Cor knew that the Magistrate wasn't some soft-hearted fool, though. He knew kids only a few years older than him who were hauled off to juvenile detention for less than some of the thievery he got up to, but he also knew that most of them did what they did for kicks. They didn't have a sick mother who couldn't work.
He'd been before the Magistrate in tattered jeans with a bloody nose, he'd been before him covered in mud from where the city patrol had pinned him to the ground as he tried to flee from his latest escapade, and sometimes, on very rare occasions, he looked relatively innocuous. He thought he might have bruised a rib, but the other guy looked way worse.
The only problem was it wasn't Magistrate Haughe sitting on the bench, it was a man probably in his late teens or early twenties. He had dark brown hair with flecks of premature gray and a squarish face reviewing the no doubt colorful list of offenses that Cor had to his name.
"Leonis?" The man said.
"Your Honor," he answered, standing at attention immediately.
"Do you have... a brother?" He asked, again looking down at the file, and then back up to Cor.
"No, Sir, that's my criminal history."
The man looked as though he was confused, almost boggling at the impressive list of offenses that Cor had been brought before Haughe for. Sometimes there wasn't enough evidence to pin something on him, and those Haughe usually let him off with a side-eye, but they were still just as well-documented as his other offenses. The Magistrate glanced to Eirika, the bailiff on duty, and she nodded, as though confirming the confused look on the Magistrate's face.
"It's clear that Magistrate Haughe's soft-touch approach isn't yielding something that looks like rehabilitation," he said, closing the file and fixing Cor with a hard gaze. In that moment, Cor felt pure terror the likes of which he hadn't experienced in quite some time... probably not since he'd gotten pinned down and beaten within an inch of his life last summer... "Six months in juvenile detention should give you a better appreciation for the path you're on."
"Sir, you can't--!" It was out of Cor's mouth before he thought better of it, and he realized he'd made a terrible mistake as soon as he'd said it, because the Magistrate's eyes were much harder now.
"I think you'll find I can."
Cor swallowed down the reflexive fear, mentally taking stock of what was still at home: food enough for three weeks, that would last a little less than double without his mouth to feed; rent was paid for six weeks; cash on hand was negligible... if he could get in contact with one of the neighbors they might be charitable but there was no guarantee, and certainly not for six months... maybe if he wrote Haughe he could get some time off for good behavior, but Cor also knew the chances he wasn't going to get punched in the face by someone in juvenile was about zero.
He looked up again, feeling like he might throw up, only to see that Eirika had stepped up to the bench and appeared to be sharing a word with the Magistrate. It's not done yet, he told himself, he could grovel, he could beg, he would do it if he had to.
"Your Honor, I--"
The man held up his hand, and Cor fell silent. He was brash but he wasn't that much of an idiot to talk over the man. "I have another option."
Cor nodded, fighting down the urge to say 'yes, anything', but he nodded nevertheless.
"The Crownsguard offers junior enlistments for people your age."
Cor paused for a moment, trying to decide if the Magistrate was implying what Cor thought he was. He'd generally considered the Crownsguard as a no-go with his criminal record, but it was one of the youngest recruiting outfits in the city, if the Magistrate was suggesting it... "You have to be fourteen, Your Honor."
"You're not fourteen?"
"Thirteen next month, Your Honor."
"Shiva's frosted tits," the Magistrate said, and Cor almost felt himself smile at that, just for a moment. "And stop calling me 'Your Honor'."
Cor nodded to avoid doing just that.
"I'm placing you on probation," he said, Cor felt his chest ease just a bit. Probation wasn't great because it gave him a time frame he couldn't get caught in, but he could work with that. "You put a toe out of line over the next month and you're going to juvenile for six months, just as promised. You show up on your thirteenth birthday with a note from your mother... and we'll see how you do. Don't screw up."
"Yessir," Cor answered, immediately, trying to push down his hope. He could scrape by for a month. "Um, Your... Sir?"
"Not to look a gift chocobo in the mouth, but... how am I enlisting at thirteen?"
The man smiled a bit at that, and it made his face look slightly less harsh. "Special dispensation, you do your part, and it will be seen to."
He couldn't fight down the need to ask Eirika: "Can he really do that? Get a dispensation I mean."
"You don't know who he is?" She asked, putting a kind hand on his shoulder as she escorted him out of the back of the hall. He shook his head, if he knew he maybe wouldn't have needed to ask. "Clarus, the son of King Mors's Shield, Lyon Amicitia."
"He..." Cor looked over his shoulder to see the Magistrate looking down at what was likely the file of the next person to come before him. "He's... an Amicitia? Why is he playing Magistrate in the slums?"
"Because the King's Shield needs to be wise and deliberate and understand Insomnia," Eirika said, giving him a friendly shove. "No offense, but I hope I never see you again."
"Me too," Cor answered, feeling a lightness in his chest that he barely recognized: hope.
Still, he'd discussed the case with Orin Haughe afterwards, and the local Magistrate had confirmed Clarus's general impression: good kid, lousy circumstances.
"I'm not saying we need to pin a medal on him, but from what I heard around the place he's not going to stop being a criminal and putting him in jail would kill his mother, literally." That was the part that had given him pause. His father always demanded he understand that actions have consequences, but Clarus wasn't going to let someone's mother be on his head for no reason other than spite.
"I'm not going to go easy on him just because he's a child," his father said. Clarus nodded. He didn't expect otherwise.
Of course that lasted approximately two minutes when the boy arrived at the Crownsguard Citadel entrance with a sheet of paper, jeans ripped at the knees, and a threadbare t-shirt. His hair was sort of combed, and his shoes had one part of the sole loose enough that it flopped when he walked.
"Are you sure he's thirteen?"
"Yup." He stepped forward and held out a hand, and Leonis handed over the piece of paper, folded in three. The top of the note was written in what looked like a younger hand's penmanship, trying to be neat, the letters with too much deliberation, as it proclaimed: 'My son Cor Leonis has my permission to enlist in the Crownsguard.' and the lower part had a very hesitant, scratchy signature that Clarus would have seriously considered a forgery under most circumstances. "This is Captain Amicitia," he said, pointing to his father.
"Captain," he said, doing his best to straighten to attention. It was hardly proper or correct form, but there was definitely a thought there.
"Go with Clarus to see to a uniform, Leonis."
"Yessir," he said, and followed after Clarus. The boy was absolutely silent, and what curiosity he might have had about being inside of the Citadel was clearly curtailed as the boy focused solely on putting one foot in front of the other. "Um... Sir?"
Clarus turned towards him and noted his eyes had more than a bit of concern in them. "When... um... when do I get paid?"
"First paycheck's in three weeks."
The boy looked down at his hands, and Clarus watched the way they clenched for a moment, worry writ plain on his face.
"If you need something, you will come to me," he continued, voice hard. "Is that clear?"
Clarus took the kid to the quartermasters where he was fitted with some of the smallest slacks, shirts, and sweats and he still swam in them. The shoes were far too large as well and Clarus had to pass on that for the moment to special order the shoes.
"Your mornings start at six thirty and will be laps, physical fitness, hand to hand training, and eventually weapons training," Clarus said as the boy came out, swimming in his t-shirt and sweats. "We break for lunch and at one you will be in various tactical, administrative, and strategic courses. You'll have liberty at six, and the mess remains open until seven thirty. After a six month probationary period you may be offered a commission, which comes with a room in the Citadel if you choose, at one year you will be allowed to house family. Think you can think that far ahead?"
"Of course, sir. I... apologize for being late." It was eight in the morning.
"No punishment duties today, but tomorrow... be on time and in reg. Leave your spares with the quartermaster to have them tailored."
The boy placed the three shirts and slacks down near the quartermaster, and gave him a brief nod. Clarus then walked the boy to the training yard where most of the rest of the younger trainees were in the middle of their own runs.
"Twenty minutes left, get warmed up," Clarus instructed, flicking his hand, and without being told twice, Leonis set to the track.
Regis arrived about an hour later, and the two of them stretched a bit while the recruits were in the midst of hand to hand practice.
"Is it take your kindergartner to work day?" He asked, taking note of where Leonis was fending off a man almost a foot taller than him with punches and kicks.
"He's the punk," Clarus answered, explaining the situation in just those brief words. Regis knew he'd picked up a recruit from his time out standing in for several local Magistrates, but Regis probably didn't realize just how tiny he was.
"Didn't you say he had seventeen assault charges?"
"And fourteen of them Haughe let him off with self defense, and only two of those were generous interpretations of the facts."
Regis gaped a bit. "Did he... win?"
"Sixteen and one."
Nothing would do except for Regis to meet the new recruit, and of course since he was the Prince and the Prince wasn't allowed to show favorites this ended up meaning the Prince circulated the entire yard while being introduced to the various recruits.
Leonis managed a passable 'Your Highness' and bow, and not even Clarus could keep his Prince from going to the Crownsguard mess at lunch and watching the young man work his way through two entire lunch entrees and then go off to the various classes he was attending in the afternoon.
He made certain there were no troubles with the boy taking home an extra dinner, and after four days of training where his father was reluctantly impressed with the boy's fortitude, Clarus loaned Leonis half of his first paycheck. He was fairly surprised that it took two whole weeks for Leonis to get in trouble for fighting, and he arrived at his father's office with a look of absolute dread.
Cor ended up with a scuff on his boots and Keen's blood on his cheek, Keen got his nose broken and was lucky Cor didn't do worse.
He had been summoned, however, and now he stood at attention in the Captain's office, unmoving. Privately, he wished that the Captain would just rip the bandage off, strip him of whatever rank he'd earned, and send him on his way, not make him stand there and wait for it, the executioner's axe poised overhead. Clarus was almost worse, he wasn't doing anything, just looking at Cor, and he had to keep fighting down the reflex to fidget.
The Captain finally cleared his throat and set his gaze on Cor. "Honestly, I'm surprised you made it two weeks."
There was really nothing to say to that, so he waited. Magistrate Haughe said stuff like that sometimes, and Cor knew it wasn't a compliment.
"Do you like it here, Leonis?"
Cor frowned, confused and uncertain how he was supposed to answer that. He worked for eleven hours a day with only a short break, he got paid almost nothing... assuming he even got his first paycheck. He figured that the Captain wanted him to beg for his job, and Cor really, really considered it for a long moment. "It's... alright," he answered. "Mornings are rough sometimes, and afternoons are boring sometimes, but it's fine. It's a job. I appreciated the opportunity." That wasn't a lie.
An odd little grin appeared on the Captain's face, and Cor wondered at it, but it quickly went away and he cleared his throat, looking over to Clarus. "You'll be on four am Citadel laundry and kitchen duty the next month."
He startled, confused, and he looked over to the Captain in shock. He was supposed to get kicked out... he wasn't supposed to get another chance he...
"And Clarus will be taking over your hand to hand instruction." The Captain eased back in his seat and looked at Cor, and he straightened, meeting the man in the eyes even if he didn't know what was being judged. "Self-restraint is a virtue."
"No one ever accused me of being virtuous, Sir," Cor answered, even though he probably should have stowed the lip for at least another day.
Clarus snorted. "Come on, Leonis."
Cor wasn't going to argue, far from it, so he headed off into the hallway with Clarus after a quick bow to the Captain, and he trailed after him before finally catching up and trying to decide what the hell just happened. "I... shouldn't I be getting punished?"
"You want longer than a month in the kitchens?" Clarus asked.
"N... no, but..." He didn't understand.
"Is dad... um Captain Amicitia particularly pleased with the fact that you broke a recruit's nose? No, but also yes. The thing is that you can teach most people how to fight, how to punch or kick, enough training can turn even crappy material into an adequate soldier, but there's also... balls, guts, whatever you want to call it."
"Magistrate Haughe called that 'shit for brains'."
Clarus snorted. "Somehow I doubt he thought you had no brains, or did you think he kept kicking you into community service because he liked you?"
"I always figured he knew I was trying," Cor answered, because he was a kid, sure, but he also understood that there were rules, just ones that he couldn't always afford to follow. "I knew the second I turned sixteen he expected me to get a job... although how I was supposed to get one with a criminal record longer than my arm, who knows."
After a bit more back and forth, Cor found himself in the training yard towards the end of runs and stretches, and Clarus waved him off to go finish up with the other recruits. A bit later he noticed that Keen wasn't there, whether that was because he was still in the infirmary or because it was his turn to get lectured by the Captain, Cor neither knew nor cared.
Whether he meant it or not, however, Cor had just made a number of enemies. Keen was reasonably well liked, and Cor was a snot nosed kid as far as most of the older boys were concerned. There were a few women, too, and Cor was a fan of them - not because they were girly, he knew much better - but because they didn't have the same need to piss on the ground and flex that boys did.
Hand to hand time came, and Cor didn't see Clarus, so he headed to that part of the yard and was paired up with an older boy. One who gave him one look like he was sizing him up to eat. They were supposed to open with a few kicks, punches, and blocks that would warm them up, the other guy - Wiles - didn't seem to think that was necessary, coming at Cor with far more intent than warm-up was supposed to have.
Cor hopped back, dancing around another blow before he closed the distance, hooking his leg behind the boy and shoving him down. In the real world, he would have followed up with a kick to whatever sensitive part was least protected - his flank, but instead he waited. Wiles tried to grab for Cor's foot, and he backpedaled again, and then scrambled to avoid the kick that came from behind.
Another attempt and Cor gave up on civility and kicked the guy in the back, causing him to give up his stupid assault. Cor then backed away enough to give himself room and then waited for...
"Wow, twice in one day." Clarus. Cor winced. "Would anyone care to give Leonis an opportunity for a hat trick? No?" Clarus then held out a hand and Cor returned to slink after Clarus, wondering if he was going to get told off again only to find himself led to a private training room of some sort and... the Prince.
"Your Highness," Cor said, and he bowed, he was pretty sure he had that down, but he wasn't completely certain.
"Cadet Leonis," the Prince said, and Cor looked up at him and was surprised to find his hazel eyes looked very amused. "And just 'sir' is fine, we've already been introduced, after all."
"Yes, uh... sir." That seemed incredibly wrong to address the Crown Prince as 'sir' and then to turn around and address Clarus or Lord Lyon as 'sir' and he was more than a little confused as to how that was right.
"Regis will be your opponent today," Clarus said, and Cor looked over to the Prince with wide and terrified eyes. He was supposed to... try to beat up the Prince?! "As I'm certain you can imagine, His Highness doesn't have the same... familiarity with dirty fighting as you do. I'd appreciate if you could refrain from kicking him in the face or nuts if you down him."
"O.. o... of course, sir," Cor answered, because... what the hell sort of instruction was that?!
After a bit of urging, Cor began what should have been his hand to hand warm up in the yard with the Prince, they exchanged friendly kicks and blows, each one largely scripted to allow the other to bring up a leg or down an arm to answer the moment. One thing Cor noted was that Regis seemed a bit... slow, certainly he moved with assurance and strength, but he was also deliberate.
When the more open sparring began, the two of them danced apart and traded their same kicks and blows, harder, with more intent, and Cor managed to meet Regis head on once or twice, but he largely played the waiting game. He had shorter arms and legs, and he needed to get in closer to score a strong hit, so he waited. Eventually he saw an opening, and he charged in under the Prince's guard and jabbed towards the man's stomach only for him to... not be there, and Cor felt his hand pass through a ghostly afterimage and then get a firm whack on the back of his neck that sent him stumbling and almost skidding across the room.
"What the hell was that?!" He said, standing up and shaking off the vision of blue smoke that still stayed in place.
"Phasing," Clarus answered.
Cor glowered for a moment and then rubbed the back of his neck before he held his hands up again. It took him more than a few whacks to the back of the head before he started to gain a better understanding of the 'phasing' the Prince was doing. He couldn't go far, he did it only to certain types of attack by Cor, and he heavily favored landing on his left leg.
That meant that after a few more goes he managed to force the Prince to phase, know roughly where that meant he would be, and lash out to grab his shirt, pull him in, and firmly knee him in the stomach before shoving him backwards.
And then he had the Prince sprawled in front of him, in pain, and gasping for air, which meant he was pretty sure he'd turned a potential hat trick into a hanging offense.
"Um... sir, I..."
The Prince then rolled onto his knees, coughed, and after a few moments climbed up onto his feet and looked Cor square in the eyes. "Calm down, son," the Prince said a moment later, and then he breathed in and out quite deliberately. "Can hardly be mad you did what Clarus wanted you to... which was humble me a bit."
"Clarus here called me... 'predictable', and I told the old goat that was because he knew me so well."
Cor bit his lip for a moment. "No, you're kinda predictable... ... sir."
Clarus snorted. "You, on the other hand," Clarus came up to him and took a hand and brought it to Cor's fist. "Your left punches are sloppy as a whor-- um... well it's sloppy."
Cor worked through more punches with Clarus while the Prince recovered his wind - and apparently his dignity - and he was sent to lunch with a reminder to work on his form and to not skimp on his afternoon lessons.
Unlike the Prince, apparently the only way Wiles felt he could recover his dignity was to try to beat the shit out of Cor again. This time he got a hit in, and split Cor's lip badly, which just meant he felt no remorse when he pushed the guy down and kicked him hard enough to leave him wheezing for half a class.
Clarus was waiting at the end of etiquette class.
"Is it still a hat trick if it's the same guy twice?" He asked.
Clarus sighed. "Two months in the kitchens, and stop looking so smug about it, you little shit."
That was the hardest part, it really was.
The hours were long, but he was usually able to make sure mom got fed something in the morning - whatever she hadn't eaten the night before - and he'd bought enough pudding and fruit cups from the commissary that he could usually leave them with mom and she sometimes even ate two before he got home.
Dinner was whatever the kitchen had prepared, carefully cut into the smallest pieces and held for her to eat.
"How's that new work?" She asked. "Not getting into trouble are you?" The two of them sat at the mean little table that might almost be called a 'dining room' if someone was being exceptionally charitable. Cor had work in under a half hour and he didn't want to be late. Clarus was a shit about punctuality.
"No, ma'am," he answered, feeling a bit like a liar as he said it. Punishment details were becoming fewer and farther between, but Cor was still a hot-head, he knew that. He was training hard with Clarus, the Prince was vaguely impressed with him, and Captain Lyon was making noises like he would actually get a commission at the end of basic training.
He was fairly certain his mother thought he was working for a crime boss named Clarus, but it wasn't unusual for her to get confused by the things he did tell her. It left him with a fine line between telling her things to keep her from worrying, and not telling her things because her mind tended to push things back together in weird orders and get even more confused.
It likely didn't help that he came home with split lips, black eyes, or nursing one side or the other from a particularly violent bout with Clarus or the Prince. After a few more bites, it seemed that his mother wasn't any more interested in food than she'd been last night, and Cor gave her a quick kiss on the forehead before he tugged on his boots and headed out the door.
A short breather in his hand-to-hand lessons gave him the opportunity to ask what he needed. "Um, Sir?" He turned to Clarus and the man nodded. "I need... a day off sometime. I don't know when really I just..." He finally had enough money saved up that he might be able to afford... something, every once in a while he was able to get some actual medication to help his mother's twitching or keep her mind more together or something. "I need to get my mom to see a doctor."
Clarus nodded, and then he frowned, turning to look Cor head on. "Isn't she sick?"
"Yessir?" Cor answered. "That's... why I'm taking her to a doctor."
"You haven't taken a day off in over three months."
Cor looked over to Clarus, and his face was probably just as confused as he felt. "I... didn't have enough to get her to see a doctor. There was a month's back rent I owed since last January, and two back payments to the doc and... uh..."
Clarus looked horrified.
"Look, I know I'm not great with money, but I'm doing the best I can," he snapped, because he didn't need Clarus giving him shit about it. The food from the mess helped, a lot, but there was still rent and clothes and power and water, to say nothing of the small amount he owed here and there to the various people who helped out his mother now and then. "Once I get on top of things, I can get her started on her medications again."
He was looking forward to that, he really, really hoped they would help. When he'd been a little younger, she could even walk around and sometimes do things around the house rather than just listen to the radio in silence, her hands twitching too much to really feed herself.
"Crownsguard families can have access to the Crownsguard Infirmary," Clarus said, as though Cor was very dumb or something.
"Family members of commissioned Crownsguard have access to the infirmary," Cor answered. "I read the handbook. Trainees and Cadets don't get that."
Clarus was silent for a long minute, and Cor ignored it as much as he was able to, hoping that Clarus didn't think too badly of him. He tried he really did, but there was only so much he could do at one time and his training took up a lot of time, and punishment duties didn't help.
"Can you get her to the Citadel?"
Cor shrugged. "I ride a bike..." That he'd stolen, but he wasn't going to mention that part. "She can't come like that."
"I'm having a car sent tomorrow before work," Clarus said, frowning.
"I don't need your charity, Sir."
"It's not charity Cor, Six, it's basic human decency. I know trainee pay is shit, but it's designed that way around the recruits being kids from homes that... have fucking roofs."
"I have a roof...," Cor answered, sullenly, but he had to admit that human decency was something of an unusual concept from the part of the city he was from... "Um, I... just a word of warning, I'm pretty sure she thinks your a crime lord. She's a little... confused, usually."
Clarus gave him the whole morning off, just so he would have enough time to get his mom to the Citadel for medicine. Despite her excitement about meeting 'the boss', Clarus didn't show his (nosy) face for most of the morning anyway. Cor didn't mind that much, not really, and Clarus eventually had Dustin a family servant - Cor had no idea how families got servants - take his mother home.
The entire apartment was probably less than ten feet wide, but it was fairly long, just a tiny shotgun of a place. At the far end, he found a small bed with clean sheets that looked out of fashion for three decades ago, he couldn't find a second bed, only to realize that the thing he'd thought was 'drapery' over the window was actually a hammock of sorts made from another sheet. A tiny wardrobe was the only thing that was locked, and after an internal war he picked the thing and saw that it was filled with neatly pressed Crownsguard Fatigues and boots, nothing else.
Last night's mess hall dinner sat half-eaten, diced into tiny cubes in the fridge, along with pudding cups, fruit cups, ketchup, and orange juice. The freezer held six meals from earlier in the week, clearly stocked away for the weekend. The kitchen and bathroom were clean, the 'living room' such as it was - a ratty armchair, a radio, an upturned crate, and two stools - was organized...
"Six, how long have you been living like this, Leonis?"
He thought back to the kid's record, starting about four years ago, small time at first, rapidly escalating after that. Clarus realized he'd been an idiot, some part of him had naturally assumed that just getting the kid a job would get things... ordered, and although Cor was clearly doing the best he could with what he had to work with, he seemed to be just barely starting to throw dirt back into the hole he'd been digging for four years.
Clarus left everything as it had been, and got the hell out of there to find Cor wheeling his mother out of the infirmary and back down to the car. After she'd been helped into the car, Clarus frowned. "How's she doing?"
Cor shrugged. "Doc wants to see her three times a week until she's stable, which he said could take months. I can't take that much time off, sir."
"I'm sure Dustin won't mind taking her there and back," Clarus said, because Dustin sure as hell had other things to do, but Clarus was going to fucking prioritize Claudia. Cor looked like he was about to protest the charity again, but he sighed and shrugged. Perhaps it was just that his pride had a price in practicality, which wasn't a bad state to be in. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"You've been mucking around in my business for months, sir. Why stop now?" Cor asked, and he sounded a mix of bitter and wry.
"Where's your father?"
"Leonis is my mom's name, sir." This time, Cor was looking at him with a look that said 'wanna make something of it', but all Clarus could think was that he sort of wanted to shake the man's hand and punch him in the dick all at once.
Clarus sighed and then put a hand on Cor's shoulder. "Get your mom what she needs. Dustin can see to her getting to the doctor, is anything else... trouble?'
Cor looked away, and Clarus was fairly certain the man was pondering another lie. "I don't know." It sounded like he honestly wasn't sure. "Sir... Clarus, please let me just... handle it."
Cor lived in the slums with his invalid mother eating pudding and whatever the mess served, paying back Six knew who for various money and favors, and the kid just didn't want Clarus to be a part of it.
"It'll be fine if I get my commission," Cor continued. "Pay goes up, Citadel housing... I... I need a dispensation for my mom to live with me, that's it." He frowned. "Could you punch me, sir?"
Clarus arched an eyebrow.
"For when I go back to class. I don't want... people to know."
He shrugged, and then punched Cor square in the jaw, leaving what would no doubt be an impressive bruise there. "Go eat some lunch, Leonis."
Clarus ended up in his training room, punching the hell out of a bag and wondering what he should even do about Cor Leonis.
"You look like shit," Regis said for a greeting.
"I think I accidentally ended up with a kid," he said, because that was what was going on in his head in that moment. He realized that he was feeling incredibly protective of Cor, a boy only ten years his junior, and that he was desperately worried... something. He knew he should largely care if the boy wanted to enter the Crownsguard, but now he was just worried that the kid got a chance to grow up.
"Did you knock someone up, or is this about Leonis?" Regis asked, because he was too damn perceptive and Clarus hated it sometimes. He was supposed to be the clever one.
"He lives in a two hundred square foot box in the slums with his mother, she's sick as a dog and he's running through boot camp and looking after her and he won't take any damn help."
Regis chuckled and then let himself down onto one of the benches, stretching out his bad knee for a moment. "Because you're always so reasonable about accepting help. He's clearly been on his own for a long time, learning to rely on his wits and skills. It probably galls him enough to have been given a job."
"He's thirteen," Clarus answered. "He's not even supposed to have a job. My father had to give him a dispensation to get him in that young." Clarus didn't even know what to do about everything. Cor Leonis was... well he was probably less of a mess than Clarus would have been in the situation but he couldn't really say.
"Leave it," Regis commanded him. "Learning to rely on others is just as important as learning to fend for yourself. He'll learn it or not."
Clarus gritted his teeth, even though he knew Regis was right. He didn't have to like it.
With the training yard so thinned, Cor was largely left alone to his own devices, and he stretched lazily in anticipation of the morning run to follow.
"Look alive, children!" Came Captain Lyon's thunderous voice.
Cor straightened to attention, surprised, and he waited. It was unusual for Lyon to join them so early, and the reason for his appearance was obvious when an older man entered the training yard. Cor didn't know him on sight, but he did recognize the thin spiral crown at his brow and the clothes. This must have been King Mors. The resemblance between him and Prince Regis was fairly obvious, darker hair, lighter eyes, and a full beard, but it was easy to see the similarities.
He then remembered that he was in the presence of the King, and although Regis demanded he be called 'sir', Cor wasn't on familiar terms with the King. He took the few steps required to bring him to his usual muster point for inspection, and then he stood at attention.
"And here I am, wondering where your manners lessons went if Leonis got it right first!"
Everyone else scrambled to line up, Cor's chosen place was largely towards the middle of such lines, and he waited his turn for the King to come to him. Captain Lyon introduced him, and Cor bowed.
"My son's sparring partner," King Mors said.
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Keep up the good work."
He then moved on, and Cor breathed a sigh of relief and waited for the King to finish his inspection.
"Today you'll be learning about one of the greatest honors the King bestows on his Crownsguard: the Arsenal," Lyon said while the trainees remained at attention.
The King raised a hand and as if from nowhere, dozens of arms flickered into existence and rained down, blades, axeheads, and lancetips all digging into the dirt and staying here.
"Since the beginning of the Caelum line," the King began, "my family has been gifted with the power of the glaives and the ability to share such power with those who would serve their king and country with honor. But to earn such power, one must first earn a weapon. Today is the first day you step towards that goal."
Cor listened to the Captain after that, as he explained the strengths and weaknesses of the various weapons, and encouraged the recruits to try their hand at swinging one or the other.
Cor dismissed most of the largest weapons out of hand. He was short, and although he could probably grow taller he didn't want to count on it. Double axes, broadswords, and the like were out. He had considered a spear for the reach, and daggers for the hand to hand appeal.
"If I might make a suggestion," a calm voice came from a few feet off, and Cor turned to see the king standing there.
Cor gaped, he didn't see why the man would even ask. "O- of course, sir."
The King placed a hand to his side and a sword appeared in it, wickedly sharp and long, with a handle almost a foot long. "It's a weapon from the east, beyond the Archipelago. The Warrior was famed for his expertise with the blade. It's long enough to have some of the flexibility and reach of a pole arm."
The King demonstrated, hand resting gently at the back of the blade. "But the cuts are brutal."
In an instant he brought the blade down, and Cor felt the sound of the blade cutting the air somewhere deep in his soul. "Get a feel for its weight."
The King presented the handle and Cor carefully drew it from the King's arms. It was light for its size, but Cor quickly realized how much arms tired with even that extra fraction of weight.
He tried the thrusts as the King had, and the slices, and it took a great deal of strength the keep the cuts firm and stable.
Another sword, similar in size and weight appeared in the King's hands and he demonstrated two cuts, just two powerful downward slashes.
"Don't cut your arms off," the King instructed, and then he headed off towards the other trainees.
Cor didn't know how much it fit, but he started to appreciate the feel of the blade and the sound it made cutting through the air. He tried a few guards, as he sometimes saw Clarus do with his broadsword, some felt right, others completely wrong.
Clarus came up to him at least an hour later, and Cor could feel his eyes observing him before his shoulders and stomach finally gave way to the repeated motions with the blade. "An interesting choice."
"His Majesty suggested it," Cor answered, and after a few moments of hesitation where Cor tried to get a feel for how to hold the thing at rest, Clarus stepped up and placed a hand on the hilt and then tossed it to the side, causing the blade to disappear completely.
"Do you like it?"
Cor shrugged, and then regretted the gesture immediately. "It's hard to say, I'm pretty used to fighting with my hands, adding a weapon is... different."
Clarus nodded. "I couldn't say how, but it always seems that the King has a way of understanding what weapon best suits a warrior. As a Shield, I have little choice in my first weapon, but beyond that... King Mors suggested the broadsword even though my father favors polearms, and I don't regret it one bit."
Cor had been avoiding two handed weapons, concerned about his relatively small stature and younger muscles. He was barely over five and a half feet tall, and the weapon he'd been using was almost as tall as he was between blade and hilt.
"Come on, Regis is going to love the chance to put you on your ass for a change." Clarus tilted his head and Cor followed after him, regretting his life almost immediately, he was sore and tired and his entire back ached, but he followed the man to their training room and waited as Clarus passed him a neatly carved wooden blade that mimicked the length and weight of the sword he'd been using.
The Prince did, indeed, enjoy getting to put Cor on his ass, and even left him with a smarting bruise on his collarbone and his rib where he hadn't parried fast enough.
His mornings changed. No longer did he have hours of practice with Clarus and the Prince, instead they circulated through several trainers who offered them insight into the variety of weapons available to them. Spears and halberds from Captain Lyon, guns and daggers from a trim senior Crownsguard named Pandus, and single and double handed swords from Clarus.
Late mornings he still spent with Clarus and the Prince, and he was quickly finding himself on his ass less and less.
"Is it really fair for me to be getting... tutoring?" He asked. The Prince was currently testing his lower guard, and Clarus encouraged him to split focus, so it seemed a good time to ask the question.
"Most of the better fighters get some level of personal training," Clarus answered. "Are you suggesting that Regis and I are better fighters than the other instructors? Don't tell Regis that, it'll go to his head. He already has an over-inflated ego."
"He is the Crown Prince, Sir. Isn't that part of the territory?"
"As Clarus so often reminds me: no, no it isn't," Regis answered, making a blow that allowed Cor to parry and bring the sword down, only barely missing the Prince's shoulder because of a quick phase. Cor was used to it now, and he pressed his advantage brutally, until he finally backpedaled and warped out of the combat area.
Cor sighed and shouldered his wooden sword, and Clarus held up a hand signalling the end of the bout, so Cor sat and placed the weapon in front of him, trying to ease the ache in his shoulders.
"Try not to let it go to your head either," Clarus said. "But you do show promise. The Empire has been more and more aggressive soldiers, they're calling them MTs, magitek troopers, and the chance you won't be facing them on the field is pretty much zero."
It was honestly the first time Cor had really considered that he would be killing. He knew that was the case somewhere in the back of his mind, but the concept of facing an opposing army on the field was troubling to say the least.
"Sir?" Cor asked, turning towards Clarus, who nodded. "Have you ever killed someone?"
The man gave the curtest of nods, and Cor looked down and closed his eyes, trying to make peace with that. He'd never taken a life; he'd beaten someone within an inch of it, but he'd never taken a life.
"I won't lie and say it's easy. It's not, and it never should be, but war will come whether we like it or not."
Prince Regis finally returned from his warp out, and came to sit by the two of them, his expression was somber and his hazel eyes were clouded. "We may escape the worst of it within my father's lifetime, but that only means it is a burden that will fall to myself... to Clarus... and to anyone who would serve within the Crownsguard by our side."
Cor. He understood that meant him. "This isn't preferential treatment," he said. "You want me to be the strongest glaive in your arsenal."
"A calculating way to put it, but not un-true," Regis answered. "The rumors we've heard say that the MT armies are not human, they are driven by some sort of machinery and robotic. You won't be burdened by the taking of a life when you meet them in the field... but every man and woman we field against them is a potential lost human life."
"There's the wall, though," Cor said, because he did learn about it in his studies. He hadn't really been in school since he was nine, and he knew his reading still lagged a bit behind the others, but he did read his books.
"It doesn't cover the whole of the kingdom," Regis answers. "You've seen a map of the kingdom, correct? It emanates from the Citadel and circumscribes an area with a radius of approximately six hundred miles, that encompasses Lestallum, a piece of the Galahd Peninsula, the Drosia Archipelago, and all of Leide, most of Duscae, and a portion of Cleigne."
"Leaving Cleigne and Galahd vulnerable to invasion," Cor answered.
Regis nodded. "And often the Crownsguard deploys to protect those people. Currently the Empire's eyes are fixed on Galahd because it provides some of the richest soil and the easiest access to Cavaugh militarily."
Cor's head spun, he was so used to worrying about his next meal, or his mother's next source of medicine that the idea of worrying about a huge wall and invasions that might not come or would come too soon left him confused and worried.
"If you choose, you'll come to understand it more in time, even I have a modest understanding of it compared to my father and Captain Lyon."
"You point and I will go where you command, Your Highness," Cor answered.
Regis smiled, and then shook his head lightly. "No, Cor, as Clarus is so fond of using you to set me on my ass... I hope you will continue that tradition when I ascend to the throne. I have little need for a man with no brain and only brawn."
"He has me for that," Clarus said with a smile. Cor chuckled at the irony, but he understood the message well enough.
"I... understand, Sir. Well... I still need my commission, but after that I'll be happy to keep setting you on your ass."
At this point he knew the commission wasn't in doubt, but he still felt the need to say as much. He spent the next weeks seeing to it that he presented an appealing candidate for the Crownsguard, and it was with exceptionally little fanfare that Captain Lyon gave him a pat on the shoulder a week or so before the swearing in and said: 'good job, kid'. And that was that.
He waited his turn, at attention, fatigue jacket buttoned, slacks pressed, shoes shined, prepared to stand before the King.
Cor was already prepared for it. Clarus had explained much of the more magic aspects of the day. The King had reviewed each and every one of the potential Crownsguard recruits with Lyon, they'd discussed strengths and weaknesses, and had decided on the glaive to bestow to each commissioned member of the Crownsguard. That weapon would serve at a man's side until the day he died, and nothing could sever the bond between glaive and owner.
Every blade was custom to some extent, more elaborate fullers or engravings, beautiful motifs on a handle, or the like. It was a day the King showed his favor, and Cor hoped to receive... well he didn't want to get his hopes up, years of expecting the worst meant that he just hoped to have it be... nice. He hoped the King saw him worthy of a well honed blade.
Cor straightened and walked up the first part of the stairs at the throne, and he paused for a moment at the receiving platform below the dais, made his bow, and then climbed the rest of the way up the left stairs before kneeling and awaiting his King.
"For you, there can be no doubt that you carry the strength inherent in your name," the King said, and Cor closed his eyes, embarrassed to have it announced, even though no one else in the room - except perhaps Clarus and Haughe - knew his name was his mother's. "Our expectations are myriad, but there can be little doubt you will live up to them."
Cor heard the sound of the arsenal, and he glanced up to see the sword that King Mors had decided for him. His breath caught in his throat. It was unlike any sword Cor had ever seen, the blade was of the length he was most familiar, and the bare, unwrapped handle was slick and black, the guard and collar one elaborate golden piece with dark black stain causing the etchings to stand out, the entire fuller and back were carved as well, stained with the same black to bring out the elaborate design there as well. It was... unbelievably beautiful.
He had only a moment to take it in, and what it meant. King Mors could say he expected great things, but this blade demanded them. Cor held up his hands, and King Mors presented him the blade, the back resting gently against his thumbs, the weight perfect. Cor swallowed down the reflexive urge to thank him, and instead waited.
"With this glaive I entrust to you the rights and privileges of the Crownsguard. Ever are you bound." Mors then reached out and touched his shoulder and Cor felt as though something... unlocked inside of him, a space opened, but not a hollow, and it took only a moment for him to grasp the feeling of it, the blade disappearing in a puff of blue and coming to rest... inside of him.
Cor rose when instructed, bowed, and returned to his place at the line, awaiting the rest of the Crownsguard to be given their weapon.
Afterwards, he mingled. "Get a job yet, Leonis?" He heard, and he turned to see Haughe, grey hair bright in the sun pouring from the windows, and his eyes amused. Cor didn't think he'd ever been so close to the man, but he smiled, immediately, in response.
"Yessir, I did."
An awkward moment passed, and Cor reached out to shake Haughe's hand, and instead the man stepped forward and pulled him into a tight hug. He had no idea how to respond, so after a brief pause he brought his own arms up to complete the gesture. "I'm proud of you," the man said. "And I always knew you had it in you."
"T-thank you," Cor answered. "I... thank you for seeing what I didn't."
"That's the job of a Magistrate," the man answered, and the two of them pulled apart. "Hopefully things are well with your mother?"
"She's much better," Cor answered. "I'll be moving her into the Citadel soon and she'll be close to doctors... hopefully she can even have someone to look after her whenever I'm out in the field. It will be good."
When the ceremony and the post-ceremony mingling finished, Clarus wheeled him off to their training room, and Regis met him there, still done up in his 'I'm the Prince' getup from the ceremony.
"Well?" Clarus said. "Let's see it."
"You didn't see it?" Cor asked. He figured the men would have seen it before he did, but they both shook their heads in response.
"Alright, so... step back, because just because I got it in once doesn't mean I've got the summoning thing down."
"Can't be as bad as Clarus, he nearly stabbed himself in the foot," Regis answered, but the men backed away, as did Cor.
It was far easier than he would have thought, and he held his hand out and the sword just... poof, and his hand found the grip easily, it was facing the right way, everything. He wouldn't have trusted it in combat just yet, but it felt simple enough.
"Holy shit," Clarus said, and Regis came up with him and seemed to have a similar expression on his face.
Cor left the blade to rest carefully against his left palm, and he couldn't help but preen a little at the idea that Clarus was that impressed with the thing. Cor was almost worried about its function, given how beautiful it was, but again he felt the weight of it and although he hadn't given it a swing yet, he could tell it would perform perfectly.
"Is that--?" Regis frowned. "It looks like the Cadet Blade."
"What's that?" Cor asked.
"Uh..." Regis cleared his throat. "Back during the time of the Warrior, the Kingdom expanded into the far eastern reaches, that's where the idea of katana and odachi entered into Lucian arms making. The Warrior's blade, the one that became a Royal Arm, was actually gifted to the Warrior by the Emperor of those lands upon marrying his third daughter. The next in line didn't much care for the eastern blade style and I believe his arm was... a single headed axe, but the second son, studied under the old Emperor and became as expert as his father in the katana styles. In the east, most of the men and women who come from cadet branches, those not destined for the crown, were gifted the surname Genji. In Lucis we call it a cadet branch. Depending on the style it's the Cadet or Genji Blade."
"This isn't... the blade, right?" The idea that the blade had any relation to the Royal family was insane to Cor.
The King shook his head. "No, but it's never the less a painstaking replica. The distinction is the blade is not made out of Drosian Wootz Steel."
It led to the three of them heading down to the Royal Archives, and then they were pointed further to the restoration room where the Genji Blade was carefully pulled apart, displaying the art of the tang, that Wootz Steel, and the gold and black at the guard and collar.
"No pressure or anything," Cor said, taking in the similarities and differences.
"Just means dad expects you to kick ass."
"I'll do my best not to let you down," Cor answered.
He had approximately two and a half weeks of relative peace, one week of liberty which he used to move into the small (still bigger than his old) apartment in the Citadel and get his mom settled, and two weeks back on the proper job.
He ordered some red leather to serve as a wrapping for the hilt. A quick minute of research told him that was how the original Genji Blade was dressed, and he had that time to practice and feel as though he could use the blade in combat.
Eventually he found from Regis that his father had, indeed, had the original pulled apart to be cleaned and measured. The cleaning wasn't unusual, but it still felt loaded to know that was done on his account.
"How's that Boss of yours working out?" His mother asked as he cut her some food.
"It's good, mom," he answered. "We have a lot going on, a little... turf problem is brewing out west."
"But the west part of the City is so posh!" She argued, and Cor didn't have the heart to tell her, again, that the west was Galahd, not western Insomnia. He'd tried to explain for the last four days.
"And that's why it's a problem," he answered instead. "Clarus and the Big Boss are probably gonna head out and bust the Niffs and I'll be going with them."
His mom, sadly, seemed to think the Niffs were a new gang. Clarus coming to visit from time to time in an immaculate three piece suit didn't help, but at least mom thought he was part of a respectable gang.
"If I have to go off, I want you to listen to Jared. He'll stop in and check in on you, get you to the doctor, alright?" Cor hoped it was going in, but although mom's tremors and stability were a lot better, her brain was still as scrambled as breakfast eggs and it still wasn't getting much better even after three full months of drugs.
"Of course, of course." His mom acted like it was strange for him to worry about it. He was pretty sure she'd almost bit Jared a few weeks ago before he name dropped Clarus.
He left it at that and then headed off to his morning specialist training and then met up with Clarus. "Niffs are on the move. We're leaving in an hour."
He packed light and and joined Clarus in the Citadel garage where Prince Regis was lazing in the passenger seat of and incredibly beautiful car.
"If you're extra good, I'll let you drive her outside the city," Regis answered.
"We'd like to make it to the battlefield, Regis," Clarus answered. "Oh, Cor, need to introduce you to Weskham."
A black man, maybe a year or so older than the Prince, in an immaculate suit and vest came up a few moments later and gave Cor a nod. "Pleasure to meet you, young man. Regis has told me so much about you."
"Sure..." Cor looked up at the man in wonder. He looked... together.
"Wesk is my chamberlain," Regis explained. "Don't piss him off and he might cook you a favorite."
"I like the mess hall spaghetti," Cor said, because he did.
Weskham looked disgusted. "You're just saying that to make me feel bad, aren'tcha?"
Still, they headed out of town and although it took a while they made it to somewhere just out in Leide called 'Hammerhead' and picked up another person - Cid - who was definitely old enough to be Clarus's dad, but seemed to be pretty comfortable with them and the five of them fit with a slight squeeze and blazed along the roads, Weskham driving, Regis taking the front passenger seat, and Clarus just behind him, pointing out the various sights to Cor as they went along.
It was pretty crazy, really, it was one thing to read about Leide, but to actually see the sand and dust storms really put it in perspective, to say nothing of the way the land greened once they passed into Duscae.
"We're heading up north of the Vesperpool, that's..."
"Galahd," Cor finished, because that part he remembered. "The western reaches there are completely beyond the Wall."
"Your daddy gonna run screaming from that dust up, too?" The Cid guy, asked, and Cor was shocked at the familiarity but Regis just gave the man a death glare and moved on.
As they drove, more and more trucks fell in behind them, and it was oddly surreal to realize they were... "We're heading off to war..."
"Pretty much," Clarus answered. "Pretty damn much."
It took exactly five minutes for him to realize the flaw in this brilliant plan.
"Apparently they won't answer questions from someone who can't shave," Cor said, irritated.
"Well I'm sure you can shave... just not anything on your face," Clarus answered. "Cid! Go stand behind Cor while he does his rounds so they actually get done."
"So ya don't want the gun fortifications up and running, I guess?" The old man said, and Cor couldn't exactly blame him.
"I'll make it happen, Sir," Cor assured him, although that wasn't much more of a comfort, apparently he came back two hours later with a legitimate survey, and a girl, probably about Regis's age or a year or so younger.
"No time for that," Clarus said with a slight growl, because he was slightly confused by the idea of Cor randomly picking up a girl when Clarus would have said the kid was worksexual until about four minutes ago.
"For... what?" Cor asked, and his face showed a great deal of confusion and further cemented the worksexual assessment. "This is Velouria, she's the daughter of the mayor around here... apparently when she stands behind me people answer my questions."
"A pleasure to meet you, Captain," the woman said, she was short, an inch or so shorter than Cor, with long, dark hair, and open, brown eyes. Her accent was just barely noticeable, enough to be exotic. "Your young soldier was in need of someone to assure my people of his authority. He asked me of our fortifications, and then realized you would be best served by consulting me directly."
"I'm gonna go yell at those herders," Cor said, and then the girl pulled a hairpin, some sort of ornamental flower thing, and then handed it over to Cor. "Thanks." And then he bolted.
She watched him leave with a little giggle, before she returned to look at Clarus. "My apologies, he's quite endearing. So serious for his age."
"You... seem to know the type," Clarus answered, because there was no way she was much into her majority, and she spoke with the same sort of command Regis did, or Clarus himself. "Velouria, was it?"
Velouria nodded. "It was. Please show me your maps, I'll answer any questions you have about our preparations. We Galahdians will not surrendered without a fight, we are yours to command."
An oddly candid part of him trusted this woman almost from the start, and he cleared his throat. "You... realize we have almost no chance of prevailing, right?"
"Of course," she answered without hesitation. "And yet you are here, so thanks for that."
Two days later, Cid had set them up with several turrets, they'd made what few siege preparations they could, and they were camped inside the remains of an old temple to Ramuh. Various men had been trickling into the outposts, and Velouria had rallied several troops from among the Galahdians, and was currently discussing spices with Weskham, much to Clarus's unaccountable annoyance.
The rumor was that the warships were on the horizon, so the Imperials would soon be among them. This was it, he looked over to where Cor was absently cleaning his sword, mind working through everything to come.
He had... not much, a few weeks of true tactical training, he'd studied old battle maps, he knew old war movements, and he was certain that Clarus just expected him to... get it. The worst part was there were perhaps only three dozen Crownsguard scattered there, the rest were basically people with a weapon or a fist ready to defend their homeland.
The full fighting force of the Crownsguard was actually only a few thousand, they were scattered around Galahd trying to reinforce it as best they could, and... well they were pretty fucked.
"We've just gotten word," Clarus said, and Cor looked up from the fire where they were gathered. "Imperials on the horizon. They've got some of the larger ships in back so they're moving slowly, but we need to form up and prepare to meet them in the field if they make landfall here."
Slowly on the horizon meant an hour at most.
"Cor, I want you to set up with the sixth group," Clarus continued.
He nodded. "Who will be commanding?"
Clarus didn't answer for a long moment, and that was when Cor realized that Clarus, for some Six-Damned reason, thought putting him in charge of something was a good idea.
"You've got to be shitting me, sir."
"No, I'm not, we've got hundreds of people who want to fight and only thirty or so to command them, every Crownsguard counts."
Cor took one long moment to breathe in, and then out, as he realized Clarus was deadly serious about this. He walked up to Clarus, so close that the man would be the only one who could hear him: "I'm going to get everyone killed."
The older man put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "We might not even see fighting, and I wouldn't have brought you if I didn't have faith in you."
He didn't know how to respond to that, so he just nodded and backed away, the sixth group was a few men who seemed to follow a slightly older woman in her late thirties or early forties named Ezma, and her son Dave.
"Are you in charge, young man?" She asked, and he straightened and nodded. Surprisingly, she nodded in response, and gave him just a little smile, but said nothing else, just brought her gun up in front of her, waiting.
"We've been assigned the hills over there," Cor pointed. "We're responsible for covering fire if the Niffs land anywhere in this corridor, and we're expected to reinforce the fifth and fourth if they see heavy casualties. Men with experience on heavy guns?"
A few raised their hands, and Cor pointed them to the battlements they would man and then he waited. It took another hour or so for the ships to become visible, and after a few moments of waiting it seemed that the Imperials had decided they did want to fight on the ground that Cor and the others were set to defend.
Cor watched, and waited, and after a few moments the dropships began to have MTs pour out of them, dozens and dozens and dozens of them, and he swallowed down the moment of terror at that. "Pick your targets," Cor ordered. "Carefully, the fourth will be meeting them on the ground."
For a few glorious minutes, they were shooting fish in a barrel, the MTs were clearly not particularly smart, just marching ahead to their defeat at the hands of the small artillery, but that ended quickly, the swell of battle picked up, more fire came from elsewhere, and then two mechs were dropped, moving in to support the MT position.
A moment and the head of the thing swiveled towards Cor's position. "Get off the guns, now!" He yelled again. "Off, now!" Most listened, one or two didn't, and tracer lasers tagged each of the turrets and then they exploded mere seconds later. "Shit."
He took cover, gesturing for the rest to do the same, and then watched as the MTs and mechs started to tear into the fourth without their cover fire. Without a moment's hesitation, he drew his sword.
"Ezma, keep the gunners back, see if any of them are still functional, get the covering fire back up as soon as possible, everyone else... let's go." For a second he worried no one would follow him, but fuck them, and he took careful, but speedy steps down the rocky terrain, and when he skidded to a halt on the flatter ground he turned to see that his men had all fallen in behind him. He gestured, sending most of the men to engage the MTs while he charged hard at the leg of one of the mechs, bringing his sword down heavy on the thing and puncturing at least one of the fluid pipes. A quick tug to free his sword and he hacked down again, severing enough of the wire nerves to see the thing tumble.
The red bead from the other mech turned towards him, and Cor could see it, but he knew he had no hope of outrunning it. Instead he thrust out his sword, flat towards the enemy, and then when he saw the shell incoming he stepped aside and swung hard, meeting the shell as it came in. Half it of tumbled to the ground as it met his sword, the other half exploded and sent him sideways like a rag doll into a cliff face, knocking his wind out of him. A few moments later he could think again, trembling and panting.
"Get that mech offline!" He yelled, waving his hand towards the one that was floundering, and he got up, pushing down the screaming of every muscle and joint of his body, and he watched the mech lean down towards him, and the eyes of a human met him as his blade pierced the shell of the mech, driving down into the chest of the man behind it.
The man slumped, and Cor drew his blade out only to see it covered in blood.
"Don't think," he whispered to himself. "Don't think." That was his specialty, at least he thought it was, just feeling the moment, acting, that was how he was a nearly undefeated punk kid from a shitty part of town. Don't think, you survive.
He landed on the ground again and rolled into the center of a pack of MTs, sword up, and it came down, slicing through two; up and down, one beheaded; up and down, arm and leg gone; sweeping slice through the air, seven; a thrust, two more.
Whatever fog he'd entered, he slowly exited as the sounds of battle faded around him. Men were moving around him, and dimly he realized he'd yelled commands to them and they had followed. His blade was heavy then, covered in blood, and he felt it go even heavier in his hands, the blade touching the rocky ground and resting there, his breath coming in short gasps.
"You," he pointed to a small group of men and women milling about. "Run, check on the fifth, see if they need us."
They ran off, and Cor took another moment to breathe. They didn't get far.
Cor let out a sharp whistle and started to run. The fifth was swarmed by MTs and Cor's group was able to bring the hammer down on them, crushing them between the two groups. Once freed, he rallied the men he could find. "Where's your commander?"
A glance let him see the blood stained and tattered splatter of what must have once been a man of the Crownsguard. Cor fought down the lump in his throat. "Form up," he whispered, and then shouted it again more loudly.
Cor had the men run circuits of the area they were meant to watch, and after several hours he got the order to form up at camp, see to the wounded, that sort of thing, and he found himself collapsed at a fire again, his hands shaking as he cleaned the blood from his sword.
Regis was looking down at him, his own hands a little unsteady. "Six, Cor, someone said you took a mech artillery shell to the chest."
He blinked. "No, sir. More the... side?"
"And you killed five hundred MTs."
"Probably closer to about eighty."
"And stuck another mech like a gighee on a spit."
"That one's mostly true."
His Prince shook his head and joined him by the fire. "How are you holding up?"
Cor honestly didn't know. "I think I might vomit, sir..."
"It's alright if you do," Regis said, and he put a hand on Cor's shoulder and squeezed, only to find a previously undiscovered bruise or abrasion and Cor winced. "We've got a couple more towns we're going to try to clean up, but... the ground is... a lot of other groups weren't so lucky."
"The fifth and fourth..."
"I mean around Galahd," Regis answered. "We lost a sizable amount of Crownsguard, and a lot of men and women."
Cor hung his head and breathed in. "Are we doing something for them, Sir?"
"As much as we can until we have to fall back."
"But we will... have to fall back?"
Regis nodded. "Yes, eventually, but until then we... help get them behind the wall, find them places in Insomnia if they wish to leave... it's all we can do."
Cor didn't know what to do with that. He'd killed someone, and dozens of men under his command and around him had died... for... what? For nothing? He sat for a long time, his sword in front of him, laying on the hard stone ground, and he looked at it, almost seeing the blood still stained upon it. Beside him, Regis was talking to two young boys: Nyx and Libertus, who seemed to think they owed Regis their lives.
In that moment, he thought of his mother. She... she was going to die, the doctors were always quite plain about that with Cor. If they were lucky, she would make it to forty-five, maybe fifty... if they weren't she wouldn't see forty. That didn't mean he stopped fighting to keep her healthy, not until the day she died. Perhaps that was the same.
The Kingdom was sick, its health tied to monarchs whose body and soul fueled the protection her people enjoyed... and someday it was going to die, but until that day, Cor would keep fighting to keep her alive.
They retook six towns, liberating them and giving them enough time to pack if they wished to move behind the walls or to Insomnia, Cor rode one of the boats through the Lucinia Sound with the Regalia in the cargo hold, and when he returned to the Citadel, he reported to Captain Lyon as was his duty, and he returned to his quarters and hugged his mother and clung to her, crying, as she shushed and soothed him with no idea why his tears kept falling on her shoulders.
She waved at him. "Cor! I was wondering when I'd see you."
Cor smiled at her, she was dressed in normal Crownsguard clothes for a recruit, although they fit her much better because she was actually full grown. "Did you... you decided to try out for the Crownsguard?"
He got a nod in response. "I... after the invasion... home just didn't feel the same. Dad didn't really understand, but he let me go."
"You're really friends with one of those incense burning...?"
Cor turned his head towards whichever recruit had spoken and he fixed him with a glaze that he usually reserved for people he was seriously thinking about killing. "Yes, Galahd is part of Lucis... and the food is great." He took a firm look at the man and make sure he knew Cor was serious before he returned to look at Velouria.
"I've got to get to work," he said, and he reached out to pat her shoulder and she laughed and ruffled his close-cropped hair. "Let me know if you need anything."
"I will," she promised.
"Who's that jumped up little shit, thinks he's the Prince of the fucking castle," said the same voice who'd had nothing nice to say about Velouria.
"Shut up," a voice hissed. "That's the Immortal!"
Cor shook his head at the name and headed off towards his rounds. 'The Immortal' it was stupid, just because you take one shell to the body and get flung around like a rag doll and everyone thinks you're The Immortal. It was stupid, and it wasn't even exciting, it was just a lucky fluke that had seen him through those fights.
Captain Lyon had assigned him to a two month tour with the intelligence analysts in the Crownsguard, which Cor was very certain was a joke of some sort that he didn't get. He was barely getting decent at reading after missing a great deal of his school work, and he was expected to listen and understand 'advanced protozoic organisms' and 'inorganic chemical compounds.' He spent a huge chunk of his day just reading whatever was passed to him and trying not to sound too dumb when it was discussed later.
He used his hour for lunch to grab a quick meal, check in with his mother, and then usually try to catch a few minutes of live sword fighting with Regis or Clarus before he returned to boringsville.
"I really don't understand why Captain Lyon thinks this is something I'd be good at," Cor said as he picked at his dinner, Clarus had joined him, as they'd dropped most pretenses of there not being a friendship between himself and the Captain's son.
"I don't think he thinks you'd be good at it," Clarus answered.
"Then why is he making me do it?!" Cor asked.
Clarus chuckled. "Because you... I mean you're not an idiot, you know you're being groomed, right?"
Cor ran a hand over his hair, he didn't think it was a mess.
Clarus snorted. "Groomed, like... prepared. You do realize you're damn good at what you do, right?"
"Kill Niffs and get into trouble?" He was joking a little now, at least, thinking he sort of understood where Clarus was going and he wasn't exactly sure he understood it.
"That too. You... look, not to puff your head up too much, but I wasn't at your level when I was your age. My dad wouldn't have thought twice about putting me in combat, he wouldn't have thought once, he wouldn't have put me there. Some guys make a notch in a piece of wood or something to mark a kill... you'd already need a new stick."
Cor nodded, even if he didn't quite think it was that impressive. He just killed some Niffs, he took down a few of those walker mechs. He'd fucking do it again, too.
"I... it's not really something any of us like to think about, but King Mors will die someday, Regis will ascend to the throne, and I'll take over for my father as head of the Crownsguard. He'll be there for me, of course, but it's taken as a given that I'll take on close councilors as subordinates, not keep relying on my father. You understand what I'm saying, right?"
"Cla... sir... Clarus, I'm thirteen." He was starting to think the man had forgotten. "I'll be fourteen in another month or so..." Five weeks, really, not that Cor was counting.
"And when I met you a year ago I never would have thought you were going to be anything other than a hotheaded little shit," Clarus answered. "And now you're still a hot-headed little shit, but you're damn good with your fists, and a blade, and you commanded almost six hundred men, took down Imperial war machines..."
When Clarus put it that way...
"We're not pinning some title on you right now, Cor, but dad's putting you through your paces, making you touch every facet of the Crownsguard. Most early commissioned officers see maybe three or four rotations, you're on your third and dad's got six more lined up. You've seen what it's like outside the wall. We're too starved for good men to turn our noses up at one just because he can't shave yet."
Cor frowned and scrubbed a frustrated hand over his jaw. Someday, someday he'd have an awesome beard. "I better finish up dinner. I've got to get some food in mom and then I've got some... geometry homework."
Clarus gave him a bemused little look.
One of the younger guys in intelligence - meaning he was in his early twenties - thought it was tragic that Cor was such a kid and hadn't been in school in years so he'd set him up with some old geometry books and some worksheets and... it was gross. He shouldn't have to listen to huge quantities of very boring research and then go home, take care of his mom, and do even more. He didn't get paid enough for this shit.
The Captain was just as fond as Clarus was of using Cor to prove a recruit was a piece of shit who couldn't put a kid with a cracking voice on the ground.
"This is just not fair," he told Velouria as they sat together in the mess. Somehow she'd gone from about an inch shorter than him to closer to four in just a half year. No matter how often he had the hems of his slacks taken down the damn things never seemed to fall right on his shoes anymore.
She chuckled. "It's sweet."
"I don't want to be sweet," he grumbled, which was made even worse when his voice again cracked on the word sweet, making him wince. "It's embarrassing!"
"At least the Captain and Clarus don't laugh?"
"Oh they laugh," Cor answered. "They just do it in private and then do that annoying thing where they put their hand on my head and I can't reach them..."
Velouria, damn her, put a hand over her mouth to hide the worst of her smile but she was laughing again. "Well, you'll probably be taller than Clarus," she answered. "Definitely taller than the Prince, and look on the bright side, your hair isn't prematurely graying. You should remind Clarus of that the next time he laughs at your voice."
Cor snorted, because that was true, Cor might be a fourteen year old boy getting hit with puberty like a pile of bricks, but Clarus was only twenty four with a graying head of hair. "I'll do that."
After he finished being subjected to the joy of being a drill sergeant with a cracking voice, he was assigned to shadow Weskham in his duties as Chamberlain.
"I had no idea that the Chamberlain to the Prince was in the Crownsguard," he admitted the first day when he joined Weskham on the way to the Council Chamber.
"You think they keep me around for my good looks?" The man asked, handing Cor the various papers that he was carrying. "The first task of the Royal Chamberlain is to assist the Prince in any duties that need doing, and in this case, that means I need to know how to fight by his side. It's also my job to be smart, of course, and make sure that Regis doesn't have to attend every one of these damn meetings the way I do. I expect you to pay attention," Weskham said just before they entered the Council Chamber. "Don't just stand there looking smart, keep your ears open."
"And don't call me 'sir'."
Cor nodded. And just as instructed, he listened. It was boring but he listened as agriculture was discussed, trade, relations with Accordo, weapon supplies, military posturing by Niflheim... his education flourished in those months, Weskham had him reading in the Royal Archives most afternoons, attending Council most mornings, and 'researching precedents' with him a great deal as well.
"I don't think this is my thing," he admitted, five weeks in, nevertheless handing over the book that had what Wesk was looking for.
"Didn't think so," the man answered. "But you know how it works, and what's important for a successful Chamberlain, and that's what's most important. Come on, I've tortured you enough... let's have some fun."
Cor's ears perked up at that, which was when he discovered that Pandus had absolutely nothing on Weskham's skill when it came to firearms, and the two of them spent the next four glorious afternoons at the shooting range rather than the Archives and Cor thought he would die of happiness.
He missed almost a month out of his city patrol rotation due to another offensive into Galahd, but he didn't really much care for the duty anyway. A lot of the guys who'd graduated with him were already settled into the fairly mundane and routine nature of city guard and patrol. Cor was certain he would have gone insane if he was assigned to that permanently.
And at the tender age of fourteen and three quarters, in a dusty pre-battlefield in Galahd, Cor learned how to drive a car, the Regalia, and he didn't crash it once... ok he sort of crashed it once, but he only blew out the tire and how was he supposed to know that rock was going to screw it up that badly?
Clarus gave him an entire battalion's worth of men and sent him off with a hope and a prayer, and gave him the tactical objective of taking down the base that the Niffs had set up just outside of the Wall.
He lost almost a quarter of his men, but the entire base was shattered, and Cor personally dueled the Commander there, man-to-mech, and if there was any doubt that he was never going to be able to shake the moniker 'the Immortal' it was long gone by the time his surviving men made it back to the main force and shared the tales of Cor's success.
It was hard not to get a little lost in it, but the blood on his sword afterwards was a stark reminder of mortality... and he ended up spending a late evening by Ezma's fire with her son, Dave. They were about the same age, Dave a bit older, and it was nice to talk to someone who understood fighting and a cracking voice.
"We found a new... well an old thing," he said, handing Cor the bowl of soup that was cooking at the Hunter fire. "A... well we haven't found much about it, but the walls and stuff call it a Tempering Ground."
"Tempering?" Cor knew the term, sort of, as it referred to a sword, you'd heat the metal to make it tougher. "For swords?"
"For men," Dave answered. "The men who wandered in... a few barely made it to the entrance when they realized the place was haunted with the souls of the dead."
Cor snorted, ghost stories meant to scare kids, but Dave shook his head.
"No, I know what you're thinking," Dave answered. "But I went in there with mom and it's haunted, armor from thousands of years ago just gets up to fight! And the voices..."
Beside them, Ezma nodded and Cor had to rethink his perspective on it. Dave would pull his leg, but the older woman wouldn't. "So it's to Temper people?" Cor asked.
"The greatest threats to Lucis require the greatest men to stand against them," Ezma answered. "The souls spoke of their General, Gilgamesh. He was the Shield of the Founder King, and it's said he'll gift his powers to one who is worthy. A few of the Hunters have already tried their hands... with no survivors."
Cor ended up reporting it to Clarus, who thought it sounded like a fucking stupid idea, but he and Weskham did a bit of research on it: Gilgamesh was tasked by Bahamut with testing and tempering the Shield of the Chosen King, and would gift him with the power to stand tall in the coming darkness.
He had little time to dwell on it, however, December hit Insomnia with little by way of snow or ice, but that meant he was fifteen now: 'still not old enough to drink, still not old enough to drive, and barely old enough to shave!' Clarus had roasted him before a few of the closer friends he had in the Crownsguard, and the Prince of course. It was easy to be happy for a few minutes rather than focus on the world going to shit. Everyone knew that there would be a huge fight with Niflheim on the horizon, and Cor just hoped they could be ready for it to come.
Today, he was dressed in his usual fatigues (pants taken down again), and standing before the King and the Captain in the Throne Room. The usual guard had even been dismissed, adding a certain sense of gravity to everything.
"Lieutenant Leonis," the King said, and Cor took a knee in response. "Your Captain and I have spoken long and hard about your posting, and you've excelled at most of the postings you were assigned."
Intelligence... not so much, but everything else Cor thought he'd done pretty well.
"After that deliberation, it was decided that you would become a member of my personal Royal Guard," the King said, and Cor couldn't quite contain his shock.
That was not a first posting. That was a posting that even someone like Clarus got only after a few years doing something less exciting... that was a posting that the King gave to sons of nobles, of people who were important. It was also not a position to enter combat, and Cor couldn't help but let a small amount of his disappointment show.
"Your Majesty honors me," he answered.
King Mors nodded, and Cor stood, after a few moments, Captain Lyon left him with instructions to go to the quartermaster to have new fatigues issued that would have more of the skull motif common in the Crownsguard fatigues of the men who directly served the King.
"A bit disappointed," King Mors said when they were alone.
"No, Sire," Cor answered, far too quickly.
"And not a very good liar," he continued, which caused Cor to wince. He wasn't great at politics, or hiding his feelings, but he was fucking trying, he didn't want to be a brat... but he was feeling like a brat.
"The position is a great honor," Cor said.
"It doesn't play to my strengths," Cor continued. "I'm... I'm not made for standing around, guarding people."
The King nodded, and stood from his seat on his throne, taking a few moments to carefully step down to meet Cor at the receiving platform. It meant that Cor got a chance to really see the man up close, not that he hadn't before, but it was unusual. He was frowning, and it was hard not to notice how worn he'd become in the last two years.
"It is unusual for a member of the Royal Guard to simply stand around all day," King Mors said. "There will be tasks... and the truth is that among those in my Royal Guard there is no one I trust more to keep my son safe when he ventures out into the field."
Cor's eyes widened a bit, but he realized that King Mors was letting him... have exactly what he wanted, a place at Prince Regis's side in combat, and yet giving him an ability to be home for his mother and anything else he might need in the meantime. "I... thank you, Sire."
The King smiled. "I'm... quite proud of all you have accomplished, Cor. Some may tell you that you didn't earn this posting, but I assure you, you did."
He felt a slight prickle of tears at his eyes, but he nodded in response. "Thank you..."
"Dismissed, go get to the quartermaster."
Clarus found him a half-hour or so later, getting measured again. They'd need to get him longer slacks, apparently, he was 'shooting up like a weed' and the quartermaster wanted to just jump longer while they were doing a new wardrobe because he'd need to take them down an inch at a time over the next year, without a doubt.
"Well?" Clarus asked.
Cor tilted the beret he was carrying now, showing off the unit insignia there. The gold emblem was a stylized version of Bahamut and his fifteen glaives.
"Wait... what?" The man asked, looking at Cor as he held out his arm. "That... you're the youngest person to be on personal guard duty... ever."
Cor sighed. "I know. No pressure..." The King kept acting as though he demanded great things from Cor, and Cor knew he'd done alright, he'd been a part in several major battles, he'd come out alive with many of his men alive as well. He achieved objectives, he... he did what he could.
He looked down at the emblem he now held, another copy of the Bahamut emblem, the men in the Royal Guard usually wore it as jewelry or any number of other ways. Cor hadn't decided yet... he had just been assigned the damn post an hour ago.
"It feels like a mistake," Cor said, voice soft. The quartermaster would have heard him but ultimately it didn't matter.
"Come on, let's go smack each other around."
Cor felt a bit better after that, but only just. It felt strange to be honored like that, especially when he didn't feel like he deserved it.
When he said as much to Velouria, she leaned over and whacked him hard enough to cause his beret to go crooked. "Cor, you're... really good. Even when you were a kid. Most of them would never admit it, because it's not cool to aspire to be a fifteen year old, but... a lot of the guys look up to you. No one thinks you were handed anything, and the ones who do... they get their head's straightened out pretty quickly when they see you fight."
The late winter was filled with training for the various Crownsguard, old and new, and Cor found himself growing more naturally into the Genji Blade and its length, although sometimes he felt the sacrifice of speed acutely. At least he was tall enough now that he didn't look embarrassingly short next to the thing.
He was there in the Council Chamber, along with Regis, Clarus, and Weskham when they finally heard news about the threat of the Winter offensive. "Niflheim, and Emperor Aldercept have made it clear they intend to annex Galahd," Captain Lyon said, the reports circulated around the table and after a brief pause, Weskham held one out for Cor at his position behind King Mors.
Cor looked over it as well, since he was supposed to be involved in most of the offensives.
"The last few pushes have just been tests," Clarus added. "Simple as that, they probably have their MT program in a place they want and are looking to test how well they perform in real combat again. Their capabilities weren't great a year ago, but that doesn't mean much."
Cor found himself nodding in response, even though he knew his input wasn't asked for. Eventually, he passed the report back to Wesk. "It will give them a firm foothold in Lucis if they do," Weskham said. "We believe the Wall is... permeable enough to allow their MTs to push through in small numbers. Their warships can't come, but the troopers can, and ultimately that might be enough."
"The Wall will hold," said one of the Lords. He was also black, and it was only a month or so ago when Cor had realized that the man was Weskham's father.
That made the annoyed grit of teeth all the more meaningful from Weskham. "We have entire bases being pulled together within the Wall in Galahd. At its current size, the Wall is not holding enough to prevent total invasion."
Cor knew it took special... stuff to breach the Wall, but he also knew it was doable. It stopped a lot of the electronics, but for some reason the MTs were able to keep functioning inside. They didn't know how, but ultimately it didn't matter, the truth was obvious to anyone who had been on the front to see.
"I agree with Lord Armaugh," said one of the other Lords, a woman. "His Majesty holds the Wall."
Cor glanced over to King Mors, noting that he looked even paler than usual.
"It's idiotic to think that a measure that takes the life of our King can last forever," Lord Lyon answered, voice hard. "We will need to meet the Soldiers of Niflheim in the field again, and we will fight for our victory."
The motion barely passed, but after a few more days the agreement was made, and although Spring was barely starting to work its wiles on the ground in Insomnia, Cor packed his bags to join the guys heading out towards Galahd yet again.
"Cor, you be good, right?" His mother had said. "I... I wish you wouldn't do all these dangerous things."
"Mom," he said, sighing, and he pulled her tight and pressed a soft kiss to her light hair. "You know I do this for you, right? I need a better place for you."
"A boy's not supposed to look after his mother," she said.
"Yes he is," Cor argued. "Any son who doesn't... he's no good son. Mom, I need you to... you keep on fighting, right?"
She nodded, and reached a slightly trembling hand up to his brow where she stroked a thumb there. "So serious... I wish... I wish you'd be a child again."
"Can't go back, Mom," he said, and he didn't want to. The Crownsguard was the best thing that had ever happened to him, his mom was smiling, and much healthier, and safe, and he would give her the world if he could.
"But you are going somewhere dangerous, aren't you? That Niff gang acting up?"
"Yeah," he answered. "They're acting up."
"Alright, you take this now, alright?" He frowned, but after a few moments he saw her stand and take several shaky - but surprisingly sure - steps to her little bedside table where she drew out a...
"I can't take that, Ma," he said, but he cupped his hands as she placed the prayer beads there. They were hers, and Cor might have hocked them years ago if they were worth anything, but they weren't, just thick blue beads used for devotions to Shiva.
"You can and you will, young man," she said, voice firm and demanding he not argue. "You go running off to these dangerous places and you tell me not to worry, but I worry. I worry... sometimes I forget why, but I do."
Cor blinked away a few tears and then took the beads and carefully looped them around his wrist a few times. That would do for the moment, and then he held out his hands, squeezing his mother's hands tight, and he brought them up to his lips and gave them a firm kiss. "I'll be back soon."
"You take the time you need," she answered, and they shared another hug before Cor grabbed his bag and headed to meet the men down at the Regalia.
They were well-settled into their positions head of the mid-February cold snap, and even though they ended up huddled for warmth all around each other at night, there was still the thrill of the moment now.
"Do we know when they'll show?" Cor asked.
Clarus shook his head. "The measure to declare a proper war is still in the Parliament."
"What the hell was it the last two times, then?"
"It's not an official war until a paper says it is," Regis answered with a wry grin. "Really, we even have to write our own little response that says 'sure, we agree' before it's a real, honest war. It's in the last phases though, a week at the latest."
The Niffs made it official on the 24th, and made landfall within hours of the declaration being announced on the radio. The first week or so they didn't see any fighting, just a drop ship of MTs here and there, maybe scoping out their position, maybe just out of place.
When March arrived, so did the Niff lines, and Cor found himself fighting every day, resting with his back to the other men out with him... fighting between the tasks Clarus wished on him and the urge to stay by Regis's side.
He tagged hundreds of MTs and over a dozen mechs that month. Cor had his shoulder dislocated for a full day before Clarus realized and made him take a day off to get it set. He took a taser meant for Regis, and he learned how to make the absolute best curry in Galahd...
"We can't hold this position much longer," Clarus said, and Cor knew it was true, they were each only one man, and even at their best they could only do so much. Even if they could turn the tide of a local position, that wasn't enough to keep the other positions from being overrun.
They fought regardless, the men around them fought at Cor's side and they held their position as long as they could, and March died with a whimper, Clarus, Cid, Weskham, and Regis all together with him by a fire as they reflected on the futility of their position and how little they could continue to wage a war for the people that Lucis had sworn to protect.
Weskham woke him early with a gentle nudge. "Up and at 'em, Kid."
Cor rolled, and was surprised to see that much of camp had been broken down. "What's going on?"
"Clarus is on the radio with home but... war's over," Weskham said, his voice as annoyed as Cor felt.
"What? But... Niff's surrendered?" He asked, and Weskham gave him that look, the 'oh you sweet boy' look, and Cor hung his head.
"Gods damn it," Cor said, gritting his teeth and avoiding the urge to punch the hard ground of the haven. "No matter what it's just not enough, is it? Can't be strong enough, can't..." He shook his head. "How the hell are we suppose to... how can we protect these people if..."
"You just keep keeping on," Weskham said, and he reached out, placing a hand on Cor's shoulder. "That's all you can do. You heard it, Lucis... we haven't been in a good position for years, and every king's had to just keep hoping that Niflheim gets bored of conquering the world..."
Regis came up with Cid a few minutes later. "I take it you heard?"
"We're really falling back?" Cor asked.
Regis nodded. "King's orders, if we start up the fighting again... we could jeopardize the peace and the territory will heat up and... Dad's already made the territorial concessions, Galahd belongs to the Empire."
Cor sighed, and then when he glanced over he saw Clarus had a grim look on his face.
"More bad news?" Regis asked.
Clarus took a deep breath and turned to Cor. "Your... Jared called."
He couldn't imagine any particular reason that would happen, other than... "Wait, is... is mom alright?"
Clarus looked down, and then he shook his head no. Cor's heart froze in his chest, he couldn't feel it, but somehow he could hear it hammering in his ears and...
"She..." Clarus hesitated.
"Just say it," he said.
"She passed two nights ago," Clarus said. "In... in her sleep, the doctors say she didn't suffer..."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?!" He shouted. "I... I just... she was fine when I left!"
Clarus reached out, and pulled Cor in to a hug, and Cor lashed out, trying to hit the man before he just grabbed his shirt and started to cry. His breath came in ragged inhales, his lungs wouldn't fill with air. No matter how much he breathed his head continued to swim as though he was starved of breath.
Nothing made sense, Lucis had lost hundreds of miles of territory to power hungry assholes, and the world he'd been fighting for, the world that would make his mom proud... no matter what he did she would never see it. She would never... he would never...
His knees hit the hard ground and he hung his head.
"I'm sorry, Cor," Clarus said. "She..."
"What's the fucking point?" He asked, and he looked up at Clarus as he asked it and the man's eyes were wet as well. "All we do is... we fight and... we're not going to win..."
The men hung their head, and Cor knew he'd struck home, they all knew just as much as he did that Galahd was only the start, and his mom...
"At least I don't need to tell her we lost..." He laughed, hiccupy and bitter, and then he felt the sobs come back.
He didn't even remember making it back to Lestallum, but he found himself sitting at the Overlook just staring out towards the Disc of Cauthess, and then the brilliant, sweeping arches of Telpar Crag... Telpar... where the Blademaster waited to test and temper the worthy... make them stronger.
And really... what did he have to lose?
Cor went to the hotel in the west side of Lestallum and asked Clarus for a few days off to think. He allowed it without question, and Cor packed a few things, got enough food to last him a few days, and went to the power plant to take the tram down to Old Lestallum.
His feet ached, and every mile or so a wave of anger and sadness washed over him, but he went forward undeterred. This was the right thing to do, this was what he needed. Everyone said he was strong, everyone said he was supposed to do great things, and so he was going to fucking do them, he was going to find Gilgamesh in the heart of those ruins and he was going to make the son of a bitch kneel and grant him the power to achieve greater things.
When he arrived at the Telpar Rest Area, he could barely sleep, but he spent an evening in a warm and comfortable bed, and a small, nervous part of him wondered if it would be the last decent sleep, the last soft bed he ever felt...
That evening, he looked down at his sword, the elaborate red dressing of the handle, still not done quite right. He took his mother's prayer beads and wrapped them around the collar and guard, clipping the ends together with his Crownsguard pin. He looked down at it. That was it, that was all he had now, his sword, those last remnants of his mother... and the Crownsguard.
The next morning, he checked with the guy in the Crows' Nest that he knew the way to the gorge that marked the entrance to the Tempering Grounds. The man took a few moments trying to persuade him otherwise, but Cor nodded his thanks and headed off, his sword set on his shoulder.
He was going to get stronger, or die trying.
All of them pushed down on the kid, and he knew that, he was... a savant, his skill with the blade was unparalleled, and Clarus knew that it wouldn't take him long to reach a point where he surpassed Clarus himself. A part of him was jealous to meet someone so naturally talented and so completely ignorant of how brilliant he was, a greater part of him was proud that he would get to fight by the man's side.
"Kid still moping at the Outlook?" Wesk asked.
Clarus shrugged. "I don't think so, he asked for a few days to sort himself out."
"Where the hell's he going to go to sort himself out out here?"
He didn't know, but he assumed it wasn't really his business. On the other hand, there was definitely a part of him that wanted to wrap Cor up in blankets and feed him hot cocoa, as much as he knew it was embarrass and frustrate him endlessly.
"I don't know if he should be alone," Weskham said. "Men make mistakes when they're grieving."
"Come on, this is Cor we're talking about."
"Yes, have you met him? Little ball of energy, sure, and a good head on his shoulders, but I know he's prone to charge off head first. Usually it turns out alright, but he's a kid, Clarus. Hell, you trust Regis's judgement everyday?"
"I heard that," Regis said from the bed over, he had a book open and was reading it. "Weskham might be right, to be honest we should probably just get him drunk and let him have a good cry. He's wound tight on a good day, and we could all use a drink after that fucking shit show in Galahd and dad ordering the territory surrender."
Cid was currently pissed with Mors, and Regis by proxy, so the man had hitched with the first truck he could find bound for Hammerhead.
It took about an hour of searching to realize he had no fucking idea where Cor was. A few people remembered him from the Outlook, but after turning over most places a kid would hide out - and a few that were quite a bit more adult - the three of them didn't have a little Lieutenant between them.
"Where the hells is he?" Clarus asked. He knew he could call Cor on the radio, but it seemed... he didn't want to do that yet, he wanted to respect the kid's privacy, and that assumed the kid even had his radio on.
They finally caught his scent up by the plant, and then a quick discussion with the gal at the ticket booth found them the information that Cor had bought a ticket to Old Lestallum.
"Old Lestallum?" Clarus asked the assembled men.
They both shrugged. "Maybe he... wanted to get away from people?" Regis suggested.
"Well what do you have at Old Lestallum that you can't have at Lestallum proper?" Clarus asked.
"Kenny's Original Salmon," Weskham suggested, and the three of them laughed.
"It's got a nice view of the arches at Telpar," Regis suggested.
It took a few moments, but Weskham's dark face went shock still and incredibly pale. "Telpar?" He asked. "He's been... pretty upset about not being able to protect folks, right?"
Clarus nodded. "We all have."
"Your mama didn't just die," Weskham shot back. "I... I can't say for sure, but... you heard about that discovery over by Telpar right?"
"The Tempering Grounds," Clarus had heard. "Supposedly Gilgamesh is there waiting to test the worthy and giv-- give them power... you don't think...?"
"I think we forget he's a fifteen year old boy sometimes," Wesk answered.
Clarus didn't wait after that, he pulled out his radio and hoped the range was good. "Cor! You there, kid?"
No answer, and Clarus had no way of even knowing if he was receiving. Fucking radios.
"Need something, Amicitia?" Cor's voice came back and the three men scrambled together over the radio, the possibility had them all on edge.
"What's your position?"
"Just wandering around town," Cor answered, and Clarus winced at the obvious lie, because they knew he'd already left town, they were certain of that. Cor was lying on purpose.
"We know you went to Old Lestallum," Clarus answered.
No answer for several seconds.
"Look, I think I know what you want to do, and it's just not worth it, Cor," Clarus answered.
"It's my life," Cor said, and never ever had he been more obviously a teenager, but it also confirmed that he was planning to do something stupid, and potentially deadly.
"And it belongs to the King," Clarus answered. "We... none of us can stake are lives for anyone but the king."
"Yaknow, fuck you," Cor answered.
Regis opened his mouth, ready to say something, and Clarus held up a hand.
"No one has made it back alive, Cor, no one. That's not courage, that's not bravery, and that's not strength, it's stupidity. Are you really going to throw your life away? Do you dare risk all for naught in return?"
No answer came.
The three of them were in the Regalia blazing down the Cleigne highway as fast as that little engine could take them. When they arrived at the Rest Area, it didn't take long to confirm that yes, a young man had asked for directions to the ruins, and the three of them scrambled up the rocky cut only to find the way in sealed.
"... Clarus," He brought the radio up to his ear, and he would have shouted at Cor if he knew that it would cut off whatever was coming in. "I... thank you for the opportunity."
"Cor!" Clarus yelled into the thing, his mind racing with fear and worry, that gods damned kid and... "Cor, please, you don't have anything to prove, just... gods, just come back alive."
No answer came.
Clarus's words haunted him... 'do you dare risk it all...' He entertained that brief moment of doubt. The truth was, everything he had was with him now, there was nothing else to risk, his life was... ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme. He would hardly tip the scales of a losing war by continuing on as he had.
So yes, he dared.
A long moment and he stood, making his way to the door and again touching the sword that hung loosely tied in the strings across the Trial door. Again it faded away, and again Cor felt the odd weight of the thing, as though it rattled around in his arsenal and yet he couldn't touch it.
No matter, he took his first steps into the Chamber, taking in the lay of the land, noting the edges, and the scattered swords that littered the ground, planted like bloody flowers. This was it, then...
He took his last few steps into the arena, and after a few moments the misty surroundings coalesced into the form of a man, armored as the other souls he had fought on the way there... but Cor knew this one was different. The weight of his presence was almost suffocating.
"The Blademaster," Cor said, and after a moment of pause he pulled out his sword, leaving it resting to his side for a moment.
"So filled with resolve," the man answered, his voice oddly layered, and when he turned Cor could only see the man's eyes, hidden behind an elaborately wrought mask, viciously red. "I think you will find even the strongest of wills fails under the weight of unending defeat."
The barb struck home, just a bit, and Cor shook it off. Yes, Lucis already knew too many defeats that Cor was powerless to stop, but that ended now. "I will not falter," he promised the man, and he readied his stance. "I will win, and you'll teach me what I need."
"I am not here to train you, boy. This is your test."
Cor had no idea how long they clashed. He traded blows with the shade for what felt like hours, the mid-afternoon sun began to set while he went back and forth with him. Gilgamesh, the Blademaster, he was good, and it was nothing like dueling with Clarus or Regis, he was brutal, and not playing in any way. It was nothing like an MT, without any art or skill in its movements. He fought for his life, and yet he always seemed to read Cor, to know what he was going to do before he even struck, he was powerless to even scratch the man.
He was flagging, he could feel it.
Don't think... he told himself, his blade moved without his thought, nothing to think, no movement to read. Or so Cor told himself, he drew back, waited, took his breath, and when the Blademaster moved to meet him, Cor struck. He brought his blade down with a force he didn't know he possessed, not quite hitting home, but meeting metal and bone nevertheless. He felt the blade as it sliced through mail and ghostly flesh, clattering against the Blademaster's breastplate and skittering away.
The strike left him open, his blade too low, and he felt the clench of the other hand at his throat even as the sickening thud of Blademaster's left arm hitting the ground struck his ears.
He felt himself shaken almost like a doll, and he fumbled with his sword, it fell to the ground while the Blademaster held him aloft with one hand. Cor grabbed at the Blademaster's wrist, trying to break his grip as he slowly clenched at Cor's throat.
"And now you know defeat," the Blademaster said.
"What else is new," Cor spat.
"You are a fool for aspiring beyond your station. Did you really think my power could be yours?"
Cor struggled. "Yes," he answered, gasping even as he felt himself losing air. "Yes, I'm worthy."
"Are you?" The Blademaster asked. "Then why did you come before me, wielding a blade too long and a style unhoned by years of practice? If you wished to prove your worth, you've done yourself a disservice."
Again Cor struggled, trying to breathe, gasping and realizing with alarming clarity that this was it, that the Blademaster was toying with him. It was made all the more apparent when the arm Cor had severed seemed to return, ghostly and pink, and when he held it out, Cor's blade came to him as though called from his arsenal.
"You have no further need of this," the Blademaster said.
"Like hell I don't!"
Cor felt the next moments as a shattering in his body, as though each of his ribs exploded in his chest, as though a huge binding within him was gone, and the connection he felt with the blade, the way it called to him and he called to it... was gone.
"You tell yourself this is all you have," The Blademaster said, and Cor watched as the thing disappeared, into the Blademaster's ghostly arsenal, beyond his reach forever. "What will you do when it too crumbles into dust? Will it break you, I wonder?"
"No," he gasped, begged, at first he reached for the blade, it was everything, it was all he had left, but it was in that moment that he realized... he couldn't die, he'd fucked up, he'd staked his life and he was going to lose everything... but he still wasn't going to stop. "No, you won't break me," he said. "You won't... fucking... break..."
His head swam, and everything went black... and he came to on his back, staring up at the darkening sky.
He scrambled, and he stumbled. He found himself half rolled and then flat on his face, and when he reached into the arsenal all he found was that shitty sword that had sealed the final trial door. It clattered to the ground, and he scrambled towards it, hand wrapping around it in an instant as he brandished it towards...
Clarus... His heart hammered in his chest and then he... just let go. The sun was setting and he just... laughed. He wasn't dead.
"Six you scared the hell out of us," Clarus answered. "Did you... did you win?"
Cor shook his head. "No." He found his feet again, barely, and he took the sword in hand and banished it to his arsenal again. A memory of his failure, he supposed. "I... I lost, not... not good enough, not fucking strong enough."
"But you lived?" Clarus said, and Cor found the man's arms around him, helping to keep him upright. "He let you live?"
"I don't know why," Cor said. "He killed countless others..."
The three men helped get him back to the Crows' Nest, and they ate really terrible salmon. Cor nursed a cup of coffee as his hands shook.
He was alive... and he supposed... sometimes that was all you got.
The little brat could have fucking died...
"What was that sword he had with him?" Weskham finally asked when they were well past Old Lestallum.
"I don't know," Regis answered from the front seat, turning around. It was gone now, perhaps resting in his arsenal, or just gone, Clarus didn't know. "He... his blade is gone, severed from his arsenal."
"Six, that's rough," Clarus said. "I didn't know that was even possible."
"I didn't either." Regis sighed beside him and shook his head. "I don't know where he got the damn thing, but that might be all he has for defense right now. Hells, I don't even know what dad's going to say to that: Sorry, Your Majesty, lost that sword you gave me..."
"As if the kid doesn't have enough to feel bad about right now," Weskham said from the back seat. "You might want to make sure your dad doesn't... yaknow... kick him while he's down."
Cor finally woke again when they were close to Lestallum, and Clarus caught the way he placed a hand over his chest, and he wondered if he was feeling an ache there... his arsenal had been... ruptured, Clarus had no idea what it would feel like.
"Alright?" Weskham asked.
Clarus caught the nod in the rear view. "Yeah... I think so..." He sighed and pressed his head to the glass again. "Your dad's going to be so pissed."
The funny thing was, Clarus couldn't even tell which of them he was talking to, and he chuckled. "Which one?"
Cor laughed, small and a bit bitter. "Both?"
They pulled into the Lestallum parking lot and finally returned to the room they'd rented for the next few days.
"There's a few swordsellers in town," Clarus suggested.
Cor shook his head. "I'm keeping this one. A reminder of my... shortcomings."
It was an oddly mature thing to say under the circumstances, but Clarus wasn't certain he trusted the calm that Cor seemed to be carrying himself with. "Well... there's a smith named Randolph who can probably bang something useful out of it. You better not be thinking of using that as is."
Cor shook his head. "No, I'm not that much of an idiot."
Clarus politely refrained from mentioning where they'd found him not a half day ago. A completely understandable urge to not let the boy of out his sight led to the two of them walking through Lestallum in search of the famed Randolph. He was a bit of a curmudgeonly grouch, and it took a bit of begging for the man to even agree to look at the sword, but when he did... well... all three of the assembled men were shocked.
"Reforge this?!" The smith asked a moment later. "I'm not sure if you're an ignorant little..."
"I'm sorry," Cor cut him off. "I... hadn't had much time to look at it."
Clarus knew for an absolute fact that Cor had held out a pretty shitty longsword style blade when he'd been deposited on the grass outside of the Tempering Grounds. What he held now was a beautiful blade on a poorly mounted handle with no scabbard.
The older man looked at Cor and frowned, but after a moment gestured and the three of them headed back to the man's work area. "Let me crack apart the handle, see that the tang's in good shape."
Cor handed over the blade, and with expert precision the man removed the wrappings and the handle of the sword to inspect the tang - the part of the blade that went into the handle.
"The edge needs work," Randolph admitted, running a thumb carefully against it. "But it's in good condition otherwise, no mold or rust." He nodded. "Where did you find the damn thing?"
Cor and Clarus glanced at each other, and then Clarus shrugged. Cor turned back to the man and frowned. "Um... the Tempering Grounds."
The man made a face that said he didn't believe that answer one bit, but he didn't protest it beyond that. A few moments later, the two of them retreated into the back and looked over the various scabbards the man had available. Clarus spent an hour or so glancing over the various blades on display, all of them beautiful, before Cor finally exited and gave a nod. "Three days."
They'd be waiting that long to return to Insomnia regardless.
"What did you decide?" Clarus asked, leaving the question open-ended so Cor could answer it however he wanted.
"The blade... already had a motif, I just kept that," he answered, but he didn't expand beyond that, and Clarus didn't question it again. "Sorry for... um... telling you to fuck off."
Clarus snorted, and drew his arm over Cor's shoulders. "No apology necessary. I was an idiot for just letting you run off anyway. I suppose part of being a good commander is knowing when not to give an order. You're hurting, and you will be for a while... and as Weskham so aptly put it: we sometimes forget you're still a kid."
That earned him an elbow in the side, not that hard, but enough to make the point that Cor, as ever, didn't much care for being called a kid.
The two of them wound up on the Overlook, Cor just sitting and starting off into the distance for a long while, and Clarus waited. He didn't know if the boy would open up to him further, or not, but he wanted to be there for him.
"Mom... never liked what I did," Cor said, looking down at his hands. "Back when she was still mostly herself she'd always say she didn't like me stealing or roughing people up... She hated it, knew why I did it and blamed herself..." Cor shook his head.
Clarus reached out and squeezed the young man's shoulder, and he watched Cor hang his head and start to cry.
"And she never... fucking... it never went in that I wasn't doing that anymore," he said, his voice rough with emotions. "That's what sucked so hard, Clarus... I had a real job, I got picked to guard the King, and she just thought I was... moving up in some crime syndicate."
Clarus felt himself tear up at that, on Cor's behalf, at the pain he clearly carried even for the years that had been good to him and Claudia.
"And I told myself... it was alright, I was fighting for a world she could be safe in... fighting for her comfort and her health and her safety..." He was sobbing now, head hanging, fingers tangled in his hair. "And in the end I wasn't even there for her. She's gone, and she'll never know..."
He gasped, struggled for air, and Clarus ran his hand down the man's back trying to soothe the ragged breathing.
"She'll never be proud of me..."
Clarus had no words of comfort for that. He'd met Cor's mother enough to know she couldn't really understand what was going on around her, she'd talked to him enough that it was clear she thought he was a crime boss... Claudia Leonis likely had no idea that her son was serving the King with dignity and respect and skill.
"She would have been," Clarus answered, that was all he could offer. "I know it's not the same, but she would have been. You have to know that."
Cor nodded, or, more he moved his head around in his hands and Clarus assumed he was nodding.
"Try to remember that," Clarus said.
Cor chuckled, but after a moment he rubbed the back of his sleeve against his eyes to wipe away the wetness there, and he straightened. Clarus removed his hand from Cor's shoulder, knowing it would just embarrass him further.
Clarus almost wanted to ask about Gilgamesh, the Blademaster, and whatever had transpired in those ruins, but it seemed like it was best to leave well enough alone. Cor had survived, that was all Clarus could ask for, really. He didn't seem to want to speak about it, and so Clarus let it be. He seemed... different, of course, but it was hard to tell if that was because he was grieving for his mother or something else.
Four days later, Clarus let himself trust Cor and allow the man to head to see Randolph on his own. He just sort of had to trust that Cor wasn't going to just run off back to that damn cave and get himself killed for being an impudent...
"Hey," he said, waving at the men assembled at the Regalia, and he gave a casual check to his luggage in the trunk.
"Oh, come on, don't give us that 'hey' crap!" Regis answered, and then made a beckoning gesture with his hands.
Cor smiled slightly, just a bit, and held his left hand out to the side, the scabbard of the katana coming to rest against his palm in an instant. The scabbard itself was black, set with intricate silver carvings and a few red gems, likely rubies or garnets - more likely rubies from the color - the handle similarly adorned, the butt and end of the scabbard were flecked in gold. Just the scabbard was beautiful.
He gave a nudge on the guard with his thumb and then carefully drew the sword from the scabbard and set it to rest against the back of his arm.
Clarus had only had a few minutes to look at the blade before, but he looked now. There was an elaborate carving that ran down the entire fuller, twining blossoms of some flower, and Clarus looked more closely: cherry blossoms.
A brief and beautiful life.
Weskham wasn't a flower guy, although Regis might have known the symbolism. He doubted it was lost on Cor. The scabbard and the red gems there made more sense then.
"It's beautiful," Clarus said.
"It's..." Cor struggled for a moment. "It doesn't have much by way of flourish, but I like it. The Blademaster... he... this is good."
Cor nodded, and after a moment he slid the scabbard and blade back together and sent it back to his arsenal.
"We gonna spend the rest of the day gawking or are we gonna go home?" Cor asked, and they climbed into the Regalia and blazed into Duscae and beyond.
That, more than anything, was what caused tears to well up again.
A few minutes of shuffling had the contents of her small closet cleaned and folded into a box, the rest... even two years later, his mother hadn't accumulated much stuff. Cor bought her anything she asked for, and yet she had never seemed to want anything. Perhaps she hated feeling as though she forced him to be her caretaker...
He never minded, truly...
A soft knock came on the door, and Cor considered ignoring it before he went and opened it anyway. Velouria stood there, and then she leaned in and gave him a tight hug, Cor pressed his face to her shoulder and started to sniffle.
"I'm sorry, we heard about your mom..."
He took a deep breath and nodded.
After a few moments, they ended up in his small sitting room, catching up with each other, Cor not quite certain what to say, but they managed to share their own impressions of the battle and the anger that Velouria was feeling at the surrender. It was nice to worry about her for a moment. Galahd had been annexed, her home no longer even a part of Lucis, and he couldn't deny that he would have felt abandoned if the same thing happened to his country... if he had one.
"And you fought the Blademaster?!" She asked, obviously having heard that gossip from somewhere, and he couldn't even begin to guess where.
"I lost," he said, not quite bitter about it, but certainly disappointed that his idiocy would be well-known amongst the Crownsguard in a matter of hours.
Velouria didn't seem to believe him, and she chuckled. "You survived, you should hear the guys talking about how you really are Immortal. I have to say I believe them."
He wasn't going to get rid of that stupid title, it seemed. At this point, he didn't even think he would try. Velouria spent a few more hours, keeping him company as he cleared out his mother's room and wondered if he should get a different apartment, or just turn the space into something else. The light in it was nice, even at dusk, so he considered... making it something, he didn't know. He wasn't good at that sort of thing.
It took him quite some time to really get back into his life. He reported to Captain Lyon, who had little enough to say about the loss of his blade, and the King... who Cor found surprisingly undisappointed as much as he was beyond disappointed in himself.
At first he considered learning his new blade - named Kotetsu by Randolph - his penance for mediocrity, but the truth was that after a few weeks the thing felt like an extension of his arm. It was not big or bulky, it still allowed for the same vicious blows, but he was rapidly coming to appreciate the faster draw, and the defensive capabilities of the scabbard. It was rare he couldn't at least get a good whack or two with it when dueling against Clarus.
"Six, Cor, you're getting disgusting at that," he said the most recent time Cor had put him on his ass, and Cor grinned down at him for a moment.
"I'm learning a new style, too," he said, putting a hand down for him. "It was supposedly perfected by Genji." The Warrior's son had studied almost exclusively in the East and brought back a variety of sword traditions that had been all but lost. Cor wasn't usually a books sort of guy, but he ate up the fast drawing style. It was impossible with a sword as bulky as the Genji sword.
"Is that what you've been using?" Clarus asked.
Cor shook his head. "Not it's... I can't really use it on a live target."
Clarus arched an eyebrow as he took the hand up and set himself on his feet. "This I've got to see."
He knew he was still working at perfecting it, but he was fairly gratified to complete a draw against a dummy only for Clarus to look at him, obviously wondering when Cor was going to do something, when he realized the training dummy had been neatly sliced in half and only started to tumble a few moments after Cor finished. "It's a work in progress."
"That's..." Clarus seemed at a loss for wards. "I see why you can't use it against a sparring opponent."
"It has some practical applications during counters," Cor answered, flicking his wrist and sending the sword away again. "But you seem... off. What's wrong?"
Clarus sighed and tilted his head, Cor joining him a moment after. "King Mors has asked us to engage in a bit of diplomacy."
"Please tell me we're not expected to make nice with the Niffs," Cor answered. He was getting more and more free with his arguments with Clarus. An odd sort of feeling that he had nothing else to lose had loosened his tongue, but it seemed the older man appreciated it more often than not.
"No, Accordo," Clarus answered. "We'll be looking to speak to them about renewing the old Lucian-Accordo Alliance and turning the fight back on Niflheim."
Cor nodded. That he could get behind, however... "Accordo is Empire territory, and their standing military is marginal at best. That's going to be a tough sell."
"Exactly," Clarus answered.
"They have a lot to lose throwing in with us, but we have little to lose in asking, so we'll be leaving in another day or so, going to Caem to board one of the Crown's personal yachts. We'll probably be gone a few weeks, maybe as much as a month or two."
Cor nodded. "I'll be ready when you call."
"I didn't expect otherwise."
"Quick gawpin'," Cid said, and he even gave Cor's chin a slight bop to make his point, and Cor shook his head out of the daze that he'd fallen into.
Regis and the others joined up and had a brief tactical discussion as soon as they had cleared customs.
"Wesk, go take a look and see if you can figure out how we're going to get a proper audience with their Parliament. Open session, closed session, negotiations with the First Secretary, whichever makes the most sense. Clarus, go rub elbows with the son of their Captain of the guard, rumor has it that he enjoys particularly expensive wine at..." Clarus nodded, already knowing where that was going. "Cor... could you figure out..."
Cor looked up at the Prince, or, well more at his eyes, they were getting to be of a height.
"See if you can find whoever passes for street rats around here and find out what they think of the current state of affairs."
He didn't know if he really liked the idea, but he nodded. "Could I borrow your pocket watch, Sir?" He asked. "The nice gold one."
"That was a present from Aulea," Regis answered.
"I'll give it back," Cor answered, hand outstretched. "But only an idiot would steal a sword, so I need different bait."
"He's got you there, Reggie," Cid answered. "Besides, you can tell the pretty lady a story of how it saved the day later."
Regis didn't look pleased, but he pulled out the watch and Cor took it, setting it on the chain at his belt. He then straightened his hat and jacket, scrubbed his hand over his face where the barely-there mustache was coming in. "Do I look like an asshole?" He asked the assembled men.
Weskham snorted. "Little bit."
Cor nodded, that would have to do. "And what, exactly, are we looking for?"
Regis pondered for a long moment. "Sometimes, the common man's head isn't in the same place as the rulers. Depending on the difference, it might be leverage that can be used against people in power. You'll find... it can be a difficult thing to balance the desires of the people as a ruler. Already tensions have begun to rise within the city because of the influx of Galahdians, and it will only get worse... it's a delicate thing to manage."
Cor considered the idea, and decided he could probably figure something out. "I'll see what I can find, Your Highness."
It took Cor an hour or so to uncover 'the bad part of town', and it took a good bit longer to actually find anyone willing to talk to him. He spent much of the rest of the day speaking to the various people he encountered. Some were suspicious, some tried to steal Regis's watch, and most were grudgingly impressed when he managed to catch them in the act - and by the wrist - as they tried to make their get away.
Like Regis had promised, though, the pulse of the 'common man' was surprisingly easy for Cor to take... unfortunately it wasn't good news for them. They all met several hours later at one of the restaurants along the waterfront. Altissia had a shitton of waterfront, though.
"I've managed to secure us an audience with the First Secretary," Weskham said, "He's a no-nonsense sort of man William Claustra, so you'll have to wow him. His daughter Camilia is his personal attache and by all accounts just as no-nonsense and twice as smart."
"Captain thinks Claustra Jr. is a ball buster," Clarus continued. "Although, I'd usually call that a mark of a fine woman. There's a chance that William is going to be vulnerable to issues of succession."
"Isn't... Accordo a democracy?" Cor asked, feeling a bit ignorant as he asked it. "Why would a First Secretary feel the concern of succession...?"
"Well, monarchy or no, men in power like to keep it in the family," Regis answered. "Offering some level of legitimacy to Camilia's political credentials could be to our benefit."
"Well... no one down low is particularly interested in rekindling the Lucian-Accordo Alliance," Cor reported, and he watched the assembled men wince. "The crime syndicates like the Empire because trade tariffs mean black markets, and the everyday crime types don't care one way or the other. It's generally thought that it would be same shit, different day with a free Accordo."
"Disappointing," Clarus answered. "But not unexpected. We can't use that angle to attempt to place more pressure on Claustra."
"I hope you aren't giving up before we've started, Old Friend," Regis said with a smile that Cor could tell he didn't entirely mean.
"Never, but we do need to look at this pragmatically, and formulate a more complete tactic."
Cor was fairly close to useless when it came to that, Regis or Clarus assigned him a little bit of intelligence gathering and made sure that he was part of several sparring sessions. Cor quickly realized their purpose was to demonstrate the military might of Lucis, and although many of the soldiers were dutifully impressed with Cor's prowess and abilities, Cor also knew it wouldn't change many minds.
He didn't even end up particularly participating in the strange negotiations with the First Secretary that followed. Cor mostly just stood around and looked menacing. He was reasonable at that now, although he knew it was mostly due to his reputation more so than his actual presence. He was still something of a kid in the eyes of most of the people he ended up working with.
They spent three entire weeks there trying, Regis spoke to several closed sessions of the Parliament, bargained and begged with the First Secretary, and tried to make a compelling case for why Accordo should come and help save Lucis from Niflheim.
"The truth is we offer them just about nothing," Weskham said. "The general word on the street is just as bad as Cor first found: no one wants to help the sinking ship, least of all when they know they're more likely to drown than save us or themselves..."
"Six damn it all to hell," Regis said, banging a hand against one of the walls of the hotel and then wincing as soon as he thought better of it.
"I can't say I don't understand," Clarus answered. "Who wants to stick a hand out when you're more likely to be bitten than not?"
Cor nodded. He knew that feeling all too well. No one helped him and his mother when they were young. Sure Cor was near starving and his mother was sick, but to them there was no benefit to themselves and that was all there was to it. Even Clarus had had selfish goals for Cor, as much as Cor did feel grateful to him.
"And to add insult to injury... Mors has called us back," Clarus said. "Our latest report has him... on the defensive."
Cor hung his head. He respected King Mors, he did, but Cor didn't know how much he could blame the man and how much he could blame his circumstances. If they were going to lose they should go down with a fight.
"I... so you're leaving?" Weskham asked.
"You?" Cor asked. "It's... we right?" Weskham looked away. "Wesk?"
"I'm sorry I didn't mention it, Cor. First Secretary Claustra... offered me a job, and I accepted."
"You... but you're Regis's Chamberlain," Cor argued. "Your father is a Lord of Lucis, and you're just going to--"
Regis put a hand on Cor's shoulder, and tugged Cor lightly, before shaking his head. "Leave it."
"How can I leave it?!" Cor asked. "You swore an--"
This time Clarus put a hand over Cor's mouth, and Cor fought down the urge to bite to get himself free, but by the time Clarus removed his hand, Weskham had left and Cor had slightly calmed down.
"It's more complicated than that," Regis said a few moments later, but it was clear that even if Cor was the one who was about to yell at Weskham, Regis was hurting as well. "He... asked for the First Secretary's permission to court Camilia. The... the long... long term stability of the Lucian-Accordo Alliance can be strengthened by that." He was struggling with his words, and it was clear that Regis didn't believe that so much as was saying it to make himself - or Cor - feel better.
"A King - or a Prince in this case - cannot demand loyalty," Clarus said a moment later. "You can order a man to do something he doesn't want, but at best he'll be resentful, and at worse he'll disobey. It's a hard lesson to learn, and an even harder one to follow."
Cid had said nothing all this time, but Cor looked over to him and saw the man's face was its own mix of annoyed, and Cor wondered if there was something else no one felt like telling him.
Still, it wasn't like he could drag Weskham back to Insomnia on his own... well he probably could, but it wouldn't get him anything, just like it wasn't going to do any good to order him to stay.
By the time they actually left, Cor was steady enough to give Weskham a handshake and a hug, but he really couldn't manage anything more than that.
"Godspeed, Kid." That was how Weskham left it.
To make matters infinitely worse, Cor was assigned as Regis's temporary Chamberlain while things settled. At least Regis mostly took pity on him and attended more meetings so that he didn't have to rely on Cor's reporting of the events.
He was a fifteen year old kid who wasn't going to graduate high school, and they had him taking notes that were supposed to go to the Prince.
"You realize it's an honor, right?" Regis asked as they headed out.
"Today my motto is: fuck honor," Cor answered, but they did go back and forth on what Regis and Cor had heard, and after a few more minutes of that they went and dug Clarus out of the training halls.
"Dad's looking to do one last offensive," Regis said.
"To do what? Destroy the rest of the Crownsguard?" Clarus asked.
Cor nodded. "I have to agree. We need to take up a defensive posture, but... the rest of the Council doesn't give a shit, we're meeting them on the ground and... seeing where it goes."
The protracted skirmishes that followed saw Cor's understanding of combat grow immensely. The lot of them tangled with Niffs almost constantly, but unlike the fortified positions and the pitched battles, they instead were almost constantly on the move, trying to score an offensive victory with minimal casualties. War never truly ended up declared, and that was the one thing that Cor didn't understand, but they fought, and bled, and Cor saw far too many of his fellow Crownsguard and citizens of Lucis fall in the name of defending or safeguarding their homeland.
Never had he been quite as frustrated with, and envious at, Weskham, who had managed to bail and get out while the getting was good.
"So..." He and Clarus were sitting back-to-back in the Keycatrich Trench tunnels, hoping that more MTs didn't uncover their position while they tried to bed down for the night. "How is this all going to end?"
"Well... we're probably all going to die, except for you, Immortal," he answered, with a joke in his voice.
"Be serious," Cor answered with a growl. "The Wall's been shrinking, right? We're in fucking Leide and there are warships overhead."
"Mors's health is failing," Clarus answered. "He probably has a year or two at the most. The Wall, trying to hold it for so long... it's the fate of the King of Lucis to give himself for his people. Sometimes I wonder if that's why the symbol of the royal house is skulls. Death follows them everywhere since the Crystal was given to the Caelum line."
"So Mors is going to die," Cor said, trying to keep his voice calm even as he didn't think there was anything to be calm about. "Regis will take the throne."
"He'll marry... probably Aulea, they'll try to have a few kids..."
"Fuel for the furnace that is the Crystal," Cor said.
"And then... we just keep on fighting, eventually the King of Light will come."
Cor didn't know much about... religion, but he did know that there was a Prophecy that shaped the destiny of the Crystal and the Lucis Caelum line. "So the King of Light just... makes it all better? Seems like a fairy story, Sir."
A clang came from deeper in the tunnels and Cor sighed, drawing his scabbard from his arsenal. "More imps, probably."
It didn't take long, just a few minutes to see the imps put down and quiet returned, and he settled down next to Clarus again, waiting for his answer.
"It might be a fairy story," Clarus answered. "But... I think that's all we have now, hope. It's just a bitter thing to taste. Part of me keeps thinking about going to the Tempering Grounds," he said. "I... I think I'm scared, though... scared of leaving Regis behind with no Shield to protect him. You're a damn good substitute, Cor... but Amicitia blood runs in my veins."
Cor nodded, and he was a bastard with no father... no line, really, ill-equipped to serve as anything but untitled fodder. "I don't think there's any shame in not facing the Blademaster," Cor said. "He... shattered me. In some ways I think he did kill me. I'm not the same man I was when I faced him."
"I don't think there's any shame in trying to carve out a good life away from battle," Clarus answered.
Cor had considered it, once or twice, but where would he go? Who would he serve? "And yet I won't."
"Good," Clarus answered. "I... Regis gets to lean on me... and I on you. I only worry that I put too much on you, but... then you handle it."
"I try, Sir."
The radio at his feet crackled to life. "Clarus, you there?" Regis.
"Yeah," he answered.
"Can you meet me in Hammerhead?"
Hammerhead... why the fuck not, they weren't even that far away, a day or so. "Cya soon."
It took them several hours to fight their way out of the Keycatrach Trench, and they had the indignity of having to wait for nightfall to sneak past a fucking Garrison that was getting put up not a stone's throw from the damn battleground. They overnighted at a nearby Haven, and Cor knew that whatever Regis was getting them to retreat for, it wasn't good.
"Dad's retracting the walls," Regis said, almost as soon as they arrived.
"That much was obvious," Clarus answered, and the three of them made their way to Cid's garage.
"So your daddy's decided to call you home with your tails between your legs," Cid greeted them as they entered.
"Cid," Regis answered. "Fucking leave it. It's not like we like it."
It went downhill from there, and punches eventually were thrown and Cor found himself hauling Cid away from Regis while Clarus did the same for his prince.
"Calm down you fucking goat," Cor said, shoving the man back into his chair. "You act like there's a choice. Mors is fucking sick, that's not a generator to run your happiness, that's your godsdamn friend." Cor gestured behind him to where Regis was panting, his eye rapidly purpling from the punch Cid had thrown.
"And as long as his precious little city is fine--"
Cor reached out and put a firm hand over the man's mouth, and after another minute or so, Clarus got Regis out of the shop and Cor released his hand.
"Life's too fucking short to waste it bitching about what you'd like," Cor said. "You don't get what you like, you don't get what you want, you do the best with what you have." Cor felt himself start to cry, and he rubbed his wrist against his eyes before he turned and left.
Cor was silent the whole way back to Insomnia... it was still just as much as mess as how he left it.
He died in the mid afternoon in the Palace Garden.
The Crystal, and the burden of kingship, fell to Regis in an instant.
The Coronation took a few days.
"I think we should celebrate," Regis said as Cor helped him with his cuff links.
"I believe that's what the ball is for."
"But you're old enough to drink now! Finally."
"Just in time to really need it," Cor answered.
Regis didn't say anything for a long moment, and then he gestured to have the two guards at the door leave them, which they did.
"If you're going to retire... now's the time."
"I'm eighteen," Cor answered, almost with a laugh. "What the hell would I do? Move to Lestallum and start a yelling at people for being idiots business?"
"That sounds like a good idea," Regis said with a chuckle. "After the coronation... we'll be going to Hammerhead, and beyond, I need to visit several of the Royal Tombs to claim the power of my ancestors."
"He's coming too," Regis answered. "We'll try to bury the hatchet, I suppose. Not sure we'll ever see eye to eye, but... I can't say I don't understand why he's still mad. I don't know, you never know, you could become a mechanic, Cid'd teach you."
"Sire... Regis. I'm not leaving. Six knows I want to some days, but I'm with you until the bitter end. What good's an Immortal if he's not fighting for someone he believes in?" He still fucking hated that nickname, but it was well and truly his now.
"Lucis... it's all that I have," Cor said a moment later. He didn't have close friends, not beyond the two men whose sides he already stood by. "It's sick, maybe it's dying... but I'm going to fucking fight so it has as many days as possible, and when night finally falls... shit, I don't know, I'll do something, but I'll always be fighting."
Regis chuckled, and Cor looked up to see a slight wetness in his king's eyes. "Alright, Cor. Alright. I wouldn't want to do this without you. You punk."
The two of them laughed for a moment, and it was almost happy... sort of, just an acknowledgement that they were three men on the edge of a cliff and trying not to fall.
There's still hope there.
And the only hope he had now was that it wasn't all a lie.
He found Gladio in one of the Hunter training rooms, Cor's old sword in his hand, and he smiled.
"You sure you don't want it back?" Gladio asked, finishing a few cuts and then placing its tip into one of the mats.
"I'm sure," Cor answered. It was almost nice, glancing over and seeing those beads wrapped around the hilt, reminding him of his mother and that hope, but he felt that having them would be... oppressive.
'Said the guy's too old to care about material things anymore -- if he's alive.'
Cor snorted at the truth of those words, although he did wonder how the Blademaster had phrased it. He always did have an interesting way with words.
"Why's the wrapping so... weird," Gladio asked, finally.
Cor groaned. "Because I was a fifteen year old kid. It could kill things, it was good enough. Believe it or not, I've learned a thing or two in the last thirty years and could probably do a better job of it."
That had Gladio handing the thing over. Cor didn't know if it was because he thought that Cor would get second thoughts, or he just wanted to talk about the Trial, but either way, Cor lead him into one of the smaller rooms where Cor kept most of his blade cleaning supplies.
"Why red?" Gladio asked as Cor carefully unwrapped his mother's prayer beads.
"You don't know the history of the blade?" Cor asked, a bit surprised.
Gladio shook his head, and so while he carefully undid the leather of the wrapping, he explained the history of the Genji Blade, the Warrior, his Son... Gladio did know the story, just by the Cadet name, so Cor didn't have much need to continue the explanation, but Gladio let him ramble as he finished unwrapping it.
"The butt being unwrapped his historically authentic, but the whole handle could be wrapped if you prefer..."
They went back and forth, Gladio eventually deciding to keep it much like the original, and Cor did his best to actually keep the mounting neat and clean this time, evenly spaced, without gaps and indentations... except where they were supposed to be.
"Yaknow, it's weird," Gladio said. "I don't really feel... different."
"Hmm?" Cor asked.
"Just the Trials, I went, I won... but it's not like I felt a huge difference when I got back to the guys."
Cor nodded. "Then what did you gain?"
"Confidence, I guess," Gladio answered. "Was it like that at all for you?"
"I failed the Trial," Cor answered.
"You completed a part of it."
Cor considered. "I honestly don't remember much. That much was true. I remember the Blademaster's eyes, I remember how outmatched I felt. I was... not in a good place when I went there. I was already hurting and he... took the only thing I still had that I cared about..." He raised the sword for a moment.
"A sword?" Gladio asked. "I mean... no offense, but... it's a sword."
"This is the sword that King Mors gifted me when I entered the Crownsguard," Cor said. It was actually not entirely unusual to begin to use a new weapon after years of training, but Gladio perhaps didn't appreciate that Cor had only been two years into his service when he went to face Gilgamesh. "And this..." He reached out and touched the beads. He chuckled to himself. "Believe it or not, I did have a mother, and these were her prayer beads."
"Six, Cor. You should at least..."
He shook his head. "The beads are actually historically accurate enough. Wouldn't want to undermine the authenticity."
"I... I've got other swords," Gladio said.
"As do I. It's fine, Gladio. In a lot of ways, it was a good thing for me. It reminded me... it taught me to keep fighting. I don't know if I could have become the man I am today if I hadn't known that defeat."
Cor wouldn't have traded that experience for anything. "Your father... we all knew that Lucis was dealt a losing hand."
"'And Reggie played it the best he could'," Gladio finished for Cor.
"Yeah, and now it's dark... and... I don't know, almost wished the Blademaster had kicked me to the curb now. What good is a Shield with no King to protect, right?" Gladio asked Cor's own question back to him.
"The promise of the King of Light..." Cor said. "That's what we have now, hope."
"That's pretty fucking sappy for a battle hardened warrior."
"Probably, but it's what I told myself every day when I woke up... now I don't even have the sunrise for that... and that's the thing, Gladio, I'm going to keep going until my body gives out and you put me in the ground. If you learn anything from my failure, or your own success, know that the strength to persevere in the face of defeat is more rare than any... Immortality. In defeat, you grow."
He finished with the wrapping, and after a quick discussion kept the guard uncovered this time, and then carefully wrapped his mother's prayer beads at the handle.
"That's... I think if I remember anything, it'll be that even ballsy punk kids can get their asses handed to them," Gladio answered.
"It's a good lesson."
"And that we're going to play the hand we're dealt right to the bitter end."
Cor nodded, and and he extended the blade out to Gladio and the man took it, a brief moment he flicked it to the side and sent it to his arsenal.
The odd absence that had been there for years seemed to fill, not by the sword itself, but just... knowing the blade had found a home at his side, even if not in his hand.