XI: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Energist Bomb
For breakfast, the kitchens sent up the same breads, juices and meats they usually do, but this particular morning, they're in a larger quantity than they've been for quite some time. It's a special occasion. Soon, the men sitting with me will be off to battle. It's unknown when we'll hold this morning ritual again. No one should want for anything.
Then, of course, there's the fourth Caeli at the table, one that's been missing from his seat since being sent off to Fort Castelo years ago.
Alucier and Revius have set up a pattern of staring at me and then Allen that leaves to the two of us under constant supervision lest one of us decides to explain his returned presence. Seclas isn't participating; he's more interested in the map Allen's brought with him for one last review of his personal battle plan. The map, the fresh product of predawn intelligence and procured by pointing out to the clerk printing them out who is the princess of this country and who is not, is covered with colored shapes representing the armies of Asturia and our allies. The black squares representing Zaibach box in the brighter colors on two sides. Allen's added marks of his own, all around the area of the map where the convergence of different inks is the thickest – the front lines, where he, and presumably Dilandau, will be in just a few short hours.
"You planning on taking on Zaibach all by yourself, Schezar?" Seclas asks. The thin lines Allen's drawn aren't connected to any others, giving the appearance of a solitary strike.
"Oh, Allen likes to do things on his own," Revius opines, "Take eating breakfast, for example. Yes, he has joined our company this fine morning, but this is not his usual behavior. One might say it's quite UN-usual."
"Real subtle," mumbles Alucier.
"Hey, staring wasn't getting us anywhere and don't even try to pretend that you don't want to know. It's not like these two are known for volunteering information, either."
"Then perhaps your time would be better spent not expecting to hear any," I say to him. I don't have any intention of keeping the details of my reconciliation with Allen secret but Revius is all but begging to be toyed with. It's what he expects. It's what he would do. It's what I would normally do too. To let such an opportunity go would be like a maudlin admission of doubt that I'll have another. I can hear him bemoaning what the ill omen of a sentimental Eries portends very clearly.
"Aw, come on, Eries," Revius now literally begs, albeit sarcastically. "You know how we lowly knights live off the news of nobles' private lives. And your life is usually so boring. It's not fair to tell us all the political crap and withhold the good stuff."
Allen takes a second from his study of the map to give Revius the eye. My honor has not quite been insulted but he is overprotective of his friends. He'll rush to defend me, should I need it.
I am more than capable of defending myself in this small fight. "Honestly, Revius. If it's that important to you, why don't you don a dress and infiltrate a pack of handmaidens? The news will trickle down to you eventually."
"Hah. Half the time they know the news before it happens. We should send a couple into Zaibach. That'll beat whatever intelligence we got going now."
"I'm sure they'd be more than willing to serve," Alucier says. "Especially after hearing how their princess and Caeli knight refuse to stereotype them."
"Aren't we all special taking the moral high ground?" Revius shoots back. "And while it's always fascinating to hear Alucier show how witty and just he is, we're getting off the subject at hand. Allen… What the hell are you doing here, man?"
Revius pounds the table to make sure Allen's paying attention, which, he isn't. He's tapping his finger over a solitary red circle, the symbol for Fanelia.
Seclas misreads the gesture. "If you're worried about the king not showing up, that's not going to be a problem. That Mystic Moon girl came back to the palace real early this morning and she said he went ahead to the front."
We heard that news when we were acquiring the map. Allen was glad to confirm Van Fanel had safely retrieved Hitomi from the Mystic Moon; he only wished the two would have come back to Palas together instead of the king going off on his own. Light was just breaking and already someone had a head start in finding Dilandau.
"He's probably waiting with another army's troops until the fighting begins," I suggest. "It wouldn't make much sense for him to go charging in alone."
"Uh, yeah," Revius says. "And everything I've seen of Fanel indicates a level-headed youth who would never let emotion overtake strategic planning."
It's a good thing Revius is sitting beside me today. My foot never would have reached far enough to kick him if he had been further down the table.
"No," Allen says. "I don't think Van's that reckless, at least not anymore. But he isn't my only concern. I should be going. I do need to talk to Hitomi before leaving."
Revius takes care to scoot his chair away from me before he speaks. "It would be bad form to take off for war without saying goodbye to your fiancée. She is still your fiancée, right? Your interpersonal relationships with women are confusing to me as of late."
"Hitomi is my friend," Allen answers, "as is Eries." As a friend, he bows to me and goes before Revius can make any blunt demands for specifics.
"I guess this means we have to stop making fun of him on your behalf," Alucier says. "Which is fine, because he was our friend too, but also a bit of shame, considering the large amount of material he gave us to work with."
"Just wait awhile, he'll screw up again."
"Ever the optimist, aren't you, Revius?" I say. "I hate to disappoint you, but I don't think that will be happening. It's hard to gather over one breakfast but he has changed – a lot and for the better."
"Does this have anything to do with that girl at the cemetery that he thought was his sister?" Alucier asks. I haven't had the chance to fill him in on that.
Revius and Seclas haven't heard anything at all about that incident. "His what?!" they shout.
I try to think of a way to explain this without it dragging into lunch. "The girl was Celena and Allen has every intention of getting her back. That's why he was pouring over that map and in a hurry to leave."
"His sister… Damn, it has been eventful around here lately," Revius says. "Which means you'll be doing a lot of explaining when the three of us get back."
"The three of you…?" Only Revius and Seclas should be going into combat. I look at Alucier but he won't meet my eyes.
"Guys, why don't you two go on without me? I think I need to discuss some things with Eries."
Sensing how this discussion is going to go, they clear out fast enough that Revius' chair is still rocking when I confront Alucier.
"I take it this means you'll be fighting. Why? Your primary duties are to me; I can ensure that you stay here at the palace. If Lord Ramkin gave you an order, I can countermand it. "
"Nobody gave me an order, I volunteered."
"You volunteered?! You want to go into a war zone? You can't even pilot a guymelef."
"A lot of the fighting is going to be on the ground, man-to-man and they didn't give me this uniform just because I look so pretty in it."
"But when's the last time you've had combat experience?"
"The same can be said for every man who wasn't at Rampant. The difference between those men and me is that I practice a great deal more. I'll have you know I took out Revius in a sparring match not too long ago. It was when he had that cold, but the only other person I've seen best him is Allen. You're not hassling either one of them about going."
"That doesn't mean I want them to go; it means I know I can't stop them from going. Allen needs to find Celena. After everything she must have been put through, Celena needs to be found. And Revius? I can't argue that someone with his command experience and combat skill should suddenly be reassigned away from the fighting. But you are already assigned to me. You have the perfect excuse."
"And if the circumstance were different, if this was some stab at imperialism or over some leader not saying 'thank you' the right way to the king, I might use it. It's not. Zaibach made it clear what they can do with Fanelia and Freid. They've made it clear they'll do the same to us when they attacked at your sister's wedding and yesterday at Rampant. It's one of those pesky just causes and all that."
He's right. I can't say Zaibach needs to be stopped without expecting anyone to actually do the stopping. Alucier is a Knight Caeli, one of the most gifted swordsmen in Asturia, if not all of Gaea. With the title, comes a duty. As much as I would like to keep him here, doing so would be an insult to his honor.
For his leaving, I should be strong. I should give him the same treatment I gave Revius. "Can't you stay behind and fight against the unfair stereotyping of handmaidens?"
"I'll pick that battle up when I get back. We can make signs and hold protests." He waves an imaginary banner to rally our spirits. "We'll be heroes!"
Of that, I hold no doubt.
I expected the palace to be busy this morning, but activity around Dryden's office is a little too high. Dryden's assistant almost runs into me because he can't see around the stack of papers he's carrying. From the sweat coating his fur, I gather that isn't the first load of papers he's moved out of the office. I look through the wide open doors. Dryden's at his desk, or rather under it, sorting yet more papers. The rest of Dryden's belongings are nowhere in sight.
"Be careful!" Dryden yells when his assistant goes into a tizzy over the near collision. "Those are all my notes on the northern trade routes."
"Then why," I ask, "Along with everything else, are you removing them from your office?"
His assistant scurries off with a squeak. Dryden takes his sweet time emerging from the shelter of the desk. He could probably see how angrily I was tapping my foot. I don't know exactly what's going on here but I highly doubt Dryden would commemorate the start of the war by redecorating.
"And I thought telling Millerna was hard," he tries to joke. His audience is not amused. Running a hand through his mess of hair, he coughs out an explanation. "I'm going to leave. The people need a good merchant more than a figurehead so I'm going to rebuild my fleet. I think it's for the best."
If he's waiting for me to congratulate on his sagely decision making, he'll rot where he stands.
"So, Sister, I'm taking that the complete silence and withering glare are indications that you are in disagreement with the latter statement."
"Yes, Brother, in that one thing, you are thinking correctly."
He flops into his chair and goes about arranging his robes. Finally, he says, "There's no point in dressing this up in pretty sentiments with you, is there? So I'll be blunt. One, I'm not running away because the big, scary war I was against is coming. I've thought about this. I've thought about this a lot. People are going to need food. They're going to need supplies. Asturia's going to funnel what she has to the military, not the innocents who were living on the wrong battlefield at the wrong time. I'd rather be the guy saying 'here you go, help yourself' than the one telling everybody they need to make sacrifices while I sacrifice nothing myself. Two, I'm not abandoning anybody. I can't give you a date but I can give you a guarantee. When my work is done, I will come back, to this office and to a beautiful wife who wants me to be her husband. Does that cover everything?"
Now I know how he became such a successful merchant. It does cover a lot, including the two main points I was going to hector him on. He has valid reasons for leaving and a plan to come back. There's still a couple of in between things that bother me. "You're going out on your own. Given your intentions, you're likely to be near areas of fighting. Do you really appreciate the dangers of this? Figurehead or not, countries don't like it when their leaders die. Young wives don't like becoming widows either."
"I'm touched by your concern," he says. "And yes, I understand bad things can happen to people who put themselves in harm's way. I'll take precautions. For one thing, the guymelefs on my ship are no longer just collector's pieces. Your next argument?"
"Don't you think it's going to be difficult for Millerna to learn to love you if you're not around? Or are you planning on dazzling her with tales of your heroic exploits?"
"Heroic exploits, intellect, sparkling personality, good looks, keen wit – take your pick."
"I notice humility isn't on your list."
"Bah," he says, "A merchant humble in personality is humble in money as well. My old man was right when he taught me that at least. But you've hit on something. I don't want Millerna to have to 'learn' how to love me. I don't want her loving me because it's an obligation that comes with the job. I want her to fall wildly, madly in love me. I want her to be wife because her passion demands it. You obviously understand that."
"I 'obviously' understand that?" I'm curious as to why he thinks he has such insight into my thinking.
"Well, uh," he starts uncomfortably. "You aren't married despite having plenty of offers so you 'obviously' haven't settled for some bland political marriage over the man you're in love with." Sensing a mistake, he hastens to correct it. "Not that I think you're in love with anybody now. I meant, a man that, one day, you have the potential to be in love with."
Breathe deeply,I tell myself. Think before you speak and keep your voice even. And for the love of Jichia, stop blushing. Meiden is Dryden's father. Meiden has openly accused me of giving up the throne over Allen. Meiden is not above spreading his suspicions, especially not to the son he's positioned to be the next king. "Dryden, I don't know what your father told you but – "
"But he's a power hungry jerk who never liked the influence you had on the council and is the kind of guy to spread rumors to undermine you. You probably don't want to know some of the rants he's made about you. I learned several impolite words from them. Suffice it to say though, I did not let them color my opinion of you or take certain things said as fact."
"Thank you, Dryden."
"Although, I did pick up a pointer or two on how to best debate with you and that did come in very handy a minute ago."
"Well, that's good for you, Dryden…"
"Not to mention that your face is pinker than anything in Millerna's closet."
"See," he says, grinning widely, "Now you want me to leave. I can have that effect on women."
"Don't you think angering her sister might be a good way to have that effect on Millerna?!"
"Ouch. And yes, treating her sister poorly would not be a good thing to do. Honestly, I've always respected you. Anybody who can hold her own against my father deserves it. So you don't have to worry. It's none of my business how you may or may not feel about Allen Schezar. I'm not about to make it anybody else's."
"Thank you, Dryden."
Though he just said it wasn't his business, Dryden's got this look about him that says he might have an interest in the subject as a hobby. He won't ask me outright, either out of respect for my privacy or because he can't think of a way to do it without sounding rude, but the question is there.
It's better that he hears facts from me, instead of biased theories from Meiden. And, I believe I can trust him. "Your father was once right. He isn't any longer. I'm sure though he's going to get the wrong impression given my recently renewed friendship with Allen."
Dryden promises to not make the same mistake. "All three of you, huh?" he sighs. "I'd be impressed if I were the type to be impressed by that sort of thing. I'm not, by the way."
Except that I suspect that he is, only he's a subtype that's unwilling to ever admit it, even to himself. It is impressive, in a very bizarre way. What's even more bizarre is that I would bond with my brother-in-law over it and I'm one of the women involved and he is the husband of one of the others. What did I tell Allen about having a sense of humor about such entanglements?
"So you're not angry with me for leaving?" Dryden asks. "Or you're not angry enough to chase me out of the palace?"
"Than can you do me a favor? It's important to me," he says. It's amazing how quickly he can switch to being serious. "Millerna was upset when I gave her my ring. A part of me hopes it's because she can't bear the thought of me going, but realistically, I think she was in shock that I'm leaving so suddenly. Watch out for her, okay? She's tough, and stubborn as hell, but even the best of us need a shoulder to cry on now and then. Be there for her while I can't."
He doesn't need to tell me to stand by my sister. I understand what he means though, why he would want the reassurance that he's not causing Millerna pain. He always said he loved her. Letting her go like this might be the ultimate proof of that.
"I'll make sure she's all right, Dryden."
And with that reassurance, he switches back to the same old Dryden. "Good, good. I figured you would anyway, but now you've got my side of the story so, on the rare chance that Millerna starts going on about what an irresponsible jerk I am, you can put in a few words on my behalf. Or if any suitors sensing she's available come around, you could smack them away with a blunt object. Or a really sharp object. I'm not particular."
It's ironic that the most meaningful conversation I've had with Dryden comes right before he is to leave. I've known of him through Meiden for years but that man is hardly the most objective assessor of his son, just as he was of me. Besides, the qualities I'm finding admirable in Dryden would not be the same ones Meiden would pick to praise. Quite the opposite would be true.
Before I can feel too proud of him though, Dryden makes another request. "Oh, Eries…Could you do one more favor for your favorite brother-in-law?"
"Pushing it, aren't you?"
"Could you, say about three hours after I've left, let my father know that I'm gone?"
Informing Meiden that his meal ticket to the throne has decided to toss it all away to better himself shouldn't be the dour task Dryden made it out to be. For him, it might have been. For me, watching the man rage over his failed plans could possibly be downright entertaining.
Other things take precedence over mean-spirited amusements. Promise or no promise to Dryden, I want to see how Millerna is doing. She's didn't chose him for a husband, she didn't marry him out of love, but I know she cares about him. Dryden's bravado about winning her heart isn't all that unfounded.
She seems in good spirits when I find her in her room. A fresh daubing of face powder masks a little puffiness around her eyes. Otherwise, she's coping well. I thought she might be feeling more dejected than this, especially after she tells me that Dryden isn't the only man she's said goodbye to this morning.
Allen, fresh from settling things with Hitomi, sought to do the same with Millerna. Surprisingly, Millerna did the settling for him. She told Allen that Dryden had given her his signet ring back. She did not give Allen a chance to comfort her or say anything on the matter. Then, she sent him on his way with a prayer for Jichia's blessing during the upcoming battle.
She's come so far the girl who would collapse into giddiness talking about Allen.
"It's not that impressive," she insists after I compliment her. "If Allen had interrupted me, I don't think I could have continued. Do you know how easy it would have been to break down in tears and play on his pity?"
When Millerna was still pursuing Allen, she used every last trick she could think of to gain his attention. From base gestures of parading around in tight dresses to abusing his adherence to chivalry, she tried everything. Once, she pretended to swoon during a ball so he could catch her. As I recall, Revius was the one who actually caught her and instead of the sympathy of her beloved, she got a sarcastic history of women and 'the vapors'. That didn't stop her from 'accidentally' tripping over flat carpets when Allen was in arms' reach. Clumsy described her manner in all ways possible.
So, today, when fate gave her a perfect, natural opportunity and she turned it down, she showed how graceful she has become.
Insight appears to have come with grace. "That's all it would have been, wouldn't it? His pity? Duty to his princess?" she asks.
"I don't know, Millerna." I have suspicions, very strong suspicions, but no actual words from Allen to confirm or deny them. During our reconciliation, Allen and I left some things undiscussed. He made no more than a passing reference to Millerna in acknowledging he should have heeded my warnings.
I could share my suspicions with Millerna. I could tell her that I highly doubt he had any kind of serious romantic feelings for her. I could argue he was more ardent about Hitomi Kanzaki and look how those feelings panned out. I could say Allen was infatuated, but the infatuation was not really about Millerna.
But it is not for me to say these things. Millerna and Allen need to talk. Both are acting with the maturity I've long wished they had; let them sort it out for themselves. I shouldn't try to control everything anymore. I shouldn't, even when Millerna asks me to.
"You know him well, though," she says. "He never said anything to you?"
"Millerna," I sigh, "I could tell you what I believe, but I – "
"But I'm dwelling on this too much," she concludes. "I sent him away. I told him I needed to find my own happiness. Yet, here I am, asking you for it."
"These things take time. And under the circumstances…" Namely, her husband has left, the man she's had a crush on for over a year has left, there's a war ready to begin any second now and oh, yes, Father's still in his sick bed. "…I think you're doing fine."
"Thank you, sister. You know," she says, "It's nice to call you that without it being a title."
"It's nice to hear it without it sounding like an insult."
Millerna blushes at the reminder of the various arguments we've had. "Please let me offer a belated apology, one Father isn't forcing me to make, for that…and a few other names I called you."
I remember some of the choicer names. I was surprised she knew what some of them meant. I hope I wasn't the inspiration for her to learn. Switch our places and I might have tried to expand my vocabulary.
"Then let me apologize to you too, Millerna, for my heavy-handed treatment of you."
"No," she says. "I understand why you did what you did. It's what everyone has done for me. You thought keeping me away from Allen would protect me. Father thought spoiling me would make me happy. Dryden thought leaving would give me my freedom. None of you were wrong, really, but it's more right for me to discover those things myself."
Eventually, I'm sure she will. In the meantime, I will be more than willing to help her on her way.
The fighting should have already begun. Rather than work myself into a fit worrying about it, I have decided to on focus something else – Father. It's certainly more inspirational. Father's not up and running about by any means, but he has been aware when he's awake and peaceful when asleep. The attending doctor sees no problem in turning his charge over so that I can be alone with him.
We're not alone for long. I'm pleasantly surprised to see Millerna's head poke through the door and ask if it's all right to come in. She had wanted to find Hitomi Kanzaki and talk about her brief return to the Mystic Moon. When she found the girl though, she decided it was best to leave her alone. Most of Hitomi's visions are harbingers of violence, from what I've been told. With the chaos unfolding out there between the armies of Gaea, I doubt she would be in any state of mind to receive company.
"I wish I could do something for her," Millerna says, too loudly. Father moans in his sleep but thankfully settles back into a steady snore. The consistency suggests a heavy sleep but not so deep that Millerna and I should speak above whispers.
Millerna laughs when I explain this. "Remember when I was little and kept sneaking in here to take some of the candies Father kept by his bed?"
"I think if you open the drawer of that table, you would still be able to find a stash."
Taking my suggestion, she slowly slides the drawer open. Sure enough, she produces a tin of sweets. Between giggles, she admonishes our slumbering father for his poor diet. "We should dispose of these for him." She isn't ready to through them away though. "I wonder how old these are? Do candies like this go bad?"
"Good question. I suppose there's a quick way to find out."
Unwilling to experiment on her own, she tosses a candy to me. "On the count of three…"
At four we find out that yes, this particular type of candy does go bad after a period of time. Awfully, dreadfully bad. In a lovely display of decorum, Millerna and I spit our pieces onto to floor and lunge for the decanter of vino sitting on top of the table. Millerna, sitting closer to it, naturally grabs it first, skips pouring it into glasses and takes a quick swig before handing it over to me.
"I think I am forever cured of trying to steal one of these things ever again," Millerna announces.
"And Father thought his tactic of trading your dessert for extra vegetables at dinner every time he caught you was effective."
"No, he just stopped catching me. That's why I thought of the candies when you told me about his snoring. Marlene felt sorry for me after I had to eat an especially large plate of benta roots so she took me aside and explained to me how I could tell how deeply Father was sleeping by listening to his snores. From then on, I made all my candy raids at night."
"I don't suppose she told you I was the one who devised that system?"
"Really? I thought maybe she passed it on to you. Marlene could be pretty cunning when she wanted to be."
"Only when she thought she had to be."
Millerna weighs the statement while pouring us proper glasses of vino. "That's good in a princess, though, isn't it? She should be able to make things go her or her husband's way."
"Been thinking about the qualities of a good ruler, have we?"
"I had been," she confesses. "Up until this morning, I thought I might have to become one soon. Even with Father recovering as well as he has, he's not in any condition to run a country at war. But with Dryden gone…"
She won't let herself fall into melancholia. She sips her vino and continues, "But even with Dryden gone, I'm still a princess and if I want to follow through with my plans, I'm going to have to learn how to be a ruler who gets things done."
"You've made plans already?"
"These are the same ones I told you about. I'll finish my medical studies and then I'll use that knowledge to set up facilities to train other doctors." She adds sadly, "Something tells me they'll be needed."
The gods willing, the war won't last that long, but even in peacetime, a knowledgeable doctor is a boon to his community. "It's a noble goal. Just be sure when you approach the council for funding, that you tell them how they can make a profit off of it."
"I should have asked Dryden for advice before he left. He knows all about profit," she says. "But then, I was expecting him to be around to order everyone on the council to do what I say."
"If you can stomach it, ask Meiden. I'm sure he'll be eager to curry your favor." That man would do anything to help Dryden back on the throne. He did not handle the news of his son's latest journey very well. There was a great deal of shouting, at the absent Dryden for being so foolish, at his wife for allowing their son to turn out the way he did and at the world in general. He did not shout at me. I sidled out of the Fassa quarters before he could blame the messenger.
"That seems a little manipulative to me," Millerna says. "Wouldn't it be easier to ask my sister for help?" She winks in case I missed her meaning.
I hadn't even thought of that. Father only removed me from the council because he felt threatened by Zaibach. We'll be rid of that threat once the war is over. There's nothing stopping me from petitioning to reclaim my seat, aside from the objections of the councilmen whose politics clash with mine. Am I ready to pick up that fight again? The council took up so much of my time and energy and I complained about it endlessly, but I know I did good things on it. At minimum, I was a different perspective. I was someone whose position left them with nothing more to gain and no motive to vote for anything other than what I thought was best.
"Don't you want to be on the council again?" Millerna prods. "I've told you my plans. Will you tell me yours?"
"Would that I knew what they were." I can feel them forming, though. Father is recovering but will he be fit to face the stress of ruling a country by war's end? From a cold, objective view, a country in the midst of reconstruction should have a vibrant, vigorous leader, not someone whose health mirrors the damage we're trying to undo. Who knows when Dryden will make good on his promise and return? I know I won't be happy letting his father run roughshod over the council until then.
And, from that same objective view, a princess rolling up her sleeves and wading into the thick of the business of rebuilding her country would make a lovely symbol.
"You're thinking about it," Millerna states, showing off newfound sisterly intuition.
"It never hurts to consider all your options," I answer slyly.
She doesn't press any further. She's made up her mind that I've made up my mind. We content ourselves with our glasses of vino while the rumbles from Father settle into even breathing. He'll be awake soon. Millerna goes to his side and for a second, I see her silhouetted against the window in the grey-blue of a rainy afternoon and then the skyline burns white.
We're both at the window to watch the light dissipate over the mountains. From up here on the third floor of the palace I can see every head in the courtyard turned towards the faded glow, mouths agape. It's not difficult to tell where the light came from. Even without having seen Allen's map, I know exactly what lies in that direction.
In council meetings, I heard rumors and theories about weapons that would render guymelefs and our notions of conventional warfare obsolete. Our scientists gave presentations on devices that could alter the way Energists react but it never went beyond sketches and equations. Too dangerous, too horrible, they said. Father agreed with them.
Wondering what could have generated a light of such intensity that it reached all the way from the battlefield to Palas, I have a sickening feeling others did not come to Father's conclusion.
We had feared a long, brutal war. How odd it is then, that it's over in literally a flash. That ungodly light was an Energist bomb, dropped by Basram without the knowledge or consent of Asturia or any of its other allies. As shocked as those armies were by its use, they were able to recover and fight. Zaibach was not. The troops that were left tried to take their revenge, but too many had been devoured by that light to put up an effective defense against our assault. We won, quickly and cleanly, but not without misgivings.
Basram's leaders argued that they saved countless lives. We were beyond peaceful solutions, everyone on the battlefield was either going to kill or be killed. The bomb ensured that the allies did the former and Zaibach did the latter. They argued that it was more merciful too. Better to die instantly, then to bleed to death amongst the corpses of your fellow soldiers. I can see their point, to an extent. Beyond that, there's nothing but an incredible uneasiness about a device that can end thousands of lives in a few seconds and the people who would use it. Asturia's going to be keeping an extremely close eye on Basram from now on. I doubt we'll be the only country to do so.
Otherwise, morale is high. The majority of our soldiers are already home. Only a few suffered casualties. That would usually explain the high spirits but from the snippets I've overheard there is something larger at work. This battle was marked by more than the use of the Energist bomb. Another light, this one seen emanating from Zaibach, overtook the battlefield not too long after the bomb was dropped. At first, the fighting intensified. Then, it stopped. The rest of the story sounds like a fairy tale. A white dragon appeared in the sky. The sky became bright. And as the dragon flew towards Zaibach, it fell to the earth and became an angel. Feathers spiraled down in its wake, causing all who saw it to sheath their weapons and abandon the fight.
There is a more rational explanation, though it too, has its fair share of mystery. Allen relayed it to me in a quickly written message. Van Fanel did find Dilandau first. The fight Allen feared had taken place, with two interruptions – the reappearance of one girl and the call of another one's voice. The first stopped Allen. Fanel heeded the second. Somehow, without having to endure the mechanizations of Zaibach's sorcerers again, Celena came back on her own. Somehow, Hitomi Kanzaki finally gave Van Fanel the peace he needed.
Somehow, she also got to Zaibach and somehow, Fanel knew where to find her. The dragon everyone saw was Fanel's guymelef, Escaflowne, flying to the heart of Zaibach to bring her back. The angel was Fanel himself. I have no logical explanation for why soldiers on both sides spontaneously and unanimously decided to disarm. Inspired by the sight above or by something deep within, they just did. Perhaps it is possible for people to come to their senses as a collective.
From what Hitomi told us, the fight had become moot by that point anyway. Zaibach's emperor was already dead, struck down by his former Strategos. It was surprising to learn Hitomi did not go to Zaibach alone. Folken Fanel went with her to put a stop to the grand designs he had once believed in. He was successful, but at a price. The same sword stroke that ended Dornkirk's life took his as well. When Folken Fanel first came to Palas, making demands of Father, I would have found it sweetly ironic to know he would be killed by having a shard of his sword break off and be reflected back at him, but when hearing Hitomi tell it, it sounded like a tragic waste.
The younger Fanel didn't speak while Hitomi told the story. He didn't have to say a word. Before, he would look away in scorn when his brother was mentioned, but this time, he held his gaze on Hitomi, a look of pride in his eyes as his brother's final redemption was recounted. He did request the use of a leviship so that he could go back to Zaibach and properly transport Folken's body home to Fanelia. One was quickly given to him. He should be leaving shortly, as soon as Millerna is through giving her goodbyes to Hitomi and Merle.
Allen's leviship, the Crusade, won't be making any long trips without some extensive repairs. It limped back into port late at night, though even in pristine condition, the ship would still have come in under cover of night. The young woman on board needed to be taken home and taken out of a Zaibach uniform with the utmost discretion.
From a personal standpoint, I didn't suffer any losses at all. Revius' troop saw heavy combat but it was all one-on-one swordplay, the sort of thing he can do in his sleep. His most grievous wound is an unsightly notch on his favorite sword. His whines as if he lost a limb, though it's not so atrocious as to prevent him from telling everyone it was created while he was blocking three Zaibach soldiers at the same time. Once, he put the number at four. Seclas, also in that troop, isn't as outspoken as Revius, but if you ask him about the new scar on his cheek, he will be sure to give you a full account. He thinks it makes him more interesting. Revius has assured him that no, he's just as boring as he always was.
There's one man who's garnered a considerable amount of interest for his actions during the battle, enough so that the handmaidens will have to wait in line to claim him as their champion. Basram hadn't yet dropped the Energist bomb when Alucier's troop, stationed on the western edge just behind the front, was ambushed by a Zaibach division. The enemy had formed on third front, apparently counting on dividing our troops with a pincer movement. They did not count on a Caeli who, though he can't pilot a guymelef himself, is still damned adept at commanding those who can. On the ground, he taught both sides to respect the swordsmanship of a Knight of Heaven. It could have been disastrous for us if Zaibach had broken through. Because of Alucier, that was never a possibility.
He's not bragging like his roommate, but Alucier did make sure Revius got a good look at his clearly un-notched sword. In response, Revius went on about how Alucier's actions were especially amazing considering he had done nothing for over six years but sit on his butt babysitting a princess. Alucier countered that spending time with me was exactly how he learned to fight so fiercely. Both brave heroes became cowed very quickly when I asked them why they were laughing so hard over the comment.
It's surreal, to be back to normal so soon. How easily the war could have gone another way. No one, I doubt even Hitomi Kanzaki, would have predicted things unfolding as they did. One could speculate forever on what would have happened if someone had done this or been there and countless other paths that fortuitously went unexplored.
Someone might do that. Actually, many people will definitely analyze today's events down to the buttons on the uniforms and then write them down in enough books to fill the palace library so they can be read and debated and referred to by future generations facing similar circumstances. But for now, I have no interest in that. Jichia, luck, Mystic Moon girls – whatever got us through this did its job and I am content just to be thankful.
This wouldn't be Asturia if we didn't mark the end of the war with a massive gala. In less than two weeks, the palace staff has managed to put together an ostentatious celebration. Decorations start in the grand ballroom. They spread out through the palace and into the main courtyard. It officially begins this evening at nightfall. Who knows how long it will last, though with the preparations being made, it will easily be longer than the war itself. The kitchens have been working non-stop the past two days; we'll have enough food to last until winter. We won't be short of entertainment either. It's as if anyone who has ever held an instrument has been gathered up to supplement the regular royal orchestra. It takes a very large band to play over a very large crowd and somehow, they've got to make it so that the music reaches the courtyard. Their seats take up the entire back of the grand ballroom.
They're rehearsing the different anthems of our allies now. The opening of tonight's festivities will be small parades of military personal from each country. Once the soldiers have lined up in a symbolic ring around the room, the rulers will come out. Lots of congratulatory speeches will be made. Lots of gods will be praised and thanked. Lots of medals and honors will be handed out to show how well our soldiers performed.
Lots of people will stand around in boredom and wonder when the eating, drinking and dancing can begin.
I shouldn't be so cynical. Such a swift victory should be celebrated. Our soldiers do need to be recognized for their service. But I believe most of those soldiers would like to skip the ceremony and go right into the party.
That's the impression I'm getting from our Knights Caeli. The eleven of them – the twelfth having been granted permission to stay at home with his newly returned sister until the events actually start – are talking more than practicing. Granted, they've all been in the Order long enough to have attended many, many of these things, but they need to coordinate with others who aren't used to Asturian pomp.
In theory, that's why Millerna and I are here helping with the finishing touches. Millerna's quite good with this. She has a good eye for how to hang a banner just so or how to set out food in the most appealing manner. She's happy to help with the setup of a giant, multi-layered cake that, when fully assembled, will resemble a relief map of Gaea.
With my more extensive diplomatic experience, I'm supposed to be reviewing who's going to be sitting where as to avoid any conflicts. The last thing we want tonight is someone getting offended because they were stationed too close to the doors. I know Egzardians think the one in the highest position of honor is the guy closest to the food, but Cesarians like making a show of having their food brought to them. That makes seating arrangements for those two easy. Basram's getting a corner spot. We invited them out of courtesy and they accepted out of courtesy but everyone is still nervous around them and vice versa. Fanelia and Freid declined their invitations. They will have their celebrations when they have finished rebuilding.
As the host country, we Asturians will be in front of the orchestra so everyone has to pay attention to us, a political advantage but a personal disadvantage. Father's doctors have given him one more week before he can make public appearances. Without Father beside him, Meiden's presence might draw attention to Dryden's absence. That leaves Millerna and me front and center of this gala. That means no slipping out after putting in a few hours. It's a good thing I got plenty of sleep last night.
A noticeably off-key rendition of 'Blessed Are Those under Jichia's Glory' stops everyone is their tracks. The conductor makes a loud, nervous apology and prompts the orchestra to do better this time with a furious wave of his baton.
Revius, who – along with Alucier – used the distraction to wander away from their fellow knights, laughs. "What's he going to do? Beat them to death with that little stick if they hit a wrong note?"
"I think he'll pass out of exhaustion soon if he tries to do that," Alucier remarks. "They keep going like that and Jichia will have to appear and tell them to stop worshipping him."
"If we prayed, do you think he'll get here faster?"
"They're doing the best they can," I chide the two of them. "That seems to be more than the two of you can say. Aren't you supposed to be rehearsing for this evening's little parade?"
"I guess we should," says Revius. "It would be a shame if I forgot how to walk in a straight line."
"We have to turn corners too. Don't forget how tricky that is," Alucier says.
"Oh, so that's what all you Caeli were talking so intently about," I say. "You were complaining about having to perform tonight. I sympathize, but I'm not taking it out on some poor musicians."
"Yeah. Because we're standing here and you're taking it out on us," Alucier says.
Revius agrees whole-heartedly with him. "Besides, that's not even what we were talking about. And since you're being mean, we're not going to tell what we actually were talking about."
"And deprive me of more stories of famous swordfights? Or were these stories about the barmaids at Tuvello's? But then I doubt Lord Ramkin would allow you to gossip about that. So it was more swordfights."
They shake their heads no. "Funny you should mention Lord Ramkin and gossip in the same sentence though," Revius offers as a clue.
I'm still working on the puzzle of the seating chart. I don't need any more games. "Out with it."
"Yes, your majesty," Revius says. "I can't say anything outright as nothing has been decided on yet, but apparently a certain wife, oh, we'll call her Lady Sibyl, is pressuring a certain husband to retire from his post. Said post is quite prestigious and with a limited number of men eligible to be posted to it, much speculation is going about."
"I am utterly perplexed by your riddles, Revius. So when is Lord Ramkin going to retire?"
"Don't know," Alucier says. "He hasn't said. I think it'll be soon or else he wouldn't have gone on about how he thinks every one of us could make a great commander for the Caeli. We all nodded our heads and agreed with him while secretly coming up with reasons why everyone else would suck. He had to know retiring would create a power struggle. I don't think he would want it to stretch out too long."
"Why, Alucier," says Revius, dripping more sugar than what was used to bake the map-cake, "I never once thought that! I mean, it does make sense for someone to go from captain of the guard to commander of the Caeli but how much you suck never came into that assessment."
I love Revius, really I do, but the thought of him being in charge of an organization as steeped in honor and tradition as the Knights Caeli is, well…disturbing. I can't imagine the redesign of the uniform he would commission. It would not have pink cravats and flowing lines. It would definitely have pants that were easier to get off than the current overalls.
"It's pointless to argue," Alucier says. "Everybody knows it's up to the king, or should the king be indisposed, his immediate heir, to decide. Isn't that correct, Eries, fair princess I've been guarding with my life for lo these many years?"
Alucier…that, I could imagine. His recent heroics have certainly put him into the limelight. I'm not about to vocalize either conclusion though. They're just playing now. Endorsing one over the other would be too serious. I'm sure they expect me to say something though -- probably something droll, maybe something supportive, possibly a declaration that they both 'suck'.
Fortunately, I'm rescued. Like a knight in scuffed armor, Gaddes appears to give me an excuse to extricate myself from the bickering. He sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the fancy regalia of the other military men present in his worn quasi-uniform but looks as if he hardly cares. If anything, he's amused by the spectacle being put on here.
"Your highness," he addresses me. "Allen sent me into town to pick up some things for the estate. He wanted me to stop by and see about what time he should report for duty."
I look around. Millerna, having coated three walls with banners and such, has been drawn away from the cake to cover the fourth. It pulls her from some crisis involving the icing on the mountains. Jichia still hasn't blessed the orchestra. The word 'suck' was just used as a noun, verb and adjective in a sentence uttered by Revius.
"Why don't I come with you, Gaddes, and tell him in person?"
I haven't yet had the opportunity to visit with Allen and Celena since her return. Foreign diplomats arriving, the armies they represent going home – caught between greetings and farewells and wheedling my way into the council meetings on the treaties we're drafting, Palas has been nearly impossible to escape. Allen's been similarly busy. We've only corresponded through brief letters exchanged every day or so and his have read like harried to-do lists. He's not only caring for his sister but endeavoring to return her home to the grandeur it had when she last lived in it.
Formerly, the house staff numbered four. Now, the Schezar payroll has swelled to nearly ten times that size. That's smaller than the staffs of your higher class Asturian families but still a handful to manage for a man who's readapting to his role of brother and protector. And a strong sense of duty towards the women he cares for isn't among the things that have changed about Allen recently.
Gaddes drives the carriage through repaired gates and over the repaved lane to the house proper. Crews are working on the front, tearing down wood and glass to make way for a grand window more in line with modern Asturian aesthetics. More than one worker is recognizable as a crewmember of the Crusade. Gaddes leaves me to join them, explaining that until the Crusade is up and running, it was either keep working for the boss this way or try fitting in with the rest of the Asturian army. It was an easy choice for them.
Allen's in the garden at the back of the house and as I go to meet him, I notice the landscaping, unlike the house, it almost complete. Of course, getting all the flower beds in would be a priority. However, I do not encounter a peaceful, pastoral scene when I find Allen. All the elements are there – the gazebo with the intricate woodwork ringed by careful arrangements of bright flowers, a clear pond reflecting a crystal blue sky above – but the people in the picture are ruining the effect. Most pastorals don't show a frustrated young man wringing out his soaked shirt while his mischievous sister kneels by the pond splashing more water on him to thwart the effort.
"Do I want to know?" I ask.
"Allen wanted to go in because he thought it might be too hot out for me," Celena says, as if this explains everything. Already, I can see the spirit in her that was missing on that day at the cemetery.
Allen fills in the rest of the story. "Celena said she was fine but if I was hot, perhaps I could use some water."
"It's not my fault the gardeners left that pail of water sitting there."
"And that pail of water magically lifted itself off the ground and emptied its contents over Allen," I conclude.
"I might have had something to do with that part." She smiles innocently to stifle any retribution that might be headed her way for her small involvement in the deed.
Allen's deflects the tactic better than I thought he would. "Since you're having so much fun with water, why don't you help Aelia out with the laundry?"
I assumed he meant this as a punishment, but Celena gratefully accepts the chore. She literally skips into the house.
"She enjoys doing the laundry?" I ask Allen.
"She enjoys spending time with Aelia," he says, "because Aelia spoils her rotten. She was so thrilled to see her again she's spent all her spare time making sure Celena has everything she could possibly want."
That's probably not a good long term strategy, but until Celena's settled in, I think she's earned some spoiling. "If it makes her happy and teaches her some household skills, I don't see the harm in it."
"Actually," he says sheepishly, "Celena spends most of the time playing with the soap."
"Playing with soap and water – she must keep very clean at least."
Allen smiles at my joke but it's out of good manners more than amusement. "She's so energetic," he explains. "Always talking or moving or both at the same time, I can barely keep up with her."
"I'm sure you make every effort." Taking a second look at his soaked shirt, I add, "Though it seems sometimes she pulls ahead of you."
"I think this was her way of saying I'm being overprotective. She's just trying to establish boundaries."
I've heard those sentiments before – not from Allen and with more grandiose wording – but they are definitely familiar. "That sounds like something out of those psychology books I used to read."
"It is," he admits. "You gave a couple of them to me to 'broaden my mind', remember?"
"I didn't think you had kept them."
"You kept the gift I gave to you," he says, touching his ear indicate the golden earcuffs I'm wearing.
He has me there. "I had gotten used to them. People would talk if I suddenly stopped wearing them."
"And I know how deeply you take to heart what others say of you."
He has me yet again. This is another change; I was used to getting the better of him in these little exchanges. "Well, I guess it was for the best that you did hang on to those books."
"I would be even better if I understood everything they're talking about. Celena seems happy and carefree but you saw her, she doesn't really seem like a fifteen-year-old girl. She told me that she had some hazy memories of what happened after she disappeared but she still doesn't know what she was doing in the middle of a battlefield, in a guymelef and wearing a uniform. And I don't know what to tell her."
"I doubt any textbook could cover her situation," I say bitterly. "What Zaibach did to her was unfathomably cruel, but hopefully unique. I don't know how much help I can be to you even having read all those books."
"What about the people who wrote them?"
He might be on to something there. I recall the names of the books' authors and one stands out – by the volume of books with his name on them and the fact he's from Egzardia. Few friends could be in higher places there than Marqesita. Getting the man here to examine Celena shouldn't be difficult at all. "I actually have someone in mind. Give me a few days and I'll see what I can do for you."
"Thank you," he says as he takes my hand. "I knew I could count on you."
"Celena deserves to have peace of mind, as do you." I'm hesitant to press this issue but I'm sure it weighs heavily on Allen too. "I think it's probably for the best that she be under some kind of professional care. If she should have any of Dilandau's memories or if – "
"I know. I've thought about that. I believe Dilandau's gone for good. I can't explain it, that's just the feeling I had standing there holding her and watching Van fly off to be with Hitomi. All grudges were forgiven. I had my sister back. She's wasn't going to leave me again."
"But – ?"
"But I do worry about her remembering being turned into him or having some of his memories. I don't believe that will happen, but I can't deny the possibility."
It's just a touch of Allen's old pessimistic brooding, but it's a prudent touch. There's so much we don't know about the procedure that was done to Celena or the life she led as Dilandau. Honestly, I wouldn't be comfortable hearing too much about it. How would a girl as innocent as Celena respond to reliving it? "The doctor I'm thinking of is highly accomplished. If Celena has any troubles, he should be able to help her. If she doesn't, it doesn't hurt to be prepared."
"No, it doesn't. If something does happen, I'll take care of it. We'll get through it. Celena must be so strong to have survived what was done to her. I know I've gotten stronger these past months. And…" He squeezes my hand. "I have a strong friend."
"Yes, you do," I say, squeezing back. "But be sure not to mess it up this time."
He looks at me, that magnetic glimmer shining in his eyes that's often been the last thing a woman sees before her heart jumps into her throat. It's a reflex of his. Some people talk with their hands without realizing it. Allen flirts with his eyes. Having seen it enough and knowing how little it actually means, I thought myself inured to its charm.
"I wouldn't dream of it. I will be nothing but the perfect gentleman and friend from now on," he pledges.
I'd never hold him to it. "I don't think perfection is something to be expected from either of us."
"No, I suppose not," he agrees. "It's not really fair to expect someone to be perfect, to them or to you. I've made that mistake too many times."
"We've both made mistakes. We'll both continue to make mistakes."
"But we won't deny them."
"Or walk away from them."
Through the silence in the garden, Aelia's voice rises in alarm. "No, Lady Celena! You shouldn't put that much soap in!" A young girl's voice follows, cheerfully asking Aelia if she's not even a little curious to see what would happen if she did, in fact, put that much soap in.
"Speaking of mistakes…" Allen says.
"I guess you had better retrieve your sister before she can do any permanent damage."
"You'll come with me, of course," he says. "I seem to remember you promising to look after Celena."
I could argue semantics and point out I only agreed to look after her in Allen's absence. I'd rather honor the spirit of the promise. "Yes, I'll come with you. Let it be said I will not be deterred by soapy water."
"There might be worse things in store," he says.
There might be. Today, we face some girlish over-exuberance. Tomorrow could bring anything from old nightmares to further silliness to nothing at all. Whichever it is, it doesn't matter. "We'll deal with them. Whatever happens with Celena or anything else, we'll deal with it. I'll be here for you as long as you need me."
"And I for you, or as long as you want me."
"Hmm, want. Now that's different," I tease, "I don't know how long that will be."
"I do," he says resolutely.
Author's Notes: Woot! It's finally over! Thanks to all my reviewers for sticking with me during the long, long ride. In order of review:
Mistress Noin, Kenta Divina, Ron and his Sakura, Shuro, Lillian Dashwood, Lady of the Ink, Serena B, satar, OpalWings, Meghanna Starsong, Rad, Orestes, Wintermute, Sherlgirl aka LongwindedGirl aka eriesalia (Did I miss any aliases? ), Mary-chan, Leila Hime, Didodikali, mary blue, Stelmarta, Dark Flame, Corri, Girliegirl, Miraba, Nakkie, Fae, Shadowkeepre, Seiii, Faraday, Kriyn Drake, sarah, Shimizu Hitomi and Phyllis Nodrey (Who has written a poem inspired by 'Girl' and 'Always' called 'For Eries'. Check it out)
You have been more loyal, more patient and more kind than I had any right to expect. Pat yourselves on the back, because y'all rock.
Next up: Um, something. There will be a third part to this. I've put too much into it to drop it now. I just don't know when it will start. Yeah, yeah, I know I already made you wait eight months for a single chapter but I've put off so many plot bunnies while working on this, I'd like to take some time to work through a couple of them. Don't despair Alucier Fan Clubbers. There won't be an alternate ending to this story but there might be a one-shot in the offing. ::whistles innocently::