If Love Were Only Part of the Equation
"Love can sometimes be magic. But magic can sometimes...just be an illusion." -Javan
Mia Ausa was exhausted. She had wanted to plan a large celebration to commemorate the official reopening of the Magic Guild of Vane, but right now it was looking to become a nightmare. With only a week to go before this party (she constantly kept trying to remind herself it was just a party) her Taurean patience had been stretched to it’s utmost limit. Between members of her staff (not to name names, mind you) misplacing invitations, ordering the wrong color cloth for the new Premier’s robe, and somehow managing to give the musicians the wrong dates, she was wondering if this festival would ever take place. Details, Mia. Just details, she kept telling herself. It was not working. She bent over her desk for a moment, her head cradled in her hands, before slowly standing with a soft sigh.
As she stood there, still unaccustomed to her new office, she turned and stared out the window into the distance, allowing herself a moment to be lost in thought. Four years ago, we would have been in the air. I would have been able to see for miles around. We should be today, but I just wasn’t fast enough…or strong enough…. She shook her head, driving the thought away. It had taken four years—four long and painful years—to restore the once renowned Magic Guild of Vane to even a semblance of its former state. She feared it would never float again; and some part of her always felt guilty about not being able to do more in that respect. Her friends had tried to reassure her—she had done the best she could, and it was a miracle that she had saved what she did. But as always, that seed of doubt sprouted in her mind and for a moment she indulged it; wondering what would have happened if she had been able to keep Vane afloat.
The view from the window reminded her again of how she had yearned to leave the floating city as a child. She always wished she was not kept so confined—locked away by her mother in a tower of innocence; never allowed to venture to the ground below; always expected to just go to school and learn the ways of the world there at the Guild. She shook her head and chuckled to herself. How could anyone be expected to learn life through textbooks and teachers? The time she was on her Quest, and these four years that had followed provided the greatest instructors and harshest tests of all. First confined by my mother, and now by my duties.
An unexpected ray of sunlight broke through the shims of the curtains and filled the room with light for an instant. Caught in its tender shadow were six small bronze figures mounted on narrow pedestals—three on each side of the tall window. She smiled as the radiance outlined the skillfully cast features, each mirroring their subjects’ expressions with an almost frightening accuracy. Looking at them her thoughts drifted to her dearest friends; the other Heroes now scattered at different ends of the world. During their Quest she had seen herself grow and learn from each of them. She missed them all terribly, for because of the distance between them, they only managed to get together about once a year. She smiled a little, knowing they would all be coming to the Re-Opening Festival. Those invitations, at least, she knew would arrive safely. She had handwritten each and personally handed them to the couriers. With a soft laugh she reached out and lightly touched each of the small statues, memories of their time together filling her heart with an unexpected contentment and providing her with a much-needed diversion.
The first figure was Alex, the ex-Dragonmaster. The sculptor had made him true to form in his Dragon Armor, complete with Althena’s sword in his hand. Mia smiled to herself—she always had admired the sorrel haired boy. >From watching him lead their group, she learned patience and perseverance. Not once—even when it looked impossible—did he give up. Although he was the youngest of them all, his was always the voice of reason. Invariably kind and forgiving, Alex never once used a cross tone with any of them—even when it was most definitely deserved. I wonder if I’ll ever learn his self-control. She sighed, thinking about what had driven him to finish his Quest; not just saving their world, but his love for Luna—his childhood friend. He had given up his title of Dragonmaster (something he had dreamed of since he was a child) and all the magic that went with it not only for their world, but also for her. Oh, to love like that...
Sitting on the shoulder of the statue was little Nall, Alex’s strange pet. The small white…thing…had seemed so cute when she first saw him, but had proved to be far more than any of them could have suspected. Who would have ever thought a Dragon could live as something no larger, or more harmless looking, than a farmer’s barn cat. He used to always tell me how cute I was…imagine, a Dragon having a crush on you!
Naturally, Luna was now his wife, and the small statue seemed to capture her strange mix of sweetness and depth. Unlike the other figurines, she didn’t hold a weapon, but a basket of flowers. More appropriate for the Goddess incarnate…It wasn’t until the end of the quest that Mia had learned that the blue-haired woman was once the Goddess Althena herself. Like Alex, Luna too had given up her powers, but she had also surrendered her immortality to remain as a human, and to be with him. Self Sacrifice for love…it all sounds so romantic…
Mia secretly found herself wishing she had the compassion and easy going personality she had seen in her friend. She knew all too well that her own nature was quite different. Through her staff, and more than once when the speaker hadn’t noticed her presence, she had overheard that her nickname among many of her people was ‘The Ice Princess.’ She had wanted to believe that she earned the moniker because of her deadly ice spells, but she had heard the context of it’s use too often and soon realized it was more of an insult of her stoic and serious nature. Well Luna doesn’t have a city to rebuild and administrate... Sometimes… sometimes I wish I didn’t either.
She glanced at her statue, standing alone to the right of Luna’s. She had moved it there herself, a few months ago, feeling it best that it be there as far from his as possible. She turned, ignoring her own cane-holding image as she looked back to the small figures to the window’s left.
The smile that had faded began to grow again as she looked at the first of the figures on her left. It was Jessica, her first and her best friend. Depicted in her priestess uniform, and clutching her mace, the ex-student of the Temple of Althena looked as independent and confidant as she did in real life. Utterly un-feminine and with a temper to match the almost cat-like look of her beast ears, she more than held her own during battles. Yet, her other side became evident when she used her gentle Litanies to heal her friends. It seemed like a strange combination, yet in this amazing young woman, the two gifts seemed to have found a perfect home.
Mia envied how her blonde haired friend always managed to say exactly what was on her mind—not caring what others thought of her for it. I wish she wouldn’t be so crass sometimes, though…She smiled as she remembered how her friend hid her true feelings behind a skin of sarcasm—especially her love for Kyle. I don’t miss how they used to fight, though…
Then there was Kyle. His statue, of course, had to stand next to Jessica’s, or Mia would have gotten an earful from her priestess friend. The once part time thief and full time drunk had since reformed and earned the favor of Jessica’s father—thankfully before the two were married. At first Mia did not care for Kyle; he was arrogant and chauvinistic. Almost as bad as Nash…well…I don’t think anyone could be THAT bad…But after traveling with the huge brigand for a few days she began to see his true side—he really did care for Jessica and the rest of them. His swordsmanship rivaled Alex’s, and she knew that without his strength they could not have defeated the Magic Emperor. And how he used to tease Nash!
She laughed as she straightened the statue, brushing dust from its base. Kyle and Jess were well matched, both about as subtle as a horn buck in rut, and about as safe to be around if they were in a bad mood. Funny, how both their tempers seem to fade away when they realized that they really did love each other….Love… it can be so.. confusing…
With that thought she turned and looked at the farthest statue of the six, sitting at the extreme left end. Molded into the shape of a rather short young man holding a crossbow, the mere sight of the sculpture made her sigh audibly. Nash. She closed her eyes in quiet remembrance of all the things she had learned from him. Of course, she had known him the longest—practically since they had been children. Although a barely a year older than she, he had amazed the faculty of the Guild numerous times. Most notably when at barely eleven years old he had made it through the Cave of Trials alone by just using his untrained storm magic. Passing this test for entrance into the Magic Guild was a feat in itself, but almost unheard for someone so young with no formal schooling in magic. He had gone on to become one of the top students in the Guild and was soon chosen as the Premier’s apprentice.
Unfortunately, all of his success had gone straight to his head. Since he was attractive (though she would have never admitted that to him then) many of the female students gave him much more attention than he needed, and this became just more food for his ego. It wasn’t long before he’d developed a reputation around the Guild for being an overconfident and conceited flirt.
Mia frowned for a moment, remembering those early days. Then, during their quest, she had watched him evolve from a self-centered boy to someone who genuinely cared about his friends and the world around him. It had not been an easy transformation—there was a time when his loyalties had been badly tested and he actually turned back to Ghaleon, deceiving the group. While Alex and she were quick to forgive and forget, Jessica and Kyle reserved their pardons until he had proved his himself again. He truly thought he was going to keep me safe by betraying us... He’d done it… for me. With a sigh her thumb again rubbed the cheek of the small statue’s face, adding further to the soft shine of polished bronze that it alone of the set showed.
Her brow furrowed as she thought of Nash’s secret devotion to her. Everyone accused her of being oblivious to the obvious—all those months, those years. A thin smile crossed her face as she recalled the day they finally realized their love for each other—just six months after their adventure when they had gathered in Meribia for Jessica and Kyle’s wedding.
Her smile broadened as a glimpse of the event crossed her mind; everything was perfectly planned; everything was beautiful—even the December weather—nothing could have gone wrong that day. And had it, I don’t think anyone would have noticed! She pressed her hands together as the memory she was searching for surfaced—when Nash finally convinced her to dance with him. She grinned to herself remembering how she kept out right refusing; dancing wasn’t her thing and she didn’t want to make a fool of herself. Finally, after nearly an hour of him asking, she agreed. She was a horrible dancer, somehow managing to step on his toes at least three times during that one song, but he just smiled. At the end of that one dance, he whispered something into her ear: “I need to tell you something. I love you, Mia…and I don’t mean just as a friend…” Those few words changed everything…
She looked up at him, surprise etched into her expression as she felt a blush spread across her face. She caught her breath, unsure of what she was supposed to do or even say. She released his hands, pulling back from him and walked away as fast as she could, leaving him standing there just staring at the floor as the world seemed to spin around her. Her head spinning, she strode out of the Great Hall and into one of the small sitting rooms. There were a few people there—Luna grabbed her arm and asked if she was all right.
“I’m fine…I just…I just need some air.”
Her friend helped her to the doors at the far end of the room and led her onto the balcony, then hit her with a barrage of questions. “Are you sure? You look pale. Did Kyle get you try some of that beer from Nanza? Should I go get someone? A healer?”
Mia shook her head. “No, I just think I need a few minutes alone.”
“Alone? Is something wrong? Do you want to talk about it?”
“Luna…please. I appreciate the concern but I just need to be alone right now. I need to think.”
Confusion plastered the blue-haired woman’s face, but she silently retreated back into the mansion, but didn’t shut the door behind her.
Although it could have been only fifteen minutes, it felt like eons had passed as she stood there staring out into the city, pondering what she should have done. Tears rolled down her face as she realized she was too much of a coward to handle the situation—a situation she had been dreaming of for the better part of six months now. She was nearly frozen to death by the time she heard footsteps—from the shortness of the pace she knew them to be Nash’s—approaching from behind. She didn’t turn around, but heard them stop at a comfortable distance from her. She heard him almost whisper her name, “Mia?”
She turned to face him then, shivering and trying to wipe her tears with shaking hands.
“I’m sorry...I should not have sa--”
She cut him off. “No, Nash...I should not have run like that—but I am scared.”
He inched closer, “Scared? Of me? I’d never hurt you, Mia.”
“No...of how I feel right now.”
He shook out the cloak he carried over his arm and offered it to her, but did not speak, although his face showed a mixture of confusion and concern.
She accepted the warm garment gratefully, and pulled it around her shoulders as he held it behind her back. Suddenly—not even a moment later—she turned to face him as she found the strength to say, “I love you, too. I think… maybe for a long time now.”
Gently (almost reverently) he wrapped his arms around her and hugged her to him. She could hear his heart racing under his shirt and tunic as she buried her face in his chest—still frightened of the words she just said, and almost terrified of the fact that she’d meant them. She wasn’t sure how much time passed as he just held her to him, but then he stepped back and looked down at her, smiling. His hands were shaking—from the cold or all that had transpired in the past twenty minutes, she wasn’t sure. He reached down and lifted her chin from his chest and softly touched her cheek. She watched his hand as he raised it and gracefully moved her black hair out of her face. Looking up, she nervously met his gentle, searching eyes. She heard herself whisper, “I’ve nev—“
He put a finger to her mouth, silencing her. A second later she felt his lips spread over hers, and her eyes leapt open wide. Dazed and strangely relaxed by the kiss, they closed again as she felt a strange new sensation wave through her body. It was a good feeling—like static electricity running through her and striking her soul. When he finally released her, she embraced him and dizzily wondered when he would kiss her like that again
Five minutes later when they returned to the party hand in hand, a silly grin on his face and a bright pink blush on hers, Jessica looked at them and winked at her. Mia always wondered just how much her friend knew about what Nash had said to her to cause her to run away. Knowing Jessica, everything—she probably encouraged him. And from that look she just gave me it was most likely her idea in the first place.
The three days that followed the wedding quickly blended into an impossible mix of happiness, regrets, and confusion for Mia. It was a delightful chaos that seemed to increase with each passing hour. Again and again she'd sigh in delight at the joy she felt when Nash stood by her, only to feel the world close and darken as she reminded herself that he would soon be leaving again for Vane. After all, he had been heading every trip to the ruined city since they had resettled in Meribia—bringing it desperately needed tools, supplies, and workers. Determined to make herself useful, she followed him around to the shops and halls of the port city for the three short days they had together. She wasn't sure if he was pleased, or embarrassed, with her success at getting the otherwise heartless merchants to cut their price an extra ten percent over what his hard bargaining had netted them with just a coy smile.
The night before he left, Lemia insisted he join them for dinner in the small house on Black Rose Street that Mel had given them. The table discussion seemed to lift the spirits of the blonde woman, especially when he said much of the clean up was done and they were planning on starting the renovation the Guild manor this month. Nash mentioned that Artie had returned, and while she certainly wasn’t very much of a mage, her abilities as an engineer were greatly appreciated. Mia felt a tinge of slight envy as he told how the eccentric girl everyone in the Guild had avoided was teaching him to read blueprints and understand static and force loads. Stop it…you’re acting like a child…
Just as dinner ended, Lemia surprised both of them when she took his hands and smiled at him as she spoke. “I’m proud of you, Nash. I know I once said I had lost respect for you, but you have more than gained it back. Thank you for everything you have done for Vane, and for me.”
Nash had to collect his senses before responding to the woman. He had been reserved in her presence, knowing full well how she had felt about him, and she had clearly caught him off guard. He stood up and bowed to her, “It’s the least I can do. After all, Vane is my home too, Majesty.”
She looked to her daughter and gave a wink, then announced she was feeling drained and left them to go to her bedroom.
After the Guildmaster retired (rather early, even considering her illness) they sat together in the living room on a small sofa with his arm comfortably draped around her shoulders. She stayed up with him, talking and sharing their thoughts, as they had the past three days. She was amazed at how natural their conversations seemed now that they were both no longer afraid of each other or themselves. Although most of it was silly, idle ‘pass the time’ talk, it was all too apparent that they were both avoiding mentioning the inevitable— the sun would have to rise and he would have to leave for Vane.
Finally she found the courage to talk of the subject of them, still astonished at using that word—it made her feel so much less lonely. It hardly seems fair…letting him go so soon, and alone…As she reached for his hand—an action that suddenly felt more natural than ever—she whispered, “I wish you didn’t have to leave so soon. It just doesn’t seem right. I mean, after all it took for us to…admit how we felt and stop avoiding each other…”
He kissed her on the cheek and squeezed her hand, “I know. I hate being away from you…but we need to get Vane rebuilt…and I swore I’d do it. I can’t let your mother down again. Soon we’ll have a usable building and you can bring her and stay.”
Her eyes pleaded with her voice, “How soon do you think that will be?”
“Another month or so, at the most.”
“I look forward to it.”
“Me too, but now I need to go. It’s very late and I need to be able to ride tomorrow. Besides, while your mother has forgiven me for my disloyalty, I don’t know how she feels about me…being with you.”
“Nash! Don’t say that! She just said she admires you. Why would she be angry if…if…I care for you?”
He was silent for a long moment, but then pulled her closer and gave her one of those soul-melting kisses she had become happily familiar with in the past few days. It was over too quickly, and he stood up, gave her one last hug and bowed respectively as he walked to the door. She called to him, and he turned around, his eyes smiling at her even in the dim lighting
“Nash…can I ask you a question?” She asked as she walked up to him and took his hands into hers.
“Anything,” he whispered, looking over her shoulder, checking to see if they were indeed alone.
“When Ghaleon did whatever he did to my mother, did…did he tell you about it?” He dropped her hands, and she could see the horror of her allegation echo on his face. Disgusted with herself for even suggesting he had a role in the despicable act, she softened it with: “I’m not implying you knew, but I need to find whatever spell he used on that mask so it can be broken.” Oh Nash, I’m so sorry…
He stared at her for what seemed to be an age before he reached out and touched her shoulder as he met her eyes. Truth rang through his distraught features, and she felt it touch her heart. “Mia, I swear on everything I hold sacred, I had no idea about what he was going to do to your mother. I didn’t even find out until you did.”
She hugged him and leaned against him, fighting the tears of self-hatred, but lost the battle. She felt his arms wrap around her, and cursed herself even harder. I just accused him of the worst kind of treason and now he’s comforting me?
He brushed her hair—a sensation she was quickly learning to enjoy and relax to—and he said gently, “I don’t blame you for thinking I did, so don’t be angry at yourself, Mia. I can already tell you are.”
She wiped her eyes and looked up at him, “I can’t believe I did that. I mean, here you are, killing yourself for me and the rest of our city, and I am accusing you of doing such a horrible thing!”
“Shh…Mia, stop it. I hate to see you so upset—especially for little reason.”
“But I doubted you. If I love you, I shouldn’t doubt you.”
He sighed as he hugged her, and whispered into her ear, “I’ll promise you this—the minute I get back to Vane, I will search the Ruins for Ghaleon’s spell books. Maybe they can help. He was very meticulous about writing things down. I just need to find where he hid them.”
She didn’t move or make any attempt to release him from her grasp, so he kissed her on the forehead and rested his chin atop her head.
A few minutes passed, and she had stopped crying, but was just enjoying the warmth and nearness of him. Strange, it seemed…someone who was so distant only three days ago was now this close and this needed. Sadly, she knew he needed to leave—it would be dangerous to travel on such little sleep as he was going to get as it was so she kissed him on the cheek and forced a smile. “You need to get to bed.”
He nodded, kissed her hand, and then walked over toward the door. He had started to open it when she asked him, “Nash…one more question…how do you so much about horses and how to ride? I’ve watched you, and you seem to possess a kind of skill that goes far beyond natural talent.”
He was silent for a minute before he answered her, “My parents kept horses, but that was a long time ago…before they died. I’d rather not talk about it, all right?”
She nodded and watched him disappear out the door and into the night, puzzled by his last statement. Not talk about it? Is it that painful, Nash?
Still upset over the last parts of their discussion, she stayed up until dawn, the entire exchange being scrutinized in her mind—every word, every phrase—as she looked for different meaning behind each of them. Was he mad at her? Is that why he didn’t kiss her after she…made it seem like he was responsible for her mother’s ailment? Why won’t he talk to even her about his parents? Did he not trust her anymore? Why did she even ask him about Ghaleon and the mask? Would she lose him now? After it had taken so long to just say those elusive four words? I love you, Nash…I’m sorry…I hope you forgive me…
Footsteps approaching behind her snapped her back from her thoughts, and she turned to face her mother. “Mia?” Lemia’s voice held the same musical tone she had grown up listening to, if even just a little tired.
She stood up and turned to face the regal looking woman. “Yes? I must have dozed off out here last night—“
Her mother’s tone was benign, but her eyes laughed as she spoke. “And just what were you doing up so late that you fell asleep on the couch?”
Lemia smiled at her as she reached for her daughter’s hand, “Did you know that your nose twitches when you lie to me, Mia? I can only guess what is troubling you, but I think I can hit close to the mark.”
She reached up and touched her nose—absently checking this strange fact while she felt color rush to her cheeks.
Oh Mother, I don’t want to burden you with my petty problems… “Troubling me? Nothing is wrong, I promise you. I just fell asleep, that’s all.”
The Guildmaster met her daughter’s eyes and said gently, but rather firmly, “And your book…did you read him or just turn his pages?”
Mia’s ears felt as if they were on fire. “Mother! I…”
The older woman brushed her blonde hair aside and smiled again. “I know that you care for your friend Nash. I know I once said I lost respect for him, but I said last night that he has gained that back. He is working himself to exhaustion to get our city rebuilt, and with no Guildmaster to help him. It hardly seems fair, don’t you think, Mia?”
“Don’t you ‘mother’ me, child, and don’t deny your feelings for that boy—to me, yourself or anyone else. I've been watching you two since the wedding, Mia. Even a blind woman couldn't miss the looks you two give each other, or a deaf one ignore the whispers she's not supposed to be hearing. Although I have to admit, I expected something to happen between the two of you ages ago, but--”
Mia suddenly found the floor at her feet very interesting as her pale skin burst with color. “Yes Mother, I…love him.”
Her mother chuckled again, and reached for her hand. “I know you do. Which brings me to another point, child. I will probably never be able to use magic again, my daughter.” She grinned ruefully, “What good is a Guildmaster without magic? I could certainly never defend Vane, nor can I instruct. It’s a rather.. bitter pill to swallow, but I have to be honest and face the truth myself.”
Mia’s eyes widened and she gripped the hand tighter. “Oh, Mother, don’t say that! Ghaleon’s curse can be broken! We just haven’t found the spell he used on that dreadful mask! You’re Guildmaster of Vane, there is no one else. You can’t be thinking of….” Her voice trailed off as a worried expression grew in her eyes.
Lemia shook her head adamantly. “You’re wrong, Mia. There is someone else. I knew you were ready for this when you returned from your Quest, but I held off on it because I didn’t want to burden you with it, my daughter. But now, I think there is no choice—and I think it might ease the troubles that kept you up last night. I want you to take over for me, Mia. I want you to be the Guildmaster. I hereby tender my resignation, effective immediately.”
Mia watched with dismay and bewilderment as her mother removed the golden necklace she wore and placed it around her own neck. She looked down at it, and felt a supernatural intimacy shine from within it. It seemed simple enough—just the Seal of Vane cast in pure gold and the symbol of her house was encrusted over it in rubies. Yet, as she wore it, she knew something inside her had changed. I am not ready for this…I am not ready for this…I am not ready for this! “Mother you can’t! Traditions say it has to be passed on when…when…”
“Hush, child. Traditions don’t matter if we don’t have a city or culture to abide by them in. I am abdicating.” A brief haunted look crossed her face, one quickly replaced with a forced smile. “I want to retire, and you will not argue with me about it. But there is one thing I want you to do first, Mia. Consider it the last order of my rule.”
Mia watched in a daze as her mother got up from the chair and disappeared down the small hall of the house, only to return a minute later reverently holding a tiny velvet box. She felt the object being placed in her hands and, with only a brief glance to the purple container, looked up at her mother, “What’s this?”
The blonde woman’s smile was as wide as her daughter’s eyes as Mia examined the box in her palm. “Something I believe Nash has earned. Granted, there aren’t any exams to give him, or boards to sit in on his Thesis until the Guild is properly restored. But after all he’s done for us, and his obvious abilities as a mage---I think we can make an exception. I believe it would be fitting if you presented this to him once you have returned to Vane. It would be your first official duty as Guildmaster. Go ahead and open it, Mia.”
Mia opened the box and stared upon a delicate gold carving of the Seal of Vane—in the form of a solid gold badge. It was clearly used; but despite its obvious age it still maintained its luster. She picked it up and saw it had been resting on a stack of equally used embroidered patches of the Seal that the Masters commonly wore on their outer most clothing. She whispered, “His Master’s Badge?”
“We’ll have a new one made for him Vane is rebuilt, if he wishes. But for now he’ll have to make due with your father’s.”
Mia stared at her mother, “My father? You never talk about him.” She frowned sadly as she looked again at the badge, not sure what to think. “Sometimes, sometimes I wonder if he ever existed.”
Lemia’s eyes closed, “We’ll talk about him later, child. You know he…died shortly after your birth, and it isn’t something I like to dwell on. But this was his Master’s Badge, and it was, and still is, one of honor.”
Mia’s voice wasn’t even a whisper as she said, “I wish I knew him.”
The older woman reached for the hand of her now-confused daughter. “I believe you have some duties to attend to in Vane, and I understand there is a caravan leaving in an hour. Hurry and pack your things—and be sure to wear something warm.”
“But your health—“
“I will be fine. I have the best healers in Meribia at my beck and call. You should know, you and Robin found them for me. Now go get packed.”
“Don’t try to argue with me, Mia,” she said as she released her daughter’s hands. Then she stepped back and smiled at the girl, “I want you to promise me one thing.”
“Yes? Anything, Mother.”
“I want you to promise that you will be happy. I don’t want to see you turn out like me—someone so consumed by her duties that she forgot what was important.”
“That’s not true, Mother!”
“Yes it is, now promise. And get going!”
“I promise,” Mia said as, with a sudden smile, she turned and ran to her bedroom. Gathering her skirt in her hands so she could run faster, all thoughts of decorum were forgotten as she dashed around startled servants in her rush to join the caravan… and Nash.
How will I tell him? Will he be happy for me, or upset?
Mia was packed in less than twenty minutes. With a few hurried good-byes and good lucks from her mother and the servants she left the building and, a heavy pack slung over her back, walked to the plaza in the center of town to find the caravan.
The Caravan was huge, much larger than Mia had expected and she’d had to revise her opinion of Nash’s ability to organize, or at least find experts able to do it for him. The enormous number of laborers and supply wagons she had expected, but it was the presence of the skilled Stonemasons that Mel had been promising for weeks that brought a pleased smile to her face. Their help was critical as few in Vane had experience in actually building or working in stone. They were not alone either; here and there, gathered into small groups as though not wanting to be seen with common laborers, were Masters, Journeymen, and apprentices of Meribia’s many guildhalls. There were carpenters, stonecutters, masons, roofers, and even a harper or two. Mel must have called in every favor and debt he could find for them.
Nash was already astride his horse, giving orders to some of the workers who were leading or riding on carts. He wore a heavy fur cape that seemed to make him look so much older—so much nobler—at least in her eyes. Hesitating for a moment, horses were still something very new to her and most of Vane’s former inhabitants. She walked towards him, and on seeing her approach, he dismounted.
“Mia? I didn’t think you’d be up this early, thank you for coming to see us off.” He stared at the object around her neck and gasped, “Your mother?! Is she all right?”
She took his hands, “Yes, she’s fine. She wants me to…take over for her. She wants to retire. So, I decided that I’m coming with you.”
His brown eyes were full of shock as he hesitated in his reply. “Mia, please. I don’t think you really want to see Vane yet. The damage is still pretty… well, most of the city’s still not safe and the towers could fall at any time.”
“I don’t care… Vane is becoming.. has become.. my responsibility. I have to see it… to know what I’ve done to it, and what it will take to restore it. I am going, Nash… Now, are you going to be my escort or should I ask someone else?”
With a frustrated sigh, Nash replied; “You didn’t do anything but save it, Mia Vane and the rest of us. Okay, but it’s going to be a long, slow trip and you’ve still not learned to ride a horse. There aren’t any inns along the way, you know. You’re going to have to rough it for a while”
Mia interrupted him. “In case you’ve forgotten, I was on the quest too… and I don’t recall sleeping in too many Inns… or complaining all the time about how dirty my hair was getting! And I don’t need a horse, I can ride with you, or in a cart.”
He gave a shy smile as he spoke, “As romantic as two on a horse is, for an entire day of sharing a saddle might be too much.”
“A cart then. There has to be one that isn’t full.”
He nodded and led her over to one being pulled by oxen and driven by one of the guards of the Guild. She gave a doubtful look at the strange creatures before turning a small smile to the armed guard. Nash chuckled at Mia’s reaction to both the animals and their driver. “Darshak is for your protection, since I’ll be at the front of the ride.”
The guard bowed his head to her as he held the reins and stared at her amulet. “Majesty Mia, it would be an honor to drive you.”
Mia smiled at the blonde-haired guard, “Thank you, Darshak.” Do I like that new title? Everyone will call me that soon…It seems…so cold…so formal…
She had known Darshak forever, remembering how he used to have to chase after her when, at the age of six, had decided to sneak out of her room and explore the palace. He’d kept her little adventures a secret, and she’d always felt safe around him. He let me get away with things just like Ghaleon did…when Mother wasn’t around…He wasn’t going to be conversationalist Nash was, but he would make the trip safe. She whispered to Nash as she pointed towards the front of the cart, “What are those…things?”
He smirked, “Oxen. They are quite tame you know, and better than a packhorse on level ground. They’re not as fast as a horse but they’re a lot stronger. Without them we’d never be able to move even a fraction of what we need to Vane--especially the new cornerstones and center beams. They’re really very gentle, and easy to care for.”
His voice seemed oddly confident, which was puzzling to Mia since he couldn’t have had any more contact in Vane with the huge animals than she’d had. Which, outside of a medium-rare steak, had been zero.
“If you say so, Nash. I guess she does look kind of…. Sweet, though not very bright.” An impish smile crossed her face as she whispered to him. “Kind of like someone else I know.” A quick kiss on his cheek took any sting from the words.
She watched him blush as the others in the group began catcalling at them. He turned to the men and shouted, “Shut up!” She was amazed when they took his order and busied themselves with final preparations for their departure.
He offered her his hand to help her up into the seat next to Darshak, whispering into her ear: “Oh, and she’s a he. I think you may have hurt his feelings.”
She giggled and watched as Nash walked to the back of cart and, tossing her pack into it, fished around for something. He strode back to her and tossed a blanket around her shoulders, winking. “In case you get cold. We need to get going.”
The ride was quiet and uneventful, and soon her exhaustion caught up with her and she fell asleep. She wasn’t exactly sure how long she slept, but was awakened by the motion of the cart stopping, and the last rays of sunlight dimming over the horizon.
Nash pulled his horse up alongside the cart and nodded behind him. “It’s just over the hill. Uhh…the Blue Star is bright enough so I think we can continue on and make it there—if we hurry. Our camp is just outside the city. It will be just a short walk from there to Vane in the morning.”
Something made her shake her head at him and she watched the surprise in his eyes grow as she opened her mouth to explain her action but then closed it and gestured for Nash to pull his horse closer to them. Looking at her equally shocked driver she nodded to him. “Darshak, help me up onto Nash’s horse. We will go in together, Nash--before the caravan. I have to…sense Vane.”
The guard climbed out of the cart and helped her down, then lifted her up to Nash, who reached out and pulled her up—setting her just in front of him on the horse’s withers. Taking a tender, if firm, grip about her middle as she grasped onto his tunic, he gently urged the horse forward. It was only a few minutes at a gentle canter before the two reached the top of the small hill. After a moment’s decent he pulled the horse to a stop and spoke, his voice soft with regret, “We’re there, Mia.”
In reflex Mia looked up into the sky, looking for the Vane that still lived in her memories. Then, with a wrenching effort, lowered her eyes and stared into the near distance and the still tumbled ruins that littered the field before her. She couldn’t even find words to describe the sight.
Vane had never been a large place, though through it’s many centuries it’s steady population of two to four hundred mages, teachers, and staff had called it home. It had always been more a center of learning and administration than a traditional town or city. A complex of palaces, schools, fountains, and towers, Vane had always been without the more mundane aspects of town or city life. No fields and, other than a garden or two, no farms. No noisy guilds of laborers and no smelly cattle pens or pigsties. Between the city’s own magic and that of the faculty there had been little need for more. Supplies were always delivered to the city’s base and transported up to. But now all that was gone.
Without warning, she released her grip on Nash and swung her skirted leg over the horse’s neck, sliding to the ground as she looked out to the quiet remains, her eyes suddenly hollow.
She looked up to him, “Nash… I.. I need to go in first. I have to understand exactly what has happened to Vane. I have to feel Vane. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. I only know I have to do this…alone.”
Nash looked back to her as he swung himself down from the horse, tying it to a nearby branch. “No… not alone, Mia. I’m going with you. It’s not safe.“ He paused, looking back to the ruins with open confusion on his face. “But… something’s changed… The Towers… they’re…”
“They’re upright! Nash, I though you said they were about to fall over?” Watching his mute nod she turned and began walking quickly towards the shattered city. It was with a small, and very hidden, smile that she heard Nash’s footsteps hurry to catch up with her.
As they entered the city Mia headed directly towards the Silver Spire and, except to go around or crawl over fallen walls and rubble, did not stop until the two stood at its base. As always the strange colors hidden within the Spire’s shell drew Mia’s eyes to it and, ignoring the sound of Nash’s steps behind her, she worked her way to the sealed entrance of the strange tower.
“Mia! Honest, it and the Crystal Tower were both a good 20 degrees off center the last time I was here. The doors were jammed shut and the Spire looked like it was going to fall over at any moment. I tried to go in… I could get into the tower but the spire wouldn’t let me in. Even the tunnels were sealed--those that weren’t collapsed. I don’t understand it… this was a crushed mess last time. No tunnel, no steps, nothing but smashed rock. Look, even the foundation is solid again, but there were cracks and flagstones were sticking out everywhere.”
Mia nodded absently to Nash, yet it was obvious that she was hearing something other than his words. She tilted her head as though listening to a faint but familiar voice calling to her from some great distance as she slowly stepped towards the tower’s great doors. Then, in total silence, Mia extended her right hand, palm outward, until it rested just next to but not touching the sealed doorway into the Spire. Without a sound, the great double doors swung open and a feeling of well being poured out of the tower to surround and fill her. Suddenly all the doubts and fears that had eaten at her since the fall vanished and Mia was again reminded of who, and what, she was. Somehow her mother’s decision had been heard, and accepted. Her hand lowered slowly back to her side as she nodded to the closing doors. “It’s okay, Nash. Everything’s been taken care of here and is as it should be. We can leave the towers alone for now.”
Nash turned just in time to see the huge doors swing closed. He opened his mouth to speak in surprise but, on seeing the expression on Mia’s face, closed it without comment.
Mia turned and slowly stepped away from the square, heading towards the manor—the building that had housed most of the Guild, as well as her family. The sight that greeted them was discouraging. She headed down the hall towards the Library. I have to see if the family scroll made it…The massive doorway had fallen in on itself and they had to carefully pick their way through the rubble, pausing only when Mia reached out to pick up a small roll of cloth that lay next to a large fallen slab of rock next to the entrance. She recoiled in horror as a withered and skeletal hand was revealed as she lifted what was actually a sleeve, ending under the huge ceiling block.
He took her by the arm, pulling her away from the grizzly discovery. “It’s okay, Mia… We…. We’re still finding a few that…that didn’t make it. We’ll come back later and give him a proper burial. I promise.” Then, at the end of the short entryway, the two stopped and stared into the interior. Nash had seen this once before, be even so his expression melted into the same sad set as her own.
Mia looked into the remains of the Library, the great hall that held the most important books and references on every subject known to their world. The room was in shambles, with fallen racks, crushed volumes, and most heart breaking of all--heavy black soot covering the walls, pillars, and what remained of the ceiling.
“Oh Nash, just look, they’re gone… gone forever. The greatest concentration of knowledge, history, and magic in all of Vane is gone. In all of Lunar, gone! The Library is ruined, Nash. We’ll never recover all that we’ve lost, ever! How can we hope to rebuild Vane without it? It was the heart of the Guild. What could have caused the fire?”
“I don’t know, Mia. Maybe one of the reading lamps fell over. Or someone forgot to put the fire out in one of the fireplaces. You ordered that all fires be extinguished before the attack, but someone must have missed one of them. I’m sorry.”
It was all too much for her. She grabbed onto his tunic and buried her face in his chest. The action must have startled him because it took him a moment to react. His arms folded around her and pulled her closer as she let her grief rain on him.
When she finally recomposed herself, she looked up at him and realized that his eyes were glassy. He whispered to her, “I hate to see you so upset, and Vane was my home, too. But I promise, Mia, on my love for you… that we will restore the library and our city.”
She didn’t even have to nod her understanding—she just hugged him again.
The damn library…
Thankfully (or perhaps not) a swift rap on the door pulled her thoughts back into the present. She knew the rhythm of that knock and forced herself to smile, “Come in, Nash.” She turned around as he entered, and her violet eyes scrutinized the man before her who moved towards her as if in a trance.
Positioning himself far enough from her for his own comfort, he stood rigidly with his hands clenched at his sides, as if he was defending his very life. His long, dark green robe hung on his small frame like a burden he was being forced to carry. She studied his stony countenance for a moment and looked into his dead brown eyes. He asked curtly, “You wished to see me, Majesty Mia?”
She sighed. The air seemed to grow thin around her; she had been dreading this moment since making her decision. It had felt like an eternity since they’d spoken, but had only been six months. Six months? It had only been six months? But it was her duty, and not one she could put off any longer. It was with regret that she admitted that the pleasantries they kept up for others the first few weeks after his return from Nerak had died away to nothing. For six months their relationship had been nothing—or rather less than nothing. What was once there had dissolved to just a plethora of pomp and circumstance, of outward appearance and no inward feeling. And that… that is my own damn fault!
“We don’t need titles between us, Nash.”
Without looking at her he replied, “Yes, Majesty.”
Shaking her head, she walked a little closer to him, hoping to at least meet his eyes, but he just held the same Spartan stance. “I have a proposal for you, Nash.”
He seemed to flinch at her words but asked with his same overly efficient tone, “Yes, Majesty. And that would be?”
Frustrated with his indifferent demeanor, she matched his icy voice with her own as she circled around his taught frame. “It has been noticed that you have excelled beyond all of the faculty here during our years of rebuilding. It has also been brought to my attention that you have done quite a bit of work on the actual reconstruction. I greatly appreciate your efforts, as do the citizens of Vane. I also know that you know and support what I want for the Guild and will execute my orders without question. I have spoken with the Council of Elders and we would like to ask you to become our new Premier when the Guild reopens next week.”
He bowed deeply, still not giving as much as a glance in her direction. A look of doubt flickered over his face as he heard her use of ‘we’ to describe the Council but he said nothing of it. “I would be honored, Majesty Mia.”
“The announcement shall be officially made during the Re-Opening Festival. I have already taken the liberty of having the correct robes made for you.”
“Thank you, Majesty.”
She walked up to him and tried to take his hand, but he would not release his fist to be moved. Sighing again, she tugged at his sleeve. “We’re going to be working together. Do you think you could at least pretend you care?”
He looked down at her with clouds of sadness crossing his intense dark eyes under his unkempt auburn hair. “I do care. As I have said for years, I will always protect and honor you, even if it means the destruction of my soul.”
She shook her head, a bit satisfied to have his attention but disappointed with his robotic reaction. “That’s not what I mean. I mean…these games you play. This walking-death act, for example. What happened to the days when you would smile? When you would shave and style your hair? When you would take your head out of your books for a minute to entertain the world around you?” When you used to love me…
His eyes hardened again, as he pulled himself to his full (although slightly below average) height and reached up to scratch at the two day-old stubble on his chin. “I once thought you were naïve, Mia, and I loved you for it. But if you do not understand why I am the way I am then you truly are ignorant. As ignorant I was, once.”
Shocked at his words, she stepped back, brushing her black hair off her shoulders. She knew what he meant; this was her fault. To think things would be the same…even six months later, yes…she was ignorant for that. Just like the dances and the kisses they had once shared, everything must come to an end…
She looked at him through narrowed eyes for an instant, a stern frown suddenly appearing on her face. The room could not have gotten any colder—even if she had commanded one of her ice storms to sweep through it. “Very well. I look forward to working with you, Nash. You are dismissed.”
With a bow of respect, he started to back out of the office. She called to him, her voice wavering somewhere between authoritative and anguished, “And Nash, please shave.”
As he pulled the door behind him, she heard him say, “As you wish, Majesty.”
I rewrote this chapter because I always felt it was lacking something. While at first I wasn’t sure what I didn’t like about it, I suddenly realized that the two flashbacks seemed too contrived. So, I moved the ‘return to Meribia for Kalyn’s birth’ scenes to other chapters. These will include a full-blown dialogue version of Mia and Jessica on the balcony discussing their significant others, which you’ll see in Chapter Eight. *wink!* And yes, it will be quite risqué!
Please let me know how you liked this new version. I felt it came out much better than it’s predecessor and that it also allowed me to tie up some ends that I didn’t think I could fit into other chapters. (Lemia resigning, Mia returning to Vane, the Towers not being in a million pieces, etc)