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Tradition, restriction

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He’d never really fit with the established. He was the shame of the village, held in a world where the only glances he received mixed pity and anger. Without a second glance, they tended to hide him away as soon as an outsider approached. They didn’t want him there, but they kept him there. Holding on to some kind of obligation he couldn’t understand.

He’d never expected that to change. And definitely not in the way it did, with flames licking the ground beneath his feet before all that remained was a pile of ash. All that history, all that legacy, burnt away in a short afternoon. And he was freed from the shackles that kept him there.

It was one thing for what felt like a chance event to break him away from the weight of expectation, fitting a role. It was another to stumble right back into it only a few metres down the road. At the time, bundled into the back of a cart for transport to the imperial capital, he felt like it was a cruel joke being played on him by some power above (that a bandit raid tended to be followed by a soldier’s presence made a lot more sense, but he wouldn’t draw that together until later).

Cruelty certainly never remained a stranger in those years. An endless procession of endless faces, expecting things he couldn’t deliver. Words he barely understood, flying past faster than he could process. Heaps of clothing, each one weighing more than he did (not that the fact lasted, with the relentless presence of banquet after tea after dinner after parlour event), each one embroidered for longer than he’d been alive.

He’d wished it didn’t seem cruel. He’d wished he could enjoy what he now understood was wealth, technically good fortune. But he hadn’t understood it. He hadn’t been able to understand why each action predated a dagger in his breast, and each step drew him closer to an end he didn’t want.

Tradition dictated that he, as the crown prince of a nation whose language he’d spent years attempting to grasp, had to...had to find another crown prince. From somewhere. He wasn’t stupid, but when he’d first been informed of the expectation, he hadn’t understood. His brain linked it with his own past, and not the whirlwind of parties heralded by a blizzard of swirling dresses he received.

Looking back on it, he realised he had been misunderstanding the situation on purpose. He hadn’t been able to accept what they wanted for him, so he’d just pretended he didn’t have to. It didn’t succeed in stopping the inevitable, no matter what he tried. Tradition just kept marching towards him.

And march it did, with an endless line of men, all attempting to woo him. He received so many gifts, entertained so many people whose names he pushed out of his mind within moments of the door closing once they left. None of them had anything they could do to impress him, because he didn’t want to marry. He didn’t want to pick someone, at the age of fourteen, to spend the rest of his life with (providing the man made it that far).

His mother and father grew tired of waiting, and Soren found them taking another measure. They sent him out of the castle, out of sight, and out of their responsibility. They said they were sending him to the neighbouring Crimea to develop himself more, and he would gladly take the opportunity to be far away from all their expectations.

Later, he would realise that they were sending him out there as a decoy. They expected him to show up somewhere important and lull them into a false sense of security by his presence, and then their invasion would take them by surprise. Then they envisioned taking him back to Daein, shaken into obedience by the violence.

But Soren wasn’t...wasn’t that competent on his own. He’d been on his own for a long time as a child, but he wasn’t a child anymore. And a young, effeminate traveller with nought to his name but some well-made robes and a stuffed travelling pack made quite the tempting target for bandits. He was honestly surprised he made it as far as he did.

The portion between ‘hit over the head with the butt of an axe’ and ‘waking up in the arms of a young man’ was pretty blurry. Soren never worked out exactly what had happened, other than the story he was told later of being rescued from the clutches of bandits just before he properly came to. Either way, it didn’t really matter. It was an escape.

“Ah, miss, you’re awake!” the boy said, shifting his arms a little.

“I’m a man,” Soren informed him, and the boy’s immediate flustered, apologetic expression nearly ended up with Soren on the ground. And that was where it really began.

He was taken back to the boy’s home, a fort of a mercenary company. Checked over for any injuries by their priest, he was then questioned on why he was in the area, what he would do next. The story of being a traveller, heading to the capital to study from the border with Daein, was easy enough to fabricate. Especially with what came next.

“Ah, I’m sorry to shoot your ambitions down, young man,” the leader of the group said. “I wouldn’t go to the capital if I were you. My information could be wrong, but...hearsay informs us that Daein have invaded. It’s not safe to head there now.”

Somehow, Soren wasn’t surprised. He didn’t know why, because being surprised...it would have made sense. He hadn’t had any specific indication from his father that this would occur. But it wasn’t out of character, either. Regardless, it formed the perfect excuse. Now he didn’t have to go anywhere near Daein ever again, as long as he just stuck around.

Looking on it in hindsight, Soren realised that his story was probably obviously fake to Commander Greil. His Crimean wasn’t good, his Daein accent had been prominent. He was obviously, blatantly from the Daein side of the border - and from that, his lies were probably ever clearer.

He didn’t know if Greil had ever managed to work out his true identity before he died. Maybe he had, maybe he hadn’t. But either way, he had taken Soren in, and he’d managed to take another step further from the past he’d always loathed.

Ike was...a trusting young man. Soren made a snap decision to support him in the wake of his father’s death and, suddenly, he became one of the new commander’s closest confidants. They shared strategies and ideas, and he took a lot of advice from Soren. And, when it came to politics and Daein, Ike never questioned why Soren knew so much. He was glad for that, because it was a big hole in his story.

Other people were not so trusting. Plenty questioned his sudden closeness with Ike, the quickly growing power of his magic from admittedly rather pathetic beginnings, his lack of practical knowledge compared to the theoretical knowledge in his tactics, his accent, his past...everything. After losing their commander and being plunged into a seemingly unwinnable war, they weren’t inclined to trust a mysterious person from Daein.

Not helped, admittedly, was the constant presence of people searching for two royals. The Princess of Crimea, sure, everyone knew they had her on board. Troops searching for the Princess of Daein? That was harder for the mercenary group to understand. Shinon, for one, clearly made the connection between the feminine Daein tactician pretending to be Crimean and the person the troops were searching for, but...after what had happened with him, no one took too much stock of his words. From what Ike had said, they never had.

Actually being in Daein made the problems ever greater. He spoke the language better than any other in their group, bar Jill; he explained it away by reminding Tatiana that he was from the border regions, when she asked a prying question, but he knew the logic didn’t hold up. He was just glad that Jill never mentioned how upper class his accent was.

It was also...harder somehow. Being back in an area he’d never seen, but an area he knew was his home. Seeing people who were his people suffering, and never being able to do a damn thing because he couldn’t give up the position he’d carved for himself in this group. Not- not now.

As his father was discussed, he stayed studiously silent. Trying to formulate what an outsider’s opinion of the man would look like, and coming to the conclusion that it probably wasn’t all that different from how he saw the Mad King anyway. He’d never been close with the man; it had been a relationship of convenience, with benefits for Ashnard that Soren had never been able to fathom.

In a rare moment of seriousness, Haar, who very clearly knew something of what was going on - Soren had yet to work out how he knew, exactly, but it felt like everyone in this damn tale was linked somehow and no one was telling anyone everything they knew - asked Soren what he would do when they came face to face with Ashnard.

“If we come face to face with Ashnard,” Soren corrected. Never mind that the capital was barely days away, if they could get through the next couple of obstacles.

“Stop deflecting the question,” Haar said. “You don’t seem particularly trustworthy to me and you’re not helping your case.”

“At this point, I think half of our army have defected from Daein,” Soren said. And yes, he was deflecting. Because once he answered, Haar would inevitably ask why, and the answer to that question had a lot of implications Soren was still considering himself.

“Yet we know why I wouldn’t rush back to Ashnard’s side,” Haar said. “Everyone knows that Jill wouldn’t consider it, either. So answer the question.”

“If we come face to face with Ashnard, I’d help strike him down like anyone else would,” he said firmly. “But I think I would rather he did not see my face. It might complicate the aftermath far more than I want to deal with.”

“Better get on telling Ike about that, then,” Haar said. “Somehow, if you ask to stay off the battlefield for some weak reason, I don’t think Ike will buy it. So you need to tell him the truth.”

Soren wanted to snap at him, tell him it wasn’t necessary for him to share such personal details of his life with Ike; it wasn’t like any of them knew anything about Ilyana, for example. Yet he knew Haar was right. He needed to tell Ike what was really going on here, if only because it was fair.

And maybe- maybe for that other reason. The reason that kept Soren here this long in what had seemed like a completely hopeless war. The reason that had him flushing at every easy smile Ike sent his way. He wanted...no, he needed the reassurance from Ike that his past was okay. That he was still welcome with the Greil Mercenaries, regardless of everything his father had done.

So instead of snapping and sending Haar away with a glare, Soren...thanked him for the advice, and requested that Haar not share the information with anyone else. He itched to know how the man knew about everything in the first place, of course, but he felt like their relationship at the moment was profoundly uneven. He couldn’t ask for more favours. Besides, now he had an awkward conversation to have.

The conversation that he’d imagined would be awkward ended up being...something else entirely. Soren found himself, in the early hours of the morning, still sniffling into the edge of his travelling cloak as he’d somehow managed to tell Ike almost everything. His intention had been to mention that he was from Daein, and that Ashnard may recognise him, and he was concerned as to what would happen in the coming final battle.

But Ike, with that concerned but understanding eye contact and gently probing tone managed to draw the whole tale from him. The revulsion of the villages who had raised him from infancy, the bandits that had inadvertently brought him into his birthright, and...the truth of his lineage. Soren hadn’t even realised how much the whole problem had pained him until Ike had pulled apart everything he’d been shielding the emotions with.

Soren was ashamed to think about the way he’d acted that night. It was completely unbecoming and had probably put far too much pressure on Ike to act in the right way to comfort him. And he was ashamed that he’d opened up so much to Ike, showing so much of himself. That wasn’t how it was meant to be, and yet- he felt closer to Ike after that discussion. And even with hindsight and the embarrassment that came with it, he’d liked the comfort Ike gave.

When Soren strode onto the final battlefield in Crimea’s palace gardens, he pulled the hood of a bright red cloak over his head, shielding his face. Ike knew the truth, but if anyone else did by the time the final blow was struck...Soren might not walk away with the same freedoms he walked in with.

Ike tended to keep Soren close during battle; as commander, he said he needed his tactician nearby. As a friend, he said he just liked having Soren nearby, and it wasn’t like Soren could object to reasoning like that (he could object tactically, but sentiment was a whole other realm). So, when Ike lunged to take the final blow, Soren looked up, and for an instant he met his father’s eyes. Ashnard’s dying grimace only deepened, and Soren felt some kind of satisfaction from that.

A few months passed, and all the formalities of war began to be concluded. Crimea handed Daein over to Begnion and with that, Soren felt like he’d washed his hands finally of all the traditions he’d been caught up in for years. Finally, he was his own person, and no one could keep him away from where he really belonged.

And where was that? Soren didn’t know, but in Melior’s high society he was known as Ike’s shadow, and he quite liked the sound of that. At least as a starting point for a place to find who he really was. The road ahead was long, and would be fraught with so much more difficulty, but Soren felt strong beside Ike, and there was no one else he’d rather walk that long road with.