*** Though I have tried to write this so that knowledge of my previous fic 'The Secret Life of a Girl' isn't required, it is still very helpful pre-reading. I imagine most of you reading this probably have already done so, but those of you who haven't might wish to take the time (and lots of it) to go through it. Original characters and specific instances from that fic will be referenced, albeit with enough exposition (hopefully) that you can still follow along should you chose not to (but you really should). -- Management ***
I. The Princess and the Politicians
It is said that in times of strife, great men search deep within their selves and, upon finding the reservoir of nobility and wisdom that brought them to their lofty stations, draw forth the solutions to all of life's ills. Given the quality of the man in question and the dubious nature of his ascent to Asturian high society, I was not surprised when Meiden Fassa looked within and dredged up the most self-serving, ludicrous solution I have ever heard posed.
This council was convened for the purpose of finding a course of action in dealing with the tragedy that had only just taken place in the country of Fanelia. Typical of Asturian politics. A neighboring country is burned to the ground, its only monarch goes missing and its people are fleeing for their lives and we're holding a meeting to discuss what sort of meetings we should hold when we're really ready to tackle the problem. This is the third one since we first learned of the disaster. Perhaps Meiden, in his foolishness, thought he was only going along with the flow.
But a royal marriage? Now? He was not stupid enough to suggest that I be the princess that marries his oldest son, but that's the only credit I'll give him. Father's being much more kind. He's actually listening to Meiden's rationale that Asturia needs to act strong and proceed as if we are unconcerned with any potential threats to our safety. I suspect a great deal of his patience comes from fond memories of his childhood when they were simply Grava Aston and his schoolmate -- not the king of one of Gaea's wealthiest nations and the merchant that accounts for nearly a quarter of that wealth. Meiden's wedding plans for my little sister do sound like a schoolboy scam.
The others on the council are taking due note of every last reason. That does not surprise me either. The Asturian high council is an odd fraternity of old nobles, shrewd merchants and the type of military men who have spent their entire careers pushing imaginary armies across detailed maps without ever having picked up a sword. Collectively quite powerful, they nevertheless know that it is my father that issues all commands and that he does so with the assistance of his best friend and most trusted advisor. To rephrase it bluntly, sucking up to Meiden is a vital component of sucking up to the king.
It was the reason why they first accepted me and my status as the first female in a hundred years to enter the council chambers for a purpose other than cleaning. I'd like to believe that my performance over the years has replaced nepotism as the reason for their respect. My agendas haven't always coincided with their dreams of military and financial conquest. Why waste money funding schools for commoners when you can build a new guest house for your mansion? Or better yet, find a new country to build a whole new mansion in? I've participated in many lively debates over the years.
This one just seems silly to me. What baffles me is how seriously Father is taking it. This isn't the first time Meiden has tried to weasel his way into royalty by marriage. His original suggestion dates back years when he thought his son would be an ideal match for me. I think the sole logic behind that choice was that Dryden and I are the same age. It did not hold up to my much more logical rebuttals and the withering glare I used to deliver them. From what I know of the younger Fassa, he's an affable man skilled in the way of merchants but not enamored of them. The one thing I recall the most is a cutting humor whose edge he's not above turning on himself. In short, nothing like his father and the sort of man I could easily be friends with.
But not a spouse to. I can't picture myself with him. I can't really picture myself with anyone. At least, not anymore…
"So what do you think, Eries?" Father asks me.
A good question. Out of dislike for Meiden, it's tempting to laugh and dismiss it entirely. Honestly though, ever since the specter of having the man as in-law in some form reared its head, I've been matching up Dryden with Millerna and coming up with favorable results. Something in their spirits… And if Dryden still holds the fairly liberal views of the teenager I last saw five years ago, he'll have much greater success accommodating Millerna's headstrong ways.
"I think," I say in measured words, "that now is not a good time at all to be planning a wedding. We don't know who attacked Fanelia or where they might go next. Ignoring what happened won't protect us from it."
"But we're not ignoring it, my princess," Meiden answers with patronizing patience. "We are simply showing that we do not care. Panicking will accomplish nothing but making us look weak. And you're right in that we don't know who attacked Fanelia but that also means we don't know why. For all we know, Fanelia brought the attack upon itself and we have nothing to worry about."
"If we have nothing to worry about then why you in such a hurry -- "
"Eries, please," Father interrupts. "I think your objections are more about seeing your sister married than the timing of the marriage. I know you weren't terribly enthusiastic when Marlene was betrothed to Freid."
Grief tinges the mention of my sister's name. Knowing Father, I can't be sure if this is a deliberate attempt to keep me from declaring that he couldn't be more wrong or a genuine show of sorrow for his lost daughter. It's effective either way.
Still, despite the fact I don't fully disagree with the marriage, I try to mount a defense for her. Millerna and I aren't on the best of terms; caving in wouldn't improve those relations. "She only turned fifteen two months ago. You can understand why I don't want you to rush into this. Promise me that you'll consult her about it at least."
Father's brand of consultation is to intimidate someone until they agree with him. As his daughter, Millerna will be exempt from the worst of it, but even a girl as stubborn as she is can't hold out forever. Making him ask her won't change the outcome, but it will delay it. When Father has his mind set on something, that's really the most anyone can ask for and ultimately, it's all I'm after.
Before he can acquiesce, the chamber doors open and a messenger interrupts him. Father's aversion of being interrupted is well known, almost as much as what happens to those doing the interrupting. This must be extremely important.
The messenger does not even pause. "Your highness, more smoke is drifting in from the direction of the Fanelian border. From the accounts we've been given, it's coming from our own Fort Castelo."
There's more. Conflicting reports from the fort's neighboring town of Caliper about when the fires started and what, if any, leviships were in the area at the time. The messengers only states one fact that is not in dispute -- no one has seen any survivors.
Fort Castelo. I was there once…less than a year ago. I was visiting a friend. And in an inebriated night of trying to turn amity into ardor, I began the process of burying that friendship. There were extenuating circumstances, but I've come to view my brief stay at the Castelo as the beginning of the end of my relationship with the commander of that fort.
Now it looks as if everything has come to an end.
I quit myself of the council chambers before the messenger finishes. His information is third hand at best; I want to go to those that actually observed the atrocity. The palace guard would have been the ones who first greeted the witnesses and would likely have retained them. Among the guards and Caliper villagers, I hope to find more concise news and perhaps the one person most capable of comforting me at the moment.
I find him in the courtyard immediately. The blue and gold of the Caeli uniform distinguish him from common guards and the round, wire frame glasses distinguish him from his fellow Heavenly Knights. Alucier marks my arrival with a nod and an extended hand. I accept the invitation, but once I am beside him, he decides I should be elsewhere.
"You shouldn't hear the details," he says. Alucier's duty is to serve as my personal guard, a job he has been doing since I was fifteen. Over the six years he's served in that post, he's overseen taking care of my emotional wellbeing far more than my physical. If he thinks it's more important that he keep me ignorant of exactly what happened than to console me over what I already know, the events at the Castelo must be horrifying indeed.
But I can't leave. I already fear the worse. Confirming it won't harm me any more than letting myself be plagued with dread. Alucier is well acquainted with my stubbornness; he lets me stay, ordering me to stay close to him so that he may, at the very least, control which particulars I hear.
The ones being relayed by a trio of hysterical farmers are especially gruesome. Working in the narrow strip of fertile land that lay in the swamps between Caliper and the Castelo, they were the first to hear the sounds of combat and smell the fire that consumed the fort. They were also the first ones to set eyes on the disaster that befell the outpost. They waited until the only noise they could hear was the flickering of the flames, but their caution did not spare them from viewing the grisly aftermath. For my sake, Alucier tries to calm them and redirect their words. In their shock, they can't stop. Alucier drags me away before I can ask them if there was a Caeli among the bodies that they are strangely compelled to describe.
"The other guards can handle this. You're my responsibility," Alucier states as he heads back into the palace, pulling me behind him.
"Stop it!" I command to small avail. He's stopped moving, but his grip remains firmly on my upper arm. "I have to know."
Alucier only looks at me for several prolonged seconds. When he answers me, he has to turn away. "I think you can already guess."
"Guessing is not enough. I need to know for a fact." How I wish I truly felt as sure and bold as my speech. The farmers shook me. In their ranting, they took the abstract concept of death and gave it the brutal form of corpses strewn across the battlefield.
"But we won't know, not for a while. All we have so far is what the Caliper villagers have been able to tell us. And they weren't at the fort when this happened. They wouldn't know if anyone escaped, because they arrived long after any survivors would have fled." His grip on me lessens into a reassuring hold. "Yes, the survivors should have gone to Caliper or come to Palas by now, but there might be more going on than we realize. For all we know, they could be going after the people that did this. We'll just have to be patient and wait for more information."
Be patient. Wait. I've spent nearly a third of my life patiently waiting for Allen Schezar. Waiting for him to be finally through with the vestiges of his affair with Marlene. Waiting for him to outgrow the eleven year-old boy that was abandoned first by his father and then later sister and mother. Waiting for him to be able to accept that I love him.
Not long ago, my patience ran out. I walked away from him and the friendship we had forged because I could no longer live trying to fix his pain by making it my own. Now, I must wait again. And this time, it is with the knowledge that my last words to him were a decision to voluntarily become one more person gone from his life.
Alucier leaves me by my bedroom door. I would like for him to stay, but sorting out the events at the Castelo takes precedence. If I really need to talk to someone, all I have to do is knock on the next door down the hallway. Assuming Millerna will let me in, that is. I have tried reaching out to her, explaining my actions to her, but each attempt was hampered by her refusal to even consider my side and my inability to fully elucidate what my side is. I can list the reasons why Father and I put a stop to her medical studies. I can't so easily tell her how harmful her crush on Allen is without betraying not just my secrets, but Marlene's as well. Ultimately, the only justification I ever give her for either is that she is a princess and is bound to the obligations of the station.
It's a simple, plain explanation. Today though, complications have been added. Meiden Fassa's proposal alone would have been enough. Allen's possible… whatever has happened to Allen will be overwhelming for my little sister. I should be the one to tell her about both.
It's unlikely she's heard it from anyone else already. She was at the stables all morning and, if true to her normal routine, went to her room directly after to clean off the accumulated dirt and sweat of hours spent riding horseback. I don't know which news to tell her first. You might be engaged or the man you want to be with might be dead. The latter makes the former easier, doesn't it?
I fancy my wit sharp, but the gallows humor is too biting. It's nothing but a cheap attempt to soften my own reaction anyway. I want to believe Alucier. I want to believe that the destruction of the Castelo wasn't as complete as the descriptions made it to be, but I can't forget the haunted eyes of the farmers as they expelled their tale.
Millerna wouldn't have to be so burdened. I could tell her parts of the story, enough so that she would not panic when she heard others talk about it, but not enough to draw a final conclusion until one is known for certain. I'll mention her perspective husband in the same manner. Nothing has been decided on that either. There's no point in worrying her about things that may not have happened or may never come to pass.
She opens her door slightly, watching me as if she's debating whether or not to let me in. I must win the internal contest because she swings the door wide and returns to the table where her lunch is cooling. She's still in her riding clothes but that's not unexpected. Since Father and I have 'taken over' her life, she's been wearing the casual attire around the palace with increasing frequency as one last stab at rebellion. The handmaidens have come up with all sorts of comments and predictions on the effect it will have on Asturian fashion, but, despite my own overly formal dress, it doesn't concern me much. Underneath my high collars and long skirts, I can even sort of appreciate the metaphorical freedom the short pants allow.
I start slowly. "Have you heard the commotion in the courtyard?"
"Not much," she answers. "I rode Liksha past Rampant this morning. I only just returned. I saw people gathered in the courtyard, but from what I heard, they were still talking about the fires in Fanelia. It seems like there's more smoke in the air today. Is that why everyone's upset again?"
"Yes, the smoke…"
Naiveté is sometimes to be envied. Millerna's not stupid. Much as I disagreed with her medical lessons, a point I always had to concede was that she did well in them. It's more like she refuses to believe that anything overly bad will happen, not just to her but others around her. Despite having lost a mother and sister, a wishful thinking pervades that things will work out exactly as she wants them to. Born a princess, she is entitled but people will not so willingly fall into place as that. Merchants will have eligible sons. Fathers will make marital decisions on their daughters' behalves. Knights with questionable intentions won't always be around to rescue the beautiful princess.
"There's some talk that the smoke might be from one of our own forts near the border." I don't mention the Castelo by name. I've been offhanded enough in my delivery that Millerna doesn't ask for it. "The palace guard will check into it and take care of everything."
"They always do," Millerna says. In her sheltered experience, she knows no differently. "Is that all you wanted to tell me?"
No, not all. It's not even everything I should tell her about the Castelo. "I thought you should know. Some of our people were undoubtedly hurt. Such things are important for us to know."
Millerna, sensing another lecture from me about duty, begins picking apart her meal to avoid having to answer. Feigning distraction is a standard ploy for her. I'm tempted to play along with it, but if I'm going to criticize Millerna for having childish ways, I should start treating her as an adult and hope she will follow the lead. "Actually, sister, I haven't been entirely forthcoming with you. The accounts place the source of the smoke as Fort Castelo."
Her knife slips across the plate, knocking a piece of meat on to the table. It's a momentary lapse. She saying she's sure Allen is fine before the meat's sauce has had a chance to soak into the tablecloth. Her confidence could be reassuring if, as in everything concerning Allen Schezar, Millerna was truly aware of the circumstances. I won't argue with her though. I don't want to be an advocate on behalf of a terrible fate for someone who was once my dearest friend. Instead, I try to add to her optimism. "He is very resourceful."
Millerna sighs an agreement, either surprised I'm supporting her or doubting my ability to make an accurate assessment of Allen. She's not aware of how far Allen and I go back; I doubt he would have informed her considering how badly things ended between us and I haven't apprised her either. She's equally ignorant of Marlene's relations with him.
It's sad that such a gulf of secrets could open up between sisters and keep them removed from each other.
I know the rest of my news can only widen the gap.
"Oddly, though, most of the council business this morning was taken up by something only partially related to recent events." Millerna nibbles away at her vegetables. The only time she seems to like me less than when I'm telling her what to do is when I'm discussing the council. I wait until she's finished before going on. I don't wanting her choking on them or, as in a brief daydream that flits through my mind, throw them at me. "Meiden Fassa had a proposal for Father and Father has finally decided to take him up on it."
My choice on the vegetables was a good one. Her eyes go wide. She knows how much and how often Meiden has talked about marrying his son off to one of us. She also knows that at my age, I've become almost an old maid by some standards, skilled at deflecting any offers that come my way. That Father has at last given in a little over a month after she reached the marriageable age of fifteen is not insignificant to her either.
"You put a stop to it, didn't you?"
"I tried to," I say, hoping she will believe me. "I did have Father promise to ask you first. Nothing will be done without your consent."
"Without my consent," she echoes sulkily. "Since when have the two of you ever considered what I want?"
I am determined to keep this from turning into the same fight that has come a dozen times before. "Father is asking now. Or he will be asking you shortly. I came here to tell you about this ahead of time so that you might be prepared for when he does. I didn't want him catching you off-guard. I wanted you to be able to think this through before having to give an answer."
"You know what my answer is." She shoves her plate at me. "Excuse me, but I have to clean up from my ride. Good day, Eries." The door to her bedroom closes sharply. In Millerna's anteroom, I'm left alone with the remains of her meal. I thought I would spare her by coming here. Instead, I think we both feel worse for it.
Night settles in quickly, but once here, it refuses to pass. I count the hours by the shifting of the shadows on the wall. Morning comes and I'm still counting. Deprived of sleep, the day goes by in a tired fog. Breakfast. Ignore Alucier's blatant attempts to cheer me. Council meeting. Ignore everyone. Lunch. Being ignored by Millerna. Dinner. Retiring early to my bedchambers to futilely make up for what was lost the previous night. I must nod off sometime in the late morning. When I wake, the sun has encroached all the way across the floor.
I grab the first dress I can find. I'm still working the buttons on the collar when I reach the courtyard. I'm smoothing over my silver hair when I turn the corner to go down the hallway the ends at the council room. With everything going on, oversleeping through what is probably the entire meeting, isn't the best thing I could have done.
As feared, council members are already leaving the room before I can enter it. They brush past, each one intent on watching their footsteps and devoid of their usual prattle. No one even comments on my absence. No one comments on anything.
Father and Meiden Fassa are still inside. They have company, but it is no councilman. A tall figure stands at the head of the table, facing away from me. Father registers my arrival with a look that I have never seen before.
The man turns to see what has caused the King of Asturia to react so strangely. The edges of the dark cloak that he has bound himself in whisper across the floor with his movement. He's a handsome man, or rather, he would be if he allowed himself that luxury. There's an air to him far chillier and distant than anything I've ever been able to affect. He isn't staring, but I still find it hard to meet his unnaturally red eyes.
"Strategos Folken of Zaibach," Father announces. "This is my daughter, the princess Eries Aria."
The man nods curtly. I give a more proper greeting though I know it is likely wasted. Inane pleasantries are obviously of no importance to this Strategos Folken. His name bothers me; I know I've heard it before, but I can't match the eerily composed man before me to it.
It's not my first concern anyway. "Father, I'm sorry that I missed this morning's meeting -- "
"Eries, Eries," Father laughs unexpectedly. "How many times do I have to tell you? Just because I let you sit in on the occasional meeting in which one of your little causes is discussed, doesn't mean that you're actually a member of the council." He adds a few hearty chuckles to emphasize how silly I am.
I assume it's for our visitor's benefit, for surely I'm not finding it amusing. Meiden's up and out of his seat, offering to escort him all over Palas ahead of any reaction I can vocalize. Father and his friend do make a good team. There's something in the way the merchant's fawning over the Strategos that suggests I should hold my tongue until the two of them are well out of the room.
It's difficult given what I want to say. Father watches me with a lesser version of that odd expression he had while we listen to the receding footsteps.
Somehow, my father's quicker than I am. "The Strategos came here to express his regrets for an incident that took place at Fort Castelo."
"The Castelo?! Zaibach? Did he know if -- "
Father puts up his hand to stop me. I'm verging on hysterical rambling and the both of us know my primary interest isn't Zaibach or its representative. "He explained to me that a fugitive was being harbored at the fort. Commander Schezar refused to turn him over, in clear violation of the treaty between our countries. It was Zaibach's intent to avoid a violent confrontation, but the class of our soldiers at that fort isn't one well trained in diplomacy. There was some sort of misunderstanding about Zaibach's demand for extradition and well, we know what happened after."
"You don't really believe that's what happened? Allen would never have let the situation degenerate so badly." Father may not think much of Allen because of his involvement with me, but as a soldier, Allen has never given him a reason to doubt his capability.
"I am simply repeating what the Strategos told me," Father says in a low timbre.
So he doesn't believe it. But he has decided to go along with it. I truly wish I hadn't missed that council meeting. And there is one thing I haven't had clarified. "Did the Strategos tell you of any survivors? Surely he would know if the commander of the fort they attacked had fallen."
He's torn between his love for me and his dislike of Allen. Apparently, the former is stronger. "He made no mention of Schezar. Given his status as the commander, I think the omission is significant. Zaibach came to us in the interest of full disclosure." He slurs the phrase. This is tearing at him more than he will ever openly admit to me.
"You believe that he is alive, then?"
"Believe what you want to believe, Eries. I'm curious as to why he hasn't reported back to Palas yet, but for some reason, Zaibach also took its time getting here." To himself he adds, "There's more going on here than that man let on."
I would like to know what it is myself. I'm more hopeful than I've been the past few days, but this exchange with Father has alarmed me. The look on his face, his talk about me not being on the council¼
"Father, what you said earlier -- that's I'm not a member of the council?"
"You aren't, Eries. Not anymore." He pushes away from the table and gets up to leave. This is not up for debate.
I don't fold that easily, though. "But you were just saying that for the Strategos, weren't you? You can't be serious?"
He is. Completely. His posture is stone as he walks out the council chamber. Pausing at the door, he gives the only explanation he really needs to give. "There are things happening in Asturia -- in Gaea -- that I would not have touch my daughters."
I understand what that unfamiliar look was now. For the first time in my life, my father is afraid.
I go looking for Millerna to tell her what I'm choosing to believe is positive news about Allen. She's long gone. Her handmaidens tell me she was once again going to the stables. That horse of hers probably has covered enough distance to circle the whole of Gaea over the past week. I can only imagine where she's gotten to and how long it will take for her to come back.
If she's in the area, I have the resources to find her. The Caeli that serves as captain of the royal guard is a friend of mine. He should be on duty now in the guard tower -- should being the word to emphasize. Revius owes his current position to his Caeli uniform, which he won through his skill with a sword, not his dedication to duty. Distractions, generally of a female persuasion, have been known to draw him from his post.
The tower is at the edge of the palace grounds. It's not much of a walk, but the one up the winding staircase to the top of it is. Near the top, I look down to see how high up I've climbed. Looking back up, I see Revius leaning over the railing, waiting for me.
He's unfazed by presence. "I was going to go look for you, but I should have known you'd come here instead," he says, grinning at me with his usual jaunty smile. "It is his ship, after all."
I shake my head in confusion. I'm accustomed to friendly teasing from Revious, but he's refrained from it recently because of what happened at the Castelo.
It dawns on me who the 'his' of 'his ship' refers to. "Allen's ship?"
"I spotted a leviship coming in over Rampant. As much as I've seen the thing, I knew it on sight. It's the Crusade."
Named for an Allen Crusade Schezar born long before the current eighth one, the vessel has made many trips to the capital city from the swamplands after Allen's transfer there two years ago. I used to greet its arrival with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. I was always happy to see Allen, but not always ready to let him know how deep that happiness ran.
Similar emotions color this particular arrival. Relief has flooded through me that I will be able to see for myself that he is all right. There's a dread though, tucking itself away in the corners of that relief, that the good feelings I have are irrelevant.
To him, and to myself.
Author's Notes -- Starting from scratch is hard. After spitting out 100,000+ words, you'd think a brand new story would come right out. Truth is, I started this before I wrote the extra special appendix to 'Girl', got halfway through it and slammed into a wall. I wasn't able to get started again until that appendix was done. Maybe I just had to get the whole Eries x Alucier thing out of my system. I recommend that you all do the same. As much as I love the guy, it ain't gonna happen. Though an Eries/Allen/Alucier/Sita love rectangle would do the series proud… Gah, I should stop theorizing.
Gratuitous plugs -- Visit my Eries shrine at: www.geocities.com/eriesariaaston
or visit my in the process of remodeling Allen shrine at: www.geocities.com/aerikas
Next up: My Dinner with Allen