"Did you hear about the Fon Master's birthday party?" Mariette asked her cousin.
"What about it?"
"They say she's going to open all the rooms and galleries at the headquarters in Daath for people to visit and pay their respects."
"Like a huge party for anyone who feels like showing up? Wow, it sounds fun. I wish I could go...I've always wanted to see Daath. ...Of course, it seems a little expensive. I thought the Fon Master was very thrifty and money conscious," April babbled cheerily as they strolled along the pale bridges of Grand Chokmah.
"She's supposed to be recovering the order's finances really fast," Mariette explained, "But she thinks having an open house is cheaper than a real party, since she doesn't have to provide anything but a little punch and guests will bring her gifts."
"I guess that's true," April remarked. She kicked a loose pebble off the bridge and into the clear water below. It broke the surface with a gentle splish. "I wonder if I made a necklace for her with the glass beads from our shop if she'd like it. ...Ah, it's no use. I won't be able to get there. Why torture myself thinking about it?"
"Perhaps because you know deep down that if you really want to get there a path will open up before you?" suggested a smooth man's voice from behind them.
April and Mariette spun around and almost dropped their school books in shock. His eyes looked razor sharp as ever, but out of uniform, the colonel seemed a little more low key to the casual observer. But still, however he looked, he was Colonel Jade Curtiss- the Necromancer.
"C-Colonel Curtiss," April gaped, feeling her knees go a little weak. Even at this age, Jade could still quicken many young hearts. And he was also regarded as one of Malkuth's living legends for the pivotal role he had played in protecting the world from calamity.
"If you ladies feel like meeting me at the docks at seven o'clock tomorrow morning, I'd be happy to give you a lift to Daath. You see, there's someone there I've been remiss in avoiding for the past year." He smiled, and though the look was cold, the girls felt like melting to the white cobblestones.
"W-we'll be there," Mariette managed to whisper out weakly.
Jade nodded in a stiff military manner and strolled away in search of a plate of his favorite curry.
For a few moments Mariette and April were silent, playing the moment over in their minds, gradually embellishing it to near mythic proportions. April was shaken to her senses by an awareness of the passing of time. "Oh! Sorry, Mari, I've got to go if I want to make a present for the Fon Master in time for tomorrow!" Strengthening her grip on her books, April ran home, her braids stretched out behind her like pennants in a gale.
The morning air was cold. A thick layer of fog had blown in from the ocean, filling the capital with misty clouds that obscured buildings and shadows. April and Mariette had met up outside of school and walked to the dock together, nervous about wandering alone in this atmosphere through the quiet city.
The wind tugged at their hair and clothes. April kept one hand to her knee-length skirt to keep it from flapping up in the chilling breeze and the clutched her present in the other hand. Mariette crossed her arms tightly over her chest, her own gift for the Fon Master scrunched between her arms and the light jacket she was wearing over her favorite dress.
"My arms are covered in goosebumps," April complained, "What's taking Colonel Curtiss?"
"You should have worn a jacket," Mariette chided, "And he's probably not delayed at all. I just came to meet you a little early. I was afraid you'd oversleep and he wouldn't wait for us. Oooh, it would be so embarrassing to make an trouble for Colonel Curtiss after he's gone to this trouble for us."
"What, don't you trust me?"
"Well, it's not really a matter of trust. You just oversleep a lot. Before we started walking together you used to be late to school all the time."
April frowned. It was true, but it still felt like an insult.
"Good morning, ladies," Jade's voice greeted them from the shroud of the fog. Neither girl could see him yet, but he was obviously aware of them, either from some special ability to see through the fog or having heard their voices as he approached. His boots clinked softly on the dock as he came into view. Once again, he was out of uniform, wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt, pale pants, and a jacket tied casually over his shoulders. In his hand was a small wrapped box.
"Good morning, Colonel," April chirped back.
"Hmm, I see she hasn't arrived yet," he noted the empty dock.
"Maybe it's because of the fog," Mariette shrugged, "The ship should take its time because of the hidden obstacles. It'd be terrible if it ran aground somewhere just because it was hurrying to pick us up."
"Well, the fog might cause some landing problems for our transportation, but it should be able to find its way here easily enough," Jade smiled enigmatically, looking up at the gray sky.
The wind began to pick up and a loud whirring filled their ears as the Albiore descended out of the sky, coming down a slight distance away in the harbor. Unable to tell the true identity of the large, noisy shape the girls saw approaching, they squinted and watched intently. Noelle piloted the Albiore carefully through the water, sending up a tall gush of spray in its wake, and pulled up neatly beside the dock. April and Mariette gaped open-mouthed.
Noelle opened the door. "Hey, Colonel, sorry I'm late."
"Oh, not at all," he brushed it off, "You seem to have been running right on schedule, you simply forgot to factor in the possibly of inclement conditions. Besides, I only just arrived."
The blond girl laughed. "Heh heh, that's good to hear. Why don't you hop in?" She appraised Mariette and April for a moment before adding them, "I didn't know you were bringing other passengers. But don't worry, I have room, just give me a moment to move some things I'm transporting for Princess Natalia." Noelle disappeared back into the aircraft to make sure adequate space was available for all three.
Jade gestured politely toward the open door, "After you."
The two girls looked at each other nervously for a moment, silently urging the other to take the lead. Mariette ended up being the braver of the two, stepping carefully into the doorway of the Albiore. April followed close behind, while Jade brought up the rear, closing the door behind him.
After some initial turbulence as Noelle carefully guided the Albiore back into the skies, the flight proceeded smoothly toward Daath. Mariette and April were amazed by the capabilities of the light craft, as well as slightly nervous. Had it not been for the calm demeanor of Jade and Noelle, they would would have been terrified that the plane would fall out of the sky at any moment.
Beneath his cool facade, Jade would have to admit he was somewhat anxious, but for an entirely different reason than his young guest. He had not parted company with Anise on the best of terms the last time they had met. He had been frustrated with the way she advocated for Dist's release from prison and tried to wheedle more monetary support for Daath out of Peony. Despite the way she flirted and teased him, any interest she might have had in Jade was overshadowed by her other dealings and relationships- and it had been a celebration of his birthday. She hadn't changed much. She still seemed so young. But it was petty to nurse a grudge and the things he had heard about her management of the Order gave him hope that she had grown in some respects.
And he missed her. The long silence had left his ears ringing with a yearning to hear her squeals, her screams, that certain way she said, "Oh, Colonel!" that lead to much mutual teasing. His feelings for that spunky spitfire had lasted, showing him that this was clearly not a fleeting attachment.
She had rejected him then. Perhaps it would be different now.
"Oooh! There's Daath! That's it, right?" Mariette effused, pointing down toward the mountainous bit of land rising out of the sea.
"Yes, it is," Noelle confirmed her hypothesis. "Sit down and strap yourselves in because it won't be much longer until I bring us in for a landing." Noelle adjusted a knob and slowly turned the controls down towards the fields by the shore. "You'll have to walk in a little way. It's too hard to land much closer to the city between the hilly land and the pilgrims."
"That's okay," Mariette thanked the pilot on behalf of her friend and herself, "We don't mind walking. We're already so lucky that Colonel Curtiss agreed to take us along and you were kind enough to make room for us."
"Walking along the road will make us feel like real pilgrims," April added cheerfully. As the Albiore swooped downward more sharply, she closed her eyes and reached for the comfort of Mariette's hand.
"And there we are," Noelle declared pleasantly.
"Oh, that was it," April laughed and released Mariette's hand.
Noelle turned toward Jade, "I need to drop my cargo off, but it shouldn't take long. When do you need me back to pick you up?"
Jade adjusted his glasses and rose from his seat. "Actually, I plan to spend at least several days in Daath and may take a ship back to Grand Chokmah, so don't worry about me. However, these young ladies have their studies to attend to, so for their sake, could you be back here by the Hour of the Sixth Fonon?"
"Won't be a problem," she agreed casually. "I'll see you two then."
"Thank you," Mariette reiterated their feelings before exiting the plane.
"And here we will most likely part ways, ladies," Jade bowed gallantly. "Please take your time enjoying the sights. I myself will be hurrying along."
He was true to his word, moving down the road and over the bridge at a quick clip. The two girls watched him go, feeling like they couldn't thank him enough.
Anise felt happy. Since Ion's death and Mohs' treachery, the Order had been left with a shortage of leaders, allowing her to step in to fill the void. A former Fon Master Guardian was not the usual choice to become the next Fon Master, but unusual circumstances called for unusual solutions. The fact that there was no more reading of the Score had helped. There were those whose faith had been shattered along with the disasters and revelations of past years, but Anise had done her best to shepherd the remaining believers in Lorelei. It had been hard reforming the Order, but she was taking it one day at a time. Except for today. Today was the payoff.
"Happy birthday Anise!" Florian beamed, clutching a floppy stuffed toy in his hands.
"Happy birthday to you too, Florian. I see you already found your present."
"Yes, thank you! I've always wanted a Tokunaga of my own!" The stuffed creature in his arms had no fomicry-induced powers, but it was a well-sewn reproduction of the stuffed animal that Anise continued to carry and fight with.
Florian was still so young. It was easy to know what sort of present he wanted. Anise remember the first birthday she had celebrated since meeting him. Florian had been so excited by the goings-on -the visits from friends, the gifts, the cake baked by her mother... Like the little child he really was, he couldn't wait to celebrate his own birthday. Of course, he had never known his birthdate or celebrated it before and so Anise had bestowed her own birthday upon him so they could spend it together.
"The punch smells like strawberries," Florian declared.
"It's strawberry lemonade," she explained softly, shaking hands with a few passersby on their way into the cathedral.
"I have a present for you too," the green-haired boy continued to air his birthday-related thoughts. He pulled out a package tucked in his arms alongside the Tokunaga and handed it to Anise. It was white with some mint green trim and felt rather soft.
Anise unfolded the rolled up fabric to reveal its true form- a small purse with a long strap to be worn over the shoulder. "Oh, Florian, thank you! It's beautiful!" She tried it on and it clinked. Her eyes lit up- now there was a sound near and dear to the Fon master- "Coins!" She opened the flap to reveal some shining gald. The amount they added up to was little more than pocket change, but the expert knowledge of her tastes that this gift displayed was worth her weight (which was at least ten pounds more than she liked to admit) in gold. "That's so sweet of you!" she hugged Florian tight.
"You're welcome!" he hugged her back tightly, his arms around her waist like a child. "I thought you could use a purse that matched your official robes. Your mom helped me make it."
"It's perfect!" she beamed. She couldn't have asked any more of Florian. Of course, there was still more she hoped for on her birthday.
Jade caught sight of Anise before she noticed him. He took a moment to smooth his hair and his confidence before stepping out of the doorway. He watched Florian skip away from Anise to stand by Pamela and Oliver who were engaged in a conversation with several townspeople and an Oracle Knight. The Fon Master was left alone now and knowing that these might be only a few fleeting moments. Jade seized his opportunity. "Anise!" he said as he approached.
She spun around, her ponytail spraying out behind her like a splash of water. "Colonel?" she gasped. She had been too proud to admit it, but there was no one she had hoped to see more than Jade.
He stopped his approach and spread his arms wide, concealing the small wrapped gift in his hand. It was a relief to see that she was happy to see him.
Anise flung herself into his arms. "I can't believe you came! You're really here! Colonel, I'm so sorry!"
She was taller than before and while she had never reached the Tear-size proportions she had once aspired to, Anise had certainly gained a few curves. "I never want to lose you again," Jade thought as he squeezed her lithe form close to him. "I'm sorry as well," he insisted, placing his face against her hair, "The way I acted back then- it was vain and foolish of me."
Anise looked up and Jade moved his head. He could see his reflection gleaming in her wide eyes. "I hope you understand what the Order means to me. I can't just desert it now."
"I've come to see that you meant everything you said from the bottom of your heart. I'm sure Ion would be proud."
"But I think about you all the time."
"Even with all the things keeping me busy back in Malkuth, I think of you too."
"I love you."
The tunnel vision of love could not take hold of them entirely due to the many distractions of the hall. Pamela managed to stop Florian from approaching the blissful pair, but visitors to the cathedral still stared. "I have a gift I'd like to give you privately," Jade whispered.
Anise stepped back and took his hand, "Let's go to my room. It doesn't matter if I duck out of the spotlight for a few minutes." The hurried along to the transporter, then down the hall to Anise's quarters. She closed the door tightly, "So what's this present?"
Jade smirked, sarcastic humor brewing in his eyes, then swooped in to kiss her. Her inexperience made it somewhat awkward, but the older man knew exactly what he was doing.
"Oh, Colonel," she breathed as they pulled apart. In light of their mutual attraction, the words took on a new meaning and tone. "That was wonderful!"
...But there was still that funny look in his eye to account for- it spoke of pranks and teasing, not love and devotion. Anise was on to him. She crossed her arms and pouted, "Could you be any more cheap, Colonel? A kiss doesn't cost you anything!"
"But a diamond ring does," he countered, passing her the box.
Anise scrambled to rip off the wrapping paper, open the box, and put the ring on her finger. Her eyes glittered as she gazed at the first-rate piece of jewelry. "Wow...If this is a birthday gift, just imagine the kind of ring you'd give me if we got married!"
In some ways, Jade was glad that she was as predictable as ever. "Now go back down to the main hall," he instructed, "To chat with the rest of your visitors. I went to the trouble of bringing two young girls all the way here to see you and I'd hate to disappoint them."
"Yeah, sure," Anise nodded, face glowing and eyes full of stars, "I have to be a good hostess if I want to keep support for the Order high! ...And they'll be plenty of people to show off my ring to. But what about you, Colonel? You may have to wait a while."
"Don't worry about me," he winked, "I'll just make myself comfortable. I'll be ready for you when you come back."