[Hero Story] TESSA

  • 9 days ago

She is beauty without compare. She is charm without reservation. With a positive strut, she prowls the city's streets after dark in search of the corrupt and depraved.

There is but one thing this bounty hunter asks of those who cower before the tip of her sword: "Where is he?"

 

A HERO'S TALE

"I won't ask again. Where is he?"

Through eyes half swollen shut did the man, upon hearing her demand, strain to look at the wanted poster dropped before him.
It featured a rough portrait of a man in a classic silk hat.
Faded as the image was, what stood out most was his smile. Was it genuine? Derisive? The latter may have best fit this present onlooker, a pitiful sight as he squirmed while bound to the dirt.

"Can't say I h-have. Even I'm not fool enough to swim with sharks..."
"And yet, Thrasher, you're proving fool enough to lie to one."
"I-I'm tellin' the truth! ...Damn it! You gotta believe me!"

Save for a faint sliver of the moon's light, only darkness cradled the scene of their exchange.
The prey grew increasingly frantic. The predator, however, remained cool and dominant. Leaning against the rough wall of the alleyway, her finger lightly traced the flat end of her rapier.
The man had risen to notoriety as the Thrasher—a name he had earned from the many skulls he had caved with his monstrous mace.
But there was little sign of the infamous Thrasher now as he lay shaking, lips swollen and bleeding, ego bruised beyond repair. Despite his worming and wriggling, the ropes binding him held fast, and the woman's knots remained secure.
He wished he could at least lift his head to see his attacker's face, but the repeated blows to the head left it throbbing, making even a craning of the neck agonizing. Just where had things gone so wrong?
Was it when he was "teaching a lesson" to those high-hatted magicians?
Was it when he left his mace at the forge after noticing a spot of rust?
Or was it when he spotted a breathtaking beauty just off the main street and asked her if she'd like to keep him company over a drink?

"...Well, all right. I believe you."

The woman, twiddling her rapier still as she now sat atop a low wall, stood again to approach the man.
How graceful her feet fell upon the ground! Where others would clack or clomp, her hips glided forward with an elegance befitting a ballroom, her heels making no sound as she towered over the man.
He sniffled. As the wind whispered through the cold night air, his broken nose picked up the sweet scent of flowers from her rose-feathered hair.
The tip of her rapier scraped the underside of his chin, lifting it and sending a stinging pain down his neck.

"How humiliating. A hulking brute like you, crawling about like sniveling child. Not to worry, though. I've lost interest in you, so you're free to go."
"You're... letting me go? After all that?"
"I most certainly am, my dear."

Her voice was soft—almost comforting. Not unlike a mother soothing one of her own.
For a moment, it seemed to sway the lowly criminal and grant him a sense of relief... but he was not a man without pride.
He was the Thrasher. A proud name built from the ground up. A glorious legacy built from kissing others' boots until finally, at long last, they were kissing his.
...A name that now held no meaning before this slender figure before him. If only he had paid more attention!
If only pride had any use here.

'...Cocky broad. What I wouldn't give to snap that slender neck.'

He swallowed his vitriol before it flew from his tongue, and with it he swallowed his pride. All this moment demanded of him was to give her his most miserable, pitiful expression in hopes of tugging at her heartstrings...
so that he might be afforded the chance to choke the life from her with his very hands once he was free.

"Please! Let me go... My wrists are chafed from the rope. It stings..."
"You do so love to nag, don't you?"

The woman let out a low chuckle as she lowered her weapon.
How far was the gap between them? Surely five paces, at most. He begged his mind to stay focused as she approached.
Four paces... Three paces...
The closer she came, however, the stronger the scent of flowers hung in the air, enrapturing his senses until the malice he harbored but moments before seemed like some half-forgotten afterthought.
She was beautiful. Her eyes, intense as emeralds, met his, melting his rage. Her smile, sweet as honey, stopped his breath in awe.
Never had the pale moonlight the honor of illuminating so fine a pearl; never had it the joy of playing backdrop to so captivating a swan.
What a fool he was. He could never hope to reach a being of her caliber, arms now spread wide, as though open to a loving embrace...
He would not dare look away, nor even blink! Two paces... One...

"The knight re-enters the stage to exact due punishment on the villain crouched before her."
"...?!"

Slap!
Before he could even see it, the woman's armored hand clapped against his cheek.

"Now, now... Be a good little man. Think of this as something to remember me by. It won't hurt as much if you stay still."

Slap! Slap!
With one powerful blow after the next, his cheeks were newly reddened, swelling all the more.

Slap! Slap! Slap!
She didn't stop until he was incapable of sitting up. Soon, his body crashed to the ground. He was utterly beaten—unable to let out even the smallest whimper.

"Goodness. Done already?"

Observing the end of the hideous criminal at her own hands, she returned her rapier to its sheath at her waist in a single, fluid motion. She then placed a hand upon her breast and looked up toward the moon, reciting a playful soliloquy:

"And as the villain fell, humans and fairies alike broke out in a resounding cheer like no other."

The moon seemed to beam in response; and to it, she offered a deep, theatrical bow.

"Thank you, ladies and gentleman, for coming to tonight's performance. You have truly been a wonderful audience."


-----


"Take care of this refuse for me, if you would."

The woman tossed the criminal's hulking body to the floor as though he were a half-empty sack.
He was no longer conscious, his breathing coming only as weak, staggered groans.

"Wait. Ain't this the Thrasher?"
"'As in... THE Thrasher?"
"Yeah! That son of a bitch who messed up Petyr real good."
"After that hell he pulled and the headaches he's caused, he's finally gonna spend his time behind bars, huh?"
"About time, I say. I bet Petyr would get a good laugh out looking at his face, too. Between the swelling and the bruising, you have to look real good to know it's him."

The two soldiers looked over the man's body as though it were a routine inspection before looking up at the bounty hunter, clad in white and arms crossed as she leaned against the door frame.
Her beauty was the kind that lingered in one's mind after even a brief glimpse. Her hair was long and voluminous, her eyes piercing and profound, and her armor ornamented to resemble a bird's delicate wings.
They both though the same: she didn't look at all like the sort who generally brought in bounties. About as far from that type as one would picture, really.

"Well... thanks for taking care of this piece of work. You can claim your bounty from the base just over there."
"Thank you, but I didn't do it for the money. He was just an eyesore."

She gave them a small smile.

"I'm sure I'll see you again, so ta-ta for now, boys."
"Umm... If you could spare me a minute, please?"

Before she could turn away, one of the soldiers—who respectfully removed his helmet, revealing bright eyes and flushed cheeks—approached.
She continued onward, undeterred.

"It's just that I... I feel like we've met before."
"You playin' that old line on her? Come on, mate! You're an embarrassment to soldiers the world over."
"No! I'm not... Really! I know I've seen her before!"

The bright-eyed soldier retreated to his thoughts in search for an answer, and he soon found it.

"Err... Might you perchance be... Theresia? The lead actress from the Swan Knight?"
"..."

She stopped. The soldier, taking it as some sort of sign, continued, his confidence bolstered.
"I knew it! I'm a big fan of yours, Lady Theresia! I followed the story real close and got to most of the shows when you were on tour in Roch—"
"Tessa."
"Pardon...?"
"I prefer Tessa now."

She then continued back to the city streets, steps light as air and hair caressed by the brisk night's wind.

A paltry evening's work was done. Now quite satisfied and ready for relaxation, Tessa made her way to a humble bar that had caught her attention earlier that day.
She chose a cozy, quieter seat with a good view of the other patrons—perfect for people watching while nursing a cold mug.
None stood out to her. Within were all the sorts one would expect from such an establishment, all weary from personal struggles, pushing their troubles to tomorrow with liquor and boisterous laughter.
It was too bad. She had hoped to find a certain loathsome face among the crowd.
Tessa, her mind wandering to him once more, carefully unfolded the worn and faded wanted poster in her hands to review it. Not even she knew how many times she had repeated this ritual.

WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE
PHANTOM THIEF H
ALIAS
THE GEMSAGE

For several years, she had been living her life chasing a mirage. Day in, day out, oftentimes feeling so close to catching him but losing him in the end.
The soldier was right. In a former time, she had indeed been an actress. But that changed after meeting him. Because of him—a horrid, detestable man—she was bitterly inspired take up the role of a bounty hunter.
It was a shame that her work these past few weeks had proven all for naught.
When she heard rumors of a gem that gave off a puzzling light had been found among some smuggled goods in Rocheste, she couldn't travel there fast enough.
Her investigation was thorough and aggressive. If there was a criminal who dealt in valuable treasures nearby, she watched them with keen eyes in hopes they would lead her to her man.
All that effort, only for it to lead to the Thrasher. Not a trace of her dashing thief was found.
He must have gotten a good laugh out of this, she imagined.
Even if she couldn't find him, he was, without a doubt, watching her every move. Each time her frustration built to the point of wanting to give up, he would drop bread crumbs for her to follow, reigniting her desire to catch him. Then, when she was finally closing in, he would seemingly vanish without a trace.

"My most beautiful gem, Theresia..."

He was never one to raise his voice. He didn't need to, for he carried weight even when just above a whisper.
It tickled her ears much in the same way his piercing gaze saw through her.
She would go to any lengths for that voice. Those eyes...

"...Just you wait. You won't have your way forever."

As she muttered to the poster, she could have sworn the faded smile upon it creased with delight at its corner.
And then, as she looked up... someone stood out.

"...Barkeep. A beer, if you would."

It was the flat music in his voice that brought her, deep in thought though she was, back to reality.
Low and quiet, yet still profound enough to cut through the raucous noise in the room.

'Is he... Is he here?'

Her head turned this way and that, completely fixated on finding the source.
And there he was: a fellow with a furrowed brow.
The moment he stepped into the bar, he'd found a quiet corner—near her—and set the bow and quiver slung over his shoulder on the table.

"Uncanny..."

Was it the dim of the candlelight? Was it the depths of her ruminations playing tricks on her senses?
Or was it that she was so desperate for even a scrap of evidence he was here, if only to keep her efforts from having been entirely in vain?
Scrutinizing the man further, she affirmed it wasn't who she sought... but even then, this man looked uncannily like the sketch on the wanted poster.
The resemblance alone was enough to pique her interest. Glass now in hand, she strode to his table with practiced confidence.

"...I've been having a hell of a time lately."
"...?"

The only response the man seemed to have to the stranger standing at his table was a quizzical stare.

"Nothing's gone as I'd hoped. I thought I'd found a promising lead at last, but to where did it take me? Another dead end. And now here I am, lamenting my loss through libations."
"..."

The man responded by lifting his own mug to his lips.
Now that she could see his face from up close, she knew her mind had indeed tricked her.
He was the very opposite of the preening figure from her memories, with disheveled blond hair and rough stubble due for a shave.
His thin, tight lips suggested a taciturn man who wasn't accustomed to idle chatter.
Yet that somehow piqued her curiosity all the more.
They would part ways after this night; what harm was there in sharing a drink with this fellow?
He didn't strike her as the sort to shoo her away. He would listen, she suspected.
And on a night like this, a willing audience was just what she needed.

"Would you be so kind as to listen to me go on, stranger? It's one of those days—the kind that makes the past feel oh-so present. I could use your ear."

Though his expression remained indifferent, he responded just as she had hoped:

"As you please."
"Much obliged. Though, fair warning, I was an actress once, and I spin my tales like one. You won't mind, I hope?"

With no reply, she at last took a seat next to him...
...and as she spoke, the world around her became whelmed with her tale, a ballad of memories still fresh.


-----


Have you heard of Rodluvan?

It's an affluent city that connects our western continent, the southern continent, and the island village of Malina.
This sprawling city, rife with polish and sophistication, is my hometown, and where my story begins.
Sweet, doe-eyed Lady Theresia—that would be me—was the firstborn of one of Rodluvan's falling houses.
Their manor was, much like its residents, a shell of its former glory. They had long ago dipped below the level of wealth necessary for its proper upkeep, lending it a look more haunted than hospitable. It would scarcely have passed as livable by the standards of the nobility, but live there Lady Theresia did, along with her senile grandparents, her vain parents, and her equally doe-eyed younger siblings.

Now... I realize this may sound cold, but by way of explanation, her parents were worthless drecks.
Obsessed with retaining the veneer of their fading nobility, they spent lavishly to keep up appearances as things went to rot around them. So arrogant did they remain in spite of their decreased standing that they still would scarcely lift a finger for any task one might deem a 'servant's work.'
Thinking no further ahead than the next gala or banquet, they dressed themselves in fine clothes and jewels while their little ones wailed at night, their bellies empty.
And so their growing debt became Lady Theresia's to shoulder.
Pride was foolhardy. Money was torture. Every morning, she was racked with these thoughts as she left her home.
To hell with those who whispered of her family's failings within earshot! She had tears to dry! Mouths to feed!
To the tune of her mother and father's reckless laughter, she grit her teeth and accepted whatever work was given to her for pitiful amounts of money.

Her parents, however, had their own welfare foremost in their minds.
Together, they concocted seedy schemes that promised to, perhaps, return them to their glory days.
Their plan was simple: Lady Theresia was now a beauty that turned heads wherever she went. All they had to do was marry her off to a man of high standing.
Back then, Rodluvan was experiencing a boom in wealth among the common people thanks to the prosperity of intercontinental trade.
The merchant class was quick to establish themselves in high society, holding lavish parties nearly every night to establish their place both in and beyond the city's borders.
Can you hazard a guess as to how the nobility, with their long history and old money, reacted to these ambitious upstarts? "Bah!" they would scoff, turning up their noses. "Blasted nouveau riche!"
Yet history didn't buy jewels the way money did, and it swiftly became custom for these parvenus to buy their way into status through marriage. It was on this, in fact, that Lady Theresia's parents had pinned their hopes.
If they could sell their daughter's beauty and blood to the highest bidder, then they would be newly awash in the riches they fantasized.

"...How pathetic."

It was such a sudden comment on the part of her drinking companion that it prompted a hearty titter from her in turn.
To think he had been paying such close attention to a stranger's woes!

"Seems I haven't lost my touch for drama."

It only served to encourage her, and thus she continued.

Whenever the many trials that constituted her life threatened to crush her beneath their weight, this lovely woman would pause, close her eyes, and dream.
None close to her recognized it, but she knew. She possessed a gift.
For she was, at heart, an actress.
Unbeknownst to those in her circle, she used her precious free hours to audition for a local theater company, earning small roles in plays both grand and modest.
It was there, on the stage, where she felt she could breathe at last.
There, on the stage, where a sense of true liberation surged within her heart, bringing her to the point of tears.
There, on the stage, where she did not have to be not Lady Theresia. Did not have to be a noble clad in a pauper's rags.
She was not worn to the bone nor exhausted from days of labor. She was a graceful shepherdess; a maid in love with her master; an ethereal elf...
It mattered little that the liberation she found through these roles was brief. Reality was molded to be her prison from birth, and so any time she spent free of its confines was time worth its while.
And perhaps, with enough time spent at the company, she could even dare to dream of taking a bow before the audience as the lead.

A pity, then, that Lady Theresia had forgotten she was fair of face.
Esteemed for her beauty, she was cast not for her study of the actor's craft, but for the way her eyes twinkled and her hair plumed.
Even so, Lady Theresia continued to hone her gift, and her performances continued to amaze. Or, looking back, was the audience, too, enchanted by her appearance?
In the end, even the one thing that gave her life purpose began to slowly close in, becoming yet one more prison to confine her.
Her spirit soon withered, and her shine soon faded. If this was all her life was to be, then what meaning was there in living?

-----


One day, as the sun was slowly setting...
Theresia sat in the corner of her room, staring vacantly into space as her parents stormed about her in a great huff.

"Why are you just sitting there?! You're missing a party thrown by a man at the very pinnacle of high society!"
"You lazy, stupid girl! Must we spell it out for you? There is no better hunting ground for a husband than a wealthy man's masquerade!"

To her right, her father squawked. To her left, her mother shrieked. It was enough to rattle the house! Would you not pity Lady Theresia in that moment?
She certainly pitied herself—and she'd had enough of it. In the midst of their tantrums, she stood, strode to her wardrobe...
...and reached past her garish dress with mutton sleeves in favor of a tailored green skirt, a mask, and a white wig.
She paid her parents no mind as she left both room and home, as this was to be the start of her rebellion.

Her destination was still to be Lheureux's manor, now bathed in the orange light of the waning sun.
Though the masquerade had yet to begin, the mansion was already bustling with nobles with their pretty dresses, swelling laughter, and full glasses.
Lady Theresia felt no joy from any of it. How lifeless it all was! How vapid!
She piqued the interest of some, but their greetings went in one ear and out the other. She spared them not a word. Not even a glance.

Her eyes looked only ahead. She strode through the entry hall, across the ballroom, and out through a corridor till she reached a grand terrace.
There was some small hope that there, alone with the view, that the pressure building within would relieve itself.
Looking out, she saw a small lake hugged by an expansive salt flat, both water and minerals glittering like white gemstones in the dimming light of the early evening.
You would think such a sight breathtaking enough to move even the stoniest heart, no?
But alas! Not Lady Theresia. Beauty no longer moved her, for she was disillusioned by all that "beauty" had come to mean in her life.
Idly watching the land twinkle in the sunset, she thought:
'If I must spend the rest of my life playing at being someone I'm not, then what reason do I have to live at all?'
The shackles of her existence gripped her even tighter. Squeezing her chest, choking her at the neck...
Was there another way? Could she go through with it?

She pondered that dark thought for a moment, but then...

a creaking noise roused her from her bitter reverie.

Another one. Then another. These sounds aroused her suspicion, trickling into her ears as though the rest of the world lay silent.
It reminded her of the slow, methodical way one opens a door to keep those who slumber from waking. But where was it coming from? ...The corridor?
Taking care to make nary a sound, she slipped back into the corridor, her gaze sweeping from the high ceilings above to the rows of ornamental armor below.

And there... she heard a flutter.

Lady Theresia could scarcely stifle a gasp as she beheld the silhouette of a man clad in a long cloak, face obscured by a silk hat...
creeping between the mansion's shadows, gem-encrusted porcelain in hand.
Well, now! What a sight!
Whether by a stroke of luck or trick of fate, the woman who had minutes stood shuffling her feet at death's door had become fascinated by a thief!
It appeared he had yet to notice her, being far too caught up in ensuring he left behind no trace of his presence at the scene.
Oh! But here I must interject to mention he was far from nervous. He remained steadfastly calm, moving with a poise and swagger that suggested this could have been his hundredth—or perhaps even thousandth—heist to date.
The whole affair gave Lady Theresia's heart a start.
She had no reason to intervene and nothing to gain from it, and yet the urge to stop him filled her with an excitement she had not felt in so very long.

'I don't know whether he's the violent sort of rogue, but it doesn't sit well to leave him be.'

And so her plans to take her life were set aside.
Lady Theresia hurriedly inspected the rows of armor for a weapon with which to arm herself, in the event she had to subdue the man.
Her eyes soon landed on the slender rapier, which she plucked from its hollow bearer and made to give chase.

-----


"St... Phew... Stop! Return that right now, thief!"

Even as her breathing grew labored, she never slowed.

The bolder her pursuit, the closer she came to him.
Feeling all that had been pent up within her surging up along with the burning of her lungs, she poured all her energy into each lunging step.
The phantom thief had, of course, taken notice of the girl, and as she gave chase, he remained always several paces ahead.
Each time a strange light sparked from his fingers, the distance between the two widened. Lady Theresia was not blind to this peculiar pattern...
nor was the rogue blind to Lady Theresia being green to the finer points of a good pursuit.
The longer the chase went on, the simpler it seemed for him to maintain his distance from her.
Lady Theresia, however, remained stubbornly fixated.
Perhaps it was those many nights of rigorous stage rehearsals that kept her fit enough to keep going, but what if it were something else? Something more?
A certain high, born of the moment, breathed new life into her, granting her more clarity and focus than she had previously thought possible.
In a way, it reminded her of her early days as an actress.
...Was that it? Was it not the thief himself or the stolen porcelain that drove her to continue the chase, but the sheer liberation of running with naught else to guide her course?
What was this feeling building inside?
The only thing of which she was certain was that if this feeling could be catalyzed—could be sustained by running—then she would run forever.

"Hah... Hah..."

Lady Theresia stopped only at the salt flat's lake, her breath coming in more ragged, panting gasps.

The sky above, studded with the rising stars, married dreamlike shades of apricot and lilac for a picturesque scene.
The feeling that possessed her in that moment was difficult to put into words. From the distant balcony, seeing this same scenery where she now stood had moved her not at all. Now, standing upon the shores of the lake, she felt an appreciation that had little to do with aesthetics.
Stranger, do you think that the phantom thief led her there on purpose? If so, you wouldn't be alone, for that's what she herself was beginning to suspect.
As her chest heaved, she breathed more deeply, and as the air filled her lungs, the feeling that had sparked her felicitous chase continued to grow. The air was so clean, and there was no one else around.

It was then that she realized it. That place, with its sparkling crust of salt underfoot and the gem-like stars above... was quiet.
No one was here. Not her mother or father, nor her siblings, nor the many who looked down on her fallen house. There was no buzz of gossip and no aching moans from an exhausting day's labor.
Here, she was reminded of what it meant to be alive.

It was as uncomfortable as it was overpowering, the liberation in this moment—
even the rapture of the stage failed to compare.
Lady Theresia closed her eyes and breathed deeper still, surrendering her senses.

And when she opened them again...
there he was.


Despite the unexpected arrival, Lady Theresia made no indication of being surprised. Her wall of composure was itself an act, but one she hoped was convincing.

"You would be the thief, yes?"
"None other."

There was a low and deeply profound quality to his voice.
And that voice took not a moment's pause in answering.
She, a frightened cub within, stood before a beast with a practiced level of calm both inside and out.
Or, well... not entirely "calm." He appeared amused by her feigned—cleverly disguised, but nevertheless feigned—bravado.

"Give up. If you hand over what you took without a fight, I promise I shall spare your life."
"..."

All her will was focused on surmounting the insurmountable.
This man before her was far more adept than her in many ways.
She recalled the magic during their chase that allowed him to keep a comfortable lead. What was that? How had he gained such proficiency in this mysterious art?
Yet even with this unknown, Lady Theresia would not flinch.
You see, giving up in the face of an accomplished opponent after coming so far simply did not sit well with her.
She raised and pointed her blunted rapier before her, stepping forward to assert her position.

"You don't seem afraid of me."

Deep. Profound. And now, so very gentle.
The gentleman stepped forward till the rapier's point allowed him to go no further, raised his hand to slowly push it aside, and continued.

"Not another step! One more, and I'll make the cut."

He took the next step.
As she wondered when the right time to finally strike would be, the gentleman extended to her an unexpected offer.
It came in the form of the beautiful porcelain piece she had witnessed him steal.
The gems set in it glittered like the salt-encrusted plains beneath her feet.

"Take it. I've no need for it anymore."

Very strange, would you not agree? Lady Theresia could not help but expect it was somehow being offered as bait—a trap to be sprung if she accepted.
She had hoped to read the gentleman's eyes for some sort of hint, but no clue did she find divulged there.
His was a dry, direct gaze, as though he spoke the pure truth.
And so gingerly, with a certain degree of confusion, Lady Theresia took the stolen porcelain.

"I don't understand... Why would...? Why sneak into the mansion for this, only to return it?"
"Oh, the porcelain vessel itself means little. It was the Eastern jade with which it was inlaid that piqued my interest. But having decided I no longer have need of it, I see no reason why I shouldn't give it back."

His replies lacked thrill or passion of any kind, so matter-of-fact were they. Still, Lady Theresia believed what he said, and her wariness began to wane.
She also began to accept that he had no intention of harming her.
Now able to stand before him without fear, she put aside her ornamental blade and drew ever closer to him.
Though the darkness was now setting in around them, up close, she could more clearly discern the fine features behind the voice.
The gentleman was a neat and tidy sort.
His eyes held a certain depth, giving the impression of being both cold and bright at once.
His facial hair, immaculately groomed, made it difficult to guess his age. Then there was the silk hat and fine clothes—common markers of nobility.
But if he were a member of the upper class, what would possess a man of his supposed status to personally resort to thievery?
Just as—if you don't mind me breaking character a moment—I watched him, he in turn was watching me.
His look was keen and probing, as though he wanted to uncover what lay beneath my pretty face.
It was then that I felt a bond between us.
It was enough that upon returning to my senses, my life's story started to come spilling out, in fits and starts at first, but I ended up unfolding the whole ugly tale.
He heard the depressing prologue, the hopeful but ultimately disappointing climax, and my fall and that moment just earlier that evening on the balcony. As I put it into words, I realized how boring and slipshod a story it must have seemed.
Even then, he listened patiently. Only when I finished and grew quiet did he finally respond.

"You are more valuable than any gem I've ever beheld. Your recklessness is outshone only by your courage, and you possess a talent capable of bringing your dreams within reach. You may be unpolished, but I've no doubt that with the right guidance, your spirit will sparkle more than the whole of this salt flat."

For all my girlhood years, no one had seen me as he did in that moment.
I had been regarded as a disgraced maiden from a fallen home; a nuisance of a daughter; a nameless actress who should long ago have given up hope on being seen as anything more than a pretty face...
Only he recognized the raw gem within that made Lady Theresia... simply Theresia.
And she—I—was born anew that evening.

As he made to leave, I told him my name,
dearly hoping that we would one day meet again.

"Theresia! My name is Theresia."
"...Theresia."

With that low, profound voice, he repeated my name, turned, and disappeared with a soft farewell.

"We shall meet again."

Theresia returned to the mansion soon after to return the stolen porcelain vessel to Lheureux.
He had discovered the aftermath of the theft and was in a terrible state for it, which made his joy upon having it returned doubly apparent.
Naturally, her role in the recovery of the priceless antique made Theresia the star of the masquerade.
The nobility rushed to meet with this brave woman, surrounding her and heaping praise upon her.
The experience left her cold, much as the party had before she decided to give chase, but she played the part of a gracious lady before an adoring audience.
Theresia... Well, no. Not even Theresia. She was no longer who she was before.
Tessa, as she inwardly called her reborn self, was gifted a magical first night to remember.
And from that night on, the world became her stage.

-----


"What cruelty! O Black Swan, know that I shall not sheathe my sword—not until these white feathers run crimson!"

The performance was at its height.
A bursting theater filled with an enraptured audience sat spellbound as they watched the lead actress become her character. None among them uttered a word for fear of missing an instant.
The weight of her voice transfixed the audience; the natural delivery of her lines made them believers in the tale being unfolded. Only when the actors returned for their final bow did they spring from their seats, drowning the theater in thunderous applause.

"Thank you. Thank you very much."

Theresia beamed as the stage quickly filled with congratulatory flowers, bowing in gratitude.
She was quite proud of herself. It was another excellent performance.
Retiring to her dressing room, she received no shortage of well wishes from fellow actors and gifts from adoring fans. Only once she had closed the door behind her did she let out a long breath, the tension of the night finally released.

Her smile, however, beamed again, perhaps more truly then than before, upon hearing that wonderfully deep, profound voice from the corner.

"You were stunning, Theresia."
"There you are! I knew would come."

Ever since the masquerade, Theresia's life had completely changed for the better.
She hadn't missed the opportunities afforded by being the hero of the ball that night, and in recognition of her newfound popularity, she was promoted to better roles.
At last given the opportunity, her talent and training in acting made her a star almost overnight. Her acting was unparalleled among her peers, her clever diction elicited the admiration of theatergoers, and her charm proved irresistible at first sight. Her career thrived so much that she no longer needed to accept any job she could find to make ends meet.
Imagine that, stranger! Going from a disgrace of a girl to being called "Rodluvan's Hidden Gem"! And her rise to fame showed no signs of abating.
Her parents no longer pestered her and her younger siblings no longer cried themselves to sleep from aches of hunger.
All that was once a prison now seemed a palace.
Theresia attributed her newfound luck to the gentleman.
It was he who revived her soul when she was prepared to end it all.
Though she had yet to express it, she saw him as something more than the source of her fortunes. When they parted, she longed for the day he would reappear.
And soon he did—during the premiere of the play in which she had been cast in the leading role.
His appearance was the same as she had remembered from that night, but he did not arrive as a thief; instead, he was a wealthy nobleman with an eccentric, reclusive nature.


The gentleman seemed proud of Theresia, who seized the opportunities her run-in with him had afforded entirely on the strength of her own talent.
Proclaiming himself her patron, he began to lavish support upon her behind the scenes, furthering her career.
Theresia spent much time in his company, glad to at last know a single soul to whom she mattered.
In time, she developed her own ideas as to the mysterious gentleman's identity; even his history.

He was refined, bespeaking noble birth and upbringing.
He was also a phantom thief—no bumbling burglar, but one capable of pulling off masterful heists.
In time, she learned he was a thief and magician of no small reputation, known among those whose business it was to know such things as the Gemsage.
He had earned because his moniker by passing over innumerable jewels, artifacts, and golden trinkets to steal only the most valuable of gems.
And even though he had, perhaps inevitably, caused his fair share of damage to estates and material possessions, it was his creed not to injure others. He would abscond with the gem he was after, vanishing without a trace.
"Why do you do it? What are these gems to you if not simple wealth?"
Whenever Theresia would try to probe into what impelled his capers, he would only flash her his enigmatic smile, technically answering the question in a way that left her curiosity entirely unsated.
He'd say things like, "All I do, I've done solely to further the study of gem magic."

A scholar in his own right, the gentleman devoted his energies into further developing a unique brand of magecraft of his own invention.
If you've never heard of it, the art of gem magic involves storing mana in a gemstone, turning jewels into potent reservoirs.
The theory went that if gems could be easily infused with mana, even one with little innate magical talent could utilize lower-level spells and enchantments.
It was particularly promising in allowing for the use of spells with short durations but significant utility, such as those to temporarily enhance one's physical abilities, conjure a brief illusion, and so on.
Of course, as advantageous as the use of such magic could be, it also had a major limitation—the fact that not all gemstones were capable of storing mana.
The problem is, it was difficult to discern with the naked eye whether a gem could store the mana necessary for spellcasting. In most cases, it required actually attempting to store mana in the gem. If the jewel wasn't up to the task, even a beautifully cut gemstone would lose its luster, crumbling into sparkling dust in minutes.
Through his research he had discovered that only a few gems had the potential to stably contain the mana necessary to be used for magic.
Thus did this gentleman become a thief solely for the sake of furthering his interesting but wholly unprofitable craft, eagerly seeking those gems most likely to be what he needed. As you might expect, the gems best suited to this purpose also tended to be among the most valuable.
And while he was a talented magician, he also demonstrated excellence in swordplay.
That he was able to elude capture as a phantom thief for so long bespoke his skill both with the sword and with the magic that had been the focus of his life's research.

He had brawn and brain, and was well versed in the mystical arts. He would continue to visit Theresia, providing instruction that drew on the vast knowledge and experience he'd built up in his careers as both scholar and rogue.
In recognition of the weapon she had chosen in haste to confront him during their first encounter, he taught her how to properly wield a rapier. In time, he would also begin unfolding to her the secrets of his gem magic.
On most days, he seemed little inclined to reminiscence or speaking much of himself. However, whenever he taught Theresia, he seemed to exude a certain simple satisfaction. One could even charitably call it joy.
Theresia, ever the apt pupil, absorbed all he had to teach like a sponge, thirsting for knowledge and new skills in which to train.
Still, she was naive. For the first time, she had a life worth living, and it was thanks to him. To see a brief smile cross his face filled her with delight.
In time, she had improved to the degree that she was able to almost perfectly emulate the the gentleman thief, from his mannerisms to his swordplay to his magecraft.
He even set a valuable gemstone that could hold a significant amount of mana into the hilt of her rapier—a sign of acknowledgment that she had mastered the art of weaving spells with flourishes of the blade.

For Theresia, those days of happiness seemed a world entirely unmoored from her past. She took pride in her role as a prominent actress and the time she spent learning under the tutelage of one she so admired. Her relationship with the gentleman began to blur as she became more entwined with him; aspects of teacher, lover, and patron peppered their rapport.
He was, as he had ever been, the only one in the world she could truly open her heart to; the unintended savior who had given her the strength to live on and continue to grow.
Yes, Theresia thought she could do anything, as long as he was a part of her life—as long as he would speak her name in his soft and dulcet tones.
...Anything.

-----


Then one day, over a meal, he said something that shocked dear Theresia.

"I've been thinking, and I believe the time has finally come to leave Rodluvan."
"What...?!"

The pronouncement crashed upon her like a sudden wave, and she leapt from her seat in protest.
All this time, she had thought they would always be together. It was only natural! How could he simply up and leave, just like that? Wasn't what they had... precious?

"Rodluvan has everything one would need to live a good life! What reason could possibly compel you to leave?"
"Not long ago, I finally found it. The perfect gem I've been seeking my entire life."
"...!"

The gentleman continued, perfectly calm, his face set with his characteristic unreadable expression.
He had heard news that a perfect, flawless jewel—the sort that would likely be a paragon for the studies of his system of magic—was soon to be on exhibit at Rodluvan's museum. Though he had paused in his pilfering pursuits as he spent more time visiting with and instructing Theresia, he saw this as an opportunity worthy of resuming his roguish ways. With the gem in hand, he would leave the bustle of the city and devote himself to the completion of his treatise on gem magic.

"There is, however, one small complication to this heist. The Rodluvan Royal Army will be stationed at the city museum while the gem is on display. 'Tis only natural that such a priceless gem would be under the tightest of security at all hours of the day. And if one were to be apprehended attempting to steal such a treasure, well..."
"Let us just say the worth of the gem is far higher than the value of one's head."
"..."

Theresia stared silently at the gentleman, as though her gaze would bore a hole right through him.
Even imagining their future parting pained her. She couldn't understand how he could reach such a decision after how close the two had grown.
He then nodded at her...

"That is why I need you, Theresia."
"You need... me?"

He continued to speak, and she had to strain to hear him over the pounding of her heart.

"Dear Theresia, you are truly a gem in your own right, and worth a trove of them. In all the world, there is only you who have learned what I learned; who knows what I know. Did you think I would simply pack my bags and take to a life of solitude? Your companionship has become one of my greatest joys. When this caper has been concluded, it is my hope that we would spend the rest of our lives together."

With a hint of a smile, the gentleman drew from his coat a small jewel box and held it out to her.
Taking the jewel box, she opened it. Inside, she found a large yellow opal, milky and lustrous, and precious in its own right.

"This is a gift from me. It contains highly refined mana, clean and almost effortless to use. I know it will serve you well."
"...It seems perfectly cut to fit into the hilt of my rapier. Were you...?"

Theresia set the opal into her blade, and gave it a light swing.
Just as the gentleman had said, she could feel the mana coursing through her body more powerfully than she ever had with the gems she'd practiced with.

"Theresia, with that opal, I ask you to be my right hand; a crucial partner in my plan to take the gem. And when we succeed, we shall leave this city together, living our lives as we travel across the continent, perfecting our studies."

Like that day at the shore of the lake where they had first met, he looked straight into her eyes with earnest.
The depth and serenity was steadfast, rooted deep without even a hint of doubt.
Since the day she met him, she had admired him, and even with as much as she now knew now, there was a part of him that remained an enchanting mystery still.
She thought about her own part in this choice. Were she to accept and follow him, she would have no choice but to abandon the career she had worked so hard to establish and be forced to begin anew.
It could well be the case that she might never grace the stage again.
However, her budding career seemed as nothing when balanced against the opportunity to spend the rest of her life with him.
Had Theresia never met the gentleman, she would never have become who she was now... and might never have gone on to be or do anything more.

"Very well, Hector. I shall become you, and in doing so, give the greatest performance of my career."

Theresia smiled, falling into his embrace.
As his hand softly stroked her hair,
she imagined this spectacular farewell performance, and beyond it, the beautiful ending that awaited when she'd taken her final bow.

 

-----


Several days later, the jewel made its grand debut
at Rodluvan's city museum, under the watchful eye of the Royal Guard.
Theresia and the phantom thief, who had toiled day and night perfecting their preparations, hid themselves in the shade nearby.
She had clad herself in a silken hat and a long cloak of the same style he wore, looking at a glance much like her partner. Examining her rapier one last time, she gave him an affirming nod.

The gem they sought to liberate from its owners was being displayed in a special collections room, located deeper within the museum past the central exhibit hall, its entrance carefully guarded.
Theresia had been given two specific tasks by her cohort.

As he approached the special collections room, she was to create a scene in the main exhibit hall, diverting the attention of the soldiers and engaging them.
Then, when he gave the signal, she was to break off and make for the escape route he had secured in advance, where the two would flee the scene together.

He and Theresia had planned to make their immediate flight to the faraway western continent on a boat they had secured passage aboard a month past. But first, they would have to make good their escape from the museum.
The phantom thief, his face scarcely visible under the cover of shadow, quietly posed a question to her.

"Are you afraid, Theresia? To risk it all?"

In that moment, she felt truly unafraid—and this was no bluff or actress's masque. The endeavor had, to her, taken on the strange familiarity of the stage.
Standing in the darkness just before the curtain rose. The pounding of one's heartbeat, waiting for the cue, hanging on the palpable tension of the audience...
This place was not so different from a stage, with a masterful performance about to unfold before an unsuspecting audience.

"Not at all."

Her answer was light yet true.
Her heart was emboldened, thinking of the future that awaited her after today's grand caper.

"Three... Two... One."

She counted down as she'd done many times at the outset of a scene. Drawing a deep breath, she wrapped the night's veil around herself and followed after her mentor, her friend.

"Stop! Intruder!"

The guards on duty, flustered by her sudden appearance, shouted at her, rushing into the central exhibit hall where she had made her entrance.
The "phantom thief" posed in picturesque fashion in front of a giant window as moonlight streamed through through, outlining her silhouette. She gave her cloak an exaggerated flourish as she made a soft landing on the staircase.
Without a word, she greeted the soldiers who had swiftly gathered to take in her show with a nod and a tip of the hat.
That was how he'd always done it, and she had studied his every move down the smallest idiosyncratic gestures.

"What are you doing just gawping?! Blockade this area immediately!"

As if taking a cue from the commanding officer's shout, the phantom thief drew the rapier sheathed at her hip.
Curling her fingers around its ornate hilt, she could see magical energy tinted the color of sunset glimmering within the brilliant opal.

"Th-th-that... Is it really him?"
"'It has to be! It's the Gemsage! There's a bounty on his head!"
"He must be here for the jewel!"

The hall resounded with shouting as more than a few soldiers connected the figure before them with the visage they'd seen sketched on wanted posters.
Behind the detachment of guards, in the shadows that curled around the edges of the great hall, she saw her partner's familiar silhouette quickly and soundlessly pass through.
Knowing he had made it through the hall unnoticed, it was time to move into the second phase of the plan.
Bending ever so slightly, she leapt into the air, her cloak flapping behind her as she vaulted over the guards' heads.

Immediately, the exhibit hall fell into an uproar, guards striking out toward every corner. But always, she remained several steps ahead of them, seeming to bound around the cavernous room just out of reach.
Her nimble movements enabled by magic drawn from the gem combined with her mastery of the rapier to foil any attempts to apprehend her. Every weapon she turned aside as though declining a glass of champagne, and confusion reigned among the soldiers.
Putting on a spellbinding one-woman show, Theresia acting the role of the phantom thief with aplomb, showing off the footwork and spellcraft of which she'd been such an astute student.
Immersing herself in the role with a performance of the highest stakes made every inch of her body feel alive, electrified and liberated in much the way she'd felt on that day she had first chased the Gemsage all the way out to the salt flats.

As she enjoyed the thrill of the moment, giving soldiers the slip as they chased her round the displays, she received the agreed-upon signal.
The pentacle on her gem began to give off a strange glow.

'Let us depart, lest we wear out our welcome.'

As soon as she saw the signal, she whipped off her hat and cloak, throwing them in the air, and from them cast brief illusions all around the hall.
As the guards rushed to tackle these temporary flights of fancy, she exited the hall, running as fast as her feet would carry her in the direction the pentacle indicated.

-----


"That way! Don't give up the chase!"

Sensing the clattering din of iron greaves behind her, Theresia dashed toward the escape point where the phantom thief would be awaiting her.
The pentacle's light led her deeper into the museum, but it was as though she were walking on clouds.
Her heart was buoyant,
for the performance she had given tonight was assuredly the best and most extravagant of her entire career.
She was wholly satisfied, having poured all she could muster into it—truly fitting for a grand finale.
Soon, she would leave this city behind and her old life with it. A new beginning awaited her with the man who, even when she was at her lowest, had seen the promise in her.
That she had just served as an accomplice to a wanted criminal's daring jewel heist barely registered for her.

'Wait for me, Hector. I'm coming.'

Drawing heavy breaths as she ran, she whispered the name of the man who had gone from being a mysterious stranger to the axis around which her life had come to revolve.

She followed the pentacle's guiding light to the appointed location.
It was a gallery of artwork with a small outer access point in one corner of the ceiling, just enough to allow a person to pass through to the rooftop.
Thanks to the phantom thief's appearance, every entrance and exit would be blockaded, but even the Royal Guard couldn't cover everything. This place farther in would likely be free of their security forces.
Taking stock of the room and its otherwise unremarkable appearance, she felt a new sense of admiration for her mentor for seeing the potential others would surely have overlooked.
But to her alarm, she saw no sign of her cohort.
Could it be that she'd mistaken the signal? Or did something happen to him while she was en route to the rendezvous point?
Immediately, the wheels of worry began to spin in her mind. There was still time, however, until the guards sweeping the building would reach this room, and her final responsibility was to wait for him—to help secure their escape. Thus she decided she would wait for him, rather than seeking a separate egress.

In silence, hidden in that darkened gallery, the moments passed. Time was running out and the risk grew ever higher.
Yet still he was nowhere to be seen.
Even now, she sensed that the net was beginning to be drawn. A decision had to be made. She no longer had the luxury of time.
She decided first to ensure her own safety, escaping through the entryway in the ceiling, then waiting on the roof to help him up when he arrived.
Tightening her grip on the hilt of her sword, she mapped out which objects in the room to leap from to gain the necessary height.

But as she made to sprint forward, she immediately felt something off.
She could clearly feel the mana flowing through her body, but found she couldn't even move her feet, let alone make the acrobatic leaps required to make her escape.
Her feet seemed almost rooted to the ground, as if bound by magic even stronger than her own.

'What's going on? What's happening to me?'

At that moment, as if capitalizing on her moment of bewilderment, soldiers stormed into the gallery.
Forming a line between her and the entrance, they began to close in.

'No... If I'm caught here, he'll never make it.'

Beginning to panic, she tried to incant a spell, hoping some enhancement or minor illusion might yet afford her a clean getaway.
But in that moment, spells she knew—cantrips she'd practiced till they were second nature—produced no effect, and the magical binding that fixed her feet to the floor seemed to grow even stronger.
Theresia, knowing what would surely await her were she to surrender there, pointed the tip of her blade at her pursuers.
But even in her present peril, she could not bring herself to spill innocent blood to save herself.
Her last and, indeed, only hope now was him.
It was as though she languished now in a pit of despair, waiting for her savior to pull her up into the light—into that promised freedom.
However, even the very last ember of hope was snuffed when she chance to look outside the gallery's window.

The man she had loved, with whom she had planned this entire caper from beginning to end,
was standing outside that very window. Somewhere amidst the din, he had made his escape without her.
He stood still, as though assessing the situation transpiring in the gallery, wearing his usual calm, collected expression.
Theresia saw the palm of his hand angled toward her feet, seeming almost as though it was his sorcery that had fixed her to the spot.
When her gaze finally connected with his,
the dashing thief slowly brought a finger to his lips.

Shhhhh.

It was the moment the last light died within her.
Theresia realized only then that the life, the love, the hope in which she had invested all of herself was a fleeting illusion. All of it was over.

Her will to resist shattered, she fell to her knees, the sword tumbling to the floor with a ringing clatter. The soldiers wasted no time in arresting her.
Bound in ropes, her face, streaked with the tears of betrayal, gave way to new tears born of bitterness and vengeance.
The silhouette beyond the window stood there, watching as the soldiers surrounded his one-time partner and hauled her away.
Indeed, he kept watching, even as the iron-plated carriage into which she had been unceremoniously tossed disappeared down the road.


Several days later, after a lengthy investigation of the entire affair, Theresia was released.

Though some details of the crime merited further investigation, she had been found innocent of all major charges.
Other than minor damage to the museum's property, she had not harmed any of the royal guard, and the missing jewel was not in her possession.
Even after several questionings, the authorities could not establish a clear motive that would have spurred her to such a crime in the first place.
As a beloved actress, it made no sense for her to take part in a dangerous heist that would surely cost her her career.
Beyond that, the Gemsage was known to be a canny magician. Influencing someone's will, exerting mental control over them, and even brainwashing were all within his power.
In the report released in the wake of the incident, she was assessed to be another victim; collateral damage; a pawn in a grander scheme. The Gemsage had set her up to take his fall while he made a clean getaway.
And like any good actress, Theresia seized upon the cues given her, acting in every way the part of a noblewoman deeply distressed at being used against her will in the commission of a crime.

The world around her had changed, and she would have to change with it.
That a famous actress had served as accomplice to a wanted criminal was already on the lips of every socialite in town.
The rumors were sensational and the scandals myriad. Wherever she went, she was the talk of the town: Theresia, partner-in-crime of the mysterious Gemsage.
For some time, she found it suffocating to even appear in public. The eyes of the masses, who before had adored her performances, now seared her as a fiery brand.
Her family—especially her parents, who had ridden back into society's good graces upon her wings—were apoplectic, going on about her besmirching her family's honor. Rather than hearing out their daughter, they only pointed their fingers in accusation. So much for paternal support, eh, stranger?
Her days were spent navigating a public response that ran from curiosity to pity and from denouncement to praise. Silently, she bore the weight of a crime from which she had gained nothing.

Her circumstances were not entirely devoid of hope, however.
In a fair bit of irony, being regarded as the secret lover of a phantom thief served to fuel her popularity all the more. More people sought her out than before, hoping to see and be seen with the famous Theresia.
After a time, the initial wave of judgment and scandal turned, and public sentiment rose once more in her favor. The groundless rumors faded on their own, and to her surprise, she was left with a perfectly salvageable life.

The rumors about town held that the Gemsage had already escaped, leaving the continent behind with the priceless jewel tidily wrapped up in his vest pocket.
She lost track of the times people would question her,
asking where she thought the Gemsage might appear next or whether this or that rumor concerning him was true.
But it was Theresia herself who yearned to know the truth most of all.
The sting of betrayal did not easily fade, and the question of "Why?" hung as a black cloud over her long after the storm had passed. She was torn, one moment blaming herself and the next cursing the man who had left her to face her fate alone.
In time, her persona itself began to shift. Where before she had been outgoing and kind, she began to withdraw, wary of placing too great a trust in anyone.
At night, she dreamed of him. She saw him standing, framed by that gallery window, unable to read a single feature in the face she had once thought she knew so well.
She threw herself back into her acting career, redoubling her efforts. She tried blotting out the memories with alcohol. It worked... but not enough. The memories of him would always return in the stillest hours to vex her.
Regardless of her feelings on the matter, she was forced to acknowledge that the traces of him ran throughout her entire being.
Memories of the time they'd spent together. The training in swordplay. The cordial dinners. His precise instructions in gem magic.
'Why? Why go through all the trouble of teaching me all of that if he'd only planned to use me as a discardable piece in his game?'
'Why would he work so hard to fashion me into his understudy? Why give me such a valuable gem?'

So greatly did it gnaw at her that it upended her entire career. She quit the stage, forsaking her career as an actress to take up arms as a hunter of bounties.
Whatever she would become, she had resolved not to be some powerless waif, shedding tears in the small hours of the night as she lamented questions left unanswered.
She would mete out her vengeance against him with the tools he had given her, punishing criminals and fraudsters like him.
And who knew? If she kept pursuing criminals and seeking out bounties, perhaps one day, she would meet him again.
So it was that the once-naive actress Theresia cast aside her name and took up the sword as Tessa, setting out on a journey to avenge herself against that phantom thief.
And every day, she would rise from slumber, animated by the knowledge that she would see him again one day.
She had so many questions in want of answers, after all, and a vindictive desire to carve upon him an indelible wound with the arts he himself had taught her.

 

-----


Having finally brought her story to a close, Tessa cast a sidelong glance at the man beside her.
His brows were still furrowed, but he had silently listened as she told her tale without any signs of boredom.

"How was it? Were you entertained?"
"...Sounds like you've lived an interesting life."
"Glad you thought so. Wouldn't have expected I'd find myself lamenting into a watered-down beer after chasing a disappointing lead, but I still enjoy regaling audiences with a lively tale."

Watching the man as he tilted back his mug to drain the last drops of beer, she smiled. It was no crowded theater, but a story still had the power to entertain.

"You're betting that mysterious jewel they found in Rocheste is one of those mana gems, right?"
"Good guess. Given the circumstances, I think there's a strong possibility. I'll have to see it myself to know for sure, and that's my next order of business.

Looking at the empty mugs on the table, she asked a probing question.

"What's your take on it? What do you think the thief's intentions were?"
"Who knows what goes through a criminal's head? Could be one reason. Could be a hundred. I'd bet you good odds, though, that your man still has eyes on you."
"What makes you think that?"
"He gave you a rare gem, didn't he? And in the end, you've still got it. He never took it back."
"So you're saying you DO know a thing or two about criminal minds, then?"
"...Just my intuition."

The woman continued chatting with her table companion,
speaking more of the phantom thief, the gem she still wore affixed to the hilt of her rapier, and even topics of a more personal nature.
The man struck her as a wary, taciturn soul—both qualities she had come to appreciate. Still, some unknown inspiration led him to share a bit of his history with her.
He once made his living as a sellsword, but after losing his lover to the Fomors, he took up work as a mercenary in the town of Colhen not far from Rocheste. He seemed to keenly grasp the truth beneath actions and words, and his intuition was sharper she had first taken him for.
Tessa studied his face as he postulated his own theories about the motives and mindset of the infamous Gemsage.
And while she knew that he and her former partner were completely different, she had to acknowledge that they did share more than a few similarities.

'What if this is just one of his elaborate personas?'
'Would he go so far as to fully adopt the guise of another to deceive me? Could he?'
'On the other hand, what if I were to make an ally of this fellow?'
'He has a keen eye and a solid intuition. All the things you need when you're chasing after a mirage.'

'You know... it might not be a bad idea to work with him—at least for now. See what sort of messes he cleans up for coin.'
It was only intuition, but her intuition had helped her navigate many a peril thus far.

After parting ways with the stranger, she sought out a high place with a view that overlooked the city.

It was quiet there, with little astir, but the traces of her mentor had led her to this city—of that there could be no doubt.
And by fate, destiny, or sheer dumb luck, she'd found her way to someone who might actually be able to help her.
She knew that if she kept up her pursuit—if she remained relentless in her search—she would outfox her fox and corner the thief who had left her to be cornered.
And then—then!—she would greet him with that same expression he'd worn on that magical day so long ago. She'd practiced it to perfection.

"He said he was working with some mercenary unit in Colhen..."
What moved her most now? Was it love? Hatred? Hope? Some days, it felt like they'd become one inseparable mass in her heart.
So she stood a while, pondering her next course of action, watching the lights of the city flicker against the darkness below. There was no embroidered curtain now, but the stage was wherever she made it, and the show would go on.