Natalia woke with an unsettling feeling down in her core that something was wrong. Her eyes fluttered open hazily, her body protesting (she'd been operating on low sleep and high stress for the past few months), but quickly jolted awake after realizing she couldn't breathe.
A thick, black smoke filled the air, illuminated by orange flames that licked her door. Fire.
Alarms went off in her head. She rolled out of bed and dropped to the floor, coughing violently as she struggled to breathe. Crawling to the window, she could hear voices above the wicked crackling sound of her home burning down. "Down with the monarchy," angry voices shouted from the mob below, and it dawned on her just what was happening.
Three years had passed since the abolition of the Score. Those three years had been filled with chaos and a growing discontent among the people of Kimlasca. There were always those who opposed change, and many changes had been made indeed.
Many believed that Kimlasca had been robbed of its promised prosperity and were furious that the country had become allies with Malkuth. Others were outraged that a large portion of their resources – diminished already by global changes and the depletion of fonons - was going towards aiding replicas. And as much as she had not wanted to believe it, many citizens simply thought her father a poor leader: indecisive and easily swayed, with no real conviction.
Still, she thought to herself with shaking hands, she couldn't believe it had culminated in this.
Her hands fumbled with the latch of the window, desperately trying to get it open. The ceiling had started to cave in, showering the floor with sparks and debris. It was a long way down, and she would most certainly be injured by the fall, but if she stayed here she would most certainly die.
She gasped as she finally drew the window open, air stinging as it reached her lungs. Taking one last look back at her room – now roaring with flames – she said goodbye to her home and jumped.
"You're heavier than you look, you know that?" Luke said quietly, though there was no humour in his voice.
The redhead looked down at the princess he'd caught in his arms – with no small effort – and was relieved to see she was, for the most part, physically unharmed.
"Luke?" she asked weakly, and he nodded from under his cloak.
"I'm glad you're okay," he said quietly. "Come on. We have to hide; we can't stay here." He took her hand and led her quickly to a spot behind a towering hedge.
Her eyes widened as she looked up at the burning castle. The massive structure was engulfed in flames. "No!" she protested. "We have to—"
He shook his head vehemently, tightening his grip. "Natalia. We can't go back in there."
He tore his gaze away and grit his teeth. "Natalia, he's… dead."
Her face blanched and he wished there had been more time for tact, but there wasn't. Not now. He gripped her shoulders. "Listen to me. You have to get out of here, or they'll kill you too!"
The voices of the mob were getting louder; there was no way the two of them could fight them off. He was already taking off his cloak.
She looked confused as he wrapped it around her shoulders. "I can't go with you," he explained, his voice pained at the expression painting her face. "I'm so sorry, Natalia. We need to split up, or there's no way we won't be found out."
"Please," he whispered, hugging her tightly. "You have to leave Baticul. Nobody can know you're alive, not until the situation dies down. I need to go now - I have to help Mother get out of the city safely – but I promise you, we'll find our way back to each other."
"How can you be so sure?" she asked in a small, strained voice so unlike her own.
"Because we're family," he said simply, drawing her hood up. He gave her trembling hands a reassuring squeeze. "Promise me you'll be safe."
"…Okay," she whispered numbly, then watched him run for a moment before slipping into the shadows.
Natalia didn't fully process what happened next. Somehow, she must have made her way to the port and stowed away on a ship: the floor seemed to rock beneath her and she was curled up in between some crates. And she must not have hidden as well as she'd thought, for there was a woman in front of her, her lips moving, then waving her hand in front of her face.
"—re you okay?" she managed to make out as the woman's mouth moved again. "Goodness, you're pale. You don't look well at all."
The princess tried to open her mouth, but even that was a chore. Everything was blurry. Everything hurt.
The woman held a cup of water to her lips. "Don't worry. I won't tell anyone you're here. I can certainly understand, considering what happened three days ago."
"Three… days…?" Natalia asked shakily.
"The attack on the castle, the night we left port." She paused. "You are from the castle, aren't you?"
Nobody can know you're alive, not until the situation dies down. Her eyes widened. "N-no," she said, shaking her head, spilling water down the front of her cloak.
"Hmm, my apologies. I just assumed you were one of the castle servants – there are so many leaving Baticul, now that they're out of work." Oh. Natalia let out the breath she'd been holding. "If not the castle, then where are you from?"
"I… I was a caretaker at Duke Fabre's manor," she stuttered.
"Ah, poor thing," the woman sighed. "I hear the Duke's boy was something wretched."
"No!" she protested without thinking. "I-I mean…"
"It's okay to speak freely, you know," the woman said, misinterpreting her outburst. "There's nothing to be afraid of. The royal family members are all dead now, and if they're not, they will be soon. I hear the revolutionaries have eyes the world over."
The woman looked at her concernedly as she froze up again, shaking. She forced herself to speak. "O-of course there's nothing to fear," Natalia choked out. "I'm sorry. I'm just… not feeling very well."
She shook her head sympathetically. "No, I can't imagine you are. Do you have somewhere to stay when we reach Grand Chokmah?"
Grand Chokmah? The Emperor… Guy… the Colonel… A brief glimmer of hope sparked in the back of her mind before the heavy realization sunk in that she would most definitely be found out if she went to any of them. They were all in far too high positions, surrounded by too many people, for her presence to go unnoticed. "No," she whispered, voice raw. "I don't."
The woman then started talking about something to do with a contact, and would she like to be introduced? Maybe he could find her a job. She vaguely remembered nodding, and then the next however many days were nothing but a blur.
Everything hurt and she felt so small. She had failed her people, she realized with a sick thought, and now her country was in anarchy and her father was dead because of it. She was nobody, her people wanted her dead, and she was utterly alone.
Natalia was hungry. Starving, really – she hadn't eaten properly in what must have been weeks on that ship from Baticul to Grand Chokmah. She'd missed meals before, sure, but she'd never felt this awful, clawing hunger at the bottom of her stomach. Even during her travels, she realized with a pang, the others had always made sure she'd had enough to eat.
She was exhausted and weak, legs barely keeping her steady as she followed the coattails of the man in front of her to her new life as a – maid, was it? – for some rich man who'd recently fallen ill.
"Yes, I could make use of a girl like her," the man had said after the woman from the boat introduced them, looking her up and down and surveying her face. "My Lord has fallen ill and I've been looking for an extra hand around the house. She's a little on the thin side, but a pretty face like hers might be just what he needs to help him recover. He's a real…" what was the word he'd used? "…Lady killer."
She shuddered, wondering just what she was getting into. It could be dangerous, and the thought of having to serve some lecherous old man on his deathbed sent chills down her spine, but she didn't much have a choice.
There was nowhere else for her to go, and this job would at least provide her with food and shelter. She was lucky to even have this opportunity. It wasn't as if she could easily find a job elsewhere: she didn't know how to clean, do laundry, or sew, and she definitely did not know how to cook. Yes, she had led a sheltered life, though she supposed it had never really been hers to begin with.
She'd been stripped of her titles before, both as Princess and Daughter, but that had been due to Mohs' manipulation. This time, it had been her subjects. She'd also lost a father before, but never the one she'd loved. As much as she wanted to blame the dissolution of the Score or not enough resources or deep-rooted prejudices, she knew that this wouldn't have happened if she hadn't failed her people.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, was that back then she'd never had to go through anything alone. She'd had Guy and Asch and Luke and Anise and Tear and Jade to support her, each in their own way. What she wouldn't give for Guy's kind words and warm smile right now. Or even Jade; he could slap some sense into her. At least that might take away from the overwhelming pain in her chest that threatened to swallow her whole.
Natalia barely noticed that they had reached the estate.
"Look alive, my dear," her escort said warningly.
She swallowed, then summoned all her strength and put on the closest thing to a smile that she could muster. After all, she'd have to survive if she were to see them again. She realized now what Asch meant when he'd said the only thing keeping him going was a promise.
It had been two weeks since Guy had learned of the Princess's death and Luke's disappearance, two weeks since he'd eaten or slept properly.
Letters had accumulated on his dresser: two from Tear, three from Anise. He'd skimmed them over to see if there was any news about Luke, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to write back despite knowing that they were worried about him. Even Jade had been by to check on him. The first time, of course, he'd come by to inform him that Peony's rappigs were getting restless. The second time had been quite a bit more unpleasant.
"Guy, it's been a week and you haven't moved since I last saw you," the man said disdainfully. "Natalia might be dead, but Luke in all likelihood is not. I would have thought you'd at least be out searching for him."
"He could be anywhere on Auldrant. You know as well as I do that searching blindly would accomplish nothing," he replied bitterly.
"Perhaps. But at the very least, it would show you cared about something. Natalia cared about her people, and you claim to have cared about her, but you continue to stand by and do nothing while her country falls to ruin."
"And just what do you want me to do, Jade?" he snapped. "If you've formulated a plan, I'm all ears, but I know you haven't yet. So until you do, just leave me the hell alone."
He hadn't heard from the Colonel after that.
He stood by the window, the same place he'd stood for the past two weeks when he wasn't in bed. Luke was out there somewhere; of that, he was sure. He was declared missing, not dead. But Natalia… his heart wrenched at the thought. He should have been there to protect her.
He couldn't stop thinking about it, about her. She had been his oldest friend, someone he had come to admire and respect above all others. The two had grown particularly close in the years Luke had been gone, and now the thought of life without her was unbearable.
He wished Jade hadn't been the messenger to break the news to him; now all he could hear was that awful voice and those horrible words said in the least tactful way. It wasn't Jade's fault, he knew, but anger – anything - was better than the guilt that had been eating away at him and the overwhelming grief that flooded his thoughts.
He continued to stare emptily out the window until he was interrupted by a knock at his door. He didn't turn around or answer but he did his best to compose himself, knowing whoever it was would come in anyway – probably one of the staff again, trying to get him to eat. Even Pere hadn't been successful.
"Forgive me, My Lord," came the voice of his butler as he entered the room. "I know you are… preoccupied… but I'd like to introduce to you the new help, Miss…"
"Meryl," a voice spoke quietly from down on her knees. He spun around, certain his mind was playing tricks on him – he hadn't slept in weeks, after all – but his heart began to beat again as he met her eyes. "Meryl Oakland."
Her eyes were pleading with him to play along. His eyes were wide and all he could do was stare at her.
"Yes, she's quite a sight, isn't she?" his butler said, noticing his reaction.
He nodded, shaken out of his reverie. "The most beautiful in all of Auldrant." A ghost of a smile traced her all-too-pale features.
"I was thinking she could start down in the kitchen—"
"No," he said, a little too quickly. He coughed. "Ah, actually… I've been behind in some work, and a personal assistant might be just what I need. In fact, I have a letter that I'd like to compose right now, if that's alright…?"
"Of course, My Lord," he said with a bow and exited the room, shutting the door behind him.
As soon as the door closed, he rushed to her side.
"Natalia," he whispered and he held her close, phobia be damned, as she fell apart in his arms.