Disclaimer: I do not own any of the FFVIII characters involved with this fic. I know that. You know that.
Author's Note: Ever have that problem where you just can't write anything? For the past months, I haven't even touched my laptop computer, because inspiration just hasn't struck. Everything I wrote was crap, and I'd rather not upload anything than put up something that was no good. So, I'm sorry this took so long. This chapter drags a bit, I know, but I was experimenting. I've never really played around with the workings of a monarchy before, so this is all kinda new to me. I was also trying to get a little more plot besides Squall/Rinoa angsting over each other. Plus, I gotta get this fic moving, somehow. Bear with me. Also, I'm going to attempt to update this fic biweekly, if I can, but don't hold it against me if I can't keep up the schedule.
AGAINST THE ODDS
Anything to Survive
Another conquest meant another banquet. Another banquet meant more exposure to Andor's fawning nobles, more time holding in place the serene mask of a queen who loved and supported her husband. When the banquets had been once a month, Rinoa had been able to play her expected role with ease. But with Andor's army sweeping across Belharra, these functions became more frequent. And, despite Rinoa's growing discomfort, Andor insisted she attend them, so that all could see that he would soon have an heir, thus securing his legacy.
Rinoa grimaced as her maids dressed her in yet another new gown, cautious of the prominent bulge of her belly and the sharp temperament that came with it. Just three more months, she told herself. Then… then I'll be mother to that man's heir.
A mother. She wasn't certain how she felt about that yet, even after so long. It was the child of the man who had given her little choice but to marry him; yet, it was her child as well. With it, she wouldn't be alone in this place anymore… assuming Andor let her raise it rather than pass it off to a nurse so Rinoa could continue in her role as pretty-but-useless accessory.
"All done, your majesty." Pia, the most timid of her maids since Rinoa had slapped the woman, stepped away so Rinoa could examine herself in the mirror.
The gown was a simple, pale blue piece, its only concession to elegance being an elaborate pattern embroidered in silver along the sleeves, neckline, and hem. The cloth was loose enough to keep from constricting her, and Rinoa nodded in approval of the dress. One good thing about being pregnant; she didn't have to wear those uncomfortable creations Andor insisted that royalty should wear on formal occasions.
As the maids fussed over her hair, Rinoa heard the double doors of her bedroom swing open. She didn't bother to turn, knowing the movement would spoil the maids attempts to style her hair. She didn't need to look, anyway; only Andor would enter the room unannounced.
"You look lovely," Andor said, standing beside her so both were reflected in the mirror. Rinoa examined Andor with carefully concealed curiosity. With every banquet, his dress style changed, being subdued and casual one week to becoming flamboyant the next. If I were a historian, I'd be delighted, Rinoa mused. Here she was, at the beginning of a monarchy, and the king was still at a loss as to how royalty should dress. It was he who had to start these traditions, traditions that would last as long as his legacy continued.
This week, he'd chosen an outfit of the same cut as the military uniforms, but made of a finer cloth and colored a dark blue to complement her own dress.
He examined her critically for a few moments, then barked an order for the maids to cover the scar on her temple more completely. The maids hastened to comply, only leaving when Andor waved them off. "Better," he said shortly. "Now, let's be off." He laced his arm through hers, tugging her with more force than was necessary towards the doors.
It was difficult to keep up with Andor's stride, but it was too much for her to expect him to show any sympathy for her condition and slow to match his steps to hers.
They arrived fashionably late to the hall where the banquet was being held and, as if suddenly being switched off, all voices in the hall fell silent as Andor led Rinoa up a ramp to their table, raised above the level of the other tables in the room. As they took their seats, their guests hurried to take their own places.
As a flurry of servants descended upon the tables, carrying pitchers of wine and trays of delicate appetizers, Rinoa examined the guests. Nobles, she reminded herself. Many of those seated below her had once been elected politicians expecting to hold their offices for as long as the terms allotted, but for those men and women who were competent at their jobs, Andor had awarded them titles that couldn't be taken from them, promising a permanent place for the officials. It had gone a long way towards securing the loyalty of the officials.
It was amusing to note that the newly made nobles were as clueless as Andor about how to dress. Many had imitated their king's previous outfits, others wore the conservative dress their positions demanded. In all, it wasn't quite like the elegant royal courts Rinoa had pretended to be part of as a child – but it was getting closer to it.
And I would gladly exchange it for a normal dinner at Garden, food fights and all. Rinoa sighed and sipped lightly at her glass of water, then nibbled at one of the appetizers. Hyne, I'm bored. She entertained the notion of throwing one of the appetizers at a pompous man boasting to his companion seated at the table just below her, but she shuddered to think what Andor would do to her. Pregnant or not, he'd find a way to make her suffer if she made him look like a fool.
To occupy herself, she turned her attention to those seated at the high table, wondering who had won Andor's favor this week. General Lysander was there, of course, in the stiff formal uniform he seemed to save just for these banquets. He looked as bored as she felt. Beside him was a man Rinoa was vaguely familiar with, a duke… an earl? She couldn't keep those damned ranks straight.
It was the man seated to Andor's right that caught her attention. She'd never seen him before, but there was something about him that bothered her. Perhaps it was the fact that he seemed to be ignoring Andor's presence and was focusing solely on her.
Rinoa gave him the sweet, vacant smile she'd cultured to impress her father's friends that she now used because Andor favored it. I'm sweet, I'm pretty, and I'm dumb, was what the smile relayed. I'm just an accessory; don't bother trying to sweet talk me. The smile made her feel ill.
The man's intense gaze was unreadable. Then, he abruptly flashed a smile as false as Rinoa's own and turned his attention to the king. Who is he? He had to be important; for him to be seated at Andor's side, he'd done something to win Andor's favor.
The Telhos ambassador… that must be him, she realized as she suddenly recalled a fragment of conversation she'd caught earlier. Telhos had recently expressed an interest in cooperating with Andor, and she'd heard they were sending someone. This dinner must have been for his benefit, to give him a chance to suck up to Andor.
But, if he were trying to impress the king, why did he keep looking at her with that calculating gaze?
* * *
Squall paced restlessly; there was a tension in the air, like the calm before the storm, and he knew he wouldn't be getting to sleep any time soon. He'd only just come off patrol duty on the streets of Telhos-ka, capital city of the land-locked country of Telhos. There was a mood to the city he didn't like, though he couldn't put his finger on what was wrong. He knew he wasn't the only one to feel it, however. Captain Morz had doubled the patrols without explanation.
As if he didn't have enough on his mind… The previous day, the captain had called him into her office to speak to him in private. Since he'd done nothing to draw her attention to him, he'd been wary of being in her presence.
Her first words had put him at ease. "Congratulations," she'd said, smiling wanly. "You've passed your probation period without having another 'episode.' It would seem your… enthusiasm in thanking the queen was indeed just because of your injuries. In fact, you've proven to be an exemplary soldier."
Squall hadn't been able to contain his sigh of relief. He'd known he was being watched, and he'd been careful. Now that this was behind him, he could move forward with his plans for advancement.
"Which brings me to the other reason I wanted to speak to you," Morz had said. "As I said, you are an excellent soldier – but, I'm afraid I don't know what to do with you."
Squall had snapped his head up, suddenly alarmed. He hadn't liked the tone in her voice. "The problem is, you're known to the king, now, and not in a good way. He assumes you are dead; General Lysander hasn't told him otherwise, and, while I don't necessarily agree with the general's decision to save you despite the king's orders, I'm not going to say anything to get the general in trouble. The problem is, you're too good a soldier to waste as common fighter, but if you attract too much attention to yourself, King Kielan may remember your name and know you as the man who assaulted his wife. If he finds out General Lysander countered his orders – and that I knew about it and said nothing – we would all be in serious trouble."
"What are you saying, Captain?" Squall's mouth had gone dry, and he'd felt panic rise within him.
"I'm saying that it may be best if you change your identity before you draw too much attention to yourself," Morz said at last. "You must admit that 'Squall Leonhart' is much too distinctive a name; even with thousands of soldiers at his command, his majesty will surely remember your name." The captain had smiled sympathetically. "I know it's not an easy decision to make. You could just remain as you are now, and likely die an inglorious death as an unknown soldier, or you could keep your name and advance, and hope his majesty doesn't recall you. The choice is yours."
Change my name… It's such a simple thing, really, but… Squall Leonhart is who I am. A part of him had taken pleasure in thinking about Rinoa hearing of his great deeds and knowing he was coming for her… But what if Morz was right, and Kielan recognized his name? He knew he'd have no trouble with Kielan identifying him by appearance; the man had only seen him once, when his head had been swathed with bandages, and Squall no longer looked quite like he did in his file photos, taken before his injury. But his name… What's in a name? It's just the label by which other people call me. But it's the label my mother gave me…
He'd told Morz that he'd think about it, and she'd seemed satisfied with his answer. Really, he had no choice, and he knew it. Not if he wanted to get close to Rinoa, anyway. But he wanted time to get used to the idea before he really consented to it.
Squall sighed and paused in his pacing. Maybe he should just go back to his bunk and try to get some sleep. Maybe this would be easier in the morning. He hesitated by the path that led to their barracks, then continued on past. The barracks made him uncomfortable, anyway. The Telhosian government had given Kielan's soldiers the barracks belonging to their own men as a show of their cooperation.
Maybe everyone's just so tense because these people are too friendly. After fighting this war for nearly a year, could it be that we just can't trust anyone anymore? Maybe that was why he hadn't even stopped at his room long enough to drop off his gun.
Squall nodded at a couple of soldiers that passed him by, absently noting that they, too, still carried weapons. When he thought about it later, though, it made him uneasy. Something was definitely wrong…
* * *
There was mingling, of course, after the meal. Andor had left to go speak with Lysander, leaving her to smile and reassure any guests that asked that Andor would return in a few moments. She hoped he would hurry; she tired easily now, and he'd said she'd be free to return to her room once he returned.
Than Andor could show any sympathy for her condition surprised her. But she knew it wasn't a change in Andor towards her; he cared only for the child she carried.
At least it was something. Her last hope of being free and loved had died with Squall. Maybe if she stuck by Andor's side and did all he asked of her without complaint, he'd soften his attitude towards her, see her as more than a pretty object to be possessed. She didn't want his love, but affection of some sort would be nice.
Anything to make her miserable existence more tolerable…
"Is something wrong, your highness?"
The soft voice startled her, and she quickly composed herself. She turned to face the Telhos ambassador, who had come up beside her while she'd been distracted. She was immediately wary; there was something about the anxious flicker of his eyes towards the bodyguards positioned a short distance away. She was safe enough with them around, but Rinoa was under no illusion that they could protect her from everything. "Nothing's wrong," Rinoa said, her voice betraying none of her nervousness.
"You were crying," the man said, keeping his voice low.
Rinoa put her hand up to her cheek, and felt the wet track where a tear had escaped, unnoticed. Damn… "It's the hormones," she said, patting her stomach. "I get upset over the stupidest things."
"Ah," was all the man said for a moment. He glanced around again, then said, "I don't believe we've been introduced." He offered his hand, which Rinoa graciously accepted. There would be no harm in a handshake, right? "I am Taver Biskani, ambassador of Telhos. I am here to negotiate an alliance between our two nations."
He slowly withdrew his hand from hers. Rinoa stared at him in puzzlement as she closed her fingers around the slip of paper he'd pressed into her palm when they'd shook. "Uh… I'm sure Andor will benefit from your country's support," Rinoa said automatically. The ambassador smiled and turned away, leaving her to speak with Andor, who had finally put in an appearance. Seeing her husband, Rinoa turned and left the hall, her bodyguards following at a discrete distance.
Only when she reached the privacy of her room, in that brief moment before her maids realized she'd returned, Rinoa read the message printed on the slip of paper. Her eyes widened as she read the message, and there was one phrase that caught her attention, that she read over and over again.
How would you like to be free?
* * *
Squall sipped at his steaming coffee, barely tasting the hot liquid as he read the newspaper he'd found discarded on a bench. He'd given up on the idea of sleep and had decided he'd needed something to drink. Unfortunately, it seemed Belharra had a law about being unable to drink alcohol because he was under twenty-one, so coffee had become his poison of choice.
The paper had caught his attention because it had a full-color picture of Rinoa on the front page. Even with her rounded figure, she looked stunning, and Squall planned to clip the photo as a reminder of why he fought.
His hand lightly traced the curve of her belly. He'd been upset when he'd found out she was pregnant. Hell, he'd been furious. She was his girl, after all. She had no right to be having another man's baby!
But common sense had cooled his temper. Yes, she was the king's wife, and yes, she was having his child, but… but, she'd asked him to save her. She'd run to him, a pleading look in her eyes, begging him to take her away from all of this. He didn't know how she'd found herself in this situation, but he didn't think it was by choice. She was doing everything she could to survive in a foreign place, as he himself was doing.
Which was why he'd decided to do as Captain Morz had suggested. He'd change his name, become someone new, someone who could survive in Andor's army.
Squall set down his coffee cup and folded up the paper, stuffing it into the inner pocket of his uniform jacket. He wondered if the captain was still up; he could go tell her now-
The sound of gunshots sent Squall reflexively rolling off his seat on the bench and to the ground, his own gun in his hand before he had time to think. Two more shots followed, and Squall realized they'd come from some distance off to his left… near the barracks. I hope that's just a couple of drunk soldiers…
He got to his feet and began to run towards the shots, hoping he could diffuse the situation. But when more shots were fired, Squall was close enough to hear someone shouting orders, and he immediately went on the alert. This wasn't an alcohol-induced incident.
They were under attack.
To Be Continued…