The Huntress Chapter 8
"But it still doesn't make any sense!"
"Of course not. But you can't make any further conclusions without more knowledge."
Claude blinked. "And that's it? You're not at all curious to know anything else?"
Bowman shrugged. "We know that we recently came out of a set of ruins called the Mountain Palace. We know that it's officially property of the Kingdom of Cross. But we also know beyond a reasonable doubt that it has nothing to do with the Kingdom past that."
"But those demon monsters! They were _regenerating_! A few more days and they might be as good as new again! Explain _that_!!!"
"No idea," Bowman admitted, looking somewhat less bothered by the fact.
"I'm just glad they'll be okay," Rena opinioned. "Even if we had to hurt them, they'll be okay in a few days."
"But it's impossible-" Claude cut himself off in mid-sentence, looking like he was about to blow a mental fuse. Glancing up ahead a short distance, "What about you, Opera? You must have a few ideas?"
"How should I know? I just kill the things. I don't bring them back to life again."
"Very philosophical of you," Celine agreed. "I don't doubt that their imminent recovery is lifting the burden from your conscience even as we walk."
"Celine..." Bowman chided quietly.
"I'll bet the money you'll get for that precious metal is lifting yours," Opera muttered in reply. "I thought you guys were in a hurry or something? So hurry."
"_Some_ of us haven't had the benefit of a good night's rest," Celine informed her.
"_I_ haven't slept in a few days."
"Lovely," Bowman quipped. "I'm being outpaced by a woman in an evening gown and high-heels, carrying a weapon taller than I am, who hasn't slept in a few days."
"Poor darling," Celine observed in amusement. "Your self-esteem must be taking quite a tumble. Or are you too mature for that?"
"I'll recover," he assured her, faking chest pain. "Somehow."
As the two continued to banter back and forth, Rena increased her walking pace until she was just behind Opera. "Ah... Miss Opera?"
Opera tilted her head, raising an eyebrow questioningly.
"You said that you killed a dragon in Salva?"
"Did... did you hear anything else about it?"
"Was the dragon... attached to anyone?"
"Not that I heard. I think it was just your average two-headed dragon. Why?"
"Well... Claude and I were in Salva before. A friend of mine named Allen was possessed by a magic rock and turned into a demon."
"Um... sorry to hear that."
"So what exactly _is_ that weapon?"
"It's a heraldic field cannon. Nickname 'Kaleidoscope'."
"Yes, yes," Celine agreed impatiently, "I caught that much earlier. Exactly _what_ is a 'Heraldic field cannon'?"
Opera gestured towards her weapon. "This weapon right here."
"Your circular logic is absolutely flawless."
"I find it rather dubious that you would actually be capable of killing a demon single-handedly. Much less one that was resistant to heraldic energy."
"So don't believe me. Watch me not care."
"Prove you killed it."
"I've got a whole load of money for it."
"You could have gotten _that_ anywhere. For all we know, you just held up a few rich nobles and demanded the money. I think that weapon of yours would be up to the task, hmm?"
"I'm no thief."
"So prove it."
Opera dug into her pack, rummaging about for a few seconds before producing a handful of items. Holding them out, she allowed Celine to inspect them. "Scales from that two headed dragon. And if you still don't believe me, you can go talk to the guys who gave me the reward back in Salva."
Celine glanced at the translucent scales before carefully picking up one of the blue ones. Holding one before her with her left hand, she pointed the index finger of her right hand at the centre of the scale. After several moments, a thin beam of red lanced out from her finger, passing through the scale like it was made of glass and continuing until it faded into nothingness.
"Um... what the heck are you doing?" Opera asked curiously.
Celine looked bewildered at the results herself, but she recovered herself quickly, giving Opera the benefit of a knowing smile. "Nothing that would concern you."
"Uh huh." Opera accepted the scale back, returning it and the other scales to her pouch. No matter. Whatever else Celine had decided, the scales seemed to have served as proof of the death of a two-headed dragon.
"Some creatures coming our way," Bowman announced, pointing off to the side. "Goblins, looks like."
Claude has his sword out in an instant, levelling it at the approaching monsters. "Five of them. Then we'll just to have to-"
Opera re-shouldered her weapon, not even bothering to wait until the dust cleared from the impact sites. "What're you all getting worked up about?"
"Nothing," Claude sighed, re-sheathing his sword as five craters slowly came into view, devoid of anything that resembled an intact goblin. "Nothing at all."
"Was _that_ was supposed to be impressive?" Celine demanded in irritation, waving some of the dust away as the breeze picked up slightly.
"No, it was supposed to kill those goblins."
"I suppose you think-" Celine stopped as Bowman put a hand on her shoulder, shaking his head. "What is it?" she muttered at him.
"Let it go, Celine?" he suggested. "At least the walk will be relaxing, right?"
"Sorry, but we're not leaving until tomorrow at
The five of them all exchanged various expressions of distaste, impatience, worry, disgust, or indifference.
"I thought you were working with a military project?" Opera pointed out. "Can't you requisition something for today?"
"We're just assisting them," Bowman corrected. "They never got around to giving us any authority, I'm afraid."
"No matter," Celine opinioned. "If they think that it's so important to have that little child protected, then they can wait until tomorrow for us to arrive."
"Protection?" Opera demanded. "You're acting as bodyguards for a kid?"
"Pity the poor kid," Bowman agreed with a smirk.
"Pity _us_ for having to put up with him," Celine muttered in reply.
"You don't look like much of a soldier to me," Opera informed Bowman. It took some effort to refrain from directing the comment towards Claude as well.
"That's because I'm not," he agreed. "I'm a pharmacist on vacation. But I'm pretty handy with martial arts too."
"You closed shop to go treasure hunting?"
"Not at all. My wife is handling things while I'm gone."
This was pathetic, Opera concluded. A green UFP ensign, a village girl, and a pharmacist on vacation. Apparently, Celine was the only one in the group who actually did this on a regular basis. When she found Ernest, she was going to take back every complaint she'd ever uttered about his lack of experience. _This_ was ridiculous.
"We may as well get a few rooms at the inn," Rena suggested.
"_You_ can go book the rooms," Opera informed the others, stalking off into the town. "_I_ need a drink."
The others exchanged a variety of glances between each other, but none followed her.
"I guess we should make ourselves comfortable at the inn," Claude decided.
Half an hour later, the rooms were reserved, and
the four were convening in what would be the men's room for the night.
"I don't trust her."
"That's a little harsh, isn't it?"
Celine shook her head in response to Bowman. "I think not. There is a great deal of information that we are not privy to regarding that woman."
Rena looked rather worried. "Are you... sure, Celine? Opera's helped us so far..."
"No, Rena-darling, _we've_ helped her so far. There's a crucial difference, I think."
"What don't you trust about her?" Bowman inquired.
"Her weapon, for starters. And her claim to have killed that dragon."
"You looked convinced before."
"Those scales were most certainly from a dragon. I passed a beam of fire through that sapphire and it wasn't slowed in the slightest. Sapphires that pure aren't found in nature. Ever."
"So the problem is...?"
"By the same token, a monster with such protection would have been virtually immune to her 'heraldic' weapon. Which means that she killed it through some _other_ means. And any monster wearing such excellent armour would require far more than merely a good sword to defeat."
Claude finally spoke up, looking concerned. "You think so?"
"I _know_ so," Celine insisted. "And I would like to add that her style of dress is _most_ unsuited for exploration."
The other three stared at her incredulously.
She returned the look. "_Yes_?".
"Y'know," Bowman observed neutrally, "I'd hate to think I was looking at a hypocrite..."
"_This_," Celine stated plainly, "is my _uniform_."
"I wonder where Miss Opera is right now," Rena mused. "She still hasn't come back."
"Probably off drinking and cajoling with the local riff-raff," was Celine's opinion. "Such an uncouth woman."
Claude got up. "I'm going to go find her."
Bowman halted him. "Maybe not a good idea, Claude. Why don't you let me go find her instead? Why don't you three go see the sights?"
Celine waited until Bowman was out of the room before turning to Claude. "So... are you _certain_ you haven't met this woman before, Claude-darling?"
Claude drew back slightly. "I've never met her before in my life!"
"You never did tell us why you were so insistent that we chase after her," Celine persisted. "And you and her have clearly had some... secretive conversations with each other. And Rena was telling me about your 'Sword of Light' you displayed earlier, before I met up with the two of you. Very much like our friend's 'Kaliedoscope', I think."
"W-what are you saying! I've never met her before in my life! I just saw her in that bar in Hilton, so I thought... that we should help her out. We'll still be back in time to get on the ship to the Hoffman ruins, right? I just thought that we might be able to help her out, that's all. And you even found some treasure too, right?"
The last addition somewhat mollified Celine, although only slightly. "I see. Very noble of you, Claude-darling. One can only wonder why Opera seems to loath you as a result of your chivalry."
It was right out of a story-book. But not from the
part with the happy ending. It was more likely from the 'barfight scene
aftermath' chapter, Bowman would have guessed. It had most of the necessary
elements. A number of men lying unconscious throughout the room, a few smashed
chairs and bottles, some discarded weapons, and a lone person - probably
the cause of the chaos - dutifully ignoring them as they had a drink.
"Geez, what happened in _here_?" he inquired rhetorically.
The bartender sighed in reply, rhetorically pointing towards the only conscious individual on the customer side of the counter.
Opera slammed down her now-empty bottle, the dull thud reverberating through the otherwise silent bar. The bartender quickly produced another bottle, popping the cork and sliding it towards her. Without even blinking, Opera grabbed it and sucked back a portion of the contents.
Bowman raised an eyebrow, shaking his head sadly as he approached the bartender. "What's the story behind _this_?" he inquired in a low voice.
In an even lower voice, the bartender informed him. "She beat up three of Zand's men last time she came through. Some more men attacked her this time. She takes them out with that weird magic-shooting thing - whatever it is. Seems that Zand took exception to that and came down to deal with her himself. Made some threats to her. She told him that she was busy drinking. He pointed a sword at her, saying that he was going give her an education. She tells him to go learn by himself, starting with 'His Ass/A Hole in the Ground: A Comparative Study'. He holds the sword up to her neck. Fast as lightning, she breaks an empty bottle over his head with it. End of fight, she just keeps on drinking."
"I see," Bowman slowly agreed, giving the prone form a kick in the ribs. "I think he picked a bad time to start a fight."
"You don't say? You a friend of hers?"
"Something like that. I'm not sure if she's a friend of mine, though."
The bartender looked like he was going to make a remark, but held his tongue as Bowman started over towards Opera. Looking down at Zand's prone form - "Looks like you might be getting some company _real_ soon."
Bowman coughed quietly.
Opera didn't seem to acknowledge his presence, but Bowman caught one of her eyes briefly swivelling to eyeball him before refocusing on the counter.
"You okay?" he inquired, sitting down next to her.
Her voice was low and raspy as she finally spoke. "Dunno what y'gotta do to find a decent drink around here..."
Bowman didn't reply as she inhaled another portion of the bottle. Glancing over at the bartender, he looked inquiringly between the two empty bottles and Opera. The bartender nodded, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Worthless crap," she pronounced, finishing off the bottle and adding it to the running total. Wordlessly, the bartender slid another bottle towards her, retreating quickly afterwards..
"You want to talk about it?" Bowman inquired.
"You're really worried about Ernest aren't you?"
"Hell no... why would I be worried about that stupid sonuvabitch?"
"Do you think he can take care of himself?"
"Sure," she muttered, taking another long draught. "Why not? He's got a big gun. He can nuke the shit outta anything that gets near 'im. Why the hell _wouldn't_ he be okay? Why the hell does he need silly little Opera tagging along?"
"Do you really think he thinks that?"
"What the hell d'you think?" she demanded in annoyance. "S'all he wanted. Just someone to keep his butt alive, y'know. No prob for five years. Finally figured he'd stick with an AP-3 an' a pack o' smokes instead o' a stupid little sidekick."
Bowman nodded slowly. "But I thought you two were an item?"
"Sure we are." Opera let out a little giggle, spilling a little of the wine in the process of drinking. "But it's a secret, see? Everybody knows it 'cept _us_, y'know. S'funny, isn't it? I pretend he's m'boyfriend when he ain't 'round, and he pretends I'm his g'rlfriend when he thinks I ain't 'round."
"So that's how it is," Bowman agreed neutrally.
"Yeah, that's how it is. I's too stupid to figure it out 'fore. So I go runnin' after the idiot. Even dressed up all nice-like, figure it'll maybe help in makin' him a little more agree'ble, y'know? Hey, maybe we ain't 'fficially an item, but he's still a guy. A little T n' A justa make him easier to handle, y'know? Hell, I'm an idiot."
"So how come things are like that? It sounds like you two have a little communication problem."
She laughed quietly. "Heh. A comm'cation pro'lem. Yeah, that's it. Bloody commun'cation thing, sure. S'stupid Ernest decides t'comm'cate by leavin' me behind. Well, I got 'im alright. He ain't got the guts t'say it to m'face, so... so... he just runs away. That's it alright."
"There might be another explanation, you know," Bowman suggested. "He might have had a completely different reason."
"Like... _WHAT_?!?" she demanded angrily, two out of three eyes managing to aim well enough to glare at him. "What the hell d'you know?!? You're jus' like him!!!"
He raised an eyebrow. "Sorry?"
Opera returned to her bottle. "You're jus' like him. Buncha desk jockeys who wanna go out'n have fun 'cuz they think they're turnin' into mush 'round home. So they find somebody to keep 'em from gettin' wasted and take off. Betcha your wife's lonely as an empty bottle, y'know. Worried t'hell over your worthless hide. But you don' care, do ya? Who givesashit 'bout what the girl feels... as long as you get out t'have some fun, y'know? Ain't that right?"
Bowman drew back slightly. "I-"
"-Shudahellup," she interrupted, finishing the remainder of the fourth bottle. "You men're alla buncha two-faced ass'oles. I dunno who your wife is... but y'don' d'serve her-"
Still more silence.
Wordlessly, the bartender picked up a broom and began to sweep up the pieces of the broken bottle, occasionally directing a wary glance towards the now-sleeping Opera.
Bowman sighed, eyeing the empty bottles. "Finally hit your limit, huh? How much is the tab?"
"Forget it," the man replied, dumping some broken glass into a disposal bin. "She paid for the first two. Just do whatever you have to do to make sure she never comes back in a bad mood, alright?"
"I'm a pharmacist, not a therapist," Bowman muttered, grunting as he shouldered Opera's massive weapon and pack. "Beats me how you carry all this stuff all day."
Slipping an arm under Opera's arms, Bowman eased her sleeping form off the chair as best he was able. "Let's get you to bed," he decided. "I don't even want to imagine the hangover you're going to have tomorrow morning."
"Pair of nine's."
"Four-of-a-kind!!! I win!"
"Rena-dearie," Celine began, her eyebrow twitching slightly. "Are you absolutely _certain_ you've never played poker before? You only learned now?"
Rena nodded, now stacking her coins in neat piles. "Mother said that gambling was bad and that only bad people did it. But you and Claude aren't bad people, so gambling must be okay. She was probably just worried about me. Whose turn is it to deal?"
"I don't believe I can _afford_ to deal another round," Celine muttered.
Bowman stuck his head into the room, surveying the scene in a matter of seconds. "Strip poker? And you didn't invite me?"
Rena's eyes grew wide. "_What_ kind of poker?!?"
"Strip poker," Bowman clarified. "When you loose a round, you have to-"
"Ah, we know what it is," Claude interrupted hastily. "Did you find Opera?"
"No problem. Celine, would you mind coming with me? I need your help with something here."
"I suppose I could drag myself away from the table," she decided reluctantly.
Outside the room, Celine breathed a sigh of relief.
"You're a lifesaver, Bowman-dear. I do believe that I've created a gambling
Bowman chuckled. "Tsk. It's always the innocent ones, isn't it?"
"Indeed. So whatever did you need my help for?"
He pushed open the door, gesturing politely. "Ladies first."
"So kind of you-what is _THIS_?"
"We met her before," Bowman reminded her. "Her name is Opera."
"Yes, I'm aware of _that_." Celine eyed the slumbering form laying on the bed with a frown. Sniffing the air daintily, "She drank herself into a stupor?"
"Four bottles of Jacqueline Danielle's finest," Bowman confirmed. "Beat up a few men too. So would you be able to do me a _big_ favour and get her changed into something a little cleaner? Than we can maybe give her clothing a washing for her while she sleeps. Then she'll be in a much better mood to deal with life in general, not to mention the splitting hangover she's going to have."
Celine was not impressed. "And we want to do this because..."
"Because she's travelling with us. And because she deserves a break. I can tell that you don't particularly get along with her-"
"I don't get along with her at all," Celine interrupted. "I don't get along with her, I don't like her, and most importantly, I don't _trust_ her. That last part is crucial, you realize?"
Bowman sighed, leaning against the wall. "Celine... you're a smart woman, you've got a good head on your shoulders. Are you _sure_ you're looking at this with a clear head?"
"Quite certain. I can overlook the fact that she comes from a far away land, where people all have an extra eye to see with. I can accept that she's walking around with a heraldic weapon unlike anything I - a star student in the village of Mars - have ever seen before. I can ever accept that she might actually be in pursuit of her errant boyfriend."
"So what _can't_ you accept?"
"There is clearly something between her and Claude, and it's not entirely of the amiable sort either. For him to suddenly want to chase after her across the continent of Cross, only to have her say that she's never met him in her life. And he claims that he's
never met her in his life either. And from what Rena tells me, there is a great deal of similarity between the boy's 'Sword of Light' and Opera's 'Kaleidoscope' weapons."
"Okay," he granted. "But you didn't seem to object to Claude's suggestion at first. So it must be Opera you have a problem with. Why don't you trust _her_?"
"In case you hadn't noticed, Bowman-dear... she doesn't trust us either. She looks at Rena like she's on medication, she looks at Claude like he's slime, she tolerates you-"
"-And she just gives you the brush-off?"
"In a matter of speaking, yes."
Bowman exhaled, closing his eyes briefly. "Celine... we've been friends for some time now, right? Quite a few years, off and on?"
Celine smiled thinly, but not unkindly. "Off for most of the years, but I would certainly like to consider you a friend. A friend, Bowman-dear, who wouldn't try to put me through a guilt trip of some sort, I hope."
"I'd never do that. I'm just trying to cover my ass for what I say next. Any guilt trips will be entirely of your own doing."
"Consider it covered then."
"Opera is a young woman, who from what I can tell, is a very capable explorer in her own right. Furthermore, she's intelligent, talented, beautiful and fiercely independent."
"Oh my," Celine tsk'd. "Am I supposed to feel jealous now?"
He waved aside the comment. "I've also learned that this same woman, through some process or another, has started to realize that her love life is absolutely the pits. She wishes that she could change it, but things haven't been going right for her at all."
Bowman abruptly fixed her with a stare. "So I ask you, with my ass covered, does all this sound like _anyone else_ that we know?"
"Begging your pardon!!!"
"And..." he continued, "speaking as a married man, I happen to know that under such circumstances, a woman can potentially become extremely irritable and bitchy, sometimes without even realizing it."
Celine's face was unreadable. "Is that all you have to say?"
"I'm saying this as your friend, Celine. I saw what happened back in Cross. It's none of Claude or Rena's business unless you want to tell them. It wasn't my business either, but I happened to see it. You and Opera are alike in more ways than either of you would probably ever want to admit."
"Exactly what is your point?"
"All I'm saying is that, considering what I've just said, don't you think that Opera deserves a break? I'm not saying that she's been the model of good-will herself, because she certainly hasn't, but maybe you should try to cut her some slack. This is the first time she's slept in several days, and you wouldn't believe how heavy that stuff is that she's carrying around with her. She's worried sick about everything surrounding this Ernest fellow, whether she'll admit it or not, and she's driving herself hard. And I think it's colouring her behaviour more than she even realizes."
"And what am _I_ supposed to do about that?"
"Well, for starters, you could help me by getting her out of those clothes and getting her into something better suited for sleeping."
Celine finally relented, crossing the room to where Opera was sleeping. "I fail to see why Dr. Jean can't do it himself."
"I'm just a pharmacist, not a doctor."
"That excuse may work on everyone else, but I'm well aware that you're simply too laidback to become a doctor."
He grinned. "Same thing, isn't it? I'll just step out of the room. Thanks, Celine."
She smiled in return. "Don't mention it. You're a good man, Bowman-dear. Your wife must have been a good girl to deserve you for a husband."
Bowman's smile faded as he shut the door behind himself, his expression transforming into a downcast look. "I wonder if I deserve her..."
"Sleeping beauty is finally awake, I see."
"And displaying an _exceptional_ amount of charm and wit too."
Opera's eyes wavered as she tried to aim at least one of her eyes towards the individual with a death-wish. A towel hit her in the face, knocking her over backwards to the floor, her head ringing like a 50-ton church bell.
Celine shook her head, not quite able to keep from smirking at the display. "Why don't you go have a bath?"
Opera staggered to her feet, locating the door after some effort. The individual could wait until later. It was probably fortunate that the towel hadn't dislodged itself from her shoulder. "Bath. Bath is good. Owshitmyheadowow..."
The door clicked shut, regrettably sparing Celine any more of Opera's hangover mantra.
"So uncouth," she muttered with an amused smirk. "Most uncouth."
But rather entertaining, she supposed. Perhaps Bowman had a point, she reflected idly, standing and surveying herself in the mirror. She _had_ been a little out of sorts lately. Perhaps that business in Cross was an indication that she wasn't as much of an island as she would have preferred...
"But you're not ugly, not at all," she assured the image in the mirror.
The mirror nodded vehemently in agreement, twisted and posing for several moments.
"Still drop-dead gorgeous," she continued, leaning forwards ever so slightly, "even if you _have_ put on a few pounds lately. It's just not as much exercise with some dashing men willing to stay between you and harm's way, is it?"
The image in the mirror pinched experimentally at its side.
"Nothing major at all. I very much doubt anyone would actually have _noticed_ such a trivial little detail."
Pink bunny pajamas.
Pink bunny pajamas with the cutest little bows-
And she was walking down the hallway while wearing them, Opera reflected disgustedly, forcing herself to avoid looking down at them. Someone was going to die for this. But only after surviving an extended period of torture and mutilation.
Her head still hurt. The alcohol was finally out of her system, no mean feat considering how much she'd drunk before finally passing out last night, but she was thinking clearly again. Clearly enough to know that there would be hell to pay for last night, she guessed. But she'd deal with that after shedding this idiotic circus outfit.
Lifting a hand, she began to push the door to the room open, hoping that she remembered which room she'd come from a few minutes ago.
"...but if you _did_ happen to hear something, you would never _say_ anything, would you, Claude-dear? Because things could become very _bad_ if you did, hmm?"
An audible swallowed. "Um... no, Celine. I mean, nobody's worried about anybody else's weight, right?"
Claude's voice sounded a little smaller. "Um... right?"
Opera shivered as she felt a disturbance in the Force, or whatever the hell else was being disturbed enough to make her damp hair try to stand on end.
Apparently Claude felt it too, because a moment later, he was throwing the door open and trying to escape a scary woman with tiny crackles of lightning surging around her.
He was several rooms down the hallway before he skidded to a halt and turned back to face her. Slowly, his eyes travelled up and down the length of the three-eyed woman wearing a set of pink bunny pajamas with cute little bows.
"Opera? You're wearing..."
Opera fixed him with a triple glare of death. "You saw nothing. NOTHING."
He swallowed again. "Um... right?"
That said, he continued running down the hallway.
Opera looked back towards Celine, who seemed to have stopped radiating lightning, although her face was still bright red, possibly from anger, possibly from embarrassment. "Are these _your pajamas?" she demanded, entering the room.
Celine's expression slowly changed into one of amusement as she finally seemed to notice Opera. "Why, yes they are. How did you guess?"
"_Most_ hotel pajamas don't show cleavage."
"It's my extra pair. And it looks so CUTE on you."
Opera didn't even grace the comment with an answer, instead crossing the room to where her clothing was draped on a chair. Judging from the sudden absence of dirt on the evening gown, it seemed that someone had gone to the trouble to having them cleaned. As for who had done it...
"You may wish to take that," Celine suggested, gesturing towards a glass of water and a small pill on the night table. "Highly effective for hangovers, Bowman-dear claims. For some reason, he had a hunch that you might appreciate it."
Opera swallowed the pill, draining the glass of water after. "Nice of him."
The conversation seemingly at a halt, Opera proceeded to remove the offensive pieces of sleep-wear. Her evening gown was still in good condition, which was something to be thankful for. The benefits of KevSilk fabrics were truly without end
(And almost as comfortable as the bunny pajamas).
"You can use my things to freshen up if you want," Celine offered after a moment.
Opera blinked in surprise, turning to face her.
The other woman wore a smile. "After all, when we finally corner this Ernest, it wouldn't do to be looking anything less than your best, would it?"
Fifteen minutes later, a considerably better-looking
visage was looking back at her in the mirror. Considering that the curling
iron hadn't been invented on this planet yet, the benefits of naturally wavy
hair were easy to appreciate at times like this. It was a good thing that
shed outgrown the straight phase of her life some years ago.
"So how come _you_ were so ticked with Claude before?" Opera inquired. It wasn't that she couldn't relate to the feeling herself, but she knew more about him than the rest of the group.
"Nothing in particular."
"Uh huh. So how come you're so uptight about your weight?"
Celine flinched, his gaze immediately darting over towards the room's closed door.
Opera held up her hands in a warding gesture. "Hey, nothing personal. I'm not telling anybody else. You just don't seem like the kind of person who'd get really uptight about a couple pounds."
"You mean to say that you've never been worried yourself?"
"Well... sure, now and then, I guess. I just quit drinking for awhile if that happens. But seriously, you actually think you've got too much weight on?"
Celine looked away. "I don't suppose that anyone can truly be a proper judge of themselves."
"If you don't want to talk about it, that's fine."
"What about you?" Celine asked, changing the topic. "What are _your_ thoughts on your boyfriend? I see no ring on your finger, but..."
Opera sighed. "I dunno, Celine. It's... complicated. Really complicated. I just want to find him, and I want him to be alive when I do. I'll deal with anything else after that."
"But what are your thoughts? You must have at least entertained the notion of marriage, hmm?"
Opera started to shake her head, but halted. "Maybe, but not... realistically. We just aren't that close, y'know."
"But you would like to be." It didn't even begin to sound like a question.
"I don't know."
"You don't want to go through your entire life single, do you?"
"Well, no, of course not. But I travel way too much to even meet any guys. The only one outside of family that I really see on a regular basis is Ernest. All the others tend to be from business parties or contractors, that kind of stuff." And most of them weren't even Tetragenes in the first place.
Celine gave an amused smile. "I will vouch that the adventuring lifestyle does not lend itself to finding a man. So exactly how were you planning on getting married at this rate?"
"I don't know. Maybe I'll just take a vacation for a year or so."
"And find someone to settle down with and call an end to your adventuring days?"
"I didn't say _that_."
"But you would be facing the prospect, would you not? Exactly how many men are out there who would honestly embrace the lifestyle of an explorer or treasure hunter?"
It was hard not to hear something underneath Celine's tone of voice. It was even harder to be unsympathetic. "You haven't found anybody yet, huh?"
The treasure-hunter sighed, looking away. "A short time ago, Rena-darling and I met a man in Cross who went by the name of Chris. We only talked for a short time, but it was long enough for him to learn that I was a treasure-hunter by profession. Later on, we had tea several times and... grew rather close. I imagine he was the first to grow interested, but I suppose that his desire to explore and see new things caused me to return the interest before long."
"So what happened to mess things up?"
Celine looked downcast. "I continued on with the group, and we ran into you in Hilton. When Claude suddenly wanted to pursue you to Cross, for whatever reason, I was secretly rather pleased by the turn of events. I met up with Chris soon enough in Cross, and we got to talking to the point where I think he was about to come with us."
Opera merely nodded.
"Are you quite certain?"
"More certain than I have ever been about anything in my life before."
Celine pursed her lips. "It's not all fun and games, Chris-dear. Sometimes the life of an explorer such as myself can be dangerous, and at other times it can be downright dull."
Chris smiled. "I understand, Celine. But look around at this city. A magnificent city by any standard, yet enslaved to routine and day-to-day existence. Yet beyond its walls, there are a thousand wonders waiting only to be found by those with the will to find them! A woman like yourself has surely seen so many things, but how many more things must there be still, only waiting for you to discover them!"
"More than even _I_ could manage to find, perhaps."
"But you intend to try with all your might, do you not?"
Celine blushed faintly under Chris' gaze. How long had they been seeing each other? Not long by most standards. But long enough to get to know him as more than a casual friend, a fact which she hadn't done much to discourage. There was something... different about Chris, although she wasn't sure if she could have put an adjective to it.
She'd had plenty of suitors over the past few years, but Chris was nothing like any of them. Whereas the others merely seen a gorgeous woman and an impressive fortune, Chris hadn't seemed to give such things a second thought. But the way he would ask her to tell stories about the places she'd gone, the things she'd seen, and the treasure that she'd uncovered... the way he would sit at the edge of his seat as he listened to even the most trivial of her stories... the way his face would light up as she recalled some harrowing escape from a situation...
He wasn't merely interested in her, he was interested in _her_. Her self, her loves and passions, her chosen path through life... he was drawn to everything about her in a way that could only render every past suitor laughable in comparison. And only moments ago, he had asked her if-
The notion that such a sound could have been caused by a mere slap to the face was almost an oxymoron. The way it shattered the silence was more akin to someone breaking a piece of lumber across a stone wall. As almost as effective.
Chris' head spun from the blow, the side of his face already begin to flare red in pain. But he wasn't taking any action against his assailant, a young woman in a white dress, with two bewildered soldiers a few steps behind her.
Which was no trouble in Celine's opinion. _She_ would be more than happy to put the attacker in their place. Using as much force as was permissible...
"Care to explain yourself?" the woman demanded coldly.
Chris swallowed, the rest of his face going pale. "I..."
"Begging your pardon!" Celine snapped, flickers of lightning dancing along her fingertips. "There are considerably more polite ways of introducing one's self. If you think that you can just waltz in and behave in such a manner, it will be my pleasure to enlighten you. Quite literally, if you give me cause. Chris-dear, simply ignore the _harlot_. I was about to _suggest_ that she be on her way."
The woman seemed to finally notice Celine's presence. "Chris? Is _that_ what he introduced himself to you as?"
"And who might _you_ be?" Celine demanded.
"Princess Rosalia Lacour," the woman replied, not even flinching under the other's glare. "And whatever this man may have told you, I imagine that he left out a piece of crucial information. Such as who he is. And who his fiancee is."
The lightning began to flicker out, the fire starting to fade from Celine's eyes. "F-fiancee? Begging your pardon, but..."
"Have you anything to say in your defence," Rosalia demanded, "_Prince_ Cross?!?"
The magic finally disappeared completely, Celine's face now wearing an expression of bewilderment. "Prince...?"
The man swallowed. "I... I meant to tell you, Celine. I... just never had a chance. I'm really sorry for this..."
Rosalia pushed him towards the two soldiers, each one grabbing an arm in restraint before he could think to escape. "...Before you embarrass yourself any further. Soldiers, take the prince back directly to the castle and place him under arrest in his quarters. I will deal with him myself. Any command to the contrary that he gives is to be disregarded. Go."
Desperately, Chris looked back to Celine for support.
Celine looked back at him, a dangerous glint coming into her narrowed eyes. After a moment, she averted to gaze towards the woman. "If you care anything... for the welfare of that _man_," she spat, "you would do well to ensure that he _never_ crosses my path again."
Celine's eyes were smouldering as she finished relating
the tale. "That's all I was to him, Opera. Just a way out of his royal
responsibilities to his kingdom and fiancée. Just a happenstance escape
from what he considered boredom and drudgery. The boor lied to me the whole
time, and had the gall to finally apologize after his lie was exposed."
Opera swallowed, feeling a few puzzle pieces appear that she hadn't been aware of before. All of a sudden, the romantic advice that she'd offered to Princess Rosalia back in Cross wasn't sounding quite so good... "Ahh... I... guess you were... pretty pissed off at that lady, huh?"
"How a woman of such high standing could be so... unrefined is utterly beyond me. I suppose I should be properly furious with her. But I can't even find it in myself to be angry with that woman. She did nothing but being the truth to light. But that _man_..."
"There are days," Celine whispered, fists clenched. "I can only wonder at what exactly it is about me that I could have gone so long without finding someone to call a soul-mate. Anyone who's interested seems always to have... ulterior motives. But this
was the first time that I wasn't aware of it from the start."
Celine unclenched her fists, exhaling forcefully. "...and then I hear about this Ernest fellow you are pursuing. Whatever else you might say or feel about the man, I think that it's fairly obvious that you also care a great deal for him. And when you tell me that he's left you behind in such a fashion... I suppose that I'm not sure what to make of the situation."
"I... think I know where you're coming from," Opera offered slowly, "but I don't think it's like that with Ernest. I've never even felt that way before. Y'know, where your heart is supposed to flutter and swoon or whatever the hell else it does when you fall in love. I've never felt anything like that. But I'll probably know it when it finally happens, right?"
Celine shook her head. "Opera-darling... when it finally happens to you, don't even listen to it."
"Pair of fives!"
Bowman shook his head. "Rena, haven't you ever heard of the expression 'Poker face'. It means that you keep your face expressionless. Not happy. Especially when you've got a lousy hand like that."
Rena looked a little sheepish as she raked in another pile of change. "I'm trying. But it's hard. It's such a fun and suspenseful game!"
"Spoken like the person who's won most of the chips," Bowman agreed.
Rena giggled. "Another hand?"
"Another hand," Claude agreed. At least he still had a few more coins than Bowman.
"Good morning, everybody," Celine greeted, bestowing a smile upon the three people present. "And Rena-darling, your mother will never forgive me if you turn into a compulsive gambler."
"I'm just playing for fun," Rena protested.
"Hmm. That's what they all say at first."
"Gimme coffee," Opera demanded, hand to her head. Bowman's hangover remedy was amazingly effective, but it seemed to fall short of a complete cure. Walking from the bedroom to the dining room had been a rather painful experience, to say the least. Not unlike an earthquake measuring at least 8 on the Richter scale. Inside your head.
Bowman pointed towards the next room over. "There's a fresh pot of Lacour roast waiting for you in the kitchen."
"You'll never believe what happened to me this morning," Claude began. "Remember that girl I mentioned seeing in Lacour?"
"Oh? The schizophrenic little urchin?" Celine inquired. "And what exactly she did believe you were attempting to do _this_ time?"
"The kid from Linga?" Bowman interrupted. It had been a shame that the girl ran off before Claude had been able to get a familiar face for her to talk with.
"Yeah, well I saw her this morning down by the docks. I guess she somehow made a few of Zand's men angry."
"Somehow, I'm not surprised," Bowman observed mildly. "What happened?"
"They tried to take her away and tried to kill me when I told them to get lost."
Rena dropped her cards in disbelief (revealing three kings and two tens). "Claude!!! Are you okay? Are you _hurt_!?!"
Claude turned a little red. "Uh, yeah, I'm fine. I just thought that you should keep an eye out while we're still here, that's all."
"You needn't worry yourself," Celine admonished. "I don't imagine a few low-life bandits would rate as a challenge to the second-place champion of the Lacour Arms Tournament, hmm? Very noble of you, Claude-darling."
"I fold for this hand," Bowman informed the other two players, standing up. "Claude, you and Opera could probably compare notes - she got jumped in the bar last night too. Five men out for the count by the time I got there."
"Is Opera all right?" Rena wanted to know.
"She's fine. I think she got in a fight with them the first time she came through, and they wanted some pay back. And I think they bit off more than they could chew. She wasn't even scratched," Bowman assured her.
"And I don't imagine that your heraldry cures hangovers," Celine mused with a smirk.
"How are you feeling?"
Opera turned as Bowman strolled into the kitchen with his empty mug. "Okay, I guess. That's some nice medication you've got."
"I became very knowledgeable about the remedy in university," he agreed with grin.
"I'll bet," she agreed, unable to help mirroring the smile a little. "Listen... about yesterday..."
"Don't worry about it. We all get down sometimes, right? And you're relatively peaceful when you're drunk, if I do so say so myself."
Opera shook her head. "Not just that. I mean... what I said to you. Maybe you have memory lapses when you're stone-drunk, but I remember everything I say. I... just forget anything I said about you, okay? I was just shooting my mouth off."
Bowman waved aside the apology, his face growing a little more solemn. "No... I don't think you were. And I don't think that you were far off the mark, either. Maybe I did originally come along for a bit of a fun. It wasn't as though I just ran off without properly saying goodbye, but maybe I wasn't thinking of Nene as much as I should have..."
He waved the issue aside. "I know you didn't mean anything by it. But like the old saying goes From the mouths of kids and drunks comes wisdom'. I think that maybe I'll listen up this time around. I'm going to stick with the group for now, but I'm going to write my wife a letter while we cross over to Hilton."
"I'm... sure she'd like that."
"I might invest in a little jewellery too," he added with a wink. "The couch back home is awfully uncomfortable."
Opera finally laughed. "I'll bet. I'd be a little upset if Ernest got hurt, so maybe I'll just have to do your wife a favour and make sure you come back home in one piece."
"Surely you're not a suggesting that this pharmacist can't take care of himself?"
She smirked. "I'll be the judge of _that_ after I see what the pharmacist does when he's about to get his entire head bitten off by something. So when does the ship leave for Hilton, anyway?"
"In a couple hours. You might as well relax and grab a bite to eat before then? Better yet, why don't you try your hand at cards? Rena's luck has to run out sometime. I hope."
"Bleh. I have a lousy poker face. I'd rather know the outcome in advance when I make a bet. Card games were always Ernest's specialty."
"What about him?"
Bowman shrugged. "Don't think too badly about him yet. I know you're probably more worried about this than you'll admit. And I'll grant that things seem a little questionable right now, but don't let it colour your judgement too much."
Opera looked away. "Everything's just... _wrong_ right now."
He nodded understandingly. "I know. But take it from me, men can do some of the stupidest, most inconsiderate things imaginable and not have the slightest clue they're doing it. At least, not until someone else points it out to them. And every now and then, they even have a decent reason for what they did. Occasionally, anyway. This might even be one of those times."
"I'll consider it," she agreed, finishing her cup of coffee. "But for his sake, it had better be a _good_ explanation."
"That's the spirit," Bowman approved, sipping his drink. "No sense in getting all worked up and angry before you've got a deserving target."
"Right!" Opera agreed, heading back to the dining room. "Time for breakfast!"
"Hmm," Bowman mused, looking thoughtful. "After telling her _that_, I really hope this Ernest has good reason."
Go To Chapter 9