Thursday, March 31, 2016

Page 1195

“Why did he take a vow of celibacy?” Madison asked.

“Uh...”

“What, do you not know?”

“It’s just. He’s building... things. Look, that’s not important. I mean, it is important, and I respect his decision, but the details aren’t... Agh, why are we even talking about this?”

“Um. Because it’s relevant to your happiness? Don’t wimp out on me now. Tell me. How does him building stuff relate to him not having sex at all?”

“It’s a matter of responsibility and personal... things.”

“More things, huh?”

“Look, it’s his business. It’s not for me to gossip about.”

“Sure it is! In fact, you should’ve just told me that from the beginning! Why didn’t you?”

“Agh, because it makes people treat him differently, and now you probably think he’s really weird...” Gina rubbed her forehead and closed her eyes. “Also, I’m stupid right now... I think I might have a fever.”

Madison stood and replaced Gina’s hand with her own. After a moment, she nodded. “Be right back.” Then she left the room.

She soon returned, however, with more medicine and a wet towel.

Gina took both gratefully and settled herself even deeper into her pillows and bed sheets.

Madison allowed her a few minutes of peace before asking, “Better?”

Gina shut her eyes and sighed comfortably. “...I think so, yeah. Thank you.”

“Of course.”

Madison let another beat pass. “So let me get this straight: you’ve got a crush on someone who took a vow of celibacy.”

Gina groaned. She was starting to wish she was even sicker so that she could just start barfing and end this conversation.

“Girl, if that’s the case, then you’ve gotta let him go. I mean, unless you’re interested in a sexless relationship, I guess.” Another beat passed. “Are you?”

Gina opened her eyes to glare at her.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Page 1194

“So, uh,” said Madison, “from the way you said all that just now, I presume you haven’t told him how you feel?”

Gina’s expression stiffened.

“How long have you known him?” Madison asked.

Gina just frowned.

Madison seemed amused. “A while, huh? A year or two?”

More like five, but there was no need to admit that and embarrass herself, so she just nodded.

“Heh. How about I help you out, then?”

“What?”

“You know, like, put in a good word for you. You wouldn’t know this about me, but I can be quite the matchmaker.”

Gina could see where this was going. Over a cliff, basically. “Please don’t,” she said firmly. “That would probably make me hate you.”

Madison blinked at her, then giggled again. “Alright, geez. But you’ve gotta tell him how you feel. You can’t just pine after him forever. You’ve gotta--”

“Stop right there.” Gina held up a hand. “I know all that crap, okay? And it’s not that simple.”

“Why?”

“Because I know Master Roman better than anyone. He’s just not emotionally available. Which is fine. I’m perfectly content with the way things are. I don’t need some fairy godmother to show up and wave a magic wand around and fix everything.” That was a weird and rambling analogy. Gina felt her forehead. It was pretty warm.

Madison made a face. “Emotionally available? What does that mean? Is he, like, hung up on a past girlfriend or something?”

“No, no, nothing like that.”

“Then what?”

Gina hesitated. Was it okay to tell her? Eh, probably, who cares? “Master Roman took a vow of celibacy.”

Madison reared back in her chair. “What?”

Gina bit her lip. Maybe she shouldn’t have said that. Would Master Roman be upset? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe he wouldn’t care.

Shit.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Page 1193

Gina tried to concoct a more diplomatic means of sharing her ill-gotten knowledge, but Madison wasn’t done talking.

“You really like him, though, don’t you?”

Gina just flattened her lips and said nothing.

“Hehe, you don’t like admitting it? The way you blurted it out a second ago, I thought you were pretty comfortable with your feelings.”

Gina tried not to scowl. “Yeah, well. I just didn’t want there to be a misunderstanding. I would’ve felt bad if I caused some kind of confusing... emotional stuff.”

Madison giggled, then laughed outright. “You have no idea how much I appreciate that!”

Gina tilted her head at her.

“I’ve had my share of relationship drama,” said Madison. “I am definitely not looking to get myself tangled up in a mess like that again. So as far as I’m concerned, he’s all yours. I won’t go after him. I promise.”

“...Just like that?” said Gina.

“Just like that.”

Gina gave her a dubious look.

Madison breathed a laugh. “Look, I don’t need to go after your stupid boyfriend. I can get any guy I want. I am a beautiful, self-actualized young woman. And I have lots of money.”

Gina laughed faintly. “First of all, he’s not stupid. And secondly, he’s not my boyfriend.”

“Yeah, whatever. As far as I’m concerned, he’s off the market now.”

Gina wasn’t sure how to feel. Had she just ruined something for Master Roman? Didn’t seem fair to him.

Oh well, though. He probably wouldn’t have gone for Madison, anyway. Miss Reach could say whatever she liked, but Gina didn’t think anyone could get Master Roman. She’d seen him turn down countless women--even a few supermodels who said they just wanted a fling.

Come to think it, she didn’t know why she’d allowed herself to get so worked up in the first place. She could’ve just kept her mouth shut, and everything would’ve been fine. She blamed the cold as she wiped her nose again. All this sinus pressure was muddling her brain.

Page 1192

Miss Reach’s brow lowered. “I’m asking if you two are lovers.”

Gina had to stop and blink at her sudden bluntness.

Madison waited.

“I...” Gina reconsidered what she was about to say. Something on Madison’s face was telling her that there was little point in dancing around it. “No, we’re not lovers, but...”

“Good. That’s a relief. Because I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I like him. And I wouldn’t want to interfere with anything the two of you have.”

“Well, I don’t know if... agh...”

Madison tilted her head. “You don’t know if, what? You wouldn’t mind if I started dating him, would you?”

Gina’s expression tightened. “Yes! I’d mind!” She might’ve said that louder than she’d meant to, because Madison flinched in apparent surprise. Gina took a second to settle herself. “To be perfectly honest, yes, I would mind. It would bother the crap out of me.”

“...Oh.”

A part of Gina wanted to just leave it at that, but it wouldn’t have felt right. “But, look, it’s not that simple with Master Roman. He’s not... agh... how do I put this...?”

“Oh, you mean he’s gay?”

“No...” A beat passed. “At least, I’m pretty sure he’s not.”

“You aren’t certain?”

“Well, I’ve never seen him with a guy. Intimately, I mean. But the thing is... I’ve never seen him with a woman, either.”

“Ah, so he keeps his private life private, huh?”

That was one way of putting it, Gina supposed--an inaccurate way, but a way, nonetheless. She could’ve elaborated. She could’ve told Madison about her own past obsession with Master Roman, about how she used to watch his every move on the mansion’s security footage, how she tracked his phone and kept logs of all his conversations.

She could’ve brought all that up. But she decided against it.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Page 1191

Gina couldn’t figure this girl out. Worse, still, was the fact that her search for information on Andalero had so far turned up bupkis. And she was supposed to be recuperating, not twisting herself into a ball of muted frustration.

At length, she caught herself caving in and searching instead for intel on Madison Reach. She caught herself. And then went ahead anyway.

She quickly found more than she bargained for.

Many people did not have nice things to say about Miss Reach. Apparently, she was all types of bitchy and arrogant, making her notoriously difficult to work with. And a hypocrite, too, for multitudinous reasons, though the biggest seemed to be a drug addiction, which some said she’d kicked while others said she hadn’t.

To her credit, though, she did have many passionate supporters as well--enough so that the flame wars Gina found were among the most vitriolic she’d ever seen. Which was saying a lot.

In the end, though, none of it was helpful to her. If anything, she was even more confused about what to think than before.

She didn’t need to rely on random forum posters, though. She had plenty of informed associates from all over the world. Maybe one of them knew something about Madison. Ah, but shady people were looking for Madison, so asking about her might draw suspicion from nosy data miners. She’d have to encrypt her emails and make sure not to send them to anyone she didn’t think--

“So are you and him...?”

The question made Gina put a pin in her evil plan. “Excuse me?”

Madison was fidgeting in her seat. “You and Roman. Are the two of you...?”

She must’ve been holding onto that question for the last couple days, Gina figured. Gina wasn’t entirely sure that she wanted to answer that question, though. Maybe she’d just play dumb a little longer and hope for the best. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Page 1190 -- CXXXIII.

Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Three: ‘Thy deepening concern...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Gina wiped her nose for what felt like the fiftieth time in the past hour. She lay in bed, nestled in a small fortress of blankets and pillows as she browsed through old emails on her laptop.

She was not alone, however. The girl not-really-watching television on the other side of the room was her guest--a guest whose stay was currently indefinite.

Madison Reach pursed her lips absently. “So, um... any word yet on when Roman will be back?”

Gina had to consciously avoid rolling her eyes. “No.”

“Right. Of course. Sorry to keep asking.”

“It’s fine,” said Gina.

Another long period of silence intervened, leaving only the background noise of the television in the room.

Gina didn’t necessarily mind Madison’s company, as such. The girl needed a safe place to stay. Apparently, things had gotten a little crazy in Steccat, and now, the Andalero group wanted her dead or captured. And it was largely Master Roman’s fault.

Not too surprising. Gina understood.

But Madison’s apparent obsession with Master Roman had become rather grating. And it didn’t even make sense. Shouldn’t she have been upset? From what Master Roman had said, he’d nearly gotten her killed and quite possibly ruined her entire livelihood. And yet she hadn’t mentioned any of that to Gina even once. Was she just incredibly forgiving? Somehow, Gina didn’t think so.

It was distracting, to say the least. Gina just wanted to lay in bed, chug cold medicine, and maybe find some new intel on these Andalero people.

But no. Madison had to be here, too. Being all nice and thoughtful. Making Gina breakfast, lunch, and dinner--and well, too. How did she even know how to cook, huh? Weren’t movie stars supposed to be crap at that sort of thing?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Page 1189

The question made Hector’s eyes widen.

The Lord Duxan’s answer was in Valgan, but it did seem to be an affirmation.

Our home has such a passage as well,’ said Garovel. ‘I believe that is our most discreet option available here, though I will need to make a call first.

A rumble of voices passed over the Sandlords as they discussed it amongst themselves, but they soon came back with a nod from Abbas and a few more Valgan words for Garovel.

Garovel answered in Valgan this time, too, and then moved away from the table, motioning for Hector to follow.

Hector excused himself and exited the tent with his reaper. He’d mostly followed what had happened there at the end, but the details had eluded him. He shielded his eyes as the harsh sun greeted him again.

Tell me you still have Gina’s number,’ said Garovel

Hector searched his pockets for his phone. “Yeah...”

Call her. I need to talk to Voreese as soon as possible.

Hector hesitated, frowning.

What’s the matter?

“Nothing. It’s just... international rates are ridiculous. I think I lost like thirty troas just letting Ramira browse the internet for pictures of spiders the other day.”

Garovel’s bony face twisted impossibly. ‘Really? THAT’S what you’re worried about? Since when do you give two shits about money?

“Since I need it in order to rebuild my busted-ass castle. Not to mention, uh... feeding everyone who’s apparently gonna live there.”

Yes, well, I’m glad you’re trying to be so financially mindful, but a couple hundred troas isn’t going to make much difference with that, either way.

“Wait, what? A couple hundred?!”

Garovel shrugged. ‘It might be a long conversation. I dunno.

“Agh. I need a better data plan...”

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Page 1188

The reaper’s skeletal face wore an expression that Hector didn’t recognize. Was that... annoyance? Mixed with anger, perhaps.

I’m going for it,’ said Garovel.

Going for what?’ Hector asked.

Instead of answering him, Garovel drifted forward and began speaking rather loudly in Valgan. Whatever the Sandlords had been saying was lost as everyone turned to Garovel.

Of course, Hector couldn’t tell what was being said, but there was only one thing that he could imagine Garovel would be telling them here and now.

All things considered, the Sandlords hadn’t required much convincing. If anything, they seemed relieved. Perhaps they’d been hoping this whole time that Hector and Garovel would take the Rainlords off their hands and had just been too polite to come right out and ask.

As soon as they had their consensus, the entire atmosphere of the meeting shifted. Word was sent almost immediately to the Rainlords in Egas about the offer of asylum, and from there, the meeting became about how they might actually be able to sneak four hundred fugitives from the Vanguard out of the country.

It was very quickly agreed upon that simply trying to fly everyone to Atreya was not going to work. Even if the Vanguard wasn’t watching all their borders like a hawk, the Lorentian government’s Air Traffic Control would certainly be suspicious of a sudden fleet of private jets in their air space.

The Sandlords were talking about splitting the Rainlords up into several groups and trying to sneak them out separately in all different directions.

But Hector saw that expression on Garovel’s face again.

Please excuse my use of Mohssian here,’ said Garovel, ‘but I would like my servant to understand what I am about to ask of you.

A heavy silence elapsed as the Sandlords waited. Lord Abbas gave a nod from the other end of the table.

Garovel returned it gratefully, then addressed the bearded man on Abbas’ left. ‘As I recall,’ said Garovel, ‘Hahl Duxan controls a passage to the Undercrust, no?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Page 1187

The separation had been rather sudden, but it couldn’t have been helped. The Sandlords had learned that the Vanguard was much nearer than anyone realized. Apparently, they had been repelling Abolish forces in Calthos for the past few days, keeping them away from the border with Sair.

Hector heard the names Iceheart and Lamont a few times. They both referred to the same person, he eventually realized, and according to Garovel, Lamont was a Vanguardian who wielded as much power as Ivan or Gohvis.

And even though there’d been no official announcement, the Sandlords seemed to believe that Lamont would show up in Moaban any day now--probably due to all the media attention surrounding the attack and subsequent evacuation.

When the meeting finally began, Garovel translated for Hector as usual. A few arguments broke out among the Sandlords, which weren’t exactly new, but this time, they had more vitriol behind them. Hector could feel the growing dread in the air, the desperation. Several times, they talked about how there could be no more delays, how Iceheart would make the decision for them if this stalemate continued.

Hector also noted that Jada Najir, despite attending every meeting as her Hahl’s representative, never spoke. She only ever observed. Which might have been for the best, he figured. The other Hahls were not exactly pleased with Asad and his family at the moment, even if no legal consequences had been discussed as of yet.

As the meeting drew out and familiar talking points were retread, Hector began to feel his attention slipping. This was going to be another day of indecision, after all, it seemed. If he’d known that, he would’ve put this time to better use.

Then Garovel stopped translating for him, and Hector’s attention snapped.

...Garovel?’ said Hector.

Page 1186

I wonder what he and Asad will think about the fact that we actually talked to the Dry God,’ said Hector.

Garovel chortled. ‘I hope they’re jealous.’

Soon enough, Hector had to start heading back. Garovel kept going on about history, but Hector was only half-listening now. His mind had returned to worrying about the present. The Sandlords were scheduled to reconvene this afternoon, and now that the evacuation of Moaban was nearly finished, their excuse for delaying was more or less gone.

Hector could understand their reluctance to make a decision. They were stuck between the Vanguard and the Rainlords. One way or another, they had to betray someone’s trust. And of course, the well-being of their own subjects was at stake--and wasn’t that a lord’s priority?

It was enough to give Hector pause. He was a lord, too. Technically. This whole time, he felt like he hadn’t really understood what that meant--the responsibility it implied. And the potential consequences. He certainly didn’t envy the Sandlords’ position right now, but he was realizing that he might very well find himself in a similar one, someday.

He arrived at Dunehall again as the sun neared the height of its arc in the sky. From the outside, the castle looked largely the same. Hector supposed that was one advantage of being covered almost entirely in sand: structural vulnerabilities were hidden. Apart from the scarcely noticeable lump or depression in the sand’s surface, Dunehall seemed no different.

Most of the Sandlords were waiting in tents all along the castle grounds. The Rainlords were no longer here. They’d headed for Egas the previous day, while Hector and a handful of representatives had stayed behind at the request of Abbas.