Footsteps in snowfields--you were always taken by them. I stepped in the footsteps you left behind, so we two travelled the same path.
To say I was never sad would be a lie.
To say I had not waited would be a lie.
To say I should have gone back would be a lie.
And to say that I would rather not have been born--that I would rather have disappeared--is also a lie.
Though there were so many lies, one thing was true. I always wanted to take the same path as you.
Among the current candidates for the next Queen of Light are two favored most highly: Allura d’Altea, of noble blood and groomed from birth as candidate, and Shirogane Takashi, who had appeared one day from the distant countryside, travelling far to reach the capital with only the company of a childhood friend. Shiro, as he is known, is less polished and less concealed than those students raised in the capital, and all the brighter for it. It is easy to adore him for his kindness and strength. Allura is a far more polished figure--the one they call queenly.
“I don’t think this is the version of ‘queen’ that they meant when they said they were looking for candidates for the next Queen of Light,” Keith sighs, looking over the rankings. Shiro is too high among the ranks; the holy power is unusually strong in him.
“Gender is overrated,” Shiro says, shrugging. When it settles back, his arm wraps over Keith’s shoulder and tugs him close.
“Wouldn't be the first male Queen either, there’s a pretty famous one from four hundred years back, ” Pidge says, shoving her spectacles up her nose. “Theories are they’re just holdovers from the time of the first Queen of Humans and King of Demons.”
“Wonder if it means anything,” Keith says idly as they walk away together.
“Who can say,” Shiro says, shrugging.
“Will you step aside?” Allura asks as they spar. “If I pursue Keith?”
The cheer fades from Shiro’s eyes and a placid facade settles in place instead. The spectators step back unconsciously as the temperature drops. “Before he is anyone else’s--even mine--Keith belongs to himself alone,” Shiro says. He ducks his head aside as Allura lunges forward, but not quite quickly enough; blood beads on his cheek like bright jewels. Allura lowers her sword, eyes wide and shocked.
“Shiro--” Keith says, stepping off the court where he was recruited for some badminton-style game.
“I’m alright, Keith,” he says, but he lets Keith take his sword and arm and escort him to the nurse’s office. The crowd whispers but says nothing; the instructor calls up another pair to spar. Allura stares at Keith and Shiro’s backs as they depart; neither looks back.
“What was that about?” Keith asks, once they’re a hallway away.
“I think she’s interested in you,” Shiro says. “Like a crush? Or maybe to possess?”
“Weird,” Keith says, snorting.
“Hey!” Shiro says, bumping their shoulders gently together. “That’s my favorite person you're talking about.”
“Who are you?” the seer called God’s Eye asks.
“I am but Shirogane from the countryside,” Shiro says, bowing respectfully as all the Academy’s students are taught.
Why do you shine so with the holy light? the seer does not ask.
“And you?” Shiro says, words unbarbed despite the unreturned courtesy.
“Matt Holt,” the seer says.
“They will ask why you took the Queen’s Bayard,” Matt says. “They will ask why you unsealed the King of Darkness.”
“It was a fool’s impulse,” Shiro says, “or the hand of an ancient casting, announcing its end and calling for aid.”
“Hm?” Matt says.
“Perhaps it was something else,” Shiro muses, staring out the window. “A cruel cat and the hands of time ready to move forward once more. An eventuality.
“In the end, who can say?”
God’s Eye watches as Shiro and Keith walk together through the courtyard, chatting warmly. It’s a portrait of afternoon warmth and mirth, but all he can see is constant spill of sand as the hourglass fills, ceaseless and unstoppable. Time is slipping rapidly and irreversibly away from their favor.
The Queen's Bayard comes down with finality, piercing the King of Darkness through his heart. A spell-circle spins out around the King and etches itself through the solid earth.
The Queen stands tall and strong, towering over the King in elegant clothing unsuitable for the battlefield and yet unspoiled by it.
“Will you kill me?” the King says as magic drags at his consciousness, willing him to be subsumed.
“No,” the Queen says. “You will exist outside of the reach of mortal creatures. Rather than violent, the passing of time will be but the gentle whisper of a breeze.”
As if summoned, a breeze stirs the air and the King's long curls drift. He stares upward, ceaseless.
“Sleep,” the Queen commands, and the King's last sight is of a strong hand curled tight around the Bayard. It is his last sight for four hundred years.
“When he was but a child,” Grandfather says, still regal in the advance of age, “a seer made it known.”
“Made what known?” Matt says, rosary beads turning in his hands.
“If Taka becomes the Queen of Light,” Grandfather says, “his will be the shortest reign in history.”
Matt freezes, remembering what he’d seen at the Queen’s Academy: two candidates, bright with holy power and potential. Shining, as if to indicate two who would each soon reign as the Queen of Light. What will Shiro do? What will Keith do? How will the kingdom survive?
“Why did you save me?” the candidate asks four centuries before.
“Do not speak yet,” the demon says. “The poison has not yet been cured.”
The candidate obediently chews and swallows the demon’s medicine, this time alert enough to be fed from his hand instead of his candid mouth. “Does that mean I could die?” the candidate asks.
“I hope not,” the demon says.
“Because you still need me?”
“Yes, I do need you.”
“To whom will you feed me?”
“A good son.”
“Listen,” the candidate says, lying in a fever and speaking with another’s knowledge. “Shirogane Takashi. That is the one who will slay you.”
“I am not slain yet,” the demon says, “nor have I slain this person.”
“Listen,” the candidate repeats, breathing as audible and effortful as flowers encased in snow as they blossom too early. “Ultimately it will be your fault, and it will fourth-ranked Takashi who achieved this.”
Infection is too deep-hewn in the candidate’s blood, and even survival does not guarantee life past the turmoil of succession or the quiet stagnation of a life resigned to one of many scattered monasteries.
The lands facing the human kingdom lights up with a flash of energy and the shouts of its knights; those facing the wilds of the demon kingdom crackle with the activity of what can only be an army.
The King of Darkness is dead. Long live the King.
This one will die too, the demon thinks. Deliberately he cuts through the ranks of the knights, catching their attention, and returns to the cave where the candidate lies burning with infection.
“Takashi,” the demon says.
Feverish, the candidate speaks on.
What did he mean? the demon wonders. The knights’ shouts rise up through the night, finally closing in, triumphant yet concerned as they find the candidate. The demon disappears safely into the night.
I forgot this story after, by will or by illness. And when we two met again, I could not return the joy you had in seeing me. You wrapped me in so warm an embrace and spoke so knowingly.
“Takashi, I will become the King of Darkness.”
This, I have always regretted.
You should have killed me.
Because I could not have killed you.
The pendant shatters and Keith’s eyes go cold as a wave of unholy energy is unleashed. Their Nanny--Kolivan--takes his sword up to follow him.
“Keith--” Kolivan calls, face twisting with worry.
Keith cuts him down. Kolivan bleeds out in the shrinking snowbanks. Shiro takes up Keith’s sword--the sword that Kolivan had taught them both with, before gifting it to Keith--and follows him as his feet carry him further and further away from the palace.
“The Queen is dead,” God’s Eye says low and mournful as a requiem. “Long live the Queen.”
“Who will inform her successor?”
“I will go,” Allura says, and takes up the Queen’s Bayard.
“Wait,” God’s Eye says.
Unwillingly, Allura slows to a halt.
“If the wind stops and waits,” God’s Eye says, “it will not endure the storm to follow.”
“What does it mean?” Allura says, growing impatient.
“‘What does it mean?’” God’s Eye says, eyes downcast. “It means it will result in the shortest reign in history.”
“Shiro will die?” Allura says.
“My Queen,” Allura says, kneeling and proffering the Queen’s Bayard.
Shiro pauses only to take up Keith’s sword once more and turns away.
“Keith--” Shiro says, gasping for breath. Keith stares down, impassive, feeling the frantic pulse beneath his hands. His hands squeeze and Shiro does not fight back.
“My queen--” God’s Eye shouts. Keith rears back, only to draw a blade and bring it down quickly. Shiro’s eyes widen but it is Matt whose blood spills across the snow, shoulder pierced, even as he turns and casts a binding spell. “Allow me to assist you.”
Steel your heart, an ancient yet familiar voice says, and let patience yield focus.
Shiro rises, fingers closing around the hilt of a sword even as Keith breaks through the spell. They charge, blades shrieking with the cacophony of battle, and again. At the last moment, Shiro draws back. Keith doesn't.
Shiro’s arm falls to the muddied and packed snow, cleanly severed. The pain of it takes Shiro to one knee, but his eyes flood with something other than physical pain.
“You killed Nanny,” Shiro says, tugging free the scarf Keith had knit him under Kolivan’s supervision and winding it tight around the wound as well as several inches higher, “with the sword he taught us with. That he gave to you, before we left home. And now I'm fighting you with it.”
Keith watches, impassive and ready. One end of the scarf anchors between Shiro’s teeth, the other in his remaining hand; it smothers the cry he can’t help but make, tightening the scarf enough to finally stem the flow of blood. By the time Shiro’s done, his cheeks are wet and the snow around him colored red. His head spins as he bends and retrieves the sword from the loose grasp of bloodless fingers.
“You can kill Nanny,” Shiro says, “and you can kill me, Keith, but I will never give up on you.”
This time when Shiro swings the sword, the clashing blades are accompanied by a burst of unholy energy as another hidden seal breaks. The King of Darkness looks disdainfully down at Shiro, taller than Keith had been and with long, curling hair and regal armor. He looks like Keith might have, with the growth and training of years and without a haircut in that time.
“It was a fool’s errand,” the King says, “to try to save something that never truly was.”
The King shoves Shiro back--this time sending him stumbling as shock and bloodloss tear at his concentration, as pain throbs in what remains of his arm--and turns to leave the bloodied snowfield. Shiro can only watch as he tries to keep his feet.
“My queen,” Matt says as he grasps Shiro by the elbow, trying to stabilize him.
I could not kill him either, a voice shaped like Shiro’s but ancient as Grandfather's says, sorrowful. This world will suffer for it, but none so much as you.
Shiro shuts his eyes as pain crashes over him from hurts within and without.
The hooded man smiles down at him, face scarred but gentle. His clothing is black layered with a red that marks the falling snow with color, but his hand is gentle around Keith’s. Keith is tucked into a child’s playful layers, hood crested with cat’s ears. The pendant rests around Keith’s neck, new and almost unobtrusive.
“Even if you forget me--” the man says as he kneels, brushing his fingertips across the pendant, then gently up to brush across his cheek with fingertips of starmetal and magic, “you must never take off this necklace. Promise me, Keith.”
Keith can only stare back, absorbed in the features of this long-awaited personage.
“It is a matter of the heart,” the Queen says, “and yet your heart is not fully a demon’s. There are humans with hearts like demons and demons with hearts like humans; would you come with me?”
“You have created me,” the child says, “and I am grateful, but you are not the one I await.
“My queen is in a far-away place.”
“Why don’t you head to the top of the hill?” the hooded man says. Keith turns silently to him--listing imperceptibly in the wind that whips thin shards of snow about like a barrage of weapons--but is satisfied with the reassuring look that the man gives him. Just before he crests the hill, Keith turns back.
The man kneels in the reddening snow, hair long and white as it reaches wildly out from under his hood. His scars are safely hidden in shadow, except to those who stand close enough to peer at him. As close as Keith. The starmetal arm rises and waves. Without a word, Keith turns back and completes his climb; the blizzard falls away, leaving bright sunshine trapped between the open sky and the gathered snowfall.
Down the slope: laughter, and the crisp crunch of snow under boot sole. A dark-haired child bundled into winter gear. Keith stands still.
It was a lie that I was not happy when I met you. I waited so long.
Even so, the fool returns and he is happy in this place.
“You don’t need to worry for me,” Shiro says, smiling tranquilly, “or save me. It would only be a burden for me. So forget it. That’s an order.”
The palace is now a battlefield contained by priests’ wards and built in the strength of the remaining Queen’s candidates. The Paladins’ ranks have been decimated; even childhood friends and classmates have fallen, trying to drive back the demons’ assault. The Queen--Shiro--is everywhere a hand is needed: rallying the Knights, guiding the priests, directing the candidates.
“My queen--” Matt says. “You do not have to do everything. Your presence is worth enough.”
“My people keep the war within the palace,” Shiro says, smoothing the Red Paladins’ robes down. Keith had always been strangely captivated by the Red Paladins; to wear their uniform is a small token to Keith, however hidden. The scarf wound loosely around his throat he identifies as a precious keepsake only; Shiro saves it time and again from bloodstains, carefully washing it by hand. To his people he is a strange queen, but he is theirs. “This is the only place where my people can fight without involving those that cannot, and I can fight still more than they are able to.”
The war that has taken root since Shiro’s ascension has affected them all but Shiro has adapted most, with an enchanted starmetal arm and body noticeably broadened with strength. His hair is long and wild beyond a year’s growth, and white as bone; he looks eternal and youthful at once. His face is scarred, though so too must be his body beneath his robes. His smile is too serene and kind for the violence of his days.
“Your hair,” Matt says, feeling the press of rosary beads into his fingertips.
“Ah, well,” Shiro says, brushing back his mane. “The priests tell me that I use the holy power too much, and that is why my hair has changed.”
History will remember you as a foolish queen, Matt realizes in a moment of prescient memory. When you have died young and unknown where you fought.
“Go help the priests seal the portal,” Shiro orders gently, and turns to race down the hallway to still another fight.
“My queen--” Matt shouts as unholy power gathers and swells; he is too late. A long blade spears through Shiro’s side, clean through the armor, and pins Shiro to the portrait of a queen from four hundred years before.
“Takashi,” the King of Darkness breathes, freezing in place, staring at the portrait. At the first Shirogane Takashi to serve as Queen of Light--the first to wield the Queen’s Bayard--a Takashi that is solemn-faced, long black hair neatly arranged with thin braids and hair combs as he regards the Bayard--this time formed as a long staff almost more alike a sword than anything else.
“Keith--” Shiro says, twisting to grasp the King’s sword with his starmetal arm. He forces the sword out of his body and away, trying to get some distance even as he loses blood and strength. The King falls back and instinctively catches his balance, sword arising, but his distraction is clear.
“My queen--” the Paladins cry as they surge forward. The holy energy swells and swallows up the King of Demons and Queen of Humans before any can reach them.
The Queen’s Bayard falls with finality. The King makes no sound.
Shiro’s dying now--he can feel it in the chill setting in and the sluggish leak of blood down his side--but his task is done. All that is left is to wander until whatever end comes. He draws his hood up, and carries forward.
A familiar face--a child’s--still in sleep, tucked within a timeless bubble. This is the castle ruled over by the King of Darkness, but unbesieged by winter snowfall. Keith opens his eyes and meets Shiro’s gaze. The bubble collapses.
“What do you hope for?” Shiro asks, catching Keith and steadying him gently.
Keith stands watchful and still on the snow-blanketed hill, and a dark-haired child turns to him. For a moment the boy stands still, then he lights up with laughter and runs through the snowfield to Keith.
By the time Keith looks back, there is no trace of the man’s presence.
The fool returns and is happy.