The first two they send him are a pair of brothers, noblemen, quarreling over land. Leo holds court in Krakenburg with a sword at his side in the place of Brynhildr: a shadow of a substitute, but there is a difference between a show of ceremony and a display of power. Next to him the new high priest stands with his hands folded over his robes. He is a slight young man, delicate in the face, and Leo has trouble remembering his rank. They listen as each man presents his case.
The younger brother throws Leo a beseeching look. Garon’s death has clogged Krakenburg with all manner of petitioners, furls of the nobility that Leo hardly knew existed while Father was alive. They come to Leo now, if not for sympathy, then at least without fear of reprisal.
He listens with his head cocked slightly to one side and resting in his hand, conscious of the edges of his ceremonial armor. The high priest’s gaze flickers sideways to him once or twice and Leo ignores him for the time being. The two men in front of them look very alike; several times Leo blinks and thinks, briefly, that they’ve changed places. Once they are finished airing out their complaints they turn on one another once more with their disagreements until Leo raises his gauntleted hand and they fall to silence.
There are no true ghosts in the kingdom of Nohr. It is easy to mistake them, in the nighttime. Faceless once crawled the countryside -- Iago’s doing, certainly, and most of them are no more along with him. Mages still find use for the remnants of human life, perhaps even the traces of human souls: Brynhildr makes reference to such things within her pages, and Leo believes it. They tell in Hoshido of specters of the dead twisted to frighten and seduce, but they are Hoshidan and they are a superstitious people. And Corrin, Corrin who has traveled both ways through the veil: she keeps her own counsel. One of the first tenets of magic is the price of human life. It progresses along just one axis. To imagine otherwise has been the folly of wise men and grief-stricken kings. It will not be Leo’s. This much he understands: the crevices of his realm bring forth phantoms and nightmares. There are no true ghosts in the kingdom of Nohr.
Leo takes a tonic to sleep now. Not more than once a fortnight. Moderation is necessary in these things. He makes it himself, as there’s no one he could trust for such a thing. Niles watches him take it without comment, except once to say, “Do you dream when you drink that?”
Leo says that he doesn’t. The truth is he doesn’t know. If he does, he never remembers. It only occurs to him much later that Niles was likely asking with a shade of wistfulness -- that he of all people would like to sleep without dreaming. But he knows, and Leo knows, that it cannot happen that way. Niles is a king’s retainer now. His sleep must always be light. How selfish of Leo not to realize, Leo supposes; how characteristic. He has only been king for some weeks and already everything is starting to crumble at the periphery.
At the beginning Niles hesitates by Leo’s bedside, until Leo says, “Stay,” and reaches out for his hand. Now Niles sleeps with him every night. Leo remembers a time when they could sleep together and Niles would just drape an arm over his back, and Leo would have his coolness, his separate place. Now he wakes tangled up in Niles’ arms every time, shivering with the plane of his face pressed into the skin of Niles’ collarbone. Everything is different now.
He doesn’t dream of Xander, but in the morning he sees him: just where he belongs, centered in a shaft of light. His back is turned. There is no calling out to him. Niles yawns in the bed and Leo closes his eyes on his brother’s back, opens them again to the bedchamber and Niles’ messy white hair.
Before Leo was a certain age -- after Corrin was, all things are marked as after Corrin for them, one way or another -- Xander was given to carrying him on his shoulders. Xander was always broad in the back: one way that he took after Garon, and Leo after his own mother. Father was always pleased with Xander’s strength; he always nodded approvingly at it, as to a favorite knight, though he never did favor a retainer the way he did his eldest. But when he caught Xander hoisting Leo into the air, he said something like, “Put him down. The boy should learn to carry himself under his own power.” So Xander did, and never did scoop him up again in Father’s sight. Or maybe at all. Leo’s not sure. Already he panics and chastises himself for preserving a memory of Xander in uncertainty, in maybes. It’s no use. This one is beginning to fray.
He does remember every time Xander carried him after that: when he was sick, when he was wounded in battle, and once after Father beat him. He remembers every time Father raised a hand to Xander, but that’s easy, there haven’t been many. Leo tries to put these in an unbroken line. He has always been the recordskeeper of the family, as long as he’s realized that memory is frail; he is aware he is now the curator of Xander’s remembrances, if anyone is to be. He just didn’t begin early enough: his own failing.
There is a memory he has, of sitting in a chair with blood on his face; he must be fifteen, which is not so long ago. Niles is there, or maybe he’s not, but Leo thinks he is, kneeling in front of him unbundling gauze. Leo has many teenaged memories of Niles -- his attention there was always sharpened to a point, hyper-conscious of what Niles was doing and what he might be thinking. Such was being fifteen. He has fewer of Xander. Xander was his brother. --Anyway, Niles is there and Xander is standing in the doorway.
Stoicism was never really Xander’s to claim. That is Leo’s private triumph and his particular bitterness -- that regardless of what else they were, the stronger and the weaker, Xander was always readable. In this memory, he looks stricken and guilty, and he is. And Leo remembers glancing up at him and saying, “Can I help you, brother?” And Leo succeeds in driving him away: Xander goes, every time.
The tomb they build for Elise is on the other side of the cathedral, across from the queens and the royal concubines. Xander is buried with Father, and Grandfather, and all the kings and trueborn heirs of their line, closed up in the dark with his likeness carved into the granite entombing him. But Elise, Leo orders laid to rest in her own small place. It only befits a morganatic princess. Thinking about it gives him some relief. Wherever Elise is now, she’s not with Father any more.
When they set her, finally, in stone, Camilla cries. She weeps like a queen, Leo thinks distantly, with twin tear tracks shining down her beautiful face. That is the kind of thought that would have been dangerous to think before: Camilla and queen in the same sentence. He and Xander always knew that -- because they knew Father, and they knew they weren’t thinking of her inheriting. But Father is gone and Camilla’s grief is regal; Leo doesn’t weep, Leo has already wept. This should be a show of strength, but instead it makes him feel far away from his sister, though she links arms with him and leans on him as the priests say their final round of prayers over Elise’s tomb. Soon they will call upon Leo to say a few last words. He has them prepared.
Later he waits to pay his private respects to his siblings for the first time. Or at least that’s the public demonstration he makes. The truth is he’s looking for his brother. This time his retainers hang back and let him. He’s still conscious of their presence in the archway steps away, but it doesn’t stop him -- not from kneeling in front of Xander and Garon’s crypt and casting his glance upward, over the marble inscription, over the statues that guard their resting-place, and thinking, Well, Xander, I’m here. Haunt me. He is a sorcerer. He of all people can look into the face of madness clear-eyed. Today he is not mad or haunted; he hears and sees nothing but the vault of the ceiling and the uncertain murmur of Odin’s breath. Eventually he stands again and rubs his eyes, as if they’re red-rimmed.
He knights Niles and Odin, formally, with a blade against each of their shoulders. It hadn’t been done yet. It was not in his power before. Xander would not have considered it: he never thought much of either of them, Leo supposes. Niles accepts the honor with a grin and a wink, which Leo receives impassively, and so they stick to their script. The full weight of Leo’s armor only sits heavier on his frame as they rattle through the ceremony, and he can think only about stripping it off, even as Odin glances up at him and Leo sees fear and naked hope on his face. This is a time when he owes it to Odin to be present for him, but all Leo can feel is ache and irritation. He mouths the words, and lifts the sword -- and there is his brother, putting his hands together to applaud Leo along with the rest of the crowd. Leo’s eyes flicker up. He sees Odin’s gaze shift over his shoulder automatically in confusion. So Leo forces himself to look back at his retainer and assumes a steely smile.
It turns out that kings are seldom alone. Madness requires some privacy. Xander turns and shoulders his way through the crowd, out the archway that leads to the palace gardens; Leo can only follow him after he’s made small talk, spoken to Laslow and Peri and the rest of the orphaned creatures that gather in the court. Then he leaves his own retainers to the conversations in which they’re trapped and goes forward into the garden.
He turns his back on the rest of his courtiers. The garden is empty of all but a handful of milling guests and a great fountain in the shape of a rearing pegasus. The design is nearly Hoshidan, but Leo remembers that Father always liked it. Leo steps to the other side of the fountain and glances back at the crowd inside the great hall; “They really are in awe of you,” says Xander into his ear.
Leo raises his hand without glancing up. But Brynhildr’s magic isn’t with him; this is why he has his retainers. They’re still inside. Xander catches his wrist.
“I’m not Faceless, Leo,” he says.
And so he isn’t. He is smiling when Leo looks at him, an overcast kind of smile. Leo says nothing to him, so Xander lets him go. No skin touches skin, between each of their armored hands. Still Leo feels the pressure of his grip linger. He raises his hand again and tries to call to mind one of his rote spells, and he steps back -- and bumps into Niles, who catches him by both arms. He blushes like a boy. “All right, my lord?” says Niles, and Leo nods. Xander is gone by now; he doesn’t vanish, he just turns and walks away.
Leo sits up half the night with Brynhildr, searching on the subject of madness. He does not try to research ghosts. He knows what he would find. He knows better.
Niles is not a fool. Nor is he one to conceal his mind, when he’s of an inclination to speak it. But circumstances have rendered him very nearly wary of Leo. Sometimes Leo wonders, bitterly, if it is his newfound power that pushes Niles further away. At other times Leo sees more clearly, and knows that it is grief. Grief makes him brittle. Niles is not afraid of him; Niles handles him like old vellum, only touching him as he absolutely must.
Sorrow is like the cold, too: it slows everything down. Every thought feels like lifting something heavy. He leans back against Niles in the bath, trying to press his body against his until their fingers and toes are intertwined. He does not feel like old vellum. He feels like something leaden, on the verge of sinking to the ground and never rising again. Surely nothing Niles could do could scar the likes of him now. Leo turns his head and kisses Niles on the throat, hoping to arouse him, or hoping for something, anyway -- but Niles turns his head and ruffles Leo’s half-damp hair with wet fingers and says, “You’re tired.”
“Something is very wrong,” Leo murmurs, “if I can’t manage to seduce you.”
Niles laughs, once. Leo can feel the movement of his chest. “Well,” he says, “something is very wrong.”
That’s Niles for you. Embarrassingly, Leo tears up -- not from upset but the sudden melting warmth of affection, of love, for this man. Maybe from upset, too. He can’t really distinguish the two. “Leo,” says Niles under his breath, worried: though half-aroused, too, so at least Leo doesn’t feel like a complete failure. “Get up, I can’t carry you to bed in this position.”
It’s probably not meant as an overture, even. But when Niles dries him off, Leo wraps his arms and legs around him (less like a king, he judges, and more like a limpet) and kisses him until Niles follows through and carries him the rest of the way to the mattress.
They make love roughly and it still isn’t what Leo wants. Early in his relationship with Niles, Leo thought he wanted Niles to hurt him. Maybe it was what he wanted. And that was what Niles did. Worse, Leo thought what Niles wanted was to hurt Leo. Now he knows better what kind of man Niles is. Niles wants to crack Leo’s bones and taste the marrow. Niles wants to tear Leo’s heart in two. Niles wants to reduce Leo to the nothingness at the bottom of his soul. But he loves Leo, and he can’t do that, so hurting him is what he does. Leo used to understand this and take this in with the fullness of his heart. Now -- now, after everything -- he wraps his arms and his legs around Niles and wills him to destroy him. He knows he has the capacity to take the darkest edges of Niles’ self. He knows that if he doesn’t, he doesn’t care. He wants it anyway.
He falls asleep tangled up with Niles again. He’s going to need another bath.
In the morning Niles gets up to draw it. Leo stays curled up under the sheets, like some kind of worm.
Xander sits down next to him. He threads his hand through Leo’s sticky hair, like he’s sick; Leo can’t bestir himself to swat him away. Xander murmurs shhh under his breath. Leo fixes him, his fingers, with a baleful look, but this does nothing to dispel him. “I don’t want you here,” he says. “You’re not invited.”
“You’re tired,” says Xander, and Leo nearly recoils. “He shouldn’t keep you up like this.” There is an edge of warning in that: what kind of edge? He’s dead. He’s dead and he doesn’t exist. It’s hard to get less dangerous than that.
“That’s not something I would want you to say,” Leo says. “And I don’t want you to touch me. Go away.”
“Leo?” Either Niles has heard something or the bath is ready.
“Go away,” says Leo and pulls the sheet over his head until this comes true.
They were five. Five was too many, people said overseas; five and only one trueborn fomented wars of succession and challenges to the throne, even if three were girls. The people loved none of them, really. But when Xander and Elise were gone, they mourned them anyway. Maybe it was only an excuse to mourn, a time and place to wring out the long-steeped sorrow of Nohr; Leo certainly doesn’t discount it. Still, he thinks Xander and Elise had something to do with it. If Nohr was a place that had love to spare for its royals, then it would have loved them, at least. Maybe not Camilla, maybe not Leo -- and not Corrin, poor Corrin, a shuttered rumor among the common people -- but their eldest brother and their youngest sister.
They both had ways of commanding love. It would be easy to accuse either of them of cultivating it: but in Leo’s estimation, neither of them really knew it. Or Elise did, a little. Perhaps she would have spun more of it out for herself if she’d lived to be older. But there was nothing more artless than Xander.
Sometimes it disgusted Leo. Not his perfection: disgust glanced off that, it was impossible -- but that ingenuous aspect he had, the unthinking integrity. It was -- is -- impossible for Leo to inhabit an unthinking anything. His curse and his blessing. But generally, he thinks, his curse. Which makes no sense, because he thinks of Xander as having had a curse, too.
There is a moment he remembers several different ways, in the later stages of the war. Leo was awake studying with a candle, his retainers sleepy-eyed in the antechamber; Niles came in to tell him that his lord brother wanted to see him. Leo, for his part, was tired and snappish; now when had Leo denied his lord brother anything? So Xander came in, without his armor, without retainers, and sent Niles and Odin away with a thoughtless gesture. It wasn’t a purposeful display of power, but it put Leo on edge anyway. And all that was gone in a moment with what Xander said.
I’ve just been to see Father. These were words that dismissed resentment and distractions: or one of them was, anyway.
Leo. Xander visibly struggled with his words. This happened more often than people would think. He was a perceptive, thoughtful man, a deep and sensitive thinker: but in the family only the girls had any natural gift for oration. This is about Corrin.
No one in Nohr has ever applied much science to studying the mind. Leo hears it’s something they’ve begun in Hoshido -- another one of those Hoshidan advances that Father decried, banned in Nohr, and now the free exchange of ideas is slow to resume -- but Hoshido’s ways of understanding thought and spirit are so foreign to Leo as to be useless. He’s left with his clumsy Nohrian tools. Nevertheless, he is a reasonable man. He can take apart what’s happening to him, at least, and look at the pieces. What is happening to him is that his brother is haunting him. No: already that’s putting the agency in the wrong hands. What is happening to him is that he is being haunted by his brother. Superstition is so commonplace in the countryside, and indeed the city, as to be meaningless, but Leo can’t fault half-dreaming and shadows and frightened imagination for this. What he’s experiencing comes in bright color and solid flesh. He is going mad.
“Or,” says Xander, standing in front of his desk, “there are more things in the world than even you understand.”
“Your opinion doesn’t count,” says Leo without looking up at him.
“And why is that?” There’s a smile in Xander’s voice.
“Because you’re superstitious. You and Corrin both. You’re awful.”
This might’ve been occasion for a laugh, from at least one of them, because Leo’s right about Xander. Xander was always easy prey to sentiment, which also meant horror. Leo used to delight in being able to tear the curtain away from Xander and Corrin’s fears -- reason was always power, even in childhood -- as much as he resented the romantic temperament it seemed like everyone in his family had inherited but himself. That’s all in the past, however; in the present, Xander falls silent at mention of their sister’s name, like it’s a rebuke, and Leo thinks, good.
Their sister. Leo supposes it was all a lie. Then again, it wasn’t to Leo, and it wasn’t to Xander, and that is what Xander has in the way of shame. He should. Xander has no idea the number of things he has to be ashamed of. He never will, now, because he’s gone beyond shame, or ideas, for that matter.
Leo realizes he’s been staring at Xander for a while. Maybe this is the secret to his coming undone: forget the shallow conversation they’ve batted back and forth, it’s all an excuse for Leo to memorize the outline of his brother’s face and shoulders. Though memory lies, Leo is very aware; the Xander he remembers is crumbling beyond the edges of his perception, replaced piece by piece by the Xander he imagines. He sees Xander because he wants to see Xander. He knows that. He sees Xander because he’d rather be mad than completely alone. He knows that. So that ought to banish him.
“Do you know what’s wrong with you?” says Leo instead of pursuing this topic.
Xander ruffles Leo’s hair.
“You haven’t changed clothes,” Leo says. “You peacock. Can’t you find someone else to torment?”
On the dawn of his fortieth day crowned, Leo goes to see his mother in the seraglio. He imagines it a more hushed place since Garon’s death, but the truth is that it’s only become noisier than his recollection: darker and louder, filled with women veiled in now-lifelong mourning. Perhaps the time for their silence has already passed. He can hardly imagine it. He feels like he’s only taken two steps as king, two, three, four.
The last time he saw her -- he isn’t sure of it. On the contrary, it seems like a very long time ago. It must have been before the war. As if there is more than one boundary-post to the war with Hoshido, a beginning and not just an end. Leo doesn’t remember.
She hasn’t aged since. She is slight and soft and fair -- Father always preferred them fair, of course, like his queen -- and her courtesies come naturally to her, as she kneels to Leo and greets him, “Your Majesty.”
He holds out his hands and pulls her gently to her feet again; he kisses her on the knuckles; but he does not correct her. “Hello, Mother.”
They sit to talk. (Odin stands at the door; the seraglio is no safer than many corners of Krakenburg, and sometimes less.) She touches his hand periodically, like she might spark something to jump from her skin to his, and speaks in somber tones, though he supposes those affected; she does not mourn Garon, could not possibly mourn Garon, and Xander and Elise were nothing to her but the eggs of the cuckoo in her nest. It’s all very well. He understands. If there is much Leo is given to understand about his mother, it is that she has achieved all that she had left to accomplish in her life: she is the mother of the king. So she is gentler and easier with him than she ever was. All he has left to do is rule.
He expects to exchange pleasantries with her and then leave. That almost happens, save that before he can take to his feet and make his excuses, she catches his sleeve. She takes his face in both of her hands. He can smell the perfume on them: that hasn’t changed, either, from his first memories crying in the seraglio or the court, where she would shush him, or pinch him, or sometimes take him in her arms.
“Leo,” she says in a quiet voice. “You must understand. Everyone is your enemy now.”
Leo shakes his head. He doesn’t know how to explain that it’s much worse than that. He is surrounded by people who want nothing more than for him to succeed. “That has always been our condition, Mother,” he says instead, lightly.
“Ours,” says his mother. She seems pacified by the word.
“You have nothing to worry about any more,” he says. “I will always see about that.”
“As long as you are walking around,” she says, “I will always have something to worry about.”
The words and the way she says them give Leo a fleeting sense of revulsion. They remind him of Xander. He looks up at Odin, to see how he’s taking all of this -- and also up to see if Xander walks where his name is spoken, even inside of Leo’s head. But he does not, and Odin looks predictably awkward; so Leo takes his leave, after he kisses his mother on the forehead and says the word, “Mother.”
The messenger from Hoshido comes before the emissary. They both bear the same inquiry, however: Princess Corrin requests an audience with King Leo of Nohr. Leo hears it out on his throne with Niles at his arm, unreadable; he pretends to consider it. As with many other decisions, he has already anticipated this one and taken the time to make up his mind. “Nohr would be honored to receive the Princess Corrin,” he says with his mouth set in the firm line he has practiced in the mirror, the one that is neither smile nor frown.
Leo. This is about Corrin.
Isn’t everything? That’s old blood, though, and Leo no longer feels it. The Hoshidan war is over. Not everything is about his sister any more.
He turns his head -- and Xander is at his other side, arms at his sides, staring a hundred thousand yards past the emissary. Leo looks away, closes his eyes like he has a headache; next to him he can feel Niles shift and notice, damn him. He looks straight forward again like it might make Xander go away. Then again, that’s probably unfair. If anyone has the right to hear this, it’s Xander, is it not? This is his particular grief to grieve.
When Xander came to speak to Leo all those nights ago, what he said was: Father wants me to marry Corrin.
Leo started, but he didn’t say anything stupid, like But she’s in Hoshido or She would never or, most stupidly, She’s our sister. He ignored those, ignored his reeling heart, and just said: What are we going to do?
That was another difference between Xander and Leo. Xander was obedient.
Xander faltered. I --
Today Leo waits again, for the nightmare that is his eldest brother to leave him alone one more time. But Xander is not interested in Leo. Trust Leo’s mind to summon up a specter that’s obsessed with someone else. Xander watches the emissary make his retreat; Xander is left staring into the distance between the far wall and forever, and this time Leo stands and walks away from him. Niles shadows him as he goes, at the distance required of a retainer, no further in; but when he and Leo are alone in the hallway he says, low, “What’s going on?”
Nothing, Leo wants to say. But he’s left between the unfairness of dismissing and lying to Niles when he already demands so much of him and the impossibility of telling him the truth. So he just shakes his head and takes Niles’ hand, for a moment, and leads him into the king’s chambers.
When he sleeps he feels like he’s drowning. He blames the tonic; Niles has to wake him, as he chokes on terror of something he can’t even remember, and he resolves to stop drawing up the draught. This just leaves him awake long into the night, though, and bundled up in his housecoat reading about warding magic until light cranes its way into the windows. Niles stays up with him; Odin falls asleep on Niles’ shoulder, which gives Leo an unfair possessive pang, but he supposes if he starts doubting Niles at this point he may as well start doubting Brynhildr, for that matter. On his second sleepless night he sends Odin away to get some rest, and Niles yawns and sits on the bed while Leo studies.
“You’re not telling me everything,” he says in characteristic Niles fashion: casual and direct. “There’s something happening with you. You’re not doing well and you don’t want to talk about it.”
Leo has anticipated this, too. The world is not generally clever enough to throw anything at Leo that he hasn’t worried about at some point in the past. This is not a testament to his intellect.
“My father, brother, and sister are dead,” he says simply. “I’m not sure what else you want from me.”
“Don’t,” says Niles sharply. Leo draws in a breath: whatever else about their relationship they’ve tried to level, it’s always an unspoken breach when Niles gives him anything resembling a command. Sex is different. There are boundaries set around that. There are no boundaries set around Niles’ irritation with him right now. No, that’s unfair: frustration. That’s what it is. “Leo. What are you researching?”
“Warding magic,” says Leo.
“Leo.” Niles doesn’t stand up, doesn’t walk over to tower over him. Of everyone Leo knows, Niles has never turned to intimidation in anger. Perhaps it’s because of the power Leo holds over him. Leo doubts it. That fact alone makes his displeasure more frightening than he could ever possibly know.
Leo wants to tell him. That’s a lie: to himself, to someone. Leo wants to tell him, but he doesn’t want him to know. In life, Xander was always off-limits from Niles’ humor and his bitterness, Leo always made that monstrously clear. He wants him away from Xander now too.
Niles is still angry. Distantly, Leo wonders about that: he shuts Brynhildr and stands, he goes over to Niles and stands over him himself. Wordlessly he hooks his thumbs under his shirt and pulls it off over his head. Niles looks up at him; Leo imagines the word no taking shape in his mouth. But Niles isn’t Xander. Leo wants to unthink that as soon as he thinks it. Niles pulls him down by his arms and pins him, face down, on the mattress.
Leo struggles. He cries, too, which is what he wanted. Afterward he clings, like always, and it’s cold; but this time Niles disentangles himself from Leo’s grip. He sits up and looks down at Leo. They never did put out the candle.
“If you die,” says Niles, “where am I going to go?”
Leo doesn’t answer. Niles stands up and dresses, piece by piece, and afterward slings his bow onto his shoulder; he’s handsome in every light, even damp with sweat with his hair plastered to his brow. He leaves before Leo can say anything else. Aching and bruised, Leo curls up again on his bed; he doesn’t even bother to get Brynhildr for the night.
No one murders him in the night. By morning he wakes up feeling worse than he did when he slept, and a little ill; and Xander sits down on the edge of his bed and pulls Leo’s head into his lap. Leo makes a brave attempt at ignoring him without moving, which amounts to burying his face in the fabric of Xander’s trousers and saying nothing. There is nothing that Xander could say to him right now that he could possibly want to hear.
Xander hums a lullabye. But it’s not something Xander would know, Leo thinks: it’s something Leo’s mother sang to him when he was small. You idiot, he wants to say. You can’t even convince yourself.
Xander touches Leo’s bare shoulder with his hand and Leo closes his eyes. He can’t remember the last time he wept in front of his brother and he’s not interested in refreshing his memory. He is losing his mind. He is losing Niles. He is probably losing his kingdom. He is not going to add his dignity to the number.
“Shh,” says Xander, as if he was crying anyway.
This bothers Leo, and he opens his mouth to say something. Sleep envelops him before he can.
Later in the day, when he wakes again, Niles is in his room with a pot of tea. It’s absurd and reminds Leo vaguely of Jakob, when Jakob was here, and he cracks a smile at Niles’ back. He lets it fade before Niles turns back to him, looking studious and grim. Neither of them says I’m sorry. This is uncharacteristic for them. Leo has always prided himself on their mutual behalf on their conflict resolution. He is more than ready to take this as evidence that their relationship is fracturing irreparably; in fact, he takes kind of a pathetic relief in that resignation. It’s like the news from Hoshido. Nothing can hurt you if you’ve already considered the possibility.
Niles sits next to him. “Drink some of this,” he says.
“Niles, you don’t have to --”
“Mm.” Niles pours a cup. “Drink it. You’ve got a sore throat.” He proffers it. “I mean, I’m not surprised. I’d have a sore throat too, if I’d been up to what you’ve been up to.”
Leo accepts the tea with some sullenness; he drinks it and judges it worse than Jakob’s, by far, but elects to keep that to himself. He glances sideways at Niles.
“So,” says Niles, “what’s this about?”
Within the next week, Leo’s reign is graced with its first would-be assassin. It’s not much of an attempt. It comes from a serving-maid, one whose name he doesn’t remember, when he’s about to shave in front of the basin in the morning: which means that Brynhildr is within reach. Niles is in the other room getting changed and when Leo’s magic crackles out of his hands; he’s in the doorway in a moment, but it takes less time than that for the knife to fly out of the girl’s hand, for the splinters to bind up her arms and legs and send her sprawling to the ground mouthing imprecations at Leo. She stares up at him and Niles, unafraid, which is how Leo knows that she’s not a professional -- she must have a grievance of her own. It occurs to him that it will fall to the two of them to extract it from her.
It doesn’t take much extraction. After his guards search her and take her away, Leo has his breakfast, more as a piece of theater than anything, to remind his staff and the rest of Krakenburg through the spill of rumor what happened when someone tried to kill King Leo for the first time. Odin fusses over him afterward, in some shock and genuine shame for not having been there. Leo dismisses his apologies. Interrogating the maid will be easy; more difficult will be taking apart his staff to find the weakness that allowed her to make her way onto it, to that kind of access. All the same, he only takes Niles down to the dungeon with him.
The girl is more than ready to spit out her motivations. Garon’s get, she calls him, though her courage falters in the underground torchlight; she alludes to the unspeakable crimes she and her family suffered underneath Leo’s father’s rule, though she cannot bring herself to name them. It’s no matter. Niles will get it out of her. What matters, in Leo’s relief, is that she’s Nohrian: Hoshido has no apparent part in this on the surface. The peace may well be safe.
Once he’s finished talking to her, Leo turns his back and Niles tortures her. He doesn’t have to look behind him to know that Xander is watching him. I do not have time for you, Xander, he thinks, and he means it in every possible way: he doesn’t have time to be a madman, not in front of Niles and a prisoner screaming out her last through her own blood, and he doesn’t have time for Xander’s disapprobation, not now and not ever. Or perhaps it’s his own, externalized in Xander’s form -- he has no way of knowing.
When the girl falls unconscious, finally and horribly, Niles steps away and wipes the damp from his forehead with the clean edge of his forearm; “You can never know for sure,” he says. “But I think she’s telling the truth.”
It doesn’t stop people from talking. It definitely doesn’t stop Niles from screening and redoubling the guard on Leo’s chambers, which makes it even more difficult to get any time by himself. One would think this would drive Xander away. One would be wrong -- after the assassination attempt, Xander is ever more at the periphery of Leo’s vision, standing with his arms crossed in the hall as Leo passes, sitting alongside his desk as he goes over the plans for Corrin’s arrival, one of many in the crowded throne room when he holds court. Leo supposes this evidence that he’s spiraling downwards. Garon’s get. It makes him think, detached.
He’s never had real cause to wonder if he’s really his father’s son, but that didn’t stop him when he was a child. It was an improbable fear: the harem of every king of Nohr is shuttered and guarded from the world, by women and eunuchs; Garon’s concubines are now free to come and go, by the grace of Leo’s pity, but it wasn’t always the case. He is most certainly Garon’s son. There wouldn’t have been a chance for anything else. Still, he worried and wondered sometimes -- and damn Xander, though he never expressed it, Xander knew somehow. Xander said to him: you are a prince of Nohr. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
No one has ever told me otherwise, brother, said Leo with a faint smile. He was ten, maybe. Xander was what, eighteen? It’s difficult to think of Xander that way.
Then I don’t know where you get these ideas.
Anyway, Leo hasn’t wondered that for a long time.
The guards stand outside his closed doors. He’s at his desk, writing a last letter to Corrin -- which he starts, My lady Corrin, not Sister, he’s no fool -- and Odin and Niles are on some errand. That leaves him alone with Xander. With some surprise he realizes he’s become easier with Xander’s presence, that he’s come to relish the times he has with him without outside onlookers. He chooses not to contemplate what that means about his state of mind -- or tries, anyway. He dips quill into inkwell and addresses Xander before Xander can address him, this time.
“Do you think everything runs in the blood?” he says aloud.
Xander comes over to read the letter over his shoulder, unashamed. Leo covers it with his hand and shoots him a dark look.
“You’re not going mad,” says Xander, “if that’s what you mean.”
“I think I have unquestionable evidence to the contrary,” says Leo.
Xander’s shoulder brushes Leo’s. He’s solid. He feels solid. It’s all too tempting to turn and look up at him; Leo resists. “You should ask her how her siblings are in Hoshido,” Xander points out. “We wouldn’t want to look like we bear them any ill will.”
“Thank you,” says Leo; and he ends the letter there, contrarily. Xander draws back from him and leaves him alone: completely alone, Leo discovers, as he turns finally and looks behind him. There’s a knock at the door. Someone wants something, someone inevitably does.
In the spring of the year -- not that it’s always easy to tell, in Krakenburg -- the Princess Corrin comes back to Nohr. She’s flanked by her Hoshidan retinue, which Leo watches from the battlements as they approach the castle. Pegasi and foot soldiers tramp along the road, but Leo can’t pick out his sister: doubtless she is one of the silver-armored figures in the middle. It’s no surprise that she’s obscured; still, Leo expected to be able to tell her by her cloak, or the fall of her pale hair. He sheathes his disappointment and turns and goes downstairs.
He’s installed on his throne with ermine on his shoulders and the black crown at his brow when Corrin and her retainers are led in to see him. Camilla stands at his shoulder in a blue gown with a train that spills over the marble floor; Niles and Odin are stationed behind him, as usual, and as usual he can see none of their expressions. He has no frame of reference but his own. But that’s the trick in being king: he is the frame of reference, and the reactions of his court, even his sister’s and his retainers’, ripple out from his own.
The Hoshidans come in, wary and polite, and kneel. Then enters Corrin in her armor, with her hair unbound around her shoulders. She keeps her eyes on Leo’s -- Leo had half wondered if she would look away -- and so Leo is forced to look straight back at her until she, too, kneels. This is an odd sight. She is the elder. But she is a foreign princess now and he a sovereign.
He cannot stand it. He acts, for once, on impulse: he stands up and strides down the steps to receive her. He holds out his hands.
What are we going to do? All those months ago.
Xander had faltered. It was an enormous thing, to see someone like Xander falter: this was something of which Leo could not remember very much in his life. His expression had darkened; he had glanced away, as if ashamed of what he was about to say. Probably he was.
Leo, I want you to know that if anything -- if anything happens to me -- Father is going to require the same of you. With Corrin. What I wanted to say is--
Xander had hesitated again, maybe under the weight of Leo’s stare. If Leo could reverse time and every time he’d judged his brother-- Take care of her. If anything happens to me.
And Leo, Leo had said, half-mocking: You have my word, brother. When has anything ever happened to you?
Corrin looks up at him again, solemn and unsure. Xander’s hand settles on his shoulder. Leo doesn’t look at Xander, even out of the corner of his eye. Xander deserves the privacy of his expression.
Leo takes Corrin by the hands, like he did his mother, and guides her to her feet. They’re almost of a height. He kisses Corrin on the cheek; she freezes, startled, but before he can wonder at his misstep she throws her arms around him. The court tosses up an uncertain cheer, joined in a moment by the Hoshidans. Too late Leo realizes that they’ve made a diplomatic statement. Things were always like this with Corrin. They never had any time alone.
Later he walks the gardens with her, arm in arm, with each of their retainers at a respectful distance. She’s changed out of her armor into Hoshidan dress that makes his throat ache a little to look at. They’re speaking of politics as they make the circuit of the fountains, on a leisurely course that will inevitably lead them back into the cathedral. Leo has planned it that way, and Corrin has tacitly accepted his plan; their conversation will end in paying their respects. For now, though, the spray mists both of their hair and Corrin smiles as Leo says something dry (and a little snide, really) about the border nobility. When they reach a corner with a bit of seclusion from their retainers, Leo catches Corrin’s hand and spins her around to face him. He draws a small box concealed on his person.
“Leo --” Corrin begins.
“Here,” he says. “This is for you. … It’s something Xander was going to give you.”
Wordlessly, she opens it. It’s an opal necklace, with a silver setting and gemstones the deep purple of the Nohrian sky.
He doesn’t say After he took you to wife. She turns away to mask her reaction, and he feels the sting of bitterness next to the bright edge of responsibility fulfilled. He wants to curl his arm around her, but she’s a little too far away for it, and Jakob and Kaze are approaching. He murmurs, “You don’t have to wear it. I just wanted you to have it.”
“No --” Corrin looks back at him, half-smiling. “No, it’s beautiful. I’ll wear it all the time. No, it’s only that…”
Leo glances at her.
“I was worried you were going to ask me to marry you,” says Corrin in a rush of feeling, and Leo almost smiles back. “It seems like something Xander would think he had to do. Doesn’t it?”
There’s a pause between them and Leo wonders, for once, what Xander is thinking.
“It does,” he affirms. “Come on. Let’s go and see them.”
Hand in hand, they go to the cathedral. They stop at Elise’s tomb first and tears bead on Corrin’s face; irrationally, they well in Leo’s eyes too, and he envies Corrin the openness of her sorrow. Is that what he always is? In envies of someone? He can’t stop himself this time, though, and he puts his hands to his face until he can blink them away. Next to him Corrin touches the inscription written for Elise -- flower of Nohr, beloved sister -- and then wanders away, toward the resting-place of kings. Leo lingers. No matter what Father did, they had always made such a point not to weep in front of Elise; funny that they should fail now.
He follows Corrin. Corrin has swept her hair over one shoulder and is fumbling with the clasp on Xander’s necklace; Leo steps up to help her with it. “Here,” he says.
“Thank you.” There’s a suppressed sniffle in her voice, but she’s not sobbing. She seems to have gathered her composure for Xander. “You know, I always wonder how he must feel about it, being buried in a place like this.” Leo tilts his head at her and waits, and she continues, “He was always a bit afraid of the dark. Wasn’t he?”
Xander’s marble face looks out at them from its carven repose. It doesn’t quite look like him, Leo notes, not for the first time. The sculptors made him look younger, finer in the face. More like a prince, he supposes, and less like a king.
“I don’t remember that,” he admits with unguarded candor.
“Well,” says Corrin definitely, “he was.” She touches the edge of the sculpture, just shy of the stony fold of Xander’s sleeve. “Which was. A stupid thing, to be afraid of here. Don’t you think.”
Leo bites his lip against several emotions that threaten all at once. “Yes,” he says, and looks at the opals gathered at Corrin’s throat. “Just a bit.”
After Corrin retires to the guest chambers, after the people of the court are folded away safely in their beds, Leo leaves the king’s quarters. He kisses Niles first and asks him to stay behind: not a light request, in the wake of the attempt on his life, but Niles just strokes his hair with his thumb and tells him not to be too late. Leo promises him that he won’t and goes to the chapel alone, dressed for the evening with a cloak over his shoulders.
He kneels to pray, the way he was taught as a child. Afterward he says, “Come out, Xander. Don’t lurk. That’s creepy.”
“Don’t be childish,” Xander chides him, without any teeth in it, and unfolds himself anyway, and Leo looks up at him.
He is a tall, broad-shouldered man, arrested at the age of seven-and-twenty in regal purple and battlefield half-armor. His eyes are the most exact, dark and bright, and then his nose, and then his jawline and his yellow hair; all of these things have managed to remain. But everything else is beginning to fade or recreate itself in a false image. Leo doesn’t remember the exact detailing on his pauldrons, or the precise way his fingers curled in on his hands in their gloves. This is why they have sculptors and painters and writers of song. Without them the dead start to go away.
Leo stands and then goes up on tiptoe to kiss Xander on the forehead. He says, “I’m sorry, brother.”
“I’m sorry too.” He is surprised to hear it from Xander. He shouldn’t be. “Leo.”
“I’m not going to marry Corrin,” Leo says. “I’m not going to marry anyone.”
Xander sighs, a resonant sound from deep within his chest. “I had a feeling you might not,” he says.
There are several things Leo could say to him and doesn’t. Some concern Corrin. But the rest, he feels, is already aired out between them; he walks to the rest of the cathedral and back to Xander’s tomb, where Xander follows him, his footfalls heavy on the stone behind him. They both regard the casket; Leo says, “It doesn’t look like you.”
“It does look like me,” Xander disagrees, “once.”
They smile at each other and Xander shakes his head. Then Leo leaves him there and goes to keep his appointment.
He still sees Xander sometimes. Most often in the audience seats of the court as Leo passes a verdict on yet another quarreling pair of brothers, or a landowner and a tenant, or whoever else throws themselves onto his judgment and the law. Sometimes in the hallway, sometimes on the training grounds as Leo parries another one of Laslow’s blows in an effort to keep his swordsmanship in the shape it deserves. But Leo never speaks to him again, and after a while Xander never tries.
He lies in the orchard once with his head in Niles’ lap. Kings have the privilege of leisure; kings have the privilege of openness, too, and slowly the habit of discretion is starting to die away. Niles is reading a book, for once. This is not the usual way of things. Leo recommended this one, however, and though Niles has had his letters for all of their time together -- probably all of Leo’s lifetime, considering -- Leo knows he periodically tries to improve himself. So Leo doesn’t bother him, until he looks down at Leo with a quizzical expression. Leo raises his eyebrows with an implicit, yes?
“Do you still think you’re going mad?” says Niles.
Leo blinks at him and then laughs, shortly. “No,” he says. It’s half a truth. The other half is that he doesn’t know: the other half is that he thinks that maybe he’s already gone mad, that he’s going to be mad for the rest of his life, and that’s just how things are with Xander and Elise -- and god, Father -- gone away. He doesn’t know how to articulate that to Niles, though; he can’t even articulate it to himself, except in that very jumble of thoughts, and that won’t do. So he sits up to brush noses with Niles and says, “Well, I mean. No more than usual. -- You should be reading your book,” he accuses.
“As my lord commands,” says Niles, and Leo puts his head in his lap again and thinks about the way Elise used to run through the orchard, always whipping around a corner ahead of him, never to be caught.