[Chapter version: 1.0 Beta-read by Blue Funk]

Chapter 9

Early morning found Dryden Fassa asleep in his main Asturian warehouse. They had been moving all kinds of goods that could be necessary in their mission deep into the night. After that was done, not even the anxiety could keep him awake anymore. He had not slept the previous night already, and not much the one before, either… there was only so much his physical body could handle. He had always put more faith to his mind.

And yet, he miscalculated there, leading everyone to this mess.

He still could not believe that he somehow caused this catastrophe. Well, the path to hell is paved by good intentions, he thought. But he just could not appease himself with that.

When he had been just the spoiled rich son, dealing in art and rarities, everything went smoothly. With the capital and the business concept of his father, he managed to accumulate enough wealth to live a luxurious life without lifting a finger within just a few years. What meant more to him were the memories of travelling Gaea for full five rotations, along with the friends, acquaintances and the knowledge he acquired on the way.

Maybe that was why he was able to give up his precious cargo of treasures so easily: they had been won way too easily. Besides, nothing in the collection could compete with the beauty of her anyway. Maybe with the exception of Sylphie, but he let her go just before that. And not too long after, he had to let go of Millerna, too.

Their wedding was a disaster in its own right, but his decision to leave her wasn't a result of some harsh fate he was befallen with, no. He had to do it, and he fully understood why. Much like the mermaid he had bought, she needed her freedom, or she would wither away in her glass bowl, wondering all her life what the sea was like. Yearning for it.

He could not be the reason for that. No matter how the thought of her not being his pained him, she had to be earned. She would not fall into his lap like his father's riches, nor could she be purchased with them.

She might even remain out of reach altogether.

But he would not admit that option to himself as he was leaving her at the time… he had achieved everything he wanted until then, why would this have been any exception? With his money and wits, it felt like the world he loved to travel around so much belonged to him. But that didn't help anyone. So, he started doing things that made sense to him. Living among the people dealing with the pains of war. Helping the poorest ones.

But even with his Fassa sense for commerce, it dampened him to discover how hard it was to make a profit and stay afloat with the businesses that actually made a difference for these people. And how hard it was to make the help mean something. It was mostly one step forward, two steps back. The daily struggle for a better life. The tables and accountants' ledgers could not provide a clear picture anymore. He was dragging himself through the mud, getting more and more entangled in human suffering of this conflict.

By Jeture, if only the war would stop. It was choking the economy anywhere, unless it was weaponry production. The men were lacking in the fields and the barren land barely sufficed to feed the armies. The more countries became entangled in it, the more difficult it was even to trade food. The war had to be stopped. Unfortunately, he had no means to stop it, as he realized already in his short term as the Prince Regent.

It was other types of people who could bring it to an end. Commanders like Allen Schezar, he had to admit, even in face of their squabbles. And warriors like Van Fanel.

Yes, he did it because of Millerna, but he would always be glad he was there to save the boy. He would be ashamed to admit to anyone now that he did it almost on a whim, but his decision might have preserved the existence of one small country. The king served as the inspiration for Fanelia, and Fanelia meant a flicker of hope for Gaea. If such a small country could oppose Zaibach in some way, the Alliance definitely stood a chance.

He always wanted to spread his activities across the continent but deciding to help Fanelia was an easy choice. Ever since he had saved Van with his money, Dryden knew that enough gidal could, indeed, make difference. When he saw them scrambling to rebuild from what little they had, he became inspired. It was only natural that he wanted to support those efforts. He saw his company's venue in Fanelia as the flagship of his new project. To the small country, it was almost an introduction to international trade; the only thing they had seen before were the occasional merchant caravans. Dryden's leviships, coming on a regular basis, rotating cargo around most of the Alliance countries, and even the South, were something else entirely.

The money he earned from the sale of food in Fanelia wasn't great, as he had to push the prices low to make it affordable in the time of war. It wasn't easy, as all the remaining suppliers around Gaea were increasing the prices. Still, he tried to invest the income back into the community, supporting a few manufacturers that produced a bit for export. He found clever and hard-working people there, if a bit wary of a foreigner like him. The story of him saving their king, which was well-spread by then, helped a lot then. Somehow, it was coming full circle. They had come so far, since the beginning of the war…

And it ended like this. A foreign disease that could wipe away their whole country and others as well, if they were not careful. How could he have been so careless? He knew of the diseases that riddled some countries more than the others but by some stroke of luck, they had avoided him and his employees until now. He had travelled and traded around all of Gaea on this side of the Vast Ocean, so it must have been a great stroke of luck. Careless. That's what he had been. And he was supposed to have taken on such an immense responsibility as ruling the country. Perhaps Millerna, the tomboyish princess, a few years his junior, would have been the responsible one of them.

He caught a glimpse of himself as he passed the mirror and he brushed his fingers through his tangled, unkempt locks. Deciding it would just be a waste of time to do something about them now, he twisted them into a knot at his nape. Maybe he should really cut them, it was more trouble than he realized. They were for fancy men, not men that worked hard into the night. And he would probably go gray soon anyway, with the day-to-day onslaught of small and bigger troubles. Or maybe bald instead, like their king. He entered the washroom and pumped the lever to pour some water into a bowl to wash himself at least.

When he exited the backrooms again, towel still hanging around his shoulders, an unexpected visitor was standing next to the counter.

"Dryden. You are leaving?"

Truth be told, he would rather see some pushy customer right now. But this man was probably not here to buy. He had enough of everything.

"Yes, father. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Do I need a reason to visit my son?" He took a measuring look around the warehouse storefront. "How is the business going?"

"Could be better. Actually, if you could provide me that loan we've talked about, it would be a great help."

"Hn!" Meiden scoffed in an uppity way. "I told you, you are focusing on low-performing areas. If you want to make it work, you have to rethink the whole business model. Why do you turn away from our traditional industries? What's wrong with them?"

"Nothing is wrong with them, father. I just want to do something else. Take the road less travelled by, if you will."

"That road leads to nowhere! It's charity, not business! You will just amass losses if you continue like this."

"It helps the people to survive these hard times," Dryden said, patiently. "They will be thankful and loyal to my companies once the war is over."

"Rubbish. Customers or workers; they will all forget your kindness as soon as they can get a better deal elsewhere," Meiden countered. "If you want to help them, there are other ways!"

"Such as?" Dryden already knew he would regret asking.

"You can be the acting king of this country. Who can help people more? The state has enough funds to help those in need… the tax income is steadier than any other!"

Leaning on the heels of his hands, Dryden drummed his fingers on the countertop impatiently, before he stopped abruptly and crossed his arms. "I thought we talked about this. Leave any business concerning Millerna to me."

"I did leave it to you, didn't I? For years. I have trusted your judgement, but every day you convince me that trust was ill-placed."

"That is a bit harsh, isn't it, father?"

"Harsh? What are your results, objectively?" Meiden threw his arms apart. "We are the laughingstock of the whole court. The king himself is amusing himself at it. He said you as a prince regent had one task. 'And quite a pleasant one. If he is not capable of that, I fear something is wrong with him.'" Good old Aston, Dryden thought.

"If this is what he says to my face, imagine what the court is saying behind our backs!" his father continued. "I cannot even show myself there these days, the humiliation would be unbearable."

"Oh, come on. I didn't know you would pause at what the dumb court says." Dryden said, fully aware that Meiden wasn't here to make light of the situation. Somebody had to, though… The sharp tongues of the snobby noblefolk shouldn't decide his life, no… He wondered if his father suddenly thought otherwise. Meiden Fassa was a self-made man, with enough coin and power to leave many of the traditional Asturian houses in the dust…

"If I didn't, I would never make it all the way up there, to the side of the king," Meiden schooled. "And if you listened a bit yourself, you would know that Aston recently promised Millerna's hand to the Egzardians. As if his own word did not even matter to him!"

promised Millerna's hand to the Egzardians.

Well, that hurt. That hurt a lot. But he could not bow down to his father, even though the pain almost made him want to double over. He collected himself before Meiden could get the upper hand. "And you, someone who knows Grava Aston better than anyone, you are surprised at it?"

Meiden all but stabbed a finger to his chest over the counter. "Dryden, your bride is marrying another, how are you planning to prevent it?"

"If that's what she wants, I cannot really prevent it," he drawled tiredly, wishing he was as indifferent about it as he let on.

"You are my blood, Dryden. Act like it. This engagement has cost me years of effort and plenty of gidal. And you are throwing it all away like a pebble...!"

"I'm sorry, father. But I have more important trouble at the moment," he said absently, reminding himself of what else needed to be done before their departure.

"What could be more important?!" Meiden asked, livid. "This is a decisive time for us, for our family, our future!"

"Nothing you would understand." And nothing you need to know, so that it's in the king's ears before lunchtime. This is none of Asturia's business. "So, I am not going to waste our time. I need to go now…"

"Dryden! I had hoped it wouldn't have to come to this," his father smacked an envelope on the counter. "You are my firstborn, but I swear, if you leave now, you are no longer allowed to call yourself my son! Your times of playing are over!"

"Fine!" Dryden announced jovially, even if he was getting just as angry as his father. Meiden talked to him like he was a foolish child, and he had always, always despised that. He picked up the envelope, sticking it into his robe's pocket. "I don't need your heirloom, father. We can have a purely business relationship. I just hope you will let me at least see my siblings from time to time."

Meiden looked at him as if he didn't recognize him anymore. That disappointment hurt, no matter what he said. It was just that he would rather disappoint his father than himself.

"Don't count on it! You are a bad influence," the older man snarled.

"And proud of that! Farewell, Lord Meiden." Dryden left him with long, determined strides. "If you need something else, my associate will come down to start his shift, soon." Poor Mr. Rat… I fear for his health when he hears of this…

"How could I raise such a fool; I cannot understand it!" he heard his father hiss behind his back.

How could you, indeed? Dryden thought humorlessly as he made his way out of the warehouse and to the airport. I'm sorry, mother, he thought on the way. I hope you at least would understand my reasoning. He knew his father meant business when he talked like this. He would probably see his notary soon, to confirm his intentions of disowning him, because that's what he knew were the contents of the envelope he had been given. Counting on the fact that it would make him budge. But he would not spare another thought to it now, not with thousands of people in need of saving.

There was no way of preventing his mind from coming back to Millerna and her engagement though, as he made his way up the curvy road carved into stone which led to Palas' civilian aerodrome. His warehouse was close, the building chosen just for this convenience. So he just decided to walk, hoping for his mind to clear a bit, before it would have to face the inevitable crisis.

I don't know if I would wait, her voice from his memory said softly. When the rumors reached him about her and Allen, well... that was to be expected. This one less so, but he guessed it should have been. He should be angry, really. Mad with jealousy. But he had no power left to be. It was him who imposed this impossible task on himself, wasn't it? When in the world should he stop trying to deserve someone like her?

Maybe, after he comes back, he should just go talk to her. To congratulate her on her engagement or something. When was the wedding due, anyway? Judging by his own, it could be thrown together quite abruptly, maybe even while he is in Fanelia. But the situation there took precedence over anything now.

He could always elope with her, after all. He could snatch her away from the altar, how about that? Hope should be the last to die, he reminded himself, approaching the Palas civilian air docks. For Fanelia, and for myself, too. He just had some bad luck in timing, he could not be on Fortune's bad side forever, could he? Someday, she must smile upon him again…

"Hurry up! We don't have all day!"

Or maybe, yell at him like this instead? The sight that greeted him stunned him into a full stop.

Nothing short of a goddess was standing there, one hand on her hip, while the other was used to give directions and emphasis to her orders. He watched his crew, including the ship captain, run around like a bunch of obedient pups. They did everything she asked, waggling their tails at her. The crates were all but flying up to the cargo space.

He almost did not recognize her at first, her modest blouse and skirt rather fitting the styles of her older sister and the trademark, pale-blonde hair tied in a thick braid between her shoulder blades. Only her curled bangs and few loose strands framed her pretty face.

She really was there.

"Millerna, why are you here? Where is Master Shaifa?" He watched her turn around, her widened eyes meeting his. Hers were the first to narrow back, though. Dryden had always prided himself in being able to surprise her; well, this time she managed to turn the tables quite well.

"Good morning, Dryden," she chastised him about his lack of proper greeting, "I am coming with you, to assist the Master. Haven't you heard?"

No, he hadn't. The news from the court came by means of his father recently, and it was more than obvious that his father had not known of this. The scene from a while ago became almost comical in Dryden's head. Poor father… he fought so hard for me to stay and try to win Millerna over… Still…

"So you have heard of the unfortunate happenings? Then you know how da-" he began.

"If you have the time to bemoan it, you have time to help carry those crates. Go on! What did you get anyway? Do you have a list somewhere? I brought some more supplies from the city hospital." His notion of this venture being too dangerous for her was swept away, forgotten.

The preparations for leaving went on for about two auras. They loaded plenty of material, even a mobile lab of Master Shaifa. The King of Fanelia arrived at some point, his guymelef ready in the hangar since last night, his face ready to make the milk curdle… since he woke up, Dryden guessed. He decided not to comment on that as he normally would. He should take it easy with him, after all, this would be the hardest on the king and his little companion, probably. Wait, where was she?

"Where is Merle, Your Majesty? Does she know about the situation?"

"She doesn't." Van said, sounding like every word was a strain to get out. "She was so happy to finally get to go home. I didn't want to ruin it. I'll tell her on the way."

"I see. Where is she now?" Millerna asked. "We can use her help. She knows Fanelia well and I'm sure she has come to learn quite a bit in the field hospital."

"She'll be here soon. Just went to the market with Hitomi," Van mumbled. Something about this felt so familiar… his tone usually got like this when…

His jaw all but dropped. "Wait, did you say…?"

"Yes, Hitomi came to Gaea again," Van sounded like he wanted to dismiss the topic as soon as possible.

"Dryden already looked quite shocked when he saw me here," Millerna chuckled. "I would have loved to see his face if it was Hitomi instead."

"She is here? Jeture, suddenly I feel like something big is coming again. Is she leaving with us?"

The king stayed silent.

"No need to worry, Dryden," Millerna patted Van's back. "Thanks to His Majesty here, you won't see her face on this trip, or anywhere near him, if she can help it. You knew very well how your behavior would be recorded by her, didn't you, Van?"

"Yeah," the king replied, looking suddenly quite preoccupied with the tips of his boots.

"Good. Sometimes I wonder if men are even aware of it. Why didn't you tell her the truth instead? She really looked angry with you."

"She is safe, though. And so is my country. Escaflowne and her in one place… that could really attract another disaster. Besides, I had already asked Allen to protect her here."

"She could have helped, you know?" the princess said softly.

"I know," Van admitted, the frown on his face relaxing for the first time. "If she was told, she may have wanted to come," he added silently. It could have also been a sign of exasperation, but...

Dryden watched Millerna's knowing smile, wondering if she thought the same thing he did. Some things never changed.

"Since when did you get so manipulative, King Van?" Millerna asked mockingly.

"It's either get manipulative or get manipulated in this business, you should know that."

"That is quite a thing to say, for someone so young, Your Majesty," Shaifa said. He had just walked over from his cargo inspection to join on their conversation. "Though I must say, it reminded me of the Princess a bit, whenever we talk politics."

"But he's right, you know?" Millerna said. Yes, in the custody of Grava and Eries Aston, one may have such experience. Dryden felt sad, somehow. The Millerna he fell for seemed to be growing up. Guess some things do change, after all.

"Maybe so. Still, you need more of an optimistic approach than that in this situation, especially as the leader of your people. You better show yourself as heartfelt… not a cold, cynical schemer." Van stared intently at the doctor, who just shrugged. "Just advice from someone of an appropriate age to lose hope in the good of the world. If you will take it, Your Majesty."

"I think what the Master is saying is, people would appreciate it if you'd show yourself as a bit of human, Van," Dryden explained.

"With all due respect to your opinion, I don't think you know much about Fanelia, then. I am not there to pity our people… much less to be pitied by them. In my position, I should have the power to resolve these things, even prevent them. That's what our people have always believed."

Dryden understood what he was trying to say. In lands like Fanelia and Freid, the ruler was a sanctified being, above a regular human. The fortune of a kingdom depended on its king. Unfortunately, so did misfortune, something Fanelia suffered enough of in the last few years. The faith of the people in their king, together with Van's position, would suffer because of this. He felt another weight of guilt added to his already heavy heart.

"I see," the Master said, seemingly aware of what Dryden just considered. "It's one of those countries, then. My apologies, Your Majesty. As a ruler of faith, it's destiny itself you must be fighting."

"Something he's not too bad at, eh, Van? At ease, soldier," Dryden smacked his back, earning himself a lethal glare he felt all the way to the back of his neck. It was a bad habit he should control a bit; especially with someone with a body count. He wondered how many backslaps and teasing retorts he had left until Van would feel like it outweighed the fortune Dryden spent on him and snapped. But really, someone had to relieve the tension, it was becoming unbearable and they hadn't even left Palas yet.

They continued to go over some details they knew about the disease, over Fanelia's medical capacities, population composition and such. Until a cover broke on one of the crates that was just brought up, and out poked the bald head of a curious creature. Dryden squinted at it, as it rotated to look around. Balding and round, in clothes dirty from shuffling around (and underneath) the ground. Round glasses in front of his shortsighted eyes... where had he seen this face…?

"Mister Mole! What are you doing here?!" Millerna squealed with joy one wouldn't have expected upon seeing this dubious persona, who had apparently just let himself be carried up to the cargo space. The men were already hissing curses at the beastman, but with a single gesture of her hand the Princess sent them away to carry on with their work.

"I bring a message to you, Your Highness!"

"From whom?"

"Ah, nobody in particular sent me, but I felt like you should know. Thing is, your father, Aston. He doesn't feel so well."

Millerna's face became concerned. "Is he alright?"

"Well. Word is, he was supposed to be sick overnight, but, this morning he and your sister met in his study. Curious, isn't it? After that, Eries ordered the city guard to come and get you. They'll be here any miet now."

"So this was their plan all along. I thought it was way too easy!" Millerna exclaimed. "He had allowed me to go yesterday at the dinner for appearances only. But today he feigns he's not feeling well, preventing me from going. Fine diplomacy, Father…no, in fact, this reeks more of Eries! You said she was the one who gave the order?"

Moleman nodded. "She called the Lieutenant right after she had met the king."

"Very well…" Millerna's pretty face scrunched up in defiance. Dryden was quickly reminded of his dealings with Meiden from this morning. Nothing like being treated like a dimwit by your family, he thought.

"I was surprised myself that he would just let you go. Even if there was no sickness… he didn't even send any guards with you," Van mumbled, and Millerna nodded in agreement. Apparently, there was some sort of plan between the two at play that had allowed her to join on this journey.

"But if I understand correctly, neither your sister nor your father are aware of what is going on in Fanelia," Shaifa said. "If they knew, I am more than sure you would not have been allowed to go in the first place, Princess."

Dryden scratched his chin. "Not necessarily. If they really had planned to stop her from going from the start…" He wondered if Aston's spies had already sniffed out the truth of the matter. "In any case… I sense trouble."

"I agree, Lord Dryden," Shaifa grimaced. "Your Highness. As your Father's personal doctor, I fear I will not be allowed to leave Palas, either. Especially if he is unwell."

"Jeture. I didn't think of that. But I still believe it's all just a plot to keep me in Palas!" the princess scoffed.

The Parsi sighed exasperatedly. "Possibly, but we can't know for sure. If he really was sick… then I am the one that can help him."

"What are you insinuating, Master?" Millerna frowned. It was rare to see her so agitated.

"That you should go to Fanelia and help the people there. Even if I won't be able to go with you."

Dryden watched the play of emotions on Millerna's face.

"You know everything I have to teach you about infectious diseases. We have already talked about what it probably is and how to deal with it," the doctor tried to convince her. "Consider it… a final examination of sorts."

"But I…"

"I have full faith that you can do this. On the other hand, you cannot really help your father. I pray to the gods that I can."

The Mole Man's ears stirred. "The roosters. They're coming, Princess. I better scram."

"You have served me well again, friend," Millerna said, unclasping her simple chain necklace and dropping it into the awaiting mitt. "Hope to see you soon!"

"Peculiar man, this Mole," Dryden couldn't help but note.

"Before all, he is my man," Millerna said, looking more determined than he had ever seen her. "Go on ahead, Dryden," she nodded to him. "I'll come out when I'm ready. Let me handle it, then," she said, resolution clearly written in her eyes.

It was times like these he came to believe the unbelievable, that Grava Aston fathered this beautiful creature. He had no idea what she had planned but she seemed determined to leave, against all odds. Wouldn't be the first time she had escaped Palas against the wishes of her family. And he had no doubt that she would help Fanelia as well as Master Shaifa would. It was, after all, not the first time the Master complimented her skills before him. Of course, usually after Dryden had asked. And he would always ask if the Master didn't bring it up himself…

As he walked down the ramp, the colorful uniforms of the City Guard had already filled the area. An empty carriage was standing not too far away.

"Gentlemen. What business do you seek here on this fine day?" Dryden smiled welcomingly, though it was in fact the memory of the Mole's fitting nickname that curved his lips.

"Dryden Fassa. Is Her Highness, Princess Millerna Sara present here?" the lieutenant, judging by the insignia, asked importantly.

"I believe it was me who had asked first, Lieutenant."

The man frowned but complied. "His Majesty has not been feeling well this night and the news is you are taking his personal doctor with you to Fanelia. The Council of Ministers would like to know the exact reason why."

The realization just dawned on him that if something happened to Millerna in Fanelia or to Grava in Palas while Shaifa was away, the very same Council may very well charge him with high treason. Much like they did with Allen Schezar when he went on to warn Freid about the coming Zaibach invasion that Aston just graciously let pass. How easy it is to become a traitor to your own country trying to do the right thing, huh?

"Is that so?" Dryden's hand found its way to his chin out of habit. "I regret to hear that… but surely, we could not have foretold…"

"He is stabilized now. But the Parsi did not get permission to leave." Of course not, Dryden thought. He would be too proud to even ask. "I am the one who had invited the Master to serve at the court, but I believe he is not a citizen of Asturia, and as such, he is a free man to travel."

"Not when our king's health is in jeopardy!" the commander of the guards bristled.

"It will be just a few days in our allied country. The Asturian doctors are surely qualified enough to assist His Majesty in the meantime."

"The Parsi doctor is requested, specifically."

Damn, Dryden thought. This didn't look good at all. Why were they so hard after Shaifa? Could it be that old Grava really had some mishap? Or were the Ministers so attached to this foreigner? The chances of leaving with him looked bleak. He briefly considered looking for another capable doctor to help out Millerna… no… it would get them stranded here for another day at least… when the time was of utmost essence. Surely there were some healers in Fanelia who could help out.

Millerna came to his rescue then, coming down the ramp of the leviship, together with Master Shaifa, and his assistant.

"Really, Dryden. The Lieutenant is right; you bring a doctor to tend to my gravely ill father, and then you just decide to drag him away when he's needed?! Unthinkable..." She turned to Shaifa, "I am sorry, Master. You will have to wait another time to visit Fanelia."

"I must agree…" Shaifa said, playing along. "My decision may have been, uh, made in too much haste. I will see to it that I am on hand for anything His Majesty needs."

"Please come with us, Master," the Lieutenant asked.

"I am coming, no need to be so dramatic about it," the small man waved the Lieutenant off. "Otherwise I may really start feeling like a prisoner here, in this free city…"

Dryden thanked him with his eyes as Shaifa unhurriedly passed him to get up in the carriage. His assistant found his way to its back without the effort one would expect from a blind man.

"Your Highness… I have the orders to bring you back as well, under the present circumstances… Surely, King Fanel would understand," Lieutenant Rooster started.

"Who gave you the order? My father?"

"No, your sister. Princess Eries."

"Interestingly put, then. Are you aware of my position against that of my sister?"

"My apologies, but…?"

"But what, Lieutenant? I am the crown princess. So, unless it's coming from my father, who you said was indisposed, I take orders from no one."

Dryden whistled inwardly. This was exactly - and at the same time, not at all - the tomboy he had met many years ago. The way she stood her ground made his love for her swell, if that was even possible. Eries would regret forgetting about that little detail.

"But Your Highness, please reconsider. Your Father could not-!" stuttered the Lieutenant, apparently not expecting such an answer either.

"I think Father was conscious this morning, was he not?"

"Yes, I believe he was… your sister, she acted only as-"

"Well, in that case, I have thought it through enough." The Princess concluded.

He saw the soldier glare, probably judging Millerna for her selfishness, leaving the country in such a situation for what he could see only as a whim of a spoiled princess. When she was, in fact, being the most selfless Dryden had ever seen her. Leaving her deathly-ill father, to put herself among the danger for the sake of the people… who were not even her own countrymen!

This was not Millerna, the spoiled princess. This was not even Millerna, the Royal Heir, because that one would not put her lineage and succession into jeopardy among the diseased. This was Millerna, the doctor, who by her oath and conscience could not let the innocent suffer.

Once the carriage and the flock of guards were out of sight, Dryden couldn't help but put a hand to his face. "Now what…?"

"Now we go, what else?" she started stomping back up the ramp.

"But… Millerna! This is a very serious…!"

"Are you saying it is above my skill level?" She stopped right in her tracks and knitted her delicate eyebrows at him.

"No, Jeture… no!" He scratched his head awkwardly. Millerna's beauty often had this very inconvenient effect of rendering him speechless… well, compared to his usual standard at least. "I'm just worried for your safety, is all."

"I know how to prevent getting that disease better than anyone on this ship. I already took precautions. Which you and your crew should have done in the first place, then we wouldn't be where we are!"

He breathed out a regretful sigh. "I know. I pity that I didn't look into it more than you can imagine."

"Come on. First time I see you after such a long time, and you make such a face, Dryden. Where have your confidence and optimism gone?" Despite her teasing words, Millerna's tone actually got kinder. Yes, he had avoided meeting her, and it seemed she had noticed that. Especially when the business was difficult, when he saw children starving, women selling themselves, and broken, haunted soldiers returning from war, and when there was little he could do, he would rather not have her be the witness of how he felt. He had felt like the despair would be carved into his face like a name on a tombstone. It seemed he would be given no choice this time.

But seeing her resolve and little hesitation, a thought appeared in Dryden's head. He had wanted to protect her from all the suffering, but she may well be more ready to face it than himself.

She was not a sheltered princess; how could he forget that? He got to know her as the stubborn orphan, who had lost some of her most important people to premature death. She had witnessed the war and tended to its victims. She had studied medicine under master Shaifa for years already now… Millerna was, indeed, the one who was better-suited for this kind of crisis.

It didn't mean he would be less worried about her, because gods, she would be treating all those deadly-ill people.

He would really go gray, and sooner rather than later.

"Maybe, if you didn't act way too familiar for what you are, you could have come, you know?" Merle finally broke the silence about the whole matter. This morning, they had both packed for their respective trips, ate breakfast together, but none of them would start on the topic. Until now, while they were already on the way to the airport.

"Who says I wanted to come?" she grumbled.

"I don't know, someone who always sneaks around and picks fights with Lord Van?" Picks fights? Did Merle know about the disaster of a talk they had shared after she had visited Folken? How? Oh wait… she left town to go look for him, they must have met right before Van went to get Cyrien. She knew. And she dared to call her sneaky?

"Did you… eavesdrop again, you cat bandit?! Don't tell me you are still jealous," Hitomi used a mocking tone, even knowing she was stepping onto thin ice. The annoyed catgirl stopped walking in front of her and swayed her tail from side to side, in what could only be interpreted as an annoyed manner. All of a sudden, in quite the usual fashion, she turned around and without any respect to personal space, she planted her face in front of Hitomi's, dark blue eyes full of accusation and anger.

"Shouldn't I be?! Aren't you still following Lord Van around? Even after he has all but told you not to bother him anymore. You sneak into his tent at night and continue to provoke him on every possible occasion. So why exactly shouldn't I be jealous, huh, Hitomi?"

Angry fire lit the pit of her stomach. What was the catgirl thinking? She was really getting to her. She was only trying to help and had to endure not only the horrendous attitude of the king, but also outrageous implications like these? Without too much thinking, she spat back furiously, finding it hard to even form the words.

"Why would I... Who would...?" she sputtered furiously, "Why shouldn't you be jealous? Let me tell you why. Because I'm not insane! Because I do not particularly enjoy suffering!"

"Doesn't much seem like it, with the way you keep throwing yourself in harm's way," interrupted a voice from behind her, in a tone that lacked the amusement or sarcasm the sentence implied.

What. The. Hell. Where had he come here from, of all people? The anger mixed with mortification and colored her face. How much of the conversation had he heard? The question gripped her stomach uncomfortably. And why should I care? another part of her supplied. Serves him right to know! No female in her right mind would touch that with a ten-foot pole. And if he doesn't know that, he should know. That inconsiderate, ingrateful, arrogant...

"No one has asked you for your opinion, Your Majesty," she was turning around to face the music, but her low hiss was lost in the high pitched "Lord Vaaaaan" from the catgirl who apparently did preserve many of her older antics. Merle had successfully hooked herself into Van's elbow, her irritable mood miraculously transformed into pure bliss. Well, she hadn't met him much since he had returned from the battle. Or rather, he had not come to see her properly, the gem that he was.

Considering that she herself ran into Van twice without intending to, it looked like he must have been actively avoiding Merle.

She remembered that the catgirl only received a message from him yesterday, before the dinner. Hitomi had no idea what it was about until she found out about their imminent departure in the garden. Merle never said anything about leaving either...

Oh, she got it, she was really unwanted in Fanelia, alright.

"Don't sneak up on people like that," huffed Hitomi, feeling like venting some of her anger.

"Didn't think you would seek privacy in the middle of a street," he dismissed, not even looking at her as usual.

"She is a pure nutjob, Lord Van, I swear!"

"That's enough, Merle. Apologize," he said, but Hitomi didn't feel much resolve in that.

"Forgive me Hitomi, but you are totally insane."


"Lord Van, I'm just happy we are going to Fanelia! Finally!"

None of her joy reflected in the king. Why were they going there, anyway? She thought he wouldn't leave his precious battlefield if his life depended on it. Right… as if it didn't. The battle was over, but surely there was still fighting going on somewhere else?

"Why the sudden change of mind, something more important than the war came up?" she asked, using a sarcastic tone. Merle didn't like it from the looks of it… Don't forget I know where your buttons lie too, kitty.

Van, on the opposite, totally ignored her jab. "My advisors requested my presence. There is some conflict between the factions going on. Crops are in danger… again. And the problems won't stop piling on… ever." Something was off about the way he said that, though she could not put a finger on it.

"Yeah, you seem to be forgetting Lord Van has a country to rule, Hitomi."

"I remember that, don't you worry." From the murderous glare she immediately started receiving from the catgirl, she put way too much emphasis on the first word of that sentence. Oops.

She dared a glimpse at Van, then. And was surprised to find him looking at her for once, but it didn't seem like he was seeing her, really. For the second time in a short while, she felt a pang and wondered if she overdid it. Silly Hitomi, do you think he considers something like that for a second when he treats you like dirt? Nah, he's too high and mighty for that.

"You have your bag?" he interrupted her thoughts. She hurried to correct him in case he thought she was trying to leave with them.

"Yeah, I'll go with Merle to the hangar and Gaddes will take me to Allen's mansion from there. We agreed staying at the palace alone makes no sense anymore."

She waited for his reaction. Or rather, she waited for an excuse, an explanation, something. But of course, it never came.

All that did was just a bland 'I see'.

Hitomi was so angry with him she even surprised herself.

He looked ready to leave them, when he glanced back at her. "I'm going to the air docks now; you can come as well. You don't need to be dragged around the market."

What a generous offer. Agreeing to it would probably mean a long, and certainly awkward walk. Even the catgirl, currently looking very bristled in her displeasure, was more agreeable company.

"Thanks," she snarled. "But actually, I think I'd like to visit."

"Fine, then," He turned back, all too quickly. Was he relieved? Even if not, she knew him not to be the one to try and change someone's mind.

"Since when is that?" Merle mumbled. "You were moaning about having to go with me all the way from the palace… And suddenly you're keen on visiting."

Hitomi elbowed her. "That was a problem with you, not the market itself."

"The ship is leaving in an aura, don't be late," Van grumbled back at them.

"Well, it's Dryden's ship, so more like two or three," Merle chuckled.

"I said one. Don't be late."

Merle's face got serious within a split of a second. "Yes, my lord." The catgirl grabbed Hitomi's arm and started to pull her in the other direction, making her almost stumble.

"Geez, don't you say you run for a living or something? C'mon, I still have a lot to do!"

The 'important things to do' turned out to be getting some quite everyday stuff. Quite a bit of the nice Asturian soaps, tea from the South, spices, some dried leaves from the apothecary… Hitomi patiently waited while Merle restocked on other medical supplies, chemicals, then buttons and sewing supplies. Asturia's fabric industry production seemed to be transformed partially into bandages and such quite a bit over the war, so there was a lot of practical items to be had. Merle even got some tools and small novelty items that were offered by the craftsmen.

The only link Hitomi could find in all that… was that she was buying stuff that Fanelia did not have? She didn't get much of a supply of anything though, it seemed she was getting just samples of most of the things.

In the end, she stopped by the stall she spent so much time on the last time they had visited the market together.

"Is Elias here?" she asked the middle-aged man in charge of the stall. Hitomi could not pinpoint why, but he looked like the sailors she saw around her hometown.

"Went about," he waved his hand in an unspecific direction. "He may be back soon, though. Left the package of what you asked last time, so you may take it, missy!"

"Damn," Merle said. "I was hoping he would help me carry it to the air docks. When do you think he'll be back?"

The sailor-looking guy shrugged.

She looked at the huge packet, at Hitomi, at the packets they already had, then at the packet again. Frankly, Hitomi felt overburdened already, her fully-packed duffle not helping.

"Alright. I'll take a look around, still have some time. Maybe he'll appear. Can you watch our purchases in the meantime?"

"Sure!" The man gave a lighthearted shrug.

"I should have asked Lord Van to come, but someone is bound to recognize him and he would be surrounded by some groupies again," Merle mumbled to her. "Hero this and hero that…"

"The 'groupies' could have been helpful in carrying all your stuff, too. You could employ the whole regimen with all this junk you got. What do you need all that for?" Hitomi asked.

"This 'junk', as you lovingly named it, is worth drag-energists in its weight in Fanelia, more even. We don't have this stuff, hell, we didn't even know it existed not too long ago. And the people who still have some money or who can replicate the technology are willing to pay a nice gidal for it. Plus, we need to have some nicer stuff at the castle as well, otherwise, we may as well stop calling it a castle already!"

"But who pays for all of it?"

"It's from Van's personal appanage, which he frankly couldn't care less for, as long as he has that damn uniform on his back and something on his plate. I am the holder of the majority of said funds. And this way, I can make it double, triple even, with a good haul. Don't tell the old geezers in Fanelia, though," she flashed her a toothy grin.

"Wow," Hitomi could only say. She had to admit that Merle was surprisingly resourceful. She apologized for underestimating her, albeit only mentally.

This time, Merle seemed to focus on the jewelry, pausing by the stalls and appraising brooches, necklaces and the like. It looked like no fake gold would pass by her. She purchased a few small pieces, sticking them safely somewhere behind her wide belt.

Finally, she saw a seller putting up a new golden necklace to his collection. It immediately caught Merle's attention.

"Hmm?" Suddenly, she saw a menacing glint in Merle's eyes. "This is Mil- uh, my friend's! I saw it on her! Where did you get this?"

"Really? That fellow just sold it to me!" The wolf man pointed to the stall across the road. The head of the accused dipped between his shoulders.

Wait... She knew that old man!

Merle practically crossed the street in one agile jump, grabbing the offender by his long whiskers and dragging him, hobblingly, to the stall. Then she proceeded to smack his face, quite violently, against the fabric-covered table, his eyes a palm's width away from the thick chain.

"What is the meaning of this?!"

"The meaning of what?" the old man feigned innocence. Merle was having none of it.

"I know who this belongs to!"

"Nooo, must be a similar one?!"

"As if! You can't fool someone who has an eye for that, you smelly sack of dirt!"

In other words, you can't cheat the cheater, huh? Hitomi sighed inwardly as she watched the exchange. Both of these people tried to steal her pendant in the past. That one was still safe in her bag though; she had checked on it as she was packing this morning.

"She gave it to me! I swear! Aaaah!" Mole Man howled as Merle continued her violent ministrations. Then his small watering eyes found her. "Ah, little lady, you are here, too! Please help an old frie–nd!" He howled as his whiskers were pulled again

"When did she give it to you?" Hitomi asked calmly.

"Just a while ago, at the air docks. Lord merchant was there, so was the king! You can ask them!"

"I think he's telling the truth, Merle. Should we be causing such a ruckus here?"

"I'd prefer you wouldn't, miss," the seller said. The other wolfmen looked quite bristled, their noses scrunched up. She was not exactly sure if their anger was pointed at Mole Man for possibly selling them stolen items, or Merle, who attracted the unwanted sort of attention of the whole street.

"Merle. How about Mr. Mole helps us carry the supplies to the air docks and we can clear this misunderstanding there?"

"That's not too bad of an idea, coming from you, Hitomi," the catgirl finally released the pained beast man. He fixed his heavy backpack with the usual shovel sticking out of it. There was barely any change about him from the past few years.

"But I just walked all the way from there," his shoulders slumped.

"That won't be necessary," the boy Merle had been looking for came up to them, pulling a cart behind him. All of their belongings, including the large box, were already loaded on it. "I'll take you there, Miss Merle!"

"Elias. Where the heck have you been?" Merle hissed.

"I'm sorry. I got taken up a bit," he tilted his head, the earring twinkling in his hair. Hitomi observed him curiously. This time, he wore a headscarf that must have been white once, but compared to his brilliant pale hair, it looked dull and grayish. Similar discoloration was happening on his loose shirt and pants… they looked clean, just well-worn. The only thing giving away the shape of his body a bit was a fitted dark vest. Unlike the last time, he looked entirely human. His face was tanned like the man's at the stall, his voice sounding young and cheerful.

"Alright, let's go, it's high time we did! You got lucky this time-" she turned to the Mole Man. "Eh, where did he go? That excuse of a-"

Hitomi did not worry about Mr. Mole leaving without saying goodbye. He had the habit of appearing at the most unexpected times, so she was sure they were bound to meet again. Especially since she was staying here in Palas.

It was a bit of a relief as they finally got on their way. This already felt like a long day, and it was still before noon. She felt like she would enjoy a bit of that "pampering" Allen had promised her at his villa.

They talked a bit, mostly Merle and the boy. She came to know that he served on a trading ship as a rigger. He explained to her that his usual station was high on the masts, releasing the sails and being on the lookout in the crow's nest, helping out with the navigation. They were docking and dealing in port towns quite often, which felt like a "holiday" to him, he admitted. And most often, they chose Palas, as the commerce hub of the continent. That's how the two of them met.

Hitomi felt like Merle was being unfairly rude to the boy; he looked to be nice, even though there was something about him that her intuition picked up on. From the looks of him and his mate at the stall, she suspected that their trading business could be quite one-sided, otherwise known as "piracy". But she may have been simply misled by their looks.

As they finally climbed the winding road to the flat that served as the airport, she spotted Gaddes pacing nervously back and forth around the hangar, where Crusade could be seen docked for maintenance, she supposed. Right, he probably expected her to come a bit sooner, she realized guiltily. Perhaps she should have taken Van's offer and skipped the whole market detour. She just caused the Sergeant to worry about her, but he could not leave their arranged point of meeting to search for her, either. The world without mobile phones and pagers was a difficult one. She made a mental note to apologize to him for the trouble.

In the distance, she also saw what must have been Dryden's huge leviship, still anchored. She said quick goodbyes to Elias and Merle and wished her a safe journey. Despite everything, she would miss her, Millerna, and the others. She didn't even get to meet Dryden, and wondered if she would get another chance. But she did not feel like going to greet them right now.

Instead, she proceeded to finally meet up with Gaddes, who led her inside her hangar after she had apologized for her lateness.

"No worries, I still need to finish up with Crusade. I got worried that something may have happened to ya, when I saw Fassa's ship about to leave and you were nowhere to be seen," the sergeant scratched his head.

"Then it's my own fault, isn't it? Take all the time you need!"

"No worries, just sit down inside the hangar for a bit. Should not take long, but at least you'll take some rest. Hope you didn't get too tired of walkin', little lady. It's still quite a bit to the Schezar estate. Perhaps I should have taken a horse, but I prefer walking, to be honest!" The sergeant winked and disappeared inside the ship again.

Hitomi sat down on a bench next to the small office that was next to the entrance to the hangar. She peeked inside, seeing some navigation maps, unknown machines and ledgers. She sighed.

She always appreciated Gaddes' kindness but could not help but feel a bit left behind. She already wasted all her curses at Van, but really. Could not Millerna interfere? She knew she was being selfish; after all, the princess had been rightfully upset about her fiancé yesterday night. But could she not oppose Van and ask him to allow her to go? No, none of them seemed to be too bothered by her staying behind. She could leave for Earth while they were gone for all they knew; not one of them even said proper goodbyes to her… her mind went down a dangerous slope of self-pity.

But at least somebody got to stay with Allen, who seemed to be stranded in Asturia for the time being. Oh yeah, somebody does get to stay... alone, with him, her inner voice helpfully supplied. For whose sake was this again?And was he really alone there? Maybe Gaddes was staying at the villa, too? Somehow, even asking him that seemed awkward. Gaddes, do you stay at Allen's, too?


Didn't it already sound like, Cause you know, if you didn't, it would be just the two of us…if you catch my meaning? It was driving her crazy all of a sudden. What in the hell was wrong with her? A few days with Allen. What could happen? With your stupid childish crush on him? In his mansion? With what you already know of his history with women? Geez, I don't know, Hitomi.

There was no use lying to herself; part of her longed to become closer with him again, and this was a perfect opportunity. Still, she would have hoped it would be under a bit more… regular circumstances. Staying at his mansion somehow put her into quite a vulnerable position.

Damn. Why was she becoming nervous about this now? Allen was a friend, first of all. I feel safer with him than with anyone else here…

They could be just friends, couldn't they? Hopefully he felt the same now…

But do you?

She sighed. At least he did seem to care about her reputation now, if all these precautions were an indication. She still remembered how he declared her his lover at Castelo… a "new lover", precisely. She did understand his motive of protecting her from Zaibach… but… did he really have to do that? No, it was all Van's fault, alright. If he hadn't convinced Gaddes to let them out, if he hadn't lashed out, Dilandau would never have noticed her. Everything bad that ever happened to her here usually somehow came back around to that reckless fool. She would do well to stay away from him, have to give him that …

A duo of the hangar employees made their way to the office, not paying her any attention. Probably thought she was someone of Gaddes' crew. The pants really helped: with them and the loose jacket she wore now, she could pass as a young boy in the dark of the hangar.

"Our future queen… oomf… what a feast for the sore eye!" Hitomi resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She hoped she would not become witness to some pervy men-talk concerning her friend.

"Name: Lyseide. Owner: Dryden Fassa. Destination: Fanelia. Time of departure: aura of Peiras, eighty miets… the same man mumbled out loud as he wrote the data down in a huge book.

"The true beauty is that ship, I tell ye. The best Fassa money can buy!"

"Fassa money couldn't win over Her Highness, so much for the winner of that beauty contest," the other man snickered. Eeeek? It dawned on her that she never realized her friends here were the equivalent of Earth celebrities. Yeah, Merle said so herself at the market, didn't she? In the sense that everybody knew them and the rumors around them served as popular entertainment. Besides them being major figures in Gaean history already, she guessed.

Somehow, I befriended a group of idols... wonder what you'd say about that, Yukari? She just hoped she was not included in those rumors and stories. Anyway, at least nobody seemed to recognize her face.

"Really? But she just left with him for Fanelia, didn't she? I bet we have not seen the last of the Merchant Prince."

"It's been years. Must be over, that."

"So, ye up for that bet?"

"What, you short on money again? Perhaps you should have let Fassa employ you, heard he pays a good penny," the other man chuckled. "Besides, you already seem to be a fan of him."

"Lord Dryden is generous. But no money would make me go to Fanelia right now. Haven't ye heard what his crew said?"

"Your face is giving me the creeps. Is that so bad?

"Not gonna lie, it is some nasty disease. Saw it down south, when I was still serving the ships. Got people falling like flies. If it has already spread in Fanelia, it may already be over for them when they arrive…"

Her heart rate increased. Fanelia was in danger of a disease. Which is why, she assumed, Millerna the doctor chose to go.

Oh. Suddenly, several things clicked into place. Asturia is safer for me, is it?

Could this be the true reason? More importantly, could there be a way for her to be helpful in this? Contagious diseases, huh? Cholera… measles… smallpox… which could it be? Her brain called forth the textbook images of black death, plague doctors and mass graves, which only increased her anxiety. She had no deep knowledge of it, but maybe she could know something they didn't. Were they even aware of the existence of microbes? Did they know they had to stay away from each other, did they know about disinfection? During history lessons, she remembered thinking how preventable these diseases were, the people just lacked the knowledge… and died by millions for it.

Most of all, she sympathized with Fanelians. From what she knew, they were good people. Why did so much misfortune befall them?

She looked out of the hangar gate. The ship was still there, but not for long, she imagined. They had a clearance to leave, after all. The cargo space was still open though and the anchors were not yet released. Hitomi needed to make a decision, and quickly. She knew she should be telling someone… at the very least Allen. She was sure she would make him worry, again. But this could not be ignored. And she would not be able to just lounge in the knight's mansion while her friends were in danger in Fanelia.

Like many times before, she chose to run, her eyes latching onto the still open hatch as a goal line.

This could be the reason why I'm here… she accelerated with a new resolve.

"Oi! What is it…?" The sound of her footsteps must have alerted Gaddes inside the Crusade. But she could not look back right now.

Focus. Give courage.

She pushed herself to the limit and sprinted to reach the aircraft on time.

Fly. She capped her sprint with a jump and flung herself on the elevating ramp. One leg up, a heave, and she was up on it, its closing mechanism helping her crawl onto the cargo space as the machine released its anchors, letting the levistones elevate it up to the sky.

She looked out of the slowly closing hatch and saw Gaddes run after her away from the hangar. They were already gaining height. The sergeant realized and slowed down, eyes wide and palms turned to the sky in question.

"Gaddes!" She screamed from top of her lungs to overpower the sound of the starting propellers. "Tell Allen I'm sorry! I had to!" The Sergeant nodded; his surprised expression replaced by a reconciled smile. She watched his form shrinking, reminding her of her past experiences with travelling by the light pillar.

She lay down, limbs spread, on the metal floor, letting out a breath she had not realized she was holding. She really did it now. The sudden release of adrenaline in her system made her chuckle wildly.

Hello, how is it going, everyone? The ninth chapter is here! It is super-lengthy again and it was quite a bit of work, but here we are… hope you enjoyed the little twist at the end? I delayed it for as long as possible, so I wonder if I was fooling anyone or not at all...? I want to thank Lera again for all the work editing the chapter and her lovely ideas *job done higfive*. And of course the readers who keep commenting, you're the best! I absolutely love reading your thoughts and knowing you enjoy the fic.

Chapter notes:

This is the only Dryden POV currently planned, so I tried to make it really count! He has some hard trials both behind him and ahead at this point. I love his character as it is in the series but I guess even he would be a bit dampened by the grim reality of ongoing war… especially if he committed himself to "becoming a better man" and to "live among the people".

Gaean universal currency is called gidaru, or at least that's how it appears in the official subs. I changed it slightly to gidal that would be the same in katakana but reads better to me. Gidal's value is tied to the energist mineral (think of gold standard), which is why you see also that comparison being made at some point.

Aura is a period of time on Gaea I made up, similar to miet that is present in the series itself. There is also the mention of (the hour of) ripla as a specification of time, so it seems that there is a different time-measuring system in place, possibly inspired by the Zodiac clock used in Japan before they accepted the Western time. Aura should therefore be a period of about two hours. I made a longer post about this on the visarcana tumblr.

I was glad to bring Mole Man back as a minor character! He really works well as a plot device heh heh. Plus the couple of mysterious sailor guys… will they reappear?! Who knows! (I sure should, eh?)

I really dig the idea of Merle being very practical and resourceful (where Van isn't)! I think I accepted as a headcanon already that she really does sew Van's destroyed shirts. There are more pointers to this, for example, the novels say she also cuts his hair. Some other book said she is his "servant", I like that way less... Anyway, brains, dexterity, home economics; she is the full package!

Hitomi stood a bit up for herself this chapter, didn't she? Being mean to Van was just reciprocal, she really is mad at him but as usual, they just keep missing each other's peace offerings. I can only ask you to bear with me still at this point… The ending of this chapter on the other hand should represent that she made a decision for herself and decided to go through with it on her own! And even though it's going to be risky and difficult, at this moment, she still is elated.

By the way, the reason she says "fly" when she starts running is that the expression that Amano uses when he gives her the tips for running (which she still repeats in her head) means both "run out" and "fly out". Not sure if it was intentional, but I'm lovin' it!

Anyway, we are now flying to Fanelia, where everything (and everyone) is gonna get tested! Please send positive vibes cause there's a lot of difficult writing ahead...