A/N: Indochine, sorry I didn't reply to your review just yet; I had a bad combination of busy days and internet problems. I'll answer as soon as I have some things sorted out, I promise. Hope the chapter will make up for the delay.
"…died, all of them. Only General Alba and I…"
"…lucky to be alive…"
"…fell asleep on the way. Nothing serious, but we could both use a doctor, and there is a child…"
"…the cocoons, General Alba has them…"
The voices reached Quercus in his sleep, causing his mind to finally stir from deep within a black hole on unconsciousness; he would never be able to recall any other time he had needed sleep that much, and any other time his usually light sleep had turned into a deep slumber that not even the jolt of the truck stopping had disrupted. Even as he heard the voices outside the truck, he needed a few moments to truly awaken.
He opened his eyes into full awareness just in time to hear someone cracking a joke about dragons guarding eggs – a joke that died in the soldier's throat the moment Quercus turned to the end of the truck, whose door was open to see two soldiers looking inside. "Is something the matter, Lieutenant?" he asked sharply.
The man's face immediately reddened. "I… no, sir. Sorry, sir," he said, saluting "it is good to see you here. We feared for your safety when-"
"It takes more than that to kill me," Quercus cut him off. He pushed the blanked off himself, laid it on the still sleeping child and climbed down the truck. He stood, taking a few moments to stretch – my, was he already getting too old to sleep sitting? – before looking around. It was early morning, and they were exactly where they were supposed to be, in a small military facility hidden among the mountains on the Cohdopian side of the border. Quercus couldn't help but spare a quick glance to the west where, he knew, lay the remains of his hometown – and his family. There was another house left in ruins now, not too far away across those mountains… but this time no child had been crushed into its remains.
Not this time.
"Good morning, sir!"
Quercus recoiled and turned to see the captain waving at him, a tired but satisfied smile on his face. It occurred to him just then that he had been driving the whole night. "Captain," he greeted him with a nod.
"It's good to be home, isn't it?" the man gave a small chuckle "I could have sworn even the air I breathed got better when we passed the border."
"No place like home, I suppose," Quercus said somewhat stiffly. He turned to the other men. "Is the plane ready?" he asked. The way it had been arranged, there was to be a plane there, ready to take off for the capital with the cocoons as soon as possible.
"Yessir. It's ready to take off any moment now," a soldier said, then stood on attention "I'm the pilot, sir. I'll be honoured to bring you and the cure to our future Queen."
Quercus shook his head. "I'm afraid you'll have to deliver the cure alone," he said "I'm staying behind."
The man blinked in surprise. "But, sir…"
"No but. I want the plane to take flight right away, and I'm certainly in no condition to show myself into the palace," Quercus said, meaningfully gesturing at his torn, bloodied civilian attire "I need some stitches, a hot shower, food and a uniform – all of which would only delay the moment our Crown Princess and her brother can have the cure. Not to mention I have some orders to give before I head back," he added "we may have the cure, but the war is still going."
And I promised someone I'd stop the bombings on civilians as soon as I could, he almost added, but stopped himself just in time. Instead he just reached into his pocket and took out the jar containing two cocoons – the third was safely in his other pocket for now… just in case. "Here," he said, handing the jar to the pilot "take this and go immediately."
The pilot took the jar and nodded. "Yessir," he said before turning to leave with quick steps, the jaw clutched to his chest as though it where his firstborn child. Speaking of which…
"There is a child in the truck," he added "see if anyone here has anything clean she can wear and feed her."
"A child?" one of the soldiers repeated in confusion "a Borginian child?"
The man looked surprised, which in turn did not surprise him – since he had believed for so long that Borginians were responsible for his family's death, his deep-rooted hatred against Borginia was well known. They certainly had to be wondering why he, of all people, would go through the trouble of saving the life of a child of Borginia.
If they only knew.
But they couldn't know, never would, for Queen Luzula had ordered for Vulneraria's business to stay a secret and he wouldn't go against her orders, not again. In the end it mattered very little whether or not the truth was known: he knew the truth and had gotten his revenge; that settled it.
"Yes, a Borginian child. She's the daughter of the man who had the cocoons smuggled for us. He died in the attack and asked for me to save her, and that I did. Cohdopia does pay its debts."
"We wouldn't have had to start the war if Borginia did as well," one of the men muttered grudgingly to another, clearly thinking he was out of earshot "my cousin died in battle last week because of their refusal to hand over a damn cocoon. I sure wouldn't had gone through the trouble of granting a Borginian bastard's last wish."
Quercus gritted his teeth. "You!" he barked, causing the soldier to recoil and stood to attention "what is it you just said?"
The man paled. "I… I was just…"
"Let me tell you something, sergeant," Quercus said harshly, causing the man to shut his mouth "her Borginian father died so that our future Queen may live. He did more for this country than you probably ever will in your life, and we owe him. Not to mention that the child's mother was Cohdopian; she is one of our blood as well. If no relatives are found for us to return her to, I'll personally see that she gets the best education she could possibly get in Cohdopia – and you shall refrain from making idiotic remarks, unless you're looking forward to being demoted and spend the rest of your days mopping the floor of the barracks. Have I made myself clear?"
The man swallowed. "I… yessir."
"Good," Quercus muttered. He turned to the other men. "I was under the impression I had given you an order. Bathe her, get her something clean to wear and feed her. I won't have her into clothes stained with her father's blood one second more."
Quercus watched them as they headed to the truck and finally allowed himself a tired sigh. Perhaps he was getting old, for he felt like he truly needed a clean uniform, a meal, a hot bath and stitches – not necessarily in the order.
A couple of hours later – after a long hot shower and a decent meal, with his wounds tended and wearing a clean uniform – Quercus felt remarkably better. The stitched pulled uncomfortably, yes, and his back was subtly letting him know it hadn't appreciated the position he had slept into that night, but he did feel more like a reasonable fac-simile of a human being. Considering that he had pretty much been to hell and back, it was something.
While small, the facility he was into had a decently-sized lunch room. That was exactly where he found the child with some of his men. Not that it was hard, since all that he had to do was following the sound of delighted giggles. They sounded almost eerie to his ears – the thought someone, anyone could be that happy and careless after losing their house and family was alien to him. Then again, she was so young – too young to understand – and she could forget what had happened. She could forget the day the sun had gone out.
He never could.
Once again, he envied her. His envy, however, was replaced by mild amusement when he stepped into the lunch room to see some of his men around the table the little girl – bathed and clean wearing some baby clothes that hell knew where they could find in the middle of mountains – was sitting onto, giggling and waving her hands, clearly delighted by their attention. They were all over her, apparently, talking and trying to get her attention and laughing at her antics. What was it with that child that could apparently turn expert soldiers into a bunch of mother hens?
"Like this, uh? Here, try to hold it…"
"Hey, what the hell are you thinking? You can't just… put that gun away!"
"Sheesh, relax! It's unloaded, what do you guys think? Besides-"
"You're supposed to always handle your gun like it's loaded, captain," Quercus thundered, causing all men to wince and stand to attention as one. That seemed to catch the little girl by surprise, for she just sat there staring at them with wide eyes. Then her gaze fell on him, and she gave a wide, almost completely toothless smile. Not one to be easily intimidated, Quercus had to give her that.
"I… I'm sorry, sir, I was just…"
"Yes, we were…"
"Babysitting?" Quercus suggested, an eyebrow raised in mild amusement "I believe my orders were to bathe her, dress her and feed her. Entertaining her wasn't on the list."
One of his men cleared his throat. "Well, we… uhm… we simply figured out we couldn't just leave her alone into some room. She could get scared and, uh… we thought she's been through enough already."
That wasn't precisely bad thinking, Quercus had to admit… but at the same time he had the feeling the whole excuse would have been more believable hadn't the child been giggling all the way through it. "I see. Well then, I suppose you can look after her for a while longer, then. I have some things to settle, so I'll won't be leaving for the capital in a couple of days."
"Oh. So… she'll be coming with you, sir? And then what?"
There was a worried not in the man's voice that did not escape Quercus. "Someone at the palace will look after her while we try to find out whether or not she has any relatives left. If not, then…" Quercus paused, and looked at the child "…then I'll send her to the best private institution in Cohdopia. I doubt Borginia would do anything to take back yet one more war orphan," he added grimly, thinking back of the bombings on civilians he had ordered himself "and our country has a debt to her father, after all, so if it comes to that I'll make sure she has the best education Cohdopia can offer."
"Oh," the relief on everyone's faces was hard to miss "that's… generous of you, sir."
"Hmpf. Just make sure she doesn't hurt herself as she's trying to do just now," Quercus said, and all the men turned to see that the little girl was crawling closer and closer to the edge of the table.
"Ah. Oops," one of them said sheepishly, reaching to take her in his arms "sorry, sir. We'll be more careful."
Quercus gave a brief chuckle. "I should hope so," he said, turning to leave.
"And… uh, sir?"
He turned to glance back above his shoulder. "What now?"
"We were wondering what her name is. She has one, right?"
A pause. Quercus glanced at the child, who looked back at him, and his gaze lingered on her freckled little face before he turned away. "Chrysalis," was all he said before leaving, unaware of the fact the little girl had raised a small hand to wave at him as he walked out of the lunchroom.
It took a few days for Quercus to leave for the capital; enough time for him to analyse the situation and give the troops on the front new orders to follow after stopping the bombing on civilian targets: they may have obtained the cure, but they were still in the middle of a war they could not afford to lose. However, Quercus was rather confident they wouldn't: it looked like the Borginian government had underastimated them, as they had underestimated what they could be capable to do to get the cure to their Crown Princess.
They probably hadn't even thought Cohdopia would start a war to save her, and it had been a mistake. How foolish of them, one of Quercus' men had said one day, still being unable to understand Cohdopians after so many years of wars.
Quercus did agree that they had been foolish, of course, but he was certain there had to be more to it than just that. From the start he had come to the conclusion, and High General Durandii seemed to agree with him, that the Borginian government had expected Zheng Fa or Reijam – or both – to aid them in a possible war. It hadn't happened, though, because while Reijam was just now recovering from a severe economical instability, Zheng Fa was equally unstable politically-wise: its current president's term was coming to its end, and with people of Zheng Fa clearly expressing their adversion to any more militaty campaigns he had not wanted to take the risk of a highly unpopular decision while so close to his possible re-election. In the end they hadn't understimated the Cohdopians' willingness to war – they had overestimated their chances of getting help against them.
What imbeciles. They had brought it on himself, Quercus had thought, with their poor decisions and arrogance. He had only done his duty to ensure the Crown Princess' safety, he would tell himself. He had done what he was supposed to do and nothing more, and only Borginia was responsible for that one war, for all deaths – civilian or otherwise – that it had wrought; not him, not really.
It was my duty.
I did what I had to do.
It was a decision someone had to make.
As he lay awake on the night train that was bringing him back to the capital, Quercus could almost make himself believe it. Not that he felt guilty: he didn't, and that was precisely what bothered him. The thought of involving civilians into war actions was something that had repulsed him for so many years, and he had not forgotten that his first cold-blooded murder, than of a captain of the army of Reijam, had been out of anger at the thought that man was going to lead an attack to a seemingly defenceless village. Ordering those bombings had meant crossing his own line, one he had never before even considered crossing, and the fact he felt nothing about it was... unnerving. He was supposed to feel something about it, was he not?
Had Vulneraria felt nothing at all, too, when he had ordered for his hometown to be crushed and-
Quercus let out a growl and shook his head to chase away the thought. He should stop thinking of that – he was nothing like that man. What was done as done, and there had been a reason beyond his own advantage to do what he did. It was for Queen Luzula and the country that he had done it, so that they could get the only cure for Crown Princess Wilkiea on time. And that she had - both her and her brother had taken the cure and were now fine. They were safe, they would live, and it was mainly thanks to him. Of course he didn't feel guilty – he had no reason to.
"I knew you could do it, my boy! I knew it!"
Pressed uncomfortably against High General Durandii's prominent belly by a rather crushing bear-hug, Quercus silently prayed none of the royal guards would walk into that particular hallway now. "I'm flattered, sir," he wheezed "if you could please unhand me..."
A laugh. "Of course, of course," the older man said, finally letting go of him "my apologies, I suppose I was too... enthusiastic after all."
"No need to apologize, sir," Quercus said before smiling a little "just never do it again."
"Why, I should hope I'll never have to be so incredibly relieved over something. I've been worried sick until news came that the antidote was finally being made," Durandii said and, indeed, Quercus could see he still looked old and tired, as though he hadn't had a good night's sleep for a long time. He truly was fiercely devoted to the royal family; Quercus wondered, not for the first time, how close he had exactly been to the previous queen back in the day.
"I hope both yourself and Her Highness are more at ease now that both Princess Wilkiea and Prince Delphinium are fine," Quercus said, following the old man down the hallway leading to the queen's quarters.
Durandii chuckled. "Oh, we certainly are. Although I cannot say Her Highness has been getting as much sleep as she should. She's spent the last couple of nights up, too, watching over her children as they keep getting better," a pause, then the old man turned to face Quercus "once again, I thank you – and not only on Cohdopia's behalf, but personally as well. Her Highness is a strong person and a great monarch, but losing her children would have killed her inside."
Quercus thought back of his sister, only for a moment. "I understand. But there is no need to thank me, sir. I only carried on my duty. Saving the royal children was my priority."
"You went far beyond what we may have expected of you," Durandii said seriously, then, "speaking of children, I heard you saved a child of Borginia and brought her with you."
"Word travels fast, I see."
"Well, it is… unusual, I must say. I heard you've been trying to track down any family she may have."
Quercus nodded. "That I have, but I haven't been successful so far. We do not know what her father's name truly was: what he gave us was an alias. And for now, asking the authorities of Borginia to look into it is most certainly out of question," he gave a small chuckle "I know that her mother was Cohdopian, but nothing else; not her name, not where she exactly was from… nothing."
"I see. It looks like finding out whether she has any family left and if so tracking them down is going to be near impossible," Durandii said thoughtfully "what are you planning to do in case you don't succeed?"
"In that case, I'll make sure she'll get a good education here in Cohdopia. She's also one of us, after all. I'll find the best possible private institution for her to live and be educated into."
The older man raised an eyebrow. "Are you planning on adopting the child, General Alba?"
Quercus actually laughed at those words. "Good Lord, no!" he said, waving a dismissing hand "if it comes to that, I suppose I'll be her legal tutor. But not her father, never that," he added, a more serious note in his voice "she already has one. And I've long since learned that what is lost cannot be replaced."
The older man gave him a somewhat quizzical glance, but said nothing to it. Instead, he just stopped in front of the door leading to the quarters where the royal children were. "Her Highness requested to see you alone, so I suppose I'll get back to my own duties. Once again, thank you," he added, putting a hand on his shoulder before turning to he guards in front of the door. "Her Highness requested his presence. Let him through."
The guards immediately stepped aside and opened the large, decorated double doors. Quercus gave Durandii a nod before stepping in. The doors closed heavily behind him, but he didn't even take notice: he was busy staring at the woman coming out of a door on the other end of a short, richly decorated hallway.
Queen Luzula was clad in her usual royal garments, but even those couldn't hide how tired she looked, how unusually frail – the kind of frailness that only shows into someone who spent night after night awake, and more than a few crying, and is only barely starting to recover. She had let no one see her in that state, no doubt – she was proud and fully aware of how important acting strong was – but he doubted anyone who took one look at her face could miss how hard the whole ordeal had been to her. But now it was over.
"Your Highness," he began, starting to sink on one knee, but he didn't get a chance to, because one moment later – she was so fast, how could she move so damn fast? – he was thrown back by her weight against him, and her arms lacing themselves around his neck.
"I… wha…?" he stammered, taken aback, but he fell quiet when Queen Luzula spoke.
"Thank you," she said, her voice shaking, her face pressed in the crook of his shoulder "thank you."
Quercus exhaled and relaxed, the surprise wearing off. "I told you I'd return with the cure or wouldn't return at all, Your Highness," he murmured, reaching to hold her back "and you also know I always come back. I have the Devil's own luck, as you once said," he smirked "although I must say that of all the hero's welcomes I've received in my life – and there have been several – this one has to be the most enthusiastic."
There was a sudden snort against his shoulder and her back shuddered, and it took Quercus a moment to realize she was laughing. "Why, you smug, arrogant… you bumptious…" another laugh, and she finally pulled back, reaching up to dry her eyes "I should have known you'd say something like that."
Quercus chuckled. "You've come to know me too well, Your Highness," he said, then, "you should allow yourself some rest."
She sighed. "I know, I know," she muttered "I keep hearing that a lot, so no need for you to start playing the mother hen as well. The High General has been doing an outstanding job at that already."
"We're simply concerned for your well-being, Your Highness. These last weeks haven't been easy on you. Besides," he added, reaching to take her hand "this country is at war, and needs to see its monarch strong again. We're certainly going to win, yes, but your people need a tangible sign of that. "
She held back his hand and gave a weak smirk. "Yes, you do have a point. I have thought of that myself. And I have something in mind already – my next public appearance will be in a few days, along with my daughter and son, to show we all are fine. And you will be there."
Quercus blinked. "I will, Your Highness?"
"Yes. You saved the lives of my children, General Alba – that of the future ruler of this country. And you deserve the proper recognition for this achievement," she reached up to brush back some of his hair "in a few day's time there will be a ceremony here, before you leave for the front once again. I hope you can find a spot for yet another medal on that uniform," she added, smiling a little "that will both let everyone see the Crown Princess and I are doing well, and hopefully will get the troop's moral higher."
"Efficient as always, I see," Quercus said with a chuckle before glancing down at his uniform "yes, I suppose I can find a spot or two."
"You had better," Queen Luzula remarked, then she glanced back at the medals gleaming on his chest. "You know, with all the metal you have here already I'm surprised you're not hunching over."
Quercus gave a slight snort. "I'm not yet that old," he muttered, though it was a relief seeing the queen acting some more like herself now: no matter how understandable, any weakness shown from her part gave him an uncomfortable feeling he could not quite define.
As Queen Luzula had said, the ceremony was held barely days later, at the presence of both Crown Princess Wilkiea and Prince Delphinium. Quercus couldn't help but be a bit amused by the look of wonder on the children's face as they looked at him, and by the fact it wasn't Queen Luzula herself to put the medal – one larger than any other he had that no still living Cohdopian had ever received, he had been informed – on his chest; instead she took the Crown Princess into her arms, and it was the child to appoint them medal on his uniform, her little face scrunched into a focused expression; for a moment before Quercus bowed he and the queen exchanged a glance, and he could see the slightest of smirks curling her lips.
It was uncanny, holding a ceremony like that before the war was even truly over – but, as the queen's reasoning went, holding it then would be a strong signal of the fact the war was would soon be over and that their victory was a given, so what better way could there be to keep the country and troops' moral high? Besides, she had added, it would let their enemies see that they efforts had been in vain, that both the Crown Princess of Cohdopia and her brother had been cured and were now perfectly fine.
And it worked, it truly did: Quercus had barely enough time to travel back to the front lines when the Borginian government asked for peace. It didn't surprise him much, not really – what was the point in fighting a war they were clearly going to lose even now that the cocoons had been taken and the Cohdopian royal family was fine?
Quercus was rather sure that Queen Luzula had been tempted to deny their request and keep hostilities open until Borginia's capital had been turned into dust: its government had been ready to let her children die, after all. But she was too much of an expert politician to let emotions rule her while making such a crucial decision, so she had accepted to have High General Durandii meeting Borginia's president on a neutral ground to negotiate. In mere days they had reached an agreement, and the war was over.
"They were so eager for it to be over that it wasn't too hard to convince them to pay the reparations," Durandii had told him once he was back from the meeting "they knew that they'd lose, so no point in inviting death now that we obtained the cure anyway. They are stupid, but not that much," he had laughed before turning serious once more "also, I did ask for the information you needed; it seems that not even they can figure out who the girl's father truly was. Those living in the same area knew him by just a first name – Cadmium, was it not? – and say he was a very reserved man, having moved there with the infant after his wife had died. Any information there may have been about him was lost in the bombing of the municipality's archives, I'm afraid. No one can tell who he was, and thus tracking down any family is going to be impossible by this point. Speaking of which, the authorities of Borginia believe the child died in the bombing along with her father. I didn't tell them otherwise, but if you want to return the child to her country…"
"No," Quercus had said, shaking his head "she has nothing left there, and I must say I have not heard wonders of the orphanages of Borginia. Not to mention they must be rather full already thanks to me," he had added, some bitterness showing in his voice "I have found an excellent private institution in the capital for her to be educated into. I'll take her there."
And that he did. Of course, he had to become the child's legal tutor to do that, and he knew it could take quite some time to settle such things – but his position allowed him to simplify the process a lot, and in a matter of weeks Chrysalis was a Cohdopian citizen under the tutelage of General Alba, ready to be enrolled into the institution where she would spend the next seventeen years of her life.
"We can guarantee your protégée will receive an outstanding education, sir," the director had told him once Quercus was done signing the necessary papers "you'll receive a regular update on the child's progress. We usually sent out updates once a month, but if you wish to receive them more often, we can-"
"Once a month will be fine," Quercus cut him off, standing up and giving the other man a slight nod "she has little to no personal belonging as for now; I'll send you money so that she can have all that you deem necessary for her. Should you need more than what I gave, do not hesitate to let me know. I'll send someone with the child within the week."
The man looked surprised. "Oh. Aren't you going to bring her here yourself?"
Quercus scowled lightly at the thought. He hadn't seen the child since when he had left the facility among the mountains where he had left her in the care of his men, and for some reason the thought of seeing her again made him uncomfortable. "I don't think it's necessary," was all he said before leaving, not turning to even glance back at the building even once.
Aside from the monthly updates – that would soon turn out to be endless praise for the girls' intelligence and skills, something that would make him feel mildly proud almost against his own will – that would be the last he'd hear of Chrysalis for almost sixteen years.
"A leave, you say?" Queen Luzula propped herself on an elbow to glance down at him. She ran her fingers through his hair lightly, and he shut his eyes at her touch over the still fresh scar in his scalp, the one Vulneraria had given him. "Perhaps you are getting old, General Alba. What happened to the man who wouldn't take a leave unless ordered to?"
Quercus chuckled, not opening his eyes nor lifting his head form the pillow as he spoke. "I'm not asking for another leave, Your Highness – I'm simply asking to resume the one I interrupted when you called for me. I had a week left; all I ask for is to have that week."
"Does it have to be now?" she asked. There was a moment of silence, and her hand stilled.
I'll be back to finish the work. I… I promise. So take good care of the plants while I'm away.
"I'd prefer that, yes. What better moment to enjoy a leave than after the end of a war?" he finally said.
She sighed. "Fair enough," she finally said, and resumed stroking his hair "very well, then, you will resume your leave from tomorrow. I suppose business can wait another week, after all."
That finally got Quercus to open his eyes to give her a quizzical glance. "Business?"
Queen Luzula simply shrugged. "There is something Durandii and I have been thinking. Something regarding Vulneraria's connections – if they could be used to the country's advantage once, they may be useful again," she told him, pulling back her head and resting down again, her head on his chest "but it's only an idea so far and, as I said, it can wait one more week."
"Next week," she said, shifting to rest her head more comfortably on his chest, a commanding note in her voice "now sleep, or keep quiet and let me sleep. Your choice."
Quercus sighed and reached to put a hand around her waist. "Yes, Your Highness."