Note: Lina and Gourry's outfits are based off a by Japanese artist FMK. Lina's encounter with the Deme ambassador was inspired by "A Conspiracy of Kings" by Megan Whalen Turner, who has master the art of subtly in writing. Many thanks goes to Earth Star for betaing this chapter!

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Vows: Chapter 3

Lina was quite sure this was a set up for catastrophe.

"Some party," Lina dolefully muttered as she and Gourry stood on one of the palace balconies, watching as the upper crust of Saillune society mingled and made small talk as they sampled tiny appetizers. Her stomach rumbled and she pressed a hand to her satin-covered gut. She was starving, but Amelia had withheld all real food until they met with the Deme ambassadors.

"We don't need their first impression of you to be eating like you're in a pig sty," Amelia had informed her.

"We have manners! Don't we, Gourry?"

"We do?"

Lina yanked out her slipper and smacked Gourry with it. "You're not paying attention!" she yelled, preparing to smack him again when Amelia had snatched it away.

"Lina-san," Amelia said, exasperated, "could you at least try to act like a lady for a couple of hours? Please?"

So here they were. The sorceress clad in a borrowed pink dress hastily tailored to accommodate her chest - or the lack thereof compared to the crown princess - and the swordsman in a handsome dark suit that someone snagged off a rack for him at the same time one was purchased for Zelgadiss.

Lina groused as she glanced at Gourry, who was looking out over the palace grounds, his arms propped on the balcony railing. He'd made out like a prince, she thought a bit sourly. The suit was elegant and fit his long, lean body well. His hair had been caught back in an elegant braid, and she'd seen more than one eligible woman giving him appreciative looks which caused Lina to growl in their direction until they scurried some place to hide. It was, she told herself, a reflexive action. It didn't mean anything at all, and certainly wasn't related to the thoughts she was having before they left for Saillune. Right? Right.

Lina heaved a sigh. "Those guys need to hurry up and get here so I can eat. What're you looking at?"

"Those two guys in black sneaking along the palace wall."

Lina instinctively began to whirl around, but Gourry's hand snaked out and caught her arm. "Don't be obvious," he warned her.

"I'm not being that obvious." Lina settled back in her former position, annoyed that Gourry was the one with common sense this time. She definitely needed food to get back in top form. She snatched a glass of champagne off a server's tray as he passed by, pressed it to her lips but didn't drink. "What do you see?" she asked under her breath.

"They're really good, better than you and I when we snuck in." Gourry's mouth twitched as Lina snorted. Of all the things for him to remember ... "They scaled the wall about five minutes ago, and it looks like they're trying to head for the temple."

"Long way around. Probably going for Phil and Amelia. Let's go check it out." Lina put her untouched champagne down.

Gourry frowned at her. "Isn't Amelia going to notice you're missing?"

"Amelia is going to kiss my feet once she realizes I've saved her royal ass again. C'mon." Lina tugged on Gourry's arm.

"But, I don't have my sword."

"You're a smart guy. Use something else."

Gourry scanned the refreshment table and scooped up a couple of shrimp forks. "I'm starting to wonder if you know what you're doing," he said as he followed Lina toward the gardens.

"Why wouldn't I know what I'm doing?"

"You just called me 'smart.'"

Lina snorted and shoved open the gate. "Okay," she said as she and Gourry walked out, "we don't want to arouse too much suspicion." She wove her arm through his. "We need to act like we're taking a casual stroll through the gardens. We stumble across the assassins. Gasp! Shriek! Fireball! And, maybe I'll let you do something with those shrimp forks."

Gourry gave her an exasperated look. "Maybe?"

Lina smiled and patted his arm. "I'm sure it won't dent your ego too much if you sat out on the action this time."

"With you around, I'm beginning to wonder if I have any left."

"Don't worry, Gourry. I'll be sure to protect you and your shrimp forks from the big bad boogey monster."

"I'm sure you could, Lina." He reached over and ruffled her hair affectionately. "Just tell me one thing."

"What's that?"

"Is it that time of month?"

Lina growled and stomped hard on Gourry's foot, the heel of the dress shoe easily puncturing his loafers. He winced and whined a bit, trying to hop on one foot while not losing his balance. Lina laughed in response, sticking her tongue at him as he grumbled under his breath.

They strolled along the path, teasing each other while at the same time keeping aware of their surroundings. They'd wandered toward the temple, then back toward the brightly lit palace.

"I don't see them any longer," Gourry said, casually surveying the area.

"No, and that worries me." Lina started to lead them back toward the palace. "If they got as far as the palace, Zel's hovering around Amelia like a mother hen. He won't let anything happen to Phil or Amelia. Still, I'd feel better if ..." She cut off as Gourry suddenly stopped, causing her to nearly trip over her feet. She whirled around, ready to yell when she saw him squinting into the distance. "What is it?" she asked.

"Over there." Gourry grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket and shoved it in her hand before sprinting off.

"What the ... what am I suppose to do with this, Gourry?" Lina followed, cutting through the trees until she nearly slammed into his back ... at the same time as the overwhelming stench of fresh death hit her. Coughing, she held the handkerchief over her mouth and nose. She was no stranger to death, but she loathed the stench of a fresh kill. She took a couple of breaths through her mouth until she got used to the smell, then crumpled the handkerchief in her hand.

Gourry moved in front of her, brandishing the two shrimp forks like a sword as he scanned the area. After a moment, he relaxed and stepped aside so she could see the body. "Whoever did this is gone," he told her as Lina spread the handkerchief out and knelt on it so she wouldn't mar Amelia's dress.

He was dressed in black from head to foot, but it was an elegant in a vastly different fashion from what she was familiar with. He had olive-toned skin and dark hair and was probably quite handsome if not for the smoking hole in his chest and the blood splattered everywhere. Lina swore beneath her breath and got to her feet. "I think this was one of our 'honored guests.'"

Ж•Ж•Ж•Ж•Ж

Lina considered it lucky that she and Gourry had found the body, and not one of the other dinner guests. The last thing they needed was for someone to go shrieking their way into the reception and cause a big mess. Gourry stayed with the body while she flew to the castle and got Zelgadiss.

She didn't think someone with stone skin could go pale, but he proved her wrong. "Are you sure?" he asked in a brusque tone as they headed swiftly through the palace halls toward Prince Phil's chambers.

"You don't see many overly tanned people within the barrier lands," Lina explained. "Darker skin, but not black. Clothes are a different style too, different material. Lighter ... maybe some form of cotton? I'm no expert on that."

"Linen," Zelgadiss replied. "Probably a linen blend. It's what I saw in the Deme city."

"In any case, this is going to cause a huge stink."

"That's putting it mildly." They swung around the corner together. "I've had Amelia go with her father for now. They're suppose to be meeting with the Deme folk."

Lina had never been in Phil's private apartments, but considered them to be the definition of "bachelor's quarters." A bachelor with an insatiable lust for justice, she thought as she caught sight of elaborate tapestries depicting various heroic battles she recognized from Saillune literature. Plush, but well-used leather furniture was arranged around the room along with a couple of tables littered with papers and books.

Phil rose to his feet, along with Amelia as Zelgadiss and Lina entered the room. The man who sat on the sofa across from them did not bother to rise. He was dressed in the same sort of outfit as the dead man. Similar facial structure, eyes, hair color, Lina assessed. Twins? No. Siblings? Most likely.

"Lina-dono," Phil said, "thank you for joining us." He indicated the man with a sweep of his hand. "This is Ambassador Marseil from the kingdom of Deme."

"Lina Inverse," she replied, eyeing him warily.

Now Marseil rose to his feet, inclining his head toward her in a way that made her spine crawl. "Miss Inverse," he said. "And, it is good to see you again, Mr. Greywords."

"Honorific beyond the barrier," Zelgadiss translated under his breath. "Given to the status of a young, unmarried woman."

"So I see," Lina replied, then raised her voice. "Well, Marseil-san, what can I do for you?"

"Miss Inverse, I'm not quite sure what I've done that's offended you to the point that you would address me in such a contrary tone," Marseil told her in a light, but scolding tone, but without the heavy accent she'd been expecting. He also spoke the standard language, in contrast to the old Saillune that Sylphiel had heard him speak. "I am simply here to meet a woman that these countries consider a 'treasure.'"

"You must forgive Lina-san," Amelia quickly said. "She and Gourry-san recently traveled a long way after recovering from some grave injuries."

An eyebrow winged up. "Oh? Might I inquire as to how you received such wounds?"

"It was nothing," Lina dismissed the question, took a deep breath and dredged up every ounce of diplomacy at her disposal. She pasted on what she hoped was a smile.

"Amelia," Zelgadiss spoke up, "might I have a word with you?"

"Of course, Zelgadiss-san." Amelia rose. "Pardon me a moment."

Zelgadiss took her arm, steering her toward a corner of the room. Lina kept her gaze on them as he murmured in her ear. Amelia's eyes went wide, her cheeks pale. Both of them gave Lina a nervous look.

"You seem preoccupied, Miss Inverse."

Lina studied her opponent. "You're quite nosy, aren't you?"

Marseil sat back with an elaborate goblet in hand. "Merely interested in the affairs of those within the lands that were once sealed off to us."

"Interested in them to the point where you decided to attack a defenseless kingdom?" Lina challenged. "I'm fully aware of what your troops have done to Taforashia and Ralfaga."

"A misunderstanding, just as I was explaining to Prince Philionel. As we were discussing prior to your entrance, both countries were in need of aid from raiders. We graciously offered our assistance to our neighbors north of the barrier, and as a courtesy, kept a small detachment of troops stationed there until further assistance could be procured. As you can see, we do show great mercy."

"Is that so?" Lina narrowed her eyes. "I hear that your kingdom doesn't care for magic."

"That is correct," Marseil acknowledged. "After the sudden rendering of our magical capabilities a thousand years ago, our kingdom thrived. We worked for centuries to perfect technology and non-magical ways of defending ourselves. We are a peaceful kingdom, Miss Inverse, and have experienced great fortune. It would be remiss if we didn't share that abundance with our deprived neighbors to the north."

"Saillune is a peaceful kingdom itself," Phil boasted. "As you can see, we also enjoy great prosperity."

"I see ..." Marseil eyed his wine with disdain and Lina saw anger flash in Amelia's eyes before Zelgadiss laid a hand on her arm.

Something is definitely going on with those two, Lina thought, remembering what she'd seen between them the previous evening.

"I do admit, it is a quaint place. A throwback to an era gone-by." Marseil toasted Phil and finished off his wine.

"Lina-san?"

Lina shook her head at Amelia's voice, hoping she would take the cue. "I heard that there was more than one of you here."

Now she saw the worry creep, just slightly, into Marseil's eyes. "Yes, Ambassador Levant had to send a dispatch and was suppose to meet me here. It is why we are regrettably late in getting to make your acquaintance, Miss Inverse."

"I'll be happy to send some guards to escort the ambassador to the palace," Phil offered.

"I'll personally see to that for you, Prince Phil," Zelgadiss spoke up.

Phil beamed at Zelgadiss while Lina shot him an odd look. He normally didn't speak with the polish of a royal, but ... he's buying me time. Thanks, Zel. "Amelia, my dear, would you go with him?"

"Of course, Father." Amelia inclined her head. "I request that Lina-san come with us as well. That way, she can make her introductions to the ambassador, and we can all retire for the evening. Shall we convene in the morning?"

"Excellent plan. What say you, Ambassador Marseil?"

"I believe Ambassador Levant will greatly appreciate the gesture." Marseil rose and approached Lina. She braced to defend herself, and was surprised when he kissed the air above both of her cheeks and bowed. He repeated the move to Amelia and shook Zelgadiss and Phil's hands. Phil waved to a couple of guards to escort Marseil to his room.

Once the door closed behind him, Amelia's composure vanished. "Lina-san! Why didn't you tell him?"

"Tell him?" Phil asked.

"Lina and Gourry found a man that appears to be Ambassador Levant. He's dead. Point-blank magical wound to the chest," Zelgadiss told him.

Phil swore. "Lina-dono ..."

"Don't you dare go thinking for even a second that I did it," Lina shot at him.

"I didn't think that," he replied. "I'm afraid that once this comes out, it will have grave consequences for Saillune."

Lina placed a hand on her hip. "Guy doesn't think much of Saillune, does he?"

"No. And, as far as he knows, we've had no contact from Taforashia. He doesn't realize that Zelgadiss and Amelia smuggled the prince out."

Lina's eyebrow winged up. That was news to her as well. Still ... "I don't know about that, Phil-san. Sylphiel said yesterday that the ambassadors didn't know how to speak common all that well, yet Marseil spoke it perfectly fine tonight."

"I noticed that as well," Zelgadiss confirmed and Amelia nodded.

"You have a point. Still, he doesn't know where Posel-san is, and we plan to keep it that way," Phil said. "Still, why didn't you say anything when you got here, Lina-san?"

"Call it a hunch. Anyhow, let's go. Gourry's out there with the body, and someone's bound to start poking around sooner or later.

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When the bushes rustled, Gourry rose from his seated crouch next to a tree. "Lina?"

The bushes stopped and he heard footsteps rushing away in the opposite direction. Swearing under his breath, he quickly sidestepped the body and pursued the person. It didn't take him long to catch up, and he snagged the person's cloak. "Wait, it's OK! I'm not going to hurt you!"

The person struggled, then whirled around. He saw that it was a woman with large, terrified eyes, her messy blonde hair spilling over a shoulder. She wasn't dressed like one of the party-goers, Gourry thought as he smiled warmly at her. She wore a pink dress the same shade as Lina's, but it was longer and filthy. A tattered white cloak hung from her shoulders. "It's OK, miss. I know it was a shock, but my friend went for help."

The woman gulped in air and hugged herself. "He's dead, isn't he?" she managed after a moment.

"Yeah. But, whoever killed him won't kill you." Gourry placed his hands on the woman's shoulders and found himself studying the stranger. She was so thin and she was shaking like a leaf. "I promise that. Why don't I escort you back to the party?"

The woman let out a shrill laugh. "You got that right. The killer wouldn't dare harm me ... it doesn't mean that I won't get hurt."

The light was dim, but Gourry could see the bruises under the woman's right eye. His fingers dug through to the bone and he was barely touching her shoulders. Anger surged at whoever did this to her, and he pushed it away. She didn't need to see that, but he instantly loathed anyone that could do this to a woman.

"Do you need help?" he asked her, wondering how he could get her to Sylphiel without being noticed.

The woman blinked once, then twice. "You'd help me?"

"Someone hurt you."

Tears welled in her eyes. "Would you still help me, even knowing what I've done ... what I'm about to do?"

"I can't just leave you like this." Gourry smiled at her once more. "My grandmother would rise out of her grave and smack me with her frying pan if she found out I ever abandoned a woman in need."

"You have to do so." The woman pulled away from Gourry's hold and she looked to him the way Lina did before making a truly hard decision that wound up having them plunged into battle. She hesitated, then fixed her eyes on him. "You love Lina Inverse."

Gourry's jaw fell open.

"I ... There's been copious amounts of research done on you. Her too. I know who you are, Mr. Gabriev. I ... I can't stop what's going to happen, but if you truly love her the way that I think you do, you have to do whatever it takes to protect her."

Gourry froze, his mind instantly snapping back to the future Lina standing in his inn room a couple weeks earlier saying that he needed to protect both the future and past her. "Wait a minute, where are you from?"

"I can't tell you any more. You can't know. Just please, don't let Lina Inverse be killed. She's your only hope to save this kingdom." The woman took two steps, then pulled back around. "You're a very kind man, Mr. Gabriev. I won't forget it."

She took off, casting a spell that let her take to the air before Gourry could pursue her again. Frustrated, he whirled around and punched at the closest tree, surprised when his fists didn't meet bark. He loosened his grip and saw the shrimp forks were embedded in the tree.

"Oh, come on," he said aloud, "I know my brain's full of yogurt, but give me a break here!"

"What the hell are you doing, Gourry?"

He turned to find a pissed Lina standing a few feet away, hands on her hips. She looked so furious, so alive, that Gourry was sure he would had done something had Amelia not chosen that moment to follow Lina out of the bushes.

"There you are," Amelia said, her gaze flickering from Lina to Gourry to the shrimp forks in the trees. She pursed her lips and decided silence was the wisest choice for now. "Zelgadiss-san is escorting the soldiers with the body to the temple right now."

"OK then, let's go." Lina quickly followed her.

Gourry started to follow, then looked back one last time at the spot where he'd stopped the strange woman.

Wait a minute ... when she flew away ... did she have a tail?

"Gourry! Get your rear in gear!"

He sprinted to catch up with Lina and Amelia.

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"Lina-san," Amelia said as they headed back to the palace, "you came to speak with Marseil-san about finding Levant-san's body, didn't you? Why didn't you bring it up?"

"I wanted to get a better handle on what he wants." Lina stated as she replayed the conversation in her mind, picking apart the rhetoric that Marseil had spewed. "He hates magic, that much I'm sure of. When he finds out that Levant's been murdered, he's not going to take too kindly to it."

"I saw the wound. Point-blank to the chest." Amelia shook her head. "What a horrible way to go."

"But quick. We need to figure out who has a grudge against the Demes, and fast. Say, you said you're sheltering the prince of Taforashia, right?"

Amelia didn't respond until the three had locked themselves into Lina's room. "Posel-san is in this wing," she confided. "Zelgadiss-san and I snuck him into the palace before we knew the ambassadors were coming. It's the safest place for him at this time."

"That so?" Lina sat on her bed while Gourry took the chair. "Did he know about tonight?"

"Yes. We've kept him abreast of everything."

"Does he know magic?"

"Yes, Posel-san is quite ..." Amelia's voice trailed off as she realized what Lina was implying. "Lina-san! You can't possibly be accusing Posel-san of murdering the ambassador!"

"And why not?" Lina counted on her fingers. "The Demes have taken over his country. That raiders story was a bunch of bull, and you know it. He knows magic. No one knows he's here, and are his rooms guarded?"

"Well, no, but ..."

"Means, motive, and opportunity, Amelia. The three basics of any murder mystery and you know it. Sounds like our little prince has all three."

"He's 12, Lina-san!"

Lina pinned her with a steely glare. "I was casting the Dragon Slave at 11."

"Lina," Gourry said tiredly.

"Fine, fine. I'll back off. But, Amelia, even you have to admit that Posel has a good reason to go after the Demes."

Amelia looked a little sad. "I suppose you're right. We'll go talk to him in the morning. Zelgadiss-san and the guards are making sure the body is sequestered inside the temple. We can't hide the fact of what happened, but we can try to delay it a little. We'll let him know after we talk with Posel-san."

It meant they would only get a few hours of sleep, and Lina resigned herself to it. "OK then. We'll go eat breakfast with the prince."

"Very well." Amelia placed her hand on the knob. It tightened, then she gave Lina a firm look. "If Posel-san had anything to do with this, it's because he's thinking of his people. But ... I hope, for all of our sakes, that he didn't do this. Good night."

After the door clicked shut behind Amelia, Lina collapsed onto the bed, luxuriating in the soft mattress. She kicked off the hated heels and groaned with relief as she flexed her feet. She heard the door open and shut, but her mind was already drifting into slumber. She barely registered her door reopening, but was instantly alert when she heard the click of the lock.

She levered herself on her elbows and saw it was only Gourry, sword sheath in hand. He placed it on the table before stripping off the suit jacket. "Pal, your room is next door."

"Yeah, but I'm sleeping in here tonight." He kicked off the loafers, dispensed of the tie and unbuttoned the first few buttons of the dress shirt.

"Aren't you being a little paranoid?"

"Considering our luck with this place?"

Oh irony, Lina thought wryly. Gourry was right. The last time they'd been in Saillune, they'd been lucky to get out with their lives. "Point. Well, get on up here. Last thing we need is you getting something sliced off because you have a crick in your neck." She rolled off the bed and ducked behind the changing screen to change into pajamas.

They settled in their usual positions for when they had to share a bed - she was under the covers and he on top, he was closest to the door and she to the window, the Blast Sword propped against the nightstand where Gourry could grab it within a second of waking should he need it. Unlike their usual cramped quarters, the bed they occupied was so large that they lay comfortably and still had plenty of room between them.

Neither of them slept.