I Know Who I Want... + Part 23 (cont)

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"You only have twenty minutes," the little balding man reminds me for the umpteenth time. "Her Majesty has a lot of meetings today. You should be honored she worked you in on such short notice.

I nod briefly, acknowledging the "honor" I am being granted, while ignoring the implicit criticism of my manners for demanding an audience without proper warning. I step past the servant, disregarding the small sound of exasperation he makes as I again upset his routines. I suppose he wanted to announce me properly.

I don't feel the need for such formality. This is a family reunion of sorts, after all.

At any rate, that is how the meeting is being presented. I was greeted upon my arrival here at the palace by my old name. It made me cringe. Being conveyed along the long hallways was no less of an ordeal.

When Relena undertook the renovations of the palace, she made a point of restoring it to look as much like the original as possible. She availed herself of municipal records that had survived the attack on the kingdom, drew on articles and pictures that had been published in fashion magazines, and even referenced personal memoirs and correspondence of people who had been familiars of our father's court.

Besides, she had Pagan and Darlian's wife to help her. Pagan always knew more about what was going on in the palace than anyone else. He doesn't seem to have changed much.

All of her research paid off. She's created an eerie representation of the palace that stood in this place before the fateful day the Federation arrived. The structure is the same, the interior organization of the rooms is mainly similar - even color schemes and furniture placement in some of the more public rooms is strikingly reminiscent of what it was twenty years ago, when this palace was my home.

Moving through the winding corridors, I have the disconcerting feeling that I have been transported in time. I expect to see... people I once knew around every corner, perched gracefully on the delicately carved chairs, gravely greeting guests in the formal receiving areas.

But none of those I expect to see are there, of course. These newly-sprung passageways have never known their presence.

And at the same time I see the shadow of the graceful days of peace and happiness I once knew here, I see other shadows as well. I see these hallways as they looked strewn with flaming debris, hear the frightened screams of the servants and the anguished cries of the wounded and the dying. I see the fear on the faces of people running for their lives. I smell the odor of burning wood, the exploded metal... the blood.

But that is being overly fanciful. These rebuilt areas never housed any of that. They're clean, empty shells that merely ape the reality that was, the reality that the one who created them never knew.

I wonder why she bothered.

I push the door of Relena's office open, and quietly close it behind me. I catch my breath as I absorb the full affect of the office space.

I've never been in this room since the palace was rebuilt. The renovations weren't nearly complete the last time I was here, on the occasion of Relena's wedding to Heero four years ago. Her desk is set before a wide set of window that look out on the gardens, which have been as meticulously restored at the palace itself. The desk is a mammoth affair - wide and stately, it forms a firm barrier between the monarch behind and the supplicant before it. The office is decorated in shades of blue and purple, which range from a brilliant midnight blue in the velvet curtains surrounding the window to delicate sky blues and lavenders in the exquisite carpet on the floor.

For a moment, the illusion is perfect. So perfect, I hold my breath, expecting to see someone other than Relena sitting at the desk, someone with long white hair and beard rippling down around a patrician face that is at once stern and gentle, majestic and kind.

I start, disoriented, when Relena speaks.

"What a pleasant surprise this is, Milliard," she tells me smoothly, rising from her seat. I stare at her, unspeaking, for a moment. Her slight form, with the honey colored hair that is so different from mine - especially now that she has cut it shorter - is just not the figure I was expecting to see. I force myself to nod, returning her greeting, if silently.

"What a shame I didn't know you were coming. I could have arranged some events to welcome you."

I shake my head, rather stupidly, I'm afraid. Now that she's spoken, now that I've been jostled from my trance of memory, I see that the illusion is flawed after all.

The windows are six inches too high. The desk is made of cherry, not mahogany. The carpet is more square than it should be, and the pattern of the flowers is different.

Also, the view from the window is not quite the same, not precisely the right angle on the fountain. I think she had this wing rebuilt a few feet off to the left.

This rebuilt wonder is a mirage, a beautifully crafted deception. This place may look like the palace of King Peacecraft, but this is not my home.

I feel my resolution return at that revelation. Of course it isn't. My home fell twenty years ago. How foolish to have allowed some construction and interior decor to make me believe otherwise, even for a moment.

"No formal greetings are necessary," I assure her after a bare instant of hesitation. "I apologize for not giving you more notice of my arrival."

"A visit from you is never an imposition," she smiles. I hadn't suggested that I was an imposition. Apparently I am.

"It is rare, though," she points out. She resettles herself in her desk chair, having made no further gesture of greeting than rising.

I nod again. "I have been busy, travelling with my work," I tell her vaguely.

Her eyes narrow. She must know that I haven't been with the Preventers this last year, and in her silence, I sense that she's weighing the pros and cons of asking me where I've been and stretching out the interview or proceeding with my business and removing me as efficiently as possible.

"Understandable," she says, still smiling. "What can I do for you now? Lady Une indicated that it was urgent."

I'm not surprised that she chose expediency. And I note her use of Une's old title. Relena's become very political. It's rather canny, actually, the decision not to refer to Une by her title within the Preventers while at the same time emphasizing the role the woman once held in OZ.

"I wished to speak to you, Relena," I tell her, more bluntly than is my wont.

"Of course," she says politely, waving me further into the room, indicating one of the chairs set before her desk.

I settle myself in the chair, old habit lifting my chin steady, straightening my back and shoulders.

"What do you want to speak to me about?" she prompts after a moment.

I stare calmly at her, trying to assess the best way to approach this topic.

That's probably a futile attempt. I don't believe there is any good way to have this discussion.

"I wanted to speak with you about the Preventers," I declare, deciding that directness is really my only option.

She stiffens slightly, but the expression of polite interest remains firmly on her face.

"Oh?" she asks, her voice still mellow and pleasant. "What about them?"

That's a difficult question. None of her phrasing is helping me to word my own comments diplomatically.

I wonder if that is her intent, or whether I'm just judging her by my own rather cynical standards.

"I have become aware of the debate currently raging in the World Council over the administration of the Preventers," I begin.

She nods.

"I... " I can't allow myself to hesitate. "I don't believe that you have considered fully what Sanc's role should be with the Preventers."

Her eyes harden immediately, and a flush rises in her cheeks. I feel my own eyes narrow. I hadn't expected this type of reaction so early in the conversation.

"Indeed?" she purrs smoothly. "Why don't you educate me on Sanc's place in world politics, Count Marquise?"

Well. She is certainly making herself free with OZ titles today. I am made irrevocably aware that my presence here is completely pointless. She will not heed my comments.

Not that I had expected her to, really. I had not, however, expected her to retaliate so immediately, with such force, before I had even fully presented my arguments.

I recall what Maxwell said about her yesterday at lunch. Apparently, Relena's behavior has been aberrant of late. I'm now seeing the evidence of that charge with my own eyes.

"Sanc is unique among all nations as the birthplace of Absolute Pacifism," I say slowly, choosing my words with care. "Your work in the past promoting peaceful solutions to conflict has only served to bolster the reputation of Sanc as a symbol of peace." I suppose a touch of judicious flattery will not harm my petition. "But the Preventers, though born of Sanc, do not belong to her. Sanc safeguards amity, and tries to help others choose the path of peace." I take a deep breath. I have never spoken so openly about my beliefs regarding the kingdom that could have been my own. "But Sanc does not control the peace, or force it upon others. If she attempts to do so, she negates her own purpose."

I lean forward a little, intent on what I am trying to convey to my sister. "The Preventers have been formed. Sanc is here to guide them, to help them as they grow and develop. But Sanc must step aside and allow that growth to occur naturally, at its own pace. She can not hold it back, or force it to grow into a certain mold. If that is done, the Preventers will never last. Once the force holding them to a certain shape is removed, they will fall."

I stop, leaning back again until I am sitting up straight. I have told Relena what I came to the planet to let her know. I can say no more.

"If I recall correctly, brother," she deliberates, her voice smooth and cold, "you renounced your claims to Sanc."

I nod. "I did."

"You abdicated your position in favor of me," she continues.

I nod again.

"Then why," she purrs smoothly, "do you seem to believe you are in a position to advise me?"

"Sometimes, when very close to a situation, one fails to see it clearly," I tell her as evenly as I can. "An alternative perspective, more detached from the situation, can help bring events into clearer focus."

"So, you're here to help me."

"I am here only to offer you any poor assistance I may be able to give," I say flatly. This visit was doomed from the start as a fruitless endeavor.

"Your... assistance," she repeats.

"Yes," I say firmly.

"So, you're advising me on the ways of Absolute Pacifism," she muses thoughtfully.

I say nothing.

"You - a career soldier, a fighter pilot, a man who attempted the destruction of the planet, are here to lecture me on the proper ways of peace," she continues, mocking incredulity in her tone.

Still, I say nothing. I can not blame her for this reaction. The situation is somewhat incongruous, and she is correct. I can not argue with her suspicion of and scorn for me.

"Am I wrong?" she presses, "or is that the situation as it stands?"

"My only intention is to help preserve the sanctity of Sanc's position... ," I begin doggedly.

She laughs, amazement in her voice. "I am awed," she tells me, "at your self-confidence." She frowns, the amusement fading from her eyes, and when she speaks again, her voice is much harder. "You betrayed the ideals of the Sanc Kingdom," she tells me coldly. "You dishonored the name of our family. How do you have the gall to come and tell me that I am not behaving in a fashion that befits Sanc?"

I sit still, only years of practice keeping me from displaying the shock and pain I feel at her words. It's nothing I haven't heard, or even felt, before. But to hear them so plainly expressed by another, and by Relena...

"You have no right to interfere in the affairs of Sanc," she says icily.

"My only intention is to serve Sanc," I tell her. "You are not serving her best interests, or the interests of peace, by attempting to control the Preventers." Perhaps that last was too forcible, but I must do all I can to make my sister see reason.

She laughs again, her face ugly with scorn. "And you were serving the interests of peace when you targeted Earth for destruction?"

I blink, forcing myself to remain calm in the face of this attack. "My methods were wrong," I admit. "But my intentions... " I stop. "At the time, I thought that was the only way at all to impress, forever, the ideals of peace upon the people. I was wrong," I concede. "But I was attempting to act in the interests of peace."

She makes a sound of disbelief. "You betrayed the ideals of Sanc - the beliefs of our father."

I have no reply. She is right.

"I am attempting to rebuild his legacy," she says coldly. "By overseeing the Preventers, I can assure that... "

I shake my head. "He would not have attempted to dominate the Preventers," I insist, interrupting her. "He would have offered them all the support he could, and would then have stepped back. He would not have... "

She flushes angrily. "I think I am more qualified than you to interpret the wishes of... "

"Respectfully, you did not know him," I proclaim over her, in a louder tone than I have used since I arrived on the planet.

She glowers at me. "That's irrelevant," she insists coldly.

It's not. It is not irrelevant. My father would never have become embroiled in a political dispute of this kind. He always walked away from that type of conflict. He said there were never any winners, and when those in power sat and argued amongst themselves, people suffered. He would never have fought for control of the Preventers.

"I have dedicated my life to the preservation of Absolute Pacifism. You, respectfully," she finishes, her voice bitterly derisive, "have not."

She will not listen to me. But she is wrong in her interpretation of our father's doctrine, and I can not allow her to continue to misapply the lessons he tried to teach.

I rise to my feet. "I'm sorry that you feel that way, Relena," I say expressionlessly.

I incline my head. "Thank you for allowing me this interview."

"Zechs," she calls after me.

Ah. I don't think I will be greeted as ‘Milliard' in the Sanc palace again.

I stop, and turn to face her.

"Sanc is not the place for people like you. You are not needed here," she informs me icily.

I stare at her for a moment, look into the blue eyes seething with frustration and anger and wounded pride. I feel an obscure ache, for I can't reconcile the expression in those eyes with the sunny, impish gleam of the child who had once been the merry, petted darling of the nursery. I can't even recognize within them the steady, idealistic girl who had struggled with such principle to restore humanity to the world.

I don't recognize this person glaring at me across this skewed parody of a dead man's office.

But she is no more a Peacecraft than I am.

I have failed. If Relena has turned her back on the true, selfless drive for peace, then my father's legacy is truly dead.

I incline my head slightly, then turn and leave the office. I will not come here again.

She said Sanc was not the place for me. No doubt she is correct.

But she is wrong in saying that I am not needed here.

Obviously I am, more than I realized.

I must set this turmoil with the Preventers right. If they can survive, perhaps they will carry the ideals of peace into the future.

And I must find out what happened to my sister.

I will discover who is responsible for destroying the child and the girl I knew, and creating the cold, hard woman who has risen in their place.

And when I find them, Zechs Marquise will have his vengeance.

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