The young woman looked at herself in the mirror and grinned, her smile as bright and sunny as any springtime day. Spring on Lithos . . . That was always the season in which the great Courts were held before the Vortex Mirror and the dark lord that was the Mirror incarnate. It was a solemn, serious affair, and yet it was also one that meant much to any Gemlord, a celebration of who and what they were.
She picked up her brush and dragged it through her medium-length, wavy, coppery-gold hair, humming a soft tune that was popular here on Aradia. Sure, the place was nice, the people friendly to her, but the world was a drier one than she was used to, hotter, and the climate more forbidding. Lithos, at least, was nearly covered in ancient forests outside of the environs of the City. Granted, many fierce and nasty creatures prowled the countryside of the Wilds, but most of the species that shared Lithos knew better than to attack a Gemlord. Still, there were times dangerous animals encroached, hence the perimeter patrols of the City Guard.
That, and the extreme unlikelihood of anyone that knew of Lord Obsidian and his people would approach Lithos for an attack.
She almost laughed at that thought, still brushing her hair, her violet-blue eyes gazing over herself from underneath long, coppery lashes. All of the Lithos-aware native cultures she knew of were either allies or at least neutral to friendly acquaintances. The fact that Lord Adamant and his cadre of psionically gifted spiritual warriors circulated among those cultures and helped out with disputes and the like as a sort of professional, neutral arbitration service, as well as acting as heralds and peacekeepers, kept those cultures rather appreciative of Lord Obsidian and the Gemlords. It seemed a very distant possibility indeed for any of those cultures to get up enough hate or desire to come calling with warfare or destruction on their minds.
Excitement gave her tanned cheeks a faintly blooming blush. Home. She was going home. Sure, she had only been gone a year--hardly anything to a long-lived Gemlord--but she had to admit that it had drug on and on for her. If her assignment had been more than just routine, day-to-day life pretending to be just another Aradian, keeping her eyes and ears open for anything that hinted at a breech of Order, she'd probably have been happier. At least the time would have seemed to have passed more quickly then. Still, she should be thankful that her mission was a very peaceful and boring one.
Not bad for a kid, hey Tanzie? No one ever figured out you weren't Aradian, you did all the things you were supposed to do and survived an entire year all on your own. I think you've done well, she thought, her eyes fastened upon her reflection.
The image that stared back was that of a young woman, looking much like any female Terran would at the age of eighteen, of slender build and pretty face. Large, long-lashed, violet-blue eyes were her most noticeable feature, and a silken mane of copper-gold hair surrounded her face, falling down to end just between her shoulderblades. Clad at the moment in the typical Aradian lightweight dress of pale colored cloth--the skirt calf-length and full, the bodice high-necked and the sleeves very full, long and cuffed--all built to reflect the Aradian sunlight and protect the body from the almost-desert planet's hot climate, she knew that she would have to hurry home in time to get into fancy dress, or choose to report to Lord Obsidian still dressed in the native clothes of the planet to which she had been assigned. Rather proud of her successful completion of duty, she made the decision to appear at Court in the native garb.
Besides, Garnet might find it exotic.
Gary . . .
Just thinking about the young, gangly, redheaded contemporary made her feel slightly flushed. The two of them had grown up nearly together, though Tanzanite herself was half a billion years older. He was the oldest of the trio of youngsters that she considered siblings, though Zoisite was truly her sibling by stone, just as Lord Thulite was. Alexandrite and Garnet, though not related by stone, had long ago sworn a pact of siblingship with Zoisite and her; the four had stuck together through all sorts of adolescent crises.
But Garnet and she had been even closer than that, sharing a camaraderie that was unmatched for her by anyone else. Not even her little sibling Zoisite, who was so much like her and yet so different all at the same time, was as much the friend and brother Garnet had become over the years. And as the centuries passed, the two of them had been getting closer still.
Softly sighing in happiness, a memory came to her, of a
practice in swordsmanship--most Gemlords were so trained because
the easiest weapon most of them could form from their powers was
a sword-like blade of their namesake gemstone, magically enhanced
to be as strong as the strongest steel--that had happened
slightly before Tanzanite's elevation to adulthood a century
A scene from the past: Metal rings on metal, the fencing foils clashing for a brief instant and separating almost at once. The sun blazes warmly down onto the duelists, awakening copper, gold, and near-white highlights in the young woman's hair; ruby and strawberry glows in her male opponent's mane.
From the sidelines, an older man with silver-blond hair--highlighted in a rainbow of pastel colors--calls out, "Close your guard, Garnet."
"Yessir, Lord Topaz," pants the young man, adjusting his stance at once. Next to the older man, a much younger blonde girl and a boy, almost as young with emerald-hued hair, also stand watching.
"Who you think is gonna win, Zoe?" the boy whispers to his companion.
"Garnet, of course," the girl says firmly. "You should know, that, Alex."
"Tanzanite's older," Alexandrite reminds his younger sibling. "And she's had more practice, too."
"Garnet never loses anything," Zoisite answers with an unshakable belief in her older brother's omnipotence.
Through the face guards, Garnet's violet eyes seek out his opponent's delicate face; her violet-blue eyes meet his, and his heart jumps ecstatically. In that instant, his guard relaxes just a fraction. She smiles devilishly and lunges, striking the foil out of his hand, before the tip of her own foil bends against the padding over his chest.
"Touch. Match goes to Tanzanite." Lord Topaz's expression is neither quite smiling nor quite frowning. "Good match, Garnet, but you've got a ways to go yet."
Garnet yanks off his face guard with a look of dazed shock; Tanzanite removes hers more daintily. Zoisite's jaw hangs loose, and Alexandrite tries not to crow "I told you so" at his little sister.
For a long moment, Garnet and Tanzanite stare at each other across five feet of empty air; then the redhead tosses his foil and face guard aside, puts one hand to his chest, and sweeps the other out behind him as he makes a graceful, flamboyant bow to his pretty opponent. The older girl blinks in surprise at the bow, then smiles; Lord Topaz nods in approval, Alexandrite frowns in confusion, and Zoisite . . . Zoisite suddenly looks upset.
While his left hand is out behind him, Garnet concentrates hard for a moment; a shimmer coalesces around his fingers even as he straightens, bringing his arm around forward. Clasped in his hand as he extends it towards his victorious opponent is a single, breathtakingly perfect rose, its petals a deep, lush red.
Tanzanite gasps softly, then steps forward, taking the flower with her free hand and inhaling its perfume. "Why, thank you, Gary," she says, smiling as her long-lashed eyes lift back to him.
"Every time you disarm me," he replies, his eyes twinkling, "I'll give you a rose."
"What if you disarm me?" Tanzanite asks curiously, still holding the flower to her face.
Finding it hard to say which was more beautiful, the rose or the charming angel holding it, the twinkle in the young gallant's violet eyes gets brighter. "You give me a kiss."
Topaz rolls his sky-blue eyes heavenward and snorts faintly, clearly unimpressed with the display of youthful ardor. Looking on at the antics of their older brother, Zoisite pouts, and Alexandrite looks rather curious.
Tanzanite giggles. "Agreed."
"Good," Garnet answers, reaches out, and simply takes the foil out of her hand. Caught off-guard, the older girl doesn't even have a chance to tighten her grip; her face assumes an expression of absolute amazement.
"I've disarmed you," Garnet points out, smiling, holding up the foil.
She shakes her head, copper-gold hair floating lightly around her face as she tries not to laugh. "You little sneak!"
"That's right," he acknowledges, grinning like a fox. "You agreed, though."
"Oh, all right," Tanzanite sighs, knowing that she's been outmatched, at least in this. She steps forward and puts her free hand under the the lanky youth's chin. His head leans back a notch--she stands only slightly taller than he does--and his eyes close automatically.
As Tanzanite's lips touch his, light as butterfly wings,
the younger girl turns her back, scowling.
A bright smile gracing her lips, which even now were tingling slightly in remembrance of that soft kiss, Tanzanite glanced over to the vase sitting just to her right, where that same rose glimmered, as fresh and bright as ever. Forged from Garnet's magic, it would remain that way until the redheaded Gemlord dismissed it--or something happened to him to break the spell. In any case, it had been a comforting reminder of home during this time away, the first one of fifteen total that she owned. However, Garnet had gotten better at his fencing. At last count, he'd earned twenty kisses before her elevation into adulthood took her away from the same course of studies in which Ametrine and her siblings were engaged.
Not that she minded. She'd been finding those kisses increasingly interesting, so much so that the redheaded youth she called "brother" had been in her thoughts constantly. All during her year away, she wondered how he'd been, how much he'd grown, did he miss her as much as she discovered she missed him? Right before she had left, she had confided to her little sister Zoisite that she was seriously thinking about asking Garnet to be something more than just a brother. Though Zoe had seemed uncharacteristically quiet on the matter, just listening more than anything else, the younger girl had agreed that Garnet would be quite pleased with that notion.
That's exactly what I'm going to do then. As soon as Gary earns his circlet and is considered an adult, I'm going to ask him to be my partner and share living quarters with me. I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have. Standing up, she shoved the chair back over to the desk from where she had grabbed it in order to sit down as she had brushed her hair, feeling slightly heated and dizzy from the mere thought of Garnet possibly doing for real what she'd been imagining in her dreams of late. Of course, her erotic dreams were all purely imagination; other than those rather tame kisses she'd tossed out to Garnet as prizes, Tanzanite had no experience at all in the intimate sharing of bodies. Not that there weren't opportunities; a number of young Aradians had found her quite interesting, but with Garnet on her mind, she'd just not been interested in return.
However, it was time to check in with home. Clearing her mind of everything, she closed her eyes and stilled her thoughts, reaching out across the distances to seek out and then touch the brilliant golden star that was so familiar to her. **Lord Topaz?**
**Ah, Lady Tanzanite. I've been expecting your call.** The Castellan's mindvoice sounded strained, as if he were attempting to keep his temper under control.
Deciding to not push her luck and inquire as to what was annoying the older Gemlord, she continued her thought. **I'm nearly ready to return home. All I need to do is gather together my things and I'll make the jump to Lithos.**
**That's good. You'll need to hurry, however. The Centennial Court is about to begin, and though you're not scheduled to report until late, being here for the entire thing will give you an opportunity to catch up on what's been happening elsewhere.**
**I understand, sir. I shan't be long at all. Save me a place next to Garnet, will you?**
**As you wish. Maybe you can help keep them in line . . .** With that, Lord Topaz cut the connection, leaving Tanzanite wondering what exactly he meant.
Oh my . . . I wonder if that means Garnet and the others got themselves into trouble? she mused to herself as she started opening up her dresser drawers to empty them of the clothing she wanted to take home.
The first thing that caught her attention were the screams. So used to having her powers essentially shut off in order to better blend into the Aradian culture, the faint sound of screaming was her only warning that something was wrong. Gasping softly, Tanzanite abandoned her packing and ran to the window of her room, looking out over the city, hoping to see any sign of what the trouble could be.
The terrible rift in the sky, yawning over the city like a hungry, gaping mouth, left no doubt at all that something was dreadfully wrong. That there were seemingly limitless grotesque and twisted bodies of roughly humanoid shape pouring out of that maw, floating to the ground and wreaking absolute havoc and destruction with energy weapons and dark magic alike only added to the young Gemlord's sudden horror. Lords Topaz and Hiddenite both had warned her that there was a slight possibility of something happening here, but had assured her that the possibility was very small--it wasn't their policy to send newly adult Gemlords out into dangerous situations. Aradia was now under attack, by something from outside its normal probability line. Too much for her to even try to handle on her own, especially with that dimensional rift up there. The only thing she could do was telepath frantically to Lord Topaz and then leave, hoping that more experienced Gemlords could handle the situation.
Tanzanite stepped back away from the window, centering herself again to reach out to her connection to the Castellan, only to find her concentration thoroughly shattered as a high-powered energy blast slammed into the side of the building just under her window. Knocked down to her knees, her arms covering her face from the flying shrapnel of broken brick and mortar, the blonde girl rode out the direct strike in a huddled mass.
She was still screaming in terror when another round of blasts caused the remains of the building to come crashing down on her . . .