A/N: Thank you very much for your kind reviews and encouragement!
I'm sorry for not replying to your last three letters. I'm okay. Really. Please don't send the Colonel to come check on me ever again.
You don't have to be worried - I've just been introduced to my new personal assistant, Meryl. Thanks to her, I've been feeling much better.
Will I be seeing you soon?
Thank you for writing back to me. I'm so happy to hear about your new assistant! I hope she's adjusting all right. Don't work her too hard, okay?
Things in Daath have been busy with everything that's been going on. If I get a chance to escape, though, I'm stopping by your place, like it or not!
Did you not get my other letters? I miss Natalia too, but the Colonel says you haven't been doing too well, and if he's concerned that's saying something. I have some news, though, that might cheer you up.
I found a puppy in my garden the other day. He used to whine horribly, but he's gotten much better. He's not very bright – a bit of an idiot, really – but I've been much… happier with him around. You should come visit.
Locrian Sergeant Tear Grants, First Platoon, Oracle Knights Intelligence Division
I'm really glad to hear about your new puppy. I hope he doesn't cause too much trouble for you. I'd love to see him when I have a chance.
Sorry I haven't responded earlier. I've been busy showing Meryl, the newest member of the household staff, around. She's not much of a cook, but she's been a lot of help anyway - she's a real lifesaver.
"A puppy?" Luke asked incredulously, hovering over Tear's shoulder. He frowned.
"Well, we can't use your real name," the brunette replied rationally, folding up the letter.
He sighed. "…Why do I get the sense you'd prefer the puppy?"
She gave him a small smile. "You're a close second."
In spite of everything that had happened, Natalia considered herself extremely fortunate. The stars had aligned to bring her here, of all places. Here, at last, she felt some semblance of safety.
She'd been fed, given a chance to bathe, and provided with clean clothes (including a uniform that would have made Tear more than a little jealous). She had been given her own room, and a nice one at that. Guy certainly treated his servants well.
Having a place to stay, of course, was nothing compared to the security she felt from Guy's presence. She was no longer alone - she had the support of her dear friend who was, she was quite sure, the kindest person in all of Auldrant.
She also now had the reassurance that Luke was safe.
As much as she had to be thankful for, however, sleep still eluded her as she lay in her bed. Now that her fear had subsided and her basic needs had been met, she found herself mourning the loss of her father properly for the first time.
She hugged her pillow tightly and allowed herself to cry, sobs wracking her slender frame. She wasn't sure how long she wept for.
At some point in the night, Guy must have heard her crying, for when she looked up, she found him sitting with her. He stayed with her until she was able to fall asleep.
She didn't know what she had ever done to deserve such kindness, but she was certain that she would have been lost without it.
As much as Jade tried not to let anything faze him, the past few weeks had been both frustrating and tiring. He hated to admit it, but Guy had been right: they still didn't have a solid plan. He didn't have a problem with waiting – he was never one to rush headfirst into things without thinking – but he couldn't stand the indecision.
While things were largely chaotic in Kimlasca, from what they had gathered there had been no further acts of violence following the attack on the Royal Family. This gave them a bit of time, but from the way things were going it seemed nothing would ever get done.
While they had participated in many wars, this situation was quite unlike any of their previous experiences. Battles in the past had been to defeat an enemy nation or to take land, never to restore order to another country. Their enemies before had always been soldiers, clearly marked with a somewhat predictable repertoire of tactics. The revolutionaries, however, were less predictable, and would be much more difficult to target. They were civilians, likely undistinguishable from other citizens.
The Malkuth military had held off on making any decisions until Tritheim arrived from Daath and Teodoro arrived from Yulia City: they would have to work in concert if they were to get anything done properly. Now that they were assembled, however, they couldn't seem to come to a consensus. Every proposed suggestion was countered with even more drawbacks.
The anti-Malkuth sentiment that had been stirring among the Kimlascan people posed a significant problem. Sending Malkuth troops into Kimlasca could cause further chaos, and if they weren't careful, they could trigger a war. The sorts of ideals the revolutionaries seemed to hold were troubling and risked destroying the peace treaty they had worked so hard to protect.
Sending in Oracle Knights would also be risky. They represented a Church that taught people how to live without the Score – a notion rejected by many. The shift away from the Score was one of the very things that had led to unrest in Kimlasca in the first place.
Doing nothing, however, meant leaving citizens unprotected. The replicas and the nobles, in particular, would be in danger, and the Kimlascan army was undoubtedly in disarray. Without the King and without Duke Fabre, the head of the Kimlascan army, controlling the situation would be enormously difficult, if not impossible.
Without law enforcement or order of any sort, Kimlasca could bring itself to ruin. With the monarchy dead, a struggle for power would almost certainly ensue, and there was no knowing how that would end or who might be caught in between. When someone finally took the throne, they would have no experience or knowledge of how to run a country.
He sighed, rubbing his temples. He hated inaction, but the best course of action Jade could think of was to gather more information about the situation and hope that something would come of it.
Guy couldn't help but smile as he walked down to the hall to find his newest staff member carefully dusting the furniture in what, he was pretty sure, was the most ineffectual way possible.
He was happy to note that she looked much better this morning than the night before. Her hair was pinned back, and as strange as it was to see her in a uniform, he had to admit it looked good on her. Apart from her obvious inexperience with dusting, she blended in perfectly.
Natalia noticed him watching her and, with a practiced grace, turned swiftly to face him and bowed. "Good morning, My Lord," she said politely.
Even beyond her actions and her words, the entire way she carried herself was different. She was the epitome of docility, and it made him uncomfortable.
She had to mirror the other servants so as not to draw attention to herself, he knew, and he found himself wishing now more than ever that they would take his request to treat him more casually as more than just a social nicety. He was aware, of course, that it was unlikely to happen; social boundaries were hard to break down.
"Meryl," he addressed her as naturally as he could. "I'll be spending some time in the workshop. Can you bring me my breakfast there?"
"Of course, My Lord," she nodded, bowing before heading to the kitchen.
He watched with an amused smile as she came to a stop, realizing she was going the wrong way, and turned around. Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly, warning him not to laugh at her, but her expression was otherwise placid. He had to hand it to her – she was good at putting up a front (he supposed it was necessary, being raised a princess) – but he was relieved to see that her usual disposition had not disappeared entirely.
Natalia watched as Guy's chef and her assistant bustled around the kitchen. It took them a few moments to notice her. "Good morning," she said, a bit unsure of how to introduce herself. She'd never really had to before. "My name is Meryl. I am to bring breakfast to Count Gardios in his workshop," she explained.
"Ah, the new girl," the chef nodded. "Count Gardios' personal assistant, was it?"
"Yes. Although I will be helping out with some of the household chores as well."
"Excellent," the chef said. "We could use an extra hand around here."
Panic momentarily flashed across Natalia's face. "Ah, I'm… not very good at cooking," she confessed.
"Oh, don't worry. Anyone can learn to cook with enough practice!"
"Although, Count Gardios says otherwise," her assistant chimed in, laughing. "He told us about a friend of his whose cooking, no matter how many times she tried, turned out positively horrendous every single time."
A smile spread across the chef's broad face as well. "'More toxic than the miasma,' I think he said."
She arched an eyebrow. "Is that so…" she said, smiling as sweetly as she could.
"Not to worry though. I'm sure you'll pick it up in no time," the chef said, flipping a perfect crepe onto a china plate. "Meryl, would you be a dear and pass me the lemon sauce over there on the counter?"
"But I thought he hated lemon." The words were out of her mouth before she realized it. Both sets of eyes stared at her quizzically. "…It came up last night, when I asked Count Gardios about his likes and dislikes," she explained. "After all, I should know those things if I am to be his personal assistant."
Luckily, Natalia wasn't easily flustered. She could stay composed when speaking with others, masking whatever she was feeling underneath when she had to. She'd had plenty of practice having to hide her irritation or outright anger with several members of the council back in Baticul.
"He hates it?" the assistant spoke at last. "He should have said something!"
Natalia gave a little smile. That was just like Guy, too polite to complain. "He also dislikes tofu. His favourite is fish," she said helpfully. "Any kind."
"Goodness, what an attentive personal assistant!" the chef marvelled, substituting powdered sugar instead for the lemon sauce. She placed the dish on the tray and handed it to Natalia. "Count Gardios is lucky to have you."
Natalia smiled and shook her head. "Without him, I wouldn't have a job." Among other things. "I assure you, it is most certainly the other way around."
"Your breakfast, My Lord."
Guy shook his head as she placed the tray in front of him. "Hey, cut that out. We're alone." He watched as her eyes flitted around the workshop. It was cluttered with all sorts of intricate fon machines and half-finished projects. "Sorry about the mess."
"Would you like me to tidy it for you?"
He sighed and patted the bench beside him, motioning for her to sit. She obeyed. "You know you're not actually my servant. I don't like having to pretend that you are."
"But you will."
He nodded. He couldn't treat her as anything else, lest others begin to get suspicious. Although he liked his staff, he knew firsthand that it would be a mistake to place too much trust in them. He wouldn't trust them with his life, and so he certainly could not trust them with hers.
"You really are opposed to the notion?" she asked after a few moments. Her eyes were cast downward. "After all those years of ordering you around and treating you the way I did, it would be only natural to want recompense."
"Well, I can't say I never fantasized about it when I was younger." He paused. "That came out wrong. Back at Duke Fabre's manor, I would sometimes think about what I would have had if I were still a noble. What it would be like if you and Luke were the ones waiting on me instead."
"You would have deserved it. I was pretty awful towards you," she admitted.
"Nah, it wasn't that bad. In any case, it wasn't something I actually would have wanted." He laughed. "Luke would have made a terrible servant."
She seemed stuck on the first part of his response. "But I treated you so poorly. I was rather judgemental, and I was very… demanding."
He shook his head. "Don't beat yourself up over it. First of all, it wasn't your fault – you were raised as a princess. How else are you supposed to treat servants when you're told that you shouldn't even be socializing with them in the first place?"
She opened her mouth as if to apologize, but he continued.
"Second, you're not like that anymore, and it's who you are now that matters. And third… it really wasn't all that bad." He looked at her intently, earnestly, before continuing. "The way you were back then, it kind of reminded me of Mary. She had been like that too… so I could never begrudge you for it."
"Guy…" she said softly.
"But hey, I definitely like what we have now better," he said and gave her a smile. Her eyes seemed to brighten as she returned it, and that was better than anything he could have asked for.