Great Hall <Fastheld Keep> :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: (Indoors) (Cover: Fair) (Owner: Talus Kahar)

Thick, squared-off stone columns made of one block stacked atop another form a sort of sentry line along this spacious corridor, where newcomers get their first glimpse of the residence of Emperor Talus Kahar and his wife, the Empress Freia Seamel. Statues of famous nobles of Fastheld have been installed in various alcoves off to the sides of the great hall. The ceiling has been adorned with friezes crafted by the realms finest artisans. The walls boast remarkable paintings and tapestries beyond compare. Soldiers of the Emperor's Blades stand watch at the front entrance and at the approach to the staircase, which leads both up and down in the estate. Archways lead to the dining hall and the ballroom.

Ashlynn is here.

Rose-- Hair the color of rich, dark soil is untidily gathered at the back of this woman's head, tendrils escaping down her neck and around her face despite her best efforts. Kind eyes of warm brown look past long, dark lashes. Smile lines have etched the outer corners of her eyes and left little semi-circles at the edges of her red lips. A trail of freckles crosses her long nose to leave more of the sunkissed dots upon her cheekbones. Her complexion is a warm, golden brown from her time spent out-of-doors. Healthy, the woman is neither too slim or too plump, and her limbs reveal lean strength from her work. Slender hands with long fingers often display soil or clay beneath the nails. Rose wears a dress of red cotton that has faded to a cheerful pink. There are a few darker and mismatched patches around the skirt's middle where her knees have worn holes and she's mended them. Glimpsed beneath the skirt are some white cotton stockings and a worn pair of sturdy leather shoes. Her only jewelry is a silver necklace whose pendant is hidden within the neckline of her dress. A lovely onyx set into a silver ring decorates the ring finger of her right hand. It is shiny and new.

Ashlynn-- A quick glance might garner the overwhelming impression of angles - sharp, lean features; long, lanky limbs. Yet the harsh lines are mitigated somewhat by the illusionary grace of precision in her movements - someone who knows well the measure of their abilities through labor, practice and experience. Clad in well-worn leathers and cotton of faded browns and greens, she seems to favor traveling light, bearing only a utilitarian pouch, a long knife, and a smaller eating knife at her belt. Long, slanted eyes are a light, almost colorless blue, a sharp contrast to the dark tan of her skin. Equally stark is the pale, sun-bleached blonde of her hair, most often drawn back in a loose braid reaching mid-back, their ends wavering with a natural crimp. Her features are aquiline, hawk-like in both lines and intensity, though her gaze is usually half-hooded, as if she is on the verge of falling asleep, observing from beneath the edge of her lashes.

Rose enters the great hall with an odd gait - sometimes she moves with determination and other times she halts and considers her surroundings like an uncertain mouse. The botanist's hair is as touseled as usual, but her eyes are somewhat puffy as if she's shed some tears.

Ashlynn is descending down the stairs from the apartments above, absently chewing upon the end of her braid as she peruses a letter, a frown of concentration upon her brow.

Rose hears the sounds of footsteps and turns toward them with a start. She seems somewhat relieved that it is Ashlynn and not someone Important.. until it sinks in that it is *Ashlynn*. The botanist pales, but draws her narrow shoulders up as her hands curl. Steeling herself, she marches over to the bottom of the stairs and looks upward, waiting. She says nothing, but watches Ashlynn with eyes that are quietly accusing.

Ashlynn is only within one or two steps from Rose before she notices that someone is standing in the way, and she might have just sidestepped the obstacle while remaining engrossed in the letter if she had not thought twice upon the stillness of the figure, and looks up. There is a quick flash of concern for the state Rose is in, along with a brief moment of puzzlement as she tries to place the woman's features, and then realization sets in and she greets in surprise, "Rose! I am sorry, I should have been watching where I was going...whatever is the matter?"

The botanist fidgets a little in nervous discomfort until she regains her steely stance a heartbeat later. "What is going on?" Rose blurts, her normally quiet voice cracking. "Are you being forced to marry the Emperor? Where is Vhramis?" She squeezes and loosens her fists in an opposing rhythm.

Ashlynn blinks and then blinks again, utterly taken aback, before her brows draw together again in puzzlement. "No," she says slowly, "I am not being forced to marry the emperor. And Vhramis is currently residing in Crown's Refuge as official liaison to the new protectorate. What is the matter?"

"What is the *matter*?" Rose repeats in a voice that rises with the level of her anxiousness. "What is the matter?" Again, her voice squeaks and the woman quivers with indignation. "You were supposed to marry *Vhramis*! That's what is the matter. You were supposed to marry Vhramis," she repeats, her lower lip beginning to quiver.

Ashlynn's brows rise sharply, once again caught flat-footed, before her expression softens, and she shakes her head slowly. "I am sorry, Rose," she says quietly. "It *might* have happened that way...if Vhramis had been the one to ask. It was not easy to let him go..." Her mouth twitches with sad humor. "What other measure of a man is there, if he is able to challenge an emperor for someone's affections? But it was unfair for me to continue vacillating...and, no matter the time that had passed, or what I might ask about his future, I did not know until too late that he ever saw me in it. It may have simply been ill timing and nothing more...but this is how things fell."

Rose darts a trembling hand upward to dash away a tear from the corner of her eye before tucking a strand of hair behind her ear in a movement of nervous habit. She glances downward with her moist eyes and then looks back up at Ashlynn with uncertainty. "He isn't... sad?" she finally asks, looking doubtful. "He loved you. He did! That's why... That's... I..." She trails off when a plaintive mew sounds from the haversack that dangles from her shoulder.

"He was sad," Ashlynn says with a wan, wistful smile. "And it pained me to see him so," she says with a more solemn sigh. "I love him too. But in such a situation...there is no easy decision. And it was ever up to him, Rose, who to bestow his affections on," she says slowly, watching the woman carefully. "If he found you more to his liking, it would not have been my place to say otherwise." Her eyes stray to the haversack at the soft, feline sound, and her mouth curves. "I daresay your passenger there would be more comfortable elsewhere."

Max pokes his head out from beneath the edge of the haversack's flap and gives Ashlynn a grumpy squint. Rose draws in an uneven breath, straightening to her full height. "I loved... love him, but I wasn't worthy," the woman confesses. "I saw how you looked at him that time when we were both in his room at Wedgecrest and he was injured. I... knew." The quietness of her voice lifts to something both tearful and accusing. "You were supposed to make him happy!" The outburst causes Max to duck his head back into the haversack, where he remains as Rose jabs a finger in Ashlynn's direction. "I... I..." She falters as she moistens her lips. "I..." Suddenly, she announces, "I hope you never know a moment's happiness and that you are lonely and alone despite your marriage!"

Ashlynn's smile widens as she sees the appearance of the cat, but at Rose's last outburst, her eyes snap back to the woman's in shock. "If that is *truly* what you wish in your heart," she says quietly, "then I am glad that Vhramis did not get to know a woman such as you. But if it is not...please, have a care for what you say. Words said in viciousness and hurt have a tendency to come back to haunt one."

Rose does look momentarily horried at what she's just said aloud, but she quickly tries to look as if she meant what she said. "I'm not afraid," she says, quivering as she attempts to stand firm at the foot of the stairs. "I... I'm a Shadow-Touched mage! Yes. That's it. I am!" Now, there's no fear in her at all. The little botanist straightens and looks at Ashlynn directly, though her cheeks are crimson. "I.. I will make it happen. Yes. I will. I'm going to cause the Emperor pain and suffering. Yes, yes. I.. I must be dealt with before I... Before I wreak havoc!"

"Rose!" Ashlynn breathes, paling. "Do not make such claims frivolously, particularly while in the middle of the imperial residence!" A reflexive glance is cast about to see who might have overheard, before she slides down one more step, a frown finally overtaking her face as she says in an urgent whisper, "Do not throw your life away for some fantastical dream that is not even yours to live out! It does not become you to wish ill upon others, particularly those who had no fault in the events that occurred. If you wish to be 'dealt with', as you say, turn yourself in to the Church. I hear they are most efficient." Ashlynn slides back along the step while a stony mask slips over her face, the letter that had previously dangled forgotten in her hand now folded neatly and tucked out of sight as she prepares to walk away. "If you wish to wreak havoc instead, then plot as you will, though I suggest you use less grandiose gestures. It will be the last suggestion I give to you in good faith until you move past these juvenile posturings."

Rose frantically moves as if to follow Ashlynn, her features crumbling from their earlier bravery. "No! No... please. I have to be arrested! Please? I.. I threatened the emperor!" Hesitantly, she suggests, "Didn't I?" reaching one hand toward the other woman. "And I said I was Touched. That means arrest and exile, doesn't it? I... I have to be arrested!"

Ashlynn pauses, shaking her head disbelievingly. "Are you addled, woman? If you are Touched, it means becoming one of the Lessers! They will have your eyes plucked, your tongue torn out, your hands cut off, and then sentenced to life-long slavery in the mines! And all for what?!" She glares at Rose with a huff of exasperation. "And that is if they believe you in the first place! Who would believe that you are Touched after a declaration like that, and no evidence of any special abilities beyond an overactive imagination? Leave such daydreamings, Rose! Do you truly think that Vhramis would approve of such ramblings as you just spouted?"

The woman swallows past the lump in her throat as her eyes well with tears. "Oh. I.. I-I thought I would be exiled," Rose sighs, her hand limply dropping to her side. She glances away from Ashlynn and toward the entryway. "I don't know how else to get beyond the wall."

"Idiot!" Ashlynn sighs, shaking her head with a grimace before she turns another stern look upon Rose. "Listem to me. Vhramis does not need any distractions that can endanger him right now - such as someone who does not even have the whit to realize the sorts of allegations she is calling down upon herself, much less those that she might associate with. If your self implications had been taken seriously, and you still managed to get beyond the wall somehow, and then attached yourself to Vhramis...what does that do to him? Perhaps he would wish to return to Fastheld someday, and settle here! You would be sentencing him along with you! And he certainly does not need to be splitting his attentions protecting someone else right now while he is watching an entire town of people, in a land that is three times as hostile as anything which Fastheld may sport, even when the Wildlings roamed here. If you wish to have another chance at Vhramis, I suggest you start thinking more with your head than your heart - sometimes, too much of the latter is just as damning as a wish for evil upon another." A last, bitter tightening of her lips as something in her last words catches in her throat, and then she is turning resolutely away, marching down the hall toward the exit.

"Now you listen to me!" Rose screams after Ashlynn, foot stamping. "Did he fight for you? Did he? Because, if he did -not-, then he did what /I/ did! HE LET YOU GO! He let you go because he couldn't compete with an EMPEROR! Just like a little mouse like /me/ couldn't compete with a royal courier! Don't you understand?" She stomps one foot after another in an outright tantrum - behaving as she has *never* done before in her entire mild, lonely life. "I KNOW HOW HE FEELS!"

"My decisions, Vhramis' decisions, and the emperor's decisions are not meant for your review and approval," Ashlynn says calmly, never looking back. "I will never abandon Vhramis, and I will continue to try and be there for him in his times of need as best I can, for the rest of my days. I never wished to hurt him...I would gladly have taken all his sorrow upon myself if I could. But I cannot. And so now my priorities must shift toward building a new life...and to remind him that he had been counted an equal in my heart to an emperor."

Rose captures a sob in her throat as her tears begin in earnest. "I could have spared him and I didn't. It's my fault. All my fault. I should have told him how I felt, but I was afraid," she says to herself as much as anyone. The grieving freelander leans against the railing to the stairs and rests her head upon it, weeping as Ashlynn makes her way out.

"We were all afraid..." Ashlynn whispers, closing her eyes briefly before she takes a deep breath and walks out of the hall.

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