"So here was the novelty of a king without a keeper, an absolute monarch who was absolute in sober truth and not by a fiction of words." – Mark Twain, on river boat pilots, in Life on the Mississippi
Ephraim keeps the letters from his sister, unopened, in a little gilded box at the edge of his cluttered desk, a shock of gaudy gold and violet next to the humble inkwell and penknife. Kyle knows it well – a gift from King Fado's mother to the late Queen Aurora upon her engagement, it has been sitting on that same desk for as long as he can remember. Ugly and tasteless, certainly, but in its time it had at least been practical. Now, at its spot on the dust streaked wood, it is a treasure beyond compare. When the weather is warm and the air is just right, it still smells faintly of rose-tinged perfume.
In any other country, in any other time, a king so new clad in anything other than full mourning would be a topic for gossip, for scorn and rumors, but black ill suits Ephraim. It makes his face seem pale and drawn, and draws attention to how thin his arms have gotten in the few short years of his reign. He spent only a day in the dark, heavy cloak his father once wore before shrugging it off.
"We don't have time to grieve," he'd said. And so, he had not.
The people don't seem to mind their king's if anything, they embrace it. Renais is hardly hungry for a king in mourning. Their sorrow is spelled out in the still-crumbling facade of Castle Renvall, the seats left empty at so many tables in the surrounding city, the haunted stares and gaunt bodies of the few Grado refugees who manage to make it across the border alive. They do not need it draped in black across Ephraim's slender shoulders as he makes speeches and mingles with commoners and nobles alike. They are enamored of their smiling king, and wouldn't have him any other way.
"Thank you, Kyle," Ephraim says, as he takes the letters from Kyle's hand. In the privacy of the study, shielded by the ancient desk and the stacks of worn papers and books, he doesn't bother to mask the edge of fatigue creeping into his voice. No one can be sure, but Kyle likes to think, with Seth abroad in Grado and Forde finally journeying on to Frelia, that he is the only one who ever glimpses it.
"My pleasure, sire," Kyle answers, and again, only in the privacy of this room does he neglect to bow to his liege. He watches Ephraim glance through the letters, making neat little piles in front of him, each paper finding its own careful place.
"Oh. You're excused."
As Kyle turns around, he hears the click of the little box opening and smells the faintest hint of roses. Before he is out the door, he hears it click closed again.
Sparring matches with Ephraim are a curious thing. Kyle has heard that in some places, like the northern reaches of Carcino, that to best an authority would be to ask for ruin- or in some cases, worse. He knows better than to go easy on his own king, and cannot imagine it any other way. He slams his lance against the other man's with all the strength he can muster, and is met with equal force and fervor. He can only take a second to shake the sweat away from his eyes before Ephraim is upon him again, thrusting and shoving with the wildly measured fervor that has always marked his way of fighting. For the second time that afternoon, Kyle finds himself on his back, his spear thrown from his hands, gasping for breath and trying to remember where it was he'd fallen short.
"You're off today," he hears, as a hand comes down to help him up. He takes it with a grunt and shakes his head.
"No, you're just exceptional today, sire." Whether it is a lie or not is hard to say – the king is always exceptional on the practice fields. The stiffness in his gait disappears, and the strain at his eyes and lips melts away into nothing but pure, raw passion once the cold steel of his lance is once again in his hands. It is natural, beautiful, perfect. He is lucky that no one dare object to it. In some other place, some other time, a king might be held back from such base activities, especially one who pushed himself to exhaustion as Ephraim so often does. His chest heaves and shakes as he grabs his spear and grins at Kyle, pleading with his eyes for another bout.
"Don't patronize me, Kyle."
Kyle knows better than to do any such thing. Ephraim tolerates the hollow compliments from the nobles seeking favor, but it is with a terse smile, stiffer than the ones he shares with others. Once, alone, with the smell of wine still fresh on his breath, he'd spoken all too freely – "Restoration king? What exactly have I restored?" Only once. The king does not drink anymore.
"It's been a year, sire. A year, today. I suppose I am a little distracted. I was concerned for you." Nearly three years since their return to Renais, but only one since Eirika had left again, with no intention of returning to stay. Kyle still remembers hearing, through the crack beneath the heavy oaken door – "You told me you would stay here, sister. Did you change your mind so soon?" No accusations, no pleas, only those simple words, followed by a quiet "Yes."
"Has it been, really?" Ephraim steps forward again, raising his spear and smirking as if he heard nothing at all. "I thought it had been longer."
Life in Renais has changed since the war, but all at once, it is the same. The magnolias still bloom the same shade of pink-tinged white as spring comes at last; the birds still nest in the same little crooks between the castle stones. Only the faces around the castle, behind the same steadfast walls that survived the barrage of Grado's men not so long ago, are different. The men Kyle knew as he trained in his youth have moved on now, taken wives or fallen to their wounds or gone to lay silently in the makeshift graves scattered across the castle grounds. Today it is only Kyle stopping to gaze at the same trees, the same noisy birds, in a brief moment of distraction before he returns to his work.
General. An odd title, still, to bear, though he has worn it for nearly two years now. When he hears it called across the fields, he expects to see his commander turning at the sound. His commander is abroad, of course, a hero for a new country now. A man like Seth could carry an empire on his shoulders if he wanted to, but Kyle feels his own quake under the weight of only his small platoon of men.
Perhaps it is because he has learned, from the lips of his own king, that "peace" is a word that doesn't mean very much. All is at "peace", and yet there are Renaitian spies at every corner of Magvel, armored guards at the once tranquil gates of Serafew, and hundreds of men, well-trained and ready for any sort of attack, all at Kyle's command.
Or perhaps it is because he almost envies his comrades, all resting in the arms of one girl or another, far from the grips of almost-war and the visions of a king who refuses to wear black. Faintly, he recalls a woman who made him smile even as the whole continent seemed to turn into hell. He remembers her face just as clearly as he remembers his princess's – calm, almost regal despite the roughness of her hands and the ferocity of her gaze. He keeps the figurine she gave him on a shelf above his bed, lest its fragile wooden wings snap with an ill-placed blow or the moisture of the air seep in and let it set to rot. It is his tiny treasure, a sacred thing, though he doubts he'll ever return to the land it was made to represent.
He finds that he doesn't really miss that woman, not the way he would miss the never-changing castle and the king he serves within. What he does miss, he knows, is laughing freely, letting his cares slip off his shoulders and forgetting, just for a moment, what his life is about. Ephraim does not do things like that often, and Kyle, as he once learned to do in battle, always follows his king's lead.
The next letter comes at the end of spring, when the flowers in the courtyard are all in full bloom and the air smells of fresh grass and old rain. It is not the only one the king receives – it rarely is – but it, alone, is placed in the little gilded box along with the others. Kyle once wondered why it was him Ephraim asked to deliver the mail, and not some young squire or servant who had nothing better to be doing.
"I don't see you often anymore," Ephraim had answered, with an odd expression that lingered between a smirk and a grimace. "You can spare the time, can't you?"
Most often, Kyle can, but on this morning, it is different. Word came to the castle just an hour before of trouble in the countryside, one bandit group or another taking it upon itself to raid the villages at the edge of Renvall. An ugly way to welcome the summer, with fighting and blood and chaos, but it couldn't be helped. His men have ridden ahead already, and Kyle intends to follow, though he is sure the small force he's ordered ahead is be enough.
He turns to the door as he heard the box click shut, his pace quick and his mind racing ahead. He'll need to collect his weaponry, don at least his breastplate if not more, assure that the tack was all in order, so many little things that he'd once done every morning before riding out into battle –
Kyle stops, his hand at the door, and turns back to see Ephraim with a letter in hand. He recognizes the slanted script with its deep, dipping and exaggerated loops, the same way Seth wrote notes and orders before the war, and after it, his careful instructions to Kyle as he took his place. To receive word from two people he actually knows in one day is strange – though of course, the letters from Caer Pelyn are never opened. It is at least a sign, he likes to hope, that the princess is well, even if her brother seems to prefer to pretend as if he is an only child.
"Do you want to stay to hear word from Seth?" Before Kyle can answer, Ephraim slides his letter opener under the wax seal of Grado's burgeoning government – not the imperial seal, but the seal of a regency, where Seth did not preside, but preserved Renais' interests at his post. Once, a letter had come bearing the imperial seal, despite the downfall of the empire and near everyone within. Ephraim had thrown it into the fires without a word and continued with his business as if he hadn't seen.
Kyle wants to refuse, but Ephraim looks up with the sort of odd pleading in his eyes that he uses to convince him to stay for just one more bout. It is not at all begging, for there is nothing in this world or any other that might reduce his king to that – at least, not anymore. Ephraim gestures to the chair in front of his desk, and reluctantly, Kyle takes a seat.
"It says. . . ." The hint of a smile at the edges of Ephraim's thinning lips is gone in an instant, replaced by tightness, a frown. "He is engaged."
"Engaged? To whom?"
"A cleric of Grado, a woman from the war – he claims they connected then, and met again now, and. . . this is terrible, Kyle."
"But isn't it – " Good news? Kyle stops himself before he can finish. Good news, like peace, is often more complex than he would like to admit. Ephraim is the first to point this out. He sighs in private at word of bountiful harvests, at the sight of festivals and glee glimpsed beyond the castle walls. It is still not the happiness he had imagined, and it will never quite match up, though out in the open, he is excellent at pretending it does.
"He says his fiancee is passionate about rebuilding, that it would break her heart to leave her work and come back to live in Renais with him. . . ." The letter is tossed down, sending bits of dust flying free in the sunlight filtered through the open window and stirring up the still-lingering scent of old rose in the air. "He wishes to be dismissed from his position completely. To renounce his knighthood."
It is an image Kyle would never have considered: his commander, anything but a knight of Renais to the last of his days. It was Seth, after all, who led the troops out into the city and villages beyond, rations and tools and timber in tow, who shed his armor and spent weeks in the farmlands replanting the ruined crops and restoring the bandit-ravaged townships with his own two hands. But then, the Renais Seth spent that year rebuilding is not the one he left behind. As Ephraim finally lowers his head to his hands and runs a tired, shaking hand through the mess of his hair, it occurs to Kyle that perhaps it is also not the same king.
"I won't sanction this. I can't sanction this. What would we do? Who could replace him? There's no one, Kyle, there's no way."
"There must be someone." In his youth, Kyle imagined, like so many others, that Seth was incomparable, a perfect man with the perfect title, second to none, but he remembers now that others have grown strong in the same shadow. "What of Franz? He's tied to Grado and Renais, now, with that girl he married, and –"
He's cut off by the sudden slam of fist on desk, the angry shove of papers to the floor, the crash of ink and pen knife, the skid of the gilded box of letters across the polished stone. "It isn't that," Ephraim breathes, his voice carrying the same quiet, measured rage he once leveled against the blades of his enemies. "It's fine. I don't need him. I can manage this well enough on my own. But. . . stay with me, won't you? Just for a little while."
"Sire. . . I'm needed with my men. There was word from Ide, not too long ago, and –"
Ephraim favors him with a cold stare, his lower lip trapped between his teeth and one hand still wound tight in his hair. "Go, then," he says, before turning away to face the window. Kyle pauses for a moment, watching the shadows cast by the old magnolias trail across his king's face, before finally taking his leave.
When Eirika left, the people were not surprised. Renvall no longer suited their princess, they said. She moved with a freedom its cold walls could not contain, a refined wildness that never left her. For the brief time she stayed between long visits abroad, she had worn black, and it suited her. It made her eyes more fierce and her skin more bright, a color of strength on her rather than misery, and she never kept secrets about for whom it was she grieved. She'd speak their names freely with the quiet authority of her ever-clear voice and carry on their values, their dreams, with an honest, if sad, smile.
She was a light for the people, their restoration queen, but only one man objected when she announced her intention to journey back to the village far in the east, back to the man she'd come to love, and stay there. Kyle wondered what she might think now if she saw her brother, who had buried himself in meetings and paperwork and spent afternoons in the castle library, of all places, poring over books of history and diplomacy and everything else he'd once sworn he hated.
"I don't have time for that," Ephraim snapped just a few days ago, when asked why he no longer traipses out to the practice fields for their afternoon bouts. It has been weeks since he did, and since then, his face has grown pale and his smile has grown weak. No one else around the castle seems to see the difference. He still excels at making speeches and turning up at just the right celebrations, mingling with his people on the festival grounds as a common mercenary might. Were she here, Kyle thinks, Eirika would know just as well as he does that underneath it all, her brother is a different man.
The letters come in as they always do. It seems they come in spurts, as if all of Magvel decides at once to need at that moment the eyes of Renais' king. Kyle spies the princess's handwriting among the stack as he pushes them toward his king, tucked beneath one from Frelia and another that might be from Serafew.
"Sire, why do you never open her letters?" he asks finally, as the smell of roses seeps into the air with the click of the little box. He knows he oversteps his bounds. It is not for him to challenge his king, unless his very life is at risk – but then, as the letter slides into the box along with its fellows, he wonders if there is danger in it after all.
"I have no wish to read them," Ephraim answers, as he slices through the Frelian seal and reads. "Tana intends to visit for midsummer again – perhaps I will ask her. She'd like it here, wouldn't she? And I know King Hayden would approve. It would be good for Renais, and of course for Frelia–"
"But what of you, sire?" Again, Kyle oversteps his bounds, but he no longer cares. The smell of roses grows stronger as he leans across the desk, his hand brushing up against the stacks of papers and rattling the old inkwell. "You must take care of yourself, as well."
"For the good of Renais, I know."
"Not only that. Would it be good for you?"
Ephraim looks up at last, and Kyle sees, all at once, the resemblance to his father – the set of his strong jaw into a frown, the narrowing of his bright eyes, the stray wisps of hair that have gone gray before their time. "Tana, at least, wouldn't leave," he murmurs at last, before turning back to his work and waving for Kyle to go.
Nothing comes of midsummer, and Ephraim does not mention Tana or other women again, though lately it seems he smells faintly of strangers' perfumes. It is not for Kyle to ask of such things, but he knows it brings no joy to his king. Ephraim's eyes stay dark and tired, mostly in private, but sometimes the weakness seeps through on the streets and the falseness of it all is laid bare. Kyle almost expects gossip – the king doesn't smile the way he once did – but no one around Renvall ever mentions it in his hearing. He doubts anyone else cares enough to notice.
The letters from Frelia grow less frequent, but the ones from Caer Pelyn come at the same rate, each one on the same sort of thick yellowed paper, signed with the same sprawling script. Kyle imagines opening one himself, reading the words he imagines are written with care and then claiming the seal was broken through some clumsiness on his part. He doubts Ephraim would believe him, as he has never been a strong liar, but for just a moment he runs his fingers along the smooth wax and wonders what it is his princess would say.
He realizes that he imagines Eirika now with the same quiet strength that marked the woman he still reflects on, and their faces have nearly merged into one in his frequent imaginings. He wonders if that woman is still like herself, still patient and kind with the less experienced knights, still moving as smoothly on her feet as she does in the skies.
For the first time, as he journeys up the old winding staircase to Ephraim's humble study, he realizes how he envies that woman, and Forde, and even Eirika herself. None of them are tied to a land that doesn't seem like their home, or to a man who remains ever the ideal king. He pictures himself on his own set of wings, flying from the land that has always defined him in a desperate search for something unchanging.
The image escapes him as he opens the door and finds his king sprawled across the desk, eyes closed, breath coming in quiet, even rhythm. Kyle drops the letters with care at the edge of the desk, then goes back the way he came.
Kyle tucks his letter just beneath the princess's before he lays the pile on Ephraim's desk. The chill of the coming winter seeps into the study, lending a cold, clean edge to the smell that fills the room as the box opens and closes.
"Kyle, what is this?" Ephraim holds up the letter, looking up at his knight with a weary shake of his head.
"Read it, sire."
For once, it is Ephraim who obeys, pushing his knife beneath the red wax and opening the paper. His eyebrows furrow as he reads the words within, just as they did once when analyzing, in hindsight, a bout after a loss.
"I should have known," he says at last, and Kyle tries not to hear the hurt in his voice.
"I cannot serve you now, sire. Please accept my apologies."
The silence spreads between them, the distance more evident now than ever before. An ideal king needs ideal knights, and Kyle is far from ideal. He spends his days longing after a country that no longer lives and a king who is like the prince he once knew in more than just name. It is selfish and greedy and painfully impossible, nothing suited for the general of an ever-perfect king.
"Go now. Don't wait."
Not unexpected. Goodbyes are not for Ephraim. They suit him poorly, much like black – awkward and forced and with an edge of dishonesty. I know you're not leaving. You'll come back. Saying goodbye is often too much like mourning.
Kyle leaves quickly. As the door shuts behind him, he imagines himself once more on those fragile wooden wings, on his way to a happiness he almost remembers, one that will perhaps remain the same and not feel like some grand tragic farce.
As he hears the click through the crack beneath the door and smells the faintest tinge of old rose perfume, Kyle does not stop.