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Before the Fall

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Palom glanced up from the textbook between them, setting aside his quill to study Leonora’s face. Careful, quiet creases drew themselves across her brow. Her pale blue eyes lingered over the middle of the page, scanning a single sentence over and over again. Their shoulders touched at the edges and he could feel the warmth of her each breath. They had been huddled over the text like this for the past hour. A pair of butterfly wings fluttered in his heart. His nose crinkled; his frown deepened to a scowl. He sat back in his chair, a safe distance away from the world of her.

“Question, Leonora?”

“Oh, ah…” She looked up at him, then away from him. He felt a heat rise in his cheeks as hers began to glow an apple red. Somehow, she managed a solemn expression. “Yes, actually. Well, kind of? More of a--of a clarification, really...” She cleared her throat, tucking a wisp of hair behind the shell of her ear. “Incantations are not unlike poems, yes? I mean, they conjure images in the mind’s eye, too, and their impact is fortified by the speaker’s emotional response. Many of the incantations are lyrical, too…” She twitched her shoulders, sinking into herself, eyes fleeing to the text. “Though, anyone can write poetry, I suppose, and one could argue that incantations are simply canonized poems, if--if that makes sense.”

He shrugged, the typical frown on his face stubbornly immobile. His gaze flicked to the textbook, and with a careless hand, he flipped it shut.

“Yes, Leonora, your assumption is obvious, but not incorrect. We don’t teach a lot on the Old Age, but it was common practice to craft spells from free-verse poetry. Some of the earliest versions of the incantations today originated in that practice, and a lot of the poems and folksongs we recite today can be traced back to that time as well. The quality of the poem isn’t what’s important--it’s the feelings that the poem evokes in the person reciting it. Obviously, that was before the Elements were venerated in prayer. Most of them were preserved by oral tradition...”

Reaching an arm across the table, he grabbed a book, twice as big as the one between them. It slid carefully across the surface. When he opened the second directly before her, its’ hefty, leather cover fell with a thud against the wooden surface.

“This is an encyclopedia of all the incantations used for potions and spells from the Old Age,” said Palom. “If you find time to poke around, you’ll see some examples of those poems you were just asking about.”

With a finger, she slowly traced the gold-lettered title. Mysidian Spells and Spell Casting, An Encyclopedia, Old Age Edition. So crisp. Matter-of-fact. Ancient. Wonder twinkled in her eyes.

“So, yeah,” he said pointedly, “you figured something out. Even if you took your sweet time.”

Three hours and forty-six minutes, to be precise.

“O-Oh, w-well...yes.” She swallowed and hung her head. “I’ll reread the chapter tonight to make sure I’ve got it down! Not just the technical vocabulary, but the historical contexts as well.” She gathered the books and rose to her feet. He watched as the folds of her himation fell around her soft, curvy waist--then looked away, drumming fingers on the tabletop. It wouldn’t do to stare, no matter how good she looked in those Troian chitons. (Much better than that old priestess habit; a little leg never hurt anybody.) “Thank you for your time, Palom.”

“Now you’ve just gotta learn to kill things without getting all teary-eyed about it. Focus on theory, Leonora, and get your method straight. We’ll be discussing the next three chapters the day after tomorrow,” he said simply. “Make sure you’ve got those read. Most of it’s Old Age theory, anyway, so now you’ve got an extra source.”

“Oh! Yes, alright.” She took this surprisingly well for someone who was about to reread a hundred and twenty two pages, then read three hundred on top of that. Oddly cheerful… even if that smile was a little small and thin and tight. There was something warm about it, distantly.

Leonora stood up and pushed in her chair. Palom watched her lips, searching for the words hidden between them. She didn’t look up. He frowned resolutely. Then, she spoke, a lilt in her voice: “See you the day after tomorrow, then.”

“Yeah.” There wasn’t much else to say. Questions rattled in his head, but none of them made sense to actually ask. “I’ve got some work to do back at my office, so I probably won’t see you tomorrow.”

He stood up and pushed in his chair. The wood floor creaked as the chair slid into its place at the table, sending echoes across the high dome ceiling of the archives. Aside from the records keeper down below, they had been the only two in the entire building. Bookshelves towered above them, waiting for the whispers of creaking wood to drift out the windows, into the red sea of the setting sun. A silence followed. Palom could practically hear himself breathing. Had she not moved? He glanced over his shoulder.

She was just standing there, this tiny woman, supposedly two years older than him, her countenance stiff and pale with anticipation. He raised an eyebrow in askance, crossing his arms. She blinked, then blushed darkly, shaking her head. Ten years ago, he would have wrapped his arms around her and squished her tight. She was a squishable, round thing, short and plushy, like a human pillow. And they had been closer then. Back in the days of childhood.

Where had the time gone?

The butterfly in his chest fluttered its wings. He cleared his throat expectantly, feeling the heat rise to his own cheeks.

“Ah…” She swallowed, her wide eyes locked in his that were narrowed. Her lips quivered for an instant, wanting to start forming a word--but she smiled it off, changing her mind. “H-Have a good evening, Palom.”

He should have said something. A reply, a prod in search of the truth. Anything. Instead, his feelings lay on the floor, a vulnerable, amorphous pile of half-hearted hopes and bitter disappointments. All he could do was watch as she bowed her head, pivoted, and began toward the stairwell. To no one in particular, he muttered, “Yeah, you too,” as the top of her head disappeared into the lower level.

Well, that couldn’t have gone more awkwardly.

Stuffing his notes in his satchel, he shuffled downstairs himself. The records keeper (nice lady, if a little anal retentive) solemnly bowed her head, a hand on her chest, as though to say, ‘Good evening, Lord Elder.’ He nodded sternly in her way, swallowing the desperate urge to scoff (which he did with those narrow eyes of his, emphatically). As he reached the threshold, he spared a glance only to reflect on the maze of bookshelves he had left behind.

The runes of this place filled the walls and parchments with the scent of magic. So thick was the smell, anyone with the barest hint of magical perception would pick it up instantly: freshly cut grass to some, a hint of something burning to others. Depended on who you asked, really. It tickled the nostrils and itched his skin. Energy, pure and surging, something you could feel, inexplicably, instinctively. The rush had made him want to reach for the skies, to call down lightning and fire and wind for a dance, to sing the songs of thunder and rain! The things that mages of the Old Age had written of, before they lusted for power and standing. What a waste of their talents, he sighed. Or maybe he’d been born in the wrong era.

So, naturally, he was reluctant to leave, but the sun was setting, and he knew Porom must be waiting for him at home with dinner on the stove. Tomorrow would be his turn to cook, but if he was on time for once, maybe he could persuade her that he cook in her stead again (it was easier to persuade her that they eat like pigs when he was the one armed with a spatula).

Down the road he walked, briskly and eagerly, hunger twisting up his stomach. Vegetable vendors shouted the names of their wares. Tomatoes, potatoes, onions, cauliflower, peppers, and gourd! Over and over again, in that order, the words woven together to sound like the fancy name of a foreign king. Come to think of it, Porom had enthused that morning about zucchini balls whilst bragging about the cloves she had harvested from her garden. This time, he hoped, she would get it the way Lana had taught them last year. The thought of pretending indifference to another failed recipe compelled his belly to cry out like a wounded beast. Or was that just hunger? He stumbled forward, wishing his feet would go-a-little-faster-please.

Until, of course, he found himself at the crossroads of duty and desire. (Most people just called it an intersection.) One way lead home within a matter of minutes; the other took a detour through the neighborhood where he and Porom used to live with their parents. Detour, he reminded himself. Never a destination. He had never been invited to her house; they had always met at the Hall of Prayers or at the Archives. Her home was an intimate place. She was a single woman, after all, living by herself. Somehow, by some ironic twist of fate, she had ended up living again at the house in which she had been born. Where her parents had once lived, before the War. Where they had played together every other day. It was like a piece of her heart anchored to reality. A piece of her heart he could visit and admire without needlessly drawing her attention.

Had he always been this shy?

He dragged his feet down that dusty road, mulling over each one. What if she could see through the scowls? What if she could detect the embarrassment or even feel the flurry of butterfly wings beating in his chest? She’d always said she’d been able to see it. Two years ago, at the Lodestone Cavern, she’d returned in the knick of time, calling him on his bluff. Ten years ago, before she’d left for Troia, he remembered how she would raise an eyebrow, poke his nose, and giggle between breathy gasps of No way! What did she really know and what did she simply assume? Was it possible to believe someone was Sage-in-the-making material while knowing that their boasts were overzealous? A conundrum, really…

All he really wanted was a glance at the yard. He wanted to revisit the patch of mud in which they used to play and the tree under which they used to sit. That was acceptable, wasn’t it?

He carried on like a thought drifting across a sea of nothing. He could not hear the twigs snapping at his feet. He did not see the lines of stone houses or the hills that rose and fell. Reality trickled into his mind only as he began down an alley, into a world that seemed an endless corridor made up of sandy walls. Suddenly, a short, black, metal fence to the right broke the monotony of silence. Her fence.

Quietly, his breath stuck at the bottom of his lungs, he made his approach.

“You sweet, little thing!”

A shiver skipped down his spine. Palom froze in place, eyes wide, heart pounding. Heat rose to his cheeks. She had never said that to him before.

She sat in the grass at the muddy border of a flower bed, her legs crossed, her elbows to her knees. Her fingers stroked the petals of a pink camellia as though they were the fingers of another human being. She’d never even glanced his way.

“You’re pretty sharp, aren’t’cha, Cammy?” she giggled. Palom stood silently at the fence, his tongue sitting numbly in his mouth. “Yeah, well, not a lot of people are as astute, ya know. I’m glad we see eye to eye on this one. He’s kind of a stinky brat, isn’t he?” She tittered and rubbed her rosy, red cheeks. “A big stinker! Oh, but you smell pretty good, Cammy. Like a queen in a dream. You sure are patient, too.”

Dammit, Leonora, he frowned, clenching his teeth, feeling his face heat up like a furnace. Is that what you really--

“No, no, you’re right. I should be nice. It’s silly, anyway…”

Well--well--good! Ya slimey toad... The knot in his chest melted away as quickly as it had hardened. Absently, he, too, rubbed his cheek. Should he even be standing there? He was spying, after all, on his apprentice of all people. What if she caught him?

On the other hand, it had proved fruitful, answering one of his long-standing questions. So she hadn’t grown out of it after all, talking to a flower like a little baby. Maybe she hadn’t changed as much as he’d thought. She even called him stinky, like before, way-back-when. A stinky brat.

“It just isn’t sitting well with me,” she sighed. “The feeling, I mean. And, well--I tried to tell him today. Which would ruin everything, I know. And… And why even bother?” Her restless arms drew around her. As she tucked her chin into her collarbone, locks of blonde fell around her face. “It’s been two years. Surely he’s noticed. He’s too smart not to see how strangely I’ve acted around him.” Another sigh, this one quieter but longer, weighing heavy on the air. “And he hasn’t said a word. He never has. I don’t think he really remembers. And... if he doesn’t remember, why would he feel the same? And--I mean--my place. I should know my place…”

He could not feel himself standing there, anchored in the realm of the physical. He felt instead a soul out of his body watching a dream unfold. Her feelings were his--at least, he’d thought they were, because never until that instant had he felt such a bitter loneliness or so consuming a helplessness. That was the power of feelings, he figured. Only as she began to sob did he remember his body. His fingers began to quiver; his rings clinked together. Thank the gods, she heard nothing.

“It will probably be awkward and complicated if I say something,” she said. “And even if I do, what then? What if he has to stop tutoring me? I know he doesn’t feel the same. It might be a professional concern...”

Maybe it would, hissed a snake coiling around his heart. It wasn’t like he knew who she was anymore. Ten years was a long time. She had left without a word. Only a thick-headed moron, impervious to all rational thought, could remain unchanged for ten whole years. Besides, in that span of time, she had grown from a girl to a woman, bursting into hips and breasts and long, cloudy hair. She spoke of Troian goddesses and sang the hymns of the Earth Crystal. How could he know Mysidia was still in her heart? He had never been invited to her house. She had never spoken of her parents. Or the past.

“I know, I know it’s stupid. It’s just a crush.”

She sounded miserable. Like a stack of tragedies sat on her shoulders, unpublished and unpublishable. The classic tragedy of a dumb, little crush, he figured. She was sensitive. A little prick to the skin of her heart, and it scattered, falling to pieces at her feet.

Leonora sighed. “But they’re all crushes. I don’t have anyone here. Except you and yours, Cammy...”

Her voice quieted, too, becoming just as delicate and breakable as her feelings.

“He was my best friend. I had friends here, in Mysidia. Had.” She curled into herself, face between her knees. “I guess too much has changed and I’ve been left behind. Maybe it’s too late. Two years have not been able to mend any of my relationships.”

Suddenly, it dawned on him that he should not be hearing a word of this. He was on the Moon again. The same pounding-in-his-chest feeling. Emotions on the horizon. His chest laid bare. For so long, he had tried to hide that he had known. To himself, to her. These past two years, it had only grown more apparent. Whenever he walked into the room, her eyes darted to him and her cheeks glowed a rich rose. During their study sessions, she seldom looked up to him at the beginning, but stole glances at him when she thought he wasn’t looking. The way she smiled, partly coy and mostly polite, had confessed everything to him. As for himself, he’d never been quite certain how he felt.

Yet, to hear of her misery, and that it had been spawned of some distant, irrational reason, he felt as though he were stumbling in on someone taking a shit. A heat spread to his cheeks and he suppressed an exhausted (soundless) sigh. He wasn’t supposed to be seeing this, but she quite obviously needed to get it out of her system. It was ambiguous and irrational, but maybe she couldn’t help it. Maybe it was just a nasty piece of her that her mind was filtering out. The way that the body filters out the things that could make you sick. Yeah, that made sense. She was sick. She was sick with loneliness.

He didn’t know if she felt better. She decided to sit up abruptly and let out a deep sigh. He hadn’t heard her crying, but she was rubbing her eyes vigorously. His heart twisted itself in knots. His mouth went dry. Abruptly, he stepped back. The grass crunched under his heel. Shit…! When he glanced back to Leonora, her eyes were on him, glossy and wide.

Time stood still. His heart boomed in the silence. Thump, thump, thump. You’re-an-idiot, you’re-an-idiot, you’re-a-creepy-fucking-idiot.

“H-Hey, Leonora,” he said weakly. “You… alright?”

“Huh? Oh--” She stumbled to her feet, her hands furiously dusting away the dirt from her chitons. “Oh yeah. Yeah, I just.” She bit her lip. Her eyes searched the ground for the words. “I just… I miss my parents.”

Big tears for a little lie. They trembled at her eyelashes, like welling drops of rain on a windowpane in delicate barely-a-balance. No, he knew it wasn’t the truth. He’d been the creeper, the eavesdropper. Was she testing him? Was she giving him the chance to run? Should he comply, pretend to comfort her? Should he contradict her, pursue the truth? Questions on questions on questions. The answer was buried somewhere deep within himself, but he couldn’t muster up the courage to look.

They were secrets, those tears of hers. Scary secrets. The whole damn thing was scary. He was supposed to be at home, anyway. With Porom and her poorly made zucchini balls. Not here, standing in a puddle of thrown-up secrets.

Quickly, Palom threw a hand in his satchel and fished out his notes. “Oh, well, I came to drop these off. Since you said you wanted to reread. The notes will help you review what we discussed earlier or whatever. Yeah?”

“Yeah…” She blinked a few times, her eyes wide. Her eyes flickered between the notes and him as she took him in her hand. A smile, small and thin and tight, curled her lips. “Thank you.”

“If you want.” He wasn’t sure where he was going with this. As soon as he felt the pause begin to grow awkward, he forced the words through his lips. “You could, you know. Join us for dinner tonight.”

“H-Huh?”

“Yeah.” He scratched the back of his neck idly. His question twisted up his scowl, skewing it to the right. He twitched his shoulders.“If you want.”

“Oh, well… No, I…” She smiled small, but this time there was a warmth emanating from her. The blues in her eyes flickered, soft and comforting, like candlelight. He held his breath. “I’ll be okay.” She nodded. “But thanks anyway. For thinking of me.”

“No problem.” He nodded, too, feeling the moment uncoil his throat. His heart thumped wildly, freely, like frenzied-fluttering butterfly wings. He smiled small, his eyes away from her. “Anytime.”

Another silence. That had gone better than expected. Though the breeze was chilly and the starlight had begun to twinkle, he could not help but feel as though he were basking in the Sun in the middle of summer. Warm, bright. Serene and certain, comforted and welcome, as though beckoned from the cool shadows of the dark to step into the light of heaven. And underneath that, thump, thump, thump. She’s-an-angel, she’s-a-fairy, she’s-a-Sylph.

“Palom?” whispered Leonora.

“H-Huh?”

Suddenly, she burst into giggles, her hand cupping her cheek. “Porom must be cooking up something amazing tonight, huh?”

The heat rose to his cheeks. He scoffed, waving his hand, shaking his head--until his eyes snapped wide open! He broke from her and stumbled down the path, a flurry of pumping arms and jogging legs. “I’ll see you later, Leonora! Tomorrow, okay?”

“The day after, like you said! I’ve got quite a bit of reading to do, you know!”

Fuck, that was right. The wind whooped and the rustling leaves snickered. Laughter, loud and rolling, broke from his lips, letting his passions carry him over the hill and down the winding path. He knew, then, inexplicably, instinctively, like Porom’s breakfast schedules or the language of Fire, that, distantly, certainly, she had heard him.

Chapter Text

Leonora huffed and puffed as she dragged her legs up the flight of stairs leading up the hill. Right foot, left foot. Inhale, exhale. The Hall of Prayers loomed overhead, watchfully patient, sternly stonefaced, waiting at the top. A grand structure, no less, and the most majestic in all Mysidia; he was like a king of magic, a sleeping giant, a dreamer of spells and histories. He was three stories of sandstone, home to the prayer dais, the library, and the offices of the government. The hill, bright green with grass and littered with daffodils, served as his natural throne. The Ancients had painted a pattern of rune-like rectangles along the base of his first floor in lines of blue, green, and violet. Above the entrance hung the proud emblem of Mysidia. Marvelous, magical, yes! But really, did there have to be so many stairs?

Iyas walked easily at her side, the tall man that he was, thick skinned and big footed, a spire of a white mage. When he did not wear his chalk white, red-bordered robes, the villagers mistook him for a (portly) knight of Baron; so, religiously he wore them, as he did on this day, no matter the weather or how they figured into his wardrobe. His wavy, blond hair, his oval face, and his long, rounded nose made most believe he was related to Miss Sterling, the Sage-to-be. In truth, his family was descended of migrants from Agart, who had taken interest in the smithing of paladin swords, their short statures attesting to their heritage. Though he was, by far, the tallest of the family, and the only white mage among blacksmiths, they loved him, by far, the absolute most, for he was their youngest, gentlest, sweetest baby.

Certainly and often, she enjoyed his company, but at this very moment, Leonora could not help feeling a little bitter. She was slowing him down and she knew it full well. His each step was taken after careful deliberation, an obvious, courteous, stalling of time, though he made no mention of it. Slowly, he lifted his foot. Steadily, he set his foot on the next stair. Oh, why did she have to be so short? His eyes followed her movements, calculating when next he should advance. She had caught him glancing more than once, and, in response, he mustered a sudden and clumsy smile, turning his eyes forward as if she had not looked at him exasperatedly.

“He won’t bring it up, though.”

“Oh?” Right foot, left foot. Inhale, exhale. “What makes you say that?”

“Leonora, he practically scuttered off as soon as you looked at him. The man’s a coward.”

“That man,” said Leonora as she climbed the very last stair, “petrified himself to save my life, you know. Willingly. Plus, look who it is, drawing water at the well~!”

His eyes darted around anxiously as he bit his lip. A white mage stood just out of earshot, turning the pulley that lifted a bucket full of water from the dark depths of a well. Iyas watched quietly, intensely, severely. His face turned a blotchy, beet red. As the white mage struggled, her hood fell undone, revealing an arm-long set of thick, auburn ringlets. Iyas frowned and raised an eyebrow in way of Leonora.

Quite pleased with herself, Leonora giggled. “Just kidding!” Grabbing his arm, she leaned against him, as though he were a sturdy pole. He didn’t even budge! “No, your sweet love, I wager, is already in her office.”

“Leonora, please. We’re having a serious conversation.”

“Spoilsport! You worry too much.”

“You don’t worry enough,” hissed Iyas. “Leonora, if he heard what you said to your - er - flower friend, and he said nothing directly to comfort you, then he’s a coward and you ought not bother with him. Besides.” He leaned in, their foreheads almost touching, his green eyes as sharp as a knife. His voice lowered to a whisper. “He’s your teacher! You’re playing a dangerous game.”

She knew, on some level, that he was right. A professional relationship ought to remain professional. Boundaries mattered, especially to the Lord Elder. He had a political reputation to maintain and political responsibilities to shoulder. He did not have time for Little Leah the Invisible Girl. He had only the time to teach his Apprentice. She was a responsibility, a schedule to keep. A person on paper.

But, then, she remembered the way he smiled. The private smile. His eyes cast away. The blush dusting his cheeks. Her heart hopped and skipped and did a little dance of Hope. Maybe, just maybe, he had seen her. He had been listening to her and Camellia, hadn’t he? Most people didn’t know what to do in the face of Great Sorrow. He’d seen hers, she knew, because he’d been standing there. He had even invited her to dinner that she not be so Lonely. Iyas hadn’t seen that dreamy look in Palom’s eyes. Iyas hadn’t seen the little, rosy specs of love dusted about his cheeks. There was Hope, her heart whispered to the winds. He had given her an Inch.

An Inch of Love.

It was all she had ever wanted.

“I’m not playing a game,” she said softly. She had wanted to smile; she hadn’t wanted him to worry. It bloomed from her lips meekly, weakly, a half of a quarter moon. “You know how I’ve felt these past two years. I-I won’t bother him. I just really think there’s something there this time. For once, you know? A real something.”

“Leonora…” His countenance softened. There was a crease in his brow and a plea in his eyes. “Promise me you won’t do anything reckless.”

“I won’t push myself where I don’t fit.” She pulled away and rubbed her palms. She knew herself to be a reckless woman, but she could not allow herself to worry him. She felt his eyes on her head, bloated with concern, wibbling with kindness. “I won’t force myself on him,” she promised. “I don’t need him to love me back.”

No one really needed love, after all. A person could live all by themselves in a sea of people. Distant friends. No relatives. That was just the life of some folk. The Way of Things. They could live on the kindness of strangers and the courtesy of acquaintances. They could whisper their secrets to the wind. They didn’t need love to enjoy the chirp of a robin or the warmth of the sun. They didn’t need love to cherish the fragrance of a daffodil or the song of the rain. A loveless life could be lived on miracles and moments like that - and on memories. Snippets of a happier time, like scattered dreams. Faded smiles and echoes of laughter. She painted her present with the colors of those dreams. She had survived lovelessness. She didn’t need him to love her.

But it had been a nice dream, hadn’t it? A smile for her. The Invisible Girl.

“Then I won’t press the matter further,” said Iyas. “Come, let’s get inside. He’ll scold you if you’re late, hm?”

She nodded and followed him through the entrance. The Hall of Prayers bustled with duties and schedules and shuffling feet. Midday always saw a rush like this. Mages swept the floor and organized bookshelves. Children dragged themselves to class in the basement. Most of the people walking about knew who she was and waved eagerly; and she knew each by name and hand and smile, for she had played confidant to many a gossip. They trusted her, Miss Sage-to-be. To them, she was a generous well of love and compassion. They could see in her eyes that she wanted to understand. She opened her heart to them, letting them dispense in her their doubts, fears and bitternesses. That which made them vulnerable. That which they wanted to forget. They dropped their insecurities in the malleable soils of her soul.

It was a place they could grow their hearts. A place to bask in the breath-taking comfort of acceptance. A place where seeds of bitterness sprouted into roses of courage for them to pluck and carry off with them. They knew full well that she loved them. Unquestionably. It was the way she held their hearts. She had soft hands and a delicate grasp.

So Leonora waved to Hana as the black mage watered the potted plants attentively. (She was a very focused woman, and quite astute!) She bobbed her head in way of Coran and Keloe as they shuffled across the hall. (Quite the sweethearts, individually and collectively!) Mu’in and Fiona crossed paths, but both noticed her and flashed greeting smiles of infinite approval. (Where he had the charisma of a star, hers was that of the Moon!) Even the former Lord Elder, as he made his way to the prayer chamber down the hall, flashed her a knowing smile, a good wish between every one of his teeth. (No one said it was a very majestic smile.)

As they ascended to the second floor and reached the corridor leading to the library, Iyas turned to Leonora once more. His gaze hovered over her, flicked from her head to her satchel to her wiggling toes, his brow knitted with what-could-go-wrongs.

“I’ll be fine,” Leonora said gently, patting his arm. “You go attend your lady love.”

His lips twisted up, then, and his ears turned pink. She could not help but giggle as he scoffed, “I doubt she’ll even notice I was late the one time.” He mussed her hair. “Take care of yourself, alright? You promised.”

“I did,” chuckled Leonora. “Now get you gone! Shoo!”

He smiled something genuine, satisfied with her energy, and turned away. He had much work to do, being the assistant of the Lady Elder, as she was a punctual woman, disciplined and diligent and always busy. In all likelihood, she was already scribbling notes in her office and setting straight her stately affairs. It must have been exhausting, having a crush on his superior, even if she was younger than him in age by three years.

As he began to leave, and as, step by step, the distance grew between them, her heart grew cold and heavy. He approached a group of mages who stood by the door to the prayer dais, among them Mu’in and Teutas, his childhood friends. His expression blossomed into color: red lips for glad tidings; emerald eyes for excitement; pink cheeks for genuine interest. His hood had fallen to his shoulders, but he didn’t seem much to mind. There was a rhythm in his parlance, a charisma, a whole life packed into a string of smooth lyrics-for-words. He was no longer severe and sincere or overly concerned with Formalities. It was as though he had walked from a black, white and grey conversation into a bright and shiny world of Real Friends.

Leonora sucked in her breath, hoping the heat would pour into her chest and melt the bit of ice sitting at its base. Warmth is a vulnerable, tender thing; the cold can sap its life at the merest touch. Suddenly, her mind went crisp and pointed with icicle thoughts. She was heavy with the nothing of air, and a layer of frost grew over the walls of her heart.

She and Iyas only spoke once a week. They were not especially close friends. From time to time, they would merely exchange secrets, in the way that it felt more natural to confide in a stranger than one’s own brother. Once a week, he told her about his insecurities and indecision. Unmanly things that he couldn’t tell those manlier mage types. About Porom, or his family. About his place in society. Occasionally, maybe bi-weekly, maybe monthly, she would whisper in his ear about Lord Elder and how she pined for him. It seemed like a fair trade; she knew herself to be a useful ear, and a person’s heart could explode if it kept too many secrets locked away. It was the least she could do for the kindness of his company. He was a charitable person, really. He had a kind heart. A white mage heart.

She let out a cold, little breath. The chunk of ice in her chest pierced the warm flesh of her blood pumping core like a hundred sewing needles. Yes, he had a kind heart. He was upright and sympathetic, as people in the business of healing tended to be. She would see him next week at the same time, the same place. Maybe she wasn’t a Real Friend, but she didn’t mind being an Appointment. It was a pleasure just having the chance to get to know him. She was lucky they had ever met! With a little swallow, she proceeded into the library, pondering whether the world had grown three sizes bigger within the span of an instant or she had simply shrunken three sizes smaller.

Palom sat beside a young girl, hovering over her shoulder as she struggled to make out a word. Sunlight poured through the aisles, illuminating the dust motes that danced to the songs of old wisdom. Their shadows made no shapes on the marble floor or its vine bordered tiles. The aisle in which Palom waited was narrow, or maybe the bookshelves towered high; but these were the staple novelties of the library in all its grandeur. Unusual, on the other hand, was the presence of this new pupil of his in her fluffy, ribboned pigtails.

He pet her head gently as she huffed a great sigh. “You’re making great progress. Just keep trying at it, okay?”

Leonora smiled wryly. The child could easily have been herself. She wasn’t exactly learning new techniques under Palom’s wing, not after these two years, not after mastering every spell in the book. That was why the two of them were wrapped up in lessons of history and theories of olde. They were things that helped along the process of learning to cast spells for the first time--like learning grammar while one was learning to read. The basics.

“Do you think the Frog will ever leave her alone?” asked the girl, peering over at the illustration. “She doesn’t wanna be friends with him anyway.”

“Well, she made a promise, you know,” said Palom. “He just wanted her to keep the promise she made. Don’t you think she should have thought about that?”

“But Papa says promises are meant to be broken.” The young girl tilted her head, shooting the little frog a look of disapproval.

“In special cases, promises can be broken. Just like traditions. But, for the most part, we try to uphold our promises as best we can, you know? ‘Cause, what if your Papa didn’t fulfill his promise to protect you and your Mama?”

Miss Sterling frowned to herself, stifling her interjection. An explanation like that left room for doubts. It wasn’t as if the girl didn’t have a point. Promises were not made to oppress impulsive children, after all. Though perhaps the girl was no more than five or six in years, the story warranted a nuanced discussion all the same. Questions were the beginnings of critical thought, were they not? Children could have critical thoughts! And disgust was not an inappropriate response to imposition. Then again, Leonora was not herself a licensed tutor.

She bit her lip, suddenly, realizing that their conversation had carried on, and that the little girl was skipping off into sunny rays and whispered wisdoms.

“Smell ya later, Palom.”

“Dork.”

“Nerrrrd!”

Quietly, Leonora took a seat across from Palom. The new student and her teacher had an obvious relationship. How sweetly he had treated her, Leonora thought to herself, and how gently he had spoken with her. In fact, he had always been gentle with those who were vulnerable, especially when he was young. It was among his traits which she so deeply adored, by which she felt he was a kindred spirit. So, when she said, “Good morning,” it was on a happy hum.

He summoned that trusty frown of his, but he looked otherwise to be glowing with health. His fingers drummed restlessly on the table and his hair, chestnut with a kiss of white-blue snow, shined bright. His gaze lingered somewhere over the top of her head and between the spines of the books behind her. He must have been considering complicated magical theories or lesson plan outlines. When she cleared her throat, he twitched and sat back in his seat.

His eyes met hers. Violet, like royal silks or a brush-stroke of twilight. Dreams of a bouncing, boasting boy hopped and skipped in that field of violets. He blinked; she woke up. Blushing darkly, biting her lip, she turned her eyes quickly to her satchel, rummaging its contents.

“I’m a little groggy, actually,” he sighed, rubbing fingers in his shut eyelids. The way his fingers, long and rough, moved so carelessly! It was Kinda Cute. His ears glowed red, too - maybe from sitting too long in the sunlight. He glanced up at her. “Stayed up late last night.”

“Doing... what, exactly?”

“Staring at the ceiling.” He began flipping through a notebook. “Anyway, did you have the chance to read what I asked of you?”

“Ah? O-Oh, yes…” She, too, drew her notes from her satchel, and the pair of books she had taken home the other night. Her toe, under the table, touched something warm and soft. Cottony, she thought, which was nice. A little, lucky toe-warmer with a nice, squishy feel. When she looked back at Palom, her notes assembled, he had been staring at her, eyes wide, tomato red, his scowl cutting deeper than a swear word.

“Leonora,” he said slowly, “that’s my leg.”

She squinted. That was a little disjoin… Gasp! “Oh, dear!” Her leg jerked away. His tomato reds had begun to color her countenance, too. “I’m - I’m sorry! I didn’t - I hadn’t - I’m really, truly sorry…”

He rubbed his cheek, a ginger disdain twisting up his lips. “You ought to watch where you put that thing. If I were a filthier man, I’d think you were trying to play footsie.”

Filthier man. Oh, yeah, alright. For a toe tap of all things. Maybe he had a thing for feet, deep down. But, too quickly, he looked away, busy in recollecting plans for the lesson, not seeing the incredulous lift of her eyebrow. He turned his book around, then, so that she could see what he had written in the margins. Yes, that handwriting was definitely his. Miniature ink blots, like an ant had crapped across the page. She stifled a giggle.

“Your writing hasn’t changed very much.”

“Huh?” He smirked, shaking his head. “Oh, shut up. You can read it, can’t you?”

“Yes. I can see you were quite invested in your research, and your thoughts must have been going a mile a minute! Since you were quite hastily getting them down, and all…”

He let a silence pass between them. Then, clearing his throat, he continued: “There, see? I marked this because the author is commonly stated as anonymous, though there has been a lot of evidence suggesting that the Great Sage Minh wrote this. But I’m thinking…” Palom opened another page. “Minh didn’t live during this time. He’d have to be half a god to have lived into the next century, right? Most people say he was endowed with magic and lived to be two hundred years, but he’s the only Mysidian ever recorded to have lived that long. So, what I’m saying is... what if it was written by Sage Dracul, his successor?”

“Why?” Leonora scratched her neck. “They’re... a hundred years apart.”

“But look at the style. It shares a lot of similarities with Dracul and there’re too many allusions to the Great Chronicle for it to be Minh.”

“Well, I don’t think it was Minh, either…” Leonora pulled fingers through her bangs, leaning forward, hovering over the book. “No, you see here? This mask metaphor is referenced in all five stanzas of the incantation. The last one is subtle, but it doesn’t just drop off like the interpreter suggested. So… I think it’s linked to the ancient cult worship of Asura, back in Eblan.”

He blinked, then turned the book around and followed the words with his finger. His eyes darted quickly over the pages, alive with the hungry light of curiosity. A half smile crossed his lips as he leaned forward to reread. “That’s an interesting thought, actually…”

The toe of his boot touched her calve. There was no way he could have felt it. Well, maybe. She couldn’t feel for him. She sat quietly, hot faced, heart pounding, wondering if she should speak up. An undeniable spark skipped around her bones and kissed her flesh with warmth. He bit his lip; she grew weak in the knees. Gods! Had the temperature suddenly risen? Thump, thump, thump. When her legs trembled, she crossed them, as though this would tell the heat in her blood to calm-the-fuck-down-please.

“I totally see it.” There was a lilt of approval in his voice. He was especially pleased with this, the way he quickly scribbled something in the margin of his notebook. Her gaze dropped to the table as she listened to him. “Those runes from the other day? I think they’re a part of this incantation. Which would mean we’ve finally deciphered the meaning behind them, in which case we ought to return them to Eblan… Leonora?”

Their eyes met. She swallowed. “Yeah?”

“You alright there?” Blush dusted his cheeks. The sunlight left no room for doubt.

“Y-Yeah…”

A little voice in her head wiggled and whined. She should say something! He had stopped by her house the day before, hadn’t he? And he had laughed, loud and rolling, as he ran off. Same old Palom. Cricket catching champion. Darer of Dreams. The boy who sang of the Elements and shouted curses at the street vendors for no real reason. He would love it if she said something! He was still Palom Tuma, after all. Still her childhood buddy (on who she had a teensy crush). The worst he could do was to say no. Things didn’t have to get weird, did they? They were friends! Real Friends.

“Leonora?” He cocked an eyebrow. His toe touched her calve.

She sucked in her breath. “Actually, there was something significant on my agenda. An important question that may require a little soul-searching, Lord Elder.”

“Palom,” he corrected her.

“Hear me out, Palom. Hear me out.” She swallowed and sat up taller. Her fingers wound a coil of blonde behind her ear. Her face went stiff with Resolve. “We have been friends since we were little babies, right?”

“I was five, you were seven.”

“Yes, I was eight. That’s kind of an old friendship, right?”

He sighed, but his frown eased up and he rested his chin in his palm.“Yeah, sure. If you count the gap of eight years you went missing.”

“Studying in Troia.” Her heart deflated. Maybe he wouldn’t want to swing by after all. But she was in too deep and she had to save face. Somehow. “So, you know, I was wondering… if, I don’t know, maybe you would want to stop by my place sometime?”

“Huh?” He sat up, too. His eyes were wide. The color drained from his face. “You mean… hang out? At your place?”

“Well. I mean.” She wasn’t sure where she was going with this. “You visited me already, so. The other day. And that was as a friend. We don’t have to be professional all the time. We did fight on the Moon together.”

And you tried your very best to protect me.

“I don’t know.” But he wanted to. She could see it in the worries that creased his brow. In the doubts that sealed his lips shut. In the shadows that crossed his face. He had always been so busy. They had drifted apart in the past two years. Maybe he felt guilty about it. Maybe he was worried about gossip. Oh, but he spoke up, and in a small, soft, self-reflective voice, said, “I mean, we did fight on the Moon together.”

“And I’m an excellent dancer,” she cooed. “You would be entertained.”

This had nothing to do with anything, which was why his lashes fluttered as he tried to make sense of it. After a moment drifted by, he gave a breathy snort and waved his hand.

“Glad to know you followed your calling. I told you it was a good idea.”

Back at the Queen’s Bounty, he had. After that amazing dance. Well, amazing was such a trivial word and didn’t quite encompass the experience, the phenomenon, the universe, that was unfolding around them. Oh, how they swayed! A sweltering heat seared in her blood and electricity pounded in her little-flower-heart! She could still practically smell the alcohol on her breath and his. The heat from the torches and the rhythm of the music all pulsed in her blood, as quick and true as their steps from that night. It had been a rush, swaying at his side, the energy of the room as infectious as a best friend’s laugh.

They stared at each other for a good, long minute. Leonora giggled and flapped her hand. Palom snickered and leaned his elbows on the table.

Suddenly, it wasn’t so hard to remember that they had ever been friends. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that it had been eons ago since they had laughed like this together. She could feel the way their lives had been entwined since the days of childhood. Her laugh twirled around his, like a silver ribbon in a girl’s thick, black hair. The echo of his rang in her ears, filling the vessel of her mind with the sheer sound of him. Her heart skipped a beat. It had never been so easy to be happy before. Maybe that was what being around Real Friends (and a teensy crush) was about.

“Anyway,” said Palom, settling down, “I’ll take a look at the runes again tonight. So, what else? Is there something in the reading that concerned you at all?”

Was he not going to answer her? He hadn’t yet, she could not doubt her ears. More like he had dignified it with a vague response, then sauntered on. To her, it sounded like a big, silently implied N-O, and when she looked up, he looked intensely relieved, as though the transition were natural. He must have thought she was stupid enough to forget with a sudden topic change. His face started to stiffen with Mentor-Prodigy Thoughts. The brick walls of professionalism shot up between them. She was the Apprentice again.

“The stories of the Eidolons were inconsistent,” said Leonora slowly. “I mean, with what people believe today. They were talked about as though they themselves were the Elements. I don’t know, I found that to be interesting…”

“You mean like Shiva as the Queen of Ice? Well, yeah. The Eidolons were first described by the Callers of Mist.”

“Right.”

“So they aren’t described with the same cultural lens as ours.” He flipped through some pages, his eyes sharp and focused. “You’ll recall the way Rydia talks about the Eidolons. I mean, she’s the last Caller left, so…”

“Except for Cuore.”

“She’s an alien,” he spat. His toe drew away from her calve. “You know what I meant.”

“I know.” No sense in correcting the man. It was an unnecessary digression, anyway.

Her eyes drifted out the window as she waited for him to decide on a page. He could be like this, sometimes: unorganized but casual about it, as though trying to make her forget that he should have thought about this beforehand. She contented herself in listening to him murmur about This Theory and That Fallacy. It was nice to hear him talk to himself. Like he was excited. Like he had so many Thoughts that he didn’t know where to put them all. Sometimes, she would even catch a half of a word, or the slice of an argument. Yes-no. Black-fire. Min-Wu. He wandered through a maze of magical theories, not lost, perpetually finding. So, when she listened to him murmur, even when she could not tell exactly what he was saying, her heart softened and warmed, like a flame dancing on a candlewick. The rosy fingers of Dawn left splotchy prints on her cheeks.

She could content herself in these little moments. She had been for two years. He wanted distance and professionalism. He was committed to his role as Lord Elder. She didn’t need him to love her. They didn’t even have to be Real Friends. It was nice to just sit by him, really. To listen to clink of his pendent as he moved.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay?”

“Yeah.” He shut the book, his eyes averted. There was something shy about his frown. Like he was regretting having said it, but had too much pride to lie. Or maybe he’d known, somewhere, that she’d be able to catch the lie in her net of knowing. Finally, he lifted his gaze. The creases in his brow disappeared. His soul shivered in his pupils. “I’ll go.”

It was like she had walked from a conversation of black, white and grey into a world of life and belonging and truth. A world where her past and present could coexist, a place where she could truly fit! They really were friends. She sat up and the library burst into bright and shiny colors. Red velvet book covers, living-and-growing mahogany, golden-starry words! She could feel her lips blossom into an easy, pink smile. She exuded all the daring and charisma of a Troian queen. Leaning forward, she grinned something mischievous. “Tonight? I’ll cook dinner. Your favorite! That chilli of pulses that you like so much. And we’ll talk theory. And childhood.”

“Y-Yeah.” His smile was small but soft. And gentle. Like the wings of a dove. His voice dropped to barely a whisper, but she had heard it loud and clear, like a brass bell. “I’d like that.”

Chapter Text

Parchment hissed as it slid into the depths of a busy, congested folder. Sitting back in her chair, Porom let out a deep sigh. The labors of the day left their aches like fingerprints along her spine. Silence slinked into the room, bringing with it drowsy, dreamy comforts and the promise of tomorrow’s opportunity. What was left could be addressed promptly at sunrise. Yes…

N-No! The sun had barely even set; its light yet filtered through the windows, painting long, black shadows in bold, inky strokes on the walls. Certainly the light was orange and dusky, but it revived in her a moment’s vigor, and the young Lady Elder took up another file, eyes wide like pinned-open curtains. So long as there was a slither of light in this realm, she could spare another moment. As a daughter of Mysidia, was she not duty bound, and honored besides, to expend as much as she could toward the works of her office? Though her toes wriggled anxiously and her heart sighed again, she straightened her back and loomed over the papers, trying to discern which of these documents demanded the most priority. Date, relations, and the like; a minute became minutes became an hour longer. Crickets chirped impatiently on the windowsill.

Then, slow-passing Time skidded to a halt. A single sentence commanded the direction of Porom’s gaze, dispelling her each Professional Thought with a string of words scrawled in forest green cursive: We humbly request your assistance, Lady Elder, in situating our newest sister, Callisto of Lissos, into her position as Epopt of Troia. Please send Leonora our regards.

She read the words once, then once again. The sentences leading to and flowing from this particular line seemed to vanish, accepting their immediate irrelevance. Oh, it seemed positively unreal. A trip to Troia? Leonora did leave a vacancy; and did she not mention that Callisto would be her replacement? In any case, it was a reason to be relieved from this prison of duties, if only for a little while. Palom could handle a few weeks on his own, though administration would be messy. No, Porom could elect a stand-in for the weeks she would be gone. Someone had to keep Palom in line while she was away, didn’t they?

The sigh trapped in her heart passed over her lips as she reclined in her chair. Guilt coiled around her throat. A trip to Troia. Could she truly afford to leave? Perhaps she should send her potential stand-in to train Lady Callisto instead. Yet, before Porom could pluck candidates from the far corners of her mind, the long haired Epopts, each a priestess devout to the Earth Crystal, danced across the hall of Porom’s memories. Between their flowing, violet gowns and sweetly sung hymns, they were like an elegant group of elected queens. Give their regards to Leonora? That much she could do. Really, Leonora would be a better candidate even than Porom for the job. The young Lady Elder sat with twisted lips, her fingers poking at the thick chain that hung from her neck. A trip to Troia could wait. She would arrange for something else, at a later date. There were always reasons to leave Mysidia.

The guilt that squeezed her heart changed colors and grew thorns. It stung like a bright, green poison, bitter and stuffy. Well, it didn’t sting for long; Porom swallowed the knot and took up her quill. Back to work, then.

Or not. Like the first, startling drop of a cool, spring rain, a familiar presence plopped into the vessel of her thoughts. That usual, crispy-stuffy smell of mint tickled her nostrils; the taste of a chipper warmth pranced over her tongue. Something different, something anxious, wove itself into the sensation. What was that weight on his mind? Quietly, she lifted her head and flashed a patient smile in way of her assistant. Some conversations demanded privacy, after all.

Iyas stood at the bookcase across the office, alphabetizing and sorting by relevance volumes which dealt directly with Mysidian politics and its history of governance. At least, that was what he was supposed to be doing. Currently, he was engaged in a careful reading of the impressive volume in his hands, at least half way through the six hundred pages (as far as Porom could tell). Judging by its silver lettering and emerald green cover, it was the seventh edition of Tales of the Mist, translated by Sir Milon of Eglo Belam. Reading stories on the job, were we?

Porom smiled small and stiff. Softly, she called, “Iyas?”

And, just like that, the book slipped out of his hands, and he flailed in a feeble, flustered attempt to catch it. Thud! He shuffled his hands behind his back, clearing his throat, straightening his posture, and ignoring the anvil of a tome that rested languidly on his foot. Ouch! His smile twitched a bit bigger. “L-Lady Elder.”

“Are you alright, dear?” The young Lady Elder rose to her feet, the concern written plain on her face. “It’s an awful heavy book.”

“No need to worry, my lady,” he said lightly, his brow furrowed, his smile pleading. “How may I be of assistance?”

The lengths to which he went to hide his pains! A charade of machismo, was it to be? She wanted to giggle for it, Iyas having been a whiner all his life, but she smiled privately instead, sparing him the embarrassment. “Would you be so kind as to fetch me a cup of tea? I could really use the pick me up. It’s been a long day.”

“Right away, Lady Elder.” He flashed a tight, professional smile and placed the book discreetly on her desk. Quickly, then, he bowed and carried himself out, as though his life depended on this tiny cup of tea. With him, Formality, too, skipped out of the office, and Porom seated herself on the edge of the desk, letting her shoulders slouch.

The sound of footsteps recalled her attentions to the doorway. Not a moment later did Palom drag his sorry self into the office, shoulders sagging, scowl deeper than the usual, eyes purple-grey with concerns. Ah, her crispy, minty, little brother. Those tightly-sealed lips trembled with the troubles sewn secretly between them. Palom shuffled past Porom and dropped himself into her chair.

“Porom.” He released a hefty sigh. His head lolled back. “Crisis.”

“Lemme guess. This is about that whole mess with Mu’in and Teutas.”

“No, I handled those assholes. Porom, have some kinda faith in me.”

She chuckled and twitched her shoulders. Rising again, she drifted to the comfortable chair across the room for a better seat. As her bottom sank easily into the soft cushions, she decided, finally, that the day’s toils were done. “So,” she said, propping her chin in her palm, “what’s this about, then?”

“It’s… It’s Leonora.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. She could tell he hated that it bothered him. Granted, he hated talking about his feelings at all, and when it came to that woman, the sentiment was tripled. A silence passed. He groaned. “She invited me over to her house.”

Because that was the end of the world, wasn’t it? Porom snorted. “Wasn’t that the dream, though?”

“Oh, shut up.” Palom straightened his posture, his frown beginning to twist reluctantly. Truth be told, Porom had expected him to posit a sharper retort than this, or at least one more artful. This little quibble must really have gotten to him. “What… What does it mean?”

“Well, I don’t know.” Contrary to popular belief, women do not share a brain. Porom pulled a pair of thoughtful fingers through her pink ponytail. “When does she finish her training and go off to help the world?”

“Go off?”

“You know…” Or, well, he should have, just as any serious mentor should. The look on his face, narrow eyed and pale as a ghost, prompted the release of an exasperated sigh. “Like Tellah did. When does she finish her studies, Palom?”

“Well… She’s got to learn Osmose.” He looked to the papers littered across the desk. His lips pressed tighter. He swallowed. He drummed his fingers along the surface, as though this would render the secret in his heart inaudible.

Thump, thump, thump, went the secret. Porom took in a sharp inhale. Palom exhaled.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“So… why are you teaching her all this magical history? She understands how to do her own research.” Porom propped her feet on the rest and reclined. Her fingers wove together, over her belly. Her eyes fell shut. Though she wished she could, she couldn’t smile. “Maybe it means she’s thinking about leaving soon. Maybe she wants to meet up to talk to you about it. If she does, tell her I would like to speak to her about that. They want me to train another Epopt. She’d be a better fit, I think.”

Go to Troia? Leonora?

The question sat heavy at the base of her chest. He swallowed, his cheeks stiff, his teeth gritted behind closed lips. She could feel his thoughts meander around the question, investigating the upset it sprung. Once Leonora left, she would be gone for a long while again. They both knew it. The first time she had left was spontaneous. A sixteen year old girl doesn’t just get up and leave for eight years unless she has no family. At twenty seven, this same girl, a woman grown, had no family in Mysidia. Just a mentor who had kept his distance and his sister who had watched them do this awkward dance of distance for two whole years.

It unsettled him that she would leave, but he knew her only distantly. She was a different person. Porom barely recognized her, excepting that shy smile and quiet voice. Then again, Porom had only ever known her distantly, too, and through Palom. Even as a young girl, Porom spent most of her time among towers and towers of books. Mysidia needed its prodigies in tip-top condition, after all, and while Palom could afford to spend time loafing about with Leah and catching crickets, Porom was compelled to spend hours immersed in her studies. One of them had to be remotely responsible, anyway.

Hesitation hung in the air, peskily persistent. He did not want to give a name to the warmth in his breast. It hurt too much and it made little sense. Porom sighed and glanced across the room. When their eyes met and their frowns matched, he knew she knew.

“I don’t think so,” he said slowly. “It’d be better if you went yourself. I just--I don’t think she’s ready. She still casts third level spells like a sniveling baby. She’s too concerned about the enemy.”

“Well, alright. You know your student better than I do.” Though Porom could not see the relation between magical history and the building of resolve, her curiosities could be quelled another time. “Okay, look at it this way. You’ve been friends since long before this whole mentor-apprentice relationship. I always thought it was strange, the way you kept so resolute a distance between yourselves. I thought she worried about what Mysidia would say, you know? A single woman, living all by herself, seeing her mentor casually. She’s in a vulnerable place.”

“Sure, people already talk.” He paused, but the look on his face was not displeased. A happier thought danced across his eyes before he finally shrugged. “But I don’t think she’s worried about that. She said she wanted to hang out. That we were old friends and that she would cook that pulses-chili that I liked when we were little. She wouldn’t ask me to her house if she were afraid of her reputation. Either that or something’s changed.”

“Well, neither of us knows what’s going on in her head, but all that sounds pretty friendly if you ask me. I really think she wants to reach out to you again.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

He twitched his shoulders, frowned, and combed fingers through those thick bangs of his. Well, if he wanted to let the worry rot at his core, who was she to stop him?

“You’ll be fine, Palom,” insisted Porom.

He disliked that she could see his wriggling heart so clearly. That was the upside-downside of having a twin, after all. He sniffed, pretending indifference. “Yeah, I will be. She’s just another mage at the Hall of Prayers.” Quietly, he picked up the thick volume that Iyas had left on her desk. “So, reading fairy tales on the job?”

“Iyas was. Diligent fellow, isn’t he?”

“Everyone says he’s got a soft spot for you. Maybe it’s nerves.” He rose to his feet, tucking the pretty tome under his arm. “I guess I should get going, then. And so should you, okay?

She smiled and curled up in her chair, letting her eyes fall shut. “Soon. Iyas is bringing tea first. Tell me how it goes.”

“You can count on it.”

He shuffled out, and though her eyes fluttered shut a time more, she knew he must be smiling to himself. However, the silence that followed him did not linger long. Did it ever? Bayan stepped into the doorway, knocking the open door in askance. When there was only a yawn in reply, the young woman called, “Porom?”

Porom gestured her to come inside, not opening her eyes. “Something on your mind?”

The fragrance of flowers wafted into the room. Hibiscus, to be precise; she must have adorned her raven-black hair with blue hibiscus earlier today. Her footsteps were soft as they carried her inside, but they lagged in the slightest, telling of a long, toilsome day. Likewise, sister. There was a hint of another flower, perhaps a kind of lily, that clung to her scent. The pockets of Bayan’s white mage robes were always filled with some of the finest specimens of flora. Lilies, Porom guessed, tonight, and particularly sweet smelling ones.

“I’m just worried about my mama.” Bayan perched herself on the arm of Porom’s chair. “She’s been writing to Esmour every day of the week for two months, but she hasn’t gotten a response yet. She’s worried he’s sick or something. Last he went to Baron, he was prompt to reply.”

“But he’s in Troia now, and to become a fine potions master no less.” Porom sat up, but a yawn pried itself out from her lips. “I’m sure he’ll write back eventually. Troia is across the seas. It could take months for him to get any one of those letters.”

“I don’t know, Porom. Before he left, he was acting strange.” Bayan rose to her feet and approached the desk. Her finger followed the grooves in the edges, marveling at the old woodwork, as if her story had been told in it. The coin-sized blossoms at the margins of the desk smiled up at Bayan. “Sad, you know? But he wouldn’t tell me what it was. Kept saying I was just imagining things. Which, well… I suppose I could be. But he hasn’t written back or sent a page.”

Bayan had been like this since she was nine years old. Porom remembered. After the siege of the Red Wings, the children of Mysidia realized that anything could happen in a day. It was best to be prepared for the unexpected. Some locked themselves in a world of books. Others watched people closely and analyzed every gesture, every choice of word, without exception.

Porom hopped to her feet and stretched her arms. Another yawn stole away from her. “You know what? I might be going to Troia soon. At least, I’m supposed to be. I don’t think I can arrange for it this year, but we need to maintain good relations with the Epopts. I could send you.”

“M-Me?” Bayan whirled around, terror gathering creases in her brow and pulling open her eyes. “Definitely not! I only just learned Esuna! I’m not a big shot prodigy like some people.”

“I… thought you were further along than that.” Most people in the Hall of Prayers were, and Bayan was a woman of twenty nine years. Odd. Guilt clenched Porom’s heart like an iron fist. Good friends paid attention to details as significant as that. Then again, Porom had never exactly bothered to ask, had she? The shame rose to her cheeks in faint blotches. Ah--before a silence could pass between them, she cleared her throat. “Then, how about this? When I find someone to go, I will ask them to look for him. They will then send you a letter or else bring you one from him. It won’t get to you faster, but you’ll at least know something is being done about it, right?”

Bayan’s dark eyes probed Porom’s blue ones. Young Lady Elder smiled weakly.

“Why aren’t you going to Troia, Porom?” asked Bayan. “Don’t you want to go to Troia? You’ve always enjoyed yourself there.”

It wasn’t a pleasure cruise, but Porom could admit she had made some favorable memories at the Castle. A warrior with a lance and fiery, amber eyes smiled from the distant land of Porom’s memories. The gentle song of a harp played on the strings of Porom’s soul. Epopt Metis reached a hand out to her, welcoming and warm.

“I’ve too much work here,” said Porom simply. Her anxious hand went to the pendant hanging from her neck. It shone emerald in the twilight, a sister to the ruby red hanging around Palom’s. “There are many mages who could go in my stead. I can’t just go between nations willy nilly like I used to. I’m not a student anymore, you know? I’m an Elder of Mysidia, too.”

Bayan didn’t like that answer. Her dark brown lips pursed and her lovely, large eyes squinted. She approached Porom and poked her shoulder. “And as Elder, it would be best if you went. Both of us know this. You would only be gone for a few weeks! Two months at the most, yes? Or three, who knows. But you assign someone else. There are two elders, remember? There’s no rule saying we need both of you here all the time. It would be smarter if you took advantage of that, and yet you don’t. You resign yourself to the notion that it is impossible. Why do you do this to yourself, Porom?”

Porom’s breath hitched. She could see the freckles scattered across Bayan’s soft, round cheeks. Her eyes traced the lines in Bayan’s thick, black eyebrows. She followed the rise and fall of Bayan’s chest with each breath. You know I’m right, you know I’m right, you know I’m right. It was like looking at the radiant Sun with unveiled eyes. The smell of hibiscus hung thick in the silence.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Porom lied. Though her smile endured and the gentleness in her voice persisted, her hand clenched the pendant in a fist. “I am duty-bound. But I promise, on my honor, that I will have Esmour found. I promise you, Bayan.”

“I appreciate your reassurance, Porom, but I would feel more comfortable if you went. Besides, don’t you want to go? You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it!”

Porom smiled patiently. “Just because I want to go somewhere doesn’t mean I ought to go. Bayan, my friend, you are unfamiliar with the ways of this office, so I pray that you will not take my promise lightly. I will send someone more capable than myself to fetch Esmour. She’s a Sage in the making, even.”

Those eyes, they plunged into Porom’s soul like a pair of probing, cosmic swords. Bayan would not be satisfied without a thorough assessment. Porom held her gaze. She hoped Bayan would not see the regret sitting like a pile of stones at the base of her stomach. Years ago, nothing could get past those eagle eyes of hers. They were study partners back then, each little girls with curls in their hair. Perhaps the gods had given her those lovely eyes specifically for this purpose.

Or perhaps Bayan had come to realize her intimidation tactics could only go so far, and that one could become immune to them should they be abused, for she merely sighed and stepped back, acknowledging her defeat. Everyone in Mysidia knew that Lady Elder’s will was forged of steel. Just then, Iyas trickled into the office, setting a tea tray on Porom’s desk.

“Thank you, Lady Elder,” came Bayan’s sour reply. “I am in your gratitude.”

Chapter Text

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Flowers rustled their leaves, swaying with the laughing winds. Stars gossiped behind curtains of dark clouds, anticipating the song of the rain. Gusts blew across the streets of Mysidia, lifting dust high into the air and across the empty roads.

Palom shuffled along, hands in his pockets, shoulders easy. The Elements were at play that evening. It was rare that they let themselves loose like this, laughing it up, sending fissures of light across the blackening skies. Maybe it was, like, divine reassurance. Yeah. The Elements knew it every moment of every lifetime, from the first sprout of a seed to its first petal yawning to life; and they were, on the whole, indifferent to the changes of the cosmos. It was just the Way of Things. No matter what went on in the lives of humans, the thunder rolled and sneered on nights like these. Clouds threatened to let free the drops of rain tucked away in their skirts.

Divine reassurance. Nobody was taking this down. Palom inhaled the cold, then exhaled a gentle warmth. So Porom’s advice wasn’t so helpful. Wasn’t the first time that happened (and it probably wouldn’t be the last). And, once he had become a Sage, there would be plenty of time for history to start penning down his embarrassments.

… Still. Still! Questions buzzed around his brain, picking at the flesh like a bunch of eager, midsummer mosquitoes. Porom didn’t know the secret behind the secret. Porom could know he was anxious, and that he was sexually attracted to this young woman, but what could she know of Leonora? He was too chicken to tell her about the other night. So, well, what if Leonora was itching to confess her feelings? What if she wanted to go out with him? Would there be feelings involved? Was that mandatory for absolutely all relationships? He felt like a fish out of water, flapping unto certain death. His questions may as well have been mosquito turds. They were about that helpful. M-Maybe he should have just told Porom. Maybe then the fear wouldn’t feel like a cold stone lodged in his chest, or a flock of birds flapping around his head.

Lightning giggled quietly, a shy maiden behind a curtain of light. Telling Porom was a breach in confidence, and Palom fancied himself a gentleman. Shoot. If Leonora had meant for her feelings to be public knowledge, she wouldn’t have been talking like a little baby to that gods-damned flower in the first place. At least he was doing the decent thing and protecting her secret. Even if he felt like a horrible liar, or like creepy con artist, tucking the secret away into the depths his heart. Guilt and fear and restless anger vomited all over his judgment. He didn’t even know how he felt, let alone--

Mightily did the thunder roar, announcing the sudden onslaught of a mercilessly cold and sharp rain. Just his fucking luck. Palom dashed across the block, his hand a feeble visor on his brow. The downpour sang shrilly into the silence, rushing and gushing like an airborne waterfall. Splash, splash, splash! went his every footfall. Dust turned to mud, clinging to the soles of his pointy-toed boots. Goodbye, sweet leather. Quickly, gratefully, he found himself stumbling onto Leonora’s porch, hand on the knob, forehead to the wood, soaked to the bone. He stood there for a moment to catch his breath. The drip-drop of water to wood swallowed the sounds of his panting.

Then, a far-off voice trickled into his mind: “I tried to tell him today.”

Chills prickled his skin, teasing goosebumps from the flesh. He stared blankly at the faded brass of her door knob. Inhale, exhale. Should he even be here? Were they really just friends anymore? Maybe--Maybe she wasn’t as different as she had seemed to be these past two or three years. Inhale, exhale. Maybe she was the same bubbly girl who wrapped herself in robes of shyness whenever she walked out the door. Maybe her cooking still tasted the same. Inhale, exhale. It wasn’t like he could predict the weather. (His tunic felt sticky-wet.) Besides, real friendships didn’t spontaneously combust under the pressure of a crush. He’d known that firsthand, since the time that they were kids.

“We’ll talk theory. And childhood.”

With a swallow, he straightened his spine, rolled back his shoulders, and knocked the door. After a moment, the plopping pressure and creaking wood of footsteps could be heard from within as she approached. She stood behind the door for a moment. He held his breath. One dragon-talon, two dragon-talon, three… Fifteen seconds later, the door creaked open, revealing a dry Leonora, small, daffodils tucked between the strands of her flaxen hair. Slowly, her shy, little smile stretched to a demure excitement. Her cheeks glowed the colors of a spring rose. It must’ve spread to his cheeks, too, because he could feel the heat rise in his face, and his heart skipped a beat. Damn. He wasn’t sure what he was so--impressed--by. She wasn’t dressed much differently than earlier, excepting the daffodils. And the twinkle of the stars in her eyes. (Was that where they were hiding tonight?) And the bare feet. He noticed the mud on her toes and swallowed, struggling to smile. Three dragon-talons later, he decided it was easier to frown.

“I’m sorry about the weather.” Leonora gave him way, stepping aside, opening the door wider. “I didn’t know it would rain, but… l-let me take your coat!”

He drifted inside, careful to step on the grainy welcome rug adjacent to the door. As he slipped off his mucky shoes, his eyes wandered around the room. Well, there he was. At the destination. Invited to her house. Living the dream, as Porom so readily pointed out, much to his annoyance. Might as well soak it all in while he still had the chance.

Come to think of it, this grainy mat was the same that Leila Pule placed here the day that Palom and Leonora trekked mud into her house after a long day of butterfly-hunting. Not only that, but those old, leather couches with the cracks in their skin had been there about that long, too. Ari Sterling would sink his rump into its cushions, back when it was new, and rest his big, Baronite feet on the short, flat table between the sofas. (Without a coaster, much to the annoyance of his wife, Leonora would giddily recount with invariable frequency.)

It was messier than he remembered, but that made sense, too. Studious Leonora lived alone, and had no reason to put away the many books laid about, let alone return them to their shelves. A pile on the side table, where a lamp had previously rested, stood with all the pride of a tower, though it was less than a decimal of the size. A particular volume called out to him, familiar in that it was half the size of the table, but his focus was broken as soon as Leonora slipped the jacket off his shoulders, and he found himself blushing like a little schoolgirl.

The smell of red chili powder and turmeric wafted lazily into the room. He remembered the first time she had made that chili. He was nine, she was twelve. They had decided to have a slumber party, their very first in a tradition of many over the following four years. He told his jokes and she giggled her giggles. They made shadow puppets in the lamplight and told each other stories about crickets and spiders and bees. She loved that kind of thing. He loved the way she giggled.

It was like he had stepped into a portal and traveled back in time. Back to home.

“Thanks for having me or whatever.” He sniffed, stuffing his idle hands into his pant pockets. He was a guest in this house. “I thought the house would look different on the inside, somehow.”

Hanging his coat neatly on the rack, she chuckled. “Nah. I’m too sentimental. Also, the chili is finished, so we could eat it whenever you’re hungry. It’ll warm you right up.”

“Sure, yeah. Thanks.” He pursed his lips, as if this would dull the blush glowing on his cheeks. Rubbing his arm awkwardly, he decided to slip off his shoes. “Maybe a little later, though.”

She made a noise of affirmation and gestured toward the couch. As she plopped into the cushion, she stifled her girlish giggles. Suddenly, he felt self-conscious, and his face stiffened, and his lips sealed tightly shut. Turning to him, she patted the spot beside her. “Sit with me, Pallie!” Eyes met eyes. “Get it?” Hers crinkled and twinkled, and her nose crumpled up. Her voice came softly, as if from a distant world. “A’cause you’re my pal!”

His frown twisted up into a smile. He chuckled a little and plopped beside her. However contented it was, it would not do to sigh as easily as his body hoped, so he swallowed the air in his throat instead. His bottom sank easily into the leather cushion. She set her bare feet on the table. Ari would be proud. Palom counted her toes and the slabs of mud between their gaps. Maybe because he was so distracted, his own voice sounded far-off, too, the way it was filled with warmth. “You’re cute, but please don’t call me that.”

“I’m cute, am I?”

She leaned forward, their noses almost touching. Her thick lashes fluttered like butterfly wing-beats. Thump, thump, thump went his heart. Palom held his breath. For a moment suspended, her eyes were the universe, and he could see all the stars of the night sky swimming in a lake of crystal blue. A pair of dilated pupils pulsed at their centers. Her breath touched his lips and tickled his nostrils. He blushed darkly, he knew, because his cheeks were on fire; but she withdrew too quickly for him to know for sure if she had noticed, and she burst into a merry laughter, her head held back.

“Well, okay, I won’t,” she conceded. The wrinkle in her brow prickled his heart a smidgen. Tiny hopes wove constellations in her eyes, though he could not name them. “It’s not nice to call you things you don’t like. Then, can I call you Pal?”

He squinted. The nervous knots in his throat pinched his voice. “No,” he said flatly. Flat enough to put pancakes to shame. Shit.

Her face fell, but she sighed and nodded all the same. “Okay. Palom it is.” Then, a chuckle. “Sheesh, for all that you have changed, this is the one thing that stayed the same, huh?”

“Hah! I’ve changed?” He lifted an eyebrow, leaning into the back of the couch, a smug smirk on his lips. “That’s rich. You’re the one who’s gone all coy and quiet and ladylike.”

“I was always quiet.” Her fists opened and closed in her lap, shuffling around the folds of her dress. “I’m-I’m a shy girl.”

“You weren’t before.”

“I was! I am! You--You forgot, you big silly.” All the same, her giggling grew, as if he’d taken to tickling her. She let her back sink into the cushions, too. Her head rested along the rim. “It was different with you. I was comfortable with you. But I’ve always been self-conscious of myself around people, especially if they’re older or… in higher positions.” Her head rolled in his way. “Lord Elder.”

He frowned, but met her gaze. “Is that really the truth?” He hoped not.

Those restless hands came to a halt, save for the quivering of fingers. Leonora looked away, unsmiling, a crease between her eyebrows. Pale pink seeped into the pores of her round cheeks. She proceeded gently, in the way a skilled artist might tiptoe across a tightrope. “It’s part of the truth. Another is that we have been apart for eight years.”

He wanted to feel sympathy for her. He wanted to put his (friendly) arms around her and tell her it was all in the past. Instead, he swallowed, as if this would dull the pins in his pincushion heart. She shouldn’t have left if she would regret it. It wasn’t so hard, was it? To think before you act? Maybe it was the price she paid for overlooking the love she had in this town. Maybe she learned life lessons the Hard Way. Whatever it was, the more Palom reflected, the more pins lodged themselves in his chest. He opted to look out the window, watching the rain trickle down the glass. Droplets converged into streams, like rivers made of tears.

“You just… left.” He wanted her to say something. To explain. “You didn’t even write.”

The cushions shifted and squeaked as she fidgeted. Readjusting, he figured. She was trying to get comfortable. Thunder cackled. Water dripped and danced on a stage of glass and earth. Formless, fickle, free-falling water. It could do whatever it pleased, and the world would bow to its will.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just… I really needed to leave this place.”

Bitterness sank teeth into his heart like a voracious Sword Rat. The question of why hung in the air, waiting to be asked. It made him even more nauseous than the chili. If she really cared about their friendship, she would have said something before stealing away into the night like a dirty traitor. That he wouldn’t tell her--what kind of friend was she?

“It wasn’t you or Porom or anyone else.” He wondered where her lovely eyes were staring. He didn’t look. “It was this place, and… I don’t know. Not any single person, but everyone as--as a whole. It’s hard to not be a part of everyone else.” She sighed, and her breath was heavy, like it carried a brick-pile burden on its back. “I was fed up with feeling like I’m all by myself. I tried, I really did, but it just never helped.”

He glanced at her quietly, making no major shift, taking care not to disrupt the quiet. What did she expect him to say, really? That she hadn’t abandoned her young friend to the isolation of a few years? That she hadn’t betrayed the trust of a boy who thought the world of her? His soul rattled like a rusted chain. Reason and Feelings tugged at each end, playing jump rope with their pals Truth and Deception and Love. Dammit, Leonora. His arms ached to rise up and curl around her. He longed to tell her he understood. No matter how angry he could get, nor how deep she had culled the loneliness in him, he hadn’t stopped caring about her.

Except, he didn’t understand. Other people loved her back then, too. Other people cared about her. And he was people, wasn’t he? And Porom was people, too. And he had always seen her hanging around with Iyas. She even spoke to Mu’in, that no-good, bullying cur, when Palom wasn’t around. Dira visited to make sure she was okay. How could his Leonora say no one gave a shit about her? That was practically the whole town!

Then again, feelings could be irrational sometimes. Knots and nestles and vines tangled up his throat, growing thorns in his flesh. He could taste Emptiness on his tongue, the gaps in time between them, the holes in his heart, in the world, in the fabric of space and time. Irrational feelings could be overwhelming, okay? Maybe she was sick with them. Sick with a hungry, throbbing Loneliness.

“It happens, Leah,” he said softly, giving her a half smile. When she looked up at him, his lips tingled, and his smile twisted up something goofy.

“I’m here now,” whispered Leonora. “And we’ve got plenty of years ahead of us, don’t we?”

A pause. The tingly-feeling didn’t go away. He wondered if it was possible to get high by sharing breathing air with a woman.

To save himself from fainting, he hurried on, “Speaking of Troia, Porom said she needs someone to go there and train the new Epopt that’s going to replace you. Apparently, they’ve been operating this long with only seven.”

“They have the Chancellor, so they are never altogether helpless. It’s just ideal that they have all eight together, for the sake of the Crystal. And, well, they get immensely busy, what with the redistribution of their ritual duties. That’s why they don’t have the time to train another themselves…”

“She wanted to know if you would go.” He twitched his shoulders. “If you’re done with your training.”

Her lashes fluttered and she went quiet. Then, thoughtfully, she said, “I’ve been meaning to speak to you about that.”

“Go on.”

“W-Well…” She rubbed her palms and crossed one foot over the other. “I taught myself Osmose.”

He blinked. His face went stiff.

Did he hear her right?

“With Minn’s outdated method?” He tried to hide the anger in his voice. It came out in a hiss. “How? Since when?”

“It’s been two weeks.” She couldn’t look him in the eye anymore. She shrank into herself, looking to her lap. “We’ve been talking theory so much that I got a little restless. I understand that being able to conceptualize different theories allows me to think about several types of spell-casting methods, but that’s why I wanted to see if I could learn it on my own. I was--”

“Reckless.” He looked over the flesh of her arms, then her neck and shoulders, then her face, checking to see if the Elements had done right by her or wrong. When he saw no marks, he relaxed. It wasn’t the most dangerous of methods, but a novice would easily have burned themselves learning as simple a spell as Fire. Who knew what the repercussions could have been if she had fucked up a high level magic like Osmose?

And he had warned her about the fickle moods of the Elements. No one could quite place their desires, let alone understand them. They existed on a plane far beyond anyone else. If these forces had indeed decided to seize something from her, what could he do to save her?

Heatedly, he stared at her, fighting the urge to grit his teeth. She looked up at him, her eyes begging for forgiveness. Just two or three years ago, this woman was a complete novice. In such a short time, she had learned to teach herself magic… under his tutelage, of course.

“Leonora,” he said slowly, “I’m glad that you were able to complete your training on your own, but if you were restless, you should have said something to me.”

“O-Oh, well, I…” She twiddled her fingers, her lashes aflutter with all the words she was about to say. Then, the implications sunk in, and she nodded slowly. “Y-Yes, I’m sorry… It’s just that, well--our lessons, they’ve--they’ve become so very informal, lately, and…” She wound a lock of hair around the shell of her ear. “I’m sorry. I thought it would mean to you that you taught me well, and that I had finally become independent. You know, because philosophers of the past cultivated their magicks in solitude all the time, and…”

It was the duty of scholars of magic to experiment and explore. She’d done the smart thing. She had to know, somewhere inside, that he would have waved away her concerns and convinced her to stay longer than necessary.

“I understand,” he said softly. “I’ve been busy, but I should’ve been more organized. I’m sorry to have left you feeling this way.”

She blushed darkly, shaking her head. “That’s okay. You’re right, I should’ve said something. It’s just that, well, I knew you were busy, and I think Mysidia is far more important…”

The rain tapped its impatient fingers on the windowpane.

“And, well, I knew that, after all this time, you still didn’t think I was ready to finish my training,” she said. “Because I’m a little sensitive. I understand, it’s troubling, but I can defend myself. You have seen me in times of crisis, and--”

“You burst into tears for petrifying a flower.” He raised an eyebrow, only to watch her cringe and sink into herself. “I see now that it may have been a little trippy for you, flower child, but even when we were in Lodestone…”

“I was able to conduct myself,” Leonora insisted firmly. She still looked a mess, her hands in her lap restless, her face as red as a tomato--but there was a fire in her eyes, blue as cosmic dust, and the silver melted away from his tongue. A cold kind of fire it was, like the ice that powered comets. He wasn’t sure how he should respond. He’d never seen that look in her eyes before, so sure of itself, in spite of her obvious embarrassment (of being herself, which was normal). Her lips pursed, as if considering what next they would utter. Then, softly: “I don’t think being expressive and being resilient are mutually exclusive.”

Come to think of it, he had seen that look in her eyes once before. That day in the cavern, as he planned to turn himself to stone for her sake, they whispered an exchange of doubts. He remembered the fire, but it was clouded by a smoky fear, and he took this as her infirmity. She was his student, after all; so he had given her a chance to run away, dismissed her from any duty she had to the Crystal. The Maenad would have no reason to pursue her.

But she had returned. She could have been killed, and she knew all along, and she was afraid for it--but she had returned to him. Hers was the Esuna that healed him instantly, in the moment, where Tellah’s had failed years before that. She had faced her fears and she had casted a spell of compassion. Maybe it wasn’t so wrong to be a little expressive if she could handle the pressure. (Maybe it was a sign of strength--the touchy-feely kind. For sentimental sops.)
Well. Feelings could save lives, he supposed. She had returned because she felt something, and he had not been smashed into dust because of it. Still! Fires aren’t cold, and she had never been as firm as this before, despite those rosy, rosy cheeks. She had never been so certain about anything when they were little, either. He wondered if it really was her, flickering behind those eyes, or if it was someone else entirely. He didn’t quite know if he liked that someone else. But, anyway.

“Alright.” He squeezed her hand and nodded. “Congratulations. You’re on your own from here on out.”

Her lashes fluttered. Sitting in silence, she merely squeezed his hand back. Then: “But, uhm.” An upward glance. “Well. Now we can be friends. Officially, I mean.”

“Officially?”

“Er, because… we aren’t mentor and apprentice anymore. Yes?”

“Yes.” He had never agreed more quickly in his life, or more firmly.

Questioningly, timidly, she rested her head on his shoulder. Unthinking, he put his arm around hers. He savored her voice like a song, soaking in its sweet lilt. “Now we’re just Palom and Leah. Childhood friends. Like we were before.”

The proper response to this should have been a verbal affirmation. Somehow, his lips had failed him, reassessing the validity of this. He took her face, looking for the woman he knew before Troia had stolen her away. The girl who chased crickets and baked bunny-eared cookies with him. Her eyes were still crystal blue. Her hair was still wispy like clouds. Her nose had grown, though, a little longer than before. Her lips, too, were softer. Supple. Then, the want crept back to tremble on his lips and burn like Fire in his heart. He wanted to lean forward and touch foreheads again. Like when they were little. He wanted to show her he remembered. He wanted to press their lips together, as if this would pour his feelings into the vessel of her heart. Make her feel all the want, all the memories thundering in his pulse.

But what would happen after that? She would know his feelings, and she would be able to touch them again. Like when they were kids. Like when she disappeared for eight years, out of the blue. And he wasn’t about to be played the fool again.

He kissed her forehead and withdrew. “So… are you gonna travel, Leah?”

“W… Wha?” If she glowed any redder, she’d put Baron’s reddest apples to shame. Palom suppressed a snort, grinning to himself instead. Leonora rubbed her cheek with her right hand, as if this would rub out the color in them.

“Tellah traveled. As a sage.” Don’t smile too much. Keep it cool, punk. “He did lots of amazing things along the way.”

“Yes, well…” Leonora cleared her throat. “I was thinking I ought to start traveling, yes. But maybe not right away. I need time to think about what I want to do next, exactly. I’ve… had a lot on my mind, you know?”

“Like talking to flowers?”

She was at a loss. Thoughts swirled in her eyes, but out of his reach.

“I didn’t hear what you said, Leah,” he found himself saying. “I came too late.”

It was unusual. Her face didn’t give her away. (Much.) It went stiff and her eyes went cold. She looked distant, as if discerning the truth behind his words. He hoped she would just accept it. She should have been relieved! Instead, she looked to the feet on the table in a daze, smiling faintly, and said, “It wasn’t important, anyway.”

He figured she needed time to let it sink in. Maybe she worried that he thought she was a mess, talking to a flower, but he decided bringing it up again would only upset her. He worried that Old Leah could see through his bluff and was on the verge of calling it out, but there was no point in fanning those flames, either. They sat like that for a while until he let out a sigh of resignation.

“Anyway, as I was trying to say earlier, you ought to talk to Porom,” he said. “She was considering you to train your replacement.”

She clung to his arm and shifted a little, getting comfortable. Her hair brushed his neck. He smiled up at the ceiling, feeling his heart melt. That was just like the old Leah. She could shake things off and just Carry On. Life was too short to waste in awkward silences.

“I’ll talk to her, but I won’t be going,” said Leonora. “I don’t think returning to Troia will be right for me. I assume Porom is too busy to go?”

“Probably. She didn’t really say.”

And Leonora didn’t really add to that. He couldn’t tell if she needed another silence or if she simply had nothing more to say. She shifted again, but she didn’t say anything.

“You, uh… You aren’t uncomfortable, are you?” she asked.

“No. I don’t mind this.” It was kinda nice, actually. He almost wanted to hold her hand, but he couldn’t be too forward. They were just having dinner, anyway. As friends. (And friends cuddled, didn’t they?)

There was a lilt in her voice. “Okay, cool.”

As the quiet descended on them for what seemed like the umpteenth time, he decided that he wasn’t quite so hungry anymore. He was preoccupied with other pressing questions, like… if little boys and girls cuddled, could men and women, given that they were friends? He glanced down at her. The folds in her gown had loosened a bit, eliciting from him a pair of red cheeks and a suppressed gasp. He could see the cleavage between her breasts, and the curve of the marvelous mound on her left. His fingertips itched, figuring it must be soft. It was larger than he remembered. At least, he thought it was. Butterfly wings flexed along the walls of his heart.

Suddenly, she looked up. Eyes met eyes. Her pupils shivered and her lips quivered. The want warmed his throat. As if she knew his thoughts, she leaned forward. If her eyes were the sheets of a frozen lake, sunlight skipped over them, illuminating each crevice, imparting on it the motion of colors and the vigor of the Elements. Then, a sweet giggle pierced the air and popped the bubble of his dream. Palom blinked. Leonora bounced to her feet.

“Let’s eat some chili, silly! The stars are out, so we can trace some constellations while sitting in the garden! Or, if we don’t remember any, we can just make up some more! What do you think?”

Chapter Text

“Heavens, Kekoa! You’ll pardon me for saying this, I hope, as a friend who cares deeply for your health, but--”

“Don’t bother.” Kekoa the Black swatted his hand, dispelling her concerns before they could take to the air. “Just dab, alright?”

Guiding the compress along Kekoa’s inner forearm, Little Lady Healer released a deep sigh. Parallel lines of peeled-away skin awaited the sting of a sterile handkerchief. The depth and method of the marks suggested his felled foe to be a breed of Sword Rat. Leonora’s heart squirmed like a worm caught in the bill of a sparrow. Kekoa could pretend the damage was trivial, if it pleased him; but the wounds betrayed his confidence, divulging to his mender all the secrets of his bitter, stinging pain. His pride was spared, however, for his benefactor’s skill in her trade. Neither her steady hand nor her courteous composure revealed to him her wiggling worries.

The afternoon weather provided ample comfort, at the very least. While the day was hot, it was not unbearably so; it was cool enough to justify a brisk walk without the fear of pooling sweat. Where the light shined, the world burst into color. Sunbeams bounced off the mica in the slate grey roads. Green shrubs basked happily in the warmth. The cerulean skies, the clouds, and the air stood serenely still. Shadows clung to their corners, making no advance to the streets. The villagers, too, lingered in their own dark homes, exhausted after the morning hunt.

Leonora and Kekoa sat in the sweet shade of the young lady’s porch canopy. As she began to wind bandages around his arm, they listened to the quiescence. Children giggled somewhere near the heart of town, far away from the unassuming cottage. Their parents had settled into after lunch teas or hour long naps. A washing board clicked and clacked, but strove for a cordial volume, reading the atmosphere wisely. The wood porch creaked lazily under the weight of its guests. Kekoa shifted in his seat and smacked his lips.

Glancing up from her work, Leonora said softly, “They have vastly more experience than I do, you know...”

“If I wanted experience, I’d go to my mother,” spat Kekoa. “Are you almost done?”

“Almost, yes.” Leonora suppressed the threat of a grin. An ancient Mrs. Shamoun might have dabbed ointment in Kekoa’s poor arm with all the mercy of a fiend kraken, so thin was her patience. Well, like mother, like son.

Only a few bandages remained. The ointment would set at its own pace and smelled terribly pungent; but it was much gentler than those applied in the Hall of Prayers, with longer lasting effects. While Kekoa had never ventured to ask where she had obtained the ointment, Leonora felt he must have noticed the difference. After all, he visited her every other week with some kind of dressing request. There were other white mages in town for that kind of thing. Then again, perhaps they charged him a fee for their work or gave him lip for accompanying the weekly hunts. No one dared defy the orders of the previous Elder, who had deemed Kekoa unfit to battle. The Tuma twins made a point to enforce this, intervening on his behalf, persuading Kekoa from taking part in any serious combat.

If written orders with signed seals counted as persuasion, anyway. The man was a stubborn mule, if ever there was one.

For this reason, the villagers gossiped that Leonora’s heart was perhaps too soft, and that she was too easily swayed to help the unjustified and undeserving. She had caught wind of the words by her childhood hobby of eavesdropping, but felt only a smidgen lonelier for it. Too easily people forgot all the honors that Kekoa had won in his past, conveniently overlooking the reason for his swelling arrogance. Once his powers had grown so strong, he claimed to hear the cries of Thunder and the cackles of Fire; a feat known only to the days of yore, when magic could be studied without the slightest restraint. He was almost elected Elder instead of Elias the Noble, but was believed too hot-headed a mage by some opposers, and lost by a dozen votes.

Certainly, Leonora conceded, an aging man should know his limits, but Kekoa did not contradict this notion. Upon closer inspection, one would note that he kept to the party and engaged only a battle in which he was certain of triumph. Yet, the townsfolk were not presented much of a chance to inspect, being solely subjected to Kekoa’s grand boasts and overstated victories, for he had never really broken this forty-year habit, and the words he chose, needless to say, did very little to convince.

“Almost done with what?” chimed in a third voice, sweet and familiar, though carried on a breath of disappointment. This guest’s steps did not cause the boards to creak, so light were her feet. Kekoa released a hefty sigh, resigned to the inevitable prospect of a lecture.

“Fancy seeing you here, Lady Elder,” said Leonora lightly, not looking up. “Have you come to persuade me to visit Troia on your behalf?”

“Apfff, so Palom shared the exciting news with you.” Oh, but Porom would not be distracted. Not even politics could seduce the Lady Elder from the temptations of delivering a well-deserved lecture. “You would get thorough care at the Hall of Prayers, Kekoa, if you troubled yourself to visit. I see you’ve neglected to show discretion in today’s hunt as well. Hyder reported that you threw yourself into battle with a Sword Rat, unaccompanied! Did I not ask you last week to please stay with the group?”

Leonora finished the last knot in Kekoa’s bandages. He drew his arm away, tucking it under the wide sleeves of his carbon black robe. When Leonora lifted her gaze, both Porom and Kekoa stared each other down like a pair of pouting children. Kekoa parted his thin, dry lips to speak, but Porom cleared her throat abruptly, announcing to him that she was not yet finished.

“If there is a problem with your pension, you could easily have come to me.” She spoke this urgently and firmly, but the sincerity in her eyes dulled any sharpness of her words. An Elder cares for the safety of her each citizen, after all. “I would have made the adjustment quick and painless. If you have problems with paperwork, you could have got Hyder to do it for you. He is among the most filial of your--”

“It’s got nothing to do with my pension. You think I wouldn’t tell it to your face, Lady Elder?” The black mage sniffed, taking up his rosary, adjusting his sleeves. “If you’ll excuse me, ladies, my mother is in need of her late afternoon broth. That’s a little more important than these quibbles, isn’t it?”

He flashed Porom a toothy grin like Leonora had never before seen! His teeth shined a dazzling white, as if they were diamonds held up to the sunlight.

A nonplussed Porom stared wide-eyed as Kekoa took his leave. What was that smile supposed to mean? This man, whose face was always squished up as though he’d licked a lemon, why did he grin like a fool? Porom found the answer much too late. Kekoa was already out of earshot, a safe distance away from certain bossy, young ladies. That tricky-sticky man and his flash bomb of a smile!

Sighing, Porom plopped into the seat he vacated and poked the bottle of ointment lying on the table. Her pale pink bangs settled over her left eye. She didn’t seem to know what to do with her legs. She crossed ankles at first, then opened her thighs. Her restless right foot tapped its toes.

“At least it’s a lovely day outside,” said Porom lightly. “It’s not the worst day to get eaten alive.”

“Well, you can’t control what course of action people choose.” Leonora tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Please don’t blame yourself. You can lead a horse to water--”

“Yes, I know. Palom said that, too.” Porom blew at her bang, but it only flapped like half-staff flag. “He’s just so proud! I’m almost glad he was never our Elder. What would the state of this island be if an impassioned, old ninny like him was in charge?”

“You don’t mean that…”

“I almost do.” Porom rubbed her temples, leaning forward on her elbows. She didn’t mean it, but the stress made her want to mean it. “He’s a good man, and a wise one, too. It would be a damn shame to lose him. But, a Sword Rat? Palom and I have been kicking those things around since we were five years old. His strength has dwindled, and if he is not aware of it, then we must remind him.”

“W-Well, but… You two were special, weren’t you?” Leonora placed the bandages in her satchel, then plucked the vial of ointment from the table. She watched as the white paste settled at the base. “Prodigies, you know. And Kekoa has been especially sensitive about his magely pride ever since he retired. Though he has something of a reputation, you know the eyes of Mysidia are fixed on the new and rising talents, causing the old to be forgotten. Maybe it’s just a matter of giving credit where it’s due.”

Porom paused. Leonora chanced an upward glance as the creases smoothed in Lady Elder’s brow. That was one worry soothed, at least. Long nights of hard work had culled out deep bags under her eyes. Her shoulders slouched, as if weighed down by the myriad of her other stately affairs. Oh, they must have been plenty: like sorting civil disputes between husbands and wives, Leonora fancied, or preparing for the next council meeting, or revising commercial contracts. Or nurturing diplomatic ties.

“He’d stop looking for glory if we just gave it to him,” said Porom, nodding. She flashed a warm, easy smile in way of her old friend. “You’re right, thank you. But I haven’t forgotten your question from earlier. Palom told me that you’ve left his tutelage, now that you’ve learned all the Black Magic that you possibly could. In fact, the people may begin calling you Lady Sage once the word gets out.”

“But I--I have rendered no service that warrants it.” Leonora fiddled with the draping of her lavender himation, her gaze following the curving designs in its indigo borders. “Not yet, anyway. I’m still taking the time to consider what my next move will be. Where I want to go first, for instance, and what project I would like to explore…”

“To Palom, and many others, mastery over both schools of magic is service enough,” said Porom. The miracle of a moment renewed her vigor. She sat up proudly, her shoulders broad, her neck tall. Her hair fell into place like practiced curtains of pale pink silk. By measure of majesty alone, she was fit to be Lady Elder.

Leonora smoothed the folds in her lap. Her heart shriveled in her chest. Porom stood for everything the people of Mysidia loved. She was dutiful, diligent and wise; she was brave, humble and true. Her magical prowess was unparalleled, and had been from a young age. Whenever she left the house, she was reminded that she was deeply adored and desperately admired. The people readily sang her praises, and she drank them in (rightly and justly, in healthy doses, for she was as awesome as they said, and awesomely modest). And Leonora may have felt inclined to shower her in praise, too, if it did not remind her of the wound in her soul that never would close.

Her hands balled into fists. Her heart throbbed. Leonora was just another orphan, living somewhere on the edge of town. Poor Leonora, they said, and smiled broadly through her. They watched her when she fell, when she cooked lopsided dishes and walked alone through the marketplace. They whispered among themselves, for she looked more like the Baronites who had laid siege to their home, as her father had been descended of them. Poor Leonora, they said, and visited her from time to time, and graciously offered their old clothes to her, and taught her a great many recipes. Poor Leonora, they said, but never stayed long enough to see her garden, or eat her cakes, or hear her stories.

She was indebted to their kindness, infinitely; but they had never loved her.

“You bring honor to our island with your talents,” Porom continued. “Of course, I agree with you, and the people outside of Mysidia will, too. It’s heartening to know you’re still as humble as you’ve ever been. Though, from what I gather, you’re telling me that you aren’t in a position train a new Epopt in Troia. Is this a fair assumption to make?”

Leonora nodded, smiling faintly. “It’s just a matter of timing, my lady. I’ve some feelings with which to deal and some plans to arrange. I really don’t think I’m in the best state of mind to take off just yet.”

The silence whispered something of a disappointment between them, but Porom made no sudden movements, nor uttered anything in response. Leonora felt her own shoulders slouch, knowing that the burden on Porom must have felt a pebble heavier. Her own heart clenched, riddled with guilt. Could she not be less selfish?

“Th-Though, if I may, my lady,” said Leonora, abruptly, “might I suggest you respond to the request with a friendly rejection? You have a very convenient excuse coming in the next few months, might I add.”

“You mean the Grand Feast, don’t you?” Their gazes met. Porom looked more concerned than anything else. “It’s still four months away, and the host nation has not been decided. I fear we would appear discourteous and inconsiderate, rather than thoughtful.”

“Not so, my lady. It took about three months for Lord Palom to train me in elementary spells, and it took him a month to reach Troia. While the trip normally takes two weeks, we have reason to take more caution, meaning we could plan for a month’s trip.” Leonora set her hands in her lap and steadily met Porom’s gaze. “It would be a safer bet in the grand scheme of things to allow for a gap of five months. One month to Troia, three months in Troia, and another month back to Mysidia. Additionally, I suggest you send Lord Palom in your stead, after the Grand Festival has taken place. This will keep the goodwill between our nations in tact, as we would be sending our greatest talent in Black Magic to service them.”

Porom nodded slowly, stroking her chin. “Your logic is sound, Leonora, except for a single gap. With Palom gone, my duties as Elder will double.”

“We have traditionally only needed one Elder, my lady, who is assisted by two aides. Perhaps it is the appropriate time for you to select another one, in addition to Iyas, in case of circumstances such as this.” When Porom looked worried, Leonora shook her head. “I do not suggest eliminating the Lord Elder’s position altogether. Instead, I recommend Palom’s tutelage to the next Epopt because he is the Lord Elder. It used to be that the Elder could not go abroad to cultivate foreign relationships in person, else business in Mysidia would suffer. Lord Palom is restless, and has always wished to see the world. This would give him that opportunity while in service to his country.”

“S-Send Palom…” Porom closed a fist around the pendant hanging around her neck. It was as though Leonora had suggested she tear her own arm off--which was understandably difficult. “That does sound like the most efficient course of action. If I was inclined to ignore your needs, Leonora, I would ask you to be my advisor.”

“Well, naturally, you would have to ask Lord Palom what he thinks. His mind is sharper than mine, milady, and it is his choice to make. But, well… if he doesn’t want to go, then you could always switch roles.”

“M-Me? Travel?” Porom shook her head quickly, eyes darting away. “I’ll think about all that you have said, Leonora. On the other hand, I heard you and Palom were on more casual terms. I’m confused about all these titles, Leonora. I’ve already told you, many a time, to please call me Porom. Only Porom.”

Leonora blushed darkly and rubbed her cheek. “My apologies, Lady--er, Porom. It’s, ah…” She knew what truth she should tell. It was easier, by far, to hide behind courtesies. Less painful. Less vulnerable. “It’s just confusing sometimes. I don’t mean any ill by it.”

Porom nodded sympathetically. Other friends had encountered similar dilemmas, so it was a credible account. “I would like to think we’re friends, Leonora. You did have dinner with Palom the other night, didn’t you?”

“Y-Yes.” The Tuma Twins hid no secrets from one another. Did Porom know about that flower fiasco that Palom pretended he knew nothing about? Maybe they were both sparing her feelings. Then again, were that the case, Porom might have worn the guilt on her face as plainly as Palom had a few days prior. Leonora cleared her throat. “Did he… Did he say something to you about it?”

“Not a word,” giggled Lady Elder. “Maybe he’s too embarrassed about it all! You know how he gets about feelings, sometimes.”

The giggles excited Leonora’s natural inclination, and she could not help but chuckle herself. The ice in her chest melted ever so slightly. “All the time, more like. Feelings turn him into a squirmy-wormy, don’t they?” A pause. “I think we’re friends, Porom. Or, at least, I’d like to be… but you’ve always been busy with other things. When we were little girls, you were always studying. It was Palom who visited me, though he did not study much…”

“Everything was too easy for him, he said. I don’t blame him, but I also used to wish he would behave better. I wanted a brother, not a pet or--or a son.” Porom sighed. “Don’t repeat that to him, though. He knows it already, and gods know we don’t need to have another fight. The stress has been so high, it’s a wonder we haven’t scratched each other’s eyes out.”

“So he’s...been on edge?”

“Moreso than the usual grouchiness, yes. Like he’s been avoiding having any meaningful conversations with me lately. I chalk it up to exhaustion, but I’ve also got this nagging feeling he’s hiding something from me.” Porom twitched her shoulders and shook her head. “It must sound so silly to you, Leonora, that I should question my own twin brother. He’d tell me if it were something important to know.”

“I don’t think it’s silly.” Their eyes met. Leonora smiled small. “Maybe you should ask him about it. If there’s nothing wrong, then he’ll reassure you, won’t he?”

It took Porom thirty seconds to consider this. Leonora watched as the notion clicked like a gear in the machine of her comprehension. Porom’s sea blue eyes twinkled with a new, warm light, and her cheeks glowed rose. “You’re right, Leonora. We have to make time in our lives for family relationships, too. Just because we’re growing up doesn’t mean we have to grow apart.”

Chapter Text

After her pleasant exchange with the admirable Lady Elder, which was followed by a delicious tea and an evening walk, Leonora found herself plagued by the stirrings of a stubborn curiosity. What had the scholars of yore written about the duties of an Elder? How had these lords and ladies endured the burdens of their position? So she buried herself in tomes upon tomes of history in the hopes of finding the answers. The magic of a library could never be overstated.

Days passed, then a week. She was holed up in her house, a hostage to the acumen of politicians long dead. Though it was not the healthiest of habits, it had become the usual way of our little Lady Sage. Research binges, she called them. She would rise to eat, and sometimes shower, but otherwise poured herself over the pages as if her life depended on it. Skimming was out of the question; each word possessed an essence that must be sampled individually before the gravity of a clause could be appreciated. And each sentence opened to her a door to another world; so, in every book, she stood at a crossroad of universes, and she decided in those moments that she would travel every single path. Her wanderlust knew no limits.

Yet, living in Mysidia, one could not simply disappear and expect to be forgotten. The town was much too small and much too concerned with the ideal of family to overlook a single person’s absence. On this particular occasion, the first to observe and investigate Lady Sage’s mysterious disappearance was none other than her sweet and courteous neighbor, Iyas Fabron.

As he took a seat in her vicinity, the sofa cushion sighed under his weight. Leonora did not hear this; she was all too enveloped in her worlds of knowledge, sitting criss-cross before the pile of books lain on her table.

“Leonora,” came his voice from far away.

“Iyas,” said Leonora lightly, though she flinched and snapped her book shut. She took a good look at him. “Are... you alright?”

“I came to check up on you.” He looked to her table, taking in the stacks of books that had always been there, and then the new stacks that had sprung up since last he visited. A sigh broke from his lips. “You haven’t forgotten yourself, I hope.”

“I hardly think one can forget oneself,” she giggled. “I have eaten. I am clean. Thank you for your concern, but I am fine.”

“I am pleased to find the Lady Sage in both good health and high spirits, then,” chuckled Iyas. From his pocket, he drew a parchment folded the size of a palm and set it on the table. “I was asked to give this to you by Mu’in.”

Leonora took the note and weighed it in her hand. “Now, I hope you don’t start ‘Lady Sage’-ing me. Our sweet Lady Elder was calling me that just the other day. I don’t really know how to feel about it…”

“You feel awkward?” This sounded more a gentle criticism than a genuine question. “It’s an honor, Leonora. You have learned two disciplines that disagree with one another, which is a feat Mysidian mages rarely accomplish. You will recall your history classes, I hope.”

“But a Sage is not merely a mage learned in more than one discipline… A Sage is someone who has made significant contributions to the condition of humanity.” She set the note on the table to toss Iyas a questioning glance. “Mysidia is eager to regain its lost pride, but I will not be a false idol, exalted to a position I have yet to deserve. Let me first make a difference in this world, like Tellah and the sages before him.”

Iyas lowered his gaze. “I did not mean to upset you.”

“And you haven’t,” she said quickly. “I only want to deserve the respect I have graciously received.”

“Leonora… While your position on the matter is objectively true, and certainly rational, I cannot help but feel you have not thoroughly considered the will of the people.”

Here, his countenance was so warm and tender, Leonora was a smile away from melting.

Iyas continued, “You cannot decide for yourself whether or not you deserve the respect of other people. In so doing, you dismiss the agency of these people who bestow their respect on you. I see your point is not divorced from logic, and is perfectly accurate in the factual sense of things; but I ask you to remember your heart, as one who has suffered with Mysidia during the Crystal Wars. The people know who their heroes are.”

Her heart did remember. At eight years old, it observed the cold monotony of marching feet and the shrill cries of the wounded. At twelve, it learned of the lonely silence of families torn apart and loved ones long lost. After some time, Leonora lost count of the years. Mysidia was trapped in a timeless march of memories. The nation had been betrayed and exposed; its ideals had been dishonored; its Crystal had been lost twice in twenty years. The people needed to believe in the courage of their heroes. It was hope, and hope healed even the deepest of wounds.

Leonora nodded sternly. “I have been inconsiderate. I must not make a fuss of such an important gesture. Thank you, Iyas.” Then, she sighed, plucking the note from the table. “Though I cannot say I am comfortable with it quite yet. I hope I grow accustomed to it very soon.”

“It suits you very well, if I may say,” chuckled Iyas. “I’m sure you’ll get used to it.”

“Thank you, Iyas. You’re sweet.”

The handwriting on the note matched Mu’in’s exactly, as far as Leonora could recall. He was always so particular about the lengths of his P’s that one could seldom mistake it. She might have pursued to read the note, perhaps, if Iyas had not been so longingly looking out the window. No doubt he wondered what Porom must be doing, or else he knew and recounted some other conversation he’d had with her.

“Porom was here to ask me to visit Troia,” said Leonora. “We had a lovely time and she is very intelligent conversation. She’s been worried about sending someone to Troia, but I think I’ve managed to convince her to wait until the Grand Feast.”

“Yes, she’s been very preoccupied with that this week as well. She’s been bouncing between sending a gentle rejection and scoping out potential candidates.” Iyas averted his eyes, lips twisted, shoulders slouched. Though he strove to maintain his posture, he seemed to be crumbling into himself, like a parchment in a fire. He spoke with all the gentleness of a doe’s footsteps. “I suggested she send Gia, as Gia is Troian and has both knowledge of our magic and of Troian culture, but… I don’t think Lady Elder heard me. She did not look up from her papers or issue a verbal response. And it’s just as well. Teutas told me afterward that Gia is not very far along in her magical studies. She knows only Cure and Esuna at best.”

Leonora rose to her feet and made her way to Iyas. Plopping beside him, she leaned her back against the cushion and rested her hand on his arm. Iyas let out a hefty sigh.

“I know it was a stupid idea. I could have thought it through a little more, rather than just blurting it out. I can be a tad thoughtless sometimes--”

“You are too hard on yourself, my friend…”

“--but, still, I don’t think it warranted a cold silence. Sometimes, I wonder if Lady Elder even notices me. Pretending she didn’t hear me? I’m not sure whether I feel relieved or heartbroken. It’s been this way for a few months now.”

Leonora squeezed his hand. “Maybe… Maybe you should shift your weight.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, since your relationship with Porom is at a standstill. I don’t want you to jog in place, waiting.”

Iyas smacked his lips. “You’re one to talk. You waited two years, didn’t you? And he almost kissed you that night.”

The young Lady Sage shook her head. “But he didn’t. And I think it means that he and I are on friendly terms, or that he’s unsure.”

She paused, looking to the borders in his white mage hood. Lovely, red triangles juxtaposed the golds between them, so bold and self-assured. She envied their confidence as she patted her friend’s shoulder.

“He’s a hot-blooded youth and I’m a flirty woman. We aren’t children anymore. But I was drawn to him because of our childhood, and when I am with him, I feel overwhelmed with a sense of home, you know? And I remember all the fun we had together. Yet, he never made himself out to be my friend, and remained aloof these past two years… so I pined for the intimacy we used to have. I pined and pined, and kept myself quiet, and thought my feelings were unrequited. I--”

I love him, her heart sighed.

“I care for him very much,” she hurried on, “and the feelings are so strong! But, because of his distance, I am sure he does not feel exactly that way. And knowing that makes me nervous, but also bold. Self-conscious yet self-assured. If he has no expectations of me, then I may act as I please, for I have no illusions with which to compete.”

Another pause. Get to the point, woman.

“But it is painful. It is painful pining and I tread on feeble grounds,” sighed Leonora. “I am certain he does not feel the same way as me, but I still feel for him, and it hurts all the more. I don’t want you to feel that way, Iyas. You deserve much better than that.”

Iyas shrugged. “What if he does feel the same, but he has kept his distance for exactly that reason? You two were teacher and student for a time.”

Leonora shook her head. “It’s possible, but I am not convinced. I want to see where being myself will lead with Palom, but I am also severely, sincerely doubtful. We know not what the future will bring, but… I have been disappointed many a time, and I do not want that for you.”

“You did date Meera during your apprenticeship,” Iyas agreed.

Another mage at the Hall of Prayers. Iyas had been very vocal about his distaste for the woman, but Leonora had fallen for that Black Magely intellect of which she boasted. Yes, Iyas remembered Leonora’s other love interests in Mysidia, during this tutelage; and, in the silence, they remembered together, leaning against the sofa cushion, staring up at the ceiling, watching the memories play out in the shadows on the wood.

After some time, Iyas rolled his head to the left, looking squarely at Leonora. “It wouldn’t hurt to give my heart a rest. She’s my boss, and that’s a more dangerous game than falling for a teacher who is two years younger than me.”

“I am happy to hear that you are going to rest! Happy and excited.” Leonora rose to her feet. “Shall I put on some tea? To increase the restfulness of this little hangout of ours. What do you say?”

“Actually,” said Iyas, also rising to his feet, “I ought to check in with my parents at the smithy. I only meant to drop by, though you always provide such scintillating conversation.”

Leonora giggled and waved her hand. “You are so sweet to me!”

After her friend’s departure, Leonora again sat down to study her materials. It took ten minutes, scattered thoughts, and a yawn to remember Mu’in’s note, which she had set on the table once again at some point or the other. Taking it into her hands, smoothing the creases, she read it over once, very slowly.

Please meet me at sunset by the pier. I have some urgent matters to discuss with you.

The orange lights streaming through the window snickered at Leonora, stretching the shadows around her long and deep. With a gasp, she sprung to her feet and rushed to the door. Shoes, shoes! Slipping on her shoes, stumbling over her toes, catching the knob of the door to break her fall at the very last minute--could she not go any slower! Just as she turned the knob and swung open the door did she bump into something again: a human being.

“What the Hell, Leonora!” Palom rubbed his forehead, sitting up after a fall on her porch. Leonora wordlessly, anxiously, scrambled to help him up. “Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“To, ah, meet someone.” Leonora cleared her throat, but it did nothing to dispel her blush. “Have you need of something, Lord Elder?”

“Palom,” he corrected dryly.

“Palom,” she echoed, dryly. “Have you need of something, Palom?”

He blinked, not sure what to make of her tone. Though her face was as red as any Baronite apple, his was as pale as a ghost. “Oh, well, I mean. I was just--”

Leonora glanced to the west. Mysidian rooftops waxed from grey to black against the reddening skies.

“--just, uh, wondering if you were going to study at the library,” he mumbled.

She stored the note in her sleeve thoughtfully. “Well, I do need to return some materials that I’ve already paged through. No use in prolonging another visit.” Her eyes met his. “Yes, I think I shall go, once I have attended some other business at the pier. Why?”

“No reason,” he said quickly. “Just, was passing by. Was wondering. That’s all.”

His eyes darted away, and it was then that Leonora noticed his hair was mussed. She remembered a time when he was in the habit of pulling fingers through the thick, brown locks in the middle of some hard-core thinking. She wondered, then, if he was mulling over some theory before her visit, and needed to bounce ideas off another human being. And who better to listen than his ex-apprentice?

It was nice to be the subject of someone’s passing thought. A little warmth flickered to life in her heart. Leonora planted a kiss on his cheek.

“I’ll be at the library soon,” she said. “I won’t be long. I’d hate to keep a friend waiting.”

Chapter Text

He stared intently at the lines in the green wooden door, shoulders back, lips tight, knuckles inches away from its surface. A cricket chirped impatiently, as if to say, Get it over with, asshole! Tsk, well--well, he was trying, dammit! Unlike some leg-rubbing, lazy-ass bugs that lay in the grass all day (and did not, apparently, understand the difference between musical composition and flat-out noise making), Practical Palom was standing in front of the door, readying himself to ask a lovely, young lady to spend some time with him. So, maybe it was his first time! Maybe he needed to know what he wanted to say first. He just wanted to be sure he had the exact-right words, so that when he opened his mouth, it wasn’t some kind of spontaneous disaster.

Rumbling. Pattering footsteps. Before he could properly posture himself, the door swiftly opened. Palom’s hand asked if it could fall to his side, but a moment too late--the next thing he knew, he was on the floor, staring at the underside of her sunroof, a sharp pain lancing through his head from front to back. Leonora glanced around anxiously, fingers laced together, searching for the source of the collision. By some miracle, or the sheer force of her will, she stood perfectly unharmed, excepting the red mark on her forehead that seemed not to bother her very much.

“What the Hell, Leonora!” Palom rubbed his own forehead, which had begun to remind him that it, too, was well versed in the art of whining. Leonora extended a hand to him quickly, which he gladly took. When she said nothing, he dusted himself off, asking, “Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“To, ah, meet someone.” Leonora cleared her throat. Blush dusted her cheeks, but she managed to look him politely in the eye. “Have you need of something, Lord Elder?”

His heart sank.

“Palom,” he corrected dryly.

“Palom,” she echoed, and equally as dry, to his surprise. “Have you need of something, Palom?”

He blinked, not quite sure what to do with himself. She was usually so self-conscious about the tiniest mistakes. She was always sweet, always careful about the feelings of the people around her. He had only wanted to be called by his name, after all; what was so annoying about that? And hadn’t she been the one to knock him on his ass? But she was usually so sweet… and her blush had brightened, painting a pair of roses on her cheeks. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, exactly, and wondered if she was normally like this.

“Oh, well, I mean,” he began. “I was just--”

Leonora glanced west. He knew she had a thing for sunsets, but he did not know her to be so distracted. Still, he continued, though it was in a mumble.

“--just, uh, wondering if you were going to study at the library.”

She stored a piece of folded parchment thoughtfully in her sleeve. Come to think of it, he had always liked the way white mage robes made her look very soft and serene. He did not know she was capable of looking even more nurturing than she (normally) looked until just that moment. The blues in her eyes looked almost green, accented with the red lining of the hood.

“Well, I do need to return some materials that I’ve already paged through. No use in prolonging another visit.” Her eyes met his. His heart skipped a beat. “Yes, I think I shall go, once I have attended some other business at the pier. Why?”

“No reason,” he said quickly. “Just, was passing by. Was wondering. That’s all.”

His eyes darted away from hers, landing first on her chest, then away to a safer spot on her shoulder. He wasn’t sure what he should say next. He had wanted to make a good impression on her (not that they had known each other for years or anything) and he had wanted to leave this conversation with the lady on his arm. Instead, the situation had soured, and she was kind of a grouch (albeit a really fucking beautiful one). And what had he really said, honestly, that created this weird mood? Wasn’t she the one unwilling to remember that he specifically did not take well to being addressed as a ‘Lord’?

Before he could part his lips to express this very significant and concerning grievance, something had happened to sap him of all his thinking power, and all his will to criticize.

She kissed him.

It was nothing like a forehead kiss. Those were safe, completely unambiguous, especially when they were brief. It had happened so quickly, he did not immediately process exactly what had happened. And did her lips linger on his cheek? A little more than they should have! (Not that he was complaining.) He blushed darkly, looking to her, but she did not seem to notice. She simply flashed him a warm smile.

“I’ll be at the library soon,” she said. “I won’t be long. I’d hate to keep a friend waiting.”

He nodded soberly and watched her leave in silence. Her steps were quick and eager, as if she was late to a prior engagement with an acquaintance. Maybe that’s what she had really meant when she said ‘friend.’ Not that she wasn’t his friend--that was what they agreed to be, wasn’t it? Friends, who happened to admire one another. Lovely, childhood friends.

But he wasn’t sure he could wait for her to come to the library. Whoever or whatever she was off to see, it was clearly important enough to distract her from the fact of his visit. She looked as though she was going to visit the pier… at sunset?

Was she going off to watch the sunset with someone? Was she--was she late for a date?

Palom had heard accounts of Leonora’s dating life, here and there, from their mutual colleagues at the Hall of Prayers. It was no secret that certain individuals, particularly self-important ones who felt themselves to be the authorities on living life by virtue of their age, seemed to think that Lord Elder and Lady Sage should be together. Never mind that if they did cultivate a romance, they would be shamed for it. A mentor and his apprentice? The older scholars of Mysidia, who were effectively the cultural gatekeepers of the town, had small, funny minds like that, rife with double standards. They could ask grand, philosophical questions about the universe and still forget that the perspectives of myth and legend, too, could be questioned.

And they were gossipy. Well-intended, but gossipy. Mysidians prided the relationships they fostered with one another, after all; they kept tabs on all those who lived within the walls of the town. This meant the lovers their Lady Sage took did not escape their notice. She had always been a little strange, of course; she had refused to join another family after her parents died, and she had often kept to herself, seldom speaking up if at all. She spoke to flowers as if they heard what she told them, and as if they had the ability to repeat her secrets back to them… which was weird and a little concerning, if she did not seem so polite and well-adjusted in all other aspects of her life.

It probably had something to do with her loneliness that she courted so many lovers. One would not guess by the dainty manner of her gait that Ari Sterling’s daughter was so brazen. Sure, it was a subtle kind of brazen, where she did not outright tell people who she was seeing, or made it out to be the center of the town’s attention… but Mysidia noticed. Mysidia watched as she invited young lovers to her door. Okay, so maybe it had only been a handful over the course of two years, but the woman had spent eight years in Troia! And didn’t they have brazen sex clubs in Troia?

So maybe Leonora had placed her heart somewhere else. Maybe she just couldn’t wait for Palom to get over himself and, er--ahh--well!

Suddenly, he felt very small and alone, standing silently on the porch. She hadn’t even locked the door when she left. She must have been very anxious to see whoever this was, or do whatever it was she wanted to do. Maybe it was a tryst. Hell if he knew.

But… he could find out. She didn’t go very far. Mysidia was a small place.

West… West, wasn’t it?

His feet began in that direction. He figured he could stand to take a walk. So if it happened to take him west, what did that matter? He wasn’t going to go disturb her. He was just wondering if she had gone to the pier to see the sunset with someone. If that was the case, then it was entirely possible for him to ask her out there. They could talk about old Fire incantations that were inspired by sunsets. He knew at least six, and three of them rhymed on every other line.

He wasn’t so sure it was a good idea, but he did not think it was particularly bad, either. Nosiness wasn’t an attractive quality, okay, but she wouldn’t know about it. He did not entitle himself to her time, anyway. He just wanted to know how she was spending her time away from him. He hadn’t seen her in awhile. It couldn’t be a crime to go see how she preferred to spend her time or figure out what she liked to do. All he wanted to know was where she put her energy in her life.

Palom ground his teeth. Seagulls cackled above him, cutting across the skies. Turn around, asshole! they squawked. He ignored them, crossing his arms, walking a little faster. He didn’t know what they were talking about. He was minding his own gods damned business. He just needed a little exercise.

This, Palom, whispered the little voice in his head, is a particularly bad idea.

But he made it to the pier. The red skies faded in bits and pieces into lavender and lavender into navy blue. Stars began to peek out from behind the veil of sunlight, like fireflies in the dark.

She had just gotten there, too. He remembered that she walked slower than him, even when she meant to walk briskly. She was not out of breath and she had not seen him. She approached the man standing at the end of the pier who looked out at the swishing seas. Her footsteps called his attention. He turned to her.

Mu’in Morcos. It was Mu’in fucking Morcos. Palom recognized him immediately, from that bright, shark-tooth smile to that long, thick, jet-black hair. His wiry silhouette left no room for doubt, especially not the way his deep blue mage robes draped over it. He approached Leonora, taking her hands in his.

“You made it,” he said.

Palom ducked behind a barrel of fish. The stench brought hot, salty tears to his eyes. He pinched his nose shut and tightened the lock on his lips.

“I don’t understand…” Leonora began, her head tilted. Her curly-wispy hair danced delicately in the evening breeze. “You said it was urgent, but here you are, beaming at me as though I brought you a cake.”

“I wasn’t sure you would take me seriously if I said I wanted to talk about us.”

Leonora burst into a loud, rolling laughter and shook her head. (Palom did not see what was so funny.) “You didn’t have to make a scene about that! I should think friends are able to speak frankly about their concerns, don’t you?”

“Leonora…” Mu’in sank to his knees and looked up at her. The sunset lights caught the color of amber in his bright, long-lashed eyes. (Bleck.) “Leonora, I’m crazy about you.”

“Wh--What?” She turned a ruddy shade of red, pulling a hand away from him to rub her cheek vigorously. “What are you saying, Mu’in!”

“That I think you’re a brilliant woman. That I want to get to know you beyond pleasantries at the Hall of Prayers. That we’ve both seen our homes torn apart and comforted each other in the years after. That we’ve shared a childhood together, and that I’d like to know the woman you’ve become.”

Leonora stepped back, lacing her fingers together at her chest. “I… I…”

“Will you do me the honor of allowing me to court you, Lady Sage?”

Of course she will, Palom thought bitterly to himself. He rose to his feet and turned away, starting off quickly. Walking feet became jogging feet and a throbbing heart. He didn’t need to hear the rest.