Seeing her had legitimately startled him and he found himself equally amused and alarmed at how strongly he was still drawn to her, pulled by feelings that he'd hidden deep in the shadows of his memory.

A part of him, long stifled and still heavily restrained, wanted to go and embrace her. 'It's me, Janus! I've come to save you!' he would say to her and as she looked into his face, recognition would slowly creep into her own and she would embrace him back, not reassuringly or even lovingly, but with relief and gratefulness. The man he'd become found the fantasy childish and useful only in reminding him how vulnerable he still was, and he was quick to drag those hopes and their source, the spirit of the boy he'd once been, back into the dark abyss of his soul.

He hadn't seen her in decades, long enough that the face he was now looking at didn't quite match the one he remembered, but none of that had meant anything upon finally seeing her again. He hadn't severed his ties to her as completely as he'd thought. He shot Lucca a quick glance and gave a moment's thought to whether her influence had made him vulnerable or whether it had prepared him, however meagerly, and allowed him to save face.

He bowed his head and recited an seemingly wholehearted apology like any other subject would be expected to do, though he did so with an eloquence and calm that belied that he was not quite so awestruck as he'd appeared. Lucca watched on deferentially, playing her role as well as she could, but she could not help but be somewhat distracted by the heavy tension between this young woman, Princess Schala she'd been told, and Magus. He'd been staggered by the mere sight of her, though he'd recovered quickly enough that Lucca was certain that she was the only one who'd noticed. If she hadn't experienced it first hand, she'd have marveled at the way he responded almost seamlessly to take back control of the situation. The guru, whom she recognized as Balthazar from the Keeper's Dome in 2300 A.D, was too aloof to notice, but she could see the princess shift uncomfortably as they approached.

Schala could not help but feel uneasy with the chance meeting. She'd already felt exposed and vulnerable while speaking with the Guru of Reason, whom she'd known all her life, but now there were these strangers. The girl seemed innocent enough, but he discomforted her, for though she could not see his eyes through the shadow cast by the hood of his robes, she felt his gaze on her-piercing and unrelenting-boring into her heart in a not unfamiliar manner. He knew her, of that she was certain, but she had no idea how.

She tried to recompose herself, but even in the moments that she was able to steel herself against his attention, It was there, whispering into her mind, but it was different from before. There was no coercion or manipulation in the whispers. It was commanding her, calmly at first, but more and more insistently, with a growing hint of anger and something else which she might have thought was fear, had this been any other being. She'd never felt Its will so heavily before and it took all her strength not to give away any sign of the conflict within her, for she struggled desperately to refuse the command it repeated to her, over and over again:

Kill them-now!

"Ah, Schala, this must be the Earthbound prodigy I told you about," the Guru said, with just a pinch of aloof skepticism. "the scholars mentioned that you were looking for a new tutor for her, sir...I'm sorry, but I do not recall if they told me your name."

"My name is Magil," Magus responded curtly; his gaze, hidden by the shadow of the hood of his cloak, never left Schala, "I'm the sure the scholars neglected to mention it in their enthusiasm with Lucca's prowess."

"Ah, yes! Lucca, is it?" the old man said, turning his attention to her directly. She shrunk under his scrutiny, trying to appear awed by his lofty presence, but when she thought of the broken shell of a man she'd met before, it became difficult for her to hide the pity she felt for the man before her now. "What village are you from, young lady?"

"None, Master Balthazar," Lucca answered with the story Magus had devised for her. "Master Magil found me in the Northern Wastes."

"An isolate?!" Balthazar exclaimed, his eyes wide in genuine shock. "I didn't think there were any left! How on earth did you find her?"

"I am...gifted...with with farseeing dreams," Magus said, cocking his head to the side without actually shifting his focus. "In one such dream, I saw a girl bringing forth fire, by the force of her will alone, in a desperate attempt to keep her family alive. Intrigued by the possibilities, I left the comforts of Zeal and searched the Wastes for weeks until I finally found her. By the time I arrived, most of her family had succumbed to the cold or one of the other terrible dangers that can be found in the Wastes, and the rest, including Lucca, were on their last legs. I did what I could, but she was the only one with the strength to survive, even with my aid. I suppose she was fortunate, though it is hard to describe any such circumstances as fortunate."

Lucca fixed her gaze to the floor and focused all of her thought on her mother and that day she'd been crippled, producing a few silent tears to lend credence to the story. Deception was not in her nature, but she'd agreed with Magus that it would not be wise to leave anyone unconvinced of the truth, especially the Gurus or the Princess, all of whom, Magus had said, were more in touch with their humanity than the rest of Zeal's citizenry and thus were more likely to notice a weakness in their story.

"I am sorry, my dear. Oftentimes, it is too easy for us in the sky to forget the hardships of the people who struggle upon the earth below." Balthazar said, with an earnest pity that surprised Lucca, as he placed a comforting hand upon her shoulder.

"A terrible road has brought you to our kingdom," Schala added, "but I hope that you are able to find some joy and happiness with us among the clouds to fill the void left by those you've lost. They will be in my prayers." Lucca ventured a glance toward the princess, whose unease had seemingly been overwhelmed by sympathy for her contrived back story so completely that Lucca felt bad that it had all been made up.

"Thank you, Your Highness." she said with a discomfort that was not contrived. The whole act was quickly beginning to turn her stomach.

"Her Highness has a most kind heart," Magus interjected, noticing Lucca's growing disgust with her role in the deception. "For what it is worth, I have done everything I could for her both in developing her talents and leading her out of the frozen hell of the Wastes. She has come far, but has unfortunately reached the threshold of my skill with fire magic. I had thought it best to return home and bring her with me to Zeal, where she belongs, in hopes of finding further tutelage for her."

"Indeed, a wise course of action, especially with the circumstances being what they are." Balthazar agreed. "Perhaps, if she feels up to it, the young lady would give us a demonstration so that we might gauge her abilities as they stand?"

"Of course," Lucca said, forcing a smile and then allowing it to become natural. It was something she'd done a thousand times in her youth, when she was feeling sad for one reason or another and wanted to hide it. She'd learned how to make it so convincing that Crono was the only person who ever saw through it.

Magus stepped away from her to join Schala and Balthazar in observing her performance. He stood next to the Guru to maintain some space from Schala, but continued to fight the urge to keep glancing toward her.

The day before, Magus had instructed Lucca to make her spells as flashy and theatrical as possible. Most of the citizens of Zeal, he explained, possessed intermediate skill at best and used flashy tricks to hide their shortcomings and would be quick to embrace her if she showed similar proclivities with her talents. He advised her against that course with the Guru, whom he'd said would have little use for such tricks and would see through them easily. So, while the day before, she'd used relatively weak spells to conjure forth flames and then simply made them dance about and take various playful shapes, the resolved herself to putting all of her energies into casting her most potent spell. She raised her hands above her head, palms up, and conjured a white hot fireball and then used the force of her will to stretch it into a ring that expanded on its own around her until it nearly reached her audience, and then she let the flames burst free from the inner boundaries of the ring in a searing hot disk of flame that threatened to lick at her robes, while her audience remained safe from the conflagration, though they no doubt felt the searing heat. Lucca breathed heavily as the fire died away, though she managed to maintain a contented smile that grew just a bit when she saw the approval on two of the faces in her audience.

Balthazar applauded her efforts openly: "Excellent control, reasonable power, a solid Level two effort." While Magus merely smiled in satisfaction. Schala, though, seemed as if she hadn't even noticed and was more focused on keeping herself under control, as Lucca saw her catch herself casting a suspicious glare or two toward Magus.

"Thank you, Master Balthazar." She said sweetly, allowing a bit of real pride to show in the old man's praise.

"You were right to bring her here," the guru said to Magus. "I can thing of perhaps a handful of mages in the entire kingdom capable of teaching her further, as far as fire magic is concerned. Myself perhaps, though if I am to be honest, her talents may be beyond my own in that field. Certainly Gaspar, but who knows where he is. Schala here, of course, and Melchior. He would probably be the best bet, considering both skill and availability."

"The Guru of Life..." Magus said with a bit of trepidation. "I would have reservations about him serving as Lucca's tutor. I have had troubling visions concerning him that gives me pause."

"Troubling? How so?" Balthazar asked.

"Troubling in a manner that I think would be important to discuss with your mother, Princess. I would not say more in this casual setting." Magus answered, speaking directly to Schala, making her shift even more. "In fact, I was wondering if you could get me an audience. It is of vital importance to the kingdom."

"If what you have to say is so dire, I imagine Mother will want to hear it. I will do what I can." Schala said.

"Thank you. Whatever you can do," Magus said, before turning back to Balthazar "and the matter of Lucca's tutelage?"

"Indeed. I suppose I could..." Balthazar began, but was quickly interrupted.

"Could the Princess teach me?" Lucca said, earning surprised glances from everyone, including a particularly hostile one from Magus. She smiled innocently, as if she did not understand the gravity of her request, but she secretly beamed at Magus' reaction.

"The Princess is very busy. She has many duties to attend." Magus said to Lucca as he fixed his gaze fiercely to Schala, desperately hoping that she would decline, but it was the Guru who spoke first.

"You know, I don't think her duties are so overwhelming that she does not have some time to spare, and it might be good for her to spend some time with someone her own age. Of course, the decision is ultimately hers to make...," Balthazar argued.

Schala glanced back and forth between the three: the sweet earthbound girl who looked to her eagerly, the wise old mentor who seemed to urge her to accept, and this dark stranger who, by sheer force of will, opposed the idea far more insistently than his mild demeanor indicated. In the end, it was him that affected her decision, but not in the way he wanted.

"I think I can find some time for you." Schala said, hoping to have a chance to learn more about this ominous man. Lucca squealed with delight, causing Balthazar to chuckle merrily and a deep scowl to cross Magus' face, but for the moment, there was nothing he could do.

Magus and Lucca gave their thanks and said their goodbyes as they left the Guru and Princess Schala. Magus reined in his annoyance at the turn of events and seemed perfectly pleasant in departure, while Lucca continued to be endearingly cheerful and excited. Schala felt her heart lighten as she watched her leave. She did genuinely like the strange girl, though something about her seemed very odd. Whatever it was, it helped her to forget her troubles, if only for a moment.

They returned to their rooms in an uneasy silence. Magus kept a brisk pace that betrayed his irritation at the turn of events, though, truthfully, things went quite well, despite a couple of missteps. Lucca kept up with little effort, pleased as she was with herself. She knew the suggestion would not go over well with Magus, considering his reaction to the mere sight of the Princess, but that was merely the icing on the cake. She could see that something was wrong with Schala, though she had no idea what it might be and she did not imagine the Princess would be quick to share her troubles, she at least had an opportunity to spend some time with her and, maybe, gain her trust enough to convince her to share her secret burden.

They returned to their apartment and as soon as Lucca closed the door behind her, Magus was there, right in her face, pinning her against the door. His hood had fallen back, revealing the full intensity of the anger in his face. She stood firm, unwilling to cower as he so obviously wanted her to. She stared right into his eyes, daring him to do something. He took deep, desperate breaths, as if he was building up enough rage to throw away all caution and do just as she dared.

"What do you think you are doing?" He said slowly, matching her defiant stare with one of unbridled fury, denying any hope that any answer she might give might quench his anger.

"Making myself useful." She said, reminding him of the very words he'd said to her in Algetty. His face twisted up in frustration at her response.

"You're antagonizing me." He said, turning and walking away from her, regaining control of his anger. "Such pettiness does nothing to help what we are trying to accomplish."

"No, but having eyes an dears on Schala might, and though you couldn't seem to keep your eyes off her, I think mine might be able to see a bit more than yours." Lucca said, feeling that she was gaining ground.

"You don't know what you're talking about." was his only reply.

"Don't I? The sight of her nearly knocked you to the floor. I don't know who she is to you and I know you won't tell me, but there is something...off about her and I have doubts that you can be objective about it." Lucca said, earning a disdainful sneer.

"And so you are going to solve the mystery and fix everything, are you?" He spat disdainfully.

"If I can."

Magus closed his eyes and took a breath, withdrawing into himself for a moment. He had to clear his thoughts. He could fume about the situation all he wanted, but the reality of things was that she was right, as much as he hated to admit it. He couldn't be objective. He was obviously nowhere near as detached as he thought he was.

"Are you really going to try to help her?" He asked with resignation on his voice. "This isn't some plot to try to use her against me?"

"I'm not going to lie to you-the suggestion was partly motivated by a desire to see how you'd react, but something is wrong with her and I want to help her if I can." Lucca admitted with an earnest tone. "You care deeply about her, don't you?"

Magus sighed and turned away. Lucca wasn't sure what to say to that, so she said nothing. He hadn't denied it. She was a bit shocked at the realization. She hadn't thought him capable of that kind of feeling. She'd teased a base reaction out of him, piqued his interest a little with a bit of flirtation, but that was nothing compared to what she now realized he felt for Schala. She couldn't help but feel a twinge of jealousy, and though the sensation was not foreign to her, it felt strange nonetheless.