For three days, Rita has been plagued by a stomachache.
It begins on one of the dusty paths that wind their way through Egothor Forest; of this she is quite certain. Initially she chalks it up to Judith's cooking, but no one else falls ill. Dehydration, heat exhaustion, and a rare but potentially serious sage allergy are also methodically considered and discarded in turn. For a time, fighting knights proves to be a useful distraction; when that fails, blastia cannon repair provides an even more compelling focus. Eventually that too runs its course; and so here they are in Myorzo, skybound home of the Kritya, with fuck-all to do except wait for some grizzled elder and wonder why her body feels like it's attempting to hang itself via its own intestines. To make matters worse, the old man keeps shooting her these pitying looks like he wants to apologize for something. The day she lets Raven feel sorry for her is the day she packs it in for good, so Rita stretches the kinks out of her shoulders and neck and glares at him – how dare he look happier after that! – and wanders outside to pace for a while.
The scent of spun sugar wafts her way; Rita closes her eyes and sucks in a deep breath, an image of the soft, elegant layers of Estelle's candyfloss hair rising unbidden to her mind's eye. Technically the color is pale crimson; Rita ran a chromanalysis once on a discarded strand while waiting for some other tests to finish. Candyfloss suits Estelle better, though, she reflects: Estelle who lives for sweets, who at eighteen still laughs like the child Rita can no longer remember having been.
Distantly she is aware that the Empire is about to go to war with itself; beyond that, some part of her brain ticks on, spinning like so many Ghasfarost gears to solve the impending environmental ruin she can sense in every surface she touches. Yet with every thought, her focus sharpens inward: Somehow, amid the vacant steel-gray streets of this ancient city in the clouds, Rita is horrified to discover that she is in love. She blames Myorzo and its abundant magics; surely something in the dense, pungent aer permeating the city must be forcing her hormones all haywire. Rita spares a thought to mourn her wounded pride – honestly, how disgustingly feminine of her, developing feelings for someone while there's world-altering research on the line – but the moment passes and she nods; now that her ailment has a name, it also has a testable treatment.
It is resolved: she will tell Estellise tomorrow, and one way or another she will put this ridiculous stomach-clenching nonsense behind her.
She will publish her memoirs one day, and everyone from her editor on down to the few mages with the foresight to flee their homes before Tarqaron rose will interrogate her about Baction, which she will have omitted wholesale. "We know you were there," they will argue. Sometimes they will trot out some tattered notes describing a hastily-constructed, aer-powered lantern, smugly brandishing the decaying papers as proof she was on the scene. Other times, they will stubbornly cling to eyewitness testimony: "Your comrades from the guild were all able to report. Sir Oltorain himself confirmed it –-" and here they will usually break off to tease her about their famously violent reunion above the Heracles.
Rita will employ some especially colorful language as she protests, but in all honesty she won't mind the teasing. Their distraction means she won't have to confess that all she remembers of Baction is fighting Raven at the end, and all she remembers of that is moving on autopilot toward that apologetic fucking expression, that and Estelle's excruciated screams as –-
Rita can't breathe.
She knows objectively that the air is thinner up here at the top of the sword stair, knows just as objectively that there is nonetheless plenty of oxygen to fill a human's lungs and power the respiratory exchange. That's not the issue, when it comes down to it. The issue, when it comes down to it, is that she wishes to every god and spirit and Entelexeia in hearing range – and some who are not – that she could only have a very bad stomachache again, because then she might not be calculating the likelihood that she's about to vomit all over her shoes.
Their swords clash in earnest, now; she can't breathe, and furthermore, she can't look. Rita tents her hands over her eyes, just in case, and wonders whether they'd stop if she held her breath so long that she passed out right in front of them. Some part of her mind registers the fact that Yuri probably would stop but Estelle couldn't; she knows what that would mean, and her body answers by choking back a sob.
She can't look she can't look she can't look but Rita Mordio, fifteen, has seen more of battle than men twice her age. Even without the gift of sight, she knows, bone-deep, that Yuri's not going all out. In an instant she understands why the rest admire him, why Flynn gets that funny look on his face when he thinks no one else can see him and even Karol is aware that he's merely a pretender to the guild leadership. The insight crashes into her mind like cymbals, like the clarity of a formula snapping into place: they're going to make it out of this alive. Every cell, every pore may have Estellise etched deep in princess-perfect penmanship, but Rita thinks maybe she can find it in her somewhere, a tiny piece of her soul to devote to loving him forever for this.
She hates him.
She's smart enough not to voice this thought, of course, not when any fool can see how worked up Estelle's become, but Rita utterly despises Yuri Lowell for the human wreckage that wears Estelle's body in his absence. The part of her that isn't hoping he really is dead is hoping he's still alive so she can kick the shit out of him for destroying everything she's pieced together so carefully up to this point.
She heaves a great sigh and tries again. "Estelle, we've been over this. Flynn's already doing everything he can, and he has the whole army under his control. Let rat-girl and what's-his-name do something useful for once." She waves her hand negligently at the mention of the latter.
Estellise, who has already exerted herself into a furious blush and impossibly wide eyes just this side of threatening tears, grows even more affronted at this latest suggestion. "You can't be serious!" she objects, and Rita hastily summons a frown to cover the smirk that threatens to develop at the thought that Estelle is a few seconds away from actually stomping her foot. "I'm worried about Flynn too, he's barely sleeping, but Rita –- the army's in terrible disarray since the situation with the Commandant, and Flynn has responsibilities to them too. He can't keep dropping everything to look for Yuri all the time, but I –-"
"You can't do anything either!" Rita retorts, and oh, that wasn't supposed to come out. She claps her hands over her mouth as though to shove the words back in, but no, she can't unsay them any more than Estelle can unhear them. The ambient temperature drops by whole degrees and Rita stares, transfixed, as Estelle slowly straightens and turns just slightly to face her head-on. Her eyes are suddenly devoid, lifeless, and her hunted expression wouldn't be out of place on a woman several times her age. Estelle should never ever look like this, but she does and it's Rita's fault; suddenly there's no room in her heart for hating Yuri or anyone but herself. The rest of her righteous fury dies on her lips; this isn't the time for how can you still be so hung up on one guy? It's revolting!, for Karol damn near died trying to get to you and I –- I –-
Estelle speaks then, quiet but steady, and it's so much worse than if she screamed or cried. "That may be so," she pronounces like a spell, a death-sentence for affection that never quite took root. "Nonetheless, I will use every resource in my power and I will find him. It is the most and least that I can do for a man who would have done the same for me. For any of us." There is something impossibly regal about the way Estelle – Estellise – wields her language as she once trained to wield her sword, placing syllables just so, and Rita has the inane thought that she would make a thrilling empress if Ioder ever decided he wasn't up to the task. She slices through years of armor even without even meaning to wound: "If you wish to help, Rita, you may," she states evenly; "if not, please return to Aspio and await your orders from the Empire." When she adds, "That is all," with only the minute hint of a tremor under the dismissive façade that might never have been there at all, it's Rita's heart that shreds to ribbons. Estellise turns neatly on one heel and walks gracefully back to the castle, head held high, not one silken strand out of place under the tiara sparkling in the clear morning light.
It's not the time for he never loved you, not like that, and it's too late for but I do.
Long after the war has ended, she will refuse to eat spun sugar.
"Makes me sick," she will halfheartedly complain when they offer. She will wrinkle her nose for effect, but her trademark sarcastic vehemence will remain conspicuously absent, and no one will press her after that.
Rita returns to Aspio and almost immediately rumors of the great Mordio's wrath resurface, escalating rapidly in intensity. The path from her house to the library soon empties, as does the library itself, and her reputation as both sage and demon rises to unprecedented heights.
Within the month, Yuri waltzes back into her life, entourage in tow like he'd never taken a swan dive off a shrine and torpedoed her most tender dreams along with him. She has half a mind to order the useless city guards to throw him and his irritatingly easy smile out on his ass, but between Judith's knowing expression and Estelle's wide, guileless eyes, she knows she'll lose the fight before she starts it. In the end, she simply huffs once in aggravation and demands enough space to organize the research notes she was in the middle of compiling when they so rudely interrupted her.
Rita has always been pragmatic, and the ironclad determination that earned her a position on the Empire's payroll sees her through the worst of the emotional onslaught. She sulks indulgently for a few days as the group moves to collect its men from Dahngrest, cloaking her sorrow and self-loathing in enough added vitriol that even Repede maintains a several-foot radius. Privately, the wound is still too fresh to engage directly, but she diligently records and files each new emotion away for later analysis. In the meantime, she distracts herself as best she can by proving conjectures related to mana conversion.
When she finally emerges from her tent, arching into a catlike stretch and complaining loudly of hunger, the adult members of their motley world rescue organization share a look but leave it at that. Judith serves up some nourishing cream stew; though Rita doesn't smile, exactly, she manages a nod of thanks and there's a noticeable lessening of the tension sustaining the rigid set of her shoulders. It's a start.
And then, finally sated, she casually mentions that the apatheia transformation formula is complete and ready for live testing. Bedlam breaks loose as the group plans their course and readies Ba'ul, and Rita lets herself get caught up in the excitement, just a little. She has the power to unlock the secrets of energy and life as they know it; surely the human heart, so simple in comparison, must also be within her reach?
She sneaks a sidelong glance at Raven anyway; mastering the inner workings of his blastia might prove useful, just in case.
The 'land of hope,' indeed.
Rita would never admit it aloud, but she feels better when Flynn's around. She's losing track of the 'sword' puns he bounces off Yuri, and she still doesn't quite know whether they're fighting or fucking, but frankly she thinks it doesn't matter much as long as they're not doing whatever it is in earshot of her. She has a healthy skepticism of acting Commandants after everything they've been through, after –- but she sets that thought aside. This one is honest to a fault, and even if she rolls her eyes and makes gagging sounds when confronted with one of his friendship-and-unity speeches, she can respect the new beginning he's built up around them plank by plank. Aurnion has surprisingly charming amenities for a city founded on the precipice of the apocalypse: she revels in the availability of high-end armaments and groceries alike, the enormous, intricately-marked blastia beckoning her from the center of town, the easy camaraderie between empire and guild and the utter disregard for ceremony that goes along with it. If that brat Witcher hadn't shown up and immediately started making demands of her in that insufferably condescending voice of his, it really would have been a perfect way to spend what might be her final days on the planet.
Well, almost perfect. One daunting task yet remains, and Rita clenches her teeth against the nervousness that threatens to overwhelm her. She hasn't made a habit of failure in anything yet, and this is hardly the time to start. Before her courage can recede, she rapidly lifts her hand and raps three times on the door marking the entrance to Flynn's cabin. The plan is in motion now; like it or not, she has no choice but to follow through. Flynn will answer the knock, she'll ask to borrow Estelle under the guise of needing to do maintenance on her sealing formula, and then she'll take a deep breath, look Estelle directly in the eyes, and say –-
Only Flynn is alone. He opens the door with a pleasant "Good evening," waiting for her to direct the conversation further.
"Este–" Rita squeaks and then frowns, face heating as she clears her throat and tries again. "I mean," she corrects, chancing a look at his face, "I'm looking for Estelle. I need to..." She trails off, thrown terribly off her game and no longer certain what if anything is worth explaining to him.
Flynn nudges the door wide behind him, gesturing to the empty space within. "I'm afraid Lady Estellise is not here," he offers graciously, "but you may find her at the inn. I understand she has been undergoing some training in the healing artes with a medic who recently joined us."
"Thanks," she replies with a slight grimace. Flynn nods, lightly amused, but as Rita turns away she catches a calculating twinkle in his eyes that suggests he knows exactly what she's about to do. She's not sure whether she imagines a sotto voce "good luck" as he closes the door against the cool night air, but she takes the sentiment to heart, squaring her shoulders as she stalks toward the southeastern corner of town with renewed vigor.
True to form, Estelle stands just outside the inn, engaged in quiet conversation with the visiting doctor. Her posture belies none of her weariness, but Rita can read it plainly in Estelle's features, exhaustion stealing the focus from her eyes and narrowing her smile a fraction. Rather than trying to hide her approach, Rita allows her footsteps to announce her presence; the desired effect is attained when Estelle peeks around the man and sees Rita, her eyes widening marginally and lips parting in recognition. "Oh, Rita," she calls; remembering her manners, she turns back to the doctor to thank him and take her leave properly. Thankfully, he does not detain her further.
"Hi, Estelle," Rita begins, and is it just her imagination or does Estelle already look more energetic than she had moments before? Rita shakes her head minutely and steels her resolve. "Listen, there's something I've been meaning –-"
"I'm so glad you've come," Estelle asserts in the same moment, "we were just figuring out how to protect the town when I go off to fight, and –-"
"Estelle. Estellise." It's now or never, and in desperation Rita reaches for Estelle's hand and covers it with both her own. The princess's voice ebbs and finally stills, and she blinks owlishly at Rita, confused though not angered by the interruption. Estelle's hand is warm in hers, and if Rita pushes her fingers down just so, she can feel Estelle's heartbeat pulsing steadily through it. Rita's looking somewhere in the vicinity of Estelle's shoes as she mutters, "Look. Before we face off against Duke, there's...there's something I have to say. Because I might not get the chance again."
Estelle starts to protest in earnest now –- of course they'll survive, of course there will be infinite chances for infinite conversations after they mend the world together; of course if Duke doesn't finish them, the Adephagos won't either –- but Rita finally finds it in herself to make eye contact. Estelle, taken aback by the rare seriousness in the young mage's face, falls silent again. Rita takes one last deep breath, mouth open wide to speak her truth, finally, finally –- and she closes it just as suddenly, teeth clicking from the force. Estelle peers at her, a hesitant smile trying to work its way out from her lips, and Rita blanches as though a bucket of ice-cold water had been upended over her head.
The words won't come. Or rather, they could if only she'd let them; she's spent countless nights imagining every combination of pretty things to say and compelling ways to say them, but here in this moment the storybook nouns and verbs feel hopelessly inadequate to convey the depth of her feelings. What's worse, she only now realizes the price of her gamble – she can't afford any missteps, not this close to the end: Rita Mordio could confess her love for Estelle with fluent, passionate conviction in three different languages, and with that same certainty she knows that if Estelle rejects her here, however gently, Rita won't make it back from Tarqaron alive.
Before Rita knows it, she has dropped to one knee, the back of her neck bared in supplication. "Let me be your knight," she says instead, and Estelle's tiny, surprised gasp is more fulfilling than any hundreds of words could have been.
Tarqaron is a bitch. Rita genuinely looks forward to launching her strongest magic at Duke, preferably at point-blank range; she considers it payback for the amount of time they've spent traipsing around his ill-begotten fortress. She examines the steep expanse of stairs before her with barely-restrained glee – the building itself is fairly thrumming with power, and a quick glance at her comrades confirms her own suspicions that they'll finally reach him at the apex. The asshole probably expects to tire them out with his stupid endless stairs; well, he has no idea who he's –-
Rita's anticipatory rant is cut short when Yuri advises everyone to check their equipment one last time before they move out; at his grim tone, the mood abruptly turns serious. Even the old man has his game face on, and Rita's not about to be caught up short by him. Yuri takes the first step onto the staircase, and at a wave of his hand, everyone else begins to follow suit.
Rita watches them for a long moment, considering, and reaches out a hand just as Estelle moves to step past her. She circles her fingers around Estelle's wrist, catching it and holding loosely; it's enough to stop Estelle but not restrain her. Estelle turns, gracing Rita with a gently inquisitive expression and slight tilt of her head. Rita meets her gaze with a rare, genuine smile, the kind she thinks will ruin her image if she gives them out too freely.
When Estelle's features soften into an answering smile, fond and content, Rita steps forward, stretches onto her toes, and kisses Estelle full on the mouth. The contact lasts only a few seconds –- time to register the warm, pliant lips under hers, the light percussive sound and Estelle's soft murmur as she pulls away –- but it's enough. She lets go of Estelle's wrist and takes the stairs two at a time, gesturing overhead for Estelle to follow, and if the latter notices the fierce blush painting Rita's cheeks, hot and heavy, she has the kindness and good taste not to mention it.
Rita won't remember much of this battle either, but Tarqaron will survive in her memoirs nonetheless –- and this story, she will tell to anyone who will listen.
Victory, she will smugly counsel her audience, is sweet.