A Day in the Life
by Themis56
Themis56@aol.com


Author's Notes: This is a story about Rosa's life before the game's beginning. It tells how she became to be a White Wizard, and tells how she met...certain people. :) Don't expect a lot of action scenes, but there is a little political juggling now and then. I hope you like it!


BTW, there are some pretty dark, violent parts in this fic. Not many, and they're few and far between, but they're there. Also, there's some swearing and a lot of heavy stuff: depression, loneliness, and the like. I would rate this either a strong PG-13 or a straight out R. Can't say I didn't warn you!


Rosa and other related characters of FFII are property of Squaresoft. Aelia is my character, so I guess she's under my copyright! Law--who needs it?--Themis56


PART 1


The first rays of the sun peered timidly from behind the rugged mountain chains that surrounded the castle/town of Baron, throwing thin, slender slices of rays down onto the town, which, even at this early hour, was already hustling and bustling.


For Baron was a bustling, thriving town on its up way up in the world; it was even closing in on the glory and power of mighty Tororia. And the people, who knew this fact all too well, willingly broke their backs to keep the status quo where it was. Smoke poured out of the stacks from the blacksmith shops, the clacking of the weavers' looms resonated throughout the city, people set up booths in the market place and hawked all sorts of wares from all countries.


However, one resident of this booming city was not working today...or at least, not right at this moment.


She was neither tall nor short, and her frame was slender, but the awkwardness of early teenage years made her seem scrawny. Her face was pale, almost without pigment, but it went wonderfully well with her thick aureate hair. Two watery blue eyes were set prominently in her face, but right now those eyes were riveted on a small stream that meandered through the woods.


The girl watched the water-bugs skidding across the rippling surface of the water, and she peered down at the little minnows flashing here and there between rocks. Occasionally she caught site of a crawdad. When she saw one of these, she would reach down and, with a deft flick of the wrist, snatch the shellfish and flip it onto the grassy shore, where it would be promptly snatched up again and placed inside a covered wicker basket.


Unfortunately, the crawdads were not being cooperative today and the girl really didn't have her heart in the task, so she had only managed to catch three of the ugly things in two hours. Giving up the task for hopeless, the teenager silently rolled onto her back, placed her hands behind her golden head, and merely gazed up at the sky, only partly visible due to the canopy of leaves from the trees.


She hadn't been relaxing very long when the sound of heavy footsteps made her start, her eyes jerking open. At first, she saw only the heavy boot that was placed mere inches from her nose, but as her gaze quickly darted upward, her beating heart lessened its frantic pace a bit.


"Cid!" the girl managed to gasp, still a bit startled but smiling, "don't do that!"


"Eh!" the short, stocky man grinned down at her with large, square teeth that were almost as shiny as the glint from his large goggles, "Ya know ya like being scared, Rosie! Don't pretend that ya don't." Cid plopped himself down next to Rosa with a huge thud that almost literally shook the ground; the Engineer was short, but he was heavy.


"So, what brings you here, Cid?" Rosa inquired, sitting up and dusting the grass off her simple, homespun clothing.


"Well, sweetie, yer Mama's gettin' kinda flustered right now, wonderin' where you are...She's been lookin' all over Baron fer ya! She's grumbling about some chores that need doin', so, bein' the friend o' the family I am, I decided to let ya know..."


A small cry escaped Rosa's throat as she scrambled to her feet: "Oh, by all the Blue Planet! She told me that she needed me today! Oh, she's gonna kill me!"


"By the look on her face, I'd say that's what she'd do, all right!" Cid chortled, his goggled eyes gleaming wickedly, "If I were you, I'd vamoose and get back to town before that woman tears everything up lookin' fer ya! Don't worry! I'll arrange the funeral if things are as bad as they seem."


Rosa didn't have time to answer, even if she could retort--she settled for giving the burly Engineer as nasty a look as she could give before turning around and darting off towards Baron.


"Hey! What about your little buggers, here?" Cid called after her, holding up the basket.


"Just keep them!" Rosa hollered back, already a good distance away. Cid chuckled again and looked down at the three pathetic dead crawdads in the basket, licking his lips all the while.


"Free lunch! Oh, bless that sweet girl! Someone up there likes me!"


***********


Rosa ran all the way through the woods to Baron, never stopping once. It was quite understandable that when she reached the city, she was red in the face and disheveled looking--not a pretty sight. And her mother, who was waiting in the doorway of their house, her face like a thundercloud, let her know it the moment she arrived.


"Bahamut's Blood, girl! You're quite a picture!" Rosa's mother, a rather formidable matron, frowned darkly at the girl. Rosa had learned long ago never to make excuses to her mother, or to apologize; instead, she simply bowed her head and took the full blow.


Rosa loved her mother dearly, and she knew that her mother loved her, it was simply the fact that Delia Farrell had the work ethic of an entire anthill, and expected the same from all of her family. Even her husband, the late Sir Gharri Farrell, had not escaped the critical tongue of his wife. And since the death of the gentle, soft-spoken Sir Farrell, Rosa's mother now had only her gangly, and, to her view, somewhat lazy daughter to harp on.


"I told you many times earlier this week that today was an important cleaning day, you silly girl," Delia Farrell continued in a softer and less stern voice, "But you always forget! What am I going to do with you, Rosie? Tack notes to your forehead with a nail?"


"I don't always forget," Rosa protested, smiling her gentle, warm smile, "I didn't forget last week. I think my record's gone up the past few months."


"Only because Cid goes after and reminds you!" her mother snorted, "But even I thought you wouldn't forget today because..."


"Oh, Delia, lay off, why don't you? Today's a day of rejoicing! And why? Because..." another voice, lower and less strident, complete with Agartian drawl, came from behind the two females at the door. Suddenly, with a flash of purple and scarlet, a figure playfully jerked Delia Farrell back into the house and took her place, holding its arms open wide.


"Aelia Farrell is heeeere!" the woman sang out, enveloping Rosa in a crushing embrace, making tears come to the young girl's shining blue eyes.


"Hullo, Aunt Aelia!" Rosa gasped when she released, smiling widely up at the woman before her, her eyes sparkling.


Aelia was a giantess of a woman, almost reaching the six foot mark, and her appearance was exotic and a bit strange, for it looked as if all the nations of the Blue Planet had contributed something in making her. She had the olive skin of a Fabul karate fighter; her face was sharp-featured and broad just like a Tororian; her black hair and accent were products of her own hometown, Agart; and she had the almond-shaped, slightly slanted eyes of an Eblan ninja.


Her clothing was exotic, too, for it was the light, slightly baggy clothing of an Eblanian, and it was dyed such a dark purple that it almost seemed black. A bright maroon cape and sash topped off the outfit. In the midst of the elegant, genteel fashions of Baron, she looked like a walking disaster area. Baronians had little taste for foreign countries.


"So, how was your trip to Silveria?" Rosa inquired, clasping her hands together; Aelia was always full of tales of her diplomatic adventures.


"Oh, it was a sight, I can tell you!" Aelia laughed, putting an arm around Rosa's shoulders and leading her towards the door, "Did you know that every single resident of Silveria is either a frog, a Small Person, or a pig?"


"No! That can't be true!" Rosa shot her aunt a look that said: give me a break.


"No, I swear it! You don't believe me?" Aelia grinned, arching a dark eyebrow; suddenly, she turned around and shouted out, "HEY, CID!! IS IT TRUE ABOUT THE PEOPLE IN SILVERIA?!"


Cid, who had just returned to town and had been walking home, looked across the street at the owner of the voice, laughed, and shook his head.


"NO! Of course not! Don't believe a word that woman says, Rosa! She's a filthy liar! All of them Agartians are!" Cid returned, spitting on the ground for emphasis.


"Oh, thank you so much, Pollendina! Thank you so bloody much! Come over here, you freakish dwarf, and let me talk to you! Come in for something to drink!" Aelia laughed, beckoning to the Engineer.


"It's all right, Cid! I'll make sure she won't hurt you!" Rosa piped up merrily. Her aunt's presence here made everything seem happier, brighter, more pleasant. You simply could not keep a straight face with Aunt Aelia; you were usually laughing or smiling as you shot back insults at her. And when Cid and Aelia locked horns...well, it was even better than watching a Meteo spell. Rosa sighed happily and turned to go inside to set the table for company.


**********


"So, Pollendina, how goes that crazy project of yours?" Aelia arched an inquiring eyebrow as she set down her mug of apple cider.


" ŽCrazy'?! Ya think my airship is crazy?!" Cid demanded, slamming his own mug down and glaring from his goggles; Rosa's mother, alarmed by the overly dramatic response, began to wring her hands. Although Cid was a friend of the Farrell family, Delia didn't enjoy it when he was in her house...at least not when he was getting rather tipsy with cider, anyway.


"I'm tellin' ya, Aelia, it's gonna be the best thing ever invented! I've almost finished! And when I get one of those babies up in the air, the whole world's gonna be changed! Think o' it! No more riding dirty, ugly chocobos everywhere! Traveling over the oceans will take only hours! And, to top it all off, it's gonna let people fly!! It'll change everything, I tells ya!" Cid continued, roaring at the top of his lungs.


"Oh, yeah, it'll change everything all right!" Aelia snorted, her slanted eyes now looking a tad uneasy, "Provided that you get one off the ground. I'll believe it when I see it with my own eyes."


"Oh, please. What's wrong with you two?" Rosa sighed, cutting off Cid's response, "How did you ever get along when you were in the Academy?" She decided it would be best to steer the conversation away from the present subject; Cid was always touchy about people making fun of his inventions, whether they were actually in existence or no.


"Because my brother was there," Aelia retorted a bit tartly, crossing her arms dramatically and giving Cid a good glare, "Cid didn't dare pull anything on me when he was around...but the moment his back was turned..."


"Then I gave you all hell, didn't I?" Cid returned with a triumphant grin, "Yeah...Gharri was the tops, all right. Nice, friendly, a hell-demon with a sword...why couldn't you be more like him, Aelia? Eh?"


"That's what my teachers always said to me," Aelia sighed, a small smile flickering on her face. Every time she and Cid spoke, the subject of the conversation always turned towards the late Sir Farrell.


"Oh, will you stop talking about that?!" Delia Farrell demanded suddenly, leaning forward in her seat, a terrible look on her face, "All you two ever talk about is Gharri! He's dead! Why must you bring him up?"


"Mama, please, stop it!" Rosa hissed in a frightened voice, tugging imploringly at her mother's sleeve.


"Delia, he was my brother! I think that I have the right to talk about the man! If you don't like being reminded, my dear sister-in-law, then I suggest you not hang around when Cid and I talk about him!" Aelia snapped, her brows furrowing.


Rosa felt her cheeks burn brightly as she fidgeted in her chair, twisting the cloth of her dress into a sweaty knot. ŽWhy, oh why do they have to argue in front of company? Why do they even have to argue at all?' she thought wildly, casting an apologetic glance at Cid. The Engineer returned the glance, gave her a little nod of understanding, and proceeded to rise from the table.


"Er..If you'll all excuse me now...I've got to work on lotsa stuff...You how the King's driving me like a donkey nowadays. Thank ya much for yer hospitality, Mrs. Farrell. Rosie, you take care now, and don't ferget to do yer chores next time! And Aelia, am I gonna see you at the castle tomorrer?" Cid stammered out, shuffling from one foot to the other and giving his childhood friend a timorous glance.


"I'm afraid not, my good man! I've been riding all week, and I expect to have some rest and relaxation with my niece tomorrow! But after tomorrow, expect me to be there! And next time, we'll get our refreshments at the castle cafe! Seems we can't talk about the good old times in private." Aelia shot Delia a glance as she said these words; the good matron fumed silently, obviously restraining her tongue with great difficulty.


A small groan escaped Rosa's lips; trust Aunt Aelia to make the situation worse. How could a woman so talented at handling perfect strangers be so tactless with her own family? Rosa shook her head silently and hastily gathered up the assorted cups and saucers to take them into the kitchen for washing.


As she scrubbed the dishes, Rosa heard the faint sounds of voices from the next room: harsh, hissing voices. One eye flinched as she scrubbed the dishes even harder, drowning out all other sounds.


********


"Riiise and shiine!"


The loud voice singing right into her ear jerked Rosa from her sleep, making her shoot up to a sitting position with a small shriek.


"Well, that gotcha up! No one can resist my lovely singing voice, can they? I should be in the o-per-a!" Aelia beamed down at her niece, a wicked gleam in her eyes.


"You wouldn't get very far if you made everyone who heard you sing stone deaf! Oh, Aunt Aelia, I think you've shot my right ear," Rosa glared up at the mischievous woman hovering above her, grasping tightly at her ear is if merely doing that would make the buzzing sensation go away.


"Oh, whine, whine, whine. Up with you, you slacker! We've got so much to do and no time at all to do it in!" Aelia crowed, whipping Rosa's bedsheets off with one swift motion of her wrists.


Rosa, chilled by the sensation of the early morning air around her, quickly scrambled out of bed towards a small wooden chest that held her small assortment of clothing, glaring at her aunt all the while. What was wrong with her today? More often than not, Aelia was a fairly calm, collected individual, not this annoying whirl of hyperactivity.


"Er...Aunt Aelia, if you'll excuse me...?" Rosa gave a small scowl over her shoulder as she fumbled through her clothes chest. Aelia grinned, gave her a jaunty bow, and quickly exited the room. Rosa rolled her eyes upwards and let out a huffing breath. If her aunt didn't calm down a tad, Rosa was sure she'd be driven insane before the day was out.


*******


"Aunt Aelia! Slow down!!" Rosa laughed, a high, melodious, clear laugh, as she bounced up and down roughly on the saddle of her chocobo, the wind whistling through every hair on her head.


"Nonsense!" Aelia laughed back, "They're feisty, these birds, and they want to run! So, let Žem run! Ha!" She gave her yellow mount a light swat on the rump, making it chirp joyously and break into a full-out gallop. Rosa couldn't help but look on silently at the retreating back of her aunt; Aelia was a superb rider, one of the best in all of Baron. If she hadn't gone into politics, she would have made a champion race jockey. No chocobo was ever hatched that could throw Aunt Aelia, no matter how wild or ornery. Rosa only wished that she had inherited some of the gift. It was all she could do to keep her aunt in her line of vision, much less keep pace with her.


After a few more minutes of galloping through the forest, Aelia drew her mount to a halt; Rosa, feeling queasy, was all too willing to follow suit.


"Now!" Aelia laughed, massaging her hands to get the feel of the reins out of them as she jumped off her bird, "Now, we'll see what this little patch of forest has to offer! I just hope Cid wasn't lying to me when he told me about this place. Hmmph! Knowing my luck, there's probably not a mushroom to be had."


"What, Cid lie? Never!" Rosa grinned, staggering out of her saddle, massaging her aching thighs.


"Saddle-sore, my dear?" Aelia snickered, her slanted black eyes dancing wickedly.


"Well, it's only because I don't have a backside of steel like yours!" Rosa retorted, kneeling down onto the grass and searching for the purported mushrooms that Cid had described to them yesterday before the Žbrother incident'.


"Rosa, I am shocked and appalled! What if your mother heard you talking? For shame!" her aunt baited, also falling on hands and knees.


"It's because you bring out the worst in me. It's like that with everyone you talk with. I bet Cid was a nice, respectable man before you two met at the Academy, and now look at him!" Rosa took the bait gladly. Although she didn't mind being studious and quiet, nor did she deny that she could be a bit of a stiff when it came to social occasions, she loved bantering with her aunt. Aelia gave her niece more license, more freedom to speak her mind than most did, and that was one of the many reasons Rosa loved her aunt so. Aelia, being the daughter of an Agartian peasant farmer, could be rather vulgar at times--neither Rosa nor her mother approved of that little flaw--but her wit was a keen one, and Rosa had inherited her aunt's love of saucy humor... though she was not often at liberty to show it.


"So, Aunt Aelia, what was the trip to Silveria like? You told me about the place, but you didn't tell what happened on the way there, and that's always the best part. Oh, here they are!" Rosa prompted as she came upon a vast patch of wild, nonpoisonous mushrooms and immediately began to pluck them by the handful, tossing them into her basket.


Aelia began a long, rambling, highly amusing yarn about a stupid guide and dyspeptic chocobos. Soon the quiet sounds of jokes, laughter, and small snatches of folk songs could have been heard in the small patch of forest had anyone been passing by then.


The two were having a glorious time, Rosa especially; she had friends in Baron, and they were pleasant enough, but they were dull. Whenever they talked, it was either about boys or clothing or books or gardening. Only the third truly interested Rosa, but it was the one least discussed. Besides, all of her friends were young girls coming up in the world: most of them had already been sent off to the King's court for their higher educations, and Rosa saw less and less of them every day. But with Aunt Aelia, Rosa could discuss things that were important to her, and she didn't have to be proper, either. She simply spoke her mind, and Aelia listened.


Once Aelia had finished her tale, Rosa once again diverted all of her attention to gathering mushrooms. It was only when she looked up a few minutes later that she realized that her aunt was no longer in the mushroom clearing with her.


Rosa didn't panic. Her aunt was an inquisitive type, always looking at some lichen growing on the bark of a tree or examining the tracks of a wild animal, and so she often wandered off. Still, Rosa liked to have an idea of where her vagrant aunt was, so she stood up and peered through the trees that surrounded her.


A slight movement of black overhead caught the young teenager's eye; she glanced up and saw Aelia, crouching among the branches of an old oak tree. Rosa was about to speak, but Aelia put a finger to her lips and silently beckoned her to come closer.


"Look, look over on the other side of the tree," Aelia whispered almost inaudibly, jerking her head ever so slightly over her shoulder. Rosa did as she was bidden, and the sight that met her eyes made her nearly forget to breathe.


There, taking tentative mouthfuls of the lush, verdant grass, was a stunningly beautiful doe, its wide eyes black as jet and shining in the small streams of sunlight that filtered through the canopy. And next to the doe was a young fawn, not two days old, Rosa figured, standing on slightly shaking legs so thin that the young girl got the impression that just giving one of them a good squeeze would break the bone.


Rosa nearly laughed aloud, but she caught herself just in time. She didn't want to startle the deer. Instead, she settled on raising her eyes up into the canopy above her, locking eyes with her aunt; they shared a broad smile.


A soft swishing sound and a faint thump broke the silence; Rosa whipped her head around in the direction of the noise. She saw the doe, now facing away from her, trembling slightly on its legs before collapsing onto its knees, its breath coming in ragged gasps as blood started to ooze out of its mouth. A large spear had neatly transfixed the doe right through her neck.


Rosa couldn't help herself: she began to scream. She screamed and stumbled out of her hiding place, making her way over to the writhing doe.


It was horrible. The doe was now spitting blood, shaking violently all over as it struggled to get back onto its feet but never succeeding, its cloudy black eyes forming a glaze. Rosa started to sob and, without thinking, gently withdrew the spear. A torrent of blood gushed out, spraying the grass and Rosa's hands and clothing with a bright shower of crimson.


Ignoring the sticky river, the young girl somehow managed to place her hands on the throat of the jerking doe, closing her eyes tightly as she focused all of her being on drawing out the power inside of her.


For Rosa had a special, wonderful gift that only her mother knew. She could heal things by merely touching them. She often healed her small cuts, burns, and bruises this way; it took a bit of effort, but it was better than waiting days for them to heal of their own accord. Not even Aelia knew of this power, only Rosa's mother. Both Delia and her daughter had agreed never to tell anyone in Baron about her gift because it would bring them both out into the public eye, and probably the King would recruit Rosa into the Order of White Wizards, and, despite their differences and small quarrels, neither of them wished to be separated.


As she concentrated, Rosa felt a tingling sensation spread throughout her fingers and palms; a small patch of bright white light formed in the darkness of her shut eyes. The tingling swelled into a warmth as energy began to flow out of her hands; the river of blood was not flowing nearly as violently now.


Suddenly, her concentration was shattered by the sounds of voices nearby--loud, angry voices. She snapped open her eyes with a gasp, sweat streaming down her blood-freckled cheeks (healing always drained something out of her), and looked down at the doe, now still.


Although the great wound in its throat was healed without a scar, the deer was dead.


"What in Hell did you do that for?!" Aelia's voice, faint and distant sounding, snarled, piercing through the thick numbness in Rosa's head. The girl looked up, and this time nearly fainted with terror.


For Aelia was standing face-to-face with a large, slender man garbed in the fatigues of a Royal Guard of Baron, a crimson cloak draped around his shoulders. Both of them had angry, horrible expressions plastered on their faces, and their eyes were glittering dangerously. A small group of men, probably Dragoons, were standing off to one side, watching with amused expressions on their faces.


"Shut up!! I do not need to answer to you!" the man roared back savagely.


"Hold your tongue, boy! I know who you are. You're that presumptuous asshole, Baigan, aren't you? The toady of the Guard! I should have known. Only someone as stupid," here Aelia spat out each word in Baigan's face, splattering him with saliva, "moronic, bullying, half-witted, and stuck-up as you would kill an innocent deer when they aren't even in season yet! Wait till I tell the King! Oho, then you'll catch it!"


Baigan gave out a roar of fury and lunged towards Aelia, making Rosa scream again, but he was caught by one of the Dragoons before he could inflict any harm on her.


"Baigan, you idiot! Don't you know who that is?! That's Aelia Farrell! One of His Majesty's top advisors and diplomats! Don't make her mad at you, or she'll have your ass on a platter!" the Dragoon, a tall, handsome, lanky youth with long golden hair warned, drawing back the enraged Baigan.


"Aha! The King's little stooge! The country bumpkin!" the Guard laughed, spitting at Aelia's feet.


Rosa shifted her gaze up towards Aelia's face, and she shuddered. Her aunt was utterly fuming, her dark slanted eyes glittering with a red fever. If there was one thing Aelia hated more than anything else, it was being told that she was merely a pawn of the King, an instrument with no free will of her own. Although she was not a reactionary, nor did she ever go against King Odin's orders, for Odin was a benign, just ruler, Rosa knew that Aunt Aelia did not support monarchies as much as she should have.


" ŽStooge', am I?" Aelia growled, all of her diplomatic training abandoning her as she flashed Baigan a very ungenteel hand gesture, "Well, it takes one to know one, doesn't it? I've seen how you kowtow and grovel to the King, all that shameless flattery. At least I have some shred of dignity left in me, you little worm, you sniveling cockroach! Oh, you are on your way to a glorious future of licking mud of boots, I warrant! Well, good riddance! Come, my dear, let's leave the boot-black with his prize." Aelia stooped down next to her niece and took her arm. It was then Aelia noted that the doe's neck was now whole and without a scar. Her eyes widened a bit, but she quickly regained her composure and helped Rosa up from the ground, leaving Baigan and the Dragoons to gape at the unblemished corpse of the deer.


**********


Rosa rocked back and forth in her bed, her hands linked about her knees in a tight, uncomfortable knot; she couldn't get to sleep, no matter how hard she tried. It had been about two hours since she had gotten into bed, and not even the slightest shred of sleep had descended on her. The events of that morning had simply unnerved her.


A knock came on her door, startling her from her thoughts.


"Rosa? Can I come in?" Aunt Aelia's voice drifted in through the thick wooden door.


"Yes."


Aelia entered, quietly shut the door, and sat down next to Rosa on her bed.


"Still sad about the deer, Rosa?" the older woman sighed, a sad smile on her face.


Rosa nodded and inquired, "What will happen to the fawn?"


"Oh, Rosa, I don't know. I honestly don't know. But I think..." Aelia's voice was as strained as her face, "I think that it will die. It was so young, Rosa. Still nursing. Without its mama to give it milk, it'll probably starve."


Rosa sniffled, but no tears came this time; crying was simply too much.


"Rosa, I'm sad about it too, but...it's only a deer and a fawn. It's not like it's an endangered species. There're thousands of others out in the woods..." Aelia consoled, but Rosa interrupted her.


"It's not that, Aunt Aelia. I mean, I'm sorry for the deer and all, but...it was just so pointless! Why did they do it? What drove them to it, killing a living thing so heartlessly like that? I mean, if they were truly hunting for food, I'd understand, but they just killed it for no reason! Why?!" Rosa demanded, her face pale and lined.


"My dear," Aelia responded with a thin, slight smile as she threw an arm around her niece's thin shoulders, "you will find that there are many in this world who do wicked things just for the sake of being wicked. That deer was killed merely for the thrill of killing, that's all there is to it. That jerk Baigan is a cold, ruthless, heartless wretch, and, this is the hardest part, the world's full of people like him. But...on the other hand...there are also people like you Rosa, people who value and respect life. And you help balance out the ruin the jerks of this world spread." Aelia suddenly looked into Rosa's face with a sharp, piercing gaze that seemed to look at every facet of her soul.


"Rosa," she continued, "do you want to live a useful, fulfilling life with glory and honor at the end of it?"


"Who doesn't, Aunt Aelia?"


"I'll take that as a Žyes.' That's good to hear," Aelia beamed proudly, ruffling her niece's silky blonde hair; then she spoke again, this time in a rapid whisper, "Your mother and I have been talking about what happened today. Rosa, I don't know how you got this power you had, nor did I even know about it until today. You could have told me, you know"--her eyes narrowed slightly--"We're too close to have any secrets between us."


"Aunt Aelia, I'm sorry--" Rosa stammered, but her aunt interrupted her once more.


"Never mind that. I'm not angry. But after a long talk, I managed to convince your mother to allow you to go to the castle and train to be a White Mage. Of course, you don't have to go if you don't want, but I strongly suggest it if you want to truly learn how to use White Magic, to grow and expand it so that you can save people from death. You may not have been able to save that doe, Rosa, but with proper training you can save more than the life of an animal. Of course, you will have to move away from home...and you won't be seeing either me or your mother nearly as often. It's your choice, Rosa."


Rosa didn't respond for a long time. Her mind was a whirlwind of confused thoughts and emotions, so confusing that it was all she could do to keep her thoughts remotely coherent. She struggled through the pros and cons of the decision, and both equaled the other. Rosa felt trapped...what was she to do?


ŽJust go with the feeling that seems right,' was the thought that came to her. Rosa's tightly shut eyes opened slightly, her mouth curving up into the smallest smile.


"I'll do it."


"You might find this a biased opinion, my dear, but I think you made the right choice," Aelia could hardly contain her glee, her smile brimming from one ear to the next as she swept Rosa up in a crushing bear-hug.


When she was finally released from her aunt's vice-like grip, Rosa took in several gasps of air and rubbed her aching ribs, smiling ruefully up at her aunt.


"I'm already having doubts," she teased, "It's made you too happy. There's got to be a catch in it somewhere."


Aelia only laughed in response as she fished something out of the leather pouch slung around her waist. After a bit of rooting around, she produced something that shimmered dimly in the wan light of the single candle that illuminated Rosa's bedroom. It was a coronet of white pearls, all smooth and perfectly spherical. A medium-sized crystal, cut in the shape of a tear-drop, sparkled brightly with a thousand pinpoints of light, even in the dull light of the candle.


"This has been in the Farrell family for years. We've had our share of White Mages in our earlier days, and this has been passed on from one generation to the next. I never used it, of course. I have no Magic. It must have all been given to you, you selfish thing. Anyway, I was saving this for your sixteenth birthday, but now...I think it's best that I give it to you now. This is an event even more important than a birthday. Come on, let's see how it looks on you." Aelia explained as she looped the circlet of pearls over Rosa's locks. They were a bit lopsided.


"Yeah, they're gorgeous! Wear Žem just like that!" Aelia snickered, tugging at the strand of white so that it was even more crooked.


"Stop that!" Rosa giggled, adjusting the pearls so that they looked proper; she was starting to feel a bit better.


"You're no fun. Just like your mother. Oh, well. It's not your fault, I guess; dullness is inherited from the parents," Aelia teased.


"Will I have to pack my things tomorrow?" Rosa asked, growing more serious.


"No, not yet. We have to see the King first. You see, there weren't many positions for White Mages in the castle the last time I checked...but it's been a month, so there might be a few openings now. Besides..." here Aelia gave a sly wink, "the King, I think, will be very pleased with the outcome of the treaty I made with Silveria. And that just might put him in a good enough mood to give you a position somewhere. I have no doubt that we'll get you a spot in the White Mages' dorms. However, you must come with me so he can see you in person. But, no, don't pack yet. There's still a slight chance, and I take no chances in family matters. But don't worry! God, you look so upset! You'll do fine!" Aelia laughed at her niece's horrified expression as she patted Rosa's cheek.


"Are you sure?" Rosa asked timidly, raising her large blue eyes to meet Aelia's slanted black ones.


"Of course! Don't worry about a thing! Now, it's late. Go to sleep, dream well, and prepare for a new life!" Aelia smiled warmly as she tucked Rosa in as if she were six years old instead of fourteen. She gave Rosa a kiss on the cheek and blew out the candle before leaving Rosa to her own thoughts.


It had been a memorable day, indeed.


PART TWO


Even though it was a perfect summer morning, neither hot nor cold, Rosa shivered. She was dolled up in her nicest dress, which wasn't saying much: a long-sleeved gown made from satin that once had been a deep rose color, but now age and many washings had reduced it to a fainter hue. It wasn't the most ideal thing to wear when seeing the King, but it was the best Rosa's mother had been able to afford, and, although it was still a hair too large for the scrawny teenager, it looked pretty nice.


"Stop lagging back there, dearie! It'll be sunset before we even reach the castle!" Aelia, who was walking at a brisk pace several feet ahead of her niece, called over her shoulder, a slightly impatient look on her face.


"Good! Then maybe they won't let us in, and then I can just go home!" Rosa retorted, deliberately walking even slower.


"Ah, you're impossible!" Aelia muttered, doubling back towards Rosa. When the two met, Aelia snatched up her niece's arm and practically dragged her the rest of the route to Castle Baron.


**********


"Ho! Who goes there?" a guard standing in front of the castle's main gates bellowed out, tilting his spear so that it barred Aelia and Rosa's way. Suddenly, the guard's eyes, the only part of his face not covered by his helmet, narrowed dangerously and he swore, "Oh, dear God, not you again!"


"What?! You boorish little twit! Who in Hades are you?" Aelia demanded, her face growing a bit red. The guard removed his helmet with a mocking, sweeping gesture, revealing the face of the man named Baigan. Rosa thought of walking up and giving him a hearty smack in the face, but she wisely decided against it.


"You?! Of all the people they could have had on guard duty today, and they pick you! Just my luck. Well, Brighteyes, why don't you let us through? The farther I get away from you, the happier I'll be." Aelia ordered, pushing to get around Baigan's spear.


"What if I don't feel like it?" Baigan demanded in a very malicious voice, thrusting Aelia back with his spear. Aelia's face was so contorted with rage that Rosa was afraid that a bloody fracas would ensue, but, luckily for all concerned, Fortune decided to intervene.


A small shower of rusted bolts and lug-nuts suddenly descended upon Baigan, a small chorus of ping ping ping! resounding as the little metal pieces struck his armor.


"What the--!?" Baigan glared up at the source of his irritation. Aelia and Rosa glanced up as well, and Rosa could have fainted for sheer relief.


For there, grinning down upon them all from atop the portcullis, was Cid, an empty bucket dangling from his hands.


"Now, now, boys and girls, there's no need ta get all riled up!" he laughed down at them, "Baigan, you little smartass, jes' do yer damn duty and open up the frackin' gates! Hello, Aelia! Gettin' into trouble early today, I see. Why, hello, Rosie! You look like a picture today!"


"Yeah, but you never say a picture of what! You're probably insulting me!" Rosa laughed, crinkling her eyes up at the Engineer.


"Nonsense! I've never insulted anyone in my entire life!" Cid barked, still grinning that enormous white grin. Rosa stuck her tongue out at him before following her aunt through the gates.


***********


"Say, Aelia, yer goin' ta see the King?" Cid inquired, having caught up with the two ladies in the castle's entry hall.


"No. I only hauled my lazy niece half a mile out of town just to see the pretty castle. Of course I am!" Aelia shot back gleefully, smoothing out her diplomat's robe.


"Well, he ain't in the throne room. He's out on the main training field, watching the soldiers strut their stuff," Cid reported, gesturing with a large, grease-stained wooden hammer towards a door that led outside.


"Much obliged, Cid. See you around, all right? Say, I might come to your workshop after supper to see what crazy things you're working on, okay?"-- although she wasn't an expert at mechanics, Aelia was of a scientific bent, and she liked watching Cid tinker--"And get that stupid hammer away from me! It's disgusting," Aelia wrinkled her nose at the smell of grease as she led Rosa to the door. The Engineer only laughed and surreptitiously wiped some grease off on Aelia's robe as she passed by him.


***********


The large training fields of Castle Baron were packed with legions upon legions of soldiers, each division divided into meticulously straight rows of armed men, their armor winking and glittering under the morning sun. Although there were only three main classes of soldiers--the Knights, the Dragoons, and the Royal Guard--each class had several legions under its banner. The Knights, being the most exclusive and difficult of the three, had only five legions; the Royal Guard was the largest, containing eight, while the Dragoons consisted of seven. And today every single legion was on the training fields, assembled before the King of Baron.


As she followed her aunt onto the training fields, Rosa's skin became clammy with sweat and an unpleasant sensation welled up in her stomach. Except when with her family, Rosa was a painfully shy girl; large crowds of strangers always made her nervous. She could barely force herself to go into the marketplace at the rush hour, let alone be seen in front of the nearly two thousand soldiers.


ŽMaybe Aunt Aelia will go around instead of walking straight in front of them,' Rosa silently comforted herself, swallowing hard as she stared at the back of her aunt, willing her to go around the backs of the soldiers to get to the dais on which the King sat.


No such luck for the hapless Rosa; Aelia was bent on taking the most direct route. The two made their way straight up to the dais, walking in front of all those peering, prying eyes. Rosa forced herself to look only at the back of Aunt Aelia, never turning her head to face the crowds of soldiers; however, she could feel their stares boring into the back of her skull. She took a deep breath and willed herself not to pass out.


After what seemed to Rosa to be a horribly agonizing eternity but in actuality was only a few minutes, they stopped before the King's dais. Rosa, desperate for action, quickly bowed, rather awkwardly, too. She felt absurd: she was wearing a dress that was one size too large for her thin frame, her hair had spilled into her eyes as she bowed, and she knew that she was blushing and sweating as if there was no tomorrow. She flickered an envious glance over to her aunt, who coolly gave the King a salute instead of a bow.


King Odin's broad, ruddy face broke into a smile when he saw who approached him; he leaned over to one of his main generals and commanded in his cheery, deep voice, "General, please stop the fight for a moment and give my poor boys a breather! State affairs. Besides, they've been killing themselves, fighting so hard out in this heat! They may resume when my business is concluded."


"HARVEY! HIGHWIND!! His Majesty has business to attend to! Lay down your arms and take a break! You'll start again when he's ready!" one of the generals thundered in a stentorian voice that resounded throughout the training fields. The scuffling sounds of fighting ceased at once as Rosa saw two youths lay down their arms and retreat to opposite sides of a marked out square drawn on the grass.


"So, Aelia Farrell! Back at last from Silveria! How did it go?" King Odin boomed down from his lofty seat.


"Excellent, Sir! But if I may be so bold...." Aelia began, stepping forward, but a single sharp, reproving glare from her monarch stopped her cold.


"Aelia, please. Not in front of the troops. At least pretend to have some shred of respect for my position in public," Odin murmured down at the tall, slender woman standing before him. Aelia's face turned bright red, and her teeth clamped together so tightly that several small veins were visible on her jawbone; her eyes flashed angrily. Rosa felt her breath freeze in her chest as she glanced nervously about her; she did not relish the prospect of her aunt defying the King right in front of his own soldiers.


Aelia and King Odin locked glances for a long, horrible moment before the former slowly but surely sank down onto one knee, her flashing dark eyes never once looking away. Rosa couldn't resist the urge to let out a sigh of relief. Disaster had been averted.


ŽWhy, oh why must she be so defiant? Father was never like that. Where did she get it from?' Rosa groaned to herself, looking up heavenward.


Still, Rosa felt terrible for Aunt Aelia; her humiliation was so palpable that it could have been cut with a knife. And Rosa could tell by looking at her aunt's face that the poor woman could barely restrain herself from crying.


"I apologize, my Lord," Aelia mumbled in a wavering voice, "I forgot that a monarch must always look his best, especially before his own army. Do forgive me. But, to resume. The negotiations in Silveria went extremely well. However, I have a suit to bring before you. After I put forth my proposition, then I shall tell you everything that occurred in Silveria. If I may...?"


"Of course. Rise, Aelia Farrell, and ask of me what you will. What would I not give to my head diplomat, my advisor, and my close friend? Speak!" Odin boomed aloud in a voice that echoed all throughout the training fields, waving his hand in an all-encompassing gesture as he descended the dais steps. When he reached Aelia, he gently helped her up on her feet and gave her two kisses, one on each cheek, the sign of royal favor.


"Sir, I have a niece, a girl of whom I am extremely fond. I wish to make her a part of the castle's occupants..." Aelia motioned for Rosa to step forward. The teenager timorously did as she was ordered, silently moving with small steps; when she reached the King, she gave the most graceful curtsey she could muster.


" I am sorry...I do not recall..." the King stammered, losing quite a good amount of his regal composure as he stared with blank eyes at Rosa.


"Sir, this is Sir Gharri's daughter," Aelia prompted helpfully, standing behind Rosa and clamping her hands down on the girl's trembling shoulders. The King's eyes went wide with recognition as Rosa stared down at the ground silently.


"Why, of course! Do forgive me, dear child! Yes, she does look like Gharri, doesn't she? What is your name?" the King inquired gently, stepping forward and raising up Rosa's chin to get a better look at her face.


"R-Rosa, Sire," Rosa stammered, going quite pale with nervousness; King Odin, seeing her discomfort, gently let go of her chin.


"And what is it you desire, my child?"


"I...I wish to be a..." Rosa took a deep breath and then burst out, "I want to be a White Wizard, Sire."


Odin's brow furrowed slightly and he drew back, saying, "My dear, there are no posts available in the Order of White. All of the living quarters have been filled."


Rosa's face collapsed along with her heart; she felt like crying, right in front of all the soldiers.


"Very well, Sir. But may I propose a solution?" Aelia stepped forward, placing her hands on Rosa's shoulders and squeezing gently, "Are you sure there are no posts at all in the castle? She doesn't have to live with the White Wizards, you know. She can be a cook, a handmaiden, anything! All I ask is that she have some form of training. Some is better than none. Besides, she has great potential! A little training can go a long way. Are you sure nothing can be arranged? Whenever there is a vacancy in a class, can't she fill in? She will be useful. Furthermore," here her voice grew low, "I have never asked much for myself. My dear Odin, my friend, I have done you many favors and requested little in return. Now would be a good time to make it up. If you do this, I will not ask anything of you for a long time."


Odin looked from Aelia to Rosa, looking closely at both of them before his face relaxed slightly and he smiled.


"All right, Aelia, you win. The castle needs more maids to help keep the place tidy. Not the most glamorous job, but it's one that is readily available. Well, Rosa?" Odin cocked an eyebrow at the girl. Rosa was so overwhelmed with relief and triumph that she couldn't say one word. She just nodded.


"Well, that's that, then! Come, Aelia, and you too, Rosa, and watch these men train. They're doing quite well, and it's entertaining to watch. General, give those two the word to resume," the King took both Farrells by the hand and led them up to sit next to him on the dais.


"Aelia, couldn't you at least have come here with clean clothes?" the King sighed, staring at the grease stain on his advisor's cloak. Both Aelia and Rosa glanced down at the smudge; Rosa began to giggle slightly, and Aelia smiled gamely.


"I swear, that man is going to be the death of me. I must remember to Žaccidentally' break one of his precious inventions this evening," Aelia muttered, sitting down on a chair. Rosa took a seat right next to her aunt.


The duel resumed, and Rosa couldn't help but notice the two youths fighting: one of them was a Dragoon, the other a Dark Knight, and since both of them had removed their helmets because of the heat, she could see their faces clearly.


The Dragoon she recognized as the one who had restrained Baigan from hurting Aunt Aelia in the forest. She did not know the Dark Knight's name, but a faint sensation of recognition tugged at her mind, making her frown slightly. The youthful Knight had silver-white hair, a strange and exotic color...and she thought for a second that she had seen it before.


She felt as if she had once known these two warriors a long time ago, but, even though she racked her brain, she could not remember when or where.


"Sire, what are their names?" Rosa inquired softly, gesturing towards the duelists.


"The Dragoon is Kain Highwind, the Knight is Cecil Harvey. They're young, but both show great potential, so I put them in their squads...a little prematurely. Look at them! Look at that jump!" the King marveled, smiling proudly. Rosa watched silently as Kain performed a leap that was as graceful and beautiful and deadly as an eagle's dive. The one called Cecil managed to roll out of the way of the Dragoon's flashing spear, but Kain took his advantage and tackled the Knight, sending them both crashing onto the ground. They looked like two young boys at horseplay...


There! That was it! She remembered them now! Rosa smiled as a small wave of nostalgia crashed over her. These two young men had been her playmates as a child many years back, when she was about five. They had been a little older--Cecil was one year older than she, Kain two. But when she had turned eight, they were no longer there to play with her in the village square; the King had promoted them to the rank of Page, and they could no longer waste their time on childish amusements.


A small smile cracked Rosa's dry, pale lips as fond childhood memories flashed through her mind. ŽI wonder if they remember me,' she thought to herself, but her mind immediately dismissed the question. It had been six years, and people can't be expected to remember anyone for so long, especially without as much as saying hello once in a while.


After a long bout of intense dueling--both youths were superb fighters, skillful beyond their years--Cecil managed to crack Kain's wooden practice spear in two, disarming him. Kain snatched Cecil's sword away from him at exactly the same time. The fight was a draw; the two young men looked at each other for a long time before bursting into peals of laughter, slapping each other on the back as they limped off the field.


"Not bad, eh? They're marvelous, those two! They have a potential for greatness, don't you think, Aelia?" King Odin beamed proudly, glancing over at his favorite advisor.


Aelia's skin had turned pale and her knees knocked each other as she returned the King's glance with a weak, watery smile. Rosa felt a small thread of alarm shoot through her body; Aunt Aelia hated violence of any kind between human beings, and watching fights usually made her queasy. However, the King was so engrossed in extolling the merits of his soldiers to his generals that he did not notice Aelia's condition.


"Are you all right, Aunt Aelia?" Rosa whispered, walking over to her aunt and placing a hand on her arm.


Aelia's color slowly returned to her sharp, pretty face as she arose from her seat, wiping the sweat off her brow and straightening out her long, waist-length hair, which had become rather disheveled in the breeze.


"Oh, I'll be all right," she responded to Rosa's concern with an affected smile, "Just the heat and excitement, that's all. Sire, if I may beg your leave, I would like to escort my niece home, now. She must pack up and say her good-byes. I'll be back soon."


"Leave permitted. When you return, you'll fill me in on that Silveria report, eh? And change your cloak! Well, Rosa," the King smiled down and clasped a heavy, hot hand down on the girl's shoulder, "I wish you the best of luck. Who knows? You just might be in the Court one day!"


"God forbid!" Aelia snorted, saluting the King and leading Rosa off the dais. The fourteen year old felt her innards freeze as she was once more paraded in front of all the soldiers, but she couldn't help but feel a sense of triumph and sadness. She would be a White Wizard of some variety, and she would be put to good use; on the other hand, she did not want to leave her mother and house.


ŽI wonder how Mother will take this?' Rosa wondered absently, her head feeling light; she was simply overwhelmed by the past two days' events.


One thing was for certain: her life would never be the same again.


**********


Thus, Rosa packed all of her belongings and began her training at Baron Castle. To be perfectly frank, training was not an accurate way to describe her new life. From the moment she had put all of her belongings up in her new room, she received a curt order to clean up one of the court ladies' parlors, rather messy after a fun and frivolous night during which a few dignified women had drunk a few too many cups of wine. She was immediately thrust into the dull, dusty world of a servant.


It was not horrible work, though; Rosa, since she had performed all the household chores while her mother worked to support the fatherless family, was accustomed to menial work. And it never got really gritty, either, as the refined quarters of the court ladies were never filthy. Still, it was physically taxing work--turning over the heavy comforters of the opulent beds was especially hard on Rosa's back--and the fact that the girl had never been physically strong did not help any. But worst of all was the tedium of the job; dusting and cleaning up does not require much thinking, and Rosa loved learning and knowledge--that was what she had originally come for, anyway.


Although her new chores kept her extremely busy, Rosa did manage to squeeze in a few minutes of training about every other day. She walked in on classes for snatches of lessons; she asked the higher White Mages for outside help, to which they grudgingly obliged. The Order of White even allowed Rosa to don the white cloak of a Mage although she was not a true student per se. However, she was not allowed to enter the dormitory where the White Mages dwelled, nor was she allowed to attend prayers and rituals (which was just fine with her; Rosa never liked pomp and ceremony). Whenever she had the free time, she studied at the castle library, eager for knowledge and taking some measure of pleasure out of it. And, best of all, the girl could control her powers much more efficiently, learning true spells and how not to drain her life-energy.


Although Rosa was happy to be put to good use, her life was far from joyous. She got little sleep; the chores were wearing down her frail constitution; the long hours not spent in the library were usually dull.


But most of all, the girl was homesick. She lived in a small complex of rooms shared by four other fairly nice but exceedingly loud maids, and these rooms were Spartan and bare, though not horribly uncomfortable. There was no cheerfulness, no feeling of home about the place.


Rosa had begun to miss her house acutely from the get-go; the first night, she cried herself to sleep. Often, late at night, she would lay wide awake and simply think of home, her chest aching so badly that it sometimes brought fresh tears to her eyes. Of course, Cid and Aunt Aelia were always there, but Rosa could hardly catch a comforting word from them; all three of them were just so busy. And Rosa, being shy and retiring, had not made any new friends. The Court ladies were so high above her that the girl didn't even try to speak to them; the other maids and the castle workers of a lower class were nice enough, but they were much too vulgar and dull for her taste. She was virtually alone.


Only two things gave Rosa the slightest bit of consolation: the hours spent in the library, and the letters from home that she received three times weekly. Her mother had been stoic enough when Rosa had left; but it was obvious from the amount of mail sent that Delia missed her only child keenly. Rosa packed away each letter carefully and read each many times over.


Still, Rosa was beginning to doubt whether these good things were enough to sustain her. Her physical and mental health were not good. Her skin, already quite pale, became almost bone white; the skin on her cheeks tightened over the cheekbones; her joints ached constantly. Although she concealed it from others, she struggled with severe depression.


She was a rather pitiful sight, this scrawny thing with a pale face and thin, slumped shoulders, wearing an ill-fitting white robe over dresses that were neat but threadbare. She was wasting away from lack of support, and it didn't appear that she'd last much longer.


Then, suddenly, a most wonderful thing happened.


****************


One evening, about a month after Rosa had started to live in the castle, Rosa had finished her work early. Since there were no classes being held that particular day, and Aunt Aelia and Cid were nowhere to be found, she headed up to her usual spot in the castle: the library.


She had plunked herself down in a chair with one of her favorite books and became engrossed in the words. A sigh of slight pleasure escaped her lips; it felt good to relax, once in a while.


After a few minutes, however, she began to feel uncomfortable. She felt the same as she did on that long-ago day when she had walked in front of all those soldiers. Rosa then knew that she was being watched. A slight sweat formed on her brow as she hunched her thin shoulders over her book. If she pretended not to notice anything, perhaps she'd be left alone.


"Come on...talk...her..." someone whispered a few feet away; Rosa didn't catch all of the words, just broken fragments. Still, she gritted her teeth in extreme discomfort.


"I...sure? I mean, what if...?"


"Just do it! Don't be such a..."


Then the whispers stopped; Rosa relaxed a little, thinking that perhaps the owners of the voices had gone off. But she was proved wrong when she sensed the presence of someone hesitating over her shoulder.


Rosa couldn't bear it any longer. She closed her book and glanced up, preparing to tell the rude stranger to please leave her alone, but the words did not form.


Standing right behind her was Cecil Harvey. He was not wearing his dark armor, but the girl recognized him from the very start; no-one in the castle who wasn't deaf had not heard about the young Dark Knight. His skill and determination were extraordinary, and the King talked on and on about him all the time.


"H-Hello," Rosa stammered, looking up at him with wide eyes, "Is there anything I can do for you?"


"You're Rosa, right? I'm Cecil..." the young man began, licking his lips nervously as he shifted his eyes to the floor.


"Cecil, you moron! You just botched it! Of course she knows who you are! Who doesn't? Here, let me show you how it's done!" a new voice laughed, making Rosa start. Suddenly, before she knew what had even happened, a Dragoon with long blonde hair and armor such a deep blue that it was almost black appeared in the seat beside her.


"Hi," the Dragoon greeted with a dazzling smile, extending a hand, "I'm Kain. That white-haired freak over there's Cecil. You're Rosa. But you probably already knew all that, didn't you?"


"Yes," Rosa answered, smiling for the first time in weeks as she shook his hand warmly, "I've seen you two around the castle. But how did you know my name?"


"Well, let's see, here. Hmm. Your aunt is only the King's top advisor, your father was just a stupid ol' Knight that everybody loved, and we only played with you every day for three years straight. It took a lot of time, but after an exhaustive search, we figured it out," Kain feigned a serious face as he tapped a finger on his temple.


"Oh, shut up, Kain. Don't pay any attention to him, Rosa. He's a Dragoon, God help him, and his head's just as empty as his helmet," Cecil laughed, now much more relaxed in his friend's company, as he snatched the dragon-shaped helmet right off Kain's head, revealing the worst case of hat hair Rosa had ever seen.


"Aah! Put it back on, please! It's too horrible!" Rosa pretended to cringe away, holding her hands in front of her, her face wreathed in smiles--they remembered her!. She had never cut up like this before except in Aelia's presence, but something told the girl that she had a great deal of license around these two. Besides, their good-humor was contagious, and Rosa needed to laugh.


"If I'm so damn ugly, then give me back my helmet!" Kain snapped playfully as he made a grab for his dragon helmet, which Cecil immediately jerked out of the Dragoon's reach. A game of keep-away began, Rosa and the Dark Knight tossing the crested helmet between them, always keeping it out of the now-fuming Kain's reach. Rosa giggled, her face red with pleasure; she had never had so much fun.


The game was all too brief, unfortunately, for the extremely angry librarian kicked the three troublemakers out of the library, and none too gently, either. Kain and Cecil took it in stride, but Rosa was absolutely mortified. She was not used to making such a stir, and such negative attention embarrassed her.


"Well, I'd better go back to my room," Rosa sighed, her cheeks bright red and eyes downcast, as she straightened out her crooked circlet of pearls, "I have to get up early tomorrow."


"We'll come with you," Cecil offered in his gentle voice.


"Yeah, you never know what may lurk out in the castle courtyard at night. Toads and slimy lizards for one," Kain declared, taking Rosa by one arm while Cecil gently took hold of the other.


"You think that a toad or a lizard would scare me?! I'm insulted! Nothing can be scarier than Aunt Aelia or Cid," Rosa pretended to be insulted as the two young men guided her back to the maids' quarters.


"True, those are rather..disturbed individuals, but we know someone a hundred times more terrifying," Kain claimed, his eyes glittering brightly.


"And who's that?" Rosa asked, rising to the bait.


"Baigan," Cecil answered. Rosa shuddered visibly at the name.


"Exactly. You don't want to meet up with that smartass, either day or night." Cecil continued, a slight scowl creasing his handsome features. He was probably joking, but Rosa wasn't too sure.


*************


After she had met Kain and Cecil, Rosa's life turned for the better. She had more energy; the work didn't appear nearly as hard as it had; her cheeks became pink with life and she smiled more often. More and more of her free time was spent in the company of the two young warriors, and the three renewed their friendship. They became practically inseparable.


The joy that these two brought was the light of the sun to Rosa, who basked in the warmth of their friendship, soaking it up. Over the next two years, a beauty heretofore unseen bloomed over the girl's features: she became graceful, elegant, and beautiful under her meager clothes. Rosa's family,--Aelia, Cid (he was considered part of the Farrells), and her mother(on her days off, Rosa was allowed to visit home)--noticed the change, and they were surprised but extremely pleased to have such a beautiful girl amongst them.


Other people noticed the visible changes brought about by Rosa's friendship as well. For one day, when Rosa was a lovely seventeen-year-old and had become a familiar sight around the castle, she was invited to a dance at the Court--something very odd, for maids were not usually asked to attend Court social occasions.


When Rosa received the invitation, she was pleasantly surprised and rather embarrassed. The first thought that entered her head was: ŽWhy did they do that?' She didn't know what to think; the Court ladies had hardly even bothered to sniff down their noses at her for the past three years, now they wanted her to join them! Rosa didn't understand why any member of the Court would want her company after avoiding her for so long.


Gossip, especially among the maids of the castle, ran fast, and soon every single one of Rosa's fellow servants had heard the news. And they were immensely jealous. Rosa had not been on the most friendly terms with the other maids, for she was still not good at making friends, but she had lived three years with them, and a bond of respect and polite kindness had formed between them...until now. The other maids would hardly say a word to Rosa, and avoided her company when possible. They snickered about her behind her back, and subjected Rosa to all of the other subtle kinds of torment jealous girls inflict on someone.


"Why are they doing this to me?" Rosa demanded of Aunt Aelia on the afternoon before the dance, as she was selecting a new dress to wear for the occasion. All of her other clothes were not suitable to be worn before members of the Court, so she decided to go shopping, and Aelia had gone with her for company and to help pick up the bill. Rosa was paid a salary, but an extremely fancy--thus expensive-- dress was required, and Rosa could not afford it on her own.


"Well, think about it. You're going to a nice fancy party, they're not. They're only human, you know. Wouldn't you be jealous in the same situation?" Aelia asked, fingering a dress of silver cloth.


"I guess I would. But it's not like I want to go. I don't! It'll be horribly awkward. I don't even know why they invited me in the first place." Rosa complained, grimacing as she glanced at the high prices of the dresses.


"Oh, waah. Stop your whining. Thousands of other girls would kill to fill your shoes. Good God, 100 gold pieces!? Look at this thing! Blue and orange watered silk with velvet trimmings? I wouldn't use this for a dusting rag, and they charge 100 GP?!" Aelia grunted in disgust, both at her whiny niece and the blatant extortion in this store.


"Kill? Why? So they can show themselves off to the other ladies and to all the nice men?" Rosa demanded, her face hardening as the truth slowly dawned on her, "I know why they invited me. They want to just gawk at me, to see what I look like." Her face suddenly grew red as she stepped away from the dress displays. "I won't go! I won't let myself be paraded like a show horse!"


Aelia looked at Rosa sharply and quickly and rather roughly drew her close so that they were facing each other, noses inches apart.


"Listen to me, Rosa," Aelia hissed in a voice that was almost afraid, "you don't know how the system works. When you are invited to Court, you go. For the head of the Court is the King, and no-one disobeys the King. Although he himself may not have invited you, the invitation is under his name. If you snub the Court, I assure you that you will be fired from your current job. You'll never see your two friends again, and you'll probably be blacklisted from getting any but the most filthy jobs in Baron. You will go! The consequences are too great if you don't."


For a few seconds, Rosa gaped at her aunt as the nasty truth of the matter sank in. Then tears of frustration welled up in her eyes, and she began to speak, but Aelia stopped her.


"I know how you feel, Rosa. I hate it, too. There're lots of nasty Court secrets you and most of the people of Baron know about. But what can we do? The King is so dulled by custom and breeding that he doesn't see the rivalries and backstabbing in his own Court, so don't blame him. The Court ladies just want to see you, to look you over. Once they get their fill, they won't bother you any more. Besides, Cecil and Kain will be there, as well as yours truly."


That made the situation a little more bearable; Rosa wiped her eyes and stopped sniffling.


"There! I knew that would cheer you up! Now, let's get back to shopping. Ah, here's something...."


********


Rosa hesitated before the refreshment table laden with rich delicacies of all kinds, licking her lips nervously. She felt the stares of Court members boring into her from all sides, assessing her charms, judging her.


And some of those glances were jealous, others full of admiration; for Rosa was stunning tonight.


She was wearing a white satin dress which had a snug bodice that tapered into a point right at the waist; it had no collar, just a sweeping neckline that was curved into an arc which had its lowest point about an inch below Rosa's collarbone. A red silk rose was pinned at the low point of the arc. The sleeves were embroidered with gold thread and ended halfway down her upper arms; a red satin sash was tied around her waist. Her pearl circlet glittered on her golden head. She was a picture of delicate beauty, a white rose with one streak of crimson.


Rosa sighed as she shifted her eyes from the goodies on the table to Aunt Aelia, who was conversing with some other diplomats on the other side of the grand ballroom. Her aunt was the only person she knew there; she could not find Cecil or Kain anywhere...


Suddenly, she saw him coming through the entrance: Cecil. Rosa's heart leaped for joy as she waded her way through the sea of people to reach him.


"Cecil!" she called out over the strains of music from the orchestra, waving her arm in a very unladylike fashion. The young man, when he caught sight of her, stopped cold in his tracks; his jaw dropped slightly and his eyes widened.


"What's the matter, Bugeyes?" Rosa teased gently.


"You look...really...nice...tonight," Cecil gulped, a silly smile creeping over his face, which was a bit red. Rosa had never seen him so embarrassed or shy; he was usually very open around her, and he usually answered her teasing with some gentle humor of his own. Recently, though, Cecil had become a bit more withdrawn from Kain and her, and Rosa didn't understand that, either...


"Thank you, thank you," Rosa gave him an appreciative bow, "Say, where's Kain? Wasn't he invited, too?"


"He's sick," Cecil explained, "The doctors wouldn't let him out of bed. He was mad as hell, too. He was really looking forward to this." He jerked his head over to a small group of pretty Court ladies chatting together. Rosa smiled knowingly. Kain was very popular among the ladies; he had quite a following. He flirted with them constantly, but Rosa never felt in the least bit jealous; it was simply a part of Kain's droll nature. Besides, he never followed up on his flirting. Rosa had yet to see some lady hanging on his arm.


Cecil never flirted, however, with any girl--not even her. Cecil was simply not that type; he was gentler than Kain, and less witty. Such an attitude never gets a girl's attention. Besides, Cecil was more interested in his training as a Dark Knight; he had toiled away mercilessly, insistent on making himself a fine warrior, and now he was a Captain with a busy schedule. Even Kain never saw as much of him any more.


"Poor guy," Rosa sighed as she and Cecil took some chairs and watched the Court dance and hobnob, "I think I'll bring him some refreshments after this is over. It'll make him feel better."


"Rosa, you're all heart," Cecil grinned, taking her hand and squeezing it as he was often wont to do; yet his voice held no teasing in it. It was dead serious.


Rosa beamed up at the Dark Knight before turning her gaze to the Court members in front of her. This really wasn't so bad, now that Cecil was here, and the young woman could now see that, despite its high-handedness, the Court really was splendid. All of those beautiful women in beautiful gowns dancing to beautiful music was pleasing to watch, though Rosa wouldn't have been a part of it for the world. She sighed quietly and settled back in her chair, feasting her eyes on the spectacle before her.


A light touch on her arm brought her back to reality. Rosa turned and faced Cecil, who was looking down at her with a hint of shyness in his smile.


"Would you like to dance?" he asked, his usually clear, mellow voice now timid.


ŽHe's so cute when he's shy! I love him to death!' Rosa laughed to herself as she nodded and took his proffered arm.


"So," Rosa commented as they began to dance, "how goes your training?"


"Just fine. Once Cid shows me all the ropes, I'll be assigned to be an airship Captain," Cecil's face brightened; he liked to talk about his training.


"You'd think that Kain would try out for the job, being a Dragoon and all. He should be at home in the air, yet he hates the things," Rosa murmured as Cecil twirled her around. Airships were Cid's greatest invention--Aelia had not believed her ears when she heard the news--and Baron's power was growing rapidly as a result. No other countries had Airship technology, and now Baron had become the mightiest country in the world. They had a fleet, the Red Wings, which made the military practically invincible. King Odin knew how to build up a strong defense, all right; he may have been a bit out of touch in local affairs, but his knowledge of military matters bordered on genius.


"What's it like, riding on an airship?" Rosa inquired curiously as she glided over the dance floor, never taking her eyes off Cecil.


"It's wonderful. I really can't describe it. You need to come and ride sometime and see for yourself."


"No, thanks! I have enough trouble with chocobo riding as it is. How can I even hope to ride an Airship without losing my lunch?" Rosa giggled, making a face.


"That's what those little bags are for," Cecil pointed out with a smile, "I swear, Rosa, you're a wimp. But you're a sweet, kind, very beautiful one..."


"You flatterer!" Rosa smiled, beaming, giving his shoulder a little shove. Suddenly, she was very self-conscious. And then she realized that she and Cecil were the only ones dancing. All the other couples had moved off the floor and were watching the two young people dance. Rosa and Cecil were so graceful and so pleasing to watch that the other couples simply gave up and gaped at them.


"Cecil..." Rosa whispered, the bloom fading from her cheeks as she shifted her eyes around the room. The dancing suddenly became more awkward.


"Don't worry. Just one more step, and we're through," Cecil assured, his arm tightening slightly around her waist as he suddenly slowed his pace. And he kept his word; after a few more seconds, they give one final twirl. The resounding crash of applause made Rosa nearly jump out of her skin.


"I'm leaving," Rosa, thoroughly embarrassed, whispered, "I don't want to show off any more. Besides, Kain is probably fuming right now. He'll want some company."


"I'll come with you," Cecil declared as he led her off the dance floor. Rosa nodded, grateful for his company.


"I wonder if you should give a sick person such rich stuff," Rosa muttered as she went over to the refreshment table.


"It's not bad, only a nasty cold. He can eat anything," Cecil laughed. Rosa beamed; it had been so long since she had last heard Cecil laugh.


************


After visiting a very cranky and very hungry Kain, Rosa and Cecil had climbed out one of the higher castle windows and were lying on the roof--which was not very steep, so they were never in danger of falling off. She, Kain, and Cecil often came here when they wanted to be alone and talk about things.


The stars were twinkling brightly in the black sky, and, as she stared up at them, Rosa suddenly felt a surge of happiness course through her. She smiled and gave a low, contented sigh.


"What's on your mind?" Cecil interrupted her thoughts, bringing her back to reality.


"Oh, nothing much. I'm just happy, that's all. And the stars, just look at them. They're beautiful, aren't they?"


"Yeah. Beautiful," Cecil answered in a tone of voice that Rosa had never heard him use before. She turned her head, and then noticed that Cecil was not looking up at the sky at all. He was staring at her.


Rosa felt a blush come to her cheeks, but she was far from displeased. Instead, she stared right back. She had always liked being around Cecil; he was kind, gentle, full of good humor, handsome, afraid of nothing...Sure, he had some faults, but who didn't? He was simply a good man, that was all there was to it.


And she was in love with him.


This thought hit Rosa like a freight train; she had never considered Cecil anything more than one of her best friends before, but now...


This feeling brought fright as well as happiness; Rosa had never felt this way before. She knew nothing about these matters! Suppose she botched it all up? What would Cecil think...or, rather, what would Kain think? He always did have a bit of a jealous streak.


She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she was startled when she felt Cecil's hand close gently around hers. But after the initial shock, she simply smiled and squeezed it, staring right into Cecil's beautiful green eyes.


Those green eyes were adoring her.


"Rosa..." Cecil stammered, but she silenced him by gently resting a finger on his lips. Thanks to her women's intuition, she knew exactly what he wanted to say.


"I know. I love you, too." she whispered with a gentle smile, bringing down her finger to trace his jawline with it.


Cecil leaned down and began to kiss her, tentatively at first, but then each touch of his lips grew warmer and more passionate. He kissed her forehead, her cheeks, and her lips with loving gentleness, and Rosa kissed him right back. She was completely happy. All thoughts of the evening's occurrences, of Aunt Aelia, of Cid, even of Kain, disappeared from her mind. There was only Cecil, Cecil, whose spirit was so like her own. They were perfect for each other.


Rosa gave a gentle, happy sigh as she leaned against Cecil, resting her head against his chest as she ran her fingers gently through his thick white hair. He sighed and held her close, shutting his eyes as he linked his fingers with hers.


It was a beautiful night.


END PART 2


PART THREE


Now that Rosa had freely admitted her love for Cecil, there was a hitch. Rosa was still a lowly maid--although she was held in the highest regard by most of the castle, including the King--and Cecil was a Dark Knight Captain, soon to be commanding an airship of his own. Thus, it was hardly proper for them to publicly admit their feelings for one another...at least, not until Rosa was promoted to a true White Wizard. Both Rosa and Cecil were unhappy with this state of affairs, but neither was brave enough to breach the wall of social etiquette.


Still, nothing could hold them back from expressing their love for one another, and they did so in many discreet, rather clever ways. For instance: when they would be chatting affably in the library, seeming to be nothing more than good friends, Cecil would surreptitiously slip a piece of paper, a love note, into Rosa's book. Rosa, being a maid, had access to the kitchens; she would bake Cecil--she was an excellent cook--one of his favorite desserts and slip it into his pouch when they Žaccidentally' brushed up against each other in the hall. Thus in these ingenious ways they sent all sorts of tokens between them: flowers, notes, a new scarf, a new dagger, all those trinkets that seem silly to people who hear about it but are like receiving diamonds and gold to the ones actually exchanging the gifts.


And, once in a great while, they actually managed to be alone together. These meetings were brief, but they were sweet like honey to Rosa's soul; she lived for them.


Of course, such matters can't go unnoticed forever. None of the Court members knew anything about it, thank Bahamut for that, nor did any of the soldiers; but the maids and servants did. Nothing could be kept hidden for long from Rosa's co-workers, who now giggled behind their hands when they thought she couldn't hear or flashed her an occasional knowing smile. However, there was some code of ethics among the maids; they might whisper among themselves, but they held Rosa in enough esteem to never say a word about it to the higher-bred occupants of the castle. They kept their secrets so well, in fact, that only three high-standing people knew about the love between Cecil and Rosa. Rosa didn't have a doubt in her mind that any of these three would betray her or Cecil to the Court or King.


Cecil had freely told Cid--the Engineer had known the young Dark Knight even longer than he had Rosa--about the new depth added to their relationship, and the stocky little man had been delighted by the news. He sometimes gave Rosa a knowing wink while they talked, but he rarely brought up the matter, and never in public. He knew how shy Rosa was about romantic matters.


Kain and Aunt Aelia, however, had not received the news with quite as much enthusiasm as Cid did.


When the news had first been broken to the Dragoon, all Kain did was sniff and give them both an incredulous look. It was almost as if he couldn't fathom the fact that two such close friends would ever be so bold as to take their relationship beyond the platonic. Kain never brought up the subject on his own, and if Rosa or Cecil even mentioned it, he would scowl slightly and mutter under his breath. Rosa didn't understand this strange behavior, and it worried her slightly.


The one least pleased by the news, however, had been Aunt Aelia. When Rosa had first told her aunt, the woman had stared at her for a long time, looking utterly poleaxed by the news. Aelia looked as if she had been slapped right in the face.


"You mustn't!" Aunt Aelia had managed to choke out.


"Why not? What's wrong with it? It's not like it's a crime or anything. We're not hurting anybody," Rosa protested, her heart falling; she had hoped her aunt would have taken the revelation a tad better than this.


"Rosa, dear, get your lovey-dovy head out of the clouds and think! It's a doomed relationship, and you know it!" Aelia returned, her jaw jutting out pugnaciously.


"Why? I thought you liked Cecil," Rosa demanded heatedly; she wasn't the only one losing her cool. No-one likes to hear a prophet of doom, especially when that prophet is your own aunt.


"Did I say I didn't? I do like Cecil. He's a polite, kind-hearted boy and I think the world of him. But, Rosa, think about it! You are a White Wizard. He's a Black Knight."


"So?!"


" ŽSo?!' Ye gods, girl, do I have to write it down for you? It's obvious! Do I have to remind you what Dark Knights are?! Listen, Rosa, and listen very carefully. Cecil may be gentle and kind now, but, I assure you, that won't last long. He's eighteen. He's a Captain. And pretty soon you're not going to see nearly as much of him. You think you're not seeing enough of him now? Ha! Just you wait! Because he's now come of age. And when Dark Knights come of age, they begin to change. I know what I'm talking about, Rosa, don't give me that look! Black Knights are the heavy artillery of the Baronian Army, and they are trained differently than the other two groups...


"What do you mean?" Rosa interrupted, still not quite grasping her aunt's long-winded explanation.


"What I mean is this: Black Knights are trained to be cold-blooded killers. They have to be, to do what they do. Even I don't know all the secrets, but what I have heard will make your hair turn white. Pretty soon, Cecil will be considerably less gentle and kind, I warrant! He'll be changed! You'll be in different worlds, Rosa. He'll break your heart because he won't have one!"


Rosa had run out of the room then, slamming the door behind her. She knew that her aunt was telling the truth but, as is common to human nature, she didn't want to believe it. So she pretended that nothing had ever happened. They never brought up the subject again.


Nevertheless, Rosa found, quite to her dismay, that her aunt's warning was coming true; Cecil was changing right before her very eyes, and she didn't know what to do to help him.


She began to see him less often, just as Aunt Aelia had prognosticated, and she noticed that he was more stern, more terse in his speech. Occasionally, Rosa caught a cold glint spark from his eyes if the lighting was right. These were only small changes, but they made Rosa sick with worry. Sometimes she felt like screaming at him, felt like tearing off the black horned mask from his head--he always wore that mask now! Why did he never take it off? But Rosa never spoke out; she was afraid of what would happen if she did.


**********


"Oh, I don't know what to do! I want him like the way he was, but...but I don't want to be a shrew about it! Men don't like to be changed..." Rosa moaned pathetically to herself one evening, when she was nineteen. She was sitting on her bed, her slender shoulders hunched and tense, her arms crossed and gripping her elbows tightly. She had to vent her frustration and sorrow or scream, so she beat at her pillow savagely. Rosa knew that it wouldn't change anything, but it would at least make her feel a little better.


"Good God, Rosie! What'd that poor little pillow ever do ta deserve such a whalin'? What do ya do to people who really piss ya off? Shoot Žem in the gullet?" Cid's voice drawled from the door, his amusement evident. The Engineer had been walking down the hallway outside Rosa's room and had heard her shouting, so he had decided to investigate.


Rosa whirled around to face the Engineer, her face tinted bright red. Cid's smile faded when he saw her expression; she was crying silently now, her mouth working. All of her anger had dissipated into a single large tumor of sorrow in her chest.


"Oh, now, please...don't cry, please..." Cid consoled, unthinkingly taking a horribly dirty handkerchief from his back pocket and dabbing at her face with it. When he saw the grease smudge on her cheek, he stopped and grinned sheepishly.


"Some help I am, eh? Sorry about that."


"Oh...it's...all right..." Rosa breathed brokenly, smiling in spite of herself.


"Listen...hows abouts we go to the inn and get a bite to eat, eh? I've been workin' all day, and I'm starvin'. A little food in the belly does a world of good," Cid proposed, placing a burly arm on her shoulders. He led her out of her room and shut the door behind them.


***********


As the pair made their way towards the cafe through the inky darkness of late evening, they passed by a small group of castle guards huddled around a small fire. One of the men looked up, saw Rosa with Cid, and cracked a leering smile.


"Hey! Sweetheart! Going for the exotic, are you?" he called out; raucous laughter applauded what they thought was a witty statement. Rosa froze in her tracks; she recognized that voice anywhere. Baigan.


"What the--?! Baigan, ya bastard, how dare ya? I'M GONNA WHOOP YER AAAASSS!" Cid roared, the faint glow of the fire glazing his goggles with a wicked red. He always was over-protective of Rosa when she was around men other than Cecil or Kain, and he allowed no insult aimed at her to pass with impunity. His eyes and red bushy beard blazing, the Engineer immediately whipped out the biggest wrench he had dangling from his tool belt and charged the group of guards, a small but deadly harbinger of doom.


Yelps and curses erupted as Cid tore into the group like a rhino, scattering them in his furious wake as he jumped on Baigan, flailing wildly at him with the wrench.


On any other occasion, Rosa would have laughed until she nearly passed out; her distaste for Baigan had not lessened any, and the sight of the small Cid whacking the tall Baigan was classic comedy. It was like watching a Chihuahua attacking a hippo.


However, something made Rosa deathly afraid; she couldn't put her finger on it, but she sensed something was not quite right. She had never seen those guards before, and she hadn't heard of any new recruits joining the Castle Guard ranks. And, by the light of the fire, Baigan and the strange guards had looked sinister and devilish. Rosa shook her head. It was probably just an illusion of the firelight. Still, she was suddenly frightened. Following her gut instinct, she began to run, not even thinking about where she was going, leaving Cid to run amuck the guards like a very small rogue elephant. She had to get away from there. Evil was here, waiting to spring on the quiet castle of Baron.


*************


For some odd reason, Rosa's legs guided her to the lavish apartments located just off the throne room; all of the King's favorites resided here. And Aelia Farrell was one of them.


"Aunt Aelia..." Rosa whispered imploringly, trembling slightly, knocking softly on the wood of the wooden door, "Aunt Aelia...please...it's me, Rosa. Let me in..."


The door swung open with a slight creak as her aunt answered her entreaties; the older woman leaned heavily against the frame of the door as she regarded Rosa with slightly blood-shot eyes.


"Aunt Ae--" Rosa began, but her aunt quickly silenced her with a look.


"Not out in the hall. People will hear us," Aelia whispered, eyes darting around the darkened hallway as she silently pulled Rosa into the apartment.


"Now," Aelia breathed, sinking into a chair after she had closed the door and locked it firmly behind her, "What brings you, Rosie?"


Rosa didn't answer; she no longer wanted to talk now, but to cry. For over the past month, Aunt Aelia had been changing as well. The usually irrepressible, sprightly woman had become rather surly and moody; she had even snapped at Rosa on one or two occasions--witness the conversation about Cecil. She no longer smiled nearly as often, nor as brightly. But the worst thing was...she had started taking to the bottle more than was healthy for her, and that drove Rosa sick with worry.


In fact, as she let her eyes drift around the room, the girl noticed several empty wine glasses shimmering on Aelia's desk.


"Aunt Aelia, what's wrong with you?!" Rosa burst out, tears stinging at her eyes.


"What do you mean?" Aelia drawled slightly, her eyes and voice apathetic and slow.


"You know damn well what I mean! You never smile! You hardly ever talk to me! You drink too much! What's happening? Why won't you tell me? The two most important people in my life are changing right in front of my eyes! First Cecil, now you! Tell me, please!" Rosa moaned in a sobbing voice, crashing her fist down on the armrest of her chair; a jolt of pain seared her hand, but she took no heed.


Aelia looked at her niece very coolly, her face twitching slightly.


"You are very unhappy," the older woman stated, her weary eyes resting on Rosa, who nodded dumbly in response.


"I'm not the happiest person in the world right now, either..."


"Why?! Stop beating around the bush and tell me why!" Rosa nearly shrieked, tears pouring down her face.


"All things to those who wait, Rosie. You want me to tell you straight? Fine. The King is making my life a living Hell. That's all there is to it."


Rosa's anger melted away into utter stupefaction. She had noticed some slight changes in King Odin's personality--ye gods, could somebody not change?--but they were hardly a reason to justify Aelia's present condition.


"But why? I mean, he's not quite as good-natured any more, and he sometimes acts sort of strange, but I don't think--"


"It's not that! It's just...it's just...he's making me do things! I've never bowed to the man ever since he ascended the throne, and now he forces me to kneel before him...in private! ŽYes, Your Majesty...' ŽNo, Your Excellency...' He makes me grovel before him! It's utterly humiliating!"


"Oh...Aunt Aelia..." Rosa gasped, her own sorrows forgotten when she saw the broken, haggard look on her aunt's face as she spoke these words.


"But that's not the worst of it! I'm not on his good side any more. His orders have become more and more erratic, more forceful...and when I show reluctance in carrying them out, he gives me this look. There's this glint in his eye that scares me, it's so angry and hate-filled. Rosa, my head isn't resting safely on my shoulders nowadays."


"What?! Aunt Aelia, he's your friend! He would never...!" Rosa hissed as she sucked in her breath rapidly, her insides suddenly growing very cold.


"Oh, if you only saw that look...then you'd know. He hates me! I don't even know what I've done wrong! My position is not secure... that idiot Baigan has become his newest darling," Aelia moaned, turning around and looking at her reflection in a mirror that hung across the wall.


Over the past five years, Aelia had not shown any sign of aging, even though she was now fifty-four years old...until recently. Her rich, dark black hair had gone gray in a month, totally gray. In a rare display of vanity, Aelia dyed her hair black, but now, as she stared at it, Rosa thought that it was nowhere near as shiny and luxuriant as it originally had been. It was rather astounding; Rosa had never thought of her aunt as anything but young. She wasn't old, but she wasn't nearly as youthful as she once was, in a happier, more noble time.


"I shall soon be going away, Rosa," Aelia spoke up again after a silence, "The King is sending me to Eblan."


"Perhaps it will do you good," Rosa offered, wishing desperately to console her aunt yet not knowing exactly how to deal with such depression.


"Yes.." a small smile formed on Aelia's face, "Yes...perhaps. I've always liked Eblan...it's my favorite country to visit. And the crown prince there is absolutely charming! I love him to death. Now, if I were only a little bit younger...Nah. And they at least don't make me grovel to them; they've always received me kindly. The bastard..." the smile disappeared; Aelia's face reverted to its original state.


A small silence followed, but it was quickly broken by Aelia blurting out suddenly,


"But when I return, Rosa, do you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to retire."


"Retire?!" Rosa squeaked out; when Aunt Aelia retired from her diplomatic duties, then she knew that the end of the world was nigh.


"Yes. I'm tired, and I don't want to kowtow to that bastard any more. God, Rosa, you serve a man faithfully for over thirty years, you help him find security when he first ascends the throne...and look what happens. I can't stay in this country any more. Monarchies are fine, I guess, if the ruler is wise and good...like Odin used to be. A little naive at times, but he was a good King...until recently. Now, Mysidia...there's a good government if I ever saw one. The Elder is elected by the people there...and he can be removed peacefully if he gets corrupt or shiftless. If a King becomes corrupt--which they often do--then they're there for life, and there's nothing anyone can do about it except kill the bastard," Aelia's face became hard and steely; her mouth worked suddenly. Rosa had never seen her aunt cry or denounce the King so vehemently before and such things were great shocks to her.


Then again, Aunt Aelia had a notion of government that Rosa didn't quite agree with. Aelia always prattled on and on about a government ruled by the people, such as the one in Mysidia; Rosa believed in the monarchy, that being the only government she had ever known. Still, some of Aunt Aelia's ideas did have some truth...and Rosa never flatly contradicted her aunt when it came to these matters; Aelia was more experienced in government than she.


"Aunt Aelia...please. This could be considered treason," Rosa admonished gently, her voice a whisper; wine was making her usually circumspect aunt reckless.


"Can't I say what I think in private?! What are they going to do? Chop off my head?" Aelia snapped, her former depression replaced by anger. ŽOh, by the Blue Planet. The wine's making her moody...' Rosa thought in despair, looking sadly at her aunt. Aelia had been the victim of rather unexpected mood swings as of late, often contradicting herself...


Suddenly, a sharp bang sounded at the door, making both women jump.


"Aelia Farrell!" a rough voice--Baigan's voice--shouted through the wood of the door, "Aelia Farrell! Open up, you mangy traitor!"


ŽTraitor?' Rosa thought, her head spinning, as she shot her aunt a confused glance. Aelia's face had grown deathly pale, her eyes suddenly afraid.


Without a word, Aelia gave Rosa a rough shove and pushed her into a closet.


"Stay here!" Aelia hissed at her confused and frightened niece as she shut the door of the closet.


Aelia had gotten Rosa out of the way just in the nick of time, too. A horrible crashing sound reached the young White Wizard's ears; she cracked the closet door open ever so slightly and peered out tentatively. The sight made her want to faint, but somehow she could not tear her eyes away.


Baigan was there, a small troop of guards behind him; they had simply bashed the door open. All of their swords were drawn; Baigan, the mark of Cid's wrench still on his face, smiled horribly.


"Aelia Farrell!" he boomed again, seeming to loom over the tall woman as if she were only knee-high, "You are charged with High Treason against his Majesty!"


"And what proof do you have?" Aelia answered weakly, no bravado at all in her voice.


"Do you recognize this?" Rosa saw Baigan produce a scroll, its wax seal--Aelia's seal--neatly broken.


Aelia did not answer.


"Now, why did you do that, Farrell? Huh? Why would you want to help those wretched Mysidians?"


"Because they've done nothing wrong! All the King wants to do is pillage the Crystal of Water from them, for his own gain! And, by God, I wouldn't allow such a monstrous crime to happen! This is petty stealing by a weak, cowardly..." Aelia spoke up, her voice rising and growing stronger.


"Oh, such vile words! Shut up, Aelia Farrell. Your tongue will do you no good now, you wretched traitor, you. I have orders here from His Majesty King Odin himself: you're to be executed, and your head brought to him. His very words, traitor! ŽCut off her pretty little head and bring it to me; throw her body in the moat.' His exact words. May you roast in Hell." Baigan announced, producing another scroll--the one with the execution warrant written on it--and then he charged.


As in such horrible crises, the horrible scene played out before Rosa's eyes in slow motion; she saw everything that happened clearly. She saw the dully glittering blade descend on Aelia's head; she saw the wicked grin on Baigan's face, and for one moment she thought that he was not human. He was a monster.


But the most horrible thing of all was the look on Aelia's face.


It was a look of such extreme terror, such panic, that it was almost comic; her face was that of someone who has just realized he has been the butt of a horrible, monstrous joke. As the blade came down on her, the woman raised her hands feebly up and screamed. Rosa had never heard her aunt scream before; she had never even seen her aunt afraid before.


She screamed like a stuck pig. Rosa felt her own soul screaming as well.


The blade drove home, slashing in an arc across Aelia's neck; a torrent of blood gushed out of the jugular vein as she fell to the floor, her blood pooling around her.


"Odin...bastard... I was your friend...served during your father's day...saved you...so many times...why...?" Aelia's voice gurgled through blood-painted teeth, trailing off into a silence as she convulsed horribly on the bloody floor. Her eyes glazed over second by second, her twitching slowed and then ceased; she lay perfectly still, the terror frozen in her eyes, her bloody mouth gaping.


Rosa, in the course of events, would be the witness to many horrible things: the defeat of Cecil by Kain's own hands, her abduction by Golbez, the mutated, hideous forms of Edge, the Prince of Eblan's parents, to name only a few. But nothing could ever compare to that horrible sight of Aelia twitching on the crimson floor, that terrifyingly comic expression plastered on her face in a death mask, blood everywhere...


Rosa desperately fought with the urge to shriek aloud; there was a searing, hot sensation in her chest as she clamped her jaw shut, squeezing her eyes tightly. The horrible image was plastered in front of her face, even when she had her eyes shut.


"Well! That takes care of that! I thought she'd put up more of a fight. Oh, well. Can't have Žem all feisty!" Baigan chirped cheerfully, leaning on his sword as he regarded his handiwork. He had just killed an unarmed woman, and he spoke of it as if it were simply an amusement.


In the depths of her pain and sorrowful anguish, Rosa felt a violent surge of hatred make its way upward; she wanted to kill that man--no, that monster--she wanted to slash his throat exactly the way he had cut through Aunt Aelia's.


"All right, men, listen up. You--stay here and clean up the blood. The rest of you will take the body and weigh it down with stones. Into the moat with her! And as for me, I'll just take this baggage here to His Majesty and announce the death of our little traitor." Baigan prodded Aelia's still body with his foot absently. Suddenly, the bloody blade flashed again. Rosa couldn't bear to watch this; she shut her eyes closed and brought her knuckles up to her mouth, gnawing them bloody.


The soft crunch of steel slicing through sinew and bone sounded out. Then the soft marching of boots on the floor and the clanking of armor. Then silence.


Rosa let out a shuddering breath that wracked her body with trembles. She peered out the crack and saw that Baigan and his soldiers had left the room. Her mind was in a feverish, dizzy whirl; she could not think. She knew that some of the soldiers would be coming back to clean up the blood, that she should get out immediately, but these thoughts never sank in. She probably would have sat there forever if some wild compulsion to flee had not entered her brain.


She did not know how she did it, everything was a blur, but she somehow got to her feet and staggered out of the closet, past the bloody room, and into the hall. Her feet took her around the bend without her willing them to, wandering aimlessly down the halls.


********


When she was in a hallway fairly close to the throne room, she heard voices talking around a corner. Her feet ceased to move as a thread of alarm cut through her muddled thoughts.


"So, it is done?" a voice--the King's, yet somehow not the King's--asked.


"Yes, My Liege. Here," Baigan's rough, hateful voice purred. Rosa had a faint idea of what he was giving to King Odin, but it was too horrible to think about.


"Yes, that's Aelia, all right! Yes--" here Rosa heard the sound of fingers rubbing against hair "it's her. She always was a vain one...dying her hair black! Just like a woman. Filthy traitor. She nearly gave us away to the Mysidians, too. Thank the Darkness she wasn't clever this time. Perhaps the weeks of wine had addled her sense of caution, eh? Totally surprised. I mean, just look at that expression!" A small chuckle accented this last remark.


"I guess," Baigan grunted noncommittally, "My Liege, what shall we do with the ex-advisor's little niece? Should I put her away as well?"


Rosa's breath caught in her throat. ŽThey want to kill me,' she thought feverishly; and she wished they would.


"Rosa?! What harm can she do? She's just a White Wizard apprentice. No harm from her."


"Well, I don't know, My Liege. If she finds out...then who knows what she can do? I've seen her with a bow and arrow, and she's a dead shot. She might try to kill you. Or she might try to convince her boyfriend, Captain Cecil, to..."


"That's enough! I will have Cecil out of the way soon, so what does it matter? And she's a silly, harmless girl! However, if she does get out of line, then we'll have to do something. But as long as she behaves, we'll let her live. Dismissed, Baigan. I'll summon all the people of the castle and announce the news. I can't wait to see the looks on their faces. And dispose of the head while you're at it," the King drawled, his voice growing fainter as he moved away.


Rosa wheeled around and doubled back, her mind racing, slowly piecing the facts together. Recently, the Red Wings, with Cecil as their newest Captain, had been used for offensive purposes. But originally they had been used only as defense and transport--like Cid had intended them. Was King Odin the Monster going to attack soon? Aunt Aelia had said something about an attack on Mysidia to steal the Crystal...


It was too much for her over-wrought brain to take in; Rosa, now wandering aimlessly through a small lounge, sank into a chair. Everything, once so clear, was now so confusing...her head split with the effort of trying to think, so she simply gave up, waiting dumbly for what horrible trick Fate would pull on her next.


Rosa did not know how long she sat there, but it must not have been very long before a maid, one of Rosa's co-workers, entered the lounge.


"Ah, here you are! Rosa, there's a meeting in the throne room. Everyone in the castle has to come. So up with you, ya blonde ninny, and scoot!" the maid announced in a cheery voice; yet her face was a bit apprehensive and confused. She obviously didn't know what was going on.


Rosa, who knew all too well what was going to be announced, looked up and nodded mutely, rising from her seat and following the maid towards the throne room.


**********


The large throne room was jammed with people; Rosa and the maid could barely squeeze in. The young woman's hazy eyes swept over the congregation: there was Cid, there was Kain...and there was Cecil, standing silently in his brooding Dark Armor. Rosa's mouth formed a silent groan; why was Fate torturing her further with his presence? She still loved him, but he had changed, and she had lost him forever. But that fact hadn't stopped her from loving him still; she could still feel the warm, loving gentleness, that unseen Light inside all beings, underneath the cold, unfeeling armor. And that made the torture even worse.


"My people!" the King boomed from his throne, slicing through Rosa's mental anguish, "I have summoned you so suddenly because there has been a great crime committed in this castle. And do you know what's happened? I'll tell you what's happened! Our own Aelia Farrell--my own trusted advisor and friend--has committed TREASON!!"


The crowd, which had been silent since the moment the King began to speak, suddenly burst out in a clamor of shouts and exclamations. King Odin lifted his hand for silence, and he continued.


"Yes! When this was first reported to me by my devoted guard, Baigan, I was just as you are. I couldn't believe it. Yet the evidence is overwhelming. First of all, let me show you these letters confiscated from her desk. Read them, and you'll find the most vile slanders against me and the State. But worst of all! She has conspired with the Mysidian Elder to overthrow me from this throne and put him in my place. And here's the letter! Thank God it was intercepted! If you doubt me, look at them! They speak for themselves!" Odin bellowed, producing several scrolls from his robes and slamming them onto a small table near his throne.


Rosa looked up into the King's face, and she immediately knew he was lying. She had heard the conversation between Baigan and Aunt Aelia before she had been butchered. Aelia had only written to warn the Mysidians, not tempt them to depose the King. She knew Aunt Aelia, and Aelia was no traitor. She never betrayed her friends, even if she did have a falling out with them. The King was a monster of lies and deceit, a pure monster.


"But what has happened to Mistress Farrell?" a voice, Cid's voice, spoke up, pain apparent in his words; Rosa could tell he did not quite believe the King either.


"And what was that scream coming from Aelia's apartments? I tried to look, but the Guards wouldn't let me go through," another voice ventured timidly.


"The Mistress Aelia has been dispatched as a traitor! Treason calls for immediate action. She has been executed, as befits her crime," the King announced. Rosa felt sick. Tears began to trickle anew from underneath her eyelids. The people closest to her looked at her and pitied her. She felt the touch of consoling hands on her shoulders and arms as people tried to express their sympathy. A few people cried out.


The King's jaundiced eyes roamed slowly over the crowd, silencing the fresh burst of cries and murmurs.


"Let her be an example!" King Odin bellowed, his voice resonating off the walls, "I will not tolerate treason! Do you hear me!? I WILL NOT TOLERATE TREASON!! Anyone else who dares compromise the State, look to your life! You'll be joining Mistress Farrell in the moat!"


An awful silence ensued; no-one dared even to breathe. Suddenly, Cid stumbled forth, his eyes wet and red, and bowed before the monster that was his King, a look of utter surprise on his face.


"Yer Majesty," he said in a small, subdued voice, "ya know that none o' us here wish you any harm, and it's a cryin' shame about Mistress Aelia...but don't yer think ya went a little overboard? I mean..." the Engineer trailed off under the King's withering glance.


"Since I know of your loyalty, Master Engineer, I will forget the things you just said. I did what was best for the State, and I have no regrets. Do not forget yourself next time. Still, concerning the traitor's family..." the King fixed his eyes on Rosa, boring into them with a yellow stare.


Rosa stiffened as her heart began to pound a mile a minute, her limbs freezing. All the people turned to stare at her, but for once she did not feel their looks. Everyone knew well that the King could easily fire Rosa, confiscate her and her mother's property, even have them thrown in jail if he so wished, simply because they were the family members of a traitor.


"I will not take any action against them. They had no knowledge of Mistress Farrell's actions; I'll not punish the innocent. Let all the Guards know that no theft or harm will be tolerated against either Delia or Rosa Farrell. They shall be left alone."


A bitterness rose up in Rosa's mouth as another flash of anger cut through her gut; she knew very well that he was only being this kind to find favor, to ingratiate himself with the public. The people would see the King, that murderer, as a venerable and clement ruler while Aunt Aelia's name would be ground into the dust and spat on. The slightly more relaxed, less frightened faces of the people around her told Rosa that this action had worked perfectly. The fools had taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker. She wanted to scream at them, but she didn't. What good would screaming do? Only get her killed.


So, instead, Rosa bowed to the King and mumbled her thanks; she didn't mean a word that passed her lips. But the sight of the pale, slightly trembling, delicate child being protected by the King only served to make the observers more tightly hooked. Their wills were no longer their own, the poor fools.


"This is a great shock to us all," the King concluded, "but remember, my people, that only through loyalty and trust will this nation stand. Let us all work together for a more glorious, prosperous Baron! You are all dismissed. Go, work hard, and make Baron even mightier!"


The people murmured their good-byes to the King, their voices all buzzing and humming in Rosa's ears like a swarm of hornets; she heard the sound, but could make out no words. Her breath came in short, frequent bursts as she stood, rooted to the place.


Cid made his way to her through the swirling crowd; Rosa held out her arms to him. The stocky Engineer rushed forward and crashed into her embrace so hard that she nearly toppled over; his arms clung around her tightly.


"Oh, Rosie...I'm so sorry," Cid sobbed, fresh tears streaming down his grimy cheeks. The young woman felt her heart break for the little Engineer as she hugged him back, but she was consoled by the fact that he, at least, knew a little about what she was going through. Cid had been friends with Aelia ever since they were ten and the young Engineer had been sent to the Academy at Agart to get a higher education. It was at the Academy that Cid had learned the lost art of making Airships (the reason he had never been able to build an Airship earlier was lack of funding and proper parts). At the Academy he had also met Aelia, who appreciated his love of tinkering and boisterous humor.


And the Engineer felt his good friend's death keenly. Aelia was gone, and his worst nightmare--Airships being used to inflict harm--was coming true. Rosa felt sorry for him.


Soon Cid disengaged himself from Rosa's embrace and staggered off to his house, probably to have a good cry with his daughter. Then Kain came up to her slowly, his face sad.


"Aw, Rosa..." he muttered awkwardly, staring down at his shifting feet. Suddenly, finding no words to convey his emotions, he swept the girl up against his plated chest, squeezing her so tightly that the breath was knocked out of her.


Still, Rosa managed to crack the smallest, flimsiest of smiles; Kain was such a good friend, even if he wasn't much for emotional moments. His sympathy hardly mitigated her pain or sorrow, but at least it was an effort, and Rosa was not ungrateful. She squeezed him back and gave him a small peck on the cheek in thanks for his caring.


Kain blushed bright red to the roots of his long blonde hair, a smile spreading over his face; Rosa was confused by the fact that she had made him so happy just by giving him a small kiss, but she decided not to dwell on it.


"You okay? Do you want me to see you back to your room? You don't look so good," Kain offered, his smile fading as he looked at her thin, pale form.


"It's all right, Kain. I'll be fine, I really will. I just need some time to myself, that's all. And I think I can make it back to my room okay," Rosa reassured, not very convincingly, as she moved out the door with mechanical footsteps. Kain frowned slightly, but he obeyed and did not follow, watching Rosa with eyes that never left her for a second. What thoughts were passing through the young man's head, nobody knew, save one...and that one looked over those thoughts and then set to work...


************


Rosa lurched down the hallway leading to the maid's quarters, her mind now sick and spinning with fear, dread, and sorrow.


She was deathly afraid, now that she was all alone. Sure, the King had said, on more than one occasion, that she would be spared her aunt's fate, and yet she was scared to death. Fear made her irrational; she knew no harm would come to her if she acted carefully, but she could not bring herself to go into her room. Images of guards breaking through the door, their swords unsheathed and ready to impale, flashed through her mind.


She wanted to run away from this corrupt place, but there she was in a quandary. Where could she run? Her old house in Baron? That was no protection. And the other countries...she had very little money, no way to get there, and no way of making a living even if she did manage to leave. Rosa was trapped here.


This realization made her despair even more acute. Rosa crumpled to her knees and began to sob quietly, tears once again streaming down her cheeks in torrents as her body was wracked with pain. Aelia, dear Aunt Aelia, who had been more loving and kind than her true mother, was dead, butchered and her name slandered; Cecil, the only other true love in her life, was lost to her forever, and she had no way out of this Hell. She wanted to die; her desire for living was gone.


Suddenly, she felt the cold touch of steel on her shoulders; Rosa didn't look up. ŽIt's a guard,' she thought to herself, Žhe's come to kill me. Well, I only hope he does it quickly...'


But nothing happened. No jolt of steel, no pain, no nothing. Confused, Rosa finally looked up.


Cecil was kneeling beside her, the sputtering torches gleaming off the polished surface of his ebony armor. Although her skin flinched at the touch of that monstrous dark metal, Rosa's heart, for one second, soared with joy; then she remembered what he had become, and the world became even darker. Rosa knew that she had not yet hit rock-bottom, and that knowledge made her sick. What else would happen?


"Ce--Cecil," Rosa moaned in a hoarse whisper, not looking up at him despite an fierce desire to do otherwise.


"Shhh...don't speak," Cecil shushed, the gentle, sad voice sounding hollow in that dark helmet, placing a gauntlet-clad finger so cold that it burned on her trembling lips. Rosa felt an overwhelming urge to draw away from him, but she was so weak and wracked with grief that she couldn't move a muscle. She felt made of stone. He could have taken an axe to her head, and she wouldn't have felt a thing.


"Come on," that hollow voice urged in its incongruously gentle tone, "Rosa, you need rest. You need to go to your room, get into bed. You'll hurt yourself."


Rosa did not budge an inch. Without a sound, Cecil gently scooped her up like a doll and began carrying her towards her room, grasping her tightly against the cold plate of his chest. The young White Wizard in training wanted to escape from the darkness of the armor, but she could not get away.


She felt so weak and so helpless that her mind screamed rebuke after. ŽStupid, simpering, idiot! Weakling! The King and Baigan are right: you're a scrawny, spineless nothing, a weak little girl. You are what you seem.' her thoughts raged at her. Rosa bowed her head and took the self-inflicted blows gamely. Just as she always had.


**************


Cecil entered Rosa's room, one room in a small suite that she shared with two other maids; this was the only place in the small complex of rooms that she could truly call her own. He gently placed Rosa on her bed; she immediately curled up into a fetal ball, clutching at the blankets as if her life depended on it.


Before Cecil could do or say anything else, a knock sounded at the door. Lifting her head a little off the mattress, Rosa observed Cecil as he walked over to the door and answered it, disclosing a whole gaggle of maids standing out in the hall.


"Good evening, Sir Cecil. Is Rosa in here?" asked one of the maids, who was on more intimate terms of friendship with Rosa than most of the others. As she said these words, the young woman poked her head into the room, saw Rosa, and gave a little start. Rosa sighed inwardly; she must have been quite a sight.


"As you can see, she is, but...I don't think she should have this much company at once," Cecil suggested, his voice gentle but curt.


The maid nodded, saying, "Well, we won't bother her. She looks like a wreck. But, we just want to say that we're sorry and that we'll stand behind her all the way. And," here the maid thrust out a large wicker basket, "could you give her this? It's from all of us."


"Certainly," Cecil agreed as the basket exchanged hands.


"Girls, thank you," Rosa called out weakly, her voice faint and scratchy. All of the small group shuffled their feet diffidently and chorused: "Don't mention it," before moving away.


When they had gone, Cecil placed the basket upon a chair and, taking a cue from Rosa's slight nod, opened it.


"Well," his hollow voice remarked almost cheerily, "it's food and clothes and books, mostly."


"How nice," Rosa murmured without a smile; she was indeed grateful for the maids' kindness, but even this charity could not make her feel any better.


"I guess...I should go..." Cecil muttered noncommittally, edging towards the door with slow steps, the dark helmet's gaze riveted on her. Rosa knew he did not want to leave; and to tell the truth, she didn't want him to leave, either. She was frightened enough as it was, and the prospect of spending this horrible night all alone was terrifying. But that armor frightened her almost as much as being alone.


"No, Cecil...you can stay if you want. But...please, take it off," Rosa detained him, gesturing to her face. Would he do it?


Slowly, deliberately, Cecil reached up and removed his helmet, revealing his face and a tousled mass of beautiful white hair, and Rosa couldn't help but smile. It was almost unbelievable that he would do it at all, but he seemed to do it with an enthusiasm, a willingness. He wanted to please her, but by the vigor of his actions, Rosa realized that he hated the armor as much as she did, if not more.


But, now that he was free of the helmet, a desire to be free of every article of the damned armor seemed to seize Cecil; Rosa saw the look on his face as he glared down at the metal shell around him. He glanced at her, and she nodded slightly; she knew that all soldiers wore a set of clothes under their armor. There was no disgrace or shame or awkwardness about the matter at all.


When Rosa gave her assent, Cecil immediately began to unbuckle his breastplate, almost pawing at it in his zealousness; the remainder of the armor soon followed, all being chunked unceremoniously in a corner. There he stood in simple, almost plain clothes; he had never looked so handsome.


"Are you hungry? Have something to eat. It'll make you feel better." Cecil offered, his voice no longer horrible but beautiful, gesturing to the basket. Rosa nodded. She wasn't hungry, but she did feel weak, and food might give her enough strength to think clearly for once.


Cecil selected some food from the basket and found a plate to put it on. When he served it to her, he got on his knees and presented it as if he were waiting on a Queen. Rosa smiled and would have giggled if she had had the heart to; he was so endearing when he did things like that, things that weren't totally serious but were still sincere all the way through.


After she had eaten--not much, but she managed to get a few things down--Rosa felt extreme fatigue settling in her bones. It was getting very late, she had gotten up early this morning, and, from what she had gone through tonight, who wouldn't be exhausted?


Cecil noticed the strained, weary lines around her eyes and quietly went over to Rosa's clothes chest. After rummaging around in it for a few minutes, he produced a small stuffed chocobo doll. Aunt Aelia had made it for her when she had been a baby. He also selected a book from one of the shelves upon the wall as he passed by them. All of this was done in absolute silence.


Cecil went over to her and pulled the covers over her slightly trembling form, tucking her in quite snugly; he transferred the stuffed chocobo into Rosa's palm, giving her hand a gentle squeeze as he did so. Rosa intuitively brought the little doll up to her chest, squeezing it tightly.


"You must rest," Cecil urged gently but firmly, flopping down on top of the covers beside her, flipping the book open with one hand while he encircled Rosa's shoulders with the other and pulled her close against him.


Rosa heaved a haggard sigh as she snuggled up even closer to him, resting her head, now too cumbrous for her slender neck to support, on his broad shoulder; she placed the arm not holding the chocobo around his waist.


It was a book of poetry that Cecil held in his hand, an assorted collection of all of Rosa's favorite authors. It was her favorite book, and she knew it all by heart. Cecil began to read her favorite poems to her--each one knew the favorite things of the other.


Cecil was by no means a dullard; he was actually of good intelligence, especially with mechanical things--one couldn't be an Airship Captain without a rather large measure of knowledge. But he was no poet. He had no ear for meter, rhythm, or any of the subtleties of poetry that Rosa perceived. And thus, as he read, he often stumbled over the meter, or his tongue would twist over a word, and he put no emotion whatsoever into the verse. As Cecil read, more than one venerable poet tossed and turned in the grave.


Still, Rosa smiled. Cecil's face, nobly serious, was so inconsistent with his butchery of the verses that, in different circumstances, she would have giggled. Still, he was trying so hard. She had never heard words more beautiful; no professional reader could compare. Rosa closed her eyes and nuzzled her face against his neck, her forehead resting against his ear and her chin against his shoulder. The words became slurred, melding together as she drifted into slumber.


**********


Rosa slowly opened her eyes, adjusting them to the darkness of the room; the candle on the bedside table had been extinguished--probably by Cecil.


Cecil! Rosa felt cocooned in warmth and security; she then realized that she was still snuggled up against him. His shoulder under her chin was slowly rising and falling with his breathing.


Suddenly, through the warm, drowsy security, Rosa remembered her Aunt Aelia.


The horror and fright were no longer there; they had been dispelled by Cecil's presence. But the sorrow was still throbbing and aching in her chest. Rosa closed her eyes, but tears managed to seep from underneath her lashes as she brought the chocobo doll, still grasped tightly in her hand, up to her cheek.


Memories of Aunt Aelia, happy memories, flashed through her head: Rosa heard her aunt's boisterous laugh, that lovely rich voice telling wonderful lies and stories; she saw the flash of beautiful long black hair and eyes; the soft shuffling of a crimson cloak sounded in her ears; she saw the snappy spring in her aunt's step and the endearing way she would crinkle up her eyes when she smiled.


And now it was all gone, that wonderful reality; only shadowy, insubstantial memories remained. A poor substitute.


Rosa felt the shoulder beneath her chin shift slightly; she lifted her teary eyes and encountered Cecil's gentle and loving emerald gaze. She had not meant to wake him.


Looking into his eyes, she felt a twinge of guilt at the fact that she had not told him everything about Aunt Aelia; he still believed her to be a traitor. But one thing that Rosa knew about Cecil--and that nearly drove her crazy--was that he never questioned the King. So, although she loved Cecil with all her heart, and true love should keep no secrets, Rosa realized that this was not the time. Although he was free for the moment, Cecil was still bound in service to the King; he would not believe her. She would have to be patient. She would have to wait until a more opportune moment, and then she would disclose everything. She would leave out nothing, as painful as it would be for her, and then he would know the truth. Let the King damn himself, she wouldn't have to do it for him.


She stared into his eyes without tearing away; he had never seemed more handsome, more pure. His Light, once so dim in that horrid armor, now dazzled her with its brilliance.


She was about to whisper an apology, but he reached up and placed his index finger on her lips, silencing her. He then caressed her cheeks with the back of his hand, wiping away her tears with its warmth. Rosa smiled, grateful , the gash in her heart becoming bearable, and kissed his ear as she reached up and began fingering his beautiful snowy hair. Cecil turned his head again and started kissing her back, reaching around her waist with both arms and pulling her even closer.


Rosa wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him one last, lingering kiss before letting her head sink onto his chest. He began to run a finger gently up and down the back of her neck as he kissed the top of her golden head, spreading a tingling sensation all up and down her spine. He knew how much she enjoyed it when he did that.


She freed one hand and reached down for another blanket that lay folded at the bed's foot, pulling it over Cecil; he still had no covering except his clothes, and it was always chilly in her room.


Although Rosa could feel her heart beginning to spring to life again, although part of her wanted to remain forever in the comfort of Cecil's arms, her mind was also awakening.


The King was incorrigibly corrupt; that much was obvious; the mere thought of that monster was enough to make her blood seethe with resentment and disgust. It was then she realized that the nation of Baron, no, the whole Blue Planet, was in grave danger. If Baron were to snatch the Crystal of Water from the peaceful Mysidians; a dreadful crisis, possibly war, would ensue, and...Cecil would be the one heading the attack.


Rosa set her chin resolutely. Never! She had seen Cecil's Light; she knew it could never be extinguished, neither by the dark calling of his profession nor by the King. But he needed self-respect, a clear conscience, support to keep his Light from fading; Rosa resolved to fight with all of the might in her slender body to give what he needed. The Darkness would never claim him without going through her.


For Cecil, now that Aunt Aelia was gone, was her entire world; Kain, her mother, Cid...they were but dear, lovable satellites in comparison. As much as she loved them and enjoyed their company, Cecil pushed them all aside, his Light filling up her vision. And Rosa would not let her world be shattered again.


King Odin would not rule forever; such tyranny does not last long, and then the wickedness that had murdered Aunt Aelia would be abolished. A new society, one that did not kill people for merely thinking differently, one where people did not have to live in fear and horror, would rise from the ashes of the destroyed evil. Light, not Darkness, would reign again.


And she and Cecil would live in that new order, Rosa promised herself as she hugged him tighter; their happiness, only temporary in this cold room, would be permanent. She would fight with every asset of her body and spirit to bring it about. They would be happy.


She kept her promise.


END PART THREE


AFTERWARD


Eventually, it all came to pass as Rosa had seen it. Cecil became disillusioned by King Odin shortly after he had completed his belligerent mission at Mysidia; he then fought against the oppression and corruption of Baron. In the course of events, he was converted from a Dark Knight into a Paladin, a Holy Warrior; his Light, once concealed to all but Rosa, Kain, and Cid, was now resplendent, able to be seen by all. He had won against the Darkness brought on by his dark training.


As it turned out, the King Odin that had given the orders for Aelia's execution and the King Odin who had once been Aelia's friend were not the same. About two months before Aelia's murder, the King himself had been put out of commission by Kainazzo, the Fiend of Water...the henchman, in the ultimate scheme of things, of the Dark Wizard Golbez, who in turn, was the pawn of one Zeromus, The Hatred of All That Is. And Baigan, it turned out, also had been warped by Golbez, turned into a monster, seduced by thoughts of power.


When this was revealed to Rosa, she couldn't help but feel a sense of sad triumph: the real King Odin had not killed his close friend and advisor after all! It was a tragedy to think that all of Kainazzo's bloody deeds had been blamed on the good King, but at least this knowledge restored Odin's image and reputation, the only worldly things about a monarch that are immortal.


After her rescue from the Tower of Zot, Rosa confessed to Cecil and told him every lurid detail of the murder, omitting nothing. Cecil had been horrified, and he had wept along with her. He had been fond of Aelia, but he had thought her a traitor up until this revelation. That he had ever doubted her loyalty and integrity was shameful to him.


After Zeromus was destroyed, the Blue Planet reverted to its former harmonious state; yet Baron needed a new ruler. And the man who was picked to be King was --surprise, surprise!--Cecil. And Cecil would not rule without Rosa at his side as Queen; they were married, and ascended the throne.


A new age of prosperity without having to use machines of war to obtain it, without having to exploit other nations, began. World peace was sovereign on the Blue Planet; Rosa and Cecil had met and made friends with all the rulers of every nation during their journeys--all of which are stories in themselves. Knowledge, wisdom, peace, and calm became the bywords of the new epoch.


Rosa and Cecil were wise and just rulers, but, of course, they needed some advisors to help them, especially at the first. These advisors were useful, assiduous, and loyal; the people of Baron commented that no country on the Blue Planet had such a brilliant cabinet for their rulers.


Whenever she heard this remark, Rosa would merely sigh and smile sadly; Cecil, usually sitting right next to her, would take her hand into his and squeeze.


**********


A rather extensive garden had been planted on the outskirts of the booming city of Baron, and in the middle of this lovely garden was a small reflecting pool, surrounded by carefully manicured rows of rose bushes with blooms of every color. Aelia Farrell (her reputation had been restored, of course. When Cecil and Rosa became rulers, they had blotted her name from the proscription list and posthumously exonerated her of her supposed crimes) had once spent many hours sitting on the edge of this lovely azure pool; it had been her wont to sit there on the corner and read either books or official correspondence. It had been her thinking spot.


And after Rosa and Cecil became regents, something else was added to the place.


There, sitting on the corner, was the marble statue of a tall, slender woman with long hair reaching to her waist; she was wearing loose, comfortable clothing and holding a small scroll in one hand. Her unseeing eyes were gazing intently at this scroll. A small, mischievous smile crinkled one side of her mouth. Her head was cocked to one side while a fist rested on her cheek, her elbow on her knee.


There was no plaque, no inscription, not a thing on it. So only a few of the townspeople knew that this simple statue of a woman was really a historical figure. Most, however, recognized Cid's unmistakable handiwork. It was truly a work of art.


Sometimes, when she was alone and had a break from her governmental duties, Rosa would stroll to this place and sit before the statue, gazing at it for long durations of time. Her face became more childlike during these visits, and a smile that was sad yet joyful would spread over her face.


And when she heard someone call out her name, retrieving her back to reality, Rosa would sigh, smile gamely, and turn to the statue before leaving.


"Well, off I go! Some help you are! The time in my life I most need you, and you shirk the job! What's the world coming to?"


Then, in a softer voice: "Wish me luck. I'm trying for you, you know. One thing I'll say: being a ruler is much harder than it looks. Wish you had told me that."


As she turned to go, the soft lapping of the water in the pool would chuckle a merry laugh.


The Rosa would smile and turn to face the world again, to set about an ideal that others had perished for.


It was a hard job, but someone had to do it.


FINIS


So, how'd you like that?! I couldn't end this thing on a totally depressing note, could I? Mah Gawd, it ain't proper! I hope you enjoyed it! -- Themis56