If there was one good thing that Princess Eirika of Renais could say came from the horrible day her family's castle was overthrown and her father killed, it was that the experience had led her to some very unique and dear friendships. Of course, she would have preferred to have discovered those friendships without having to lose her home and having her father be killed. There was one other thing that could be considered good, in a manner of speaking, but she wasn't sure she wanted to admit it right now.
Minions of the Grado Empire and its controlling force, Fomortiis, had ravaged all of Magvel, and the healing could only just now begin. They were a bit of a rag-tag band of warriors, some three-dozen in number, but they had saved all of the countries by defeating Fomortiis's shell of a body after sealing his soul. And now, in a day or two, their numbers would begin to dwindle fast, as they reached various parting points. They were about a day or two out from the Rausten court, and from there they would head south and then west through Jehanna to the borders of Renais, Grado and Frelia.
Surviving all that had been thrown at them had been a challenge, to say the least, but now that it was over... hopefully they could rebuild the five nations ravaged by Grado's folly. Between herself and her brother Ephraim, she hoped to rebuild Renais to its former glory and govern it with something resembling the wisdom and grace of her late father. Still...
Please forgive my rudeness... Princess, I am merely your subject...
The princess rubbed her eyes wearily, unable to drown out the memory that seemed determined to torture her. She had been able to put the conversation out of her mind for months now, because of their flight into the unknown and their fight against the overwhelming forces of darkness flowing from the Demon King's lair. But now... now that the danger was past, and the future was finally in front of them, the conversation that had weighed so heavily on her heart at one time had come back to haunt her.
It was pretty clear to her now that she couldn't regard Seth, the Silver Knight and the General of the Knights of Renais, as merely her subject. Too much had happened to draw the two of them together, and too much affection had taken root in her heart. She owed more than just her life to him.
She blinked a moment, suddenly disoriented.
"Eirika, what's the matter with you? You've been in a fog for days now. What's going on?"
Her twin brother, Ephraim, was standing in front of her, hands on his hips. His face was wreathed with concern and his eyes were gentle, but it was clear that he was annoyed and was in no mood to banter words.
"I'm sorry, Brother," she said softly, turning away.
He caught her arm. "Don't you 'sorry, Brother' me -- tell me what's wrong. You can't fool me. We've got a long, difficult road ahead of us, and I am going to need your support if I'm going to be a good king for our people."
She gave him a petulant look; "It's nothing, really. I'm just so emotionally drained..."
His eyes narrowed slightly, losing some of their gentle understanding; "Eirika, you're lying to me. It's obvious. Something is bothering you. Is this about what happened to Lyon? I thought you had come to terms with it."
She shook her head. There was no getting out of this and if she didn't tell him soon, he'd start jumping to even wilder conclusions; "Brother, I don't want to talk about this right here. Can we discuss this a little later, in private? I'll tell you what's bothering me, but I need a chance to figure out how to say it, and I want it to be private."
He looked a little put out, but agreed; "All right. My tent, after we've eaten. I expect you to be honest with me, Eirika. Something has been bothering you for a while, and I need to know what it is if I'm going to be able to help you."
Eirika nodded tiredly in agreement. If only he could help. But it would probably be good for her to at least come out and say what she'd been trying to avoid saying. Not that it would help anything, but at least maybe then things would be a little easier to endure. And there was a chance that Ephraim could at the very least comfort her, and perhaps even advise her.
"I'm going to go check on the convoy," Ephraim said. "Why don't you go make sure our horses are tended to." It was about as close to a command without actually being a command. It had been worded as a suggestion, but there was no mistaking the underlying command. She didn't feel like arguing with him, and turned to head to where her rouncey was tethered beside Ephraim's.
As she moved through the campsite, she passed by the makeshift paddock with the three destriers belonging to the Great Knights. Kyle was grooming his, while Forde lounged nearby. Duessel's big black charger was grazing at the far end of the small enclosure, having already been groomed and turned out for the night.
Forde's destrier nickered a greeting to Eirika as she passed and she paused to pat the horse on his broad forehead.
"Good evening, Princess Eirika," Kyle said, giving her a quick salute. Forde rolled his head around and cracked one eye open to ascertain that Eirika actually was there (because he couldn't put it past Kyle to say something like that just to make him move) and then got to his feet and saluted smartly.
"Good evening, both of you," she said with a smile. The two knights were as different as sun and moon, and yet they worked together in amazing concert. They were both knights to be proud of, and she knew that Ephraim was eager to put them to work in rebuilding the Renais military.
Patting the horse one more time, she stepped away. "Carry on. I'm just on my way to make sure my horse is tended to."
Just as she was turning away, she heard Duessel's charger, Obrigado, stomp over. She looked up at the big black stallion in bewilderment, but he was ignoring her, his neck stretched out. He was an aggressive horse, difficult to be around, but there were two people that he would go out of his way to be petted by: his master, Duessel; and Forde's younger brother Franz, who had an uncanny connection with horses.
Sure enough, out of the shadows emerged Franz, leading a pair of coursers -- his own roan gelding, and General Seth's dun stallion Hyperion -- and following immediately after him was the tiny Grado soldier-recruit-turned-powerhouse-paladin, Amelia, leading her own courser. All three horses had clearly been groomed and bathed already and were being turned out for the night in the enclosure.
"Someone move that beast so we can get these horses in there," the calm, sure voice of General Seth, the Silver Knight of Renais, emerged from the surrounding shadows, as he appeared in a pool of dusk light, carrying some of the horses' tack. He paused beside Eirika and set the tack down, making shooing motions at Obrigado. "Come on, you giant pest, back up. Get. Go on, you brute." Obrigado was not a cooperative animal, but Seth had a poise and authority about him that even difficult horses could recognize. Flattening his large ears and baring his teeth in aggression, the big black stallion backed up so that Amelia could bring her horse into the enclosure, and then Franz brought the other two in.
For just a moment, Eirika allowed herself to be captivated by her infatuation. The way the fading daylight glanced off Seth's brilliant red hair, and the radiating sense of calm serenity and competence that seemed to always cloak him, combined with his proud posture and gentle countenance... She mentally kicked herself and looked away from the paladin. This wasn't helping her at all, indulging in these little moments of weakness. She needed to steel her heart against the reality that her affections were likely not reciprocated.
"Are you all right, Princess?" he inquired, noting as she turned away abruptly.
"I... just need to check on my horse, that's all. I let myself get sidetracked."
"I had one of the convoy grooms take care of both horses -- yours and Prince Ephraim's."
She managed to swallow a groan; leave it to Seth to take care of everything, even when she herself was stupidly distracted. Next to his steady efficiency, she felt ridiculously inadequate at times. She still didn't quite understand him, in all honesty. Contrary to stereotypical portrayal, successful knights in Renais didn't need to be selflessly subservient; Forde was a perfect example of an excellent knight who took nothing very seriously. Even Kyle could snark back at Ephraim occasionally, though he did so rarely and generally only out of extreme exasperation. Seth, on the other hand, was highly formal and deferential to both Ephraim and Eirika at pretty much all times. With the war over with, right now the one thing Eirika really wanted more than anything else was for Seth to finally let down his guard, to show her the gentler, more human side she knew he possessed. She wanted to get to know the man, not the knight, paladin, soldier, horseman, whatever. She wanted to erase that invisible social status line that separated them.
With another shake of the head to clear her mind as tears threatened to form in her eyes, she started in the direction of her and her brother's horses. Even if they had already been tended to and were settled for the night, she needed an excuse to put some distance between her and Seth. She didn't quite manage to get out of earshot before Franz made a comment to Seth about how "Princess Eirika looked kind of mad at you, General. What'd you do?"
She made haste to get away from the knights, wanting some privacy right now. With her emotions in a sudden tailspin, she needed a chance to collect herself together and regain her composure. By the time she arrived at where the two roan rounceys were tethered, she had managed to calm her fractured nerves and felt at least a little bit better.
The two horses were sturdy, lean-muscled geldings, both hand-picked by Seth himself for the royal twins. Both horses had been trained to carry riders in combat, but unlike the destriers and coursers, were not trained to actually fight. They were good horses who would have no trouble adapting to life on a farm or in a stable, now that the war was over. Eirika's horse was a light gray roan named Thrush for his bird-like agility, while Ephraim's mount was a darker, steel-gray roan gelding named Storm for his lightning-quick reflexes. The two horses had personalities that matched their riders, too. Thrush was steady and friendly, while Storm was strong-willed and brave, though he had a tendency to be a bit aloof at times.
Thrush nickered a greeting as she approached. Storm was busily chowing down on some grain poured for him and ignored her when she patted him. The calmness of the two horses was soothing and she was able to relax a bit, petting and talking to Thrush. She lost track of time, letting her mind stay as empty as possible until the meal bell was rung, indicating that the cooking crew from the convoy had finished getting the food ready.
After collecting her food, she found a place to sit around the campfire that someone had gotten going. She found herself near Lute and Artur, who were apparently having a serious discussion.
"Are you sure about this, Artur? Won't the temple get angry with you?"
"I don't think so. My duties won't have changed much, for all that we shouldn't have to deal with those monsters and creatures anymore. If anything, they'll be more annoyed at my promotion than that I wish to get married. And if that temple is stingy and won't allow it, then I'll find another way to continue my work."
She snickered. "Honestly. I really don't get how you aren't bored with all that cleric work. You're not learning anything new, just the same old thing over and over again."
"It's a calling." Artur had nearly-infinite patience where Lute was concerned, which Eirika privately found admirable. Lute could be so pretentious sometimes that she was difficult to even be around. Artur just took it all in stride. In recent months, the dynamic between the two of them had seemed to change into a very interesting partnership. Lute seemed to be softening up, a little less rigid and conceited around others. "If you ask Natasha, she'll tell you the same thing: it's a calling, something that we can do for the good of all humanity."
"Mmm. Well, I certainly won't be one to tell you to give up your calling; just don't expect me to drop what I'm doing and join your temple. I'm interested in learning more of your Light magic, but not enough to give up my Anima magic."
Artur just laughed; "There's nothing to worry about, Lute. You'd probably just intimidate everyone in the temple anyway."
"Good. Now, I was recalling a book I read about marriage, and how the husband and wife have certain roles around the house... you know, I know nothing about how to do most of that stuff, and the book didn't exactly give specifics. I've never cooked in my life, and recipes baffle me because they... they're just a list of ingredients with some vague instructions. I'd like to think I could figure it out easily, but..."
"No need to worry, my dear. You just do what you do best, and I'll do what I do best, and everything will work out. I'm confident."
"You give me confidence, Lute."
Eirika tuned the rest of their conversation out, deciding that she wasn't comfortable listening in on an obviously private conversation. As she was finishing up her meal, she noticed Ephraim signaling to her. She swallowed a sigh and stood up to go face up to her problems.
Ephraim's tent was stationed right next to hers, but was larger because he usually used it when he and Seth had planned out routes and strategies during this war. As she arrived in front of it, he silently ushered her in with a gesture. She followed without a word.
"Now, please, Eirika, tell me what's bothering you. I'm worried about you." He closed the flap of the tent as a sign to everyone outside that this was a private discussion. He then gestured for her to sit down in one of the chairs by the table he used for tactics planning. She did so, and he took a seat in an adjacent chair.
"This isn't easy for me to admit, Ephraim," she said hesitantly after a long silence. "I've been... well, I guess you could say I've been actively in denial for a while now..."
He was silent, regarding her with a concerned gaze.
"I..." She swallowed with some difficulty, a lump having formed in her throat, "I have tried to avoid this and deny it, but... it seems that I've fallen in love with someone. I... I can't get him out of my thoughts, now that this horrible war is finally over."
Ephraim was silent a little longer before speaking, and his voice was very gentle; "So that explains it. I suspected it was something like that. Or, at least, I wanted to believe it was something like that, and not something much more sinister."
She blinked, uncomprehending; "Like what?"
"Considering what we just battled and what it did to Lyon?" He looked uncomfortable. "I didn't want to completely dismiss the possibility that the Demon King had fooled us and had somehow infected you. You were pretty badly shaken by everything, and I... well, to be honest, I was afraid you were going to be vulnerable to him. Even if L'Arachel and Innes thought I was being stupidly cynical, I couldn't shake that fear."
"Well, I guess I can understand your fear," she said, thinking it over, "but the reason Lyon was, er, infected, was because he experimented with Grado's Sacred Stone."
"I know that, Eirika, but I still wasn't sure why you seemed so down and distracted. But, I guess being lovesick will do some pretty weird things to you, huh?" He attempted to smile, but she couldn't find the energy to return it.
"I don't particularly like this, you know," she said softly. "It's not the least bit fun."
He reached over and covered her hand with his own; "Can you at least tell me who it is? Or does it bother you that much? Surely you're not ashamed of this?"
She sighed; "Well, I guess there's no harm. I'm not ashamed at all, I just... I don't see how this could work out."
There was a silence.
"Well?" He prodded gently. "Are you going to tell me?"
She closed her eyes; "It's... it's Seth."
"I see." She noted that he didn't sound the least bit surprised. "Have you spoken with him about this at all? Do you know what his feelings on the matter are?"
She felt a little deflated. "I want to believe that he feels the same about me. He seemed to say as much, in a roundabout way. But... he told me that I should treat him as just another subject, as just a knight in my service. I've tried, Brother. I really have. He's right. My station is far above his, and I shouldn't be favoring one of my knights, never mind if he's the highest ranking one, the General of the Knights of Renais..." She could feel her composure crumbling. "But it's just so hard. I don't know where these feelings came from, but... the more I try to reason them away, the more they haunt me. He is... far more dear to me than he should be. He's my subordinate, and I'm his queen."
Ephraim sat back a bit, pondering this. "Actually, Eirika, you're not a queen at all. Well, technically, I'm not a king yet either, but strictly speaking, if one of us is going to succeed Father, it's supposed to be me. I'm the one he groomed to succeed him, even if I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to what he was trying to teach me. I don't think Father ever intended for you to actually rule Renais; more, he wanted you to be my most trusted advisor, and a good regent when I'm away from the throne. But as long as I'm around, you're not necessarily a queen."
"That's not helping, Ephraim!" She felt a flash of anger heat up her insides. "So now you're telling me that you're above me?"
"Not at all. I'm only saying that one of us is supposed to take the throne and be the stand-offish monarch, not both. It doesn't have to be you. It really shouldn't be you. This isn't a case of 'an heir and a spare' -- it's rather deliberate. King Hayden is doing the same thing with Innes and Tana -- he's grooming Innes to be his successor, and Tana to be Innes's adviser. You've always been better at the politics than me, Eirika, but I have much more battle and command experience than you. I wouldn't be able to rule effectively without your help, but that doesn't mean we have to both play the role of king and queen."
She blinked at him; "So, what are you trying to say to me, Brother?"
"I'm saying that if you love him that much, and if he returns your feelings, there shouldn't be any reason why you can't share that love. I suppose that ideally I should keep you available, in case a situation calls for an alliance marriage, but to be honest, there really aren't any other princes out there, and frankly, I don't want to send you away to marry some prince. I want you to stay close to me, to keep me in check. I really am going to need your help, Eirika. Our alliance with Frelia is already strong enough and I have another idea for how to secure it that doesn't involve you; besides, I get the feeling that Prince Innes has his eye on someone else. Prince Joshua has already informed me of his intentions to marry. Grado is in shambles, without a ruling monarchy at this time, and the only other royalty out there that I can think of is Princess L'Arachel." Then he leaned forward and put a hand on her shoulder; "My dear sister, I think that you could hardly do better than the Silver Knight of Renais. He may not be of noble birth, but he has more than made up for that with his valor and loyalty. He was, after all, one of Father's most trusted knights. Father did entrust him with the secret of our bracelets and the Stone of Renais. I hardly think that our father would be bothered by you falling in love with his most trusted paladin."
She looked down; "That's as may be, Ephraim, but the fact remains that he..." She paused as emotion caught in her throat, and she took a moment to try and quell it. "I want to believe that he feels the same, but... you know how he is, Brother. He'd cut off his own arm if either of us ordered it."
Ephraim blinked; "Yes... I suppose he probably would, though he would most likely chastise us for ordering something so ridiculous. He's not afraid to tell me so when I do something he thinks is stupid. What does that have to do with how he feels about you?"
"Someone as bound to duty and the chivalric code as him surely would be able to kill his own emotions and desires."
"You'd be surprised," Ephraim said. "Seth isn't some paragon of chivalry. He's a man, just like I am, just like our father was, just like any other man in this camp. He might be able to act as though he has none of those desires, but I assure you, if he returns your affection, there's no way he can just kill those feelings on command."
She shook her head, fighting back tears; "That's all well and good, but no matter how he might feel deep inside, you know he's far too honor-bound to act on those desires, to even acknowledge that they exist."
Ephraim was silent, conceding that point.
She slumped down a bit; "Well, now you know why I've been so... as you put it, down and distracted. I just... I can't help it, Brother. I love him. The harder I try to talk myself out of it, the more I realize I can't. The more I try to convince myself that it's just infatuation, the more I realize that... infatuation or not, it's not going away..."
"Is there anything I can do to help you, Eirika? This is breaking my heart, seeing you like this."
"I don't think you can help me with this, Brother. I just need to sort through this on my own. I do appreciate the support, though." A tiny sob escaped her throat, and Ephraim reacted, standing up and pulling her into his arms in a fierce embrace. In her surprise, she lost control over her tears, and found herself weeping uncontrollably. "I-I'm sorry, Ephraim, I know you hate it when I cry, but I just... it just hurts so much..."
"I wish I could help you, Eirika," he murmured, rubbing her back gently as a gesture of comfort. "I can't bear to see you like this."