Yet another meeting, yet another room, and Van had a headache that felt like a land dragon was dancing inside his skull. He tried, surreptitiously, to lean forward and massage his temples, but he straightened when Sir Mikael shot him a concerned glance. "I'm fine," he muttered, doing his best to cover the fact that he was anything but.
Sir Francis raised one sardonic eyebrow but wisely said nothing.
Sir Mikael propped his elbows on the smooth wood of the table, his brow furrowing slightly as he mentally ticked off names. "I believe the majority of the Council will vote against the Queen on this, Lord Van, if you request that it be pushed through. The marriage was arranged to provide heirs to the kingdom, and she has not provided."
"Being barren isn't reason enough to execute someone for treason," Van snapped, feeling the tenuous grip on his self-control slip.
"Of course not, Lord Van. Assuming, of course, that she really is barren." Sir Francis' gravelly voice put words to what had been whispered, for years, among the palace servants and people of Fanelia.
"I've done my duty, as has she."
"No one is saying otherwise," Sir Mikael hastened to inject diplomatically, "but there are ways a woman has at her disposal, to...ah..."
"Prevent a child. I know." This time, Van allowed himself to sag a little, letting his head lean forward and his eyes drop closed. So weary... He felt like he hadn't had a decent night's sleep in the eleven years he'd been married to Sophie.
And now, the Council that had insisted he marry her wanted to try her for treason on the grounds that no children had been produced.
"I can't allow it. I can't have her killed over something that might be of no fault of her own."
"Lord Van, you know it's more than this. She means to have you killed."
"We still have no proof. How can I be a fair ruler if I allow someone to be tried and executed on nothing more than suspicion?"
"But her father-"
"Is not his daughter, and it's the daughter to whom I am married."
"Lord Van," Sir Francis spoke gently, "are you really happy married to the Queen? Wouldn't you prefer the freedom to choose a wife you love?"
Van thought of Hitomi, of her wide smile and honey colored hair, her green eyes and big heart. Who wouldn't want to choose her? How could the thought of waking up to her every morning not tempt him?
But what he would lose, that part of himself that strove for kindness and decency, could not be worth the gain of even Hitomi as a wife. He thought of the disappointment he would see on her face if she knew the truth of what they were asking him to do. He wouldn't be able to live with himself if he made such a choice, and he knew Hitomi would never accept it either.
"Find proof," he stated, rubbing his hands over his face. "If she is really trying to kill me, which I have no doubt, if she is really preventing herself from carrying an heir, just... find the proof. Please."
Hitomi charged through the corridors of the palace, blinded to the servants who were leaping out of her path, cognizant only of her need to get out, get out NOW and nothing more.
In her first fragile days back on Gaea, she had tried multiple times to return home, not because she had a great life to return to, but if she was going to continue living, she felt she should at least do it on the same planet as Jason's grave. Those early attempts had all ended with her sprawled on the ground, sobbing dejectedly, and finally she had to concede defeat. She was on Gaea for now, and it seemed best to accept it and move forward. However, with the vision repeating itself behind her panicked eyes, the only thing she could think to do was flee into the safety of the forest and try once more to return to the Earth.
Her tooled leather sandals pounded down the hallway and her breath came in large shuddering gasps. She crashed through the doorway leading to the grounds, shoving the door with enough force to crack the hinges before bolting for the shaded sanctuary of the forest.
Upon reaching the nearest clearing, she jerked the energist shard pendant from beneath her blouse and gripped it fiercely. "Please! I want to go home. Please let me go home!" she called out to the sky, her distress so great that she failed to notice the arrival of several men who had been in pursuit of the fleeing Seer.
Van's blood ran cold as Hitomi's anguished plea rang out, startling several nearby birds into flight. How he envied them their retreat, wishing he could fly away too rather than face the woman he loved. He signaled the guards who had come with him and they slipped discretely away, leaving him alone with the woman who was now on her knees, her chest heaving with exertion as she cried out to whomever might be listening. His heart ached with her shared grief and he approached her quietly, placing his hand firmly on her shoulder but making no other move to touch her as her pain poured forth.
After what seemed like an eternity, she quieted, leaning tiredly against his leg as he remained standing, his grip on her shoulder the only other point of contact between them. His thigh burned where her cheek pressed against it. Once he could be sure she was herself again, his grip lessened, although he did not remove his hand. The silence between them stretched out to a fine point, and finally he spoke just to clear the air.
"You know, if you wanted them, I could get you some 'damned ruby slippers', although I'm unsure how they could help you return home."
She gave a hiccuping laugh and fluttered her hand around vaguely. "Pop culture reference. I don't really need ruby slippers."
"I see," he replied, although he was more confused than ever. What did she mean by 'pop'?
"From a movie."
"I just... never mind."
"Ah," he repeated, for lack of anything more meaningful, and started to move away when she grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly in her small one.
"I made you a promise," she stated urgently, and it took him a moment before he realized what she was speaking about.
"You've had a vision?"
She nodded and finally looked up at him. Her eyes were wide and haunted, and her face wan. He wanted to comfort her until her color returned and the shadows fled her eyes. Since he couldn't, shouldn't, he shoved his free hand into his pocket and squared his shoulders.
"Tell me," he ordered curtly.
"The Mystic Moon," the two men repeated in unison, only Sir Francis' response was considering while Sir Mikael's was exclaimed incredulously.
Hitomi nodded miserably, staring down at the scarred table of the Privy Council chamber rather than watch the reactions of the hastily-assembled party.
"It makes sense if you think about it," Dryden ruminated, cutting his gaze over to his wife, who was hovering worriedly at Hitomi's shoulder.
Allen's brow furrowed as he pondered the king's words. "How so?"
"Zaibach became powerful through the use of Mystic Moon technology and the power of Atlantis. The sources of both of those lie in Hitomi's world." The Asturian replied astutely, pushing his glasses back in place with one hand.
"If Cesario gains that kind of power, he'll be unstoppable," Merle murmured as she laced her fingers together tightly, tension radiating off the cat-woman in waves. Her tail flicked from side to side, clearly exhibiting her agitation.
"So if he wants the Mystic Moon, then why is he after Fanelia?" Millerna questioned, frowning slightly as she ran through the possibilities, each more preposterous than the last.
Van spoke up for the first time since calling everyone together, and his words caused all eyes to shift his way. "He wants Escaflowne. He needs a way to get to the Mystic Moon."
"It's been deactivated since the war. Surely not!"
"Van's right," the knight's voice cut through the protests. "The Alseides' propulsion system isn't powerful enough to allow one to reach the Mystic Moon. The Tierings and Oreides were destroyed during the war, as was Chafaris, and Scherazade can't fly. Escaflowne is the only guymelef that can make the journey."
The room fell quiet as everyone assembled allowed for the truth of the statement. To mutual surprise, the uneasy silence was broken by Hitomi, who hadn't spoken once her story was finished. "Well, if it's Escaflowne he wants, we'll just have to make sure he doesn't get it," she intoned grimly, determination squaring her jaw and flashing in her eyes. "Merle?"
"I'm going to need your help."
"Sure, Hitomi, but with what?"
"I'm going to need the library."
The next day found the women surrounded with piles of books, scrolls of parchment, and even several boxes of carefully stacked woodcuts. Hitomi's hair had been piled haphazardly on top of her hair, and there was a pencil shoved through the knot. Merle's diminutive form had been hidden several times by the large stacks, and only by following the sound of her voice, or on one occasion, the chain of sneezes, was Hitomi able to find her.
"I really need to start with that tutor," the Seer grumbled a bit as she leafed through a particularly dusty tome, searching the line drawings for clues.
Merle's slightly muffled voice drifted over from a pile of scrolls. "Working on it. I've asked Sir Francis to suggest someone."
"Is that so? Then I'm definitely sure he'll pick the best person for the job." She turned another page and frowned at the jumble of illegible words. Even if she could read the language, deciphering the scribe's handwriting would be another matter entirely.
Merle's slightly cocked head popped up from behind a skyscraper of materials. "What do you mean by that?"
Hitomi smiled and studied her friend. Was that a slight flush in her cheeks? "Nothing really, just that Sir Francis seems to take special care when the request comes from you."
"I don't know what you mean. Anyway, there's nothing about Draconians here in any of these."
Yes, Merle was definitely blushing. Hitomi allowed her the change of subject. "I didn't suppose there would be, but there's lots of other things we'll need to research. Anything at all about Atlantis, the energists, or even Zaibach technology would be helpful."
"Energists? But they're from our world, not yours."
"Well, there are no dragons on Earth now, but somehow, at least one dragon and one energist found its way there, that we know of. And this energist on my pendant couldn't have been there for long. It wasn't completely covered with sediment, which it should have been due to the currents, unless it came to be there recently."
"How recent?" Merle stretched and arched her back to work out a kink.
She shrugged and chewed on her bottom lip, considering. "Maybe a day or two. It's impossible to know for certain without knowing the precise current patterns. One of the guys on my team was a whiz at that sort of thing. I wish I had spoken to him about it, but everything happened so quickly that I just... didn't."
They fell back into silence for a time. Merle had written down some of the keywords for Hitomi to look for, and she was engrossed in scanning one of the documents when she was startled by the sound of a heavy book being slammed shut.
"That's it! I can't take it anymore. Hitomi, we've been at this all day and most of yesterday. Can't we have a break? My eyes are starting to cross." Merle demonstrated and Hitomi bit back a laugh.
"Sure. Let's go stretch our legs and have some tea."
The tea, and then the long walk to make up for sitting all day, carried them through until time for the evening meal. With the queen and her courtiers absent, meals were a much more informal affair, and Hitomi only took the time to wash her face and hands and change into a dress that wasn't covered in library dust before joining the others in the large dining hall.
There was an empty seat between Dryden and Sir Guy, Van's treasurer, with whom she had had little occasion to speak. She greeted him politely as she waited her the servants to approach their end of the long table. Sir Guy was cordial, but he appeared distracted, so rather than impose on his time she turned to Dryden and soon the pair were chatting like the old friends they were. As dinner drew the a close, the Asturian king asked Hitomi if she'd do him the pleasure of taking a turn in the garden. She agreed and soon found herself walking arm in arm with him around Van's impressive grounds.
They walked silently, each lost in their own thoughts, only speaking occasionally to admire a particularly beautiful flower or masterful hedge design, when Dryden said, out of the blue, "It doesn't make any sense."
Hitomi turned to face him, the fading light of the day creating strong shadows over half of his profile. "What's that?"
He didn't immediately answer; instead, he stood scanning the horizon with a thoughtful frown. "We have a name for the time of day that's approaching. It's called the blue hour, the time of evening when secrets are best hidden and very rarely revealed."
"L'heure bleue," Hitomi whispered, wondering where she'd heard the phrase before.
Dryden's head tilted to the side, and she wondered if he could understand the language she had just spoken. "It's not the best time for trying to get to the bottom of a mystery." He took something from his pocket and placed it in her hand. "But we'll try anyway."
She looked down at the folded piece of paper he had given her before she opened it. Staring down at the now-familiar jumble of characters that seemed to be the Gaean written language, she frowned. "Dryden, you know I can't read this. What does it say?"
He waved off her question as unimportant. "That doesn't matter. Who wrote it, now that's what you need to be asking."
"Well?" She frowned, irritated by his lack of forthcoming, wondering what in the world he was getting at.
"You did, Hitomi, when you were here last."
"That's impossible! How could I write in a language I can't even read?"
He gazed at her steadily, all traces of the easy-going smirk wiped from his features. "You can't read it now. I'm quite certain you could when you were here before."
She sat down heavily on the closest bench, the crumpled paper still in her hand. Although the remaining light was rapidly fading, leaving the world around her a rich blue, she tried once again to read the alien characters on the page, but they stubbornly defied understanding, and then it was too dark to read anything at all. She swallowed hard around the lump that had formed in her throat.
"Dryden, what does this mean?"
"I wish I could tell you. But I wonder... how much longer will you be able to speak our language?"
The lump in her throat was joined by a tightening in her chest as she contemplated a world without being able to speak with Van, a world in which she could not speak nor be spoken to with any level of comprehension, a world which she did not know how to leave while a madman was threatening everything she held dear.
"I'm not going to let it happen," she murmured, her hands tightening into fists, crushing the aged paper. "I'm not giving up. I'm not!" She leaped to her feet and started hurrying back to the palace.
"Where are you going?" Dryden's voice broke through the darkness surrounding them, and she halted long enough to call back to him.
"I'm going to talk to Van."