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Under A Blackened Sky

Chapter Text

The tea tasted different here.

Of all the things to bother him about this place, this situation, this new life, Inigo had not expected it to be this. The sugar was different; it had a malty aftertaste that long outlasted the flavour of the drink.

The women were different too, of course, and the men – but that was hardly a bad thing. The tea, though… that would require rethinking. What other beverages did they serve here? The usual alcohol, and that ‘coffee’ drink.

“Hey!” A sharp finger-click in front of his eyes. “Well? Happy?”

Inigo blinked, jolting back a bit. Severa was scowling at him. Some things never change. “Er- yes.”

“Good,” Severa’s lips curled into a smug grin, anticipatory glee in her eyes. “Let’s go win some money!”

*

At least they were no strangers to dropping into a world unannounced. In a matter of weeks, they’d secured enough mercenary work to keep them afloat. It was easier with three of them.

(It would have been even easier with twelve, Inigo thought sometimes. But three was still better than one all alone, like poor Laurent.)

“Windmire,” Severa said aloud as they trudged down a barren country road. “Ugh, it even sounds gloomy.”

“It sounds strong,” Owain corrected her, a hitch in his voice – oh, he was building up to another monologue – “A fortress-city of a land forever shrouded in the darkness! Stone pathways snaking across a yawning abyss, with only starlight glittering above to part the way! A city of –“

Inigio zoned out. He appreciated Owain’s optimism, but sometimes it got a little much. Nohr was more than just gloomy: it was oppressive. The fields struggled to grow even weeds, the townsfolk were pale and sickly, and even the air felt heavy in his chest. Their whole world wasn’t like this. There were other lands, bountiful and prosperous lands where no-one went hungry. Even the youngest Nohrians were keenly aware of that. The fault lay with Hoshido, or so a lovely young lady had told him over tea. They were Nohr’s neighbours to the east, possessed of more fertile crops than they knew what to do with, and openly disdainful of their poorer neighbours. Hoshido weren’t Nohr’s only neighbour -Cheve, Nestria, Izumo, and a handful of others populated Owain’s map- but they were the wealthiest. Nohr had asked for trade. If necessary, they would take by force.

What was one more war for Inigo to fight in?

*

It didn’t take any of them long to realise that Windmire was nothing like Ylisstol. The city was abuzz, or so the innkeeper had told them, but the upper streets were barren, and even the undercity was subdued.

“If this is bustling, I’d hate to see barren,” Severa had remarked to the innkeeper. His expression turned grim, and he sighed; “Wait until winter, outlanders. Then you’ll see.”

*

“The tournament’s in a week,” Severa scowled in the mirror, brushing her hair out. “We need a plan.”

“What happened to winning?” Inigo replied glibly. At Severa’s glare, he gave an overwrought sigh; “You’ll need to be more specific, I mean. What do we need a plan for?”

Severa gave an irritated grunt. “Everything! Who are we even meant to impress?!”

“The King, obviously, or his Generals. Whoever makes the real decisions.” He knew Severa well enough to know when she was just complaining to iron out insecurities, and when she was talking around a genuine problem. This was the latter. “Hmm. I see your point.”

It was all very well hearing about a grand tournament and deciding to try their luck, use that to fulfil their agreement with Anankos. But what would even impress the King of Nohr?

“The King of Nohr,” Owain began, and Inigo fought back the instinctive urge to banter, “respects power over all.” He spoke seriously, free of his usual flourishes. “His people fear him. He rarely appears in public. When he does, it’s to speak of war and conquest.”

Severa grimaces. “Great. So is he more Gangrel or Walhart?”

There was silence as Owain considered. He acted the fool, but he was a prescient judge of character, and could pick truth from rumour as easily as he spun tales. “More,” Owain pursed his lips, “more my grandfather, I think.”

Their parents had rarely spoken of him – out of respect for Exalt Emmeryn, perhaps, who had worked so hard and sacrificed so much to drag Ylisse back into the light. The Bloody Exalt was what the Feroxi called him, among less polite epithets. He had despised his neighbours, waging massacre after vicious massacre against Plegia and stoking the fires of hatred for an entire generation.

“Well.” Severa put down her hairbrush. “That’s just super.”

*

The tournament opened on a rainy morning. Raindrops were cold and hard in Nohr, falling like icy pellets and turning the ground to a hazardous sludge. The competitors were undeterred, of course. Mud had its tactical advantages. The event was held in an expanse on the southern outskirts of Windmire, at the back of a fortress. The fort itself was closed off, much of it reserved for the nobility who watched in comfort from balconies. The peasantry had to be content with rickety wooden stands in the muddy field.

King Garon gave no speech to open the tournament. Some lackey did so in his place, a speech so monotonous and droning that even Owain lost interest. The ceaseless praise for the King didn’t match with the restless crowd’s expressions – Ylisse and Regna Ferox had afforded Inigo opportunities to see a public adoring their liege, and this was not it. Most people were talking to one another, with street vendors making their way around to hawk their wares. Only the last lines of the meandering speech recaptured anyone’s attention;

“The first match of the day, an exhibition match between the prince and princess!”

 


 

Nohr was not short on princes and princesses, apparently. Severa, Owain, and Inigo all had lists of names, and many of them were different. Alarmingly, most of them were also dead, as Nohr’s disease and starvation extended even to the royal family. But there were two names at the top of everyone’s lists: Xander and Camilla.

They’d split up to avoid suspicion, so Inigo had no Owain to turn to for exposition, just his own eyes and a good spot in the crowd.

Princess Camilla entered the arena first. She was tall, dignified, and gorgeous, her violet hair falling in perfect waves as she strode in. A battle-axe was slung carelessly over her shoulder; her shapely frame hid great strength. She gave a small curtsy, dipping her head to the crowd, then stepped back, glancing to her left as another figure emerged.

Prince Xander resembled his sister in height, pale skin, and little else. He had curly blonde hair, held somewhat in place by a tiara that was less ornamental than practical. An axe was strapped to his belt, shorter than Camilla’s but with a longer, curved blade. Unlike Camilla, who smiled and waved to some admirer in the crowd, Xander’s expression was blank. Inigo watched them both keenly as they approached one another to shake hands.

Words left her lips, and she squeezed his hand, ever so slightly. He nodded, brow softening for just an instant. They handed one another their axes, took three steps back, and looked upward towards the balconies. To their father, Inigo could only assume. Then there was a sharp cry of, “Begin!” and the performance began.

They traded aggressor and defender between one another, back and forth, each striking and dodging with the occasional parry. Neither of their axes were suited to defensive manoeuvres, but they were quick and precise enough to pull it off. The crowd around Inigo were enraptured, even adoring.

It was only when Prince Xander drew first blood that Inigo realised they were duelling with live weapons. He finally caught his sister across the shoulder, her targe buckling and becoming partially dislodged at the strike’s angle. She gave no cry of pain, simply darted backwards and tugged the useless guard free. It clattered to the ground beside her. Her arm was bruised and discoloured. She didn’t falter.

The match went quickly after that. Princess Camilla retaliated, nearly knocking Xander off his feet with a mighty strike which dented his armour almost to the point of buckling. Both of them wore armour of only middling quality, Inigo realised; it was dark Nohrian steel, but standard-issue, ill-fitting in some places and poor quality in others. It begged the question – why in the world were the prince and princess duelling with live weaponry and substandard armour?

Inigo had no quick answer, but the match did resolve itself. After a few more glancing blows back and forth, Prince Xander emerged victorious with a lunge which twisted at the last moment, knocking Camilla off her feet and almost taking off her head. Camilla released her grasp on her axe as she lay on the ground. Both siblings breathed deeply. There was a moment of uncertain, hesitant silence, and then the crowd erupted in cheers and praise for the prince.

The King spoke, for the first time, but Inigo ignored him. Owain would likely be hanging on every word of the royal spectacle; Inigo preferred to watch the scene unfolding in front of him. Xander helped Camilla to her feet, the two of them quickly unbuckling each other’s damaged armour. Camilla smiled, squeezing his hand again. Xander nodded back, and then together, as one, they turned to the crowd. They raised their joined hands aloft.

Later that day, Inigo realised that he had not been the only member of the crowd to ignore the King in favour of the prince and princess.

*

The excitement and fervour of the royal duel loosened the lips of more than a few spectators. In an hour’s worth of casual chats, Inigo heard more than a few tales of the Nohrian royalty.

“Prince Xander,” a young tailor’s son told him as they waited to sign up to the tournament, “he’s the strongest there is, you know. He’ll lead the whole of Nohr to victory.” Reverence and fear; tale after tale of Prince Xander’s military prowess, some of it surely exaggerated, but not a shade of the man’s personality, age, anything.

“What kind of king do you think he’ll be?” Inigo asked. He thought of Lucina, Chrom, the bloody spectre of their grandfather.

The tailor’s son blinked. “Oh… Much the same, I think.”

(Round one of the tournament went without incident.)

“Princess Camilla, oh,” a young soldier blushed just speaking her name, “she’s amazing. Awful fierce, though. Once saw her fell ten men with one stroke!” Fierce and vicious, but where Prince Xander was sent to deal with enemy incursions, Princess Camilla quelled bloody mobs. Her admirer, an enlisted soldier barely into her sixteenth summer, told Inigo of a failed peasant uprising; “Lady Camilla entered their headquarters alone,” her eyes shone, “and Lady Camilla was the only one to leave.”

“So- she’s your General?” No Shepherds here; the Nohrian way of tending the flock was far too bloody.

The young soldier hesitated. “No,” she shook her head quickly. “She’s the Princess.”

(Round two ended with no fanfare.)

But no-one was willing to swap tales of King Garon. Impassive Xander and fierce Camilla caught the people’s imaginations, but no-one would breathe more than a few words about the King, and certainly nothing negative. As though speaking the words would summon him.

“He’s a good King,” the tailor’s son said, eyes flicking between Inigo and the ground. “He keeps the peace.”

“Hoshido would’ve invaded a long time ago if it weren’t for the King,” said the soldier. “Some people are just ungrateful.”

*

It was evening before Inigo saw his companions again. They had a small room to themselves at the inn, and shared a lumpy pallet and flea-bitten blanket between them. The prospect of sleeping under blankets with a girl would be embarrassing under normal circumstances, but Severa wasn’t a girl, she was Severa. Inigo liked being alive too much to tell her that, of course.

Inigo was the last to return, heading ‘home’ as the crowds on the streets began to disperse and the pretty girls were replaced by belligerent drunks. Severa was brushing her hair out, long red locks loose down her back. Owain was furiously scrawling something down – probably new move names. What a dork.

“So,” Severa huffed, building up to a complaint, “Nohr is insane.”

“Good to see you too, I’m very well, thank you,” he sat down on the pellet, ‘casually’ peering at Owain’s painstaking list. Oh, good, he’d discovered alliteration. Owain immediately yelped, covering them up. Inigo gave a tired, half-hearted laugh. “Not so insane that you lost, I hope?”

“Of course not!” she snapped. “I’m just saying- this place is weird, and I’m pretty sure someone’s stalking me!”

“Perhaps you have a fan,” Owain said.

“No,” Severa looked moodily at the wall. “No, it’s definitely something bad.”

Inigo was too exhausted to engage her in banter, but Owain never tired of it. He let his friends bicker as he unclipped his armour. The side of his chest hurt. Had Anankos’ magic somehow changed his form, made his tailored breastplate ill-fitting? Or was he beginning to outgrow it?

“-hello? Laslow?” He didn’t respond to the foreign name at first, to Severa’s annoyance. “Gods, what is wrong with you?!”

She looked angry and tired. It wasn’t directed at him, not really, but that didn’t mean he had the energy to deal with it. Inigo waved her off, making himself comfortable on the pallet. “I’ll scope out the crowd during your match tomorrow, so no need to fuss.”

Severa scowled. “You’ll try and pick up chicks, more like.”

“I’m very capable of multitasking.”

*

Inigo was finally growing accustomed to Nohrian food. The flavours tended to be stronger, and they seemed to have endless ways of cooking the same four animals, but it was hearty, filling stuff. He was munching on a sort of open pie as he walked, trailing 30 paces behind Severa to see if her paranoia was accurate. It wasn’t hard to spot her in the crowd with that vibrant red hair – Nohrians overwhelmingly seemed to have more faded hues of blond, silver, or blue. More than a few people had mistaken Severa for Hoshidan at first glance.

The city streets were more subdued this morning. The young lass who had sold him his breakfast had said there had been some kind of disturbance near the palace: an assassination attempt, maybe. She spoke matter-of-factly, like such things were common. Perhaps they were.

Owain was elsewhere in the crowd, though Inigo couldn’t see him. And Severa-

Oh. That wasn’t good. She seemed to be getting into an argument with a man dressed in the pale black of Nohrian infantry. Some people were starting to watch, but others were quickly hurrying on their way. Was this a deliberate attempt to draw out her pursuer, or just Severa picking a fight?

The knight was getting flustered and angry at Severa’s insults. More and more people were thinking better of staying in the narrow alleyway. Inigo half-hid behind a pillar and watched the altercation ensue. Severa trounced him, of course, even when three of his friends got involved. If pressed, Inigo would begrudgingly admit that Severa was the best combatant of the trio, perhaps even of all their time-lost companions. Her pride never allowed for anything less.

After no time at all, the unlucky men were on the ground. Severa kicked one of their swords away, sneered something demeaning, and walked off with a spring in her step. And after her walked a hooded figure, who’d previously been loitering in the shadows of the undercity street.

Damn. There was no living with Severa when she was right.

Chapter Text

The undercity’s streets were fuller, but they still lacked the warmth of Ylisse. There was a tension boiling just under the surface. People spoke in hushed whispers, and the guards on the street corners seemed to multiply with every passing hour.

The tourneys were being held in the central area of lower Windmire. Far above them stood the royal palace, Castle Krakenberg, set into the central spire. The palace was connected by spindly stone bridges, all heavily guarded. The palace was clearly designed to be viewed from below, as there were sculpted reliefs visible to the naked eye carved around its lower edges. Most of them seemed to be variations on ‘Nohrian troops kill their enemies’.

“I do believe it’s raining,” said Owain. Inigo nearly jumped out of his skin; his hand was halfway to his sword before Owain caught him by the wrist. “Whoa, there! No need for the streets to run with blood and rain.”

“Don’t sneak up on me, jerk,” Inigo mumbled, trying to play it off. Blast. Owain knew him too well, and now he was blushing for some reason.

Owain just laughed, glancing up towards the sky – the ceiling, more accurately. There were parts of the undercity where you could look up and see patches of sky, but they were few and far between, mostly formed through natural separations in the stones. The lower segments of the palace blocked the skyview in the central areas.

“Oh, yeah, looks like a big stormcloud,” Inigo said, attempting to regain his cool. Damned Owain should know better than to sneak up on him at a time like this.

Owain chuckled, pointing to the ground. Thin rivulets were beginning to run through the crevices of the rocks. The paving down here was uneven and slimy enough normally. “See?”

“Mmm.” Inigo liked to think of himself as open-minded, but Windmire’s overbearing gloom was too much. “Gods, I’m losing all track of time here. Sev- Selena’s match must be soon.”

“At least we know she honed her blade on those wretches,” Owain grinned.

“Those wretches were Nohrian guards. What was she thinking…?”

“I believe one of them tried to seduce her,” said Owain. “Crudely.”

Inigo couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “Poor fool.” A rejection from Severa stang particularly badly, as it was typically accompanied by blunt force trauma. “She was right about being followed, though.” Owain nodded along with him. “It couldn’t be him, could it?”

Owain frowned. “Surely not. If we had been rediscovered by such a blackheart, I doubt we would be left to wander.”

“Then who?” Inigo paused to look around. “Do you think we’re being watched too?”

“I don’t see him anywhere,” Owain replied. “But keeping to the shadows is the specialty of these fiends.”

“Could she have run afoul of some opponent? Maybe thrown off some odds?” There was no official betting on the tourney that Inigo had been able to find, but unofficial pools were running rampant in every tavern. Still, that seemed unlikely. The tournament was structured so that the sons and daughters of nobility were heavily seeded – only commoners and militia were competing so far. Any candidate worth betting on wouldn’t even be fighting until tomorrow.

The crowd in the central area was swelling; the next matches were about to start. What had previously been grand melees were gradually condensing into battles between four to six hopefuls. Those victorious would win the honour of facing the nobility.

Inigo sighed. “That clasp on her cloak – was that the Nohrian emblem?”

Owain looked at him, puzzled. “Selena?”

“No- the stalker.” Inigo replied. “I thought you saw her.”

Owain shook his head. “I saw a man, dressed in leathers and with hair the starkest white. He moved as though a ghost, but none can evade the fel gaze of Odin Dark!”

“Uh-huh. Well, I saw a woman, dressed in a hooded cloak with some kind of ornate clasp. And her hair was green.” There was Severa alongside five other combatants – there was no missing that hair. Inigo watched as the crowd’s excitement built. “I don’t see her anywh-“

He wouldn’t have noticed had he not been looking for women wearing hoods, but- no, it was definitely her. He grabbed Owain’s arm, indicating in her general direction and hissing, “Isn’t that the princess?!”

It was, undoubtedly. Princess Camilla’s violet curls were quite unlike any of her countrywomen. Her height fit, the axe at her side… but why?

Owain nodded grimly. “And there- that man with her. He was our dear Selena’s shadow.” Sure enough, a man with snow-coloured hair stood by the princess. It was hard to judge for certain, but there were another couple Inigo guessed might be in their entourage: a young lady with closely-cropped blue hair, and a blond boy who looked in his late teens. They were all dressed plainly, and certainly no-one around them paid them heed, but they were not ordinary, and they were absolutely discussing Severa.

“We did want to come to the King’s notice,” Inigo pointed out, trying to be optimistic. The words of the enlistee he’d spoken to still rang in his head; Princess Camilla put down insurrections. Had they already managed to create a terrible misunderstanding?

“We wanted to win his trust,” Owain corrected him absently. “We can’t stray from the path we have embarked upon, my friend. All we can do is forge ahead.”

*

For the second day in a row, Inigo had the misfortune to fight last. His opponents were unremarkable drunks one and all, and the fight was over so quickly it was barely a show. Afterwards, he was pulled aside by an official who informed him to come back tomorrow for the proper tourney.

“Oh, there’s another three days of it at least,” Lisette told him as he nursed his coffee. She was well-disposed towards him now, having consistently bet upon him in the tavern pools. Though she’d not given him a discount on his drinks. “Don’t burn yourself out too early.”

Inigo flashed her a smile. “There’s no danger of that with your renewing brew.”

“Drink too much of it while you’re tired and you’ll drop like a fly,” Lisette ignored his flirting, as she had every time since the first time. “Just what are you aiming to achieve by all this, anyway? Trying to make an entrance into the knighthood?”

“Why, I aim to win, of course!” His devil-may-care grin elicited a dry laugh from her. “What, you don’t think I can?”

“I think you could get most of the way there, maybe,” she said, “but no-one can defeat Prince Xander.”

“Is that patriotism talking?”

“It’s experience,” Lisette said, stirring some fragrant concoction. “The Prince has won the last eight of these tourneys.”

Eight?! Wait- how old is he?”

The tourney was in honour of the Dusk Dragon, as it coincided with a grouping of stars which appeared in the sky every four years or so in a draconic constellation. The Dusk Dragon didn’t watch over Nohr in the same way as Naga protected Ylisse, but the constellation was seen as auspicious for victory in battle. If Prince Xander had won eight tournaments, and they were only held every four years…

Wait, no, Lisette was laughing at him. “A few summers younger than my daughter, so maybe 25 or 26.” Around Inigo’s age, then. “The tournaments were by the stars, once. But the King has held them more and more often – this is the second one this year.”

“Why are they so regular now?” Inigo asked.

Lisette shrugged, temporarily stepping away to serve another customer. When she returned, she said, “I wouldn’t know. Folks say all sorts of things. But it’s not the big thing it used to be. When I was a girl, every seat in here would be packed from dusk ‘til dawn.” The tavern was half-filled at best, with people Inigo suspected to be regulars. “But now… the world has turned against us.” She sighed sadly.

“How come?” Inigo asked.

Lisette gave him an odd look, distrust anew in her eyes. “Where did you say you were from, son…?”

“Ah-“ Inigo faltered. The half-dozen outer Nohrian provinces he’d memorised abruptly fled his mind. “It’s- a long way from here.” She was silent, waiting for him to continue. Blast. “Ferox. It’s in the mountains.”

Lisette seemed to relax a touch, but the distrust didn’t quite fade. His questioning must’ve proven too much. He didn’t want to ruin things here, so he did his best to backtrack; “I’m sorry- I meant how come people aren’t coming like they used to?”

It was difficult to tell if Lisette bought it, but she at least went along with the excuse. “Um – because it’s so much more frequent, I guess. And no-one’s beaten the Prince in so long, so they’re not likely to this time.”

Inigo gave a mock gasp. “Then I’m to take it you won’t be betting on me in the final round? I’m devastated!”

Lisette laughed. Hers was a bold, cheery laugh without an ounce of self-consciousness – it reminded him of Raimi, the Feroxi general who he and Kjelle had trained under for a time. Except less terrifying, thankfully. It was clear she didn’t think much of his chances against Prince Xander. He couldn’t blame her – the Prince was a formidable warrior, and it seemed like Nohr valued martial strength on par with Regna Ferox. It was only natural that the royal family would have mythic reputations.

“Well, you just wait and see, dear lady,” Inigo grinned. “I may surprise you yet!”

*

It was deep into the night before Inigo began to venture ‘home’. Or it might’ve been – night and day took on relative meanings this deep in Windmire. It could be noon for all he knew, but his limbs ached like it was near midnight. The streets were still somewhat busy, but with fewer children and more guards. Many more guards. The main run was swarming with them, in fact.

Time to find another route back to the inn! Cutting through the upper levels of Windmire would take time, but it was the best way to avoid the main run. With this in mind, Inigo turned away from the squadrons of guards amassing on the street, and instead went through one of the many stone-stepped passages leading to Windmire proper.

Windmire proper was silent and dead, no matter what time of day or night. Inigo hated it – it reminded him of the fallen Ylisstol with its seemingly endless streets long since bereft of life. Or – would they be, now? Perhaps they’d be full and vibrant once more, like the Ylisstol of his barely-remembered childhood. The sweet scent of freshly-baked bread, the sound of laughter and happy commotion, the spring breeze…

The memories were intoxicating, and he was getting lost in them once more. So lost that only his reflexes saved him as a hidden blade shot towards his stomach. Some part of his senses had picked up the footsteps, or the glimpse of a shadow, or the soft whoosh of a sharpened blade cutting through air.

Inigo stepped back as he spun to face his attacker. It was the green-haired woman – her face was cloaked, but a few emerald locks escaped. The knife looked like a cross between a kris and a sickle. It was small enough that she could well have a few more tucked away in her cloak.

Inigo held up one hand, the other going to his sword. “Milady, I think we’ve gotten off on the wrong foo-“

“Who are you?!” She interrupted tersely.

She had an accent – definitely not Nohrian. Though the hair was a giveaway, too. “I’m- my name is Laslow, and yours?”

“Where do you hail from?” Her eyes were cold. “’Laslow’?”

“Ferox- it’s out in the sticks.” She wasn’t buying it. Blast, they really needed a better cover story. “Listen, I don’t mean you any h-“ Quick as lightning, she flicked her wrist. While Inigo had been talking -been distracted-, she had palmed another weapon, some kind of small serrated circle. Inigo barely saw it, but he felt it as it caught his shoulder, cutting through his shirt and into his skin. It stung immediately, beyond just the shock and pain. Poison? No time to think – she was already moving forward.

Inigo had partially braced in the few seconds between the knife and when she tackled him, and so he was able to deflect her weight. She rolled out of the throw easily enough, but it gave him time to draw his sword. He’d been lucky; the knife had struck his non-dominant arm.

Inigo hated fighting humans like this. Matches like the tourney were different, where it was about skill and performance, but humans were so fragile. He didn’t want to kill this woman, only to incapacitate her to the point where they could speak without her throwing knives at him. But Inigo had cut his teeth on an enemy utterly ignorant to pain, mercy, or self-preservation. Even as he and the green-haired woman traded glancing blows, it took all his self-control to keep hold of his instincts and not go for a massive cleaving strike from neck to midsection.

She was holding back too, or so he suspected – and they were both beginning to tire. What Inigo hoped to do was wear her down enough that she had to hear him out, but fate had other ideas. From out of the corner of his eye, Inigo saw a plume of smoke and light billow into the air – a magical beacon.

The green-haired woman shoved him away and leapt backwards several feet into a crouch. “You should run,” she said breathlessly, just before launching herself upwards and landing on the edge of the building. She vanished into the shadows before Inigo’s eyes – through magic or through skill, he couldn’t say.

She’d just attacked him, but he was willing to trust her on this one. He turned to run, only pausing for a moment to carefully scoop up the small metal shard she’d thrown at him. His shoulder was numb around the wound, and his movements were more sluggish than normal – some kind of paralysis. He carefully wrapped up and pocketed the shard, then darted back into the depths of Windmire’s undercity.

*

It was the last few steps that really did him in. The poison was causing some kind of latent grogginess – still no pain, but the fatigue was getting worse and worse. Inigo was just a few steps from the bottom of a steep, dark path leading up to Windmire proper, and then suddenly he wasn’t. Suddenly he was falling through the air, the lanterns hanging from the ceiling burning holes in his eyes. He twisted in mid-air -or he thought he did- and tried his best to focus enough to brace for impact.

“Whoa there, s- oof!”

Oh. He was lying on something. Someone? He groaned, lifting his head. “Uhh…?”

A man with bright blue eyes and an impossibly chiselled jaw peered back at him. “That was quite a fall there! Are you alright?”

“Got… poison…” The words weren’t coming out.

“Hold on there, friend!” Inigo found himself scooped up in strong arms. “La- er, Elise! Please wait!”

The chatter of voices grew distant.

“Um, Arthur, what are you doing?”

“Oh no! Is he hurt?”

“S-Severa… Owain…”

“Did he say something?”

“I didn’t hear…”

“I’m… sorry…”

***

His mouth tasted like cotton and his limbs felt like lead, but he was still alive. Forcing his eyelids open was a titanic struggle. The flickering light of a nearby candle was as blinding as the brightest Plegian sun. But he was still alive.

He was lying on a bed? No, not quite – straw, or something like it, soft but lumpy, with a blanket as a sheet. “Oh, hey, you’re waking up…” A girl sat at his bedside. She was young, definitely in her teens. Her ashen hair was in a loose ponytail tossed over one shoulder, and she had the same sickly pallor as most Windmire natives Inigo had met. “Hey. Uh, don’t move around.”

“Where am I?” His voice was cracked and hoarse, like he’d been asleep for hours. How long had he been asleep for?

“Um- Windmire. My friend found you.” She glanced towards the nearby door anxiously. “You should take it easy ‘til they get back with supplies.”

Inigo was sorely tempted to do just that. The numbness was beginning to fade, but he was still tired, nauseous, and the bed he lay in was warmer and softer than the pallet waiting for him. But he remembered too clearly the agony of waiting in safety for allies to return – the quiet terror of staring at a closed door and praying for footsteps.

“Thank you… I can’t repay you right now, but I- I will.” The world shook and pulsed as he sat up, pushing the worn woollen blanket aside. “My friends will be worried about m- agh!” His legs completely gave out as he tried to stand.

His host caught him easily. “You’re gonna make it worse,” she said, frowning. “You sure you have to go?”

“My friends…” he repeated helplessly. This was humiliating, but at least she didn’t seem to be judging him too harshly. “They’ll worry.”

“I get it,” she nodded, helping him into a more comfortable seating position. She looked at him thoughtfully, pursing her lips. “Alright. You’re not from Windmire, right? Where’re you staying?”

“At the Grand Elk… near the tourney grounds.”

She nodded again, reaching some conclusion of her own. “Alright, then. Hold on!”

And that was how Inigo ended up being carried through the streets by an incredibly strong young girl.

*

His saviour’s name was Effie, he learned – a Windmire local who did dogsbody work for some of the smiths. It had been her friend Elise and Elise’s big brother, Arthur, who had found Inigo. Apparently they knew where to get healing supplies, but they’d been gone several hours since Inigo woke up.

“I’ll pay you all back,” Inigo insisted, moments after Effie finally let him stand on his own two feet outside the Grand Elk.

Effie just grinned. She was a head and a half shorter than him, but she’d still carried him down the street like a bride on her wedding day. Praise Naga, at least Owain and Severa hadn’t seen them. “You planning on winning, I take it?”

“That’s the plan,” Inigo replied cheerfully.

“Okay, because,” she cocked an eyebrow, “you were passed out in your own drool on the street a couple hours ago.”

“That was- I was attacked-“

“Isn’t the tourney kinda about being attacked?”

“That’s different,” he said lamely.

Effie’s dubious opinion of him was surely lessened further when Inigo was almost knocked over by a whooping Owain; “Laslow! Oh azure warrior, you had us worried!”

“You jerk! Where the hell were you?! Were you- GAWD!” And there was Severa, with the wrong impression. His friends had come from outside – had they been looking for him? Inigo would’ve felt bad about worrying them, except that Severa now looked ready to murder him.

“Now, Seve-“

“You were picking up girls?!” Severa’s furious accusation was so loud that multiple passers-by stopped to gawk. Inigo felt his cheeks reach new levels of blushing, levels only previously reached by Aunt Maribelle when she was flustered. “What the- how old are you?!”

Inigo gave Owain a pleading look as Severa continued to rage. Effie scratched the side of her cheek. “There’s, uh. There’s been a misunderstanding.”

“A misunder-“ Severa was all but trembling with rage. If she were a manakete, Inigo would be dead by now. “This had better be really, really good, Laslow!” Effie shifted awkwardly from one foot to another. Onlookers were watching the angry Hoshidan girl screaming at her poor (dashing) companion, perhaps misjudging the situation as a newly-discovered romantic tryst.

Owain finally stepped in to save him. “Perhaps we should actually let him explain?”

“Yes! Thank you!” Inigo attempted to regain his composure, but the street outside the tavern was feeling more public than ever. “Just- can we go inside first?”

“Um, I should really go home,” Effie said, glancing upwards as though to look at the sky. “Elise might be waiting for me.”

“Right- of course,” Inigo inclined his head to her. “Thank you so much – and please thank Arthur and Elise for me. I’ll repay you all, I promise.”

Effie grinned. “Sure, Laslow. We’ll see.”

*

“…and then we walked from Effie’s place back to here,” said Inigo, concluding his explanation (and also his vindication). “As you can see, nothing untoward, no derogation from duty!”

Owain had peppered him with questions throughout, but Severa was uncharacteristically quiet, even pensive. “Let me see the wound,” Owain insisted, carefully peeling off the bandages Effie (or her friend Elise?) had applied. The cut had scabbed over, but the skin around it seemed paler than normal, not inflamed. If only he’d kept the throwing knife that had hit him – but he must’ve dropped it somewhere as he shambled along. “Hm… this is fell magic indeed… or poison. Poisonous magic, even!”

“I feel fine now,” Inigo said. “A little tired, perhaps. And tender-hearted from my false accusation!” He gave a look of mock upset to Severa… only for her to turn away. “Severa?”

“Selena!” she snapped. “Gods, when are you going to get it right already?!” She clenched her fists tightly, and stood facing the door. “My next match is soon. I’m going to the tourney grounds. See you later, or whatever.” She stormed out the door before either of them could so much as ask her to stay.

The two boys -men, they were men now, grown up- sat side-by-side on the pallet in silence. Eventually, Owain gave voice to what Inigo had already guessed; “You know our Selena. She puts on a great show of drama and disdain, but nothing terrifies her like the fear of loss.”

Inigo nodded slowly. He knew that fear well – as did Owain, of course. But it manifested differently for all of them. They’d all left behind brothers and sisters of blood and spirit, and there were holes in their dynamic, in the way they spoke to one another. No indomitable Cynthia to propel them along, no dour Gerome or single-minded Kjelle to poke fun at and secretly draw strength from. No Brady to tend to their wounds – though he would probably never admit it, it was written all over Owain’s face how much he wished his brother were there. Brady would know exactly what to do about the poison, even if he’d never encountered it before.

But now they were all they had.

Owain wrapped an arm around Inigo, and together they flopped backwards onto the pallet. “So, Laslow of the Azure Skies,” Owain grinned at him, “I’ve come up with some amazing new attack names…”

***

The first match of the tourney proper set the scene for it rather well. There were forty-eight competitors in total: 36 nobility, comfortably seeded; and 12 commoners who had fought their way through the ranks, of which Inigo and Severa numbered two.

“You could have been the third,” Inigo pointed out to Owain as they jostled for position in the crowd.

Owain laughed, drawing his hand across his face with one of his usual cringeworthy flourishes. “Odin Dark fights with spells, not steel.”

For all his delusions of grandeur, Odin was a far better vanguard and observer than Inigo and Severa – better for him to scope the crowds. He’d already picked up all manner of gossip about their fellow competitors. For example…

“This stalwart knight is Aryn of House Carcino – a merchant house from the north.” It was nice to see Owain so giddy with excitement as he provided personal commentary. Not that Inigo would admit it out loud, of course. “He’s chiefly known for being seven foot tall and strong as an ox, though apparently he has quite the temper.”

Inigo watched as Aryn sauntered out in plain black armour, raising a sword over his head. The steel was sharp enough to be fully live, just as it had been during the Prince and Princess’ duel. Inigo had assumed that the tourney proper would be less bloody, given that it involved the children of people deemed important, but Nohr was full of surprises.

The royal box sat empty. “The royalty will only begin fighting at dusk,” said Owain – you could practically hear the swoon in his voice. It did sound very dramatic.

“But they are fighting?”

“Yes – Prince Xander, who wears the crown, and Princess Camilla, who wears the blood of Nohr’s enemies.” Including Nohr’s internal enemies, Inigo remembered.

Aryn’s opponent was entering the grounds, a young woman with strangely coloured hair tied in pigtails. Her hair was thick and wavy – though it seemed to be naturally a pale blue, the tips were bright pink. Some sort of dye, or a hereditary coloration? Inigo was about to ask Owain who she was, but all his friend murmured was, “She looks awesome…”

Lady Peri, apparently, of House Sable. She walked with a spring in her step, and was scanning the crowd looking for someone. She must have eventually seen them, because then she leapt up in the air and waved even more cheerfully.

Peri looked ill-suited for combat - her breastplate was loose, and where Aryn wielded a longsword, Peri’s sword was more of a machete.

Poor Aryn never stood a chance. The fight started, and he got one slow, strong swipe towards Peri. She danced out of the way, laughed, and tossed her blade from one hand to the other. It was showy, it was stylish, and the crowd went wild.

The rules of the tourney proper were simpler and bloodier than the tournament at Regna Ferox. The parties could fight until first blood. Whoever drew first blood had to step back, raise their weapon, and the bloodied party had until the count of five to throw their weapon down and surrender. After that, the fight continued as far as either party was willing to go, with the caveat that any surrender had to be honoured.

Aryn didn’t surrender at first blood, when Peri cheekily darted past him and drew her blade across his cheek. Nor did he surrender when she caught him just above the knee, or when she cut so cleanly as to sever the leather strap keeping his breastplate in place.

No, Aryn surrendered when Peri stopped playing and cut his arm so deeply she must’ve hit bone. What had been a contest of skill suddenly turned Inigo’s stomach. It was a cruel cut, and while Aryn may well have done the same to Peri if given the chance, it could still leave the man crippled for life.

Naturally, the crowd loved it. Peri giggled and waved, her eyes fixed on the crowd. For a moment, Inigo thought she was looking at him – but no, it was someone in front of him. As several healers crossed the grounds to tend to Aryn, Peri lost all interest in entertaining the crowd, bounding over so close that Inigo could hear every excited word.

“Did you see?” Peri all but leapt into her friend’s arms, and Inigo was about to politely shift away when he caught her friend’s name; “Lord Xander! I told you I could do the toss part no problem!”

No. It couldn’t be.

Xander -the prince?- nodded, replying fondly, “I saw, Peri. And thank you for not killing him. I’m sure Lord Carcino will appreciate it.”

“I dunno why he’d even bother picking up a sword if he wasn’t ready for a proper fight, but,” Peri sighed, petulance and pride doing battle. Pride won. “Ha! Serves him right for saying mean things about you!”

“You don’t need to defend my honour, Peri…”

Peri giggled. “No, but I wanna!”

They were beginning to leave, slipping away into the crowd unnoticed as the next match was set up. Inigo glanced at Owain, who nodded silently. Inigo couldn’t follow them, not without missing his round at the tourney – but Owain could.

Xander was more soft-spoken than Inigo would have expected, whole fragments of his sentences getting lost in the din of the crowd. “-have to get back to work.”

“Aww, but your work’s so boring!” Peri, on the other hand, rang out clear as a bell. She was clutching his sleeve excitedly – were they a couple?

Xander shook his head patiently. “-Royal Treasury won’t audit itself-“

“Booooriiiing…”

That settled it, more or less. Inigo watched them leave, though no-one else did. Without the trappings of royalty, Prince Xander blended into the background surprisingly easily. He was tall and handsome, but up close there were also dark rings under his eyes, and he moved with the same tired perseverance as Lucina had. Overworked, exhausted – traits universal to would-be rulers. Strange that he was out and about without bodyguards, and that he’d viewed the match from the grounds rather than from the royal box.

Inigo had time to ponder it throughout the day. His own match wasn’t until near evening, and he spent much of the day wandering the crowd on the lookout for any suspicious sorts. Severa appeared for her match and disappeared shortly afterward – was she still cross at him, making him pay by worrying him? Owain didn’t return either. Perhaps they’d just missed one another in the crowd.

Inigo broke another of Severa’s rules by betting heavily on himself. It might arouse suspicion, but he was serious about paying back Effie and her friends. The bet paid dividends, and the round ended at first blood.

Thank Naga. The last thing Inigo wanted was to have to cripple someone due to their own bloody-minded pride.

The Prince and Princess made an appearance only for the last two matches of the day. The stands were filled to capacity: luckily, Inigo had been loitering all day, and had a good position from which to watch. Or he would have, had someone not just pushed in front of him as soon as Princess Camilla emerged onto the grounds.

Excuse me,” Inigo pushed back firmly against the interloper, a young man around Morgan’s age. Boy, really. He was with a younger girl, so Inigo wasn’t about to create a scene, but his conduct had been rude.

He gave Inigo a dirty look, but the girl cut off any reply; “Oh my gosh, it’s you!” She beamed up at him, bouncing up and down on her heels.

Inigo was quite sure he hadn’t seen this girl anywhere in his life before. Certainly he would remember such distinctive blond ponytails, intertwined with black ribbon and reaching well past her waist. Severa could learn some style tips from her. She was insistent, though – “You shouldn’t be up and around! You were really sick!”

“Elise,” the boy cut in, still annoyed, “How do you know this man?”

Elise? “Oh-“ Inigo beamed. “You’re Effie’s friend!” But the boy with her wasn’t the same man who’d caught him - he’d remember such a chiselled jaw. This boy was younger, dressed in fine but somewhat dishevelled clothing, with blond hair and crimson eyes.

“Yeah!” Elise chirped, at the same time as her companion demanded, “Who’s Effie?” Elise just ignored him, grabbing both Inigo’s hands in her own. “You look a lot better!” She beamed. “Leo, this is the guy I needed the staves for! He was attacked with that shuriken thing!”

Leo suddenly looked far more interested in Inigo than Inigo felt comfortable with. “Him? But he doesn’t look-“

Another disturbance in the crowd interrupted their conversation. A loud, redhaired disturbance barrelling towards them at top speed, pushing any helpless onlookers out of the way. “Severa, what-“

Inigo’s words were lost in the chaos as Severa kicked off the side of the stand to leap in the air, sword drawn, and pounce on an onlooker with a roar. Elise screamed, and Inigo instinctively pulled her close, to hide her from whatever madness Severa was up to.

Less than a second later, there was a knife pressed to his neck, as a voice purred, “Careful, now…”

Leo was already drawing a sword – too long for him, and he wasn’t holding it quite right. “Let my sister go, now,” he growled. He was inexperienced with the blade, but the knife at Inigo’s throat ws the greater concern.

The chaos intensified. Severa lifted her head for a moment, long enough to snap, “They’re trying to kill the princess!” as Elise trembled in Inigo’s arms. There was screaming from elsewhere, the sounds of combat – Severa couldn’t have started all this, could she?

Inigo looked directly at Leo, slowly and deliberately loosening his grasp on Elise. “I’m sorry- I just didn’t want her to see…” With a sob, Elise broke away from him, running straight into Leo’s arms. Gods, now he’d scared an innocent little girl.

The knife remained at his throat. “Lord Leo?”

A lord. Fantastic. The sword was too fine to be that of a commoner’s, and the pommel bore the Nohrian crest. Leo had no time to respond, for another person joined their confrontation. Easily the most terrifying person who could possibly have involved herself.

“Big sister!” Elise chirped, running to Camilla and tugging Leo along with her. Camilla looked from Inigo to Severa, who still knelt over the body. One arm was wrapped around Elise, stroking her hair protectively; the other held a massive battleaxe aloft. Inigo wondered if this could get any worse.

Of course, it did. “Lady Camilla!” bellowed Peri of House Sable, loping across the grounds. Her tunic was bloody, but she seemed perfectly well and happy. She skidded to a stop, giving a swift nod and pouting. “Aww, you killed them without me…”

“What’s happening, Peri?” Camilla demanded.

Peri peered around, catching her breath. Her eyes settled on Severa. “Hoshidan assassins!”

With Severa’s hair, she looked Hoshidan – and the person she’d cut down looked Nohrian through and through. Inigo’s mouth was dry. He wanted to intervene, but the weakness from the poison suddenly seemed back and worse than ever… or maybe he was just freezing up again. Like he had when Mother…

“Your highness,” Severa saw which way the wind was blowing and took her chance; “This man was about to kill Prince Leo.”

Camilla didn’t believe her. It was clear in the way her eyes narrowed, the way her body language shifted, the way Leo silently moved away from Severa. But Severa’s salvation came from an unlikely source: Peri. “Oh, hey! You must be Selena!” The blood-stained girl beamed. “Odin told us about you!”

Leo scowled. “What kind of a name is Odin?”

Chapter Text

The mystical travails of the infamous Odin Dark were neverending. He was a fate-tossed leaf upon a mighty gale of destiny, an ember in the blackest night, a gleam in the eye of-

Crap, they were getting too far ahead of him.

Odin Dark was also highly skilled in the art of darting through shadows. In his past life as a swift and sure heroic myrmidon, he’d had many occasions to remain unseen. Creeping through a fortress filled with bloodthirsty Valmese knights, for example, or skirting as close as possible without alerting a rampaging Risen to his presence.

No, actually, he didn’t want to think too much about the Risen. How about ‘hiding from the wrath of his fearsome mothers’? That worked a lot better, and was honestly pretty accurate.

Odin held no illusions about what would happen should he be caught by the Prince of Dusk and his Bloody Maiden (working titles). The young Lady Sable was terrifying in battle, creating a whirlwind of death to rival that of the great Missiletainn. And the way she’d smiled and laughed - a true aptitude for bloodshed and cruelty. Xander was scary too, probably.

Odin could only hear snatches of their conversation: while Peri spoke loudly and exuberantly, Xander’s stern voice was drowned out by the crowd and distance. Disappointingly, they weren’t discussing any heroic feats or great arcane secrets to be discovered, only a dull non-arcane mystery to be solved: the case of the missing treasury funds. Xander spoke in indirect and euphemistic terms which Odin recognised from two lifetimes ago.

“-still so little left,” said Ma. (Maribelle hated being called Ma, but after Brady it had just stuck.) “Even so long after…”

“Yes, well…” Uncle Chrom was grimace-talking, as he often did when him, Mother, Mama, and the others sat around the big round table and talked about money. Uncle Chrom was a cool grown-up, he knew that this kind of stuff was boring. “My father didn’t exactly leave detailed records.”

Owain’s ears had pricked up at the mention of Grandfather. He knew Grandfather had died, even long before Aunt Emmeryn. And he knew he was lucky to have Nana on Ma’s side, since his friend Gerome had no grandparents at all. But Grandfather was always mentioned in those hushed tones of a mysterious legend, and Owain loved legends.

“Well, this adjustment here correlates to the troop deployment to the Plegian border here, and..” Owain zoned out for a while. How Ma managed to make armies fighting each other sound boring was a mystery in and of itself. “-But if this debt is legitimate, then honouring it will bring the treasury-“

Boring, boring, boring. Owain wanted to go play outside, but Ma had said he had to sit and listen to important stuff because he was a Prince. BORING. Everyone knew Lucina was going to be the Exalt anyway, and she was great at boring stuff.

“-already stretched to its limit, Maribelle,” Uncle Chrom sounded glum. “But fine. We’ll cut corners with the floristry.”

It came as no surprised to Odin that Nohr was as mired in debt as it was in darkness. The guards they’d encountered on their journey to the capital were all too commonly brigands who sought protection money. They saw Odin’s humble and unassuming veneer, not the raw arcane power which lay within.

The savage Lady Peri Sable seemed to find the conversation just as dull as Odin did. There were subtle signs, like the way she bounced on her heels as they walked, the way she peered around at the nearest shiny distraction. There was also her loud proclamation of, “This stuff’s boooooring!”

How was Ylisse’s treasury faring, Odin wondered – not his Ylisse of the blighted future, but that which they had saved. Uncle Chrom was a sage ruler, especially with people like Ma and Frederick at his side. Surely he would lead Ylisse into a new golden age, to be the stuff of legend. Chrom, slayer of the Fell Dragon, and vanquisher of debt.

The dour prince and his savage knight were pausing, near another couple of people. Odin immediately recognised Selena’s ashen-haired skulker, and the pale blond youth who’d been with Princess Camilla at the tournament. The resemblance between he and Xander was undeniable – brothers, surely, or at least cousins. Neither of them bore a visible brand like that of Ylisse’s Exalts, but perhaps it was hidden somewhere mysterious, or only manifested in situations of great peril, or…

Oh, the brothers were leaving together now. Better keep up with them. Odin felt a twinge in his third eye. The scent of magical energy struck him like lightning, and on instinct, he fell back. There was another sorcerer around. No-one could rival Odin Dark, of course, but this power was fell and potent in its own right. Nohrian magic was still a mystery to him, after all.

Odin skimmed the crowd as the princes ambled ahead, innocent and unaware, like lambs stalked by hungry wolves. This kind of darkness, this tingling in the tips of his fingers – dark magic, indeed. An enemy, then?

Not the woman carrying the screaming baby, that attracted way too much attention. The hooded figure walking down the street did catch his attention, but they went into a building and didn’t come out. (Some mysterious errand? Odin filed that under ‘investigate later’.) A small detachment of guards passed by, and most of the passers-by moved out of their way… but not the elderly man just ahead of Odin.

Aha! There was the culprit. Though he wore moth-bitten commoner’s clothes, he held himself like a noble, and he faltered with surprise when the guards didn’t part for him. He was clearly pursuing Xander and his brother(?). Did they know of him, or did he mean them ill? An assassin? The darkness radiated from him like heat from a flame. It was all Odin could do to keep the forbidden power in his sword- er, book arm under control.

Xander’s brother -Leo, Odin had surmised from conversation- was delivering some bad news to him. Both brothers spoke too softly to hear exactly what the news was: maybe a wicked chimera threatening an innocent village? Oooh, or a mysterious swordsman from a distant land, demanding a duel?

(Or, honestly, probably something boring to do with money. It looked like Leo was showing Xander a ledger. Odin wholly sympathised with Peri at this time.)

From his vantage on the princes and their follower, Odin could see the old man’s eyes light up. He rubbed his hands together with glee, his smile exposing sharp canines. He laughed wickedly, in a manner somehow unnoticed by the innocent princes. He didn’t actually do these things, mind, but it was clearly there in the body language.

Fortunately, Odin Dark had the sharp eyes of an owl, or a bat, or some nocturnal creature with abnormally good eyesight. (Could cats see in the dark?) He could see enough of the ledger -and had been lectured enough by Ma- to skim it and recognise what Leo was probably really saying. Someone was embezzling from the treasury!

Odin had his money on the old man.

*

Some days, Selena woke up completely over this whole stupid new saga in their lives. They’d fought for peace, they’d watched their families die for peace, and now-

“I can’t believe it,” Cynthia murmured, squeezing her big sister’s shoulder. “It’s all over, Sev. Grima’s dead. We… we won!”

-now this. Life in a gloomy forever-dark city, ruled over by a psycho king who they had to somehow win the trust of, in order to protect a girl they had no way of even finding.

“Um- c-can I help you, ma’am?” The shopkeeper was giving her a wary look. What a weirdo.

Selena scowled at him. “I’m fine. Just trying stuff on, gawd!”

Shopping helped, or it would’ve if Nohr wasn’t the dreariest place in any world ever. Selena hated wearing black, which automatically ruled out almost everything. At least the lamellar vest she’d picked up looked good. She’d have to have one commissioned properly, of course, when they had more of an established presence here, but…

Oh. Oh, that was perfect. As soon as her eyes landed on it, she knew it was the one.

“Hey,” she didn’t look away from the garment, stepping towards it. She reached out tentatively, brushing her fingertips over the patterned fabric, and was surprised to feel strong, soft silk. “What kind of yukata is this?”

“It’s a kimono, actually, all the way from Hoshido.” It was smooth and pretty. Completely impractical for fighting, of course, but surely there’d be occasions where she needed to look stylish and dignified. “Would you- like to try it on, ma’am?”

“Uh, yeah, duh.” She let the tailor -importer?- escort her to a change room, then firmly shut the door when the pervert offered to ‘help her change into it’. Granted, there were a million little ties and adjustments that were really hard for her to do from inside the thing, but like she was going to let some guy see her undressed!

It didn’t look half bad, actually. Everything looked amazing on her, of course, but from an adjusted scale of bad to good, it was decent. Passable. Certainly not something Mother would be able to pull off.

One benefit -if you could call it that- of Selena’s upbringing was that her sense of danger was finely honed. She’d just undone the obi when she noticed the sound, or lack thereof. There had been quiet talking, and now there was none. She could see shadows from behind the changing curtain, reflected onto the ceiling by the decorative candles scattered about the shop.

Her sword was still in its scabbard, upon the shelf. The obi, now draped loosely around her torso, began to slip. The shadows were coming closer. And yet, silence.

It would have been embarrassing if she’d been wrong, and it really was just the tailor coming to check on her. But of course, Selena was never wrong.

They burst through the curtain just as Selena drew her sword, obi fluttering uselessly to her side. Three of them, two men and a woman. The tailor was lingering in the background. They hadn’t expected to find her armed. Selena quickly took advantage of that.

Selena lashed out first at the one who’d pulled aside the curtain, the older and uglier of the men. No glancing strikes here; one powerful cut to the side of his torso, enough for him to flinch and for her to barrel forwards in an opening. First priority: get out of such a confined space.

One of the others, the woman, lunged at her – not to strike, but to try and restrain. Smart. Her fingers closed around the fine fabric of the kimono, and Selena was forced to fully shed it, rolling forwards and brandishing her sword in front of her. Great. So there were three of them, and she was in just her smallclothes. This was about the stupidest and most embarrassing thing to happen since the last time Kjelle got drunk.

“Stay away from me,” Selena growled, sword crossing her body defensively. She missed her shield, almost as much as her shirt and skirt. “Or I’ll make you regret it.”

She felt the pinprick on the small of her back just a second too late. She swung around wildly, striking the tailor first across the face with her fist, and then along his side with her sword. The revenge gave her some savage glee, but even that was quickly subsumed by the wooziness flooding her senses. Poison. He’d snuck up behind and poisoned her. Just like Laslow…

“You coward,” Selena gasped, hearing a distant clatter of metal. Was that her sword dropping to the ground? “You better kill me in my sleep! Or I’ll… kill… y…”

There was a whooshing in her ears, and a dull ache in her shoulder. Had she fallen? The world was becoming dark, warm, and distant.

“…isn’t Nohrian,” the woman was leaning over her, looking in her eyes. “That accent, for one thing.”

Incoherent murmurs. Someone far away was saying something.

“Nestrian?” Even the woman’s voice was far away. Her lips were moving too slowly for her words. “No – no Nestrian could fight like this.”

Selena’s senses were leaving her. Who knew if she’d even wake up again, or if this would be the last thing she knew? May as well make these last few seconds count. With the last of her energy, she clenched the hilt of her sword and brought it up, cutting as deeply into the woman’s leg as she could. The strike was clumsy, and she could barely feel, much less see, but…

“Hah,” Selena gasped, last of her strength departing. “Made you scream.”

*

Odin Dark was accustomed to life lurking in the shadows, to delving into the seedy underbelly where more innocent souls feared to tread. Despite his dark radiance, he could blend in anywhere. Apparently, so could the golden princes of the kingdom of eternal dusk. Not having a brand marking your lineage made that a lot easier than it had been back in Ylisse. They’d walked in an elaborate loop around the undercity, and were now nearing the tournament grounds anew. Could they be planning to compete under masked pseudonyms?

Wait, then Prince Xander would probably wind up fighting himself. Hmm. Perhaps it was a brotherly duel?

Speaking of the brothers, they were parting ways: Leo and his snow-haired escort heading toward the tournament stands, and Xander and his knight away from them. Laslow would still be around the tournament grounds, and probably Selena too (if she’d calmed down). Hopefully they would catch sight of the young prince.

Odin trailed in the shadows of the crown prince, catching snippets of conversation. Peri was urging him to rest. The bitter pang of lonely memories tugged at Odin’s dark heart. It was a lifetime ago, but how many times had the majestic Owain urged his noble cousin in the same way? Solemn, dutiful Lucina… it hurt to even think of her.

Briefly, Odin allowed himself to imagine returning home. To imagine casting off the inky shroud of Odin Dark and again take up the radiant mantle of Owain, Prince of Ylisse.

“’Land of eternal nightfall’?” Lucina repeated, grimacing as she shook her head. “That sounds, ah…”

“Bogus,” said Brady with a snort. “And you went and worried Ma and Mama like that, geez! Talk about inconsiderate!”

Owain smiled bashfully, for he was used to his innocent, sheltered companions not understanding the true feats of heroism which he undertook. And in truth, it did his heart good to hear his beloved brother and cousin gently mock him. They sat together in the training yard of the royal knights, watching as Severa and Kjelle duelled, unstoppable force and immovable object colliding in steel and snark. Nearby, Inigo was regaling Nah with tales of their journey, which she had only shown interest in due to the mention of dragons.

“I can’t believe you went on a journey without me!” Cynthia pouted, tossing a beheaded dandelion at Owain. The flower’s corpse bounced off his nose harmlessly. “Still~, while you were away we had our own little adventure!”

“I wouldn’t call it an adventure,” Yarne grumbled. “More a near-death experience.” Every day was a near-death experience for the timid taguel.

Owain could feel the shining sun’s rays soaking into his skin, empowering him and soothing the bloodrage of his sword arm. The sun’s rays were only temporarily blotted as Minerva landed nearby, Gerome elegantly dismounting and offering a hand to Noire. It had been Morgan’s idea –“imagine if you could shoot people from up there, Gerome!”- but somehow Noire was the one who’d ended up in the air. Noire had only just acceded to approaching Minerva when Owain had left. Now, she looked almost as much a natural as Gerome and his mother.

“Noire!” Morgan leapt to her feet, bounding over like an excited puppy. “C’mon, Owain’s telling us alllll about the land of eternal knights!”

Hmm, ‘eternal knights’ sounded even better than eternal nightfall. Maybe he could use both!

“It all sounds a bit far-fetched to me,” Laurent huffed, adjusting the rim of his improbable hat. “Are you sure you didn’t just get lost?”

Owain chuckled. “Not all who wander are lost, dear friend.”

Nah looked up from her book; “…That doesn’t even make any sense.” She peered up at him critically, but her azure eyes twinkled with amuse-

Azure? No- Nah’s eyes were a deep wine-red, weren’t they? The same colour as her hair. It was Lucina who had blue eyes, like her father. Right, because Morgan and Lucina looked so alike, so like each other and like Chrom, and nothing like Robin.

Brady was looking at him in concern, brow furrowed. With sinking horror, Owain found he could not recall every last line on his brother’s face. Was his hair the same radiant sun blonde as Ma’s? Or the darker, honeyed colour of Mother’s? How shaggy was it getting, now?

They were fading away from him. His friends, his family. The people he’d loved. The only people he had left. Their smiles and voices faded from his mind.

Slowly, Owain’s smile and voice was fading, too.

Tears streamed down his cheeks as his back was slammed sharply against the wall. He blinked back, eyes adjusting to the ever-darkness of the Nohrian undercity.

Peri, the bloody Sable, stared at him in bewilderment. “Um- I didn’t even stab him yet…”

The severe crown prince loomed behind her, eyes boring into Odin. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Speak quickly, or lose your head.”

Odin struggled to blink his tears away. Salty drops of emotion would do him no good in this shadowland. “I- er-“ Blast, how could his most precious tool of the trade fail him now? The crown prince cut an imposing figure, but Odin’s true fear was the wide-eyed, smiling girl with the white kerchief and bloodstained knife. A knife currently pressed against his exposed abdomen. (Why had he decided to wear robes exposing his abdomen again?)

Fortunately, the dark whims of fate favoured their starcrossed hero. Just behind the crown prince, the evil old man who was clearly the real enemy was opportunistically taking advantage of the situation. A pale, wrinkled hand stretched forward to pick the pockets of the unsuspecting prince…

“I, your majesty, am Odin Dark! Hero of a faraway land, traveller through space and time, blessed by dawn and beloved by dusk! And I am here to warn you-“ pause for breath, “-that creepy old man is robbing you!”

The thief flinched in surprise, and Xander whirled around angrily. “Why you-“ In an instant, Xander had the thief by the arm, glowering at him. Odin smiled triumphantly, his smugness only slightly limited by the eager bloodlust in Peri’s eyes.

“Y-your highness!” the old man squeaked. “A hundred thousand pardons, but i-it’s not how it looks! I’m here to rescue you!”

“Hah!” Odin scoffed. “A likely sto-“

Peri jabbed him in the ribs with her gauntleted hand. “You don’t get to talk.”

“L-Lord Xander, your father sent me!” And before their eyes, the old man’s visage began to change. His skin tightened and yellowed to a jaundiced hue, his eyes growing wider and pupils narrower. His frame became smaller and scrawnier – Xander now held him partially off the ground. “I am Zola-“

“I know who you are,” Xander released him abruptly, cold eyes betraying no sympathy as Zola yelped upon landing. “Why did you follow me? And why did he-“ The crown prince was lost for words upon glancing back at Odin Dark, who was used to having that effect on people. “-Anything that he did?”

Zola quivered as he knelt. “I’m happy to explain everything in safety my lord, but-“ There was a clattering noise, and Odin caught sight of what looked like a small tightly-wrapped ball. Zola flinched, shrieking, and Odin reacted too quickly for his mind to supply an epic explanation. Instinct and muscle memory could be the only explanation.

A lifetime ago, Noire’s terrifying mother had briefly sheltered three young, frightened children. Risen burst in the doors of the humble hut they’d hidden in, but Tharja simply cackled, tossing a small charm tied with feathers and catgut at the monster’s feet.

“This should deal with them,” she snickered at some private joke, a mad genius heedless of her trembling daughter clinging to her. “Heh heh heh…”

There’d been a short popping sound, then an explosion of magic and discarded pigiron so loud Owain had wondered if he’d ever hear again.

Odin twisted free from Peri’s grasp, taking advantage of her distraction, and did his best to remember everything Ma had tried to teach him about wind magic. With a cry, he pushed the little ball away, mere seconds before it popped and exploded into smoke and fire.

All three of the Nohrians exclaimed something at once, but it was Xander’s hissed warning that prevailed into Odin’s ears. “Hoshidan ninja!”

*

Selena’s first thought upon waking was along the lines of ‘what the hell did I drink?’ Her limbs were sluggish, stomach queasy like she’d stayed up too late or tried to eat some of Kjelle’s cooking.

Kjelle…

Kjelle wasn’t here. None of the others were, not even Odin and Laslow. Selena was alone, and these punks had made their last mistake by letting her draw breath. She was tied up, blindfolded, gagged, but that wasn’t a problem. She could work with this. The gag tasted like unfamiliar spice, prickling at her tongue, fragrant but not unpleasant. Her arms were bound behind her back, but it was better than hogtied.

She had managed to wriggle her left wrist partially free when she heard the sound of an opening door. “You’re awake,” a crisp female voice said.

Selena had a great retort, but unfortunately it was muffled by the gag.

The woman sighed sternly. There was movement, one or two footsteps, then Selena felt a presence close to her. The woman smelt faintly of sugar – perfume? No, there was the same sugary sweet taste to the gag in her mouth. It must’ve been used to wrap food. So they hadn’t been planning to take a captive.

“Listen to me carefully.” Hands clasping her chin, with enough pressure to ache. “You will tell me who you are, and what you are doing here. You will tell me the truth.”

Selena gave a low and wordless whine, feigning cooperation. Her left wrist throbbed painfully, but she continued to slowly, silently wrench it free. Her captor’s hands were calloused and tough, hands of a career soldier. Hands like Kjelle’s. There would only be one chance to surprise and overcome her.

The helpless damsel act must’ve been convincing, because soon enough the gag was pulled from her mouth. Selena resisted the instinct to bite down on her captor’s fingers.

“I’m…” Her voice was so raspy as to be almost inaudible. “I’m just here to compete in the tournament.”

“You’re no Nohrian.” Her voice dripped with hostility, ‘Nohrian’ falling from her lips like a bitter curse. “What are you, Chevois? Hoshidan?”

“It’s far away. You wouldn’t have heard of it.” Her throat stung. Her wrist was almost free…

“Try me.”

Selena thought fast. One of those stupid made-up lands Odin was always using in his speeches; “Lycia.”

“Where?” Her captor repeated dubiously.

Selena managed to wrench her hand free all at once, and the sheer force she was exerting almost toppled her over, causing her to cry out in pain. Thankfully, there was the sound of shuffling and a door opening at just that instant, a gruff male voice calling out, “We’re ready. Well?”

There was a heavy pause, as Selena’s captor debated whether or not to kill her. Her decision came more quickly than Selena had expected; “Don’t move an inch,” she instructed Selena brusquely, shoving the cloth back into her mouth and resecuring it as a gag. Praise Naga, she didn’t recheck the binds.

Several minutes later, when Selena was sure they’d left, she gave a choked sob of pain. Lightning shot through her bruised wrist, her fingers only partially responsive as she fumbled with the gag. Eventually, she managed to pry it from her mouth. Her cries came in heaving gasps now. By the time she’d torn the blindfold from her eyes, she was almost retching.

She kept it together, though. She’d been through worse, felt greater agonies. Her captors weren’t amateurs, but they hadn’t expected to take prisoners. As for their identities… well, they’d been in a shop which imported Hoshidan garments, used exotic poisons, and hated Nohr. It didn’t take a tactical genius like Lucina’s mother to guess they were Hoshidans. But what were they doing there?

Selena looked around the small, sparse room as she nursed her aching wrist. Its bareness gave it the feeling of a temporary safehouse rather than a base of operations, perhaps one of a number they were using around Windmire. There were her possessions, shoved into a corner and half-covered by a blanket. Was she more relieved to see her sword or her pants?  There were certainly no personal effects of her captors – the walls were bare, the floor was of uneven slate, and the only furniture was a couple of bedrolls and a small writing desk.

It was within the desk that Selena found her quarry – a series of encoded, carefully written notes. She had no hope of breaking the code, but at this moment she didn’t need to, as there was a helpful map provided. At least, it was probably a map. It was full of interlocking circles, arrows, and lines following along. There was deliberately no legend associated with it – to avoid situations such as this, Selena assumed.

Fortunately, Selena had been doing the exact same thing over the last few days – getting to know the city of Windmire, drawing maps, and yes, plotting routes. While she had no idea what any of the lines symbolised, it was clear to her that they all seemed to be accessing the royal palace, Krakenberg, in the same way. Once she’d worked that out, it was easy to deduce that the lines probably symbolised members of the King’s household using a secret entrance not known to the public. A particular line stood out prominently.

Information gathering had never been one of Selena’s strong points. It wasn’t like the Risen had a tactician’s tent you could break into, after all. It was only through a strange twist of fate that she found anything useful at all – a discarded bit of paper, partially torn on the ground, with writing in an elegant script wholly unlike Nohrian.

Selena blinked several times. The sharp lines and angles were more like characters than an alphabetical script, except for a few words rendered at the top.

It couldn’t have been, and yet here it was, sitting in front of her. A pages of scrawled notes in elegant Chon’sin script, every bit as crisp and angular as Say’ri’s script. She had never spent too much time around the serious swordmistress, but there had been one occasion when…

Robin was at her tent, at the crack of dawn. The tactician looked as bright and chirpy as ever, even though it was well before anyone had any right being awake. “Say’ri was meant to take inventory last night, but…”

But they’d just fled from rivers of lava, and her brother’s last words were still fresh in her ears. Robin didn’t need to say anything, so she just shrugged at Severa.

Robin was always pulling Severa in to do inventory. Severa was pretty sure it was some sort of punishment, or rivalry, or something. But right now, on this bright and cold morning, she didn’t mind as much.

“Just this once, got it?” Severa grumbled, pulling on a morning cloak and following Robin across the mess of tents where they’d made camp.

Say’ri’s notes were impeccable, but they were also in the unfamiliar Chon’sin script. It took Severa and Robin hours to decode it, only to find that Say’ri had gone far above and beyond mere inventory, and had also included maps of nearby hunting grounds.

The meaning behind the symbols came back to Selena, halting and incomplete, but enough to decode. This line, the prominent unbroken one, must be their target. ‘Dark magic’, ‘sword’, ‘bow’: capabilities? And next to it a number – must’ve been age. Too young for an official or a knight. Then those marks there…

‘Second princess’. Not the terrifying axemaiden who’d fought in the exhibition match, then, but one of the younger ones. She and Odin had compared notes, trying to work out which of the Nohrian princes and princesses were still alive, and there was only one younger girl on both their lists: ‘Elise’.

Selena had already spared all the time she could on her investigation detour. If her captors were Hoshidan assassins, and they were after Princess Elise, they already had a sure head start. They’d predicted Elise would be at the tournament grounds, but not in the royal box. (Why? To walk among the common people? Didn’t seem Nohr’s style.) To the immediate east of the grounds? All she could do was check it out.

Yeah, they really should’ve killed her when they had the chance.

*

Odin quickly realised that he was going to need to reserve a whole set of adjectives to describe how the crown prince fought. The blade at his side was clearly some kind of legendary weapon, perhaps kin to the likes of Alondite or Mystletainn. (How exciting!) It glowed with a rich purple hue, with wisps of bloody red arching around it as it cut through air and assailant alike. Peri was perfectly adjusted to fighting with her liege, moving back-to-back with him and savagely punishing any who dared try to outflank them. 

Naturally, Odin Dark’s fell magic was of great assistance. With a gust of magical wind, he cleared away the smoke, and with a plume of crackling fire, he scorched into dust a star-shaped knife heading directly for Xander’s head. In fact, it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that by the end of the battle, foes were falling at Odin’s feet as the Nohrians gazed on in awe.

Of the five bloodthirsty ninja who attacked them, three were still alive by the battle’s end. It was about to be two when, much to Peri’s disappointment, Xander ordered she spare the rest and they be taken back to the castle. A squad of guards thundered into the little side-street, far too late to be of any help to the victorious heroes.

Xander took command of the situation immediately; “Take these prisoners to the dungeons – make sure their wounds are treated to. We need them alive for questioning.”

“And the dead, milord?”

“To the morgue, for cremation.” The standard funeral for a gloomy city lacking land suited for burial.

“Yes, milord.”

“I’ll assist them and send word to his majesty,” Zola volunteered, immediately withering under Xander’s harsh gaze.

“First, I would hear an explanation from both of you.” It was a demand, only scarcely disguised as a request. “Come.”

And so they walked in swift silence down the alleys of the undercity, the great palace set in stone looming ever-closer above them. Several times Zola tried to speak up in some platitude or defence, and each time he was met with a dull “Later,” in response. Peri was watching Odin like a hawk, or an eagle, or some other bird of prey that swooped down and skewered cute little field mice in its mighty talons. Fortunately, Odin Dark was used to bearing fear and suspicion, as it was the price paid by all practitioners of the blackest magic.

Eventually, they entered an innocuous door set in stone, and passed into a pitch black passage. A gauntleted hand grabbed him by the arm – Peri, he would guess by the positioning. Odin’s eyes adjusted quickly, but he was still disoriented by the time they emerged in what must have been the lower levels of the castle.

Only here did Xander take some pity on Zola. He stopped abruptly, in a large and bare room, and questioned, “Why were you following us?”

“Y-your highness,” All this time to prepare a speech and Zola still looked like a stunned rabbit. “Ah-that is- the king was concerned about your safety! There’s been talk of Hoshidan assassins!” Talk substantiated by action. “I saw this miscreant,” Zola jabbed a finger in Odin’s direction, “and feared he was out for milord’s head!”

Odin very nearly poked his tongue out at Zola, which perhaps would have undercut his image. Instead, he merely glowered in a dark and brooding manner.

That said, it would be difficult to beat Prince Xander at dark and brooding glowering right now. His disappointed-and-suspicious face rivalled the one that Ma used to give Owain and Brady for sneaking out, though of course with none of the tenderness. “Very well,” he said finally. “Go and report what’s happened to my father.”

“Yes, your highness!” Zola scurried off, relieved to be free of that steely glare.

Odin felt a renewed sympathy for Zola as Xander’s gaze turned to him. Xander wasn’t quite as tall as Yarne or Gerome, but his broad shoulders and imposing posture still made him tower over Odin. “And you? ‘Odin Dark’, was it?”

“Yes!” Odin fought down the urge for a majestic scene-setting explanation of his origins, settling instead for, “My companions and I uncovered a Hoshidan conspiracy to attack the tournament!” This was at least partially conjecture, but it sounded impressive.

“Your companions?” Xander frowned. “Who are they?”

“Laslow of the Azure Skies, peerless swordsm-“ Odin read the audience and changed tactic; “Laslow and Selena. They’re competing in the tourney.” Xander nodded curtly in seeming recognition. He didn’t strike Odin as the type to pay polite lip service, so his companions’ mastery must’ve drawn royal attention after all. Still, he didn’t look convinced, so Odin added; “That Zola character was stalking you. I thought he was an assassin, so I kept to the shadows.”

Xander’s brow furrowed further than Odin thought possible. Truly an accomplishment in stern severity. “You, come with me,” he said finally, in a tone that brooked no argument. “Peri, go back and collect Leo and Elise. We’ll reconvene in the eastern hall.”

“Sure thing, Lord Xander!” With a cheerful wave, Peri was off, presumably dashing back the way they’d come. Despite being comfortable with the dark, Odin was a tad disoriented. Must’ve been the magical backlash of the intense arcane power he’d drawn on.

Odin trailed after Xander through the castle’s belly. These were servant’s passages, narrow and branching, but the prince knew his way well enough. Odin tried to keep oriented, but he suspected he was deliberately being led on a confounding route. His suspicions were confirmed by the odd looks on the faces of the few servants who they passed, all of whom bowed silently and stepped aside upon seeing the prince. Being afraid of Xander seemed very sensible, Odin decided, and practitioners of dark magic were nothing if not sensible.

Eventually, the darkened halls gave way to partial carpeting, and Odin knew they’d crossed the threshold into the castle proper. Xander said nothing, not even looking at him, just strode through swiftly. Odin had to shuffle awkwardly to keep up with him.

Xander stopped abruptly outside a nondescript wooden door, lingering for a moment before pushing it open. “You’ll wait in here,” he commanded, glancing behind. Did he fear assassins even here? Or was it that slimy snake Zola?

Odin did as the prince commanded, not wishing to aggravate the situation further. After all, wouldn’t it be best to gain the friendship of the royal children of darkness? Odin was midway through workshopping a cool speech when the door was closed in his face.

Owain closed his eyes, let the mask of darkness drop for a moment, and prayed to Naga that he hadn’t just gotten his dear friends killed.

*

The undercity streets weren’t great for running through at the best of times – and the rain trickling down the cracks and sewers made this hardly the best of times. Selena half ran and half skidded through the streets, heeled boots sliding and nearly toppling her more than once. But she kept her balance – Selena had always been good at running.

Finally, as she scaled a set of steep stone steps, the crowds of the tournament were in view. The rain did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm – this was when the tourney was getting serious, after all. How much time had she lost to her incompetent captors? Enough that the boys noticed she was gone missing, or did they just dismiss her absence as sulking? Stupid jerks.

Selena hadn’t entered the upper grounds from this direction before, but she could orient herself using the royal box as a reference point. “Get out of the way!” she shouted at the hapless onlookers in her path; “Move it!” (And a few other, less savoury things.) She charged through the crowd towards where the scrawled map had indicated. There was no room for self-doubt, and her conviction was rewarded: there, moving through the crowd, she caught a glimpse of one of the captors. One of the men, the ugly one. And he was making a beeline for - Laslow?

It wasn’t just about saving the second princess any more. This group -and it had to be the same group- had already tried to take Inigo out once, and like hell was she going to let them try again. The stupid loser didn’t even realise he was in danger, distracted as he was with a couple of locals. She could just make out long blonde hair. Ugh. It’d be just like Inigo to die because he was too busy flirting.

Luckily, his completely underappreciated friend Selena was here to prevent that from happening. She leapt up and pushed herself into the air by kicking off the barricade, using the momentum to bear down on the ugly brute who’d dared kidnap her.

Killing came easily to Selena. Not the elegant victory of her mother, but brutal, dirty killing, where you pushed a bit of sharpened metal into someone so hard and so quickly that their skin burst like an overripe fruit. Death and bloodshed all around had desensitised her. It had been a long time since she’d fought like this against a person, but the spatter of blood across her cheek didn’t faze her at all.

The crowd behind her was erupting into chaos. Without looking, Selena felt sure that it wasn’t just due to her. “They’re trying to kill the princess!” Selena snapped, glancing up. The golden-haired child in Laslow’s arms- fuck. Selena had always had a knack for spotting family resemblance, and the pigtailed girl was a dead ringer for the dour Prince Xander.

Laslow had it handled: he’d found the second princess, after all. Selena turned her attention back to her former captor. He was bleeding out, not dead yet, but soon. Hardened she might be, but Selena had no stomach for physical interrogation. (According to Robin, it didn’t work anyway.) She pulled her sword fully from his body, only to quickly cut across his neck, giving him a swift and painless death rather than letting him linger.

Her sword hilt was sticky with blood by the time she rose to her feet, and saw that Laslow did not have it handled after all. Princess Camilla had emerged seemingly from nowhere (from hell?), and now had a protective arm around her younger sister. There was another boy – with similar light hair and red eyes, surely another royal brother. Prince Leo, her memory supplied. A third man stood just behind Laslow, a gleaming knife at her friend’s neck. And the last and oddest arrival to the scene was a girl with scruffy blue and pink pigtails, looking between them curiously.

“Lady Camilla!” She pouted. Her white tunic was stained red – wine or blood? (From what she knew, Nohr was probably too poor for wine. Blood it was.) “Aww, you killed them without me…”

“What’s happening, Peri?” the princess demanded. Her voice was crisp and clear, and dangerously angry.

‘Peri’, as the pigtailed waif apparently was, looked around, eventually reaching Selena herself. “Hoshidan assassins!”

What else could Selena do but try desperately to explain? Gods help her, but even Odin’s rambling might have bought them precious time to calm things down, but he was nowhere in sight. “Your highness,” Selena inclined her head respectfully and dipping her blade low. “This man was about to kill Prince Leo.”

A tense moment of silence, in which Selena didn’t dare raise her head. It wasn’t the princess who spoke, but odd Peri: “Oh, hey! You must be Selena!” her head whipped up, and Peri was smiling(?). “Odin told us about you!”

By now, Selena’s head was spinning. What had the boys been up to while she’d been captured? (Not rescuing her, obviously.) She bit her lip to keep her mouth shut as the Princess and Peri spoke, but the taste of blood wasn’t enough to deter her from snapping; “Your highness, you’re still in danger!”

It was true, too. Ebon-plated troops were flocking the tourney grounds, but something close to a riot seemed to have broken out in the western seats, across the field. Was it a failed feint, or had the assassination attempt on the princess been the distraction? The little girl was still clinging to Camilla, burying her face in a dark purple shawl.

Selena had an unlikely ally – the snowhaired rogue. “Lord Leo, she’s right.” Distaste dripped from his voice. “Peri and I can escort Lady Elise home and have these two taken to Lord Xander.”

“Go,” Camilla commanded, her attention caught by something across the ground. “You too, Leo. My sweet Beruka and I will handle this.”

Leo was midway through spluttering a protest, but Elise moving to his side seemed to mollify him. “One wrong move,” he snarled to Selena, “and you’re both ash.”

Selena had to bite back a snarky retort, instead dipping her head in what hopefully looked like submission rather than seething. Laslow answered for them; “Of course, your highness.”

Selena was still mad at him, of course, since he was a womanising jerk who’d had her worried for no good reason. But… “About time you showed up,” she muttered to him, reaching out and touching his hand.

He squeezed in response; “Sorry to keep you waiting.” The whitehaired man with the eyepatch -Leo’s servant, by the look of it- was plainly listening in. Good for him. “Where were you?”

“Those creeps captured me,” Selena replied, lightly raising her other hand to show him her injured wrist.

Laslow grimaced, but the real reaction came from the pigtailed girl, Elise. She gasped, immediately breaking away from her sister and hurrying over. “I can fix that!” she crowed, pride in her own healing skills intermingled with what seemed like genuine concern.

“Elise,” Leo began, but was interrupted by Camilla; “Once we get back home, dear,” she said firmly, giving Selena an appraising look as she gently pulled Elise back by the shoulder. “It’s not safe out here.”

Selena felt her cheeks redden as the princess studied her. She tried to tilt her head down in deference, but she couldn’t help staring back, just a bit. Princess Camilla was beautiful, in a strong and deadly way which reminded Selena more of Kjelle than Lucina. There was an unspoken ferocity in her eyes which promised death for any who dared harm her siblings.

There had been one terrible night where Severa had held that same ferocity, when she and Cynthia cowered in fear as their mothers’ bodies cooled on the ground. The Exalt and his men arrived far too late to help – only in time for Severa to scream curses at the man who had for so long held both her mothers’ hearts.

Suddenly Camilla was much closer, clasping Selena’s chin and peering into her eyes. Her wavy violet hair smelt of sweet camellia flowers, and her one visible eye was a rich amethyst. She smiled sweetly, the way one might when admiring a pegasus foal. “Aww, you’re so cute.”

Selena decided at once that she very much disliked this condescending warrior-princess, so different from Lucina or Kjelle, and that she would do all she could to avoid her. She couldn’t say that, of course, so she murmured an, “Um- thank you…?” that sounded far more sheepish than she liked. Laslow was smirking, damn him.

“Just don’t do anything silly, dear,” Camilla cooed. “I’d hate to have to bash in such a pretty head.”

Chapter Text

Inigo’s nerves were well and truly shot by the time he and Severa were reunited with Owain. It took all his reserve not to throw his arms around his erstwhile friend, who was lounging back on a chair looking entirely too relaxed for their precarious situation.

The room which they had been brought to seemed to be a small parlour for receiving guests. Orienting oneself in the winding halls of Castle Krakenburg was all but impossible, not least because the only light was from the dim lanterns its residents carried around. Nohrian eyes were more adjusted to darkness than his own.

Owain looked unharmed, at least in comparison to Severa. She’d borne with her injured wrist with her usual silent stubbornness, but anyone could tell it was troubling her. As soon as they reached the room, little Elise insisted, “Okay, time for healing!”

“Of course, dear,” smiled Camilla. Looking around, Inigo realised that Leo and his man-at-arms had tapered off somewhere in the labyrinth of corridors. Perhaps to fetch the prince, or the king, or the executioner.

Severa held out her arm gingerly. Elise grimaced, but didn’t shy away: pressing her lips together, she held one hand just above Severa’s bruised wrist, the other raising a staff slightly in the air. The invocation looked similar to the kind used by Lissa and Maribelle. Severa immediately relaxed, giving a stiff, “Thank you, your highness,” and inclining her head.

None of them were used to showing the proper deference to royalty. Owain was royalty, technically, and he was still dreadful at it. Lucina had led them because of her iron will, not her blue blood. This deficiency went double for Inigo, who was raised with Feroxi attitudes towards leadership: respect is earned through strength of blade or heart, not given just because someone happened to be born with a silver spoon or an Exalt’s brand.

Elise lilted back delicately, beaming. Her smile faded immediately when Camilla said, “Now, be a sweetheart and go back to your room? I’m sure Arthur must be dreadfully worried.”

The little princess pouted; “But I wanna stay!”

“Weren’t you saying you wanted to watch the tourney with Father?” Camilla smiled indulgently. “You’ll need to pick out a good dress.”

Elise puffed out her cheeks stubbornly, but Camilla’s steely grace won the day. Her shoulders slumped, Elise nodded. “Okay,” she grumbled, turning.

“Peri, go with her?” A new voice asked – no, commanded. The creaking hinges of the doorway had silenced themselves for the crown prince, who had slipped into the room silently. Peri smiled delightedly upon seeing her liege, taking Elise’s hand more in the manner of a playmate than a retainer, though Peri was surely closer in age to Camilla than Elise. Elise followed after her reluctantly, though she cast one final glance behind her. Her eyes met Inigo’s and she smiled with a little wink.

There were six of them in the small room, yet the distance seemed to stretch on forever. Prince Xander stood in front of the door, not quite leaning on it but close enough that his sword’s hilt rested against the wood. Princess Camilla was sitting on a bureau, one leg crossed over the other, battleaxe leaning casually by her side as though it were a parasol. Beside her, so slight and still that she almost faded into the background, was Camilla’s woman-at-arms, a youth with pale eyes and sky blue hair. Her expression hadn’t faltered once. Had she even blinked? Inigo found he didn’t dare try to hold her gaze.

Camilla spoke first. “Now, where in the world are you three from?”

Nowhere in the world, Inigo thought but didn’t say. The three of them didn’t fall into an easy leader/follower dynamic as they had with Lucina. Inigo had the silver tongue, Severa the will, and Owain the sheer confidence – but none of them possessed all three. None of them were born to lead.

“We hail from far, far away from here, your highness,” Owain dipped his head with a flourish. The corners of Camilla’s mouth perked up, just for a moment. “We are but humble mercenaries.”

“And you are?” Her voice was sickly sweet, devoid of the hardness she’s spoken with when her sister was in danger.

Owain’s eyes lit up. “I am Odin Dark, walker of the twilight pa-“

“He’s Odin, I’m Selena, that’s Laslow.” Probably best Severa interrupted. No, Selena. The last thing they needed was for Inigo to blow their cover. “Milady,” Selena added as an afterthought.

“I see,” Camilla hummed melodically. “And you two have made it quite far in the tournament, haven’t you?” Inigo nodded silently. Camilla beamed. “How nice!”

There was a short, sharp knock at the door. Xander stepped aside, and Inigo caught just a glimpse of white hair and grey leathers. Xander and Leo’s man-at-arms conferred for a moment before Xander nodded, dismissing him. “The King has requested our presence.” Xander’s voice was lower and quieter than Inigo had expected. He and Camilla made some silent communication, and Camilla gave a little nod.

“This playdate has been fun,” her voice lilted upwards, dragging out the last vowel, “but it’s time for you to go home. Don’t worry. My lovely Beruka will keep you company for the next few days.” Camilla wrapped an arm around the slender young woman at her side, kissing the top of her head lightly. Beruka remained silent and motionless. “We’ll see you at the tournament, I’m sure.”

*

Camilla was terrifying, and Xander was intimidating, but Inigo quickly realised that Beruka was the scariest person in Nohr. If not in this entire world. She didn’t blink, barely even seemed to breathe. She led them through the twisting hallways swiftly and surely, not once looking back at them. Daggers hung loosely at her waist, along with what looked like a riding crop. Most striking was the reactions of the servants who saw them – they took one look at Beruka and scattered as though they’d seen a ghost. No-one dared even look.

What was it Camilla had said? Beruka would be minding them for days?

Beruka only paused once they were outside the castle, though nowhere near the way they’d entered. This part of the undercity was unfamiliar to Inigo – equally so to Owain and Severa, judging by their faces.

“Go,” Beruka said, her voice so dull and placid that Inigo barely heard it. Then, to Severa, she added, “Your match is soon.”

Severa scowled, glancing up at the sky by reflex. The sky was little help, but the lanterns lining the streets were relit every few hours and had by now dwindled down to almost nothing. That would put them in the evening. “Right,” she muttered, face darkening even further as she looked from Beruka to the streets. “Well? Are you guys coming?!”

Placating words and an easy smile came unbidden to Inigo’s lips; “Of course we’ll watch you.” Odin nodded his agreement, using more flowery words. That earned a snort from Severa, and a few back-and-forths of banter they all knew by rote.

That was all the distraction it took for Beruka to disappear into the darkness. She was undoubtedly still around somewhere nearby, taking in every word and move they made. Inigo remarked on as much to the others; Odin merely grinned. “Then you’d better put on a good show, Selena!”

“Hmph, when have I not?” she retorted, crossing her arms. “You’re not even competing.”

Odin smiled beneficently, his face reminiscent of paintings of the late Exalt Emmeryn. “To face my prowess in the dark arts would be a cruelty to my opponents.”

Selena just snorted. “I guess they might die of laughter.” She brushed one of her twintails out, a few strands catching in the leather studs of her tunic. “Where’d that creepy girl go?”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s still watching us from somewhere,” Inigo glanced around, though he knew he wouldn’t see her dull eyes or scrawny frame. “Why don’t you fill us in on what you were up to? Is your wrist still hurt?”

“It’s fine,” Selena scowled, annoyed they hadn’t asked after her earlier. Inigo knew however if they’d asked after her too early, she would’ve assumed they thought she couldn’t handle herself. Sometimes there was no winning with her. She allowed a rare bit of praise to leave her lips; “That Princess Elise did a good job fixing it up.”

“She kind of looks like Lissa, doesn’t she?” The words left Inigo’s mouth before he really thought about them. Seeing the stricken flash in Odin’s eyes, he immediately wished he could take them back. “I- gods, I’m sorry-“

“It’s okay,” Odin muttered, well below his usual excited pitch. His voice trembled as he added, “I guess- y’know, the hair and stuff-“

“I shouldn’t have brought her up,” Inigo mumbled, knowing the sentiment would do little.  

It was pathetic, really… a mere mention of their parents, and they were all reduced to lonely lost little children. Now he saw his father in every flash of dark hair in the crowd. No, not even Father, the man who’d died to save his son, but taciturn Lon’qu, who would one day be father to another Inigo entirely. Lon’qu who grew flustered and blushed whenever Inigo so much as mentioned women.

Gods, why hadn’t he spent more time with Lon’qu when he had the chance? Like Severa and Gerome, he’d held his parents at arm’s length, not wanting to get too attached when he was just a facsimile of the real thing. Even if the real thing hadn’t arrived yet.

The three of them stood silently for a few minutes, each lost in their own world. Surely Beruka would be drawing conclusions and noting weaknesses. Selena finally cast off her thoughts, snapping, “Can we go already?!” and storming down the street.

Inigo hestitated. “Odin…” 

Odin gave him a smile – bright, theatrical, false. “Come along, oh fated rival! We don’t want to miss dear Selena’s triumph!”

*

The field of competitors had narrowed down, but the crowd of onlookers had swelled to bursting point. The competition had moved to a great arena, built into one of the enormous hollows of the canyon wall. The royal box was carved out of the rock face itself, and probably led straight back to Castle Krakenberg. Once again, the King declined to give a speech, leaving the talking to the pale dark-haired man who had spoken for him earlier. Not one of his children, as Inigo had suspected earlier, though all four of them were present in the royal box beside their father.

The weapons were still live steel, and the fights were bloodier than ever. Selena fought her opponent to a standstill, resorting to striking him in the face with the pommel of her sword to force his surrender. Even then, he likely would have gone on fighting were he sensate enough to have a say in the matter. Some competitors were carried off by healers, like the poor wretch who faced Peri of Sable.

(Prince Xander was once again standing at the sidelines to meet Peri after her fight. She giggled and bounded up and down, and he smiled indulgently, leading her away. As they walked, she went up on tiptoes, kissing him on the cheek. Had anyone in the crowd noticed, or were they too preoccupied with her opponent, who ended the fight with one hand less than he  began with?)

The gruesome violence was familiar to Inigo, child of the battlefield as he was, but this… this turned his stomach. Regna Ferox had a long, proud tradition of gladiatorial arena matches. Inigo was raised on such tales, had once dreamed of competing himself, but the Feroxi arenas were places of skill and technique overwhelming. Men like his father, like the Khans – they won because they were brave and cunning and talented. This was just butchery.

“Why are they even watching this?” Inigo murmured to himself amidst the crowd’s roar. “Who enjoys such a thing?”

Odin was at his side, and gave a brief, sympathetic shrug. “Maybe they’re caught up in the glory?”

“Or maybe,” Selena retorted, “they’re just here for the free food.”

(It would not be for some time that Inigo understood the significance of the bread and mead being passed around so freely. Feasts for the common folk were a frequent affair in both Ylisse and Regna Ferox, whereas the last arena-free feast Nohr had seen was that of Prince Xander’s coronation.)

Inigo was one of the last to fight, facing a tall, heavyset man who would tower over just about anyone. The weapons were still pig-iron poor, and the padded armour was ill-fitting across his shoulders. It allowed too much room at the chest and not enough at the midriff; made for a woman’s build, not a man’s. Inigo had spent all morning dreading this match, and felt a sick sense of relief that at least it was happening now, and there would be no more waiting.

Inigo approached his opponent, nodding shortly, expecting the sneers of a noble or the naked aggression of someone desperate to prove themselves. Instead, the towering man offered him a hand; “Petros, of House Mildain.”

Inigo choked on a gasp, nodding swiftly and taking Petros’ hand. “Laslow, of Lycia.”

Petros smiled at him – not a smirk, a smile. “May the best man win.”

They shook hands. Inigo may have said something witty, but probably not – his mind was going through a peculiar fit. The stress of it all was getting to him, perhaps: the hellish impossibility of their task, mixed with grief and outrage at being forced into yet another bloodbath.

Petros was good, but not good enough. His movements were sluggish, and too easily predictable from years of Inigo’s training with Kjelle. The drill patterns of armoured footmen were the same in any world, but all Petros’ well-honed katas did not account for the poor quality of his armour.

Inigo drew first blood. Petros continued.

Inigo drew second blood, then third, cutting shallow wounds designed to deter rather than defeat. Petros continued.

Inigo stumbled back, looked around. The crowd were watching him so intently, but he couldn’t see Odin and Selena anywhere. Where were they? What was he meant to do?

“We can’t lose this tournament,” he’d said to Selena. “It’s our best chance to endear ourselves to the royal family.”

“Well, I’m not going to lose,” Selena had scowled, then smirked, and he had smirked back, because there was never a clear winner in their sparring matches.

Win, Inigo thought. He had to win.

Petros lunged at him, the heft of his axe swinging in a deadly arc towards Inigo’s chest. Instinct and determination prevailed; he dodged underneath the swing, closed distance, and struck a decisive blow across Petros’ chest.

Petros staggered back, the axe trembling in his hands, and-

drop it drop it DROP IT

-barrelled forward at Inigo in a wide, clumsy attack. Petros had weighed it up for himself. He wasn’t going to stop. Inigo knew that bitter determination. For as long as he had command of his faculties, Petros would not yield.

“Well, that’s that,” Lon’qu would have said. “You know what to do.”

Guilt and shame roiled in his belly as Inigo unclipped the ill-fitting padded armour. It would do little for him. The crowd roared in admiration. Petros was upon him mere second after Inigo’s armour clattered to the ground. The axe whistled past his head, close enough to prickle the skin, but Inigo twisted over the haft, leaping in the air and bearing down in a focused downward thrust. It was a similar motion to Lucina’s favoured coup de grace, but the sword was more sharply pointed towards his destination. If he missed, it would be disastrous; the backlash would probably break his wrist.

His mother and father were two of the finest swordmasters Regna Ferox had ever seen. He did not miss.

The point of the blade drove straight through the flimsy armour, straight into Petros’ exposed shoulder tendon. There was a scream, a sickening squelch, and Inigo drove his legs into Petros’ side, wrenching the sword out and using the momentum to leap away. By the time Inigo landed and regained his senses, Petros was on the ground, the crowd were screaming his praise, and healers were hurrying out.

Inigo wanted to throw up. Instead, he cast his eyes above to the royal box. The King was appraising him; he turned and said something to Prince Xander, who bowed his head. Princess Camilla was hugging little Elise to her side. She shouldn’t be watching this.

Someone had taken Inigo by the wrist and was pulling him away. His instincts kicked in, and he was all set to strike them when he heard Odin’s voice; “It’s okay. It’s done. C’mon, let’s go back to the inn.”

“We should stay,” Inigo’s stomach roiled. “For the end.”

Odin squeezed his hand. “There’s nothing else to see.”

Chapter Text

Inigo had an unsettled, dreamless sleep that night. He woke up tossing and turning five, six times before realising that proper rest would elude him. He’d be fighting at a disadvantage the next morning. Only sixteen remained. None of them would go down easily. Selena, ironically, was the person he was least worried about facing, even though she could give anyone there a run for their money. They bickered, but there was an unspoken trust built from years of sparring matches. One of them would know when to cede.

Right now, Selena lay snoring, flat on her stomach, hair out of her customary twintails and tied in a neat bun. Odin was curled up next to her, hugging his knees, a small smile on his face. Dreaming of some corny fairytale, probably. Inigo pulled on his boots and crept from the room as silently as he could.

He saw Prince Leo’s silver-haired man-at-arms as soon as he stepped out onto the street, which probably meant that he didn’t care to hide. Indeed, he waved cheerily, sauntering over with a lazy grin that immediately put Inigo on edge. “Fancy meeting you here,” he drawled, his one good eye skimming over Inigo in what felt like a leer.

“Quite a coincidence, given we’re boarding here,” Inigo tried to force himself to be cheerful.

“Mm-hmm,” he smirked. His demeanour was personable, even pleasant, but there was something malicious and predatory lurking under the surface. Like he was sizing Inigo up and deciding whether to devour him or play with him a little first. “You’re handy with a sword. I like that in a man.” He licked his lips, chuckling a little.

“Uh-“ Inigo’s cheeks flushed. He could dish out the flirtation -though not quite as brazenly- but taking it was another matter altogether. “You know- I don’t think I caught your name?” His voice hitched on the last syllable.

“Heh,” he grinned. Inigo felt even more like a poor mouse batted between a feral cat’s paws. “What, too distracted ogling to pay attention?” He turned, and Inigo fell into step beside him, “Lady Camilla may be out of your league, friend. Or are you after the crown?

Inigo had never been able to fully appreciate the aesthetic qualities of people who scared him, and he was man enough to admit that Princess Camilla was terrifying. Prince Xander was marginally less immediately frightening, but Inigo still felt discomforted recalling his impassive frown and stony gaze. He’d never been one for brooders, anyway.

(Well, there was Gerome, but that was two worlds ago.)

Inigo forced a rogueish smile, the kind that sent village girls blushing. “What if it was you I was distracted by?”

The snowhaired man laughed, and though it had a hint of his earlier mockery, it seemed more genuine. “Then I’d say you have good taste. Laslow, was it?” He nodded silently. “Niles.”

“A pleasure to meet you then, Niles,” Inigo gave a short bow, to Niles’ amusement. “And you serve Prince Leo?”

“That’s right.” Looking at him now, Niles and Leo were probably around the same age. Slightly younger than him, or so he guessed. “His Highness is quite taken with you and yours.” Sarcasm, undoubtedly. Leo had seemed sullen and churlish. “Where was it you said you were from? Lycia?”

Inigo nodded stiffly.

“It just so happens that my liege is quite learned in history, geography, all of that,” Niles turned a corner sharply, leading Inigo down another side-street, “and yet he’s never heard of Lycia.”

“It’s,” his mind raced, “it’s a small village…”

Niles smiled humourlessly. “You’re cute when you lie,” he said, pausing abruptly. “I’ll tell you what. You can help me out a little, and if you’re a good boy, I won’t tell on you.”

What choice did he have? “Okay…” He watched Niles warily as he wandered over to a door in the wall, one of many. They’d gone through an alleyway into one of the tiny rows of ramshackle hovels, thrown together unevenly from wood, stone, and detritus. “What do I have to do?”

Niles kicked the door open, wandering into the tiny room and kicking aside a fleabitten old roll of carpet. It covered a small, neat trapdoor – a hidden cellar, or something like it. Niles looked up at him, light reflecting unsettlingly in his grey eye. “Just lead the way.”

*

According to Laurent, the miners of Ylisse had a practice dating back to ancient times of carrying with them into mine shafts small caged birds. Canaries: tiny chirping little things which belonged anywhere but in the bottom of a dank hole. The miners brought them there so that they could see if there was poisonous gas – if there was, the canary would die first, and the miners would have time to escape. Laurent had told Inigo this as an example of human ingenuity, but he’d always thought it ghastly. Inigo had no real connection or affinity for nature, but the idea of something so vulnerable and full of life brought so deep underground so people could watch it die sounded unbearably cruel.

Right now, Inigo very much felt like one of those canaries. The passageway was narrow and dank – an unused aqueduct, he suspected, like the kind in Ylisse. Windmire had them too, but they seemed to work by a different mechanism, and this one was old, decayed, and bone-dry. Niles was walking behind him, and Inigo didn’t need to turn and look to know that his bow was drawn, ready to put an arrow between Inigo’s ribs should he try and flee. Beruka brought up the rear – he hadn’t seen her join them, but he’d caught a glimpse of her ice-coloured hair.

The disused tunnels were in utter darkness. Niles had the foresight to bring a torch, which Inigo now carried, but every flicker made his heart skip a beat. The passageways were narrow, so if they needed to find their way in darkness it would only be a matter of reversing course, but there was a primal part of Inigo -of any human with sense- that knew I should not be here.

“Don’t worry,” said Niles, and his voice was such a stark contrast to the silence that he may as well have screamed it, “You’ll be back in time to put down the next uppity noble.”

Inigo swallowed, wondering when he had become so squeamish. “Ha. Yeah…” He immediately wished he hadn’t spoken at all, he was so blatantly unconvincing. Niles surely picked up on it but said nothing, filing it away for later.

The silence became oppressive, until Inigo could bear it no more. It would suffocate him if he didn’t speak, even if voicing his weakness brought its own perils. “Is that sort of thing… normal, for Nohr?”

There was silence for a moment, and then from behind him a scoff. “About as common as it gets.”

Niles already had his number, so what was the harm in exposing his ignorance a little more? Perhaps it would make him see them as less of a threat. With that in mind, Inigo asked the question that had plagued him since the tourney began: “Why use live steel?”

“Heh. What would you use, wooden sticks?”

“I wouldn’t risk the crown prince getting an arm chopped off in a show match.”

Niles laughed – not chuckled, but a full guffaw, mocking and rueful all at once. “How did it get into your pretty head that this was a show match?” He trailed a finger along the back of Inigo’s neck with the word ‘show’, making him jump. But Niles’ tone changed lightning-quick, suddenly sombre; “If Lord Xander or Lady Camilla were hurt or died, they wouldn’t deserve their place. It’s about as simple as that.”

“That’s…” Insane. Even in Regna Ferox, the point of the tournaments was that the Khans chose champions – people whose job it was to fight. A ruler needed more than just combat prowess. It wasn’t that he thought Xander or Camilla to be idiots, but warriors alone couldn’t run a kingdom.

Inigo recalled what Niles had said about his liege’s knowledge of history. Perhaps that was why the second prince hadn’t competed.

Niles was still waiting for him to reply. Measuring him, seeing what his response would be. Inigo had already revealed himself genuinely naïve as to Nohr’s nature. “Why?”

Niles sighed. It was difficult to tell if he’d gone up or down in the man’s estimation – if, indeed, Niles was capable of forming positive opinions of people. “Are they all this dense in Lycia?”

Inigo managed a chuckle; “I’m told my good looks make up for it.”

“I’m certainly enjoying the view,” replied Niles.

They continued to banter as they inched through the passageways. Progress was agonisingly slow in places, as sometimes the walls narrowed so badly they could barely squeeze through. None of them were bulky, but Inigo would have nasty grazes by the end. He could only hope they wouldn’t return this way. Beruka was small and lithe enough to slip through unimpeded, but even Niles was beginning to struggle when the passage turned a sharp blind corner and began to broaden out.

Inigo came to a stop as soon as Beruka squeezed through the blind corner, and the three of them peered ahead to their apparent destination. The shadows of furniture played across the stone floor, lit by several candles. The light temporarily dazzled them, so dark had the passageway been. It looked like a cellar of some sort. Inigo was completely disoriented by now, but hopefully Niles and Beruka had some idea where in the world they were.

“Out of the way,” Beruka murmured, and Niles and Inigo obligingly shuffled towards the opening to let her through. She crept into the light, turned another corner, and was gone from their sight. Her shadow still played across the floor, and after a moment, it beckoned for them to join her.

The room was mostly bare. There was a table and chairs, an empty wardrobe, and a stone staircase leading up to a closed door. Beruka hurried up the stairs, pausing at the door and pressing her ear against it. Then, she slipped a battered old lockpick into the keyhole, adjusting it for just a moment before pushing the door open soundlessly.

Niles glanced back at Inigo, finally seeing fit to inform him where they were. “This is the route the Hoshidan assassins were using to get into the city,” he said quietly, watching as Beruka crept through the door and out of sight. “She tracked one of them back here after the failed attack on Lord Leo.”

“Where are we?” Inigo asked.

“By my guess,” Niles lightly stroked the cold stone of the wall, as if orienting himself by it, “The Southern Fortress.” There were three imposing fortresses towering around the north, south, and eastern edges of Windmire’s canyon, presumably used as garrisons for the military. The Western Fortress lay in ruins, the result of a quelled riot.

“Do the three of us really stand a chance against an entire garrison?” Inigo questioned.

Niles smirked. “Oh, hardly. But we don’t need to fight a garrison.” He didn’t elaborate on this statement, instead hopping up onto the creaky old table and leering at Inigo. “What are you trying to get out of this, anyway?”

There wasn’t much point in lying to Niles, Inigo thought – better to appear as an honest simpleton. “Honestly? I heard it’s the quickest path to knighthood for common folk like us.”

Niles snorted. “I guess it is, assuming you don’t get killed first. There’s already a few nobles who want to separate your pretty head from your shoulders.”

“They’re welcome to try,” Inigo attempted bravado, but it was difficult with Niles just staring at him like that. It was discomforting, though that was likely the point. “Is that how you and Beruka won the favour of royalty?”

Niles laughed, mocking as usual but with genuine amusement. “I’m not a fan of fair fights. Beruka could probably wipe the floor with most of Nohr, but I don’t think she’d like the attention.”

“I wouldn’t presume to serve royalty,” Inigo said, completely truthful. They wanted to get into the good graces of the Nohrian royals, but being sworn retainers in the manner of Beruka and Niles would be far too restrictive. They couldn’t search for Corrin if they were constantly at royalty’s beck and call.

“That’s too bad, then,” Niles’ expression was suddenly grim and serious, “because you’re well on the way there.”

“Huh?”

“Our Crown Prince has recently found himself down a couple of retainers.” Niles’ tone was too sober and his words too plain for this to be a joke. “The unofficial purpose of this tournament is to find him some new babysitters.”

Inigo struggled to appear neutral, “Surely he’s a little old for a nanny.”

“You wouldn’t know it by all the pouting, but he can be very impulsive,” said Niles, an unfamiliar undertone in his voice. Respect, Inigo realised. Interesting – all the stories Inigo had heard about the Nohrian royal family cast the princes and princesses at war with each other, but everything he’d seen of Prince Leo’s actions refuted that. He’d been so genuinely protective of little Elise, and now here was his sworn man speaking fondly of Prince Xander.

Being a retainer to the Crown Prince would undoubtedly be an honour to most, but it went completely against Inigo’s plans. “I think his paramour would gut anyone who took her rightful place,” he said instead; better to play the whole thing off as a joke until he could talk to Selena and Odin.

Niles looked at him blankly. “Who? Peri?” It was clear by the wicked smile blooming on Niles’ face that he’d absolutely misjudged the nature of Xander and Peri’s relationship. Niles laughed so hard he clutched his stomach and almost fell off the table. “That’s-“ he spluttered, “that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time.”

“She kissed him,” Inigo said stupidly, a damnable blush now covering his face. His ears burnt with every peal of laughter. “On the cheek, after she won…”

That only made Niles laugh harder; “Lycia must be a very dull place if a peck on the cheek is a scandal.”

“What is she to him, then?” Inigo demanded, struggling not to pout in the way Cynthia had always found so hilarious. It would just make Niles mock him more.

“Someone to save? How should I know?” Niles hopped off the table, stepping towards Inigo and staring him down. “Do you fancy yourself as a paramour?”

Mercifully, Beruka interrupted Niles’ interrogation. (Torture would be better than that lewd smirk.) Inigo’s intense relief at seeing her dimmed, however, when he saw what she was carrying. A body of a man was slung over one arm – there was no blood, and his chest seemed to rise and fall, so he still lived. In her right arm was a baby, scarcely a month old.

“What- what are you doing?!” Inigo demanded.

Beruka ignored him completely, turning to Niles. “Monica is the traitor. I have the proof we need.”

“He’s going to be a pain to carry back,” replied Niles.

Beruka dropped the man on the ground. There was a bruise across his face, presumably where she had struck him, but he was still breathing. She looked at Niles dispassionately. “Then I’ll kill him.”

“Wait!” Inigo moved in front of the wounded man, looking from Niles to Beruka with mounting panic. “Will someone tell me what’s going on?!”

Niles sighed, irritated. “I thought it’d be obvious. Lady Monica commands the Southern Fortress. She’s a traitor who’s been working with the Hoshidans. This is Leverage and Leverage Junior. She’s only got the one brat, right?” Beruka nodded silently. “Then we don’t need a spare.”

“I’ll carry him back!” Inigo volunteered quickly. Did this man’s life really depend on whether Niles could be bothered carrying him? Niles was a boor, but Inigo had thought at least his heart was in the right place… “What if he has information? Or- what if he didn’t know about her treachery?”

Beruka didn’t seem interested either way, merely sauntering toward the narrow passageway they’d come from, sleeping baby in hand. Niles relented, and shook his head. “Whatever. I guess there’s room for one more in the dungeon.”

Lady Monica, Niles explained on the way out, was a cousin to Princess Camilla’s mother. She likely assumed that her treachery would be excused by Camilla, who would stand to benefit were the younger prince and princess eliminated. From the matter-of-fact way Niles spoke, such designs seemed to be commonplace.

“It’d never work, of course,” Niles shrugged; “Princess Camilla would tear apart anyone who hurt her precious family. Right, Beruka?” Beruka gave a non-committal grunt in response.

“So, what, you’ll take them to the King?” Inigo asked.

“Ha! I’d rather this actually be acted upon,” said Niles, a cynical edge to his voice. Down here in the city’s bowels, Niles’ lack of respect for King Garon was palpable. “Don’t worry, I’ll put in a good word to Priince Xander for you.”

“That’s- really not necessary,” Inigo mumbled.

Niles chuckled. “Confident, aren’t we?” As Inigo tried and failed to splutter out a comeback, Niles leaned closer, whispering in his ear, “Has anyone ever told you you’re cute when you blush?”

*

Inigo parted way with Beruka and Niles after what felt like an eternity groping around in the darkness. Carrying Lady Monica’s husband through the tunnels had been an ordeal, and the poor man was going to have a few bumps and grazes, but Niles kindly promised not to slit his throat as soon as Inigo was out of view.

By the time Inigo returned, Odin and Selena were already awake, the latter wasting no time in scolding him for disappearing. Her chiding didn’t stop even after he explained where he had been; “You could have at least left a note!” she huffed.

“I didn’t think it would be so involved,” Inigo admitted. “Besides, I think he would’ve shot me had I tried to run.”

“He’s got one eye, Laslow, I think you could’ve taken him.”

“Speaking of eyes!” Odin interjected, his tone so grandiose that Inigo could tell something truly ridiculous was about to spew forth, “My third eye has swelled-“

Gross.”

“-to reveal great wisdom about our destinies in the land of eternal night!” Odin grinned like a dog who’d just done a trick. “…We need to become retainers!”

Selena frowned. “Why? Serving someone sounds like the worst.”

Odin pursed his lips, inwardly weighing up whether to continue with his usual flourishes or to speak like a normal person for a change. Reluctantly, he chose the latter. “I… I don’t think I can walk away from this place. Not just yet.” Odin’s eyes flickered away from them, towards the door. These moments of awkward sincerity were never easy on him. “Selena. Don’t you think it would’ve been easy for our families to walk away from Ylisse, back when Aunt Emmeryn first ascended?”

Selena pulled a face and muttered, “Our mothers were just children then.” Her gaze stayed on Odin nonetheless.

“This place is on the cusp of something. Even people as mystically challenged as you two must be able to feel it,” an easy grin crossed Odin’s face – the kind that meant he was quietly nervous, quietly determined. “Think about it. We could nip another Gangrel, another Walhart, right in the bud.”

Inigo wished Odin was wrong. The idea of serving royalty didn’t bother him the way it clearly nauseated Selena, but to be dutybound to another dying realm…

“You’re right,” he murmured, loathing the words as they left his lips. “Damn it.”

Odin nodded vigorously, encouraged by Inigo’s reluctant support. “Honouring our deal with-“ he cut himself off midsentence, then continued, “Simply finding her, it’s not enough. There’s so much more we can do.”

“Or we could end up dead in a back alley,” Selena snapped.

“Oh, come now, Selena, I’m sure you’re cut out for a little intrigue,” Inigo smiled. It felt hollow.

Selena didn’t take the bait. She looked from one man to another, clenched her fists, and sighed. “You know I can’t leave without you morons.” Odin beamed, clapping her on the shoulder with a cheer. “But,” she continued huffily, “I am not serving that crazy princess. Dibs on the short scowly one.”

Odin had already struck up a rapport with the crown prince, which meant – oh. Oh dear. “That means you’ll be stuck with Niles,” Inigo warned Selena, realising with a growing despair that he would far prefer Niles to Camilla, who may kill him in his sleep.

“I’ll just stand on his right,” she said. “Have fun with her royal axe-craziness.”

Odin smiled cheerfully, providing no comfort whatsoever to Inigo’s nerves. “You are always saying you’d like to meet women!”

Chapter Text

Sixteen became eight all too quickly for Inigo’s liking as the next day of fighting passed in a blur. He and Selena were victorious, though the victories were increasingly hard-fought. The intended grand final was now clear; with the structure of the remaining draw, Xander and Camilla could only face each other then.

Niles’ words still troubled Inigo: not the part about the tourney’s true purpose being to find new retainers, as that was now downright convenient, but that none of these matches were for show. Did the King truly intend for his eldest son and daughter to fight to the death for the entertainment of a crowd? Or would one of them gracefully concede, as Camilla had during the exhibition match?

“What wicked thoughts trouble your brow, oh Laslow of the Azure Skies?” There was Odin, hanging off his shoulder with teasing words. “Worried for our dear Selena’s safety?”

Inigo shook his head dismissively. “She’ll be fine.” Selena exulted in combat, despite or perhaps because of her perennial inferiority complex. It wasn’t necessarily her strength or speed that put her a cut above the rest, though she was as ever in peak condition. It was her sheer endurance. Selena could persevere through pain that would drive most to hysteria or senselessness.

Peri of House Sable didn’t stand a chance.

The royal family was in full attendance now, albeit without retainers. Niles and Beruka no doubt stalked the crowd, ensuring there were no hidden blades or arrows to trouble the business end of the tourney. There would be eyes on Inigo and Odin, too, though they had every intention of behaving themselves. Inigo had been permitted a better view of the festivities, and -in the absence of a lovely lady to invite- had chosen Odin as his guest. (Odin would have grumbled and carried on had he not.) From here, they could clearly see the tips of pink on Peri’s otherwise aqua locks, the slightly lopsided angle of Selena’s left twintail.

“She’s taking this seriously,” Inigo remarked. She’d be foolish not to. Selena would win, but Peri’s savagery wasn’t to be underestimated.

Someone was up in the royal box whispering in the King’s ear. No-one bothered to announce the competitors to the mere commonfolk, whose presence here was now more an indulgence than a cause celebre. Everyone knew nonetheless – the blood-soaked noble and the mysterious swordswoman. The King gave a short gesture with one gauntleted hand, the bell chimed, and the bloodshed began.

Peri began even more fiercely than usual, perhaps seeing her retainership on the line against the redhaired upstart. Selena could be every bit as ferocious in combat, but here she hung back, nimbly redirecting what she could and dodging what she could not. Selena was at a natural disadvantage, having chosen a shortsword against Peri’s polearm. 

Peri drew first blood, thrusting downwards in a sharp arc. Selena leapt out of the way, sparing her head from being skewered, but the spear’s point caught the back of her right forearm. Inigo grimaced, hoping Peri had been distracted by the injury and hadn’t noticed the more damning part – her wrist had shuddered with the impact, so badly she’d almost dropped her sword. Her injuries from captivity hadn’t fully healed.

It was difficult to tell if Peri realised, but Selena certainly did, and adjusted her strategy accordingly. Normally, she could outlast any opponent with her footwork and deflection, but Peri’s attacks were only growing fiercer over time. Selena stepped two, three, four paces back, then ran at Peri with a roar. That alone would have caught most opponents off-guard, but Peri’s expression was gleeful, even enraptured. Selena leapt in the air to strike Peri, again borrowing Lucina’s flashy finisher. Inigo’s heart was caught in his throat – Peri was parrying, she could obviously parry – and, as Peri brought the lance across her body in a defensive line-

Selena dropped the sword mid-air and twisted, kicking Peri square in the face.

Peri dropped like a stone, and Selena landed gracelessly atop her, half entangled. She got to her feet quickly, peering down at Peri’s still form. The crowd broke into uproarious applause, and Inigo chanced a look up at the royal box.

Xander stood still as a statue, watching grimly. Waiting.

On the arena floor, several healers were attending Peri. It was impossible to hear over the din of the crowd, but it was plain enough from the way they were carefully cleaning her face and unclipping her armour that she still drew breath. That kind of care would only be shown to the living.

Selena made no show of waving to the crowd as others had, instead heading straight for her watching companions and clambering over the barricade up to them. She tossed her armour over the side, back into the arena, where a harried servant began to gather it.

“Show-off,” Inigo teased her, grinning. “Let me see your wrist.”

*

The tourneys themselves only took up a fraction of the day, as there were only a few fights left in the whole affair. Inigo defeated his opponent with relative ease, and eight became four. The next day, Selena would face Camilla, and he would face Xander. The prince was no pushover, but Inigo certainly didn’t envy Selena. For now, however, there was more entertainment to be had.

One of the fixtures of the royal box, a gaudily-dressed man with long black hair, was making a speech of some sort about the awe and majesty of Nohr’s great king, how he would crush the weaklings of Hoshido, how all Nohr’s enemies would wither and die. It wouldn’t have been a stirring speech had it not been for the prisoners being slowly marched out into the arena. Men and women, young and old, well-fed and emaciated.

“What’s this all about?” asked Selena sourly. She’d hoped to slip off for a bath, but their absence would surely be noted by now. 

Odin pursed his lips; “One of the King’s famous mass executions.” No merriment or whimsy to his tone. This kind of thing happened in Plegia and Valm – their one-time ally Lady Say’ri had only barely escaped a similar purge in Chon’sin.

Inigo’s stomach roiled. The pointless bloodshed in the arena had nauseated him enough, but this was beyond the pale. “We should go,” he murmured, rising to his feet.

Beruka pushed him down just as quickly, appearing from seemingly nowhere. “Stop being stupid,” she said flatly. “Eyes on you.”

It was the most he’d heard the dead-eyed waif speak. There was no concern, grief, or sympathy in her voice. She may well have apprehended some of the poor wretches herself.

“She’s right,” Odin agreed reluctantly. “It’s a test.”

Beruka gave a nonverbal grunt of approval. She sat down between Inigo and Selena wordlessly, staring blankly at the huddled prisoners. Her small statute was equal parts age and malnourishment – she had the gaunt, stretched skin of a child who had never been fed enough, the hollow eyes of a woman grown up too fast. Her icy demeanour wasn’t a mask, but worn down like stone by the elements. Inigo felt equal parts kinship and pity.

Beruka’s lips parted in a hushed whisper, dull and hoarse; “It’s starting.”

*

The Faceless were creatures of sorcery, Inigo would learn later, conjured as shock troops to fight the bloodiest of battles for the Nohrian military. They were made from the dregs of the dead, and needed no food, water, or rest. They were a bane upon the commonfolk, many of whose villagers were ravaged by feral bands. They had no self-preservation instincts, no higher mental functions, and no mercy.

Right now, as far as Inigo was concerned, they were Risen.

The monsters fell upon the huddled prisoners like a tidal wave, their swiftness wholly at odds with their shambling gait. The screams made Inigo’s head spin, and it took every ounce of self-control not to leap in there and save who he could. From somewhere to his right, he heard Odin give a distressed, wordless cry. His throat felt as if it would swell and burst from the suppressed scream.

In Regna Ferox, they had known death was coming for them. Risen bubbled up from Plegia through Ylisse like fetid water from an underground spring. By the time Ylisstol was overrun, the Khans knew: there was no smoking them out, no outlasting a siege, no laying waste to their forces. They would never stop.

The Feroxi were better suited than most to endure. Their land wasn’t suited to settled agriculture like Ylisse, so they followed set migration routes, only returning to the same places every year or so. They were more used to defending themselves – any Feroxi child could swing a sword, whereas many Ylissean villages had never had to fear more than wild dogs.

It still wasn’t enough.

It was the third wave of refugees that was the tipping point. Under orders from Khan Flavia, Olivia’s band were skirting the Ylisse-Ferox border, identifying any potentially defensible fortifications for the coming winter. There was no winning a siege against the Risen, but they had succeeded with planned holdouts of a month or so. Enough time for illness and wounds to heal, to build up supplies. They’d come across two groups of Ylisseans travelling north, villagefolk who’d naively believed the Risen couldn’t possibly bear the cold.

Olivia could never turn away someone in need. To do so would be condemning the Ylisseans to death.

Precious few of the Ylissean refugees could fight or hunt. There were too many mouths and not enough bows, not when game was already depleted from the Risen’s rampage. Risen killed any animal in their way; the ravaged corpses were too corrupted by dark magic to be of any use at all. After the third wave, Olivia determined they had to split into two: one group to continue the mission, and one to take the deadweight back to Regna Ferox where they could be protected and trained.

Inigo had sat in on the meeting. Though young, he took seriously the responsibilities his parents bore, knowing they would be passed down to him someday. ‘Someday’ came sooner than he had thought.

“They won’t make it back,” argued Raimi, who had long ago served on the same border they now crept around, “There’s too many of them and not enough game. We need to send some back to Ylisse.”

Olivia shook her head. “Exalt Chrom is already struggling to protect those who are there.”

They hadn’t heard from Ylisse in weeks. When they did, they would learn Chrom was dead, and his young daughter Lucina was the de facto leader of Ylisse’s forces.

“So, what, we split our forces further, send half our warriors back to Khan Flavia?” Raimi frowned. “A big enough attack could obliterate us!”

Perhaps Raimi was right, or perhaps Olivia had been. It didn’t matter in the end, as shrieks of “RISEN!” ran around the camp. Raimi was at the door lightning-fast, pausing only to gauge whether she had time to pull on a layer of armour. She didn’t.

It might’ve saved her.

Raimi charged out of the room. It was the last time Inigo saw the woman who’d known him since birth, who’d taught him to toss a spear and build a snare.

(No. Not the last time. He’d see her once more that evening, her body torn and half-buried under falling snow.)

“Inigo,” his mother’s voice was cold and husky, the way it got when danger was imminent and she had to go fight. “I’ll need your help.”

Inigo nodded silently. He was already jaded enough to know that their situation must be dire for Olivia to call on him for help.

“Skirt around the edges of the camp and round up the horses. Save as many as you can and take them along the highroad. We’ll rendezvous at the ruins of the western bulwark.” Olivia, meanwhile, would lead the Feroxi outriders in breaking the Risen’s ranks and luring them into the forests to the north. It was the best way to lose the shambling horrors, who stumbled in the thick undergrowth, but anyone who fell behind would be lost to the cold even if they avoided the Risen’s claws.

The only good thing about the bastards, Khan Flavia had said once, was that you could use the same tactics on them over and over again.

The night blurred together in his mind from there. Each step felt harder than the last, weighed down by cold and dread. His fingertips turned blue and ached like they’d been burnt. Screams and sobs rang out, dwindled, and died, just like the watchfires. Inigo managed to salvage six horses and ten people. The refugees were so starved that the horses could easily carry two riders. He remembered a young boy clinging to his waist, sobbing that his father was dead.

He remembered waiting at the bulwark, staring at the empty road until the sun was high and he was all but snowblind.

“You did so well,” Olivia told him later, as they rode back through the ruins of their camp to salvage supplies. “You kept them safe.”

Less than thirty survived in all. “We were lucky.”

The fallen bodies were preserved in the sleet and snow. It was better than the dead in Plegia, where flies covered every inch of skin and strange birds pecked at rotting flesh. There was no smell beyond the smouldering wood. Their mouths were still open in screams, filling slowly with snow.

This was the Risen. This was the world he would inherit.

The screams of the dying prisoners echoed in his ears. Around him, all he could see was snow and slush stained red.

Something sharp stabbed into his thigh. More poison, his mind registered, or something similar. It dulled his reflexes first, then his vision, leaving a sickly sweet taste in his mouth. As he lurched backwards, he heard a low voice whisper something in his ear,  husky words that blurred together into a nonsensical moan.

Someday, Inigo would stop being so lucky.

*

Though Odin Dark was ordinarily loathe to applaud such underhanded methods, it was probably for the best that Beruka sedated his boon companions. Laslow had looked white as a sheet, and another minute was liable to send Selena leaping into the crowd to fight off all the Faceless herself.

Odin remained impassive through the massacre. An ember burnt in his throat, charring the sides and robbing him of his voice, growing larger as each body hit the ground. He too knew the pain which had erupted like a wellspring in Laslow and Selena’s hearts. The memory of fear, hunger, death, loss, hopelessness.

He forced himself to look away.

Ostentatious displays of cruelty like this, after all, were a terribly inefficient way to kill. There had to be a reason behind this decision. For as long as he focused his mind on this reason, and not on the atrocity playing out before his eyes, he could keep his sanity intact.

Let’s see. Were there heroic rebels in the crowd, watching in muted horror as their loved ones fell to slavering beasts? Possible, but then, the guards were not at all attentive. Surely they’d be taking the opportunity to find the culprits were they so intent. Odin’s eyes swept across the onlookers, taking in the horrified and enraptured faces. This wasn’t everyday fare, then – not on this scale.

His piercing gaze settled on the royal box. The King sat in the centre on a grand throne which sparkled with ruby and obsidian insets. Military dress uniform seemed to be the standard for royalty – different from the flowing gowns his mothers had worn for formal occasions at Ylisstol. Odin had expected to see King Garon leaning forward in his seat, watching the devastation keenly, but… no. He was leaning back, tense like an arched cobra, looking to his right where his children were assembled.

Prince Xander stood eldest and tallest, impassive, hands behind his back. In front of him and obscuring Odin’s view was Princess Camilla, half a head shorter and considerably more engaged in the bloodshed. Her expression was difficult to read from so far away, but her brow was furrowed and her mouth scowling. The youngest princess, little Elise, had her face buried in the side of Camilla’s torso, a gauntleted arm around her protectively. She was quivering with sobs. Prince Leo stood off to the side, arms crossed, speaking quietly to his retainer Niles.

With dread, Odin reached a conclusion: this was all for the benefit of little Elise.

“What was aunty Emm like?” he’d asked Mother, curious about this concept of a whole family member he’d never had the chance to meet. He was settled in her arms, Brady already dozing by their side.

Mother sighed, fond and sad. “She was amazing. No matter what happened, she never gave up.”

From then on, Owain imagined Emmeryn as beatific, a protective figure whose love enveloped her family even after death. He drew inspiration from her as much as from his heroic parents (and Uncle Chrom).

Years in the future-past, he learned more – about Grandfather, about the things Emmeryn must have seen when they were the same age. He thought perhaps they were kindred spirits. When they reunited with Emmeryn -or the woman who so resembled her-, he overheard Chrom and Lissa debating what to do.

“I miss her so much,” Mo- Lissa had said, wrapping her arms around herself in a childishly protective way his mother had long since stopped. “But- w-with everything she went through…”

How much must Emmeryn have endured, Owain had wondered, for her own loving siblings to prefer her amnesiac?

Odin knew: Emmeryn had endured something like this. A deliberate, vicious hardening of her heart. The King’s elder children were all used to the massacre, impassive or disinterested or purposely distracted. But little Elise vacillated between pressing her face into Camilla’s chest and trying to catch a glimpse of the goings-on.

Odin’s stomach roiled in distress and his heart clenched in anguish for the girl – and for all the people dying to teach her this cruel lesson.

Mother had few memories of Grandfather. “And to be honest,” she had sighed, “I’m grateful.”

The whims of fate had brought them to Nohr for a reason – they, who knew too well the pain of losing loved ones, the emptiness which came with total loss. It had been beyond their power to save Emmeryn, from her father or from her fall, but perhaps…

Perhaps they could save Elise.