Swaying back and forth in front of a full length mirror, a young woman of sixteen fiddled with the neckline of her formal dress and frowned at the subtle slack to the expensive fabric. Everything else about the dress was as she wanted it - the material of soft gold complemented her light brown hair, no bow or flower decorated any part of the gown, and the wide skirt wasn't too burdensome while moving around. Even so, while looking at her reflection, she felt like a little girl playing dress-up and nothing like the woman she wanted to be.
"Verena Almasy, stop fussing."
Biting at her lower lip, Verena continued to finger the soft fabric. "But Matron, I thought it would look better once it was fitted."
Edea Kramer smiled slightly at the comment, the wrinkles at her mouth and eyes deepening with her amusement. "You shouldn't compare yourself to Lady Heartilly. Though kindhearted, most of her qualities end at skin-level... or perhaps that should be bust-level."
Verena sighed in reluctant agreement, learning years earlier that Lady Rinoa was an excellent resource when it came to fashion and social events, but had little substance beyond that frivolous role. Even so, the young sorceress enjoyed visiting one of the higher-class female influences in her life and she wasn't about to speak poorly about the noblewoman.
Moments before a soft knock sounded against wood, Verena straightened at the excited whispers of the wind. Her slipper-covered feet soundless on wood, the young woman hurried to the door and opened it to reveal a looming figure concealed by loose black clothing and a dark mask in the image of a wolf. Putting aside all pretenses of etiquette, Verena leapt to wrap her arms around the visitor's neck and smiled brightly at the purring chuckle toward her action.
"Sekre! I didn't think you would make it on time," Verena said partly in relief, partly in accusation.
"I pledged to be here, princess, and I do not lie," the Moomba replied as he braced a strong arm around the young woman's waist and stepped into the suite to close the door behind them. Once their privacy was assured, Sekre removed his mask and grinned a toothy smile. "Many blessings on your day of life, Verena."
Her dark blue eyes sparkling, Verena kissed the feline on the snout. "I'm glad you're here. It's been too long since your last visit and I thought you forgot all about my birthday."
"That is not possible," Sekre argued as he bent over and gently set the sorceress back onto the ground. Amber eyes then flicked to the side and the Moomba bowed to the other person in the room. "Edea. Forgive my intrusion on this important night."
The aging Matron smiled fondly at the feline, never able to convince the Moomba to call her by the motherly term. "There is no need for you to apologize. I understand that you wouldn't have been able to show your face to Lady Verena tonight if you hadn't come here first. Though try not to take too much of her time - we still need to work on her hair before the party."
At the warning, Verena grabbed a paw-like hand covered in black leather and dragged the large feline to the closest sofa, forcing him to sit at her side. "Since we don't have time, speak quickly - tell me where you've been and what you've seen. Did you do as promised and visit the Shumi village again? How are Kehrei and his family?"
With a barking laugh, Sekre said, "Princess, there will be time for stories. I am tired and have decided to stay here for the coming winter."
"That's good news! Have you told Leander yet? He'll be thrilled to have you here for longer than a few weeks."
The Moomba shook his head, the motion causing fur braided with beads to clack lightly. "You are the first I have met. It is your day of celebration and I have brought a gift from H'rugur."
Surprised to have a gift from the Moomba leader, Verena watched with open curiosity as Sekre reached into a leather pouch that hung from his loose belt. The revealed necklace drew a quiet gasp from the sorceress as she eyed the series of white stones shaped into flat, curved squares and etched skillfully with images that Verena could only assume were dancing flames. Sekre offered the necklace to the young woman, and with a tentative touch, Verena slipped her fingers beneath the cool stones. Her eyes instantly brightened with silver light.
"Blessed Shiva," the sorceress whispered as she lifted the necklace for closer inspection. "This... This was made by Faer."
With a confirming nod, Sekre explained, "After Leander's birth, Leonhart came to our village. He made many things in that time, including his house of rock and several statues for our temple. This necklace was made shortly before he left our village to travel the world in search of answers."
Verena fought against tears while fisting a hand around smooth stones. "I can feel him. The energy is so young and afraid, but it's definitely Faer." Eyes briefly closing, the young woman added, "It's a terrible kind of beautiful, like a battlefield covered in snow."
The Moomba tilted his head in curiosity at the comparison. "Was it wrong to gift that to you?"
Holding it close to her chest and next to her grandmother's locket, Verena shook her head. "No, it's perfect. No one else could possibly give me a present to match this one."
While Sekre grinned in relief, the sorceress glanced at the cushioned chair to her right and at the white spirit of Astrea Almasy seated with perfect posture. Though Matron and Sekre knew about the young woman's ability, Verena had learned that it made people uncomfortable for her to speak openly to the dead. For that reason, she said nothing while clutching the necklace of white stones and silently asked her grandmother a question.
Lips briefly gained a pink hue as they curled into a fond smile. <Darling one, why would I deny you the chance to wear something made by your mother? My locket will be safe in your rooms for one night.>
Unable to contain her relief, Verena whispered her thanks to the spirit as she stood up from the sofa and moved to the vanity that once belonged to her grandmother. She removed the golden chain and locket to place the necklace into a jewelry box and seal it inside with subtle earth magic that her Faer had placed onto the decorative wood. Lifting her gaze to the mirror, Verena placed the new necklace around her throat and exhaled a shaky sigh when the white stones laid flat against her skin and the full force of the entrapped emotions could be felt.
"It's lovely," Matron praised while stepping behind the sorceress and adjusting the placement of the necklace.
<It suits you,> Astrea agreed from Verena's other side, the spirit's image unseen in the mirror.
Her smile warm and excited, Verena glanced over her shoulder at the waiting Moomba. "Thank you, Sekre. I promise to save a dance for you tonight."
"Do not tell your father - he may like the idea," Sekre commented as he replaced his wolf mask and reassumed the role of the mysterious and formidable guardian who watched over the Almasy family. His voice muffled by the metal, the Moomba placed a fisted hand to his chest and said, "I am pleased to witness this day, Sorceress Verena. May your strength bring light to those who live in darkness."
Though intimidated by the vision shared by both the Shumi and her father, Verena managed a regal nod in acceptance of the fate that may lie ahead of her. Once the Moomba left with silent steps, Verena returned her gaze to the mirror and watched as Matron took a comb to her honey brown hair. She still felt young while looking at her reflection and she was no more comfortable with how her dress seemed to sag in front, but with her fingers lightly tracing the necklace of white stone, Verena came to the sobering realization that age in terms of years had little to do with reaching adulthood.
~ > < ~
"Presenting the Lady Verena Almasy."
Her heart fluttering at the announcement made by Ward in his booming voice, Verena stepped carefully from her hiding spot at the entrance to the grand ballroom of the Almasy Estate. Lit by innumerable candles, the expansive room was filled with a variety of elegantly dressed aristocrats, servants carrying trays of wine and food, and very few familiar faces. It wasn't an unusual occurrence for Verena to attend an extravagant party, especially one planned and hosted by Lady Rinoa, but the sorceress wasn't accustomed to being the focus of everyone's attention.
Even so, etiquette lessons quickly took hold and Verena maintained a dignified pose while she quickly assessed the situation with instincts that had been drilled into her by a completely different set of lessons. Amongst the nobility, there were the elder nobles who wanted to personally evaluate the daughter bearing the long untouched title of Lady Almasy. More easily spotted, however, were the younger lords who had attended to find a new bride with a suitable bloodline and plenty of money. No one appeared especially threatening, but it wasn't until Verena found her irritated father and amused Faer standing near a table of champagne that she was truly able to relax.
Her smile honest and proud, Verena lowered into a graceful curtsy and straightened to the sound of polite clapping, which failed to drown out the murmurs of whispered comments.
Ignoring the wind's offer to tell her those gossiping words, Verena placed her attention on the more worrisome sight of several young and not-so-young lords approaching her from all sides. A variety of flowers were held out and Verena barely maintained her smile when several requests for a dance were spoken at once, including one ambitious proposal for marriage. Glancing at the eager faces, the young woman had no illusions of finding love amongst the nobles. Instead, she quickly identified the lords of important families and considered who was most worth the effort of false flattery and easy smiles. Just before selecting the exotic orchid offered by a second cousin of the Emperor, Verena and the noblemen around her were startled by the gruff demand -
"Her first dance belongs to me."
Initially angered by the claim, the various nobles turned and several paled at the sight of Seifer Almasy. The green-eyed lord was dressed in the formal uniform befitting an officer of the Imperial Army, a status the man held twenty years in the past, but no one disputed his right to wear the uniform. His dark blue jacket was tight around broad shoulders, the silver shield at his right arm was polished and shining despite the dents, and his black pants were stiff with recent ironing. Completing the outfit was Hyperion resting at his side, the wide blade sheathed in battered leather instead of a bejeweled scabbard that would have better suited the aesthetics of the ballroom.
Verena smiled at the intimidating sight of her father, interested at his willingness to wear the hated uniform for the sake of frightening a few spineless nobles.
Green eyes bright with irritation, Seifer held out his hand in a silent demand for Verena to comply with his earlier statement. The alternative was obvious by his other hand stroking Hyperion's hilt in a tense manner that left his knuckles white.
The sorceress stepped through the collection of noblemen, her eyes focused on her father above the others who weren't willing to say a word against the Lord Almasy. The moment her hand was grasped in the calloused hold, Verena was jerked close to the large blond and pulled directly into a dance suiting the music that had started shortly after her introduction. Glancing up at her father, Verena chuckled at the sour expression which had been common in the months since Lady Rinoa first informed him that it was tradition to celebrate a girl's coming-of-age.
"I should have never agreed to this," Seifer growled, another repetitive trait in the recent months.
"You're too protective, Father," Verena said before she stepped out to spin twice per the dance. Returning, she asked, "Don't you want me to appear the typical spoilt daughter of a mindless nobleman?"
"How does that imply I want a group of sex-crazed apes placing their hands on you?"
"I promise - no sex on the ballroom floor," Verena stated with a smirk befitting her Almasy blood. "At least, not with so many people around. I'd hate to be stepped on like that."
Growling out a Moomba curse, Seifer declared, "You're too young to think of sex, let alone speak of it. Understood?"
"Hmm? But aren't you the one to blame for poor judgment in choosing the times and places to 'wrestle' with Faer?"
While unable to truly argue against the point, Seifer insisted, "You are a young lady, not an idiot soldier like myself. The rules are different."
Choosing to neither agree nor disagree, Verena managed to pull her hand free from the strong hold and clapped twice with the music along with the other dancing pairs. Seifer scowled at not receiving the pledge he desired, but didn't let his annoyance affect their dance as he reached out a hand and guided the young woman into a smooth series of three spins. Verena smiled freely at the movements of the dance, remembering years earlier when her father was the one to teach her the pattern of steps along with Leander. Squall had been a reluctant participant in those lessons, occasionally partnering with Seifer whenever the lord desired to show the proper flow of the overall dance. Despite his angered glares, Verena recalled how her Faer had never said 'no' to dancing with his husband.
After the first song had ended, Verena wasn't released to dance with another partner, even though several nobles made their interest known, albeit from a distance. The young lady smiled and indulged her father with another song, but when the hand on hers tightened near the end of that song, Verena grew vaguely concerned that she wouldn't be able to enjoy her first night as a 'woman'.
A hand tapped at Seifer's shoulder, his immediate snarl cut off by the surprise of finding Leander behind him and not one of the waiting lords he was expecting to see. Nearly the same height as their father, Leander was leaner in frame and had a calmer energy that was inherited from their sorcerer father. Compared to his youth, his dark brown hair was cut short, a style he had maintained since his years in the Imperial Army. Though he had also made the rank of captain, Leander chose clothing more suited for a ball and wore the formal outfit of silver and black like a true nobleman.
"May I have a dance with my sister?" Leander asked with a soothing smile, an expression clearly learned from his Faer.
Seifer eyed his son warily as if sizing up a formidable opponent. "Squall sent you."
"Are you suggesting that I wouldn't want to celebrate with Vera on her special day?"
"Don't underestimate me, kid," the blond lord huffed in anger. "Do you think that I don't know what's happening here? The moment I leave her in your hands, Squall is going to chain me to some pillar while you give Vera away to some bastard lord who will sneak her away to a room upstairs and show her the snake in his pants."
"Father," Verena scolded. "I'm not naive enough be taken away like that."
"And Faer was going to use ice magic," Leander added lightly. "It's much more subtle than chains."
Seifer growled bitterly, but distracted in his paranoia, he couldn't stop Verena when she twisted her hands free of his tight holds and hurriedly moved to Leander's side. Under his breath, the lord muttered, "Should've never taught you that."
"Thank you for the dance, Father," Verena said with a mischievous grin, "but I promised Ander a song tonight. If you're good, I might save the last dance for you."
Seifer glared at condition of 'being good', but green eyes flicked briefly to the side and his shoulders slumped when he saw the collection of disapproving looks from Lady Rinoa and Lady Quistis. A hand clutched Hyperion hard enough to create a loud creak from the leather wrapped around the hilt. "Very well, but I'll be watching."
Not wanting to offend her father, Verena held back her urge to laugh at his attempt to threaten both her and Leander. Once Seifer was out of hearing distance, the sorceress smiled up at her brother. "My brave knight, you have saved me once again from the terrible ogre."
Leander chuckled at the statement. "Anytime, princess, but you should make certain to thank the others, too. They've made plans to keep Father in check and out of your way."
Verena grabbed a hand and pulled her brother into the current dance with renewed excitement. Leander stumbled a few steps at the sudden jerk, but quickly regained his balance to match her fluid movements. They didn't dance long before Verena noticed the odd glances from her brother, and though initially confused, she abruptly remembered the necklace that he had yet to see.
Waiting for a lull in the song, Verena moved in close to the brunet and asked, "Do you like my necklace? Sekre brought it to me earlier tonight."
Leander hummed in appreciation of the jewelry, but was unusually distracted in his reply.
"Faer made it," Verena announced, the statement causing Leander to straighten in recognition of the energy he could sense, but not directly identify. Hooking a finger beneath the smooth stones, Verena suggested, "You should hold it. I think you'll find it rather interesting."
Without need of additional coaxing, Leander gently placed his fingers at the white stones and his gray-green eyes instantly brightened with silver light as the magic of necklace seeped through his skin. "Hyne above," Leander whispered while stroking the etchings of flames with his thumb. "It's different... It reminds me of the house in the Shumi village, but it's... more, somehow."
Her smile soft, Verena explained, "Sekre said it was made before he left the village. Personally, I think Faer was making this necklace when he first understood that he couldn't leave you behind like he first planned. The love is so strong and so bitter; I can't imagine it being directed at anyone else."
Stunned by the idea, Leander slowed to a stop, causing several dancing pairs to either glance at them in curiosity or glare at them for being in the way. None of that mattered as the brunet stared at the smooth stones as if trying to force an answer from the pieces of earth.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" Verena said in a quiet voice. "Faer was my age when he had you, and all alone, too. I don't know how he did it."
"... He managed," Leander replied hoarsely, "but he wasn't right for several years. The way his energy feels in this necklace makes me think of the person he was back then. I was too young to understand that his soul was suffering."
Placing her hand over his, Verena said, "After tonight, I want to give this to you."
Leander considered the offer briefly before shaking his head. "No, princess, this is yours. Let it be a reminder of the strength needed to do the impossible in this world."
Fingers placed on painted lips, Leander insisted, "I'm not afraid of you succumbing to madness, but that doesn't mean your life will be any easier. During those nights when you question everything, this necklace will give you some answers, just as this old thing did for me," he said while tapping the Griever pendant proudly worn over his chest. "We all need reminders, some more than others."
With a relieved smile, Verena nodded. "Thank you, Ander. For everything."
Knowing that she was referring to his constant belief in her sanity, Leander smirked lightly and said, "I will always be your knight, Vera, even after you find someone to love and marry."
Verena scoffed at the suggestion. "That won't happen tonight. Did you see how half of that bunch soiled their clothing at the sight of Father?"
"Hn, but that could be a sign of intelligence on their part. No sane man should face Father when he's hungry for murder."
"Faer does, and you just did."
"As I said, no sane man," Leander repeated with a glimmer of silver to his eyes.
The song ended before sister and brother could rejoin the dance, and with their father's daunting figure out of view, one of the bolder young nobles appeared to request a dance with the Lady Almasy. Leander bowed out without resistance, his smile filled with humor when the boyish lord flinched at the taller brunet warning him to not step on her toes.
One song after another came past, each coming with a new face in front of Verena as she diplomatically allowed one song per man. She politely listened to the variety of stories that were told with the intention to impress, but Verena had little interest in the painfully detailed descriptions of mansions, art collections, and the latest political game in the capital. She eventually decided that it was unfair for those men who didn't understand that she was a woman who had viewed the unmatched beauty of the sorcerer city and was also the daughter of the man who had planned and enacted the assassination of the former Emperor and Empress. Few people could contend, let alone win, against such odds to gain her awed interest.
Halfway into the night, Verena danced with a stiff-legged lieutenant of the Imperial Army, the thirty-something mustached man no more graceful with his attempts to describe his latest battle than he was at the slow waltz. Verena fought to smile while nodding at the stumbling account that had been repeated three times as the officer recalled something important which had been left out in the previous version. Silently pleading for the song to end, Verena was instead saved by a gloved hand tapping at the man's shoulder.
"Captain Terria," the officer growled in annoyance. "Can't you see I'm busy?"
"Forgive me, sir, but a messenger arrived from the capital and he says it's important. It's a message from the Emperor and for your ears only."
Though uninterested at first, Verena looked up at the deep, gravely voice that made her chest feel tight and cold. She quickly took in the sight of the man who was only two or three inches taller than herself and not much wider in the shoulders. His hair was stark black and cut in a messy style that suggested a knife had been used on the strands, not by scissors and a skilled hand. His face had a classically handsome appearance with high cheek bones and a firm chin, but a deep scar cutting across his cheek in addition to red and pealing skin from recent sunburns distracted from that attractiveness. His uniform was wrinkled and frayed in areas; a truer appearance for a soldier compared to the lieutenant's washed and ironed jacket and pants.
But after the seconds used to take in those details, Verena was quickly entranced by the gaze of piercing green eyes. They weren't normal, instead appearing too bright and clear; the sight of which reminded the young noblewoman of high quality emeralds that had been precisely cut and polished to a glass-like shine. Staring into those eyes, Verena felt lost and frightened for the first time since she was a young girl and facing a dark spirit. With no other action to take given the surrounding witnesses, she grabbed onto the necklace at her throat and took comfort in the strength of her Faer's energy.
For his part, the green-eyed man gave Verena a cursory glance, the corner of his lips dipping into a slight frown before he turned his full attention to his superior when the mustached man spoke.
"I apologize, my Lady, but my presence is needed elsewhere," the lieutenant stated with a bow. "Perhaps I will be graced with the pleasure of meeting you another time?"
With no intention to give him that permission, Verena forced a smile and replied, "Don't let me keep you from your duties. You should go and see what the Emperor desires."
The officer sighed at the unspoken rejection, and after a second bow, stormed off in the direction of the exit. The dark-haired captain followed a short distance behind, his battered coat fluttering from the fast stride necessary to keep pace with his commander. However, it was the sight of the person trailing behind the younger man that stole away Verena's breath and made her clutch sculpted stones a bit tighter. Rather, not a person, but the white spirit of an older man who should not have been there by the rules she understood. Soulless eyes gazed back at the sorceress and cracked lips moved...
A touch at her arm made Verena jump before she turned and had to lower her gaze to the noble who was more of a boy than a man. His request for the next dance was cut off by Verena apologizing and stating that she felt a bit faint. Though the boy pouted at the claim, Verena had no urge to pity the child aristocrat and hurried to the tables stocked with an assortment of refreshments. Selecting a glass of champagne, the young noblewoman sipped shakily at the sweet alcohol.
"Your father wouldn't approve you acquiring a taste for that."
Verena turned and struggled to stay in place when seeing her sorcerer father, wishing that she could find comfort in his arms despite the strangers watching from all angles. The dark-haired man hadn't aged much in the years since Verena's birth, nor had his title changed from steward over Verena. As such, his clothing was simple in style, but expensive in material to best blend in with the surrounding while attending the ball to watch over his Lady and daughter.
Blue-gray eyes studied the young woman, and when she said nothing, he used the convenience of tables to hide the movement of his hand to touch his daughter's arm. "What is wrong?"
"I don't know," Verena replied honestly, shakily. "That soldier who came and left... He had a spirit attached to him, but I don't think it was that alone which upset me."
"I thought spirits only latch onto places, not people."
With an uncertain laugh, Verena agreed, "I thought so, too."
Squall nodded in understanding, and after moving closer to better assure their words wouldn't be overheard, he added, "Your interest in that spirit aside, it would be best for you to avoid that soldier. He's a sorcerer and may not react well to the existence of a sorceress, especially one who can see the dead."
Dark blue eyes wide, Verena stared at her father. "He... That man was a sorcerer?"
His smile slight, Squall commented, "He is weaker than average, but considering his age, his magic may be suppressed because he was never properly trained."
"I couldn't tell..." Verena said in surprise. "I thought he felt strange, but it was nothing like you or Leander."
"Not every sorcerer has the same affinity to magic as the Loire family, princess," Squall reminded dryly.
"But you could tell what he was, and you weren't even close to him."
"True, but I know what to expect when encountering another sorcerer. You, on the other hand, are young and haven't met anyone outside of our family who has the ability to command the elements."
Frustrated, Verena gazed into her champagne glass before setting it back onto the table. "I need some fresh air. I won't be gone long, so please, make certain Father doesn't look for me."
"Very well, but first..." Squall lifted a hand to nearly touch, but ultimately retreat from the white necklace flat against the sorceress' chest. "You didn't have to wear that. Not for me."
"But I wanted to," Verena insisted, not liking the somber tone from her Faer. "The moment Sekre showed it to me, I wanted to wear it tonight. Even Grandmother thought it was best to wear something from... well, from my mother."
A dark eyebrow lifted in an interested arch. "Since when has she called me that?"
"Some time ago. I can't remember exactly when." Placing a hand against the smooth stones, Verena asked, "May I keep it? The magic is too strong to wear all of the time, but I could keep it in the jewelry box you gave me and keep it safe."
"... If Kasir gifted it to you, then it's not my right to take it away."
Verena smiled at the offhanded permission that couldn't hide the hint of shame in his voice, the sorcerer never comfortable with anything that exposed his private emotions. Before Squall could dissuade her, Verena darted forward to brush a kiss against her Faer's cheek, and just as swiftly, she ran off before the sorcerer could scold her for the lack of propriety in front of watchful guests.
Her laughing smile faded with her first steps out from the ballroom and into the night air of mid-autumn. Without much thought on her part, Verena walked to the rose garden that once belonged to her grandmother and let her fingers trail over the soft petals that wouldn't exist in another month or two. She didn't focus much on the touch and fragrance of the garden, her thoughts instead turned to the green-eyed soldier and the spirit that had looked back at her. The ghost was different than the white spirits Verena more commonly saw, the old man appearing lost of energy and suffering in agony. And yet, his plea wasn't to free his soul from eternal torment, but to 'save him.' Verena assumed he meant the green-eyed solider, a man with a name the sorceress couldn't recall given her premature disinterest, but spirits were occasionally confused with the present life and the world they knew before death, so she couldn't be certain.
The rustle of leaves made Verena groan at being found by one of her many protectors, but just as she began to turn, she was assaulted by the warnings of the wind. Ingrained with the instinct to trust the elements, the sorceress immediately used the roused wind to wrap around her in a dense shield of air. As the wind whipped around her, Verena finished her turn to see the sword swinging down with the intent to slice through her throat. Never touching skin, the thin blade was nearly torn away from the attacker's hand by the force of the wind, but the sword was held tight and the man jumped back to regain his balance.
"You..." Verena whispered, dumbfounded at the sight of the green-eyed soldier. Compared to the seemingly cold and serious man from before, the soldier had a dark light to his emerald gaze and his lips were set into a vicious snarl Verena associated to a Moomba's flash of teeth. Fear danced in the back of her mind, but the sorceress stood with the composure of a seasoned fighter and kept her core quiet and in control.
"What have you done to these people?"
Suppressing a chill at the gravely voice, Verena shook her head. "What do you mean?"
"You aren't his daughter. You can't be his daughter, sorceress, so what have you done to Lord Almasy to make him believe you are?"
Not allowed a response, Verena flinched at the abrupt lunge of the solider, his blade impossibly piercing through the shield of wind, but only far enough and with enough force to slice the skin above her heart. Startled, Verena moved back several steps, barely hearing the cries of the wind about the hardness of earth and warnings to flee. "You're wrong! He's my father. Healers have attested to that."
The soldier clutched at his arm, the muscles wrenched from holding the sword straight against the wind. "Impossible. You must have done something to them... or... Or is there another one?"
"Is there another sorceress?!"
It was a panicked question, one filled of pain and anger that stunned Verena into speechlessness. The man growled at the lack of a response and looked prepared to launch forward in another attack, but a flash of metal stopped the soldier short as a large knife pressed against his throat.
"You made my daughter bleed," Seifer stated in a low voice from behind the soldier, shifting the knife to cut shallowly into flesh. "I should kill you where you stand."
Both men looked with surprised expressions at the young woman's interference, but it was the soldier to react first with a humorless chuckle. "She's not your daughter, Lord Almasy. She's a sorceress, just like Ultimecia. You saved us from one demon - don't let yourself be fooled by another one."
Noticing the flex of muscles at her father's hand, Verena insisted, "He doesn't understand, Father! Please, don't kill him just because he doesn't understand."
Seifer eyed his daughter, the harsh gleam to his eyes not fading as he seemed to debate the trouble of hiding a murdered body on his property.
Frightened for the soldier's life, Verena looked to the shadow of a spirit that had followed the green-eyed man and begged, "Why are you here? What do you have to tell me?"
The spirit flickered briefly, the old man studying the sorceress with his eyes of endless black. <A-ah, you're the one. The good one that I've heard about.>
Verena glanced over at the two men and frowned at the sight of more blood trailing down behind the collar of the soldier's uniform. "We don't have time for that. Do you wish for his death?"
<No... No, of course not,> the old spirit said with a startled twitch, reminded of the living world around him. <But I don't think Jaden will listen. Too much has happened for that.>
"Jaden...?" Verena repeated while looking at the soldier.
The man went extremely still at the name, his green eyes widening in shock. "How... No one knows that name."
<It's true. We changed our names after the Massacre. But despite our caution, years ago, we were discovered to be sorcerers. They imprisoned us and that madwoman tortured us... Jaden was a boy, eight when it started.>
Horrified, Verena asked in a hoarse whisper, "What did Ultimecia do to you?"
Regaining his sense and anger, the soldier snapped, "Why? Do you want ideas?"
"Vera," Seifer growled like a wolf waiting for its meal, "What game are you playing here?"
Ignoring her father, Verena continued to listen to the old spirit's story.
<I failed my daughter during the Massacre, and then my grandson to the same madwoman.> The old man ran a wrinkled hand back over his head, mostly bald except for wisps of white hair. <All I could do was to take his place when the Empress desired to make Lengen ni Werlogh. But I never imagined he would live. He shouldn't have lived and now he knows nothing but hatred.>
Shaking her head, the sorceress looked to the soldier and said, "I'm sorry, Jaden. For your parents, for your grandfather, and for you... I'm sorry, but I'm not Ultimecia. I would never do the things she did. Blessed Shiva, the potion she made with your grandfather's life was used in the attempt to kill my father. Why would I want that?"
"Don't use my name freely," the man demanded, but his voice was weak with emotion. "I don't how you know these things, but it proves nothing."
<Tell the boy that I kept my promise. I'm here with him and I won't leave until his soul has healed.>
Though uncomfortable with the thought of revealing her powers to a stranger, Verena reluctantly said, "Your grandfather is with you. He kept his promise and now his soul is chained to yours until you no longer need his strength."
"Verena," Seifer scolded tightly, but his voice wasn't heard by either his daughter or his captive.
"You..." Jaden took a shaky breath and tried to continue, "You can't... He's dead."
"I can see him," Verena said quietly. "He's tired and faded, though. The Lengen ni Werlogh potion must have taken most of his life force, but he refuses to leave you. It's the first time I've seen a white spirit so devoted to a single person."
"A white spirit...." the soldier repeated dumbly. He then laughed oddly and shook his head. "This is what you do, isn't it? This is how you tricked Lord Almasy and made him believe that you're his daughter. Well, I won't be taken like that, even if..."
"... 'Even if'?" the young woman prompted, her chest tight at the strange tone.
Eyes once again the clear green that Verena first identified with the solider, Jaden gazed at her and concluded, "Even if everything is true."
Before anyone could react, the dark-haired man lurched forward against the knife at his throat, the sharpened blade slicing through flesh with ease. Startled, Seifer dropped the soldier and looked down in bewilderment at the action he hadn't anticipated. Verena paled at the fast flow of blood that was staining her grandmother's garden, and before she understood what she was doing, the sorceress rushed to the man's side and dropped to her knees to place her hands at the deeply sliced throat.
"Vera, what are you--"
Verena glared up at her father, uncaring of the tears that streamed over her cheeks. "He can't die, Father. If he dies because I'm a sorceress, I... I won't be able too..."
Tsking loudly, Seifer turned and called over his shoulder. "I'll find Irvine. Don't do anything stupid before that."
Her hands tight over the wounded neck, Verena focused her energy onto the sliced flesh and prayed that she had enough ability to slow the flow of blood. Her body ached in response to forcing healing magic that was against her nature, but she didn't waver in her need to save the man's life. Even so, it was too difficult for the young sorceress and she sobbed at the endless caress of hot blood over her hands.
"Don't give up," a voice encouraged, shortly followed by a heavy hand pressed on top of hers and heated magic instantly flowing into her body.
Verena looked gratefully at her Faer, uncertain how long the sorcerer had been watching, but accustomed to the man's ability to appear when needed. Closing her eyes, she directed their combined healing magic to the sliced arteries and veins, knowing those were more important than the split flesh which would take more time. Seconds felt like hours in those important moments, but Verena felt the soldier's innate magic respond and help with the healing process, and in time, a slow pulse came from the man without the bubbling of blood.
Though relieved by that minor victory, Verena felt sick for another reason that teased her awareness, a sense of wrongness that was associated to the soldier. She slipped a hand out from underneath her Faer's and held it a short distance above the man's face. Slowly, she moved her hand down the sunburnt face and the wounded throat, uncaring of the droplets of blood that splattered against his skin. Her eyes of dark blue widened in horror when her hand reached the center of the soldier's chest.
"What is it?" Squall asked, his hand still clamped at the lightly bleeding injury.
Surprised, she looked at her Faer. "You can't feel that? His heart... It's being tortured."
Squall frowned and shook his head. "I don't sense anything, princess. Are you certain?"
Her lips tight with determination, Verena pressed her hand against the clothed chest and focused on the noxious energy that curled within the soldier. Instantly, the darkness lashed out and Verena jerked back her hand with a startled cry. Her thumb oozed blood from a small cut, much like the ones she would gain when careless while gathering roses for the house.
Squall grabbed her wrist and examined the slice. "Does it hurt?"
Verena shook her head. "It's fine. I can continue."
"It may be better to wait and research the spell first," Squall commented with a calm sidelong glance at the sorceress. "This is probably Hell's magic. Even if your connection to the dead helps you to feel this magic, it won't protect you while fighting such darkness."
Though worried by the idea and noticing the black hue of poison eating at her flesh, Verena argued, "It wants his life and he's too weak to fight it right now. If I don't remove it, Jaden may never wake again."
A dark eyebrow lifted with interest, but Squall didn't fight the matter. "Do what you must."
Relieved for his permission, one her father would have never given, Verena replaced her hand at the soldier's chest, hating her slight flinch at the idea of more pain. Closing her eyes, the sorceress focused on the writhing darkness and tried to draw the living energy from the man's body. Once again, sharp thorns lashed at her hand for the unwanted interference, but Verena held fast and imagined her magic wrapping around the thing like a strong hand, her father's hand. The moment her magic took hold, the dark thing increased its minor but poisonous attacks and nearly succeeded in loosening Verena's grasp. Putting her frustration and pain into her magic, Verena pulled on the darkness, and when she felt the thorns and slime against her flesh, she jerked up her hand to tear the thing from the man's flesh. Stunned by her success, Verena stared at the writhing darkness that had the appearance of a spiky tentacle... A tentacle that was slowly wrapping around her arm and trying to slip under her skin.
Fire flashed in the darkness and the thing squealed in pain as it rapidly dissolved into inky smoke. Exhausted, Verena was entranced by her Faer's flames that ate at the monster and burned the poison that had seeped into her flesh, but didn't harm her otherwise. Focused on that fire, she didn't notice the hand that had moved and abruptly grasped her wrist in a strong hold. She struggled briefly until noticing the bright emerald eyes that stared up at her from the bloody ground.
"You... took it..." the soldier whispered in a broken voice.
Uncertain how to respond, Verena nodded once.
Eyes narrowed, he argued weakly, "But... she said... no one could take it... and save me..."
With a slight smile, Verena suggested, "Ultimecia couldn't anticipate my existence, nor my inherited stubbornness."
The soldier frowned at the words. "But why...? I wanted... I tried to kill you."
"You didn't understand," the sorceress replied, and added for another time, "I'm not like that woman. I know I can't convince you, but--" Wheezing laughter broke off her argument.
"You kept me... from death and freed... my heart from years... upon years of pain.... I think... I owe you... a moment's doubt..." Briefly closing his eyes, Jaden requested, "But first... tell me Grandfather's name..."
<Ivon,> the spirit offered freely as he stepped close. His hands clasped around the one still wrapped around Verena's wrist, the touch of the faded soul causing the sorceress to shudder from the unearthly energy.
"His name is... was Ivon," she managed in reply, but when she glanced down at the soldier, his gaze had moved to the side and he seemingly focused on the ghost.
"Grand...father...?" Jaden whispered, but his eyes rolled back and closed as he succumbed to unconsciousness.
As the hand dropped from her arm, Verena realized her own exhaustion and slumped back against her Faer. "Did he... could he have seen his grandfather?"
With a vague shrug, Squall offered, "People tend to see things more clearly when straddling the edge of life and death."
Though wanting a better answer, Verena lifted a hand and gazed at her skin stained with blood. "Father isn't going to be happy about this, is he?"
"But you helped me."
"It wasn't my place to stop you."
Verena smiled faintly at her Faer's quiet way of supporting his children, once explaining that Shiva had led him to his present unimaginable life and he trusted the goddess to guide his son and daughter to their appropriate destinies. Closing her eyes, Verena pressed closer to her sorcerer father and lifted a hand to the necklace she had inherited hours earlier. Embraced by the twin energy of her Faer, the young noblewoman ignored the approaching and desperate call from her father and gave into the exhaustion of her body and soul.
His back against the door frame, Squall watched the scene unfolding within the confines of the small guest room that was intended to provide shelter and comfort to the soldiers and mercenaries Seifer considered worthy of his attention. While not the same room of his past, Squall remembered the day when he had laid bleeding and broken after the attack of too many Ravages. He had been prepared to die on that day, tired of his life in the shadows and sick of the pain that never seemed to end. If it hadn't been for Seifer and his obstinate nature to ignore the last request for 'no healer'...
"What is she doing in there? And why is she with that stalker?"
Squall smirked at the growled question and made certain to block Seifer's path into the room with subtle wind magic. "Verena is tending to his fever."
His face reddening at the casual reply, the blond lord demanded, "Am I the only one who understands that he tried to kill her?"
"Does that surprise you?"
Dumbfounded, Seifer stared at his lover. "What kind of question is that?"
Not answering directly, Squall gazed at his daughter and watched as she carefully wrung out cold water from a rag and laid it gently over the soldier's forehead. "It's the fault of your blood, you realize." When Seifer obviously didn't 'realize', the sorcerer clarified, "For whatever reason, those of Almasy blood seem to find it fascinating whenever someone tries to kill them."
"What? That's nonsen--"
"When did you fall in love with me?" Before the lord could reply, Squall quickly added, "And I don't mean when you became interested. I mean falling in love."
Seifer blinked in thought, truly considering the question before his eyes suddenly brightened, the realization subsequently making him frown.
Knowing the conclusion the man had reached, Squall voiced the answer Seifer didn't want to say. "That night of our first spar, I had the chance to kill you. A part of me regretted not taking that chance, especially after your sword pierced my shoulder, but I didn't want to make Leander cry. And then, of all things, you brushed your fingers through my hair with the excuse of leaves or the like." Blue-gray eyes focused on the flustered blond. "You always were the fool."
"That doesn't mean anything."
"Oh? Then what of Leander and meeting his bride when she tried to rob him in the Eastern Plains."
"He needed stitches, Seifer, and that's after the consideration of his diluted healer blood saving his life."
"She had a good reason," the blond lord said with a vague pout.
Though initially wary of the dark-skinned, blue-eyed thief, Seifer had quickly become fond of the woman, Sana, who had started an orphanage for unwanted children, several of which including those with sorcerer blood. Her past was checkered, but she ultimately had a good heart and was terribly protective of her children to the point of robbing nobles for coins that could be used on food and clothing. To Seifer, Sana was a daughter in the same sense Sekre was his brother and Squall found it amusing whenever the lord tried to deny that fact.
With an abrupt and sharp inhale, Seifer covered his face with a large hand. "A-ah shit, you may be right."
Squall hummed with interest at the sudden decision to believe his theory.
"My father... He liked to tell the story that he met my mother at some party. He startled her somehow, I imagine with a hand in the wrong place, and she pushed him, forgetting about the nearby stairs. He could've snapped his neck, but he survived with nothing more than a nasty gash at the back of his head. Mother swore it never happened that way, but she had this... fondness for stroking his head in that spot..." Groaning at the thought, Seifer declared, "I'm not giving my baby girl away, princeling. It's too soon for that."
Squall breathed a laugh at the hint of desperation in the man's words. "It's early yet. The man needs time to heal and Verena is too afraid to curse anyone with her life."
"Her life isn't a curse," Seifer insisted harshly.
"Hn, but few people could endure the challenges she has already faced and conquered."
Unable to deny the claim, Seifer sighed and wrapped his arms around the shorter man. With his green eyes focused on the sorceress seated attentively at her attacker's side, the lord reluctantly commented, "It's hard to remember that she doesn't fit in my arms like she used to."
"As of last night, she's technically a woman. The Lady Almasy."
"And one day, she's going to spread her wings and leave us forever." Considering his words, Seifer grumbled, "Are you still against building that tower next to the summer house?"
"Let her live, rya soaler'ke, as you taught me to live."
"Manipulative bastard," Seifer whispered as he brushed a kiss against the sorcerer's temple. "Fine, I'll reserve judgment on the kid in there, but if he breaks her heart..."
"I'll let you use my sword," Squall readily offered, his eyes glimmering with eager silver.
After a moment of fleeting surprise, Seifer grinned dangerously and tightened the hold on his lover. "You are gorgeous, my Prince."
Squall huffed lightly at the descriptor, but didn't argue as he returned to his watchful gaze over his daughter. While he wouldn't prevent Verena from making her own life choices, he wasn't about to trust the man who was the constant focus of her deep blue eyes. Relaxed against Seifer's larger body, Squall wondered if he was as prepared as he thought for Verena to venture out into the world. He knew it ultimately wasn't his choice, but his chest still ached at the idea.
"Tell me again what she'll become," Squall murmured, mimicking his requests back in the days when he feared giving birth to a sorceress.
His laugh light with memories, Seifer complied, "She'll be an angel, beautiful and strong in her compassion, and able to command magic that will touch people and give them life." After a kiss to the back of Squall's neck, the lord added, "And one day, I will forgive her for living up to my imagination."
"That would be something to witness," Squall commented.
~ > < ~
Away from the murmurs between the two men, the soldier on the bed opened his eyes to lazy slits and stared up at the ceiling that wasn't familiar, but nor was it threatening. In time, a delicate hand blocked the uninteresting view, and as he followed the retreat of that hand, he gazed up at the young woman who had adjusted the rag at his forehead. He knew what she was, a sorceress, but he also remembered the touch of her magic which had little in common with the Empress who had used him for experiments and laughed at his pain. While not entirely convinced of her innocence, he owed the young woman a chance to prove herself, not to mention a chance to make him understand.
His smile careful and slight, the man asked in a rough voice, "Didn't I try to kill you?"
Startled, but not frightened, the sorceress gradually matched his awkward smile and agreed, "Yes, you did."
Author's Whining -- Well now, that turned out a lot longer than I planned, but at least it came out rather painlessly. Thank you, Jess, for being an awesome and supportive beta in the past two years or so. I don't know if this is what you were expecting, but I hope you liked it nonetheless!
And on a side note, just in case someone tries to call me on it - yes, Verena can hear the elements. Squall's previous assumptions about sorceresses not interacting correctly with the elements is based on his experience with Ultimecia, who wasn't trained by sorcerers. She taught herself, along with some poor advice from summoned demons, and learned the 'brutal' way to interact with elements.