Whoever said that it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all has clearly never loved. The fond memories are nothing but memories, and the pain that I feel is still very much real. The pain still outweighs any pleasure or good feelings that comes from those memories. I know that my love was not that of most of the young men my age, but it was enough for me to vow that I would never allow myself to become attached to another person in any sense, ever again. That's what loving and losing does to you. The first time was painful enough; I don't want to find out if it hurts the same a second time, if all love hurts the same. Looking back, I believe that I would be happier now had none of it ever taken place.
So. The briar and the rose. You wouldn't have expected something so poetic from a soldier of the Zaibach Empire, would you? You give me too much credit. Which one am I, you wonder? Well, the briar, of course. Ah, but you thought that I would be the rose? No. Consider the two. The rose has its thorns, yes, but those are easily avoided and even removed, and its great beauty still brings pleasure to all who look upon it. The briar is nothing but thorns. It cannot bring the same happiness as the rose. My enemies despise me, my allies tolerate me. I, I am the briar. Which, of course, would make her the rose.
The memory of the day that Folken called in ill will always linger in my mind. It was not the idea that Folken was ill that prompted me to act. He was only human- well, only mortal, anyway -and I am certain that even Emperor Dornkirk caught ill at times. The unusual thing was that I'd never known Folken to be so sick that he had to stay in bed. I remember him, more than once, standing at the bridge and giving orders with a high fever. He never let anything slow him down, and that was why this was odd. But, it wasn't even that I was concerned for his health.
You see, I had never seen Folken's quarters before, and I was curious. He spent a great deal of time hidden away there. I know that his own bedroom connected directly to his laboratory, and during the military's idle times he would disappear for days, having his food sent up to him. After a few years of this, my mind had concocted wild notions of what might lay inside that laboratory. Bubbling chemicals? Mutated animals? Talking plants? My reasoning was that, if Folken were passed out in his bed, this would be the opportune time to fulfill my curiosity without getting caught.
Childish? Inane? Of course it was. But, so was I, at the time. It hadn't occurred to me to simply ask Folken what he did inside that laboratory. Realistically, some of his experiments were so terribly secret that he probably wouldn't have let me in, anyway. With all these thoughts running through my head, I crept up to Folken's quarters. Damn my curiosity.
I knew the hallway, at least, but I didn't know which door led to his laboratory, and which led to his bedroom. As I noted before, the two were connected, so it didn't make much of a difference, anyway. None of the doors here were automatic, probably for safety's reasons, I supposed. If one of those talking plants that I envisioned leapt out of its cage and ran for the door, it would have a harder time getting out. I picked a door and slid it open just enough to peer in. Bedroom. Well, close enough. I could see the way to his laboratory across the room. I opened the door farther to enter.
What do you expect that I found? Yes, you have probably reasoned that it was here that the briar met the rose. But, I repeat, what do you expect I found? Perhaps I saw Folken conversing with a long-lost sister of his, some Fanelian beauty with full lips and a shapely figure; with long, black hair and deep, red eyes like her brother? No? Maybe another unknown element, an albino like myself, a cold, stand-alone woman who trusted no one- but nevertheless, a woman so attractive that every man would die for her attention, one whose heart I could melt with time and effort, a woman come down from the Mystic Moon, whom Folken had taken to his quarters to hide her from me?
Well, Folken was asleep, just as I had expected, but he wasn't passed out on his bed knocked out with medicine. He was sitting in a rocking chair, of all the ludicrous things for a Strategos of Zaibach to have on a military fortress! Perhaps that was why he never allowed me up here. And it would have been wise of him to lock his door, because he looked perfectly healthy to me.
It was the child he held in his arms whose face was flushed with fever. Yes, you heard me. A child. She couldn't have been more than two or three years old. Folken had a soft-looking, black blanket wrapped around her, and her little head rested on his shoulder. She was pale, very pale, and she had white hair that would probably be curly once it got long.
Is this description starting to sound familiar?
Folken slept, but she did not, and she turned her head to look at me. Her eyes were the color of the reddest roses.
I bolted out of the room, slammed the door behind me so hard that it bounced back open, and ran all the way back to my own quarters. If I had made my retreat more calmly, I probably could have gotten away with it, but likely it was the bang of the door that woke Folken. I may have even gotten away with it if I had just gone back to shut the door, but everyone knows that if you've left a door closed, and you find it open, someone has been in there. Careless of me, but I couldn't help it. I was genuinely shaken. Why? Haven't you figured it out?
She looked like me. I could have been looking back in time into a mirror. She looked like me.
I tried hard to put the event out of my mind. After all, why should I care if Folken had strange little children in his quarters? What he did with his free time was his own business. I thought that it didn't affect me.
Of course, I realized that I had thought wrong when Folken summoned me to his quarters the next morning.
He looked afraid when I arrived, and that meant that this was very serious, because, for the most part, Folken never really looks like anything. I assumed that he had found out that I had spied on him (And only a fool would believe that he hadn't.) and I expected him to be furious, or even slightly angry, which is furious for him, but he looked afraid. Once I had entered, he shut the door quickly and locked it. I made a point of not looking at the little girl asleep on his neatly made bed, his cloak draped over her. Actually, I was not quite certain at the time that the child was female; little boys and girls look mostly the same to me, but it seemed a pretty good guess.
"What did you want me for, Strategos?" I asked him, with as much innocence as I could muster. Later on I finally dropped this act, after all of my superiors had figured out that whenever I was acting innocent, I most certainly was guilty. At the point in time that I am relating to you, the charade still worked on Folken occasionally, but today he saw right through it.
"I know that you were in here yesterday, Dilandau," he said in a quiet voice. "I know that you saw her."
I decided not to try to call his bluff. I had been caught. "Who the hell is that kid, Folken?" I demanded, "and what the hell is she doing here?" Several stories had already crossed my mind, and, let me tell you, none of them were very kind to Folken. I sadly underestimated him, and even now I still feel guilty about it at times.
Folken gave me a silencing motion. "Keep your voice down," he told me.
"Why should I?" I put my hands on my hips. "You don't want me to wake up the brat?" Convinced that I was in the right and Folken in the wrong, I was a stubborn ass.
"She'll wake soon, anyway," Folken told me. "But I don't want anyone to hear us."
That was when it struck me that Folken was probably doing something that was very much against the rules and possibly against the law. I didn't know just what that was quite yet, but he was very worried about being caught. In the end, it would turn out that, when we were caught, they couldn't do anything to us; we were too important to Zaibach. But that will come later.
Folken leaned down and lifted the child in his arms. I couldn't help but look at her now. "Dilandau, this is Rose," Folken told me. And that is why I say that you give me too much credit for my comparison of the briar and the rose, for rose was her name, and it was no far stretch to think of the briar. Rose. It was a Fanelian name. It figured. "Rose Albatou," he finished. That was not a Fanelian name.
The surname startled me so greatly that I felt lightheaded. I thought that Folken was implying that the child was mine, and I had no memory of any woman. "Folken," I demanded again, "where the hell did she come from?" I almost didn't want to hear the answer, though.
"Do you remember," Folken asked me, "several years ago, when Emperor Dornkirk bade me to attempt to clone you?"
"Clone me?" I thought back. I thought that I vaguely remembered something like that, but only faintly, as it had only involved a needle prick in the arm on my part. It made sense, though. The Sorcerers had designed me to be the perfect soldier, so why not make a whole army of me? Folken had gone through with the experiment, then. "That kid is a clone of me?" I asked him.
"Yes," he told me.
I was so relieved that I could have danced. My dignity kept my feet in check, and instead I laughed. "You screwed up somewhere, Folken. I'm no woman."
"Exactly," he said. "You are no woman."
Then the child- Rose, he had named her -yawned, and rubbed a little hand across her eyes. Folken looked down at her, momentarily forgetting me. "No, my little one, now is not a good time to wake," he told her gently, and she rested her head on his shoulder and went back to sleep. "Do you want to sit down, Dilandau?" he asked me. "You look a bit ill."
I felt a bit ill, too. Greatly relieved, and at the same time somehow ill. I turned the chair at Folken's desk around and slouched in it. Folken sat down on the edge of his bed.
"Exactly my point, Dilandau," Folken continued. "You are no woman. You are many things that Rose is not, and the same the other way around. I know that there was no error on my part. You weren't the first person that I've cloned." Somehow, that didn't surprise me, but I hadn't ever known before that Folken had been doing cloning experiments. Another reason that I had wanted to get into his laboratory so badly. "Obviously, for some reason, you can't be copied, Dilandau. The experiment failed. I was ordered to destroy it."
Ah. Aha. I was beginning to understand now. That child was supposed to be several years dead. "I never would have expected you to be this daring, Folken," I laughed. The look on Folken's face told me that he didn't think that any part of this was very funny.
"How could I kill a child, Dilandau?" he asked me. "Experiment or no, that's what she is."
I admit that I wasn't taking it all very seriously. Again, the briar. "I can take care of that for you," I joked, reaching for my sword. Folken clutched Rose to him in an ages-old protective gesture that I've seen on many parents before my flames engulfed them.
"Dilandau!" Folken had quite a powerful set of lungs, when he chose to use them. I wondered whatever had happened to not being heard.
I had to hand it to Folken, it was impressive that he had managed to keep all this hidden, especially with the amount of care that small children need. "What do you do with her all day?" I asked. "Lock her in the closet?"
"My maid cares for her." Satisfied that Rose was still asleep, Folken laid her back down. He turned to me. "I want you to swear on your life, Dilandau, that you'll keep this a secret."
"On my life?" That was a strong oath, and I didn't want to give it. The only thing I liked about children was that they grew up into adults. "Why should I swear on my life?"
"Because that is what it may eventually take to keep her alive," Folken told me gravely. Oh, great. What did he mean by that? That if it came down to one of us, he would rather have her over me? Eventually I would find that he did not mean it quite so literally.
"I won't do it, Folken," I told him. "I've got nothing to do with this."
"Do you?" Folken asked, and he scooped the child up again and held her out to me.
I thought the gesture was hilarious. He knew that I couldn't stand children. Even now, I can't, but this one was an exception. After all, how could I hate myself? I didn't understand that then; all I knew was that when Folken put that child in my arms, I wanted to throw her back at him. But in order to throw her, and not simply drop her, I had to get her in the right grip, and I had never held something that could move before; and before I knew it, there she was, comfortable as could be, her little head pillowed in the crook of my arm. That moment would become my downfall, because for that moment I was fascinated with this little creature that looked like me. You'll never really understand it until you've experienced it for yourself, seeing your face on someone else.
As I said, it was that moment that would become my downfall, because in that moment, I fell in love.
Dilandau Albatou and love? Yes, you heard me right. As I said, this child that I held was me, and how could I hate myself? How could I hurt myself? How could I kill myself? How could I abandon myself to danger? I stared at her. I stared at her for a good, long time, and I tried to convince myself that I had no part to take in this. If Folken wanted to risk his livelihood for a little urchin who would probably grow up with no gratitude for his sacrifices, that was fine with me. I didn't need to get involved. Unfortunately, I have never been very persuasive.
Persuasive I am not, but I am perceptive. I didn't know how to put it into words at the time, but I realized then that children are the only perfect things in this world. We ruin them as they grow, of course, but children, little tiny children like Rose, are the only ones who can truly claim innocence. And there innocence and perfection was in my arms, and to top it all off, it had my face.
I should have gotten out of there. I should have turned him in. I would have hated myself at first, but I would have gotten over it. I was a fool, and I stayed. I was fascinated by this creature. My hands swallowed hers, but we still had the same creases in our palms. Her hair was fine and soft in the way of all children, but it curled around my finger like mine did.
When I finally looked up at Folken, he had a hopeful look on his face. "You win, Strategos," I told him. "You win."
"I win?" he asked. I sighed. I supposed he wanted to hear me say it, but he told me later that my phrasing- "you win" -had confused him, as he had not been trying to defeat me in anything.
"I swear upon my life that I will protect and conceal this Rose Albatou," I told him. He smiled with extreme relief.
"What changed your mind?" he asked me. I was ashamed to give him my answer. I was ashamed to admit that I had succumbed so quickly to what I considered the weakest emotion, so I shoved the child at him and stormed out of the room.
Weakest emotion. Well, I am finding out now that it is, perhaps, the strongest. Years later, it still holds me bound.
Where was I? Yes. I stormed out of the room, and I managed to avoid Folken for a week. Inevitably, I was back, though. His maid did, in fact, care for Rose during the day. She was under the impression that he would kill her if she did not. Folken told me that he had no intention of doing such a thing. His purpose in the threat was to leave the poor girl unquestionably innocent if we were caught, and I had fun adding my own to his. She very nearly burst into tears and ran out of the room whenever she laid eyes on one of us after that, but it didn't matter to me. The maids and cooks and all the "support staff," as they are collectively termed, are all but invisible to me.
I came to look forward to the end of the day, when I would go up to Folken's room to visit her. You see, I poured my soul into my sword to help me forget all of this, and back then I used to become tired of the military routine day in and day out. Rose was an entertaining diversion from the normal activities of the day, and I found it relaxing to spend time with someone who adored me so completely. Yes, the Dragon Slayers looked up to me, Zaibach idolized me, but there was something special about the unconditional love that Rose had for me. I knew I was nothing more than a comely face and a skilled hand and a name that they could hold up for everyone to see. But, when I went up to that room to play with that child, I was Everything. When I opened the door she would look up, and immediately toddle to me and raise her arms to be picked up. I saw pure joy in her little face when she saw me. I was God to her. I had to wait until she fell asleep to leave the room, because she would cry when I left. And, living the life of a soldier, being nothing more to my general than a name and a number, it felt very, very good to be needed like that. I loved it. I loved the excitement in her eyes when she saw me. I loved the complete and unquestioning trust she put in me when she fell asleep in my arms. I loved being the world to someone. I loved her. I always wondered if that made Folken jealous, but it seemed to make him happy to see her happy.
Folken said that he began to notice a change in me. I was calmer, he said. I was more careful. I had stopped throwing things and lashing out for nothing. I would have attributed it simply to maturing as I grew older. In retrospect, I think not, because I think it was my different attitude that first clued them in that we were up to something.
The Sorcerers came on their yearly visit to inspect me. To this day I have no idea why those men had such a fascination with me. Anyway, Folken and I had agreed that I should keep away from his quarters during their visit. I had no logical reason to visit him there, and while the Vione soldiers or the Dragon Slayers never questioned me, the Sorcerers might. I still don't know how they found out. Folken once joked sadly that, perhaps, it was because I did not try to kill any of them that they realized I was up to something. I don't know how it happened. I really don't know. We were so careful. I never said anything that would have given them a hint. Maybe they already suspected that Folken hadn't killed the subject in his cloning experiment. All I remember is the night before the day they were to depart. I went to sleep peacefully, and I woke with Folken shaking me violently.
"What?" I snapped irritably. I have never been one to awaken in a good mood, even if I have had a full night's sleep.
"She's gone," Folken told me. He didn't need to say any more. As soon as I came to full consciousness, warning bells went off in my head. I swear that's what it was like. Is that the "parental instinct" I've heard people speak of, that kind of sixth sense that tells you when your children are in danger? Oh, I don't know anymore. I didn't even know then. Perhaps by luck I had fallen asleep before I had changed out of my clothes that night, so before Folken could even blink I was running down the hallway in my black pants and lavender tunic and bare feet. I don't know how I knew where to go. I couldn't actually see where I was going. The only thing in my mind was a stomach-twisting sense of wrong. Maybe it was the self-preservation instinct that people have; after all, Rose was me, wasn't she? I could vaguely hear Folken running after me, but I didn't think of it. I couldn't think anything except that I had to find Rose before something terrible happened.
The next thing I knew, I was in the medical wing of the Vione. What do you expect happened next? You should already have guessed that I wasn't fast enough. I saw the Sorcerers, all five of them, in their black cloaks like Folken's. Yes, five; there were five of them back then. I saw Rose lying on the table in front of them, and I was relieved for a moment, until I saw that one of them held a syringe in his hand, and it was empty. Rose looked at me when I came in. I'll never forget the look on her face. I've never seen such fear before. She reached out her arms to me in a gesture that unmistakably said, "help me." This innocent little creature put her entire trust and faith in me. When she saw me, she had no doubt that I would save her. Because I could do anything.
Because I could do anything.
But I couldn't do anything. She reached out for me, and then her hand fell, and I died. That's the best way to describe it. I just died. I stopped and stared. I don't know how long I stood there. Folken came up behind me, and I heard him say with sorrow in his voice,
"You killed her."
Still I stared, and the Sorcerers answered calmly and emotionlessly, "we have only done what you should have long ago."
That was when a curtain of red rage dropped over me. You see, Rose had been mine. Her life was mine. The Sorcerers hadn't had any right to take away something that was mine. Furious is far too mild to describe what I felt. I had surpassed angry into that realm where there is nothing but the desire to kill. The briar's thorns.
I'm certain they had expected me to fly into a fit of rage. I'd done it before when they angered me. Not this time. When I didn't, I suppose they figured that I didn't care, that Folken had been the only one with an attachment. After all I have told you, you must realize that they were wrong. I walked calmly to the one holding the syringe. Mentally underline "calmly." I walked up to him as passive as can be, and I looked up at him as relaxed as though I had just woken up from a long and peaceful nap.
You can imagine his surprise, therefore, when my hands closed around his throat.
I don't know where my strength came from. He tried to pry my hands away, and I held on. The other four tried to pull me off, and I held him. Folken, even, tried to tear me away, but my fingers refused to open. The Sorcerer fell to his knees. I felt his windpipe collapse in my hands, and still I crushed him harder. Folken was shouting something, but I had gone deaf with anger. Only when the Sorcerer's eyes rolled back in his hands and he slumped over, dead, did I release him. The other four Sorcerers were shouting, and Folken was arguing back, and, oh, it was a terrible mess, I'm sure. I could only vaguely hear their words, I was moving as though in a daze. I lifted Rose from the table and walked away, leaving them behind me. I know the Sorcerers tried to follow me, and I know that Folken stopped them. I walked away.
I took her to the darkest corner of the Vione I could find. The hallway was cold, and the floor and walls hard, but I didn't notice my discomfort. There my legs gave out under me, and I pressed her little body to my chest and curled myself into a ball and I wept. I have never cried so in my life. I tried to hide in the darkness so that they wouldn't find me, so that no one would see my weakness. My tears flowed down my cheeks, and I gasped for air so that my head spun. I squeezed my eyes shut and I held my breath to try to regain control of myself, but it didn't work. I couldn't believe how something so vibrant and full of life could be suddenly gone. I didn't understand. I didn't understand how something that had left no wound on my body could hurt so much. I didn't understand why I wanted to clutch her so tightly to me, why I couldn't bear the thought of loosening my hold. I didn't understand that I was heartbroken. All I knew was that I would never hear her tiny laugh again, never see her running to me with ecstasy in her face, never look into her eyes and know that I was needed and loved and would always be loved no matter what I did. I knew that she had trusted me to save her, and I had let her down. My sorrow filled me and I thought that it would never end. I thought I would never stop crying. I thought I would die.
They didn't come to find me. Folken probably held them at bay. Eventually my tears ran dry. They had fallen from my cheeks and formed a small puddle on the floor. I stayed where I was. I was cold and my body ached from sitting in that awkward position for so long, and I was thirsty and my mouth had gone dry, but I didn't have the energy to move. I leaned against the wall and drew my knees up and arranged her in my arms in the position that she used to fall asleep in every night, with her little head on my shoulder. But, now, I couldn't feel her breath soft on my neck, feel her tiny heart beating. She was cold, and stiff, and lifeless. It didn't matter to me; I had gone numb. I kissed her forehead, and I rested my cheek against her soft hair and my head against the cold wall, and I cried myself to sleep.
I faintly remembered being lifted into the air. I awoke in my own bed, Rose still clasped in my arms, Folken sitting in the chair at my desk. He had found me and carried me back. He hadn't slept himself, and his eyes were sad and tired and red, and dried tears traced barely discernible paths down his cheeks. He told me that the Sorcerers had gone. He told me that they had reported us to the Emperor, but the Emperor had decided to take no action against us. We were most valuable to Zaibach in the positions we were now, he had decreed, but Folken warned me that we could expect punishment once we had served our purposes.
We buried her in Asturia, out in the forest where no one would disturb us. Her grave is at the foot of a beautiful rose tree, along with my heart. I made a number of vows before that tree. I vowed that I would never let my emotions become so tied to a person again. I vowed that I would remain useful to Zaibach, so that I would never outlive my purpose. I vowed that I would not fail another so again. Because the Dragon Slayers…I see in their eyes something akin to the trust that Rose had in me. I turn away from them so that I might fulfill my first vow. I know that history repeats itself. It's happening again. They have faith that if something threatens their lives, I will come to save them. I can't let them down like I let her down. I can't let it all happen again.
So, there you have it. The famous lost love of Dilandau Albatou. It's not what you expected, is it? I feel no need to apologize for it, for it's the only story of love I have to tell you. The briar and the rose. It really does fit. The briar…and the rose…
Why is it that the rose dies in winter, but the briar, twisted thing, lives on?
This is an absolutely beautiful song, if you ever see a CD in your local Garden Ridge entitled "Celtic Wonders", you've found it. In the version I have--I wouldn't exactly call it a duet, it's sung by a woman backed up by a man. The only instruments are very soft background music that you don't even notice unless you're listening for it. I don't know if these lyrics are exactly right; I listened to the song and wrote down what I thought I heard. It's close enough.
And there I had the strangest dream
And down by Brennan's glen there grows
A briar and a rose
There's a tree in the forest, and I don't know where
I built a nest out of your hair
And climbing up into the air
A briar and a rose
Well, I don't know how long it's been
But I was born in Brennan's glen
And near the end of spring there grows
The briar and the rose
I picked the rose one early morn
I pricked my finger on a thorn
It had grown so close, it's winding 'round
The briar and the rose
I tried to tear them both apart
I felt a bullet through my heart
And all dressed up in spring's new clothes
A briar and a rose
And when I'm buried and in my grave
Tell me, so I may know
Your tears may fall to make love grow
The briar and the rose
And when I'm buried and in my grave
Tell me, so I may know
That tears may fall to make love grow
The briar and the rose