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Caradryan

[FE9/10]Beneath Azure Skies

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Will occasionally update this piece here, though FF.net or my Livejournal would be a better bet.

Renewed shall be a rose that was once broken, finding true love alongside her queen...

Long ago, a fellow bard of Crimea told me a story. At first glance, it was like any other - a narrative of wars and shifting alliances. It was a tale of good triumphing over evil, and a saga of a gathering darkness that threatened to engulf the land once more.

Yet, at the innermost core of the story, termed "Beneath the Skies of Crimea," there was something else. Something that cannot be stifled by darkness and human hatred, no matter how bleak the situation looked. Stripping the story to its barest basics, and it was clear. It was about love. The love between a knight and his queen, and of the same between a count and his childhood love.

It has been many, many years since I've last told this story - my memory, I'm afraid, is not what it once was. I will give you my finest effort - nothing more, nothing less.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

So! Sit back, relax, and I shall begin my tale. Please, go right ahead and make yourself comfortable.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Author's notes (06/20/2009): Most likely, I'll have more to add and edit in this little blurb. Beneath Azure Skies is a long ongoing piece featuring the Crimean characters (which are, unfortunately, woefully underused). You could probably guess who's paired with who, though.

The story moves rather slowly, especially at the beginning, but the pace is quickly picking up. There are a ton of references everywhere - from Arthurian myths to Tolkien to even certain works of anime. Keep your eyes open if you're the type who enjoys delving deeply into a story!

P.S. Many thanks go to Yuurei and Misheard for critiquing the initial work, and Manna for proofreading. There are spoilers, as this story is post RD. The story touches on some heavy themes and elements that may not be suitable for the average 10 year old.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Even after all the time she spent there, the Crimean Palace was still a difficult place to navigate. Lucia sighed as she strode across the ancient building, her light footfalls echoing in the gilded hallway. A single lone flame guided her way as she pushed opened a pair of heavy oaken doors. Her soft white robe swished around her ankles as she peered into the faintly illuminated darkness.

Her destination, the "book room", was a favorite hangout of the scholars and mages at court. Hidden away in the north tower, the circular library was paved with black, mirror-like stones from Goldoa. Countless shelves arranged in neat patterns lined the room, their polished wood inviting all who passed to take a quick peek. All manners of subjects, from the arcane arts to more mundane topics such as botany can be found here. During daytime, the fourteen single-panel windows flooded the room with sunlight. In evenings, a thousand candles often lit the room as sages poured over dusty tomes. The royal library was austere and contemplative, its silence a boon for tired souls who went there to escape the chaos that is war.

But now, the room was dark, and completely silent. The hour was late, and no studious mage sat at the long reading tables. The dark recesses of the corners seem almost haunting as the swordmistress scanned through the shelves quickly, searching for a particular book.

Ah, there it is.

Her gaze landed on a loosely bound text as she carefully fished it out from the tightly packed shelf. Yvina, the Lady of the Lion was Lucia's favorite epic poem. Despite her usual demeanor, the young woman underneath the cold mask was more emotional than many would think. She loved to read – especially tender stories or idyllic poetry. There was a certain enchanting quality found only in the chivalric romances, and no other type of fiction could lure her in like they did. On nights when she couldn't sleep, she would often retreat to private corners and engross herself in their world, where she could be immersed in fantasy and momentarily escape from the world.

The more studious mages of the Palace could often find her there early in the morning, dozing contently with a gentle smile on her face and a yet unfinished tale draped across her legs. She always felt a little wary and vulnerable about being discovered in such a state, but she couldn't really help it.

Lucia. You should smile more! She could hear Calill's good-humored voice as she chastised her. The older woman often comes in earlier than the others to watch the sunrise. You're really pretty when you do, you know? Stop being so serious; it'll help with your complexion.

She was always the quiet one, saying little and sticking with only words that are necessary. Little did they know the burdens that she carried would be enough to forever erase joy from many other beings. The truth was, she wasn't sure if she knew how to be happy again. A little piece of her - the piece that was full of joy and hope had vanished forever, broken during the Crimean Civil War.

The chair creaked as she snuggled into her usual seat, its comfortable velvet cushions welcoming her familiar weight. The young woman began reading intently as she hid underneath a bundle of flimsy yet soft silk. Silence enveloped her; it was as if the entire world was asleep.

Tonight, she shall dream once more.

It was not until a few pages in that she noticed that there was something else on the table. Unlike the laguz, she had little night vision. Holding the candle above her head, Lucia noticed a small misplaced tome on the table.

Ooh, some mageling's going to get a lecture from Bastian tomorrow, she thought as she placed the candle back onto the table as she turned the page. Bastian, the Count of Fayre, was a particular stickler for keeping order in the library. A kind man at heart, he was nonetheless strict about things he cared about.

"The books serve you, friends, like faithful hounds to their master. Forsooth! Have the good heart to return them to where they belong, for a good volume is a friend in need, able to keep ye company for many good hours, whether be wintry frost or blazing summer…"

She smiled lightly at the mental image. Elegant, verbose, and talkative to a fault, the master tactician of Crimea could be quite merciless at times. Like a poet reciting poetry, he was nothing like her brother, who was often blunt to the point and stressed all the time. The two men were friends, yet they had radically different outlooks. Ironically, Bastian was the epitome of knightly behavior – or so he claimed. While it was true that he was honorable, chivalrous and acted every inch the proper cavalier, he was really annoying. Come to think of it, he was also extremely persistent – having pursued her romantically for the past…how many years now? She had lost count.

I wish he'd just shut up for once and talk normally.

Brushing aside a lock of stray aquamarine hair, Lucia put the poem aside. As much as she appreciated the attention, sometimes she wondered what exactly it was that he saw in her. Compared to the other ladies at court, she was a tomboy. Her "womanly curves" were almost nonexistent, as they were replaced by slim, well-toned muscles that were more appropriate on a cavalier than a woman. Surely a Count would have much better taste? She, like her brother, was blunt and to the point, often throwing aside veils and disguises in preference for the cold truth. She was nothing like the docilely pretty or mindlessly obedient wives of many of the other members of nobility.

Whether or not it was true that she was beautiful in her unique way, as a good friend often told her, she didn't care much. For one, she didn't exactly see herself as palpable for marriage. She might have been, once, but –

A painful memory flashed across her mind. A haunting, lightless existence.

Pushing the thought away, Lucia decided to distract herself by putting the book away. After all, she came here to put herself at ease, not to be haunted by her past. Holding her candle in her right hand, she picked the small leather-bound volume up and casually peered at the spine.

Nothing. No title, no author, the spine was blank. The cover, except for an elaborately designed buckle was also blank. It was as if the book shouldn't have existed in the royal collection in the first place. The pages of the book were yellow with age and appeared to be quite well-worn.

Puzzled, Lucia opened the cover. With a faint click, the buckle fell aside, revealing the contents underneath. The first page was completely blank except for one singular line, written in flowing calligraphy. Paying it no heed, the swordmistress smiled as she opened to a random page. Perhaps it was the aspiring works of some page, eager to become a skilled storyteller.

The same hand persisted throughout. A series of carefully placed and dated entries resembled a diary.

May 12th. Cloudy, with a silver of sunlight peering out from behind the darkening skies.

…Such is my heart as once again, I was bluntly rejected by her once again. Below, dear journal, I present reason 3,291.

"Sorry, my lord, I've been sharpening my blade, and my hands are covered in grime."

This one is actually rather easy to refute, as I could not care less about what her hands were covered in. Her hands covered in grime? Were they covered in hellfire themselves, still I would take them in my hands! Her long, slender fingers, her beautiful nails, always taken care of and filed to just the perfect length.

Her ability with a sword…ah, dear journal, were you a living being to witness her might! Verily, a comet flashing across the skies! Her hair danced with her supple yet comely body in the winds…

Lucia snorted. Such tripe. She flipped the page.

September 24th. The golden sun smiles at us from the tall heavens; her rays penetrate the deepest of nights.

She's busy today, apparently. Did not see her at all today. Alas, her aloofness is much another sonnet dedicated to her during spare time today. Hope she is doing well – and hoping beyond hopes that she, during offtimes of her duties or training may be thinking of me. There is still yet hope, and…

The rest of the entries were similarly written. The entire diary seemed to be devoted to one, single person as the lovestruck man rambled on and on about her. Yawning, Lucia closed the covers and gently buckled it again as she picked up her candle, her sleeping robe dropping back to her sides.

Lucia thought as she reopened Yvina, sifting through the book as she tried to find her page. If I didn't know better, I swear he sounds like…

She froze. Wait a minute. Something about the woman being described sounded suspiciously familiar. Too familiar, in fact.

Slim, sword-user. Aloof. Constantly rejecting his advances, who is in service of the Queen…

The hind legs of the chair slammed onto the ground as Lucia leapt out and sprinted back to the spot. The leatherbound volume sat on the table innocently; its skin seemed to wink in the candlelight as she opened it again with slightly trembling hands.

October 9th. No time for pleasantries.

I can only hope she is safe…no, what am I saying, she is not safe! She …oh, dear journal, be my muse and counsel in the hour of darkness. I cannot bear the thought of her gone. The beauteous and pure Lucia, captured in the service of her beloved Elincia, true Queen of Crimea! Alas, doth I rue the day! I have known that the traitor Ludveck was planning, but alas, alas!

Her heart raced.

Yet I, being faraway here cannot even lift a finger to protect her. As a man, I am a failure. As a lover, I have dishonored the name of chivalry itself because I, despite all my promises and words, have failed to protect her…

She winced at the painful words Bastian used to describe himself. Apparently, the Count was quite stressed – a facet of him that never appeared in public. A complex emotion swelled up inside of her as she read on. The self-condemnation spanned several more pages before an abrupt change seemed to have occurred. In neat, blocky calligraphy, Bastian had penned these words.

The miserable have naught save hope. True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings.

Nodding a little to herself, she turned the page.

… My only hope lies in Sir Ike, the marvelous hero who has agreed to watch her from afar, and pray to Ashera who listeneth to her faithful that they succeed in their endeavor. If Sir Ike doth succeed, I hereby swear to donate a large sum to her temple in Melior…

So it was…that's how…Bastian never told her this…how it actually…she had thought! No, this was-

… I shall not worry myself, nor pace about futilely in my current locale. But yet, O, life, why go on without her? She is altogether lovely and wondrous. To me, she is worth more than all the treasures of Tellius itself! Her sweet eyes doth tell of her unquenchable spirit, speaking of a purity that can only be matched by the queen herself. She speaks no lies, tells the truth always, and ah, dear journal, I cannot stress enough about how much of a boon she is when there is naught light on the side…

The more of his diary Lucia read, the more her heart fluttered. All that time…

All that time, he had felt …like this? He really did feel this way? She had thought he was only acting. But no, it was no act. Why would a count be interested in a simple bodyguard, otherwise? Sure, they grew up together, but that was …

And yet, every bit she read shook Lucia to the core. Bastian, being the meticulous record keeper he was, always managed to sneak in something about her. It didn't matter what they were – even her slightest comments or ideas were mentioned. Not a single day passed where she wasn't in his own thoughts in some way, and when they were apart, he wrote little snippets of new praise, or kind words, or things designed to cheer her up or make her smile. It was only now that she began to understand the extent of his feelings for her.

And how painful must it have been…to be rejected time after time?

Yet, the writings themselves showed no signs of him growing tired of her. Rather, the flowing praises continued and only grew in subtlety and complexity. He had noticed so many small details, positive ones that she didn't even know she had. Even the smallest bit of attention she paid him…a casual smile or word of concern brightened his day considerably. Reading them brought genuine smiles to her lips, and occasionally flushed cheeks as she mused. She was especially intrigued by the constant reference to her purity, and how she was like a little angel, with a smile as radiant as the dawn.

How curious, that Bastian would think of her as a pure little angel, a –

Like a bolt of thunder, a particular scene flashed again in her mind. The chains, the damp prison cell; lecherous faces, the –

Lucia slumped to her knees, overwhelmed by her own emotions. He…he didn't quite know. And …Aah…the…

"My lady Lucia, wouldst the spring be as fair as thee, a white flower amidst the darkened earth!"

With a clatter, the diary fell to the floor as Lucia spun around like a startled doe. Dressed in a simple black sleeping gown, with a ridiculously floppy sleeping cap, the Count of Fayre stood behind her. His genial smile only made her feel worse about herself as he carefully picked up the diary and dusted it off.

" Ah, my angel, it is most unfortunate that you had to busy yourself with my petty works. 'Tis of no importance, really. What is worthy of thy attention are the sonnets and lines your most humble Bastian has composed in your lovely name…"

"No, I…"

Bastian's smile quickly dropped from his face as Lucia struggled to her feet, her eyes brimming with tears. She had misunderstood him for too long. She needed time to think, time to rethink, and also, she needed … she needed something to …cleanse her, of the …

The images returned. She was once again back in that tiny cell, where they tried to break her. She tried to resist, but the fear persisted. It seemed to engulf her, taking her in its gaping jaws. A desolate darkness. A lightless, damp dungeon. Heavy iron chains. Agony filled her body; pain lanced into her core. She heard her own haggard gasping as her defilers returned to torment her, repeating their vile deeds again and again until she could no longer remember daylight, nor did time pass for her anymore. She only wanted it to stop.

Closing her eyes, the swordmistress shook involuntarily. It was one of the rare times where she felt so…helpless and afraid. And now, faced with the man who had loved her for so long, she was wordless. She wanted to reciprocate, she wanted to tell him that she, after all this time, did appreciate – no, does appreciate; but she couldn't…She wasn't …She…she couldn't…no, she… she had to…she couldn't stand the thought of lying – he has always been nothing but faithful to her, she –

Most importantly, she couldn't bear to hurt him. Not after all this time…and the truth would. The truth would.

"Heavens, my dear Lucia! What heavy thing, what dark worry, is on your mind? Pray, and do tell -"

He was looking at her with a rather shocked expression on his face. For once in her life, Lucia was glad that Bastian could not intuitively guess at what she was thinking.

"I…I am no longer the angel you think I am," she whispered as she drew her robe around her. A long moment passed as she seemed to struggle with something, tears freely falling down her shapely face.

"Please, Bastian… I…Forget about me."

Then, turning with a small cry, she fled the room. The sounds of her footfalls quickly disappeared as a bewildered Bastian was left standing alone in the midnight air.

Edited by Caradryan

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Guest FreelancerSealBoy

Well, well, well, who'd have thought.

No matter where it is, I still think this is a fine piece, but you knew that.

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Lucia ran.

With no real destination in mind, she simply tried to get away from Bastian. Her white robe danced about her ankles wildly as the swordmistress sprinted down the hallway.

She didn't care where she was running to – she felt like she could die, for all that mattered. She just needed an escape. She couldn't bear the thought of him looking at her. She felt so ...unclean. She was tainted.

At last, when her strength faltered, Lucia collapsed in a small heap. Breathing heavily, she placed a slightly trembling hand against her chest as she wiped her eyes. Crying is tasteless, she told herself. Get a hold of yourself.

Yet, the pain of a ravished soul cannot be pent up forever. Her frantic attempts to stop herself from expressing a natural emotional response only hurt her more and more. A small hiccup escaped her throat as Lucia bit down on her thumb, trying her best to cope with her resurfaced emotions. It didn't dohe t any good. Tears streamed down her face as the memories she had suppressed for so long swarmed back into her mind, temporarily overwhelming her psyche and breaking her will.

She was back in that cell again, inside Ludveck's dungeons. For three weeks, she was abused in every conceivable way, all in the name of bringing about a "New Crimea". Ludveck led most of the "sessions" personally, ensuring that no quarter was given.

…She would prefer not to dwell on the rest of that.

The existence of that part of her life was something that she would rather not acknowledge. Yet she accepted it for what it was, and tried to move on. She had no regrets; even if it meant suffering through one of the most traumatic experiences that could possibly happen to any human being. Whatever she did, it was out of love for her friends and the kingdom itself.

The sacrifices she made…the pain she had endured…no one would ever need to know. And no one would know. She would rather be hurt herself than to hurt the ones she loved.

She wept.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mornings in the Palace of Crimea were always hectic. Though official business didn't usually start until well after sunrise, many pages and servants could be found scurrying away much, much earlier. Breakfast needed to be prepared; mail needed to be checked; Haar's wyverns needed to be fed, and cleaning – there was always more cleaning to be done.

Clad in a simple light pink dress, Marcia yawned as she tiptoed into the garden. She wanted a break, and the sunrise was just what she needed to get her spirits back into shape.

As usual, the source of her annoyance was her good-for-nothing brother. After Makalov had racked up another 30,000 gold in debt through gambling, he was almost discharged from the Crimean Royal Knights. It was only due to Geoffrey's direct intervention that he managed to avoid the jailhouse.

Strangely enough, after a certain run-in with that lady…what was her name again, Calill? Makalov had stopped going to the taverns altogether and literally started living on what seemed to be books instead. He hadn't left his room in a long, long while – three days, in fact. She could only wonder what he was doing.

Yeah, right. If he's actually trying to be productive, then I'm a toaster. Marcia snorted as an amusing mental image of her brother actually being studious popped into her head. Still, at the very least, he's still eating, judging from the number of empty plates Astrid found on the windowsill.

Breathing deeply, Marcia smiled as she felt the morning mist on her face. The garden was so peaceful and serene during this time of day – the sun wasn't quite up yet, but the darkness was definitely gone. She loved the grayish, barely warm skies – it made her feel so calm, so at ease…

It was then she noticed a familiar azure-haired figure curled up on the damp ground. Lucia's face was wet. A red flush still lingered on her cheeks as she breathed deeply, her eyes closed tightly as she combated some nightmare that only she alone could see. Her hair and garments were damp with the morning dew as she shivered uncontrollably, the scant night-robe inadequate to keep the chills away.

"Lucia?" Marcia called out, unsure of what was going on. She must have stayed out …here…for the entire night.

She didn't answer. Concerned, Marcia walked over to her side.

"Hey there…you alright?"

She gently shook the unconscious young woman. The swordmistress' skin was cold and clammy to the touch.

"…I'm fine." Lucia's eyes fluttered open as she mumbled a reply. There was something faintly feverish about her gaze as she drew her robes in closer. "…I guess I fell asleep here while watching the stars."

It was a poor lie, and Marcia saw right through it. Lucia hated astronomy – partly due to her inability to grasp some of the more fundamental aspects of physics, and partly due to Count Bastian's constant ramble on how her beauty matched the stars in heaven. The sage's silver tongue was enough to charm the birds out of their nests – she was actually sort of surprised that Lucia seemed to be completely oblivious to it.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a fit of harsh coughs as Lucia shook.

"Is there something wrong?"

"No, nothing…"

Another lie; Lucia never lost her composure. Yet there was clearly a tremor in her voice.

"Huh, well, you don't look fine to me," Marcia commented, offering a hand to her friend as she pulled the swordmistress to her feet. Maybe she would ask her about what had happened later.

"Come on, let's go inside and get you something warm. You don't look too good, and if Elincia saw you, she'd think you caught pneumonia or something…"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lucia coughed again as she leaned on Marcia, thankful for some support. Come to think of it, she did feel a little off-color.

Last night…she discovered something she had never thought existed. She remembered too much, and yet, she had words for too little. How was she going to … explain? How was she going to tell him? For that matter, now that she knew he was being serious for all that time…how was she going to reciprocate? Could she even reciprocate? Could she love him? Did she love him?

She didn't know. She didn't know how she could answer those questions, not without a lot of soul-searching first. Even then, she couldn't find all the answers herself – she needed advice.

As for the matters of love…well, that, she didn't dare to ask….

A year ago, she could have gone to her father for help, but her father was…

Numbly, the swordmistress followed the pegasus knight as the two walked, their footsteps echoing lightly in the corridors of the royal palace.

"…You could have caught a cold! We can get one of the healers to look at you, too…who knows? It could be serious! You know how the weather around here is, we've got everything from snow melting in January to snow in April, and – oh, that reminds me. There was this one time, where Malakov got sick, Astrid made this really sweet tea for him, it smelled really nice and …"

A kindly old general and veteran of many wars, the Count of Delbray had always been in good health; yet suddenly, towards the end of the Crimean Civil War, his health suddenly deteriorated. Soon, her father left the world – without even letting her see him one last time. Both of the siblings took the loss hard.

"…so then, we met General Ike…did I ever tell you about that one time, where Lethe was sick? He made her soup! Not very good soup, mind you – General Ike couldn't cook to save his life, and the thing resembled a potato stew more than anything else, but still! Didn't you think it was cute? I wish someone would do that for me…"

Other than her father, the only people in the world that she felt close enough to divulge her feelings to would be her brother or milk-sister. She didn't have the heart to trouble either one of them. Elincia had enough work as it was – after all, she was the queen, and Geoffrey needed to concentrate on training his knights instead of comforting his sister. The war took its toll on the military strength of Crimea, and it would be some time before the general could build it back up to its former glory. There were so many things for them – all of them to take care of. Compared to Crimea, her burdens were mere afterthoughts.

She was alone, then. Alone in this endeavor…

"…Hey, are you still listening?"

"Mm," she replied, sensing that if she had remained silent any longer, Marcia would have "ensured" that she was fine by forcefully dragging her to the infirmary.

"Really? What was the last thing I said?"

"Something about magical wyverns, catnip and the difference between pre-smoked and live-smoked bacon," Lucia muttered. At any rate, her prodigal memory was handy for something else.

"Wow, you did pay attention after all. And the only reason why I brought up the bacon thing was….Well, you see, bacon really taste differently if you cook it in this particular way…"

And here we go again. Lucia placed her face in her palm as Marcia continued to drone away. Sometimes she wondered if there was method to her madness.

"Marcia, you know what?"

"What?"

" I think I'm going to skip breakfast. If you see Geoffrey, tell him I'll be late for the morning training session."

The pegasus knight instantly froze mid-stride as she turned around, her face full of worry.

"…You're not REALLY sick, are you? Fishsticks, I was joking about the pneumonia thing…"

"No, I'm not," Lucia smiled, her heart warmed by the sight of genuine concern. No matter how random Marcia was at times, she found her odd way of ranting off-topic to be strangely endearing.

"I mean, if you ARE sick, then you shouldn't be running about. I know! I'll get Lady Calill to take a look at you…You head back to your room, right now! I'll go get her."

"No, Marcia, really. I just need some rest, that's all…"

"Um, how about the Queen? Or maybe Count Bastian! He would know how to cheer you up!"

The look on Lucia's face made Marcia take a step back.

"NO. NO BASTIAN."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After changing out of her wet robes, Lucia poked at the fireplace as she gingerly stepped into the bath. Every inch of her body felt cold, and she knew that trying to sleep the stiffness off probably wouldn't help much.

Slowly easing herself into the warm water, Lucia sighed with pleasure. The water felt so good. Seldom was she willing to take the luxury of a full bath; usually, a quick shower was enough for hygienic reasons. Stretching like a cat, she allowed the heat to spread through her lithe form, warming her from within.

Even in this relaxed state, however, her thoughts still wandered. Like her brother and the count, Crimea's safety was almost always the first thing on her mind. After the civil war almost tore her homeland apart, life in Crimea seemed to have improved considerably. Elincia's nobles no longer complained on a daily basis, and support for the queen among the populace was strong. From art to commerce, everything was flourishing. The relations with the Laguz, while still uneasy, were slowly improving. As for her personal spy network, nothing unusual was on the horizon. A rumor or two, at the most, and there were no concrete threats.

Lighten up, a small voice inside her head whispered to her. The war's over. Crimea's safe. Stop being so tense and relax. Go out and do what you've always wanted, and stop worrying about things in the past or things that will never happen for once! Enjoy yourself! Seize the day! Take back love!

Love.

What was love? Furthermore, what was love to her? Silently chiding herself, Lucia tried to shake the thought out of her head. Its coquettish tone reminded her of Calill.

Since the end of the Crimean Civil War, Calill and Largo returned to their tavern-business. Conveniently located near the palace, it quickly became a favorite spot for many Crimean knights and retainers. She herself visits the location frequently, and had become fast friends with the couple and their daughter, Amy.

Citing her "tasteful figure" as an idealized model for beauty or some other nonsense, the sensual magician often dragged her away on "quests" to further bolster her wardrobe. Lucia didn't mind the trips too much, though her personal theory was that she just wanted someone to carry all the rubbish that they wound up buying, and the sage loved Largo a bit too much to force the one-armed berserker to go out with her. Calill, though overly concerned with her looks, was not quite the snide ditz that her first impression gave. Though her sense of fashion was questionable (borderlining the indecent, in her humble opinion), Calill's intuitive ability to grasp people's feelings made her a valuable confidant and a good friend.

On more than one occasion, Calill had commented that she seemed distant.

"You don't smile like you used to. Then again, you never smiled much in the first place..."

"There is no reason for me to smile," she would reply.

"Oh, stop that. A smile makes life more beautiful…"

And so on. They would banter back and forth, but Calill would never get her to divulge her reasoning. Just as well. The sage understood her need for privacy and would always leave her alone when she needed.

Lucia sighed again as she slinked deeper into the water. Perhaps, after all this time, she'd have some time for herself. She wouldn't mind finishing off a few …personal projects, and it must be nice to not live in constant worry for the future. She couldn't stop thinking about the possibilities of another invasion by another scheming noble, though. And worse, she couldn't get over the topic of love.

Love, murmured that same voice in her head, is the one thing you desperately want, yet it's the one thing you're afraid of. Embrace it. You'll never grow up until you do.

It was true. And as much as she hated to admit it, she was afraid of the unknown. She was afraid of falling in love, and also afraid of receiving it. Yet, it was only a natural response for her to desire it. In this, she was inexperienced.

Neither Elincia nor Geoffrey knew much about love either, come to think of it. She knew that her milk-sister had a soft spot for Ike, and multiple occasions she had caught Elincia staring at Ike with a little more than admiration on her face. She herself thought it was only sensible – to be honest, the commander of the Greil Mercenaries was not bad on the eyes at all. It was only now that she realized that there may have been a little more to her glances. She wasn't sure if talking with Elincia would help, so she swatted that thought away.

Either way, Ike disappeared after the events of the last war, and no word was heard from him since. She was pretty sure Elincia missed him greatly, and well…

This point was always a sore topic to bring up with her brother, who huffed and became stony-faced as soon as the subject was brought up even in casual conversation. She couldn't blame him. Geoffrey was too loyal and too professional for his own good. In a sense, they were the same – both burningly passionate individuals, buried beneath a mask of chivalry and formality.

From her own observations, Geoffrey was even more helpless than she would be, were they in similar situations. Since last year, Geoffrey had had a one-sided crush on Elincia. These days, it was getting worse. Before, he would simply flush and stammer and look away awkwardly. Now, he lost coherence as soon as Elincia smiles at him. It was funny, in a pitiful kind of way.

How curious, that, despite the fact that they'd grown up together, how friendship quickly blossomed into something else entirely.

Bastian, on the other hand…she had always thought he was a flirt; a regular cavalier when it came to the field of love. Yet, after going through his diary last night…

She simply couldn't believe that he had dedicated his heart to her, for all this time. She alone occupied his thoughts for what, six years?

She had too many questions; too many things she wanted to ask him directly, but she didn't feel comfortable enough asking those things yet. Their relationship, for the longest time, had been almost entirely professional. She appreciated his work for Crimea, and was secretly flattered by the attention he had given her. However, she always saw it as a joke, and she had thought…that he treated it the same way.

Knock, knock.

Ignoring the tapping on her door, Lucia sank into the water, unwilling to leave its warm embrace.

Tap, tap. The knock persisted.

It's probably Marcia, she thought to herself. Maybe if I don't make any sounds, she'll think I'm asleep or something…

Tap tap, tap tap tap.

With a disgruntled scowl, the swordmistress reached for a nearby towel as she stepped out of the small pool. I guess I'll have to soak later.

"I'll be with you in a second," she called out to whoever was behind the door. Hastily wrapping the towel around her, she opened the door…

…to see a very surprised Bastian, with a gigantic tray in his hands.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bastian was so pre-occupied with keeping the heavy tray in balance, that for a second, he didn't notice the door silently squeaking open.

An audible gasp was all he heard as his attention was immediately drawn to a pair of shapely bare legs. The exquisite sight sent a pleasing shock down his spine as the sage stared with a blank look on his face, taking in every inch of her firm thighs…

Stop. How dare you disgrace her with such vulgar stares? A small voice - his chivalrous conscience -screamed at him from the inside of his head.

As if snapping out of a mid-day dream, Bastian turned beet-red as he immediately looked away. He really hadn't meant to do that – the sage had arrived with every good intention possible. He was here to make up for whatever he said that drove her to such emotional stress. He also wanted to see if he could take the time to explain the diary and its contents to her – he didn't think she understood the concept of "Courtly Love" very well. And well, how was he supposed to know that she was in…um…such a state of undress?

Judging from the flustered look on her face, Lucia was no less embarrassed. Taking a small step back, she clasped the edges of her towel tightly as she hid behind the oaken door. A moment passed before their eyes met.

"Ah, um… Lady Lucia! I…" Trying to not sound too overly strained, Bastian inclined his head. "I see you are busy. Would you be so kind as to allow me temporary entrance to your delightful quarters? I promise I shall not take up too much of your valuable time."

She nodded wordlessly. Her wet shoulder-length hair clung to the back of her neck as she opened the door a crack wider, allowing him entrance.

Compared to the extravagance of the other chambers in the Palace Melior, Lucia's chamber was sparsely decorated. Other than her bed and a neatly arranged line of dressers, the spacious room was almost empty. The only decorations found on her wall were a pair of tapestries – presumably of some legend that he hadn't the opportunity to read. A reading desk, its surface still littered with books, and a pair of chairs greeted him as he peered around, looking for somewhere to set the tray down.

"Here," she murmured, directing to his gaze to a small table by the windowsill. With great care, Bastian put down the tray.

"I must apologize for my most rude intrusion! I have only thought to deliver a little early meal, as a kind little pegasus Knight told me that my lady is not faring well this morn." The count, anxiously declaring his intentions, bowed respectfully as he started to backpedal out of the room.

"I appreciate the thoughts," Lucia answered as she retreated behind a curtain, her face still red as she struggled to get into some real clothes. "In case you were wondering, I am fine – last night, I …"

Her voice trailed off as she shook a little and lapsed into silence. He was about to bring the topic up, too – he was genuinely concerned about her mysterious words. The fact that she was discomforted hurt him immensely, and he desperately wanted to help her. One look at Lucia's downcast eyes, though, was all it took to convince him that perhaps now was not the best time.

That, and his heart was beating so loudly that he was sure that a heart attack of some sort was imminent. He was surprised that he hasn't popped a vein yet.

"Nay, my lady, you are not yet dressed! Please, excuse my intrusion once again. This savage brute knew no better, and he now begs his leave!"

"No, Bastian, wait, I –"

"Enjoy your breakfast!"

The door closed with a polite crack as Bastian's heavy footfalls can be heard disappearing into the distance.

Lucia sighed as she shook her head and finished changing into her usual training clothes. Bastian certainly didn't hide his feelings very well this time– she could have sworn that Geoffrey would have fared better under similar situations. Early on in the morning, she was pretty sure that she didn't want to see him. At least, not until she could screw up the courage to reach a conclusion on her own. Though that opinion has not changed, for a fleeting moment, she wished he would have stayed and chatted with her.

Truth be told, she was both flattered and embarrassed by the whole affair. The thought that Bastian always tried to look out for her made her feel warm and bubbly inside, and the fact that he found her to be that attractive brought a smile to her face as she moved over to the breakfast tray the Count of Fayre had brought.

It seemed that Bastian had thought of everything. The tray was laden with all kinds of food. Smoked sausage and lightly grilled salmon sat beside poached eggs nested between a pair of Crimean scones; seasonal greens and artfully arranged pieces of grapefruit lined her plate as the tray was counterbalanced by a pitcher of apple juice and a hefty bowl of rice congee.

Lucia poured herself a cup of juice. She wasn't particularly fond of apple, but she couldn't blame him for not knowing.

I wonder what he's up to now, the swordmistress mused. Probably furiously scribbling away in his diary or something.

The particular mental image brought another smile to her face as she began her belated breakfast.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Back in his own room, Bastian's hands trembled as he immediately pulled out his diary.

You lustful savage! His conscience screamed at him. That is not gentlemanly conduct. You should go apologize to Lady Lucia at your earliest convenience! Did you see how much she was blushing when you laid those perverse eyes on her legs?

Bastian closed his eyes and sighed. While yes, it was entirely unchivalrous of him to stare, he had excuses. Firstly, he didn't know she was in the bath. Secondly, it wasn't his fault that she was so beautiful. Thirdly, he just wanted to bring her some breakfast – Lucia's schedule was extremely rigorous and he couldn't imagine the swordmistress training on an empty stomach.

And besides, it wasn't like he had seen her naked or anything – just a bit out of her usual dress. And he was going to go apologize later, so that was still appropriate conduct.

The sage pulled out a new quill. Soon, the quiet scratches of writing could be heard in the room.

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Dusk.

The setting sun’s bloody edges faintly clung to the back of one lone figure. The man walked silently towards his destination, sand crunching beneath his heels.

Tall, lean, and agilely built, the man had a hawkish appearance. His black eyes darted about as he habitually inspected his surroundings. A pair of well-honed stilettos sat serenely on his belt, ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice. Years of experience as a professional killer had taught him to never let down his guard, no matter how peaceful the land may seem. Something – or someone - is always out there to kill.

No enemies met him. No hidden blades hid behind the foliage. The only sound that appeared was the quiet murmur of the sea as waves dashed against the shore, relentless in their movements. Above him, a lone seagull cried, its shrill note merging perfectly with the cacophony that only the ocean can bring.

Nodding in satisfaction, the assassin turned onto a small and rarely travelled path. Moving with no particular urgency, he merely admired the jagged outcroppings as he climbed along. Their austere beauty fascinated him – their dagger-like peaks possessed a simple yet profound craftsmanship that no living artist could match. The relaxing atmosphere was a welcoming break in comparison to his harrowing life.

He was the finest assassin Tellius had seen in ages. The fireman, they called him. A master of a centuries old assassination technique; he was infamous for his abilities and revered by his exploits. All who dealt in the shadows feared him.

Perhaps, the assassin mused, that was why she followed me in the first place.

He nimbly sidestepped onto an unstable-looking rock as a small clearing greeted him, its existence a visual cue only to him. With a simple acrobatic movement, Volke launched himself into the air, landing some distance above as he vaulted onto a hidden plateau above, nestled among the peaks.

The barren plateau was the size of a small chamber. Its surface was strangely smooth, with all sides but one exposed to the seas below. Volke’s lip curved slightly. Everything was as he left it, undisturbed by human hands. That was good. The assassin walked over to the only object sitting on top of the ledge.

It was a petite headstone with its base plunged deeply into the rocks. Kneeling before it, Volke absentmindedly traced the writing with a single finger as he unbuckled the heavy pouch slung by his side. The inscription on the white Begnionia had all but faded under the constant attention of the elements, but to him, it shone with a brighter radiance than all the high-class gems and gold that spilled onto the ground.

I have returned, my friend. My apologies for being late.

The assassin sat for a moment, lingering in some unknown, deeply personal memories. Even in private, his expression was inscrutable. A glint from the corner of his eyes was all that spoke of what may have happened in the long-distant past.

Forgive me.

With a single gesture, he grabbed a fistful of coins and flung them into the ocean below.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

At Palace Melior, life continued as usual. Within a few months of the end of the war that almost tore the world apart, scars had started to heal.

For Lucia, the next few days went by with relative uneventfulness. It was a good time to be at court. There was neither intrigue nor spontaneous declarations of family feuds – everyone was too busy patching the kingdom back into one piece.

Lucia brushed aside a lock of stray hair as she added a few more stitches to the handkerchief she’d been working on. Despite her tomboyish tendencies, she had a few soft spots that were decidedly out of character for the swordmistress of Crimea. Embroidery was one such hobby. Though it was time-consuming, she was nonetheless immensely satisfied by her creations – especially if she could share them with her friends.

Her thoughts were interrupted as a blue haired young man poked his head in her room.

“Sister.” Geoffrey’s tone remained as serious as ever even as a smile appeared on his face. “Are you busy at the moment?”

“Geoffrey? Come on in.” Lucia answered, hurriedly tucking away her handiwork in a corner. “I was, but no longer. What do you need?”

The knight politely bowed and stamped a few times as he stepped into the doorframe, an unsealed scroll in his gauntleted hand.

“What, any reason for this sudden showing of formality to your sister?” Raising an eyebrow, Lucia teased. “You seem flustered. Did the Queen smile at you today?”

“No, but Daein sent us greetings, and the Queen and I thought you would have liked to see this.” Lightly tossing the scroll to his sister, the knight sat on a nearby chair who groaned underneath the combined weight of the knight and armor. “I shall wait until you are done.”

Opening the scroll, Lucia inspected its content with curiosity.

Dear Queen Elincia.

I am writing, on behalf of the kingdom of Daein, to express our great joy and concern at Crimea’s recovery and intend to rely upon diplomatic assurances for the mutual benefit of our respective nations. Though our two lands have been at war in the past, Daein would like to begin erasing those unpleasant memories by respectfully requesting diplomatic presence at the Crimean court.

Representatives of the kingdom of Daein have a laudable track record of expressing criticism and concern at reliance by other states on diplomatic assurances to effective communications and negotiations. Rest assured, should disagreements arise, our principled expression of caution shall work to the mutual benefit of both.

Recall back in year 112, when first contact was made…”

And so, the rest of the letter droned on. The missive was written with a slanting, cursive hand, yet the grace behind the form hinted at something else – a dusty, grim ...something. A large royal wax seal belonging to Daein lie broken on the surface on the envelope, presumably opened by Geoffrey. A long silence passed before she spoke.

“So, Daein wants someone here at Melior… for what reason?”

The letter’s tone was polite, curt, and to the point, exactly the way that a diplomatic missive should be written, yet she couldn’t help but to feel uneasy.

“This is why I brought it here. Queen Elincia is calling a meeting with the nobles tonight for this reason. Lucia, do you think they have good intentions?”

In a situation like this, she could neither say yes nor no. Naturally, the story seemed to be suspicious. Diplomats come and go, of course, but to establish a permanent member at Melior…something wasn’t right about that picture.

At the same time, Daein was not the Daein that devastated Crimea three, no, four years ago. Micaiah, the Priestess of the Dawn, was their ruler now – and the Silver-Haired Maiden was known across the land as a kind and benevolent queen. Surely, she couldn’t…

No, she could not. She had kept careful tabs on the new Queen of Daein – even talked to the girl on several occasions. There was no way Micaiah could wish harm upon anyone, much less an entire country. At this point, Lucia was sure of that.

Such a dilemma. Lucia sighed as she pulled at a strand of hair, her heart racing with a little eagerness. She had a love-hate relationship with her position as the captain of the Palace Guard. She loved the fact that for every moment she worked, she kept Crimea - and her queen - safe from hidden threats. Yet, at the same time, she hated being tense and guarded all the time. She didn’t mind the work or the dangers that came with her position, but she hated projecting the masquerade that she had to use so many times in order to obtain critical information.

For the sake of everyone…I can’t be myself anymore.

It was true. For that matter, she didn’t know if she could be herself again. What innocence she had was shattered in the last war. She became a little more introverted, a little more prone to self-inspection and blame…

“…Sister?” Geoffrey queried, noting that his sister had been silent for all this time.

“I do not know, Geoffrey,” the swordmistress mused as she stood. “I only hope nothing ill will happen because of it.”

Geoffrey nodded.

“Either way, we should get back to our respective duties. I shall go talk to Queen Elincia later tonight after that meeting to see if the royal knights need to be put on full alert.”

“Sounds good. I will let you know if anything happen on my side. Godspeed.”

The knight stood up, taking a step toward the door. Suddenly, he turned around.

“ Sister, please, do not hesitate to speak to me about…” Pausing for a moment, the knight breathed deeply before slowly continuing, a hint of worry creeping into his voice.“…Anything. If anything at all concerns you, or weighs heavily on your mind, please let me know. I am here for you, as is Queen Elincia, and Count Bastian.

If anything happen, please, let us help you…”

“Understood.” Lucia smiled. It was unusual for her younger brother to use such words. He was never good at expressing himself, but the emotional outburst was heartwarming, to say the very least.

Geoffrey nodded again and closed the door behind him. Hearing his footsteps fade, Lucia gave a deep sigh. If only did he know…

If only.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Bwaha! If isn’t Bastian! The usual?”

The giant yelled at him from the counter. Bastian grinned as he slid into his seat at the Calill. The bar was still packed despite it being Wednesday evening. For some strange reason, Largo was wearing a winged band around his head.

“If you would, good sir Largo.”

Bastian was a frequenter of Largo and Calill’s tavern – though the triple-floored inn was more like a restaurant with rooming. The dimly lit bar and main floor had flickering candles that were enchanted by a certain mistress of fire magic. It gave the tavern a personal, romantic feel, perfect for couples or lone strangers. On the other hand, the many dimly lit corners and tables were supplanted by a warm heath fire in the center, where those seeking more lively company could participate. Bards and musicians frequented the place, and wherever they went, entertainment followed. From story-telling around the heath fire to epic songs of valor, each night had something different. No wonder the inn was packed every day.

“How would ya like your drink tonight? Chilled or hot?”

“Chilled, if you would please! And make sure it’s –“

“Yeah, I got it. Stirred, not shaken.” Largo yelled back again as he grabbed a bottle from the bottom of the shelf. “Honestly, you were right for all this time.”

The sage sighed in relief. Unlike most of the nobles in court, he preferred his wine stirred. Shaking bruises the drink, giving otherwise sweetened wine a sour or bitter aftertaste. Besides, stirring chips the ice...

“We’re outta mint though. Will lemon do? Sorry about that.”

“It is fine, friend Largo. You know I am only happy to take whatever you offer!”

It was true. He loved the place. The couple loved their business with an unrivaled passion. They were also great at coming up with gimmicky tricks. Last winter, in order to celebrate Winterseve, Largo and his lovely wife came up with the bright idea of serving stew and fondues over open fire - literally. It was a simple combination of a fire and light spell so the flames will stay suspended above the stone surface, shifting colors constantly while magically warming the pot above it. It was all the rage in Melior that winter – enhanced by the fact that no one else could reproduce it.

“It was his idea, really,” laughing, Calill would respond whenever someone asked if she came up with the concept. “Largo’s really brighter than he looked.”

The Calill started out as an old, decrepit inn located in the center of downtown. It was bought by the couple after the Crimean War some two years ago prior to its opening. Largo had always wanted to open up an establishment of some sort, and Calill was only happy to go along.

Of course, the story goes: The two stayed up for an entire night (according to Calill), or three (according to Largo, though it may have been five days and four nights according to the last telling he got), going through fourteen pots of brewed blackmass coffee and three bottles of gin with still no plans in sight. Then, in a flash, both of them reached the same conclusion.

“Five days and eight nights of hard thinking, buddy, Five days and eight nights! Then we got it! Bwahaha! It was the best idea anyone could ever come up with!”

Calill wanted a fine dining establishment while Largo wanted a homey, down-to-earth place where everyone could come and enjoy themselves. In the end, they ended up doing both – high culture styled atmosphere and gourmet dishes at outrageously low prices. Everyone they knew swore it wouldn’t work – they would be in the red faster than Makalov lost money at the casino. The couple insisted, however, and so, amid many snickers and haughty glances, the Calill opened.

At first, business was sparse. Most of Crimea’s upper class paid it no heed, while the rest of Melior barely knew it existed. Only the younger members of the Royal Knights frequented the bar at first, and then it became a favorite for the mages studying at the magic academy. The second floor was split into a multitude of small, private rooms, perfect for cramming for Crimea’s stringent entrance exams or for brushing up on some arcane skills.

Soon, the older scholars and sages started to loiter around the dining rooms, sipping their chrysanthemum teas and light wines as they engaged in lively discussions. Arguments regarding magic theory and conceptual spellcraft often went on late at night at the inn, especially once the academic community realized that the fact that Calill had spellproofed the walls meant they could test out some of those theories if they needed. (In truth, it was a smart move on her part - it brought her more customers and also saved her a lot of collateral damage.)

Then, a particularly civic-minded lordling decided that this would have been an amazing spot to get in touch with the people and listen to what the people of Crimea wanted. As people gathered, and the friends and acquaintances of said lordling arrived in droves, the number of visitors skyrocketed. The rest, as Calill so elegantly explained, was “history.”

Bastian breathed deeply. The smell of finely spiced roasts and pies wafted in through the open kitchen door. Not only did Largo have amazing recipes, but Calill had put her spellcraft to good use – magical trays and platters weaved between customers, delivering orders straight from the kitchen. This was probably the noisiest place in the entire tavern, but he liked where he was.

“Roasted lamb tonight, Bastian! How does that sound? Is your nose serving you well today?”

The Largo man shouted as he casually deflected a cocktail to a nearby customer.

“Marjoram, cumin, and …garlic.” The sage shouted back. “The lamb sounds most delectable!”

“Right again! It’ll be with you in a minute!”

Bastian nodded and poured himself a glass of water. He didn’t have to wait long before a heavily laden tray shakily dashed out from the kitchen. Like a scene from a fairy tale, the wooden tray – now glowing subtly with an orange light - danced around his table for a few moments before finally deciding to drop his order. The sage watched the display with interest, noticing that the trays changed colors with every order. Their erratic movements brought little sparkles of light here and there, creating a most unique atmosphere.

“Largo, what a most curious set-up tonight! Pray do tell, what is the occasion for such, ah, array of lights?”

“That, oh-gentle-sir-Bastian, was my idea.” A familiar voice answered as someone covered up his eyes with a laugh. “You’ll have to guess.”

“Aw, c’mon. Calill, that’s not fair,” her husband chuckled as he mixed another drink. “Count Bastian has better things to do with his time than delve into ancient, nearly forgotten stories, ya know?”

“They're not nearly forgotten! Well, they are - oh, nevermind! Very well, then, but only because you asked, dear.”

Calill removed her hands with a flourish as she spun around, showing off her lavender dress with a plunging open back – and her lightly toned skin, too. The dress had a small, form-fitting skirt with its frontline drape falling delicately into a halter neckline. The distinguishing feature, however, was a pair of glowing wings coming out of her back. The butterfly-like accessory shone with a calming, friendly light as the sorceress winked.

“Tonight, I’m the fairy queen.” The sorceress smiled confidently as she placed her hands on her hip and twirled. “All the little flying trays – they’re my underlings. Midsummer’s eve is in a week, so I thought it was a good idea to borrow from my old stories. Plus, Largo didn’t mind me showing off a little skin now and then – right, dear?”

“Bwahaha! Of course! You’re only the hottest thing there is – other than me, of course, but –“

Calill tossed her husband a playful glare.

“Kidding! Kidding! Well, anyways! Bastian! That answer your question?”

“It does indeed. Why, she walks in beauty, like the night…” The sage whistled.

“Thank you,” the sorceress beamed. “But you should save the verse for someone who isn’t oh, married? Or else, Largo there might get a little jealous…” The couple laughed as they exchanged a quick peck on the cheek before Calill danced away.

“Will you be staying later tonight, count? There’s a new flutist in town – she’s quite the charmer, too.”

“Most regretfully, I cannot.” Answered Bastian. “There is a matter of utmost urgency that I need to take care of tonight.”

With that, he dug into his food with gusto. Somehow, he had the feeling that it was going to be a long night.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A wooden door creaked open as moonlight bathed a silhouette in its silvery light. An inscrutable expression passed over Volke’s face – was it relief that he had survived another day, or was it something else? Either way, the assassin silently dropped his now-empty pouch onto the floor and struck a light.

Immediately, he realized something wasn’t right. Everything was out of place. Stuff was everywhere. The pantry had absolutely been trashed, and feathers littered the ground – the remains of his bedding, slashed to a hundred ribbons. The floorboards were overturned; eating utensils lie scattered on his table. Something – or something was looking…looking for something.

But what? He had nothing of value in the house. if they were trying to go for him … it was very unprofessional to destroy property.

The assassin scanned the room evenly, assessing the damage. It was then that he noticed something else. Someone had punched a knife through the framed picture located on the centerfold of his fireplace and carved out exactly one half of the picture lodged within.

Hmm.

Scratching his head, the assassin grabbed the devastated painting, flipped one of the overturned chairs back and sat down. He turned the frame carefully in his hand and studied it intently. The painting was of a couple holding each other in what was likely a tender moment. The would-be thief was skilled enough to expertly cut the picture in half – the young man was missing from the picture, but no details on the young woman or the surroundings were harmed. The cut was clean and smooth, devoid of any raggedness or fraying on the canvas.

The precision bothered him. He hadn’t seen such ability in years. Bringing the light closer to the edge, Volke mulled over the style. If only there was more light available – he could easily tell whose style it was. The night offered no such luxury, however. Slightly frustrated, Volke mulled the situation over inside his head as he tried to play out the scenario that may have happened.

Clearly, the works here were done by at least two different parties. After all – this was his public hideout, and many knew of it. However, it was clear that the two groups differed significantly in terms of professionalism. The first one – likely a single individual was a far greater threat; the only evidence left was the painting – as discussed above. The second group was more moblike and literally tore through the place – looking for him or treasure, Volke couldn’t tell.

He wonder if he should be paying more attention to what was going on in the underworld…Perhaps he’d get in touch with one of his old buddies again to see what was going on.

Planning, however, would have to wait. He heard footsteps; multiple footsteps approaching his doorway. A sudden click – a pebble being kicked out of the way, perhaps - confirmed their presence.

So the rats are back. Splendid. Swinging around on his chair, Volke clasped his hands together as he turned to face the entrance.

“You could have knocked.” He called out evenly, the faintest hint of a threatening growl in his voice.

Immediately, a group of five cowled figures emerged from the shadows. Dressed similarly in pitch-black cloaks, one of them stepped forward. a pair of long daggers in his hands.

Amateurs. True assassins never show their weapons openly.

“Just who the hell are you supposed to be?” The figure shouted loudly as the five drew their weapons. “We’re here, uh, lookin’ for the Fireman. You best be not tryin’ to jack our job!”

Only silence greeted them as the assassin calmly sat, his feet on a nearby stool. He seemed to be completely oblivious to their existence.

Well, well, well…looking for me?

“Hey, didja hear us? Outta our way! We were here first!”

Volke slowly brought his pipe to his mouth and lit it. The aroma of sun-cured Corbenacian tobacco filled the room.

“How dare you display such insolence before experts like us!” Shouted another man as he hurled a pair of throwing knife towards the nonchalantly smoking assassin. “You think you’re so lucky, getting into here while we were out earlier. Well, chew on this! Tonight is the night that your fortune turns on you!”

“Has it?” The assassin answered, inclining his head slightly as he dodged the sloppy attack. This was going to be entertaining. He thought as he mused, hearing his would-be assailants gasp. How the standards for assassins have slipped during recent years.

“Have you something against the Fireman?” Waving disparagingly, Volke beckoned to the group, all the while keeping a careful eye on the situation at hand.

“We are here to –“another voice, this one younger than the rest spoke before he was quickly hushed by the one in the center, presumably the leader of the group.

“Silence. Jaris. Tell him nothing.”

“Well, if you’ve something against the Fireman, you may tell it to me.” Volke shrugged again. Unbuckling his daggers and placing them next to the scattered silverware onto the table, he gestured towards the overturned seats. “Why don’t we talk first, and play with sharp objects later? Sit down.”

The act only made the group nervous as they took a collective step back.

“Why? Who are you to him?” Finally, after a pause, their leader queried, keeping his hands inside his cloak.

“I am him.”

His words had the intended effect as suddenly, ten shining daggers were drawn at the same time. Volke glanced at the weapons with some interest. The group wielded Daein gladius in pairs - long sword-like daggers designed for thrusting as well as slashing. The blade being nearly a foot long offered some advantages in close-medium ranged combat, but not by much. And dual-wielding such awkward weapons ...

Tsk.

“Then the Fireman will perish here tonight!”

In unison, the group of assassins charged at Volke, blades poised for the kill. Volke calmly slammed the table with one hand, holding onto his pipe with the other. He hated to show off, but this time…

Clink clink clink clink clink clink.

A series of sounds and a blur was all the leader of the group noticed as he suddenly found himself weaponless. With shock, he stared at his hands. They were empty. He blinked. What?

They were empty indeed. His daggers lie on the floor, knocked some ten feet away by …something, a silver dart, perhaps? Behind him, he heard a few thuds – the sounds of his men’s bodies hitting the floor. Then, a moment later, his arms and legs stopped functioning as his mind registered the pain.

Before him, Volke was calmly twirling a spoon in his hand as he breathed deeply, exhaling smoke.

“Im…im...impossible!!”

A chilling feeling ran down his spine as he spun around wildly, taking in the array of glittering objects embedded in the wooden walls around him. Slowly, it dawned upon him that in that instant that they charged to strike, the Fireman had knocked all the scattered silverware into the air. Deflected them with the spoon in his hand with the force of a missile, each individual fork, knife, or spoon was aimed for a lethal spot on the body – whether it be eye socket, nerve cluster, or pressure point.

Kicking aside the table in front of him, Volke stalked over to the prone assassin, the faintest hint of a grin on his face. Most of the assassins died before even realizing what had hit them. This one will soon follow.

“Don’t try anything.” He warned his unknown assailant. “Just tell me what I want to know, and I’ll let you live.”

“A-anything you wish!”

“Who hired you?”

This was the most elementary of questions, and one that every assassin worth his salt will never answer, under pains of death. It was basic professional etiquette.

“Daein. We …” the man squirmed uncomfortably in his grip. “Ugh…let me …loose, and I’ll …tell you…everything!”

Volke loosened his hand.

“Haha! Such a fool!” With a glint in his eye, the assassin produced a hidden blade from his sleeve. He howled as he eagerly punched forward. “I have you now! DIE!”

Volke wasn’t impressed.

How the professional standards have slipped.

Evenly holding the surprise attack with two fingers along the flat edge of the blade, he was about to reach for the daggers on the table when he realized that he could show this insolent knock-off something else. Ten years ago, he had sworn it off completely after that one event that changed his life. It might be good for him to warm up again.

Volke approached the assassin and tapped in on the side of the head.

Normally, such a weaponless strike would be useless, but Volke wasn’t known as the Fireman for nothing. In those older days, he was compared to a raging fire – every single strike from him consumed his enemies like a fire from within. That was his art – a thousand year old assassination technique that focused on destroying the opponent from inside out using pressure points and various positions on the body to inflict the maximum amount of damage possible. It was an art that channeled energy into each individual blow, making all of his attacks a fatal strike at any location. His entire body was essentially a living weapon. Arguably speaking, he was more dangerous unarmed than armed.

“A pity. You could have survived, but you’ve lost that chance.”

Shoving the attacker back, Volke removed his finger. The assassin merely gaped blankly, not understanding what had happened.

“What? What did you do to me?! AAAARGH!”

The man’s face contorted strangely as he howled in agony.

“Tell me! Tell me! You didn’t cut me or anything, but why does it hurt?!”

“What I have hit is a fatal pressure point.” The assassin answered, turning around to leave. This house had no further use to him, and it was best that he hit the roads once more. There wasn't much for him to pack, either way - everything that he could ever use was with him at all times. The assassin turned to leave.

No, wait, there was something he might want to keep. Volke took the canvas and slowly rolled it up. For old times.

Picking the rest of his belongings in a small satchel and belting his daggers back on, Volke walked past the writhing man and whispered the last thing the hapless idiot would ever hear.

“You’re already dead.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

He had had too much to eat that night.

Should have, could have, would have resisted the dessert if it wasn't on fire... Alas, foul temptation...

Groaning slightly, the sage settled down into his seat inside the Grand Court. The chamber was large enough for a meeting of hundreds, but tonight, it would be audience to only less than a score – the lords of Crimea, and the queen herself.

A dozen chandeliers lit the gilded ceiling tiles with their resplendent aura, their craftsmenship representing the pinnacle of Crimean artistic and magical ability. A large circular ring of tables, twelve in all, circled Elincia’s throne, their polished rosewood surface reflecting the hours and hours of work from the Palace caretakers.

True to an age-old decree, each table was home to a seat that remained reserved at all times for their respective provincial representative. The number twelve came from the initial founding of Crimea, when the High King took with him twelve peers that eventually settled across the land, forming the noble houses of today.

“Count Bastian. You’re early today.”

A deep, glamorous voice drifted across the hallway as the speaker lightly plodded across the shining floor. Instinctively, Bastian knew who the speaker was. Only one woman in the entire capital of Melior had that particular tone of voice.

“Mage-General Qieru. Good eve to thee.” He replied as the mage took the seat next to him, gently smoothing out her pale yellow robes.

Quiet, level-headed, and persuasive, the sage specialized in lightning magic. Known as the “lightning rod” among her staff and students, Qieru had a unique talent for diffusing conflicts – making her a valuable member at court, especially when debates became heated. The twenty-something younger woman was the head of the magical academy and representative of Meliora, Crimea’s central district.

Crimea, of course, had a simple political structure. The twelve noble houses had direct access to Queen Elincia, and were allowed to voice their concerns and give advice at any time. They were also responsible for answering the queen's summons - or, in dire circumstances, send direct representatives to take their place. However, in the end, all decisions were still made by Elincia, though the queen was generally democratic – democratic enough to the point where she was “content to be pushed around,” as some would say.

His eyes wandered to a large map pinned to the back of the palace walls. He had been away from court for a long time, though Bastian was sure the political factions inside it have not changed much.

Geographically speaking, the land was divided into four distinct regions. The two western provinces – Corbenac and Tiraclon were far and away from the rest of the realm, and are generally disinterested with political affairs of the “central realms.” The warm, temperate climate was ideal for the growing of crops, as well as for raising livestock.

Directly below the two provinces lies the province of Caeleron, a heavily forested region that was home to most of the kingdom’s laguz population. It is because of this intermingling among the two races that Caeleron tends to keep to itself most of the time. It is a wild land- untamed, and beautiful. The roads there are hazardous, and bandits – both Crimean and Gallian – still roamed the land. Either way, the river Frangere served as a natural barrier that kept these three provinces apart from the rest of the kingdom, which naturally caused them to look after each other. They were known as the Western Bloc.

His eyes moved across the map, past the faintly marked roads leading from Gallia into another region.

Stretching from the northern coast all the way deep into the Crimean heartland, the Frangere came into a gentle stop at the foot of the Mugil Mountains in the province of Marhaut. The lake of Alendale pooled there, drawing all sorts of wildlife and providing the kingdom with rare meats and delicacies. The deeply forested mountain regions were home to Crimea’s famed Royal Pegasi and also timber of the highest quality.

Directly below the mountains of Marhaut sat the realm of Broceliande. The province was described as an elfin, ethereal realm filled with a fey beauty, especially during summertime as the mists rolls in. It enveloped the Isle of Camlann, where the Order of Radiance was housed upon a tiny island in the middle of Alendale.

Except...Camlann was an outlier factor. The Order of Radiance took neither suggestion nor order from anyone else but the Queen, and ... well, they are usually objective enough. Though the center of the chivalry had been moved to Melior and then, Delbray, many paladins of great renown still saw Camlann as their home. These three realms – Marhaut, Broceliande, and the Isle of Camlann were considered to be the center for chivalry, order, and spiritual learning.

Nearby, a giant symbol glowed on the map, its steel-red ink reminding its reader that Crimea was not all forest-and-grassland. If one only wandered a little further to the north, they would find the mills and forges of the province of Solsbury, located mere miles away from Melior, the capital itself.

Bastian sniffed. He didn't like the place very much - though the nightlife, he heard, was quite good. Either way, it was in stark contrast with his homeland - and neighbour. Fayre was known for its orchards – in autumn, an annual wine-tasting festival was hosted in Bastian’s own manor-home. Felirae, on the other hand, had a series of bustling port towns. From there, freshly caught tuna and mackerel wiggled atop wooden decks as fishermen hauled in their catches and traders from all over Tellius peddled their wares.

Nestled between the three provinces was the district of Meliora, home to the capital city, Melior, the city of sages. Due to the proximity of the royal court and fears of unnecessary influence and pressures, Meliora does not have an actual presiding noble. The seat is instead given to the Scholar-General or Mage-General of the Royal Magical Academy. No one could agree upon the precise differences, but generally, the Scholar-General tends to specialize in conceptual theories and experimentation while the Mage-General focuses on practical and military applications. The two figures usually work in synchronization, but it is rare to find an Archsage with the caliber to do both. Regardless, Melior possessed the continent’s largest library, and many travelled great distances in order to study among its shelves.

It was lucky, for him, that he himself stayed on very good terms with Meliora. No one in their right mind wanted to cross the mages, lest some horrible incident fall upon them. While Qieru herself stayed above such unscruplous methods, others were ... a little more persuasive.

A little west of the capital, the twin fortresse of Nados and Pinel silently guarded its entranceway and the heartland of Crimea. Built long ago, the imposing architecture, with its many towers and parapets reminded onlookers that though Crimea was a peaceful country, its children were nonetheless more than capable of defending themselves. These castles were under the jurisdiction of the lord of Tol Essex and served as an important line of defense. Crimea’s eastern borders were further secured by the cavaliers of Delbray, who maintained a diligent watch on the rivers and the plains, keeping the peace across the land. When these knight errant are not on the Queen’s business, however, they formed small roving communities in Delbray, hiring themselves out as mercenaries for honorable causes or sought out adventure – wherever it may be.

Tonight, however, the representative of Delbray was absent – Geoffrey was away on business on behalf of the Royal Knights. Bastian would have to take his place.

The great wooden doors created open again as more people began to shuffle into the room. A heavily armored general, clad entirely in green was followed by an aristocratic looking young man with a funny-looking feathered hat. Exchanging a quick nod of greetings towards the mages, both of them took their seats across the room.

They were certainly an odd-looking pair. The young man was clad in some sort of naval-looking uniform – perhaps a fleet officer of some sort, judging from the sextet and telescope, as well as the seaman’s sabre that hung by his side easily. The general, on the other hand, had no distinguishing features on his green armor. Where one would expect to find household emblems or symbols, there was only a faintly visible line of intertwining ivy vines. The other man’s emblem – one of a stylized Calamaro squid seemed vaguely familiar, but she still couldn’t figure out where she had seen it before.

“Who is that?” Qieru whispered as she pointed towards the pair. The weeks spent inside the archives researching did nothing to improve her knowledge of the court.

“I heard that, lass.” Taking off the full-helm, the general coughed as he placed it next to his seat, revealing a weathered old face that had seen too many winters. “Bercilak of Tol Essex, at yer service.”

Sir Bercilak, the garrison commander of Tol Essex. Known as Crimea’s shield, the province was home to a pair of mighty fortifications that guarded the main approach – and the only transcontinental road that lead to Crimea. Sir Bercilak was a grizzled veteran of many wars and a brilliant commander, known by some as the Green Knight in his younger days. However, despite his brilliance, he was still forced to withdraw from the last war due to his grievous wound at Nados. The loss struck him hard, and he has been working hard since.

Nonetheless, Bercilak’s smile was genial. Pointing to the person sitting next to him with a gauntleted hand, he continued.

“This young man’s Fleet Admiral Arback. He’s standing in for Felirae tonight.”

“Good evening to you, my lady,” the young man nodded, inclining his head as the admiral’s hat bobbed happily. “You may call me Lugh, if you wish.”

Felirae. The trading and seafaring capital of Crimea. The situation was iffy there - no one was sure of its intentions after the fiasco with Duke Ludveck. People from Felirae are now generally viewed with great suspicion, though younger nobles, such as Lugh Arback here were working hard to dispel those feelings. Lugh himself belonged to part of the pro-Elincia faction, and rose quickly among the ranks of nobility due to his skill as a naval commander. His household emblem could be seen from afar. However, the young man was also a little paranoid - for good reason, too. Due to his outspoken nature, quite a few would love to see him dead.

One by one, others filled the room. The chatter of small talk could be heard as the hour of the meeting inched in closer. Bastian looked around. Tol Essex, Fayre, Meliora, Felirae…He saw Seidr, the lady of Corbenac and Launfal of Caeleron earlier. Tiraclon and …that must be the lady of Broceliande, judging from the elaborate dress... yes, she just entered now. Good, mostly everyone was here.

“Where is the representative of Camlann?” The sage heard a noble nearby whisper loudly. “We could use advice from the Order of Radiance…”

“I know not.” Answered another noble. “Sir Bedivere would not be late, I think. The situation is dire enough to warrant his attention..."

Noticing the sage, the two hurriedly turned around. One of them flashed Bastian an apologetic smile as they continued to whisper urgently.

“So, what do you think?” Hearing the topic of discussion, Qieru nudged the sage sitting next to her. “How do you interpret the situation at hand?“

“Lo, my lady... The current situation calls for finesse…Daein cannot mean harm, yet there is no good coming from that letter.” Bastian, scratching his head, thoughtfully replied. It was true. For once, he could not read Daein’s intentions. Whatever his suspicions were, however, it would have to wait. The clear call of a trumpet signaled the Queen’s arrival.

“Ever better.”

Chanting the age-old greetings in unison, the lords of Crimea stood and bowed as one as Queen Elincia entered the room. Flanked by Lord Renning and her ever-faithful bodyguard, Lucia, the queen gracefully walked over to her throne and sat down.

“My most esteemed friends, please, be seated.” Gesturing kindly, Elincia waved. “I have no doubts that each and every one of you here knew the reason for your summoning – I apologize for the lateness of the hour, but as you all know, the matter is urgent.”

She paused and surveyed the room. Bastian noticed her lip quivering slightly at the sight of Geoffrey’s empty seat. Elincia wore a light pink dress tonight – a soft color that matched her slippers. No doubt she had hoped that a certain cavalier would be present. Ah, well, he mused. Another time, another place, perhaps.

“…It appears that the representative of Delbray and the Isle are missing. Very well. Lord Uncle Renning? Will you preside over the meeting?”

Renning nodded as he regally walked to the center of the chamber, his back to the queen and his front to the ring of nobles. Taking his position at the podium, the former prince-to-the-throne coughed loudly and began to speak.

“I, Lord Renning Ridell of Crimea, shall speak on behalf of the queen tonight as the presiding officer.” Stretching out a hand, the hall echoed with his voice as he gestured to the group sitting before him. “I now call this session to order.”

Immediately, four of the ten nobles present stood up. The procedure for formal meetings such as these was simple – whoever wished to speak simply stood up and waited to be called upon.

“The Court recognizes Admiral Arback of Felirae.” Renning called out evenly, maintaining his eye contact as the other nobles sat back down. “You may begin.”

The young man stared for a moment, surprised. Generally, the oldest members present were given precedent over the younger. He had no idea why Lord Renning decided to make an exception. Either way, he wasn’t going to squander it. Taking a deep breath, the young man took a moments to gather his thoughts and slowly began.

“I am young and unlearned compared to many here, so I will keep my opinion brief. Felirae stands against the resolution, my lords and ladies. As a loyal subject of Crimea, I cannot allow a permanent foreign presence upon our soil. It is based on this reason that I must voice my objection against the Daein messenger.”

Bercilak nodded in approval, as did a few of the other lords present. The young man’s words held much merit. It was true. A foreign presence, no matter how friendly, still smelled of espionage. In a case where a formal alliance did not exist, the point was even more obvious. Lugh sat back down, content. He had delivered a simple yet effective message. The ringing sound of wood striking wood echoed in the hall as Renning tapped the podium.

“Admiral Arback has finished his statement. Are there any rebuttals to his claims?”

This time, five of the nobles present stood, including Qieru. Bastian sighed. It was probably better for him to stay put for now, and watch the others debate it out.

“The Court recognizes Lord Culainn of Tiraclon.”

The others returned to their seats, leaving a leanly muscled man in his mid twenties standing before the group. His grey tight fitting armor fairly clinked as he pushed back a strand of blue hair. There was something about his grin that reminded Bastian of a certain womanizing, green-armored cavalier from a tale he had read.

Culainn, the Lord of Tiraclon. A chivalrous, if wordy fellow. Quite the lady’s man, too – Tiraclon’s usually rife with rumors of his next sweetheart.

“Friends, Crimeans, Countrymen, lend me your ears! In recent years, Tiraclon – and Crimea - has experienced a great surge in trade, a staggering revival, and even now, is on a well-established path to further glory. I have two major points of contention against Admiral Arback’s claims.” Culainn, leaving his seat, began to pace. One or two of the nobles groaned.

“Firstly, we must consider the reasons for Daein’s behavior. We know that Daein could either mean good or harm – the two cannot intermingle. If Daein meant good, then all is well. If Daein meant harm, then…then all discussion goes out of the window.

However. I am not here to guess at Daein’s intentions, but to look at the situation analytically. What could Daein gain by planting a spy amongst us? The answer is…” Pausing dramatically, Culainn flashed the court a glance. “…Absolutely nothing.

For you see, as much as our own lands have suffered, Daein, infinitely more so. Due to poor management on the Apostle’s part, Daein struggled socially, economically, and politically for the last three years. Their sorry state ended only a few months ago when the Dawn Priestess took the throne. The Dawn Priestess is a maiden of most high caliber – a lady of peace. Are any of you claiming that the lady who veritably saved the world would wish us harm?”

Silence met him. Smiling, Culainn continued.

“But I digress. Suppose Daein does mean us harm. If that is the case, they can only hope to attack us militarily. The reason why we lost the first war was because we were caught off-guard. Now, we are much more prepared. Daein’s army is hardly a threat, in comparison to ours, which are infinitely more trained and skilled.

In addition, have all of you forgotten who patrols our borders? General Geoffrey and his men are more than capable of handling any threats, anywhere. And Lord Bercilak’s twin castles are no easy feat to simply trespass. I say, we are safe. Safe from Daein, and Daein can offer no harm to us. It is this reason why we should at least offer our neighbor a chance! Remember the old saying…”

And so on, and so on. Bastian stifled a yawn. Culainn, despite always claiming to get to the point, rarely did so. In that sense, the lance-lord was just like him – except he knew how to give a speech. Instead, he contented himself with watching the giant hourglass at the corner. Perhaps Culainn will have mercy tonight and only give a forty-minute instead of his usual hour-long statements.

His thoughts began to drift. As always, they returned to Lucia. He felt bad for her – she was forced to listen to them ramble on and on about critical decisions that would affect thousands of people, yet she was never allowed participation.

That, and he wondered how she felt about reading his diary. Admittedly speaking, the prose was not his best work. At this point, he wished he had left the sonnet book in the library instead.

Take good cheer, said a soothing voice in his head. At least she doth not avoid thee as much as three days prior.

Maybe, he replied. Yet she seems withdrawn.

Withdrawn? Lucia is always withdrawn.

Perhaps. Not like this though. I suspect she hides something – a dark secret, perhaps, or some grave pain.

You do not think she hath fallen for someone else…?

An unpleasant mental image of Lucia in the arms of a shadowy figure appeared in his head. He quickly brushed that aside.

Would that be the case, then poor Bastian will gladly prove himself in whatever manner appropriate for her lovely hand.

No. Probably not. If she had a suitor, or if she was seeing someone, not only would he know immediately, but Geoffrey would know. The general of the Royal Knights would then immediately thrust it in his face and extract harsh justice for all the times he prodded and poked at the young man’s love for Elincia. There was no way that dour young man could pass up an opportunity like this.

No, Lucia was not seeing anyone else. The more plausible explanation - Lucia was simply shocked by horrible writing seemed more credulous and appropriate.

Though. One thing did bother him.

I…I am no longer the angel you think I am… Please, Bastian… I…Forget about me.

Truthfully, seeing Lucia in such a vulnerable state frightened him. Lucia had always been the silent stoic. While Elincia was more prone to bouts of crying, Lucia never did. She rarely showed emotion, so it was hard to get through to her in the first place.

Yes, that was true. It made it so much harder to read her. Perhaps it was for the best - if there was one thing Lucia hated, it was being vulnerable. She was the type of girl who would never show weakness in front of anyone, not even her closest friends and family members. And, as far as Bastian could remember, she didn’t cry. Not even the time she broke her arm as she fell from a tree, trying to fetch her brother a bauble from a bird’s nest.

Perhaps, after the meeting tonight, he would get to the bottoms of it. That had been the first time Lucia actually broke down (sort of) in front of him, and that act in itself worried him. He was certain she hadn’t been drunk, so there had to be a good reason for it.

But for now, or the next half-hour, he shall dream again.

He remembered that scene clearly. Being six years older than she was, he had just finished his studies for the day. Of course, they never really played much at the time – both of them were too busy. While the other children were laughing and running around, he was studying to become a mage. She, on the other hand…

Immersing himself in his memory, Bastian closed his eyes. Soon, he was snoozing contentedly with a smile on his face.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lucia yawned as she shifted weight from one foot to another. Culainn’s speech was quickly approaching the fifty minute mark, and there was no end as far as she could see.

At this point, only Arback still paid attention as he furiously scribbled down every point the man made. Qieru doodled absentmindedly on a piece of paper as the lords sitting around were either dozing contentedly or staring off into empty pace. Elincia stifled a yawn as she stared at Culainn in the blankest way she could think of. Judging from the expression on her face, she was probably thinking something along the lines of Please. We understood your point. Will you shut up already?

“…But what is a man? A man, is a man. When looking at the question simply. However! A man is more than just a man…”

Alas, the hotheaded speaker was too caught up in his own antics to notice the hint. Even Lord Renning tapped his feet impatiently as he waited for Culainn to finish, though the sight of Bastian happily snoring away with his head on the desk brought a smile to Lucia’s face.

She wondered what he dreamed about that made him so happy – though, moments later, she silently chided herself for asking such an obvious question. He was, with ninety degree certainty, dreaming about her – perhaps dreaming about past times, or about times to come.

Did she like him? She couldn’t tell, really. Up until this point, she had never given him a chance – the two were close friends, certainly, but not yet at the level where she would feel comfortable entering a relationship that might eventually lead to marriage. The fact that both of them also put their queen and country first before anything else also hindered that – lovers in the queen’s service had a notorious habit of having someone dying on the other as the years progressed.

Still, she reasoned, it couldn’t hurt. At least, she should try to reach out to him more. Getting to know him a little better, if she had time to spare, would certainly be good for both of them. At the very least, she needed to find out what it was about her that enchanted him so -

You’re setting yourself up for disappointment. A small voice whispered to her, its tone full of malice. No man will ever want you after knowing what happened to you.

You may be Lucia Delbray, the queen’s protector. You might be able to cut a candle in half without disturbing the flames. You may be skilled in speaking, dancing, sewing, writing, cooking, whatever. You may have knowledge in just about every single subject out there, but no one will love you. No one can. You’re worthless now, you know? Tainted, spoiled, dirty. That’s what you are.

Not even him?

Not even him. It doesn’t matter who you are – go on. Try it. Tell him, and see how he reacts.

You lie. She screamed silently. I am worth something. And even if I am not, I’ll be more than glad to lay down my worthless life for Crimea, for the people that I care about.

Suit yourself.

It was good that she was good at hiding her feelings. Those barbs of negativity were flung at her – by herself – on a daily basis. During the war, she had no time to muse on her own nature, and so, the points were largely hidden. Recently, however, it was harder and harder for her to persuade herself that she was more than just…

Just…

No one knew what happened to her in those dungeons. Not Elincia, not Geoffrey, and certainly not her father. The load was hers to bear, and the weight…it was crushing her, slowly but surely, from the inside.

Watching the sleeping sage, she wondered for a moment if – no. At least, now was not the time. She could tell him. It was not within her jurisdiction to share what she had.

To whoever’s listening out there…please…just give me enough strength to carry on… a little longer.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“And so, gentle lords and ladies! It is for the reasons that I have summarized above that we must consider Daein’s proposal. Are there any questions, comments, or rude remarks at this time?”

Taking a graceful bow, Culainn lightly stepped back to his seat. A few moments later, Renning grumbled silently to himself as he rubbed his eyes – now the rest of the court would think he was getting too old for this sort of thing…

Bang! He smashed at the podium, watching in satisfaction as the sound rippled across the room. The sight of several present nobles jumping in surprise made him feel better for no reason at all as discussion and debate commenced once more.

The points were evenly matched. On one hand, Daein’s intentions could be interpreted as friendly – having Micaiah on the throne only solidified that claim. On the other hand, it was difficult to gauge true intentions from a single letter. The situation was quickly heating up, with neither side gaining a solid advantage. Between a thirty-minute speech given by Bastian and Culainn’s long rant, though, the court was near its limits as tensions ran high.

“Woah, hey, Jill, easy there. I’m just delivering another message – not like I’m going to be running around skewering bandits or anything like that.” Haar gently patted his new bride’s head as he turned and saddled up his wyvern. “I’ll be back in a jiffy. Promise.”

“This is the second time the court called upon you in three days. It’s not like you’re the only Dragon rider Queen Micaiah had in her service…” Jill complained. A hint of irritation crept into her voice as she caressed the dragonlord’s face, wondering how long it would be before she got to see him again.

A mere week ago, the two were wed at that very same spot – the balcony of Castle Talrega. Everyone thought the two deserved each other. Having gone through hell and back together during the last few years, their bond was tempered by an experience that was built underneath the open skies and forged in the trials of battle.

The moonlight shone on her silhouette as she hugged him tightly, unwilling to let him go. In response, the one-eyed rider shrugged and gently pushed her away.

“No idea. I wasn’t about to ask though.”

His wyvern snorted, but he paid his old partner no heed. Actually, that was a blatant lie – he did know something, but he wasn’t going to tell her.

“Well, you know best….Take care.”

Queen Micaiah’s worried about … something, something that was rightfully of concern. He thought as the wyvern roared and took off into the air.

Jill, stay safe. It’s better if you didn’t get into this mess. With a final wave, the dragonlord quickly disappeared into the clouds above.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“..Lady Siedr of Corbenac has finished her argument. Are there any who would counter her claims?”

One single person remain standing. The rest were content to let others speak as Renning nodded.

“The Court recognizes Lord Bercilak of Tol Essex. You have the floor.” Then, as if an afterthought, he hastily added. “Please, keep this one under fifteen minutes, if you would.”

“Lord Renning, I am not as senile as many think I am!” The old general replied. “As for ye, younglings…yes, yes. All of ye ‘ere. Including ye, Culainn. Now, feel free to cut off an old man’s ramble at any given time when ye feel necessary – why, back in my days, court wasn’t nearly so structuralized! Everyone spoke as they pleased! None of this standing-up-and-waiting-to-be-called business –“

“Sir Bercilak.”

“Alright, alright! I’m getting to the point here. Yer younglings know nothing of the harsh realities of war…call me jaded, or old, or crazy, or whatever you wish. Daein cannae have good intentions here! And ‘ere’s why. Now, ye. Culainn. Ye made a couple of good points about how it’d improve relations with Daein, and how the Priestess of Dawn would never wish us harm. But no matter how ye look at it, with what kind of glasses on or whatever phrase yer youngling use these days, ye still see something fishy behind it all. First, the whole thing’s just one way! Daein doesn’t want one of our lads or lasses at their capital, hanging about and hearing every word from Micaiah. No, sir! Daein just wants someone here to keep an eye on us. Getting my drift here?”

A wave of murmurs again broke out among the nobles. Bercilak made sense. Something was indeed suspicious here – a singular diplomatic channel was generally reserved for vassal states, not states on equal terms.

“Secondly, lads and lasses. Remember what they did to Crimea? Those Daein dogs, if you’ll pardon me for saying this, Queen Elincia, tore most of eastern Crimea apart. Crops were burnt; villages were razed. Thousands of innocents, butchered or captured for Councilor Izuka’s sick experiments, as Count Bastian here can no doubt speak about – and even you, Lord Renning! The old saying goes, ‘a tiger doesn’t change its stripes.” Do you honestly believe one good egg out of the whole bunch could mean us good?“

“Yes, and rightfully so, Sir Bercilak.”

A new voice interrupted the old general as another man with the trappings of a Silver Knight walked into the chamber. Silver knights were as rare as they were – only a handful was promoted every four years. Yet it was his cape that caught everyone’s attention. A simple crisscrossed blue patterned cloak, the borders of the white fabric were filled with lines and lines of writing. The runic words mesmerized all who looked upon them as they swirled with a constant stream of shifting letters in old Crimean.

If the onlooker looked at the text closely, they might just see something –a message, perhaps, or a prophecy. No one could be sure. All the same, a small emblem on the top of his plumed helmet – that of a sword plunged into a large boulder - marked him as a representative of the Isle of Camlann. There was an aura of mystique around him – something holy and ethereal that no one could place their finger on exactly. It was like a gust of wind; a gentle breeze that enveloped the knight, blessed by the lake itself.

Kneeling before the queen, the knight removed his helmet, revealing a mane of pale hair beneath and a scholarly, wizard-like visage, the thirty-something face showed much more than it should have. His steel-grey eyes were alert, yet haunted with things that few should have known about, and there was a degree of weariness within them, as if they were tired with the world. Despite his appearance, however, one look at this man told the others that whoever he was – he was not a force to be trifled with.

“Well, lad! Bedivere! How good of ye to join us! Go on!”

Bedivere. Knight-commander of Camlann and a direct representative of the Isle itself. Rumored to be blessed by the Goddess, Fairies, or both, the paladin was careful not to be seen in public too often – for he and his knights worked in secret, just like Lucia. Some said that Bedivere was one of the talented few who could command the winds of magic and swing a blade at the same time. Bastian, personally, dismissed it as mere hoohah, fueled by rabid supporters.

“I bring word from the Isle,” Bedivere answered coolly. “I am here to urge everyone to take Daein’s suggestion, for the sake of peace.”

This time, excited chatter could be heard in the back. The paladins of the Isle of Camlann rarely made such statements, preferring to stay neutral in most debates. For Bedivere himself to come, with such strong words, the decision must be certain indeed.

“But why?” Qieru, piping up from her corner, asked. “How would accepting Daein’s proposition bring about peace?”

“Simple. If we reject their offer, Daein will take it as a sign of hostility.”

“But you can’t accept such a proposition! What if they mean harm? Were they to catch us off-guard, the Royal Knights could repel an invasion of that magnitude! Remember what happened last time?”

This statement was also true – apart from the Crimean Royal Knights, the military of Crimea was highly decentralized. Each province was home to its own militia and state troops, with the only exception of Delbray, Tol Essex, and Felirae maintaining an active military presence at all times. Daein, on the other hand, maintained a large force at all times.

“Admiral Arback,” the silver knight replied, casually pointing an accusatory finger at the younger man. “While what you say is true, we have no other choice, do we? Have you another course of decision, then? Shall we reject their message?”

“No, but …” Arback sighed in exasperation. “It’s a trap! It has to be a trap.”

“Even it was one, what can we do? The only thing we can do is go –“

“The youngling’s right, for once. It never hurts to be on the side of caution –“

The room erupted as shouting of many kinds could be heard.

“What do you know of caution? You, if I recall, were the one who …”

“Calling me out? Don’t make me laugh. You…”

“Trap or not, we should try to close down this discussion.” Renning tossed Qieru an appreciative glance as she stood up and spoke quietly. Instantly, the shouting ceased as she took up her customary position as the mediator. “Nothing can come out of strife. As for Meliora, we shall remain neutral in this regard, though I personally urge that we receive the Daein messenger as soon as we are able to do so.”

“Indeed, good lady Qieru. Sir Bedivere, may I?” Bastian commented, not wanting to interrupt as technically, it was still Bedivere’s turn to speak. Seeing the silver knight nod, he hastily stood. Before another fractured argument break out, he wanted to conclude the discussion to prevent more useless argumentation.

“There is no reason for provocation at the moment - the spirit of war hangs still above our weary heads, and it is as likely for Daein to try to plot a move toward us as a raven being wholesomely deceitful! Furthermore, the Mad King wanted the Emblem – the object, in which, thanks to no small act on Micaiah’s part, is gone. There could be no ill motive on their part – unless, of course, we’ve another circular disk with the soul of a goddess hidden somewhere in Crimea!”

A few nobles chuckled at the statement. Lucia smiled.

“So! For the sake of diplomacy, O lords and ladies, I must humbly request that we consider Lord Culainn and Sir Bedivere’s words here, lest fortune takes a turn for the worst. I say, that Fayre shall support the Daein newcomer! And by support,” the sage added quickly. “I mean keeping an extremely close eye on what he or she will be doing.”

“A sound plan,” Elincia noted. Immediately, all heads turned towards the queen. “It is now three hours past Midnight. Thank you, everyone, for your input. Before I announce my decision, is there anyone else who would like to add something?”

“It’s a trap.” The fleet admiral muttered quietly to himself. His complaint, however, was drowned out by the even strikes of bells.

Elincia paused, as if carefully considering her words. Behind her, the bells rang, their sound suspiciously ominous in the twilight air.

“Crimea will accept Daein’s offer, though for good or ill, I cannot say. In this, I ask for your aid just as my father and forefathers have, long ago.”

“The queen’s decision has been made. Are there any who would voice concern at this time?”

The nobles present shook their heads. Despite a few of them disagreeing with the queen’s choice, no one was willing to speak out against her.

“Then, seeing none, I shall call this session to a close.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Good night, Lucia. You should get some rest.”

“Night.” Lucia answered as she closed the doors to the queen’s chambers. Despite the hour being late, she didn’t feel tired at all. Her mind was strangely clear.

Walking down the corridors of Palace Melior this late at night – or rather, this early in the morning – always made her feel lonely.

Perhaps she should get used to it.

Unconsciously, the swordmistress straightened up her tunic as she reached her room. Why was she experiencing these sudden bouts of depression? She didn’t know. Perhaps it had something to do with the relative peace surrounding her life these days. The lack of something to distract her mind with meant that she had more time to reflect. With an increasing amount of free time, she found that she couldn’t simply … forget the past.

Enough, she told herself. You’ve more things to worry about than that. Right now you need sleep.

Lucia fumbled for her keys in the dark, cursing herself for not carrying a light. It was a while before she realized that earlier that night, in her haste to finish her task, she had locked them inside.

Sighing, she dejectedly walked away from the door. How in the world did she make such an elementary mistake? She’d get Geoffrey tomorrow – he was surely sleeping now.

Where could she go? The library was almost certainly closed, at this hour. Lucia rubbed her temples as she yawned, her tired feet carrying her to the upper levels. Maybe one of the rooms in the towers were still unlocked – she didn’t mind. Anywhere would be fine at this point.

What about Bastian? He surely wouldn’t mind if you spent the night in his suite…

Yeah, right. She rolled her eyes at the suggestion. And would I want to fuel rumors for the next month or three? You know It’s bound to happen if someone saw me hanging around his room, even if there are separate bedrooms.

Despite the thought, however, she found herself at his door. She didn’t know why, but she was there. A moment of hesitation passed before she knocked lightly, hoping that the Count was still conscious – come to think of it, she wanted to talk to him.

The door opened with a creak as Bastian, in his funny sleeping cap, peered cautiously from behind the heavy wooden frames. His eyes lit up instantly at the sight of her.

“Tra ha ha! Lady Lucia! A wee bit late for you to be gracing my humble dwelling with your elegant presence, nay?”

“Bastian. I’m locked out.”

A pause, and then a subtle “oh” escaped the sage’s throat. He looked a little disappointed at first, but his expression quickly brightened as he tossed the door wide open.

“Say no more! Let me prepare the other room for your presence, then! Please, come on in!”

Lucia watched Bastian with a bemused expression on her face as the sage hurriedly sauntered around, pulling pillows from chests and unpacking blankets. Bastian rarely used the room here in the palace, preferring to stay out either in the field, or back in his home estate at Fayre.

You know, he really isn’t as bad as you thought he was – how many other men could you think of who’d do something like this for you without a second thought?

The swordmistress smiled sadly as she pushed the thought out. It was true, which meant…

The eventual parting would hurt that much more. For now, however, she was determined to do with what she could – until one of them worked up the courage to ask or to tell, the question of her past would remain unanswered.

“And, it is done. I apologize – it is likely not fit for such a dainty little rose like yourself –“

“It’s fine, Bastian.” Lucia answered, the faintest hint of humor still lingering in her voice. “Do you believe me when I say I’m not as dainty as you think I am?”

“I thought that particular fact was established already when you shoved me off the apple tree a good ten years ago,” the sage answered with a wry smile as he poked the fireplace. “Or the numerous exchanges we have had over the years...”

“You…you still remember that?!” Blushing ferociously at the memory, Lucia was glad that the room was still dark.

“Of course. Must say! It was one of the most enlightening experiences in my humble life – gravity is indeed a universal force. Tea?”

Holding up a small teapot, Bastian gestured. A collection of fine leaves decorated the mantle of the fireplace.

“Tea would be fine,” the swordmistress answered. The two passed some time in quietness as they waited for the water to boil. For some reason, it reminded her of a night that she had spent in much the same way, many years ago.

Hahaha. Oh, Bastian. You say you want to find a nice lady to settle down with. How do you plan on doing that?

Indeed. I would like to know as well. Whatever it is, I hope you aren’t as blockheaded as my brother…

Who are you calling blockheaded?

You. Of course.

Am not! Anyways, Bastian. Your answer?

The four of them were around Renning’s old tea kettle, late at night. They used to have random discussions like these all the time…

Well, good Geoffrey. I do not know if I could do my own feelings justice. But perhaps, these lines will suffice.

Well, let’s hear it!

I ask for little, for happiness is often transient – yet, even for a brief while, should I get to know her …should I get to know someone after my own heart…my love shall belong to her only. As for me…

If she remembered correctly, Bastian took a while before he settled on the simple words he said back there.

I’ll shelter her with tenderness; I’ll love her while I may. And for the happiness I’ve known, forever grateful stay.

That night, Bastian’s words touched her in such a way that no words ever had. Of course, how was she supposed to know that she had ended up becoming the target of his affection?

Bastian, however, was true to his word. His steadfast devotion never once wavered, in all of these years. All the little things he did, the gifts and baubles on special occasions… even his well-coordinated rescue, without which she would have surely lost her life…

“…Bastian?”

“Aye, my lady?” The sage turned to face her; detecting a slight tremor in her voice.

“I … really, Bastian,” Lucia answered, stammering a little. She wasn’t sure how to tell him this, because she didn’t want to give him the wrong impression. At the same time, she didn’t want to hide anything either. “Thank you. I don’t know how to put it any other way. Thank you.”

The sage smiled again. It was an awkward comment, but he understood what she meant. Taking a small sip from his cup, as if testing the temperature of the water, he answered.

“Lady Lucia, please, as your brother and Queen Elincia would often tell you: we shall always remain by your side. Please, thank me not. We …”

The sage paused as he searched for the appropriate term. Finding none, he decided that blunt was better than complex.

"We love you. There is no better way for me to answer your question than with those three words.”

The cleansing fragrance of freshly brewed green tea filled the room.

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Pre-author’s note: On my livejournal, the Archives of Melior, there is a copy of this fic – except, with appropriate background music. Head over there if you would like to listen to some of it!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“It was quite thoughtful of you to bring me along, General Geoffrey.” Bedivere commented as he trudged behind the commander of the Royal Knights, his torch spluttering with each step. Even in peacetime, a knight such as he could never be too comfortable. Threats, visible or not, always lurked on the horizon.

I can only wonder if these newer Royal Knights are up to the task.

…If, indeed, the organizations were different in the first place. The two chivalric orders shared a somewhat friendly rivalry in the sense that they both followed the same ideals. However, all semblance of similarity ended there. The paladins of the Isle numbered only one hundred and fifty at any given moment, but the Royal Knights deployed in the thousands. While members of the Order were content with their quiet monastic life, the cavaliers of the Royal Knights had much livelier days.

Even the armor worn by the two orders was distinctly different. Lightly armored by comparison, the Royal Knight’s garb generally consisted of a chestplate, tasset, and shoulder guards. They were much more colorful in that regard – a casual glance from trained eyes would tell the viewer the knight’s rank and origins, based on the provincial style. The knights from Delbray, for example, favored dangling twin ribbons instead of a plume from their helms. There was a story associated with it, supposedly, but Bedivere couldn’t remember what it was.

“Of course. Sir Bedivere. Perhaps you could assess our training regimen.” The other silver knight nodded as he passed a rank of regulars. “Camlann’s training is fabled to be stricter than the Mad King’s own elite guard, and these recruits could definitely benefit from some of that.”

Strictly speaking, the Order was not a military force. They lacked the logistics and numbers that could be fielded in an actual war. When Crimea was invaded by its neighbor years ago, the Order lost most of its members during the initial engagement. Bedivere’s troops, though cased from head to toe in the enchanted silver mail that the Isle was famous for, were nonetheless overrun by Ashnard’s intelligent use of combined tactics…

“I was hoping for a demonstration of some of the more advanced techniques with the shorter weapons, especially techniques that pertained to fighting while dismounted…”

A neat line of torches greeted the pair as they turned. Near the end of the castle walls, a large stretch of clear fields marked the Royal Knight’s training grounds. The heavily trampled grass barely waved in the night wind as a red armored knight marched forward.

“General Geoffrey! Crimean Royal Knight, Second Commander the Sir Kieran the Fearless and Invincible reporting for duty, sir!” A loud, blustery voice called out to them as Kieran proudly stuck his chest out, his crimson hair poking out from beneath his full helm. “We are ready for hell, sir! Whether it be running a hundred and twenty miles around the castle or diving naked into a pool full of man-eating sharks, the Royal Knights are ready! We are -”

Is this man … sane? Bedivere raised an eyebrow as he glanced at the newcomer curiously.

“At ease, Kieran.” Geoffrey hurriedly answered, cutting off the knight’s eager response. The knight’s eagerness scared him on occasions – this particular occasion being one of them. He hoped that Kieran had enough common sense to…

“Sir Bedivere! Such an honor! Are you here to –“Cutting himself off in mid-sentence, Kieran’s expression suddenly brightened. “Ah! My fame (second only to you, of course, General!) must be such that even the great Master of the Isle would like a bout or three with me, the loyal servant of our queen! Oh, happy day! You, sir, wait right here. I’ll go fetch my weapon!”

The knight dashed toward the armory with an astonishing speed, leaving a very surprised Bedivere and a rather embarrassed Geoffrey standing before a rank of silent recruits.

“Sir Bedivere, many apologies. This is my second in command, Kieran. Kieran is rather …” Geoffrey paused, searching for an appropriate word. Kieran was a good friend, and he didn’t want to speak of his subordinate disparagingly. “…Excitable. Allow me to call him back.”

“No, leave him be. A knight of the Isle never refuses a challenge, direct or indirect.” Amused, the silver knight held out a gloved hand. “I’ll give him a round or ‘three.’ I don’t have my usual weapon with me, however, so do not expect me to perform to my usual ability. Have you a standard mace to lend, General Geoffrey?”

The paladin’s gauntlet fell with a crash to the ground.

“Surely you cannot be serious! A bout in the night? None of our weapons are blunted – what if you…“ Geoffrey gawked at Bedivere’s response. Nonetheless, after a few rapid inquiries from the men nearby, he gave Bedivere what he was looking for. The weapon was crudely made. Its steel head was rusting, but the crisscrossed emblem of Crimea could still be seen clearly.

The paladin lightly tossed the mace from one hand to the other, testing its balance.

“Relax, general. You forget that I fight defensively. No harm will come to me tonight.” Bedivere answered, his white cape billowing slightly in the night wind. He could just make out the small red speck running toward him, a very large object in his hand.

“It’s not your head I’m worried about, it’s Kieran’s.” A dark smile crept onto Geoffrey’s face. Chuckling sardonically, he moved to the sidelines, clearing a space for the paladin. “You have at least a good ten years head start. Go easy on him, will you? He’s a good knight.”

“Look! Sir Bedivere. I even got out my good axe!” Huffing, Kieran returned to the field. His prized silver axe glowed in the moonlight as he caught his breath and easily shouldered it with one hand. “She’s a beauty, isn’t it? I call her Victoria!”

The condition of the blade was excellent – even surpassing some of the display blades Bedivere had back in Camlann. He could only wonder how many hours Kieran spent polishing that axe.

“You take good care of your weapon, sir knight!” Bedivere answered, noticing Kieran’s care in handling the weapon. From where he was standing at, “Victoria” looked just like any other silver axe. “Her” edge was a little broader, perhaps, but that was it.

A knight who takes good care of his weapon is to be respected. Bedivere mused, twirling the mace in his hand expertly as he strode forward. “Come, then! Are you prepared?”

“As ever! I am Royal Crimean Knight, Sir Kieran the mightily fearless! All shall fear my axe!”

“The rest of you, watch closely! Learn from this experience!” The knight commander shouted as the recruits scurried off to the sidelines, giving the two veterans space to maneuver.

Like a thunderclap, the two knights met in the center of the clearing. Bedivere lashed out first, his mace hooking around to the left side.

If I read his movements right, he should be coming from …

Kieran answered with a large overhand slash, which sailed harmlessly over his right flank. The paladin’s eyes narrowed.

There.

It was a classical trick – against axe users, the weight of their weapon prevented them from fighting defensively. While Bedivere’s mace had a significantly shorter reach, the precision and speed of his attacks were more than enough to overcome its weakness – especially in close quarters such as this.

Sidestepping easily, Bedivere smashed downward with his mace-hand. He had dispatched many a foe with such a simple opening move. It was a little cheap for his liking, but he -

Suddenly, he sound of metal striking metal rang out in the courtyard as Kieran brought his axe up, blocking the elder knight’s strike. The red armored knight rolled backwards, flipping back to his feet and putting some distance between him and his opponent.

Not bad! Not bad at all. Bedivere thought as he leapt a step back, a little surprised. Perhaps this young man was more than he had given him credit for… but how –

Wait.

The posture…that explained it.

Kieran was holding it with a single hand. Usually, the silver axes were forged with a specific alloy – some sort of silver derivative, which gave the weapon its name. While it made the weapon heavier, it also gave the axe a considerably sharper edge, allowing the user to cut through steel and flesh with ease. For Kieran to be able to wield something like that – either the axe was a fake, or he was exceptionally powerful.

One look at the mark it left on the ground, though, and Bedivere’s mind immediately shifted to the second option.

“Good work, sir knight.” he muttered, newfound respect creeping into his voice. “You have trained hard – an opponent worthy of my full attention.”

“Heck, you almost got me!” Kieran answered, a grin creeping onto his face as he charged forward, hoping to press the other knight back. “Victoria’s not going to let me lose this early – not even to a knight like you!”

Yelling a battlecry, the second commander hefted his axe as he and the paladin from the Isle exchanged blows…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

O Holy One, Grant your stewardess wisdom, patience, kindness, mercy, and resolve, so she may have an understanding heart to judge your people…

The newly risen sun turned its face on the young Queen of Crimea as she knelt on Palace Melior’s cold marble floor. Even with her eyes closed, she could feel its warmth on her cheeks. For Elincia, though Crimea was not a theocracy, she still took her faith very seriously.

She prayed for all the things that were necessary for her to be a good queen. Prayer was a common morning ritual and an integral part of her life. All for the sake of her land and her subjects - she only wanted to give them the brightest future she could possibly offer. The queen, however, understood that no matter what her dreams were, she’d have to build them with her own hands. That was why she still attended the court gatherings diligently – never missing a single meeting no matter how small the occasion. It never hurt, however, to request aid from another source.

As the sole ruler of Crimea, she was simultaneously the political, military and spiritual leader of her people. A heavy burden, yet she performed remarkably well despite her inexperience. While Elincia had not wrought any miracles since she took the reins of leadership, even the least superstitious members of her court believed in her potential and felt that it was only a matter of time before her “latent powers” came into full bloom.

Supposedly, the bloodline of Ridell carried a power to influence their land and subject’s well-being. Over time, as they rule, a number of powerful national-wide enchantments, termed “gifts” would be awakened.

Of these, the most powerful was probably the gift of life. The loremasters said that orchids would bloom at her presence, and crops yielded twice their normal bounty even if she just walked by. Rumors were that poverty and strife would leave the land, ushering in a golden age so long as the queen herself lived. Still others said that with such powerful magic at her disposal, it was possible for the queen to restore life itself to the land, reviving wilted flowers to life with a single touch. Some whispered that she could, perhaps, even bring back the fallen back to this world.

Already, people whispered. Perhaps Queen Elincia would be the one. Why not? They asked. She did everything they did – she was in touch with the people. She knew their troubles, they said. And she was as good of a ruler as Good King Ramon. She was one of the heroes who went with General Ike to save their homes and businesses and the whole continent. She was beautiful, kind, merciful … everything that the ancient tales said their legendary queen was supposed to be.

While Elincia dismissed the fanciful tales – after all, she had never heard her parents or uncle mention these powers at all - she was nonetheless amused by it. Her people’s faith in her abilities only made the young queen more thankful. She hoped that Crimea would continue to flourish beneath her rule.

Thank you, Holy One, for watching over us.

Opening her eyes, Elincia smiled. The morning was windy – but she didn’t mind. The breeze felt good on her bare skin.

At first, the nobles were a little surprised at the sight of her hanging about court– many of them had thought her too spoiled, naïve and innocent to govern effectively. In fact, a few still did. But opinions were changing. Slowly, but surely.

“Geoffrey, Lucia, Bastian… My loyal advisors and uncle Renning... Be blessed.”

With a quiet whisper, she turned from the railing. The nobles handled the day-to-day affairs of the countryside, pausing only to ask for her permission for this and that. The feuding between the provinces had largely subsided, leaving only minor arguments that were easily settled through more civic disputes. No more house-wars that required the actions of the royal knights. Though bandits still occasionally wandered the countryside, the Order of Radiance and her own Royal Knights kept the roads mostly clear. For travelers, Crimea was a safer place than anywhere else.

Lucia controlled the intelligence network and resumed her old duties as the queen’s eyes and ears. She fought alongside her brother and acted as a commander whenever it was necessary – that is, if he was not hanging around his sister’s side, worrying about her well-being.

“I’m your bodyguard,” the azure-haired young woman would answer in a tense voice whenever Elincia wished for her to take a rest. “If anything happened to you, I would never forgive myself.”

She was always hard on herself. Too hard.

In truth, Lucia worried her – something was different about her. It felt as if she was trying to distance herself from everyone she knew and loved. Something had happened. She just knew it.

That harrowing night – after Lucia’s miraculous rescue, she could still remember …

Memories floated into the forefront of her mind.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~`

Elincia breathed deeply as she closed the door to her bedchambers. Lucia was unconscious for the entire day – the strains of her imprisonment had finally taken its toll. After her milk-sister’s near-death experience, she wanted nothing more than to be with her. Even a little while would be enough before duty called both of them away.

The queen’s bedroom was dimly lit with a single candle. Its flame flickered, though there was no wind. The warm light seeped into the far recesses of the dainty chamber, casting its warm glow on the bed – and the young woman lying on it.

She carefully sat down and watched her friend sleep, the familiar act reminding Elincia of her younger days. When she was but a small child, she had nightmares frequently. Lucia was the one who dispelled those for her – simply by virtue of being there at her side.

“Sleep easy, Elincia.” She would whisper to her with a small smile on her face. “I’ll stay up and keep the bad dreams away.”

So she would speak, and Elincia would doze off, the dreams plaguing her no longer. Many nights passed like that…

Yet that night, it was different. No matter how she tried, she couldn’t do what Lucia did for her. She couldn’t drive back the phantasms that haunted Lucia’s dreams.

Merely hours ago, she stood on top of Fortress Alpea and watched Ludveck’s remnants beat Lucia within an inch of her life. It was not enough that she was to be hanged. No. Ludveck had left explicit instructions that she was to be broken before her very eyes in an attempt to make the young queen capitulate to his demands.

The rule of Crimea cannot be kept in your hands! Please, Your Majesty! You must abdicate and cede the crown to me!”

His plan didn’t work. Lucia kept silent for most of the three-hour long ordeal. She didn’t beg for mercy, scream, or “give them a show,” as they had wanted. Not a single whimper escaped from her lips as she endured silently. Only her eyes – and the brief flash of agony as each pummeling strike dug into her flesh, marring her skin – gave the tormented queen a small hint of what she was going through.

Don’t give in. Elincia. Those eyes said. Don’t give in to them. It’ll be over soon.

The queen stood alone. Geoffrey had long since retreated to the armory below, where she could hear him sharpen his spear with a mad fervor. Kieran and Marcia were watching him to make sure the knight commander didn’t sortie out in a solo mad charge. She understood his anguished feelings well – were she in his place, there was no way she could watch the torture below and do nothing about it.

It was difficult to guess who was closer to Lucia, but the siblings’ shared bond only rivaled her own. And Geoffrey…how hard was it, to see his own beloved sister being treated like that, out there?

“Your majesty…” the knight snarled, baring his teeth. Elincia could see his knuckles turn white as he gripped his weapon, taking a haphazard step towards the wall. “You…you…you have to let me do something about this.”

“First Commander Geoffrey, don’t throw your life away, sir!” Kieran interjected in a moment of unusual clarity. Hastily grabbing his superior’s shoulder, the red armored knight flipped Geoffrey around forcefully, wheeling the knight towards the armory downstairs. “You only get one life! Or, I guess, depending on your religious affiliation, several! Either way, it’s a finite number, so please think it through!”

Geoffrey growled in disgust as he stomped down the stairs. Marcia tossed Kieran an appreciative glance as they hurriedly followed, leaving Elincia standing alone on top of the parapets.

She wanted to retreat as well, but couldn’t. For her sake – she couldn’t leave Lucia there to suffer alone, especially when … She was the reason why she was in that compromising position in the first place…

Elincia wanted to scream. She wanted to turn her face away – the sight of Lucia’s broken form, her body shaking uncontrollably at each strike was too much for her heart to bear. A simple word, a single command was all she needed to get them to stop hurting her.

Stop. Ludveck’s honeyed voice, dripping with venom, taunted her. One little word. That’s all you need. We can work something out, couldn’t we?

But no, she couldn’t. Lucia was right. To give in now would render Geoffrey and her planning meaningless. They had fought so hard for a unified Crimea … she couldn’t give up now. To give in to the duke’s demand would mean that Lucia had suffered for nothing. And to give in, was to give in on Crimea itself. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t.

But the right choice … why did it hurt so much? She could only watch helplessly as they continued. When Lucia could no longer stand on her own, they strapped her to a pole and continued. Her aquamarine eyes, now glazed and dull from so much abuse, nonetheless held a trace of warmth.

Their eyes met. Lucia’s cracked lips parted, forming inaudible sounds. If she stared hard enough…she could just make out her mouthed words.

Elincia, sister. Be strong. I…I’ll be alright.

Suddenly, one of the halberdiers gave a loud cry as he dropped his whip in disgust.

“Enough!” the man shouted as he tore off his helmet, tossing it aside to reveal a mane of dark blue hair. “We of the Fianna can tolerate this no longer! For three hours… Three bruised, bloodstained hours we have done this. Her blood today shall be on our hands!”

“You shame our band by directly disobeying an order.” Another, higher ranked warrior called out as he gestured angrily. “Have you forgotten your vows as a servant to our lord? Pick up that whip.”

“Better an oath breaker than a man who, so blinded by his own honor, cannot see right from wrong!” Snapping, the halberdier walked off the hangman’s platform. The crowd was dead silent.

To Elincia, however, none of that mattered. She was too preoccupied with Lucia’s whisper to her. Be strong, she said.

Lucia…I’m … I’ll be strong…

What else could she say? Under the flickering flame, Elincia could only sigh as Lucia turned in her troubled sleep, her blanket slipping off her shoulders as she moved haphazardly.

Was she reliving the events a few hours ago? The pain she had felt, the despairing hopelessness…was that what plagued her mind? Or…was there something more?

Elincia hurriedly leaned over. She’d watch Lucia sleep - for the whole night if she had to. She wanted to be the first one to see her wake up. She wanted to tell her all the things that she wanted to say, but couldn’t at the time.

Her outstretched hand paused in mid-air as she noticed something.

Then, the candle’s flame shook violently as she realized why Rhys and Mist wouldn’t let her near Lucia earlier. She knew Lucia was …

Oh, Goddess…What else did they do to you? She thought as she watched Lucia helplessly. Biting back tears, Elincia reached out and gently caressed her foster sibling’s hair as she gently uncovered the rest of the swordmistress’ body. What she saw horrified her.

Her entire body was littered with bruises and marks, large and small. From her shoulders to her inner thighs, front to back … she could hardly find an unblemished part anywhere. Some wounds looked old, while others were fresh.

A part of Elincia had always suspected it, but she didn’t want it to be true. Now, she was certain. The public beating was not the only abuse that Lucia had suffered in Ludveck’s hands.

I…I’m sorry. I …

Clenching her fists uselessly, the young queen sniffed as a tear dropped onto her milk-sister’s bare skin. She was supposed to be strong… for her. But the tears wouldn’t stop flowing.

I let you down, didn’t I? I couldn’t keep you safe from harm…

“…Elincia?”

Lucia’s weak query made her jump. Her voice was serene and calm, tinged with sadness; but there was a spark of life within them. The swordmistress’ eyes brightened slightly as she saw the queen’s face. She was awake, now.

Elincia could only nod as she gulped, a sorrowful whimper escaping from her throat. She didn’t expect Lucia to wake up now – she thought she could shed her tears in private. If there was one thing she absolutely hated, it was spreading her sorrows with the others. But no, after all – she was closer to Lucia than anyone else in the world. Twelve years ago, underneath Delbray Castle’s old peach tree, they vowed to laugh and cry together, sharing in each other’s fears, hopes, and dreams.

It doesn’t matter if we aren’t related by blood, Elincia. You’re my dear, beloved sister...

Indeed. The bond between the two of them was stronger than most blood sisters.

“Lucia, I….”

She paused. It was impossible to articulate her feelings. Lucia’s eyes were calm. They reminded her of the smooth waters of the lake. There was neither no blame nor no harsh feelings in those eyes - only sisterly love and understanding.

Lucia…

“Don’t cry, Elincia…I’m … fine…” Raising her limp hand with great effort, Lucia tenderly stroked Elincia’s face.

Her smile was a little forced amidst her tears, but she must have thought that Elincia wouldn’t notice. Still, the feelings behind them were genuine.

“I did come back …in one piece…”

Together, their tears fell. There was nothing else that needed to be said.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

With a heavy cloak in hand, Geoffrey sighed as he climbed the stairs that would take him to the balcony where Queen Elincia was standing. He had seen her from below, during his morning rounds.

That dress is not going to keep the winds at bay, he thought as he dashed back to the barracks. She’s almost guaranteed to catch a cold.

He quickened his footsteps. Only a dozen or so more.

The bout had to be called off – Kieran had gone over four hundred exchanges with Bedivere, with neither gaining the upper hand. Truth be told, he was surprised at Kieran’s resilience, but the matter still remained that Bedivere had a number of lethal tricks up his sleeve. The Master of the Isle was not a fickle man, but his ego…

Geoffrey sighed. It was better for him to not dwell on the subject. On top of everything else, the night exercise had gone badly – more than half of the new knights failed abysmally. Out of the twenty he was training, only three hit their marks. These were supposed to be the finest of his youngest trainees, too…

A sorry tale to tell, and the thought of the guard becoming increasingly incompetent plagued his mind. At least Bedivere was sympathetic – though he could never read what that man was thinking.

Preoccupied with the Queen's health and well-being, the knight had not noticed how lovely she appeared to be this morning until now. Her olive-green hair loosely falling down her back, blowing ever so gently in the wind, and her white dress fairly shimmered, its loose fabric playfully whipping her well-toned legs.

Geoffrey paused, taking in the sight. With a beautiful lady before him, and all of Melior below, the sight was truly breathtaking. He could die here, really, and be happy.

How beautiful…and how unfortunate, that our time together now will never be as it once was?

He breathed deeply, calming himself.

Oh, lovely Elincia. Hold, my heart, and be still - your destiny is to admire her from afar…

The sight of her standing there, looking as carefree as ever brought back fond memories.

“…She is only the loveliest, most perfect person on the planet. Brother. I’ve heard this already. She - Honestly, if you like her so much, you should try approaching her instead of stewing in your misery…” Lucia, exasperated with her younger sibling, chided him in response. Apparently, his love for Elincia was poorly hidden – even at the tender age of fifteen, his sister saw right through him.

Elincia’s not as girly as you think. Honestly, I should know…Take her to climb trees or shoot birds or something. She’d like it. Seriously, be a man.”

But, but …” he stammered. “It’s improper…”

Hypocrite.” His sister tossed him a glare that could freeze water as she poked some sort of curious machinery before her. “So Bastian can drag me along on his wild hunts for new plant specimen inside the woods filled with Goddess-knows-what and that’s “proper.” You going off with Elincia for a walk in the manor and all of a sudden that’s supposed to be “improper-”

Lady Lucia! Have you the micropress ready? Time is free, but priceless at the same time! We cannot own time, for it is –“

Sheesh, Bastian. Shut up for a moment. I’m coming.”

Like time itself, the memory faded away. Those days spent in the country manors of Crimea were probably the best days of his life. Elincia was a princess, of course, but Lord Renning was going to take the throne. She was free to cultivate her relationships and find her true love. He, on the other hand, was free to pursue – she was not so far out of reach. As the only son of a noble house, he became a knight. The thought of Elincia’s love fueled his dedication to the chivalric order as the young Delbray cavalier quickly rose through the ranks, becoming knight-commander at the age of twenty-two.

Then, Ashnard made his move. Daein’s sudden invasion of Crimea resulted in the death of Elincia’s parents, leaving the young princess as the sole remaining survivor of the royal family. Before they knew it, they were embroiled in a massive war, where the fate of the continent itself hung in the balance. As nobility, their primary duty was to Crimea itself – for their homeland, everything else must come second. And so, the budding romance was smothered in the smokes and flames of war, never having a chance to bloom.

“Geoffrey?”

Elincia’s voice snapped him out of his reverie. She looked a little flustered, but she was smiling at him. Quickly, his mind scolded. Greet her good morning!

“Uh…”

Mechanically, the knight held out the cape towards her. Whatever greetings he had in mind vaporized like the morning dew at the sight of her smile.

“…Thank you, Geoffrey.” She blushed, wrapping the heavy fabric around her bare shoulders. “I…I meant to ask, what brought you up here so early?”

Immediately, the knight tensed. That reminded him… he needed to talk to her. She was the queen. It wasn’t safe for her to be wandering about exposed.

“Queen Elincia,” he began. “I…ah, I was on rounds when I noticed you standing out here, and thought…well, I…”

Cursing himself for not having Bastian’s ability with words, the knight tried to articulate his thoughts. As Elincia looked at him with curiosity on her face, he could feel his cheeks heating up.

“Ah…”

Focus, Geoffrey, focus. Remember her safety. The thought sent a burst of energy through his mind as it suddenly cleared.

“My queen, it isn’t safe for you to be walking around without any guards. Where is Lucia?”

“Lucia is sleeping. The poor girl looked like she was going to pass out on her feet.” Elincia answered, a little bit of confusion creeping onto her face. “So I told her that I’d be fine on my own, really. This is …Melior. Nothing’s going to happen to me here.”

“Your majesty, you don’t understand.” The knight sighed as he rubbed his forehead. “You’re our queen – our ruler. There are still plenty of malcontents out there who’d be more than happy to see you dead.”

“Geoffrey, don’t be silly. The Royal Knights patrol the palace grounds at all times diligently. No one’s getting pass them –or you, for that matter.”

Somehow, her laughter was infuriating to him. How he wished she could understand what he meant – danger could be right around the corner. How could she not see that?

“My queen, you are still unaware of my message. Anyone here could be a threat to you – the Royal Knights can’t be everywhere at once. So it would be unwise of you to wander around without protection of some sort.” He tried to explain as he gestured helplessly with his hands. He had a long, sleepless and fruitless night, and he was really in no mood for small talk like this. They went over this many, many times. Though the noble houses themselves respected Elincia greatly, there were always a few – a few with enough power in their hands to cause some serious harm - in each province who were more than eager to get rid of her.

“So? I have you at my side. Is that not enough?”

Damn it! She still didn’t understand. Could she not see his frustration?

“Could you be at least responsible enough to care for your own safety?”Icily, the knight replied. The comment was true. If only she was not prone to wander around the palace so much, he’d have a much easier time keeping her safe. Admittedly, with Lucia on the job, the chance of a threat appearing in Palace Melior was pretty much nonexistent, but still, he had to make the point…

“Geoffrey, lighten up, you’re over-reacting on such a beautiful morning.” He couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but her voice was barely above a whisper, and her green eyes flashed with … something. Was she hurt by his words? He couldn’t tell.

“No, I’m not," muttered the knight. He could literally feel the tension building between them, and he hated it. But it was all for her own good – and if he had to be harsh, then that was the sacrifice he had to make. “It never hurts to be careful. After all, princesses do tend to land themselves in trouble because of their simple-heartedness.”

Immediately, he regretted making the remark. His heart felt like it was stabbed as Elincia winced at the verbal blow. The knight also realized that he was being a little unfair – Elincia, while not quite at the caliber of masters like Lucia, Zihark or the now-disappeared Ike, was getting quite good at swordplay. Her diligent practice with sword and staff made her a formidable opponent, and the fact that Amiti naturally warned its user of ill-intent by projecting an aura into the room only weakened his argument.

She could probably take care of herself. The voice in his head gently nudged him. Why not drop the topic, admit you’re wrong, and enjoy the morning with her?

Because I love her, he shouted back. And I’ll never forgive myself if anything happened to her.

“Unlike the princesses in Bastian’s stories, I can take care of myself, you know?” A hint of sarcasm crept into her voice as Elincia, evidently hurt, indignantly replied. “It’s not like there’s an assassin behind every corner wanting me dead at every opportunity...”

He had enough. Between the ill-fated practices, Elincia’s seemingly obliviousness to his own worries, and his own pent-up emotions, he had had enough.

“What if I wanted you dead, then? My queen, have you thought of that?”

Dead silence greeted him.

He didn’t mean that. He wanted to take the comment back. That was not how it was supposed to come out! He –

Elincia said nothing. Standing before him, she was like a statue – only the faintest tremor told him that she was still a living being. Amiti glinted in the morning sun, its harsh glare reminding the knight of his error. Elincia was hurting in a way that she had never felt before.

“Then, I will die, Geoffrey, as simple as that,” she quietly answered, her expression perfectly calm. Still, as she turned to look at him, the pain in her eyes was nothing in comparison to the pain in her voice or her heart.

“My queen, that’s not what I meant! I…”

Geoffrey paused in mid-sentence as he struggled to explain. One look in his queen’s downcast eyes, however, and he intuitively knew: no words of consolation could ease her agony. And it was his fault.

Is that all I am to you? A responsibility? Those green eyes said as they stared into his soul, sharing, for a brief moment, her heartache. Am I still just a burden?

“I…”

He had nothing to say. Except that he was sorry. Truly, he was. He wanted to take it back and tell her what he really meant. I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.

Yet, despite his best efforts, the word never left his lips. For him, the silence was a weakness – a hole in his armor.

For her, it was an eternity of anguish. She had to say something, now, or else she’d lose her composure. Taking a deep breath, Elincia spoke quietly to her cavalier.

“It is just as well. I …Geoffrey, do as you wish. I will not stop you. After all, despite …that …” Turning her face away from him, the queen sighed. The sight of her struggling to speak was heartbreaking to see.

“…”

“After all this time…you still can’t address me …by name.”

“…!”

With her eyes closed, Elincia lightly brushed past him and disappeared down the hallway.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After all this time…you still can’t address me by name…

Her final words rang in Geoffrey’s ears.

Good day, Geoffrey.

“I’m sorry…” The knight sank to his knees as he collapsed helplessly onto the stony floor, faintly aware of the sounds of clinking armor. He had hurt her in the worst imaginable way. Physical wounds could be healed with staff and medicine, but this?

What was he supposed to do? What could he do?

I will be your burden no longer…

Something was in his eye. Raising a hand to brush it aside, the knight slowly stood back up.

Elincia, I’m sorry. I really am. Please, forgive me. I..

It was no good if he just sat here, thinking. He’d get help. Staggering downstairs, the knight searched for his sister.

Lucia would know what to do. Or Bastian. Or, Goddess damn it, maybe even Kieran knew something about this thing. At this point, he was desperate.

Anything … anything! The sight of Elincia, so heartbroken … that hurt him more than any wounds he had suffered on the battlefield.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Geoffrey did not know it, but ironically, what he wanted to win through chivalric valor had long been his. Elincia never cared for titles or gifts. She just wanted someone who cared. That, he had given her without realizing it.

Countless times, he had protected her. It wasn’t because she was queen or princess – it was just because she was Elincia. When she grew weary from the constant fighting, he would comfort her. When she felt dejected, he would be there to cheer her up.

“Princess Elincia, if only you would know of his fluttering, passionate heart…” Bastian muttered, unwilling to give her any more details. Still, she knew. He was every bit the perfect cavalier – and in her mind, she wanted no one else but Geoffrey.

Yet…

Is that it, Geoffrey? I’ll never be anything more to you than your queen now? Am I such a burden?

Something had happened during the past three years. It was as if he was actively trying to distance himself from her.

She wanted to cry. She wanted some way to express her anguish. But no, not today. Today, she had to meet with the dignitaries from Daein. Once again, she had to wear the queenly mask.

Is this what it means to be a queen? She asked herself, silently. Is this what I really wanted?

No, her voice replied. But you’re queen now, and that’s how you will be.

She stared at the sad-looking young woman in front of her mirror and started brushing her hair, noticing that there was a faint line of … something, running down her cheeks.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Easy there, partner. We’ll be home in a bit.” Haar patted his wyvern as he yawned. “You know how to navigate from this part on, eh?”

A roar of affirmation greeted the Dragonlord as his mount twisted sharply, taking a route that would take them directly into the skies of Crimea.

“Alrighty then. Nap time. Wake me if something happens along the way.”

Soon, the one-eyed man was dozing contently in his saddle.

Hrrrrftftft. Two nap already not enough? The wyvern snorted and shook its head. It had never really understood its master’s penchant for napping randomly, though it wasn’t about to complain. Maybe Master should spend night sleeping and not –

Oh well, Master Haar know what he doing, it thought as it circled into the clouds, adamant on dispelling its bad thought. To be honest, it was glad that the two were wed – it was beginning to worry about Haar’s ability to approach women…How else was its master supposed to bring it his son or daughter to continue the family tradition?

The wind buffeted into its hardened black scales. Flying upwind made it work a little harder, but it was well worth the effort. Straining against the elements – was that not what they did as unparalleled masters of the skies? Let the flimsy pegasus knights whimper at the weather!

Wyverns lived for hundreds of years, if not longer – unless they were killed in battle, of course. For a military creature such as Gilgamesh, it would like nothing better than to serve a good house, worthy of its strength…

Listening to the man above it snore, the wyvern suppressed a yawn of its own. At least one of them had to stay conscious – even though the flight was dreadfully dull. This part of Crimea had nothing – no tasty snacks to distract it from the boredom, no thunderstorms to be constantly on the alert for. Heck, there wasn’t anything living within a hundred miles of where they were at.

Diving back below the clouds, the wyvern breathed deeply as the wind changed directions. It could see Melior from here … perhaps it should wake Master Haar…

Sniff.

Wait. Something wasn’t right. It smelled something.

Wyvern!!

It could smell the sweat and steel and … something leatherbound, faintly pulsing with power.

Book?

Confused, Gilgamesh craned its neck as it slowed down temporarily. Sure enough, there were a line of other wyvern riders, flying in a straight V formation. Its eyes couldn’t discern the colors very well at this distance, but they were definitely following Master Haar. Its hunter’s instinct told it that much.

The wyvern started to twist and turn, hoping to jostle its rider to awareness. All the while, it watched in alarm at the newcomers as they began to pick up speed. The four riders were armed and armored similarly – some sort of shade of silver or grey, it couldn’t tell. The smell though, reminded it of those apple-eating hairbags…

That wasn’t good. The pegasus knights were a lot smarter than it was – it needed Master Haar to take care of the situation here!

“Murr…Jill…five more minutes…Zzzz….”

Irritated, it rolled in the air. How could he be asleep when something like this was happening?

No luck. The Dragonlord was still asleep.

“Grraaaaarrgh!” Roaring in frustration, the wyvern flew toward the nearest clump clouds, hoping to lose its pursuers there. Stupid Master! Wake up!

A crackling bolt of thunder narrowly missed the pair, missing the wyvern’s wings by a few feet. The tingling sensation was unpleasantly familiar on its skin.

“Hrnn-huh? What’s going on –“ Haar’s sleepy murmur was interrupt by another blast, arcing wide over their heads. Opening his good eye lazily, the Dragonmaster surveyed the surroundings calmly. “Say, partner. You didn’t eat any livestock, or, Goddess forbid, villagers while I was napping, did you?”

Gilgamesh flashed its master a dirty look.

“Alright! Alright. Geez. Sorry. How long have they been raising that racket? An hour? Ten minutes?”

The wyvern swooped rapidly as it dodged another bolt, growling something in response. By now, the riders were close enough that Haar could make out the Crimean colors of his pursuers.

It felt a little better, though, knowing that the Dragonlord was awake and alert.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A few hundred miles away from Haar’s dilemma, a small contingent of riders travelled slowly on the main road. Twin banners, bearing Daein’s royal crest fluttered in the breeze as the head rider paused, staring at the long, snaking road ahead.

“How many days until we reach the capitol, General Tauroneo?”

“A few days at most, Lord Pelleas.” The general replied, twirling his moustache. “Though a storm is quickly gathering – it may delay our plans.”

“We can slow our pace if necessary, general.” Pelleas answered, checking his horse as he slowed down slightly. “You decide.”

The general nodded as he quickly rode off, spreading an order down the ranks.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Dragon Knight of Daein! You are hereby trespassing on her Royal Majesty Elincia Ridell Crimea’s skies! Surrender your missive at once!”

One of the Crimean riders leveled her weapon – a thunder tome, by the looks of it – at the lone black rider in the midday sky.

Haar wasn’t particularly impressed.

“A bit late for surrendering, isn’t it?” He answered dryly. “You knights were the first ones who were attacking us…”

“Dragon Knight of Daein. You have one chance before we take you under our custody. Surrender now, and we’ll let you live.”

The other wyvern riders began to fall back slightly as the rider with the thunder tome gestured with her hand. Haar tensed.

“I doubt that.”

With a deafening shriek, his wyvern immediately dived below the group, veering slightly as it dodged the Crimeans.

“Surrender to you? With that get-up, you never had any intentions to let me live in the first place.” the one-eyed rider muttered as he grabbed his reins tightly. His position wasn’t as good as he’d liked, and given the current circumstances, he would rather turn tail and run.

How did these creeps know I was carrying a message?

The distinct sound of beating wings told him that the Crimeans had indeed begun their pursuit. The was on. Sparing a quick glance behind him, Haar quickly steered his wyvern, calmly grasping the long-handed axe that was strapped securely to the back of the saddle.

Ah, well. Gil could use the exercise… Let’s see how well they could keep up.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bastian was daydreaming.

Show me a vision, my muse. He whispered quietly to himself as he stretched out lazily, watching the blue-haired woman sleep in the room across from his. All the weariness left him at the sight of her – and to think that she would stay a night there, with him…

The two had stayed up for quite some time, chatting aimlessly. He would have gone on longer, too, but out of concern for her, he held himself in check. Of course, the topic that weighed heavily in both of their minds – the status of their current relationship – was not touched at all.

To be fair, it was something hard to approach in the first place. As suave and charming as Bastian was, he had little actual experience with women. The Count of Fayre had only one person in his mind: Lucia. To him, all the other flowers in the bouquet were beautiful in their own right, but not for for him. It was a little surprising, therefore, that she suddenly stopped rejecting his advances altogether.

She wasn’t really taking them, either, but at least it was better than before. He wished he could read Lucia a little better. The sage had a talent at intuitively understanding people. To him, their fears, concerns, motivations – all of those things are quite visible to his eye at a glance. Yet for Lucia, there were still areas that eluded him. She was …

Mm, better not to dwell too much, lest the passion dim and thought diminish. The sage told himself as he closed his eyes contently.

It was then he noticed muffled sounds coming from outside of his door. Blasted cavaliers. A most wondrous pity that they could not drink more responsibly.

“Oy, rascals! The hour is late! Could you not see –“ Bastian threw the door open as he poked his head out of the doorframe. “See…”

His voice suddenly died as he realized what he was seeing.

If this was Palace Melior, then it …No! It couldn’t – what was going on?!

He now found himself in the battlements that lead to one of the castle balconies. Silver-armored corpses littered the ground haphazardly, their bodies torn beyond all recognition by something. Deep gash marks lined the floors, scratching deeply into the stonework. Here and there, a chunk was missing from the wall. It was utter carnage.

The sickening smell of blood permeated the air. Bastian felt his heart skip a beat as he looked around hopelessly. Where was he? Where was he?

Suddenly, a knight limped into the hallway. Much of her armor was blasted away, showing bits of charred flesh beneath. A thin trickle of blood ran down her mouth as she inched forward, dragging her lance behind her.

“Lady Knight! What…what happened? Where is the -”

“Queen…Elincia…” A mutter escaped from her throat as she took another step before collapsing, her body going through him as it hit the floor with a small thud. “…Flee.“

Bastian gave a surprised yelp as he leapt backwards, completely unnerved. The unfocused eyes of the dying Royal Knight slowly dimmed. A second later, the sage was once again left alone in the dead palace.

Silence filled the room. The only thing Bastian could hear was the sound of his own pounding heart. He looked around wildly, desperately suppressing the flood of panic that threatened to overwhelm him.

This is … this is absurd! This is a nightmare, isn’t it?

But it was not… he could smell it, feel it, touch it…this was all too real…too real.

Calm, Bastian. He told himself as he took a step forward, narrowly regaining his balance as he slipped in a puddle of some dark, slippery liquid. Your wits are the only thing you possess at the moment.

Taking a deep breath, the sage peered around cautiously. He had no weapons, and he still didn’t know what was going on. The situation was dire, though – if this was Palace Melior, then something terrible happened…

Thank you, General Obvious. His mind sneered as he took another step. Will Crimea’s top tactician, the cream of the crop, continue to make such elementary observations? Calm, Bastian. You may salvage the situation yet.

Slowly, he sifted through his memories, rapidly taking in the surroundings. The situation became clearer and clearer to him as his fear-enhanced senses put together a grim, horribly nightmarish scenario.

He was in Melior; that was a certainty. This was one of the outer parapets of Palace Melior. Everything around him was dead. There were at least thirty or so bodies on the ground near him, half of which belonged to the Royal Knights, and the other half the servants and couriers of the castle. Someone – or something – had killed them indiscriminately, and try as he might, he cannot discern the tools of murder. The scorch marks resembled conventional fire magic; the deep cuts, blade or axe. The chunks torn out of the walls…

That, he couldn’t explain. Worst, a small detail nagged at him. If there was a conflict, then where were the causalities from the opposition? Furthermore, who could have done this? Whatever foe they might have faced – it was far beyond any of them…

This was just like the sudden attack on Crimea a few years ago…

A lone horn sounded somewhere in the distance, its familiar call waking him from his reverie. Geoffrey -The queen! Cursing himself for his stupidity, Bastian ran toward the source of the sound.

But which way was it coming from?

The sonorous echo rang through the hallways, a cry that was neither a charge nor retreat. It was almost as if it was trying to guide him. Toward what? He didn’t know.

Damn it all. Legs. Run faster!

As if by magic, the castle around him dissolved in a blink. He suddenly found himself before one of the large keep gates. This place, at least, was not foreign to him – the wind mages often trained along the northern towers due to a long, flat corridor that could easily be sealed by a large, enchanted block of stone. The balcony allowed easy access to the winds outside, and the mages would frequently set up targets to -

“This way, Elincia. Hurry!”

A familiar voice called out as the sound of footsteps rang in the hallway. Before he even had time to turn, Lucia ran past him, her hair swaying wildly. She was dressed in her usual swordmaster’s uniform, but there were several large tears in it. Behind her, Elincia – in an evening gown – hurriedly followed.

“The pegasus – it should be here soon.” Lucia shouted, pulling Elincia up as the queen stumbled, exhausted from her exertion. “Come on!”

The pair had evidently just survived some devastating skirmish. Lucia’s long blade, Laevateinn, was notched in several places, and Amiti’s edge was covered in black ichor. Both were breathing fairly heavily.

“My Queen! Lady Lucia! Thank the Goddess!” Joyously, the count yelled as he ran toward the pair. A dead weight had been lifted from his shoulders – they were safe!

His pace slowed as he realized once again, that he was just a ghost to them – he could sense them, but they couldn’t …

…See him…

Disappointed, Bastian slowed down accordingly. Luckily, the pair was not moving particularly fast, and it was easy for him to follow them.

“Lucia, where is Geoffrey?” Elincia peered around, a hint of desperation creeping into her eyes as suddenly she stopped just behind the portcullis. “He was right behind us –“

“Queen Elincia! Go! I’ll close the gates!” As if right on cue, the silver knight came into sight. Bastian’s jaw dropped at the sight of him – Geoffrey looked like he had just escaped from the scrap heap.

Shakily, Geoffrey stepped forward, using his lance as support as he trudging forward at a snail’s pace. A dozen or so wounds marked his badly damaged armor. “I’ll –“

Before he could complete his sentence, a powerful explosion shook the castle walls. Bastian watched the three’s eyes widen in shock – and fear – as something burst through the stone floors.

What was that thing? To say it was a man was not wholly correct – it was covered by something, and its arms, if they could be called that, changed forms constantly. One moment it appeared as a pair of clubs, the next, hooked tentacles. Tattered robes and royal regalia covered its torso and lower body, and its face – was that even a face underneath that dark blue mane?

Bastian shuddered and looked away. The face was wholly repulsive – agonizing to behold, and completely frightening. One moment it appeared as a malicious spirit, then the next, a faceless hole. The only consistent expression was a devious, eerily human grin. It was a swirl of motion, changing ever so slightly as it stepped forward lightly.

“I count my blessings to have “friends” such as you…” The thing muttered in a high-pitched voice. In a single bound, it had covered nearly thrice the distance of the human step. “Oh, the agony…Hee hee hee!”

Geoffrey gritted his teeth, as if deep in thought.

“So, the old dog couldn’t hold him after all…” Bastian heard him murmur quietly as he looked directly into the thing’s face as he raised his lance in a defense gesture.

“You. I am your opponent.”

Without warning, the knight commander stopped. With the stone gate right behind him, the silver knight spared one last longing stare at the woman he loved. Bastian could see his lips curve in the faintest hint of a wistful smile as he mouthed something that was inaudible.

“Geoffrey!!” An anguished scream escaped from Elincia’s throat as suddenly, Bastian realized what the silver knight was going to do.

“Elincia, no!” Lucia reached toward her, but due to fatigue, she was a moment too slow. The queen had already escaped from her grasp and was a few steps closer to her knight – and the thing that threatened them.

“Sister, keep her safe.” The knight spoke quietly, not once turning back. In one smooth motion, Geoffrey slammed his lance into the gate switch. As a gigantic marble block fell between him and his queen, separating the two forevermore, the sage heard the knight’s final whisper.

“Protect her … for I can do so no longer.”

Bastian could only watch helplessly as Elincia fell to her knees, sobbing. He moved toward her, hoping that somehow, his ghostly presence could help to curb her pain.

“Brother…” Lucia murmured, biting back a tear of her own. “Bastian…”

His heart jumped. Did Lucia see him, at last?

“Lady Lucia! I…”

“Let’s go, Elincia…Or else, his sacrifice…Count Bastian’s sacrifice…all of your knights…would have been in vain.” Placing a gentle hand on the queen’s shoulders, the swordmistress gently pulled her to her feet.

Count Bastian’s sacrifice?!

Was he … dead? But how? He was clearly alive –

This was getting too surreal.

Taking a tentative step, Elincia wiped away a tear as she mutely followed. A gust of fresh air greeted them as finally, they arrived at the balcony. It was already nighttime.

Bastian stared in dumb silence at the sight below.

One half of the sky was gone; covered in some hazy, lightless matter that was darker than the natural darkness itself. The Royal Academy was burning brightly in the starless night, the flickering flames a mockery of the symbolic safety behind its taunting radiance. An entire section of the castle walls was demolished – melted; it seemed, by the looks of it. Thick trails of smoke rose from the ruined homes of the capital as …

He couldn’t go on. This was too much for even him to bear. All the time, countless times assaulted him. Where was he? What was going on?

“Lucia…I..I’m scared.” Elincia’s voice broke the silence as she clung to her friend. There was no hope within those dark green eyes.

“After all this time…I won’t let that thing get you.” Lucia answered tensely. Only the slight quiver of her upper lip betrayed her own doubts. “If I had known that he could cause all this…I would have struck him down at the first opportunity I had. But, no matter...What’s done is done now.”

Suddenly, Lucia smiled. It was a confident, genuine smile.

“I’ll make sure you live through this, Elincia. I won’t let them hurt you. I promise.” She squeezed the queen’s hand, gripping her sword tightly. Behind her, a loud whine signaled the arrival of Elincia’s pegasus, Serra. A trio of riders flanked the mare as she gently landed before the queen.

“The bulk of the Royal Knights are still out there – Kieran’ll take care of things, and I’ll protect you, even to my last breath.” The swordmistress quipped as she helped Elincia mount her pegasus. “Goddess willing, maybe I –“

Another powerful explosion erupted from behind the two women as the pegasus neighed in horror. Bastian spun around, only to catch the sight of Geoffrey’s body flying by. He instinctively closed his eyes and winced as the knight smashed into the corridor with a sickening crunch.

Goddess. He was propelled straight through nearly a ton of pure stone…

The thing howled as it slowly walked through the gap, casually plucking Geoffrey’s broken lance from its torso. The ichor, still flowing from its wound, pulsed with an unholy glow as it moved toward the two women. The grin was still there.

Lucia turned pale as she swayed on her feet.

“…Brother. No…” She whispered.

The pegasus knights shouted a battlecry as they moved en masse to protect the queen. It was fruitless. The arms of the thing lashed out, slicing one to pieces and piercing the other in the blink of an eye. The last rider didn’t even have time to raise her lance as she was nailed to her mount. With a scream, she fell out of the skies, the faint sound of her body smashing into the palace grounds below a grim revelation of the rest of their fates.

The cry snapped Lucia out of her dazed state. In that moment, her expression hardened. The swordmistress of Delbray took a small step forward as she raised her sword in an offensive gesture.

“Lucia…?” A half whimper escaped from Elincia’s mouth as she looked at her milk-sister hurtfully. Bastian could tell what she was thinking – and how she wished that she was wrong. He screamed, too, but Lucia couldn’t hear him.

“While I live, no harm shall come to you.” Lucia answered, Laevateinn glinting faintly with reflected light.

“Don’t do this…I’ve already lost him…I can’t lose you … too…”

“I promised to come back to you safely once, didn’t I?” A calm smile appeared on Lucia’s face as she swiftly gave the pegasus a gentle nudge, forcing Elincia to grab onto it tightly. “Do you think your sister would ever lie to you?”

Elincia shook her head, tears running down her face. Before them, the thing cackled as it leapt forward, its armed now morphing into long spears.

“Go, Elincia. I promise!” Lucia shouted as she dashed down the corridor, her blade the only thing between her queen – her beloved sister – and certain death. “I promise I’ll come back to you!”

Sparks flew from Laevateinn as it met the points of the monsters head-on, knocking Lucia back a few paces. Spinning around rapidly, the swordmistress ducked as the thing roared and lowered its other arm, frustrated that it could miss.

“Go!!” She screamed, risking a look back as she parried another blow from the creature. Then, Bastian saw her dry smile. She didn’t need to call out a second time – Elincia’s pegasus had already taken off with the queen.

Be safe. He heard Lucia’s whispered. I’ll do my best …

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Lucia!!”

Groggily, the swordmistress opened her eyes. With a start, she realized that she was in bed – Bastian must have carried her there. Instantly, a blush appeared on her cheeks. To be dressed like she was, and to be so close to him

She didn’t know what made her feel such a way. She had only started paying attention to his antics a mere few days ago. It was too headstrong of her to be rushing in like this. She shouldn’t be this comfortable…

Was it really rushing, though? They had been childhood friends, companions, and then comrade-in-arms in the service of the queen. Come to think of it, Count Bastian was one of the few people she knew rather well…

“Lucia! Oh, no. No! Oh, Goddess…”

Alarmed, she flipped out of bed. Cautiously, she peered into Bastian’s room. The tone and urgency in which he shouted her name was. She wasn’t sure if she should be amused or concerned, or perhaps both.

Bastian?

The sage was absolutely frantic as he tossed and turned in his bed. A thin sheet of sweat covered his skin as he moaned, once again screaming out her name.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Haaaargh!”

Laevateinn clanged as it met its opponent head-on. The delay between each of her attacks, however, was growing longer. Lucia was rapidly tiring out. Here and there, crimson stains blossomed on her tattered clothing. One arm dangled uselessly by her side as she sidestepped, narrowly avoiding the next titanic strike.

Her opponent was not wholly unharmed, either – after the combined efforts of the Royal Knights, and Geoffrey’s suicidal attack, it was losing momentum as well. Yet, it was much, much stronger than the annoying female human before it, and it would only be a matter of time before she became the next victim upon its bloody edge.

It was only due to sheer skill and a bit of luck on Lucia’s part that she managed to survive this long. The two had exchanged a good number of blows, and from her perspective, each and every one of those should be fatal. Precise cuts, designed to sever arteries…deep slashes meant to render an opponent useless…None of her attacks worked.

Slowly, it dawned upon her that the battle was entirely hopeless – she could hurt it, perhaps, but she couldn’t kill it. No matter how deeply her sword bit or how wide the wound was, it didn’t matter – the creature she faced was immune to pain.

“Give in to me, pretty one.” The thing taunted, blocking her feeble strike with an easy parry. “Give in, and I’ll be sure to make you suffer a little less…”

The next blow took all her strength to block as the creature suddenly leapt forward, arcing his blade in a huge slash. It licked it lips eagerly, enjoying every moment of their battle.

“Give in, pretty one…your suffering shall be short, but glorious!”

Lucia raised her blade again, straining to block the incoming strike. Her tired legs slipped a little as she struggled to hold her position.

Snaking his other weapon around her back, the creature swung at her with the force of a hurricane. It watched in satisfaction as the club-like appendage caught her squarely in the back.

“Aa….aaagh...”

Her pained gasp was the sound of finest music to its ears. Morphing its other weapon into a large hand, the creature picked up the fallen woman, watching in amusement as she struggled to stay conscious.

“Drop your sting, pretty one…” It growled, forcing Lucia onto the ground and easily blocking her pitiful efforts. With its other arm, now morphed into a claw, it …

Bastian, unable to stomach it any longer, tried to avert his eyes. To his abject horror, he found that he couldn’t look away.

I am agony incarnate. He heard the thing say. I take your darkest nightmares and bring them to reality. Agony is my garden, where the screams are flowers, and pain, their fragrance…

“Give in.”

“N-no…” She stuttered, her eyes desperately searching for something. Her grip on her sword relaxed slowly as she gasped in pain. Even she was nearing her limits.

“Lucia…” Bastian whispered. He could not say anything else. He wanted to help her – anything. Right then, if he could have given up his own life for her, he would have done so without a doubt. But he could only whisper her name.

Slowly, her eyes wandered around, still searching for something. For a moment, they seemed to have locked onto his own.

“Ba…stian…?”

A hint of recognition appeared in those lucid blue eyes as her grip loosened. With a clatter, Laevateinn fell lightly to the floor. The swordmistress closed her eyes.

“That’s right…” The creature grinned, its long tongue snaking hungrily as it lowered its face. “It is much more fun if there is no resistance… I’ll break you first, then –“

A glint of something caught its attention. It spun around – the annoying little prick had disappeared from the floor altogether.

?

Before it had time to react, the glowing tip of Laevateinn pierced its skull. It looked down in disbelief as suddenly, it realized what had happened. She tossed the sword, yes…but she tossed it…

…directly above…

Shrieking, it toppled backwards. Its form seemed to melt into the thin air as it slowly vanished, leaving Bastian alone with Lucia in the now-silent chamber.

The swordmistress collapsed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Slowly, Lucia propped herself up. Her spine was broken, so she pushed herself along with her arm. She didn’t care what happened now – she hurt so much. It was only a matter of time, anyways…

I’m sorry, Elincia…I couldn’t keep my promise…

She crawled forward, the world fading and appearing in her eyes. She saw Bastian standing there, rooted to the spot. He could do nothing – he could only watch…he was a ghost, wasn’t he? See? There he was…

“Bastian…Brother…wait…for me…”

She fell to the ground, her arm giving out. Biting her lip, Lucia tried to push herself back up. After all that…she could at least die beside her brother, if she couldn’t die beside her…

Goddess, please, let me live for a little longer. She thought as she resumed her painful labor, inching toward her goal. She was hurting so much.

“Enough. Enough, Lucia. You have suffered enough…” A pair of powerful hands caught her as she collapsed again. The voice…it sounded so natural to her. Was it…?

“Bastian?” She opened her eyes slowly and blinked.

“Shh. Where would you like to go, Lucia?” Bastian carried her effortlessly as he stood up, his trembling hand feeling the tremor of her faintly beating pulse. It was growing weaker by the second. “My apologies…I was...”

The sage paused as he struggled to maintain his composure.

“I was too late…”

“…No. You’re…just in time… Lucia smiled as she let out a satisfied sigh. “Here…Wherever we are…is fine.”

Pitifully grasping his hand, the swordmistress looked into his eyes with a strange longing.

“Hah…to die like this, with you by my side… it’s almost as if I remained pure for you… mm?” Hazily, she murmured, still grabbing onto his hand as if it was the only thing that still linked her to this world. “But I … didn’t…”

She wanted desperately to live. She thought she had lost him. She wanted to be there, with him…

“I don’t…deserve…this…”

Almost as an afterthought, Lucia added, a shadow of self-blame appearing on her face. Even now, close to death, she still…

The darkness still haunted her.

“Do not speak like that!” Bastian screeched as he watched her eyes close slowly. “Stay with me, Lucia…”

She couldn’t hear him. Already, her breathing was getting shallower and shallower.

Yes you do .He wanted to say, but there was no time. More than I could ever offer. You do deserve everything I have to give you, and more. I…

“Stay with me…”

I love you. I don’t want to lose you.

Those were the sage’s true thoughts, yet they would never become Lucia’s salvation. He could only watch helplessly as she breathed her last.

“Stay with me…”

Numbly, Bastian mouthed the words over and over again, hoping somehow, they’d bring her back. He felt her body growing colder and colder as the last traces of warmth left her lithe form.

“Lucia…”

At last, he knew what true sorrow meant. He tasted something salty in his mouth. Grown men weren’t supposed to cry. But there were times when a man’s emotions do get the better of him. The bitter waters cascaded down his cheeks as he closed his eyes and cried.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Come on. Wake up. This isn’t like you.”

Worried, Lucia called out again. He was screaming incoherently, and the only thing she could really make out was her name. She had been there trying to talk to him for quite a while now, without any visible effect. It made her wonder if this was what she looked like – when she had those bad dreams…

Was she as lost as he was, trapped in some nightmare in which only she could see?

“Bastian?” She whispered again. Impulsively, she reached out and touched his forehead. It was cool to her touch. At least he was not feverish. That was good.

With a scream, the sage bolted straight up, knocking her off balance. His eyes scanned around wildly, searching for something until they finally focused on her face.

Almost instantly, a flood of relief washed over his visage as he fell back down with a grateful sigh. He looked too happy for words.

“Lucia…” She heard him murmur. “So...it was just a dream, a fleeting illusion, after all…Ha-ha…”

“Bastian? Are you alright?”

“…I am now, dear Lucia.” The sage grimaced before quickly hiding it behind a smile. He was fairly certain that she wouldn’t want to hear that dream anyways – it was too horrifying, too dirty, and too …

It was then he noticed that Lucia was literally sitting on top of him.

“Urk. How did you –“

Other than their respective small clothes, only a thin sheet separated the two – Geoffrey would be appalled. Bastian thought as he shifted slightly, feeling her body heat and reveling in her presence. As much as he hated himself for enjoying it, he really didn’t want to shove her off just yet.

“Mm.” Lucia answered, a little embarrassed at her own intimate gesture. She shouldn’t have crawled up there in the first place. She probably shouldn’t have touched him, either. “I… guess I wanted to make sure you were alright. Pardon me. I have forgotten my manners.”

The nightmare was gone – dissipated like the sun shining through the morning mists.

“Are you…going back to sleep now?”

That question caught her completely by surprise.

“No, I suppose…not.” It took her a good while to come up with a response. “Would you like me to stay with you …for a little while? That way, you could tell me what you saw…and well, if I could help you…”

Lucia paused, watching the sage nod. She inched closer and sat down next to him.

“We all our own burdens bear, Lucia…Yet, I would like nothing better than…” The sage lapsed into silence, unsure of his own answer.

He couldn’t tell her the entire nightmare. They were not yet close enough for them to share everything –a chasm still existed between their hearts. But, that gap was shrinking.

Nothing should be awakened prematurely. Especially not love.

Finally, the sage settled on the simplest thing he could say – a simple pair of words.

“Thank you, Lucia…thank you.”

She smiled as she leaned against him, the gesture intimate and elegant, but completely chaste.

I’d like to stay with you forever. Bastian thought as he relaxed, taking her smaller hands within his own. But I’ll be content with however long we have.

“The sun rises, Bastian. Whatever it is, let it trouble you no longer.” Pointing a slender finger at the glowing star beyond, the swordmistress allowed the light to bathe the two in its peaceful luminescence.

I could ask for nothing more. Thank you.

Edited by Caradryan

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I'm always pleasantly surprised to find a piece of fanfiction which is tasteful, well written and well thought out: your work seems to hit all three targets. Congratulations on a very fine piece of work

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