Too Precious a Prize

DISCLAIMER: "The Vision of Escaflowne" is not and never will be mine. Otherwise, Folken and Eries would have been together.

NOTE: The idea for this came out of nowhere, as usual, but it would not leave me alone until it was written. But my inspiration must be one of the scenes in "First Knight." I borrowed some lines from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" as well.

I, of course, added some strange twists of my own. This is set about five years before the events in the series.

So here it is, and posted on Folken's birthday. Though this piece can stand on its own, if you're interested, there will be a sequel that I will post on Eries' birthday next month.

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"Come one! Come all! Hurry, hurry, here's your chance, see the mystery and romance!"

Such cries and invitations were heard all over the bazaar of Pallas as the whole city celebrated an annual festival. All the citizens, rich or poor, had gathered at the bazaar to make merry and to abandon their duties for that one day. Some visitors to Asturia were included in the crowd, and many of them watched the traditions unfold with either great interest or complete boredom.

There was a time when Folken would have eagerly joined the festivities on such an occasion. But that was when he was still a prince of Fanelia, five years ago. Now, he was an ambassador of the Zaibach Empire, and he cared not for such primitive games. There was so much work to be done and he had only attended this out of civility for King Aston.

For the royal family had graced the festival with their presence. King Aston and his three daughters sat on thrones placed on a stage at the center of the plaza. The old monarch enjoyed going out of the palace every once in a while though the stage was heavily guarded. The three princesses conducted themselves as properly as they could. The eldest, Princess Marlene, smiled and charmed everyone with her looks, though her gaze often rested on one of the Heavenly Knights. The youngest, Princess Millerna, was fidgety in her seat and longed to play some of the games of the street but of course, was not allowed to. And the middle princess, Eries, sat quietly and properly, smiling gravely and trying her best not to look as bored as she felt.

Near the stage, one of the main attractions was built, a large, elaborate and dangerous obstacle course which served as a challenge for all the men in the crowd. Huge swinging blades, chains, spikes on wheels, heavy weights, and all sorts of contraptions were hung along a short platform. This gaudy display attracted many in the crowd but only a few dared take the challenge. And so far, no one had managed to complete the course. Even the lucrative monetary prize was not enough to entice more players.

After the owner failed to convince more people to beat his obstacle course, called the gauntlet, the crafty merchant consulted the king. Aston considered the proposal and nodded to the merchant, to whom he owed a favor. It was then that a new prize was announced.

"Beat the gauntlet and win a kiss from an Asturian princess!" the merchant cried out.

Instantly, the crowd paid attention and all other attractions of the festival were forgotten. All eyes turned to the two older princesses who looked at their father in alarm. But Aston shot them a look that demanded obedience, and they could not refuse.

Marlene was glad enough to be distracted from thinking of her upcoming engagement to the Duke of Freid and Eries was not concerned at all about being involved. Although she was acutely aware of the impropriety of such a frivolous display, she was sure that the kiss was meant to be given by her oldest sister, considered the most beautiful of them all. The second princess found the whole matter rather distasteful but made no objection since she believed herself detached from it. And she was sure that Marlene would not be too mortified should the winner be a young and handsome man.

In an instant, young men lined up to be padded properly so that they could try their luck at the gauntlet. But even after several had attempted at passing through the obstacles, no one made it to the end. But the crowd cheered and jeered at the contestants and all other events of the festival were quite forgotten.

Folken watched all these events with interest and amusement. Another member of the Zaibach contingent said something about the primitive tastes of the Asturians and though Folken agreed, he did not say so out loud. It was not for nothing that he was a diplomat. And he was also concerned about keeping another member of his party in check.

A young, silver-haired soldier, Dilandau Albatou, was growing restless and longed to participate in some of the dangerous games of the festival, to ease his boredom.

"Come on," the boy pestered his superiors, "there's nothing else to do here, can't I give that thing a go?"

He declared that he could beat the stupid obstacle course easily, but he had no intention of getting kissed by anyone.

"You had best watch your tongue, Dilandau," Folken warned, "we are here as representatives of Zaibach. We can't afford to cause trouble or offense to anyone."

"Hmmph," the stubborn boy snorted, "but I bet even you can figure out how to get through that thing, can't you?"

And in spite of himself, Folken answered, "It's painfully simple. All the obstacles move according to a very predictable pattern and if one has the proper timing and speed, one can walk past all of them unharmed."

Unfortunately for the Strategos, his comment had been overheard by the merchant owner of the gauntlet. The man resented being thus exposed by a stranger, and so decided to get his revenge.

"If it is as easy as you say it is," the merchant announced, "then, why don't you try beating it, sir?"

All eyes turned to the Zaibach contingent and Folken instantly regretted having been so careless.

"I was merely making an observation," he said, trying to get out of it.

"Then, would you not like to prove it to be true?" the merchant challenged.

Folken said nothing and was about to refuse when he was interrupted.

"Surely, the new prize being offered is tempting enough, even to a man of your rank and position," the merchant said slyly, "for you would not want to give offense to any of our lovely princesses, would you?"

That was it. Folken knew he was trapped and there was no escape. He would have to prove this man wrong and claim a prize he did not particularly care for. Turning a glance to where the three princesses were seated, his gaze happened to fall on the second princess who was looking at him in amusement.

He had been introduced to all three ladies recently and had been struck by the intelligence and dignity of Princess Eries. Though Folken acknowledged Marlene to be a pretty girl, he appreciated the subtle and substantial beauty of her younger sister. Princess Eries was a sensible, responsible, and serious girl who would surely be of great service to her country. Though their interactions had been brief and formal, he already saw how much they had in common, in temper and in outlook of the world. Upon realizing these similarities, he forced himself to forget about them, but so far he had had no success in that area.

For her part, the princess could not help but be fascinated by the brooding figure of the Strategos. He was the youngest ambassador to be presented to their court but he had already proven to be equal or greater than many more experienced diplomats, in wisdom and in communication skills. He looked very grave and almost sad but carried himself regally. She had seen so much of herself in him and enjoyed his company, and this made her uneasy.

"I didn't expect you, of all people, to be interested in such a cheap trick," Eries' knowing glance seemed to be telling him from afar.

They shared a conspiratorial glance, both laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. He could see that she would rather be somewhere else, being of real use to her people, and she could see that the only reason he had endured the whole festival was out of a strict sense of civility. They both knew only too well what it meant to honor their duties, even when it could cause some embarrassment or even mortification.

But she was smiling like she had never smiled at anyone before, and Folken was instantly smitten. There was something about the disapproval dancing in her eyes that made him want, more than ever, to accept the challenge and prove himself right.

All of a sudden, the prospect of receiving a kiss from an Asturian princess seemed exceedingly appealing to him.

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He decided that he would take on the challenge, outwardly to show diplomacy, but inwardly for a more selfish purpose. He had never succumbed to such whimsical desires before since he had never had them. But now, he was going to take the risk.

Dilandau snickered as Folken walked up to the platform. The bruised young men who had previously attempted the task glared at him, resenting the calm, almost smug expression on his face. They all hoped that he would meet the same humiliating fate as them.

The merchant grinned and King Aston watched in amusement. He had not expected an emissary of Zaibach to participate so actively and eagerly in the local festival. And he was curious as to how he would deal with giving the prize later on. But he decided that he would worry about that when he had to. After all, Lord Folken had not yet made good on his words.

The attendants approached Folken, holding up the protective padding for him but he raised a hand in protest and before they could do anything, he walked straight into the gauntlet.

"What are you doing, you fool?" the merchant cried in alarm, "you need to be padded first."

But Folken paid no heed to this and concentrated on counting the intervals between each obstacle. As he had suspected, it was a well-oiled machine that operated in a pattern, in spite of the elaborate trappings. Unlike the many other attempters, Folken was not intimidated by the dangerous objects. They were more for show than for any real damage. And besides, he had been on real battlefields, and faced horrors far greater than any frivolous festival float. Yes, he had been through worse, and without any rewards for his pains. At least with this, he had something to look forward to at the end, although he was still quite uncertain about how to sort it out.

Large gasps and some screams came from the crowd as he did this and all watched in horror as he started to calmly walk through the swinging blades and chains. Everyone held their breath in dreadful suspense as they watched him progress.

In spite of herself, Princess Eries clutched the sides of her seat and grew distressed. Her heart was beating wildly and she feared that the foolhardy man would fall into harm. And yet, another part of her was proud of him. He was not the kind of man to jump into anything without thinking, even just a little bit. He probably knew what he was doing. Her worry turned to admiration, though the latter feeling was short-lived when she remembered why he had been eager to accept the challenge.

Eries glanced at her older sister, who was engrossed in the show as well. Though Marlene did not particularly care for the serious emissary from Zaibach, she had to admit that he was the handsomest so far of the attempters, and that she would not really mind giving him his reward.

Eries sighed sadly and shook her head.

"You have no right to be disappointed in him," she berated herself; "of course he was doing this for Marlene. He's just like every other man who has ever laid eyes on her, even if he never showed interest before. I should have seen this coming."

But she felt a small pang in her heart, and though she hated to admit it, this was one of the rare moments that she felt jealous of Marlene.

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Carefully and quickly, Folken dodged the swinging and spinning contraptions. He was light on his feet and extremely agile and flexible. He bent, turned, and jumped over all the obstacles with ease and in a matter of minutes; he emerged from the gauntlet, alive and unscathed.

At this, a loud cheer erupted from the crowd, celebrating such an unexpected and impressive victory. Reluctantly, the other shocked contestants acknowledged their defeat and gave some well-deserved applause. The merchant made some announcements to save face, saying something about how only a talented and expert officer like Folken could easily get through the obstacle course.

"Clearly, my gauntlet was not made for lesser men," the merchant cried, but very few paid any attention to him.

Folken walked resolutely towards the stage and bowed respectfully before King Aston. The monarch was impressed and amused by the whole display and had no objection to Folken's having succeeded.

"Simply extraordinary, Lord Folken," the king praised, "I never expected you to participate so eagerly in our festival."

"Anything to be of service or entertainment to your Highness," Folken replied calmly, though he was far from being calm himself.

Through the obstacle course he had felt no thrill at all, since it had been boring and predictable. What made his pulse race now was the anticipation for the prize offered. He scolded himself now for acting so impulsively and exposing himself so unnecessarily.

"Your efforts shall be rewarded, of course," the king announced, "and you may now claim your prize."

Folken gave another humble bow to show his gratitude and mask his nervousness.

He risked a glance at Princess Eries who refused to look at him but had her gaze turned elsewhere. She was the only who seemed almost sad at the turn of events.

Princess Marlene, on the other hand, looked at him expectantly and with a coy smile. In an instant Folken saw the misunderstanding and resolved to rectify it immediately.

"With all due respect, your Highness," Folken said, addressing the king but looking towards the princesses, "I believe that in the light of Princess Marlene's upcoming engagement, it would be highly improper for me to bother her on this matter."

Aston raised an eyebrow while Marlene's eyes widened in shock. This time, Eries did look at Folken curious to see what he was about.

"Meaning no offense, Princess Marlene," Folken continued, "but I accepted this challenge particularly to solicit the attention of Princess Eries."

And with this, Folken walked towards Eries and bowed before the astonished princess.

Marlene was appalled at first at being rejected for the first time in her life, and having Eries chosen over her. But thankfully, sisterly affection soon overcame her disappointment and she smiled at her sister, wishing her well.

"I didn't particularly care for him anyway, he's far too serious," the eldest princess thought, turning her attention once more to a certain Heavenly Knight.

Eries was flustered but still had the presence of mind to curtsy. Though she was flattered and pleased by the attention, and all the bitter disappointment she had harbored had vanished, she was now painfully uncertain of what she was expected to do. She could not refuse him in public without humiliating her father, and yet, how could she give in to such a scandalous agreement? Her father had been high-handed about the whole matter, and now she had to pay the price.

She had no great objections to Folken. He had clearly proven himself to be more than anyone expected. And she was flattered and honored by his choosing her over her sister. But she did not know how she would go through with something so awkward. She assumed that she would only give him a light peck on the cheek or something to that effect, but even the prospect of such close contact made her nervous.

Folken was nervous as well, and as he stood face to face with the princess, he felt the full force of his unwarranted attraction to her. He already admired her intelligence and talents but he now truly noticed her distinctive beauty as she stood side by side with her sisters. Hers was a steady, dignified, graceful beauty, and not the flighty, gaudy, and flirtatious prettiness of her elder sister.

And he saw that she was uncomfortable with the whole situation. He understood her dilemma, and knew that it was a rather improper demand of her, and on such a public occasion. She was conscious about making a spectacle of herself, and he could not blame her. But expectant eyes were on them, waiting in suspense for something to happen.

He could not deny that he had been looking forward to receiving a kiss but now that he saw how uneasy she was about it, he decided to give her peace of mind. He was willing to forego any personal pleasure for the sake of relieving her from distress. But how to do so without embarrassing her more? He racked his brain for a solution, depending desperately on the quick thinking that made him an effective Strategos.

"Now that I am here, I realize how much I am unworthy of any attention that Princess Eries may honor me with," Folken announce, "and surely a kiss from so lovely a lady is too precious a prize for the mean feat that I have performed. It has been an honor enough to entertain you, Princess Eries."

And with this, Folken went down on one knee, gently took one of Princess Eries' hands and laid a perfectly proper kiss on it.

Eries stared at him as murmurs and sighs filled the disappointed crowd. She did not know whether to be flattered, relieved, or offended. But she was sure that she was thankful to him for getting her out of having to kiss him under such dubious circumstances.

"I thank you for your kindness, Lord Folken," she managed to answer; "you are certainly generous with your praise."

"Only because you are completely deserving of it, princess," he replied in earnest.

Not having anything else to say, she simply nodded.

Seeing the look of pure relief and gratitude washing over Princess Eries' face, Folken was glad that he had done what he did. It was also fortunate that he had been the one in that precarious position. A lesser man would not have been so considerate.

But as Folken gazed longer at the smiling face before him, he realized that his actions had also been self-interested. If she had looked at him like that only moments before, he would have been in very grave danger of forgetting all propriety and taking her into his arms and kissing her.

Folken immediately blinked and forced such rash thoughts out of his head. This would not do at all. He wondered how he had allowed his mind to go so far astray.

Princess Eries was looking at him in puzzlement and amusement, unable to make any sense of the whole matter. He made another bow to her which she acknowledged formally. They lingered in that strange silence for a few moments before the tête-à-tête was disrupted by a commotion in the crowd.

Apparently, Dilandau had taken upon himself to try beating the gauntlet faster than Folken and the young boy had run straight through the obstacle course without protective padding. But instead of following Folken's example, Dilandau horrified the crowd by swinging on the chains of the blades and climbing atop the wooden beams holding the mechanism together.

That attention-seeking brat, Folken lamented in exasperation.

"Pray, excuse me, princess," he said quickly, "I need to take care of this before it gets even more out of hand."

"Of course," Eries replied with understanding.

With another curt bow, Folken went straight to where Dilandau was enjoying himself playing with dangerous weapons. Eries could not help but laugh at the daring young boy's crazy antics. Folken surely had his hands full with that one. It was not a difficult matter to settle and eventually the festival resumed its frenzied activities.

Both Folken and Eries welcomed the distraction because neither of them had any idea of how to proceed from what had just taken place. They were sure that the unusual event would be talked of for many days to come but they didn't want anything to come out of it. And both hoped that some more scandalous and ridiculous events would occur during the festival to cover up this little incident.

Folken was eager to return to Zaibach and drown himself in work once more. And Eries had many more responsibilities to take care of, and two sisters to worry about. Anything else in between was a painful inconvenience. Neither of them could afford to be distracted by anything, especially their emotions.

Nevertheless, whenever no one was paying attention to her, Eries would glance at her hand wistfully and remember with fondness (and the smallest tinge of regret) how she could have bestowed a precious prize.