Prologue

The torches burned fiercely but they were no match for the room's high-vaulted ceilings- whatever heat they gave off was quickly lost in the shadowy heights of the room. Not that the woman sitting on her golden throne atop the dais seemed to care.

She was magnificently and scantily clad, the golden-violet slip of a dress carefully revealed the labor of her servants, the painted figures and diagrams adorning her golden flesh.

However, the silk and the paint were the last things visitors noticed, when they had time to notice anything at all. The great horned headdress attracted the eyes to her face and her curious golden eyes captured them irrevocably.

The tattered scrapbook resting upon her lap looked completely out of place among the cold finery with which the sorceress surrounded herself. It was quite old, and covered with yellow sunflowers. The sorceress gazed thoughtfully into the heart of the nearest torch while one lacquered fingernail gently tapped the open page of the scrapbook.

The page in question held one large newspaper clipping and an accompanying photograph. The picture showed one Squall Leonhart, almost smiling, surrounded by laughing friends. A dark haired girl wearing blue grinned at the camera from her vantage point on Leonhart's arm. The headline of the article screamed, "LION OF BALAMB DESTROYS SORCERESS FROM FUTURE."

Instructor Trepe removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes wearily. She didn't need to look at the clock on her desk to know that it was late- evening hallway bustle had long since fallen into silence.

Still, she looked. Yes, midnight now. She'd been sitting at her desk for over four hours, ever since a frazzled Xu had knocked on her door with an armload of paperwork.

"Oh, no..." Quistis had trailed off, looking at the oversized yellow envelopes tucked under Xu's arm. "Dollet?"

Xu had grimaced. "What else?"

Quistis had sighed. "And of course the contract would come through tonight."

"I know. I have three more stops to make. And then I get to stay up all night filling out transport forms and processing what you give me."

"What about Cid? I thought he usually covered transport."

Xu had paused, and when she spoke Quistis had been surprised to hear worry in her voice. "He went to bed halfway through the negotiations and left me with the Garden Master's representatives. But I need to ask you- after you process your class, can you do the squad assignments?"

"Sure. No problem." In fact, it was a problem, she really didn't need any more on her plate than what she had, but Xu was her friend.

"Great! I'll have the others drop their stuff off here so you don't have to get it- and I need to go now if I'm going to get any sleep at all tonight."

She'd handed over two of the envelopes and fled.

Mercifully, the paperwork for her class hadn't taken too long- only two of her students would be participating. Seifer was all set to go; he'd passed the prerequisite long ago and she'd written the exact same evaluation for him the last three times he'd attempted the field exam. Squall was a different matter- he was scheduled to attempt the prerequisite in the morning. She would be his assisting instructor.

He would ace it, she was certain of that. She tried not to think about what she would do if he was borderline passing at the end of the prerequisite. She was the sole grader- her word alone would mark him as proficient or unacceptable. She kept telling herself that he was a star cadet, there would be no problems, but she just couldn't help but feel prematurely guilty. He'll pass. But what if he doesn't?

What kind of instructor was she to let her personal feelings interfere with her work? He'll pass.

She was very close to being done. All the squads for the field exam were properly mapped out, captains assigned- except for the very last. She'd put Seifer, Squall, and Zell Dincht, one of Nero's students, in the third squad. According to Nero's report, Zell would probably do well in a non-leadership position, so she had to decide between Seifer and Squall as captain. Seifer had more obvious leadership qualities- shining brilliance and a great deal of personal charisma- but she felt that Squall might do as well. He was quiet, but an aggressive fighter, and all the cadets respected his skills. Charisma doesn't have to be loud to be effective. Or maybe it was just her emotions telling her this. Would it be too much to give him the captaincy? Would she be tipping her hand?

Squall or Seifer? She rubbed her eyes again and grasped the pen more firmly in her fingers. Squall or Seifer? She was so very tired.

Squall or- screw it. Squall. Let people think what they want. She made the mark and hastily shoved the papers into the proper envelope.

She stood up, eyes blurring with fatigue, and tossed the pen onto her desk.

He can do this. He'll be fine.

She tucked the envelopes in the crook of her elbow, opened her door, and trotted down the hallway to the elevator.

The sorceress blinked as the torch her eyes were pointed at suddenly moved one half inch to the left. She frowned and moved to pluck the scrapbook she had been poring over from her lap, but stopped in shock as her glance fell on the open page.

The headline now read, "BALAMB GARDEN CELEBRATES DEMISE OF ULTIMECIA." Her eyes widened as she took in the photograph, also changed. It showed a calm-eyed young woman hoisted on the shoulders of a young man, smiling ruefully.

Ultimecia flipped the page. More newspaper clippings, more photographs.

"QUISTIS TREPE, THE WOMAN WHO SAVED THE WORLD- EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!"

"QUISTIS TREPE TO WED SEIFER ALMASY," with the subtitle, "The Party of the Century!"

Ultimecia closed the scrapbook thoughtfully. Everything had changed. How, she wasn't sure. But if the past could be changed as she had just witnessed, surely it could be changed further. She'd make that scrapbook disappear. She had to, her life depended on it. And the key was now Quistis Trepe.