He hadn't meant to notice. But when the news had come—that the king of Fanelia's older, wayward brother had died trying to take down the Zaibach emperor—his eyes couldn't help but flick over to her. She had blinked, and looked stricken for a mere second or two, but then her calm, collected mask slid into place again, and the Second Princess of Asturia was back, as if she had never left. Gaddes suspected no one else had even seen the slip, let alone questioned it.
And now, as everyone, nobleman and commoner alike, celebrated the end of the war in the castle's great hall, Gaddes in turn suspected he was the only one who questioned her leaving. Princess Millerna had said she was simply tired, that she tended to find large social events exhausting, and oftentimes needed to step out for some fresh air and solitude—and while such behavior didn't seem out of character for the Second Princess, intuition told Gaddes that it was something more than that. A chance and a need to mourn, perhaps.
At the refreshment table, he furrowed his brow. It wasn't any of his business. It sure as hell wasn't his place, either, to be fretting over her emotional state. She was, after all, royalty, and unless Princess Millerna was about to knight him on the spot (unlikely, considering the way she'd been pacing her cups of punch), he couldn't even claim the lowest form of nobility.
Still, noble blood or no, his mother and older sisters had instilled a sense of chivalry in him all the same. He didn't like seeing women upset. Not when he could potentially do something to help. And while he had no idea what that something might be, the fact of the matter still stood: She was upset. He was probably the only one who had noticed, the only one who could do something. That sense of responsibility was one of the reasons Allen had seen fit to promote him to second-in-command of their outfit in the first place—because he made sure what needed to be done got done, no matter how unpleasant the task.
His mind made up, Gaddes downed the remains of his ale and then grabbed two more mugs. Did Princess Eries even like ale? Probably not. But then again, who knew? Eries Aston might very well be full of surprises. She was, at the very least, full of secrets. It had been his accidental witnessing of one of them that had landed him in this predicament in the first place, after all.
Making a move before he could second-guess himself, he slipped out of the hall and headed in the direction he had seen her disappear. But after four corridors and no sign of her, the doubt couldn't help but creep in. Perhaps she had retired to her chambers for the evening. Perhaps she merely was tired. Perhaps he really was out of line, trying to help, and he should have just gone right back to the great hall and found himself a nice, pretty girl to dance around the room with—
"May I help you?"
The voice came from off to his left, low and cool, and Gaddes jerked upright from the archway he'd flung himself back against. There, on a bench, in the corner of one of the castle's numerous balconies, sat Eries Aston. She had been turned to look out at the night, but was now looking at him, her expression utterly unreadable. Had she been crying? It didn't seem like it, but it was also difficult to tell from this distance.
"Oh!" he said. "Ah…oh. Princess Eries." He bowed as best he could with two drinks in his hands and stepped forward. Luck (destiny?) had brought him to her, after all, so he figured he might as well follow through. "I, uh…I hope I'm not bein' impertinent, but, uh…you looked like you could use one of these." He hefted one of the ales demonstratively.
Eries blinked. " 'Use one,' " she repeated. It wasn't quite phrased as a question, but the curiosity was there all the same. The suspicion, as well, he realized, as she peered up at him. Gaddes swallowed. Gods, even sitting down, she managed to be intimidating. Suddenly, this whole supposedly gallant endeavor seemed like a very bad idea. He mentally cursed himself and resisted the urge to take a long, bracing pull from one of the mugs.
He shifted his weight a little, trying to buy himself some time. "I, uh…I mean…you looked a little…upset. If you don't mind my sayin' so."
Gaddes waited tensely, half expecting her to call the guards and have him drug off to the dungeons, but eventually, all she said was, "You noticed." Again, not a question, and this time it was Gaddes's turn to blink.
Eries didn't say anything, but after another moment, she lifted a hand up and gestured at one of the mugs. Gaddes blinked again, but was quick to oblige. And quick to step back and give her space once the exchange had been made. It didn't seem like he was on his way to the dungeons anymore—if he ever had been to begin with—but he figured it was best to not tempt fate. They'd all done quite enough of that over the last few months, anyway.
Instead, Gaddes watched as she wrapped her hands around the mug and took a slow sip. It wasn't exactly the way one normally drank ale, but she also wasn't making a face the way he'd seen some other women do upon imbibing the stuff. Whether that was because she actually enjoyed it or because years of royal etiquette prevented her from letting on just how much she hated it was anyone's guess. Realizing he was staring, he shook off the question, took a drink from his own mug, and tried to relax.
After a minute, Eries spoke again: "And do you also know the reason I was upset?" Her voice was mild, but appearances could be deceiving, he knew. Gaddes froze, mug at his lips. So much for trying to relax.
Slowly, he lowered his drink and stared at the alcohol inside. "I, uh…yeah," he said again. "I mean…I have my suspicions, let's say."
The tone of her voice practically demanded his attention, and almost against his will, his head snapped up. Jichia, there was that look again—the one that he was pretty sure would even make Allen lose his nerve, just a little. Maybe he and the dungeons would get acquainted before the night was out, after all. He swallowed hard and suddenly wished he'd had the foresight to lie. Suddenly wished he'd had the foresight to not even follow her in the first place. Wished he'd never even stepped outside that one stupid night, two months ago now—
"Look," he sighed. He set his ale on the balcony railing and proceeded to let his shoulders—and his pretenses—drop. For better or worse, he was firmly entrenched in this situation, and so he might as well just come out with it. "I didn't mean to. One night, after King Van's brother defected but before we shipped out again, I couldn't sleep and stepped outside for a bit, and, well…saw somethin' flyin' away from your window, let's just say. It was just an accident, and if I could go back and unsee it, I would. It ain't any of my business, after all. But I can't go back and undo it. And everyone's celebratin' in there, while you…well…" He frowned and paused to gather his thoughts.
"Look," he went on, "gods know he was a polarizin' figure around these parts, but he clearly meant somethin' to you, and he's gone now, so I just wanted to say I'm sorry. For your sake, if nothin' else." He took a breath, squared his shoulders, and dared to raise his eyes to hers. Eries was regarding him with uncharacteristic bewilderment, and Gaddes took the opportunity to quickly add, "And now that I've stepped entirely outta line and made a complete ass of myself, I'm gonna do the smart thing and leave you alone like I shoulda done in the first place." Bowing swiftly, he scooped up his ale and made for inside, but her voice stopped him.
Against his will, Gaddes halted. Damn royals and their damn orders you couldn't refuse. His fingers tightened around the mug handle, and with what was an actual, outright prayer, he slowly turned around. Eries was still staring rather dumbly at him. It wasn't, he decided, a good look on her, but some small, strange part of him was almost proud that he had managed to confound her so. (His death, after all, might very well be imminent. Best to take joy in what little he still could.)
Eries didn't speak, merely looked at him, and after a long moment of silence, he tried, "Uh…yes, Your Highness?"
"You knew," she finally said.
"And you didn't…say anything. To anyone else, I mean."
Gaddes shrugged, a little uncomfortably. "Not my place, Highness. Like I said, it wasn't any of my business, not really. 'Sides, I've never much been one for gossip."
Eries opened her mouth as if to say something more, but then apparently thought better of it. Instead, she pressed her lips together and looked down at her drink. At the ale he had brought out for her. "I… Thank you, Gaddes. For both your discretion and your sympathy."
Overcome with relief—he'd live to see the morning, after all—Gaddes managed a small, crooked smile. "You're welcome, Princess." A few seconds passed, and he looked down at his own mug. It was still half-full, but a refill was as good an excuse as any. "Well," he briskly said, "I won't take up any more of your time. Good night, Princess." And with another bow and a lazy salute with his drink, he turned to leave.
"No, it's…" she started. "Stay. Please."
Gaddes halted again, a little taken aback by the request. "Uh…you sure?" He must have looked pretty damn skeptical, for Eries smiled.
"I don't mind the company," she said. "Please, sit."
Again, coming from a royal, he had to wonder if he could really refuse the invitation. Somewhat awkwardly, he joined her on the bench, mindful to keep space for at least another person between them, and took a pull from his ale. Eries followed suit with a careful sip a moment after.
Yup, totally normal, just hanging out on a moonlit bench, drinking ale, with the Ice Princess of Asturia. One day, Gaddes thought, this was going to make a great, if bizarre, story for his grandkids.
After a few more sips, Eries broke the silence. "My sister has spoken fondly of you, you know."
"I—really?" It wasn't exactly a turn in the conversation he'd been expecting, and he found himself genuinely flattered by the information. Princess Millerna was warmer than her sister, there was no doubt about that, and they'd certainly developed a camaraderie of sorts over the course of the Crusade's adventures, but to hear that she had spoken of him—and spoken well, apparently—to her family was nothing short of remarkable. More than he had ever hoped for, that was for sure.
Eries smiled again. "She's of the firm opinion that you're a very good and decent man. And while I can't claim as close an acquaintance with you as she can,"—and here she turned her head to look at him—"I'm inclined to agree."
Gaddes was reasonably sure he was blushing, of all things. He rubbed the back of his neck and stuttered out, "Uh…thanks!" Feeling about as smooth as Kio was delicate, he buried his face in his drink and hoped the alcohol would kick in soon. Sometimes having a high tolerance for the stuff could be downright inconvenient.
Eventually—whether because of the alcohol or not—the atmosphere on the balcony eased, and Gaddes let himself lean back against the bench and stretch his legs out in front of him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Eries slowly making her way through her beverage.
"Hey, Princess…" he dared to say, curiosity getting the better of him. "Can I ask you somethin'?"
" 'Something,' " she repeated, lowering the mug from her lips.
"Nothin' personal," he assured. "Well, I mean, it is, but it's nothin' to do with…y'know…that. Like I said, none of my business and all. But I'm just kinda wonderin' about somethin'—have been since I came out here, I suppose—and I'd really appreciate an honest answer. You won't hurt my feelin's, I swear."
She smiled at him a little oddly, a little indulgently, but eventually agreed with a cautious, "All right." Gaddes took a deep breath and spit it out.
"Do you really like ale? Or are you just drinkin' it to be polite?"
Eries laughed, and Gaddes thought the noise sounded like healing.