A/N: So I didn't get it out as soon as I had hoped. I apologize for that, but I hope you find this chapter worth the wait. This story is finally building up some steam and things are starting to set into motion. I apologize for the long journey and thank any readers who are still along for the ride. As always, reviews are much appreciated.
Chapter 13: Things Fall Apart
Merle looked radiant in her own traditional Fanelian gown. Hers was the more typical brightly colored hue, but it suited her just fine. However, Merle's concerns were not about her own appearance at the moment, rather they centered on the petite blond seated at the vanity.
"Merle, you should stop fussing. I don't think my hair has ever been so intricately braided and no one will able to see it from so far away."
"Nonsense. Besides, once Van makes his announcement you will be under the scrutiny of every court, and you must look perfectly fashionable else the ladies of court will not accept you."
"Van cannot keep a secret from me. And I am so glad Hitomi." Stopping, Merle held Hitomi's gaze in the vanity mirror. "You will be a good queen for Van and Fanelia."
Hitomi's hand came up to grasp Merle's where it laid perched on her shoulder. "Thank you Merle; I will try. Though I do not fully understand what my duties will be as queen, or as Van's wife. But he asked me so sweetly and he said that a king should have a queen. Given everything he has done for me, how could I not accept?"
Merle narrowed her eyes slightly. "Hitomi, don't you love Van?"
"I..I do like him, and care for him a lot. I enjoy his presence, but I do not know if it is love. Though I dread the idea of no longer being in Fanelia at his side. So I must have the first inklings of love, but love is not always important in these matters is it?"
"It is to Van."
Hitomi could tell that her honesty did not sit well with Merle and she turned to face her companion. "Van has promised to treat me well, and I know he will. In turn, I will do the same. Do not worry Merle, I will never hurt him."
Merle looked into Hitomi's wide eyes and could find no trace of anything but the truth. Van loved Hitomi, though he may not have admitted it to himself just yet, but Hitomi would make him happy and she wanted nothing but to see her brother happy. "I know Hitomi; I know you will."
"Hn?" Merle continued with her work, tucking the last calla lily into the intricate arrangement of curls.
"What is expected of me today? What will happen at the coronation?"
"Nothing will be expected of you, so do not fret. Just focus on trying not to look bored. I have never seen a Fanelian coronation before so I do not know what to expect exactly, but I have heard the advisors describe the event." Merle stepped back to finish her inspection of Hitomi before she continued. "Van will call upon Escaflowne to confirm his claim on kingship, using the dragon energist as a conduit."
"Escaflowne? The white dragon?"
"Yes; Escaflowne is the worshipped deity in Fanelia and all rulers must pass the dragon rite to prove their strength and skill. If they are not able to retrieve the energist, they cannot become king."
"What if Van had not been successful?" Hitomi thought of the trampled clearing she had visited with Van. According to Van, she had saved his life. Until this moment, she had never truly questioned the ramification of his death.
Merle hesitated and diverted her eyes before answering. "I do not like to think what may have happened, for Van's failure would have meant the end of the Fanel bloodline."
"Van would have been put to death for his failure?" Hitomi was awestruck, this ritual seemed so savage!
"Not exactly, but a prince is expected or succeed or die trying."
"But to fight and kill a dragon? Such a dangerous task doesn't make sense."
"True. But only one Fanelia king-to-be has ever failed. Folken, Van's brother."
Hitomi turned fully to look at Merle. This was the first mention of an elder brother. "Van was not meant to be king?"
"Stand up Hitomi and let me inspect your dress. The ceremony will begin shortly and we must make sure everything is ready."
Hitomi did not fail to notice how Merle dodged her question but she could tell by the set of her jaw that she would get nothing more of the subject out of Merle now. Doing as she was told, she stood for Merle's final inspection. Earlier she had only basked in the gratitude and honor Van had extended by offering his hand in marriage, now she began to wonder more about the country she had promised herself to.
Merle had already left. She had to leave earlier in order to find a good spot to watch the coronation. According to Merle, a samurai would escort Hitomi to the service. All she had to do now was wait, and wait she did. Outside her window the buzz of people grew louder, and the contrast with the oppressive silence in her chambers only made her more anxious. The soft knock on the door caused Hitomi to suck in too much breath.
A young girl opened the door and Hitomi recognized her as one of the assistants from the medical ward. "Lady. I've brought your medicine."
"Oh yes." in the hustle and bustle of the day, Hitomi had completely forgotten about her medicine. Since her discharge from the medical ward, this was the only interaction she had with healers anymore. According to them, she had been in a fit when she first arrived. She would thrash around in her sleep and had 'waking fits' where she would go into a trance or sometimes convulse violently. The medicine prevented these episodes, and Hitomi had dutifully taken a dose each day.
The assistant placed the wooden tray on a low table dear Hitomi's vanity and filled a small shallow saucer with a thick viscous fluid. Hitomi stood and held the saucer to her lips, throwing her head back in a hope to the expedite the process. No matter how many doses she took, she could never get use to the metallic aftertaste. Hitomi held out the saucer, her face still twisted in disgust; she felt the saucer taken from her hand and a wedge of lime replace it. Hitomi snuck the wedge between her lips and sucked the sour juice from the pulp. The intense sour taste of lime was preferable to the medicine and the juices acted as an adequate chaser.
"Thank you." Hitomi placed the lime rind into the assistant's awaiting hand. With a quick bow, both the girl and any evidence of medicine were gone.
Hitomi remained standing, her hand clasping the edge of her vanity as the effects of the medicine took effect. A slow numbing filling spread through her body, originating from the base of her skull and flooding in all directions. She always felt comatose after her daily dose and had once requested to change the time to right before bed. Her request had been denied though, on the basis that medication before bed time could lead to a coma, and that the main priority of the medicine would be to ward off any day time attacks, the most potentially embarrassing for the court. Never mind that she often felt as if she was walking in her sleep, a disinterested and reticent Hitomi was better than an epileptic Hitomi.
Another knock sounded on the door and Hitomi managed to barely mumble an audible, "Enter."
"Milady." A samurai knight stood at her door, arm extended already for her. This knight was young and didn't meet her eye as she dragged herself to his side. She preferred his quiet nature as it allowed her to focus more on walking and composing herself for the coronation. They walked down the hall to the grand staircase and finally to the stage erected in the palace courtyard. The samurai led her up the stairs and next to Millernia, who shone in all her Asturian glory. Behind her, Allen stood guard, also wearing his finest military robes. Like Allen, the samurai took his spot behind Hitomi.
Looking ahead to the crowd gathered in front of the stage, Hitomi recognized the lords and lady of the court assembled in chairs before the dais. A few rows back, she saw the most successful merchants decked out in all their ostentatious glory. Further back, and spilling out the gates into the city square, she saw the rest of the village. Craning her neck as discreetly as possible she searched the crowd for Merle. Just when she was about to give up, a bob of bright pink hair caught her attention. In the further corner of the palace square, roped off from all the others, the beast servants and courtiers assembled. Leaning against the rope, right in the front was Merle. Four samurais stood guard around the section, and Merle kept throwing dirty looks at one who kept standing in her way when he shifted his weight from one foot to the other out of boredom.
Hitomi was about to throw up her hand in greeting to Merle, but her wrist was caught by an unexpectedly strong grip. Looking down, she saw that Millernia's hand had snatched her own. Millernia gave a barely perceivable shake of the head, her blond curls moving only slightly over her shoulders. Looking from Millernia's profile, she saw Allen watching her out of the corner of his eye as well. If it were not for her grip, Hitomi would have thought that Millernia was not even aware of her. The corners of Allen's lips lifted in the tiniest of smiles, but he too made no gesture to acknowledge her. Hitomi eased the tension from her arm and Millernia's fingers unfurled from her wrist.
Trumpets from the palace wall sounded and Hitomi refrained from looking for the source of the sound, on either side of her the other dignitaries were unfazed by the noise. A wizened samurai she recognized as Balgus entered from the back of the stage, his formidable physical presence silencing any lingering conversation in the crowd.
"People and guests of Fanelia, I present his eminence, Prince Van Slanzar de Fanel!"
Balgus bent low at the hip and ducked side ways to reveal Van standing behind him, wearing the traditional Fanelian robes Hitomi had come to recognize. A deep red tunic was layered with long vest robes. Tan breeches peaked out from under the layers of robes and disappeared quickly into dark brown leather boots. In his hand, Van clutched a pink dragon energist.
Van stepped forward and for a moment Hitomi expected him to address the crowd. Instead he lifted the dragon energist high into the air and was rewarded by a cacophony of cheers and whistles. Van withdrew his hand from the air and the crowd fell silent again.
"Fanelia, I have succeeded in the ancient rites of our kingdom and come before you a humble man. Accept this dragon energist as proof of my strength, my determination and my skill, and declare me today your king!"
The crowd once again erupted in cheers, "Long live King Van. Long live Fanelia. Long live King Van. Long live Fanelia…"
Van withdrew a decorative dagger from the sleeve of his robe and Balgus stepped forward to retrieve the energist from his hand. With a swift movement, he dragged the blade across the palm of his left hand; in its wake, a thin river of red sprung from from the wound. Thrusting his hand once again in the air, this time displaying his bleeding wound, he was meet with even more cheers from the crowd. Balgus took the blade from Van and returned the energist, which Van pressed against his bleeding palm. His fleshed hissed and sizzled on contact and the energist began to pulse with an inner light.
Hitomi unconsciously lifted her hand to the pendant at her throat, it too grew warm and seemed to pulse in tune with the energist, which pulsed in tune with the beating of her heart. Van decided at that moment to turn his face towards her. His face was stone, the good humor she was use to seeing playing on his features was absent. Without a word, he extended his right hand to her, still clutching the energist in his left. Hitomi's hand dropped from the pendent and she placed her hand in his waiting one. His grip was strong but gentle and he guided her from the perimeter to stand by his side, facing the cheering crowd.
That was when a piercing shriek ran through the cheering crowd. What followed was a shocked silence, the air suddenly sucked into a vacuum, before the world exploded.
Dilandau watched the commotion from the safety of the forest. For so many years he had guarded over this village, but watching it from this perspective was completely different. As a guardian he merely helped to keep major natural disasters at bay. It was thrilling to watch the people swarm around the palace. Here, so close to these people, his senses were under attack. A heady musk hang in the air and despite the cool morning air, heat radiated off of the throngs of people, intensifying the smells and muffled chatter.
Soon it would be winter, his favorite season. He had always admired the calming atmosphere that settled over Gaea during that season, but he wondered absently what it would be to actually feel that calmness now. He could sense Jajuka in the guymelef next to him, but heard nothing from the taciturn element. Settling back into the crisp leather pilot seat of his guymelef, he nervously squeezed the shifts in his hands, rolling his muscles around to find a more comfortable spot. Isaac was right, he seemed to know exactly how to operate this metallic beast, but that did not mean he did it with any fluidity. Below him, he could make out the shapes of Isaac and Strategeos through the barred cockpit. They did not wear this mechanical armor, but Dilandau had a feeling that they controlled the mechanical army hidden in the recesses of the forest.
"Your intelligence was wrong."
Strategeos did not respond to Isaac, save for a curt nod of his head.
"You said the ceremony was to take place at dusk, and look- the royal parties are already assembled, ready for a noon coronation. It is a good thing I decided to advance the troops ahead of time."
Isaac looked ruefully up at the towering figure of Strategeos. "Now it is imperative that we find Escaflowne before that brat bonds with it. Where is it Strategeos?"
Strategeos nodded towards the temple, concealed from most of the palace guests by thick foliage, away from the platform and gathering crowd.
"Good. Now is as good a time as any, when most of the attention is elsewhere. Dilandau will accompany me to the temple and Jajuka will lead the attack on Fanelia once we have recovered the relic. Strategeos, do not make me regret charging you with this task…"
Dilandau had stopped paying attention at this point. He recognized the young prince entering the stage from the rear. Unconsciously, Dilandau felt his jaw clench. This was the man that Hitomi had taken a keen interest in, an interest that had always bothered Dilandau. That brat. Varie's son. The son that was more important than him. Wrapping his hands tighter around the controls of his guymelef, Dilandau realized that he was looking forward to seeing this land burn.
Earlier when Isaac had spoken of Fanelia, he had not put a name to the country he knew so well; the country to seemed to dog his every step. In the end it had been what both bonded him with Varie, and what had brought him and Hitomi together, but it was also what finally tore them all apart. Dilandau remembered the feverish look in her eyes when she had begged for his help, atop the rocky cliff, right before she dove, right before she fell. Would she try to come here, try to stop the destruction he was about to inflict upon this land.
The breath caught in his throat and Diladandau looked wildly about. If she was here, then she was in danger! He had to look for her.
Isaac looked up at Dilandau's concerned call. "Yes?"
"Hitomi! She might be here. We have to look for her."
"Foolish boy. We do not have time." Isaac dismissed him with a wave of his hand as he continued his dialogue with Strategeos.
Dilandau felt the fury building in him. Isaac had told him that they would find her, would look for her, would save her. "You liar."
Isaac turned slowly at the seething hate he heard in Dilandau's voice. "Pardon?"
"You never cared about Hitomi, or Varie. You are using me. I will not be manipulated or take any part in this scheme. I came here to for Hitomi."
Isaac stared at Diladanu's guymelef, his face hidden behind bars of steel, before he broke out into a raspy chuckle. "And how will you find her? You need me, and I will only help you once we have recovered Esacflowne."
Their conversation was broken off by the raucous cheers of the crowd. The prince withdrew his hand that held up a pink stone and the crowd fell silent again.
"Get out of my way."
"Remember the vision I showed you. We must purge Gaea our its filth, and that will begin by wiping this puny country from the face of existence."
"Get out of my way." Dilandau didn't care about Isaac's mission anymore; didn't care about his lofty goals. Hitomi may be in that crowd and he needed to save her.
"How will you find her?" Isaac asked again. This conversation was beginning to take up precious time. With a nod to Strategeos, Jajuka and other guymelefs took off towards the temple to retrieve Escaflowne. That was the most important thing now. Dilandau would have to be dealt with later. Looking over the remaining guymelefs, he questioned who would be best to command the remaining forces; Chesta or Gatti maybe?
Dilandau moved forwards and began looking desperately through the crowd for Hitomi. A motion from the king drew his attention and he saw a figure move from the side of the assembled crowd. Shock and relief simultaneously coursed through him. She was here; she was here with him! The deep painful shriek that filled the air surprised him, especially when he realized that it came from his own mouth.
The controls which he had only clumsily man mere minutes ago came alive. Dilandau was suddenly one with his guymelef; the mechanical limbs moved with the same fluidity and ease as his own limbs. He was moving towards the platform without thought, only intent on reaching her. Over the whirling of the machinery he was vaguely aware of Isaac's screams for him to stop. Damn him; damn Escaflowne; damn that prince.
His control completely snapped when the dark haired prince dared to draw Hitomi into his embrace protectively. Who the hell did he think he was to dare touch her? No one but him. Ripping apart those offending limbs was the only thought that consumed him.
Below his guymelef, which had taken flight over the crowd, people scattered in chaos; trampling their own in a hurry to flee. The guests on the stage were quickly retreating from the rear, only Van stood his ground, Hitomi clinging behind him. Dilandau let out another scream of rage and was slightly surprised to see flames erupt from his mechanical arm, setting the stage on fire, increasing the chaos and cries of fear.
Raising his mechanical, Dilandau prepared to strike down the prince. He hadn't even noticed the towering and scarred man before, but this man now blocked his blade with surprising strength. Only his large broadsword was preventing Dilandau's own mechanical blade from splitting him down his center. The audacity of this man to dare stand in his way, he would be destroyed for it.
"Run Van! Take and lady and run!"
Dilandau bared his teeth and forced harder against the blade, increasing the crevice that had begun to form. He would dispatch of this nuance and then destroy the prince.
Van threw one last desperate glance at Balgus and then ran towards the temple, Hitomi in tow. He would have to retrieve Escaflowne and then get Hitomi out of here. Hitomi stared at Balgus holding off the gigantic mechanical beast.
Hitomi took a sharp breath. She could have swore the strange creature had just uttered her name. It had sounded hollow, dissonant, and strangely familiar.
"Hitomi! Come!" Van pulled roughly on her arm and the shock fell from her. Van ran towards the back of the stage and disappeared into the palace corridors. The other guests were already running towards the landing strip where ships were preparing to take off.
Among the crowd, she found Millernia's blonde head. Desperately searching the rushing crowd for Merle's distinctive red head, her steps slowed and pulled on Van's hand. "Van! Merle!"
Van turned and she saw anguish in his face, torn between finding Merle and his duty. "I have to get to Escaflowne."
Hitomi saw it was futile and it would only prove painful for Van to argue. Disengaging her hand, she rushed towards Millernia.
"Millernia. Please find Merle. Please!"
Millernia took her pleading hand and nodded understandingly as she turned towards Allen who hovered over her shoulder.
"Don't worry Princess. I'll find her, but you must promise to get onto the Crusader, even without me." Allen took off, fighting against the crowd to rush towards the screams and chaos.
Hitomi felt Van's hand on her shoulder and she turned towards him. Somehow she knew that he needed her with him, wanted her with him. Taking his hand they ran past the guests and down the hall. Leaving behind Millernia, who stood stationary amidst the chaos and flowing bodies that divided around her, like the currents around a floating body.
Millernia watched her childhood friend dash down the hall, pulling Hitomi behind him. In this time, she couldn't do anything but trust the heavens that they would be safe. Just when it seemed like Van had managed to grasp a little bit of happiness, destiny decided that it must be thwarted. Again.
Millernia saw Gades towering over the crowd, obviously searching for her. Finally turning with the flow of bodies, she ran towards him. "Allen is searching for Merle. We must prepare the ship to be ready to leave once he returns. Also, make sure we carry as many refugees as possible. I don't care if we throw cargo overboard to make room."
Van lead Hitomi through twists and turns of hallways and passages she had never seen. The spider webs and thick layer of dusts hinted that these passages were rarely used; the eerie silence that enveloped them made Hitomi think that these pathways must be underground. Without warning, the passage came to an abrupt end;a heavy, thick wooden door blocked their way. On the other side of the door stood the unknown, and Van slowed down to pressed his ear against the wood grain. Holding his hand up, he motioned for Hitomi to wait as he cautiously pushed the door and peered around the corner.
An enormous temple was slowly revealed. On the opposite end stood a white metal idol. Outside of the relic and arching rafters, the temple was bare. Not even a pew was present for the pious to kneel upon. Van crept out of the passageway and beckoned for Hitomi to follow. Locking his eyes on the metal statue, he withdrew the pink energist he had stored in his robes during their flight.
Hitomi ventured out of the passage into the cavernous temple. Without warning she felt her body freeze, and she saw the faint image of large metal claw crashing through the wooden ceiling, crushing Van. She didn't even know she has started to scream until the paralysis slipped from her body, and air rushed from her mouth. Van stopped and turned, fearing the worst as he sought to find what plagued Hitomi. Just as he rushed back to her aide, a black mechanical claw ripped through the roof, landing right where Van had stood only seconds before.
Though the mechanical arm had missed Van, it landed on the train of his royal robes and Van had to struggle to free himself of the material. Hitomi rushed to his side, but he only pushed her towards the statue. "Quickly, get to Escaflowne."
The metal claw, dislodged itself from the floor and flew up, through the ceiling, preparing to strike again. Van grasped Hitomi and led her towards the perimeter of the temple, away from the most likely place the mechanical beast would strike again. As predicted, the claw crashed down again, leaving a gaping hole in the ceiling that allowed Hitomi and Van to finally see their attacker. The mechanical beast that peered down at them was identical to the other creature that had attacked them on the platform, only differing in color. Clutching Hitomi to his side, Van made a mad dash for Escaflowne, praying they made it before the creature struck again.
The second claw of the beast lifted, and its shadow loomed over Van and Hitomi. No matter how fast they ran, they wouldn't be able to escape it before it came crashing down on them again. Strangely, the arm never came down. Hitomi risked a glance to see the red beast from before, only this time it was blocking the impending descent of the other mechanical creature. Van didn't stop to decipher what was happening. Instead, he ran ahead to the statue, energist in hand.
"Escaflowne, I call upon your power and your protection in the name of Fanelia."
Clutching the energist in his hand, he thrust his fist into the red stone that stood out from the breast of Escaflowne. The hard crystal metamorphosed into a gelatinous goo and his hand slipped in with no resistance. A mechanical whirling sound erupted from the statue and steam escaped from a hidden cockpit that revealed itself. Van catapulted himself into the opening. His father had always told him that he would know how to operate Escaflowne when the came time, and he prayed that his father had not lied to him.
Dilandau flicked his mechanical wrist, dispensing of the bloodied flesh that clung to the smooth blade. Hitomi had disappeared with the prince into the castle, but he somehow knew she wasn't on any of the levy ships that took off from the royal air fields. The sound of splintering wood reached his ear, and he remembered the temple Strategeos had pointed out while they can laid hidden in the woods. Would she be after this mysterious Escaflowne as well? Taking off towards the woods, he spotted Jajuka's guymelef looming over the wooden temple, furiously ripping apart the temple roof.
That was when he saw her, dodging wooden debris as they fell from Jajuka's metallic claw. He struck his metallic arm out to block what would have been a fatal blow. Dilandau clenched his jaw against the pain that lanced through his hand as he strained to hold off Jajuka's attack, the gears groaning against the stress.
"Stop it! Don't you recognize her?"
Jajuka turned almost dead blank eyes to him, and Dilandau realized that much as he disliked Jajuka, he could not blame him for nearly killing Hitomi. He was being controlled, but by who? Gritting his teeth, Dilandau pushed into his blade and threw off Jajuka's arm.
"You can stop the prince and do with him as you like, but you will not hurt Hitomi. I will not allow it."
Jajuka's dead eyes stared back, neither one making the first move. Movement from the temple drew both their attention and a white guymelef rose, crashing through the remaining roof timbers. Dilandau threw his mechanical arms out to cover Hitomi from the falling debris, and stared down the white mechanical beast that cared so little for her safety. Was this Escaflowne? Dilandau didn't care if this was Isaac's precious cargo or not, he would destroy it for almost harming Hitomi. Without warning, Escaflowne launched itself at Hitomi and before Dilandau could react, scooped her up in its hand. Holding Hitomi in its left hand, the right arm swung wildly at Jajuka and Dilandau, knocking them back and creating just enough space to launch off into the air. With a mechanical whirl, Escaflowne's limbs shifted and reorganized until it was a sleek mechanical dragon streaking through the air, with the Fanelian king piloting the beast.
Dilandau ran after Escaflowne, pulling back hard on the controls. But no matter how he manipulated the controls, his guymelef would not transform and he remained grounded, capable of only watching Escaflowne take off in the air, clutching Hitomi in its serpentine grasp.
A strangled cry erupted from his throat and Dilandau wildly and recklessly flailed his arms. Out of frustration, he slammed his fist into the remaining roof and aimed the flames erupting from his other arm towards the palace. Damn him! He would chase him down to the ends of the earth and he would burn everything in his wake, leaving no place for the brat to hide. He would not keep Hitomi from him. No one would. Nothing would.
Folken watched the flames lick the stone ruins of the palace. Isaac had shown him image before, in a vision, but it couldn't have prepared him for the feeling that coursed through his long cold veins. The heat radiated off the charred ashes and burned his flesh. The ash settled against his skin and clothing. Picking at a stray fleck of gray ash, Folken watched it float through the air and fall hap-hazardously towards the ground. It was necessary. Like the mythical phoenix that rose from its own ashes. Gaea deserved a cleansing, a rebirth, and it would all begin with this, the most sacred of lands.
Isaac turned away from Strategeos and mutter under his breath, "It escaped." In unison, and with silent command, the guymelefs retreated from the charred battlefield.
Millernia watched the flames leap up into the air. The flames had started at the palace and quickly swept out towards the surrounding village. From her view in the sky, there was only flames and ash in what had once stood the small but noble land of Fanelia.
Merle's grip on her arm tightened until it was almost painful. Forcing Merle's face from the window, Millernia shielded her view with her arm and cradled her limp head against her breast. She ran her fingers through Merle's hair, only vaguely aware of the tears that began to seep through her bodice.
Escaflowne cruised beside The Crusader, and Millernia watched Van as he piloted the flying guymelef. His face was hard, and his eyes locked on the horizon, refusing to look at the wreckage that was his home. Silent tears tracking their way down the planes of his face.