Sorry about the delay. Life's been pretty busy, also lack of Wifi. I'm having a pretty rough time at work. The slightest thing goes wrong and suddenly all the good I've done doesn't seem to matter. Bah! I need this, I need something good and uncomplicated. I need to finish this, to complete something with no negative feedback, I hope.
Epilogue- Stronger Each Day
I want to go home, but I have any choice in the matter. My attendance here is mandatory; it is my birthday celebration, after all. Seventeen moons and others still dictate my life. Well, that might be a touch strong, but I resent the fact that Millearna, Crown Princess of Asturia, didn't give me a chance to decline her generous gift. I'd rather have a quite dinner with Merle or music and dancing around a bonfire in Arzas.
Instead, I am dressed in fancy clothes, listening to classical music, and surrounded by people who see success as something that can be bartered with charm and political ties. I don't belong here, but these surroundings come with the territory. I am a king. Though the position originally came to me because I was the only one left of my bloodline, I have since earned my place, so to speak.
Under the fine brocade vest, embroidered in red and gold, I wear one of Merle's tunic shirts in starched white linen. Beneath the fancy clothes and golden circlet at my brow, it is still me. My arms are bare for all to see the blue diamonds that mark me as a true warrior king of Fanelia. Most people here don't understand what it means, but they do recognize that I am different from everyone else in this room. They want to win favor from the pilot of Escaflowne, the young man who rebuilt a country in ruins.
I didn't fight all those external powers and pressures, so they could follow me around now like worshipers kowtowing to their god. It's sickening but understanding. Still, it doesn't mean I enjoy or appreciate it in the slightest.
After the midnight visitors from the otherworld, things started to happen quickly. The Wolf tribe assisted in bringing in a record breaking harvest. With a competitive market value that was more than adequate for winter preparations, we were able to reduce our debt to Daedalus by more than half. After receiving my letter, Chid and a delegation from Freid arrived at the city. I presented my rare find, and though I was offered a large reward which overshadowed the loans others would have given at far greater costs, I turned it down. All I wanted in return was a stronger friendship with Freid. Along with that bond came a very good price for stone and building materials. These things we sorely needed, and we could now afford to buy outright with our own power. With these new materials, we finally began rebuilding.
In this last year, things in Fanelia have changed drastically, and the world knows it. Along with these improvements, the pressure to marry has also increased greatly. I hold strong to my belief I have time later, much later, to marry and father heirs. Sadly, that doesn't mean there isn't a line of high-born, well-connected women waiting to dance with me. They clamor for my attention and favor. All I want is to become invisible.
It was almost better when I was poor and desperate. At least then, people talked about me, not to me. I've never been a fan of being center stage in these events, and now I have no choice. I've been approached by enough possible brides and their chaperones to last me a lifetime.
"Oh, Van, come on! You can't be having a bad time at your own party." The sing-song voice floats up beside me, followed by the rustling of layered lavender skirts that match Millearna's intelligent eyes.
"Who ever said that?" I raised an eyebrow which wasn't hidden behind my shaggy bangs. The negative side of wearing my hair shorter these days is that people can see more of my face.
"Well, I did, silly." She props a hand on one hip, daring me to argue with her. "I went through all the trouble of dragging you out of your self-imposed isolation. So, as a favor to me, you could at least pretend to have fun."
I sigh and try to smile, but it's forced. If it were Merle, she'd playfully hit me. Instead, Millearna tosses her golden hair over one shoulder and waits for me to comply. "If I could not feel like I am being sold to the highest bidder, it would improve my night."
"Welcome to life as a royal." She rolled her eyes like I should know better. I do, but that doesn't mean I like it. "I wanted to run from it too, but it didn't help in the slightest."
"Speaking of which, how is Dryden?" I try to turn the conversation away from me at least for a moment.
"Mostly sad. He is missing your party." She smiles wistfully, but it quickly turns calculating. "Is there someone you'd rather have here to celebrate with?"
I don't want to think about Hitomi, but I can't help myself. What would it be like if she were here at my side? Would Millearna dress her up again to see the reaction? Is she even still the same girl that would blush and stutter when embarrassed?
It's asking too much to hope that I can avoid an arranged marriage, because she'll come back to me. It might be impossible. I can't be sure that we are meant to be, and everything will work out like a fairytale.
When I don't respond, the golden-haired princess pats my tattooed shoulder and heads back into the fray, mingling with ease. I'm alone again, if only temporarily. I've already danced with more than half the eligible women in the room, and that bunch included the three front runners from a year ago. Lady Hudson, beloved by my council for her wealth, is already engaged to another. The general's daughter, with her tanned skin and watchful eyes, would rather people watch than dance with me again. Lastly, the girl who would have been my fiancé if I hadn't halted the contract, Marie LeDoux, is a pleasant dance partner, although a bit too shy to every be compatible as more than that.
There isn't anything wrong with any of those girls, except for the fact that none of them are Hitomi. I've had no more visons or visitors, and the connection is still lost. I maintain a personal belief that there is more to our story.
Taking advantage of the brief moment without a forced dance partner or conversation, I make my way to the side of the room and the doors leading out into the gardens. The night air is cool, hinted with salt and blooming blossoms, the combination is quite refreshing. Music and chatter from the ball float on the breeze, muffled but not entirely gone. Light from the sister moons shines brightly down, and I find a sort of peace that drains the tension from my shoulders.
It's one thing to miss her, but life still goes on even though she is gone. I knew it would. Though I may never see her face, be the subject of her visions or temper, or hold Hitomiin my arms, I still hold her in my heart.
Even with Fanelia on the mend, I have plenty of work to do. Still, I somehow find the time to dream of a future where Hitomi can see a land at peace and fully healed. I think it would mean a lot to her, as it does to me.
I still hold closely to the night where Rhum inked my symbol, and I felt as though I could touch a future, one where the green-eyed girl was my wife. Somedays it feels impossible, but I have lived through more incredible things in my short lifetime than anyone ever thought possible. What is one more impractical dream in the long run?
"Hitomi, I hope you are doing well." I speak softly into the night sky. "Fanelia is doing just fine, and so am I."
I know I'm talking to myself like a crazy man, but I don't mind. Sometimes, all it takes is a little bit of crazy to feel better. Feeling less stressed by all the attention, I decide it is time to rejoin the festivities before Millearna sends out a search party to drag me back.
Realizing that I haven't seen Merle in a while gives me a good excuse to stay out of the dance rotation. I come across Allen first, and he pulls me into his group easily.
"There you are, Van." The long-haired knight seems unchanged by time with his effortless charisma and charming smile. "Having a good time, I hope."
"If I'm not, will you report me to Millearna?" I tease with a noncommittal shrug.
"It can be our secret." He laughs lightly, knowing the threat of being on the princess's bad side. "Are you hiding from eligible ladies or looking for a certain Neko?"
"A bit of both," I admit honestly. "Mostly the second, though I think I've stepped on enough dainty toes for the night."
Again, the knight laughs, and I don't mind that it is at my expense. "I see that Vargus didn't teach you dance lessons." Despite our past differences, I do think of him as a true friend.
"If he had, it would have been a terrifying experience." Shuddering, I attempt to ignore the terrible image Allen has placed in my head.
"Well, Merle was last spotted talking with the youngest princess of Cessrio. If you're lucky, she might still be there." As I turn to go, his strong hand sheathed in a white glove stops me. All the joking is gone from his face and stance. "Have you gotten another letter from Leon?"
"I have. He would be here drinking wine and flirting with pretty ladies otherwise." The first ship to arrive in Fanelia after I spooked the blockade was Dryden. He's been acting as a good informant for me ever since. I have no doubt that Millearna is his true master, but the intelligence passed my way has been priceless.
"Very true." Allen releases me and quickly resumes his prior confident ease. "Well, if he can be believed, then you should take this chance to get to know the Princess before her name comes across your desk."
I don't answer and just nod before turning to find Merle. Somehow, I pray that she isn't with the girl in question, the one who recently suffered a broken engagement. If she was offered as a bride, my advisors would die from joy. So, I hope my adopted sister is alone.
Since the coded letters started, I've learned so much, some that I never would have guessed. I knew the war caused ripples through all the kingdoms, but I never expected to the extent that was the reality I suffered through. It seems that Fanelia wasn't necessarily the main target, but more of a means to an end for the larger countries.
I guess it could all be traced to the Atlantis machine and that psychotic zone of absolute fortune. When Zaibach retreated, everyone took it as a chance to seize power for themselves. While Allen and I were fighting each other, a squadron from Cessrio overtook the royal guard of Daedlus, the guard that was protecting the oldest prince. Once the dust settled, it seems Daedlus had lost, no survivors.
When the crown prince never returned home, the king in his grief took it out on those closest to him. Suddenly, the second prince, Caine, had to fill his brother's shoes. His fiancée, the princess from Cessrio, the country who killed an innocent man, was sent home with a broken contract. Her kingdom, fearing retribution for the death of the eldest prince, wanted Escaflowne to protect themselves.
The ripples didn't end there. The dead prince had been married to a princess from Ezdigardia, and since she hadn't given him an heir, the widow was sent home. Daedlus had to repay her dowry, and they called in the debt that had grown over the years while Fanelia was without a king to keep the council in check.
The blockade by Ezdigardia on my border was, in part, to punish Daedlus for sending their princess back a widow. Meanwhile, the bandits were Basram trying to rebuild their wealth after the losses they took using an experimental bomb that killed allies as well as enemies. They feared war from all sides, and that is why Basram wanted our dragons, to expand their army in case of retribution. Ezdigardia wanted to expand their control into my kingdom in hopes of finding a way to make up for losing their connection to my neighbor in the north.
If I faltered for one second, these four countries would have torn my homeland apart for their own gain and to make up for how they had been hurt. All of them had suffered when that damn machine convinced them to throw logic and caution to the wind. In all reality, Freid didn't just want a priceless artifact returned. It seems with the machine destroyed, power had been leaking for a year. It was never about pride; they needed the sword to close off the connection to the source, to finally end this once and for all.
Fanelia was never the main objective, merely another casualty in the war. We've all finally began to truly heal. So, after all that, I hope the princess who was a pawn in the center of this mess isn't offered as a bride. I don't want to get pulled back into that drama.
Bright pink hair comes into view, and though she is deep in conversation, I don't have a clear view of her companion. As I near them, the first thing I see is short, honey colored hair, and my heart nearly stops. It can't be Hitomi, right?
I should be frozen, but I find myself with my hand on a shoulder and spinning the girl around. Luckily, I didn't hug her like I instantly wanted to, because the shocked eyes looking into mine are hazel, not green. This is not Hitomi.
Up close, I can see this girl is rather tall, and where the seer was built for speed, this is a fighter like me. My throat tightens painfully. Her hair is the right color, but that's it. Her hair is probably about shoulder length with the ends tucked up, so it appeared boyishly short from far away. I drop my hand away like the contact burns, but the damage is already done.
"Eva, this man with the inappropriate touching is my brother, Van King of Fanelia." Merle's voice snaps me back into myself. "Van, my friend who you just grabbed is Eva, third princess of Cessrio."
How could I have thought that Hitomi would just magically appear in the middle of an Asturian ballroom? When did I become such a hopeless romantic?
"It's uh- it's nice to meet you." The girl who I mistook for Hitomi stutters slightly, not like the pretty ladies flaunting themselves around me all night. She looks embarrassed as her hand goes to her short locks. "I was just telling Merle about how my hair got messed up."
"Sorry." I don't know if I'm apologizing for startling her or making her uncomfortable. "I can go."
"No!" she blurts quickly, nervousness leaving all at once. She enters story-telling mode. "I've been growing my hair long, for forever it seems. It seemed like it was the only lady-like thing about me. Aside from sword-fighting, I finally convinced everyone I was ready to try dueling with guymelifs."
Really getting into the action, the princess held the extra fabric of her long dress in one hand and the other out as if grasping an invisible weapon. "Getting used to the controls didn't take long at all, and the fight was exciting. Working on my timing, I was able to press an advantage and win my first melif fight. Unfortunately, as I was climbing down, my hair had gotten tangled on the controls. It was a mess, completely knotted, and they hand to cut me out." With a dramatic flair, she pulled the ends of her unevenly cut hair out of its stylish twist.
Merle laughed, and I couldn't help smiling. "Have you thought of braiding your hair back instead of clogging the melif gears?"
The princess grinned, and the bright smile lit her face up into something shocking. She was pretty before, but damn, the change was drastic. It shows so much pure emotion. I'm not going to fall in love with her over a smile, but Merle could use an honest friend like her.
I listen to the girls chat for a while and realize I don't have to be alone in a crowded room. The one small hiccup was when the princess's former fiancée walked past our group with his new wife. Her hand shakily touches butchered locks, her face both pale and flushed. I feel for her, really I do, but I won't pretend to be her new love interest and make this all worse.
If I choose the people around me carefully, then maybe I won't feel the one thing missing from my life so strongly. It's a good life, and I'm lucky to have it. The personal stuff can wait; I have time. I've learned that family isn't always of a biological relation, and that blood ties don't always guarantee someone will love you.
I still love Hitomi two years later. We've both been changed by the war and the separate issues that followed. She may not even be the same person anymore, but I've grown stronger. I know that I can be the man she needs me to be. The only thing left to do is focus on my country; the people of Fanelia take priority over any love life. I'll be here when Hitomi returns. I can be what she needs, but only when she needs it.
The vultures will circle, but it's what they do. They see an opening for opportunity and power. I must build a wall around my heart and wait. I'll be here when she needs me. I won't marry, not when there is a chance, a shred of hope, for us. I believe in Hitomi. It's the least I can do.
I know my story doesn't end here, but I'll be more than happy to let someone else take the spotlight for once.
Well that's Van's side of the story. The things I received the greatest response for in More Than Skin Deep was Van having the movie tattoo, Van still having some darkness still, and the strong man he became. This story was an exploration into how he got that far and some of the people and things that shaped that story. Merle talked about who bad Van had been after the war, how much worse Hitomi was and that she couldn't help this time. Now we know Van snapped at his lowest and hit Merle. Something he would never normally do.
The other crossovers include the Farmer Norcross, a good man that showed Van kindness without reason and would have stayed true to their cause even after Fanelia was lost. The Bandit with the scar across his eyebrow, now we know Van gave it to him and in turn the scar on Van's side was from that night. Princess Eva and Van's engagement was also seen here, along with Merle's friendship with the woman. There are still more bits brought over between the two stories.
War has far reaching effects and just because peace has been called doesn't fix things instantly. Ripples from multiple stones dropped into the water. Crossing, intersecting, and building until it's a web of interactions. We see in this story that the true test of Van as king isn't fighting a war, but healing his broken land in the after math.
I hope you all enjoyed this look into Van's mind and world. This was my first try at a prequel and though a success, this is the final ending. Back to normal continuations for me. I already have the first chapter of my newest story almost finished.