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Abvora

The Invisible Princess: A Mikoto Origin Story

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I actually posted this on ff.net last week, but after updating yesterday I thought I should put it up here.

The premise of this fic is exploring how Mikoto ended up as Queen of Hoshido. I've done a lot of research into the timeline and lore of Fates to make sure everything fits. Beyond just telling how Mikoto got to where she is at the start of the game, I'll also be applying some alternate character interpretation to her character, adding worldbuilding, and trying to inflict some greyness into the Hoshido-Nohr conflict when it eventually rolls around. It starts shortly before Corrin's birth and will end shortly after the kidnapping, with an epilogue set when Corrin returns to Hoshido in Chapters 4/5. Expected length is about 7 chapters, though the word count is significantly higher.

Naturally, there are spoilers ahead. You shouldn't read this if you aren't aware of the plot reveals in Revelation or care about remaining unspoilered.

You can find the original here: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/11860540/1/The-Invisible-Princess. Rather than start a feedback topic, I'd prefer it if comments, reviews and feedback were dropped there (though if that's not okay with the mods, let me know and I'll remove the link and open a feedback topic up).
Chapter One:

Her month-old niece was a small thing, all soft skin and big gold eyes and wispy blue hair. The white of the bow in her hair and of her coronation dress made her look even more delicate, almost like a porcelain doll. Sunlight kissed her brow and she squirmed a little, squinting in the light, even more precious in her precariousness. Everyone in the kingdom fell in love with her the moment she was presented to them.

Thunderous applause rang from the streets below as the priest finished his annunciation of Princess Azura of Valla. The entire city of Gyges was assembled below, peasants and nobles alike brushing shoulders. In the distance one could see decorations lining the streets and town square, along with various stalls. The king and queen, Theophilus and Arete, stood at the forefront of the balcony with the priest holding their precious daughter, waving to the crowd. Hovering in the background, in the shadows cast over the balcony, Princess Mikoto couldn't suppress a smile—Valla hasn't had much cause for celebration lately. The birth and christening of their new princess was just the thing needed to lift their kingdom's spirits.

With the formalities over, the celebrations could commence, and the sounds of laughter and chatter floated up as the people began bustling to the different stalls in the town square. The priest returned Azura to her parents' arms and stepped back, bowing respectfully. The guards escorted the royal family into the castle, passing through the maze of corridors until they reached the great hall, where they, the nobles, and some lucky upper-class merchants would be dining.

Azura was passed off to her nursemaid, who left to return the baby to her chambers. The servants ushered the royal family to their table, up on the dais—Mikoto was at her sister's right hand, who herself was at the king's right hand—and scurried off. Their retainers and some of the particularly wealthy or politically powerful nobles were placed facing them, but at a slightly lower table. A sign of favor—the closer you were to the royal family, the better your position at court, and Mikoto could see some of the lesser nobles eyeing the coveted table enviously. Particularly the spot at King Theo's left hand, left carefully empty, awaiting someone who would likely never return.

The servants returned, precariously balancing platters of food. Duck seasoned with spices, thick loaves of raisin bread, roast pigs studded with chestnuts, fruit cut to resemble brilliant jewels, rabbit-and-herb stew. It was not as excessive as it would have been, had Valla not been in a state of famine, but there was certainly more food in one place than Mikoto had seen in months. Part of her was already calculating the cost of such indulgence, while another was overjoyed at all the food, and a third part reminded the rest that a bit of excess was warranted for the birth of a princess.

The raven-haired princess cut thin slices of her pig, relaxing slightly. The topics currently being discussed were of little importance, innate chatter about the weather and such, and so she allowed her mind to wander. Her mind drifted again to the christening, to the little baby and the people's joy over her, and a pang of jealousy shot through her chest.

At seventeen years of age, she was well past the age of eligibility, but no suitors had stepped forward for her. It was her sister they'd always wanted, her sister with their father's pendant and claim to the throne. When their parents passed away five years ago, Arete had ascended the throne at the age of fourteen. People immediately doubted the young queen's ability to rule, whispering that she lacked experience, that it would be better to install a regent, even though she was of age, albeit barely. Noblemen began presenting their sons to Arete in droves, calculating eyes upon the throne. Arete had refused at first, adamant that she would be no one's puppet queen. But Mikoto, even at twelve, had already had a head for politics, and advised her sister to marry to gain allies. It was her words that finally got her sister to cave.

Theo was the eldest son of a priest, well-educated, popular at court. Eighteen years old—close enough to Arete's age that Mikoto didn't feel bad about pressuring her sister to marry him, far enough that he had more worldly wisdom at his disposal. His lineage was good enough that the other noble families wouldn't feel shunted, and he was said to be a good, just person, if somewhat weak-willed. He was perfect. Through some clever maneuvering on Mikoto's part, she was able to get them introduced, courted, and wedded within a year.

Arete was the queen the people loved, and Mikoto the princess the court ignored. But that was for the best—they had no idea how skilled she was at manipulation and subterfuge, no idea that it was her hand steady at her sister's back. She was the one who dispelled the unpleasant rumors that circulated as the years trickled by and Arete and Theo failed to conceive an heir, the one who eliminated threats to her sister before they could manifest, the one they trusted and relied on the most.

No, she didn't regret being in the shadows; that was where she could best serve and protect her sister. Still, though, she sometimes couldn't help but wish for some fame, so that perhaps she'd catch a man's eye and start a family of her own. Children were the one thing she longed for more than anything.

She was shaken out of her melancholy by the sound of a name—not hers, but one widely known and dreaded throughout the kingdom. "A pity Anankos couldn't make it," Theo remarked through mouthfuls of duck, a little wistfully.

Mikoto bit her lip. To her left, Arete let out a resigned sigh. With his father one of Anankos's priests and him expected to follow his footsteps, it was natural that Theo had grown up spending a lot of time with the dragon. It was natural that he had befriended the dragon. The problem was, Theo's friendship made him somewhat…blind.

The nobles and dignitaries traded a few looks at Theo's remark. "Perhaps it's for the best," one of them, a man by the name of Daisuke, dared to say. "After his destruction of the Brightwood…well, I don't know if I would be willing to trust him near the new princess."

Theo shook his head, firm and determined. "I'm telling you, I know Anankos. There's nothing to fear from him. He just made a mistake, that's all."

"Aye, a mistake that razed an entire forest to the ground." Remembering who he was speaking to, Daisuke hastily adjusted his tone to be more reverent. "Your Majesty, if it were just a mistake, he wouldn't have run, surely."

"Why wouldn't he, after the way we treated him?" Theo's voice was as sharp and cold as an icicle. "We ostracized him and cowered from him. He has done so much for us—so much—and the moment he slipped, we turned on him. That's the exact attitude that would have only strengthened his already low opinion of us. We need to stand by our friends in times of trouble, not abandon them."

"With all due respect, Your Majesty," another noble interjected, "Anankos was your friend. Not ours."

"I think that's enough out of all of you," Arete interrupted as her husband opened his mouth again, eyes flashing. "Today is a joyous day, one of celebration. Not division."

The nobles backed down, murmuring half-hearted apologies, and switched topics to safer things. Tight-lipped, Theo let them, instead turning to whisper angrily with his wife. Mikoto looked down at her pig, stabbing it with perhaps more violence than necessary.

Centuries ago, there had been a devastating war between Hoshido and Nohr. Refugees from both sides had fled, and by a stroke of fate came under the protection of a deity. That deity had brought them through the Bottomless Canyon to a previously-unknown land, where they quickly founded their own kingdom, one that had a mixture of both cultures. In exchange for the deity's protection, they'd sworn to venerate him forever. That kingdom was Valla, and that deity Anankos. And for a while, things had been well.

But as the decades passed, the people lost faith in Anankos. He had an incredible amount of power at his disposal, power no human could dare to match. While he had never shown any interest in the throne, he had always been a welcome addition at court and trusted advisor to the royal family—but gradually, bit by bit, that changed. People were afraid of him, and he knew it. His appearances at court dwindled down to nothingness sometime during Mikoto's grandparent's reign, and he retreated to dwell with his clergy. But he did not forget the slight against him, and to the people's terror, it seemed to be driving him mad.

Shortly after Arete and Theo's wedding, Anankos had appeared in court for the first time in five decades, but not as a human—he had shed that form long ago. No, as a dragon, he landed outside the palace and commanded the new king and queen to put isolationist policies in place, and it was here that Theo's friendship with the dragon worked against them. He had been very reluctant to obey, but he had obeyed nonetheless. One spell, done by their most skilled mages, to wipe themselves and their kingdom from all living memories and written records; another spell to raise a barrier between their worlds; a third to curse their kingdom's name, so that it might never be uttered Outside. They truly were an invisible kingdom, and public opinion slowly turned against Anankos.

Things only worsened when Anankos devastated the Brightwood last year in a fit of draconic fury. The effects had been catastrophic—Brightwood had been a sprawling forest nearly 500 acres in size, one of the chief sources of Valla's lumber, meat, herbs, leather, and furs. The loss of such a bountiful habitat had done a terrible thing to their economy. Construction and reconstruction efforts ground to a half, textile production was down, medicine was down, almost everything was affected. Theo had even been forced to impose rations on meat.

The people had always been afraid of Anankos giving in to his base nature, and his policies had not been well-received, but in light of this event, their imaginations had run away with them. Now they whispered rumors that he had ordained the isolation of Valla to have an easier time destroying it. Mikoto and Arete did their best to quash such rumors, of course, but it wasn't easy to stand up for the deity when part of you wondered it was true.

It wasn't easy to stand up for someone you resented, and maybe even hated a little.

Mikoto's grip on her fork tightened as she remembered their father, gasping for life as his body scattered into water. That was something else Anankos had done—at the dawn of Valla's civilization, he'd written a song and ordered the royal family to learn it. He'd granted them a pendant, and in combination with the song it was supposed to soothe his mind, keep him from going insane.

Except the cost came at the singer's life. Not immediately—but the drain on him or her built up over time, hurting and weakening them until they eventually died, dissolving into water. That was the fate that had befallen their father, and would someday befall Arete, and Azura, and Azura's eldest child. That was how it had always been in their family, and how it always would be, because the alternative was letting their god slide into madness.

And in the end it was all for naught. Anankos's mind had fractured anyway, and now he was a half-mad recluse living on the outskirts of civilization. The members of the royal family had been giving their lives for nothing. Her father had given his life for nothing.

Bitterness at the unfairness of it all welled in her throat. Mikoto turned away from Theo and Arete—whose arguing was starting to get louder now—and instead focused on her pig. Ignoring the problems of the world wouldn't make them go away, she knew, but for once she'd rather escape them than face them.

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The situation worsened as the weeks went by. The food in their reserves dwindled down, as a drought killed the crops and the hunters refused to go into the forests. Fires became more common thanks to the lack of rain, and there wasn't enough wood to rebuild what was destroyed. Trade between cities slowed to almost non-existence as people refused to take to the roads. Mikoto was a ghost at court, always watching, always silent, always ignored. She almost never saw Arete or Theo anymore, busy as they are trying to keep Valla from crumbling apart. When she did, they were usually huddled together, whispering angrily—she caught Anankos's name more than once, and knew they were arguing over whether to seek him out or not. She'd already been pondering the issue herself for weeks, turning it over and over in her mind, and reached her conclusion.

If Anankos truly desires to destroy us, Mikoto had thought late one evening, picking at a pathetic little quail, he doesn't even have to do anything. He can just sit back and let us hang ourselves with a noose of fear.

That was the thought that made up her mind. When Arete and Theo finally came to her for her input, it was desperation that had her siding with Theo. With Valla cut off from the other kingdoms, they simply had no way to procure the resources the people needed. They needed to find Anankos—either to beg for his aid, or to show the people there was nothing to fear from him and hopefully motivate them into working again. With her sister and her husband siding against her, Arete had no choice but to acquiesce to their wishes.

"I still don't like this," Arete warned as Theo saddled up his horse, his retainers already at waiting at the gates. It had been two months since Azura's christening, and even though it was morning, the air was already heavy with the beginnings of summer heat. There was an assembly gathered in the courtyard of the palace, there to see their king off, buzzing with uncertainty. Mikoto bounced her niece in her arms, watching her sister and her husband say their farewells.

Theo smiled at his wife fondly. His marriage to Arete had not been born of love, and they still weren't in love—but they were friends, and that was more than what some could claim. "You never like my crazy plans."

"Well I like this one even less! Showing up begging for his help after driving him away? That's going to put him in a bad mood from the start."

"It would, if it were why I was going. But it's not. I'm not just going as a king seeking aid, but as his oldest friend trying to help him regain the prestige he lost. Surely he'll understand."

Arete sighed and shook her head. "I wish I had your faith."

"It's for the best you don't. After all, who would keep me grounded in realism?" That got a chuckle out of her somber sister.

Theo hugged first Arete, then Mikoto. He made a few last funny faces at Azura, who burbled happily, and then swung onto his horse. As he and his retainers departed, the crowd applauded wildly, Theo's bravery and optimism infecting them. Mikoto watched all this, marveling at her brother-in-law's ability to remain positive. Perhaps, she dared to hope, he was right. Perhaps Anankos just needed a friend to help him. Perhaps they don't have to fear their god going insane and destroying them all.

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Two weeks later, one of Theo's retainers returned, bloodied and swaying in his saddle, and told them shakily of how Anankos had attacked and killed the king.

And the people of Valla rioted.

Edited by Abvora

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Chapter Two:

When the king died, contrary to Mikoto's expectations, the worst did not come to pass.

She had feared that the peoples' wills would crumble, terror would grasp Valla, and chaos would consume their country. But instead the opposite happened. The day after the news became public, Mikoto awoke to find what seemed like half the citizens of Gyges clamoring at the palace doors, demanding retribution for Theo. She sent them away, but they returned the next day. And the next. A hasty look in one of the crystal balls in the palace—designed to see what was happening in other places and pierce all deception—showed similar uprisings across the country.

A mob mentality had gripped the people nation-wide, but not one of fear, no; it was anger. Anger and hate. Theophilus may not have been a loved king—the people had seen him as weak-willed, too easily swayed by his friendship with Anankos—but he was not overly hated, either. And more than that, he was their king. He had gone to Anankos under a metaphorical white flag and been murdered. The injustice of that was ultimately what put steel back in their people's spines and reignited the fires of their hearts, and now they screamed for Anankos' blood.

Mikoto couldn't help but think privately that perhaps Theo's death was a good thing. As much as she mourned him—mourned for her sister, who now hunched her shoulders as though the weight of the world were upon them, and for little Azura, who would never know her father—she could see that the stink of fear upon Valla was lifting. Rather than fall into despair, they were rallying, rising up again. Theo had become a martyr, serving his kingdom better in death than he had in life. The famine still weighed on them, but they no longer buckled beneath it.

Now the greatest challenge the royalty faced was reigning the people in, stopping them from acting on their threats to Anankos. Because he was still a very, very dangerous god.

A week after Theo's murder, Mikoto went out on a walk with her retainers at the palace lake. One of the gifts Anankos had bestowed upon their nation was the ability to travel through water, either to different parts of Valla or to other lands, and the location of the palace had been chosen precisely because of its close proximity to water. Should the worst occur, the royal family would not have to go far to escape.

Assuming they still could, with Anankos's barrier spells in place. As soon as word of Theo's death has arrived, Arete had made undoing the spells Anankos set a top priority for their mages. So far they hadn't made any progress.

A light breeze tickled the nape of her neck and she shivered, still unused to having her hair so short. In Valla, when someone died, it was tradition for their associates to cut their hair in grief. How much hair you cut was proportional to how close you'd been—Azura was exempt, being a baby, but Mikoto had lopped off most of her black locks, leaving her with a short bob, and Arete, as Theo's wife, had shaved her head completely.

She was trying to calculate the benefits and downsides of advising Arete to lower the taxes, and whether that would mollify the people for a time, when she spotted a shape on the shore of the lake. She raised a hand to shade her eyes and squinted. It was a man, lying face down in the mud, lower half in the water. Surprise struck her, followed by suspicion—there was only one entrance to the grounds, and the guards would have notified her had someone entered. So who was he and how had he gotten here?

Ignoring her retainers' cries of milady, wait, it may be a trap!, Mikoto lifted her skirts and hurried over to the prone form. She rolled him onto his back, pushing aside the hood covering his face impatiently. He was unfamiliar, but he looked Vallite, with the long blue hair and strong aristocratic features many of the upper class had. Unusually, he had a red gem set on his forehead and slightly pointed ears. Mikoto patted him down, feeling for weapons and finding none—but when she pulled her hands away, they were sticky with blood.

Her healer's training immediately took over, and she began methodically going down the checklist. Locate the wounds—several on his chest and stomach, one deep puncture on his hip. Check the severity—the abdominal wounds ranged from minor to moderate; the hip wound was severe. Not fatal, but he might lose the use of his leg if it went untreated. Decide on an appropriate staff—well, her sun festal was the only one she had with her. She brought it over him, whispering the incantation for a healing spell.

Halfway through, the stranger started awake. His eyes flickered around wildly before landing on her, and she saw that the irises were as red as rubies—another anomaly, most Vallites had yellow or green eyes. He blinked, confusion etching itself on his face.

"Who…"

"Quiet," she scolded. "Let me finish healing you."

"Milady!" Her retainers, Damaris and Keiji, had caught up to her. Damaris grabbed Mikoto and yanked her back, hand going to her naginata, while Keiji pointed a finger at the stranger, the tip flickering with lightning. At this the man struggled to rise up, only for his legs to give way beneath him.

Damaris was the daughter of a cow herder, sixteen, with a hook nose, brown hair and amber eyes. She was a bit dreamy, but her graceful and determined, and her skill with a naginata let her overcome all odds and become a soldier—and, eventually, royal retainer. Keiji couldn't have been more her opposite if he tried: cynical, no-nonsense and a bit of a bookworm, with dark blue hair and wintry green eyes betraying his noble heritage. Already an accomplished mage, the twenty-year-old's family had long been in service to the royal family, and he'd dutifully followed their footsteps. They, along with Arete, were the only people who ever saw Mikoto without her mask. She trusted them implicitly, but given recent events, they'd become a bit overprotective—the one area they could agree on was diligence in regard to her safety.

Mikoto huffed. "I've already checked, you two. He's unarmed and wounded. He's not a threat."

"Even so, Lady Mikoto," Keiji began, eyes not wavering from the stranger, "We can never be too careful."

Pointedly, she asked, "Should I have stood by as he bled to death?"

That got a pause from Keiji. To the rest of Valla, Mikoto appeared a shy, reclusive, somewhat air-headed princess. Not worthy of attention. A little demeaning, but it was a useful deception. It meant any potential enemies underestimated her—and that meant they were in for a surprise if they tried anything.

But she was cunning, not heartless. If a stranger showed up practically on her doorstep, bleeding everywhere, she would never turn him away. She'd take appropriate caution when dealing with him, of course—but she wouldn't let him die, knowing she could have saved him, because he might be a threat.

This time, when she stepped back out, her retainers let her. The stranger's eyes did not move from her face as she finished healing him, and when she rose, offering him a hand, he did not hesitate to take it. As she pulled him up, his leg buckled beneath him, and so she lent him her shoulder—Keiji hurried over to take the other half of his weight. With Damaris's watchful eyes upon them, they slowly began the return trip to the palace.

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The stranger could not remember his name, so they called him Hydra, one of the more common names in Valla.

In fact, Hydra could not recall anything about his past at all. He looked like a nobleman, but none of the families had a missing male relative who matched his description.

His age was difficult to pinpoint—he had the sort of face that lended itself to agelessness—but he estimated himself to be in his mid-twenties. There was nothing on him to give a clue as to where he was from or what his occupation was, and when asked how he'd been wounded or ended up in the palace grounds, he'd just shaken his head apologetically.

Valla had many methods of uncovering falsehoods, and they quickly discerned that Hydra was being honest about his amnesia. It wasn't spell-made; they sat him on a throne of truth, which had been created to shatter deceptions and break spells, and it did nothing. After some consideration, Mikoto asked Arete if they could perhaps let him stay in the palace a while so the palace healers could try to fix his memory.

Her sister had barely paid attention to her request, giving her an absent nod as she stared at the report in her hand. Anankos had vanished almost immediately after Theo's murder; their soldiers were spread across the land trying to find him, and their mages using the scrying crystals, but neither group had found anything. One errant man with amnesia was hardly the greatest of her concerns.

For the next ten days, she visited Hydra in the palace infirmary, teaching him about Vallite society—someone else could have done it, but she was curious about him. The healers had been trying to cure his amnesia, without success, and today was the day they'd finally given up, deeming he at least knew enough to return to society. She bowed demurely to the healers, greeting them softly, making a vapid giggle at a random comment. The healers smiled politely and left. Damaris and Keiji took their places by the door—it was improper for her to be alone with a man, after all.

When she took her usual seat, she saw Hydra staring at her curiously, head tilted to one side. "Why do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"Wear a mask. I saw how you acted with your retainers, that day you saved me. You were assertive and intelligent. You act flighty and shy, but you aren't." He hesitated, then added, "You don't have to pretend around me. I won't tell anyone."

"I'll…keep that in mind." In all honesty, Mikoto was startled by his words; she couldn't recall anyone seeing through her mask before, or even paying that much attention to her in the first place. Knocked off-center, she hastened to talk about other things; asking him how he was doing (fine), if he'd remembered anything (no), what his future plans were (he wasn't certain). Then she quizzed him briefly on Vallite customs—cutting hair in grief, removing your shoes when entering a person's residence, bowing before a superior until they spoke, to name a few—which he passed, and updated him one last time on the situation their country was currently in.

As she was rising to leave and likely exit his life forever, Hydra asked the question that, unbeknownst to them, altered the course of history. "About the famine…could you not use the power of the Dragon's Vein to replenish the land?"

She blinked, turning the suggestion over in her mind.

Using Dragon's Vein to grow food or replenish the earth was a very old technique, so old it hadn't even occurred to her. But in ancient days, if there was a problem with an area—say a river, relied upon by a nearby village, dried up—a member of royalty would ride out and warp the land itself to fix it. There was very little that couldn't be fixed with the technique.

The downside was that there were very specific locations where they could use Dragon's Vein, and that upon use, it couldn't be done again for some time. A bigger concern was that using the Dragon's Veins too often increased the time you had to wait for the "hotspots" to replenish, until eventually they just stopped. It was even possible to damage the land this way—there was speculation that Nohr's barren state had been caused by overuse of Dragon's Vein, and that no matter how the royalty tried, they couldn't coax the land back to fertility. All this, along with Valla's natural abundance, ensured the technique had gradually slipped out of use; nowadays Dragon's Vein was used more for combat.

But there was merit to the idea, and she told him so, thanking him with a broad smile.

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Arete hated the idea. She was adamant about not letting her little sister go out and cavort around the countryside while Anankos was still out there. Her friend and husband was recently dead; she wasn't about to lose someone else too. They had quite a long argument.

"Why do you always do this? Suggest plans with no regard for personal safety or how others around you feel? Do you think I want my sister out there, where that dragon could attack at any moment?"

"I'm just looking at the big picture. Arete," Mikoto had rubbed her forehead; why did Arete have to be so stubborn, she wondered, "if Anankos decides to attack, you know as well as I do that it won't matter whether I'm on the open road or behind castle walls."

Her sister's face had practically crumpled at the reminder of their powerlessness in the face of this threat. Dark bags were under her eyes, and the dark clothing she wore reflected the miserably, stressed mood she'd been in of late. "I can't…I can't lose you, on top of everything else."

Mikoto's face had softened, and she'd grabbed her sister in a hug. "I can't promise that you won't—"

"Dammit, Mikoto, that's not helpful—"

"—but I can promise I'll do my best to come back. Let me do this, please. Let me fix this one problem for you."

Arete had clung to her tightly, fingers digging into Mikoto's back. But slowly, she'd nodded against her shoulder.

Preparations were hastily made, so they could leave as soon as possible. Her retainers were coming, of course, and she was given a small squad of their best soldiers. Packing was swift: elixirs, festals, yumi—Mikoto paused to run her fingers lovingly over it; it was a gift from her father, crafted from the finest cedar he could afford and blessed by priests—some light armor, and a month's worth of rations. They would have to hunt for anything else along the way.

The day of the departure, there was no formal sendoff, no crowds of citizens lining the streets from the palace. Mikoto's trip had been kept a secret from most of Gyges, partially out of fear that they'd take it as an example to go out "hunting Anankos", partially because she was just a secretive person. Arete's face had been lined with weariness, as though she'd already written the trip off as a failure, as she hugged her sister goodbye. Mikoto tried not to let it bother her too much.

When she rode out to the courtyard, she was surprised to see Hydra lingering nearby, holding onto the reins of a horse of his own, bags packed, his face set with resolve.

"You're coming with us?"

Hydra bowed his head to her deferentially, but his voice was firm. "It was my idea that put you on this path; I would feel terrible if something happened to you while you were out there. I may not be very trained, but just being there would make me feel better."

Mikoto smiled at him. "So long as you're prepared for the risks, you're welcome to come along." He smiled back, and her face warmed a little. He was quite handsome.

Hydra mounted his horse and trotted it over to the others. The soldiers didn't much acknowledge his presence, but Keiji smiled politely and shook his hand, while Damaris gave Mikoto an amused, knowing glance from atop her kinshi. She blinked back innocently.

The captain of the guard clicked her tongue, and with that, they rode off.

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Their sojourn lasted two months, long enough for summer to begin to die. They could have gotten it done faster had they not been cautious, keeping a careful eye out for Anankos, but Mikoto was reluctant to trade safety for speed. It was unlikely they could escape if he attacked, even less likely they could kill him, so the only thing to do was try and remain unnoticed.

Hydra stuck closely to her the whole time. He was wearing a sword, but it was more for show than anything; if they were attacked by bandits, he was supposed to stay near her and pretend he knew what he was doing while the people who were actually trained fought. Still, he was adamant about protecting her, so whenever they set camp for the night she would spar with him a bit. Mikoto would be the first to admit that swordplay was not her greatest strength—she was better with archery—but she knew the basics well enough to pass it on. Hydra was a fast learner, and it didn't take long before he outstripped her meager abilities and started training with the more capable soldiers.

The rest of the soldiers seemed to like him well enough; he pulled his weight around camp without complaint, and he was always courteous when spoken to. His first real time in combat—against a group of desperate, starving wolves—had him saving Keiji from getting his arm ripped off, and that cemented him as "one of us", so to speak. He soon became fast friends with her retainers; he found Damaris's tales of farm life fascinating, and he and Keiji bonded over their mutual love for books.

To Mikoto's pleasant surprise, though, it was her company he sought the most. They had similar taste in literature and games of strategy, and it wasn't long before they settled into a pattern. Ride side-by-side through the morning to one of the locations marked on the map. Spend the afternoon calling down rain or revitalizing the earth with Dragon's Vein. Ride more until the sunset. Get together in the evenings, sometimes in discussion over the latest piece of literature they'd read, sometimes poring over a board of shogi, sometimes just talking about themselves.

She learned that Hydra was quiet, gentlemanly and humble, with a bizarre dislike of shoes and a penchant for collecting trinkets from the locations they visited. While normally serious, he did occasionally display a dry sense of humor, and had a sharp wit. He was intelligent and seemed to have no end of subconsciously retained Vallite lore, leading Mikoto to speculate that he'd been a scholar or historian before his memory loss. But beneath his mild demeanor was a very terrifying anger she only saw once and wished to never see again—when they had learned that a group of bandits had been kidnapping children and selling them into slavery in the southern regions, he'd been among the first to charge into battle with them, his normally gentle mien blazing furiously, his sword arm completely merciless as he cursed the bandits with surprisingly profane language.

(He'd apologized for his behavior later, but she hadn't blamed him; her fingers had also been shaking with rage against her bowstring as she drew, nocked, and released arrows into the bandit's flesh, and she'd ordered her soldiers to execute any survivors.)

Mikoto, in turn, opened up to him—at first just about little things, like her uncontrollable sweet tooth, the pet squirrel she'd named after King Ryurei when she was four, her admittedly childish love for snow days. Then she found herself telling him deeper, more personal matters: how she still missed her parents five years later, how inferior she felt to Arete sometimes, her longing for a family.

That last one had gotten a long, sympathetic look from him, a breach of propriety as he squeezed her hand, and a quiet "I can understand that." And then she remembered that he didn't know anything about his family; mortified, she blushed, but when she raised her concern he chuckled and waved it away.

Almost anti-climatically, while they encountered danger, their trip went off without a single sign of Anankos. So at the end of summer, they returned safely to Gyges, where news of their successful venture had arrived ahead of them. As they rode throughout it, the people wildly cheered for their success, throwing wilted flowers on the roads ahead of them. While Mikoto was pleased that everything had worked out, she couldn't help being a little saddened-the return to society meant she and Hydra had to return to their proper social standings. Secretly, she vowed to find a way to keep spending time in his company.

------------------------------------------------------------------

"It's not my place to question you, Lady Mikoto," Keiji said, a week later, "but are you sure this is wise?"

It was mid-day, and they were in the marketplace of Gyges. The city was made entirely out of wood and stone—Anankos's first gift to the Vallites. Overlooking the city was the palace, layered like a wedding cake, looming on its hill to the north. To the west, at the base of the hill, was the lake where Mikoto had first met Hydra. To the east of Gyges was the expansive plains the covered much of Valla, dotted with lakes and streams at irregular intervals; to the south, the hills slowly rose to mountains, the exit to the Bottomless Canyon deep in their depths.

Mikoto's gaze strayed to the center of the marketplace. There was once a huge pillar there, with an effigy of Anankos, but after his murder of King Theophlius, the citizens had smashed it in a rage. Now all that remained was the defaced base.

They'd come to the city to visit the library, one of the finest pieces of architecture it had. The Gyges Library was a building two stories high, made of a mist-grey stone with swirled patterns carved into it and arch-shaped openings at regular intervals. It was there that Hydra stayed. Mikoto had called in a favor to the owner and gotten them to take Hydra on as a scribe, stressing his knowledge of history and love of books. She suspected he would enjoy the work.

"I think it's romantic," Damaris said. With her fondness for romance novels, it wasn't surprising that she'd become invested in her best friend's love life. "The princess sneaking out of her castle to spend time with a peasant. A peasant whose life she saved, no less!"

"Yes, and how well do you think it will end for them? Society has rules that have to be followed, even for—especially for—royalty. Life is not a fairy tale, Damaris."

"I know that." She said, defensive. "But it's nice to dream once in a while."

Before Keiji could respond, Mikoto glanced over her shoulder at the two of them, her smile tinged with a bit of melancholy at the truth of Keiji's words. "I appreciate your concern, Keiji. But I really enjoyed his company on our journey, and I'd like to spend more time with him. Being invisible at court can be lonely."

She paused, then added, "Besides, you're both his friends too. Don't you want to see him again?"

Keiji arched a thin eyebrow. "I doubt we're going to be able to get many words in."

Mikoto was saved from having to respond by a cart that nearly bowled her over, after which her retainers were distracted by being mother hens. By the time they'd finally ascertained that yes, she was alright, they'd arrived at their destination, and that was the end of the discussion.

The attendant welcomed them inside. His eyebrows rose when Mikoto told him who she was here to see, but he pointed her towards the back of the building. She handed him her cloak, smiling, and headed in the direction he'd indicated, her retainers trailing behind her.

Hydra was very surprised to see her, almost knocking over the papers he'd been scribing in his haste to rise and bow. "Lady Mikoto! I—I didn't expect to see you again."

She laughed. "I couldn't very well leave our discussion of The Trail to Dawn unfinished, now could I?" She paused, taking in the quillpots and books and ink all over his desk. "Or…are you busy now?"

"Oh…no, today's my day off. I was just working because I wasn't sure what else to do." He smiled. "I'd be glad to pick up our talk."

Mikoto returned it, genuinely, not the fake polite one she'd given the man at the entrance. "Excellent. Perhaps you could give us a tour of the library, too? Damaris has never been..."

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"You've been visiting Hydra a lot lately," Arete commented one afternoon over tea.

They were in the garden, watching seven-month-old Azura swat at the brightly-colored fall leaves. Mikoto's journey had occurred in the nick of time—they'd been able to repair enough land in time for the farmers to plant and harvest autumn crops. It would be very close, but as long as they were careful with the food they'd stored, they should have enough to feed most of Valla throughout the winter. Then spring would come and hopefully bring an end to this awful famine.

Mikoto took a slow sip of her tea, carefully schooling her face into one of polite disinterest. "What of it?"

She hadn't been trying to keep her visits a secret—that would only create speculation and rumors—and it didn't take long for the castle to realize who she'd been constantly visiting for the past two months. But they couldn't wield the information against her; she made sure to keep her retainers with her and stay in sight of the public, so no rumors of affairs could grow. There was a bit of buzz, of course, but there were far more interesting bits of gossip around than the business of their quiet princess and a scribe.

Her sister sighed. Her hair had grown out again, brushing her chin to frame her face nicely. The bags under her eyes had disappeared, and a visible light had returned to her eyes. So much weight had been lifted off her when Valla's food problem was solved. "Mikoto, I'm glad that you've finally found someone, but…you know nothing can come of it, right?"

"Of course," she said smoothly. "But there's nothing wrong with a little indulgence in the meantime, is there?"

Arete snorted. "A little indulgence can easily become a lot. Remember that he's a man with no past. He doesn't have the status to court you. Enjoy your dalliance while it lasts, Mikoto, but don't get too attached."

She made a non-committal noise, then changed the subject. "How's the work on Anankos's spells going?"

Arete let her back out of the topic, explaining that their court mages hadn't made any leeway in breaking the curse on Valla's name or the amnesia on Hoshido and Nohr, "But," she added, "they've found a crack in the barrier, and they're working on widening it. In a few months' time, we might be able to leave Valla."

It wouldn't do much good, of course, they couldn't just bring an entire population to other, potentially hostile, countries. But it was something. At least the option would exist. At least they wouldn't be trapped here with Anankos anymore, even if he still hadn't made his presence known.

Their chat continued, but Mikoto's mind remained on a man with red eyes and a soft smile.

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Love was a funny concept.

Mikoto's parents had not been in love. Like Arete and Theo, their marriage was arranged, but unlike them, her parents were never able to summon more than polite courtesy towards each other. That wasn't to say they were bad parents, no—they'd loved their daughters very much, and had always made sure they'd known it. They just hadn't been very fond of each other.

And they were hardly the only ones. Many of the noble families had rather frosty relationships with their spouses—nobody liked being forced to marry and sleep with a stranger, after all, so resentment built up from the start. Even Arete was hiding some lingering bitterness over having to marry Theo, Mikoto suspected, and theirs was one of the better marriages. She'd read in history books how some couples, such as her great-great-grandparents, downright hated each other, trying to sabotage the other at every turn. And this sort of thing was seen as necessary, for the honor, prestige, wealth, and continuation of the family line.

No, romantic love was not for the upper class.

Except—her heart beat faster when Hydra was around, and she noticed things. Inane things, like the breadth of his shoulders or the sound of his footsteps. Every slight brush of his skin against hers had her yearning for more. She found herself not really caring about what they were doing together, whether it was taking walks around the city, talking about literature, or just sitting in silence. She greatly enjoyed their time together, looked forward to it, found herself slightly depressed on the days she wasn't able to visit him.

And sometimes, she caught a look in his eyes. Sometimes he would look at her as though she were the sun and moon and stars wrapped up in one. But whenever he saw that she noticed, he would just smile and turn away. And she didn't want him to.

She had thought she just wanted children, but now that she'd had her sample of—of love, she was certain that was what it was—now that she'd tasted it, she found that she wanted more. But Arete was right, Mikoto knew; royalty didn't marry peasantry under ordinary circumstances.

It was quite fortunate that she was good at orchestrating extraordinary circumstances, then.

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Winter was only a few days away, now—it had taken Mikoto a week to come up with a plan, another to find a way to sneak Hydra into the castle, a third to carry it out. The only ones who knew what it entailed were her two retainers, who were vital in its execution.

Hydra was called to the palace that afternoon, under the presumption of fetching books to be added to the Gyges library. Keiji and Damaris had been instructed to intercept him as he tried to leave, express surprise at seeing him, and invite him to dine, which, Hydra being Hydra, he wouldn't refuse. They were supposed to keep him there long enough for the sun to set, then fake an apology and offer to let him stay in the servant's quarters for the night. However, Damaris would lead him to Mikoto's rooms, then she and Keiji would stand guard outside, having bought off the usual soldiers stationed there.

She was waiting in her bedchambers, running through everything in her head again, tapping her foot with nerves, when Damaris poked her head inside. Her retainer's face was tight with worry—this could go very badly for her friend, and she knew it.

"He's in the main room. Good luck, Lady Mikoto." Damaris said, then left.

Mikoto closed her eyes, whispered a quick prayer to the gods, and exited, walking swiftly through the hall to the main door. She lingered in the doorway, watching as Hydra looked about the room. The floor was covered in fur rugs, so the stone wouldn't wear on one's feet, but the walls were mostly bare, except for a giant abstract painting Mikoto enjoyed. On the left wall, a fire burned in its hearth, two chairs dragged in front of it. A window on the west side gave a pleasant view of the lake and castle grounds.

His gaze finally found the door she was waiting by, and her. As soon as he saw what she was wearing, his eyes widened and he hastily looked away, clearing his throat. Mikoto had left her hair tumbling around her shoulders and was clothed in only a loose red robe over her shift. It was downright indecent of her.

She took a deep breath—here goes nothing—and approached him.

"Lady Mikoto," Hydra greeted, not lifting his eyes from the floor. "I…your retainer seems to have brought me to your rooms by accident."

"It wasn't an accident, Hydra. I asked her to bring you here." She sank into one of the chairs by the fire, fingers digging into the arms to hide their trembling. She nodded for him to take the one opposite. "Have a seat."

He slowly did. Though he had leave to now, he still wasn't looking at her. "That sounds ominous."

She laughed, a little too loudly. "Only if you think I'll poison you with wine. I haven't seen you for several weeks now and I thought it'd be nice to talk, that's all." Because I've been deliberately avoiding you to set this up.

"You couldn't have waited to see me during the day, rather than call me here at night? In your chambers? In your—" he cleared his throat, "evening clothes?"

In hindsight, it wasn't a very subtle plan. Then again, it wasn't supposed to be.

"You're free to leave anytime," Mikoto said, ignoring his question, reciting her words just like she'd rehearsed. She reached over and poured themselves some wine that Keiji had swiped from the kitchens earlier that day. "Damaris will escort you to the real servants' quarters if you want, she's right outside the door. I just…wanted to talk, and I knew you'd probably be gone in the morning."

Hydra hesitated, eyeing the glass of wine she was offering him like it was going to explode. Mikoto waited, praying fervently he wouldn't take the out she was offering him.

After a long moment, he finally look at her, gave her a smile, and took it. "For a short time," he conceded, raising it to his lips. "What did you want to talk about?"

Mikoto studied him, watching his throat bob as he drank his wine. She swallowed and fanned herself discreetly, suddenly warm.

There were other ways to do this, she knew. Subtler ways, ones that didn't involve putting her heart on the line. She could start talking about inconsequential matters and steer the conversation to where she wanted it to go. Or she could refill his cup over and over until he was drunk, then coax the answer out of his loosened lips.

But she disliked the thought of manipulating him more than she already had. If things went the way she was hoping, she'd rather not sully the memory of this moment. If they didn't, well, she'd rather find out right away than drag things out. So she opted to take a leaf out of her sister's book and cut straight to the chase.

She threw back a shot of wine to steady her nerves, set her goblet aside, took a deep breath, and said "I'm in love with you."

Hydra choked on his drink. She waited as he spluttered and banged his chest; she should have gone to help him, she knew, but her muscles seemed locked in place, frozen by fear of his eventual reaction.

Finally he recovered his composure and shook his head, eyes incredulous. "I'm sorry, Lady Mikoto, what did you say?"

"I'm…in l-love with you." Dammit, she wasn't supposed to stutter.

She waited with bated breath for his response, anticipation mounting, then giving way to dread as silence stretched out. Oh gods, she'd misread his interest, she'd been fanciful and imagined all the signs, she was such a fool—

"I…would be lying if I said I didn't feel the same," he finally responded, sounding defeated, and she collapsed back in her chair, relief and joy pouring through her. "I think I've loved you from the moment I woke up and saw your face hovering over mine."

She closed her eyes. "Gods, that's…that's such a relief to hear. You have no idea how my heart fell when I thought—" She shook her head. "Well. You know."

"But, Mikoto—" He stopped, correcting himself. "Lady Mikoto—"

"No," she interrupted, "I…I like how you say my name, without the title."

Those beautiful red eyes closed briefly, and he sighed. "Mikoto," he acquiesced, and oh, she relished how her name sounded by itself, coming from him. "I'm overjoyed you feel the same, but…You and I both know I'm not worthy of you. I have no past, no family, nothing to offer you. I am so far below your station that just kissing you is liable to get me killed."

"I know," she said. "But—humor me a moment. Pretend for a moment there were no titles, no rules, nothing in our way. Pretend we were just a man and a woman, in love with each other. Would you marry me, if you could?"

"Mikoto…"

"Would you marry me?"

He gazed at her solemnly. "I would build you the world if I could."

She licked her lips, then quietly told him the rest of her plan.

When she was done, he was silent. Unnerved, she hastened to explain herself. "I know it's a lot to ask. You might not be ready, or you might be scared about the consequences, or—"

"Mikoto, no, that's—" He shook his head, a small smile working its way onto his face. "I always seem to lose my composure around you. No, I would love to…spend the night with you. But…your reputation…"

"That's what you're worried about?" She laughed, relieved. "The court has thought of me as an air-head for years. They can think of me as a floozy, too, so long as they don't think me as a threat. I only ever wanted a reputation to be courted, and I have you."

"What about your position as royalty? Your sister wouldn't kick you out of the castle, would she?"

"No. I wouldn't be dragged down, you'd be raised up. Stripping me of my status means putting my blood on the streets, where it can mingle with commoners'. Then one of them could use that to make a claim for the throne and start a rebellion. She'll be furious, but she won't risk that."

Hydra chuckled affectionately. "You've thought of everything, haven't you?"

She smiled. "There was a reason it took me so long to put this in motion. So is that a yes?"

In response, he slowly leaned over and kissed her.

------------------------------------------------------------------

Yuko was one of Mikoto's newest handmaidens, about thirteen years of age, with red cheeks, black hair in a loose bun, and bright yellow eyes. The unwanted result of one of the palace guard's affairs with a courtesan, the girl had been handed off as a servant as soon as her mother could get rid of her. She was rather eager to prove herself, showing up bright and early for work every day without complaint, but had a loose tongue and an unfortunate love of gossip.

Mikoto heard a startled yelp come from the door, and knew without looking the girl had just entered. She rolled over anyway, best she could with Hydra's arm around her waist, and peered out over the edge of the blankets. Yuko was backing away, hands covering her mouth in shock, and she blubbered, "Lady Mikoto! I—so sorry, my lady, I'll just—" and rushed out of the room. Mikoto watched her go.

Likely within the hour, the entire castle would know that Princess Mikoto had been caught in bed with an unwed man.

A small, satisfied smile crept onto her face, and she nestled back into Hydra's embrace, content. Just as planned.

Hydra's arm tightened around her, and his sleepy voice murmured in her ear. "I suppose our time together is up?"

Mikoto twisted in his arms, pressing a small kiss to his lips. "No. Our time together is just beginning."

All she had to do was survive the upcoming confrontation, and they'd have won.

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Arete was livid.

Mikoto was right about the time it would take for the news to circulate. Scarcely an hour after Yuko stumbled upon them, Mikoto was called to her sister's chambers. Not wanting to delay the inevitable, she threw on a dress, instructed Hydra to lay low a while, kissed him one more time, and hurried over.

When the guards escorted her in, she found her sister pacing like an angry cat. Mikoto took a seat and looked at her expectantly, gauging how much trouble she was in. Arete was wearing her darkest blue dress, definitely not good; Arete only wore dark colors when she was extremely displeased.

The queen dismissed the guards with a terse nod; as soon as the door closed behind them, she wheeled around, golden eyes flashing with anger. "Do you know what you have done?"

Mikoto took her sister's anger in stride. Calming folding her hands in her lap, she responded, "I lay with a man outside of marriage."

"Not just any man!" Arete snapped. "Hydra! Hydra, the man without a past! The man who can't give you a future! I told you, didn't I, that your liaison was fine so long as it didn't go too far? And instead you slept with him!"

She shrugged, unapologetic.

The queen growled, running hands through her hair as she resumed her pacing. "Now what's to be done? That damned handmaiden of yours has told practically everyone, our family honor is at stake—"

The raven-haired princess shrugged again, doing her best to seem contrite. It was not easy when her heart was squealing with triumph. "My honor has been impugned, and I may possibly be with child; the only thing that can be done is for me to marry him."

Arete stilled, and very slowly turned around. "You planned this," she said lowly, accusingly.

Mikoto lifted her chin and braced her shoulders, sensing a storm. "Yes, I did. Is it really so bad for me to want for my own happiness?"

"When it causes you to take leave of your senses? Yes! It is!"

"I didn't just rush into this like a lovestruck fool. I planned everything out perfectly—"

"Oh, yes, because you can always account for everything. Damn society and damn the rules, you always know best!" Arete shook her head in disgusted anger. "Someday, Mikoto, you'll make a mistake with your little plans, and you'll pay for it."

Annoyance sparked in her, but she did her best to beat it down. It still bled into her tone as she responded, "Perhaps, but that day is not today. Everything's worked out nicely."

"For you it has, so who cares about anyone else? You have been such a selfish child—"

"Selfish?" And here a bitter laugh tore its way out of her throat. "I'm selfish? Well, why shouldn't I be, for once? I gave up everything to help you! I sacrificed my social life to slave around for you! I gave up my reputation so you could shine, and I gave up my chance at being courted for you—"

"And do you think I wanted that?" Arete screamed, stalking over, nostrils flared. "Did you think to ask me if I wanted that? I wasn't ready to marry! I didn't want to marry so soon! But I did, because you advised me to! Because you reminded me that it was my duty! And yet you flounced your duties for your desires—"

"What duties?" she shrieked, leaping to her feet in a fury. "I have broken no engagements, ruined no alliances! There have never been and would never be any offers for me! Not so long as you were around! No man ever wanted me if he could have had you!"

The doors slammed open, and they jumped back, startled. The guards rushed in, weapons drawn. "Your Highnesses—we heard yelling—"

Arete's fingers curled into fists, but she drew herself up with all the regality of the queen she was. She took a single, deep breath, then gave the guards a fixed smile. "Nothing to worry about, I assure you. My sister and I were just having a disagreement about her…paramour."

The way she said the word, paramour, like it was something disgusting, dropped a chunk of ice in Mikoto's belly. Anger faded, giving way to guilt and regret. She'd suspected Arete had resented being pushed into marriage, but she hadn't done anything about it, and that resentment had festered. And now her grasp for happiness may have destroyed her relationship with her sister.

"Arete—"

Her sister turned away, staring out the window.

"I will allow the marriage. You've left me no choice. Again. Now leave."

She slowly rose to her feet, wanting to say something, but her sister's tense shoulders and stiff back sent a very clear message. Quietly, she left.

Edited by Abvora

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:sob: :sob: :sob:

This was beautiful!!! I really wish I have the talent to write such a piece but I can't and that I praise you on such. This is perharps the first story about Mikoto backstory and she was a awesome charcater, I hate it how we couldn't interact with her much in the story and then came her :cry: her death and then the scene in Chapter 24 in Revealation. I cried like a baby when my unit kill her and hear her death quote.

Can't wait to read the rest on fanfiction.

Edited by Sil3nt 4sh

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Chapter Three:

A/N: Corrin is initially named Kamui here, because in my headcanon, he was given a Hoshidan name at birth, but renamed when Nohr kidnapped him.

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Around her nineteenth attempt to travel through the water back to Valla, Mikoto finally succumbed to her urges and let out a frustrated scream.

Feeling remarkably better now that it was out of her system, she surveyed the area. From what she could tell, she was in a valley. On both sides of her was a spiny mountain range. The river she had travelled through snaked through the valley, only a few feet away from her. While she had no way to say for sure, she suspected she was in or near Hoshido, as she was supposed to—the grass was too green for Nohr. She had nothing with her; she hadn’t expected to get stranded in another country, after all.

She leaned back against a tree, closing her eyes as she remembered how she’d gotten in this situation in the first place.

Her marriage to Hydra had been fast and quiet, thrown together in haste to try and mitigate the damage done by Yuko’s gossip. The very day of her argument with Arete, a priest was called up to the castle to marry the two of them in secret. There was no ceremony, no celebration, no guests, just two recited oaths in her quarters and a quick kiss. It was over in the span of twenty minutes.

The first two months of her marriage had come and gone in the blink of an eye. Victory had tasted bittersweet. She was so incredibly happy to have Hydra in her life, to be able to hold his hand or kiss him whenever she liked, to openly love him and be loved in return. But she missed Arete dearly. Before, they used to set aside time for each other, time to just be sisters. Now, Arete hardly spent time with her unless it had to do with the well-being of Valla. Mikoto was still allowed to see Azura, but when she tried to speak to her sister she was quite curtly dismissed. Arete always had been able to hold a grudge, and she’d had five years to nurse this one.

The new year had come and gone when the court mages reported that they might have broken the barrier spell. Anankos had infused all the spells around Valla with some of his power, making them much harder to crack, but they thought they’d finally done it. They’d sent a few soldiers through the water with moderate success, but hadn’t yet had a chance to test it with royalty.

Mikoto had volunteered to go through, desperate to make amends with Arete. If her actions had damaged the family’s honor and driven a rift between them, then let her actions mend them, she thought.

“Are you sure about this?” Hydra had asked quietly the day of the attempt, pulling her away. Even though he was now technically a prince, he still preferred his plain robes to the richly-colored vestments of royalty, and seemed almost uncomfortable having servants wait on him hand and foot. His humility was just one of the many things she loved about him.

“I need to make things right with her,” Mikoto had responded, glancing at Arete. “This is the best way to do it.”

Hydra had still looked unhappy, but he’d understood, nodding slowly and stepping back with one last lingering squeeze of her hand. With her retainers, Mikoto had stepped into the lake, listening to the mages explain that they were to travel through it to Hoshido, confirm their location, then step back into Valla. It was a simple five minute mission, not even worth calling together a crowd.

Simple. It was supposed to be simple.

Except something had gone wrong along the way and Mikoto had wound up in Hoshido alone, and for some reason unable to go back to Valla. She wasn’t certain why—maybe it was because of her royal blood, maybe it was because she’d tried going in a group, maybe something was still wrong with the spell and the first couple of successes had been flukes. Either way, she was stuck here.

Reluctantly, she got to her feet, chose a direction at random, and headed towards it. She didn’t particularly want to leave the lake, but nightfall was only several hours away. She needed to find shelter before evening, when predators would come out.

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The sun had set when she found—or more precisely, was found by—civilization.

They called themselves the Fire Tribe, and their scouts had discovered her as she stumbled about the mountains. While initially hostile, Mikoto had been able to get them to agree to a meeting with their chief, and they escorted her to their chieftain.

He was an enormous bear of a man, barrel-chested and scowling, with bronze skin and red markings on his cheeks. Like many of the people Mikoto had seen, he seemed to have no conception of decency, wearing only a pair of hakama and a heavy bead necklace. A large club hung from a belt around his waist, and there was a fancy, ornamental headdress atop his blonde mane.

“Chief Kenta!” The soldier escorting her brought a fist to his chest and bowed sharply. “We found this stranger wandering about, alone. She claims to hail from a far-away country and gotten lost, and is asking for hospitality.”

It wasn’t exactly a lie, just an omission of certain truths. Chief Kenta’s sharp grey eyes scanned over her. His scowl deepened. Mikoto stepped forward and curtsied deeply, keeping her eyes low in humility.

“Greetings, Chief Kenta. I am Mikoto. It is as your man said: I’m simply a humble commoner from a faraway land, who has been separated from her group. I beg your forgiveness, and ask that I shelter with your tribe while I figure out what to do.” While I figure out how to get back to Valla, that is.

He eyed her skeptically, then spoke with a deep, rumbling voice. “You claim to be just a foreign commoner, yet you have the name, clothes and manners of a Hoshidan noblewoman.”

Mikoto stiffened, but just Kenta waved a hand dismissively. “It’s no concern of mine who you really are—a runaway bride-to-be, a spoiled brat playing at adventure. We usually do not let strangers into the village, but there’s no other civilization for miles, and I am loathe to send men on the two-week trip it’d take to escort you out, or send you off and have your death on my conscience. So long as you follow our customs and pull your weight, you can stay.” His eyes hardened. “Are we clear?”

Relieved that he didn’t seem too intent on prying nor on casting her out, Mikoto dipped her head again. “We are. Thank you for your generosity.”

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Life in the Fire Tribe was difficult. They were a hardy people, living in the shadows of the mountains dividing Hoshido and Nohr, where the weather was harsh and food was hard to find. Following their customs meant rising at dawn to do chores for the camp, then alternating between going out to hunt, scouting for potential enemies or new resources, or guarding the village. While her two-month trip around Valla had given her some experience with poor sleeping conditions and hunting for food, Mikoto had still lived a fairly pampered life, and was unused to physical labor all day, every day.

It was in this time period that she learned she was pregnant.

Mikoto had been trying to think of a way to tell the Fire Tribe about Valla without triggering the curse. She’d considered indirect methods, like writing the information down or communicating through magic, but as soon as she discovered her pregnancy she threw those plans away. She wasn’t willing to gamble with her baby’s life.

The tribe became somewhat nicer to her when they found out. She was still expected to work, but the medicine man whipped her up an herbal brew to help with her morning nausea, and she was assigned chores that would be easier on her.

During her stay, she asked the chief about the tribe’s history, having found little to no mention of them in Valla’s books. He explained that in the First War, long ago, the Fire Tribe had worshipped the Fire Dragon and followed it into battle. When the war ended, their god had cast aside its physical form and ascended as a spirit; vowing to uphold what it had taught them, they had retreated to the mountains in the north to practice their solitude. The blurry outline to the north, he said, pointing it out, was the tribe’s sacred volcano. They believed the spirit of their god was residing inside it, and would cause it to erupt whenever harm came unto them—or if they betrayed what it had taught them.

That last sentence inevitably made Mikoto draw parallels between the Fire Tribe’s dragon god and Valla’s. Both had fought in the First War, both had made pacts with sects of people, and both had great power, yet only Anankos had gone insane. For the life of her, she couldn’t understand why.

Kenta explained that while Nohr and Hoshido usually left his people alone, the current Hoshidan king, Sumeragi, had been visiting them recently. Not for an alliance—he respected their ways—but to spar with what he considered the best warriors on the continent. He would stay perhaps a week before returning to Shirasagi, the Hoshidan capitol, and the process would repeat several months later—in fact, he added, Sumeragi was probably due for a visit soon.

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Kenta’s words must have been prophetic, for mere days after that conversation, one month since her arrival in Hoshido, Sumeragi arrived.

Mikoto was gazing at the lake near the Fire Tribe camp, melancholy. Every day since her arrival, she would go out to try and travel through the water back to Valla. Every day, she inevitably failed. It had passed depressing and started to get into hopeless.

She was in her third month of pregnancy by now and just starting to show. While she found the Tribe’s company enjoyable—she didn’t even mind the physical labor, much—she missed her family more with every passing day. The thought of never being able to return to Valla was a terrifying one. She wished she’d been there for Azura’s first birthday, which had passed several days ago. She wished she’d been brave enough to patch things up with Arete. She wished she’d be able to see Hydra again and tell him about his child growing inside her.

Behind her was a noise, like the clinking of armor. Mikoto turned, finding herself face to face with a man in spiky, light armor, with a navy blue longcoat thrown over it. Two swords hung at his sides, the handles and sheaths made of finely wrought material. His face was all angles—even his thin black mustache and goatee were sharp. Her eyes flickered up to the wild mane of hair, the crown-like headdress he was wearing, and she suddenly knew who he was.

Immediately, Mikoto dropped into a low curtsy, taking on the manners of a commoner. “King Sumeragi! I—forgive me, your highness, I didn’t hear you approach.”

She couldn’t see his face, but she thought she heard a smile in his voice. “That’s fine, that’s fine! You may rise, miss…?”

“Mikoto, your Majesty.” She rose as he asked, stealing peeks at his soldier. He only had a small entourage with him—he must have been very confident in his abilities to come so far out with so few men.

“A pleasure, Mikoto. You don’t appear to be native to the Fire Tribe, if you don’t mind me saying.”

How very direct of him, she thought with a pang—his straightforward manner reminded her of Arete. “I am not. I’m simply a guest.” She hastened to change the subject away from dangerous territory. “Forgive me for my impudence, Your Majesty, but are you here to meet with the Fire Tribe? I can take you to them.”

He smiled. “That would be most kind of you. Though please relax. I’m not as ferocious as I look, I promise.”

Chuckling despite herself, Mikoto gestured for him to follow her, casting one forlorn look back at the lake as she went.

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Sumeragi was odd, for royalty. Informal and boisterous, he threw himself into the sparring with an almost thirsty expression, and wholeheartedly enjoyed himself whether he won or lost. Yet when the matches were over, he was content to chat easily with Mikoto who, as far as he knew, was a mere peasant. She didn’t mind his company—he was always respectful, kindly congratulating her on her pregnancy, and not asking questions when she said it made her uncomfortable. He could also be surprisingly insightful and profound at times, and he was a good conversationalist. She was just surprised that he conducted himself in such a manner.

Three days after Sumeragi’s arrival, as dinner was winding down, a scout informed Kenta that another stranger had arrived—a young woman with a kinshi and odd amber eyes, who claimed to be looking for a woman of Mikoto’s appearance.

Damaris was overjoyed to have finally found Mikoto, abandoning propriety to hug her. She was surprised by Mikoto’s slightly swollen belly, but congratulated her in her cheery way. While both the women wanted to leave for Valla immediately, common sense had them staying for the night. In the privacy of the guest tents, Damaris whispered to Mikoto that “their” soldiers had been searching for her non-stop since her disappearance—her sister and husband were worried half to death about her. Using sending stones Keiji had handed out, the kinshi knight informed everyone that Mikoto had been found.

The next morning, as they prepared to depart, Mikoto curtsied to the chief, thanking him for his hospitality.

He grunted, but he wasn’t scowling, and his next words were almost fond. “We didn’t hate having you here.”

Smiling at his gruffness, Mikoto turned and curtsied to Sumeragi, who had also come out to see her off. “Your Majesty. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you these past few days, but I must return home now.”

He took her hand and kissed it. “Safe travels to you, milady. If you ever need help—ever—come to Castle Shirasagi, and I’ll do what I can for you.”

Confused and surprised at such a generous offer, Mikoto smiled and thanked him nonetheless. Damaris led her kinshi over, and it chirruped happily when it saw Mikoto. Damaris smiled, running her fingers through the soft feathers briefly before mounting it. Surprised—the lake wasn’t that far—Mikoto followed suit, aware of the eyes on her. Damaris clicked her tongue, snapped her heels into the kinshi’s side, and it took off.

Once they were in the air, Mikoto voiced the question on her mind. “Aren’t we going through the lake?”

Damaris scowled, an unusually dark look crossing her face. “No, those idiot mages are still ‘working out some kinks’. Honestly, they’ve had almost a year and they still can’t figure out what’s wrong.”

“Well,” Mikoto rationalized, “they did say Anankos infused the spells with some of his power. It’s no wonder they’re having difficulty, they essentially need to overcome the power of a deity.”

“Then they should have been certain before putting a member of the royal family at risk.” Damaris sighed. “They did fix the way through the Canyon though, we tested that two dozen times, so I suppose I am being unfair. We’ll head back that way. It’s a good thing I’m the one who found you, the trip from the mountains to the capitol would normally take at least a month on foot, but on my kinshi we can make the trip in about a tenday.”

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Her return to Valla was met with much celebration. The people cheered with jubilee as Damaris’s kinshi swooped overhead, and Gyges was lined up for a celebration.

As Mikoto was dismounting in the courtyard, legs wobbly after doing little more than sitting for days on end, the doors to the castle slammed open. Arete and Hydra flew out almost in unison, tackling her with hugs. She staggered in surprise; Hydra buried his face in her hair, fingers digging into her back as though he were afraid she’d disappear, while Arete whispered grateful prayers over and over. Then they began speaking rapidly, talking over each other in their rush to get the words out.

“Oh thank the gods, love, you’re safe—”

“Don’t you ever terrify me like that again—”

“—thought my heart stopped when you didn’t—”

“—did you think it would make me happy to—”

“—wanted to go looking for you, but they said I had to stay—”

“—gods, I was afraid you were dead—”

“I’m fine,” she whispered to them both, hugging them close. “I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“A month,” Hydra said shakily. “A month, and we didn’t know if you were—”

He paused, moving a hand to pat Mikoto’s midrift, noting the slight swell of her belly. His eyes widened almost comically. “That’s…is that…are you…?”

She smiled. “Surprise.”

He gaped openly, stunned. Arete laughed softly, wiping discreetly at her eyes. “Well, I suppose we have double the cause for celebration.”

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The feast celebrating her return and her pregnancy lasted until midnight. It was as grand as the one for Azura’s annunciation, grander, perhaps, thanks to the end of Valla’s famine. Mikoto didn’t remember much of it, finally having crashed from the high of returning home. The day seemed over very quickly, and she soon found herself collapsing on her bed in her chambers. Moments before her head hit the pillow, she registered Hydra curling himself around her, one hand lightly on her stomach, and smiled. Then she was gone in the deep recesses of sleep.

When she woke, sunlight was streaming through the window, and her husband was still sleeping, tightly clutching her to his chest.

She quietly disentangled herself from his grasp. Mikoto was a little surprised the servants hadn’t woken her—perhaps she’d been given a day off from her royalty duties. Humming, she dressed herself and exited to find Arete sitting in one of the chairs in the main room, a tray with tea and buttered croissants next to her.

“Good morning,” Arete said quietly.

“Good morning.” Mikoto took a seat and hungrily reached for a croissant. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be getting ready to run the kingdom?”

“I’ve asked my advisors to handle it for today.” A heavy silence settled. Mikoto chewed her croissant. Arete looked down at her fidgeting hands. Her hair was still long—Hydra’s had been, too, Mikoto remembered suddenly. Had they not cut it, refusing to believe she was dead?

The sound of a throat clearing yanked her out of that thought. “Mikoto, I… I am so relieved you’re safe. You were the only one who went through the water that day, I don’t know why. And then, when you didn’t resurface…” Arete shook her head. “I was suddenly terrified—you were in unknown territory, alone and unarmed, with no way to get back. All I could think about was how our last real words were venomous ones. I wished so badly I could take them back.”

Mikoto slowly put her food down. “I did too. I was miserable at the thought of never getting to set things right with you. But you did have a point. I didn’t consider your feelings or include you in my plans. I looked at the big picture without looking at the little picture. I was awful to you, the sister I love. I’m so, so sorry, and I promise I’ll be more considerate in the future.”

Arete smiled, clasping her hand earnestly. “And I’m sorry for calling you selfish. I know you’ve given up a lot for me, and for Valla. I didn’t hate Theo—he was a good friend—but I resented you for making that choice for me. And I let that resentment build instead of talking to you about it, like I should have. But no matter what happens, you will always be my beloved little sister. I love you.”

Tearing up—she wasn’t so emotional normally, it must be because of the pregnancy—Mikoto launched herself at her sister. And that was the scene Hydra saw when he walked in, the two sisters embracing lovingly, having made up at last.

The rest of her pregnancy seemed to fly by, neither Hydra nor Arete willing to let her out of their sight. It was a relief to talk to her sister again, to resume their afternoon tea sessions and weekend evenings singing together. Mikoto was grateful for that awful fight, in some strange way; with their confessions out in the open, an unknown weight was lifted off both their shoulders, and there was a very subtle difference in the lightness of their interactions now.

Azura was delighted to have her aunt back, hugging her and talking in her clumsy toddler speech about how much she’d missed her. While initially fascinated by Mikoto’s growing stomach, she lost interest once she realized it wasn’t going to do much but grow. The little girl was quite excited to be getting a playmate, though.

Hydra was hyper-attentive, bowing to her every will as the months went by. If she craved fried dumplings in the middle of the night, he would run out of their bed to make some. If her feet hurt, he would kneel to massage them on the spot. When the mood swings came and she went from happy to furious to crying in the span of a minute, he endured it all with gentle warmth in his eyes. When their child kicked her hard enough that Mikoto thought it had broken a rib, he’d run loving hands over her belly and quietly ask it to stop—and it always did.

Finally, in the hottest month of summer, she went into labor.

The childbirth was long and awful, lasting from sunrise to almost sunset. The day outside was scorching hot, and the stone walls of the palace turned the room into a furnace, until Mikoto thought her flesh would surely cook. If the pain did not kill her, first—it was ungodly, and she screamed herself hoarse as she clung to Arete’s hand.

After what felt like forever, the lusty wails of an infant filled the room. Mikoto collapsed backwards, boneless after the long labor. Distantly she registered the midwife calling out “he’s a boy!” One of the servants rushed out to inform Hydra, who hadn’t been allowed inside the birthing chamber, of his new son; another took the baby off to be washed and clothed. Arete patted the sweat from the new mother’s forehead with a damp cloth, softly congratulating her, and Mikoto closed her eyes.

She must have dozed off, for when she woke the chamber was empty save for herself and her very worried husband. She gave him a weak smile, and he returned it broadly, squeezing her hand with relief.

The door opened and the wet nurse entered, starting when she saw Mikoto was awake. Her son must have just finished feeding, for she immediately handed him to Mikoto with a smile. The princess eagerly took him, having not had a chance to see her child yet; Hydra rose and stood behind her, peering over her shoulder at him. Unnoticed, the wet nurse slipped out of the room.

Their son was not a cute baby. He was an albino—skin so pale as to nearly be translucent, thin white hair clinging to his brow, pointed ears sticking out a bit too far from his head and red eyes blinking up at her sleepily. He looked a bit like one of the gremlins from Mikoto’s childhood storybooks.

Mikoto loved him immediately.

A son.

She had a son.

A year ago, it had seemed like such an impossible dream. And now, the reality of it hit her for the first time. She had a child, a son, a little precious person, to raise and love and guide. She couldn’t have stopped the smile from lighting up her face if she’d wanted to.

She turned to Hydra, wanting him to experience what she was feeling right now. “Hold him,” she encouraged, holding the babe out.

Hydra took him with trembling hands. Their son cooed happily as he stared up at his father, fascinated by this strange new face. Hydra’s mouth opened into a soft, silent o, and his eyes held a look akin to awe. It was a moment Mikoto would have captured in a painting, if she could.

He stiffened suddenly, eyes widening, but Mikoto was too caught up in the perfection of the moment to notice.

“Isn’t he beautiful?” she squealed. “He has your eyes.”

“He does,” Hydra said, sounding vaguely horrified. “He does.”

“And your ears, too—I’ve always been curious about that, why they’re pointed, it must be a quirk of your family. And look, there’s my nose, and I think my jaw—”

Hydra interrupted her rambling by very carefully putting their son back in Mikoto’s arms. “I’m sorry, I—there’s something I must do. I’ll be back soon.”

And with that, he rushed out of the room. Mikoto watched him go, deflated, her smile sliding off her face.

Perhaps twenty minutes later, a servant informed her that Hydra had asked her to the throne room. She pressed a loving kiss to her son’s forehead—he was now sleeping soundly—handed him off to the servant, and briskly headed over. Arete was there, too, arms crossed as she watched Hydra pace.

“What was that about?” Mikoto asked curtly, still a little miffed at his reaction to their son.

He looked up, his expression tortured. “I got my memories back.”

Her face softened. “Oh.”

Hydra sat in the throne and buried his face in his hands. “I…I don’t know why they returned at that exact moment. But when I looked at him for the first time…at our son…when I held him…all my memories came back. That’s what I was upset about.”

“Upset? Hydra, whatever your past is, it surely can’t be that bad.” Mikoto took a step closer to him, beseeching. “You can tell us.”

He laughed humorlessly. Opened his mouth to speak, then just shook his head. “It’d just be easier to just show you.” He glanced at Arete. “Did you bring one of those scrying crystal balls like I asked?”

“Yes,” Arete said slowly.

“Could you and Mikoto just…look into it? Focus on me.”

The sisters exchanged glances. The scyring crystals were enchanted with magic that could locate nearly anyone, ripping through illusions to show the truth—Mikoto couldn’t imagine what Hydra wanted one for. Deciding to humor her brother-in-law, Arete, with a frown, pulled the orb from her robes. Mikoto took it from her, and the two women peered into intently.

Her husband’s familiar visage filled it, lined with sadness. For a moment, nothing—then Mikoto gasped as the image flickered and was replaced by a dragon’s face. A terrible face, with massive spikes and multiple eyes on an orb in its mouth. It was a face every citizen of Valla knew, a face that had once been inscribed on temples across the country.

She dropped the ball and it shattered on the floor, horrified tears welling in her eyes.

Arete’s reaction was the opposite. No sooner had the ball broken than she whipped out one of her tomes. Three snakes materialized, lunging for Hydra—no, Anankos, oh gods, how could that be true?—and slammed him into the throne. Two of them wound around his ankles and wrists, pinning him there; the third wrapped itself around his neck and began to squeeze.

“Wait!” he sputtered, gasping for air. “Wait, please—you need to listen to me—”

“Why should I?” Arete spat. Her face was pulled into an ugly snarl. “You’ve terrorized our country for years! You’ve been killing the royal family with your song—you murdered Theo—”

“I didn’t mean to!” Anankos cried out. Mikoto was shocked to see tears swimming in his eyes. “We were arguing—I got so, so angry, and I just—it was an accident, I didn’t mean to. He was my best friend, I swear I didn’t mean to.”

His face was starting to turn purple, and spittle was foaming at the corner of his mouth.

“Let him breath.” It took Mikoto a moment to realize the words had come from her.

Arete threw her a sideways glance. “This bastard is our worst enemy, and you want to let him go?”

“No. Keep him pinned.” Her voice was curiously detached. “But let him breath. I want to hear what he has to say.”

For a moment, she thought Arete wouldn’t listen to her. Then her sister scoffed and flicked her fingers. The snake around Anankos’s throat loosened. But it didn’t move away, remaining like a noose around his neck, a reminder it could tighten again at any moment.

“Talk,” her sister growled.

Anankos closed his eyes, sucking in deep breaths. His throat would likely bruise, and when he did speak his voice was raspy. “I am Anankos, but at the same time, I’m not. He…when he killed Theo, he was so horrified by what he’d done that his already fragile mind completely snapped. He decided he’d rather never feel anything again than feel this sort of pain again, so he ripped his soul out and discarded it. That’s what I am. I’m his soul, all his positive thoughts and emotions, given physical form.”

“That sounds like utter garbage,” Arete said flatly.

Anankos nodded his chin as best he could towards the throne he was sitting on. “This won’t let me speak anything but the truth.”

He was right; Arete’s throne wasn’t an ordinary throne. It was a throne of truth, designed to reveal falsehoods and break spells. Similar thrones were commonly used during trials, as it was physically impossible to lie when sitting in one.

His story was too incredible for words. And yet it had to be real.

“I can’t turn into a dragon, which is why I didn’t as soon as I sat down in this, but I’m still considered one. As soon as Anankos cast me out, I lost my—our—memories. I wandered…he sent men after me. Somehow I escaped them, but not unwounded, and made my way to the palace lake. I collapsed there, and that’s when you found me, Mikoto. You know the rest.”

“So, what?” she whispered. “What has all this been? Some…lie? Some trick from him?”

“No!” His words were desperate, vehement. “My feelings for you, they were real. They are real, Mikoto, I swear…”

The throne did not react, and she closed her eyes, almost wishing it would.

“So what are your goals?” Arete asked, sounding slightly less wary. “You talk as though you don’t share the other Anankos’s ideologies.”

“I don’t. Like I said, I’m the good part of him. You were right that he wants to destroy Valla, but he won’t stop there. He’ll destroy every human in the world with his own claws if he can—and if he can’t, he’ll manipulate them into destroying each other.”

“Then why hasn’t he already?”

Anankos’s grief-filled eyes turned towards Mikoto. “Our son,” he whispered. “He’s the one my song is about, the one who will eventually decide the fate of the world. I knew it as soon as I held him, and the other Anankos knows it, too. He hasn’t attacked yet because he’s been waiting for us to fall in love and conceive our son. It won’t take him long to learn of his birth. And once he does...”

“Oh gods,” Mikoto whispered, sick to her stomach. “He’ll try to kill him.”

The deity shook his head. “No. It’s worse.

“He’ll try to corrupt him.”

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Anankos wanted them to flee at once, but Arete refused, saying she would not be the kind of queen to just abandon her country in times of danger. They would go, she said adamantly, once her people had been warned. Letters were sent out across the country, warning the Vallites to pack their bags and flee through the Bottomless Canyon as soon as they could. Mikoto did not know how many of them heeded their warnings, or even if they arrived.

She named her son Kamui, but he was not presented to the kingdom. There simply wasn’t time with all the preparations and rushing going on. Arete made breaking down the barrier in the water top priority for every mage in the city. Everyone with even a little experience in magic was put on the job, working twenty-four hours to iron out whatever little quirk was making travel so unstable.

After deliberation, they let Anankos go. The throne of truth proved he was not lying, and Anankos, having recovered his powers and his memories, instantly joined the mages in their efforts.

Three days after Kamui’s birth, she walked into Kamui’s room to see Anankos gazing down at him as he slept in his crib.

Mikoto faltered, uncertain. She’d been avoiding him after his reveal, lost in a torrent of feelings. His song had killed her father, he had murdered who knew how many people, and a part of him was evil enough to try and destroy everything she loved—but he was also humble and kind, self-deprecating and intellectual. He’d washed into her life and changed it forever, loving her with a quiet kind of passion that simmered like a fire. And try as she might, she was having a hard time separating those two.

She almost left. But, remembering her fight with Arete, all the things that could have been left unresolved if something had happened to her in Hoshido, Mikoto straightened her spine and approached her husband.

“Why did you do it?” she asked softly, finally. “Why did you go evil? When I was with the Fire Tribe, they told me about their deity. It sounded similar to you, but it didn’t…”

“I couldn’t become a spirit,” Anankos murmured, not looking away from Kamui. “The strain of my powers on my body is what drove me to madness; with madness came depravity. Without a physical form, I would have stayed sane. All this would have been avoided if I’d just figured out how to ascend. I’m sorry.”

Mikoto nodded, slowly. Silence settled over them.

“I’m leaving.” He said suddenly. “The court mages and I finally tore down the spell; travel through the water will work now. There are people out there—people who could help. Other places...I need to find them and recruit them to protect our son.”

Her heart stopped for a moment. Mikoto slowly exhaled, grief settling its talons into her. “I see.”

With a quiet kind of desperation, he continued, “I’d stay if I could, but the two of you so important to me. I have to leave, to help secure your future. That’s why I came: to say goodbye. I know you’re angry, but I couldn’t bear leaving without seeing both your faces one last time.”

“I’m not angry,” she whispered. Her eyes were watery, but she held the tears back. “I’ve just been so confused these past few days. I wasted the little time we had together trying to figure out how I feel. And the conclusion is, I…I still love you.”

Anankos smiled, a little sadly. “And I you. I’m…relieved we won’t be parting on a bad note. I actually wanted to give you a gift, something to help you survive the coming days.” He pressed one hand to her forehead. Mikoto felt an odd tingling, like when a limb feel asleep, spreading out from his touch—then it…popped, that was the best word for it, out of existence. She blinked.

“What was that?”

He dropped his hand. “I’ve given you some of my foresight. Not all—you have a strong will, but you’re only human, and no human can bear that burden. But enough, to let you predict the future in flashes. It won’t be constant, but it should come through in times of need.

“There are two last things I would ask of you. First: that you never tell Kamui who his father is.”

“What?” Mikoto protested, voice cracking. “How can you ask me—”

“Do you think a child would want to grow up knowing his father is a murderer?” Anankos asked pointedly. “Knowing his father is a madman and a monster? No child should be burdened with that knowledge.” He paused. “Actually, don’t tell him about Valla or his destiny at all, not until he’s of age. Let him have a carefree childhood.”

Her shoulders slumped. When he put it that way, she could see where he was coming from. Protecting Kamui from cold, harsh truths, so he could grow up happily… “Alright. I promise.”

“Good. And second…” Anankos hesitated. Ran a hand along her cheek. “Don’t wait for me,” he whispered. “Promise me that, Mikoto.”

He raised a hand, forestalling her protests. “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. I don’t know if I’ll even be able to return. Perhaps he’ll find and kill me first. I don’t want you spending the rest of your life waiting for a man who may not come back. If you see the chance for happiness with someone else, then take it. Promise me you’ll be happy.”

The tears she’d been trying to hold back spilled over his cheeks now. She didn’t try to stop them. Choking, she replied, “I…I promise.”

His smile was bittersweet, and he dipped his head low to kiss her. Mikoto closed her eyes, reaching up to tangle her hands through his hair, clutching him as close to as she could. Once the kiss was over, she knew, he would go, and she wanted to delay that moment as long as possible. When he first tried to pull back, she chased after him with her mouth, greedily grasping at seconds even as they slipped through her fingers.

But eventually, it did end, and he rested his forehead against hers. “In all my years of existence,” Anankos breathed, “none have been so joyous as the single year I spent with you.”

Then, before she could respond, he was gone, leaving just the ghost of his kiss on her lips, and the most awful certainty that she would never see him again.

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The next day, the morning they were supposed to leave, the other Anankos came.

Kamui was screaming at the top of his little lungs, loud caterwauls that Mikoto could somehow hear over the destruction taking place. Azura was petrified in Arete’s arms, staring over her mother’s shoulder at the enormous dragon ravaging the city, too scared to even cry. Damaris and Keiji were in front of the sisters, her naginata and his magic cutting down Anankos’s strange, dead-eyed troops. Mikoto cursed their bad luck; they’d gone for the stables as soon as the fighting broke out, but Arete’s retainers, as well as Damaris’s kinshi and Arete’s horse, were dead when they arrived. The original plan had been for their mounts to ferry the royal sisters to the lake—now they would have to go by foot, which would take more time, and every moment they were in Valla increased their chances of dying.

The attack had come in the early hours of morning, when everyone was still half-asleep. Part of the palace had been blown apart in the initial attack, and the halls and castle grounds were cluttered with bodies and rubble. Bile filled Mikoto’s throat as they passed a corpse, its yellow eyes wide with terror, face half-melted off—her young handmaiden, Yuko. The smell of cooked flesh filled the air. It was horrific.

She could have sobbed when they finally saw the lake, several hundred feet away. To her left, in the valley below the castle, Mikoto could see the fires of what used to be Gyges. The skies were dark with smoke, and tiny figures—Anankos’s pegasus knights and wyvern riders—were flitting about in the distance, swooping down to prey upon whatever unfortunate local they saw.

She slowed despite herself, watching in horrified awe as the city literally split in two, a huge chunk of land tearing away and…was it floating up into the sky?

“Keep moving!” Keiji yelled, snapping her out of her shock. He spun around, aiming a burst of lightning at something above them—she heard the distinct, pained screech of a wyvern.

Mikoto’s vision swam and her legs burned as they raced down the hill, but she kept her gaze fixed on the image of the lake, growing steadily larger. They were almost there. Once they reached it, they’d go to Hoshido, petition the king for—for aid? No, he’d just be sending more men and women to their deaths. Shelter, then, yes, they’d find shelter with the king, shelter and safety, where they could rest, regroup…

The earth shook beneath her feet, and behind her came the sound of rocks being ground to dust. Instinct screamed at her not to look, but she did anyway, her sense of dread building as she turned.

Her blood froze in her veins. Not a hundred feet away, Anankos had landed on top of the palace, the stone crumbling easily beneath his massive claws. His wings were spread intimidatingly, blocking out most of the sky, and his spiny tail knocked over a building as it thrashed. And he was staring right at her, his multiple red eyes gleaming malevolently.

All her calculations, all her plans, flew right out of her head. There was nothing left, nothing she could focus on, except the pure, primal emotion of fear. In that instant she wasn’t a human being, but a rabbit, a piece of prey cowering before a predator. She was distantly aware of Arete tugging on her hand, voice growing louder and annoyed, yelling at her to come on, Mikoto!, but her legs had stopped working; a whimper broke out of her as she gazed upon the thing that had once been their god, and found nothing but evil and madness.

His lifted his head, a brilliant ball of violet light gathering above his mouth. Mikoto stared, transfixed, as the orb of death grew in size. It crackled like lightning, expanding until it could have eclipsed the sun.

Several things happened at once, as time slowed to a crawl and sound drained from the world. Anankos whipped his head forward and fired the attack. Her sister’s hand slipped through her slack fingers. Arete’s voice cracked, tear-filled, begging her to move. The wind began whipping around them as Keiji chanted some kind of spell. Long brown hair flashed across her vision as Damaris interposed herself in the way of the attack, raising her guard naginata defiantly. Memories flooded her mind—

—the lavender scent of her mother’s perfume—

the texture of her father’s tunic against her cheek—

—the feel of Azura’s hair in her fingers as she brushed it for her niece—

—the deep, throaty sound of Arete’s laugh, rich like chocolate—

—the fragile weight of Kamui in her arms—

—the slight curl of Anankos’s mouth as he smiled—

Time resumed its normal speed. Sound came rushing back. The gale Keiji summoned threw her and Arete the rest of the way towards the lake. The orb exploded where they had been standing. Damaris and Keiji screamed once and were incinerated, their bodies taking the brunt of the attack. Mikoto cried out as she hit the water back first, curling Kamui protectively into her chest. Bitter cold swallowed her—the world spun—water flooded her open mouth—pain exploded across her temple—her vision flickered dangerously. Hoshido! Her mind screamed. Hoshido! Hoshi—

The water responded to her blood and to her call, swirling around her and her son and sucking them through a vortex, away from their dying country.

For a moment, Mikoto was unaware that anything had changed. But then she registered the sharp temperature difference, the lack of soot and blood in the water. Her legs kicked—one arm pushed at the water around her—her head broke the surface.

The princess coughed, tears of pain pouring down her face. Her feet found the earth beneath them—she was in the shallows. She stood up shakily, lifting her son out of the water—the poor thing was soaked to the bone, the shock of the cold silencing his feeble cries. For a moment she was terrified that he was dead, but then he sneezed violently and began wailing anew. The weight in her chest loosened and she laughed, partially in relief, mostly out of hysteria.

Making her way to the shore, one hand left her son to feel her temple—yes, there was a nasty gash there, oozing blood. She’d probably hit her head on a rock when she went flying into the lake. As her feet sank into the grass, Mikoto looked about, taking in the lush foliage and pastel sky. It was early morning—she was in Hoshido.

Their clothes were sopping wet; they needed to warm up, or else catch a cold. Mikoto hadn’t had time to pack a change of clothes, so they’d have to start a fire. She turned to ask Arete is she had a Fire tome with her and just then noticed she was alone. “Arete?” she shouted, her heart starting to stutter in her chest again. “Arete? Azura?”

A few birds chirped cheerfully in the distance, as though they were mocking her. Sunlight broke through the clouds and danced gently on the surface of the lake. The very still, very empty lake.

“Arete? Azura?”

This isn’t happening, she thought numbly. It just wasn’t. Any moment now her sister and niece would emerge from the water, coughing and cold and wet, but alive. Arete would slosh through the lake furiously, Azura in her arms, golden eyes flashing and soaked dress clinging to her skin. She would yell at Mikoto for a few moments, admonishing her for letting go of her. Then she would collapse, sobbing with relief, and embrace the younger woman, trapping Azura between them. Azura would wiggle and complain about her mama and auntie squishing her. Kamui, startled by the noise, would start crying again. Mikoto would laugh and kiss each one of their precious faces and gather them close and never let them go.

“Arete?! Azura?! Arete?!”

Any moment now.

“Arete! Azura! Arete! ARETE!”

Her yelling grew louder and more frantic, her head whipping this way and that, as she searched desperately for her sister and her niece, and found only silence.

Edited by Abvora

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Chapter Four:

A/N: So you know how most written works have a chapter that doesn’t really move along the plot, but is necessary for setting up the groundworks for the plot to move? Yeah, this is that chapter, sorry. It features the first notable timeskip, establishes the relationship between Mikoto and Sumeragi (and Hoshido at large), has still more worldbuilding for Hoshido and Nohr, and introduces the gray and grey morality the game was sadly lacking in. Not a lot of drama, but Mikoto deserves a bit of a breather, given what she’s been through and what she’s going to go through.

…In other news, this is also known as the “Let’s see how many Fates cameos I can sneak into one chapter” chapter.

Disclaimer: I’ve never done toddler-speak before. If it sounds unbelievable to you, please let me know and I’ll do my best to fix it.

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“…eleven injured and two dead in the last raid. The Nohrians made off with five barrels of fish, ten of bread, and seven of fruit. The village suffered moderate damage, nothing that can’t be repaired, but the people are starting to whisper that we can’t protect them from Nohr.”

“And their demands?”

“They’ve changed slightly, Your Highness. They still want the export taxes lowered, but now they’re insisting we drop them to below their original price, as reconciliation for raising them in the first place.”

Yukimura put the reports down, an apologetic look on his face. The meeting with Sumeragi’s advisors was taking place in a small, private room, set apart from most of the palace. Those gathered were sitting cross-legged on the ground around a low wooden table. Only the king’s most trusted advisors and his retainers were present, as the subject was a rather contentious one.

Sumeragi sighed and rubbed his forehead with one gloved hand. He glanced to the woman to his left. “What are your thoughts, Mikoto?”

Mikoto bit her lip, musing over the question. In the three years since her arrival in Hoshido and accumulation into Sumeragi’s court, she’d wormed her way into the valuable position as an advisor and a concubine, though the latter was in name only.

The lake she had emerged from had been a week’s journey from Shirasagi. Cold, wet, terrified, and grieving, she’d fled there, remembering Sumeragi’s kind offer months ago. It had not been an easy trip; she was constantly jumpy, avoiding water for fear of Anankos’s troops chasing her through it, and she got almost no sleep, afraid she’d open her eyes to find Kamui dead or missing. Things had not improved much when she’d arrived; the palace guards had been suspicious of the vagabond woman with choppy short hair and dirty clothes, begging to see the king. They had almost thrown her out on the spot—she’d had to say Kamui was Sumeragi’s bastard son to get them to relent.

When she’d been brought before Sumeragi to speak in private, as she’d asked, she’d been prepared to throw herself at his feet and plead for shelter, plead for him to pretend another man’s son was his. She’d even been prepared to offer herself up as a concubine. Women who bore royal bastards were sometimes accepted into palaces for that purpose, and she could think of no safer place for herself and Kamui than behind the well-defended walls of Hoshido’s castle.

Sumeragi had dismissed his retainers and listened to the abbreviated version of her story—that her home had been destroyed and everyone she loved was dead, save her son—but as she’d begun prostrating herself to start the begging, he’d raised a hand. Her heart had stopped, and she’d been certain he was going to refuse to help without even hearing her out, but instead he’d just asked what he could do for her. And thus, she and her son were accepted into the royal household, her as a concubine and advisor, Kamui as Sumeragi’s “bastard”.

Even though she was technically safe, Mikoto was loathe to sit on her hands. She needed to prove herself valuable, gather allies just in case trouble came her way, and more than that, she just needed work to bury herself into so she wouldn’t have to think about what befell her loved ones. The court was surprised, of course, that a mere “peasant woman” was so well-versed in politics, taxes, and other courtly matters—but she was so good at her job, and so careful to cultivate a polite, soft-spoken mask, they were content not to question her about it. Their trusting and open nature surprised her—the Vallite court would have been micro-examining her for every slight error and detail, and Nohr’s, from what she’d heard, would have been actively plotting to ruin her. Perhaps it was a result of Hoshido’s easy life that the country as a whole was so…naïve.

But now, the question of Nohr’s recent actions.

Mikoto laced her fingers, choosing her words carefully. “For decades, Hoshido has exported food to Nohr. In fact, we have been their sole source of food. It’s no surprise they would see raising the export taxes as taking advantage of them. While we certainly have our reasons for doing so, we can’t put the safety of our nation at risk. Not conceding to Nohr means these attacks will only worsen, I’m certain. I think we should formally apologize and acquiesce to what they ask.”

“With all due respect, Lady Mikoto,” a soft voice interjected, coming from Sumeragi’s right. Mikoto glanced over—it was Queen Ikona. Sumeragi’s wife was both lance fighter and noblewoman, hailing from a prominent family. Her rose-red hair and eyes, gentle face, and slight frame made her seem far frailer than she actually was. “I disagree.”

She paused, likely for dramatic effect. Posture impeccable as always, Ikona’s eyes swept around the room, and her voice was clear. “Nohr is starving. I can sympathize with that. But these attacks have been unprovoked and their demands are unreasonable. The strain of constantly shipping off food has taken its toll on our economy, and we can’t continue without further incentive. We simply can’t afford to lower the taxes now, not just because of the negative effect on our economy, but because it endorses Nohr’s behavior and makes us look weak.”

“So you suggest we ignore their demands, even if it risks turning these skirmishes into a full-out war?” Saizo asked, red eyes narrowed. The green-haired man was fourth of his name, from a line that had long served the royal family as retainers—in fact, his twin sons, who were a little older than Prince Ryoma, had just started training as ninjas, if Mikoto recalled correctly. He was a valiant patriot, but tended to be rather dour and skeptical.

“Would you like to chance having a food shortage to supply another country, one that has shown no qualms about attacking for their own ends?” Ikona countered politely.

“But can we risk a war?” Mikoto stressed, leaning forward. “Nohr has provided us with mercenaries and soldiers because our own military is so underdeveloped. If things escalate, we might win by cutting them off and slowly starving them to death, but wars of attrition take a long time. They would likely overwhelm us before then.”

“Can they even understand the idea of peace?” That was Akio, a hot-headed and outspoken samurai who, like Saizo, hailed from a family long in service to the crown. “When faced with a decision they didn’t like, instead of attempting to negotiate, they attacked! Those Nohrians are barbaric; they’ve long envied us for our good fortune. They will always envy us! Should we roll over and show them our bellies every time they threaten our land?”

These damned prejudices again, Mikoto thought, irate. Hoshido and Nohr had originally been on opposite sides of the First War, and while they were willing to trade now, their interactions were tense, wary, and perpetrated by old stereotypes. Not all thought as extremely as Akio did, but there was an unfortunate tendency among the Hoshidans to look down their noses at Nohr. The country’s heavy emphasis on military caused most to see them as war mongers at best and savages at worst—and Nohr, from what she knew, thought of Hoshido as uncaring, self-centered, and whimsical.

Nohr actually had attempted to negotiate over the export taxes, but people were willing to forget about that. It was easier to pretend the other party was too brutish for diplomacy than admit your own stubborn refusal to budge had a hand in the current situation. In any case, Akio’s words sparked a storm, the various advisors, retainers and nobles all speaking at once, trying to talk over each other in their eagerness to get their voices heard.

Finally, Sumeragi slammed the end of Raijinto’s hilt into the table, catching everyone’s attention and silencing them. “Enough. There are good points on both sides, but we’ve been arguing for hours now without reaching a clear consensus. This session is over, we’ll pick it up again tomorrow after lunch.”

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With the court dismissed and the day mostly over, Mikoto and Ikona departed to the nursery to see their children. Mikoto glanced at Ikona out of the corner of her eye as they walked in silence.

Her relationship to Queen Ikona was a strange one. When Mikoto had arrived in court, carrying “proof” of the king’s infidelity, she’d been afraid it would earn her the enmity of the queen—but to her surprise, Ikona hadn’t cared that Sumeragi had seemingly strayed. “We were married for politics, not love,” she’d said the first time Mikoto had met her, hands folded neatly in her lap, kneeling with her spine ramrod straight. “I don’t care who or what he does in his free time. Sumeragi can’t divorce me without losing my family’s support, and my son is older than yours; neither of you threaten our positions. Ergo I see no reason for us to fight and squabble like petty children over this matter.”

“I am most relieved to hear that,” Mikoto had breathed, bowing as deeply as she could. “Thank you for your generosity.”

“Of course—but understand this;” And here Ikona’s eyes had narrowed, a bit of steel working its way into her voice, “should you ever try to harm my children, I will find a way to evict you and your son. Sumeragi’s favoritism won’t protect you.”

Mikoto had assured her she meant no harm to the queen’s two children, and that was that. It was very fortunate they’d agreed to get along, since they saw each other often, both working to advise Sumeragi in courtly matters. They often had differing opinions—Ikona was Hoshidan through and through, proud of her country and reluctant to yield to Nohr, while Mikoto was trying to save their strength for Anankos—but there was an underlying respect for the other woman in their interactions. Sometimes they even had lunch or did ikebana together, and the atmosphere was generally pleasant. They were almost friends, Mikoto thought, or at the very least not enemies.

Ikona had also been very helpful in assisting Mikoto’s adjustment to Hoshido. While some of the first Vallites had been Hoshidan refugees, both cultures had evolved much over time. Valla didn’t eat with chopsticks or have rice paper screen doors or wear kimonos. Noblewomen were expected to learn music, not ikebana and calligraphy. Not knowing even the most basic things made life both difficult and dangerous. If the court thought she wasn’t Hoshidan, they’d ask questions she couldn’t answer. And that might make her position at court precarious.

So she quickly learned to pretend to be a bit airheaded, covering up her cultural mistakes with ditziness. When she fumbled her chopsticks, she pretended her mind had been elsewhere. When she put her kimono on wrong, she laughed it off. People soon came to accept these flubs as just a part of her eccentric nature.

Mikoto didn’t know if she’d fooled Ikona or not—she doubted it, the queen was quite smart—and she definitely knew she wasn’t fooling Sumeragi, who knew she was from elsewhere. But the constant time she had to spend in Ikona’s company gave her opportunities to observe how the queen behaved and acted, and she was able to mold her own behavior off that. Ikona was even prone to occasionally advising her in subtle ways, offering mild criticisms of her flower arrangements or the way she walked, for instance.

Some months ago, Ikona had discovered she was pregnant again, with her third child, and her due date was fast approaching. She may not have loved Sumeragi, but she definitely loved her children, and there was a subtle glow about her as she went about her palace duties. Her happiness about her upcoming son or daughter made Mikoto a little wistful, remembering her own pregnancy and the blissful ignorance she’d had of things to come.

When they arrived at the nursery, the sight within made Mikoto smile. The three royal children were playing together, Ryoma giving Kamui a piggyback ride while Hinoka chased them. At seven and four, both of Sumeragi’s blood children had outgrown the need for the nursery, but they still often went there once their lessons were over to play with Kamui. She was relieved they got along—they’d been wary of her when she first arrived, in the way all children are wary of strangers, but they’d been delighted to have another brother.

Her son’s eyes lit up when he saw her, and he scrambled off Ryoma, running over as quickly as he could. “Mama!”

Mikoto couldn’t be more grateful that he took after her, albino coloring aside—explaining why the king’s bastard resembled neither his mother nor his supposed father would have been almost impossible. Her son was a naturally sweet child, bright and curious and full of energy. Innately charismatic, he’d wrapped most of the court around his finger as soon as he’d started learning to talk and walk. He’d be a great leader someday.

But for now, he was just her little boy. She giggled and bent down to scoop him up, planting kisses on his cheeks. “Hello, my little dragon. How was your day?”

"Lotta fun! ‘ochi an’ ‘yoma an’ ‘noka an’ me played knights-an’-dwagons, an’ then ‘ochi did some weally cool magic twicks, an’ then she told my fow-tune, an’ she said it was weal good!”

“Oh?” Mikoto turned with a smile to the young babysitter. Orochi was a noblewoman’s daughter, about ten years of age. Her family followed the practice of fortune-telling and predicting the future, a practice most dismissed, but Mikoto had taken an interest in it. The abilities Anankos had granted her were, in truth, almost useless—she almost never got full visions, just flashes and senses of impending danger that were hard to decipher. So she was eager to learn anything she could that might help. She hadn’t learned much, but she’d earned the patronage and loyalty of an old family for taking them seriously, which was almost as good. Orochi had already vowed to become her retainer once she was old enough, but for now, she settled for babysitting Kamui and the other royal children.

The purple-haired girl gave Mikoto her unique, cat-with-the-cream smile. “Indeed. I told him that his future holds a treat of sweets from a woman he loves very, very much.”

Kamui’s red eyes begged up at her. Mikoto laughed and shook her head, reaching into her sleeve for the Hoshidan candies she and her son loved. “Oh, very well. Here you go.”

The two-year-old took them eagerly, barely unwrapping one before shoving it in his mouth.

“I also said perhaps it would benefit him to share his sweets,” Orochi added mischievously.

“Oh!” Kamui turned and rushed over to his siblings, who had gone straight to Ikona once she entered. “Hewe you go, ‘yoma, ‘noka!”

Orochi pouted—she’d probably intended for some of those sweets to go to her. Laughing, Mikoto handed her one, and the girl brightened up. Ikona chuckled at something her children were telling her, drawing Kamui’s attention over, and he instantly launched into a babble of. The queen smiled at him, politely, patiently—that was something else Mikoto was grateful for, that Ikona didn’t treat Kamui badly.

Watching their carefreeness made Mikoto’s mind drift, inevitably, to the problem of Valla. She still hadn’t found a way to warn people about Anankos. To be honest, she was a little scared to try. If she died, what would happen to Kamui? If the Hoshidans didn’t believe her, her son would have no one knowing about Valla to protect him. And she’d already sworn to Anankos to not tell him about it. So she kept silent, instead trying to find ways to prepare Hoshido for the inevitable invasion. Advising towards increases in military personnel, channeling money into programs specializing in defensive magic, trying to make peace so that Hoshido and Nohr didn’t fight themselves into exhaustion before Anankos arrived—those were all things she’d done, with various amounts of success.

Mikoto closed her eyes and breathed a silent prayer to the gods, to guide their decisions in the coming days, so their children wouldn’t pay for their mistakes.

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Weeks slipped by. In the end, Sumeragi listened to Ikona, and started deploying Hoshido’s troops along the border towns, a blatant warning to Nohr. The raids trickled to a halt as King Garon contemplated what to do in response to this. Ikona birthed her third child, a son named Takumi, and a few weeks later the year ended.

As Ikona was required by Hoshidan law to spend a month in rest after her childbirth, she was unable to go to the new year’s festival—one of the biggest celebrations in Hoshido. For three days, no one was to do any work. Lights and lanterns were strung up in the city, and fireworks would go off every night. Food stalls brought out special dishes like otoso and ozoni. Many citizens made a pilgrimage to Shirasagi to partake in the festivities or visit the major shrines; those unable to do so went to the closest large town they could.

One particular custom was buying a small wooden boat, writing a wish onto a piece of paper, tying it to the boat, and releasing it into a nearby body of water. In Shirasagi, that body of water was the royal lake, and this was the one time of the year commoners were allowed onto the castle grounds, though not in the castle itself. The process symbolized both your hopes for the new year and letting go of the pain of the past year. It was a nice custom, Mikoto thought.

The first year she had, embarrassingly, ended up crying in public over it. She’d initially planned to put just two boats in for Arete and Azura, but then she remembered Anankos, who she was afraid was dead too, and Damaris and Keiji, who’d died so she could escape, and her parents, and her entire country, and suddenly she’d had innumerable boats, a fleet of boats, too many boats to put in the water. So instead she put in just one little boat, one boat representing all of Valla and all her dead people and all the dead ones she loved. And the sight of it had broken her, and she’d wept as people stared and Sumeragi patted her shoulder and Ikona’s eyes softened.

The second year, it didn’t hurt as much to put that boat in the water. She still missed Anankos and Arete and Azura greatly, but the pain had subsided a little. This year, it hurt even less. It was Mikoto’s third time attending, and the first where it was just her and Sumeragi. Knowing how painful this festival could be for her, he’d set his mind on keeping her happy, cracking jokes to make her laugh and telling her stories from his youth.

Sumeragi had been a good friend to her over the years. He included her in his decision making and made sure everyone at the castle treated her with respect. He would take her with him on his tours around the country, showing her the sights and helping her adjust to life in Hoshido. He always made time to talk to her, and he’d never pried into her past too deeply or forced her to do the other duty of a concubine.

Mikoto had once asked him why; perhaps she was cynical from losing Valla, but she’d honestly expected to be called on to sleep with him at some point. He’d thought about his response for a moment, before declaring, “It’s not because I don’t desire you. I do; truth be told, I loved you the moment I saw you at the lake. But I don’t want to force you into anything you don’t want.”

Then, with a grin, he’d added, “And don’t you feel obligated to return my feelings just because I told you about them, either!”

She’d been rendered speechless, to say the least.

And he wasn’t just kind to her, but to her son as well; he treated Kamui as though he really were his own, playing with him as easily as he did Ryoma and Hinoka, letting him eat with at the main table with the royal family, and spoiling him rotten. He didn’t even mind her son’s fascination with his beard and frequent tugging on it just to see if he could pull it off Sumeragi’s face. It was bittersweet for Mikoto to watch—it broke her heart that her son would likely never meet Anankos, and that Anankos would likely never get to experience being a father, but she was so happy Sumeragi was willing to fill that void in Kamui’s life.

So that year they wandered the festival, his retainers trailing behind him, laughing and having a good time. Mikoto mused on these things, about how at ease she felt with Sumeragi. She knew what falling in love felt like, and this wasn’t it. But the possibility was there. And that possibility was occupying her mind.

She looked up and started—they’d reached the stall selling the little wooden boats, set close to the pathway leading to the castle grounds. Sumeragi stepped back, knowing without words what she wanted. She purchased her boat and the paper, and, bending over the stall, started writing down her wishes.

That Hoshido makes peace with Nohr. That my son grows up strong and healthy. That my family’s souls find peace in the afterlife. That we be prepared for the end, when it comes.

Mikoto bit her lip, hesitated, then, coming to a decision, wrote one last thing.

That I can find happiness with Sumeragi.

She still loved Anankos, of course, but he was…he was dead, or never coming back. She knew it somehow, deep in her bones. And it hurt. But it hurt less than before, and even less when she was with Sumeragi. She could never marry him of course, not while Ikona was alive. But she was honestly okay with that. If there was one thing the loss of her entire home had taught her, it was to take what she could get.

When they reached the lake, Mikoto slipped the boat into the water. She bowed her head and closed her eyes, hoping that her quiet prayer would reach Anankos, wherever he was.

I’m so sorry, my love. You said that year was the happiest of your life, and I wish I’d told you then the same was true for me. But I can’t wait for you anymore. I think…I really think I’ve found someone I can be happy with. And I know you would have wanted that.

I will never, ever forget you, or our brief time together.

Opening her eyes, she took one of Sumeragi’s hands; his head turned towards her questioningly.

“Do you remember what you said, about not making me do anything I didn’t want?” she asked.

“Of course.”

Mikoto swallowed. She was reminded, fleetingly, of her clumsy seduction of Anankos those years ago. She wasn’t being as blatant now, but the buzzing nerves were still the same. “You’ve been a wonderful friends these past years. But now, I think I’d like to try being more than friends.”

Sumeragi stared, wide-eyed. Then slowly, a grin spread on his face. “Really? You aren’t just saying that?” When she shook her head he laughed, loud and joyful. “Haha! You have no idea how happy that makes me! I won’t give you cause to regret the chance you’re giving me, Mikoto, I promise!”

She yelped as he grabbed her and spun her in a circle. “Whoa! I just said I’d like to try, I’m not committed to anything yet!” But despite herself, she was smiling.

Sumeragi put her down apologetically, but he was still beaming broadly in a manner unbefitting of a king. She shook her head fondly. Yes, he’s very much not like a royal. But he’s charming, in his own rough way.

Mikoto smiled and turned her gaze back out to the lake. Watching the boats on the water, drifting slowly further away, it seemed to her like all the pain in her chest was drifting away with them.

Edited by Abvora

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Chapter Five:

A/N: I realized I made a slight error in dates—my original timeline had Kamui three years older than Takumi, but I ended up changing it so that he’s only two years older. I forgot to change the ages/years that already existed in my drafts, so I went back and dropped everyone’s ages a year last chapter. Ryoma, Hinoka and Kamui are eight, five and three now, and Takumi’s one. Really sorry for any confusion! Mikoto was still in Hoshido for three years and still attended three new year’s festivals, though—one when Kamui was a newborn, the second when he was one, and the third (from last chapter) when he was two.

In this chapter we get even more Fates cameos, including some royals everybody loves!

Finally, as a warning: I’m going to be taking a two week break from this fic. I will not abandon it! But my final exams are closing in on me, and I need to take the time off to study for them. The Invisible Princess will resume May 13th, so until then, see you~

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The funeral of Queen Ikona took place on a sunny day in spring, a week after her death. She was to be laid to rest in the fields outside Shirasagi, in a location reserved for the burial mounds of royalty. The citizens had lined up as far as they could, standing silently, while the nobles, retainers and royal family were at the front of the gathering, watching as the gravediggers began piling earth and stone atop her body. Mikoto found the beautiful weather morbidly ironic; wasn’t it supposed to rain at funerals?

She closed her eyes, remembering the last time she’d seen the queen alive.

There was so much blood, too much blood, and Ikona was screaming, screaming, screaming. When she’d birthed Takumi, she’d been completely silent, save the occasional wince—the pain had to be agonizing to drive her to actually make noise. Her forehead was beaded with sweat and burning hot with fever, and her eyes wide, unfocused, the pupils dilated. The healers hovered nearby, useless—festals and staves could only treat wounds, not illness or childbirth. With their immune systems weakened, the patients’ bodies took in too much magic, and would be permanently damaged if not outright killed by the very spells intended to heal them. There was nothing they could do for Ikona until the baby was born.

“Almost there,” Mikoto croaked, hovering at her friend’s side. “Your child’s almost here, and then the healers will be able patch you up, and you’ll both be fine…”

She knew the words were lies as she was saying them. The amount of blood on the bed was a testimony to that. Ikona had only been in labor for a few hours, but her child was being born in the breach position, feet first. The midwife was trying her best to ease the babe out, but her face was grim. The odds of either mother or child surviving the birth were low, and everyone there knew it.

After another half hour, Ikona let out one last yell and then collapsed. Mikoto peered over to see the midwife cradling a small, silent baby, its face blue, and her heart plummeted.

But then wailing filled the room and the baby began to thrash, miraculously alive. The mid-wife called out that it was a girl. The healers rushed over, immediately trying to save Ikona now that the baby had been delivered.

“She’s alive,” Mikoto hissed to Ikona, who seemed dangerously close to fainting. “Your daughter, she’s alive.”

Ikona craned her neck, probably wanting to get a look at her. One of the servants brought her over, still cleaning the blood off. The queen smiled weakly, catching sight of her daughter’s face, but didn’t speak. Her breathing was heavy, and in the green light of the healing magic, Mikoto could see that her eyes were glazed; desperate, she tried to encourage her.

“You don’t want to leave her without a mother, do you? She’s alive against all odds, you can survive too, Ikona, you can…”

“Not likely,” she rasped, face twisted in pain. “Mikoto. My children…”

Mikoto clasped her hand, blinking back tears. “I’ll look after them,” she promised.

Ikona smiled again, a bittersweet thing, “Good. Good…”

Her eyes rolled back into her head and her form slumped. Mikoto checked her pulse—she was just unconscious, but she didn’t have long. Frantic, the healers began working faster.

But her fever was far too high, and she’d lost far too much blood, and within ten minutes, Queen Ikona of Hoshido was pronounced dead from hemorrhaging.

The sound of stone clashing startled her out of the memory. Mikoto looked up; Ikona’s burial mound had been completed. As their mother disappeared beneath the earth forever, to her right, Ryoma and Hinoka began crying louder. Her heart went out to them—Ryoma was almost nine, so he might remember Ikona, but it was doubtful that five-year-old Hinoka would. Takumi, who was only one, definitely wouldn’t. The toddler was in his father’s arms, looking confused and upset. Kamui hung at Mikoto’s side, unusually quiet, clutching her hand tightly. Her son was three, close to four, and while he didn’t really understand what was going on, he could tell that something was very wrong.

On the other end of the group, Mikoto could see the nobles and their children. The royal retainers were present, but they were guarding the perimeter, ever vigilant. Saizo’s sons, Saizo the fifth and Suzukaze—or Kaze, as he was commonly called—stood with Kagero and Orochi, close to their mothers. The boys were ten and the girls eleven, so it was no surprise they’d become a tight group of friends. While they were in training to be retainers themselves, they were still considered children, and thus nobody judged them for crying.

“Damn Nohrians,” Akio muttered next to Mikoto, sounding choked. Ikona’s death had hit a particular chord with him—his wife had given birth to their daughter Hana, short for Kazahana, only a few weeks earlier. Both she and their baby were fine, but it had to have been unnerving, to know what happened to Ikona could have easily happened to his wife.

“The Nohrians aren’t responsible for this, Akio,” Mikoto said tiredly, watching Sumeragi bend down and hug his weeping children. His face was drawn and tired, and she longed to comfort him. But she was just the royal concubine, and it would have been disrespectful to Ikona to do so.

He was quiet. “I know,” he finally said. “I know this was nothing more than a tragic accident. But I just…I just need someone to blame.”

There was nothing she could say to that, so Mikoto kept silent, watching as the priest finished reciting the rites and the attendants slowly began to trickle away.

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That evening, Mikoto went to the nursery. Sumeragi was standing there, holding his newborn daughter gently. It was always a sight to watch him with babies—his hands were the size of their entire bodies, he was so tall, but he was always so careful with them. Mikoto lingered in the doorway, watching him.

Loving Sumeragi was different from loving Anankos. Mikoto would never say it was better or worse; it would be wrong to compare them to each other. It was just different. Anankos had been almost shy in his courtship of her, painfully aware of the difference in social classes, but very sweet and quietly passionate. Theirs had been a romance of stolen glances, secret meetings and smiles over books.

Sumeragi was loud and outgoing in contrast. He liked to take her out when he could, and somehow found a way to make even the introverted Mikoto enjoy their public jaunts. He was a bit prone to showing off, especially when fighting, but he was dedicated to making her laugh at least once a day, often surprising her with love letters scrawled during a meeting or telling bad jokes. And without her noticing, she fell in love with him.

Yes, she could say she loved Sumeragi. It didn’t mean she’d stopped loving Anankos, just like loving Anankos didn’t mean she spent every day longing for him. It just meant that now she could look back on her time with her first husband fondly, without pain, taking the memories out of their box and examining them with the nostalgia of pulling out a well-worn kimono from storage.

“Does she have a name yet?” Mikoto asked, standing at Sumeragi’s side. The new princess was even smaller than most, so small the healers had thought she wouldn’t survive the night of her birth. But survive she had, proving herself to be an unexpected fighter. Mikoto was glad—Ikona’s death was tragedy enough without her daughter dying as well.

“Sakura,” he responded. Mikoto nodded thoughtfully, looking down at the tiny girl. Her eyes were open, though in the darkness of the room it was impossible to tell their color, and her face was getting scrunched up for a good cry.

Almost as it magically summoned, the wet nurse stepped in with a quiet greeting of “Your Majesty”, arms out expectantly. Sumeragi handed Sakura to her as she began to wail and, waving Mikoto along, departed.

They made their way to his room in silence. While they had been courting for over a year now, Mikoto still insisted on sleeping in the concubine’s quarters. It would have been disrespectful to Ikona to blatantly spend time in the king’s suite, so she was a little confused at why they were heading there now.

Her question was answered when Sumeragi went straight to a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of sake.

“I didn’t love Ikona,” he started, as he began pouring sake into cups. “But I respected her. She was a good queen, a good mother, and a good woman. The world is worse off without her.”

“It is,” Mikoto agreed, sitting at the low kotatsu and taking the cup her offered her.

He raised his cup. “To Ikona.”

“To Ikona.” Mikoto echoed, and threw her drink back.

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Six months after Ikona’s death, Mikoto married Sumeragi and became queen of Hoshido. He’d actually wanted to marry her earlier, but they’d both agreed it would have been incredibly disrespectful to Ikona to get married before the appropriate mourning period was over, and so they’d waited.

It was held at a shrine in Shirasagi at sunset, and it was just the royal family, their retainers, and a few close friends in attendance—Hoshidans were rather private when it came to weddings. Kamui had exclaimed “you look pretty, Mama!” when he saw her in her white kosode kimono, and she’d glowed. Sumeragi had been utterly dashing in his red kimono, and she hadn’t been able to take her eyes off him, the ceremony flying by. Once it was over the revelry began—sake was passed out to all the guests, dancers and singers were brought up to perform, and a feast was spread out. The people cheered for her when she was presented to them as their new queen the next day; while they had been saddened by Ikona’s death, Mikoto had earned herself a place in her hearts during her time there, and so they were happy.

Now that she was queen, Mikoto was given a retainer, a fierce twenty-three-year-old woman named Reina. She was supposed to have two, but, remembering her promise to Orochi, had requested that the second position be left empty until Orochi was fourteen and old enough to sign on. Her duties were also more time-consuming than when she’d been just a concubine or even princess—while she had been an advisor, she’d never been required to attend anything important, and usually had a few hours a day to herself. Now she found her schedule suddenly incredibly busy with entertaining official guests, attending numerous events and ceremonies, and managing charity work around the city.

One month after her wedding to Sumeragi, in the onset of winter, Mikoto entered their quarters in the evening to find her husband in his evening clothes, glowering at a piece of paper in his hands.

“What’s that?”

He turned it over so she could see it for herself. Gods, Mikoto thought, that is the gaudiest invitation I’ve ever seen. The ink was a fine gold, the calligraphy so swirly as to nearly be unreadable, and intricately-detailed artwork of animals decorated most of the surface. It was the kind of fancy work you would expect for a monumental occasion like a royal wedding.

“It’s a request from Izumo,” Sumeragi explained, sounding tired, “Duchess Hiromi is throwing a week-long banquet for…I don’t know what it’s for, Hiromi throws banquets for the slightest of things. But she’s asked us to attend.”

“I don’t see what’s so bad about that.”

“They’ve also invited Nohr.”

Mikoto paused. “Ah.”

Hoshido and Nohr weren’t the only countries in the land, of course, just the major ones. There was the coastal, artistic country of Nestra; the philosophical land of Notre Sagesse; and the principality of Izumo. Izumo was a highly spiritual land, dedicated to worshipping the gods and remaining neutral in all conflicts. But the residents could be somewhat…flamboyant. They loved celebrations and threw them as frequently as they could. If Nohr thought Hoshido was shallow, then they thought Izumo was downright frivolous.

Izumo was also home to the most prodigious medical schools and the source of nearly all medicinal and first aid exports, so it was generally a good idea to not annoy them lest they cut you off. So if they asked you to attend a banquet with your worst enemy, you attended that banquet with your worst enemy.

Sumeragi groaned and dropped his head to his desk. Mikoto patted his back sympathetically. “You know we don’t have any choice, love.”

“I know,” came his muffled reply. “That’s the worst part. Hiromi’s a perfectly lovely woman, don’t get me wrong, but she’s so damned eccentric I can’t spend more than an hour in her company before wanting to hang myself. And Garon is going to show up with all twenty of his concubines, who will doubtless try to undermine each other the whole time, and all his bastards, who will be running amok and following their mothers’ leads. And he and I will probably trade insults all week, and everyone will be watching each other like hawks, and I’m going to have to try to keep Akio or someone from starting a fight, and it’s just a political disaster waiting to happen.”

She started rubbing circles, feeling the tight muscles under her hand loosen slightly. “Well, think of it like this—we’re already at war with them, the situation can’t get much worse, now can it?”

She was exaggerating a bit. Nohr and Hoshido were really in a cold war of sorts, their troops all stationed at the borders, doing nothing more than staring at each other, waiting for one side to so much as sneeze wrong. Hoshido was still raided for food and supplies, but King Garon claimed the men and women doing so were just bandits, and as none of them were wearing the regalia of Nohrian soldiers there wasn’t anything Hoshido could do to disprove him.

One wrong move would spark the inferno, so Sumeragi was right to be worried.

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They set out at the end of the week. Takumi and Sakura were left back in Shirasagi, too young to attend, but the three older children came along, excited. They were accompanied by just their retainers—Izumo had a no-weapons policy when you visited, so there wasn’t much point in bringing a squad of soldiers. At least with a smaller group they could leave quickly if something went wrong.

Hoshido arrived in Izumo first, giving Mikoto some time to explore. Izumo’s architecture was similar to Hoshido’s, but the interiors were similar to Valla, in that they preferred tables and cushioned chairs. Despite it being winter—it was snowy back in Hoshido—Izumo looked as though it were still spring, the sky clear and the trees full of leaves, with white snowflowers in full bloom. The air was sharply crisp, and Mikoto enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere.

But finally, they received word that Nohr had arrived, and so, swallowing her dread, Mikoto joined her husband and their retainers in receiving them. The king himself was at the head of the convoy, a sour look on his face as he took in the Hoshidans. His trueborn son and the crown prince, Alexander, hovered at his side. At ten the blonde boy was only a year older than Ryoma, but already looked to be shaping up to be a stern sort. Garon’s retainers stood at each of his shoulders, and behind them was a sea of women and children.

Sumeragi took a deep breath. “Remember, diplomacy!” Mikoto hissed in his ear. He gave her an absent nod, then, forcing a pinched smile to his face, stepped forward to greet Garon.

“King Garon, a pleasure to see you.”

“King Sumeragi,” Garon replied coolly. He was a tall and muscular man, handsome, with wavy blonde hair and an impressive beard. “I see you’re still profiting from my people starving in the streets.”

“And I see you’re still attending to your personal desires, rather than your people.”

Mikoto groaned and closed her eyes. It hasn’t even been a minute!

Garon’s eyes flashed, and he stepped forward, putting a hand on his axe, but then a sing-song voice cut in. “Now, now, let’s not sour the party before it even starts!” Mikoto turned to see the ruler of Izumo descending the stairs. Duchess Hiromi was a tall beauty, with stunning green eyes and hair so pale blonde it was almost white, piled in an elaborate hairdo. Her thirteen-year-old son, Izana, followed her, also smiling brilliantly.

“I know you may be enemies back home, but here in Izumo, we’re all friends! And friends don’t insult each other! So get along.”

The last two words had the barest hint of a warning in them. Abashed, Garon and Sumeragi backed off, grudgingly muttering apologies. Hiromi smiled and stuck her hand out for them to kiss, which they did, and when that was done turned to Sumeragi with a smile. “Is that a new coat, Sumeragi? I must say it does wonderful things for your figure.”

“It is,” he said, already looking strained. Hiromi beamed and turned to Garon.

“And King Garon—that fur cape looks fantastic. Is it mink? I don’t think you wearing it before.”

“It was a gift from my late wife,” he responded gruffly.

Hiromi, to her credit, didn’t falter, though her expression became sympathetic. “Yes, I’d heard about Katerina’s death. I am so sorry for your loss, she was a fine, fine woman, utterly delightful—and a great fashionista, no woman could compare to her sense of style, not even myself! Though word on the grapevine is you’ve remarried?”

“Indeed. I brought my new queen with me today.” A light smile crossed Garon’s face, practically transforming it into something incredibly handsome. He turned and waved one of the gaggle of women over. “I really thought I wouldn’t love again after Katerina’s death, but Arete is…something else.”

Hiromi started to respond, but Mikoto didn’t hear it, the blood rushing out of her ears and the world swaying as the name registered and the graceful figure stepped out of the crowd, catching her eyes immediately.

For her sister stood before her in black Nohrian garb, her blue hair coifed expertly and a crown on her head, golden eyes almost as wide as Mikoto’s own.

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The banquet wasn’t due to start for a few hours, so as soon as the Nohrians had been settled in Mikoto shot off in search of her sister, waving off Reina when she tried to follow her. She paused only to fetch Kamui, not wanting to leave him alone with the Nohrian concubines about—she’d heard horror stories about how they treated each other, and while she didn’t think they’d attack the prince of an enemy country, she wasn’t about to take that chance.

She knew, instinctively, where Arete would be. Izumo’s grounds had a lake—back when Valla was still in contact with the other kingdoms, it had been deemed diplomatic for all the countries to have a lake near their palace, so envoys from Valla could arrive in ease. They were close enough that the envoys would have a short journey, but far enough that the opposite kingdom would have time to see them and prepare a defense if they felt threatened. The memories of Valla may have been lost, but the lakes remained.

Sure enough, Arete was standing by Izumo’s lake, a stark black figure against the crystal blue water. Her face turned white as a sheet when she saw Mikoto drawing near. “Oh my gods,” she said. “Oh my gods. Mikoto.”

“Arete,” she whispered, and then she rushed forward, and suddenly she and her sister were embracing, half-laughing and half-crying, trying to speak, their words as tangled as their limbs, and her sister was alive, alive and here, and—

“I thought you were dead,” Mikoto choked, finally pulling away. She was crying and her makeup was probably ruined, but she didn’t care, how could she care about something like keeping up appearances when her sister was alive?

“I thought you were dead! You weren’t with me—I thought—” Arete glanced down by chance. A hand ghosted over her mouth when she saw the small boy at Mikoto’s side. “By the gods,” she breathed. “Is that…? That can’t be Kamui.”

Kamui tugged on Mikoto’s hand, looking uncertain. “Mama? Who’s she?”

“She’s…” Mikoto hesitated, remembering the promise she’d made to Anankos. “And old friend,” she finally settled on, smiling. “One I thought I’d never see again.”

Arete gave her a questioning look, but kneeled down, blinking back tears. “It’s nice to see you again, Kamui. I met you once before, but you were just a little baby at the time. You wouldn’t remember me.”

He looked a little wary, but his natural friendliness won out, and he offered her a hesitant smile. A thought struck Mikoto like lightning. “Arete—is Azura alive? Is she—”

“She is,” Arete said, rising. “She—Azura! Azura, come up here.”

Mikoto started as a little girl rose up from the water’s edge and approached. She hadn’t seen her niece over there, she’d been so quiet. She was so big—she’d be, what, five now? Five. Gods. Her long blue hair was tied back with a ribbon, and she was wearing a navy dress of Nohrian make. She went immediately to Arete’s side, clutching at her cloak and peering up at Mikoto from beneath her bangs.

Mikoto crouched down to be on eye-level with Azura, causing the girl to shrink backwards—she clearly didn’t recognize her, which wasn’t surprising. “Hello,” she whispered, scarcely able to believe her eyes.

A pause, and then Azura murmured a timid “Hello,” back.

Her niece was alive and well. Her sister was alive and well. And they were part of the Nohrian royal family. Mikoto rose, putting a hand over her heart, almost dizzy from the revelations taking place.

She needed—she needed time. She needed time to talk to her sister, her alive sister.

Mikoto glanced at her son. “Kamui, why don’t you go play with Princess Azura, let Mama catch up with an old friend?”

Azura eyed Kamui uncertainly and clung a little closer to her mother. But he offered her a friendly smile, which seemed to make her relax, and with a final glance at Arete—who nodded encouragingly—she stepped out. Kamui brightened and, grabbing her hand, dragged her off to the shallows.

“Don’t go near the water!” she called after them. Kamui slowed, the only acknowledgment he’d heard her, and began to drag Azura in a different direction. She didn’t like Kamui being near water—she was always afraid Anankos would somehow know and send soldiers to grab him. Sumeragi sometimes teased her about being so overprotective, claiming Kamui would grow up to be a total mama’s boy.

With a final glance to make sure the cousins were remaining within sight, Mikoto turned back to Arete, only to find herself grabbed and hugged again.

“Gods, I’m so glad you’re alive, Mikoto.” Arete breathed. “I thought you were dead. I thought you were both dead. You weren’t with me—”

“You weren’t with me! I—” Mikoto took a deep breath and rested her head on her sister’s shoulder, closing her eyes, letting the relief wash over her. “What happened?”

“I panicked,” Arete admitted. “I wasn’t thinking about going to Hoshido, I just wanted to get away. I didn’t have a destination in mind, so I suppose that’s why I was sent to a random location. Azura and I emerged from the harbor of a city in Nohr called Port Dia...”

In the end, they spent two hours talking, carefully side-stepping any mention of Valla. Mikoto learned that Arete and Azura had wandered Nohr for a few years, Arete singing to earn money, until word of her considerable talent reached the courts. King Garon had invited her to court to sing for his wife’s funeral last year, and been so impressed he asked her to stay. Not willing to go back to the streets, Arete had accepted a position as a concubine, only for her and Garon to gradually fall in love. She’d married him a few months ago.

Mikoto’s mind boggled at the thought that she and her sister had both somehow ended up as queens of opposing countries. While the possibilities for tragedy were there—they were on opposing sides, after all—she couldn’t help but think of the potential for good. They were the only known survivors of Valla, and they were both in a position where they could unite the countries and rally against Anankos.

She had to pin that thought as a cough came from behind her. Turning from her deep discussion with Arete, Mikoto saw an Izumite steward standing there, standing straight in his crisp, richly-colored outfit. The steward bowed. “Queen Arete, Queen Mikoto. Dinner is ready. If you would?”

Immediately Mikoto’s heart dropped. She wasn’t ready to go to the banquet. She didn’t want to go to the banquet, where she’d have to pretend her sister was nothing more than the queen of an enemy country. She’d just gotten her back, how could she do that?

But it was her duty as queen—it was their duties—to attend Hiromi’s banquet, and so, with one final, regretful look, they called their children over and departed.

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Hiromi’s banquet, as it turned out, wasn’t just a silly frivolity; it was her attempt to mend the bridge between Hoshido and Nohr. When they weren’t feasting, she was taking the royal families on tours of her capital or “politely requesting” they spend time discussing a peace treaty. Mikoto and Arete did their best to keep things peaceful and open up serious talks, but Garon and Sumeragi were both stubborn and antagonistic. Still, they at least kept the situation from getting worse, and by the end of the week the kings were at least open to the idea of further discussion.

King Garon was a harsh man, with an obvious enmity for Hoshido. But it was also obvious how much he loved his children, his stern face softening whenever they came over and his tone growing affectionate when he spoke to them. He would pat their heads or indulge their silliness, and Mikoto even spotted him letting Azura—who wasn’t even his real daughter—play with his crown.

To Mikoto’s relief, Kamui and Azura became fast friends, constantly seeking out each other’s company. This meant, as their mothers and chaperones, she and Arete had an excuse to spend time with each other. Even though their retainers hung nearby—there’d been an incident where Reina nearly came to blows with a Nohrian knight named Gunter, and ever since she’d been loath to leave Mikoto alone—and they had to treat the other as little more than an acquaintance, it was still wonderful. Sipping tea with her sister and talking about inane things, while Kamui and Azura played together in the background, was such a normal thing, something she never thought she’d experience again, and she relished it.

Unfortunately, Kamui and Azura were the only royal children who got along. The Nohrian children could barely stand to be among each other, and they were worse with the Hoshidans. The younger ones deliberately excluded the Hoshidan children from their activities, and the older ones, picking up on the tense moods of their parents, would gang up to verbally bully Kamui or Hinoka if they were around. Ryoma would of course then leap to their defense, which brought Prince Alexander, who was just as protective of his younger siblings as Ryoma, into the fray. Things almost escalated into a fistfight between the two more than once.

But the concubines, oh gods, the concubines, they were the worst. The children at least were simply acting their age and would grow out of their behavior, but the concubines were adults who couldn’t seem to act it. They spoke politely and wore large smiles, but they were laced with poison. The way they treated each other and their children was simply disgusting, simpering words veiling hidden insults. And they encouraged the rift between the children, seeming to find it amusing. They created misery so they could profit off it, and even in a land of neutrality and peace tried to find ways to sabotage the others’ positions. They appalled Mikoto.

But finally, finally, the week was over, and nobody had been killed, and as that last dinner ended they were escorted off to their rooms for the final night of sleep before departing.

In the morning, Mikoto opened her door to find Hiromi standing at the threshold, smiling. “Queen Mikoto, how lovely you look this morning! Your hair really is beautiful; those dark tresses are so shiny, they rival my own! I meant to say something earlier, but I kept forgetting—you know how taxing the life of rulership is!”

“Oh,” was all she could think to say, awkwardly. “Thank you.”

“You must tell me how you do it—” And then she had the audacity to push her way into the room, slamming the door shut. Mikoto opened her mouth to berate her—ruler or not, that was simply discourteous—but pulled up short as the light-hearted expression on Hiromi’s face was wiped away and replaced with an utterly serious look.

“I have a message for you,” was all she said.

Mikoto blinked. “Beg pardon?”

Hiromi rubbed her forehead and took a seat. Her skin was pale and clammy, Mikoto only now noticed, her face lacking its usual exuberate makeup. Her fingers trembled against the armchair; she looked old and tired, nothing like the vibrant duchess that had been their hostess all week.

“My family can communicate with the gods,” Hiromi finally said, voice shaking a little, still unnaturally stone-faced. “Usually they don’t say much, just deliver warnings or degrees, and it’s almost always the same ones who talk to me. But last night, while I was meditating, a new one spoke to me, one I’d never heard from before.

“That wasn’t as unnerving as the vibe I picked up from him, though. Everyone, even deities, has an…aura about them, I suppose you could say. His was very old, very powerful, and very much insane. He demanded I give you a message.”

Hiromi stopped, swallowing, looking shaken. After taking a moment to compose herself, she fixed her eyes on Mikoto, the pale green of her irises looking luminescent in the dim light.

The next words out of her mouth froze the blood in Mikoto’s veins. “He told me to tell you, ‘Anankos knows where you are.’”

Edited by Abvora

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Chapter 6:

A/N: Surprise! I’m back and uploading a day early! My mom and I are attending a retreat this weekend, and I realized I won’t actually have access to a compute until Sunday. So instead of making you wait three days I’m just giving the chapter to you early. I can’t tell you how much I needed that break. Trying to work on this and study for my exams would have killed me; I appreciate everyone’s patience in waiting for this chapter.

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Hiromi’s words haunted Mikoto all the way back to Hoshido.

The duchess had tried to comfort her when she’d seen how frightened she’d been. “I don’t know who this Anankos is, but I don’t think you’re in any immediate danger. Otherwise he’d just have assassinated you instead of warning you. This is an intimidation tactic, pure and simple,” she’d said. She would have been more successful in soothing Mikoto if she hadn’t looked so afraid herself.

Just intimidation it may be, but it was working. The message was clear: I know where you are. I know where your son is. I could kill either of you if I wanted to.

She was jumpy the whole trip home, waiting for Anankos to attack them. This would be the best time to do it—they were far from the walls of their protective castle, guarded by only three retainers, and three children to protect. Mikoto scolded herself for being complacent. She should have expected Anankos to be searching for her. She should have guarded her identity more. She should have—

“Mama?”

“Yes, my little dragon?” she responded absently. They were four days from Shirasagi now, and she thought she was going to fall apart from nerves. Her eyes constantly scanned the horizon for soldiers, and every time she saw water, even just a puddle, her hands went straight to her yumi. Sumeragi and the others had noticed her state of high alert, and they’d reassured her that nothing was going to happen, but they weren’t aware of the danger, not like she was. Anankos was going to attack now—surely he was—he wouldn’t let them get to safety—

Kamui tugged on her sleeve until she relented and looked to her right, where he was riding on the wagon carrying their camping supplies, bare feet swinging. His eyes were hopeful. “Will we get to see Azura and Miss Arete again?”

Her heart melted a little for him. Her son was the only one who had actually enjoyed the banquet; poor shy Hinoka had been utterly miserable being surrounded by so many strangers, and Ryoma had spent most of his time clashing with Prince Alexander. The stress of maintaining a veneer of politeness had constantly weighed on the adults, and even Mikoto’s happy reunion with her sister had been tainted by Anankos’s message.

“I’m sure we will,” she said, smiling gently. Kamui brightened and turned back to the wagon’s driver, asking if he could pet the horses. Remembering how upset her step-children had looked and realizing she hadn’t checked on them yet, Mikoto urged her horse to the other side of the wagon, where they were sitting side by side. They stiffened at her approach. “How are you two doing?”

“Fine,” Ryoma growled, not looking at her. Hinoka didn’t even acknowledge Mikoto, just stared at the trees as they passed.

Mikoto bit her lip. The pair of them had grown colder to her after her marriage to Sumeragi, much to her distress. While she had promised Ikona she would look out for them, it wasn’t just the promise motivating her; she’d grown truly fond of them over the years, so for their attitude to regress was upsetting. Hoping to mend the bridge, she pressed, “I know the banquet wasn’t what either of you was expecting. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

He was unmoved. “Okay.”

“It may have been disappointing, but things will get better in the future.”

“Okay.”

“If you need to talk—”

“You’re not our mom!” Hinoka suddenly snapped, whipping her head around. The angry, unexpected outburst from the normally quiet girl startled Mikoto into silence. “So stop acting like it.”

“I know, I just—” She faltered in the face of their twin glares. Mikoto was a politician and, occasionally, a warrior; she knew when a battle was lost. Swallowing her hurt, she nodded and let them be.

As she guided her mare back into the center of the convoy, Mikoto reminded herself that she shouldn’t be surprised Sumeragi’s children were taking offense to her. Living in the castle was one thing, but marrying him, even after waiting an appropriate period to mourn Ikona, must have seemed to them like she was trying to replace their mother. Still, it stung to get the cold shoulder after having coexisted relatively peacefully for several years.

One hand slipped into her pocket, fingering the little stone there. She’d been able to find Arete before leaving Izumo, and while they hadn’t really been able to talk—not in the courtyard, with dozens of eyes around them—the other woman had seen how distressed she was. Her sister had pressed a rock into her hand, whispering that it was a sending stone. “Contact me at sunset, in a fortnight,” she’d hissed, then moved on to say her farewells to Duchess Hiromi.

At least I still have that to look forward to, Mikoto thought, and then resumed her vigilant watch for Anankos’s attack. But it never came, and four days later they passed through the castle gates back to safety. And instead of being reassured, Mikoto couldn’t help but feel even more afraid.

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When the time came for her to speak with Arete, rather than going to the bathhouse, Mikoto had the servants bring a tub to her room and pour hot water into it; Sumeragi had been called out to deal with a land dispute between two lords, and wouldn’t be back until morning. Which was fortunate, because no matter how well-liked Mikoto was, communicating with the queen of an enemy country would be seen as treason. She disliked keeping secrets from him, but she’d been doing so for years, so what was one more? Once the servants were gone and she was stretched languidly in her bath, she pulled out the sending stone and ran her fingers over the runes etched into it.

Sending stones were another Vallite invention. While the Vallites had been willing to share some of their secrets—Hoshido’s throne was a Vallite throne of truth, gifted at the end of the First War, if Mikoto was recalling her history correctly—others they guarded jealously. Sending stones made it possible to communicate incredible distances, which was useful when Valla had to go to war; it would also be just as effective in enemy hands. As such, they had been very guarded; each stone had to be keyed to a specific person, and could only be used by those of Vallite blood.

“Arete?” Mikoto whispered into the stone.

The runes glowed blue in response. “I’m here,” came her sister’s voice, a little distorted but audible. “Alone. You?”

“Same.” Mikoto relaxed into the water, lazily swirling it around with her other hand. “How did you come by these?”

“I started crafting them in secret as soon as I saw you at Izumo. There was no way I was going to let that be our last contact, not after I just found you again.”

Arete always had been prolific with spells and magical crafting; Mikoto shouldn’t have been surprised she’d be able to make a set of sending stones. As a child Arete had been fascinated by the court mages, following them around and watching them work. She’d tinkered quite a bit in her free time—had her sister not been a princess, Mikoto knew she would have happily become a magic researcher.

“Well, I’m glad we’ll still be able to talk. But first there’s something I need to tell you…”

When she finished relaying Hiromi’s message, there was silence. “I agree with her,” Arete finally said. “I don’t think you—or I—are in immediate danger. If he knows where we are and hasn’t killed us yet, it’s because he wants us alive for some reason.”

“But we’re threats to him. It doesn’t make sense to let us live.”

A distinctly un-ladylike snort echoed through the stone. “He’s mad, Mikoto. Nothing he does makes sense, at least to us. Either way, there isn’t really anything we can do about it except what we’ve been doing—stay careful and try to make peace between our countries.”

“I suppose,” she muttered, still not quite convinced. “Can I ask you something?”

“Go ahead.”

“How do you feel about the concubines?”

“I hate them,” Arete said flatly. “And honestly—I’m a little jealous Garon keeps them around. But I can understand why, to an extent. Most of them are very talented warriors or mages or diplomats. He’d rather not make enemies of them. And I think he feels guilty, to an extent, about kicking women he likes out—some hail from the streets like me.”

“I see. Sorry for asking, I was just—”

“Curious?” Her sister sounded amused. “That’s okay. How did Sumeragi’s wife—Ikona, was that her name?—take your arrival?”

They chatted leisurely for almost an hour, free to speak of more personal matters away from the eyes of their retainers. Before they cancelled the spell, they made plans to speak again—once a week, every evening after sunset—both to speak as sisters and to discuss the peace negotiations as queens.

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The new year came, and two months later, Sumeragi departed for his annual visit to the Fire Tribe. Despite Mikoto’s pleading, he refused to have an escort greater than Akio and Saizo, insisting that the three of them were perfectly capable and that bringing more soldiers than necessary would just put undue strain on his hosts. She loved the man, but gods, there were times he made her want to pull her hair out.

The peace talks with Nohr were slow going; letters took several days by raven (for Nohr) or hawk (for Hoshido) to reach the other’s castle. Once they arrived, the king would have to confer with his queen and his advisors about the terms being offered, which would take up to several weeks. Then they would send their counter-offer and the process would start again. It could have gone faster if neither man was so stubborn—Garon was adamant about not paying the raised taxes, Sumeragi was adamant about raising them, and neither was really willing to meet in person, which would definitely have decreased the time spent talking.

The fact that Nohr hadn’t stopped their raids didn’t help.

In spite of Mikoto’s best efforts, Ryoma and Hinoka remained frosty towards her, and worse, their quarrel with her leeched over to Kamui; they were usually willing participants in his games, but as of late had been ignoring him too. He was admittedly a little spoiled, thanks to Mikoto, and unused to not getting what he wanted.

After realizing the rather horrible temper tantrums he’d thrown weren’t working, he’d taken to roping the older children into playing with him. Kaze seemed to be his favorite, so far; he’d even asked if he could have the green-haired boy as his retainer when he was older. She’d said it was up to Kaze, but he’d seemed pleasantly surprised, and had promised his service when the time came.

At least Takumi and Sakura still liked them, though considering they were too young to really do otherwise, that didn’t mean much.

Despite her worries, Sumeragi returned from the Fire Tribe safely and on schedule, and Mikoto was only too happy to see him back. Chief Kenta had sent his greetings to Mikoto as well as a gift, to her surprise; a lovely red gem, offered as a sign of friendship. She didn’t say it out loud, but she hoped it was also a sign that he was willing to offer his tribe’s services, should war come.

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The next time Mikoto spoke to Arete, she learned that a new mage in court, Iago, had wormed his way into Garon’s inner circle, and was the main cause Nohr was stalling on the peace talks. He was stirring up the court, according to her sister, going on about how Hoshido couldn’t be trusted and how he was sure to guide Nohr to victory. In Arete’s words, “he’s your typical power-hungry creep spouting typical political bullshit, but he’s good at making it sound convincing.” There wasn’t much they could do about him, besides stooping to murder—which Arete was loathe to do—so in the end they resumed efforts to find a compromise that would benefit both countries, one that would convince Garon even with Iago about.

She heard her sister groaning through the stone and could easily envision her pacing, the way she always did when frustrated. “I’m telling you, the only way Garon will accept Hoshido raising the export taxes is if you offer him a valuable, fertile piece of territory in return.”

“Sumeragi will never agree to that.” She was outside today, relaxing in the palace garden. It was a bit of a risk to be in a public area, but she had Reina standing guard near the entrance; the blue-haired woman wouldn’t question her actions and would announce visitors if they came. Mikoto stared out at the blooming cherry blossom trees, fiddling with the edge of her kimono. It had been another month since Sumeragi’s return from the tribes, and the peace talks still hadn’t gone anywhere. She’d been debating with her sister for almost twenty minutes now; there was one idea she’d been toying with for a while, but she wasn’t certain how Arete would react.

Still, she was getting desperate, and it had always been her duty to bring potential solutions to light, even if it earned her the ire of her sister. “We’re going about this wrong. Let’s set that aside and go back to the main cause of all this—the reason Hoshido raised the taxes in the first place. We did it because we’re in a bout of economic trouble.”

“Yes,” Arete snarked, “the land of wealth and prosperity is telling the land of barrenness they’re having economic trouble.”

“Arete, please.” She could practically see her sister’s eye-roll, but she did apologize, and Mikoto continued, “Our exports are primarily agricultural crops. The farmers who harvest those crops pay tribute to their respective feudal lords, who pay tribute to Sumeragi and me. Leftover harvest is given to us, and we give it to merchants. The merchants travel to Nohr to sell the extra harvest, then return and give us most of the money, keeping a portion for themselves.

“However, recently the head of one of the merchant clans found his cut of the profits to be unsatisfactory and started demanding more. He was able to rally the other merchants around him, and soon we had a near-uprising on our hands. We could put them down with force or press Nohr for more money; we chose the latter.”

“And we can’t give you that money,” Arete explained, sounding tired again.

Mikoto sighed. “I’m aware. However, we wouldn’t need the increased taxes if we were able to pull money from other ventures, such as what we pay Nohr to protect our merchants. If Nohr offered its’ protection freely, we could use the money originally used to pay you to pay the merchants, so we could return the export taxes to their original prices. That, of course, means an alliance, which means—”

“Sealing it with a marriage.”

“More specifically, Azura and Kamui’s.”

Her sister’s tone was unreadable. “Any pair could get married and solve the problems with Hoshido and Nohr, so why them in particular?”

“Because their marriage is the only one that would solve that succession crisis.”

Her loyalties may be to Hoshido now, but she still had to account for a future where Valla could be rebuilt. As the current Vallite king’s firstborn son, Kamui was technically the crown prince of Valla. But Anankos was a usurper who had stolen the throne; with that in mind, any surviving Vallites might consider Kamui taking the crown as stealing it from the true princess, Azura. With enough people with that mindset, factions could form and a civil war over the crown could happen, which would likely ruin whatever was left of Valla.

But marrying the cousins to each other would avert that entirely. A side effect of keeping marriage in the upper class was that it wasn’t uncommon for first cousins to wed; Hoshido, Nohr and Valla, as well as many noble houses, all had at least one such marriage in their history, Mikoto knew. If you wanted a lasting alliance with a noble house or a different country, you had little choice but to continually marry your line to them. It was also useful for cases like this, where two people had equal claims to something, but you didn’t want to war over it. So having Kamui and Azura marry was the best solution; it would not just seal an alliance between Hoshido and Nohr, but an alliance with Valla as well, and both would be able to take their claims on the Vallite throne, satisfying all but the most extreme of Vallites.

Silence was all she received for a few moments, and Mikoto braced herself for the worst. But when Arete spoke again, she sounded thoughtful, not angry or opposed like Mikoto had been expecting.

“It sounds…almost perfect,” Arete finally said, slowly. “It won’t be easy, of course; Nohr’s primary source of income is our military services, so we won’t be willing to just give it up. And your country’s isolationist and xenophobic tendencies probably makes accepting free services from outsiders a sticking point. But it’s probably our best shot.”

“I think it is. I was expecting you to be angry,” she admitted.

Her sister sighed. “I’ve known that Azura would probably have to have an arranged marriage; it’s part of royal life. I’ve accepted it, and she will too, in time. Still, I can’t help but worry: what if it makes her unhappy? Having to choose between a loved one’s happiness and the good of my entire country…that’s a nightmarish choice.”

Mikoto could understand that. She wanted her son to be happy, of course she did, she wanted him to fall in love and have a wonderful marriage and beautiful children and all the good things in the world. But he had a duty, as did all royalty, to do what was best for his country and his people, even if it meant sacrificing his own happiness. She had done it, Arete had done it, and their children would have to do it too. Little wonder some royalty could be selfish, after giving up so much.

“Well, we saw them getting along in Izumo,” Mikoto offered. “If we could talk our husbands into letting them visit or write letters over the years, they’d probably build a friendship. So their marriage wouldn’t be unhappy, at least.”

“There is that,” Arete agreed, sounding more cheered.

“So we’re agreed, then.”

“We’re agreed.”

Mikoto let out the breath she’d been unconsciously holding. “Good. The suggestion should probably come from Nohr; Sumeragi might try to put forth Ryoma as a candidate instead, since Hoshidans usually try to get their eldest son married first.” Which would still work for Hoshido and Nohr, but it would make things even harder for Valla.

“Whereas if Nohr presents these terms—these very agreeable terms—he’ll be less likely to argue with them, in case it makes us change our minds,” Arete finished, “Yes, that makes sense. I’ll bring it up to Garon tomorrow.”

The raven-haired woman nodded, feeling a weight lift off her shoulders. She watched the pink petals drift lazily down from the trees, inhaling the scents of the flowers. Mikoto loved the gardens in spring; it was tranquil. She wished she could bring her sister and niece here to see it, someday.

Maybe she could, if this went through.

“You know, Arete? You’ve mellowed,” she said finally.

Her sister chuckled. “And you’ve gotten more considerate. You could be kind of a secretive bitch when it came to your plots.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“I’m just saying, the old you would have tried to manipulate me into agreeing, not told me upfront.”

“And the old you would have yelled at me for doing so.”

“Hm, I wonder why?”

Mikoto rolled her eyes and shook her head, glad Arete couldn’t see that she was smiling.

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“Did you hear about Duchess Hiromi?” Mikoto asked as she and Sumeragi prepared for bed, six weeks later.

Her husband ran a hand through his spiky hair, his mouth pulling down sadly. “Yes, I did. It’s tragic; she may have been eccentric, but she was mostly harmless. I don’t know why anyone would want her dead.”

The letter from Izumo had come earlier that day. Sumeragi had been out training Ryoma, so Mikoto had received it in his stead. It had announced that Hiromi was dead and Izana the new duke; information from their spies confirmed this, adding that Duchess Hiromi had been found floating face-down in the lake a few days ago, the water filled with blood and a red smile on her throat. None of the Izumites had any idea how someone could sneak onto the palace grounds and just assassinate the duchess like that, but she had her suspicions.

Anankos…what are you doing? You’ll kill the duchess, but not me? I don’t understand.

It was a warning, that much she knew. No good assassin would be so obvious. A fall from the balcony, for example, could be construed as an accident, but a slit throat was always the work of outside forces. You only were so overt in your actions when you wanted a message sent.

She just couldn’t work out what the message was. He’d already told her he knew where she was, and he was still letting her live. Was he trying to scare her again? But why, what was the point? There wasn’t any strategic benefit to be gained from it. The uncertainty and fear that had died down in the weeks after Izumo rose up again.

Making things worse was that Nohr had yet to offer the betrothal, so the cold war was still dragging on. The last time she spoke with Arete, her frustrated sister had said that she was having trouble at court. The concubines were being worse to her than usual—they’d almost killed her—and Iago was interfering with her attempts to get Garon to suggest the betrothal.

“Izana has his work cut out for him,” Sumeragi continued, pulling his wife out of her racing thoughts. “Poor boy, he only came of age…what, five months ago? It’s not easy to take up the mantle of rulership so soon, especially after losing his mother in such a way.”

“We’ll send him a letter of condolences and offering to help,” Mikoto murmured. She turned away from the mirror, where she’d been pulling pins out of her hair, and embraced her husband from behind. Ignoring the long hair tickling her nose, she pressed her lips to his shoulder blades.

“Sumeragi?” she whispered into the warm skin, fear sticking in her throat.

“Mmm?”

“I love you.”

She felt him turn in her arms and drop a kiss on her forehead. “I love you too.”

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Mikoto hadn’t seen the Brightwood since before Valla’s destruction. Stepping out of a river into it was almost surreal—although the forest had had years to regrow, it was still devastated, charred black trees fallen like corpses among the soil. The river she’d emerged from was murky and dark, the once-clear water clogged grey with soot and ash.

It had taken a lot of verbal trickery on Arete’s part to tell her the meeting place. “Woods that were once bright but are now burned” was vague enough to dodge the curse, but only a Vallite would glean what destination it meant. Though she couldn’t understand why Arete would want to meet here; sneaking into Anankos’s territory was an invitation for trouble, especially if he was behind Hiromi’s death as she suspected. But she had understood the anxiety in her sister’s voice, so she came, against her better judgment.

Mikoto tilted her head back, squinting against the sunlight. There were…islands in the sky? No, her eyes weren’t deceiving her; huge chunks of land, floating in the sky, some sideways or even upside down. How in the world…?

“Anankos’s doing, probably,” Arete said darkly, emerging behind her. “Literally ripping apart a country and putting the pieces in the sky is the sort of unnatural that only happens with the assistance of very powerful magic.”

Her sister’s hair was cut freshly short; last time Mikoto had seen her it had reached her lower back. Her makeup did a poor job of hiding the bags under her eyes, and she looked thinner. Concern spread through Mikoto, but before she could ask what was wrong, Arete cut straight to the chase, pulling out a woven blue bag.

“Let’s make this fast, I don’t like staying here long. This bag has the project I’ve been working on as well as some research notes. It took me months to make the stave—I used the resources in Nohr’s library along with my knowledge of Anankos’s barrier spell—oh, damn it—”

Her sister fumbled the bag, and its contents, sheets of paper and a gleaming, decorative stave, spilled onto the ground. The Nohrian queen cursed and bent to collect them; Mikoto noticed she looked like she was going to cry. She grabbed her sister’s arm.

“Arete, wait, what’s going on? Are you alright? Why did you call me here?”

Arete stalled, slowly sweeping everything back into the bag. When she finished she straightened up, clutching the bag to her chest, looking very young. “I’m going to tell Garon about Valla.”

For a moment Mikoto thought she’d misheard her. Once the words registered, her heart dropped to somewhere in her stomach. “What? No! Arete—”

“That mage I’ve been complaining about, Iago?” Arete wiped at her eyes with one hand. “He works for Anankos. He’s been going around telling people about how they should stop worshipping the Dusk Dragon and worship Anankos instead. He brought the subject up in court a few days ago, talking about how Anankos would deliver our country into greatness, and the courtiers were listening to him. Garon was listening to him. That’s why the peace talks have been stalled; he’s starting to think that Anankos will save Nohr. If he does, he’ll invade, both our countries will be destroyed and Anankos will win.”

She leaned forward and grasped Mikoto’s hands. “Mikoto, I love Nohr. I love the sky at sunset, when it’s awash in indigo and orange. I love the buildings carved artfully into stone. I love the people, who are good-natured despite their hard lives. Nohr has a lot of bad things, but it has a lot of good things, too. I want to save it.”

“I can understand that, but you don’t have to do this, Arete,” Mikoto begged. “We can—we can find a way around the curse, somehow—”

“I’ve tried,” Arete interrupted, the despair evident in her words. “I came here once to write down all the information about Valla and brought it into Nohr, but as soon as I pulled the note out it dissolved into water. I’ve been using the royal library to research ways to break either the memory or the speak-not curses, and it’s just not possible. When our mages cast the spells, Anankos infused them with his power, his very life; they’ll only break when he dies.”

“But the other one—”

“—was weakened, yes, but only broken completely when your Anankos contributed. We don’t have the resources necessary to weaken these spells, and we can’t break them either.”

Ignoring her protests, Arete pushed the bag into Mikoto’s hands. “Take this. Use it. It’ll be helpful in protecting our countries, and I’ve left instructions for you in case I don’t survive.

“I’m not going to tell Garon verbally, I’m not a fool. I’m going to write everything down, while he watches. Maybe an indirect mention won’t trigger the curse, and if that’s the case we’ll be saved. He’ll know the truth, you’ll be able to tell Sumeragi, and once Kamui and Azura get betrothed an alliance will be formed and we can unite against Anankos.”

Mikoto took the bag slowly. It seemed to contain the weight of the world. “And if it does?” she whispered, almost unable to bear the thought, “If even writing the information down kills you?”

Arete closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. “Then you’ll hear about my death and you’ll know indirect communication isn’t safe. And you and Azura will still be around to help Kamui.”

“Azura? Wait, you’ve been telling her about this?”

“You haven’t told Kamui?”

“No! He’s a child, why would I? How could you?”

“Because my daughter lives constantly in danger and not knowing about it is liable to get her killed!” Arete snapped, bristling. “She’s mature enough to not speak of it outside Valla, and she knows not to use our song unless necessary.”

“But what will the weight of that knowledge do to her? How stressed and afraid is she going to be? Arete—”

She stopped, her face going pale. They’d been raising their voices without realizing it, and it had attracted the wrong sort of attention. Arete’s brow furrowed, and she looked over her shoulder. The blue-haired woman swore lowly, instinctively moving to press their backs together, one hand reaching for a tome.

Black fear swallowed Mikoto as she watched the figures climb out of the river and fan out in front of it. The glowing purple eyes, the Vallite insignia on their armor, the slight stiffness of their limbs and rank smell of their flesh. Anankos’s undead soldiers. Her hands immediately went to her yumi, nocking an arrow, and her eyes scanned them, mentally weighing their odds.

But instead of attacking, the one in the lead stepped forward, opened its mouth, revealing a set of jagged yellow teeth, and, to her horror, spoke.

“Hello, princesses.”

She recognized the voice immediately and barely stopped herself from screaming. It was warped by the raspy throat and the timber of the previous owner’s voice, but she recognized it.

You don’t forget the voice of your husband, after all.

“Anankos,” Arete hissed, ever defiant, ever bold, even in the face of a god.

The soldier’s cracked lips pulled up into a macabre grin. “Not quite in the flesh, but yes. You should consider yourselves honored. Pathetic gnats like you aren’t worthy of being in the presence of even my corpse puppet. Though it seems to disturb you.” It hummed mockingly.

“Would you like these better?”

The water bubbled; glistened; then more soldiers emerged from it. This time Mikoto really did scream, while Arete let out a strangled shriek.

Her horrified eyes swept over the new ranks of undead that had emerged. Her parents were there; Mother astride her horse, axe held firmly in her grasp, Father running a hand along the bowstring of his yumi. And there was Ikona, her naginata hoisted over a shoulder; Theophilus on his horse, with his sword and tome in hand; Damaris and Keiji… All of them had glowing eyes and blank expressions, and the animals were just as dead; the feathers on Damaris’s kinshi were falling out, and the horses were skeletal, thin fun clinging to bone. Theo had a gaping hole in his chest, and Damaris and Keiji’s bodies were still bearing the marks of the explosions that had killed them.

I think I’m going to be sick, Mikoto thought, horrified.

And then: Oh gods, what if their souls are still in there?

And then: Oh gods, we’re going to die. His soldiers were between them and the water, and while she and Arete did have their weapons, there were only two of them. There were at least three dozen opponents right here, not counting however many more Anankos could summon. Nausea filled her and she swayed; she was going to die because of one stupid, stupid lapse in judgment.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Anankos said, as if reading her mind, faux comfort evident in his voice, “I’m not going to kill you right now. I just wanted to deliver a message again, and watch you squirm in fear. It’s amusing.”

As her mind tried and failed to process that, the corpse drew its lance and twirled it experimentally. “You see, I could have sent someone to kill you, like I did Hiromi—yes, that was me. She was becoming an annoyance, sticking her nose where it didn’t belong, so I eliminated her. But unlike her, your living benefits me more than your dying, currently. I can tolerate letting a few knights run amok if it means I capture the king in the end.

“Because the truth is, my pathetic little princesses, you aren’t threats to me. You’ve been patting yourselves on the backs, been proud of escaping Valla and seducing kings and sitting on new thrones, but don’t fool yourselves. Your achievements are nothing. You can’t stop me. Hoshido and Nohr can’t stop me. I was sovereign when your people were crawling out of the muck, and I will be sovereign when the land has forgotten the names of your nations.”

Then, shockingly, the gathering of soldiers stepped aside, like a mockery of a royal procession, giving the sisters a clear shot to the water. Anankos’s puppet smiled. “So go ahead. Make your alliances, warn your kings, gather your armies. Bring them to me, and I will sweep them aside just like I did Valla. Because in the end, you’re only human, and humans are weak, fallible creatures.”

“Do you plan to ever act on your threats, or are they just empty air?” Arete taunted, voice bold on the surface but quivering just the tiniest bit underneath. Mikoto wanted to shake her, but she knew her sister was only scared; when Arete got scared, she got snippy. Mikoto, on the other hand, just froze, much like she was now.

Father—no, just his body, surely his soul wasn’t still in there—nocked, drew and released an arrow in the span of seconds. It whipped by Arete’s face, leaving a thin red line on her cheek. Her sister recoiled backwards slightly, involuntary raising a hand to the cut, staring at him with stunned eyes.

Anankos’s puppet’s lips curled into an ugly snarl. “I am letting you live, you miserable worm. Be grateful for it, because if you ever speak to me like that again, I won’t just kill you; I’ll raise your corpse and use it to strangle your daughter to death. Now get out of my country.”

Mikoto’s mind raced—was he really so overconfident, so arrogant, as to just let them go? Her eyes drifted to the water a few meters away, then back to the assembled soldiers. Or was he just toying with them, offering them a glimpse of hope before snatching it away? She took a few tentative steps towards the water, yumi in one hand, Arete’s bag in the other, but Anankos’s soldiers made no move to stop her.

The nauseating scent of decomposition filled her nostrils as Mikoto passed through the gap offered. Unnatural silence filled the air, and she was acutely aware of the dozens of eyes upon her. Arete was behind her, unnaturally quiet. Damaris’ undead kinshi shook itself as Mikoto brushed it, snapping its beak at her face irritably. She flinched; Damaris—no, her body, not Damaris—laughed. Dark amusement was somehow sparking to life in her dead eyes, and the eyes of her fellow corpse soldiers.

It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, yet the short trip to the water seemed to last forever. Shaking, Mikoto fought the urge to immediately rip open a portal and dive through it; she wouldn’t give Anankos the pleasure of seeing how afraid she was. Gathering their dignity around them like a cloak, the sisters slowly, calmly opened a portal to their respective kingdoms, and retreated.

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“I’m doing it tonight.”

Huddled behind the door to the pantry, Mikoto closed her eyes, feeling wetness clinging to her lashes. It had only been two days since that terrifying encounter with Anankos, and she was still shaking off the vestiges of fear. Her dreams had turned to nightmares of undead soldiers grabbing at her and dragging her under the water, drowning her screams.

After Anankos had basically dared them to come at him, she’d hoped that maybe Arete wouldn’t call his bluff. That maybe she wouldn’t go through with her plan to tell Garon. That maybe—but no. If anything it would have only strengthened her sister’s resolve.

“Alright,” she whispered, knowing she couldn’t change her mind.

Her sister hesitated, “Mikoto, I know you don’t agree with me telling Azura—”

“I don’t,” she interrupted. “But I don’t want to argue. Not…not now…”

An exhale. “I’m glad.” A heartbeat. “I love you, sis.”

“Yeah, I know. I love you too.”

Silence. Mikoto tried to think of something to say, but words failed her. What could either of them say? Nothing would change Arete’s mind, and nothing could capture how much this scared her, how much she hated this, how much it hurt to know her sister was going to leave her behind again. She wouldn’t be saying anything Arete didn’t already know. I just got you back! It’s not fair!

But this was Arete’s choice to make.

Finally, softly, Arete breathed: “Goodbye.”

The lights of the runes went out. Mikoto hugged the stone to her chest and let the tears run down her face, begging any god that would hear her that Arete would survive.

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Three days later, in the midst of a council meeting, a courier arrived and informed them that Queen Arete of Nohr had died in mysterious circumstances.

While Sumeragi and his advisors began buzzing with this news, wondering how it would impact their talks with Nohr, Mikoto heard nothing but the pounding of the blood in her ears. She managed to keep herself together for the courier to leave the room, then, claiming to need a chamberpot, rose and left.

She entered the first empty room she found and slid the door shut. Then her shaking hands pulled out the tanto she kept up a sleeve. Eyes blurry with tears, she blindly grabbed at her hair and chopped at it in vicious but clumsy strokes. As the black locks fell and curled on the floor, a choked sob erupted from her throat.

Mikoto buried her face in her hands, crumpled to the ground, and wept.

A/N: Next chapter’s the big one, folks.

Edited by Abvora

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Chapter 7:

A/N:

Not much to say other than: here’s The Big One. I went back and forth a lot about whether to include Hinoka in the Cheve incident or not, since the game has implications for either way. I decided against it because I figured it’d be easier to write her in than write her out if I missed something that points to her actually being there. If anyone’s aware of such a detail, please let me know!

Also, this fic won’t be ending with this chapter! There’s still one, maybe two more left, then the epilogue, before it’s over!

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Hoshidans were not very public about birthdays, even royal ones—only the reigning monarch’s birthday or a coming-of-age was deemed cause for public celebration. Thus, on Kamui’s fifth birthday, the citizens treated the day like any other. For the royal family, however, it was a different story.

Sumeragi handed work off to Yukimura that day, and he took Mikoto and the children out of Shirasagi. There was a little shrine by the roadside they stopped at to pray, and the smiling priest handed the children a piece of candy each. Then they were on their way, Saizo, Akio and Reina trailing behind them.

The meadow he took them too was sprawling with summer flowers, abloom in rich colors of red, blue, and purple. At the far end were the sakura trees iconic of Hoshido, leaves now green in summer, and several brooks bubbled through the grass; behind them loomed the mountain housing Shirasagi. The picnic basket was full of scrumptious food; sushi, miso soup, sukiyaki, vegetable tempura, grilled octopus, and rice, an abundance of rice. Peaches, sugared plums, and red bean mochi made up the desserts, to the delight of the children—Kamui happily munched on a peach, and Sakura, even at one, was already showing a liking for red bean mochi. The retainers were normally not permitted to eat with the royal family, but Sumeragi insisted on having them dine together just this once. Reina’s kinshi grazed peacefully a short distance away. It was idyllic.

After the meal, Sumeragi presented Kamui with his birthday gift, wrapped in a long, thin silk box. Kamui squealed with delight when he ripped it open and saw it was a wooden katana. “A sword?! Does this mean you’ll start trainin’ me, Papa?”

Sumeragi grinned broadly, patting his head with a massive hand. “That it does! You’re a young man now, Kamui, and it’s time you started learning what comes with being one, beginning with how to fight.”

His red eyes shone with delight. “Can we start now?”

“I don’t see why not!” Sumeragi boomed, and placing a hand on the young boy’s back herded him off to the other end of the meadow. Taking that as their cue to do what they wanted, the other children split off into their own activities; Hinoka wandered off to the brook to skip stones, while Ryoma entertained Takumi with a game of chopsticks and Sakura babbled happily at the flowers, admiring them in the simple ways of a toddler.

Mikoto watched her husband begin to instruct Kamui about the proper stances. Unbidden, the memory of her father gently correcting how she drew a bowstring rose to her mind. She pushed it away forcefully, but the damage was done; once one memory of her childhood came up, others followed, and inevitably she couldn’t help but think of the last time she’d seen her parents, undead puppets to Anankos, and of Arete, who was probably suffering the same fate. A lump rose in her throat, and she felt water prickling at her eyes.

“Lady Mikoto?”

She started, turning to see Reina had abandoned her post to approach her. The kinshi knight’s purple eyes were filled with concern, the scars on her face even more stark in the sunshine. Mikoto forced out a light laugh, resting one hand on her chest like some silly damsel. “My goodness Reina, I could have mistaken you for Saizo with how silently you moved just then!”

“Are you alright, my lady?”

“Oh, I simply got lost in thought, you know how absent-minded I can be,” she lied smoothly. Her hands were trembling against her kimono; through great force of will, she stopped them.

Reina met her gaze steadily. “With all due respect, that’s not what I meant. You’ve been distant these past few weeks.” She hesitated, then added, “I’m concerned for you.”

It took every ounce of training Mikoto had to maintain her serene smile. It had been two months since Arete’s death. The scar that had healed over when she first thought her sister dead had been ripped open anew, left to bleed and ache.

She wasn’t even permitted to mourn, forced to pretend to care nothing for a dead Nohrian queen.

“I’m just in a mood, that’s all. It’ll lift soon enough.”

“Lady Mikoto—”

“Please, Reina. Leave it.” Something in her voice must have told Reina to back down, for after pausing the kinshi knight nodded respectfully and returned to her post. For some reason, that irritated her, and she couldn’t help but think that Damaris and Keiji would have been able to discern what was wrong. Then she shook her head, sighing. There was no point comparing the living to the dead.

Mikoto watched her family play around her, more aware than ever of how isolated the secrets she kept made her.

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In the days after, Mikoto threw herself back into Arete’s research. Her sister had been very meticulous with detail, making for long reading, and she hadn’t had much time to look over the papers so far, caught up in a political storm as Hoshido tried to prepare for whatever Garon’s reaction to his wife’s death would be. So far, it seemed, he was simply lost in overwhelming grief, all activity in Nohr grinding to a halt. Mikoto could empathize; keeping busy helped her, but not everyone was like that.

Her fingers traced over her sister’s neat handwriting. The stave held a barrier spell with an enormous range, large enough to cover an entire country, maybe even two. Arete had molded it off Anankos’s barrier, changing the components so that instead of blocking outward travel, it blocked inward travel, and instead of blocking everyone, it blocked only hostiles. It would be invaluable once Nohr and Hoshido were allied, keeping their homes safe and allowing all their troops to wage war in Valla.

Except there was a catch. A spell of that magnitude wouldn’t have a very long life—six months, a year at most. And it only had a single cast.

Her fingers tapped rhythmically against the desk. Something had to be done.

The sound of sandaled feet hitting the ground in the room outside reached her ears. Mikoto hastily swept Arete’s notes and stave back into their hiding places, a cavity she’d dug into the wall and covered with a painting that Sumeragi and the servants wouldn’t think to move. Arete’s bag and the sending stone were also kept tucked away inside, the only things she had left of her sister. She straightened her posture, brushed her chin-length hair behind her ears, and pretended to be busy poring over reports on the rice harvest.

The screen door slide open, and arms wrapped around her as Sumeragi embraced her from behind. “That looks boring,” he commented, peering over her shoulder.

She smiled, allowing herself to relax back into him slightly. “It is, but it needs to be done.”

“Well, it can wait a little. Something more important has come up.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Oh?” She wasn’t opposed to playing around, but the middle of the day wasn’t exactly a good time for that sort of thing.

“Nohr sent another missive. The terms they’re offering are good, but it concerns Kamui, so I thought you should be the one to decide whether to accept or not.” Her heart leapt; Sumeragi pulled the letter out and laid it before her, but Mikoto knew what it would say. Skipping impatiently past the necessary prosaic greetings, she found the meat of the letter and read aloud:

“…Therefore, to come to an accord, we suggest a formal alliance, wherein we shall reduce the charges on military protection by fifteen percent in exchange for an equal reduction of the taxes on food. To seal the alliance between our nations, we offer Princess Azura of Nohr in engagement to Prince Kamui of Hoshido, to be wed when they come of age. The dowry of Princess Azura…”

She trailed off, closing her eyes; the rest of the letter wasn’t really important. Fifteen percent was the amount they’d raised the taxes; lowering it would bring them back to the starting amount, satisfying Nohr. A similar reduction of the fee for military protection should be enough to let them pay off the merchant clans. And the engagement—well, that was going off exactly as planned.

We did it, Arete. It was as though a weight had dropped from her shoulders. She’d started to wonder if nothing would come of her sister’s sacrifice. Nothing could have been worse than that. Still, victory was bittersweet in her mouth, and she swallowed the taste down.

“You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” Sumeragi said softly, misreading the sorrowful look crossing her face. “He’s your son, and I know how much you love him. I can try to get them to agree to Ryoma instead, it’s tradition for the eldest to be wed first anyway—”

“No,” she said firmly. “This offer is too good to refuse, and we risk them withdrawing it if we bargain. Take it. There’ll be time to find Ryoma a bride later.”

He searched her eyes for any sign of weakness, any hint of wavering. Then he slowly nodded, sighing. “Alright. I’ll start writing our reply to Nohr now.”

He turned to leave. He was only a few paces away from the door when Mikoto spoke up.

“He’s not just my son, you know. He’s yours, too.”

Sumeragi paused, lingered. For a moment she thought he wasn’t going to say anything, and flushed with embarrassment.

Then he laughed, sounding a little choked. “I’ve always considered him mine. But it’s still nice to hear you say it too.”

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The letters continued to be exchanged for the next five weeks as they tried to find a good meeting time and place. Hinoka was turning seven soon, and Sumeragi was reluctant to miss that event; Garon wanted the meeting done before Prince Alexander’s birthday, which was two months after Hinoka’s. But finally, they agreed upon a date, three weeks after Hinoka’s birthday, and a place, the city-state of Cheve.

Cheve was an ideal location for several reasons; it was not “officially” a part of Nohr, rather a vassal city-state; both countries had history there, sometimes sending regiments to be trained by the Chevois; and the people were, above all else, accommodating regardless of nationality. The only thing Mikoto was a little leery on was the distance—on horse it was three weeks from Shirasagi to the Bottomless Canyon, another three to Cheve, assuming fine weather. She would be staying in Hoshido to keep things running and wasn’t certain she wanted to be parted from Kamui for so long, but Sumeragi had convinced her that it was time to stop babying him. He’d agreed about the distance, though, and said they’d go by ship, which would only take two weeks, round-trip, so she caved in the end.

Still, that feeling of wrongness wouldn’t leave, even on the day they were supposed to leave.

It reminded her of that day in Valla, long ago, when Theophilus had left to try speaking with Anankos—and now that was a comparison she didn’t want to make. Citizens lined the streets outside the shrine where the royal family had made their prayers for a safe journey. The horses prepared for the journey were whinnying and tossing their heads. Those going were saying quiet goodbyes and see you laters to their families. The sole difference was that Sumeragi would be riding to a port town, where he and those with him would board a ship to Cheve.

Nohr had asked Sumeragi to bring Kamui to the peace talks, citing that their king would bring Azura so the two could start building a relationship. King Garon was very protective of the only thing he had left of Arete, the Nohrians said, and was going to do his best to ensure her happiness, which meant ensuring her relationship with her betrothed was a good one.

Besides her husband and son, Akio and Saizo would attend Sumeragi, of course, and no one else; Sumeragi was confident the three of them could handle any trouble that came on their way to Cheve, and that once there the Chevois soldiers would be sufficient protection. Ryoma, Saizo the Fifth, and Kaze would all be attending; the boys had been deemed old enough to start learning the ins and outs of diplomatic meetings with other countries. The attendance of the children gave Sumeragi the idea to turn the latter half of the trip into a vacation; after the treaty was signed they would stop in Crykensia, visiting the opera house for one of the famed performances, and then they’d be on their way home.

She’d fussed over Kamui to the last minute, straightening his collar, checking his hair, until Sumeragi, laughing, swatted her hand away from him. “It’ll only be two weeks, Mikoto,” he chuckled.

“I know, but he’s never been away for me for that length of time.”

“I’ll be fine, Mama!” Kamui piped in. He’d treated the news of his engagement with a confused “what’s that?”, brightened a bit when Mikoto explained it simply meant he going to be spending a lot of time with Azura in the future, and then dismissed the matter completely from his mind. He was far more eager to see Cheve and Nohr and the places he’d only heard stories about; he’d been impatient for the trip all week, bouncing up and down and asking if it was time to go yet. Only the sword fighting lessons with his father enraptured him more.

She sighed and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. “I know you will, my little dragon. I just worry too much, that’s all.”

He squealed and wriggled away. Sumeragi glanced at his eldest daughter, a little hopeful. “Are you sure you don’t want to come, Hinoka?”

The redheaded girl gave Kamui a deliberate glance, then turned away, hugging her doll tighter to her chest. Apparently she thought tolerating Mikoto’s presence in a large castle was better than tolerating her brother’s in a small group.

“I wanna go!” Takumi cried, eyes welling up as he reached out chubby hands to Sumeragi.

The king sighed, turning away from his errant daughter. With a smile that looked a little forced, he tousled his son’s silver hair. “You’re a little too young to go on a journey this long, Takumi. Next time, I promise.”

He pouted, petulant, as Sumeragi turned to Sakura, held in the arms of her nurse, tickling her stomach and eliciting a laugh from the toddler. While he was doing that, Mikoto turned to her son expectantly. “Kamui, say goodbye to Hinoka.”

His face set itself into a scowl. “I don’t want to,” he said plaintively. “And I don’t want Ryoma to come, either. They’re both mean.”

A sniffle came from Hinoka’s direction. Before Mikoto could respond, her step-daughter spun around, face red and eyes a little teary. “I hate you!” she shrieked, then stormed away.

“I hate you too!” Kamui yelled after her, riled.

Mikoto sighed. Despite Hinoka’s words, the girl had looked definitely hurt by Kamui’s words, but what else could she expect with her recent behavior towards him? He was just too young to not see the world in black and white. Regret welled up in her; they used to be so close. If she’d known marrying Sumeragi would cause this, she would have just stayed his concubine.

“They’ll get better in time,” Sumeragi murmured, stepping up beside her. “They’re just young.”

“She hates me, not him,” Mikoto responded lowly, watching her son pointedly turn his back to Ryoma, who made a face at it, and hug Takumi and Sakura goodbye. “And he’s paying for it.”

“She doesn’t hate you, and Ryoma doesn’t, either. They’re just…” He tried to make a gesture with his hands, then let them fall limply to his side. He sighed.

“When this is over,” he muttered, “I think the two of us will have a vacation of our own. No worrying about the kingdom, not about the kids, not anything.”

“That sounds nice,” she admitted. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a break. Kamui’s birthday didn’t count.

“We could go to Notre Sagesse, perhaps, I went once before to complete the Rainbow Sage’s trials.”

“Challenge seeker,” she teased. Even in Valla, they’d heard about the gruesome trials.

“A samurai must always seek to improve himself,” he quipped, and they both laughed. “But seriously, I think you’d like it there.”

Mikoto smiled, leaning up to press a chaste kiss to his lips. “I’m looking forward to it.”

A few minutes later, she was watching the convoy leave, Takumi’s small hand in her own. “Bye, Mama!” Kamui called, waving with a bright smile over his shoulder. She returned it, giving him a small wave in turn; it slowly slid off her face as the horses disappeared through the gates. A chill ran through her, and nausea, for a reason she couldn’t discern, filled her stomach.

It really was much too like Theo’s trip in Valla.

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That uneasy feeling persisted for the next twelve days. Mikoto tried to busy herself with work, but shivers continued to crawl up her spine at random intervals, bouts of nausea came and went, and her skin was constantly clammy. She would have thought she was sick or pregnant had the healers not found anything when they looked over her.

In hindsight she knew they were warning signs for a vision, but it had been so long since she’d had one she hadn’t recognized them. As such, when it did come, she was completely unprepared.

It hit her like a hammer upside the head; she was in a meeting with the merchant heads, trying to placate them that in a few weeks you’ll get your money, there’s no need to rebel, when all of a sudden pain laced through her skull like knives. She cried out, collapsing, hands clutching at her head—

a cold voice, ordering archers to fire at will, and arrows whistling through the air, impacting—

—a child screaming, sobbing, as hands grabbed him and dragged him into darkness—

—a mob pushing at the gates of a castle, screaming for vengeance—

—wyverns and pegasi clashing in the skies over a fortress as battle raged on the ground below—

—the bodies of adults and children alike filling the streets, rivers of blood flowing over the cobblestone—

—a young man with black armor and white hair, red eyes ablaze with hate and a tarnished golden blade in hand as he burned the world down—

She gasped. In the midst of her vision, she’d fallen to the ground. Her head throbbed; she must have caught it on the edge of the short-legged table they’d been seated at. Her vision was still swimming with black spots, leaving her blind. She was aware of hands lifting her head and cool liquid seeping down her throat, a relief.

When her ears stopped ringing, she recognized that a voice was speaking. “What did you see, Lady Mikoto?” It was Orochi; someone must have gone to fetch her when the seizure started, knowing of her family’s expertise in this matter. “What did you see?”

She closed her eyes, trying to untangle the web of images in her head. From what Orochi’s family had told her, her premonitions were quite different from their own. While they received constant visions with little discomfort, Mikoto’s visions occurred rarely and brought great pain. This, she suspected privately, was because her visions had been given to her directly from a deity and weren’t meant for human minds. Additionally, Orochi described her visions as looking through mist—the details were fuzzy, but she had a general idea of the event as a whole, and they always happened. Mikoto’s always came in jagged, jumbled pieces, sharp as broken glass and just as hard to grasp, but she’d learned she only saw possibilities, not certainties.

That voice she’d heard, at the beginning of her vision. That deep baritone, that accent. It had been King Garon’s voice.

She usually only saw potential futures. But this time she knew, with horrific conviction, that Cheve was a trap.

“An ambush,” she breathed, and the faces of those gathered twisted in horror. “Sumeragi and the others, they’re going to be ambushed.”

From there, the palace was a flurry of motion, preparing every able-bodied pegasus knight to fly with all speed possible. Divining was considered a silly profession by most, but when the lives of members of the royal family were at stake, no one was willing to take chances. Mikoto nearly had to order Yukimura into standing aside and letting her go; he argued they couldn’t possible risk any more of the royal family, and she countered, very politely, that she was not going to sit while her husband, children and friends were in danger. Additionally, she reasoned, if she received another vision, she wouldn’t be able to tell the troops about it if she was in Shirasagi. In the end she didn’t have to resort to pulling rank, which was good, as she didn’t want to alienate her allies, but it was close.

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On pegasus the journey from Shirasagi to Cheve was ordinarily four days. The Hoshidans were desperate and pushed themselves through night and day, making it in half that; their mounts were panting with fatigue and darkness was blanketing the land when they arrived. But despite their speed, Mikoto realized they were too late.

“Down there!” She pointed to two familiar figures fighting in the streets, one green-haired and flinging shurikens, the other brunet and slashing with a katana. They’d somehow rigged part of a building to explode into rubble, blocking parts of the street and preventing the superior numbers from overwhelming them, but even from far above Mikoto could see they were badly injured. They wouldn’t last long.

Reina kicked her heels into the kinshi and it dove, beak open in a fierce war cry, talons extended. The two Nohrian soldiers had no idea what hit them, one’s neck breaking as a powerful wing snapped his head too far back, the other’s stomach pierced by Reina’s naginata. Mikoto leapt off the kinshi, her yumi already in motion; she fired her first arrow into the cavalier who had been about to strike Saizo down, felling her. Her second found a home in the arm of an axeman, her third into the chest of an archer, and then the other Hoshidan soldiers landed, weapons flashing through the air. The Nohrians, obviously unprepared for reinforcements, suddenly found themselves fighting desperately on the defensive against very angry Hoshidans. Within a few minutes it was over.

Saizo swayed and fell to one knee, the other collapsing beneath him. One hand pressed to his side, red soaking through the cloth of his glove. Akio’s left eye was squeezed shut as blood ran from a gash on his forehead, numerous cuts and bruises littered his arms and chest, and he dragged his katana through the dirt as he staggered over—a testimony to how out of it he was, no samurai would ever let his weapon touch the ground.

“What happened?” Mikoto asked, rushing over to them. Her hands were already pulling out her sun festal, and green light soon washed over the pair. “Where’s Sumeragi? Where are my sons?”

“Damn Nohrians betrayed us,” Akio rasped, unsteady on his feet. “We got here and they said we’d start the talks in the morning. Turns out they didn’t even bring their princess, just a small army. They attacked at moonhigh, when we were deep in sleep. Sumeragi took the kids and ran to get to safety. Saizo and I stayed back to hold the bastards off… ”

“Do you know where they went?” Reina asked, leading her kinshi over.

Saizo made a vague gesture towards the west. “The Nohrians have soldiers all over the city…they’ve boxed us in, left west as the only way we can go… They’re herding us.”

He glanced over his shoulder, and Mikoto just then saw his two sons emerge out of the shadows. Their clothes were a little torn, but they weren’t seriously injured, and they were each holding bloodied weapons; with a chill she realized they’d been fighting too, just boys on the cusp of twelve.

“You foolish boys,” Saizo hissed. “What are you doing back here? You were supposed to escort the king and his sons to safety!”

“We came back to get you, Father,” Saizo the Fifth began, but his father interrupted him, fury painting his words black.

“Your duty to your liege is always more important than personal attachments! You should have let me die rather than be parted from their sides!”

“That’s not why,” Kaze mumbled, guilt creeping into his tone. “We got separated. By the time we found them again…”

He hesitated, exchanging a glance with his twin. With a sinking feeling, Mikoto knew whatever they were about to say wasn’t good at all.

“They’d been ambushed,” his red-headed brother finished, and a moan reverberated through the air; it took Mikoto a moment to recognize it had come from her. “We didn’t know what to do. So we left to get you.”

The Hoshidans stared at them, faces pale in the lamplight.

“Take us to them,” Akio finally said.

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Not all of their soldiers went; Mikoto dispatched several around the city to sweep for Nohrians and take them out if possible, report numbers and locations if not. They were ordered to not take to the air until they were certain no archers were around. She didn’t want to be caught off-guard by a sudden attack, and more importantly having a plan gave her something solid to cling to in the disaster that had been unleashed upon her.

It only took a few minutes for the twins to bring them to the site of the ambush, moving as swiftly as possible. It had taken place in one of the side roads; if Garon had gotten men to the front and back, then the narrow, high building walls would have trapped her family within like fish in a barrel. Ryoma was huddled on the ground, hugging his knees to his chest. His wide eyes were staring blankly at the prone body of his father, traces of blood splattered on his face, and his small frame was wracked by shakes.

Mikoto dropped her yumi and fell to her knees by her husband, reaching out with trembling hands to roll Sumeragi over. Half a dozen arrows were sticking out of his chest and stomach, with a few more in his arms and legs, and there was a massive gash bisecting him, shoulder to hip. The blood pouring from his wounds had slowed, thickened, congealed on the ground. His face was blank, expression frozen in a mask of defiance, and his skin starting to cool.

“Sumeragi,” she croaked, helplessly, tears filling her eyes. “Sumeragi…”

He didn’t respond. Her numb fingers pulled out her sun festal as her mind began reciting the checklist that had been ingrained into her since the first days she’d started studying healing.

Locate the wounds—five on the chest, two on the stomach, six on the limbs. Check the severity—critical, several major arteries pierced, lungs and stomach pierced, three ribs crushed, internal bleeding a strong possibility. Fatal if untreated, patient most likely to die by asphyxiation as blood fills the lungs, a slow, agonizing death—

The tears poured over. Sobbing, Mikoto redoubled her efforts; she had to force the healing energy of her sun festal into his body. It was resistant, rejecting the magic before it could take hold. It felt like pouring energy into a corpse. No, no, NO, he’s NOT a corpse, he’s not dead…

The clang of metal hitting the ground behind her informed her that Akio had dropped his weapon, shock and grief stitching his mouth shut. “I failed,” she heard Saizo the Fourth moan, voice thick with emotion. “My liege…my friend…I failed you.”

At those words, Mikoto broke. Her festal fell from her fingers, a useless chunk of wood. Her chest heaved; it was so hard to breathe. With a wail she abandoned the few remaining fragments she had of composure, dropping her head to Sumeragi’s unmoving chest and weeping. She wanted nothing more than to cradle his body close and stay there forever.

Had she not heard Reina’s voice, querying as to where Kamui was, she just might have.

“Kamui,” she choked out, the sound of her son’s name jolting her into action, rising and turning to the only present survivor of the ambush. “Where’s Kamui?”

Ryoma didn’t respond, just stared at her with dull eyes. Losing herself, she grabbed and shook him. “Where is your brother, Ryoma?!”

He flinched backwards, and the part of her not lost in grief and hysteria recognized that her actions were the last thing he needed. But the rest of her, the worried mother and grieving widow, drowned that out. All she knew was that her son, her child, was missing, and the only person capable of telling her where he was wasn’t telling her. She was about to scream when—

“They went north,” came a hesitant voice.

The Hoshidans wheeled around, raising their weapons. Lingering in the doorway to a house was a blonde woman, a tousle-haired girl peering out from behind her. The woman flinched when she saw the hostility in the Hoshidans’ eyes, but kept her voice even.

“King Garon knocked out and grabbed that white-haired boy once he'd...killed your king, then retreated north. The gate there is massive; it takes the strength of several horses to pull the doors open and shut. If they get through and close it, you’ll never be able to catch them. But it takes a bit of time to open, so they should still be waiting outside. You could catch up if you hurry.”

“You Nohrian filth,” Akio snarled, anger revitalizing him. He snatched up his katana and stalked forward menacingly; the woman scrambled backwards, face paling before him. “You have the nerve to try and help? After what your king just pulled?”

“We didn’t know he was going to do this,” the woman whispered. “He said the soldiers were just protection in case Hoshido betrayed him… We wouldn’t have let him in if we’d known…”

“Spare me the excuses! My king—my friend—is dead because of you, and you expect me to believe you weren’t complacent?! You expect me to believe standing by and letting it happen wasn’t as bad as killing him yourselves?! You expect me to believe you aren’t just leading us into another trap?!”

“How could it be a trap?” The girl piped up.

“Scarlet!” the woman—her mother—hissed, eyes darting back to the furious Hoshidan not six feet away.

“What? We didn’t know more of them were arriving; the king probably didn’t. So how could it be a trap?”

The Hoshidans hesitated, looking among each other. There was some sense to what the girl was saying; they would never have come if Mikoto hadn’t had her vision. King Garon had no way of knowing they were coming and likely hadn’t been expecting reinforcements. They might just be able to catch him off-guard. And yet…

“Can we take that chance?” one of the pegasus knights, a redheaded man named Masashi, cautioned. “Our steeds are at the ends of their ropes after being pushed so hard, they won’t do well in another fight.”

“Are you suggesting we just abandon Prince Kamui to them?” Reina spat. She dismounted her kinshi and stalked over towards him, eyes glinting dangerously, hand curled into fists. Masashi held his hands up defensively.

“That’s not what I said! I just think we should consider all our options—”

“‘Consider all our options’? What’s to consider? Our prince is in danger—”

“Charging ahead blindly is liable to cause more death—”

The arguments of her soldiers faded into the background as Mikoto felt the world still around her. Sorrow turned to a blade of fury and determination in her chest. Her son needed help and every second they wasted debating was another second for him to slip out of her grasp. Taking advantage of Reina’s dismounted state, Mikoto grabbed the reins of her kinshi and yanked it out of her grasp. Letting her rage and fear fuel her, she mounted it and kicked it into action before anyone could stop her.

Normally, a well-trained pegasus or kinshi would never let anyone ride it without its owner. However, the mounts of the retainers had been trained to allow their master’s lieges do so in case they needed to escape swiftly. So the kinshi responded, taking to the air easily. Ignoring the shouts behind and below her, ignoring the risks of flying while archers may still be about, Mikoto directed it north.

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The poor thing was already on the brink of collapse when Mikoto had borrowed it; the rapid flight north drove it over the edge a short distance away from the gates. It stumbled out of the air, frothing at the beak, legs giving way as it crumpled to the ground. She didn’t stop, didn’t care, just left it there and moved on ahead.

Her legs pumped furiously, eating up distance faster than she thought possible. In the dim light cast by the lamps, she could see the gate doors slowly swinging open, troops assembled before it. The Nohrians had just started to walk through them—it wasn’t too late.

The Hoshidan queen didn’t hesitate, firing a silver arrow at Garon’s back, intending to give him the traitor’s death he deserved. But impossibly, he heard her, moving at the last minute so the arrow bit into his arm. He and his soldiers wheeled around to face Mikoto, eyes narrowing. His archers raised their weapons, but Mikoto was a fraction faster, and her next arrow was already aimed at Garon’s chest. The Nohrians paused; they were at a standstill.

“One move and I release this,” she growled, “and this time I won’t miss.”

“Queen Mikoto,” Garon said, false sincerity dripping off the syllables of her name. “Showing up uninvited? That’s bad manners.”

She examined him through narrowed eyes. It hadn’t even been a year since she’d last seen him in Izumo, yet his skin had taken on an unhealthy gray pallor, and his hair and beard were shot through with white. His eyes were slightly sunken, and his face was lined with new wrinkles. She couldn’t understand what could have caused such a drastic physical change in such a short time, yet she had greater things to worry about.

“I don’t understand,” she ground out, voice thick despite her best efforts to keep it otherwise. “Why would you do this? The treaty was right here! It was all set to be signed! Peace was finally within our grasps! You had no reason to attack! So why?”

“No reason?” Garon scoffed. “I had the only reason I needed: the glory of Nohr.

“Your mistake, Mikoto, was assuming our desires align with your own. We won’t settle for snatching scraps from you like dogs, nor false peace under a worthless slip of paper. Anankos has promised us greatness, and greatness doesn’t accept compromise. Greatness will accept no less than your complete and utter destruction at our hands. All he asked for in turn was your squealing albino brat.”

She stared at him, fingers tightening around her yumi and arrow until she thought the weapons might snap. A wave of icy fury overtook her at his words. So this is it, she thought, almost trembling from the strength of her rage, this is the true face of Nohr. This is who you really are. My sister loved you, and you spat on everything she represented. She died for you, and in return you joined forces with her enemy—the enemy she died to warn you about!—for your own gain.

My people are right. You Nohrians really are just savages.

Hate kindled Mikoto’s words when she next spoke them. “Where is my son? Answer me now, or I put this in that blackened thing you call a heart.”

Without breaking eye contact, Garon jerked his chin upwards. “Iago.”

A lanky, black-haired mage—so you’re the Iago who caused my sister so much trouble, Mikoto thought, eyes narrowing—strutted out of the crowd. Mikoto’s heart stuttered when she saw the small, unmoving form he was dragging behind him, white hair distinct even from a distance. Pulling Kamui upright, Iago grabbed his head and yanked it back, bringing a dagger to bear over his throat.

Her heart stopped. It did not resume beating for several seconds. “You’re bluffing,” she said, all her anger draining out of her just like that, replaced with barely-restrained fear. “You said Anankos wants him alive…”

“Anankos would prefer him alive; however, he made it clear that if the choices were alive and in Hoshido or dead and in the ground, I was to pick the latter. But by all means,” Garon spread his arms mockingly, “go ahead: try me. Gamble with your son’s life, and lose it.”

She searched Garon’s eyes, and she saw they were like a snake’s. Cold, remorseless, predatory. And like a mouse before a snake, she was frozen, unable to move. He’s not bluffing, she thought in despairing horror, he’ll really kill him.

Her fingers ached to release the arrow into that sneering face, but she stayed her hand, mind racing as she tried to think of a way to get Kamui out of Nohrian hands. A rescue rod was her best bet, but there wasn’t any way she could get at hers without lowering her weapon, and as soon as she did they’d shoot her. As soon as she moved they’d kill Kamui. The tables had been turned, they held all the cards now. Garon seemed to realize it too, smugness settling over him.

“Now, Mikoto, here’s what’s really going to happen,” the king of Nohr said, almost pleasantly. “My men and I are going to leave, and you’re going to let us. If you move even an inch, if you so much as sneeze, Iago here will slash your boy’s throat open. You wouldn’t want him to die so young, now would you?”

Her eyes darted around, desperately seeking an out. She would never catch them on foot, assuming she was even able to get the gates back open once Nohr closed them. The only available mount had been abandoned a block back, keeled over from exhaustion. Her soldiers weren’t anywhere in sight.

Think! She screamed at herself, as the Nohrians slowly began to retreat, not turning their backs to her. Think! There has to be a way out of this! There’s always a way out if you just THINK!

But for the life of her, she couldn’t find it.

Her legs shook as the Nohrians disappeared through the gate, taking her son with them. Iago lingered just in view as the doors began to close again, his damned knife still over Kamui’s throat, a taunt and a reminder in one. She strained her eyes, trying to memorize her son’s face from such a distance as the inches between the doors shrank and shrank.

Minutes ticked by. With a reverberating boom, the gate slammed shut, and there was a sense of finality about it.

For a moment, Mikoto stared like an idiot. Then her hands immediately went for her rescue rod, casting about for Kamui, but either he was protected by magic or he was out of range; she couldn’t pinpoint his presence, couldn’t grab and yank him back to her, back to safety. She raised her eyes back to the gates, lips mouthing his name soundlessly.

It felt as though the world had ended. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t feel any emotion. There was no sound, no color, nothing at all. Surely, she thought, this is what death feels like. This was the summation of all the grief in her life. This was her father’s body crystallizing and evaporating into water. This was her mother taking a bad fall from her horse and landing wrong. This was Anankos turning away, this was Arete’s soft voice whispering goodbye, this was Sumeragi dead in a pool of his own blood.

She stared blankly at those closed doors for what seemed like an eternity until someone trotted a pegasus before her, her soldiers having finally arrived on their weary mounts, too little, too late.

“Queen Mikoto? Are you alright? The Nohrians, where are the Nohrians?”

She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the gate. Her breath was coming in short gasps. Sumeragi was dead. Kamui was worse than dead, captured, in the hands of barbarians, brutes. Brutes who served Anankos. Anankos, who wanted to twist and corrupt and torment her son.

“Queen Mikoto?”

Everything was falling apart around her. Broken, mindless sounds emerged from her throat, animalistic. The world was blurry, spinning. Her grip on the rescue rod slackened, and she dropped it unknowingly.

“Queen Mikoto?”

She remembered the loving awe she’d experienced when she first held Kamui, a newborn babe. His first clumsy steps and words. Her pride at him shaping up to be a happy-go-lucky type. All his quirks and oddities, his bare feet and messy hair and gap-toothed smile and—

“Queen Mikoto?”

He’d been so excited to go to Cheve.

Cries of alarm echoed around her, oddly distant, as she swayed. It was too much, all too much. The gods were taking everything away from her, and she couldn’t bear it anymore, she just couldn’t. She couldn’t go on in a world where everything she loved was gone, so she took the only avenue of escape left.

She fainted.

Edited by Abvora

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Chapter 8:

A/N: Trigger warnings: depression, mention of considered suicide.

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Mikoto woke up.

For a moment, she thought she was still asleep. The world still had an unreal quality to it, a deadening of her senses and emotions that usually only occurred in dreams. Then she remembered how that was the norm for her now. She stared up at the wood ceiling above her head. She had memorized the number of cracks in them, the patterns of the swirls and whorls, just as she had memorized the number of days since Cheve. Thirteen, now. The minutes and hours and days were blending together, slipping like water through her fingers.

Every day it was a little harder to get out of bed. Sometimes she could do it, sometimes she lay there like a sad lump until a servant came in and she was forced into starting her day. Today was the former, but it still drained her to even sit up and exit to the main room. It was the same as ever, the tatami mat and low table in the center, the cabinet full of sake and tea implements off to one side, the low desk on the other, one screen door hiding her bedroom and a second hiding a private bathroom, but it was so much colder, emptier without her husband.

The door to the hall slid open and Orochi poked her head in, a tray of food in her hands.

“How are you this morning, Lady Mikoto?” she asked softly.

And now it begins. “Fine, Orochi,” she said, giving her a smile that came out more like a grimace.

Orochi set the tray down on the table carefully. Mikoto drifted over to it with all the energy of a slug. “Well, that’s good to hear. Do you want help getting ready? Company while you eat? Maybe a magic trick or two?”

“No.”

“…Alright. I’ll… go then.” She hesitated, then added, a little choked, “Let me know if you need anything.”

Mikoto ignored her departure, poking at the food with her chopsticks. She didn’t think she’d eaten since lunch yesterday, but she wasn’t really hungry. Food just tasted like ash now. At first she’d kept eating in public solely out of habit, but then the servants had started giving her barely-touched food worried looks. So she requested that meals be delivered to her rooms instead so she could eat in peace. Sometimes she nibbled on a bit of fish or rice, but most days, she threw it all out, and when the servants returned gave them the empty tray with a plastered-on smile.

After forcing herself to consume two bites of her rolled egg omelet, she opened the window and tossed the rest away. It joined the growing pile of rotting food on the ground below.

She slowly dressed in the familiar black mourning kimono, the dark color drawing attention to the paleness of her skin. Her eyes found her face in her mirror, and she paused to stare. She’d thought herself quite fortunate when she first arrived in Hoshido—her mother’s noble family had been native to Valla, but sported strong Hoshidan ancestry, and those features had carried over from mother to daughter. Arete had resembled their father; she would never have been able to bluff being a native of this country with her high cheekbones, sharp chin, and long nose.

It was harder to see the resemblance to her mother with shadows under her eyes and cracked lips and her hair shorn close to her skull. She’d taken a tanto to what was left of it, hysterical, after she’d woken up in Cheve. She’d considered taking it to her arm, too, but all that would do was put her soul and body out there for Anankos to snatch up, and that would lead to an existence just as torturous as this one. So she drifted through fog everyday instead.

Her day started. Mikoto felt like a doll now, all sewed-on smiles and glassy eyes and emptiness inside. She was a walking imitation of a human; she attended her meetings and inspected the troops and did her paperwork and felt nothing but a dull, persistent ache. At Yukimura’s pushing she wrote another pointless plea to Nohr begging for her son’s return, one of the dozens that she knew would be ignored. Then it was time for lunch, which she picked at in her room.

After that she was normally supposed to parrot words to appease her people, hold more meetings, and work on one of several projects, but as she was eating Yukimura came in, as he always did, and kindly told her he’d handle the rest of work that day. Stress lines were tugging at the corner of his mouth, and his eyes were bloodshot. Look at him, a nasty little voice in her head sneered, look at how tired he is. Look at the work you’re piling on him. All because you can’t be half-assed to do it yourself. You are the most useless being ever conceived.

Free time was quickly becoming something Mikoto was familiar with as her advisors, worried about her mental state, quietly siphoned duties off her. On good days, she strolled the gardens. On bad days, she went back to bed; sometimes she slept, sometimes she gazed at the ceiling for hours on end. On the very worst days, she snuck into Kamui’s room, which had been left untouched by the servants, curled up with one of his stuffed animals, and wept into the fuzzy material as silently as she could.

Today was one of her bad days. Not the worst, but still bad. She crawled back into her futon, pulled the covers up to her chin and replayed, in her mind, everything she had done wrong in Cheve. Every little thing she could have done differently, the one move that would have kept her husband and son alive and safe with her if she’d just been a little stronger, a little smarter, a little faster.

After an unknown period of time spent doing this, Orochi came by with dinner. It joined breakfast and lunch outside, and Mikoto undressed for the night. Reina filled a bath for her and she sat in the water, unmoving, until her fingertips were as wrinkled and pruned as an old woman’s. Then she returned to her futon and stared up at the ceiling, counting and re-counting the cracks in the wood until sleep finally came for her.

This was her life now. Wash, rinse, repeat. Every day was the same, as meaningless as the day before it and the day after. The only reason she bothered anymore was because it was easier to adhere to routine than to break it.

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There were two major events in the wake of a monarch’s death. The first was the funeral. Mikoto hadn’t been able to attend Sumeragi’s; it would damage her reputation, she knew, but for the life of her she just couldn’t bring herself to get up that day. She wouldn’t have been able to keep her mask on while they buried Sumeragi beneath his cairn, and she didn’t want to have to deal with the pitying looks from those who hadn’t known him and the tears from those who had, or the skeptical glances from people wondering if she really could rule alone, or the condolences, gods the condolences that were repeated so often as to lose meaning. So she just didn’t.

The second event was the coronation, either of the heir or of the monarch’s spouse as regent until the heir was of age. That hadn’t occurred yet; her coronation was coming up, and half the castle was rushing to prepare for it (the other half was focusing on damage control at home and at Nohr). She knew that she needed to write a speech, but motivation was so hard to find. Not just for this, but for anything that wasn’t about rescuing Kamui—and even then, the hopelessness that had settled on her distracted her from even that before long.

Take today, for instance. Yukimura had called together a council meeting to discuss what to do about Nohr—or rather, they’d talked and she’d nodded vaguely. What was the point? She’d seen the numbers, she knew Nohr’s military was stronger than theirs; all her military preparations had done was prolong the time it would take for them to lose. And even if they did somehow beat Nohr, what then? Did she really think they could fight Valla alone, that they could beat Anankos the indomitable, Anankos the sovereign? They wouldn’t. So why bother trying?

Still, Yukimura and her advisors insisted they had to do something to try and stop a war. Nohr needed a casus belli, a reason, to invade if they didn’t want to damage their standing with other countries, and they were doing their damn best to get one, trying to provoke the Hoshidans. While those in charge wanted to avenge their king and prince, they knew they would lose trying, but the rest of their population didn’t. All it would take was one faction of hot-headed farmers or nobles or merchants getting riled up and attacking the Nohrian scouts practically dancing on the border, and Nohr would have the excuse they needed.

Everything you did, the years you spent building things up, destroyed in a few moments, just like that. You were such a fool for thinking you could make a

difference.

Because Anankos had already won. The scales had fallen from Mikoto’s eyes and she understood why he’d left her alone for so long. He’d been moving the pieces to capture her son for months, years, intending to make his kidnapping the trigger that destroyed any chance at peace between Hoshido and Nohr. With the two major countries weakened or destroyed after the inevitable war, he would have an easier time invading the rest of the continent. Destroying the whole world wouldn’t be as fast as destroying a country, though; it would be a slow process taking years, as people fled and formed pockets of resistance. So he would use that time to groom her son into the vengeful figure she’d seen in her vision, and because he’d been born as the Crux of Fate, the one whose actions were the most essential in shaping the future, Kamui would at the very least make wiping humanity out much easier for Anankos, if he didn’t succeed completely.

It was just like Valla all over again. They were on a slow collision course to destruction, and there wasn’t anything she could do to stop it. There wasn’t any point in trying.

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“Your target,” Yukimura said, “is Princess Azura of Nohr.”

Mikoto lingered in the shadows cast by the throne room’s pillars, observing the procedure with detachment. This had been Yukimura’s idea; the ninja they had been sending into Nohr and the diviners they’d had scrying for Kamui were unable to find him, so he’d approached her and suggested a different tactic. His idea was that they steal one of Nohr’s royal children and offer to trade them for the prince. He’d already found a skilled thief reputed for intimate knowledge of Nohr’s capital, Windmire, and Castle Krakenburg; all he needed was her permission.

She didn’t think Yukimura’s plan was really going to succeed—she knew Nohr would never let Kamui go, even if they kidnapped the crown prince himself—but his words had piqued her interest, provided her with an opportunity. Thus she agreed, with a caveat: she wanted the thief to steal Azura. If their men couldn’t rescue her son, they could at least get her niece out of that damned country.

Aren’t you supposed to be smart? He’s not really going to be able to steal her, and you know it. Why waste energy hoping? Or are you just a glutton for punishment?

The outlaw was a man about Reina’s age, named Shura—she only remembered because it sounded so close to Azura. His hair was white with an odd patch of black in the middle, and his eyes belittled his age; they were an old man’s eyes, heavy with tragedy and loss. Mikoto could recognize herself in his eyes.

Shura flipped a coin around and between his fingers. “That’s a high-profile target. I thought you’d want your prince back, not a Nohrian girl.”

“What we want with the princess is our business, not yours,” Yukimura said sharply. “And never insinuate we don’t want Prince Kamui safely rescued again.”

“Of course, milord. Touchy subject, I understand.” For his credit, the outlaw looked genuinely apologetic. “If your plan is what I think it is, know that it should work. Hostage exchanges usually do.”

Not in this case, Mikoto thought bitterly. Not when the person paying the ransom cares for nothing but your destruction.

Yukimura accepted the apology with a nod. “We will fly you to the Bottomless Canyon, and from there you’ll make your way to Castle Krakenburg. The trip is two weeks there, two weeks back. At the end of that time period we’ll send a flier to the original drop point to ferry you back here. If you don’t show up within twenty-four hours, we will write you off as dead and leave. If you get caught, we will deny all association with you.”

He waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah, I know the drill.”

They spoke for a few more minutes, haggling over the price for his services, and then Masashi led the thief off to prepare for the trip. Mikoto watched him leave—she’d stayed hidden so she could deny ever formally giving him the assignment and he could deny ever formally meeting her if things went wrong. Disinterested, she turned to start to return to bed.

Yukimura hesitantly placed a hand on her wrist, pausing her on her way out. “This will work, Your Majesty,” he said softly.

She smiled humorlessly. When all else failed, she was always good at smiling. “If you say so.”

Nothing would work. Not rescuing her niece, not rescuing her son, not saving her country.

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Today was an awful day.

It started out fine—she got up without much trouble, ate almost half her breakfast, meandered through her morning with slightly less lethargy than usual. She was feeling something that was almost content. And then a servant brought her lunch and gave her a sugared plum for desert and she froze. Another servant began to reprimand the offender, gesturing angrily, but the damage was done. Disregarding them, Mikoto rose and swiftly left.

The route to Kamui’s room was familiar, well-worn. Her vision was starting to shake, and she barely managed to close the door behind her before the hole in her chest opened up again. Gulping in air, she fell to her knees. Her hands grabbed, without looking, the stuffed dragon he’d gotten for his first birthday, pulling it towards her. Mikoto clutched it to her chest and let out the gut-wrenching sobs that had crept up on her out of nowhere. She was so drained. She was so tired of going on in this pointless, painful existence. She was so—

The door slipped open.

She froze like a child caught sneaking sweets, aware of her tear-stained face and runny nose. Swallowing her grief as much as she could, she said in a trembling voice, without turning, “I wish to be alone.”

The owner of the invader spoke. Orochi, sounding young and scared. “Lady Mikoto—I can see the blackness around you, hanging about and strangling you. If you don’t let people help—” She broke off, choked.

Another voice. This time it was Reina’s. “People here care about you, my lady. We care about you. Let us help. Please.”

Nobody cares about me. Nobody can or should care about me! I am a snake and a liar! A toad with poison skin, killing everyone who touches me except myself!

“I wish,” she repeated, “to be alone.”

A beat, then, in unison, “No.”

“Are you defying an order from your queen?” she hissed. She would have raised her head to glare if her face wasn’t an unsightly, blotchy mess.

“A retainer’s duty is not just protection of their liege,” Reina said, “it is ensuring their health and safety in all things. It is being there for them when they need it. It is being a friend. And you may not want to admit it, but you need friends right now.”

“Why do you care?” Mikoto choked. “I’ve been—” Aloof. Horrible. “Awful.” Distant. Secretive. “I barely speak to either of you.”

“You have a twisted perception of yourself,” Orochi soothed, trying to sound blithe. “You believed in me and my family when no one else did, remember? And Reina—Reina says you took her on despite all that trouble with her parents!”

She shook her head, refusing to believe her. I was using your family for my own gains. I didn’t even care about Reina. I am not worth the effort.

There was the sound of one, then two, backs hitting the wall and sliding down to sit on the floor. “I know there’s nothing we can say to this,” Reina began, “We haven’t experienced the kind of pain you’re going through. But we can at least stay with you so you don’t go through it alone.”

Mikoto glued her mouth shut and pressed her face harder into the stuffed animal, trying to stop the tears from resuming. For a few minutes, she succeeded, shaking silently as Orochi and Reina waited patiently. But she couldn’t hold it in anymore, so for the first time, she let her mask fall in front of her retainers and wept openly.

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It got a little bit easier, after that. That was the first step in truly letting her retainers in, and after she found she could relax a bit more around them. She could trust them, tentatively, with her pain. The maturity from the young girl and patience from the normally bloodthirsty woman was surprising; each time Orochi and Reina would say nothing, just listen patiently, then embrace her. There was some comfort in the silence, and the numbness got just a little lighter after that.

And then, nine days later, one month to the date, three months after Cheve, Shura was brought into the throne room, where he pulled his cloak aside to reveal a shivering, blue-haired girl in a white dress, with a very familiar pendant around her neck.

Mikoto stared at her niece. Azura didn’t look good, all bony arms and limp hair and sad eyes. But she was there, she was safe. A member of her family was alive. There was something warm in her chest, something bright and soft cutting through the perpetual fog, and it took her a moment to pinpoint the foreign emotion as hope.

She had really believed the thief was going to fail.

“One Princess Azura, as promised,” Shura announced, unnecessarily. Everyone’s eyes had been drawn to the girl as soon as she was unveiled. The courtiers’ and the servants’ gazes were hostile when they beheld her, princess of the country they hated, and angry murmurs permeated the room. Mikoto angled a hand down sharply, silencing them—Shura’s successful return and completion meant she was able to be there, in the open, as there was no longer any need for plausible deniability.

“I’ve got something else for you, too,” Shura added, pulling out a sheathed but recognizable katana. “Consider it a bonus.”

Mikoto’s breath caught in her chest. Raijinto. Nohr had taken it off Sumeragi’s body when they’d stolen Kamui, though she hadn’t realized it when she was in Cheve, lost in her grief as she’d been. The loss of one of Hoshido’s sacred weapons would have been the crushing blow to morale if the public became aware, so they’d hid the knowledge; the only ones who’d known had been those at Cheve. Shura could have been a little more discreet with his reveal of the weapon, since now everyone there knew it had been missing in the first place, though the fact that he’d recovered it meant, hopefully, they would overlook that.

Yukimura’s mouth worked silently. He gently took the katana from Shura and ran a disbelieving hand over the sheathed blade. “How in the world did you…” he murmured reverently. Raijinto had been forged by the gods during the First War and granted to the royal family as a sign of their favor. Losing it or the other divine weapons, Fujin Yumi and Yato, was synonymous with losing the blessing of the Dawn Dragon. Collecting himself, he shook his head, deciding that question of how wasn’t important, and turned to an attendant sharply. “Bring this to its resting place at once!”

The servant bowed before him, taking the blade with great care. As he hurried off to return it to the castle vault, Mikoto turned to Shura. “Did you find any information on Kamui?” she asked, hating the hopeful note in her voice, “Anything at all?”

Shura’s face became regretful, and he shook his head. “Kept my ears open while I was there, but King Garon and the people at Castle Krakenburg are keeping their mouths on him shut tighter than a tax collector’s grip on his money.”

She swallowed. It was unsurprising, but it still hurt. The tentative optimism that had warmed in her in light of her niece’s rescue began to die again.

Yukimura’s eyes drifted to Azura. “You,” he said. “Do you know anything about the prince’s whereabouts?”

She stared up at him. Then, slowly, her head shook left and right. “We heard rumors about Cheve,” she murmured, “but nothing solid. I didn’t know they were true until now.”

His lips tightened into a thin, white line. “I see.”

Shura coughed, bringing the blue-haired tactician’s attention back to him. “Not to sound petty or anything, milord, but my pay?”

Yukimura sighed. “Of course.” As he began to usher the thief away to complete their business transactions, the crowd should have dispersed. But it didn’t, hostile eyes still upon Azura. Mikoto stared at her from her throne, lofty and aloof. The world was resetting back to grey now. She was about to turn away when Azura spoke.

“So I’m to be your prisoner.”

Her voice was low, resigned in a manner too old for her age. Her small shoulders were hunched, bearing the weight of the angry stares of the Hoshidans around her, at the filthy Nohrian who dared befoul their presence. Mikoto realized, suddenly, that by bringing Azura here she may have put her in greater danger than ever. She was a defenseless six-year-old girl, taken out of a familiar world and brought into one that despised her just for her association with Garon. The Hoshidans probably wouldn’t kill her because of her value as a bargaining chip, but physical measures weren’t the only way to harm a person.

Most things, even mundane ones, took effort now, but not this. Her niece’s plight burned away the gloom that had been re-settling over her, gave her the will to rise and speak. Every eye snapped towards her. “You are, yes,” she began. “But you are also our guest. We are not Nohr; we will treat you civilly and respectfully until you can be traded back for our prince.”

The last half of her sentence was directed at her courtiers and servants, bare steel underlying it. Her words seemed to placate them, and they backed down, averting their eyes and returning to their duties.

But for how long? Mikoto couldn’t help but wonder, as she called Reina over to bring Azura to the room she’d be staying at. How long until they realize her stay is permanent? And what will they do then?

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Over the next few days, Mikoto didn’t really see her niece, deciding to let her adjust to her new home gradually instead of overwhelming her with visitors. She’d kept her relation to Azura secret, afraid of the consequences that might fall upon either of them if people found out. Once things settled, hopefully she’d be able to spend more time with her.

She still had trouble falling asleep at night, but rather than waiting for it to come to her, this night Mikoto decided to take a walk to hopefully burn some energy. As she was wandering the castle halls, a flash of red in the corner of her eye caught her attention. Mikoto turned, spotting the bright hair of Hinoka through a window, outside despite it snowing. Her step-daughter had the shifty sort of look that came with doing something you weren’t supposed to, and she was glancing around furtively. As Mikoto watched, Hinoka hurried through the snow to a nearby building, the pegasi stables. One more look, then she opened the door and darted inside.

Mikoto hadn’t seen any of her step-children in…ages. Before Cheve, at least. She just couldn’t bring herself to be around them, the ones who were still here when her son wasn’t. She hesitated, torn between wanting to go on her way and quieting the vague curiosity that had risen in her.

Hinoka emerged, tugging on the reins of a reluctant pegasus, and that made the decision for her. Hoping (how odd it was to do that again) that the princess wouldn’t leave before she got there, Mikoto hurried to the nearest door leading outside and made her way back to where she’d seen the girl.

When she arrived, she saw that Hinoka had managed to drag the pegasus to a post and tied the reins to it. Now she was trying to saddle it, unsuccessfully. She had to stand on a stool to reach its back, swaying precariously, and it kept jerking away, snorting angrily.

Finally, it had enough. With a loud whinny it reared, wings beating the air imposingly. Hinoka fell backwards off the stool, startled; the pegasus wouldn’t really hurt her, but she didn’t know that. She sat there in the snow, stunned, as it tossed its head, easily undoing the girl’s clumsy knot to the post, and trotted off. Then she put her face in her hands and began crying.

Mikoto saw all this, hovering a short distance away. She crossed her arms, shivering lightly in the cold. She knew, logically, she should do something to comfort her step-daughter, but she was only just learning how to support herself again—how was she supposed to support Hinoka too? Especially when Hinoka didn’t like her?

Eventually, Hinoka stopped crying. With one last sniffle, she wiped her face with an arm and slowly gathered up the saddle. She turned and started when she saw Mikoto standing there, her black clothes stark against the snow.

“Oh. You.”

“…What are you doing?” she asked.

“None of your business.”

It was defensive, quick, curt, and disrespectful. Mikoto wouldn’t tolerate it. “I know you don’t like me,” she began. “But it’s my duty as queen to handle suspicious activity. Trying to steal a pegasus is suspicious, unless you give me a reason for it not to be, Hinoka.”

Hinoka glared at her a moment longer, then glanced after the pegasus. She deflated, tucking her hands into her armpits and ducking her head, and Mikoto scolded herself for maybe being a bit too harsh; for all her hostility towards Mikoto, Hinoka was still a child.

“I wanted to rescue Kamui,” she mumbled, not looking up from the ground, voice wavering. “I thought, since our ninja and that thief could break into Nohr, I could too.”

Her face crumpled, her anger and defiance falling apart in wake of her failure. “But—but it’s snowing, and it wasn’t supposed to snow tonight, and the dark is scaring me, and that stupid pegasus won’t let me ride it, and I don’t know how to get to Nohr, and—and—”

Hinoka started crying again, big, guffawing sobs that shook her small frame.

“And the last thing I said to Kamui was that I hated him!” she finished, wailing. “And I didn’t mean it! I didn’t! I didn’t!”

Hesitantly, Mikoto approached her and rested a hand on her shoulder. When Hinoka didn’t immediately throw it off, she crouched down to meet her teary gaze.

“I want to rescue him too—more than anything. But rushing into things blindly, without proper preparation, makes you vulnerable and prone to mistakes.” Like my rushing in Cheve.
“But w-what if it takes years?” Hinoka sniffed. “W-what if it takes years and years b-b-before he’s rescued? What if—”
“Then it takes years,” Mikoto said, trying not to show how Hinoka’s fears were mirrors of her own. “But your safety—your life—is something that cannot be replaced if lost to carelessness.”
“…okay…” Hinoka rubbed her face, wiping off her tears. “Maybe…maybe I can talk to Captain Masashi…about training as a pegasus knight…”
The thought of shy little Hinoka training, risking her life on the battlefield, sent a lurch of fear through Mikoto, but she kept silent. It was probably just a little idea that would go away on its own, and she didn’t want to argue now. They hunted down the pegasus and brought it back inside with its companions and returned the saddle to its place. Then Mikoto gently ushered her step-daughter back into the castle and walked her to her room.

They hunted down the pegasus and brought it back inside with its companions and returned the saddle to its place. Then Mikoto gently ushered her step-daughter back into the castle and walked her to her room.

“…why did you cut your hair?” Hinoka asked on the way, a little shyly.

A hand rose to feel the fuzzy back of her head. “Where I come from,” she said, “It’s—tradition to cut our hair when…when we lose someone we love. It honors them.”

Hinoka mused over this for a few moments. Then, hesitantly, “…could you cut my hair?”

“But Hinoka, you love your hair,” Mikoto burst out, surprised. She remembered Hinoka being delighted by all the things Ikona had been able to do with her hair when she was younger, braids and buns and all sorts of fun styles that “made her look grown up”.

“I love my brother more,” she said, firm for a seven-year-old. “So—so I’m making a promise! A promise that I won’t grow my hair long until we rescue him!”

Mikoto blinked, touched by her gesture, then gave her agreement. She waited until they reached Hinoka’s room; then, Mikoto carefully took hold of Hinoka’s long red locks. She stalled, giving her one last chance to change her mind, and when she didn’t swiped her tanto clean through them. Her hair wasn’t as short as Mikoto’s, but it still didn’t come past her chin.

The girl ran a hand through it experimentally, frowning. “It feels weird,” she murmured. “But…kind of good at the same time.”

Mikoto nodded, uncertain as to what do or say. “Go to bed” was the obvious one, but that was such a motherly thing to say, and even after these little moments, she doubted Hinoka would accept blatant maternal behavior from her.

Hinoka hesitated, then ducked her head. “Thank you, Lady Mikoto,” she said quietly. “And…I’m sorry.”

Then, face flushed with embarrassment, she hurried into her room. Mikoto watched her go, feeling a faint warm glow in her heart.

Things wouldn’t improve between them so easily. But it was a start.

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The next morning, Mikoto woke up feeling better than she had in weeks.

It was a little scary, this fragile sense of hope fluttering in her chest. This little feeling that she still had things worth living for. It was tempting to let the fog roll back in, dull her mind, emotions and senses so she could go back to not caring. If she didn’t care about anything, she wouldn’t get hurt anymore.

If she didn’t care about anything, she wouldn’t really be living.

Grief was fine. Grief was part of a healing process, even if it was one Mikoto had gone through too often for her liking. But despair…despair would kill you. Despair would strangle the life from your eyes and the flowers of your heart until you were no more alive than Anankos’s puppets. Despair had almost killed her, until Reina and Orochi and Azura and Hinoka had reminded her she still had things worth fighting for, hoping for, risking herself for.

She sighed as she rose out of bed. Even so, even with her renewed hope, she couldn’t forget that Hoshido was still vastly outmanned by Nohr, that their situation was very delicate, and if war came—

Her hand knocked against a painting as she stretched. With a yelp of pain she yanked it back, feeling the skin throb from the sting of the impact. There was a dull crash.

She turned towards the sound. Her hand had knocked the painting off the wall and onto the floor, exposing the contents of the cavity within. Her eyes immediately found the stave she had completely forgotten about, her sister’s stave containing the barrier spell that could shelter a country from harm.

Edited by Abvora

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Chapter 9:

A/N: Oh my god this is on Fire Emblem’s fic rec page on tvtropes! Thank you very much for the rec, robotortoise! I am so happy right now you can’t believe :D

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The solution to the barrier spell was, in the end, very simple.

All spells drew energy from something to be cast; for mages and diviners, their spells pulled energy from a special ink used in their tomes. For healers, the energy came from the wood used in the construction of the stave or rod. Once the stores in the ink or wood ran out, the object was useless. The spell’s strength, area of effect, and how long it was supposed to last affected how much energy it used in its casting. A spell like her sister’s barrier would use all the energy in the stave, breaking it, and the energy would only last for a certain length of time before running out, causing the spell to dissipate.

So then, the answer was to switch its source to something with more energy. Namely herself.

Every living thing had power, energy, life. Life-binding was in essence just using that to fuel spells. It was powerful—it made offensive spells very powerful, defensive ones impossible to break, and since people replenish energy it never ran out—but draining. Lifespans were often shortened by it, and the strain of holding the spell often had detrimental effects on one’s health. As such most deemed it too risky to use except in extenuating circumstances.

Mikoto closed her eyes, running a hand along the stave. She could see the thin, pulsing strands making up the spell. There were two major lines—one that would activate the spell, one that would maintain it once cast. Leaving the trigger alone, she followed the other line to its source, the core of the stave. Carefully, she undid the strands around the core, brought them out of the stave to her heart, and tied them to it. Now the spell would use the energy of the wood to be cast, breaking it, but the energy of her life to maintain.

It was really just a different, slower form of healing. Healing was simply transferring the energy stored in a stave or rod into a living being. All she was doing was not activating that energy at this moment.

The next morning—her duties meant she hadn’t been able to actually work on the stave until quite late, and she’d spent most of her night doing just that—she ate and dressed as swiftly as she could, then hurried off to find Yukimura, keeping the stave carefully hidden in a sleeve.

“This is of Nohrian make,” Yukimura said quietly when she found and summoned him to the council room, examining the stave carefully. “Where did you get this, Lady Mikoto?”

She’d planned her answer out in advance. “I received a vision of construction of a very powerful stave nearing completion in Nohr. I had Saizo steal it for me on a top-secret mission—so secret he’ll deny ever going on it if you ask him. This stave can erect a barrier powerful enough to protect an entire country. My guess is the Nohrians would have used it to shield their homes will they warred us. But now, we can use it.”

“Well, it couldn’t have come at a better time, if it does what you say,” Yukimura murmured, “I received a report that several young teenagers of one of the border towns assaulted and killed a Nohrian soldier—a noble, apparently. You can imagine what King Garon’s doing.”

“Mobilizing his army,” she said grimly. “There’s no time to waste. I’ll have to activate the stave now, then fly out to the border to see if it worked.”

Yukimura hurried off the back wall, where chests were stacked. He pulled a map of Hoshido out of one and rushed back to the table, spreading it before her. Mikoto took a deep breath, then carefully placed the top of the stave along the line representing the Bottomless Canyon. She began to trace around the borders of Hoshido, leaving a faint blue line behind, the sign that the spell was starting to activate.

Once she’d fully encircled Hoshido with the line, Mikoto thrust the hand holding with the stave into the air, the gem’s soft glow turning into a brilliant shine as she shouted the spell’s name.

“Barricade!”

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It didn’t work quite like she expected. When she arrived with her escort at the border town on pegasus, Mikoto saw the first of the Nohrian scouts stumbling about on the Hoshidan side of the border, dazed and very non-hostile. For a moment she frowned; she’d expected Barricade to keep enemies out completely, not drug them into complacency. Maybe it was a side-effect of life-binding the spell instead of casting it normally, or maybe she’d misread her sister’s notes. But then she shrugged; either way, they weren’t a threat anymore, and that was what mattered.

“M’lady,” greeted the village elder, bowing awkwardly. The villagers had gathered out in the square, shaking and clutching shoddy, hand-made weapons, prepared to die fighting as the first casualties of the Nohrian invasion. His face was slowly changing back from its ashen pallor, and he was wringing his hat in his hands. “I…I don’t know what to say. I am so ashamed of our youths’ reckless behavior. When I saw the Nohrians arriving—I thought for sure—”

“Don’t worry,” she interrupted soothingly. “I won’t let any harm come to my people. I’ve put up a barrier that saps their will to fight. You’re safe.”

He relaxed. “That’s mighty kind of you. Um, would you like to stay for lunch? It’s the least we can do to repay you.”

“There’s no need. I simply did what a good queen should,” she responded, waving a hand.

“Well, if you’re sure,” he said, failing to hide his relief. Mikoto couldn’t blame him—she knew that making a feast for her would likely have used up most of his village’s food store. Not a situation you wanted to be in when it was winter. “Um—What—what should we do with them Nohrians?”

Her eyes swept over the disoriented Nohrian invaders, her gaze growing hard and cold.

“Do whatever you wish,” she said dismissively, turning her pegasus away. The villagers would very likely mob together and beat the Nohrians to death, but it did not stir pity in her heart. She had no pity to give to the country that had stolen her family from her. She wouldn’t go to war with Nohr for the sake of her people, but that didn’t mean she was obliged to show them mercy.

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Azura, the guards reported, didn’t leave her room. They never heard a peep from the girl except, occasionally, her high, young voice lifting in song at night. She ate her food without complaint, kept her eyes down and voice respectful when speaking, and found ways to occupy herself during the day. She was, by all accounts, the perfect guest. A pity it didn’t do much to improve general opinion of her.

“How are you, Azura?” Mikoto asked, kneeling opposite of her. She had returned from the border only a few days ago, and decided that it was more than time she spoke to her niece. The fog was mostly clear from her mind now, and she was determined to keep it like that. The most important way was to reconnect with her family.

The girl’s golden gaze fell to the floor. “Fine, Lady Mikoto.” Although she was now wearing Hoshidan clothes, the guards had said she expressed a preference for Nohrian ones. Mikoto had asked the seamstresses to make her some Nohrian-style clothes, and while they’d begun work, they were reluctant and insulted. Are our clothes not good enough for her? one had sneered.

Mikoto knew things would only get worse for Azura, and she wanted her to know she wasn’t alone here. Placing a hand over the girl’s, she said, “I’m pleased to hear that. I know adjusting to life here has been difficult for you, but should you ever need to confide in someone, you can always confide in me.”

Azura shuffled her feet. “Why are you being nice to me?” she mumbled eventually. “I’m your prisoner.”

“And my guest,” Mikoto reiterated. “Your stay here may be longer than expected, so I want it to be as comfortable for you as possible.”

“What does that mean?”

The queen bit her lip, trying to find a way to break the news as gently as possible. “Our attempts to trade you back to Nohr have not born fruit so far.”

Azura’s face crumpled. “They don’t want me back?”

Mikoto swallowed. Azura had tried to keep her tone even, but her voice had shook, and she could hear the hurt in it. It reminded her again that despite her surprising maturity, she was still only six. “No, they don’t. I’m sorry.”

The blue-haired girl’s hand tightened around Arete’s pendant. “What…what’s to become of me?”

The right thing to do was offer to let her go. The selfish thing to do was to keep her here regardless of what she wanted. It took more courage than Mikoto thought she had to say, “That’s entirely up to you. If you wish, we can return you to Nohr, or send you to another country. You can stay here, too; you’d still be, in essence, a political prisoner, but I’d fight to get you more rights.”

The young princess was quiet for a few heartbeats. “I think I want to stay,” she finally said, and Mikoto exhaled, relieved. “I just…I’m tired of always moving.”

“I’ll do my best to ensure you don’t have to move again,” Mikoto promised.

Next, the queen visited her step-children. She stood outside the nursery door, where she knew Ryoma and Hinoka were visiting Takumi and Sakura, for a few minutes, working up the nerve to open it—she had essentially abandoned them for weeks, months even, when they would have needed a mother figure more than ever. Mikoto was a little afraid of their reaction to her in light of that.

When she finally opened the door to the nursery and stepped inside, a bundle of pale hair tackled her legs. Nostalgia hit her, and she inhaled sharply, remembering Kamui and his eagerness to see her.

But no, it was Takumi, his eyes teary. “You were gone!” he wailed. “Mommy, you were gone!”

Her heart broke a little at the panic in his voice. He wouldn’t let go of her legs, so she had to bend at the waist to embrace him. “Shh,” she murmured. “I know, I know. I went away for a while. I left you, and I’m sorry, so sorry.” Guilt shot through her—he’d turned three recently, and she’d missed it. “I’m sorry. I won’t leave again.”

“Pwomise, Mommy?” came Sakura’s timid voice. The little rose-haired girl was holding her doll loosely in one hand, her other sticking her thumb in her mouth. She toddled over to Mikoto, looking up at her with sad eyes. Mikoto swallowed the lump in her throat, gently drawing Sakura over to her.

“I promise.”

Her eyes lifted to the other children, who had lingered in the back of the room. Hinoka looked sad by her siblings calling Mikoto their mother, but she gave her a somewhat hesitant nod. Ryoma’s feelings were difficult to gauge. From what the servants had told her, the boy was plagued by nightmares now, and his eyes had a perpetual heaviness to them. But he had people willing to help him recover from his trauma, and at least he was still attending his lessons—if anything, he was more focused on them than ever, especially his swordfighting ones. Mikoto gently disentangled herself from Takumi and, taking him and Sakura by the hand, approached the eldest, whose gaze was on the ground.

“How are you, Ryoma?” she asked softly.

He ducked his head. “I’m…getting better. The nightmares aren’t occurring as often. Lady Mikoto—” he stopped, swallowed, searching for words.

Finally, slowly, he continued, “I know you’re supposed to just be my regent until I’m of age, but—I don’t…I don’t want to rule. Not yet.”

“Four years is a long time, honey,” she said, the endearment slipping out without her permission. He didn’t seem to notice. “Once you’re fourteen, I’m sure—”

“No!” His cry was vehement and startling. “You’re better. You have more experience than me. Lessons are one thing, but actually ruling is another completely! F-Father always said a king must do what’s best for his country, and that’s—that’s stepping down so you can rule. Because I don’t know how.”

“You’ll learn,” she reassured him. He shook his head.

“I’ve spoken to Yukimura. I know how bad our situation is, and I—what if I make things worse? Please, pass some sort of law, do something so you stay in power. I don’t trust myself to lead! Not after…after…”

He sniffed, his lower lip quivering as he tried and failed to hold a stoic expression. Startled and concerned looks crosses his sibling’s faces; Hinoka placed an arm on his shoulder, and Sakura and Takumi just stared as if unaccustomed to their big brother crying.

“Come here,” Mikoto sighed, opening her arms. Ryoma went into them without hesitation.

“I f-froze,” he mumbled into her shoulder, wet tears staining it. “I froze in C-Cheve, and now Kamui is gone. B-because…because of me. I c-couldn’t pr-protect my brother, h-how can I protect a…a country?”

The fabric of her kimono was growing damp. Mikoto patted his back soothingly. “How about this,” she whispered. “If four years from now you still don’t want to rule, then I will pass a law where the heir can decide to work as an advisor before taking the throne from the regent. Then you’ll have all the time you want to prepare yourself.”

He nodded ferociously against her shoulder. His sibling gathered around him, forming a large knot of arms and embraces, and they remained like that for a long time.

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Her coronation was held seven days after the new year. The throne room was crowded with attendants, nobles and royal guards and merchants. The doors were left open, and the peasantry were gathered in the streets outside, necks craning to see past the heads in front of them. Mikoto was dressed in all white, in garments similar to a priestess but much finer, and the crown was heavy on her head. One of the diviners cast a spell on her to amplify her voice, and she launched into her speech.

“My people,” she began. There was no need to quiet the crowd; they’d fallen silent as soon as she’d risen from her kneeled position before the high priest. “I come before you as your regent and queen in dark times. We have found ourselves faced with an enemy superior to us in numbers, military, and above all tactics; an enemy that is underhanded and wants nothing more than our defeat.

“The barrier I erected, however, will keep us safe for many years. I know many of us want revenge on Nohr for their murder of my late husband and kidnapping of my beloved son. But I have seen what revenge can do to people,” she paused, thinking of Anankos consumed by madness and hate for humanity, of Garon, throwing away the lives of his people, “and it is ugly. We are better than that.”

Her biggest decision had been what to do about Nohr. It was tempting to have her people operate on guerilla tactics, raiding them and then retreating through the barrier where no harm could be done to them. But a war couldn’t be won that way. They would never win without striking deep into the heart of Nohr; their military wasn’t big enough for an operation like that, and they didn’t have enough talented soldiers she would trust to lead a squad to assassinate Garon. She would not spend her people’s lives like money—and Nohr, much as she detested them, wasn’t the real enemy. Anankos was, and she needed to save her country’s strength for him.

“War is not the answer we should give them. War is what they want. Don’t let hate twist you. Do not forget what Nohr has done—but do not dwell on it. I have life-bound our barrier so that you, my people, could live in safety. I beseech you to relax and enjoy life’s bounties; let those of us in charge worry about what comes next.

“I am aware that my recent declaration of an embargo on trade with Nohr will cause trouble for those of you who depend on trade for profit,” her eyes drifted to the representatives of the merchant clans, who were scowling unhappily, “and I say this: sacrifices must be made for the future of our country, our children. And those sacrifices will not be forgotten. As your queen, I will guide you through the upcoming hard times. I will be the queen you deserve, the queen you need. Our country is a gem, and I will polish it until it shines.”

She stepped down, to a smattering of applause. Her words were pretty, but the people were uncertain about her ability to actually govern them without her husband at her side, thanks to Hoshido’s patriarchal nature. Still, with the help of Yukimura and Ryoma, Mikoto was confident she could do a good job.

After, there was mingling. There were the daimyos and minor lords, most of whom she’d met already but greeted again. There was Chief Fuga, head of the Wind Tribe, someone she’d heard of but hadn’t met, who had visited to pay his respects to his best friend’s widow. There was Kotaru, head of Mokushu, a small vassal country to Hoshido much like Cheve to Nohr, whose leering gaze sent an unpleasant shiver down her spine.

Chief Kenta of the Fire Tribe was also there. “Sumeragi was a fine man and a skilled warrior,” he told her when she expressed her surprise at his presence. “He commanded a great deal of my respect. King Garon’s actions have painted him a coward in my eyes and the eyes of my people.”

“Does this mean you would support us in the future?” she dared to ask.

He grunted. “It means I’m more likely to support you than them. But I won’t have my people back a weak nation, even if I dislike their enemies. You must prove yourself a capable ruler first, Queen Mikoto. If you conduct yourself anything like you did during your stay at the Fire Tribe six years ago, however, I have no doubt you will.”

The next ones to speak with her were the head of the merchant clans. Mikoto schooled her face into a carefully serene expression.

“Queen Mikoto,” began one, “I have to say I am very disappointed with your policy of non-profit.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” she said politely. “But the Nohrians have shown themselves to be an enemy of Hoshido. We cannot support a nation that would see ours ruined.”

“Still, there are surely other methods of punishing them, ones that do not cut into our revenue—a revenue we already expressed displeasure with, if you recall.”

“I have not forgotten. I have also not forgotten that your greed set this chain of events in motion,” she responded sharply. “Your demands for more money put us in a position where our options were destroying the fragile peace between our countries or civil war. A position Nohr could take advantage of, and did. A position I have done my best to rectify.

“We barely avoided a war. We would not have won that war, but we can starve them to death. That, however, will only work with your cooperation. Doing otherwise would suggest your loyalties lie with Nohr. Is that what you wish?” she finished, letting ice seep into her words.

They glared a moment longer, then backed down. “No, Your Majesty. It isn’t.”

The merchants slunk off with their tails between their legs, and Mikoto turned back to the food. Her final notable guest of the coronation was a boy, fifteen, with pale hair and green eyes. It took Mikoto a moment to place him as the late Duchess Hiromi’s son, Izana.

“Duke Izana,” she greeted cordially. “It’s good to see you. Allow me to express my condolences for the passing of your mother.”

He kissed her hand. He may have been of age, but he looked so young, the fancy clothing and adult mannerisms simply accentuating his youth rather than hiding it.

“Your condolences are appreciated,” he said, sound a little choked. “Would you indulge me with a walk?”

She accepted and, taking his arm, they departed for the royal gardens, Reina following as always. It was warm for a winter’s day, the sky clear and the ice and snow briefly melted. If it weren’t for the bare trees, one could have mistaken it for spring.

“I must say you looked stunning, Lady Mikoto,” Izana remarked as they walked among the winter flowers. If his blithe was forced, she could not tell. “A pity you cut your lovely hair—but perhaps not, it means mine doesn’t have any competition anymore! But your beauty shines through nonetheless, especially the beauty of your character.”

I see he takes after Duchess Hiromi, she thought. “That’s very kind of you.”

“Speaking of which, I have a message for you!”

Again, she was reminded of the late duchess, and that message two years ago. She repressed the urge to groan. Not again. What now, Anankos?

But to her surprise, Izana instead said, “Now, I know Mother’s message gave you a terrible fright, but don’t worry! This one is different. It comes from the Astral Dragon Moro.”

“I’ve never heard of Moro or these Astral Dragons,” she interrupted, curious. Vallite lore had been mostly centered around their own history and that of Anankos, and while Hoshido’s libraries had more on the subject of dragons, they still only covered the major deities. As a bookworm, the lack of solid information about the past was frustrating.

“They prefer it that way!” That was an invitation for you to explain who or what they are, she thought, irritated and amused in equal measures. “Now, the message is:” Izana cleared his throat and said, “‘Fear not for your son, for we will watch over him.’”

Mikoto stopped walking, a lump suddenly rising in her throat. Her eyes burned and her heart ached in her chest. “I thought the gods had abandoned me,” she confessed in a small, hushed voice.

“They can be detached, but they don’t abandon humans. They just rarely act directly unless destruction is certain. So it’s actually a good thing they aren’t interfering, otherwise we’d all be completely doomed!”

The information that things weren’t hopeless against Anankos was nice, but Mikoto was far more occupied by something else. Her son wasn’t going to be alone and abandoned in Nohr as she’d feared—the gods would still look out for him. Thank you, she breathed silently to this mysterious Moro and the Astral Dragons, then repeated it out loud to Izana. He smiled and waved it off cheerfully, and, message delivered, they returned inside.

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Instinct sent Mikoto out for a walk by the lake that night. She smiled grimly when she arrived. There was a faint shimmer over the water, a slight distortion of the air. Only one who knew about the Vallite invisibility spell would have recognized it.

“Hello, Anankos,” she said, careful to keep her voice pleasant.

She was unsurprised, though disappointed, that her barrier didn’t affect water—water was a portal for Vallites, unstable and not exactly actual territory. But her barrier did affect the land around it. Anankos could send soldiers through the water, but they couldn’t step into Hoshido without crossing Barricade.

The water rippled, the light angled, and suddenly she could see the soldier he’d sent. She’d expected him to use one of her loved ones—but no, this was just a regular grunt. Its glowing purple eyes fixed hatefully on her.

You,” it hissed. “Youyou—”

He was too angry to even speak properly. Her smile turned smug. “I’m sorry,” she said sweetly, placing a hand over her heart, “Did I ruin your little plan?”

“You lowly human bitch!” Anankos’s puppet shrieked, sending a startled owl into flight. “You have the nerve to taunt me? You have the nerve to put this shield up? Your death will be as agonizing as I can make it! I will kill you and bind your body and soul to my service for all eternity! When I break this—”

“You won’t. You know how a life-binding is,” she interrupted. “So long as the caster lives, the spell can never be broken by outside forces. Weakened in places—but not broken, not even by you. Only the caster themselves, or their death, can do that.”

“You will never maintain it,” Anankos sneered, changing tactics. “You’re just a pathetic human. Your species is incapable and weak. You will die to your own stupidity before even five years have passed!”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that. Because, Anankos, so far you have made the same mistake people have been making my entire life,” she hissed. “You underestimated me.”

The puppet shrieked and, drawing its weapon, charged forward. Mikoto couldn’t help stepping back—she suddenly realized she didn’t know if her barrier would work on the undead or possessed. But it did, albeit in a different way, shimmering to life to throw the puppet back. It staggered back, then threw its head back and screamed a chilling scream of pure, unadulterated fury.

As suddenly as it started, it cut itself off, going eerily silent as its head snapped back down to pin her with its dead gaze.

“Know this,” Anankos finally snarled. “what constitutes a victory for you is a mere inconvenience for me. You have decades at most to live, while I have centuries. So enjoy your peace while it lasts, mortal; it shall not last long. And if you are still alive when the day of my reckoning comes, I will ensure you are among the first casualties.”

And the puppet left before she could respond, the water shining and swallowing it whole, leaving Mikoto alone by the lake.

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Uneventful months passed. Mikoto, Yukimura and Ryoma worked hard at stabilizing her reign. Nohr tried and failed to breach Mikoto’s barrier, and had to retreat to nurse their wounded pride—Hoshido was safe. Kamui’s sixth birthday came, and his family, along with Azura, gathered at the private shrine. His younger siblings placed gifts of sweets at the base, the bell was rung, and heads were bowed as they prayed for Kamui’s safety and swift return. Mikoto couldn’t help bitterly recalling what they’d been doing last year, picnicking in a field, all her children present and her husband alive.

If she’d known a year ago what she knew now…

She blinked back the tears pricking at her eyes. Gods, how could she have not run out by now? Sensing her sadness, the four royal children gathered around her, offering her wordless comfort. Azura hovered on the fringes of the group—as Mikoto had feared, once the Hoshidans realized they couldn’t trade her back for Kamui, they’d become bitter and resentful towards her. Keeping her with the royal family was the best way to ensure her niece’s safety; no one would want to attack and risk harming one of them by accident. It would also, hopefully, create better relations between her and the royal children, which would make life easier for her once Mikoto passed. Still, the girl was an outcast, and she knew it.

“Azura,” she called, encouraging her over. Azura hesitated, then slowly approached, taking Mikoto’s offered hand. Mikoto squeezed it tightly, reaching with her right hand to take Ryoma’s left. The other children moved around to mimic her, forming a line of clasped hands. Six sets of eyes fixed on the shrine.

“We will find you,” Mikoto whispered to the ghost of her son, absent but ever-present in the minds of his family.

“No matter how long it takes, we will find you, Kamui.”

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A/N: For those wondering, the way I have life-binding set up, Mikoto’s barrier is at peak strength now, but will grow weaker over the years, thanks to a combination of efforts from Nohr and the drain on her life. Eventually it won’t be able to block the undead. That’s why it stopped the puppet now but not Nohr’s Faceless and Anankos’s soldiers later. That’s going to be explained in the epilogue, but I knew that question was probably going to get asked a lot, so I’m pre-emptively answering it.

Also I hate writing speeches and I’m never doing it again. That was painful.

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Chapter 10/Epilogue:

A/N: And now: the epilogue, aka the thing that’s long enough to be an actual chapter rather than a conclusion.

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Fourteen Years Later

“Your Majesty, I have a letter from Kaze, about Prince Kamui.”

“My brother?” Saizo whispered, his usually stoic voice heavy with emotion. “My brother is alive?”

Kagero laid a hand on his shoulder, and it spoke volumes about the redhead’s turmoil that he did not shrug it off.

It gladdened Mikoto to hear that Kaze was still alive—it had taken him years to confess that he’d spotted the Nohrian soldiers at Cheve but hadn’t understood what their presence meant, and thus hadn’t warned his father or Sumeragi of them. The guilt had been crushing him, and even after she’d absolved him she suspected he still hadn’t forgiven himself. He more than anyone save the royal family was dedicated to finding Kamui, often volunteering to be a part of the infiltration squads they still sent to search Nohr.

But at the forefront of her mind was the fact they had news of her son. The first news she’d received in fourteen years. It took all her self-control to not rip the scroll out of the messenger’s grasp as he bowed and handed it to her.

Her hands trembled ever so slightly as she unrolled the scroll, eyes rapidly scanning the writing and picking out key phrases. It was all encoded, of course, but Mikoto was well-accustomed to ninja code at this point.

…the king ordered us killed, but the prince stepped in…

…called himself Corrin. He did not recognize the name Kamui, but his resemblance to you is undeniable…

We have captured him. By the time this letter arrives we should be a week away from Shirasagi.

Her children—she’d come to think of the royal children as her own blood—had abandoned their food and cluttered around her, reading over her shoulder. They’d been having dinner when the messenger arrived, their retainers seated at a lower table as always. Normally interrupting the royal family during a meal was a social faux pas, but in this case… Well, this sort of news was the reason exceptions existed.

Mikoto found herself being grabbed by Ryoma and hugged as he whooped joyfully. Hinoka echoed it, and soon all her children were laughing and smiling, embracing each other—even Azura was pulled into it. Mikoto closed her eyes, relishing the words from the letter.

Prince Corrin of Nohr. All this time, he’s been Prince Corrin of Nohr.

They’d heard of him, of course; one of the five survivors (so they thought) of Garon’s concubine wars. Crown Prince Alexander, Princess Camilla, Prince Corrin, Prince Leonidas, Princess Elise. They should have made the connection sooner; Prince Corrin was an enigma, even to the best of Hoshidan spies, never seen in public but estimated to be about Kamui’s age, and they’d never heard his name uttered until after Kamui’s kidnapping.

Fourteen years. Mikoto had honestly expected them to rescue and return her son long before now. The constant failures had slowly whittled down her optimism, but she’d never quite been able to give it up. Her reign had had its ups and downs—thankfully more ups. Relations with Izumo, the Wind Tribe, the Fire Tribe, and surprisingly Cheve, of all places, had improved greatly. There had been a brief insurgent from the merchant lords, which she had put down, and afterwards the Hoshidans seemed to accept that she wasn’t a pushover. Hoshido’s military was stronger than it had been since the reign of Sumeragi’s grandfather, which was fortunate, given what had occurred with her barrier.

Barricade had first been able to reject anyone. But eventually, it faltered, weakened; humans still could not cross it, but the undead and the mindless could. Nohr, realizing this, had created monstrosities they called Faceless to attack. Hana’s father and Mikoto’s old friend Akio had been the first to die to them, taken off-guard when one raced across the border with surprising speed. They had been embroiled in skirmishes with the beasts ever since; they weren’t intelligent enough for coordinated attacks, but they did a lot of damage when they struck.

Mikoto suspected Anankos hadn’t yet sent his soldiers to kill her because he wanted to keep his presence hidden from the world; she was so heavily guarded nowadays that he would never be able to assassinate her without people becoming aware of the attackers. He would have to wait for an opportunity to pin it on someone else.

Her eyes swept over her children, pride swelling in her when she saw how they’d grown up. Ryoma, tall and looking more like Sumeragi every day, noble and a true samurai, but still carrying guilt and uncertainty about the throne. Hinoka, who had kept her promise and kept her red hair short, so bold and headstrong, so different from the shy girl she’d been in her youth. Takumi, her once-happy son turned troubled, full of bitterness and deprecation, but towards none more than himself. Sakura, unaware of her own strength, timid but ready to bloom into a wonderful woman someday.

Her maternal love towards the four of them was returned in full—Takumi and Sakura knew no mother other than her, and had always addressed her as such with ease. Ryoma had been the next one to do so, when he’d been fourteen and she’d continued to carry the burden of the crown for him, using the word for the first time when he thanked her. Hinoka had taken the longest to come around, frequently clashing with Mikoto over her pegasus knight training, but eventually she too asked for permission to call her Mother. She made sure to keep the memory of Ikona alive, and they knew Mikoto wasn’t their blood mother, but the love between them was as strong as if she were.

Her eyes next found Azura, lingering near the back. Her poor niece, always on the outskirts, never really welcome wherever she went. Despite Mikoto’s best efforts, she’d only been able to get some of Hoshido to accept Azura—the rest still distrusted or despised her. She’d grown into a lovely, if melancholy, woman, but she was chained down by the pain of whatever she’d faced in Nohr, by the rejection of Hoshido, by the knowledge of Valla. And unlike her other children, Azura had never felt comfortable with calling Mikoto Mother, too aware of her technical status as prisoner. She was distant and aloof even on her best days, though at least she had a good relationship with the royal children.

Looking at them now, Mikoto wondered what sort of person her son had grown up to be. Had the cruelty of Nohr eroded his kind soul, made him bitter? Had his idealism died as he waited day after day for a rescue that never succeeded? Had he become rebellious and defiant, trying to escape time and again and being dragged back in chains? Her heart ached at the thought of the hardships he’d surely faced in that cold country.

One week and then you can find out. Just one more week.

She’d waited fourteen years. She could wait one more week.

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The royal family had their own private shrine, but Mikoto had made another one for herself. Smaller, more personal, kept in her bedroom. She didn’t have any portraits of her husbands or sister, but she still had her wedding rings and Arete’s sending stone. While she always kept them on her, they were hidden from prying eyes, except for when she visited her shrine. Then she would take them out and toy with them as she prayed. Sometimes she spoke to her loved ones; she knew Anankos was mad and Sumeragi and Arete were probably possessed, but she liked to think her words could reach and sooth some fragment of their souls.

She was praying now, her fingers stroking the three precious objects, when Orochi rushed in. The queen instantly covered the sending stone with her sleeve—while her relationship with her retainers had improved, there were still some secrets she was keeping from them. From everyone. “Lady Mikoto!” the young woman gasped. “Kaze and the prince—they’re here!”

“What?” Mikoto gasped. “They’re a day early!”

“I know! Except for Prince Ryoma, none of his siblings are here—they’re all out doing their own thing!”

“They’ll be disappointed to have missed his return,” she nodded, discretely gathering her treasures and following Orochi out of the room. Her heart was beating erratically in her chest, and her palms were sweaty—she wiped them against her kimono. Mikoto walked as swiftly as she could without running, time seeming to blur until she found herself standing before a side door leading into the throne room.

She entered, slowing as she stepped inside. Ryoma was standing at the base of the throne, arms crossed, and below him was.... Mikoto lingered in the shadows of the pillars, one hand lightly resting against the stone, the other over her heart. Below Ryoma was another figure, one with distinct platinum hair. She licked her dry lips as she peered out to see her son for the first time in fourteen years.

The angle was bad, but the lighting good. He was tall, taller than her; the last time she’d seen him he’d barely come up to her hip. Now she guessed she’d only be eye-level with his nose. Sleek Nohrian armor encased him, and she could see Kaze off to the side, gingerly holding a dark-looking Nohrian sword. Affectionate amusement rose in her when she saw that her son’s feet were still bare and his hair still a bit long and messy. But what she longed to see the most was his face, not his back as he spoke to Ryoma.

“—are you waiting for? If you’re going to execute me, please get on with it.”

The years had eroded her memory of Anankos’s voice, but when her son spoke she could suddenly recall it with surprising clarity. He sounded almost completely like her first husband had, his voice low with nearly the exact same pitch and timber. There was an accent it, a distinctly Nohrian lilt that made the syllables long and the r’s soft and rolling.

She had to see his face. Mikoto stepped out of the shadows, allowing her sandaled feet to clack sharply on the floor. At the sound her son turned, brows furrowing when he saw her.

Her first thought was that her estimation of his height was correct; he was indeed taller than her. It was odd, looking up at him instead of looking down. Her second thought was that Kaze had spoken the truth; with the baby fat gone, Kamui’s resemblance to her had only grown stronger over the years. The shape of his eyes, the bridge of his nose, the curve of his jaw; it’s all her. Only the mouth and chin came from Anankos. And the ears, of course; her eyes flicker to them, pointed as ever, then back to his face.

How old was he now? Nineteen, going onto twenty. Gods, her son had been in Nohr for nearly thrice the time he’d been with her. She’d missed so much of his life, and she was never more aware of it than now, now that she was seeing the result of those lost years without any idea of what had happened in them. It made her eyes water a bit, sadness mingling with joy.

He stiffened as she approached, body posture reminiscent of a cornered animal. Mikoto halted a few inches away; this close, she could see the reflection of herself in his slitted pupils. Her hands came up, pressing together against her mouth, heart in her throat. “I cannot believe it is really you…”

He blinked, but politely asked, “I’m sorry, do we know each other?”

Had Mikoto been paying attention, that would have been the first hint that the reunion was not about to go the way she’d always envisioned. But she wasn’t, too caught up in a storm of exultation and jubilee. Unable to hold herself back, Mikoto grabbed Kamui and embraced him tightly. Hugging people in armor was never comfortable, but she just didn’t care about the cold metal digging into her. Not when she finally had her son back. “Oh, I’ve missed you so much! Come here, Kamui, my sweet child!”

He jerked back from her, alarmed. “Your sweet child?! What are you talking about? Who’s Kamui?”

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Mikoto spent the time waiting for her sons to return from rescuing Hinoka and Sakura in a kind of horrified daze. Of all the things she’d imagined being inflicted on her son, amnesia was not one of them. But there it was—he didn’t recall a single thing about his real family. Not even a flicker of recognition had sparked in his eyes when they related his past to him. Devastation didn’t even begin to describe how she felt.

Had she…had really she been that awful a parent, for him to just forget about her? She thought she’d done a good job, for the little time she’d had him. Had she been mistaken, or—Mikoto shook her head. No, it was Nohr’s doing, it had to be; they must have done something to her son. He wouldn’t simply forget about all of them.

After her children came back—thank the gods all of them were alright, Mikoto thought, it would have been cruel to lose one of them now—she showed Kamui around the palace, hoping to jog his memory. Their last stop was his room. For fourteen years, it had remained untouched, his stuffed animals, drawings and clothes exactly where he’d left them. A thick layer of dust covered everything.

Her smile felt as though it would crack her face if she held it much longer, as she watched him pick up a drawing and gaze at it wordlessly. He’d been silent the whole tour, lost in thought, and she found that while she could always tell what her step-children and niece were thinking, she had no idea what was going through his mind. It was unnerving. She continued speaking, hiding the wavering in her voice, “That’s something you drew when you were a little boy! That’s your father, that’s me, and that’s you. It’s so cute!”

He exhaled in a soft sigh, but still didn’t speak. Mikoto thought she was going to choke on the words as she forced them out. “We couldn’t bear to touch a thing in this room after you were taken. If we put your things away, it would have felt like giving up.”

Silence.

“You’ve grown so much! I can’t believe how handsome you are.”

Letting the drawing fall from his hands, Kamui turned to her. “Queen Mikoto…”

I’m your mother! She wanted to scream. Call me Mother! Please!

Instead she said, “Yes, Kamui?”

“Corrin,” he immediately corrected, not unkindly.

Smile and smile and smile, until your mask breaks and falls off.

“Corrin,” she acquiesced, hating the sound of it, the harsh syllables, the undeniably Nohrian origin. Kamui had been a nice name, flowing easily. Corrin felt like chewing on a tough piece of meat.

He hesitated, biting his lip, then launched into a hurried flurry of words. “I’m afraid I still don’t remember anything. I…I just don’t know how to respond to your stories. I do believe I could be your son… But everyone here simply feels like a stranger to me.” Kamui…Corrin ducked his head, apologetic. “I’m sorry.”

Smile. Smile. Smile.

She wanted to scream. She wanted to sob. She wanted to go back in time and never let him out of her sight. But she couldn’t do any of those, so instead she smiled and nodded and told him she understood. He apologized again, and she waved it off, hiding how his words had been bolts to her heart. She didn’t remember what came next; she thought she might have recommended he talk a walk around the grounds. But when her mind cleared again, her son was gone, and she was kneeling in his dusty room, staring at the crumpled picture on the floor, and the tears she’d been holding back all day finally came loose. That was where Takumi found her, on his way back from archery practice.

“Mother?” Takumi cried out, dropping Fujin Yumi and rushing instantly to her side. Out of all her children, he was the one closest to her, thanks to the archery lessons he’d asked from her when he was ten. “Are you alright? What happened?”

“Nothing happened,” she hiccupped, almost laughing at the harsh truth of it. “Nothing at all.”

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Dinners were always awkward affairs now. It had been several days since Corrin’s return, and everyone was still tiptoeing around each other. The ecstatic joy that had initially been upon them had faded as the Hoshidan royal family realized the reunion they’d gotten hadn’t been the one they’d expected. The simple truth was, Corrin just didn’t seem to fit into Hoshido.

They’d tried calling him Kamui, but the sound of his real name seemed to grate on him, made his lips tighten almost impeccably and added a slight hunch to his shoulders, so they’d stopped. They’d offered him Hoshidan outfits, lovely kimonos and armor, and he’d taken them, too polite to say no—just like Anankos, she thought with a pang—but he never wore them except when his Nohrian things needed cleaning. He was trying to obey their laws and customs, but there were so many things he forgot, so many obvious things a native would never have forgotten.

She hated it. She hated that Nohr hadn’t just taken her son, but brainwashed him too, made his real home unfamiliar to him and his real family strangers.

He didn’t hate them, that was the one bright spot. Corrin honestly did seem to want to bond with them, but there was just so much tension and uncertainty on both parts. He seemed most at ease with Sakura, smiling and gently teasing and in general taking on the role of a big brother so naturally, it made Mikoto a little awed—until she remembered that Nohr had a princess, Elise, even younger than Sakura, whom he’d probably treated the same way. And that soured it for her.

Corrin was warily curious and friendly towards Ryoma and Hinoka. Mikoto knew her eldest son and daughter been waiting years for the chance to apologize to him, but now that it was here, they found themselves unable to take it. It just didn’t feel right, they confessed, when he didn’t remember them. They wanted him to actually forgive them, not pretend to or think he was obligated to. So instead they tried to bond with him in one of the few ways that was easy for them—through sparring. It seemed to work; sometimes she would drop by their matches, and she’d see them enjoying themselves. But she couldn’t help noticing how Nohrian his fighting style was.

Takumi didn’t like him at all, and he could tell. Mikoto’s heart went out to her youngest son—he had, perhaps, been hit hardest by Corrin’s unexpected acclimation to Nohr. It upset him that the brother he barely remembered, the brother whose return had been a dream for his family, wasn’t just a stranger, but practically a foreigner. So he became prickly and harsh, suspicious and glaring, and made it clear that, in his mind, his real brother had died with Sumeragi at Cheve. Corrin didn’t reciprocate the hostility, but it was so blatant he didn’t really seek Takumi out, and Takumi definitely didn’t seek him out, so they mostly avoided each other.

For her part, Mikoto wasn’t sure how to really interact with him, so she did what she did best—slipped back into the shadows, watching him from afar. She knew this was no way to rebuild their relationship, but she’d been caught off-guard by the new person he was, and she just…needed time.

Mikoto watched her son fumble his chopsticks again—“Where are the forks?” he’d asked the first time he ate, staring at the utensils in puzzlement, innocent to how his insensitivity hurt—until Azura reached over and corrected how he was holding them. He gave her a thankful smile, then looked away, red creeping up his cheeks to the tips of his ears.

Watching the two of them interact, Mikoto could instantly tell what was up. The first day he’d been back, he’d returned from the lake with Azura, talking rapidly. He’d been more animated than she’d seen him all that day, and Azura had actually been smiling, something she rarely did around strangers. Now she was the only person whose company Corrin constantly sought, and the only one he seemed completely relaxed with. It wasn’t surprising—their circumstances were so similar—but it made Mikoto resent the songstress, just a tiny bit, for just clicking with him when the rest of them couldn’t.

Well, she thought, happy at what could be and bitter at what hadn’t been in equal measures, at least their marriage would have been happy if the betrothal had actually gone through.

Dinner consisted of stewed beef and sashimi salad, a meal Corrin had loved as a child. She doubted Ryoma and Hinoka, who were old enough to remember such things, have missed the fact that more and more of their meals are things Corrin used to like. But Corrin ate without any particular notice of the food, chewing and swallowing as swiftly as he could without being rude, as he always did, before retreating to his room.

“Bastard,” Takumi muttered as soon as Corrin left, his grip on his chopsticks turning his knuckles white.

“Takumi!” Sakura gasped sharply.

“What? Don’t tell me you aren’t bothered by how eagerly he escapes our company!”

“I understand you’re disappointed with how things have been,” Ryoma said, his deep voice sharp with disapproval, “but—”

“But what?” Takumi snapped. “I’m not allowed to voice my thoughts? My feelings don’t matter at all, I can’t say anything mean to Corrin otherwise it’ll drive him back to Nohr? Well fine! Let him go back since he apparently misses it so much!”

“Your Highnesses,” Kaze tried to interject from his position by the door. Hinoka overrode him, trying to soothe her brother. “He’s just having a hard time adjusting,” she said. “He’ll be back to normal soon.”

“Really? What proof do we have of that? How do we not know he’s not just spying on us, biding his time before he can return to his beloved Nohr?”

“Please stop fighting,” Sakura whispered, unheeded as Azura leap to Corrin’s defense.

“That’s an unfair accusation—”

“You be quiet, Nohrian!” The archer rounded on her, and she snapped her mouth shut, shocked. Takumi and Azura had never been very close, but he’d always been civil to her, sometimes even kind. His lashing out may have been brought on by stress rather than cruelty, but it was unexpected and hurtful nonetheless.

“That’s enough, Takumi!” Mikoto said sternly, holding her anger back. She empathized with her son’s feelings—she truly did—but a fight wasn’t necessary. “First Corrin, now Azura? This is your brother you’re talking about—”

“Your Highnesses—”

“Then why isn’t he acting like it?!” Takumi slammed his hands into the table. Frustration and something suspiciously close to tears thickened his voice. “He was supposed to be happy when he got back! He wasn’t supposed to go by a Nohrian name and wear Nohrian clothes and miss Nohr! He wasn’t supposed to make you cry, Mother!”

“I get it, okay?!” Mikoto finally shouted, the pot of emotions she’d kept lidded all week finally boiling over. “I get being frustrated by how Nohrian he is now! And gods know I wish he were like he’d been as a child! Gods know I wish he were differe—”

“Your Highnesses!” Kaze almost shouted, and they all turned.

Corrin was standing in the doorway, his pale face and wide eyes showing he’d heard everything. Mikoto brought her hands up to her mouth, speechless horror plain to see. The silence that fell was heavy enough to crush a man to death.

“Corrin,” Ryoma finally began, his voice breaking.

“I forgot my gloves,” he said hollowly.

“Corrin,” Mikoto choked, “I didn’t mean—”

But he didn’t answer, just strode forward and snatched his gloves from the table. Then he turned on his heel and stormed off into the hall. Azura rose to hurry after him, but she barely took a few steps before they heard him snapping at her that he just wanted to be alone. The songstress hesitated, then slowly returned to her seat.

Mikoto stared at her food, feeling wretched. Hinoka put a hand on her shoulder, doubtless saying something comforting, but she didn’t register it. How could she have said what she had? What happened to just having him back being enough?

They finished the rest of their meal in silence.

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Her son didn’t make an appearance at breakfast, lunch or dinner the next day—Mikoto had Kaze deliver food to his room instead. It took a shamefully long time for Mikoto to gather the courage to visit him. It was evening went she went, a box full of chocolates in hand, determined to set things right. She knew what she’d said was truly awful and couldn’t just be bribed away, but she needed to try to make amends.

She paused outside his room when she heard the sounds of soft voices filtering through the open door. Curious as she was to eavesdrop, she’d wronged her son enough. Raising her voice, she called, “Corrin?”

The voices stopped. Then from within the room, a figure rose, its shadow easily visible through the paper screen, and crossed over to the door.

The queen found herself faced with Azura. Her eyes were sympathetic, but her body posture suggested she would have to be forced away from the door. Behind her, Corrin was sitting cross-legged on the floor, his gaze on the floor. Calling on him this late in the day was how rumors started, and Mikoto was thankful they’d had the good sense to leave the door open.

“Could I speak to Corrin alone?” Mikoto asked.

Azura looked back at Corrin, a silent do you want me to go? He tilted his head up in a nod. She returned it, giving Mikoto a small, sad smile as she left. Mikoto hesitantly entered and kneeled across from Corrin, who wasn’t looking at her.

“I’m glad you have Azura to support you here,” she said, for lack of anything else. At least Azura wasn’t holding him to standards that didn’t exist anymore.

“She’s a good friend,” was all he said, though his heavy blush indicated the feelings, at least on his end, ran deeper.

Mikoto handed him the box, unsure of where to start. He weighed it in a hand quizzically.

“Chocolates,” she explained. She almost added you loved them when you were younger, but bit her tongue. She doubted he’d appreciate any more comparisons of the boy he used to be.

He tilted his head up in acknowledgement, selecting a truffle and popping it in his mouth. Surprise flickered across his face. “It’s good,” he murmured.

It was a relief to know his sweet tooth hadn’t changed. It was a common link between Kamui and Corirn, and Mikoto treasured it. Still, that wasn’t what she was here for.

“I am,” she began, folding her hands in her lap, “so sorry for what I said yesterday. As a mother, I had no right to say such a terrible thing. You are you, and it was wrong of me to be unhappy with that when I should have just been grateful to have you back. I know this isn’t even remotely acceptable penance. But I promise, I will try to be better in the future.”

“You seem like a fine mother. Ryoma and the others obviously love you dearly.” He chewed on another chocolate. “I won’t pretend your words didn’t hurt,” he finally said, swallowing. “But I…can understand where you’re coming from. And I’m sorry I can’t be who you want me to be.”

“Don’t be,” she stressed, boldly placing a hand on his shoulder. “Never be sorry for being yourself. I am so, so proud of the man you’ve grown up to be, a good man, and I’ve been a fool for not saying so before now.” It was like Izana had told her so long ago; the Astral Dragons must have truly been watching over him and protecting him for him to turn out as well as he had.

“What about my siblings?”

“They still love you, as do I,” she promised. “Takumi will come around when he’s ready. And before then, please don’t rush him.”

He nodded, and for a few moments the only sound was him making his way through the chocolate truffles.

“What…did Garon tell you your heritage was, growing up?” Her son’s strong resemblance to her meant he looked more Hoshidan than Vallite, and definitely more Hoshidan than Nohrian, so Garon would have had to get creative in inventing a backstory if he’d wanted to successfully fool her son.

Corrin shrugged. “He said my mother was a Hoshidan merchant he’d met in his travels and grew to favor, eventually bringing her to court like all his concubines. She died in childbirth to me and that’s why I was locked away; it was punishment because I’d ‘killed’ her in his eyes.”

She nodded, slow. “I see.” There was a bitter taste in her mouth, but Mikoto swallowed it down, knowing the next step was vital in repairing their relationship. “Would you…would you mind telling me about your life in Nohr?”

She didn’t particularly want to hear about it. She didn’t want to hear that he’d been happy there, away from her. But—but it was necessary. Compromise was necessary. It had been unfair of her to expect him to adjust to Hoshido all at once, to try and force him into being the boy he’d been years ago instead of the man he was now. They couldn’t make any progress without concessions on both ends.

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” he hedged.

“Please,” she said. “Maybe I’ll have an easier time understanding your love for Nohr if I knew the experiences you had there were good ones.”

He hesitated, eyeing her uncertainly. Then a smile stretched across his face. Mikoto inhaled; she suddenly realized that this was the bright, boyish smile of his youth, the smile he smiled with all his heart and soul. How could she have missed the fact that, throughout his entire stay, he’d been wearing a mask of strained smiles like her own, and that this was his true one? He practically wore his heart on his sleeve for the gods’ sake. Apparently he inherited my ability to mask his emotions when he needs to.

And so Mikoto spent her morning actually talking to her son, listening to his tales of life in an isolated fortress, of the four siblings who’d visited him every week, of the kind servants who had cared for him. He told her about the book clubs and snow fortresses and piano lessons and rescued animals. She was jealous, of course, that other people had witnessed his childhood and she hadn’t, but she was so, so relieved to hear that it had at least had its good parts.

Fourteen years of anger and hate towards Nohr wouldn’t go away just like that. But it did soften, slightly.

------------------------------------------------------------------

It was easier to speak to him after that, and it was easier for him to speak with the rest of his family. He still requested time to himself to think every now and then, but he didn’t seem to be wearing that mask anymore. His siblings—excluding Takumi—all apologized for their behavior at that dinner, and from then on their relationship improved by leaps and bounds. Only his relationship with Takumi hadn’t improved, but Corrin had started trying to talk to him now. It was enough.

Three weeks after Corrin had returned to Hoshido, Mikoto organized a picnic for her family. It had been deemed unsafe for her to leave the safety of the castle grounds, so they went out to the gardens, spreading blankets down beneath the sakura trees. Summer was close and their pink blooms had long since died, much to Corrin’s disappointment, but he still found plenty to admire in the rest of the flora.

Currently all her children were relaxing, happy with full bellies and fair weather. Mikoto and Hinoka were pointing out all the different flowers to Corrin, and even Takumi was scowling less than usual as he talked to Ryoma. Azura was speaking to Sakura, a soft, teasing smile on her face as Sakura hid her face in her hands. Her golden eyes caught Mikoto’s own, and the queen waved her over; with a quick word to Sakura, the older princess rose and crossed over to her. Mikoto bade her children a quick farewell and met her halfway.

“Azura,” she greeted with a smile. “I have something for you. I’d like you to give it to Corrin, when you get the chance.”

Out of her pocket she pulled out a shiny blue gem roughly the size of an egg—a dragonstone for Corrin. Obtaining it had been a stroke of pure fortune. Several days ago, a messenger from the ruler of Notre Sagesse had arrived with it in hand, saying it was a gift from the Rainbow Sage. It was very rare for the sage to just give things out, preferring to let people test themselves against him before deeming them worthy or unworthy. But he’d foreseen that her son would need a dragonstone in the future, and, as Mikoto could not leave Hoshido to take his test, had made a rare exception.

Azura turned the dragonstone over in her hands, worry fresh in her eyes. Like Mikoto, she knew what it signified for Corrin. “I will, but…Lady Mikoto, why don’t you just give it to him yourself?”

Mikoto smiled serenely. “Just wait for the right moment. You’ll know when it comes.”

Azura sighed, knowing she wouldn’t get anything else out of her. “Very well.”

The songstress returned to Sakura, and Mikoto sighed, remaining rooted to her spot. She closed her eyes, welcoming the caress of the breeze on her cheek and in her hair.

She knew her death was approaching soon. She had foreseen it—a purple explosion, a dark sword, a rampaging dragon. She didn’t know which of those things would kill her, but a worried Orochi had approached her about it, which had confirmed that this time, the future could not be changed. While she didn’t know when it would happen, she could sense that it was coming soon. She’d probably be dead by the end of the month.

She thought she’d taken it well, all things considered. Some may have panicked at the news of their impending death, but she swallowed her fear; fear wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead she set about trying to make Ryoma’s transaction into rulership as smooth as possible and spending as much time with her family as she could.

Still…suddenly being confronted with your own morality, with the fact that you were going to die, was scary. Worse, she knew there would be no peaceful embrace of the afterlife; Anankos would take her, as he’d promised, and she would serve him. And she didn’t know if she’d ever be freed, or if her eternity would be a hell of slavish devotion to him.

The one comfort she had was that she knew, somehow, that she would die protecting someone she loved. And if she died doing that, she would die content.

Mikoto tilted her head back, gazing at the clouds above. Yukimura had told her of unease in the city; some people believed their prodigal prince had finally returned, but other whispered about Nohrian spies infiltrating them and plotting their demise.

She had kept Corrin’s return secret to give him time to adjust to Hoshido, but no longer, she decided. Rumors were dangerous, and to keep her son safe she needed to weed them out. It was time to announce his return. A public message in Shirasagi’s town square, perhaps. Most of the population would be assembled there in mid-day, and she could let his siblings take him on tour around beforehand, showing him the different stalls and landmarks. She nodded; yes, that would work.

“Mother!” Sakura called, voice joyous and giggling. She started; her family was gathered at the edge of the stone pathway winding through the rest of the garden, large smiles on their faces. Corrin’s was a little awkward, but genuine, and his eyes were bright as his little sister held his hand. “Come on! We’re going to show Corrin the koi pond!”

“On my way!” Mikoto responded. She put the preparations from her mind and rose, hurrying to join her family, heart light as air.

The future could wait. She would enjoy what she had now.

A/N: And that’s the final chapter. I can’t believe it’s over, guys! I had a lot of fun writing this. Thank you all for your time! <3

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