Intrigues of a Princess

Prologue: When I Look at the World

Fall was settling into Asturia early this year, threatening to cut short Eries' farewells to the distinguished psychologist who had been her guest during the summer. More accurately, Dr. Atrineu had been a guest at the Schezar estate, Eries had simply been the patron of his visit here, but that hardly mattered. It was her pleasure to give him a warm sendoff, even in the face of fierce chill winds that caused the leviships in the dockyard to rock ominously in their moorings and made the warm part physically impossible.

Dr. Atrineu was a man of the mind though and could appreciate the sentiment. He'd appreciate it more once safely aboard the leviship bound for his native country of Egzardia. Short and lean with thinning grey hair that conveyed his elderly status a bit too clearly, the doctor was having a time of it just staying upright. He envied Eries' height and her rigid posture that wouldn't have wavered in a hurricane, at least one of the weaker ones. Dr. Atrineu had learned early on in their acquaintance that once Eries Aston had set her mind on something, it was damned hard to alter her course. The forces of nature would have to put up a harder fight than strong winds to make her back down.

Eries' accoutrements however, were easier targets. A gust sent her hat flying and let loose her long strands of silver-blonde hair. The palace guard that had escorted them here took off in pursuit. Dr. Atrineu smiled in spite of the chill, knowing Eries wouldn't care about something trivial such as losing a hat and figuring the odds for a successful retrieval hovered close to none. Eries had similar thoughts, as she called to the guard not to bother, but the young man had already run far enough away that the wind swallowed her words before they reached him.

Seeing the doctor's smile, she formed one of her own. "He certainly has all the eagerness of one new to his duties, doesn't he?"

"Eagerness isn't a bad thing, assuming he learns how to temper it with common sense," Dr. Atrineu replied. "Then again, that might be a big assumption," he added as the guard nearly fell trying to pounce on the errant hat.

"I should have my former guard speak with him. It might be easier for him to learn common sense if he has a good teacher."

Dr. Atrineu's smiled widened. Along with her resolve, he also admired Eries' desire to help those around her. Professionally, he thought that desire had some controlling qualities to it. Personally, he recognized it as a sincere wish for the best for those she cared about it. And since Eries was not his patient, he could and gladly did dismiss any misgivings. "A good mentor can be invaluable," he agreed.

Dr. Atrineu watched the guard for a few more moments, but his interest in finding out if the young man would ever claim his prize wasn't going to stop the wind from blowing or keep the leviship from taking off at the scheduled time. He reluctantly took his leave. Bowing as much as his old back would allow, he pledged to return once his business in Egzardia was wrapped up. "Hopefully, that will be soon. I've never really had much interest in the business side of my school but if I don't take care of it, none of the teaching can get done."

Eries nodded. As a princess well-versed in politics, she had all the insight she would ever need into Dr. Atrineu's situation. "If you need any assistance, all you have to do is ask. I'm not the only one anticipating a swift return."

"Ah, you must be referring to the senior Schezar because I believe Miss Celena will be happy to be rid of me," Dr. Atrineu laughed. "She'll be free from questions for a few weeks."

Free from your questions, at least, Eries thought. She was sure Celena's brother would be able to provide an ample supply of his own. Much as Allen had changed over the past months, his protective streak remained firmly intact. Fortunately, Celena didn't mind questions from either brother or doctor. They gave her something to tease the two men about. "You know she's fond of you. She'll probably want to come to the dockyard when you come back."

Though it was originally the uniqueness of Celena's background and the potential goldmine an analysis of her psyche would be to his field that had lured him to Asturia, Dr. Atrineu had grown rather fond of the girl as well. He saw her less as a patient than as a reminder of his own daughters at Celena's age. His children had never experienced an ordeal remotely like what Celena had experienced, which made the Schezar girl even more remarkable in his opinion. He thought it would be quite nice to be greeted by her when his flight disembarked.

Of course, he'd have to leave first before he could come back. After giving another final farewell, Dr. Atrineu boarded the leviship, just missing the return of the guard with Eries' hat in hand.

The guard seemed proud of his achievement so Eries thanked him as if he had performed a great service for her. Eries would have felt cruel doing anything else. He was such an earnest looking young man, with freckles liberally spotting a round face under strawberry-blond hair. Normally, he kept the hair tucked neatly under his feathered guardsmen's cap but the wind had decided he would look better with a more disheveled style. Eries had to agree. If only the wind could do something with the way he talked to her. 'Prim' was how she would have described it. A friend of hers had insisted upon 'prissy' and other choice words Eries herself was too proper to use.

"I live to serve, your majesty," he said. "I await your further orders."

It wasn't so much that he liked to do things by the book. It was that his book was apparently written a century ago by a man so subservient, the book's spine was stronger than the author's. Eries tried picturing her former guard, Alucier, ever uttering the words 'I live to serve' to her without it being a joke. She failed. She tried picturing Alucier watching this guard say those words to her without making a joke. She failed at that too. "Please, there's no need to be so formal, Sedge…wick," she said, fumbling over the last part of his name due to an unfortunate nickname assigned to him by the same friend who found Sedgewick so prissy. Dashir Revius would have hurt himself laughing at this little display.

The guard misunderstood the cause of her stammering. "It's Timothy Sedgewick, your majesty," he replied sharply. "And I apologize if I offended you."

"No, Sedgewick, you didn't offend me," Eries sighed. It was going to be a long ride back to the palace. This was Sedgewick's second week and somehow he was actually getting even stiffer in his manner instead of easing into the job. By the end of the month, he was likely to be walking around in a permanent bow.

He was already part the way there. He kept his head down as he walked her back to the carriage, as he opened the door, as he lent his arm to her in case Eries was too feeble to walk up the three small steps into the carriage all by herself and as he boarded the carriage. Because he was looking down, he misjudged the height of the carriage and smacked his head against the doorframe.

She really should ask Alucier to have a talk with him, assuming he could find the time. He'd been a busy little Knight Caeli since returning from his hometown, Dunhaven, to attend his sister's wedding. After spending seven years as Eries' private guard, he had decided to pursue a new post: the commander of the Caeli. He needed to do more than want it though; getting the nod the replace the retiring Lord Ramkin was going to take substantial effort on his part. Eries was very supportive of his decision, so supportive that she had only stared at him in stunned silence for a few seconds after he asked to be released from his duty to her before giving her blessing. She understood the logic of the request. To be commander, he had to show he could command. Alucier had performed remarkably well, heroically even, during the brief war with Zaibach, but there had to be other good performances on his record to prove the first one wasn't a fluke.

His current duties had him splitting time between heading security over the areas of Palas still under reconstruction and coordinating the security for the work crews Asturia was sending to Freid to help with that country's reconstruction effort. All the work he was doing would look awfully impressive when it came time to pick the new commander but in the meanwhile, Alucier didn't have much time to sleep let alone have a chat with a young guard who took his job too seriously.

Eries knew if she asked Alucier, he would find a way to make the time, which is why she resolved not to. A selfish part of her missed having her dear friend around and wanted things back to the way they were. The rest of her knew that other part was a spoiled brat. Complaining about the new guy would just make Alucier feel guilty about quitting and she did not want that. He was leaving behind a cushy post to take a chance to get what he wanted, the least she could do is be a big girl and take care of the problem herself.

Things change. It was foolish to deny it and childish to refuse to embrace it – especially when some changes were for the better. True, one of her closest friends had moved away from her recently, but an old friend, Allen, had come back. They were closer than ever before and not just because Eries had been instrumental in persuading Dr. Atrineu to work with Celena.

Another positive change was her relationship with her sister. For the first time in their lives, they were treating each other as equals. Eries hadn't heard Millerna call her unfair in months and doubted she'd be hearing that accusation anytime soon. Millerna, on the other hand, hadn't had to listen to Eries tell her how selfish she was being for the same duration. They were still stubborn, they didn't always agree, but now when a disagreement did arise, they talked about it. Millerna had actually sought Eries' advice once or twice and Eries had asked her to return the favor.

It helped that their main conflict had become a moot point. Millerna's main opponent to her medical studies, their father, King Aston, had decided that maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to have a healer for a daughter after all. He had arrived at this conclusion after living under the constant care of the royal physicians following a stroke he had suffered. Their bedside manner, an odd combination of professional arrogance and subservience, had not impressed the king. Aston thought they treated him like a very important child, whereas Millerna never talked down to him with medical jargon. The doctors wanted him to lie abed like an invalid. Millerna would let him get up and go around as befitting a man of his stature. And when he had to sit down and go back to bed sooner than he had expected to, Millerna never once even implied that she had told him so.

Their father a staunch supporter of Millerna learning all she could (especially anything concerning the treatment of stroke victims), Eries no longer felt any obligation to put a stop to them either. Besides, her main objection had always been Millerna's tendency to forget she was a princess first and foremost, and she could only be a doctor a distant second. Though Millerna still doubted how far away the latter priority was away from the former, she had agreed with Eries about the order. So now she was doing as Eries had done when she was on the council, using her status to promote her interest to the benefit of everyone, not just herself.

To do this, Millerna had enlisted her father-in-law, Meiden Fassa, to aid her cause. It was unclear whether or not he could still be called her father-in-law as his son, Dryden, had given his wedding ring back to Millerna, but Meiden was never one to let something as trivial as an estranged marriage get in the way of getting influence with powerful people. No matter how much the rest of the world had changed, that was the one constant Eries could rely on.

Not that Meiden had to do much grabbing to have power. King Aston hadn't yet recovered to the point where he was ready to resume the throne (even under the more lenient Millerna standards). With Dryden abdicating his title of Prince Regent, that would have left Eries, the oldest living princess, at the head of the country – if Asturian laws didn't expressly forbid a woman from ruling alone. So instead of having a woman born and raised in the world of politics lead, a council, with Meiden occupying its highest rank, took the reins. An even more annoying irony was the fact that Eries had served on the very same council up until her father had removed her at the start of the conflict with Zaibach.

It was a position Eries had every intention of resuming. She was only fifteen when she attended her first council meeting and over the years, had developed a sense for politics every bit as keen as her male counterparts. The other council members knew it too. They might have mistaken her presence there in the beginning as the king humoring his silly daughter but after some spirited displays of her debating skills, they stopped underestimating her pretty quickly. They had to lest Eries' agendas overtake their own.

Unfortunately, there was a downside to being an effective advocate. Her agendas did often conflict with the merchants and old lords comprising the rest of the council and as such, those men weren't terribly sad to see her go. Eries could easily picture Meiden having enjoyed a victory glass of vino or, at the least, having a long, hearty laugh when he got the news. She was respected but not missed.

To get back on the council, she'd have to do some work of her own. The councilmen had a million excuses to keep her off; she'd have to come up with one reason that couldn't be refuted by any of them. As loathe as she was to exploit it, her father's continued illness was her best angle. An Aston needed to be in some sort of command. There was something inherently wrong with Asturia being ruled without the input of a member of the royal family. That wasn't just familial arrogance on her part either. Asturians loved their traditions and it didn't get much more traditional a king in his palace. Or a princess in her father's palace.

Whichever, the people wanted to know the throne was strong. That meant Asturia was strong. After being humbled by Zaibach before the war, strength was more important than ever. Change was spreading throughout the entire world of Gaea. Zaibach's military was crippled during the war but the country that did most of the crippling, Basram, did it by dropping an Energist bomb. That single act changed the political landscape more than all the wars of the past century. An Energist bomb was a weapon of such magnitude, it simply erased everything within its range. In theory, they weren't hard to make. Any country with a sufficient Energist supply could make one. What made Basram so frightening was that they actually used the accursed thing. Gaea had seemingly traded a devil it knew for a devil it didn't.

Diplomats from Basram were working extra hard to keep their country from taking Zaibach's place. They'd been ready in lending aid for reconstruction and very vocal in their support of the new world treaty that had been proposed by the alliance that had fought Zaibach. They'd even offered to host the summit in which the treaty would be drafted. They had been turned down. The more centrally located (and less threatening) Asturia had been chosen instead.

Eries knew how important this summit would be for the world and, since it was only a week away, how important it could be for her. King Aston wasn't going to be back to his old, formidable self in a few short days. Asturia could hardly go to the negotiating table with only a rich merchant to represent them. That fact gave her what she needed – her one, un-refutable reason.

All that was left was to present it to the council. Eries had been very careful in timing when to do it. Too early and they might accuse her of doubting her father's recovery. Too late and they would tell her there was no time to change the plans they had already carefully crafted. She had narrowed her choices down to two. If the market reports being delivered tomorrow morning were positive, she'd take advantage of the good mood Meiden and the other councilmen would be in and approach them then. If those reports were bad, she'd let them spend tomorrow working themselves into a frenzy making sure their own assets were protected, then approach them the next day to take advantage of their exhausted state.

With the current state of affairs, Eries believed it would be tomorrow. As the summit proved, Gaea was rebuilding. To rebuild, countries needed material. Merchants had that material and, after substantial markups, were happy to part with it. Rebuilding also took labor, which meant more people had more money to spend on the other things merchants stocked. So while the countries doing most of the rebuilding, Freid and Fanelia, were dipping into their treasuries to cover costs, merchants all around the world were watching their savings grow.

Most of them were, anyway. Eries took some satisfaction that Dryden Fassa had garnered a reputation for underselling his competition, which had an overall effect of keeping prices down anywhere his small fleet appeared. Those appearances, however, were few and far between, and no closer than the outskirts of Asturia. Whether Dryden was avoiding clashing with Meiden or wasn't ready to face Millerna until he lived up to his promise to be worthy of her was unknown. Meiden had sent messenger after messenger in pursuit of his son, but even the ones who managed to catch up with him had little news to offer. Dryden would send them back with brief notes explaining he was busy and would be in touch when he could, but not much else.

The elder Fassa was less than pleased with these responses. Millerna had confided in Eries that Meiden had told her he had thought about flat out abducting Dryden and dragging him back to Asturia. While that would be an entertaining spectacle, in the long run, Eries thought it would accomplish exactly nothing. Dryden would only take off again the second the opportunity presented itself. Eries had dismissed the plan as ridiculous. Given that she hadn't heard about any kidnapping attempts on the former prince regent of Asturia, Meiden must have come to that same conclusion. It was only as she reflected on it now that Eries realized that Millerna had not made any comment on it.

Millerna didn't say much about Dryden in general. She spoke even less about Allen. Eries respectfully tried to not bring the subject up, a difficult thing to do given how much time she was spending in his company. She wanted to know if Millerna still harbored any romantic feelings for the knight but she honored the new tone of their relationship and didn't pry. She figured Millerna's silence was an answer in and of itself. If she were truly over Allen, she wouldn't have a problem talking about him. As it was, Millerna didn't seem all that enthused to hear what a wonderful day Eries had had out at the Schezar manor, especially since it was wonderful day after wonderful day after wonderful day. Eries wasn't going to judge her sister if she did still love Allen. Eries had been in love with him since the age of fifteen before her feelings had settled into a deep affection for a dear friend. And even now, there were times when they were together and something he would say or do would set Eries to wondering.

She didn't fret over these musings as she had in the past. An idle thought was hardly cause for alarm. She well remembered when the thoughts weren't idle but constant and numerous and how they had frozen her, forced her to hide what she felt and waste so much time and energy arguing with herself over what to do with them. She had literally spent years fostering her longing in secret, afraid they'd come to light and even more afraid they'd forever remain hidden. She considered those days happily over. Eries knew what she felt for Allen, was comfortable with it. No more quiet pining for her.

Even if it came to it, she thought with amusement, falling back in love with Allen wouldn't put me anywhere I haven't been. Only now, I'd be older and wiser for all that melodrama.

That she was able to laugh about it and then go on to think of other things was another of those changes she'd been contemplating. To be honest, her thoughts had drifted to Allen's sister, Celena, but only because she had caught sight of Dr. Atrineu's leviship through the carriage window.

Eries shared the doctor's fondness for her. Celena didn't act like anyone else Eries knew, but then, Celena wasn't like anyone else she knew. Kidnapped as a small child, experimented on until she became an entirely different person and then returned to her brother years later without any memory of what had happened to her, Celena's life story could fill a series of books – books which Celena would find horribly boring before putting them down to wander off to do something more interesting.

Having turned sixteen almost two months ago on the eighth of Red, Celena looked the part of a proper, young Asturia lady. When she felt like it, she could act the part too. Her acting abilities left something to be desired as Celena had a hard time maintaining them for very long. She simply found her performances too funny. Eries found them somewhat less endearing, mostly because the majority of Celena's act had been derived from copying Eries' mannerisms. Eries was a princess for Jichia's sake; she couldn't help that she'd been instilled since birth with a fierce sense of etiquette. Of course, there wasn't any malice at all in any of Celena's imitations, the girl was genuinely amused by such things as the existence of six different types of forks to use at dinner and the inability of nobility to announce themselves when they arrived. Eries had to admit Celena had every right to mock these conventions, but a proper lady didn't revel in absurdities, they ignored them with a polite smile.

Celena's smile wasn't polite. It was wide, innocent, warm and frequently used. It made propriety seem stodgy and useless and any desire to turn it into something else faded upon sight. It charmed everyone who saw it, from an Egzardian psychologist to the jaded soldiers under Allen's command, and it let Celena get away with pretty much everything.

Eries had been strict to the point of overbearing when she'd been trying to keep Millerna in line. Allen's opinions on how an Asturian lady should behave were heavily influenced by his mother's decorous, if not old fashioned ways. Yet neither of them could bring themselves to apply the concept of discipline to Celena, despite Dr. Atrineu's assurances that they should. "Children need discipline," he had told them.

But it was hard to quantify Celena as a child. She looked, if anything, slightly older than her chronological age. She had inherited her mother's grayish hair and pale skin. Her eyes were the deep blue that had graced the Schezar family for generations. All together, she was an attractive young woman. On the days when she, Eries and Allen would go into Palas together, she did attract her share of attention, disproportionately from males.

It was harder to quantify her as an adult. Without any memory of growing up, in a very real way, she hadn't. Eries wouldn't put her at the five-year-old she was when she had been kidnapped, but she wouldn't put Celena near her actual age either. Somewhere in the middle her behavior lied. Dr. Atrineu found it fascinating. He assured Allen it was to be expected. You can't force someone to be act like an adult without her ever learning how.

Celena was learning though, and with that eagerness in children to know everything about the world around them. The things she was learning, however, weren't from an etiquette book. When she wasn't with Allen or Eries, she would be following around Aelia, the head maid of the Schezar estate, offering to help her with the chores. Such help usually resulted in Aelia having to do twice as much work: doing what she originally intended to do and then cleaning up the mess Celena had made. Fortunately, Aelia felt a loyalty to her employers that was more like a kinship and let all offenses slide. Celena and her smile again. If Aelia was busy, Celena would just find another member of the estate staff to occupy her time. It wasn't unusual to see Celena traipse into the house covered in dirt after an afternoon spent digging in the soil beside the gardeners. She had even persuaders the crew doing renovations on the house to lend her a hammer and some nails and let her have a go at framing a window. This task she had done so well on, she had decided she might wish to be carpenter.

Allen, content enough to let her work in the gardens but alarmed by her new career goal, had managed to put his foot down then, getting Gaddes, his second in command to watch after Celena when neither he nor Eries could do it. This didn't help as much as Allen had thought it would. Gaddes' immunity to Celena's smile was just as low as everybody else's, lower even. Celena soon developed a new favorite pastime: getting Gaddes to tell stories. Gaddes, being a soldier (and having had some shadier occupations before that), had some awfully interesting stories too. She wheedled them out of him over his better instincts by resorting to the simple, but highly effective, tactics known to all children – constantly asking 'why?' and 'then what happened?' and never letting up until the entire story was told.

It was such a blunt manipulation that Eries couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't something more subtle going on. True, Celena made no secret about what she wanted. All her queries were as straightforward as an arrow. Since a lot of Gaddes' stories involved Allen, it could be nothing more than a sister being naturally curious to hear about her big brother and his friends. But Celena was quite selective about the type of stories she was naturally curious about. Recollections of Allen and his crew fighting tense battles against Zaibach to help out a foreign king and a girl from the Mystic Moon got boring quickly. On the other hand, Celena loved prying details out of Gaddes about the romantic entanglements with that foreign king and the Mystic Moon girl. Whatever mental age Celena was supposed to be, it seemed to be too young for her to be able to understand (let alone even be interested in) the intricacies of love triangles and the gossip that went along with them. Clearly though, it wasn't, yet Celena was getting all her information via childish means.

It was a neat system. The very methods she used gave Celena plausible deniability if anyone started questioning why she wanted to know. Assuming it was true, of course, and Eries was hesitant to believe it. As cynical as dealing with politicians had made Eries, she didn't feel comfortable assigning ulterior motives to a girl who had been through as much as Celena. It couldn't be possible that Celena didn't suffer from her circumstances but instead, took advantage of them.

At least it couldn't be when Celena was smiling that smile and happily bounding around the Schezar manor. It was when Eries thought she could see a gleam in Celena's eyes when she was after something she wanted that the doubts started to creep in. Eries tried to ignore them. Dr. Atrineu had spent whole days analyzing Celena and hadn't expressed any suspicions. Neither had Allen, who spent as much time as he could with her. But then asking Allen to admit Celena was wilier than the child she was supposed to be would be akin to asking a priest of Jichia to say there's no god. There's just no room in the belief system for such blasphemy.

It wasn't that important anyway. If Celena was milking circumstances, let her. It wasn't harming anything and the girl had earned it. If she wasn't, Eries had already acquired enough nicknames that likened her to frozen water. She didn't need baseless suspicions of the poor girl earning her new a one.

She might risk being called 'Ice Princess' once or twice if it would get Sedgewick to ease up. With the palace coming into sight, he was eager to go over her schedule for this afternoon so he could make a plan for her protection that would ensure she would live until this evening. After that, came the strategy to make until this night. Blessed be to Jichia that the boy was too embarrassed to go into much detail about what Eries did at night to make a plan for tomorrow morning. Those details were nothing more shocking than sleeping and getting up for the occasional glass of water, but they might cause Sedgewick to picture Eries in her nightclothes and that was something neither of them wanted, albeit for entirely different reasons.

She still was stuck with him for the rest of the day. Her itinerary called for yet another visit to the Schezar estate. Sedgewick had been out there several times already, each time waiting in the sitting room until Eries' business was concluded, somehow ignoring the renovations going on around him and fighting off the boredom of doing absolutely nothing for hours on end. Eries was starting to feel guilty about it. She'd feel even guiltier today, as she wanted to stay longer than usual to make up for Dr. Atrineu's absence.

"Sedgewick," she ventured. "You've been working so vigilantly, I feel you are due a reward. Please take this afternoon off for your leisure."

She could've offered him all the gold in the treasury from the way he reacted. "I couldn't, your majesty. My duty – "

"Is to serve. Specifically, it is to serve me." Eries repeated her suggestion to take the rest of the day off, this time leaving out the 'please'. In the back of her head, a very Revius-like voice put 'do it, you idiot' in its place.

Locked in the conundrum of having to disobey a direct order to do his duty, Sedgewick simply shut down. He had the look of puppy abandoned by his master as he exited the carriage at the palace gates. Eries hesitated briefly before urging the driver to go on to the Schezar estate.

Even if Alucier was too busy to talk to him, she would find someone who would. She had to. Sending him packing was definitely an 'Ice Princess' act. Getting him help should warm her up, possibly to the temperature of a stone not quite touched by the morning sun.

Author's Notes – For those of you who haven't died of shock from seeing that I did start this, welcome back! I even posted this around the time I said I would. I actually had this prologue finished two weeks ago, but I didn't post it because I couldn't settle on a title. (Whistles while she ignores cries of 'And that's the best you could come up with?') Anyway, expect chapter one next week. Oh, Alucier fans (that means you, Sakura) don't despair. He's still very much around and will play an important part in the story.

Next Up – The Playboy Mansion. (I guess I should point out that chapter titles for this fic will be U2 songs and I just couldn't resist that one.)