Disclaimer: All credit goes to Sherwood Smith for writing pure awesome-ness…

Summary: Oneshot. Set in beginning of Court Duel. Shevraeth reflects on the many times he has come across Meliara Astiar…

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Shevraeth stepped out into the chill night air, moving to stand beside the edge of the highest tower of Evak-Astiar, the recently renovated and refurbished castle of Tlanth. The moon was bright and high overhead as a lively breeze whipped away at the Marquis, sending his long dark cloak waving in the wind and his pale hair brushing past his face and tangling.

Gazing out in the distance, Vidanric could feel his gaze being drawn in a certain direction… as it has so often since he first met the Countess of Tlanth. Standing tall upon the white stone peak of Elios she stood. And as surely as he breathed, Shevraeth knew that Meliara Astiar was staring straight back.

With faint strains of the Hill Folk's music drifting up to his perch upon the castle's tower, the Marquis was sent reeling back into past memories… Recollections that he had never mentioned nor discussed with another soul…

The first time he had set eyes upon the Countess of Tlanth, Vidanric had thought she was a peasant. Unconscious and bloody, the slight figure was brought into the war camp by the sentries who discovered her. She was grimy and ill-dressed and utterly unkempt, yet even then, he could feel some part of himself being drawn towards her. He was at once confused… and when she slipped briefly into consciousness for the first time, the Marquis felt utterly amused. The situation certainly was not as humorous or ironic as he suddenly felt it to be… Sure, one of the Tlanth rebels had gotten caught in a trap – about fair, considering nine of his soldiers had experienced the same fate.

When he knew her identity, she became a puzzle. The Countess Meliara was an enigma dressed in filthy, plain clothes, a misshapen hat, and a pair of over-large hand-me-down men's boots. Even more intriguing to him was the fact that every emotion and reaction she had... flitted across her face clearly. Vidanric could read the responses and the emotions created by his presence and remarks, but the thoughts connecting the one to the other were silent… and it was the thoughts that sparked his curiosity.

Delivering the Astiar Countess to Galdran was… painful – however much it was necessary. The trip from Tlanth to the capital city was enlightening for him; he watched a watched her undergo a wide spectrum of emotions – everything from humor and pain to sorrow and anger, with a wide selection of more subtle emotions playing second-fiddle. But the fact remained… Even though she was courageous and her cause was just, the Countess could not understand the breadth and consequences of her actions. Surrendering her as a prisoner to Galdran was his only option, and at the very least, it would buy her time…

Finding a single Astiar spy amidst the host of palace servants would be futile… Vidanric knew so and made no effort to try, but if the spy showed the same loyalty as the other subjects of the Astiars, then he or she would be actively seeking the Countess's escape. Thus, Shevraeth had only to provide the opportunity – open the door, so to speak. After that, his mother, the Princess of Renselaeus, had merely to bait the hook, leaving the Marquis waiting… hoping that the Countess and her spy choose to bite.

From then on, he had done whatever he could to lighten Galdran's wrath (one means was by use of the bet with Savona over the capture the fugitive Countess) and to distract Debegri… But it was difficult. He could almost sense her presence. He could practically feel the weight of her gaze… and he wanted to acknowledge her, not for Galdran and Debegri's sake, but for his own.

Seeing her for the first time since her escape from the prison, she was cleaner and better dressed than Vidanric had ever seen her, and with an embroidered kerchief about her hair and a blue dress, she appeared anonymous and respectable. Even from a distance, she was lovely, and carefully so as to avoid notice of her wounded leg, the Countess sat, and watched the procession of soldiers pass by in search of her…

He couldn't help meeting her eyes. And while thankful that his own expression remained well-schooled behind his Court-mask, the Marquis of Shevraeth could not resist the emotion that rushed through him as her face became as shocked and wary as a startled doe prepared to flee. What emotion he felt, Shevraeth knew not… Humor at the ironic situation? Regret at her barely veiled fear of capture? Predatory pride at the thrill of the hunt? Relief at her present safety? Vidanric was not sure. He was not certain that he would ever be sure…

Days later, while searching the town for the missing Countess, the Marquis sidled his horse to the windowed corner of a house… and the air about him felt heavier. Somehow or another, Shevraeth knew that Meliara Astiar was near – and watching him. Mere milliseconds later, he issued a command to search the houses.

From that point on, matters seemed to more swift and sharp for Vidanric.

He hastened to Chovilun, one of the four Merindar fortresses, after Debegri and the captured Countess, arriving just in time to save her from a red-hot metal brand by throwing a knife into the chest of Meliara's prospective torturer. A quip from him, a response from her, and then finally, he was capable of relaxing – well, as relaxed as one can be while carrying a fainted young woman, slight in build though she be. Yet, the relief was enough to siphon off the majority of his tension… Before she woke from unconsciousness, Shevraeth rode off again, leaving her in the care of Nessaren and her riding of Renselaeus soldiers.

Now, even more, events required him to move quickly.

When the Countess arrived at Renselaeus, Vidanric realized that becoming properly acquainted at that time would be impossible – he was not sure whether it was the yelling flung in his direction or the heavy silver candleholder pitched at his head that really clinched that thought… Either way, his head remained un-bruised (lucky for him that he has quick reflexes…) and the Lady Meliara alternated sharply between sulkiness, anger, and nervousness. Hardly the best situation in which to attempt the beginnings of a courtship. Well… that, and they were in the midst of resolving the conflict with Galdran Merindar once and for all.

Yet… seeing Meliara with her brother subconsciously cemented Vidanric's feelings for her. Upon seeing him safe and unharmed, she became soft and tender, laughing and crying as she embraced him. Everything she was became so focused upon her brother that words flowed out that she would never have willingly spoken in the Marquis's presence for fear of weakness. Sobbing, too, was a thing Vidanric had never seen her do… yet all at once, he wanted it. He wanted her. Vidanric wished that Meliara felt safe enough to speak to him without anger and come to him for comfort. As it was… neither brother nor sister noticed him as he left the room.

At dinner that evening, Vidanric was afforded his first opportunity to see the Countess of Tlanth dressed according to her station. Nervously – and rather charmingly, too, she cautiously stepped with the skirts bunched in her hands, as though fearful of ruining the dress or making a mistake. Her conversation – most especially with her brother – was frank and straightforward and just the wrong side of uncouth. Still, Vidanric could not help admiring her as he pondered over her blatant honesty.

After explaining the Renselaeus's efforts towards Galdran's downfall, however, Meliara Astiar still persisted in going home. In the end, it took an arrow in Bran's body, an almost-carried-out kamikaze mission, and a misunderstanding the size of a mountain to finally ally the Astiars to the Renselaeus side. Even after Branaric and Meliara agreed, though, the Countess's grudge held strong.

As Branaric explained to him, Meliara had lived her life thus far shut away in Tlanth, running barefoot and poorly-dressed with the villagers as though she were one of them. She was fed her prejudices towards the Court from a young age, and when their mother was murdered, Meliara was left ignorant and often ignored by their father…

Vidanric was prying; he knew that. But he was so interested in the topic and Bran was so very free with the information. How could he not inquire? Of all the intelligence given him by the Count of Tlanth, however, the fact that Meliara understood the Hill Folk so well piqued his interest. They were little seen, little heard, little known – if ever. Unconsciously, his admiration for her grew. Yet, Shevraeth concealed his interest, turning instead to query as to the facts related about the Calahanras mother… a suspicious and supposedly unwarranted death, a burnt library, years of study at the Court in Colend; it all spelled out a puzzle. Or at least, a puzzle Vidanric felt he could solve, unlike the strange woman he wished he could court.

Thus, with three people bearing three sets of colds riding three horses… the fight with Galdran came to an end. Protecting Meliara from Galdran's dirty tactics seemed second-nature to Vidanric – though the tight feeling in his chest was new (and definitely could not be attributed to illness), and the intervention on their behalf by the Hill Folk was a pleasant surprise… But perhaps the cruelest and most rewarding thing of all came afterwards when the Countess of Tlanth rode home without warning or mention. Yet – perhaps as a peace-offering, the letter proving Galran and Debegri's ill-deeds was left to Shevraeth's care, acting as proof of some sort of tentative trust building between them. For Vidanric at that moment, it was enough.

Of his strange recollections, perhaps the most painful of all, however, were the days after Galdran's defeat. Bran was brought to Court and was easily adopted by its inhabitants as they taught him Court ways… but always, the Count of Tlanth would be remarking upon his sister, explaining her brilliance and her quick wit and observing on how much better she would be at some such or another… It was distracting for Vidanric. It was bad enough that at least a dozen different recounts of Meliara's escape and consequent journey were told and retold in his hearing. He could not seem to escape her, not even in his thoughts. In the end, only one option remained; for Vidanric to see her once again.

So he did, with Branaric as his host and the Count's fiancé, Nimiar Chamadis, as a fellow guest; the two were good company for him. Meanwhile, the Countess of Tlanth remained as surprising as ever. She had put her recent wealth to good use by renovating and decorating the castle she called home, as well as paving roads and improving the village – or town, rather. In addition to improving her surroundings, Meliara was evidently working to improve her mind. Already, her library had drastically increased as opposed to its previous state, and her opinions, too, seemed more wide and refined than they were before. She clearly wanted to learn, and took all means necessary to teach herself, whereas her brother had relied upon others to instruct him.

Now, more than ever before, could Vidanric see in her the object of his emotions and the half-painted hopes for his future…

Yet, Shevraeth had been silent regarding most of the events during the rebellion, and as much as he wished it was out of respect for the Astiar family and disinclination to speak of the war with Galdran… the truth was that he was not the sort of person to wave his feelings about for all to see and hear. And somehow or another feelings had come into play where Meliara Astiar was concerned. That thought left the Marquis somewhat uneasy; his emotions were generally straight forward enough, but Vidanric had the premonition that the moment the Countess entered the equation (any equation), everything turned into a complex, tangled mess.

One thing Vidanric Shevraeth knew for certain was that courting the Countess or addressing his feelings in her presence (or at all, for that matter) would not be easy…

The only solution Vidanric could fathom as he stood upon the highest tower of Evak-Astiar, the castle of Tlanth, would be to go to sleep and think upon the subject at another time. Thus, by the time Meliara reached the courtyard of the castle after her climb to the top of the stone peak of Elios… no one was there.

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A/N:

A short stint to keep me writing motivated since homework's been too hectic to let me update on my Narnia fic… But mostly, I just felt so sad when I saw how pathetic the number of Crown Duel/Court Duel fics was; I mean, it's a brilliant story! BUT ONLY THREE FICS! (minus the mis-categorized Hamlet fanfiction…)

So I guess you could say this was a pity-fic. To be honest, it wouldn't be the first time I've done a pity-fic… (was it Honey & Clover with the Yamada/Namiya…? Well, as I recall, the number of fics for it was about as pitiful as this…)

So anyways, you should review!