Percival does not fall in love with Vex'ahlia instantly.
He is certainly intrigued by her, when she and her father arrive. There are few elves in Whitestone, and Percy is fascinated by their culture. Now he's going to be married to a half-elf, which is almost as good.
"Welcome to my home," he says in Elvish, upon being introduced to Vex'ahlia and the ambassador. The ambassador seems to approve, but he'd swear Vex'ahlia looks disappointed.
There's also the issue that Vex'ahlia is very beautiful, despite her unhappy disposition, with her green traveling dress and her dark, flowing hair. Percy is not shallow by nature, but his parents have chosen well for him; he'd marry anyone set before him, quite frankly, but beauty certainly doesn't hurt.
So definitely not love, but he could easily describe it as fascination. That's a good start; they're too young to be wed yet, but Percy is not averse to the prospect at all.
Julius and Vesper adopt Vex almost immediately. It's not unexpected from Julius; he's always been an avuncular kind of presence for his siblings, there when their father can't be, and he easily extends his good will to his brother's betrothed. Vesper is different. Percy doesn't quite think she pities Vex, but she's the compassionate one, the one who stops for every stray and gives coin to every beggar. A young girl pulled away from her home is right up her alley.
Vex is there for at most a week before Vesper starts teaching her archery, Vesper's passion. Percy wonders if it's just to give Vex a distraction, but she takes to it quickly, she and Vesper sinking arrow after arrow side by side. Sometimes when she comes in from Vesper's range, she has a look of delight; it flashes across her face quickly and then evaporates, like she's remembered her situation.
Percy has no way of articulating that Vex doesn't have to hate this or him or anything about Whitestone. He would of course rather be in Syngorn too, but Percy likes to think Whitestone has its own charms.
Vex is more guarded with Percy's other siblings. Ludwig is an ass and Cassandra is a brat, so she can be forgiven on that score. What's less understandable is that Vex can hardly stand to be in the same room as Whitney and Oliver. It seems unfair to them; they're a little childish and they speak their own twin language a lot of the time, but Vex's reaction seems out of place when they've done nothing to her.
But a few weeks later, things become clearer. It's a rainy night, and Percy is sitting with his parents in the library, reading a book about the Feywild. The window creaks open, and all three of them turn to look.
A boy perhaps as old as Percy tumbles into the window, landing gracelessly in a heap on the floor. He looks up to see that he's not alone, and he gets to his feet, whipping a dagger off his belt and brandishing it at them.
"Give me what I want and no one gets hurt," the boy says, squaring off against them.
"Give me that," Percy's father says disapprovingly, disarming him in one easy movement and setting the dagger aside; the boy looks shocked for a moment, but recovers, hands balled into fists.
"You poor dear," Percy's mother says. "Let's get you a hot meal and take you back into town."
"I'm not leaving without my sister," the boy says stubbornly, like he's ready to fight them with his bare hands.
Percy's father furrows his brow. "Are you Vax'ildan?"
The boy droops, looking exhausted and like he might cry. "Where is my sister?" he says, and even to Percy he looks young and small. He was vaguely aware that Vex had other family, but a brother- a twin brother, perhaps?- seems like a thing Percy should have been told about.
Percy's mother stands, putting a hand on Vax'ildan's back. "Come," she says. "We'll get you some dry clothes and some food, and I'll go find Vex'ahlia. Does that sound good?"
Vax'ildan doesn't say anything, just nods, and Percy follows the two of them out, curious as to how this is going to go.
Before they encounter any of the servants, they find Oliver and Whitney. "Fetch Vex'ahlia at once and take her to the kitchens," their mother says, in a voice that brooks no dissent.
The twins look at each other in confusion for a moment. "Yes, Mother," they say anyway, and scurry off.
Percy's mother guides Vax'ildan into the kitchens and sits him down, ordering for bread and something hot. Percy sees him try to resist, but hunger wins out as he gobbles up the stew that's set before him. He eats it so quickly that he's done before Vex arrives, even though she hasn't done more than put on a dressing gown.
Vex immediately bursts into tears, holding her arms out, and Vax'ildan rushes into them, picking her up and lifting her off the floor. "Vax," she says in between sobs. "I thought I'd never see you again."
"Do not go far from me," Vax says urgently, and Vex hugs him tightly.
It's a long time before they part, long enough for Percy's mother to blot the tears from her eyes and go back to being the same calming yet firm presence that Percy knows her as. Whitney puts a hand on Vex's shoulder, and something passes between them, a kind of understanding; Percy doesn't think they'll have trouble anymore.
"I believe some of Percy's old clothes will fit you, until we can get something more suitable," Mother says. She beckons to the same servant who brought the food. "Draw a bath and see to it that a pallet is made in Vex'ahlia's room."
"Yes, Lady Johanna," she says, curtseying and leaving quickly.
Percy's mother puts one hand on Vax's shoulder, the other one on Vex's. "Come along. Warm clothes, then bed. You've come a long way."
When the rest of his siblings have settled, arrangements having been completed for Vax, Percy sneaks out of his room, carefully creeping to his father's study, where he knows his parents are probably discussing what just happened.
"- so I don't understand why he hasn't been in contact," Percy's father is saying, as Percy listens from the hallway. "If one of ours misses dinner, I have the Pale Guard out within the hour."
"I do wish you wouldn't do that," his mother says. "It wastes resources and makes them better at hiding."
"All you'd do differently is wait two hours," he says, which Percy thinks is probably right.
"Do we send him back to Syngorn?" she asks.
"Vessar's not going to want the boy back, Johanna," he says. "You know that as well as I do. He should have been included in the deal in the first place, but that damn slippery elf-"
"It's the look of the thing," his mother says. "I'm not saying I'm cruel enough to separate them. If it was Whitney and Oliver-"
"We'll just have Archibald get off a Sending in the morning and have done with it," his father says decisively, and Percy sneaks off before he can be caught, reconnaissance done.
Percy has gotten maybe twenty paces before he runs directly into Vex's brother, who has apparently shadowed him, quite without Percy knowing. He looks a little silly wearing Percy's hand-me-downs, which are too long for him, but his expression is so dark that Percy takes a step back.
"If you ever lay a finger on my sister, I'll fucking murder you," Vax says, not bothering with an introduction. "You might think she's yours, but there's no fucking way I'm going to let you take her from me."
"Despite appearances, I'm not going to lock her away in a tower," Percy says, a little taken aback but unwilling to seem weak. "I don't think your sister would ever be content not to have her own free reign."
"Says the asshole who feels like he has the right to marry her just because Syldor Vessar said so," Vax says, spitting the name. "She gets to make that choice, not him, and she's not going to choose you."
"I don't know why this is such an issue," Percy says. "Don't you have an arrangement? You're about the right age."
"That's rich people shit, and that doesn't make it right," Vax says. "That almost always makes it wrong."
"Well, we're rich people," Percy says, exasperated. "I'm sorry if that makes you nervous, but Vex'ahlia and I are going to be married whether you-"
Percy doesn't finish his sentence before Vax punches him right in the face, so hard that Percy staggers, hitting the nearest wall. Vax is considerably better with his fists than he was with that dagger, and Percy clutches his face. "You hit me," he says, indignant.
"Talk more shit about my sister if you want it to happen again," Vax says quietly, voice full of tightly leashed rage. "Now I'm going back to be with Vex, and you keep your hands to your fucking self."
Percy lets him go, not wanting to risk another punch, even though he wasn't talking any shit at all. For someone who supposedly has Elven breeding, Vax has very little sense of propriety.
To no one's surprise, the ambassador doesn't want his son back. Percy doesn't mind, even if it means potentially getting punched in the face again, because the difference in Vex is immediate and enormous. It's like the sun has risen, like everything he had seen of her until now was the pale, dull color of the sky before dawn. She laughs now, with Vax beside her, no longer quiet and retiring. The sense of relief that rises from her is palpable, and Percy wonders if leaving Syngorn was an escape for her, not a demotion, if the only valuable thing she left there was her brother.
There is also the matter for Percy that, while Vex was beautiful before, now she is radiant. It has less to do with her physical beauty, even though she has plenty; her whole demeanor draws him in, the spark inside her. And maybe Percy is wrong for thinking of their betrothal differently now, but the matter has changed. He was going to marry her out of loyalty and convenience, the shy, sad creature that he thought she was, and they probably would have been fairly content in the long run, at least enough to have a few children and live quietly. But who Vex really is is completely different. There's a wildness to her that calls to him, just like he feels drawn to the Parchwood sometimes. Suddenly the thought of marrying her seems like both a very appealing proposition and a responsibility, like he has something to live up to, has to prove himself worthy of this gift that he's been given. On top of that, he has to keep her from escaping with Vax, because if he walked all the way here from Syngorn, he's capable of anything.
He has basically no idea how to do it.
The question is not just whether she will like him, but whether she can be convinced to like Whitestone, which is really the more important question. All he can come up with is to make her something as tribute; that's apparently what you do to goddesses, not that Percy cares for deities very much. He does know how to fiddle and tinker with things, and he retires to his workshop, struck with an idea.
Percy has plans for expanding his workshop, but for now, it will serve his purposes. He draws his design first, then lays out his tools and materials. He has no idea how long it's supposed to take, and that's probably why he has to be physically carried out of his workshop for supper by Julius and Ludwig. He eats quickly and sneaks back down again, and an hour or two later, he has something that just might be okay.
He doesn't approach Vex right away, finding her instead the next day, as she sits on a bench in the hallway, writing something in a book.
"Vex, may I speak to you for a moment?" he asks.
"Nothing bad, I hope," Vex says, raising an eyebrow, and he frowns. "It's just that you look so serious."
"It's nothing like that," he says, wondering why his palms are starting to sweat.
"Then what is it?" she asks.
"I made you something," Percy says, feeling shy all of a sudden.
"A present?" Vex says, perking up. "For me?"
"It's just a small thing," he says, and he doesn't know why he feels embarrassed by it now; all he can think of is its every imperfection.
"Come on, show me," she says, standing up.
Percy takes the pendant out of his pocket; it's simple in design, just an open square made of a band of silver wires, twisted around thin base metal bars. Set inside the square is a piece of whitestone, secured with thinner, curved pieces of wire. It's as close to circular as Percy could make it, which now looks horribly misshapen to him.
"I chiseled it myself," he says, perhaps so that she'll take pity on him. "I just thought you might like to have something from Whitestone," he adds, which now feels overly literal.
"It's lovely," she says, though she sounds more contemplative than happy. She pushes it back into his hands and turns away from him, lifting her braid. "Will you put it on?"
Percy has no idea if she's just humoring him, but he does it anyway, draping the chain around her neck and doing up the clasp. His fingers brush her tan skin as he does it, and it's warm and soft underneath them. He dares to put a hand on her back. "There," he says.
"Thank you, darling," Vex says as she turns back to him, and it does something unidentifiable to him; whether that's the fault of the endearment, her smile, or the way the whitestone looks against her skin, he'll never know. "I'll make sure to wear it."
"If there's any problem with it, please let me know," Percy says.
She leans forward, kissing his cheek, and he instantly feels flushed. "Thank you, Percival," she says, softer. "It's perfect."
"Good," Percy says, unsure what else to say, and she collects her book and leaves, still wearing the pendant.
Percy lets out a huge sigh of relief. He was fully prepared for her to throw it out the window and call him an ass; she still might, but at least it won't be to his face.
And things progress, and things change, and things go poorly, until they go well again. And fifteen years later, Johanna comes into the library, clutching something in her little fist. "I found a thing," she says, looking pleased with herself.
"And what is that, my darling?" Vex asks. "Can Mommy see it?"
Johanna looks at her hard, in the way that always makes Percy laugh; she looks too much like Vex when she thinks she's not getting a good deal. "Are you gonna take it?"
"That depends on who it belongs to," Vex says.
Johanna doesn't like this answer, as Percy thought she might not, but she opens her hand anyway, dropping something into Vex's palm.
"My god," Vex says softly, sounding somehow reverent and horrified at the same time.
"What is it?" Percy asks, frowning, and Vex opens her hand to reveal a tarnished pendant. He sucks in a breath. "Pelor's light."
"Where did you find this?" Vex asks.
Johanna looks worried. "I didn't take it from anybody."
Percy crouches down, getting on Johanna's level. "No one said you did," he says, trying to sound soothing when his heart is racing. "We just want to know where it was located."
"Behind the wardrobe in my room," she says, and Percy and Vex look at each other. "It was stuck in a crack in the floor."
"We're going to keep this," Vex says gently, closing her hand around the pendant. "Thank you for finding it. It's very special to me."
"I did okay?" Johanna asks.
Percy kisses her forehead. "Of course you did, my dearest." He produces a wrapped piece of toffee from his vest pocket, where he always keeps his child-bribing supply. "Now go and play while your parents talk."
Johanna takes the candy, looking appeased, and makes her way back out the door. Percy watches her go before sitting down on the sofa next to Vex. It isn't the first time some relic of the better times has been unearthed, but the Briarwoods seemed to have taken a special glee in destroying things that were only of sentimental value, with no monetary worth. This pendant, clearly somewhat inexpertly made and bearing a piece of whitestone so small as to be virtually worthless, is just the kind of thing they would have used for target practice. It strikes him that, if she'd known its provenance, Ripley would have loved to have it; she probably would have converted the stone into residuum and worn it around her wrist as a trophy.
"I thought I lost it," Vex says, still sounding dazed. "I tore up my room looking for it, but I never found it."
"I thought you threw it away," Percy says.
"Percival," she says, offended. "Why would I do something like that?"
"I didn't think you liked me very much," he says.
She opens her hand, spinning the pendant gently in her fingers. "It wasn't as if I hated you," she says. "I was just-" She pauses. "I was cautious."
"Honestly, that's perfectly fair," he says.
"I used to think about this," she says. "When we were alone, after everything happened. I used to wish I had just one piece of Whitestone left." She laughs, but it sounds hollow. "I guess I don't need it now."
"I have more than one length of chain in my workshop and plenty of silver polish," he says, in a tone that bears no argument. "I'll clean and restring it immediately."
"I-" Vex says. "I would like that."
He takes her hand, folding her fingers around the pendant and pressing the back of her hand to his lips. "You are a piece of Whitestone, and no matter what happens, no one can take that away," he tells her. "If the Briarwoods, a green dragon, and an actual god couldn't, nothing will."
"For Whitestone," she says, laying a hand on his cheek.
"For us," he answers, the accustomed call and response they shared so many times on the road. They both wince at the sound of a crash from the hallway. "And for the children."
"Precious darlings, all of them," Vex says wryly.
"Let's just keep telling ourselves that," Percy replies. He helps her up, bending to kiss her. "Shall we?"
Vex slips the pendant into Percy's pocket and takes his arm. "Lead the way."
And in this lifetime, it ends like this: Vex'ahlia and Percival live on after the battles are won, and their children live on, and their children, and through their care, Whitestone flourishes, this being not even the midpoint of its long life. And the Briarwoods are reduced to nothing, the blink of an eye, a footnote on a footnote on a footnote.
And seven hundred years later, a woman with short red hair and a pair of antlers emerges from the Sun Tree. She strides through the streets, and the people who recognize her bow in deference. The guards let her into the castle without a moment of hesitation, and she enters the foyer with her mantle billowing behind her.
"Aunt Keyleth," Marlena de Rolo says, descending the stair and walking over to take Keyleth's hands; Keyleth has never allowed herself to be called anything more appropriate for her age, no matter how many people have tried. "It's so good to see you."
"Hey, kiddo," Keyleth says, though Marlena is well over thirty. "How's it going?"
They talk as Marlena leads Keyleth to the room prepared for her; it's down a hallway lined with portraiture, and Keyleth lingers, as she often does, in front of the picture of her friends. All she remembers of their faces now is that the painting is an unusually good likeness, a bit of a smirk on both their lips.
"Did I ever tell you about Percy and Vex?" Keyleth asks. "The third and the first, I mean."
"I don't think you ever have," Marlena says, her interest piqued. "I know you traveled with them. One only hears what's recorded in histories or sensational rumors."
"If it's about them and it's sensational, it's probably true," Keyleth says. "If you have, like, a nice red, I'll tell you all about it. Is shiraz even still a thing here?"
"For you, always," Marlena says, and plied with wine, Keyleth tells the tale of a lifetime.