Robin dearly wished she had foregone breakfast that morning, but being stuck up in a tree was the least of her worries.
Or so she kept telling herself.
In truth, she wondered what she'd been thinking in order to end up where she was right now.
In an unnaturally high position.
Not on the ground.
She squeezed her eyes closed and hugged the trunk of the tree like a baby bear who realized too late that it had imprinted on the wrong mother.
Should have gone for fur. Not feathers.
Did baby bears imprint—
A gentle breeze rustled through the branches of the tree, and Robin could feel herself turning green.
The same shade of green as the—
She wasn't going to think about that monstrosity of a dress.
But the more she didn't think about it, the more the image persisted in her mind's eye.
She never should have given Lissa free rein when it came to designing the gown she would wear to announce her betrothal.
In her defense, she had stumbled upon an exceedingly interesting period where two people had valid claim to the throne of Roseanna. What neither of them knew was that they were brothers.
Hidden from each other, and hidden from the court. Queens, apparently, were quite skilled at holding grudges, and the king had been far too careless in his treatment of her.
Robin had just gotten to the part where the queen spirited them away from the castle and into the homes of two peasants she had chosen.
Lissa had come in at some point and asked something about satin or velour. Robin, who had spent the night reading instead of sleeping, waved her off and told her whatever she thought best was good enough for her.
Lissa's squeal of delight was the first red flag she'd overlooked.
Thinking back on it now, there was a whole trail of red flags she simply hadn't noticed until the moment Lissa and Sumia ambushed her so the royal seamstresses could take her measurements.
It was then, right when they'd brought in bolts of fabric that she started to get an idea of the colossal mistake she had made.
Sumia had been equally struck speechless, which Lissa took for being overwhelmed at how perfectly everything came together.
Overwhelmed was most definitely the correct assumption.
But despite the bright fabric burning holes into her vision, Robin couldn't do anything other than pretend to be delighted. Lissa had been so proud of her design . . .
Between that and Frederick's rather extensive etiquette lessons, Robin could either flee or lose her mind.
And somehow, she'd managed to do both.
She'd meant to barricade herself in some forgotten corner of the library, but realized that would be the very first place they would look. Her room would be the second. The healers’ ward, the third.
So she'd opted to go where no one would ever think to look for her.
Which was how she ended up in the middle of a tree. Too far from the ground to be safe, yet not far up enough to make use of the camouflage the leaves offered if someone looked up at her.
Just . . . stuck.
In the middle of a tree.
And she couldn't even call for help.
She was doing a bang up job of proving her credentials as the Shepherd's prized Tactician just then.
If only someone were there to notice . . .
Someone who could fetch a ladder.
No! A mage!
A mage could get her out of the tree a lot better than a ladder could.
Unable to retreat, and unwilling to advance, she watched the sun as it marched slowly across the sky. Judging by the angle, it was only mid-morning,
Robin rested her forehead against the papery roughness of the bark. She had a feeling it was going to be a very long day. If she wasn't dead certain she'd fall to her doom, she would pull out one of her books in her emergency stash and read it.
But that would mean letting go of the tree with at least one hand, and she'd be a purple speckled Taguel before that happened.
Another breeze ruffled the leaves, causing the tree to sway gently . . .
. . . And her stomach to rock violently.
Wrapping her legs around the limb, Robin pressed a hand against her mouth while the other clutched the trunk hard enough to imprint the pattern of the bark on her palm.
"I don't know. Are you sure I should do it?"
Someone was coming?
Her silent celebration was cut short as the tree swayed again, and it took all of her strength and concentration to keep from regurgitating her breakfast.
"You won't know until you try."
That laugh . . .
In a small corner of her heart, a burst of warmth pierced a very tiny hole through her panic.
He was here. Everything would be—
The branches swayed with the wind, and her stomach sway—
"But what if . . . What if she says no?"
The smile in Chrom's voice was only slightly dimmer than the smile in his eyes. "And what if she says yes?"
"I, uh, I guess I didn't think that far ahead," Stahl stammered.
Robin's eyes widened as they came to stand in the shade of her tree. So close, yet so very, very, very, very far away.
"Well, she must have given you some sign as to whether or not she was interested, hasn't she?"
Look up, Robin thought as she bored a hole in the top of Chrom's head with her gaze. Up. I'm up here. Look up!
"I, uh, I'm not sure?" Stahl winced as he sat down in an untidy heap of armor and fragile dreams. He leaned back on his hands. "How did you know about Robin? I mean, did she say something—er, not say, per se, but—"
Chrom shrugged. "I just knew the second I saw her. The moment I first looked into her eyes."
Robin's heart melted into a puddle of goo while the rest of her continued to melt down quietly. The small part of her mind that wasn't a confusion of bile and fear marveled that he had known so soon.
Stahl looked up at him, incredulous. "It was really that easy?"
"It was really that easy." Chrom laughed and shook his head. "In a strange way, it felt as though she had always been by my side. Something I'd been missing without realizing it until we found her in the field. And once she was there, everything was finally as it should be."
"So fairy tales really do exist?" Stahl sounded profoundly disappointed for some reason.
"I suppose you could call it a fairy tale," Chrom planted Falchion in the ground beside him and stretched his arms, "but I like to think it's something better than a fairy tale."
"Better than a fairy tale?"
Robin was with Stahl on this one. What could have been better than dancing across the lake beneath a spectacular display of stars, in the arms of the one she had always, and would ever, love?
Her eyes fluttered closed at the memory, then went wide as she realized a horrible truth that had been creeping up on her unawares.
Her palms had become slick with sweat—partly from terror, and partly because her coat was heavy enough that she had become overheated.
In fact, she was drenched with sweat, and—
She clamped her lips shut and squeezed her eyes closed as she felt herself beginning to tip.
Slowly at first, almost ponderously.
But accelerating all too quickly.
Chrom swung his arms as he worked some kinks out of his shoulders. "Much better. No dragon. No evil witches. No curses or enchantments. Just . . ." He waved his hands as he tried to transmute the thoughts of his heart into words. "Just—Robin!"
Robin wasn't entirely certain she had survived intact, and she wasn't ready to trust her fate, as it had been fate who had landed her up in the tree in the first place.
And fate that had placed so many branches in between her and her fall.
All she knew was that she wasn't up in the tree any longer. Yet she hadn't perished in the meantime either.
"Robin, what—the tree—are you—how did you—doing?" The surprise in Chrom's voice soothed away a great deal of the upheaval happening in her stomach.
It wasn't until the scent of clover and sunshine washed over her that she dared to crack open an eye.
The world had turned into the most beautiful shade of blue.
"Whoa, Captain." Stahl's eyes were bigger than dinner plates. He’d extended a hand toward them, but pulled it up short. "You all right?"
“She's not as heavy as she looks.” Chrom grunted as he staggered back, and Robin regretted the number of books she'd unconsciously been collecting in her pockets. “But heavier than you'd expect.”
Robin's regret vanished, scorched away by the heat of her glare. Had he really just . . . ?
Chrom froze a little when he noticed the look she was giving him, looking like a majestic hart caught in a thicket and surrounded by Risen and wolves.
Better yet, Risen riding wolves.
Chrom laughed the laugh of a man newly appointed to die. "Haha. Not that I’d—we’d—expect you to be that heavy, of course. You’re too short to be heavy."
What in the heck was that supposed to mean? What did a person's height have to do with anything? And five foot two was a perfectly ordinary height for people her size.
Robin’s glower intensified.
A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead. He laughed again, weaker this time. "Besides you’re more tree-shaped—like a sapling—than, er, round—roundish . . . right?"
Curves, Chrom. The word you’re looking for is curves.
"Ah, ah ha.” He nodded, his relief nearly palpable. "Right, you don’t have any of those. So you’re not heavy. Not heavy at all.“
If she hadn’t been concentrating on resisting the urge to Thunder him, she would have marveled at his ability to stumble so adeptly into dangerous places without having the first clue as to how he ended up there.
With Chrom’s innate sense of self-preservation functioning so poorly, it was a wonder he’d survived long enough to reach the age of his majority. Although, given that he spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with brigands rather than the perfumed pomp of court, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising after all.
Bandits didn’t care about their figures—tree-shaped or otherwise.
Robin had never considered herself vain before, but she was still bristling at the memory of the head seamstress clucking over some of her measurements and then looking at her with pity before counseling with the other seamstresses over the best ways to deal with her 'problem areas.'
Apparently having the figure of a sapling made piecing the fabric so that it lay correctly a little more complicated.
Even so, he had just saved her from a rather painful reunion with the ground. With great difficulty, Robin swallowed as much of her temper as she could bear without choking on it.
I’m happy to hear it. In that case, you can assist me in finding a new hiding place.
Chrom furrowed his brow. "Hiding place?"
He moved to allow her to find her footing, but Robin simply wrapped an arm around his neck and blatantly misunderstood his intention. He would never learn how to think before he spoke if she didn’t impress upon him the import of doing so. And as he didn’t find her heavy, then he shouldn’t mind carting her around for a bit.
Chrom looked at her in confusion. "What, exactly, are we hiding from?"
Robin smiled as her heart warmed up at his words. Despite knowing nothing of the circumstances, he was still willing to throw his lot in with hers. No questions asked.
Fine. She’d forgive him just this once, but she was definitely going to add a few more historical volumes to her pockets later on.
From your little sister's generosity and good intentions.
“How many frogs was it this time?”
Robin shivered as the image of the gown intruded in her mind’s eye once more. She had never known colors could clash so violently, nor that an ocean of competing patterns could induce a headache without actually even having to look at the thing.
She gave him a weak smile. No frogs.
He nodded. “All right. I guess we could head back to the practice yard.”
No good. If they can’t find me, they’ll come looking for you.
He raised a brow. “They?”
Robin pursed her lips and shook her head. Next place?
Chrom thought for a moment. “What about the gardens? One of them is a labyrinth.”
Robin’s eyes narrowed as she considered his suggestion. While she was fascinated by some of the fancy labyrinths she’d come across in her studies, fleeing to one of them would likely be too obvious. Besides, what were they supposed to do when they got to the center? That was just asking to be caught.
She shook her head. We need somewhere they’d never even think to look for me.
Chrom’s eyes lit up before he shot her an uncertain look. “I know just the place.”
Well? What are you waiting for? Let’s go!
He hesitated. “Are you sure? On second thought, perhaps we ought to—“
Chrom, I ended up in a tree. A tree! That should tell you how desperate I am. Now go! Go, go!
He made a face as he swallowed his objections and set off. Robin sighed with relief as she nestled her head against his shoulder. She’d eventually have to face the dress. After all, standing by Chrom’s side was worth anything and everything even the prickliest of fates could throw at her.
It’s just . . . there were a few hours yet before she had been scheduled to stand with Chrom before Exalt and Court and Country. And she was going to treasure every quiet, peaceful moment.
Chrom was quiet as he walked, but it wasn’t his usual sunny quiet. There was a certain pressure in his air, and from the way his brow had furrowed into place, Robin had the impression he was weighing some weighty matter of state.
As though he could feel her peeking up at him, he glanced down. She meant to drop her gaze. After all, some of Frederick’s lessons had gotten through to her. A proper lady always looked away once she’d been caught peeping. But the moment he looked at her, her world turned bright and blue and beautiful. When Chrom smiled, he smiled with his whole being, and she couldn’t help but smile back at him.
Despite what was to come, life was pretty wonderful.
So why did she feel the cold fingers of foreboding clenching in her gut?
Probably just her nerves. Robin was under no illusions about what would happen once she and Chrom were officially betrothed. Every move she made would be under heavy scrutiny by both Court and Commons. Her life would no longer be her own, and her long, peaceful forays into the royal archives would shorten both in duration and frequency.
But as she looked up at Chrom, the regret she’d expected to feel never manifested. There would be missteps and frustrations, she was sure, but she would be experiencing those with Chrom at her side.
In the end, and everyday, it would all be worth it.
A soft quacking filled their silence as Chrom approached the duck pond. The baby ducks had grown larger, and were playfully splashing at each other.
If only every day could be like this.
Just her and Chrom, hiding out together . . .
She reached for him to get his attention, feeling daring enough to cup the side of his face with her hand even though they were out in public.
Something flashed in Chrom's eyes, and it took Robin a moment to remember what her intention had been.
Where are we headed? If the place he’d chosen worked well enough, she’d add it to her short list of places she could retreat to when the situation warranted it.
"You said you wanted it to be a place no one would ever think to look for you, right?"
She nodded, suddenly cautious. It wasn’t like Chrom to lead into the answer unless he was feverishly trying to extricate himself from the hole he'd dug up through his very best efforts.
Which begged the question: which hole had he just excavated? And why did she have the feeling she wasn’t going to like the answer?
He drew in a few deep, bracing breaths. “All right, I’ll just say it straight out. There’s only one place in the entire Halidom that no one would ever think to find you.”
Robin’s feeling of misgiving intensified.
“The stables.” Chrom winced as though he’d expected to receive a blow, at the very least.
Robin’s reflexes took over before her mind could work its way through his revelation. She’d somehow managed to extricate herself from his arms, and was halfway past the duckpond before she realized she’d even moved.
She managed a few more steps before Chrom caught up with her. He pulled her into his arms and held her securely.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured against her hair. “I knew it was a stupid idea. I just—you don’t usually come to me with these sorts of problems. If anything, it’s usually the other way around. A part of me was happy that I could be helpful to you as well.”
Robin trembled a little in his arms, but the shock and horror and temper were washed away in the face of his confession.
Did he really believe that he wasn’t helpful to her? That things only worked in one direction?
She waited until the warmth of his arms had soothed her tremors away before she pushed him gently away.
Actually, your idea is brilliant. Evil, but brilliant. She shuddered at the memory of all those teeth and flashing hooves and bad temperaments.
“Really?” His grin broke out upon his face like the sun blooming in the eastern sky.
Robin nodded. How was it possible for a single look, a few words, to undo all the knots in her gut, chase away all of her fears, and make her forget to weigh all the possibilities before she committed to a single path?
The blush in his cheeks darkened a little, spreading into his ears, and somehow making Chrom all the more handsome.
How was that even possible?
Her heart started pounding as Chrom’s gaze deepened and he leaned down to close the distance between them.
Even though they were in public, she stood her ground. The ducks didn’t count as people, did they?
So it would be . . . all right . . .
“There you are!”
The sudden cry shocked the space between them, and they jumped away from each other.
“Do you have any idea how long we’ve been looking for you?” Lissa shook her finger at them as she stomped toward them. Her staff was in her other hand, and from the way she was holding it, it resembled a cudgel more than a tool for healing.
Robin edged a little closer to Chrom until she was able to hide behind him completely.
“Were you looking for us?” Chrom asked, his voice a little too innocent.
“I’m going to pretend that you didn’t just suggest I am stupid enough to believe that,” Lissa said. “And don’t think I don’t see you hiding behind my brother, Robin.”
A quick glance at the sky showed that the sun had hardly moved. Robin thought a sad farewell to the quiet hours that might have been as she stepped out from behind Chrom.
Lissa put her hands on her hips. “What do you have to say for yourself, missy?”
“You can zip it, Chrom. I’ll get to you in a second.”
Robin couldn’t quite meet Lissa’s gaze, but she could feel the princess’s glare nonetheless.
I was going to spend a little more time going over . . . things. Despite Lissa’s baleful glare, Robin couldn’t help glancing at Chrom from the corner of her eye.
“Things, huh?” Lissa hadn’t missed her looking over at Chrom who was doing his best imitation of a blushing blue tree. “That’s what I figured.”
Deciding to try her luck, Robin did her best to look as innocent and non-threatening as possible. Was there something you needed?
Lissa chuckled. The sound brought to mind the stench of herbs that had been stewed in their own juices until they’d fermented enough to be completely and utterly disgusting. “Just the star of the engagement show we’re putting on in a little while. The seamstresses have been frantic, and Emm’s spent a good while calming them down.”
Guilt pricked Robin’s heart.
Just a little.
But enough for her to be willing to surrender. It was only right that she fought her own battles.
Chrom cleared his throat. “Why didn’t you say so? I thought my suit had been finished.”
Robin and Lissa both gaped at him. Robin, because she hadn’t realized he’d be wearing a new suit as well, and Lissa, because there really wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for Robin.
“But you said—“
“Chrom,” Lissa’s voice mellowed as though she were the elder educating the younger generation, “everybody knows that the bride-to-be is the one everyone’s going to be looking at. Just her showing up is enough to have an effect on fashion for the next who knows how long.”
Oh, she’d have an effect all right, Robin thought glumly. Still, she was curious to see what Chrom would look like in his suit. If they were lucky, they’d match.
Lemon yellow. Tangerine. Bright magenta. Lime green. Puce.
On second thought . . .
“Ah.” Chrom’s blush burned a little brighter. “I just thought with me being prince and all . . .”
“Trust me on this one.” Lissa caught Robin by the arm. “We’re down to five hours left to make you presentable, so say your goodbyes for now. Parting is such sweet sorrow, yada yada yada.”
Robin wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry that they’d need so long, but all thoughts of her gown went out of her head as Chrom swooped down and kissed her gently.
He brushed his thumb against her cheek, ignoring the ‘subtle’ gagging noises Lissa was making at him. “I love you, and I can’t wait to see you again.”
She was still working out how to respond when Lissa dragged her away. By the time she managed to say, Me too, she was surrounded by a bevy of seamstresses with steely-eyed glares, and a few of what looked like ladies-in-waiting.
Robin had only time enough to swallow hard before they descended upon her like crows devouring grain. Her world then fell into a cacophony of a hundred different conversations and a riot of color that burned itself into her retinas.
Somehow, she ended up on a stand, shrouded in the gown Lissa had designed especially for the occasion. It was heavier and a lot brighter than she remembered.
“Wow!” Lissa breathed. “You look amazing!”
Everyone else remained speechless.
“Oh my.” Sumia gave Robin a sympathetic look, her eyes wide.
Robin gave her a weak smile. No doubt that wearing the gown would help her build some urgently needed muscles—along with a heaping helping of character.
Besides, Lissa had done this out of genuine affection. Every stripe, every polkadot, every bow, and every ruffle.
“You really put your heart into this,” Emmeryn said, smiling at Lissa, but unable to look away from the monstrosity of her creation.
“Yep!” Lissa clasped her hands behind her and rocked back on her heels. “Once I started designing, I just couldn’t stop. Did you know there are over forty-seven different patterns for stripes alone?”
“M-madame, the mirror,” a stately seamstress said, gesturing toward the glass a footman had angled toward Robin.
Robin eyed the confection of bows, lace, and a color palette that apparently couldn’t decide on a single color, so it went with all of them.
In a single go.
“Well, it certainly has that je ne sais quoi air to it, doesn’t it?” Virion said. He gave Robin a grin that was teasing and dark around the corners. “I doubt that anyone will ever be able to forget such a . . . spectacle in all their lives.”
“Right?” Lissa clapped her hands, beaming from ear to ear. “That’s exactly what I was going for.”
“I do wonder, however,” Virion canted his head to the side, “if this is quite what you were going for.”
“What do you mean?”
Virion hid an elegant snicker in the corner of his mouth and winked at Robin.
Robin’s cheeks turned hot as everyone in the room openly gaped at her. She felt like some prize exotic bird at the market. Thank Naga she had at least been spared the feathers.
“Well, it is just that there is quite a lot of dress, and not a lot of Robin,” he said, waving a hand toward her.
Now Lissa was canting her head the to side, neatly mimicking Virion’s stance. “Huh?”
“Oh, your design is a wonderful thing. Some might even call it high art.”
If there was one thing Robin could say about Virion, it was that he really knew when to slather on the compliments. He was also a very good strategist—unless one happened to be a pawn or a bishop or a rook.
Then, he was just single-minded.
“Aww, thanks, Virion.” A blush worked its way across Lissa’s face. “Coming from you, that means a lot.”
He hummed his agreement. “It’s just that . . .”
“What? What is it? It doesn’t sparkle enough, does it? I knew I should have added more sparkles!”
Robin sent Virion a pointed look. He better not even be thinking of sacrificing her for the greater good of his objective.
He waved a hand as though searching for the right word to pluck out of the air. “It has nothing to do with your masterpiece. It’s just that—how do I say?—Robin has many fine qualities, but she is also abnormally short.”
“Yeah, I guess I can see that.”
Robin huffed her indignation at the two of them. It was latrine duty for the both of them next time they were away from home!
“So a little dress goes a long, long way, does it not?”
Lissa pursed her lips.
“Your Grace. Milady. Ega—R-Robin.”
If Robin’s pride hadn’t already been smarting, she would have laughed at Frederick’s thunderstruck expression. It was the first time she had ever seen him truly discomfited to this extent.
“Maybe a little off the top?” Lissa gestured to the poofy sleeves that each sported a giant bow at the shoulder.
“A good start,” Virion nodded, completely serious.
“Princess.” The seamstress who had originally been dismayed at Robin’s . . . sapling-shaped figure curtseyed. “We can make a few surface modifications, but there isn’t time enough to do what must be done.”
Robin bit the insides of her cheeks. They really should have recognized that when they were assembling the blessed thing.
“No, indeed.” Although Frederick had muttered it under his breath, Robin could hear him loud and clear.
“I’m afraid I have to agree,” Virion said.
Even though he was smiling.
Why was he smiling?
“So, maybe just remove the bows?” Lissa was frowning now. “And maybe some of the ruffles?”
“I was thinking something a little more.” Virion strutted closer to Robin, the very image of a smug little peacock.
“What do you propose?” Emmeryn asked, finally able to tear her eyes away from the gown that was wearing Robin.
Somehow, Virion’s grin turned a little more smug. “Every good fairy tale requires a handsome prince, a fair maiden, and a fairy godmother, does it not?”
“Except we don’t have any of those,” Lissa said. She pursed her lips as she studied every line and angle of the gown.
“And that, my dear princess, is where you are wrong!” Virion struck a noble pose that would not have been out of place if he were standing before a solemn assembly of his vassals.
A bead of sweat trickled down Robin’s face. She leaned as much as the gown allowed her, hardly daring to breathe.
Now that he was certain every eye was on him, Virion raised a triumphant fist and proclaimed, “Send in the mages!”