[02.21.00] » by Brightangel
The chirps of a distant winged creature worked their slow way into Rinoa's dreams. Dreams of a scar, a sword which was not quite a sword and angelic wings, all of which drifted around her mind and then were gone in an instant.
Stretching and yawning, Rinoa finally sat up in her luxurious bed and looked at the clock.
Nice and early, she thought as she looked outside the window. It was beautiful. It always was in the spring. Perfect.
After washing up, she changed into something casual and stood in front of the mirror, running her fingers through hair. She felt satisfied and smiled at her reflection.
"Happy fifteenth birthday, Rinoa." she said to the mirror.
She made her way downstairs with the faint trace of a skip in her step. Angelo was at the foot of the stairs wagging his tail. As she scratched behind his ears, she noticed a small silver package on top of the marble table near the entrance, next to a vase full of flowers.
A present! She picked it up and shook it instinctively.
She tore off the silver wrapping paper and found that the package was actually an ornate wooden box sealed shut by a golden latch. Turning it over, she found a small golden plaque on what appeared to be the top of the box. Two letters were set into the plaque:
Oh my gosh! she thought to herself. Can it really be?
She pressed a small switch on the latch and it sprung up with a loud snap. Slowly, almost reverently, she opened the box.
The inside of the box was lined with rich red velvet. In its centre was a single card. A playing card. One which bore a hand painted picture of herself on it.
"My own card!" She said out loud, "My very own card!" She turned it over and looked. No, it wasn't a fake. It was the real thing. A real commissioned Triple Triad playing card. The only one of its kind. And it was hers. It was meant for her alone.
Triple Triad. No one could have anticipated the surge in popularity of Triple Triad in its infancy. Spreading through trade routes, it quickly became the de facto pastime of both the masses and the elite. Initially, the cards themselves bore only the images of common creatures, but as time went on, more were slowly added.
From this came the problem of actually classifying the creatures and giving the cards their numerical values. The large proportion of people playing the game meant that certain constants had to be maintained. One vendor may print a Cockatrice with high values while another may adopt completely different statistics. It became frustrating. Enter a shrewd Deling businessman who, through a small printing company, claimed that he printed the only 'official' cards in the land. Knowing that this, by itself, would not be sufficient, he further incorporated a special element into the cards. They changed colour when flipped. In the early days, card players contended with double sided cards, but the 'official' triple triad cards were printed with ink which was impregnated with a minute amount of magic. When the card sensed that it was being turned over, the ink pigment would change from red to blue and back again.
It was this which caused the 'official' cards to be an instant success. Hordes of players spurned their street-shop cards to possess a true magical deck. As time went on, new cards were added. It was advertised that each new creature in the deck was specially researched and the numerical values appearing on the cards were the result of exhaustive evaluations done by a select group of appraisers.
In order to maintain uniformity, branches of the newly formed official triple triad body sprung up in every town. With this regulation in place, anyone purchasing a pack of cards from Deling knew that a Jelleye in their deck bore exactly the same numbers as a Jelleye card printed in Dollet.
Of course, money and influence allowed the more privileged to commission their own cards. It was an expensive process which required in-depth research of the proposed subject. All the aspects of that persons' life were taken into account, evaluated, and somehow condensed into a set of four digits. The more skeptical often expressed their view that this was merely a service done to account for the huge cost of such a card, but it has never been doubted that the numbers reflected the subject reasonably accurately.
It was also impossible to 'purchase' higher numbers, such was the reputation of the official body.
Once a card had been commissioned, it was registered with all the branch offices worldwide. This prevented any possible duplication.
Commissioned cards also differed from ordinary cards in one significant way: only one commissioned card could be printed. There would be no replacement if it was lost or damaged.
All this (except, perhaps, the last point) mattered little to Rinoa who was happily flipping the card over watching how it changed colour and marveling at what a good job the artist had done.
How did they see me? I haven't got any photos of myself in that pose. I'm almost smiling in it. Oh, I look quite good, don't I?
When the initial novelty of the card had worn off, Rinoa noticed a small folded note next to where the box had been. She picked it up.
Dinner 7:30pm. I'll pick you up.
She smiled. A wide happy smile. He had remembered his promise from last year. Her mind darted momentarily back to the previous year, when she had spent her birthday alone in the kitchen, her father being indisposed at a government function.
She shook her head to clear such thoughts away. Not today. Today was different.
She took a small metal case out of her pocket and opened it, carefully placed her special card inside, then snapped it shut.
She looked at her watch and walked to the main entrance, then whistled at Angelo, who dutifully followed.
"Happy birthday" they both said at the same time.
Zone and Watts were already at the café and, by the looks of things, had already had lunch.
Rinoa smiled. "Thank you, thank you. Look at what I got." As she sat down in front of them, she took the metal case out and showed them her new card.
Watts wiped his hands on a moist towelette, and took the card by the edges, being careful not to leave any prints on the face of the card.
Rinoa was pleased to note that they both looked suitably impressed.
"Nice picture. Questionable numbers." said Watts.
Zone grinned at that. "It's easily explainable. The '2' is a reflection of her educational performance."
At that, Rinoa looked hurt. "But I got two 'A's."
"Bust size." Zone replied, very seriously.
Rinoa's face flushed.
"Angelo!" she said, pointing at Zone, "Wishing Star. Wishing Star!" Angelo, hearing his name, lifted his head slightly to look up, but finding no food being offered, went back to staring blankly at their feet.
It was about this time when Rinoa's lunch arrived and she started on it, carefully removing the tomatoes from her sandwich and passing them to Angelo.
Watts watched her for awhile.
"We really have to talk." He said reluctantly.
I knew this was coming, she thought.
"Must we talk about it today of all days?"
Watts frowned. "If not today, then when? You've been saying that since…" Zone touched his arm. When Watts turned to look at him, Zone simply shook his head.
Rinoa sighed. "Watts, not today please? It's a happy day. Let me pretend a while longer? It's not as if it was invaded yesterday."
Let me see my dad tonight first, she thought to herself.
Both Watts and Zone remained silent as she finished lunch. When she was done, they resisted her protests and paid the bill.
"I'm off shopping for tonight. I need a new dress."
Zone smiled, but Watts looked serious. "Let me know soon, okay?"
"Tomorrow. I'll let you know tomorrow."
"Soon. The forests of Timber have changed too much."
Rinoa paused, looked at him, then turned to go. "But the Owls are still around," she said, and walked away with Angelo trailing at her feet.
It was a tiring afternoon shopping and Rinoa decided that a hot bath would help calm her before dinner.
As she slipped into the hot delicately scented water, she remembered Watts' words and she remembered her promise.
Let me just talk to daddy tonight, she thought. Maybe then he would make it okay, then this thing with Watts and Zone wouldn't be an issue.
It had been so long since she'd talked to him. She wanted to tell him about what she was doing. How her school was, how her training was going. She just needed to tell him how she felt, how she didn't see enough of him, how she missed her mother. How lonely she was in that mansion by herself.
That thought brought her back to reality, to the quiet that had descended upon the mansion as the last rays of the sun faded. She remembered how it wasn't always like that.
When she was just a child, her mother would sit down at her piano at sunset and play one special song. The halls of the mansion would echo with the slow, soothing notes which had helped cement Julia as Deling's premier music artiste. It was always that song at that time of the day, and it was played slowly, as if she felt the emotion of every key.
Rinoa always remembered one particular day when she was very young. It had been late at night and she hadn't been able to sleep. She had gone to her parents' room, but there was no one there. It was then that she had heard the very soft tones of the piano. She had made her way downstairs, through the dark mansion, to the sitting room.
It was there that Rinoa had found her mother, playing quietly, her face wet with tears.
Rinoa remembered telling her mother not to cry, because she was sure that daddy would be home soon. She remembered how her mother had looked sadly at her and shook her head. Julia had then picked her up and held her tightly. And as she was being held by her mother, she remembered looking at a small piece of paper where the sheets of music should have been. It was a simple picture of some scenery with the small figure of a man in it. She had remembered seeing that picture at one of the shops in town, in an issue of Timber Maniacs. She had not mentioned the picture to her mother.
I wish you were here, mother. Today, especially.
Rinoa realised that she had been in the bath a bit too long. She rinsed herself off and began to prepare herself for dinner.
She treated her face with light make up, put on her dress, then did her hair. She looked at her watch: 7:20 p.m. Well timed.
She walked downstairs to the main entrance, opened the door, and sat on the steps, placing last minute items into her handbag and carefully slipping the metal card holder amongst her accessories. Then she waited for the familiar sound of the car engine to fade in from the driveway.
But it was a sound which never came.
It was midnight when she started humming to herself, still sitting on the steps.
A special song. An old memory.
She had taken her card out of the holder and was flipping it over and over again, staring at it blankly. As she did, a tear dropped onto the card. And as the tear made its slow way down the card's waterproof surface and onto the floor, Rinoa's voice faded.
Tomorrow. I'll let you know tomorrow.
She stood up to go to bed, and as she reached the top of the stairs, she let the card fall. And as the card tumbled from step to step, it's face changed from red to blue, then blue to red, all the way down to the bottom.