Title: Strategic Return 25/30

Series: Vision of Escaflowne

Rating: PG-13, just in general at this point.

The meeting Celena knows Eries to be attending had almost turned into a disaster for the princess, one barely averted. Finally, even Allen had to admit that Eries recovered. It had taken the majority of the spring that seemed to be set in winter, and outside the snows are melting under the late rains. It is strange because in Palas, the winters were mild, because of the proximity to the sea, and usually not so late.

As Eries walks towards the Council Chamber, Allen is at her shoulder. The guards, given explicit instructions by the Senior Knight, tighten their stances formally before opening the doors for her.

The assembly stands, Dryden the first to get fidgety to his feet, and wait as Allen draws her chair out from under the table. It is the crowned king's first view of his sister-in-law since the terrible accident. In the darkly decorated council chambers, he thinks that she looks pale. The firelight softens the slenderness of her face, and darkens her hair, but he knows that she is paler than she has always been. Dryden turns his eyes down to his papers in order not to continue appraising the woman that has just entered the room.

Rumors have been flying. Eyes glance at the high collared gown that the advisors have all seen before… and those same eyes turn to glance at the King, who is looking at the papers before him on the large table.

The whole castle feels alien to her as takes her seat, wishing for nothing more than to flee the meeting room where the advisors are staring so cruelly. Dryden is no better. The gown she wears has a high, tight collar. She is sure none of them see what scarring lay beneath the expensive fabric…

But the looks on their faces… the inquisitive stares of the men seated around the table…

Allen had been right, but even Allen has been acting strangely in the past few days. Despite all of the pressure, her sign of weakness is nearly invisible, even to him. Her lip quivers, and her eyes lowers from theirs as the men take their seats. She reaches forward with pale, smooth hands and utters a dignified and cool, "Gentlemen," as she looks at the first paper.

In the back of her mind she knows that she could rise… that once the doors close behind her she could start running. She would not care if the guards saw her. Or the servants.

But she also knows that she cannot escape this situation, however alien it feels to her. Even though her skin feels like poison. It weighs her down into the chair she is sitting in as she commences the meeting. And she feels that she can't breathe.

"Begin the report," Eries says.

Allen takes his seat a few spaces away from her around the round table and watches her closely as the advisors begin to report. "Freid's attack was repulsed. Norte's army appears to have been defeated."

"There was rumor of some brief unsettlement in Zaibach."

"What do we care of Zaibach?"

"Plenty," Eries says. "The land mass of Zaibach more than doubles that of most other countries on Gaea. If Norte has managed to gain control of it, and without our knowledge…" she shakes her head. "It is a dangerous thing to underestimate so cunning an enemy as Norte. As Ouran."

"Ouran?" one of the advisors asks.

Eries levels cold blue eyes at Dryden. The King moistens his lips before speaking. "According to Sir Schezar's report, the country is quite obviously being driven by unnatural circumstances. What is most likely to be the case is that Ouran, who is not the native monarch to the country, has chosen this path for them."

"Daeluzito keb Ouran was married in to the monarchy of Norte. Saean Lanrae was the daughter of the former king. It was quite an upset for the family," Eries says, "since Daeluzito is of no noble birth that anyone can trace. And he was the lover of another monarch before he married Saean."

The advisors glance around at one another uncomfortably.

"Don't feel too bad," Dryden says, a smile growing on his lips, "men aren't expected to know court gossip. Especially from as many years ago as the princess is talking about."

"What is most puzzling," Allen says, daring to speak up for the first time during the meeting, "is that he suddenly became so thirsty for power and influence. He seemed content, before, to be the voice in the ear of the monarchies."

Eries ponders that for a long, silent moment.

"It isn't as easy as everyone seems to make it out to be, to be shown that sort of power and remain the same as you were before it," Dryden says. "I know that first hand. Perhaps he was exposed to something that gave him this ambition."

There are quiet murmurs, and the advisors glance at the king, wondering… The reports continue, and the bickering begins. It is the bickering that sets Eries off her normal cool demeanour, and causes her to speak.

"Is that all?" Eries asks, still feeling a little shaken, and as though she should like to tear off her collar to get more air into her lungs.

"There are also whispers that Basram is next," one of the quieter members of the advisors speaks up, daring, as the others did not, to meet the princess's eyes.

"That makes little sense," Eries says. "Why would he attack the country where he was first at the right hand of a royal?" She leans her head on one hand and closes her eyes in thought. "Map," Eries says with a clap of her hands.

The map is lain out on the table, and Eries marks off Norte's territory with her finger. "They have supplies," one of the more militaristic nobles says. "Zaibach was largely agrarian, and was taken without much struggle. Unlike Egzardia, who burnt the crops behind them."

"That puts Norte in charge of both Zaibach and Egzardia," Allen says. "Perhaps he wants the strategic advantage."

"The attacks have been coming in pairs. If they are planning another dual attack…" Eries begins. "What countries have not been targeted?"

There is a long moment of silence as the minds around the table absorb that. "Fanelia. Cesario. Daedelus. Basram."

"Fanelia was already attempted at being conquered. During the celebration around the king's marriage," Allen says, shaking his head. "But it appears, from the attempts, that they are trying to box us in. Why is that?"

"We are a threat," Dryden offers, sitting up and joining the discussion, now that he sees Eries is not out to have his head for her injury.

"But why are we a threat? We are merchants, not soldiers. And Norte produces the metal that makes soldiers so fearsome," Eries says, lifting fingers to tap her lips. "Unless commerce is what he is after controlling."

"Or perhaps it is just a grudge," Allen says.

"You could call the attack on the anniversary one, could you not?" an advisor asks.

"But it wasn't the same kind of attack," Allen says, eyes staring hard at the map, "that was a move to cripple, not to control."

"That could be considered an attack on us, could it not?" one of the advisors asks in a confused voice. "If the Coronation attack on Fanelia is one."

Allen shakes his head, but it is Dryden who responds verbally to the challenge. "It involved no army to speak of. Gecko we have seen before in our canals. Unless everyone has forgotten the last war?" Dryden asks.

"But not Dopplers," Eries says, steepling her fingers and resting her chin on them as she contemplates the map on the table for a long while in silence. The advisors hold their breath at the sight of her so fixated on the map, taking the world in stride, as she appears to. "There's nothing else to resolve today, is there?"

"There is one last piece of business," Dryden says.

Everyone's eyes turn to look at the king, and for a moment he appears to have mischief writ in his features before he sobers. "Given the recent misfortune, I believe that the princess is not being taken proper care of, even with the guard that is stationed throughout the palace."

Eries narrows her eyes questioningly at her brother-in-law.

"Therefore I move that the Knights Caeli should be put in charge of her safety." Allen's jaw tightens and he looks at Dryden with cold blue eyes. "They are always of a better quality than those we hire to be guards."

Several murmurs of acceptance are heard around the table.

"There are never more than four Knights Caeli assigned to the palace," Allen says in a tightly controlled voice. This was one discussion Allen felt it best to exclude from his reports to Eries. He had not thought them so bold as to bring it up to her, especially after questioning Dryden so harshly in regards to it.

"I'm sure I'm not just speaking for myself," the Minister of Foreign Affairs says, "when I say that four of your knights, Sir Schezar, are better than guards lining the walls of the castle."

Eries holds in her sigh and lowers her eyes once more to the map before her, contemplating the situation at hand. Could Norte's army be big enough to attack more than two countries at once? Was Ouran's attack on the coronation his only one?

Jaw tightening, Allen looks around the table at the advisors and the King. The Foreign Affair's Minister. The Master Judicary. The Commerce Accountants in charge of domestic and foreign coin. The Royal Advisor. The highest General of the Armies. And the King.

The general speaks up, "You already receive reports from the Captain of the Royal Guard, do you not?" he asks.

"It is true," Allen says.

"Consider it a special assignment then," Dryden says, nodding to the general. "Unless there is another person more suited to protect the Princess?"

Around the table, the advisors shake their heads.

An idea strikes Eries, and she returns to the conversation to find Allen glaring at Dryden and the advisors looking very pleased with themselves. "If you are finished with this," Eries says, looking up at the men and straightening in her chair, "Then let us adjourn this meeting to contemplate what has come to light."

Allen holds in his disgusted snort at Dryden's power play, and turns his eyes back to the map, trying to see what it is that Eries saw in the maps.

The princess rises, and the men follow to their feet, Dryden last as he watches her intently. "Until tomorrow, gentlemen," Eries says, turning for the doorway.

Dryden's amused eyes flicker to Allen, but the knight still regards the maps before him with an intense scrutiny that has shut out the rest of the room. The king shakes his head and turns as well, heading for the library.

Pleased to have escaped without a chaperone or a guard following her, Eries heads out of the meeting chambers and climbs the long spiraling stairs to the roof at a dignified pace. She lifts deft fingers and undoes the buttons holding her stiff collar tightly around her neck. Corset and collar together are a bit much for any one body to bear, especially a body unused to them after so long resting in bed. Drinking in the cool air, and pleased that the rains have stopped enough that the stone is not wet and she is not being dampened, Eries sinks down to take a seat on the creneled upper wall of the castle, tipping her head back against the cool stone and relaxing.

She still feels constricted, but knows there is little help for that, and little avoiding that her body is so defined by it in that moment. Her body is so focused on breathing through the constricted, strangling feeling that she does not hear the footsteps.

The meeting was, perhaps, not as brutal as it could have been to her. But the feeling of the eyes staring at her… and then Allen's recent behavior… She feels a sting in her eyes and closes them as she feels the tears well up in them. The first of her tears slide down her cheeks when a gentle hand tucks her hair back from her face. She flinches back from the hand, instinctually turning her face towards the crenels of the roof to hide her scar.

Allen pulls his hand back from her face and slips off his glove, "Eries," he says softly, brushing his fingers under her veil and against the tears on her cheek and slowly tilting her chin towards him. "Princess… look at me."

She lowers her eyes as he tries to meet them. "No, Allen."

Allen ducks his head slightly to meet her eyes whether she likes it or not. "You have done nothing wrong, nothing to apologize for. A scar does not change the woman you are. You are still princess. You are still everything that commanded the men in that room."

"But…" Eries shakes her head slightly. They are talking about different things. She puts a hand to her neck. "I am not beautiful."

Confused, Allen contemplates the princess in front of him.

Eries feels her childhood anger burning in her chest, "It has always been that way. I take after my father. I am the homely sister beside two stars."

He puts a finger against her lips. "Never to my eyes," he says, lowering himself to a knee on the cold stone. "Your beauty is simply different than theirs."

Finally, Eries lifts shining eyes to Allen's. "When did you get so wise?" she asks softly, blushing modestly at the emotion in his blue eyes. "Where was I?"

"I learned from my betters," Allen replies, brushing the tears from the corner of her eyes. "Now, Eries," he says, getting to his feet slowly and drawing her to her own. She sways, slightly, and he puts a hand to her back to support her, his free hand lifting to redo the buttons on her collar. "There is a visitor who waits on you, my lady."


"Hush," he replies, tucking her arm firmly in his. "May I escort you?"

She nods, once, and lets her fingers clutch on the fabric of his jacket. It is stiff, and yet also warm.

Jasper is confident in his progress as the end of the winter becomes obvious. The snows turn to rains, and the iced paths become mud. Harder to penetrate, but not impossible. Nil knows this, and watches the mountains in a preoccupied manner, not entirely trusting the scouts and lookouts she herself had trained for the same duty.

"You are always so preoccupied," Jasper says, carrying his son against one shoulder, wrapped in blankets, as he walks alongside her on the open aired halls of the upper floor of the castle.

"Try to understand, paranoia is what saves lives during war." She folds her hands across her back and watches with an eye to the passes. The word from the Compound had reached her as well, and she had sent it along with a trusted trader that was braving the mountains so that Asturia would be made aware as well. It is truly a shame, she thinks, that there was no Kathis there.

Jasper steps over, offering to let her hold his son, and Nil capitulates, lifting him in her arms and soothing him against her shoulder. "What has you so paranoid, anyway?" Jasper asks.

"Zaibach has fallen to Norte," she replies, turning with him towards the Queen's chambers. "I did not want to say it in front of the Queen. She does not need to worry over it."

Jasper tightens his jaw.

"Don't you agree?" Nil asks, glancing over the head of the heir at him. "We both know she won't likely last out the end of the spring. Why burden her now?"

Jasper lowers his head, nodding once, and Nil reaches over to wipe the tear from his cheek. The two of them head into the Queen's chambers, which are hung with white, a part of the ritual in Cesario for passing to the other world.

"Come in," Emman says, voice much stronger than her body in the end of her days. "Both of you."

Nil sets the heir on the floor, knowing there is nothing for the boy to get into in the room prepared for death. She follows Jasper to the bed, where the prince sits down and takes his mother's hand.

"I am short on breath, so listen to all of what I have to say before interrupting." Both of them nod, and Emman begins her small speech. "War is again knocking at our doors. It happened before, and Nil was cunning enough to protect you, Jasper. I know she will again, as with your son. What is important now is that neither of you lose one another in the days ahead. Nileyah… will never be a queen to you, Japser. But… with an heir already, you do not need one." Weakly she extends a hand to Nil, who steps forward to her, and kneels beside the bed. The dying woman squeezes their two hands in her own two frail ones. "And so I want the two of you to be sure to be… happy."

"Mother, no," Jasper says, his voice choked.

"Yes," Emman replies. "Take care of them," she says, turning her aged eyes on Nil.

Fariah paces the highest walks of the palace in the predawn light. The problem with Freid as a defendable place was that the capital, and the duke's residence was Godashim. And Godashim was lain out like a temple. She had seen the layout of the other major imperial cities and they were somewhat better, but not by much.

She can understand religious fervor, but the openness of the cities was borderline stupidity. A guard catches up with her and says, "Lady, the Duke awakens."

"Thank you," Fariah says, turning on her heel and heading towards the Duke's chambers. No one else had turned up in the weeks of her absence to attack, and there had been no other intruders to Freid. Word from the Compound said that Zaibach had fallen when her country had not.

The Kathis to the Duke of Zaibach had not sent off the report. It was Jujiin who reported on it. He had been traveling to see if there was anything the Compound could do, and witnessed the death of the Kathis himself. The poor woman was said to have had her head removed sloppily from her neck.

The thought of it turns Fariah's stomach a little.

It is news she has not relayed to Chid, the death of the Kathis. But she has told him of Norte's ploy and the fall of Zaibach. The meeting scheduled for this morning is to discuss the situation of the war.

Privately, as she steps into the outer chamber to wait for him to finish bathing, Fariah thinks that all the countries talk entirely too much and do too little in comparison. 'The world is ruined with talk. Wars are lost with too much of it. People may die of boredom in a meeting where you have to bow thrice in every direction before entering and being acknowledged to speak.'

'But then,' she reflects, thinking on her mother abandoning her charge to his own devices, 'the world is more complicated the older one becomes. Things become less simple when there is more than you and your charge. And kings and dukes must think of people instead of simply winning.'

For the first time in the ten months since giving birth, her hand strays to her stomach and she considers the world her son will grow up in. She shakes her head. "These are not thoughts for now," she resolves aloud. "But I should have sent word to mother that it was a son."

Chid, exiting his private chambers, followed by several servants, hears only the last. "A son?"

"Nothing," Fariah says quickly, turning to offer a formal bow to him. "Are you prepared for your meeting?"

"Of course," Chid says, a little irritably. "Why do you always avoid my questions?"

"I avoid only those that you do not need to know answers to," Fariah said, following as he headed from the outer chamber. "I answer what you need to know without compunction."

"One day you may know too much for even you," Chid says, sounding wiser than his years. "And then you will wish to share it, if only to be rid of it."

Celena waits for Eries and Allen at the door of the library. She is pleased to see that her brother has located the princess, and that she seems to be doing well. Dryden, when she had caught up with him after the meeting, had instructed her to discuss whatever it was that needed to be discussed with Eries.

As her brother leads the princess closer, the governess approaches, and the guards open the door to allow her into the library.

"Yes, Celena?" Eries asks as she and Allen enter the library, knowing what she is likely waiting to relay.

"A messenger from Fanelia bearing letters, highness," she says, keeping her eyes lowered as she curtsies. "For your highnesses and for the Senior Knight."

"Please bring the messenger in the library," Eries says, looking ahead to the governess entering the library before her. "I would like to visit with my nephew a little."

Celena glances at Allen, who nods slightly, and he leads her into the library, her hand tucked securely in his. The explanation of Allen's often presence was Eries's injury. No one dared question it while there was even the slightest shadow on the health of the princess.

There was a missing queen. The only living relatives were unsuitable to take the throne, if one did not consider Eries. The accident had reminded all those in charge of succession of the status of Eries. And so there were no further chances being taken with the princess's life. Celena knows Allen was formally put in charge of her safety at the meeting that had just adjourned.

Celena has to wonder if Dryden had grown a brain in the previous months, but does not comment on it aloud, instead she turns and heads to retrieve the messenger. What would give him reason to give Allen further access to the princess, if he knew about the engagement? Was it an appeasing gift to the woman he'd almost accidentally gotten beheaded?

After the announcement, Merle is glad to be able to bring Austa to the palace permanently, instead of the late night visits to assure the Queen, and the heir's health. Austa is pleased with Hitomi's progress, but displeased with the strain the festival is putting on her, and so she orders that the Queen take more time to rest. Hitomi does not mind at all, feeling worn out by the long days and late nights.

She wonders, lying on the bed while Austa checks the child growing in her stomach, if monarchs on Earth have the same problems, and if Austa could be considered a gynecologist of sorts. She certainly seems to be performing the same sorts of checkups that Hitomi had expected, if she were on Earth. Her mind strays to Yukari. She wonders if her engaged friend was married yet… if she has children… or if she is pregnant too…

And she bursts into tears.

Austa comforts her absently as she helps the Queen to sit up and dress once again in her robes. "It is normal for pregnant women to be emotional," the kind old woman says. "With the stress of the last year in your life, it is more than reasonable for you to be upset, your highness."

Hearing her title just makes Hitomi cry even harder. Austa excuses herself quietly, letting Merle and Van into the room.

When Van is allowed back into the room, he is confused to find tears, and steps over to comfort his wife, who is still crying and sitting in the window, looking out over the white in the courtyard. Behind Van, Merle stands uneasily at the door, not sure what she can do to help, or if she should even be in attendance at the moment.

"What's wrong with her?" Van asks Austa as the woman gathers her things. "I don't understand…"

"You may never. I cannot say," Austa says, smiling in the grandmotherly way that she has. "It is in her heart. And during a war, who can say what will sadden one? She will be all right, given time."

"There is a ceremony…" Van begins.

"Your father was the same way with Varie," Austa clucks. "And she threw him from the royal chambers for it. Merle, help me with these bags."

Glad to be given some sort of occupation, Merle moves forward quickly and lifts the midwife's bags, heading out of the room before her.

Van blinks. "Threw him from the…"

"For being insensitive," Austa says, patting the king on the arm. "All will be well, your highness, but I would suggest that you have another woman keep her company, since you cannot understand why she's crying."

Arik enters the library, following Celena. There are guards at every door and window, and the doors shut tightly behind them. Dryden is seated in his normal chair at the center of the library, and Eries stands beside it, with Allen just at her shoulder. Celena steps to the side with a curtsy.

Stepping forward, Arik sweeps a low bow, waiting to be acknowledged. She hears footsteps, the movement of a chair.

"Rise, messenger, and give us your name," Eries says, stepping around Dryden to take a seat where Allen has placed one for her.

"Arik Dulchap," she says, slowly straightening up. "Kathis to High Priest Tristan of Ispano."

"High Priest of Ispano?" Dryden asked. "You're a long way from home."

"Ispano, majesty, fell to Norte before any country on Gaea."

Dryden is left speechless at that, and a moment later it is Eries who speaks up, "What brings you to Asturia?"

"Letters," Arik says, reaching into her vest to draw them out, holding them forth. "One for your majesties, and one for Sir Schezar, from the King and Queen of Fanelia."

Allen steps forth and brings the letters over, taking his and holding the other between Dryden and Eries. It is Eries who takes the letter, and Dryden who speaks up, "I take it Fanelia will verify your words. But that is not an answer. What does a Kathis from Ispano hope to do here?"

"Prevent what happened from happening again," Arik says, bowing her head respectfully again. "Perhaps even assist in retrieving Queen Millerna."

Behind Eries, Allen stiffens. "What makes you think you will succeed where others have failed?" he asks in a clipped voice.

"It is the duty of a Kathis to protect their charge. Beyond their own life. My charge has died to me, and there is nothing left for me but to set right what I can. I owe my life to Fanelia. You are great friends of the monarchs who rescued me. I decided to begin here."

Eries lifts a hand to forestall more of Allen's words, eyes trained on reading the paper. "The letter speaks the truth of what she says." She glances over at Dryden. "It will undoubtedly make General Hourne feel more secure to have another bodyguard around. We all must admit that Sir Schezar is a Knight and not a bodyguard."

The man in question's lips twist in a thin lipped frown.

Dryden fingers his beard. "That's true enough."

"Quite," Eries says, glancing up at Allen without turning her head. The guards were not to be trusted as the members of noble families. Anyone could become a guard. "Provided that the Head Knight approves of your skills, it is acceptable to us that you become the family guardian until such time as a more suitable situation is available to you."

In response, Arik bows once more.

Allen frowns.