Welcome, everyone, to my first fanfic ever! Enjoy, and please review. Thank you.
Disclaimer: Star Ocean: Til the End of Time and all of its characters, locations, events, and items are the property of…Tri-Ace, I believe. At any rate, they do not belong to me, and I am not making any profit from this piece of fiction. Any new characters, locations, events and items this story may introduce do belong to me. Please do not use them without my permission.
Extended Summary: Several months after Albel's return from the battle with the Creator, peace talks between Aquios and Airyglyph are nearing completion. The event that would seal the peace, King Arzei's wedding, is finally approaching. Albel's willing to do his part to support the peace, but did they have to make him dance? (Seriousness; some philosophical stuff; eventual Albel x Nel)
(September 8, 2005) Chapter One is finally here! Thanks to Fluffymadness for reading over the first version of the chapter for me, and a huge hug to Lucrecia LeVrai for all her help in coming up with some additional ideas. I expect Chapter Two to be ready in about two weeks, if we're lucky.
The Nature of Strength
Chapter 1: Honesty and Politics
Albel Nox stood on the battlements of Airyglyph castle, staring blankly down across the training grounds. The frigid mountain wind howled around him, slicing across the exposed skin of his back, snapping his braids against his shoulders like the lash of a whip. Albel didn't mind the wind; it was truthful, brutally honest; it declared its intent loudly for anyone who had the wit to hear. Over the last few months, Albel had come to appreciate blatant truth – it was much easier to deal with than the false smiles and hidden intentions of the court as Airyglyph and Aquaria fleshed out the bones of the peace treaty. Trade agreements, the exchange of prisoners, the dispersal of the armies, the settlement of feuds and the sharing of knowledge – all had to be drawn up and agreed upon, each side maneuvering, trying to gain an advantage over the other – it was sickening.
Much as Albel would have liked to slice all the ambassadors and their paperwork to ribbons, though, he would not do so. Traveling with the off-worlders had taught him that power without control was often wasted. So he had learned control. It had paid off enough times to make the effort worthwhile. Controlling his words, however, had proved to be a much more difficult task than controlling his actions, and that was in part the reason why he was out here instead of inside helping to create the treaty. As the King pointed out, the ambassadors were unlikely to agree to suggestions put forth by someone who referred to them as 'worms'. Albel was just as glad for the reprieve.
Movement caught his eye as an elderly man in a red robe entered the training court. Woltar, of course. No one else would dare come out there once Albel made it clear he wanted to be alone. "Hmph." The young swordsman turned his back, looking out over the frosty crenellations. Woltar negotiated with the best – or worst, from Albel's point of view – of them. Measured footsteps crunched through the snow as the old man neared the base of the wall.
"Albel." Albel ignored him. "Albel, come down. We need to talk," came the command. The slim warrior concentrated on the feel of the wind striking his face and didn't reply. Woltar fell silent for a moment, and Albel could almost hear him considering his options. It amused him to wonder which path the old man would take. His old bones wouldn't be able to climb the ladder up the wall, and since they were allies, he wouldn't take up a bow and threaten Albel down that way…though being 'allies' – Albel mentally spat the word, clenching his fist invisibly against the stone – didn't stop Duke Vox from throwing me in the dungeon and torturing me. The old man had already tried ordering him down, so what was left?
"Albel – please. This is important." Astonished, the knight's crimson eyes widened at the sound of real pleading in Woltar's voice. Then his eyes narrowed and his spine stiffened as the thought occurred to him that the old man might be toying with him just like he did with the ambassadors here for the treaty. More lies.
Slowly he turned around and glared down at Woltar. "What is it, old man?"
"Come down here," the count gestured, "so we don't have to shout."
Anger drew Albel's lips into a thin line. So. It was back to orders again. Still, nothing useful would be accomplished by him staying up on the wall. Disdaining the ladder, Albel leapt gracefully down to the ground, landing crouched in front of the aged advisor. Straightening up, he leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms. "Well, what is it?" he asked again. Hmm…Woltar does look concerned, he mused, but did not relax.
"I need to know…how you feel about the peace," the count said. "Are you against it?"
Albel's hard-won control was lost for a moment as his head jerked up in surprise, looking Woltar in the face. What the hell kind of question is that? The old man just stood, patiently waiting for an answer as if he had all day. He meant it, then. Albel let out a huff of air, then allowed his hair to obscure his face again as he looked at the ground. How am I supposed to answer that? he thought confusedly. Why does it matter what I think? I'm not part of the peace talks. But…the old coot seemed to think it was important…Bah. He won't leave me alone until I answer him, anyway.
"Hmph. I think these talks have degenerated into nit-picking. Honestly, what can it matter how many rooms are set aside for visiting ambassadors, or what time of day meals are served? And that maggot Lasselle…" Albel's lip curled into a sneer.
Woltar shook his head. "No, no boy. Not your feelings about the talks. I need to know what you think of the peace, itself."
Albel's sneer deepened at the use of the word 'boy', but he let it pass. "I'm for it." He smirked inwardly at the old man's surprise.
"You-you're for it." Albel heard uncertainty and…relief?
"You heard me, old man. Don't look so surprised. There's no entertainment value in killing someone that's not even a challenge. Even Crosell's not worth a fight anymore. If working with those Aquarian fools will improve the conditions in Airyglyph, then it's fine by me. That's what we were fighting for, anyway, wasn't it? Besides, the war was Duke Vox's pet project, not mine. I've got nothing to prove anymore." He absently flicked snowflakes off his claw as he awaited the count's response.
Woltar recovered from his surprise with commendable speed. "I am truly glad to hear you say that, my boy, truly glad. You don't seem to understand how important your support of this peace is."
Albel shot him a quizzical look through his black-blonde curtain of hair. "Explain."
The old man sighed, pinching the bridge of his rather beaky nose thoughtfully. "Albel, surprised as you may be to hear this, there are a lot of people in this country that look up to you. There are also quite a few who don't want peace, only revenge. If they believe you feel the same way, they may try to band together with you as their rallying-point and start up the war again. Even if you do nothing, they may assume you are against the peace and try to restart the war in your name."
Albel moved away from the wall slowly. "So what you're saying is…"
"…You must actively, publicly support the peace." Woltar nodded.
Albel snorted. "I'm not giving a speech, old man."
"Don't worry, we don't expect that of you," the aged advisor chuckled. "The King and I have some other things in mind."
The lean warrior was interested in spite of himself. "Well, spit it out, then."
"You may not like it," Woltar warned.
Albel re-crossed his arms and shrugged.
"First of all, as evidenced by the 'nit-picking' you pointed out, the talks are nearly done. The large issues have all been taken care of, leaving only the small, finicky points to be ironed out. Once the treaty is finished and signed, we will be traveling to Aquios for the King's wedding. You will be coming with us."
Albel nodded. He had known that already. After all, who could protect the King better than him? "Go on."
"It'll take us nearly two months to get there, and we'll be stopping at least a day at every town along the way." At Albel's look of disbelief, he explained "People expect the nobility to travel with all the pomp and luxury possible. Though the King would prefer to do without such things in order to move more swiftly, there are nobles in the entourage that refuse to go without. So we bring it all and our speed suffers for it."
"Fools," Albel muttered, recalling that it had taken at most a month and a half to travel from Airyglyph City to Aquios when he had traveled with Fayt and the others. Now this journey threatened to be half again as long.
"Here's where the first part of your task comes in," Woltar said, drawing his attention back. "At each town, if you see an opportunity to help the peace along, take it. Break up a fight, talk to someone who's against the peace, whatever."
Albel grimaced at the thought of preaching peace at someone – what could he say that would convince them? – but at least it wasn't a speech, and there might not be something to do at every stop. "…All right, what's the second part?"
Here the old man hesitated, trying to guess how Albel would react. "Next…next is the wedding. In Aquarian tradition, the bride's and groom's guests aren't separated to sit on different sides of the church; they're mixed together. I want you to be certain that you mix with the Aquarians as much as you can."
Albel nodded reluctantly. "As long as they don't expect me to cry and share handkerchiefs with them," he said.
Woltar snorted back a laugh. "I don't think you have to worry about that. Although, if an Aquarian speaks with you at the wedding or the reception – yes, you're going to the reception – you must respond civilly, none of those 'worm' or 'maggot' retorts."
Albel gritted his teeth. This was going to be harder than he thought. He waved his hand for Woltar to continue.
"Furthermore, at the reception, you must participate. That means no skulking in shadows glaring at people. I expect to see you dancing. And if you can contrive to actually compliment something without sounding sarcastic, do it."
Albel's face had gone white at the mention of dancing, and Woltar could almost hear his teeth grinding. The old man took a surreptitious step away, watching the younger man warily.
"You…expect…to see me…dancing?" Albel's arms had fallen down to his sides and both his hand and his claw were clenching and unclenching as if he wanted to tear something apart. "With Aquarians?" At Woltar's hesitant nod, he spun and punched the wall with his claw. As the harsh clang rebounded within the courtyard, he muttered, "How in all the hells do I get myself into these things?" He shifted until he was leaning face-first into the wall with his arms bent over his head, letting the stone cool his temper. If he was to pull this off, he would need all the practice in cooling his temper that he could get, he thought wryly.
Woltar, seeing that Albel had regained control, ventured, "Will you do it?"
Still breathing hard, Albel jerked his head up and down against the stone in acceptance. Airyglyph's future was worth the temporary humiliation.
Albel contemplated this for a moment. Yes, it was worth it. He pushed himself off the wall and turned back to Woltar. Laughing humorlessly, he said, "You don't ask for much, do you, old man?" Albel thought for a moment. "You know, there's quite a large hole in your plan."
"And what's that?" the elderly warrior asked innocently.
Oh, as if you don't know, Albel thought sarcastically. "In case you have forgotten, to the Aquarians I am 'Albel the Wicked'. How am I supposed to talk or sit or dance with any of the fools if they avoid me?"
"Certainly, you have a valid point," Woltar conceded. "And if some Aquarians try to avoid you, by all means don't force yourself on them. However, it seems reasonable to believe that the Queen will be giving similar instructions to her people about their conduct, so I don't think you will have too many problems."
True. "All right, I'll go along with that," Albel said, keeping his voice even. "Anything else?"
Woltar's eyes went to the young man's claw-arm. "We'll have to do something about your claw, so it looks less…warlike…and you'll need some formal clothes…"
Something almost like amusement glinted behind Albel's eyes. "Don't worry about the claw; the off-worlders put together a 'present' before they left that should take care of that. And what's wrong with my clothes? They're good enough for the council."
"Ah, Albel my boy, you have a lot to learn about formal court celebrations. Come with me and we'll see what we can do…"