Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Three: ‘Thy deepening concern...’

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


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


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


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


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


“It’s fine,” said Gina.


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


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


Not too surprising. Gina understood.


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


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


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


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


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


She quickly found more than she bargained for.


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


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


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


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


“So are you and him...?”


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


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


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


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


Gina had to stop and blink at her sudden bluntness.


Madison waited.


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


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


“Well, I don’t know if... agh...”


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


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




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


“Oh, you mean he’s gay?”


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


“You aren’t certain?”


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


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


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


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


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


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


Gina just flattened her lips and said nothing.


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


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


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


Gina tilted her head at her.


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


“...Just like that?” said Gina.


“Just like that.”


Gina gave her a dubious look.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Gina’s expression stiffened.


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


Gina just frowned.


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


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


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




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


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


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


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




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


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


“No, no, nothing like that.”


“Then what?”


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


Madison reared back in her chair. “What?”


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




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




“What, do you not know?”


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


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


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


“More things, huh?”


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“Of course.”


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


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


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


Gina opened her eyes to glare at her.


“...Or convince him to break his vow,” Madison went on. “Or end it. End probably sounds better than break, now that I think about. Yeah, definitely don’t ask him to break anything. Unless you’re into that sort of thing, I suppose.”


Gina squinted. “What does that even mean?’


“...I don’t know. I’ll be honest with you. Men who’ve taken vows of a sexual nature are a bit outside my area of expertise.”


“You don’t say.”


“Call me when you fall in love with someone else. Preferably not a priest or monk.”


“Yeah, thanks.”


“You’re not going to call me at all, are you?”


“Probably not, no.”


“That’s unfair. It’s not my fault that your circumstances are so weird right now. If he were a regular guy, I would be able to help the crap out of you.”


“You would, huh?”


“Oh yeah. I’ve helped loads of people find love. Haven’t you seen my movies?”


Gina just looked at her flatly.


“I’m joking,” said Madison. “Relax. I’m not that much of an airhead.”


“...Good one.”


Madison giggled. “So stiff. Fine, then, how about you help me find a boyfriend? I hate being single.”


“Well, I wouldn’t open with that line.”


“I’d like someone who’s tall and maybe kind of--what’s the word? Stoic? Yeah. My last boyfriend was a total asshole who just loved to hear himself talk. And the one before that--ugh, I could practically write a book about how much of a douche he was. In fact, maybe--”


Gina stopped listening. Her eyes were already closed, so it was easy to just kind of drift off while Madison’s voice melted into background noise.


At length, however, a ringing phone stirred her out of it.


Gina looked over and saw that Madison was already moving to answer it for her. Gina held up a hand, then motioned for Madison to hand it to her instead.


Madison did so, perhaps only then remembering that no one was supposed to know that she was here.


“Hello?” Gina said into the receiver.


<“Gina? It’s Hector.”>


She blinked, then smiled. “Ah. How is everything?”


<“Uh. Not so great. As usual, I guess.”>


“Mm. Should I be worried?”


<“Oh, uh, no. But I need to talk to Roman. Like, right now, if possible.”>


“Ooh...” Gina bit her lip. “It’s not possible, unfortunately. Master Roman is away on business.”


<“...Hmm. Well, um. This is really important, though. Is there no other way I can contact him? Specifically, I need information from Voreese.”>


Gina frowned. With everything she knew of him, she didn’t think Hector would exaggerate about the severity of a situation. “Unfortunately, there isn’t. Even I can’t contact him right now.”


<“...How can that be?”>


Gina had to mull her answer over first. She supposed if it was Hector she was telling, then Master Roman wouldn’t get mad at her. “He’s in the Undercrust.”




“You know about that, don’t you?”


<“Yeah, I do.”>


“So you know that I can’t just call him up. His service provider doesn’t exactly have coverage there. Assuming he even took his phone with him in the first place.”


<“I get it. Okay. Hold on a second.”> There came a rather long pause. <“Alright, um. How did he get to the Undercrust?”>


“Uh. He went down a big hole?”


<“Yeah, but which hole? They have names.”>


Gina shrugged to herself. “I don’t know. It was in Steccat.”




“Oh, and, I guess... he may have infiltrated a paramilitary base belonging to a certain lady-servant emperor. Or empress, as it were.”


<“What the--? Are you kidding?”>




<“What is he trying to do?”> Hector asked.


“Not sure I’m allowed to tell you that. I’ve already told you a lot, so.”


<“...Is it a mission from the Queen?”>


Gina opened her mouth but realized that she didn’t know what to say. Dammit, Hector.


<“...Nevermind. Sorry to bother you.”>


“Sorry I couldn’t be more help.”


<“Actually, um... you’ve been a big help.”>


Gina tilted her head. “Have I?”


<“Yeah. Take, uh--take care.”>


“You, too.” And she moved to hang up.


<“Oh, uh--hold on, there’s something else,”> said Hector. <“Um, do you, um... uh...?”>




<“Sorry. My reaper is explaining something. Um. He wants to know if you have a picture of Roman.”>


“A picture? What do you need a picture for?”


<“It might help with finding him. Apparently.”>


“Mm. I doubt it. Master Roman likes to disguise himself, remember? Especially when he’s traveling. I don’t think anyone will recognize a normal picture of him.”


Another long pause transpired. <“...Even so, I’m being told it could be useful. In fact, um, if you have more than one picture of Roman, could you just send me all of them?”>


Clearly, Hector didn’t know what he was asking.


“Sure,” said Gina. There was no need to correct him. She’d just have to pick out a few of the ones that looked like they’d been taken with Master Roman’s permission. “I’ll send them in a few hours. Is that okay?”


<“Yeah,”> said Hector. <“Thanks.”>


“Anything else?”


<“Ah... no. Thank you. Again. But, uh. I feel like I’m always asking you for stuff. I mean, I’m stupid-busy right now, but, um, is there--is there anything I can help you with, maybe?”>


Gina’s head reared back a little. “I... don’t think so, no. I’m fine.”


<“You sure?”> said Hector. <“Want, like, your own room in my castle or something? Or, like, a souvenir from Sair?”>


“You’re in Sair right now?”


<“Oh, uh, yeah.”>


Gina had to stop and rethink what else she’d just heard. “Wait, did you just ask me to live with you?”


<“Uh... that’s not... I mean, when you put it like that, it sounds creepy.”>


She smirked. “How was it supposed to sound?”


<“I meant, y’know, as... a special guest... type... thing. VIP status or... whatever. And Roman could stay, too, of course. Or any of your family or... I didn’t mean... I, um. Just... Nevermind.”>


Gina laughed. Her nose started to run again, and she had to dab it with a tissue. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m all good here.”


<“Alright, well, I definitely gotta go now,”> said Hector. <“Talk to you later. If you think of a way I can return any of these favors, then just, uh, let me know.”>


“Hector, they weren’t really favors. We’re on the same team here. I’ve just been doing as Master Roman says, more or less.”


<“Yeah, that, uh... that sounds like bullshit. I owe you big time. Oh! Ah! Yeah, alright!”> A brief rustling noise intervened on Hector’s end. <“Talk to you later.”> And he hung up.


Gina pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it.


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