Fog came very rarely to Palas. At most, a faint mist might steal over the city after a rainy day. However, this day was different. A thick fog had rolled in from the Chatal Mountains overnight, casting a dull, grey curtain on the rising sun. The air was still—also rare—and there was not a hint of wind to dispel the sea of grey that flooded the city.

In the midst of this strange new weather, Hitomi sat by her bedroom window. She gazed out at the streets, fascinated by how they seemed to be made of clouds instead of dirt and stone. After a moment's deliberation, she got up from her seat, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, and stole downstairs. She wanted to see for herself how thick the fog really was. She tiptoed across the lobby, gently undid the locks and eased the front door open.

The blinding fog was everywhere—Hitomi could scarcely see her own feet as she headed down the front steps. The streets were unnaturally quiet, the only sound being the crunch of the frosted ground beneath her feet. Her pace was slow, uncertain. Familiar landmarks were unrecognizable, and buildings loomed forth suddenly as she passed. Never had Palas seemed more like a ghost-town than at that moment. With a slight shiver, Hitomi drew her shawl about her more tightly and started heading back to the inn.

Just then, a small, strangled whimper sounded nearby. Hitomi squinted uncertainly through the fog. She walked a few paces further and suddenly a small blonde cat appeared by her feet. Hitomi recognised it immediately as Van's cat—the one she'd found by the harbour on her first day in Palas, practically a lifetime ago. Hitomi remembered the way it affectionately leaped onto her lap and let her stroke its soft, blonde fur. No such greeting awaited her this time. The cat lay unmoving on the dirt road, its legs stretched out at odd angels. Its golden locks were stained with thick red blood.


Le Vingt-troisième


The Invisible Foe


"There—that should do it."

Yukari finished tying the last of the bandages around the cat's hind leg. Then, she got up to empty the large basin of pinkish water used to clean off the cat's golden fur. Meanwhile, the animal lay in relative comfort in a tiny basket lined with napkins. Van leaned down to it and addressed the cat directly.

"You're lucky," he said quietly. "You only have a broken leg. All that blood wasn't yours."

Hitomi looked at Van curiously. He was perfectly serious as he spoke, as if confident the animal would understand every word. Hitomi peered into the basket. The cat looked at her with his piercing blue eyes for just a moment, and then closed them wearily.

"Poor thing," said Hitomi. "Coming all this way with a broken leg..."

She reached out and, very gently, stroked one of the cat's soft front paws. Next to her, Van stiffened with annoyance.

"You'd be surprised at how much he can take," he said, scowling.

Hitomi gave Van another strange look, but decided to leave him be.

"How long have you had this cat?"

"He isn't mine per se," Van corrected her. "That is, he's not my pet. He's more like a comrade-in-arms. We've known each other a little over three years."

"You have a cat for a comrade?"

Van nodded. Hitomi thought he would elaborate on this point, but he didn't. Hitomi turned her attention again to the cat, which appeared to be sleeping.

"I wonder where all that blood came from?" she wondered, aloud. "If it didn't come from him, then who's...?"

"It was wolf blood," said Van, after a short pause.

"Wolf blood?" she echoed. "How do you know?"

"I recognize the smell."

Hitomi turned to Van in surprise; he looked angry—fierce, even—and it made her nervous.

"I have to go," said Van abruptly.

"Go where?"

Her frightened tone must have alerted him. Van turned to her, his eyes a little softened.

"Only for a short while," he assured her. "I'll be back by evening. Would you mind staying inside today?"

"No, but why...?"

Van turned his gaze to the window, his mouth set in a hard line.

"I have to pay a visit to a friend."


Later that afternoon, Hitomi was alone in the parlour, staring out the window. She was tense with expectation, yet she didn't know what she was expecting. There was something about that day—something in the air, perhaps—that made her anxious; and Van taking off so suddenly didn't comfort her any. True to her word, Hitomi did not venture outside again. Even if Van hadn't asked, she wouldn't have gone out again. The strange new fog persisted through the day, and it cast an uninviting gloom upon the streets. Yet again, no customers came to the inn, so there was little else for Hitomi to do but wait.

Just then, Yukari entered the parlour with two steaming cups of tea. She handed one to Hitomi and took a seat next to her on the sofa.

"I thought Mr Fanel said he wouldn't be back until evening?"

Hitomi nodded. "He did."

"Isn't your sentry duty a little early, then?" said Yukari, smiling.

"I'm not waiting for him."

"Then why do you stare out the window like that?"

Hitomi chose not to hear this. She deliberately turned away from the window and the misty streets beyond.

"I feel strange today," said Hitomi. "It's like something has changed—and not for the better."

Yukari sipped her tea with a thoughtful expression.

"It has gotten chilly rather suddenly," she agreed. "There's all this fog, too... is this normal weather for Palas?"

"It isn't," said Amano, who walked into the parlour just then. "I've lived here all my life and I've never seen anything like it."

"I'll bring you some tea, Mr Susumu," said Yukari, at once.

"Oh no, Miss Uchida, please don't get up."

Amano hurriedly dashed off to the kitchen so Yukari wouldn't have to. Yukari slowly sat back down on the sofa, a strange sort of smile on her face.

"You fuss too much," said Hitomi chidingly. "Why not let Mr Susumu do it for once?"

"He's so busy already," Yukari replied. "Besides, I want to be useful. I'm basically living here at your expense, Hitomi."

"I don't care about that," Hitomi insisted.

"I do," said Yukari, firmly. "I will maintain the inn for you while your trial is going on. I will also write to our old housekeeper and see if she'll send me some of the money I left behind in Teretill."

"Couldn't you ask my aunt?" asked Hitomi.

"My mother doesn't know I'm here."

"Yukari!" exclaimed Hitomi. "You haven't written your own parents yet?"

"No," she said, "and I don't intend to. Don't you say anything either. They probably want nothing more to do with me."

"How can you know if you've never written them?"

"Hitomi, don't," said Yukari, in a warning tone. "I can't bear writing to them just yet. It's too painful."

Hitomi let the subject drop, but she continued to watch Yukari with doubt. Amano soon came back into the parlour, clumsily trying to keep his teacup from tilting in its saucer.

"Well, Mr Susumu?" said Yukari, with somewhat forced cheer. "Any news from Court?"

"None except that certain delegates from Sadar have just arrived to witness the trial," he replied, nodding to Hitomi. "They're a little early, Miss Kanzaki, but otherwise everything is happening on schedule. Your trial is still five days from now, and no sooner, which is lucky."

Hitomi felt a cold weight sink in her stomach. Five days seemed much too soon. Perhaps it showed on her face, for Amano put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"I'm reasonably confident in our defence, Miss Kanzaki," Amano reassured her. "Lady Millerna has confirmed the list of nobles willing to support you. Right now, it's only a matter of facing your accusers with dignity."

"I'll do my best, Mr Susumu."

Amano soon excused himself and went up to his room where he'd been doing most of his work. No sooner had he gone upstairs, than the front door opened and admit two most unexpected visitors.

"Good-morrow cousin!" cried Dryden exuberantly. "I come with happy tidings in this troubled hour!"

Next to him, Millerna looked vexed and irritable.

"Stop that, Dryden," she snapped. "This is an inn, not a theatre."

"What brings you both here today?" asked Hitomi, bemused.

"Notwithstanding Millerna's sour disposition, I come to issue an invitation," Dryden replied cheerfully. "Two nights from today I will be hosting a ball at the main Fassa mansion and you are all of you invited!"

Hitomi and Yukari looked up in surprise. With Hitomi's impending trial, the last thing on their minds was dancing and social assembly! Evidently, Millerna shared this opinion.

"A ball is vastly inappropriate right now," she said distastefully. "Sadar has not only lost Lord Filippe, but an entire regiment of soldiers in one night! The nobles of that city are furious right now. They blame Palas—blame us!—for our lack of responsibility! The last thing we need is a ball to offend them even further!"

"You're thinking about it too much," said Dryden dismissively. "That's the real problem here. Everyone is so preoccupied by politics that they forget to enjoy themselves once in a while! Trust me, Millerna. The Sadarian nobles will be pleased to receive such attentions from the Fassa family—so pleased, in fact, that they will be inclined to look more kindly on my dear cousin's case."

Millerna looked at Dryden in utter disbelief.

"You can't be serious!" she exclaimed, exasperated. "I'm telling you—the Sadarian delegates want Palas to take more action. They want arrests, suspect lists, and prosecutions—it's all I can do to keep them from rioting! How is your frivolous little party going to do anything but annoy them?"

"You underestimate the influence which a single, enchanting dance can have on the mind."

Millerna turned away in disgust, but Dryden was undeterred. He continued to talk for some time about all his lavish preparations for the ball. He apologised for not giving them earlier notice, but hoped to see them all the same.

"But Dryden," Hitomi interjected, "wouldn't Lord Meiden be furious if I were to appear?"

Dryden merely smiled at her.

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about him, cousin," he said evasively.

Hitomi still had a great many doubts, but when she expressed some hesitancy about going, Dryden declared he would not leave without first extracting a promise from her that she would attend. In the end, Hitomi had not only promised to be at the ball, but their whole party was now to spend the preceding night at the Fassa mansion.

"Only the wealthiest families and most prestigious guests are conferred with such an honour," said Dryden enthusiastically. "We will have those Sadarian nobles convinced you run in the highest circles."

"But I don't run in the highest circles," said Hitomi, getting really anxious now. "Don't you think that will be obvious?"

"Nonsense! Her Ladyship will tutor you on the necessary forms of etiquette—won't you?"

Dryden clapped a hand on Millerna's shoulder. The latter glared at him, and said, "If you think I'm going to play along in this ridiculous game of yours..."

"It's no game, my Lady," Dryden said, with a meaningful look to Millerna. "I assure you, it is instrumental in the gaining of support for my young cousin here."

Millerna's eyes hardened. Hitomi expected her to fight back with some smart retort, but, instead, Millerna nodded with resignation.

"Fine, have it your way," she told him, "but I don't like this one bit."

Satisfied, Dryden clapped his hands together. He turned to Hitomi.

"Now, before I forget, is the elusive Van Fanel here? I should like to speak with him very much."

When Hitomi replied that Van was not, Dryden's warm smile faltered.

"Indeed?" he said. "Well, I count on you to make sure he gets the invitation, Hitomi. Do try your best. It is of the utmost importance that he comes."

"I will certainly pass on the message, but I really don't know when Van is to return," said Hitomi.

"Again, do try your best, cousin. Until tomorrow evening, then!"

Dryden got up and left. Millerna, who planned to stay at the inn a little longer, followed Dryden outside to say a few words to him. Millerna gave Hitomi one last, apologetic look before she went out.

Hitomi was completely bewildered.

"What was that all about?" she asked Yukari, in amazement.

"I have no idea," replied Yukari, shaking her head. "So sudden an invitation—and at Lord Meiden's mansion, too! Doesn't that man hate you?"

"He does," said Hitomi grimly. "He's been threatening to take this inn away from me ever since I first bought it."

"And yet your cousin Dryden is so determined to see you—to see all of us—there! Even Mr Susumu, whom Lord Meiden openly slandered all those months ago!"

Hitomi shook her head.

"I don't understand. There was something strange in Dryden's manner, today. He's generally quite dramatic, but talking about his father usually sobers him down..."

"Do you think he really means to pass you off as some high-born aristocrat?" asked Yukari.

Hitomi suppressed a shudder.

"I hope not. If they found out the truth—which they certainly would—it would make me look like twice the fraud. And if they didn't, doesn't that make my break-in seem that much stranger? What would a high-born, well-bred, and unmarried woman be doing in Lord Filippe's study?"

"I think I agree with Lady Millerna," said Yukari. "If I were one of these nobles from Sadar, I wouldn't look too kindly on a ball held a few days before your trial."

"I should ask Mr Susumu how this could affect my defence…"

Just then, Millerna came back into the parlour. Yukari made some excuse and left the parlour, possibly sensing that Millerna wanted to talk to Hitomi alone.

"Hitomi, I'm so sorry about all that," Millerna said, as soon as Yukari left.

"Does Dryden really mean for me to pretend all that? To lie about my social status, and right in front of Lord Meiden, too?"

"I don't know," said Millerna. "You are not low-born, by any means, Hitomi. Your father was a respectable gentleman, and a fairly wealthy one, which is always looked upon favourably here. However, I have no idea by how much Dryden plans to exaggerate your status. For your sake, I hope it is not too much."

"That reminds me," said Hitomi suddenly, "why does Dryden want Van to come to the ball so badly?"

Here, Millerna hesitated.

"Specifically, I don't know," she said. "Dryden knows about Van's royal lineage, so this might be Dryden's way of paying his respects. But something about it bothers me. Hitomi, you should know... when I asked Dryden to support you in Court, he only agreed on the condition that I introduce him to Van."

Hitomi's eyes widened with disbelief.

"You're not serious?"

Millerna nodded. "I'm sorry to pain you, but it seems Dryden was too afraid of opposing his father without a strong inducement."

This was a blow, indeed. True, Hitomi had not been acquainted with Dryden long, but after their last meeting, she was so sure she could count on Dryden for almost anything. He'd warned her when Meiden had sent an inspector to the Rialto Inn, and he'd even given her a place to stay at his villa when that beast-man had broken in. Why the sudden lack of generosity now? It was most inconsistent.

"Is an introduction with Van so important to Dryden?" asked Hitomi, after a short pause.

"Strictly between you and I, Dryden is forever looking for ways to gain power over his father," Millerna explained. "Lord Meiden is a domineering father, and is forever threatening Dryden with disinheritance if he does anything even remotely against his wishes."

"That is a difficult situation, but still…"

"Meiden is also involved in less honourable dealings which Dryden has always opposed, but can do nothing about. Consequently, Dryden is desperate for independence."

Hitomi considered that for a moment, and sighed.

"I suppose I can understand that," she said, though she couldn't help but feel her confidence in Dryden was greatly shaken.

"Are these really worthy excuses, though?" asked Millerna, critically. "I've known Dryden a long time, and over the years he has grown too power-hungry. Meiden is probably the most powerful man in Astauria, second only to King Aston, and it would take a lot for his own son to sever ties from him without jeopardizing his position in society. As a result, Dryden will do almost anything to gain powerful connections, sometimes at the expense of doing what is right."

"But all Dryden wants is to live his own life," said Hitomi, frowning. "He just needs enough money to support himself. Is that so hard to come by?"

"It's not as simple as that, Hitomi. Dryden isn't looking to have just enough money to survive. He wants to retain his social standing, his connections in first class society, and his aristocratic lifestyle. If Dryden were estranged by his father, all of his so-called friends would vanish in an instant, and with them any opportunities to advance his career. Now, if Dryden were to gain more power than Meiden, Meiden's supporters would be more than willing to transfer their allegiance to the son instead of the father. That's Dryden's logic."

Hitomi sighed heavily.

"So that's why Dryden wants a connection with Van's family?" she said quietly. "Just so he can use to Van to gain power over Meiden? That isn't right. I don't want Dryden's support like this. It's not fair to Van, and it's certainly not fair to you, Millerna, to have to mediate all of this."

"Van already knows everything," said Millerna. "He said he was willing to accede to Dryden's request, so long as Dryden made good in his promise to support you in trial."

"Van said that?"

"He did," said Millerna, with a slight smile. "It was Van who persuaded me to help you through all this in the first place, too. Didn't you wonder why I helped you out after seeing you in Filippe's study? I confess I was very shocked at first, and I was quite ready to jump to conclusions about why you were there. If not for Van, I might have thought of you as less than a young girl who was just in the wrong place and at the wrong time."

Hitomi was stunned. She stared at her feet, unable to meet Millerna's eyes, and felt her face turn red.

"I had no idea Van had done so much," Hitomi mumbled. "It's only because of him that I have any chance of clearing my name."

"Not to put too fine a point on it, but yes, I'd say that Van is largely to thank for the speedy measures taken to protect you."

Hitomi fully hung her head at this. However, Millerna put a comforting hand on her arm.

"Don't be too hard on yourself, Hitomi," she said. "Looking back, I'm glad Van asked me to help you. Reckless though you were, I admire the way you risked yourself so willingly to do right by Miss Uchida, and I'm sure Van feels the same."

Hitomi was too embarrassed to reply. Millerna understood and did not press her. When conversation was resumed, it was on idle and generally unimportant topics. After an hour passed in this manner, Millerna had to leave. She invited Hitomi, Yukari and Merle to her villa to help them get ready for the ball. Hitomi gladly accepted, thinking that Yukari especially would be ecstatic.

All distraction thus gone, the rest of the afternoon passed slowly. A dense shroud of fog had settled—permanently, it seemed—around the inn; Hitomi could hardly tell the difference as day changed into night. Evening came and went, but Van still hadn't come back.

Hitomi continued to wait by the window until past midnight. Yukari had long since showed Amano to one of the guest rooms; he agreed to stay overnight on account of Van's continued absence. Merle, who declared she was too uneasy to sleep, stayed up a little longer with Hitomi. By half past midnight, however, Merle was nodding off in her chair and Hitomi decided it was time for both of them to go to bed.

"What if Lord Van doesn't come back?" asked Merle, as Hitomi walked her to her room.

"He'll definitely be back," said Hitomi reassuringly. "Van is an incredible soldier—weren't you the one who told me that?"

Hitomi expected Merle to affirm this with her usual warm praise of Van, but instead Merle paused uncertainly by her bedroom door.

"Hitomi, there's something you don't know," she said, lowering her voice. "It's about Lord Van… he's not well."

"What do you mean?"

The young cat girl bit her lip, apparently unsure of how much she should divulge.

"Is it an illness?" prompted Hitomi.

"Sort of," said Merle uncomfortably. "I'm not supposed to... he doesn't want you to know... but I'm worried... I think he's getting worse…"

Hitomi stared at Merle blankly.

"Why won't he tell me?"

"He won't tell anyone," said Merle hopelessly. "I'm sorry, Hitomi, I've only upset you—"

"No," said Hitomi, "it's alright. Try not to worry, Merle. I'm sure he'll come back safe."

But as Merle bade her goodnight, Hitomi couldn't shake off a strong sense of uneasiness. Was this why Van was so late returning from his mysterious errand? What if he had fallen ill on his way back, and was stranded somewhere? No—Van was no fool. If anyone could look after himself, it was him. Hitomi tried to console herself with this last thought as she changed into her nightclothes, but all too soon, other worries came flooding into her mind.

Was Van really ill? Was she so unobservant as not to notice? Perhaps she was—every time Hitomi saw him, she was so distracted by Van's warmth that she could scarcely draw breath, let alone notice anything unusual about his health. Why wouldn't Van mention anything, though, if he was so seriously sick? Did he not think her trustworthy? Whatever this sickness of Van's was, if it forced someone as loyal as Merle to break a promise of secrecy, it must be serious indeed. Hitomi would have to find a way to ask Van about it. She only hoped he would not be delayed much longer in coming back.

Hitomi was about to get into bed when she suddenly remembered the cat downstairs. She marched down to the kitchen, nightgown and all, and went over to the basket in which the blonde-furred fellow lay quietly curled up. Hitomi gently picked up the basket. Sensing the movement, the cat lazily opened his eyes.

"Sorry to wake you," Hitomi murmured, "but it's freezing in the kitchen at night. Why don't I bring you up to my room, where there's a fire?"

The cat meowed in affirmation, or at least Hitomi thought so. She carried the basket upstairs, setting it down at the far end of her bed, nearest the fire, and then climbed into bed. The cat watched her unblinkingly, its deep blue eyes gleaming in the glow of the fire.

"You know Van, don't you?" asked Hitomi, idly. "What's he hiding from me? Doesn't he trust me?"

The blonde cat merely tucked its face beneath one of its paws, too sleepy to pay her any more attention. Hitomi didn't mind—just having this extra bit of company was a comfort. She lay down and snuggled farther into her sheets. Within minutes, she was asleep.


Hitomi stood atop a high cliff. There was fog everywhere—so much, in fact, that it took several moments before Hitomi realized she was on the Chatal Mountains.

"FOLKEN!"

Van's piercing cry that rent the air furiously; Hitomi never heard a scream so full of hate. She tried to find its source, but the cry died away too soon.

"FOLKEN! Show yourself, you bastard!"

This time, Hitomi was alert. She traced the sound down below, to the bottom of the cliff. On an instinct, she willed herself downward. The result was immediate. Hitomi plunged headlong into the abyss before her through the seemingly endless depths of fog. When at last she slowed to a halt, hovering over the wet, rocky shore at the base of the cliff, a terrible sight met her eyes.

Van was crouched over a large, bloodied mass of grey fur. The mass was, in fact, an elderly wolf-man bleeding copiously all over Van's clothes—but Van didn't care. This loyal wolf had forfeited his own life—had intercepted the path of a long spear, which protruded out from his frail, unprotected body—to save that of his Lord's. The young prince howled with rage, and the air filled with curses uttered in his native Fanelian tongue.

"Your Highness ..."

The wolf-man stirred feebly. With a bloodied hand, he held up a small herbal pouch and gave it to Van. It was the last of the medicinal Fanelian root.

"He killed them all ... Ruhm ... the warriors ..."

The wolf-man's final breath wasted, and he went limp in the Van's arms. Van shook his head in furious disbelief.

"No, no, no ... that bastard ... THAT BASTARD!"

Van was overcome with grief. Even now, he could still be pushed farther into the utmost extremes of despair. Over and over, he cried the same name, with a vengeful hatred:

"FOLKEN!"


List of Main Characters (by birthplace)

Teretill, Astauria

Hitomi Kanzaki – Owner of the Rialto Inn. Accused of the murder of Lord Filippe.
Yukari Uchida – Former captive of Colonel Reagan. Hitomi's cousin on maternal side. Working at the Rialto Inn.

(City Unknown), Fanelia

Van Fanel – Prince of Fanelia. Practising Healer alongside Lord Faunus.
Folken Fanel – Eldest Prince of Fanelia. Pracising Summoner.
Merle – A childhood friend of Van's. Working at the Rialto Inn.

Palas, Astauria

Amano Susumu – Legal advisor and assistant manager of the Rialto Inn.
Millerna Varene – Former princess of Astauria. Widow of Lord Varene, former Governor of Sadar. Practising surgeon.
Meiden Fassa – One of the wealthiest merchants in Palas. Dryden's father. Hitomi's uncle on paternal side.
Dryden Fassa – A scholar and fairly wealthy merchant in Palas. Hitomi's cousin on paternal side.

Sadar, Astauria

Lord Filippe – Late Governor of Sadar. A suitor of Millerna. Killed in Sadar.

(Birthplace Unknown)

Lord Faunus – Practising physician and Healer.
The cat – A mysterious, blonde-furred animal. So-called "comrade" of Van.


Robo's Note:

Hi everyone, and thanks for reading chapter 23! I had some troubles getting this chapter written. I'm working on cutting out details, while trying to keep things interesting/coherent, but feedback is super important right now. Please let me know if everything makes sense, and/or if anything stands out as really confusing. It would be a huge help!

Thanks very much to everyone who reviewed the last chapter, and to those who are still following this story after all this time! :) So much love for you all! I'm really behind on school work right now, but I'm doing my best to make time for writing. If anyone is interested, I've just written a short piece for the challenge fic entitled "Fusion," run by the "Fanelian Embassy." "Fusion" is basically a collection of V/H one-shots by various fanfiction authors, so be sure to check it out!

Don't forget the love!

To my anonymous reviewers:

Healed: Thanks a bunch!

Catherine: Thank you, I'm glad you liked it so much! I hope you enjoy this one!

A fan: That means a lot—thanks very much! The Robot shall try to rock on. :)