Nine days have passed, and eight nights. The mask I present to Zaibach's ambassadors seems to weaken, while inside I become more certain of their deceptionand my own. Balgus and I have sent out the letters to our neighboring countries, offering warnings and asking for aid. So far only one has answered: Basram.

Part One: Fanelia

Chapter Six: Two's Company

Hitomi had thought she was in top physical form. What a cruel joke that had been. Balgus was actually proud of her getting serious and taking the initiative in her training. But that was only half-truth. The arrival of their guests had made something sink in. She could suddenly see the world around her for the danger that it was. Just as she had to watch her words, she had to watch her back.

It made her sadder. But it also made her cautious. A fair trade if it kept her alive.

And she had no doubt that her life was in danger here. She could feel something stirring, reaching out to her. And she knew it would find her wherever she might run. It was best that she try and prepare for it.

These were the thoughts circling incessantly in her mind as she walked the dark halls back to her room. Sometimes in the night she felt as if the castle were some huge beast that had swallowed her whole, and she was doomed for eternity to wander the pathways of its veins.

In short, the pressure was getting to her.

Sighing, she trudged on, bone-weary from her last practice and after that trying to keep up face for the drama that was her evening meal with the ambassadors. As well as not allow herself to be charmed by pleasant words or a guileless eye.

With how exhausted she was, it really was no surprise that she hardly reacted to the sight of Escaflowne on her pillow, barely larger than a cat and curled up like one too. Too tired to raise an eyebrow or even question the strange magic at work here in her own mind, she stumbled the rest of the way to her bed, and collapsed half-across it. She was asleep within seconds.

The dragon slowly stretched from his position, padded across the bed to his chosen, and settled sleepily down against her side. He tucked his nose to warm under the snake-like length of his tail, its end curving up around his jaw.

Three hours later that was exactly how Balgus found them. And for one moment he marveled at the lovely picture they made, before pity moved in. Hitomi was exhausted, but the fates had decided she would receive no rest this night. Basram's Ambassador had arrived in secret, and had to be dealt with immediately.

¤ ¤ ¤

"We have received no such reports!" stormed an indignant Prince, throwing down Zaibach's meticulously drawn up accusations. Prince Bandel of Basram was a decidedly attractive man, though a little on the more common side. But in his rage, he was down-right striking. His brown eyes flashed, his height became more definedand had she not felt like she was going to drop from sheer exhaustion at any second, Hitomi may have been slightly impressed. As it was, her mind, on auto-pilot, told her that the best way to handle the situation, and consequently move things along so she could get back to bed, was to placate the Prince. She reached out and placed her hand on his shoulder, stopping him instantly mid-word with such a familiar gesture.

"I believe you. Zaibach is planning some trickery, and I have called you here so that we may plan a trick or two of our own." She whispered in her most soothing voice.

Ah, that seemed to do the 'trick'. His feathers visibly settled, and he instantly swept her hand up genteelly, before letting it drop. "My apologies, Your Majesty. I did not mean to react so violently. It...has been a long night," he offered as excuse.

And it's going to get longer, she thought with a sigh, beginning to feel the heavy weight of eyes seemingly settled on her soul. Looking up she noticed Prince Bandel's still un-introduced companion. She was hard not to notice, with her fall of blazing hair and intense gold eyes. Indefinable, Hitomi decided. It was a good word for her. She was pretty in the same way that Bandel was attractive, in degrees that seemed to shift with light and emotion. But while Bandel appeared to tread the line of 'remarkable' and 'common', this woman seemed to stand more firmly between remarkable and...Indefinable.

Hitomi was suddenly awake, and focused, and her entire being seemed to turn to the woman though she made no move at all. And it was so peculiar, because in that same instant the woman tensed, and Hitomi abruptly held in her mind the image of a tuning fork being struck and vibrating. The air hummed around them.

Prince Bandel finally noticed the direction of Hitomi's attention. With an attentive eye he held his hand out and the woman instantly moved to take it, stepping forward. "Kaho," he said simply, "My Royal Advisor."

"Kanzaki Hitomi," Hitomi answered, habitually holding out her hand.

The 'Advisor' gave her a curious look, then clasped her fingers lightly, bowing over them. "An honor to meet you, Your Majesty."

And when the woman released her hand, Hitomi had the distinct impression that they were pulling something soft and sticky between their fingers, like invisible lines of taffy. She unconsciously rubbed her fingertips together. "Likewise," she whispered.

She knows me, is what she thought.

Then shook that completely ridiculous idea away.

"What are your plans concerning Zaibach," Bandel interrupted. Kaho physically stepped back as if allowing him room for conversation, but Hitomi still followed the advisor with her eyes. Just as that strange piece inside her seemed to warn her about the dragon's fire, it was now urging her to take notice of this woman. But the feeling was neither negative nor positive.

"Plans," she repeated before finally managing to pull her wits back together. With a deep breath she forced her mind back to the Prince. But the action was much harder than she thought it should be. "With a few well-placed guards we have managed to cut them off from whomever they may be spying for. So far they have behaved themselves very well, but that may be because they are still trying to lure me into their circle. What we need to do is gather our army together, but the question is, how to do that without tipping Zaibach off that we know about their plans. Zaibach's military is bigger and better equipped, so the element of surprise is probably going to be our strongest defense. What about Basram? Can we count on you for aid?"

Prince Bandel blinked at her a moment, then seemed to set his mouth. "Definitely. The first convey should arrive by the end of the week. A messenger will be riding ahead to warn us of the exact time, so we can have Zaibach's Ambassadors promptly occupied." That last was all but sneered, but she supposed he had good reason for his ire. Still, at the same point she couldn't help but feel like she liked the Ambassadors. Enemies or not, she didn't feel as if their conflict with her was a personal one. So, on some level she could appreciate things from an unbiased position.

That would not stop her from defending herself, and Fanelia should the need arise.

"Well, that takes care of that. But how are we going to move our militia into position without alerting Zaibach?" This was the question that had been foremost in her mind for days now.

They stood in contemplative silence for one long moment. Then Balgus offered, "An old inn is being renovated on the out-skirts of The Square. And there is also a theatre that is currently not in use..."

Hitomi blinked at him, but oddly understood. "Good idea. I think we should acquire a list of other such places where we can secretly house soldiers until the time they are needed." No 'if' there, I must really be certain of this coming battle. I wish I wasn't.

"The Dungeon," Bandel said suddenly.

"The Dungeon?"

"How full is it?"

Hitomi glanced the question at Balgus. She wasn't even aware that they had a Dungeon, but she supposed she should have been.

"The Dungeons have not been used in some time."

Bandel nodded, "We can hide some soldiers in the Dungeons, so that when the time comes the castle will be better protected."

Hitomi paused uncertainly, "What do you think of this, Balgus?"

"It is an odd idea, but it may work. The castle and its treasures must be protected." Of course, she was aware that he included her among those lists of treasures. He didn't seem to understand the fact that she was nothing special. On the other hand, Escaflowne was probably their most important treasure of all. She understood that, even if she didn't quite understand why.

Well, that settled it then. Only one thing left to discuss this night. "But you," she said turning to Prince Bandel, "how do we explain your presence here? They will grow suspicious if they learn that I have contacted Basram."

He had a ready answer for that. "I shall...act as a suitor."

She stiffened. "What?"

"As Queen, you will be expected to take a husband soon. No one will ask questions if I show up proclaiming to be a suitor."

"I...suppose that could work," she nodded seriously, even while a tiny voice in her head was shrieking 'WHAT!'. It was strange realizing that she was developing two distinct personalities: her true self, and the mask that guarded her true self. It made her even sadder to realize that she was dealing more and more with the world from behind her mask. It made her feel like a coward, but at the same time she knew it was the only possible way. Her true self was just too timid and kind to make it very far in this 'game'.

"Tonight, at dinner, I will send my man-servant to announce my imminent arrival. I will say I am a Marquis of Egzardia, since Egzardia is allies with both Zaibach and Fanelia."

Hitomi frowned; this conversation seemed to be going way too fast. And she couldn't remember agreeing to anything. "How should I behave?"

"Wary at first. Distant, aloof." Bandel looked at Balgus, "Perhaps she is nervous of the idea of marriage, but you are pushing her towards it, for the good of the country?"

Balgus seemed thoughtful. Hitomi would have no problem acting wary, since the sudden news that she would be expected to marry soon had caught her off-guard. She hadn't even had a real boyfriend back home, and now she was expected to marry some stranger?

Balgus cleared his throat, "Ill admit, it is a fairly sound cover story."

"Then it's settled," she heard herself state matter-of-factly, "tonight you will be announced as a Royal Suitor."

And I'm not going to marry anyone, she added stubbornly, not sure which side of her was speaking, or if it was both sides in accordance. She meant it, too. It hadn't been her choice to be named King before she even knew the name of the country she was supposed to rule. But now that she was King, there was no way she was going to let them tell her when to marry, and especially who.

I may be King, but I wasn't born King, so I don't have to follow the stereotype. Besides, there is a war coming, and I can't be bothered by such nonsense...


There's a legitimate reason why I haven't updated in so long. I no longer have access to the internet. It's very annoying, especially when you got used to having it readily available for the past four years. Right now a friend was kind enough to let me use their computer, but it looks like it may be a long while before I can get a connection back on my own. I live out in the boonies, and no cable/dsl company is willing to give us service out here. It's not very fair, but what can I do? pout But, have no fear, I will find a way to post! determined

Reviewer Response

Sush: Yeah, D/H is a great pairing, and so fun to write. Thanks for reviewing!

NeverEndingQuest: In regards to his relationship with his sister, I wanted to give Dilandau a trait that was attractive and really human, because I can't stand characters that are largely one-dimensional. Even if they are supposedly 'evil'. Actually, better to say: especially if they are labeled as 'evil'. Oh, I love Furuba! Though I don't like or dislike the Tohru/Yuki pairing myself, I really do like Tohru with Kyou (I love cats, what can I say?). I like a lot of pairings for that series, all centering around Tohru. But my favourite one of! I know, kind of uncommon, but I like them together all the same. Hmm, I was actually thinking about writing a fic starring them, but that's a story for another time. I'm glad my Celena doesn't grate on your nerves, but might that have something to do with the fact that she has been virtually comatose? chuckle You'll have to let me know what you think of her later on, when she has a slightly bigger part:-D Anyway, always happy to see you review!

Feathers of Snow: Honeypot: Hitomi definitely needs a friend, poor girl, but her position is kind of isolating. After all, it's often said that power can lead to isolation, and I guess that's what I was trying to show in my previous chapter. Not to mention, you know she has to be lonely, being away from her friends and family and even the world she knows. But you're right, she is beginning to finally settle into her role. And Dilandau is definitely cute, even when he's being a 'homicidal maniac'. I just adore him! Thanks for reviewing!

Lady Snow Blood: Thanks so much! Hope you like this chapter, too!

Anthius: But 'peace' is sooooo boring! Okay okay, I'm writing! Sheesh. :-)

dreamingofflyingaway: haha! Boy, am I glad I never had access to the internet while I was in class, or I never would have finished my assignments for most of them! Thanks for the luck and the review, though I hope I'm not getting you in trouble with any of your teachers!

Koriina: I am very sorry about not updating sooner. It's a bad habit of mine that I wish I could break. Though I had this chapter ready to update long ago, I didn't and still don't have internet access anymore. I'm using a friend's computer, so it's just that much more difficult. But I will definitely try harder for the next chapter, you can count on that! Thanks for your review, and I hope you're not too mad at me?

Macky: Thanks! And here's the next chapter for your reading pleasure.

The Sinner: Oh yes, that's one of my favourite elements, how most everybody has confused her gender. Even her own 'people', so to speak. And it's going to be fun when she meets some of the other characters! nods emphatically Anyway, Thanks for reviewing!

Divine Discontent: Thanks! So sorry it took so long to update:-)

Koneri: Thanks so much! I hope you like this chapter, too!

lyn: Hmm, probably. Eventually. When I get inspired again, but who knows when that will be. It's going to be harder to pick it up again though, because I don't really write like that anymore. Wish I did...

Joshua Glass: Thanks! I promise my next update will be quicker!

Eio: Tee hee, I just got an amusing flash of a doctor/scientist saying those exact words. "Interesting. Very interesting..." Thanks! ;-D

Frostmourne: Oh, they'll definitely be meeting soon. I've already got part of the scene written out, I just couldn't wait. And on the subject of updating, when can we expect an update for Intruder Alert 4? I've been following your fic avidly! It's great! Anyway, I'm very happy you have reviewed! Thank you so much!

JellyGurl: Thank you!

Anthius: Sorry! I'll try to update more frequently!

c'fay: Cindertomi? Hehe, wouldn't that be an interesting story? Anyway, thanks for reviewing, I'm glad you like it, even though it's probably not the faerie tale you thought it was!

merryday: Thank you very much, merryday! I hope you like this part as well!