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"Are you okay?"

"Wha?!"

Cora saw how Edan jumped at the sound of her voice, and laughed slightly. "Guess that's my answer."

"...Sorry, I was just lost in thought," he managed, offering a smile that didn't reach his eyes. He looked as if something was weighing on his mind again.

It seemed to be more common these days, especially as he'd started to interact with people more in the caravan. He’d slowly been coming out of his shell since he’d started to recover post-Vespas, but there were still moments when something inside him hurt.

“You’re fine,” she responded, sitting next to him. She took his hand, twining her fingers with his, and leaned against him. “You seem like you need a friend right now.”

Cora, for the most part, had stuck close to Edan. At first, she wanted to keep him from doing something stupid and self-destructive, as he’d been prone to doing without thought; but now that things were less tumultuous, she just enjoyed his company. He felt safe.

She hoped he’d felt as secure with her.

 

“I …” he paused before continuing, “I think I’m in love. And… I mean… Do you… You- You remember what I told you about… T-the Regicide, ri-right?” He spoke quietly, gripping the Magician’s hand tightly.

“You’re not a priest anymore,” she responded, bringing his hand to her lips to counteract the invisible ice that seemed to have permeated his fingers. “Besides. If it’s something you want… I swore I’d protect you, didn’t I?”

His only response was a nod.

“So…” Cora’s heart raced as she looked up at him. She felt a flush cross her face as she prepared to ask a question she expected would have an obvious and delightful answer. “Who are you in love with?”

 

“Eloise Renault.”


Eloise was pretty. And smart. And every bit as kind and wonderful as her Uncle Max.

When she’d reunited with her favorite Uncle in all the Gale-blasted Dusk, she’d met the group just outside Cymaria, all excited and lovely and cheerful to greet them all. It was all just so sickeningly sweet.

Cora remembered how Edan reacted to Eloise’s attention - he’d been every bit the gentleman upon their first meeting, and kissed her hand. She’d let out a girlish giggle, charmed by the attention he’d lavished upon her.

Gross.

 

It was bedtime, and all Cora could do was think about every time she’d seen Edan and his beloved Eloise.

It hurt.

Her own feelings hadn’t been reciprocated.

Or even acknowledged.

Had she misread his attentions? Were the little smiles and stolen glances and secret hand-holding all just… Something else?

 

Whether she’d liked it or not, he’d been the reason she was able to keep some of her sense of self in Vespas. That damned telescope.

She’d hurt so much over that compulsion… That Obligation. At the same time, it was something she could hold on to - that Mother Liliane couldn’t have possibly stomped out. Not without destroying a valuable Magician.

While he’d destroyed everything she held dear, he’d also kept her safe. He saved her. He protected her.

But that wasn’t love. It was just responsibility.

 

And he would never be anything more than her friend.

Fine, whatever. I can at least be happy for him. As a friend.

But it didn’t stop the tears.


 

When Edan had confessed his feelings to Eloise some cycles later, time seemed to slow. Cora knew he was going to do it - he'd told her, excitedly. She'd given him her blessing.

Cora had wanted so badly to be the person to protect his heart, much like Father Theo had. She could, still. Maybe. As a friend.

Eloise… The things he'd said when they'd gone stargazing...

Eloise was not only a friend, but he’d thought of her as someone he’d hoped would love him. If she assented to his proposal, she'd be his wife. He’d said that she made him want to push through and face the fear the Regicide had instilled in him.

Most of those times, Cora tuned Edan out. She’d learned to deal with his gushing.

Edan’s feelings would surely move Eloise’s heart.

And they did.

After the proposal was said and done, Eloise and Minerva wandered off to another merchant’s cart to ask about a few things -- while Max took Edan off for a celebratory drink. All that had been left at the wagon afterward was Cora, who had been ignoring the events of the evening, and Gregory, who’d been begging for tidbits of bacon oil.

“Greg, have you ever gotten married?” Cora asked idly, poking at one of the campfire’s logs.

The fire daemon contemplated for a moment, allowing some of the logs under it to crunch slightly, before responding. “I married a caterpillar! It tasted like bug guts!”

Cora snickered at Greg’s response. “Only you would say that, fireball~.”

When Eloise returned with Minerva, she quickly strode over to the fire and grasped the Magician’s hands excitedly. “You’ll--" the Noble paused to consider her words, "I'd be honored if you would consider remaining by Edan's side, even after we move into my family's estate. You’re his trusted Magician, after all."

"I… I’m not his in any imagination of the word," Cora managed to get out, her tone unintentionally irritable. The look Eloise gave her made her feel uncomfortable. “And even if I was, I’m just some woman he met - all I’ve got is an Obligation from him to protect myself.”

"Yes, but you see," Eloise smiled, looking slightly hurt, "you're very important to him. And I… I would like it to be the same between us."


 

As the caravan drew closer to Eloise’s family’s home in Orden, Cora found that Edan was no longer interested in stargazing. Sure, for a while, he’d brought Eloise with him to the quiet spots Cora had designated. He usually arrived before Cora, and was so engaged with his fiancée, that the Dark Hour was up before he’d known.

Cora had taken to finding other places to be, until she’d finally told Edan, “It’s fine - I know you’ve got other priorities.”

After a while, it felt as if those words comprised of a majority of their discussions.

Eloise, however, had set aside time each day to spend time with Cora - though it was awkward at first. It wasn't long before Cora decided that she could regard Eloise as a friend.

Once they’d arrived at the Renault family home, Max offered Cora a place with him and Minerva, permanently.

“Honestly, I can’t manage livin’ with ‘ese stuffy types’a folks, yanno?” Max had said, pulling on his beard gently. “Eloise’s okay, but her parents‘ve always been a bit traditional with Magicians, if ya get what I mean?”

Cora shrugged. “I don’t think I’m going to stick around after the wedding, so it’s not much of a problem. Next time you’re in town, I’ll stop by to see you both, though!”

She hugged and thanked the pair for everything before heading inside the Manor, following after the butler that awaited her.

When she got inside, she overheard Eloise, who sounded annoyed already. “--And if I hear about any instance where you’ve done that, we will LEAVE.”

Cora wondered what the discussion was about, but was quickly interrupted from her thoughts by warm greetings by Eloise’ stepmother.


 

Cycles after the wedding, Cora was preparing to leave the Renault home.

Things had been wonderful. Edan and Eloise were gracious hosts, and had tried to make her a part of the household as much as possible. They’d even found her a job as a scribe, as an added incentive to keep her nearby. It hadn’t worked as well as the couple had hoped.

She knew they didn’t want her to leave, but it was time. They were out of the house for the day -- they were visiting with friends.

In the note she left on the table in the couple's sitting room, she'd told them she was leaving for an opportunity to make her way back to Eleosa. She’d been in contact with former friends there -- and once the astonishment that Cora was alive and well had passed, they’d offered her a place to stay.

It wasn’t the safest of journeys for an Unobligated Magician, but she was willing to risk it.

 

As she made her way for the door, she heard a voice call out to her. “Cora, darling, tell me where exactly you are going?”

She froze, squeezing her eyes shut. Eloise’s stepmother, Kathryn, was a Nobleman. She was supposed to be in the townhouse today.

“I’m going home,” Cora replied, unable to delay the compulsion to answer any further. “I’ve just found something for myself back in my hometown.”

“Oh, no. That’s no good, dear. You’re leaving? My daughter will be so heartbroken.” The older woman came over to Cora and put a hand on her shoulder. “Before you leave, stay with me for a few days. I think you just need some distance. Everything will be right before you know it.”

Cora knew she could not refuse the offer.


 

Those few days turned into weeks, which quickly turned into cycles.

Aside from the standard, “Protect me and my household” Kathryn had given her, Cora had been Obligated to stay in the townhouse, and for any contact with Edan and Eloise to be kept to an absolute minimum. The Magician needed distance from her friends - and with time, she’d come to see how wonderful things were with a mistress as generous as the Lady Kathryn.

Kathryn constantly lamented the fact that her new Magician’s magic was lackluster, citing what a shame it was that the Magician’s mother had been little more than common fare. She'd wanted her home to be wonderful and welcoming for the arrival of her first grandchild. Her late husband -- Eloise’s father -- would have been so proud.

It was such a shame that Cora couldn’t help with the renovations and preparations to help baby-proof the home.

When Cora first heard about the child, she'd wished she could see Edan. He must have been a bundle of nerves when he'd learned he'd soon be a father. He must have told Eloise about the Regicide, and the promises he’d been forced to make.

And Cora had promised - but was not Obligated - to protect him. She couldn’t even be there to reassure him.

 

Cycles later, Kathryn excitedly told Cora that she had been invited to the naming party for the child, and she would bring the Magician along.

“You must not tell, show, or write to them regarding where you have been,” Kathryn had warned, “And please, be happy for them while we’re there.”


 

The party had been wonderful.

Edan was overjoyed to see Cora. When he’d asked where she’d gone -- she didn’t have an answer for him. He’d said that tried to write to her in Eleosa, and never got a response. He had been so worried, but seeing her there, and safe…? Every concern he had melted away.

Eloise was pleased to introduce Cora to baby Theo. She’d let the Magician hold him, excitedly cooing, and telling the infant that this was his “Auntie Cora”.

Something buried inside her wanted to cry, but all she could manage was a smile.

When the evening was out, Edan asked if he would see Cora again. Cora struggled for an answer -- she could, at least, be somewhat sad about this.

“If I’m able.”


 

“You know what would be a wonderful gift for Theo when he’s older?” Kathryn mused, nearly a week later.

Once she had been freed from the Obligations placed upon her for the party, Cora had spent the next several days in or near tears. Kathryn had asked or Obligated - Cora wasn’t sure - that she try to behave normally - and so the Magician found herself chopping vegetables for dinner, as per usual.

She wanted so badly to disconnect from all this.

She didn’t respond to Kathryn’s question, prompting the woman to continue.

“He needs a Magician , dear. The baby is a Nobleman, after all! I know you’re not the best suited to serve a family, but imagine…! You could give him a companion for life.”

Cora stopped chopping.

Kathryn looked back at Cora, seeming pleased and excited by her plan. “It would be wonderful, would it not? And it would be so wondrous - a Magician family serving a Nobleman’s - generation after generation.”

“No.” Cora replied flatly. What else could she say?

The rest of the conversation was something of a blur that she’d tried to block out - ending only when Kathryn tired of the argument, and gave her an Obligation to produce a child in two years’ time.


 

“Come along now, Cora,” Kathryn commanded, offering the Magician a wide smile. “Today’s the most important day of little Henry’s future, isn’t it?”

Cora looked to the squirming toddler she held, who had been saying “hi” to each of the larger plants that lined the walkway.

He was excited about this new place - Kathryn told him it would be home. He would be happy here, with his new best friend.

Though Cora wore a smile, her insides churned. She wanted nothing more than to flee from Kathryn and this place, but her facade of confidence was only held in place by the Obligations she’d been given earlier.

Remember, Cora - you must not say anything about the circumstances of your situation in front of Edan OR Eloise. Smile. And be sure to follow me until we arrive.

Unlike Mother Liliane, Kathryn had gotten sloppy with her commands.

Once they were inside the Manor and situated in the sitting room, Cora allowed Henry to explore. Kathryn chattered to Cora about how excited her grandson would be to have a new Magician friend, only stopping when Edan and Eloise entered the room.

She watched as Edan’s expressions changed from excitement to confusion to disappointment and sadness. “C-Cora… Wha- When?” he managed.

“I was Obligated,” Cora responded.


Before the day was out, Cora had been released from all of Kathryn's Obligations.

While Eloise handled things with her stepmother, Cora and Henry had been moved to another room.

 

As Edan sat down beside her, she heard him ask a question, but all she'd wanted to do was cry.