"Pathways"

"Allen, you're not charging aggressively enough!" bellowed the armsmaster. Allen tried to focus, wiping the thin layer of sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand and held the sword in a firm grip. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't get it right. The silver blade in Krauer's hand gleamed as he swung it into a defensive stance. "Now try again," he instructed. Stifling a sigh, Allen positioned his feet lightly on the floor and waited. The empty seconds ticked by. He let his mind become clear. Thoughtless. And then...
A strangled yell escaped his throat as Allen rushed towards the armsmaster. He swung the sword overhead with all of his eleven-year-old strength. Krauer didn't so much as flick an eyelash. Then suddenly...his sword flashed like lightning and met his with a resounding clang. The force ripped the hilt out of Allen's hands, and the sword clattered to the floor several feet away. Allen glared at the fallen blade resentfully.
"Better," Krauer commented, "but you need to improve. This is enough practice for today." With that, he strode across the unfurnished sparring room to the rack bolted on the wall and hung up his weapon. Allen did the same. His teacher gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder before he left, but it didn't make him feel any better. What was he doing wrong? With sore muscles and a heavy heart, he left the sparring room to find his little sister, Celena.
He found the bright-eyed, curly-haired girl playing in her favorite spot among the thick arms of an enormous oak tree. It had several monstrous branches that twisted and looped in crazy directions and a hollowed-out center--making it an ideal playground. The tree was a lone sentinel stationed in a high meadow that overlooked his home. He and Celena lived in a vast manor house in the country with their mother and father, Encia and Leon Schezar. The house was located far from the hustle and bustle of Palas, the capitol of the proud harbor kingdom Asturia. The crowds and noise of the city made Allen's mother, who was already a weak woman to begin with, physically ill.
Allen supposed he and his family were pretty well-to-do. His mother and father weren't royalty, but they did belong to one of Asturia's minor noble classes. They had servants and housekeepers, tutors, and in his case, a sword trainer. Whenever he wasn't being taught history or court etiquette, he played with his sister Celena, his only companion. Looking back at his childhood, Allen supposed he was happy then. Never worrying about what tomorrow might bring. But that soon changed. The only forewarning he got, and he didn't recognize it as such then, was when his father came in to his bedroom one evening to say goodnight.
"Allen, promise me you'll be good for your mother, understand me?" he asked softly. Allen look up at him from under the covers, confused.
"Are you going away on another trip?" he asked curiously.
"Yes."
"Why?"
Leon looked uncomfortable for a moment and paused a moment to consider before speaking. "I have some personal matters to attend to, abroad."
"When will you come home?"
Leon was very quiet for several seconds. He pondered this while the reflecting lamplight danced in the depths of his dark, mysterious eyes.
"I don't know, Allen," he told his son. "It might be a while." Something about this vague response made Allen nervous.
"You are coming back, aren't you?"
Leon looked surprised.
"Of course I will! My family and everything I love are here. I'll come back again."
"Okay," Allen answered in satisfaction, yawning sleepily.
"Goodnight, son," Leon whispered, blowing out the flickering flame inside the lamp. Slowly he got up and departed, closing the door behind him with a soft click. That was the last Allen ever saw of him.

Weeks went by, but Leon never returned. Allen soon learned to stop asking his mother where he had gone because she would burst into tears at the mere mention of her husband. It seemed like a very lonely time for him, even with all the people in their household, but Celena was affected more strongly by it than he was. She had always been "Daddy's little girl." She would sit on Encia's lap while her mother stroked her light blond hair and ask, "When is Daddy coming home?" That would just make Encia cry all over again, so Celena, who was a very clever girl for her age, stopped asking after a while, too.
Even though Allen never spoke of it, he wondered about his father all the time. Had he been captured by bandits? Was he lost or stranded in some foreign land? He used to imagine himself embarking on an adventure, rescuing his father from pirates and cutthroats, and returning home triumphantly to a hero's welcome. No longer a child, but a man. He wished for that all the time. Maybe then his mother would stop crying...
All of his childish illusions suddenly melted away one day while he was milling around his mother's bedroom, looking for Celena. They were playing hide-and-seek, and Celena, who was much smaller than he, had a sharp eye for all the best hiding places. His search took him to the closet. He parted the mahogany doors and started to rummage, peering around dresses and coats, when he saw a hard, rectangular object poking out from under a pile of scarves in the corner. Intrigued, he dug it out. It was a book with the Schezar emblem emblazoned on the front cover. He opened the book and read the headings on the first few slightly-yellowed pages.

Red, 12th moon, Year of the Silver Southeast

Encia gave birth to another child today. A girl. We named her Celena. May she grow up to be as serene and gentle as her name. Allen adores her. I know he'll be a good big brother to her, and always watch over and protect her...

He turned the pages, fascinated. It was a journal! And the carefully made symbols on the pages were none other than his father's handwriting. He read on, enraptured. It was like having his father sitting there next to him, telling him these stories in person. Leon talked about his family a lot, and the goings-on in Palas. Plus some of his travels, which ranged from nearby countries to places Allen had never even heard of before. It was all so unimaginable.
"Allen! Are you still looking for me?" came his sister's muffled cry from a nearby room. In his excitement, he'd forgotten about the game. How long had he been distracted? A good twenty minutes or so, he judged. Allen looked down at the journal. He was tempted to take the book with him, but Encia might notice if it went missing. He carefully deposited it back under the scarves where he'd found it and went to seek out Celena. He would come back to the journal. There was no way he'd be able to stay away from the only piece of his father he had left.

Allen spent several days hiding out in his mother's closet, when she was not present, of course, reading that journal. The more he read, the more his father seemed like a completely different person from the man he knew. The words on the pages spoke of travels to far away lands and countless adventures. There was even an account, written by his own hand, of a girl he said descended from heaven to appear right in front of him. He spoke of her strange clothing and demure manner as if she was an angel. An angel from the Mystic Moon, he called her. Allen read on, spellbound. The girl ended up disappearing back into the sky in a blaze of light, and his father returned home. Allen paused in his reading, perplexed. Why hadn't his father ever said anything about her? Leon Schezar was a man who loved to tell stories. He told stories to Allen and his sister until the embers in the fireplace were long burned out. So why hadn't he ever mentioned this one?
There were no further entries in the journal until several months later. Now his father spoke about the girl frequently. In fact, he spoke of almost nothing else. One entry, made the day before he left home, he wrote that he couldn't stand it any longer. The girl was like a splinter in his memory, never fading. He had to find her again. Had to ascertain his feelings for her, even if it meant throwing away everything he had. He seemed convinced that all the answers to the questions plaguing him could be found in the Mystic Valley. He was certain he'd find the girl there. He would--
Allen slammed the book shut, unable to read any further. An icy hand had clutched his heart. He was shaking slightly. There were still many pages left in the book, but he couldn't make himself go any further. He couldn't believe it. His father had left for another woman? But why? He just couldn't believe it! Allen was still very young, but he understood now the true reason for his father's flight. This passionate confession explained why Encia cried herself to sleep almost every night. She must have read this stark confession, written by her husband's own hand. Allen wondered briefly how this journal had come into her possession, but it didn't matter. He was too clouded with anger to care. His own father. Suddenly, Leon Schezar was no longer the hero he'd always fantasized him to be. Allen no longer thought of him that way. Could no longer think of him that way. And never forgave him, either.

Around the beginning of summer, Encia, Celena, and Allen took a short trip to Palas to visit Encia's wealthy sister, Rebekah. While the adults sat and talked about old times and childhood memories over tea, Celena and her brother roamed around the bazaar looking at everything from figs to fine jewelry. "Allen, I'm hungry," Celena complained after a while. "Let's go get something to eat." Allen nodded in agreement and they set off towards the streets of the market, taking several shortcuts through the empty alleys.
"Celena," Allen said impatiently, "I'm hungry too, you know. Hurry up!" His sister was tagging along several feet behind him. Her little legs didn't go quite as fast as his did, and Allen got frustrated with waiting for her. Celena shot him a resentful look, but slowly trudged after him. Allen gave a low sigh and went on. The journey was quiet and uneventful for the next fifteen minutes until Allen heard Celena's muffled scream behind him. He spun around instinctively, alarmed. A boy with startling black eyes and a dark complexion stared back at him with a leering smile on his face and an arm around Celena's fragile neck. Celena looked petrified, her big blue eyes, filling with tears. The boy was accompanied by two or three other children, each as scrawny and wild- looking as he. The youngest of them looked to be about Allen's own age, but the one with his hands on Celena seemed to be the leader. They were armed with nothing but their fists and shards of broken glass from whiskey bottles. The crazed glints in their eyes said they were ready to use them. Allen found himself wishing he had his sword with him and silently berated himself for not keeping a closer eye on his sister.
"Let her go," he said forcefully. None of them moved. Just stared at him rebelliously. "Let her go," he said again, louder this time.
"Give us all your money first," the leader said indifferently. Allen made no move to comply. That just irritated the gang's leader. "Give us all your money, rich boy, or we'll hurt your baby sister," the tanned boy said again, pricking the tip of his makeshift glass blade against Celena's cheek. A small bead of red blood blossomed on the spot, billowing up and trickling down her cheek. Celena gave a stifled sob. The sound enraged the protective big brother. Allen felt like he was charged with electricity. He was about to challenge them all to fight--he'd take them all on at once--when Celena's voice stopped him.
"Just do it, Allen! Give it to them!"
He glared around at the gangsters with barely contained fury. Give in to them? They were nothing but bullies! They should be taught a lesson, not indulged! But the pleading look in his sister's eyes held him back. Slowly, he reached into his pocket and withdrew the small handful of gold coins their mother had given them earlier and scattered them before Celena's feet. As the coins clinked onto the ground, the leader roughly shoved Celena away from him and stooped to pick them up. Celena rushed to her brother, buried her face in his chest, and hugged him tightly, trembling. Two of the boys held their daggers out threateningly while the others gathered all the money. When it had all been collected, they turned and ran down the alleys like a pack of mangy dogs, turned the corner, and disappeared from sight. The two Schezar children watched them go, alone, but unharmed.
"Allen, let's go home," Celena suggested to him quietly once she had calmed down, "and let's not tell Mama about this. I don't want her to get upset." Wordlessly, she took his hand and they walked back to their aunt's house--hungry--but without speaking.

"Celena," Allen asked her while they sat by the fireplace in their own home that night, "why didn't you let me fight that gang today?" Celena shifted behind him on the rug, coiling his long, silky, golden hair into a plait.
"Didn't you see how they looked?" she inquired softly. "They were so skinny. Their ribs were poking out, and their arms and legs looked like sticks. They needed that money more than we did." She fell silent as she worked his hair between her delicate fingers. "They wanted to hurt us, too. Besides," she added with a giggle, "Mama wouldn't like it if she knew you were fighting." She quietly continued her work, and Allen went back to staring into the flames. Celena was sometimes wise beyond her years, but he didn't think she really understood. She was so innocent, incapable of thinking ill of anyone. She needed to realize that there were times when one had to fight back. He didn't say that, though, not wanting to break the peaceful quiet, shared by the crackling of the logs in the fireplace. She would see the truth someday, though, and it would be hard, but he'd be there to protect her when it came.

When he and Celena weren't indoors with their tutors, they spent the long hours in the fields by the manor riding horses and picking flowers for their mother. She loved the little pink daisies with slender stems and fern-like leaves. Those summer days were the best times of his life, until...

He should have been more careful. More responsible. Then maybe it wouldn't have happened. Or maybe he would have vanished, too. He and Celena, inseparable as always, had gone out to the meadow furthest away from the house where the land gently sloped downward to the coast. The sun was already setting, casting a dim gold glow on the city of Palas on the horizon, and Allen was getting bored.
"Celena, come on. Let's go back," he suggested tiredly. Celena's bright blue eyes peered out from inside the fresh bouquet of sweet-smelling flowers she held in her small hands.
"Not yet, Allen," she reprimanded him. "I want to go find some dandelions!"
"Celena," he argued with dwindling patience, "It'll be dark soon. Mother will be upset if we're not back in time for supper."
"But Allen!"
"Celena!"
They stared each other down firmly for a moment, neither wanting to give in to the other. A light breeze blew, bringing with it a scent of rain on the sea air--of storm clouds approaching.
"Celena, it's going to rain," Allen promised. "You don't want to get your nice new dress all wet, now, do you?" Celena balled her hands, the flowers clenched in one fist, and held them stiffly at her sides. She had the look on her face she always got when she was about to throw a tantrum.
"I don't want to go back yet!" she insisted. "I want to go get some dandelions for Mama. You can go back if you want, Allen," she said with all the biting derision she could muster. "You're no fun!" There was a pause, interrupted only by the flowing wind.
"Fine," Allen said casually, throwing up his hands. "Suit yourself. But if you get wet," he added, knowing that that was one of the few things in this world she hated, "don't come crying to me." He turned his back on her and walked to the house, a little slowly at first, expecting her to run after him immediately. She was usually the first to surrender, in situations like these. He was very surprised not to hear the pounding of little feet in hot pursuit. Still, he wasn't going to stop or turn around. She was still the little sister, and he wasn't about to let her gain the upper hand. Besides, it was going to rain soon. The bruised-looking purple clouds overhead rumbled fitfully.
When he got back to the manor, the sky had already darkened considerably, and a steady wind was blowing, making the grass ripple like waves on a pond. Celena still wasn't coming. He had the nagging feeling that he should go back for her, but dismissed it. Sometimes she just had to learn her lessons the hard way. To pass the time until the butler would ring the bell to announce supper, he propped himself on cushioned chair and read a fantasy novel about a famous hero who made several voyages to distant lands over the oceans, and even to the Mystic Moon, and came back to Asturia to be crowned with glory and honor. Allen wasn't really paying much attention to the words on the page, though. Five minutes passed. Then fifteen. Then forty-five. The ominous thunder was now booming like cannons outside, shaking the glass windows. And still no Celena. She should have raced in, terrified out of her mind, long ago. Celena was afraid of loud thunder.
He tried to put it out of his mind and concentrate on the book, but his gaze kept straying to the front door. After a long internal debate over what he should do, he gave in to his instincts and left the book behind. He dashed out the front door towards the field where he'd last seen her, hoping to beat the rain. There was still enough light to see by. Barely. The field, when he arrived, appeared totally empty except for the trees on the outer edge and the bushes scattered here and there. Celena wasn't anywhere to be seen.
"Celena!" Allen shouted over the whistling wind. No answer. He stopped and looked at the ground. Just a couple of feet away from him lay the bouquet of pale pink flowers, now crumpled, stems broken and many of the delicate petals missing. Celena must have damaged them in her tantrum. He was starting to become very worried. Where had the fool girl gone off to? Running as fast as his legs could carry him, he visited the old tree, but it didn't hold little Celena in any of its branches. He searched everywhere, running until he was sick, from the road by the house to the small stream by the hills, but she was nowhere to be found. She'd probably gone to hide just to spite him. Had she snuck into the house without his noticing? If so, she was probably laughing her head off at him right now. A few drops of something wet hit his shoulder, and he turned his face skyward. Sure enough, a light, scattered rain was beginning to break, becoming a hard downpour in minutes. A brilliant crack of lightning lit up the clouds. With a nagging edge of worry tinged with annoyance, he headed back to the house and burst through the front door.
"Corine," he said to a passing maidservant carrying a stack of freshly laundered sheets, "has Celena come in yet?"
The pretty young servant eyed him in his soaked, panting condition. "Not that I know of, Master Allen," she said, bobbing in a short curtsy.
"Oh," he said, disappointed. Corine nodded and continued on her business, long black hair swishing back and forth against her back as she walked. Allen interrogated four other servants and the butler, Roelof, but none of them had sighted Celena for a long while. He looked in all the rooms, but his search turned up negative.
"Is there something you're looking for?" came a soft, gentle voice behind him. He looked up from the broom closet heíd been tearing apart to see his mother's beautiful face.
"Um, I..." Should he tell her? Yes, she had a right to know. "Celenaís missing, Mother. I can't find her anywhere."
"I thought she was with you," she said. Her eyebrows lowered slightly in worry.
"Well, she was," he admitted uncomfortably, "but I...left her outside. I went out to look for her, but she was gone."
Encia's face became as white as milk. "Outside," she gasped, startled. "Allen, how could you? It's completely dark out, and in the middle of a storm, too!"
"It's Celena's fault!" he protested stubbornly. "She didn't want to come back with me!" His defense fell on deaf ears, however, for Encia had completely turned her back on him and marched away. Allen went after her to offer his assistance.
"Roelof," Encia ordered the butler who had just appeared at the end of the hall, "assemble the staff and form a search party. Take some lanterns. Celena's missing! We've got to go look for her.!
"Yes, my Lady," Roelof replied, bowing stiffly. He quickly departed to get the search underway.
"What should I do, Mother?î"Allen asked when he had gone. Encia rounded on him sharply.
"I want you to stay here at the house in case she comes back," she told him, eyes flashing.
"But I want to go help everyone else outside! I'm no good here!"
"Allen, please! Just do as I ask!" She fixed her gaze on his blue eyes until he finally nodded glumly.
"Thank you, son," she said gratefully, planting a light kiss on his forehead. "I'll be back soon, I hope." With that, she glided away quickly down the hall to see how the rest of the servants were coming along. Allen remained behind, feeling completely useless.

Two weeks later, the search party had given up all hope of ever finding the lost daughter of Encia and Leon Schezar. Word spread like wildfire among the citizens of Palas that Celena Schezar had disappeared, but none of them could offer any sort of helpful clue as to her whereabouts. Many close friends of the family stopped by to visit and offer their condolences to the family. This last tragedy seemed to hit Encia Schezar like a blow from a sledgehammer. Her health gave way completely, and she spent her days in bed. When she wasn't asleep, she was staring out of windows for hours on end, never speaking a word. Nothing anyone could say or do could comfort her. She had completely severed herself from the rest of the world. Allen was hurt deeply by his mother's sudden withdrawal from reality, but did his best to stay away from her. After all, if he had just been a little more patient and caring, his little sister would still be here, and he wouldn't have to see his mother suffering like this.
One day, a doctor came down from the capitol to see her, at Roelof's request. When he came out of her room, his sad eyes told them all the bleak diagnosis.
"She just doesn't want to go on living," he said as gently as he could. "Her already frail condition has been deeply impacted by this recent turn of events. She's in a clear state of depression. She's even given up eating and drinking. I fear she may never pull out of it."
"Is there anything we can do?" asked Roelof.
"I'm not sure, at this present stage. I'll come back in a few days to check up on her. Just try to keep her interested in the goings-on. She feels she has nothing to live for. You must keep her interested in living. Without that desire, she'll wither away and eventually die." Everyone's faces fell at this news. Allen looked at the closed door behind the doctor. Behind that door, his mother slept, sedated by the doctor's potent drugs. How long would it be before that sleep was permanent?
"We'll do everything we can for her, Doctor," Allen said with determination. The doctor smiled kindly.
"I'm sure you will. Well, I'd better be going now. I still have many more house calls to make."
The doctor from Palas came back twice more over the next week, but Enciass condition still had not improved. Her face, which had once been so beautiful, was now pale as the moon, and her slender frame was beginning to look emaciated. Her hair was limp and graying, and her eyes were clouded with a vale of sorrow. The servants did everything they could to get her to eat, but Encia wouldn't take anything they offered her. The doctor had been right. She simply had lost the will to live. Allen had snuck to her room late one night to see how she was doing, against the wishes of the staff that she not be disturbed, but found he had been beaten to the punch. Two masculine voices trailed out from behind the closed door. One belonged to the butler. The other, the doctor. Allen waited quietly outside to hear what they were saying.
"How much longer do you think she has?" asked one softly.
"It's hard to say. If she doesn't start eating soon, a matter of days at best. She'll eventually starve to death."
"No!"
"Anyway, let her sleep for now. I'll come back tomorrow evening."
"Thank you, for everything."
Allen was too shocked for the sound of approaching footsteps to register in his mind. His mother was going to die. She was the only family he had left. She couldn't die! She just couldn't! The bedroom door swung opened to reveal the two somber men, but surprised expressions quickly replaced the tired looks on their faces at seeing Allen standing there.
"Master Allen, what are you doing here?" inquired the butler sternly, disapproval written all over his face.
"Is it true?" Allen asked him quietly, staring at the floor. "Is my mother going to die?"
"You should be in bed, Master Allen! It's--"
"That's not answering my question!" Allen yelled. The two men winced at the volume, darting nervous glances back inside at the woman who slept as though she was already dead.
"Master Allen!" Roelof rebuked him sharply, "Lower your voice immediately! Your mother--"
Something inside Allen snapped. He threw himself towards the open door, struggling to get past their restraining arms shouting, "Why, Mother? Am I not important enough to you?" The woman in bed didn't even stir, which angered Allen even more, but before he could shout again, Roelof had forcefully pulled him away from his mother's room, and the doctor closed the door.
"Now really, Master Allen," Roelof said, infuriated, "youíre mother is sick, and carrying on like this is not going to help her get well! We are doing the best we can to keep her alive! Can't you see that?" He fell silent at that, and Allen, too ashamed to speak now, stared at the carpet. "Please, young Master," he continued, "go to your room. Get some sleep." Allen stared at him, his feelings of rage and helplessness ebbing away.
"All right, Roelof," he answered, once more in control of himself. He returned to his room feeling tired and numb, and even with the turbulent thoughts in his head, managed to fall asleep.

"Master Allen, come quick!" called a young maid from the door. Allen was outside on the porch reading.
"What is it, Lizzie?" he asked immediately, dreading the answer. The alarm bells going off inside his head could only mean one thing.
"The doctor said for you to come quick," said the red-haired woman breathlessly. "It's your mother!" At this news, Allen leapt to his feet, unceremoniously dumping the book from his arms and bolted inside, leaving the very fluster maidservant behind. He didn't halt his mad race until he was by his mother's bedside. The doctor and some of the servants, including Roelof, were gathered together in small groups whispering, anxious expressions on their faces. They stopped immediately when they saw Allen enter. Allen dropped into the chair beside the bed. Encia lay under the thick covers, pale and horribly thin.
"Allen, my son," she said, smiling weakly up at him. She reached out to touch his cheek but hardly had the strength to move her hand. Allen clasped it in both of his. He was shocked at its coldness.
"Mother," he said. Encia's eyes filled with tears.
"Allen. I've been missing you these last few days. How are your lessons coming?"
"Good," he said, even though all his lessons had been discontinued in light of his mother's critical condition. She was always one to worry about his schooling.
"I'm glad, son. You make me very proud, Allen." She got a faraway look in her misty eyes. "I'm sorry I wasn't a better mother to you, my darling," she said sadly. "You deserved better."
"Don't talk like that!" Allen told her fiercely. "You are a wonderful mother, and I love you very much. You're going to get well again! You'll see!"
Encia gave a small empty laugh. "If only that were true. It's over for me, Allen. I've known it since your father left. I didn't think I could go on living another day without him. I loved him so much." Tears began leaking down her cheeks. "And when Celena disappeared--" She broke off, too choked up to speak. Allen fought hard to keep his own tears held back. Encia looked up at Allen, and their eyes met. "You don't know how painful it is to lose a child. Or anyone you love. I hope you never have to feel what I feel now." Allen's eyes were now brimming with tears. "Don't blame yourself, my darling," his mother said, voice quivering. "It was never your fault. You fulfilled your duty as a brother beyond all expectations. I'm so very proud of you," she said, smiling. "Now listen to me, Allen," she said, suddenly very serious, "I don't have much time left. I can feel it deep inside my heart."
"Mother, please don't talk like that," Allen pleaded.
"Allen, you must listen!" Encia said. "My sister Rebekah has agreed to care for you after I'm gone."
"But what about the manor?"
"The manor is included in your inheritance. When I am gone you will go to your aunt's. Mind her. Do as she tells you!" Allen couldn't help chuckling at her mock severity.
"Oh Allen, I love you," Encia said finally. "You know that, don't you?"
"Yes."
"You were always important to me."
Allen was caught off guard, recalling his harsh words from the previous night. "I'm sorry, Mother," he said quietly.
"You don't need to be," she murmured softly. "you had every right to feel that way. I only wish I could be with you longer."
"Please don't say that."
"I'm tired. I need to rest." Encia closed her eyes, sinking back into sleep. Allen stayed where he was, holding her hand. The minutes ticked by. The servants tried to convince him to leave, but Allen refused. He just wanted to stay with her a little while longer.
It was an hour or so later when he felt the change. The cold hand of his mother changed subtly, becoming a different kind of a cold. "No," he cried out. "No, Mother! Don't leave me! Don't leave me alone, Mother!" The doctor came over and felt her neck for a pulse.
"I'm sorry," he pronounced slowly under his breath. The women in the room immediately burst into tears, wailing. The men took off their hats and closed their eyes, saying silent prayers for their mistress. Allen could only sit there, stupefied, the tears running uncontrollably down his face. He stared at the empty shell that had once been his mother--so fresh. So happy and full of life. The doctor put a hand on his shoulder. Snarling, Allen brushed his arm away.
"Don't give me your sympathy!" he shouted. "You could have done something! You could have saved her! But you didn't! You didn't even try!"
"Now, Allen," the doctor said kindly, "that's not true. I did everything in my power to help her, but I'm only a man. I--"
"I don't want to hear it!" He tore out of the room, ignoring the protests that followed him. When he came to his own room, he locked the door behind him and collapsed in a heap on the floor, sobbing.

"Master Allen?" came a timid female voice from the hall. It was Corine. Allen didn't bother to answer or get up from where he lay. "Master Allen?" Corine called again. Twice more she said his name until she gave up trying to coax him out of his room. The sun had long since set, and the twin moons in the sky cast pale shadows on the floor. Allen gazed at them until they were no longer in the window. Smiling bitterly, he got up off the floor and went to the window so he could still see them.
"You've managed to accomplish what no one else here has done," he remarked to them dryly. The moons were silent in response, but to Allen, it was as if they heard his pain, and just their presence comforted him. Off in the distance, a shooting star streaked across the sky. "I wish," he said to no one in particular, "to be free of all my pain."
As if on cue, the lock on the door clicked open, and the butler stood silhouetted in the light emanating from the hall. Allen barely glanced at him, then turned back to the window.
"Allen," Roelof said, putting the key back in his pocket, "arrangements have been made for your mother's interment."
"So that's it, then," Allen said, finally turning to speak to him, "we'll bury her and be done with it?"
"Your mother meant more to us than that," the butler announced.
"She was my mother! You can't possibly understand how I feel!"
"I served Encia Schezar faithfully for twenty-six years," Roelof retorted, "and I know of no one else who was as kind and beautiful as she was. Don't say she meant nothing to me, because nothing is further from the truth! Do you think this has been easy for any me? My mistress is dead now, I am unemployed, and I have to play nursemaid to a selfish child who can't grow up and see past his own pain! Losing Encia has affected us all, more than you know. Goodnight, Allen." Roelof shut the door curtly behind him, leaving the boy alone with the tempest of his thoughts.

Encia Schezar was committed to the earth on a rainy day in a cemetery overlooking the city of Palas. The water poured down on those present, soaking cloaks and skin, mingling with salty tears. Long after everyone else had gone, Allen stood alone in front of his mothers grave which was marked with a white cross and circle like all the rest there. One more in the field of white graves. Allen was soaking wet, but he didn't want to leave, and it wasn't until Corine came out later to fetch him that he returned to the city.
His aunt was kind and understanding; she was careful not to be overbearing and allowed him time to grieve. Her house was nice and luxurious, but it wasn't the same as home. It smelled different. Incense instead of the light, airy perfume of flowers. The paintings on the walls were different. The servants weren't as familiar as the ones he'd grown up with, although Rebekah had taken the old set into her service as well. She was rich enough to afford it.
On a clear day in late summer when Allen returned to the old house to gather the rest of his things--some clothes, trinkets, and, against his better judgment, his father's old journal--his eyes fell on the sword rack as he passed the abandoned practice room. He'd had many lessons here, and had learned well how to master the lethal blade. Setting his pack down, he entered and took his sword down off the rack. It seemed shorter than he remembered, or had he just grown? It had only been a few weeks since he'd last held it in his hands. Slowly he slid the blade out of the blue sheath, listening to the metal sing as it sliced the air. He pictured himself with his trainer, working the forms and sparring against one another. For old times' sake, he re-enacted some of these sessions, delighting in the feel of the lights sword cutting the air, the way it danced, the motions blurring together and then suddenly freezing motionless, perfectly still, waiting in anticipation to release the pent-up energy...
Regretfully he slid it back into its sheath and was about to hang it back on the rack when he had another idea. Instead, he carried it out with him. Allen took one last look at his house, which seemed so empty now that everyone was gone. A man with a carriage was waiting outside to take him back to his aunt's. Allen wasn't ready to leave yet, though. He went down to the kitchen and out the back way into the fields. He visited once more the old tree and the stream, and even the far field where Celena had last been seen. It was overgrown with pink daisies now. The sun was beginning to sink in the sky, giving it a fiery, golden hue. In the distance lay Palas, and his new home. With a sigh, Allen turned his face away from it and stared instead at the great manor on the hill. It was still his home, in a way, but not really. With his family gone, he was alone in the world. Out of place. He had nothing now. He was as poor as those street urchins he'd encountered in Palas with Celena. He had no home now. Nothing. Without really knowing what he was doing or where he was going, Allen set off on foot, not for Palas or back to his house, but in a new direction, away from both. He had no home. He was cut off from the rest of the world. Alone.
The bushes in the meadows grew higher and higher until they were scrubby trees. Allen quickened his pace to a run. There was nothing left for him now. All he had was his sword and the pack on his back, but he didn't care. He wanted to run away from it all. All the hurt, all the loneliness. He couldn't stay in Asturia, with the constant reminder of what was. He'd go far away, travel like his father, and start a new life for himself somewhere else. 'I'm sorry, Aunt Rebekah,' he thought, 'but I can't stay here. I'm going to start over. Begin a new life. I'm sorry. Goodbye.'

---2 YEARS LATER---

Allen glared defiantly at the enormous man towering over him. He was at least twice Allen's own size, a great hulking mass of grizzled hair and scarred muscles. He carried with him a sword and possessed the air of being more than the common everyday traveler--those who wore the sword for show and not because they actually knew how to wield it. The man's clothes were well made, so he wasn't a pauper. It was Allen's lucky day. The pickings had been rather slim the last week or so. Allen had had to make do with a few crusts of bread and water from the stream, or whatever he could steal from passersby or from open windowsills. He'd grown much more wiry, but was well built despite the fact that his ribs were beginning to show prominently under his skin. He spent his nights sleeping in barns or out under the stars. He was barely recognizable as the boy who had once lived a luxurious life in one of Asturia's most prestigious families. He'd spent the last two years living like a scavenger--a common bandit--bullying people who traveled along the forest paths between Asturia and her neighboring country Fanelia for money and food. He'd become as wild as the gangs of Palas, though he'd never joined them or their kind. No, he worked best alone.
Most of the people he came across were frightened enough to give in to his demands, but there was the odd one who had the guts to fight back. He'd defeated all of them, but there was one man who'd refused to pay up and actually had some skill with a sword. Allen had received a good-sized scar along his right side for his trouble. This new one was just the same. He had the same feel about him. Allen would have to be careful.
"All right then, lad," the traveler said, "let's put your skill to the test. You seem to have some skill. I can see it in your stance...the way your hold your weapon. But I see no promise in a swordsman who thinks only of technique."
"You asked for it," said Allen, smiling deviously. Without preamble or war cry, he charged the stranger with his sword out, ready to swing, just like his old master had taught him. His footing was sure, all his power built up and ready to release through the gleaming blade. He swung the blade in an arc, read to strike the traveler across the belly, but in an instant, the stranger's sword had been whipped out of its sheath and struck Allen's with a blow Allen felt all the way up his arms. The force sent Allen flying back to fall ungainly to the earth. His sword, which had been torn from his grasp in less than two seconds, landed in the undergrowth several feet away.
Allen couldn't believe it. He'd been totally overwhelmed. Never had a defeat been as complete and humiliating as this. The man had tossed him away like a rag doll in a matter of seconds. He lay where he'd fallen on the forest path, not moving. Surely the victor would finish him off now. He slowly lifted his eyes up from the ground to face him, but the final death blow never came. To his great surprise, the towering man was sheathing his sword and gazing back at him without concern.
"Kill me!" Allen shouted angrily. The traveler made no move to comply.
"Why are you in such a hurry to die?" the traveler asked rationally.
"I have no home! No family! My sword is all I have left. If I am defeated, then what's the point of going on?"
"Your technique is perfect, but there is nothing driving it. True swordsmanship is a combination of skill and heart," the man said, thumping the left side of his chest with a huge hand. "Knowledge and self-mastery will only get you so far. The rest comes from inside." He paused for a moment to let that sink in. Then, "What was your name again?"
"Allen Schezar," Allen answered gloomily.
"Well, Allen Schezar," said the giant, "I can instruct you, if you like." Allen looked up at him, confused. "With some training, you have the potential to be one of the best swordsmen Gaea has ever seen, if you are willing. So, what do you say, young man?"
Allen was still puzzled. He'd just tried to rob this man, but wasn't being punished for it. It didn't make any sense. "Why do you want to help me?" he asked. The grizzled man smiled.
"I know talent when I see it. You're quite infamous, Allen Schezar. Many travelers who come to my country speak of a young vagabond who terrorizes innocent travelers in the forests. Most people think you're a ghost haunting these woods."
"Where are you from? And what's your name?" Allen asked. "Sir," he added hastily.
"I am called Balgus. I'm a samurai of Fanelia, but have taken to roaming to the ends of the earth to hone my spirit and seek out potential students such as yourself. So what do you say, Allen Schezar? he inquired, kneeling and offering Allen his hand. Allen looked at it warily for a moment, but shook it anyway. This man, Balgus, seemed like a trustworthy type. And besides, he didn't have anything to lose. Allen's wandering days were over.

The heavily scarred Fanelian samurai led Allen out of the forest where he lived. Allen didn't need to go back for anything. The only things in the world he owned were his sword and the clothes on his back. He followed the Fanelian down the wide dirt road, receiving odd looks from wagon drivers passing by on the same route. Allen tried not to let the feeling of being out in the open, unprotected, get to him. He kept a wary eye out for trouble, though, in case Balgus was playing him false and just leading him into a trap.
The trees eventually thinned and Allen found himself crossing the vast expanse of grass and streams under the bright blue sky. A cool breeze was blowing, and the lumpy clouds in the sky floated lazily overhead. His traveling companion had not said a word since their meeting in the woods. It came as a great surprise when the old soldier stopped, and, turning to the young boy, said, "Let's stop here for a while and eat." Allen, who was very aware of how empty and hollow his stomach felt, wasn't about to argue. Together they sat down in the grass alongside a brook running parallel with the road. Balgus gave Allen some bread and dried meat, and they drank the clean, clear water from the stream.
After lunch they moved on, following the road. Allen had no idea where it led. His legs were growing tired from walking for so long. How long had it been? Three hours? Four? Just how far did this stranger come to find him? Allen looked up at the sun. Even though the air was cool, Allen could feel the thin layer of sweat forming on his body. The sun was low in the western skies when Allen saw signs of civilization. At first it was just a windmill and a couple of isolated farmhouses, but the further they walked, the closer together the houses were, and the number of them increased. There were worn wheel tracks in the dirt road, as though people traveled this way frequently. Allen was starting to get a little nervous. Balgus took no notice and continued on.
By the time they reached a small village, Allen was quite tempted to turn around and run back to the forest. At least it was familiar. He hadn't been among people for two years. Many of the folk they passed gave him queer looks and whispered behind their hands to each other. Allen could barely stand it. A gaggle of little children had fallen in behind him, playing with long wooden sticks and poking him in the back and sides whenever they dared to get close enough, snickering maliciously. When Allen had had enough of this abuse, he whipped his sword out of its sheath and turned on them, and sure enough, the children ran screaming in the opposite direction. Satisfied, Allen put his sword away.
The village got bigger the further in he and Balgus went. The streets were more solid and packed, and there were more people. Far more people. They made Allen uncomfortable. Many eyed him and the tall soldier disapprovingly. Most just stared at their swords, wondering if he and the ferocious-looking man were going to cause any trouble. A few of them, women and other girls mostly, stared wide-eyed at his scrawny frame and his ribs showing visibly through his thin shirt.
The buildings were changing visibly, too. There were now two-story buildings in addition to wooden houses, not to mention blacksmiths' shops, stables, and stores selling meat, bread, dresses, or whatever the general public needed.
"Where are we?" Allen asked his companion finally.
"The outskirts of Palas in Asturia," Balgus answered without looking over his shoulder. Palas? Mention of that name nearly made Allen bolt then and there.This was the last place he had wanted to come! What if someone recognized him? He darted his eyes around anxiously. Aside from just glancing wonderingly at the strangers in their midst, the villagers weren't paying any mind to him and the samurai.
"We're here," Balgus announced. Allen stopped and looked at his surroundings. They were standing in front of a shabby inn. Faded paint on the sign over the door read "The Water Serpent," and a sinewy picture of a green and blue sea dragon, the goddess Jitsia, was painted beneath the letters. Without hesitating, Balgus opened the weathered door and went inside. Allen followed moments later.
The inside of the inn was in better condition than it looked on the outside. A couple of people were engaged in a card game at one of the tables by the window. Another was staring dejectedly into his mug of beer. Balgus went up to the tubby, aproned man behind the counter, ordered a room for the night, and paid for it out of a leather bag on his belt. Allen looked and saw glints of silver and gold inside. The samurai wasn't poor. That was for sure.
The two of them sat down at a table by the door. Presently a waitress came by to wait on them. Balgus placed a silver coin in her hand, and within minutes, steaming plates of roast goose, mashed potatoes, carrots and beef slathered in gravy, fresh white rolls, and two goblets of deep-crimson wine were laid out before them. Allen could hardly hold himself back, but he waited until the grizzled old soldier began eating before tucking in himself. It was the best he'd eaten in weeks, and he enjoyed himself heartily.
Balgus retired upstairs to their room early, even though night had scarcely fallen. Allen stayed in the common room, even though he was so full of food the thought of eating more made him sick, and watched a small group of entertainers play their flutes, harps, and tambourines. Allen hadn't heard music for a long time, either. Not since he left home. Thoughts of home brought back painful feelings in his heart, and Allen stubbornly wiped away the wet tears that were threatening to spill over his cheeks. He glanced around quickly to see if anyone noticed, and saw only a slim, pretty barmaid gazing dreamily at him from behind the counter. The red-haired, green-eyed girl had been staring at him for some time, now that Allen thought about it. Suddenly desirous to be away from her gaze, Allen left the cheery, warm fires and music of the common room and proceeded up the wooden stairs to the second floor. The room he shared with the old samurai was at the end of the hall on the left.
Allen opened the door slowly. Only the slightest creak as it swung on its hinges announced him. The room contained only one bed, and Balgus, tough soldier that he was, had opted to sleep on a mat on the floor. Allen stole quietly across the wooden boards, softly, so as not to wake him. The pale moonlight shining through the small window in the room cast a soft glow on the samurai's sword belt and money pouch, which were just a foot away from Balgus' sleeping form. An idea suddenly went through Allen's head. Or maybe it was just habit.
Checking to see that Balgus, whose soft snoring could be heard from underneath his blankets, was sound asleep, Allen crept over to his side and knelt down. Taking the old soldier's money pouch proved to be no problem. The coins didn't even jingle inside the bag as he lifted it up. Allen quietly suppressed the satisfied smirk on his face.
Then, as quickly as a falcon diving to seize its prey, and arm shot out from under Balgus' blankets, grabbing Allen's ankle and jerking him roughly, and within two seconds Allen was lying flat on his back, staring up at the scarred features of Balgus' face. The old warrior, who was sitting up and very much awake, leaned over the prostrate boy, moonlight reflecting in his one good eye.
"Don't assume that just because the enemy sleeps, he doesn't see everything going on around him," he uttered.
Allen took a second to calm his heaving chest. He could feel his heart throbbing, completely startled from his recent fright. "Are you my enemy?" he asked. The samurai said nothing as if he hadn't heard him at all and settled back down on his sleeping mat. He turned on his side and started snoring softly again. Allen, not sure if he really was asleep or not, got up, and leaving the money pouch where it was, climbed into the empty bed. He shucked off his threadbare shirt and got beneath the covers. It had been two years since he'd slept in a bed. The soft pillow and clean, sweet-smelling sheets pulled him to sleep instantly.
The bright sunlight filling the room early the next morning forced Allen to open his eyes and wake up. He'd had a restful, dreamless sleep, and now his stomach was telling him that breakfast should be one of his first priorities. Balgus was already gone. In fact, there was no sign that the samurai had ever been there. Allen donned his shirt and, taking his sword with him, went downstairs to see what was being served for breakfast.
Afterward, now that his belly was full and content, Allen and Balgus left the Water Serpent and set out once again among the streets of the village.
"Now where are we going?" the gold-haired boy asked the grizzled soldier.
"Not far," Balgus responded. "There are a few matters in Palas I need to attend to before I can get around to training you." After a few minutes' walk, they stopped in front of a tailor's shop. Balgus gave the tailor a couple of coins and an order for some decent clothes made for his apprentice, then left to take care of his business. The tailor measured Allen, taking special note of his skinny frame and then fetched some pre- made shirts and trousers from a room in the back of his shop. One set fit Allen perfectly, and the other was slightly too big. This, the tailor explained, was in case Allen ever got some meat on his bones. Balgus came by a few minutes later to pick up his protoge.
They set off into the streets again, and Allen could tell they were in Palas proper when the wide dirt roads became paved with brick and cobblestones. He was still wary that someone might recognize him, but no one gave him a second glace now that he was well dressed and groomed. Balgus steered him away from the residential and commercial part of the town to an area that contained huge storage warehouses and a gigantic stadium. People were going about their business, carrying building materials to their destination, or loading up wagons full of supplies to be traded elsewhere.
Thirty-foot guymelefs carried steel beams from warehouse to warehouse. Allen couldn't help gawking at them. He'd never seen a real guymelef before, though he'd heard about them from his father and tutors. He'd just never had the chance to see one close up. Balgus must have noticed him staring because he put a heavy hand on Allen's shoulder and said, "Those melefs are used specifically for construction. They're slow and not too interesting to look at. Not like combat guymelefs. Now those are truly a sight to behold." His voice trailed off wistfully.
"Are you a guymelef pilot as well?" Allen couldn't help asking.
"I was, long ago. I tell you, there's no greater feeling in the world than sparring in a guymelef match. If you like I can teach you how to pilot one as well. What say you, Allen?"
Allen tore his eyes away from the lumbering giants to look his benefactor in the eye. "Yes, I think I'd like that."

The next two years were the most grueling, but strangely, the most enjoyable of Allen's life. Balgus helped him to perfect his swordsmanship, drawing on his own inner strength, ignoring feelings like sorrow and anger, which only led to distraction and mistakes. Mistakes that in a battle could cost him his life. Allen also learned the samurai code of honor, something which Balgus strictly believed in and enforced. Good meals and hours practicing combat in the field by Balgus' home helped him to fill out so that he was no longer the scrawny, underfed ruffian he'd been before meeting his master. True to his word, Balgus also instructed him in guymelef operation, using some of the old models rented out to the public. Even though the melefs he piloted weren't so glamorous, Allen felt a thrill of excitement every time he operated one. He sparred against Balgus mostly, but took an opportunity here and there to fight others his own age. His advanced skill and knowledge led him to victory after victory.
It was not all fun and games, though. Allen was taxed to his utmost strength in sword training, and sported more than a couple bumps and bruises at any given time. From sunup to mid-afternoon, taking breaks only for meals and a short rest in the middle of the morning, Allen mastered the sword and himself under the Fanelian samurai's tutelage.. In the evenings, much to Allen's dismay, Balgus arranged for a manservant of a nobleman to come and teach him court etiquette. Allen didn't mind his bruises as much as he did the flowery method of speaking, although he soon mastered it, knowing which eating utensil to use when, and how to show proper respect to people above his station. Worst was the dancing. Balgus respectfully declined from teaching him that, and so the job fell to his etiquette tutor. As a child, Allen had never been made to dance, though he had, on one or two occasions, played along with his sister in her imaginary balls and parties. This was just humiliating. He was glad no one was around to see him during these sessions.
The best times were spent at swordplay tournaments. The clanging of metal on metal, the ecstatic movement and grace of the sword, the cheers of the spectators...all of them made life worth living. The prize money wasn't so bad either. On numerous occasions Allen offered Balgus payment in cash for everything the old soldier had done for him, but Balgus declined politely. He responded that just seeing Allen make something of his life was compensation enough.
One warm summer morning, the sun shone down on the Palas Arena, where yet another sword match was to take place, in which Allen was competing. Seated on the edge of a water fountain outside the Arena, Allen had his mind focused on honing the edge of his sword to concise razor perfection with a whetstone. He wanted his sword to be perfect, flawless, because today was going to be no ordinary match. Allen had become fairly well- known over the last two years as the prodigy of Balgus, one of the Three Master Swordsmen of Gaea. He was back in the limelight of Asturian society again, though nobody knew where the young runaway had gone so long ago. Rebekah, Allen's aunt, he later found out, had become stricken with some disease a year after his mother's death, and she too joined Encia Schezar's soul in heaven. Allen was truly alone in the world now, all he had was his sword. He didn't feel lonely anymore, though.
He set his mind back to the upcoming fight. His opponent was yet unknown, but Allen had confidence in his own abilities. What made this match special was who would be watching. Word had leaked out that King Aston himself would be in attendance. A match in front of the king. Allen would be at the height of his skills for this contest. A confident grin spread over his face as he went over his strategy.
He finished scraping the stone along the edge of his sword and pulled a soft cloth out of his pocket to polish the silver blade. It reflected the blinding sun overhead. Allen raised his eyes to the sun. It was almost directly overhead. The competition would start at noon. Sheathing his sword, Allen began walking towards the arena. The stadium was already beginning to fill with spectators eager to witness the competition. Allen hurried past the bustling crowd of people towards the competitors' barracks where he would wait until the match began.
He paid no special attention to the faces of the people streaming by. He never did. But then, as if shocked by electricity, Allen suddenly halted. A face in the crowd had caught his eye. He looked out over the crowd towards the base of the stadium. Two burly men in royal garb and wearing swords stood beside two richly dressed individuals. One was short with a wide girth and a feather-plumed hat on his bald head. He wore a thick, heavy wreath of gold around his shoulders. Without a doubt this was the king. But what really caught his notice, was his companion. A young woman who was distributing a handful of coins to a group of poor beggars. When he saw her, Allen felt like his heart had stopped beating. The woman had long, beautiful hair the color of spun gold. The shiny tresses were vibrant in the sunlight. Her pale skin against the light shades of her dress had an unearthly glow. Her smile and her eyes made her look like an angel from the stone carvings on the Temple of Morigan. Allen stared in absolute awe. She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever laid eyes on. One of the guards spoke a few words to her, and with a disappointed frown, she accompanied her two bodyguards up into the stands. Allen lost sight of her among the throng. More people were crowding into the arena now. News of the event must have spread from Palas to Godashim; there were so many people.
"Hey, boy," Allen called to one of the young lads who managed the arena's stables as he was passing by. The sandy-haired youth turned his aqua-blue eyes on him.
"Yes, sir?" he said respectfully.
"Did you see that woman over there, standing by the front row of the first section of seats?"
"Yes, sir."
"Who is she, do you know?" The boy couldn't help the small grin that crept onto his face.
"You mustn't be from anywhere around here if you don't know who she is," he said. "That there was Princess Marlene, eldest of King Aston's daughters. She's here for the tournament, I guess." The boy then hurried off to attend to his duties. Allen turned his gaze back to the crowd, trying to find her, though he knew it was in vain. She was here to watch the tournament? If that was the case, thought Allen, smiling to himself, he'd make sure he was victorious.
Twenty-five minutes later, Allen was out in the dusty arena, facing his next opponent. The young, slim, almost feminine swordsman fighting him was obviously a samurai. Allen was having a hard time countering all the blows coming his way. His opponent's long, fiery red hair flowed with his movements. It was like a deadly dance--so full of grace and beauty. Allen couldn't help admiring his opponent's skill. The redhead's style was familiar. Allen recognized some of his sword forms as being Fanelian in origin. Maybe this man was a Fanelian samurai, like Balgus, or maybe even had trained under him. The samurai's tactics were much like those Balgus had taught Allen. Which was why he was able to defend himself at all, much to the awe and wonder of the crowd.
'Is she watching me right now?' he thought, blocking a particularly difficult maneuver almost effortlessly. 'I hope so.' The Fanelian samurai was now changing his strategy. This young Asturian upstart seemed to have predicted all of his best moves, so he began working more defensively instead of openly attacking. Allen took this opportunity immediately and delivered blow after powerful blow to his enemy. The red-haired samurai defended himself well, but was that a look of uncertainty growing in his eyes? Were his steps a little less sure? Allen went in for a clean, sideways sweep, only to find his blade slicing empty air. The samurai had leapt several feet into the air, higher than Allen had seen any man jump, and was descending from above like a hawk, ready to pounce on his prey. Allen readied his sword to block.
The diving hawk stooped to the earth, but as he did, a split second before connecting, lashed out with his sword at a different angle, catching Allen off guard. He barely managed to block it, but the force of the impact sent him staggering back. The samurai, with renewed energy and vigor, came at him again and again, violet eyes shining with determination. Allen was being forced to the edge of the ring. He'd be automatically disqualified if he stepped outside of it. The samurai was preparing for a full-out charge--the finishing blow, and rushed toward his opponent. Things weren't looking good. Allen braced himself. In the split second before the samurai struck, that pivotal moment when time seemed to freeze, Allen looked out over the arena. There, in the top box decked out in regal banners, he saw her. Marlene.
Immediately he focused his attention back on the charging samurai, and an idea occurred to him. He held up his weapon, preparing to block, and in the split second when the two swords should have connected, pranced nimbly aside and out of harm's way. The red-headed samurai, seeing what Allen was doing, tried desperately to stop, but his momentum was too great, and he went spiraling out of bounds, losing the match. The crowd in the stadium went insane, cheering and screaming Allen's name. A shower of flowers began to litter the arena floor. Allen was very pleased to see the sun-haired woman in the top box toss a white flower down to the ground to mingle with all the others. Then she and her companions stood and left the box. Allen watched her go, sad and happy all at the same time.
He was on his way to the competitors' barracks when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning around, he saw a tall, sturdily-built man in a blue, white, and gold uniform smiling at him. He carried a bright, white-hilted sword on his belt.
"You are Allen Schezar, am I correct in assuming?" he inquired.
"Yes," said Allen, curious as to what this man wanted with him.
"Splendid. I am Jarokin d'Salogal, of the Knights Caeli. I'd like to have a talk with you."

Allen could hardly believe it when, just a week later, he knelt before the old temple priest, clad in the blue, white, and gold uniform of the Knights Caeli--the Knights of Heaven. They were the highest order of swordsmen in all of Asturia. Only the best of the best were given this honor. There could only be thirteen Knights at any given time. One of the Knights was retiring, and so Jarokin d'Salogel was scouting for a replacement and happened to be present at that fateful tournament on that fateful day. And so the honor fell to Allen Schezar. He could hardly believe his luck.
He listened intently to the words of the priest as the elderly man described the duties of a Knight--the responsibilities. Everything that was to be expected of Allen. The words passed over him like a wave, rolling about and echoing in his mind. 'Mother would be proud,' he thought to himself contentedly. 'Celena too.'
The other twelve Knights were assembled in a line nearby, awaiting their newest comrade to join their ranks. Allen tilted his head slightly to catch another glimpse of them. They were all smiling at him in a friendly manner. They came from every age group, from old masters to men a few years older than Allen's own age. Jarokin had informed him that he was one of the youngest Knights to ever be indoctrinated. One of Caeli, a short-haired young man with dust-colored hair and green eyes winked at Allen. Allen smiled back. Behind the line of Knights was Balgus, dressed in traditional Fanelian armor for the occasion. His expression was the softest Allen had ever seen on the man. The warm smile seemed to blend in weirdly with all of the scars on his face.
Allen turned his attention back to the priest, who was finishing up the closing speech. At the end of it, he presented Allen with his new sword--the mark of a Knight of Heaven. Allen gazed at its splendor. If any inanimate object could be beautiful, it would be that sword. It was longer than the one he'd previously owned, covered with a pearl-while hilt and scabbard. Allen accepted it gratefully in his white-gloved hands.
The formal setting of the initiation ceremony was shattered when some of the more boisterous knights let out ear-splitting whoops and cheers for Allen. The older veterans simply looked on tolerantly with slightly exasperated grins at the ruckus the younger upstarts were creating. Allen was about to join their ranks when something caught his eye. Among the pillars of the Great Hall, far in the back behind the dais, he was sure he'd seen something. A glint of gold. But it was fleeting and vanished. A hand on his shoulder diverted his attention once more.
"Well, young Allen Schezar," said Balgus, "It would appear I was successful. I managed to make a respectable man out of you after all. I have to admit I had doubts when I first saw you, but you've grown remarkably, exceeding all my expectations. And now you are one of the Knights. Congratulations."
"Thank you," said Allen, overwhelmed. "For everything."
"I plan on returning to Fanelia tomorrow morning, on the first stage," Balgus added.
"You're leaving?" Allen said. "But--"
"But what?" inquired Balgus. "I've taught you everything you need to know about the sword, and you're an outstanding gentleman and guymelef pilot. Now, with the Caeli, your whole future is open to you. My own spirit is calling me home. It has been for some time. Besides, now that you are taken care of, I have my own destiny to attend to." Allen could see it was no use arguing.
"Thank you, Balgus," he said again, extending his hand. The old, grizzled warrior took it and shook it slowly.
"Good luck to you, Allen Schezar," he said fondly to the blonde youth, then walked out of the Hall. Allen could scarcely believe it. His mentor--his friend--was really leaving. Allen wondered if he'd ever see him again. By tomorrow he'd be gone.
"Goodbye, Master," Allen said reverently.
"Hey, Allen!" said the Knight called Alacain. He was the one who had winked at him earlier. "We're going out to go get some drinks to celebrate! You comin'?"
"Yeah," Allen called after him. He finished hanging the white- sheathed blade at his side. It felt so...right...being there. It was of the finest make, and light as a feather. Allen was sure that the balance would be perfect as well.
"C'mon, Allen!" said Alacain.
"Alright!" he responded jovially, walking out of the Hall, not as just the orphan Allen Schezar, but as Allen Schezar, a Knight of Heaven.

Allen had hardly been quartered in Caeli barracks for two weeks when Jarokin approached him with a mysterious letter sealed with red wax and having two sea serpents entwined about a sword impressed upon it.
"What's this?" Allen asked as Jarokin gave it to him.
"No clue," Jarokin said. "I haven't opened it. Might be your first assignment. The seal is that of the king. A messenger arrived with it just a few minutes ago. Go ahead, open it!" He handed Allen a small knife. Allen used it to break the wax seal and unfurled the parchment. In a flowery, cursive script were written the words

To the honorable Allen Schezar, Knight Caeli,

By order of King Aston the Second of Asturia, you are hereby commanded to take up the sword and assume the command of the Royal Guard of the Palace, beginning the Twelfth moon of Blue. Further instructions will be given upon your arrival.

Allen looked up from the paper at Jarokin, who seemed interested in knowing what the parchment contained.
"It's a summons," Allen explained. "I'm to be Captain of the Guard at the palace." He looked at the message and reread it. ì12th moon? That's tomorrow! Why are they requesting me so soon?"
"That's just incredible," said Jarokin, as though he hadn't heard Allen's inquiry. "Youngest Knight in over a century and quickest to be dispatched." Then he shrugged. "Haven't a clue," he said. "Odd, though. That's a pretty important assignment. And given to such a young one, too! No offense."
"None taken."
"Usually our guys are stationed here for months before they're given any task. Strange that you should receive one so soon."
"Yes," Allen said, musing.
"Well, it's a royal command. You'd better go get your things packed up and ready to go. Looks like you won't be staying in this place much longer," he said, gesturing to the quarters around them. "I'll go inform everyone," he said. "It's kind of a shame, really," he said. "We were all just barely getting to know you, too. Well, at any rate, congratulations, Allen," he said, shaking the youth's hand. He stepped out of Allen's quarters, leaving him alone with the letter and his own wondering thoughts.
The next day, Allen left his newly-made friends and appeared before the king in the throne room of the palace. The fat, bald man dressed in fine, puffy silks sat regally in the throne below the painting of the Asturian crest. This was the most important man in the country. Allen marveled at his fortune, ending up here. Appointed Captain of the Guard for the Royal Palace. It was a gigantic leap from being the unholy ruffian stealing for a living in the woods of Asturia.
"Sir Allen Schezar," said the page, announcing him, "here to see his Majesty." Allen went forward and knelt humbly before the throne, hand on sword hilt, which signified service and obedience to the king.
"I have come as ordered, your Majesty," he said. The king scrutinized him from the high-backed throne.
"Ah, this is the young Knight Allen Schezar?" he asked rhetorically. "I've heard and seen many good things about you, Sir Allen. You came highly recommended for this job!"
"Majesty?" said Allen questioningly.
"This is a great honor and a great responsibility, serving your country's leaders and the royal family as their guardian. Do you accept it?"
"Yes, your Majesty," Allen said with conviction, eyes cast down.
"Excellent," responded King Aston. He motioned to one of his underlings standing nearby. The blue-and-gold garbed maidservant came at his call and received instruction. "Show Sir Allen to his quarters," King Aston commanded. With a slight curtsy, the servant left Aston's side and approached Allen.
"If you'll follow me, Sir Allen?" she said meekly. She led him throught the palace, pointing out areas such as the armory, the royal family's quarters, the kitchens, that sort of thing. Allen looked around in awe. His own manor house was luxurious, but the castle was unlike anything he'd ever seen before. Paintings and tapestries adorned every wall. Limestone statues of people and animals were littered everywhere. Underfoot were fine woven rugs from Daedalus on glistening marble floors. The halls led on deeper into the heart of the castle. The servant eventually stopped before a dark brown door. "These will be your rooms," she said simply, head bowed. "If you have need for anything, send for one of the servants, and it will be attended to immediately."
"Thank you," said Allen. The woman bowed again politely and set off down the corridors, leaving him alone. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open. His eyes fell on a rich, lavish receiving room, furnished with green velvet curtains, fine chairs and a large writing desk, complete with more tapestries and paintings like those in the halls. Allen gave a low whistle.
He walked in, taking a look around. Everything looked immaculate. The room must have been cleaned and dusted before he arrived. Someone had put carefully arranged red flowers in a vase in the corner. Past the front room was a bedroom, just as grandiose as everything else, a bathroom, and a smaller room that was probably a closet. Allen couldn't help but stare at his surroundings. Captains of the Guard must be treated pretty well in the palace.
A few minutes later, another servant arrived with Allen's belongings. Allen unpacked the few things he owned and put them away. The last item in his meager collection was his father's journal. Seeing it again caught Allen off guard. Sweeping aside the turbulent thoughts that began to swirl in his mind, he deposited the book inside one of the desk drawers and locked it.
Allen looked around at his accommodations one more time then decided to step out for a walk. After all, if he was supposed to help guard the castle, he'd better acquaint himself with it. The castle corridors were neat and organized, and within the hour, Allen had a pretty good idea of how to get from place to place. Oddly enough, he didn't see many people while he was out and about. The palace seemed...empty. 'Maybe the servants are very efficient--neither seen nor heard,' Allen thought. His walk took him all around the palace. The Asturian palace had many gardens of varying size enclosed within its walls, like indoor parks, open to the sky. Allen just happened to pass by one on the second floor across the hall from the library when he saw her through the glass. Seated on an antique wooden bench next to a small, serene pond was the sun-haired woman, Princess Marlene. Her mind and attention were absorbed in the book she was reading. Allen could see her clear, light blue eyes track back and forth as they ran over the pages. The light pink blossoms on the peach trees matched her elegant gown of the same shade. The rays of sunlight filtering down through the branches to shine on her made her appear like some kind of elvish Titania.
The princess, as though she could feel him watching her, looked up from her book and locked eyes with him. Her lips parted into an unmistakable smile. She set her book down beside her and rose to her feet, following the cobblestone path from the bench to the glass garden door. She was coming to meet him, Allen realized. As that sudden knowledge sank in, he felt a desperate desire to flee. His feet took off on their own, and Allen cursed himself for being such a coward. Of course he wanted to see her, but what would he say? He knew that as soon as he looked into her sky-blue eyes he'd lose his wits and stutter like a complete and total moron. Not the kind of first impression he wanted to make. He'd probably--

Allen nearly yelped in surprise. Marlene must have taken a shortcut and headed him off, because there she stood in front of him, in all her splendor, arms folded and with a slightly amused expression on her face.
"Princess!" Allen said, mind racing. He searched for something else to say, but nothing came.
"Good afternoon, Sir Allen," Marlene said to him. She bobbed a little curtsy. Her sparkling eyes and melodious voice seemed, to Allen, to tease him.
"Uh, good afternoon," he replied, bowing as he had been taught by his old instructors.
"I've been meaning to talk to you," Marlene said lightly. "Will you walk with me?"
"O-of course." Surprised, but obedient, Allen accompanied her down the corridors of the castle. He was immensely relieved to have gotten this far without screwing up too badly. He didn't know where this slow stroll was going, nor did he care, but he couldn't take his mind off his bashful adoration. The most beautiful woman on Gaea was right next to him.
"I've seen some of your duels. Your sword work is quite impressive."
"Thank you," said Allen, flattered. They carried on light conversation about various subjects for several minutes. Although he became slightly more comfortable in her presence after a while, he was constantly terrified that he'd make some blunder and look like a fool in front of the elegant, beautiful princess. She showed him around the castle, giving him a tour of his new home. Allen decided tactfully not to mention that he'd already been given the same treatment by one of the maidservants earlier. He was content with simply listening to the sound of her voice. It was undeniably the most beautiful thing he'd ever heard in his life, and he cherished it. He also couldn't help stealing long glances at her every so often. She was stunningly pretty and perfect, from her bright hair and full, pink lips to her slender, supple frame that moved with smooth, fluid motions with the grace of flowing water. If he didn't know better, and he wasn't sure if he did or not, he would have sworn she was an angel that had lost her wings and descended from the heavens to the earth. Allen realized, in his heart, that he was becoming addicted to the sight of her. He'd never felt like this before. Not towards any woman. Was he...in love? For at least half an hour he accompanied the princess on the seemingly endless journey through the castle. Marlene would sometimes point out an area that Allen's former guide hadn't thought necessary to include. It made the castle feel more...homelike. And open, in an honest sense. He decided to turn the conversation to other matters weighing on his mind.
"Princess," he asked, feeling stupid, "what exactly are my duties as Captain of the Guard? I know that my main responsibility is to protect you and the rest of the people in the palace, especially the royal family," he added quickly, "but...well...what exactly am I to do?"
Marlene looked at him in mild surprise and laughed lightly, a sound like the tinkling of wind chimes. But her smiling features showed that she didn't think it was a foolish question at all. "The job is simple enough, Sir Allen," she said warmly. "In the morning you inspect the guards' barracks, seeing that the guards are on duty. You are also in charge of regulating and assigning shifts and making sure every inch of the palace is secure. And..." There was a distant look to her eyes as she paused to remember more. "And you have to be present at royal functions and things like that. Out of protocol," she said with a smile. "That's about it. The rest of the time is your own. It's not a hard job, really," she told him, "but it needs the right man for the task. And that's you. You just have to make sure that everything is in order and running smoothly. Does that answer all your questions?"
Allen gave her a soft, reassured smile in return. "Yes, I think it does." They walked on through the halls. He could hardly believe his luck. His assignment was sent from the gods, surely. He was amazed that he had a chance to be close to this bright-eyed fairy with hair like deep golden wheat. He vowed in his heart right then and there to protect her, with his life if need be. His mind wandered along for a while, mesmerized by the sound of her voice.
"Good afternoon, Sister," came a cool, emotionless voice. Allen and Marlene both turned to see a skinny, pale girl with bleached blonde hair and arrayed in a drab, wool dress looking at them with a disapproving frown.
"Eries," said Marlene with her lovely voice, "allow me to introduce the new Captain of the Guard, Sir Allen Shezar of the Knights Caeli." She smiled sweetly at the young girl. "Allen," she said, turning back to her companion, "this is my younger sister, Princess Eries." Allen bowed respectfully to the sallow-faced princess, but Eries returned no such courtesy. Instead, she glared at them with her hard, piercing cerulean eyes for a few seconds longer before turning on her heel and striding off in the opposite direction.
"Don't mind her," said Marlene. "She's always like that. She's too intellectual for her own good, in my opinion. Eries thinks too much. When she was just a little girl, she swore to join a convent when she became older instead of living as a princess. Sometimes I think she's just crazy." Marlene laughed softly, a sound that Allen treasured and captivated in memory on the spot.

The next couple of months, in Allen's memory, were completely blissful. His responsibilities as Captain of the Guard were easy, but he made sure that he did everything right. Sometimes he went out of his way to make sure things ran smoothly. His efforts did not escape the appraising eye of King Aston, who once or twice complimented him on his fine work. The guards he oversaw all liked and respected him, and Allen was proud to know them all by name. They got along well with him, which made Allen's job much easier than he expected. He also got to see a lot of Asturia's high society and aristocratic life in the balls and banquets he was required to attend. They reminded him sharply of his childhood with his mother, father and Celena. He hadn't thought about them much in the last few months. His newfound happiness had helped to quell the dark shadows of the past that crept into his mind now and then.
Marlene was with him through it all. She was friendly and understanding, always willing to help anyone with his or her problems, regardless of the cost. That was shown in her service at the soup kitchens she so often volunteered at and at the orphanages she visited frequently. She never failed to give alms to the poor whenever she left the palace, and everywhere she went she was greeted like an old friend. The people loved her, and she loved them. Allen knew she would make an excellent queen someday.
She spent a large portion of her time with him as well. When Allen was off duty, they strolled along the palace grounds, talking about books, people, and everything under the sun, just like ordinary people. In the early summer he went out with her alone on long horseback rides to the country, with picnic lunches packed for a day of solitude and good company, or, if the weather didn't permit, cavorting around in the rain. Marlene seemed to enjoy his companionship as much as he did hers. He thought that maybe she had been a little lonely before he was summoned to the palace. There were not many people in the castle for her to befriend, and she was a very kindly, outgoing person. She was also an avid player of tennis and badminton, and blessed with great musical talent as well. When Allen went made the last rounds of the day, he often found himself heading by her apartments just to listen to her play the magnificent ivory harp that she strummed every evening. Its music was just as beautiful as she was. He was allowed to go with her and her retinue as a bodyguard on trips around Asturia, and once even to the faraway country of Zaibach. King Aston was mending commercial negotiations with its leaders. He relied heavily on his fair eldest daughter, whose bright mind and temperate manner of speaking made her a natural charmer, to make a good impression. Marlene always attained her objective. She woud make the perfect queen. The more that realization dawned on Allen, the more fearful he became. She was swiftly approaching the age at which she might be married off to the ruler of another country as a token of friendship and allegiance, as was a common custom of the ruling family of Asturia. Allen knew that his time with her was precious, and he wanted to savor every moment. He never spoke aloud his feelings though. He was only her guardian. Her protector. She was of royal blood. Deep in his heart, he knew he would only be making the inevitable hurt worse by continuing to worship her, but he didn't care. If he had but one wish, it would be to keep her with him always. He was not quite sure of her feelings for him, though. She had become his precious friend, and he would in no way endanger the existing relationship he had with her. Still, he was happy.

Towards the middle of his fourth month at the palace, he chanced upon Princess Eries squirreled away in a secluded section of the castle library, engrossed in a massive volume. Allen, who had come to seek a book Marlene had recommended to him, spotted her through the gaps in the shelves, over the tops of books. He barely made out the title on the giant book in the small princess's hands. It was in an older tongue, one he had studied a bit as a boy. The Philosophies of Ancient Thinkers. His eyebrows shot up in surprise. She was awfully young to be reading a tome like that. Yet she seemed enraptured by the words on the pages. Allen was about to reach for the book he sought on the shelf when he heard her voice on the other side of the divide.
"I know you're there, Allen," she said informally. "So come out of hiding."
Ashamed at being caught spying, Allen grabbed his book and rounded the corner to greet her. "My apologies, Princess," he said politely, with a short bow. "I didn't mean to snoop." Eries looked at him unapologetically. If anything, her hard blue eyes narrowed in annoyance. "I was looking for a book," Allen said in his own defense, holding up the proof.
"Fine," replied the 13-year-old princess shortly. Allen turned to leave, but the princess's next words stopped him in his tracks. "Are you in love with my sister?" she asked out of the blue.
Allen blinked in surprise. "With Marlene?"
"No," answered Eries sarcastically. "Millerna." Millerna was the third daughter of King Aston, only about ten years old at the time.
"I...don't know what you're talking about," Allen responded dumbly.
"I don't believe you," said Eries, a sharp edge to her voice. She set her gargantuan book down on the table next to her and leaned forward on the couch she was seated on. "I'm not stupid," she retorted. "I see the way you look at her. It's obvious. It's so obvious I'm surprised that she hasn't noticed it yet. She's too blinded by her own petty emotions and her own feelings for you to notice the sun rising in the east every morning. Let alone pay any attention to me," she added sullenly, in an accusing tone.
"Wait a minute. Her own feelings for me?" Allen repeated.
"Yes," said Eries, exasperated. She eyed him levelly. "You really have no idea, do you?"
"Princess?"
"She's in love with you, too, you moron! I can see it in her face. The way she looks at you. How's she always so happy all the time. She was like that ever since that sword fighting contest she first saw you in, idiot," Eries said, voice dripping with disfavor. Allen was too shocked by this sudden revelation to care that she was insulting him.
"She's in love with me?"
Eries eyes widened in complete and utter disbelief. "Are you hearing what I'm telling you at all?!" she said loudly. Allen winced, afraid that someone else in the library would hear, but as far as he knew, they were alone. "Why do you think you got to be Captain of the Guard so quickly and so easily?" Eries asked shrilly. "Marlene was vouching for you!" She lowered her tone slightly. "She has been ever since that match. I can't believe you didn't know that," she added in a supreme fashion. "She dropped all sorts of hints to Father, steering him in the right direction so that you could be brought to the palace." She halted her attack momentarily, enjoying the sight of the young Knight completely overwhelmed and dumbstruck. "You didn't know that?" she inquired. She made a noise of disgust. "You two are so star-crossed that you can't even see the obvious. That kind of stupidity really annoys me. That's why I'm joining a convent." With a quick jerk she grabbed her gigantic book off the table and stormed out of the library. Allen stood like a statue where he was. His mind turned over Princess Eries' words again and again. Marlene in love with him? He never would have guessed. How could he not have seen it? She concealed it very well. She would have to. She was a princess, forbidden from loving commoners. Allen wasn't exactly a commoner, but he was close enough that such a relationship would be considered taboo. Still in a daze, Allen clutched the book in his hands and exited the library quickly.
He spent at least an hour after that pacing tirelessly around the halls of the palace, mind racing. Marlene was in love with him! It was astonishing. One of his dreams fulfilled. He couldn't take his mind off of it. He had a sudden, desperate desire to see her right then. He wanted to ask her himself, just in case the snooty Princess Eries had been jerking his chain. With renewed determination, he set off to find her.

The princess was sitting outside on the main grounds, near the mighty stone wall that encompassed the palace grounds, feeding little crumbs of bread to a school of colorful goldfish in the lake-sized pond before her. She flicked a few more morsels to them before Allen caught her eye. She smiled and waved for him to come over. Allen hastily strode over to where she sat in the thick grass, robed in a dress of deep purple.
"Allen," she said cheerfully when he approached. They had become accustomed to addressing each other informally a long time ago. She saw the slightly troubled look on his face, and hers quickly changed to mirror it. "What's the matter?" she asked with genuine concern. Allen sat down on the grass next to her. The area was shaded by many small, leafy trees, giving them privacy. Which was exactly what Allen wanted at that moment.
"I just had a rather...interesting...discussion with Princess Eries," he remarked casually. Marlene scowled, or came as close to a scowl as it was possible for one with her disposition.
"Is she giving you a hard time again? I'll have a word with her if she is."
"No," said Allen, shaking his head. "It's not that. Well," he reconsidered, thinking back to the previous conversation, "it is, sort of. I'll say this for her. She has a tongue like a bullwhip."
"It's one of her better qualities," remarked Marlene dryly. "If that isn't it, then what is it?"
Allen sighed. He wasn't really sure how he wanted to approach this, but he badly wanted to know. So he stayed as frank as possible.
"She told me that you are in love with me," he admitted bluntly. Marlene's expression at that statement was one of absolute shock and slight anger. For a second, Allen was afraid that Eries really had been teasing him. But the faint blush that was spreading over her cheekbones reassured him a little.
"Well. This isn't what I was expecting at all." Her voice lowered to an almost inaudible whisper that Allen barely caught. She said something that sounded like, "I'm going to mangle her!"
Allen let her silently fume for a moment before asking her. "Is it true?" Marlene, taken off guard, looked at him in surprise. Her crystalline eyes fixed on him. Then, self-conscious, she averted her gaze and focused instead on the fish in the clear water by her slippered feet. She was silent for an uncomfortably long time. At least, that's how it felt to him.
"It's true," she said, still not looking at him. They both were very quiet. Neither knew what to say to the other until Marlene broke the silence. "I guess the cat's out of the bag. I wanted to tell you. Honestly, I did. I just didn't know if I should."
Allen regarded her tenderly. So she too was aware of the problems that would arise if they were to love each other. He wanted more than anything at that moment to hold her in his arms--something he would never have dared to do before today. Now he acted upon the thought, wrapping an arm around the princess and pulling her close to him. He heard her gasp softly when he touched her, but then she relaxed, settling into his embrace. Together they looked out over the pond.
"I used to wish for this," Marlene admitted after several minutes. She smiled and rested her head against his chest. Allen was moved with a sudden boldness. He placed a finger under her chin and tilted it up. Her wide blue eyes that reflected the sky met his. "I used to wish for this, too," he told her gently. Without another word he closed his eyes and kissed her. Her lips tasted warm and sweet. Vaguely he was aware of her wrapping an arm around his neck, drawing him deeper into the kiss. The sensations of her mouth against his filled him with a sense of euphoria that spread through his entire body. It was unlike any other feeling he'd ever experienced in his life.
"I'm in love with you, Allen Schezar," Marlene whispered between breaths. "I always have been and always will be. I don't care what happens anymore."

The secret courtship of the knight and the princess continued for several weeks, from the last roses of summer to the dwindling, gold-strewn leaves of late autumn. Neither Allen nor Marlene dared to speak a word of it to anyone for fear of what might happen if the forbidden romance was discovered. What would become of them? Allen's love for the beautiful, gentle maiden had become like an unfathomable addiction. She was his breath. His heartbeat. He lived only for her. Marlene was his only desire. His only reason for living. His only thought. And if he could no longer be with her...
Allen was always fearful that Eries--the shrewd, unpredictable younger sister--would divulge what she knew, but to her credit, she held her tongue. Perhaps she knew she'd be destroying her sister's dreams if she said anything. But that still didn't stop her from shooting frosty, dour frowns at Allen every time their paths crossed. Which was often. Still, Allen was unsure of how much longer his happiness would last.
On one cold, winter night on the third Moon of Red, when the snow outside the castle was flying in thick, furious gales, Allen went to see Marlene in private, as he often did when his shift was over. He halted outside her door and listened. The usual sound of the ivory harp's mellow tones could not be heard floating through the door. Allen held his breath to hear more clearly. Mingling with the whistle of the blizzard outside was the sound of faint weeping. Deep, mournful, heartbroken sobs. Immediately concerned, Allen knocked softly on the bedroom door.
"Marlene?" he asked in a hushed voice, in case there was anyone in the halls who might overhear and become suspicious of his late-night visit. After all, it was after-hours, and he was supposed to be in his own quarters, not skulking around the palace like a thief in the night. There was no response from the other side of the door. He tried twice more, calling out her name, but Marlene wouldn't answer. Boldly he turned the golden knob and entered Marlene's chambers. At first he couldn't see her in the dimness, but he located the source of the crying after a few moments. He found the distraught princess hidden away by the huge, lace- draped window, slowly rocking herself on the wide ledge. The mere sight of her dejected, trembling form clawed at Allen's heart. His first instinct was to reach out to her and encircle her with his arms and shield her from whatever demons were invading her world.
"Marlene?" he called her name. The princess lifted her frighteningly pale, tear-streaked face to return his gaze with large, watery, blue orbs. Her eyes were the color of ice. She looked as bleak as the raging, freezing wind outside--hopeless and without warmth. Allen carefully approached her. The light in her usually sparkling eyes seemed to have gone out. Her skin was as pale as the snow, and her light, honey-colored hair had lost its shine. It was the most wretched he'd ever seen her. Truthfully, the sight of her so dejected frightened him.
"What's the matter?" he asked softly, bewildered at her cheerless visage. Marlene took a few moments to still the uneven fluttering of air in her breast, and with quivering lips said slowly, in broken, forced words, "My father...has arranged for me...to marry...the Duke of Freid." She held on to her composure for a second more, then buried her face in her hands and commenced quietly weeping. Allen felt as though his heartbeat had ceased. His chest felt tight and constricted. He couldn't breathe. With blue eyes full of shock and disbelief, he staggered towards Marlene, joining her on the window seat beside the black, lightless panes.
"When?" he finally managed to utter, feeling as though the tons of stone of the Asturian castle had just come crashing down on him.
"A month from now," Marlene sobbed, shaking like a leaf. "It was all settled this afternoon. Oh, Allen!" With a strangled cry she flung herself at him and wrapped her arms about him tightly. Allen was shocked. She felt so...cold. Allen gently nestled her in his embrace, holding her as though he could make everything better just by being there. Even though he knew he couldn't. A single, solitary tear fell from his eye to splash onto his lover's cheek. He didn't know what to say. No words could help her now. He had always known this would happen, but he couldn't believe it was so soon! He'd been hoping for some kind of miracle. Anything. Now his hopes were being dashed. He couldn't imagine life without this fair- haired, elven beauty. This kind, sweet, gentle woman he'd given his heart to. Without her, life held no meaning for him. Not another soul on Gaea could replace her. He didn't want anyone to. He didn't want to let go of her. Not ever! He had to do something. Anything.
"Marlene," he said, breaking the rhythm of her crying. "I want you to be with me forever." He looked at her sincerely, eyes full of unconditional love. "As my wife. My queen." He broke their embrace and knelt down on one knee on the floor, pouring out the words he'd been rehearsing over and over again in his mind for weeks, wishing he could have said, but doubting that he would ever be able to. Now he just didn't care what the consequences were. "Will you, Marlene Aston, First Princess of Asturia, marry this humble servant who comes before you on his knees? Will you give him the honor of being your husband for eternity? To laugh and cry with you, suffer and be happy with you, for the rest of our lives? I will always be by your side. To go with you wherever you go. To wake up with you every morning and share each sunset with you. Nothing in this world would give me greater joy. I promise you, Princess, that I will make you the happiest woman who ever lived! Please, Princess!"
Marlene's shaking ceased, and her eyes didn't break away from Allen's for several seconds. Every one of those seconds felt like ages to the Knight Caeli. When at last she spoke, her voice was heavy and gloomy, crushing his spirits.
"You don't know how badly I've wanted to hear you say that, Allen," Marlene said painfully, as if each word was ripping her soul to shreds. "I've dreamed of being yours for so long, my love." Silent tears rolled down her pale cheeks. "But you and I both know it could never happen. I want to marry you, Allen. With all of my heart, I do. And I can promise you that no other man will ever have my love the way you do. If I wasn't a princess, I'd run away with you this very minute." She tried to give him an encouraging smile, but it was forced, and even more painful than the words she was stabbing Allen's heart with. "But you are a Knight of Heaven, and I am a princess. We can't just run away and abandon our people. We have a duty to fulfill. You and I both know it. No matter how much we love each other, it wasn't meant to be. I'm to marry the Duke of Freid and become Freid's Duchess. It is my duty. I can't dishonor myself and my family, my people, and run away from my obligation, Allen." Her composure was starting to slip again. "Please understand, my love." She covered her face with her hands and hunched over, curling up like a poor, lonely child. Allen's heart longed to comfort her, even though he was still reeling from rejection. But he understood her, at least. Honor and virtue were very important to her. Just as they were to him. She would not turn her back on a nation that needed her. She was willing to be brave and face her destiny, even if it mean losing him. Even if it meant sacrificing herself. Allen couldn't help but admire her courage, and think of what a horribly cruel and tortured fate it was to be royally born.
"I wish I'd never been born of the blood," Marlene said mournfully. "I wish I was just a regular woman. With a regular life. Then I wouldn't have to give you up." She fell silent once more, lost amidst the storm of her sorrows.
Allen turned to gaze out the window. The winter wind was howling furiously now, echoing the anguished cries of his spirit. He could feel the cold air seeping in from invisible cracks in the frame. But his thoughts wouldn't focus on his own inner storm. He turned his eyes to the poor, unhappy maiden curled up and hugging herself tightly on the windowsill. For the first time, Allen noticed that she was wearing a gown of pure white--as white and innocent and clean as newly-fallen snow. Tear- shaped pearls and diamonds were sewn into the bodice and collar, making the material sparkle when it caught the subdued candlelight. It could almost be a wedding dress. That realization only reminded Allen more of his broken heart and failed proposal.
On an impulse, Allen got up off the carpet and stroked the princess's milky cheek. His warm touch pulled her out of her own distressed emotions. She stared at him in wonder. He took her delicate hands in his and helped her to her feet. She looked a little confused, but Allen's warm, tender features gave her the assurance that everything was all right.
"Princess," said Allen nervously. "Marlene..." He searched for the right words to say. "Tonight...just for tonight...will you be my wife?"
Marlene's eyes were wide, not understanding.
"Just for tonight," Allen said softly, just above a whisper. "Let us pretend."
As realization slowly dawned on her, Marlene's face lit up. Her skin no longer had a deathly tinge to it, and the bright, clear, blue color of her eyes was restored. The smile formed by her perfect, rose-pink lips wasn't forced this time. With slow motions she reached behind her back to undo the laces of her wedding gown.
"The night is cold, my husband," she whispered earnestly to him. "Please keep me warm."
Allen stood speechless, heart pounding with the love he felt for her. In reply he kissed his wife deeply on her sweet, rose-scented lips, letting all thoughts desert him until there was only Marlene. Only Marlene.

Allen scarcely had a chance to see his beloved princess over the next couple of weeks. The day that Aston's eldest daughter would leave for her new home in Freid seemed to rush towards all of them like an out-of-control chariot. Allen attended his duties as usual and tried his best to ignore the hustle and bustle taking place around the castle. He wasn't the only one preoccupied with matters at hand, though. Marlene was attended to constantly by servants, never having a moment's peace, as preparations for the upcoming wedding were made. She rarely left her chambers now except for afternoon walks around the palace grounds--and even then, she was always surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting.
The king and the Duke were wrapped up in their own negotiations, planning and plotting their new alliances and commercial treaties. Allen had serious doubts as to whether either of them really cared for Marlene at all. Allen had several opportunities to see the Duke when he traveled with King Aston to the Duchy of Freid--a small country that was deeply immersed in rigid tradition and religious worship. The Duke struck him as a hard, passionless man--one who ruled his subjects with absolute control and an iron fist. Every aspect of him, from his piercing eyes and precisely-cut mustache to his stature and the way he carried himself, spoke of an unyielding man who was as dead and unlovable to those he met as a rotting corpse. Allen couldn't picture a young, fragile flower like Marlene trapped with such a man for the remainder of her days. Like a blossom in winter, she'd freeze and die. Allen wondered if she'd even been given a chance to meet this man who was more than twice her age. Nevertheless, Allen couldn't stem the growing jealousy and rage he felt towards the Duke. He wondered if the Duke could sense the churning bitterness the young knight harbored when he was around him. For the one who was taking his precious treasure away.
Millerna, Aston's third and youngest daughter, passed the time in a daze. Often she could be seen dancing like a little golden sunbeam along the corridors of the castle in a world only her ten-year-old mind knew of. She alternated between glee for the upcoming celebration and envy for all the attention her sister was getting. For the most part she seemed content to just play by herself, hardly aware of the drastic change in her family life that would soon occur.
Even the bitter and frosty Princess Eries seemed affected by recent events. Marlene was her older sister--her role model and only friend. Just knowing that soon the smiling woman would be gone for good had changed her. Her attitude towards Allen, however, didn't alter in the slightest. One rainy evening, a week before the wedding, she paid him a visit in his quarters. Allen was shocked to see the lanky, sour-faced girl at his door, but admitted her anyway. She took up the seat in his front room and settled down in it like it was a throne, leaving the baffled knight standing before her like a peasant calling upon his lord for aid.
"What can I do for you," Princess?" Allen inquired politely, ever mindful of his station. The look that Eries returned was undeniably scornful.
"It's a bit late for that, Allen Schezar," she answered acidly. "The damage has already been done." Even though she was three years younger than he, Allen felt slightly intimidated by her. Puzzled, he frowned.
"I'm not sure I understand what your Majesty means," he said slowly.
"Dense as ever," replied Eries. "I'm talking about Marlene," she said, as though it were obvious. "You've heard about her condition lately, I'm sure?"
Allen still didn't quite understand. "I've heard she has taken ill. Probably from the cold weather."
Eries narrowed her eyes. "Oh, not because of the weather," she said accusingly, in a low tone. She focused her intense gaze on the knight. "Do you know exactly how she got sick? And when? And what her symptoms are?" Without waiting for a response she went on. "She has morning sickness. Sure, she may hide it and pretend it's just the flu, but she hasn't fooled me. And it wasn't too difficult to figure out who's responsible for it," Eries added with an air of superiority. "I read her diary. I know where she keeps it hidden. She wrote all about that night," she said grimly, folding her arms across her flat chest. "In unsettling detail."
"Princess..." Allen gasped for breath, knees weak. "What are you saying?" He was torn between feeling shock at the news she was giving him, and dread that his and Marlene's illicit act had been discovered.
Eries looked astonished at his reaction. "You want me to spell it out?" she exclaimed. "You made her pregnant! That's your child she's carrying now!" Her voice was no louder than a whisper, but it was harsh and seemed to penetrate every nook and cranny of the room. Allen was afraid someone passing by outside might overhear.
"I have a child," Allen repeated weakly. He couldn't believe it. It had only been one night! "Why are you telling me this?" he asked in a slightly calmer manner that was purely for show.
"First of all, Marlene doesn't know that I know, but I think she's too afraid to tell you anyway. After all, your little...love affair...is swiftly coming to an end," said Eries bluntly. She rose from her seat and stood directly before him. She wasn't as tall as he, but she cut an imposing figure, even for one as thin and sallow-looking as she. "I wanted you to know just how dangerous your actions were. Note that I say your actions, because I should like to think that Marlene would know better than to do what she did. Although, it's not like you can take any responsibility for it now," she muttered. "Marlene is just one week away from marrying into Freid's royal family. This union is very important to Asturia! We've been trying to get Freid as an ally for years, and you've come alarmingly close to destroying all our hard work! Luckily, since the conception was so...recent," Eries said distastefully, "the Duke will probably think the baby is his own. At least, I hope he does. Marlene wrote in her journal that she didn't want to abort it. Something sickeningly poetic about the child being the only piece of you she had left." Eries made a face to show her opinion of the whole idea. "So." She became crisp and stiffly formal again. "Because of your feelings for Marlene, you may yet trigger a war between Asturia and Freid. I certainly hope you're happy." Without further ado, she stormed out of his quarters, leaving Allen completely dumbfounded and more than a little overwhelmed.

The actual wedding was to take place in Godashim, the capitol of Freid. On the day before the ceremony, the Knights of Heaven, the royal family, all of the servants, and a surprising turnout from the population, showed up at the air dock by the main harbor. The marble statues of water serpents that dotted the dock were ringed with strings of flowers and white ribbons. White doves fluttered in the ocean-blue sky overhead. The Knights lined up as an honor guard on either side of the red carpet that led to the Freid ship--the one that would carry Asturia's eldest princess to her new husband. The morning air was clear and bright, and surprisingly warm given the time of year. Huge golden bells were ringing from the towers, filling the air with a joyful clamor. Many of the onlookers watched the princess and her entourage go by with wide smiles on their faces.
As Marlene, attired in her long, gold and blue wedding dress, glided down the carpet towards the ship, the Knights Caeli unsheathed their swords and raised them, forming an arch of steel above her and her followers. When the princess came by Allen, she kept looking straight ahead, not taking any notice of him, just as she was supposed to. To Allen she had hardly changed. She was still the lovely angel he had fallen in love with. Same fair skin and pink lips, same sun-colored hair and flowing movements. Except she had become so much more to him--a lover who would never be replaced. Hidden deep inside her was the seed of a new life. A new life that he had helped create. A child that would grow up never knowing his true father. It made Allen's heart ache all over again.
In just a few moments, she was taken aboard the airship. The hatch closed, blocking her from view. Allen watched helplessly as the engines hummed to life and the immense leviship lifted off the ground like a bloated whale rising into the sky. He tried not to let tears spill over his cheeks as it set a course for Freid. He caught Princess Eries looking at him from a ways off, blue eyes ever calculating. She'd made discreetly sure that he wasn't allowed anywhere near Marlene during the last week of her stay in Palas, so that he couldn't jeopardize matters any more than he had. Allen should have hated her for it, but he couldn't feel anything more than a cold emptiness eating away at him. He reflected on the ship that was growing smaller and smaller as it headed west. He'd never even had a chance to say goodbye to her. To kiss her one last time. Hold her one last time. Never again.
Sheathing his sword, Allen turned and walked away from the harbor.

For a long while afterwards, Allen dutifully served as Captain of the Guard at the Royal Palace, but life had becoming disturbingly quiet. Allen oversaw the guards under him as he always did, but even they seemed to sense that all was not right with their Captain. Patrols around the palace were long and lonesome. Allen couldn't help feeling a dull pang of old grief every time he passed Marlene's empty chambers. He was living a half life--one that had no flavor or meaning. He wasn't quite sure what to do. He felt lost.
His fellow guards and Caeli Knights were his companions most of the time. He went out with them after his shifts to hang around town and drink. They seemed to sense that something was lacking in Allen's love life, and attempted to hook him up with various women. There was no short supply either. More than one Asturian girl had heard of the handsome knight who worked in the palace and was eager to meet him. But Allen stolidly refused any female company.

News of the birth of the Duchess' son came several months later. Both kingdoms of Asturia and Freid rejoiced at the happy tidings. Allen could only wonder what his son looked like. Long to hold him in his arms. Wish that he could have been there at Marlene's side when it happened. But he knew it was only a foolish dream. There had been another man at Marlene's side, holding her hand during the labor pains. Another man who would cradle Allen's son and comfort the mother. Allen was left with only the bitter, leaden feelings in his heart and the loneliness.

On a dark, gray day in early spring, just a few years after Marlene had left, news arrived in Asturia of her death. Apparently she'd become seriously ill and passed away because of the disease. The flower had not survived the cruel winter. The entire country of Freid was to wear mourning white for a year. The news hit Asturia with equal impact. The wailing in the streets was intense, and even worse at the castle. It continued for days. Allen, who already felt like he was dead to the world, went about his duties in a haze. He and Princess Eries were the only ones who shed no tears. Eries had a heart of steel. He had no heart at all. He had given it away to a fair-haired maiden long ago.

Many monotonous weeks passed. The days blurred together until Allen didn't know where one began and another ended. All he had left was his duty...and his sword. It was just like before. He had lost so many loved ones in his life. He'd almost become used to it. His comrades couldn't help but notice his dejected state, but they couldn't do anything for him except drag him out to the taverns to drink and meet new women. After a while, Allen reluctantly but gradually warmed up a little to the good- natured advice of his friends and re-entered the social mainstream. After all, he had nothing left to lose. The months melted together, and Allen forgot some of the old wounds he'd been suffering. There were women in Palas beautiful enough to turn one's head, and he found himself noticing them more. More than once, without his realizing it, he had begun to flirt with them and steal numerous kisses, leading them on in a hopeless pursuit, but there was no love. His love was reserved for only one woman. One he would never see again. He knew that fact would never change, and none of the new women could fill that place, but his heart cried out for love. Maybe he could find it in someone else. Maybe.

Marlene's younger sisters grew up before his eyes. Eries had finally filled out a bit and lost some of her rougher, mannish qualities. In fact, she had become quite beautiful, with long, mist-pale hair and deep, cerulean eyes that held mysterious secrets. Her skin had lost its yellowish quality and became a light peach hue. She had taken to wearing golden cuffs on her ears and severe, modest clothing to reflect her conservative attitudes. She still had every intention of joining a convent before her father forced her to endure the same fate as Marlene. She was really quite attractive, but her icy manner had not melted in the slightest. She still eyed Allen with suspicion and resentment at every turn. Even more than usual with the spread of growing rumors about him and his empty, shameless flings.
Millerna's transformation was the more startling of the two. Allen had known her since she was a young child, but she matured at an amazing rate, becoming a young adult in just a few short years. What was even more surprising, she was growing up into a near mirror-image of Marlene. She was looking more like Allen's lost love with every passing day. And Allen's suave manner and good looks had not escaped her attention, either. Allen couldn't help but see some of Marlene's qualities in her. In some ways it was like Millerna had become Marlene. He was a gentleman towards her, nothing more, but she took to flirting with him occasionally around the palace, far from the eyes of servants and courtiers--but never out of the all-seeing reach of Princess Eries.
Allen wasn't terribly surprised when he was reassigned to a remote outpost on the edge of the Asturian / Fanelian border not too many weeks later. He suspected it was all Eries' doing--to keep the young and impressionable Millerna away from him, and he from her--but he didn't mind. In fact, he was slightly relieved to be away from the palace and all of its hurtful reminders of the past. The castle made him think of Marlene too much. It was as if the old, familiar corridors were haunted by a restless ghost--a specter that gave him no peace. He was given a leviship and a cutting-edge guymelef, whom he named Scherezade, and was sent out to the backwoods swamps to command a bunch of ragamuffin, unrefined soldiers in an old fort. They certainly weren't knights, but they were all decent, loyal people, and Allen spent the next year living amongst them. It wasn't a glamorous life, but it gave him a small sense of satisfaction.

Allen spent his days, now in his twenty-first year, inspecting the countryside for unusual activity. It was always relatively quiet, but one evening, on a cloudy, warm night, something out of the ordinary happened. While on one of his long-range reconnaissance missions, Allen found himself far from where he was supposed to be. He didn't know how he'd gotten sidetracked so badly, and tried several times to get back to his original course, but to no avail. It was as if something was drawing him out to the edge of the woods. Allen tried to shrug it off and head back for the fort once more, but a sudden disturbance in the sky made him forget everything. A pillar of light exploded from the layer of dark clouds above, piercing the night sky like a needle. It touched the ground and then vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Allen wondered briefly if it had been lightning. But there were no signs of a storm in the sky, and the light had been present far longer than any lightning bolt. This was something else. He felt enticed to where the pillar had connected with the ground. Something called him to it. Like a mermaid's song. Somehow, for some reason, he knew that it was important that he answer that call. Curious, Allen went out to investigate...

THE END