|The Princess and the Asch Forgotten
Author: Liberty SleepStorm PM
Sequel to Cherished and Forgotten Revised The myth of the silver flower turns out to be Malkuth and Kimlasca's greatest secret. While Asch and Natalia's lives are at risk, a certain General Curtis spindles the biggest scheme in history, turning Jade, Anise, Tear, and Luke's lives into the battlefield they cannot escape.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Romance/Hurt/Comfort - Asch & Natalia - Chapters: 11 - Words: 30,124 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 2 - Follows: 6 - Updated: 12-03-12 - Published: 07-16-12 - id: 8325967
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The Princess and The Asch Forgotten
Summary: The myth of the silver flower turns out to be Malkuth and Kimlasca's greatest secret. While Asch and Natalia's lives are at risk, a certain General Curtis spindles the biggest scheme in history, turning Jade, Anise, Tear, and Luke's lives into the battlefield they couldn't escape.
I was fourteen when she was ten. Natalia had then grown her hair to a length unsuitable for a noble of her status, and the rumor concerning it had started to circulate among the servants of the Fabre Manor.
Some said the princess was in rebellion for being locked up in her castle five days a week, while others whispered she had become allies with her aunts and uncles in trying to persuade the king to demand the boundaries of Coral Castle back from the Malkuth Empire.
While folding and sweeping, I considered every one of their theories, only to conclude that even though the princess was above average in reasoning, she was still a child prone to irrational stubbornness.
Around that time, Luke was only beginning to learn to interact with people. We neither forced him to say anything nor imposed rules that would bring him discomfort. That was my job– to make sure Luke felt secure and at home in a house his memories could not recognize as his own. So when the rumor about Natalia became a constant topic among the servants, I considered bringing the matter to Luke. After all, if there was anyone who could persuade Natalia to do anything, it was him.
One afternoon, after gathering my courage, I casually brought it up while Luke was playing with his wooden sword. I had at least expected the boy to whine and shout he didn't care, but his reaction was much worse: Luke only stared at me for seconds and returned to thrusting his sword in the air.
Watching both of them now, eight years later, as they descended the Tartarus arm in arm, for Luke to stare dumbly at me at the mention of Natalia was the last thing he would possibly do.
I remembered with a smile how this boy, even after knowing he was only a replica and would only cause the princess disappointment, still penetrated the Oracle Knights' base in Daath to rescue her.
Time had passed us all quickly, and we had changed with the seasons so quickly too.
Through the veil of light snow falling on the port of Keterburg and the camouflage of the frost-bitten vessel, the two heirs to the Kimlascan throne shone like glimmering rubies.
The five Malkuth nobles sent here to aid Mayor Osborne in welcoming the royalties stood in two parallel lines before a crowd of Malkuth soldiers and officers.
I had been surprised when Jade informed me some nights prior that I was the one chosen by Emperor Peony to represent him. Of course, I thought, that decision had to do with the fact that I knew Luke and Natalia personally, but on my way here, I bumped on the idea that Jade persuaded the emperor for an agenda of his own – he had sounded as if he was the one to benefit from my attendance to this very occasion.
The trumpets sounded thrice when the heirs' feet touched the ground, and I snapped back to the present.
A Kimlascan servant I knew as Louie bowed in front of Luke and Natalia and turned to face the local population. "Announcing the arrival of Her Serene Highness, Princess Natalia Luzu Kimlasca-Lanvaldear and her escort, the son of Duke Fabre, Lord Luke fon Fabre, of the majestic kingdom of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear!"
Again, Louie bowed, and he stepped aside, letting Luke and Natalia proceed.
"Count Gailardia," reckoned Mayor Osborne, and I straightened my back before nodding. Together, we approached them.
With the frost and the mist, it was first impossible to see the details of her face, but as I drew nearer to her, I became so utterly aware of two things: Natalia was too beautiful, and I had stopped breathing.
Mayor Osborne curtsied. "Welcome to Keterburg, your highnesses. It is my pleasure to have you both in our home once again."
"Guy!" Luke exclaimed, cutting Natalia short of what she was saying. Belatedly, he realized this and apologized, saying instead in a more regal manner, "Count Gailardia, we didn't expect to see you here at all! It's been a long time."
I bowed. "It is an honor to be of your acquaintance again, Master Luke." Lifting my head to peer at Natalia, I smiled and said, "With honor and pleasure it is to be in your presence, princess."
She stretched out her right hand. "Likewise, Count Gailardia. I pray you are well tonight?"
"Of course, princess. Why shouldn't I be?"
She blinked twice and motioned to her and the mayor. "To stand so near to females and manage to be composed…well, I simply thought it might be excruciating."
"Agreed." Luke said with a grin, nodding at the princess' outstretched hand.
I jerked, and wrapped my fingers around hers. "You tease me, your highnesses. How can I go far from you now when," I bent to kiss her knuckles, "It's been a painfully long time for me to endure before I could see you again?"
I had not meant to, but my eyes locked on Natalia's own. A blush crept on her face, and with a jolt of awareness, I smiled at Luke also.
Mayor Osborne cleared her throat. "May I suggest we proceed with the parade now? The officers will march ahead, and your carriage will follow. You shall meet the other Malkuth aristocrats and Kimlascan natives in the banquet hall, warmed with fire and incensed with the sweetness of local spices." She said, "The feast was prepared especially by the count according to your tastes."
"Of course!" Luke patted my shoulder, "I wouldn't be impressed by any other in that matter! Let's go!"
His enthusiasm did not fade, and I was glad that with all these duties and formalities, he remained himself. Natalia caught me staring, probably knew I was reminiscing, and signaled 'eighteen' with her fingers while we waited for the military officers to finish their entrance of colors.
I mouthed 'baby' and pointed at Luke.
Natalia giggled, and she nudged her escort to start walking.
"That's General Abigdale, leader to the regiment under the princess' name," I whispered to Nephry, who immediately recognized the big, bald man saluting the Malkuth general posted in Keterburg.
"He appears strict."
"Paranoid, but he does well for the welfare of Natalia – I mean, Princess Natalia."
Nephry chuckled. "It's all right, Count Gailardia; I've seen your group travel, and I know you share a more personal sentiment with her highness."
"More personal?" I asked when General Abigdale halted in front of us and saluted.
"Well," the officer boomed, "Isn't it our little Guy! How is it, coming home to your inheritance, dear count?"
I failed to mention to Nephry that I had met with this particular man several times during our travels, and in all those times, he never failed to bully me about prioritizing Natalia's safety. "Very well, general, although I still miss some things about Kimlasca." I said.
"Of course, of course!" General Abigdale squeezed my shoulder and bent to my height, "and don't forget, while we're here, we have one person in common."
I shivered, but promised I had checked and rechecked security several times, excluding the fact that I kept his threats in mind while doing so.
Once the formal greetings were finished, the mayor and I tailed the royal heirs past the flaming swords of the officer cadets and watched them get inside their carriage.
"See you there, Guy." Luke waved down at me.
I waved back long enough, wishing Natalia would notice, but she was too busy giving instructions to her assistant. Oh well. A princess didn't have as much liberty as a count did…and she didn't shoulder the task of walking the emperor's rappigs.
Difference in rank, I reminded myself. We were no longer just a man and a woman saving the world.
On both sides of the main road, locals hollered and cheered once the parade commenced. The Kimlascan heirs peered out of their carriage and smiled and waved, the princess doing it more naturally than Luke.
"I'm relieved your people are receiving them well, mayor." I said.
Nephry pulled the quilt over her legs. "Being apart from the rest of the world has its advantage. Here, a princess and a prince in flesh are fairy tale characters come to life." She said, "Um, may I ask, is it really necessary that we ride without the roof over our heads? The snow is gnawing at me, I swear, Count Gailardia."
"I'm sorry, mayor, but we have to be seen more than the royalties to serve as a constant reminder."
"No one would harm them here. I don't see the need to remind the locals that they are guests of our emperor."
I turned to look at her, and she the same.
Nephry sighed. "I'm sorry; it must be the pregnancy getting to me. I would no longer complain."
"It really does that, huh? How many months?"
"Three, and I'm all ready prickly."
I removed my wool coat and hung it over her shoulders. "Don't complain, mayor. I don't want your child to be harmed by the cold you love. The rest of your duty, I can take over for tonight."
She smiled sadly and squeezed my hand. "I'm grateful Jade keeps such a good friend."
After an awkward pause, we both laughed.
Nearing our destination, she said, "Listen, has my brother been up to anything unusual lately?"
It took me a moment to comprehend the meaning of her question, but before I could answer, she clarified she meant any dangerous endeavor Jade had taken a fancy to.
"No, none I am certain of." I said, "But we're not the best of friends, so I may not be the most credible person to ask. Why? Do you…think the colonel is up to something?"
"I'm worried, is all. We have an uncle who serves in the Malkuth military – General Jim Curtis. He may have waited in the banquet hall with the others who are allergic to cold weather. Anyway, his ship docked here at dawn and he woke me up to have tea. At first he asked about Keterburg, then suddenly he was interested in Jade and his activities; two hours he made me feel as though I was in an interrogation room, answering for the crimes of my brother." She wrapped her arms around her belly, a frown tugging at the corners of her red-stained lips. "Aside from the lack of sleep and this baby inside me, it's the thought that Jade hit his head and has come back to the study of fomicry that unsettles me. Is he, count?"
I opened his mouth with the intention to assure her Jade would never revive fomicry, but said instead, "My messenger, Rafael, delivers letters my letters to the colonel very often, and for two consecutive nights last week, while we were relaying our thoughts about re-arranging the senate, Rafael said there was a woman in his house, going to and fro rooms. Rene, Jade's maid, gossiped to him that she always came after dusk and left before dawn. She and Jade were awake all night, in the rooms she was never allowed to enter."
"A woman!" Nephry gasped.
"Do you think Jade…has found love?"
"No, no, no," she leaned back on the cushions, shaking her head. "For my brother to work with a woman and in those hours means he's desperate."
I ignored my assistant, Aliana, who was asking whether the ice sculpture should be delivered to the ballroom now or when the princess asked for it. "Desperate, mayor? Jade? Desperate?
The carriage stopped.
"Desperate?" I hissed, and Aliana slapped my arm. "Sir! The ice sculpture?"
"It's not the sculpture, it must be that silver flower."
Nephry and Aliana exchanged looks. "Count Gailardia, are you all right?"
"Ah, yes, yes. To the banquet hall."
Mushroom road had been a distant memory until now. The moment Asch realized Natalia was not in our battlefield, he sprinted off in search for her. I remembered wanting to do the same, wanting to shout her name until my throat scarred with the effort, but Jade sent me a look that warned me of where we were, and who we were with.
Jade cared, whether he admit it or not, but I had not seen it that way during Natalia's absence.
The urge to satisfy my need to see her safe was too great; I ignored my wounds and raced after Asch.
Today, while the ceremony went on and Natalia recited her speech, I had perfect comprehension of Jade's motives for warning me.
Kimlascan and Malkuthian blood nourished my heart and gave me life, but the title and inheritance sustaining me came from Malkuth. The day I claimed what was rightfully my family's, I pledged allegiance to the emperor and all that was under his crown.
Jade knew I would not betray my family for a girl. That day, he was simply ringing that familiar bell into my head and reviving the lists of reasons I could not pursue my infatuation…the reasons I could not come and rescue her when her prince was around to do the job.
Rank. Loyalty. Respect.
It would be shameful of me to come between the royal heirs of Kimlasca, our enemy before and friend now. I was a Malkuthian; to pursue the betrothed princess of our brother kingdom would endanger not only my name, but also the dignity of my homeland.
The claps resounded. Natalia bowed her head and gestured for the orchestra to resume playing.
However, there was more to simply rescuing her that time. She and Asch emerged covered in those silver petals, and the last our party talked about it, we agreed not to tell Natalia the myth.
"Sir," Aliana hissed behind me.
I spun to see her and raised my eyebrows. "What?"
"You're staring in mid-air. Please mind your manners, sir. Half the ladies have been hinting on you to ask them to dance." She cocked her head to our left, and indeed, the daughters of the local aristocrats were smiling at me.
"Oh no, sir."
"Haven't I any business to attend to? I can't dance with those lot of woman in one night; my phobia-"
A gloved hand passed in front of my face. "It seems, Count Gailardia,"
I looked down and saw the princess feigning a smirk, "that you can't decide which lady to prioritize."
"Your highness!" Aliana ducked her head.
"Hello," Natalia glimpsed her from head to toe. "Are you the girl who has caught my friend's interest? She's quite young, count, but very fair. How old is she?
"You're mistaken, princess. I do not share that kind of relationship with this young lady." I chuckled, bowing, "Your highness, may I introduce you to my assistant, Miss Aliana Briskov."
Aliana froze in her place, unsure if she should bow again or shake the princess' hand.
Natalia smiled openly at last. "It's a pleasure, Miss Briskov. Excuse me for interrupting; it's just that Luke has been insisting I bring you to our table."
Indeed, at a distance behind her, Luke was glancing our way while he danced with Lady Catherine of Reevia."Bored, is he?" I said.
"You know him, Guy. The only person he can tolerate for hours is you and Tear."
"You're neglecting to give yourself credit, your highness."
She swallowed and smiled again at Aliana. "Were you about to dance with him?"
"No, your highness, I'm not a good dancer at all."
"What a shame. Shall I take him then?"
"To dance, Gailardia." She said. "Don't you want to?"
In my head, the music died, the people drifted away with the breeze, and the ballroom morphed into a place that belonged to neither kingdoms. Her dress wasn't the blazing red of Kimlasca, and my tunic wasn't the icy blue of Malkuth. This request was nothing more than the ones she had whenever our task to keep watch over camp succeeded, and we had time to chat the hours away or even waltz into the coming daybreak.
I offered my hand, and she placed hers above mine. Once in contact, I felt her fingers twitch. I glanced at her from the corner of my eye, and noticed the signs of apprehension.
"You're avoiding someone." I said as we waited for the orchestra to begin with another symphony and for the couples to pour in.
Natalia opened and closed her mouth. She threw her chin up. "It does not mean I never intended to dance with you."
The violin sang.
Left foot forward. "Who is it, then? Shall I guess? My first suspect would be Count Kentley, who's been watching you all night, or perhaps…is it Major Thomas Blackston? He's been excited to get near you since this morning."
Natalia swirled twice and landed back into my arms, only now, she leaned in closer. "It's someone more superior than the ones you mentioned, bearing a name I am not fond of. Oh – and he sports this frightening mustache and beguiling red eyes."
Half the officers in the room sported mustaches of all kind, but as we turned and swept past a general dancing with the mayor, it occurred to me with a shudder who she was referring to. "A relative of our dear friend, Jade - General Curtis, correct?"
She scowled. "I dislike his assessment of Luke. I did not ask for his comment, yet he gave it without my permission."
"What exactly did he say?"
"He…" she slowed her pace, forcing me to do the same. "General Curtis said our Luke appears to be a copy of someone very important to me."
I stopped altogether. Natalia squeezed my arm. "You're losing the rhythm, Count Gailardia."
"Can we talk someplace else?"
'Please, just finish this dance and we can talk after the feast – in the house Luke and I will be staying in."
We fell into motion with the rest of the couples, spending the rest of the time in silence. Natalia was as predictable as a cookbook, with all the ingredients listed for the type of dish craved for. All these years spent with her taught me to ask would be to add heat to all ready boiling water.
The stiffness of her arms on mine prompted me to stand taller.
'Look around', the swiftness of their turns whispered in my ears.
Around, certain eyes watched us; people who bore significant roles in society followed our every step. My temples throbbed at the questions crashing my thoughts, daunting my composure. Several times, I almost gave in to the urge to forget my calm and ask her outright, but Natalia knew these people better than I did.
If she couldn't speak here, she had a good reason why.
The music ended.
We parted, and she forced a smile. "Later, Count Gailardia… I will see you later."
I bowed for the final time before leaving the dance floor, and still, even away from the princess, eyes watched me.
Back in the hotel at dawn, five hours after the banquet, I exchanged clothes with Rafael and instructed him to go around town to collect souvenirs for the people I told Aliana to take note of. They were hesitant, inquiring why I had to be in a disguise and where I intended to go.
I fastened the leather belt around my waist and transferred the sheath of my sword to my left. "I'm meeting a person, and people are watching me closely. I just found out."
Rafael peered above the mirror he held up for me. "I've been meaning to point it out to you, sir, but I constantly forget."
I snapped my head to him. "Point out what?"
"He only told me earlier, sir," Aliana offered my freshly polished shoes, "And I tried to tell you, but you were too distracted by those things you were muttering about silver flowers and the such."
"Will you please tell me all ready?"
"There was a servant to an officer on board our ship sailing to Keterburg who tailed Rafael and inquired him about your personal life." She said. "Another one, during the parade, was stalking your every move. He probably did not see me looking, for if he did, he would have stopped watching you so boldly."
I slipped my feet inside his shoes, choosing not to remark.
I thought this started only when I danced with Natalia, but now it seemed to me as though my contact with the princess only intensified the attention I was getting.
What was she not allowed to tell me during the banquet? Why had she rejected the idea of talking elsewhere? For sure she could excuse herself for a minute or two without anyone missing her.
Glancing at Aliana's worried face, I also wondered if Natalia lied about Luke requesting me to sit at their table.
As it was, when Luke did come to me to chat, he never invited me over.
The image of the banquet hall emerged before my eyes, and once again I was there. I refused to acknowledge it then, but now, with my memory still fresh, I recounted that when Luke honored me with a light embrace, people had looked away.
Three minutes had not passed when Richard, my substitute, interrupted and said the princess was in need of Luke's company, and pulled my friend away from me.
Then, the people resumed watching.
"I'd n-never be able to fool them, sir." Rafael put down the mirror and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief.
"You're blonde and tall and muscular like I am. They'll be fooled."
Aliana gawked at me. "You mean, sir, that you're putting Rafael and I in danger instead?"
"No, no, never, Aliana." Whistling, I motioned to the door through which a skinny man entered. "Everyone, this is my friend, Pier's nephew, Brody. Brody, you've seen Rafael and Aliana with me in the banquet earlier."
I looked at my reflection in the mirror for the last time, approved, and ruffled Aliana's hair as I passed her. "Don't worry, dear, he doesn't look it but he kills with his bare hands. He'll keep you safe, right Brody?"
"Hey, master," Brody rubbed his nape, and ran his tongue over his lips. "We might have a problem with that."
"What?" Aliana shrieked, pacing to the window and peeking outside.
"No, they're not waiting for us downstairs. They're outside our room, requesting to speak to you, sir."
I gripped the handle of my sword. "Who're they?"
The door jolted open and in a flash, Brody had his hand up Tear's throat while Asch had the tip of sword to my heart. I could not move as I took in the presence of these two, measuring first if they were impostors with the intention to harm us, or if they were the real ones come for a business with me.
Either way, I thought as I glimpsed my half-drawn sword, I did not have the advantage.
Asch tapped my chin with the flat of his blade. "Tell your dog to unhand Tear."
I stared at the redhead, feeling for familiarity. "Asch?"
"Guy!" Tear screamed.
He withdrew his hands from her, and she fell on the floor, choking.
"Aliana, attend to her."
"Asch," Tear sat up, rubbing her throat. Aliana hefted her to her feet with one pull. "We came to talk, Asch - put away your sword." she said.
He took a deep breath, and lowered his sword. "Going somewhere?" he said.
"Tear, what is the meaning of this?" I said.
She assured them she was fine and asked if the door could be closed and locked. Aliana waited for my permission, which I gave with a feeble, 'go'.
Asch strode to the window and pulled the curtains close. "There was a man who followed you from your little gathering to your hotel. Where were you going, Guy?"
Rafael collapsed on a chair. I poured him a glass of water and turned to Tear. "Were you in the ballroom? How long have both of you been in Keterburg? What are you doing here?"
"We came to see you." She said. "We need to talk, Guy. It's an emergency, and Asch here has a request to make."
"Not a request." Asch grumbled and sat on the chair across from Rafael. "Answer me: where were you going at this time of day?"
I folded his arms against my chest. No use in lying. "I was meeting with Natalia to talk. She said there were eyes watching in the ballroom, and I was expecting her to tell me when we meet. It seemed to me she had a problem."
Tear transferred in front of mr. "What problems?"
"I was going to find out." I shrugged. "Would you mind answering my questions now?"
Asch grabbed Rafael's water, emptied it, and slammed it on the table. "We're here on official business. I ask, you answer. First, do you love Natalia?"
"Gailardia." He murmured. His fingers loosened around the glass. "I know you, I've seen how you are with her. Tell me if you love Natalia."
I dropped my arms to my side, stunned by the sincerity in his voice. For seconds long, I saw the little boy I took care of, the one who boasted of his fighting skills in the morning and cried for a glass of milk in the evening.
Slowly, the delusion faded, and in my hotel room, sitting on my chair, I recognized Asch, only this man carried the sincerity of the boy in my memory.
The silence pressed on me.
"What if I do?" I said.
Asch's chest rose and fell. "I need you to go to her now, promise her you'll be with her and you'll never leave her side no matter what."
"Then tell Luke to meet Tear in this hotel, and that I'll…" he stood, and remained motionless. "Tell Natalia you saw me in the Grand Square North of town and suggest she see me. I have something very important to do."