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Shelterless

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At the age of four Elincia Ridell Crimea was precociously learning just how to use words to get what she wanted. Oftentimes she found that a straightforward demand yielded poor results, and that losing her temper or throwing a tantrum would result in punishment. Instead it was better to ask, politely, for things not considered difficult.

For example, today she’d asked her nursemaid for a walk in the hallway and then for a game of hide-and-seek, both of which had been granted without protest. Yet neither were what she really wanted, Elincia’s true aim was to see the special guests that her father was hosting. Thus under the guise of playing a game, she’d snuck away to seek her heart’s desire.

It’d been slow going, having to hide and wait any time an adult passed by, but finally she’d found a balcony that overlooked the garden of the inner courtyards. Walking as quietly as she could manage, she’d reached its edge and leaned between the balustrade— peering down on four men seated beneath the wisteria arbor.

Although the balcony was a story up, her father spoke loud and clear enough for Elincia to hear as he said, “-and no tariffs will be levied between territories. We hope these harmonious policies with laguz nations will encourage beorc rulers to do the same.”

“Reasonable terms, aren’t they? Gallia has already agreed to work with King Ramon.” Came a deep, rumbling voice from the largest man in the circle, his full head of hair had Elincia’s fingers flexing with the urge to try and feel the wild strands. “Gareth, do you think your king would approve?”

The second largest man dressed all in red shook his head. “There is a long-standing policy of isolation, I doubt even the best terms would reverse it. However, I will be sure to relay all I hear.”

The wild-maned man turned and asked, “What about you, King Phoenicis?”

“Words that’re plenty pretty to be sure, but my people cannot trust humans after what happened to our sister tribe.” A different deep voice said, its owner the most obscured from Elincia’s gaze by the hanging flowers. She stretched this way and that trying to get a better look, as he continued, “And wasn’t Crimea ruled by Begnion not so long ago?”

“My grandfather Caradock ceded from the empire and founded this kingdom almost a century ago. I assure you, the Apostle and Senate have no say on my governance,” her father replied.

The hidden man asked, “What of your heir, Renning, does he feel the same towards laguz? Would he keep the accords or break them if he became king tomorrow?”

Elincia wasn’t sure want the four men were talking about, but recognized her uncle’s name. Her uncle who snuck her sweets before mealtimes, who listened attentively to her stories, and who’d given her a pony and was teaching her to ride. She liked Uncle Renning, and couldn’t understand why the stranger’s tone was so disapproving, and it had her leaning further out from the balustrade to try and see if he was upset.

“Milday, that’s dangerous! Get back!”

Her nursemaid’s shout caused Elincia to jolt, then her straining fingers spasmed and slipped off the stone. Suddenly her feet tipped past the balcony and Elincia was falling into the open air. The sensation of weightlessness stole her voice, even as her nursemaid screamed and her father’s voice rose up from below.

“Elincia!”

It happened in a noisy rush. One moment she was hurtling towards the courtyard garden, the next she’d crashed against something firm but warm, which enveloped her and halted her motion. Thickly muscled arms were wrapped around her, holding her securely to an equally sculpted chest. After blinking the blur from her eyes, Elincia stared up at a masculine face she didn’t recognize— skin tan and scarred, eyes sharp, hair dark and shaggy. His brow rose as he looked at her and said, “I’m used to fledglings flinging themselves off heights, but you have less feathers than what’s required.”

Elincia had been staring, mouth agape, at what lay just beyond this stranger’s face. A pair of big, brown wings slowly flapped behind his broad shoulders, stirring the air and making them both slightly bob with each motion. The spectacular sight of it had words tripping breathlessly off her tongue, “Y-y-you have w-wings!

The corners of his mouth kicked into a smile. “I’d be a sorry hawk without them. Now, lets get your feet back on the ground, where little beorc belong.”

Those words had Elincia abruptly glancing down, then with a gasp her hands curled into the fabric of his jacket as she took in how high up in the air they were suspended. Yet within a few beats of his wings they'd alighted upon the carefully manicured lawn of the garden. Her father stood there waiting, and took her from the winged strangers arms with gratitude.

After pressing a kiss to her temple, he looked up and said, "I can't thank you enough, King Tibarn, for saving Elincia."

"She's yours then?" The winged man asked, his smile from before having faded.

Elincia couldn't stop staring at him, at his wings. Although she'd visited the stables and seen her grandmother's pegasus, she'd never dreamed that people could also have wings and fly. The very idea left her rather awestruck.

The other two men had come over onto the lawn, and the one with the wild hair asked her father, "What of Renning? I thought beorc rulers passed the role on to their children?"

"My brother is still my appointed heir, that has not changed. Elincia... is special. It's why she lives here in the country and not in Melior." Her father's hold on Elincia shifted, drawing her close as if he'd worried about dropping her. "This is also something we must discuss. Although we are being careful I want my fellow kings to know about Crimea's princess, should anything happen-"

"I've heard enough," the winged man interrupted. His tone was disapproving, just like when he'd asked about her uncle and now Elincia saw that his entire face grew hard with that same disapproval. "So like a human to treat their own child like a dirty secret instead of something precious."

"Hawk King, that's uncalled for," the largest man snapped, his own tone of voice almost a growl.

"I disagree, King Caineghis. After catching the girl, it troubles me to know she's going to be shut away like a bird in a cage. And for what, convenience?" As the stranger spoke his wings flared, making him look bigger than he already was.

"Please, please, let's not fight among ourselves." Her father said, setting Elincia down to stand on her own feet. "It's not unreasonable to worry and wonder, but please be assured this isolation is to protect my daughter from those who'd misuse her. Don't you have a similar ward, a prince who you protect on Pheonicis?"

The stranger's expression turned thunderous and Elincia gave a squeak as she watched the feathers on his wings shift until he resembled a cat puffed up in rage. "That is not the same. I do not hide Reyson away from the rest of the world, he can come and go as he pleases." Her father began to apologize, but he interrupted, "The Hawk tribe will have nothing to do with the humans. We'll respect Crimea's alliance with Gallia, but considering it's as secret as Princess Crimea..." He trailed off with a scoff. Then without another word, spread open his full wingspan and took the the air, quickly winging up and out of sight.

The large, wild-haired man heaved a sigh. "My apologies, King Ramon. Ever since the Serenes Massacre, I'm afraid King Tibarn has been hostile towards beorc. Inviting him here may have been a mistake."

"But," the word fell thoughtlessly from her mouth, though the gazes of the three men had Elincia quailing before her father encouraged her to finish. "But he saved me."

Setting a hand on her head, her father nodded. "Yes, he did dear-heart, and for that King Tibarn forever has my gratitude. To have been enraptured by your charms and grow angry on your behalf, I cannot hold against him either."

The man in red spoke up, "So she is precious to you, King Ramon. Hiding her away also means this softness can't be used against yourself."

Her father laughed then, and they began talking once again about strange things Elincia didn't understand. She tuned them out and couldn't help but gaze up into the sky— recalling what flying felt like.