The First Guest
"You know, I really like what you two have got going on here," Dryden said as he lowered his cup of tea and looked at Van and Merle through his darkly tinted glasses. He flashed them his trademark smile, though both of them could tell it was genuine. "Really I do, you two look very relaxed with each other just there helping each other out, very natural. You two are in love and you show it, unlike some of the stuffier royals or nobles I've seen." Dryden takes in a deep breath and stretches his arms out, encompassing the throne room around him "And the vibes just roll off of you two and fill up the place, throne room with a desk pulled in at the last minute, papers everywhere and people coming in and out, no bowing or groveling at your feet for you to get things done. You just listen to them because they are people. If only everyone was so enlightened."
"Well," Van began, signing his name on a decree, Merle looking over his shoulder to read the signed paper, "Fanelia wouldn't exist without its people." He handed the paper over to Merle and pointed out the important areas to read, or how to sign her name. She nodded and compared it to a small stack of similar papers she had been collecting. "Besides," he added with a sigh, "I never liked how some countries are run or how they expect people to behave around their leaders. I want everyone here in Fanelia to know I'm just like them."
"That's good, that's real good. But, I'm sure you know I'm not here to talk to you about the interactions between royals and commoners. I'm here for you two." He stands up and walks around the table where they sat, and pulled them both into a hug, Van almost being pulled out of his chair. "I'm really happy for you two crazy kids. I always knew you were soft on the young king Merle," she said with a grin on his face. "I always rooted for you."
Merle raised an eyebrow, an incredulous look on her face. "You did? I thought… well I thought everyone expected Hitomi to-"
"Are you kidding me?" Dryden interrupted with a look, "I was rooting for you the entire time. There'd be no justice in the world if a nice girl like you never got her prince charming." He smiles as he watches Van and Merle, holding hands, give each other a warm look. "Well I won't ask how it happened since that's in the past, and we're not here to talk about your old lives. We're here to talk about your wedding and your new lives together. Tell me," he said, wagging his eyebrows, "how many kids?"
Merle stuttered and blushed, caught unawares by the question. When she finally calmed down enough to form a response her words died in her mouth.
"At least two." Van said, still holding Merle's hand and running his thumb over it. "What?"
Merle simply rolled her eyes and smiled. "Well Dryden, I didn't expect you to be the first person to show up, especially so soon. Wasn't it short notice for you?" Merle thought back on the two airships that were docked outside, they looked like his new trade fleet. "You weren't rescuing more mermaids were you?"
"No no, no mermaids this time. Just plain old business, my father wasn't quite pleased with all of my recent actions. First selling my first caravan fleet and then the whole marriage affair with Millerna. None too pleased. But what can he do? I was just out getting back his wealth for him, since he loves it so much. I-oh, looks like we have company." He pointed at Cassandra, who stands nervously at the doorway. Merle walks over to her and the two talk excitedly about something and soon smiles are drawn on their faces, Merle bounds back to Van and gives him a quick kiss.
"Lord Van, I'm going with Cassandra to get my wedding dress fitted!" she squeals in happiness. Van, however, doesn't see what the big deal is, and simply raises from his seat.
"Let's go get you fitted then. Dryden are you coming?"
"I don't quite think that's such a good idea Van."
"What? Why not? It's not far."
"Lord Van, you aren't supposed to see the bride's wedding dress until the wedding. So no, you aren't coming." She began strolling back to Cassandra, who now looked more comfortable standing near the king and his rich friend. "We'll be back, uh. How long will this take?" She then turned to her friend and the two whispered amongst each other for a while. "Oh right. Well, we'll be back by dinner. Alright, love you Lord Van, bye!" She leaned in and gave him another kiss before turning and walked, almost ran, out of the throne room with Cassandra in tow.
"Well that leaves just us men doesn't it?" Dryden replies after sipping his tea again. "By the way here's my wedding gift to you. I'll hand them to you know, because I'm sure you'll want to start using them as soon as possible." Van's eyebrows scrunched together as he attempted to guess at whatever gift Dryden was giving him and his confusion grew when Dryden produced a small writ of paper. "Here it is. Congratulations on your marriage Van," Dryden said again while handing him his gift, "I really hope you and your little lady have many years of happiness together. I know you'll do good to each other and to your people. And here, hopefully this will help you find that happiness."
"Thank you." Van said while taking the papers. Truthfully, he was touched by the man's words. True, he had, initially, thought of Dryden as simply any other man who had inherited wealth he didn't deserve but he quickly dropped that opinion. After all, Dryden paid the cost to repair the Escaflowne, saving me in the process… His thoughts trailed off as he read the paper in his hand. The first part was much the same as he had said, a small note of congratulations on his upcoming wedding. There was even a small poem! Van smiled to himself, Of course there is a poem, Dryden is the type to-
-give me his two airships?
"What, Dryden I can't accept this."
"Of course you can, you need them, more importantly your people need them. I was at the docks and I know you've recently acquired a ship of your own, and I think these two will help you out even more. Especially since I noticed your current ship is a military model." Van suddenly tenses. It was odd, he thought, that he wanted to hide how he had acquired that frigate, how several men were dead, executed or rotting in cells awaiting execution. He didn't like it, but he knew Fanelia didn't have the resources to hold dangerous criminals or that it's people would even tolerate such men being held in its jails. Luckily he wouldn't have to defend his actions against his friend, since Dryden didn't notice his unease. "So… you've got a ship ready to start defending your boarders against whatever comes your way, and now with these two ships you can start spreading around resources to your people within those borders."
"That…" Van frowned. There wasn't anything he could say to that. Three airships. That would be a great help, we'd be able to move around medicine to the towns farther away, or food, or soldiers.
"Trust me Van," Dryden spoke up again. "I can get more money and ships later, I don't even care about giving them away. You deserve them, Fanelia needs them. I've realized money isn't something to be hoarded and guarded like my father does, it's simply a means to an end. You share it around and help those less fortunate."
Van thought for a while before finally relenting. "Well then, on behalf of me, Merle and all the people of Fanelia, I accept your gift. Thank you." He raised his hand and offered a handshake.
Dryden had a huge grin on his face as he took the hand and shook it heartily. "Glad you finally see it my way. Besides, I already told the dock workers you okayed this when I got here a few hours ago."
"So who else is coming?"
Dryden and Van stood in the guest room where Dryden would be staying, with Dryden packing his belongings into the single dresser in the otherwise sparse room. Van had sheepishly told Dryden that there wasn't much to these guest rooms, since the only recent visitors to the castle, Allen and the crew of the Crusade, were soldiers and used to bare rooms. Van realized that Dryden, Prince Chid and Millerna might not be so accommodating.
"Well," he began,. "Allen and the Crusade crew is all invited of course. Millerna and Prince Chid, you, Mole Man if we can find him…" He began mentally going over the list of people he wanted to be at his wedding, wondering if he'd forgotten anyone. "Merle is inviting a couple of her friends too. I guess that's it really. We decided we'd only invite our closest friends, we'd try to keep it a small affair."
"Uh, huh." Dryden said while rubbing the stubble on his chin. "And everyone in Fanelia is invited too right?"
"Of course." Van said immediately as he helped stack some of Dryden's reading books along a desk. "The wedding will be much like my coronation, or the weddings of all of Fanelia's rulers. It'll be in the castle front. The ceremony itself is pretty set and decided by tradition, though the future queens have always decorated and dressed as they wish."
"Oh, well that explains why Merle is running around while you are calm and cool. Just like always eh?"
"I'm actually very excited too. I honestly can't wait."
Dryden chuckled and patted the younger man on the shoulder. "Well you two won't have to wait long will you? When is the wedding planned?"
"Well, we are really just waiting for everyone to get here. Prince Chid is planned to arrive sometime in the next week, and Allen, Millerna and the Crusade are arriving sometime in the next three days. The only one that worries me is Mole Man. He didn't really have a permanent residence, so we are just hoping the announcement will be enough to bring him here. Who knows, maybe he'll be arrested somewhere and I'll have to send him a letter in jail?"
"Ha, maybe. If you'll excuse me though, I think I should head up to your airship dock and talk to my crew and pay for their way back home, or pay for an inn nearby."
"There's no need." Van help up his hand. "We'll cover the expenses no matter which one you decide. I'd also like to see these two new airships of mine."
Van hadn't seen the docks this busy since the Allegiance had arrived for the first time. Workers and loading guymelefs were stationed around the two airships which Van immediately recognized as models meant for cargo hauling. Men were walking all along the ships, inspecting them or noting how much cargo capacity they held, noting faults or areas that needed repair. Some were already at work replacing the flags and colors with those of Fanelia.
"They are new," Dryden mentioned as he walked into Melcor's office, "that one there," he said while pointing through the window at one of the docked ships, "is called I am Faithful and the other one, the sister ship, is called Softer Breeze Tomorrow."
"What kind of names are those?" Melcor said with an obvious look of disgust. "Those are names for poems, not names for ships."
"Hah. Are you telling me you don't find anything poetic about sailing through the skies on a beautiful ship?" Dryden asked while looking over the ships one last time. He didn't mind giving them away, he was glad to donate them to a good cause, but that didn't mean he wouldn't miss their artful craftsmanship. "I bought these ships in Basram, they evidently have different tastes in ship name conventions than we do."
"We'll keep the names." Van said, and everyone inside the dock master's office knew the matter was settled. "Now, Melcor, how fast can these ships be in service? Do we have enough men to operate them?"
"Yes we do. These babies are actually made to be easy on the maintenance, operation and cargo moving. Unlike the bigger ships like the Allegiance and other heavier ships, the…" he sighed, "I am Faithful and Softer Breeze Tomorrow are ships that can unload their cargo without a dock, ramp or any other dedicated structure. But uh, still wouldn't hurt if we ever got around to putting at least a small dock on the farther towns."
"Right, but that'll have to wait for another time." Van turned to an aide he had called to this impromptu meeting. "I'm putting you in charge of this. Coordinate with anyone you need, get the reports from the other towns, find out what they need and how much. Put it on these ships and send it to them." He then turned to an armored man, Berius the student of Henry and second in command of what meager forces Fanelia had at the moment. "Berius, I want you to staff the other ship as soon as possible and I want it operating even faster. I won't tolerate any sort of criminal activity at the moment. I want that ship up in the air, visible, armed and reminding everyone that they are safe and that we will not have crime in our streets."
"Yes my lord." He said with a crisp salute, his armor clanking as he did so.
"Great, you all have jobs to attend to, now get to them. Fanelia needs us to be vigilant and tireless."
Dryden watched in amusement as the group filed out of the office, all of them already talking amongst each other about their newly assigned tasks and watched as each of them walked with an air of purpose about them.
"Wow, more power to you. You're young and you talk and get things done as if you've been a king for years. Old souls Van, old souls."
The young king smiled and looked towards the sky, noticing the impending sunset on the horizon. "It's nearly getting dark." I guess I didn't notice how late it was. "While we are out here, is there anything you want to do? We can head down to the markets if you want, or go back for dinner. I'd rather go back, I don't like missing dinner and I like eating in the castle cafeteria when everyone else does. But uh, if you want to go elsewhere?"
"Wow, you have fallen hard kid."
"Don't hide it Van. You know quite well you want to go back, you're not hungry at all. When we traveled around I noticed you eat about as much as a guymelef does. You just want to go back because you want to see Merle again." He grinned and pointed at Van. "You know, I did always think you were that type. Tough and hard on the outside, but you turn as sappy and romantic as I do with the right girl. I can put off browsing the local stores and taking in the sights until tomorrow, let's get you back and see your little lady."
"What no!" Van said a bit more forcefully than he wanted to, flustered at being called so blatantly on his plan. "I was just being courteous, if you want to-"
Dryden smiled before raising his hands towards the sky, "THE THINGS A MAN IN LOVE GOES THROUGH!"
The cafeteria was less than full, though just as busy behind the scenes. Van knew why of course. "Whenever a big job is in the works," he explained to Dryden, who was expecting a more packed eating area, "like the time we were building the docks up on the mountain side, or intentionally collapsing a few buildings and now with the three ships being added to what is Fanelia's first airship fleet, the cafeteria is emptier than usual. The people working on the projects send their friends, or someone who simply has some free time, to come down here to and get their orders of food."
"Huh. A lot of women and older men here, I'm assuming these are people who can't work on the harder projects that require 24 hour shifts right?"
"Yes," Van said between bites to his sandwich, "most of the men are either employed or volunteering for the heavier labor jobs, so older folks and women are doing all the other work, for the most part." Van paused and returned to a thought he had been mulling over for several weeks now. With most of the men away from jobs that were traditionally held for men he wondered what would happen when everything returned to normal and the men came back to find women in jobs that weren't traditionally held by them. Oh well, we'll cross that bridge when it gets here. "Some of these are also just people who can't feed themselves. We have free food for anyone who shows up, they have priority over those with money… I still don't see Merle around here and I'm getting worried."
"Listen to you, you do already sound like an old married man. Worrying about his wife when she doesn't show up for dinner. Relax, maybe she's still doing something to her dress, or she stopped to fix her hair. Maybe she decided to have dinner over with her friend, who knows? I'm sure she's fine Van. Enjoy your food."
"Well, if she doesn't get here on time they might run out of her jelly rolls, they're her favorite you know?" He looked up from his plate and spied on the lunch line before excusing himself from the table. "I'll be back, I'm going to get some food for her."
"Alright, I'll be here." Dryden replied, smirking behind his glasses. He watched his young friend depart towards the lunch line. "Ah, young love." He muttered to himself, "And speak of the devil."
"What?" The young catgirl before him asked, a confused look on her face. "Hey, where's Lord Van?"
"You just missed him Merle, but don't worry your tail off, he'll be back soon." Underneath the table he kicked back a chair, startling Merle as it pushed back into her. "Here, why don't you sit down and wait for him?"
"Yeah, I guess I will." She sat down and noticed a small tray of food before her, and her nose immediately picked up Van's smell. "Oh." She said, knowing immediately that this was his tray. "So," she said as she took Van's unfinished sandwich and started eating it. "What did you two do today? Guy things no doubt."
"Yeah, guy things. We went to burlesque houses and gambled away our money."
"Hahaha, yeah, and I bet Lord Van is with some other woman right now, doi-ugh, I can't even finish that sentence."
"I'm glad you can't Merle."
With a gasp Merle turned around and threw herself onto Van, who was surprised at the sudden action. Merle tiptoed up and kissed her fiancé before turning back and allowing him to sit back down. When he did she drew her own chair right next to his and wrapped her arms around his, hugging and humming softly. "Thank you Lord Van, ah my favorite." Suddenly she perked up even more and turned her head upwards to speak to her love. "Oooh Lord Van, I hope you like my dress, I think it's sooo beautiful! I really can't wait to get married to you Lord Van." She suddenly grabbed his head and pulled him down into a deep kiss, broken only because Dryden started politely coughin.
"Well… I don't think I should be here, don't want to be a third wheel in your love carriage. So," he stood up and picked up his tray, the only things left on it a small napkin and his empty cup. "I think I'll be retiring to my room today so goodnight you two lovebirds."
"Goodnight Dryden, we'll see you tomorrow."
It had been several minutes since Dryden had left the two, and the cafeteria was beginning to clear out ast he night went on. Only a few tables here and there were still occupied, populated only by the late night owls of Fanelia, their chatter soft and indistinct. Van and Merle had been left in silence, with Merle happily eating the jelly rolls Van had gathered for her. It was only after a while that Van's curiosity got the better of him. He knew Merle, if she was excited she'd be talking his ear off right now, not that he'd mind, and yet here she was simply sitting and humming. If that's what she wanted to do he didn't mind, as long as he was with her he didn't mind anything, but he did find it odd.
"You're awfully quite tonight aren't you? Got something on your mind?"
Merle, who had since moved into Van's lap, simply nodded and continued humming. Had a soft melody not have been coming from her, Van might have mistaken her for being asleep with her closed eyes, restful position and stillness. Her head rested on his chest, rising and falling gently as he breathed. "Just one thing really, you. Lord Van, today when I saw myself in that dress, with my hair done, imagining that crown being put on my head, you slipping a ring on my finger I…" her voice cracked, and for a second Van thought she was crying though he couldn't be sure, "Lord Van, I love you soo much. I, you don't know how happy I was when I wore that dress, how happy I'll be when I'll wear it for reals."
Merle calmed herself down, realizing that she was indeed close to crying. He still doesn't know how long I've wanted this. Oooh, calm down girl. Don't freak him out by crying, you know he's not good with crying women. She patted his chest to let him know she wanted to stand up, and sprung out of his grasp. She gave out a fake yawn and pretended to rub her eyes in tiredness, a ruse to clear away the small tears that had formed. "Ah, well Lord Van, I'm tired. You wouldn't know how tiring it is to stand real still while someone takes your measurements for several hours straight. Take me back to my room?" She managed the sweetest smile she could, which was easy considering her mood. Van gathered both their trays and went back towards the serving line, dropping off the trays and thanking the cooks while Merle waited for him by the exit. She watched him all the way, humming the traditional Fanelian marriage song all the while. When he came back to her he offered her his hand, which she immediately took, and they walked back towards her room.
"Do you know what Dryden gave us as a wedding gift?"
"No, what? Glasses? Some of those weird coats he wears all the time?"
"He gave us two airships."
"Woah, that's… well that's not really that surprising. I mean, remember how he paid for the Escaflowne's repairs?" Merle's hold on Van's hand unconsciously tightened, remembering the terrible fear she felt as she watched Van writhe in pain.
"Yes, I've never properly thanked him for that. And now this, you know I'm probably the most indebted to him out of everyone. He's spent what? 10 ships on me?"
Merle shrugged as they began up the stairs that led to her room. "He's like that. He's weird, but he's probably one of the only rich persons that I'm ok with. He doesn't seem to care much about his money either, but not in a bad way. Oh, home sweet home." She giggled, her tail playfully wagging behind her. "Well, it won't by my home for much longer huh?" She jumped up and wrapped her arms and legs around Van, who caught her immediately. She leaned in and kissed him again and again as her heart fluttered. "You want to come in?" Her eyes flashed him her intentions and Van smiled and kissed her.
With that he opened the door to her room with one hand, while his other moved towards the clasps that held her dress up and once they passed through the doorway, he used his foot to close the door behind them.